Having slept at Oliver’s place, Alex had no choice but to drive her car straight to school for fear of being late for her first class on Monday. They were getting a new lecturer in one of her practical courses and the last thing she needed was to create a first wrong impression by reporting late for class.
Fortunately for her, she still had some of her clothes at the Cooper mansion from the last time she and Anton had stayed during the school break. She changed into them and left early for school. When she noticed that she was getting closer to campus, Alex put on a cap and huge sunglasses to protect her identity from onlookers. She would have a lot more drama to deal with if students knew she was the one driving such a fancy car.
Despite her relationship with the Coopers, Alex had made it a point to have her life reflect her own capabilities and not those of others. Whereas Anton was free to live a lavish lifestyle, Alex preferred a quiet and easy life that she could afford through her own means.
She already had enough of students, both male and female trying to ingratiate themselves to her as a means of getting closer to Anton. Some of the female students hated her naturally simply because she was closer to the heir than they would ever be. She was already on fire for posting a few photos of herself with Oliver Cooper and Anton celebrating the former’s birthday over the weekend.
In her desperation to dull down Anton’s media storm due to the pics of him partying it up that had surfaced, Alex figured that posting new pictures of the three of them having a good time would dull down the gossip. In the end, She had won herself thousands of new followers on all her social media accounts that she had to make most of them private.
Unfortunately, like all tales left open to the public, Alex’s photos of her breakfast with Oliver raised a few eyebrows, most commenting about the two of them looking more like lovers instead of a simple child and guardian pair that they were. Alex was learning first-hand the side effects of exposing oneself to the mercy of the media.
It wasn’t like it was the first time such speculations were popping up in the media. Anyone that didn’t know the relationship between Alex and the Coopers did not deserve to work for any media outlet, print or online. However, for the time being, that news overshadowed Anton’s binge drinking and to close to naked pictures of himself and his new girl. It was all Alex needed and it was all that mattered.
Alex drove through the student car park in search of a free parking spot. She finally found one after a few minutes but it required her to park her long car in reverse if it was to fit into the space properly. Unfortunately, just as she was about to reverse into the spot, another vehicle tried to get into the same spot as well.
Alex honked and the driver came to a stop, noticing his error. He rolled down his window and looked out. “Very sorry,” he said, loud enough for her to hear.
Alex was about to wave at him as a sign of accepting his apology when she paused in mid-air. She shut her eyes for a few seconds and opened them again to take another look outside but the driver had already driven off in search of a new parking spot.
Where was that weird feeling coming from? She asked herself. Do I know the man?
Shaking her head awake, Alex took off the shades and cap and headed to class.
Entering the lecture hall, she looked out for her friends Cassey and Paulina at their usual sitting spot and caught them waving at her. She smiled and walked over to them, completely ignoring the stares she was getting from everyone.
After many years of constantly finding herself in the spotlight due to her association with the Coopers, Alex had mastered the art of oblivion.
“Are you the one that came in a BMW that everyone is talking about?” Cassey Newton had pulled Alex by the shoulder and whispered the words to her the moment she sat down.
“News sure travels fast on this campus,” Alex said. “Do they know it was me driving?”
Both girls shook their heads profusely in response, like a pair of twin puppets.
“Only the two of us know for sure since we have prior knowledge,” Paulina Martinez replied, shaking her head proudly for having the inside scoop. “The rest of them are just speculating.” She added.
The two girls had been friends with Alex since high school. Due to her strained relationship with her adoptive sisters, Alex had found solace in Cassey and Paulina. Her relationship with her adoptive family existed only on paper. From the time Oliver and Anton entered her life, she spent more time with the two than she ever did with her family. Through his home, Oliver had provided her an escape, a place where she felt worthy and needed rather than a burden or an extra mouth to feed.
“Who do you think they will give us as our new lecturer?” Cassey asked. “I hope it’s not that sadist Ashcroft something.”
Both Alex and Paulina gasped in trepidation.
“Please don’t let it be him,” With her head bowed down, Paulina held her hands together and raised them to the heavens in prayer with her heavens. Before concluding, she raised her head and made a Sign of the Cross over her face and chest.
“I saw those pictures of you and Mr Cooper and I almost died swooning.” Cassey said. “That is one fine man. How can you spend so much time with such a grand man and not feel anything my darling Alex? Are you even human?”
