It poured with rain on the journey home, and the howling wind contributed to this. Paul was peering out of the windscreen as best he could, the windscreen wipers not doing an awful lot of good. He was relieved that Alora had stood up to her father and said the things which she felt she needed to say, but now Alora had gone very quiet. She wasn't even humming along to the radio, and this was something she usually couldn't help but do, whatever mood she was in.
"Are you alright?" Paul asked, for the umpteenth time.
"I was just thinking about the audition," Alora replied. This was partly true. She had tried to put it out of her mind for most of the day because she didn't need anything else to panic about, but now that she was trying to block her father's face from her mind, she needed to on something else instead.
"Are you nervous?" Paul asked.
"Yeah," Alora nodded. "I'm absolutely terrified, but I can't back out now."
Back at home, Alora told Paul that she was going to have a shower before she practiced for the talent contest. In the bathroom, she returned to staring at herself in the mirror as though she would fade away to nothing if she looked hard enough into her own eyes. Without even thinking about it, she reached up to the cabinet and picked up a razor blade. She could see her own reflection in it, smaller than the one she saw in the mirror, and more distorted. She hummed softly to herself as she set the blade against her skin.
"I will never be sorry for hurting you," Alora's father told her, in her head. This was something he had said to her many times in the past. "You deserved it, all of it. You disgust me." Alora clenched her eyes shut, hating how well her memory recalled these awful words. Alora slid the sharp blade against her arm, and it cut into her easily, offering her the release that she couldn't seem to find anywhere else. She watched for several seconds as the droplets of blood began to surface where the blade had slid, and then she cut her arm a second time, and a third and a fourth. When Alora had finished, both of her arms were red and bloody, and they stung enough to make Alora wince when she tried to wash the blood away before it dried. Ransacking the cabinet, she found there were no bandaids there. Whilst Paul was caught up in his work in the living room, Alora hurried across to the bedroom, and changed her top into a baggy black one, with long sleeves wide enough not to brush her skin too much. Entering the living room again, Alora immediately got out her guitar and began to strum. She had made a decision on the song she was going to play as well, and she hoped it was the right choice. It was quite a slow song, and one which gave Alora the chance to really show people how powerful her voice was, even though she didn't realise this.
The doorbell rang whilst Alora was lost in her music, and she didn't even hear it. Smiling in amusement, Paul put down his paperwork and went to answer it.
"Hello Crystal," he said, pleased to see her. He hoped she might give Alora some encouragement.
"Hi," Crystal said cheerfully, "Alora's 'ere, I take it?"
"Yes, of course she is," Paul said, "Come on in." Paul held out his hand and took Crystal's denim jacket from her as she entered the flat. He hung it up, and then he followed Crystal through to the living room. Alora was still singing, and didn't look up. Crystal patiently stood and waited until she had finished the song, and then spoke.
"Hi gorgeous," she said, and Alora jumped a little, then turned around and grinned.
"I didn't hear you come in," she said, standing up from where she had been sitting cross-legged on the floor.
"State the obvious," Crystal said, making herself at home on the sofa. "I jus' thought I would come over an' see how you were doin' before tomorrow. I didn't want ya to chicken out or anythin' did I?" Crystal winked at Alora, and Alora smiled weakly, really trying to keep her courage about her.
"Do you two want a drink?" Paul asked, and Alora shook her head.
"I'll make it," she said, "you're busy with that case." Crystal followed Alora through to the kitchen, where Alora opened the glass-fronted cupboard and pulled out three mugs. "I saw my father today," she said absently.
"Ya what?" Crystal blurted. "What did ya go an' do that for?"
"I don't know," Alora admitted. "Tea or coffee?" she added.
"I'd love a strong cup of coffee," Crystal said, and Alora continued.
"It was like a small part of me was constantly whispering his name. I tried to ignore it, but the more I did that, the louder it got. I knew that I had to see my father again. I had to tell him that I'm not afraid of him anymore."
"And did you?" Crystal asked, understanding where Alora was coming from. Alora nodded.
"I was in the room with him for less than five minutes," she said, "and we both said some things to each other which needed to be said, I suppose. It was hard, but I did it. Really, I've always thought that I would never be able to face him again, but I've proved my fears wrong."
"I'm proud of ya," Crystal said smiling, even though she could see that the meeting must have been a huge strain on Alora's emotions. She didn't pry any further though, and she didn't ask what had been said between the two. "Did Paul go in with you?" she asked instead, and Alora let out a short laugh.
"He wanted to, but I told him no," she said. "I didn't want to seem like a coward. I didn't want my father to think that I need someone with me all the time." Alora turned around to pick up the sugar bowl, and she knocked into Crystal. Careful this time, Alora didn't visibly wince enough for Crystal to notice something was wrong. Crystal was never one to overanalyse a situation, but she could see that Alora was hiding something.
