Astray from my path

Her son’s cries still ring in her ears as she searches furiously for some parchment.
She fumbles for the feather and barely evades spilling the ink as she hurriedly dips it inside and reaches for the paper. She touches the ink to the parchment and writes and writes, as many lines as she can muster for she knows she doesn’t have much time. Her heart thumps unsteadily in her chest, trying to anticipate the moment pounding knocks will be heard from the door and it will burst open.
The rain outside thunders in a sickening symphony of calm foreboding and lightning occasionally dances across the sky. The window wobbles, barely able to keep the storm at bay.
It had always been her and him against the world. Always her and him against the villainies of life.
Until he became one of them.
But no matter, he was gone. And soon so would she.
Her hands shake as she scribbles down the last few lines and lunges for the drawer, stuffing the parchment inside. Just as she whirls around to face the darkness with whatever strength she has left, the door bursts open, rain splintering the smooth walls and thunder flashing outside. She bares her teeth at her tormenters and dives for the window, glass flying everywhere as the sudden drop sends her limbs flailing. Tiny shards of invisibility puncture her soft skin and her face contorts in pain. She hurtles down.
The storm doesn’t seem so scary anymore and the soft rain drizzles across her body, the one she feels sick to touch. Her heart doesn’t seem to be with her anymore. She left it somewhere upstairs when he had obliterated her life. Its ok though, she thinks. The pain is all gone now and she smiles as she falls. It will all be over soon, she thinks, staring into the veiled night sky.
She just wishes she could have saved him.
She wishes with every fibre of her beautiful being, that now lays dead in a crumpled heap somewhere 4 stories below. The rain continues falling, and somewhere close-by the boy’s laughter echoes in the darkness.
***
My hands shake as I drop the thin parchment onto the table. The words so gingerly scribbled glisten in the dull light. It was her. This whole time, the villain had been her. I’ve been wondering what happened to my father ever since I had the capacity to wonder and now, I know.
It was my poor, sick mother who must have thought in her demented mind that she was doing some sort of good. As if ending another human’s life somehow blurred the line. Droplets are spawning on the parchment as tears cascade down my face. I truly am broken down to the very core. My nature is to be broken, I suppose.
To kill.
In a dream-like state I lunge at the letter and rip and rip, taking delight in the wonderful tearing sound the dead words make. A putrid taste fills my mouth and I realise I’m still holding this repulsive gateway of death, and then my hands are open, shards of the past fluttering down in a sporadic pile to the grimy floor.
Just as I’m about to toss it a lighter on it, I lock eyes with a set of words that now seem imprinted everywhere. How could I not have seen it, this little sentence on the back. These 5 words that change everything.
‘He had his way with me, after I told him no’.
Then I’m a child again.
I am a product of fear.
My mother didn’t want to have me.
My father was a kind man. My father was misunderstood. My father was always so quiet. A giant hulking man who always stood timidly in the darkest corner, shoulders hunched, trying to shrink into himself.
I am a product of imbalance.
My father is in the room next to me peacefully sleeping.
I thought the wicked couldn’t sleep. Tales told always enforced only those free of sin may drift into the realm of impossible possibility.
I haven’t slept well since I was born; plagued with insufferable nightmares that ooze into my tranquil state and poison my mind, leaving me shaking in cold sweat, reminding me I have sinned.
Scenes of tragedy seep into my head and my airway seems to have shrunken. The corset tightens around my ribs and theres no oxygen left and my throat is constricting and,
why can’t I move, why can’t I breathe.
I lurch violently upwards and suddenly I’m on the floor coughing and gagging and my mouth tastes like carpet.
I am a product of hatred.
Suddenly my hands are on the door and I’m twisting and now stand in front of my fathers’ bedroom.
And then I’m inside, breath ragged, standing over his bed.
His hair is matted and falling into his eyes and he’s sleeping in the foetal position.
Ironic.
Something shines in the dark light and I realise I’m holding a knife. I always keep one in my room and now its in my hand. And my hand is rising.
Fury and hatred run rampage in my burnt, black, heart and the pain forces the knife down into my father’s chest.
I am a product of horror
He splutters and my eyes cloud over.
Wide, scared eyes look up at me and I stare back at them.
His eyes look so similar to mine; like I’m peering through a looking glass.
Confusion glistens everywhere.
And sorrow.
Much too little, much too late.
And then the eyes soften and I see.
I see.
Not my father in front of me.
Oh god, not my father.
My son.
My beautiful baby whose birthday is tomorrow.
My beautiful dead boy.
The knife is suddenly in my hand again and hovering tantalisingly close to my chest.
My eyes are dull, and there are no tears now. I close my eyes. My son’s laughter still ringing in my ears.

Found

I told the stars about you. Everything. Sweet voice, pretty eyes, and us. The good and the ugly. You and me. It tinkered my heart, hope did.
My days were far from mundane. Every clink of metal was a looming threat; ready to snuff out a life. Hiding in rat-infested, neon-lit alleyways was a reprieve. An assurance for being able to see the next golden hour. Not much changed, but the loneliness feels like a lifetime away. Now I wake up to a cranky Japanese boy and the aroma of fried bacon. Lazy mornings, light-hearted banter, the way your eyes crinkle and disappear into crescents when you smile; these little things made me human again. Even if the magic of the golden hour does not last long, in that moment I am content.

When I look inside, deep inside, I find love. Find you. I wasn’t used to it, being cared for and having a warm home to return to. My heart flutters rapidly at the thought and I- I could cry- burst with affection. Knowing that I have you so close, the fact that you are safe means the world to me. Ruffling your fluffy black hair, losing myself in your honey eyes, snuggling into your chest as I memorize that scent of coffee and comfort.

