He needed to get away, James thought as he walked down the unfamiliar street. The huge buildings loomed over him, painted gold by the setting sun.
He had to get away to become free, to be able choose his own life instead of being forced living the one he was born into.
People passed him by, most of them don’t even noticing him, a common thing in big cities.
He did not know anyone, a circumstance he regarded as lucky. Nobody knew him and his family. He was just another stranger, come to the city in search of a better life.
He was headed for Oakenhearth, the old town centre of Sevenbrooks, now treated as the suburbs. He knew he would find affordable accomodations there – well actually he read the local papers at the bus station.
Sevenbrooks hasn’t always been the huge, bustling city it was today, and James could see the influences of its past as a fishing community in the architecture of the older buildings. Since the countryside was covered by dense forests, wood had been the common building material back in the day, easier to transport and work with than stone, but prone to fire damage. The bigger houses had stone foundations, while the smaller ones had been little more than wooden shacks.
Most buildings in this part of the city were a lot smaller than the house he grew up in. The Greenbloom Estate was one of the biggest houses in Willow Creek, with great rooms and halls to get lost in. When James still went to school, his father ordered the partial demolition of the old house and the complete rebuilding of the manor. James remembered weeks and months of sleeping in hotels and later in guest beds in freshly renovated rooms. He remembered the smell of drying paint and the pungent stink of wood varnish, and the portraits of the family members hung in the new gathering room, featuring all four generations that have lived at the estate.
James was meant to inherit the land and the house and the portraits and their history. He was being prepared for this his entire life. His classmates met in the park after school to play, James met his private techer at home to recieve special education. His younger cousin Ehren, living a couple of streets apart, always told about the new computer games his parents bought him. James got education books presented to him instead.
And when, sometime around his sixteenth birthday, when his classmates went on a weekend fishing trip to the nearby lake, probably indulging in smoking and beer drinking, James was not allowed to. ‘You need to uphold the family values’, his father told him.
The family values was a vague and unexplainable concept to James. He knew that the Estate was purchased by his great-grandfather Kerai Greenbloom, a man with an almost legendary reputation. Kerai started as a common thief and cutpurse, working his way into a vast crime network and up its hierarchy ladder. He accumulated a sizeable sum selling stolen goods and ended up marrying one of his bosses, Nina. Her mother Katrina went to live with them as well – she worked as an accountant for a major company, but it was just a front – in truth she was responsible for laundering dirty money. Kerai and Nina had three children: Darius, Theo and Irene. Darius went into the programming business, expanding his parents influence in the digital world. So big parts of their possessions were not acquired through hard work but rather through huge criminal operations. As years passed, Kerai was one of the most feared and the most rich men in the area.
Of course, none of this was technically common knowledge. Nothing was ever found on either Kerai or Nina. Their record had been spotlessly clean. Having friends in high places certainly helped, and having an expert hacker on hand was a valuable asset as well.
His legacy established, the family funds growing every day, Kerai seemingly left organized crime and concentrated on his herb garden. It was known that he made lots of profit selling some of those herbs – drugs or poisons, James did not know.
His grandmother Joslyn seemed to have no part in the criminal dealings of the family. She was a world class scientist, working on many projects in different fields. There used to be a private laboratory on the grounds, but the equipment was sold or given to the university after Joslyns death: it was her wish.
Though, if James thought about it, he didn’t know if all of his grandmothers experiments were legal – why else would she need a private lab in the basement, hidden behind security doors?
Kerai’s second son Theo had been a musician and lived a rather unremarkable life away from his fathers sinister dealings. James envied him, though Theo died of old age a while ago. Kerai’s youngest child, Irene, was still alive when James left.
Irene had a difficult time growing up. Her mother died when she was young, and Kerai devoted a lot of time to her, trying to groom her to take his place after his death. She became a double agent, seemingly working for the police as a detective, but in truth, loyal to Kerai’s network, further guaranteeing the safety of his past and future dealings.
She did not have an easy life, though. James remembered the fights she had with his grandfather Darius when he was a child, after she came home drunk night after night, having done who knows what.
Something happened in the last few years though, as she grew older. She didn’t look her age, and she dressed like a much younger woman, but she seemed to have settled. She married Ashley Herman, a young lady from the neighbourhood, stopped being away all the time and started spending more time with the rest of the family.
Currently, she was the last surviving family member to have known Kerai. James knew most of the family history from her. Sometimes he admired her, sometimes the things she had admittedly done repelled him.
So what were the family values? Besides maybe Irene, nobody was involved in organized crime anymore, and their records were still clean, but the stain their past involvement left in the public memory was not washed away. James learned that the hard way in grade school.
Or did the values lie in the recent development? Maybe in his fathers writing, the fact that he was becoming one of the widest known mystery authors in the area? Or the fact that his mother was steadily working her way up the ladders in the art world, her paintings decorating museums and private households alike.
Or maybe the family members who moved out to make their own way in the world, like Kerai’s second son Theo, who had three children, all in the musical career, or James’ two uncles Leon and Ryan, who recently married and moved out to have children of their own? The older Ryan was working in a bank now. He had put on weight since he didn’t have to work on the family garden anymore. His son Ehren went to the same school as James. The younger Leon lived just next door in a huge appartment with his wife, a rather boyish figure of a woman.
What exactly were the values of the Greenbloom Clan that he were to uphold?
Regardless of what his father meant, James wanted to have no part of it. He wanted to be as far away from his family as he could. He wanted to live in a place where noone knew his name because of what his family had done – or had not done, depending on who you asked. He wanted to have normal friends and a normal job and for all it was worth, to live in a tiny house in the woods instead of a huge, sprawling mansion on the main road, always frequented by neighbours, distant family members and various ‘friends’. He could not remember a time they haven’t had visitors in the house. Except maybe when his sister was born 9 years ago – there had been complications and Jensen cleared the entire house of anyone who didn’t live there before he went to stay with his wife at the hospital.
The decision to go away formed years ago. James did not remember the exact time. It took hold and grew and festered in his mind, until he couldn’t hold back any longer.
Jensen knew there would be a fight once his parents found out. He undertook his preparations in secret. He didn’t tell anyone right until he left, except his sister Larissa.
‘I am sorry’, he said to her, ‘not for leaving but for the fact that all the pressure and all the expectations will be put onto you now.’
With 9 years, she was too young to understand, and she cried because he was her big brother and he was leaving, and she kept her promise not to tell anyone – at least for two hours, until it was time for her to go to school, but it was enough for James to be on the bus that would take him out of town.
His mobile exploded, of course. It took him another two hours to muster up the courage to pick up.
‘I’m not coming back’, he said. ‘I’m sorry, mother.’ He meant it. He loved his mother, he loved both his parents, but he could not deal with the pressure they put on him. He knew his leaving caused them pain, and he was sorry for that, but he could not go back.
Instead, he had to look forward.