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Shining/Parallel

by Brandy Stewart 3 months ago in Short Story

A view into the life of a broken person with a wandering mind and a flimsy grasp on reality, and what can happen when people take advantage of that.

Shining/Parallel
Photo by Evi Radauscher on Unsplash

When you look up at the night sky, how do you feel? Some find themselves feeling like giants, able to mask out a mass of energy with just the tip of their finger. Most don't even think about it much. When I looked up, I felt entirely insignificant. Was I just lucky to see the stars? Most of the time, it was hard to differentiate stars from planes and skyscrapers.

The city. I never got to come here very often. How long people had spent their time building monuments to their deities: pyramids, mosques, cathedrals. Then, man stopped worshiping a god and started worshiping himself. Himself and his money.

Not that I was ever overly religious myself. I thought I should be more concerned with people than with some sort of being that didn't seem keen on intervening. They'll tell you He is clearly a personal God because He made all that we see just for us. The vast cosmos just for us? Instead of making me feel important, it just made me feel small. It made me feel something else too, but the words weren't forming.

I was out on the balcony of a hotel room. I was hiding. From a lot of things. The simple, tangible things were an old face, a voice over the phone, and a summer cabin. There were plenty of intangible things to hide from too. I wasn't focusing on those.

I wasn't focusing on anything. The buildings in the distance were just shapes. The people in the streets below, all drunk with New Year's Eve spirits, were static blips on a plane. Their voices were miles away. Even I didn't exist, just a mess of shapes that gave up on forcing a form. I had become an intangible thing to hide from too.

The room behind me was small and brightly accented. Modern and sleek. Little originality. There had been a slew of hotels that had passed me in these last few months. A double room at a roadside inn, with comforters that had a cartoonish African tribal print with metal peacock sconces adorned above the beds. An airy room with royal purple carpets and golden satin sheets in its rooms in a motel along the side of a nondescript road. A lodge with a barren room, save for an old, oaken bedframe beneath a coverless mattress. This would be my last one anyway.

I was in the bathroom. I didn't remember walking back inside. I didn't know how much time had passed. It wasn't until a cold breeze blew through an open window and smacked me in the face that the blocks of pale colors snapped into place. At the sink, I faced myself in the mirror, jarred by my own image. If I let my eyes become unfocused again, I could watch my face morph into an unrecognizable one. Someone else. Somewhere else.

The room started spinning. I gripped the sink as if it would help. I wondered what else I had missed before heaving vomit into the sink. Pure neon green bile. A small handful of pills that hadn't made their way into my bloodstream yet. More bile. My legs crumbled below me, arms snapping straight as they held my weight, hands still clutching the sides of the sink. Slowly, I eased myself to the floor. Everything was sweaty. Every color blended together. Everything was beige. Not a nice sort of beige. Not the kind of beige someone paints their living room.

The checker-pattern tiles slid back and forth on lines and planes. They were parallel. I faintly still saw my reflection, unmoved, staring down at me from above. And what did she think? What did she feel? What could she tell me? This story isn't about her.

Clawing upright, I leaned against the bathtub, chest heaving, the sweat stopped. I heaved again but nothing emerged. I was finally empty again.

I slunk my way into the bathtub. Despite the ceasing of the sweating, I still felt ablaze. With a quick turn, the cold water began to pour out of the faucet and over my clothed body. Laying down, I let the water assault my face. I opened my eyes, watching the lights sparkled through the water as the impurities stung into those sensitive orbs.

The words I couldn't form before out on the balcony began to pound into my skull with the rhythm of the water.

When you look up at the night sky, how do you feel?

I wanted to be a star.

Everything happens for a reason has never been a mantra I clung to. It implies predestination and a guiding hand. I had seen enough illogical debauchery and senseless vehemence, even in my sparse years of life, to see this as a chaotic world. Things just happen, and you either deal with them or you don't.

Why did we intersect?

There weren't many peers I'd call friends from high school. I had some people with whom I had garnered some classroom comradery. The kind of people who you can talk to in class, even partner up with for group work but actively avoid in public. It was an unspoken thing and just accepted. The high school sat at the corner of the town. It was far from ancient. It was built when the town was built, back on the brink of the Cold War.

I've heard it was common for upperclassmen in any given school to sometimes joke with the freshmen, telling them that there was a secret, hidden swimming pool on the campus.

There wasn't here.

The pool was in plain sight, next to the gym.

But...

there was a secret, hidden fallout shelter under the pool. Allegedly. So they say.

This was the first thing we talked about. You had overheard the conversation and asserted that it was definitely not true. Probably. Maaaaaaaybe. I laughed. I had to believe you. My face felt warm. I was teased about it. It was one of many instances I would try to erase harder than my incorrect guesses on a test. It was geometry. I was never good at it.

I started going to tutoring after school for it. There were a dozen or so students, and then a few student tutors and teachers. The feeling of being in school after hours was surreal. The empty halls and the empty rooms. He became a bit of normalcy for me. A friendly face in a cold room. A smile in a sea of scowls. A fixed point on a plane. He didn't care that I was terrible at math when he was so good at it. He didn't care that I was intangible to most when he saw me. Truthfully, I never felt like I was learning anything. Just memorizing equations. The hypotenuse of a right triangle can be found with a^2 + b^2 = c^2. Distance = rate x time. The area of a circle is π × r^2. I couldn't tell you why these things were true. He could. But I just memorized them.

