Promise

Rain splattered down onto the wet concrete as a tiny figure leaped out of the shadows, scampering across the road and winding between cars to run straight into an alley. The darkness swallowed the person easily as it disappeared into the small nook between the two well-worn walls of the houses. Walking swiftly from his car, and ignoring the rain that beat down on his coat, a well-dressed man followed the small figure; his lips twisted downwards into a frown before he stopped at the edge of the shadows. “Are you in here?” his baritone voice was hoarse but loud, even over the din of the rain.

His words were met with silence.

“Little girl, I know you’re here,” he said again, adopting a smoother, calmer voice this time as he spoke. Soft whimpers met his ears as his eyes narrowed. Wordlessly, he barged into the darkness, searching blindly with his hands before he felt a large wooden crate beside him. “Don’t worry,” he said, an awkward smile twisting his facial features for a moment as he crouched beside the shivering lump.

As his eyes adjusted to the light … or lack of thereof, he saw a stick-like arm come out from the cover of the thick plastic to pull the black bag closer to her. “Here you go,” the man said; his eyes sad but warm as he shrugged his coat off before handing it to the girl.

He knew this girl, he realised as he caught sight of her dark, matted hair, and her wide brown eyes. He recognised her from the café he frequented after meetings; recognising her as the girl who always pleaded with the woman at the counter for a coffee before paying for it painstakingly with the grimy, dirt-covered coins she would unearth from the depths of the pockets in her clothes. He recognised her from the restaurant he’d taken his son to on his birthday; when the girl had trudged past the glass display bravely, despite her stick-like frame that trembled even in the blazing sunlight.

He knew her … or he’d thought that he had.

His heart broke as her trembling hand hesitated, retreating back into the torn plastic when he pushed the large coat towards her before reappearing again to touch the expensive material. “There you go,” there was a wide smile on his lips when the child abandoned her plastic sheet for the coat; bundling herself in the thick wool before peeking up at the man.

“Thank you,” the words were mumbled, barely coherent, through quivering blue lips as the man was met with bloodshot green eyes that were filled with a tiredness that made the small figure seem much older than she was. The man straightened for a moment, sea-coloured eyes bright even as the ice-cold rainwater soaked through the business suit and through his loafers. “Hey,-” his voice trailed off when he looked down to the crate again, the wooden box empty save for the torn plastic.

Shaking his head, the man left, lips turned down once again as he trudged back to his car. His pale hair was soaked, locks plastered to his forehead and his cheeks flushing as he entered the vehicle.

 

A pair of dark eyes watched, wide with emotion, as the car drove off, fading out of sight until it was a barely a speck of black ink in the distance. Breathlessly, the child scampered through the alley, the gent’s coat trailing behind her as she crawled under fences and clambered over gates. Finally, she reached a small, rundown shack, rainwater leaking through the tiles on the roof and the door hanging off its hinges as she snuck over the bush, ducking her head and scampering towards the ‘house’ as the growling of a dog filled her ears.

 “Mum!” she cried out as she tumbled through the small door, her loud greeting met with a sickly cough and a hoarsely whispered “Don’t leave the door open.” The girl stumbled through the hall, fat drops of cold water splashing onto the ground as she scurried through the front of the house.

Home;

There was a torn, faded carpet beside a single, broken couch. Water dripped lazily from the ceiling, running down the wall before soaking into the carpet. The wall was bare, save for the cracks that had formed after years of water soaking through the plaster and paint, the once-cream colour turned into a sickly pastel. The couch was stained to no end; the murky colour hardly resembling the original sky-blue it’d once been.

“Mum, look at what I got!” the girl said, sticking her hands out to the woman who was lying on the bed, face pasty and eyes damp. The woman twisted weakly to look at the thick coat that the girl had brought in, the hem and sleeves stained with mud and grass, but the material still stiff and new. “It’s for you,” the smile that glowed on the child’s face would have made any woman want to sob as the girl pushed the coat clumsily around the older woman like a blanket, barely covering anything at all. The woman merely flapped her hands around, pushing the child away before reaching for a needle as the girl shrank away from her. “I need my medicine,” the woman rasped hoarsely as she let the needle sink into the paper-like skin at the crease of her elbow. As the plunger sank, the girl watched, dejectedly, as the woman’s eyes rolled to the back of her head, only the whites visible before she pulled the needle out of her pock-marked arm.

“Now get lost,” the woman said hoarsely, coughing thickly before weakly pulling the blanket over her thin figure. She popped a pill between her lips, before swallowing it dry. The girl smiled toothily, “yes mum,” her eyes crinkling shut before she left her mother alone again, only to return three hours later to whisper a soft ‘goodnight’ to the  sleeping woman and the empty room that gave no reply.

