“Please stop!” I screamed. I began to feel the trickle of acid along the side of my face, burning my skin, forever damaging it.
“Oh God, let her go!” I heard my mother crying. “Let her go! Please, I beg you! Stop!”
“She’s a devil’s spawn!” He said in a hoarse voice. “And she deserves all this pain!”
He let me go and I fell to the floor. Pain was numbing my whole body. I was exhausted. I struggled to look up and saw the familiar man with big brown eyes come after me again. I know that face. It used to be a face of comfort for me. I remembered the first time I met him. I was only six years old. He was the only father I ever knew… the only father I ever loved. He took care of me like I was his own flesh and blood.
Now… I could barely recognize his face. His eyes were red and there were black circles under them. Substance abuse changed not only his physical attributes. It changed the way he saw things too. In his eyes now, I was probably a little monster that he had to kill. Hallucinations took over him. It was difficult to separate fiction from fact… nightmares from reality.
I didn’t give a fight when I saw him swing the bat. I could only close my eyes.
“Monster!” He screamed as he prepared to hit me in the face.
I braced myself for the pain… hoping for a miracle. Hoping to God that it was not yet my time. Wishing I had a Guardian Angel who would magically appear on my side to shield me… save me.
Then I heard a gunshot. One. And another one. Two. It almost impaired my sense of hearing.
The mix of gunpowder, burning skin and blood were the most potent scent I smelled. The silence was nearly deafening. I could only hear the wild beating of my heart, the silent whimpers that I didn’t know belonged to me and the fast intakes of last breaths that belonged to the man I once called Dad.
My own breathing was steady. I stared into space, not really looking at anything in particular. Trying to distract myself from the harsh reality that I know would slap me in the face and probably cripple me for life.
It was over… months of torture and physical abuse. Days of struggling to heal from the wounds. Now… I could only feel my heart breaking, because for six years of my life, I truly looked up to him. He had always been there to take care of me and my Mother. He used to chase my nightmares away. And now… I’m sure most of my nightmares would have him in it.
I heard the sirens. Help was here. They would come to make it all right. They would take my me away to a place far enough… where nobody could hurt me again. They would fix my wounds… make sure I could function again… I could live normally again.
But what they couldn’t do for me… was what I needed the most. They could not take away the scars that he left me… and no matter what they do, they could not take the pain, the fear and the nightmares away.
“Wake up sleepyhead!” was the first thing I heard as I felt somebody snatch my headphones away from my head.
I struggled to open my eyes. I looked at my wristwatch. It was one in the afternoon. I slept in again and I know Meredith hated that. But I didn’t have a choice sometimes. It was harder for me to sleep at nights. In the dark, those nightmares were worse and I find myself waking up in the middle of the night, screaming in pain, wanting to run away from the fear and the misery.
Meredith stared at the dark circles under my eyes and smiled apologetically. “I told you… some counseling can help you, sweetheart. Really. I can afford a few sessions.” She said.
I shook my head. Meredith was my mother’s younger sister. She just graduated from college when… when she found out she had to be the one to take care of me. And I feel for her really. She felt she was just a kid out of school and she had to make ends meet and take care of a troubled teenager like me.
“That’s not necessary, Meredith.” I said. She doesn’t want to be called Aunt. She figured it would make her feel old. “We’re already struggling to make ends meet. And you’re really gonna waste your money on somebody who would do nothing but eat donuts and drink coffee while I lie down on a couch and talk about something I didn’t want to talk about?”
“At least… that somebody can prescribe some pills that could help you… fall asleep.” She said.
“I already have something for that.” I said, with a fake smile on my face. “Your manuscripts!”
She glared at me. “How dare you go through my things?” She hit me with a pillow.
I couldn’t help laughing. Meredith is an aspiring writer. One day, when I had nothing to do in the house, I went to her room and looked around. I found some of her manuscripts and decided to read them. She was actually pretty good but I thought none of the stuff she wrote was PG-15. “I’m kidding!” I said, giggling.
“I’m going out.” She said to me. “I have to be at CRC in an hour’s time.”
“Alright. I’ll just be here.” I said to her. As always, I added in my head.
She nodded and looked at me apologetically. For a while, she stared at my face. And I knew exactly which part of my face, she was looking at. It was my scar. The one on the side of my face, between my cheekbones and my ear, and ran down all to the way to my jaw. I immediately felt self-conscious. The skin was damaged and the scar was horrendous. I was told that I was lucky my Stepdad only let the chemical trickle on the side of my cheek, and it didn’t go further on the other parts of my face. I was luckier it didn’t hit my eye. But even before the incident we didn’t really live a charmed life, so there was no way we could afford plastic surgery.
