Still Falling For You

You stand on the shore, your arms crossed, as she stands in the ocean water. With one hand holding her shoes and the other trying to keep her hair out of her eyes, she’s a picture you can’t keep your eyes off of. The small waves push and pull against her ankles, and the wind blows through her hair, not like in movies where it would blow her hair in one direction but rather in every direction the wind takes it, successfully messing up her ponytail. The sun kisses her, making her black hair reveal its mix of light and dark browns and making her skin glow as if it were the reflection of the sunshine gleaming off the surface of the moon. But it’s none of these things that have you staring shamelessly at her. No. It’s her smile, radiant and beautiful on its own, and the way her smile reaches up to her eyes that make them sparkle almost like chocolate diamonds. God, how you love it when her lips curl at the ends until her dimples show.

You only realize now how much you’ve missed her smile. It’s hard to believe this girl is the same girl from two days ago. Strength and confidence have replaced her sorrow and insecurities, and you wonder just how you can live without her.

 

You came back to your hometown for the first time in three years. Only it wasn’t exactly a town anymore. Tall buildings replaced small stores, and the streets seemed to have grown larger and more complex. You wonder just how exactly so much can change in such a short time. Who would’ve thought that the small, modest hometown you remember would grow into such a popular destination sight?

A cold breeze that didn’t belong to the summer season blew as you waited outside the hotel. Your friend pulled up in a white four-wheel drive, and you got in. An awkward hug, and then you were off to find lunch. Though you were relocated back here for your job, you still didn’t have a car, and you were forced to rely on the only friend you told about the move. You guys fell into a conversation easy―talked about the odd unsummer-like weather, avoided politics because that’s always a mood killer, and discussed possible short-term living conditions because you couldn’t stay in a hotel until a permanent residence was found―but you found yourself not as interested as you thought you’d be. It was only when he brought up how your mutual friends have been doing that you realized you were waiting for news about the one friend he didn’t mention.

He brought you to a new restaurant that had just opened and was the talk of even three towns over, despite its short operation so far. You remember that the first thought that went through your mind as you entered the almost high class restaurant was if your friend would let you treat him or if he’d try to steal the check as he always did. But that thought completely left your mind when he told the maître d’ that the other two in your party had already arrived. It was suspicious when he hadn’t mentioned the fact that others were joining you for lunch, and your suspicions were confirmed when he refused to tell you who the two were. You didn’t have to wait long to find out their identities. When the doors to the private room opened, your eyes had widened when you saw the girl your friend had not mentioned. She must not have been told about the full lunch plans either because she became quite like a deer caught in headlights, standing her sheer shock. She remained standing even as you got over your surprise and took your seat. Her friend, her date as it seemed, had put a hand on her shoulder to coax her back into her seat. Your eyes had stayed on that hand until it was withdrawn, but even then you had not liked that her friend was sitting next to her while you sat across from her on that circular table not small enough to be uncomfortable but not big enough to be comfortable either.

Small talk began between your friend and hers after the appetizers arrived, but you hardly paid attention to what was said. You snuck glances at her―it was the only thing you could have done to gauge how she’s been since she wouldn’t talk. Her hair, the first thing you noted, was all natural now, ebony black in the restaurant’s lighting and no longer highlighted in red. She was paler than you remembered―perhaps she’s sick, you had thought. She seemed too skinny―maybe you weren’t used to her without her chubby bodice―but she had seemed as though she’d break if you held her. Maybe she was sick, you theorized when she left for the bathroom with her main meal mostly untouched.

That was when the conversation stole your attention. “So, how is she?” your friend asked, but her friend shook his head and pointed out the obvious fact that she wasn’t eating. “I just received notice of an emergency at work,” her friend said. “No one else is free today to stay with her.” The concern in his voice made you wonder what exactly was going on. “What are we going to do?” he asked. “We can’t leave her alone today! You remember how bad she was last year. What―”

Before you had a chance to understand the situation, she returned to the table. “So, what’s the plan today?” It was the first time she spoke throughout the whole meal, and you found yourself wanting to hear more of her voice. You were almost disappointed when your friend began to answer her question. She didn’t speak again as your friend told her about taking you house-hunting, where and why he was taking you, until he mentioned you were staying at a hotel. “Well,” she said, her fork twisting in her untouched dessert, “he could stay with me.”

Her offer had opened up Pandora’s Box. Her friend began listing reason after reason why it was such a good idea, and your friend began listing countless reasons why house-hunting at this time was a bad idea. You had no choice but to accept. Living with your ex-girlfriend, now that was not how you expected you’d spend the coming days.

 

It had been a mutual breakup. Your family had moved out of state while you were in college, and after graduation, you hadn’t wanted to keep her waiting for a boy who may not return. She had been reluctant―she had loved you for so long―but in the end, she agreed. It had been a mutual breakup, you kept telling yourself, but the fact hadn’t helped ease the car ride with her. You two couldn’t keep a conversation going, and the love songs on the radio had made things more awkward than it should have been. What was a twenty-minute drive felt too long, far too long.

She parked in the driveway of a cozy, modern-looking house. It was oddly-shaped, but it was perfect for two or three people, and you began growing attached to it even without stepping a foot inside. She walked the short pathway to the front door, no key in hand―did she live with someone else? But when she slid open the metallic case by the door, instead of a doorbell, there was a keypad. And once she pressed in the six-numbered code, the door unlocked with a loud beep. The entrance was a small narrow space, a place for shoes, and once your shoes were off and you climbed up the one step, you were in a very open space. To the one side of the narrow entrance way was a kitchen and a dining table, and on the other side was a glass-encased bathroom. The main space was obviously a living room and off to the side was a staircase leading to most likely her bedroom and possibly a guest room you could use. The whole place reminded you of an upscale apartment with its modern fixtures, its incorporation of glass walls not just for the bathroom, and its use of white and tan hues―in fact, the whole place was pretty much white, save for a bubble chair with red cushions, the black dining table, a few pillows on the sofa, and a few wooden cabinets she had filled with books. (She had never been one to take to e-readers, so the large collection of hers didn’t surprise you.) The opposite wall was the only one in pitch black, but she fixed it by turning a knob near the front door. As she turned it slowly, the darkness began to fade to grey and then to a very large and very transparent window that looked into her backyard. You had always wanted a pool, so her in-ground swimming pool was a plus. You had almost wanted to buy the whole property from her, but you refrained from making that joke.

