The Beginning.I've lived at the Krueger Centre for Children for the past ten years of my life.
If you knew me--if you knew my life before I came here to this rubbish bin for the forgotten and cast-off dregs of society, where the sterile-white walls hurl the light of the overhead fluorescents back ten-fold, bestowing everything inside with a flat, unreal pall that only reinforces the patients' disconnect from reality--a disconnect that leads a boy like Thomas Bailey to drown himself in bathtub with a plastic bag cinched over his head like some demented diving helmet, or a girl like Charlotte Keener to pull strand after strand of hair from her head, leaving only a scabbed and weeping scalp...
If you knew my life before the Krueger Centre stole that final wisp of innocence I had left...
...you might say that I'm better off here.
It was surprisingly cool and breezy along the tree-lined streets of Stonebriar, Connecticut. As the sun began to sink slowly, bits of pink crept into the horizon, tinting the cerulean blue sky.
By this time of day, most of the neighbourhoods in the tiny town were filled with the sounds of autumn. The streets were overrun with children dancing through the fallen leaves and playing games of tag in the street, while mothers traded gossip over fences and steaming mugs of tea. Maple Lane, however, was deserted.
The children on Maple had been forbidden to play outside by fearful parents, scared of what could happen if they came across "that little girl in house number 5".
Occasionally, a small pink or brown face would peek out from one of the curtained windows of the houses lining the street, but in a flash, it would be gone and Maple Lane would become dead and quiet once again. There were actually two little girls who lived in number 5.
They were completely identical from their corn silk coloured hair, to the long blue-black lashes that framed their violet eyes.
One twin was charming and bright. Her skin was like fresh peaches and cream, and her lips and the apples of her cheeks were always tinted with the slightest hint of pink.
People, especially adults, were instantly charmed by the way that her eyes shone with laughter and the way her mouth turned up in an impish grin.
She loved to run and play and spin so fast that her dress would twirl up around her waist and her hair would fan out on the wind like a flag.
The other twin was somehow....different.
The violet-hued eyes that she shared with her sister were always vacant and cold, and her skin was like the colour of milk gone slightly sour.
There was never any laughter in that face. Only emptiness.
"Tawny! It's time to come in! Dinner's almost ready!"
Claire Nightingale busied herself dumping spices into the bowl of meat, bread and eggs she was mixing.
"Mommy! Look what Ms. Warner gave me!"
Tawny ran in from the backyard and into the kitchen. In her skirt were a number of bright yellow lemons.
Mrs. Warner, their elderly next door neighbour, had a several lemon trees in her backyard.
"These are the last ones from her trees and she said we could have them! Can we make lemonade after dinner mommy, please? Can we make lemonade and drink it on the porch?"
Claire laughed, struggling to accommodate her large belly as she bent over to collect the fruit from her daughter's dress.
"We'll see honey. Let's wait for your father to get home. Why don't you go call your sister for me?"
Immediately, the happy expression on Tawny's face darkened.
"Astrid's....playing in the basement again," she said nervously.
"Oh?" Claire asked in a would-be nonchalant voice as she returned to her cooking. "Well uh, get going...or else you two will be late for dinner."
As she continued mixing, Claire couldn't help but notice her hand wasn't quite as steady as it had been before.
"But mommy!" Tawny whimpered, tears shining in her eyes. Her face was pleading. "Please don't make me! I hate the basement!"
"Tawny, mommy has to finish dinner." Claire snapped with an edge in her voice.
"Go call your sister right now."
Tawny's bottom lip trembled slightly as she turned from her mother and left the kitchen.
Claire closed her eyes and leaned heavily against the counter, her heart racing.
"What kind of mother am I?" She muttered softly to herself.
Tawny poked her head around the door leading to the basement.
It was cold and smelly down there.
She stepped cautiously on the first step, trying to be as quiet as she possibly could. If she was too loud, she might wake the Jabberwocky that lived under the floor.
She held tightly to the banister as she descended the staircase, stepping around the squeaky spots.
She couldn't let the Jabberwocky hear her...
