“Jenny, where are you?” Sam shouted into the woods. There was no reply from her sister. All Sam could hear was the sound of leaves rustling from the wind. It was almost dusk and she regretted not bringing a torchlight with her. It was getting harder to see clearly and the long shadows of the trees on the ground were starting to play tricks on her mind. Well, a girl could only think ahead so much while she was being yelled at.
“It’s not funny! Where are you?” She tried again but the only answer she got was from crickets. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Answer me!” Chances were Jenny couldn’t even hear her but Sam would rather think her sister was pranking her than imagining her being too lost or unconscious god knows where. Sam wanted to curse her parents for building a house with the woods for a backyard. But she knew that if she started cursing them for one thing, everything else would get piled up and she would not be able to stop herself until she let out all of her anger.
Sam stopped for a moment to breathe and take in her surroundings. She had only been walking in one direction and if she turned around she could still see the red roof of their house through the leaves and branches. She didn’t want to stray too far from the path or else she would be lost too. She still needed to get precious little Jenny home to Mama and Papa.
The trees around Sam stood tall and were looming over her. She felt as if they were trying to consume her and their shadows seemed to add to the effect. Then she saw something move behind one of the trees and hid there. Too big to be a rodent, and too small to be a man.
Sam marched down towards the tree and she did not care to be quiet. Twigs snapped underneath her boots and she made it a point to stomp on them as hard as she could. She was right, Jenny was playing games with her. Once Sam was close enough, Jenny tried to run away but Sam quickly snatched her arm and held it in an iron grip. Jenny was still giggling. Too bad Sam did not find any humour in the situation.
They walked back home following the same trail Sam did and Jenny was silent for the most part. The only time she spoke was to complain that Sam was hurting her but it only made Sam tighten her grip. Jenny did not want to repeat the same mistake. Her sister was furious, she could tell that much. Although, she didn’t quite understand why. All she wanted was to play hide-and-seek with her.
Once they got home Jenny was still oblivious when their parents were yelling at both of them. At Jenny because they were worried. At Sam for being a stupid daughter who couldn’t do a single job right. Jenny wasn’t exactly to be blamed, though. She was only 5 years old. And by the time the shouting got too loud, Mama came to her side and hugged her. Mama wrapped her arms around her protectively, effectively covering her ears until she could not decipher the sound of whipping and the muffled screams coming from her older sister. No, Jenny did not hear nor see any of that. Her precious eyes and ears could not witness any of that.
Sam was used to it by now but that didn’t mean she hated it any less. She knew what was coming for her the second Mama asked the maid if she knew where Jenny was. It was nearing dinner time and Papa just got home, which Sam understood it meant the belt would come in handy. She hated the belt but she hated Papa more for using it on her.
Mama never hit her but that was only because she would be too busy protecting Jenny, making sure she didn’t see what Papa was doing to Sam. And it would almost always be because of something Jenny did. But that didn’t matter, Sam would have to take the blame anyways.
“You should’ve been watching your sister,” Papa said after he was done. He always said that. “Now look at her, she has scratches all over her body. This is all your fault.” It was ironic, really. Papa could see the nonexisting scratches on Jenny but was completely blind to the bruises he had inflicted on Sam.
That night Sam didn’t join her family for dinner. The maid, Lisa, brought her food upstairs instead. “Why don’t you go downstairs?” Lisa asked for the sake of conversation.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because my family hates me?” Sam didn’t mean to be harsh or sarcastic towards her but she couldn’t pretend to be polite at the moment.
Lisa sat next to her on the bed and brushed her hair. “They don’t hate you. It’s just tough love.” Lisa didn’t believe a word she just said either, much less Sam.
“They don’t seem to be tough on Jenny. Not one bit.”
“Well it’s just different, because you’re the older sister.”
“I’m only 13, Lisa.”
“Yes, but they know that you’re strong enough and right now, your little sister needs more of their attention and love.”
Sam knew Lisa only meant to comfort her but everything just came out wrong to her. “Just because I don’t need it, doesn’t mean I don’t want it. And just because I’m ‘strong’, it doesn’t mean the belt didn’t hurt. You and I both know that’s bullshit.”
Lisa didn’t have any more wisdom left to offer so she left the girl alone with her dinner.
The next day Lisa did not come to work because her son was sick. Sam already knew what that meant when Lisa phoned in to inform her employers. She would have to do most if not all of the chores because Mama would be too busy in her home office and Papa would not come home until later in the evening. Not that he ever did any housework anyways.
It was a Sunday morning so a part of Sam was relieved for this to not have happened during a weekday. That would mean she would have to skip school because Jenny could not be left alone without a playmate. Sam was starting to get sick of her. She could still remember the rare days when she was little and Lisa or a babysitter could not come to work. She had to sit quietly in Mama’s office doing god knows what on her laptop. She couldn’t make a sound, could barely move around and she was often threatened with a hiding if she misbehaved. Whatever the hell that meant.
Since Jenny was born, Sam was always in charge of her and if Jenny ever even opened the door to Mama’s office, Sam was the one who would be punished for not keeping an eye on her sister. And that day was no different than the others.
