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And just like that, you’re here

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And just like that, you're here

 

“My parents are horrible people, Nora.”

That’s what Joshua tells her between sips of his third beer, after they’ve exhausted the usual topics. They’re at the bar closest to his college, the one his parents went into debt to pay for; he had picked her up earlier in the car they gave him when he finished high school. His parents even made him choose a college nearby, just so he wouldn’t be living so far away from them. Nora has a clear memory of that couple: Adam and Lilian, as cold as any inhabitants of Shepherd’s Glen, yet warm with pride and affection wherever their golden boy was concerned.

Of course, Nora knows none of that means a happy childhood. But it is impossible not to compare these creatures of middle-class American folklore to her own family: a runaway sister and an absent, negligent mother, on top of a father she barely knew. At least Joshua can’t claim he wasn’t wanted. 

She clears her throat, then takes a sip of warm beer. “Horrible’s a little bit strong for people who’ve always spoiled you rotten, man.”

He shakes his head. “It’s not about me. It’s about my brother. Alex.”

Nora had no idea Joshua had a brother. She tells him as much.

“Yeah, I kinda... had half-forgotten him myself. But today, in psych class, the teacher went on about… you know, how common family neglect is in this country. About what it means for the child. And it unlocked some memories, I guess.” Joshua is playing with a ring he wears on a chain around his neck, a habit that means he’s nervous. Nora knows this because they’ve been friends since forever, and because she has the same habit - except what she wears around her neck is a locket, not a ring. She’s playing with it right now as well. 

“Like. You know?” he continues after a pause,  “You’re a child and you don’t know that your family is weird. Everything looks natural to you, you’re accustomed to it. But now, looking back, I can see how fucked up it was. But at the time, I just… didn’t, like…” 

He finally shrugs when he can't find the words.

Nora sighs. She thinks she remembers the brother now: he and Elle used to be friends, she’s pretty sure. “You can’t feel guilty about stuff that happened when you were a kid. Besides, even in the best families, siblings fight, you know.” She’s about to add that even she and Elle had their own disagreements, but it dies on her lips. She’s been over her sister’s whole thing for years by now, but… maybe Josh’s emotions are affecting her. Elle's name is a sudden knot in her throat.

She drowns it with a long swig of her own beer.

Joshua shakes his head again. “We never fought, though. Not that I remember. Alex never took it out on me. He... I remember him being a pretty great older brother.”

“Do you miss him?” She’s afraid that if she keeps fidgeting with the locket, the chain might break.

And she doesn’t want the chain to break. Even if Elle’s picture weighs like a ball-and-chain, even if it chafes, even if she wakes up breathless some nights because it twists tightly around her neck.

“Yeah.”

An awkward silence. This conversation has as many pauses as words. “Why don’t you call him, Josh?”

“Can’t.” 

“It doesn’t matter if you think he’s angry at you, you know? You can apologize if he is. But if you were the only person in the family he got along with he might just be missing you too.”

“No, like, I would, but I don’t know his number.”

That gets her attention. “Did he run away from home?”

“I guess? Kinda. Dad said he joined the military.”

The military? Elle wouldn’t have. Not her sister’s profile: Elle would argue with the TV whenever George Bush came on, rant at Nora about how stupid wars were. Oh well. It’s strangely disappointing to realize Josh can’t try and reconnect with his brother, though also a relief. Putting herself in his place… She isn’t sure she’d have the guts to go after her sister if she could. Being abandoned by her once had been enough.

“..ter?”

“Huh?”

“I said,” Josh points to her locket, “Is that your sister?”

After a moment of hesitation, she takes it off and hands it to him. He opens the lid, looks inside, and hands it back with the same stony expression. “I have a bunch of pictures of her, you know.” 

“Huh? No, I don’t, how would I know that? Why do you have pictures of my sister?”

“I used to run around with a camera when I was a child, remember? I know I have a bunch of pictures of you too.” He makes a noise that’s too sad to be a chuckle, and Nora feels a little pathetic, but she wants to see her sister’s face so badly. She only has that stupid, tiny locket photo where Elle looks about ten, and she’s worried she’s already forgotten what Elle looks like as an adult. “I wanna see them. Fuck, Josh, why didn’t you tell me?” 

He shrugs. “Never came up. I don’t have them with me though. They’ve gotta be in a box back home, Mom never throws stuff away.” There’s a pause before he sighs and looks her in the eye again. “Say, Thanksgiving’s next week. Come home with me. We’ll just like, crash there for the night, look for the pictures, eat some turkey. Then I can ask my parents for Alex's number or something.”

Josh knows Nora hates that holiday almost as much as she hates their hometown. He’s not really inviting her for Thanksgiving, he’s asking her for emotional support. Had asked her out tonight for this sole purpose, she realizes.

“Sounds good,” she nods, and puts her hands on her lap, not touching the locket anymore, no matter how much the chain itches against her skin.

