He’s going to kill her.
That’s my first thought as I stare at Camilla’s pale, bare shoulders. Her moon-dew skin is ruthlessly freckled by dark welts. She winces as I gingerly reach out to place my fingertips lightly upon the yellow and purple blemishes that mar her neck and upper arms.
My chest swells as I choke back a fierce rage. My mouth tightens, and I will myself not to react until I have a chance to process what I’m seeing. But my eyes don’t listen – they sob on behalf of my tongue. Thick, warm drops fall with vigor upon my cheeks.
For a moment, I glide my fingers from bruise to bruise, counting the violations as I go.
“Cammy – what happened?”
I try to catch her eye, but she won’t look at me. Instead, she’s fixed on the dancing flame of the lit candle on the coffee table.
“I like this scent, Gracie.”
The candle’s melting wax fills my small, one-bedroom apartment with comforting notes of windflower and foxglove, but it can’t fool me.
“Cam – please.”
She’s still fixed on the fire, watching as it leaps and tumbles on its wick.
“Did you know that you can put out a candle with your fingers, and it won’t burn as long as you do it quickly?” she asks.
“Cam,” I place my hand on top of hers, “did Travis hit you?”
Watching her closely, a small flare of her nostril and tiny flex of the muscle in her cheek tells me what I need to know.
“Oh God, Cam…how long has he been doing this?”
Her gaze grows glassy as crystalline beads weave their way down her face. They catch the light of the candle, shining in its glow.
“I’m calling dad,” I say, standing from the second-hand sofa. But I don’t make it far before I feel her grab my wrist. I look down to find her eyes pleading with me.
“No,” she whispers, her voice hoarse. Broken. “It was an accident. Really, he didn’t mean to. He apologized.”
“Cammy, this isn’t an accident. People don’t do this on accident. Not to people they love.”
Camilla recoils as if my words hit her harder than Travis ever had. After a moment of thick, uncomfortable silence, she stands and begins gathering her purse. She slips her dandelion-yellow sweater over her head despite the summer heat.
“You don’t understand, Gracie,” she says quietly, heading towards the door. “He’s an amazing man – smart, successful at work, everyone loves him! I’m lucky to be with him, and I love him. Besides, it was my fault anyway. I was stupid and set him off.”
Her words slide down my body leaving behind an ominous chill as I realize that she actually believes what she’s saying.
“Cam, please. Stay here tonight. We can talk about it in the--”
“I have to go, Gracie.”
“No, Cammy, wait. Stop!”
I’m helpless - powerless to stop her from walking out the door. I find myself desperate to get her to stay here, where it’s safe. Chasing her towards the front door, I stumble over the rug and follow her into the bare apartment hallway. My voice echoes down the corridor as it bounces from door to door.
“If you leave, I’m calling dad!”
She freezes from three doors down.
“Gracie,” her voice floats towards me, although she keeps her back to me. “I trust you. You can’t tell anyone – you need to leave this alone. Promise me?”
“No, Cam! I don’t promise! How can you expect me to keep a promise like that?”
She glances at me over her shoulder. Her eyes have changed. They no longer plead with me. They demand. They are scared.
“Because you’re my sister.”
She hurries to the stairs, and before I can respond she’s gone. Left alone in the empty hallway, I realize now why I hadn’t seen my sister for six months.
Stepping back inside my apartment I slam the door behind me. Anger, confusion and regret dance in harmony within my mind, waltzing together in beautiful discord. Pacing back and forth on the tacky, mauve carpet - nausea gnaws on my insides as I picture her going back home to him. Glancing at the clock beside the reading chair, I see it's past midnight. Perhaps I’ll be able to think more clearly in the morning.
“Did you know that you can put out a candle with your fingers, and it won’t burn as long as you do it quickly?”
I remember what Cam said about extinguishing the candle, and hesitantly reach for the flame, but I'm not fast enough. I feel the edge of the fire as it licks my thumb. Its cool heat causes me to pull back in fear. She said it won't burn - I don't believe her.
I whisper instead onto the candle of windflower and foxglove before retreating to the bedroom, willing the comfort of my satin sheets to slow the rhythms of the emotions still swaying and frolicking in my mind. But the moon’s glare that filters through my bedroom curtains burns into my closed eyelids and reminds me of those welts upon my sister’s skin. I toss and turn, unable to get comfortable.
“Gracie, I trusted you. You can’t tell anyone – you need to leave this alone. Promise me?”
I scowl as Cam’s voice rattles around inside my head like a pair of trick dice.
“Put her on the phone, Travis.”
“She’s busy, Grace. I’ll have her call you later.”
Bile rises to the back of my throat as I choke back my loathing. I struggle to censor the vitriol that drips from my words.
“She’s my little sister, Travis. Put her on the goddamn phone.”
“And she’s my fiancé, Grace. I’ll have her call you back later.”
“I haven’t seen or spoken to her for almost a month! You shouldn't be answering her cellphone anyway!” I hiss.
He laughs with condescension. “She’ll call you back.”
Staring at the dead line in my hand in disbelief, I start to dial my dad’s number.
“You need to leave this alone. Promise me?”
I can hear Cammy’s voice once more inside my head. That same, desperate voice from the hallway in my apartment over a month ago. Ever since she had disappeared down that stairwell, her voice had taken up residency in my mind, invading my thoughts.
