I find myself running farther and farther away from the safe house and into the darkening sky. People cast me suspicious glances, but I ignore them angrily. They’re all thinking the same thing about me--I see it in their eyes. And I find for the first time in twenty years, I don’t care.
I haven’t been homeless in a long time. But I haven’t been alone even longer. Helplessness quickly creeps up at the back of my mind. The desire for security shouts at me--go back, Alice. Go back. There’s nothing for you out there. I run to the only place I know, instinct taking me to the beginning of a new chapter of my life.
The town square where Isaac died, and Jarrah was lost.
The place where I lost it all. The place where my best friend was ripped from my hands by the harsh reality of a cold blade, where my love had a noose strung around his neck as I wept for him.
I sink my hands into my face as I sit down on a nearby curb to gather my thoughts. I scan my memories for guidance and direction.
The image is vivid in my mind. I was only a girl, scarcely the age of 7. Old enough to know my name and place in the world, but too young to know what truly came with it. I see my father in his study, more than a decade ago, engraving little symbols onto an old parchment. The quill is scratching frantically with an undeniable sense of urgency, and yet to me it is as though he is an artist, creating a masterpiece upon the faded sheet. His lips are pursed into a thin line, his eyes glazed over and full of concentration so I dare not announce myself. I used to sit in his study and watch him write. He would teach me what a few letters meant, but I preferred simply staring at him go through the motions of the writing itself. He would kindly place me in his lap and proudly announce that by the time he was done with the city’s government, my brother and I would be able to go to school and learn to write just like him. My mother didn’t like that--it was dangerous talk. A woman’s place was in the home, she’d always tell me. And I was lucky enough to have one. He was an important man in the city, but that did not make him liked. He spoke openly about the racist plague that infected the country, and often times would not come home for days. He liked to take my brother with him too, sometimes. Said he was old enough to contribute. My mother was worried about Papa. Always something about all of us being taken away, but I assured her on those nights when he was no where to be found that he would come back.
After all, my Papa always came back.
Until that day.
I was playing in my room when my mother burst in, alarm strewn across her normally emotionless face. A tight smile was on her face.
Oblivious still to the chaos awaiting, I’d grinned at my mother. She’d looked at my face long and hard, as if memorizing every detail, and then said, “Sweetie, we’re going to play a game. Hide and seek. You like that, don’t you?” she’d asked.
“Really?” I’d said happily, glad to distract myself from my father’s three day absence.
“Yes. But listen carefully, my child. This is a special game. You have to stay hidden as long as you can, don’t get scared. You can’t make any noise, or they’ll catch you.”
“They?” I’d asked, confused.
“Alice, dear, promise me you won’t make a sound. Not a scream, not a whisper.”
I’d stuck out my pinky and crossed it with hers in the way we always did.
“1. 2. 3.”
“Wait, Mama! Who’s going to catch me?”
“4. 5. 6.”
Frightened, I’d scrambled to my favourite hiding spot, lifting the loose wooden plank under my bed and crawling into it, holding my teddy bear, Mia, in one hand and pulling down the board with the other. I’d waited anxiously as I heard Mama yell something inaudible, probably 10.
I wanted to giggle, but she had told me to keep mum, so I did. And then I waited for what felt both like both an eternity and only a fraction of a second. I knew my hiding spot was good, but I didn’t understand what was taking so long.
“Mama?” I’d called out.
“Mama? I’m over here!” I’d said, a little more nervously.
I was afraid. It was dark and quiet, leaving the furious beating of my heart audible and deafening. I became curious, too. A child’s reaction--natural. But in my case, it would prove to be the worst mistake I had ever made.
I broke my promise. I’d peeked through the hole in the plank, squeezing Mia’s hand in my own. That was when I met a pair of eyes staring back into mine. But they weren’t the warm brown ones that I was accustomed to. They were hollow and black, like the eyes of a serpent. They had a mocking look, and I instantly felt a shiver go down my spine.
“Gotcha,” said their accompanying voice with a sneer.
My life changed forever from that day on. Maybe it would have all been different if I’d had the courage to stay quiet a little longer. We were all tied in chains and sold. My father’s business associate traded in information on us for some spare change. We were kidnapped and taken away from everything we had ever owned and loved.
In New York City. My first home.
And here I was, sitting on a curb in a black night with only Jarrah’s first letter in my pocket, about to go back to the place where it all began.
“I knew I would find you here,” says a feminine voice.
I look up alarmingly, my eyes scanning the darkness for the source of the voice.
