Don’t You Want to Stay?

The next installment of Here, There Be Monsters. Click here to catch up.

         “Stay?” I looked around at the RV.
         Only wealthy Citizens owned private vehicles, but I wasn’t sure where an RV ranked on that scale. I’d never actually been in one before now. I looked back at Jericho Lang. The piercings and the tattoos didn’t necessarily mean he didn’t have money—although the shabby interior and the state of his clothes weren’t promising.
         “I just told you I murdered someone and you’re asking me to stay in your RV?” I almost choked on the word “murdered” and took another bite of the Ramen to hide it. “You don’t even know me.”
         “I know you’re from Cook’s, I know your age, and I know you need me,” he stood in the kitchen now, washing some dishes.
         “How—what makes you say that?” my voice was hoarse and I licked my dry lips.
         “Well, I know you aren’t from around here. Given your age and the fact that you’re here alone at night, it was the logical guess.”
         “What do you know about Cook’s?” I asked.
         “It’s an all-girl orphanage. They give you an education that’s probably slightly better than the average public institution, and they turn you out when you turn eighteen,” his lips tipped in a smile. “I won’t wish you a happy birthday, under the circumstances.”
         “I’ll only get you in trouble if I stay,” I swallowed past the bile that rose in my throat.
         “I know a thing or two about trouble,” he lounged back against the counter, drying a bowl.
         I let his statement slip without comment, holding out my now empty mug. I realized I still had on my knapsack and slipped it off, keeping it close.
         “I hope you liked the Ramen,” he said.
When I didn’t say anything he turned.
         “I’ve never had it before,” I said.
         “Whiskey and Ramen,” Jericho shook his head. “Now that’s a birthday dinner for the books.”
         He glanced out one of the curtained windows and froze.
         “It’s the Nat,” he turned to me.
         I stared at him in shock. The National Police—if they found me, I was worse than dead. As an orphan, almost the lowest class Citizen, I’d be lucky if they just shot me in the RV. They were going to kill me.
         “Back here,” Jericho grabbed my arm and pulled me off the couch, shoving me towards the bedroom.
         I watched as he heaved the mattress up with one swift movement, revealing a dark cubbyhole, little bigger than a coffin. I couldn’t afford to hesitate and climbed in, cramming myself into the narrow space. I tried to breathe slowly, fighting claustrophobia until I realized there were small holes drilled into the bed’s base. I could taste fresh air and I could hear the Nat officers pound on the door. Jericho glanced back at the bed and gave it—and me—a reassuring nod.
         “Can I help you, Officers?” he asked, swinging the door wide.
         “Citizen, state your name,” one said.
         “Jericho,” he supplied.
         “Citizen Jericho, you were seen in the company of a young female this evening,” the Officer looked around and saw the two glasses, the bottle of whiskey, and the dinner things. “Do you know this girl?” I assumed he had a photo of me and blanched. How did they get a photo so fast?
         Jericho took a moment to consider and I could feel my heart trying to crawl up my throat.
         “I know a lot of girls, Officer, but not that one,” his tone was suggestive. “Not that I would mind….”
         The Officer snatched the photo back by the sound and I was worried Jericho stepped over the thin line he walked. The floor creaked and I could see the Officer lean in to take a closer look at the RV.
         “Is this your…vehicle, Citizen?”
         “Yes sir, it is. I have the papers if you’d like—”
         “That won’t be necessary. We can run the license plates,” the Officer cut him off. “If you see this girl, inform the nearest National Officer or your local Protectorate. She is highly dangerous and mentally unstable. For your own safety, do not approach her. We do not need to tell you it is in your best interest neither to aid nor harbor this fugitive.”
         “Of course, Officer. If there’s anything at all I can do to help, I will,” Jericho sounded so sincere I wondered for a moment if he was going to reveal me.
         The Nat must have believed him; the door swung shut and I could hear their boots fading away on the pavement outside. I went limp with relief, still afraid to move in case one of them was still there. The mattress was wrenched off and light and air poured in on me again. Jerico hoisted me up by my elbow and let the mattress fall again. I sank down on the edge of it.
         “They have a picture,” I whispered.
         ‘They do—not a bad one either,” his attempt at humor fell flat as I looked up at him through my hair. “We won’t make it far without some changes.”
         “Why are you helping me?” I asked. “You’re obviously a Middle Citizen—if not higher. This could get you into a lot of trouble.”
         “I told you,” his voice was carefully light. “I can handle trouble.”
         I shook my head helplessly, feeling the shakes starting again. I had no choice but to trust him. I didn’t want to—didn’t want to risk his life, too. “I can’t thank you for this,” I said finally.
         “I know. And, after you hear what I’m about to say—you probably won’t want to,” he said.
         I looked up at him.
         “That photo was dead on, no doubt about it. But, I think we can make you less noticeable—even unrecognizable,” he turned back towards the little kitchen and began rummaging through the drawers.
         Jericho turned back towards me brandishing a wicked pair of scissors.
         “What are you going to do, cut off my nose?” I asked.
         He tilted his head considering, then sighed and shook his head, “I don’t think it would help.”
         I smiled weakly and pushed my hair back from my face, “The hair then?”
         “I think it’s the best shot. Do you want to do it?” he held the scissors out to me.
         I shook my head, “At at least you can see the back of my head.
         He pulled a trashcan over and had me sit on the side of the bed, facing the back of the RV with my back to him. I could feel the hesitation in his fingers as he ran a section of hair through his fingers. I felt the tugging and the snipping begin and tried not to think about it as my head grew lighter and lighter.

