Space and Time
It’s 7 a.m. here, but 1 p.m. for me, so I decide to make some tea and head out to see the sunrise over by the river. It is the last day, the end of summer, so I may as well go. The journey is a long one, across a sea of tall green North Dakotan grass that explodes into ripples when the wind brushes it. The prairie is the unexplored space behind my house. My father had told me “No reason to worry,” and, “It seems immense at first glance, until you run into the white picket fence.” Even though the fence is a boundary, it’s too vast for me, so I stick to my house, the river bank, and the path in between.
Soon, I wonder, very soon I will leave the city of Hoople again. Over the summer, I’ve moved a lot. From Grafton High School to home, to England for two months (against my own will; I’m not a fan of going places) to visit family, then back home for three days, and then back to boarding school tomorrow. I finished packing yesterday, so I could have today to relax.
I put on my father’s leather jacket over my plain white t-shirt, grab my tea, and walk out the back door. The journey starts out a quiet one. I usually go to the river with someone, but this time I’m all alone. I can’t believe I’m doing this. The blazed path needs to be blazed again, for abandoning the path for the two months when I was in England encourages the grass to grow there. Even though I know the way, I still get the unsettling feeling of fear, so I don’t look up to see my surroundings. Instead I focus on the vague trail to the river.
As I approach the river, the ground dampens and I can hear the squish, squish, of my bare feet walking, implanting themselves into the soft soil with every step I take. I stop for a second to see a bird in a tree, but it quickly flies away to the sound of a sniffle coming from the picket fence ten feet away. I take a deep breath to stop myself from trembling, and put my hands in the pockets of the jacket. I walk over and there is a girl on the other side of the fence.
She is young, and her long hair is in a messy ponytail. She stands next to the fence, her closed eyes looking down. I walk a few steps closer, and I notice she has a bruise on her cheek and a cut on her hand, which wipes away the tears that form in her eyes as if they were never there, as if she’s ashamed to be crying.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” I say as I walk to my side of the fence, across from her. Silence. “I’m taking a walk. What’s your name?” She looks at me with her blue eyes, outlined with red. “I’m Clement. Would you like some tea?”
She looks away. In a raspy whisper, she says, “Do you only speak in questions and answers?”
I laugh. “No, of course not- but seriously, would you like some tea?” She reluctantly takes the mug from my hand. She sips, then stops, swallows with a look of disgust and pain on her face, and gives it back.
“This is jasmine tea,” she says, her voice sounding as if she were choking.
Her eyes well up with more tears. “It was my mom’s favorite. And it is my dad’s. And my brother’s.” She snatches the tea from my hand and dumps it out. She runs over to the road a few yards away, and screams as she throws the mug down on the pavement, and it breaks with a shrill crash. She walks back with sad triumph. I stand there, mostly afraid to move, and slightly dumbfounded.
“So... what tea does your mother like now?” I ask.
“She’s dead!” she wails, and breaks down in tears. Not knowing what to do, I help her climb over the fence, and bring her to the river. As we’re walking, she tells me her name is Mara. She was in a car crash with her mom not long ago and not far from the fence either. She was returning home to Grafton from here, and her mom was killed. She stayed with her until she smelled smoke coming from the car, and then ran away just before the car burst into flames. She kept on running, and stopped at the fence.
We arrive at the river. The sun is almost done blooming out of the horizon with purple petal wisps surrounding it. I sit down with her on the bank. I look out at the sky, and she picks a few dandelions.
“There’s a wonderful sunrise today,” I say.
“The last words my mom said before the crash...were those.” Mara turns to the west. Her voice gets thick with grief. “I will hate sunrises forever. Maybe night is as interesting as my dad says it is, more space to see.”
I don’t like space. It’s just so easy to get lost in. Like my backyard isn’t big enough already. But then there is the world, and then Milky Way, which is lost in the big universe, and then there may be multiverses... just thinking about it makes me beyond uncomfortable. “Would you like to come and stay at my house for a while?”
I get up. My foot loses grip of the ground and I fall face-first into the river. Unexplored space. The jacket is getting wet. I freeze and start to panic a little. I want to breathe to calm myself, but I know if I do it in the river, I will drown. I can’t drown, because then I’ll die. I can’t die. Dying is a whole different world on its own, a new space. I manage to get my head out of the water, gasping for air.I pick myself up, and sprint away from the river to the safety of the bank. Mara, who is still sitting, looks quite surprised, and she mutters something to herself.
