I unlocked the door to my apartment and stepped inside. My hand automatically went up to shield my eyes from the blinding light. Well, it's not really blinding... but still. The rays of the late afternoon sun were streaming in through the large window.
Turning my back to the uncovered window, I locked the door. I rotated the knob of the first lock and the second one. And the third. The third one is not really a lock, it's actually a door chain. Still turned back, I removed my tennis shoes.
"Hey," Jillian cheerily greeted from the kitchen.
Jillian. Of course. The curtains were always drawn aside when she's here. Raising my hand in front of my eyes again, I walked to the window on the other side of the wall. I passed by the living room and glanced at the television.
A scene of a ship's deck was frozen in the screen. The movie was paused with Leonardo DiCaprio standing behind Kate Winslet, their arms outstretched- the classic Titanic scene. I was pulling the blind's string to the side when Jillian emerged from the kitchen, a bag of chips on her hand.
"Hey, Jill. What's up?" I said while lowering the blinds. There are still streaks of light coming through it, so I dragged the curtain to block them. I released a breath of contentment.
"And the darkness prevails." Jillian raised her arms and did an eloquent swing, like she was presenting the the area to an audience. Then her laugh echoed through the room. "You're being a vampy again, aren't you?"
"How could you watch properly if the room is brighter than the TV?" I placed my bag on the table beside my laptop. "So you're watching Titanic again, huh?"
"Yup. You want some?" she asked, offering me the chips. When I shook my head, she continued, "I need a good laugh this afternoon so, yeah." She grabbed the television remote and the movie continued to play.
Jillian watched this movie more than I could count. Unlike others, my best friend was just watching it, as she said, 'to have a good laugh'. She finds some scenes in the movie quite humorous.
"Do you want me to cook something?" I asked.
"No, I'm fine. I ate earlier in my apartment. You need to for yourself, though." Raising her hand, palm facing me, she added, "Hush. Wait a sec, Vee. The best part of the movie is coming in five seconds."
I chuckled at her anticipation. Indeed, after five seconds, she burst into a cackle of laughter. Her laugh was contagious. She often calls me Vee, shorthand for vampire. The fact that I'm not a fan of ultra-bright light made her tease me that I'm one of the undead.
I was still smiling when I entered the kitchen to drink. I placed my water-filled glass in the breakfast bar and sat in the nearby bar stool. I was thinking of calling Jay and asking why he forgot to meet up. I have a new game software, the latest I've made, and he forgot to pick it up. That's unusual of him, unless he has an upcoming big fight to manage. Who knew? I would just call him later.
For the past few days, I talked myself out of unconsciously spacing out. Not-so-nice things happen when I forgot to keep my walls up. Just like now. An image of a bearded man with a long scar that ran down his cheek flashed through my mind. The cold gradually crept up from my feet to the tip of my fingers, and I struggled to reach for the glass of water. I drank half of it and put the glass down. My toes involuntarily curled, feeling the scar at the bottom of my feet.
Find Ryle, a part of my mind was saying. He will help you.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I can't involve him in this again. He was caught up in my own messed up life two years ago and there were consequences. The man, who I previously thought was in jail and the same person who gave me this scar, was planning to terrify me. He wanted me to be paranoid. But instead of taking my car or hailing a cab to the library, I walked to prove that I won't be easily threatened. I won't give him what he wants.
But how did he know where I am?
"The hunter became the hunted," Ryle's words echoed.
Oddly, the room was suddenly filled with silence. I looked up from the glass of water in front of me and saw Jillian standing on the other side of the bar. Her eyes narrowed, a tiny hint of line etched on her forehead. Her left hand was placed on her waist, trying to intimidate me.
"Spill it, Vee," she demanded.
My eyebrows rose. "What? Why would I want to spill my drink?"
"Sophia Shale, you know exactly what I mean. I know that outside, you're this rainbows and unicorns but in that pretty little head of yours, there's a chaos. It's either you're planning to hack the CIA systems, create a world wide web virus or whatever. So spill the beans already."
She's staring at me with the tell-me-or-else look. Jillian is my best friend who lives in the other room, in front of my apartment, but she likes to hang out here. She has the key to my place, and I also have the key for hers. She didn't let me live my life in the melancholy department, so we moved here a year ago in this city, in the same apartment building. So basically, four years of friendship was the one that helped her to decipher me.
"You know, when you look at me like that, you look older than you are. It's like you're thirty eight or something." I said, hoping to distract her from asking me.
"Hey! I'm only twenty five." She grinned and sauntered to the fridge. Opening it, she grabbed the orange juice and placed it on the bar. "I'm too young to have wrinkles, but old enough to figure out that you're distracting me," she said, pouring some juice to her own glass and drank it. "I know you are smart, sweetie. But old tricks won't work on me."
"Sure, mother. What do you want to discuss?" I reached for the carton of orange juice and poured some for myself.
