Ace Waldgrave started his day by grabbing a handful of fish from the seaside market. The price? Amazingly enough, there was none at all, and it all came with the added bonus of one furious fisherman with a bloody knife. Though it’s most likely from the fish, Ace couldn’t help but run faster when he saw it. There’s nothing like fear to put an extra umph of speed in his step. The best part about this would have to be the crowd of market goers in his path. No one had bothered to stop the thirteen year-old boy as he ran, diving through the throng with no drama, running as far as his flighty feet could take him.
That had been his third crime for the morning, and the sun has barely reached its peak. The veggies and the moolah he looted earlier were safely into his knapsack. And now he could put the fish he stole in there as well. He knew that what he was doing was wrong, and that being caught would mean death. But honestly? It didn’t matter to him, not when he was one of the hundreds of kids in Banden that had no choice but to steal to survive.
Maybe he could have grown up as a normal boy, with his short, dark chocolate hair and plain chestnut coloured eyes. Maybe if he had grown up surrounded by wealth, he would not be wearing the dirtied, tattered rags he had failed to replace a few years back, his ripped leather trousers too short for a boy on the verge of adolescence. It was perfectly justified for him to steal.
Thievery was nothing big here. It was nothing compared to the gunshot.
Ace tripped, his cheek colliding with the rough cement. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe. All he could feel was that sound continuing in rapid succession. It was nothing more than that - a sound. No bullets whizzing by or blood spilling on the ground. Just a mere sound that was too far away to harm him. Yet his body trembled, and he futilely pressed his hands against his ears. With each bang, Ace shrieked - the world around him disappearing - the roaring rhythm claimed his body, mind and heart.
“S-Stop it!” Ace cried out weakly, eyes closed tight with tears as he retreated further into his supposed cocoon. The cracking thunder never seemed to cease.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Someone was most likely dead, but he didn’t care. He was only relieved that the gunfire had finally ended.
Ace took a deep breath. He sat up from the dirty floor curled up, locking himself out of reality. His nerves finally calmed down… or rather, they calmed down enough at least. His heart was still beating in erratic rhythms, and his hands were slick with cold sweat. He shakily picked up his knapsack, which he had accidentally dropped in his panic attack, and checked the contents.
Nothing. . . nothing was damaged. That was good. He wouldn’t have to steal from anyone else, or at least not now. He feared that another… incident, similar to the one that had just occurred would happen again. The thought of more gunshots turned his walk into a run, and then his run into a full-blown sprint.
After all, that was his only talent.
Running past the pirates, the triads, the thieves, the crimes they have all committed- all that mattered was getting away from the warfield that Banden had become. Robbery and murder was just another part of everyone’s miserable life on the island. Ace was no exception to that. He had been cursed with this life the moment he had been born on this lawless land. There was danger in every nook and cranny of this place. Sickness and crime were kings. There was only one place where Ace could truly feel safe in this hellhole.
The rundown shack that hid in the shadows of other buildings. Once upon a time, this little haven had been the roof for a happy, wholesome three.
Now it fit two.
Ace entered through the wooden doorway, careful not to wake his sleeping mother. He set the knapsack down quietly on the floor. He bent down, opening it and grabbing one of the fish he had “bought”. He placed it on one of the better dishes, the one with only a few cracks in it, and took out a knife. He carefully sliced through the meat, separating the flesh from the skeleton. He was meticulous in taking out the sickle-shaped bones in the remaining flesh. Someone could choke on them, and he will not allow them to choke anyone. He swiftly diced through the fish meat. In the back of his mind, he reminded himself to hunt for some salt tomorrow, for the dish was deprived of any seasoning. It would taste better, be less bland.
Not that his mother would have cared with her lack of an appetite. But he was used to eating leftovers anyway.
Ace shuffled towards his mother’s side, taking in the sight of her laying vulnerable on the cot. He hated seeing her like this. The sickness had eaten away at her beauty. The once rosy cheeks his mother had been known for had become pallid, nearly skeletal, thinned from the pungent medicine that had eaten up most of their finances. Her raven locks had been invaded by lifeless gray hairs, no doubt from the years after she lost her husband. Her eyes were barely open, but he could see that they were glazed over. He could see their redness, the tear stains across her temples.
Ace held his breath. He raised one of his hands, reaching towards her. He slowly wiped away her tears.
