As I promised in my G is for Gwen post earlier, here is the short I wrote describing a major event in Gwen’s life and how it affected her. A few bits of her conversation with Erin while riding may not make sense to those of you who don’t know more about the series, but that’s okay, you’ll learn. 😉
Now, I call it a short, but it’s actually almost four thousand words. So make sure you have a few minutes to sit and read.
Remember to leave feedback, even if it’s to tell me I’m evil!
The day everything changed started, as such days tend to, as any other would. Erin and Gwen woke with the sun and went to the barn with their parents to help with the feeding and mucking out, just as they had every day since childhood and into their adolescence. It was unusually warm for that time of year and the girls were itching to be freed from chores and go riding. Their father, seeing this, leaned on his pitchfork and chuckled.
“Go on now and have your ride. We’ve most of the work done.”
“Really?” Erin, ever the most careful of the twins, hesitated while Gwen whooped. “You’re sure, Da?”
“I am. Go on now before your mam finds out.”
Gwen put her pitchfork back in its place and hurtled over to lock her arms around her father’s waist. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Da!”
Brian laughed and tugged the fifteen-year-old’s braid. “Aye, go on with you now. But be sure to be taking some of the older, steadier horses. The younger ones will be mad with spring.” He raised his eyebrows when the girl pouted at him. “I mean it, Gwennie. You’ll do as I say or your mam will have a fit.”
She considered more pouting. She could have worn him down, she knew it. But oh, she wanted to be on horseback and out in the fine weather. One quick glance out the barn’s open door and her decision was made. “All right! Thank you, Da!” Whooping again—and, Brian noted ruefully, rousing all the horses in the process—she scurried back to where her twin was carefully replacing her pitchfork. “Come on, Rin, let’s go!”
Ignoring her sister’s tug on her arm, Erin went to her father and kissed his cheek. “Thank you, Da.”
“Not a problem. Go on now.”
Impatient Gwen might have been, but she knew better than to rush through the process of saddling and bridling a horse. She’d been raised to treat the animals with the respect they deserved and made sure she groomed Conchobar, the first stud horse her parents had ever owned, carefully. She could hear Erin murmuring to Maeve, the old retired broodmare she preferred to ride. Though the mythological figures they had been named for, a warrior queen and her scorned first husband, had come to be enemies, the two horses were old friends and were content to follow the girls out of the barn.
Each swung up into the saddle with ease and rode out, both chattering excitedly about all the things fifteen-year-old twin sisters discuss: boys, dances, and the horses they loved.
“Nessa should be foaling soon,” Gwen commented, all but vibrating in the saddle with excitement. “And Da said I could train her foal! Finally! I’ve only been asking to do so since I was twelve.”
Erin laughed. “You’ve always wanted to do everything, Gwen. One day Mam and Da and I won’t have to do anything around here. We’ll turn around and find you’ve done it all.”
Gwen’s blue-green eyes, a more mischievous hue than her sister’s, gleamed. “Sure and if that’s so it’s only because the rest of you are slow.”
“Slow, is it?” Erin grinned. “We’ll see who’s slow after this.” Tapping her heels to Maeve’s sides, she shot ahead of her sister. Gwen looked down at Conchobar, grinned as the gelding tossed his head up and down impatiently.
“Oh, we can’t be letting her beat us, now can we? Not when I’m the older twin and you’re the male here. Go on, then,” she laughed, letting the horse have his head. They streaked ahead, racing until the horses were neck and neck. Conchobar, evidently not having forgotten the glory days of his racing career, strained to go faster than his stablemate, and snorted delightedly when Erin gently slowed Maeve to a canter and then to a trot before settling back into a walk.
“I know, old girl,” she murmured fondly as she patted the mare’s neck. “You’re fabulous and can run like the wind. But at times it’s best to let Con and Gwen have their way.”
