Dawn's nightlight was perhaps the most irritating device Cherry had ever had the misfortune of encountering.
“I never thought I’d see the back of this place,” Dawn said wondrously, seemingly unperturbed by the horrific buzzing emanating from the corner of the room. She yanked her nightie over her head and threw it aside with a careless flick of the wrist, stopping in her tracks to watch it flutter through the air. She turned to her dresser only after it came to a crumpled rest against the wall. "Even when I sent you that letter, all those months ago, I don't know if I ever really expected you to get me out of here."
"You didn’t think I'd come?" Cherry pointedly avoided looking at her big sister as Dawn rummaged through her drawers, naked except for the training panties around the waist. She’d seen more than enough of her sibling to last her a lifetime these last few days; she certainly didn’t need to see Dawn’s junk again. As a result, the little instead directed her attention at the nightlight in the corner of the room, glaring at it as if doing so might instigate world peace. Whatever issue it had, it didn't seem to be affecting its output. The device was bright enough to be noticeable even with the main light overshadowing it. If wasn’t for that damned crackle, she’d have been none the wiser that something was amiss. "When I promise something, sis, I keep my word. You know that."
Dawn emerged with a pair of bright yellow leggings in hand. She made a face at the garish garment, shook her head, and then stepped into them all the same. "Oh, don't get me wrong. I never doubted you'd try. Of course you’d come." She pulled the fabric up her legs, grimacing at the effort it took to pull them up over her puffy underwear. "You're you, of course you would. My concern was whether or not you'd succeed. After everything Evie put me and Lucas through, my money was firmly on her." She threw an apologetic smile over her shoulder before turning back to her drawers to find something for her top half. "I don't like betting against the home team, but she has all sorts of tricks up her sleeve, Cherry. You've seen what she's capable of."
Don't I know it. Cherry's hands unconsciously went to her own padding, brushing against the bulge in her pants. She absently wondered if she was wet. The little hadn’t felt herself go since she got in the car with Raymond earlier that evening...but at the same time, she wasn’t sure if she would feel it, either. She hadn’t had any warning in the bath last night, had she? For all she knew, she was seconds from leaking all over her thighs. Fuck me, don't I know it.
They'd split up after freeing Dawn of her tracking device. Raymond had rushed downstairs with the key to liberate Lucas of his own padlock, and Dawn had made the trek to her bedroom to change into something warmer in preparation for the night ahead. Not wanting to leave her sister alone at such a pivotal moment in her life, Cherry had followed in her wake. It had seemed like the right thing to do, although if she was being honest, she did have ulterior moments. There was a conversation they needed to have, and she wasn’t sure when she’d next get the opportunity to pursue it. They were officially on the run as of...well, now, and Cherry had a suspicion they weren’t going to be separated from Raymond and Lucas for a while as a result. Who knew when she’d next get her sister alone? It had to be now.
Here goes nothing. “I have to ask you something,” the little began uncomfortably. She squirmed in place on her sister’s bedsheets, dreading what she knew was going to be an awkward talk. “About...about this morning.”
“Later,” Dawn said without looking up from her dresser. “When I’m not half naked, okay?”
Cherry winced. “Sis – ”
“Later.” Clothes went flying over the little’s shoulder as she dug through her childish wardrobe. “You already know everything you need to, anyway. There’s nothing more to it than what Evie told you this morning.”
“So that was the truth?" Cherry felt her heart sink. She'd known all along that she was being silly, but deep down she hadn't wanted to believe it. She'd hoped that Evelyn had been embellishing the truth, or that she'd been projecting her own illicit operations onto her victim, or even that she'd been outright lying for one reason or another. The last thing a little sister ever wants to do is think ill of her big sister, after all, and if avoiding doing so meant ploughing ahead without logic or reason, that was what exactly Cherry had intended do. So much for denying reality. "You...you were...”
Dawn paused, gripping the open drawer before her as she considered how best to tackle the question. “If there’s one thing Evelyn Goldsworthy is not, it’s a liar,” she at last crooned at the wall. Her imitation necessitated dropping her voice an octave. “You can trust that. Dear.”
I'm not going to get annoyed. “That’s not funny,” Cherry sighed. Was that meant to get a laugh out of her? She couldn't think of anything she'd have found less amusing . “I’m worried about you. Are you...you know. Clean?”
“I don’t need a change, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Cherry bit her tongue, crossed her arms, and glared at the back her sister’s head. "Dawn."
