New York, NY - USA
I stepped out of my apartment and tried to resist the urge to look over my shoulder. The early morning September air was chilly but had the promise of a warm day ahead. I tucked my key into the hidden pocket of my backpack and made my way to the subway station. Most people hated how crowded the subway was. I reveled in it. Being lost in the crowd gave me a sense of safety and ambiguity. No one was looking at me because there were too many people to notice.
I stepped out of the station and looked around at my surroundings. New York City. A place that 8 million people call home, and now I’m one of them. As I pass by bodega’s, coffee shops, and restaurants the reality of my situation starts to hit me. For the first time in 15 years, I’m on my own, and for the first time in almost ten years, I’m free. No more sleeping on the floor of a cold basement, no more fists, and knives. No more torture and no more pain. I notice the faces of the people I pass by are getting blurry, and I blink quickly to stop the tears that are threatening to spill over.
You are not in that place anymore, they are in jail. You have control of your life now.
I repeat those words to myself as I steel myself for the day ahead. It’s my first day at NYU and my skin is almost vibrating with the possibilities. I always wanted to live in New York City and go to school here.
I wish I was doing this with them.
The thought creeps into my head before I can stop and I feel my heart sink a little. No matter how hard I try to forget them I can’t. Even though they probably forgot about me or blame me for what happened, I know I will always carry them with me. When I was taken, my life was hell. Some days the only thing keeping me going was the memories I shared with them. That was why I got a tattoo of a Lark bird on my inner wrist. I never knew why they called me that, but the memory of their affection was the driving force behind getting that image permanently on my body. It was one of the first things I did after I finally got settled into my studio apartment a few weeks ago.
I finally made my way onto campus and took in my surroundings. The beautiful buildings and landscaping greeting me with open arms and the promise of something I thought I’d never get: a future.
My first class of the day was Creative Writing 101 with Dr. Cartwright. When I finally found the building my classroom was in, I took a deep breath before walking in. I was ready for this. Ready to leave the past in the past and try to make something good for myself. I stepped inside and went in search of my classroom. It was on the first floor so I only had to walk around the corner. When I stepped inside the large lecture hall I knew I should have gotten here earlier. Many seats had already filled up and the only seats left were in the first four rows. I must have been standing at the front of the room for too long because someone cleared their throat in front of me to get my attention.
“I’ll let you sit with me if you tell me your name, and promise to share your notes when I inevitably don’t show up to a few classes due to a massive hangover”. A boy on the edge of the third row sat with his notebook out and a playful smile on his face. I laughed and walked over. “Sure. But only if you promise to do the same. Minus the hangover thing, this class is on a Monday”, I joked. I slid into the seat next to him and started taking my notebook and the syllabus out. I had printed it out the night before wanting to be prepared.
“I’m Emily McCoy”. After the trial, the police thought it best if I assumed a new name. I didn’t want to lose who I was so I chose something similar and meaningful. Emily because it was close enough to Emilia. McCoy because Hank McCoy was the guy’s and I’s favorite X-Men character. We always joked that we would change our last names to McCoy someday to honor the underappreciated comic hero. I just never thought I would do it, let alone under these circumstances.
“Wyatt Pullman. Nice to meet you, Emmy”. He smiled at me before turning his attention to our professor who had just walked into the room. I laughed internally at the nickname he gave me. It’s amazing that I can change my name and people will still choose to call me Emmy instead of the name I give them. I focused on Dr. Cartwright who looked like he was about to address the class.
“Hello everyone and welcome to your first class of a brand new semester. I understand that writing may not be everyone’s favorite past time but it is a necessity. We all write. We text, email, and post our way through life. My hope is that by the end of this semester you will have gained a new appreciation for writing, and be able to engage with everyday writing in a creative and beautiful way. If I manage to corrupt any of you into becoming English majors then that is just icing on the cake”. A collective chuckle eased out of the students in the lecture hall as we listened to Dr. Cartwright’s introduction.
