When I was three, I learned something tragic called death. Since then, I've always dreaded my own, the day my lifeline will be snapped. Just another speck of dust flicked off the face of the universe. I have always known that day will come, because as humans, and as living beings, we are all bound for death. But I knew that I still had time, that I was still fifteen, that I had many decades left to live my life. I often wondered what a world would be like without Aryn Rosalina in it, but I had never thought of a world without my parents. Until now.
Yesterday they were still here...
Fighting back my tears, I try to imagine what their faces were like the last time I saw them. Father, waving goodbye to Amy and I as we ran off for school. Mother, making breakfast in the kitchen. Yesterday was a whole different world when my parents were still alive. Today is the day the truth hits hard, and becomes a dark turning point in my life.
My tears do not obey my commands and they slide out anyways, rolling their way down my cheek. One falls into my open mouth and I taste the bitter saltiness on my tongue. When was the last time I cried? Two, three years ago, I think. I have always thought of myself as a strong girl, but in the face of my parents' deaths, I am crippled and weak. Nothing more than a young child weeping for her parents to come home.
They'll never come home... they'll never come home again.
I stare outside the window, covered in frost and fog at this point in winter. But even so, I can still see the drifting snowflakes outside, gathering in piles of pristine white. Tomorrow, the children will run outside screaming and laughing in joy, but I will not be one of them. A million years ago my excuse would be my age, how at fifteen, I am too old to play in the snow. But now, I grieve that my parents never got to see me be my true self one last time. There are so many things I wish I had done, but now it's too late. Time does not rewind itself. I can only trudge forwards and hope for the best.
I watch the tiny snowflakes fall onto my windowsill, desperately wishing that I was one of them, drifting free in the wind, melting in the spring but freezing again when winter comes. I become so attentive to the piles of snow that I don't even realize Amy is right beside me until her face is right next to mine.
We sit there in silence for a while, watching the snow accumulate outside. For a moment, we lose ourselves in the beauty of nature, a rare occurrence, but then we remember why we are doing this and ghosts of the past haunt us again.
"What's life going to be like from now on?" Amy asks softly. I shrug, because I honestly have no answer either. Instead, I wrap one arm around her, burying my face in her shoulder. My tears instantly wet her shirt, a patch of my tears forever part of the fabric now. Yet another reminder of what happened today.
Amy and I cry in each other's arms, unable to say anything else, unable to do anything else. The sky outside turns from a twilight orange to complete darkness. There are no lights in the house.
I turn my head towards the window, trying to get a glimpse of the sky, hoping that today, after the snowstorm, I will find the stars. I need them more than ever, and if I do see them, then maybe I will sleep without nightmares today. But of course, nature stays as stubborn as usual. It's almost like it's punishing me for what my ancestors did for taking away the sky.
"You want to see the stars, don't you?"
I know it's Amy speaking; who else can it be? But I still turn my head towards her, and I stare into her emerald green eyes. On some days it'll be harsh and fierce, but on other days like today it'll be soft and understanding. Amy knows me all to well, especially of my dream.
"Yeah," I admit. "I guess I do."
"There's no such thing as guessing, Aryn," she whispers back. "There's only truth. Reality. Now tell me, do you want to see the stars?"
"Yes," I answer immediately.
"Good." Amy leans in and hugs me tight in her arms. "As your older sister, I promise that one day, you'll be able to see the stars." I can see the tears brimming in her eyes as she says this, but I don't know how to respond.
After several moments of awkward silence, I can only whisper, "Why?"
She smiles, but it's faint and tinged with sadness. I feel like I'm about to die and she's saying her final goodbyes.
"Because there's no one else left to do it for you."
Her words hit me hard, but they're true. All my life, I have depended on Amy and my parents. I have few friends at school, but I don't know them well enough to talk about things like this. With my parents gone, I will solely rely on Amy.
That night, Amy and I take the two couches in the living room. Our beds are too cramped and too claustrophobic to breathe in; it always feels like the walls are closing in around us. The living room is much better, though not by much. It reminds me even more of my parents.