I combed my hair to the side to hide the scar from Meredith’s view.
She took a deep breath. “Why don’t you come with me?”
I stared back at her. “Why?”
She shrugged. “The kids at the center could use a little encouragement.”
I smirked. “From me? Seriously?”
She nodded. “I don’t know how you do this, Alice. I would have been…” She took a deep breath. “But you still looked positive, nobody would be able to guess.”
“By that you mean, I still look charming, nobody would really be able to guess that I was Scarface in real life?”
“No, silly!” She said, smiling. “Not that. I meant… well, you still laugh a lot, joke a lot. Nobody would guess what really happened to you. I would be… devastated. Some kids from the Center would be able to learn a lot from you.”
I stared up at her and she looked like she really wanted me to come with her. Not just because she thought I would be able to help the other people out there. But because she thought it would help me to see those who stayed in the center… the ones that are as broken as I am.
I stood up from my bed. “I’ll just shower.” I said to her.
She beamed at me. “You will like it there, Al.”
Forty minutes later, Meredith was parking her beaten up Volkswagen in one of the open parking spaces in CRC. CRC actually stands for Campbell Rehabilitation Center. It was a huge estate in our town, with a big façade and a number of different gardens and smaller structures around it. CRC is a place for the less than perfect residents of our town. Some stay here for a couple weeks for small little problems such as broken bones that require physical rehabilitation. And yet some stay for months… maybe even years because they require more intensive rehab… such as those who are terminal, or had head trauma that caused amnesia, or victims of violence… like me.
I did not expect CRC to look like a big park, or playground. There were a lot of people in the front garden, chatting, playing. It looked more like a Campus than a Rehabilitation Center.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” Meredith asked as we walked towards the lobby.
“The Board that manages this wanted the people who come here to feel normal. They wanted this to be a refuge for all those people who needed help. The environment is relaxed. There’s open door policy for most visitors. There are a lot of recreational activities so treatments are coupled with sports and play. It nurtures camaraderie and friendships among the fellow patients.”
“And you brought me here because you thought I needed to be around these people? So I won’t feel bad about myself?” I asked her bluntly.
She took a deep breath and didn’t answer promptly. “No one should have to go through what you went through and be… okay.” She said in a worried tone.
“I knew it!” I whispered under my breath. I shook my head. “I’m not going to be a burden to you or anybody, Meredith. I know I’m only sixteen. That dreadful day was more than a year ago. Can’t you just trust me when I say that… I’m okay? I don’t need a damn psychiatrist!” I said to her, trying to keep my emotions under control. “I’m fine!”
“I’m sorry.” Tears are welling up in her eyes.
“Oh gees, Mer. Don’t cry!” I said, squeezing my temples with my fingers. I haven’t cried in a long time… maybe after that night, I haven’t cried at all. I don’t like seeing people sad… especially not for me. Because, I meant what I said to her. Life goes on. We just need to keep moving forward.
Meredith wiped the tears on her cheeks with her fingers. “I’m sorry, Alice. I just… want to do more for you.”
I smiled at her ruefully. “And you are. You don’t have to worry so much.”
She took a deep breath. “I hear you at nights, Alice. You scream in your sleep.” She said in a broken voice. “You do it almost every night. And I’m getting worried.”
I sighed. She wasn’t supposed to know that. I never told her that it was hard for me to sleep at nights and when I do manage to drift off, the nightmares of that night chase me.
“You need to talk to somebody about this, Alice.”
I nodded slightly. “Yeah. But not a shrink.” I said. “I’m not screwed up in the head, Mer.”
“Not all people who see a shrink are screwed up.”
“Well, because most of the time, those who go to one are rich. And if you’re rich, you aren’t called crazy. You’re called eccentric.”
Meredith sighed. “You could talk to me, you know.”
“I do talk to you.” I argued. “Just not about…” I trailed off, not wanting to continue… well, not really wanting to remember. Some memories are better left forgotten.
“School is starting in a couple of months.” She said. “They extended your scholarship.”
“Yeah. Charity case.” I murmured.
Meredith shook her head. “No. Because they know you’re brilliant.” She smiled at me encouragingly. “And maybe it’s time for you to be around kids your age. You should be out having fun with friends.”
