My new friends were so nice!
Ever since LROP and KIP offered a bed at their biggest public shelter which hosted new friends, our conversations of encouragement never left my ears.
The cool winds of winter celebrated my arrival, along with the inevitable claps of hyperactive friends joining me on this journey. The walls which signaled the warmth of an embrace guided me through confusion. The next thing I witnessed was a breathtaking sight of a large room filled with bunk beds already claimed by new friends of all colors and ages.
I found my bed, which had a large label of my number sticking out like a sore thumb. Obviously, this attracted mingling curiosity, so I was greeted instantly with the harmonic voices of adolescents and young adults.
The cool winds blended with the angelic praises of the people.
It was peaceful.
And everyone was beautiful for being their best selves.
I later learned the friend sleeping on the bed above mine was #5. She was a little younger than me, with an attitude meant to spite others, and yet a soft heart was all I dug out after an hour's worth of rapport. She had the most adorable pigtails, which made everyone assume her age incorrectly.
Asides from a rather pessimistic initial first impression, the hours of chitchat paid off when she revealed how she found this city.
"IF YOU DON'T MIND ME ASKING, #21- WITHOUT THE INTENTION TO OFFEND, AND OF COURSE IF IT DOES, PLEASE LET ME KNOW- HOW DID YOU FIND THIS CITY?"
Her shiny eyes mirrored mine. We both smiled.
"THANK YOU FOR ASKING, #5, I'M HAPPY TO ANSWER," I cocked my head and reminisced of the mysterious trail, "I SAW A TRAIL. IT WAS SNOWING WHEN I LEFT THE COTTAGE I WOKE UP IN AND I DIDN'T KNOW WHERE ELSE TO GO, Y'KNOW?"
"Oh my fucking God, that was what I-"
She abruptly paused and realized what she had said.
I gasped in horror.
And it didn't take long for the rest of the lingering crowd around us to follow suit.
For she had broken two very important rules. However, as much as I was concerned, it was understandable. After all, most of us haven't been fully rehabilitated or were taught the ways of our new home. Old habits linger.
That's why we are here. So we can be fixed and be happy.
I smiled. The rest of our new friends smiled.
We're very forgiving people.
Coincidentally, there was a guard standing near our doorway. He heard the commotion, bowed his head to excuse himself, and walked by all of our new friends to grab #5.
"H-hold on wait, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to curse or offend anyone religious!"
"IT'S OK, #5," I said in a posthaste as the officer's fingers wrapped around her wrist, "THIS IS REHABILITATION. THEY'RE ONLY GONNA DO WHAT'S BEST FOR YOU. I'M EXCITED THAT YOU'LL FIND HAPPINESS SOON!"
The cheers of our friends approved my message. It was clear that all of us were happy for her.
The officer's grip tightened around #5's wrist as he attempted to drag her away from the crowd. A feisty woman she was, with nails of a lion and screams of a warrior. That reminded me of my mother.
My eyes furrowed as the crowd blended with my surroundings and I began to feel weak.
My mother, a face beyond recognition seeped into my memories. The calls of desperation. The scene of her running in fear with a younger me through the dense forest before her efforts went in vain. The screams of a frightened child echoed. I witnessed LROP toss my mother onto the ground and force-fed the same pills #64 engulfed.
Then, I was back to the cheers of my roommates and the disappearance of #5.
"#21, ARE YOU ALRIGHT?" asked one of them, his set of glistening teeth greeting me.
"Y-yes, thank you for asking..." I smiled.
As the sun rose to kiss the petals of our remaining flowers clinging onto life, I forgot the number of times I had counted whenever its radiant warmth blessed our presence. A few days had gone by without our sunshine, replaced by the wrath of a light snowstorm that kept us inside the shelter, huddling with one another for comfort.
Everyone was beautiful.
I reminded myself as I watched gestures of kindness shared amongst the people.
The festivities had recently left us and new beginnings were ready to welcome our new ways of life.
I excused myself and yawned at the sight of my roommates clapping with compliments bouncing off of each other. With a flicker of my eyes, the lights were out and I was in bed.
