Chapter 1: Prologue
This is not right.
Amelia sat on a chair next to a door in a room smelling of antiseptic, waiting for her turn, and she knew something was not right. The sound of beeping machinery resonated through the room, through her heart and her skull and the belly where the child lay sleeping, growing ever louder until the noise replaced her heartbeat and her thoughts, blurring her vision and her mind.
These people are not who they say they are.
The couple (the couple that was not a couple, the couple that was merely pretending to be a couple) was in a room, the door to which Amelia was sitting next to. They spoke, too quiet for Amelia to hear. It did not ease her worries, and she wanted nothing more than to know what they were saying. But she could not discern more than their separate voices, and that they sounded as anxious as they had that morning.
Alex and Charlotte had seemed perfect, and that was why Amelia had agreed to be their surrogate mother. Charlotte was not quite infertile, they’d told her. That meant that her eggs were fine, in and of themselves, but for some complicated reason they had told Amelia (although she never quite understood what it entailed exactly), Charlotte’s womb could not support a baby. And so, Alex and Charlotte needed a surrogate mother who was willing to give birth to a baby that had none of her DNA and who she would not raise.
Amelia was a naturally compassionate person so she took pity on the friendly, desperate couple who wanted nothing more than a baby. She knew her child would be well cared for and loved, and that the baby would have all the opportunities it could ever want or need. Also, she needed the generous sum of money Alex and Charlotte had offered.
And so, here she was, awaiting her turn for her first ultrasound. She was fine, now the nausea she had been previously plagued with had passed. She was now thirteen weeks along, and starting to develop just a hint of a baby bump. She loved the life growing inside her, and had to keep reminding her that that life was not hers to love.
Until that morning.
She had overheard Charlotte and Alex talking when she dropped by the couple’s home so they could all go to the ultrasound together, to see their collective baby for the first time.
As she stood waiting on the porch, about to ring the doorbell, Amelia heard angry voices, and something (mother’s instinct of self-preservation, she would never know) had stilled her hand. And she listened. And she recoiled.
‘...this ruse! We need this woman! In six months, the subject will be born. We have to make sure everything goes as smooth as possible, and the surrogate mother has to give us the girl without a fuss.’
The subject? Are they talking about my (their, Amelia, their!) baby? Amelia had no idea what Charlotte and Alex were going on about. She frowned. Something was very wrong here, and she wanted to know what it was.
‘I know, Charlotte. If we mess up this experiment Dyad will have our heads. I’m just tired of this stupid suburban neighborhood and this stupid fake life and that stupid woman who carries the subject... Do you know how much I miss my lab?’
Since when is Alex a scientist? I thought he was in the stocks industry? Fake life? Experiment?! The thoughts tumbled through and over each other in Amelia’s head, fighting for her attention, and she did not know which one she found most alarming. Closing her eyes, she rested her head against the rough wood of Charlotte and Alex’s front door, trying to still her mind by listening further.
‘Of course. I do too. And I miss my husband as much as you must miss Lisanne...’ (Husband?!, Amelia thought. This kept getting weirder and weirder.) ‘...but just think of the promotion we’ll get if we pull this off! Providing the professor with one of the subjects? I mean, just think of the – crap.’
Amelia jerked back. Had they found her out? She was tense, coiled like a spring, ready though she did not know what for. Fight? Flight? Confront the lying bastards who wanted to take her baby? She had no clue, but knew she couldn’t let Alex and Charlotte have her child.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s ten. Amelia will be here any minute. We’ll talk about this after the scan is done, yeah? We need to focus. She can never know.’
Too late for that.
With a determined face, Amelia rang the doorbell. She would pretend everything was fine, she would talk and laugh with the lying scientist bastards who talked about a child as if it were a lab rat, and after the scan, she would run. Pack her things and go where they could never find her.
Amelia stood up quietly, ignored the nurse’s inquiry, and left. She didn’t stop by her home. She had her wallet, her driver’s license and ID, and that was enough.
So she ran away, and she never looked back.