Sam was in the kitchen preparing dinner for four and she had told Jenny to stay in her room. A five year old could not be trusted around knives. For a brief moment, Sam felt a sense of tranquility. She was only focusing on the sound of her knife on the chopping board and the sizzling of the onions sauteing in the pan. She caught a whiff of the smell and it brought a smile on her face.
The kitchen had been her private safe place ever since Jenny was born. Sometimes while Mama played with Jenny, Sam would sit here and watched Lisa cook instead. Lisa had taught her some recipes over the years and in the days Lisa couldn’t come to work, she would cook for the family instead. There were days when she cooked just for the fun of it, but more often than not it was to avoid Jenny. It was an unconventional happy little thought that she had and kept to herself.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Sam had just turned off the stove when Mama called for her from her office. Sighing to herself, she took off the apron and reluctantly walked down the hallway. She opened the door on her left and felt, with such great force, her little moment of joy vaporizing into thin air.
Jenny was sitting on the floor of the office and she seemed to amuse herself with a box of papers she had found. They were scattered on the floor, yes, but even saying that was an exaggeration. They were barely spilling out of the box and Sam couldn’t understand why Mama was yelling at her. Well, she knew that Mama yelled at her because she could never do the same to Jenny but the papers were barely creased. Maybe Papa and Mama had the same problem where their minds exemplify the situation. Again, ironic how Mama did not see the blacks and blues on Sam’s skin, but saw the almost invisible creases on the papers.
“You are a waste of space in this house. You can’t do one single thing right,” Mama spat out the words in disgust. But Sam missed the look on her face or her burning eyes because she was looking at Jenny on the floor. Her little sister was staring at her with mouth agape, not understanding what was unfolding in front of her two eyes. Ignorant little Jenny. Precious little Jenny.
A slap landed on her cheek and Sam didn’t know where to look then. Mama never touched her. It was always Papa with his hands or feet or belt but not Mama. It felt like a trust was broken, or whatever was left of it. Sam had never felt emptier than she did that time.
“Mama?” A small voice from behind the mother called. Snapping out of it, Mama turned and hugged her daughter, whispering apologies for the thing she had to witness.
Something hurt in Sam’s chest and she thought she was having a heart attack. Those apologies belonged to her so why did someone else get to hear them? Jenny was never at the receiving end of the pain so why was she the one who got the hugs and kisses? Something told Sam this was unfair and it had nothing to do with being the older sister. Mama and Papa simply never loved her. Lisa had lied to her about it.
In the embrace of her mother, Jenny was reaching out her hand towards Sam as if wanting to include her in the intimacy. Sam appreciated the gesture but she already knew at the moment that she was not invited. Nonetheless she smiled and asked her if she wanted to play hide-and-seek.
“What did you just say?” Mama asked.
Still with that sad smile on her face, Sam repeated the offer. “I asked Jenny if she wanted to play hide-and-seek. You don’t want her snooping around the office, right? I’ve finished cooking, so I can play with her now.”
Jenny didn’t wait for Sam to finish her sentences before running out of the room, yelling, “Come and find me!”
With one last look, Mama stood up and returned to her desk, ignoring Sam’s presence altogether. Jenny already left the room so she figured there was nothing else worth giving her attention to. She almost missed Sam’s “I’m sorry” that she whispered before walking out the room to find Jenny. It wouldn’t matter if she heard it. She wouldn’t accept it either way and if by some miracle she did, she wouldn’t have guessed what the apology was really for.
They played for a while, taking turns hiding in random nooks and crannies in the house. It was fun for the both of them, even Sam could admit that. But every time she paused to catch a breath or think about where Jenny could possibly be hiding, she felt that sting on her cheek again. Absent-mindedly she would bring up a hand and touch where Mama’s palm had landed. It felt warm, but it was only Sam’s imagination. She tried to forget about it and focus on their game instead but every time she found Jenny, giggling without a care, something dark stirred inside of her.
During one of their rounds of hide-and-seek, Sam took slightly longer than usual to find Jenny because she went to the bathroom in the middle of playing. When she found her in one of the cupboards in the kitchen, Jenny was laughing at her. “Boo! You took too long to find me. Mama could’ve been mad at you again,” she sang. Oh, bless this poor child.
“Why don’t you go hide again and see how fast I can find you this time?” Jenny ran past her out of the kitchen and Sam could hear her footsteps going upstairs. She counted to ten, dragging each syllable out while she formed thoughts and plans in her head. She only moved after her eyes caught a glint from the knife she used to make dinner in the sink.
Everything went downhill from there.
Papa came home minutes after the exchange in the kitchen happened and the first thing he saw was Sam and Mama crying outside of their home. His first instinct after getting out of the car was to touch his belt and Sam caught him doing that from the corners of her eyes. Both of them were crying, Mama more frantically than Sam, but Papa sensed great fear coming out of her daughter’s voice.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Sam pleaded, repeating the two words like some old broken record.
Mama ran into Papa’s arms and sobbed into his dress shirt. “What the hell happened here?” Papa asked them.
