The Spaniard Of The Amazon

The two travelers were soaked from head to toe by the time they reached the Spaniard’s home. The canoe pulled up into the mud and they toppled out of it, grateful for the chance to stretch their legs. They thanked the local and handed him a sack of coins, which he stared at confusedly for a moment before pocketing it. As the canoe pulled back into the river, they heard the local man laughing to himself. Grinning at each other, they looked up at the small hut which camouflaged into the forest.

The Amazon. They had finally done it.

This is a story I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I heard it first hand at a party about three years ago and was fascinated. So bear with me, keep reading and I promise you an adventure.

Professor Eli Greene reclined on the sofa next to his wife, as they celebrated their 60th birthdays. On the wall was a framed photograph inside a painting he had done himself. The photograph was of two people standing on a raft on the bank of the Amazon River.

“I’m going to tell you the story of that picture,” he told a room full of smiling party guests. “It was a long time ago, before we had children…

It was raining on that morning when Eli left the house for the pharmacy. He had to verify a new stagier that day, and he was not looking forward to it. He unlocked the doors and disarmed the alarm, enjoying the few minutes of peace and quiet until another crazy day began.

The door creaked open and Eli looked up. For a moment he thought it was just the wind, but then he noticed a woman walking toward him. She was practically the size of a fairy. She had long black waves below her shoulders and bright, curious eyes. Eli caught himself staring and cleared his throat.

“Morning,” he said.

She stood on tip toe to see over the counter. “Good morning. I’m Jess.”

The stagier.

Maybe it wasn’t going to be such a bad day after all.

It may have been love at first sight, or it may have taken a few times to really sink in. The moment when Eli knew he was captivated for life was when she told him what she had always wanted to do.

South America, she told him, was the place she wanted to travel. “There’s a legend about a man who lives at the very end of –”

“– the Amazon River,” he completed her sentence. “I’ve heard it. The Spaniard.”

She nodded enthusiastically. “I’ve always wanted to meet him.”

Eli gaped at her. In his mind he said, “Me too,” but what he heard was, “Will you marry me?”

“So that was how we met,” the professor continued. “And it was time to begin the journey we had both been waiting for.”

The twelve hour flight had finally come to an end. They touched down in Miami, Florida, tired from the travel but excited at the knowledge that this was finally it, the adventure to the Spaniard of the Amazon. They were to spend one night in a motel before continuing their journey to the southern hemisphere. Jess was glad to take off her shoes and collapse on the bed.

“Ugh!” she exclaimed, scrambling back to her feet. “The sheets are damp!”

Eli frowned. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m asking them to change them,” she announced. He shrugged in response. Moments later an attendant arrived with a set of fresh bedding.

“These are damp as well,” Jess scowled. “This is unacceptable!”

“What do you expect from a cheap motel?” he offered apologetically.

“Clean sheets? That’s standard.”

Eli sighed as Jess called the hotel management and explained the situation.

“Hon, you know where you are, right?” the manager said over the phone.

“I don’t understand,” replied Jess.

“Hon, you’re in Miami. Things just don’t dry the way you’re used to up north.” The manager hung up.

“Despicable!” Jess exclaimed.

Eli glanced at her. “South America,” he reminded her.

She nodded. “South America. Where things don’t dry.”

“Traveling always sounds so magical,” explained the professor. “But you don’t always hear about the strange new experiences of being in a different part of the world.”

Eli placed the bags of produce in his backpack. “Thank you,” he said, and the salesman nodded graciously. Eli handed the man a pile of gold coins. The man stared at the coins.

“What’s this?”

“It’s money,” said Eli. “For the fruit.”

The man looked further confused. “Nothing to trade?”

Eli nodded. “Yes. The money. I’m trading the fruit for money.”

The man shook his head. “What can I do with this?” he handed to coins back to Eli.

Eli and Jess glanced at each other.

“Do you know how we get to the Spaniard?” Jess asked.

The man laughed. “But it’s not hunting season,” he said, as though this should have been obvious to them.

“Goodbye!” said the man. The waved to him and continued walking, puzzled by this experience.

“Everyone thought we were insane,” said the professor. “And looking back on it, they were right.”

“The Spaniard,” Eli said for what felt like the millionth time. “He lives at the end of the river.”

The skipper looked at him. “Ah, yes, I know this man.”

“You do?” Jess’s face lit up. “Finally!”

