Envelopes. Hundreds of them, there must be, stacked inside the drawer. I remove them from their shelf and place them on the kitchen table, spreading them out. Some are already a tinted yellow and must be several months old, while others could have been delivered only last week.
“I can’t read them, Alex. Who are they addressed to?” I say emotionlessly, my fate hinging on his response.
His eyes are focusing intensely into my own and he seems unable to speak. He runs his hands through his curly hair, seeming torn and conflicted.
“Tell me,” I insist.
“They’re for you--they’re all for you, Alice,” he says slowly, as if it pains him to admit it.
I sink into the nearest chair I can, grabbing the table for support. My world is spinning around me as the realization that Jarrah has been trying to reach me all this time hits me like a storm.
“There has to be an explanation. Don’t jump to conclusions or--” Alex tries.
“Jump to conclusions?” I shout, “why didn’t he tell me about this? They’re addressed to me, not him! So it’s not his bloody business to be reading them!”
“Of course it is! You’re living in his house! He has to know what’s going on! You could’ve been contacting slave catchers for all he knew, Alice! Hell, you don’t even know what’s in these!”
I give him the iciest stare I can muster and he immediately falls silent.
“Read me the first one. The oldest one you can find,” I say quietly.
He shuffles through the piles of envelopes on the table until he pulls out a musty one with a yellow tinge and reads the date. I watch his every motion as he rips open the letter and removes a parchment.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
You weren’t supposed to hear it this way.
I know that.
I should start with that, shouldn’t I?
I am so unbelievably sorry that if I wasn’t in jail right now, I would have been back by your side faster than a man could read this letter.
It’s a useless thing to say, but I want you to know that I say it to you every day.
I thought I had it all. I was standing there, at Lakeshore Port, donning my finest suit and a letter of recommendation in my hand. I was going to be the best artist the world had ever seen. I was going to live on the streets of Paris. Wake up to a world far away from my father every day for the rest of my life--you can’t imagine the happiness I felt. For the last time, I would be off the cursed ground of America. You should have seen the ship to take me there, too. It was absolutely beautiful. The flag of France waved proudly in an intense dance with the strong winds, the ship rocking back and forth with the tides. The paperwork had all been figured out for me. My father was thousands of miles away, completely at a loss to where I might be. I had connections on the ship that Farren Riddle had arranged for me. Do you remember me telling you about him? He sponsored the entire trip for me. He believed in me. Really, there was nothing to stop me. Finally, my dream was coming true.
Or so I thought. Because it turned out that the one thing keeping me here, the one thing that really wanted me to stay, was the thing that I chose to let go.
And I was a hell-bound idiot.
I ripped up my ticket and threw it into the ocean without a second thought. I waited for the next train back so I could get to Preston. The only thing running through my head was your name. Over and over again.
Alice, Alice, Alice.
I kept seeing your eyes when I left. They haunted me, you know. Everywhere I went, everybody I looked at, I saw you. I tried to forget your eyes, to tell myself that you were never going to follow me and I shouldn’t have expected you to and I should have accepted the fact that you were going to let me go the way I let you go.
And then it hit me.
It wasn’t you that let me go at all.
It was me that let you go.
You didn’t want to. It was a choice for me to make, not for you, and I didn’t realize until I was standing a thousand miles away from you with a forged passport in my hand and a heavy weight in my heart.
So I went back. I had a whole speech prepared for you, you know? But that’s when they caught me. The police were following us, all the way from Merrick. They realized I didn’t die in the hanging. You want to know who sent them after me?
My father. My father wanted me dead. He wanted me to stop running the family name through the mud, and he demanded to see either a body with a rope around its neck or a hole in its chest because he couldn’t bear the idea of a black-loving outlaw for a son. He hated me. But I don’t hate him anymore.
You want to know why?
Because he saved you.
My backstabbing, bastard of a father, saved you.
Don’t get excited and think you owe something to your gracious father-in-law, he didn’t mean to. The police thought that you and Isaac, their wanted fugitive slaves, would be with me, so I led them away from you. It didn’t even occur to them to check Preston again. I told them you were already in Canada by the time they got to me.
