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After All
Author: Karina Halle

Prologue

Emmett

Past

Emmett Hill had just turned ten years old a week before everything changed.

He wasn’t a happy kid by any means. But the life that he had was the only life that he knew. And even though he often dreamed of the better life he’d glimpse on the right side of town, it seemed like a fairy tale to him. Something he knew would never happen, something to tuck away in his dreams. Life outside the dirty, mean streets of east Vancouver was all a movie, a film, a play on a stage. He was stuck behind the scenes.

But, like most kids, he was resilient. And being stuck was a way of life. Every day was exactly the same, which made all the hardships that much easier to take.

He’d wake up in the mornings in the tiny one-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother and she’d bring him breakfast in bed, delivered with thin and shaky hands. Usually it was just sugary cereal with water instead of milk, but sugary cereal was like having candy in the morning so he didn’t care.

Then he’d get ready for school. His closet was full of clothes that were either too big or too small, clothes that had the names of other kids written into the collar, but at least he had variety. His school kept an eye on him and were always the first to give him, and other kids in slightly-too-big shoes, clothing that was donated. His mother was always looking for clean clothes for him too, when she wasn’t trying to get her medicine.

His mother would usually walk him the ten blocks over to his school, though sometimes it was his mother’s friend, Jimmy, and Emmett always likened that walk to being in a teleporter or a bridge through time. He read books all the time and one of his favorites was A Wrinkle in Time and sometimes he thought the way to school passed through a tesseract. They would leave the depravity of Hastings and Main and the other streets where lawlessness ruled and hope was squashed, and travel through Chinatown, where the vendors were always up bright and early, putting their colorful displays out, the air filled with the smell of hot meat and spices. Then Chinatown would give way to small row houses where Emmett assumed rich people lived, people who could afford an actual house and had tiny slices of a yard, the grass usually waist-high, rusted toys out front.

Of course, these weren’t rich people houses at all but anything other than Emmett’s apartment (where there were always a few people sleeping in the hall outside his door, some who used the stairwell as a toilet), seemed like it belonged to royalty.

Once at school, his mom would go off to her job as a waitress at a local diner, and he would disappear into the building to learn and play with his friends. Putting on plays during recess–where he was always the hero–was one of his favorite things to do. At some point during the day, usually just after lunch where he scarfed down his usual granola bar, one of the teachers would pull him aside. They’d ask him how he was today, how his mother was, if there had been any problems. Then they’d give him a piece of fruit, sometimes a sandwich (once, his teacher Mrs. Marsden, brought him a Happy Meal from McDonalds down the street–he never forgot that day).

He never really knew why the teachers doted on him but they’d often call him handsome and smart and tell him he had a bright future, so he thought maybe he was just special. He liked feeling special.

Then school would end and he’d always be a bit sad. Everything was so bright and cheery and fun and even learning the crappy subjects like math didn’t seem so bad.

But his mother, or Jimmy, would be around the corner waiting. Neither of them liked to go right up to the school to get him and when he asked why he got two different answers. Jimmy said “it would look bad, they don’t know I’m your friend,” and his mother said, “there are too many people.” She said this as if she didn’t like crowds when their whole life was so darn crowded with people always in their apartment, on the street, everywhere.

But they were their kind of people.

The junkies. The addicts. The thieves. The homeless, the hopeless.

Those were the people who surrounded them every day.

And Emmett wasn’t an idiot. Even though he grew up in that crappy apartment and saw the same scenes day in and day out, he eventually realized that the medicine his mother took, that everyone else took, was heroin and other drugs.

But even so, even as his mother stopped going to her job, even as she was flopped out on the couch more and more, even as the people who came over got dirtier, scarier, he figured everything in his life would be okay in the end.

Until it wasn’t.

One day his mother didn’t show up after school. He walked around the corner to the same old grey mailbox that she’d wait for him at, but she wasn’t there. Jimmy wasn’t either.

Since he was now ten years old, he figured he’d wait for a bit and then walk home, alone. Ever since his birthday when he hit the double digits, he felt a little bit older, a little bit wiser. After an hour, he adjusted the straps on his well-worn backpack, the heavy science textbook weighing it down, and took off for home.

He knew his way and wouldn’t get lost. In fact, as he walked, no one even looked at him twice. That was the thing about the area. As dirty and scary as it was, the people there weren’t known to kidnap or assault people. They just wanted money for drugs. And being that Emmett was just a kid, with obviously no money on him, no one paid him any attention.

By the time he was getting close to the apartment, Emmett started to feel more like a man than ever. Not only did he walk home alone, through the tesseract, but people ignored him. He didn’t even feel like a child anymore. He felt invincible.

It was because of this that he stopped being worried about why his mother didn’t show up. He ran up the stairs two-by-two to the top floor of the apartment building and burst in through his door, wanting to tell his mother all about his walk.

But she wasn’t there.

He tried to think if maybe she had gone back to work–that would be nice, it had been a while since he had a good, hot meal–and then went over to Jimmy’s door down the hall to see if he knew where she was.

He knocked and knocked and finally a guy who was napping on the floor by the stairs looked up at him and said, “He’s not home. Do you have a dollar, son?”

Emmett shook his head. “If I had a dollar, I’d be getting a pop right now. Have you seen my mother?”

The man squinted at him for a moment and then said, “Yeah. Emily, right? Last I saw she was outside the butcher.”

That didn’t sound too bad. There was a meat store a block up that provided cheap meals if you had the extra change. Sometimes his mother was up there getting them food. Maybe he would have a nice meal tonight. He hadn’t gotten anything special for his tenth birthday.

So Emmett put that thought into his head, pushing his worries aside, and went back into his home. He sat on the couch and watched the clock and waited.

Hours passed.

Night settled in.

And still his mother didn’t come home.

He searched the cupboards for something to eat and found a packet of stale crackers that he wolfed down. Then he decided to go and look for her.

Everything is scarier in the dark. In the day time you can see the horrors around you but at night, they were shadowed, half-hidden, which made them even more monstrous. Emmett felt like he was being very brave by doing this, the time when things got a little wilder, a little more out of hand. But he remembered that people had ignored him earlier and he knew that he couldn’t just wait for his mother forever. What if something had happened to her?

And for once, the reality of “what if” was hitting home. As he ran around the streets, asking for his mom, looking for her, dealing with people who scared him half to death, he started thinking about death. The worst-case scenario. His mother was using more and more, looking sicker and sicker every day.

What if, what if, what if?

It wasn’t until he forced himself into the back alleys that he knew he was close to death.

He could smell it back here, feel the dark, oppressive vibe.

The brick walls were covered in graffiti, the ground littered with shit, vomit, plastic baggies, discarded needles.

There were people back here too, but not many of them were moving.

Most were slumped here and there, the needles in their arms shining under the dim lights.

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