After Jessie came in and announced her dramatic news, Rose did her best to convince her she was fine and hadn’t run into the man who’d been murdered. That was a lie, but she wasn’t ready for anyone to know until she had it cleared up. Her stress at keeping the fake smile on her face only took a backseat when she realized Jessie had never seen her parents’ apartment before. She’d never told anyone in high school just how poor her family was, and she expected someone who came from a rich family like Jessie to be disgusted.
She watched Jessie closely, but only saw surprise when she looked around the apartment. There wasn’t disgust in her expression like she expected. And she hadn’t seemed to treat Rose’s family any different either. Rose felt relief burn through her mind as she realized Jessie wasn’t going to judge them. That was something she never could have expected.
Around midnight she was more than ready to go home, but to her chagrin her mother insisted they stay the night. After the murder and whatnot, she was very worried about them. She would have refused anyway but before she had the chance Jessie agreed for both of them. She bit back her frustration and acquiesced. When she and Jessie curled up in a blanket on the floor, she was so tense that sleep didn’t come to her for hours. She just lay there, listening to Jessie’s light snores and the sounds of her sisters sleeping.
Eventually she must have fallen asleep because she was torn from her dream by being shaken awake. She groggily opened her eyes just to close them again against the cursed light shining in through the grimy window over the kitchen sink.
“Time to wake up Rosie.” Lily said in a sing-song voice. Rose groaned and turned on her side, pulling the blanket over her head. “Come on Rose! Get up!” Lily snatched the blanket from around her and shook her shoulder.
Rose grumpily complied, sitting up. She immediately regretted sleeping over after feeling her stiff body moan and complain at her. The good news was that Jessie wouldn’t ever voluntarily accept another sleepover invitation there again. Rose rolled her eyes at her thought as she stretched.
As she rubbed her eyes to wipe the sleep away, she smelled something delicious. Squinting around to find the source, her gaze stopped at the kitchen table. Everyone was sitting around it in the mismatched chairs her parents had collected from dumpsters and sidewalks through the years. In the middle of the table sat a plate piled high with waffles. Rose stared. They’d never had waffles in her whole life.
“Waffles? Where’d you get those?” She asked, not asking the question really on her mind: where’d they get the money for them? They could never afford breakfast, and rarely could they afford more than one meal a day.
Her mom glared lightly at her, clearly noticing the unasked question. If there was something her parents hated more than her not visiting more often, it was discussing money. Especially money problems. She held up her hands in surrender. “Just asking.”
Her mom huffed and put a strand of her honey hair behind her ear from where it was falling out of her messy bun. “Since it’s not every day our baby turns eighteen, we thought we’d celebrate with breakfast. Now come have some before it gets cold. We were waiting for you to get up.”
“Wow, thanks guys. I appreciate it.”
Rose willed herself not to say any more about it though internally she was upset they’d spent that money on her. She’d already gotten a cake last night, she didn’t need more. She wondered what they’d be giving up this month to afford this meal. Hopefully they wouldn’t be going hungry over it later.
She sat in the same chair she’d sat in last night and nearly fell off as it wobbled even more severely than it had last night. Rose thought she’d definitely need to sneak in some better furniture for her family. Shaking the thought off for now, she grabbed a waffle, smothered it in syrup, and dug in.
As Rose ate, she studied her family. Her mom and dad looked tired, with dark bags under their eyes. They must have been working longer hours lately, which was good only in the way it meant at least they had jobs right now. In her life, they’d spent many periods without any methods of making money except for illegal ones.
She shook the dark thoughts and focused instead on how they looked compared their kids. Jasmine and Rose had light, almost bleached-looking hair. Lily had more honey-toned hair, and her mother shared that tint. Her father had more copper hair, however. She wasn’t sure how she and Jasmine ended up with such light hair, but she liked it nonetheless. Both of her parents were tall, her father at about six feet and her mother at about five foot eleven. That was undoubtedly why their children were all tall as well. Her father had soft features, and though worn with age, it was easy to imagine him as a child. His nose was button-like, his blue eyes wide and childlike. All of her siblings’ faces took after him. Their mother was harder featured, with a sharp jaw and crooked nose. Nevertheless, they were both incredibly beautiful people, inside and out.
