February 21

Felicity

Back when my life was a constant repetition of school, sleep, eat, repeat, I knew a girl named Felicity. She was a quiet girl for years, but she came out of her shell in high school, and we became friends around that time. Not very close friends, not merely acquaintances; just friends.

I called her “F City” sometimes as a joke. It was her name minus a few letters, but she’d confided in me on more than one occasion that she liked to “fuck often, fuck many.” I wish those were my words and not hers, as her reputation was of being shy and sweet, certainly not a slut. So “F City” (Short for “Fuck City,” if you haven’t gotten that yet) was kind of a dual-meaning joke between us.

I personally didn’t care if she liked to sleep around. I was more interested in a relationship, and despite being a solid 8/10 in my book, she was not a monogamous type of girl. Not really what I was looking for, despite raging teenage hormones and all of that stupid bullshit.

I never outright told Felicity that, but I think she could tell, and that’s probably why she never came onto me. I’m pretty sure she would’ve, otherwise.

Toward the end of my 12th grade year, I was dating a girl named Emily, who was a much closer friend to Felicity. Emily wasn’t a typical high school gossip, but she did blab a little about Felicity to me on more than one occasion. It was through her that I found out Felicity had dropped ecstasy back in 10th grade, and it completely changed her. It was why she came out of her shell, and maybe also responsible for her other personality changes.

I wasn’t sure of the authenticity of Emily’s claim at the time – that ecstasy could change a person that much. But later I found out that ecstasy does sometimes have that effect on people. Makes me glad I’ve never messed with that stuff. Changing your whole personality? That’s scary shit, in my book.

Anyway, if you knew me, you’d probably be wondering how a person like me would be friends with a person like Felicity, and the answer to that question is actually pretty simple. My last name was Sawyer (which, incidentally, is what almost everyone called me by), and hers was Scott. Same grade, same classes, almost always alphabetical seating. She sat behind me nearly three-quarters of my high school life. And like I said, I wasn’t particularly judgmental about her lifestyle, and she didn’t give a shit that I was way more boring than her.

Being in classes together may have been the basis of our friendship, but at some point, it went beyond that.  I didn’t see her often after school or on weekends, but I hung out with her and some of her friends sometimes, which is more than I can say about other people I had a bunch of classes with.

Emily and I went to different colleges, but Felicity happened to pick the same college I chose. It was about two and a half hours from Emily’s, and the distance was too much for us. We broke it off on amicable terms after a few months, and agreed to stay friends.

Felicity and I didn’t talk as much after college started. When I saw her around campus, we’d stop and chat if we had time. She’d started dying her hair different bright colors, so it seemed as though every time I saw her, she looked a little more like a stranger.

Emily had lost touch with Felicity even more than I had, so when we talked, she’d sometimes ask me how Felicity was doing. I told her about Felicity’s hair, but there was never that much to say. Felicity had always been a strange combination of perky and dark, so it was sometimes hard to tell how she was without outright asking.

At the end of our first semester, I caught up with Felicity one day at the bookstore. I was looking for a book to read for fun, and she was looking for a book for one of her classes that she’d tried really hard not to buy, but ended up needing at the very end of the class. She seemed to have lost some of her perkiness, but she still talked to me like we did in high school.

“College has been hell on my sex life.”

“Seems like the opposite of what would stereotypically happen,” I’d say.

Her workload was heavy, and I suspected from her eyes that maybe she was doing drugs again, but I didn’t say anything. Stupid of me. Fuck, man.

We agreed to have lunch sometime soon, but it never happened. Finals came and went, as did winter break spent at my parents’ house, then the new semester reared it’s costly head.

Emily texted me for the first time in a while about a month after the semester started. She’d found something funny that reminded her of me in a coffee shop we used to hang out in, and of course, she had to send me a picture of it – a sign with an Internet meme on it.

That turned into us catching up, which eventually turned into a discussion on Felicity. Apparently Felicity had texted Emily something by accident – the phrase “behind Mackey’s at 11?” – that had gotten Emily worried. Mackey’s was a seedy bar in the worst part of town.

Emily was understandably worried, but out of some strange, stupid respect for Felicity’s personal life, neither Emily not I wanted to butt in. It was a very misplaced sense of respect, based on immaturity.

I texted Felicity during my conversation with Emily just to make sure she would respond. She did, and both Emily and I were relieved.

My schedule must’ve been very different from Felicity’s that semester, because I never saw her around anymore. I texted her every couple weeks just to check up on her, and she was less conversational with me each time. I had never been a bother to her, yet, I started feeling like one, so I backed off.

Emily and I kept in touch a little better during that time. She told me she was going to be in town and wanted to visit. I gladly accepted and offered Felicity dinner – my treat – to come hang out with Emily and me.

Felicity didn’t respond.

It worried me, and it worried Emily when I told her. So I pressed Felicity harder for a response by texting her another couple of times.

Six days passed, and still nothing.

I decided to call her the day before Emily was supposed to arrive. The operator message played in my ear, telling me, “The subscriber you’ve called no longer has an active account.” This was strangely relieving, but in those days just a couple years before social media blossomed, it meant I didn’t know how to get in touch with Felicity.

Emily reached out to others that knew Felicity, but none of them could get in touch with her. What else could we do at this point but give up?

Emily’s visit brought us pretty close. We talked about high school and how unfortunate the distance between us was. I still had feelings for her, and she for me, but the situation was so counterproductive to a good, healthy relationship.

She spent the night at my apartment, and we rekindled a little of the fire we once had. I really missed her, and that night made me realize that simple fact.

Emily left town after the weekend was over, and we talked every day after that.

A week passed, then a month, then two. I yearned to see her, and eventually caved and told her so. I hadn’t wanted to seem desperate or anything, I still loved her, and I needed her to know. I asked if I could visit her, and she flat out told me she knew why I wanted to, and that she’d love it if I did.

I visited, we confirmed that we’d try to make it work despite the distance, and started dating again. I was ecstatic.

The semester passed, and Felicity was rarely brought up. I never saw her, had no way to talk to her. What was I to do? If she wanted to talk, hopefully she still had my number.

It was just after winter break of my sophomore year that I saw Felicity again. I had walked off campus after class to go to a little sushi joint just a couple blocks away, and there she was, sitting outside, smoking what was left of a cigarette.

I barely recognized her at first. Her hair was stringy and oily, as if it hadn’t been washed in weeks. Even from the distance that I was standing, I could see the dark circles under her horribly bloodshot eyes. She looked to have put on 20 or 30 pounds, yet was clearly wearing an old shirt that no longer fit her.

When she stood up, I knew for sure it was her. Strangely, it was her frown that gave it away for sure. I’d seen it many times – the thin line of her lips pressed together, then scrunched to the side as she stared at her stub of a cigarette.

“Felicity?” I called out to her.

She looked up, noticed me, then looked back down. “Hey Sawyer.”

In her own way, she was happy to see me, but at the same time I could tell that she wished I hadn’t noticed her there.

I wanted to ask how she was doing, but deep down, I already knew. The moment I saw her, I remembered all of the opportunities I had to intervene, and then all of the times I’d talked myself out of it.

“You changed your phone number?” Such a dumb thing to say. I already guessed what had happened.

“Couldn’t pay my bill. They shut it off.”

Called it.

“That sucks.”

She just nodded.

It hurt to look at her. What kind of awful downward spiral was she in?

“Emily and I have been trying to get in touch with you.” I tried holding my tongue, but I couldn’t anymore. “We’ve heard some things. We were worried about you.”

She exhaled a cloud of smoke and directed her hellishly red eyes at me. “I’m fine.”

No, she wasn’t.

“How are your classes?”

“I dropped out.” She threw the cigarette on the ground and stared at it for a moment before stomping it out.

“Oh. You working here then?”

“Nope.”

Every trace of the person she used to be was gone. I could barely keep the conversation going, and it sounded like she wanted me to go away.

