I stood on one of my favourite places in the claustrophobic city, watching the heavy bustling crowds and the flashes of car headlights below. The noises drummed in my ears; the wind carrying whispers of conversations of millions of people streaming past and the heavy blares of horns from the line of cars stuck in traffic jams.
Noisy. Too much noise.
I loathed the city. I always felt like I was one of the sardines packed in one of those tiny, tin cans. All these millions of people cramming themselves in the urban city, with skyscrapers parallel to each other. It was like we tried to cram the whole of humanity into one, desolate place and called it home.
But up here was the only place I could breathe, away from the crowds, the noises, the clutters of life. It was the only place I could taste the wind on my tongue and watch the stars behind the rolling clouds of heavy, thick polluted smokes. It was a place of great escape, from the insanity that clung to my life like a dark fog. I stood on the ledge of a rooftop building, one of the skyscrapers. We were the inhabitants of the Earth, but we also wanted Heaven, so we built tall skyscrapers to reach the skies. We were buried in our constant greed. We were the product of avarice. We were the flowers of sins.
But there was something magical about standing on the ledge of a rooftop. One step forward and you plunge to your death, one step backward is your safety net. And thus the way I defined life as a tightrope. It’s about hanging onto your dear life. It’s about hanging onto your soul.
I had no desire to jump and nose dive to the hard asphalt below and watch myself flattened like a squished strawberry. But I liked the danger it presented. The fragility of human life. We were insignificant creatures but called ourselves the top predators of the food chain.
Looking down, I witnessed a whole colony of people clinging onto their routines. They were like fireflies, when their lights blinked out, they simply die. Like fireflies who were drawn to the artificial light, an illusion of the sun; an illusion of glory. That’s what we were all reduced to. We were too busy chasing illusions and dreams that didn’t exist, without realising that our daily routines in society were the shackles that bound us to one place. The city wasn’t a home. It was a prison.
And we made ourselves prisoners.
I tipped my head back up again and let the wind fondled my hair; a mass of sunshine waves under the dark skies. My body ached to reach the skies. To reach the vast eternities. To free myself from the shackles chaining my neck like a metal noose. The wind called my name again as it rustled my hair, touching my skin with its sweet, cold lips.
Aliceee. Come home.
I blinked my eyes open. A sudden breeze brushed past me, carrying scattered leaves. I suddenly felt cold, like my whole body was dominated with frost. When I was a lot younger, I began to notice there was something inside me that was different from others. The other children in my classes played and laughed, their faces were a canvas with their emotions sketched on it. They were too young and innocent to learn the art of concealment. Their hearts were exposed and they carried their hearts in their hands so that everyone could see. If they were hurt, they cried. If they were happy, their faces beamed up a huge smile.
But I was a castaway. I was the shadow to their sunshine. My heart was buried inside an iron fortress that I subconsciously built around me. I couldn’t carry my heart in my hand like others. I was born with a mask and I donned that mask every day, concealing myself from everyone. Concealing myself from me. My heart was a vast emptiness.
I pretended that the reason I felt different was because I was an angel cast down to Earth and lost my wings to fly back home. Maybe I didn’t have a heart. Maybe I lost it somewhere too. I didn’t feel like I belonged. The only thing that I could call home was my mother. She was my sun; my angel. I had no doubts that she was an angel for she was one, beautiful creature. I paled in comparison. Everybody said we looked alike. We both had waves of blonde hair and bright, blue eyes. But whilst her eyes were full of warmth and love, mine were hardened. Whilst her smile was gentle, my lips were a grim line. I was a twisted version of her.
I was an angel with a devil’s heart.
I stepped back from the ledge. I checked my watch. 4pm. My last class should be over by now. I shouldered my school bag. My bag was crammed with chemistry and maths textbooks for the classes today which I never attended. I’ve no doubt my teachers would have a field day. It was the fifth time in a row now. It wasn’t that I couldn’t be bothered to attend. I was a grade-A student; my rank was the highest in the class. But I couldn’t be in a classroom full of people. It felt…confining. I got claustrophobic. I couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t always like this but recently, I’ve been feeling this strange, prickly sensation at the back of my mind, my whole body was racked with nerves, tiny thousands of goose bumps pricking my skin. The world was closing in on me and I felt suffocated. I felt that I was being watched in my own prison.
