The Debt


by Karina Halle

PROLOGUE

Jessica

August

There’s nothing so infuriating as having to pass up a tall pint of beer on a blindingly hot summer day. Especially when that summer day takes place in the UK, where summer is more of an idea than an actual reality.

And yet, I had to say no to my friends, telling them that I’d like to do some shopping on Oxford Street before my flight back to Edinburgh this evening. The thing is, I’m not even lying—those summer sales are calling my name and I’ve been waiting for a certain dress at Zara to be discounted.

But my friends are disappointed all the same. I rarely see them, and though I wasn’t even supposed to be in London this weekend, I feel like a total ass for turning them down, not to mention I’m slipping into the “no fun” category sooner than I thought.

I met Paula, Jo, and Sean six years ago when I took the one-month intensive program at London Yoga’s training facility. At the time I was directionless, having just moved to the UK from Canada, and yoga was the only thing that made sense in my life. There’s something to be said for the friendships formed when you’re young, broke, and untethered. They ground you like nothing else can, and even years later, they ground you to who you were.

But the real reason I’m not going out for drinks with them after the UK’s largest health and wellness conference is far too complicated for me to admit. After the last two days of attending seminar after seminar, perusing the trade show booths and drinking my weight in herbal tea, I just want to be by myself. A few months ago I had a clear idea of who I was and where my place was in the world. Now, I’m afraid I don’t know anything.

And I’m just plain afraid.

“Are you sure?” Paula asks me, laying her hand on my shoulder as we stand outside the convention center. Jo and Sean watch from the sidelines, their arms bundled with bags of promotional shit they’ve been collecting all day, hoping Paula can change my mind.

I’m still the closest with Paula, usually seeing her a few times a year and talking online at least every other day. She has this way about her that I envy deeply, the ability to soothe with just her touch or the sound of her voice. She can usually convince me to jump off a bridge but this time I’m being firm. My willpower will not wane.

I playfully shrug her off, not wanting her to read too deeply into this. “I’m fine. I really should get ready for my flight.”

“But it’s beer,” Sean says again for the millionth time. “You never say no to beer, Jessica.”

And it’s true. I’m a health fanatic, paleo and all that, and follow as close to a gluten-free diet as I can, but beer is my vice, my Achilles heel. It’s been weeks since I last had one and I can still taste it.

“Don’t tempt me,” I say, flashing them a smile. I whip out my phone and give it a glance, pretending to check the time. “I really should go. This trip was so last minute anyway. I’m just glad I got to see you guys.”

I hadn’t planned on coming to the conference to begin with, but then the yoga studio I teach at had to close for the weekend to deal with an insect problem (I know, gross) and Paula had an extra pass through the wellness center that she and Jo opened together. It didn’t take much convincing. On Friday night I kissed my boyfriend Mark goodbye and hopped on the plane, eager to get away for a few days, to see old friends and do some thinking. Sometimes distance puts everything in the right perspective.

Jo sighs despondently, blowing a wayward piece of long blonde hair out of her eyes. “All right. We get it. You’re too good for us now that you live up in Scotland,” she says, but there’s a teasing smile on her lips, as always.

“Whatever,” I tell her, glad that they’re letting me go without too much of a fuss. I give them each a big hug and promise I’ll try and pop down to London soon. Of course they could always come up and see me—I’ve been in Edinburgh for a few years now—but the big city life has its grip on them.

I head for the tube, sighing in relief at my solitude which then leads to coughing from the fumes of the passing cabs. The traffic here is absolutely atrocious, getting worse every time I visit, and I have to wonder where my friends find their peace in this city. Or maybe that’s why they turned to yoga to begin with—instead of finding peace, they created their own.

I had the same idea once. I moved to Edinburgh after my mother died so I could be with my sister. I left my life in Canada behind—the one that was supposed to bring me peace, if not escape—and got used to a new reality. What was supposed to be a couple of years has now turned into six and I’ve managed to carve out a new life that isn’t shaped by my past.

The only problem is…well, sometimes life gives you what you want while taking another piece away.

The tube ride to Oxford Circus is hot and cramped, and nausea sweeps through me as I’m crammed between a business woman who smells like she’s doused herself in cheap perfume and a man with intense body odor and onion breath. I close my eyes and try to keep my stomach contents down. I’ve only been having dry rice toast in the mornings now because of this damn queasy stomach.

When the doors finally open, I’m sucked out through the crowd and ushered up the escalator until I’m in the bright sunshine and streaming bodies of Oxford Street. Double decker buses rumble past, narrowly missing bike couriers while Union Jack flags dance above the street.

There’s a great sense of anonymity in this city. You could be anyone and no one would care. Just another face in the crowd, another life, another secret. For all the traffic and dirt and noise, that’s a plus about London. The ability to escape who you are.

I let the throngs of people guide me where I need to go. Everyone is out and enjoying the rare heat wave, the late season sales, the dying days of summer, and I drift among them, completely aimless, pretending I have no responsibilities or matters of the heart to attend to.

I go to Zara and find the dress I want, but of course it’s not in my size. I leave with a short silk scarf, the kind Grace Kelly would knot around her neck, and then later wear around her head during a convertible drive on the French Riviera. It’s royal blue with faint watercolor mermaids on it and sets off my red hair like it’s on fire.

I head off down the street, meandering until the crowds become too much for me to handle. I duck down a narrow side street to take a breather. The nausea is clawing through my system again. I have to eat something soon or else I’ll end up lying in an alley somewhere, one weak and hungry bitch.

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