When you ride alone, you ride with Dahlia

-

"Hey, Val."

Thirteen year-old Dahlia Hawthorne swings her legs back and forth against the bottom of the seat. She and her twenty-two year-old sister Valerie are sitting in the back of their father's five-year old 'pre-owned' station wagon with chewed-up tires and a worn-down transmission. Her father sits in the front seat and drives down the highway. He doesn't care that his car runs like shit. The three are taking a trip down to San Diego, just for fun. It's a hot day and the air conditioner is an angel breathing life into the girls.

Valerie Hawthorne—she never got used to self-identifying as a 'Hawthorne'—sits to Dahlia's left in a pink tank top and long, new-looking jeans.

"What's up, Dalla?" she says, and smiles. They have their pet names for each other. It's their way of showing their sisterly bond without even having to hug. Her new little sister is so adorable, her voice is so precious, and Valerie knew from the moment she met her that they were going to become good friends.

"What do you think about when you see the rocky hills like this?" Dahlia cranes her neck up and presses her head up against the window.

Valerie thinks. "I don't know, Dalla. That's a really good question!" She looks out the window. On her side she can see a rocky slope past the metal guardrails, and at the bottom the beginnings of a body of water. "What do you think about?"

"I don't know. I asked you."

Valerie looks over at her little sister. Dahlia looks at her, and if she didn't know any better, she might have mistaken Dahlia's simple childish frustration for sheer disdain.

"Hmm, let me think," Valerie says. She giggles. "Well, actually, looking out at all this landscape kinda reminds me of my friend Melissa."

"Oh? Why?"

"Well, we used to hang out together, and sometimes we'd drive up to the edge of a big, big hill looking out on the beach, and eat ice cream if it was hot outside. Then she'd say stuff like, 'Looking at such a beautiful scene makes you realize how precious life really is.'" Valerie laughs. "Then we always used to break out in laughter."

Dahlia bends down and reaches into the backpack she had put on the floor. "Why laugh?"

"Because it was so cheesy. We didn't really believe that."

"If it makes you feel any better, I hate the outdoors too," Dahlia says. She holds a Rubik's cube in her hands and starts twisting it.

"I don't think 'hate' is the right word, Dalla," Valerie says, laughing. Dahlia works on her little puzzle. They drive on in silence, and after about five minutes, Dahlia speaks.

"I'm bored," she says. She hands the cube to Valerie. The colors are uniform on all sides.

"Wanna play a game, Dalla?" Valerie says. She rustles Dahlia's shoulder playfully.

"What kind of game?"

"A word game! There are a lot of fun word games we can play!"

Dahlia chuckles. "Really? Like what?"

"Well, how about this," Valerie says, leaning over the empty middle seat, coming as close to Dahlia as she could without leaving her seat. Valerie never rode without a seat belt. Dahlia is wearing one too, but her father isn't. "I think of a word, and then you have to think of a word that starts with the letter my word ends with. Then we keep doing that. Sound good?"

"What's the point?"

"The point? What do you mean?"

"What's the object of the game?" Dahlia crosses her arms and closes her eyes. "When does it end?"

"Um…whenever we want it to end, I guess."

Dahlia looks out the window silently. After a moment, she says, "That's stupid."

The scenes fly by. Yesterday she had seen Valerie at the kitchen table with a glass bottle in her hands. She had asked Valerie what she was doing; she had said 'nothing'.

Dahlia sits in the backseat and growls until Valerie asks, "What's wrong, Dalla?"

"Where are we going?" Dahlia asks. "Why do we have to go out? It's so boring riding in the car."

Mr. Hawthorne barks at the girls not to complain without turning around in his seat. His hands had been clenching the steering wheel so hard they had turned red. They drive on in silence for a while. At some point, Dahlia reaches around for a doll she keeps in her bag and holds it in her left hand before closing her eyes.

It's the strangest thing, Valerie thinks. The doll has no head. Her father had bought it for her as a gift a few months before, and Valerie had seen it when it was whole: It was a beautiful girl with long, flowing black hair and a cute smile, but whenever Dahlia had held it and her father wasn't looking, Dahlia had to forcibly stop herself from bursting into tears. One day she must have tore its head off for whatever reason. Valerie looks over at Dahlia, fast asleep with the doll clutched in her fist. She's so sweet-looking when she's asleep.

