Escaping Heaven

They lied about Heaven. It’s nothing like they said it would be. The pearly gates and golden roads are only at the entrance, like wrapping paper on a wedding present, but the inside is as cold and quiet as death. There are no clouds, only thin wisps of smoke from kaleidoscope hookah pipes, and the angels traded their halos for pantsuits long ago. The architecture is smooth and mottled green like the ocean floor, and residents float like ghosts in water. It’s a pretty place, the stuff dreams are made of, but nothing you could have ever imagined.

Welcome to your Eternal Home reads in glowing white letters etched onto a black header. This is what greets you beyond the entrance, a little farther down the lunar landscape. It is both comforting and ominous, challenging and ironic.

Heaven is the aquarium of paradise—Atlantis with a metropolitan aura. A city under the sea in a dimension where time is an illusion and tranquility is all-consuming. Where bright lights—these fluorescent beams that slice through blankets of peaceful black—illuminate stepping stones and stained glass.

All light you’ll ever find is from Him, because He can only ever be light itself. It is one of the only truths of Heaven that was correctly recorded.

Though He is an inescapable presence, His general form mostly stays in the throne room on the outskirts of this metropolis. If it’s actually like any of the Good Books describe, I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been inside. Most don’t, and only go when called—even the Messengers. I’ve heard the whispers of those intermediaries—frail-faced beings who most readily do His bidding—and they say He spends Eternity on his alabaster armchair, and He watches and He weeps.

Maybe that’s why Heaven is drenched in perpetual rain. It is wet from an eternity of tears from the Most High.

However, excluding Himself, no one cries here. Another truth accurately passed down to humanity. Sadness, melancholy, misery—they’re storm clouds in the distance, already passed, leaving a faint humidity only a few find suffocating.

Those few are the restless ones, souls who look over their shoulder as they drift beneath blushing street lamps over puddle-ridden pavement. They exist in perpetual unease, craving a release they thought the afterlife would grant but has yet to do so. They look to others, some of which using that lingering ache to make their peace even sweeter. After all, relief is only satisfactory when it is well-deserved. Most are simply oblivious to all they once were, their conscious warmly blurred, their minds numbs as they enjoy the pleasures Paradise has to offer.

If life is what you make it, death is what you’ve wanted, however undesevering. There are no rules here, no schedules, and no expectations. You can do anything you choose, anything that could have been done on Earth. If you wish it, it’s there. There are museums besides spas beside nightclubs and swimming pools. Temples and tea shops and libraries and bars. All manner of culture and history melded into cosmic swirls of muted color; azure and cobalt blend with indigo and ebony like oils on a living canvas. Houses dwell anywhere anyone wants them to be, like anchors of existence found among all the abstract absurdity of the Creator’s subconscious.

There is Earth on Heaven, just as there is Heaven on Earth.

Heaven is ancient, Heaven is the future. It is what Earth could never be, a place to wander and reflect on the life you led and the infinite lives you could have lived. But you must be wary, for memories of your past life will ebb and flow like moon-triggered tides. You pass by a pastel bakery and suddenly recall your honeymoon in Paris. You touch a crumpled napkin in a dimly-lit deli and find you cannot remember the name of your child, or even if you had one at all. I have met souls searching for loved ones that never existed, content in their journey because all they have is time and ease.

But where do you turn, to find another on this infinite plane?

You inquire an angel.

The hierarchy of angels (if they can be considered as such) is one only they understand. They have many sects—seraphim and cherubim, dominions and virtues, powers, principalities—but we only ever call them the Messengers. It is the unifying title across all cultures and ages.

They tend to ignore us, because we are their unspoken rivals. Their true form is hidden, like much of this existence, but it is an undeniable truth they do not have wings and maybe never had. What they do have are features that constantly change and are ever-shifting, the only similarity between them all being indifference.

I do not blame them. They are servants of the Most High, yet He only ever gives His love to His children. Detachment is their method of survival, keeping themselves from becoming equal to the creatures they resent.