Sam fell to the floor then, her legs were unable to support her weight through her trembles and her whole body shook with panic. “I can’t find her. We were playing hide-and-seek in the woods and I lost her. I’m sorry.” She covered her ears with her hands, pushing them against her head as if she herself didn’t want to hear the words coming out of her mouth.
Papa’s face was as white as a sheet and Mama only sobbed harder. He wanted to punch Sam for being stupid. It was only yesterday that Jenny got lost in the woods and today they decided to play hide-and-seek in the fucking woods? He wanted to kick her, no, whip her with the belt because this was unacceptable. And she dared cried on the floor while her sister was probably trembling in fear somewhere under a giant scary tree. But even Papa knew his priorities and that was to save Jenny. He let go of Mama and ran into the woods. Startled, and not wanting to stay with her disappointment of a child who was still curled up like a ball on the floor, Mama went after him.
As soon as their silhouettes disappeared and blended in with the long shadows of the trees, Sam got up, wiped the tears off her face and dusted herself. She went into the house for a second and walked back out in the same steady footsteps and marched into the woods. She might not know the ins and outs of the forest, but she knew them more than Mama and Papa, and that was enough. She had just visited it yesterday when she went looking for Jenny and she had found her, but she knew their parents would not find Jenny there.
It was a little past dinner time when Sam came back and took a light shower to clean herself. Still wet from it, she entered Jenny’s room and unlocked the door.of her closet. Her sister was sitting on its floor. She seemed to have exhausted herself from crying that she was left a whimpering mess. Sam felt a bit sorry for her but she reassured herself saying it was necessary.
“I’m here now, come on. Let’s have dinner.”
It was just the two of them that night, Sam with her fresh new clothes and smelling like strawberry shampoo and lavender softener, and Jenny with her disheveled hair and tear stains still marking her face, sitting facing each other. They were both quiet, save for Jenny’s occasional hiccups and Sam was merely waiting for Jenny to ask her the question.
It came at the end of dinner when both plates were already empty. “Where’s Mama and Papa?” Jenny asked, her voice still hoarse from crying.
“They’re not coming home.”
Sam got up and collected their plates. “Why should they? We don’t need them.”
“But I want Mama and Papa.”
She opened the tap and started doing the dishes, deliberately choosing not to look Jenny in the eyes. “Too bad then. Now go to bed.” Jenny wanted to protest but even her small mind could recognize the tone in Sam’s voice. It was the kind that gave no room for any argument.
Later that night Sam was woken up to the sound of knocking on her bedroom door. She checked the clock on her bedside table. It was 11:00 p.m. Jenny was standing in front of her door holding her favourite plush toy, a green dinosaur. She couldn’t sleep because she didn’t get her bedtime story. Normally Mama would do it for her but because she wasn’t home, Sam had to do it in her place. Sam felt a pang in her chest because she tried to remember the last time Mama told her a bedtime story but she couldn’t recall anything.
Sam agreed to it and was halfway through a story when Jenny started crying. “I want Mama to read it for me.”
Sam repeated the same words from dinner. “Mama and Papa are not coming home. So, I’ll tell you bedtime stories starting tonight.”
Not even one page later Jenny was complaining again. “You’re doing it wrong! You suck!”
“Well maybe I would know how to do it if Mama ever read me some stupid bedtime stories.” Sam snapped and that seemed to silent Jenny. “You don’t need Mama to do it for you. I never needed Mama to do it for me.”
Poor little Jenny started to feel scared and confused because Sam never yelled at her like that. “I want Mama. I want Papa,” she whispered under her breath but Sam had caught it. And she was having none of it. She stood up abruptly and dragged Jenny out of bed while she continued to wail. If no one ever heard her cries when she was getting beaten up, no one would hear Jenny’s cries either. Their nearest neighbours were the forest and all the creatures that came with it, and it was time for another visit.
With a torchlight in one hand and Jenny’s arm in another, Sam led the way into the woods again. “You want to see Mama and Papa, right? Fine, I’ll bring you to them.”
Jenny couldn’t decide what was the scariest thing that night. The trees and their shadows over them, the sound of owls and insects, bright eyes watching them in the dark, or Sam. It could have been the shadows’ fault but underneath the streaks of moonlight, to Jenny, her sister looked sinister. She tried to stop her by pushing her soles into the ground with all the force she could muster but Sam only tightened her grip, surely causing a bruise, and looked at her in the eyes. With a wicked smile she asked, “what’s the matter?” as if everything about the ordeal was nothing less than natural.
They didn’t get to where Sam wanted them to. Because Jenny stepped on what felt like a shoe and she was sure it wasn’t there yesterday. The woods had changed, it had turned evil overnight. And she didn’t want to keep going. “I don’t want to see Mama and Papa anymore,” she said.
That was enough to satisfy Sam and they walked back home silently. Tomorrow Lisa would come to work and call the police and once they got deep enough into the woods, they could clean up the mess for her. But for tonight, Sam would tuck her precious little Jenny into bed with a warm little kiss on her forehead.
“See? You don’t need Papa and Mama.”