“The first thing people do before they leave is go where they came from for one last time. It’s instinctual.”
Lewis appears out of the night, her eyes sad and hands firmly grasping a cloak.
“I brought you this. It’s cold.”
I take it from her gratefully and drape it around my back.
“I’m going to miss you,” she says quietly, sitting beside me on the curb.
“Did you know?” is all I can say in response.
“I had my suspicions,” she replies, “but no, I didn’t know.”
“I trusted him with everything I had. I-I-I sacrificed an entire future because I truly believed he could help me. And now I just feel sick. Like it was all a lie to use me. Like nothing he ever said meant anything.”
“He thought he was helping you. He didn’t understand how much you loved Jarrah.”
“Why is it that what we love the most hurts us the most?” I ask, wiping the single tear streaming down my face, “I thought that people loved each other for happiness and protection.”
Lewis’ powerful amber eyes meet my own as she holds my hand. “Oh, Alice. People love because it is a validation of their own worth--the value of their existence. Someone out there cares about them, is willing to risk everything for them. A confirmation that they matter to the universe, if you will. For every selfless action there is a selfish motive--and love is the greediest and most powerful of them all.”
“What should I do?” I ask, my eyes wandering over to the cold gallows at the centre of the town square. I shudder involuntarily, pushing back the image of the sandy-haired boy with a noose around his neck.
“Well, that depends. What do you want the most, more than anything in the world, at this instant?”
I open my mouth to speak, then close it again as the image of my family flashes before my eyes.
“I don’t know,” I say instead.
“Your very first thought when I asked you that, Alice. That’s what you want. You can lie to me, but you can’t lie to yourself. The fact is, you’re hurting. You’ve been hurting for a long time. And you’re trying to fill that with other things, but you know there’s something deeper. You want so many answers to the questions you have, you want to get back the things you’ve lost, and maybe you can’t have that. Maybe you’re using Jarrah as your way back to all that, when the fact is, he’s the one that pushed you further down.”
I’m about to defend Jarrah the way I always do, but something about Lewis’ words leaves me dangerously exposed. The way her eyes are scanning my own at a thousand miles an hour, searching for my every thought and hungrily trying to pull them out of me.
“Maybe you just want him back because he’s the only thing left that you loved. But is he the thing that you really need? The past is not the same as the present.”
I find myself playing with Jarrah’s ring in my hand, as if I’m finally seeing it in a new light.
“We all want love, you know? And it’s something you haven’t had in a long time. I think you miss caring about people, and having them care for you.”
“I always got hurt anyway,” I say, draping the cloak tighter around me as the wind blows harder against my body.
“That’s true. But you were also much happier.”
I nod, unable to respond.
“Can I ask you something?” she says after a few minutes.
“You just did.”
She rolls her eyes and nudges me playfully.
“Can I ask you two things, then?”
“Careful. Only one question left,” I say, smiling slightly.
“What’s the most terrifying thing in the world?”
Her eyes are dark and probing my own.
I want to search my thoughts for an appropriate answer, but I have already known it for the longest time. It falls onto my lips before I can even think twice.
“Do you remember when you dragged me out of this square, months ago? I was unconscious.”
“Yeah. I was petrified. I thought you would never wake up. I thought we lost you and Isaac both that day.”
“How did you feel?”
She frowns. “Helpless. Angry, I guess.”
“And when I woke up?”
“Like the world was lifted off my shoulders.”
“Imagine I never woke up, and every day you felt like you were waiting for an answer to a question without one. Ever since I lost Isaac, I’ve felt empty. No matter how much I try to fill that hole with anything else, all I can feel is dull. Lifeless. Like I’ve lost my identity and it’s slowly decomposing, buried with his body. A part of me died with Isaac that day.”
“You’re trying to fill it with Jarrah. But it’s not the same.”
“No, it’s not. Because I can lie to myself all I bloody want, but Jarrah is the one that boarded a train Isaac would never have dreamed of getting on without me by his side. Jarrah was fleeing for his life while Isaac died by my side. Jarrah saved himself--Isaac saved me. Jarrah may not have killed me, but he also didn’t keep me alive. And that’s the difference.”
“It’s the people that we love the most that hurt us the most. They have dominion over our hearts,” she observes.
I give one last look at the ring in my hand before I throw it with all my might towards the pit where Isaac died almost a year ago. I allow it to be buried there, along with my remaining memory of Jarrah.
“To a new beginning,” I say.
“To a new beginning,” echoes Lewis.
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