Alex gave her friend ‘the’ look. “That man you are talking about is old enough to be my father,” she reminded the girls.
“And that man looks young enough to be your brother,” Paulina countered. “And who cares how old he is anyway? I have always suspected you had a vintage taste in men.”
“What do you mean I have a vintage taste in men?” Alex asked. “I happen to like that idiot Tony yet he has the brain of a two year old when it comes to love.”
Paulina and Cassey were the only ones who knew about Alex’s crush on Anton but she trusted they would never get to tell him unlike George and Duncan who were close to impossible when it came to keeping secrets.
The three girls were still arguing about who was hotter between father and son when their new lecturer walked into class. When Alex looked up to the front, the man had his back to the class as he closed the door behind him.
When he finally turned around, Alex froze.
“Lexie,” both girls turned to her. Very so suddenly, she was shaking and sweating profusely.
“Lexie, what’s wrong with you?” Cassey held her friend by the arm. She was burning up.
“Good morning everyone, I am your….”
“Help! Somebody!” Paulina and Cassey were screaming before the lecturer could finish his sentence.
Alex had passed out.
The lecturer ran towards the commotion and after asking everyone to quickly move away to create enough room, he carried Alex with the help of another male student and laid her on her back.
He began to shake her and when she didn’t wake, he placed his hand to her nose to check her breath and felt for a pause on her neck. That was when he noticed it. The birth mark.
Fortunately, Alex opened her eyes before the man could take another look to confirm his suspicions.
At first, everything seemed blurry for Alex. But within a minute, she had managed to open her eyes wide open just in time to see Paulina towering over her after pushing the lecturer away.
“Lexie, can you see me? Are you alright?” A very disturbed Paulina asked.
“What happened?” Alex asked, looking up to see people surrounding her. She immediately tried to get up but a hand held her back down.
Feeling very dizzy, Alex closed her eyes for a second and she heard someone say, “You had temporarily….” She immediately recognized the voice. For over ten years, that voice had haunted her in her dreams but there it was in real time, as clear as the day they existed in.
I should have listened to you and gotten rid of her, Alex recalled the angry words.
She turned in the direction the sound had come from. It was him. It was definitely him. The years might have aged him a bit but she could tell right away who he was. As if possessed by something, Alex started shaking her head, looking as petrified as a child coming face to face with the monster that had been hiding in her closet.
Before her friends could decipher what was going on, Alex had turned frantic, desperately holding on Paulina as if for dear life. “No….” she kept saying whilst shaking her head frantically. “Get me…get me out…” She struggled to get the words out. “Out…out,” She desperately pulled at Paulina’s skirt.
Alex tried to pull herself up from the ground but the man tried to stop her again only this time, Alex held out her hand to keep him at bay. “Don’t,” she warned him as desperate tears rolled down her cheeks. She managed to get up with the help of Cassey and Paulina and the two girls did not let go of her for fear she might faint again.
“You need to lie down before you can….” Cassey tried to reason with her friend but Alex forced herself to walk forward. She kept trying to free herself from her two friends who were holding her back so she could run towards the door. She needed to get out of there as soon as possible.
I can’t breathe…I need air. Alex kept telling herself as she tried to make her escape. The words couldn’t come out of her mouth.
“You need to help her lie down immediately,” the lecturer instructed the students from a distance.
The moment Alex heard his voice again, she passed out a second time.
“Call the school emergency service!” The lecturer shouted as he rushed to her side again. He had heard that the university had one of the best emergency services. It shouldn’t be long before they came.
He repeated the previous process on her but her pulse was very weak this time. She wasn’t coming to.
He immediately got into position and started performing CPR.
While Paulina was talking to Emergency Services, Cassey called Oliver Cooper using Alex’s cell phone.
Oliver was in the middle of chairing a meeting when he saw Alex’s number appear on his phone screen. She rarely called him during working hours especially considering that she was supposed to be in class at that hour. Did something happen? Did the media go to the university to disturb her? Did something happen to Anton? The last time they spoke had not gone pleasant for either of them. Could something have happened? He was thinking all this whilst watching the phone vibrate. When the others in the room started watching the vibrating phone with him, Oliver excused himself from the meeting and walked out to take the call.