This resentment, coupled with ethereal condescension, is what I see on the face of the Messenger who passes by me in the street. This one is dressed in black ruffles and sleek footwear, feathery wings of gossamer brushing past me like obsidian silk. The wings serve no purpose, clip-on appendages meant to exert their status or dazzle a newcomer. I know this to be true because I know this one, and they know me. Seraphiel. A name stitched in neat white lettering across the breast pocket of their coat. They simper, pencil-thin eyebrows raised, and I frown and hunch my shoulders even more.

“Hello to you too.” Seraphiel’s voice is as airy and melodic as any other’s, though this time it is laced with mockery. I move on, not wanting to grant them the satisfaction of acknowledgement. This does not stop them.

“You have not changed,” Seraphiel calls after me, obviously not referring to my apparel. “You still carry the scent of destruction.”

“Yeah?” I keep walking, hoping they’ll stop following. They don’t.

“Shall I mark you again? Was last time not enough?”

“Fuck you.”

They laugh, and I duck into the nearest building to escape that judgmental chuckle. My hideaway became a blessing because in the aisle of this snow-white department store where everything glitters and glows, I find a new arrival. You can always tell by the scent they carry (like wet pennies) and the aura that surrounds them (like the sheen of silver bells). The store is empty save us, as these places usually are. She gazes around at the trinkets and blossoms floating beneath their thin glass cases. A freckled hand reaches out, pulling off a spherical case to grasp a lavender peony and bring it to her nose, eyelids falling shut.

I shuffle up to her and stand beside her in a slouch. I do not like this place, because it is similar to where I made my first attempt to escape. I remember the taste of dust bunnies in my throat as I lay with my belly to the linoleum floor, Madison and the black-suited Seraphiel atop me, desperately trying to smother my struggling. I had been erratic. Unhinged. I’d tried to slit my wrists with a glass shard from one of the cases, but they stopped me, and I was subsequently marked for notice. A golden crest branded onto the back of my hand that keeps me from being able to attempt such a feat again, earning the watchful stares of any Messenger nearby. Such is the procedure for a suicidal soul in the Place of Eternal Peace.

It may have hindered my plan, but it did not stop me. Nothing will, God willing. And He is.

The girl shifts slightly, and interrupts my recollection. I have not spoken to a new arrival in so long. And I need updated intel about the ever-changing world above us.

“You’re new.” My voice is flat, my hands shoved into my faded jean shorts.

Her eyes open slowly and lose some of their glaze. “Really? I feel like I’ve been here for—”

“An eternity? Yeah, everyone feels like that.” I neglect to add that I do not consider myself part of that selection.

“How do you know I’m new?”

I shrug. “I know things. I’m different.”

She turns to me, taking in my inky hair and chalky skin with a few quick glances, and knows I am not exaggerating.

“When was your call time?” She asks hesitantly, the words faint on her tongue. Perhaps she still thinks that this isn’t the afterlife, and “call time” might mean anything but time of death.

“20 years old. Homicide.” I am curt. I practically poison the air around me with my bitterness. She’s fresh, so she has yet to realize my hostility is alien, my lasting resentment unnatural.

Like a sweet summer breeze, Madison appears behind me and joins the conversation. Her blue eyes are perpetually widened (from elation, from surprise, or from worry), and her auburn hair remains in the very ballet bun she had when she was called. Madison is the blessing that belongs, an entity too good and kind and caring to ever associate with me.

We were once friends, in the other world, in the other life. She still believes we are, just like she still wears a black leotard and pale pink tights, remnants of what she left behind. Clothing is optional here, as is most everything, yet most just dress themselves in their past (I wear grey, because black is too taboo and would only attract attention).

I cannot hate Madison, but I do not have friends here. I have nothing here. It is what I tell myself between packs of cigarettes and evenings at bars to keep myself from abandoning my mission.

Madison pats the girl’s shoulder, flattening the puffiness of her baby blue sleeves. “You can do whatever you want here.”

The girl cocked her head to the side. “Anything at all?” There was no denying the skepticism in her voice.

