Every night at Midnight
The purple clouds came
Out to dance with
The blushing sky
And though you professed
To love them wholly
By Dawn they'd fade
Before thine eye
River loathed poetry, right down to his scuffed Converse. Ana, however, had cherished these lines, and he adored his mother.
Affection by way of osmosis.
The boy returned the scrap to his pocket, careful not to tug at its seams. He was fond of peeking at her tidy script, chock-full of loops and graceful, sloping Y's, hoping that Locard's principle held true; that a fragment of her still clung to the worn vellum.
The closest he could get to holding her hand.
This was not the original document. That had been lost to fire and theft long ago, prior to his birth. This was a strip of its replacement, the nearest Ana came to a faithful recreation. The rest—a dozen well-loved pages—remained in Syracuse, trapped behind a Gothic gate that was now off limits.
An equation he'd yet to solve. He'd retrieve them eventually, come hell or high tides. Those stanzas, and the mystery of their authorship, had governed his youth.
When River was five or six, back when they lived in the top-floor apartment, food became a luxury. On evenings where they couldn't get their fill, Ana would walk him up to the tarred roof and gesture towards los Cielos.
"I spy an angel," she'd tease, tickling his arms to elicit a giggle. "It's you."
The boy, already loyal to the sciences, only took stock of fog and the planes departing from JFK.
"See, my Rio? If you pay attention, the clouds will dazzle, just like in our poem. Can you point to a grape one for me? Or lavender? Iolite?"
He couldn't. Having failed to inherit her painterly spirit, he'd assumed that he was color-blind. All the same, he pretended it was the most magnificent ritual going, complete with jabs of a stubby thumb in the proper direction.
Part of caring for someone is humoring that which inspires them—honoring their concept of how our tightly woven world rotates.
He knew as much before he could understand why it mattered.
She'd kiss his cheek, and they'd feast on violet candies that fell from above. What his eyes couldn't grasp, his tongue had welcomed in spades. The drops tasted of berries and parchita, at once tart and sugary. By the time his head hit the pillow, River's tummy would be sated, awash in the purple of Ana's treasured prose.
A decade had since elapsed with no sweetness as of late. Perhaps a result of the changing climate or—
"Fuck, kid! Watch where you're going!"
The voice cut through his temporal trance, the streets regaining their sharpness. He was so accustomed to being invisible that this sort of encounter rattled beyond measure.
"Sorry," he mumbled, but the guy was already out of earshot, his cocky strut screaming I post shirtless pics online.
River adjusted his scarf. The January afternoon was as frigid as he'd ever known, the presiding sky a bleak, wastewater gray. His exhale stretched out ahead of him, crystalizing mid-puff, and the winds were picking up speed.
A night at the shelter was tempting, even necessary, but he couldn't risk it. At fifteen, he was a ward of the State; of the crumbling system. Should someone notice, the powers that be may force him into another unsafe situation.
Worse, they could drag him back to the one from which he'd recently bolted.
Esme. His mother's elder, frostier sister. After the funeral, River had been sent to stay with her and Ted, the husband, aware only that she was wealthy. Maybe eccentric.
Not the real story by half.
He remembered asking Ana why they never got together with said relatives, especially as they resided in New York.
"For starters, they're rich."
He'd considered this, unsure of the logic.
"How rich? Does she have more than two TVs?"
"I dunno, hon. Rich enough that another lady scrubs her grout."
"Are people with lots of money bad?"
"No, but there are some, like your auntie and uncle, who believe they're entitled to anything they want. That's a dangerous mindset. That's how humans become commodities."
Merriam-Webster had provided a definition, but it was observation that taught him the scope of the term.
Aside from Esme, there was nobody. River had probed for information on his lineage, eager to discover a wealth of kinfolk—of culture—but this proved to be none so simple. While Ana had come here from Cuba, she also possessed Puerto Rican and Chilean ancestry. A partial list.
It was too fuzzy, too complex. He wanted someone to dictate a singular identity, to jab a pin in a map and announce You Are Here.
More honestly, you belong.
As he matured, he learned to view this tapestry as a positive. It was like a hearty bowl of ropa vieja, his mother's signature dish. You had your savory beef, your peppers and onions. The cumin and coriander and achiote. Each was added so as not to dominate. And together? They sang, the flavors brighter in good company.
