Once, in the dark, cold alley, in between and yet so far from all the roads that mattered, lay the bike courier’s broken body. On the damp midnight ground, his pool of blood grew a fainter coral red, diluted by scattered puddles. His limbs twitched with every icy gust of machine wind, raking cigarette boxes and half-eaten packets along. He did not know how long he had been squalling. “Somebody!” he cried. “Anybody.” Even though it proved useless, his cries were turning into croaks. His blotchy sockets started to dry, sucking inwards. His moist lashes, like gossamers, slowly spun into his lids. He was running out of time.
Half a day earlier, he was somewhere else entirely. He rode in laps on a brick-red bicycle, almost shooting past the other vehicles. It was the cheapest model he could find, the only one he could afford, with incessantly loosening nuts. So much so, that he accumulated a row of cuts and grazes on either arm. Nothing could dishearten him. This was his first job. He was going to give it everything he had.
A new package was to be delivered. No bigger than an infant’s palm, it was wrapped in dense layers of paper and foil. The journey was brisk, a slow quiet ride through the smoothest roads he had ever graced. There was no time to smell the fragrant ruby blossoms dancing in the wind. In an instant, he found himself at the intersection, a long, narrow alley on his left.
It started with a light drizzle. He could not yet see the shadowy figure. Then the clouds spat at the murky ground. He saw the rough semblance of a face. The features were missing. The downpour came with a warning. The callus knuckle pressed into his cheek. He crashed into a garbage lid, forging its shape. Then a toe like a boulder to his chest, denting a rib. Three blows to his stomach till he purged rotten blood on himself, now drenched in his own waters. With each successive jab, he could not feel the pain any longer. The echoes of the ocean filled his mind, raindrops sweating down his face. Things moved so swiftly that nothing was moving anymore. He was not moving anymore.
His eyes felt like pounds, weighing down a cranium he had already began to measure. Once his eyelids met, it would be the end of it. He rationed his energy; part to pry his eyes against their waxing close, and part to cry out whenever he heard the new splashes in the water. “Please…Help…Please,” he whimpered. Even when some passer-by stopped to study him, it seemed his grotesque state only sent them on their way. The thread of hope was thinning out.
His head felt light and heavy at the same time, a transitional stage. It would not be too long now. His vision began to iris, his lids falling into longer blinks. It was almost relaxing now. It was easy. He could just let go. The last flicker was coming. Open. Shut. He could not see the shadowy figure.
He tore his lids open. A black emptiness had enveloped him. His back was curved to a hard surface, spraining his spine. He could not feel his limbs. He could not breathe. As he wheezed, he inhaled a musty stench. The stench of a rotting corpse. He tried to stir something. A finger. A toe. Nothing. Perhaps this was the true horror of death.
An electric current came shooting through his synapses. He gasped in a scream, as though he was breathing for the first time. He shook his hands, his feet, with an even ease, a steadier movement than he could manage before. Maybe this was not the end of him. He sprung his arms up, feeling in the darkness. His index brushed against a rough, wooden texture, small sharp splinters prickling out in patches. He felt around the edges and found little notches on the corners. This could be the way for him.
He pushed against it with all his might, grunts and winces as the splinters dug into his fingers. It would not budge but he knew he had done something. Bulbs of the wood had caved in. Another push, now with the force of his forearms. The cracks slashed into his elbows, grazing the soft pockets of tissue. Drops of blood trickled over his bicep. The bulbs became craters, but it was still not good enough. He lay back into the hard wood and extended both his arms and legs to the top. More blood oozed onto his neck. He mustered up everything he could, and jerked with every muscle. A bent kick. A strong jab. All at once. Crash!
A blinding whiteness surrounded him. The wood disintegrated into little pieces around him. Perhaps this was the light he had to reach. The light they say you must walk into. His blindness was not cured, only modified. He put his soaking arms to his eyes, slowly rising up. He stood like he had never stood before. His body felt revitalized, every ligament, every cell, was given life anew.
He separated his fingers a little, seeing slits of light through one eye. It was no longer striking. Somehow, in the few seconds that he shielded his eyes, it had dimmed to an average fluorescence. He saw the place through both his eyes. Beneath him, the wooden thing he had burst through was a black, wooden crate. Around him was a run-down room, beige molding into brown, brown plasters peeling of the walls, wall fragments on a muck-covered, gravel ground. He looked down at his legs. From his chest to his shoes, his garments were tattered from his wounds. The wounds themselves had somehow already become scabs. Something was not right. Something else had happened to him.
He lifted each leg slowly over the crate. Even with the ruptured bottom soles on his trainers, a ground that looked like a painful walk, felt soft beneath his shoes. As he paced, left and right, his heartbeat quickened. He did not know how he was brought here. More importantly, he did not know who had brought him here. His pulse heightened as he considered the same man who had led him to what he thought would be his end. Still, even that conclusion made no sense. He knew then that the end should have come.
He wandered as long as he could to his right, and it seemed the room was re-rendering itself for each step he took. The longer he walked, the more he noticed the number of damaged spiral patterns in the wallpaper, the hints of red on some of the stones. As if in answer to his call, he arrived at a dark staircase. The flights rose at a steep incline, the highest step at the ceiling a sharp pitch black. He stopped in his tracks. He did not know if he wanted to know what was up there. About to turn the other way, out of the corner of his eye, he could see a shadowy figure emerge from the blackness of that high step, slowly revealing itself to the light. A clap each time it descended.
