I wake with a start, drenched in sweat at the memory turned into a dream. The vivid scene at such a young age disturbed me forever, and in part, ruined my life. Without a father to help us pay the bills, Mama has been forced to pick up multiple jobs, including a teacher, waitress, and a baker. Kalila can’t work because she is too sick, so the other two Hunter children, Adam and me, have to pick up the slack. I tutor children at the school, but very little money comes from it. Most of the parents of those kids are barely doing better than us, so they pay me as little as possible. Adam, barely eight years old, has a job, too. He is a newspaper boy for everyone in the village. He was lucky to get the job, as there are at least twenty other boys begging for that occupation to help their family. However, he keeps it, because with his stubbornness and determination, he has never made a mistake. Thanks to the Family Occupation Law of 2689, children can get jobs to help their families pay taxes and survive on their own.
I turn to my sister’s side of the bed and find her sound asleep, thank goodness. Her breathing is even, and although it is hoarse, she is okay. I kiss her forehead, just to remind myself that she is alive, for a few days more, at least. I go to the corner of the bedroom and check on Admina, my niece. The little toddler is sleeping, her little tiny fingers curled into fists. I smile, pulling an extra blanket over the child to keep her warm for the rest of her slumber.
I take one last glance at Kalila and Addie and then get up, slipping my arms into the sleeves of my leather jacket and heading for the door. I linger for a moment with my hand on the doorknob, watching them, and then close the door softly behind me. Careful not to wake my family, I scale the small ladder that leads to the attic. The rungs creak and sway beneath my weight, and I stop for a second, praying that no one heard it. Biting my lip, I swing the creaky trapdoor open and hurry to the other side of the attic. In the darkness, I run my hands over the only recently used window in the room. Finding the lock, I turn it quickly, gripping the underside of the window, and pull it up smoothly. Slipping into the humid morning air, I climb over the slanted roof of our house, adrenaline pumping through my body each time I grab another shingle. My fear of heights is long gone now, but still, every time I reach the peak I get a rush of dread.
My back rests against the sturdy chimney and my knees are pulled up to my chest, giving me a strange sense of security. “Here it comes,” I whisper to myself, watching as the first sliver of the red sun appears. A sigh escapes my lips as the beautiful colors begin to appear, releasing the tension in my chest. This has become a regular task for me, ever since Dmitri’s disappearance. The hues of orange, purple, and blue help me think.
I let out a shaky sigh. Anxiety has become a routine for me now. That’s mainly why I come up here. Without the pressure of school, finance, and family, I am free to contemplate the tales of misfortune that make up my book of life.
Chapter One: My father.
Papa died as a result of my ignorance and fear. I have decided, since then, that I will not be afraid of anything. That way, if anything like that happens ever again, I will be ready. I now know how to wield a knife, a sword, and even a bow and arrow (not that I am very good at it). If that horrendous creature ever steps foot in our village again, it will be dead before it can touch a single human being.
Chapter Two: Dmitri.
Dmitri is my older brother. He is twenty-two right now, and is currently MIA. He went missing a few years ago, when I was eleven, on Festival Day. Maybe he ran away. We don’t know. Maybe he got kidnapped. We don’t know. Maybe he committed suicide. Again, we don’t know. Sometimes, I make up fantasies in my head that he will come back with some brilliant explanation as to where he’s been all these years. Not knowing what happened to him is far worse than being told that he died of cholera, or got stabbed in a dark alleyway somewhere, or joined the Venators without letting us know.
But the worse part is that when he left us, he left his love and his child as well. Carywn, Dmitri’s husband, was left behind, as well as their adopted daughter, Admina, or Addie. Addie is the daughter of Carwyn’s sister, Lavena. She died giving birth to Addie, so Carwyn took her in as her own, just as he and Dmitri were newlyweds. They didn’t have a honeymoon or anything, because they didn’t have the money for that, but they did have a pretty nice wedding, which about half the village was invited to.
