Authors: Amira MZ
The Ones Who Got Away
Because maybe there is a chance we’ll meet again
Table of contents
Swept By the Tide
Coffees, Croissants and
a pair of Handcuffs
Home is Where the Heart is
Be Careful What You Wish For
Swept By the Tide
The water was cold and unforgiving against my skin. The night breeze made it worse and I found my teeth chattering and goose bumps started to form all over my body. I was drowning deeper, and deeper into the water and it seemed as if the harder I fight, arms and legs kicking frantically, the deeper I fall into the heart of the ocean. Then, I saw her. It was as if I was staring at a reflection of myself. She had the same almond-shaped eyes, and curly hair that floated around her like a halo. I realize that I was staring at my four-year old self. She waved goodbye and when I reached out for her hand, I felt someone lift me up and out of the freezing ocean. And that was when I woke up.
It was three a.m. I was sweating copiously and shivering under my duvet in the wee hours of the morning. I had that dream again. The one that leaves me breathless and needing huge gulps of air as I felt my lungs would collapse if I did not. I felt emptiness nesting within me as I always have felt all my life. Something was missing and it kills me that I do not know what it is. I suddenly feel that the walls of the room were closing up on me, drowning me of oxygen. I slipped into my Nike sport shoes and headed out the door without a second glance.
There was a full moon and that illuminated my jogging track. The neighborhood was still, all of its residents sleeping peacefully without tossing and turning, unlike me. When I reached the beach, I felt calm and slightly terrified at the same time. The beach reminded me of something that I could not put a finger on and that was what terrifies me. Because I could feel that something important had happened here. Something that was certainly not what you would want to reminisce about. However, the beach also steadied my heartbeat and made me feel at home. A place where I can feel safe and loved.
I just moved to the city of Solana Beach last week. I got a place at an apartment through a friend who was close to the landlady. The landlady was a nice person as long as you paid your rent on time. I learnt that the hard way. My apartment was fully furnished, and believe me it sounds better than it looks. The supposedly leather sofa is torn at places and stuffed with cigarette butts. I could not even tell the original color of the curtains. And the washing machine has a mind of its own. That was the previous neighbor’s doing. As the land lady put it, that’s what you get when eight bachelors live under one roof. Surprisingly, I did not mind as the view was spectacular. I love to watch when the sky becomes a big spread of indigo as the sun sets. I end up taking tons of photos of it until it took up pretty much all the space in my hard drive.
I returned to the apartment before dawn and turned on my computer. It would be a waste of time trying to sleep when I was already fresh and in the mood for work. I am a journalist by the way, in case I forgot to mention. An investigative journalist. I was investigating on abuse reports and came across a shelter for abused women and their children that was based here, in Santa Monica. When I called the other day, the owner was more than glad to have me pay a visit. Publicity meant more donors anyway and they were running out of money. I never planned on moving here but the heavy traffic in Los Angeles was not doing any good for my stress level. So, within 24 hours, I called up a friend, checked in the deposit and here I was.
I took a quick shower and scoffed a heavily burnt toast and got into my car. It took less than ten minutes to get to the shelter. A crooked sign was hung on the rusting gates of the shelter. It was a bungalow that I imagined, used to be the pride of the owner a couple of decades ago. Moss has taken up residence on one side of the wall and cracks were obvious. I was greeted by a plump woman, Ms. Salina, the owner of the shelter. The house looked better on the inside. There were comfortable looking sofas, vases of fresh flowers and the smell of home-cooked food filled the air. It definitely felt like a place you would turn to, to seek refuge.
“I’m glad to meet you,” Ms. Salina said, smiling warmly “Have a seat, please.”
“I’m glad to be here.” I returned the favor. While looking around absorbing the homey atmosphere, I began my interview.
“So, in 1972, you set up this shelter for abused women?”
“It was basically my living room crowded with beds,” she began. “That was what I could offer but I tried to help in any way I could. I inherited this house from my mother, a strong woman she was. It was always her dream to give a helping hand to those in need. When my close friend started to come up with bruises she desperately tried to hide with long sleeves and by dabbing makeup on it, I realized that there were thousands of women out there. Just like her. So, I opened up this place.”
She continued, “At that time, it was the only shelter around and of course, the only place to turn to besides the police. Back then, abuse cases were rarely reported. Wives kept blaming themselves and besides, the attackers were mostly their husbands. Things like that were supposed to be kept between them and it would bring disgrace to the family if outsiders found out.”
I listened intently, jotting it all down in my notebook. “So,” I asked “did husbands ever turned up on your doorstep to search for their housewives? I mean, your house wasn’t that hard to find.”
“As easy as it was to find this place, husbands rarely showed up. And it’s not like I would welcome them with open arms if you know what I mean. But there was one who managed to persuade his wife to leave.”
“Where is she now?”
“God knows. I never heard a word from her again. I asked around but nobody knew her. She didn’t have many friends. I remembered when she first came here, she would only talk to her daughters. They were twins, real angels.”
I frowned at that, feeling a tug at my heartstrings. “Did the husband force her to leave? Yanked her out of the house, maybe? Was that why she left?”
“No. He was a charmer with words. I wouldn’t have believed he was capable of hurting anybody let alone his wife if it was not for the cuts and the bruises all over her. I can’t imagine what the woman must have felt, trying to save her twins without getting herself possibly killed in the process.”
We both sat in silence for a few moments. Clueless of how to continue, I pulled back my hair into a ponytail, tucking the strands of hair that covered my forehead. Ms. Salina took one look at me and it was as if she had seen a ghost. “That scar….” She trailed off. I touched my forehead.
