Harold once said that I’d be lost without him. Harold must be stupid.
Having walked for hours, I’ve realized how chained to my old life I had been. Harold always said we had no other choice, but I can’t picture a time I’d felt as calm as I do now. A quiet voice in my mind speaks up, but I push it away. I’d felt happier a few days ago, but this was close enough for now.
My eyes drift up to the sky, admiring the sun's progress into a fourth of the sky. I ditched the neck brace hours ago and I've hardly noticed a difference. I'm feeling almost giddy at the moment. Even my guilt can't compete with my lack of self-awareness. I think it’s because I’m finally free. The only thing holding me back are the ghosts in my head, but right now, they are oddly silent.
I focus on the landscape around me, remembering how cynical I'd been when I'd first viewed it. Now, instead of observing and calculating it, I really see it. Back home, everything is green... but softer. The trees here are tall and slim- spiked as I've noticed. Even the water tastes different. More minerals, I think. But I've passed this same road so many times now, it feels endless. Except that...
My eyes focus on a square of light just hidden in the trees. I'm surprised I didn't notice it before. It's some kind of fast food sign, it seems. I cross to the other side of the road to make out the letters.
My stomach growls. I'll just stop by and swipe some food as the hospital mush is long gone.
I forget about the hospital gown and rush to the door, hardly feeling the terrain's change to rough gravel. I reach out for the door and pull it open. It's nearly lunch and the smell waft out to me. I breathe in deeply, focusing solely on the scent. Out of habit, I swivel my head around to get a good look of the place. My heart stops.
No, it can't be.
She should be dead.
The ghosts in my head only showed me memories, they never appeared before me.
"R- Rory...?" My mouth forms the words, but they hardly reach an auditory decibel. Somehow, the ghost hears me.
"Oh my god, Alice, is that you?" The girl with the red hair drops the broom in her hands and steps towards me, almost in disbelief. The corners of her mouth twitch up, forming a grin. Unexpectedly, she bursts into a run. I feel arms entrap me, and too full of fear, I don't react. "I thought you were dead!"
I blink a few times. Have I finally gone crazy? Harold always said it would happen.
The girl releases her grip and studies my face with a concerned expression. "You don't look so good. Here, sit down."
Somehow, my legs comply and I fall into the booth by the door. The girl slides into the seat opposite to me, reaching out to grip my hands.
"Tell me everything," she says, her mouth forming a wide grin, "I can't believe you're here."
I shake my head, pulling my hands from hers. "This isn't right. You should be dead."
To my surprise, she simply laughs. "You were the one who fell off a cliff and you think I should be dead?"
I finally meet her eyes. "You should hate me. Everything is my fault. How can you even look me in the eye after what I've done?"
Her eyes widen then narrow. I watch her lips form a scowl. "Your fault? How could you even say that? Sure, the past few days haven't been the most fun, but you never wanted this to happen. Your brother is the one to blame."
I shake my head. "You're wrong. If I had never gone to you went Harold left that first night, you wouldn't be here."
To my surprise, she laughs. "Are you kidding? Friends go to friends for help!"
My mouth falls open. "Friends?"
"Of course," she reaches for my hands again, "I just wish we could've become friends under better circumstances. Maybe spent some time before your brother kidnapped us." Her face scrunches up in disgust.
Suddenly, I remember why I'd thought she should be dead. "Harold... what did he do to you?"
She sighs. "It's a long story, but I'm pretty sure I'm safe now."
"Safe?" I repeat, the word bitter in my mouth. "Is he dead?"
"No- at least I don't think so." She tells me what happened after I fell over the edge of the cliff. About Harold chasing her and the man and woman whose names she didn't know. And she tells me about living in the wilderness for the last day and a half.
My expression must be an overreaction, but when she's done, Rory looks offended.
"What? Did you not think I could handle myself?"
I shake my head. "No, but I can't believe you had to go through that. Again, I'm so sorry."
Embarrassed, she rolls her eyes. "Well, what about you? I mean you fell off a cliff for crying-" A tall man with dark skin appears suddenly by her side, interrupting her.
"Rory, who is this?" He doesn't sound happy.
"The girl I told you about. I honestly have no idea how she's here." Her eyes are trained on my face so she can't see the hard look he gives me. "She's probably as hungry as I was, can you get her something to eat?"
I eye the man again, reading the name 'Elijah' on his apron. So he's the owner. I wonder how long Rory knows him. The man looks like he wants to say something, but his lips purse and he grunts instead. When he turns, she glances his way for the first time. I sincerely doubt they are related, but she was seems to regard him in an almost grandfatherly way.
"You told him everything? Are you sure he's safe?" I ask when he's safely away.
She nods. "Pretty darn sure. He's gonna take me home later." Suddenly, her eyes light up. "He could take you home too, you know."
"I don't have anywhere to go home to." I laugh humorlessly. Harold and I lived in a shack basically.
She bites her lip for a moment, her brow furrowed in thought. A grin stretches along her face. "That's no problem at all- you could live with us! My family would simply adore you."
My jaw drops. Live with her?
"But after what I've done...?" My words are hardly above a whisper.
She shakes her head. "Look, we've been through this. I'm not saying you're perfect or anything, pretty far from it actually. But after what we've been through- how can I not help you out? You're more than just a friend to me Alice Lee Mason."
I force a smile. "And what would your family think? Taking me in like a stray dog?"
She snorts. "They can think what they'd like. It's only my older brother, little sister, and I anyway."
"And your-" I start to say something but Elijah appears by Rory's side, his hand cradling a plate with a grilled cheese and dill pickle placed neatly on top. Without saying anything, he puts it in front of me. The smell is so tempting but I can't be completely certain he didn't lace it with anything. The old man grunts again and walks away.
I try asking my question again. "And your parents?"
Her eyes widen for a second, like she's surprised, and a small sigh escapes her. "I shouldn't have told you that."
"What do you mean?"
Her fingers twitch, but I keep them secure in my hands. There's something distant in her eyes. "They aren't exactly in the picture. They disappeared a year and a half ago."
"What happened to them?"
She purses her lips. "It doesn't matter anyway. If anyone found out three underage orphans are living in an abandoned house, we'd be sent to an orphanage. My little sister, Octavia, is only seven. My brother and I agree that we can't do that to her. That's why I haven't gone to the police. That, and I didn't want to get you in trouble."
I shake my head. "But Harold and I have lived...?"
A ghost of a smile twitches on her face. "You told me he was twenty-one. A legal adult. My brother is seventeen. We just have to wait one more year before he can officially take us in."
I let a breath. "Hold on, you said you were living in an abandoned house?"
She nods. "We had to leave our old house- the news of our parents' death would bring people to find us. I lived on that house on the corner, you know, the red one?"
And then it hits me. I do know that one. Too well.
"Are you okay?" Rory asks after a moment. "You're looking... bad."
I pull my hands from hers, gripping the table. Pain shoots up my injured arm but I ignore it. I can't breathe.
"I- I can't... I'm sorry.." The words spill out of my mouth in a series of gasps.
Rory looks to me, her eyes panicked.
"Alice, look at me. What's wrong?"
I want to say my mind is spinning, but it's crystal clear. All I can see is their faces. Her face. I know what happened to her parents.
I killed them.