In an instant, the figure’s silhouette was gone. It gave him pause. He knew what he saw, what he heard. Everything around him was nonsensical. This was no different. He shook his head and turned back around. A wide, toothy grin. Large, crazed, cobalt eyes.
He fell back a little, catching himself. “Who are you?” he asked, with a pitch he had not heard in himself. She was frozen in place, a young girl in a ragged, faded, pink ball dress. In a better state, she may have been heading to her prom. Her skin was a dry grey; he could almost see the flakes on her arms. “Did you bring me here?” He had managed his tone better. She finally blinked, leaning in slowly. Instinctively, he took a small step backwards. From some sort of pocket behind her, she produced a transparent red pack. “Here,” she spoke in a strange, melodic whisper. He could smell the pack’s pungent tang. He smelled it when he was drenched in it before. A snarl came over him.
The girl undid the pack’s top, pushing it to his face before he could recede. “It’s for you,” she added, an eagerness coloring her voice. He expected to be sick now. He had every right to be. But something was not right with him. A desire for the pack overwhelmed him. She grinned from ear to ear; she could sense it. He swallowed a shallow gulp as he clutched the pack from her. Something in him lifted it to his lips and slanted it. Something in him downed it all in one go.
The girl clapped lightly. “I knew you could do it!” she celebrated. He threw the empty pack to the side. Sense told him to cleanse what had just entered his system. Something else was asking for more. “What’s wrong with me?” he asked, more for himself than for her. “Who are you?” She tilted her head to one side. Her hand already reached his cheek. “Janine.”
He took another sip from the pink cup. The blood warmed his mouth, soothed his throat. Consuming it became second nature to him within the hour, but he still could not hold back a small scowl at the thought. Nothing out of the ordinary now, his bruised arm had lost all trace of damage, much like the rest of his wounds. In some ways, the invisible gashes made him feel more broken.
Janine had taken him up to her room. With pristine walls, fluffy pillows and multiple duvets, it was another realm entirely. Like her dress, everything in it was a different shade of burning pink: a dash of fuchsia here, a touch of taffy there. The room was populated by hundreds of dolls, both cloth and porcelain. Janine had made him sit at a tea party set, keenly filling a pink plastic cup with another pack she had in store. As he drank, she placed three dolls on the stools around the table. “Look Amy,” she shook a ragdoll with a torn eye. “We have a new guest!” Though he did not think they could grow any larger, her eyes were as great as can be, filled to the brim with glee. She poured a cup for herself and giggled, tapping it to the cups she placed for the other dolls. As he slowly sucked in his final drop of blood, he racked his brain in search of a way to begin.
“Umm, Janine”, he began, still holding his empty cup. She sharply turned her head to him with an audible bone’s crack. “Do you want some more?” She hopped up and started towards the door. “No. Please take a seat,” he said, as he beckoned her back. He put his cup down onto the table. Trying to shift himself forward was no easy feat, with a table cutting at his shins and a low stool forcing him to bend his entire knee. “I’m not saying you haven’t been helpful to me. I just-I just need to know why this is happening, what this is.” He took a deep breath, relieved that he’d finally released the question, now dreading the answer.
Janine took the ragdoll into her lap, hugging it tight. “It’s alright, Amy. He just wants to know.” It made him uneasy; he wondered if it really did speak to her. Things could not get any stranger. She put the doll onto another chair, lifting its head upright against the back. “Please excuse her, it’s our biggest party in a while,” she said. “She doesn’t want anything to ruin the mood.” He nodded lightly, trying to appease her only for his answer. The longer he waited to know what had happened to him, the more he wondered what had happened to her.
“I’ll just keep it short and simple. So you know how you were on that street and all.” She murmured with dismissive hand gestures. “Anyways I couldn’t very well leave you like that, so I saved you.” The announcement of the fact out loud drove him to realize he needed to acknowledge it, although he did not know yet how thankful he truly was. “Thank you, for saving me.” She raised her shoulders bashfully, putting a hand to her mouth as she smiled. “Oh, you don’t have to say that.” He smiled back out of politeness, though he felt it truly resembled a wince. The ragdoll’s head was twisted in his direction, and he could see his reflection in its sole black bead. “I really appreciate it,” he said rising up off the stool. “But I should be getting home now.” Perhaps he should have asked her exactly how she saved him, but he reckoned he would learn to cope on his own eventually. He almost reached the bedroom door when she appeared, in a split-second, just as she had appeared before, and crashed the door shut.
She wore a frozen smile, identical to every one she had given him before, but there was something different about this one. “You can’t go,” she said sweetly. He furrowed his brows, unsure what to make of it. “Did you want me to stay till your party finishes?” Playing along was the obvious route to understanding her. But even so. “It’s not about the party, silly.” She slapped his shoulder in what should have been a playful touch, lightly paining him. “What’s this about, then? Why can’t I go yet?” His voice grew more irritable as he rubbed his shoulder. She chuckled in a strange, quiet-yelp. “It’s not that you can’t leave now.” She leaned closer, stroking his shoulder with the back of her palm. “You can’t leave.”