“Oh that. I’ve had it since I can ever remember. Must have fell down when I was a kid. Not that I have any memory of it. Come to think of it, I can hardly remember anything from my childhood.” I said, hoping to gratify her curiosity. But all she did was shook her head. “No, I’ve seen that scar before”
“Really? You can’t have. It’s one in a million” I was not bragging but it just so happens to be true. The scar I had was shaped like a crescent reaching across cutting half of my left eyebrow.
Ms. Salina rose from her chair and returned with a photo album. It was thick and dog-eared with the edges of photos peeking out from the pages. The cover was yellowed, as if dipped in time. She leaved through the pages, searching for a certain photo and handed it over to me. It was a photo of two girls in the arms of a woman smiling at the camera. The girls were identical and that woman must have been their mother.
“Are these the girls that you mentioned earlier?” I asked. Still wondering about what it had to do with my scar.
Ms. Salina nodded. “Look closely,” and that was when I saw it. It was so prominent I was surprise I didn’t notice it at the first glance. One of the girls had a scar that took up most of the space on her forehead. A scar just like mine.
The room started spinning and I had to support myself by gripping the arms of the chair. Ms. Salina reached out to help me but I pushed her away and ran out the door.
I was in tears the whole way home that it was blurring my vision. I almost ran into a four-wheel drive. The driver, a guy in his late twenties, must have known somehow that I was having a bad day and just drove off with a wave. I stared ahead, pretending he was invisible. At LA, I would have been honked incessantly and have a middle finger pointed at me and possibly a sue hanging over my head. But Solana Beach is a small town. Everybody knows everybody and people take care of each other’s feelings, even a complete stranger like me. A fish out of water.
By the time I got home, I didn’t bother changing and went to bed and cried the whole night. I was swept by a tsunami of emotions until I felt tired and finally drifted off to sleep. That night I had that dream again. This time, it was more vivid making it even more frightening. I was about to reach for the girl but then someone pulled me up and I could feel air inflate my lungs after drinking mouthfuls of salty water. I looked up and saw my savior. She was a woman who looked familiar. She smiled sadly at me, not a word escaped her lips and then I woke up. I tried to dig up the memories stored in my mind when I noticed the business card Ms. Salina gave me, lying beside my bed. Then it hit me. Ms. Salina. The photo album. The woman in the photograph. She was the one.
I had breakfast the next morning at a local cafe, gorging on a plate of pancakes soaked in maple syrup. I was surprised I had the appetite for it given my lack of sleep. I almost bumped into a man when I was about to leave. He turned to face me. A cheeky smile pasted on his face as if teasing me.
“Isn’t it enough that you almost ran into the back of my truck yesterday that you have to run into my back too?” he said, grinning.
I smacked my forehead, my hair let down to cover the scar. “I’m so sorry. It’s just that my mind was wandering off yesterday…and today too, I guess” I said meekly.
He stretched out his hand “I hope I’ll be seeing you anytime soon.”
“You will.” and I shook his hand.
I stared at the door of the bungalow so hard I could have broken it down telepathically. I could not bring myself to knock and after what seemed like hours of staring and wishing the door would magically open by itself, I started to turn away. Just then, Ms. Salina opened the door and led me inside.
“I’m sorry about yesterday. I don’t know what came over me.” I offered my apology.
She accepted without a second thought.
“After you left, I dug up my store and found something you should have,” she handed me a chain. On it, was a rectangular metallic thing. I scrutinized it and realized it was a military identification badge.
“This belonged to the woman. She treasured it and wore it all the time while she was here. I hope this might help you.”
“What was that woman’s name?” I realized I hadn’t ask about it.
“Kate. She was a beautiful woman. You know what, I know just the person who can provide you with more information. Fara. She was Kate’s friend, the one she would probably confide in. She was one of the abuse victims who had spent a huge part of her life here before she finally got on her own two feet. Now, she‘s one of our most generous donors and always volunteers here.”
“Where can I find her?”
She gave me an address. Before I walked out the door, I asked “Do you think I’ll ever find her for answers? Kate, I mean.”
“I don’t want to let your hopes down but I usually don’t. Not after a woman goes back to her husband” she replied, sadness settling in her expression “Unless I pay a visit to the local cemetery.”
I swallowed the invisible lump that suddenly clogged my throat and walked away from the bungalow that looked like it belonged the past. Now I was about to uncover my past.
After emailing the number off the military badge to a friend in LA for him to research it, I paid a visit to Fara. She lives in a three-story house at the end of a cul-de-sac. The modern design made it stand out and outshine everything else in the quaint neighborhood. A Filipino woman, the maid I supposed, peeked out of the door when I ringed the doorbell. She gave me a sign that her employer was not at home. “Overseas,” was the only word she said before closing the door. A dead end.
A few days passed until I finally got what I wanted. I was getting restless by then. The identification number belonged to a retired soldier who was based at an army base in San Diego. I got his current address and wasted no time getting into my little 1990 Honda.
I could have probably gotten there in less than half an hour if not the engine started to sputter then died in the middle of the road. I cursed and hit the steering wheel. The result was only getting my hand hurt and no working engine. To make matters worse, it was raining, as in pouring rain. No thanks to El Nino. The wipers were at full speed and still the droplets could not be wiped off completely. I got out of the car and gave the old machine a kick in its behind. I heard a honk behind me and turned to face the same truck that I almost ran into, together with its owner. The man had an amusing smile on his face.