She finished eating her waffles with her family on her mind. When everyone else was done as well, she gathered all the plates and brought them to the tiny, very beat-up sink to wash. She turned the water on, waited until the brown cleared out, and began washing them.
“Honey, let us worry about those. It’s your birthday.” Her mother said quietly, holding her skinny body in a side hug.
Rose turned and smiled at her mom’s tired face, worn with wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. “No, let me. I’m the guest here. You went to so much trouble for my birthday. It’s the least I can do,” at her mother’s still-skeptical expression, she added, “Really.”
Her mom nodded and walked away, sitting back down next to her father. Rose exhaled in relief. That was one of the very few times her mother allowed her to do something self-sacrificing like that. She must be more tired and run-down than she thought. She thrust the plate she’d been scrubbing under the water just to draw it back with a sharp hiss. The water was freezing! Had her parents not paid the gas bill again? She went to turn it hot, but after a few moments it was still freezing.
She glared at the dull metal faucet in frustration. Her parents were too stubborn. If they had just asked her to help pay the gas bill, she could have contributed and saved her sisters the trouble of showering in freezing water for who knows how long. She pursed her lips, wondering what to do. Feeling a gaze on her, her head turned and spied her mother looking at her questioningly. She sighed to herself before smiling and continuing to wash the dishes in the icy water. If she brought it up, her mom would only tell her to worry about herself. Normally, she would. It was just that her sisters were being forced to deal with the bad living situation and she’d sworn to make their lives better than hers had been. She put the issue to the back of her mind for now, determined to sneak some cash to Jaz later to pay the gas bill.
She shrugged the frustration out of her mind and finished washing the plates quickly. Once finished, she hugged her family goodbye, thanking them for a great birthday celebration, and left with Jessie to walk home. They walked in comfortable silence for a couple of blocks through the west side of Chicago where her family’s apartment was located, they began to reach the north side where they lived. They were renting a nice apartment with their shared incomes, plus Jessie’s inheritance from her rich family.
Eventually, Jessie broke the silence by clearing her throat and looking at Rose uncomfortably. “Hey, can we talk about something?”
Rose shot a glance at her curiously. “Sure.”
Jessie shoved her hands in her pockets and looked down. “I didn’t know your family was so poor.”
Rose cringed. She should have known the judgement was coming. Jessie was too nice to bring anything up in front of her family. Bracing herself for disgust, she apologized.
“Yeah...sorry. I should have told you about their situation earlier. I won’t ask you to go there ever again. I know you thought it was gross or sad. But don’t worry, you managed it really well, especially the sleeping on the floor. I don’t think anyone could tell you were surprised.”
“I was only surprised. I wasn’t grossed out or anything. Your family situation is different than mine, but that doesn’t change anything. I’d be happy to go over again sometime.” She said.
Rose stopped in her tracks. She’d never considered that Jessie would be so uncaring about that issue. Jessie’s family was rich. Wasn’t it too huge of a change for her? And wouldn’t it change how she saw Rose? Rose looked at Jessie carefully but saw only sincerity. She felt embarrassment rising in her now that she realized Jessie really didn’t care.
“Oh. Well, that’s good then. But if you weren’t freaked out, what did you want to talk about?” It seemed like the right time to change the subject away from Rose’s wrong expectations.
“Are they--and you--okay? They seem really down and out. Do they need some money? You know I’d be more than happy to help in any way I can.”
Anger welled up in Rose before she squashed it. She would have taken offense, but she knew Jessie wasn’t pitying them. If she was, she wouldn’t have responded the way she did about her family’s situation not changing anything for her. But though she knew she meant well, she never would have expected her to offer money like they were beggars. She shook her head vehemently and began walking again, feeling Jessie’s brown eyes on her.
