Damien's laugh lures me through the dark street. The moon above bathes us in silver light, casts tall shadows, illuminates our path. The night air caresses my skin, disturbing my hair, but my body has been broken so many times I barely feel the cold bite. The air in my lungs is the only thing I am allowed to feel now. It's the only shred of life I have left now.
I know the pain that lies ahead, for I have walked this path many times before, yet still, I follow Damien's songlike call. I trace his footsteps up a narrow road. Serpentine, the path leads towards a house, golden light streaming through the windows. My feet crunch over pebbles and teeth, pebbles and teeth. Hairs stand on the back of my neck at the grating sound.
The front door is tall and imposing, weatherworn and flaking. Damien is nowhere to be found, but for this one moment, I am not worried about that. Instead, my mind sputters and struggles into gear, reviving my memory. This was the door to my house, when I was a real girl.
Damien's muffled laugh comes from inside the house. I open the door.
The living room has a sepia hue. There are paintings on the walls, trinkets on shelves, signs this was once a home. But disease has drained the life away. Wallpaper peels, stains tarnish the carpet, cobwebs infect every crevice.
A rusted music box sits in the corner, singing a broken tune. The mechanism is jarred, now forced to play a loop of unsatisfied notes. A little ballerina twirls, her dress torn, her lips missing.
When I was a real girl, I used to dream of being a dancer. Beautiful and graceful. Loved by all. Ballerinas, I envied and desired them.
A gurgling cry echoes from somewhere in the house.
In the back of my mind, I know I should be concerned. I know I was told to take care of her. But Damien's warm, flowing voice is calling to me. Nothing else matters now, and I continue in search of him.
A blast of dense, muggy air robs me of my breath. The room is stifling, glowing amber with fire in the windows. The walls sweat and bleed. I try to cry out for Damien, but my mouth is too parched for words to form.
This is the only pain I am susceptible to. And rightly so. I let her suffer this torture. I should feel her pain, her fear.
The humidity clouds my head and leaves me dazed. My body staggers forward with the grace of a drunkard. Vertigo sledge-hammers me to the ground. Sprawled across the floor, I silently beg for my brain to stop teetering on its axis. Breathing is an arduous task. Every shallow gulp of air feels like a nauseating punch to the gut. But I have to get up. Damien is calling for me.
My hands grab on to the wall, the only stable thing I can reach. Relying on the wall for balance, I gradually hoist myself up. When I stand tall, my heavy eyes spy a mirror. Beneath the grit and grime, I catch my reflection. I'm pretty. Not quite beautiful, not quite average.
When I was a real girl, Damien was the first boy to show me any attention. I always questioned why he would love someone so beneath him. I was nowhere near beautiful enough to be worthy of his love - and I was wrought with fear that I would somehow jeopardise our relationship.
Something becomes dislodged in my mouth. I spit into my hand. Out falls a small, bloody tooth. I run my tongue over my gums, feeling the haphazard mess of teeth . Perfectly straight. Wide gaps. A row that is only just starting to grow back from last time. Unable to control myself, I reach into my mouth and start pulling out what's left.
Fear strikes me, because now I know I'm not beautiful. No one would ever a love a girl with an ugly smile. Tears steam down my face as I keep dropping broken and bloody teeth to the floor.
Despite my plummeting self-esteem, I continue to heed Damien's call.
Large, rusted pipes jut in and out of the walls and ceilings like mangled fingers. A leaky pipe drips, and the delicate sound echoes down the dark, dark hall. My hands run along the metal walls, scoping my way through the labyrinth-like corridor. Eventually I come to a crossroad, and have no idea which way to turn. While I stand there, pondering my dilemma, a strangled scream comes rattling down one of the hallways.
The cry pierces through me. Someone is in pain, someone needs my help. I know the right thing to do would be to try and find them. I know this, but Damien's laugh drifts in from the opposite direction, and lures me away. The moment I decide which path I want to take, my body moves without my control.
The temperature plunges. Wisps of fog billow from my mouth with every haggard breath I take. Sweat freezes on my brow, and my lungs shrivel.
Directly opposite me is a soaring archway; but it is being guarded. Between me and the threshold is a creature that well could have once resembled a Doberman, but is now a warped and sinister creation of nightmares. Skin the raw colour of a blood blister. Pupiless eyes burn bright like coals. Strings of white, frothy saliva dripping from its black lips.
