“Are you sure, you’re okay?” Brett kept asking me throughout the car ride. Even when Brett had walked me to the front door of my apartment, he had asked one last time, “Renelle, are you sure you don’t want to take a few days off—“
          “I’m fine, really.” I plugged my key to the half-broken lock, twisting the door knob.
          “All right, if you say so.” Brett grunted.
         I couldn’t know why Brett was so frustrated, and as I took another glance back at him, I saw an elderly couple. The husband was doing his job perfectly. He had his arm around her while they walked back to the parking lot, and he had also kissed the top of her head.
          “You look cold,” Thayne had noted once he saw me.
          “I am freezing! I’ve been waiting for you for—“
          “Ten minutes.”
          “In the snow!”
          “Flurries, you mean.”
          “Whatever,” I had puffed my cheeks and turned my head away from him.
          “Well, I know how to warm you up.”
          He then rested his arm on my shoulder, causing me to shrug. “You’re too heavy.”
          “No, I’m not.” He drew me closer to him, so that we were joined hip to hip. Casting a gentle, warm look at me, he asked, “Warm now?”
          I couldn’t believe that I was wiping my eyes and even sniffling. Today must have been a cold and breezy day. Shaking my head, I stepped into the surprisingly barren room. Even in the darkness, I still noticed that there was nothing left except for the kitchen appliances. That tattered couch had also disappeared.
          “Mom?” My voice seemed to echo. “You there?”
          No answer, as expected.
          I turned on the lights before taking another step. Like my mother had said, there was breakfast on the kitchen counter. Breakfast . . . in the form of soup. When I examined further, I realized that she had tossed whatever there was left in the fridge, boiled it in a saucepan, and dumped its contents into this one bowl. I took a spoon, dipping it into the dish, which spilled all over the table.
          I scoffed at myself, and at her.      
          Forgiveness had to have been fatal. There had to be a balance in life, a finely balanced bowl of soup with a little bit of pepper, a dash of salt, a sprinkle of sugar, chopped vegetables, and fresh bones. There was never too much of an ingredient and when the soup became unbalanced, it would be discarded.
          What was left of me then?
          Just a body with an empty soul.
          So, I at last cried, letting the world temporarily blur away. It was the least that I could do and the most that I could feel. I was beyond doubt living, living in reality now.
          “Renelle? What are you doing here?” Brett almost leapt when he saw me in the café already, sweeping the floor. “I thought I said you could have a break.”
          “I’m fine.” I gripped onto the broom’s handle tighter. “I’m better after a good night’s sleep.”
          “With your eyes blood shot like that?” He frowned while snatching the broom from my hands. “Go home, Renelle. Just go home and rest.”
          “No! I’m not going back there!” I roared and stormed out of the shop. I walked, and walked and walked until I stumbled over nothing, scraping my knees and cutting my palms in the process. There must have been hoards of people racing by or over me. No one stopped and no one cared. My throat was becoming dry and my nose was turning stuffy. Biting on my lower lip, I forced myself up. I could sense the pain creeping from my knees to my heart.
          He would have helped . . . if it were before.
          What was I even thinking?  I glanced to my right, witnessing the piercing light that reflected off of the river. My hands pressed onto the railings, almost pulling myself up. If I could just dive . . .
          Brett was right; I must have needed to sleep again. Hearing some voice was certainly due to my fatigue and thinking about him was truly unnecessary. Maybe, I just needed to relocate to disregard all of my memories. At a new city, a new environment, a new crowd, I could be free from the pain, the past, and the sorrow. I could be free from everything.
          You’ll never be free from me.                                                                                                         
          Indeed, I would never be free.
          I remembered running away from my room. I remembered screeching for help as two men restrained me and injected something in me. They said my mother owed them money and that I had to pay. I remembered denying everything, but there was no one who could hear me. No one who even paid attention to my woes. No one who would ever save me.
          “You do know what your actions implied?” A man with a beard had inquired a younger man with long, black hair.
          “Of course, I understand.” He grinned.
          “You understand that by choosing this route, you would be defying fate, defying the gods?”
          “You understand that you would be punished, along with her?”
          “Yes, I am fully aware of that.”
          “You also know that because of your decision, she would be separated from you . . . eternally?”
          “I know.”
          “Then, why . . . why would you—”
          “Because she chose me and I chose her.”
          “Ahh!” I gasped and tried to open my eyes, only to see darkness.
          “We’ve got a screamer, haven’t we?” the man, who sounded as if he had smoked too many cigars, asked.
          I could hear the raindrops beating against the car windows, synchronized with the swiping of the windshield wipers. I must be in car. As I attempted to move my arms, I was jolted by a set of chains. There must have been handcuffs restraining my ankles and wrists, and the darkness that shielded my eyes must have been due to a blindfold.