“Follow me to my house.” I say.
We walk back without talking, just the wind blowing quietly, drying me off a little. The pale orange house comes into sight, and Mara stops.
“That was my mom’s favorite color,” she says, looking down at the pebble in front of her. Then she kicks it away, turns around, sits down, and buries her face into her hands. “Why can’t anything go my way? It’s like my whole life has been cursed. Just leave me here; it would be the best choice.”
I sit down next to her. “No, don’t say that. Trust me; things can't get worse than they are now! Everything will be okay. Let’s go to my house, and then we’ll figure things out.”
I look at her as she rolls her eyes. I don't blame her. I sound as false as my father. She isn’t smiling, instead she tears up. “Fine,” is all she manages to say before emotion takes her under.
I go home with Mara trailing behind me like a balloon that is slowly deflating. I open the back door and let her in. The back door leads to the living room and book wall, literally an entire wall with wooden shelves and books placed on them. The kitchen is on the other side of the wall, and the entrance hall is on the right, leading to the front door. To the right of the front door is a spiral staircase that leads to my room, as well as my parents’ and my sister’s.
I look at my reflection in the living room mirror. Mara is looking too, but stops as I approach. She has probably already seen herself, because she moves off to the side, out of the mirror’s line of vision. My teal eyes look sleep deprived because of the time zone change, and my chocolate hair is a soaking mess. But what alarms me the most is the state of the jacket, so I take it off and hang it on the mirror for it to dry.
“Clement, where are your parents?” Mara asks me.
“My father’s in the military. My mother is on a business trip. I have an older sister, Cassidy, but she’s in college, majoring in psychology. She spends the night here, though. I’ll be right back. Help yourself to anything in the kitchen and book wall.”
I run upstairs, take a shower, and get dressed with some dry clothes.
Tick, tick, tick, it’s almost 10 o’clock, so almost 4 for me. I sit down for a couple minutes, looking at one of my clocks in my small, dim room (I keep the blinds down on the window in my room always. Last time I had them up was in 6th grade.) Then it all snaps back to me. There is a girl downstairs. I have to go to boarding school tomorrow. Only then do I realize that I have to figure out how to get this girl home before I go. The day has gone by too fast.
I find Mara sitting on a stool in the kitchen with an empty box of tissues on the left and a pile of them on the right, reading a book with a purple cover. It takes me a moment to realize the book is Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai.
“Do you like the book?” I ask.
“Barely started it,” she says. Mara brings the book closer to her face and sniffs.
“Ever read a book in verse?”
“This one was my first. A family friend sent it to me when I was in 5th grade. Are you hungry?”
I walk over to the fridge, pull out a bagel and some cream cheese, and I pop the bagel in the toaster.
“Mara,” I say. “How in the world will I get you back home before I leave for school?”
An awkward silence takes over the conversation. I guess we had to stop to think for a while. It is time that she realizes the situation, not just me. In between here and Grafton, there is a lot of space, like a half an hour drive. And I know I can’t get her home by myself. I don’t have that much courage. The amount of space I have to cover...by myself...alone...
Suddenly, the small house seems unfamiliar and a lot bigger and my thoughts are more disperse and everything seems distant from everything which wasn’t helping and I’m starting to sweat and become dizzy and panicked and I want to scream but I feel like if I- Ding! The toaster spits out my bagel, snapping me out of my panic attack. I spread the cream cheese on it and start to eat. I notice Mara has put down her book and is staring at me.
“Uh, you’re alright, right?”
Mara returns to her book and cries quietly. The cover reminds me of the sunrise today. I wonder if she has noticed.
The clock reads 4:18, which is 10 p.m. for me. I’m in the living room, where Mara is telling me more about herself while I try to keep myself awake.
“My brother is in 10th grade,” she continues. “He’s starting school tomorrow. I’m lucky I’m getting an extra week, like other schools since I’m in 7th grade. But my brother will probably be...”
Honestly, I’m not even paying attention. I’m way too tired to listen, but I can’t fall asleep, because there is too much at stake.
“So, what school do you go to?” Mara asks. “I go to South Middle School. My brother goes to Grafton High School.”
I jump. Grafton High School! 10th grade! “What’s your brother’s name?’
It clicks. I know Axel. “I know how to get you home.”