How do you do it? Caressing my hand and looking at me with nothing but overflowing, unapologetic love. I hate it. It breaks me every time. Yet you never falter. The shining resolve never fails to spark inside you. I reach forward-
So close.
I’m there. I’m here.
Wait.
I fall apart.
I don’t understand. Our hands never meet. Drifting fingertips, vanishing dreams. Maybe I don’t deserve this, don’t deserve you. Maybe the stars don’t align, right, I wonder if the stars already know about you.

I woke up to the kettle whistling away. Apparently, I had passed out on the couch last night. Exhausted and bleary-eyed; getting up was a chore as my muscles ached at the action. Sunlight filtered through the paper-thin curtains, lighting up the shabby room. It seemed to be a little after dawn, the city below was still silent and had not yet returned to its bustling self.

“Ash, you’re back?” Startled, I turned around to find him there. He had not left. He was still here. Relief flooded through me and I pulled him into a hug, he laughed into my neck, “Hey, it’s okay. I got you”
“Mn it’s just- I’m relieved. Very much.”
“Me too. You were late and I called every person on my contact list. Please understand that your phone is used for communication or I’m going to have a heart attack one day”
“Sheesh, live a little, I’ll let you know beforehand from next time alright?”
“You always say that.”
He sighed, led me towards the bathroom, and walked back to the living room. Perhaps having sensed that I needed time alone. I let the cool water run through my grimy hands. Sinking to my knees I washed my body thoroughly, rubbing at crusty blood stains furiously. It’s almost ironic how the pale red puddle forming on the tiles carried with it all the evidence.
Like last night hadn’t happened.

The gunshots ringing through my head intensified- drowning everything out. I was underwater, chained and gasping. I lash out in an attempt to breathe, clawing through the worn fabric on my torso. It’s too much. Every small sensation builds up and crashes onto me like a tsunami wave.
Tears are a strange response to pain. It was the frustration that welled up in me, bursting at the seams; pouring out, leaving me hollow.

Don’t let those wicked thoughts tear us apart
Let me hold you through the night

Soft violin strings tied me to consciousness. For a while, I was unfeeling. Raw. Aching. Jaye’s voice cooed in my ear as he held me like a glass sculpture; the memory echoed-
“Breath slowly, yeah, just like that. I’m here. We’re safe”
Tunnel vision frayed at the edges and the world snapped back into focus. I found myself clutching the sink, the image in the mirror distorted; miserable.
It hurts to be powerless. Nothing I do can get me out of here, not if I want to protect him. This is the only way.

Bittersweet coffee fills the room, cozy. I see Jaye swaying to an obnoxious pop song blaring from the radio.
“Turn that crap off. You have no taste.”
“Oh? okay then, since I have no taste you get the opportunity to make your breakfast. Sounds good?” Laughing, I snatch the mug of coffee, “I was messing with you silly boy. Don’t worry because I’m used to the lame songs as well as the undercooked food.”
“HEY! YOU UNGRATEFUL BRAT!”
“Catch me if you can~”

The song is drowned out by our laughter and the scrambled eggs forgotten on the stove. We horse around the house, throwing pillows at each other. Eyes twinkling with mirth and unshed tears, cheeks flushed pink after this little workout; it’s a good look on him. I was afraid things would change today, but he always proves me wrong. Every fiber of my being screams at me to hide this precious creature from the dirt and filth of the material world. None of that should touch him.

Seconds ticked away into minutes and hours fast enough. Kai had gathered enough intel by then for me to be able to study the layout of the run-down building. Tension seeped in my muscles as I planned out every single bite and blow; calculated all the ways it could go wrong. One misstep and I would be gutted like a fish. One detail overlooked is a hundred more people ready to pull the trigger on Jaye. The weight of the knife resting in my back pocket keeps my mind from wandering. It’s fight or die. This last shred of violence will decide if he can escape this city of nightmares.

The Price of Happiness

Hideo runs his eyes over the printed headlines, suddenly tripping over someone’s small short legs.

«Excuse me, sir,» he hears from a stuttering child in a torn jacket and a hat that has slid down on his forehead, who apparently was running around with friends and did not notice a passerby who was fascinated by the newspaper.

“I… I got your shoes dirty—” the boy mumbles, dropping his eyes down in shame, and Hideo glances at the tip of his shoe, where the mark of the child’s cheap shoe is obliquely imprinted.

“It’s okay,” he answers confidently, lowering his palm, with the newspaper clenched in it to his thigh to get a better look at his companion. “It’s just a little stain.”

“What’s your name?” he asks, wondering to himself, because why would he want to know the name of some unfamiliar kid who’s run into him in the middle of the day?

And the boy doesn’t seem to understand it either, unsure of how to shred the crumpled sleeve of his jacket, but he calls it quietly nonetheless: “Yukio,” he swallows and repeats a little louder “Suzuki Yukio, sir.”

His friends call him, gathered on the lawn around the old ball, and little boy runs away.
Left alone again, the young man unwittingly ponders that a peaceful, contented and boring life without events has a big disadvantage-it erases the temporal boundaries. No one cares: what you get up in the morning, where you go, and why exactly today you decided to tie a colorless silk scarf around your neck. And now we are like dogs – we see the streets in black and white and carry out silly commands for a savory bone. Getting out of this stuffy routine is dangerous and, frankly, not worth it, because happy people are not understood, they are feared and not accepted.

“Be like us,” they say.

And you close your eyes, take a deep breath, and obey.

Until one day, some kind of pressure lever kicks in. And you don’t want to be like everyone else anymore. You want to be happy with yourself.

“What’s going on in your head?” asks Sasaki three days after his last meeting with Yukio. Hideo and Sasaki are sitting in his office, trying to finish the paperwork for the sale.

“Have you ever thought about packing up and just leaving?” asks Hideo. Sasaki stops cramming the clauses in the contract, and puts all the papers away, knowing that, judging by the subject, there will be a long conversation.

“Honestly?” he clarifies, folding his perpetually frozen palms into a lock on the table in front of him, “Thousand times.”