From the dimly lit far corner of the basement, Tawny could hear her sister singing a tuneless song under her breath.
As slowly as she could, Tawny began tiptoeing towards her sister, her heart pounding quickly in her chest. Her eyes darted all around, assuring herself that the large, shapeless masses closing in on her were just boxes and old clothes.
It was just her imagination.
"The Jabberwocky can smell you, you know."
Tawny nearly jumped out of her skin as her sister spoke.
Astrid sat on the plank-wood floor of the basement with her back to her sister. Tawny could see she was playing with something, but Astrid's body obscured her view of what it was.
"How--how, did you know I was here?"
Astrid turned her head slowly and surveyed her sister.
"I could hear you breathing. You were breathing really hard. Are you afraid of something?"
Astrid smiled, but her eyes were cold and mirthless.
"M-mommy w-wants you right now," Tawny said in a shaky voice, "she w-wants you to come to dinner."
Astrid's smile faded, but her eyes were still glinting maliciously in the darkness.
"Jabberwocky was just telling me he wants some dinner, too. Would you like to stay for dinner, Tawny? Jabberwocky would LOVE to have you."
"Sh-shut up, Astrid! There's no such thing as a Jabberwocky!" Tawny said, trying hard to sound confident despite her badly trembling voice and body.
Astrid turned back to the thing she was playing with.
"Oh, really? You don't sound so sure about that. You could always stay and find out for sure..."
"You stop it! Stop trying to scare me or I'll tell mommy! Do you hear me? I said I???I'm going to tell!"
Astrid continued playing with her back to her sister, singing that same tuneless song under her breath.
Tawny stomped her foot angrily. "Are you listening to me Astrid?!"
She marched nearer to her sister.
"Are you listening?!" She cried again.
"Jabberwocky doesn't like little girls with bad, bad manners." Astrid said in a sing-song voice with her back still to her sister.
"Jabberwocky says that little girls with bad manners MUST be punished," she whispered, still playing.
"I told you to shut up about that stupid Jabberwocky!" Tawny yelled. "And what is that you're playing with? You better not have taken my doll again!"
She angrily pulled at Astrid's shoulder to better see what she was holding.
Tawny emitted an ear-splitting shriek when she saw the thing in Astrid's hands. She turned and ran so quickly that she tripped and skinned her knee on the floor before scrambling back up the staircase.
Astrid stared after her sister before returning to her plaything.
"La di da di da hmm hmmm....I don't know what frightened her," she said softly. "You're such a pretty little girl."
Astrid lifted the thing into the air. It was a large, dead rat.
Its limbs stuck out from a doll-sized wedding dress at weird angles, as though they had been broken by being pulled roughly through the armholes. The rat's mouth hung open in a ghastly grin, exposing four long, yellow and broken teeth. Its head had a strangely flattened appearance, like it had been crushed beneath a small shoe. Sticky, black blood issued from its eye sockets, one of which had no eye to fill it.
Astrid adjusted the veil on its head and smoothed back its dark, matted fur.
"You are so very, very pretty."
"MOMMY!" Tawny shrieked as she re-entered the house. "Mommy!"
Claire ran from the kitchen, moving fast as her large belly would allow.
"What is it, honey?! What's wrong?"
Hot tears poured down Tawny's face. "I told you mommy! I TOLD you I didn't want to go to the basement!" She cried. "Please mommy, I don't ever want to go there again!"
Tawny buried her face in her mother's sweater as she continued to sob heavily.
"Tawny, what happened?!"
"It was Astrid! She was trying to sc-scare me....and she was playing with--with this thing. It was--it was dead!" Tawny cried in an anguished whisper. "Mommy, it was so awful!"
Claire wrapped her arms around Tawny, trying her best to calm her.
"Don't worry, Tawny. Daddy and I will take care of it. Go wash your face and lie down for a little, okay?"
"No mommy! Astrid is always doing mean stuff to me and she never gets punished! It's not fair!"
Claire was taken aback by Tawny's rage. Never had she seen her little girl so angry.
Through her tears, Tawny wore an expression of extreme bitterness and she was shaking and hiccupping so badly she could barely get her words out.