“I knew it was real,” said Eli. “So how do we get to him?”

The skipper shook his head. “It’s not hunting season,” he explained.

Jess and Eli exchanged glances. “Why does that matter?” Jess asked, but the skipper simply chuckled and disappeared inside his boat.

“Why don’t we rent a canoe?” offered Jess, noticing a small shop on the river bank.

“Certainly,” Eli agreed. “Who said we need local help?”

She grinned. He kissed her.

Ten minutes later, they were on their way. With life jackets strapped tightly around them, Eli took the paddle and sat in the canoe.

How hard can it be to operate a canoe? he thought. You just use the paddle, right?

Apparently, taking a canoe upstream on the Amazon river is no small job. Eli struck with all his might and managed to get the canoe about two feet up the river. Jess squealed as the water splashed her and Eli continued forcing his way inch by inch across the water. The canoe went backwards. He tried again. But all the canoe wanted to do was go with the flow.

Eli sighed. “We’ll find a way there,” he promised. Jess squeezed his hand.

“I know,” she replied.

The man with the canoe was built like an ox, with black hair all the way down his back.

“Will you take us up the river to see the Spaniard?” they asked. He stared at them.

“Why do you wish to visit the Spaniard?” he inquired.

They glanced at each other. “We would like to speak with him.”

The man chuckled. He waved away the pile of gold Eli offered him and gestured toward the canoe. “It’s a long ride,” he warned them.

“That’s okay,” said Jess. “We want to go.”

The man nodded. “It is a strange request, to visit the Spaniard.”

“We’ve noticed,” said Eli. “But we want to go.”

“All right,” said the man. He took two battered life vests out of the bottom of the boat and handed one to each of them. “You swim?” he asked.

“Yes,” the both said.

“Good. You do not swim in the Amazonas.”

“Okay.”

The canoe trip took about an hour. The man clearly knew what he was doing much better than they did. Operating the canoe upstream was no problem for him. Eli and Jess held hands as the canoe tumbled over the waves. They watched as the tall banana trees slipped by them, welcoming them.

“Here,” said the man, anchoring the canoe in the shallow water. They stepped into the water and walked up to the bank.

“Good luck getting back,” said the man. “It’s not hunting season.”

The Spaniard greeted them outside his house. It was small, just one story high, and made entirely of wood put together skillfully. “Welcome, guests,” he said, bowing them into his home. The two could barely hide their excitement. The Spaniard of the Amazon, himself! He served them coffee and bananas. He told them the story of how he became the Spaniard of the Amazon.

“I left America after the war in Vietnam,” he said. “I no longer wished to live in a world with such disasters. I came here for some peace and quiet, a place where I could be entirely on my own, without the disappointment of people.”

His tone was bitter as he spoke of his time in the United States army. He explained to them how he lived at the end of the river, growing his own food, heating the house with firewood when needed. He had running water but no electricity. They were fascinated by his lifestyle.

“Can we come live here?” Jess whispered to Eli, who grinned at her in return.

They stood on the edge of the river bank. The spaniard frowned.

“Where is your boat?” he asked.

“We came in a canoe,” said Eli. “Someone gave us a ride.”

The Spaniard shook his head. “It’s not hunting season,” he said.

“What on earth does that mean?” asked Jess. “Everyone has been telling us that.”

“It means,” sighed the Spaniard, “that the usual hunters who come and go along the river are not out at this time of year. Nobody visits the Spaniard of the Amazon,” he explained.

Eli and Jess stared at each other.

They had no way to get back.

“Do you have a boat or something that we could borrow?” Eli asked. The Spaniard shook his head.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But it is very strange that you came to visit me. I am usually not equipped for visitors.”

Eli nodded. “I understand.” He glanced at the banana trees that grew around the Spaniard’s home. “Maybe we could build a raft.”

The Spaniard laughed. “Do you know how to build a raft?”

Eli shook his head. “How hard can it be?”

The Spaniard looked amused. “You are very daring,” he commented. “But yes, you can build a raft. I will show you.”

Jess’s wish of moving to live with the Spaniard seemed to be coming true. Building a raft, it appeared, was no simple task. The wood had to be collected from fallen trees, as cutting down the trees was not an option. Then the wood had to be dried.

“But we’re in South America,” Jess pointed out. “Where…”

“Nothing ever dries,” completed Eli. “How do we dry the wood?”

