When the stranger I found myself talking to told me he was from "outside" I was inclined to doubt his words. He'd stopped me on the street on my way to meet my friend, Amica, asking me for the way to the gate. Any resident would know where the gate was, I knew three year olds that knew how to reach the gate from here. So when I asked him how there was any way he didn't know, he simply rolled his eyes, obviously beginning to tire of me, and told me that he was from the outside.
I'm sure the look on my face told him that letting that piece of information slip was a mistake. He stared down at me, completely bewildered at the expression I wore. I'm sure with my gaping mouth and wide eyes made me look mentally handicapped, so I didn't blame him for rolling his eyes once more.
He was slightly taller than me, making his glares even more effective as each one made me feel as if I was inferior to him. His sharp green eyes definitely helped to unseat me from my confidence even more. Each time he looked down at me it felt as if he was piercing through me, giving me the feel that I was transparent, all my secrets and thoughts on display for any random passerby to see.
A tuft of thin auburn hair was threatening to fall into one of those rings of jade should his hair be left to keep growing, the small, unkempt spikes and uneven, frayed ends testifying as to how long it had been since he'd last had someone else cut his hair. You'd never see anyone else brave enough to walk around town looking like that. On anyone else the disheveled look would have made me assume the person was insane, or careless. On this stranger, it intimidated me, gave me the urge to hide from everything.
"I don't have time for this." he snapped, folding his arms across his chest, looking ready to walk away if I didn't give him the information he was asking for now.
He didn't look as if he was about to wring my neck, and I could probably take that as a victory. "Why do you need to know?" I questioned, wanting to know he had a good reason to be here, something important he had to do that didn't involve the loss of human lives.
"I need to get out of here somehow." he muttered, uncrossing his arms in an attempt to look unthreatening in the hopes that I would now tell him.
It was definitely a start. "You just walk the way I came from until you come to a white wall, then take a left and keep walking along that path." I replied, glancing back over my shoulder at the thinning street traffic as the streets began to glow a soft purple color as the sun began to set.
With his eyes piercing through the air above my shoulder now, a pressure seemed to lift itself from my chest. I felt much more secure now that I no longer had a pair of eyes locked on me, piercing into my soul and reading my thoughts. I let out a sigh of relief, trying to keep my sigh quiet so that this stranger wouldn't know the effect he was having on me.
I could sense that he was about to walk away once he had the information he'd been asking for. While this made sense, there were still questions I wanted the answers for, questions only he could answer. Since I was talking to someone who had seen the world beyond the cement wall, anything I'd ever read about nature or wildlife came rushing back to me. I wanted to know everything he had to offer, what kinds of animals were lurking outside the gates, what the ocean looked like, how salt water tasted…
But knowing I was at his mercy and at most had only a few questions at my disposal, I sorted them in my mind, quickly throwing out anything unimportant, random or questions that would make me seem like I was unbelievably stupid with no experience at life. I had to do all of this screening in less than a second, because if I waited too long than the stranger would already be out of sight before a word could form on my lips.
"Why are you here?" was the most important and crucial question I could think of asking.
This was simply my curiosity getting the better of me. It was also one of the more relevant questions that came to mind. If I had asked questions about what the outside world was like, there was no doubt in my mind he would have given me a skeptical glance in an attempt to pass along the message that he thought I was insane and then proceeded to shrug me off and continue walking, albeit at a slightly faster pace in an attempt to leave me behind as soon as possible.
He stared down at me, obviously debating whether or not he had the time or patience to tell me. It took almost half a minute for him to decide, but that half a minute was excruciating on my end, not knowing whether or not I would get the answers I wanted. I was struggling not to immediately let the words flow from my lips in an endless string of questions, trying to let him answer my one question before I continued and gave him another one he'd need to answer.
"I'm trying to fix things…" he mumbled, his words almost too muddled for me to make any sense of.
Giving that answer, he should have seen my next question coming from a mile away. "What things?" I asked, my eyes widening in intrigue, wondering if the look on my face looked more curious than I would have liked, making him think I was a nosy little brat.
