The bell has been ringing all day.
The café is full. It has been since midmorning. Every time I think the line is getting shorter, that bell over the door rings again. It’s nearly three in the afternoon, and I’m still pouring coffee and serving sandwiches and making lattes almost nonstop.
Not that I mind terribly. I like the challenge, seeing how fast and how well I can juggle everything. Except that I haven’t eaten lunch, it’s almost fun.
I slide a mocha across the counter for the big bearded man waiting, and lean out to survey the lobby. The round wooden tables are mostly full of customers, light from the hanging lamps gleam dimly off tables, coffee, and a few bald heads. Out of habit, I scan for men and women in black suits, but the only ones I see are business people I already know. I spin around, grab another cup, and start steaming milk for a latte.
The wail of the oven cuts through a cloud of steam and noisy conversation. “Clara!” Nadya calls from the register. “Can you get that?”
I nod, finish a rather sloppy latte (latte art? More like latte blob), and run to the back, pulling open the oven door on my way to grab the mitts.
Today has been insane. It doesn’t help that I didn’t get enough sleep last night. Sergei and Marina—friends from work—came over for dinner, and then Marina suggested we watch a movie. That didn’t end until nearly midnight.
I was groggy enough this morning—drinking coffee in the bathroom while I contoured my face—that I got blush all over myself by accident and had to redo most of my makeup and change my shirt. I’d planned to dye my hair again, but that’ll have to wait for tomorrow. I only got about ten minutes to sit on my balcony and read my Bible while the sun rose over the mountains in blazing pink clouds and set the entire city glowing.
It’s usually a twenty-minute walk from my apartment to the café. Down a few blocks, past the neighbors who wave as I go by, past the church and its graveyard, and past several smaller shops overflowing with flowerpots. Today I nearly ran most of the way, breathing in the brisk, bright morning to clear away the grogginess.
I reach into the oven and the scent of fresh rolls floods around me. I inhale deeply, lean away from the overwhelming heat, and slide the trays out to set them on the stainless steel racks behind me.
The chatter of customers outside, with Nadya’s clear voice rising above them, just reaches back here. I can’t make out words, just a vague cloud of voices. They mingle with the heat of the oven, the aroma of fresh bread, and the rumble of machinery.
Then Nadya leans around the door. Her cheeks are flushed and wisps of dark hair, escaped from her bun, cling to her forehead and cheeks. “Clara, I need you out here. There’s a bunch of tourists. English-speakers.” She rolls her eyes. “Can you take care of them?”
I paused with the last tray halfway to its rack when she appeared. One roll fell on the floor. I sigh, kick it to the side, and hurry out, closing the oven door behind me.
I hear them before I see them. The machines on the front counter block my view.
There are several of them. Men and women both. Maybe a large group, else they’re just talking loudly. For just the briefest moment, I search for the accent. And then it hits me, all in a flash with a gasp of breath, and I freeze where I stand.
Our youth group was seven people. Ten, if you counted the three sixth-graders who only hung around at the start because Bryan and Phil brought donuts sometimes and Alicia’s dad Mr. Keyes—our teacher—occasionally passed out candy. We met in the lobby of the Oasis Church building of Houston, Texas, a small building stuck between a convenience store and someone’s house. Megan, Alicia, Shannon, and I always fought over the couch. Whoever lost sat on the floor with the guys.
There was just one night I’ll never forget. It was Phil’s turn to play guitar. He led us in “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us” and then “Be Still My Soul”. His voice was always terrible, though he played guitar like nobody’s business; but Tim sang out strong enough for everyone to stay on key. Megan joined him from the couch. Sitting on the floor, I harmonized to her clear voice.
Bryan read the psalm in his deep, calm voice. And then Mr. Keyes started talking. I don’t remember everything he said. I just remember the verses he spoke on: “O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thoughts from afar.” I remember his voice like a bass drum. “No matter where you go—how far you run—your Creator knows Your name. He sees every thought you think and every step you take. You can’t hide from Him.”