 


 

Lilian hugs Joshua and takes Nora’s hand, says she’s glad to have them. She’s a woman of few words, but she’s genuinely happy to see her son. Nora’s heart melts a little and it surprises her to see how unaffected Josh is. He kisses Lilian’s cheek perfunctorily and pleads a headache, and sure enough, he looks tired. Lilian chides him lightly for not taking care of himself - how motherly! - and goes to the kitchen, from which emanates a wonderful smell of roasted turkey. 

Joshua watches his mom leave, then looks at Nora and shrugs. She’s once again stung by a bit of jealousy. It’s hard to imagine receiving this much attention from your parents without having to beg for it, without going giddy with it, without going a little crazy. But Josh just takes a deep breath and gets distracted by something on the wall. 

The walls, Nora notices, are full of images of lake scenery, embroidered psalms and pictures of Joshua: baby Joshua, graduation day Joshua, birthday Joshua, Joshua and Adam, Joshua and Lilian, Joshua and Adam and Lilian. She and Josh are now walking around the room and finding different versions of him at every corner. There’s even a picture of Joshua and Nora and some other kids - one of whom Nora vaguely remembers as Joey, the mayor’s son, one of their childhood playmates. In this picture, the children are holding up copies of Alice in the Wonderland. Must have been a school reading project. There is an adult woman in the distance, her back turned; for a second Nora wonders if there is any chance that might be Elle.  

It dawns on Nora that Josh is looking for his brother in these pictures. But Alex is nowhere to be seen.

Adam comes up from the basement. The lines on his forehead do not ease even when he flashes Josh a smile full of pride, a joy that looks incongruous on that otherwise stern face. Lilian brings their attention to the food on the table, so they sit down, pray, and engage in small talk - things Nora only knows are family-normal because she has watched plenty of TV. 

“By the way,” Josh adds a little too casually, “I wanna tell Alex that I’m going to college and all. Can you guys give me his number?”

The change in the mood is so sudden and intense, it’s like someone flipped a switch at midnight. The smiles die down, effect immediate. Lilian gapes like a fish out of the water, and looks helplessly at Adam, whose face is twisted like he’s tasted shit in his food. He gives Lilian a warning look, and she casts her eyes down, suddenly docile and obedient. The whiplash throws Nora off completely. She knows that a stranger like her should disappear to the bathroom for at least twenty minutes for the sake of propriety, but she doesn’t; she looks at Josh, who, bewildered, glances at her for support, and then to his father again. He’s clearly as taken aback as Nora is.

“Dad, what’s wrong?”

“We don’t have Alex’s number.”

“Uh. His address?"

Adam shakes his head.

"Well, can’t you call one of your army buddies and find out? He’s in the army, isn’t he?”

“Don’t press the issue, Joshua.”

“What the hell, Dad? I-”

“Language!”

“I just wanna talk to my brother! Why are you guys so weird about it?” Nora hadn’t appreciated before how much this issue had been bothering Josh, but she does now, when a dam breaks loose somewhere in him and he plants both fists on the table. It’s suddenly obvious he has been thinking about this for much, much longer than since his last psych class or whatever. “Why don’t we have any pictures of Alex in the house? Why does nobody talk about him, like he doesn’t exist? Did you guys fight, did you throw him out? I have a right to know where my brother is!”

“He’s dead!” Lilian chokes out. It’s quiet, but it echoes heavily in the room for a thousand, a million years.

When Josh speaks again, he sounds like a child. “Dead...?” 

Nora hates the creeping guilt on his face. She imagines Elle, dead, and their mother hiding it from her intentionally for years. The thought fills her with so much rage that for a moment she almost forgets this is mere imagination, and not something that actually happened. 

Adam deflates. “Killed in action... in Afghanistan. It happens.”

“But… the pictures…I thought you guys hated him?”

The father, the mother and the son: all look like they have been slapped, and Nora feels no sympathy for anyone, except for Alex. Elle had always been right about the army, what business does a kid have going to the middle of fucking nowhere to do what? To die? A second later she thinks she’s going mad, because what is she feeling sorry for Alex for? She doesn’t even know what he looks like, barely remembered his existence until Josh brought him up. She knows all this anger she feels is on her own behalf, her unfinished business with her own sister, but knowing doesn’t help. Are Adam and Lilian so different from her mom? Adults in Shepherd’s Glen are unreliable, cold, and cruel. Manipulative and selfish. She has always wanted this miserable town to burn.

Adam spews some tacky bullshit about how they had never hated their eldest son. “Pictures make your mom sad. Your brother was a hero, and he...he died for us, Josh. To protect his homeland, his family. Now, don’t you ever bring this up again. The way to honor his sacrifice is to make the best of the life you have now.”

Joshua stares at nothing, baffled, and Nora waits for his reaction for exactly five seconds. When it doesn’t come, she stands up, resolute. She’s livid.

“Joshua. I want the pictures.”

Joshua seems to remember she’s there.

“What pictures?”, Adam seems alarmed.

“My stuff, Dad. In the attic, I’ll.. I’ll go get it.” He throws one last guilty look at his mother, who’s crying now, and gets up like a stunned man. At the limit of her patience, Nora yanks his arm hard, pulling him towards the stairs and making sure to bring her backpack with her, just in case.