Staring down at me skeptically, as if asking if I really wanted to know, he responded to this as well. "It's complicated. You wouldn't understand." maybe his response wasn't too desirable, but at least he wasn't brushing me off without a second thought.
The next question dropped from my lips without a thought, surprising even myself as I heard my voice speak it. "Could you take me outside?" I didn't know why I'd even bother asking, since this person didn't know me and didn't owe me anything.
I could tell this guy wasn't one to go out of his way to help a random stranger, much less a pathetic younger girl who didn't even need help in the first place. The way he spoke and his "aura" was enough to communicate his no-nonsense attitude and his crude sharpness.
He didn't even dignify that with a response, rolling his eyes one last time as he walked down the path I'd told him to follow. His pace was moderate at best as he lumbered down the narrow streets, his hands burying themselves in the depths of his pants pockets.
He disappeared into the thinning crowd of people, his auburn hair being absorbed into the darkness as he stepped into the darkness outside of the circle of light created on the ground by the street lights at the side of the road. At that moment, when he walked out of my field of vision, I remembered what it was I had been doing in the first place. I had kept Amica waiting for far too long, already having been late when that stranger had stopped me.
I began walking; continuing on my intended path to Amica's house, hoping to reach her before the sun had completely set, sending the entire city into darkness so thick I'd ever be able to traverse the maze of streets. Within minutes I could see Amica sitting on the stairs at the front of her house, glancing around with intrigue, waiting for me. She was basked in the yellow glow of a streetlight as if the light had been set up as her own personal spotlight, her pale blonde hair illuminated in a way that made her seem ethereal.
When she glanced my way, her eyes initially passed over me, doing a double take soon after when she saw my familiar form striding towards her. She squinted, trying to make out my shape, presumably because in the shadows I was currently basked in, only my general shape was visible.
Convinced that it was truly me walking towards her she jumped to her feet, calling out to me. "Arden! What could have possibly kept you for so long?" she asked, scolding me as I took a step into her ring of light.
Amica was the only person who still insisted on calling me by my full name, rather than "Den" or "Denny", the nicknames bestowed upon me by my peers long ago. How "Denny" counted as a nickname since it wasn't any shorter than my full name was a mystery to me.
Amica refused to shorten anyone's name or call them by their nickname. Over the years, everyone around her, friends and enemies alike, had learned to live with her graceful way of speaking. Anyone who was displeased with her persistence in using their full name simply called her "Amy" to get her to stop saying their name altogether.
"I'm sorry, but I was stopped on my way here." I apologized, knowing even if I hadn't been stopped I would have been unbearably late. At least it wasn't a complete lie.
Amica's gave me a look of exasperated disbelief "By whom?" she questioned, folding her arms over her chest.
"He never said, he just asked for directions." I informed her, knowing that she was more inclined to doubt than she had been before.
"Arden," she began, shaking her head in disappointment.
Amica hated being lied to, she always had. She said that without lies and the whole truth, there would be far lesser problems in the world. Any time I lied to her she gave me a nice long lecture on the importance of the truth. At least, any time Amica saw through my lies.
"No, it's true!" I exclaimed, trying out my innocent face one more time, which consisted of widened eyes and raised eyebrows.
Amica touched a hand to her cheek, her ashen eyes locked on me, her face absent of expression as she debated whether or not to believe me. In the end she sighed in submission, her hand falling back to her side. I heaved a sigh of relief as she let out her own breath, knowing that this meant she was going to at least hear me out before making her judgment.
She stared at me, her face screaming out impatience as she waited for me to explain. "This guy, he's a little taller than me and a little older too, he came up to me and asked me for directions to the gate," I began.
"To the gate? How could he possibly need directions to the gate?" Amica asked, her impatience dissipating as curiosity took its place on her face.
I nodded in agreement, telling her I was getting to that. "That's what I asked too." I stated, taking a deep breath as I got to the best part. "He said he's from the outside." I finished, waiting for Amica's reaction.
Amica was always unpredictable. It was anyone's guess as to what her reaction would be to any piece of information. It all depended on the mood she was in, whether she was waiting for something exciting, or had the simple unanswered desire to ruin someone's day. Today, thankfully, she reacted with shock.
