I had no idea what to do. I had this video, but what did it prove? My father would have no difficulty producing his reasons and his proof. No one was going to believe me. I was just a sad, disturbed little girl obsessed with her dead mother and her camera. He was the grieving father, losing a beloved wife for the second time.
Someone would have to be the crazy person, and it wasn't him.
My father volunteered for rounds on Christmas Eve. He left me alone with her that night, as he had left me alone for most of those nights. I sat in the quiet house with my camera and the distorted picture as I had for weeks, reviewing them over and over, until I couldn't help seeing them over everything else, an overlay of sickness and monsters.
I thought that that was what had happened with my real mother's picture. I was sitting in the living room, one of my library books in front of me, the failed family photo tucked into the pages. I traced my fingertips over and over the black smoke, a gesture that I had performed so often that the oils from my fingertips had begun to destroy the paths. I glanced up-- I forget why. Maybe there was some strange noise in the house, maybe I thought I heard my father's car in the driveway. That happened a lot that winter-- he would come home in the middle of the day, disappear into their room for a few minutes, and then leave again.
But the house stayed quiet-- no noise from the front door, no noise from upstairs. I stayed in my seat, listening and staring around the room. I passed over the framed photo of my real mother reading to a younger me in one of the big chairs in the living room so quickly that I almost didn't notice that her left eye was an inky black.
I blinked quickly and shook my head, trying to shake away the feeling. That couldn't have been what I was seeing. The pictures were all normal, all perfect. That was the whole point, wasn't it? The pictures were supposed to be perfect. That was why the one from the studio was so wrong. I got up from my chair and walked closer, holding the picture in front of me, expecting the lie to fall away as soon as I got close enough. I even tapped at the glass covering the photo, attempting to make it go away. But that darkness stayed.
I took the photo out of the frame and looked at it. I've carried it with me ever since, although I haven't looked at it in years. It could almost be a shadow, a byproduct of the lighting in the room, if it weren't for the curl of smoke outside of the socket, trailing down like a tear. I put the two photos next to each other, two different reflections of the same darkness. I recoiled as though the pictures had burned me. One of my legs kicked out and knocked over one of the crates under the table. I had always thought that the crates were purely ornamental, more window dressing for my father's stage.
The one I knocked over poured out pictures-- dozens of them, maybe even hundreds of them. They scattered across the the white carpet, a chaotic disaster of things I had never seen or was too young to remember. I dug through them, trying to find the two that I had been holding when I realized why they had all been hidden away like this.
In every photograph, my real mother had those black eyes, distorting and curling outside her eye sockets, obscuring her. I dug and flipped through all of them. There was a sequence that I put together, starting at my fifth birthday party. That was the party where they took the first picture, the one with me and my mother. She looked mostly ordinary, her hair tied back, cheeks flushed with laughter. But her eye had begun to change, to be taken over with that darkness. At the hospital's Fourth of July picnic, both her eyes had gone dark, and she had begun to look thinner, paler. By Christmas, it had spilled out of her eye sockets and washed out most of the rest of the frame. Hands shaking, I laid out the photographs along the floor, charting a timeline. The pictures stopped completely after New Year's. My mother had been blotted out of history.
"I tried to help her, little one."
Sheena stood in the doorway. Her hair had matted together in hanks, hanging limp and heavy over her shoulders and her eyes. She was practically skeletal, and I wondered what held her together. What held her up.
"Who are you?"
One corner of her chapped and cracked lips quirked upwards, but it wasn't really a smile. "I am... a helper." She looked up at me. I saw that her eyes had gone completely black, the two sockets filled with the kind of darkness that swallowed everything it touched.
"What are you?"
"I said that already, little one."
"I don't understand."
"You don't remember, do you? Evie hoped that you wouldn't. You were so sick when you were little. So sick."
"I wasn't..." My voice trailed away as I thought back. I really couldn't remember. Everything before the third grade is blanketed in a heavy white fog, completely obscuring the early parts. Why couldn't I remember my mother? Why couldn't I remember?
"She always wondered. She didn't want to. But you were only sick when he was home. When he was alone with you. She tried to leave, when you were little. But he found you. He brought you back. She couldn't get away. So... she prayed. I answered."
"You're... an angel?"
She laughed, and it sounded like the sound hurt her to make. "I didn't say that. I just answer the call. I tried to protect her from him."
"Why didn't it work?"
"She was so sick. So worn down. Here, and here," she said, tapping at her temple. Her fingernails were gnawed down and destroyed. "I tried. Please believe, little one, that I tried."
"What did you do to Sheena?"
"She prayed too. She didn't want to leave. But she wanted to be protected. That's what I came to do. I wanted to do it right this time."
"Is Sheena still..." I couldn't bring myself to finish the sentence, as if releasing the words into the air would make them real.
"She is still here. But she's weak. She's been fighting so long. She wants to let go. She wants to come home."
"Let me talk to her." My voice cracked, although I didn't want it to. "Please."