At present, River stumbled upon what he'd been searching for—a bodega he'd yet to loot. The sign, a crisp orange when hung, was now tattered and dull, barely clinging to this mortal coil.
In his experience, these joints were less than vigilant.
Seated on the curb was a frail woman of seventy. She was waving a bony pointer, warming her nose with the flame emitting from her fingertip. Its indigo dance taunted him, whispering come, borrow me, I'll rid you of your chilled marrow, but it would be rude to ask that of a stranger.
One's spark is personal. His would no longer ignite, let alone billow.
They nodded at each other, exchanging a different sort of warmth entirely. If she was still around when he was done, he'd let her pick from the haul.
He yanked on the door handle, his hunger at critical mass, and was greeted by the energy that typified '80s pop.
Manic Monday. At least it was fitting.
He removed his backpack, anxious to stuff it with whatever goodies could be grabbed. As a final step, he'd buy a decaf with his last dollar. Cashiers weren't as suspicious if you dropped a few coins.
There were but a couple of others braving this weather, and they paid him no mind. This was an aspect of the city that River appreciated—a loner could get lost in the self-obsession as needed.
Employing a deft touch, he tucked away a bag of chips, a package of Oreos, and some burritos from the freezer, semi-certain a gas station would loan him the use of their microwave.
Satisfied, he headed for the checkout, aiming for nonchalance.
There was a girl behind the register, close to him in age. A man sporting glasses stood to her left, and he studied River with the intensity of an owl.
She was wearing a sweater that reminded him of a blanket. Cozy. Oversized. Something about it made him want to cry.
He doubted he'd ever be that comfortable again.
She had hair that resembled onyx and a gentle, almost familiar, face that told of spring.
He couldn't help but wonder if she, too, was Japanese.
In her twenties, his mother had spent a semester abroad. She met River's father in his native Kyoto, the sole fact that Ana, normally frank to a fault, had been willing to share.
River had pried on numerous occasions, starved for details, only to come up empty. Grasping at straws, he'd tried a vague, "What was Japan like? Was it awesome?"
"More than I can express. It was a dream."
After that, Ana—the woman who waxed rhapsodic about a random chat on the stoop or the lady she befriended at the laundromat—had gone silent.
The boy, Mai noted, was trying hard to sell himself as an adult, but she knew differently. It was in his stride, in the fine movements that confessed I'm afraid to take up space.
She turned to her grandfather, worry written across her otherwise placid features.
"Pop, I think the kid in aisle four just took some—"
"I saw. He really likes Slim Jims."
"Do you want me to approach him?"
"No need. The hour seems right for my nap."
Haruto—Harry to his poker buddies—winked, shuffling towards the storage room.
Mai frowned. "You're going to nap? Now?"
He chuckled, unfazed by her reserve. "Haven't I proven myself? My methods?"
"Do your part. I'll take responsibility for the outcome."
Before she could respond, he'd vanished, the beaded curtain swaying in his wake. When she glanced back at the counter, River was waiting, awkward as a foal on ice.
"Hi," he murmured, his shyness kicking in.
A pretty girl is a pretty girl, regardless of circumstance.
His interest shifted, landing upon an origami crane, small and blue, perched next to a stack of gum. Its flat beak was feeding from a saucer no larger than a quarter.
He was transported to the moment when a neighbor, Mrs. Lin, aware of Ana's diagnosis, had gifted him a cube filled with charming squares of paper.
"Fold as the carton instructs. When you complete a thousand of these jewels, you'll be granted a wish. Senbazuru."
River had manipulated those sheets until his fingers turned numb. When finished, he'd wrested open the window near the fire escape and stared up at Ana's clouds, a prayer on his secular breath.
The cranes rose from the floor then, pulpy wings aloft on the breeze. Their hues were so vibrant that he'd felt as if a box of Crayolas had come to life, Cerulean soaring here and Wild Strawberry gliding there.
When they exited the building, flooding Brooklyn with patterned vivacity, he'd spoken his desire aloud.
"Let my mom have one more Christmas. She deserves it."
The demand came to fruition. They'd spent the New Year as a family, both brimming with gratitude.
A week later, she was gone. He'd like to believe the orizuru circled back, escorting her to paradise.
He should've requested double blessings. He should've thought more broadly about his wish, meditating on resolution rather than reprieve.
The stupidity of it tortured him. The hindsight of a child becoming conscious.
