Aya awoke with a start, her heart pounding. How had she fallen asleep? The clock read 5:05 AM in glowing red numbers. Everyone else was probably passed out by now. She hoped so. She needed them to be, so she could escape unnoticed.
Barely daring to breathe, she slid out of the bed without making a sound. She looked around the darkened room to see if anyone else was still conscious. Silence.
A few bodies and piles of clothes lay in heaps around the darkened room. Beer cans and empty bottles of booze littered the floor and most surfaces.
The room reeked of cigarettes and stale, spilled alcohol. Every glass surface had white residue, long since sniffed through the little white straws strewn around the room. The moon still shone on the horizon, but the faintest promise of dawn kissed the sky. A bird began his song–small tentative chirps–getting warmed up. A few stars still sparkled, and she could see the glint of a light frost coating the world outside. It’s time, she thought.
She’d slept in her clothes, expecting to wake up early to sneak out. They’d beat her if they caught her, or worse. Devo had cut his name into a girl’s thighs once for trying to escape. Then he’d started giving her to his worst clients, and one day she didn’t come back.
Aya took out the note crumpled in her pocket and looked at it again. Hope. It read:
I KNOW WHO YOU ARE. MEET ME AT THE FOUNTAIN AT WASHINGTON SQUARE PARK TOMORROW AT DAWN. IT’S URGENT.
She glanced in the dresser mirror as she gathered her backpack and jacket. Her curly, purple hair still held its braid from the day before. People assumed she dyed it, and she let them think so. It was less complicated that way. The thick, dark makeup on her kaleidoscope-colored eyes had smeared underneath, and she tried to wipe it off.
With a pang, she remembered her grandmother. If only you had lived, Nana, she thought, biting back fresh tears. If Nana had lived, then Aya wouldn’t have been alone in the world, and none of this would have ever happened.
But here she was, and she had a chance, maybe her only chance. And she was going to take it.
She pulled on her stained and worn army jacket. She’d slept in the ripped, fishnet tights and neon pink miniskirt she’d worn the night before, and she’d thrown on a heavy, bright blue sweater over her tank top to stay warm.
Aya had been given the note last night by a strange man at a restaurant. He’d slipped it quietly into her jacket pocket without anyone noticing.
Devo had taken his girls to a cafe in Williamsburg on the generosity of one of his clients. The man had wanted to dine with all of Devo’s girls so he could take his pick. Devo sat at the head of the table, accompanied by his usual shadowy pall that seemed to almost writhe around him. A fat, sweaty man sat beside him, smoking a cigar and eyeing the girls. He was notoriously rough, and now and then, a girl didn’t come home, her broken body winding up behind a dumpster in the Bronx. He was rich, though, and the girls were disposable. No one made a fuss.
Sitting at a table nearby, an elegant man with round, gold-rimmed glasses and dark, wavy, chin-length hair sat reading quietly, alone. He ate a simple salad and drank only sparkling water. He seemed to glow, and Aya could hardly keep from staring at him. There was something about him, but she couldn’t understand what. She longed to talk to him, to ask him about the book he was reading, to ask him about the world he came from, what it was like and who lived there.
He must have felt her gaze, and he looked up from his book. His soft brown eyes met hers, and he looked startled, almost dropping his book in his half-eaten salad. His eyes scanned the table where she sat. Fear seemed to wash over his sculptural, gold-colored features. His body tensed, as if ready to spring. He looked away, but he couldn’t seem to focus on the book anymore. He forgot completely about his salad.
Reaching into his breast pocket, he pulled out a pen and a slender, brown notebook, wrote something in it and then ripped out the page. He called the server to bring his check and folded the piece of paper. He paid, and as he passed her table to leave the restaurant, he dropped his book by her chair. Without looking at her, he reached down to pick it up and slipped the folded piece of paper into her coat pocket. Then he left without a word.
She had spent the rest of the meal trying desperately not to reach into her pocket and pull out the mysterious note.
With a final glance in the mirror of her bedroom, she slipped it back into her jacket pocket and tip-toed through the living room full of sleeping bodies. Like her room, the living room lay strewn with bottles and bodies and other things she didn’t care to think about. Only five people live in the three /-bedroom apartment they share in Bed-Stuy — Devo, one of his goons, and three of his working girls.
