My cheeks stung. My body burned with open wounds and admonishment. The very follicles of my hair rebelled in their purgatory of being partially ripped out. When I reached the creek, I fell to my knees. Water cooled my burning skin and camouflaged my tears, but nothing could be done for my broken voice asking nobody for everything.
“Please,” I begged the earth, “I can’t do this anymore.”
She did not reply and the loneliness wrought a desire to confess the foul thought that festered in my young soul - a wish steeped in cruelty. It was not in my control, and if it was I would like to have thought I would never choose for it to be, but the desire was a tumor in me.
“Pick someone else,” I demanded of the water, “It can’t be anymore. Please," I cried and then took a breath and whispered out what I didn't want to want: "I wish it could be someone else.”
Blood ran down my shoulders, coating my fingers like caterpillars of my life inching away from me. They were reminders that I had nothing left to lose, so the words could not be staunched, but only repeated.
“I wish it was someone else,” I explained to the rocks embedded in my palms, “I wish there was someone else to take my blows. Someone else’s skin ripped apart with Johnny’s belt. Someone else’s hair Amanda pulled around.”
That was it. The words were out and I felt weak with their loss. Saying them brought me no comfort, only shame.
Only the water slipping around me and the soft muck cushioning my knees and palms could soothe me.
And, perhaps, time.
When the chill of the forest finally cracked through my misery, I was in no shape to walk home. Instead, I curled in a puddle of sunlight dragging behind the late afternoon sun.
I dreamt of a sister I’d never known and her screams that sounded like my own.
When I woke, my puddle of light had a lunar source, but even this cool, non-direct light burned my eyes at first. When I could blink without the sticky pain, I lifted my body like I was a toddler stacking blocks - uneven and precariously balanced. Every movement forced me to relive the experience of receiving each blow and pull and slap and whip from my foster parents.
I wanted to cry, but I dared not. It would only hurt my head more.
Instead, I walked steadily back toward the county road that connected to the house that is my current home.
The night was not cold or hot. It was not raining and there was no wind. It was as if the air itself was holding its breath. Anticipation flooded me.
I had no idea what time it was. Would they be missing me? Would they be angry that I had disappeared for so long?
I needn’t have worried.
The silhouette of the cabin sat silent and dark. It looked lonely and it took me a moment to understand why.
The Amanda’s sedan and Johnny’s truck were not in the driveway.
This was not entirely unsurprising - they often left for days at a time. Especially after especially harsh beatings. I lived for those few days when the beaten back shrub of their consciences unfurled a single leaf and they actually left food for me and gave me time to heal.
Apparently, this leaf had been fruitless. Not only had they not left any food in the house, but they also appeared to have taken the entire refrigerator, along with the kitchen table, and, as I soon saw as I looked about the house, nearly every one of their possessions.
And yet - my room sat untouched. As still as a picture and with the mustiness of inattention.
I flicked at switches on and off as I walked through the echoing shell of a home, but the space was left unilluminated. There was no electricity in the house.
I went to wash my hands in the bathroom sink and found, to my surprise, that the water still sputtered on.
Then I went to Amanda and Johnny’s room. I expected it to be empty. At the very least, to be devoid of bodies. So, when I stepped on the body of a person as I shuffled toward the window to let some moonlight in, I assumed it was simply junk left behind. It was not until I turned around and caught sight of stringy hair and a dirty face did I realize that it was a person. That it had been a person?
The person groaned.
The person opened their eyes.
I stumbled backward.
“Oh my god,” the words escaped and left behind no air left for my chest to expand again.
“Help,” she said - for it was a female type of person, I was certain, based on their voice and general size and shape.
“Are you okay?” It was a stupid question. The person was not okay, she had literally just asked for help, but the question bubbled out of me anyway - unavoidable as it floated to the top of my conscious vocabulary.
I kneeled down and slipped my hand into hers. It was only then that I realized her dirty face was crusty not soot or dirt, but blood.
“You poor thing,” I gasped. “What can I do to help? do you need help up?”
“Water," she replied.
I ran back down to the kitchen and opened cabinets until I found a semi-disposable cup sporting the name of Johnny's favorite barbeque place in town. I rinsed it until I hoped it was clean and brought it to her filled. Then, I doubled back to the hall closet and found the supplies I'd hoped they left behind - a flashlight and a small first aid kit.