You frowned when she threw out her empty coffee cup. It was her second cup since the restaurant, and you knew she must have had more by the way she was barely standing, her body trembling with each step, and by how dark the rings around her eyes were. Funny, she had never been one to drink any caffeine except for mocha-flavored frappes, and she had never been a girl who resorted to coffee to keep her awake.

She dropped her purse to the floor, and it took her a few tries before she was able to kick off her heels. She looked ready to drop, and when you held out a hand to steady her when she was about to fall over, she looked as though she had completely forgotten you had come back with her. “Make yourself comfortable,” her words were like a hum. “The guest room is upstairs to the right.” She had excused herself afterwards, saying she needed a change of clothes, and left for her room. It was a miracle she didn’t trip on any of the floating stairs in her tired state.

You were alone now, free to explore the house more. The first tidbit you noticed was that there were no pictures, none of her family or of her friends. No photo albums either, as you scanned the shelves. She loved taking pictures, so it was an interesting observation. The second thing was that the house was impeccably clean. She was never as big as a neat freak as you were, preferring “small orderly messes” as she had called them, but by that standard, there should have been at least a stack of books and papers on the coffee table and dust on unused surfaces. There was none of that. The house was almost like new. You wondered when she had moved out of her parents’ home. And finally, where was her sister? One of the things you loved about her was her fierce devotion to her younger sibling. She wouldn’t have left her sister to live alone. But then again, you thought to yourself, she’s changed. It was a solemn thought. She was no longer her bubbly self but something like a shell of the girl you knew who was hardly living happily. What changed? What changed her?

Your curiosity only deepened when you went to check out the room you’d be staying in, only to stop in your tracks when you heard the sobs coming from her room. Even without her door being slightly ajar, the translucent walls show you a girl laying on her bed, her head buried into her pillow, her whole form shaking from her cries. It took every ounce of strength in your body to not go and hold her in your arms. You didn’t want to make things worse. You didn’t even know why she was crying.

 

She didn’t come out until it was time for her to prepare dinner. You didn’t point out her puffy eyes―she had hated it when you did back when you were dating her because she had wanted to keep the image of her always being happy in your mind. She was an open book, always wearing her emotions on her sleeves, and that much hadn’t changed about her. She must had fallen asleep after her breakdown, you surmised from how more rested she seemed. Or, you had countered yourself, she was just more relaxed in the kitchen. She had loved to cook, and judging from her quick chops and how fast she put the makeshift meal together, she probably had continued to hone her recipes and culinary skills over the years. She was in the middle of beating eggs with a fork―long ago, she had debated with you over useless egg beaters with only one purpose and how a fork served that purpose just as well―when she asked for your answer to her offer.

“Wouldn’t your boyfriend not like it if another guy was living with you?” The question came out harsher than you had intended, but she didn’t take any offense and had instead chosen to shoot you a look of bewilderment.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” she said, referring to the friend who had accompanied her to lunch. “I’m not dating anyone right now.”

A silence fell between the two of you, though the sounds of the quick circular motions she made while beating the eggs made the silence more bearable than the car ride. You don’t remember how your mind progressed from that point―you were very relieved once you had heard her reply, but your thoughts started focusing on the rest of her words. Right now? Did she mean to say she had dated other guys during the last three years? Sure, she was free to date others since your breakup meant that she was single and free to date any guy or girl she wanted, but somehow the thought of her dating anyone else didn’t sit well with you. You were going to ask her to elaborate, to interrogate her even though you really had no right to, but your mouth was disconnected from your mind in that moment, and the words that came out weren’t “Did you date anyone else after me?” and were actually “I’ll stay.”

Her hands went almost completely limp, the bowl and fork almost falling from them, and her eyes stared wide and blank at you. You had thought you said something wrong, but then for the first time since you’ve been back, a small smile graced her features, and you thought to yourself that, even though it wasn’t her signature eye-sparkling, dimple-showing smile, this was the beautiful, happy girl you remembered.

 

Dinner tasted better than lunch had, and her choice in wine to celebrate her new housemate was an excellent pairing. There were short conversations as you two ate together―she ate more than she had at lunch, but it still wasn’t much―and you learned that she was part of a huge marketing project and that she had moved out of her parents’ home the year after graduation. But when you asked about her family, she had been strangely quiet and had disclosed close to nothing about them. It was unusual because you knew how important her family was to her, but you didn’t press her further on the subject because, all of the sudden, she reverted back into that sad girl she had been all afternoon.

You must had dozed off shortly after dinner because you were woken up on the sofa by the ringing of your phone. As soon as you picked up, your friend immediately asked if you were still with her. You told him that, yes, you were still at her house, but he becomes frantic, asking you where she was. You looked up at the second floor, looking past the opaque columned-glass into her bedroom, but you didn’t see her there or in the kitchen or in the bathroom. You told your friend this, and he’s begging you to look for her.

“You don’t understand!” he all but yelled. “You weren’t there when it happened, and she didn’t want you to know, but damn it all, she’s at her lowest today, and she might do something to herself, something stupid, because today is the day her sister died!”

Your heart dropped. Her attitude today made sense. Her precious baby sister… It was her sister’s death anniversary. Your friend went on explaining how a brain tumor was the cause of her sister’s sudden migraines and how that inoperable brain tumor caused her sister to lose her sight and then slowly drained her sister of life, how her sister’s death had caused her mother to be bedridden in her inconsolable grief and her father to drown himself in work, and how unprepared she was to deal with her world falling apart. She hadn’t wanted you to know, she didn’t want you to feel guilty for leaving her right before everything she held dear was destroyed, and she didn’t want you coming back to see her in such a state. She didn’t want you to pity her, and she hadn’t wanted you to come back out of pity.

As he spoke, you pulled at your hair to vent your frustration at the situation, and you were ready to run up the stairs to search every nook and cranny for her, but when you turned around, you saw her. You ran out, dropping your phone. You stopped once you had a clear view of her. She stood in her nightgown at the edge of the deep end of her pool, you at the shallow end. She stared at the water, and for once, no emotion was displayed anywhere on her. The only sign of her anguish were the tears running down her face. You inched closer, afraid that you’d spook her. You called out her name, but she didn’t hear you. She lifted her face towards the night sky and shut her eyes, fat teardrops escaping them. When she opened them, there was a determination in them that frightened you to your core. You were right to be scared.