“Mr Oliver.” It wasn’t Alex’s voice on the other end of the line. He held the phone away to check the name again and confirmed it was Alex.
“Who is this?” He asked.
He heard sobbing. “Who is this? Where is Alex?” Oliver was slowly starting to panic.
“It’s Alex Sir…something has happened.” Cassey reported.
“What has happened to Alex?” Oliver asked.
“She fainted twice and now she won’t wake up.”
The moment Oliver heard the word faint; he rushed back into his office where the meeting had continued and frantically started searching for his keys on the table.
“Is everything alright sir?” His CFO Mark Daniels asked.
“My keys,” Oliver said. “Has anyone seen my car keys?”
“They’re here sir.” Mark picked them up from behind the pile of folders where they were, away from Oliver’s point of view and handed them to him.
Without excusing himself from the meeting, Oliver dashed out of the room in what was almost a trot.
“Where are you right now?” He asked Cassey who was still on the line.
“I’m heading there right now. Are you Cassey or Paulina?”
“I am coming over right now. Please don’t hang up and keep me updated until I get there. Do you hear me?”
By the time Oliver had reached the school, Alex had been moved to the university hospital and had woken up. Cassey was outside waiting to take him in.
“I think she fainted because of our new lecturer.” She informed a visibly perturbed Oliver as they walked to the ward.
“New lecturer?” Oliver asked.
“Yes,” Cassey replied. “She fainted the first time he walked into the room and then he resuscitated her. But then she saw him again and she started crying and shaking all over. She was pointing at him and begging us to get her out of the lecture hall, away from him. Do you think he did something to her in the past?”
The first thought that crossed Oliver’s mind was that of Alex’s forgotten memories. Did she finally remember what happened seventeen years ago? Could this man be connected to her amnesia? Oliver wondered until they reached the ward.
The moment Alex saw him, she broke down and cried.
Oliver ran to her side and she immediately wrapped her arms around him, sobbing hard against him.
The look in her eyes for the few seconds he looked at her face confirmed his worst fears; she had remembered something. Oliver held her tightly in his arms and they stayed like that until she calmed down. However, even after she had stopped sobbing, she wouldn’t let go of him. She was still holding on him tightly.
Oliver looked up at Cassey and the rest of the crew; Paulina, George and Duncun…with the exception of his son Anton and motioned for them to leave them alone for a while.
“Alex,” he called her name once they were alone. “Alex,” he tried to pull her away from the embrace but she wouldn’t budge.
“Alex love, I am here,” Oliver tried reassuring her. “I am not going anywhere, I promise. I just need to talk to you for a bit.”
After a few seconds, she slowly released her grasp.
Oliver positioned himself comfortably on the bed facing her. He took her hands in his. “What happened sweetheart?” He asked, concern written all over his face. There was always a part of him that broke into pieces whenever he saw her down like that.
He had always wondered at the back of his head if there was something sinister or terrifying she was hiding behind her happy-go-lucky personality. Could this break down have anything to do with her dissociative amnesia?
The last time Oliver had spoken to Alex’s therapist, she had suggested that he convince Alex to continue with her sessions to help her quickly recover the memories she had forgotten.
Oliver had been against the idea of coaxing or manipulating her into recovering those memories. What if she had blocked them away for a reason? She was a very happy child and forcing her to revisit the past might just have a negative effect on her. He wasn’t going to let that happen. If the memories wanted to return, they should do so of their own accord. What was the point of forcing her to remember something so terrible that her own brain shut her out of that memory to protect her?
Had she finally remembered? Oliver wondered.
“I saw him,” Alex said.
“Who did you see Alex?” Oliver asked.
Alex shut her eyes as if to block the images and voices out. “Even after seventeen years, I still remember him. I remember most of it. I thought I had forgotten. I really wanted to forget it all.” She wiped the tears off her face but they just kept flowing.
“Who is it Lexie? What did he do to you?” He was dying to find so he would know how to help her but he also didn’t want to put pressure on her. He was well aware of the risks involved in forcing her to remember things she wished not to.
