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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...."
"Danny? Hello? Danny?!" Claire whispered anxiously into the phone.
"Claire, I'm here. What is it? Is something wrong?"
"I did it." Claire whispered, checking that neither of the girls was in earshot.
"Did it? Did what?"
"I punished Astrid!"
For a few agonizing moments, Daniel's side of the line was silent. "What did you do?"
"Oh Danny! I think I've made a horrible mistake!" Claire didn't realize how frightened she really was until a lump appeared inexplicably in her throat. She breathed deeply, willing herself not to become hysterical.
"I hit her. I--I slapped her. I just--I don't know what came over me!"
"Claire! How could you do that?"
"I'm sorry! I didn't mean to!" Claire wailed into the receiver. "It's just that, she threatened the baby! What was I supposed to do?"
"Tell me EXACTLY what happened, Claire."
Claire took a deep breath and started from the beginning.
"Astrid came into the nursery today. She tried to apologize for scaring Tawny but it--it wasn't LIKE her! She was being...different! I got scared."
"You were scared because Astrid was trying to APOLOGIZE?!"
"You didn't see her! I knew she was lying. She was trying to--to trick me or something! And I'm not crazy!" Claire exclaimed, anticipating her husband's response.
"I told her I didn't believe that she was really sorry and she got angry!"
"What did she do?"
"She didn't do anything at first, but then she took one of the baby pillows your mom sent us and was looking at it with this WEIRD expression on her face...she put the pillow over the face of the teddy-bear lying in the crib and said, 'See mommy? I know how to help with the baby, too.'"
Claire swallowed hard against the lump in her throat.
"I just snapped Danny! I just, I got so angry!" She sobbed. "I slapped her so hard she fell on the ground and I yelled, 'Don't make jokes like that, Astrid! It's NOT funny!'
"Then she just gave me this nasty look and got up and ran from the room."
Claire was breathing hard as she finished her story.
There was a long silence on the other end of the line, and then--
"Claire, I won't be home 'til late tonight," Daniel confessed.
Claire closed her eyes and collapsed against the wall. That was the last thing she wanted to hear.
"When I get home, we'll figure out something together."
Claire paused, wondering whether she should voice the thought prickling the tip of her tongue.
"Danny...maybe we should send her away."
"You didn't see the look she gave me! It was completely murderous. SHE'S GOING TO HURT THE BABY AND I KNOW IT! If I have to choose, Daniel--if you are going to make me choose--then I choose our baby!"
"SHE'S our baby, too!" Danny replied angrily through the phone.
"We could find somewhere nice, with lots of doctors and specialists-"
"NO! I'm not giving up on my daughter! She'll--she'll get better." Daniel insisted, but even over the phone line, Claire could hear the lie in his voice--a lie that was meant to convince himself more than anyone else.
"And if she doesn't?" Claire asked grimly.
"I--I just don't know," Daniel sighed in a defeated voice. "We'll talk more once I get home, okay?"
"Okay, Danny. Try to get home as soon as possible. Please?"
"I will. I promise."
Claire exhaled heavily as she hung up the phone. She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn't hear the sound of the phone in the next room being replaced on its receiver.
Claire lay reclining in her bed later that night, ears pricked for the crunch of Daniel's tires on the gravel drive.
Neither Tawny nor Claire saw Astrid for the remainder of the day.
They ate dinner together, each trying hard to avoid thinking of the things Astrid might be doing in the basement.
Claire jumped with anticipation as she thought she heard the sound of her husband's car, but it was only the trees outside rustling in the wind.
"Danny.....gets home soon," she whispered to the clock on her bedside table.
Claire didn't realize she had fallen asleep until she felt the strong need to wake up. She could feel the presence of someone else. There was someone in her bedroom--
Her eyes snapped open and stared into the darkness.
The first thing she saw was pair of large violet eyes shining out of the shadows. The hair of the diminutive figure standing before her bed glinted almost sliver in the pale moonlight.
"What are you doing up? Why aren't you asleep?" Claire asked groggily.
"Mommy, Astrid's not in bed!"
Claire sat up slowly.
"You mean she never came up from the basement?" Claire asked incredulously as she pulled herself out of bed.
"She did. She came up real late and went to sleep, but I woke up to get a glass of water, and she wasn't there anymore!"
Tawny was trembling visibly.
Claire stood up and made to grab her robe, but Tawny grabbed her arm.
"No, mommy! There's no time! We have to go now! She's doing something bad down there! I know it!"
"Okay, okay, Tawny. Let's go."
Claire and Tawny walked hand in hand toward the basement door. Claire pushed it open slowly.
She was ready to walk inside when Tawny suddenly pulled back.
"Mommy I can't go down there!" she whispered apprehensively.
"Its okay, baby. Mommy's right here--"
"No, mommy! Please don't make me go down again!" Tawny pleaded again as tears began to well in her large, round eyes.
Claire knelt down and stroked her daughter's hair to calm her. "It's okay. You don't have to go down there this time," she whispered soothingly. Tawny nodded appreciatively.
"Just stay out here, Tawny. If you hear daddy coming, run and get him, okay?"
Tawny nodded quickly, hanging back from the door and clutching the wall protectively.
Claire stepped onto the landing leading to basement stairs. A cold and musty draft wafted upward.
"A-Astrid?" she called tentatively. "Astrid? Are you down there?"
Her only response was the steady, rhythmic dripping of the pipes.
She stepped from the landing and onto the first stair, leaning over the banister to get a better look.
"Astrid Nightingale! I know you're there!" Claire called more forcefully. "Astrid! You come up here at once!"
"But, mommy, I'm right here," a voice said softly.
In the second it took Claire to realize that the voice had not come from the depths of the basement, but from directly behind her, a small pair of hands had thrust themselves into the small of her back.
The last things Claire Nightingale saw as she tumbled down the basement stairs were two violet eyes, sparkling maliciously from the doorway.