She jumped, jumped into the cold water, into the pool where it was twice her height, where you knew she had no intention of resurfacing.

You went in after her, the cold water had felt like a thousand needles stabbing into your skin―the last few days had been rather cold for summer, so it made sense the water was the right temperature, you think now as you recall that very night. You don’t exactly remember all the details―she had fought against your attempts to bring her back to the surface, even kicked you in the gut, but you managed in the end to pull her up, and in your fury-mixed-worry, you slapped her. You had regretted it right away, especially when she placed her palm against her red cheek and when she began to cry again. She trembled, either from how cold the water was, from her cries, or both. You questioned her then, your worry turning your words loud. You had asked why she’d do something like that to herself, how she could try to take herself away from her parents―from you, but you had not voiced this.

“Because I miss my sister!” she had screamed, the sob carried with it the sorrow she kept in her heart. “You don’t understand what it’s like! My parents barely even notice me anymore! My mom’s always asking when my sister will be home, always breaking down whenever she finally comes back to her senses, and my father is barely home nowadays! I can still remember it happening… My sister didn’t go peacefully, she was scared, and she cried and cried until she didn’t have enough energy to cling to life. She was so scared… What if she still is? What if she’s all alone and terrified? I couldn’t do anything for her while she was sick… I feel so guilty, smiling and laughing while she’s gone… What if she’s still suffering while I’m living my life? What if she’s still suffering with no one there to be with her?”

You don’t remember how long you held her as she cried, you don’t know how long you two stayed in the freezing water until she passed out, but you managed to carry her back into the house and into the bathroom. You were shivering, and her lips were blue, so you turned the water up all the way. You carried her in with you and stripped her of her soaking dress before unbuttoning your own shirt. Your back was to the showerhead, so the scalding water wouldn’t burn her sensitive skin. Once the steam had filled up the shower stall and color had returned to her face, you turned the temperature down, took the showerhead, and let the warm water dose her until the pallor completely left her.

 

“Come in the water!” she tells you, her free hand trying and failing to keep her hair out of her face. The girl today is a drastic change from the girl you saved, and all because she’s finally come to terms with her sister’s passing―well, maybe not completely yet, but she’s getting there.

“Doesn’t look like you need saving yet,” you tease her, and that reply ends up with her shoes flying towards you. Luckily, her aim hasn’t improved in the years you’ve been apart.

“Jerk,” you hear her mutter before she turns to bask again in the sunlight. The water is up to her knees, and she doesn’t bother holding up the skirt of her sundress.

You stand, and before making your way down to the ocean, your hand slides into your pocket, making sure the ring is still there before enclosing your hand around it.

 

For the whole night, you drifted in and out of sleep, worried she would wake up and pull another stunt, but she slept soundly throughout the night. By your side, she slept, curled up in a cocoon of blankets. There were a couple of occasions when it seemed as though she were having a nightmare and her forehead would crease. And maybe once or twice, you would reach out and smooth those wrinkles, and she would fall back into her peaceful slumber. Seeing her like that made the memories of those years before flood to the forefront of your mind. All the times she forced you to talk even when you didn’t want to, all the times she sneaked over to your dorm, all the laughs and all the fun you had with her, and the way she had slowly sneaked her way into your heart… How painful it was to leave her and how painful it was to watch her tears flow down her face when she realized you would never return…

You were back now, and yet, as you stroked her cheek and watched as she slept, you knew things were different. She was different, and so were you. And your heart almost broke at the thought of the two of you never working out the way you did all those years ago.

You wanted to kiss her, but you restrained yourself. You don’t know how you’d deal with it if she didn’t kiss you back.

 

When you woke up that morning, you realized two things. One, she had moved during the night, her cheek pressing against your chest and her hands fisting your shirt. And two, your arms were wrapped around her, and you couldn’t find it in yourself to let go.

She stirred. “Hm… You’re so warm…” It was almost a purr, and a small smile graced her lips. She snuggled further into your embrace, her hair tickling your nose. She sighed. “I missed you… so, so much…”

The words made you tense, and your breath stilled. Her words had a similar effect on her as well, shocking her out of her half-sleep stupor. It couldn’t have been for more than a few seconds, but the two of you just stared at the other, not knowing how to proceed. You made the first move, combing through her hair with your hand, but she quickly got out of bed and went to get started on breakfast. She didn’t take her time, and she didn’t look back.

You hit your head on the headboard, and you groaned at your stupidity. That could have gone better, you told yourself. It was too late to dwell on it now, and so you decided to fix your mistake after a morning shower. But then, something caught your eye as you got up. On her nightstand table, there was a face-down picture frame―this was possibly the only picture frame in her home―and something was underneath it, judging from its slightly raised position. You had never been one for curiosity, but then again, she always brought out the best in you. When you lifted the frame, whatever was underneath fell to the floor. You picked it up, and you just let it sit in your hand, forgetting about the frame. It’s a ring you instantly recognize. It’s the promise ring you had given her the second Christmas you were together. It had taken you forever to come up with a gift for her―you had grown up with a “no material gift” policy, and it was the first present you had given in the longest of times, and you had wanted it to be perfect. You laughed when you recalled asking her for what she wanted and her telling you that you were the greatest gift she could have ever received. It was a poetic answer, but poetic didn’t help with the gift-searching, so you were at a lost for a long while before you came upon this ring. A simple white gold French-cut band with a square cushion cut diamond, her birthstone, sitting on it. She had loved it, the only gift you had ever given her. It disheartened you, the fact that she didn’t wear it anymore, but then again, the breakup broke any promise the ring had represented.

Your attention turned to the only thing left on the bedside table, the face-down picture frame. You had a pretty good idea which picture it held, but even that knowledge didn’t prepare you for the wave of languid nostalgia that hit you when you turned the frame face-up. You were right―it was the picture from her 21st birthday, the frozen moment when you kissed her on the cheek after stealing a bite out of her slice of black forest cake with her parents looking on fondly and her younger sister laughing from her seat on the floor. You wondered exactly how much her sister’s absence deteriorated the family’s happiness as you wiped off the tear stains on the glass. The idea of her crying over this picture on countless nights broke your heart, and the knowledge that you had left her at the worst time possible fills the cracks in your heart with guilt.

