My eyelids start to flutter open and shut. Struggling to lift my head from my pillow, I look up to my cracked ceiling. All is calm. Light from the street slowly filters through my stringy curtains. Giving my self back to the world of dreams where my subconscious runs amok, I let my head drop back down. As soon as I fall back asleep, I awake again, breathing heavily. I try and remember what nightmare had woken me.
It’s the same dream that has been haunting me for the past week. All that’s left is a feeling of being trapped. Slowly, I sit up, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and slowly stretching out my muscles, stiff from restless sleep. My stomach feels tight and empty. I can’t remember the last time I had a real meal, and even the last time I ate anything was over a day ago.
My home has never had enough food to keep a family of six happy. My father works all day for a meager pay. Half the time, he spends all the money on alcohol, not groceries. My mother died giving birth to me, the youngest of five. When we do have food, I get the smallest share. The only girl, all the chores get handed down to me. I often feel unwelcome in my own home.
The red glare from my digital clock catches my eye. I see 2:57, then the display shudders and turns off. I hear the monotonous whine of the decrepit heating system falter, then stop. The power is failing, and I know I should take shelter under the covers before the cold sets in, but somehow crawling back into that bed seems like giving up.
I slowly walk over to the window and part the curtains. Outside, snow has fallen, gleaming and glittering under the streetlights. The whole city seems asleep. I let my hand rest on the frosty window. At first I shudder from the cold, then I welcome its coolness.
A sort of trance falls over me, and my hand grows numb. Slowly, one by one, the streetlights falter and shut off. Still I stand there, gazing at the snow that covers this dark grimy city with a soft blanket. The spell lifts, and I rub my eyes.
Suddenly, the room seems suffocating. I start to feel nauseous. The already-tiny bedroom seems to get smaller, squeezing until I can barely breath. I can’t stand to be here anymore! I run to the hallway and stumble down the tight stairway. Picking my way through the outdated kitchen filled with old boxes and broken beer bottles, I make my way to the door, and open it slightly. I take a deep breath of frigid air. Many thoughts go through my mind, but the most persistent is Run! Run away, and stay away!
Peeking outside, I realize I would be running into the night. The night is dangerous, with the extreme cold killing as surely as a gun.
I just can’t stay here any longer, though. I can’t face any more days and nights feeling trapped, feeling like there’s no end to this cycle of life in the city. So I run. I crash through the doorway, bare feet pounding on the cracked sidewalk. I hear a rough cry behind me.
“Amira! Where are you going?”
I don’t falter. I don’t let anything stop me. I sprint across the street, feet already numb, not even feeling the pain as pieces of gravel stick to my heels. Once I start, I can’t stop. My arms and legs are stuck in perpetual motion, my body starts to ache from the cold, but I don’t care. I’m free. The exhilaration and adrenaline flows through me like a cool drink in a heat wave. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this happy in my life, and I’ve certainly never experienced this much freedom.
I run as long as I can keep my legs moving. My fear drives me; fear of being caught and taken back home, fear of facing my father’s rage, fear of falling and never getting up.
I fall into a daze. The world around me is one giant blur of gray streets and nondescript buildings. I feel like I’m on a treadmill; constantly moving but never going anywhere.
When I notice the lack of city lights, I finally look closely at my surroundings. I see nothing but leafless trees and snow banks. Finally, I’ve left the city, maybe for good. I let my body collapse. Before I fall into a strange sleep from which I might never awake, I look down at my blue fingers, and close them into a fist. My thoughts slow as I fall, but I have time for one last conscious thought: free…
I wake up only once during that day. My eyelids open only long enough for me to register flashes of color, and a breath of biting cold. I tightly close my eyes, and curl up as small as I can. I no longer have the energy to move into the shelter of a nearby tree. My spirit is losing hold of my body, and my breathing is labored. The harsh wind drives the snow into every exposed area, and I can’t take much more.
I feel like I’m dying, and that’s when I realize I am. If I was stronger I would regret all I had done, but I am too weak. All this for the feeling of exhilaration and a breath of fresh air. Somehow, it feels worth it. I comfort myself with that feeling of freedom as I sink lower and lower. The snow covers me until I am lost, forgotten.
I am awakened by the feeling of warmth seeping into my body. When I open my eyes, I realize I’m lying facedown on the ground. As I slowly pick myself up, there is something strange about the way I move. My fingers don’t quite connect with the earth, and I am slightly dizzy from a feeling of what can only be described as weightlessness. My body doesn’t feel solid, as if it’s not even there.
“I’m floating!” I can’t help letting that cry escape me.
“Of course, Amira. Spirits aren’t connected to the ground,” a silky, lilting voice says.
“Who’s there?” I whirl around, hunting for the source of the sound. The sight that awaits me is so startling that I can’t speak. I am in a small grove, surrounded by trees. The whole forest is in bloom, even though when I last closed my eyes it was winter. Strangest of all, everything is shades of deep blue.
“Where am I? Did I die and go to Hell?”
“No, no!” The woman lets out a peal of laughter. It sounds like millions of tiny church bells ringing.
Now I see the lady who is speaking. Her body is slightly transparent, and is surrounded by a pale haze of blue. She wears a simple white dress, and floats a few inches from the earth. Looking down at my darker skin, I realize that I, too, am surrounded by an azure cloud.
“Don’t you see? This is where your spirit comes after it separates from your body. The whole process is quite freeing, really.”
I take a closer look around me. This forest is a place of beauty. Everything is calm. A creek slowly winds its way around a stand of birches. The trees are the color of the sky on the clearest day. Little teal finches sing sweetly in the trees. In the corner of my eye, I see a navy blue squirrel fluttering its tail in the branches of an oak. The spirit lady starts to speak again.
“But you are just a child. Oh, to be young again! To have such a pure spirit…” She lets out a soft sigh. “You are too young, though. This was not your time. I have instructions to give you a choice.”
I look at her, confused. Once I die, don’t I stay here forever?
“We can give you one more chance. One more chance at harsh and beautiful life. Or, you can stay here. You will never have to face the pain of growing up, or losing your loved ones.” The woman sends me a sad little smile.
My mind is a whirlwind of thoughts and feelings. Is this even real? If so, why would I ever want to leave? The peacefulness of this spirit world is already washing over me. Isn’t this place perfect?
Then I think of the feeling that left me dead in the snow. The feeling that I thought was worth dying for. I realize, it was. I don’t regret running from everything I know.
If I stay here, I’ll never love. I’ll never have my own home, my own feeling of belonging. I’ll never again feel my feet pound into the ground, connecting to the Earth, pushing off and setting me free.
“Life,” I say. “I choose life.”