Even after I had passed geometry, I would come to the tutor sessions. Even after we didn't have a class together, I would talk to him. One day, I blurted out that I liked him. To him. He laughed. He looked embarrassed. Was he more embarrassed for me or for him?

I felt like an idiot. I shouldn't have looked. I shouldn't have tried. My peers were quick to point out my crush. It didn't matter who you had a crush on. It was all free game for teasing.

I stopped going to tutoring. I stopping seeking him out. I did all I could to reduce him down to just shapes and colors. To lines on a plane. I would refuse to let him take form.

We intersected by chance.

One friend I did make from those times eventually moved an hour away. Our friendship was often documented in photos. Tricky selfies. A few years before they were called such. An outstretched arm and a digital camera facing forward, hoping for the right angle. It was awkward, and I'd force a smile. The flashbulbs washed me out.

"Hey," came a voice from above me.

It was freshman year when we met. I remember it being the first year I was prescribed anti-anxiety medicine. It made me almost act normal. I was sitting cross-legged against the wall of the school. School had let out early for us because of standardized testing. Much earlier. While I waited for my ride, I decided to sit and scribble out as much homework as I could muster. The margins suffered the abuse of my doodles.

The voice came from a girl approaching me, and I vaguely recognized her but didn't want to call out her name because... what if it was the wrong name? The most embarrassing thing ever?

I looked up. "Hey?" I replied.

"You're Gwyneth, right?" she asked. "I'm Monika, we’ve talked a few times."

The name clicked. "Oh, yeah, hey!" I replied. "And just Gwyn is fine. You were in the Debate Club for a while, right?"

"Yeah, that didn't last long," she laughed. "Can I sit with you?" I nodded. "How long were you in that club?"

"Probably not much longer than you," I said, piling my papers and books into my bag. "That club was shit."

She snorted out a laugh. "Pretty much."

We weren't the only students still milling about. There was a group of kids maybe ten feet from us. They were all casually talking, goofing around, and texting. Monika had a class with a number of them. They had exchanged a simple wave upon eye contact. The rest of the group did too. I didn't know them. They didn't see me.

"Sorry that I never really talked to you before," she said, tapping about on her phone. "You always seemed pretty cool, but I don't know... just never happened. But hey, we're talking now!"

"That's true," I said.

"Cool! Cool, cool. You want to hang out this weekend?"

"Yeah, sounds good."

Monika and I started hanging out after school. Sometimes we'd go to her house, sometimes mine, sometimes the park, it didn't really matter. The company was nice. I was there.

"So, you planning on going to college?" she had asked one time when we were at the park. We were lazily swinging on old, rusted swings. A few younger kids were in the distance playing on the more complex playsets. We didn't want to be creepy, so we took to the furthest end of the park, letting those kids have their space.

"Yeah," I said, kicking up wood chips under my feet. The sun was low in the sky, and the sky was becoming a deep blue. The weather was chilly for April. "But, honestly, I want to be famous. I want to be a star."

I wasn't sure why I said that. Maybe verbalizing that dream would make it seem more real? Maybe it would help me realize it was dumb. I could stop sitting in my room at night, typing away at a blank story, scribbling away at an impossible scene, dropping notes on to a scale in the hopes of a melody. I could just exist. That was enough of a challenge.

"Yeah?!" Monika said, excitedly. "What do you want to do?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. Writing? Painting? Something like that?"

"That's so cool," she said, sighing, "We should form a band or something. We can both be famous. I'd like to do something? I just don't know what?"

"We'll figure something out," I said with a small smile. Next to me, she was pushing himself forward on the swing, leaning back and hanging almost upside down. A little girl in the distance made eye contact with her. Monika blew a raspberry at her. She giggled and shrieked while running back to her friends. They were all laughing. I wanted to be a star. Maybe we could be.

It was the summer before our senior year of high school when I spent about a week straight at Monika's house. It was rarely just the two of us though since Monika had gotten a boyfriend, Bennie.

I remembered those nights in a torrent of specific imagery with unspecific dates and times: a big swing of the door, clambering into the backseat of Bennie's ancient, two-door station wagon, a jerry-rigged GPS unit off of the dashboard, tote bags full of CDs, discarded bags of fast food on the floor, speeding 100 miles an hour down residential streets, a blur of streetlamps across a milky car window, screamo music blasting on crackling speakers, the bass shaking the pleather seats, Bennie chain-smoking, and Monika riding shotgun, laughing at his obscene jokes. I smiled. I was invisible.

Most nights, we would stop by his friend's house, where a gaggle of guys would be. Monika was eager to befriend her new boyfriend's pals. She didn't want to be one of those girlfriends. I knew what she meant. I thought it was stupid.

