My name is all that is written on the plain white envelope taped to the mirror.
I step out of the stall inside the bathroom of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum, and the laughter and joy of the evening’s charity event I’ve been enjoying fades away. Fear and dread slam into me, shooting adrenaline through my body. No. No. No. This cannot be happening and yet it is. It is, and I know what it means. Suddenly, the room begins to shift and everything goes gray. I fight the flashback I haven’t had in years, but I am already right there in it, in the middle of a nightmare. The scent of smoke burns my nose. The sound of blistering screams shreds my nerves. There is pain and heartache, and the loss of all I once had and will never know again.
Fighting a certain meltdown, I swallow hard and shove away the gut-wrenching memories. I can’t let this happen. Not here, not in a public place. Not when I’m quite certain danger is knocking on my door.
On wobbly knees and four-inch black strappy heels that had made me feel sexy only minutes before and clumsy now, I step forward and press my palms to the counter. I can’t seem to make myself reach for the envelope and my gaze goes to my image in the mirror, to my long white-blond hair I’ve worn draped around my shoulders tonight rather than tied at my nape, and done so as a proud reflection of the heritage of my Swedish mother I’m tired of denying. Gone too are the dark-rimmed glasses I’ve often used to hide the pale blue eyes both of my parents had shared, making it too easy for me to see the empty shell of a person I’ve become. If this is what I am at twenty-four years old, what I will be like at thirty-four?
Voices sound outside the doorway and I yank the envelope from the mirror and rush into the stall, sealing myself inside. Still chatting, two females enter the bathroom, and I tune out their gossip about some man they’d admired at the party. I suddenly need to confirm my fate. Leaning against the wall, I open the sealed envelope to remove a plain white note card and a key drops to the floor that looks like it goes to a locker. Cursing my shaking hand, I bend down and scoop it up. For a moment, I can’t seem to stand up. I want to be strong. I shove to my feet and blink away the burning sensation in my eyes to read the few short sentences typed on the card.
I’ve found you and so can they. Go to JFK Airport directly. Do not go home. Do not linger. Locker 111 will have everything you need.
My heart thunders in my chest as I take in the signature that is nothing more than a triangle with some writing inside of it. It’s the tattoo that had been worn on the arm of the stranger who I’d met only once before. He’d saved my life and helped me restart a new one, and he’d made sure I knew that symbol meant that I am in danger and I have to run.
I squeeze my eyes shut, fighting a wave of emotions. Once again, my life is about to be turned upside down. Once again I will lose everything, and while everything is so much less than before, it’s all I have. I crumble the note in my hand, desperate to make it, and this hell that is my reality, go away. After six years of hiding, I’d dared to believe I could find “normal”, but that was a mistake. Deep down, I’ve known that since two months ago when I’d left my job at the central library as a research assistant, to work at the museum. Being here is treading water too close to the bridge.
Straightening, I listen as the women’s voices fade before the room goes silent. Anger erupts inside me at the idea that my life is about to be stolen from me again and I tear the note in tiny pieces, flush them down the toilet and shove the envelope into the trash. I want to throw away the key too, but some part of me won’t let that happen. Probably the smart, unemotional part of me that I hate right now.
Unzipping the small black purse I have strapped across my chest and over my pale blue blazer, that despite my tight budget, I’d splurged on for this new job; I drop the key inside, sealing it away. I’m going to finish my party. Maybe I’m going to finish my life right here in New York City. The note didn’t say I’d been found. It only warned me that I could be found. I don’t want to run again. I don’t. I need time to think, to process, and that is going to have to wait until after the party.
Decision made, I exit the stall, cutting my eyes away from the mirror and heading for the door. I do not want anyone to see me right now when I have no idea who “me” is or will be tomorrow. In a zone, that numb place I’ve used as a survival tool almost as many times as I’ve tried to find the meaning of that symbol on the note, I follow the soft hum of orchestra music from well-placed speakers, entering a room with a high oval ceiling decorated with magnificent artwork. I tell myself to get lost in the crush of patrons in business attire, while waiters toting trays offer champagne and finger foods, but I don’t. I simply stand there, mourning the new life I’ve just begun, and I know is now gone. My “zone” has failed me.
“Where have you been?”
The question comes as Chloe Monroe, the only person I’ve let myself consider a friend in years, steps in front of me, a frown on her heart-shaped face. From her dark brown curls bouncing around her shoulders to her outgoing personality and fun, flirty attitude, she is my polar opposite and I love that about her. She is everything I am not but hoped I would become.
Now I will lose her. Now I will lose me again.
“Well,” she prods when I don’t reply quickly enough, shoving her hands onto her hips.
“Where have you been?”
“Bathroom,” I say. “There was a line.” I sound awkward. I feel awkward. I hate how easily the lie comes to me, how it defines me. A lie is all that I am.