Tawny sat bolt upright in bed. She gazed blindly around the pitch-black room that she shared with her sister. A loud noise had woken her from sleep.
Her sister's bed was empty.
Tawny hesitated for a few seconds before finally getting out of bed.
"I better go wake up mommy," she whispered to the darkness.
She ran to her parents' room and pushed open the door.
Tawny's heart dropped when she saw that her mother's bed was also empty.
"Mommy? Mommy? Where are you?"
Astrid stood over her mother. Claire was still breathing, but there was a large gash on her temple and a dark pool of blood was spreading around her head like a halo.
Grabbing her mother around the ankles, Astrid dragged her limp body in front of the washer and dryer.
When she finished, she retrieved a can of lighter fluid from their old barbecue.
Taking the bottle tightly in her hands, she ran halfway up the stairs and unscrewed the top. She placed it on the stair in front of her and kicked it down the steps.
The metal container clunked noisily down each step, flipping over and over, splashing pungent-smelling lighter fluid everywhere as it went.
It landed a few feet from Claire, the remaining fluid puddling onto the floor with faint glug-glug noises.
Astrid pulled a matchbook from her pyjama pocket and struck a single match, watching as the sulphur head burned to life.
She tossed it onto the soaked ground. The fuel ignited into dancing orange flames within seconds.
Consciousness came back to Claire in the form of sharp, stabbing pains in her abdomen. She opened her eyes slightly, seeing what appeared to be a wall of bright orange. It was hot....so hot.
"Astrid...." she whimpered softly. She could see her. Claire lifted her head slightly, her eyes barely able to focus....but she could see Astrid, just beyond the orange, staring down at her like a tiny, pale ghost.
"Astrid, Astrid honey please...." she begged, reaching out her hand, but she couldn't quite reach. Astrid was too far away, and the orange was too hot.
"Help mommy," Claire pleaded weakly. "Help your mommy, Astrid, PLEASE!"
Still, Astrid only stared. Unmoving.
"ASTRID!" Claire screamed.
It was fire. The basement was on fire. She was trapped. Claire clutched her belly as the stabbing pains continued. She lay on the cold ground, sobbing softly.
"Astrid....." she wailed one last time. She was going to die. She and her baby were going to die.
Tawny jerked her head up and stared blindly around her parent's darkened room. She had been sitting on her mother's bed, crying softly with her knees pulled up to her chest.
Tawny wiped the tears from her eyes and listened hard. Her heart was pounding in her ears, but that was the only thing she could hear.
That scream had come from the basement. It was Mommy.
Tawny leapt off her parent's bed and ran straight for the basement.
All Tawny could see of the basement were towering flames. She only had a vague idea of what Hell was, but she imagined it looked something like this.
Through the waves of heat, Tawny could see her mom curled in a tiny ball, cowering away from the fire. At the foot of the stairs, Astrid's form was staring down at their mother, watching as the flames pressed upon her.
"ASTRID!" Tawny shrieked.
Astrid turned to see her sister standing at the threshold of the basement, wearing an expression quiet, black emptiness.
"AREN'T YOU GOING TO HELP HER?!" Tawny screamed. How could Astrid just stand there?!
Mommy was in trouble. Tawny's little body shook with rage and fear. She felt as though she could explode in anger and burst into tears all at the same time.
Without thinking, she dashed down the stairs, attempting to push past her sister. Astrid grabbed her and spun her around.
"OH NO YOU DON'T!"
Tawny angrily shoved her sister away. "GET OFF! I'M GOING TO SAVE MOMMY!"
Tawny tried to run toward her mother, but Astrid grabbed her by the shoulders and slammed her body into the wall.
"I WON'T LET YOU MESS EVERYTHING UP!" Astrid yelled, an ugly grimace stretched across her face.
Tawny's eyes widened in disbelief as she suddenly understood.
Astrid had done this. Not only was going to let their mother die, she WANTED to watch it happen!
Tawny let loose a roar of fury and threw herself against Astrid with such force that the two of them tumbled over the stair banister.
Daniel had had a hard time concentrating on his work after receiving Claire's phone call earlier that day. She had sounded so worried. Was she right about Astrid? Could his little girl really be....
Daniel stopped in mid-thought. As he turned the corner onto his street, plumes of ashen smoke could be seen filling the dark sky. His stomach filled with lead as his heart sunk straight into his shoes. Daniel knew it was his house burning.
"CLAIRE?! ASTRID?! TAWNY?!" Daniel yelled as he entered the house. He hadn't even turned off his car before throwing open the door and dashing into the house. Smoke was everywhere, but he couldn't see where the fire was.
Daniel ran to the girls' bedroom. Their beds were empty. "ASTRID! TAWNY?!"
Maybe they were already outside. He hoped to God that they were already outside.
Just as Daniel was about to run to the backdoor, he heard a series of screams from the basement.
Claire's heart leapt when she saw her husband appear at the top of the stairs. "Danny!" she sobbed.
"Claire!" he screamed. He attempted to run toward the flames but drew back. It was too hot.
"Danny, help me please!"
Daniel looked for something--anything to protect him from the heat of the fire. He saw an old blanket on a stack of boxes and tossed it around his head before running through the wall of fire that had imprisoned his wife.
"Danny!" Claire cried again as he made it through the fire.
"Claire! When I say go, we're going to run back through the fire, okay?"
"It's too hot! We can't!"
"YES WE CAN!" he yelled as a deafening crack filled the basement. The flames had climbed the walls and were licking at the ceiling. The first floor was going to come down on top them at any moment.
Claire was petrified, but she nodded. She clutched herself to him as he pulled the blanket around the two of them.
"When I say go, we run," he said. "Ready? GO!"
Together, they ran through the fire and collapsed heavily onto the stairs.