“Anything at all. But here’s the funny thing—“ And Madison smiled, lips parting to reveal teeth as white as the store’s decor— “when you spend enough time here, you only start to want what’s good. Like every other selfish desire you’ve ever had just melts away. Theft, deceit, murder—they’re all possible here, but completely improbable.”

What Madison said was true (for the most part), yet the girl still glanced at me, unconvinced. I could see a question form on the tip of her kitten tongue, yet she thought better of it and asks something else instead. “What happens if someone were to do any of those things, like murder? How can one die if they’re already dead?”

Here Madison took a deep breath and glanced at me. “God is good. But He is just.”

This is vague, and I know the newcomer is no less confused, so I take out a cigarette, light it with my pocket lighter, and begin my rant. “Heaven is a dream, and like in a dream, you cannot die. You only wake up. Where you wake up depends on how you tried to take your life. If you commit suicide, you are sent to the gates, evaluated, analyzed, and determined, then most likely sent to the other place since here apparently didn’t suit you. If you are murdered, wash, rinse, repeat. Although obviously shown more understanding.” I exhale, blowing out a small trail of bubbles that taste like sour gum and Sunday mornings. The bubbles surprise her, but she makes no comment, only hides a giggle. She must be catching on that the Most High has a hellish sense of humor.

Trying to maintain my tense aura, I continue, “If you murder, you are sent to the other place. Call it what you will: the wasteland, the burning city. Hell.”

She blinked at me owlishly. “Surely you must be joking.”

I took the stub of my cigarette between my fingers, examined it like it was my salvation. “God gives, which is why we must give in return. But the world does not give. It only takes. So you learn to take back. And you live in the world long enough, you come to find it is all you know how to do.”

I dropped the cigarette to the ground, crushed it into the snowy floor with my sneaker, and walked out without another word. Madison will help the girl find what she’s looking for, if she’s looking at all. I have my own search to finish.

I have to find Clark.

*****

Before I passed, my boyfriend was Clark. I can’t call him that now, because it is a level of familiarity uncommon for residents. He loved me in the other life. Maybe he still does. And maybe I loved him, because he is the only other person from that life I remember. I inquire a Messenger—androgynous and aloof—to discover he is currently staying in a modern, rainforest-style house on Rainy Lane, with white walls and low, black lacquer ceilings. Within minutes (or maybe millennia), I am there. As I step inside, I see emerald flora that grows over ivory tile with the aesthetic of a 20th-century conservatory.

Music plays in the other room—golden classics from the 1940s Western World. Music is a consistent backdrop in Heaven, no matter the time or place. At any moment, one can hear Bengali lullabies or Argentinian guitar ballads playing from some manner of radio. It sets the mood and contributes to the daze.

The door is not locked, because there is no such thing as a locked door here. I enter. I do not knock. I do not not want him prepared. After a few short turns down hallways and across rooms, I see him. He stands in what I consider a bathroom, hands slowly pulling at a tie that matches his blue suede shoes. There’s a bottle of bourbon and a half-full glass on the nearest counter. The large white tub takes center stage, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling mirrors like dutiful sentries on guard. It is full, with water that steams and bubbles that smell like summer rain. I see my opportunity. I take it.

“Clark.”

His head snaps up, green eyes alarmed. “What the hell—?”

“My thoughts exactly.” Before he can say anything else, I’m across the room in front of him.

“Jesus, Riley,” he exclaims as I shove him backward, pushing him into the tub. His body submits, even if his mind is unable to comprehend. His white shirt is now soaked, revealing sharp outlines of body and bone. The buttons would be so easy to rip off. A task to save for after I undress.

“Careful. We don’t want Him around right now,” I reply, almost smug. I pull off my shirt. My shorts drop to the floor, and I step out of them. I wear nothing underneath. I am methodical, I am precise.

His eyes flick down and then return to meet mine. It’s a different world, but flesh is flesh. This body is the same one that he held in the back of his 1967 Mercury Cougar. I can practically feel the heat emanating from him, twisting up his insides and making him hot under the collar. “God dammit,” he curses under his breath, and I smirk because I know I can still torture him. I climb into the tub and sit on his hips. He doesn’t stop me, but he does manage to mutter, “You aren’t real,” in shameful self-denial.