I gripped the hilt of a sword that I borrowed from my fencing club. Touching the hilt calmed me down for some reason. It made me more rational, rather than feeling like I was having my screws loose and one trip away from a mental hospital. Fencing was my drug. It kept me afloat. I loved fencing. It was a personal connection, something that my soul recognised and needed in order to continue to exist.
The noises in my brain would fade into a quiet hum whenever I clasped a sword in my hand. It was one of the reasons I participated in competition after competition. I was the reason my college fencing club became one of the most renowned clubs in the entire region. Our college received plenty of media attention and good publicity because of the fencing club. And I was their prized student. It was one of the reasons my teachers cut me some slack, but I never did it for the medals. I didn’t give a toss about those.
I did it to breathe. To live.
And that was all it came down to. I was like a fish out of a pond, chugging for oxygen. So I did the few things I could do to continue to breathe.
I started to make my way to my college. My fencing club was the only thing I rarely missed. I was the club’s captain and our final competition was next week. My blood thrummed at the thought of duelling. I longed for a good challenge. Otherwise, it would be too easy. Or maybe my competitors were just too weak.
I left the rooftop with the wind still calling my name.
It was dusk by the time I reached home. Fortunately, the school was only a fifteen minute walk from home. As I rounded the corner of my street everything shifted into grey when I saw the spectacle in front of me.
I saw a man in his mid-forties, dressed in a crisp, well-fitted Armani suit talking to my mother. There were grey lines in his thick, dark hair. His face held a few wrinkles but he still maintained a handsome, boyish look.
My mother tried to look busy, sorting out the flower beds and taking the flower pots into the store to close up. The man looked quite agitated. He talked to my mother in a hushed whisper, his movements frantic. Whatever he was saying, my mother shook her head repeatedly as locks of her hair escaped her loose ponytail.
She turned around and froze when she saw me. The man stopped talking as he realised I was standing and watching them, my arms crossed on my chest, my eyes hostile. He nodded at me then spoke so low to my mother that I couldn’t hear before he took off to his car parked at the end of the street,
I narrowed my eyes at him, watching his retreating form. Then I strode along to my mother, my hands clasped tightly on my bag.
“Mom, is he bothering you again?”
Mom looked really tired as she swept her eyes over me before pulling her lips into a tight smile. Her hair was like mine; her skin pale as moonlight. She was still beautiful now. She looked ethereal but more fragile, as if one blast from the wind and she could be swept away. She looked small when standing next to me. I sometimes felt that she would fade in front of me if I looked away.
Whilst my mom was delicate, I was the polar opposite. I was tall, and my body was built like an athlete; my biceps toned with hard muscles. She was a flower, and I was a stone.
Life had been cruel to her. As a single mother, she had to take care of everything, doing odd jobs to provide shelter and food. It was just recently that she purchased a flower boutique shop and we moved to the small apartment upstairs. It wasn’t much, but at least it was closer to my school and directly above her job. During my free times, I would help with the shop, from maintaining the compost heap and flower beds, to doing flower deliveries.
“Don’t worry about it, Alice. He was just talking,” Mom replied smoothly.
“It didn’t look like just talking to me. He looked like he’s still obsessed with you. We talked about this, mom. His wife is a terrible and jealous woman. If she finds out...she would destroy us.”
“And I’ll never let that happen to us. I told him countless times that I’m not interested in him, so don’t think too much about it, Alice,” my mom said firmly. Her jaws were set and there was hardness behind her tired eyes. I knew she wouldn’t jeopardize our position. She would never put herself in any situation that could hurt us both.
But being involved with that man was dangerous. It wasn’t that he was a dangerous person. Truth to be told, he would have been perfect for my lonely mother. He was gentle and a generous businessman. I knew when he started to pursue my mother that he genuinely loved her. It wasn’t the man that I was afraid of. It was his wife. His wife was a dragon woman who ruled everything with an iron fist. Her son went to the same school as me, and from what I heard there, she had previous dealings with some really, dangerous people. And she always got what she wanted.
I shook my head and took off towards the man, ignoring my mother’s call.
I reached the Bentley and tapped the black window. After a moment, there was a mechanical whirr as the window slid down and the man looked up at me.
