There is a teddy bear, fluff oozing from its patchy stomach, sprawled in the dust on the cement floor. One eye has been ripped out. It is tiny, and it is alone.
I shouldn’t have come here.
Sam stands near the front door, eyes watching my every move, hands fidgeting at her sides as if she’s about to lunge forward and drag me from this place.
Maybe she will. Maybe I’d let her.
I glance back at her. “You can come in.”
She shifts on her feet, biting her lip. Her eyes skit right through me and scale all four walls around us before she answers.
“I’m good,” she says.
I don’t press it, don’t need to. No one ever makes Sam do anything she doesn’t want to do, and if I don’t want to do something, then she’ll make sure I’m not made to do it, either. When it came down to us visiting this place, it was back and forth. She didn’t want us to come. But I wanted to – needed to, needed the closure, I suppose – and when she realized I had made my mind, she would not let me go alone.
So there she stands, in the doorway, her muted blonde hair cropped close to her skull, her skin a stark white, and wearing the baggy jeans and jersey she hasn’t taken off since they found us. Emerald green trees rustle in the breeze behind her, the forest stretching out for miles. It’s so still here. So empty and isolated. It’s just us, Miss Leeman waiting in the car, the dirt driveway made of pebbles, blue sky and sweeping forest and this old house. It feels wrong, but not in the way that it should - because of what happened here - but rather because it’s just us now. I’m walking around, I’m free to, and it’s not like it was before, when we were growing up: just the two of us, in that tiny room, no way out.
“I’m going to have a look around,” I say. I walk towards the archway that leads into the lounge.
My boots scrape on the gritty cement floor beneath me. I feel Sam move behind me, just as I reach the archway.
“I’ll be here,” she says.
I nod without turning around. I’m sweating through my white shirt and black leggings. I grip my arms tightly across my chest and force myself not to look back at Sam - not to ask her to come with me. Anxiety bites at my lungs, stifles each breath. Taking a step by myself, especially here, is wrong without Sam. It’s uncomfortable. And yet, I don’t know if she feels the same way. I don’t know what she feels, and I never have. Not in all the years we were here. I never even asked.
I walk into the lounge.
There are no teddy bears here, only police tape across the far doorway that leads to the bedroom. I stand still for a moment. I look around, at the peeling beige wall paint and the dust and spiders’ webs and cracked cement floor. I breathe in, then out, until every breath is steady again.
I glance at the windows to my right. Until now, I had never looked out of them. But there’s nothing to see, is there? Even if I had run, slipped away from Ma, thrown myself into the lounge and barred the door and raced to the window, there’s just forest. No people. No houses. No one waiting to lend me a hand or pick me up and carry me away. Just forest. And I’m glad, I really am, that I never saw it. Because that’s the thing with hope – it hurts more than knowing nothing at all.
Footsteps come up slowly behind me. I turn, and Sam brushes past, blood on her lip because she’s chewing it so hard. There’s a look in her eyes – a distant, empty look that I never asked about during these twelve years – and I let her walk in silence and see the window, the peeling walls, and cracked floor for herself.
“We should have lived in this room,” Sam says. “Yes, we should’ve. More space. What would it have hurt?"
Her words hurt.
“The window?” I gesture to it.
She shakes her head fiercely. “Just forest out there –“
“And that would have hurt?” She snorts. “For twelve years everything hurt.”
I swallow the anger I don’t understand, but it twists inside of me until I want to scream.
“Not everything,” I say, and I want to touch her, have her arms around me.
“Yes everything. You were too young. You didn’t understand. Everything they told us when we came out, you just listen and listen but you didn’t understand.”
“I understand,” I say firmly. “What I don’t understand is why you’re acting like this.”
“Not now Nancy,” she says. She walks to where the police tap sags across the bedroom door and rips it aside, sending it crackling to the ground, and steps right into that room. That room.
I stamp my foot, tears burning in my eyes. I’m a child; I’m a stupid child. For goodness sake, no sixteen year-old should behave like this. Sam thinks I’m immature and I am, I know I am, and I want to fix it, I want to be who she wants me to be. After twelve years, I need to make her proud and tell her that it was because of her I didn’t hate every moment spent in this place, but she’ll think I’m weak, she will, she’ll leave, she’ll –
I whirl around, my hands falling at my sides. I catch a glimpse of the teddy in the entrance hall and I scream at him:
“We’re not children! I don’t need a teddy!”
I’m sobbing. It’s pathetic. I stride into the bedroom, with its destitute floor and four grey walls and air that still tastes of our home. And there’s Sam, leaning against the far wall, slapping her hands against the cement while her eyes jump.
I stumble to her, wiping at my face. I reach out. I move to hug her - hold her. She staggers away from me.
“Stop it Nancy,” she says. She says my name the same way she told me I’m too old for hugging when we were in the car with the lady who gave us blankets and took us away from this house. In that car, Sam shoved me away when I tried to hug her.