Tonight he’d passed out on the living room couch with one of his newer girls he wasn’t bored with yet. He was busy getting her hooked. He kept Aya a little closer, not because he liked her better, but because he never knew what she would do next to rebel against him in small ways, undermining his authority with the others.
She passed the bodies sleeping on the couches and the gauche pretensions to wealth in his small, dingy flat.
The room was silent. No one stirred at all as she tip-toed out.
Reaching the door, she unbolted it slowly. Easing it open, she slid out into the low-lit hallway and shut it just as gingerly behind her.
She took one step, and another. No sounds from inside the door. She switched into a dead run.
She ran down the hall, down the flights of yellow linoleum stairs, out the front door, and down the stairs to the street.
She bolted down the street, running faster than she’d ever run in her life, faster than she ever imagined she could run.
The neighborhood street was silent except for her breathing and the staccato of her pounding footsteps echoing on the frosty corridor of walls. Streetlights still glowed, but the light of the sun had begun to creep up the buildings. The subway entrance was only two more blocks away.
She had to catch the G line to Williamsburg and then the L to Union Square. From there, she would run to Washington Square Park to meet the mysterious, elegant man with the gentle eyes.
Still at a dead run, she glanced over her shoulder to see if anyone pursued her. No one. The street was deserted, almost ghostly. The silvery light of the moon and the warm glow of the rising sun glinted on the lightly frosted grass and bushes and trees scattered around the once prosperous neighborhood of townhouses now converted to flats.
She jumped over a trash can knocked over by a scrawny, matted tomcat. The tom hissed at a pair of oily rats trying to steal his prize.
Aya’s lungs began to feel raw. She could barely breathe from the exertion. She slowed down as she reached the subway entrance, and then paused, leaning on her knees, breathing heavily, trying to catch her breath. She looked over her shoulder again. No one. No one on the street. No one chasing her from Devo’s apartment. She heard the train arriving below and felt the rush of stale, warm air rush out of the subway station. She skipped down the grimy, gum-stained steps and jumped the turnstile as the train came to a screeching halt. Almost flying through the station, she slid between the train car’s doors just as they were closing.
She sat down across from a grizzled old Latino man in a wide-brimmed white hat and muddy work clothes. He wore only a white t-shirt, which seemed too clean to be paired with his muddy pants and boots, but she didn’t think about it beyond that.
Then something else caught her attention. A teardrop-shaped crystal pendant dangled from his neck. She sat momentarily transfixed by the little rainbows of light it sent dancing around the train car. It looked like it was catching all of the light in the car then releasing it back out in silent explosions. The old man stared at her with sharp black eyes under bushy black eyebrows. She looked away.
His intense, inscrutable gaze made her uncomfortable, and she moved to a seat as far away from him as possible. Sitting down, she reached into her jacket pocket to reread the note. Her hand searched the inside of the pocket, but it found nothing. She turned the pocket out. Still nothing. Then she tried the other pocket. Nothing. No note. Frantic, she tried her other pockets.
Empty. Empty. They were all empty. She must have dropped it in the living room of Devo’s apartment when she had tried to put it back in her pocket. If Devo woke up and found it, he would know where to find her, and he had a jeep, so he could be at the park waiting for her.
She fidgeted in her seat, bouncing her leg, squirming in anxiety. If they found her, they might kill her, to make her an example to the other girls. She’d seen it happen before.
The train screamed to a halt at her stop in Williamsburg.
She jumped from her seat and dashed out the double doors of the train car just as they slid open. She ran across the platform toward the stairs to her connecting train. This stop was busier. It was Sunday, but the city was already a muted buzz of activity. Some were probably on their way home from a long night, while others were just getting their day started. She wove between the bodies bundled against the crisp early spring air. It all became a blur.
The other train was just arriving, and she stopped to wait for the doors to open, the air of the train buffeting her and blowing her hair off her face. She followed the crowd inside and found a seat next to an old lady in a purple jacket wearing a sparkly head scarf. The old lady didn’t seem to notice her at all.
Aya continued fidgeting nervously, constantly adjusting her clothes, tapping her foot, or crossing and recrossing her legs.
What if Devo finds the note? What if he’s there when I get there? She looked out the dark window, her face tight with fear.