“I don’t really have friends.” That was true. We moved to this city a few months before my stepfather went… cuckoo. I got a scholarship on Leighton High, the town’s most prestigious institution where kids born with a silver spoon study. My stepdad was earning a decent living then. But he lost some money to gambling. Then he went into drug abuse. And everything was history… yeah, like literally. And during those times, there just was not enough opportunity to make friends. I had a few acquaintances but they all either moved to another city or they just didn’t feel like being friends with the scar-faced girl, who had a drug addict for a Stepdad and a… murderer for a Mom.
“Then hang around here once in a while.” She said. “There are kids here the same age as you. And like you… they’re looking for… friends too.”
I nodded. I don’t really believe her. But I just didn’t want to make her feel bad. Meredith was trying hard enough for both of us. The least that I could do is… make her feel that I’m cooperating with her when she was struggling to keep it together.
“Okay.” I said. “Now, do you really want me to hang around with you? Or can I just… take a stroll around this place?”
She nodded. “Go ahead. I’ll meet you after three hours.”
“Cool.” I murmured and then I turned around to walk away.
I didn’t really know where I was going. But I figured, I haven’t been out of the house much in the last couple of months. I was in solitude, just staying in, doing schoolwork. The teachers in my school were kind enough to allow me to do my schoolwork without necessarily being in the school. Meredith picks up my modules and I study at home. When I’m required to take a test in the classroom, I show up for a couple of hours… ace my exams and then I go back home.
I strolled in one of the gardens. The shrubs were well-trimmed and the flowers were in full bloom. As I inhaled the fresh air, I thought to myself… maybe I can take my ‘solitude’ outdoors this time around.
I strolled further into the back of the huge estate. I found a path that leads to an orchard hidden behind the building. I didn’t know where it would take me, but I didn’t really care. For the first time, I was enjoying the rays of the sun warming my skin and the refreshing breath of nature. I can hear the birds chirping somewhere from a distance. The orchard was surrounded by very tall trees and the path was covered by dried leaves and flowers.
I looked at the sky. It was light blue… clear and serene, like nothing could disturb it. And I felt a sense of peace within me. Here… it felt safe. Like nothing could touch me… or hurt me. Not even my nightmares.
I continued walking, admiring the scenery around me. Then all of a sudden, I collided into something solid and hard. I shrieked. I was afraid that the impact was going to cause me to fall flat on my butt. But for some reason, I felt something envelope me, keeping me warm, and preventing my fall.
I stared up at what I collided into, which was still holding me close.
I found myself staring at a pair of sunglasses. It took me a moment to realize that it was a boy. His skin was light and flawless. His jaw was strong and his nose was perfect. His eyebrows shot up and a look off annoyance was all over his face.
“Gees.” He said. “The last time I checked, I was the one who’s blind.” I heard the trace of anger and frustration in his smooth voice.
He settled me on my feet and I pulled away from him.
“I’m sorry.” I said. “I wasn’t… looking.”
“So am I.” He muttered. “But unlike you… I didn’t really have a choice.”
“What…” I started asking. Then I remembered him saying something about being blind. “You’re… blind?” I asked.
He raised a brow. “And you’re deaf?” He asked back sarcastically.
Okay. He’s arrogant too. But as he bent down to feel the ground for the walking stick that he dropped when he collided into me, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. I immediately bent down and reached for the stick.
“Don’t.” He said in a sharp voice.
I stopped and stared at him. He looked like he was staring at me under those sleek sports sunglasses of his. But I know he couldn’t really see me.
“I was just… trying to help.” I said.
“And I don’t need your help.” He said in the most arrogant tone I ever heard in months.
I had this sudden urge to cripple him but then I stopped myself. Losing your sight is one of the worst things in the world.
He touched the ground again and finally he felt the stick in his hand. He stood up and started walking slowly. He walked past me, dismissing me.
I watched him. He looked sure of what he was doing, like he has the path memorized at the back of his mind. I saw him take a turn towards the right and I got curious. I kept my distance, but I followed him.
The trees on the new path were much closer to each other and the branches almost closed over the sky. Only a couple of rays of sunlight are able to make it through. And then, I saw that the path led to a beautiful lake.
The place was magnificent and quiet. It was like it was an entirely different world out there. I couldn’t help admiring the peace, serenity and solitude that the place provided. I continued walking, enjoying the sight around me.
Suddenly, I collided into a solid surface again. I realized that the boy had stopped walking, and I closed the distance between us because I was no longer looking at him.
“Well, hello Clumsy!” He muttered.
“So-sorry.” I murmured.
