Chapter 2 : In Limbo
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"Alright, girl... five-hundred pounds per month, and this is my last offer."
Cassandra grits her teeth, scowling at the man in front of her. He is a tall brawny, forty-year-old Londoner with the disgusting habit of chewing tobacco in a particularly loud way. He smells of old beer and acts as if he has just got rid of a strong hangover. He is offering her a studio flat, a rat's nest lost somewhere near the city centre, and he is asking her for a rent of five hundred pounds per month.
It's too much. She doesn't have money on her bank account, the Colonel has made sure of that. She doesn't even have a job yet, so she can't pay for the deposit that should be required.
She would like to argue some more, but she is hurting everywhere, and she is still dizzy after her talk with Wilkins. She just wants to sleep, but she doesn't have a bed yet. Maybe the street would do for the night.
Her shoulders sagging and her hands gripping her crutch a tad bit tighter, the young woman sighs and shakes her head.
"Sorry, but it's still too much. Actually, everything you'd offer me would be too much, so... Well, sorry for having wasted your time."
She turns to go away, forgetting completely that another person is there too. Only when said person speaks she remembers that Mr. White is there and that he is the one who has brought her here.
"John... I believe we can come to an agreement. I will pay for this month's rent if you lower your price to four hundred pounds, and then young Cassandra here will give you the rest."
"Mr White, I can't..."
But the old man smiles and lifts a hand to stop her protests.
"Don't worry, Miss, I have this covered. It's not much, but I think you deserve at least this."
Cassandra swallows thickly before nodding reluctantly.
"I'll pay you back," she mutters roughly, "I swear I'll give you all the money back, but..."
"Miss Cassandra, Colonel Wilkins is not a good man, but he pays me well. I don't need that money. Consider this a good-bye present, alright?"
With that, Mr. Wilkins goes away, and Cassandra can only think of how badly she has treated him before going to the Colonel's office, and how maybe she deserves the punishment Wilkins has inflicted on her.
Three days had passed since the meeting with the Colonel. Three days and Cassandra was still trying to get rid of that terrible mixture of sadness and guilt.
You should be happy, she kept repeating to herself, you'll never see that man again. You should be HAPPY.
Despite her efforts, however, she couldn't help but replaying one particular word said by the Colonel over and over again.
After 72 hours, her mind seemed to have accepted that word and now Cassandra found it hard not to agree with Colonel Wilkins.
How can you deny it? Look at yourself: you are a monster. You may be a good doctor, but who would accept to be cured by a twenty-year-old girl full of scars and without a leg? You can't even walk without a crutch! Truth be told, nobody with a minimum of intelligence would hire someone like you.
It was true, of course. It didn't matter how hard Cassandra tried, her body simply refused to adapt to the prosthesis. Being a doctor she knew that the rehabilitating process would be long and painful, but there was a small detail which made the pain almost unbearable: after two long months the wound still had to scar completely. Actually, there wasn't a single cut on Cassandra's body which could be considered completely healed, a really strange fact considering the easiness with which she usually recovered from bruises and lacerations. The doctors who had treated her had supposed that her body had been put under an excessive stress, a fact that had inevitably affected the healing process, but Cassandra thought otherwise. In fact, she firmly believed that this strange phenomenon had something to do with the wolf that had attacked her. However, After testing her for any kind of infection commonly transmitted via animal bites, her colleagues had labelled her idea as absurd.
Still, she thought, that was definitely not a normal wolf. First of all, that creature was way too big to be considered a common canine: the teenager clearly remembered that it barely fit in the large Emergency Room of the base camp. Secondly, that animal had easily destroyed heavy and resistant medical devices, what kind of wolf could do a thing like that?
Cassandra sighed, tiredly rubbing her face with her hands. It didn't matter what kind of creature had attacked her: her career was ruined, even her military one. The Colonel had made it clear that she was not a welcome member of the Army, and she doubted that begging Sergeant Malkins, her former instructor, to take her back would have done any good. Of course, after two years of fighting Cassandra was certainly happy of not having to return into that hellhole, and she generally despised anything war-related, but working as the Sergeant's assistant wouldn't have been that bad. Unfortunately, even if she had been able to waltz back into the Army's quarters without problems, her new disability would have prevented her from doing anything that implied running, jumping or lifting heavy burdens, all things necessary to be a good fighting instructor. Thinking about it, her condition actually excluded a good deal of potential jobs she wouldn't have minded to apply for.