In case of what? She doesn’t know. She doesn’t want to know. Nora has always had anger issues, but the thing seething inside her seems to warrant another name. It is too big, too painful. It’s almost holy. Elle. That's what that emotion is called. I just want to see Elle’s face and get the fuck away from this town full of monsters .

She’s sitting on a trunk, thinking, when Josh crouches on the floor next to her and opens up a box. Inside is an old camera wrapped in a plastic bag, and a bunch of artless photos. Joshua lays them on the floor and Nora sits down next to him, browsing the pictures in silence: they haven’t said a word to each other yet. 

There are so many memories in those photos: their whole childhood, documented. But of all the traumas this city has inflicted on her, there’s only one she’s interested in. There is a mounting tightness in her chest, and it only grows sharper when she finally finds what she’s looking for.

It’s a photo of Elle and Alex. They both have toilet paper wrapped around parts of their body - clearly a goofy no-effort Halloween mummy costume. They look like high schoolers, way younger than she and Josh are right now. Alex is all big: big shoulders, big grin, big hands holding out a big bag of candy, like he’s offering her some. Elle is a shortie, but there's something confident and solid in her smile. She’s talking to someone who’s mostly out-of-frame, holding their hand, and Nora realizes it can’t be anyone but her. Elle’s grip on her hand looks so firm, yet so gentle.

Nora kinda misses the rage she felt a minute ago; the feeling of loss that replaces it is unbearable. Looking up, she sees Josh staring at another photo, his face oddly scrunched up. He passes her the photo: it’s Alex, and behind him, a lake.

“Dad never let me go to the lake, but sometimes Alex snuck out with me and took me there. He helped me play hooky from school too, if I asked. He hated it, but if I asked him, he’d do it.” His breath is a little ragged. Is he trying not to cry? “You know, it’s not even that he’s dead. I mean, it is, but I feel like I had already killed him, you know? Like... How could I forget my own brother? He was in god-knows-where getting shot and I was just fucking around. I didn’t have a clue. All these memories, and I… I just can’t believe I forgot.”

Eventually, she puts a comforting hand on Josh's arm. He lays his head on her shoulder then, and it’s an awkward position, but they stay like that a while, until he composes himself. She can’t stop thinking about her sister, wondering if maybe Elle has tried to contact her and their mother has thwarted them somehow, but it doesn’t seem plausible. It doesn’t feel like Margaret to care enough to meddle like that, and anyway Nora officially changed her address years ago - letters addressed to her at her mom’s would have been forwarded. She looks at the picture she's holding, the one where Elle is holding her hand. Elle’s mouth is open, in the middle of saying something to her in that picture, in that unreachable past. 

Maybe she’s telling Nora to let go.

“Let’s go, Josh," she says, patting his shoulder as gently as she can, "I don’t wanna stay here. I’ll drive, you can sleep.”

“Now that’s dumb," is his weak reply as he wipes his face with his hand. "It’s too late for  another three-hour drive."

“I can do it. Thanksgiving’s ruined for you guys anyway, and I’d rather drive than stay here with this whole mood going on.”

“Yeah.” Josh acquiesces so quickly that she knows he wants to be gone as badly as she does. “Okay.”

He doesn’t even say goodbye to his parents; they’re not in the living room or anywhere else that Josh and Nora can see, though the food's still sitting out on the table. Josh brings the photos with him and looks at them as she drives, occasionally describing them to her so she can keep her eyes on the road. He finds Elle in three more pictures, and puts them aside for Nora without her asking him to, and she wonders at how quickly he grasped the depth of the wound she has kept secret from everyone since the day she realized Elle was gone and not coming back. It figures, though: he has a similar wound now. 

The number of pictures featuring Alex makes Nora think he and Josh were very close, and spent a lot of time together. Wild that Josh really stopped thinking about his brother at some point, but children are innocently cruel like that. She only treasures and resents Elle the way she does because she had no one else.

“Let’s visit his grave, Josh,” she tells him over a milkshake during a rest stop. 

Josh doesn’t reply for a long time. 

“Yeah. No, you’re right. Let’s find out where his grave is. I mean, soldiers killed in action are supposed to be treated like heroes, right? I wonder where they buried him.”

He does a quick google using the local wifi, finds a few websites, and nothing turns up. Disappointed, he clicks his tongue and puts his phone away. “I’ll check later on a computer. There’s no hurry anyway.”

She hums and stares out the window. After a couple moments, he speaks up again.

“You know, the thing I said about that class…”

“Yeah? The psych class?”

“Actually, it was me who brought the subject up. In class, I mean. I dreamed about my brother out of the blue a few months ago, and then couldn't stop thinking about him. More like a nightmare, actually. Kinda messed up... anyway, that’s not what I wanted to say, just... do you… have those? With your sister?”

“Yeah.” Nora tries to sound as casual as possible. “Lately, not so much. But sometimes I dream about her, yeah.”

Another pause.