Amelia lay on a mattress in a women’s shelter, and her babies (‘twins,’ they had told her, 'you’ll have fraternal baby girls, congratulations!’ and her first thought had been oh shit) were about to be born. Pain radiated through her every sinew, and she knew she could not raise her girls. They would always be looking over their shoulders, and they would never be safe. She could not subject two children to such a life.
They had to disappear.
They had to be untraceable.
They could never be together.
As the pain subsided slightly and she heard her firstborn’s first cries, Amelia made a decision, a choice she had been refusing to face since the moment she ran.
One to the state, and one to the church. They would be apart, yes, but they would be safe. Her daughters would be free. And that was all that mattered.
Now all Amelia had to do was find a suitable convent, and a good orphanage, where her daughters might be happy.
Chapter 2: Before
Helena's years in the convent, from when she was taken in to when she was taken away.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Sister Alexandra heard insistent banging on the great oak doors of the Ukrainian convent at precisely eleven forty-five, May the twenty-first of the year 1984, and she shuffled slowly through the drafty halls, past the dorm where their girls slept, in the direction of the noise.
'I'm too old for this,' she muttered as she reached the doors and pushed them open, her back protesting sharply against the pull of her aged muscles.
On the doorstep was a tiny, tiny baby wrapped lovingly in a blanket, no one else in sight. Her eyes were open, looking at Alexandra, and the intensity of the gaze surprised the old nun. The little thing was bald but for a dark tuft of hair on its head, and as Alexandra bent to pick it up (her back creaked, but she barely noticed), the baby started to cry.
Alexandra sighed. She had seen this often, and knew what to do. Boys were to be given to the orphanage in town, girls were kept by the convent to be raised. There had been no children for a few years, the youngest they had at the moment was five years old, but Alexandra had seen them all come – and go. Many children died before they reached adulthood. Many times, the bad health that had convinced poor parents to give their child up to the orphanage claimed it. Less often than that, the harsh punishments the girls were subjected to were the fatal blow. Alexandra disagreed with Sister Olga's methods, but had as yet been unsuccessful in convincing the nuns to change their ways. If they are meant to live here, the Lord will protect them was a favourite of Olga's. The nun was fond of a more... physical, hands-on approach than tradition dictated.
Alexandra carried the baby to the kitchen, where she slowly unwrapped the blanket. A girl. A baby girl several months old, most likely left by a loving mother (a theory supported by the warm blanket wrapped around the child) who could, for any number of reasons, no longer care for her child.
Is there a card with a name somewhere?
Alexandra searched the folds of the blanket for a letter, or at least note, but came up empty. How odd. The child was obviously beloved, wrapped snugly in a baby blanket. Then why was there no card? Well, she would have to name the child, then. That day was the day of Saint Helena of Constantine, she knew. Looking down at the little girl, the newest addition to their group of girls, she sighed one last time.
'Welcome, Helena. I am sister Alexandra. I will try to keep you safe from harm.'
And thus, Helena's life at the Ukrainian convent began.
Helena was no longer quite a baby, now, but not exactly a toddler yet, either. She spent her days looked after by Sister Alexandra, who had volunteered for the job of keeping Helena company while the older girls were at school, forty minutes' walk from the convent. Only one other girl had arrived since Helena, making her and Anastasia the only children of less than seven years old at the convent.
Sister Alexandra had fallen in love with Helena not long after she first laid eyes on her. To be exact, her heart melted on the morning following that fateful night nearly two years ago when she had found the child on the convent's doorstep. Helena had opened her beautiful hazel eyes, and would not stop crying until Alexandra gave her the baby blanket she had been wrapped in. Then she gave Alexandra a look so grateful and innocent that the old nun knew she would never let Helena be harmed without a fight.
Helena still slept with that blanket, and would not stop crying if she was forced to go without. Sister Olga had ordered Alexandra to remove the blanket, saying your favouritism is ridiculous and blatant, and Helena will never learn to accept our sober lifestyle if she is allowed to indulge in ridiculous luxuries such as these from an early age! Burn it, I say, and if the child complains too loudly, punish her. Alexandra had nodded and apologized, and then proceeded by hiding the blanket whenever Olga was near.