You Can’t Save Me II

Read the beginning of Lara’s story here. This was originally “A Birthday to Forget” but after my dear friend and sometimes-editor made some much-needed suggestions, this is the updated (and improved) version. Thank you to my favourite Dilettante.

         I didn’t know if he was laughing at me, but in spite of myself, I laughed, too. It sounded like I was choking. I couldn’t get the hysterical bubbles of laughter under control. I noticed then the cuts on my knuckles and palms. They must have come from the gravel or the broken bottle. I shoved my hands between my knees and tried to stop the shaking. I stopped laughing. I gasped for air, there wasn’t enough in the RV and the walls seemed to shiver in front of my eyes. I felt hands on my shoulders and wrenched away. I tried to cry out, but the face of my rescuer swam into focus.
         “Sorry, I’m sorry,” he was saying. “God, you’ve really been through something.”
         I was having trouble focusing on his words. I had to watch his lips move, to make an effort not to see the light going out of beastly blue eyes, to not taste the tang of blood.
         “I killed someone. I stabbed him with a beer bottle, there was blood—blood everywhere,” I realized I was rubbing my hands up and down my arms, trying to stop feeling the warm, thick flow of blood running down them. “Oh, god. Oh, god.”
         I breathed hard through my nose, there wasn’t anything left in my stomach to bring up but it heaved all the same.
         “Hey, hey,” he knelt down in front of me—not touching me—but holding out his hands as if he wanted to steady me. “It’s…well, I can see it’s not okay. But, you can trust me—talk to me.”
         I nodded once, making the effort to calm my breathing. I held out my hand and he reached back to retrieve the bottle of whiskey and splashed some into my empty glass. I took it from him and the whiskey sloshed in my quaking hand. I drank a big gulp and didn’t care that I coughed. My eyes watered. I rubbed a hand across them, but there were tears now, too. He looked at me wordlessly, waiting for me to speak. He regarded me like some sort of puzzle, not someone evil—not a murderer. I faltered under that gaze.
         “I should go,” I said, but I didn’t stand up. I was afraid I couldn’t.
         “Go?” his pale brows pulled down over his nose. “You can’t go—look at you!
         “I’m a murderer—I can’t stay here! They’ll find me. Oh god, they’ll find me,” the whiskey spilled over my fingers onto his floor.
         He took the glass from me and I flinched as his fingers brushed mine. He grimaced, but not at me.
         “You didn’t just stab some guy with a beer bottle because he was staring at you funny. He did something. Bastard,” he spat the word out. “Did you know him?”
         I shook my head vehemently. I didn’t want to think about what he looked like, whether he had a name, a family. I didn’t want to think about anything. He stayed crouched in front of me, his brows furrowed, the bottle dangling from his hand. I saw his eyes drifting over the cuts on my hands and I knew there was probably still blood under my fingernails. There was dirt under the blue-eyed boy’s nails. They were long and ragged. I could see them again reaching for my throat.
         “He was stocky with bad skin…greasy hair, I think it was dark, I don’t know. His eyes—his eyes were blue,” the words poured out of me so fast I could barely get my tongue around them. “He was young—twenties, I don’t know. The coffee shop,” I jerked my head up to meet his eyes. “He was at the coffee shop. He saw me—his friend works there. He followed me to the bus stop and—” my words sputtered out like a spent birthday candle.
         His eyes widened briefly and then narrowed, “The filthy son of a bitch. Did he have any tattoos? Scars? Anything unusual?”
         I forced myself to think back to his hands, his neck, his face. Nothing. I shook my head.
         “I can think of a few guys around here that fit the bill,” he said. He must have seen the fear and disgust on my face. “Don’t think about it anymore just now.”
         I buried my face in my hands then put my face on my knees. I couldn’t shut my eyes and black spots were dancing across my vision, like black drops of blood. There was a roaring in my ears; it drowned out my rescuer’s muttered curses. I heard the floor creak as he stood and again as he began to pace. He was talking to himself, but I couldn’t make sense of the words—the noise in my ears was too loud.
         “Hey,” he was crouched in front of me again, his eyes hesitant.
         My mouth felt dry and I wondered if years had passed while I sat with my head on my knees, trying not to be sick. He held out a mug of something that steamed and his lips twitched in a crooked smile. I didn’t hear him cooking, I didn’t even notice the tirade of swearing ceased along with the roaring.
         “It’s just Ramen, but it might be good if you ate something…” He held it out to me, still carefully keeping his distance. “Are you hungry?”
         I realized that I was. Now that the nausea subsided, I was starving, but I was afraid the smell of food might make me sick again. I took the mug with numb, shaking fingers. It had some sort of yellowish broth and a pile of white noodles. I took the fork he offered and tasted it. The saltiness soothed my stomach, and the warmth that leeched into my fingers was heavenly.
         “I’m Jericho,” he said as I took another small bite. “Jericho Lang.”
         “Lara,” I said. “Just Lara.”
         He offered me both his names, trusting a confessed murder. I only had one to offer in return. My spine prickled as I remembered the letter in my knapsack. ,em>Nadia.
         “Now you know why I have to go,” I said.
         He shook his head emphatically, “Now I know more than ever why you should stay.”

You Can’t Save Me

Read Here, There Be Monsters, Do Svidaniya and Silent Night to catch up with Lara.