          “Say, how much do you think she can go for?” The other man with a high-pitched voice asking his partner during the car drive.
          “If she’s a virgin, then she’ll go higher.”
          “What happens after the auction?” the scrawny voice had coincidentally asked what I wanted to know, my future.
          “She could be thrown onto the streets if no one wants her,” the other man explained. “Usually, the girls become hostesses, you know, the sort you find in those clubs with all those girls serving you?”
          “Man, that’s harsh.”
          The supposed smoker brutally laughed, followed by a snicker, “When was life not a bitch?”
          His question, although vulgar, served its purpose, silencing his naive partner and precisely summing half of my life. There was no room for other words for there was only space for listeners. Even so, there was not much to hear. It seemed that only nature cried its pain in the form of rain and heavy winds.
          And my pain? How could I even begin to cry? What could I do then?
          Suddenly, I heard the sound of the opening doors and then, the raspy voiced man announced, “We’re here.”
          I knew I had to move, but my muscles had grown too stiff. “Get up,” the younger man gently tugged my arm forward, bringing me out of the car. “You can walk by yourself, yes?”
          As soon as I nodded, he let go of his hand, almost causing me to lose my balance and tumble to the ground. Numbness to my arms and legs and blindness from the blindfold propelled vulnerability. Thankfully, I felt his hand holding onto my arm again. There was, at least, someone to lead the way to darkness, and someone . . . who cared.
          “Thank you,” I quietly mumbled, yet received no other reply.
          I was not sure how far I travelled, but I remembered to count my steps. It took a total of 264 steps until we stopped. After hearing the squeaky twist to a door knob and the creaky noise from the opening of a door, I knew that this was my new home.
          “This,” the older man took a few steps inside and declared, “this is what we call your rest room.”
          The younger man then added, “I’ll take off your blindfold after we enter your room.”
          “And the handcuffs?” I helplessly lifted my restrained hands high.
          The elder rashly told me, “You have to keep those on, lady. We can’t let any girl escape. Lately, there have been too many attempts.”
          “I promise,” I desperately begged on my knees to a stranger. “I won’t go anywhere. There’s . . . nowhere for me to go anyways.”
          “Lady, cut the promises,” he scoffed. “They ain’t gonna work here. Firstly, no one cares. Secondly, we just follow orders. Lastly, orders are to leave all girls handcuffed.”
          I sensed his footsteps rushing to the door. He was leaving me here. No, I couldn’t be by myself here. I couldn’t possibly be . . .
          “W-when can I leave?” I blurted before the door slammed. That man, however, ignored me and I could hear his stomping steps fading.
          “It’s okay.” The younger one began to unknot the blindfold. “I’m sure somehow you’ll survive. We all do.”
          It was too dark to see his expression or his appearance. The only feature that I vaguely remembered was the shape of his eyes: hooded. I would, however, always recall his voice, too high for a male, yet too deep for a woman, and his scent, pinewood with a hint of cold sweat. Then, he too, had left me, but before he did, he remarked, “I wish you good luck.”
          Good luck. A nostalgically aching phrase.
          If that were comfort, then why had I felt pain?
          The best memories were becoming my worst for they taunted and reminded me of the impossible: going back in time, a time where people cared. I had been told how losing one’s freedom was the worst that could happen to someone, but now I disagreed. The worst thing to lose was the people that cared about you. If I had been raised without love, then I would not have understood what I was missing now. I would have treated this life as a routine.
          I remembered laughing till I fell on my knees and until my stomach ached. It was amusing how the idea of what was normal varied for each person. So then, I asked myself, what was the norm?
          I don’t know. I don’t know.                                                                             
          What did it even mean to be good or to be innocent? Could innocence be considered goodness? Was ignorance bliss then?
          I was left dumbstruck by these questions; I had become a little philosopher at heart, a true thinker and definitely not a talker. Even if I had voiced my opinions, there was no one who would listen to them. That, however, did not matter. There was nothing they could do just by listening. Actions would certainly be prohibited where I lived. No matter how often I shrieked for help, there was no one to rescue me. No one to rescue a damsel in distress. So much for fairytales, I now chuckled.
          A child’s fairytale would not have documented a mother’s betrayal. This type was the most lethal. I had been part of her womb, yet that too did not matter. Perhaps, she sought for revenge due to the agonizing pregnancy she had endured. I doubted that was her reason. The only reason, from all the thinking that I had done, was that she had wanted to live well and the only way to adapt was to leave me with all the blame, all the debt, and all the responsibility.
          After all, I was by myself now.
Chapter 2                                                                             Chapter 4