Her tone was impossible to miss. "I don't want to talk about it. I've already said that." Dawn resumed her excavation as if the topic was as consequential as a discussion of tomorrow’s lunch. “It’s in the past, okay? It's been the best part of a year. Just...just let it drop.”
She had no intention of doing any such thing. "Is it still an issue?" Cherry persisted valiantly. She watched her sibling like a hawk, feeling her heart throb in her throat. It killed her to know the demons her sister must have faced, even before Evelyn had entered the picture. If she understood the timeline correctly, than Dawn had either been an addict or on her way to becoming one at the same time she’d last been in Hearth. All this time, Cherry had treasured that reunion. It was one of the rare instances she got to catch up with her sister, and that alone had earned it a place on the top shelf where she kept her happy memories...but for Dawn, it had been the beginning of a steep plummet into hell. That ate away at the little in a way words could not describe. "Sis, you have to talk to me. Are you okay? Is it - "
"I don’t have to do anything.” The pudgy little still failed to look up from her dredging, but there was a sudden change in her voice that was telling. It had been light as air whilst she did her best to dodge the topic, but suddenly she just sounded regretful and world-weary. It was the voice of a woman who wanted nothing more than her troubles to end. "Look, it’s been the best part of a year. Trust me, it hasn't been an issue in a long time. Can’t we leave it at that?"
For all the wrong she'd done, it seemed that Evelyn had managed to help her adoptive daughter in one way, at least. “Okay,” Cherry conceded reluctantly. What else was there to discuss, if that was the case? She eyed her sister pitifully, noting the way she slumped despondently over the dresser. No, now wasn't the time to press the issue. "Okay, sis."
And that was that.
If the time wasn’t ripe to steer the conversation towards a less tender topic, then it never would be. "What's that thing's problem?" Cherry asked, rushing to fill the silence and nodding towards the most infernal contraption in the world. The nightlight flickered and crackled in the corner as if to taunt her. "I don't know how you do it, sis. If I had to put up with that for a year straight I'd have offed myself ages ago."
Dawn at last glanced up from the drawers, and a tired but knowing smile creased her face. "It's old. That's what its problem is." She returned to her search for the nth time. "The globe in mine blew out a little while ago, so Evie dug that one up for me. It's only a placeholder till she gets down to the shop to buy a replacement...although I guess that's not happening now, is it?"
"It sure isn't." Cherry slipped off her sister's bed and hurried across the room to get a closer look. It didn't look faulty; the glowing ballerina perched mid-twirl looked as graceful and as regal as was undoubtedly expected of her. Her entire body glowed atop the chunk of plastic she posed upon, and as far as Cherry could see, that was exactly the way it was meant to be. She wasn’t chipped, she wasn’t cracked, she wasn’t broken, she wasn’t anything. Once again, Cherry reflected that if it weren't for the buzzing, she wouldn't have known that something wasn't doing what it was meant be doing.
I wonder if this was Annabelle's, once upon a time. She knelt down on the carpet and went to touch the top of the ballerina's head...and immediately shrank back with a yelp. The globe was red-hot and scalding to touch. The little thrust her fingertip into her mouth, sucking the pain out of the abused digit. Christ, that hurt!
“Adfsdfa?” Cherry called over her shoulder, as worried as she was intrigued.
Well, it wasn’t her thumb this time. That was something. "Is it meant to be this hot?" she tried again. She gestured at the nightlight once she had her sister’s attention. “Have you felt this thing?”
"I don't exactly make a habit out of fondling my nightlight." Dawn had acquired a shirt and a thick, fuzzy jacket while Cherry was preoccupied in the corner, and now she trudged across to look over her sister’s shoulder. A curious expression came over her face as she examined the plastic dancer, and when she spoke again, her voice had an acquired a tremor that betrayed more of her thoughts than she'd maybe intended. "You know, if I ever see another ballerina it'll be too soon. Any money says that used to be her daughter's."
"Probably," Cherry agreed uncertainly. She glanced up at her sibling, knowing what was going through Dawn’s head. "It’s the right theme.”
Her companion said nothing. Dawn simply eyeballed the ballerina on her wall as if it were a bomb set to explode.
Cherry felt her heartstrings pluck a resonant, singing chord that reverberated from her head down to the tips of her toes. “Look, sis,” she began quietly, looking back the nightlight’s way. The dancer frolicked about on her perch without a care in the world “I'm sure she genuinely wanted to help you."
Her sympathy garnered her a sceptical snort. "And what makes you say that?"