You found yourself downstairs, no recollection when and how you got there, your mind having been whirling with thoughts of how much she had lost and how in the world she had coped with her immense pain. She hadn’t realized you had come down, busy with cooking scrambled eggs and hash. You watched her, you don’t know for how long, and you wondered how long it had taken for her to move on from her sister’s passing and how long she had taken to be able to keep on this façade of being okay. But her pain and sorrow showed in the way her hands shook as if she were holding back a cry. The sight was enough to move you, and you ended up hugging her from behind. She froze, a small gasp escaped her as you tightened your arms around her.

“I missed you, too,” you told her, and your words brought out her tears. She cried in your arms, and you wondered if her pain would ever heal. The promise ring in your pocket did not go unforgotten, and neither did the promise it held.

 

It must have been late afternoon when she received the phone call from work, asking her to go in. She had asked you if it was okay for her to go, and when you told her it was no problem, she asked if you wanted to get your things because she needed to go the hotel―the company she worked at was hired by the hotel, and that was where her project was taking place. You agreed to go with her, but even if she hadn’t asked for you to go along, you would’ve gone anyways because you didn’t want to leave her alone.

The car ride this time was less awkward. She had let you drive, and the songs on the radio were easier to ignore. You two were slowly falling back into your old routine―she would randomly bring up a topic to make small talk, you would twist her words to tease her, she’d pretend to be insulted, and you both would laugh. It was a great melody, her laughter, and you almost wish the car ride had been longer.

You handed the keys to the parking valet, and she told you to meet her in the hotel ballroom once you were done packing. And although hesitant, you separated from her at the lobby. You purposely missed two elevators in order to stay and watch her enter the ballroom. However, even as she left your sight, your worry didn’t leave you. Perhaps you were being too protective of her, but you couldn’t help it. Even though she was smiling and laughing more, she still seemed so fragile. You couldn’t pack fast enough, and even though you hadn’t unpacked much, it still took you a good half an hour to pack and to make your way down to the lobby to officially check out. You asked the concierge for directions to the ballroom just so you wouldn’t waste time if you got lost on the way. When you entered the room, you were almost shooed away by one of her co-workers before she explained that you were the friend that she was housing. She almost blushed when that co-worker, probably a friend of hers, teased her, “Finally, someone! I was afraid you’d end up an old lady with sixty cats.”

She ignored your laughing at her expense and went on to explain that she had thought she was only helping with setup and hadn’t realized that her team had wanted her to help finish the project today. Apparently, something had happened, and no one else could step in. She offered you her car and that she’d just ride home with a friend, but you told her it was no problem. She seemed worried after you told her that you would wait for her, but you had no time to relieve her worry because her co-worker told her that it was about time that they get started with the preparations. You wondered what preparations they could possibly mean when everything seemed all set up already, but she was whisked away before you had a chance to ask.

From the look of things, the project seemed to be a commercial photoshoot, most likely for the hotel, you deduced from what you overheard from the other employees. You helped yourself to some of the refreshments set out, and after about an hour of surfing the internet on your phone and it seemed as though the project hadn’t even started yet, you almost regretted waiting for her to finish. You were about to go look for her when the chief project manager yelled out that the photoshoot was beginning and that the model would walk in from the top of the grand staircase. The lights where you stood were dimmed, and the reflectors and fluorescent lighting were turned slightly towards the staircase.

For a moment, you considered taking a nap, but then the model came in, and you were no longer tired. She was the model, and she was wearing a wedding dress. It was no wonder it had taken an hour for her to get ready―she was completely stunning! Although you preferred her natural face, her makeup clearly accented her brown eyes and full lips. The lace made her dress simple and modest while the few small crystals gave the dress a more sophisticated touch. The veil completed the look, and whenever she smiled, she looked like an angel whose face everyone was trying to glimpse at. Time was forgotten to you as you watched her walk down the stairs and watched as she posed on the landing and as she posed around the ballroom later on. She was beautiful―she always had been, but you finally understood why people say women are the most beautiful on their wedding day. However, unlike women on their special day, her smile faltered at times, and you knew she was thinking about her sister, probably about how her sister would never get to wear a wedding dress or perhaps about how her parents may end up not being a part of her own wedding. The last thought was a jump, you knew, but her mind had always jumped to sad conclusions whenever depressed. You decided to make a call then, determined to help her move past her mourning.

Your call finished before the photoshoot did, but once the project showed signs of finishing, you were grateful that there was no pretend groom. You don’t know how you would have reacted if some guy kissed her, let alone held her, while she was in a wedding dress. The her from years ago would have found it romantic if you had punched some guy out of jealousy, but the her from now probably wouldn’t have liked it if you had knocked out her co-worker.

And as you watched her leave the room to change out of the dress, the promise ring you put in your pocket felt a bit heavier.

 

She told you during the car ride home that she had been the one to come up with the wedding concept. The hotel had been suffering from decreased profits for a couple of years now, and so the company had been contacted to help promote the hotel. The original model was supposed to come in today, but there had been some complications with scheduling. She hadn’t realized she was chosen to be the replacement until she stepped into the ballroom. She said and explained a lot during the car ride, and you knew she was embarrassed―she always ranted whenever she was embarrassed, and she was always embarrassed whenever she was in makeup because she never felt comfortable in it. She continued to talk nonstop. You didn’t bother to stop her during the ride because it was nice hearing her get excited, but once you reached the restaurant she decided on for dinner, you decided to stop her before she got too excited and lost her appetite.

“You were beautiful,” you told her. It was a line you probably didn’t tell her enough while you were dating, and it was a mistake that you weren’t making now. “You always are.”

Her rant stopped, and she couldn’t stop smiling throughout the meal.

 

After your shower, you found her frantically looking around her room. You had an idea what she was looking for, but you didn’t want to part with it just yet, and so you played along, asking her what was missing. She didn’t tell you what, but she was upset that it was missing. You told her she probably misplaced it and that it would come up whenever she wasn’t looking for it, but she took offense to your conclusion and firmly stated that she would never misplace the ring. And realizing her slip of tongue, she bit her lip and went back to searching for it. When it seemed as though she’d continue ignoring you, the silence was too much for her, and she gave in, “It was the first gift you gave me…”

You smiled to yourself when you knew she wasn’t looking. So the ring was still important to her. Perhaps she hadn’t changed as much as you had believed. Or perhaps she was returning back to her old self, the afterthought came when you saw that the picture frame was still standing upright. You walked over to her and put your hands on her shoulders, gently nudging her to her bed. “You can find it tomorrow. You had a long day. You should probably sleep now.” You bade her goodnight, but as you turned to leave, she grabbed the sleeve of your shirt.

