She thanked Mrs. Lestridge at the door for the fruit basket and then started walking down the street. The weather was overcast pretty. There was not much buzz around, just the usual people strolling on a cool Wednesday morning lost in their own unconscious world. She turned a corner as the road converged downhill; glancing at the fruit basket in her hand she shook her head. Mrs. Lestridge had been far too insistent for her to accept a gift as a token of gratitude for how much better and fluent she had made her daughter in both French and English and that too just within 6 months of her starting the course. She wouldn’t acknowledge the fact that her daughter is a quick learner and a brilliant student. It was mostly due to her daughter that she could teach her all that in 6 months. Someone else would have taken years.
Amidst the dusty and raw cobblestone clunking below her feet and the occasional chirping of birds, lost in her thoughts, she heard and recognized a soothing and charming voice. She right away knew whose it was, Old Bernard. She spotted him sitting on a stool in the midst of the pavement with his ever beautiful guitar in his hands playing a song. She walked towards him; a warm smile sprawled across her face.
“Hey Bernie” she said
“Ariel!” he said stopping his guitar riff midway, “I’m so happy you came. In fact I would have been disappointed if you hadn’t shown up today”.
“Well, there is not a single soul here who could resist your voice. Even from a mile apart it just pulls you like a magnet” she said admiringly.
“You’re just being nice my dear, I sing because this is all I can do now. What else am I good for without my vision?”
Ariel said with a heavy voice “I can’t imagine how you still manage to stay in such high spirits everyday”.
Bernard smiled and said “My daughter is the only reason I’m alive”, reaching into a pocket he pulled out an envelope, “And she sent me a letter today, that’s the reason I was anticipating you, I wanted someone to read it to me. Will you, Ariel?”
She kept the fruit basket down, stepped forward and took the letter from him “Happily!” she said and sat on a stool opposite him.
She broke the seal and took the folded letter out; unfolded it and glanced at Bernard. He was eager, she could see, she smiled and then began to read.
“Hoppity doppity father! It’s Christie! I know, I know, you hate the way I start my letters, but I love them so shut up. How are you? The last letter you wrote I remember you got hit by some stupid driver who was drunk. How is the bruise now? And how is aunt Ariel? I hope she is the one who is reading this out to you. Hey aunt! I’m glad you are there for him and I know I can never say this enough but I wanna thank you for all that you have done. Love you! You know, father, I just recalled an incident which happened to me last month. My friend Reggie and I sneaked out of our hostel at night and went for a walk to the park. It was great, the atmosphere is so different at night than it’s during day, we both enjoyed it a lot but when we were getting back it was really dark and Reggie accidentally stepped on a stray dog’s tail. He started chasing us and I just ran my own way, I didn’t even know where Reggie was or whether the dog was still chasing me. I was just running until I reached the hostel gates. I sneaked back to my room, too afraid to go out or to tell anyone what had happened. Reggie was found at the gate next morning; she looked like she was hit by a hurricane. She kept blabbering on and on. I felt really bad for her but I couldn’t do anything, I had to run and that was all I could think about at that moment. Reggie didn’t talk to me for a long time but she is now okay with it, she said she might have done the same thing, had she been in my situation. Anyways that was it for an event per letter. Everything else is as usual. My studies are going just fine, no need to worry about those. I’m dying to know about how things are going there, write back as quickly as you can, Aunt Ariel, or should I say as quickly as father could recite? Love you loads Father— yours Christie”
Bernard took a deep breath and sighed “Where do I even begin? These kids! They have no idea how much they trouble their parents with their nonsensical and inane activities, do they? What if something happened to her out there in the night? What if she fell or harmed herself in some way? Who would be responsible? Who would go looking for her? Gosh! How do I even make her understand! This is her third time doing something prohibited by the authorities. What do I do about this girl?!”
