I saw her for the first time when I was four years old. The morning started out peaceful. Daddy hummed as he fixed my bowl of cereal and poured his coffee. After breakfast, we moved to the living room. For once, Daddy didn’t seem to mind I was hanging around. I entertained myself playing with my dolls. The coffee table made a perfect dance floor. Daddy sprawled out on the couch, reading a paperback novel. The golden writing on the front cover caught the sunlight and made little rainbows on the walls of the living room.
Daddy looked up from his paperback and warned me not to spill his coffee. Moving the book caused the rainbows to flutter away. I reassured him I would be careful. Daddy nodded and went back to reading. The rainbows returned to the walls.
I heard Daddy’s warning, but his words escaped my mind. Making my dolls dance turned into making my dolls fly. I didn’t mean to hit it. Jagged blue edges stood sharp where a coffee mug had been moments before. When Daddy saw the puddle of liquid slowing making its way to the carpet, he hurled his book away and grabbed me. The rainbows disappeared for good. He screamed for my mother to come clean up this awful mess and get me out of his sight. I sobbed as he screamed at me. I never did anything right.
My mother hurried in from the kitchen. She separated us and ushered me out into the backyard to play. Although I was distressed, I realized I was getting outside earlier in the day than normal. Usually I wasn’t allowed in the grass until the dew had dried. This was a special treat, even if it was supposed to be a punishment. I ran away from our house, away from Daddy’s anger, down to the garden.
She was standing in the middle of the strawberry patch.
I said the only thing I could think of at the time. “Hey, you better get out of there. Mommy don’t want anybody hurtin’ the berries.”
It didn’t dawn on me until I was older what a girl would be doing in our backyard. She was taller than me, so that must have meant she was older too. I liked how she looked, thin with long blond hair. She wore a yellow tank top and light yellow shorts. The only thing ugly was her bruises. She had many of them, up and down her arms and even a few on her neck. My own arms would be covered in bruises tomorrow. Daddy had grabbed me hard.
She studied me. “You’re wearing my dress,” she said when she finally spoke.
“No!” I replied. “It’s mine.” I was wearing an old, second hand play dress. I hated it, but Mommy made me wear it a lot. I wrapped my arms around my body.
“What is your name?” She asked.
“Really? Your parents named you Rayelle?”
“It’s a pretty name.” I stuck out my tongue at her.
“My name is Rachel Elizabeth. We have the same middle name. ” Rachel looked towards the house and frowned. “Your daddy is mad, isn’t he?”
I lowered my head. “I broke his coffee mug.”
“I know.” She stepped out of the strawberry patch. I was afraid she was going to hurt the berries but I didn’t see any squished. She reached her hand out to me. “Why don’t you come with me, Ray-Ray?”
I took her hand and squeezed it. “How did you know my Mommy and Daddy called me Ray-Ray?”
“I just had a feeling.” She took my hand and we walked.
She led me to the end of our property, right to the edge of a forest. The forest belonged to our neighbors, The McGees. They owned just about everything on this road, except for our little plot of property. Their trees spilled out of their forest and threatened to take over our lawn. Mommy told me that someday Daddy was going to build a fence along the tree line, but he wasn’t ready to do it yet.
Rachel started to lead me into the woods, but I dug my heels into the soft soil. “No,” I said. “Not allowed.”
“Come on,” she said. “I have a present for you.”
After about thirty seconds, I nodded and went with her into the darkness of the trees.
“When I was little, I walked this way so much there was a path right to this special spot. You will have to make your own path, ok, Ray-Ray?”
I nodded. She moved some trees and walked forward. There was a clearing in the woods. The area was big enough for a patch of sunlight to shine down on the ground. Where the sun was shining a pink rose bush was growing on a mound, reaching up with its giant branches.
Although the rose bush was pretty, it wasn’t the main attraction of the place. It was obvious the area used to be somebody’s personal dump, but it had been arranged. An old, white porcelain sink was resting on a tree stump. Rusty pots and pans were stacked neatly on a broken bookcase. Three mismatched chairs sat placed around a wooden barrel.
“This was my playhouse, a long time ago,” Rachel told me. “You can have it now, if you want.”
“I love it,” I said. I hugged the girl around her waist. She was solid, like stone. I wondered if she had the ability to tell when I was lying, like Daddy had. Although this place was amazing, it scared me. Something bad had happened here.
Rachel and I stayed there for a bit. The sun was reaching the middle of the sky when she suggested we head back. I didn’t want to, but I knew Mommy would be looking for me soon. Rachel took my hand and we left.