"Outside? Outside the city?" she asked, her mouth falling open at the thought that there were actually other people outside our small corner of the world.
I nodded, the corners of my mouth pulling upwards into a triumphant grin, knowing I'd escaped from hot water. "Yeah, and I think he's going to leave tonight." I added, not knowing what the importance of this was, but just trying to fill in the gap in conversation that Amica was too shocked to notice.
Amica's mouth closed and she straightened herself, trying to regain her composure before continuing. "You can do that?" she inquired, the astonishment woven into her words betraying her attempt to remain calm.
"He can, apparently." I murmured, not quite sure myself about the details since it had simply been a fleeting conversation between me and a stranger.
Amica sighed, obviously having found some new evidence to prove that I was mindless. It felt like a long list had formed over the years, because Amica was always pointing out my stupidity. I liked to think that I wasn't unintelligent, but that Amica was simply a genius. Of course that seems highly unlikely because I don't think even Amica was a genius.
"Did you ever think that this man could simply be tricking you?" Amica asked, her eyes closing and her arms folding over her chest once again.
Funnily enough, I hadn't thought of that. It had just seemed so wonderful that someone could come and go as they pleased without restrictions, living the way they wanted to, that I hadn't even considered the fact that this really was too good to be true. I'd been so overwhelmed with the thought that I had been talking to someone who had seen the ocean and the sky alight with stars that I hadn't thought that anyone would be cruel enough to lie about that.
"He couldn't have been…" I murmured to myself, my gaze falling down to the brick street I was standing on, unwilling to deal with Amica's expression that was undoubtedly screaming "dominance".
"Oh Arden…" Amica muttered, her tone reverting back to disappointment.
He had to have been telling the truth! He just had to! My denial was strong, unwilling to accept that any chance of seeing the world was gone with one sentence from Amica. With my life as it was right now, boring and plain, I needed something to believe in, something to make life worth living again. I hadn't thought about it until then, but with the exhilaration that came from knowing that it was possible to get outside, I realized something about myself that I'd never known.
I needed more than what had been given to me. I needed to do more than just live, I needed to live freely. It wasn't the actual act of leaving and doing something that enthused me, it was the fact that I could that made adrenaline pump through my veins. If I could leave, I would, if only because the option was there. And once I was out, it didn't matter what I did, it was all the things I could do that made me want to leave the city.
I shook my head defiantly, refusing to accept that the hopes I'd formed in just a few minutes would stay as that. Empty hopes that would never be fulfilled. Even if I'd only had those hopes for a few minutes, I'd never hoped for anything as much as I hoped to leave.
I needed to leave, if only to know that I could. "I think…" I began my hands knitting together as I thought about the words I wanted to speak. I glanced up, staring at Amica, ready to tell her exactly what was on my mind. "I'm going to leave the city." I stated with as much conviction as I could muster.
This took my blonde friend off-guard, her eyes widening and her mouth falling open, and almost losing her balance as well. "Haven't you been listening, Arden?" she asked. "He might no have even been telling the truth. And you can't just walk up to him and ask to go with him!"
As soon as I'd voiced the words, I knew that was exactly what I wanted, and I would follow through on that goal no matter what the consequences or obstacles were. "If he was lying than there's no harm done, right? And if he wasn't, then I can get out too. I don't need to follow him; I just need to get out." I explained, my lips twisting into a smile once again at the thought of the freedom within my reach.
"You'd leave? So suddenly? Do I really mean that little to you?" Amica questioned, her voice unnaturally squeaky and high-pitched than it normally was.
"No, of course not, my dear Amica." I reassured my friend, my grin turning into a gentle smile to back up my consoling words. "I only want to see what's out there, Amica. I'll be back in a few days." And I seamlessly went from acting as if this journey was a far off dream, to acting as if I was really going to go through with this.
Given the chance I would without a second thought. It would be like a new adventure, and I was always searching for an adventure of any kind, no matter how small. Now I might be given that chance and I had no intention of letting it slip through my fingers as if it were sand, blowing away with the wind.