“You don’t know where she is?”

Nora shakes her head.

“Do you wanna find out?”

Yes. No. Of course I want to. I think about it all the time . “I mean, she ran away from home. If I find her, she might just run away from me again, so what’s the point, yeah?”

“I don’t know. Don’t you at least wanna know?”

Nora squeezes her milkshake a little. An impulse compels her to crush the cup, make a big mess. She doesn’t.

“Ok, listen, I’m sorry,” Josh says, leaning back against the booth. “I don’t mean to pry or anything, but… you know? We could do this. I find my brother’s grave and you, you find out where your sister is, and then maybe we can, like. Deal with it. Put the ghost to sleep, exorcise it, whatever. Some closure. I don’t know, but we deserve it.”

It actually sounds like a good idea, Nora lies to herself. She brings her hand up, squeezes it again, looks at Josh. 

He looks tired and so sad. He’s not playing any games - he's completely earnest, she realizes, and it hits her with full force that Josh is the closest thing she has to a true family. He’s asking her for help just like a little brother would. It’s how she would have asked Elle, once upon a time.

Against her better judgement and according to her true wishes, she agrees. 

 


 

Alex Shepherd is a ghost. 

They look for him for weeks. They make phone calls, but can’t find him in the military, much less in a cemetery. If he’s really dead, there’s no record of where he was buried. No Facebook account, no digital trail: Joshua’s brother is gone.

Nora’s sister is no better. They find plenty of Elle Holloways and she checks them one by one, but none of them are her. It’s been months of searching and Nora is at a loss. Would her sister change her name? For what? Was she running away from someone? Did she get married and take a new last name?

Josh plasters some photos of Alex on his wall; she carries one of Elle in her wallet. She feels a little insane for it, but if one day she needs to ask someone “have you seen my sister?”, she’ll have a better picture on hand than the one in the locket. 

They get so desperate that they drive down to Shepherd’s Glen again, to talk to the interstate bus drivers. None of them recognize the people in the pictures, and Nora doesn’t know what she expected. Josh suspects Alex and Elle might have skipped town together, and Nora sees the sense of it, but at the same time doesn’t. Then again, she never truly saw the sense in Elle skipping town, period. Not without Nora in tow.

“I need to ask my parents,” Josh says. He doesn’t ask her about her finals, or talk about his, but she imagines he’s been doing as well with schoolwork as she has, which is not at all. So far this whole thing has brought them the opposite of closure.

They’re sitting outside in a park, because it’s a lovely spring night and there’s hardly anyone around, so they can drink without worrying too much. Nora knows bringing up the topic with his folks again will be painful, and thinks that a good friend would tell Josh to let it go, move on.

But she wants to know. She needs to. Josh’s parents are apparently so out of the loop that they didn't count on the power of the internet to uncover bald-faced lies like the ones they fed her and Josh. Instead of killing the fire, they fed the flames. To think she almost felt sorry for Lilian, when it was that horrible woman who came up with the lie in the first place.

Then again, Alex might really be dead. He might also have fuck all to do with Elle. But there’s only one way to know for sure, so she says, “Yeah.” 

“Yeah,” Josh replies.

They are silent for a while. The wind makes an agreeable noise. 

“Hey Josh?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you resent me? For like...you know. Encouraging you.”

Josh shakes his head; his hand is on his ring again, fidgeting.

“I know this is stupid, but like… I do resent something. It’s definitely not you, but I never know who, exactly. I resent my parents, more and more each day. But I feel sorry for them, sometimes, because what if Alex is in the wrong? Then I resent him instead. But I know that's not right, cause I remember things now. Every other day I dream up a memory, or like, recall something I had forgotten. Messed up stuff. My mom ignored Alex, my dad only spoke to him to tell him off. I remember once I shoplifted gum and it was Alex who got punished for it. 

“That sort of stuff happened all the time, he was always being grounded or sent out or getting punished for no reason at all. Dad was constantly telling me shit like, ‘Do you wanna be a good-for-nothing like your brother, Josh? Do you wanna end up like him?’, like he was crazy or sick or worthless... just messed up things to say to a child. And the worst thing of all is that I don’t think my brother resented me. I think he loved me. But I was a dumbass kid. 

“This fucking ring -” he says, taking the chain from his neck, “my father gave it to me one day and told me I was the future of the family line, that I couldn’t show Alex. How fucked up is that? It’s like he was always planning to throw Alex away or something. But I can’t for the life of me think of a reason for all this… fuck, this abuse. This hatred... it’s unbelievable. He wasn’t a bad kid. I remember him making me help around the house to save Mom some trouble, little things like that... Fuck!” And with that he topples back onto the grass, covering his face with his hands. “If he hated me it would be so much easier, I wouldn’t have to think about anything at all, but… but I just remember love. It’s like a curse.”

Nora looks at the stars. The night breeze is fragrant and gentle, almost a caress. 