Daniel ripped the blanket off the top of their heads. "Come on, let's go!" He yelled, and began pulling his wife up the steps.
"Oh my GOD! Danny LOOK!" Claire screamed, pointing behind them.
The basement was completely engulfed in flames, but in the blaze Daniel saw his two daughters engaged in an intense battle, oblivious to the fact that the fire had spread all around them.
"Get upstairs!" Daniel yelled to Claire.
Claire hesitated, watching as the flames closed in on the girls.
"GO! NOW!" Daniel screamed. Claire cast one last frightened glance at her daughters before going up the stairs.
Daniel pulled the blanket around himself once again and ran through the flames to where Astrid and Tawny were wrestling on the ground.
"AGH!" He cried in pain. A lick of flame had lit his sleeve on fire. He batted it out frantically, looking at it long enough to see that it had eaten clear through the fabric of his shirt and down to the skin of his arm beneath it.
He bent down and pried the girls apart. One tried to grab at the other, but caught him across the face instead, scratching him sharply across the jaw.
He could barely manage to keep them separated. One was squirming relentlessly in his arms, flaying her arms and kicking wildly, while the other jumped up from the ground, still trying to scratch her sister's eyes out.
Suddenly, a large wooden beam came crashing down from the ceiling just feet from where they stood. It landed on top of the staircase, crushing it to the ground.
Daniel looked around frantically for a way out. Just beyond the fire, he spotted the tiny window above the washer and dryer. That was their only chance.
He tossed one girl over his shoulder and tucked the other under his arm, running toward the window.
"Go! Go through the window!" he yelled as he tossed the one under his arm on top of the dryer. She attempted to run back toward her sister, but Daniel lifted her by the shirt, forcing her bodily through the window.
He pulled the one on his shoulder down and forced her through the window as well.
Finally, he climbed on top of the dryer and squeezed himself through the window and out of the basement.
A cool rush of air kissed Daniel's face the moment he emerged from the basement. The wailing of sirens could be heard in the distance.
He collapsed on the ground, gasping and panting for air. His body was soaked with sweat, and even in the cool night air, the scorching heat of the basement fire still lingered on his face.
"TAWNY! ASTRID!" Daniel leapt up from where he lay and ran around the corner of the house.
Astrid had thrown Tawny against the wall, trying to choke her, her fingers clawed with rage. Tawny slapped her palm against Astrid's face, digging her nails into the flesh of her cheeks, trying simultaneously to push Astrid off and inflict as much pain as possible........or was it Astrid, pinned to the wall, with Tawny trying to choke her.....?
"STOP! STOP it right NOW you two!"
Daniel pulled his daughters away from one another, grabbing them by the collars of their pyjamas.
In the corner of his eye, he could see several fire engines and police cars rolling up to the house.
"What the hell is wrong with you two?!" Daniel's chest was rising and falling rapidly.
"You two could have DIED in there! And you two are trying to KILL each other? Your MOTHER could have died in there!"
"SHE DID IT, DADDY! SHE DID IT! SHE TRIED TO KILL MOMMY AND I WAS TRYING TO STOP HER!"
"LIAR!!" The other shrieked. "SHE TRIED TO KILL MOMMY! SHE STARTED THE FIRE DADDY! SHE DID IT!"
They were wearing identical pyjamas. Both their faces were contorted with rage.
In the darkness, with their faces covered by soot, sweat and blood, Daniel realized with horror that he couldn't tell his own daughters apart.
In the darkness, the shadows of yelling firemen and paramedics crawled over the Nightingales' lawn.
The flashing lights of emergency vehicles lit Daniel Nightingale's haggard face in red pulses as he stood between his two daughters.
But even as he stood between them, they were still trying to attack one another.
He grabbed them by their shirts and shook them roughly so that their heads snapped back and forth violently.
They both stared at him, their eyes wild and vacant. Daniel could see the fear in both their faces, but he didn't care. His whole family nearly died tonight, and he was going to get some answers.
A dark form was running toward them. Daniel recognized it as the town's sheriff, Carl Jackson.
"Daniel! What's going on here?!" he yelled over the wailing sirens.
The Sheriff's department often worked closely with the state's attorney's office where Daniel was an assistant state's attorney. Over the years he and the Sheriff had come to know each other well.
Sheriff Jackson stood flabbergasted at the scene before him.
Never in his years as a law enforcement officer had he seen a father attacking his own children as their house burned down just feet away.
"Come on, Danny. Just let 'em go. Let them down...." The Sheriff gingerly pulled Daniel's hands away from the girls. He had been holding them so tightly that half their shirts were bunched into his fists and around the girls' necks. Each had been standing on tip-toe, as Daniel was holding them slightly off the ground.
"They did this!" Daniel said, dazedly looking from his two daughters to the Sheriff. "One of them DID THIS!" He pointed wildly at the house. The roof had started to catch fire.
"How could you?! What in the world-?" Daniel stepped closer to them, as if he were going to grab them again and Sheriff Jackson held him back.
The rage had gone from Daniel's eyes. Instead, he looked stunned--stunned and dumbstruck.
In the distance, a couple of paramedics were ushering an unconscious Claire into the back of an ambulance.
"Just tell me. Tell me, what HAPPENED?" he pleaded.
"It was an accident, Daniel," Sheriff Jackson offered. "It happens all the ti-"
"No! She did it on purpose! Astrid set the fire!" one of the girls cried. Tears streamed down her face as she began to sob. "She was trying to kill mommy! I tried to stop her. She tried to stop me so I couldn't get to mommy!"
"YOU SHUT UP! UUUAARRRRRRRGH!"
The Sheriff was momentarily stunned that such a guttural, animalistic sound could come from the body of such a little girl, but he regained himself in time to catch her before she could leap at her sister's throat.
"You let me go! You let me go NOW!" she screamed, beating her fists against the Sheriff's stomach. Before he could decide what to do with her, Daniel ripped her from the Sheriff's arms.