"Well...she could have chosen any little off the street. You said that yourself. She didn't, though; she chose you, the little she knew had issues. Wouldn't it have been easier to hijack one in good health?" She shrugged, as uncomfortable as ever with acknowledging her sister’s least favourite topic. "It'd have been less work for her. I mean, all she'd have - "
"I don't want to talk about this, either." Dawn laughed and hugged herself. Her skin was the hue of melting snow. "Look, Cherry, I know you're just trying to help, but right now I'm a total wreck. Let's leave the therapy for a little while, okay?"
Cherry had her mouth open to apologise, cursing herself for being as clumsy as she was when it came to offering a shoulder to cry upon, but as it turned out the little wasn't done. Dawn shook her head, and when she looked back at the nightlight, Cherry could see just how distraught the sight made her big sister.
"It's not right, you know." Dawn's voice was as shaky as a leaf in a hurricane. Her eyes never left the ballerina. "I mean, it's never right what her kind does to people our size, but this...this is something else. Say what you will about them, but at least they care for the littles they kidnap. Mama didn't even want me." She looked ready to cry. "She was using me."
"Of course she wanted you," Cherry murmured. "Dawn - "
"No, she didn't. Not really." Her big sister shook her head violently. "All this time, I thought she was looking out for me in her own way, as messed up as it was. I didn't enjoy it, but I could respect it, you know? I thought that regardless of what she'd done, she was just trying to help...but no. I've lost my shape, my chest, and a whole year of my life because some old bat decided she was better off traumatising a stranger than seeking help." She took a step closer to the nightlight, and Cherry noted with some alarm that there was budding murder in her eyes, right beside the misery and self-loathing. It made her sister’s piggish face all the more unappealing. "I was just her plaything. After all this time, she didn't want me, she didn't love me, she just needed a stand in for Annabelle."
"Sis - "
"No, don't sis me!" Dawn's voice had become nearly as shrill as Sylvia's had been that morning. "After all this time, she wanted me as much as she wanted Lucas, and I'm...I'm...I don't even know what I am right now. I'm hurt, I'm confused, I'm mad, and I don't even know why. I never loved her, Cherry...so why am I so upset? Why has this messed me up so bad?”
“It’d mess anyone up,” Cherry suggested. She shifted uncomfortably on her knees. “I’d say it’s the natural reaction, to be – ”
“I guess it doesn’t matter, at the end of the day. I’m free, aren’t I? As of tonight, I’m out of her life forever.” Dawn talked right over the top of her sister’s condolences. Her face hardened. “What do you say we leave her a little parting gift, eh? A little something to remember her favourite stand-in by.”
What? “Dawn,” Cherry said cautiously, looking back up her sister. There had been murder budding in her eyes before, but now it had gone into full bloom. Dawn looked like she might strangle the ballerina with her bare hands. The sight frightened Cherry. “What are you – ”
She didn’t get a chance to finish her sentence. Before she could, Dawn had drawn back her foot and kicked the nightlight into smithereens. The plastic shattered beneath her foot with a muffled crack, as if a bolt of lightning had just struck somewhere in the distance...
...and then there was a flash of light, a rush of heat, and the next thing either little knew was that the carpet was on fire.
Oh my God. "Dawn!" Cherry scuttled away on her hands and backside as fast as was humanly possible, brushing an errant ember from her thigh as she did so. Tiny, smouldering cinders suddenly dotted the floor around the charred remains of the nightlight, turning the carpet into a galaxy of orange pinpricks. Before the little could as much as blink, the pinpricks had sought each other’s company and evolved into a handful of smoking, flickering blazes, turning the galaxy into a much-more-concerning supercluster. "Jesus, what have you - put it out, sis, put it out!"
She didn’t, though. Dawn stared at the carnage she'd wrought with wide, startled eyes, not moving even when the baby flames began to look increasingly grown up. "What - " she began, looking about the room with dumb surprise. Her hands went to her nightie and found it missing. "I didn't mean to - "
"Well that fixes everything, doesn't it?" Cherry leapt to her feet and began to stamp on the nearest blaze, but by then it was already too late. The fire was spreading unchecked across Dawn's furred floor, growing higher and higher by the second without check or concern. The drapes began to smoke as Cherry watched, and she felt her heart plummet into her toes at the realisation that they were only seconds from going up in flames, too. If they didn’t act quickly, the whole room was going to catch, and if the whole room caught...well, they were going to be two very toasty littles. Cherry had no intention of becoming a toasty little. "Dawn!"