The words did not register in their first vibration. She spun him around, leading him, like a weightless rag, back to the tea party set. She sat him on the shorter stool and curved his neck upright. The ragdoll, now sitting across from him, leered at him from the higher chair. The long, flesh pink walls slowly irised into the crate where he first awoke.
He was not sure if he was awake or asleep. His ear became keen to fluctuating patterns in white noise. Janine had given him his own room, a reward for finally understanding that she could sense whenever he was near the door. The room she called his own was as dilapidated as what he had seen in the basement. Wide walls, browning walls, that must have been a bright white once. The sizable space felt shrunken. Nothing was in that room, but for a mattress-less bed frame in the far left corner. He took to that corner the moment she led him in. He laid on one side the bed, arms and legs bending tightly to his chest, a fetal curl. This was a position he had held for a while. Just how long that while had been, he could not tell.
Janine came to visit him, an interval among many of her others. She dropped off a new red pack. She tried to converse about a new hobby. She would set a new batch of folded clothes beside him one time, then carry it away another. This time, she came with nothing. She sat on the opposite edge of the bed, shifting slowly to his end. He felt the whipping springs throb beneath him, but he lay completely still.
“You can’t stay like this forever.” A whining tone rang from her voice. She stretched her arm over him and started stroking the back of his head. Instinctively, he flung her hand off, quickly resuming his position, though clearly altered now. She giggled in delight. “There you go!” she patted his back swiftly, pulling back afterwards. “I knew you had it in you.” She sent pulses through his body, shivers not of fear, but of disgust.
She shook her head. “This just won’t do, now, will it?” Every time she spoke, filling the air, it somehow only solidified a vacuum. He counted his breaths, in and out, the seconds it would take till she was gone. With some force, she turned his whole body over to face her, going on to exert a hold. “You can’t stay like this forever, darling. Why don’t you come out of the room for a bit?” His face, still hinged to the side, slowly veered a little. “Will you let me out?” His voice was hoarse, a rough vibration on his tongue that he had not felt. It tremored with a sliver of hope.
Janine gave him a face he had not seen her wear, a blank expression. She blinked out of it with a lop-sided smirk. “Well, you know I’ll let you out of here.” She waved an arm to the ceiling. His sliver had barely been alive for a millisecond. With her hold waning, he rapidly revolved to his numb, right side. In the same moment, she clutched his free shoulder, tugging at it slightly. “It’s up to you,” she said, pinching his collarbone. “But I would take the offer.” Though he could not see her face, he could sense her eyes boring deep into his back. Her grasp grew tighter and tighter, and then it was gone. He knew she was gone, for now.
His body had gone dead again. When he gave either limb a shake, shrapnel dug into his flesh. He grimaced at the piercing shots, re-injecting themselves into the same lifeless tissue. His rest was different. With a body set only for sleep, the bed became a sarcophagus. He was different too. He knew then that he was not asleep. That he did not want to be asleep.
He warped his neck, trying to anchor the rest of him. An unruly spasm of his own accord, his body wobbled manically. The springs squealed in a loud cacophony. He needed a second shake for his arms to loosen. A third for his stiff upper thighs. A fourth for his slumbering soles. At the final refrain, he gave a reverberation for his whole muscular system, limbering any remaining rigidity. Revitalized, he hurdled off the bed. He took a small step towards the end of the room, towards a broken, muddy brown door. A streak of dim fluorescence emanated, gleaming faintly on a gristly wall for a screen. Janine had left it lightly open.
He turned the crusted knob. The door was burgundy, cracking into strips of pale pinks at the corners. As it creaked open, he took its contents in. Just a mess of paraphernalia. Clutters of musty old hardcovers and dusty garments were the sole inhabitants. The same bland walls, the same dull tones. This room was no different than the last he had seen. The doors before had been different shades of burgundy. Some, he was sure, were in fact the same rooms. There was nothing to see. Nothing to learn. He was always in the same place.
Something else stirred from within. It was something he was keeping at bay so far. His stomach rumbled through his esophagus. It rang in his inner ear, piercing his balance. He could not hold back a wince as he gripped his abdomen. He writhed in pain; it came in consecutive currents. Press. Pang. Cinch. His nails dug into his ribs, as if he could suppress it. It pin-pointed small, intestinal zones. It would not listen to him. It kept coming back. Always in the same place.
He knew what needed to be done. He staggered in half-limp, half-walks, searching for the exit. There had to be some way out from the circuit of doors he found himself in. It seemed like the doors were paying heed to his patterns, adapting to his path. First it was the cracked burgundy. He started to squirm in whispers. Then the light burgundy. Deep burgundy. He twisted his body, tightening around his radiating belly. The loop of burgundy doors coiled around him. He could almost hear them snicker in foreign faded burgundy.
The body arose. As he straightened his hunch, it took over. This new body that he was not yet familiar with. That he did not know the way he used to. It began to curb his pain. It saw no circles and it heard no laughs. It saw a beaming beacon in the fog of doors. It smelt that beacon’s salty, metallic waves. In a way he had not thought of her before, he thought of Janine. His body was at a half-open olive door.