He turned around to face me. “Why are you even following me?”
“I wasn’t.” I said defensively.
“Okay… I was curious.” I said. “I mean… why would somebody like you stray so far from the Center?”
“Somebody like me?” He echoed, and his voice sounded like he really found that offensive.
I sighed. This guy sounded like he hated it if somebody pointed out or even mentioned his condition. But… he couldn’t deny that. He is blind. How could he be brave enough to go as far as this place without somebody looking out for him?
“I didn’t mean to offend you.” I said. “But… well, shouldn’t somebody be looking out for you? You could get lost or you could trip over something.”
He didn’t speak for a while. But when he spoke, his voice was serious. “I don’t need anybody.” He said. “I’ll be just… fine.” There was emphasis on the last word.
“Alright.” I said. Then I turned to the line of trees in front of us. A few feet away, I saw a bench and a wooden table. It was right there in the center of the woods… in the middle of the trees, facing the lake. I walked past the guy and went to the bench. I heard a groan behind me.
“Can you… go back to where you came from?” He asked.
“Nope.” I said. “Why? It’s beautiful out here.”
“And now you’ve ruined it!” He muttered.
I turned back to him and glared. I knew he couldn’t see me anyway so I could make faces all I want.
Just then, I saw his lips curve into a small smile. “You’re glaring, aren’t you?” He asked.
My eyes widened. I had to wave my hand in front of me to check if he really could see. But his head didn’t move at all. He just stood there, smirking.
“I just know.” He said, not letting me finish my question. He walked slowly towards the bench. Then he sat down slowly, placing his walking stick in front of him. I sat down beside him and stared at the swans swimming in front of us. I’ve always thought that swans are regal creatures. Beautiful and magnificent.
“You’re not going to leave, are you?” He asked.
No. The place was too peaceful and it provided the comfort I didn’t even know I was looking for. And also… suddenly, I didn’t feel like leaving him behind. Who knows what could happen to him in this place and no one would be able to find him?
“Nope.” I replied.
He sighed in frustration.
I groaned. “Come on!” I said. “You can just ignore me. I won’t talk. It’s not like you could see me, anyway.”
The minute that left my mouth I regretted it. Nice shot, Alice! That was really sensitive! And not mean at all!
“I’m… I’m sorry.”
He sighed. “Don’t be.” He said, to my surprise. “It’s not like it isn’t true, you know. And it’s not your fault… I am like this.”
I bit my lip. I kept quiet this time. I directed my attention to the swans in front of us.
“How many are they?” He asked.
I counted the swans in my head. I thought my heart broke for him. He comes here… in this little piece of heaven, and he doesn’t even see the magnificent view before him, and the wonderful creatures that play in front of him.
“Six.” I replied.
He nodded slightly.
“Did you know what they are?”
He nodded again. “I’ve always admired them. I grew up in my family’s lake house and we always had swans. Back then, I didn’t mind how beautiful they were. If I knew my time to admire their beauty was limited… I would have stopped at least one minute everyday just to look at them.”
When I heard him say that, I felt like he was not just talking about the swans anymore. It was more of… life in general. And I have to say… I know exactly what he means.
I thought I had a lot of time too. I thought that life was going to be as perfect as it always was. I thought I would always have the things that I didn’t worry about losing before. Now… they were just mere memories. And no matter how much I try… how hard I pray… I could never get them back.
“So what’s wrong with you?” He asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“What?” I asked back.
“Okay, I think I know what.” He said, smirking.
It took me a moment to realize that he was actually joking. I looked at his face and it was the first time that I realized how handsome he was. His skin was smooth… flawless. His hair, the darkest shade of blond, it actually looked light brown. He has these aristocratic features that made him look angelic and devilish at the same time.
“I’m not deaf.” I finally said to him. “And I’m not from here.”
“So what brought you to the world of the freaks if nothing’s wrong with you?”
My lips curved into a smile. He’s not the only one with a sense of humor so I said, “I actually escaped from an institution that houses dangerously insane individuals. I haven’t slaughtered anyone in a long time and I’m just… dying for a kill right now. I thought CRC is a good place to look for a prey.”
He looked towards my direction. I expected him to run away or wave his walking stick towards me as a means to defend himself. But instead he raised his hands in the air and said, “Go ahead. Knock yourself out.”
He was either calling my bluff or he just didn’t care about his life anymore.
“I was kidding you know.” I said.
“I know. You don’t strike me as dangerous. Mental, maybe. But harmless nonetheless.” He said. “But then again… if you weren’t kidding, I’m not stopping you either.”
