I was fifteen when my sister broke her back, she was twelve. She had been out playing in the neighbourhood with friends. It was only when the summer sun was setting that dad realised she hadn’t come home. I remember walking out into the front garden and peering down the street. It was that eerie silence that feels so unnatural, like before a storm.
Dad joined me outside after he had called all of her friends, no one had seen her since early afternoon. A girl named Samantha said she had seen her talking to an older boy. She didn’t recognise him, though they walked hand in hand towards the woods at the far end of our road.
Dad asked me to stay inside, in case she came home. I told him that it would be best for me to come along with him, two sets of eyes were better than one, and if she wasn’t home now it’s unlikely she would be. He didn’t argue, and I did my best to keep up with him as he strode purposefully towards the woods.
The sun was disappearing behind the horizon by the time we arrived at the wooden gate that stood on the boundary of Savages Wood. He hopped over as if it weren’t there.
“Sarah?” he shouted aimlessly into the drawing dark.
She could’ve been anywhere. My eyes were drawn to the well-trodden path I’d taken many times before, where the only light left from the sun managed to penetrate. Without thinking I split up from my father and followed it. I heard his voice grow quieter and more panicked the further I deviated from him.
The trees thinned out as the stream came into view. A small babbling brook ran along the west side of the woods. I remembered playing there the previous summer. Someone, we didn’t know who, had set up a rope swing over the river that you could use to jump from side to side over the widest part. I walked along the edge of the stream, looking for it, in the hopes someone was still there and maybe they’d seen her.
My heart skipped as I saw the rope swing gently as someone, too dark to make out, hung from the makeshift handle.
“Hey,” I said, unable to make out who it was, “have you seen my sister, she’s twelve.”
I jumped down into the water and ran towards them. They didn’t answer.
“DAD!” I screamed, when I saw Sarah’s body dangle from the rope, her hand bound to the wooden handle by blue nylon twine.
It was hard to make out her features in the low light. I grasped her legs and lifted her, and shouted for my father again.
We were told her back was broken before she was tied up. Blunt force trauma to her spine. The bones in her hand had separated from the way she had been bound and the weight of her body. We were told she may never walk again, though the doctors didn’t know about Sarah’s determination and neither did we.
She came home from the hospital in early October, still unable to walk, and in a back brace. She was bed bound. Her hand was still in a cast after several surgeries. They had recommended amputation, but Dad wouldn’t hear it. Get it done, get it fixed, whatever the cost.
On several occasions a police detective had visited the house, and asked Sarah if she could remember what the boy looked like. It wasn’t obvious whether she couldn’t remember, or didn’t want to say, she didn’t speak. She hadn’t spoken since the incident. We were told, while not normal, things like that can happen after a highly stressful situation. They said she had PTSD.
I harboured a guilt that I tried to hide from my father. She had asked to play with me that day and I’d told her no. I wanted to stay in and do something for myself. Something that was so unimportant, I cannot even remember it now.
I tried my best to make up for it. But, how can you? I felt responsible for what had happened. I brought her breakfast every day. She never ate in front of me. Even as the cereal got soggy, she’d stare straight ahead, though when I returned later, the bowl would be empty. I’d turn the TV on for her, play her favourite films and TV shows. Even that was silent and dark when I went to check on her.
“I want to help you,” I said one day, “tell me who it was who led you into the forest. I’ll find them for you. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
She didn’t blink.
I brought her crayons and graph paper and told her to draw him. The next time I saw her, the stationary was gone. I didn’t question her. I understood.
Dad had a call in late October, his mother had taken ill. He asked if I could look after Sarah for a few days. He knew I would, I was already doing it. Half-term had started, so I had no school to worry about. He left without saying goodbye to Sarah. I don’t know if this was on purpose or he’d just forgot.
I spent most of my time tending to Sarah or sitting in my room watching TV. On the second day I heard screaming from Sarah’s room. I ran inside to see her vacant stare and her TV blaring out some horror film at full volume.
“Where’s the remote?” I asked, looking around for it.
I couldn’t see it anywhere. I swore I saw her smile. The first time since before the incident.
“Sarah, where is it?”
It was so loud, the sounds of chainsaws and blood curdling screams. I gave up and turned it off at the wall.
“What did you do that for?” I said, realising I had a tone in my voice, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have shouted.”
In the evening, I brought up her food. A microwave cottage pie.
“I can’t cook,” I said, “you know that.”
Back in my room, I laid down on my bed. I felt something hard under the covers. I pulled them back to see a remote control, Sarah’s.
I walked sheepishly to her room.
“I found it,” I said, holding it up. Her vacant stare glazed past me. “Did you finish your food?”
I was confused. The plastic bowl of her meal was no longer on the table in front of her.
“Where did you put it? You couldn’t have finished it that quickly.”
“Michael ate it,” she said.
I gasped, so unprepared for her to speak I didn’t even think to ask what she meant by that.
“You’re talking again.”
And with that, the thousand-yard stare returned.
I texted dad to tell him Sarah was talking. It was a few hours before he responded.
That’s great. What did she say?
Then I thought back. Michael ate it. And a uncanny feeling enveloped me.
I can’t remember. I was just so surprised. I responded.
Keep me posted.
Not good. She may go tonight.
I’m sorry to hear that.
