“Here you go,” the waitress says politely as she sets down Marnie’s black coffee and caramel-and-pecan pastry. “Enjoy.”
The cafe is mostly empty, but Marnie likes it that way. The only worker on this shift, who serves as both the cashier and the waiter, is pleasantly quiet and kindly let Marnie, a regular customer, stay inside to wait out the heavy downpour despite it being closing time soon. It’s a good chance for Marnie to catch up on some leisure reading or perhaps start sketching new ideas for her boutique’s fall season.
Somehow, though, Marnie ends up scrolling through her social media. It isn’t a terrible thing, she supposes, if it means it will get her creative juices pumping.
But the posts in her feed are far from dress designs and inspiring photographs. Several of them are group photos at sophisticated events or dreamy travel destinations. Even more are overly cheerful couple photos drowning in heart emojis. Marnie’s college roommate has posted a ten-day countdown to her wedding; there are still eight days left and Marnie is already tired of all the white and lace and floral, not to mention the corny captions, fancy filters, and slobbery smooching. She doesn’t know how she’ll survive the actual ceremony.
Marnie’s friends insist that her disgust derives from her five-year Supreme Single Status. Her last relationship, they suspect, broke her poor heart so badly that she locked herself out of the realm of romance. Maybe they’re right, but Marnie knows breaking up with Kyle was a good choice. With thousands of miles between them once she moved to North Carolina, it was nearly impossible to keep things up.
He called from their hometown in New Jersey and, within merely ten tearful minutes, ended their three-year relationship. The breakup went relatively smoothly, for the most part, without much drama. But for weeks afterward, life seemed to move by in a muted, foggy haze disrupted only by the harsh pain of heartbreak and the gentle sting of tears. When she moved to southern California a few months later, she knew she had to start over and focus on something else.
Kyle… Marnie hasn’t thought about him in a while.
She glances at her caramel-and-pecan pastry. He hated pecans. Or was it peanuts? She can’t remember now.
He was a good boyfriend, and more importantly, a good man. The two of them understood the irony: because they loved each other, all they wanted was for the other to be happy, yet despite their love, they could not be together due to distance, and being together brought them happiness. Still, they know they had to put their careers first, for their individual sakes’.
“You’re going to be really successful one day, Marnie,” Kyle said that night in a voice as soothing as ever in spite of the rough edges scraped by tears. “I can’t hold you back like this. We should let go of each other. You know?”
“You’re my support, Kyle, not my barrier.” But Marnie was too tired, too stunned, to argue at the time. “But I do know. I do.”
“You need to grow on your own, and I think I need to too.”
“My mom is always telling me to be satisfied with myself first before I try to fill up anyone else.”
“Yes! Exactly.” She could hear his relieved smile. “That’s exactly what I mean.”
“I’ll always be here for you.”
She sighed. “Me too. Gosh, I… There’s so much distance, so much space between us.”
“It’s hard, isn’t it? Distance. Yeah.” She cleared her throat. “You’re right. We should let go.”
He sniffled, then slowly let out a long breath. “As long as you’re happy.”
“I love you. I’m going to miss you.”
“I… Yeah. Me too.”
As long as you’re happy.
Am I happy now? Marnie wonders as she absently sips her coffee. Have I truly moved on from him? It’s been a while, but sometimes, for nostalgia’s sake, Marnie likes to ponder the fragmented what-ifs that float deep inside her mind.
What if she never moved? What if they worked out? What if they were together now? What if…?
Was it all worth it?
Am I happy now?
The bell above the cafe’s entrance buzzes. A soaked man in unfortunately formal clothes stumbles in from the rain, his umbrella in tatters. His dark brown hair sticks to his wet face, and he doesn’t bother pushing it away.
He approaches the worker at the counter with a sheepish smile. “Hi, sorry, um—”
That voice…! The familiarity of it sends odd tingles down Marnie’s spine.
“Are you still open? If it isn’t too late, I’d like to order something.”
“No worries,” the cashier replies. “What would you like to order?”
Marnie definitely knows his voice. But there’s no way—after all, this is southern California. Why would he be here?
“A large hot cocoa, please…”
That sweet, polite tone. That soft, soothing voice, like the caress of a breeze or a stream.
There’s no doubt now. That man, Marnie knows, is unmistakably Kyle.
When he genially takes his drink and turns for a seat, he sees her.
He doesn’t realize it’s her at first, but when he catches her eyes, the light of recognition sparks in his face.
“Oh, wow,” he whispers. “Marnie?”
And then the wall of shock disappears and the emotions come crashing down on her.
Her fingers tremble, just barely noticeable, hidden in her lap. Her heart turns over and over in uncomfortable cycles of wistfulness, awe, and hints of sadness all at once.
Yet, strangely, there is not a drop of regret.
Her voice is steady and at a reasonable volume. Even more surprising, Marnie realizes, she doesn’t feel any self-consciousness either—not over her new haircut, her lack of makeup, or even the weight she’s gained over the years. If anything, she glows.
Kyle, too, looks lighter and more mature than the last time she saw him. He hesitates, like he isn’t sure if his presence is welcomed or even tolerated, but at her smile, he hustles over to the seat across from her.
“I can’t believe it!” he exclaims, a grin alighting his face. “Marnie, is it really you?”
“Absolutely. And Kyle, you—I mean—” She laughs. “I didn’t recognize you with your beard!”
He laughs good-heartedly. “Yeah, it took some getting used to. But how have you been? What are you doing in California?”
“I could ask you the same.” She takes a large gulp of black coffee. “I moved here almost five years ago, actually.”
“Five years?” he echoes. “That’s… that’s around the same time I moved here.”
There it is. The could-have-been that hangs in the burst of silence between them.
“Well, I mean, not here here,” he stammers with that characteristic chuckle. “I lived up north for a while, near Sacramento.”
But it was still the same state. All this time, they’ve been in the same area and they didn’t even know.
Nevertheless, it’s been five years. They have moved on. Haven’t they?
Marnie clears her throat. “I see. For your job, or…?”
“Yeah, um, I got a promotion and relocated here. You?”
“I came here for… uh, something new. ‘Land of Opportunity’ and all that, I guess. I opened my boutique here.”
“Really!” The grin comes back as genuine interest shines through. “How is that?”
Passion pushes past all the intimidation of awkwardness. “Really well, actually! We just wrapped up an end-of-season sale and we’re bringing in the new designs for summer. Sales are doing well, I’d say.”
“Good. Great! That’s really great.”
Outside, the storm is relentless. Marnie can barely see through the window, the dark streets shrouded in grey and rain.
“It’s really something out there, huh?” Kyle looks outside with a small smile.
“No, not your typical SoCal weather. I still miss NJ, though.”
“Good ol’ Jersey.” Kyle sighs as he stretches his arms. “Froze my freaking bum off.”
Marnie bursts into snorts, and he jolts in surprise. “I remember! You always complained about the cold. You would always ‘borrow’ my extra-large sweatshirts too, as if you didn’t have enough of your own already.”
He joins her in both laughing and reminiscing. “Yours were always way fuzzier than mine! It’s like they were trying to be sexist or something.”
“They were unisex, Kyle.”
Another round of laughter later, silence settles over them again. This time, though, Marnie isn’t squirming to get away.
At some point, the downpour slows a bit. Kyle sips his hot cocoa carefully.
“Marnie, can I ask you something?”
She tilts her head. “Hm?”
“Are you happy?”
As long as you’re happy.
And without hesitation, she replies, “Yeah. I am.”
“If you don’t mind my asking… why?”
“Why?” Marnie frowns. “Because… things are good. I’ve spent the last five years developing my own business and it’s really successful. In fact, my friends and I are going on a weekend vacation soon to celebrate. And even if things weren’t good, I still have a lot to look forward to and be grateful for. I have a pet dog who I love and I’m doing what I love and…” She meets his gentle gaze. “And I love myself. I’m satisfied with myself.”
Kyle smiles, a bright smile full of sweetness and sunshine, something Marnie has never seen before. “That’s good. I’m glad you’re happy.”
“W-what about you?”
And then the smile turns shy, but underneath pulses pride and adoration. “Actually, I’m proposing to my girlfriend tonight. I’m nervous, but… yes, I’m happy. Thrilled, even.”
“Whoa, congratulations!” Marnie laughs in surprise, but much of that emotion is again directed at herself. Somehow, her words are genuine, and not a smidge of envy, dismay, or disappointment mars her heart. Only a kind, caring warmth makes her face glow with joy. “Good luck. She’s a blessed woman.”
Kyle’s laughter is like little bubbles of song that float up and around, and when they burst, they spread their light everywhere. “Thank you, Marnie. That means a lot to me.”
The rain has stopped and the sun finally peeks through the clouds again. Kyle’s phone dings just then with a text alert. He glances at the screen and an all-too-familiar melting-in-love smile takes over his features.
“That’s her,” he says, gathering his things. “I have to go.”
“It was good seeing you again, Kyle. And talking to you.”
He politely holds out his hand for a shake, which she accepts. “You too, Marnie. Take care, okay?”
“Yeah. You too.”
As Marnie watches Kyle go, possibly for the last time, the sunlight through the window embraces her and warmth fills her both inside and out. Yes, Marnie thinks as she takes a selfie in the golden white light.
After eons of stillness, his heart started beating, his eyelids gliding slowly open as his every nerve lit up, a thousand electrical signals surging toward his brain with the suddenness of a tidal wave. Each impulse was like an explosion of consciousness, a sudden burst of light amidst the darkness that had accumulated over uncountable years. Information flooded his mind, made his heart race as the cool spring breeze slithered past his face. His face snapped up at the sound of rustling overhead, his eyes fixing on the canopy of leaves above. He marveled at the way they writhed in the wind, marveled at how alive they were, and then his attention was pulled away by the clear, cloudless sky, the astonishing azure ocean that lay suspended above him as if by magic, and then to a pair of songbirds that circled the tree nearest to him, the same cool spring breeze arriving once again to lift their angelic chorus to the heavens. There was too much beauty to take in all at once, too much beauty to stop for even a moment to catch his breath, and each exquisite detail ran into the next like smeared paints on a canvas, and he was sure it was beautiful, but he couldn’t quite perceive a single element of it without the whole thing resolving into a kind of impressionist painting that was lovely but wholly overwhelming.
Grass moved with the cool spring breeze and whispered against his body, walling him in on all sides, He ran his fingers between the blades, able somehow to feel their beating hearts the energy of living that sparked through them and pushed them to grow taller, stretching ever toward the sun. Following the blades to their bases, he found the solid, steady earth around his form and pushed against it, pushing himself up to first sit, and then to kneel, and finally to stand. He wobbled for a moment, tripping over his own foot, just barely keeping his body upright. He thought for sure he’d fall, but miraculously, he didn’t—he stumbled, yes, but he righted himself, and he did not quite fall, and it was not nearly so hard as he had feared, and soon he was standing on two feet above the soil on which he had been reborn and out of which all life seemed to spring.
He leaned against the tree, laughing at his own ridiculous anxieties and at the comically high grass and at the pair of songbirds who lacked the social faculty to feel shame as they furthered nature’s cycle somewhere in the leaves just above him. Glancing in all directions, he saw no other animal that looked quite like him, no one else that would lay claim to the beauty he had stumbled upon. And so he turned his face up to the sky once more, and this time he laughed until he cried, the wind rushing past his face as he realized it was all his, all his for miles. And he took off running, fearing that he would trip, but again he somehow did not; his actions perfectly coordinated as he sprinted into what would become the sunset.
He’d intended only to see how far he could go, how far his legs could carry him, but the exhaustion he had expected never came. Lead never pooled in his bones, his breaths never shortened, and although he couldn’t remember much before waking up, he knew this was abnormal, that it had never been like this before and should not be like this now. He began to wonder if he’d ever tire. He kept running, and his journey lasted through many more cycles of the sun and the moon, and not once did he feel even the slightest trace of fatigue.
For a long time—he had lost track—he ran, stopping every time he came upon a vista that made his heart soar. But it became less exciting the longer he spent in this cyclical existence, his heart choosing to only flutter, and then later to merely skip, and eventually the ecstatic resolved into the contented. His adventure had not itself become less thrilling, but he had become more enchanted by the world’s beauty the more of it he saw, and a thousand poems about the cool spring breeze and a hundred stories about songbirds had started to crowd his mind, started to beg that they be let out, that they be heard by someone whose heart would leap at every evocative word. The pressure weighed on his heart and kept it from soaring at the beauty of nature as it once had, for each new beautiful experience only further exacerbated the issue, torturously passionate phrases accumulating in his brain until he felt it would burst.