She smiled at my remark and said, "Why don't we start about you not taking your car to the library?"
"Because walking is more eco-friendly?"
She giggled, but her perseverance in knowing what bothers me never wavered. "I get it. You're officially a tree hugger. But now," she grabbed another bar stool and sat in front of me. "I want you to know that sometimes, you can't solve a problem by yourself. For the past days, every time I see you, you seem to be distracted-quite different than the Vee I know." In a softer tone, she said, "Vee, you know you can talk to me. Just tell me that you're okay and I'll stop bothering you."
I opened my mouth to say I'll be fine. To ensure her that I do have a problem but it's not a huge one, so I could easily deal with it. But as my eyes met her worried green eyes, I sighed.
I looked down, unable to stare at her. "I saw him. Four days ago."
My gaze fell to my left foot resting on my right one. I could feel the scarred skin on the bottom of it. I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to focus on the wooden floor instead. I felt Jillian's hands wrapped mine that are slightly trembling.
"Oh my god," she muttered, her voice barely a whisper. "Did he hurt you? Are you okay? Do you want me to call the police?"
I was shaking my head before she finished her questions. "He didn't do anything. It was because of my own foolishness that I was nearly hit by a car. Police..." I sighed. "Police can't and won't help."
"What? How come I didn't know you were nearly hit by a car? What the- Were you hurt?"
"No. I'm fine. He was standing on the other side of the street and I was too shocked to notice that there was an incoming car."
She cleared her throat and I finally looked at her. Her stare was solid and seemed to convey something. I know what she was about to say. Tell my parents.
"No," I said with resolution. My voice was harsh but I didn't care. "They were so close to disowning me, and I left, remember? I don't want to go back there." I looked away, trying to suppress the memories. Jillian squeezed my hands, understanding my repulsion to my parents.
"They didn't disown you..."
"Oh, right. They just gave me freedom 'til I'm twenty one."
She was quiet for a moment. After a few seconds, she spoke again.
"Then let's find Ryle," She knew I was going to protest so she spoke quickly, "He's going to protect you no matter what."
"Even in exchange for his life. That's the problem," I sighed. "And I can protect myself."
She smiled tenderly. "Of course you can. You're Sophia Shale. Well, I'm just giving you options. The last one for me is the best, though."
I frowned, remembering the last time I saw Ryle. "I'm not sure that he's still willing to even look at me. I left two years ago without telling him."
She grinned. "You know him darn well. He won't give up on you. I bet he's composing songs about missing you since the day you left."
He can't be involved again.
"...sometimes, you can't solve a problem by yourself."
"I'll just do what I can. I'll be careful when I'm outside." I promised.
"I'll be with you every time I can." She said.
"Jillian, you barely have the time to relax on your day off from work. Thank you for worrying about me but you don't have to. I'll be fine."
She gave me a disagreeing look. However, she also knew that I'm too stubborn to listen to her.
"So, how's your trip to the public library?" She asked, changing the course of the topic.
I smiled gratefully and answered, "Jay didn't show up. I'm pretty sure he forgot."
"He didn't buy your new game thingy?"
"Technically, he did buy it. He transferred a satisfactory amount of money to my bank account and said that it's his payment for the games that I'm going to create in the future."
Jillian laughed. "He's addicted to your software games. So he didn't show up? Oh, boy. Someone's in big trouble. He shall suffer under the Great Sophia's fury."
"Nah. I'm not that scary."
"Who told you? You're one of the most intimidating persons I've ever known!" she exclaimed while flailing her arms exaggeratedly.
"Me? I'm not that scary," I repeated. Standing, I went to the fridge and collected all the ingredients I'll need.
I heard Jillian huff in frustration. Upon seeing me dig the contents of the fridge, she walked to me and peered inside beside me.
"What are you going to cook?" She asked, her voice filled with excitement.
"Salmon, pepper crusted."
"Now I'm hungry! You're the best cook, Vee."
"I'll still feed you even without those sweet words, Jillian." I laughed, to lessen the tension in my body from our previous conversation. Cooking will surely lessen my stress.
I was still dreading whether Jillian was going to ask about my problem. Her phone rang and I let out what I formerly thought as inaudible, sigh of relief. Apparently, Jillian heard it.
"I'm not done talking to you, Vee. Don't look so relieved." She grinned and strolled to her phone in the living room.
I washed my hands thoroughly and extracted the salmon from its package. From here, I could see Jillian in the front room, her phone on her ear. Her voice was different from her casual conversational voice, you can easily distinguish her voice in the professional state from the normal one.
"Yes, Ms. Wilson. I'll search for it. I'll be there in a minute." Then Jillian looked at me. For a second I thought I was their topic, but then I saw Jillian mouthing 'I need to go. Sorry'. Then she pointed to the salmon I'm planning to cook. I nodded, understanding what she meant. I'll set aside a portion for her.