Hideo is finally distracted from looking at the dirty gray clouds floating over the tops of the buildings, seemingly noticing his friend in the room with him for the first time all morning.
“Then why are you still here?” Hideo looks up and bewildered at his friend.

“Because I’m practical,” he spits out at the end, not bothering with multi-line paragraphs of speech, “and dependent on many things around me.”

“What kinds of things?” there is a note of interest in Hideo’s voice when he asks the question.

“Like quality tobacco in heavy rolls,” he lifts a cigarette case from the newspaper without opening the lid, “or undiluted Irish whiskey at the bar on 3rd Street. I depend on fresh linen on my bed and many other things, would I be surrounded by the same conditions beyond the border?” Sasaki slams down a folder of signed sheets, finishing an unplanned confession,” I don’t think so.”

“And your life…” Hideo looks at his fingers, trembling with all the information he’s received, “Is it good enough for you?”

“I think we’re okay with each other,” he rises from his chair, showing a desire to take a smoke break.

Hideo doesn’t know where he’s going. Wherever he is, every moment he has lived poorly slows his heart to a dead man’s rhythm, for, he is told, it is lived in vain. He hears children’s voices near the market square and involuntarily recalls the ones he saw in the camp of the travelling circus. One voice is recognisable in its flowery timidity, and Hideo is quicker to buy an unweighted sack of apples from one vendor, hurrying to catch a familiar sight.

Suzuki Yukio notices the man, somehow happy for only the second time they’ve met, and Hideo realises that no one has been as happy for him in a long time. He tosses him an apple, and the child deftly intercepts the fruit in front of his chest, rubbing his small, slightly dust-stained palms gratefully.

«Thank you, sir,» he makes a respectful bow, even taking off his cap with its crumpled visor, and under it his blond, headdress-laden hair growing back to his earlobes.
The whole company runs up to him after his mate and the apples are quickly dispersed in his brisk hands. Hideo has no idea what this act of generosity is about, but even one childish smile is worth all the fuss.

«Would you like to play ball with us?» one of the older boys asks him, amusingly brushing a blackened spot on his chin.

And Hideo realises that he wants. Much more than going back to Sasaki’s office and counting numbers, adding up equations, spending dollars to build entertainment for the rich.

He nods, disposing of the empty bag and pulls his jacket off his shoulders, not even thinking at this point of the likelihood of ruining an expensive shirt. Over the next forty-odd minutes he laughs in total as much as he has laughed in the past six years.
All the while people pass by, not understanding the joy of wallowing in the mud, and it is in this primal game, surrounded by sincere children he himself has never had the chance to be, that Hideo breathes deep and gets sick of the simple human happiness that, imagine, he bought for a leaky bag of apples.

There is War in My Country

The sky is on fire. It crackles orange and red as night begins to fall over the village. My mother, holding tightly to Yasmina’s hand, drags her along as she takes the lead. My father is beside her carrying all we could grab: photos, clothes, the jar with nana’s ashes, three generations of life reduced to a single pack. I take up the rear, completing the triangle. The triangle shape has the strongest foundation, and I can only hope we can withstand the chaos that awaits at the docks. A few houses have been reduced to dust, while others look like Ancient Roman ruins: a collapsed roof, a missing wall. Dark black smoke emits from the shattered windows, forming into a dense cloud that stings our eyes. Other survivors run alongside us, hair gray with dust as if they just crawled their way out of the wreckage. Screams and cries of help echo all around us.
My home. Everything I’ve known, gone. My mind is spinning. I focus on putting one foot in front of the other. The docks come into view up ahead, and I can already see the crowd, a mass of bodies, too close to be separate beings. We charge into the fray and let the crowd swallow us. There are four U.S Navy ships lined up on the harbor. Soldiers in polished uniforms are waving people on board, and the crowd inches forward like a herd of impatient sheep.
“Everyone stay close,” my father shouts over all the noise. Yasmina drops the teddy bear she was holding and tugs on my mother’s sleeve.
“Snuggles,” she whines, pointing at the bear that has been kicked aside by shuffling feet.
“Leave it,” my mother replies, sternly. Yasmina pouts, arm outstretched for the bear as my mother guides her away.
As we near the front, a soldier signals that the first ship is full. A cry of anguish rises up from the crowd, and that’s when the first missile hits.
Everyone ducks in unison as it tears through the body of the first ship. A sharp boom follows and the ship erupts in flames. People are screaming, but it’s only a faint buzz beneath the ringing in my ears. There is a terrible pause as we all watch chunks of wood and steel break off into the water. Then, the crowd lurches forward like a dog who slipped its leash. Someone shoves a lady out the way, and she falls face-first into the dirt. Nobody seems to care. She cries out as people step on her hands and feet. She curls into a ball on the ground and doesn’t get up. I want to go to her, but out of the corner of my eye, I see Yasmina ducking between a stranger’s legs. She has slipped out of my mother’s grasp and is running back for her bear.
“YASMINA!” My mother screams in terror. I take off after her, pushing against the tide of people. I lose sight of her in seconds. I stand on my tiptoes to look over the sea of heads. I spot a red ribbon, the same one my mother tied in Yasmina’s hair this morning. I follow it and find her bending over to pick up Snuggles. She presses him to her chest, relieved.
The next missile hits. I lunge for Yasmina, knocking her to the ground, and covering her body with mine. This time I feel the pressure of the blast against my back. There is a crack and the sound of splintering wood. When it’s over, I pull us both up from the ground. The world tilts. The bodies are just blurs of color rushing by.
“Papa!” Yasmina cries in my arms. She’s sitting on my hip now, and looking at me with watery eyes. I’m surprised at the anger that bubbles inside me. If she would just listen–
“We’ll find them,” I say, “I promise.”
The dock has almost completely collapsed in on itself. Those who were unlucky enough to be dumped into the dark water below are kicking their way to shore. Those who can’t swim keep themselves afloat by clinging to the cooling flesh of corpses bobbing like apples in the water. I feel bile rising in my throat as I follow the crowd heading towards the remaining two boats. I almost give myself whiplash from turning my head left and right, searching for my parents. They must be on the boat already, I think. I run faster, Yasmina bouncing in my arms.
We’re taken on board, and ushered down a flight of stairs, into the belly of the beast. People are sitting on the floor, knee to knee, shoulder to shoulder, crammed in tight like a pack of sardines. Please be alive, I plead as I scan the faces. They’re not here.
I set Yasmina down, and go straight for the stairs. The soldier standing guard there puts a hand on my chest and pushes me back. “No getting off,” he says, in clumsy Arabic, his American accent over-enunciating every syllable.
“My parents are still out there! I need to go back for them.”
As if on cue, the boat rocks, and begins to move. “Stop the boat! You can’t leave them!”
I try to shove past the soldier, but he aims his gun at me. I stare down into the barrel of the gun, a black hole waiting to swallow me whole. I put my hands up. Yasmina hides behind me, holding on to my shirt, whimpering. “Step back, boy!”
I do, sinking to the floor with the others. My chest tightens. I can’t breathe. “Amir. Amir,” Yasmina whispers. I open my mouth to say, It will be okay. Mama and papa are fine, but it comes out as a sob. Yasmina’s eyes turn red with fresh tears. I can’t look at her. I stare at my hands instead. My knuckles are black and crusted over with blood. I press my fists into my face and scream.