They hung out at this particular house because the parents worked nights, and they were free to smoke pot in the attic. But we were usually just stopping by. The kids would stand by Bennie's car in the dark, only illuminated in orange by lit cigarettes and aging streetlamps. They'd stand around to shoot the shit for an hour, far louder than midnight in an uppity suburb would like. Far louder than I would have liked.

It wasn't in principle. It was just the people. But I was just there. But not really.

The next summer, we were all busy getting ready for college. I didn't get to see her again.

The blue doors of a modern building greeted me on a day in late August. The local community college. Oh, you mean 13th Grade, right? Well, some of us need it.

I filled my days with thoughts of philosophy exams and economics discussions. I filled my notes with facts from the classes. The key elements of existentialism. The prices of silver and gold. When existentialism becomes nihilism. When silver becomes more valuable than gold. I filled my notes with thoughts of the future. I didn't know how to make words for that. I didn't know how to make anything. I stopped writing, drawing, composing. Everything felt empty. I remembered images of my friend's laughing face, of how easily she smiled. Was it just because she had a boyfriend? Was she still happy? Did she still want to be a star?

It didn't quite work out that way for me. I ended up with a girlfriend. We met in Biology. My parents would find that ironic. It wasa nice way of saying they were disgusted by me. Her name was Kim, and she dyed her hair a yellow that shined with a sublime artificiality under the fluorescent lights of the classroom. She said she liked how understated I was. It was a compliment.

"Anyone looks understated next to you," I had said. I'm clearly a master at flirting.

"Your name is Gwyneth, yeah?" She asked.

"Just Gwyn is fine," I said.

"Aww, Gwyneth is such a pretty name though!" She laughed.

"Call me that then," I said.

We would talk about any given topic. She was the one mostly talking. But she liked it. She said I was the only one who listened to her. She told me about the music she made on her laptop, of the sweet little lyrics she would write, of the electronic noises that composed a composition. After classes were over, she was going to get her album together and try to play some shows. She wanted me to help. She wanted me there with her. I told her I did too. I didn't need the medication much anymore.

She took photos of everyday things. She took photos of me, and I was always unprepared. I'd quickly smile. The flashbulbs stung my eyes.

"We look so cute together," she'd say. "We look perfect."

She always seemed so sure of that. She wanted to be a star.

"So do I!" I would say. Did I want to be a star again? Maybe it was the glamor of an easy life. Maybe it was the adoration of strangers. Maybe it was something else.

"Okay, out of these two options, which do you like better?" She asked this as she held up photographs for her album cover.

I laughed. "The album isn't even done."

"Sure it is! We just haven't caught up to that day yet!" She beamed.

"They're both great," I said. They were. She smiled.

A year goes by. It was winter. We hung out as she finished song after song. We had dropped out of college by then. Her room was chilly and cluttered. Tapestries hung behind her bed. The bookshelves had piles of tomes in eclectic genres and adorned with homemade pottery. Posters and art prints filled the other spaces on the walls, and a string of Polaroids hung above her desk. My face had made its way on to a few. The desk housed her "studio" of an old Macbook and countless notebooks, cups filled with pens and markers, small figurines from her favorite movies, and her, slouched forward, entranced. I was lost in her blankets, silently taking in the electronic sounds that spilled from her speakers, sketching in an old notebook.

"So... is it... is it okay?" She spun around so quickly I jumped in shock. I had forgotten I was there.

"Yes!" I said, enthusiastically. "I love it."

She faked a frown, whining, "You're a terrible producer. Not helpful at all."

I shrugged. "Sorry."

There was a decently sized get-together when she had finished that handful of songs. She was nervous the whole time before. Her closet had been emptied, every possible outfit combination attempted. Once again, my opinion was elicited to no avail. She found it less funny this time. The nerves got to her, surely.

They were all people who knew her. Others who knew the ones who knew her. She was better at people than I could ever be. A group of colorful people swaying in a basement as smooth synths played. A homemade light show with slow strobes and rainbow dots and black lights. They laughed together and drank deeply from a well of something sweet. I heard passing conversations, of the last show they were at, of the new vintage jacket they just picked up, of futures, of pasts, of presents. I watched as she slowly spun around the room, her hair like metal and her eyes looking at everything. Like she was made of gold. Standing off to the side, I smiled. When she saw me, she rushed beside me and kissed me quickly. She pulled out her phone for a picture of us. She said we looked great.

This story isn't about her.

We would go to any given place together. She was the one mostly there. We'd drive through red lights and into fading lights in her blue subcompact. An older car with a newer stereo, a mess of USB wires springing forth like electric eels, discarded pages of failed drafts, empty coffee cups, a long-dead air freshener still hanging from the rearview. I rode shotgun. I laughed at her obscene jokes. I think this was what I was supposed to do.

In a few months, she had garnered a small following for her songs. There were impromptu gigs at coffee shops and in basements. They were all art kids. They talked about craft beers and poetry. About zines and plants. About things they thought were obscure.

"So, which do you prefer?" They would ask her. About this and that. About anything. She'd give her in-depth answer, her careful critique of whatever they were talking about. Did she like the taste of Purple Monkey Dishwasher chocolate and peanut butter porter or Dead Pony Club pale ale? Did she like the zine about bicycles or the zine about blogs? Did she like agave or stevia?

