I adjusted my scarf more firmly in place to protect my ears; these Irish winds had an attitude. After several months of living in this green and windy place I had learned three things. Never leave home without a big umbrella. Forget about fixing your hair if you were going to spend any time outside. Use face cream regularly or die.
I knotted my blue scarf tightly as I joined a few of my fellow townspeople gathered at the bus station. We nodded ‘good morning’ to each other, but didn’t talk beyond that. My neighbors were friendly enough, and probably would have conversed further with me, except for the fact that my reputation had been established pretty early on.
I wasn’t a talker.
I had tried at first, connecting with the new people when I came to a new place, creating a spot for myself and people to call my own. It was lovely, until my life caught up with me and I had to uproot overnight. Gone was the home, the established friendships, the shared moments with neighbors. I had to leave those places, those people, and not look back. After you do that enough times, you decide it’s better for your heart’s sake to just stop talking.
So I did. I was polite, pleasant, and aloof. I could quickly make someone comfortable with me without them wanting to get more familiar. At first I think my Irish neighbors had been puzzled by me, the American who asked few questions and went through the motions of life. I didn’t even go to the local pub more than a few times a week, most nights I spent at home in my flat with a cup of tea and a book, listening to the wind. That’s all the friends I could afford to have.
The bus pulled up and stopped with a squeak of the breaks. I shuffled on board and choose a seat near the back, next to the emergency exit. I liked sitting near doors, doors meant it was easier to disappear in a moment’s notice, and if you sat at the back of the bus, fewer people could witness your presence when asked about it later.
The bus took us through the rain and into the city where the green gave way to the colors of a city; vehicles, pedestrians, sidewalks, and shop windows. I liked the colors of this country; I especially liked the fact that there was very little pink here. I got off at my stop and walked briskly through the cold rain to the bookstore where I worked. Out of habit I glanced at the shop windows as I passed by to see who was walking around me. Being aware of people had become as natural as breathing.
The bell tinkled when I walked in, and Mr. O’Grady looked up from the counter where he was reading a book.
“Good mornin’, Katie-girl. A new shipment of mysteries came in early this mornin’, I saved them for you to put out.” He winked at me, “And the tea’s on in back, it’s a cold one today.”
I smiled back as I took my coat off and hung it up next to his on the rack. Mr. O’Grady was the best boss I had ever worked for, and I’d worked for more than I could count over the past several years. When I had first started working for him he wanted to know more about my background, where I was from, who my parents were, what I wanted to do with my future. I had either made up answers or danced my way around his questions. He had stared at me puzzled, and then a wave of sad kindness swept over his face.
“You keep your secrets, Katie-girl. Heaven knows I have no need for them beyond what you wish to share with me. You’re a nice young lass and I’m happy to have you aboard,” and then his eyes had grown even kinder, “But, if you ever need something, or just want someone to finally share those secrets with, you can always come to me. I won’t judge, I’ll only listen and help you the best I can.”
Mr. O’Grady was someone I wanted to befriend, someone who almost made me change my resolve to not get attached to people.
I went to the back store room where we kept new books waiting to be put out on the shelves. Mr. O’Grady kept a little tea station in one corner, and I could always count him to have hot tea brewing and a covered plate of something warm and doughy. I poured myself a cup and grabbed a scone as I went to check out the new mystery books.
There was a waist high stack of boxes, the top box opened and a single book was pulled out of it, with a note written in Mr. O’Grady’s handwriting on blue stationary.
“For you, Katie-girl.”
I smiled widely. Mr. O’Grady knew that mysteries were my favorite, so every time a new shipment of mysteries would come in he would take the top book off of the pile and give it to me with a kind note. I think it was his way of saying that he was my friend, even if I wouldn’t allow for him to get any closer. Those few books, and those simple notes were worth more to me than a chest of old Spanish gold. They reminded me on my darkest days that not every kindness and pleasure could be taken from me; there were still moments of sunshine between the thunderclouds.
I finished my morning snack and then set to work on arranging the new books on the shop shelves, working quietly so as to not disturb the customers who were browsing. We were a small shop, but had an excellent reputation in the city and surrounding communities. Many of our customers were regulars, Mr. O’Grady called them “book relations”, people drawn together by a shared love of reading.
I got momentarily distracted by one of our regulars, a woman named Hannah, who was reading a romance novel by the shop window. I looked at the cover, uh oh, I had read that one. She was in for a heartache. I felt like a criminal watching her serene face as she sat reading the story. Poor lady, she had no idea what was coming. Boy, did I know how that felt, I knew it at a level I hoped Hannah would never have to feel.
I turned my attention back to my work, glancing down at the book I was holding. I saw the cover and gasped out loud, jumping up and dropping the book on the floor like a hot potato! Everyone in the small shop stopped and stared at me in shock, I never made a scene.