She was fidgeting with her fingers and wouldn’t look you in the face when she asked you where you were going. She really hasn’t changed, you mused to yourself. “Just turning off the lights,” you answered. She let go of your shirt then, and as you did as you told her, you asked if she had any plans for tomorrow. “Let’s go to the beach,” you suggested. “It’s supposed to be nice out tomorrow.”

Her consent came as the light turned off, and her arms wrapped around you from behind. “I’m really glad you’re back.” It was slight, but you felt the back of your shirt dampen. From happy tears or sad tears, you didn’t know, but you turned around and held her tightly.

“I am too.”

 

That had been just last night. You had held her until she fell asleep, and it wasn’t long before you had followed her into slumber. She woke up happier, and you hadn’t realized how much you missed waking up to her smile until this morning. You realized then how much you had really missed her.

“What are you thinking about?” she asks you, walking against the pulling water towards you. “You have this serious look on your face.”

“I was just wondering,” you tell her, “if you found the ring yet.” Her smile drops, and she answers with a no and a kick at the water. You refrain from pinching her cheeks as she purses her lips, her pout adding to her cuteness. You chuckle at her antics and comb your hand through her hair. “And I was wondering,”―you take the ring out of your pocket and hold it in front of her―“if you feel the same way as I do, if you want to restart our relationship.”

Her eyes are wide, and the tears that well up glisten in the sunlight. But before she has a chance to answer, someone calls her name, and she turns to the shore. “My parents! But,”―she turns to you, knowing you have to have had some part in their sudden appearance―“how…? When?” Her ability to form complete sentences is lost, and you take advantage of her surprise to slip the ring onto her finger.

“What do you say? Will you take me back into your life?” you ask her. “I’ll keep my promise this time. I’ll make you happy, for sure.”

And as she nods her head, you swear that this will be the last time she cries.

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Dystopia: My Little Playground

Through the looking glass, Lady Dowager Xenia sees the sanguine orb rise from the eastern horizon once again to shine upon her sphere of influence and to shine upon her regime. She sees her crimson lips curl into a cruel grin on her faint reflection in the transparent wall. Her pale hand moves up, and her slender fingers with its long claw-like nails caress her mirrored cheek. The mirror lady does the exact same thing, and Xenia’s hand slides to move over her reflected palm that seems to reach out to her. She is still so young-looking, despite her five decades of life.

“Lady Dowager.”

From the corner of her eyes, she sees her lady-in-waiting with her head slightly bowed.

“What is it, Lucy?” Her voice carries a subtle hint of ire. Xenia does not like it―hates, loathes, despises―when something interrupts her tranquil morning routine, but she knows she cannot blame Lucy. It is how her handmaiden was programmed, after all, to warn her mistress of any coming visitors.

“Lady General Faye is on the premises.”

“This early?” Her eyebrow rises. Now what would her top soldier be here for? And at this hour? She has a suspicion, though, but she is not worried in the least.

“It appears as though she does not want her presence to be acknowledged.” This is Lucy’s way of saying that Faye was sneaking around, Xenia knows. “Shall I escort her in?”

It takes a moment for Xenia to decide whether or not to let the general know that she had been discovered. She wonders how her friend―was friend the correct word? Perhaps companion was better―would react. “Do so, won’t you?”

And Lucy was gone after a swift bow.

It almost scares Xenia how quick Lucy was, but Xenia knows she has nothing to fear. Despite her humanoid figure, Lucy is an android, an artificial life form. And in the end, all the androids are under the Lady Dowager’s command. Just as are the rest of her human race who could only live so long as they were supplied the elixir of life which Xenia had created. There is nothing to fear, Xenia reminds herself once more. Whoever controlled the doorway between life and death controlled the world, and that is her iron fist as the sole ruler of Earth with nobody but her soldiers by her side.

“Lady Dowager.” Lucy is back before she knows it.

“Milady.” And with their guest.

“At ease…” Xenia watches as Faye slowly straightens herself from her bend, but she drops her gaze after a second or so. There is no point in waiting for Faye to give herself away. If Faye were really that sloppy then she would not have been in the position she is in today. “How is the army?” Instead, Xenia brings out a topic that she knows they both enjoy.

“Well and disciplined as always,” Faye responds, her monotonously and passive voice sounding as always. “No one steps out of line, and there is no trouble. The women are all ready to move at your command.”

“Is that so?” Xenia inquiries. She also keeps her voice leveled before turning towards a touchy subject. “Then explain how, in the last upheaval, that there were some casualties.”

Faye is on her knees, her right hand wrapped around her left fist and her head bowed. “It was a mistake on my part, Milady,” she apologizes.

“A mistake, you say?” There is no doubt about the disbelief that colors Xenia’s shrill accusation. “I suspect something else. Is there not a weasel in your troop?”

“If someone did indeed leak information, I will personally deal with them myself,” Faye tells her, her heterochromatic eyes aimed at the floor. “But I assure you, Milady, I only underestimated the troublemakers. Please forgive me. It won’t happen again.”

Had Xenia been the same naïve child she was when she first came into the world then perhaps this would have been the right time for her to roll her eyes. But she is not a mere girl anymore. She is more experienced and practiced, and so her amethyst eyes are steady and unwavering.

She lets out a wry chuckle. “You make it sound as though I’m difficult. Are you afraid that I’d punish you, Faye?”

That did the trick. The Lady General is silent, her teeth grinding against her bottom lip. She does not know what to say. Both answers, yes and no, were offensive in this situation. And yet, Faye regains herself within the minute, and her composure is flawless. “It was my mistake,” she repeats. “If you, the Lady Dowager, sees me in err then I will take whatever punishment comes my way.”

Xenia allows herself a smirk. It would be a shame to be rid of such an asset, but there are many more to take her place. It would not be a total loss.

“Rise.”

The blonde stands, and she makes another miscalculation. She does not realize that Xenia has seen her hand reaching into her pocket.

“Lucy,” the dictator addresses the presence in the room she has almost forgotten about. “Bring up the cookies and tea, won’t you? I’m famished.”

Before the android bows, she gives a stiff nod only once, indicating she understood her mistress perfectly. Lucy is out the door by the time Xenia begins the conversation.