Helena was a beautiful child, Alexandra thought, watching the not-quite-a-baby, not-quite-a-toddler after all the other girls but Anastasia, who was only a few months younger than Helena, had left for school. She sat in her rocking chair, feeding little Ana her bottle of milk, thinking only of Helena. With hazel eyes that seemed to look through you at times, a round face with the healthy pinkish tone only a baby's skin could have, and chocolate curls that sometimes had the tendency to go frizzy, the girl would grow up to be a true beauty. Alexandra knew she should not play favourites (God loves all his subjects alike, I should follow His example) but whenever she looked at Helena the old nun's heart would feel like it could not contain her happiness and love for this little girl who had been left behind in the cold, and unable to help herself, she would lift Helena in the air and coo at her, and watch the dark-haired girl smile.
Helena had a lovely smile.
Too bad she wouldn't get to smile it too often in her life.
Helena, now four, held Sascha's hand tightly as she watched the coffin lower into the grave. Her black dress itched in the places where it had been stitched together after having been remodelled for countless girls over time. She ached to scratch her sides, where the stitching had been sloppy, and she ached to sit down after standing for so long.
She knew she couldn't, though, because Sister Olga had told her not to, and when Sister Olga to you not to do something, you didn't do it, because otherwise she'd lock you in the dark to drive out the devils inside of you. Helena hated the dark, and hated the convent cellar because it was dark and it smelled of dust and rats, and if Olga ever made her go in there again she wasn't sure what she would do. Fight, probably. But she'd never win and then she'd be down there longer.
But her feet hurt. And her heart hurt, too, because Sister Alexandra had gone to the Angels.
'We all remember Sister Alexandra as a loving woman who was always there for the convent, the villagers and the children we have taken in. She was kind and pure, and she will be missed. But do not despair, for it was God's will that she went to Him. Her time had come, and although she may no longer be with us in body...'
Helena knew she should listen. Sister Alexandra had been the one to find her, she knew, and she had protected Helena and Ana from many of the punishments that were always being doled out aplenty by the other nuns. And always on May the twenty-first, the day on which Helena had arrived at the convent, sister Alexandra would find her and slip her a little bag of candy.
Those bags of candy were Helena and Alexandra's secret. No one knew about it, not even Anastasia, and Helena knew no one ever could. Candy was strictly forbidden at the convent, because Mother Superior believed that the girls should only eat healthy food, preferably from the convent gardens themselves. Helena knew and understood, of course, (she was a very smart child for her age, or so everyone told her) but the fact that it was forbidden made the candy all the more appealing. And she was defying Olga and the other nuns, which always brought a smile to her face, but then she would be chastised for looking cheeky and she would not get dinner. But dinner was gross, anyway, and the candy was not, so that was fine with Helena as long as they didn't make her go down to the cellar.
No more candy, now. No more Sister Alexandra laughing with her, with that twinkle in her eyes she seemed to reserve for Helena. No more lying awake at night, listening to Sister Alexandra's breathing in the chair beside the door as she kept watch over all the sleeping girls.
Helena missed Alexandra so much she thought her little heart would break. But as four-year-old hearts do, they move on. And in less than two months, Helena could not remember Alexandra's face. And in less than two years, she didn't remember her at all – just felt a vague, disjointed sadness when someone mentioned the name 'Alexandra'.
Helena liked Biology more than her classmates did. She thought it was interesting how everything was built up from tiny, tiny little bits called molecules, so small that you could never see them without a microscope, and those were made of even tinier little bits called atoms. She loved Biology. But it was not her best subject, oh no! That was PE, she always told everyone. She just liked sports, liked running around with a ball or trying to trap the other children so that she could tap them. She liked running, period. It wasn't allowed at the convent, where they had to walk silently. No screaming, no shouting, the nuns told the girls until it became a mantra, don't disturb the churchgoers. So Helena didn't run, she didn't scream, she didn't shout. Ever. Because whenever she did, she'd be locked in the cellar for however the nuns deemed appropriate, a time which became longer as she grew older.