“Shepherd’s Glen is such a fucking nightmare, isn’t it?” She asks, distant. “It looks so calm and pretty and prosperous. But it’s no good at all. It eats something in us, I think. Like I left it behind, but part of me is still there, held hostage forever. And I carry part of it with me whether I want it or not. It’s a messed up town.”

“Yeah, but I feel like…”

Like you benefited from it nonetheless , Nora wants to say. She felt that way about him too, sometimes, though she's always known it was too petty a feeling to acknowledge. It’s not Josh’s fault he was the apple of his parents’ eye, just like it wasn’t her fault that her mother gave her as much attention as she did a speck of dust.

“Don’t resent yourself, no matter what,” she says instead. “We were children. We weren’t supposed to protect anyone - people were supposed to protect us .”

“Did Elle protect you?”

Nora remembers, more than anything, hunger. The level of neglect required for her to go hungry when her mother had a judge's paycheck seems almost impossible. She remembers Elle dragging her out of the house and taking her to a diner, or bringing food home on weekends. She also remembers Elle fixing the toilet, Elle teaching her how to do laundry, Elle cuddling her to sleep, Elle helping her with homework. She conjures the image of Elle in that halloween photograph: a child, no matter how grown-up she seemed in Nora’s memories. Elle was her sister, not her mother, and maybe the stress of taking care of Nora was one of the reasons she wanted to bail.

“Yeah, she did. But you got me thinking, Josh.”

“Me? About what?”

“Maybe the reason she left was that she was escaping something bad, I don’t know. But I’m an adult now.” She squeezes the empty bottle of beer, the only reason why she’s being this open, this vulnerable out loud. “Maybe I can take care of her instead, this time around.”

 


 

In the end they don’t confront Joshua’s parents, because when they get there neither Adam nor Lilian are home. Their car is not in the garage. In a fit of madness they decide to search the house for a clue, anything to prevent them going back empty-handed. The doors are all locked, but they climb in through an attic window and Josh finds a master key hidden up there. There’s not much in the rest of the house, but they find a bunch of cryptic papers in the basement that sound awfully like cult stuff, and a moldy old tape in one of the kitchen drawers. 

They play the tape on the Shepherds’ old answering machine. The recording is short: Joshua and Alex are goofing around like kids do, pretending they’re recording a radio show. Then Adam finds them, flips out for no reason, sends Alex away with barely contained rage, then warns Josh not to play with his brother ever again, talking about Alex like he’s some sort of lunatic. Adam's all disgust, and he's trying to instill that in Josh. It’s messed up; Nora’s been extra sensitive since this whole mess started, and so has Josh, but she’s pretty sure this is fucked up in any context. The tape plays on empty for a moment before they press “stop”. 

The next stop is Deputy Wheeler. A silent man, his usual frown smooths out when Nora asks after Elle. “You look a lot like your sister,” is his surprisingly soft reply. She suddenly remembers that Elle worked at the police station for a while one summer.

“We’re looking for her, and for Alex Shepherd. Do you know...?

Wheeler looks away.

“Lots of kids disappear around this area, you know.”

She and Josh exchange looks. “What do you mean?”

“Exactly what I said. Listen, don’t go getting into trouble.”

“There’s no trouble, Wheeler,” Josh intervenes diplomatically, “We just both miss our siblings, and our parents aren’t being very forthcoming. Dad made up some story about Alex joining the army and dying, but now we know it’s bullshit, pardon my language. And Judge Holloway won’t say anything.” That’s a lie - they haven’t actually asked her mother for information, but Nora knows this is the only possible outcome.

“Please, Deputy,” she says with all the openness she can muster, “I miss my sister. I just wanna see her again.”

He looks at them heavily for a couple of seconds that feel like eternity. Then he looks away.

“I would check Silent Hill. It’s the closest town in the area, and the first stop for anyone leaving Shepherd’s Glen. Folks there are weird, though, so be very careful who you talk to, and what you talk about, if you get my gist.”

She doesn’t, and she doesn’t think Josh does either, but they both nod. They thank the deputy and turn to leave, but Wheeler stops them.

“One thing,” he says, and then rummages his drawer. He takes out a pistol, bullets, and a map of Silent Hill, and places them on the table. “Take this.”

“What for?” Nora asks, eyes wide.

“Safety,” he answers. He’s dead serious. 

“I don’t know...” she starts to say, but Josh moves, takes the offered items and checks the gun with an ease that is at the same time exhilarating and terrifying. He is the son of an ex-soldier, after all.

“Don’t worry,” he says with a grimness totally at odds with his usual calm attitude. “I’ll teach you.”

 


 

Josh is quiet the whole way to Silent Hill, and Nora doesn’t feel like speaking either. It's weird, after being alone with her pain for so long, to feel her friend going through such a similar experience, entering the world of loss and obsession she thought she left behind years ago. It does her good to see Josh’s misplaced guilt for not being there for Alex turning into what it should always have been: anger at the adults who manipulated him into indifference. 

She’s thinking of her mom again, her apathy. Could it be feigned? Nora has always blamed Elle for running away, but what if her sister was kicked out? What if her mother  lied about the whole thing? What if Elle has been alone all this time, and waiting for Nora to find her? 