         There was so much. So much blood. The water was icy cold but I kept my hands under it, watching the thick swirls of red wash down the drain. So much blood. The sleeves of my new coat soaked it in; there were streaks of it on my face. I could smell the copper tang and I gagged again. There was nothing left. The mirror in front of me was vibrating, swirling. No, that was me. My whole body rattled and for a moment I thought I could hear my bones grating together. I retched again. The bus to New York was long gone and the only person at the bus stop was lying in a puddle of his own blood and piss. I scrubbed furiously at my arms. The blood had run down inside the sleeves of my parka, soaking my favorite sweater and coating the soft, white weave with rust. I peeled it off and balled it up, afraid to throw it away. I pulled on a clean shirt after several failed attempts to get my arms through the sleeves.
         Someone pounded on the door and I stifled a yell.
         “Lady, you okay in there? I gotta lock up.”
         “Just a second,” I said, hoping he could hear my breathless answer.
         I pulled the parka back on and shoved the bloody sweater deep into my bag. The sleeves of the parka were wet, but I hoped the fabric and the darkness would hide it. I pulled the hood over my soaked hair. When I opened the door, I nearly collided with the gas station owner.
         “You okay?” he asked again.
         His eyes flicked over me and a speculative light came into his eyes. I knew what I looked like—wet, bedraggled hair, wide eyes. I hoped I got all the blood off.
         “Yeah, sorry. I spilled a coke and it just went everywhere—” I gestured at myself, knowing it was a ridiculous excuse as I took a step backwards away from the half-smile on his face.
         I took another fumbling step and ran into something—someone. They grabbed my elbow to steady me and I felt a scream bubble in my throat before the hand released me, resting lightly on my shoulder blade instead.
         “There you are,” the newcomer said. He turned to the gas station clerk. “Sorry sir, my sister is a little…” he made an eloquent gesture towards his head. “Ready to go?”
         He looked down at me. I nodded numbly, letting him lead me away from the leering man. He slung his arm over my shoulder and lifted his hand in a wave—an elder brother retrieving his crazy sister. I was stumbling, his arm tightened to hold me up.
         “Almost there, can you make it?”
         I didn’t even look to where he was pointing, didn’t stop to wonder if he was taking me down a back alley, or about to throw me in a van. I just kept picturing the thick, dark blood oozing out of my attacker’s throat. The way his eyes dimmed, dimmed, went dead. The horrible gurgling sucking sound as he tried to breathe. I felt my stomach clench again and breathed hard through my nose. My helper swore, looking around, and suddenly hoisted me over his shoulder. The movement didn’t help my nausea and I shut my eyes tightly as he took off at a jog, hindered by my unresisting body.
         Then, it was warm. He set me down on something soft and I tried to get my eyes to focus as he threw a blanket over my shoulders. It looked like an RV—an old one. I was sitting on a couch that had a slightly musty smell, but otherwise seemed clean. The whole place was surprisingly tidy—except for the crumpled clothes on the end of the couch and sink full of dishes. I looked up at my rescuer who took a bottle out of a cabinet and splashed some of its contents into a cup.