He wasn’t concerned, however. He simply needed to share the world with someone through his eyes, and then his heart would be able to soar just as it always had.
As the sun rose one morning, he began to run again, stopping every time he saw something he had never spoken to before, sure he could find a listener, one who could not just hear but truly listen. He read his verses to cliff faces, spoke his words to a squirrel perched on a branch high above him, illustrated his reality to the sun and to the moon, cried tears of joy in front of a frog, told a fox exactly what love was. The animals did not run away from him, but they also did not listen. They stayed and watched and heard him, the fox even bowing his head when he had finished. He was sure they knew him on a level deeper than made sense for such creatures, was sure they understood what he was saying to a degree. Some understood more than others, some even came close to truly grasping the import of the words he said, the passion pounding in his heart as they passed his lips and were carried off by that cool spring breeze. But it was never enough. Sooner or later, they all seemed to lose him, to drop their end of the connection, to forget what he was attempting to articulate. There were simply some ways in which even those that seemed to come so infuriatingly close could not follow his poetry—they did not smile or wink or nod at him and say, “I feel the same way all the time…”
Invariably, they betrayed his hopes and failed to understand him. His frustration clouded his judgment, but he knew that if he examined the situation rationally, he couldn’t fault them. They spoke in different tongues, and thus, their thoughts could never be collinear. They lived in different worlds, worlds that were irreconcilable, worlds that lay on different planes of reality, worlds that were perhaps composed of the same individual particles but were seen through such different eyes that they could never truly be experienced in the same way.
For a moment, he was filled with misery. For the first time since he had awoken, lead had settled deep in his bones, but it was a different sort of lead, a lead of hopelessness and defeat. Misery was miserable, and he did not wish to wallow in it any longer—and while the world’s beauty was frustratingly euphoric, it was euphoric nonetheless.
And so he gave up on being understood, and instead, he saw the world.
He saw all the world he could see, attempting to delight in the poetry that grew like a wild jungle in his brain, untamed and humming with unbridled energy, delighting in it even as it drove him mad. He attempted to be grateful for every ounce of passion that pounded along inside his heart, even when it threatened to mire him in despair. He saw all the world, journeyed through day and through night, through shine and through rain, through elation and sorrow; he climbed mountains and crossed valleys and adventured across raging rapids and through dense forests and at one point even stumbled across a beach. The smell of the sea, pungently salty and pungently alive, came to him on that cool spring breeze, made his heart soar from miles away. He knew that in whatever life he had lived before, he had known this smell intimately, had known intimately the wind that rushed onto the land from the sea, kicking up sand and threatening to blow the whole beach away. He attempted to be grateful even here, even with his feet soaking in the cerulean saltwater as gulls flew overheard, even as the sun set like a great golden chariot rocketing past the horizon, even as the signature green flash of an ocean sunset etched itself into his mind, immediately more beautiful than all he had seen thus far, even as he thought about the lovestruck songbirds from so long ago and how achingly beautiful this all was and how alone he was amidst it all, how he could not turn to someone and say, “Did you just see that?” with a look of utter astonishment on his face, and the utter cruelty of this fact stunned him.
He came to be infinitely grateful for his heart, even though it would not stop begging him to relieve it, to let the words in his mind be heard and understood, even as he told it he had tried, that this was impossible. But he was grateful, nonetheless, for it could soar as strongly as it could dive. He attempted to appreciate his adventure, and he succeeded most days, and sometimes he didn’t, but he lived in such a brighter world now than he had the first time he’d realized how alone he was. Despite the powerful sorrow the beach had brought him on his first visit, he continued to return there, and usually, he laughed just as he had on the first day, and cried tears of joy as he had also done back then, but each emotion felt deeper now, as if the grooves in his brain that formed this pathway of emotions had become firmer with each successive cycle.
One day, however, he did not repeat this routine. He became distracted by something glinting in the ocean, something sparkling more brightly than anything he’d ever seen before, and he swam out, pushed against the current until he wrapped his hands around it. He’d never seen it before—not that he could remember clearly, anyway. But he knew that beyond the veil of his forgetfulness, it was there. The object was a cylinder of sorts, one he could see through, with a piece of brown material in its top, a structure dotted with sporadic holes. Inside, he could see a piece of something white and folded. He opened it and extracted the white square, unfolding it.
He nearly dropped it in shock—there were symbols, symbols that connected to something hidden deep within the bramble of his disfigured memory, symbols that resolved into a language. It was his language.
They will surely someday destroy each other, it read. So I wish to be preserved as I am now, and preserved indefinitely, unable to tire or to age, and to wake up as I am in this moment but to wake up when they have all destroyed each other and the world has long since returned to a state of balance. Let me awaken in that era, with strength and vitality and the power to cross the Earth. Allow me to possess all I have ever wanted—not to possess; for I do not wish to selfishly take it as mine alone. I simply wish for it not to be held away from me, for it to be mine to experience if I want, for the whole sky to open up before me, wide and clear and blue—limitless. I would trade anything for that. Perhaps even everything.
And let me find this someday. Let me find this so that I know.
I have never been one to believe in superstitions, and that includes the one that proclaims this whole ocean a wishing well. If it’d worked for anyone, the world would know about it. But I am desperate, and I do not wish to witness the end of the world. So allow me to wake up long after this calamity, and allow me to forget many things so that I may start over without the burden of painful memories and allow nature to recognize me and take me in with kindness and a gentle touch, and allow nature not to attack me as it might another like me alone in the elements, and allow me to know that I didn’t lose much—there was never anyone who could listen, anyway.
And he did not need to ask, did not even need to think or wonder, and instead burst immediately into tears, and he wasn’t sure why. He felt as though he had stumbled upon an entire lifetime of emotions hastily scrawled onto one desperate plea for something better, and he felt the weight of each moment of this other person’s life, even though he could not actually remember them, even though he still did not think of himself as this other individual who existed beyond the veil, and perhaps it could be said that this person did not even truly exist anymore.
After eons of movement, he found himself in a large, open field, with trees that dotted the landscape, and songbirds sharing a lovesong above him in the trees, the trees whose leaves rustled in that cool spring breeze under that wide sky, that ocean that somehow lay suspended above him, all the elements of nature going against their nature and refusing to ever oppose his survival in the wild because of a promise some fairy or god or monster at the bottom of an ocean had made him countless lifetimes ago, in a lifetime separate from this one, a lifetime that lay on a different plane, a lifetime that would never quite be tangible to him. All the memories he would never have lay heavy in his heart, and memories of the green flash brought tears to his eyes as he slumped against the tree he’d slumped against all that uncountable time ago, weeping as fragments of emotion tugged at his heart. He saw a fox dart behind a tree across from him, and he wondered what it was doing so far from its natural habitat. Had it sold it all, too? It peeked around the tree and slowly padded towards him, bowing its head as it had done so long ago, and eventually lying down beside him as he sobbed, its eyes adopting something close to sympathy—but only close. And the songbirds whistled and the leaves rustled and the cool spring breeze provided pleasant relief from the hot sunbeams that filtered through the canopy above him, and it was all so profoundly beautiful.
And yet he was alone
Gabriel’s eyes flutter open, awakened by a growing ache in his stomach. The room is a void: it’s as if he hadn’t opened his eyes. Lying on his back, Gabriel wonders why he is cold despite the many blankets which coil around him tightly. A drum pulses in his chest. The rhythm echoes in his veins. He raises his left arm above his head and blinks. Nothing is visible but obscure shadows.
Gabriel tries to readjust his eyes to the darkness. He attempts to decipher the blurry face of the analog clock resting on his bed stand. After a minute, his eyes trace the shape of the clock’s arms. 3:30. It’s too early again. He shuts his eyes softly, hoping the stillness of the room can lull him back to sleep. But it doesn’t.
The pain gnaws at him.
Something is eating at him.
Gabriel clenches his bed sheets and grits his teeth, but in seconds, exhaustion overwhelms him. He shuts his eyes a little tighter and with newfound exhaustion, he drifts off.
* * *
Gabriel dreams of sheet cake and slabs of watermelon, served on paper plates with plastic forks. He dreams of inflatable water slides--the kind his dad set up in the backyard every summer. In his memories, the sun gently kisses his face. Water hugs his clothes in a tight embrace. He runs through crisp, cut grass, soaked and smiling, not concerned with the dirt collecting on the soles of his feet. He doesn’t feel ashamed. Gabriel feels warm.
* * *
At 6:00 he saunters to the bathroom. His eyes fixate on a mirror. The reflection looks at him pensively, expecting something.
Gabriel feels his waist with his hands. It still feels...squishy. He digs his fingers deeper, excavating skin and fat to find bone. The reflection frowns at love handles that should’ve disappeared.
He wishes his face was sharper.
He wishes his skin was clearer.
He wishes he wasn’t so ugly.
The reflection shakes their head disapprovingly. Gabriel’s not sure why. But he walks away disappointed and ashamed. He feels cold.
* * *
Breakfast always starts with coffee. In a mug, two tablespoons of instant coffee are mixed with water. Gabriel microwaves the liquid for a minute. His eyes follow the mug as it rotates slowly, illuminated by the dim, yellow microwave light. His ears are serenaded by the microwave’s low hum--it helps block his headache. His eyes droop like wilted leaves. He can barely follow his thoughts.
Gabriel’s moves again with a newfound alertness. He pries the microwave door open gently and carefully grabs his mug. As he drinks, hiis mouth is enveloped in a forest fire; a searing pain enters his lips and leaves a foul, earthy bitterness. His tongue is charred like barbeque. His taste buds feel like soot.
After coffee, Gabriel pulls out a large pyrex container of oatmeal he prepared for the week. People are confused when he confesses there’s no sugar or milk in his oats. “You’re too healthy,” they say. He gloops exactly a cup into a small bowl.
Despite not being able to taste any flavor, Gabriel doesn’t miss it--oatmeal doesn’t have much of a taste anyway. The cool oats soothe Gabriel’s mouth. The mush is like medicine. He enjoys the control he has over the food he eats.
When Gabriel finishes, he thinks about whether he should eat more.
The aching has slightly subsided.
The fogginess in his mind isn’t as thick.
His hands reach for the large jar of oatmeal in the fridge again, but he falters.
He peeks under his shirt. His belly looks slightly fuller.
You can’t. Not yet.
Gabriel dreads the rest of his day.
* * *
The professor is talking about something. Gabriel isn’t really sure what. A chalkboard is filled with symbols and numbers and lines and…
Gabriel feels tired. His right hand scribbles are on autopilot. His notes are a frantic scrawl of half-hearted resignations.
He looks down at his hands. They are shaking. Shaking really hard. It’s easy to tell when he’s holding a pen.
A voice is calling for someone’s attention. Gabriel ignores it. It’s probably not for him. He can’t count the times he’s waved to familiar faces around campus only to discover they were waving to someone else. Besides, who would want to talk to him. Who would want to talk to someone so...
It’s the same voice. A hand gently rests on his shoulder--it’s not his. It feels soft but nonetheless foreign. His head whips around, finding the owner of the hand.
Her cheekbones are defined like two sharp roads. They point towards large plump lips. Her skin is smooth and soft like alabaster. Her walnut eyes glimmer like pearls. He wishes his face was as slim as hers. He wishes his skin was as smooth. She’s so pretty.
He wishes he was pretty.
Wait, no. No. No.
Mom always said, “pretty was for girls, handsome is for boys.”
Mom doesn’t like it when he “acts like a girl.”
Gabriel’s chest rises and falls; anxiety crashes like ocean waves against his fearful lungs. Gabriel is drowning. His throat squeezes around the words he wishes he could say. Shallow breaths get quicker and quicker. His hands shake harder. Gabriel buries his face in his palms. His head will split in two if he can’t control the insecurities that are fighting to escape. He hates himself for objectifying her; he hates himself for wanting what she has.
“Gabe, are you alright?”
Her voice drips like nectar, sweet and inviting. He doesn’t deserve that. She shouldn’t be talking to him. It’s beneath her…
“Hey. Gabe. Gabe.”
Her voice is a pleading whisper, a ghostly breeze that passes through his ears. It cascades down his spine. He feels it in shivers. Her hand rubs his shoulder in small circles. He finally looks up, flushed. She smiles when she sees his eyes. She asks again.
