This story is by Kourtney Torres and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The man was a bit too handsome and a little too persistent. As he stood over her, Lily glanced around him toward the reflection in the front window. There was a bulge under the back of his faux leather jacket at the top of his waistband. A gun?
Lily’s tone said, “get lost.” The man drifted to the opposite corner of the hotel bar and, as far as Lily could tell, he kept a watchful eye. In forty-seven minutes, she would be moved to the next safe spot. She passed the time by watching the second hand on the wall clock. She tried to ignore the paranoia creeping up on her. Other than buying a few drinks, the fetching stranger stayed relatively still on his side of the room. Lily felt her face flush with warmth the one time he caught her looking his direction. His grin disarmed her.
As she recovered her composure, Lily’s eyes met those of a woman walking toward her. This must be the handler. The woman reached out and squeezed Lily’s shoulder with a double-tap of her pinky. Each handler had their own predetermined signal. She’d never forget the pattern. She couldn’t. Her life depended on it.
Lily stood swiftly and grabbed her backpack from the stool. She wrapped a scarf around her neck, then looked over her shoulder one last time. A few golden leaves blew in from the doorway as the good looking stranger stepped out. The petite woman led Lily the opposite way into a tall, narrow hallway in the back. Lily had shuffled through many odd and unassuming hallways and buildings over the last few months. She would give anything for the monotony of her previous life, but it mysteriously vanished after her parents did. It didn’t take long for her to recall the plan her father set out in the event of her parents’ deaths. Lily didn’t take him seriously at the time. Now, she’d die if she made a mistake. Lily was exhausted and ready to stop running.
As the handler drove her to the next unknown, Lily rested her eyes. She would be safe enough for a few minutes. When she awoke, they were approaching a tall bridge. The sun was beginning to descend from the sky above it. A caution sign warned of potential ice, but it would be a good month or so before they’d have to worry about winter.
Lily wondered how tall the bridge was. She had always feared them. It wasn’t the height that scared her, but a lack of impulse control. She’d often imagine turning the wheel and careening over the side. What would she think about on the way down? Would she regret it? Would she feel the impact? Lily shut her eyes tight. She tried to ignore the vision of pulling the steering wheel from the woman’s hands.
Her father stood in her imagination, greeting her with confidence. Her mother smiled beside him. Lily took comfort in her memories of them as a team; as her team. She’d never been scared when they were alive. She began to resent them now, as the terror of loneliness settled in to the pit of her stomach. She used to find solace in the silence. Now, she only felt pain and fear. It sharpened her senses, which helped as a newfound insomnia challenged her.
Lily pushed out her hands to grab the dashboard as the car lurched to a halt. She caught a glimpse of the handler disappearing down a nearby alley. On the drivers’ seat was a note. She recognized the handwriting. Father.
“Lily, we’re very proud of you, but we can’t help you from here. Get on the plane and go to your new life. Always have a backup plan! Love and happiness smart one.”
Father believed calling a girl beautiful would make her think that’s all she’s good for. He encouraged Lily’s intellect above all else. She missed him; and her mom. As Lily’s eyes began to tear, a flashing light caught her attention in the distance. It was a small, private plane. That was her flight.
There was a squeeze to her shoulder. Lily’s eyes were still full as she whipped around. She blinked and the drops fell down her cheeks as the blurry man became clear.
Oh shit! The man from the bar! What the hell is happening?
“What?!” she snapped.
Who was this man? Why was he there? How long had he been following her? His emerald eyes locked on to hers. His voice was calm and measured.
“What are you thinking?”
Lily didn’t detect any fear from him. She responded in kind.
“Let’s see. You have a gun. You obviously followed me to the middle of nowhere. You’re either a creep or a criminal. Am I missing anything?”
Lily had always been direct. The man seemed surprised by her, then amused. What was he smiling about? She started walking toward him and he backed away from her. Coward.
His exclamation made Lily feel powerful. She overestimated the guy, but she didn’t want to end up dead if she got careless. She remembered her belt blade was neatly concealed, yet easily accessed. That’s all she’s ever needed in combat.
“Why should I?”
“Lily! You know me. Well, I know you, anyway. It doesn’t have to be this way!”
How did he know her name? She listened cautiously as she anticipated any sudden movement. The sun was setting and the Autumn air turned from crisp to cold. The chill bit through the holes in her sweater and slapped at her scarf.
The man told her that his name was Adam and that he trained with her father. He claimed their parents had been friends and they made him look for her. He said he tracked her down a few times, then lost her. Running into her at the hotel bar had been an accident. He said he was mesmerized even before he realized who she was.
Adam begged Lily to trust him. He said that if she got on the plane, she’d end up dead for sure. There was something genuine and kind about him. Lily stared into the man’s eyes. His smile lingered. The only thing Lily hadn’t lost over the past few months was the beating of her heart and the air that slowly filled and escaped her lungs. She had nothing else to lose. But, it was his final plea that cemented her decision.
“Look, Lily, if we’re simply the stories we tell ourselves, then we can be whoever we want to be! Nobody really knows us. They know a version of you, or me. We can become our own stories. We can do it together. I know we just met and this isn’t fair, but I like you. I want to be safe… Don’t you?”
He was desperate. That must’ve been what romance sounded like. At twenty-four years old, Lily wouldn’t have known. He appealed to her practical and cautious nature. She knew the odds were against her as long as he had that gun. Mitigating damage and assessing potential danger were specialties of hers. She decided to trust him… temporarily. She wouldn’t lose track of her blade, though.
Lily relaxed a bit over the next few hours as they crafted their new path, their joint story. She found herself laughing at Adam’s witty jokes. The night rapidly turned to morning. As they watched the airplane take off, Lily wondered where it would’ve taken her. A beautiful island away from the drab Autumn days? She looked over at Adam. He was more handsome in the break of dawn than he’d been in the bar. The idea fluttered in her stomach. Either that, or she was hungry.
Adam pulled a large satellite phone from the back of his jacket. That’s what had been tucked into his pants? He entered a thirteen digit number. Lily was confused until she heard an explosion. Her eyes turned to the sky just in time to see smoke and pieces of metal spread out like fireworks. She looked back at Adam. He shrugged, then his expression softened.
“Those were my orders if you got on. Don’t worry! It’ll take ‘em months to decipher the wreckage. We’ll be long gone by then. You’re safe!”
Lily’s gut was right to trust him. Adam told her an absolute truth earlier. If you get on the plane, you will surely die. Her parents probably wouldn’t have liked the arrangement, but she was safe for a while. And, she was stuck. She realized that Adam was taking a great risk, too.
Adam destroyed the satellite phone. He put one hand on Lily’s cheek and asked if he could kiss her. Her body felt warm against his. Her heart swelled and her legs tingled. She didn’t know if it was his tenderness or the danger in their defiance. She felt a strange freedom in both.