         “You still going to be sick?” he eyed me warily, shaking his fair hair out of his eyes.
         I shook my head. I hoped I was right.
         “Then drink some of this,” he shoved the glass at me and I took it with hands that were still unsteady.
         The rim of the cup chattered against my teeth as I took a gulp. It burned all the way down and I choked.
         “Not much of a whiskey drinker, are you?” he laughed, taking a gulp of his own cup.
         I coughed against the burning sensation and shook my head, eyes watering. I held the cup tightly, waiting for my hands to stop their palsied tremors. My new friend leaned against the counter in the tiny kitchen area, his dark eyes never leaving my face. He was tall with wide shoulders and shaggy blonde hair that hung in his eyes. I caught the gleam of metal in one of his ears and the swirl of some kind of tattoo peeked at the collar of his shirt. He was several years older than me—in his mid-twenties if I had to guess. He shifted against the counter—reaching out—and I flinched just as he grabbed the bottle. He froze, and then set the bottle carefully back down.
         “Hey, I’m not going to hurt you,” he held up his hands. “Someone really did a number on you, huh?”
         He didn’t seem to expect an answer. He reached for the bottle again, his movements carefully controlled. I shook my head when he offered it to me. He laughed.

Do Svidaniya

A continuation of the story started in Here, There be Monsters

drawing by me

drawing by me

         “Lara!”
         I heard Jenna call as the girls began to troop to their lessons, the hallways ringing with excitement and grumbling in equal measure. Her shout was the only warning I had before she launched herself into my arms, her head colliding with my chest. I stroked her hair back from her face and bent so that I could look into her eyes.
         “No tears, Jenna. You’re going to live with the Thorsens and they will be your family—a mum and dad, real ones,” the smile on my face felt as stiff as the Head Matron’s.
        “I wish you could come, too,” she said her bottom lip shaking as she tried not to cry.
         I laughed to myself at the thought of tiny blonde Mrs. Thorsen and her husband—both immaculately dressed in pastels every time I saw them—taking home a gangly seventeen year old with hair so dark it was almost black and eyebrows to match it.
         “I know, Jen, but you’re going to be so happy—the three of you. It will be wonderful.”
         “Maybe I can come back and visit?” her eyes looked even bigger, the tears sparkling on her lashes.
         I simply hugged her. If she ever came back—which I doubted to the depth of my being—I would be long gone.
         “Lara, lessons,” Puckett appeared, interrupting our goodbye. “Jenna, the Thorsens will be here any minute. Your things are packed up and waiting in the office,” she held out a dry, white hand.
         I squeezed Jenna tightly for the last time and released her to Puckett, ignoring the way my throat tightened as the little blonde pony tail swayed out the door.