“Are you doing alright?”
He can feel the gaze of everyone around him digging into his soul. They’re digging a grave. He nods slowly, jerking his face from her gaze. Tears cover his eyes like rain on a windshield. Windshield wipers blink the tears away, but the rain doesn’t stop.
Her smile falls. She squeezes his shoulder one last time and the weight of her hand dissapears. Gabriel hates himself more for missing her touch.
She doesn’t speak to him for the rest of class.
* * *
It’s noon. With no more classes, Gabriel waits at the bus stop, bundled in a thick blue jacket and a gray sweatshirt. The wind whistles around him, sweeping through his hair like a comb. Voluminous clouds float like dollops of whip cream sprayed across the baby blue sky. Forest foliage is painted like flames, glowing crimson and gold. The leaves fall like embers.
Gabriel misses this view. He doesn’t go outside that often--at least, not anymore. It’s too cold nowadays, even with the sun. But that can’t be the reason. He searches through a catalogue of memories wondering when he stopped enjoying going outside. He remembers why he started.
* * *
His father made them go on jogs all throughout middle and high school.
They would run just as the sun began to rise. The sky looked like peaches that time of day: yellow orange, and purple blending together. Gabriel remembers how their breaths would condense in a vaporous smoke in the humid cold. Gabriel would wear tiny blue gloves, his father scared Gabriel’s hands would freeze.
His dad would wear the same clothes each time: a baggy gray sweatshirt that hugged his belly too tight and black oversized sweatpants Gabriel thought looked like garbage bags. His father would laugh--he laughed from his chest, almost growly--unashamed of the way he presented himself. Gabriel would laugh too. His dad smiled a toothy grin whenever Gabriel was happy.
During the first couple of runs, Gabriel would dash out the front door, not waiting for his father. “Too slow!” He would holler.
“Hey! Kiddo! Shut it!” his father would say. “Jesus, I’m old.”
Gabriel would giggle and sneer as his dad raced behind him. But in the end, Gabriel was usually the first one gasping for air.
Over time, Gabriel learned to enjoy how his hair billowed in the wind. He hated it when he was younger. The first time he complained, his dad had none of it. “Be grateful. Your mother gave you that hair so take care of it. I mean, look at your father. Look at my head.” When there wasn’t much to see, Gabriel stopped complaining.
Gabriel thinks about how brittle his hair is now. How when he passes a hand through his hair, the hair collects in his palm like he’s harvesting his scalp. His hair should be durable. It shouldn’t break the way it does. His father wouldn’t be pleased. Gabriel dies a little. He doesn’t want to admit why.
* * *
On the bus, lunch is a small protein bar and Gabriel’s stomach isn’t happy. The dry powdery chew does not satisfy Gabriel’s recovering taste buds. The advertised creamy peanut butter flavor tastes little of peanuts and is chalky, not creamy.
But Gabriel thinks about what makes peanut butter creamy: oil. He thinks about the way peanut butter would clog his arteries, the unctuous brown paste sticking and hardening like tar in his veins. He thinks about the way he’d wear peanut butter. The way that peanut butter would jiggle at his sides. The way peanut butter would jiggle in his cheeks. Imagine how much larger you’d get if you ate peanut butter freely. Imagine how many sit-ups and jumping jacks you’d have to do to balance out the scale.
Gabriel finishes the rest of the bar. As he crumples the wrapper, his phone starts to ring. It’s the girl from class.
“Hey. Gabe! I just, uh, wanted to make sure you're feeling alright,” she says. “I’m sorry for earlier, I really didn’t mean to call attention to you.”
Gabriel shakes his head. He should be sorry for wasting her time. “No, no, not at all! I’m really sorry you had to see that.”
She laughs as she responds. She thinks he’s joking.
“Well we all get a little overwhelmed from time to time. College is stressful. I get that.”
Gabriel wants to scream. He wants her to know he’s not a little overwhelmed. It’s not just college. It has nothing to do with college. He doesn’t speak.
After a long pause, she continues.
“Hey I was wondering...would you like to have dinner with me and some friends? We could get to know each other better! Did you know we attended the same high school? I was thinking we could eat at that new diner, the one near the library? Does that work for you?”
Diner? Gabriel thinks of full fat milkshakes and buttered griddles. Oil. It’s all oil. He envisions his organs deep fried in lard, dripping with grease as he lies in a stretcher, paramedics having to carry him out of his dorm room because he can’t move on his own. He thinks about how squishy his body would be when they find him. Gabriel shakes his head vehemently. It’s a good thing she can only hear him.
“Gabe? Did you hear me?”
“I uh, I’m a little busy.”
You won’t miss me.
* * *
His younger sister calls in the middle of his workout. After running ten miles on the treadmill, his head feels heavy and light, all at the same time. He struggles to stay standing.
“Gabriel? It’s Maria.”
Maria was born six years after him. When he left for college, she was still in middle school. He remembers how they'd hug when she was upset. He remembers the way her tears spilled like a monsoon, relentless showers drowning out her quiet sobs.
“Mom wants to know why you haven’t called her back. I want to know why too. We miss you Gabi.”
Gabriel hates that nickname--the nickname his dad gave to him when he cradled baby Gabriel in his arms for the first time. The same nickname Maria remembered when she waddled around on all fours, speaking in excited mush.
“Maria,” he pauses.”You know why.”
Gabriel can hear sniffles, he can hear her voice choke on the words she doesn’t wish to say, the secrets they share but cannot relive. “Gabi...we are still a family.”
He hates this. He hates not being beside her, his arms unable to rub her back in circles and whisper reassuring promises. He hates not being beside her, his hands unable to give Maria’s shoulders a gentle squeeze.
“Gabi, it’s been hard without dad.”
One day his father stops eating with them at meals. Says its work. Says he needs to take a phone call. Says he needs to take a night shift.
It’s a tumor. When doctors finally discovered it, they said it was too late, said it spread to his lungs. Chemotherapy gave him a 20% chance to live up to five more years, that he should’ve come in for treatment sooner, that the medical procedure would cost them their rent. His mother said she’d find a way, she’d work harder, she’d get another job. Gabriel said he’d find one too. A local diner was hiring and if he could get enough tips...
The treatment was a disaster. His father died emaciated, the growth in his throat blocking whatever food passed through his lips. Gabriel tried to find company. His mother turned to God.
“I’m sorry, Maria.”
Maria whimpers. “I just need to know how you’re doing. Are you eating well?”
Gabriel chokes on the truth. “Yes, uh, I, I’m trying.”
Unlike his father, he doesn’t have an excuse.
“Mom wants you to know she’s sorry. She didn’t mean to tell you to leave. She’s just...she’s just...she’s having a hard time trying to adjust to, uh, your lifestyle.”
Gabriel is drowning. His anxiety crashes like ocean waves against his lungs.
Maria, not you too.
“Maria, I..look, damn, God, I gotta go. God, I can’t. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Gabriel ends the call. When he collapses on the ground, his body erupts in aches.
His stomach is a cavity he doesn’t wish to fill.
* * *
Before he falls asleep, Gabriel saunters in the bathroom, his eyes fixating on a mirror. The reflection looks at him pensively. He raises his shirts, counting the ribs peeking through his skin. He is numb to the pain and numb to his thoughts. Something is eating at him.
The reflection finally smiles.
You deserve it.
With a newfound exhaustion, Gabriel falls on his bed, and drifts off.
The ghost town is an unavoidable part of this route.
It’s the first stop when you catch the morning train to the bigger city, but there’s seldom anyone who actually gets on - with the exception of station staff. It’s strange - as if the train’s departure and arrival times are carefully planned out so that one never sees the strange, mindlessly scattered cluster of cottages under daylight. The effect is the same, dawn or dusk - a soft blue tint dulling the red of the roof-brick and white of the walls, further darkening the empty doorways in a way that is almost offensively unfriendly, and graying out the grassy surface, killing off even the one undoubtedly living thing in this place. The station is on a raised bridge, so you can see the entire valley, with a great view of this speckled mess of walls and cavities, and the comfort from which you watch it feels wrong. The muffled sound of Falco’s Der Kommissar playing on the radio station these trains are always set on, from some reason, feels incredibly out of place accompanying such a view.
Its history near repeats itself every night and leaves a newly abandoned village to be discovered in the morning. People don't like talking about it, in part because they all have their own story about what it was like during the [REDACTED]. They - your family members, teachers, white collar folks standing by you on the bus, passers-by on every main street - remember the dry, sticky feeling hunger brought upon their stomachs, the shortness of breath in their weak legs as malnourished bodies struggled to carry belongings, once-beloved armchairs and kiddie kitchens, over to the pawnshops, and the weight of their prayers to get at least half as would be enough to eat measured in the effort needed for them to be uttered.
The massacre was the nasty outcome of a nasty period, difficult to discuss and tiresome to contextualize - a youth gang riding into a dozen families' defenseless lifetimes in the early morning hours, set upon theft and pillaging. Doing much, much more.
It was years ago now, and yet, you experience it, time and time again. It is permanent in the discomfort the sight of the village in the morning half-light instills, and the remnants of pleasant emotion it makes you feel guilty for.
You ride this thing four times a month. Still, you wonder, how is it that you've never noticed it before the play?
The fact that you got to see it at all had, on its own, been a miraculous accident. Earlier that March, while on your way home from a late afternoon class, you got caught in one of the year’s first spring showers. Within mere moments, even with numerous gaps framing each sidewalk and road brick, water was flowing down the angled street. It pooled at your feet as you ran, breaking through the barrier of your canvas sneakers and guaranteeing immediate displeasure. You regretted trusting the pale rays of sunshine poking through your curtains earlier that day as you rushed to take shelter in a covered cavity at the bottom of one of the smaller buildings in the arcane block. It was wide and deep, like an outer hallway, and, as you scurried within, the front light came on, illuminating the street - it probably had some sort of sensor built in. You never expected these old buildings to be that advanced - this sort of thing always made you jump. However, wet socks considered, your parasympathetic nervous system was quicker to react this time.
Yellow light filled the odd passage, exposing a doorway to your right. Or, at least, something not unlike a doorway - there was no door, and there were no hinges to begin with. Instead, a piece of dark fabric, speckled unevenly with small holes and ambiguously successful in its job of covering up what’s inside, working on a principal that seemed familiar to that of a showercurtain. You walked closer and, under all of the soft simmering sounds of rain, you managed to hear… voices. At least ten different ones, all simultaneously, and being interchanged, at times, with at least five or six more. Moving further in, you tried to peek through, see what this strange gathering was about, and unsuccessfully seeking a nameplate or something similar on the space surrounding the hollow. Suddenly, however, your search was interrupted by a hand elegantly moving the canvas aside - exactly like a showercurtain! - followed immediately by a body of above-average height and a square build.
You jumped back to observe the face of a man in his late early-to-mid 60s - still somewhat youthful in structure, with brilliant, bright blue eyes, but with a handlebar moustache, goatee and shoulder-length hair so purely white that you couldn’t possibly mistake him for a person any younger than that. Upon first glance, he was dressed as people his age usually dressed at the time - worn out Levi’s and a button-up shirt with a suede vest on top - with the exception of a dark brown cowboy hat resting atop his head. His posture was also perfect, with little to no sight of that gut, which is so hard to look at, that so many men, especially those with a liking for a drink or two every now and again, tend to develop shortly before they enter the later stage of their life. He moved out of the doorway with unspeakable elegance, gesturing for you to enter with a nod as well as a gentle wave of a barely wrinkly hand. The only detail about this strangely endearing man that brought to you the notion that he could have been real at all was the gravel, a long-time smoker’s signature, rolling off his tongue as he began to speak.
“Find a chair, c’mon! It’s almost started!”
You were tired, certainly, and wanted nothing more than to change out of these soggy socks and into a warmer pair, and head right to bed afterward - but your curiosity proved itself dominant. Mimicking the man’s earlier movements, you slid the curtain to the side, entering through the mysterious doorway. Inside, you were greeted by another hallway - much steeper, with a lower ceiling than the one you were just in seconds ago, and with lights far more dimmed. Carefully trudging through this strange space and trying to make sense of the words and pictures scattered across its walls, you wound up nearing yet another doorless framed wall-cavity.