“I heard that,” Gwen retorted. She pulled up beside her sister and eyed the path they didn’t normally take, a winding one that veered towards the cliffs on the furthest edge of the family’s farm. Though the land beneath them was grassy enough for healthy horses, the cliffs weren’t the best environment for the younger, excitable racehorses, but older, steadier horses like Conchobar and Maeve were able enough to handle it. Gwen felt her lips pulling up.
“Let’s go to the cliffs.”
“What?” Erin glanced towards the path, then shook her head. “Gwen, we should be turning back. Con and Maeve are old, they can’t be out too long.”
“Bah!” Gwen waved a hand, dismissing her sister’s concerns–excuses, really. “They’re not so old as all that, and they’re great, fine, royal horses, aren’t you?” she asked the horses, rubbing Con’s neck. “Go on, Erin, we’ve not been up to the cliffs since the spring truly arrived!”
Erin bit her lip and glanced at the horse beneath her. Maeve did seem calm and still energetic; and she did want to see the cliffs and admire the view of the ocean crashing below. “All right, then.”
“Don’t be afraid, I’ll keep you safe from whatever Fae creatures lurk on the cliffs,” Gwen teased.
Erin frowned. “I wish you wouldn’t joke about such things, Gwen. It could very well be true.”
Gwen shrugged. “The Tithe is in effect, they can’t be harming us. Besides, what are the chances I’ll ever have to complete a Tithe of my own?”
“Still,” Erin pressed. Gwen rolled her eyes, but, understanding her sister’s moods, let the matter drop. Instead she teased her twin relentlessly, needling about everything from the way she rode to the lad in their class who she knew Erin was sweet on.
They were so caught up—Gwen in her teasing, Erin in her laughter and defense—that they didn’t notice immediately when Maeve picked up a rock in her shoe and began, gradually, to limp. When the mare stopped in her tracks, Erin frowned.
“Maeve.” Knowing full well the mare had been given the name of a temperamental queen of Irish myths for a reason, she wasn’t concerned. She gave the horse a gentle nudge with her heels. “Go on, Maeve.”
Had Gwen been paying more attention, she thought later, she might have noticed then that something in the mare’s gait was off, that there was more than stubbornness in the way her ears laid flat against her skull. The horse wanted to please her rider—there was no horse in the Clarke family barn that didn’t love Erin—but, Gwen recognized later, she was in pain.
Still, there was no way she could have anticipated that Maeve would rear just as Erin was preparing to stop and dismount to check her feet, that Erin would be caught with only one foot in the stirrup and be unseated. There was no way she could have known that when her sister tumbled to the ground, it would be so quick. She didn’t know it sounded so oddly empty when a horse’s hoof connected, however lightly, with a human skull.
And she didn’t know, until that moment, how terrifying it was to see her sister lay face down on the ground, so utterly still, while the horse stood beside her, head lowered and one foot tipped to keep the weight off it.
“Erin.” Gwen could hear the tremor in her voice, knew she was shaking by the way Con tossed his head nervously. She laid the reins over the pommel of the saddle to hide her anxiety from the horse. “Erin, this isn’t funny.”
But no, she was the one to pull jokes such as this. Not Erin. Erin wouldn’t have deliberately frightened someone like this.
It was difficult, but somehow she managed to slide from Con’s back, even shaking violently. Her mind had gone oddly blank, as if recognizing that it didn’t possess the ability to deal with this situation, even though she knew her parents had taught her what to do in this situation.
It wasn’t thought that pushed her to turn Erin over. Only fear for her sister.
She didn’t think Erin was bleeding, and a quick check with darting eyes confirmed it. Feeling panicky and helpless, Gwen looked to the two horses as if they would tell her what she should do. Moving mechanically, she went to Maeve and ran her hands down the mare’s leg and lifted the hoof. Sure enough, a small rock from the trail by the cliff had embedded itself in the sole of Maeve’s hoof, too cleverly hidden for her to pry out with her short fingernails and trembling hands. Gwen swore under her breath, though she knew her father didn’t like her to, and wished she’d thought to put a hoof pick in her pocket in case this happened.
They hadn’t planned on going to the cliffs, though. That had been her idea.