But I couldn’t give up on her. I felt guilty standing there, knowing I could’ve had some positive influence on her life, and yet, I looked the other way.

“What have you been doing with your life then?”

“What do you fucking think?”

Hearing those words, I wanted to cry. She’d never spoken to me like that before. The regret had welled up in me, and it needed to escape.

“Where have you been sleeping?”

“Wherever I can.”

Felicity desperately needed someone that cared, and it seemed like no one had for a long time.

“You can stay at my place for a little while, but if you do, you have to clean yourself up. No more drugs.”

“I don’t need your help.”

“I’m not offering you help. It’s just a temporary place to sleep and shower, with a condition attached. Take it or leave it.”

I was obviously offering her help. I just knew that I needed to make it seem like I wasn’t. I wanted her to feel in control. Maybe even convince her that she was taking advantage of me. Whatever it took to get her clean.

Felicity looked a little annoyed, but she was considering my offer. I knew she wanted it, but was she too proud to take it?

I pulled an index card out of my messenger bag and wrote my address on it.

“This is my address.” I handed the card to her. “I’m home after 6 every day. Come hang out if you want.”

I called Emily on my way home and told her what happened. Emily cried a little and told me I did the right thing. We both hoped Felicity would take me up on the offer.

She didn’t, and we never saw her again.

I was too late. I didn’t try hard enough. I could’ve taken her to a clinic. I should’ve been a better friend.

I thought about it for a long time, trying to figure out all of the things I could’ve done differently just so I could beat myself up with them. Both Emily and I were certain Felicity would turn up in the obituaries, but we never did see her there. We hoped she was alive and would come back to us one day, but that hope was small and ever-dwindling.

Emily and I never forgave ourselves.

December 4

A Brief History of Henry

I had grand daydreams of traveling with Roxanne.  Vision of mountains and oceans and skies waltzed through my head as I sat at work each day, confined by cubicle walls inside of even more brick and mortar walls that blocked out more than just daylight and fresh air.  We’d been to the beach, we’d been to the big city, but we’d never been overseas.  We’d never left our little pile of dirt for a brief visit to another one.

“Hey Roxy, let’s go to Europe this summer,” I’d say.

She’d laugh and nod along with my idea, but we both knew finances were too tight and time off of work was hard to come by.  Besides, we were young and had plenty of time to go to Asia and South America and everywhere else that there was to go.  I was happy with her, and that was enough.

We had a vacation fund stowed away in an envelope in the closet that had “London” hastily scribbled across the front.  It had several hundred dollars in it, mostly from tax refunds and returned birthday gifts.  As it got fuller, I got more excited about our trip.  I’d been saving up my vacation days, telling everyone at work that I was planning on the trip for years and it would soon be happening.

But Roxanne approached me one day with something to talk about.  She was pregnant, which should’ve been joyous news and cause for celebration.  Except we always used protection.  Always.

“Henry,” she broke down.  “I know you know what I’m about to say, but I don’t know the words to say it.”

My mind went blank as I stared at the floor while she admitted everything.  My dreams were dashed, my hopes tossed aside.  She felt guilty, she was sorry, and I believed her.  She wanted forgiveness, and I loved her, so I wanted to give it.  But I knew better.  I could never trust her again, and without trust, love is but a word with little meaning.

I’d expected more from her, but I’d probably never expect anything from anyone ever again.

What Roxanne did destroyed me, but I was a stronger person than to let her poor choices send me into a prolonged depression.  I knew what I had to do as the best thing for me, as I’d sometimes dreamed of doing when work got really rough.  I went online, typed the word “state,” and then smashed my fingers into the keyboard, creating a 6 letter string of gibberish.  It was a quickly improvised, 21st century version of throwing a dart at a map.  The first result contained “Georgia,” so I called a real-estate agent, packed my bags, and traveled halfway across the country to my new home.

I chose to stay in a small suburb right outside Atlanta, mostly so I wouldn’t be too far from a major international airport.  For some reason, my dream of traveling hadn’t died along with any other future plans I’d had with Roxanne, but that didn’t mean it was any easier to save toward the trip, especially after moving expenses.  I made slightly less money at my new job after moving, but the cost of living was lower, so even though I ended up ahead at the end of the day, it wasn’t by enough to get excited over.

I made a friend at work named Jackie.  Her real name was Vietnamese and started with a P, but I won’t pretend like I remember how to spell it.  Her gentle eyes and long, black hair reminded me of a friend I had in high school that I’d long since lost touch with.

Jackie brought a considerable amount of joy into my life at a time when I really needed it.  We went out together often for lunch, and sometimes she invited me to hang out or for get-togethers with her other friends.  I could’ve and would’ve fallen for her if she hadn’t been a lesbian.  She’d make some woman really happy some day.

Saying goodbye to Jackie was really the only hard part of moving from Georgia to North Carolina the next year.  She said she’d come visit, but I knew how that went.  A couple of my friends had told me that when I’d moved to Georgia and I’d seen neither head nor tail of them since my going away dinner.

Since I hadn’t been in a rush to move this time, I drove to North Carolina over a long holiday weekend and scoped it out ahead of time, as well as a few places in South Carolina that happened to be along the way.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like Georgia, or that moving there hadn’t served its purpose.  Rather, I was ready to move again because it had served its purpose.  Thinking about Roxanne hadn’t made me feel sad or angry or anything other pity for her in a long time.  This time, moving was an adventure rather than an escape.

I rented a cabin in the mountains about 45 minutes from my job.  It cost a little more, but once again, planning ahead of this move had paid off, and I was able to secure a better job in a place with a similar cost of living.  There weren’t a lot of employees were I worked; maybe 12 total in the local office and 40 or 50 among all three offices.  Most of them had been there a lot longer than me, so I was relatively surprised when my manager offered a newly created managerial position to me that would oversee a new branch of the company.

I was torn, not because I didn’t want the job, but because the job was in Tennessee.  I could still live in the mountains, but I’d grown accustomed to my little rental cabin, and even developed a fondness for its quaint charm, despite its lack of modernity and the occasional bear treading through my backyard.  I took the job, not without quite a little mental battle, but in the end, the $15,000/year raise would’ve been too hard to turn down.

Moving reminded me of Jackie, but in the 8 months I’d been in North Carolina, I hadn’t really made any friends, so there were no difficult farewells this time around.  A sad smile spread across my face when I realized that I’d been right about Jackie never visiting.

Tennessee was pretty, but I didn’t like it.  Two months in, and I regretted the move immensely.  The scenery was almost the same, the job was almost the same, but I think something inside me snapped after so many moves.  I wanted to have a place to call home.  I knew there was logically no reason for me to dislike my new location, especially in comparison to my extremely similar previous location, but I hated it.  I didn’t want to stay there, but I would have to stay somewhere if I wanted a place to call home.

I still had the envelope Roxanne and I used for our vacation fund.  The ink in which “London” was written had smudged a little during one of my many moves, but I’d kept it all this time and continued adding to it.  It was maybe enough for a short trip in an economy hotel, if those even existed in London, but the allure had been fading for over a year now.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to London anymore.  I felt like I’d been traveling for years now, moving from place to place and never truly settling down.  I didn’t want to get away.  I didn’t want an adventure.  I just wanted a home.

I thought about moving back to Georgia briefly after some nostalgic thoughts about Jackie, but we barely even texted anymore.  It was a nice thought, but really the closest thing that felt like home was North Carolina, despite having only lived there for less than a year.  I finally decided to ask my boss if I could transfer back to my old job.  I’d accept the pay cut, the demotion, and any ridicule from my old coworkers.

“Sorry Henry, we need you at the Tennessee branch,” he said.  It made sense, and he had to say that, but I’m sure he knew very well that he’d probably lose me anyway if I was that interested in moving back to North Carolina.