I could feel them all staring at me, but I couldn’t look away from the book cover, I was frozen, trying to calm down before I went into a full-on panic attack.
It was a historical mystery set in the Roaring 20s. The cover featured a flapper girl in her beaded dress, sparkling diadem, and pink feathers.
I felt like screaming. I hated pink, I hated feathers! I hated the fact that They had made me hate pink and feathers. Pink was the color for baby showers and bridal showers, bunny ears, baby’s faces, springtime, strawberry cupcakes! Pink was the color of sweet innocence and simple joy. Feathers represented freedom, to everyone else in the world, except me. To me they represented fear and entrapment.
“Katie-girl, why don’t you take your lunch break early, aye?” Mr. O’Grady’s gentle accented tones broke through my mental torment and reminded me that I was standing frozen in the store staring at an unfinished mystery display.
He leaned down and picked up the book that had set me off, gently turning the cover over so that I wouldn’t have to look at it. He may not have understood why I was acting like a lunatic, but he was sensitive enough to know what had triggered me. I nervously brushed back a few stray hairs that had escaped my ponytail as I tried to calm down.
“I know it’s early, but I can manage the store alone for a bit. I think the sun has finally broken through for a short while, why don’t you go enjoy it while it lasts?” His kind blue eyes calmed my nerves a bit. Yes, some sun would feel good.
“I won’t be long.”
I left the shop and walked down the street towards a food stand a few blocks away. I walked briskly at first, trying to outpace my beating heart, but the fresh air and sunshine did start to soak in and settle me down.
As much as I liked Ireland, I did miss the sun. Barcelona, Spain had beautiful sun. So did San Diego. And Alabama. Singapore had amazing weather.
I skirted around other early lunch-breakers and pedestrians while also trying to avoid the puddles. Most people would have given anything to see all of the places I had been. I would give anything just to call a place home.
I bought my cup of stew and sourdough bread, and sat down on a bench to eat it before it grew cold. I watched the people around go about their business, each of them thinking about the consuming details of their lives; families, jobs, homes, pets. I wished I could think about those things. Most people who live an ordinary life have no idea what a gift they have.
I finished my lunch, threw my trash away, and headed back to the shop, stopping on the way to pick up a new package of Mr. O’Grady’s favorite tea; I had noticed he was almost out, and since coming to work for him I had made sure he never ran completely out. It was my way of saying he was my friend too, even if I couldn’t acknowledge it any other way.
I entered the shop, the noise of the bell not sounding as loud at this hour, for many of our customers stopped in on their lunchbreak. Mr. O’Grady was behind the counter, adding up some figures. I hung up my coat and scarf and took the package of tea to the back storeroom. A knock sounded at the back door, I jumped at first, but then I remembered that we had another shipment coming in today.
“Could you get that, Katie-girl?” Mr. O’Grady called from the front.
I unlocked the door to greet Allister, he was one of our regular delivery men. He was 25 going on 7, freckled and adorable. He smiled and winked at me.
“Hello there, Katie! Did ya already read through the last bundle I brought you?” He started handing me boxes.
“I barely made it through all of them before they were sold out. I didn’t sleep for two weeks, but I made it.”
“Good thing our tea is strong.” I nodded in agreement.
He brought in the last box for me, as it was the biggest and the heaviest. He smiled again as he set it down. Standing up he smoothed out the wrinkles on his uniform.
“Can I help you with anything else, Miss Katie?” Dangit, I wished he would stop smiling at me. I’d crossed paths with a lot of nice young guys from all over, but Allister had the best smile.
“No, thank you, Allister. See you next delivery.” I felt bad because he looked a little crestfallen, but it was better this way.
“Next time it is, Katie.” He smiled again, and left.
I sighed as I relocked the door and started opening boxes. Again, ordinary people had no idea what gift a normal life was.
I opened the lid to the first box, and stopped….there it was, sitting on top of an innocent collection of children’s stories. The sign. They had found me again.
Strangely, I did not react as strongly to the real thing as I did to the false alarm earlier. I picked up the pink feather and held it in my palm. My time started now, I had exactly 8 hours to be somewhere else before They would close in on me. That was their game, They played with their prey before moving in, they were like killer whales. It was maddening; They gave you just enough freedom and time to feel like you had a chance, but after doing it over and over again, your hope died. You felt hollowed out inside as you realized you would never be free from Them, that you could never stop moving. And that is when they got you, when you gave up. I can only imagine how many people had killed themselves or just let Them do the job rather than move yet again.
So far I wasn’t a name They had crossed out on their list yet. I gave credit to my mother for that. The last thing she told me was, “Don’t you dare let Them win. You live, they lose.” That kept me going when everything else inside of me just wanted to quit. It was my last gift to my mom, and all I had left to keep me motivated.
