Day Four [Part VI]
By the time the pain in my shoulder had been replaced with something more euphoric, Daniel and I were about half a mile away from the store, hand in hand like it was the most natural thing to do. I enjoyed the warmth that seeped through his skin to mine because for the first time in years I was bothered by the cold. I felt the snow melt in my hair, felt the trickle down my neck, felt my finger, nose and ears go numb.
I hated it.
It had been a while since I’ve had to associate white and cold with danger but these couple of days had hammered the facts down to my subconscious.
Nowhere was safe. No when was safe. At any point in time somebody could be in the mood to ruin me and I had to be ready for it.
It was my childhood all over again. I only had to close my eyes and I was back in that house that I once confused for a home, on a food-lined table, with my cousins sitting beside me and my uncles sitting beside them and my sisters sitting opposite me flashing conspirational smiles that promised me a cut of the mischief.
What had we even been celebrating?
I shook my head and the thought rolled right out of my brain. We weren’t that religious.
“We look like a couple.”
My childhood dissolved and I was back in the snow, freezing. I watched our reflection in the window of a flower shop that had just opened and realized that he was right.
“We look good together,” he added, his voice light but purposeful. On one hand, he was joking. On the other, he was serious, leaving it up to me to interpret his intentions and continue off from there.
Intentions. I almost scoffed at the word. What sort of person went out with their employer? I wasn’t that sort of person so I never thought about it. Maybe there was too much death, too much Ron-and-Alex, around for me to ever think that way. I didn’t think I would ever allow myself to drag someone else into this sort of life.
“What are you going to be doing when I’m back in Italy?”
His usual ‘optimistic small talk’, but this time it was more. When he got to Italy he wouldn’t be my employer anymore. He also would be more influential than Ron could ever hope to be, a king in own right—and so deep into the underworld that being hunted down like this would no longer faze him. His question was bait, yet that wasn’t all it was.
It felt too much like an invasion of privacy, too much like he had known what I was thinking before I even thought it.
I heard his voice in my head, his previous warning: You should have read my file.
How would I have treated him right now if I knew everything he was capable of? How much would it change things? Would I even want to protect him?
I tried to put the thought out of my mind but I just couldn’t. Rather than saying the wrong thing only to regret it later, I turned my gaze to the streets.
Danny got the idea and stopped asking questions. I could tell he was upset but ignoring him was much better than leading him on. This was the last day. I didn’t need him thinking that because we could have a future together he needed sacrificing himself for it, when in reality I didn’t matter even the tiniest bit in his world.
As we walked I latched on to the conversations of those on the street around us, filtering their voices for the slightest hint of intent. If there was someone out there waiting for an opportunity to catch us off guard, I’d use it to my advantage before they could realize what hit them.
For a while, nothing stood out as being particularly dangerous until two teenagers passed right by us. I held Danny tightly, ready to switch our positions if this turned out to be the prelude to a subtle assassination but he both ended up stopping completely, already on edge.
“It’s me that’s gotten heavier,” the girl complained to the person beside her. Her tone was light, normal, a brand of cheerful that could easily be fake.
“No, it’s my fault that I couldn’t lift you. It has nothing to do with you.”
We turned at the same time and found the two friends staring at us too.
“What’s going on?” Danny whispered the question so softly that it could have been blown away by the slightest gust of wind. “He smells just like you.”
“I don’t know,” I answered, not really of the mind to answer him. I was concerned about other things, things I had put off thinking about until this very moment. What am I going to do if this all goes wrong? What am I going to do if I’m forced to choose? What am I going to do?
“Kayden?” There he was, less than a metre away from me, his hair tied back with a blue scrunchie and my scarf wrapped twice around his neck.
All at once, it hit me, like a sucker punch to my solar plexus. Today was Wednesday. I promised to make him a friendship bracelet; I told him that I would be free today. I hadn’t. I wasn’t. I forgot.
And he looked so damn happy to see me.
“Hi… Olly.” It almost hurt to say but I managed, barely able to keep the panic out of my voice.
