warning: this chapter includes strong language, and themes of violence + death. please do not continue reading if these topics may trigger or offend you. it is recommended you read this chapter in my blog, not reader, for the best quality. this is the first flashback chapter detailing the past of several main characters.
10 YEARS AGO / SOUTH BRIDGEPORT
Snow was falling.
It fell, light and cold, down from the night sky. It fell like a cloak over the rusting cogs and washers of South Bridgeport, muffling the ticking of a constantly working city. The streets lay empty and white, quiet yet not quite asleep. The fresh snow hid the perpetual dirtiness of the narrow lanes and weary buildings, but it also sank cold teeth into the houses, and those who sheltered within it.
In one townhouse, however, despite the cracked walls and worn furniture, the mood was cosy and welcoming, startlingly unlike the harsh emptiness outside. The winter was kept away by a little fire, nestled in a blackened hearth. The fire was modest, but it protected the tiny home and the five inhabitants; two adults, three young teenagers. In front of the hearth crouched one teenager, tossing broken pieces of wood into the fire, which crackled and snapped and filled the room with warmth. “Dad, we’re running out of firewood.” Luc sat back, watching the hungry flames with concern.
Across the room, Nicolas Kohler sighed, his brows sinking deeper into his permanent frown. “Don’t worry. I’m sure I can find some more tomorrow,” He said distantly. Long ago, Nicolas had looked just like his son, but years of bitter work had cut premature lines into his skin, and silvered his brown hair. The lack of money had worn down his spine, like the neighbours, and like everyone else in South Bridgeport.
Beside Nicolas, his niece called out teasingly. “We could throw in your nerdy Batman comic books!” Lilith suggested, half joking, half not. “Hey, they aren’t nerdy.” Luc protested, his cheeks warming from both the fire and embarrassment. “And Batman is DC, not Marvel.” “Whatever you say, nerd.”
“Don’t tease him, Lili.” Nicolas shook his head, but a smile briefly danced across his tired eyes. “How is the sauce going?” He leaned over from his half-cut loaf, and his niece quickly tasted the bubbling, fragrant sauce. “It’s going great!” She said brightly, stirring with a determined sort of air. “I think we need some more flavor though. Are there any dried herbs left?” Nicolas slid open a drawer, already knowing the answer. “We’ve run out.” This did not dampen Lilith’s mood, however, and she hummed softly as she mixed in the pasta. Cooking was a particular skill learned from her uncle, and Lilith loved trying to create new meals out of the limited cupboard of ingredients.
The youngest of the children sat at the piano, his mother beside. The piano was old and tired, yet there was still beauty in her aching joints, just like Seo Yeon Torres. It was an antique — it could sell well, help fix the cracks in the walls and leaks in the ceilings — but Seo Yeon could not bear to let it go. Certainly not since Gabriel had begun to play. Together, they coaxed gentle notes out of the piano, the sounds clear in the stillness of snow.
Soon enough, Lilith proudly placed the dish of penne al’arrabiata on the table, along with slices of tough brown bread. “Dinner’s ready!” At her call, the family gathered around, the piano falling into silence. Luc poked at the pasta curiously. “Wow, it’s not burnt!” And then he yelped, his cousin having smacked him lightly about the head. “That was one time, okay?” She said indignantly, and Luc rubbed his head. “Sorry. It looks nice, I swear.” Across the table, Gabriel piped up as his mother ladled steaming pasta onto his plate. “It smells really yummy, Lili.” His cousin relaxed and smiled. “Gracias, primo.”
The family talked contentedly as they dug into Lilith’s meal. “This is delicious, querido,” Seo Yeon said kindly, and her niece beamed. “Do you think I could become a chef one day?” Lilith asked, her eyes sparkling with the birth of a new dream. “You would be an excellent chef,” Nicolas smiled. The girl twirled her fork excitedly. “Ooh, I could open a restaurant, and serve all the recipes you’ve has taught me! Gabriel and Luc could be waiters-” “What, no way!” Luc exclaimed, “-and you and Mama can rest and…” Lilith rambled on, and the parents smiled sadly. How nice it was, for their niece to be caught up in wonderful dreams and fresh, flowering hope for the future. Things were a little different for them.
The gas lamps had begun fading when the family cleaned up for the night. “Good night, Mama, Papa.” Lilith kissed her parents on the cheeks, and the boys did the same, before they all disappeared into the tiny hallway. The two parents watched the children go, their mouths hardening into tight lines as they turned to one another. Settled before the flickering, dying fire, Seo Yeon and Nicolas spoke in whispers. “Did you tell him?” Seo Yeon asked her husband urgently. He closed his eyes, weary. “Yes, I did. Avarice said there isn’t enough money to fix any machinery right now.”
