“I can’t do this anymore,” Cecilia wailed into the dark, wet evening sky.
There were no stars to be seen in the night sky through the thick layer of clouds that hung heavily above her. She felt even any greater sense hopelessness when she begged the universe and she couldn’t see them glittering down on her. It was as if she was cut off from the powers the universe held. Sobs overcame her slight body for the third time that night as she felt the weight of the world upon her shoulders and the weight of her small daughter in her arms.
Collapsing to her knees on the foot path, she clutched her daughter to her chest, begging the hidden stars for help in her desperation. The little bundle in her arms squirmed and coughed softly but remained mostly lifeless. Her usual joyful brown eyes flittered open and closed in misery, tears welling and falling as they did. It wouldn’t be long now until the cold night overcame her tiny, sick body. A thought that plagued Cecilia until it became a physical sensation in her gut. A churning, swirling mess of pain and anxiety rolled through her body as a thick oozing mess.
Shuffling backwards, Cecilia propped herself up on a dirty side walk wall and looked down at her baby. Little Leena Marie Harris looked up at her mother with sad, teary eyes, begging her to make her feel warm and safe again, to rid her of the chills and sweats that continued to ravage through her small body.
Cecilia bent her head and placed a small kiss on her daughter’s forehead and then tucked her safely under her arm. Blocking the harsh winter wind from her soft, exposed skin. It was all she could do to protect her little one from the elements. Her cheeks were rosy from the fever but the rest of her was a sickly pale white, grey color. Cecilia was sure that if her baby could walk she’d be wobbly on her feet from the dehydration and fever.
Hours later, when the air was icier and the sky had grown darker, Cecilia heard shuffling footsteps coming her way from up the street. She tucked into herself further and pushed back against the street wall, praying that whoever was walking by would continue on and pass them without disturbing or harassing them. Leaving her and Leena alone.
She didn’t dare look up as the people walked by her and she continued to hold her breath until she was sure they had gone. Her warm breath misted into the frigid November air, when she finally exhaled and rested her chin on her knees. She starred at the grey footpath in front of her, wishing that it would swallow her hole.
When Cecilia looked around to check her surroundings, she realized she wasn’t as alone as she thought she was. The people who walked passed Cecilia moments ago were standing a few yards away and were looking down at her with uncertainty. It was a woman and man, who both looked to be in their late fifties.
The woman’s warm honey colored hair was mostly tucked under a cozy looking beanie and her slim body was wrapped in a cream-colored winter coat. She was wringing her glove covered hands as she looked down at the huddled figures, unsure of what to do.
A few yards behind her stood a man she assumed to be the older woman’s husband. His face was shrouded in shadow but she could see the movement of his body as he jigged himself up and down. Trying to stay warm, she supposed. At first glance, they looked friendly enough. The kind of people who would drop a few coins to her or maybe a small snack they had to spare, as they walked passed her during the day.
Cecilia looked away from them when she saw their pity. She’d experienced strangers’ guilt before over her assumed situation. She hated the look people gave her when they felt sorry for her and Leena. She was a good mother. She always tried her hardest to protect Leena and give her all she needed. But life had taken an unexpected turn for the pair and Cecilia was left in a terrible situation. As much as she hated their pity, she mostly hated how easily they got over their guilt and justified their ignorance to her situation. In a few minutes the same thing would happen with this couple, they would walk away, and it would be last they ever saw of each other.
As they turned from her, Cecilia imagined that they would discuss how irresponsible she was as a mother, or even worse, how lazy she must be to find herself living on the streets. She’d heard both conversations, and worse, muttered her way in the past few weeks from strangers.
Although she was lost in thought, the silence that stretched between the couple and Cecilia was louder than peak hour traffic in the city center. As she came out of her musings, they were broken by the sound of approaching footsteps.
Cecilia pulled little Leena into her chest further and wrapped her arms tightly around them both, expecting to receive some kind of snide comment or harassment for her assumed situation. This wasn’t going to end well, she sensed, as the person approached. The churning in her gut became unbearable and her heart thudded painfully against her ribs. She tucked her head between her knees and her chest and pulled Leena further into the protection of her arms
“Are you alright?” A sweet voice asked from above, “I promise not to hurt you. I want to help. Please.”
“I’m fine,” Cecilia choked out between shivers. She was relieved it was the woman rather than the man from the pair that had walked passed, but still had her guard up. People could change in a split second regardless of their sex. Something Cecilia had learned from living on the streets the last few months, as well as in the institution that held her captive before her drastic turn in circumstances.
“I’m staying at an apartment not far from here,” the woman informed her. “Come with me and let me get you warmed up,” she pleaded softly.
Cecilia couldn’t help but hear the sincerity in the woman’s voice but she made herself dismiss it. It’s a trap or a trick, she chanted to herself.
“Lillian,” a deep voice called from further along the foot path, “Lil- “
“Arthur, she needs help,” the woman replied sternly.