"Does Paul know that ya cut yerself today?" Crystal asked, hoping that she wasn't jumping the gun. She would have felt embarrassed and uncomfortable had she been wrong. But Alora blushed a deep shade of crimson, and she turned around so that Crystal couldn't see her face. Taking the milk out of the fridge, Alora fumbled with it trying to unscrew the lid, but in her frustration she couldn't. "I didn't mean to upset ya," Crystal said hastily. "I just think ya need to be honest with someone, even if ya can't be honest with Paul."
"I couldn't help it," Alora said quietly. "It was all the shit with my father. I needed a release."
"Ya don't need to justify it to me," Crystal said with a wave of her hand. "Just know that I'm here for ya, alright? Now, about tomorrow. Are ya stayin' at college or comin' back here before the show?"
"I thought I'd stay on and get some practice in," Alora replied. "Paul is in court tomorrow with his client, so he won't be finished until just before the show. He's bringing Louis with him, and Mark and Hillary are coming too." In her heart of hearts, Alora was finally beginning to feel some excitement instead of just fear.
When Crystal had gone home, Alora decided that she would try on her dress one last time before the contest. In the bedroom, she slipped out of her clothes and gently unwrapped the dress from the box it had come in. She had bought it especially, two days earlier. The dress was long, black and slinky. It was sleeveless, but had two thin shoulder straps to hold it in place. Alora stepped into the dress, and looked at herself in the full-length mirror which was attached to the wardrobe. She zipped up the back, and then turned around so that she could see herself from all angles. Smiling, she knew how perfect the dress was. When she had chosen it, she'd had no intention of cutting herself, but now there were fresh cuts on top of older ones, and even thin, white scars beneath those. Alora had finally found a way to show everyone how much she was hurting without using any words.
Paul opened the bedroom door and walked in, making Alora jump.
"Can't you knock?" she cried, annoyed, and put her arms swiftly behind her back.
"It's my room too," Paul reminded her, more than slightly confused. "Is this the dress you're wearing tomorrow? Give me a twirl so I can see it properly. You look beautiful."
"Paul-" Alora began.
"Go on, spin around," Paul persisted, still not seeing anything wrong. Alora looked a bit uncomfortable, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. She lacked confidence about the way she looked, and Paul just assumed that he had taken her by surprise, which he had.
"Sit down on the bed a minute," Alora said, and Paul obligingly sat. "I've got something to show you," Alora said, trying not to let her voice shake. "I'm really sorry Paul, I just couldn't help it."
"Couldn't help what?" Paul questioned Alora with both his eyes and his words. Alora didn't know what to say, so she held out her arms so that Paul could see. He let out a low whistle, and for a few moments he couldn't meet Alora's eyes and he just looked at her arms as if he was counting the cuts. "Would you have told me if I hadn't have walked in?" he asked.
"I would have had to," Alora said, "but I wouldn't have wanted to. I don't like to see you hurt, especially not by my actions."
"Darling," Paul said, "why didn't you talk to me instead of doing this?"
"Paul, sometimes talking doesn't work." Alora sat down beside him on the bed. "Sometimes, the only thing that stops me from feeling pain on the inside, is to hurt myself on the outside. I know it must sound so cliché, but it's true." She looked up into Paul's brown eyes, which seemed so sad. Paul made as if to put his arm around Alora, and then withdrew it again, unsure. "You knew I was like this when you told me you wanted to be with me," Alora said. She didn't want Paul to feel too overwhelmed by her troubles.
"I know," Paul said nodding. "When I first set eyes on you, I wanted to hold you and protect you, and I still stand by that. I just don't like you hurting yourself, that's all." He gulped, and took one of her hands, clasping it between both of his. "I thought I could make you happy, but I don't seem to be doing a very good job of that."
"You are doing a good job," Alora assured him, "but you can't expect everything to change overnight. I'm slowly getting better, I know I am. It's just a small setback, I promise."
I feel so relieved after cutting today, Alora wrote in her journal when Paul had gone to bed. I used to be such an angry person, and I could feel a lot of anger welling up in me again, along with all the other miseries I've been going through. Cutting helped me so much. I didn't harm anyone else, and when I think about it, I didn't really harm myself. Not inside, at least. So maybe I should have found myself some other outlet, but if I'm going to make yet another fresh start, take yet another step forwards, then I really had to get all of that negative stuff out of my system. I feel that I will be able to concentrate fully on the talent contest tomorrow now that I won't be so weighed down by everything. Satisfied with what she had written, Alora slammed her journal shut. She left it on the coffee table, knowing that Paul wouldn't read it unless she was stupid enough to leave it lying open. Then, Alora undressed down to her underwear and wandered back through to the bedroom without much purpose, where she cuddled into Paul, and closed her eyes to sleep.