“Just don’t tell your parents about this place, ok? Especially Daddy. It’s dangerous for you to be here, with the rust and stuff, ok, Ray-Ray? You gotta absolutely listen to me!” She crouched down and looked me in the eye.
“I understand.” She looked like Mommy did when she was trying to explain stuff to me. I smiled at her. “I really, really understand.”
Rachel kissed me on the forehead and told me she heard Mommy calling. I panicked, Mommy always got really upset when she couldn’t find me right away. I ran into the house. Mommy, although happy to see me, had not been looking for me.
Although I wished for it to happen, I didn’t see Rachel again. I wanted her to come to my backyard, where it was sunny and happy. I had a feeling I might see her if I went to the forest, yet I stayed away. The place gave me a vague feeling of being sick. Years passed, and the junk yard-forest-playhouse faded into the back of my mind.
* * * * *
It was Mother’s Day, six years later. I was ten and lying on my bed, wondering how I could go to the store and get Mommy pink roses. Daddy had already left for work and he wasn’t the type to do something like that anyway. Pink roses were Mommy’s favorite. I wanted to surprise her.
I sat up. I knew where I could get Mommy pink roses. I ran out of the house, letting the screen door slam behind me. I was surprised how easy it was to find the clearing in the woods. The bush was still there. I hacked off a few stems, and ran back home as fast as I could. As I left, I thought I saw a flash of yellow.
Mommy loved the roses. She kissed me and nuzzled my neck. “They’re beautiful, Ray-Ray,” she said. Daddy walked into the kitchen. She pulled away from me and looked at the floor.
Daddy didn’t say much. He looked at the flowers, nodded, and grabbed a beer out of the fridge. When he left, Mommy’s smile returned.
She visited me that night. She accused in the dark, “You gave Mommy my roses.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Rachel?” She was sitting on my bed. Last time I saw her she was older than me, but now we were the same age. Her long hair was messy, and her eyes were red and puffy. Her bruises looked fresh as ever.
“Isn’t it enough you have Mommy to yourself? Isn’t it enough Daddy learned his lesson? Isn’t it enough you have my nickname and wear my dresses? ”
“Rachel…” I started to say, but she was already gone.
The next day, I gathered my courage. I went to the forest. There had to be some evidence of who Rachel was. My search turned up empty. No lost diaries or clues; nothing you would find in mystery stories like the ones I loved to read, just some trash and a rosebush. The only thing I found remotely interesting was a gold bracelet with a heart charm. I clasped the bracelet to my wrist and went home.
I wore the bracelet constantly. At first, nobody saw it. Daddy was the first one to notice.
“Where did you get that?” He asked me. He turned to my mother with cold, murderous eyes. She shook her head and looked terrified.
I never lied to my father. The result was always worse if he caught you. “I found it in McGee’s woods,” I said quickly. “Near a rosebush.”
He slapped me across the face and sent me flying into the refrigerator. That night, I cried myself to sleep. As I was sobbing in my semi-conscious state, I felt a cold hand push my hair back from my tear drenched skin. When I dreamed that night, I saw Rachel’s face.
The bracelet came off my wrist and into the back of my jewelry box. I never went to the forest again. It was something to be avoided. Even when Mr. McGee started clearing the trees behind our home, I resisted my curiosity and stayed away. I heard he was building his daughter a house right where Rachel’s playhouse once stood. He was going to find the rose bush and once he did, everything would come out. I could only brace myself for the storm.
* * * * *
It happened when I was sixteen. I came home to police cars in the driveway and an ambulance pulling away. I burst in the house and found Mommy in the kitchen, surrounded by cops.
Mommy wrapped her arms around me. “I have so much to explain,” she cried. “Daddy is dead. He shot himself this afternoon.”
I felt nothing.
“There’s more,” she said. “Mr. McGee found something today. Under a rose bush in the forest. He found the bones of…” She couldn’t get it out. “Daddy couldn’t take it. He loved her so much. You had a…”
I stepped back from my mother. “I know. I had a sister. My father—our father—didn’t kill himself over sadness. He killed himself because he did it. Daddy killed Rachel. And you know it.”
I turned away from my mother and walked out into the backyard. Rachel was standing in the strawberry patch. She was a little girl now. Or rather, she had always been a little girl. It was me who had grown up. Rachel gave me a wave before she faded away.
* * * * *
I purchased another heart charm. The two gold hearts hung together, sharing a closeness that two sisters never got a chance to know in life. I asked the funeral director to put it in the casket with Rachel. I really liked the bracelet, but I knew Rachel wanted it back. Besides, I wasn’t planning on wearing it. I didn’t want to anger Daddy anymore than I already had.
He would be watching, just as Rachel had been watching.