Just Like Magic

For the longest time, I believed in magic.

At first, it was just one of those cute toddler phases. I’d waddle around while waving my arms, presumably casting some sort of spell. I’d yell indistinguishable noises at everything that passed, sputtering secret curses.

Then, it was seeing magic wherever I went. When anything happened, I’d stutter, “That’s totally magic!”. Paper blown away by the wind? Magic. Flickering lights? Magic. That one time that I was looking for my colored pencils and found them buried deep underneath my brother’s homework? Still magic. There was magic in the arts, in my pencil against my paper, in the vibrant reds, blues and yellows. I would draw wavy lines on a sheet of paper. Or a table. Or whatever happened to be in my reach. My parents would rush over to scold me, and I’d stutter, “But- but- it’s magic!” After all, didn’t they see the magic within the vibrancy of the art?

Around this time, my grandmother gave me a necklace. It was a white unicorn whose mane would change colors according to my mood. My name was even engraved on the back. When I was angry, it would turn bright red, like the roses that used to dot our front yard; when I was calm and pretty happy, it shifted to a blue as deep as the depths of the oceans.

Immediately, I ran to show my parents, who did that fake laugh and said, “Wow, Elysia, it really is magic!”

“It is! And I’ll wear it forever.”

My mom smiled, her face saying, We’ll see about that.

Every few months, they’d ask if I was still wearing it.

“Of course I am!” I’d say, offended. They’d look at each other, a knowing look on their faces.

“Oh really? Why’s that?”

“Because it’s just so magical!” I affirmed.

And then I turned ten years old. I still loved my necklace, not even taking it off to sleep. It started with a tingling feeling that told me that I could do anything. Then, the wind would whisper spells into my ears, and my necklace would start to glow. That was it – I could do magic tricks, travel to far away dimensions, make fantasy real! Whenever I wore it, I was unstoppable.

Finally, on my tenth birthday, my family told me I needed to stop.

“Why would I stop? It’s real!” I crossed my arms, fiddling with my necklace. They sighed, but relented. It wasn’t until I neared my eleventh birthday that they started to really get annoyed.

Once, while playing hide and seek, I eavesdropped on my parents’ conversation with their friends as I stood behind the kitchen wall, waiting to be found.

“So, how’s Elysia doing? Are her grades okay in school? Does she still believe in magic?” Their friends asked.

My mom let out a small, tired sigh, “She’s still obsessed with magic. I try to interest her in other topics, but all she does is play with that necklace of hers! She thinks she can talk to animals, and claims to be able to teleport – and she never takes it off.”

“Awww, that’s really too bad… but it’s still really cute, isn’t it?”

I squeezed my eyes shut and tiptoed away, holding back the globs of tears that sprung to my eyes.

Was it true? Was growing up not compatible with magic? A hole slowly started to etch into my heart. Would I be like my parents one day?

It certainly did not help that even my younger brother was tired of my constant talk of magic.

“Elysia, can’t you just be normal for once? I have to tell my friends about my weird older sister who’s nearly thirteen years old and still believes in magic.” He yelled once.

“Why does it matter?!” I screamed back. “Life doesn’t revolve around you!”

“Yeah, well, it doesn’t revolve around you either!” He threw a pen at me then stomped upstairs.

On the day of my thirteenth birthday, it all changed.

I woke to the sound of my door being thrown open.

“Get up, get up, get up! You’re late for school!” My mom slapped the light switch on. “I know it’s your birthday, but that doesn’t mean that you can just wake up anytime you want!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I cried. I jumped out of bed and ran to the bathroom. Panicked, my shaking hands grabbed my brush and combed my tangled hair. In my hurry, I accidentally broke the chain of my necklace and it fell underneath the table. Ugh, I thought, I’ll fix it later. Then I grabbed my bag and left, yelling, “Bye, Mom!”

That day, almost like magic, I stopped talking about fantasy ponies and dragons. I stopped trying to talk to animals, stopped ‘teleporting’ to new dimensions. Instead, I laughed with my friends about school and the latest news.

At the end of the day, my best friend told me, “I’m glad that you didn’t talk about magic today. No offense, but I literally couldn’t think properly every time you rambled about that stuff.” I let out a giggle. I hadn’t even noticed! “Yeah, honestly I don’t know why either.” I reached to rub my necklace, only to feel empty air.

Weeks passed until my mom asked, “Where’s your necklace?”

Surprised, I looked down.

“Oh. I don’t know… I guess I haven’t worn it in a while.” I let out a shaky laugh. My mom smiled.