The flashlight’s battery was low, but when I came back to the room, it was enough to recognize the shirt she was wearing - a thin, yellow shirt with two rabbits nose-to-nose - was mine.
“Are those my clothes?”
Her hands shifted over her body as if she had only just noticed she was wearing anything at all.
“Are you hurt,” I asked instead of absorbing any more of her awkward silence.
“But - the blood?” I asked, handing her the sterilized wipes I'd found in the first aid kit.
Instead of answering, she accepted the handful of wipes and began to scrub at her cheeks until they were uncomfortably pink, rather than encrusted in light brown flakes of dried blood. She dropped the used filaments to the ground to join their wrappers and then she began to shift as if to stand.
My hand hovered protectively around her back, though if she were to fall, I doubted I’d be able to catch her, as she appeared to be roughly my own height and weight.
I watched her feet anyway, as she steadied herself. Her shoes were the same style and color as the boots I had just been wearing and had taken off at the bottom of the stairs. It was hard to tell when we stood more in shadow than light, but they even appeared to have similar scuffs.
“That’s funny,” I said, “We have the same-” but my words curdled inside of me when I looked at her face. Bile thrashed around inside my empty stomach.
“What?” she asked, not with curiosity, but a sort of encouraging prompting for me to continue - to put words to my realization.
“What?” I asked instead, unable to catch up to what my eyes were seeing.
“You said we have the same…”
“Same?” I asked us both, and then I found my voice where I did not expect it - inside of the slumbering anger I had not woken in too long, “everything.”
She looked exactly like me. And not just my eyes and my lips and my chin, but our clothes were the same too. I looked down and realized I too was wearing my threadbare yellow, rabbit-nose-to-nose shirt, nearly as heavy with dirt as the one she now wore.
I took a step closer to her, hoping to intimidate this imposter, but my doppelganger only leaned closer to me until our noses touched like rabbits in our matching shirts. “You look just like me, I posed the words like a challenge, but she did not falter. She did not lean back. She didn’t even blink.
Instead, she just agreed.
“Yes,” she had the nerve to say.
“Who are you?” I insisted.
“I am me.” My anger spiked again at the audacity.
“Um, no! I am me!” I insisted.
“We can both be you,” she offered. Her voice was mine, but not. She was unbothered and calm. Had I ever been this calm? Meek, usually. Timid, compliant, emotionally, scared, on a very rare occasion (like then), even annoyed or angry, but calm? No. I’d never been calm before - at least, I had never felt this calm. But, perhaps this is what the world saw of me?
“No, I don’t think so,” I said, my neck ached with the violence of my shaking head as if was declining a particularly insistent salesperson.
“But," she enunciated her words as if soothing a small child, "you asked for me.”
“Me? Asked for…what are you talking about?” hysteria bubbled and my crossed arms held it down.
“You wished for someone to take your blows. You begged the earth and water for me. I am borne of your desperation and mud,” she said. And then, as if in afterthought, “and a bit of your blood, of course.”
My muscles locked in the shock of getting caught in the act of my most inhuman request. Embarrassment, pride, and awe warred within me.
“I didn’t - I didn’t mean it!” I tried to explain.
“You must have," she shrugged and crossed her own arms as well, "I would not be here if you did not want me.”
“No, I mean." I dropped my own arms in defiance and so did she. I resisted the urge to recross them. "I did feel that way, but I never would have wished for…this, if I thought it would really happen. I don’t really want this. I don’t want Amanda and Johnny to hurt anyone else.”
“They didn’t - not really.”
She shrugged. “I am a golem. I can not feel pain.”
“A golem? Are you, like, a monster?”
“Perhaps,” she agreed, but then her head tilted in thought and she amended her answer with a question of her own, “Perhaps the answer depends on perception rather than definition?”
“Yeah,” I said, but I did not agree with her, I simply had nothing definitive to say on the topic.
I did, however, have more questions. “Where are they? My fost-, I mean, Amanda and Johnny?”
“The earth needs to take so that it can give.”
“I’m not sure what that means-”
“It means that I am here," she held out one hand and continued, "in exchange for them." She held out her other hand and shifted them both up and down so that she resembled a justice's balance.
“You mean they’re-” I swallowed, but could not finish my question.
“They are in the earth," she nodded as if that were my question all along.
“But are they…dead?” I finally spit out the words.