“No. Even if they were homeless, they wouldn’t take it. They’re too proud. Trust me, I’ve offered many times. But please, never EVER offer that to their faces. They’d be livid.” She muttered, bitterly remembering the many times she’d offered to help with something to do with money and been yelled at.
Rose glanced over to see a thoughtful expression on Jessie’s freckled face. She was glad she didn’t look offended at her words. Sometimes people didn’t understand her parents’ pride.
Jessie was quiet for a few minutes as they passed by various apartment buildings, the living quarters getting nicer with every step. Rose knew something was still on her mind. She was normally very talkative; she was only quiet when something was bothering her. After a few more minutes she got tired of waiting for Jessie to bring it up herself.
“Is something wrong?”
Jessie looked at her again, this time in the eyes, grabbing her arm and stopping them as they were in front of their apartment building. Her eyes were sad and sympathetic.
“Were you ever homeless?”
Rose recoiled slightly. That was NOT a topic she spoke on comfortably. She’d never broached it with anyone before, not a single soul. And she would have easily and happily shut Jessie down, but something in her eyes beckoned to her heart. She wasn’t asking with the intent of pitying her. She didn’t know why she knew that, only that she felt it deep down. So she sighed deeply, eyebrows furrowing.
“...Yes. For a few years when I was a child, before Lily was born. I was around 12 and Jaz was probably about 5 when we finally had enough for an apartment. As far as I can tell, she doesn’t remember it. I’m thankful for that every day of my life.” Rose finally responded, a dark look entering her eyes as she remembered those days.
“And that’s why you have those scars on your back? They happened when you were homeless? What happened?” Jessie must have felt very brave to ask that. Rose had nearly bitten her head off about it before. The scars were something she not only never spoke about, but also never thought about. They were too painful.
Rose narrowed her eyes at her best friend. She should know better than to think Rose would tell her anything about those. She scoffed and walked away, into their apartment building. She could and would ignore Jessie until she dropped it. Her long legs allowed her to climb the stairs up to their second-story apartment quickly. She grabbed the keys out of her purse and unlocked it. She heard Jessie yelling to wait behind her, down the stairs, but ignored it.
She slammed the door behind her then decided to slam her bedroom door as well for good measure. She crossed the floor to her bedroom door across from the kitchen, walked in, slammed it as hard as she could, then sank to the floor with her back to the white painted wooden door. Her head plopped down into her hands in frustration. It was all she could do most days to keep those memories away, she didn’t need anyone to bring them up.
Suddenly a throat clearing sounded in the silent room, making her jump. She’d thought she was alone. Looking up, she was only more startled to see the mysterious guy who’d saved her life laying on her bed, looking bored.
“What...who...?” She stuttered, too startled to even scream.
If he were here to kill her, she was so dead. Her muscles completely froze at the sight of him, holding her in place with painful tension. She wasn’t sure she could even call out to Jessie, who she heard enter the apartment. As it was, she kept her wide-eyed stare on him, feeling an awful lot like a mouse in the gaze of a snake.
He sat up slowly, raising his hands in a defensive posture. “I’m not a threat. I told you I’d find you to talk about the mugging, didn’t I?”
Rose scoffed, though she felt her muscles relax slightly. There was something about his softened gaze, slow movements, and gentle voice that calmed her against her will. Though he could have come up with more reassuring reasoning; it wasn’t like him promising to find her later made her less scared.
“Answer one question before I scream for my roommate to call the cops,” She demanded. He nodded, and she continued, “Did you kill the guy who mugged me?”
Hands finally lowering, he gave her an even look that she couldn’t read. “I did not kill him. I don’t have proof, so you are going to have to trust me.” He said softly. His odd accent added a lilting tone to his quiet words.