         I was surprised when I received a letter just over a week later—it was from Jenna. She loved her new home and her new parents, they had a cat—a fat gray tabby—and a swimming pool they could heat even in winter. She sounded blissfully happy. I folded up the letter and stuffed it into my knapsack, along with everything else that belonged to me. I wore one of my two pairs of jeans and my only sweater–the marshmallow. My three other shirts, underwear, socks, two books, and my limited toiletries were already packed into the beat up canvas bag. My one good pair of shoes—some old leather combat boots, were already laced. It was convenient that my birthday fell right when lessons broke for Christmas. According to Puckett, anyway. The other girls were downstairs—enjoying their end of term hot chocolate and cookie snack, a very rare treat. I needed the few moments alone. I could count the number of times I had been completely alone over the last eighteen years. I sat with my eyes closed, enjoying the solitude, carefully keeping my mind empty of where I would go from here. The floorboards creaked and I knew, without turning, that it was Puckett.
         “Well,” she said.
         Her voice always reminded me of the sound dead leaves made when you stomped on them.
         I stood and pulled the straps of my knapsack on over my shoulders.
         “Lara, you’ve been with us a long time. You’ve been a good girl and a good worker. I have your wages from the library that become yours when you leave,” she held out a fat envelope to me.
         I took it, not bothering to check the cash inside. I carefully tabulated my hours at the library, so I had a pretty good idea of how much there was. Not nearly enough.
         “And this.”
         As she handed me a second envelope, I saw uncertainty in her face for the first time.
         “You know what time the bus comes?”
         I nodded.
         “Well. Good. We will…miss you, Lara.”
         I knew it was a lie, but I gave her a perfect fake smile that sent her out the door and back to her office. She too would be enjoying hot chocolate, no doubt diluted liberally with peppermint schnapps. The children would think she smelled festive. The scent lingered even as I heard her heavy tread fade. There was a note scrawled across the front of the yellow envelope. “To be given at eighteen.” It was Puckett’s handwriting and I knew it sat in my file since the first day I came here. I took a deep breath and tried to keep my fingers from shaking as I tore down the side of the envelope and slid the folded paper out.

         Dearest Nadia,
         I know they will have given you another name, since I told them you had none. But to me, you are my Nadia, my hope. I know this place is not a home, even though I can read it on the sign outside. I know it will be cold and hard and you will have no mother to comfort you. I also know it is better this way. You may not believe me, dearest Nadia, but it is true. It is one of two truths I can offer you. The first—and most important—is that I love you, my darling, my hope. The second is as I told you, you will never know me and that is the greatest gift I can offer to you. Take them both and live, my darling daughter.

         do svidaniya

         I realized I had been holding my breath, the letter was damp in my hands and I loosened my grip, afraid to tear the age-thinned paper. Nadia. I tried to think of myself as Nadia and shook my head; too late for that, now. The words at the bottom caught my eye. Do svidaniya . I tried it out loud. Russian, I thought. It made sense, with the name “Nadia” as well. I looked back down. The slanting handwriting was delicate, feminine—nothing like my heavy-handed script. I pictured a beautiful woman, with dark hair like mine and a full figure–not like mine—penning these words as I lay sleeping, perhaps only a few hours old. This, this is what she left me? My mother who claimed to love me? A name I did not own, two words in Russian, and a promise that I would never know her.
         The paper crinkled under my fingers as I tried to keep the hot tears running down my nose in check. I stopped myself just short of tearing it to shreds and stuck in back in the envelope, tucking it into an outside pocket of my bad next to Jenna’s letter. I shoved the envelope of money into the front of my jeans, despite the way the paper poked me, and pulled my sweater back over it. I checked the cheap watch on my wrist. The bus would be at the stop down the road in ten minutes. And I would be on it.