“Mostly?” my question doubled back to me in an echo around the mostly empty house.
“The earth could spit them back out, in a way. But they won’t look or act like themselves.”
“And something would have to be given in exchange for them to be released,” I guessed.
“Yes, but-" she knew where I was going with this, which was unnerving.
“I don’t think I can have their deaths on my conscience.”
“The earth wanted them anyway," she nodded her head at me, refusing the idea of my self-sacrifice. “They are not the only beings planted in the forest's earth. The others were put there forcibly, by Amanda and Johnny without the earth’s consent. It does appreciate being disturbed and contaminated in such ways.”
“There were others,” my words reflected the clarity and fear that slithered into me at her explanation.
“They would have killed me.” It was a statement I needed answered and she, thankfully, complied.
“How long has it been?”
“It has been a very long time. I have been waiting for you to come home. I must have fallen asleep while I waited.”
“How long?” I needed to know.
“It’s hard to tell,” she mused. “At least a year. Maybe more.”
I waited for the plunk of the end of my stomach as I fell, but I only felt surprisingly free at the news that I had avoided it all.
“But…do people assume I’m dead?” I asked.
“Yes. Many living men and women combed the woods for you and your foster parents, but the earth refused to give you up until it was ready. It did, however, give them the others' bones and people assumed you were somewhere on the land and that Amanda and Johnny had simply skipped town.”
“What about the house? It’s still empty now, but won’t someone want to buy it, or…”
“I don’t know.”
“What should I do now?”
“Make a new life.”
“I was here to take your blows. You can now dismiss me.”
“Is that what you want? For me to dismiss you?”
“I only exist for you," she said with a shrug.
“What would happen to you if I dismissed you?”
“The earth would take me back as it takes us all back when it is our time."
We shared a silence that felt noisy with the subtle vibration of the tether between us.
“Shall I go then? Will you dismiss me now?" The words may have sounded detached and cold to anyone else, but I knew her tells as I knew my own. And so I took a terrifying leap of honesty.
“I’d rather you didn’t. I’m lonely,” I told her before I could scare myself out of the idea. I could not help but wonder if that was selfish of me. I created her to protect me and now I was insisting on her protecting me from my own loneliness as well.
“I am not good company,” she said, her voice swooped low and long at the end - an apology.
“Neither am I." My shrug matched hers before I could stop it.
Our eyes held each other. Our fingers dipped into our own palms, soothing the matching lines.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked, pointing to her fingers. She looked down but said nothing, so I elaborated, “Tracing the lines on your palm?”
“Oh, I,” she traced them again as she thought, “It calms me.”
“Calms you? Does that mean you sometimes feel anxious?”
Her lips pursed in thought and I couldn’t help but blush at the realization that I did the same when I was considering such things. “Yes,” she finally answered. “I felt anxious when your foster parents yelled at me before they beat me. And again after, when there were so many people, but I did not know when the earth would return you.”
I wondered at my near-perfect reflection. Our elbows on our knees, the stance of our shoulders. The image of Amanda and Johnny doing to her what they did to me brought back nausea, but a fierceness rose in me - the desire to protect her.
“Do you want to stay with me?" I asked again.
Her fingers resumed their steady tracing, her lips pursed, and then she shook her head in defeat, “You’ll be better off without me, I think.”
My heart broke for her...and then for myself. For I understood the urge to push others away, even as her rejection opened an ever-weeping wound in me.
“You bear more resemblance to me than I thought,” I told her.
She said nothing, but her gaze was steady, so I went on. “I do that too, you know. Defer attention. Put myself down so as not to assume...well, to avoid rejection, I suppose.”
“No, that’s not-” but I read in her eyes the burst of realization followed by the shame of the truth.
“It’s okay,” I say, “to be scared.”
“I’m-” but she was as bad a liar as me. “I’m-”
“Scared," I filled in the word she meant but was trying to avoid.
“I’m scared,” she admitted. Her voice is a broken huff. Quiet, but full of air.
“Yes,” I agreed and then offered that broken piece of myself once more when I said, “But I’d like it if you stayed.”
“I’d like to stay, too," she offered one right back.
“Good," I said and I'm fairly certain I actually grinned, "I’m glad you’re here."
“So am I," she said and looked up as the moon peered into the window, she showed me that our smile was more beautiful than I had ever realized.