“Is it not the most beautiful picture?” The Lady Dowager gestures to the scene from her window to the city below. “A quiet and serene illusion amidst the sharp dangers of the Old World… Have I told you the story of my rise to power?”

Though Faye does not reply, Xenia knows the answer. She has repeated the anecdote many times before to ingrain a life lesson into her second-in-command’s mind. And again, she retells the tale.

“It was many years ago, almost six lustrums ago. I was fifteen, and the world was a much different place. So much more different than it is now…” Her hand touches the glass and, as her nails slide down, a high-pitched screech echoes through Xenia’s bedroom. “Back then, I was only the fourth wife of the brute who controlled half the continent. He was three decades older then I, but it mattered little to me. He was my ticket to ascension. Unlike his other wives, I was the perfect toy… Cute, charming, and cuddling…” She shudders, shivers going down her spine. “I hated him. He, who made me lose my innocence. He, who brought me into the world of his bogus political affairs. He, whose wives plotted my very downfall. I had to get out. I had no other choice.” Her gaze lowers, and her other hand rubs her stomach. “My son was the key.” Her miscarried son is the only thought that can bring tears to her eyes now. “I mourned his death, but that man never trusted his other wives ever again, and they fell into oblivion. It was his turn next, and he never suspected a thing. Even when he did realize his coming doom, he couldn’t even pull the trigger. He loved me, he said. He couldn’t hurt me, the way I was going to hurt him, and that . . . that was his weakness. That pitiful fool…” Xenia slams her fist into the glass, and a web-like design is etched into the translucent material. “I hated him to the end, and I regret not even his death as his lifeless eyes stared at me, accusing me of treason.” She turns back to the Lady General, waiting for an answer. “And the moral is…?”

And Faye does not disappoint. “Emotions are a human’s weaknesses, and weakness is never to be shown.”

And it is a shame that you do not follow it, Xenia muses.

“But, Milady…” Faye is hesitant, and Xenia knows this as she watches Faye’s hand slightly shake as it lies on the very weapon that could save the Lady General’s life at any moment. “Do you really not regret any of your acts?”

Xenia is back to facing the morning sky through the cracked glass. “I lament nothing, and I rejoice not. My son’s death was necessary, my co-wives’ deaths were necessary, and so was that man’s. Regret and joy . . . are like the rest… Only a delusion, a fantasy dreamt up by man. And I am done dreaming.”

A thundering noise ricochets from behind her, and she turns around and glares at the body on the floor, now staining the marble with blood.

“You would have done well,” Xenia continues as she kneels in front of the corpse, careful of her silk robe, “if you had followed my teachings and dropped your affair with that rebel. I would have forgiven you if you had, for all humans lust at least once in their lifetime. Instead, you allowed your feelings to get in the way. You stayed with him and plotted against me like my late husband’s other wives. And when the time came to, you hesitated at the last moment, unable to kill me like I’ve done to you. Perhaps if you were not like the original then you would not have asked me to atone for my past sins. If you hadn’t then perhaps you would be the one still standing here.”

Her gaze follows the trail the bullet had taken and she sees, besides her android, the woman responsible for the death of her Lady General. The woman’s hair color is radiant enough to be silver, and her blue and green eyes accent her oval face. The similarity does not spook Xenia. Instead, the Lady Dowager is pleased with the result.

“Lady Dowager, I have brought FAYE13,” Lucy announces. The cadaver does not receive a feedback from her because the android knows nothing but her mistress’s wellbeing.

Xenia mentally applauds her lady-in-waiting for her spectacular timing and stands. “The experiment is a success,” she congratulates the android. “The cybernetic organism bares no difference to this clone or the original. She’s also a much better shot. She will do well as our spy. You have outdone yourself, Lucy.”

The ebony-haired android does not utter a sound but bows in gratitude for the praise.

The cyborg next to her, however, lets the gun fall from her hand as she stares at the carcass.

Xenia scowls. “Perhaps excelling not as much as I’d like,” she is still speaking to her handmaiden. “Its human side seems to dominate its robotic mainframe.”

But the cyborg argues. “My only goal is to serve you, Milady. I was only watching to see if that letdown was really dead.”

Xenia does not return to euphoria. She steps on the corpse as she made her way to the door. “Lucy, make sure that’s cleaned up before I return this evening.”

“As you wish.”

“Oh, and Faye, if you value your life then you’d be wise as to not follow in your predecessors’ footprints.”

A Dozen Dreams

The week I dreamt about finding a long-lost ninth marble was the week Pluto was renamed a planet.

I’m not psychic. Definitely not psychic. If I were, my parents would have won the lottery by now. Sadly, my dreams are just cryptic coincidences. I’m pretty sure everyone has dreams like that, dreams that warn of something or another. At least, I hope everyone does. It’s fun and all, being able to say “I knew that was coming,” but truthfully, I’m tired of all the surprises in the world being taken away like that. I want normal dreams. Mother says I think too much. That’s why I get these dreams, she thinks. (But I blame my step-grandmother. She’s a shaman―you know, a person who does divination and talks to spirits―so she’s probably the reason why I have too many of these odd dreams.)

 

I dreamt of a thousand bugs huddled in the corner of my room last summer.

Days later, we had a bug infestation, most likely baby carpet beetles or larvae. We never found out what kind of bugs they were. We just knew they were a nuisance to have around. It definitely wasn’t a good surprise, but then again my mother should have listened to me. I did tell her about the bug dream, but she didn’t listen. She says my dreams are weird because I’m stressed. (No, I’m not. I’m stress-free most of the time.)

 

I’ve dreamt of tigers and lions and sharks in the house.

Mother says if I don’t think anything of it then the dreams mean nothing, but it’s fun picking out the symbolism in each dream especially because each of them are different. (The animal dreams are the most fun.) It’s like analyzing a book, except it’s a book you read at night to escape the boring reality of life. Maybe those dreams came to me because I was bored? I guess I will never know. But one thing’s for sure: waking up in the middle night, paranoid that there is a ferocious creature in the room, is not fun. Not fun at all.

 

On a random night, a pair of lionesses circled my bed, one decided to pounce me.