Except on Fridays, at school, ten-thirty in the morning, when she had PE. Then she shouted, screamed, and ran, as fast as she could. She was one of the fastest girls in her class.
And the best part?
After class, she would get dressed as fast as possible – and then she had a few spare minutes. She'd grab some of the money she had managed to save from the monthly allowance given to all the convent girls, run to the shop that was next to the school and buy one of those warm, sweet pastries filled with strawberry jam and these nuts of some kind... Her mouth watered just thinking about it. Her five minutes of Heaven.
But today was only Wednesday, and she was in English class. She liked the language well enough, in itself, but she had so much trouble learning it! She just couldn't keep her vocab straight, and the grammar was a complete nightmare and-
She jolted back to reality at the sound of her name. Her teacher had caught her daydreaming. 'Yes, Miss?'
'What is so interesting outside? What are you looking at?'
'Nothing, Miss.' Helena felt her cheeks start to burn as all the children in the room looked at her and started to whisper, giggling amongst themselves. Convent freak, she thought she heard. Stupid orphan. She clenched her fists under the table, trying to keep her temper in check. She was no freak. And she wasn't stupid, she knew that. She was good at Biology and good at Maths. Not her fault that she couldn't remember stupid English!
'Well, if you weren't looking at anything, I suppose you had been following the lesson. And so you won't have any trouble answering some questions, right?'
Helena gritted her teeth. 'I can try, Miss.'
'What is the English words for sestra?'
Helena felt like she could cry. She heard the kids chuckling and counted from ten to one in her mind to keep her from lashing out, before confessing that she could not answer the question.
'It is sister. And Helena, pay attention next time. I do not need children in my class who do not want to learn.'
'Yes Miss. I'm sorry, Miss.' She did want to learn! English was just so difficult...! Helena choked back a sob, unwilling to let anyone see her cry, least of all her stupid classmates or her stupid teacher. She was nine, now, much too old for crying like a baby.
Helena grabbed her pen and wrote down sestra – sister in her notebook, in the left-handed scrawl that had made the nuns lock her in the cellar for five days with only water and a bit of bread. She could still recall sister Olga's shrill accusations. Left-handedness is a sure sign of the Devil! This child is no good, she never will be any good. She is worthless. She is nothing. She has demons inside of her.
So she had developed the ability to write with either hand. At school she used her left, which was a more comfortable and natural thing to do. At the convent she used her right, which saved her from the nuns' wrath and the cellar.
Helena was no longer as afraid of Sister Olga has she had once been, though. She was almost ten, and pretty sure that she could stop the old, thin nun from shoving her down the cellar stairs if she tried hard enough. Next time, she vowed, she would try it.
Helena was walking to the convent on her way back from school, the way so familiar she could have done the entire route blind. With her was Anastasia.
Ana, who walked next to her, was the only other girl Helena's age who didn't spend her afternoons in town and the best friend Helena had ever had. Which was merely a less crude way of saying she was the only friend Helena had ever had. Her hair was blonde and frizzy, and Helena loved it. She had always been envious of Ana's hair, tugging on it on several occasions when they were toddlers until Ana screamed loud enough for the nuns to pry Helena off of her. She had been sentenced to no dinner, a week for every time she had tried to get some of Ana's hair. For Helena, who loved all things food and sweet, this was a nightmare (as gross as dinner often was, it was still food and so she craved it), and she had learned her lesson (don't pull Ana's hair out of her head) quickly.
She didn't much like the girl, though. She was too loud, in Helena's opinion, and kept going on about the less-than-interesting boys at school and how cute they were. Helena didn't see it, but humoured her only friend so she at least had someone to talk to.
'...and Yuri smiled at me today, when I passed him in the halls! Oh, Helena, do you think he likes me back?'
Helena zoned back into Ana's rambling just in time to catch the question. 'Uh, Yuri is the blond one with the birthmark on his cheek, yes?'