At least Sarah’s talking. x
I left my room only one more time that night, to use the toilet and brush my teeth. On my way back I heard the TV from Sarah’s room again, though much quieter this time. Lightly, I opened her door, seeing her sleep softly. The covers were on the floor next to the bed. I picked them up and put them on top of her. She stirred and gently murmured Michael.
From the TV I heard, “Sarah, I’m coming.”
I turned to see grainy footage of a man looking directly at me, then turning away from the camera and walking towards a little girl who played with another girl in the street. He said something too soft to hear, then took her hand and walked off.
“He’s here,” Sarah said, her voice quivering.
She was on the floor, her hands splayed out behind her, her back arched, her feet slipping on the hardwood. The bedroom door slammed. I spun around, seeing the TV was now silent. I turned to see Sarah sleeping soundly in bed. All I could hear was the light breaths of Sarah and my heart thumping heavily in my chest. I sat on the end of her bed in shock. I jumped when I heard my phone alert.
I’m sorry, she’s gone. It was from dad.
I’ll be back in the morning.
Too scared to leave, I quietly took out Sarah’s spare blanket and pillows from the closet and lay down to sleep against the far wall. I pushed myself up against the skirting board and stared at her in the low glow of her nightlight. I didn’t want to sleep, but sometime later it took me.
When I awoke the room was ice cold. The bedroom door wide open, banging against the wall. Sarah wasn’t in her bed.
I shot upright and surveyed the room. The TV was on. I could hear the sound of rushing water and in the dark and muddy image, I saw a rope swing fluctuate in the breeze.
“Sarah?” I shouted, arriving on the landing. Something white was on the stairs. I descended and picked it up. It was Sarah’s cast; bite marks and blood decorated the rip that showed me how it was removed.
Wind whipped up the stairs, let in the house by the open front door. I ran into the garden, seeing something in the road ahead of me. A girl on all fours her back arched, Sarah.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Her hands were spread out beneath her. I saw her broken hand for the first time, pin pricks left from stitches, her fingers longer than they should be, a mangled mess, something that should have been amputated months ago. Her stomach faced the sky, her nightgown blew in the wind. Her head slowly twisted towards me, revealing wide eyes and a sinister smile.
“Michael wants to play,” she said, and scuttled off down the road, towards the woods.
I made chase, but couldn’t keep up. She squeezed under the wooden gate and disappeared into the dark. I hopped the gate much like my dad had done. She could’ve been anywhere. My eyes were drawn to the well-trodden path I’d taken many times before, where the moonlight managed to penetrate.
I ran through the stream, thin shards of ice broke easily under my feet, in turn numbing them and sending a dull throb of pain up my shins. I reached the rope swing to see someone hang from the neck and move gently in the breeze. It wasn’t Sarah.
Dad arrived around 11am, his face was sombre. He looked tired and drained.
“What’s happened?” he asked when he saw the police detective sitting on our couch.
“They found him,” I said, “the boy who hurt Sarah.”
Dad’s face changed instantly; you could see the blood gather, sending a bright red hue flushing his cheeks.
“Where is he?” he demanded.
“We don’t know for sure,” the detective said, but I knew.
I stayed silent as he explained to my dad what I’d found.
“Why weren’t you looking after Sarah?” he asked, “What on earth were you doing out there that time of night?”
“It was a hunch,” I said, I don’t think he believed it, nor did the detective.
It was the note they found in his house that cleared me. Written in crayon of all things. He wouldn’t let me see it, he told me it was evidence and was already being processed. I wanted to ask if it was written on graph paper, but thought better of it.
“How’s Sarah?” Dad asked.
I didn’t know how to tell him I’d lost her. How could I explain what happened?
“Is she upstairs?”
I didn’t respond.
Dad raced upstairs and I felt a panic grow in my stomach making me feel ill. I followed up, waiting to hear him scream. Gently I pushed open her door. Dad was sitting on the side of the bed.
“Is grandma okay?” Sarah asked.
“She’s gone, honey.”
Sarah placed her hand on dad’s knee. It was bruised and misshapen.
“I’m so sorry what happened to you,” he offered.
“It’s okay. I think I may have to say goodbye to that too.”
“You’re much braver than me.”
“Hey,” I said from the doorway, shocked to see Sarah in bed and talking so candidly.
“Dad, you need to be really nice to my big brother here. He’s been looking out for me.”
“I know he has,” he said, turning and smiling at me.
I wondered if the night before was just a dream. Seeing her like that, in bed. My gaze was taken to one of her feet, her toes jutted outside the covers, dirty from walking, scuttling over mud. I entered the room and pulled the covers over.
“I better be going; the detective will probably want to ask me some questions.”
“Detective?” Sarah said.
“You haven’t told her?”
“I thought it was best to let her sleep,” I lied.
Dad left the room, leaving Sarah and I alone. I waited until I heard him speak downstairs.
Sarah smiled briefly before it fell away. Slowly she twisted her neck and stared. I turned to look. There was a grainy picture on the TV. It appeared to show two men talking. I couldn’t quite make it out. There was a man in a police uniform in deep conversation with someone who, if I didn’t know better, was my father. In front of an open door there was a silhouette of a man, maybe a teenager. An icy draft blew into the room, and the door slammed.
Sarah began to hyperventilate.
“Are you okay?” I asked, seeing her eyes wide open in fright.