“He is looking at me,” Alex recalled in a trans-like manner, her arms stretched out as if to touch the memories playing in her head. “I am begging him to make her stop. He is just standing there. I want to say something but the words won’t come out.” And then she put both her hands around her neck. “She is choking me. She is choking me.” She said painfully, her actions mimicking the words she was uttering.
“She is pushing me deeper into the water. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” She kept repeating, frantically shaking her head and waving her arms in the air with her eyes still closed.
“She is holding my throat. She is saying something but I can’t hear her. She won’t let me go. She is choking me. She is squeezing my neck…harder…harder…I can’t breathe….I can’t breathe…I….”
There was no missing the look of trepidation on Oliver’s face as he watched and listened to Alex. Fearing she might end up actually chocking herself, Oliver quickly reached out and held on to her hands. He then took her into his arms and kept her there until she calmed down. “I am here,” he reassured her again and again. “I won’t let them hurt you again Alex. I won’t.”
Oliver knew of the two sets of parents that had adopted Alex as a kid. The first one had returned her to the orphanage while the second pair treated her like a plague in their home. The only time they had ever shown interest in her was when they discovered her relationship with him and his son.
Oliver had been quick to dash their hopes when he told the Saunders upfront that they would never get a cent out of him. Just like the first parents, Oliver suspected that the Saunders would have given anything to return the burden child but since they were privy to her abandonment by the first family that had gone ahead and officially adopted her; keeping her even though it meant mistreating her. To them, not abandoning her once again was their ultimate act of humanity. She was indebted to them.
Could there have been any other family or person she had encountered as a kid? Oliver wondered. What really happened in this child’s past to scare her like this? Who was this new lecturer that had woken up her memories? And just who was this person that was choking her? Perhaps, did the private investigators he had hired to look into her past miss something?
“Dad…Alex….” Anton finally showed up at the hospital.
“What’s wrong with Alex?” Anton looked over at Alex who was still in his father’s arms. She was tightly holding on to him and crying.
Thinking that Alex was calling him on Cassey’s line to berate him over his attitude during the argument with his father and also on his behaviour when they got to his father’s place, Anton had avoided answering any calls coming from their mutual friends.
The previous evening, instead of getting inside his father’s house, Anton had gone straight to his car and driven off. Thus, not wanting to subject himself to Alex’s wrath, he kept ignoring all of Cassey’s calls that morning, until he noticed that all of their mutual friends were calling him at the same time. No matter how angry she was, Alex would not go to such extremes just to shout at him. He and his father had gone through worse misunderstandings before and she never overreacted.
It was Duncan’s call he finally picked.
“What’s wrong with you man,” Duncan castigated him the moment he answered. “We’ve been trying to reach you all morning! Come to the university hospital. Alex is sick.”
Anton thought he hadn’t heard his friend right. He even laughed for a second thinking it was some bad joke. “Stop playing man, I’m not in the mood.” He warned his friend.
“Think whatever you want but come to the hospital when you are done. We are all here, your dad too.”
Anton didn’t need any more convincing.
“I came as soon as I could,” Anton said, moving over to sit by Alex’s side. Oliver tentatively released Alex from his arms, got up from the bed to give his son room to comfort his best friend and stepped to the side.
Alex naturally moved from the father’s arms and into the son’s.
“What is happening to you my fiery princess?” Anton deliberately used the pet name she hated to lighten up the mood. He was not very good with dealing with emotional stuff and Alex was well aware of that weakness.
“I will be right back,” Oliver excused himself. “I need to make a call to someone right away. Take care of her Anton.” He said before disappearing through the curtain.
“I will dad,” Anton said, still holding on to Alex. Noticing the limpness of her body, Anton suspected that she had fallen asleep. He slowly held her away from him and confirmed his suspicious. He carefully laid her back on the bed and adjusted the pillow to make her more comfortable.
Outside, Oliver made a call to Alex’s therapists, Doctor Sanjay.
“I need to see you,” Oliver didn’t bother with pleasantries. “I will be at your door early morning tomorrow,” he said.
“I only get to the office at 9,” the doctor replied. She was already used to Oliver’s demands.
“I never mentioned coming to your office. I meant your home, doctor,” and he cut the line.
Professor Benson Russell entered his home from work looking like a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. His wife Matilda came from the kitchen in her apron and welcomed her husband home, taking his briefcase from his hand and laying it on the sofa.