Which did I prefer? I'd say I liked either. It was usually true. They would nod as someone does at a babbling toddler. She would look embarrassed. I was beside a living cliché.

People would take her picture. She'd grab me by the waist and get us both in the frame. I smiled out of habit. The flashbulbs felt like tiny pinpricks. She would say we look great. I would say we feel great. She would blink in confusion.

The silences that made up the very culmination of my being had gone from endearing to deafening to her. As she worked a room of the alternatives and individually individuals, I would go through the motions. How cute and demur your girlfriend is. She's so... minimalistic; I love it. Around us were couples. They would contrast. They would blend. Black jeans next to a floral dress. Muscle shirt next to flannel. Collared shirt next to collared shirt. And us: golden hair, crop top, pattern pants next to something minimalistic. Something that couldn't take shape. Something only existing in theory.

I wasn't fitting her aesthetic anymore. She was shining.

I wanted to be a star. I thought this was how I could do it.

I wanted to be a star, but I was just a black hole.

The last gig of hers I saw was at the back of a record store. I told her the show was great. She didn't acknowledge what I said. There was a possibility she didn't hear with all the other voices but, after all, I was scarcely there. The group of listeners flocked to her to talk. The wanting looks she gave to far more interesting people. We said nothing of it. We didn't need to.

There was a park nearby that I walked to. The sidewalks quietly patted below my feet. I went to brush the hair from my face to discover tears had been streaming from my eyes. All of the things I had hoped I would start to feel never came to be. I wondered if I should refill my prescription.

It wasn't summer yet. The sun was low in the sky, setting the backdrop ablaze in a brilliant orange, dotted with a few remaining purple clouds. The weather was already warm for April. It made the annual buds on trees sprout prematurely. I had nothing.

That's when we met again.

A tall shadow crept from the edge of my peripherals. I was sitting on a concrete bench underneath one of the many blooming trees. The park was mostly placid, with the kids still eagerly awaiting the nearby summer break, everyone else watching for 5 pm. I let my eyes relax. I watched as trees became blocks of brown and falling leaves became green pixels across a screen. The sky was just an orange plane.

The tall shadow took form and spoke. "Oh! Hey there!"

My head jerked toward the sound, and all at once, the colors spilled back into their outlines. He stood with a travel coffee cup in hand, a backpack loosely slung on the opposite shoulder. He took form. "Hey, Gwyneth, remember me? We had some classes together!"

I forced a smile. A different day, maybe it wouldn't be forced. "Just Gwyn. Of course. How's it going?"

He shrugged. "Not too bad. On a bit of a sabbatical. How about you, Just Gwyn?"

I shrugged too but with a small laugh at the terrible joke. "Could be better. Could be worse."

"I hear ya. Mind if I sit down?"

A warm, tight feeling sprang up in my throat. I had long since tried to forget about him. There were so many small things that meant a lot back then. A smile and a nod. A phrase of encouragement. A simple hello. Insignificant things for an insignificant person. He knew I existed, when I refused to let myself be tangible.

I searched myself and found nothing. Sitting there, a discarded fashion trend, an outdated aesthetic, an empty reusable bag, I wondered if I could exist? Could being tangible feel better than the blurry shapes of the world? Could silver be worth more than gold? Could philosophy make as much sense as geometry? Could parallel lines become perpendicular?

Slowly, I shifted my position on the bench and let him sit by me.

We talked for nearly an hour. He talked more, but I did too. More than I would. He talked about traveling through Italy, studying literature. That was his real passion. I was surprised. He talked about the months he spent living off of $500 and a friend's couch in San Francisco afterward. He said the romanticism wore off quickly. He laughed. I nodded. I didn't think I could understand. Maybe I did.

He paused, embarrassed, because he had kept talking about himself. And you? I paused too. I barely knew him yet knew him too well. Like meeting a celebrity you've followed too closely. Like meeting the muse of a much-studied painting. It was a discerning mix of comfort in familiarity and discomfort in sudden actuality.

There was something about that day. The unseasonal warmth. The orange skies. The glow that came from the lenses of his low bridge glasses. I opened my mouth and discovered I wasn’t as empty as I thought. I began telling him. The dark car rides with my friend and the annoyance of who she was around. The undefined words for the future. The fleeting relationship of a dying aesthetic. The here. The now. This time, I could feel the tears swelling. He noticed but could tell I didn't want him to. He squeezed my shoulder.

"I can relate in that department," he sighed with a smile. "Let's go distract ourselves."

We ended up at a small carnival on the other side of town. We followed our noses there. The sticky smell of cotton candy clung in the air, wafting next to the warmth of pretzels and popcorn. The sky had gone pink and purple in the sunset above. I only faintly remember getting in the car with him. But I remember feeling out of place in a car that was actually well kept. I said this aloud. He laughed.

I looked around at the happy faces of the other people around us, their faces beaming in the multicolored lights. I wanted it to make me happy too. It was a painful reminder of how unusual that facial expression felt to genuinely make. What was my life but just forced smiles and forced feelings in front of uncaring flashbulbs. There were colorful people here too, but their colors came from nature, not from a feigned sense of definition. The colorful streets and even more colorful people, the rickety rides and the round, flickering bulbs, how they felt much warmer than the flashbulbs, the painted smiles and the genuine ones, the laughing kids and the mischievous teenagers. I felt warm. I felt something else I couldn't give words to.