Amica closed her eyes, trying to take in this new information without giving herself an aneurysm. The strained look on her face revealed how tough this information was for her to accept. I could have sworn I saw her bottom lip tremble, as if she were about to release tears. But Amica, my best friend, and the person I'd grown up with since I was five, my dear Amica, didn't shed tears.
When she spoke again, her voice was soft, a whisper, but still ringing out over the sounds of the city like a bell. "Promise me you'll come back." it wasn't a question, or a request. It was a demand. She needed to know I was coming back, that I wouldn't abandon her.
I laughed, at first oblivious to how seriously Amica was taking this. "You don't have a thing to worry about…" I began, waving her words ooff dismissively.
Amica interrupted me, her voice sharp and sound hoarse as if she was speaking through tears. Her eyes remained closed, but I knew had they been open I would have felt as if someone was staring into my soul yet again.
"Promise me, Arden! Promise me you'll come back!" she exclaimed, her eyes squeezed shut tightly. I didn't want to make any assumptions, but I was almost positive she was now struggling to keep her tears in.
My laughter died at her demand this time as I scanned Amica's face, noting the beads of liquid forming at her eyes. I took a deep breath, trying to sound as serious and truthful as possible. "I promise. I promise I'll be back." I agreed.
With a nod from Amica, I knew that she wanted me to be gone by the time she opened her eyes. I turned, my footsteps soft and barely audible on the brick pathway as I jogged away, hoping that I could catch up with that stranger. What I was planning on doing when I found him was still a mystery to me, but I knew that this chance would only be open for a short span of time and if I didn't catch up with him, my chance to catch a glimpse of the world might be gone forever.
I didn't even think about my parents as my pace quickened, soon evolving into a slow run. Their reactions to my disappearance never crossed my mind, much less what Amica should tell them to cover for me. Even if I had thought of it, I had no time to turn around tell Amica my brilliant cover story. Turning around now would ensure that I would never see the outside world.
So I kept running along the wall, my pace quickening the more I ran, ignoring the sore feeling beginning to burn in my knees, spreading up and down my legs like a virus, nestling in my calves and straining my muscles as my feet pounded on the bricks, pushing me forward towards my destination faster.
Soon after my legs started burning, urging me to stop and let my legs rest, I began to feel as if the air I breathed in was searing my lungs, creating large slits in them that burned my organs, each breath paining me. And yet with each exhale my body screamed, telling me I couldn't breathe out because I wouldn't be able to breathe in again. I was sure that my lungs would deflate with every breath, preventing me from inhaling and fueling my legs that continued to burn as I felt as if my lungs were being filled with blood.
But the thought that the faster and farther I ran, the more likely I would be to see the stars looming above me tonight, drove me onward, fueled my lungs to keeping breathing, kept my legs moving, pushing me along as fast as they could.
And then I could see the gate in front of me, so close. It was my reward for running and I slowed to a walk, trying to catch my breath, but still walking forward. I wasn't about to stop moving when I'd just run all the way here.
As I came to the gate and peer out of the wrought iron, first glancing over my shoulders to make sure no one was around, no one was there to see me walk out the gate. Looking through the gaps in the design of the gate, I couldn't see either of the guards. I wasn't sure whether they were out of sight, or whether they just weren't there. I decided to take the chance and I pushed the gate open, trying to be as quiet as possible.
As I walked forward, past the two walls that were on either side of the gate, I could see the stranger I'd been talking to earlier. Now I could see what had become of the guards.
The auburn haired stranger was standing over the motionless form that had been one of the guards, the other also laying motionless on the ground. The stranger saw me immediately, his eyes widening when he realized who was standing outside of the gate, in plain sight of the scene he had left behind.
Once he had recovered from his initial shock his eyes narrowed and his green eyes were giving me a piercing glare. The feeling that someone was digging around my soul returned to me again. I couldn't stand to look into his eyes when he was giving me a glare so cross it could kill.
"What are you doing here?" he snapped tersely, asking first in an attempt to pull my attention away from the unconscious guards.
