It had been twenty-four years since she’d last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. The door was that same olive green she’d hated as a little girl. The roof hung down over the red brick like a thick eyebrow. It always reminded her of the look her father gave her when he disapproved of her. Low and angry. The windows glared down at Gwen, daring her to come in.
Her mind screamed at her to stay away. But she couldn’t. She felt she needed to go back, and not only because her therapist explained that facing childhood trauma could help her to move forward. She felt a psychological pull, an almost compulsion to return home.
So, there she stood, body shaking, mind racing. Back after years of simply existing, not living. Trying her best to move forward, but failing miserably. The front door creaked open. When she crossed the threshold, she slammed her eyes shut, not sure she was ready to face it yet.
The smell hit her first. Old Pine Sol and bleach— two of her mother’s favorite things. Or so Gwen always thought.
How she could smell that, she didn’t quite understand. But memories flooded her mind as she inhaled.
Saturday mornings spent scrubbing and scrubbing. And scrubbing. Her mother inspecting the work, declaring it unacceptable, which was always followed by more scrubbing.
She remembered her dad in the backyard, mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, watering, and obsessing over every tiny detail. He cared more about that lawn than he ever did about her. She remembered how he would scream at her if she even placed one foot on the overly green grass.
That was her childhood: perfectly clean, ordered, and so painful.
Her parents weren’t fond of her irregularities. Her quirks as they told countless therapists. She was different, and that petrified them.
In an attempt to “fix” her, they secluded her from other children. They didn’t allow her to play or imagine or explore. They were afraid of what would happen if she did.
Of course, this only managed to fill Gwen with a bitterness she had never been able to extinguish. And gave her the perfect reason to run away. So, at 15, she ran and never came back. She was alone, and afraid of who, or what, she may become.
She pushed those memories aside as she opened her eyes, one at a time.
The house was lit by an early afternoon sun. The wooden floor of the foyer glistened from the beams, lighting the house from the ground up. Straight ahead was the living room. Gwen walked over to it, barely noticing the family portraits hanging on the walls. The faces staring back at her were painted with joyful expressions.
She stopped at the threshold of the large living area. An old box television rested against the far wall, surrounded by VHS tapes. Against the other two walls were hideous flower-patterned sofas. So many flowers! She always felt dizzy staring at them as a kid. But there they were, as uncomfortable as ever.
A small, but well-maintained kitchen hid behind a half wall to the left of the television. Hanging on the fridge were coupons and reminders of things forgotten in time.
Gwen felt she had just stepped onto the set of a syndicated sitcom. The characters grew up, but the set never changed.
The bland kitchen led to a staircase which she walked up to. Worn-down green carpet sprawled across the steps. She inspected the first, and sure enough, a baseball-sized brown stain clung to the threads.
She felt bile fighting its way through her teeth while she stared at the spatter. She swallowed hard, trying to hold back the vomit and the memory associated with that smear. But it was no use. She replayed the night her mother’s ears bled, causing her some hearing loss.
The wooden floor was covered in the sticky mess. Gwen’s mother screamed and screamed, clutching her ears in pain. She fell back onto the first step, the ooze draining down her neck onto the carpet. Gwen’s father shoved Gwen against the wall. The veins in his neck and forehead pulsated with fury. Gwen ran outside and hid in the woods all night.
Days later, when her mother and father finally got back from the hospital, they barely spoke to her. Instead, they locked her in her room for 20 hours at a time and fed her only once per day. She learned her lesson.
Weeks later, after a long day of cleaning, Gwen’s mother told her that by the time she got back from the hospital and was well enough to clean, the stain had completely set and no amount of bleach could take it out.
Gwen knew that was lie. Her mother left the stain as a subtle way to control her. A constant reminder of the monster Gwen was.
“Look what you did, sweetheart!” Gwen imagined her mother cawing. “This is why you can’t go to school or play with friends. You’re too dangerous, you little beast.”
But it was an accident. Gwen never meant any of it.
She took methodical steps up the staircase. She didn’t want to go up, but she had to. When she finally reached the landing, she turned toward the bedroom at the end of the hall.
Her childhood bedroom. Most children loved their bedrooms, their safe places. But not Gwen.
Her bedroom was a grey-hued prison filled with dried tears and insecurities.
Her body convulsed as she stepped slowly down the darkened hall.
The floor creaked under her weight.
Small beams of light snuck through the cracks between the doors and floor. It made the walk seem that much longer to Gwen. But she continued, eyes facing forward. She didn’t need to see anything else but the room in front of her.
The door was white. No decorations, no anything.
She was staring at the doorknob when it swung wide, slamming into the wall behind. The drywall popped.
Standing two feet away from Gwen was a small child.
Gwen rocked back, confused.
The little girl stared up with her glacier blue eyes. She tilted her head sending a waterfall of curly, auburn hair over her shoulder.
Gwen studied the young girl for a moment. She was familiar. A sight from long ago.
Then, the mousy girl did something very unexpected. She said, “Hello.”
Gwen furrowed her brows and looked behind her. No one was there.
The girl was still.
“Um, I think she just spoke to me,” Gwen stammered.
A woman’s voice in her headset told Gwen to “just go in the room.”
“Are you sure? This seems weird. She’s staring right at me.”
The radio in her ear was silent.
Gwen bent down closer to the girl’s face.
The girl followed her gaze.
“Hello,” the girl said again.
“H-hello,” Gwen replied.
