First Meeting

It was a warm, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky kind of day in April when she left her abusive father to deal with his own decisions. He had killed her mother long before she killed herself, and Aysha had to leave before he consumed her too.

Artie, her best friend, waved Aysha over to the car where James, his boyfriend of six years sat at the wheel. She rejected his offer of popping the trunk and crawled into the messy backseat, shoving aside clothes and an old blanket. She had left everything behind, except for a few shirts and some running shoes jammed into my backpack. That and a few grand in cash that she had left after leaving enough to pay for her phone and her mother's necklace. She toyed with it as they pulled out of her driveway, hers for the last time. Artie, short for Arthur, spoke nonstop in a soft voice, trying to keep the atmosphere light. She appreciated the effort, it made her feel as though they were simply setting off on a road trip. Exhausted, she soon drifted off to sleep, lulled by Artie's voice.

When Artie reached over to wake her up, she jumped awake. Concern clouded Artie's face for a second, but he recovered quickly and smiled.
"Well good morning."
He nodded to her backpack. "Ready?"
She looked at it, only now realising the gravity of what she was doing. She could have left at 18, but she had waited, hanging onto false hope that one day it would all be alright. Her scars on her arm itched, still healing, and she made up her mind.
"Yeah, let's go."

Artie kissed James, reminding him to lock the door and check the stove before leaving to meet him in New York tomorrow. He had arranged the train tickets himself, and Aysha let him handle it, only flashing her ID when asked. As they waited, she reached over for his hand, and he squeezed it reassuringly. He had helped her when she was ready to leave, and promised to ride with her until New York, even though he could have gone with James instead.
"You can cry you know. You are leaving your life behind."
Artie's green eyes searched her face, and she took off her sunglasses, swapping them for her regular glasses. She looked down at her other hand, where the nails had been bitten down to the point of bleeding.
"I don't feel.. Anything. Like, I'm not even tearing up. I just feel empty."
Her words sounded distant, and she almost didn't recognise herself. He didn't say anything else, instead choosing to sit closer, so that his shoulder touched hers. She leaned her head on his shoulder, and they sat like that until boarding.

She chose a corner seat, stashing her backpack in the corner and covering it with her body. Artie took the seat opposite. He knew she liked to sit in corners, a trick she picked up to offset her anxiety because it allowed her to keep an eye on people while she had a wall to her back. He grit his teeth, angry at her father, the monster who had made her feel like prey when he should have been the one protecting her from monsters. Aysha looked at him, and he instantly smiled.
"Why don't you sleep for now? I'll wake you when necessary."
She nodded, her eyelids already heavy. She had gotten no more than three hours of sleep for the past two weeks, and her dark eye circles showed. In seconds she was asleep, and she dreamt.

She was in a field, only ten years old. Sunlight warmed her back and a breeze lifted the small strands of hair that she had hacked off herself. There was a lone tree, and she ran to it, putting her back to its rough bark. Her mother came from behind it, scaring her into a fit of giggles. Her mother proceeded to tickle her until she couldn't breathe. She backed away from her mother, trying to catch her breath, grinning. Suddenly, arms shot out from behind the tree, grabbing her mother by the throat. Aysha screamed-

Artie looked up from his phone when he heard Aysha moan softly. He raised her hand to wake her, and then decided against it. Nightmare or not, she needed the sleep. He clamped his hands tightly around his phone, although his eyes never left her face.

-and ran to her mother. The hands were strangling her mother, but Aysha was too small to help. She reached up to untangle the hands from her mother's throat, but she had no strength. Something warm dripped on her foot and she looked down. A perfect drop of red had splashed on her foot, and she followed the blood up to her mother's wrists. She grabbed her mother's wrists, trying to keep the blood inside, but her hands were too small. Her mother had long stopped struggling, and Aysha was suddenly twenty again. She reached for her mother's hand, but it was too late, she was gone. The sunlight now seemed sinister, as though not even it was pure enough to save her. The breeze had died, and it was still. She sat down at the base of the tree, warily glancing out to the unending field. And then she could sense someone. The sunlight got warmer and she closed her eyes, it was too bright to see. She held her hand to the side, and a warm hand clasped it. Her breathing deepened, and she dreamed no more.

Artie watched as Aysha continued to murmur in her sleep, and he wondered if it was THE dream. Lost in his own thoughts he didn't notice the man sitting next to her until her head rolled onto the stranger's shoulder. He looked at the man apologetically, standing up to fix her, but the man shook his head. Mouthing 'it's alright' he adjusted so she laid on his shoulder more comfortable before opening a small book. Artie sat back down, silently analysing the man. He was easily taller than Artie, who himself wasn't small at 5'8. The man on the other hand was almost 6' maybe more. The juxtaposition of Aysha's petite but chubby 5' and his tall lean 6' was comical. He had warm light brown eyes, framed by light glasses which he pushed up with one finger as his eyes scanned the page. He looked familiar but Artie couldn't be sure from where. Even though he wore a plain white shirt and slacks, his socks were mismatched, one lavender with black cats, the other blue with polka dots. Artie stifled a smile. The man, who looked at least ten years older, seemed cute with all his quirks, and would have been perfect for Aysha if he was younger. Artie went back to texting James.

He only looked up a few hours later when the man dropped his book. He picked up the book to hand back to the man only to realise he had dropped it because he had fallen asleep. His curly brown hair lay on top of Aysha's straight brown hair as his head leaned softly on hers. It was then that Artie saw what had soothed Aysha into a deep sleep. The two held hands as though to keep each other from drifting apart. Surprised, Artie placed the book at the man's side and went back to his seat. He stared at the two from his seat across wondering how this stranger had managed to calm Aysha in seconds while Artie still couldn't even after three years. Struck by inspiration, he pulled out his Polaroid camera, Aysha's gift for his and James' anniversary, and snapped two pictures. Borrowing a sharpie, he carefully wrote, 'Stranger Connections', and dated it before slipping it into Aysha's bag. Soon, he found himself drifting off.

The train came to a stop and Artie jolted awake, mentally cursing at himself for having fallen asleep. After checking to make sure his valuables were still there, he turned to find the man gone and Aysha looking troubled. In seconds he was up, surveillance the people still in the train waiting to get out. He wouldn't put it past her father to chase her down, it had happened once before.
"Did you see him? What happened? Do you want to leave?"
She chewed her lip, and then looked up at him.
"There was someone here."
It was something between a question and a statement. He started, angry at the man.
"Did he do something to you?"
He mentally kicked himself again for exposing her to another threat. She looked up at him. She couldn't even explain it to herself, how could she explain it to him.
"You know how you feel when you see James after a really rough day?"
"Yeah, of course."
"It was like that. For the first time, I felt myself relax, Artie, I love you but I'm going to get off. Text me when you get to New York. Send pictures. My love to James."
She kissed his cheek and gave him a hug, darting away before he could follow.

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