My old cabin had been rented, but I found a similar one in the area and moved back as soon as I’d secured a new job.  The money was okay, but that’s not really what mattered.  It felt slightly like home, or at least it did more so than Tennessee, and that was acceptable, even though I was alone.

One weekend I went to the corner store and bought some rum from a local distillery.  I tasted it by itself out of curiosity, and then added some Coke to it after I was satisfied in confirming that straight rum was not for me.  It wasn’t often that I was drunk, mostly out of fear that I would like it, but I got drunk that night and texted Jackie.

“You should come visit,” I said.

“Okay.  How about next month?” she replied.

I was shocked.  Even through my lack of sobriety I remember the feeling as I read her text multiple times to make sure my state hadn’t altered my understanding of the words on my phone’s screen.  Despite our declining communication, she’d agreed to visit, and I was excited to rekindle a friendship that was frankly cut too short by my move.

The distance was driveable, but Jackie flew since it wasn’t that expensive and would be much faster.  I was kind of nervous picking her up from the airport.  We hadn’t seen each other in over a year, but I recognized her instantly when she exited the terminal.   She smiled and hustled over to my car.  Hugs were exchanged, as were happy pleasantries.

“I’m surprised you recognized me,” she said.

“Because you cut your hair a little?  It doesn’t make you look that much different.”

“I didn’t even realize my hair was shorter since you’ve last seen me,” she said.  “I meant because I’ve put on a little weight.  My most recent ex-girlfriend was a really good cook.”  We both laughed at that, and it was as if I’d never left.

She’d planned on spending a week with me, but it only took a day of being with her to realize that something was a little different about the way she was acting.  She was desperately trying not to be obvious about it, but I too perceptive to not notice that she was flirting with me.  I’d always thought she was gorgeous, so if there was a chance – even a small one – of something happening between us, at this point, I was willing to put myself out there to find out.

“What’s up, Jackie?  You’re acting a little weird.”

Her expression didn’t change.  “You’re more observant than I remember.”

“So what’s going on?”

She shifted in the armchair, though not uncomfortably.  Jackie looked at me straight with a confidence in her eyes.  “I knew what you were going through back then when you first moved to Georgia.  I didn’t want to say anything, so I didn’t.”  Her eyes bore through me.

“About what?” I asked.

“I haven’t been with a guy in over 8 years.  Never wanted to until I met you.”

“Until you met me?”

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said.  “I don’t want this to mean anything, and it won’t.  I just want to fuck you.  Not because you’re a guy, not any guy, just you.  I want to fuck you, just because you’re you. Then I want to go back to being friends, and back to looking for a woman to share my life with.”

I stared at her for a second before I busted out laughing.

“Well geez, if you didn’t want to…”

“No, no,” I interrupted.  “I’m just laughing at how serious you are.”

She looked a little relieved.

“…well?”

“You’re hot as hell, what do you think I’m going to answer?”

My week with Jackie ended up being a very interesting one because of that, but it is still the only time in my life I’ve ever been in that kind of situation.  I look back on those years of my life with a smile, because even though I never went to London, I did find myself and enjoy my life because of everything I already had.

I haven’t seen Jackie in decades, and I have no idea what she’s up to, but every day is still a beautiful day here in North Carolina.

August 29

Connections

When I was 19, my younger brother was killed in a car wreck.  Derek had just gotten his license, and the rules of the road had not yet become second nature to him.  I was with him in the car, and somehow, I managed to come out of it alive, but not without some head trauma.  My memories became lost in a void and had stayed there ever since.  My brother –  I didn’t remember him.  My younger sister – well, I didn’t remember her either.  I’ve since spent two years with my family and the people that were apparently my friends, rebuilding relationships, connections, and making new memories.

Lexi is 17 now, and I treasure her dearly.  I didn’t remember playing with her and my brother when we were younger.  I didn’t remember holding her when she was a baby, nor did I remember my parents’ faces without wrinkles; my dad without gray hair in his sideburns or my mom without a constant hint of sadness in her eyes.  It’s so strange knowing that my family had probably changed so much, yet I couldn’t recognize  the changes.

My brother had gotten his license at 17 years old.  It was the earliest a person could do so where we live, and despite my brother’s accident, my sister was still eager to get her license as well.  Of course, to think that the same thing would happen to her was silly, so my parents did not object to her getting her license, but it very obviously worried our mom.  I heard her talking to our dad about it late one night when I got out of bed for a glass of milk.  She may have been crying a little, but I could not tell for certain as I slowly passed my parents’ closed bedroom door.

It didn’t surprise me that they’d at least be worried.  It brought about bad memories for them, and they still seemed incredibly anxious when I went on trips or got back home from my college classes a little late.  I hated to worry them, but I had to live my life, as did Lexi.

When Lexi asked mom to teach her how to drive, mom told Lexi to ask our dad.  We both knew why mom deferred to dad, and I knew dad would do anything to comfort mom when she had her moments, but who would be there to comfort dad?  He’d lost a son, and his other son had lost 19 years of memories.  It had hurt both of them, as well as my sister.  But me?  I never knew how to feel.  Was I supposed to be sad about things I didn’t remember?  I felt like even though there were things I was missing that I was supposed to remember, I should be happy with what I had.

I offered to teach Lexi how to drive, but dad shot my idea down almost as fast as I mentioned it.  It wasn’t that I’d only been driving for four years, but rather that he thought it would worry our mom even more.  After all, the last time one of my younger siblings had been at the helm of a car with me in the passenger seat, things didn’t turn out so well.

She wasn’t barred from driving me places once she got her license, of course.  Just, in this case, dad knew it would make mom feel better.  She’d have to come to terms with it at some point, but for now, he wanted her to have the time she needed to do exactly that.

Lexi had been 17 for three weeks when she got her first lesson from dad.  I expected dad to come back with a look of absolute terror on his face, but much to my surprise, he seemed rather happy.

“She’s a natural,” he said.

My mom seemed shocked.  “Really?”

“I honestly can’t believe that’s the first time she’s ever driven.”

Lexi grinned and handed the keys back to dad.  For a second, I could’ve sworn I recognized the look on her face.  It reminded me of someone.  Maybe my friend Christina?

“I watched a lot of videos on the Internet, dad.  No sweat,” Lexi said, then looked over at me.  “Also years of beating Alan at racing video games.”  I couldn’t vouch for anything more than two years ago, but she did indeed very regularly beat me in our favorite racing game.  Badly.  According to her, she’d always beaten both me and our brother at that game.

It was strange, at first, seeing my little sister behind the wheel of a car.  I only had two years worth of memories of her, but none of those had ever put her behind a steering wheel.  I’d grown protective of her, probably because of how hard she tried to make me feel normal.  She was also the first person I saw after waking up from the accident.  When I said I didn’t know who she was, she introduced herself to me with tears in her eyes.

The doctors had apparently told my family there was a possibility of amnesia, so my sister wasn’t very surprised, though they’d all hoped for the more positive option – that I’d wake up and have no lasting issues.  They even said I’d probably eventually regain my memories.  Yet two years later, the first 19 years of my life remained a vacuum of nothingness.  I sometimes had feelings of déja vu, but everyone has that.

Lexi got her license a couple weeks later after a few more lessons with dad and a driver’s ed class.  She wanted to drive everywhere, every chance she got.  Mom needed groceries?  Lexi offered to go to the store.  Dad left something at the office?  Lexi offered to take him there.  She didn’t have a job yet, so she couldn’t justify constantly joyriding while our parents were footing her gas bill, but for any real reason she had to drive, she practically already had the keys in her hands and the car started.

It was her third day of being a proud, licensed motorist when Lexi offered to drive me to my night class.  Mom obviously wasn’t thrilled about it, but she tried her best to put on a happy face.  She was glad that we got along, and I think maybe that was the rationale she used in her head to be okay with having such a similar situation to what had caused her so much pain and misery in the past.

“Lexi, be careful,” was all she had to say.  I grabbed my things, and Lexi and I headed for the car.