“Babydoll, I’m the realest thing you’ll find in this fucked-up Paradise.”

It silence him, and we get on with our business. Our relationship is a bloodsport. We try to love by proxy but fail because of sentiment. It is a menagerie of tragedy, a satire of dysfunction. But it works. We make it work.

When it’s all said and done, we end up on the bed (a room over, with teal and turquoise sheets) entangled in each other’s arms.

“You’re a saint,” He says with a smile. His freckled shoulders, broad and appealing, gleam in the low light.

“No, those are found on Park Avenue.” But I return the smile in spite of myself. I know now my original intent is impossible to fulfill, that sentiment has once again ruined my inability to form attachment. As he drifts asleep, I watch the slow rise and fall of his chest, imagining myself stabbing scissors through his heart or wrapping my fingers around his throat as I straddle his rib cage.

After the briefest eternity, I leave him, swaddled in sheets and unaware of my murderous intentions. I dress in my old clothes, which have seemingly gotten darker and heavier than before, and stride with new purpose. So my target has changed; my plan and determination remain unwavering. Before I go, I take with me the tie he had been removing when I first found him. It’ll serve a noble purpose soon.

I find the new arrival from before, not far from the store where we first met. She stands alone atop a white skyscraper, damp from the soft rain falling from above and looking out over the city with awed confusion. When she sees me, standing there nonchalantly, her confusion deepens. “It’s you. From before.”

I shrug, no better response in mind.

“Were you looking for me?”

I step closer, my intent beginning to radiate off me in dark waves. “Yeah, something like that.”

She sees the tie in my hand, dangling from my white-knuckled fist. “What’s that for?” I hear the tremor in her voice, the anxiety bubbling beneath the haziness of her mind as she tries to understand why I come closer, looking to kill.

I stop before her, sighing deeply as I prepare myself for the inevitable about to take place. “Look, I’m really sorry it had to be you, but there’s just no other way.”

“What do you mean—?”

And then I’m atop her, tie wrapped around her throat, choking the life from her as she weakly struggles. I don’t like doing this, but for the greater good it had to be done. It is like strangling a white rabbit or newborn deer. As her soul begins to fade, I look out across the city and murmur,”Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll send you back here after they evaluate you. You were just in the wrong place as the wrong time. You’ll forget all about this.”

Just before we both disappear completely, I look up to the light. “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”

It begins to rain harder as we vanish.

*****

I won’t speak about Hell. I won’t even try. My stay there was brief, but it was long enough to strengthen my resolve. All that’s important is I managed to escape it. My relief to return to Earth is strong enough to raise the dead, which is, in fact, what happens. I leave my grave undone, like a bed unmade, and venture back out into the world to complete my mission. On my tombstone, I leave a note. To anyone who finds it, I swear it’s the truth.

My name is Riley, and I am a prophet. I was taken from the Earth too soon, and I have work to finish. Upon my arrival to the Pearly Gates, I learned the only way to return to Earth is to first go to Hell. And to go to Hell from Heaven, you must either commit suicide or murder another. My suicide attempt thwarted, I tried to murder my former-lover Clark, only to falter at the last moment. In the end, I murdered a new arrival, and I went to Hell. When there, there is only one way to leave, and that is by pardon of the Most High. It’s a vicious but deliciously ironic cycle of death and more death, heaven and hell and hellish reality. God would be lying if He said He didn’t plan it to be that way.

I escaped Heaven, but I know I’ll return there one day. His children always do.


