She stopped cold as the sound of the gun rang off the brick walls.
She was drenched as she ran through the wet streets with the sounds of men running and yelling behind her. The darkness concealed her quick darts through alleys and around building corners. Her wet hair stuck to her face and her jeans rubbed her legs raw, but she knew if she stopped, it would be the end of her.
Just hours before, she was casually walking through the streets when she witnessed a murder. She let her lifetime of knowledge of Budapest and walking through the city guide her running through the dark. Along the river, she knew of a camp of homeless people where it would be easy to lose her pursuers. By the time she arrived at the camp, her whole body throbbed in pain and exhaustion. She scanned the tent rows that lit up with dancing shadows from the nearby fires. One stood out to her as it sat back from the rows in the dark, so she snuck behind the tents until she reached it. She threw the tent flap open and found a stack of boxes to hide behind, making herself as small as possible. “Find her, search every tent, she isn’t to leave alive,” she heard from outside.
Footsteps approached. She picked up a stick from the ground and braced herself for what was to come. When the flap opened, she froze, realizing that he wasn’t an attacker. A tall man with blue eyes and blonde hair stood there wide eyed staring at her. He looked back outside at the men turning the camp inside out.
“I’m guessing you are the one they are looking for?” he said with a calm, low voice.
“I saw something they didn’t want me to see,” she replied.
“Follow me, I know how we can get you out of here safely,” he said with a voice that made her want to trust him immediately.
He reached out and grabbed her free hand and drug her out of the tent. He took her into the shadows along the river bank. She stared at their hands holding each other, a feeling she hadn’t felt in years. They finally arrived at a bridge, and he stopped once they were under it. The light from the distance danced across the river’s ripples.
“So are you going to tell me your name?” he asked with a small intriguing smile.
“Alice, Alice Thornton,” she said through her hard breathing.
“I’m Steven Meadows, but you can call me Steve,” he said while drawing his hand through his blonde hair. “We can stay here for the night.” he paused for a second and then continued, “So what did you see that was so bad that you’ve got five men with guns chasing you?”
“A murder in a back alley. The guy saw me and started to chase me, and eventually, more guys were chasing with him” Alice said while sitting down on the moist cobblestones.
Steven looked at Alice with fascination, and sat down across from her and continued to stare with a longing look.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Alice asked in a defensive tone.
“Sorry, it's nothing. Just wondering how a girl like you gets herself into such a predicament,” he said with a slight laugh.
“Wrong place at the wrong time I guess,” she said with a tone of regret.
He pulled his pack off his back and brought out some jerky and a bottle of whiskey.
“Are you kidding, I’m starving.”
“I also got a bottle of whiskey I picked up from a guy,” Steven said as she grabbed it out of his hand.
Between swigs, she asked “Picked up? Are you a thief?”
His light welcoming face turned hard and closed as he looked down.
“No. I bought it to trade,” he said defensively. “Let's get some rest, you look like you could use a few z’s.”
Alice rolled her eyes, laid back on the slanted cobblestone, and looked up at the reflections cast on the bottom of the bridge with her whiskey in hand resting on her stomach. She tried to stay awake and just rest, but soon the dancing reflections got fuzzy and then black, and her eyelids got heavy. Steven watched Alice fall asleep, wondering why he was helping her. He had been trying to make something for himself so he could move out of the camp, and he had almost saved enough money to do so. Now, his life was turning upside down trying to help Alice. He wondered if she was worth it, but his mother taught him to help those who needed it; even now at age 23 he still listened to the lessons she taught him. He knew he could not abandon her when she obviously needed help.
The night was still and quiet with the soft breaths of Alice and Steven, but it was interrupted by the sound of boots scraping on the road. Alice woke with a start, she turned to Steven and shook him to wake up.
“What? What's wrong?” he asked in a haze.
“They are coming, we got to go.” Steve stumbled as he got up, but the sound of the men woke him up quick. “Let's go, follow me. I know a place they won't want to go.” Steven said with assurance.
Alice ran behind Steven into the empty city streets. She slowed as she saw where he was headed.
“Come on, we don't have time for this. You can take a shower when this is all over, now come on,” Steven said sternly.
Alice winced as he lowered her into the sewer. He came down after her and shut the opening. The sound of scurrying rats and flowing water flooded Alice’s ears. Steven found the flashlight as quickly as he could and turned it on. It revealed filth and the rats. Steven started walking along the walkways deeper into darkness. Alice had no choice but to follow, so she did. It seemed like they had walked for hours when Steven finally stopped under another opening.
“Where are we at?” Alice asked with a hint of curiosity.
“You’ll see,” Steven answered as he climbed out. His hand reached down along with rays of light. It was already morning. She grabbed his hand and climbed out. She looked around and realized they were deep into the center of the city. People crowded the streets bumping into them with sounds of movement very evident. Steven didn’t waste any time, making his way through the crowd into a back alley. He turned and looked at her with sadness and regret in his eyes, almost said something, but then didn’t. Steven turned and continued to walk. They made their way to an old, tall building. Steven buzzed the doorbell.
“Who is it? A scratchy voice asked over the intercom.
“It's Steven.” There was silence, and then the door unlocked with a loud click.
