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The silver lining in all of this was that my father and Eline were out of town and wouldn't be home to witness the worst of the bruising. I could feel the extra weight of the swelling add on to my face as I walked home in the moonlight.

It was only Petra at home at this hour. She wouldn't stay up waiting for me, would she? Had the driver called home? Was anyone looking for me at this point?

I didn't have the words to explain what had happened. I didn't know if I was ready to admit that they had stolen my phone. My father would want to press charges. The situation would snowball into a mess that would have everyone in Dronesk choosing sides. I couldn't have that. My plan was therefore to sneak into Adriana's room and lay low for the night. Granted no one caught me wandering the corridors in my aunt's home—there couldn't have been a surer way of worsening the consequences.

My father would be alerted in the middle of the night, forcing him to fly-in to Rujga and take the first train to Dronesk come morning. My aunt, in the same breath she wielded her threat to my father, would demand I be taken to the hospital, and then straight to the police station. News of what had happened would spread like a forest fire over town.

I saw it play out in front of my eyes. The newspapers the following day with my battered face on the front cover inciting further Arash-Brommian tensions; my father promising a compensation for those who turned in my phone; my classmates whispering about me at school.

I drew my jacket closer to my body, huddling in on myself. The cold pierce through me as another strong wind pushed at me from the front. Overhead, the trees of Elhem rustled a loud roar.

I left the cluster of colourful buildings in Stan behind me and made my way up the asphalted two-way lane to Ljerumlup. It was the longest road in all of Dronesk. It started downtown and bisected through Elhem until it practically ended at my doorstep.

A lifetime ago (or so it seemed in retrospect) our driver had stopped Yuri Karamov on this very road, in the middle of a storm, and had offered him a ride to school. Following that incident, we had walked this passage after I had been caught eavesdropping on him in Mr. Unjis's classroom, and many more afternoons after that.

Lost in the memory of my awkward self from that time, I didn't hear them approach over the rustling of the leaves. My steps faltered as the wind carried a buzz of noise that grew into audible murmurs. I couldn't discern them in the faint moonlight, but by the sound of their footsteps, it sounded like a group of people. So far, I had only heard one female voice. Something about her lilt awakened a vague recollection within me. My heart rate sped up.

They were drawing closer, hiding just out of sight behind a shroud of trees where the road curved.

Not many people lived in these parts of the woods. I dreaded running into the people I knew. We didn't have neighbours in Ljerumlup, but lower down the altitudes of Elhem, there were several smaller neighbourhoods made up of clusters of six, sometimes seven houses. One of which belonged to a certain blue-eyed Brommian I would rather avoid meeting.

The barks of a dog greeted me as the silhouette of a girl came into view. I didn't catch much of her before I hastily shook my hair in front of my face and looked down. I sped up my steps, being careful to trod as lightly as I could on the crumbling asphalt, as to not call their attention to me.

She was speaking in Brommin. The dog's barks persisted. They felt directed towards me although I couldn't really say because I didn't dare look up. The girl hushed the dog by calling its name. Inu. My whole body flinched in an uncoordinated response. I stumbled over a rock in my surprise.

Curiosity won over my resolve and I cast a glance out of the corner of my eye to the where the dog stood halted in motion. He was staring at me, alert. I confirmed it was a mix-breed, and although it was too dark to tell its colour, I caught enough of its size and shape to say with confidence who it belonged to. Gritting my teeth, I picked up my pace.

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