”I hope I don’t regret this,”
Aura thought as she closed Kieran’s door until it lightly clicked shut. In one hand, she held a dagger and a bucket mixed with a chemical that smelt so strong her eyes burned. In the other, a lantern and a piece of bread, which Aura was now shoving in her mouth as she crept around Kieran’s house and darted to a corner covered with trees and some scrap metal.
Aura knelt down into the wet earth and began taking deep breaths as she stripped off the black hoodie she’d borrowed from her host’s wardrobe - which now was holding the laptop - making sure to keep it away from the bucket sitting in front of her. After one or two more seconds of hesitation, the dagger was now in her possession, little flecks of moon light bouncing off of it as it twirled. No longer delaying the inevitable any further.
The sound alone of the blade ripping through the black strands was enough to make her stomach flip, but Aura kept her eyes tightly shut as she continued working the rusted dagger through her hair, eventually flipping to the other side and repeating. Then, her hands grabbed onto what was left, which settled around her shoulders, and she used her sense of touch to gauge the evenness of both sides. Close enough.
Aura grabbed a thick group of strands and nimbly braided them together before shoving it in the pocket of the pants he’d loaned her. Now, it was time for the bucket of bleach. Her fingers pinched her nose shut as she reluctantly lowered her head down into the bucket until she could feel the cool surface of the water reach her forehead. Now to wait.
In her moments of solitude, her mind went a few places. Kieran first. What his reaction would be to her leaving. To her taking the computer
. He’d understand, right? There was no sense in having both the AE and the cause after her at the same time. This would serve as her peace offering, and hopefully, a graceful exit.
Secondly, she thought of her brother. Her dad. Her mother, who was becoming less and less real by the day. Aura was almost glad she wasn’t around to see her like this. Working with terrorists. Working with the AA
. Her and her father’s MO was to lay low and stay out of the way, ”that will keep you out of trouble and eating.”
They always acted so unbothered when Aura and Ion were growing up. Rations growing smaller? Dad needed to lose some weight anyway. Crops dying? This is time to try something new. The AA owning everything they grew? At least they were employed.
It sickened Aura, and now Ion was taking it a step further by becoming an enforcer himself. If she didn’t get out soon, would she be at the end of his club one day?
Time was up, and Aura removed her head from the bucket, allowing it to drip into the dirt and wringing her hair with her hands. She couldn’t believe how short it felt in her hands, she hadn’t cut her hair since she was a child. For a moment, she wondered what Kieran would think of it, but she shook it off, making sure her hair was no longer dripping wet as she slid the jacket back on and tucking the laptop underneath it.
Before continuing, Aura ran back around to the front of Kieran’s house, leaving the strand of braided hair around his door knob. It was folklore from the old days, but she remembered hearing a story as a child about a woman leaving her lover to go meet with the gods, and left a strand of her hair behind to be remembered by.
It might seem cliche now, but she wanted to leave something behind for him in case she didn’t come back, something better to remember her by than just a hangover.
Now, it was time to get back to Unity.
Aura walked as hastily as she could without looking suspicious until she could stares leading down to the tunnels. With shaky breath, Aura practiced his number out loud over and over again, but stopped once she saw the figures standing at the gate. Two out of three guards who she’d met her previous time in the tunnels were there, and she couldn’t believe that she was relieved to see them.
“Wow, a blonde now huh,” the stocky one piped up first, pulling the waist of his pants up with eagerness. “And it’s so short.
“He, uh, likes it that way.” If they were going to assume, she was going to use it to her advantage.
The tall and slender one chuckled. “Your boyfriend, the tall one. Well if you’re with him, why are you trying to go back to F?”
The question took Aura by surprise, and the gears in her mind turned rapidly for an excuse. “We’re moving in! I mean, I’m moving in. We’re gonna live together.” Alright, maybe a bit much.
Both sets of eyes widened, waiting for the rest of her story.
“So, I wanted to get an early start and grab my, uh, stuff. Curfew is up at four in the mornings in F, which should be -”
“Yes,” Aura nodded. “I’ll walk slowly.”
“Alright, well good luck to you kids,” the shorter one said, flashing a smile that was both devious and sincere, before opening the door and motioning into the tunnel. “Emok’s working the other end, he’ll love the new hair.”
“Thanks,” Aura got out through gritted teeth as she squeezed between the two and entered the tunnel, which turned into a silent vacuum once the door closed behind her.
This was good, she thought. She knows the guards, she has a story. Maybe this trip wasn’t the deathwish her anxiety convinced her it was.
Aura waited at the other end of the tunnel, just out of view of the door, until she heard the 4:00 AM sirens go off, 3 short blasts to notify the subsection that the day was beginning. The only people up that early are usually the fishermen and farmers, and it’d allow Aura to slip in and out before the rest of the workforce began to stir.