"I wish I didn't have a sister! I wish Astrid was DEAD! I HATE Astrid! I HATE HER I HATE HER!" Tawny wailed stomping her tiny foot on the floor as hard as she could.
A familiar feeling of helplessness washed over Claire. Once again, she was powerless to ease her daughter's tears.
"Don't worry, honey, daddy and I will do something," she whispered, hoping her daughter couldn't hear the uncertainty in her voice.
"Danny, we have to talk."
Daniel Nightingale furrowed his brow as he entered the front door.
"Hello to you, too honey."
"Danny this is serious. Let's go to our room."
Without waiting for a response, Claire turned and walked toward their bedroom.
"Are you going to tell me what this is about?" Daniel called as he followed behind his wife.
When they reached their bedroom, she closed the door and locked it behind them.
"Danny, we've GOT to do something about Astrid."
Daniel felt his heart drop. "Oh, no. What is it this time?"
Claire sat heavily on the bed. "She scared Tawny out of her wits today. I've never seen the child so hysterical!"
The indulgent sort of grin that fathers wear when it comes to their children spread itself across Daniel's face.
"Claire, it was probably a game that got out of hand. You know how kids are always trying to scare one another with ghost stories. I'm sure Astrid meant nothing by it."
Claire narrowed her eyes angrily at her husband.
"It wasn't a game, Danny. Tawny said that Astrid was playing with something in the basement--a DEAD something. That's just not normal!"
Daniel chuckled, still wearing that indulgent grin of his.
"Tawny and Astrid probably came across a dead mouse or something in the basement! It's nothing to worry about!"
Claire felt her temper rising. "It IS something to worry about Danny, it is! When will you stop making excuses for Astrid? How do you explain Astrid shoving the heads of all Tawny's dolls down the garbage disposal? How do you explain her putting our hamster through the fence and into the neighbour’s yard, where they kept their ROTWEILER?! How do you explain Billy Long?"
Splotchy patches of red coloured Daniel's face at the mention of Billy Long's name.
"You can't blame all that on Astrid!" Daniel yelled, his temper rising as well. "She's just a little girl!'
"I'm tired of this, Danny! I'm so tired of it!" Claire cried, her voice cracking as tears welled in her eyes. "We can't keep having this same argument."
Danny sat on the bed and put his arm around his wife. "We just need to be patient with her. It's just a phase. She'll grow out of it."
"Oh, really?" Claire laughed cynically through her tears. "I'm eight months pregnant, Danny. Will she grow out of it in the next four weeks?"
Daniel pulled his arm away from Claire's shoulder. "You--you don't SERIOUSLY think that Astrid would hurt the baby, do you?" he whispered in disbelief.
Claire surveyed her husband.
"Danny, she's showed us through the years that she's capable of much worse."
A heavy silence hung in the air.
"I'm going to punish her, Daniel," Claire said finally.
"Do you think that's wise?" he asked nervously.
"YES!" Claire said firmly. "Astrid will never get better if we keep acting like we're....afraid of her."
"No one is afraid of her!" Daniel replied almost defensively.
"That's not true and you know it! None of the neighbourhood kids will play outside anymore! Our own relatives won't even visit us! I just sent Tawny to the basement today, even though I know how terrified it makes her! Do you know WHY I did that, Danny? Because I couldn't bring myself to be alone in the same room as Astrid!"
At this, Claire broke down into tears.
"Oh, Danny! I'm a horrible mother! I'm terrified of one daughter and I just traumatized the other! THIS HAS TO STOP!" she exclaimed in tearful frustration.
"Okay, okay." Daniel said softly, trying his best to calm his emotional wife. "Whatever you decide, honey, I'm behind you one hundred percent."
Tawny pressed her ear against her parents' door, straining to hear through the thick wood.
"Uh-oh....someone is being very naughty."
Tawny jumped at the sound of the voice. She turned to find her sister standing right behind her. "I don't think mommy and daddy would like it if they knew little Tawny was eavesdropping..."