“Oh, thank goodness.” She said, her voice laced with relief.

Later, I looked under my table, only to find myself not wanting to reach out and grab it. I stood up. It would be okay sitting there.

Underneath the table was my entire childhood. Underneath it was a small pendant, one that held fond memories and that was filled with the magic of my childhood. Underneath it was what had been swept off, on my birthday morning, changing me for the rest of my life…

Almost like magic.

Christmastime at Court

During the holiday season James Filibuster works as a Santa Claus—a pretend Santa Claus, if you will. In public display at Hillshire Mall from one P.M. (after his lunch break, belly bulging appropriately) to nine-thirty P.M. at night, James Filibuster dons a white, curling beard, velvety red and white Santa-attire, and a devoutly jolly spirit.

James Filibuster is, as his interviewers gush, perfect in every way. He is the paragon of a pretend Santa Claus, for overlooking even his suitably squat form and booming voice one will sense the very aura of Christmas imbued in his being, hearty and wholesome and paternal. There are other Santa Clauses, each with their own quirks, their own jovial inflections on the famed Ho, Ho, Ho, but all agree that no one commands the hearts of children better than James Filibuster. He could not be better suited for the role, and that is that.

He is also a pudgy white man in his late sixties, but. Nevertheless.

To be a pretend Santa Claus is an amusing thing. It also tests all conceivable bounds of human patience and perhaps inspires the occasional fit of murderous desire, but James Filibuster hides any torments very well beneath the flashing cameras, parents’ cooing voices, children’s bright-eyed barrage of questions—Santa, Santa, can I have a tractor, am I naughty if I punched Devin in the face, Santa, do you need to pee if you’re always here?

Yes, he very much needs to pee. But at Hillshire Mall there is always a shortage of Santa Clauses, so he endures.

Despite this complaint, the children and their curiosity aid the passage of time, for James Filibuster only finds himself needing to open the sudoku app twice during the long stretch of his Saturday shift (it is a practice frowned upon, as Santa Clauses are not typically seen with their noses glued to screens). Some of these children he recognizes from years before—Dorothy with her pigtails and inability to sit still, Neon-Stockings-Aryan with twice the missing teeth, Yanji and her effervescent love of caroling. He greets them and they respond with delight, their parents especially pleased. Most, however, James Filibuster cannot recall, their faces blurred in his memory in masses of color and the excitement of yuletide.

It is approximately five-fifteen P.M., a busy time at Hillshire Mall, when James Filibuster meets the Woman. He has never seen her before, and even if he had he would not have remembered it. Her face is round, hair and eyes dark, mouth a pinched line, and he forgets what she looks like the first time around. The sole reason he glances back again is because of something he would know anywhere: that universal expression of anguish clawing lines deep into her features.

She leads a child behind her. For them, the crowd parts in unspoken agreement.

The child is small, of indeterminable age and gender on account of their shaggy hair and hunched stature—a pill bug burrowed against the smudging-crushing-cruelty of probing fingers. James Filibuster furrows his brows, tucks his book hastily behind him. He is no empath, but he senses trouble. Perhaps the kombucha he’s been drinking biweekly has taken effect.

The woman falls to her knees before him—skin and bone meeting unforgiving white tile. She jerks the child down with her. There is snot along her chin. “My Lord,” she says. The words cradled in gentle hands, reverent. “My Lord.”

James Filibuster smiles uncertainly. It is only a reflex, but the woman takes it as admission nonetheless, shuffling forward to the red carpet before his feet, flinging a ragged head down so that her mop of dark hair splays, fanlike, across his shoes.

“S’cuse me, ma’am,” James Filibuster tries, glancing at the crowd. His gaze locks on the child’s: fruit flies, buzzing in fear. James Filibuster tears his own away hastily and tries again. “Excuse me, could you get up—please?”

“My Lord!” cries the woman, a dam now broken. She flings a finger toward the child as if in condemnation, and both the child and James Filibuster flinch at the motion. “That girl,” she seethes, a venom dripping, the harsh clench of teeth on the t’s. “That abomination of a daughter. Fix her, please!”

The abomination-girl-child tenses with every word. James Filibuster swallows.

He does not know what to do with this clearly demented woman, so he turns to the standard procedure. He smiles and asks the abomination’s name.

“Alex,” says Alex. A quick little glance toward the woman, words strengthening as they progress. “And I am NOT a girl.”

‘Abomination’ is not denied. ‘Girl’ is, and with such unexpected, thundering certainty that James Filibuster finds himself nodding along. “Alright, Alex,” he says, “what would you like for Christmas?”

“A dress,” announces Alex, “so I can rip it up. In front of her.” A head-jerk motion toward the woman.

Cue the woman, head shooting up in outrage. “I—my Lord—my daughter isn’t right in the head!” Teary, pleading eyes. “See? She rejects her—her nature—I don’t deserve this, please, fix her!”

James Filibuster is perplexed. The crowd watches him with bated breath. He glances right, glances left, expects them to object.

But they are silent.

He looks to Alex. He likes them, he thinks. They’re someone he would remember.

He looks to the woman. He doesn’t like her.

He doesn’t, and yet—

She bows to him as he lounges upon his throne, pure supplication beneath his feet. The glitter of starstruck eyes, fluttering passions, all who come and go and take wistful glances backward because it is him. The worship of children and adults alike—this is why he loves his job.

He rises and feels—power. He is short, and yet he towers above that shrinking crowd.

“Alex,” says Santa Claus. “Listen to your mother, alright? Or,” a wave of gloved fingers, “onto the Naughty List you go.”

The watching children gasp. Alex’s mother bursts into tears.

Alex looks at James Filibuster one last time. A sad smile.

“Knew you weren’t real.”

Then, they’re gone.

