18th August, 1978
The city bells tolled loudly as I dragged my feet through an avenue. On both sides, the pavement was as deserted as the crossroads ahead of me. Autumn leaves rolled over the granite with the soft winds, signalling the arrival of Naharis, a season of the dead.
I looked up. The sky was transitioning to dusk.
Lamp-posts had begun to flicker and tall shadows crept out from beneath the trees, embracing the silence that lingered on the streets. A century had passed but Naharis still remained a stigma in the society. People hardly ever left their houses for the fear of encountering the dead spirits. Our land had developed fast but superstitions still persisted.
As I turned around a corner, my feet came to an abrupt halt. A few feet away stood my sister, Lisa, and her friends chatting with two men in formal suits. They were still dressed in their uniform, an assemble of plaid white skirts and long-sleeved, checkered shirts.
They must have stopped by to meet someone, I thought. Their school was north of the crossroads while I had come from the west. As I approached them, her friends waved their hands at me excitedly. Lisa, however, looked away with a flicker of anxiousness.
Ah, something was off.
I opened my mouth to speak when one of her chatty friends introduced me to those men instead. "Sirs! She is Alexandra Williams, Elisabeth's older sister."
They broke into polite smiles in an instant. "Pleasure to meet you, Ms Williams. We are Jeriff and Nicholson from the Redcliff clothing industry. We were hoping to hire Ms Elisabeth to model for our premiere Fall Collection."
A frown crinkled my brow. I flitted my gaze at Lisa, reminding her of her priorities. Fashion was all the rage, you see, and Lisa had fallen into what I'd arguably call a bad influence. "I'm sure she will be a good candidate but our parents have reservations. I hope you understand."
"Oh, we do! We do, of course, but she is exceptionally compatible with our latest collections, you see. We are looking for someone with a--"
"I'm sorry but she's not old enough," I told them with a sense of finality, my temper getting the better of me.
With a stiff smile, I grabbed Lisa by her hand and walked away. Her friends stared at us in surprise as we strode down the lane and disappeared around a corner. My hands were shaking. From the corner of my eyes, I could see tears drip down her cheek. At one point, she yanked her hand away from my hold and stopped dead in her tracks. "That's enough," she whispered, "I hate you."
I shut my eyes to stifle an eye roll. "Lisa, what did I tell--"
"I don’t care about whatever you said! You aren't worried about me, you're worried about yourself. You're scared mother will scold you. Did you even think about me for a second? I tried so hard to keep it from you for an entire week!"
My eyes widened. "They were contacting you for over a week?"
She looked away, a derisive smile curling up her lips. Anger washed over me. I grabbed her shoulders. "Lisa! Are you out of your mind?!"
"I am." She levelled my gaze and pulled away from my grip. "Thanks to you."
I stared after her as she stormed past me, her words hitting me like a knife. I knew I was being harsh on her but it was for her own good. Schools had only recently opened up for our kind, their courses specifically designed and aimed to teach the ones with no magic. It was imperative to get her enrolled in such a school and give her the finest degree we could afford. Fashion could come later! "Lisa!"
Her tall frame grew smaller as the distance widened between us. I clenched my jaws and quietly sauntered down the lane. It would be one chaotic mess at home tonight.
Naturally, I didn’t get a good rest. Mother’s angry face and her lectures made me feel guilty enough.
I laid opening and closing my eyes on my bed, trying to ignore whatever had just happened. Lisa was probably crying her eyes out somewhere and I was infuriated by her lack of better judgement. These were the golden times! The non-magus had a scope to get a degree! Why she was so stuck up on fashion, I could not understand.
I lazily craned my neck upward and eyed the wall clock above my bed. Quarter to seven.
My gaze drifted around the room. It was fairly empty for a two-seater. Starting from my bed snugly fitted against a wall and going clockwise was a door on the same wall, an open space, a table and a window to my right, and a dresser next to my bed. We had only recently moved in; my father had earned a seat in a research institute that had newly opened up here, in the capital. He must have returned by now.
Realising that I'd get a huge scolding for not sitting down to study yet, I jumped out of bed. Quietly opening the door, I tip-toed my way down the staircase to an open space that connected the kitchen to my left, the living room to my right, the lobby straight ahead and the rest of the house behind me. It was fairly quiet, so I decided to risk it and go make a drink for myself.
I had just begun to prepare it when the gong of our doorbell snapped me out of my reverie. "LIS—" I began to yell, and then realised mother might come out and catch me, so I decided to answer the door myself.
As I opened the door, what awaited me nearly spread a scowl on my face. On the porch stood Mr Jeriff and Mr Nicholson, dressed in navy and beige suits respectively. "Miss Williams." They smiled politely. "Pardon our intrusion. We were deeply concerned that your sister would drop a promising career and wondered if we could talk to her again."
"I’m afraid she's not available at the moment." I fixed them with a cold glare, unnerved. How did they find out where we lived? We never gave them our address, they simply found Lisa through her school. Now, I might have come across as rude, and I do admit that conversing wasn't my forte, but as far as these people were concerned my suspicions were warranted. I hated anyone who knew personal details that had not been offered personally.
"Ah, that’s quite alright, then."
I smiled stiffly and shut the door the minute they had said that, feeling very queasy afterwards. Our conversation had turned so messy! Suddenly, the cocoa was no longer appealing. I dropped the idea and walked back to my room.
The doorbell rang again, naturally. They must’ve wondered how ill-bred I was. Mother walked out this time and, from the decorous voices echoing in the corridor that fully emphasised my mother’s tone and hospitality, it grew more apparent that I might have been rude after all. I winced.
Withdrawing myself from the door, I began to focus on the task at hand. I had just begun to run a mental list of all the lessons that required reading, but my mind was elsewhere entirely. There was something wrong with me, my gut was screaming that something was off. Something had been off from the start, I just knew it.
The voices grew louder, probably because Lisa had joined in. Curiosity gripped me. I turned towards the door and opened it quietly. Their words were clearer now, though still muffled. I could make out Lisa was upset.
I frowned and tip-toed down the stairs, still embarrassed to face them all over again. Choosing to stick close to the banister, I bent over the railing and watched them as they conversed. The men stood at the porch with Lisa and mother by the door. "No, she will not go," my mother insisted firmly. Lisa began to speak when mother shot her a stern glare. "Get inside, Lisa."
Lisa frowned and whirled around defiantly, unable to stop the tears from welling up. She mumbled something and began to walk inside when, all of a sudden, Mr Jeriff shoved her into the hallway, making her trip and fall face-first on the floor. My eyes widened in disbelief. Before I could react, the other man grabbed my mother by her head. His eyes began to blaze a fierce orange and her body slumped on the floor lifelessly.
A scream found its way to my throat but I couldn’t let it out.