“Do you have any toys?” The girl asked.
Gwen shook her head.
The girl frowned. “I’m not allowed toys. My mother and father think they’re bad.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Gwen said.
The girl shook her head, “I shouldn’t have told you that.”
“They’ll hear and I’ll be punished.”
“I’m the only one here. Your secret is safe.”
The girl smiled. “Will you play with me?”
Gwen smiled an unsure smile. “Sure.”
She timidly followed the girl inside the room. Her old bedroom.
The walls were grey. A tiny twin bed sat at the far end next to the window. A small desk with a metallic lamp stood beside it. Other than that, the room was barren.
Just like Gwen remembered it.
“What is going on?” Gwen whispered through the microphone. “Who is this girl? How can she see me?”
The girl turned to face Gwen with an innocent smile on her face as the faceless woman on the other end of the radio explained. “She’s a simulation meant to help in your therapy.”
“Okay, but no one told me this would happen.” Gwen was irritated. She began to regret agreeing to try this virtual therapy.
“Just behave as you would normally and let the simulation play out. I promise it will be worth it.”
“I thought you said you were the only one here,” the girl said.
Gwen tried to change the subject, “I am. Sorry I talk to myself sometimes. I have since I was a kid.”
“So do I! My father hates it. He says it makes me look strange.”
“I think it’s cute.” Gwen smiled.
The girl giggled at that. So did Gwen.
“Sweetheart, can you tell me your name?”
The girl stared at Gwen for a moment. Gwen swore her eyes darkened a shade for a second.
When they were back to normal the girl said, “Gwen. But I like Gwenny.”
Gwen’s heart slammed to a stop. Then her eyes felt like they truly opened, and she knew that the girl standing in front of her was her younger self. How she hadn’t realized as first was a mystery.
Through gritted teeth, Gwen snarled at the woman on the headset. “What is this?”
“We want you to confront your childhood. A literal representation is one of the strongest ways to do that.”
“I’m done,” Gwen said and began to pull the VR set from her face, but it wouldn’t budge. She began to feel claustrophobic.
It was stuck. She was stuck.
“Get me out of this thing!” Gwen demanded.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. You must finish the simulation before it will release.”
“Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?”
“It was in the paperwork you signed. Just stay calm and return to the simulation. You will feel better when this is all done.”
Gwen sighed. She was angry, but resigned herself to finish the sim.
She looked back at Gwenny who appeared to be frozen, like she was paused.
The girl came back to life. “Yes.”
“Do you have something to tell me? Or show me?”
Gwenny scratched her head, then her eyes lit up. “I sure do!”
She skipped to the bed and squatted down next to it. “Come look!”
Gwen did not want to do that at all. She wanted to run back the way she came and forget about this house and her parents and this tiny version of herself.
But she walked forward and squatted down next to the child.
“Look down there.” Gwenny pointed.
Gwen squinted into the darkness below. It was empty.
Or so Gwen thought. When suddenly, the dark moved. Shifted, almost like a wave gently gliding across a beach.
Then it began to expand.
Gwen and Gwenny jumped.
“W-what is that?” Gwen asked.
“The monster,” was all Gwenny said.
They stared as the dark shadow filled the room. The afternoon sunlight disappeared and was replaced by a thick, palpable blackness.
“We have to get out of here!” Gwen yelled. She flung her hand toward Gwenny, trying to grab her arm, but she didn’t make a connection. It went right through Gwenny like she was a ghost.
That’s when she remembered she was in a simulation.
“This isn’t real,” she yelled as the darkness grew thicker.
“This isn’t real! This isn’t real! This isn’t real!”
But the shadow sure felt real as its mass enveloped her. She could feel it seeping into her.
“Get me out of here!” She demanded. But the woman was silent.
She looked down at Gwenny, who was quickly disappearing into the black.
Then Gwenny was gone. Gwen began to choke. Her lungs wouldn’t take oxygen.
She was going to die. In a simulation. At some therapist’s office.
She screamed, but that only forced the shadow down her throat faster.
She closed her eyes, giving in to death.
But it didn’t come. Her lungs began to fill up with air again.
She was still alive.
Opening her eyes, she noticed the room was back to the dull grey.
The monster was gone. Gwenny was gone. And she heard a click as the VR headset released from her face.
She yanked it off and threw it on the ground.
She stood on a multi-directional treadmill in the middle of a florescent room. She breathed heavily. Sweat dripped down her face.
The room was empty. Her therapist was not there.
Gwen yanked all the equipment off her body and shuffled her way to the door. She tried the handle, but it was locked. She pounded on the door.
No one came.
“Let me out!” She yelled.
She pounded harder. And harder. Then a loud pop as the hinges burst apart, flinging the metal door against the outside wall.
She looked at her hands. They pulsated with power. A power she had worked so hard to suppress. A power she had lost control of those 24 years before on the night she left her home crumbling and in flames. Her abusive mother and father still inside.
She had become the monster.
She let out a scream that shook the walls. Glass throughout the facility shattered.
The woman who spoke through the headset stood four stories up, surrounded by a legion of people. Some in lab coats, others in military garb. Their ears were plugged with heavy wax.
They watched a video feed in silence as Gwen destroyed the rooms below.
But they didn’t care about the destruction. Everything had gone according to plan. Their weapon was fully functional, and with the help of the smoke which now bonded itself with Gwen’s body, they had complete control. And that was all that mattered.