When Enid knew Cassie was dead she felt parts of her body turn brittle overnight. She was frightened in case she banged into something and saw herself shatter. Her mind was overflowing with pain, anger and emptiness. The colours of the day had changed. They were dull stone.
Neil had let Cassie take the blame for the money he had stolen from the caretaker’s office. Two hundred dollars from the coffee tin stashed behind the back issues of National Geographic. Part of his escape plan from the orphanage that once again had gone wrong. He had tried to escape ten times in the last year. Each time he was caught by Mr. Monkhouse’s dogs who’d been trained by the National Guard. Each time he was punished.
Neil believed it was lack of money that limited his success. He had stolen the money when Mr. Monkhouse was watching the evening movie. He had used Cassie as his look out. Poor stupid Cassie was so in love with Neil she would have jumped off a cliff if he’d said so. She didn’t hesitate to take the blame when they were caught; she knew Neil couldn’t take another round of punishment – the last time he was locked in the cellar for two weeks with no food or water. He ate slugs and moss, and drank the water that ran down the cellar walls. He dry retched for a month after he got out, shaking so uncontrollably that he kept falling out of bed.
Cassie couldn’t stand seeing him like that. She saved him the best parts of her meat from dinner in an attempt to build him up. She washed his face and combed his hair. Eventually he recovered.
Enid thought Neil should have spent the rest of his life kissing Cassie’s feet after such preferential treatment, but he wasted no time in selling her down the river. She was the one found with the money. Cassie was pushed into the cellar so quickly she left one of her shoes on the stairs.
Enid was distraught. Cassie had a weak chest. She was afraid of the dark. Enid lay awake all night imagining she could hear Cassie calling for help. ‘If anything happens to my sister,’ she said to Neil the next morning at breakfast, ‘I will kill you. I will stab you in your sleep.’
When Cassie’s punishment had ended she was blue around the edges. She didn’t quite recognise Enid. Her lips and tongue were swollen with cold and fear. She couldn’t talk. She lay in bed so still that in the morning the sheets were undisturbed.
Three days later Cassie began to cough. Enid found the tissues under the bed, sprayed with blood. She insisted Mr. Monkhouse get a doctor. The doctor was silent as he listened to Cassie’s chest. He couldn’t look Enid in the eye as he prescribed medicine and chest rub. Enid knew it wasn’t enough.
The next morning Cassie was dead. Enid couldn’t imagine ever seeing daylight again. Mr. Monkhouse gave a sermon at the funeral about sinners getting what they deserved. As Enid lay awake in bed that night she realised she couldn’t stand it anymore, she had to get out.
She packed up what she had – some clothes, a few books, her photograph of her sister and edged out into the corridor. She had the money Neil had stolen folded into one of her boots.
It was nearly 4AM. She could hear the sea in the distance and remembered childhood tales of smugglers and pirates. She knew that at this time the baker brought the bread for breakfast. If she timed it right she could sneak out the gate as he was unloading his delivery. It was a much simpler plan than Neil’s ideas of sheets tied together, hanging from window ledges and tunneling through solid rock. So simple it might just work.
Enid understood how the heroines in books felt when they were about to embark on an adventure. Her hard was beating so hard it was all she could hear. She wasn’t built for this kind of daring, but then she thought of Cassie, sentenced to death in the cellar and knew she also wasn’t built for that kind of sorrow.
The baker arrived as anticipated. Enid held her breath in the shadows as the gate opened, watching him unload. She exhaled and then ran out into the night.
It was easy, too easy, running like this. She had no idea where she was going or where she was, but in all the books she had read people always followed water to get to a new place, mainly rivers, but she thought the sea would do just as well, so she was heading for it, guided by the sound of the waves.
She ran and ran, stopping every once in a while to catch her breath and listen for the sound of the hounds, but there was nothing – except for a shuffling that stopped when she stopped.
She tested it out, running as lightly as she could. Shuffle shuffle stop. Shuffle shuffle stop. She was being followed. She flung herself around to face her pursuer.
‘It’s me, Enid,’ said Neil. ‘Don’t be angry. I had to leave that place. They hurt Cassie. They let her die.’
Enid screamed. ‘You. YOU were the one who let her die. I hate you.’
‘She begged me to let her take the blame. She swore she could take it. I was a coward. I was afraid. The cellar. It has ghosts. Of my mother and father. It taunts me with the life I could have had if they had lived. I couldn’t face it again. I wish I had been stronger. Then she would have lived.’
He fell to the ground, weeping. Enid stood above him, knowing she should feel some kind of joy over his grief, but she could not. There was no triumph to be found in another’s sense of loss.
‘I loved her,’ he said.
‘ Don’t you dare,’ shouted Enid. ‘Don’t you dare ever say that about her. You don’t have the right.’
She ran again, moving to where the sun was creeping out of the sky in pink and yellow undertones. She knew Neil was following her but she didn’t care, drawn to the light.
As the sun rose she began to shiver. The sea cast up a wind knifed with hollow silver ice. She stopped where the cliffs grew slick with spray, feeling fragile as a lone gull caught in the hand of morning.
‘Let me come with you,’ Neil begged. ‘We are better together than apart.’
Enid closed her eyes, wishing he would just disappear, wishing she was in her mother’s sunny kitchen with Cassie eating blueberry pancakes for breakfast.
‘I wish you were dead,’ she said.
Neil slumped forward and fell down the cliff face, snagging himself on a sandstone outcrop. The sea reached up with fingers of need, ready to swallow him whole. Enid’s wishes evaporated.
‘Take my hand,’ she said. ‘I’ll pull you up.’
‘No,’ Neil said. ‘I deserve to die. I killed her. The only girl I ever loved. Let me go.’
Enid thought about hatred. Just for a second. How exhausting it was. She saw the fear in Neil’s eyes. And the exhilaration. He would die right now for the girl he had loved. She couldn’t take any more dying. She had to let it go. The blackness. She cast out its evil wild wings into the freezing air and held out her hand, pulling Neil to safety. For the moment he was all she had.
‘We’re better off together than apart,’ she said.
* Inspired by the Search Engine Stories prompt – LET IT GO.