Title: one is the loneliest number
A/N: For the Gracefield Sun zine! I wanted to take a little walk through that dark time after Norman's death but before the escape started.
Summary: Emma knew how to run, how to hide, how to fight. She wasn't as smart as the others, but she was still quick on her feet and quicker in a pinch. The only thing she didn't know, though, was how to survive Norman's death.
And it looked like Ray didn't know how to either.
Despite the dark shadows and poorly lit underbrush, the expansive forest hemming the orphanage was inviting. Emma rocked back and forth on her feet, staring into the cool shadows out of the corner of her eyes. She'd wandered the shaded paths more times than she could count, memorized the unruly tree roots and low hanging branches. Ray could immediately tell you the product of any two numbers, Norman knew every path to victory in chess, and for Emma, the forest was her domain. She could navigate it with her eyes closed, if she had to.
At the sound of her name, Emma tore her eyes from the trees and returned her attention to her two best friends. Norman chuckled softly, his eyes crinkled just so, while Ray gave her a moody glare.
"Could you pay attention for two seconds?" Ray grumbled, tapping his foot impatiently.
"Sorry." Sheepish, she flushed a bright red and rubbed the back of her neck. "What're the rules again?"
"From there?" Ray's jaw dropped in disbelief. "Seriously?"
"It's fine." Finally, Norman stopped laughing. After wiping the tears from his eyes, he squeezed Emma's shoulder. "You've always been better at doing than listening, right?"
Emma burned a brighter red. It wasn't that he was wrong, per se, but did he have to put it that way? "Y-yeah," she admitted reluctantly, scuffing her shoe against the dirt.
"So, the simple version," Norman decided, letting go. Gesturing at the woods, he explained, "Ray and I will hide, you'll catch us. It'll be a game to keep you away from the hidden kids."
"Hidden." Emma blinked and cocked her head. Now that she thought about it, the field was oddly empty. Not even the littles ones were running across the sloping lawn. "So they're already in the woods?"
"Yep. We need to practice distracting our pursuers." Norman straightened his posture, rolling back his shoulders. He glanced at the morning sun. "We'll do it for an hour and then switch positions."
"Remember to use that brain of yours," Ray added scathingly, and she wasn't sure if he meant to help or insult with that comment. Either way, it was rude, and she stuck her tongue at him.
"Guys," Norman sighed, trying to placate them. He stepped in between them, "Come on, we need to start. We don't have much time as it is." With a gentle push, he directed Ray to the forest. "You'll need the head start."
"Like you don't?" Ray scoffed, but he started to run into the woods nonetheless.
He shook his head, watching him go. As Ray disappeared into the woods, the white of shirt fading into the dark undergrowth, Norman turned to Emma. "Alright, you got this?"
"I don't like being it," Emma griped, frowning. She didn't like chasing, being the demon, the scary monster. Crossing an arm across her chest, she clutched her forearm, her fingers digging into her skin. "But I'll do it." She turned away from the woods. "To a hundred, right?"
"Right." Norman stepped beside her and gently removed her hand from her arm. Uncurling her fingers, he looked at her. "You got this, okay?"
His hand was warm on her skin. She studied it for a moment before looking up at his sorrow-tinged smile. Something didn't feel right. "Norman?"
"Just…just remember that, okay?" Without waiting for her to reply, Norman let go and started to jog into the woods. "No peeking, okay?"
Her hand still felt warm. "Norman!"
He didn't reply, giving a simple wave before disappearing. Fine. She'd just have to ask him after she caught him. Turning away, Emma glared at the orphanage and counted to a hundred. Somewhere in there, she was certain Mama was making her plans. Well, whatever they were, they couldn't stand up to Ray's and Norman's smarts.
"100," she uttered and like a lion on the hunt, she sprang forward. Running down the hill, she burst into the forest. It didn't take long for her eyes to adjust to the gloom, for her ears to pick out every cracking twig and rustling leaf. Her feet automatically stepped over the gnarly tree roots, making sure she didn't trip as she kept her eyes peeled for her family.
A fake set of footprints led to the right. Several more were hastily wiped away to her left. Another trick? Probably not—she'd seen Norman do set this trap before, playing with expectations until you didn't know what was true or not. The breeze picked up, blowing through the trees, and Emma hastily looked up just in case her younger siblings were hiding up in the higher branches. Nothing. A flash of white crossed her vision and Emma looked down just in time to catch Norman sprinting away.