Entering it, you found yourself cornered, on both sides, by two platforms, obstructing movement without rising up. Stepping on the platform to your right, you did as you were told and found a seat. To your right sat a woman in her mid 20s, tastefully adorned in a black tennis dress, the bottom of which rested right above her knees as she sat, and with her high cheekbones further pronounced by the dark, simple elements of her make-up and a relaxed yet secure bun atop her head. You knew now that it was her perfume you smelled, albeit from a distance and more so diluted by the various other fragrance and pheromonic groups presented (because, as you began to notice, many more people took up seats on the other three platforms that surrounded a near-empty square space), from the entryway - like rose petals, but gentler. You wished to know, in an instant, the full extent of this woman’s beauty, and you thanked destiny for tying you two together for as however long (or short) as this camaraderie in unorganised seating would last.
Soon after, the lights in this new room dimmed, and the square began to fill up with items. Young men and women in black pants and dress shirts brought forth rusty kitchenware, punctured sandbags, variously sized clocks, torn-up and worn stuffed toys, a punctured CRT monitor and small light fixtures. The chatter that surrounded you, to this moment, died down. It had become as clear to you as it was ever going to get that what you walked into was, in fact, an amateur theater.
The youths came out again - eight of them, two facing each platform. Each clutched an object in their hands. Then, they began to speak. In slam poem format, almost, they did what was hardest - they contextualized the situation. They spoke of it, and acted it all out so accurately and honestly, with so much pain and conviction in their voices, that your parents’ first-hand accounts, murmured over years of repression, did not even compare. They spoke of it, and they spoke of it all, not leaving out a single detail - the hunger, the desperation, the weakness and malnutrition, the selling of things as well as the stealing of things, of rape and of pillage - of fortitude and fear, their voices shaking with wear but still stable in their certainty. Just like you, they had been born after everything had changed for the better, and yet, you could not separate them from the narrative they were unfolding. You thought of your parents and felt ill.
In front of you, with their eyes moving steadily from one audience member to another, stood a man and a woman. He was older than her, but ever so slightly - maybe five or six years older than you. His thick, auburn eyebrows had been knitted together and the look he gave you all was almost accusatory - but softened by his crying. And, truly, he seemed incredibly angry, almost terrifyingly so - but the intensity of this anger had been somewhat limited by the puffiness of his cheeks and his unsteady breathing. His face had been recently shaven, with a few obviously (intentionally?) missed spots, and his hands were trembling like an alcoholic’s. He stood there, red-faced, glass-eyed, patiently waiting his turn, delivering words like thunderstorms each time it arrived. Yes, he was an actor, and yes, obviously, the script was cheesy, but the power of each fragment proclaimed in his voice, cracking with passion, made you set aside both of these facts and you became, once more, enveloped in memories of a time you’d never lived in.
After a while, they switched over to the main part - the wholly true, less abstract part. They acted out a scene from one household, specifically - a household with a newborn child. For this, they’d brought out a plastic baby doll, painted entirely orange, undressed. It was sat in the arms of another young actress, one whose side-profile you’d had the chance to look at throughout the whole show but who had now been walking around all the other actors, who stood still as strange, sad pillars. The crying actor was the girl’s younger brother - the baby had been his niece. You could not describe the scene to anybody else, not even to yourself, later - nor could you describe the amount of love that, in that moment, you felt for the auburn-haired actor, with his fists clenched and his shaky voice reminding the audience of the injustice of this massacre. You hated, with all the passion your suddenly rejuvenated body could produce, anybody who could cause such a thing, such a stir of emotion in somebody with this much responsibility, with this much constitution and this much love within them. It made you feel unsafe - yet, at the same time, as he looked into your eyes, you felt trusted. You looked to your right; your sister in seating was crying. Mascara stained her perfectly positioned cheekbones.
In the end, the actors all poured sand over the items on the ground, murmuring - many voices in one. Then, they sat down, and the main actress put down the baby, and, in complete silence, began pouring sand over the heads of the other actors, and the baby. It was mesmerizing, and you would never find out how to describe it so that the effect is transferred to somebody who hadn’t been there. You found yourself in bed that night, still wearing your wet clothes, thinking about the crying actor. Later that week, you’d do a little bit of Facebook detective work to find out his name. It turned out he also DJ’d, sometimes.
The locomotive produces a whistle, and the rest of the train begins to shake in anticipation. You sit up, taking one last glance at the houses outside your window, recently re-abandoned. As the train begins to move forward, you begin to think about whether or not you’d be able to place a copyright protection on the story of your eventual death.
FURIOUS FEATHER AND THE DANCING GRAPES ------------------------------------------------- The Evil Icebergs of Itron Part 1: The Cold Truth “Hold everything!” a human sized grape yelled, “Where’s my fur-covered two-handled family credenza?!” “Your whooey and a what now?” asked another grape, clearly perplexed, “Explain, Jerry.” “My fur-covered two-handeled family credenza!” Jerry said slowly and more dramatically, “It’s a family heirloom passed down from grape to grape, I received it from my father, who received it from his father, and on and on back to Guy Grape, who first covered it in fur, and on and on and on to its creator, Arjamemnon the Great, master of building.” “Don’t worry Perry, I looked it up, it’s like a buffet,” said a grape named Harry, “we might consider getting one you know.” “How can you sit there talking like that! Gary! Larry! Emergency!” Jerry called out, “Oh, almost forgot, Furi-” But before he could call for Furious Feather, their leader, a hand covered his mouth. “Ve are not ‘ere to harm you,” said someone in a mysterious French ancient, “I am Chris P. Bacon, expert detective, and zis is my associate, Banana Split, she is a ninja as vell, so please do not call for your leader, ze feather zey call Furious, or ve vill be forced to take you to a more… secure location.” Everyone was silent, but just then, Gary and Larry walked in, and much to the other grapes dismay, were about to run away. Then, Banana Split jumped in front of them and tied them up as Chris P. Bacon told them what he had said to the other three grapes. “So, if you’re not here to harm us, why are you here?” Perry asked, Also, I thought that we grapes were the only talking food there ever was! Where did you come from?” “To answer ze first question, ve are ‘ere to secure a fur-covered two-handeled family credenza, it holds ze key to an ancient door to an ancient room, in ze coldest place on ze Earth, Antarctica. Ve have searched for ze key for veeks, but to no avail, zen, ve hear of a credenza passed through generations rumored to secretly be holding said key, and zat pretty much brings us right ‘ere,” Chris P. explained, “As for ze second question, you vill have to accept ze cold truth zat zere is a big world, and you are not ze only food zat can talk.” “Well,” said Larry, “while it’s kind of disappointing that we aren’t the only special food, how awesome is it that there are more foods out zerethere, that accent is rubbing off on me- than just us!” The other grapes murmured in agreement. Then Jerry, who had painstakingly waited this whole time, said, “This is all well and good, but could we get back to where my fur-covered two handled family credenza has gone!” “Vait, vhat do you mean, gone?” The Chris P. asked “I mean, somebody has stolen my fur-covered two-handled family credenza, and I’ll have no one leaving this room until I find it!” Jerry yelled. “Oh no,” Harry said as a human sized feather came running downstairs, “We’re grape juice.” When Furious Feather looked around and saw a banana dressed as a ninja, a piece of bacon with a silver mustache and an eyeglass, two of the Dancing Grapes tied up and three of them looking more terrified than when they came across the jelly jar of their third cousin, Al, he was very perplexed. “So who wants to explain what’s going on here?” he asked. As Chris P. Bacon explained the situation, Jerry looked everywhere for his credenza, but found nothing. “Allright, maybe we can help you if you can help us,” Jerry said, “help us find my fur-covered two-handled family credenza, and we’ll give you the key, should there be one found in it.” “Us? Since when were we pulled into this?” Gary asked. “We’ll figure that out if we’re told what’s inside that room in the Antarctic,” Furious replied. “Vhat is inside, only legends tell,” Chris P. answered, “but ze best vone zat ve found describes a bottle containing a virus zat could vipe out much of ze vorld’s population if opened.” “Well, that’s bright,” Larry said. “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” Gary sang. “Oh come on, a deadly virus in a bottle, that somehow got to the bottom of the Earth? I’m not buying it, and what’s with the song, Gary?” Perry remarked. “Vone does not need to understand everything to believe,” Chris P. answered. “And that’s a good song by the way,” Gary said, slightly offended. “Hello!” Jerry yelled, “The credenza, we can’t figure out if the legends are true until we get my fur-covered- “WE KNOW!” They all shouted at him in infuriation. “He’s right though,” Banana Split said, speaking for the first time and startling Gary and Larry, who were still tied up, much to their disdain. “So I guess we figure out who stole the fur-covered two-handled family credenza now? Jerry asked impatiently. “Yes, Jerry, now we’ll go search for it,” Furious said, “But first we’ll need Gary and Larry untied, and then we’ll need to know where to start looking.” “Luckily, ve can do both,” Chris P. said happily; and as Banana Split untied Gary and Larry, Chris P. explained, “In our travels ve ‘ave searched through countless books in countless libraries to understand zis legend better. Our searches came up empty in all but vone place, in ze library zey call Leavenvorth. Ze book ve found vas unnaturally cold, but gave us vhat information ve needed to determine zat ze virus is colored purple.” “That’s it?!” Furious and the Dancing Grapes exclaimed. They were quite annoyed. “What does that have anything to do with finding my credenza?” Jerry asked. “It means zat ze people looking vor ze virus, who ve believe to ‘ave stolen ze credenza vor ze key, have ze knowledge to read. If ze book vas cold, it means somevone, zough not from ‘ere, has read it before, and recently,” Chris P. explained. “But what about the purple coloring?” Furious asked. “Oh, zat vas just a fun fact,” Chris P. answered. Furious and the Dancing Grapes shook their heads in disdain. “So we’re looking for someone cold,” Harry said, “that narrows it down.” “Actually, yes it does,” Banana Split said, “A mysterious something crashed into Earth recently, and all the air within a mile radius of it was as cold as Winter, so we theorize that this is an alien life form who is as cold as ice itself. Also a tree nearby has writing on it that says, Commander Cold was here, so that helps.” “Why don’t you lead with that part?” Gary asked. “Because it’s fun to put it at the end,” Banana Split replied. “This is all good information,” Furious said, “But where should we go to retrieve the key and the credenza?” “Isn’t it obvious,” Chris P. answered, “To ze Antarctic!” Part 2: Ice is NOT Nice “Why did we ever agree to this?” Perry asked. This was a valid question as they were trudging through the coldest place on Earth. “If we can find the door into the Chamber of the Purple Virus, we can find those responsible for the theft of your friend’s credenza,” Banana Split replied. “Oh, so the room gets a special name now?” Furious said. “It ‘as alvays had a name,” Chris P. replied, “Ve ‘ave just had yet to inform you.” They dragged themselves through the snow for an hour, then two, then three, then… “Look!” Harry called, “I think I see a door over there.” And a door it was, with a small group of short icebergs about two feet tall, working with a key and being yelled at by not an iceberg, but the one responsible for the theft of a certain fur-covered two-handled family credenza. Furious Feather and the Dancing Grapes would today know him as the Guy With the Icicle Beard and No Hair, but on a distant planet, he was simply known as Commander Cold, his real name, no one knew. “I have a plan,” said Harry, “buy me some time while I get it ready.” “Why not just get ready now?” Larry asked. “Because talking will keep the icebergs from working with the key, and sitting won’t, so get up and start talking!” So Furious stood up reluctantly. “Hey, Guy With the Icicle Beard and No Hair,” Furious yelled, “I am Furious Feather, you have something that belongs to us, a fur-covered two-handled family credenza, and a key within it. We will give you ten seconds to either hand it over or tell us where to find it!” “Or what, what will you do to stop my icebergs from claiming the virus for ourselves,” Commander Cold asked. “Terrible things,” Furious replied, “I don’t know how news spreads in the galaxy up there, but do the books of Bi-Cron ring a bell? Well we defeated them, they’re history, and we can do the same to you.” Much to Furious’ surprise, Commander Cold was laughing, of all things. “The Battling Books of Bi-Cron were only the beginning, and a terrible one too due to that fool Acba’s failings,” Commander Cold said after he had finally stopped laughing, “I am not as easy to defeat, we shall-” “FIRE!” One of the icebergs screamed as seven torches rose from the snow. “Hold the phone, FIRE!” Commander Cold yelled as the icebergs ran for their lives, “That was a cheap move, but we have the key, we can return when we-” “Do you mean zis key?” Chris P. Bacon asked while triumphantly holding it high. “No fair!” Commander Cold yelled, “But mark my words, Furious, this is not the end, one day, very soon, Lord Titan will diminish this pathetic planet for the power he seeks inside. Nothing has ever stopped him before, you won’t either.” As he ran onto a nearby ship and took off, flying to a distant planet. “Well, I hope we don’t see any more of those guys soon,” Larry said, “And I think everything is solved except-” “Finally, my fur-covered two-handled family credenza! Safe again,” Jerry said as he dug it out of a rising snowdrift. “So everything is settled now,” Larry said. “Except I’m so cold it’ll take years to thaw me out,” Gary said. Everyone laughed as they started the long hike back the way they came. “So Chris, Banana Split,” Furious asked, “I was wondering if you’d like to stay with us for a while. You could be a lot of help to us, you know.” Chris P. and Banana Split conferred, and then came to their decision. “Ve vould be most honored to stay at such a noble place, zank you vor your gracious offer,” Chris P. said. “I think noble may be pushing it a little, though,” Harry said, and they all shared a laugh in the cold of the Antarctic. Meanwhile on a distant planet… “They had fire, Lord Titan, how can you expect me to defeat that,” Commander Cold pleaded. “Next time we go to Earth, we shall see,” Titan said, “but for now, Admiral, prepare the Sour Squadron, I have a special mission for them.