This room’s walls were not brown. They were teal tiles, with matching floral patterns on the floor. He heard the buzzing and smelt the aroma before he realized where he was. The aluminium fridge was the only modern piece he had seen, land-locked by a small row of teal islands. The hanging lights glistened with a sheer, azure hue. This, he knew, was something else indeed. As he soaked it all in, he saw the new element: a girl prancing to a counter, carrying a tray with a small, red cake.
It was Janine. She wore a white, thin-strapped, summer dress, embroidered with turquoise roses. She had her back to him. She hummed quietly as she sliced the cake, a melody he knew, it was on the tip of his tongue. He could not trace it in the moment. It had to be Janine. As she gingerly lowered the knife, making delicate incisions in the red jelly surface, he wondered again. There was something about her this time, but he could not put his finger on it. A resurgence of how he had arrived in this place boiled in his veins, watching her scoop a glob of the jelly on her index. He was craving it though he did not know what it was.
“Are you just going to stay there forever?” she chuckled. He shook his head out of his state. The voice was not Janine’s hollow, hissing chirp. It possessed a certain quality. It had depth, variation; the measures of a real voice. The knife tumbled onto the counter, thrashing up and down until it found its resting point. She was done separating the slices. He waited for her to appear at breathing distance before another blink. It had to be Janine. She rolled her shoulders at an even pace. Nothing about her was abrupt. So abruptly, it dawned on him that he did not know her. That he wanted to know her.
She was not Janine. Not even close. Her eyes were a bright, baby blue, with speckles of sea-green. They shimmered in the light bouncing off of them, and he could see his reflection in sharp resolution. They bewitched a curling smile from him. “Glad there’s some life in you,” she said. Her lips quirked upwards. She went to the counter and returned with the cake. “Would you like some?” He did not think he would ever be met with a yearning for cake. He did not like his most recent yearnings. Somehow, she had made room for a happy craving. He gave an eager nod.
She served a generous chunk and plopped it on a blue plate, a fork clanked along. “Here you go.” His hands brushed against hers as he reached for the plate, warmth diffusing through the knuckles. He looked at her hands, glowing with olive undertones, no hint of gray dryness. “Sorry,” he said, uneasy with his observations. She answered with a sunny smile. “No reason to be.” She waved a hand down. He averted his gaze. He eyed his red cake, sections of its gelatinous top flopping over the base. He was not sure it was safe, in his current state.
“Don’t worry, it’s not real.” Her voice was the epitome of assurance. He did not need another argument, though she tested a large bite herself. Small flakes freckled her chin so she stuck her tongue out long to wipe them away. Her eyes buzzed an electric blue. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t even-“ She rubbed her hand on her dress, brown crumbs tumbling off. “I’m Jane.” She extended her arm. He shook it instantly, ensuring it was not too long a grip. She laughed an awkward laugh. He had to titter along.
He looked at his slice again, the entire half of the top having fallen away. He prodded it with the fork, pricking right through the soft, spongy base. “Really, it’s good. It’s just what you need.” He nodded in agreement before the words registered.
He took the first bite, stealing some wayward jelly along. It was mushy and fuzzy, tickling the lining as it rolled down his throat. Jane smiled and so he had to smile back. It fizzed in his belly. He was already sated. She was right. It was just what he needed.
Jane was going to let him out. He did not quite understand at first. The kitchen became their habitual hangout den. At some time, through some unspoken rule, he would leave ‘his’ room. After Janine’s scheduled visits, after he left her ripe red packs to rot; he would go to Jane. From the molten browns of the room to the bouncing blues of the kitchen, the space itself greeted him with as much benevolence as Jane did. She had her fresh batches of red cakes and pastries, warm and doughy from the oven. In between his ethereal experience of consuming them, the smallest of talks transpired. Her recipes. His failures at recipes. Always safe between the lines. There was nothing to understand. Today, Jane said she was going to let him out. He did not understand.
“What-what do you mean?” He was just in the midst of his third bite into a cherry chip cookie. Some crumbs tumbled over his lower lip as he spoke. “It isn’t for certain, you understand,” she said, taking the tray over to the table where he sat. She placed a few cookies on a white plate, some already cracking in bits even with her light touch. “I could still try.” Her voice wavered a little and she could not hold her gaze. This was not like her, as he briefly came to gather. That, apart from the topic itself, made him uneasy.
He took another broken bite, cupping a hand at his chin so he would not lose any part of it. “I’m lost here, Jane,” he started, though he was not. “Please tell me what this is about.” Minute morsels still slipped through his fingers. Jane put half of her cookie, bitten only once, back on the plate. “I don’t think it’s fair to you.” She leaned in and lowered her voice. She did not turn her head to see if anyone was there, but in that moment, she might as well have.
“I’ve known Janine a long time. She and I are family, for all intents and purposes.” She nibbled at a fingernail. He had never seen them in the same space before. He could not imagine they could ever share it. It was like she recognized the thought in his eyes. She nodded. “It may not make sense, I know. She and I. But even families don’t agree on everything.” He did not have much of a family, even before this had happened, but he bobbed his head along for her. “I can try speaking with her, if you want it.” Now her eyes pointed straight into his, captivating their contact. He was not sure what he was agreeing to, but he bobbed his head along for her.