A/N: Inspired by a dream on 6/13/17

© 2018 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

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Sweet Nothings

I was a beauty queen in a bed sheet
My messy hair a work of art
A wild child with savage fits
“Don’t know how, but you’re killing me, kid”

I remember the amber glow of streetlights
And long walks down darkened streets
I was beauty dancing in a hurricane
In neon flashes of blue and green

Counting freckles on bare shoulders
As he pulled me closer
Blue-eyed, blue-collared
A boy with peasant blood
Who adored a queen at heart

© 2018 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

The Man in the Decrepit House

His house was small and decrepit, hiding in a suburban neighborhood on the west side of town. The lawn desperately needed a trim, weeds consuming the residency like vengeful forest creatures. Grime covered the windows, and the garage was cluttered with boxes and machine parts. It was only the familiar red jalopy, like a crimson carriage of Death, that alerted the young girl she’d found the right place.

She pulled to a stop and swung a leg off her bike, approaching the home with caution. Her nose crinkled at the sight of garbage littered around the yard. It annoyed her. She would’ve taken the time to pick up every piece had she not been so anxious to leave. Even amidst her apprehension, the urge to throw the crushed cans and cardboard pieces in the recycling bin was hard to fight. She was such a creature of habit.

Pushing distractions to the back of her mind and clenching her jaw, she summed up enough courage to knock on the door. Hearing distant muttering and the shuffling of feet inside, she took a deep breath and braced herself for the meeting to come. Instinctively, her fingers went to her hair to smooth down the frizzy fly-aways that poked out of her head and braid.

The door swung open and a tall, muscular male in his mid-20s appeared. The shaved head and 5 o’clock shadow along his jawline added a certain harshness to his coppery face. His eyes, dark yet penetrating, studied her with a lack of interest. The black tank top hanging off his broad frame needed a good wash, his right arm was covered in a sleeve of tattoos, and in his hand was a half-empty beer bottle. He wasn’t even wearing shoes.

“Yeah?” His voice was deep and ragged. It reminded her of her father’s voice, back when he was still around.

She swallowed. “I’m—I’m here for…” her voice trailed off and she tapped the dirt with the tip of her sneaker. “Mr. Castiglione?”

He took a swig of beer. “What do you want?”

She was afraid he would say that. “I’m here to ask about the accident. At the hospital.”

He took another look at her, at the band-aids on her knees, the gold stars piercing her earlobes, and the mismatched socks climbing up her ankles. She was just a kid. 17, maybe 18, but just a kid. “You don’t look like a cop,” he said, getting ready to shut the door.

“I’m not one. And I’m not trying to be.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Just looking for some answers.”

The memory of their first meeting came back to him like a bitter pill to swallow as he stared at the girl that he once knew well slouching before him. Long gone were the sneakers and band-aids and gold stars. She was dressed in all black, boots too big and a shirt too small. Her face had lost some of its pleasant roundness, and her painted lips were drawn in a thin line, like she had forgotten what it was to smile. The dark gloss she’d smeared over them made it seem like she had been sucking on pomegranate seeds.

It was strange, to see her like that, and stranger still when he realized he must look exactly the same, even wearing the same haircut and black tanktop from when they first met. It’s only been a year since I left, he thought, and yet a year can be an eternity for the right person.

The group had quieted down to a suffocating silence, the tension thick enough to kill. Suddenly the empty parking lot was too small, and she resisted the urge to up and leave. Unable to meet his eyes, she stared off in the distance, watching a plastic bag from the nearby gas station drift along like an urban tumbleweed. She shifted slightly, and her male companion gripped her waist tighter, looking for trouble.

The man took a look at her, in her black leather and lipstick, bristling like barbed wire, and he let out a bitter chuckle. “What happened to the girl who wanted to save the world by recycling all my beer bottles?”

The girl swallowed but still couldn’t meet his gaze. “She grew up.” Her voice was hollow.

He rubbed his hand over his shaved head. “That’s too bad.” He attempted a crooked grin. “I liked her.”

The boy holding onto her became annoyed and wrapped his arms around her, more so as an act of possession than of affection. It only made the girl more uncomfortable, and she wanted to push him away, but she couldn’t, not with him watching. Waiting for her to come to him, to forget everything that had happened.

To become her old self.

But that was impossible. Wasn’t it?