“Dear?” The deep male voice asked the woman, closer now then he had been just a few seconds before.
Peeking up, Cecilia saw them both crouched in front of her and Leena, from a respectable distance. They were obviously trying their best not to spook her, but try as hard as they might, she was terrified of them. As scared as she was though, Cecilia had to fight the urge to be tempted by their pleading voices. The longing in their eyes was making her exterior shell crack under the pressure they were placing on her.
Cecelia liked to think that she’d become somewhat of an expert at reading people over the years, given that she had lived in captivity for so long. Her and Leena’s survival had depended on it for years now. So, Cecilia was confused when she saw and heard the genuine serenity of the people in front of her. In her experience, people weren’t that good at hiding their true intensions. It came across in their eyes, without them meaning too. She had seen it countless times over the years, but especially while living on the streets. But with the couple in front of her, she couldn’t find any deception or ill will in their hazel and brown eyes.
“What if we get to know each other a little,” the woman suggested, moving around until she was sitting in a similar position to Cecilia on the dirty footpath. “I wouldn’t want to go anywhere with strangers either.”
On her other side she felt the man shuffle around until he too was seated beside her. They weren’t touching her, but she could already feel their body heat radiating off them and onto her. Her heart seized in panic. She was caged in on either side by these strangers. Her front was open though, she reminded herself over and over again. She could quickly jump up and run if she needed to. Still, the sensation of them on either side of her was worrying. But most of all it felt foreign. She couldn’t really remember the last time someone sat next to her that wasn’t bothering her, or that spoke to her kindly.
“My name is Lillian Morris. And this is my husband, Arthur Morris. What’s yours, sweet girl?” The woman said once she was settled.
Lillian was met with silence for a few long moments until Cecilia decided there was no harm in answering with her name. These people didn’t know who she was or where she’d come from, and she was almost certain they weren’t the ones who were after her and Leena.
“I’m Cecilia,” she mumbled softly. Her warm breaths made a cloud in front of her mouth.
As she spoke, a strong wind blew down the street. Cecilia felt the biting pain from the chill through her dirty, thin sweater. It was useless against the icy air, especially when it blew and whipped at the hems of her musty clothes.
There was a soft snuffling noise that came from Cecilia’s arms in response to the wind that ferociously whipped down the street, followed by a sharp cry. Cecilia knew her baby didn’t appreciate the cold wind that blew through her tattered clothes. She tried her best to keep Leena wrapped up tightly in the safety of her arms, but the blanket she had wasn’t very thick and was starting to go bare in some places.
Leena, like her mother, also wasn’t dressed for such cold weather. So, there was nothing decent to protect her skin when the wind blew down the city street. She didn’t have any booties or a beanie to keep her feet, head and ears warm either. Just a thin blanket pulled up to her ears and down to her toes.
Both Arthur and Lillian were shocked when they looked down into the girl’s arms and saw small baby huddled in a dirty blanket, tucked safely in the arms of who they assumed was its mother.
“Is this your little one?” Lillian asked gently.
Cecilia nodded and hushed her baby, softly cooing in her ear, hoping it would at the very least make her feel safe. It did nothing to dampen the wet cough that came from her lungs however.
“She’s sick?” Arthur asked with worry. “How long has she been this way?”
“Weeks,” Cecilia responded reluctantly.
The couple glanced at each other over Cecilia’s head. Silently communicating with each other for a moment about what they should do.
“Please, come with us,” the woman said after a beat. “Our son, he’s a doctor. He can help you. You don’t need to worry about money or anybody hurting you. Please,” Lillian begged.
Cecilia was torn. She didn’t know these people. She didn’t know if they were friend or foe. They looked like they could be trusted and sounded the same way too. And although she prided herself in being a good judge of character, even she had been wrong once or twice before.
But her daughter was sick, she reminded herself. Very sick. She’d had a fever for almost two weeks now and her breathing grew more ragged as the days went on. It long surpassed being a cold at this point. She needed help desperately. And Cecilia knew if Leena wasn’t seen soon by a doctor she wouldn’t last. The weather was too cold for her small body and Cecilia ate and drank such little food and water that breast feeding had become almost nonexistent.
Her thoughts ran a mile a minute. Racing over and over all the possible scenarios. Going back and forth over the couple’s tone, trying her best to determine the true intensions behind their offer. She did her best to consider all the possible scenarios that could come of agreeing to the couple’s suggestion, but also what it meant for her and Leena’s survival if she turned them down. Her determination on what to do took time as it wasn’t something she as prepared to make on a whim. Nothing good came out of spontaneity, Cecilia reminded herself.
When the couple had just about given up on the girl sitting sadly on the edge of the street, Cecilia spoke up in a quiet voice.
“What happens once your son has looked her over?” She said tentatively.
“Whatever you want to happen. You’ll be free to go or you can stay for as long as you need. Get back on your feet. Do whatever it is that you need to do,” the woman said.