Jane had called her over. Janine skipped into the kitchen with her pink ball dress. Now it was different, a little cleaner, with some pale pink patches stitched into the rips. In the kitchen’s cerulean ambience, even her dry grey skin let out faint pink undertones. He saw them now, just a few meters apart. Jane wore another dress, still white with teal floral patterns. The sight of them was remarkable. Their eyes were both variants of blue. They were almost the same height; Janine tended to hunch. Their hair shared twin golden tresses; Jane’s seemed to shimmer more. Their coloration, the tones of skin he vowed to himself were sharply separate, lost that distinction to barely different undertones. They did look like sisters. On sight, it would very easy even to mistake one for the other. That sort of blip would be a serious blunder.
“What is it, Jane?” Janine asked with her incessant enthusiasm. Though it seemed to address Jane, she smiled her face-stretching smile at him as she spoke. Jane shifted a few steps closer and held her arm, directing Janine to face her. She held her like she had done it countless times before. Still unsure what to expect here, he felt assured that the room for concern was a small one.
“It’s about him,” Jane opened. “I just think it would be in his best interest if he were let out for some time, don’t you?” She spoke scrupulously, enunciating every word. Janine turned her head back to him, still shooting that smile but also directing a certain look, an accusing look. Jane pressed a palm to her shoulder. “I suggested it, Janine. This isn’t a ploy.” Janine’s grin began to taper at the corner of her lips. “But he’s mine, Jane.” Her whisper became a drone. “I can’t let him go, just like that.” Janine looked at him from the corner of her eye, as if in warning for what was about to ensue. She hugged her arms, tight around Janine’s waist. “I know, sweetie. I’m not asking you to.” She propped her chin on Janine’s shoulder. “But letting him out, even just for a bit. It may help him come around.” She whispered it into her ear, but he knew she wanted him to hear it. He did not know what Janine wanted him to come around to.
Instantly, Janine’s eyes lit up, cartoonishly delighted at Jane’s words. She rushed over to him, still sitting at the table, with five uneaten cookies on his plate. She came in too close, just as she always did. She rubbed his cheek too harshly with the friction of her coarse palm, and for too long, just as she always did. Now, she depressed her lips, wedging forcefully into his cheek cavity. This was new. He saw Jane behind her, smiling for when Janine turned back around, a knowing smile.
“I’m sure you’ll love this, darling!” She dashed back to Jane and squeezed her. Jane reciprocated, like she had done it countless times before. Before vanishing away, Janine gleamed her last grating gaze. It seemed Janine had concluded she was presenting him with an incredible gift, one that he should be grateful for. He had some experience with Janine understanding of gratitude, and was not looking forward to it, whenever it should arise unexpectedly. But for now, he had something. He was going out.
Jane brought him to the final frontier, the last place he had not seen in the entire building. Wide, long, mismatched double-doors, one a tattered blue, the other a ragged red. Jane debriefed him on the outing swiftly: it would be very brisk, only to one place, and with their circumstances, they had to be back long before the crack-of-dawn. Jane twisted her key into the blue door and pushed it open. He did not expect the near pitch-black darkness the door led to; he was utterly blind to everything beyond the threshold.
In a few hours, that would be that. In a few hours, he would be heaved back. For now, he inhaled his first whiff of minty-fresh air, curling down his dry throat. Jane was already past the doorway. She smiled, reaching her arm out to him.
A world of night called out to him. A world nestled into a blanket of total darkness. Just a few blips of blinking lights flickered here and there. Signs to him, roaming in the realm of the middle of the night. In his mind’s radar, he recognized some of those dim and distant lights. Some of them were fresh in his mind, others a dim and distant memory. Only recently released from uncertain confinement, he came into the claws of another question. There was everywhere to be and at the same time, nowhere at all. Some small hours away from the crack of dawn, it dawned on him that he had no idea where to go now.
“It’s alright, we’ll find something.” He felt a hand clasping, leading his own. In the blinding night, he thought he had lost her. “How can you be sure?” Instinctually, his tendons tightened on hers. A silly sense that he might lose his grip. He could not see it at all, but he sensed her smile. She squeezed his hand. “It’s alright. I know a place.” He was swayed just as she said it.
Though she directed them, it seemed to have come about by itself. As though in answer, it spawned on a portion of earth. A small, secluded beach. The sand unfurled on a stretch of land, in naturally uniform wave-like patterns. He could see the moon, bright and brilliant in a horizon that came remarkably close to land. It conducted a calm tide, waves swimming and splashing a nightly song, lulling the world.
He did not realize they had come to a halt until he felt Jane’s fingers slide away. “What do you think?” she said. Out of cover of darkness, he could see her now. Her face was perfectly lit, framing her features, refracting a kaleidoscope of sapphires and moonstones in her eyes. Against the deep blue ocean and dark black skies, she centered the outline of a portrait. “Beautiful,” he said. The word was so abused; it had lost its meaning. He too thought little of it, but it came induced in the moment. There was no other way to describe what needed to be. “Just beautiful.”