When he pulled his friend forward to close the gap between us, it took everything in me not to take a step back. I felt my vigilance slip away, too used to him being in my personal space. At the same time, control slipped through my fingers.
Olly and safe were synonyms in my mind. He had nothing to do with the kind of life I lived outside of alleys and homeless shelters. I didn’t need to worry that I had a bounty on my head when I was with him, because that wasn’t possible. He had been filed away to the part of my life were things were normal, peaceful, monotonous and mundane, and he had been that little spark of life, that little difference that made me look forward to being normal, to not being treated like a homeless person or a gangster.
He was my guilty pleasure, the little island of peace I had away from worry about staying alive all the damn time... Yet here he was, standing in front of me with death right around the corner and I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t even scream at him to run away.
You don’t belong here, Olly. What are you doing here? Why aren’t you safe, in your apartment? What are you doing here?
His gaze landed on Danny and recognition flickered through his eyes, one of his easy-but-awkward smiles formed on his lips and I could almost see his thoughts through his eyes. He was forcing himself to be nice.
“You two know each other?” I couldn’t help but ask. I had been staring at his face all this time, examining it for clues, anything to tell me why he was out here in these freezing temperatures.
His smile softened when he looked at me. He rubbed the back of his neck then glanced at Danny again. “He works at the grocery store… and you do too?”
At the moment, my upper body was tucked away into a jacket at least two sizes too big for me. It was the jacket the couriers for the grocery store wore when they went out to make deliveries.
Danny had explained that the shop’s owner was too stingy to make jackets in all sizes so he got one that could fit all and I had almost laughed, almost.
“No.” I shook my head, impressed that he had made the connection so fast, especially since there was no logo on the jacket.
“Yes,” Daniel said at the same time. “I was considering getting my uncle more help.”
“I’m still mulling over it,” I decided to add, too aware of the war looming over us to even fake being carefree. We had no time for explanations and at the same time, I couldn’t act panicked without drawing unnecessary attention to Daniel. “Where are you two headed?”
“The grocery store,” the girl piped up.
I looked at her properly for the first time since the beginning of this conversation. She had gone from potential threat to Olly’s friend in a couple of seconds, so now I was obligated to remember her. Her hair had been braided with pink and purple extensions and the colors fought for dominance in large buns tied up the sides of her head.
She had a wide, bright smile, kind, brown eyes, and looked like she could have been Ron’s long lost cousin, raised far enough from all the bloodshed to have a personality outside of the Cisco name, but I knew that Ron didn’t have any family left.
I offered her a smile and she returned it two times wider. “Are you friends with Olly?”
When I glanced at him, our gazes met accidentally. I watched his eyes widen in surprise before he let his head fall and started staring at the snow. Immediately, I knew that she was the friend he had been thinking about that day in front of the music store.
“Yes,” I mumbled and hoped that would be enough. I hadn’t had time to make the friendship bracelets. Time had gone by so fast and now I was left grappling for whatever remained of my promise.
“I’ve never seen you there before.” Danny grinned, detaching himself from me to hold his hand out to her. “I’m Daniel.”
“Arleen.” She shook it firmly. “I live on the other side of the district.”
“You’ve made a long trip just for groceries,” Danny said in his disarming way but I could tell that he was on guard.
Was that because he could tell that protecting him wasn’t even on my mind right now? Was I making it that obvious?
“He,” she shoved her gloved thumb in Olly’s direction, “lives nearby. So I thought, what the heck?”
“The store’s closed,” I said before Danny could add anything else. Every second we spent standing brought us closer to death. “You guys should go back.”
“Ah, no. We can’t,” she argued with another charming smile, “we need painkillers or there’s no point.”
“Are you going somewhere?” Olly asked Danny just as I was about to ask what she needed painkillers for. He had noticed the duffle bag.
“Yes. Back home. My uncle is feeling better now so he no longer needs me.”
Olly nodded and with deliberate slowness said, “That’s good.”
I wondered if I was the only one who noticed the strain in his voice. Did he have problems with the store owner or was he the one who needed painkillers? It made sense if he did. He lived close-by and his friend didn’t.