"You did this? You did this on PURPOSE?!" Daniel yelled. Bits of foam were flying from the corners of his mouth. "Astrid, how COULD you?!"
He gripped her tightly by the shoulders and shook her as he yelled, as if trying to rattle a response right out of her.
The Sheriff attempted to pull the girl from Daniel's grip, but he pushed him away.
"DANIEL LET HER GO!"
Daniel shook her again as tears of fury began to well in his eyes. "How could you, Astrid? How COULD YOU?! Your own MOTHER?!"
Daniel finally let go of his daughter so forcefully that she stumbled backwards onto the grass.
The Sheriff helped the little girl off the ground as Daniel placed an arm around the shoulder of his other daughter, who was still sobbing quietly.
"What do you want me to do with her?" The Sheriff called as Daniel led his other daughter away in the direction of the flashing lights.
"I--I don't care," he responded without turning around, his voice breaking slightly. Daniel hung his head wearily and continued off without giving them as much as a parting glance.
The girl in the Sheriff's arms continued to struggle, thrashing and beating her fists against him once again. It was all he could do to keep his hold of the little girl and prevent her from chasing after them.
Daniel stood before the windows of the nursery ward at Stonebriar General Hospital. Claire's fall had forced her into early labour and Sean Matthew Nightingale had been born by emergency caesarean only two hours earlier.
"Daddy...Daddy? Do you hear me calling you?"
Daniel snapped out of his reverie, shocked to see Tawny at his side, tugging on the tail of his shirt. "Tawny? What are you doing here?"
He'd last seen Tawny being whisked away to the paediatric ward to be treated for a few minor bumps and scrapes.
Tawny bit her thumb and looked down at the floor. "I snuck out so I could see the baby."
Daniel raised his eyebrows but did not ask how his daughter managed to slip past a host of doctors and nurses unnoticed.
"Can I see him, daddy? Please?"
Daniel gave his daughter a stern look. "Okay. But only for a few minutes, and then I take you back."
Tawny bounced up and down excitedly. "Yay! Pick me up, daddy! Let me see him!"
Daniel obliged and lifted Tawny easily into his arms so that she could see through the pane of glass separating the hall from the nursery.
"Which one is he, daddy?
"He's right over there, the one inside the incubator."
"Why does Sean have to sleep in that box and not in a crib like the other babies?"
Daniel smiled softly. "It's not a BOX, sweetie, an incubator. There--there were some problems when Mommy was delivering him?"
"I heard the nurse-ladies in the paediatric place say that mommy was having the baby perma....perimeter. Is that it?"
"Premature. Sean was premature."
"Yeah, that's what I meant. Why was he.....that?"
Daniel swallowed hard. "When your sister--when mommy fell, it made her start having the baby too early. Mommy also inhaled a lot of smoke from the fire. Do you remember I told you that the baby eats what mommy eats?"
Tawny nodded while looking intently at her father.
"Well, since mommy breathed in lots of smoke, so did the baby. Right now, Sean is too weak to fight the smoke in his body and it's making him really, really sick. So--he has to stay in the incubator for now."
"That means it's Astrid's fault that Sean was primitive-"
"Yeah. That's what I meant. It's all her fault he's sick now..."
Tawny was silent for a moment, and then said, "I hope she never comes back."
Daniel was taken aback by the sudden bitterness in his daughter's voice.
"You can't mean that Tawny. Astrid--she's your sister."
"I don't care. I hate her, I hate her!" she cried.
Tawny sobbed heavily, burying her tiny face in her father's shoulder.
Daniel sat at his wife's bedside watching her as she lay unconscious.
Without the large, round belly he'd grown so accustomed to, the beeping and humming hospital monitors towering above her made her look so tiny and frail in her bed.
He held fast to her limp hand.
Earlier, the nurse had given him a warm smile and commented that Claire would appreciate his touch.
But it was he who needed her touch, and he hadn't bothered to correct the nurse.
He stared at his wife with red-rimmed eyes that were burning with unshed tears, not knowing what or how to feel. His wife was unconscious, his newborn son might not survive, and his daughter might be a monster.
Claire struggled to open her lids. It felt as if they were made of lead. Rhythmic beeping noises surrounded her, but there was another sound, too. She instantly recognized it as someone crying very softly.
Claire finally managed to open her eyes. She was in a hospital room.
"Claire? Claire, sweetheart?" Daniel's face loomed into her view.
"Danny?" Claire croaked faintly.
"Yes, sweetheart, it's me. I'm here."
Claire placed a weak hand against her middle and whimpered when it found a flattened stomach.
"Baby?" She asked, her frail voice edged with panic
"He's fine the baby's okay," Daniel lied.
Claire covered her eyes with a shaking hand and exhaled deeply.
"She's good. They gave her a bed in the paediatric ward."
Daniel knew her next question even before she asked, but even so, he didn't know how to respond when Claire's small voice whispered, "Danny? What about...what about Astrid? Where is she?"
Daniel looked away. Claire could see now that he had been crying for some time. His eyes were puffy and red, his lashes gummed with the salt of dried tears.
When he spoke next, his voice was thick with guilt and grief.
"She--she was taken to County Children's Services?"
Daniel let loose a sob. "Claire, why didn't I see it? Why didn't I listen to you?!"
Claire gripped her husband's hand as he wept openly.
"Danny, don't blame yourself. It's not your fault."
"It is!" He cried. "I should have listened to you...gotten her.?Help or something! Everyone tried to tell me, but I just, I couldn't admit that my little girl was?"
Daniel couldn't bring himself to say the words.
"Danny," Claire whispered sadly, "this is no one's fault. She just--she just came out....wrong?"
Daniel had been staring at the County Children's Services building with dread, when he turned to see Sheriff Jackson walking purposefully towards him.