The train stopped at Union Square, and she ran out the doors, not slowing down for anyone. She pushed a few people out of her way as she raced up the stairs. They grumbled loudly, and she might have heard a curse or two, but she didn’t care. She kept running when she reached the wide, paved area of the park outside the subway station.
She ran and ran. Down a smaller street and then cutting across a busier avenue toward the New York University campus, where Washington Square Park is located. Aya ran into the park, passing the dog run toward the dry fountain at the center. The city hadn’t yet turned it on after the bitter winter.
The park was nearly empty, except for a few dog walkers and a lone figure near the fountain. Pigeons flocked at his feet. He saw her and stood up, sending a few of the pigeons fluttering out of his way. He began walking toward her and she recognized him from the night before. He wore the same long gray wool coat but this morning he wore a light blue turban. She noticed his trim, black beard. He hadn’t looked so exotic last night. She wondered where he came from.
The full sun broke the horizon as they met in the center of the park, the silent fountain behind them. No one else was around. The dog walkers had all disappeared into their lives.
“Greetings of Peace, little sister,” the man said. His face glowed in the early morning light. He smiled, flashing the whitest teeth she’d ever seen, but they shone like pearls, rather than the dead, bleached look. He didn’t look like a vain man. Immaculately groomed, but not vain. Everything about him said simple and clean.
“Hi,” she replied. She stopped a few feet away from him and leaned heavily on her knees, exhaling thick clouds of steam into the chill morning air. She didn’t notice the large, purple cat with neon rainbow stripes sitting under a bench near them, watching.
“You’ve not been followed?” the man asked, concern written on his golden, sculptural features.
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. I didn’t see anyone, but I dropped the note you gave me. I think it’s at the apartment. They could have found it.”
“Oh dear,” the man said, his arms crossed over his chest and he brought a hand to his chin, thinking quickly. “Then let me make this quick. You have to choose to come with me. You have to trust me.”
“What do you mean?” she said, slowly. “What is your name?”
“My name is Qamar,” he replied. “Now listen, Aya — “
“How do you know my name?” Aya asked, eyes widening in fear. She took a step back.
“There is no time for that now. Listen, what I’m going to tell you is going to sound absurd, impossible. I am from a different world. I’ve been looking for you, and others like you, all over the Cosmos, in every time, place, and possibility. Many have been looking for you. We all thought you were lost to us forever.”
“What?” Aya’s breath caught in her throat. Tears sprang to her eyes. He was a madman. She was lost. “Am I supposed to believe that?” she cried, sinking to her knees, head in her hands. “They’re going to kill me.”
“They will not kill you. They can’t kill you. At least, I don’t think so.”
Aya didn’t reply. She stared silently at the cold stone at her knees.
“I know your grandmother,” he said at last, then hesitated again. “She’s alive, you know.”
“What are you talking about?” Aya wailed. “No she’s not! I found her! She was cold! Why are you saying these things to me?”
“You don’t know who you are, do you?” he said, half to himself, stroking his chin again in thought. “She never told you, did she? Listen, Aya, I can’t tell you more than I have right now. I can take you somewhere safe, where we can show you who you are and how to play your role in the Great Saga. Will you come with me? I can tell you more when we’re safe. Then you can decide.”
Aya didn’t reply. She put her head in her hands, shoulders hunched. The man could see her back heave with silent sobs.
What else can I do? Aya though, her head in her hands, tears streaming down between her fingers. This man can’t possibly be as bad as Devo. Wherever he wants to take me, it must be better than this. She made a decision. This was it. This was her chance at freedom. She didn’t know where it would lead or what would happen, but she had decided. Determination brought her up from her knees.
“Ok,” she said simply, defeated but determined not to go back. “I’m in.”
He looked down at his worn, leather satchel, drawing out a small, green leather volume. He offered it to her.
“What is it?” she replied, suspicious.
“Look,” he said.
“The Way of Love,” she read aloud, half to herself. The book was heavy, heavier than it looked. The deep brown leather appeared hand-worked and ancient. She opened the cover, expecting the old leather to creak in protest, but it opened smoothly and soundlessly, like a well oiled door. An inscription on the title page read:
To All Who Serve the Balance, to All Who Protect the Truth, to All Friends of the Brokenhearted, Hungry, and Oppressed, may this book serve you in the battles within and the battles to come. To All Whom These Pages Speak, may you find yourself within, and may it be your Guide on the Journey Home, the Path known since the beginning of life as the Way of Love.
