Before the fall: arrival (Embassy row # 0.5)

M
y eyes are closed, but I’m not really sleeping.

I’ve been like this for an hour, maybe two, when the pilot tells us we’re about to make our descent and the plane starts to come awake around me. Seat backs are brought to their upright and locked positions. Tray tables are stored. Flight attendants tell us that they’re making one last pass through the cabin, but the people on the plane don’t really care about that. They’re too busy staring out the windows at the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean that are rippling beneath us. The people strain, trying to catch their first glimpse of the ancient wall that still rims the city of Valancia, a real-life wonder of the world.

But not me. I lean back and let the woman in the middle seat have an unobstructed view out my window. I’ve seen it all before.

“Isn’t that
amazing
?” the woman says. I know the sun is rising in the east, casting the ancient city in its golden glow. To her, Valancia must look like something that emerged from the bottom of the sea centuries ago, conjured by magic, protected by dragons. But whatever power the Old World held for me ran out years ago.

Three years ago, to be exact.

“They say the wall is a thousand years old,” she says, her voice full of awe.

I keep my gaze straight ahead. “That’s what they say.”

“But parts of Valancia are much older,” the woman goes on. “I read in my guidebook that sometimes people even get to climb the wall and walk all the way around the city.”

Finally, I turn to the window and feel the plane touch down. Without even trying, I recall the wind on my face, the voice of the boy shouting,
Don’t do it, Gracie!

I remember being free, flying.

Falling.

“Yeah,” I mutter. “Sometimes that happens.”

But the woman smiles, unable to hear the things that I don’t say. She thinks we’ve just bonded, that in the five minutes it will take for this plane to taxi to the gate we are going to become great friends. I don’t have the heart to tell her that’s the last thing in the world she should wish for.

“Have you been to Adria before?” she asks.

I must mumble something like “uh-huh” because she throws her hands together and exclaims, “Oh, is this your
home
?”

She sounds so excited as we come to a stop. The seat belt sign goes off. People rush to fill the aisles. And this woman keeps on smiling as she stands between me and freedom, completely unable to guess the truth of what she’s asking me to admit.

For a moment, I can’t help myself. I think about sand castles and merry-go-rounds and the way my mother would roll up her jeans to wade into the deep blue waves, hair blowing wildly behind her, laughter carried by the wind.

“I don’t have a home,” I blurt then grab my things, anxious to be anywhere but here.

*  *  *

There’s not a jet bridge connecting the plane to the airport, so I have to carry my heavy duffel bag down the steep stairs and out onto the tarmac. For a second, I stop and wait for my eyes to adjust to the bright sun and clear blue sky. The air feels different here. It’s something I always forget until I smell it again, feel it again. Salty and clear, it fills my lungs and I’m not sixteen anymore. I’m a little girl, reaching for a hand that’s bigger than my own. Other passengers push ahead, eager to claim their bags and get through customs. There’s no one reaching back for me.

I turn and look at the high hills in the distance to my right, the blue waters of the Mediterranean sweeping out to my left. I am five kilometers outside the great walled city. And a part of me has to wonder if the woman on the plane was right. Maybe I
am
home.

“Grace!”
A woman’s yell echoes across the tarmac.
“Gracie, come on!”

I spin, but I’m too late. The woman is already disappearing into the crowd, going against the current. I hear laughter, a distant, haunting sound that seems to be blowing on a breeze that smells like the sea.

“Gracie!”
the voice calls again, but she’s not yelling for me. She’s yelling
at
me. A panic rings in her voice and I don’t hesitate. I just push against the current, faster. Stronger.

I don’t stop. I
can’t
stop.

Not when a deep voice says, “Pardon,” in Adrian. Not when a tall figure bolts between me and the crowd.

I stumble then and stare at the man in the blue jumpsuit. He almost blends in with the other workers, but there is something about his broad shoulders and confident gait as he strolls away. For a second, I am frozen. Terrified. And then terror bleeds into something much, much deeper.

It’s him.

He’s here.

I’ve found him.