They reach the city a few hours later, and Dahlia wakes and shakes her long red hair out of her eyes.

"Where are we?"

"We're in San Diego," Valerie says, chuckling. "Where else?"

"What are we going to do?"

"I—I don't know," Valerie says, her voice trailing off. "I don't know. But—but we're going to have some fun. Don't you worry, Dalla."

Ten minutes later, their father parks the five year-old station wagon with chewed-up tires and worn-down transmission in the parking lot of what looks like a fancy nightclub. Mr. Hawthorne fishes around in his wallet and throws a hundred-dollar bill towards the backseat. Valerie catches it before it falls.

"Victoria," Mr. Hawthorne says. "You're old enough to drink. Go in and get something to drink. Take care of my Dahlia." He slams the door shut and disappears through the neon-blue doors of the club.

"Bye, Daddy," Dahlia says as her father leaves. When her father has gone, she says, "Hey, Val. What do you want to do?"

"I dunno," Valerie says, sinking against the back of the seat. She looks at the hundred-dollar bill in her hands and gets an idea. "Hey, Dalla. Do you like animals?"

Dahlia stares at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I mean, do you like to be around animals? You used to have that pet bird, right?"

Dahlia doesn't speak for a few moments. Then she sniffles. "You remembered that, Val? My little birdie Magnolia…she had such pretty white wings…"

"Oh, Dalla, don't cry," Valerie says. She remembers Magnolia. One day Mr. Hawthorne had found her lying dead on a windowsill on the bottom floor of their house. They had made a little grave for her in their backyard. Valerie knew how much Maggie meant to Dahlia, how she cried for the rest of that night. Dahlia was like that, always emotional. She always saw everything, observed everything, cared about everything that crossed her path. Even for a little girl, Valerie thinks, Dahlia is curious.

Valerie unbuckles herself and reaches out to comfort her little stepsister. She cradles Dahlia in her arms. "Are you hot, Dalla? You feel all sweaty…"

"I'm fine," Dahlia says. She quickly pulls away from her stepsister and wipes the sweat from her brow. "It's not too hot."

Dahlia shuffles around in her backpack and pulls out her little pink purse with white trim. It had been Valerie's present to her for her thirteen birthday (lucky lucky, Valerie always joked). She had picked one with a rose on the side because her little stepsister always reminded her of a rose with her gorgeous red hair and pink outfit.

Dahlia's birthday had been nice. Her father had left her a few hundred dollars in an envelope because he wasn't around, but he did leave her with a card. Her mother hadn't gotten her anything. Valerie had spent the entire day playing with Dahlia because she knew how awful it was being alone.

"Val? Val!"

"Huh?" Valerie shakes her head. The heat was starting to get to her. The tan leather seats of her stepfather's station wagon were burning. She had seen his red Lamborghini before; she wonders why he didn't just take them in that.

"Are you tired?"

"Me?" Valerie says. "Well…a little, I guess."

"I'm gonna take a nap," Dahlia says. She peers around inside her purse and puts it away in her backpack.

"Okay. I guess I will, too. Sweet dreamies, Dalla!"

"Mm hm."

Valerie sits back and, despite the heat, falls asleep immediately.

Valerie doesn't like to dream. She never has good dreams.

Today Valerie dreams she's sitting at the kitchen table in the morning and her stepfather comes into the room. Everything looks yellow and gray. It's not really colorful. He's got a glass bottle in his hands he's drinking from.

"What are you doing?" she says in the dream.

"None of your damn business," Mr. Hawthorne says.

"It's ten o'clock in the morning!" Valerie says. Her head throbs and spins.

"So what? That doesn't mean a damn thing." He takes a drink.

"I haven't seen you in three weeks."

"I've been in and out."

The whole world is so yellow. Valerie sits with her head on her fist and her elbow on the table. She feels sick. She half wants to vomit into her corn flakes and half wants to eat them and go back to sleep. Being twenty-two isn't as fun as she thought it would be.

"In and out?"

Mr. Hawthorne sneers and laughs heartily. "In and out! Your mother's seen me all the time! Why haven't you?"

"Because you're never around," Valerie spits. The fabric of her shirt hurts her skin. She gags on the scent of his hundred-dollar cologne.