“Seriously, what’s wrong with you?” I asked.
He sighed. “If you’ve lost as much as I did… there’s nothing much going on for you.”
I took a deep breath. Who is he to talk about losing a lot in life? I lost everything and yet… the only thing I did was cave in… keep it all inside me, because that was the only way I knew how to survive all that happened to me. Repress memories. Run away from the nightmare and the pain. But I never thought about giving up the fight. It never crossed my mind.
“You’re not the only one who lost a lot in life.” I said, misery enveloping my voice.
“But at least you could still see the things you have left.” He argued.
I took a deep breath. “Seeing them is not always a gift.” I said. “Because it also reminds you of the things that you could never see anymore. It would always remind you of the things that you used to have… the people who used to be with you and are… not there anymore.”
He took a deep breath. For a long while he fell silent, absorbing the words I just said. Then he asked, “What’s your name?”
“Allisson. Allisson Harley.” I replied. “What’s yours?”
“Hunter Vaughn.” He extended his hand to me.
I reached forward and shook it. “Nice to meet you, Hunter.”
After a while, we were both quiet again. I was staring at the view in front of us… Hunter was listening to every sound around him. I cannot help feeling safe here… in this place. It looked like a different world for me. And it held the real peace that I have been craving for, for more than a year. I didn’t mind that I was not alone. Hunter was lost in his thoughts too. And he never interrupted mine.
I felt comfortable that way. No one is looking at me and whispering behind my back. I know that no one around me now is curious about the scars I was hiding and the horrific story behind it. I was not being judged or pitied. I was not being pressured to open up about the things I bottled up inside.
No one is telling me that it was okay for me to cry… saying that they feel sorry for me and they understand exactly what I feel… because hell! They don’t! They did not go through the things I went through. They did not go through all the pain and the abuse. They weren’t rescued from that nightmare only to wake up and find out that another one is just beginning. No one is telling me that everything was going to be just fine… because how could it be? The two people I hold most dear were gone. Things will never be the same. And they most certainly weren’t going to be okay.
My phone suddenly rang, interrupting my thoughts. It was Meredith.
“Alice, where are you? It’s time to go home. I have to finish some reports.”
“Okay. Meet you in the parking lot in a few minutes.” I replied.
I turned to Hunter. Although he was not looking at me directly, his face was inclined to my direction, indicating that he was listening.
“That was my Aunt.” I said. “I have to go.”
He stood up from the bench and gathered his walking stick. “I’ll walk you back.”
I found his statement both endearing and surprising. For a guy in his state to offer chivalry is indeed… rare.
“Really… it’s okay.” I said. “I can make it back.”
“Non-sense. You might get lost.” He said, and this time, I heard amusement in his voice.
We walked side by side in silence. With all fairness to Hunter, he didn’t look like he needed a walking stick at all. He looked agile and it seemed like he memorized every step of the path.
“How often do you come here?” I asked.
“At least two times a day… for the last two hundred days.” He replied.
“No wonder you’ve memorized the way. How did you even discover it?”
“Did you hear anybody say that when you lose one sense, your other senses try to make up for it? I didn’t know it was true until I got to experience it.”
“If… if you don’t mind me asking… how long have you been…” I trailed off.
“Almost a year.” He replied bitterly.
I couldn’t help reaching out for his hand and squeezing it. “I’m sorry.” I said.
He squeezed my hand back. “I am too.”
I released his hand and we walked in silence again. We finally reached the grounds of the center.
“It was nice meeting you, Hunter Vaughn.”
“It was nice meeting you too, Allison Harley.” Then he took a deep breath and asked, “You said, you aren’t from here. So what are you doing here? Are you visiting someone?”
“No.” I replied. “My Aunt volunteers here twice a week. Today, she pestered me to come with her. She was afraid that if I don’t talk to anybody soon, I would lose it.”
“They don’t understand that if they force you lose the lid on the emotions you bottle up inside… you actually would end up losing it.” He said, but I knew he was speaking about his own emotions… not mine.
I realized that Hunter and I… we’re not so different. We were both angry. And staying away from the world of people with perfect lives is the only way we knew how to cope up with the pain. Repressing misery and keeping it at bay is the only way we could get hold of the rage that we feel inside.
“Will you come back tomorrow, Allison?” He asked.
I nodded even though I know he couldn’t see me. I saw a faint smile cross his face. “Then you know where to find me.” He said before he turned to walk back inside the building.