Mother was worried. Because we’re not Christian or Catholic, she didn’t make me go to church. Instead, she made me pray to Guanyin Pusa for safety and peace of mind. (I was just grateful we had the little shrine at home. I didn’t want to go to a priest and have him think I was nuts.) Sometime later, my mom and stay-at-home aunt had a fight, and my aunt hit me. The lioness was less painful…

 

The tiger was friendlier. It sat at the foot of my bed.

My mother was less worried, nevertheless she was worried, but she said that the dream could be interpreted in two ways. It was either I would tame a wild beast or I would come to have power. (I wanted to have power. I wanted to boss someone around.) At the beginning of sixth grade, I became friends with one of the toughest girls in school and, all throughout middle school and high school, she spoiled me. Basically, she gave me food, advice, and very happy memories.

 

I opened the bathroom door. It was filled with water. The shark just stared at me.

For once, that dream had no cryptic meaning. The following days, nothing came that seemed to be related to the dream. For once, the dream was just a random thought, so I never told Mother. (The dream wasn’t normal, but I felt normal because it wasn’t tied to anything.) After five days passed, I found out it was shark week. FML.

 

I was in the basement. A lion cub came to me. Its mother slashed my face.

Within the month, I hurt my back and couldn’t go to school for two full weeks. Perfect attendance was gone that second month of high school. It’s not like I cared about my attendance, but my back never got better. All my intermit absences meant that I missed out on a lot. I must have missed at least half of each school year. Looking back on high school is like trying to remember long-lost memories with blackouts in between. The doctors didn’t believe me. They all thought I wanted to play hooky. (In the span of four years, I took more medicine than in the fourteen years before ninth grade. Motrin, naproxen, ibuprofen, oxycodone, etc. If I really was just playing hooky, I would have sold every capsule I had and became rich. Instead, I had medical bills upon medical bills.) My reputation with New Jersey doctors and the school was marred.

 

I’ve dreamt of getting married to a guy whose face I couldn’t see.

I had crazy romantic dreams too just like everyone else. Or at least, I hope just like everyone else. I don’t want to be the only one with stupid dreams. I was too embarrassed to tell Mother about this dream. (I decided that dreams are stupid, and I should stop remembering them, but it’s so hard not to. Dreams are just too fun to not have and too fun to forget.)

 

A baby boy came to the house. He had the cutest smile, but then he disappeared.

I want to be a mother. I want to have children. At least four. At most ten. The baby boy in my dream seemed too real to be fake. In East Asia (not sure about anywhere else), dreams about babies are called conception dreams, and they foretell of an upcoming birth. (Conception dreams are very important. Some people actually buy other people’s conception dreams because these dreams mean a whole lot of good luck for the baby.) But the dream I had was a bad one, so I didn’t tell my mother about the dream, fearing that I would scare her. It didn’t help. She still miscarried. (I hope he comes back when I’m ready to be a mother. I’ll give him the life he should have gotten.) I cried for the brother I would never get to meet.

 

When my grandmother died, I dreamt of her in bed with an alligator.

I didn’t tell Mother about that one either. Alligators aren’t necessarily bad things, but I didn’t want her to worry when she had a funeral to keep track of. I guess I didn’t cry enough because seeing an alligator meant that I had repressed emotions and that I needed to see the situation in a different perspective. I really did try to cry, but the whole situation seemed unreal to me. My grandmother lived in Malaysia, far away from us. I still thought she was alive and well. (The denial stage lasted a while for me, so the alligator kept coming back, grinning an awful grin. It tried to climb onto my bed a few times. I had to kick it out more than once.) Her death couldn’t have worse timing. She died around Halloween and the Indian New Year so, while my friends were having a fun time, I had to watch a funeral through Skype. I cried when I saw the coffin.

 

I didn’t just dream of ferocious animals. I dreamt of turtles too…

The turtle dreams made me cry too, not because they were scary but because they were beautiful. In one, I was on the beach when suddenly baby turtles began popping their heads out of the sand. In another, I was swimming in a pool, and there were koi fish of different colors too, but the turtles were gold. Tiny ones but, nevertheless, golden ones swimming about. When I told Mother, she was ecstatic. They weren’t normal dreams but, at the very least, they weren’t bad ones. Dreaming about turtles (and koi fish) was unquestionably better than dreaming about lions and tigers. Mother says the dreams were about me coming into good fortune, but I believe those dreams were about me going to college. Sounds kinda clichéd and sappy, but it’s true. Everyone’s just starting their journeys, and everybody’s different, but they all are beautiful in their own ways. (Still haven’t met a golden turtle though… Met a few different koi fish but not a golden turtle yet.)

 

One night, my father died in a car accident, his blood splashing onto my face.

I cried when I woke up from that nightmare. (I cry a lot, don’t I? I’m definitely a crybaby. I try not to be, but I guess I’m too emotional.) Actually, a better description was: I was scared out of my mind, ran all the way down stairs into my parents’ room, and held onto my father for dear life as I sobbed hysterically. Needless to say, my parents didn’t know how to deal with me, so they just let me cry.

 

There are some people who say their dreams are their wishes for the future. I hate my dreams―well, just the scary ones. Mother says, in Chinese superstitions, dreaming of someone dying means they will live for a very long time. Well, fuck superstitions. I was scared. Period. A little girl should not have a dream like that, no matter what fortune it holds. (I just want normal dreams.)

Pixxa

“There’s magic in the world. But…there’s no such things as dragons, there’s no such things as wizards, and there’s no such things as fairies. However, there are pixies―well, there’s no such things as pixies, the tiny playful sprites creative minds made up. Rather, there are things called pixxa. P-I-X-X-A. Pixxa, they’re human, just like me and you. Only they’re different, not very different, but they’re different. They’re born just like humans (there’s a mommy and a daddy, neither are pixxa), they die just like humans (shoot them with a gun and they will bleed just like us), they grow just like humans (they need to wax and shave those annoying skin hairs just like us), and they need to eat just like humans (sometimes, they eat too much and need to lose weight just like some of us).