And just as clearly, I remember that night. Sitting on the floor, leaning back against Megan’s legs and singing hymns and watching the faces of my brothers and sisters light up in worship. Bryan and Phil making paper airplanes out of the handout, Tim judging the aerodynamics from the corner of his eye, Alicia doodling in her notebook, and Shannon munching on a donut. The way the lamplight set Phil’s pale face and blond hair in sharp relief against Tim and Alicia’s espresso-colored skin. How Megan went out of her way to compliment my new dress and ask Shannon about her week afterwards. Glancing over at Phil with a mutual eye-raise and smirk as she and Bryan discussed classes with a little too much enthusiasm.
I think I’ll always remember that night.
I remember another night, too. We did it often—hopped into Bryan’s minivan, turned up the music, and drove somewhere. That night it happened to be the mall. We wormed our way between groups of other teens and raucous adults, a coalescence of inside jokes and meme quotes and “No, we are not going in that store!”
They didn’t say it was to get me out of my house and away from endless politics, but it was. I just wanted to get away from forced smiles and fancy clothes and polite conversation at formal banquets. The mall provided anonymity—that was exactly what I craved.
We found the Starbucks almost immediately (we teased Megan about being a white girl, but she did have a magnetic attraction to coffee). The sweet, familiar smell enveloped our conversation. I heard Phil order a flat white with three shots and I also heard Alicia slap him (“You have a caffeine addiction, Philip!”) Megan got a latte, just like always. I ordered a cappuccino and stole some of Shannon’s whipped cream.
Then we were on our way to the department store at the very end of the mall. Walking in was like moving from chaos to stillness. Quiet music played from the white ceiling overhead. Clothing hung in orderly rows, grays and pinks and blues softening the austerity. Megan was gone at once, on a mission to find a prom dress. Alicia and I looked through racks of outfits we couldn’t really afford.
Alicia leafed through a row of dresses and held up a yellow one inquiringly. I cocked my head. “I like the color, but those ruffles in the front are weird.”
“Yeah.” She replaced it on the rack and examined another one. “How’s things with your dad, by the way?”
I shrugged as I peeked at a blue shirt and discovered a shocking neckline. “Half the people love him and half the people hate him. Typical politics.”
Alicia had already moved to the next rack. She looked out from between two dresses, her black curls catching on a ruffled fringe. “Wasn’t there some huge scandal though? I saw it in the paper and thought about you guys.”
I shook my head. “That was all a couple weeks ago. Dad barely knew anything about it. Just reporters making stuff up again, I think.” I moved over to look at a dress Alicia had shaken her head at. “Hey, this one is nice!”
She frowned. “Nah, that’s an ugly color.”
“Whatever. Too expensive for me anyway.” I shoved it aside and moved on. “How’s your brother, by the way?”
“You mean Manus?” She shook her head and moved around the other side. “Pretty much the same. He blocked Tim on Snapchat because he told him to stop doing crack.”
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. She grinned at me. “Guess you never had to deal with that. Perks of being an only child, huh?”
“Ha! Yes.” I held up a dress and twirled. “I might have reporters stalking my house, but at least I don’t have siblings getting themselves in trouble.”
If there was one thing I loved about my youth group, it was that they didn’t treat me any differently because my dad was a member of the President’s cabinet. At other churches I’d done everything I could to avoid mentioning my dad or his job. Once I brought it up, that was all anybody thought about. I was “the Secretary’s daughter,” not just to the adults who followed politics, but to my peers.
Going and hanging out with friends was relatively new to me, too—kids in other youth groups seemed to have the idea that I was going to report them to the president or something. I relished every moment with these friends who saw me as a person, not just an extension of my dad’s political career. I reveled in the laughter, the guys’ stupid jokes and banter, the shopping trips with girlfriends who could tell me what actually looked good on me.
Then Bryan and Phil crashed into the rack of clothes. They were out of breath and snorting with laughter. Alicia rolled her eyes. As soon as Bryan controlled himself, he asked, “Where’s everybody else?”
“Shannon’s over there—” I pointed “—Tim’s in the computer section I think, and Megan’s trying on prom dresses.” I raised an eyebrow at him and he flushed even more deeply.