Tawny knew her eyes were still red from crying, but she wasn't going give Astrid the satisfaction of knowing she had gotten to her.
"You're going to get it now, Astrid. Mommy says she's going to punish you for scaring me like that."
The malicious grin on Astrid’s face slipped a bit. Tawny filled with triumph, but Astrid regained her composure quickly.
"She won't punish me."
The certainty in Astrid's voice nearly made Tawny question what she'd heard through the door moments ago.
"Yes she will," Tawny declared angrily. "Daddy will, too."
Something almost like laughter came across Astrid's face. "DADDY? Daddy said HE would punish ME?"
"Yeah, he said it!" Tawny replied, infuriated by Astrid's arrogance.
"Do you know what I'll do if daddy even tries it??" Suddenly, Astrid's voice was no longer mocking. It was threatening. Menacing.
A cold dread filled Tawny's stomach.
"What?" she whispered fearfully. "What would you do to daddy?"
Astrid stood motionless and held Tawny's gaze. The menacingly cold expression did not waver from Astrid's pale face.
But suddenly...it was...changing.
Shiny tears began to well in her eyes, her lower lip began to tremble slightly, and Astrid was.....
Tawny couldn't believe what she was seeing.
"Daddy....." Astrid wailed, tears spilling freely down her cheeks. "I'm so sorry! I didn't mean it. *sniff* It was an accident daddy! Don't hate me daddy please. *sniff* Daddy, I love you!"
Astrid's sobs grew heavier.
They were twins, but they had never really looked alike--until now. With so much emotion in her face, the hard glint in her eyes was gone. The deadness normally in her face had vanished. Instead, she looked like a small, pitiful child....it really was like Tawny was looking at herself--a moving reflection of her very own splotched and tearstained face.
Astrid sniffled and wiped her eyes, and when she re-emerged from behind her hands, her face had reverted to normal.
Astrid smiled triumphantly at the horror-struck look on Tawny's face.
"I've been practicing."
Never in her memory had Tawny ever seen Astrid display ANY type of emotion.
Tawny felt sickened, as if she'd just witnessed something wholly unnatural.
The next morning, Claire bent over the crib in the small nursery that had once been her and Daniel's walk-in closet. She hummed cheerfully, but every once in a while her good mood dimmed at the thought Astrid.
She'd lost her nerve the night before, and had instead sent Astrid to bed without dinner, telling her that she would be receiving her punishment for scaring Tawny the next day.
"I'll do it in ten minutes." She told herself aloud, ignoring the fact that she'd been telling herself that for the past hour and a half.
Claire spun around to see Tawny standing in the doorway of the nursery.
"Oh, Tawny! You scared me half to death! Is--is something wrong?"
Tawny was standing on the threshold, the sweet smile on her face unmoving. Normally, Tawny would run into the nursery, eager to help prepare for the new baby.
"Come on, honey! Don't you want to help mommy?" Claire asked. Tawny was acting strange.
"I'm not Tawny, mommy," she said. "I'm Astrid."
Claire's smile died instantly.
"A-Astrid! Oh! You--you, you've never come in here before!"
She laughed nervously before turning back to the crib and awkwardly fluffing one of the tiny pillows inside. "That's why I--I thought you were your sister! You know, since--since she always....helps."
Claire's voice trailed off as Astrid entered the room smiling innocuously at her mother. Claire could feel her body stiffening with every step Astrid took into the nursery.
Until that moment, she had taken Astrid's disinterest in this room as a good sign. She'd hoped that maybe...just maybe it meant little Sean would be safe from his sister once he came along.
Claire stopped arranging and rearranging the baby's pillows and slowly turned to face her daughter.
"Yes? Yes, Astrid?"
"You know about yesterday...about what I did to Tawny?"
Something like repulsion welled within Claire. The expression of impish guilt on Astrid's face never failed to melt her heart when Tawny wore it, but on Astrid...it frightened her. It was somehow worse than the familiar black emptiness usually on her face.
"I'm really sorry mommy. I didn't mean to scare Tawny," she whispered softly. "I promise I'll never do it again...."