Big Sister/Little Sister

Hannah. The word rose in her dream like the first rays of sun blooming over the horizon. Soft, pale, cool still in the lingering dark. Wake up. Hannah heard her name echo again but brushed it away like a pesky fly and burrowed deeper into her bed. This dream was too nice. There was a sweet-faced boy, and something about a troll in the rose garden.

“HANNAH,” said a loud voice above her head. Hannah’s eyes shot open in surprise but she quickly slammed them shut against the blinding glare of mid-morning light. She yanked her blankets over her face and rolled toward the wall.

“What do you want?” she groaned against the thick flannel.

“You have to get up,” said the loud voice again. This time it was near her elbow. Hannah peered through a gap in the blankets and found herself nose to nose with her little sister, Abigail, who was crouched beside the bed.

Abigail’s face was scrunched with worry and her bright blue eyes were red-rimmed and glassy.

“You have to get up,” she said again, quietly this time.

Exasperated, Hannah sat up in bed and raked a hand through her brassy, static-filled hair.

“What’s going on?” Hannah asked as she picked the last clinging bits of sleep from the corners of her eyes. “And why do you have your backpack on? It’s Saturday.” Hannah yawned and twisted her hair into a bun. Abigail, who had just started middle school, had a knack for drama and this wasn’t the first morning she’d started with unnecessary theatrics.

Abigail sat on the edge of the bed and leaned toward her sister, her hands nervously twisting the ends of her two shiny blonde braids.

“You need to get dressed,” she said quickly, ignoring Hannah’s questions. Her eyes were trained on the closed bedroom door as she stood up and scuttled across the room to the closet. “Here,” she said as she pulled a pair of blue jeans off the shelf and tossed them to Hannah, “put these on.” She had a hand in a pile of socks when a loud thud from downstairs froze her in place. Abigail’s eyes shot back to the bedroom door, and she held up a shaking finger toward Hannah.

Shh…

Hannah, bewildered, got out of bed and started to walk across the hardwood to her sister but Abigail spun around and frantically motioned for her to stop moving. Hannah paused mid-step and watched as Abigail closed her eyes and tilted her head to listen. Several moments passed in silence before Abigail opened her eyes again.

“Okay,” she whispered, “walk softly.” Abigail turned back to the closet and began stuffing socks and underwear into a duffel bag she found buried at the bottom.

Hannah quickly tiptoed the last few feet between them and grabbed her sister’s arm.

“Abi,” she began sharply, “what is going on?” Abi wrestled her elbow out of her sister’s hand and continued stuffing clothes in the bag.

“First of all, you have to be quiet,” Abigail said. “Second of all, you need to get dressed.” Hannah opened her mouth to interject but Abigail cut her off. “Now,” she snapped. She looked over the closet one final time before shuffling back to the bed and dropping the bag. “Come on, Hannah,” she pleaded. “I’ll explain everything after you’re dressed.” She picked up the pair of jeans and held them out. “I promise,” she added gently.

A few minutes later and Hannah was dressed; Abigail had picked out comfortable blue jeans, a well-worn baggy sweater layered over a lightweight long-sleeved tee, and Hannah’s favorite sneakers. Hannah held her arms out to the side and turned a slow circle. “Happy now?” she asked. Abigail nodded, her face tight and tired.

“So now will you tell me what’s going on?” Hannah said softly as she sat down next to her sister on the bed. Abigail’s eyes immediately filled with tears, but she hurriedly wiped them away.

“We have to leave,” she said. “That’s why I packed you a bag and that’s why I have mine. Something’s happened and we have to go.” Abigail’s voice cracked on the last word and tears spilled down her cheeks. Hannah cupped her hands around Abigail’s face and searched her eyes.

“Abi, what happened? Are you okay? Did you get in trouble?”

Abigail nodded. “I’m fine,” she said. “It’s not me.” Her voice was small and squeaky. Hannah dropped her hands to Abigail’s and laced their fingers together, something their mother did frequently to help calm them down.

“Then who is it?” Hannah asked, concern growing like a pit of snakes in her stomach. “Is it Grandma Beth? Did her nursing home call?” Abigail shook her head.

“No,” Abigail said through her tears. She wiped her nose on her sleeve and looked up at the ceiling to avoid her sister’s eyes. “It’s Mom and Dad,” she sobbed loudly before clamping her hands over her mouth. She stared at Hannah with fear, and both girls held their breath.

For a moment it was silent but then another thud boomed downstairs followed quickly by a second, this one on the stairs. Abigail scrambled off the bed and ran to the window. She fumbled with the lock as another crashing sound boomed in the hallway. Hannah felt the bed rattle beneath her.

“HANNAH, HELP ME!” Abigail screamed as she tried to pry the window open. It was inching slowly up the frame, flakes of paint and dirt falling onto the sill as it went. Hannah looked from her sister to the door and leapt across the room to throw the deadbolt into place just as something massive slammed into the door from the outside.

“HANNAH!” came Abigail’s cry again, pulling her attention away from the door shaking on its hinges. She ran to the window and together the girls shoved it all the way open. Hannah pulled Abigail to the side and kicked the screen out onto the porch roof. Whatever was in the hallway slammed into the door again, and Hannah saw fissures streak down the length of the frame. It wouldn’t hold much longer.

“Go, Abi!” Hannah shouted and threw her duffel out ahead of her sister. She helped Abigail through and had one leg out the window when the bedroom door finally gave way in an explosion of splinters. Smoke flooded the room in the same instant, a dense inky black with creeping fingers that reached across the ceiling and walls. Hannah, frozen halfway out of the window, felt Abi’s small hands grab her under the arms and yank her out onto the roof where they both fell over in a tangle of bag straps and skinny legs.

Hannah found her feet first and leapt up to slam the window closed, but not before a thick rope of smoke reached through the gap and wrapped itself around her wrist. A searing white-hot pain blistered where it touched her skin and Hannah’s knees buckled. She fell onto the window sill and the smoke crept up her sleeve, solidifying into burning charcoal as it tightened around her arm and seared the fabric of her sweater. She felt it start to tug her back through the window so she planted her feet against the side of the house and pushed off for leverage. The rope tightened again in response, and Hannah screamed.

Abigail, who had thrown their bags off the side of the roof into the box hedges below, appeared at Hannah’s elbow and tried to help pull her sister’s arm free, but the rope squeezed even harder and Hannah’s face went from a strained and angry red to ghost white. “It’s going to break my arm,” she stammered as she pushed harder against the house and locked her knees into place.

Seeing Hannah’s strength fading quickly, Abigail did the only thing she could think of and slammed the window shut on top of the rope. The length that stretched across the sill was sticky, a half-solid bridge between the crushing charcoal and billowing smoke, and the heavy window sliced through it easily, sending Hannah tumbling backward. She scrabbled with the tendril left encircling her arm and it broke into pieces like the last embers in a fireplace, leaving a pile of ashy residue in her lap. Abigail stood over her big sister and offered her a hand.

As Hannah reached up with her good arm, the unmistakable hair-raising sound of cracking glass filled the air. The smoke, still a dark swirling cloud inside the bedroom, was pulsing against the window and a web of cracks had crisscrossed the pane.

With hands still clasped, Hannah and Abigail ran to the edge of the roof and jumped.

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