Stress was an understatement. I heard #5's pleas for help.
And the more those traumatic screams merged with my mother's, the less I could remain asleep. The blankets trapped me from escaping this nightmare as I tossed and turned restlessly.
My eyes shot open from another vision of my younger self waking up in the same cottage.
Except it wasn't as damaged as what I remembered seeing a few weeks ago.
What is going on...
I stretched my legs and sat up, wincing at the muscle cramp I received in my right foot. For Dolly's sake, these types of inconvenient suffering were a nuisance.
My eyes finally adjusted to the darkness that engulfed our room. Snores of the unconscious and one of my roommates mumbling gibberish to himself even though his eyes were shut.
It's time to retrieve answers. Even if it meant I would be punished for wanting to know the truth behind these memories. My footsteps essentially glided across the room before reaching the door.
It wouldn't budge, much less the sound of a creak or rumble. It was completely locked from the outside, and I presumed there had to be a guard on standby.
I considered the vents, but presumedly those would cause unnecessary noise and wake everyone up.
But still, I didn't have other options. The snores only got louder. Someone then farted, its thundering noise and horrible stench that could've knocked me unconscious weren't damaging enough to jolt a person awake.
I suppose this was faith's way of convincing me it was worth the risk.
My eyes scanned for a vent that's closest to my bed. It was at a corner away from the majority of sleepers thankfully, so I grabbed my blankets quietly and tiptoed to its area.
After I set the blankets down, my hands felt the rough edges of the vent. I turned around to make sure no one was watching, then I opened the damn thing.
The fact that it was so easy for anyone to do this made me question why its accessibility wasn't stricter.
Of course, Karma decided to snitch the moment I had such thoughts. An alarm went off, scaring the living daylights out of everyone. A few of the girls screeched, a boy bumped his head on the bedframe, and someone else rolled off their bed with their blankets wrapping them into a burrito.
"OUTSIDE," six guards immediately barged in, "OUTSIDE! NOW! NOW! NOW!"
Confused sleepers with their worrisome expressions all stood behind one another as the guards walked them out.
Had I not reacted faster, I would've been caught with my hands covered in dirt. Thankfully, I booked and hid inside the closet behind everyone's luggage.
"IS THAT ALL OF THEM?"
"YES SIR, IT LOOKS LIKE NOBODY IS HIDING UNDER THE MATTRESS."
"NO ONE UNDER THE BEDS EITHER."
I held my breath when I heard one of the guards approach the closet. I could feel my hands sweating with anxiety as he opened the door.
"NO ONE IN THE CLOSET, SIR."
"THANK YOU FOR RESPONDING," replied the first guard. "MAY YOU PLEASE LOCK UP THE VENTS?"
"WILL DO," the guard turned away from the closet and sauntered to the vent as the rest of the group left the room. And then, it was quiet.
This was my only chance.
Eyeing a knife that greeted me from one of the unzipped luggage, my fingers gripped it as I cautiously stepped out of the closet.
The poor guard did not hear me.
Without hesitation, I struck him. My knuckles slammed onto the side of the man's head as he stumbled. Before he got the chance to turn around, my knife met his spine.
I made sure to give him another punch to ensure he remained unconscious. If I was going to get caught, I would not want it to be immediate.
Within seconds, I found myself crawling inside the vent covered with dust and cobwebs, introducing me to claustrophobia. I heard distant chants of other guards in various rooms trying to find the culprit. It looked like they haven't caught on to the fact that one of their members remained injured.
Finally, my eyes gazed out another exit. Peering past the opening I noticed the room looks completely different than the rest of the shelter.
It resembled a manager's office. Filled with crumpled papers on the floor and stacked documents on a desk, there was an open cabinet with pictures of faces whom I recognized.
Those faces were of those that recently entered the shelter.
I pushed the vent open and crawled out, tilting my head from side to side to ensure no one else was discreetly watching. With my instinct confirming I was alone, I stood up.
Ah, what a regretful decision. Of course, the presence of a demon would've gone unnoticed.
It was a voice familiar to my ears.