"What?” Dawn was staggering back towards the door. She caught Cherry's eye for a split second, and it was then that the little noticed her big sister was crying again. The sight would have normally elicited sympathy from Cherry, but right then all she could do was try not to panic and stomp on flame after flame. There was no time for tears right then. “What do you want me to do about it?"”
If she was being honest, Cherry didn’t know herself. She wasn't even sure what she could do. The curtains were well and truly on their way to becoming a pile of ash, and the knee-high inferno had spread almost all the way to Dawn's bed. Smoke was beginning to accumulate in the air, and right as she made that realisation Cherry began to cough. A knife of fear lanced through her bowels as she staggered backwards, looking about the room with despair. This is hopeless, she thought as she attempted to cough up her lungs, aghast. All we’re going to achieve by staying here is dying.
After everything she’d gone through over the last week, Cherry had no intention of dying. Seeing the futility of her actions, she grabbed her sister by the wrist and pulled her out of the room, stumbling down the hallway and only stopping when they’d made it to the top of the stairs. "You're an absolute fucking idiot," she informed Dawn between coughing fits. She shook her head and glanced back the way they’d came, unable to believe that yes, that really was smoke creeping out of her sister’s room. They’d firebombed her fucking room. “Has anyone ever told you that? It had an electrical fault, anyone could see that, why the fuck would you - "
"I wasn't thinking. Okay?" Dawn leaned down and grasped her sister’s forearms, looking her dead in the eye. Cherry could see the terror in her big sister’s pallid face, so much so that it had even temporarily halted her crying. “Cherry, breath. Breath. Don’t die on me.”
“No time for dying.” She brushed aside her sister and half ran, half staggered back to the bedroom door. Dawn's bed had been the next victim of the inferno - the entire thing was ablaze, from the pillows to the canopy overhead, and as Cherry watched the latter collapsed in on itself and littered the mattress with debris. She bit her lip, looking about the rest of the room. The flames were as tall as she was now, and on top of that, they were starting to edge dangerously close to the door. "This...this is an issue," she admitted in a voice she didn’t recognise as her own. “Man, this is why architects don’t pretend they’re detectives.”
Her sister had come up behind her while she was distracted, and when Dawn spoke it was from surprisingly close to her ear. "What do we do?" The chubby little peered over Cherry’s shoulder, worry etched into her face with the clarity of scripture. "Cherry, what do we do?"
We might as well waltz down to the local police station and ask for a mugshot. "We should get out of here,” Cherry said out loud. She glanced about the bedroom, hoping against hope she’d spontaneously think of a solution that would solve all their problems. When such a miracle failed to occur, she shook her head and continued, “There’s nothing we can do, unless you’re particular - "
That was when the smoke alarm went off.
" – particularly set on dying," she finished with a grimace. The ear-splitting wail of the alarm was a hundred times worse than the buzzing nightlight had been. It shrieked like a banshee in the throes of love. "Close the door, though. That should hold it inside for at least a little while."
Her sister made no effort to do so. "I'm sorry," Dawn instead began. Her waterfalls began anew as she shook her head from side to side, her pigtails flying wildly about in the air around her. "I didn't mean to do that, sis, I didn't - "
"I know, sis. Just...stop. Okay?" Cherry shook her own head. Suddenly, she was just tired. They'd accomplished what they'd set out to achieve, but the joy she'd been expecting never hit. All she wanted to do was crawl back into her bed in Hearth and have a nice, long sleep, preferably without a diaper around her waist or her thumb in her mouth. She deserved at least that much, didn't she? She was a good person, damn it. Good people shouldn’t be forced into situations where they had to become arsonists. "Come on, let's get out of here." She yanked Dawn’s door close, grabbed her sister’s hand, and promptly dragged her away down the stairs as fast as her legs could carry her.
They found Raymond and Lucas in the driveway, staring up at the house in mute shock. “Cherry," the Amazon breathed as the littles ran up beside him. His face was bathed in a sinister orange glow that did nothing to mask his incredulity. He stared at his roommate for a long, speechless moment. "What...what did you do?"
"I did nothing." She glared at her sister. "Why? How bad is it?"