I opened my mouth to answer him, his tone making me feel meek and inferior, until I realized that I wasn't the one found with two bodies. "Shouldn't I be the one asking that question?" I asked in response, trying to sound confident, even though I was anything but.
A burst of breath escaped him in exasperation when he realized I'd turned the tables on him, his jaw locking in annoyance. "What does it matter to you?" he asked, trying his best to evade my question, his eyes closing.
I pursed my lips, trying to think of an answer to his question that made sense. "I'm just curious as to why you showed up and… killed two guards." I muttered, my voice diminutive at the word "killed".
A chill went down my spine at the thought that I was talking to a killer. But knowing this, I still stood there, willing to talk to him, even though I knew he could just as easily kill me. Was my freedom really that important to me?
He glanced down at the two bodies surrounding him. "They're not dead you know." he muttered in defense, nudging one of the bodies with her foot.
A warm feeling flooded over my body knowing that two lives had been spared, and that the stranger I was talking to was no killer. I was safe, for the time being at least. The tension in my shoulders lessened when I realized that my life wasn't in immediate danger.
"Remember when I said I was trying to fix things?" he asked in an attempt to answer my first question.
I raised an eyebrow at this. "How does attacking a couple of guards fix anything!?" I exclaimed, taking a step back, worrying for this man's sanity.
He shushed me, chancing a glance through the gate into the town, making sure no one happened to be walking by. "Be quiet!" he demanded, gritting his teeth and balling his hands into fists, probably trying to tell himself not to knock me out too.
Realizing he was about to lose it, he straightened up, closed his eyes and took a deep breath, relaxing his clenched fists. After a few more deep inhales and exhales, he opened his eyes again; his eyes clear without expression rather than flashing with anger as they had been before. As he scanned me up and down, probably the first time he actually noted all my features, his eyes remained blank, which was a good thing I suppose. It means he didn't still have the desire to break my legs.
"Also remember when I said it's complicated?" he asked, trying his best to sound calm, a complete opposite to how he looked merely a few seconds ago.
"What's about this is complicated!?" I asked in a harsh whisper, following his instruction to keep quiet and avoid attention. I didn't want to get this guy in trouble until I at least heard his side of the story.
He looked towards the sky now, as if wondering why he always had such bad luck. "I told you already, you wouldn't understand." he repeated, quickly rolling his eyes at me.
I still failed to see what was so complicated about this. He wasn't denying the fact that he'd knocked two guards unconscious. I didn't understand why he would simply knock them unconscious if he was going to harm them, why he wouldn't just kill them if he looked for confrontation.
"Did you really long for freedom that badly?" he asked, catching me off guard because I'd thought he'd been done speaking to me.
My gaze snapped back to him, having wandered in the few moments there had been silence. I thought about this question for a few moments, not really knowing the answer myself. I hadn't really longed for freedom had I? Or had I my whole life and never realized it?
I stared down at my hands, feeling uncomfortable talking about myself, meshing my hands together. "Longed really isn't the right word. I guess I've never really been happy about being kept in one place. I know I'd like to see the world outside the gate…" I murmured, picking my words carefully. After saying them aloud, I knew they were the truth.
When my gaze rose to catch a glimpse of his face again, he had turned away in an attempt to conceal the poorly hidden smirk that had formed on his face. I tilted my head slightly, curious as to the thoughts and reasons for the actions of this stranger. He looked back at me over his shoulder, and I again got that feeling that I was being judged, scrutinized.
"So you want me to show you the world?" he asked, trying to sound bored, but the laugh smothered deep in his voice told me that he was quite amused, probably because at that moment I he was holding all the cards.
"I'm going to see the world whether you help me or not." I stated boldly, determined to come back to Amica with wonderful stories of the world she'd never seen. I needed to prove that my few days of absence were worth something.
He was surprised at my resolve and he turned to face me, a slightly shocked look passing over his face. It was gone as soon as it appeared though, being replaced with closed eyes and a smile, though I'm sure that smile was for whatever thoughts were running through his head, rather than meant for me.
After a few seconds there was a flash of green as his eyes snapped open. "Come on."