'No, that's Nikolai. God, Helena, keep up. Yuri is the cute one, with the black hair and blue eyes.'
Oh. That one. He kicked me in the shin when I walked past him once, to prove to his friends that he hated all convent girls.
'Uh, I don't know. He might. You should ask him.'
'Ask him?!' Ana stared at Helena, startled into silence. After a beat, she continued. 'You think so?'
'Yes. What is the worst that could happen?' Helena knew she had made a mistake immediately, when Ana's eyes went wide as she imagined the worst-case-scenario.
'Well –' Ana's rant was cut off by a young woman who suddenly stepped in their path. She looked Asian, and Helena thought there was something weird about her. Maybe it was the fanatical glint in her eyes as she looked at Helena, a glint that reminded Helena of the nuns in all the worst ways. Maybe it was the image of a winged fish that was embroidered on her jacket pocket. Maybe it was the way her eyes widened and she whispered a word Helena did not understand. Uncanny, whatever that meant. All Helena understood was that it was not Ukrainian. It sounded English, with the –ee sound at the end that many of the words she was supposed to learn in class had.
The woman looked at Helena, ignoring Ana completely, and started to speak to her in rapid-fire English. Helena just looked at her dumbly; she had no idea what the woman was saying, and judging by Ana's face, she didn't either. Eventually the woman slowed down, then stopped talking, as she figured out that Helena didn't understand a word she was saying. She switched to Russian, which Helena understood better, although the woman wasn't very good at it.
'Ya Margaret Chen,' she said in halting Russian. 'Introductions' had been the very first lesson, and so Helena understood what the woman, who appeared to be in her twenties, was saying. I'm Margaret Chen.
'We are Helena and Anastasia, nice to meet you.' Helena knew being polite was always the best way to proceed, even when you didn't understand what was going on or who you were introducing yourself to, but apparently not in this case. The woman, Margaret, did not seem to understand any more Russian than 'I am', which was pathetic, really, because that was only one word, ya. Margaret Chen made a frustrated noise and grabbed her cell phone.
Helena exchanged an alarmed look with Ana as the woman waited for her call to connect, smiling reassuringly-but-not-really at the two girls.
'What is going on?' Ana whispered.
'I don't know,' Helena muttered in reply. 'We shouldn't talk to strangers though, remember?'
'Tomas!' Helena heard the woman say, and then a stream of incomprehensible English followed. She recognized her name several times, though, and Ana's not even one time, which did nothing to reassure her
'Helena,' Ana said, tugging on her hand, 'we should probably go now. Remember what the nuns said about being late.'
As Margaret Chen was listening to Tomas, whoever that was, they skirted around her and ran in the direction of the convent. Helena and Ana darted through the woods surrounding the convent, disregarding the road as the woman chased after them. This was their home turf; they would make it to the safety of the convent. Well, Helena thought, 'safety' implies being safe from harm, which we're not, back at the convent.
At any rate, as Margaret's yelling faded into the distance, Helena reached the convent's back door, barely out of breath. A few seconds later, Ana arrived, panting heavily. Helena pushed the door open and they slipped through the gap, leaning their backs against the door to close it once they were on the other side. The familiar smell of the convent grounds tickled Helena's nose creating a familiar itch that somehow told her to run, fast and far, an itch that was even worse than the one she had felt with Margaret Chen, and she turned to Ana.
'Let's not talk to anyone about this, okay?' Ana shook, her eyes still wide and terrified.
'But the nuns–' Helena scowled. 'Never mind the nuns. If they ask you, tell them it's my fault. Just don't go talking about this if they don't ask you, alright?'
'No! Please, no, please, please, no please don't! I don't want to go in there, I don'twant to, I don't, I won't please no, Sister, pleasepleasepleaseplease no!'
Olga pushed Helena in the direction of the stairs. Helena had just turned eleven, and Olga had caught her doing two forbidden things at once. Helena was eating candy as she did her homework – writing with her left hand. Eating candy, which she had smuggled into the convent from the town, was the second item on the nuns' mental list of Things Helena Is Not Allowed To Do, right after writing left-handed.