“I have painkillers.” I dug into my pockets and pulled out the bottle of aspirin I carried along for Danny’s sake. “You guys should really go.”
Olly stared at the pill bottle with a frown. “You’re hurt.”
It wasn’t a question. He knew, and it had nothing to do with the drug. He could smell the blood on me. I took a step back and tried not to sound defensive. “I had a bad fall.”
The moment the words left my lips, I knew that it was the wrongest thing to say. He flinched but took the aspirin and continued to stare at me, persistent in asking his silent question: Who hurt you?
No one but Frank had ever seen through one of my lies so fast. I tried not to think about why he needed painkillers too. It wasn’t my place to think that. Not right now.
I forced myself to turn away, afraid that if I stared at him any longer, I’d cave in.
“We have to go now, so we’ll catch up later?” Before I could take another step, Danny grabbed me by the arm. With the force he used to hold me back, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to pull away without making a scene.
I let the tension leave my body and turned to him as naturally as I could manage. “What?”
“What are you doing?” he asked, the most upset I’ve seen him. “He has your scent all over him. It’s so strong that for a second there, I thought he was another you. They will hunt him down. You know that.”
I resisted the urge to just continue walking, with him in tow or not.
Despite what he thought, I had thought it through.
In a handful of minutes, this place was becoming a hot zone, nothing could change that. It was my fault alone that Olly had been dragged into this. It was me who gave him the scarf drenched in my scent. It was my blood smeared all over the grocery store he was heading to. It was my job that brought a war to his neighborhood.
It was all on me.
I had taken work too close to home and now I was being punished for it. I was being punished and there was no remedy.
I wanted nothing more than to take him back to his apartment, barricade the doors and drink some coffee while the war washed over us. But that wasn’t my job, Danny was.
I should have been thinking about how to get him to safety before the streets turned into a battlefield but if someone pulled a gun out right now, I knew that without thinking, without even knowing what I was doing, I would tackle Olly to the ground first. I would protect him before considering anything else and I couldn’t let that happen.
If Danny died in this city, this war would no longer be just between the Ciscos and the Carmosinos. He was the heir to both the Espinoza and the Guerrero families, his death would have to be avenged, paid back in blood, and by the time the dust settled, how many innocent lives would have been lost?
All because I couldn’t do one simple thing.
Walking away meant abandoning Olly to the wolves. It also meant keeping the city safe.
It was the logical thing to do.
It’s the only thing to do. I would be the first person on the execution list if Daniel died, followed by Ron and the rest of the gang. The city wouldn’t be spared either. Anyone could get caught in the crossfire at anytime. Olly could be walking home from school one day and... It didn’t even need to be him, anyone could be walking home from school and that’ll be the last thing they ever did.
I couldn’t let that happen.
“Let’s take them with us,” Daniel said, “they’ll be safe that way.”
“Safe, until someone attacks them because they’re with us.”
“Is there a better option?”
“No. There isn’t.”
“Then nothing.” I just needed to focus on doing my job and everything would be alright but I couldn’t focus on anything but Olly while he was here. If I left now, I could still see him again. If I didn’t, I couldn’t.
It was as simple as that.
“That’s not fair.” Danny’s eyes turned cold. “You’re lying to yourself.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I yanked my arm out of his grip. “We’re leaving.”
I wanted nothing more than to be done with this. It was already Wednesday. I was supposed to be safe by now. I was supposed to be knitting and drinking coffee. I was supposed to be making breakfast for Frank. I was supposed to be doing anything but this.
Yet, after this…
“Hey! Where are you guys heading?” Arleen screamed.
I felt the entire street pause and immediately was overcome with the need to know the time. Just how long had we been standing here? Just how long had we been talking for?
While Danny answered her, I fished through my pockets for the burner phone.
“Oh, the train station?” I heard her say in the background but I couldn’t catch what was said next, the numbers counting down on the phone’s greyscale screen had siezed all my attention.
“That’s pretty close to where I live. We could all go together, don’t you think?”
Time’s up, Kayden, a familiar voice returned to taunt me. What are you going to do now?
The first gunshot spurred me into action.