Anita settled into the chair, her bones aching with age, and picked up the pen, which someone had already laid next to her stationary pad. Though the rest of her body was riddled with various pains, in a small blessing, her fingers hadn’t yet lost their deftness. She furrowed her brow as she dated the top of the paper, her careful, swooping cursive slowly working its way across the page.
You must forgive me for not writing you in so long. I’m afraid it often feels most of my life has been suddenly swept away—it’s strange I find myself in this chair, joints complaining with every movement, when it feels as if mere moments ago they glided with ease.
Her pen came to a stop. She bit her lip, studying the photo, which was nestled in a gallery of others pinned to her wall. In it, a young Anita, a waitress at the time, leaned against the back entrance to the restaurant; her eyes caught the flame of a lighter, held by Charlie, who perched his cigarette in one corner of his mouth and smirked at her with the other.
Even in a photo worn with age, the sight of him softened her heart. Charlie rarely smiled much at all. He was a cynic as long as she knew him, sharp features to pair with his flinty attitude—a cocktail that seemed to always intoxicate women. Somehow, she was the one who caught his eye in those brief few months, and they’d sent each other’s hearts spinning. With that flutter still in her chest, Anita continued.
How are you? I’ve always wondered what became of your life after you were sent overseas. I remember how I collapsed into the back booth at work when I found out, and the other waitresses lent me their pity—though it was ill-received. Their boyfriends, of course, were safely at home, safe from those jungles, and I resented them for it badly. I resented the whole world in those days that followed. I couldn’t picture my life without you; I couldn’t imagine what it would be like without you to tug my ponytail as I came through the kitchen, or to unlock the back door and let me and the other girls slip outside for a cigarette.
I suppose I moved on, somehow, though, when your shifts stopped, and the back door remained locked and my ponytail untugged. You’ll have to forgive me for that. I always saw myself as a fighter, but if I really thought I loved you, I did a poor job of showing it. I should’ve chased after you and told you that if you’d be crawling through the mud in Vietnam, I’d be on my belly at your side—or, at the very least, waiting for you the moment you came home. But I didn’t. I went to college that fall, and lived away from home, drifting away from the city where we met, though I never forgot about you. Some people are like that, you know. They stick out in your mind like bright red buoys at sea, never lost in the foam or the tumbling of the waves. I suppose that’s why I’m writing you now.
As this ache in my bones grows worse day by day, I cannot bear to leave with any regrets, especially not one so simple as to be fixed with one letter. I’ve lived a good life, I think. Even so, I cannot help but wish you had followed through on those plans of yours to evade the draft; and I wish more than anything I had followed after you, and we had lived our lives as outlaws together, on the run from my parents, and the authorities, and everyone in the world who might have put a stop to us.
I realize how silly of a thought that is. Even so, it’s always held a place in my heart—a very warm, bright spot, warming me from my chest to my toes, reminding me of such a wonderful time, and what a wonderful life it could have been.
Though her fingers were still nimble, her wrist, however, was not. As she signed the final strokes of her name, it had already begun to ache. Anita set down the pen, rubbing at it, her eyes flitting over her words. She fretted, silently, wondering what Charlie had become. Would he find her letter strange? Would he even read it?
There was a sudden rush of air as the door opened. Anita turned.
“Oh, Anita,” a woman’s voice said, “is your wrist bothering you again?”
She shook her head, pursing her lips. The woman tsk-tsked, breezing into the room and peering at the desk.
“It’s from all that writing you do. You tire yourself out.”
“It was an important letter. It’s to an old flame of mine. I had to write him before it’s too late.”
“Don’t talk like that, now.”
“Either because my knuckles are too swollen to move,” she replied, “or because you won’t let me anymore.”
The woman laughed. A bit of a fog had clouded Anita’s mind. She had a familiarity about her, but Anita couldn’t quite place her face.
“Come on, you,” she said, rousing her from her desk. “It’s lunchtime.”
When Clara lead Charlie to the room later, she informed him his wife was already asleep.
“Tired herself out with all that letter-writing, as usual,” she said. “It’s on the desk. She sealed it up in an envelope before she went to bed.”
Charlie had always found Clara too brisk, but his wife seemed to enjoy her liveliness. He couldn’t really blame her. Despite the potted plants nestled in the corners of the rooms—a weak attempt to exude vitality—this place was dull. Endless halls of patterned carpets, rows of identical locked doors. Only one stood out to him.
He turned the knob quietly, trying to soften the click of the lock. He didn’t want to wake her. Inside the room, the curtains were drawn, but the desk lamp had been left on: the soft glow illuminated the countless pictures pinned to her wall, of him and her together, of their children and grandchildren—snapshots of moments from the lives they’d built together.
Anita lay underneath the covers, her face peaceful with sleep. Charlie approached the chair at her bedside, easing himself into it.
For a while, he simply watched her, her chest rising and falling gently. On the nights she fell asleep before he came to visit, Charlie would often enjoy how tranquil she looked, eased of the all-too-familiar aches that plagued her when she woke, free of the confusion that clouded her mind. After a few minutes, he turned to the desk. Waiting for him was today’s letter. He picked it up, admiring the careful print of his name on the outside before opening it.
The letters never varied much—recounting their days in the restaurant together, sorrowing over her regrets. Even when it was the same script written day after day after day, the little details still amazed him, the ways she found to describe them: that her brilliant brain, clouded in its fog, still sought to churn out the beautiful words it had for most of her life.
Yours, Anita Morgan.
Morgan. He ran his thumb over the word. Her maiden name.
Of all the photos on the wall, Anita failed to register any of them as herself, except for one. Charlie had tacked it at eye level above the desk, as she’d often done with pictures whenever she worked on her books.
I want to look up and see something that inspires me, she’d told him over and over, all those years ago. I can’t come up with a story if I’m staring at a wall. I want to be transported.
It was an old, faded photo, snapped by one of the waitresses at the restaurant and mailed to him many years later. Anita and Charlie, 1969. The year they’d met, and the year he’d been drafted. But there was so much more to the story that had been lost—
She spoke of their plans to run away with such longing. He knew, if her mind was clear, she’d find a bittersweet irony in it all.
Sometimes, he considered writing her a letter of his own, recounting all the things she’d forgotten: that they really did run away together and dodge the draft, to a city a few hours north of her home, in a tiny apartment with a twin bed to share. That she’d waitressed her way through an English degree, refusing his proposal until the day after her graduation. That they’d had two daughters—who each had children of their own—and raised them in a little house together, filled with chatter and laughter and the clack of Anita’s typewriter. That for years, she’d immortalized their lives in her words: the sweetness and the sadness, the worst moments and the best ones, all in copies of her poetry anthologies she kept on a shelf in her writing room. That the pictures hanging in this room had come from that one, where she strung together poems with photos of their adventures hanging before her eyes. That putting them here had been her idea, long before she actually moved in, before the fog had overwhelmed her.
That as it began set in, little by little, she slowly forgot all of it.
Well, not all of it, Charlie reminded himself. He folded the letter and slipped it into his breast pocket. He kept them all in a box at their home, her favorite memories immortalized in looping cursive, sealed against the unforgiving fog of time. As for his—well, they’d just overwhelm her. Besides, they were waiting here, if she ever wanted to see them. All she had to do was look around.
As he settled back into his seat, she stirred from sleep, her eyes fluttering open.
“Who are you?” Her eyelids were heavy as she spoke.
“It’s just me, Anita,” he replied gently. “It’s Charlie. You can go back to sleep.”
Something in her face relaxed, and Charlie wanted to believe it was some deep, locked-away recognition. Moments later her breathing steadied, and he relaxed back in his chair.
When the time came to leave, he made sure to replace her stationary and pen on the desk before he closed the door. Clara always put them back inside the drawer, but he knew when Anita woke, she’d be on the hunt for them, overcome with the desire to write to her lost love—who wasn’t really lost, only lost to her mind.
I’m strolling along the cracked sidewalk. My mind is far away, up in the wispy clouds. I’m flying, soaring with the graceful swallows overhead, the light breeze cool on my face. I close my eyes, the sun warming my cheeks. The pleasant, sweet smell of wildflowers fills the air.
I’m startled out of my thoughts by the light chime of my cell phone, vibrating in my pocket. A glance at the time and my eyes widen.
I immediately jolt into a sprint. My skirt flaps about in the breeze, the chiffon brushing against my calves. A fluffy dandelion blooms at my feet, passing by in a blur. The subtle thump of my combat boots against the concrete is muffled by the murmur of voices rising from the distant pier.
As I approach, a waft of chilly brine reaches me, bringing with it the smell of syrupy cotton candy and buttery popcorn. A growing line of people stretch along the beach. I slow to a jog. The sun warms my jet-black hair, and glances off the dancing cobalt waves, creating glimmering sparks of light akin to a star-lit sky.
Amidst the vibrant bursts of crimson, lime, violet, and a truly interesting shade of pumpernickel in the crowd, I spot a head of tousled fawny locks, atop a slender frame. Just as I inhale to call out his name, something in my peripheral vision catches my eye. A gleam of blue-green glass, half-hidden under a blanket of snowy sand.
I turn towards the sand. Kneeling, I dust off the spattering of silky white and rub my thumb against the dull crystal to reveal what appears to be a glass bottle. I unearth it. The cork is intact and fastened with delicate wires of rose gold. What strikes me as odd is that the metal is untarnished, polished. I shiver, suddenly, on this warm summer day. Through the glass, I can make out the curl of yellowed parchment. There are words in a familiar elegant script that become more and more sloppy further down the page as if time is running out. There’s a year. This was from three years ago. The glass seems older.The day is today. My stomach begins churning with a sense of deep uneasiness. The glass is dull, weathered from years of nature working against the synthetic material. The wires are new. The words on the paper, they seem to be English. But… when I try to decipher them, they swim before my eyes. Black splotches appear across my vision. My head is ringing. I shake it fiercely, trying to clear away the dizziness. In a moment of sharpness and clarity, I read, It happened today, before I feel an eerie tingle up my spine and my limbs give way. I collapse, boneless, sprawled across the white sand. Inky blackness fills my vision. My mind is blank and vast. Brilliant white flashes through my head before it is quiet, and I feel nothing.
My head hurts. I open my eyes groggily and sit up with a quiet groan. I’m sitting on soft velvet, in what appears to be a compartment.
Why am I there? I have no idea.
The floor rocks slightly beneath my feet. Across from me sits two people. One is a boy, about my age, with frosty white hair. He’s wearing skinny jeans and a graphic t-shirt under a leather jacket. He’s looking down at a phone screen and I can’t see his face clearly. Somehow, though, there is something familiar about the bridge of his nose, and the slant of his eyebrows. He’s nodding along absentmindedly to something the girl next to him is saying.
She’s completely absorbed in her words, and sports shoulder length platinum blonde hair, a cute, flowery jumper, and silver bangles on her wrists. She looks to be slightly younger than me, with dark brown eyes and a high, tinny voice. There’s a monotonous tone to it that I can’t quite place.