Alicia caught sight of the Mountain Dew cans they both carried and glared. “What on earth have you two been doing?”
They glanced at each other sheepishly. “That,” Phil said with mock superiority, “is for us to know and you to find out.”
“But we should probably leave soon,” Bryan added, and they both collapsed into laughter again. Drops of soda spattered onto the floor.
We stopped on the way out of the mall to get some of the best ice cream in town. We carried our cones and cups outside (Bryan held Megan’s shopping bag) and the three other girls and I sat on the benches listening to the guys as they stood around and insulted each other.
The conversation lapsed into a more subdued discussion of our church and the city outreach the previous day. We all had such strong opinions on what the church could and should be doing to spread the gospel and help the poorest people in our city. This was actually one of the very few times I enjoyed discussing politics. If nothing else, I got to argue with Tim—I never won those debates, but it was so much fun to try.
The ice cream was long gone by the time we piled into Bryan’s van, turned up the (Christian) rap music, and started the 30-minute drive home.
That was the last time.
There’s one more night I remember with painful, piercing clarity. Three days later I was driving home late from Wednesday evening church after helping the deacons with next Sunday’s PowerPoint.
I was two streets away from my house, on a back road without streetlights. I glanced in my rearview mirror in annoyance that some idiot had their brights on. Then the other lights came on—the blue and red flashing ones on the windshield. I endured just one moment of sudden terror.
Everything happened way too fast. FBI agents ushering me into their big SUV with urgent tones. Turning around, driving away the other direction—the words of the female agent who told me my parents were dead, shot with bullets, found lying dead in our house.
I remember long hallways, stark white rooms, and the absurd presence of a fake orchid on the desk of a clerk somewhere. Then another long drive in silence broken only by the talking of a male agent I didn’t really hear.
I was staring out the windows at the night outside. It must have been two or three in the morning. I didn’t care. The clouds from earlier in the day covered the moon and stars. The large, comfortable seat and the spacious interior of the car felt foreign, wrong.
Then the female agent slipped a folder into my lap, under my trembling fingers. “Your name is now Clara Karr.”
She looked me in the eye and waited until she was sure I was listening, and beyond the shock I was dimly aware of deep grief over a life that I knew I would never, ever see again.
She explained that I was moving to a small country in Eastern Europe. That I had to become a new person with a new name, a new identity. I had to forget everything that had come before. She looked at me with a compassion that some distant part of my brain detected with gratitude. “You can build a new life. It will be hard, but you’re strong. You’ll thrive.”
The car went silent, and the darkness of well past midnight enshrouded us. There were hardly any streetlights. Outside the windows formless shapes flitted past. Shadows in the darkness. I didn’t even know where we were. The agent’s words had made some sense, but all I could think was, Why? She never really explained. Too many secrets. Too many lies. Too many stupid politics. With that last, I finally started to cry silently.
I remembered that Wednesday night, just a few weeks ago. Those phrases that had stuck with me. “You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me.”
And suddenly I realized that I would never see my squad again. In my mind’s eye I saw Alicia’s bouncing black curls and intense expression. I saw Bryan’s look of mischief as he and Phil whispered on the other side of the circle. I remembered all the long, late-night conversations with the girls, all the joking around and serious discussions with the guys.
It was gone. I had lost something so special to me I hadn’t even realized how much it would hurt. I hadn’t even begun to process my parents’ death—that was almost too evil to believe. But this realization made my chest shake with sobs.
That night laughing and talking and eating ice cream and acting like dumb teenagers out under the stars was the last time. I knew suddenly that they would attend my funeral. They would cry. And their lives would go on—while mine had ended.
I was Clara Karr.
I am Clara Karr.
I am not American. I am a British creative writing student in Eastern Europe. This town is my home and this café is my castle. Those people have no idea who I used to be. They’re not here to kill me or take me back to America. They’re just tourists.
Nadya hands me a mug. “Coffee.” I shake off my fear and hurry to fill it from one of the large dispensers. Mahogany liquid bubbles into the cup and sends steam rising. I inhale the scent of coffee and listen for the American accents. I can just pick out a few of them. They bring back memories I don’t want to remember—can’t remember—right now. Of long car rides and FBI people with guns and nightmares about blood.