They embarked on a simple stride along the beach. Jane instructed him to remove his shoes. The soles were already at a limit of wear and tear. His toe stuck out through a greying sock. As he released his first foot into the bed of sand, it dug in deeper than one would expect. Lifting it up again, the grains glided off his leg, dripping back into their bed. They paced down the path, lazy, loose steps to no routine. Sometimes, the tide came closer and rinsed their feet. Sometimes, it would only rise halfway, bubbles of foam reaching out like webbed fingers before pulling back for the next try. Jane clasped his hand, giving it a light swing. He did not need her to lead him anymore; his sight was clarified. She smiled her infectious smile. He knew it would come over him the moment he saw it begin. He did not need her to lead him anywhere; he simply wanted her to.
“Come on!” Jane said. She tugged at his arm with a current of energy, shooting straight through his skin. As always, though he did not know where, he had to come along. She kicked up mounds of sand, dashing towards the tide for her great mission. He laughed at the outer sight of himself, half-dragging and half-hopping over miniature dunes. Jane came to an abrupt stop, just at the advent of a new wave. The wave was being carried by the current, a passive passenger on the water’s conveyor belt. He did not know where it would break.
“Do you know how to swim?” she said. Her voice was uneven, concerned for an answer that would do away with her happy plans. The new wave his eyes followed gave a shallow flush at the edge of his toes, tickling them. In truth, he was not sure whether he could swim or not. All memories of when he had been outside before seemed fleeting, false almost. “I’m not so sure.” He could see her eyes dim as he said it. This must have been the main leisure she had come for. Just as the wave at his feet retreated back into its family of water, another leapt up in its place, making its way to shore. He patted her shoulder, beckoning her attention. “I can keep myself floating.” He was not about to let her down. “I just need you close by.” Her gem-stoned lenses returned, effervescent with a fervent nod. To himself, he noted this as the first time he had pleased her.
Hand gripping hand, they plunged into the water. With the first immersion, it is always cold but it would soon warm up to their bodies. They waded in, pushing through resistances of sticky cloth to the skin. Jane let out a laugh as soon as the sense bounced off of her. She splashed a big bubble towards him. Through a wet face and brine-irritated eyes, he had to smile at the sight of her. She slapped and struck at the water like a toddler with a ring of pool toys. She took small dives, circling around him under the surface. She also pinched him, to a few squeals. When she came up again, she came up with that same look in her eyes, the cue for her quest.
“Come under a bit. You’re not seeing it.” Instantly, he was sure he did not like the sting of salt water looping through the undercurrent. She stood firm, hands on hips, raising an eyebrow. He rolled his eyes. His case was lost before it could even begin. Her hand shot out, nearly flicking him. As soon as he held it, she eyed him a brief signal before he could feel his descent. He crinkled his eyes tightly and puffed his cheeks. With his whole body absorbed, he could hear the muffling echoes of reverb. Still, his eyes were shut. He felt a finger stroke his temple, circling as though to massage. This was her new signal, for him to open his eyes. There was something he had to see.
He pried his lids open. A blue, mystical realm had enveloped him. Though his legs were still rooted to the bed, this was his viewing chamber for the brilliance. Millions of microscopic bubbles pulsated around lilac-lavender reefs in the distance. Small schools of fish cut through the up-thrust, heading their streamlined path. He could not feel his limbs. They were sustained by the sea. He did not need to breathe. In the moment, he could almost feel a gill. Beside him, Jane smiled her signature smile. The ruffles of her blue dress danced in the current. Her golden coils twisted and trapezed in their own performance. He would never think of her as a creature, though he knew she was one at the core. She belonged in this otherworld of the deep blue. Perhaps he too could belong.
The navy ocean blue shifted into the dark, near-black, blue of the sky. They lay down, backs flat to the sand, facing a canopy of stars as the world dried their drenched bodies. Neither he nor Jane uttered a word. All had been said. They were both engaged in a shared activity of spotting which sparkle they had seen before. The bright moon’s celestial lamp was starting to dim, the heavenly pre-alarm for dawn. The cyans of the sky settled in from the darkness. With all the illuminating bodies, keeping track of the most minute became no easy task. Trivial even.
He turned to Jane. In that same moment, Jane looked to him too. Now, they were captive in each other’s gaze. He rolled slightly, inching towards her. He cupped her chin lightly. As he closed his lids, he felt hers mirroring. His face was barely an inch away, feeling the warmth of her breath. The last step now. His lips brushed softly against hers. The damp, doughy pairs united, locking like they were destined for each other. They stayed entwined to the ends of its time. As the dark world lightened anew, neither he nor Jane uttered a word. All was now felt.
He let the water wash over him. The shower-head prodded his head with pellets. A surprisingly serene sensation. Even his soggy strands, sticking flat on his cheeks, lent themselves to the calm. In intervals of closed eyes, he thought of Jane. The image of her drifting in the ocean floated in his mind’s eye. As the fresh water fell heavy on his body, he felt the sea salts sliding down, cleansing his pores. Then the last image came, the one that brought a stupid smile to his face. It played in a loop, on and on, his lips meeting hers for the first time. His chest throbbed with the pitter-patter. He did not now till now, how truly lucky he was. He twisted the knob, its stiffness needing more force. As the water suctioned up into the head, his sodden soles nearly gave him a slip. Even now with his obscure strength. He hopped off giddy, dashing out of the room. No time to squander. His luck awaited.
He found her in their kitchen again. As though he was watching from afar, he saw his own eyes light up at the sight of her. With her back to him, Jane paid no heed, swinging a short blue empire dress, absorbed in another red recipe. It was the smallest good he had ever seen her with, contesting the size of a button. This was how he always envisioned her, and this was how he knew she would always be.