The following morning, Alora woke far earlier than she wanted to, and she lay in bed for an hour trying to get back to sleep. She didn't succeed, and got up in the end. Pulling on the sweatshirt Paul had worn the day before and left on the chair, Alora left the bedroom quietly so as not to wake her sleeping fiancée. She looked at the dress which hung on the wardrobe door on her way out, and smiled. Her nerves hadn't hit her yet, and she was actually quite looking forward to performing. Whilst the kettle boiled, she undid the braids which she had put into her hair the night before, and shook her head slightly. Her hair had turned wavy, just as she wanted it.
At college, Alora tired to remain calm for most of the day, but as the time slowly ticked by, she was getting more and more impatient. She wasn't good at playing the waiting game. As she painted a burgundy sunset in her art class, she tried her best to keep her concentration. Graham watched Alora with a smile, knowing that she was going to perform. He pulled her to one side.
"If you want to go early, you can," he told her. "Get some extra practice in or something." Alora thanked him and she left, wondering where Crystal would be. She walked quickly down to the biology lab, and peered carefully through the small glass pane in the door. Luckily, Crystal was sitting quite close and she was chewing on the end of her pen and looking as though she was lost in a world of her own. Her hair was pinned back from her face with two pink clips, and this gave her a younger and more girlish look. Crystal spotted Alora, and grinned. Then she inconspicuously motioned for Alora to move away from the door where nobody could see her. Whilst Alora waited, Crystal made an excuse to leave, and appeared out of the classroom happy to see Alora there.
"Ya got me out of that before I fell asleep," she said, "Well done!" They both laughed, and Alora asked if Crystal wanted to go to the cafeteria to get a drink.
"I'm feeling alright about performing later," Alora told Crystal when they were sitting down with a hot drink each, sharing a slice of fudge cake. Crystal's eyes had glanced over Alora's long sleeves just once before returning to Alora's face again, and she had already decided not to say anything to Alora about it. "I'm scared, but I know that I can do it."
Four hours later, Paul was sneaking backstage to see Alora before the start. She was sitting with Crystal and running over the song she was going to perform one last time. Her eyes lit up when she saw Paul, and he smiled at her although his eyes avoided her now-bare arms. She stood, and held out her arms to him. He slid his arms around her waist and leaned down to kiss her softly on the lips. People were staring at this spectacle and wondering what sort of a person this Alora really was. They had already seen the state of her arms, although none of them had actually said anything directly to her.
"You were amazing," Paul said.
"I haven't been on yet," Alora replied with a short laugh.
"I know," Paul replied, "but I just thought I should tell you that in advance." He kissed Alora once more. "I'll see you after the show," he told her, "good luck." And then he walked back to his seat in the audience again, whilst Alora watched him, a half smile playing on her lips.
"Are ya ready?" Crystal asked Alora in a hushed whisper- the curtains had slid open, and the first performer was already heading onto the stage. There were three other people before Alora herself was to go on. Quickly, she rushed to her bag and dragged out her journal.
I am going to do this, she wrote. I am worth more than my father always told me. I never deserved what he did. I do deserve some happiness, and for once, I am going to grab it with both hands and never, ever let it go. Paul loves me, and I love him. I want to be with him forever. After all the abuse I suffered, I didn't think I would ever be able to truly love someone else, but I was wrong. Paul has opened up my heart, and even though that leaves me in a vulnerable position, I am not afraid of getting hurt anymore. Alora paused and chewed the end of the pen, then continued. I know that my past is going to take a long time to recover from. But this time, I've got a head start because I know I have a future now.
"Alora?" Crystal called, "It's your turn! Come on!" Swallowing hard, Alora stood and picked up her guitar. With the deepest, longest breath she could muster, she walked onto the stage and tried to ignore all the faces starting up at her. she searched for Paul, but the spotlights were too bright and she couldn't find him. It didn't matter though- she knew that he was there, and that he could more than likely see her. She cleared her throat.
"This is a song I wrote myself," she said. "It means a lot to me. It's called Trapped and it's about being free from ourselves." Alora began to strum the first few notes softly on the guitar, and then she started to sing, throwing her whole heart and mind into it and allowing her voice to ring out clearer and more beautiful than ever. As she sang, she felt pieces of dirt fall away from her heart bit by bit. When she finished, the applause thundered around her, and she felt as though she had been lifted high above her old life. She felt as though she was soaring. She left the stage for the next person to come on, rushing straight into Crystal's arms where she laughed and laughed, finding herself unable to stop.
That night, Alora lay in Paul's arms, and for the first time ever she found that she was able to just close her eyes and relax. The nightmares that she waited for in nervousness didn't arrive, and instead she slept peacefully and soundlessly, knowing that she had taken the first step forwards, and there would be many more to come. Alora was finally on the road to recovery.