I am Clara Karr.
Those are just tourists. Stupid Americans. They don’t know our town or our language. Their accent is ugly. I’ll probably have to make them all special orders because Americans are so picky.
I laugh softly and chide myself as I hand the cup to Nadya. “Beef sandwich,” she calls out, and I start making the order.
“Go help them.” Her voice sounds in my ear and I jump.
“Agh, you startled me!”
“Sorry!” she whispers. “Here, I’ll finish that.” She grabs the sandwich.
I take a deep breath of coffee and toasting bread scents and turn to the counter.
My eyes meet those of the man on the other side. It all registers in a fraction of a moment. The hand on the counter, holding several crumpled bills. The khaki pants, the sweater with a graphic I feel like I should know. A face the color of dark espresso that is way, way too familiar.
I freeze. Again. But it’s just for a fraction of a second.
My mind is screaming. Tim! What are you doing here? How–? Why–? But somehow I keep moving, going through all the familiar motions. It almost takes more effort than I have to put on a casual smile.
It’s been months since I’ve even spoken English to another person. British accent. You’re British. “Hello sir, how can I help you?”
His face doesn’t change from the easy slightly nervous smile. He doesn’t realize the girl he must think died three years ago is standing right in front of him. As he makes his order, I glance over his shoulder.
There’s Bryan. Laughing with Phil. They look a little older—Bryan has a beard, Phil has a bit of scruffy facial hair—but not much different. Phil is telling some story with wide eyes and large grin. Megan looks mildly shocked, raising her eyebrows as they laugh. She’s holding Bryan’s arm—there it is, a glint of gold on her left hand.
Tim’s finished giving his order. My gaze snaps back to his. I only half heard what he said, but I already know his order anyway. “Yes sir.” I glance across, but Nadya’s talking to another customer. “I’ll make it, just give me a minute.”
“Of course, no problem.” He smiles again.
As soon as he pays, I hurry to get behind the big machines that block my view of the store. I lean against the counter, breathing hard, as the milk froths and steam rises to wreath my head and tangle with my long exhale.
I just have to take a moment to collect myself. Finish making the order just as I remember it—mocha, with cinnamon on top (did he ask for cinnamon? I don’t remember). Take a deep breath. Walk over and hand the mug to one of my best friends with a customer-service smile.
I am Clara Karr.
I’m just a waitress in a little café in Eastern Europe. He has no idea there’s anything more.
I turn to the next person in line and get another shock. It’s Shannon. Her out-of-control hair has been tamed and—surprise, surprise—she’s actually wearing makeup. But she’s still the same carefree, boisterous, laughing soul.
Everything in me is screaming to throw aside my name and the identity I’ve created here and jump across that counter and give them a hug. But that could be disastrous. My life depends on no one knowing who I really am—or rather, who I used to be. No one.
When they’re all finished ordering (have I ever done anything harder than smile at Alicia from behind a mask and tell her the price?), I grab a rag and start furiously wiping down the counter where I spilled. There are lots of spills today.
My rag leaves trails of bubbles, wiping away the drops of milk and coffee and sweetener syrup with one great cleansing flood of sanitizer. The café is noisy, chatter from countless different conversations twisting together with the rumble and clatter of machines into an ocean of bright noise. I train my ear to sift through it all for their voices.
They’ve taken the large table, the one off to one side of the counter. It’s not too far from where I stand, head down, hidden behind the counter and the stainless steel equipment.
“I saw a mountain not too far away!” That’s Shannon. “We could go for a hike!”
“Yeah, but we would need a guide or something. We can’t just go off and walk up a mountain. And how’re we going to get there?” That’s Tim, of course.
A group at another table breaks into loud laughter, and I can’t hear their conversation anymore. Feeling empty, I drop the rag into its bucket and wander into the back of the store with my head and heart throbbing.
I don’t even know what to feel. I can’t even believe they’re here, in this little town in the middle of nowhere in a country in Eastern Europe that most Americans don’t even realize exists. Half of me is ecstatic, pulsing with a joy I can’t even put into words. They’re here! They came!