Ariel wasn’t listening. While Bernard was venting out she was busy looking over the letter. After she had read it twice she handed it back to him and said with a smile “Don’t worry Bernie, she is your daughter, she knows exactly how to tackle life. She’ll be fine, we’ll write a letter making her understand some of the situations she really needs to ignore being in and she will be absolutely fine. Okay?”
Bernard was silent for a few moments; finally he nodded “Okay Ariel, if you say so. Thanks for helping me out”.
“You don’t need to say that Bernie and you know that. I’m always here to help.” She said as she stood up, “I’ll see you in the evening then”
She turned around and was about to start walking when a voice caught her in her tracks.
“Hey! Hold up please.”
Ariel swung around and saw a woman walking towards her. She was holding a pamphlet in her hands.
“Hello” she said holding out her hand as she reached her, “I’m an event organizer and our company is organizing a fest here in your town, would you like to take a part in it?”
“Oh yes! I have heard about this fest thing going around quite a lot. What is it about?” Ariel asked as they shook hands.
“It’s a literary fest and our major event which happens to be tonight is called ‘A Day in Your Life’. You have to step up on a stage and talk, mind you, the whole town would be watching. You have to talk about your one day, what does one day mean to you? What value does it hold? What do you actually wanna do with a day in your life! And the one contestant who speaks the best will win a trip to a foreign destination, wherever they choose.”
“Wow that sounds amazing, I would very much like to be a part of it. What will I have to do?”
Taking out one of the pamphlets she said “All you have to do is fill this form. Here is the pen.” She said offering one.
Ariel took it and sat on the stool once again; she filled the form carefully and then handed it back to the woman.
“Thanks. I’m Ariel by the way” she said with a smile.
“My name is Felicity, good luck Ariel.” She said returning the smile, “The fest begins at 7 o clock sharp, try to be there by 6, I have to go remind a lot of people so I should be heading back. See you at the fest! ” she said and walked away.
“I guess then I will be busy today, Bernie” Ariel said turning towards Bernard who had been listening the whole conversation.
“Oh that’s completely fine dear, we can do it tomorrow. I’m in no hurry. Actually this event sounds really interesting. I would love to hear what you would say and I hope you win!”
“Thank you so much Bernie”, she said smiling, “Let’s see how it goes, See ya!”
She stooped down and picked up her fruit basket. Her smile faded as she started walking back home. At this point she knew three crucial things. One, the letter was not from Bernard’s daughter. Two, the woman was not an event organizer and three, she had to leave this town by nightfall or she would be as dead as a hammer.
Ariel was standing still, in front of her house. There was silence. She was listening for sounds, she heard none. She walked up to her front door and observed the door handle. It was intact, then she went around the house and checked all the windows, they seemed just as fine. Coming back full circle she took out her key and put it in the lock and turned it once. It gave away a click and the door unlocked. She opened the door and went through as quietly as she could, still trying to listen for sounds. She heard a glass break and then a scream. The neighbors? She softly crawled to the kitchen and looked out the window. There was a scuffle happening inside their house. Someone probably had dropped something, they were arguing over it. She reached up and closed the curtains, then retraced her steps back to the dining room. She already had half of the plan ready.
Ariel had been a spy for a long time and what they extensively taught her in her training was to recognize patterns. Code was the only language she could afford to talk in if they ever wanted to communicate with her and so she had to know all about it. The letter Bernard had received was full of them. The first clue was, when the letter addressed her and said her thanks for everything she had done. That meant mission over right there. The dog was a cipher for the danger. Reggie being chased meant the other agent was already down or will be by tonight. She is the only one remaining and has to run back to safety as soon as possible. At first she wasn’t sure whether it was really a message with a code or just an innocent father-daughter conversation, that’s how obscure they can be! But then the woman who told her about the event had cleared the slightest of her doubts. ‘Felicity’ meant a lot of things, one of which was suitability. The time suitable for her to get away, they had managed to organize an event, which would create a buzz in the town; everyone would be talking about it, an environment of chaos, perfect conditions for a getaway. The letter had reached Bernard today which meant they had dispatched it a week ago. But if something had happened a week ago, there wouldn’t be any need for a letter, she would be long dead by now, which meant they had done it after they had dispatched the letter. She was not able to get any info on her target for the last couple days and now she knew why, they had taken him out and now his people are on her trail, only she has no idea whether they are close to nabbing her or still searching her whereabouts. She had signed up for the contest just so if they stumbled across the list, they would know that she would be participating and would bait her out giving her that window she needs to make her escape.
