There were many ways one could have described Grace Fields House. Despite it’s… shortcomings, the memories of the orphanage which they had called home for all their lives still painted a picture of warmth, comfort, and all around happiness for all the kids. Image which became all the more vivid when compared to the harshness of the woods.
Where the wooden floors and ochre walls of Grace Fields radiated cosiness, the thick trunks covered in moss evoked a feeling of cold which was only pushed away by the dancing flames of the campfire.
As he let his mind wander at the sight of the fire, Ray poked at the burning logs with a stick, being careful not to spread any ember towards the roots of the nearby trees.
Even though the night was growing colder by the minute, he didn’t want to go to bed just yet. After all, he had spent a good amount of time convincing Emma to rest and let him keep watch for the night, he wasn’t going to cut her sleep short. Noticing the stick in his hand grew hotter, he pulled it back before it caught on fire.
Ray looked at the blackened tip of the wood, thinking about the heat of the flames. On impulse, he wrapped his fingers around the end of the stick, only to let go almost immediately. He opened and closed his hand a couple of times to make sure he didn’t get hurt. Nothing but a few dark spots remained, and soon the stinging pain subsided.
Was Emma more hurt when she caught that match?
His mind drifted back to the night of their escape. So many things had happened in such a short span of time, it was all kind of a blur. The pungent smell of oil, however, managed to waft its way to the forefront of his mind, reminding him of the sensation of the oil on his skin, soaking his hair and clothes.
He glanced at the stick’s blackened tip, and grabbed it once more. It was still warm, though the burning heat had faded away. As he held it, Ray couldn’t help but wonder how the flames would feel over his body.
Somewhere within the dozens of books in the library of the orphanage, he remembered reading about the effects of fire on a body. He grimaced at the thought of skin peeling off his body, of his soaked clothes acting as a wick which kept him burning, feeling his inner organs give up one by one. If the shock or asphyxiation didn’t get to him first, of course.
Ray shook his head, as if to shake the grim thoughts away. There was nothing to gain from dwelling on them. With an annoyed grunt, he threw the stick away, and kept his gaze on the fire.
He found it odd. He had lived his entire life towards an end he had decided for himself back when he was a little kid. For years he had envisioned his life coming to an end as a mean to let Emma and Norman escape, but now… Now he thought back to those days and no longer knew how to feel.
He had done everything for Emma and Norman’s sake, that’s what he always told himself, he had done those things to save his friends. But he didn’t think of letting them know of his plan until shortly before they escaped, and even then he still kept them in the dark about his true intentions until the very end.
Did he trust them?
He considered them his best friends, but did he think of them as equals? If he did, why hadn’t he told them about his plan for escaping once they found out the truth? Why think of them as pieces of a puzzle rather than human beings who also desired to be free?
Norman must have seen that once he figured out what he wanted to do, which is why he hadn’t included him in his plan. Had he been more open with his friends, had he been part of the plan from the start, they could have avoided so much trouble.
They could’ve saved Norman, Emma wouldn’t have had to get hurt, they could’ve found a way to escape with more of their siblings. Were not for his stubbornness, he could’ve made things easier for everybody else.
But I didn’t , he thought. I didn’t, and there’s little use in thinking about that anymore.
He spared a glance back at the cave where his siblings were sleeping for the night. Even though they had been through a lot over the last couple of days, they still managed to sleep in peace, as though all their problems mattered less now that they were free, even if only for the night. A shared burden weighs less, or so he had read somewhere.
Despite himself, a grin formed on Ray’s face. He had been a less than stellar brother and friend for his family, but that didn’t mean his past shortcomings had to harm their future. At one point, he may have been willing to let them die, but now… Now he wanted to protect every single one of them, and he was going to live to see them lead happy, fulfilling lives.
He looked up at the sky, and through the thick canopies of the woods, saw the faint light of the moon. It’d still be a while until the morning came and they had to get moving. Until then, he’d keep watch over his siblings, and he’d make sure they could have a good night of sleep.
He was suddenly caught off guard by the sound of rustling leaves. As his heart began to beat faster, he jumped and turned around towards the source of the noise, only for the rising pressure in his chest to die down once he recognised the familiar face.