Ten Minutes

Laszlo died.
It was an accident, as he was walking to school.
Everything was normal.
Then…
He was drowning. Only differently.
A liquid far harsher than water filled his lungs, and he gasped for breath.
Pain shot through his body as he fell to the ground, his knees hitting the concrete with a sickening crack. There were voices, the noise was so loud, like unwavering sirens pressing against the sides of his head. It was all blurring together, like paint on a fallen canvas, until…
There was nothing. Every sensation in his body stopped. He couldn’t move or breathe. He couldn’t even think. His body quivered, making him want to cry out. Could anyone hear him? Was anyone listening?
He couldn’t tell.
He couldn’t do anything.
Until he could.
All at once, there was a rush of air. Warmth exploded in his lungs, and he could see a dull light. He gasped in the air like it was the last thing he would ever do.
It was at that moment he realized he wasn’t walking to school anymore. Instead, he was sitting in a cool leather chair, sitting across from a woman with stern eyes.
“Ready?” She asked him impatiently.
“Where am I?” He asked, gripping the arms of the seat. “Didn’t I…wasn’t I…“
“All will be explained.” She promised. “You’re aware that you’ve died, correct?” His grip on the seat tightened.
Dead? That couldn’t be right. He was here. Alive. Breathing. Wasn’t he?
The woman went on to explain that some people were given ten more minutes of life. It was offered to people whose deaths were so cruel and sudden, the universe felt bad for them, and wanted to give them a second chance. The only rule: no one could know it was you.
“Won’t people recognize me?” He asked.
“You will be placed in someone else’s body.” The woman replied. “It’s randomized, neither we nor you will know who’s body you’re going to occupy. So what is your decision?”
“Ten minutes.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the room glistened before him. The chair melted away, sending him back to the crushing darkness.
Something inside of him changed. The toast he had eaten for breakfast fell away, and was replaced by a heavy, pasty material that made his stomach sag. His bones seeped down into his skin, his cheeks relaxed, and his hair started to recede.
Before he knew it, Laszlo was standing at the very spot he had died, no longer a high schooler, but an old man.
The remains of his old body had been taken away. How long had he been asleep? Long enough for a crime to be cleaned up. It was as if nothing had happened at all.
His eyes traveled to the school. He thought about what his teachers were thinking.
Would Mrs.Thomas from science be thinking about him as she fell asleep that night, remembering when she wrote “good work” on his essay? Would she be wishing she could read more of his essays, or was she happy, because she had less to grade?
He gave school one last, sentimental look then walked home. There wasn’t much time.
His parents were getting into the car as he approached. His mother looked up with glistening blue eyes. “You can just drop the package off there, thanks.”
“Uh…” Laszlo stood there awkwardly. “I wanted to say something, actually.”
Both looked deeply sad, with tear stained cheeks and red eyes. His heart ached as he searched for the words.
“I actually wanted to say…goodbye. Don’t be too sad, for Laszlo’s sake.” He had to bite his tongue to keep himself from crying. “And…he loves you. A lot.”
He gave a last look at his parents’ bewildered faces. If only they knew it was him. If only he could run up to them and give them a last hug.
But he couldn’t. He was a stranger to them. So he just smiled, his eyes full of tears, and he walked away to the park. He sat down on a bench and reached into his pocket, to see if there was a phone.
It was a miracle, but there was. He opened the messages and sent one to everyone’s number he remembered, typing, “Laszlo loved you more than he ever told you. Don’t forget to talk about him every once in a while, and remember he’s still with you.”
Once the final message was sent, he looked around. How had he never appreciated this park before? The trees softened the sunlight, letting it trickle in softly. The birds glowed in miraculous colors, like fractures of a rainbow. A ladybug crawled up his withered hand, and he lifted it to his face.
Did ladybugs get ten minutes, too, or was it only for humans? He examined every spot on the bug, trying to memorize it.
It wasn’t just the spots he was memorizing. It was the feeling of being alive, of having the opportunity to walk and breathe and live. He may have been inside an old man’s body, but at heart, Laszlo was still a kid. A kid with too much optimism and hope for his own good. That optimism led him, in his final moment, to believe that this wasn’t the end. Not really. Perhaps it was for him, but the world would keep going, birds would continue to glow, ladybugs would find something to crawl on, the sun would rise and set, and something would always be there to appreciate it.
As the world started to shimmer away as his last moment drew to a close, he clung to that feeling of hope. His eyes closed, and he felt himself return to his old body. It was as if he were returning to the comfort of a warm bed.
Comfort bloomed inside his chest and spread through his whole body, gently guiding him towards death.
He breathed a final sigh, and was, for the first time, completely at peace.

Guardian Angel

I close the heavy door behind me and begin to undress, removing my sweat pants and tee shirt to replace them with a hospital gown the nurse gave me. After changing, I follow her through the radiology department and into a room to get my MRI. “Okay, honey,” she says as I lie down, sliding my leg in the machine to be photographed. “Sit as still as possible for about ten minutes. Just take a deep breath.” I slowly inhale through my nose, the distinct scent of the hospital triggering childhood memories with my mom.

Beep. Beep. The rhythm of the heart monitor in her hospital room constantly filled the silence in the air. I glanced at her blank face, then down to her cold hand intertwined with mine. As a nine-year-old, I understood she was sick, but not the concept of her condition’s severity. “You see, Michelle, mommy has some cells in her body that don’t work right. They turned into clumps that are attached to her brain, which makes her sick,” my dad explained to me. Cyclically in and out of the hospital, I knew doctors were constantly at work to heal her, so I was oblivious to the possibility of what would soon happen.

The ten minutes slowly ends along with my struggle to remain still as tears streamed down my face. “The doctor will call you with your results in a couple of days”, the nurse tells my father and me before we leave the hospital and get in the car.

“Everybody, get up!” Robin Thicke sings over the radio once the engine turns on. I laugh to myself, remembering this was my mother’s favorite song.

She rhythmically flicked her wrists and swayed her body from side to side, awkwardly moving throughout the living room, her smile brightening it. My mom sang out of tune as she pulled me off the couch to join her, the two of us laughing and dancing together.