 

A willowy, dark-haired girl sank gracefully into the seat, her over-sized t-shirt catching on the rough plastic. Her forehead landed on her palm as she finally let her shoulders sag. “Hello?” a deep, gravelly voice snapped her out of her tired stupor as she shot up, her backbone ramrod straight. “Good afternoon, my name is Evie. How may I assist you today?” there was a small, friendly smile on her lips as she stared up at the man; his salt-and-pepper hair filled with droplets of water that reflected the lights in a way that made them seem like specks of diamond.

“I was wondering if the store sold Band-Aids?” Evie tilted her head, thinking as she slid off the stool before scampering through the aisles. “Well … we have these,” she said quietly, a hopeful smile on her lips as she returned, cotton-covered arms filled with colourful boxes. “These would be fine,” the man said, a smile making the wrinkles even more prominent on his face as he plucked a box of large Band-Aids from her arms. “That will be twelve ninety-nine,” she said, the cash register ringing as it shot open, nearly decking her in the stomach.

Mentally counting the change, she grabbed the appropriate amount, the coins clinking cheerfully as the man slipped them into his pocket. “Thanks,” he said, dipping his head as he left the counter, Band-Aids in hand. Finally, Evie met his eyes; sea-foam irises meeting her emerald ones as she sat back down at the counter.

 

A twelve-year-old Evie stumbled into the hotel, her wet hair plastered to her skin as she slipped in through the large glass doors. Sliding over the tiles, she made her way to the ballroom. “Get changed!” a plump woman shrieked when she caught sight of the girl, throwing her a cream-coloured tunic and a stained apron.

Five minutes later, the girl was slipping between chairs, a tray of drinks in one hand while her other carried a large bowl of stew. “Excuse me,” she whispered, setting the stew down carefully at one table before leaving as quickly as she dared, both hands clenched around the tray of drinks; knuckles turning white as she forced herself not to tremble. She set the drink down quickly, scampering around the large table as he placed each glass in front of each well-dressed customer.

By the time her ‘replacement’ had come, her knees were trembling in the baggy pants, and her shoulders shook with exhaustion as the older female clapper her shoulder sympathetically. It took all her willpower to stop herself from crying as she approached the plump, stringy-haired woman. Evie asked for the pay-check in a voice that was almost inaudible. Snorting, the woman threw her a thin wad of money; Evie clutching the notes like her life depended on them. She left relatively quickly after that, arms and legs sore as she limped her way out of the hotel.

The walk back to the rundown shack she called a home was less than pleasant, Evie noted as she stuffed the money into her pocket before pulling her worn-out sweater tighter around her thin  body. She was visibly shivering when she slipped through the gate, and through the small gap as she opened the door to the house.

“Mum?” she called softly, wincing and murmuring under her breath when a wild-eyed woman appeared in the doorway. “Where have you been!?” she screeched, Evie instinctively taking a step back when she caught sight of the woman’s bloodshot eyes. “I was working,” the words left Evie’s lips sounding pathetic as the dark-haired woman crossed the room with shaky, unsteady steps.

Evie refused to put up a fight as she let the older woman rummage through her pockets, grinning eerily when she pulled the money out of the girl’s torn jacket. “Bet you weren’t going to give this to me, were you? And you thought you were so smart, didn’t you?” Evie wrinkled her nose at the vile stench of alcohol that stained the woman’s breath, making her want to heave out the breadsticks she’d had for lunch from the trashcan outside the Italian restaurant.

A flash of silver reflecting the dim light from the single bulb that flickered over their heads made Evie shrink in the semi-darkness. “Answer me, little girl,” the woman sneered, eyes flashing with anger as she ran the smooth blade along Evie’s neck.

The twelve year old whimpered through her teeth, biting her lip to stop herself from crying out when the blade slid easily through the untouched skin at the base of her neck. A crimson line formed on her skin, pain searing through her collarbones like a wildfire as the woman pulled away from her. “Get lost,” Evie scrambled away, one hand on the wound as she flung herself into a corner; tears pricking her eyes as her whimpers grew steadily softer.

 

The dark-haired girl smiled as she greeted the man politely, watching as he made his way to a seat on her half of the restaurant before trailing after him and pulling out a pad of paper from the pocket of her apron. “And what can I get you today?” she smiled, pen already poised over the page before nodding to herself as the man reeled off the same coffee and sandwich he ordered every time he had lunch at the café. “I’ll get that right away,” she smiled cheerfully, slipping between the other tables to reach the coffee machine after tearing the slip off the pad and handing it to the blond at the counter.

“Same as always?” the girl chuckled, snorting as she read through the order before reaching into the display for the sandwich. “Don’t we all do the same things every day?” Evie said; a stilted smile on her lips as she loaded the tray with the steaming mug and the sandwich. “Enjoy,” she said, a practiced smile on her lips as she set the mug and the sandwich in front of the man.