She stood quiet for a second thinking about it and then went to the kitchen. She drooped down and opened a cabinet. It had cutlery in it. Two plates, a pair of cups and a utensil. She brought it all on the dining table and placed it next to each other. They all had rubber cups attached to their bottom so they wouldn’t make a noise when placed on a surface. She couldn’t afford the neighbors or anyone to know she was in the house.
She made herself lunch and ate quietly. It was late afternoon. After she was done, she went up the staircase to her bedroom and took a nap. She was hoping for a good sleep because the night was going to be a weary one but she had no idea yet, what the night had in store for her.
Ariel’s neighbor, Mrs. Powell was in her kitchen struggling with a turkey. It was huge and she was having trouble fitting it in the oven. She decided to cut it. Although it would ruin the presentation but at least they would get to eat it and on second thought she decided it was fit for what her husband had done today. Mrs. Powell had expressed her wish to participate in the literary fest being held in the town, she said if she won they could all have a vacation to Hawaii but her husband had said he couldn’t take her because there was some urgent work that had shown up and he had to leave. She was pissed at him and it had shown in her demeanor when she had berated at her children earlier in the day for breaking a glass while playing around the house. She sweared she wouldn’t take anymore nonsense and grabbed the knife to cut the turkey loose when there was a knock at the door. She ignored it at first, focusing on the turkey, but the knock came again and again relentlessly, maddening her. She went storming to the door and pulled it open violently, what she saw punched the breath out of her lungs. Four men were standing outside, one of them with a gun pointing straight at her head.
“Mrs. Powell I presume? May we come in?” said the man with the gun as all four of them walked in on a quivering and chalk faced Mrs. Powell
“My name is Phil” he said, “Don’t worry, we are here to talk about your neighbor, Ariel Johnson”
“Ariel? What about her?” her voice was weak and shaky.
“Let’s sit down first” he said proceeding over to the sitting area near the kitchen. His three companions seemed to linger towards the center of the room.
“We can sit in the dining room if you prefer, the furniture here isn’t really optimal”.
Phil smiled “No Mrs. Powell, we are good here, we like to ignore the windows as much as possible, they are too revealing. Please have a seat”. He said pointing to the one in front of him.
Mrs. Powell swallowed and then walked over. She hesitated but then sat down quietly. She was shivering.
“Feel at home Mrs. Powell, we just want to ask you a few questions and then we will leave.”
There was silence.
“Should we begin?” he asked keeping his gun on the table besides.
Mrs. Powell nodded
“Okay so first question, what do you know about your neighbor, Ariel Johnson?”
She took her time to answer. “Ariel—sh–she is a tutor, she teaches French and English, mostly to kids but–but to a few elders too”.
Mrs. Powell shook her head
“When does she leave her house?”
“Around 9 in the morning”
“And when does she come back?”
“Around 2 in the afternoon”
“And she never leaves her house after 2?”
“No, maybe she has once or twice, but mostly she stays in”
“What do you think she does in there all evening?”
“She often has a lot of homework to check and sometimes she just sleeps”
“Are you sure she never leaves her house before 9?”
“Yes I am. Our houses are real close to each other, everyday she wakes up, I can hear her moving around, all the utensils and cups she uses I can hear them clinking clearly.”
“Hmm, is she in her house right now?”
“I don’t think so, I haven’t seen any lights in her house since evening, neither have I heard her moving or eating. She might be attending the fest.”
“Does she seem like that kind of person to you?”