“Liar,” His wife hissed, anger flaring in her usually gentle face. “We both know that profits have only risen, while our wages have decreased. He doesn’t care about dangerous machinery if it still works. That gluttonous bastardo.” There is quiet for a moment. “We could leave,” Nicolas murmured. Seo Yeon sighed and watched the flames steadily consume the wood. “And run the risk of being jobless? What about our dear children? We can’t leave the factory. All those people stuck there, still in danger…” She stood and clasped her hands tiredly, but with the hard fierceness her niece had inherited. “Nicolas, we must convince Avarice. Or expose his exploitation. Before it’s too late.”
In the dark hallway outside the living room, Lilith and Luc turned to each other, the same worry reflected in their frowns, as from the past few nights. “I wish we could do something,” Luc said miserably. His cousin leaned against the concrete wall, her eyes hard and angry. “Who does Avarice think he is?” She muttered. “How can one be so uncaring?” Luc doesn’t respond for a moment, listening carefully for any movement within the room. “I don’t know,” He finally whispered. “Too much money just seems to make people cruel.”
As the new sun arose, the snow hardened under the footsteps of morning commuters, greying from the smoke that hung low over the city. The jagged edges and broken workings of the streets were once again exposed. After breakfast, the three children bid goodbye to their parents, who set off to the automotive factory as they did every early morning.
A while later, the three began walking to school together, wrapped in old hand-knitted scarves, their snow laden footsteps gathered together. The wind bit at their noses, but they moved on through the iced streets, long weathered to the bitterness of winter. Luc walked a little in front of his siblings, taking the brunt of the wind, while Lilith held onto Gabriel. Her eyes darted up when a faint, wailing sound cut through the snow. “Sirens,” She said, and her little cousin moves closer, his eyes big and worried. Police sirens were not a strange occurrence in Bridgeport — just as part of the city’s heartbeat as rumbling traffic — but this sound had a rarer cadence. It was still recognizable, however, and they watched fire engines rush past in the distance.
It was only when they had reached the main road when the pinpoint of the fire engines became visible. “Is that…” Gabriel whispered, and both of his sibling’s mouths dried. “No… it can’t be,” Lilith said slowly, but then she broke into a sprint, and the boys ran after her. Even from far away, they could feel the intense heat of the flames devouring the factory where their parents worked.
“Mama, Papa!” Lilith was the first one to cry for their parents, as they ran to the front of the factory. It was surrounded by police cars and fire engines, and there were firefighters running in and out of the burning building, seemingly trying to tame the blaze with little effect. Both Lilith and Gabriel lunged blindly towards the fire and Luc had to pull his panicking siblings back, his own fear almost eclipsing rationality.
Nearby, an old man in a tailored suit was talking to a policewoman, his face pale and drawn. “I don’t know what happened,” He snapped to the officer. “It must have been a freak accident.” The policewoman crossed her arms. “You must know that there will be an investigation into this. We don’t know how many are dead because of this fire, but count yourself very lucky to be alive, Mr. Avarice.”
“It’s him!” Lilith suddenly spat, her despair swallowed by a red-hot rage. “Avarice, it’s his fault, I will kill him-” She lunged towards the man, but Luc grabbed her arm again frantically. “Lili, stop, you’re just going to get in trouble!” His cousin tried to shake him off furiously. “I don’t fucking care, Mama and Papa could be dying in there!” Her voice rose to a hysterical scream and a policeman looked over, finally noticing the three children.
“What are you kids doing here?” The officer strode over, stress pinching his face. Lilith whirled around to face him, and she must have looked a terrifying sight, because the man faltered a little in his step. “Our parents. Where are our parents?!” She demanded, her eyes searing with tears. The policeman pointed to the firefighters rushing in and out of the burning factory. “They’re trying to find survivors, madam.” “But no one is coming out,” Gabriel said quietly, and the policeman looked at the young boy, but could not find anything to say for a while. “I’ll find you kids a safe place to stay,” The officer finally said, his voice gentle with pity. “And I promise that I’ll come get you if we find your parents.”
All four of them knew that he never would.
The ‘safe place’ the policeman had reassured turned out to be an orphanage, an imposing stone building on the edges on Bridgeport.
Once dropped off by the police, the three were given bowls of watery onion soup, and sent to a room to wait. The room was bleak, with rusting iron windows and hard beds, with none of the warmth of the Torres home. A piercing draft swept under the door, so the children remained bundled in their scarves and gloves. Luc laid down on the scratchy linen sheets, numb with grief. While Gabriel sat in an equally frozen state, tears silently dripping down his cheeks, Lilith was curled up, trying to contain the fierce anger seething under her skin.
