Chapter One: An Ordinary World
My shoes gently tapped over the cobblestone winding through a village of cabins. I followed the path underneath a quilt of black clouds, stirring slowly to create one monotone, dark sky. A chill scraped over my skin, so I hugged myself, peering at the cottages for any sign of life, but they were all as dead as the atmosphere above me. I quickened my pace, searching for anyone who could shelter me from the cold. A rumble overhead signified possible rain; surely I would die if I didn’t find help soon.
A soft, orange glow captured my attention in a cabin nearby. I scuttled towards the entrance to knock, but right as I reached the first step, the door swung open, wafting warmth along with the scent of cinnamon and roses. I paused apprehensively, fearing that the feeling of safety was a trap. The freezing air scratched at my back, tempting me to give into the familiarity of comfort inside. I pressed my lips together, unsure of the unknown despite the lit fireplace clearly visible from the doorway. To be taken advantage of was a terrifying thing; I could not just enter a stranger’s house no matter how torturous it was outside.
Hopelessness began to leak from my eyes, but I blinked it away as I began to shift in the opposite direction of the gaping threshold. It was only the voice that gave me pause.
“Julia, please come inside.”
When I looked, I observed my white bed sheets. Morning light filtered through my window which I squinted at. Right as I looked at my alarm clock, it shrilled at 8 A.M. Grogginess left as soon as it entered my body, and I lifted myself out of bed to prepare for the morning.
The last day of working.
The last day of Da Coffee Shop.
The last day of waiting for my high school diploma to arrive.
It was time for firsts.
After getting ready, I descended to the kitchen for a quick bowl of cereal. Dad was still in pajamas as he reclined on his lazy-boy and sipped at coffee. He straightened himself when he saw me, announcing, “Good morning. You are up early. Is it Friday already?”
I nodded and flashed him a smile. “Yup.”
As I poured cereal into a bowl, Dad stood to meet me in the kitchen while he continued, “I forgot you had an earlier therapy appointment today. I’ll get ready real quick take you.”
“It’s okay,” I objected. “You only get weekends off. Besides, I have to go to work afterwards, but I promise I’ll be back home by six.”
“I’ll keep a lookout for that diploma when the mail arrives. My girl, a high school graduate and starting college in three weeks.” Dad’s voice had a hint of sadness.
In the last six months, he pushed hard to be a “better father” after what happened. Better by his definition being that he granted us all free thought besides his own opinion. It was all very strange to me to see him act that way and not get a lecture about fact over fantasy. I grumbled, “A high school graduate at nineteen instead of seventeen.”
“Julia…” The sincerity in Dad’s voice caused me to look at him. He went on, “Age doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are here. And you are graduating like you should. And going to college like you should. And being alive like you should…” He paused, realizing he was stepping into emotional territory.
Although what happened to me in Romania remained a mystery, I was glad it brought me closer to my father.
I smiled at him. “Of course. I have to go. I’ll see you when I get home. Love you.” I started toward the door.
Dad called, “Text me when you get to the office!”
“And when you are done with your appointment.”
“And when you get to the coffee shop. And when you’re off work.”
“Will do. See you later.”
I arrived at the clinic punctually as usual. Eventually I migrated from the waiting room into my therapist’s office.
“You look very well today, Julia,” Dr. Khatri noted, sitting across from me.
“Thank you. I feel good,” I answered.
“That’s wonderful and perfect timing because this will be your last day of work before starting college,” she spoke gently like someone I once knew, though I couldn’t recall her name. She continued, “How is the journaling going? Any memories coming back?”
I shook my head, pursing my lips.
“Hmm,” she sighed. “That is not too uncommon for general amnesia even though just those two years are pretty selective. People handle PTSD in very different ways. Your memory may come back in a couple weeks, a couple years, decades even. Or not at all.”
“I’m glad I don’t know,” I blurted. She listened, so I further explained, “Obviously whatever happened was horrific enough for my brain to shut it out, so I’m glad I don’t know, and I hope I never remember.”
“I understand,” she said. “Our mental states are fragile, so the brain will do mysterious things to protect us from tremendous hurt. The most important thing is your welfare and that you are feeling mentally sound. Your happiness is important. Are you still getting offers from true crime producers?”
“Not as often,” I admitted. “But I’d still like them to stop. I want them to leave me alone and leave my family alone.”
“Are people still recognizing you?”
“Not as much, not since I cut my hair. It would still be ideal for that to stop as well, but I think we’re almost there.”
Dr. Khatri nodded. “Good. And remember, it is a good thing for you to set boundaries. You have every right to tell these people to leave you alone.”
“Yeah...though I suppose the money from a true crime documentary would help us financially. Even with the four of us working, it’s expensive to live near Seattle compared to Bellingham. Dad has his dream job working at UW, yet he seems unhappy. Mom is overworked at the hospital. And Mikey just started dog sitting to at least help out before he’s old enough to get a real job. I’ve saved most of my money just to get me through the first year of community college since I didn’t finish high school in time to apply to and afford a university.”
“Is it worth your mental health to put yourself through a documentary? With everything you’ve just said, that will be a lot to add to your already full plate.”
“Yeah, I suppose that’s true.”
“Don’t get yourself worked up about it. It’s not worth it. This is what matters: Do you feel safe? Do you feel happy?”
I paused, thoughtfully. “I feel better. I think that’s good for now.”
At the end of the session, Dr. Khatri led me to the door, announcing, “Congratulations on your last day of work. I’m glad to hear that you will be starting college soon. You are about to start fresh and anew, and it looks like it is having a very positive effect on you.”
“Thank you. It is.”
“If you ever need help, know I am here whenever you need me.”
“Yes, thank you so much.”
She reciprocated with a toothy grin, unusual for her as she never smiled with her teeth. Her mouth parted, showcasing perfect, white pearls and acutely, sharpened canines like a wild cat’s. As if she realized my observation, she pressed her lips together to form her usual, modest smile. She finished with, “I wish you luck, Julia Grayson.”
Da Coffee Shop was dead, making my shift too slow for comfort, agitating my excitement. Six hours later, I returned to my car, about to call Dad to let him know I was on my way. As my feet gently clomped on the wet pavement, I simultaneously reached into my little bag, blinding searching for my phone. Then came the voice.
A burning, foreboding heat erupted in my gut.
My direct gaze on my car wildly shifted to my entire surroundings, trying to spot the man calling for me. Somehow he sounded familiar yet he didn’t; I couldn’t exactly pinpoint where I heard him before.
Through the hazy drizzle, I made out the dark form of a man lurking beside a building a parking lot away. The hood of his jacket obstructed his features, only displaying a shadowy abyss for a face. And he was staring at me. Without seeing his eyes, I could feel them.
The heat in my stomach spread to my flesh, uncomfortable with people I didn’t know, especially men.
My fingers slipped back into my bag, feeling the cylinder of my pepper spray. Even though there was distance between the mysterious specter and myself, I envisioned him charging toward me like a wild animal.
As if he grew bored of our staredown, the cloaked stranger turned on his heels and walked away, disappearing behind a building. Quivering, I hurried to my car, fumbled for my keys, then closed myself within the safe, enclosed area.
My phone rang.
I gasped while jumping to the unexpected ringtone. Dad was calling.
I answered, “Hey. I’m off work; I’m coming home now.”
“Okay,” replied Dad. “Are you alright, Julia? Your voice is shaking.”
“I’m fine. Just a strange encounter, but it’s all good.”
“Yes, but I promise it’s all good. I’m okay. I will be home in a few minutes.”