Rose felt immediate relief when he claimed he hadn’t murdered the mugger but got angry with herself when she realized she was subconsciously taking his word for it. She didn’t even know him! Why was she trusting him so easily? Just because he was extremely attractive, had a soothing air about him, and had such beautiful bright blue eyes? That was idiotic.
“Why would I trust someone I don’t know? Who are you? And how did you know my name and where I lived?” With every word, Rose felt anxiety building again.
The man’s eyes flashed up to hers and he nodded appreciatively. “You are right, you shouldn’t trust someone you don’t know. My name is Samael. I knew your name because you were wearing a name tag when I saved you from the mugger, and I know your address because you dropped this when you ran away.”
He reached into his pocket and drew his hand back out with slow, cautious movements. He opened his hand to reveal her ID. Rose blushed. Of course she’d assumed he was some type of stalker when he’d really just found her driver’s license. She walked forward, feeling more confident now, and grabbed her ID from his hand.
“Thank you for bringing it back. Earlier you said you wanted to talk about the mugging, right? Why?” She asked curiously.
“I need information.”
Rose gave him a look, to which he responded with an indifferent expression. “I understand that, thanks. Why?”
“Is it a habit of yours to ask perfect strangers dozens of questions and expect them to answer?”
His expression softened a little bit and he sounded amused. Rose blushed again, realizing she had been asking a lot of questions. Though the situation did merit it.
“Not usually, no. Just to the perfect strangers who break into my apartment and scare me.”
His expression scrunched up in disgust. “Excuse you, I did not break in. Your door was open, and I waited in here because it seemed like you didn’t want anyone to know about this situation based on the phone call I overheard last night.”
Rose supposed that was possible. Especially since Jessie was the last one out this morning. She was careless in a way that told Rose she’d never lived in a bad neighborhood. She sighed.
“Alright then. Why don’t you tell me what you want to know and exactly who you are instead of avoiding the question again?” She was starting to feel a headache coming on.
He watched her appraisingly. She found herself growing nervous at his prolonged stare, wondering what he was looking at. He frowned a bit, then nodded to himself like he’d decided on something. She waited for his answer when he stood, expression now ice cold. She felt immediately anxious in the same way she felt when standing in front of the ocean.
She’d been 11 years old when she ran away from where her family was camped, angry with her parents. She ran all around the city and finally found herself at the docks in the early morning when the sky was gray. She stood on the pier, looking out at the vast expanse of water battering the shore and felt like she was standing on the edge of something more powerful and dangerous than she could comprehend. At the time, she’d turned away and never come back to the shore. Now, faced with a man who made her feel like she was gazing at that endless, terrifying ocean again, she wanted nothing more than to do the same thing. But something about him made her pause. It felt like he was testing her for something, and she was too proud to back down.
He stepped closer, making the instinctual fear rise and choke her. But she wouldn’t move. One more step and he was standing over her, staring her down with his ice-blue eyes. She saw the danger written on his skin and felt like a rabbit before a wolf. Wait, no, that wasn’t quite right. She felt like an ant in front of a smoking volcano. Something about his presence told her that she was nothing compared to him. If he exploded, she had no chance. She was so small that she shouldn’t even be in his gaze. But for some reason he was before her, eyes trained on her face.
Rose withstood the blasting pressure of fear pushing her to take a step back and look away. She looked him in the eye, holding her breath. When her lungs began to burn for air and she finally brought fresh air in, her concentration slipped, and she stepped back before she could think about it. Her heart pounded, reminding her that she’d just stood on the edge of disaster. When her eyes were finally able to meet his again, she noticed a troubled frown on his handsome face. He looked back at her and cleared his expression, donning a light smirk like a mask.
“Are you sure you want to know who I am?”
Those words rang in her head. Who was this man who made her feel like hewas the most dangerous thing she’d ever been faced with by his presence alone? And more than anything, why did she feel adeep instinct to run from him?