Murmuring and soothing the mare as best she could, she turned to look at her sister again. Panic had spread, though the routine of examining the horse had restored enough calm that she knew she shouldn’t have moved Erin.
“What now?” she asked aloud. As far as she could tell, she had two options: go home and find help, leaving Erin and Maeve here, or try to put Erin on Maeve’s back and make their way home that way.
Or leave Erin, lead Maeve home so that she could be treated, at least, and find help.
She was stricken by how small her sister seemed as she lay prone on the ground. Erin was taller than Gwen by two inches, but she seemed tiny and childlike lying broken on the ground.
Gwen looked to Con, who was waiting steadily. She blew out a long, unsteady breath, then knelt and brushed a hand gently over her sister’s rose-and-gold hair.
“I’ll be back, I promise.”
In the end, she led Maeve and rode Conchobar as fast as she dared with the mare’s lameness to consider, too afraid to leave the mare with Erin lest she step on the girl. She was thankful the gelding knew the way home; her mind was back at the cliffs with Erin.
What if she wakes up? She’ll find herself alone, no sister and no horse to get home. She’ll be concussed, more than likely.
She loved Con, truly she did, but she wished fervently on that ride that she’d disobeyed her father’s wishes and ridden one of the young horses. She thought of Karma, the spunky three-year-old filly she’d been given for her birthday. She’d have been home by now if she’d been with Karma! The idea almost brought her to tears. She ached for the mare, hobbling along behind Con as best she could, and for her sister, left alone on the rocks. If any tears slipped down her cheeks, they’d dried by the time she rode slowly into the yard and yelled for her parents.
Deirdre Clarke bolted from the house, her face dead white. “Where’s Erin?”
“She fell.” Gwen heard the catch in her own voice, felt the tears she thought she’d already subdued prickling beneath her eyelids. “Mam, she fell, and she didn’t wake up.”
Brian hurried from the barn in time to hear his daughter’s last words. “Where, Gwennie? Where did she fall?”
“By the cliffs.” Gwen hiccupped. “She didn’t want to go, but I did, and we went. Maeve has a stone in her foot and she threw her, and she fell. Hit her head.” She could hear the rising hysteria in her voice and forced herself to breathe deeply and calm herself. “Maeve’s hoof hit her head. Not hard, but she hit nonetheless.”
“Call the ambulance and look after the horses,” Brian instructed her. “Make sure you care for that foot or she’ll bruise and come up lame. Can you look after her?”
Gwen nodded. Numbly she dismounted while her father kicked the family’s ATV to life and, with Deirdre sitting behind him, raced for the cliffs. She led the horses into the barn and crosstied them, then went into the tack room that also served as her father’s office and picked up the phone to call the ambulance service.
She listened to herself give the details the operator for ambulance services asked for, then hung up the phone. Her parents would call, she knew, when there was news. They couldn’t keep such things from her, not when her twin was involved.
Carefully she pried the stone from Maeve’s hoof and pressed a cold pack to the frog, soothing the mare by rote when she shivered. Once both horses had been groomed and put away and the tack polished and stored with still no phone call, she wasn’t sure what to do with herself.
Venturing into the house brought the discovery that her mother had been doing dishes. For lack of anything better to do, Gwen finished them, feeling oddly insulated from the rest of the world. When the phone rang as she was finishing drying the dishes, she calmly set aside the dishtowel and went to answer it.
“Gwennie.” Her father sounded twenty years older than he had that morning as he’d sent his daughters off on a spring horseback ride. “It’s… not the best of situations, sweetheart.”
“Tell me, Da.” Tell me so I know what I did to my sister.
“She was airlifted. Lost consciousness by the time your mam and I reached the hospital. She’s in a coma, Gwennie. We have to pray she’ll wake.”
“When can I come see her?”
“Ah, well, lass, we won’t be leaving for a time, your mam and I. Your aunt and uncle will be there in the morning to drive you out and bring us the lorry.”
The morning. Ages away. Erin could be dead. Gwen took a deep breath. “All right, Da. Make sure you and Mam find somewhere to sleep.”