You are useless.
Yes, she was. Useless and flat broke. Bloody fantastic.
With these thoughts costantly crossing her mind, Cassandra's sadness wasn't surprising at all. However, against her better judgment her mind was still that of a soldier and good soldiers don't give up a fight without even starting it. Not to mention the fact that the girl's stomach didn't care about her depression and had started to protest loudly against whoever was stubbornly keeping it empty. As a consequence, after three days of brooding Cassandra begrudgingly got up from the dusty floor of her new "home" and forced herself into adapting to her third life.
The first thing she noticed while looking around was that the place Mr. White had found her was simply miserable: its sole room -excluding the bathroom, of course- was mouldy and humid, completely unfurnished apart from an old fridge and a camp stove.
In a corner layed the things Mr. White-she really did need to send him a thank you gift or something- had secretly retrieved from the Colonel's house before the maids could burn everything: lots of books, some clothes, and three or four CDs. Cassandra limped towards her belongings and picked up a plain gray track suit and a large light blue T-shirt.
"Sorry dear skirt, you'll have to wait until I'm a bit more cheerful", she said to the colorful garment that was peeking out of the small bundle of sweaters and blue jeans. It took her a while to realize what she was doing, and that was enough to send her into a fit of hysterical giggles.
I am talking to a bloody skirt! I really need a good shrink or something. Still chuckling softly, the girl made her way towards the bathroom, only to stop and stare open-mouthed at the disgusting scene in front of her.
"Ok. No panic, Cassie. It is only a bit of dust and... mud. Yes. It must be mud. Oh, there are also spiders. And flies... and... cockroaches...". Deciding that a shower could wait, Cassandra opted to fulfill the other goals of her mental schedule: find the money she needed to eat and, obviously, get something to clean that pig pen.
Timed passed quickly after those first dramatic three days. Ignoring her aching limbs and weak heart, Cassandra had managed to clean that pathetic excuse for a house. She had found a job in a small hardware store at the end of the street, and she had earned enough money to buy a camp bed and a small bookshelf, as well as an old broken TV which she had easily fixed. After a week the place was almost livable, although she still had to eat on the floor. All in all, life wasn't as bad as she expected: she had food, water, medicines and a place to sleep, more than she had been provided with at the base camp.
After two weeks of procrastinating, Cassandra made up her mind and bought a mirror. It was old and battered, but big enough to let her see her entire figure. After placing it beside her bed, she carefully removed her clothes and bandages, her head turned so as to not being able to take an accidental peek at her own body. After a couple of seconds of hesitance, the young woman squared her shoulders and turned back.There she was, completely naked facing the monster.
I really look like a broken doll, she thought with a sigh. Cassandra had never been a vain person, but, before the accident, nobody could have denied her beauty. She was tall, thin but not skinny, with a naturally tanned skin and long, wavy, dark blond hair. Her face was round and a sweet smile always graced her soft lips. Her eyes, however, had always been the physical feature that made every male human being look at her with interest: they were big and bright, their ice-green colour emphasized by long, dark lashes and thick, elegant eyebrows.
Now, however, everything had changed.
Cassandra's skin was pale and dull, a map of veins showing slightly under a perpetuous sheen of sweat.
Long, dark cuts covered every inch of her body, almost hiding the tattoos she had on her right shoulder and on her back. Most of the lacerations were surrounded by a red ring that marked the inflammation raging under her skin, some of them were awfully thick and irregular thanks to the continuous attempt to close them with stitches.
Only the thigh was left of her right leg, now replaced by a black cumbersome prosthesis. A long scar traveled from her sternum to the end of her ribcage, screaming to the world Hey! I underwent an open-heart surgery!
Her flesh, once toned and muscular, now looked as if someone had torn it away and had then tried to fix everything back in a particularly careless way: it hung flaccidly from her bones in some places, in others it was stretched to its limit, making her look older than she actually was.
Her face was disfigured by two deep scars which went from her left ear to the corner of her mouth, making her sweet smile look more like a grimace.
Her hair looked ruffled, dirty, dry. Looking very closely she could even find some gray locks peeking out of the blond sea.