We found ourselves at a picnic table near a food stand. He had bought us nachos to share. The lights nearby that blinked off and on changed the shape of his face with each passing flicker. In one flash he was older, another younger. One sharper, one smoother. I wondered what I looked like in the lights. It was hard to believe they didn't just pass through me.

He began talking more about the work he was doing during his sabbatical, as he scribbled down notes from observations he made of the environment and those who passed by. This was part of it, he explained, to make notes of the people and places he saw every day. Small, insignificant things. Any things.

"Have you made notes about me?" I blurted this out without thinking. Where did these words form?

He laughed. "Absolutely," he replied. He winked. Or maybe the lights were playing tricks on me. He talked about more of what he planned to do. Visiting nature centers. Watching people at the mall. Staying out at a cabin owned by someone he knew.

"It sounds wonderful," I said.

"And what about you?" He asked.

"I have no idea what I'm going to do," I replied. It felt like when I admitted I wanted to be a star; it was awkward to tell him I didn’t know what I was doing, to someone who seemed to have a future as well as a past, that I was truly without a destination. No fixed points. Many people must feel that way, but it sounded like admitting failure. Are you even human if not constantly moving? I wouldn't say I wanted to be a star to him. Not yet.

"And that's okay," he said. His gaze somehow softened more than it already was. "You don't need to know."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

The sun was long gone by the time we drove away. We watched as the carnies closed up shop, and as the final patrons began shifting away. The scene of the empty carnival was cluttered yet serene. I thought about what memories people took with them from this place. What stuck out the most. The lights, the rides, the food, the fools, the music, the sounds, the silence. I took it all in. The gaudy fonts in various sizes. The twelve different flavors of popcorn. The rush of wind from the Tilt-A-Whirl. The swirl of the colored lights. The mild spice from the nacho cheese. The softness of his eyes. The softness of his voice. I took it all in to fill me. I didn't want to be empty.

"This is it, right?" He asked, as we pulled up to my house. I hadn't been home in a few days, as I had been staying with Kim. My parents didn't want to know about my life outside of their house. I had become more like a roommate to them. The yard was slightly unkempt, and the house was a dull shade of beige.

I nodded. "Thanks for the ride. I had fun today."

"Me too." He said, unlocking the doors and slowly getting out. I followed suit.

The unseasonal warmth was gone. A cool breeze rushed by. I heard the faint sounds of kids still playing in the neighborhood. I heard the muted sounds of crickets and confused cicadas. I heard a night that felt nothing like the day that came before it.

"Hey?" A soft syllable sounded from my left. He appeared at my side, lightly grasping my elbow, a slightly concerned look behind the thick frames. I looked away.

"Sorry, spaced out for a sec," I said, in more breath than voice. The cold air made me more aware of the warmth in my face.

"Hey? Can I see you again soon?" He shifted his position to mostly face me. He was close to me, and I made eye contact with his chest.

I knew that thing I couldn't name before, the thing I felt, and it burst from me before I could stop asking, "Is this weird?"

There was a brief moment where he looked taken aback, maybe even hurt. He let go of my arm, and I could feel myself slowly dissolving away. I wanted to retreat into intangibility.

Then he laughed. It wasn't shrill or booming or forced or condescending, like the laughs I was so used to hearing. It felt like the warmth of the orange sky and the carnival lights.

"I think... it's only weird if we make it weird," he said, still smiling and coming down from his laughter. I didn't remember what he said next. Or what I said next. I remember the light embrace he pulled me into, the unnamed fragrance he wore, the passing of his lips against my temple, the night, the warmth again. I remember holding on to that warmth that night as I laid in my bed. I was tangible.

A few weeks passed. Summer was getting closer. There were days that were still cold. I didn't mind. I didn't feel it.

I was worried that the first time I walked through his threshold would have felt like entering the mouth of the beast, but instead, it was the opening of a temperate cave, a refuge from a harsh horizon.

His large, brown couch was a soft patch of moss to rest upon at the back of the cave; his worn, classic novels were treasure maps and survival guides; his calm voice was the hypnotizing echoes of the deep cavern. I felt full. I felt safe.

I spent a lot of time on that couch. I had picked up my sketchbooks again. I had even found the old notebooks with various little scenes written in them. He seemed happy to see my hands busy. I was happy too. We sometimes talked a mile a minute. Sometimes we were silent. He didn't mind my silences.

The lines and planes between us were blurred. Maybe we were both intangible now.

It was summer. I spent most of my days with him. I lived out of a duffle bag of clothes I've owned for too many years. He told me he'd buy me something new if I want him to. I did want him to. But I refused. Most of the time.

The days were filled with prose. He would pour over his notes and talk about what may come next. The pages were neat and confined chaos. He took upon the writerly look well, his shirt half-buttoned, his glasses slightly askew, his hand pulling at tufts of his hair, hunched over the papers and books. I would sit nearby, but far enough away not to distract him. I would read, or I would watch something on TV. I would poke at a project of my own. I never felt compelled to be entertaining or interesting. I didn’t have to be.