All of this is my fault.
When Fergal and Ellie Hanlon arrived at ten the next morning, they found their niece had already tended the horses, been to mass—walked into the village, so she had—cleaned the house and barn until they shone, and was sitting patiently on the porch in her Sunday best with her hands neatly folded in her lap.
“When did you wake up, lass?” Fergal asked as he examined the kitchen while Gwen poured him tea.
“I never slept,” she responded matter-of-factly. “I wanted to be sure the house would be clean. Da told me you’d be staying for the duration. The guest room’s made up for you.”
“Thank you, Gwen.” Ellie hid her shock better than her husband had. “Are you not tired, lass?”
The girl considered, then shook her head. “No. Could we be going now?” she added.
She rode in the car with her aunt, since her father’s old lorry bumped all about the roads and gave her headaches. She didn’t speak and Ellie didn’t press her.
Brian was waiting for them when they arrived at the hospital in Cork. He embraced his daughter, then his in-laws when his daughter didn’t respond.
“Where is she?” Gwen asked calmly.
Sighing heavily, Brian led his daughter into the room where her sister lay motionless under stiff sheets. “She’s still responding to the tests they performed this morning. That’s promising. She could wake.”
“What sort of tests?” Gwen wanted to know, and when her father fumbled over the explanation, she left him in her uncle’s care and went in search of a doctor who could explain.
Erin would be considered alive, if comatose, she was told, so long as she responded to the tests they performed: muscle responses, reflexes in her eyes, responses to tests performed on her ear canal and her gag reflex… the list, it seemed, was endless.
When she was satisfied Gwen returned to her sister’s room. It didn’t occur to her to go to her parents and see how her mother was faring. After all, she could hear her sniffling from out in the hall.
She stared into her sister’s face and saw none of the responses the doctor had described. She saw no signs of life.
“They’ll do more,” she promised, and if her voice cracked, no one but Erin was there to hear. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
The daily visits, the agonizing waiting for Erin to wake up, went on for nearly a month. Twenty-seven days. She counted them, adding one number to the list in her mind when she woke and waited to be driven, whether by her aunt and uncle or her parents, to see her sister.
She ignored that her mother was slowly losing her grasp on reality, slipping away from the healthy daughter she still had and fixating on the daughter who lay motionless in a hospital bed. She pretended not to notice that her father maintained his composure throughout the day and drank himself drunk every night, so that she heard him singing old folk songs as he stumbled to bed beside his nearly catatonic wife. Her focus went into maintaining her own calm—a battle she fought and thought she would lose daily—and doing all that she could to ensure Erin would awaken. She stretched her sister’s limbs to ensure the muscles wouldn’t atrophy severely; she massaged Erin, trying to encourage a response; if there was anything the doctors said might be helpful, Gwen did it.
Not once did she tell her parents of the guilt she carried with her for her part in the accident. She simply went through the list as she cared for her sister. I wanted to go to the cliffs. Bend Erin’s left arm. I was teasing her, distracting her. Stretch the arm back out. I should have seen Maeve was coming up lame. Bend the arm again. I shouldn’t have moved her. Extend the arm. I should have gotten help faster. And bend… and on it went.
Every day, she was told that though Erin hadn’t shown any signs of waking soon, she was still responding to the barrage of tests the doctors performed.
Until the twenty-eighth day. That was the day her father called early in the morning and told her aunt and uncle not to let Gwen come. They tried to convince her that Erin would be in tests all day, that there was no point to visiting as she wouldn’t be able to follow her usual routine. Gwen studied them carefully, then walked out to the car and waited. Eventually, her aunt gave in and drove the girl to the hospital.
Walking into the small room she and her parents had grown used to occupying brought chaos. Her mother was fretting, trying to hurry from the room and go see Erin. Her father threw Gwen a pitiful look and tried to reach for her just as his wife let out a pained cry.
She turned to the doctor, as he seemed to have his wits about him. “What happened?”