My brain started going in an all-too familiar pattern. Where was my next stop? What transportation would I use to get there? What was my name going to be this time? Most people on the run had these things planned out ahead of time. I’d learned that the best way to stay ahead of Them was to be spontaneous and random. I kept a stash of several different currencies, and I knew how to find someone who could make a fake ID in just a few hours. I always figured out where to find that kind of person when I moved to a new place. I had chosen a location in Ireland where I could easily slip away and disappear over border and be in a different country by morning.
I closed my hand around the small pink feather, and straightened my back. I could feel the autopilot kicking in. I needed my bag from the storage locker at the train station. There was nothing at my flat that I couldn’t live without, I had a change of clothes in my bag and I would buy more at my new destination. ID, that was my first stop.
I turned around and walked out to Mr. O’Grady at the counter. He was putting his account book away in a locked drawer. I smiled, he was born too late for his habits. He looked up at me and smiled.
“How was your lunch, lass? Feelin’ better are you? Did Allister drop by?” I felt my emotionless mask slip a little at the influence of his kind words.
“Uh, yes, Allister came. He dropped off that other shipment.” He nodded and started wiping down the counter. I opened my mouth, and then hesitated, my voice catching in my throat as a wave of emotion hit me. I did not want to move away from this sweet man. I struggled to maintain control as all of the anguish I had tamped down threatened to escape.
Mr. O’Grady noticed me hesitating. He looked at my face and his eyes went serious. He reached a hand out and laid it gently on my shoulder.
“Katie-girl? What’s wrong, lass?” I shook my head, no, no I couldn’t involve him in this. He deserved to get to keep his tea, his scones, his old fashioned accounting book, and his tiny slice of heaven that was his bookstore.
“I, uh, I need to take care of some, personal things. Can I have the rest of the day off?” Mr. O’Grady’s eyes probed mine, as if he was trying to read into my soul.
“Are you in trouble, dear?” I shook my head, no, hating Them for making me lie to such a kind human. Mr. O’Grady furrowed his brow, I got the feeling he didn’t fully believe me, but then he sighed.
“Of course, you can, Katie-girl. Do whatever you need to do, I hope all is well.” I nodded again, to full of emotion to trust my voice.
I grabbed my coat and scarf off of the coat rack, and left the shop without looking back. I couldn’t bear to take one last look, my heart was already smarting. I shook my head, I had to get ahold of myself, now was not the time to feel, now was the time to focus.
“Wait!” I turned around at the voice, and saw a customer from the bookstore running toward me, waving a book.
“Mr. O’Grady said to give you this.” And she handed me the mystery book I had found this morning with the shipment of new books.
“Thanks.” The customer nodded and went on her way.
I tucked the book in my coat and went on my way. It wouldn’t hurt to have just one book, just one from Mr. O’Grady. The rest of my book collection along with his notes were at my flat, and there they would have to stay until someone picked them up. I hoped Mr. O’Grady would take them back and give them to someone who would love them.
But one, surely I could keep just one book. Something, anything! I was so tired of having to give up things, so tired of remembering all of the things They had made me give up. For once in my life, I wanted to keep something that was beautiful, something that was physical and not just a memory. I sniffed in deeply to fight the tears threatening to come out, put my head down, and kept walking.
5 hours later I took my seat on the back of the train headed towards the border. It was dark; I was wet, cold, and exhausted. I slumped down into my seat and rearranged my bag, coat, and scarf more comfortably. I would get a new coat and scarf right before I crossed the border.
I opened my coat and pulled out my new ID: Lyra Benheim. I hated the name Lyra.
Sarah, Ginny, Mackenzie, Ana, Jocelyn….Katie-girl, the last name said with a twinkle in the speaker’s eye. Or, Miss Katie, said with a charming smile and a fascinating hint of interest.
And now Lyra. It was a name and nothing more.
I curled up in my seat and covered myself with my coat. I pulled the pink feather out of my pocket and fingered it while staring out at the darkness racing past my window, the occasional flashing lights grew hazy as the memory rose up, my strongest memory.
Mom and Dad had just gotten home from the gala. I had fallen asleep in my chair by the fire, but woke up as their headlights flashed past the windows of my bedroom. I stretched, and walked over to the window to watch them come up the driveway. They were going to be so happy to see me two days ahead of when I was coming home to visit. Lucky for me my roommate had a good friend driving through my hometown who offered to drop me off at so I could surprise my parents. I rubbed my arms in anticipation of their hugs.
And then, out of nowhere the night exploded. My dad’s car turned into a fireball shooting up into the sky. The ground shook and somewhere, far away it seemed, I heard the sound of the explosion. I gasped as I saw my parents go flying.
I raced out the door of my bedroom towards the driveway and the figures of my fallen parents. I reached Dad first, one look at him and I knew he was gone. Even though my heart broke in an instant, I kept moving to reach Mom.
