Chapter One

 

So much could change in a moment; even more can change in five years. Five years. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve seen Jared.  Five years to the day, when I was dragged from his arms kicking and screaming. He fought so hard, with his thirteen-year-old fists. His curse words were worse than Bert’s when he was drunk. 

The sound of the sliding door opening pulled me away from my thoughts. The swing bench creaked as Evelyn sat down. She had deep olive-tone skin and dark wavy hair; she was stunning and took care of herself. The smell of her moisturiser along with her arm consumed me. Glancing up from my hands I found her watching me.  “You don’t have to do this.”

My heart skipped a beat with how much I wanted to walk away from this, but I couldn’t. I had to do this... for all those children. For Jared and me. But mostly, it was my chance to see him. That made me both nervous and excited. Would I recognise him after five years? Would he recognise me? Would he even be there? Was he okay?

“Close your eyes and take a breath.” I did as Evelyn instructed. An empty feeling had opened up in the pit of my stomach. I wanted to puke.

“Tell me what you’re thinking?” Evelyn spoke in her calming voice. She was a councillor. Some would say I was lucky to have been adopted by her and Carl, but her voice of reason wasn’t always welcomed. But right now, I needed her.

“Jared.” His name caused Evelyn to stiffen beside me.  Her reaction to him always confused me. She made me feel as if Jared was the one who hurt me when he was the one who protected me. I dropped my hands on to my lap before opening my eyes. “I wonder if he’ll remember me?”

Evelyn took my hand in hers. “Of course, he will. How could he forget you?” She brushed a loose strand of blond hair behind my ear. I wanted to ask her why she didn’t like me talking about Jared, but I didn’t get to.

Carl had stepped out into the back garden with a steaming hot mug of coffee in his hands. His soft green eyes and olive skin made him attractive, even for his fifty years. He, too, kept himself in shape. “It’s time to go,” he indicated by showing us his watch. I couldn’t read it from this distance, but I nodded and hopped up from the bench. Evelyn stood behind me now, placing both her hands on my shoulders. The slight squeeze filled me with the strength I needed. I inhaled a deep breath and swallowed.  “I’m ready,” I told Carl, who smiled at me.

Five years I had spent in therapy, trying to erase every slap and thumb, every word and memory. And now I had to tell everyone what I had suffered at Bert and Ronnie’s hands. I had to tell them and prove to Carl and Evelyn that they had saved me, that they had fixed me.

I gathered my phone and bag and hurried to the car before I changed my mind. The vehicle clicked unlocked, and I climbed into the back. Evelyn and Carl both got in and glanced at each other. It was a split second but one I saw and one that had me sinking into the car seat. They didn’t think I was strong enough.

“I’m ready,” I said once again, even as my throat threatened to close. Pulling down the visor Evelyn glanced at me with a soft smile that crinkled the skin around her brown eyes. “We know you are, sweetheart.”

Carl started the car and reversed out of the drive. My gaze drifted away from Evelyn’s and to the gardens of houses we passed, all neat. Each house was white and as perfect as the next. It was a far cry from where I had come. Bert’s had been unkempt and dilapidated, a bit like its occupants.

“If, and I’m only saying if, you change your mind, Layla, we can always turn back.” It was Carl who spoke. The softness and kindness in his voice still sometimes startled me. Even after five years of witnessing what a great man he was, I couldn’t erase the other twelve. The “Before,” is how I liked to view it. A different time and life, one that I dipped into for reference, but a place I never stayed. Now I would have to go back. I clutched my tanned bag as my stomach churned. “Thanks, Carl, but I want to do this.”

Carl gazed at me in the rear-view mirror; I caught my own reflection and looked away. My white skin was ghostly; I looked like someone who was going to puke their guts up. My blue eyes were wide and watery looking.

Another glance was shared between Carl and Evelyn, one that I pretended I didn’t see as I clutched my bag tighter. They were such good people, and I was the first foster child they had ever taken in since they were unable to have children themselves. I often wondered why people who deserved to have children couldn’t, and ones who shouldn’t be allowed, could. Was it God’s plan, or was it just a flaw in the body? To me, it seemed such a shame. Both of them were amazing.

The drive to the courthouse felt like it was taking forever. I had made this journey countless times in the car that Carl and Evelyn had purchased me for me on my seventeenth birthday only two weeks ago. The red starlet had been a lavish gift, but one they both said was nothing. It wasn’t new, but to me it was perfect. With my new job and summer starting, it would get me to work, and I wouldn’t have to rely on Carl or Evelyn for lifts.

“I was thinking afterwards we could order in Chinese. I know it’s your favourite.” I tensed as the large red brick building came into view. My stomach twisted as I glanced up at the seven-story structure.

“Yeah, that would be great.” I swallowed the enormous lump in my throat as we pulled into a parking spot. Food was the furthest thing from my mind right now.