“The kind who likes to attend fests and parties?”
“Not really but that’s all I can come up with, I don’t know where else she could have gone”
“I see, that would be enough Mrs. Powell, we will take your leave now” Phil said as he stood up
“What is this about? What has she done? She seems like such a nice person”
“Well, people are not what they seem Mrs. Powell, I seemed dangerous a few moments ago but did I hurt you?”
Mrs. Powell shivered. She shook her head.
“See? Looks can be deceptive, anyways thanks for your help, enjoy your turkey”.
Mrs. Powell stood up trembling as the men filed out of her door. With some effort she went up to the door, closed and bolted it, then ran up to her room, locked herself in and retched.
Phil with the other three guys was walking towards Ariel’s house where a fifth man met them halfway.
“What do you think about it? Is she in there?” Phil asked
“I don’t think so, I looked in every window I could and there is nothing to see, there is not even a single candle alight in the whole house. She has to have something right? She can’t just be sitting there in the darkness waiting for us; moreover she can’t possibly know we are coming for her. There is no way to know!”
“Maybe she does, maybe she got something from this letter” he reached inside his pocket and took out a folded sheet of paper.
“The one we grabbed from the blind guy’s house? Is there something evident in it?”
“Not to me but it could be for a spy, god knows how these nasty pests work”
“Even if there is something in the letter, it arrived in the morning today, what are the chances she met that blind guy today itself and knows everything about it?”
“Maybe she did and maybe she has set a trap for us to walk straight into”
There was silence.
“I don’t think so; I think she is at the fest right now” the fifth man said.
“Why do you say that?”
“That’s because I went through the contestant list and saw her name there. She registered for it; she is there, probably waiting for her turn to perform.”
“We already have agents stationed around the area, they will report as soon as they spot her”. He paused. “Okay, we will clear the house first, if we don’t find her inside we will let her enjoy the evening for a while. Clear?”
All men nodded in affirmation. Phil turned to the fifth man and said “Open the door”.
Ariel had always been a light sleeper not only because she was a spy but because her mother had been a light sleeper too. It was an inheritance. As soon as she heard the front door’s lock click, her eyes opened, wide awake. She quietly sat up on her bed and listened, she heard footsteps. Three–four–five, around five people, she propped herself up on the bed and moved to the side drawer, she turned a knob as there was a slight sound. She looked up, the latch had given away. She stood on the bed with her feet firmly planted and reached up with her arms and caught hold of the space. She hoisted herself up, making sure to be as quiet as possible. She heard a small noise, which sounded like her staircase creaking. Someone was coming up. Once onto the roof she closed the latch as slowly as she could. It made a gasp and then everything went silent. She didn’t know whether they heard it or not. She looked around; there was no one at the backside of the house. She dropped down from the roof and caught a vine which went up from the back wall to the bedroom window sill. She carefully climbed down the vine and then quietly walked all the way to the end of the street and then turned the corner into darkness.
She was walking fast, almost running. Her heart was palpitating, she felt a fear rising deep inside, she had felt it from the moment they had barged in through her door. They can’t be this quick. There was some mistake, something she was missing; she couldn’t wrap her mind around it when another problem had presented itself, although it was a potential solution to her prior problem but a much graver predicament. She crossed the street and took a right on the next alley. The streets were mostly empty; she was comforted and worried at the same time, by that fact. She kept a constant watch around her but the few people she spotted rambling around tend to show no interest. She finally approached the street she was looking for, walking straight to the third house in the lane she paused. The throbbing in her heart had accelerated; she stepped up the steps and knocked at the door.
“Bernie? You there? It’s Ariel, open the door.”