Maybe I should’ve felt nervous.  Memories or no memories of the wreck, I still knew what had caused my life and the lives of my family to change so much.  But this was Lexi and I two years after all of that happened.  It was similar, but it was not the same.  She looked so proud to be driving around her big brother, too.  I would not sour her smile by bringing up depressing things.

I looked over at her while she was driving, and confidence was clearly visible on her face.  Driving was not something she planned to mess up on.

She must’ve seen me staring out of the corner of her eye, and shot a glance at me.

“What are you looking at?”

“You just seem completely in your element,” I said.

Lexi grinned.  “Driving is a lot of fun.”

As she refocused her attention on the road, her grin once again reminded me of someone.  The way her lips wrinkled at the edges from her smile, the shape of her cheeks, and the way her nose turned up a little – no doubt, she reminded me of someone I knew.  Was it one of my friends?  I went through them in my head, but none of them seemed to fit this image.

Suddenly, the car ahead of us came to an abrupt stop, causing Lexi to slam on the brakes.  She stopped with a good distance to spare, but her grin had quickly morphed into fright.  Though it was probably the first time Lexi had ever had a scare while driving, I had seen that look before.

In that moment, it all came rushing back to me.  I remembered Lexi’s first day of elementary school, Derek’s first baseball game, having a full kitchen table…and the horrific look on Derek’s face as he realized he’d made a huge mistake, turned to me, and shot me an almost apologetic glance as he crashed the car into a guardrail.

Tears began to well up in my eyes as the past two years meshed together with my previous life.

“What’s wrong?” Lexi asked, shocked to see tears suddenly streaming down my face.

“I remember.  I remember everything.”

That was all I said, but Lexi understood immediately.  She pulled over, we got out of the car, and she held me as I cried.  My relationships now were so different.  My life had changed so much and I didn’t even know it.

But for the first time, I remembered Derek, and even though he’d been gone for two years, I was finally able to miss him.

July 27

Stained

She told me once that there was always a cloud over her head; that she might as well carry an umbrella around just in case the downpour started when she wasn’t prepared for it. It was a poetic way for her to describe her sadness. It was a terrible thing for her to live through though.

I’d had no clue before she said something. It made me feel like an awful friend. Like I’d let her down by not noticing; like I seemingly didn’t even care. Of course I cared, though. She knew I did, but being a guy, sometimes it took me longer to notice those sorts of things.

It was honestly pretty weird that she was as cheerful as she was. She walked around with this smile that she had to have forced. Maybe she was hiding it; maybe it was a mask, but it seemed so genuine that it hurt me to think that I’d ever felt sorry for myself if she could manage a real smile through everything she’d been through.

As a child, she lost her mom in a pedestrian/vehicle accident. She told me about it once without very much detail. I could tell it hurt her to think about it, so I didn’t press for more information than she was willing to voluntarily provide, but it was the kind of accident that violently ripped a loving mother from her five year old daughter and her husband of only six years. I don’t know how her dad carried on. I can’t even imagine having to go to the hospital to identify your wife as she lay mangled and dead from being slammed by two tons of steel and plastic and aluminum moving at 50 miles per hour.

Somehow, though, that man made it through everything. Raised his daughter by himself. Made a good life for her. But, his one mistake was taking up smoking to cope with the loss of his wife. It would kill him 20 years later, just weeks after his wife had died years earlier.

She didn’t tell me that she had any other family, but I knew she was an only child, and I knew her parents were gone, so I assumed she was alone in the world. Maybe she had some some aunts and uncles. Maybe some grandparents. But none of that replaced her parents, and understandably so.

Yet, she managed to wear that smile, day after day, like it was her job; like it was the one thing from keeping her world from collapsing on itself.

And then, as if the world had to pry with a knife at her open wounds, her best friend of the past 12 years was hospitalized with a rare heart disease and little chance of survival.

I wanted so much to make it better for her. The world had already taken so much from her and for it to keep on taking…well, it hurt for me to think about, and I wasn’t even in her shoes. I couldn’t even imagine losing the things she’d lost. Carrying on after all of that may have seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

It was for that reason that I was with her as often as I was. I knew that the world could be a wonderful place even if it took a shit on you every once in a while, and I tried my best to pass that on to her with simple jokes and friendly smiles that I hoped would get that point across.

Usually, I considered her my best friend. Sometimes I thought she might mean more to me than that, but something in her eyes always kept me from saying anything. I think it was her intense fear that anyone that got too close to her would share the fate that her parents and friend had suffered. She didn’t want boyfriends, she didn’t even call me her best friend, even though I knew I was.

But that was okay. I didn’t mind, because despite what she’d been through, she was still in one piece, and she was still my friend. And sometimes you just need a friend to lean on.

July 24

Brakes

The day her brakes failed was the day my life came to a standstill.  She was rushed to the hospital, operated on, put in some care unit that had her hooked up to dozens of different beeping machines and fluid-carrying tubes.  I wasn’t allowed in the room at first.  Had to look at her through a window.  I wanted to hold her hand and brush her hair back with my fingers, but I couldn’t touch her.

Eventually, she stabilized a bit, and they moved her to another room.  I could visit, and I could finally feel the sensation of my skin touching hers.  Even though it was as simple as putting my hand on her cheek, it felt like I’d finally been given a torch in my pit of darkness.

But she was still out.  The doctors didn’t know when she’d wake up.  She probably would, they said.  There was no physical reason she couldn’t.  It just hadn’t happened yet.

The days were full of impatience – waiting to see her after working eight hours at a job I didn’t care about.  And the nights?  Well, those were torture.  I’d memorized the imperfections on the ceiling of my bedroom.  Didn’t bother setting an alarm because the nightmares always woke me up at least an hour before it ever went off, and there was no point in trying to go back to sleep.

My weeks were blurs of loathing the world.  Sometimes specific things, sometimes myself.  I began to lose track of when Saturdays turned into Sundays.  It was all the same to me.  Just another day without her.  Just another day spent telling her that I missed her and loved her, hearing nothing in reply, and not knowing for sure that I ever would.  The calendars said months passed, but time was frozen for me.

Her parents thanked me for coming at first.  Thanked me for caring about their daughter.  But as time passed, they grew worried about me.  They’d always liked me.  Treated me like one of their own, even.  That’s why they told me maybe I should let go.  “Move on,” I think is what her dad said when he pulled me aside and asked to talk.  As if that had ever even been an option.  Like I stood there every day in hopes that I could have his permission to move on.  It was almost an insult to me, but I knew it was my loathing of the world getting in the way of any rational thought processes that I had left.

Her birthday fell on a Tuesday, and though I’d gotten used to absorbing myself in work so I could possibly have some semblance of a normal day, it wasn’t happening.  All I could think of was the party I’d thrown her last year.  The one where most of our friends showed up and ate chicken fingers and cake and drank vodka and rum until the sun had circled the planet.  She said it was one of the best nights of her life.

And now, a year later, she was confined to that bed in the hospital.  There would be no party.  There may be a trickling of friends throughout the day.  I wasn’t sure.

There were roses on my desk that I planned on bringing to her after work that day.  She didn’t like roses.  She said there was no point of being given a beautiful flower if she couldn’t touch it.  Normally, I gave her chrysanthemums or lilies, but every time I’d tried to bring flowers to her hospital room, I couldn’t bring myself to buy those.  They reminded me too much of her plucking them out of her vase and taking a big whiff.  Roses seemed more appropriate.  They were dangerous and beautiful, just like love.  A perfect symbolic flower, perfect for a situation where the thorns would never reach her delicate fingers.

I sometimes thought how funny it would be if she woke up and found that I’d brought her roses.  She’d probably act mad, but have that cute smile on her face that showed appreciation and thankfulness.  Thinking about that smile was something that kept me going, something that made me give a shit about a life that seemed so completely pointless without her.