I explain. Tomorrow morning, Mara will go with me and Cassidy to my school, which is also Axel’s school. If things work out well, Axel should be there, and so should whoever is dropping him off. This person will take Mara home, and everything will end well.
The front door opens. Then slams shut. Cassidy runs to the kitchen, grabs a bottle of water, and then runs up to her room and slams the door. It’s like this every time. Only the blur of her lime green bag, her slam-the-door attitude, and her footsteps are the only clues of her presence. She doesn’t talk much (at least to me she doesn’t), and she doesn’t need to because whatever she does screams whatever she’s feeling loud and clear. I don’t know how she does it, but it works.
“She has lots of work to do,” Mara says, “But she seems eager to get it done. My mom used to do that with paperwork, or chores, or whatever she had to do.”
I expect her to start crying again, but she starts laughing. “And then my dad would say, ‘Oh, there goes the Energizer Bunny! Runs on 95% determination, and 5% coffee!’” She laughs, and I can’t help but laugh as well. So we laugh, until Cassidy comes downstairs to the room with a questioning look set on Mara.
I tell Cassidy to come. She does, now almost glaring at Mara. She has never liked visitors. I tell her the story of my day and the plan, and then Mara tells hers. I can tell she’s trying not to cry, but she does anyway. Cassidy notices too, so she smiles and sits in the chair next to her. She whispers something in Mara’s ear. They both get up and go to the kitchen.
It is 8:11 p.m., so 2:11 a.m. in England. I hesitantly look out the window. The sun is setting, and it’s getting darker. I have to stop looking because the sun sets on an unexplored part of the prairie, and I start panicking because I never want to go there. So, I go to the mirror and put on the somewhat drier leather jacket.
When I go back to my chair, I can hear Mara’s voice calling me for dinner. Her voice has gotten raspier; perhaps she’s losing it. However, her injuries have gotten better; perhaps she’s healing. I go to the kitchen and we eat dinner. After we’re done, Mara asks if we want to go see the stars. Cassidy nods, but I don’t want to go out. Not when the stars are out, when space has taken over the sky. I decide to stay in the comfort of my house. Mara is waiting outside for Cassidy. But Cassidy is waiting for me.
“I’m not going.” I tell her.
“I know,” she sighs. “It was nice of you to try to help Mara out by the way. But I’m here to talk about something else. You’ve changed since dad hasn’t come back home in four years. When he came here more often, you were different.” She pauses. “I don’t know if you realize it, but your agoraphobia is getting worse. Mara told me you had a couple panic attacks. Get to bed. We all have a big day tomorrow.”
I go to my room, take off my jacket, set up my alarm clock for 6 a.m., and go to bed.
It’s 6:32 a.m., but doesn’t feel much like 12:32 p.m. Today is the day I go back to boarding school. I feel a little uneasy, knowing that I have to leave home again. Grafton High School is a place I know well. The journey isn’t. I get ready, and go downstairs. Mara and Cassidy are already eating breakfast in the kitchen. I go join them. We are all tired, but have something to stay awake for. I know we need to leave soon; I grab my bags and head to the car. I wait for Cassidy and Mara inside of my sister’s green jeep. They come a couple minutes later, laughing about some joke. I don’t feel like laughing though; the anxiousness of leaving is creeping up on me like a cat. I realize why.
“Can I go get something?” I ask.
Cassidy groans, but nods. I run upstairs, to my room, and look. Then I see what I’m looking for. I run over, grab the almost dry leather jacket, put it on, run downstairs, and end up in the car once again. I’m glad I didn’t forget. If not, the rest of the year would be completely different.
The drive is a quiet one. Cassidy is driving, Mara looks out the window. I don’t even dare glance out mine, because there is too much space outside. I fiddle with the zipper on my jacket because I have nothing else.
We arrive a little early, but we aren’t the first ones, so I get off the car with Mara and my bags. She and I walk towards the main building, and then she stops.
“Axel! Axel!” she says, and runs over to the boy. She waves at me, and I give a small smile back, and I go to see which dormitory I'm sleeping in this year. I’m on the first floor of the same building I’m in now.
I know I won’t be home for a while, just staying here at this school. I enter into the room, and my bed is right in front of a window. There is no one in the room yet, so I take the little name tag off my bed and switch it with the name tag of the person whose bed in the darkest corner of the room. Around the bed, there is only a little bit of space, and a clock that I know will always be there.