“Alice,” he said.
“Stay away from my mother, Garyl. You have a wife and a son. Leave my mother alone. She’s my only family,” I seethed at him.
“I’m sorry, Alice. I tried. I have tried so many times to break away but I can’t. I need your mother. Please understand, Alice,” he pleaded with me.
I scoffed and huffed out a breath. He was unbelievable.
“You would risk the wrath of your wife just so you can be with my mother? You know what your wife is capable of, Garyl. Back down before our lives end in tragedy.”
Garyl gripped the steering wheel hard, his knuckles turning white. He let out a pained breath. “Alice, please. I can’t. Because I love her, I would go to any length to win your mother’s favour. I would do anything just to see her cast down her smile upon me.”
“Then divorce your wife. It’s not fair to my mother to hope for a married man. If you truly love her, divorce your wife.”
It was the perfect ultimatum to see whether he truly loved my mother. The problem with Garyl was that he was too indecisive. As a result of his meek personality, we all ended up suffering. For an influential man, he was weak.
“I tried. I talked to my wife about it. But she won’t hear it. I fear if I push her, she would resort to other things… Who knows what she’s capable of. It might put your mother in danger.”
“God damn you, Garyl!” I slammed the car with my palms. “Your indecisiveness could end up leading us all to our deaths. I will not let my mother be put in this position, do you understand? Do not come here again until you cut ties with your wife. Otherwise, I will personally kill you myself.”
“One day, Alice, when you fall in love. You will understand.” His eyes were sad as he said this.
I kicked the Bentley, not caring that I scraped some mud on his expensive car. Asshat. How dare he blamed it all on love? If love was that destructive, then I did not need such unnecessary, needless emotion. I turned and jogged back to my mother who was waiting for me anxiously.
“Alice, what did you do? What did you tell him?” she asked.
“Things that I should’ve told him right from the start,” I replied curtly and threw my bag over my shoulders before I started to make my way to the apartment upstairs.
“Alice.” There was a pleading tone in her voice.
“What? You think he should be pitied too, Mom? Associating with him will put us all in danger,” I yelled at her.
“I know,” she whispered, her eyes cast down.
I shook my head and made my way to my small bedroom which was the size of a closet. I stripped off my clothes and enjoyed the cold air breathing on my bare skin for a moment. I shivered in the autumn air but endured, for it helped to numb my insides. I slipped on my track suit and my sports shirt, before binding my hair into a high ponytail.
I looked in the mirror and noticed every broken, jagged piece of me. They may be invisible to the naked eye, but I could feel the etched rivers of scars in my heart. Life was a sabre sword. And I was its target. I plugged my ears with my earphones and put on my iPod, my body dying for a run.
Dying to breathe.
I padded across the living room, my hand reaching out to twist the door knob.
“Alice, where are you going?” my mom asked in concern, her hand holding a spatula. She smelled of earth and sunshine. She still had a bit of dirt greased over her cheeks.
“I’m doing my daily run. Don’t wait for me, Mom.”
“Alice,” her voice stopped me. I didn’t turn around, my hand still on the door knob. “I love you, do you know that? Everything I do, it’s all for you. You’re all I have left, Alice.”
I gripped the door knob harder and yanked the door open with unnecessary force as I left the house without making a reply. I kicked up my legs and ran across the blocks, passed the parks, the high towers. I ran with the wind blasting through me and I could feel it trying to shackle me backwards, but I ripped through the air and ran as if my life depended on it. Nothing, not even the wind can weigh me down.
I could feel my heart pumping fast, the blood rush streamed into my head. I had always loved running. It was an escape from reality. When I ran, I felt as if I could slip past the world and jumped across the universe. Everything blurred around me. The neon signs blurred into long lines as I flew past becoming one with the shadows. I loved the feel of my hair being whipped back; my blonde hair flowed like streaks of sunshine in the darkness. Running was the closest thing I could do next to flying. I felt like I had wings on my feet.
I wasn’t always a runner. I trained myself ten miles a day and stretched a mile day by day. It used to be so difficult that I retched out everything from my gut to the asphalt, breathing heavily. But I ploughed on and endured. Running was my freedom; away from the heartaches and troubles. It cleared all the fog from my brain as I only had to focus on getting to my destination as fast as I could.