“Ah,” the Spaniard smiled. He showed them a room in his house where he stored the firewood. There was a fireplace in the corner. “The heat dries out the air,” he explained.

It took nearly a month for all the wood to dry. Then it had to be cut, shaped, sanded, and pieced together. The Spaniard knew exactly what he was doing. He instructed Eli exactly what shape to cut the wood, and what length, and how to nail them to each other so the raft would float. It was days and days of hard work for both Eli and Jess, though the Spaniard seemed to be enjoying himself. The nailed planks together until finally the raft was ready. Eli styled a paddle out of one of the remaining pieces of wood.

They were ready to go. Eli and the Spaniard laid the raft into the water and held it to the shore with rope.

“Good luck,” said the Spaniard, as the couple boarded the raft with their belongings.

“Can you take a picture?” Jess asked, handing the Spaniard a camera. He knew exactly what to do with it, even after his years of being away from technology.

“Thank you,” they said. The rope was released, and they sailed off down the river.

“And the whole way back, alongside whirlpools and rocks and waves, there was this banana,” said the professor, placing his glass of wine on the coffee table. “It followed us the whole way back to the mainland.”

“Did you eat it?” somebody asked.

Eli smiled. “Would you have eaten a banana that made its way across the Amazon?”

Determined

It’s two o’clock in the morning on April 12th, 1912, and I am about to die.

The temperature is two degrees below zero centigrade. Everything within one hundred meters of us is ice. Even my thoughts seem to have frozen.

I look around and regard that I am not the only one. Most of the crew appear to be paralyzed. They stand in place awaiting orders which no one is giving. A few moments pass like this until the sound of breaking ice shatters the silence.

I am not thinking about whose fault it is. I am not thinking about the ship’s design or the amount of wealth about to be lost for centuries. I am not thinking about the myriad ice warnings we received over the past few hours. I think of nothing at all. It is somewhat peaceful, given the circumstances.

The few of us left on deck have nothing to say to each other. None of us will live to take home final words or last wishes. The boats are gone. Hopefully they’ll be found before hypothermia catches up with the passengers.

The captain releases us from duty and disappears. I descend several levels and break into one of the first class cabins. A plethora of abandoned riches lay sprawled upon the floor, gliding in accordance with the tilting of the ship’s floor. I put on as many fur coats as I possibly can. Then I sit down on the floor and close my eyes.

As my thoughts flicker to life, I begin to wonder how, if at all, the Titanic will be remembered. Will she be forever condemned as one man’s failure? Will anyone be able to imagine her beauty and glamour? Even on her way to the bottom of the ocean, the ship loses no grace. I look around me and my eyes drink in the velvet and crystal surroundings. What was meant to be an unforgettable experience, I am now pondering if it will ever be remembered.

Others have mimicked my idea of raiding first class. Still no one says anything. It is as if our mouths have been sealed by fate. For some reason I can not comprehend, the band continues to play many levels above. How they can play with the freezing cold air and the tilting floor, I will never know.

The angle of the ship is becoming sharper. It is time to make a decision. There’s no jumping into the water at this temperature; ice skates would be a better bet. Putting a scroll into a bottle is beneath me, and in any case I’m not sure I have time to write. But I am desperate to live on in something, even the most insignificant act. I may go down with this ship but I am determined to leave something on the surface of the earth.

I brace myself and run back up to the deck and begin to set off fireworks, something which should have been done an hour ago. Even if it does nothing, even if nobody knows it was me, I have put myself, my truth, my whole life into those rockets. They crack loudly in the still night, and light up the total darkness. I fire every last one.

The ship has bowed deeply into the water by now. There is a formidable amount of strain on the steel frame. We know it is coming before it happens. I lay down on my back and watch the night fade. The Titanic is broken, but it is still alive. I allow the rush of wind to fill my ears, and the night embraces me as I fall asleep.

Give Yourself A Bravery Award

If you aren’t happy with your life, do something to change it.
If you can’t, find someone who can help you.
If there’s no one, wait a little while and look again.
If no one understands, teach them to speak your language.
If you are too tired to do anything, slow down and catch your breath.

If you’ve lost the memory of happiness, ask a friend where she saw it last.
If all your friends are away, try keeping yourself company.
If you feel completely alone, watch puppy videos on the internet.