“There’s only two differences. A pixxa, male or female, will have only one special item. It’s a special item that found the pixxa, and only that pixxa can use that special item. And it is that special item that makes a pixxa magical. And without that item, well . . . a pixxa would only just be human. After all, a pixxa doesn’t have magic, and a pixxa is really no different from me and you. But…there’s only one more difference that sets pixxa apart from humans. You see, pixxa don’t die from old age. In fact, not many of them―maybe only a handful―live to see their sixtieth, fiftieth, or even their fortieth birthdays. They don’t grow old because many of them die between the ages of sixteen and thirty-two. They can die from illness, they can die from car crashes, and they can die from falling out of windows, but many of them die because their loneliness eats away at them until they’re nothing but bone and sunken skin. It’s slow, but it’s not painful―rather, it is painful; it’s just that a pixxa will become so sadden by their loneliness that their physical ache is nothing compared to their emotional agony. And once that loneliness sets in, it is close to impossible to reverse the effects. None have yet to survive even with the help of normal humans, but let it be known that a pixxa makes a lasting impression on a human it befriends. And that human will never be able to forget that pixxa, no matter how hard they try.”

This is the story your grandmother told you one day before she decided to take a nap and let her slumber erase the story from her memories. You can’t ask her anything further about pixxa because her amnesia has set in again, and she forgets even you, the kid she took in and raised for almost twenty years after your parents passed away in that plane accident. It is sad to see your grandmother this way, but you can only leave her there in the nursing home because of her old age. You wish your grandmother had a friend to talk to even if she cannot remember anyone for more than a few minutes. It’s too bad your grandmother’s only friend died when she was twenty-four. Your grandmother seems to remember only that one friend, so you suppose they must have been close. You recall the pixxa story and the fact that most pixxa die before they’re thirty-two, and you smile to yourself. Perhaps the story is something your grandmother made up after her friend’s death to cope with it.

But you know that isn’t the case. You’ve had an encounter with a pixxa too. You just don’t want to remember it.

It was during high school. It was an encounter that spanned all four years, and it was the only thing that made those four years interesting. You fell asleep in class whenever the teacher kept on talking about functions and fractions, and you were the kid who didn’t need to study because you naturally got A’s and B’s. There really wasn’t much for you to do and, since everything came to you so easily, you got bored of your classes, more so than any of your classmates. And so, one day, you decided to ditch school. And it was that one day that began it all.

It was a female pixxa. You don’t remember where you had been headed, but you do remember you first saw her alone in a corner, just standing there, content with just watching as people walked by her. You don’t know why you noticed her―she wasn’t beautiful, and she wore a plain t-shirt and jeans―but something drew you to her. At the time, you did not know she was a pixxa, but you knew there was something about her. And from that day forward, every day after school, you went back to the same spot and sat on a nearby bench watching as that pixxa watched the bustling crowd pass her.

You did not go home right away because you did not want to go back and face the harsh reality of your grandmother’s memory ripping away at its seams. You did not want to go home and pretend to be a part of your grandmother’s wonderland-ish world, a world she created that you were not supposed to be a part of. So instead, you sat at that bench watching the pixxa. It was irresponsible of you to leave your grandmother alone at home like that, but going home meant dealing with your broken heart, and you were not ready to have your heart be continuously ripped to shreds every time your grandmother asked who you were.

It was freshman year around Christmas that you stayed until the night was too cold for anyone else to be out. You stayed long enough for the pixxa to start heading home. And like the stalker you convinced yourself you weren’t, you followed her. It was the best decision you have ever made because you and that pixxa became the best of friends. You told each other everything, and you loved her but, at the same time, you pitied her. Before you came into her life, she was all alone. Her family had died in some tragic accident, and she was the only one left. She was left all alone with her magic mirror. The mirror wasn’t great company, though, because it wasn’t a magic mirror like in Snow White that told her she was the fairest one of all but a magic mirror that gave her a new look. You remember that, when you first saw it in action, you thought it was weird. You watched as her reflection changed. The first time you saw it, she had changed her brown hair to blonde and her grey eyes to green. You watched as she walked into the mirror, and you watched as she came out―the pixxa you watched for months was gone, and a new girl stood in front of you. Each time she changed something, you always thought of her as new. You could never understand why she wanted to keep changing herself. You thought she was fine the way she was. This was why you pitied her. You loved her for who she was, but she didn’t love herself.

But perhaps you didn’t pity her enough because you left her after senior year. You left her, and she was left all alone for five years as you built new relationships and fell in love with another. You left her, and she was heartbroken.

She died from loneliness. Maybe she died because she was so very heartbroken, but the thought made you feel even guiltier, so you keep telling yourself she died from loneliness. But you know you are to blame. She died because you were selfish. She died because you realized too late that you loved her. She died because you returned too late. She died because of you.

As years pass on, the guilt stays with you. You try to forget her, but the guilt eats at you―there’s something else too, but you cannot name it. Maybe it’s love, but it’s too unhealthy to be love anymore. Whatever it is, you cannot forget her, and you start to lose sight of everything else.

At first, you only lose track of the time. You think to yourself that it’s natural. Everyone forgets the time sometimes. But slowly, it becomes not only time that you forget about. You start becoming distracted from conversations, you forget about work, you forget about your friends, you even miss your own wedding and your grandmother’s funeral.

The only thing you remember is her, the pixxa.

When you realize this, it is already too late. You are already becoming just like your grandmother. You’re forgetting everything, everything but her. It’s painfully obvious as you sit in front of her magic mirror almost every day just watching her reflection, the only thing left of her you have. It’s like an obsession you have no control of, an addiction in which you only think of her when you already have a significant other.

It’s not love. It’s a curse.

When you realize this, you realize too late, but then again, when it came to her, you realize everything too late.

“There’s magic in the world. But there’s no such things as dragons, there’s no such things as wizards, and there’s no such things as fairies. But there are things called pixxa. They’re human, just like me and you. Only they’re different, not very different, but they’re different. They’re born, they die, they grow, and they need to eat just like humans.

There are only two differences between a human and a pixxa: one, they have a magic item that belongs only to them and, two, they die from loneliness. It’s a slow and painful death, and there’s collateral damage. Let it be known that a pixxa makes a lasting impression on a human it befriends. And that human will never be able to forget that pixxa, no matter how hard they try.”

Years later, you tell the same story your grandmother told you to some person willing to listen to you. However, you do not take a nap and forget the ending your grandmother wanted to tell. Instead, you continue the story and end it the way your grandmother never had a chance to.

“A human befriended by a pixxa will never forget that pixxa because a pixxa’s loneliness is like a virus, contagious and constantly reproducing. A pixxa’s loneliness will spread to that human but, once a pixxa’s loneliness latches onto the human, that loneliness transforms into a disease that eats away at that human’s memories until that human can remember nothing but the pixxa they abandoned.”