She stared at me, but she nodded slowly, the black draining out of her eyes. Her shoulders sagged, and her whole body lurched to the side like a puppet with the strings dropped. Sheena had to clutch at the doorframe to stay upright. She smiled at me at me. This time, it was real. It traveled all the way up to her red rimmed eyes. "Cori. Cori, you should get out of here."
"We should both go. We can go, you can get better--"
Sheena shook her head. "I don't think I can, Cori. But you will, as long as you get away. Go. Run now, before he--"
"Sheena, honey, what are you doing out of bed?"
My father's hand rested heavy on her shoulder, getting ready to tug her away, back up to her sick room. Before I knew what I was going to do it, I screamed at him. "Get away from her!"
I think my father would have been less startled if I had pulled a gun on him. "Corinne? Corinne, honey, I'm so sorry-- this is why I didn't want you to see her, I knew it would be too upsetting--"
"You're the one doing this to her!"
He froze, and I could see it in his eyes, how he was calculating whether to deny it or confess, which one would bring him back control. His grip moved from her shoulder to her upper arm, and he pulled her backwards. The motion nearly pulled her out of balance. In his other hand, he held a syringe, full of some clear, unidentifiable liquid "You don't know what you're saying, Corinne. You're upset, you're stressed. This has all been too much for you. I know you haven't been sleeping."
The black had begun to trickle back into Sheena's eyes, covering her like flood water, and I knew in that moment that if I didn't do something, she would never emerge. I ran towards them both, reaching for her other arm. "Let her go! Let her go!"
The thing that was Sheena pulled herself upright, yanking herself out of his grip. She held her hand in front of me, blocking me from going any further. "Get out of here, little one. Quickly."
She turned to my father, her hand held up to him-- not like she was frightened. Like she was warning him. "You will not touch us."
I stuffed the photographs in my hand into my pockets, and I ran. But I had no intention of leaving. I wanted to help Sheena. I wanted to save her. If that thing couldn't do it, then I would. I ran up to my room, grabbed my camera. I paused at the doorway of Sheena's craft room, caught by the glint of silver there. Someone had taken out the Exacto knives that Sheena used for her scrapbooking and lined them up in a neat row on the craft table.
I grabbed one and ran down the stairs, gripping it until my nails dug into my palms, until my knuckles had gone white. From downstairs, I heard my father unleash an outraged scream. The sound led me to the dining room. My father had her pinned against the island. "I'm just trying to help you, Sheena. I want you to get better."
Her lip curled up in a snarl, and I wondered how he couldn't see those pure black eyes. Did he see any of us? Did he want to? "Do not touch us."
"I said to leave her alone!" I screamed. He turned and looked at me, confused and angry to hear such a sound from me. After all, hadn't he trained me better than that? He had his mouth open to say something, but in that moment of hesitation, she slammed her knee into his groin. He fell backwards, and she stepped forward over his body, towards me. A trickle of thick, dark blood ran slowly down her face, and she did not bother to swipe it away. Instead, she reached out to take hold of my wrist and lead me away. "I told you to leave, little one."
"You can. You have to."
"Not without her," I whispered.
"You have to," she repeated. "She wants you to be safe."
"I want her to be safe!"
Someone grabbed my hair and yanked me back so hard that I felt the strands rip away. She clung to me, but there wasn't enough strength left in Sheena's body. I fell and cracked my head against the floor so hard that I was sure my skull had split open. The world whited out, and when it trickled back into my vision, my father had dragged her back into the living room. He was restraining her on the floor in front of the Christmas tree, one arm at her throat, that syringe in his other hand. I tried to open my mouth to scream for him to stop, but the sounds that came out were faint and broken.
As the needle went into her skin, something silver flashed in her hand. She did not flail. Her arm moved as quickly and powerfully as a bowstring, and as it hit its target, she dropped as though that string had been cut. His blood bloomed on the perfect white carpet, the first and last stain it had ever known. I scrambled to my feet and ran towards her, pulling the needle away from her skin. The plunger had already been pushed all the way in. But maybe there was still time. Maybe I could do something.
"Sheena, Sheena, come on, we have to go, we have to go." I tried to pick her up, but even as small as she was, I wasn't strong enough. Her eyes were closed, but she smiled faintly. "Sheena, let's go." In the distance, sirens screamed. "Sheena, please," I whispered, trying to tug her up. "I can't leave you, I can't..."
She lifted up one hand, trying to touch my face with the strength she had left. I took hold of her hand before it could collapse backward, guided it to my cheek. "Be still, I am with you." She breathed the words more than she spoke them. I'm not even completely sure that's what she said. There are no records to prove it. There are no records that reflect what color her eyes were in those last moments. I choose to believe they were brown, like Sheena's.
Her hand slipped out of mine and landed on the floor with a dull thud. The sirens came up the driveway, and someone pulled me away from the blood and the silence, pushed me into the back of a strange car. I put a hand to my cheek and was surprised to find tears drying with the blood on my cheek.