Darkness Falls."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.