She put her hood over her head and rounded the corner to see who she now knew was Emok and another guard who had his had slid down over his eyes.
“The girlfriend! She’s back.”
“Hi,” Aura said weakly. “The guard’s back there said-”
“It’s okay, I remember you. Just be back before 6. That’s when we switch shifts.”
Surprised by his kindness, it took her a moment to nod and smile before thanking him.
Twenty minutes later, Aura was deep in a corn field, using her memory to guide her to Gregor’s cabin. Just like his father before him, he farmed corn - both enjoyed the privacy its stalks provided.
A warm glow began to peak through the top of the green whisps, letting Aura know she was getting closer, and with each step she crouched further and further until she reached the clearing that allowed her full view of the home. Two guards stood out front, and candles flickered inside, illuminating the few windows that faced her.
There was no looking back now.
Aura stood, raising her hands in the air, and it only took three seconds before both guns were trained on her.
“G-Guys, it’s Aura. It’s me.”
“You’re alive?” One replied, and as he got closer, she could see it was Coda along with his friend Ben.
“Long story. What’s the odds I leave the cabin alive?”
The two looked at each other, then down. “Come with us,” Coda grumbled, signalling towards the cabin.
Adrenaline flooded her veins, but her feet did the work for her, and she followed behind the men until the warm light hit her face, and her eyes squinted shut in resistance.
“Where the fuck have you been?”
Aura forced her eyes open to focus, and she was met with Gregor, rocking in a chair and drinking what looked like ale.
“I haven’t slept yet because Pogo
said you bailed the party.”
She knew it wasn’t her time to speak yet, and she stood paralyzed as Gregor rose to his feet, circling her like a shark.
“Oh, and fucking Loor’s dead, Aura!”
As his voice got louder, his fingers dug deeper and deeper into her shoulders until she fell to the floor, the laptop tumbling next to her.
“At least you did something right.” Gregor reached for the laptop and handed it to Coda, who put it into a bag and immediately left the cabin. Ben went to the front door, leaving the two alone.
“Look, he tried to kill me, Gregor,” Aura explained, her voice wavering. “He woke up, he saw me trying to take it. I had to run until I could get this to you.”
He squatted down next to her, moving a strand of yellow hair from her face. “Is this your disguise?” he asked in a whisper, but his voice still made her flinch in anticipation. “What have you done?”
“No, Gre-” was all she could get out. Gregor scooped her up into his arms and propped her up in the rocking chair. It might have well been the chair in the back of Mae’s.
“You know I don’t talk.”
“I don’t know anything, Aura. Like where you’ve been.” Gregor’s hands were resting on the arms of the chair, his face only a few inches from her. “And where you think you’re going after this. The AE is already on the hunt for a petite brunette with long hair. You’ve got that taken care of for now, but you know
someone’s going to remember that face.” His hand moved to her jaw, and he gripped her forcefully, turning her face so he could drink it in. “I know I will.”
“Gregor, I swear,” her tone turned deeper, as if she was begging from the bottom of her stomach, “I brought you the laptop. I’ve done everything you’ve ever wanted me to do.”
“If you were doing what I wanted you to be doing, we wouldn’t be talking right now.”
Aura’s eyes only rolled halfway before impact caused her head to dart to the side. Her cheek stung, and warmth rushed down the side of her face.
“You used to be such a good girl. The cause was everything.” Gregor was now speaking sweetly again, using his hand to roughly wipe the blood away from her face and onto his pants.
“I want out.”
“Oh, and where are you gonna fuckin’ go, Aura? Space?”
“I’m leaving Apex.”
Unable to contain his laughter, Gregor stumbled around, doubling over in laughter. Tears began to prick her eyes. Catching the sight, his expression changed to one of fake sympathy. “You’ll be dead before you get over the wall.”
Aura stood up, rage bubbling inside her. “Let me leave in peace. You’ll never hear from me again, whether I die for trying to escape, or making it over that wall. But please, let me go.”
The silence between them felt like minutes. The only sound was the fire crackling and Aura’s heartbeat in her eyes. His face was unreadable.
“Please,” she barely got out.
“It’s a death wish.”
“I know, but I’d rather be dead than live like an animal anymore.”
This must have struck a chord with Gregor, because he moved to the fireplace, sticking a cast iron stick into the fire. “You know about the brand?”
“If I find out that you -”
“I know, Gregor.”
His eyes met hers for a few seconds, they looked as if they were begging her to change her mind. Her expression didn’t budge. Aura removed the hoodie once again, now nude from the waist up and approached Gregor, her back now facing him. It was nothing he hadn’t seen before.
“I’m ready,” she sighed, telling herself more than him.
Gregor grabbed the stick from the fire, which held a big X at the end, around 4” by 4”.