When Dmitri went missing, Carywn went a little crazy. He lost his job, stopped eating, and had a hard time sleeping. A huge chunk of his heart went with Dmitri when he left. He wouldn’t, or couldn’t, talk to anyone outside the family, and when he did talk to us, it was three-word sentences mostly concerning Addie. She was the only thing he cared about. After about a year, he turned somewhat normal for about a month. At the end of that month, he handed Addie over to us, said he’d be back in a few weeks, and left.
He never came back.
Chapter Three: Kalila.
Kalila’s role as an older sister was dashed when the deadly winter struck. The snow came down hard and relentlessly, and it was just terrible luck that she got caught in one of the worst storms. Shuddering as the ice crept under her skin, she had no way to reach the house as the bright white snowstorm rendered her blind. So as the cold slowly seeped in, she watched as her fingers turned from a healthy pink to a sickly white to a deadly black, and there was no one around to hear her cries. It was horrid, not knowing whether Kalila was alive or not. Mama stayed up the entire night, wishing, praying, for her eldest daughter to come home. Luckily, we found her the next day, half-dead in a pile of snow, letting out soft whimpers in her unconscious state as her body shut down. We rushed her to the infirmary as fast as we could. A medic was by her side in mere minutes. He said her pneumonia was fatal. Fatal. As in dead, in a couple of minutes. She had a forty percent chance of survival. Thankfully, she made it through the worst of the disease, and her life was restored.
But a few days after her victory of her battle with pneumonia, she woke up in the middle of the night, barely able to breathe. An infection was spreading through her respiratory system, and soon enough, death came knocking.
The medic tells us there is nothing we could do other than wait for nature to take its course. Due to the expensive cost of the treatment, we can’t save Kalila from the disease that is tearing her lungs apart. We give her painkillers and sleeping pills and try to make her as comfortable as possible. My heart is breaking, day-by-day, as I watch my once-strong older sister wither away. Her skin turns ashen, her vibrant eyes grow dull, and every day she seems more and more confused. Sometimes she can’t even remember what happened to her, or even who Addie is. The medics say it is a side effect of the disease.
I don’t know how long it’s been, but I figure it’s time to go, so I start to climb back down the roof. Once I’m a few feet away from the window, it opens and a familiar, curly-haired head peeks out.
My brother grins. “I knew you were out here.”
I give him a guilty smile, shrugging.
“Mama wants you.”
“You didn’t tell her I was up here, did you?” I inquire.
Adam shakes his head. “No. It’s our secret, remember?” His golden brown eyes sparkle.
He found me up here a couple of weeks ago, because my journey to the attic was too loud. I said if he didn’t tell Mama that I would do his chores for a month. He agreed, of course, and since then I have been working twice as hard after school, with almost no time for extra-curricular activities.
“Aren’t you coming?” Adam asks me. He is halfway across the attic, whereas I have one foot planted on the windowsill, and the other still in the open air above the roof.
“Of course,” I reply, swinging my other leg inside the house. I drop onto the wooden floor and we make our way across the room together.
Adam goes down to the kitchen for breakfast while I go to Mama’s room. “Mama?” I call out softly as I near her door. I open it and see Mama on the floor, yanking up the floorboards. I suck in a breath. I should get back downstairs with Adam, but… I am a naturally curious person. When I see her drag out a box and gaze at the things inside for fifteen minutes flat, I have to know what was inside. As soon as Mama is gone, teaching, I sneak into her room and pull up those very same floorboards, pulling out a heavy wood box with two initials carved into it. CB. Mama’s first name was Camille, but her last name was Hunter as a result of her marriage to my father. Was that her maiden name, then? I open the box. Inside is a picture of two little girls. One, with dark brown hair in pigtails, could have been Mama, but the other one I didn’t recognize. I flip the picture over, reading the loopy cursive on the back. Camille, it read, and Imogen Blackstone. That must be their last name: Blackstone. It matches the initials on the front.
I jump as I hear someone coming up the stairs. I shove the box back into its hiding spot, putting the planks of wood back, and scrambling out of the room.
I rush down the stairs to meet Adam, who was coming up the stairs to get me to get ready for school. I grab my pack and slip my arms into the straps, grabbing a chunk of bread as breakfast. I take Adam to the primary school first, even though he tells me over and over that he can walk by himself. I don’t let him, of course, because I know that it is my job to protect him, no matter what.