Fear grips me with an iron fist. There is no way in my right mind that I would dare cross this beast's path. But then, like the stirring of a music box, Damien's voice beckons for me. I want to dig my feet into the ground, scream for his call to stop, but I am powerless. My body moves without my control. After a few steps, I'm suddenly convinced that, yes, I do want to follow Damien, I do want to devote myself to him.
As I walk by, the dog seizes my leg. It bites down into my soft, puttylike flesh, and I jerk back. I try to tug my leg free, but to no avail. Tendons snap, I collapse, a broken puppet.
A dirty, faded pink romper-suit is left discarded. It is made to fit a newborn. The fabric is tattered, drenched, as if it has been dragged up from the bottom of a lake. I feel a pang of remorse as I tentatively touch the suit, thinking of her.
Damien's voice wafts towards me. It is selfish and wrong, a sin I will be expected to repent, but I brush the baby-suit away. I have no other thought than to love, and be loved by Damien.
My hands shoot forward and I start to crawl. I drag myself onward, gaining minimal distance from the beastly dog, the muscles and tissue in my leg stretching like taffy. My fingers slam desperately into the ground with the strong force of a tarantula bite. My nails crack on impact, forks of lightning splintering up the nail, up the bone.
When I was a real girl, I was driven by desire; the promise that a boy may love me. But now I'm a hollow wreck, following a hypnotizing song I'm not strong enough to fight.
I haul myself forward, and feel the flesh from my legs rip free as if I were taking off a pair of tight, tight jeans. A weight has been lifted off me, and I struggle to stand on wobbly legs. Blood gushes around me feet, but I am somehow still able to walk. Dazed and confused, I watch as the horrible mutt chews on the skin I've shed. He seems content, so I leave him be. I have more important things to worry about.
Skeletal legs carry me onward. My pace becomes sluggish as my calves disintegrate to mush. Blood and flesh leave a gingerbread trail in my wake.
When I was a real girl, my parents told me to watch her. I accepted the responsibility begrudgingly, as if she were a chore. The phone rang, Damien's name coming up on caller ID. I wouldn't dare ignore him, not when I was so blessed to be gifted by such a lovely boy. I left her for only a moment. A moment was all it took.
Eventually, the passageway ends, and the room opens into a large, circular dome. My surroundings are as dismal as a morgue: a blown-out light bulb hangs like a pendulum, shedding light on a mouldy ceiling and tiled floor. Situated in the centre of the room is a porcelain bathtub. The tap is left running, and water slowly trickles overside.
My insides shrink with dread. Without question, I already know what lies inside the tub. I cross the room in a dreamlike state, as if watching a movie play out behind my eyelids. I stand over the bath and look down.
The baby is swollen and grey. Its puffy, waterlogged body buoys in the stagnant water. Grief breaks my heart. Grief, followed by guilt. My job was to watch the baby, look after my sister. But Damien called me, and I failed.
My throat constricts, a tear slides down to my chin. It drips, splashing onto my shirt. Every night I see her once precious, but now distended face. Her eyes, milky and placid, the innocence leeched away. I see the baby girl that was robbed of the life she deserved, because of me.
This is my chance to redeem myself. My hands slip into the icy water, goosebumps prickling my skin. Gently, I cup her head. But before I can lift her from the water, Damien's voice plays to my ears. I freeze.
I'm torn. The baby or Damien: that is my dilemma.
The thought of love and being loved in return tugs at my heart like a nagging child. The baby's image ripples in the bathwater. She's not my baby, not really my concern. The only baby I should care for is the one I should one day have with Damien. He is the one.
I let go of the baby, letting her sink down, down, and I turn to continue my pursuit of Damien.
The room explodes, water, black as ink and just as heavy, crashing down over my head. Violent waves throw me off my feet and into the side of the bath. Eggshell ribs crack open, my insides spilling to the floor. My mouth opens to scream, but black water pools in, drowning out my voice.
Poison fills my lungs. Blood pounds behind my eyes. My body screams and burns for air. Instinctively I take a breath, only managing to gulp down more water. This is it. This is what she went through, because of me.
Darkness engulfs me, and I know I have nothing left in me to fight. Giving in, I let the water take me.
When I wake, the chaos has been washed from my skin. My body is new, though my mind is weak.
My eyes open to a tombstone. The name I had when I was a real girl is engraved on the front, bright and gold. Beneath reads my date of birth followed by my date of death.
My ears prick up to the sound of Damien's laugh. I see him, standing out on the distant horizon. His features are indistinguishable, but I know I want him. I want nothing more than to love, and be loved by him. Without thought or question, I take my first step. The moon above bathes us in silver light, casts tall shadows, illuminates my path.