[CW: Substance abuse, mentions of abuse, violence, death]
The black splotches were spreading. Neha rotated her hands carefully, watching as the dye tendrils snaked down her wrists. She imagined them like a disease taking over, consuming her, removing what was left of her old self. Until only a shallow shell of her former life remained. And, shells were easily cracked.
Neha turned on the shower, cranking the rusty handle as far as it could go. She had a rough go of it recently, she would be the first to admit it. But as Neha’s current transformation washed over her, she felt her recent worries become more distant in her mind. Neha stepped carefully in the tub and the hot water engulfed her, burning her skin. But Neha did not flinch, nor did she adjust the temperature. This pain was her repentance.
Neha worked quickly, running her hands through her hair, ensuring that every last piece of her hair was free from residue. The black coloring immediately pooled below her, swirling like a tiny tornado as it disappeared down the drain. Her vision flashed for a moment and a bright, metallic red took the black dye’s place. It surrounded her, making her breath catch. But Neha shook her head forcefully, ridding herself of the invasive thought. Back to the task at hand. Only when the water ran clear, did she move on to her skin and scrubbed hard, her skin pinkening further with the force of it.
Soon the splotches of black had vanished completely from her skin and Neha exited the tub feeling satisfied. To new beginnings, she thought.
Steam swirled throughout every nook of the dingy bathroom. Neha squinted at the mirror as she tried to make out the edges of her shadowy silhouette. Her black locks hung around her like a curtain, a stark contrast to her pale skin. Good, she thought to herself, and moved on to her next task. Neha braced her forearms against the sink, and pried one of her eyes open. It blinked rapidly at her in protest, but she struck like a viper as she inserted the contact. A few more blinks and slowly brown transformed into a striking green.
Next, Neha located her new wardrobe that was piled haphazardly in the corner of the bathroom. Neha had swapped her own outfit with a college student at a local bar shortly after she had fled the incident. The student’s eyes were glazed with the alcohol they spent all afternoon consuming, and the second Neha flashed a hundred dollar bank note, they stopped asking questions. As Neha pulled on the silken fabric, and the bold pink texture glided across her skin delicately. It was more expensive than anything she and Neel had ever cobbled together.
A moment of pleasure flitted across Neha's mind. She took it as a sign that she was moving closer to the life she had always deserved.
With nothing left to do, Neha assessed herself in the mirror once again. She did not recognize the frame that looked back at her. As unfamiliar eyes stared back at her, piercing deep into her soul, she thought again of Neel. His presence haunted her, even now. She thought of what Neel would say of her current circumstances.
You can’t run from who you are. All of our pasts will eventually converge, consuming us like a thousand lives once lived.
Neha shook her head once again. Neel liked to think he was wise, but what was wisdom when you drowned it in the bottom of a bottle? With each drink the wisdom morphed into anger, and consumed Neel as if he was possessed by a fiery demon. And Neha would lay in wait for the demon to strike. All these built up years - it was only a matter of time before Neha struck back.
A wise man or a fool in disguise, she mused angrily. Neha took a steadying breath and forced thoughts of Neel from her mind. He was her past now.
Neha turned abruptly, pulling open the bathroom door. She did not look back. Not even once.
The building was tucked deep in an alleyway. It was so nondescript that Neha had almost missed it. As Neha entered, a squirrely man appeared suddenly on her left. He smiled widely showing a set of brown stained teeth.
“Who sent you?” he rasped at her, his foul breath shot at her like a weapon.
Neha forced herself not to flinch. “Carlos,” she replied evenly.
The man looked at her for a beat too long, studying her face carefully. The deep weight of his stare started to make Neha nervous. Then in an instant, he was gone, apparently satisfied at the answers he had received from Neha’s face.
“I’d ask what you needed,” he laughed. “But everyone who comes to me is after one thing: a new beginning.”
Neha stayed silent. But the man was not deterred. He lit a pipe and continued to stare at Neha, his cheeks hollowing as he puffed. “You don’t look like the type to be on the run.”
“Is there a type?” Neha bit out.
He considered his response carefully as he gathered his supplies. “No, no, I suppose not.”