"Is that all you're getting?" the checkout girl asked, rousting him from the haze of memory. "A coffee?"
"Yeah. Just this, thanks."
"Look," she began, and he realized that whatever followed wasn't going to be favorable. "I saw you. We saw you. Stealing from the snack section."
She sighed, sounding more tired than mad.
"Alright, but it's not what you think. Please don't call the cops."
"Relax. I'm not going to contact anyone. You must have your reasons."
River regarded his toes. For the uninitiated, even kindness can sting.
"My gramps owns this place," she continued, her tone softening further. "He's taking a break. Go, discuss it with him. He's nice, seriously."
She motioned at the strands of glass serving as a partition. Too mortified to argue, he did as told, amber beads tinkling as he shoved them aside.
The room was cramped and dimly lit. There was a corded phone on the wall, green as an avocado, and next to that, a calendar from the Reagan era.
It showcased a car—a third-gen F-body, to be exact—that Mike, Ana's ex, would've referred to as bitchin'.
A pair of rickety lawn chairs were situated in the middle of the cement. In one, as promised, sat Haruto, suspended by apparent slumber.
His jaw was slack, leaving his tongue exposed, and for a brief, arresting moment, River questioned whether he was alive.
Fortunately, before his imagination could run amok, the man snorted.
Loudly at that.
"Me?" River inquired, already on edge. The shelves reeked of rancid oils and damp cardboard, of all things expired, tacking a layer of creepiness onto his shame.
He obeyed. Beggars can't be choosers.
"Shut your eyes. Let them drift naturally, without effort."
River did so, the sensory deprivation intensifying the odor of canola.
"What do you see?"
"Nothing, sir. Just darkness."
"Keep at it. Inhale as you still your thoughts. When ready, enter my vision."
Minutes passed, unaltered. Then, through skin thin as a veil, River detected the glow. His lids flew apart, winter-weary pupils struggling to process the April light.
Gone was the debris, the piles of rotten bananas.
Cherry blossoms cascaded from the heavens, grazing his shoulders in companionship. Stones lined sandy paths, their placement intentional.
Down a tree-shrouded lane, he could see a temple of imposing beauty, its silhouette humbling. Eternal.
The landscape smelled of earth and mint, of blooms and eucalyptus and peace. Past the horizon, where soil meet stars, a Sun of red watched over them.
All was quiet but for a stream and a songbird.
"Where are we?"
"You know. Trust your instincts."
"Correct. My birthplace," said Harry. "In a manner of speaking, yours, too."
They were on their feet now, soaking in the atmosphere.
"How old are you?"
"That's the magic number around here."
"For... for what?"
When the man failed to elaborate, River switched topics.
"Did you know my father?"
"No dice. I haven't knowledge of who you are. Only what you are."
River's nerves hummed. "What does that mean?"
"Return tomorrow and I'll do better than explain. I will show."
"But I can't wait that—"
"Tomorrow," Harry boomed, letters so solid that they felt like spat kernels against River's eardrums.
"Okay," the boy conceded. He'd held on this long, aching for purpose. For roots. He could go the distance.
"How did it turn out?" Mai asked when he emerged, a Twizzler stuck to his shoelace.
"Don't know yet. I'll get back to you mañana."
She smiled, lovely as a moonbeam.
"So, I made you this. It's not much, but I figured you might prefer a hot meal."
She slipped something wrapped in brown parchment into his fist, their palms brushing.
"An empanada?" he guessed, tastebuds on alert. Those spices.
"Yup. I whipped them up yesterday, then popped one in our toaster oven. Real basic. Ground chuck, cilantro, cheese."
"My favorite," he told her, and he meant it with every ounce of his being. "Thank you."
By the time River reached the parking lot, dusk had cast its spell, the earlier grays yielding to black.
He fetched the vellum from his jeans, wanting to include Ana in this whirlwind of events.
Stuck to its surface was an iconic pink petal.
Every night at Midnight
The purple clouds came
Out to. . .
"I miss you, Mom."
Virgin snowfall covered the pavement, and the air still burned his lungs, but he was no longer cold. The vermillion rays of his homeland wouldn't allow it.
Mai's cooking didn't hurt, either.
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
This is really great writing, excellent stuff.
This is definitely one of the best stories (perhaps the best story) I've ever read on Vocal. I really enjoyed reading it.