They didn’t like hearing that, but I sure enjoyed the cheated fury on their faces.
Speaking of fathers-in-law, I was going to ask you to marry me in Paris.
I do not expect you to say yes.
I don’t even want you to, sometimes.
Because I don’t deserve you.
But I’m going to do another stupid thing that only I could do, and ask you to marry me.
When I’m out of here, anyway, it’ll be the real thing.
But for now, there’s a ring in the envelope.
It’s nothing special. All I could afford, but I’ll get you a better one, I promise.
Speaking of promises. I promised to never forget you.
And I hope you kept your promise to never forget me.
Because I’m going to be out of jail in three months.
And I was hoping you would join me.
I’m sorry, princess.
I’m so sorry.
PS: If you don’t want to ever see me again, I beg you to stay wherever you’re happy, and I mean it this time. Just tell me, please. Reply to me. I don’t care what you say--even just the word no. Just don’t leave me with a broken good bye the way I left you.”
I look up into Alex’s eyes, which are sorrowful and confused.
“This letter is almost seven months old, Alice,” he says quietly, “he’s been out of jail for weeks now. The last one--it’s from 34 Wilmot Street, New York City. He might even be owning property by now.”
I collapse into a chair, my head swimming with confused thoughts.
“Can you read me another one?” I ask eagerly, “pick a random one.”
“Alright,” he says blankly, taking one from the pile and ripping it open.
We spend hours combing through the letters, each one containing memories encased within its pages that bring the very essence of Jarrah to life, as if he’s standing right here and confessing to me.
“Do you want to see the ring?” asks Alex quietly.
“I don’t know,” I say, afraid of the validation of his words. Because if there really is one in there...then it changes everything.
“What do I do?” I ask instead.
He opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again.
“You make a choice, just like he said. You can either take the ring, and leave everything you’ve built here behind, or you can stay and forget about him the way he forgot about you.”
“But he’s still sending letters. He hasn’t forgotten,” I spit back defensively.
“Letters are empty. They’re just words, echoes of a promise. Anyone can write something down. But the difference between me and him is that I’m here for Lewis, and that he still isn’t here for you. He wants you to make the choice, but he’s scared of the rejection if he comes here in person.”
“You don’t know that. We haven’t read some of the other ones.”
“I can read him the way I can read any of the letters he sent. He’s a coward.”
“And you aren’t?” I shout coldly, my temper rising, “you only came back because I forced you to. I had to drag you by your arm to this doorstep, or you would’ve been long gone. You’re just as much of a coward as he is, and you have the nerve to call him one as if you’re so high and mighty! He would’ve never hurt anyone the way you hurt that man--whipping him to an inch of his life--why, he’d never even pick up the weapon!”
Alex flinches, and throws the letter onto the table.
“Fine. Make your choice. I won’t stop you. But remember that if this Jarrah person is anything like who I was , he hasn’t done enough thinking. The difference between me and him is that I made it to the doorstep, but never stepped in because I loved Lewis too much to come in without her permission. I didn’t send a bloody ring to try and buy her love, or write a letter to apologize. A letter! That’s all you are to him! It’s a reflection of his upbringing, Alice. He thinks he can tell you what to do! He thinks he can keep apologizing, because he knows you’ll always come back! But one day, you’re not going to be getting a letter. And it’ll be too late, because he’ll have finally boarded that ship, but this time, we won’t be here to break your fall. You’ll be all alone in god knows what city, still clutching your same cold metal ring where a warm hand should be. You want to know what to do? There’s my two cents for you. Make your choice, but make it a bloody good one.”
He slams the door behind him on the way out of the house, the gust of air blowing the letter carelessly to the floor.
I sink to pick it up, and retrieve an engraved bronze ring.
Anger flows through my veins, and I can barely think straight.
I feel betrayed in every way and I know there is only one person who can give me an answer.
So I sit there and wait for him to arrive.
I slam the stack of papers on the wooden desk, my nails digging into the bristled surface painfully. I bore into the old man’s grey eyes, the kindness that I once saw in them replaced with the ugly colours of betrayal. Venom courses through my veins, blurring my thoughts.
