Fifteen

☼►seven◄☼

Image


I jerked to full awareness at a particularly loud clap of thunder, sat up as a bolt of lightning zigzagged across the sky. Rain pattered against the window in heavy pit-pats, loud and echoing in the silence of my room. Wrapping the comforter around me, I padded across the room to stare out at the storm.

The trees bowed under the force of the wind, branches waving hauntingly against the dark sky. I shivered and tugged the blanket more securely around my body, even as I pressed my forehead to the cool glass. Storms had always been my favourite things in the world, second only to the anklet Sophie had gotten for Christmas when she was thirteen.

A shadow caught my attention, almost out of sight. Swaying and beckoning, I shifted until I could see it clearly. Heat flooded my cheeks, my heart dropping to the floor while acidic flames ate along my nerves, when I realised the silhouette wasn’t what - who - I thought it was. Who I’d hoped to see, no matter how unrealistic it would be. Chiding myself for being so helplessly idiotic, I yanked the curtains closed.

The dark hallway outside my room had become easier to navigate without sight over the last month, with all the times I couldn’t sleep; I’d found myself, night after night, pacing through the house because the walls of my room were inching ever nearer, closing in on me and pinning me with their suffocating existence.

The fact that it wasn’t my own bedroom had reaffirmed that I didn’t belong here - I never would. My spot in the program should have gone to someone more worthy of overseas studying. And worthy, I was not. I was selfish. I didn’t care about the culture.

I only cared about getting away from my hometown.

Another strike of lightning lit up the family room, and I wrapped myself in the throw blanket from the back of the couch, settling in to watch the storm blow itself out. I’d originally woken up because of another nightmare.

It had slipped from my mind the instant I opened my eyes, but the terror was still fresh in my mind. Icy tendrils clung to me, threatened to drown me in the cold. I shivered as goosebumps raced up my flesh, tucked my knees to my chest, and determinedly avoided looking at the shadows of the furniture.

Quiet footsteps neared, breaking me from my thoughts of Sophie, and I turned my head just enough to see a figure passing by the archway. A soft hissing filled the air - water coming from the tap - and glasses clinked together in the cupboard. Seconds ticked by; the analog clock was louder than the thunder that split the silence, then I heard the hollow thunk of a glass being set in the sink.

This time, I recognised the curls as the person walked past again, but I didn’t speak. It was much too late for conversation, and I certainly wasn’t in the mood to talk anyway.

Unfortunately, my presence didn’t go unnoticed. Harry stopped just out of view then walked backwards until he was at the archway again. The shuddering flash of lightning illuminated his face, his eyes an electric green in the momentary light, before the room fell dark once more. I closed my eyes as he tiptoed into the room and sat on the other end of the couch.

“Seren? It’s almost two in the morning. Why are you awake?”

“I, I had a nightmare and couldn’t get back to sleep.”

My whisper was quiet, and I almost believed he didn’t hear me. But he didn’t hesitate: He opened his arms and cocked his head in question. I smiled reluctantly and let myself be pulled into the circle of his arms. The contact sent warmth through me, and I rested my head on his shoulder. Everything was suddenly so heavy, as if it had grown in weight over the last few seconds. I was so tired of fighting the words.

“I have a sister.”

“You do?” he questioned quietly, voice drenched in confusion. “You’ve never talked about her.”

“Her name is Sophie. I, uh, I haven’t seen her since I was thirteen.”

He didn’t speak, didn’t break the quiet between us, and that was the permission I needed. I stayed close to him as I told him about her, how close we had been and how Sophie was always the first in line to kick the ass of anybody who hurt me. I spoke of all the times she and I would sneak out of our beds during midnight thunderstorms and sit on the back patio to watch them paint the sky with blinding white and deepest blacks.

The snowfalls we would sing praises about from the warmth and comfort of the couch.

The way we would spend an hour in the autumn sunshine, picking the crunchiest leaves and jumping onto them, relishing the crackling under our feet before running off to find the next one.

The Christmases and Thanksgivings and Halloweens and every day in between that Sophie made better for me, just because she was my sister, and I loved her. I looked up to her.

“She… she ran away in the middle of the night when she was seventeen. That was t-two years ago. We haven’t heard from her or gotten any answers about where she is or anything. The police have basically given up on the investigation.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

I shrugged and blew out a breath. “It sucks. I know - I know - it’s not gonna happen, but I keep hoping she’ll come back. Just… show up out of the blue, and everything will be okay again. And I hate her for leaving me like that.” Sniffling, I scrub a hand over my eyes to catch the tears. “We deserved more than a note saying she had to go. I deserved more than that.”