The engine died, and I quickly took the bottle of water out of my bag. Taking a nervous gulp, I replaced the blue lid.

Stop delaying. You can do this.

Repeating this in my head gave me the strength to climb out of the car. Once everyone stood on the sidewalk, Carl locked the car. My heart pounded; the thumping felt painful against my chest. Evelyn’s warmth enveloped me as she pulled me into a hug. For a moment I stayed there, in the safety of her arms. I let my mind settle and focused on her smell. But I couldn’t stay here forever.

You can do this.

Telling this to myself once again allowed me to step out of Evelyn’s embrace. Eyes glanced at me, one or two lingered, but I focused on the two most important people in the world to me.

My hands tightened on my bag strap as I focused on Carl’s words. “I’m going to be real honest with you-” I nodded and encouraged Carl’s words. “-I don’t want you to do this.” My gaze dipped at Carl’s words, as my heart felt like it was shrinking.

“But we both know you are strong enough to do this,” Evelyn’s words wrestled a smile out of me, as I looked from her to Carl.

“You are,” Carl smiled back, and we all started walking again towards the gloomy building. As I looked up, I had to force my legs to keep moving. But Evelyn’s and Carl’s belief in me made me walk across the vast open space that acted as a lobby and waiting room. Chairs were placed all along the wall; people sat waiting, some looked better fit for a casual meeting then a court. My eyes collided with a girl who didn’t smile at me. Her high blond ponytail was something that I could never achieve with my hair, it was too fine to stay in place. Strands would come loose, giving me the appearance of someone who either had just gotten out of bed or fallen asleep on a couch or train or something. Today I wore my hair down. It always sat neatly down my back, so it was appropriate for court. The girl turned her attention to a kid who sat a few seats away, playing with a small red car.

The air in the lobby was heavy and warm, and I found myself pulling at the blouse that Evelyn had laid out for me. Matched with my favourite black skinny jeans and black boots, I had ditched the suit jacket that she had left for me also.

“I’ll see how much of a wait we have. You girls go get yourself a seat.” Carl wore a suit looking very smart, but he always did. His job in some high rise building 90 miles away kept him working late and often not coming home until well into the night. Engineering was more than just a job to Carl. It was a passion.

The black plastic chairs that we sat on were warm, and I was grateful for not wearing the suit jacket. We sat in silence watching people make their way across the lobby as they were called for each case. My eyes darted to the door every time I heard a creak. Each time, my heart would leap at anyone with Jared’s features. Dark brown eyes, sallow skin. Long black hair always tied at the nape of his neck. Even at thirteen, he had the striking features that told you when he got older he would be handsome – all the girls seemed to notice him, but he never paid them any attention.

Carl had sat back down fifteen minutes ago, sitting on my left while Evelyn stayed on my right. Both of them leaned slightly into me, while focusing on the door, too. I felt they were as nervous as I was at seeing Jared. They had never met him. Evelyn had tried to find out what had happened to him, but no one would give her any information. So today would give me some closure. I would finally know what happened to him.

My pulse spiked, and my stomach twisted with nausea as a small man, with balding hair and glasses called us forward. I shuffled like a zombie, walking, but not feeling the floor under my feet. It was like my brain had short-circuited. If not for the support of Carl and Evelyn on either side of me, I wouldn’t have made it to the man. His spotty skin was stretched across a broad face, and as he spoke, the large gap between his teeth became my focus. He spoke with no interest at all, but his words tightened around my throat and my heart. “The case has been postponed until a later date.”

“May I ask why?” Evelyn spoke, asking the question that I couldn’t. The man glanced past us. “Jason McEvery?” he called before looking back at us. “One of the witnesses recently passed away.” He said it like one of them had slept in.

Leaning away from the man, Evelyn clutched my hand.

 “Who?” my voice squeaked, and I swallowed. “Who?” I asked again. The man shook his head, took a quick glance past us once more before returning his attention back to us.

“I’m not sure.”

“Could you find out, please? Our daughter was friends with those children.” Carl had taken a step forward, towering over the man. Carl had never been violent in all the time I knew him but seeing him angry for me, and his use of the word daughter had sent a weakness to my knees.

The shuffling of pages got my attention as I waited for the name.

Don’t let it be Jared. Please God, anyone but Jared.

“Nelson … I don’t see the second name.” My lips parted, and the dryness in my mouth had me releasing Evelyn’s hand and getting out my bottle of water. Jared’s okay.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” the man spoke once again with no emotion. “You’ll get a new date in the mail.” He departed with a nod of his bald head, and we left the building with a strange haze that seemed to cling to everything. Every face I passed, I searched for brown eyes. But Jared wasn’t there. He never showed up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Copyright Aoife Marie Sheridan