The fear deep inside her was aching which made her tremble as she swung the door handle and the door released, inside, she could see Bernard lying on the floor in a pool of blood, the blood was slowly spreading all around as if to engulf the room with the terror that had conspired in it. She walked up to his body and dropped down, he had several cuts on his face and arms and then a final slice to his throat. She wept quietly. They couldn’t have gotten to her this quick unless they had found out the communication system of the agency; Bernard was tortured and then killed only because they thought he was part of the whole system when all he did was to sing and entertain people on a street to earn money for his daughter’s education. A soft wind blew in through the window and hit Ariel, tears trickled down her cheek. She got up and went over to Bernard’s table, grabbed a pen and a paper and started writing-
Dear Christie, I am writing this letter to tell you something, something which will change your life and I want you to read this carefully and after you are done reading, to burn this letter. It was years ago when it happened, you were small; a few men came over to our house and wanted to have a talk with me. They said they were here to give me an opportunity, one which will change my life. I was concerned by the tone of their voice but they said they were with the government. They said I had a chance to work for the government, to work directly for my country. I asked what the opportunity was and they said they wanted me to be a message carrier for a spy. They had a foreign body they wanted to keep an eye on and hence they had planted a spy in town but there was no means they could communicate, they wanted me to be the bridge, the fact that I was blind gave me immunity to any suspicious eye. I said I needed some time; they probed me further saying that once you grew up I could send you to the best school out there and that they would pay your education fee for your entire life if I said yes. I still took two days but I agreed, not only because they would pay for your education sweetie, but because I was being offered a chance to work for my country, for the first time my impairment was not an impediment but an advantage, my life which had just been merely surviving was going to change forever. I don’t know the identity of the spy because they decided to keep it a secret as I could still speak but I interacted with him a lot of times, no one ever bat an eye at your father but still I knew secrets which would destroy organizations within seconds. I never heard from the men again but I am doing a good job as far as I am concerned, although these days it seems like there might have been some problem, a leak? Maybe, that’s why I felt important to tell you all this, so that if you found the news of your father having been found dead someday, I want you to know that he was a martyr, not a victim.
I love you more than my life sweetie, take care and remember, burn this letter after you read it, only you and aunt Ariel know about this, make sure to keep it that way.
Your loving father
Ariel sighed as she looked down at the letter, she had done all she could, to make it sound convincing, she hoped Christie would be more proud than hurt. She put on a date three days ago and sealed the letter. She wiped the pen and the table with a handkerchief and then looked around one final time. Her heart ached every time she glanced at the body lying in the middle of the room. Convinced she was leaving no prints behind; she headed out, closed the door behind her and wiped the doorknob. She strolled down the street with the letter in her hands, held around the handkerchief, thinking about Christie and her future. How would she grow up without any parents? What had she done? She came across a post box and dropped the letter in as she heaved a sigh. She was starting to move when she stiffened. She had seen what these men could do, had they done the same to Mrs. Lestridge and her daughter? Her heart started racing as she imagined the scene, suddenly she felt an eye on her and realized she was in the middle of the street. Furtively looking around she started moving quietly, she felt a trickle of sweat dripping down the side of her head as she thought someone might try to nab her from behind; she turned around sharply to find nothing but an empty street. It felt like everyone had given up on her. She was trembling. Was that another footstep? Her skin crawled as the paranoia settled in; she was convinced someone was stalking her. She ran, not stopping to look behind, not even a glance, she kept on running until her legs gave away and she plummeted straight to the ground, her legs paining and heart pounding. She sat herself up against a lamppost and caught her breath. She didn’t know how far she could run, she didn’t know how long before they realized she had been in the house and caught up to her. She had no idea how many more people she had gotten killed, she was restless, broken and then she looked up and saw a light, coming from one direction. Then suddenly there was a whole spectrum of light bashing forth and washing over the night sky. The fest. That explained why there was no one around the streets. It was going on, she could hear a low static sound of the speakers buzzing and she thought of Felicity. She was her only hope. She propped herself up and started moving. She had to get to Felicity before they got to her.
Phil and his men had scouted her whole house; they had seen the utensils with the rubber cups and had found various documents they were very familiar with. Phil was in her bedroom staring at the latch in the roof when he got the call.