That thought hurts. And it hurts so much better and so much worse than the alternative she has been living with.

In Silent Hill they crash at a cheap motel and try to organize a plan of action, but it’s kinda late and they’re exhausted, so they go to bed. She has a nightmare where two slender hands choke her with uncanny tenderness, weirdly familiar, and wakes up to a scene almost as strange: Joshua sitting on his bed, mechanically taking photos of the blackness right in front of him, then lowering his cellphone and just staring ahead. She can't see his expression, or make herself call out to him. He seems to be saying something very softly. He raises his hand slowly, reaching out.

In the dark, she reaches for Elle's hand, like she always did whenever she woke up afraid. 

She finds it, gives it a gentle squeeze, lets her sister spoon her, and drifts easily back to sleep.

They’re eating a mediocre breakfast at a diner the next morning when he brings it up himself. He looks like he hasn’t slept at all.

“I’ve been seeing Alex.”

“Like… dreams?”

“Yeah, but not just that. It’s like I can see him out of the corner of my eye, just like… looking at me.”

He sees her shiver and rushes to add,“Not like, in a creepy way. More like, sad. Present. Comforting, like... like he’s watching over me… oh, god.” He puts his head in his hands, suddenly looking so small. “I sound crazy. Maybe I am crazy, I don’t fucking know. I see him outside, sometimes. On the street, out of the corner of my eye. Last night I talked to him, I swear I did, except of course I didn’t, I was talking to myself.”

“Josh…”

“And I dream that I’m drowning almost every night now, and the whole time I’m trying to breathe but I just keep waiting for Alex to come and save me. I’m losing my goddamn mind, Nora.”

Nora shivers again, but not out of fear. She leans in and confesses, with not a hint of doubt in her voice,

“I have been seeing Elle, too.”

She expected Josh to freak out, but the opposite happens. His shoulders relax as the tension lifts. He looks at her with his mouth open and a look of pity and pure sympathy, and, for a very brief moment,

he smiles. 

They pay and go to cruise the town a little while trying to think of what to do, plagued by the same feelings of lightheadedness and vague dread. All of a sudden, Josh shakes her shoulder violently and points at a car driving too fast. It disappears before she can get a good look, but Josh swears it’s Adam’s. It has just left a male penitentiary - “Overlook”. 

Joshua goes crazy. He’s certain that’s where his brother must be, but the receptionist insists there isn’t an Alex Shepherd there, and says he’s gonna call the cops if they don’t scram. So they do, and return during the evening shift with a bunch of twenty dollar bills. At first she thinks this is what makes the night receptionist much more agreeable and willing, but then it becomes clear that the man, name tag Frank Dombrowski, just wants to talk to someone who will listen to what he’s saying. He’s overburdened with stress.

“There’s something crazy going on here, some real fucked up shit. All sorts of people come in at night, and they don’t always come in through the front door, you get me? There are passages, like, other entrances and rows of cells that oughta have been abandoned, but sometimes you hear voices, and man, just… chains, fucking chainsaws I think… You might think I’m crazy but if you’re here wasting your fucking money trying to find a guy who’s not in the records, I think you fucking know I’m telling the truth. You know more about this, this fucking… nightmare hellhole than I do, is what I think.”

There is a part of Nora that knows this is crazy talk, too much like the half-assed plot of some horror B-movie. But she speaks up, surprising herself.

“Are women kept in here too?”

“I mean, I haven’t seen it, but I’ll believe it. Women come in here sometimes, and I don’t even mean inmate wives or whatever, but like… I don’t know. High-class women, church hags...respectable people creeping into a penitentiary in the middle of the night? Fuck. If they’re keeping people here… could they be keeping women? Sure, fuck, they might be keeping aliens for all I know. Shit.”

“Show us,” Joshua says, at the same time Nora says, “We want to see it.”

They share a look. Josh is just as terrified as she is, but the harmony of their feelings almost warrants a smile. His hand inches towards her, and she meets it halfway with her own, gives it a reassuring squeeze.

Dombrowski looks at them,, at the walls, at the cameras. He bites his lips. “I can’t. This might be bad for me.”

“Please, sir. My sister…”

“And my brother,” Josh begs.

“You hate this place anyway. Why don’t you let us in and then skip town?”

“We could give you more money if you need it. Get yourself the hell away from here.”

The guy looks at them now, earnestly, and there’s something broken in his gaze, like he has been defeated too many times before. He breathes, pats the pocket where the money is, breathes again.

“I have a brother, too. That’s why I came to this shithole of a town, thought he had come here... Bastard did some crazy shit back home, shot a footballer’s dog and then his leg, then ran away. Got a job here thinking I might find him, but haven't found a trace of him, so I gave up.”

They wait patiently. The man sighs, resigned, then takes their money out of his pocket and puts it on the table.

