Short Story – The Road Back

She had been here before countless times, but never had the town square looked so foreign to her. Something in this labyrinth of dusty corridors and stone archways seemed to have shifted in aspect; even the paint peeling in flakes overhead and pools of water gathering in the rough uneven ground served to throw her off.

In the narrow back alley, she had to simultaneously sidestep a puddle and duck beneath an archway on several counts. The only light came from the crescent moon that sliced the sky above, and the pearly unearthly glow of his silhouette. She kept a tight watch on that glow, afraid to lose sight of him.

He moved swiftly ahead of her, a strapping figure cutting through the fog, and she struggled to keep up. Occasionally, he would glance back to see if he had lost her, then reassured by the sight of her, advance along, never once breaking stride.

Not since her thirteenth birthday had she ventured out alone at this time of the night. Yet, even in the darkness, this place felt as familiar as her backyard. Not for the first time, she wondered what had made her decide to follow him here when she knew close to nothing about him. Her father would have an embolism if he found out.

She heard a low murmur, and realised he was muttering to himself as his eyes swept across the doors they passed. It only occurred to her that the doors were marked with what appeared like claw marks, three blatant slashes raked into the worn wood. She had never travelled through these back alleys, but she was certain the embellishments hadn’t been part of the doors. What did the shopkeepers suppose of their doors being damaged this way – assuming, of course, that someone else had done the scratching?

He was saying something in a more audible tone now.

“Yesterday was a story, today is a statement, and tomorrow is just a rumour. Everything else is buried.” He spun around to direct his moonlit eyes on her. “Do you know the answer to that?”

Caught off guard by the urgency in his gaze, she could only blink and stammer, “I – I don’t….”

“It’s a riddle,” he explained, resuming his stride. “A clue.”

“Clue to what?” Her voice jerked as she started jogging to keep up with him.

“To the place we’re looking for. To the one who can bring you back.”

“Back where?” she pressed, but he was too fixated on searching for the right door. She decided to focus on the riddle instead as she tried to trail behind him as closely as possible. Her footsteps slowed as the answer dawned on her. “There’s a fortune-teller next to a newsstand just around the corner,” she called. “And next to that is a bookstore!”

He whirled around and peered at her curiously, his brows pulling together to make out her meaning.

“A rumour, a statement, a story. Where can you find those things? A fortune-teller’s, a newsstand and a bookstore,” she explained.

“And the rest is buried?”

“There’s a basement in the bookstore. The other two are boarded up. Maybe –”

“Lead the way,” he said.

*

The frayed old bookstore stood at the end of the street like a survivor, flanked by a pottery shop and the newsstand. It seemed more morose than comforting in the dark; she had spent countless afternoons in Between the Pages and never had she seen it this way.

They stood in the face of the crumbling edifice, separate in their respective reveries. A part of her meant to tear down the lane where they came from, back to where she was safe in her ignorance of this secret life she never knew belonged to her. But another part, one that wrestled for dominance in her, forced her to stay where she was, insisting that she would get the answers she sought – finally.

Next to her, he glanced about furtively, eager to duck out of the light. The streetlights burnished his pewter eyes and she found herself unable to look away from the feral glow in his flitting gaze.

Before either of them could calculate their next move, Roy emerged from the depths of the bookstore. The door rasped behind him as he peered at her through his left eye, the one that wasn’t clouded with cataract, then took another glance at the stranger by her side. He must have found an answer of some sort in their faces, because a shadow slipped over his face.

“Roy, this is…” She considered how to introduce him, but Roy only stared up at her companion, his face lined with a mix of emotions she struggled to identify.

At length he said to the tall, silver-eyed stranger, as if he had known him forever, “You brought her back.”
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