She was still breathing; I crashed onto my knees on the ground beside her and grabbed her hand. If she was surprised to see me, she didn’t have the energy to show it. She just squeezed my head slightly and labored to speak.
“Marriane, you need to get away from here.” I’d never heard my mom sound so intense.
“No, Mom, I’m gonna get you some help. We, we have to..” She gripped my hand harder.
“Marianne Katherine Nellis, you need to leave. Run, just run, by morning I want you to be far away from here.” I started crying, but Mom started to whisper, pulling me down to hear her. She whispered words that I had never repeated to anyone, I almost didn’t even replay them in my memories as if I was afraid someone, the wrong someone, might overhear. When she had finished, I pulled away, every bone in my body feeling like it had turned to ice, and my stomach had flipped upside down.
She reached up and rubbed my cheek.
“Don’t you dare let Them win, you live, They lose.” And with that, she was gone. A still form, the only movement was the pink feathers of her elegant coat blowing in the cold wind.
And that’s when I started running, and had never stopped.
A loud snore brought me back to the present. I shook myself to try and shake off the memories; they clung like dust to me, dust I could never shake off. I rubbed my tired eyes and looked down at the feather clenched in my hand. I’m still running, Mom. They haven’t won.
I rearranged my coat, and heard my book slip out and drop to the floor. I flung the coat aside and quickly picked my precious book up, dusting off the cover with great care. What was this? A corner of paper was peeking out from its hiding place between the pages. I lifted my eyebrows as I pulled the whole note out, it was written on Mr. O’Grady’s signature blue stationary.
Setting the book down gently, I held the note in both hands and squinted down at his handwriting.
“Katie-girl, you don’t have to run. Come home, and we’ll win together.” O’Grady
My entire body started to tingle with an electrifying warmth that swept through me. I stared at the piece of paper in shock. How had he known I was running? Did he know everything, or had he just guessed the general story?
I dropped the paper in my lap and stared out the window. Sweet man, he thought he could help me. I stared down at the floor, and stopped.
The pink feather had been dropped on the floor when I scrambled to save my book. It was lying there, looking fragile and hopeless, mangled and dirty from my boots. I glanced at my palm. Where the feather had been Mr. O’Grady’s note was now sitting. And my face began to burn, a burning that spread all throughout me while the tingling grew even stronger.
You live, They lose.
Living. For so many years, living had just meant surviving. Staying alive long enough to get to the next destination where I would exist for several months before They caught up to me. But I had really ceased living the day my parents had been murdered.
Living. Living was having a place to call home. It was having neighbors and friends who shared your life, and you shared theirs. You laughed together, ate together, and celebrated holidays. Living was getting to let people into your life, your heart, your history. It was waking up every morning and not being afraid. It was having a chance to see if there was something behind a charming smile in an adorable freckled face. It was not jumping every time you saw a pink feather.
I had stayed alive, but I had died inside a long time ago. I may still be on Their list, but as of right now, They were winning. They had taken my home and my family from me, and for a long time, they had taken my life. But no more. No, it was time I started winning, and I wasn’t going to do it alone.
The train started pulling into the station with a wail of the whistle, the chugging of the wheels as they slowed, and a screech of the breaks. When the forward motion stopped, I stood up with the other passengers in order to depart.
I waited until most of the passengers had made their way out of their seats towards the door, and then I grabbed my bag, tucking my book and Mr. O’Grady’s precious note inside for safe keeping. Then I gathered my coat, and my blue scarf.
The pink feather lay discarded on the floor, in a puddle of mud, broken and mangled. I stared at it, then, very deliberately I crushed the feather even more with the heel of my boot.
Without another glance back, I marched off of the train and went into the station to buy a ticket to go back in the direction I had come.
After a twenty minute wait, I boarded my new train and sat down near the front. A lady and her little boy were sitting to my left. I smiled at her and the little boy, who appeared to be very sleepy.
“Where are you headed?” I asked softly.
“Home, we were visiting my parents’ farm. What about you?” I smiled widely.
“I’m heading home too.” I lifted my hand in greeting.
“I’m Katie.” The woman smiled pleasantly.
“I’m Mary, and this is Billy.” I nodded as the train began moving.
Adjusting in my seat more comfortably, I looked out the window, this time wide awake.
They would find the feather. They would know where I had gone. I knew that I was going to have to fight for my life, but I also knew I wasn’t going to be alone. Mr. O’Grady would help me, Allister too. My neighbors would be happy to welcome me into their circle. I knew people all over the world who would be happy to get a phone call from me. This wasn’t going to be easy, but it was time. Time for me to face the monster following me and destroy it.
My running days were over, my fighting days begun.
I smiled as I thought about Them finding the feather. The sign of the pink feather had meant fear and torment for so long, but now it meant something else. Something that I hoped would strike as much fear in their hearts as it had mine.