“Explain,” I say quietly, “or you can say good bye to me right now.”
He calmly glances up from his position at the door, nonchalantly taking off his coat and hanging it on the hook, as if surprised to see me in this state. His eyes slightly widen in recognition upon seeing the stack of letters, then he shakes his head.
“So you know about these, at last. Of course, I couldn’t hide them from you forever. No, you’re too clever for that,” he says with a knowing nod.
“How...how could you?” I whisper, my body shaking with anger, “I trus--trusted you...”
“You must understand, I wanted to protect you.”
“No--you wanted to protect yourself and your little organization here. But all along--you were using me. You had no right...NO RIGHT TO DO THAT!” I shout, the hatred seeping out of every syllable, “you don’t control me! You have no idea what I’ve been going through! How worried I’ve been, and all along the one thing I’ve wanted most has been wanting me back!”
“If he wanted you most, as you so dramatically point out,” he says, slightly irritated as he places his hat on the dresser, “he wouldn’t have left you for what he wanted more most.”
“People make mistakes,” I hiss venomously, “you of all people know that. Think of your precious Alex, living on the streets for months, wanting to come back but not knowing how, because he was protecting you,” I say with a humourless smile, wanting the words to stir his anger, “and when he finally defied the promise he made, he found Lewis. Has it occurred to you that maybe, just maybe, I want the same thing?”
His eyes twitch slightly, but he remains composed. “Don’t you bring my nephew into this, girl.”
“Oh, now I’m the one meddling in other people’s business. How rude of me,” I spit sarcastically.
“You were becoming happier--much happier than when I first met you. I didn’t want to bring you back to your dark place, you must understand,” says Jim, the calmness in his voice only fuelling my anger. How can he stand there as though we’re having a morning’s chat, when he’s betrayed me and is blatantly admitting it?!
“That’s because my best friend had just died when you met me--of course I’ve been happier since then! How could you even think that I didn’t want to read these!?”
“He abandoned you,” says Jim firmly, “he wasn’t trustworthy, Alice! I had to stop you from making a mistake--and I stand by my decision! There are people here who need you. If you had read these, and being the reckless person you are fully aware you are, you’d have whisked away to New York and gotten yourself arrested and shipped right back where you came from--Mississippi. Remember that place? It doesn’t take much for you to get sent right back there! You are not--and never will be--free, in this country! So learn to accept your lot in life and be grateful! Because this time, had you gone to New York--there would be no saving from me. It would be Death’s cold hands pulling you away, not my own. Jarrah Whitley’s leaving you is a wound fresh in your mind, but it will heal, as all things do. You do not need, nor deserve, people like that in your life. ”
“No,” I spit venomously, “the only people I don’t need in my life are people who would lie to me like this. The choices I make are for my own making, not for yours.”
“Is this it, then? Do you plan on running away your whole life? Drifting from place to place, getting angry at everyone who’s ever tried to help you--and dare I say getting them murdered in the process?”
“How dare you bring Isaac up,” I growl, my eyes flashing menacingly and my fists clenching, “you are fully aware he didn’t have to follow me into that riot.”
“Oh, but he did, and you knew it, deep down,” he says calmly, “you knew he loved you and you knew he would follow you, because you would have done the same. It was rather selfish, if one stops to think about it. Is that what you want to do, again? Or would you rather stay here and pay back the massive debt you owe to the Organization that’s saved your life on multiple occasions? If the former, feel free to take your things and leave now. You need to carry your weight. We’ve been incredibly generous with you, and I will not tolerate some love-struck girl shouting to me about whether what I have done is right or not.”
His words are coated with acid, every sentence bringing another blow to the angry defences I built up against him. I look into his eyes for a few moments, seeing the challenging look he gives me and deciding this is something I cannot back down from.
“I’m done with being lied to. I won’t take it any more, not from you, and not from anyone,” I growl, grabbing my cloak and giving the man who saved my life months ago one last, calculating look.
“If you need me, I’ll be at 34 Wilmot Street, New York City.” I slam the safe house door behind me as I step into the stormy, night air.