I can feel the tears coming on again. I feel like someone has torn open my chest and pulled my heart out. It might as well as happen already. I'm not sure how much longer I can last if I never let go of this day and hold it in my memory forever. It wouldn't take long for me to succumb to ghost images of my parents and eventually drive me to insanity. Though right now, insanity seems like as good of a choice as any. It provides another world in which my parents may still be alive.
Tomorrow, officials sent by the Council will come and decide what will happen to us from now on. We may be young enough to be sent to the orphanage, or old enough to stay in this old home assigned to our family. Alternatively, we could be given an internship and a chance at a new life. I don't want that. There are rarely internship spots for two people, much less on the same shift. I don't care what happens, I just want to be with Amy.
If I lose my family for good, not even the stars will be able to save me.
Sleep didn't come easily to me the night before, but eventually it finally took me in. It was filled with ghouls whispering variations of my parents' deaths and dark shots of my parents when they were still alive. The school fair when I was five. The pumpkin harvest when I was nine. The picnic when I was twelve. Most horrible of all of them, the last time I saw them alive. Before I left for school two days ago.
I wake up screaming.
School is not mandatory now after all this, but even if it was Amy and I wouldn't go anyways. If we go to school, when we come back someone else could be dead. Instead, we drag ourselves out of the soft cushions of the couch and start the second day of life by ourselves. We no longer have parents to take care of us. All we have left is each other, and desperate hope that we'll stay together. The new bond we've formed over the last one since Mother and Father died...
I remember that it was cold that day. The chilly wind blew in from outside, scattering some papers left sitting on the kitchen table. It was early in the morning, but Amy and I hadn't slept well. Our parents didn't come home yesterday.
When we answered the door, a tall, cloaked man in a Council uniform stood in our doorstep. It was all we could do to not gawk or run away or both. We did the former, staring at the Council crest until it felt like our eyes would bleed. In reality it was only a few seconds.
The man didn't introduce himself, only said in a brief, low tone, "I take it that you two are Amy and Aryn Rosalina, children of Annica and Nolan Rosalina?"
We nodded, too terrified of his next words. His voice did not sound happy, and our fears were confirmed.
"The Citadel Council apologizes for the death of your parents."
We were in too much of a shock to register his words. After a full minute of no words from both of us, the man gave a curt nod and said, "A member of the Council will come for you tomorrow at noon sharp. Please be prepared." He let the door close, and we stood in the doorway for a long time.
When we finally trudged back into the house, it was to sulk more. Both of us had come to the same conclusion: the only family we had left was each other.
Noon. This word echoes in my mind as I repeatedly glance at the clock over breakfast, watching the seconds tick by and by. Seven thirty. Seven thirty-one. Thirty-two. I notice Amy watching too, out of the corner of my eyes. I eat another mouthful of pancakes, the ticking sound of the clock sounding like a cannonball. We do not speak, and the only sound we can hear is time passing by.
Tick, tick, tick. Every sound grows louder and louder. Eight o'clock. We have finished our breakfast long ago, but the mood is too grim for us to move. Tick, tick. The noise is hammering at our ears now, taunting us. Time is not on our side. Tick. Noon seems to never come.
Finally at nine, the two of us crack. I notice it first, a glint shining on Amy's face. My older twin is crying again. I reach to the side and grab a tissue, but she refuses it. "It's better to let it fall," she tells me. "It feels more natural."
I nod, not understanding, but keeping the tissue. Within a few minutes it's clutched in my hand in a death grip, crumpled and torn. I use it for my own tears instead.
We wander around the house for the remainder of the two hours. There is nothing to do. School has been cancelled, so there is no homework to keep us busy. We are not in the mood to fool around or play games. Neither of us have friends who live close enough or care enough to visit. Our relatives are all dead. Tick, tick. It's nine thirty. Pacing, doodling, sleeping, we've tried them all. Eventually, we find ourselves hugging each other tightly in the living room again.
It's always better to be together.
"What do you think will happen to us?" I murmur.
Amy shrugs. "I almost don't want to find out."
There's really nothing I can reply to that, so we sit in silence for another few minutes. What has happened to the talkative and carefree twins we used to be? Amy and I used to laugh and joke around a lot, earning us laughs, but under these circumstances... the whole world has spun upside down.