While she has completely different coloring than me, looking at her is uncannily like looking into a mirror. She has the same almond eyes and high cheekbones, button nose and arched eyebrows. It doesn’t register with me who she is, only that she looks remarkably like me.
I turn to look outside. It’s raining.
Droplets of liquid silver leave speckled trails on the window. Trees rush by in a leafy blur. The sky is a gloomy gray. The pitter-patter of raindrops drums on the roof of the train, creating a sort of rhythmic song. I lift my hand to wipe away the condensation my breath has formed on the cool glass, and that’s when I see my reflection. I gasp sharply.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the boy look up. The girl stops speaking.
My waist length hair is silver. It’s bright and icy, and I don’t remember why, when I did this to my hair. My eyes are still the same thankfully, the distrustful, dreamy hazel gaze staring right back at me. But I also look younger. My face is a bit more innocent, my eyes bigger on my face. I would hazard a guess at 12.
I look over at my two companions. I know the boy. He is none other than my best friend. Like me, though, his hair is a completely different colour than I am used to, both much lighter than our normal locks of brown and black. He also looks younger, his features softer, more child-like. His gray eyes, much like the stormy sky outside, look at me in confusion. Seeing my surprise and wariness, he smiles tentatively, giving me a small wave. I return it hesitantly.
I don’t know where I am, or when I am, but I do know that I am myself, albeit maybe several years younger. He is here too. The girl, I don’t know. They are both staring at me.
I need to go about this carefully. I can’t let these people become suspicious of me. After all, they must know me, or this version of me, whoever I am.
We’re on a train. We must be going somewhere.
“Are we almost there?” I ask, breaking the tense silence. My voice is higher than I remember, almost naive sounding, and I scrunch my nose slightly at the sound.
The girl giggles.
“I think so. You’ve slept through almost the entire ride.” She too grins at me.
“You’ve been looking forward to this for more than a month. I don’t know how you can sleep right now.” The boy’s eyes crinkle, and his lips curl up teasingly.
Unsure, I force a laugh.
“I must have been too excited before. Now the exhaustion is finally getting to me.” I reply.
In the girl’s hand, I see a flyer. It looks to be for a festival. I gesture towards it with a hand, and she hands it to me, rolling her eyes.
“You must’ve read this a hundred times by now.” She jokes.
“One more time couldn’t hurt.” I give her a lopsided smile.
Midsummer Festival is emblazoned across the top in shiny, metallic letters. I recognize the name. This is the very same festival I was about to attend before I woke up in this strange train compartment. I tilt my head to the side, puzzled. In the top right corner, Faye is printed neatly in pencil. This is the name of the girl then. I don’t know a Faye though.
Just then, the sound system crackles and a robotic female voice declares, “10 minutes left to the final destination. 10 minutes left.”
Faye stands up, straightening the fabric her top.
“Mama and Papa are going to be waiting for us at the station.” She reminds me, nodding in my direction.
White noise roars in my ears, and I barely manage to nod back reflexively.
My parents are important people and own their own company. I have always been told that it is a shipping company, but that they also deal with the government quite a bit. Their motto in life is to do what’s right, and not what’s easy. I can’t remember right now if they were doing this three years ago. Anyways, Mama and Papa?
This girl is my sister? Even more, she looks about my current physical age, so most probably my twin? I can’t quite catch my breath. I feel as though something has knocked all of the air out of my lungs. A twin… I have never heard anything about having a twin. This is perplexing to say the least.
I move to stand.
As I open my mouth to question this mysterious Faye, the train begins emitting a high-pitched whine. Suddenly, there is an ear-splitting screech. I go to cover my ears with my hands. The train swerves sharply, and I am thrown sideways into my best friend, three years younger. He slams into the window with a grunt, and we fall to the floor in a tangle of bony limbs. The train jostles again, and a sleek black messenger bag falls onto me. Something sharp hits my collarbone. I gasp sharply in pain, and then hug it tightly against my chest. My hair falls onto my face, obscuring my vision. Rubber slides against metal; the brakes and the wheels groan once more, grating on my ears. We don’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. If anything, we seem to be accelerating. I don’t see Faye anywhere.
Shrill screams echo up and down the train.
My heart thunders in my chest. Blood roars in my ears. Cold, slimy dread washes over me. My fingers scrabble in the dark, finding his, and I hold on tightly, desperately. There is nothing we can do but wait. I don’t think I could stand if I wanted to.
The train strikes something. Whether it is a building, or the side of a mountain, or trees, I don’t know. But I can feel it in my bones. The force of the impact turns them to jelly, and the trunk in the overhead area is jarred from its perch, falling down onto the seat and springing open. The items inside spill out, and it is all I can do to try and cover my face with the bag to avoid being cut or blinded. A crash tells me the door has shattered. Glass rains down on my legs and sharp pain ignites in my calves from a thousand small cuts.
We are both trembling. His breath is harsh and panicked in my ear.
Then, everything is still and silent.
It is hours later that voices finally emerge once more. We are dragged out of the wreckage by masked government officials wearing all white. They say nothing, but handle us none too gently. As I am getting pulled out of the remaining rubble of the compartment, I see an arm. An arm with silver bangles. The arm is detached from the torso, and wires are sticking out everywhere. There is no blood. A finger is coming loose from its socket. I gulp nervously. I take another step, over a section of wood, and I scream, loudly. My best friend looks back at me in worry.
A head stares up at me. Dark brown eyes stare unblinkingly, the lips curved up into an eerie little smile. Platinum blonde hair is strewn everywhere. Once again, no blood. Only dozens of wires protruding from her neck, circuitry and machinery where organs and flesh should be. I can’t stop staring. My hands are shaking. My limbs are frozen in place.
The government official tightens his grip on my arm forcefully, digging his nails into my skin, and I yelp. He yanks me away.
The next hours pass in a blur. I can’t remember anything, except that I don’t get to see my parents.
The government officials whisper, and I can only catch the words “forget”, “operation” and “tomorrow.”
I am deathly afraid. Ice coats my heart. I cannot forget. There are robots among us, and the government might be involved. The government wants me to forget.
We are let back home for half an hour, to gather our thoughts, but the only thought in my mind is that I can’t forget.
My limbs take over, and I’m operating on auto-pilot.
I grab a scrap of my father’s letter parchment and start to write. Time trickles steadily away, and my writing suffers, becoming sloppier and sloppier.
I run to the cabinets, taking a dusty glass bottle off the shelf, cork still inside. I rush to the doorway, and along the way, I snatch a length of rose gold wire.
I dash to the beach, my favourite haunt, and currently, it seemed, my only solace. I find a hidden spot and fall to my knees. Pawing at the earth frantically, I dig a big enough hole. I then stuff my message inside, secure it with the wire, and bury it beneath a mountain of white sand. I stand reluctantly and whisper a melancholy goodbye in my mind, to the girl I had barely known: my twin the robot, and to the 12-self I was and my memories.
The next day, I remembered nothing.
I come to with a gasp, my stark-white fingers clutching the glass bottle to my chest. My raven hair is in my face. I’m bent over on my knees, on the beach, at the spot where I had stood, on this day, three years ago.
I cannot forget.
Back then, I've never understood why people fall in love. It’s such a colossal commitment, devoting yourself to a human being. It seems so strange. It is something I would never devote myself to, not in a million years. There is always a risk factor that plays into everything joyful. With great joy, there is great pain. There is always the chance of a breakup, unrequited love, regret, betrayal, and revenge. Getting into a relationship is like a gamble, which I view as too intimidating.
I believed people who fall in love are naive because essentially, they are giving their hearts out - only to be temporarily blissful and then risk the chance of being heartbroken. Besides, it’s disgusting to know an individual relies heavily on another being during their existence; it seems as if one’s life revolves only them, which gives society the impression that one is dependent and needy. The vulnerability put forward when someone is in love and being rejected by someone who can’t reciprocate or simply care, with the same vulnerability, makes people feel as if there was something wrong with them. I believed love usually never turned out the way people yearn for, and I always scoffed at the idea of crushes, thinking it was a mere method of destruction. I thought crushes were worthless and I told myself I would never develop a crush, as I disregarded it as a waste of time. Little did I know, this notion of a "crush" completely changed my life.
Somehow, a few months ago, I experienced this newfangled emotion. I wasn’t sure what it was but I loved this boy, Connor. He always radiated a ray of enthusiasm and joy around him, which was so contagious and beautiful. His eyes were of a hazelnut color that clashed and sparkled with different hues. The light from his eyes burned with curiosity; a desire to learn more and innovate, which was something I deeply admired. I always wished I had such a deep passion, such a yearning purpose in my life. His smile also warmed my heart. He rarely smiled, but when he did, it was so amazing; his small dimples were enough to make my day. He has this strange aura around him and I always wanted to be around him. In fact, at that time, my purpose in life was to love and be loved.
In addition to this boy, my sister, Angela, was a person I loved deeply as well. Whenever I got into trouble, she was always there by my side, to stick up to me, even if she was well aware if she was occasionally on the losing side. She stuck up to me and occasionally took the blame, or even shared it. She did not let me go into battle by myself; and she was my shield to talk about what any bullies say to me and she was also my sword, ready to fight back. She supported me in everything I did, and when I found that life’s hill became oo steep to climb alone, she reminded me I did not have to climb this hill alone.
Until she didn’t. She wasn’t there for me anymore, and I wasn’t there for her. We were in the same school, the same house, but at the same time; we were mere strangers. I stare at my hands, teary-eyed, in nostalgia and thought. Why did things have to end up like this?
Angela was always there for me, especially whenever I needed makeup tips or advice for boys. She had great interpersonal skills and always knew what to say, by guiding me through my problems and the things from the past. I felt I could always tell her about my deepest darkest secrets and she was always there to listen to everything I had to say.
Consequently, I told her about Connor and she gave me tips on how I could pursue this boy. She boosted my hopes and she made me think I had a chance with him. Connor and I texted and talked a lot, and we were good friends. I was crazy in love. I genuinely thought our relationship could develop into something even more and I was excited to explore this novel idea of love, as it seemed appealing to me.
However, I didn’t. I didn’t have a chance with this boy. I realized this due to those three words my sister uttered. Those 3 words that Angela said that would change my outlook entirely. These words were jarring, painful, and raw.
She eyed me worriedly and said those aching words to me. “I’m dating Connor.”
I grasped my hands tightly into fists and they perspired greatly. My mouth was left agape, processing the words I just heard. Then, after I gained my composure, I half-smiled and murmured, “Hey, that isn’t cool, you should have told me earlier.”
She looked down and shrugged, “Sorry, but I like him and I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
My eyes furrow into silts and I addressed with disgust, “You should have told me earlier.”
She interjected and reached out her hand to me in comprise “But-”
“I thought we had a special connection, but we don’t. I never really knew you. I guess you were just a stranger.”
“Okay, fine. It’s how you’re going to be. I’m fine. You’re so dense for fighting with me over a guy. Get over it.”
With that, we parted our ways. Same house, but on opposite sides of the house. The exchanges we made were brief and quiet, and that was how it was a year. The seasons fly by, things change, but our relationship was the same.
Simultaneously, along with a ruined relationship with my sister, I was heartbroken by the fact that Connor chose Angela over me. That kind of news shocks and pierces a hole through my self-esteem, knowing that I will never be good enough. Not good enough for Connor.
I thought I could trust her, but she took the guy of my dreams and never even told me about it. I couldn’t believe it. It was disgusting, I simply couldn’t bear it. I buried myself in work and kept myself busy, so I would never have time to think about my newfound bubbling animosity. She took my love, so I yearned to be better than her. To destroy her in every possible way, outdo her, until she comes to my side - yearning for me again. I wanted Connor as well to feel guilty that he didn’t choose me. I wanted to take revenge, in a sense.
Hate and enmity welled up in my heart, fury burning deep within me. Whenever I think of Angela, I can only think of the sorrow caused. Not the moments I cherished, but those 3 words she uttered. Consequently, I studied and worked so hard to be better than Angela. It worked: I got better grades and became better at various things than her such as sports, arts, and drama. But it still didn’t fulfill the emptiness that has been aching in my heart. The loneliness and emptiness I felt. I felt I had no one to connect to. I was just stubbornly climbing life’s hill to no avail.
Hate is what fuels some of us. Hate can break us. Hate can hurt us. It most certainly did hurt me.