Instantly, I’m pulled like a magnet across the tarmac and through the swinging doors. I drop my bag, moving faster. Following.

All around me, I see signs in Adrian and English, Arabic and French, but I don’t stop to read them. I’m pushing past piles of suitcases and the stacks of crates that fill the dark and dingy space. I hear the woman yell,
“Gracie, no!”

And that’s when the man realizes he is not alone.

Slowly, he turns, his face shielded by shadows, and I feel my blood turn cold.

“You,” I say. “It’s really …”

But when the man steps into the light, words fail me. Air rushes from my lungs, and I know I’ve made a mistake. A terrible, terrible mistake.

He’s too short. And when he begins to shout in Adrian, his accent is too thick. But, most of all, there is no scar. His face is smooth and flawless, and so I know he’s not the man I thought he was. Emotion pounds through me. Is it relief or disappointment? I’m not sure. I just know that I am wrong. So, so wrong.

“I’m sorry,” I say in English and then again in Adrian, holding up my hands and backing away. “I’m so sorry. I’ll go.”

I turn and rush back, grab my bag and run through the doors, across the tarmac, and into the airport terminal. The people from my flight are still walking toward customs, but I run.

“Stop!” someone yells in Adrian.

“Halt!” I hear in English.

But I can’t stop. Really, I can’t. My feet are not my own, and they keep pounding, running away.

I must still be asleep
, I think.
This has to be a dream
, I pray
.

Sirens sound. Uniformed guards swarm the terminal, all of them running, charging, surrounding me with their barking dogs and angry glares. They speak to each other in rapid Adrian, shouting and pointing at me and my black bag. I drop it, but this just makes the guards jump. An older man approaches, his hand poised just above his belt.

Just above his gun.

Instinctively, I put my hands in the air.

By now the other travelers have moved as far away from me as possible. Mothers are pulling their children closer. People caught among the chaos huddle together, terrified and staring. The woman who sat beside me on the plane is trembling and whispering to the people beside her, no doubt telling them that I had seemed so normal.

Dangerous psychos always seem so normal.

When I look back at the man, I realize that his hand is no longer poised over his sidearm. Instead, he is reaching for the handcuffs tucked into his belt. By the time his fingers brush against the metal I’m already on the ground.

I don’t remember falling, but I know nobody pushed me. I simply crumbled. And now I lie on the floor, rocking, unable to stop.

“Please don’t bind my hands. Please. Please don’t. I’ll do anything you want, but please—”

“It’s okay, miss.” For the first time he’s not looking at me like I’m dangerous. He’s looking at me like I’m broken.

It’s a look I know too well.

*  *  *

“What is your name, young lady?”

“I don’t know. What does my passport say my name is?”

Sarcasm is a bad idea. I know it. He knows it. But I have been in this room for two hours. Prior to this, I was on a plane for twelve. I’m too tired and hungry and in need of a shower to care anymore.

“Which passport would that be? You travel with three,” the man says, dropping the red Adrian passport down beside my blue one from the United States. He hasn’t even looked at the black one yet.

“It’s called dual citizenship. I’m sure you can look it up.”

“Oh, we have looked up many things with regard to you, Miss Blakely.”

“See? You do know my name. Good job,” I say even though I should know better. It’s just that I’m so hungry and my head hurts. I should have gotten in a taxi hours ago, and people are going to be waiting for me. Worried about me. But then it hits me: My mother is dead. My father and brother are far, far away.

No one is going to worry about me ever again.

“According to our records, you last entered Adria over three years ago. Is that correct?”

Three years ago my mother was with me.

“Miss Blakely?” the man says when I don’t answer. “According to our records—”

“Yes. I was here then.”

“So imagine our surprise, Grace Olivia Blakely, when you tried to reenter Adria today.”

This, at last, gets my attention.

“People enter Adria all the time,” I say. “What? Is there a lifetime limit? Did I use all mine up?”

“No.” The man laughs, but it is a dry, humorless sound. “You may come and go as much as you please. We are merely surprised because, according to our records, you never
left
.”