Her eyes were sunken, red-rimmed from the lack of sleep and surrounded by thick dark circles. At least they still held the brightness and life they had before the accident.
After a few minutes spent contemplating her new self, Cassandra smiled, then grinned, then started laughing like a maniac. She laughed, laughed, laughed. She laughed at the beautiful girl she once was. She laughed at the Colonel. She laughed at the wolf which had tried to eat her alive. She laughed until her lungs started begging for air, she laughed until her brain stopped functioning.
"Why are you wearing a sweater? It's so hot outside!"
"It's not that hot, sweetheart... Actually I am a bit cold."
"But... Paddy is always cold and look! He doesn't even have a shirt on!"
"Are you ill, dad?"
"No! I mean... Look, Cassie..."
"... Is it because of your scars?"
Cassandra opened her eyes, breathing hard.
-What the hell was that?! - she thought, noticing for the first time that she was lying on the floor in front of the mirror. It had been a long time since she had been caught by that "vision" in the airport, an event which she had then explained as a trick of her tired brain. This... thing, however, changed everything. This time her mind hadn't shown her strange ceilings or ruined towns. This time she had only been asked to listen.
That deep, gentle voice, who made her feel so safe and yet haunted her in her sleep... It clearly belonged to her real father, there was no doubt about that anymore.
That was definitely a flashback.
She was starting to remember!
Suddenly feeling more alive than ever, Cassandra scrambled to her feet and started searching frantically for a piece of paper and a pen.
"Ok, Cassandra, think. You always dream of that sort of town, it must mean something..." Trying to recall all the horrible images that populated her dreams, the girl began to list all the peculiar elements she could find, apart from the blood and the dead bodies. Suddenly, a detail crossed her mind: before falling, her young self had turned to face a strange building, which resembled...
With and excited yelp, Cassandra wrote down the first path to follow in order to find her real dad:
- An attack which took place in April 1978 in a town near a train station. Location: Great Britain.
Satisfied with this element, the girl went on digging into her brain in search of answers.
After a while, the girl got tired of listening only to the voices in her head and decided to turn on the TV in order to have some "company" while she worked. She was writing about the strange ceiling of that "Great Hall" when the screen actually caught her attention.
"...the public is warned that Black is armed and extremely dangerous. A special hotline has been set up, and any sighting of Black should be reported immediately" *
Cassandra's head shot up and the girl reached the remote to raise the volume. Black. She had never heard of a convict named Black, a curious thing considering that she had been following British news since she was eight. The reporter told that Black had been convicted for killing thirteen people in an explosion and had escaped from prison after twelve years. Twelve years. Well, I was too young at the time of the arrest, the maids still refused to let me read the newspaper. Before she could return to her notes, however, the reporter showed a picture of the man.
Something clicked inside Cassandra's mind, and she suddenly felt a bit dizzy. It was a sensation similar to the one she had experienced in the airport before the flashback. Yet, nothing happened.
Not a sound. Not an image. Just the overwhelming feeling that something was wrong.
She studied closely Mr. Black's face, focusing on his expression.
How could he be so... sad? He was a mass murderer who had just been caught and condemned to spend the rest of his life in a cell. He should have looked angry, sickeningly satisfied for the attention received or resigned. Why sad, though? Was he feeling bad for having killed so many people?
He was sad. He was desperate. He was grieving.
Suddenly Cassandra felt a pang of pity for the man in the picture, and a thought crossed her overloaded brain.
Why did he escape after such a long time?
Something was wrong.
Lupin and Black.
Lupin, Black and... P... P...
No matter how hard she tried, Cassandra couldn't remember the third surname. However, the fact that in her mind Black was associated with the surname she had chosen for herself was enough to freak her out. Why had she chosen Lupin, anyway? It sounded a bit ironical, considering that the word "lupus" means "wolf" in latin.
Maybe that's your real surname. After all, your memory is slowly coming back.
Another week went by, and Cassandra was too busy picking up the pieces of her shattered memory to think about the Colonel anymore. Actually, she was getting a bit frustrated. In fact, in the archives there was no record of an insurrection in a town near a train station, not to mention the detail of the strange ceiling. Moreover, apart from that awful nightmare, her brain refused to give her another piece of information about her hypothetical past, so she didn't know what to look for.
She was stuck in a limbo, but little she knew that someone was going to save her.
* That line comes from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, chapter two, page 18
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