Working in the state's attorney's office, Daniel had heard dark tales from other co-workers who visited the building many times to interview abused and neglected children for trials against their abusers--usually their parents. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine his own daughter would be there.
"Hi, Carl," he said hoarsely putting out his hand for the Sheriff to shake.
"Daniel, I need to warn you before you go in--you need to prepare yourself?"
Daniel frowned. "Prepare myself? For what?"
Sheriff Jackson exhaled heavily. "When we brought your daughter in, she was extremely combative. She may have calmed down since then but if not, there's a good chance she'll have been sedated or restrained."
"Restrained?!" Daniel cried. "You're telling me that you've got her tied down like some kind of ANIMAL in there?!"
He turned on his heel and marched toward the door.
The Sheriff grabbed Daniel's arm and spun him around.
"You aren't going to do your daughter any favours if you bust in there like a runaway bulldozer!"
"She shouldn't even be there! She should be with me!"
"Daniel," The Sheriff sighed. "I spoke to your neighbours after the ambulances left they didn't have good things to say about your daughter. All of them seem to think she's ill. If you're going to get her out of this--if you're going to get your little girl the help she needs, you need to calm down!"
After managing to calm himself, Daniel entered the CCS building with Sheriff Jackson following closely at his side.
Daniel approached the receptionist.
"Excuse me, my name is Daniel Nightingale. I'm here about my daughter?"
The receptionist snapped her head up from her work.
"Welcome to County Children's Services"
As the receptionist's eyes raked over Daniel's appearance, the memorized greeting she'd been half-saying, half-singing died in her throat.
Daniel caught his reflection in the window just behind her desk and saw the gaunt face of a haggard man staring back out at him.
His chin was blue with stubble and dark circles had formed beneath his red, puffy eyes. His usually neat hair was sticking up on end from running his hands through it so many times, and his clothes were badly rumpled--he'd been wearing them for more than 24 hours.
"Nightingale did you say? I'll fetch Dr. Canker for you," she said uneasily, still gawping at his bedraggled appearance.
She slipped into the office behind her and seconds later, a young man exited, nearly tripping over his own feet in his haste to reach Daniel.
He was thin and pale. Oversized wire-rimmed glasses sat on his beaky nose, framing his wide-set, watery grey eyes.
"Mr. Nightingale?" he asked, offering his hand.
His reaction to Daniel was the exact opposite of the receptionist's. As he wrung Daniel's hand, he gazed at him with avid interest.
His thin lips were drawn tight into a beaming smile. Enthusiastically, he cranked Daniel's hand up and down so hard that his fleshy jowls wobbled around his weak chin.
"I'm Dr. Walter Canker. It is a PLEASURE to meet you, sir! Please, please, step into my office," he motioned to the tiny and cluttered office, barely registering the Sheriff's presence.
"Mr. Nightingale, Astrid is the most intriguing case of anti-social personality disorder I've ever seen-"
"Anti-social-? Wait, are you calling my daughter a psychopath?!"
"SOCIOPATH," the doctor corrected. "The accepted term is sociopath."
Daniel gave a dismissive wave and angrily shook his head.
"I don't care about terminology! You're calling my child crazy!"
A placatory grin stretched across the doctor's face. "I'd never use the word 'crazy'," the doctor explained, making air quotes around the word 'crazy' with his fingers.
"The issue is far more complex. With your permission, I would love to study Astrid more thoroughly."
The rabid eagerness on his face made Daniel uncomfortable.
"Astrid is a perfect candidate for my study on personality disorders in early childhood--it's actually my thesis."
"Thesis?" Daniel repeated. "You're still in school?"
The doctor nodded. "Graduate school."
"And you're the one examining my daughter? You're just a kid!"
Dr. Canker tapped his finger against one of the diplomas on his wall.
"I assure you Mr. Nightingale, I AM a doctor. And I'm only a semester away from getting my specialization in childhood and adolescent psychology," he added proudly.
"Have you managed to talk to Astrid?" Sheriff Jackson interjected, sensing Daniel's building anger.
"Well, we haven't been able to make much progress with her," he replied with dim surprise as though he had just noticed the Sheriff in the room.
"She will only talk about her mother, and a sister who kept getting in her way," he said, reading notations from Astrid's file.
"Yes." Daniel swallowed. "We think there’s possibility that the fire was an attempt to harm her mother. Her sister tried to stop her."
Dr. Canker raised his eyebrows. "Her sister?"
"Yes," Daniel replied. "She has a twin sister."
"I see?" Dr. Canker looked down at his file once more.
"What's going to happen with my daughter?"
Suddenly, the young doctor grew sombre and sat down to face Daniel and the sheriff.
"Your daughter's case is VERY serious. In fact, I recommend that she be placed at the Krueger Centre-"
Before Dr. Canker could finish his sentence, Daniel stood so fast that he nearly knocked his chair back.
"The Krueger Centre?! You mean to throw my daughter into that glorified nut-house?"
The doctor got to his feet, his face darkening for the first time as he surveyed Daniel.
"I don't think I need to tell you that the Krueger Centre is world renowned for its success. It's only because of the Centre that we have one of the lowest crime-rates in the country!"
Daniel snorted. "The only reason the Kruger Centre hasn't been burned to the ground is because the tax-payers in this state are paranoid about all the crime in New York and Baltimore they read about in the news! They think the solution is to lock up any child with even the slightest behaviour problem and brand them a criminal as early as possible!"
"The Krueger Centre is dedicated to HELPING troubled youths all over the nation-"
Daniel scoffed, barking with laughter. "Oh please! The Krueger Centre makes millions off the children in that place! They get paid to take the children other states don't want to deal with! And then they sign million dollar drug contracts to shovel experimental medications down the throats of children who have no one left to care about them! But of course, you don't see that! I'm sure they're paying you a nice chunk of change for every kid you manage to get thrown in there!"
Dr. Canker's face purpled.
