It is unnerving, seeing Lewis so fragile. I thought her as someone unbreakable, a warrior that has only strengthened into a veteran through years of battle. It can’t possibly be the same, sassy, strong-headed woman that helped me escape jail and saved me on the brink of death, that is now sitting before me as nothing more than a crumpled mess of tears.
She has been infected with love. The ultimate antidote when given, and the ultimate poison when taken away.
“Talk to me,” I say kindly, “what happened?”
“You hate me. I know you do,” she says angrily, ignoring my question, “you’re only comforting me because you feel guilty about Alex.”
“Why would I hate you?”
“You think I’m a monster,” she chokes bitterly, “I saw the way you looked at me this morning. You don’t trust me any more, Alice, and that may be the smartest thing you’ve ever done.”
I flinch when she uses my full name, the familiarity she once used with me now apparently gone.
“You’re no more of a monster than I am, Lew.”
She laughs humourlessly. “Don’t flatter yourself, kid.”
She studies the photograph of Alexander Sawyer again, as if drinking him in.
“It’s the first time I’ve looked at ’em, in a long time. I kept it locked there ‘cause I was afraid I’d feel it again. And now it’s all comin’ back to me--as though it was yesterday. I haven’t talked about him in over eight months...but I think I’m ready.”
She looks into my eyes, her own soft and full of grief.
“Alex and I met when we were 19 years old. Kids, really, but also old enough to realize that we were perfect for each other. At least, that’s what I believed then. He was Jim’s nephew from Louisiana. Both his parents had died in a carriage accident, and Jim had assumed responsibility of him until he had a steady income of his own. Someone had to keep a watchful eye on him, and Jim loved him like the son he’d never had. He took him everywhere, and I’ll admit I was jealous of all the attention he was getting. I wasn’t the only juvenile delinquent that needed reforming any more, I guess,” she says with a shaky laugh. “Either way, Jim let him in on our secret quickly, after realizing that Alex was as kind-hearted and passionate as he was.”
I study her features as she speaks. Her nose is scrunched and her eyes are focused, as if she’s trying to figure out her feelings while she’s confessing them. She’s absent-mindedly stroking the picture, and I squeeze her hand reassuringly, waiting for her to continue.
“Alex loved the work Jim did. He insisted on helping any way he could, by helping slaves escape onto trains, or coordinating anti-racism efforts in the town. I loved him most when he talked about things like that. He had so many big ideas,” she says, her eyes glimmering, “he wanted to join the abolitionist movement, give speeches, and be the first town in America to declare black, white, and everything in between equal. The problem was, Alex loved equality too much in a town who hated blacks too much. He’d get into fights with the rich white folks in town, causing all kinds of problems for them and soon enough they started complaining to Jim and investigating. Said if he couldn’t handle his nephew, then the police would have to. Jim couldn’t have the cops sniffing around our place too much. Let’s say the place had a lot of secrets that needed to be kept, and we weren’t ready to give it up.” Lewis speaks with a fiery pride, her features hardening and chin tilted up. The safe house might be the only thing left that she cares about.
“Well, anyway, the two of them got into a huge argument. Alex insisted that he’d be more careful next time, and that the work he was doing was necessary. Jim wouldn’t have any of it. He was afraid he’d get hurt, and felt that he owed it to Alex’s parents to protect him. He put an end to Alex’s doings in town. He decided he couldn’t let Alex in on the plans any more. Being part of the Underground Railroad meant keeping a lot of secrets and biding one’s time, but Alex was rash. He wanted results, and when he didn’t get them...he’d make them. Jim didn’t trust him to do anything serious any more. He’d realized that Alex was hot-headed and impulsive, too driven for his own good. Those qualities are dangerous in times like these--but that’s who he was.”
I look at my own decisions over the past few years, and realize Alex and me have a lot in common. A habit of doing stupid things, but for good reasons.
Or so we like to believe it.
She smiles at me. “I think that’s why I liked you when I met you. I miss that the most about him. Loyalty like that doesn’t cross paths with me often.”
“Thank you,” I say softly, waiting for her to continue.
“Instead of keeping him locked up, Jim decided to let Alex work with me as partners in getting supplies for the safe house. It wasn’t much for him, but it was better than hiding at home.”
“Kind of like what I’m doing,” I observe.
“Yeah. Jim sees Alex in you, that’s why he wanted you around so badly. He doesn’t like most people--thinks the whole town’s just a bunch of bloody cowards and liars.”
“You’ve got that right,” I grumble.
She chuckles weakly. “We worked well together. He’d charm the people, distracting them with his good looks and talk while I nabbed the goods. Mister and Mizzus Hemmings loved him like their own lad. The rich, young ladies worshipped him--they saw him as some mysterious rebel they couldn’t have--the richest jewel to their collections if only they could snatch him up. Somehow, he’d charmed them all. I didn’t buy that, though. I knew everything he was doing was for the job--for Jim. He didn’t care about any of them, he just wanted their money and he’d do what it took to get it. His only soft spot was for the weak and oppressed. In fact, he’d rarely talk to me outside of the job. We were partners more than friends at the time. ”
“When did you realize?” I say abruptly.