And yet there’s an impenetrable wall between us. They’ll come and go, and there’s no way on earth I can just tell them who I am or how I got here. That self is dead. And this one might be too, if anyone knows I’m still alive.
I peek back out, ostensibly to check for customers but really just to catch a glimpse of my old friends. And part of me—the part I try to suppress—is checking for men in suits with guns.
Bryan is leaning against the counter, examining the menu.
I take a deep breath as I step forward. “Hello sir, did you need something else?”
“Hi! Yeah, actually, I had a question.” The warm grin is just the same as I remember. “That mountain over that way—” he gestures east. “Can you climb it?”
I nod enthusiastically. Tour guide. I can do that. “Yes, I love hiking up there! It’s a beautiful climb, especially in the morning.”
“Do you need a guide?”
“Yes, but there’s actually a little village out there, and someone will be glad to take you up. Just ask around until you find someone who speaks English.”
He laughs. “Guess it’s not hard to tell we’re not from around here, huh?” I smile back. No, it’s not.
He tilts his head at me and squints. “You know, you look like someone I used to know.”
My stomach flips. I put on a quizzical smile. “Really?”
“Yeah. She went to my church. We were all good friends with her.” He gestures back at the table and smiles a little bit at the memory.
I shouldn’t be encouraging this conversation. But I have to know. “What happened?”
His smile fades. “She and her parents were killed. Her dad was actually somebody big in the government and all, so I guess that had something to do with it.” He shakes his head, a faraway look on his face. “It kind of devastated our whole church. It was never really the same—for the longest time, whenever we would all go hang out somewhere, I would keep looking around and wondering why she wasn’t there.”
I nod in sympathy and he shrugs. “Anyway, you look like her a little bit.”
I smile. “Well, I’m honored.” And thank you.
And I’m sorry.
Megan walks up and takes his arm. “Did you find out about hiking?”
He perks up. “Yeah! She says we can climb it, we just need to find a guide. Hey!” He looks back at me. “You said you hike up there a lot?”
I nod, a little uncertain. “Yes, I’ve been up a lot with my friends.”
His eyes are alight with inspiration. “Well, why don’t you just be our guide? We’d pay you,” he adds hastily. “That way we’d make sure we have somebody who speaks English and knows the way.”
For just the briefest moment, I almost consider it. Even if I can’t be with them as a friend, I can be there and watch. Just be with them, even as a stranger. Listen to the conversation, watch the way their eyes light up at the sunrise over the mountain.
No. No, no, no. There’s no way. It would just break my heart. And he already recognized me, almost. They’ll figure it out if I spend too much time with them.
I shake my head and smile as apologetically as I can. “I’m sorry, I would love to, but I can’t.”
Bryan sighs sympathetically. “Working tomorrow?”
“No, I just can’t do it. I’m sorry.” I need to get out of here.
“Are you sure?” Megan adds. “We’d be glad to pay, whatever you need.”
“No, I’m sorry. Like I said, I would love to, but I just can’t.”
The rest of the group is getting ready to leave. Bryan turns to go. “All right, well, I’m sorry you can’t come, but thank you for your help! Maybe we’ll see you tomorrow night, before we leave!”
I nod, not quite trusting myself to speak.
Bryan is speaking with Tim and Alicia, probably explaining what he discovered from the helpful waitress. Their faces are animated. They’re talking about the café, I think. Or about me.
Alicia is leaving when something Tim says makes her pause. She looks back at me and meets my eyes for just a moment. Her curly hair washes away from her face in the breeze, amber light flowing over the dark skin. In her eyes I see something between wonder and suspicion and wishful thinking.
She knows, of course, that the waiter in this little café isn’t her friend who died three years ago.
Megan had to stop at the table and grab her purse. She turns back to me just before following the rest. “By the way, what’s your name?”
My attention jerks away from the ones going out the door. “Clara. Clara Karr.”
Cleanup and closing takes longer after such a busy day, and the sun is setting in earnest by the time I’m walking the two blocks back to my apartment. I should stop at the grocery store tonight; there’s not much food in the house. But all I want to do is get away, get home.
