Jess blinks, and the bright light starts fading, and then he’s standing in a hallway he hasn’t seen in a very long time.
Floral wallpaper is in the process of peeling from the walls, and there are bits of ceiling on the floor. Jess is staring down the large double doors at the far end of the hallway that he knows lead to a vast library. To his right is the top of a grand winding staircase surrounded on three sides by enormous windows, covered in weeds and ivy that have begun to force their way through cracks in the glass. To his left, which he turns to face, is a painting. Staring down at him, with an expression of superiority and the posture of royalty, is his mother.
Jess takes a moment to compose himself, and on the other side of that moment, he finds he still wants to cry.
“Where are we?”
The voice from behind him makes him jump, and he whips around to see a young girl, physically only about 14, leaning against the railing. The girl, who Jess knows to be Virginia Deschamps, was studying him with eyes so dark they seemed to be a avoid. She taps one dark finger against the wood, and some paint flicks off with her nail.
“Well?” She prompts.
Jess stares at her, and whispers: “why are we here?”
Virginia shrugs. “It’s your memory. You tell me. Where are we?”
He squares his shoulders. “My home.”
She raises an eyebrow, glancing around the decrepit hallway. “You lived like this?”
White-hot anger momentarily surges in Jess, but instead of doing something rash, he squares his shoulders, lifts his chin, and bites out: “Yes. I did.”
Virginia looks proud to have gotten such a reaction and nods her chin toward the painting behind Jess. “You learn that pose from her?”
Jess simply narrows his eyes and says, “Yes.”
She nods. “Makes sense. She looks like Cass, y’know? ‘Cept with more hair.”
Jess knows Cass looks like their mother. They both do, actually. The twins share her eyes and cheekbones and unruly brown hair and down turned lips.
When she doesn’t get a response, Virginia rocks back on her heels. “Right. So. Why are we here? What memory is this? It feels pretty big-”
A gunshot sounds downstairs. Virginia jumps away, pressing her palm to her chest, and Jess squeezes his eyes shut.
When he opens them again, Virginia is staring at him.
He sighs and turns back toward the library doors, which were slowly beginning to open. Out from behind the heavy, engraved wood appear two children, a girl and a boy. They’re about the same height, with distinct cheekbones and round brown eyes and wild brown curls. The boy is clutching a leather bag that’s nearly overflowing with books, and the girl is closing the door as quietly as she can behind them.
“That’s you and Cass.”
It’s not a question, but Jess nods anyway.
The eight year old twins grasp each other’s hands and begin down the hallway. The girl has her head held high, eyes continually flicking toward the stairs. The boy kept darting his head toward every noise, and looked on the verge of tears.
The girl turned toward him, and whispered something in a language that did not exist outside of the siblings, and the boy took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and began to walk faster.
“What did she say?” Asks Virginia.
Jess glances at her, and then goes back to watching the children. “Does it matter?”
She considers this. “Guess not.”
There are heavy footsteps below them, and a gruff voice calls out: “Oh, kiddies! I know you’re around here somewhere, brats. Let’s make this nice and simple.”
The children tense, and then rush toward the painting. The girl grabs the bottom edge, and pulls at a latch built into the engraved frame, and the painting swings open. Behind it is a short hallway with a brass spiral staircase going both up and down. The boy pushes the bag in first, and then the pair hoist themselves up in tandem. The boy winds the bag around his shoulder again, while the girl tugs the painting shut behind them.
“So you hid?” Virginia is closer now, having stepped forward to get a better view.
Jess glances over to her. “What else can you do?” There are heavy footsteps making their way up the stairs, but Jess turns to the left, facing away from the library, and begins to walk down the hall.
“Where are you going?” Virginia calls, before rushing after him with a huff.
“Gotta show you the rest.” Jess turns toward her, then places a hand on the wooden door and pushes it open.
Inside is a bedroom, and another girl kneeling near what looks like it used to be an ornate dresser. She looks to be older than the two other children, and is a mirror image of the person in the painting. She has her wild hair pinned into an intricate braid, and is chewing on the end of it as she rushes to put clothes in a bag. When it begins to overflow, she latches it shut and turns toward the bed, where a toddler, about four years old, is sitting.
Jess’s older sister, Ria, places the bag on the bed, and carefully picks up the four year old Elio, who begins to mess with her braid. She then crouches down beside the bed, pulls a pin out of her hair, and wedges it between the floorboards. She slides it along the wood until she hits something, then pushes down and a chunk of the floor about three floorboards wide lifts with a little click, and she tugs it up. Beneath the floor seems to be a crawl space, just tall enough for a toddler to stand, and a ten year old girl to crouch.
Ria lowers Elio down gently, then grabs the bag from the bed and hops down as well.
Before she tugs the door closed, Jess nods Virginia toward it and hops down himself. She manages to tumble in right before Ria reaches up and closes the door.
The door to the bedroom is kicked open with enough force to put the handle through the wall, and Virginia jumps at the same time as Elio.
Ria turns Elio to face her, presses a finger to her lips, and starts leading the toddler down the tunnel.
Jess and Virginia follow, brushing the dust from their hair as it falls between the floorboards after the sturdy thunk-thunk-thunk of footsteps. The man above is muttering something, but it’s too quiet to make out any actual words. There is the sound of dressers drawers being pulled out of their wooden framing, and closet doors being kicked in.
The two children from Jess’s memory make a sharp turn to the right, and the pair from the present follow closely. At the end of this hallway, Jess can see the spiral staircase. There, the young twins are waiting, anxious and jittery. When they see Ria and Elio, they both perk up, and rush over to meet them. Ria leans down so her face is level with the twins, and places a hand against each of their cheeks.
“We need food. Take Elio. Get far away and hide. Cassia,” she turns to face the younger girl. “Hide them. I can find you. Make a plan to get to Sill.” Her eyes shift between their faces, settling on Jess, who looks absolutely terrified. “I will be right behind you, I promise.”
This promise rings in Jess’s ears. It has been ringing in his ears for over a decade. He can’t remember what he had for breakfast that morning, or the last time he had been outside without supervision from doctors, but he remembers the dust in his hair and how dark it was under the floor and how the weight of the books felt on his shoulder and how Cass’s hand felt in his own and how many freckles were on Ria’s nose when she promised Jess she would see them again for the very last time.
Ria presses her lips to the tops of each of their heads, and the footsteps return above them. She glances up, then back down at her siblings, and ushers them down the hall. They both go down the stairs, as quietly as possible. The rusting metal descends into darkness, spiraling and spiraling down and down and down to more secret exits designed for hiding, for escape. Ria stops about halfway through, hands Cass the bag of clothes, and waves them off.
The rest of the siblings carry on down the stairs after some hesitation. Jess – the older one – stands on the landing where Ria had just turned away, rushing to the kitchen. He stares after her. Virginia shoots him a questioning look.
Jess closes his eyes, briefly, and when he opens them again, he has to blink away a bright light.
Then he’s staring at the paneled ceiling over his bed in his hospital-like room. Virginia is in a chair next to him, rubbing at her eyes. Agent, a sandy little man that is in charge of Jess and his “case” stands from his chair, clipboard at the ready, shooting the pair an affectionate smile.
“So,” he starts. “How’d it go?”