"What's your dream?" I suddenly blurt out. I'm not sure where it came from, but it must've been the nostalgia that led me to think about the stars. Amy's promise from yesterday. She has known my dream for years, but I have never known hers.
"My dream?" she answers. For a moment her yellowish eyes lose their focus, a wave of fog washing across it, but then the piercing stare returns. "If I could make one wish come true, right now, I wish that I can live in the world I lived in three days ago. Forever."
It's not quite a dream I can help her accomplish, so I respond by hugging her tighter. Sisters are known to fight with each other a lot, but Amy and I do not argue much. We know each other so well that we can almost literally read minds. And right now I know both of us are thinking about noon.
Finally the clock strikes twelve and the doorbell rings. It's a melodic jingle, echoing in the house that seems so empty without my parents. Jumping, Amy and I run to the door, and grasp the doorknob together. We briefly look at each other in the eye, and then simultaneously nod. Now or never.
The same man from yesterday walks swiftly into the foyer. Yesterday he had stood in the doorway. The fact that he's taking his shoes off now is a direct sign that there will conversations between the three of us.
Amy and I don't say a word, just clean up after him, putting his shoes on the rack. The man still doesn't introduce himself, just wanders to the living room and starts to play around with his laptop. He doesn't even look at us.
It's not much longer later when we actually do start talking. I take the bigger couch, Amy beside me, lying on my shoulder. The man sits across the coffee table.
Now I finally get a chance to study him in peace. A man with a half bald head who looks like he's in his late fifties. He wears a fine, crisp suit with a burgundy tie. The golden Council badge shines on him, and it is quite clear that he was part of it.
"I am here to offer you a choice," he says. "Before, you have heard that there are three paths your fate carry down." Without waiting for us to reply, he ticks them off his hand. "One is that the two of you stay at home alone and try not to burn yourself. Two is that the orphanage takes the two of you, if you can't adapt to the first reason. Three is that we offer you an internship somewhere else."
He still doesn't say his name.
I shrug. "It depends on the choice. I'm not going to gamble my whole life on it."
The man stares me down. "In that case I suppose I will have to tell you the choice, because you don't get it." I try to find something witty to say, but come up with nothing.
"Please do." I turn in surprise to find Amy, her soft voice sounding much younger than she is. I grit my teeth and remind myself that I have a place in this world, too, and that place is next to Amy. Humouring this man is going to have to be the best choice to accomplish that.
"Thank you, Miss Rosalina," the man says. But before he can go on, Amy interrupts again. I almost want to kick her, but the official is watching and she gives me a light squeeze.
"What is your name?" she asks.
He curls his lips into a thin, cruel smile. "My name does not matter. The decision does, and your choice to decide it."
"Fine," I say, crossing my arms and leaning back into the couch. "Tell me."
Despite me leaning back, the man leans forwards. "The Citadel Council has formed some sort of a training school for young adults and mature adults to train in athletics, survival, and navigation among other things. This, of course, is brand new and not a lot of people know about it. If you try out... you could be part of the best school ever seen in the Citadel and on a full scholarship."
It does sound like a nice deal. I've lost a lot this week. Too much. Mother, Father, lack of friends, sleep problems, fear, paranoia... maybe... just maybe... I can still win some of them back.
"Why are you asking us?" Amy asks, before I can come to the same conclusion as her.
"Because you two are very special children. Special, indeed. Oh, not special enough to shoot lasers out of your eyeballs or glue from your fingertips, but special nevertheless."
"Give me one reason why I should join your little academy," I say bitterly, but flattered. "We are not survivalists. We have no interest in this. I don't know why we're so special, but if you think we are, then give me one good reason why we should let you play with our lives and follow you and trust you."
The man smiles broadly for the first time, albeit the fact that it's still tinged with trickery. "One reason? Ah, I do have one..." I suddenly find myself afraid of his answer. But before I get the chance to tell him to not to say it, that I'd rather find out myself, the man spills.
"I can tell you the truth behind your parents' deaths."