Again, Cecilia heard the sincerity in the older woman’s voice and pondered her options for a few long moments. Leena wasn’t going to last much longer in this condition and Cecilia knew she’d never be able to live with herself if she didn’t do everything in her power to help her daughter. It was a risk to them both, going with strangers. But it was a risk staying on the streets and living with the uncertainly that came with it on a daily basis. So, her decision was made, although very hesitantly.
“Okay, we’ll come. But we can’t stay,” Cecilia made clear to the older couple.
Lillian nodded her head vigorously and helped the young woman stand. Cecilia stepped away from the couple as quickly as she could once she was on two feet, putting some space between them as a precaution. She would see an attack before it happened that way, giving herself a chance to run if need be. Cecilia then rearranged Leena’s blanket so that she wasn’t getting the wind in her eyes and hesitantly set off down the road with Lillian and Arthur in front of her.
As they walked, Cecilia stayed a few steps behind them. Having them on either side of her went against her instincts. Surely if they were going to try and hurt her they would do it while in close proximity, Cecilia thought. So, she kept them in her eyeline from a short distance away where she could carefully watch their actions.
They didn’t walk very far, maybe five minutes from where Cecilia had been sitting, before making their way up a set of stairs with fancy wrought iron railings. Before they entered, the man turned to Cecilia and asked the older woman to stop. He reached into his pants pocket and fumbled around, trying to find something buried deep inside. After a moment he drew out two golden keys and showed them to Cecilia.
“This is the key for my son’s apartment door. And this key unlocks the building door in front of us. I want you to hold onto them once we get inside, to show you that you can leave any time you need. I’ll prove they unlock the doors so you know I’m being honest and then I’ll give them to you. I’ll also give you my wallet to hold onto. Hide it anywhere you like in the apartment. I want you to have some reassurance that we aren’t going to hurt you,” he explained, passing over his wallet, hoping it reassured the girl of their honesty and kindness.
Cecilia hesitated before reaching out and taking the brown leather wallet. She knew what the man was trying to do and it added to her gut feeling of how genuine these people were. Of course, they could still hurt her and find the keys and wallet she hid, but why make the offer if they didn’t mean it? She had already agreed to come with them. They didn’t have to continue to reassure her if they were going to harm her or Leena.
“Thank you,” Cecilia croaked out, trying her hardest to sound brave.
Arthur turned back towards the door and unlocked it. He and Lillian walked through first, making sure Cecilia followed in behind them. The older woman pressed a button on the far wall for the elevator.
While waiting in the foyer, Cecilia could already feel the difference the warm temperature was having on her skin. And she felt Leena relax her ridged body a little now that they were out of the wind.
When the doors in front of them opened they walked into the small space and then took an elevator up to the fourth floor of the building, using one of the gold keys to start the lift. All the while Lillian held Cecilia’s arm, trying her best to comfort the girl, and Arthur reassured her that she was safe with them. Especially considering his wallet was burning a hole in her the back pocket of her pants.
When the elevator came to a stop, Arthur took the key out and handed it to Cecilia, which she then tucked into her back pocket where the man’s wallet was. They then walked down a short hallway and stopped in front of a heavy looking, brown door with the number 5A attached in silver lettering. Arthur used another key to unlock the door before handing it to Cecilia as well. Now she had both keys and could leave anytime she wanted, she reminded herself.
Cecilia held her breath as the door to the apartment swung open. She followed behind the couple tentatively, but at their encouragement relaxed her ridged stance some. Whatever dark and sordid surroundings she was expecting inside, Cecilia didn’t find anything that made her worry or regret her decision, so far at least.
The apartment was by no means fancy or extravagant but it was decorated very tastefully, giving it a homey, cozy air. Cecilia had never seen a room so open and warm before in her life. The soft tones of the walls and furniture flowed beautifully into the dark wooden floor.
To Cecelia’s comfort, there was a faint taste of home cooked food in the air. Something about the smell began to put her at ease. Perhaps it reminded her of her own family and the time when she lived with her parents? And the love and comfort that one felt by the simplicity of a home cooked meal.
“Victor’s just getting his bag,” Arthur informed Cecilia as she finally crossed over the threshold.
Lillian led a hesitant Cecilia over to a plush looking grey sofa and helped get the mother and daughter settled before draping a warm blanket over the young girls shoulders. Cecilia jumped when she felt the unexpected weight on her back, standing quickly and turned to see what had touched her. The blanket fell silently to her feet in her haste, making her dip her head in shame. The older woman was just offering her some warmth and comfort. There was nothing to be afraid of, she realized.
Cecilia offered Lillian a soft thank you in response before reaching down to pick the blanket up from the floor. As she did so, the older woman approached slowly, helping her drape it over her shoulders. She then sat opposite Cecilia and tried to chatt quietly to her but the young woman continued to stay quiet.
“Cecilia?” Arthur asked, returning to the family room after a few minutes. “This is my son, the doctor,” he said, stretching his arm out behind him towards a man approaching.