Absentmindedly, he nodded in reply, before reaching for the mug and taking a long drink; the scalding hot coffee burning his throat. He looked up only once to see the familiar brunette at another table, her smile wide and infectious as he felt his own lips curl gently as he watched over the rim of his cup as the girl ruffled the small boys hair playfully, a cheeky grin on her lips as she hopped away from the table with her notepad in her hand, her movements exaggerated enough that the toddler rolled in his seat with laughter, his mother joining him easily before they sobered as the waitress returned with their drinks.

“I didn’t catch your name,” his voice was rueful as he took the receipt from the girl, who despite her slightly hollowed cheeks and creaseless face, was almost at eye-level with him. Her laugher rings through his ears like nothing he’s ever heard before, and it makes him smile at his own expense as a slim hand reaches into the pocket on her apron to dig out some change. “It’s Evie,” the smile on her lips translates onto his, and despite the droplets of water that soak his suit and his coat, and the fact that he trips ungracefully in the darkness as he tries to get to his house in the blinding rain, the memory of her smile makes his lips twist and his heart clench.

 

Evie knows that she’s not supposed to be here; knows that she could get a lot of people into trouble as she tip-toes through the hall with a large packet of food she’s saved up all week for. The heat from the bag in her hands makes her tremble with want, and the warm smell that billows into her face every time she makes the bag crinkle a little too much tests her to the limits of her self-control, but she soldiers her way through the temptations and eases her way through a door that’s squeaks a tad too loudly for her taste. The over-exaggerated groan that reaches her ears from the bed makes her want to roll her eyes, but the long-faded bruises in her skin keep her steady as she approaches the bed slowly.

“Mum?” she reaches a hand out tentatively for the woman on the bed, and before she knows it, she can’t breathe.

She tries to scream, she really does, but the weight and the pressure on her throat renders her almost useless as she flails weakly, the packet of food forgotten as she blabbers unintelligible words mindlessly, flitting between apologising and pleading for forgiveness. It’s only when the edges of her vision start curling onyx that she hears the door slam open, screams ringing in her ears for a bit until she gives in to the breathlessness that makes her vision go black.

She remembers her eyes burning with crimson and navy when she opens them again, and she remembers the twinkly-eyed nurse that smiles down at her like she’s six, instead of sixteen. Evie remembers people coming into her room, saying things that she couldn’t understand, words she couldn’t even begin to pronounce, and all she remembers is that they made her cry and that the nurse with stars for eyes had had to make them leave before hugging Evie as she cried soundlessly. It’s a few days before she can leave the hospital, albeit with bruises still in full bloom on her throat, but the doctor’s smile and give her a small jar of candy that tastes like chocolate and vanilla at the same time just for the hoarse laugh she lets out. The kind nurse gives her a quick hug before she leaves, and tells her to stay out of the hospital because it’ll make her happy.

And that’s exactly what Evie does.

 

The next time Evie’s in a hospital, she’s crouched by a bed, and the silver-haired woman wrapped in the thick sheets is barely recognisable. “I’m sorry,” Evie is whimpering, sounding nothing like the woman that she is, but she ignores the small part of her that’s embarrassed, and ducks her head and squares her shoulders. “It’s alright,” the wrinkled woman says throatily, her voice scratching Evie’s ears, but she forces herself to not wince at the sound. “You’ve been a good girl, Evie,” the tears that make the woman’s eyes sparkle and reflected in Evie’s, and despite the blood and the tears she’s shed because of the woman on the bed, she still smiles wetly and manages to nod. “I’ve been wanting to give you something,” she tries to make her mother stop speaking, tries to tell her to rest; but the woman is as headstrong as she always was and brushes Evie’s words aside without lifting a finger. “The good doctor’s got it,” is all she tells Evie before the nurses come in to help her with her dinner.

Evie doesn’t sleep for days after her mother dies, and she wants to laugh because she almost feels like she might not wake up if she ever did, but she knows that the mere idea of that is ridiculous, so she goes to bed anyway, and lies in the darkness and looks at her ceiling fan spin smoothly through the night. It takes her a week to remember that her mother’s left something with the doctor and when she goes back to the hospital, it takes her a few tries to walk through the doors without clutching at something and falling over because she can’t seem to get over the panic that sticks to her red blood cells as they circulate around her body.  When she finds the doctor, and when the doctor retrieves the bag Evie swallows her tears until she’s in the safety of her small apartment and then, she cries at the sight of the thick, stained coat in the bag.

There’s a note in the bag, and as Evie pulls it out, she recognises it as the picture that’d been taken when Evie had managed to get them two tickets to a travelling circus act, and even though she’s not looking at the camera when the photo was taken, her mother is, and it’s that smile on her late mother’s face that makes the dead woman look so much like Evie. There’s only one word that’s been scribbled in a new pen on the back of the faded photograph, and it makes Evie’s heart clench in her chest.

‘Promise’

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