If you lose your job, make the bank pay for a vacation.
If you flunk out of school, remember that it’s not a race.
If you can’t get out of bed, allow yourself a pajama day.
If every day is a pajama day, see how you feel in your clothes.
If your clothes don’t fit, buy new ones to match your emotions.
If your body is unfamiliar, whisper that your self love is unconditional.
If you’ve hit rock bottom, declare yourself a superhero for staying alive.

If you have scars, give yourself a bravery award.
If your scars are invisible, wear your heart on your sleeve.
If you are afraid of what people will think, be thankful that you can’t read minds.
If you can’t find kindness in your heart, resolve to give it out as soon as it comes back.

If you lose your way, send up a flare.
If you don’t know how to continue, make it up as you go along.
If you can’t find a reason to keep going, get a second opinion.
If you think the sun will never shine again, invest in some night vision goggles.
If there is no light at the end of the tunnel, pull over and wait until morning.

Memory Game

In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. And God said, “Let there be love!” And there appeared before him a vast spread of playing cards. And God said to the archangel Azriel, “What is this?” And Azriel replied, “Your greatness, this is the game of Memory.” And God said to the angel, “How do we play?” And the angel explained the rules of Memory. And God turned over the first card and saw Adam. And he turned over another card and saw Eve, and they were a match. And God was pleased.

Then God said to Azriel, “How many cards are there?” and the angel replied, “As many people as ever will live on Earth.” And God said, “How many is that?” And the angel told him “It is Aleph Naught.” And God said, “That is a large number.” And the archangel Azriel said, “Infinity is not a number.” And God banished the archangel Azriel and called upon the archangel Michael. “Play with me,” God ordered Michael, and Michael obeyed, for he did not have free will. “It is your turn,” said God. So the archangel turned over a card, and it was you. And he turned over another card, and it was your ex. So Michael turned both cards face down again and tried to remember where they were.

Then it was God’s turn, and he turned over a card with your friend. And then he turned over another card and it was a match. And God was pleased and said, “I’m winning.” But Michael saw that when a pair was not a match, there was much sadness in the hearts. And Michael said, “I don’t want to play anymore.” And God became angry and messed up the whole board. And Michael said, “You are acting like a two year old.” And God banished him and called upon the archangel Uriel.

And God said to the archangel Uriel, “Play with me.” And Uriel obliged because he did not have free will. And the archangel took his turn and made a match. And God took his turn and made another match. And then Uriel took his turn and turned over your face once again, with another one of your exes, but it was not a match. And God said, “That one has been turned over twice already.” And Uriel said, “A heart that has never been broken is only half grown.” And God was pleased, and they continued playing. Soon God got bored and banished Uriel and called upon the archangel Raphael.

And God said to Raphael, “Play with me.” And Raphael played for he did not have free will. And God said, “Some of these matches are hard to find.” And Raphael agreed, and said, “But when you finally find them, you remember them forever.” And God said, “I feel bad when I break someone’s heart because I didn’t find a match the first time.” And Raphael said to God, “Every new love heals a broken heart.” And God was pleased. But God saw that Raphael was terrible at the game and banished him and called upon the archangel Gabriel.

And Gabriel said, “How are you doing, God?” And God said, “Play with me.” And Gabriel played, because he did not have free will. And Gabriel said, “Why have you banished all of the archangels?” And God said, “Because they did not understand about love.” And Gabriel said, “Why not?” And God told him. “Azriel thought that love was about how many people you have loved. Michael thought that love was about finding the one. Uriel thought that love was about learning. Raphael thought love was about healing. And you, Gabriel, what do you think love is about?” And Gabriel was not afraid, for he knew that God could not banish him, lest he be left alone without any archangels. So Gabriel said to God, “Love is about giving.” And God was pleased. And God called back the other archangels to his side, and he told them all, “I love you.”

And the archangels were silent, for they did not have free will.

Jewish Wedding In Rozmberk

Is there a better time than now
To sing of my identity?
To wave my flag of Jewish pride
And dance beneath the golden glow
Of castle walls in Rozmberk

And in this town will sleep tonight
A dozen Jews with bellies full,
Content and warm, where once before
The Jews had but a footprint left.

Is this what Hitler thought could be?
If I could force that man to watch
As families unite with joy,
Unafraid and unashamed
Of who we are and how we live,
Drinking wine from silver cups
And passing on a diamond ring,
Free of fear and free of him,
That would be enough for me.

My people lives! My people lives!
And from the ashes, like a phoenix
We are born to live again.
And what a life it is. Amen.