"Norman?" Emma stood stock still for a moment, bemused. It wasn't like him at all to be so forward. Maybe he was trying something new. Well then, she was willing to test it out. Pushing powerfully off the ground, Emma chased after him. Down the forest path she ran, nimbly leaping over fallen logs and jutting rocks. Norman didn't look back once, just straight on rushing through the forest.
Neither Norman nor Ray had her stamina and Emma started to close the gap. Just ahead, she could see a break in the trees, sunlight filtering through. They'd run in a circle, almost, and she pushed forward. "I'm going to catch you!" she shouted, forcing herself to pick up the pace.
Racing past the boundary between forest and field, Emma eagerly looked left and right for her prey. What she found instead was an empty field. "Norman?" How did she miss him? She looked back, but there was no one there. "Norman!"
A cup landed at her feet, a long string attached to the bottom. Immediately, she recognized it. The 'phone' she used to call Norman when he'd been sick. She looked up, but the string winded far into the distance, and she couldn't see who was on the other side. "This isn't funny!"
There still wasn't a response. Not even a giggle from her younger siblings. Gingerly, Emma picked up the cup, not understanding this strange new plan. Holding it to her ear, she waited for a message.
"I'm sorry, Emma," Norman apologized.
The string brushed against her arm and she looked down to find it was cut.
Emma woke up with a start. Her hand was above her, stretching for something just out of reach. Drenched in sweat, she stared up at the dark ceiling. A dream. It was just a dream. The bed beneath her was hard, the room dark, and it was just a dream. Around her, her sisters slept soundly, their breathing soft and steady. Someone snored, like a loud bee buzzing.
This was safe. No, even half-asleep, Emma knew that was wrong. It wasn't safe, just manageable for the moment. Blinking her eyes awake, she slowly got up and glanced out the window. There was only the slightest sliver of moonlight spilling into the room, just enough light to make out people and nothing more.
A dream. Emma laid back down. It was a dream. Despite reassuring herself, her heart continued to race. Clicking her teeth, she softly sprang out of bed. There was an easy fix to all this—she just had to go to the boys' room. A quick peek and she'd see that it was alright, everything was fine. There was nothing to worry about.
Quietly, she stalked across the hallway, keeping to the wall to prevent creaking. She'd done this often enough as a child, sneaking into the Ray's and Norman's beds when she didn't want to sleep alone. This time was no different, they were just a little bigger. As she slipped into the boys' room, it was easy enough to spot Ray. His messy bed hair stuck up at all angles, defying gravity almost. Emma smiled fondly at his instantly recognizably profile.
Emma stared at the empty bed. The mattress was gone, leaving behind only the box spring.
"No," she uttered, sliding down the wall as she remembered.. "No."
Norman was gone. Norman was dead.
Mama had won.
Seated under the big oak tree, Emma shivered as the breeze played with her hair. It was chilly this morning. She should pull her jacket on tighter. She should move back inside. She should do something. Anything.
It all felt like too much effort. Even without Mama watching her like a hawk, her body was heavy. The world was a dark cloud and whether she moved or stayed still, nothing would change the fact that Norman was dead. Norman was gone and, in a month, so would Ray. Emma thought she'd known sadness before this, but it didn't hold a candle to the bottomless despair she felt now. Grief, she found, was an endless well, constantly over spilling.
"You'll get sick like that!" Catching sight of her, Gilda ran over and admonished her.
Emma looked up at her, then back at the grey-greens of the lawn.
"Here, I'll fix your buttons," Gilda offered kindly, kneeling in front of her. She leaned forward to adjust Emma's collar. Lowering her voice to a whisper, she continued, "We've almost got the supplies ready. Don's just gathering some more food while he's on kitchen duty."
Emma stayed still. "It's cold."
"You should go inside," Gilda added aloud. She dusted Emma's shoulders once, twice, before gripping them tight. Quietly, she murmured, "We'll be ready. Don't worry. So just…take care of yourself, okay?" Gilda was staring at her, watching her, her teeth worrying her lips. Her hands trembled as they held Emma. "Please."
It wasn't good to leave her sister like this, scared and uncertain. There were words she should say, words she could say: Good job, I know you can do this, or even just Thank you. What had she said, before everything had fallen beneath her feet? How had she talked to Gilda without the layer of subterfuge and farce? At the very least, she wanted to reassure her, to give her some small piece of comfort as the clock steadily counted down to Ray's birthday.