I stumble backwards. My gaze finds the black lines slashed across the stone walls. Those lines marked each birthday from the last twelve years. Sam never forgot my birthday.
“Sam.” My voice cracks. I reach out and touch the wall to my right, where we marked my eighth birthday and where Sam drew candles and balloons and told me all about them. The chalky black rubs off and stains my fingers.
Sam slaps my hand down. I shriek.
“Stop it,” she says, and pushes off from the wall.
“Stop shoving me away.”
“Stop talking Nancy, please.”
“What is wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with me?” She laughs, but it’s not like any of the laughs from the days we spent in here. This laugh – it’s hard and hollow and broken in all the right places that make it a happy laugh.
“Yes,” I say, and I’m breathless, and my chest is aching. The door stands wide open, and for a moment I wish it wasn’t. I want it to be shut, like it always was, because then Sam can’t get up and leave. She can’t leave me. Now is the only time in my life I’m terrified she will.
Sam stares at me, but she’s not seeing me. Her fingers grind into her jeans and dig into the fabric.
“You,” she hisses, waving a finger in my face, “you don’t understand. You never have.”
“You hate Ma.”
Sam laughs again, shakes her head, and runs a hand through her messy blonde hair that she let me plait before she cut it all off.
“We shouldn’t be here,” she whispers to herself.
“I wanted to come,” I say loudly, lifting my chin.
“And that’s why you’re so silly.”
“I wish the door was shut again.” My voice shudders through my own ears. It scares me. “I wish it was locked.”
“You make me sick.”
“You make me sick!” I shout.
Sam leaves. She walks right out that door. I hate her, I hate, I hate her.
I run after her, out into the open air that stings my face and the scent of pine trees and soil and sickly sweet sunshine assaulting my senses.
Sam runs into the forest. I shout for her. Miss. Leeman jumps out of the car and grabs me, stops me from chasing Sam, and touches my shoulders.
“Nancy leave her,” Miss. Leeman says quietly. “We shouldn’t have come, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have let you –“
“I wanted to!” I shove her away, tears scorching my cheeks, the glare of the sun itching on my bare arms and neck and face.
“You need to breathe, Nancy. Sit down. Please, let’s get into the car, ok?”
“They left the teddy.” I sniff and wipe my nose on my hand.
Miss. Leeman stares at me; uncomprehending, but gentle.
“Teddy? What teddy, Nancy?”
“The one Ma gave me. The one Sam wouldn’t let me take with us.”
“We thought we’d cleared the house. Someone must have dropped that, I’m sorry –“
“I want it,” I say. “But Sam won’t want me to have it, I know she won’t.”
“You know why she feels like that.”
“I hate her,” I say. “She’s the reason we’re fighting. She’s the reason we’re out here and the door’s open.”
“You don’t want the door to be closed again, you know that, Nancy.”
I wrap my arms around my chest and try to suppress the sobs swelling inside of me.
Miss. Leeman takes a step towards me, reaches out an arm as if to encase me in a hug, but she doesn’t touch me.
“Sam needs time,” she says quietly. “You both do. No one expects you to remain calm, no one expects you to do anything. Sam doesn’t want that either. But she’s hurting, as and so are you, and you’re both hurting in ways that are the same, and also in ways that are different.”
I look at her. The sobs ease up in my chest. “I can’t lose her. I can’t do this without her.”
“You won’t. And she’s not going to leave you. But she needs time.”
“She just ran away.”
“And she’ll be back. She’ll come back, and you know why? You. She’ll come back because of you. Everything Sam’s done for the last twelve years has been because of you, Nancy. She loves you. She saved you. And her biggest fear? Losing you.”
I start walking towards the car. Miss. Leeman follows, her boots crunching on the pebbled driveway. I glance to my right, to the trees, and I see Sam, leaning against a tree trunk just like she was leaning against the wall inside the house. She doesn’t move. I stare at her.
“I’ll get Sam,” Miss. Leeman says. “You can get in the car.”
I get into the car, shut the door softly, and watch Miss. Leeman walk over to Sam, touch her arm, and Sam doesn’t shove her away. I glance up at the crumbling house a few feet from our car. It isn’t the same place we lived for twelve years – it just isn’t. Not without Sam and I. Not without Ma.
I look at Sam as she and Miss. Leeman walk slowly back to the car. How are we going to live now? Where will we go? How will we live without Ma around, bringing us food and drink and clothes?
Sam climbs into the backseat. She leans her head against the window and tucks her hands between her thighs. Miss. Leeman starts the car.
I stare back at the house as we drive away, at the windows peppered with dust and the front door falling off its hinges and the police tape scattered around.
In my head, I say goodbye.
Sam doesn’t look back at the house. She doesn’t say goodbye.
But I don’t ask her to.