"Daniel," The Sheriff said calmly. "That's enough."
He turned to the doctor, whose face was still splotched and purple with anger and indignation.
"Doctor, I think we can all agree that it might be a good time to go see the girl."
As the doctor led Daniel and Sheriff Jackson to where Astrid was being held, Daniel realized that he was scared. Scared of what he would do when he saw his daughter. Scared of what he would see when he looked into those eyes?
"Here we are," Dr. Canker announced stiffly as they entered a hallway containing many windows. Daniel realized that the windows were made of one-way glass.
They reached the final set of windows and Daniel peered through the glass.
Astrid sat unmoving in an oversized armchair inside a large playroom.
"You'll be glad to know, Mr. Nightingale, that since this morning; Astrid's behaviour has been without incident."
Daniel wondered whether the doctor's suddenly cold demeanour was because of their dispute, or because Astrid no longer seemed as crazy as he'd hoped.
"That's good isn't it?" the Sheriff asked
"Maybe?" Doctor Canker replied, not bothering to hide the doubt in his voice. "But it is my belief is that your daughter is very troubled, which manifested itself in the fire she set last night. My professional opinion is that she needs institutionalization."
Dr. Canker cast a defiant look at Daniel as he said this.
The muscles in Daniel's clenched jaw pulsed and twitched in response.
"Listen, gentlemen," Sheriff Jackson cut in. "We can talk about treatment options AFTER the therapy session. Shall we get started?"
As soon as Dr. Canker entered the room Astrid's head snapped up. "Is it time for me to go home?"
Dr. Canker smiled placidly, taking a seat in the chair facing Astrid.
"No. Not yet. I've come to talk to you for a little bit," he said, adopting a very syrupy voice. "Do you remember me? Dr. Canker?"
She gave him an insolent glare. "Of course I remember you. Aren't you the one I kicked in the stomach?"
Dr. Canker's saccharine smile slipped slightly on his face.
"Well, uh-yes. Yes you did. *Ahem* Can you tell me, why did you do that?" he asked, trying to get the conversation back on track.
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I already TOLD you; because I want to go home and you WON'T LET ME!"
"Do you understand why you're here?" Dr. Canker asked reassuming his syrupy demeanour.
She jumped out of the chair and began pacing back and forth.
"You let me out of here. I want to go home NOW!" she screamed.
Dr. Canker began scribbling notes on his clipboard.
"Can you tell me about the fire last night?"
"That fire was supposed to kill my mommy. I already told you that, too," she yelled as she began pacing and muttering furiously under her breath.
"Last night, I was asking you about the fire. Remember that? And you told me that you hated-"
Dr. Canker's never finished his question.
Daniel watched in horror as his daughter pulled a book off the bookshelf and hurled it at Dr. Canker's head.
The doctor ducked as she continued throwing things at him; blocks, toys and more books. She picked up anything within her reach and threw them at the doctor, screaming all the while.
"YOU STOP ASKING ME ALL THESE STUPID QUESTIONS!! I ALREADY TOLD YOU I HATE HER! I ALREADY TOLD YOU I WISH SHE WAS DEAD! YOU LET ME OUT AND YOU LET ME GO HOME, NOW!!-"
Daniel pressed the intercom button and his daughter's yells were cut off.
"That's it," he whispered. "I've seen enough."
In the weeks following the fire, Claire and Sean grew stronger and stronger until both ready to leave the hospital. Their visits with Astrid were not always...fruitful. When she wasn't being combative, she was sobbing and crying, begging to come home. And whenever they told her she wasn't ready to return, she invariably became combative once again. The doctors often reported that Astrid was fighting with other children. While Daniel remained ever hopeful about their daughter's condition, Claire became convinced that Astrid was never going to get better. "Danny?" Claire asked timidly as they drove back from their latest trip to the Krueger Centre. Daniel had been driving with the faraway look in his eyes he usually got after their visits. It had been two months since the fire. Two months since Daniel had signed away his daughter to the very place he despised. The fire damage to their home had been irreparable, so Claire and Daniel were forced to move their family to nearby Little Falls and live with Daniel's mother and father. Little Falls was also much closer to the Krueger Centre. Claire and Daniel visited Astrid in the Centre once a week, receiving updates on their daughter's condition. Tawny always refused to come with them, stating very clearly and plainly that she wished Astrid had never been born. "Danny? Sweetheart?" "What?" Claire took a deep breath before she spoke. "I don't know if Astrid is getting any better, Danny." "She IS getting better. I know she is. She just needs more time." "It's been a month. How much more time does she need? " Daniel shook his head obstinately. "So what? Are you buying into everything those doctors are saying? You want to believe that OUR DAUGHTER is crazy?!" "No, I don't want to believe it! I wish just as much as you do that Astrid would get better! But we've been going to see her every week and nothing has changed! When she's not crying and fighting and screaming bloody murder, she's sedated for attacking the staff! You heard them! They had to give her her own room because she ripped out her roommates HAIR! Not only that, but we've barely been able to speak to her! She just not getting better, Danny!" "I'm not leaving my daughter in that place. Never." Claire looked down at her hands, a pained expression on her face. "Danny, I've been offered a job in Colorado." Daniel turned and stared at his wife. "We can't move to Colorado!" Claire was shaking visibly and was on the verge of tears, but she felt resolute. "Watch the road," Claire replied calmly. "I'm taking that job. You can stay here and keeping lying to yourself, I'm going to take Tawny and Sean with me." Daniel alternated his attention between his wife and the road ahead. "You, you're serious?! You'd just abandon your own daughter? Take our kids and run away?" "If I have to!" Claire said defensively. "Every time we visit Astrid in that PLACE, we come back so on edge! After we came back the last time, you screamed at Tawny for spilling milk on the table! She nearly went into hysterics! We're letting this thing turn us into--into different people!" A dark look came over Daniel's face as