“I’m going to ask you one last time, Alice,” sighs Lewis, stomping the snow off her laced boots as we sit at the kitchen table.
“It was nothing to concern you, alright?” I seethe for the eighth time through clenched teeth.
“Alice, you can’t just drag me through an alley, have a cryptic conversation with an old woman who may or may not have been a witch, and say nothing to concern me."
“Yeah, well you haven’t told me a lot of things either.”
“Who was she? Can I at least know that? And who was the man that left Preston? I thought you didn’t know anybody in Preston.”
“Well, I wanted to change the way we get our food,” I lie, “and I made contacts with a man who could supply us every month as long as we ran some errands for him. It seemed like an honest way to do it, but he ran off when he realized that I was a thief.”
She laughs. “You’re no thief, Lissy, you’re just a distraction for the master--” she cracks her knuckles, “to do her job.”
I plaster on the best smile I can. “I guess.”
“Well, you’re no Alex Sawyer, but I reckon I’ll keep you around,” she sighs, placing her hand on my shoulder.
“Thanks,” I say sarcastically, though I see her eyes falter.
“So that’s it? That’s your great big secret?”
Lying to my only friend Lewis is not an easy thing, and I feel her eyes calculating every word I speak, judging them for merit. I look away, trying not to let her see through me.
“Yup, it was supposed to be a surprise. Extra food for the winter. Sorry it didn’t happen,” I mutter, leaving the room quickly.
My only chance at really making Lewis happy...and I ruined it for her. If I hadn’t approached Alex so suddenly, he’d still be here. Maybe she would have run into him one day...but now he’s gone, forever, and there’s nothing I can do.
Him and Jarrah would be the best of friends, I think sarcastically. In fact, they probably attend the same knitting club and talk about how great they are at leaving people when they’re needed the most.
I roll my eyes and bury my head into my pillow, yearning for some much needed sleep and trying to drown out Lew’s quiet sounds of crying from the room next door.
I wake up early as usual, shaken by the same guilt that haunts my dreams nightly. The house is freezing this early in the morning, and the sun hasn’t even pierced the horizon yet, making the night sky shimmer with thousands of little diamonds brighter than the deep, fallen snow that glistens beneath them. I make my way up to the main floor, careful with my footsteps not to wake the others.
I grab some kindling and light up the wood stove in the parlour to bring some much needed heat and light to the house, something that was not necessary back in Mississippi.
Distracting myself from the cold emptiness of the room, I stare at the flames dance across the wood. Christmas is approaching, but the festive feeling that has enveloped Preston seems bitter and uninviting to me.
I used to celebrate, too.
It was my brother, my mother, and my father, in our little apartment more than a decade ago, singing carols a little too loudly for our neighbours’ taste, attending Sunday Church, and listening to my father play his saxophone like no other man could.
We were free, then.
In a way, I’m free too, now.
It turns out that freedom isn’t just the ability to make decisions on your own. To live life the way you want to, to say what you want and be who you want. No, there’s more to it.
Freedom is being liberated. Freedom is not being enslaved. What’s the point of freedom if you have no one to share it with but yourself? If you spend your days wondering what’s happened to all the people you love? That’s not freedom, any more.
That’s isolation and slavery to your past, and I’m not the type to deny it.
Even if I wanted to go back, I couldn’t.
My cosy apartment on 139 Blackmore Street was probably sold to a white suburban family who had no problem settling into stolen property. And us? We were sold to a white suburban family, too.
The apartment probably cost more than we did. I laugh humourlessly as I stare at the harsh red flames, licking the burning wood. My eyes drift a few times to Jim’s drawer sitting in the corner of the parlour, always locked and stirring my curiosity. I rise to get a closer look, hoping maybe it’s unlocked...
“Trouble sleeping?” asks a manly voice.
“G’ morning Jim,” I say quickly, turning my attention to the porthole and stepping away from the drawer.
“And to you, Alice. Tea?”
“No thanks,” I say, “I’d rather avoid the outhouse if I can in this freezing weather, and if it means go thirsty for six months than I will.”
He laughs. “I see you’re taking to winter well.”
“I see you find this amusing,” I say, making my way back to the chair by the fire and praying he didn’t notice.
He chuckles. “I have been here my whole life. Winter is just as important as summer. We can’t truly appreciate the sunshine if we’ve never felt the darkness.”
“I was perfectly happy with it before I was plunged into eternal freezing, actually,” I say dryly.
“Well, each to his own,” he says, seating himself in the couch across from me and staring at the flames.
" It’s the same, mind you, as happiness,” he adds, “You wouldn’t appreciate it as much as if it was taken away.”
My eyes flicker towards him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, if you do not mind my saying, you were in a dark place when you came here. A winter of sorts. And now, it is spring for you. Soon your summer will return, and you will be happy again.”
“I don’t quite feel the spring yet, actually.”
“Do you miss your lad, still?” he asks, scanning my eyes deeply for their response.
I look at him blankly for a moment, trying to read between the lines.