I went over to the hospital after work, holding the roses in their ordinary glass vase and silently praying to myself that she’d wake up when I walked in the door, just like I hoped and prayed for every day.  But she was sleeping, and she stayed sleeping even as I set the vase down on the nightstand too hard, even as I gently stroked her hand and said “happy birthday.”

For a moment, I thought I heard her voice, but I was used to imagining things.  But then I heard it again.  It was soft and gentle, just like I’d remembered, even though it had been months since I’d heard her utter a word.  But it sounded atmospheric.  I looked up, but her face was still frozen in slumber.

My face contorted in confusion as I struggled with the harsh reality that I might be going crazy.  Again, I heard her calling out to me.

“What is this, what is going on?” I called out, yet her voice continued to echo in my ears.

I didn’t understand.  She was there, in front of me, lying lifeless.  Was it truly going mad?  Did I actually have that little sanity left?

I fell to the floor and stared down at my hands until tears started to fall onto my palms.  I didn’t care anymore if I was going crazy.  It didn’t matter anyway.  I lifted my hands up to my face and cried into them as if it would make anything better.

Then, the blackness was lifted from my eyelids as they slowly opened.  My hands were at my sides, and I was lying down.  Something was wrong.  The room was different.

But suddenly, memories came flooding back to me, and there, standing over me, with tears in her eyes, was the girl I couldn’t live without.

I had been the one in the wreck.  I had been the one that couldn’t wake up, and the world I was living in was all just a fabrication of my unconscious mind, while she had been awake the whole time living out my nightmare.

I couldn’t believe it as she held me, crying, telling me she loved me.

A year she’d waited for me to wake up.

June 8

Don’t Say the Word

The room drowned in silence as Paul approached me.  I’d known him for years since he was my girlfriend’s brother, but I didn’t understand the look on his face – the intense sorrow in his eyes, the way his lips quivered and his hands shook.

“Nate.”  It sounded painful for him to say.  His voice was on edge and about to fall off.  My heart sank.  Why was the mood so off-putting?

“What’s wrong, Paul?”  The sudden uncertainty made me nearly choke on the words.

“I just hung up with my mom,” he said, taking short pause to perhaps collect his words or gather his strength.  “Rachael was in an accident.”

Every hair on my body stood on end as goosebumps raced across my flesh.

“She’s…” he trailed off as a tear formed in his eye and made its way slowly down his cheek.  He didn’t have to finish.  I already knew what he was going to say.

May 4

The Day He Saw the Helicopter

The view out of the seventh floor meeting room window was of skyscrapers against a backdrop of sky so cerulean that it looked like the ocean had changed places with the heavens.  It would’ve been so much better to be out there in the beautiful spring weather.  Perhaps riding around with the windows down, his favorite song pumping out of the speakers.

His phone suddenly buzzed on the table.  He looked down and read the notification.

“I’m downstairs.  Can you take a break?”

“You mind if I get out of here for a few minutes?”

“Sure thing.  I’ll just keep working on this part while you’re gone,” the man said, not looking up from the laptop screen.

Be there in a sec.”  he texted.

The stairs were more effort to go down, but the elevator was a big risk.  Two of them were broken, leaving only one to serve seven floors of employees.  The last couple of times he’d taken it, the car had stopped on every floor up and every floor down.  Completely unacceptable.

He took the stairs, bounding down at a faster than usual pace.  Between the stuffy meeting room and talking to his sister outside under that magnificently blue, clear sky, he’d take the latter any day.

The air outside hit him like the smell of a fresh pie baking in the oven.  He savored it, almost able to taste how much sweeter it was.

“Hey Zane.”

“Hi Analyn.”

“What are you doing here in the middle of a weekday?”

“I called in sick this morning.”

“You’re so bad.”

Analyn chuckled.  “Just a little bit.  I mean, come on.  It’s too beautiful outside to work today.”

Zane gazed up at the sky almost emotionlessly.  “Yeah, you’re right about that.”  Without looking down, he continued, “So what brings you to visit me at work?”

She held up a plastic container.  “I was bored and made lunch.  Spaghetti and meatballs.  Thought I’d be nice and bring you some.”

“From scratch?”

“That’s the only way I make it.”

“Wow, awesome.  Thank you!” Zane said, accepting the proffered container.

“Were you busy?”

“Nah.  Just in some stupid meeting with a guy from another department.  He doesn’t really need me.”

“Wanna go take a walk then?”

Zane glanced over his shoulder.  “Sure, but I might have to duck into the bushes or something if my boss suddenly appears.”

“You don’t have to if you’re gonna get in trouble.”

He laughed.  “Nah, it’ll be fine.  I need a break anyway.”

They headed down the sidewalk toward the garden.  There was an archway, and above it a sign lettered in Gothic font on a wooden base, painted black and forest green with gold filigree adorning the border of each character.  It read “Towncenter Park,” the name of the business complex in which Zane’s employer rented its office space.

“You have any plans tonight?” Analyn asked.

“Nah, I’ll probably just be hanging around the house.  You?”

“Same here.”

Zane laughed.  “We really need to make some friends.”

“We’d probably have more incentive to do that if we didn’t have built-in friends in each other.”

“Well if you wouldn’t have followed me here…”

“Oh, don’t start that again.”

Three years ago, Zane landed a new job – his current job – while at the same time, Analyn graduated from college and happened, only by coincidence, to get a job in the same city.  It was the second closest major city to where they grew up, but still a good three hour drive.  It worked out well though, in that they had the ability to pool their resources and rent a nice house in a good, safe neighborhood that was not close, but not particularly far from where either of them worked.

“We should try going out to a club or something instead of sitting around tonight,” Zane said as they passed under the floral arch.

“It’s so hard to make friends in a club, though.  Too much noise.”

“True.”

“Haven’t you made any friends at work yet?”

“No, they still haven’t replaced Dan.”

“After two years?”

“Yeah.  I’m still the entire department.”  Zane brushed his hand against the velvelty petal of an amaryllis.

“Oh, that sucks.  I thought I’d heard you mention another person you worked with.”

“Shannon?”

“Yeah,” Analyn said.

“She’s just a lady from accounting that has a bit of a crush on me.  I don’t work closely with her, though.”  Zane paused, then continued, “What’s your excuse for not having made any friends at work?”

“Still no one my age,” she said.  “I mean, I like my coworkers, but they’re all in their mid-40s and married with kids and responsibility and stuff.  They don’t have time to hang out.”

“Guess it’s just me and you then.”

Without looking at Zane, Analyn nodded.  “It’s not so bad though.  Either of us could be alone in this city.”

“Yeah.  I guess it’s also lucky that we get along pretty well.”

Analyn laughed and took an extra long step to avoid a crack in the sidewalk.  Overhead, they could hear the sound of a helicopter’s rotors fluttering as it raced across the sky like a supercharged ant – black silhouette against blue sky, all details hidden by the intensity of the sun.

“I guess I probably need to head back to work,” Zane said.

“Sure.”

They circled around the garden and back down the Towncenter Park sidewalk.  The helicopter was almost out of view, but Zane could still just barely make out the deceivingly small dot in the sky that represented something like two tons of metal and plastic.

“Thanks again for the food,” Zane said, holding up the container.

“No problem.”

“See you tonight.”  He hugged her.

“Later.”

Zane took one last breath of the fresh, sweet air and headed back inside.  He exhaled, then inhaled some of the stale air in the lobby of the building.

“Hey Zane.”

He looked up and saw Wendy from human resources.

“Hey.”

“She was beautiful.  Girlfriend?” Wendy said.

“No.  My sister.”

“Oh, that’s Analyn?”

“Yeah.  She came to bring me some food.”  Zane held up the container.

“How nice of her,” Wendy smiled.  “You should’ve brought her in and let us meet her.”

“Sorry, maybe another time.  It completely slipped my mind.”  Zane flashed a smile and continued to the stairs.  It was a long climb back up to the seventh floor, so he took it easy.  No point in getting all tired or out of breath just to get back to a boring meeting.