“Oh… Hello, Anna,” Ray said, a bit surprised at how strained his voice sounded.
Anna seemed somewhat distraught, as though having startled him caused her a great deal of guilt. She managed to recover soon enough, though, and gave him a small smile.
“Hello, Ray. I didn’t mean to bother you,” she said, holding her hands together.
Ray shook his head and sat down. “You’re not bothering me, you just… took me by surprise.”
As though she didn’t want to let silence settle between them for longer than a few seconds, Anna spoke again, “It’s already pretty late, why aren’t you sleeping with us?”
“I… I’m keeping watch, is all,” he replied as his eyes once again drifted back to the flames. “I told Emma I’d do it so she could rest for the night.”
His words caused Anna to relax, seeing how her smile softened. “Thanks for worrying for us so much.”
“Don’t mention it.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say, so he went back to poking the fire. Once again, the sound of rustling leaves caught his attention, and he looked up to see Anna walking up to him.
She held the back of her skirt as she sat down next to him, and stared into the fire as well.
“Can’t sleep?” he asked her.
She shook her head. “It’ll take some time to get used to not sleeping in beds,” she said, and even though Ray could recognise the longing in her voice, she was quick to add, “but I’m glad we’re no longer living in the orphanage.”
“Not having to worry about getting shipped is definitely a positive,” Ray mumbled. “I also miss the beds, though.”
A few short giggles escaped Anna, and Ray couldn’t fight the smile forming on his face, and if he was being honest, he didn’t want to. He wanted to enjoy in these little moments of happiness with his siblings now that he could do so without that sense of ever present dread hanging in the background.
It was, in more than one way, curious. While Grace Fields always gave a comfortable sensation of warmth and safety, Ray could never shake off that omnipresent aura of dread and feeling trapped which had tarnished his way of seeing at life. But now, he allowed himself to feel hopeful and even happy in the dark and mysterious forest which had become their home since escaping the orphanage.
“It won’t be this way for long. At least, I hope so,” Ray said after a while. Anna looked at him with inquisitive eyes which prompted him to keep talking. “We’re getting closer to the meeting point with Minerva. Once we get there… Well, I guess we’ll decide what to do once we get there, but at least we will be safe.”
For a while, they exchanged no more words, and the crackling of the wood was the only sound to disturb the stillness of the night. Amidst their silence, Ray couldn’t help but throw a few furtive glances at his unexpected companion.
Anna let out a contented sigh and hugged her legs, making herself smaller in front of the fire. He looked at her, at how the light of the campfire made her blue eyes glisten, and felt something twist deep within himself at the sight. Had Anna been crying? Her eyes weren’t red, but they showed a bit of moisture around the edges.
Unsure of what to do or say, Ray found himself unable to look away. And while under that state, Anna turned to face him. As wild animal spotted by a predator, he froze for a second as his train of thought came to a halt. They stared at one another for a few breathless moments before she looked away.
“How are you feeling?” Ray asked, deciding not to beat around the bush and go straight to the problem.
His frankness caught Anna off guard, seeing how her subdued smile threatened to morph into a grimace, as though trying to keep her smile meant a conscious effort of her part.
“I’m… alright,” Anna said in the tone used by those who were quite obviously not right but didn’t want to worry their friends. He had used that tone for far too long to not notice when someone else did.
Ray’s eyes danced back and forth between Anna and the fire while his mind tried to settle on the right words to use.
“That’s good to hear,” he said, and he could see the desire to smile won the fight on Anna’s face. He had started on the right note, so he kept going, “To tell you the truth, I’m glad to see everyone is doing so well, all things considered.”
“The past couple of days… It’s a lot to take in…” she trailed off.
“I guess they’ve been a bit of a frenzy, haven’t they?” Ray replied with a smile, hoping to ease the mood. A few giggles escaped her, and Ray considered it a job well done as she seemed to relax a little bit after that.
“It’s just that… It all feels like a dream,” Anna said, facing him once more, “part of me still believes we’re going to wake up back at the orphanage, with the rest of our siblings, and everything is going to be normal once again.”
He could see the longing in Anna’s eyes, the desire to buy into the lie, to shut reality away and let yourself get lost in the fiction of the loving home which had been their reality until not too long ago.
