. If she had, perhaps I wouldn’t have been having this conversation now, because Alyssa would have been wearing warm clothes in a warm house with her hair dry and her belly full of food. But I was, and she wasn’t, so I had to learn to stop dwelling on the ‘could have been’ and keep my mind focused on the present.
“What if I don’t want help?” She turned on her heel and was about to walk away – away from the house, I noticed, though she had been so adamant that she would not leave her post – but I caught her arm.
“If you don’t take help, you will die. And I am serious about this.” I looked at her, my flint-grey eyes meeting her night-black ones. “You will catch pneumonia. If you don’t lose your toes to frostbite it will be a miracle. You are far too cold and this is not healthy, especially when you have no body fat to keep you warm. I can’t help you any more than tell you to get out of this weather and offer you some shelter. Now please, come with me.”
Still she hesitated, though the fact that I said she was going to die seemed to have had some impact. “If my mother were to come to find out where I was and find me gone ... I would be in so much trouble. She would worry. And if she found that I was with you...” There was no need for anything else to be said.
“It would be me that got the blame, and not you. Your mother – well, let’s just say she doesn’t like me very much.” I took her by the hand and tried to drag her away from the house, though she pulled back. “Please, I’m not trying to hurt you. I just want to make sure you’re safe.”
“Why would you bother, if you and my mother don’t get on? Why would you even care about what happened to me?” It wasn’t rudeness, it was genuine curiosity. She honestly didn’t know why I would be trying to look after her. Such a sweet, unloved child, with her open generosity and keen sense of being unwanted.
I thought before answering. “I’m still ... making amends.” And I knew that she saw in my face the truth of the matter: I didn’t know what I meant by that, either.
Alyssa hesitated one more time. She looked at me, then back at the house, then along the road to where her parents would surely be waiting for her, anxiously trying not to use up the car’s battery too much by running the heater and yet knowing that to sit in there without it would be too stupid an idea. “Are you sure that you’ve got no ... bad intentions.”
“I swear on my word,” I told her, a hand over my heart in a typically melodramatic fashion. “I give you my solemn promise. Do you trust me now?”
“No,” she replied. “But I’ll come with you anyway.”