They didn’t really know what they were waiting for — perhaps the policeman, to grow that tiny seed of hope — but they waited, unmoving, as the hours crept by. The more time that fell away, the more Lilith’s blood boiled. Their parents’ fateful words from last night kept echoing in her head. What Nicolas and Seo Yeon had feared had happened, just before they could do anything about it. Avarice’s greed had swallowed maybe over a hundred lives, and Lilith knew that he would not pay the price for it, because his money would protect him. But still, there was that slight, slim chance that their parents could be alive…
The door opened and all three jumped up, hope blooming momentarily in their chests. But it was not the policeman, instead an old lady with a brutal grey haircut. She surveyed the children for a moment, her arms crossed in severity. “Your parents are dead,” She rasped, and the cruel line of her mouth did not waver at Gabriel’s gasp. “I am your new caregiver, and the matron of this orphanage. You will stay here until you have reached adulthood.”
The matron moved her beady gaze to Lilith, who glared back. “You, girl, come with me now — you’ll move into the girl’s dormitory.” Lilith stood up, fire still coursing through her veins. “I will not leave my family!” Her stubbornness caused the matron’s lips to twitch in contempt. “You will do as I say, silly child.” The matron caught Lilith’s wrist in a claw-like grip, and Luc moved for his cousin. “Leave her alone!” In a swift, violent turn, the matron grabbed the back of his neck and shoved him down. “Stop!” Lilith shrieked, Gabriel lunging for his brother with a cry. The old woman snarled. “You will listen to my orders, do you understand? Do you understand?”
After the matron left, Luc slid down the wall. “I’m okay,” He said quietly. His brother rushed to his side, his grey eyes clouded with uncharacteristic anger. “We can’t stay here,” Gabriel mumbled into his scarf, sitting next to his older brother. Luc leaned his head against the wall and sighed. “I think you’re right.” In front of him, Lilith made a harsh sound in her throat. “You think?” She snapped, grief and fury turning her words into ice. “We cannot live here under the rule of that bruja! You heard what she said. We are going to be stuck here until we are adults, Luc, unless we do something about it.”
Luc lowered his gaze. “We don’t hundred percent know for sure if-” “If Mama and Papa are dead?” Lilith said brusquely, and Gabriel flinched. At this, Lilith’s voice softened. “Perdón, primo. That woman may be cruel, but she would not have lied.” Her voice broke, and the three went silent for a minute. All they could hear was the pained howl of the wind. “Where should we go?” Luc spoke up shakily, and Lilith pinched her lips together in determination. “Out,” She decided. “We can find a new place to stay. I know we can survive alone. That’s what Mama and Papa raised us to do.”
Twilight had stolen over the city when the Torres managed to sneak out. Even at this hour, even in the unforgiving fist of snow, the city lights still glowed with warmth, and the stars still shone with life. Out here in the empty streets, however, the three could feel nothing but the cold. They walked until their lungs were frozen, towards nowhere — just away from the orphanage. “We need to find shelter,” Lilith whispered after they had walked perhaps a mile, her breath scratching raw in her chest.
They glanced around, searching for any beacon of refuge. The area they were passing through was a flat, industrial district, all brick and metal and billboards. “How about there?” Gabriel pointed, shivering. The three headed to an arch under what looked like a disused railway. There, while the air was still nippy, the deep arch shielded them from the wind and falling snow.
They huddled together, drawing their scarves as high as possible, Gabriel flanked by his older siblings. The youngest, at least, could be warm, and his eyelids soon drooped. Luc and Lilith stayed awake, carefully watching their surroundings, whispering over the sleeping boy. “Are you sure this is the right decision?” Luc said worriedly, his eyes darting over the long, dark street. “Do you think we could return to our townhouse?” He continued, anxious, when Lilith did not answer. “No, we would just be found and shipped off again.” “Then how are we going to find food? Water?” Luc rubbed his forehead, feeling some sort of painful ache starting to build up. His cousin looked out of the arch, into the stars glittering mercilessly in the night, and sighed.
“We will find a way.”
Um… hi? I’m back!
Let me be honest and say that this was an extremely hard chapter to do. Firstly, it was in third person, and without a central character, I found it veryyyy awkward to write, and I think it shows in the lack of emotional depth and sophisticated writing. It was also a giant bore to write (I couldn’t even bear to go over and edit it, apologies). This is your basic orphan origin story, and the plot was simple and predictable. However, this chapter does the job as the foundation to explaining the Torres history, and I hope it wasn’t as terribly boring for you to read as it was for me.
As you can see, I’ve used Reshade in the pictures, which has a couple weird side effects, but generally I am happy with. One last quick note, just to clarify, Lilith is Nicolas and Seo Yeon’s niece, but they took her into their care really early, so she thinks of them as parents, and vice versa.
I hope you liked this chapter, and I will try post the next one within a fortnight!