“I know there’s a passage behind a basswood tree in the yard. I can’t take you or go with you because it’ll be hell to pay if someone notices I’m not here and shit, but you’re smart kids, ain’t you. I’ve never… shit, I’ve never had the balls to snoop around, but if you guys… If you guys find something, use this money to get the hell outta there. And don’t you tell anyone I helped you cause this can mess up my life even more than it’s already messed. Hell, I always figure a news reporter would show up one day and uncover all this shit, but in the end it’s two kids missing their family. Figures.”

They take the money back, thank him and turn around to leave, but Nora stops shortly.

“What’s your brother’s name?”

“...Edward. Eddie, we called him.”

“If we find him there we’ll let you know. I promise.”

 


 

Her mother is on the floor, groaning, clutching an arm bent at an odd angle. Judge Margaret Holloway was about to torture Joshua with a drill gun when Nora brought her down with a steel pipe that was lying around. 

“You monster, you bitch!” She's screaming her lungs out, bringing the pipe down again on Margaret’s leg. “What did you do to my sister?!”

“Nora,” Joshua rasps, “Elle is...”

But she does not even hear the end of his phrase; she only has eyes for Mother. Mother, Margaret, her elegant features twisted with pain, gasping for breath. Nora only realizes that she’s dropped the steel pipe after it hits the floor with a metallic clang. A second later she’s straddling her mother’s body, hands tight around her neck, nails digging into skin. Margaret buckles under her, gasping incoherently, her eyes turning in their sockets.

“Ungrateful! I... chose… you!…”

“You killed my sister!! You took her away from me! How could you do this to me?!” All of her goes into the chokehold: loss, pain, betrayal, longing and rage, rage, rage; she’s straddling her mother’s convulsing body as she chokes out broken variations of Nora! Nora! Nora!

Nora...

For a moment, infinitesimal yet vast enough for Nora's entire soul, Elle’s arms are around her. 

It's safe now, love .

She looks down. Margaret’s tongue is lolling out, her lips purple. Dead, not a question. Slowly, Nora removes her hands, lifting one finger at a time from the snug grooves they dug into her mother’s neck. Joshua is still tied down, tired and distraught, and he’s saying something… his lips move, but she can’t hear him. Her ears are buzzing. Rage leaves her slowly, and all of a sudden there are tears streaming down her face. 

Grief is anger’s sister: they are never far from one another. 

Is hard to see between her tears. Sobbing, Nora gets up and walks away from the body, refusing to look at it anymore. She uses the abandoned drill gun to tear the knots on the rope -  it’s cumbersome, but she’s not thinking clearly. Joshua gets up gingerly, pulls her into an unsteady, desperate hug, attempts pointless words of comfort before giving up. He’s crying too, just much softer; they’re both shaking, trying to even their breathing, steadying themselves with each other. 

Reality beats all of their nightmares combined. 

She's still crying when she puts the drill gun on her belt, and gets the steel pipe again. Joshua wipes his face, gets the gun he received from Wheeler a lifetime ago. His posture is surprisingly confident, despite his wet face and ragged breathing.

“We gotta move. Before Curtis comes back.”

She nods. 

They navigate the underground maze, and eventually arrive at a room with four tombs. It was impossible to parse all of her mom’s crazy talk, but this, at least, had become clear: one sacrifice from each of the founding families, every fifty years, to keep the town safe from God’s curse. Shepherd’s Glen, the blessed city, a sort of modern Omelas.

What a joke.

Finally, there she is: Elle Holloway, the newest name inscribed on the first tomb, the grave of the Holloway family sacrifices. Nora’s hollow, like there’s nothing left to feel anymore. The smooth stone of the lid is dusty when she touches it. Elle, Elle, Elle. I thought I was finding you, but I was just losing you one last time .

They see other familiar names: Joseph Bartlett, Scarlet Finch. And on the last tomb, the white rabbit they had chased down this hole.

Joshua is kneeling, caressing his brother’s name on the steel plaque like it's a living thing. Nora sees him swallow, sees the tears fall down his cheeks. Part of her wonders how he can still cry. She feels like she’s made of dust. 

He breaks down little by little, and she turns away, sits on the floor with her back to the Holloway tomb. The world fades away in a haze and she hugs her knees, fading too.

Elle, Elle, Elle… my sister…

Nora.

Elle…

Nora!

She jolts awake just in time to see Curtis pointing a shotgun straight at her. 

Nora scrambles out of the way, almost too late; the shot grazes her leg and she yelps in pain. But Joshua is surprisingly fast, and suddenly Curtis is on the floor, pressing a hand to the two bullet wounds in his chest. She pulls herself to her feet, hops over to him, and steps down hard on his hand to make sure he won’t try for one last shot. Josh approaches with his gun trained on the body. Curtis chokes on his own blood as Nora and Josh watch impassively, stone-like. They watch as death overtakes the cruel man at their feet. It feels normal.

Slowly, Nora hobbles back to her family's tomb and pushes on the lid, but it’s too heavy. With Joshua’s help, though, she manages to move it. They open all the tombs. Rationally, Nora knows it’s just a symbolic gesture, but it feels like a crucial duty. The victims are owed this much, at least, because Elle deserves the sky, not a claustrophobic stone box. So do Alex and everyone else, and she and Josh, too; they all deserve the world, and truth, and justice.