I had the body of an athlete; one that most women would die for. It was all thanks to my dysfunctional livelihood. And poverty.
All my life, it felt like I was wading through a hazy dream. It didn’t feel real to me. I felt like a phantom drifting aimlessly. It was only when my hand gripped a sword that my mind became clear. As if I belonged. My background faded around me as a flashback sprang into my mind, like a clockwork.
“Mommy, why am I different from everybody else?” I asked.
“Different how, honey?” she said as she combed my hair.
“I feel like I’m just part of the background. That I don’t belong here. I look like you yet why do I think differently than you, Mommy?” I cocked my head, curious. I would’ve thought that since we looked alike we should behave alike too. Why was she the sun and I was the moon?
I heard her tinkling laughter in the background and her lips pressed on my head.
“Oh Baby, that’s because you’re your father’s daughter. You’re just like him.”
“Papa?” I swiveled around to face her. “Where is Papa?”
“He’s somewhere very far away. Don’t ever wait for him, sweetheart. He won’t be coming back.”
“Why? Does he not want me?”
“Of course he does. He just doesn’t know you were born. I left before he knew of your existence.” There was a quiet whisper in her voice and her eyes were of distant longing.
“Why did you leave?” The younger me failed to comprehend.
She turned to face me, her eyes were brimmed with sadness. “Because I loved. I did it for love.”
Hysteria bubbled in my throat and I clamped my lips shut to stop any screams escaping from my throat. I was tired of all of this love crap. Why do people claim to do things in the name of love, when it all ended in pain? If love hurts, then I did not need such a weak emotion. I would gladly accept a heart full of winter rather than a heart full of warmth if it was easier to be carved by hurt.
It was late at night by the time I reached my house. I panted as my laboured breath began to ease. Sweat beaded down my skin, my shirt dampened with my scent. I wiped my brow with the back of one hand as my other hand dished out the key and fumbled to open the shop door. I padded softly into the shop, the music still screaming loudly in my ears. I was about to make my way to the back of the shop to go upstairs when something made me pause.
There, on the concrete floor, lay a broken pot of violets. Its stems were crushed and broken into two, and a lone petal clung desperately onto the sepal. The earth from the broken pot tumbled onto the floor. I stared at it for a moment. Had it dropped from the table? Violets were my mother’s favourite flowers. She was obsessed with them for some reason. Yet seeing the violets on the floor felt like something was broken.
I ripped the ear buds from my ears, cutting off the music from my iPod. I was greeted with an eerie silence. It was a deafening roar, like hundreds of invisible bells ringing inside my head. I felt it then. Something sinister clung to the air and I looked at the back of the shop, where the stairs led to our tiny apartment upstairs. I was surrounded by darkness, save from the moonlight infiltrating through the windows. Did something happen to the lights? We always kept the stairway light on.
“Mom?” I called.
I swallowed my saliva which was loud even to my ears. I walked slowly to the back. It could just be broken lights; the pot of violets could have just fallen on its own, gravity being a bitch and all. Yet why was I walking like I was approaching something evil, something dangerous? I flipped open a switch but no lights came on in the stairway. Huh, weird, did it blow out? I stepped onto the stairs, moving slowly, cringing every time I heard the wooden stairs creak and groan under my weight. This was stupid. I was freaking myself out for no reason. I made a mental note not to watch any more horror movies. By the time I got to the landing, I noticed everywhere was dark. Not even our apartment had lights. Did the city have a blackout?
My sneakers made sudden, crunching noises. I lifted my sneakers, to find shards of broken glass on the landing. I looked up to the ceiling and my eyes widened. My breath caught in my throat. The light wasn’t on because the bulb died out or the fuse blew out. There was no light because the bulb was shattered.
I drew in a panic breath and crept into my apartment.
“Mom?” I whispered more frantically, my voice rising in higher octaves.
My throat was suddenly dry like I just spent the whole day screaming. The living room, adjoined to the kitchen, was empty. I picked up a baseball bat near the lamp stand and clutched it defensively with my hands. As I padded softly towards the bedroom, my sneakers left muddy foot prints on the floor. Mom would totally freak when she saw them. I opened my bedroom door and peeked through the gap. My bedroom was intact and it didn’t seem like it was touched from the last time I been there. My laptop was still on the desk, steadily humming in its hibernation. I sighed in relief. It didn’t look like we were burgled. It could just be that my mom went out, probably to buy new light bulbs.