There was a schedule to his work; he said he wanted to treat it like a real job. That meant dedicating a certain amount of time to getting things done, but also allotting time to rest. At the ends of the work days, he would snatch a few pages and ask me to read them. He never brought all of them, just a few. The words seemed to flow so easily. I could keep them inside me. But then I'd look up to an eager face.

"I love it! I just..." I would say.

This was it. He would know that I could take things to fill me but produce so little to give.

"I mean, I can't give you a critique, I wouldn't know what to say, I..." You’re a terrible producer. No help at all. I felt like an idiot. I shouldn't have looked. I shouldn't have tried.

He smiled, taking my hand, strumming my knuckles. "No, no, I'm not asking for a critique. I just wanted you to read it."

I blinked. "Can I read more?" I had asked.

He winked. "Not now. Not a chance." He pulled back the pages and pulled me into his bed. I cherished the nights as much as the days. We felt like a proper couple, somehow. I knew we weren't. Far from it. He would explore my body, the weary traveler he was, the expert on our failed mission that led us to this cave. He knew things I didn't know. He always did.

"Are you going back to school in the fall?" I had asked him one night. It had finally grown hot outside; we were under blankets in the pleasant central air. My family had never been able to afford that.

He hummed in thought. I felt it rattle in his body against mine. "No... No, I don't think so." I had a feeling he'd say that. He let out a low, quiet laugh. "And what about you?"

"No," I replied. He had a feeling I'd say that too. "I should probably get a job though."

The low, quiet laugh returned. "You don't need to. Really." I wouldn't press that matter. It wasn't really my business to know where he got his money. "But if there's something you want to do, just tell me. I'll help you."

"I want to be a star," I mumbled. I was less sure of that anymore.

"Hmm" This hum was humorously exaggerated. "Well, what for? Famous for being famous, eh?"

"I... don't know. Painting? Music? Acting? I don't know," I sighed.

"You haven't put much thought into it, have you?"

"Not really."

There were nights he would have friends over, small get-togethers, a cookout, a stay-in. They were all intellectual types, but they lacked the condescension of the alternatives that came before them. They lacked the clear attempts at originality by just being themselves, and they themselves were more diverse that way. In different sizes, shapes, colors, configurations. In ages. In times. In places. I would ask if he wanted to take pictures together. I didn't, but I thought I was supposed to. He politely declined. He said he didn't like how he looked in photos. I was relieved.

His friends were kind. We would talk, as he would entertain.

"How long have you and Lloyd known each other?" One of his friends had asked me. She was probably a little bit older than I was. She wore layers of patterns. Her skin wore layers of patterns.

"Oh uh... a few years?" I sputtered. I hadn't actually spoken to many people about him. Trying those words was new. "We knew each other in school and then... met again by chance." I left out the part that I had always liked him from afar. How he had noticed my existence. How he had tutored me in geometry. How the area of a circle is π × r^2. I remembered that.

She explained she was a newer friend of his; they had met in Italy during his travels.

"And, he has yet to explain the origin of his creativity!" She exclaimed as he sat down next to me. He laughed. "We spoke of many things, but I didn't learn that."

"Does everything need an origin story?" He said. He put his arm around me in a manner with instinct but without mindlessness. "What am I, a superhero?"

"Yes!" She exclaimed. "Everyone has a reason for creating."

"Well," he began, taking off his glasses. "This is how it starts. We had nothing. Nothing but each other. My family and I. The type that gets ignored by most. The privileged. The unburdened. The ones who haven’t suffered. The pale ones."

"Some sadly say that's the natural order of things," she said, with a sigh.

"Ahh well, Lucia," he continued, as I listened intently. The rest of the room felt far away. "There has never been a balance. There has always been the one percent and the ninety-nine percent. White-collar and blue-collar. Lords and serfs. Man and animal. People thought they had stumbled upon a brilliant concept for their protests. But it's nothing new. It’s always been that way. Anyway, it wasn’t long before I was out on my own. I made do with what I had. Odd job to odder. But then the oddest. I got a job painting houses. I didn’t get to design anything, just fill in the spaces. But that’s when I discovered a wondrous feeling. The feeling of the brush with the paint in my hand. Creating something from nothing. It finally felt right. There could be a million more articulate ways to express that, but I can’t really put it into words. It’s one of those kinds of feelings."

I could have cried. He knew what it was like to be filled with things without names. To be filled with nothing. To be filled with everything too.

"There is no art without suffering. A silver spoon makes a terrible brush," he concluded, with a long sip from his cup. He opened his mouth to say more, but I must have been looking at him with awe, as he caught my gaze and laughed, shaking his head. "Oh come on, no one wants to hear this."

"I do," I admitted.

Still beaming, he rubbed his chin.

"You have a fan!" Lucia exclaimed. "Both her and me!"

He shook his head more and finished the serving in his cup. "I uh... I'm not sure what I was going to say." His eyes turned upward, looking for the words that had floated away. They fell onto me, it seemed.