“Please feel free to just call me Cartwright, I don’t like getting hung up on any of that doctor nonsense. I only got the degree so I could get paid a wage that makes living in this damn city manageable”. That time he got full-out laughter from most of the students. I was starting to think I was going to enjoy my time in this class when he walked in.
Like a ghost or a daydream.
I couldn’t quite tell if he was real or just something my imagination made up.
Greyson Trent strolled into the room and sat in the first row.
A roaring sound erupted in my head like the sound you hear when you put a conch shell up to your ear.
“Ahhh, Greyson! Thank you for joining us this morning. Could you please come up here so I can introduce you to the class?“. Cartwright spoke to Greyson with a fondness and I could tell they had known each other for a while. Grey got up to stand next to Cartwright and my breath caught in my throat.
He was the boy I remembered, but now he was so much more. He had gotten taller and his trademark curls had been cut shorter to his head instead of shaggy.
I suddenly felt too hot and my hair that I had let hang loosely down my back, felt like it was suffocating me. I unzipped my backpack, silently cursing at the loud sound in the quiet lecture hall, and grabbed a hair tie. As I sat back up and raised my arms to tie my hair back, I noticed that Greyson was staring at me.
I quickly averted my eyes and focused on Cartwright speaking.
“Everyone, meet Greyson. Greyson, meet everyone. He will be my TA for the course this semester and I trust his judgment implicitly. He is an extremely talented writer and I know that you all will learn just as much, if not more, from him as you will from me”. Cartwright’s words settled over the lecture hall.
Greyson gave a quick wave and started speaking.
I couldn’t even hear it. Not over the sound of my heart attempting to beat out of my chest. He couldn’t be here. He can’t know me anymore. Not after everything that’s happened and everything I’ve done. I could feel my heart breaking as I realized what I would have to do.
I had to leave. Pack up and find someplace else to start over. If my captors ever found me again and they hurt Grey because of it I would never forgive myself. After testifying against them I know they wouldn’t leave me alive. I couldn’t risk Greyson’s safety. Not again.
Greyson finished speaking and went to sit back down. Even though I was avoiding his gaze, I could feel his eyes searing through me as he walked to his seat. Searching for the girl he used to know.
The rest of the class went by in a blur. Cartwright talked about the syllabus and answered any questions students had about the course. He ended early after wishing us luck for the rest of the day.
As I was quickly packing up my things, I heard Wyatt trying to get my attention.
“Emmy do you want to get a coffee or something? My next class isn’t for another hour and it’s only a block away from here”. Wyatt was already packed up, one hand in his pocket and the other on his backpack strap. I thought about saying no at first. Why start this friendship if I wasn’t intending on staying to see it through. I saw Greyson start to move towards me from the first row and made my decision.
“Yeah, that would be great. I forgot to brew a pot this morning and I’m in desperate need of caffeine”. While none of that was a lie, my real reason was to give myself an out to escape Greyson. We made our way out from the aisle and began walking to the door. Wyatt led the way and I was hoping he would act as a buffer to Grey’s approach.
I should have known that wouldn’t work.
As we passed him, my eyes focused straight ahead, he said my name.
“Lark?” His voice was hushed and so much deeper than I remembered. My knees wanted to give out at hearing the old nickname that the guys gave me. The tattoo on my wrist felt itchy all of sudden, even though it was almost healed.
I kept walking, hating myself the whole time.
“Mia?” This time his voice was louder. He ran to catch up to Wyatt and me. This time Wyatt realized Grey was trying to talk to me and stepped up to my side.
“Sorry man, this is Emily. I think you got the wrong girl”. At that moment I was so grateful for this strange boy. I think my voice would have cracked and given me away if I had attempted to speak to Grey. I felt Wyatt put his hand in mine and lead me out of the classroom. I immediately pulled away. Touch was something that always came with pain, and I didn’t know this boy well enough to feel comfortable with this.
Greyson’s eyes clocked the movement before meeting mine again.
I gave him a smile and shrug as if to say, sorry for the mix-up, before I followed Wyatt outside. I couldn’t shake the feeling of Greyson’s eyes watching us as we made our way down the sidewalk.