“Run, you have to run, Sophia! You have to!” I panted, pulling my sister’s hand as I stumbled over dry leaves, sticks that pricked my bare feet, and stones that cut into my skin, making me wince. Everything hurt, it hurt so much, I could barely feel any new pain.
All I knew was that we had to run. This was our one and only chance. She could finally see it — the darkness, the unfairness, the ugliness of this place and her mate. She could see the brutality and the wrongness of them all. She could see we can never be happy, she could tell her child will never be happy. Nor will mine.
My hand was yanked back and I turned, opening my mouth to tell her to run again, when I noticed she was on the ground. Cursing under my breath, I tucked away the knife I was holding in my hand and kneeled next to her, helping her sit. She had landed on her side, protecting her swollen belly, but exposing something that I hadn’t seen before.
Both our hands were smeared with it from attacking those guards and killing them, for fighting and clawing our way out through anyone who had tried to stop us. Michael wasn’t at the packhouse and neither were most of his warriors, so this had been our only chance. But I hadn’t noticed that somebody had stabbed her, nor that she was bleeding so much. Her pale yellow dress was drenched with dark blood and as seconds passed, more and more of the color left her face and lips.
“I can’t run,” she whispered tiredly, dragging herself to the nearby tree. I helped her lean on it and she winced, pressing one hand against her wound while the other gently caressed her belly. “You were right, Stella, you were right from the start. I just didn’t want to see it. I thought that once we were mated, things would change, he would change. I thought I could make him happy and with the child… the children on the way, that he will be content. But I see…” her voice cracked and the tears spilled down her face, smearing the dirt on her face. “I made you suffer through all of this… I was so selfish…”
“You are my sister, Soph,” I choked, crawling closer and placing my hand over hers on the belly. I felt my own stomach contract, the pain intensifying. She was almost due already, but I had barely got the news a few weeks back when I realized we had to get away. If either of us gave birth in that place, it would have been the end. We were never going to get out of there alive and our children… they were going to suffer the same fate or worse — become like their father. “Get up, we need to go! I know you are tired, but…”
“I’m dying, Stella,” Sophia whispered, her voice disturbingly calm and steady out of the sudden. I looked at her with panic, eyes darting to the wound on her side. “I lost too much blood and my stomach hurts too much. I can feel the baby struggling as well. I can’t run, you have to go without me.”
“No,” I shook my head, squeezing her hand tighter. “You can make it! Just a bit more and we can get to the highway and stop someone. Once we get away, I’ll hide us. I’ll…”
“Save my child, Stella,” Sophia said, reaching out and pulling the knife from my belt. She moved it into my free hand, her eyes finding mine. Her gaze was bleary, red veins running over the white of her eyes. “Take it out and run. Take it away from this place.”
“I can’t leave you here!” I snarled, barely noticing as the knuckles on the hand holding the knife turned white. “I will fight them! I will kill them all and then we…”
“You will not be leaving me, my dear sister,” Sophia said quietly, leaning her head back on the tree. “I will be gone soon. I don’t care what happens to my body. I just need to know that you will protect my child. You will get out of here, as far away from them as possible, and you will start a new life. You will raise my child and yours with love and laughter and freedom, and one day, when they are old enough, you will tell them about me. You are going to be a good mom, Stella. Promise me!”
“No,” I kept shaking my head, my eyes burning. Sophia smiled at me like she used to when we were young, with all that warmth and affection we never got from our parents. A sob escaped my lips as I watched her eyelids flutter, her hand falling from my face as if in slow motion.
I listened to her heart, the beats growing weaker, fainter, slower. I felt my body start to shake and I dropped the knife, covering my mouth with both my hands before the scream rising inside escaped my lips. My eyes grew blurry from the tears as I screamed into my palms, breathing so fast my head spun.
Pain pierced my stomach again, and I doubled down, bracing my hands on the ground as I gasped and gasped. I couldn’t hear it, her heartbeat. I could only hear the faint thud-thud-thud from her stomach and my own racing heart raging in my chest. I looked down at my stomach, sucking in a deep breath. I was showing now, just enough for everyone to know I was pregnant if they couldn’t hear the child growing inside of me. A child that was heartbreakingly silent now.
I counted the seconds, waiting for the faint thud-thud-thud that had been my lifeline for the last few weeks. I waited and waited, but the heartbeats next to me remained two, and a few seconds later even those disappeared under the sound of voices calling each other.
They were drawing closer. If we didn’t… If I didn’t get us out of there, they were going to capture us again, and then there would be no escape. Not ever. Not even in death.
I reached for the knife on the ground and picked it up with trembling fingers. I stared at its shiny blade, at the bloodstains and the chipped edge where it had met nails and other weapons and walls. It was almost dull by the looks of it, but the top was sharp.