His conversation with Analyn lingered in his mind as he climbed.  It was true that neither of them had made friends.  In high school, they’d each had plenty of friends.  They were pleasant people to be around, or so he thought, but the problem seemed to be more in meeting the right people.

Zane had usually been pretty good at being able to figure people out, too.  He could tell when his sister was annoyed, and furthermore, he knew better than to do anything to exacerbate the condition.  People used to come to him in high school when they had problems, when they just needed someone to talk to.  Not necessarily for advice, just when they needed a friendly set of ears and a warm pair of eyes.  There were lots of times when he wanted to offer advice because he empathized or sympathized so well with whatever issue the person had, but he held his tongue.

His entire world had almost been defined by that trait.  It’s how people knew him, and it was all lost when he moved.  Without that reputation, he was just another normal guy trying to fit in with the world around him.

When he reached the fifth floor, the muscles in his legs were starting to complain.  Zane considered this and silently wished the elevators would be fixed soon.

By the seventh floor, he was breathing heavily but knew he’d recover quickly.  He stared at the door that would lead him back into the hall that ended at the meeting room.  Being able to see the beautiful view again would be nice, but it would only serve to make him envious of his sister.  She got to be out there under that sky, and he had to be inside, behind glass and metal and concrete and plaster.

Zane pulled out his phone and started writing a text to Analyn.  “We’re going out somewhere tonight.  No complaints,” it said.  He reread it and pressed ‘send.’

Satisfied, he took a step toward the door, smiled, and said, “We’ll make friends somehow.  I promise, Analyn.”

April 3

Chapter 1 – Narrator: ??? – Add ‘Em Up and Knock ‘Em Down

This is a rewritten version of the prologue of my first novel, “We Put the ‘Dual’ in ‘Individual.'”


 

“Bet you wish you’d been quiet earlier, don’t ya?” the man said from the front of the van.  I couldn’t tell if I sensed sadistic glee or annoyance in his voice, but either way, I didn’t like it.  It scared me how unreadable the guy was; scared me that I was at his mercy and that I still didn’t know what he wanted from me.

The van hit a bump as it took a turn, and I rolled into the wall and knocked over something that had been hanging up.  I was disoriented and slightly sore in multiple places from having taken a few similar turns, and there was enough stuff lying around back there where I simply couldn’t tell what I’d knocked down or what half of it even was.

At first, I’d wanted to cry, but the longer the ride, the more angry I became, and the more adrenaline that surged through my body.  I hated this man for kidnapping me.  I hated him for taking me away from my happy life and getting me involved in whatever misunderstanding this was.  I was only 18, I had no enemies, and as far as I knew, my family didn’t either.  What had I done to deserve this?

The van slowed down and the light faded down into shadows.

“Home sweet home,” the man said as he killed the engine.  At the very least, I was glad I wasn’t getting thrown around anymore, but at the same time, I still had no idea what was in store for me.

He got out of the van and slammed the door.  It was getting hot already, but maybe it had been hot all along and I just hadn’t noticed.

How would I get out of here?  How would I escape from this psychopath?  Was he going to torture me?  Kill me?  I had no clue.

The back doors of the van swung open with a metallic creak.

“Alright Debbie,” he grinned, “let’s get you down to the basement.”

Debbie?  Who the heck was Debbie?

With my mouth gagged, I couldn’t protest.  He grabbed me, drug me out of the van, and slung me over his shoulder in one fluid motion.  I already felt a little sick from rolling around in the back of the van, and tossing me around didn’t much help.

We were in a dark garage.  It smelled like dust and paint, and all of the windows were covered over with thin sheets of plywood.  I didn’t get to enjoy the lovely scenery for long though, as the man carried me through a doorway and into a kitchen.

“If you start making a lot of noise, the gag is going back on.”

He set me down on a chair and removed the gag from my mouth, but left my hands and feet bound.

“Thanks,” I muttered.

“You better not be too thankful yet,” he said.  “Wait for your parents to give me what I’m asking for, and then you can thank me.”

Was he suggesting that if he got some sort of ransom, he’d let me go?  Even after I’d seen his face?

But what could my parents give him anyway?  We were just a normal middle class family with a mortgage and bills to complain about.

“What do you want from my parents?” I asked, even though speaking should’ve been against my better judgment.

“What do you think I want?” he scoffed.

“Money?”

“Of course.”

“What makes you think my family has any money to give you?”

“You expect me to believe that the family of Marvin Kirkman isn’t loaded?”

“Who is Marvin Kirkman?” I asked.

The man laughed.  “Playing that card will get you nowhere.”

“Look, I don’t know who you think I am, but I am obviously not that person.  I don’t know any Marvin Kirkman, and my name isn’t Debbie.  It’s-”

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll shut your mouth.  I won’t be hearing your lame excuses.”

“My driver’s license, you can check it.  What did you do with my purse?”

“Hell if I know where your purse is, kid,” he said.  My heart sank.  How could I prove who I was?  Or, at the very least, that I wasn’t who he thought I was.

“If you’d just-”

“Kid, just shut up.  The gag is about to go back on if you don’t quit your yapping.”  He knelt down and untied the rope around my feet.  “Now, get up and get through that door.”  He gestured with a head nod over to a slightly ajar door that clearly lead down a flight of stairs.

I kept my mouth shut and did as he told me.  My stomach did flip flops as I descended the stairs.  How could this be happening to me?

The stairs ended in a sea of green shag carpet and bad interior decorating.  There was a bright red couch over by the back wall that almost took your attention away from the magazine cutouts of Madonna taped over the peeling floral wallpaper.

“Make yourself at home,” the guy said, and pushed me toward the couch.  I was so scared that I could barely detect the sarcasm in his voice.

“Isn’t there something we can work out?” I asked.

“Yes.  Your parents give me my $2 million bucks, and then I get the hell out of here, and you never see me again.”

“My parents don’t have that much money,” I pleaded with him.  “They don’t even have enough to send me to college without me taking out loans.”

He scoffed and turned around.  “For your sake, I hope your parents are smarter than you are.”  He started up the stairs.  “If not, they’ll be minus one daughter come noon tomorrow.”

I don’t know when I started crying.  It could’ve been when he closed the door at the top of the stairs behind him, it could’ve been a few minutes after that, or I could’ve been crying since I’d first gotten dragged out of the van.  I realized that I had never known true fear until then as I sat there trying to figure out how my face and shirt had gotten so wet.

My hands were still bound, and I guess the man had a reason for that, but he’d locked me in a room with no windows or weapons, so I wasn’t sure what he was expecting me to do other than pace in circles or cry.

I didn’t have a watch on, and there was no clock to be found.  Seconds, minutes, hours – I had no idea how much time was passing.  Was it still daylight outside?  Was I gone long enough yet for my parents to realize it and start looking for me?

I walked over to the couch and sat down to try to clear my head.  There had to be a way out of this.  I pulled my legs up in front of me and wrapped my arms around them, not caring that my feet were on the sofa or that my legs were dirty with what looked like grease and dirt from having rolled around in the van.

My thoughts were a mess.  I had to clear my mind and focus.  I closed my eyes and pushed everything away – the musty smell of the room, the footprints I could hear above me, the salty taste of the tears I’d swallowed.

What could I do?

My mind drifted off in thought, and suddenly, I was staring at a boy my age.

“Hi,” he said.

Had I fallen asleep?  What was going on?

“Who are you?” I asked.

He smiled in a most charming way and said, “I’m sure you have many questions, but I only have a few answers.  Are you certain that’s the question you’d like to ask?”

I churned this over in my head.  “What is going on?  Why is this happening to me?”  I don’t know why I thought this boy had the answers to those questions, but for some reason, it made sense to me that he would.

“It is unfortunate that fate has chosen you, but it is fate that has brought you here.”