I recall vividly. Angela stated she loved me and I took her word. She said I was her best friend and over the years, we fostered this special relationship and I became a bedrock of her personality. But that one day, that recollection, when she announced she was in love with someone else; it would have been kinder to kill me. I have been enveloped in this bitterness I cannot control. I am yesterday’s news and Angela is the love of his life. They are even boyfriend and girlfriend; cuddling and kissing. All the while, I am forced to smile and make small talk with my former love interest. The hate doesn't ebb, it multiplies.
There is no prize worth the corruption of my soul; hate brings only pain and the cycles of destruction upon me. But I didn’t care. It has consumed me so deeply, so passionately, like a flame burning inside me relentlessly to no end. I was blinded by the world and by love.
I hate my sister. But surprisingly, today, no hate was there. It was like it drifted away as if it was a distant memory. Everything seemed like a distant memory.
Sounds that came sailing in the breeze; the birdsong came so sweetly, almost tangible as if it were softly spun sugar. I would sit there upon the clouds that were my dreams until, as the ones above are so prone to do, they condensed to form the random ideas that quench my mind.
The realization kicks in. Today was the last day of school, a day of farewells and goodbyes. It was also a day of farewell from Angela.
I stared at her, while we drove to the airport. I wanted to convey so many things to her, but I only ended up staring at her. She stared back in response. I opened my mouth, but it felt dry, raspy, and the words would not come out. I remember the fond memories I shared with her, how supportive she has, and how she was always there to remind me I wasn’t there to climb life's hill alone. The passionate short memory dwelled in my soul for so long, but at this moment; it didn’t matter. Because she was leaving.
The decision arrived. The divorce papers were granted by the court. It’s crazy how fast people can fall in and out of love. Our parents were happy and ready to depart and they didn't think we sisters would think much of it given our distanced relationship.
My father and Angela were moving to Japan, meanwhile, I would stay in the United States. Sooner or later, we wouldn’t just be on opposite sides of the house; we would be on opposite sides of the globe. Precisely, 6313 miles apart, separated by borders, mountains, and all sorts of other miscellaneous natures.
I was numb and was in the urge of bursting into tears, as we drove to the airport. Our fingers were entwined and crossed. It was pure silence and we sat there, contemplating if everything that we’ve been through was worth it.
Soon, we were at the airport. Before she left for her flight, I mustered my courage and whispered I’ve been meaning to say for a while, “I miss you.”
She reluctantly eyed me and murmured, “Me too, and I’m sorry about Connor.”
“History is history,” I shrugged.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Please don’t go,” I said with my hands perspiring in fear, uncertain about the future that was in store for me.
But words aren’t enough. Wishing she didn’t go wouldn't be enough, as there she went. Off, in a way, into the sky; abroad, off to a new journey with new destinations.
I have acknowledged the idiom that all good things come to an end, and I wished I cherished the moment before instead of being blinded so much by hate, over a stupid little love we’ve shared over the same boy.
However, time is time, and I cannot simply travel back in the past. The damage has been done and my relationship with Angela still has never been the same, and I haven’t connected with her much after her departure. Only time will heal.
After her departure, all I could do was stare at the photos I’ve had of her, stare until I couldn’t see through my shower of tears.
Was this crush worth losing my sister over? With such lust, things ended poorly, to the point I didn’t speak to Angela anymore. But I didn’t have the serious maturity, and the resolute compromise to deal with the situation. She didn’t either. With that, as hard as relationships are to build, they easily came crashing down on us.
I realized my hatred was nothing but a transformation of my shame and insecurities. I lacked the courage to face Angela in the previous year since I was jealous and hurt. We were both in the wrong. It was far easier to lose yourself in the theatrics of my mind, casting myself as the victim and leading lady, than it is to swallow even an ounce of truth. All I did was beat down my sister who already had more than their soul could take several times, given my other numerous problems.
I wish I found my way out of hatred early, to see for myself who I am really under ever-changing illusions conjured by my mind.
With hate, there is love. Love is the most beautiful thing in life. Love is the real essence of healing. It is the real medicine for the soul and the real secret to happiness. It’s everlasting and eternal by nature.
Love is the beginning and the end
Love is this abstract phenomenon I failed to grasp in my earlier years. I wish I saw this light before. I realize love is the glimmer of hope the world needs now and is still hanging on to. With such love, I know one day, I will find Angela again and things could go back to how they used to be. Even though we are miles apart, with love, we have that burning passion to connect sensually, spiritually, and physically. I believe, despite the distance, my sister and I can still hold hands and climb life's hill. Together.
She wanted to burn that wall.
Large and imposing, it wrapped around Ara like a noose, preventing anyone from coming in — or out. Guards were stationed every three hundred meters and rotated after three hours on patrol.
And she needed to get inside.
She took a deep breath, adjusted the scarf around her face, then walked to the nearest gate. They eyed her, hands reaching for the guns at their belts. She held up her hands as she got closer.
“Who goes there?” one called.
“Lyn Moore, sir,” she responded.
“Where you from?”
“Ryser, sir. About a league west.” She pointed in the direction she’d come from, where large hills of sand lay.
“Papers?” She fumbled for her travel papers from inside her well-worn knapsack and handed them to him. After checking the seal with a magnifying glass, he gave them back and waved her through. “Welcome to Ara.”
She walked down one of the two major roads, reading the once-familiar street names until she got to the fifth one on the right, then turned. Buildings lined both sides of the street, growing more and more rundown as she walked. She stopped at the seventh house on the left and entered without knocking, then into the room on the right. With the exception of a bare light bulb hanging from a wire in the middle of the ceiling, it was empty. She dropped her bag, which made a muffled thump when it hit the ground, and walked over to the back wall, pulling the scarf off and tossing it on the ground. She stopped just past the middle of the wall and rapped on the wall once slow, then three times fast. A rumble sounded somewhere in the ceiling, growing louder as it traveled down until a hidden seam split to reveal an impish face smiling broadly.
"You're here!" he exclaimed and ran over to hug her. She stiffened, arms stuck to her sides. Another boy appeared, frowning, closely followed by a girl.
"I told you not to go, Camron,” he admonished. “You didn’t even check.”
“She did the knock, though!” the boy protested, turning to face him.
“What if she’d been captured and someone tortured it out of her? What if there were Guards waiting for us the minute we showed ourselves? What if—” He stopped when the girl touched his arm gently. He sighed. “Just— check before you go down next time, okay?”
“Fine,” Camron grumbled.
“Good to see you too, Straff,” she smirked at him. He scowled at her.
“You weren’t followed?”
“Of course not.”
“Why are you here?” asked the girl in confusion.
She shrugged. “I felt like I needed to be here,” she said. “How’re things, Tara?”
Tara straightened and snapped to attention. “Same as usual. Your source was good, everything’s been as he said.” She paused. “Where did you find him again?”
“He’s… an old friend,” she said. “From before.” Tara and Straff exchanged a look. She hurried to move on. "Is everything set?"
All three nodded. "The meeting's in an hour,” said Tara, checking her watch. “We’ll leave in forty minutes, which’ll give Straff twenty to set up.”
“Assuming no Guards see me,” he added gloomily.
“They won’t,” she said confidently. “Camron’s made sure of it.”
He nodded. “We got some supporters to create some disturbances a few blocks away. That’ll cut down Guards inside to a manageable level.”
She nodded. “Sounds good. Good work, you three.” They stood a little straighter at the compliment. “Let’s get ready, shall we?” They nodded and went to grab their supplies.
Forty minutes later, they got in the line in front of the city’s old stadium. It was as she’d remembered, but two new buildings — the Guardhouse and Administration — had been built next to it, connected by a long corridor. A Guard looked at their badges and waved them through. “Have fun,” he smirked. They looked at him curiously but he turned away to check the couple behind them. They followed the dark hallway up to the inside of the stadium. When her eyes finally adjusted to the lights, she stopped in her tracks.
The dead were everywhere. Hundreds of bodies were piled around the raised center like steps. More were splayed on top of it, sightless eyes and limbs askew. Camron gagged. Straff looked away. Tara mumbled a prayer under her breath. She walked on and tried to ignore her feet sinking as she climbed.
After a few moments she heard the others follow. They continued across the center and past the standing ground area, then up the stairs to the fourth row. When they turned around, they could see everyone underneath them, both living and dead. They watched as some collapsed at the sight of the dead while others stood, shocked. Eventually they all moved past them, whether on their own or forced by Guards. Soon the arena was filled with people, although it wasn’t as packed as she’d imagined.
They quieted once he appeared. Dressed head to toe in black and carrying an onyx staff, he commanded an opposing presence. She felt a sense of dread wash over her. It had been three years since she’d last seen him. Since she’d called him a traitor and left with a bullet in her shoulder and a squadron at her heels.
He didn’t look any different. Same dark hair. Same thin frame. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she remembered his gaze all too well: that intense stare made more unsettling by two mismatched eyes, dark brown and jade green. He turned toward them and she gasped. He saw her, she was sure of it. He didn’t react, but he knew. Straff glanced at her in question, and she hurried to recompose herself before nodding once. He nodded back and went back down into the crowd. She tried to put it out of her mind. She needed to focus on the mission.
“Is that him?” Camron whispered in her ear.
She jolted, then said, “What?”
He pointed. “Konnor! That’s him?” She nodded.
The three of them watched as he got to the center of the auditorium, kicking bodies leisurely out of the way. He paused, then stretched his arms out wide.
“Hello, my people!” he cried, and the crowd roared in return. He waited until they quieted a bit before speaking.
“Four years ago, the world as it once was ended. We descended into chaos, and while other cities eventually found order, we remained in darkness. Ara was a wreck. A slum. A City of Vice.” Mutters came from the crowd at the reminder of the city's unsavory past. “But then hope emerged when three young individuals came forth with a vision. One that would save Ara.
“And look at it now!” he cried, sweeping his arms out. “Our streets are clean. We have food and clean water. Guards keep the peace on the streets.” They all shared a look at that. “Ara has come so far from that pit of filth that it once was.
“But,” he said, “this all wouldn’t have come about if not for one special person.” He looked about theatrically. “In fact, I do believe she’s here today.” Her stomach dropped. Surely he didn’t mean—
“People of Ara, I give you… Lynnea Mason!” Suddenly there were hands pulling her down toward the center of the stage. She looked back only to see Tara and Camron being held back by Guards, with more blocking the stairs. People stared at her as she was brought to Konnor, who stood at the foot of the stairs. Waiting.
Now that she was closer she could see the differences. His face was sharper, his cheekbones more pronounced, and he had a new scar that traveled across his right cheek to his ear. But the rest, especially his eyes, were the same. He pinned her with that stare as he closed the distance and hugged her tightly. In her ear he whispered, “Don’t speak or I’ll have your friends killed.” She nodded. He stepped back and they moved toward the center, holding each other’s hands.
“This, ladies and gentlemen, is the brilliant mind behind it all. She and our friend, now Principal of Commerce, Ronin Graves, approached me with a plan to change Ara. I admit, I was skeptical at first. But I agreed, and slowly we worked to form order within the calamity.
“But we’re not finished yet. We have improved, but I still see potential. We can grow to make Ara a force to be reckoned with. Greater than the other cities, greater than the countries of old. And it all begins today. Behold the sacrifice we have made!” He pointed at the ground and she finally understood why the bodies were there.
“You didn’t,” she breathed, forgetting to keep silent. He, wrapped up in his moment, didn’t notice.
“These people were weak. Unnecessary. Toxic to our society. And with their deaths we will build to make ourselves stronger.” Once silent, the crowd erupted with protests, but were quickly quieted by Guards. “Their bones will be the foundation of a new empire! And we will finally be—”
The section to their right exploded. People began to scream and scattered as more stands erupted around them. Konnor whipped around to look at her. “What did you do?” he demanded. She only smiled. He strode toward her with fury in his eyes, grabbed her shoulders and shook her, almost lifting her off the ground. “What did you do?” The ground was exploding, raining debris and chaos. People fled out of the arena, screaming. “You piece of trash,” he snarled. She still said nothing. ‘I did this for you, you know. Your ‘dream’ to change Ara for the better. You said you couldn’t do it without me, so I helped you. I did it, and this is how you repay me?”
“This isn’t what I wanted, Konnor,” she said quietly. He stopped shaking her. “Yes, this might have started out as my idea, but it became yours when you stopped consulting us. Ronin and I wanted a clean revolution. You wanted blood. You caused the riots. You created the Guard. You tried to kill me when I spoke up, and ran me out when you couldn’t. You took my dream and twisted it into this… this hell.” She stepped forward and he moved back, flinching as another bomb erupted. “And now I’m doing the same to you.”