“Indeed,” said the man, as he looked up from the inscription. “Just as I thought. The pages speak to you.”
Tires screeched in the street near them and a dark green Jeep, Devo’s Jeep, came to a halt just outside the park. Qamar and Aya spun to face them. Devo and another guy Aya recognized from the night before jumped out, leaving the motor on and the doors wide open. Someone else waited inside.
“Hey, Aya. Hey, girl,” Devo called out to her in his silkiest voice, slinking toward her slowly, like a stalking cat. “It’s alright. Come back to me. I ain’t even mad. Everything’s gonna be fine.” Qamar turned back to Aya. He pulled a teardrop shaped crystal out of his shirt where it had been hidden, hanging from a leather thong around his neck
“Aya, quickly! Put your hand on my hand here,” Qamar said, pointing to the hand holding the twinkling crystal.
Aya put her hand on his, not understanding. Qamar closed his eyes and said a word that Aya didn’t catch.
Devo began running toward them. His feet pounded the cold stone ground. Qamar opened his eyes wide. Fear washed over his face.
He closed his eyes again. He said the word again.
“Oh no, Aya!” he cried. “It’s not going to work! The seal has not been broken. Run! I’ll find you! I’ll come back for you!”
“What?” She asked, not believing, not understanding.
“RUN!” Qamar screamed.
Qamar hurled himself toward Devo who was halfway around the fountain coming toward them.
Aya turned and bolted at a dead run across the park, away from Devo. She still didn’t notice the cat that’d been watching them the whole time as it followed closely at her heels. Qamar tackled Devo and threw him to the ground. Aya heard shouts and then a scream of pain.
She turned around and saw Qamar holding his leg and Devo getting off the ground and running toward her.
She ran toward the fortress-like university library the color of dried blood, almost running inside. Her first thought was to get lost in the endless rows of tall stacks of books, but she saw the turnstiles and guards. Only students can get in. She ran past it, toward the street where the younger students go to drink. Nowhere to go, she kept running, praying with all her heart to find a place to hide. All she knew is that she had to keep running. She couldn’t give up, not now. The book Qamar gave her was clutched tightly under her arm.
Devo gained on her. He’s taller and stronger. She knew he was going to catch her. There was no way to get away from him.
She had an idea. She remembered a big, white stone church nearby. She ran toward where she remembered it being. There it was! Maybe it was open! Maybe she could lose him in there. She ran up the wide cement steps and pulled on one of the doors. It didn’t move. She tried the one next to it. It opened! She thanked whatever was out there that it was unlocked. She looked over her shoulder. Devo and his lackey were just crossing the street and would be on her in seconds.
She darted behind the ancient, wooden door. Inside, she searched frantically for a place to run or hide. She saw stairs and bolted toward them, taking two at a time until she reached the second floor. Across from the stairs, a door opened to a small room overlooking the main hall, only a few instruments and chairs inside. She spotted a big upright piano on the other side of a wide column. She crouched behind it, trying not to breathe too heavily. She wanted to gasp for breath, but she didn’t want to make a sound and expose her hiding spot. She clutched her aching side.
She didn’t hear anything for a few minutes. She breathed a sigh of relief, sagging into the cool marble wall behind the piano.
She breathed in and out slowly, trying to catch her breath. Trying to be as silent as possible. Each breath seemed to echo through the entire church. She could only hear silence, and her breath.
After several minutes, or what felt like several minutes, of silence, Aya thought she might have lost him. She might be free.
Then, something cold and sharp pricked her neck.
“You think you’re safe here? You can never escape me,” Devo whispered slowly into her ear in a low, deadly voice. “Bitch, you’re mine.”
The end of Chapter 1: Hope
Thank you for reading. Stay tuned for Chapter 2.
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I dream of a world where we are all artists and storytellers sharing our inner realities in the infinite landscape of digital space. My work is intended to inspire and launch storytelling and storytellers. Sometimes, when there is too much space for creativity, we can get overwhelmed and unable to grab onto a place to start. My work is here to inspire and catalyze your creativity. Culture is a collaborative process. We build the world of our dreams together.
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