I am suddenly crushed by a wave of despair, my reflection on a sweet memory instantly turning to sadness. I was only five years old when my mom was diagnosed, but that still doesn’t eradicate the blame I put on myself today. Why didn’t I appreciate the time I had with her more? Why didn’t I realize it was so limited? These questions haunt me every day, even when something so simple as a song begins to play.

My mom had just been flown in a helicopter from our local hospital to one in Philadelphia, where the doctors were better equipped to treat her critical condition. My father booked a hotel room for the four of us so we could be closer to her in the city. Being one child out of fourteen, my mother had a massive family, who came to join us in what I didn’t know were her last few days. “What do you want to wear to your funeral, Mommy?” I asked, unable to dismiss the possibility of losing her.

“Why would you say that?!” my older sister hissed. “Mom doesn’t want to think about that.” Four years older than me, my sister was in eighth grade at the time and had an immensely better understanding of what we were going through.

“It’s okay, honey” my mom reassured me, filling my soul with comfort as she always did. “You can pick my dress for me. I’m sure you will find something beautiful for me to wear. And even if I’m gone one day, I will always be by your side, protecting you as a guardian angel.”

One week after the MRI, I run down the stairs to prepare my breakfast. Cold air smacks my face when I open the freezer to grab some Eggos, then I place them in the toaster. As the two icy waffles warm-up, I cut strawberries to be placed on top, along with a thin layer of Nutella. When my food is finally ready, I quickly eat, fighting to ignore the noticeable void when I remember mom made this every morning all those years ago. My attention quickly shifts when my dad shouts from upstairs, “The doctor just called. I’m sorry Mich, but the MRI showed you tore your ACL, and you will need to get surgery.”

Mom was in the worst state she had ever been in, and the day was difficult for all of us. “Go back to the hotel,” she suggested. “I’m starting to get tired, and I’m sure you guys want to take your mind off of today. I will see you tomorrow morning.” My dad agreed but seemed hesitant for some reason my adolescent brain didn’t comprehend. To distract ourselves, we spent the night playing in the hotel pool. I swam for hours, my mind so quickly taken off my mom and put to ease. After my dad checked his phone for the first time in a while, I was suddenly rushed out of the pool and into a taxi, barely clothed and my hair dripping. My dad shouted at the driver to go faster, and I was filled with unbearable turmoil and fear.

Upon learning that my hamstring would be ripped out and used to reconstruct my ACL, I broke into tears, dreading the operation and year-long recovery.

We sprinted up the stairs and into my mom’s room in the ICU. When we got to her room, dad spat out between tears, “Kids, Mommy’s dead.” She was gone. Her smile was gone. The comfort she gave me was gone. The Nutella waffles, the dance parties in the living room, her infectious laughter, All ripped away from me.

Amidst my emotional breakdown, I find comfort when I go to my room and open my desk drawer. “For a rainy day” an envelope reads in messy cursive. Inside it, a letter my mom wrote to me when she realized her time with me was limited. Her words are reassuring, and remind me that I have a guardian angel protecting me.

888-402-8222

“Canada’s number one trauma helpline, this is Mary speaking.”

I am in a state of panic. I am still, but there is chaos in my mind. The pit in my stomach weighs on my spine and an achy pain-like contusion ripples up my back. There is a strident ringing in my ears so I lock my head between my knees. Warm, salty tears flood into my mouth and my teeth grind against each other in utter bewilderment in regard to what, how, and why. How did I get here? What did I do to deserve this? Oh why?

“Hello?” Mary repeats. “Is anyone there?”

My tongue is tied. I want to speak but I cannot even conjure up a response. My screams are mute but my emotions are forward and reverberant. I wish she could see me. I need help and over the phone I am static to her, but to me she is the thin thread of hope and I must say something before I lose connection.

“I need you to use your words so I can help you.”

I am alone in my room. The walls are painted a yellow toned green, but there is no light to reflect the brightness of the colour. I have yet to change the colour of this room. It has stayed the same since I was born. Something about it holds sentiment, but right now I feel trapped in a nightmare and with the darkness of 2am in Port Moody, my life lacks worth of anything. Except, Peter. My rock. And, being the only entity of value, I am distraught at the fact that Peter is gone, leaving my life meaningless and empty. I mumble a woozy response and as my initial heightened shock of emotions start to conciliate, my hyperventilation increases.

“Oh good! You’re there. Can you explain to me what happened? Please know I am here to help and support you.”

I start from the beginning. On June 13th of this year, Peter, my husband, and I were travelling from our hometown, Port Moody, Vancouver, to Peachland. It was a Sunday night so we figured traffic would be minimal considering most people travel east on Monday or Friday. The previous day had been busy with packing for our trip and finding a sitter for our dog. Unfortunately, Peter and I were not able to conceive a child so we decided we would wait a couple years and then adopt. For now, our brindle pug, Oliver, is just enough. The trip was estimated to be about four hours and Peter didn’t mind driving in the dark so we left around 7pm to arrive at the Airbnb for 11. When we assumed there would be little traffic, we couldn’t have been more correct. The roads were so barren that it became difficult to even see the highway. We failed to also take into account the lack of sleep we had before we left, so I turned to Peter, who was driving, and I told him I was in need of some shut-eye and dozed off. This was around 10:30. We were almost at our destination, so I thought I’d sleep until we arrived. What seemed like seconds later, was the climax and end to the life I had, both within a heartbeat of a moment. I was tossed awake, but my mind was still unhinged from reality. I came to realize gravity had flipped upside down. Or rather, I had flipped upside down again and again as branches of trees pierced the glass windows of the car and slit my limbs. Peter had been sleeping on the road and was quickly knocked out when we veered 300 feet off the highway of the mountain. So there I was, screaming alone, knowing we would die and praying we wouldn’t. I reached against all forces for his hand and held until I felt his soul go with God and before I knew it, my beloved Peter, my rock, was ejected from the vehicle and I was left falling alone. I landed in the valley on a beaten road. After that moment, a blank space of what happened takes residence in my mind. I woke up after being flown to St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver with varying injuries. I broke my left arm and both my ankles, as well as my right leg femur. Worst of all, I lost my Peter and although my bones are healed, my heart will never be the same. Not only do I have memories of what happened, but I am imprisoned with flashbacks that take me back to the accident, more vivid than the moment itself.