"Where were you last night?" her stepfather asks.

"I—I was in my room, doing homew—"

"Oh, don't lie," Mr. Hawthorne says, drinking. Valerie looks up then looks away. She doesn't like looking into his (yellow, yellow) eyes unless she has to. "Don't lie to me! I don't give a shit where you went. Just don't lie to me."

"What about you?" Valerie says quietly.

"What about me?"

"You weren't there on your daughter's birthday."

Mr. Hawthorne turns serious. The world is still all yellow, but his face is a little more yellow-looking now. "What did you just say, girl?"

"I said you weren't there at your daughter's goddamn birthday party." Valerie grits her teeth and stares into her corn flakes. "She loves you and she wanted you to be there and you weren't there."

"Stand up."

Valerie raises her head and stands up to look her father in the eye. She's a tall girl, only a few inches shorter than her stepfather. Mr. Hawthorne drinks the rest of whatever is in his yellow bottle with his left hand, then slaps her across the cheek with his right.

"What gives you the right to say anything about my Dahlia? Punk girl."

Valerie holds her cheek and laughs just a little bit. The world's just a little bit yellower and her headache is just a little bit worse.

"She's your daughter. Your real daughter," Valerie says quietly. "I don't care what happens to me." She raises her voice and stands as tall as she can. "But you should be there for her! You should listen to her!"

He slaps her again. Valerie clutches her other cheek.

"You better shut up, or I'm gonna knock your teeth out, stupid little—"

"Do you hit my mother like this? Do you hit Dahlia like this?"

Mr. Hawthorne stands back. "Stupid girl! Do you know what the hell you're saying? I would never hit my little Dahlia or your mother. You're the only one who disrespects our family!"

Valerie chuckles dryly. She knows he's telling the truth. He wouldn't lay a hand on either of them. Most of the time he treats them like they don't even exist. But her mother loves him. That's the way it is. Her mother fell in love with him, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

The cops training Valerie say she's on the fast track to becoming a police officer—one year, even! She tries hard. The firing range isn't yellow. Her kitchen is.

Valerie hangs her head. This is a fight she can't win. "Sorry, Daddy."

Mr. Hawthorne walks away and hiccups. "Yeah. It's all right."

Valerie sits up. The leather seats are tan, the lights of the nightclub across the lot are blue, and her tank top is pink. Valerie hates dreaming. Her face is soaked with sweat and she's sticking to the back of her seat. She doesn't like dreams. Sometimes she confuses them with reality. Sometimes she thinks she's going crazy.

She looks to her right and notices for the first time that Dahlia isn't there. Her headless doll is on the middle seat, and her backpack is still on the floor, but her purse is gone. The sun is starting to set. Valerie curses violently to herself and started to panic. She gets out of the car and frantically looks around. The car doors were already unlocked; she had forgotten to lock them. Valerie fears the worst. Dahlia is probably fifty miles away by now in an even more beat-up car with an even more detestable man. Her beautiful little stepsister is gone. And it's all her fault. Valerie wishes she had her gun with her. She would blow her head off here and now. She sits on the hood of the car and cries.

"Hey, Val. Why are you crying?"

Valerie looks up and looks around. Dahlia kneels by the right front tire of the car, then the left front tire, and after a few moments, she stands up.

"Dalla! Dalla!" Valerie embraces her stepsister and holds her so tightly that Dahlia can barely breathe. "I was so scared! I didn't know where you went, I—"

"Calm down, Val," Dahlia says calmly. She walks to the other side of the car and gets in the side door. The sun has set almost completely. Valerie slips into the car on her side and buckles her seat belt. Her heartbeat slowly returns to normal.

"Dalla, are you all right?"

"Val, I'm fine," Dahlia says. She shoves her pink purse into her backpack. "I just went out and bought a few things."

"Bought a few things? What do you mean?"

"I went up into the city a few hours ago," Dahlia says. "You were asleep, so I left."

"Dalla, don't do that! I was so worried about you!"

"Don't tell me what to do. I'm a big girl. I don't need you to watch me." Dahlia puts her backpack on the seat between them.

Valerie sat back and wipes the sweat off her face. The world is dark now and the sounds of daytime have given ground to the quiet of night and the distant, ever-present low thumping of trance music from inside the nightclub. Dahlia clutches onto her little headless doll in one hand and holds an opened box in her other. It says "Nails".