“What do you mean? I went home right after …” I trail off, remembering a cool breeze, a long fall, and pain. So much pain. Without even realizing it, I reach down and rub my leg.

“Miss Blakely?” The man’s voice cuts through my mind.

“I had an accident. The last time I was here. I had an accident, and then I went home.”

The man laughs again. This time he does sound amused. “Oh, we know all about your ‘accident,’ Miss Blakely. Even in Adria we have Google. And when children fall off of national landmarks, it tends to make the papers.”

“I was twelve.”

“Yes?”

“So I wasn’t a child.”

He laughs yet again, a commentary on my age and how silly I must be. He thinks I’m hilarious in my attempts to be treated like a grown-up. He doesn’t know that I’ve already seen more, done more, survived more than most people will ever have to. This man can’t possibly realize that I haven’t been a child in years.

“And I didn’t fall,” I say, leaning back in the hard chair. “I jumped.”

The man eyes me again. “It’s a very high wall.”

“It seems shorter on the way down.”

The man leans back and eyes me. “Did you sprout wings and fly out of the country, then? Is that why we have no record that you ever left?”

“No. I broke my leg in three places, so my grandfather thought I’d be more comfortable if I flew home on a private plane.”

“Very fancy.”

I shrug. People always think my grandfather’s world is so glamorous, and I guess in a way it is. He lives in a mansion. He’s personal friends with the US president and Adria’s king. But that doesn’t make me a princess. I’m just a girl who really wants to eat something and brush her teeth.

“I left the country. Obviously,” I tell the man. “And now I’m back. And I’d really like to—”

“How long will you be staying this time?” he asks. I shrug. “Is that supposed to mean that you do not know? Or that you do not wish to tell me?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m here until there’s peace in the Middle East or until I turn eighteen, I guess. Whichever comes first.”

“You are very cocky for someone so far away from home.”

“I’d like to call the US embassy.”

“No.” The man snaps as if I’ve just asked to speak to the king. “What were you doing in a secure area of the airport?”

“I got turned around. I’m sorry.”

“The warning signs weren’t a … what is the word?
Warning?
” he says with a smirk.

“I’m tired,” I explain. “I never sleep on planes, and I …”

I thought I heard my mother.

I thought I saw her killer.

I thought he had a scar.

“I demand to call the embassy. My mother told me—”

“Where is your mother?” the man asks, impatient. He wants to talk to a grown-up and get this mess cleared up. I am ruining his day. “So, Grace Olivia Blakely?” He looks around, an exaggerated gesture. “Where is your mother? I would like to talk to her.”

“So would I,” I say, almost to myself.

“Is she meeting you here? Is she—”

“She’s dead, okay?” I snap. My hands have started to tremble, but I refuse to cry in front of this man. I won’t let him see me scream or break or shake so badly that I forget how to breathe. He doesn’t have the power to make me crumble, so I sit perfectly still, willing myself to keep staring. To keep breathing.

And then I get angry.

“You forgot to ask me about the
black
passport, you know. The
diplomatic
passport.” The man’s eyes go wide as I slam a piece of paper down on the table. “And
this
is a diplomatic visa. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure both the US and Adria tend to frown upon minors being detained without notification of a parent or guardian. Or, in my case, an ambassador who happens to also
be
my guardian.”

This, I can tell, finally has the man off balance. It’s my turn to laugh. “Are you familiar with the concept of diplomatic immunity?” I’m shaking now, not with fear or panic but with rage. “The lawyers tell me that it isn’t quite a get-out-of-jail-free card. But it’s close. I probably couldn’t, I don’t know … burn the airport to the ground. But I’m pretty sure it covers accidently walking through the wrong door. Now
call the embassy
.”

The man is turning away, reaching for the phone, when it rings.

He keeps his back to me, but I can hear him speaking softly in Adrian; I can barely make out the words. When the call is over, the man slowly stands, gathers my passports and papers, and slides them across the table.

“Who was that?” I ask.

“You are free to leave, Miss Blakely.”

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