"Well..." I began. "There is no point to making art without a point," I stumbled with the words. I knew they weren't mine. They couldn't be mine? They felt like they belonged to me though. "Only once there is suffering, is there a need to fill those gashes. Only once you’ve gotten to your lowest point, is when you want to build a way out. But... you got down there somehow. You don’t just randomly teleport back to the top. You have to work at it. It takes less effort to fall down than to climb out."

I stopped. I ran out of those words. Lucia made a toothy smile with a wordless point. I caught him looking at me out of the corner of my eye. I thought he would somehow know I stole his words. But maybe they were mine after all. Maybe he put them there, but maybe I found them.

"That's probably the most I've ever heard you speak all at once," he whispered to me before kissing my cheek. He was probably right. He was always right.

In the weeks after I ran away, at the end of summer, in a nearby future, in the countless temporary abodes I found myself in, I tried to hold on to your warmth. You had called me countless times to come home. You called it home.

It was the beginning of August. You would scarcely believe this was meant to be the tail end of summer. Heat stuck in the air. The cicadas never stopped. When another group of friends had visited us, his friend, Wesley, from California looked concerned when we were all sitting out in the cooler night air.

"Look, I feel really stupid asking this," Wesley asked me, in a whisper, "but, why do the trees scream at night?" Evidentially, not in a quiet enough whisper. Lloyd had heard and let out a hearty laugh, slapping his friend on the back.

It was late. Nearly past midnight. I remember the sweet drinks and the pungent citronella candles. The lightning bugs and the humidity. The laughs and the yawns. The thick air and the clear sky.

"When you look up at the night sky, how do you feel?" He asked me. We were sharing a lawn seat. I didn't mind that it was a little crowded. He wanted to be close to me.

I took it into consideration. "I've never thought about it?" I said. It was true.

He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me closer, giving me small kisses, like taking baby sips of my mouth. I was always a little unsure about PDA, but no one was really paying us any mind.

"I'd still like to be a star someday," I said between the affection. "Maybe."

"You sure about that?" He purred in my ear. I wasn't. But it was a thought. Those stars continued to twinkle above. "You're coming with me to the cabin next week, right?" He asked. I had forgotten he had planned a getaway to the cabin. He wanted to get away from civilization for a month. A change of scenery. A change of pace.

"Yes, of course."

It was the end of summer. I felt like an idiot. I shouldn't have looked. I shouldn't have tried. I just stood there as if a question would materialize into some misty haze. As if the pages themselves could talk. And I ran.

When I ran through the fields of wheat, I wanted to get as far away from that area as possible, not knowing where I was going but kept going past anything of some sort of notable recognition. The overgrowth occasionally snapped at my heels and ankles. Tag, you’re it. Prickly thorns. Uneven roots. Lines. I knew I'd be blessed with small linear scars on my way, those kinds of scars that are too boring to tell their story, when, in fact, they have quite a story.

We became nothing more than words and lines on hands and planes.

The wheat became just blurred lines of beige. A sort of nice beige, even in dimming light. The kind of beige you imagine someone painting their living room. The kind of beige that has some cutesy name like “Cotton Tail” or “Belgian Cream.” Yes, let’s concentrate on the beige for a while. That’s a much better topic than the one at hand. They were parallel lines on a plane, wishing desperately to intersect or to even just be perpendicular. At least they could meet at one point, though never cross again. I was never really good with geometry. He knew that.

Lightning bugs were starting to emerge. They were reduced down to inconsistent balls of light in my eyes. They blinked. I blinked back. I started to wish he was here with me and playfully knock me down onto the wheat, crumbling it, accidentally snapping and ruining their fine line shape. I knew he'd want that too. But I knew why. I knew now.

A lightning bug landed on my cheek, and I swatted it away. No, no, don’t try to cheer me up now. Shine your little light on someone else. Because I was lost. At last. No fixed points around me. I finally couldn’t find my way out even with the Pythagorean Theorem. Like hell if I could even remember that formula.

I pressed forth. I absentmindedly grabbed a fist full of wheat and yanked it out, feeling the grains give way in my fingers and leaving a fine coating of dirt on my hand. I let them fall, head forward still. Was it really necessary for me to disturb other life, even at the invisible, microbial level?

I knew how that felt. My best skill was being invisible. People I knew had always complained about the unwanted attention of strangers, the greedy eyes, and the slimy words. I could walk past crowds of people, a ghostly salmon up a stream of unfamiliar faces. It was the best way to avoid humiliation. Being invisible means being empty: empty of sadness but empty of everything else, too.

It had been difficult to convince myself that this was how I wanted to live, for, every now and then, crippling loneliness would clench my lungs, forcing out an ugly sob as I would grope the air for anyone to help me. My transparent hands would just pass through a stranger’s arm. Perhaps they felt a tickle or pins and needles when it happened. Perhaps they felt the same.

It was you that made me tangible, though. You had noticed me. I thought I'd never know why.

