Winters in Brecheston were quite harsh. Despite the sheets of golden snow blanketing the village, I was still able to pick out the places I knew and loved most. Not much had changed at all.
I paused to take it all in. The perfect backdrop for a painting. I recalled countless days under the thatched firewood shed trying to reasonably reproduce the scene into my sketchbook. I wondered if I would still find it there resting on my table waiting for another page to turn. I kept my hopes down. Highly unlikely after all that happened.
I sighed as I turned away to continue my journey up the beaten trail when a tall dark figure emerged from the silver streaked pine trees hugging a bundle of freshly cut wood.
“Kiefer,” I breathed. I couldn’t suppress the tiny smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. Faint memories of arguing on the school bus and accidentally destroying my sister’s art project rekindled.
“Excuse me.” He crossed before me returning only an unfamiliar nod and began haphazardly stacking the logs into his cart.
I must have stared at him for too long because he seemed quite uncomfortable. “Can I help you with something, miss?”
“You really don’t remember me? Lulija.” I hesitated. The gears in his head turned as a wide grin slowly exploded across his freckle-littered face.
“Lulija! You look much different. I see you’ve remembered your old town after twenty years living the big life up city.”
“Fourteen years, to be exact.” I shivered, pulling my thick woollen shawl closer. “I’ve landed a designing job in Fresno.”
“Fourteen years is a long time,” he shrugged. “You’re actually shivering? But this is nothing.” He waved at the foamy skies releasing miniature pellets of snow. “Well I guess you’re too used to Fresno heatwaves by now.”
“Not really,” I shifted uncomfortably. It was typical of Kiefer to try provoking me. He’d been doing it since we were classmates. It was just his way of poking fun.
“I bet you took hours to find your way here. That’s pretty understandable since you are just a visiting tourist,” he jeered.
“Um I should really be heading up now. Getting late. A good day to you sir.”
I marched away, hearing soft snow and stone shards crunch beneath my boots. I hated tourists. Steshire Mansion happened to be my childhood home but it never felt like one. It was my family-owned hotel overrun by expensive tourists eyeing me as if I was some measly child hired for room service to earn a few coins.
Steshire Mansion. Today it looked more ancient than it ever had before. The massive rusted iron gate let out a groan as I pushed past it into a courtyard that felt miles apart from me. I felt unwelcome here. It seemed as if I was the nasty bug that flies into the kitchen causing headaches and eyesores. But I had to come. From her anxious tone over the phone I could tell that something was definitely up.
I gazed around at the site that housed thirteen years of my life. But there was nothing left to admire really. It was unspeakably empty; only filled with a particular misery. I felt pangs of nausea. It was too much and too long ago. I had moved on. I propelled myself forward fighting my urge to escape. She wouldn’t have called me unless it was important. She hadn’t called me in fourteen years.
I climbed the concrete steps leading to the front door. The hideous statues of our forefathers still surrounded the front porch. Of course. My sister was a proud product of rich and proper breeding and wore the honour of being a Durchwald family descendant with pride. Maybe that was the primary reason for our enmity. I spent life running away from our family ties while my sister held on tight.
I exhaled the icy air slowly as I rubbed my fogged glasses trying to buy time. How would I speak to her? I had never thought about it until now. I mustered all the strength I had and reached for the embellished steel knockers when the door opened.
“You’re here. Took you quite some time.” She made way for me through the door nervously picking at my mother’s amethyst pendant around her throat.
“Hello Clara, how have you been?” I tried for a smile but didn’t quite make the cut. Clara looked increasingly like our mother roughly around my age. Sleek chocolate hair tightly pinned into a neat bun and large hazel eyes. We looked absolutely nothing alike and despite being five years younger, I owned a much greater share of greying hair to hide.
“Oh, about the same.” She led me past the wide corridors which were unusually vacant.
“Where is everyone? And Elsie? Where’s she?” I enquired.
“We haven’t had many guests this winter and the last couple left last night.” She replied without facing me.
“Oh…and Elsie?” I pressed again.
“I need to show you something.” Clara appeared tense and rounded the corners of the musty hallway briskly occasionally stealing glances up at the window shutters as if someone was eavesdropping on us.
But where was my Elsie? I missed the gawking smiles and the long ribboned pigtails of my closest childhood friend. Being six years my junior, I felt somewhat like a mother to her. Of course, we were the closest to any family she really had since she was sent to Brecheston for her treatment as a toddler.
Memories were starting to revive in my head. Elsie and I bolting up the creaky stairs to play hide-and-seek. Pretending I couldn’t hear her loud, clunky footsteps around the hall. She might have been autistic but she understood my need for appreciation and importance better than any of the ‘greats’ of my family. And I adored her more than any of the complaining nurses who claimed that she was a spent case.
Clara coughed as she wrenched free the dusty wooden barricade to what used to be my parents’ room. “In here,” she whispered.
“Clara, could you please just tell me what’s going on? What was so necessary that I had to drop everything and fly back here? You’re not even pleased to see me! Then why’d you —” I froze.
I recognized the shock of ink black hair still in two messy braids much before I glimpsed the face belonging to the skinny lifeless body crumpled on a cot.
“El—Elsie! But how?” The face was unmistakeably hers. I repeatedly checked for the tiny pulse that would convince me she was only pretending. It was just some kind of cruel prank she was playing on me for leaving fourteen years ago. “Elsie wake up! It’s not funny, I’m sorry.”
“She’s gone, Lulija.” I gazed up at Clara who solemnly bowed her head. Clara had never approved of Elsie. She only viewed her as the unsightly blemish feeding our parents. She had no one to lose. I was broken.
“But how is she gone? How can she be gone?” I snapped at Clara now.
It was one thing to shun someone but to neglect them completely was simply cruel of her. I couldn’t muster any tears and my shock turned to waves of anger and guilt. I melted to the floor. It was my fault for not fighting Uncle Grigor to let Elsie travel with me that day. Certainly, I would have gotten some nasty bruises but I would have had Elsie with me today. But fears of abuse had breached my thirteen year old mind.
“I haven’t told anyone else. You—you were the only one I could trust to call.” Clara cooed above me.
“What exactly happened, Clara? Spit it out!”
“Um…Uncle Grigor was here the other day.” I already understood what had happened. I feared Uncle Grigor more than anyone else in our family. This fear began when he arrived home drunk and smashed the decorative glass figurines my mother loved so dearly. And he was abusive. But naturally, no one came to know of this as our family was a proud one with every son a success; not a toe out of line. Or so it seemed. I stared into Elsie’s fixed unblinking eyes. It wasn’t her fault she was autistic and everyone viewed her as a nuisance. I would never be able to forgive him.
Clara sank to the floor beside me. And for the love of family, I already what she was going to ask me. “Lulija please,” she implored. “Can you keep a secret?”