“Yes, you did. I’m sorry that you and your family have had to go through this.” His arms tightened around me, and though I wanted to cry with the agonising betrayal I still felt, his embrace gave me strength. He whispered softly, “I’m so sorry, Star.”

The nickname felt right in my ears, and I let the softness of it surround me, protect me from the maelstrom I’d felt for two painfully long years. Eventually, we parted, and Harry squeezed my hand comfortingly. I smiled, the first real one I’d given anyone in a while.

“Are you ready to try to sleep again?”

My gaze skimmed over his face, and I realised that he was struggling to keep his eyes open, his blinking slow and consistent. Biting my lip, I promised him that I would head to bed in just a bit. He paused then hugged me again before pushing to his feet.

I watched him disappear into the hallway, listened for the click of his door closing. Sleep wasn’t going to happen, I knew that well enough, so I settled back into my original position on the couch, tucked the blanket more securely around me, and focused on the storm and not the way guilt nagged at me for lying to him.

By the time morning came, I’d been awake for five hours, and my thoughts had devolved. From relieved that I had finally confided in someone over something so large in my life, to panic. What if Harry told his parents? I didn’t think I could handle a conversation with them about it, and lovely as Anne was, I knew she’d want to talk.

My worries were for nothing, evidently. The smile Harry sent me when we met at the table was tinged with his newfound knowledge, but he didn’t say a word about what I’d told him during the night. I was aware that there was plenty of time for him to do so. I just hoped that he wouldn’t.

I had to trust that he wouldn’t.

The next few weeks slipped by in a blur. Schoolwork took up most of my afternoons, even with Harry’s help on the lessons I was struggling to understand, and the weekends were full of activities with the other foreign exchange students. Harry spent more time at his friends’, which left me at the house with his parents. Robin and Anne tried their best to engage me in conversations, but more often than not, I couldn’t quite connect with them properly.

I was too afraid of saying the wrong thing, of letting my secret slip, that I’d preferred to stay silent if possible. Thankfully, Anne seemed to understand, even if she believed it was merely because I was shy. It worked - for all of us, really. They didn’t feel like they were failing as host parents, and I didn’t have to open up about the sister I lost.

Cold nipped at my cheeks, the tip of my nose, but I didn’t move from where I sat. Clouds blanketed the world, hid away the stars I knew were miles above my head, but still, a hazy glow filtered through from the moon. It was peaceful out here in the garden. Quiet and isolating. No masks were required, I could just be me.

Seren.

The fifteen-year-old who thought she knew what life was until life proved her wrong.

Anne and Robin had gone to bed an hour ago, and though she made me promise to get to sleep at a reasonable time, I had waited until I was certain they were asleep before slipping out the back door. Neither of them had seem worried that Harry wasn’t home, so I wasn’t worried, either. He’d become a beacon of hope at some point since I arrived a couple of months ago, and I was slowly growing to trust him completely.

Tugging my cardigan more closely around me, I settled further into the lounger and stared up at the sky. There wasn’t much to see, but the expanse of slowly-shifting grey was mesmerising. It promised change, something better if I could just hold on. Hold on to what, I wasn’t sure, but the hope was there, weak and fragile and desperate for life.

“You’re home late.”

Fuck. Seren, what the Hell?”

I flashed Harry a sheepish smile and shifted awkwardly in my seat at the table. I’d spent nearly two hours out in the cold of the night, only coming in when I lost feeling in my toes despite wearing three pairs of socks. Harry glared at me even as he joined me at the table.

“Want some?” I asked quietly, lifting my mug, and he shook his head.

“Why are you still awake?”

I shrugged, sipped at my tea. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“Worried that I wasn’t here?”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Curly Sue,” I said with a snort; wrapping my fingers around the mug, letting the warmth leech into my skin, I stared down at the milky liquid inside. “I just… I dunno. I think I’m finally homesick.”

He didn’t have much to say in response to that, but that was fine. Just seeing his face soften in understanding and sympathy was enough. Harry reached out to squeeze my hand comfortingly, and I ducked my head. It was the closest to the truth that I could manage at the moment. I didn’t even know what was going on in my own mind; how could I have explained it to him?

So I didn’t. I just let him clean up from my tea-making process then lead me to my room. He left me there in the hallway, moving on to his own bedroom. My tongue unglued itself from the roof of my mouth only after he’d shut his door, and my whispered goodnight hung in the air for a moment before dissipating into nothingness.