he gazed at his wife. "I'm not leaving Astrid behind, Claire! She's getting better!" "Danny, watch the road!" Claire cried. Daniel had wandered into the oncoming lane and hadn't even noticed. "You may be ready to give up on our child," he said loudly, ignoring her words, "but I'M NOT!!" "DANNY, LOOK OUT!!!" Daniel looked back to the road just in time to see an 18-wheeler truck barrelling toward them. The massive truck turned sharply to avoid them, its trailer swinging violently behind it. Daniel jerked the wheel, swerving of the path of a giant 18-wheeler. The car fishtailed wildly as Daniel struggled to regain control. The enormous truck flew past them with a deafening, quaking rumble, missing them by mere inches. Their car bounced off the shoulder of the highway and flew into a dense cluster of trees. Claire screamed as thick tree trunks flew past the car windows, positive that they'd slam into one of them at any moment. Miraculously, their car stopped short of hitting anything. Daniel and Claire sat paralysed, breathing hard and shaking as the car came to a rest. "Oh, God!" Daniel cried shrilly. "Claire?! Claire, are you okay?!" Daniel turned to see his wife's face white as a sheet. "Yes! I'm, I'm okay!" Claire put her head into her trembling hands. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart! I'm so sorry!" Daniel reached over and wrapped his arms tightly around his wife, sobbing into her hair. Claire wept on her husband's shoulder. "I'm so sorry!" he repeated, sobbing ever harder. "I just--I don't want to leave my little girl! I just can't!" "I know, honey. I know," Claire replied as she wiped her running nose with still shaking fingers. "I don't want to leave her either, but she's just not going to change!" Claire pulled away and looked into her husband's eyes. "I--I always dreamed that one day, Tawny and Astrid would become best friends--and that they'd grow up sharing all the best moments of their lives together but honey, I know now that that's never going to happen. Astrid's just not well. She won't ever be. We have two other children to think about. And the way we get after these visits..." Claire shook her head as she finished. "Maybe you're right." Daniel swallowed as the realization settled heavily over him. "Maybe you're right?" Nurse Agnes Dougherty made her way from the nurse's station to the long-term patient's ward, cursing herself for coming in fifteen minutes late that morning. "I should have known that lot would stick me with Nightingale. Damn!" It was nine in the evening and she had been trying to coax the Nightingale girl back into her room for the past two hours. The little girl was not one of their worst patients. Not by far. There were little boys and girls in the centre who had to be restrained at all times. There were children who screamed and screamed day and night, even in their sleep. There were children who clawed at the walls until their fingernails tore away, children who sought out sharp objects and carved chunks out of their own flesh? Nurse Dougherty shuddered. Nightingale wasn't the worst she'd seen, but she was one of the worst of the non-restrained children. She spat, bit, kicked, screamed and cried for hours on end? But as Nurse Dougherty rounded the corner to the Family Room, she felt a certain pang of pity for the little girl. There was no doubt she was a gorgeous child. Nurse Dougherty had never seen a child who looked like her. Those dark violet eyes and white-blond hair she looked almost like an angel however, most nurses at the Krueger Centre learned quickly that beneath their charges' innocent exteriors lay demonic little beasts. "Nightingale! That's it for tonight. It's bedtime. Let's go. NOW!" Nurse Dougherty barked. The little girl didn't move. She remained by the window where she'd been standing all evening. She stood perched on one of the visiting room couches so that she could see properly out the window; her face was pressed against the glass, eyes staring out into the pitch-black night that had fallen hours ago. "Nightingale!" Nurse Dougherty beckoned again. "Leave me alone I'm waiting for my mommy and daddy?" Once again, Nurse Dougherty felt pity for the girl. All the staff knew the truth but had been expressly forbidden from saying anything. "I heard there was a really bad storm down there in Little Falls. I don't think your parents will be making it down today." The little girl turned slowly from the window, her eyes narrowed with suspicion. She knew Nightingale wouldn't believe her, the crafty little sod. "Okay, Nightingale. We can do this the hard way or the easy way. You can come down off that couch and come to bed, or?" Nurse Dougherty pulled a large and nasty looking hypodermic needle from the pocket of her scrubs; it glinted sinisterly in the fluorescent lights overhead. Nightingale turned away from the window once again. This time her eyes filled with fear as she eyed the long needle. Nurse Dougherty smiled inwardly. There was nothing but saline solution inside the syringe, but Nightingale didn't need to know that. Besides, that needle would still hurt--saline or not. With a final parting glance through the window, she finally stepped off the couch and walked toward Nurse Dougherty. "That's a good lass. On you get." "Tawny, Tawny, sweetheart? Wake up!" Claire shook her daughter awake as she slept soundly in the back seat. "What? What is it mommy?" "We're here sweetheart! This is our new home--our new life." Daniel watched in the rear-view mirror as Tawny rubbed the sleep from her eyes. "Wow" She breathed taking in the mountains rising out of the landscape behind their new home. "I like this place, mommy! I like it a lot! What about you Sean-bear?" she asked tickling her little brother under the chin. Sean giggled and cooed happily in his baby-seat. "Sean-bear likes it too!" She exclaimed happily. Claire and Daniel burst out laughing. As their car slowed to a stop, Tawny leapt out from the car, jumping up and down excitedly. "It's so big daddy!! I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it!!" she cried as she spun around and around. Daniel went to the back of the car and pulled Sean into his arms as Tawny did cartwheels all over their new lawn. Claire leaned her head on Daniel's shoulder. "We did the right thing, didn't we Daniel?" A bittersweet smile spread across Daniel's face as he held his infant son and watched his daughter dance around, full of life and laughter. "I think so, honey. I think so." 10 Years Later? Charlotte Bishop gritted her teeth as she leaned against the cold cement