The doctor, too, looked just a tad more old and wrinkled than he had when he’d first begun to care for Erin Clarke. “Gwen. Your sister…” He trailed off as Deirdre began to sob noisily.
Gwen ignored her mother’s caterwauling and the echoing cry of pain that wanted to rise in her own throat. “She’s stopped responding, hasn’t she?”
The doctor nodded as a frisson swept over his skin. He’d heard before of a twin knowing their sibling was dead before being told, but he found that to see it before him was quite another experience. It was training that enabled him to explain the tests they’d performed and how their results had demonstrated that Erin’s brain had ceased to respond to any stimuli, signifying her brain had died. They could maintain her body’s functions through the use of ventilators, feeding tubes and all manner of machines the names of which Gwen didn’t care to remember, but legally, Erin was considered to have died.
Gwen turned to her parents. If ever she’d needed the comfort of her mother’s warmth or the safety of her father’s arms, it was now.
“The life support,” Deirdre was saying between sobs, her eyes half-wild. “We have to do that, we can’t simply give up. We’ll pray and she’ll awaken.”
“She’s gone, Dee,” Brian said tremulously. Tears leaked from his eyes as well, but still he held his wife gently. “Our baby’s gone.”
“No!” Deirdre screeched it and swatted at her husband’s hand, standing to face the doctor. “You’ll keep my little girl on the life support. I won’t let her go. I won’t let her die. I won’t.”
“Mrs. Clarke…” The doctor leaned away from Deirdre’s pointing finger as if it was accusing him of letting Erin die. “She can be kept on the support if your husband agrees. But you must understand that she won’t wake.”
“A coma, then. She can recover from that. Gwendolyn will do the exercises as she’s done all this time, won’t you Gwen?”
Gwen shook her head and wished she could weep. “No.”
Deirdre’s mouth fell open. “No? You wouldn’t keep your own twin on life support?”
“You heard the doctor, Mam. She won’t wake. Her brain is dead. She can’t live.” While her mother babbled reasons for why that couldn’t be true, how Erin would wake if they prayed more, Gwen hooked her arm through Deirdre’s and led her to Erin’s room. Through their linked arms she could feel her mother’s pulse, as hectically erratic as the flight of a butterfly, but her own heart only felt heavy, so heavy, weighted down by guilt and loss. Deirdre fell silent, staring at the slim, pale figure in the bed.
“She’s gone, Mam. Erin’s dead.”
Deirdre shrieked and lashed out at the finality of the words, the back of her hand catching Gwen across the cheek. Her father cried out behind her, hurrying in to support his wife as she sagged to the floor.
Gwen walked to her sister’s side, smoothed the pale red-gold hair back and kissed Erin’s cheek. The words she whispered in her twin’s ear went unheard in the noise of her parents’ sobbing.
Then she straightened, looked to her father. Watched the tears stream freely down his face as he told the doctor that yes, he could cease the life support and pronounce Erin dead at fifteen. Watched her mother sink further into her father’s arms, shrinking away from the loss.
I’d like to do that, she thought distantly, watching as her mother and father collapsed into each other in a storm of grief. She would have liked to howl and rail at the heavens and demand mercy, demand that her sister be all right. She’d have given anything to not be feeling this aching pain, this crushing certainty that her sister was dead and she was to be left alone, a twin without her twin.
But she only stood, echoing Erin’s silence, and watched as her sister died, as calmly and without dramatics as she’d done everything in her life, offering her the only tribute she could. Erin would never have screamed and created a scene, so Gwen was silent out of respect.
Her tears would come later, when she hid in the barn and sobbed into Maeve’s neck.
After—when it was over, when it was truly final—she went out to find a pay phone and dialled her uncle’s mobile phone number. “You’ll have to drive us home and the car as well,” she told him evenly when he answered. “Erin’s died and Mam and Da are in no shape to be driving.”
She didn’t hear his protests and questions as she hung up the phone. Only the words she’d whispered to her sister in the hopes that whatever soul a person had, Erin’s had heard and forgiven her.