It was as if a great beast made of flame was struggling to wriggle through the remains of Dawn's bedroom window, trembling with fury and spitting tongues of fire at anything within reach. The ivy plastered to the brickwork was its first victim; fiery cobwebs clung to the side of Evelyn’s manor like macabre Christmas lights, and as Cherry watched part of the vine fell to its demise. It landed on the grass a stone's throw from where she stood, and then the grass there was on fire, too. Similar occurrences were happening everywhere along the front of the house, filling the entire yard with fire, smoke and ash. It was only going to be a few minutes before the entire property went up like a bonfire, and if they were still around when that happened, then they were undoubtedly going to end up as cooked as the rest of the place. The thought opened a pit in Cherry’s stomach the size of her roommate. Christ, what had they done?
Raymond was evidently thinking the same thing. "This whole place is going to go up any minute," the waiter said nervously. His hands were on his head as he surveyed the ruins of Evelyn’s garden. He shot a traumatised glance Cherry’s way. "We should go."
Lucas spoke up then for the first time since they’d left him to keep watch. "You torched the place?" he exclaimed loud to be heard over the crackle of the blaze. Unadulterated amazement turned his face into that of an infant discovering something for the very first time. "I wanted to get out of here, sure, but this is insane. What made you think this was a good idea?" He looked back at the fire. “I thought the plan was to be subtle.”
Oh, it was. "It was an accident," she answered on Dawn's behalf with a sigh. Why did everyone always assume she was the one to blame? Did she look like a firebug? She hadn't even wanted to break those doors down, let alone incinerate the place. Sure, if there was anyone that deserved to have their place reduced to rubble, it was the kidnapping, psychopath meth-dealer, but that didn't mean...that...
Her internal monologue ceased as something truly horrific occurred to her.
“The gas,” Cherry breathed. All the blood drained from her face. “Oh, fuck.”
“What?” Raymond was too enamoured by the sights to pay attention to his roommate’s expletives.
"We have to go, now." Without waiting for permission, she grabbed Lucas by the arms and dragged him onto her hip as best she could. He yelped in surprise, but made no effort to stop her as he was roughly manhandled into place. "Ray!"
"What?" Startled, Raymond at last tore his gaze from the fire to see what the sudden commotion was. "What's the - "
"The gas," Cherry hissed again. She gestured violently in the direction of the garage. "How many cans has she got in there? In the basement?"
Her roommate at last got the point. "Oh," he said softly. Suddenly, he looked like he might vomit. "Oh, fuck."
“That’s what I said.” Cherry began to stagger towards the car, struggling to hurry with Lucas’ weight resting on her side. After a moment, Raymond took him off her hands, and then they were all running, sprinting as fast as their legs could take them for safety. “Come on, run!”
They fled through the flame-wreathed undergrowth that had once been Evelyn’s garden, stumbling into the car with the grace of a drunken sea lion. Raymond kicked the car into gear, and with a squeal of rubber they were on their way, fleeing down a driveway surrounded on all sides by burning hedges and trees. Visibility was nigh non-existent by the time they made it the gate, and it wasn’t until they’d burst out of Evelyn’s smoke-choked property that the world began to reappear outside the window. They shot off down the street like a cork from a bottle, watching the orange glow disappear in the rear-view mirror.
Ray was muttering something to himself as he drove, but his words were on the very fringe of reality for Cherry. She was lost in her own world, staring sightlessly out her window as she struggled to calm her racing heartbeat. For a horrifyingly long few minutes, she’d been sure she was going to die. She’d been sure they were all going to die. She wasn’t sure she’d ever been so scared in her whole life. A nightlight, she thought numbly to herself, looking in the rear-view mirror at her sister. Dawn looked as traumatised as she felt, and Lucas didn’t look much better beside her. All of this, because one stupid little kicked her nightlight.
It took her a long minute to calm down enough to tune into her roommate’s mumblings. "It’ll take a while to reach to the gas,” he was saying to himself. His eyes were wide and frightened, glued to the road in front of him. The speed-o-meter told Cherry that they were far, far beyond the legal limit. “Someone will get there in time, it’s not going to go off. That’s stupid, this isn’t a movie, real life doesn’t work – "
“Ray,” Cherry interrupted wearily. She fell back in her seat and closed her eyes. “You’re stressing me out. Stop.”
“You should be stressing out. That whole place is going to go up like Hiroshima and you’re not stressed?” He laughed a shaky laugh. “I might need to borrow one of your diapers, Cherry.”
“You just said this isn’t a movie.”
“She has seventy or eighty of those fucking things, Cherry. Who the fuck knows what that much – ”
That was when the world exploded behind them.
Part Three of the Promise concludes in
Chapter 25: The Promise