Leaning forward, I whispered, ‘I’m sorry!’ before kissing Sophia on the forehead and pulling back. I lifted her dress above her belly, setting her body down on the ground until she was lying flat on her back. Her stomach was moving and I could hear the baby inside suffering, its heart drumming to the sound of mine. I took a deep breath, trying to steady my hand, and wiped my tears before pressing the tip of the knife to the top of her stomach. A hiccup escaped my lips as the skin broke and blood gushed from the incision, staining my fingers and painting my sister’s skin red. Her eyes were closed as if she was resting, and I was glad she didn’t have to see the gruesome sight in front of me as I continued to slice through the layers of skin. She would have thrown up for sure, and she would have screamed. She had always been the more squeamish of the two of us, the more gentle, the more eager to love and forgive.
I put the knife on her leg and slid my fingers into the gaping hole in her stomach, taking the child out as it wiggled inside, confused and alarmed. I cut the placenta and cleaned it off it, carefully separating the umbilical cord as I had seen others do when my mother had brought me to help her with the births. I had hated seeing the blood, the pain, and the horror in those moments, but I was glad she didn’t care what I wanted.
The baby took a deep breath and wailed, making me wince at the sound. There was no way they hadn’t heard that, which meant they were going to be here soon. There was no way I could outrun them. No way except… shifting.
I hadn’t done it in a while and I was told I should never do it while pregnant since it was going to hurt the baby, but under the circumstances…
I looked down at my quiet stomach, my eyes filling with tears again. The baby’s piercing wail made me jump and look at it. I had no idea what was going on inside my body and if the strange silence was an indication of the worst, but I had to make a choice. If I shifted, the chance of keeping my baby alive was going to vanish. But if I didn’t… I was going to get caught. My sister’s child was going to get caught. My child, if it survived, was going to get caught.
Tears still streaming down my cheeks, I got up and slipped off the simple gray dress I was wearing. The fighting and running and the blood had made a mess of it, but I ignored it all, ignored the blood streaming down the inside of my thighs, ignored the pain in my abdomen. Tearing apart the skirts, I made a swing and packed the child inside, wrapping it carefully. I discarded my underwear and straightened up, moving my shoulders as I called to my wolf, who had long ago grown silent. Her presence never left me, growing stronger on the days when I was ready to give up and end my life, and quieter when things seemed to be going better.
When I called her now, she answered faster than ever before, my body shaking as the shift took over. Bones cracked, skin tore and fur covered my body as pain exploded everywhere at once, making me drop on all fours to wait for it to be over.
When the sensation of being ripped apart subsided, I opened my mouth, realizing the voices had almost reached us. Stepping toward my sister’s body, I licked her face one last time before locking my teeth around the edge of my dress, picking the wailing baby from the ground.
I dashed forward, my feet finding a steady pace and then running faster and faster as the wind blew in my face and the sounds of the forest mixed into a cacophony of background noise. The voices and shouts grew distant, the pain and the heartbreak taking a backseat while my mind and body ran free for the first time in years.
The baby had stopped crying but I could hear its heartbeat, feel its body heat. It looked asleep, content with the rocking and the empty air around us, the night sky, the quiet world.
Darkness swallowed the forest in front of me and I dug my feet in, trying to stop, to turn around. A whimper escaped my bared teeth as the shadows swallowed us, pressing from all sides while I tried to find my footing and run away.
I jumped, panting heavily as the darkness pressed on me from all sides. I was just about to scream when my eyes landed on the tiny strip of light a few feet away from me and my eyes moved to find its source. The form of a window registered in my unsettled mind, then the shadows slowly pulled to the corners, allowing me to recognize the rest of the room. I remembered the small double bed I laid on, the chair with clothes piled up in the corner, the messy dresser where plush toys, cars, and makeup shared the space, then the big four-winged wardrobe with one cupboard open and several pieces of clothing hanging out.
I looked to my right and sighed with relief as I stared at the five-year-old boy sleeping by my side. His Paw Patrol pajama top had rolled up, his auburn hair spread over the pillow.
I reached out with trembling fingers and caressed his head to make sure he was there, with me, that he was real. I pulled his pajama top down before tucking him in and getting to my feet. My phone told me it was already six o’clock, so he was going to wake up soon.
I dragged my feet out of the room and to the bathroom down the corridor, stepping under the water even before I had fully discarded my towel. I let the hot water wash away the horrible nightmare of those painful memories, the cold numbness that had spread inside my body and mind.
It had been a while since I had that nightmare. Maybe it was because of my birthday approaching — no, our birthday. Being twins, my sister and I shared a birthday and even though she was gone, it was our day. It was going to be our day as long as I was alive.
I turned the water off when I realized I must have spent almost half an hour under it, then wrapped myself in the towel and stepped in front of the mirror. I didn’t bother wiping the steam off of it, focusing on my trembling hands while I tried to put toothpaste on my toothbrush. I was just washing my face and staring down at my fingers that had finally stopped trembling when a voice echoed through the apartment, loud and clear even through the closed door.
“Mom? Mom, I’m hungry!”