Alice made awkward eye contact with Steven as he pushed the old door into the dark room. Steven was swallowed up by the darkness as he entered. Alice could feel a weight to the room. The air was much denser and heavy. She closed the door behind her and then a small flicker of light glowed down the hallway. She grabbed Steven’s hand as he led her through the dark with scary precision. The light of a candle cast shadows that darted across the walls like thieving children in a busy street. The darkness started to withdraw as they approached the room where a little old man sat beside the candle gazing into the enticing flame. As he looked up at Steven, Alice could see the years, the history, and the pain in his eyes.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the old man said with regret and shame in his voice.
“I had nowhere else to go Jim. You know I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have to.” Steven said as he looked at the dusty floor.
“Who's the girl?” Jim asked suspiciously.
“She needs help, particularly shelter, somewhere she lay low for a while,” Steven answered more boldly now.
Jim grumbled and growled as he stood up, supporting his aching body on a wooden cane. He slowly walked out of the light and into the darkness as he went through a doorway. Once again Steven was leading her by the hand, but the thought of how he knew his way around the gloomy house occupied her mind. Steven took them inside a bedroom and lit a candle. The light quickly spread over the little bed with hand-sewn quilts and a wooden rocking chair in the corner.
“You can stay here for the night; get some rest. We will figure something out in the morning, but for now, we just need to stay low and off the radar.” Steven said with exhaustion creeping into his voice. His eyes sagged, and he no longer stood straight, rather his shoulders shrugged forward.
“Alright, thanks,” Alice said strangely. She wasn’t any good with personal feelings or depending on anyone else but herself. Steven left and shut the door behind him with a soft creak. She walked around the room with the candle in her hand and gazed at the pictures on the wall. A woman holding a little blonde-headed boy stood out to her. Alice started to piece together why Steven knew his way around. Inside the small bathroom that was attached to the bedroom, she set the candle down on the sink and looked at herself in the mirror. It was the first time she noticed the dirk smudged on her face and the tangles in her hair that looked like a rat's nest. The sight of a shower made her smile, but there was no hot water. She dropped her dirty and ripped clothes on the soft carpet and stepped into the freezing water. Once she had rinsed, off she stepped out and slipped her underwear and bra back on. The rest of her other clothes found their new resting place on the back of the rocking chair. She climbed into the neatly made bed and blew out the candle. It only took a few seconds for her to fall fast asleep.
Low whispering voices came down the hallway and crept through the cracks in the door. Alice blinked as the light shown through a curtain with one too many holes from moths. The little rays of light hit her directly in the eyes. She slowly crawled out of bed and put on her clothes. She walked on the balls of her feet as she crept silently out of the room. The clinking of silverware on dishes echoed through the old house. She followed the sound until she saw the two men sitting, Steven’s back to her, eating, drinking coffee and talking. The old man looked up and when he saw her, he frowned. Steven immediately turned around to see her, and a forced smile spread across his face. Alice didn’t like being protected or being held out of the loop. He got up and softly gripped her elbow as he led her back down the hallway and into the bedroom.
“Alice,” he paused. “You shouldn’t be on your own, especially with those men after you. You should stay with Jim and me, or at least until the heat dies down. We can protect you, and you won’t have to always be looking over your shoulder,” Steven said with a strange eagerness.
“I don't need you to protect me. As sweet as it is, I’ve been on my own my entire life. Unlike you, I didn't have a mother to hold me and a house to protect me,” Alice said defensively as she gestured to the pictures. Her comment was an obvious blow to Steven as the pain was evident in his eyes, and she immediately regretted saying it. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”
“Yeah, you did, but it's fine. You're right; I did have a mom and a house when I was young, but when I was twelve, my mother died, and my grandfather, Jim, took over the house. After that, I ran away; I couldn’t handle looking into his eyes and seeing the pain as he turned away from me because I reminded him of his daughter. You’re not the only one who has lost and has been alone.” Steven said. He walked to the doorway and stopped. “Please stay,” he said softly without even turning to look at her.
Alice knew that if she stayed she would be putting Steven in danger, and she knew what she had to do. She crept through the old house being led by the morning light shining through the windows. She opened the front door and as she closed it behind her she saw Jim standing, smiling at her. That was the first time she saw him smile at her.
The train station was her best chance, putting distance between her and her pursuers would give her time, and hopefully, they would lose interest. She traced her fingers over the brick wall beside her. She thought of Steven, he was the only person she had ever even given a second thought about. It was harder leaving him than city she grew up in. But keeping him safe was more important than her own whims. As she walked down the quiet street, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a man standing in a corner. Then she noticed a couple more on the other side of the street.
“Dang it,” she thought to herself.
She only had to make it over the next hill, and if she could reach the train station, then she would be safe. She darted to the right among the tall buildings so she could try to lose them through the numerous alleys and walkways. Their loud footsteps hitting the dusty road immediately followed her. Left turn, right turn, left turn. She zigzagged trying to get far enough ahead. One last turn and then there was open ground until the station. They were too close, she wasn’t gonna make it. She turned the last corner and started to sprint when she heard “Stop!” Her stride shortened and her heart raced, that was Steven’s voice. No, she thought, why was he there. The station’s doors were just a few feet away, and she couldn’t turn back, could she? The sound of a gunshot rang off the brick walls, and she stopped cold just as her hands hit the cool handle of the door. She gasped for breath and practically fell into the station. She turned around and saw the men coming to a stop once they saw her inside. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she stared at them. Stumbling across the floor she made her way to the ticket booth and bought a one-way ticket out of the city.
Sitting on the velvety seats, Alice stared at her reflection in the window of the train. The trees blurred behind the reflection, but she was only thinking about Steven.
What Happened In Budapest
She stopped cold as the sound of the gun rang off the brick walls.