A funny memory seeped into Alice’s mind. It was during her junior year in high school, news of her miserable life had spread like wildfire through the paper-thin school walls. She had known better than to trust the most popular basketball player from school, but nostalgia had overcome her distrust, after all, he had been her best friend. She broke down and poured her soul onto him, and he listened and seemed to care. That is, until everybody in school knew and whispered dreadful things about her brother. That evening she went looking for him, charging into the locker room full of half-naked teenagers with towels wrapped around their hips, and broke his nose. She was dragged into the psychologist’s office and ordered to visit the office every week.
In one of their sessions, the psychologist told her that the problem with teenagers is that they feel they’re invincible, that nothing could stop their life force and spirit. Alice told her she was wrong but didn’t explain her answer. Her spirit had died when Daniel fell ill, at the thought of losing him, she lost everything. She now clung to a sliver of hope of saving her brother. She meant all of this metaphorically, but the sight of the gold-laden watch made her heart jump with renewed hope. She was two feet away from the sleeping man. She noticed how young and pale he looked. His skin was ivory white, and his hair a severely bleached blond color. The white suit he wore only accentuated his ghastly appearance.
She inhaled, looked around, and bent down to carefully retrieve the watch. The locking mechanism wasn’t intricate, she just had to press a button on both sides of the latch and it would open. The tricky part was sliding the watch out of his hand. She listened to his heavy breathing, judging he was deep asleep. She carefully pried away the fingers from his other arm, gently lifting the hand. She waited, no movement. She raised the watch a little bit, suspending it over his skin and started the complicated task of sliding it off the wrist. She held her breath, afraid it might wake him. The watch was over the knuckles, she allowed herself a quick smile. She lifted her head to look at his face, make sure he was still sound asleep. Intense and icy blue eyes were looking back at her; Alice could see the horror of her face through his eyes. There was a cocky smile on his face.
Everything happened so quickly. As Alice’s fingers dropped the watch, he flung his other arm connecting with her chest, which sent her sliding on the white-tiled floor until her back and head hit the opposite wall. She saw him leap to his feet and stride toward her. She scrambled to her feet but an iron-clad hand pushed her shoulder against the wall, sending ripples of pain through her body. Alice gritted her teeth and shoved the stranger away, she staggered away from him, but not fast enough. He had grabbed her wrist, had turned her roughly around, had slammed her against the wall, and had pinned her down with all his body and weight.
Alice tried to wiggle free to no avail. For such a slim man, he had strength in him. She willed herself not to scream, to search a diplomatic way out of this. Her eyes searched his face and they locked gazes, both stares were intense but one brimming with fear and the other with jubilation.
A swift hand was snaking itself up her arm, clutching at her neck like a vicious viper. He cocked his head sideways and smiled.
“Hey sweetheart, don’t move or your pretty face might turn blue.” He tightened his grasp.
“Let me go or I’ll scream.” Alice said as calmly as possible. Her breath was already coming out in gasps. Her feet didn’t touch the floor anymore.
“You were trying to steal from me, correct?”
There was no point in lying, so she nodded.
Her body sagged under her dizzy weight and she gulped mouthful of breaths. Alice was panting on the floor, massaging her neck. The man in white suit dropped to his knees and examined Alice.
“Why would you steal from me?”
Confusion. “Aren’t you going to report me to the police?”
He seemed to consider his answer. “No,” he finally said, “I’m very intrigued by you. I want to know the reason; I want to hear your story.”
If her failed act of robbery didn’t swipe his smile off his face, then the confusion and shock in Alice’s face didn’t either. Nobody had ever asked her about her story. Did this stranger care, and why did he care at all? Maybe he was just one of those reporters that feed on tragedies and advertised them. She was sick at the thought.
“Why do you care? You almost strangled me to death.”
He laughed and she cringed. It was a beautiful, velvety laughter, but it held something else, something sinister and obscure that reached her bones.
“Only because you were going to take away my watch. It was a present from my deceased father.”
“Sorry.” But she didn’t mean it.
“Come,” he stood and extended his hand to her.
She pushed it away and stood. “What do you really want?” She snapped.
“I want to hear your story.”
“Then you’re out of luck, I don’t tell strangers about my life.”
“Not even to you possible future employer?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“How about we talk in the gardens, hmm?” He signaled for her to follow.
She reluctantly followed. As both of them stepped outside, the cool night air stripped Alice of any warmth she had.
“So, start talking.”
Alice lied. She told him that her father had died during 9/11 and left his family impoverished. He immediately detected the lie and dangerously moved toward her.
“I don’t want fantasies, I want the truth. Don’t you realize how important it is for me to know your suffering and to what extent you’ll go to save everyone you love?” His hands were around her thin arms, his gaze showed urgency.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Alice was scared out of her senses. Her thoughts went straight to Daniel; that emboldened her a little. “Who are you?!”
His grip relaxed. “Right, sorry.” He gathered his composure, like nothing had happened, like the marks of his fingers were not imprinted painfully on her neck and arms. “My name is Darien Wiltrose and I provide pharmaceutical and equipment to this hospital. Often times I come here to check on patients, make sure my company’s medicine and equipment are helping them.”
For some reason, Alice didn’t believe him either, but she went along with it. “Okay, very kind of you. My brother is a patient here. And he’s dying, so I suppose some of your medicine is not working.” She was rude and she knew it, and she couldn’t blame him for his brother’s illness, but he was just standing there, smirking.
“And you don’t have enough money to cover his medical expenses?”
Alice did not answer.
“Well, I have a job to offer you.”
She looked at him suspiciously. “What kind of job.”
“Oh, an easy job, but I will give you the details later this week. I promise the pay will be high. For now, I need you to deliver this rose to someone.” He reached into his suit and retrieved a white rose. “There is a boy in room 370; he has a little brother who is also dying. Give the rose to the older boy and tell him I want to meet him here next week same day same time as now. But I want you to meet me two hours earlier. Is that clear?”
“How much are we talking about?” She took the rose.
“Enough to save your brother, Alice, and his too, if he comes and meet me. Do let him know this tiny detail.”
Alice nodded. She still couldn’t trust him, but where money was involved, she was game. He left. She later realized she never told him her name.
Alice peered into the room to find a boy around her age comforting a younger one, possibly Daniel’s age, whispering in a soothing tone. The older boy’s head snapped up at the sound of her footstep and threw her a menacing glance.
Alice froze on her tracks. Never had she seen eyes like those, she was petrified and couldn’t utter a word.
His eyes focused on her neck and frowned. “What do you want?”
So much for niceties. She threw the rose at him.