wall. "101.102.103." "Will you hush up?!" Came a rough voice from somewhere behind her. Well, she knew WHERE the voice was coming from? She continued counting to put it out of her mind. "104.105.106--" "There! All done!" said the nurse with a snap of her rubber gloves. Charlie turned around and pressed her naked back against the wall, ignoring the goose bumps that erupted on her bare flesh. "I want my clothes back," she demanded, her voice as icy as her body. The nurse's pallid, doughy face contorted into a smile. "Sorry, love. You won't be wearing these," she said gesturing to the pile of denim, red plaid and metal on the floor that was her clothes. "All residents of the Krueger Centre wear standard issue uniforms," she said roughly shoving a pair of musty pyjamas into Charlie's arms. "Put them on quickly. And you'd do well to pull all of that metal out of your face, unless you want me to break out my bolt cutters!" The nurse's booming laugh and rubbery face echoed in Charlie's mind and ears long after she left the room. "How was it?" "Fabulous!" Charlie replied sarcastically. "Who doesn't love a detailed cavity search?" Ms. Donovan frowned disapprovingly. "They're a necessary evil, Charlotte. Believe me, no one loves cavity searches." Charlie narrowed her eyes and cast a withering look over her shoulder at the stout nurse who had just examined her. Her backside was still sore. "Tell that to Nurse Lucky Charms over there," Charlie muttered. "I don't think I need to tell you that the Kruger Centre is the ONLY institution willing to take you? After what you pulled at the last facility?" Ms. Donovan sighed as they walked into a tiny control room. "I've done all I can for you as your case worker. You screw up here; the next stop is juvenile hall. You understand that don't you?" Charlie plastered a fake smile to her face that looked more like a grimace. "Of course, I do, Ms. Donovan." "Good," she snapped. Ms. Donovan addressed Nurse Dougherty. "Can we please start the tour? I have somewhere to be." Nurse Dougherty rapped on a thick glass window, behind which two large, uniformed security guards sat. One of them pushed a small red button and a buzzer sounded as the large, metal security door slid back for them to enter. "After you, Ma'am Bishop," Nurse Dougherty said, smirking widely as she stood back for Charlie to pass. "Welcome to your new home." Charlie, Ms. Donovan, and Nurse Dougherty trudged down a brightly-lit corridor. The bright fluorescent lights reflected by the stark, white walls dazzled Charlie's eyes. After a few minutes of scrunching her face against the light, a dull ache began to pound in her head. She wondered how many kids in this place had lost their last grip on reality because of the bizarre lighting alone. Charlie hated hospitals. She'd been in and out of hospitals her whole life. But she supposed they were better than the crappy group homes she'd been placed in. "Here we are," the nurse announced. They stopped at a door and the nurse pushed it open for them to enter. The room was sparsely furnished. All the furniture was in pairs: two beds, two desks, two dressers and two chairs. "This is your room," Nurse Dougherty declared. "You'll be expected to follow all the rules. Curfew is at 8, every night, but those on good behaviour are allowed to stay up until 9. You'll be attending group therapy once a week along with your private sessions. You'll also be tutored daily. You must take your daily medication, no exceptions. Any troublemakers will be placed in isolation and have all privileges revoked. Is that understood, Miss Bishop?" Charlie shrugged and flopped down on one of the vacant beds, staring moodily at the ceiling. "I'll take that as a yes," the nurse said, sounding slightly annoyed. "Thank you, Nurse Dougherty," Ms. Donovan said in apologetic tones. "Shall we head back to the office and finalize--" Ms. Donovan's question was cut off by an anguished scream. Charlie bounced off the bed and rushed to the door, eager to see what kind of freak show was happening. Down the hall, a burly man burst from a room. As he collapsed against the opposite wall, a thick stream of blood sprayed from the fist he had closed over his nose. Nurse Dougherty ran to him. "Lenny, what happened?" The orderly spat blood from his mouth. "That b**ch broke by nose," he coughed. "She kicked me in the face!" Another orderly dragged a screaming girl from the room. "Get your disgusting hands off me, you bastard!" She shrieked. Charlie watched in amazement as the girl, easily half the size of the orderly attempting to subdue her, deftly wrenched her arm from his grip and swatted him across the face in one swift motion. As the guard grappled with her, Nurse Dougherty leapt forward, pulling a syringe from her pocket. In the blink of an eye, she had yanked the girl's pyjama bottoms down, partially exposing the flesh of her buttocks, and plunged the needle into it. The girl barely had time to register surprise before her entire body went limp. "Phew!" Nurse Dougherty wiped the sweat from her forehead and tossed the emptied syringe into a nearby medical waste receptacle. Charlie ventured closer to get a better look at the girl. Now that she could see her properly, she realized that the girl seemed to be about her age and was startlingly pretty. Her long, pale blonde hair trailed behind her as the uninjured orderly scooped her into his arms. Charlie found herself curious about what she'd done to get thrown into a place like this. The normal-looking ones were always the most screwed up. "Come on out now, Rose!" Nurse Dougherty barked. From the room, a young timid looking nurse emerged shaking visibly. Ms. Donovan placed a comforting hand on the younger nurse's trembling shoulders. "What in the world happened in there?!" "I'm sorry Nurse Dougherty! She lost control when she found out we were moving her from a single room!" "Patients don't lose control, Rose," Nurse Dougherty growled. "NURSES lose control! Didn't I warn you to sedate her before telling her?" "She wouldn't take the medicine! I think she knew why we were there!" "No more excuses, Rose! Please take Leonard to the infirmary!" The nurse did as she was told and she and the injured orderly disappeared down the hall. "Who was that nut case?" Charlie asked, gawping after them. The nurse smirked sardonically. "That "nut case" is your new roommate, Astrid Nightingale." Charlie's jaw seemed to unhinge as it dropped even further. "Oh," the nurse said with a chuckle that set several of her chins aquiver. "The two of you should get along JUST fine!"