The Little Things

It’s always the little things that get you.
The absence of a second toothbrush
Bits of laundry that aren’t yours
Suddenly that shelf is empty
I wonder what I used to keep there.
Whose shampoo is this? Whose shirt?
A note in sloppy handwriting
That fell out of my backpack
Dated back to ancient history
Captures an evasive moment
Language no one speaks but you
And me.
A pair of borrowed socks
A coat you lent me one cold night
And gifts, that made me glow with pride
Are sour when I think of them.
The college campus tinted blue
The corners where I laughed because
I was so happy, so surprised
That you could understand so deeply
Why I like the things I do.
Moments where I didn’t need
To make an effort just to smile
Since my cheeks were sore from grinning.
Now I have some things to do
First change the lock screen on my phone
My profile picture, cover photo
Oh, and my relationship status.
Photographs aren’t little things
They’re fragile bottled memories
A frame that froze so perfectly,
Preserves an ounce or two of joy
Reminding me how good I felt
Some time ago that isn’t now.

Matching Scars

Matching Scars

Sam is captured by bandits and thrown into a prison cell where she encounters a figure from her past, Ash,who is facing execution. An unexpected twist of fate offers an opportunity for the girls to be released. But at what price?

For The Write Practice’s 5th Anniversary writing contest, I wrote this story, Matching Scars, which is now published on their magazine website,Short Fiction Break!


 

I stared at the face of the girl approaching me across the darkness of the cell. In the decade which had passed since I last saw it, her face had changed; it had grown slimmer, rougher. Her skin was paler. Her hair, which I remembered as long and black, had been cut short. There were shadows under her eyes. On her left cheek, just above her jaw, was a thin scar which had not been there before.

I stared, certain that it was her, unable to believe she was real.

“Sam?” she whispered.

“Ash,” I breathed.

She squealed and ran into my arms. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here? What happened to your face?”

The scar reminded me of something, but I couldn’t place it. It was as if I had seen that scar before, perhaps on somebody else.

“Forget me – what are you doing here?”

“Bandits,” I told her. “I think they were after Panther.”

“Panther!” she gasped. Panther was the black cat we had adopted secretly in the orphanage. I named him Panther because he thought he was a mountain lion. He had an arrow-shaped scar across his nose. He had turned up one day in the yard, and Ash and I gave him water and scraps of leftover food. “But…when did you leave the orphanage?”

“Just before my fifteenth birthday. I’ve been living in the woods ever since.”

“Oh, no,” She hugged me even tighter. It was the first time in months, excluding the hours when I was captured and kidnapped, that I had felt the touch of another human being. She sat down against the wall of the cell and I joined her. As we did so, two trays with lentil soup and a slice of stale bread materialized in the corner.

“They know you’re here,” Ash observed, placing the second tray in front of me. “Did Panther survive?”

I picked up my spoon and caught a blur of my reflection. My auburn hair was a disaster from being tied up, and my eyes were sunken. “The bandits got him.”

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, running her fingers through my hair. “Sam… I can’t believe it’s you.”

“I thought I’d never see you again,” I admitted, “when you…”

“Got adopted,” she sighed. I caught a gleam of anger in her black eyes.

“Ash, what happened to you?”

“I broke my jaw.” She didn’t meet my gaze.

“But why are you here?”

She was silent for a long time, staring pointedly away.

“Ash, what happened?” I repeated.

She took a deep breath. “Sam…” she swallowed. “I’m…” she closed her eyes. “I’ve been sentenced to death.”

I felt the blood drain from my face. My heart pounded so loudly it echoed around the empty cell.

At night, we huddled close to keep warm. With Ash beside me, I didn’t even miss Panther. Although the presence of my long lost friend was comforting, I was angry that my taste of freedom had been snatched away. I longed for my days in the woods. I dreaded Ash’s sentence. And what was I doing in there with her?

“You!” A grumpy guard barked as he unlocked our cell, beckoning me to him. I glanced at Ash, who nodded. The guard dragged me outside to the back of a wagon. I was barely inside when the horses bounded forward, galloping up the hill toward the castle. Were we going to trial? Would I be sentenced to death as well?

I watched the landscape pass by as we rode along the castle moat. Suddenly I was gripped by an insane impulse. Heart pounding, not thinking about what the consequences might be, I jumped off the wagon and into the water. The guard didn’t look back.