The professor took off his coat, hanged it and dragged his feet like a man unable to carry his own weight. He dropped himself onto the sofa, sighing heavily.
Concerned, Matilda went to stand behind him and started massaging his shoulders. “Was your first day that bad?” She asked. “My gosh, you are so tense Ben. Did something happen? I always thought you were immune to the stupidity of students of nowadays. What happened this time to get you like this?”
Professor Russel placed his two thumbs on either side of his face and gently massaged himself there. “Get me some painkillers,” he instructed his wife.
Matilda stood back and looked at her husband. She was more than just a little concerned now. “You have a headache?” She asked from behind him.
“Stop asking me questions and give me the dame medicine won’t you?” Doctor Russel snapped.
Mathilda quickly went to the kitchen and came back with a glass of water and two pills in her hands a few minutes later. She handed them to her husband and sat down next to him, watching as he took the medicine.
“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on Ben?” she said.
Matilda was not known for her patience. In fact, the word patience did not exist in her vocabulary unless it was being used in the negative. She was a woman described by her family and friends as being impatient, demanding, manipulative, and always got her way in everything. Others even joked that her daughter Cathy had taken after her, a very unfortunate development, they would add. Professor Russel was the total opposite of the women in his life.
“Do you remember that child Karla McKenzie?” Prof Russell asked his wife.
Matilda gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. “Why are you bringing that child up? have you lost your mind?” She was whispering, acting as if they could be someone in their own home that might overhear their conversation.
“I met her today, at the university.” Ben announced.
Matilda bolted up from the sofa. “What do you mean you met her?” She sounded almost out of breath. “That child was still alive? But we haven’t heard about her ever since that incident….” She stopped herself from finishing.
“That is because she changed her name.” the professor explained. “It turns out she is one of my students.” He solemnly added.
“You can’t be serious?” Matilda plumped herself down. “How did you know it was her? Did you talk to her? Please tell me you did not speak to her. Did she recognize you? But how…that was a long time ago. She can’t possibly….” Mathilda went on and on, desperately looking at her husband who still had his head hanging low like a defeated man. She was literally trying to compel him into telling her what she wanted to hear and not what she needed to hear.
“It turns out she couldn’t remember…she must have lost her memory or something,” the professor said.
Mathilda’s face lit up the moment she heard that but she was immediately forced back to reality when her husband added, “she regained her memory when she saw me. She collapsed, twice.”
All Matilda could do was keep her mouth wide open, no words came out.
“I suspect she had amnesia,” her husband explained. “I am just not sure what kind because I couldn’t risk going near her again just in case she fainted again.”
“So she kept fainting because she saw your face?” Mathilda found her voice again. “What will your new colleagues think? And the students? Even after all these years that girl still manages to drive me crazy.”
Benson Russell scowled at his wife. “Is that all you can think about right now?” he rebuked her. “You and I very well know that child did nothing to deserve what happened to her. You should have seen the way she looked at me, gosh! I have never seen a child look that terrified upon seeing my face, and I have been dealing with children all my life.”
Alex’s desperation to get away from him had stung the professor harder than he would have ever imagined. The look of petrification that had enveloped her kept flushing before him.
“We deserve to go to hell for what we did to her.” He told his wife. “Instead of acting like a victim and hating her for no reason, you should be thinking about making things right with her.”
Matilda was befuddled. “You can’t be serious.” She glared at her husband.
“I am dead serious,” her husband retorted. “If you are human, then I don’t need to remind you about how much you owe that girl.”
“We gave that girl a home when no one in the world wanted her.” Matilda argued. “Even her own parents didn’t want her but I brought her into my home and treated her like my own daughter.”
“That was only for your own selfish reasons,” Ben reminded her. “The moment you realised who she was you wanted nothing to do with her. And in all of this, I am the foolish one for always letting you have your way!” He snapped. “That child trusted me…to the very end, she trusted me and I let her down. If you had told me the truth from the beginning….”
“What truth did you want to know?” Matilda asked. “If not for the CCTV you would have also made the same conclusions as I did.”