“That you loved him. When?” I ask tentatively, my mind wandering to the heart-wrenching image of Jarrah turning away from me and leaving the room.
Her body goes cold and she closes her eyes.
“It wasn’t a picnic in the moonlight that sold him for me. Not everyone gets a sandy-haired beauty delivered to their doorstep like you, you know.”
I laugh softly, though the smile fails to reach my crestfallen eyes.
“I was in the market, and some burly bloke caught me pocketing one of his silk linens.”
I quirk my eyebrow, knowing silk is definitely not one of the food items we steal.
“They’re expensive things, but I’d really wanted to surprise one of the slaves who loved sewing. She’d been through a lot. The merchant was a snake-like figure anyway, honest! I swear he stole them, they’re mighty hard to get in the first place. He asked me if I could pay for them, and I said I didn’t have any money. He grabbed me roughly by the wrist and I thought he was taking me to the police office since I couldn’t pay up. It was terrifying, I thought I’d never see Jim or Alex again. That was when I realized, Lissy. The thought of not working together any more, or seeing his cheeky smile as another girl fawned over him--I didn’t wanna miss that. In fact, I wanted to be that girl. I loved him.”
The fire in Lew’s dark brown eyes turns into a pool of grief, the longing etched across her irises. My heart shatters, the feeling a familiar one in my own life.
“I shouted and yelled, asking for help, but no one turned another glance at a black lady like me. Half of them thought I was a prostitute, for Chrissakes, and the other half assumed I was a slave getting what I deserved. He dragged me down to a nearby alley. He threatened me with a lot more than jail time,” she says darkly, and I involuntarily shudder, “and I told him there was nothing I could do and begged him not to turn me in. He told me if I did him a favour he’d let me go. Pretty body like mine ought not be wasted, apparently. He was a disgusting man, Alice, and the venom he poisoned me with has never left my blood.”
"No,” I whisper, horrified.
The tears start coming to her eyes, and I see them soften in fear. My blood boils for the bastard that did that to her.
“I had to, Alice, I couldn’t afford to go to jail. Jim needed me, the slaves needed me. I had to think of the others too.”
“Lew, you didn’t need to do that!” I say in outrage, “that was a sacrifice you shouldn’t have made.”
“I did what was necessary. But that’s when Alex came in--while it was happening. He was livid - I’d never seen him like that before. He pulled a knife on the man, right to his neck, and whispered something. He told him if he ever saw him within fifty feet of me again, it’d be the last thing he ever looked at. The man’s eyes widened and he nodded slightly, running away with a trickle of blood running down his front. Alex pulled me in close, whispering comforting things and telling me he’d never let anyone do that to me again, not while there was still breath in his body.”
“Thank the Lord he showed up,” I say, unable to find the words for anything else.
She smiles gratefully, looking at the picture again for a long time.
“We changed a lot, after that. Partners became lovers, and Alex never let me out of his sight again. I didn’t mind the attention though,” she says with a sad smile, “As for the merchant from the silk stand...well, I didn’t see him in Preston any more after that. He went out of business.”
“Alex saw my fear, he knew the reason I refused to go to the market after that day,” she explains proudly, “And then, all of a sudden, folks stopped buying from him. They avoided the man’s cart like the plague. That’s how much power Alex had--people loved him. They took his word as law.”
Her eyes harden then. “Alex Sawyer was a lot of things, Lissy, don’t get me wrong, but he was no monster. He was loyal to what he believed in, and I know he believed in me.”
“The problem was, he had a knack for making the rich and mighty...not love him. He told me one day that what we were doing wasn’t enough to change the tides, only keep them balanced. He told me we needed to do more. He hated them with a passion that couldn’t be rivalled. He wanted to take them down. There was one bloke in particular, O’Brian, that Alex loved to steal from. Said it gave him no greater pleasure than to hear his raging. He’d sell the profits and give it to O’Brian’s slaves so they could buy their freedom. Jim didn’t know about that, of course, though he had his suspicions. I lied to Jim’s face, Lissy, I told him we weren’t up to nothing. Maybe if I had told him the truth...”
She flinches and her fists clench. “I shouldn’a listened to him. I could’ve stopped him--I could’ve done something, but I didn’t.”
I see the admiration and longing in Lewis’ eyes, and realize that whatever may have happened between the two of them, she still loves him.
“We had an inside girl at O’Brian’s mansion. Her name was Julianna. She was gorgeous and sweet, and she would help us in any way she could, giving us tips as to when he wasn’t home or he was asleep. She was quite the asset, but also a friend. We wanted to get her out of there, but she refused to go until everyone else was out too. She was a skinny little girl, short for her age--only 16, see-- but Lord, her size did not match her bravery.”
“What happened to her?”
Lewis looks at me darkly, her fist clenching in anger as she stands up and begins pacing the room. I see her temples throbbing, and know this is one subject she doesn’t like to revisit.