“Does it matter?”
“Of course it does,” he says, eyeing me intently and waiting for a response.
“Then yes, I do.”
His eyebrows furrow. “And do you regret not going with him?”
I cast my eyes down, opting to stare at my hands instead.
I feel the word yes sitting in my lips, waiting to escape at a moment’s notice, but I hold it back.
“I have thought about it,” I say instead, “and I’ve decided it doesn’t matter. I can’t change my decision now, and I’ve accepted that.”
He considers my answer, then nods.
“Then, my dear, your spring has already come.”
I hear the porthole door swing open, and crane my head to see Lewis stepping through.
“Oh, you lot are already awake? It’s nigh six in the a.m!”
“Good morning to you too,” I say sarcastically, “it was too cold to stay in the basement.”
“Fair enough,” she says, “but I just wanted me some oatmeal!”
“Only you would wake up at 6 in the morn for oatmeal, Lewis,” I laugh.
She walks into the kitchen to prepare her food, and I draw my eyes back to the slowly dying fire.
“I’d ought to bring some more lumber from the back,” says Jim, rising from his seat, “I’ll be back in a mo’.”
“Sleep well?” shouts Lewis from the kitchen.
“As well as always,” I say, though that doesn’t mean much since I barely do.
“Aye, the dogs woke me up. Bloody beasts. Find something to bark at other than a tree, would’ya? There ain’t much conversation to be had with them!”
I laugh as she continues her rant about the neighbourhood animals.
A harsh knock on the door silences us both.
“Could you get that?” she shouts.
“I don’t reckon I’d ought to. Jim’s outside, what if it’s--” I begin nervously.
“Say you’re the house maid. I always do, it’s probably just the milkman,” she yells from the other room.
I place my hand on the door knob, heightening myself and trying to appear more serious as I swing it open.
“Good morning mi’lady, is Lewis here?” says a grinning, blue-eyed man.
“You came back,” I whisper, stepping aside to let the idiot in.
“Where is she?” he asks, ignoring my comment as he strides right into the room.
“Who is it, Alice?” calls Lewis from the kitchen.
“You tell me,” I shout, smiling from ear to ear.
Lewis walks in, stirring her steaming bowl of oatmeal. She glances up, and I watch her deep amber eyes widen as the bowl crashes to the floor. Paralysed, she stares into his own pale blue ones for the longest time, her hands covering her mouth.
“Hey, you,” he whispers softly.
She walks towards who could only be Alexander bloody Sawyer in a daze, and my heart bursts in an ecstatic cocktail of joy and jealousy as I watch the two come closer and closer, and---
A loud slap reverberates across the parlour room.
“You bastard!” screeches Lewis, and Alex and I watch equally paralysed as her demons flood out of her mouth and her eyes burn with a fire brighter than the one in the wood stove.
“What gives you the right to just waltz back in here after a year and just smile at me with your gorgeous cocky little smile--and just--think that everything is going to be okay and--UGH!”
She slaps him again, and I take a step back as a safety precaution.
He just stares at her blankly and lets her ramble with the tongue of a fiery dragon and a string of articulate curse words. Finally, she stops to look at him, her hands on her hips.
“Well? You’ve been pretty quiet for a year, say something!” she shouts, “or no, would you rather take your time on this too and think it over very carefully--”
“You done, love? I haven’t kissed you in a year and I was hoping--”
She angrily grabs his face and embraces him with the fire and passion that could only come from someone as brave and determined as Lewis.
I smile and shake my head, leaving the two of them alone and thinking about what a chaotic thing love is.
The two of them are connected to the hip for the next week, an inseparably cheesy duo straight out of a romance novel. Never have I seen Lewis this happy, and never have I wanted to gag so often in a day. Her every movement is alight with energy, and she’s constantly talking about going through town to see Arlene and Walt, who have missed him dearly. I offer to join her in the usual routine to get food, but she insists that she and Alex can handle it, and they’ll come back with a feast.
Jim sits alone next to me at lunch, and I know that it’s going to be this way for a long time now that Alex is back.
“Are you happy to see him again?” I ask.
Jim smiles. “A man is always happy to see his nephew, but he is especially happy to see his nephew make his closest thing to a daughter even happier. However did you get him to come back?”
“He wasn’t going to, originally. He says he was about to board the train and never come back after I called him a coward, but then he saw something.”
“Oh? What’s that?” asks Jim, leaning forward in interest.
“A husband and wife, bidding each other farewell. The husband wasn’t coming back for a long time, and the wife promised she wouldn’t get with too many other men while she was gone.”
Jim quirks an eyebrow.
“And then the husband came right back off the train, and they went home, hand in hand.”
Jim chuckles. “This is a fabricated story?”
I laugh. “Could be. That would be between me and Mr. Sawyer.”
“Right, well, I’d better be off for work. You’ll be all right on your own?”
“I’m used to it,” I shrug, “I’ll just attempt to cook or something.”
Or wallow in misery as my best friend slowly replaces me.
You know, no big deal.