“Do you want me to count down?”
“No, I don’t want you- FUCK!” Aura tensed every muscle she had in order to stay still as Gregor pressed the brand into her back, right between her shoulder blades.
“Good girl,” Gregor whispered, a phrase Aura would be glad to never hear again, as he removed the X from her skin and tossed it down onto the stone that surrounded the fireplace.
Before Aura could move, a cold liquid poured down her spine, causing her to hiss at the pain, then the sound of his footsteps shuffled away to the kitchen. “I usually don’t boil wool for strangers, but I’m making an exception for you.”
“How kind,” Aura replied in a mocking tone, but her eyes were sincere. Gregor couldn’t kill her, no matter how much he wanted to, and for that, Aura was thankful.
Once her wound was dressed along with the slit on her cheek cleaned and glued together, Aura redressed and was walked to the door by Gregor, who stopped on the threshold and crossed his arms. “I’m gonna give you a three day head start before the rest of the cause gets word. But, after that, you’re a sitting duck.”
“I’m hoping I’m gone by then.”
“I hope you are too, Aura.”
Gregor kissed him, and Aura let him, before he took her into a tight embrace. “I always thought you’d be around.”
Aura broke their hug and nodded at him, a true and heavy sadness beginning to overcome her. Saying goodbye to Gregor was saying goodbye to everything she had worked towards for the past decade. All the plans. All the failures. All the cuts and bruises. But, she accepted, she’d always been fighting for a freedom that would never come. It was up to her, and her only now.
“Thank you, Gregor. You’ll never hear of me again.”
“That’s bittersweet. Good luck out there, Holland.”
Aura had run to her father’s house to find it empty; both him and Ion must have gone into town early or had a delivery to make. With no time to spare, she opted to go inside and write a note.Dad and Ion,
I came to tell you that I’ll be leaving Apex shortly, and I hope I can trust you to keep this a secret until I have some time to get on my feet. I did something stupid, well, a lot of things, and soon they’ll all be looking for me.
Ion, you know I hate the enforcers, and they hate me, but I know whatever you put your mind to, you’ll be great at. Thanks for being the good kid. Our parents deserve it. Keep them safe and make us proud. I hope I’ll see you on the other side one day.
Dad, I’m so sorry. I always thought I was doing the right thing, but the truth is, there was never a chance of freedom in Apex. There never will be. They’ll work you and the rest of F to the bone until you’re too old, then...you know. I can’t stick around to watch that happen. I want a chance at life where my rations don’t have ants in them, where the air is clear, where there is music and art. I know it’s out there, like in the fables you used to tell us.
And whether I find that over the wall, or in death, I’ll be happier than I could ever be in Apex.
When you see mom again, tell her I love her. And that missing her is a pain that will never go away. Missing all of you will be one of the hardest things I have to do.
I have nothing to leave you but this letter and my love. I’m not traveling alone and will stay as safe as possible. Again, please give me some time.
With all of my love,
Aura’s final stop was to her apartment to gather her things and say bye to Del. It was much too early for anyone to be bustling around the hallways, so making it to her door was a breeze.
Some clothes, a blanket with roses that she’d had since birth, a picture of her family, and a drawing Del had done of her when they’d gone to the lake to clean. All of this was shoved into a small, worn duffle bag. After surveying her items, only a few more small things were packed before Aura shut the door behind her. Next, she lightly knocked on Del’s door in a pattern only she’d used.
Del answered and yanked her inside. “What are you doing here?” His expression was panicked.
“I came to get some stuff and say bye, I’m leaving.”
“Good,” Del huffed, “two enforcers came here in the middle of the night to see if you were here. A couple hours after curfew.
Aura’s eyes widened in disbelief. How would they know so quickly?
“Don’t worry, I covered, but the sooner you go the better.” Del hugged her tightly, causing a few pops in her back, he faced her, squeezing her shoulders. “Wherever you end up, oh my god, your hair
Although tears were streaming down her face, a chuckle erupted from her. “I’ll miss you, Del.”
“I’ll miss you too, kid. Don’t forget me.”
Aura was back two and a half hours later, and the sky was just beginning to lighten to a royal blue. From a distance, she could see the strand of her hair was removed from the doorknob, and her teeth clenched.
Kieran knew she left. And even worse, she’d have to face him.
Aura opened the door slowly, its creak echoing back at her, to show an empty home. “Hey, are you here?”
Thank god. Delaying a confrontation sounded much better, especially if she could nap off some of the headache that was now pounding thanks to drinking the night before. Aura lowered herself lazily to the floor, crawling back into the cocoon she had left behind, now with a pile of her belongings next to it. Aura only got a line or two into humming a song she had wrote before her eyes fluttered shut for the last time, and she drifted back to sleep, as if she’d never left Kieran in the first place.