“What do you mean?  I was destined to be kidnapped?”

“You should already know that your situation is much worse than that,” he said.

“So, what, I’m going to die in some lunatic’s basement because he thinks I’m someone else?”

“It’s not that simple.  The girl that you are being mistaken for is very important.  Without her, I wouldn’t exist, and neither would my sisters.”

“And what makes you so important?” I asked.

“Don’t misunderstand,” he said.  “My life is no more valuable than yours is.  However, as you can see, I am standing here before you.  That means that I exist, and because I exist, my mother must not die before she conceives me.  Therefore, she’s important to the future.”

“It sounds like you’re saying that I have to die so that you can be born,” I said.

“I am only saying that it is fate that my mother is going to live, and the proof of that is that I exist.”

“If you aren’t born yet, then how can I see you now?”

He smiled.  “As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this isn’t exactly reality, but I can assure you that everything I’m saying is real and true.”

“How do I know this isn’t just a dream?”

“You will know soon enough.”

“I don’t like the way that sounds,” I said.

“I could sugar coat it, but that would only make it harder to accept the truth.  The fact is, you will see me again soon under a completely different set of circumstances, and when you do see me, you will know that all of what I’ve said is true.  However, I didn’t come here to tell you that.  I came to offer you…a job proposal.”

“A job proposal?  What does it even matter if I’m about to die?”

“Trust me,” he said, ignoring my question, “it is something you will enjoy, and I hope it will at least make up for these unfortunate circumstances in some small way.”

I sat there, silent, unable to comprehend anything that was going on.  What was all of this about fate?  And a job proposal?  I was going to die, so why should I even care?

“You do have a choice,” the boy said.  “My job proposal isn’t compulsory.  Once you understand the details, you can choose to accept or pass on it, but I think it will give you some feeling of purpose and closure.”

I didn’t know how to respond, so I nodded.  The boy looked at me, smirked, and nodded back, as if he completely understood what I was feeling.

Then, suddenly, he was gone.

“Wake up!”

I opened my eyes and found my kidnapper staring down at me, his black leather boot in my face.  How had I ended up on the floor?  I didn’t have too much time to waste thinking about it, though.

“Your parents didn’t come through,” he said.

“Huh?”  It was all I could muster.  Was he saying that it was noon of the next day already?

“I gave them an extra hour.  Not even a word from them.  They must not care too much about you.”

“Mister, I don’t know how to get this through to you.  I’m not Debbie, my name is-“

I was interrupted by the man putting a handgun in my face.  He raised it up so fast I barely even realized what was happening.

“Enough,” he said.  “This is the end for you.”

I felt like crying, but I couldn’t.  I’d only been alive for 18 years, and now I was going to die?  The past year of my life was spent planning for college, taking the right classes, applying for scholarships – all for a future I wouldn’t have?

When I was 15, my dad got a job that forced us to move around a lot.  I rarely stayed in one place for more than a year, and because of that, I never really had a whole lot of time to meet people or make friends.  In fact, I’d only been in my current city for four months.  I had always felt like such a loser; 18 without ever having a boyfriend, but most people only barely got a chance to know me and find that out.  They told me I was sweet and beautiful and that I’d find someone one day, but I guess they hadn’t foreseen my imminent demise when they made those predictions.

“Goodbye, Debbie Kirkman.  May God have mercy on your soul,” the man said.

He pulled the trigger, and I heard the sound of the firing mechanism, but by then, I couldn’t register what had made the sound.  I slumped to the floor in a pool of my own blood, dead at only 18 years old.

Whoever Debbie Kirkman was, she’d live to see another day.

But I wouldn’t.

March 30

The Highers and the Lessers

“He broke one of the only rules we cherish more than our own vanity,” Onel said.  He deftly raised his hand and slicked back his short black hair.

Your own vanity,” Twinel corrected him.  Onel shot her a stare that she scoffed at, but it only made him grin wider.

“He has to be punished,” Onel said.  “That is not up for debate.”

“According to the rules, that is so,” Throvian said.  “But perhaps the rules are what is broken.”

Onel scoffed.  “The rules are what have protected us and our ancestors for millennia.  You dare question them?”

“Those rules are as archaic as they are unfair,” Throvian said.

“Throvian, let’s be level-headed,” Twinel said.  “The age of the rules does not decry their validity or authority.  Perhaps in this case, though, an exception should be made.”

Onel glared fire at Twinel and Throvian.  “A singular exception to a perfectly good rule will lead to further exceptions being made, thus causing the rule to become multilaterally worthless.”

Throvian rose to his feet.  “There is simply no arguing with you, Onel.  This is why the elders do not respect you.  This is why I do not respect you.”  He snatched a manilla folder from the table and stormed out of the room.

“You will not defeat me in such a way,” Twinel said, seemingly disappointed in her cohort’s exit.

“Are you aware of the exact wording of the rule of which I speak?” Onel asked.

“Of course.  ‘Let not your heart be captured by one of lesser descent.  To fraternize with the lessers shall mark the beginning, to become intimate with them shall mark the end.'”

Onel frowned.  “Then why do you still argue?”

“Setestrian has brought no harm to us.  He has only brought great heartache to himself for having fallen in love with a lesser.”

Onel groaned and angrily swiped the air in front of him.  “Nonsense!  You speak foolishness, my dear sister.”

“Onel, you lack compassion.  If you yourself had fallen for a lesser, you would understand Setestrian’s plight.  The problem is not my words, but your lack of empathy.”

Onel slammed his fist down into the table, but Twinel didn’t as much as flinch.

“Control your anger, brother.”

“You are only siding with Throvian on this issue because you’ve loved him since we were children!”

“While the latter part of that statement is true, I simply am following what I think is right in this situation.”

“I’ve had enough of this drivel,” Onel said.  “Where are Fovea and Fivoria?”

“Who can be sure?” Twinel said.  “But certainly, those two would side with Throvian and myself.”

“Then Sikal?” Onel hissed.

“Though I’m sure Sikal does not have more important things to do, he is not here,” Twinel said, leveling her gaze at Onel.  “You are defeated, brother.  We are the only ones here, and you know that if it comes to blows, I will be victorious.”

Fire raged in Onel’s eyes, both out of anger for being defeated and frustration in knowing that she was right.

“You win this round, dearest sister, but beware any future discussions we may have on issues on which I require your… allegiance.”

Onel’s words would’ve made any lesser shudder, but Twinel laughed at his pissant attempts to stir fear in her.

“Of course, dear brother.  As it always is.”

March 22

Sisters

There was only one thing Kayla hated more than school:  P.E. at school.  A lot of her friends liked P.E., because at least it wasn’t algebra or biology or english lit.  And hell, when she thought of it that way, P.E. wasn’t so bad, but then she considered the other half of the story:  it was hot, she hated volleyball, and it was the only class she had with her step-sister Malerie.

It wasn’t that Kayla didn’t like her step-sister; rather, it was just that she and Malerie had nothing in common.  Kayla liked pop, Malerie liked hip-hop; Kayla liked sitcoms, Malerie liked reality TV; Kayla liked polka dots and the color purple, Malerie liked stripes and green.  Seemingly, they disagreed on even the simplest things.  Other than that, they got along, but they rarely had anything to talk about, and Kayla hated being the lame step-sister sitting up in the bleachers while Malerie was down on the gym floor spiking the ball like a pro and earning enough points by herself to put her team in a commanding lead.

And that would be enough reason for Kayla to hate having P.E. with Malerie.  Really, it would.

“Kay-kay, come play with us!”

But Malerie consistently found ways to make it worse.

“Sorry Malerie, not feeling too good.”  Kayla hadn’t used that excuse in a while.

It was like Malerie just didn’t get how much Kayla hated this class.  She didn’t want to get sweaty, she had no interest in learning the rules for whatever dumb game they were playing, and she’d probably end up with half a dozen bruises just for trying.

“I still can’t believe your dad married Malerie’s mom.”