“You never do speak first,” she laughed. She had not turned to see him but in the same way her presence stirred him, it must have stimulated something in her. He moved in closer, still making sure it was only close enough for them to face one another. “I’m sorry,” he chuckled. “You always know what to say.” She arranged rows of red baby buttons on a turquoise tray. He could devour them all by the look alone. She hugged her free arm around his lower waist, just the right amount of pressure for comfort. “I’m just giving you some encouragement.” She gave a winking grin. The tray’s display was almost complete. Her encouragement was just what he needed. He stroked her chin with the side of his index, feeling the fuzz under her lips. The fluttering of her eyelids agreed with it. He lifted his other hand to her other cheek and leaned in. Jane’s head slanted for him. He pressed his lips against hers, more forceful, more urgent. She responded in kind, pushing him back a little. She ripped his body away. His balance was nearly lost, stunted by the sudden shift in her. Her eyes roved over his shoulder, fading into a fainter hue, almost gray.
The turn he made was late; a slow twist to see what was behind him. Janine had been standing there for some time it seemed, frozen in place, but her appearance would always be out of the blue to him. Her dress was a pale pink frock, worn-out with its seams out of place. But the first things that pierced him were her eyes. Nearly bulging out of their sockets, the cobalt had darkened. Her face wore no expression, no ghost of her jaw-cracking smile. Jane patted down slow, careful steps towards her. Her whole body completely unanimated, not even breathing. Jane reached to lay the edge of a finger on her shoulder. Just as the outermost nerve came into contact, Janine was out of sight.
Jane followed with her own disappearance. He stood alone in the empty, dim fluorescence, in the company of an unfinished arrangement of tiny morsels. He had not spared much thought for Janine’s response, though he knew it would not be positive. He had not anticipated it. He had not even considered it. From some other room, Janine’s unintelligible screams radiated. Then he heard a muffled, quiet voice, Jane without a doubt. Though he was absent from the argument, he knew this matter concerned him. So he had to be a part of it.
He found them at a room he had never visited. Sea-green walls, bright baby blue bed covers, some sapphire trinkets about. Without need for indication, he knew this room was Jane’s. Janine was throwing the trinkets, punctuated by variations of the same shriek. “How could you!” With some crashes, she did not bother to complete the phrase. Standing cautiously at the doorway, Jane’s shoulders shook with every break. “It’s okay Janine, it’s okay.” She spoke in as soothing a tone as she could muster, though some rasps disturbed it. “Let it all out, honey.” He had never seen her so rattled. Some larger porcelain sculptures fragmented much too close to Jane’s feet. This would not end well.
In a moment, Janine’s comet eyes were coal black. She had just caught the sight of him. A blue plastic cup grazed over his shoulder. “I gave you everything!” She started to screech like a stricken banshee. “I saved you!” A small china plate struck his side of the doorframe. Jane glanced him for barely half a second. Half a second of utter distress. Janine’s new cries blended with the old, mixing another loop to guide her destruction. Her flaying arms, in search of something new to fling, began to look heavy. She scanned the place over and over. She had broken everything she could.
She rolled herself to the wall, curling into a ball. Her screams became near-silent yelps, heard only in the small corner she occupied. Jane swiftly approached her corner. She wrapped her arms around Janine’s shoulders, squeezing her tight, just the right amount of pressure for comfort. He held his breath for a moment, waiting for another outburst. It never came. Janine wept softly into Jane’s chest. “Shhh,” Jane whispered, massaging her head. “It’s okay, honey. You’re okay.” Janine looked up at him, still stationed at the door. Her eyes were a fleshy pink, swollen from her tears. They were so, so small. The look in her eyes that he had come to know was now something else entirely.
She pulled Jane away delicately. She stood up and held out a hand to her. Jane released a quaking breath. This was not their usual play. As she pulled Jane up, she groomed out the wrinkles in her dress. “I’m sorry, Jane.” Her eyelids still puffy, she squinted at him. “I’m so, so, sorry.” Jane furrowed her brows slightly; unsure of what she could possibly do, unsure of what she could possibly say. He too stayed hesitant in place. They were now the inert ones, inanimate at what they were witnessing.
Janine marched past Jane, wiping her face with her arms. She walked past him at the door’s entrance, nodding to him as though he was meant to understand something. She took measured strides, with deliberation, to the opposite door. It was the red and blue double-doors. The exit. She pulled at each knob, without a key, blasting them wide open. A rush of loo flew through the doorways. “There’s just no point now.” She tried and failed to mask her croaks. “You can go. Both of you.” He held his breath for the moment, waiting for the ploy. It never came. The darkness, framed between the doors, was only the birth of a young night. He did not now till now, how truly lucky he was.
The world of night lay just beyond that doorframe. It was still concealed by the darkness but the darkness was somehow more open the before. He could see a hazy semblance of a path, adorned by millions of red, green and blue bokeh lights. As if the lens in his eyes had grown long, the image of it all was compressed. Smoother. So much closer. This was it. The path to somewhere.