“Phil? I see her; she is at the fest, heading towards the backstage”.
“Keep an eye on her; don’t let her get out of your sight. We are on our way”. He hung up.
“Boys, Round up, bitch has been spotted; we need to get her before she makes a move. Come on!”
“Have you seen Felicity?” Ariel asked the host who was waiting backstage for a contestant to finish.
“Who?” she asked confused
“Felicity, she is one of the event organizers, she is the one who invited me for the event.”
“We don’t have anyone named Felicity working for us, you must have misheard the name, are you a contestant?”
Another one of Ariel’s fear came true. The woman had told her the name Felicity because it was a message, she hoped it was the same name she had told to the other employees too but it wasn’t. There was no way she could find her. She was looking around impatiently, hoping for a clue. There was a big fireworks launcher which a guy was reloading for the next performance possibly, an old couple asking for a place where they could sit peacefully and also view the stage at the same time and a man staring at her. For a second she thought he was just a random guy but then her instincts settled in, she moved further back towards the stage, they had caught on her. How do I find her? Suddenly everyone started applauding, someone had finished their performance. She looked at the crowd, then at the stage. There was only one way.
The car pulled right at the gates, Phil got out and ran towards the crowd, he was looking all around the place for her, there was a huge crowd gathered, all cheering and applauding as a contestant went off the stage, the host was back on announcing the name of the other contestant. Phil called his guy.
“Where the hell are you?”
“I’m backstage, I saw her here moments ago and now she is gone”
“What? Where did she go?”
“I don’t know, there is no way out here, she can’t escape, where the hell did she—“
Phil wasn’t listening to the phone anymore, he was looking at Ariel. She stood in the middle of the stage with a mike in her hand.
“I see her” he said into the phone and disconnected the call.
Ariel looked at the crowd, her heart racing.
“I’ve always led a normal life.” She spoke into the mike. There was silence. “I always thought that I was an ordinary person just like everyone else but turns out that’s not the case. I want to confess something. I am a spy.”
Her tone was serene. There was a gasp from the crowd. She could see a guy approaching her, making his way through. All eyes were upon her.
“I am a spy, because I look into other people’s lives all the time, I stalk them, I glance over their shoulder and I get information out of them and then, then I compare them with what I have got. That’s how I live, that’s what determines the standard of my living, if I’m happy or not, if I’m rich or poor. Everything depends on who I compare myself to. Then I realized, we all are spies, because we all do that. We’re slowly heading towards a time where people will not have a personal entity; they will be but a mere comparison of someone’s life. She paused, there was pin-drop silence, everyone was captivated, so captivated that no one noticed the firework launcher changing position. “My one day” Ariel continued “is living a day as myself. Not caring about what others have done or will do, not caring what they have or possess, I want a day where I just get to be myself. I wanna stop being a spy, just for one day I want to be an ordinary girl—”. That’s when she saw Felicity. Her heart stopped. Everyone started applauding. Phil was right in front of the stage now; she could see the gun in his hand and the hunger in his eyes, in the distance Felicity held up three fingers and counted down—Three, Two, One.
She barely had the time to duck under the podium, the firework was at an angle, when it launched, the shot went bashing straight into the pipes that were holding the tent followed by a sharp deafening sound as the speakers screeched and then there was an explosion. The tent had caught fire, there was smoke all around. Ariel could barely make out the stage anymore but she got up and ran to the right as fast as her senses were allowing her to. She jumped down the stage and grabbed the fence adjacent and started climbing, people were shouting and coughing, nothing was visible or audible. She jumped down the other side and ran to where she had seen Felicity last, crossing the road, she hurtled into the darkness.
The police vans and the ambulance arrived shortly after. Nothing came up about Phil or his men. The fest had no winner because the event was disrupted. It was rumored that someone later that night had set fire to Ariel’s house; most of it burnt down before the fire engines could help. As far as the people of the town were concerned, Ariel was never seen or heard of again.