She grabbed her purse and smiled at me apologetically. I smiled back to let her know that it's okay, and I formed a phone symbol on my hand, telling her to call me some time. She waved her hand and made her way to the door, still talking to her phone.
The house was filled with an eerie silence. I rinsed my hands and walked to the table where I placed my bag earlier. I grabbed my phone and sauntered to the main speakers in my living room. I plugged the speaker's cord to my phone. After I browsed my songs in my 'Party' playlist, I pressed 'shuffle' and cranked the volume up.
The whole apartment was filled with lively beats of music. It's not that loud to annoy the neighbours, but it's loud enough to feel the vibrations in the air. I sauntered back to the kitchen, smiling to myself.
I continued cooking while dancing thoughtlessly with the music.
* * *
It was past six in the evening when I finished cooking. The smell of pepper and salmon wafted in the air. Placing a portion of food to my plate, I began eating. The music was still playing in the background, but I reduced its volume a while ago. I ate until I was done and dialled Jay's number. It rang once. Twice. Then a guy's cheerful voice spoke- shouted, rather- through the line.
"Sophia! Hey, what's up?" Men shouting in the background made me wince. It's not fight-or-die kind of shouting, but more of cheering and victory.
"Jack, it's nice to hear from you." I said as sweetly as possible, suppressing a smile.
"Uh-oh." I heard the shouting voices fade. He must have gone inside a room to clearly hear what I'm saying. "Did you just call me Jack? I must have fucked up something. Give me a sec."
I didn't answer. My grin eventually spread on my face when I perceived a cluttering noise. He was checking something on his phone, I suppose.
"Oh shit," he paused. "Oh shit."
I cleared my throat.
"Sophia... I'm so sorry. I really am. I forgot to pick it up because I organized a major fight for Saturday- ah, nevermind my explanation. It's still my fault. Oh shit," he repeated. "I'm so sorry. Please don't take away my games from me."
I rolled my eyes at remark and said, "It's fine. I'll just give it to you some time. When I'm not busy."
"Tomorrow evening?" he asked hopefully.
"Uh-uh. Busy all day tomorrow."
"I'll just come by to your place, then."
"No, you won't. I'll give it to you Saturday afternoon."
"What? Three days from now? Three? No! Tomorrow's the best day," he countered, trying to convince me.
"Then wait for three days, damn you." I grinned. "I mean, please?"
His laugh reverberated on the phone, the sound making me laugh also. Then he sighed heavily and muttered, "Fine. There's a grand fight here on Saturday but I'll meet you in the library before the fight starts."
My brows furrowed when he said 'grand fight'. I have seen an ordinary underground fight once, but not an actual grand fight. There are a lot of spectators in a regular fight. A grand fight sounds interesting.
"I'll give the game to you after the fight. Where will the fight be held?"
"Oh, no. You're not coming to this damned place," he warned. "You know that ninety-five percent of the audiences are guys, right? Another thing is, it will be a grand fight. The whole place will be full. You'll be squashed the moment you enter. Not to mention most of those guys are... let's just say that they can't keep their hands to themselves."
"Calm down, Jay. I'm not going to throw myself in the arena. I'll be fine. I want to watch even just the announcement of the winner. I think it's kinda cool."
"Cool?" he asked incredulously. "You find cursing, punching and shouting people cool?" he chuckled.
"No. I find human nature's primitive instinct fascinating. Their ability to fight and be aggressive even if they claimed to be 'civilized' is within my interest."
A pause. Then he said, "Damn, girl. Next time speak English, 'kay?" He snickered. "If you want to watch, then I'll deploy- yes, deploy- some of my trustworthy friends to look out for you. They'll escort you inside."
"Thanks for making me feel so important. You don't need to deploy," I said, adding emphasis, "your men. I can handle myself."
"You are important. The game software is in your hands! After you hand it to me, I'll let you wander off alone." He laughed. "Wait, are you eating cookies?"
"I was eating, but not cookies. Why?"
"Could you please bake anything for me again on Saturday?" He pleaded.
"Yeah, sure. See you on Saturday, 8pm?"
"Perfect. The fight will approximately end at eight. Though I really want to have the game tomorrow..."
After we both ended the call, I stood and began cleaning my mess on the kitchen counter. When I was satisfied of my kitchen's appearance, I decided that a hot shower would be a great idea. I sauntered to the bathroom, and enjoyed the next minutes of feeling of the warm water on my skin.
Half an hour later, I was wearing my nightclothes, looking like I was ready to sleep. Well, my mind was far from sleeping. I went inside my room and sat in front of the computer. The whole thing was already turned on, I never turn it off.
I was staring at black screens so I turned the first monitor on. Then the second, and the third. Simultaneously, they flickered to life, and I started typing programming codes.
I didn't stop until my four A.M. alarm went off.