You have devils inside of you, you are worthless, you are nothing, you are darkness and into darkness you shall go!
Helena had been sentenced, once again, to the cellar. This time it was different, though. She had decided to fight. She hated Olga. She hated the cellar. She hated having to write with her right had and not eating candy and not eating, period, and she hated darkness and the smell of dust and rats and–
As Olga gave Helena one final push and Helena felt her feet starting to slip on the top stair, she grabbed the nun's habit and used Olga's momentum against her to slide the nun past her. Together they went bounding down the stairs, which left Helena with two problems: one, they were closer to the cellar door, and two, Olga was already on her feet and angrier than ever. Frantic, Helena jumped up and tackled the frail woman again, and acting purely on instinct she drove her thumbs into the woman's eyes (I do not want to do this I don't want to go into the cellar, I told you I told you I told you not to force me I promised myself I'd fight if you tried again it's not my fault it's not my fault! I'm sorry I'm sorry (no I'm not don't lie Helena) what is wrong with me?!)
and bent them and pop went Olga's eyes and Helena ran.
Olga survived but was blind, and Helena slept with a knife under her pillow for fear of the woman. No one forced her into the cellar ever again, but she didn't get any food for two weeks and had to do with what little she could buy with the money she had left. Of course, no money was given to her ever again, because why give money to a psychopath possessed by devils?
Even Ana was scared of her, and Helena was alone.
Almost half a year of silence and fearful nights and misery later, Helena turned twelve. She woke up with a weird craving for candy, as she always did. Each year, though, it was worse on her birthday, and she wondered why. For a split-second she imagined an old face smiling down at her from high up, sinewy hands slipping her a small bag of candy, a kind voice wishing her a happy birthday. Happy birthday, Helena. Don't tell anyone! Our little secret. Then the image and the words faded, and Helena got out of bed feeling strangely sad.
That day she went to school, and found on her desk a weird ring with an image of a winged fish on it, blinking golden in the sunlight. It left her feeling uneasy, but Helena concluded that it must have been a birthday gift. She couldn't fathom from who it might be, but ripped a length of yarn from her woolen sweater, threaded it through the ring and wore it like a necklace.
At lunch, Ana complimented her new necklace, and asked who it was from. They were the first words Ana had spoken to her since the Olga-incident, and Helena answered she didn't know, and hoped Ana's vow of silence would stay broken forever and ever because she had missed talking to her more than she'd realized. Even if she didn't really like Ana, the girl had been Helena's only friend and Helena had been going crazy from the silence. Both girls thought the image of the winged fish was familiar. Perhaps they had seen it around town somewhere?
From there the conversation shifted, as conversations so often do, to other subjects, and Ana told her she was going out with Yuri after school, and I can't walk with you but surely you understand, I've been looking forward to this for so long! and Helena just nodded because they had not spoken in months, so of course Ana didn't have to walk with her. Have fun! (Please keep talking to me forever and ever.)
Helena walked home from school alone on her birthday, and when she was halfway between the school and the convent, she was stopped like a man who wore a ring on his right hand like the one that was resting on her chest beneath her sweater. Helena stared.
'Hello, Helena,' the man said, his voice smooth as steel and gritty as the cellar floor. Helena hasn't been in the cellar for over half a year, and she is happy and no longer feels guilty, and what does that say about her? 'My name is Tomas.' Helena didn't come home from school that day.
So, that was dark!
I'm having great fun with young Helena and her life.
This is a new writing style I'm trying out, by the way, with disjointed little snapshots. I'm pretty curious if it's working for you guys as readers, so please let me know in the reviews and if I should continue this way of writing, or if you think the next chapter should be one cohesive whole that's also fine. Just say so. Also, this is unbeta'ed, so all mistakes are mine. Please tell me if you find any, and please tell me your thoughts about this little fic of mine in general! If you write, you know how happy reviews make me. And they make me write faster too! So, really, reviewing is a win-win thing. Anyway.
Hang in there, see y'all with the next update!