“But that’s never coming back. The orphanage, our happy lives, our games,” she said, her voice descending to a pained gasp, “M-mama…”
Ray’s face darkened at the mention of Isabella, but knew better than to stop Anna from pouring out her emotions. As with the rest of his siblings, her world had been shattered over the course of the past couple of months. It was a lot to take in, and he couldn’t expect her to process it all in such a short span of time.
“Even after all we’ve been through, I think deep down I still don’t want to believe it… But… It doesn’t matter if I believe it or not, does it? This is how things are now.”
Ray had to fight the urge to grimace. While Anna was right, he knew pessimism wouldn’t lead to anything good. With a bit of hesitance, he raised one hand and put it on her shoulder. The physical contact snapped Anna from her thoughts, seeing how her eyes softened as she looked straight at him.
In that moment, all the thoughts of encouragement fled from Ray’s mind, all the reassuring words sounded no better than frivolous platitudes to his ears. He had to say something, though, he couldn’t let Anna stay like this.
“I’m not going to lie to you, Anna. I’m always going to remember our lives at Grace Fields, all the moments we shared with our siblings, all the happy times we had. I know I’ll often stop and think about them, but…” Ray looked back into the fire for a moment, looking for the right words amidst the flames. “But they’ll always be just memories, and as pleasant as those memories may be, they can’t compare to the thought of the future waiting for us, where we can live without worries, together”--he looked right into Anna’s eyes as he spoke--”as a family.”
Ray kept his gaze firm in what he imagined to be a reassuring way. Deep down, he believed what he said; at least, he wanted to believe it. Besides, he hoped there was enough conviction in his voice for Anna’s sake.
And then, he noticed his hand was still holding her shoulder.
He wasn’t sure if he should stay like that for too long. He already felt something odd stirring within himself, and the last thing he wanted was to make her uncomfortable when she had confided in him. He tried to move away from her, only for Anna to hold his hand in place.
Ray’s heartbeat lost all sense of rhythm at her touch. His throat also chose that moment to run dry, which did little to help the flurry of emotions which was currently ravaging his mind.
“That was really nice, Ray,” Anna said, giving him one of the warmest smiles he had ever seen on the young girl’s face. “Thank you.”
He didn’t reply, not right away, there was something about that moment which made Ray wish it would last just a little bit longer. He didn’t know if it was due to the warmth of the fire, the warmth of Anna’s hand against his, the warmth of Anna’s smile, or the warmth of her deep blue eyes, but at that moment the coldness of the night was forgotten.
“What about you?” she asked him catching him off guard.
Anna’s smile morphed into a grimace, but before he could ask anything else, she spoke again, “I mean, Are you feeling better?”
It didn’t take long for the dots to connect in Ray’s mind. It had been naïve of him to think everyone would let it slide, no matter how much he would have preferred if they had. One couldn’t simply let a planned suicide attempt slide like that, after all.
Silence dawned upon them. He had given him some thought, but he wasn’t sure how he should talk about it with his siblings. Or if he should talk about it at all. Nevertheless, he had just berated himself for looking down on his siblings, what better way to start changing himself than to take the chance in confiding in Anna. She had done the same a minute ago, after all.
As if sensing his troubled thoughts, Anna pulled his hand from her shoulder and held it with both of hers above her lap. Once again, the smile she still had on her face was enough incentive to make the words flow.
“I… I think I am, at least, I think I will be,” he said, not bothering to mask his words with false composure. “It’s odd, you know? I was so ready to just throw my life away, but now… Now I don’t want to let go. I don’t want to let go of my family, I don’t want to let go of our dream of a better life, I don’t…” He stared deeply into her eyes, tightening his grip on her hand as she spoke his final words with conviction, “I want to live, Anna. I want to live and see us have a better life, I promise that.”
“That sounds beautiful, Ray… I want that too,” she said with such emotion in her voice, Ray couldn’t help but feel hopeful as well, and when he felt Anna squeezing his hand as her smile turned into an ear-to-ear grin, there was little he could do not to smile back at her.
Whether it was a quiet afternoon reading under his tree and nobody bother him, an evening enjoying the elaborate meals mama would make for them on the holidays, or the last few days of one of his siblings before their shipping date, there had been times when Ray wished time would stop so he could bask in those moments. Right now, spending next to Anna and sharing a few words of comfort was something he wished would never end.