"I'm just so glad you're all right. If something were to happen to you, I don't know what I would have done. Your—my—our father, would've…I…"

Dahlia looks at Valerie and smiles. "I know. Thank you." She pauses for a moment and puts her doll and her nails into her bag. "Hey, Val."

"Yeah?"

"You hate my father, don't you?"

Valerie turns towards Dahlia. "W-what? No, of course I don't! I—"

"Oh, don't lie," Dahlia says, and Valerie's heart starts thumping. The glint that flickers in Dahlia's eyes is familiar. God, she's (gonna knock your teeth out, stupid little!—) intimidating when she's serious. "Don't lie to me. You hate Daddy, don't you?"

Valerie grits her teeth. "No, Dalla, I—"

Dahlia swings her feet and kicks against the seat. She tries to whistle but she can't. "He's so stupid. He can't do anything right. If I just had someone else to help me I could do it! Just need to find someone who'll listen to me!"

"D-Dalla? What are you talking about?" Valerie says. She presses up against the car window, her hands shaking too much to unbuckle her belt. "Don't talk like that, okay?"

"You're training at the police academy, right?"

"H-huh?"

Dahlia looks at Valerie. "They have guns there, right? When you become a policewoman they give you a gun?"

"Dalla, you shouldn't be talking like that! Guns are danger—"

"I'm talking," Dahlia says, with such force that Valerie can't help but listen. "Daddy's rich, you know. But he never shares it with us. It's so boring. He never does anything right."

Valerie's brain goes (In and out—In and out—In and out—) ka-thump. Her stepfather is indeed a jeweler and indeed rich.

Dahlia rustles through her bag and holds something out in her hands. Valerie looks over at her. Dahlia is holding a pair of brilliant white bird wings. Memory beats in her brain.

"It's kinda like this, right?" Dahlia says, holding out her hands. "Sometimes when something looks good, you gotta take it. You can't wait for people to do things for you, right? Right? What if we didn't have to listen to anybody else ever again?"

Valerie looks into Dahlia's eyes. Sometimes she wonders if Dahlia is really only thirteen years old. It seems like every year, Dahlia grows three. Before she knows it, Valerie says, "That would be nice." She sinks down into her seat. Dahlia is almost taller than her now. There's a wave cresting in her stomach and in her brain and she feels like she's getting swept up in it again, but she can't stop, can't stop, can't ever stop her fate. She looks out at the nightclub and the reverberations from the thumping nightclub bass pound into her soul.

"Don't you get lonely?" Dahlia says. "It must have been lonely without having a sister to talk to."

"Y-yeah. It wasn't very good. I'm glad I got to know you, Dalla," Valerie says, and she wonders (What gives you the right—)what life would have been like if her mother hadn't remarried.

Dahlia sits back and puts the bird wings on the seat in-between them. "Yeah. We gotta do something about that, huh?" She kicks against the bottom of the seat. "Hey, Val."

"Yeah? Wh-what's up?"

"We're sisters, right? And sisters are sisters forever, right? So we can keep our secrets together, right?"

Dahlia reaches her hand out and touches one of the white wings on the seat with her little index finger. Valerie looks at her hand and then over at her stalking eyes. Valerie touches her finger to the other wing. Dahlia's eyes seal their promise without words, the disembodied bird wings as good as a blood oath between them.

"Yeah. Of course you can, Dalla. We can. You can count on me. Us girls are supposed to keep little secrets, you know!" Valerie chuckles, but the sour, scared part of her heart knows that Dahlia knows she's a fake. There are no keeping secrets. Valerie feels bad for her, but she can't quite place why.

"Yeah. Of course we can. We'll always be there for each other. Hey, Val."

"What?"

"Don't ever call me Dalla again."

-

Author's Note: Valerie's profile in-game lists her as 23 (presumably when she died), which would mean that she was 18 during the first Dusky Bridge incident (the kidnapping). For the sake of the story (and because I can't see an 18-year old being accepted into the police force), I'm assuming here that Valerie was 23 during the kidnapping (and therefore 22 during this story).

Valerie doesn't really get much attention, does she? The Hawthorne family's story is a horrible and largely unhappy one, but it really has to be told. Thanks for reading, my friends.