He suddenly moved closer to her, pushing her against a nearby wall. On instinct, Neha raised her arms in defense, ready to escape if she needed to. The man looked at her protective stance, and huffed a laugh. His calloused hand gripped her chin, tilting her head slightly. He nodded over at the camera perched on his desk, and before Neha could fully relax, a bright flash blinded her momentarily.
“You’re going to have to hold your emotions a little closer if you are going to survive what’s to come, sweetheart.” the man said, peering at her in amusement. He moved on to his computer, clicking rapidly as he worked. Unfortunately for Neha, the stream of chatter never stopped. “So what did you do - murder your husband in a crime of passion?”
Neha stilled. Her ears rang loudly as the screams filled the air. A flash of silver, a body hitting the ground. Neha looked down at her hands and red blossomed over them. The red splotches had again spread, they snaked up her torso, suffocating her. Neha’s breath constricted once again and she felt the panic enveloping her.
“I’m just messing with you, sweetheart,” a voice called out.
The man’s voice shattered her thoughts. Neha blinked and the memories faded away; and her vision refocused on the man that stood before her. She blinked rapidly, ignoring the outline of the body she could see sprawled on the ground behind the man, his familiar tuft of hair cascading around his face like a tainted halo. She blinked again and the body disappeared. The man continued to look her up and down, his eyes lingering on a pool of expensive fabric.
“Nah, that’s not it,” he continued to theorize. “White collar crime. It’s written all over your face.”
Neha genuinely laughed at the absurdity of it all, the sound falling from her mouth in a croak. She had forgotten how long it had been since she last laughed. A year maybe? Before Neel, most likely. “Yeah, something like that,” she replied.
The man slid two sets of documents toward her. Neha’s eyes focused on the unfamiliar name, as she rolled the syllables around on her tongue. Mirah Abbasi. Neha repeated the name to herself again; she felt the new identity sliding over her skin like a glove.
She threw a wad of cash at the man, and started to whistle as she exited the building. She felt the past disappearing behind her with each determined step.
The airport was bustling with activity, and Neha tried not to let her nervousness show as she placed her bags on the security belt. She looked timidly at a woman before her.
“Everything out of your pockets,” the woman barked in response.
Her bags slid easily through the security checkpoint, and another woman waved her forward. “You’re free to go.”
You’re free. Her vision flashed again.
Neel’s angry face was towering above her, his spit flew every which way. “You’ll never be free of me,” he screamed. “We are bound together in this world.” Neha could see as the demon emerged, it’s possessive anger filled Neel’s eyes, illuminating the madness within.
Neel grabbed a heavy bookend from the shelf behind him, and he advanced with a snarl. Neha pressed herself to the wall in fear, her petite frame cowering in anticipation. Neel’s voice shifted into a sob, “Until death do us part, you promised me.” he yelled, lifting the bookend above his head. Before the blow landed, Neha grabbed a nearby letter opener in a panic and thrusted it forward with all of her might.
Neel froze. Neha roared. She forced the letter opener into Neel’s flesh again. And again. And again. It felt as if Neel's demon was contagious, and she was blinded by the intensity of it all. She only stopped when she heard Neel’s ragged breath, it escaped from his mouth in an odd gurgle. As she breathed heavily, he stood there looking at her as the red spread rapidly across his white shirt, the demon slowly faded from his eyes. Then he crashed to the ground.
The memory faded. You’re free, Neha whispered to herself as she pulled her bags behind her, navigating through the crowded hall. Free. She closed her eyes for a moment as she tried to pinpoint this feeling of aliveness that was growing within her. The feeling still lingered in the recesses of her mind as she reached her gate and handed her boarding pass to the stewardess.
Before she took a step forward, Neha looked behind her one final time. She saw Neel standing there amongst the airport chairs, expressionless. A drip of blood pooled at the edges of his mouth. You’ll never be free of me. Neha forced herself to turn away. Her eyes focused on the new path before her, leaving Neel behind for the final time.
“Welcome aboard, Ms. Abbasi.” the stewardess said.
To new beginnings, Neha thought, as she grasped the boarding pass firmly in her hand. As she looked at the stewardess, Neha’s mouth opened to expose a set of pearly whites as the name fully washed over her. Her muscles were not used to such a movement and her face tingled with discomfort, but still Neha smiled. For the first time in a year.