I climb the long staircase to my flat, legs and feet burning from standing all day. The light switch I flip on reveals a kitchen, dining room, and empty sitting area in a state of mild organization. Papers, books, my computer.
The fridge holds remnants of food from dinner with Marina and Sergei last night. I pull out a container of beef stew, place it in the microwave, set the timer. The kitchen counters are mostly clear; there’s just a coffee maker, tea things, a couple other machines, and some flowers in the window that looks onto the street.
One of the four bulbs in the light fixture is out, so the light cast on the kitchen is lopsided and a little haunting. I carry my meal to the table. Normally I would read a book while I eat. But all I can do is think.
My mind is whirling with thoughts and questions and countless regrets.
Everything in me wants to go with them with a desperation I’ve never felt before. I want to climb a mountain with my squad. I want to share sunrise wonder and laughter under a starry sky again.
But I can’t do that. This name—this identity—is the only thing keeping me safe.
My old self is dead. Clara Karr is the only one who lives.
I am Clara Karr.
Memories flood my mind, no matter how much I try to keep them out. All those Wednesday nights sitting on the floor and taking in the truth together. Crazy car rides with all the windows down and the music loud. Tearful conversations with Alicia and Megan way past midnight.
Those evenings of music and laughter taught me about the kind of friendship I’d never experienced before. The conversations long after lights-out got me through the darkest parts of my teen years.
I set down my fork and lean my forehead against the worn wooden tabletop. How did I think I could just start over?
Everything I’ve tried to forget is everything that’s made me who I am. It’s the pride of being daughter to the president’s right-hand man and the discouragement of being shut out of everything for who my father was. It’s the eight different places I lived before I was a legal adult, and it’s the home we made in each and every one of them. It’s the cliques and gossip I found everywhere I went, and it’s the first real friends I made in high school. It’s Alicia and Bryan and Megan and Tim and Phil and Shannon.
And yes, it’s that horrible night, and the mental images of my parents lying covered in blood. It’s bloody nightmares and a little town in Eastern Europe and the life I’ve built here, the people, the sunrise over the mountains, the little café.
And it’s the faith that held me even when my life turned upside down. It’s those verses—“If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will take hold of me.”
Memories I’ve tried to keep out of my head all day come crashing over me. Memories of home, of friends, reminders of everything I’ve lost. In this dim kitchen, tired in body from the long day, exhausted in spirit from the emotions clashing inside me, I can’t fight them. All I can pray is, God, be with me.
I’m not sure how long I lie there with my food getting cold. Finally I raise my head, sniffing back tears I refuse to cry.
I know now. I can’t give up this chance. Maybe I can’t tell them who I am. Of course I’ll have to keep up the fiction. But… it’ll be enough just to watch them, to be around them, to at least know what’s happened these last three years.
The beef stew is lying cold on the table as I hurry down the stairs, still pulling on my coat.
One thing that’s nice about other countries is that rules of the road are seldom followed or enforced. By rights I should never be able to fit six extra people in my little car. Four would be pushing it. But Bryan and Phil insisted on riding on the roof.
I can’t even believe I’m doing this. I’m just the helpful waitress from the café. They think my name is Clara.
It’s dark out still. I wanted to get to the mountain at least an hour before dawn, so we could get up to a spot I know to watch the sunrise.
It’s not a hard climb. We make it to the rocky outcropping as light creeps across the sky with rose-petal fingers. Birds are chirping in the distance, adding their own notes to the melody of sunrise. Bryan, Phil, and Shannon scramble to the top of the outermost rock. Megan leans against it with her camera, while Tim sits on a nearby boulder and Alicia and I scramble onto another behind the rest. Just like old times. Sitting and watching the sun come up.
The light in the east turns from pink to cream, pushing back the dark blue in the west. “The light shines in the darkness,” Alicia murmurs.
“And the darkness did not comprehend it,” I finish the verse.
The birdsong swells around us, and a gleam of light breaks from behind a distant peak. I glance over at Alicia. Her face reflects the dawn with a pure joy, made so much stronger by the sadness.