As soon as my head broke the surface, I became aware that I was not alone. A young man was walking along the opposite bank. He was handsome, but looked troubled. Our eyes met. I felt self conscious of my smock and started to walk away.

He called to me. “Did you just jump out of a moving wagon?”

I looked up the hill as if wondering so myself. “Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t want to go where it was taking me.”

He appraised me. “I admire you,” he declared. “Your parents must be proud.”

“Orphan,” I muttered, annoyed.

His jaw dropped and he smacked himself. “How could I forget?”

I glanced at him suspiciously. “Have we met?”

He ignored the question. “Let me make it up to you. Anything you want.”

I grimaced. “What are you, a wizard?”

“A prince.”

“Oh, sure. And I’m your mother.”

“Suit yourself.”

“You can’t give me what I want,” I told him.

“Try me.”

I hesitated. I had escaped from the prison but I wasn’t truly free. I couldn’t leave Ash to die. Was there anything to be lost by asking? “I want mercy for a girl on death row.”

He frowned. “I can’t promise,” he said slowly, “but I can ask for an appeal.”

The prince led me to the drawbridge. No one asked who I was. From up close I was able to see that he, too, had scars on his face. The one on his nose reminded me of Panther. The other…

I shivered. I had seen Ash’s scar before. It was the scar magically imprinted upon anyone who had kissed someone of the same sex.

Ash’s death sentence.

I swallowed. We walked up to the castle and directly to the main court. I waited outside while he entered the courtroom. I couldn’t hear what was going on. I paced the hallway, sat down, and started pacing again. After an eternity, he emerged, his expression resigned.

“Your friend has been pardoned,” he rasped.

I gaped at him. “At what price?”

“If she will marry me.”

I felt a twinge of jealousy at the thought. I paused, looking up at the prince’s blank face. “But aren’t you-”

“Shh,” he pressed a finger to his lips. “It is the only way.”

We rode to the prison in silence. Ash looked delighted and confused as we approached her cell with the guards. The prince explained the conditions for her pardon.

“What?” Ash gulped. “Your Highness…” her eyes lingered on his scar, the one that matched hers. A tear trickled down her face. “I’m grateful…but I couldn’t. Nor could you.”

Silence rang in my ears. For Ash and the prince to marry each other would be as much imprisonment as a lifetime behind bars.

I stepped forward. “I’ll take her place,” I announced. “I’ll marry you.” I couldn’t save the prince, but at least Ash would be free.

The prince appraised me and nodded. He reached for the key.

“No!” she exclaimed. “Sam, don’t.”

“But you’ll go free! No one will know.”

“I’ll know,” she whispered, dropping her gaze. Tears rolling past her closed eyelids, she said, “Sam… I can’t watch you marry… the prince.”

She looked into my eyes, and after a long moment, I understood.

The prince pulled me aside and whispered in my ear. “When I unlock the cell, waste no time looking for me. Take your friend and run.”

What did he mean, looking for him? “What are you going to do?”

“Set her free.”

“And be executed?!”

He shook his head. “No one will ever find me.” He grinned, watching my face turn from horror to incredulity. “Don’t worry, there will always be kind people to take care of me.” I got the feeling that he was referring to me.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“I owe you a favor. Sam, you must.” When had I ever done anything for him? And how did he know my name?

“Yes, your highness,” I breathed through gritted teeth.

The prince stepped forward and unlocked the cell. Ash rushed into my arms. For a moment I was lost in her presence.

The prince vanished. A guard lunged at us, forcing us inside the cell. He fumbled for the key but it was gone. Sweeping stealthily through the bars was a black cat with an arrow-shaped scar across his nose.

“Panther?!” He hissed at me, urging me to flee. I came to my senses. I swung back the bars, took Ash’s hand, and ran.

We ran four hours. With the taste of freedom in the air, no hunger or exhaustion could stop us. When finally it was safe to stop, Ash pulled me into a hug. Still panting, I turned my face and kissed her.

When we broke apart, she was smiling. I felt something unfamiliar as her fingers grazed my left cheek.

“You’ve been scarred.” She kissed the scar. It burned beneath her lips.

“By suffering,” I answered. “Not by loving you.”

“What about Panther?” Ash muttered.

“He’ll be fine,” I assured, brushing a lock of black hair out of her face. “Another orphan will adopt him.”

She nodded. I closed my eyes and kissed her again.