Sweat stuck to Aria’s brows, collecting into thick droplets that cascaded down her forehead. The August heat was not unfamiliar to the residents of La Princepaul, the noise of ceaselessly running air conditioners was perpetually irritating. Though, in the poor district Aria found herself plodding through, the sound of valuable chill air being created was absent.
Wiping her hand across her forehead, Aria quickened her pace. The relief from the heat was incentive enough for her to rush home, nevermind the fact that she was in the highest crime area at two in the morning.
La Princepaul was notoriously known for the most brutal crimes, it’s police force useless against the immense gangs that inhabited it’s slums. Even as a naive 19 year old, Aria knew it was not the kind of place she should be in the dark.
If it were up to her mother, she would be in bed sleeping. Aria didn’t listen to her though, legally an adult, any advice seemed unwarranted. She was just fine, she often insisted at family gatherings, met with concerned eyes. Sympathetic gifts and offers for a place to stay were taken up only because she had no other way to keep off the streets or in the slums. Her aunt might faint if she knew where Aria was late at night.
A cool gust of wind sent shivers down her back, goosebumps down her arms though the heat remained. Crickets chirped in the distance, and the otherwise silent street appeared empty, but Aria felt another’s presence…
Xavier, Aria’s father, disappeared just seven years before. At the young age of 12, she didn’t quite understand what had occurred.
“When is Papi coming back?” She frequently asked her mother Nadia, tugging at her shirt. “I miss Papi.”
Nadia, hard as stone, never sugar coated it for Aria, which she later appreciated. “Papi is gone, Aria. He’s not coming back.”
“Like grandpa?” She asked, her eyes brimming with tears of understanding.
“Yes.” Nadia said in response, opting to pull Aria into a tight hug instead. “It’s just you and I now sweetheart.”
Aria was sure somebody was following her, though she wasn’t sure what gave her that sentiment. Her sneakers on cement combined with her shallow breaths were the only sound she could hear, when she turned back she was met with nothing more than street lights illuminating an unkempt road.
“Who’s there?” She asked nobody in particular, her voice shaky and weak. Holding her keys firmly between her trembling fingers, she gritted her teeth. “Show yourself!”
“Surprise,” She heard a familiar voice echo from behind her. Spinning around too see where it came from, she dropped her keys in shock
Before her father left, he was often absent. When Aria would arrive home from school, it was rare to find him home. Her mother would scowl when he came home misshapen, the bags under his eyes heavy and black. Or, sometimes, his face would be pale white and he would be shaking violently.
When he came home like that, Aunt Tina would whisk Aria away to her bedroom, blasting music just loud enough to drown out the screams of the fighting couple.
“What’s wrong with Papi?” Her younger self would ask, braiding the fine hair of her barbie doll. “Is he sick?”
“In a way, yes.” Tina would tell her. “We need to stay away for a bit so we don’t catch it too!” She would bop Aria’s nose, making her laugh and do the same to Tina in response.
Once Nadia was done chewing out Xavier, Aria would be allowed to run downstairs. Expecting a hug from her father, all she would get was a cold shoulder, and a muffled “Not now Aria.”
Aria’s first instinct was to cry, but she bit her lip and clenched her fist instead. “You’re alive,” was all she could manage. A strangled gasp escaped her lips, and her face contorted into rage. “You left us.”
“I did what I had to to keep you safe.” Xavier protested, stepping towards Aria. A lopsided grin flashed across his face. “You’re beautiful.”
Stepping back away from him, Aria slowly picked up her keys. “You never cared about us, you just cared about your next fix.”
“I’m clean, Aria.” He claimed, but she saw the slouch in his back, the dirt smudges on his clothes, and his eyes glossed over. “I promise.”
His eyes narrowed to meet hers, and shivers ran up her back. Though he was clearly intoxicated and weak, he was still much, much larger than her.
When Aria was 15, her questions about Xavier’s disappearance were too difficult for Tina and Nadia to drown out.
“Why do you care so much? He’s gone!” Nadia had exclaimed angrily in the kitchen in response to yet another one of Aria’s inquiries. Tomato sauce splashed onto the white counter as she smashed her spoon down in frustration.
“Because what if he isn’t gone?” Aria hissed. “What if he’s out there, and misses us?”
“Aria!” She hissed, pursing her lips and trying desperately to stay calm. “Your father chose to leave and not come back. He vanished to the slums, and guess what happened?” She waved her hands in exasperation. “He got killed in a gang fight. Now stop having such silly thoughts, and do your homework!”
The conversation ended there, Aria too stunned to continue prodding. Instead, she dug up news articles about the gang wars, but the body count was too high for the news station to document every name. Her father’s life was just a name in a sea of many.
“I didn’t remember you being so rude, where are your manners?” His speech was slurred, and he staggered towards her. “Just give your Papi a hug.”
“You don’t deserve my respect. You chose to leave us, you chose to not be part of my life. You don’t get to pretend that never happened!” Her voice took on a fearful pitch, unforgotten grief weighing down her chest. She wiped away hot tears.
“Aria, I missed you all this time-”
“You don’t get to say that! I grieved for you, I cried over you.” His face was nowhere near empathetic.
“I need a bit of money, my dear, and then I can do whatever you wish!”
“I’m not giving you a cent.” Aria’s brows contorted in rage, and she stepped backwards quickly. “Or another second of my time.”
“Aria, wait!” He grabbed her wrist, forcing her to still. “I’m in danger, I need-”
“You’ve been dead to me for seven years.” Aria hissed, yanking her hand out of his grasp. “I couldn’t care less if you were in ‘danger’” She made air quotes with her hand.
“But-” He tried to follow her.
“But nothing, you made your choice a long time ago.” With that, she turned back one last time before sprinting for home.