You got this.
Unbidden, tears formed at the corners of her eyes. Norman was good at that, at comfort, at keeping the pieces together. Even now, she remembered his hand in hers as they ran from Connie's death, his warmth seeping through her clothes and grounding her. If there was one good thing about Mama, it was that it gave Emma an excuse to slip into grief. To let it wrap around her like a thick blanket.
An understanding look crossed Gilda's face and she stood up. Holding out a hand, she smiled gently. "Here, let's go in."
"That's…" Emma tried, but the words wouldn't form. She leaned back into the tree, her back hitting the gnarled trunk. "You…"
Gilda offered her hand still. A few weeks ago, the position would have been reversed, Emma reaching out to drag Ray to his feet. This is the view he saw, she thought, following Gilda's hand up to her face. This was Ray's seat and Ray's tree and the lump in her throat burned hotter.
It wasn't just Norman she was missing.
Emma woke up with a start. Nightmares, again. Or should she call them sweet dreams—it the was the only way she saw Norman now. In the span of weeks, his presence had been completely scrubbed from the orphanage, as though Mama couldn't bear to feel his lingering presence either.
Pressing her hands to her face, Emma moaned quietly. It hurt. It hurt. In the darkness of the night, with only the stars as her witness, she could admit the truth of her charade: everything was painful. Living. Breathing. Figuring out a plan.
You got this, Norman had told her. Be strong and keep moving forward.
And she would, she had to, her family was at stake. They'd all live, even if she had to fight off the monsters herself. As much as she wanted to curl up and give into grief, there wasn't time for that.
Not by day, at least.
Now, in the middle of the night, she wearily swung her legs off her bed. Despite how painful it was to see Norman's empty bed, the only way she could get any sleep was by checking up on Ray and the others. To watch the steady rise and fall of their chests, to hear the rustling of sheets as they turned in their sleep. To see Ray's bed hair defy gravity, a rare source of levity in the otherwise serious boy.
She wondered if he smiled anymore. They had been rare enough even with Norman around; without him, she had a sinking feeling it was impossible. Not that it was any different for her. It took every effort to tug her lips into a smile, to look at Don and Gilda and let them know they were great.
You were right, Emma wanted to tell Ray. We can't save everyone.
Don and Gilda are working really hard. Phil's being brave
Do you miss Norman?
She stared at Ray's sleeping face, her tongue heavy with the words she couldn't say. Slipping back into the hall, she sat down next to the door and leaned against the wall. She didn't have to ask that last question to know the answer to it. Closing her eyes, she steadied her breathing. What was she looking for, anyways, coming out in the middle of the night?
A soft clatter next to her and she snapped open her eyes, tensing as she scanned her surroundings for Mama or the sister. Nothing. No one. She glanced to her right and spotted a small paper cup, wire attached to the back.
A paper-cup-phone. Emma stared at the white cup, her heart in her throat. Norman? She thought immediately, but that was impossible, he was dead. Her fingers trembled as she picked up the cup, her fingers sliding against the rim. Unlike the dream, the string stayed attached.
A paper-cup phone. Hesitantly, she placed it against her ear.
"Emma." Ray's voice came over, calm and clear.
Emma tried not to cry at the sound of his familiar voice. It had been too long. Quickly she pressed the cup to her mouth, muffling her voice. "Ray."
"Good." He sighed on the other end and she marveled at the noise, at the sound of it all. At how his voice sounded just as worn and broken as hers. "You're safe?"
It was a stupid question. "Yeah." Before she could stop herself, she said, "I miss Norman."
There was silence on the other end for a long minute, so long she thought he'd fallen asleep. A quiet voice, quieter than she thought possible. "Me too."
Part of her wanted to poke her head through the door and catch the expression on Ray's face. She was certain it matched the one she saw in the mirror. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she leaned back against the wall. "Sometimes, I forget he's dead," she confessed.
"I wish I could forget," Ray replied blithely.
There was something soothing about that familiar scorn. Emma leaned back. "She's still watching us."
"Yeah. She won't stop till I'm gone."
Fear shot up her back. His birthday was soon, too soon. There was a creak down the hall and Emma sat straight, holding her breath. After counting to thirty, it was apparently that Mama had just rolled over. Still, she had to go. "You're not joining him, she growled. "I'll protect you. "
She didn't want to know how badly it'd hurt if she failed again.