She gets the shotgun from Curtis and ammunition from his vest pocket. Josh takes some photos. They head out.

 


 

It’s a little crazy to realize Adam and Lilian still have no idea what’s been going on: they think Joshua went back to college after Thanksgiving like the good boy he is, and forgot all about his troublesome brother. All it took was a call from Nora saying that Josh was hurt and they hurried to his side, no questions asked. Now they’re here on the public shore of Toluca Lake, where she has the shotgun trained on them. Josh chained Lillian’s hands together and filled Adam’s pockets and boots and underwear and coat with stones, then put them in a shitty wooden rowboat they found nearby, so it would look like a murder-suicide if their bodies were ever found. Lilian is terrified, Adam is raging, but more than anything they are simply confused.

“Do you feel betrayed?” Josh asks, very calm, very tired.

Adam’s voice is tight with adrenaline. Nora wonders if he fully appreciates his position. “There is so much you don’t understand-”

“I got the crash course from Judge Holloway, don’t worry about it. I don’t care about any of that crap. What I want to know is, do you feel betrayed? Mom, do you feel betrayed?”

“We never betrayed you, Joshua!” Lilian gets out between hiccups. “My son! We would never betray you!”

“It was Alex you betrayed. My brother you killed.”

This elicits a loud, strangled sob from Lilian. Adam is sweating profusely. “We did not have a choice!” he screams. “We did everything we did out of love! It was all for you, for this town!”

“Well, I don’t want it. I want my brother.”

“There isn’t a single day… a single day when your mother and I didn’t regret doing it, but that’s the weight of responsibility. When you’re a man, you’ve got to make the hard choices that no one else will. That’s the true meaning of duty, and if you don’t understand that, it is because I coddled you too much,” Adam says ruefully, shamelessly, shaking his head. “And you’re gonna regret this as much as we did. Your brother is dead and we are alive.” 

“Wow, you’re wrong about everything. I won’t regret this, for one. But me and Nora are the ones being moved by responsibility here, not you. We are gonna do what you horrible people couldn’t - we’re putting an end to this. So yeah, it’s personal, but also not. But old man, you’re so wrong about Alex. Cause you two are gonna die and I’m gonna forget about you, but Alex stays with me. I freed him from that tomb you trapped him in and I’m not leaving him behind again, no matter what. We'll never be apart again.”

Nora doesn’t need to look at Joshua to know he’s having some sort of epiphany, because she feels it too. It's all true, what Josh has just said, and her soul is so light in that moment that only the ghost of a sisterly hand on her shoulder grounds her, brings her back to the present. It’s time to act, lest Adam try something stupid: she nods once and walks to the boat, shoves at it hard with her foot. 

Lilian screams, but the lakeshore is deserted. Adam puts his arms around her like he’s going to try and save her, then thinks twice, resigns himself, looks at them. The disappointed father act has never looked more fake. “This doesn’t end with us, son,” Adam says, lamely.

“We’ve done our homework,” Josh shoots back with borderline hysterical sarcasm. “Don’t worry, you won’t be lonely in hell too long. Judge Holloway is waiting for you, and we’ll be sending the Bartletts and Doctor Fitch down shortly.”

They watch the boat drift at gunpoint, unhurriedly. When they know it’s over deep water, Josh shoots two holes in it with Adam’s own gun, then throws the gun into the lake to complete the evidence - though they doubt any investigation team will put too much effort into anything else after they unearth the cult at Shepherd’s Glen. Their last stop that night is supposed to be the Police station where they’ll give Deputy Wheeler everything he needs to put this case together.

As an afterthought, Josh removes the chain with the family ring from around his neck and throws it too, but in another direction. It all ends here tonight.

They watch in silence for a long time, long after the bubbles stop coming to the surface, enjoying the company. Then they get in the car with the guns and ammo they found at Josh’s parents’ house and the four gallons of gasoline they got on the way back from Silent Hill, all piled into the trunk so it won’t crowd the back seats. It’s madness, pure and simple, and they might end up in jail despite this whole theatrical cover-up. Still, she feels lighter than she has in months, maybe years. She hasn’t touched her locket once since Silent Hill; she doesn’t need to, anymore. Never again.

Nora sighs, clutching Curtis’s shotgun, and it hits her like lightning that she’s just 23 years old, and Josh is 22. They missed trivia night, and she still doesn’t know if she failed her math class or not. She has to go back home, make a dentist appointment, write papers about things that don't matter in the slightest. Buy a new vacuum cleaner. A strangled laugh escapes her lips.

“I wonder if we’ve gone insane, Josh,” she remarks.

There’s a pause before he answers. She glances at him and sees the genuine smile on his face, without a trace of irony or malice: nothing but a pure, animal joy, something more heretical in Shepherd's Glen than any of the acts of violence they have exacted or are planning to exact. She knows this smile; she's wearing the same one.

“I don’t know, Nora. What does Elle think?”