From the moment Benson Russel had discovered the truth about what had transpired that fateful morning seventeen years ago, he could no longer look at his wife the same way and their relationship had changed in the process. It wasn’t just her he was disappointed with; he also hated himself for having loved her like a crazy fool back then. If not for his stupid undying love for her, he would have put his foot down and not allowed her to bring that child back to their home with them. In his desperation to see her happy, he had made a decision that ended badly for an innocent child.
“I wonder what will happen if people get to hear about this…my career will be over.” The professor lamented.
Matilda sat back down next to her husband. She held his hand. “What are you so worried about?” She asked. “It’s not like anyone will believe her. It’s her words against ours and who do you think people will believe; the accusations of a delinquent or the words of a respectable professor? Besides, we got rid of the only thing that would have implicated us if someone found out.”
Like a professional criminal, Mathilda had managed to erase any evidence that might have portrayed her family as perpetrators in that past scandal and no one had dared considered any other possibilities of what might have transpired apart from she let them believe.
Russel was shaking his head disapprovingly whilst looking at his wife. “You really have no idea what’s going on here do you?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“That delinquent you are talking about is Alex Saunders.”
“Who is Alex Saunders?” She was looking at him blankly.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Her husband kept shaking his head. “Weren’t you and your daughter talking about getting rid of a girl who is so close to the boy she is trying to nub for herself just a few weeks ago?”
“Yes” Matilda nodded.
“Karla is Alex Saunders,” he said.
Matilda’s jaw dropped to the ground. “How can that be?” she gasped.
“It can be,” her husband answered. “And I saw it with my own eyes. Oliver Cooper had come to the university campus just a few minutes after Alex passed out. He looked like a man worried sick about his own daughter. That girl is like a daughter to him and I am afraid of what he might do if he learns about what we did to her…that is if he doesn’t already know by now.”
Matilda was up on her feet now, pacing to and from around the living room. Then she suddenly paused, new conviction registering on her face. “Then we should do something before things get out of control.”
“What are you talking about?”
Matilda went back to sit next to her husband, excited and breathing like she had just been pulled from running a marathon. “How about you go to his office and give him your own version of events? That way, he will have to decide which version is the truth and he is more likely to believe you since you are old enough to remember while Karla…Alex, whatever she’s called could not even remember that incident until she saw you.”
Bernard could not help feeling shame on behalf on his wife for all her cunning ways. How can her mind be so quick to start making such wild calculations already?
“Just tell him that she collapsed because she was in shock at seeing you after so many years after she had tried to kill your daughter out of jealous.” She continued. “That way, we will be killing two birds with one stone; your career will be safe, and she will be forced out of Anton’s life so our daughter can be with him.” She was smiling gleefully, feeling extremely proud of her master plan.
But the professor was not impressed in the slightest. If anything, he looked like a man that had just been informed that he only had a few days to live. He couldn’t believe what he had just heard. Could he get any more disappointed in her? He shook his head again.
“I am going to do no such thing,” The professor said sternly. “When are you going to stop using your daughter as bait to attract a rich suitor? Because you spoil her, Cathy doesn’t know right from wrong. She is a woman now.
“You should be done catering to her every whim just because you feel guilty you lost her in the past. She is not a little girl anymore and you don’t even need to make up for anything to her. It was not your fault she had gone missing. We were just unlucky.”
“Can you even hear yourself,” Matilda looked at her husband in disappointment. “I am not doing this just for Cathy, it’s for us too,” she said. “How many years have you laboured as a lowly professor all because we needed to keep a low profile because of that incident? Now when we finally have a chance for us to excel and live the kind of life we’ve always wanted, you want to give up…and because of what?”
“I was very happy teaching at my old job and despite everything, I managed to become a professor. Isn’t that good enough for you? What more are you hoping to achieve at this point in life?”
“You could be way more than that Ben,” Matilda urged him. “You are a very bright and intelligent man. You don’t deserve the kind of life we’ve living all these years. Once we sort out this little issue, we can live in peace and you can publish all those books you’ve been writing for the past ten years. Imagine the recognition and the amount of money you will get when your research is published? Isn’t that why we moved here?”
“I can still do that without the support of some rich business mogul. I will not sell my child like that. All we need to do is make peace with Kar…Alex I mean and move on.”
“I will do no such thing,” Matilda croaked. “If you are not willing to take care of this family, then I will.” With that, she got up and went upstairs.