She left him there in what remained of the stadium and went to the western gate, the same way she’d entered only hours before. Camron and Tara were there when she arrived, and Straff showed up not too long after. They waited as people rushed around in chaos. Some saluted or raised a hand at them as they ran past, carrying torches. Supporters, she supposed.
Soon a figure in a hooded cloak approached them. She stiffened as they came closer, fingering the small gun in her sleeve.
“Are you the Uprisers?” he asked.
“Who’s asking?” said Straff.
The figure pushed his hood back, revealing a familiar face. She relaxed and let out a breath. “Ronin.” When the others looked at her in confusion, she clarified, “Source.”
“Hey, Lyn,” he said and smiled a bit. He removed a small pouch from inside his cloak and tossed it to her. She opened it, making sure it was all there before nodding toward the others.
“Thanks,” she said.
He shrugged and made as if about to leave, then hesitated. “You gonna stick around? You could help me. It was your dream in the first place, after all.”
She paused. This was her town, her people. Her plan to make it better. She could go. Accomplish what she and Konnor tried to do before he betrayed her. Then she glanced at the other three watching her and Ronin and let out a breath. “I’ve found a new place.”
He shrugged and said, “Suit yourself.” He smirked. “I’ll put in a good word for you to… others.” He saluted and left to claim the recently vacated throne.
They watched him until he disappeared in the distance. After a few moments Camron spoke up.
“So… back to Ryser?”
She nodded. Back to Ryser.
They slipped out of the gate with ease — the Guards were busy with the people — and began running over the sandy hills to the city. There, they would wait until someone else contacted them in need of a quick revolution.
She turned around once. Fires had erupted across the city, black smoke disrupting the blank orange sky. She could imagine Konnor’s expression as he realized that his precious “kingdom” was falling apart around him.
“Lyn!” Tara called, the others almost over the next hill. She looked for one moment more, then turned and ran to catch up.
Due to climate change, the world’s oceans are rising, cities are collapsing, forests and deserts are being flooded. As the sea levels rise and destroy everything in their path, the trenches of the ocean crack open. Monsters and giant old creatures like the Kraken, the Leviathan, hydras, and giant sea serpents of the deep come out looking for food. They eat animals such as sharks, whales, and large land animals. But with that, they are still hungry. At night the monsters of lore look for humans, searching for them. And when they find them they gobble them up in one snap, as the smell of blood fills the water and air causing more terrifying creatures to chase. No human knows what to do. Scientists believe it is the end of all humanity and that humans are paying the price for their mistakes.
Everybody wants to survive, and people take shelter in high places. Individual families pack and hike up mountains. My family still lives in the city because we thought we could survive. But now we realize that it was a terrible decision. Every day the water rises. My family and I are still in our house; the water is about halfway to our house. We ration our food and build layer upon layer of wood and metal on the walls and windows, so no water would trespass in. Every night we build a campfire in our living room hoping to scare off the giant creatures; sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. We hear big thumps and moans and unusual weird sounds every night we try to go to sleep. We cuddle against the fire keeping warm, regretting that we should’ve fled like the rest of the city and taken high ground. But instead, we are holding onto our hope as we slowly fall asleep.
I woke up to a loud moaning and thumping. Probably from the monsters I thought. I rolled out of my blanket and raised my head. It is still night; the moon is blaring right through the boarded-up windows. I look around to see if everyone else is still asleep, mom, dad, Helen, and Uncle Jacob-wait where is Uncle Jacob? I turn my head and search for him. I check all the rooms. He isn’t anywhere; he must be outside. I know there is only one place in the house where you could go outside without water trying to swallow you whole, the roof.
I go to the attic and pull down a string from the ceiling. I climb on the old stairs and march up. When I open the door a strong breeze takes hold of me. The smell of the ocean passes right through me like a ghost, and hundreds of miles of ocean lay upon me. The moon shines on the water as a smudgy wavy reflection, and right there I see Uncle Jacob, sitting there staring at the sky. I walked towards him making a loud CRUNCH every step I took. I got closer and closer until I could almost hear his breathing.
Uncle Jacob is very nice and kind. He treats people with respect and honesty. His words are like a piper and a flute. They flow out gently and soft but can be jazzy and funky. His face is always filled with laughter and joy, but now it seems like something has smacked all of that away. His eyes are a dark blue and sparkly, but his eyes look a little paler and have gotten to a light shadish blue, and his sparkly twinkle in his eyes are gone. It’s as if something has drained the life out of him. He turns to me, staring at me like I’m a statue.
“Why are you up this late Lara?” Uncle Jacob whispers.
“I woke up from the monsters, what are you doing out here?” I ask.
“I don’t know, it seems like we have been stuck in that house for too long, I just want this all to end.” Uncle Jacob answers.
“Yes, that would be good.” He mutters.
This is getting uneasy. It’s like he is just a shadow-like he’s never really there. He stops the conversation from there. Everything is quiet and still. I stare at the water watching my reflection. All I see is me and the deep dark water surrounding me, knowing that death lurks in there. I stare at the water, like there is something else, like a warning my brain is trying to tell me, warning me to stay away and go back inside. I stare at the water some more and see a ripple. A ripple? Out here? It is the middle of the night, what could there be?
I stare at the water more closely, and out of nowhere a scaly, dark green, gigantic sea serpent jumps out and aims towards me. I scream and dodge it. Uncle Jacob gets up and yells for me to get out of here and take shelter inside the house. My heart is beating faster as I get up and sprint towards the door to the attic. The serpent slips back into the water and Uncle Jacob runs back to the attic door.
“COME ON!” I yell.
He sprints and when he is a foot away, the monster shoots out like a bullet, grabs ahold of him, and tightly wraps itself around him.
“NOOOOOO!” I scream.
The serpent twists and turns, tearing him part by part and drags him into the deep black water. Blood is splattered all over me. I run back into the attic, shut the door tightly and collapse, millions of tears coming down like a heavy storm. I squeeze my hands into fists and wrap myself with my arms. I sit there crying my heart out.
After the attic floor is soaked up with my tears, I slowly walk out. My footsteps carrying out the loss I just saw. I walk into the living room. My mom and dad are praying and muttering to themselves if I’m still alive. I take a few steps more and they quickly turn to me. Their faces mix with emotions of relief, happiness, and surprise. They run towards me trying to hug me. I don’t say anything. I just drink some water, take some bites of food and go upstairs to change. I come back down feeling powerless and hopeless. I did nothing for my Uncle, just stood there and watched it all happen. As his life was stripped away, death took its opportunity. I walk into the living room and sit on the chair, closing my eyes trying not to think back on what happened. I thought I could get over it but it doesn’t look like it. No one mentions anything else about it. Even though it looks like we have forgotten about it, deep inside our hearts will always remember.
I wake up and shake my head. I had a nightmare about Uncle Jacob. All I want to do is forget it, but every time I do, he comes back and I can’t run away. It's like I’m in a dark alley running away, trying to escape what's chasing me. But every time there’s a dead end and I can’t run anymore. I look into the shadowy figure staring at me, into its cold eyes. Trying to escape my nightmare, I grab the side of the bed and pull myself out of the sheets. I get up and walk in the kitchen. Mom and Helen are still asleep so it’s just my dad and me. I look around and see my dad rationing the food supply and fixing the boarded-up windows.
While I am munching on my breakfast I hear a Thump Thump then a splash of water. I wonder if it is my dad or a monster, hopefully, it is my dad. I slowly walk to my dad who is hammering some nails into some of the wood on the windows.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“I’m just doing some work Lara.” he says.
“You sure, because I heard some water over here?” I question.
“I think something just leaked or something,” he mutters.
“You think!?!” I growl.
“It’s fine, it wasn’t that much and I can fix it back.” he apologizes.
He hammers the hole that was letting the water leak through, Thump Thump
“See, all fixed.”
But it didn’t seem like it did it. There are still drops of water coming out of the hole. I look around and see the other window having some drops of water too, and the other one, and another one. Now the door is spewing out water. I know what was going to happen. I always knew this was going to come; the house is going to flood.
“Get mom and Helen up!” Dad said urgently.
I quickly wake up mom and Helen. Mom runs toward the kitchen and starts packing whatever food we have left. Helen gets up and starts to get ready. Dad and I go to the closet and get out the lifeboat. Water keeps flooding in and before our eyes, it is up to our thighs. I can feel it, the cold bone-chilling water. Everybody runs up to the roof. My dad and I layout the lifeboat while my mom and Helen set the blankets and food in it. We get on the lifeboat and float away.
It seems like days on the boat; there is nothing to do. My dad says that we should find land before the sun sets. Our boat is steered by the current towards the southwest. It seems like forever but we find some land. Our boat stops at the edge and we set our supplies down on a hill. There is a tree near the top of the hill and I lay my back against it. I think to myself that we all miss the breeze of the outside, the fresh air, and the feel of grass again. We soon realize that rain is coming. We see thunderstorm clouds in the distance and look out for shelter; my father goes on foot and looks around. My mom, Helen and I search around, and I spot a cave in the distance. We grab everything and march to the cave.
When I set foot in the cave, it seemed a little unsteady, like it was alive. I take a few more steps and layout the supplies, and I gather some sticks to make a fire. The bottom of the cave floor seems too moist for me. The cave walls aren’t hard as rocks, but they’re smooth and slippery.
I look around and notice small black rocks sticking out near the front of the cave. Before I know it, the blanket of night falls on us, and the storm comes tumbling in. Lightning bolts come and go and the ocean rages on and on. I asked my dad if we could go deeper into the cave to see if there was any food. But it really wasn’t for that reason, it was mostly because I wanted to explore this odd cave.
I walk back to the fire and pick up a makeshift torch. I wave the torch in the air watching the ash and smoke make a constellation. I walk to my dad, and we go into the cave. As we go deeper, the cave is not looking cav-ish now. I see weird large amounts of droopy sticky goo hanging at the roof of the cave. The cave is gradually getting smaller and smaller, and the walls are somehow turning a pink-red color.
As we explore deeper into the cave, my dad keeps asking me Do you hear that voice? And every time I would say no. My dad doesn’t seem focused; it’s as if something is pulling him, drawing him near. We walk deeper, and we see a woman dressed in a white gown, sitting down on a rock in the middle of a large pool of water with her back turned against us. Her golden blond hair resting on her back and slowly gracing her shoulders. Her voice is like a spellbinding enchantment; a warm invitation - but I couldn’t hear it fully because her song was meant for my dad. My dad looked mesmerized, and his eyes were fixed on the woman. Suddenly the woman turns to us, and her face is beautiful but pale. Her long blue fishtail dangles by the side of the rock with her flippers in the water. In disbelief, I realize this is not a woman but a siren of ancient myth. She keeps on singing with her charming voice luring my dad closer to the water.
“Dad!” I warn.
“Uhhhh.” he groans.
I take action and grab onto his wrist pulling him back. I force him to walk away but the magnetic voice of that siren pulls him closer.
I am scared of the siren’s divine and luring voice and I know I have to do something fast. I couldn't let what happened to Uncle Jacob happen to my father. I must save him. I scan the room searching for something useful. I see the icky goo hanging down from the ceiling hoping it could work as earplugs. Because the ceiling of the cave is lower, I am able to stand up tall and reach up to melt some of it with the flaming torch. It drips on my hand. I quickly sprint to my dad who is ten feet away from the siren, and I slob the goo into both of his ears. My dad stares around the room and stops walking towards the siren. The siren screeches and dives into the water and races towards us. She tries to snag my dad with her clawed fingers and reaches for him but misses by a split second as I drag him away. She shrieks out of anger from missing her prey and then dives back into the water and retreats. I look into my father's shocked face filled with awestruck. He realizes everything that just happened and knows what he has done. I point towards where we had walked from showing that we should get back. He nods, and we both run back to the entrance of the cave.
When we reach mom and Helen, we tell them what happened, and we immediately start packing to get out of the cave and find a new destination. As we walk out, I feel like a hollow shell. I have lost lots of things, my home, Uncle Jacob, and almost my father. I fought for my life and risked everything to come to this point. I realize that in this new world, old mythological creatures exist because humans have reshaped it and opened up the cracks in the oceans allowing the creatures to reinhabit it. And that in order to survive you have to be resilient, resourceful, and brave.