The sun had finally been swallowed up by the hazy horizon. The beige that had been set ablaze lost its last bit of brilliance, downgraded to mellower tones like “Raccoon Hollow” or “Ticonderoga Taupe.” The kind of beige someone doesn’t paint their living room. Maybe they’d paint their bathroom that color. Who gets paid to come up with the names of paint? Were they once creatives, perhaps aspiring novelists or color theorists, who couldn’t find a job anywhere else? Do paint companies just go up to a random employee, like “Hey, John from Accounting, I need a name for this specific beige,” and John from Accounting says, “This feels very ‘Ticonderoga Taupe,’ man.” Anything. Anything to preoccupy my mind.

There was a square shape in the distance. It was blurry, but I couldn’t tell if it was from the tears or the heat. There was nothing else around, so why not? It would at least make me feel like I had a purpose, a destination maybe. The muscles in my legs started to strain as I went, suddenly catching up to my rapid change of pace, from a lazy summer day to a mad dash towards the night. I would have run into the sun if I could have, jumped from the horizon line into that unforgiving sphere. Like I was a bug slamming myself repeatedly into an exposed lightbulb. Like I was a particularly optimistic and nearsighted Icarus. It would have been a painful death but at least a certain one.

When I reached that square, my vision had cleared, only to go blurry again. It was the cabin. The same goddamn cabin I had run from this morning. I had successfully gone in a circle. The area of a circle is π × r^2. He had taught me that one with some sort of funny diagram with an actual pie. I hated geometry.

The cabin was where we had been staying; it belonged to his relatives. Not quite sure if it was his uncle or his second cousin. The whole thing could have used a healthy coating of “Cotton Tail.” The past summer’s stormy season had left the wooden panels dulled and exposed, just faint whispers of the memories it held. A chilly wind blew through it, through the screens of the open windows, and the cabin gave an empty sigh. It cooled my face, as I imagined it flushed, and I could feel the air travel down through my throat that felt aflame from choking down so many sobs and profanities.

There was certainly an urge to go inside. I felt I needed to go back in and relive our point of intersection. Despite being there for over a month, I couldn’t remember how many of those worn, classic novels he had brought for the shelves in the living room, or which one of those sailboat paintings always hung crookedly, which one of the bathroom tiles was missing, which floorboard always squeaked when you lifted your foot. I should have remembered these things. I longed to fall asleep on that lumpy mattress with the hand-me-down, handmade quilt. I wanted to dream of angles and angels, points and places, and various names for shades of beige. I’d wish to wake with the heat, the dawn breaking bloody red with the shards as the singing birds of morning.

But I didn’t go inside because I wouldn’t truly know these things; I’d just be memorizing them. Pretty much just like geometry class.

I was full with the words he had written. The words he didn't want me to see. The words I had forgotten at one point.

"Is this weird?" I had asked.

There was that brief moment where he looked taken aback, maybe even hurt. Because he knew. He let go of my arm, and I could feel myself slowly dissolving away. I should have just disappeared then.

Then he had laughed. It felt like the warmth of the orange sky and the carnival lights.

"I think... it's only weird if we make it weird," he had said. "I'm not your teacher anymore," is what he said next.

I remember the light embrace he pulled me in to, the unnamed fragrance he wore, the passing of his lips against my temple, the night, the warmth again. I remember holding on to that warmth that night as I laid in my bed. That warmth is all I have now.

His notes were filled with the thoughts of being with this younger woman, of childish naivety and of holding power over someone for the first time in his life. Of having a muse to mold. Of having something pure. Of feeling young through someone else.

I shouldn't have looked.

There was a crumpled $20 bill in my pocket and a credit card. I kept walking until I reached the train station. I took the last train of the night. I counted 10 stops and go off. I refilled my anxiety prescription. I found my first hotel. I'd keep moving until I found the words I needed.

He called me constantly. The first night he begged me to tell him where I was. I heard his voice in tones and shades I never had before. I had never heard him angry. I really hadn't heard him sad either. Nor apologetic. Nor remorseful. He couldn't find the words to apologize. I couldn't find them either. I heard the five stages of grief in his voice all within an hour. Maybe not the last stage. Maybe not until the last time I heard from him.

"It's New Year's Eve," he had said. His voice was tired. It has lost all its warmth. I was out on the balcony of a hotel room, which I couldn't really distinguish from any of the dozens that came before it in recent months. I was hiding. From a lot of things. "A new year means new beginnings. Let me start over. Let me be better. Let me help you."

I didn't respond. I couldn't respond. I had taken the whole bottle. I wasn't there. Not really. I looked up.

When you look up at the night sky, how do you feel? People always talk about how they want to be a star. I finally saw how it made sense, looking up at that clear night sky. I let myself focus on them alone.

The speed of light is fast, but those stars are far away. So many of those stars you see above you have exploded already, ages ago. But here on Earth, we can’t know that. So that’s what it’s like to be a star, being forced to shine, even though you’ve truly died a long time ago.

You and I, we had intersected, but will we again, or are we just perpendicular lines?

Short Story

Brandy Stewart

The sailors say I'm a fine girl. Graphic designer, illustrator, writer, reader, gamer, dreamer, storyteller. I make things and care about them. My life exists somewhere between painfully logical and lost in an overly complicated daydream.

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Brandy Stewart
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