Just as Ray felt he had to say something, Anna let out a long, yet low yawn. Her grip on his hand loosened, so he pulled back while looking away.
“I should go back to sleep… We’ll be waking up early, right?” she said, her face softening due to the weariness she could no longer hold at bay.
“Y-yeah…” Ray replied with little energy as well as he realised he didn’t really want to spend the night alone. Not that he would ask Anna to forsake her sleep for him, not after all she had already done for him.
His brow furrowed at that thought, and more so once he saw the short tied tails where she had once sported a twin set of braids. The discomfort gave room to an embarrassed guilt as he remembered how Anna had willingly cut her hair for his sake.
“Anna…” the words escaped him before he realised he had spoke them.
“Yes?” she asked him with a smile which made her whole face glow, and in that smile, he found the words he needed.
“I know I already apologised but… I also wanted to say thanks.” He mirrored Anna’s smile as he spoke, imbuing each word with as much sincerity as there was in him. “You had to give up your braids to help us fool mama. You didn’t have to do that, but… I just wanted to thank you.”
Anna stood in silence, staring at him with her eyes wide open. A few seconds passed with neither of them saying anything before she looked away and spoke again, “I didn’t mind, really.”
“We could’ve thought of other alternatives, I just feel bad that you had to--”
“Ray,” she interrupted him, “It’s okay. I just wanted to do my part to help.”
Once again, that smile rendered all his arguments irrelevant. Words were superfluous when their content expressions covered all which needed to be said. There was one thing, though, something he believed Anna would appreciate.
"You looked good with braids, but I think your hair looks nice even without them.”
Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but Ray thought Anna’s cheeks got slightly rosier, which made him feel oddly satisfied with himself. Either way, it was getting late, and keeping her up wasn’t the best of ideas. He looked back at the campfire as he settled down for another hour or so of keeping watch. “Didn’t mean to keep you up any longer, Anna. You should go back to--”
Any other word vanished from his lips as he felt two arms wrap around his neck.
The heat of the fire paled in comparison to the heat coming from Anna’s body pressed against him, sending waves of comfortable warmth through his body and down to his core which paradoxically froze him place. Her supple cheeks against his own, her hair, still silky even after an entire day of trekking through the woods, they stirred something deep within him, something he couldn’t quite put into words.
“I’m happy you’re feeling better, Ray,” Anna whispered in his ear, “I’m happy you changed your mind.”
Ray didn’t reply. He wasn’t even sure if he could still talk, as no sound came out of his mouth regardless of his efforts.
“I want to believe that we’ll be happy one day, and that we can live free of worries with our siblings.”
Her words flowed through his ears and into his mind, giving him a pleasant sense of relief which was familiar yet different enough for him no not be able to understand it. The feeling was over way too soon, however, as Anna pulled back enough for them to be face to face. Once again, her eyes were glistening with moisture, but he knew it was not due to sadness.
“I’ll work hard to make sure that happens, too, so let’s work for a happy ending, okay?” she said before closing her eyes and tilting her head in a way that made her smile seem much bigger, “I promise as well.”
Ray could feel a voice deep within the recesses of his mind telling him to do something, but he couldn’t understand what it said. The thought of hugging her back crossed his mind, but before his limbs could react to the commands of his mind, Anna stepped back, ending their embrace.
As though the floodgates had been opened, words started to pour out of Ray’s mouth. “We will get a happy ending,” he said, barely keeping himself from yelling. “I’m going to make sure we do.”
Anna was once again blushing, and he didn’t want to think how he probably looked the same.
“Good night, Ray. See you tomorrow,” she said, lingering for just a second before turning around and dashed back to the base of the tree where all of their siblings slept.
Ray stayed there, looking at her figure disappear behind the roots of the tree. After a while, he looked back into the fire. The dancing flames no longer held painful memories, for the hope for the future was brighter and warmer than them.
Yes. He was going to live, and he would protect his family. They will find William Minerva, they will find a safe place to live, they’ll find a way to bring back their siblings from Grace Fields, and they will live happily, without a single worry in their mind.
As he sat amidst the darkness of the forest, Ray found that it felt much less scarier.