Staring down at the phone in my hand, I’m torn between being a sister and being a savior. I know that to be one, I have to be the other, but I can't be either without breaking my unspoken promise.
“You need to leave this alone."
Throwing my phone angrily across the room, I dash to the bathroom and take a few moments to breathe, willing the air into my lungs. I splash a few handfuls of shockingly cold water onto my face when suddenly a chorus of demented, broken laughter rings out from somewhere nearby.
Looking up into the mirror above the sink, my own face stares back, but it’s not me. It’s a Grace I don’t recognize – she’s the one laughing.
Get it together, Grace. I start counting my breathing, trying to slow my rapid heartbeat.
The girl in the mirror is hysterical. I can feel her fighting me – she’s in my head. I can’t stop her laughing.
It’s getting harder and harder to control my breathing as her laughter completely takes over. My sides begin to ache and my eyes water.
The girl in the mirror is right. I have no choice. She’s my sister.
"You can put out a candle with your fingers, and it won’t burn as long as you do it quickly.”
Glancing into the mirror, I let out a final, small giggle and wipe the tears away as I hear Cam’s voice once more. Heading back to the living room, I spot my keys and pick up my phone from the floor, hitting re-dial.
Two rings. Voicemail.
“I know. County Reserve – campsite 134, trailhead 13B. The waterfall. One hour or I’m calling my dad.”
I cut the line, ending my message. I know who will listen to it.
Heading out to my hatchback, I get comfortable. It’s a 40-minute drive to the reserve. Pulling out of the apartment complex, it takes only a few minutes to merge onto the highway. My mind is almost quiet now - my sister's voice has settled - it helps the drive go by quickly.
As I pull in to our family’s favorite old campsite, I reach into my glovebox and grab my peace of mind before starting down trailhead 13B. It’s a tricky one – not for the faint of heart. The first mile is deceptively easy, with a few slippery rocks and some irregular footing, but nearly a mile down the trail the unwary hiker reaches the first of many steep cliff heads. I mastered all twelve miles when I was 17, but Cammy never seemed make it past the first.
Stepping over fallen logs, I navigate the thick tree roots that swell and spread, gnarled and uneven, as they bisect the path ahead. My pulse quickens as rushing water in the distance seeps out from the trees, washing over the forest and drowning out the rustling of leaves and scrabbling of nearby animals. The afterglow of sunset paints the leaves and vines of the giant oaks, and feeds the growing shadows as the air hangs still in anticipation.
A half-mile in, I spy the waterfall ahead, several meters off the trail. Making my way there, I wipe away the delicate beads of summer sweat on my forehead and climb atop a large stone. The water's roar silences all else.
I sit, and wait.
Dusk chases away the sunset’s smolder as the sky vanishes, replaced by dark canvas. I wonder if he’s not coming.
She's back. Cam’s voice inside my head threatens my resolve, but I can hear myself start to laugh once more. I silence my sister, allowing my laughter to drown out the memory of her voice. If betrayal is the price for her safety, I will bear that cost.
“What’s so funny, Grace?"
I fall silent as Travis steps from the shadows. He wears a snarl as he advances, staring down his crooked nose at me and running a thick hand through his handsome, wavy black locks.
"Why am I here," he growls, "in the middle of the night, when I should be sleeping?"
"I think you know why we're both here, Travis."
His gray eyes narrow, and his lip curls. He lets out a patronizing laugh.
"If you have something to say to me, woman, say it. Otherwise I'm going home. Camilla misses me."
Shooting a nasty, perverted smile my way he turns and starts heading back into the shadows.
“You know, you’re a real piece of work,” I taunt, calling after him, still seated from atop the massive rock.
Travis stops and turns towards me. A demented grin begins to spread across his face.
“Does it make you feel strong when you hit her? Make you feel like a man?" I jeer.
His grin disappears. His nostrils flare and he bears his perfect white teeth like a rabid dog as he begins to circle me slowly.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about," he spits.
“Do you hit her because it arouses you?” I sneer. “You know, I saw that on TV once. The detective said the guy beat his wife because it was the only way he could get it up.”
Travis lets out an angry roar and raises his fist. He lunges.
"It won't burn as long as you do it quick."
I pull out my peace of mind and fire once, right through his chest.
Travis stumbles back a few steps, bringing his hand to his heart, confused at the sticky red paint that coats his fingers. Falling to his knees, he glares at me in shock. I bask in the glimmer of fear I see hidden beneath the dying light of bravado in his gaze.
Delicately hopping from my rocky throne, I kneel before him, eye to eye, and place a gentle hand upon his cheek.
“You can go to sleep now, Travis. Sorry for keeping you up so late.”
“Gracie, can we run to the store and pick up a few things?”
I glance over at Cam in her Autumn sweater dress, the off-the-shoulder, grey-knit neckline beautifully accentuates her flawless moon-dew skin.
“Sure, Cam. Let me grab my keys and we’ll go. I’ll meet you at the car.”
Camilla has been staying with me ever since Travis went missing a little over a month ago. The first week or so had been a torrent of tears, but she’s doing much better.
“Oh, Gracie don’t forget to put your candle out,” she calls as she leaves.
Glancing over at my candle of windflower and foxglove, I reach my fingers in and smile, quickly snuffing the wick between them.