Kayla turned to her right where her friend Anna sat.  She’d actually met Anna through their mutual hatred of P.E. at the beginning of last year, which was long before her dad and Malerie’s mom tied the knot.

“Tell me about it.”

“It must be so weird to have grown up with this girl, and suddenly she’s your new step-sister.”

Kayla scoffed.  “Weird barely begins to describe it.  And it’s only been a week.”

“At least you’re the prettier sister, though.”

Kayla blushed.  “Thanks.  I wish I could agree.”

“No, really, you are.  Malerie is pretty too, but you’ve got something special that she doesn’t have.”

“You’re really pretty too, Anna,” Kayla paused, adding,  “Too bad neither of us have boyfriends.”

“Yeah, what a pity,” Anna said.

“Class is almost over,” Kayla said, looking over at the big analog clock on the cinder block wall at the front of the gym.

“Thank God.”

They got up and headed down the stairs toward the court where the other girls were smacking the volleyball around.  Kayla caught a glimpse of Malerie right as the ball went to her, and Malerie spiked it so hard that it may as well have been jettisoned out of an airplane with a canon.

The coach blew the whistle, indicating the match point.

“Alright girls, great game.  You can head to the locker room and get changed.”

A few girls congratulated Malerie on the score, but Malerie brushed them aside and ran over to Kayla and Anna.

“Hey Kay-kay!”

Kayla winced at the embarrassing nickname.  “Hi.”

“Why don’t you ever want to play with us?  It’s really fun!”

“Malerie, you know I hate sports.”

“You don’t have to like them to have fun playing with your sister and your friends.”

Kayla paused at this.  She disagreed with the statement overall, but she wasn’t caught up on the topic of the sentence so much as she was the word choice.

Malerie had grown up an only child, and even though she wanted a sibling – especially a sister – and her mom wanted to have more children, it was impossible once her dad passed away when she was 7.  She thought she’d only be able to dream of having a sister.

Kayla, on the other hand, had an older brother – Benton.  He was a junior in the same school – only a year older than Kayla and Malerie.  They got along most of the time, but it was probably mostly because they left each other alone.

While Malerie was super excited to have a step-brother and especially a step-sister, it didn’t seem like a huge deal to Kayla.  It wasn’t like they were related by blood, and it wasn’t like they suddenly had to get along.

That, however, did nothing to stop Malerie from being cheerful and excited…or from calling Kayla and Benton her sister and brother.

Now, it wasn’t that Kayla didn’t like Malerie, nor did she resent Malerie’s mother for marrying her dad; it was more along the lines that she thought Malerie was using those words – “brother” and “sister” – too lightly.  Like telling a boyfriend that you love him after dating for two days or proclaiming you new favorite song the first time you hear it on the radio.  Benton was Kayla’s brother because they’d grown up together, been through their mother’s death together, shared holidays and birthdays, played with each other on boring summer days, and shared toys when they were toddlers.  Malerie couldn’t just walk in their house and claim to have the same title that they shared.

“Kay-kay, are you okay?”

Kayla snapped out of it.  “Oh…sorry.”

“Is something wrong?”

“No, I’m fine.”  Kayla paused for a moment and added, “Can you please not call me by that nickname?  It’s a little embarrassing.”

Malerie looked slightly hurt, but tried to hide it behind a smile as she nodded and said, “Sure thing.  I’m sorry.  Should I just call you Kayla then?”

“That’s fine.”

The girls started walking to the locker room.  There was an awkward silence until they reached the rows of old metal lockers.

“I’ll see you later.  Bye, Kayla.”  Malerie smiled a sweet smile and turned toward her locker, which was across the room from Kayla’s and Anna’s.  For just a moment, Kayla felt bad that she was sometimes a little cold to Malerie.

“I think you really hurt her feelings just now,” Anna whispered as they headed for their lockers.

“Well, she keeps calling me Kay-kay.  It’s just…childish.  I mean, we’re both 16 years old.  Give me a break.”

“She likes you, Kayla.  She wants to get closer to you, like real family.  Like a real sister.  Even I can see that.  Why don’t you ever let her?”

This was the first time Anna had poked her nose into Kayla’s personal business like this.

“She can’t come into my life pretending like we’re best buddies, sisters, friends forever, whatever.  She never made any attempt to be my friend before her mom and my dad started dating.”

“Did you ever make an attempt to be her friend?”

“No, but I’m not the one trying to act like we’re so close already.”

Anna frowned as she twisted the combination dial on her locker.  “Maybe she never tried to be your friend before because you’re so freaking cold sometimes.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing,” Anna said.

Kayla couldn’t tell for sure, but she thought that maybe Anna was a little pissed off at her.  She couldn’t bring herself to say anything, though.  If Anna was a little mad, it was her own fault for meddling in affairs that were of no concern to her.

Kayla kept her mouth shut and changed out of her perfectly clean gym clothes (all she did with them on was sit in the bleachers for an hour and a half every day anyway) and back into her school uniform.  Her white shirt was slightly wrinkled from being hung in the tiny locker, but if her navy blue skirt was messed up, she couldn’t really tell.  She ran her hands down the surface of her shirt to try to smooth the wrinkles, but to little avail.

“Is my shirt okay?” Kayla asked, trying to break the silence and change the subject in one swift move.

“It’s fine,” Anna said with a sharpness in her voice.  Kayla decided to leave well enough alone and not push her any further.

The bell rang, and Anna and Kayla parted with little ado.  This left Kayla feeling a little off.

“Hey Kayla,” Malerie said as she jogged up.

“Hey.”

Malerie ignored Kayla’s dry response.  “Ready for English?”

“Not really.”

The two walked in silence for a few moments.

“Did I do something wrong?”

Kayla stared at the ground, but didn’t say anything.

“What did I do?  I’ve been trying to be nice.  I want to be friends; I want to be family, but you keep pushing me away.  Why?  Do you not like me?”  Malerie’s tone was deathly serious.  Kayla had never seen her like this.

“I don’t not like you,” Kayla began, desperately search for the right words as she spoke.  “I just don’t like that you came into my family with the attitude that you are my sister when we’ve never even been friends.”

Malerie broke stride with Kayla and slowed to a stop.  “I’m trying to be friends with you, but you won’t let me.”

“Just because our parents got married doesn’t mean we have to be friends,” Kayla shot back.

Malerie stared for a moment, tears welling up in her eyes.  “What did I ever do to you?  Why are you being so mean to me?”

“I know you’ve always wanted a sister and all, but our family situation does not automatically make us sisters.  We are only related by law.”  Kayla’s words came off shockingly cold, even to herself.

The tears in Malerie’s eyes began to fall down her cheeks as she struggled to regain composure.  “I know it’ll take time, but I’m trying to get you to open your heart to me.  I’m really trying.”

Kayla suddenly felt Malerie’s heart breaking, the words sobering Kayla to reality.

“I like you, Kayla.  I’ve always thought you were cool.  Admired your golden hair, your fashion sense, your good grades, how pretty you are…”  Malerie trailed off.  “I guess I just hoped we could share some bond, you know?  I know we don’t have a lot in common, but…”

“I’m sorry, Malerie,” Kayla interrupted, feeling sharp pangs of guilt.  “I didn’t mean to make you cry.  I like you too, really.  This situation has just been so weird, you know?  I think we can be friends, maybe even sisters, but we have to give it time.”

A slight smile escaped through Malerie’s tears.  “Okay.”

“A little at a time?”

“A little at a time,” Malerie nodded.

Kayla reached forward and wrapped her arms around Malerie in embrace.

“Now come on, we need to get to English before we’re late,” Kayla said.

“Yeah,” Malerie said, wiping moisture from her cheeks with her shirt sleeve.  “Let’s go, Kayla.”

“You can call me Kay-kay, if you want…Mal.”

A smile spread across Malerie’s face.  “Okay, then, Kay-kay.”