I express this to Mary. I can tell she has a script prepared for when I finish and her patience makes me uneasy. Although, at this point, I didn’t care much for how sincere a helpline lady would be. Then she says to me: “I can sense passion in your tone. Your life, at such a youthful age, has already been filled with such layers. With this accident you may feel you are walking through another life and this one doesn’t feel like your own. I know you are strong. You’re a survivor and you’re struggling to stray from the norms of grief. Don’t let this prevent you from proceeding on your journey and allow yourself to follow the fires to the milestones that dwindle towards the horizon. Perceive this as simply a stepping stone along your road and on this stone you roamed through wreckage. This is just a layer.”

I am calm now and my breath has slowed. At this time it is almost sunrise and the golden glow lights up the walls of my room. I believe at this moment that Mary is an Angel sent from Peter to remind me to be thankful for blessings that work not only for my own good but the good of all. Through Peter’s death, I am grateful and I am at peace.

Trains

My father collects trains.

Toy trains, small and long, glossy black and beaming silver, polished wood and peeling acrylic. He places them on long, winding metal tracks, and they chug chug chug around the table, maneuvering around tall evergreen trees painstakingly painted with a fine layer of glittering pale snow, animals fashioned and covered with fur cut from my own fathers brown hair.

He will spend hours in his office, crafting them from the bits of metal outside our bunkers, the woodchips the Surfacers bring back, the plastic from our cups, the paint from clay, buying the small locomotives from the Market.

“Father.” I will say this to him every day as the Light comes up, and he will look at me with those startling eyes, such a pale color of brown it looks white, his pupils searching me, for what I will never know. He will say, “Yes?” It is our little dance, this pocket of conversation that never strays from the pattern, never has different twists and flourishes, twirls and spins, words and sentences. “I would like to help you build a train.” In total, it is ten words that I say to him every day, each asked and declared with a clear, even, clipped tone, the decisive cut of jewels. He will reply, in his soft, gentle voice, all blurred edges and kind smiles, “Maybe another time.” He has four words. They are always the same, always have been the same, always will be the same.

My father will vanish into his office, and I never peer through the window, never sneak a glance as he constructs his trains, because he never peers out the windows, never sneaks a glance as I work and study, and those fourteen words are all that connects us, all that allows us to understand each other.

When I say ‘Father’, he can tell if I’m happy or angry, if my voice lifts or stutters. When he replies ‘Yes?’ I can tell if he is tired or excited, if his words drag or grin. We can tell each other so much through just 14 words, communicate everything, our thoughts and feelings and dreams and fears, with just 68 letters every morning.

When the Light flickers off and we are left in the darkness, black and large and unstoppable, the noises bleeding to a stop, a heavy, thick silence covering us like fog, my mother will find me with her soft, frail hands, cup them around my face, whisper words, that, unlike my father’s, are silent, and I only know she is saying them because I touch my fingers to her lips as they form circles and lines and squares. She will lead me to the Pod, smooth and glass and metal, and I imagine it to be gray and green, although no one knows, only ever feels it, touches it, only ever imagines and creates what we think it looks like, this odd machine we are all lowered into every night by our kind-faced and soft-handed mothers, the darkness turning calm and absolute as the noise, soft and humming and constant, fills our ears and when we wake again, we are outside our father’s study.

The conversation, words muttered and murmured, vowels surging and consonants stuttering to a stop, passes by. My mother moves her lips in a different kind of dance than me and my fathers, handing me a letter.

I step out of our bunker, the heavy silence washed away by babbles and shouts, children rushing by in bits of blurred color, muted grays and washed-out yellows. Most of the younger eyes are dark and rich, the color of sticky caramel coated with tar, my own just a single shade lighter, a thinning piece of gray fabric pulled tight over mud. The men’s eyes are slightly darker than my fathers, pale brown with pupils that are cold, unforgiving, the women’s lost to snow completely, bone-white.

By the time the Light is brightest, everyone else is gone. They retreat back into their bunkers, to complete their job, to float and drift in the emptiness that coats every voice in a thick layer of silence, drowning every tone and syllable, waiting for the fog to break the next day.

The envelope in my hand is thick and yellowed most of the time, but sometimes a piece of thin, coarse white paper reaches my mother, and I get to feel what a tree must feel like, grainy and stiff. My feet make their way to the bunkers, I know them all by heart, and I will deliver the letter. The bunker doors never open, and I know why, know that these letters are for the grieving, and I dealt with the fact long ago that I give these letters every day, that my mother hears of a death and writes a letter every day.

My worst fear is that another child will come to my bunker and give me an envelope, thick and filled with papers that hold words that won’t mean anything, will mean everything, will end up unread in the end. I don’t think it will matter to me then if it is white or brown.

Once, as I made my way down the halls of the Street, the fabric beneath me dyed to look like a long, freshly-painted road, charcoal gray with dashes of yellow, I saw a window.

It was made of the clear glass of our vases, and it looked out.

Out, at the rock, orange and brown.

Out, at the world beyond the bunkers and Streets and Pods.

Out, at the prison that trapped us all, 3,000 feet below the surface.

And then I ran, feet pounding against the floor, my sound absorbed completely by the cloth that held firm beneath my feet, masking my presence, rendering me to nothing, just a silent child stumbling blindly, pitfully, down the Street.

Stumbling down, down, down.

Like there was a place to go.

I learned long ago there wasn’t.