“O’Brian happened. You see, he was a drunk, and a violent one at that. She’d have bruises on her body a lot, and his whippings weren’t pleasant. She’d hide them from Alex, because she knew he’d cross the line if he found out, but she’d show me and I’d help her heal them. That’s when I started noticing a bump. Her stomach was getting larger, and I knew that it was no extra food ration--O’Brian had gotten her pregnant.”
I cup my face with my hands, hiding it in shock. These things happen at plantations and are a reality I do not miss. I was one of the lucky ones who did not catch the attention of my master, though the danger from other workers was ever present.
“Alex was furious when he found out. She couldn’t hide the bump forever, and he didn’t buy any of her lies. The look on my face was all he needed to confirm his suspicions. He devised a plan, so that O’Brian could never hurt anyone ever again. And I agreed to it, because I loved Alex and I had his back, and because I loved Julianna and I wanted revenge as much as he did.”
“Lewis...what did you do?” I say in horror.
“It was Alex’s plan, but I agreed to it blindly. By the time I realized it was wrong, it was too late for him. Alex was in one of his moods, and nothing I said could have changed his mind. No, Alice, we didn’t kill him--” she says, judging the state of panic on my face, “though we might as well have.”
“We kidnapped him one day while he was in town, and took him where no one could find him. We covered his eyes and mouth so he wouldn’t know who we were, or protest. Julianna was there to watch. Alex bound his body, and gave her O’Brian’s whip. He told her she could do whatever she wanted, but she refused. She was afraid, I think, of getting the punishment tenfold when the time came and O’Brian was set free. Alex was angry that she wasn’t following the plan, so he snatched the whip from her hands.”
Lewis sets the photograph of Alex back in the dresser, locking it tightly and quickly, as if hiding whatever secrets of him remain in it.
“He slashed O’Brian up, a lot. The fire in his eyes was terrifying, Alice...I didn’t even recognize the man I loved. I just wanted him to curl up and hug me the way he had after I’d been raped, but this was a whole other person. His demons were showing, and I didn’t like them. Alex poured alcohol on O’Brian’s bloody wounds, letting him feel the pain and telling him after this he’d never bring another bottle to his lips. I watched the whole thing. I couldn’t stop him, though I begged him to--the Devil embodied him that day. His normally pale eyes were dark and full of fury, and I knew he was crossing I line I could never get him back from. I went to call the police--I knew that he’d kill O’Brian if he went any further. That’s when Alex grabbed my own wrist, in the way the man from the market had, threatening me with a slap on the cheek to make sure I took him seriously.”
“No,” I shake my head, “he wouldn’t. No humanitarian as proud as Alex could do that.”
She shakes her head slightly, unable to believe it happened herself.
“That slap hurt me more than any other words he could have used, Alice. I felt my admiration for his courage and strength slip away just as quickly as his hand struck me. I saw his eyes melt and return to their normal blue, as if he’d realized what he’d done and awoken from his own nightmare. But it was too late.”
She buries her face in her hands as the tears come in waves, and I hug her firmly.
“I couldn’t forgive him for it. I tried--I wanted him to stay, but I knew that I had to leave him. He begged me not to--but the fact was, he wasn’t sorry for what he’d done. I couldn’t live with the monster inside him. He’d turned into the very thing he’d hated the most. I told him not to find me, and not to ever return to the safe house. I told him I wouldn’t tell Jim what had happened and that I’d say he simply ran away to have a new life. I didn’t want him to hurt Jim too, so I lied to him.”
“Jim doesn’t know what happened to his nephew? That must break his heart,” I croak.
“After O’Brian was discovered in the alley, he had his own suspicions. But neither him nor I ever brought up what really happened. We don’t intend to, either.”
“What about Julianna? What happened to her and her kid?”
“We helped her escape. We knew that O’Brian would recognize her voice from his kidnapping and have her killed, so we got her as far away as we could. I miss her, too, but sometimes I can’t help but blame her for taking the Alex I loved away from me.”
“What happened to Alex...did you ever see him again?”
She shakes her head firmly, wiping the last of her tears away from her eyes.
“No. I don’t know where he went, but he took me seriously and made sure I never saw him again. He must’ve left Preston to start over.”
“Do you long to see him again?”
Her eyes gloss over, and her lips press into a firm line. Her black bangs fall over her face as she stares at me intently.
“It is for the best if our eyes never meet again. If I looked into his beautiful blue ones again, I know I would forgive him for his deed.”
“Do you ever--”
“Yes. Always, I wonder what happened to him. I like to think he got a new identity, and he’s helping slaves in another county, somewhere out there. That maybe he realized what he did was wrong, and that he regrets his choice.”
“When was this?”
She meets my eyes with an intense, piercing gaze.
“It’s been 8 months. It’s passed now. Besides, he forgot me right away. If we were meant to be, then we would be, as you so kindly put it with Jarrah.”
Maybe I was wrong about that. The thought flashes in my mind in an instant, but I quickly shove it away. That fate was already sealed when I said good bye.
So why is he still on my mind? I think angrily.
“You miss him, don’t you?” she asks softly.
I agree as a fresh wave of tears hits me.