When I reached my Mom’s bedroom, I peeked through the gap of the door and saw her bunny slippers by the bed. Mom hardly ever walked around the apartment without wearing her slippers because we didn’t have any heating underneath the floorboards. My shoulders sagged. Oh, she was probably asleep. I scoffed at myself for being paranoid. I opened the door wide and stepped into her room.
And a scream ripped out from my throat as I took in the scene before me in horror. The baseball bat dropped to the floor with a heavy thud. My eyes widened and I felt a sudden vertigo, like the floor suddenly disappeared under my feet and I fell into the dark hole.
What was once a white bed was now drenched with crimson. Blood splattered everywhere across the baby blue wall and the headboard, and dripped from the mattress, creating small pools of crimson on the floor. They plonked softly to the ground, like the sound of water dripping from the tap. There, in the middle of the bed, my mother lay spread eagle. Her eyes were still wide and frozen, and blood trickled down her mouth. Her skin was so pale that I could see her blue veins running under her skin. Her once beautiful hair of sunshine, now silver and dyed with blood.
I noticed her innards spewing out from her stomach. Those...bloody long ropes coming out of her stomach...oh my god, intestines? My mind couldn’t bear the thought before I dropped to the floor and retched heavily, my eyes filled with tears. The rancid smell of my vomit mixed in the air with the perfume of blood and death. My body shook with painful tremors.
“Mom, Mommy,” I cried out. I let out a gut wrenching scream. I could only crouch there, watching the corpse of my mother. I was afraid to get closer, to touch her. I was afraid to see her stomach again.
“Please, let it be a dream,” I choked.
I suddenly heard heavy boots stepping on the wooden floor and my cries were abruptly cut off. The footsteps stopped behind me and the floorboard creaked. My eyes were wide and frozen in shock. The murderer was right behind me. I forced in painful breaths as my fingers slowly reached out for the baseball bat.
The floorboard creaked again. I lunged for the bat and smashed it against his legs. He yelped in fury and he hopped, his hands holding onto his injured leg. I stood up and kicked him squarely in his chest, and he crashed against the hallway wall with a forceful thud. I jumped after him and slammed the bat straight into his brain.
My body pumped with adrenaline as I slammed the bat home. I heard shouts from the living room and I whipped my head towards them. Three more men dressed in jeans and black shirts stood in my living room. They had weapons in their hands; one of them carrying a long, curved scimitar in his hand. The scimitar was covered in blood, and the crimson shone in the moonlight. My blood boiled in fury as I looked at my mother’s blood dripping from the blade. It wasn’t just one murderer. It was a whole gang. Who would…? Then recognition flashed in my eyes. Garyl’s wife. That bitch must’ve sent a gang after my mother. How dare she?
With a roar of fury, I dashed to the living room, slamming the bat as if it was a sword. The men moved to intercept me but I was fast. They may be gangsters, but they weren’t trained sword fighters. I knew the weak points of a human body. I circled them with my footwork and cut through the men like a sabre. I flipped the bat to the one nearest to me and bludgeoned his jaw. A bat may not be sharp compared to a sword but nonetheless, it was a heavy weapon. Even a blunt weapon can be made to kill.
A knife slashed to my right and before I could dodge it, it cut through my flesh. I winced as my arm throbbed in pain but I ignored it and blocked more knife attacks with my bat. I was glad for the adrenaline. It numbed the pain; and the anger. Anger fuelled my energy and burst through me like a raging storm. I hollered, crouched and leg swept him. He crashed against the coffee table, the glass splintering all over the floor. I ignored the glass spraying on my skin like shards of diamonds glittering in the moonlight as I smashed the bat on his head. I heard his skull crack but I didn’t stop to shout victory before something heavy clobbered my head. I moaned, my knees gave out and I fell on the fallen guy.
I willed myself to get up but my body suddenly became lead. Tears trickled down my face as regret poured into me. I couldn't even go to her. I was too afraid to touch my own mother. I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t even tell her that I loved her. Something heavy smashed against my head again and this time, my vision went dark.