He could have done something. He could have saved his mother in the years his dad was gone. But what did he do exactly?
Nothing. He did absolutely nothing as he watched his mother degrade into a shell of her former self.
“Mom,” Ace spoke, softly tapping her shoulder as he waited for Alise Waldgrave to stir. “It’s time for lunch.”
Oh no. No. Nonononono. She couldn’t be dead, she was just fine last night!
He quickly checked her pulse and was instantly relieved to find one.
She was just asleep. Good.
He gave out a sigh, trying to steady his breaths as he waited for the adrenaline to die down. She wasn’t dead. He had to keep telling himself that. He still had family. He still had someone to depend on.
He wasn’t alone. At least, not yet.
Deciding not to disturb his mother’s slumber, Ace segmented a small portion of the meal for himself. As he ate the bits of stale fish, Ace could not help but stare at the opened unmarked letter that was lying on the table. He had spent the previous night reading it over and over, his mind in constant debate about his options. But despite all the risks and complications that came with it, Ace only saw it as one thing.
Well, more of a gamble really. But a chance nonetheless.
And as much as he hated it, he knew that there was only one answer. His time in Banden had taught him that putting your life at stake was the only way to live. So why was he hesitating?
His gaze travelled to a black mariner’s cap, collecting dust from years of neglect. This was all that remained of his father, all he had left them aside from his own corpse and years of suffering. Ace couldn’t rely on a dead man. And he couldn’t rely on his mother to take care of him either. The only one who could take care of him and his mother was himself. If he couldn’t find a way to scrape up more money, if he couldn’t get away from people like that fishmonger in time. . .
Who would be left to take care of his ailing mother? They didn’t have any relatives, and even if there were, who’d take in a sick lady that’d rack up their expenses with the medical bill? It’s too much to hope for any kind soul to wander by. They either fled Banden a long time ago, or they joined a gang to survive. What else could he do? If their situation doesn’t get any better, his mother will . . . she’s going to . . .
Ace bit back a sob. He wrapped his arms around himself, trying to cry as silently as he could to not wake his mother up.
Please. . . please don’t take his mother away. Not her. Not the only family he has left. He wouldn’t know what to do without her. She’s the only reason why he’s still fighting to survive. Someone could take his fingers, take his toes, his hands and his feet, his eyes and his ears-hell, he’d even stain his hands red if it meant that his mother would be okay. He couldn’t even pray for her health anymore. He just wanted her to be alive. To stroke his hair and tell him it’s okay.
He just wanted to have a happy family again.
What choices does he have left? Can he even do what they’re asking him? Is this really. . . really the path his mother would want him to take?
He took a deep breath. He raised his head toward the dingy light in their little room. The light was dull from the grime and the mold that grew over the years, but it doesn’t mean that the light is gone. It’s there, shining as brightly as ever. Maybe one day he could see it shine brightly again. And maybe he could see his mother’s healthy face as she laughed at a joke, or scolded him for playing outside too long.
He turned his gaze onto the old mariner’s cap. His dad’s. . .
Ace Waldgrave stood up. He walked over to the hat, picking it up and brushing off the dust and lint.
Within a minute, he had everything packed. He opened the rickety old door of their house, looking out onto the dusty, abandoned street.
He swiftly shut the door and ran over to his mother. He dropped his bag beside her, not caring how much noise he made. He wrapped his arms around his mother in a hug and cried into her chest, the first time he’s freely cried in a long time. His snot and tears were soaking the blanket. He couldn’t stop hiccuping no matter how hard he tried. He was scared. He didn’t want to do this, he wanted someone else to do it instead so that he wouldn’t have to worry about it. He’s only thirteen. . . He’s too young!
Ace sniffled and wiped away his tears. He got up and placed a shaky, tentative kiss on her forehead, holding her hand.
He slipped away the next moment. He shut the door on the silent house behind him, trying to put on a brave face. He failed. He’s not brave. He was nothing more than a child. A child in an oversized cap that was a little faded, a little frayed, but still in good condition. At least, it looked like it. Maybe he would grow into it. And fill his nearly-empty pack with more things to bring back. For sure. No doubt.
Ace took his first step on a long journey, not sure when he would return. Maybe in a day, or a week, months, not years. He’ll see this place again eventually.
A tear ran down her cheek.