I walked up the icy path leading away from Mr. McCally’s small farm and into the village itself. I’d been very fortunate to have landed there. It wasn’t just because the townsfolk had welcomed Blanche Arbor into their midst with very little question, offering my new persona a job as a housekeeper in their various farms. It was also because Balloch boasted a Western Union.

That was why I’d chosen to stay there.

Blanche Arbor was the ID I’d stolen from a woman who had vaguely resembled me as I escaped Inverness. The only person who knew who I’d become was Alex and that was only because I’d needed her to send me money.

“I’m coming to you,” Alex told me, calling my phone only from her own burner.

“Uh no,” I insisted. “They could be watching you. That’s why you’re calling me on an untraceable phone, remember?”

“I hate this!” Alex wailed. “I need to see you, Sash. You can’t keep living like this!”

“It’ll be over soon,” I promised but of course I was lying to her. If anything, this was just beginning.

At least I didn’t have to ask her for money anymore, not when I was making my own.

From biochemist to housemaid.

In all fairness, I didn’t think of myself as the same person anymore. I was trying my best to assimilate, not only for my own safety but also that I could forget about a life I could never return to.

“What are you telling my mom?” I wanted to know.

“Ariel thinks you’re on a top-secret mission to Russia,” Alex muttered. “Trust me, I don’t think she could be anymore freaked out if I told her the truth.”

“You’re not telling her anything,” I insisted and she sighed.

“I’m not going to say anything to her,” she promised. “But I wish you could come home.”

“This is my home now,” I told her. “Maybe one day you can come visit.”

I was thinking about the tears in Alex’s voice as I ventured into the town through Barn Church Road and then turned left on Culloden.

The primary school was letting out and I couldn’t help but pause to watch the children scampering down Inverness toward the main road, screeching with delight as the plowed into one another.

I realized what they were so happy about—it was the start of Christmas break.

A sad smile touched my lips and I continued toward the Kinney’s who had rented me a room in their attic. It was almost like an apartment, with its own bathroom and I found it insufferably lonely.

The Kinneys traveled a fair bit for work, both of them freelance something or the other from the city who had given up the pain of pavement for the comfort of country. They were happy to have someone to watch their demon cat when they were gone.

I didn’t mind. After living with seven men, I was glad to have the company.

You never lived with seven men, I chided myself. You barely stayed with them.

And yet, they had changed me in ways I could never explain.

I didn’t want to think about them, none of them. Their silence spoke volumes to me. When I’d been on the road for those first two weeks, I’d been looking over my shoulder constantly, not because I expected someone to come chasing after me but because I’d hoped to see one of their faces coming to bring me back.

When they didn’t, I realized that they were probably glad I’d left. I was one less thing for them to worry about now.

Letting myself into the house, I paused to remove my boots and coat before ambling into the living room. The Kinneys were in Jamaica over the holidays but they had given me permission to pull out their old “yule” tree and decorate it. I’d barely gotten started the night before.

I was forcing myself to go through the motions, to be this new woman with a new identity.

I didn’t know who I was bound to become as Blanche but I knew I had to at least pretend to get there.

It’s psychology 101, you see. You can trick your mind into doing anything. If I tell myself I’m Blanche Arbor long enough, I will become Blanche Arbor, Scottish Highlander and housekeeper with an accent et al.

Jinx, the demon cat, appeared, his black head butting against my leg as he walked around, eyeing the glass Christmas decorations with too much interest.

“Don’t even think about it,” I warned him. “If you break one of those, I’m throwing you out and the wolves can eat you.”

He stared at me balefully with yellow eyes.

“You think I’m kidding?”

He meowed and hissed at me before showing me his asshole and disappearing into the kitchen.

“Good talk!” I called after him and instantly a stab of loneliness struck me. The melancholy, the longing to be home and with Alex and my Mom over the holidays struck me with a viciousness I hadn’t expected but it was more than that, much, much more than that.

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