“There are no other aliases you’ve heard him use?” Agent Bosovsky asks me for the third time, after their Interpol query comes back without any results.
“No,” I say patiently. “I only knew him as Julian. The terrorists called him Esguerra.”
Beth’s guess about the identities of the men who stole us from Julian’s clinic turned out to be correct. They were indeed part of a particularly dangerous Jihadist organization called Al-Quadar—that much the FBI had been able to find out.
“This just doesn’t make sense,” Agent Wilson says, his round cheeks quivering with frustration. “Anyone with that kind of clout should have been on our radar. If he was head of an illegal organization that manufactured and distributed cutting-edge weapons, how is it possible that not a single government agency is aware of his existence?”
I don’t know what to tell him, so I just shrug in response. The private investigators my parents hired hadn’t been able to find out anything about him either.
My parents and I had debated telling the FBI about Julian’s money, but ultimately decided against it. Revealing this information so late in the game would only get my parents in trouble and could potentially cause the FBI to think that I had been Julian’s accessory. After all, what kidnapper sends money to his victim’s family?
By the time we get home, I am exhausted. I’m tired of my parents hovering over me all the time, and I’m sick of the FBI coming to me with a million questions that I can’t answer. Most of all, I’m tired of being around so many people. After more than a year with minimal human contact, I feel overwhelmed by the airport crowds.
I find my old room in my parents’ house virtually untouched. “We always hoped you’d be back,” my mom explains, her face glowing with happiness. I smile and give her a hug before gently ushering her out of the room. More than anything, I need to be alone right now—because I don’t know how long I can keep up my ‘normal’ facade.
That night, as I take a shower in my old childhood bathroom, I finally give in to my grief and cry.
Two weeks after my arrival home, I move out of my parents’ house. They try to talk me out of it, but I convince them that I need this—that I have to be on my own and independent. The truth of the matter is, as much as I love my parents, I can’t be around them twenty-four-seven. I’m no longer that carefree girl they remember, and I find it too draining to pretend to be her.
It’s much easier to be myself in the tiny studio I rent nearby.
My parents try to give me what remains of Julian’s gift to them—half a million with small change—but I refuse. The way I see it, that money had been for my parents’ mortgage and I want it used for that purpose. After numerous arguments, we reach an agreement: they pay off most of their mortgage and refinance the rest, and the remaining money goes into my college fund.
Although I technically don’t need to work for a while, I get a waitressing job anyway. It gets me out of the house, but is not particularly demanding—which is exactly what I need right now. There are nights when I don’t sleep and days when getting out of bed is torture. The emptiness inside me is crushing, the grief almost suffocating, and it takes every bit of my strength to function at a semi-normal level.
When I do sleep, I have nightmares. My mind replays Beth’s death and the warehouse explosion over and over again, until I wake up drenched in cold sweat. After those dreams, I lie awake, aching for Julian, for the warmth and safety of his embrace. I feel lost without him, like a rudderless ship at sea. His absence is a festering wound that refuses to heal.
I miss Beth, too. I miss her no-nonsense attitude, her matter-of-fact approach to life. If she was here, she would be the first one to tell me that shit happens and that I should just deal with it. She would want me to move on.
And I try . . . but the senseless violence of her death eats at me. Julian was right—I didn’t know what real hatred was before. I didn’t know what it was like to want to hurt someone, to crave their death. Now I do. If I could go back in time and kill the terrorist who murdered Beth so brutally, I would do it in a heartbeat. It’s not enough for me that he died in that explosion. I wish I had been the one to end his life.
My parents insist that I see a therapist. To pacify them, I go a few times. It doesn’t help. I’m not ready to bare my heart and soul to a stranger, and our sessions end up being a waste of time and money. I’m not in the right frame of mind to receive therapy—my loss is too fresh, my emotions too raw.
I start painting again, but I can’t do the same sunny landscapes as before. My art is darker now, more chaotic. I paint the explosion over and over again, trying to get it out of my mind, and every time it comes out a little different, a little more abstract. I paint Julian’s face, too. I do it from memory, and it bothers me that I can’t quite capture the devastating perfection of his features. No matter how much I try, I can’t seem to get it right.
All of my friends are away at college, so for the first couple of weeks, I only speak to them on the phone and via Skype. They don’t quite know how to act around me, and I don’t blame them. I try to keep our conversations light, focusing mostly on what’s been happening in their lives since our graduation, but I know they feel strange talking about boyfriend troubles and exams to someone they see as a victim of a horrible crime. They look at me with pity and disturbing curiosity in their eyes, and I can’t bring myself to talk to them about my experience on the island.