Beside the red door panel, Janine’s head drooped, almost a contortion she held in place. The ruffles of her frock were more in shambles than the average mess they arrived in. He did not know exactly how she had come to this state. She was an automaton in absolute shutdown. There was some impossible dimensional shift from the creature she had been. Most of him did not care. He had been nursing a single cell of the false hope that this exact moment would come. He started towards the door, his body finally realizing the puzzled processes of his mind. The rush of air had a sweeter odor, though he knew there was nothing different about this same air he had felt on him that novel night. Now, all his nights would be a novelty. He was free. All he needed was Jane by his side.
“I’m sorry.” A voice vehemently quivering vibrated behind him. It must have been Janine, attempting to proceed with the apology that she could barely carry out in its first cycle. But her posture had not changed a millimeter. There was no one else it could be. No one else need be apologetic at this time of course. He too found himself fixed; facing the path he was irrevocably set to take. From the corner of a stationary eye, he saw Jane with new tears, taking the statue that was Janine into a tight embrace. He had barely understood that it was her who spoke. He had not even considered how difficult the farewell would be for her. His freedom had already been delivered but Jane’s was only in-development.
The dents of her hands in Janine’s arms only depressed. “We’re family.” Jane was almost garbling through an incessant cry. He had seen it coming; he understood perfectly well, though he could not fathom it. With time, their bond had blossomed to a peak that he would never be able to grasp. She needed her time and so he would not intrude. Instead, he opted to rub a hand lightly against her shoulder. It produced a louder yelp from Jane. He had not seen it coming, that this small gesture would be what set her off. Her cerulean irises melted into the tears. “I’m so sorry. I can’t go.” He had not seen it coming.
Perhaps he did not understand her so perfectly. Her cries had already rendered her some degree of unintelligible. This could only be an extension. But he saw it in her eyes. Dissolving through the gelatinous water, he could feel it if not see it. “I can’t leave her,” she answered his spirit, sharing the best of her oratory skill so there was no mistake to made. Though Janine had been firm in her strange stance, it looked like Jane’s hold was the only pillar keeping her from dropping. “She needs me.” The air from his side soaked in some layer of pressure, beginning push him back. It did not matter to him that Janine needed anyone. He needed Jane.
“She said we can both go.” He did not mean to exert that hint of a bellow, but his voice betrayed him. Jane shook her head, resolving that there was no more to be said. Janine, the fragile mannequin, had started to blink again, among other vital signs. Her only movement was a product of Jane lightly rocking her from side to side, like an infant struggling to sleep. He could not be a part of this. Jane had just become half of him, but she had been the whole of Janine for a long time. Half of his arm was outside. Half of the hairs tingled in the wind. Even open, the doors were now welded shut.
“You can go. You should go.” Jane reduced her swaying to make the emphasis. Of course, this was all that was left for him now. She returned to Janine’s aid just as she said it, swinging the both of them in synchronization. He wanted to be no part of it. This was not a choice to be made. Jane’s soft snuggle was limited; there was no room for him. He had already taken one step out of the door. All he had to do was keep going.
He stood with a slouch, fiddling, unsettled between Jane-Janine and the doors. There was no question of what lied in wait for him, only a physical matter of proceeding. He was going to pass that frame, pace his route on that path to somewhere. He could find his bike again, wherever it may be. Though it was the results of riding it that had led him to this point. There would always be something else on the path. Though he could not know what that something was. He would never know if it would make him happy, until it had made him something.
Then the impossible option ruptured his mind. He could squeeze his place with Jane and Janine. The transformation was settled; Janine had made her likeness of peace. It would only be for Jane. It would always be for Jane. He could see it now, vivid as the contours of her fingers on Janine’s wrists. He could stay, with Jane at his side, Janine at hers. They would both be happy then, no objections, no regrets. Jane need not sacrifice a thing. It would all be for her. But Janine’s state had only solidified for now. There could always be something else for her. Though he could not know what that something was. He would never know if it would make him happy, until it had made him something.
Once, in the dark, cold corridor, in between and yet so far from the open door and all the roads that mattered, stood the bike courier’s cornered body. His shoulders shivered with every frosting draught of wind; he was too warm-blooded for it now. He did not know how long he had been away from the world. Long enough, that he knew he was too broken now to be a part of it. He folded a single arm just atop Jane’s shoulders, conscious of Janine’s radioactive head resting slightly below. Her faded eyes wore it clearly: disappointment. He sent back his response with a single glance through the channel they both understood. “It’s okay Jane.” He said it without hesitation, like he had never been more sure. “I can’t leave you either.” She muffled a grunt. He thought she would be happier. With time, she would be. This was the right choice to make. There was nothing else for him. A volatile Janine would be pandemonium. No, he would cope with Janine, with time; she was just a mess of an accessory. On the open world’s path, his bonds begged a renewal, a silhouette he did not yet know, another hand. Another Jane. He knew there would never be another Jane. He did not care that there could another Jane.
a 20-year-old student at the American University in Dubai studying Digital Production and Storytelling. I love writing screenplays for my major for both film and television episodes. In my free time, I enjoy writing many songs as well as poems and short stories often exploring magical realism.
Danya Elmalik is a 20-year-old student at the American University in Dubai studying Digital Production and Storytelling. I love writing screenplays for my major for both film and television episodes. In my free time, I enjoy writing many songs as well as poems and short stories often exploring magical realism.