She looks back at me. In the sunrise, her face glows. The pale, fragile golden light gilds her eyes, her chin, her bouncing curls.
I’m not pretending to be Clara. I’m not the waitress from the café or even the British writing student visiting family in Eastern Europe. There’s no room for pretense and fiction in the light of the sunrise.
I can see her eyes grow wide in confusion and then shock and wonder. She knows.
I put one arm around her, just like all the other times we watched the sunrise. She shakes her head, laughing silently in sheer amazement, and puts her arm around me. She leans her head against my shoulder, and I lean mine against hers, and together we watch as the sun slowly appears from behind the distant mountains.
Before us I can see all the others, silhouetted against the rising sun. The light wraps itself around them, obscuring their faces. Every drop of dew and every facet of the rock glows, casting out the light to mingle with the birdsong in a symphony of new life.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, And the light around me will be night,” Even the darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day.
Once the sunrise had set every rock glowing and illuminated each dark crevice of the mountain, we set off. When I scrambled off the rock, hand out to help Alicia climb down, I looked up at the rest. I could tell from hushed whispers, wide eyes, and sharp intakes of breath that they realized it too.
They don’t say a word, though. Just greeted me with tight hugs and a few tears and asked, “Where to next?” My heart leapt with unfettered joy and I didn’t bother to hide my wide grin as I led the way up the mountain path.
We spent all day on the mountain, hiking up paths that widened to veritable roads or narrowed to winding, barely visible scars in the mountain. I know most of the trails, so we’d no need of a map. In some places we had to climb up piles of rocks where the footing was precarious and the guys had to help Megan and Alicia. In other spots the footing was just fine, but Bryan, Phil, and Tim got a sudden urge to chase each other over and around boulders that lay like a pile of slumbering tortoises. Megan just looked away and shook her head in exasperation.
They didn’t say my name—if they needed me they called out, “Clara!” with a laugh and a wink at the shared joke. They didn’t ask how I got here, or why I’ve taken on another name. The understanding lay silent between us all.
We talked for nearly the entire hike, except for the times we grew tired and walked in silence. I heard what they’re up to (Tim is at school to be an engineer, Alicia plans to teach, Phil is going into the military). I heard all the details of Bryan and Megan’s wedding, including Phil’s ridiculous best man speech. (“You have no idea how much I missed you being part of the bridal party,” Megan told me. It’s the closest we came all day to mentioning my supposed death.)
I told them all about working at the café, and the book I’m writing currently (the “writer” part of “British writing student” is actually true). Shannon demanded I explain every detail of the characters and the story and Megan wanted to know when she’d be able to read it. “Soon, hopefully—I’m trying to get an agent. Watch for something by Clara Karr.” I winked and Tim grinned.
Alicia, Megan, and I hung back a little ways for a while. “But how are you really doing?” Megan asked. And I told her, about nightmares and long days making coffee and late nights making new friends. And they told me about their own struggles and triumphs and dreams, and we promised to pray for each other.
Most of all, though, we laughed. It’s been far, far too long since I could let go of all the pretending and just laugh with my friends. We laughed at Bryan and Phil, we laughed when a lizard jumped on my face, and we laughed for no reason at all.
We reached the promontory I’d been aiming for in the early afternoon. It’s a rocky outcropping that looks out over the countryside for miles, away and away to the horizon in the west, and toward higher peaks in the east. We stopped there to eat lunch and admire the spectacular view. I used Megan’s camera to take a picture of the rest of them in front of the mountain. Then we headed back down.
The sun was setting by the time we reached the broad, smooth trails at the base of the mountain and found my car again. But we didn’t get in. Bryan and I grabbed blankets from my trunk and spread them out on the ground, and we all lay back to watch the stars. I’m lying between Shannon and Alicia, our heads on each other’s shoulders, pointing out the different constellations.
After a while, we fall silent. No one disturbs the quiet of the evening or the longing written in the blazing stars. There’s so much I can’t say—so much they can’t ask. Secrets and lies still wind far too tightly about me.
Yet it’s enough, for now, to be with those who know my name.