Digging his hands into his jean pockets, the man didn’t seem to want to leave. She knew he could be stubborn. She never thought that stubbornness would be directed at her. “C’mon, Red.” His voice was soft. Persuasive. “What happened to you? Why are you being like this?”

She opened her mouth, to tell him to piss off and leave her alone, that he had broken her heart and didn’t even know it, but she couldn’t. She had always been too soft and cared too much. Her eyes filled with tears, and it took her all her power to keep them from running down her face. When she finally spoke, her voice cracked. “You left. And I got tired of waiting for you.” She hated saying it, hated how she sounded, and couldn’t bring herself to see his reaction.

Her male friend now felt threatened. He had never seen her like this (but after all, he had only known her for a month), so he urged her to get in the car and leave.

But she couldn’t. She finally had a chance to tell the one person she adored all thoughts she’d had on those nights he wasn’t there to hear them. All the hateful curses for leaving her behind as her life fell apart, even though the voice of reason had tried to convince her why. So with her heartbeat beginning to thud in her ears and her face becoming flushed, she shoved her quasi-lover aside and charged towards the source of her pain, clenched firsts swinging and footsteps resolute.

“You never called after you left, not even once.” The tears were brimming in her eyes, still threatening to spill down her cheeks, because she was angry. At him. At the world. But mostly at herself. “You didn’t even leave a note. You just left. My life was falling apart and you weren’t there to help. And sure, I knew why, but that didn’t excuse your actions. All those days together, all the things I told you, and you still left. Did I mean anything to you at all? Was I always just a kid to you, just because we’re seven years apart? You always treated me like a little kid! Always! And I hated it and I—”

She was in front of him now, jabbing her finger into his chest with her eyes focused on the ground. He was so tall, and she didn’t want to look up at him. She couldn’t. Her fingers curled into fists and she began to beat upon his chest like a tribal drum. He took the beatings in silence, holding on to her shoulders but doing nothing else to stop her assault.

Her friends (if they could even be called that) felt awkward and had decided to wander off as she began to cry, but her (now seemingly ex-) boyfriend had had enough. He charged forward and pulled them apart, yelling, “Get away from my girl, dude.”

He threw a punch, but the man easily stopped his fist mid-swing. “I don’t think she was ever your girl, dude.”

Ego bruised and mouth going off like a firecracker, the boy swore and tried again, this time going in for an uppercut. Once again, the man deflected his punch and then grabbed his collar. “If you try to hit me again, I will retaliate.” His voice took on a calm yet threatening timbre.

The boy glared at him, cursed again, but stepped back, making like he was returning to the car. The girl let out a breath she didn’t realize she had been holding, relieved because conflict always set her on edge. However, just after he turned, he whirled back around for another punch, hoping to catch the man off-guard.

He didn’t.

The man’s face grew dark. “I warned you.” And then with a single, swift swing, he knocked him out.

The girl thought she should feel something—disapproval for the man, sympathy for the boy, anything—but her feelings were hard to place, and the only thought she could muster for her ex-lover (which seemed too great a title for him now) was that he deserved it. His friends, scared and unsure how to proceed, cautiously approached them to drag their fallen compatriot back to the car.

“You coming with us?” A blonde girl with black lipstick asked, blue eyes darting between the girl and the man.

The girl shook her head. It was all the blonde needed, and she hurried back to their car, which swerved out of the lot and onto the road like a dog with its tail between its legs. The girl watched it go with no small sense of relief. It felt good to not follow them for once. Maybe, just for a little while, things could go back to how they were.

The man turned to her. “Want to go get coffee? I know a place.”

The girl paused, considered it for an achingly long moment, then mumbled, “Fine. But you’re buying.”

The man smiled. “It’s the least I could do.” And the two walked over to his blue Mustang, climbing inside like it was the most natural thing in the world.

“What happened to the jalopy?” She asked, remnants of her old self beginning to shine through as she sunk into the leather seat.

“I sold it. It was time to move on.”

The girl’s half-smile faded at these words. “Oh. So that’s how you felt.” She knew she sounded sullen, but what was the point of hiding her feelings now?

“Because it was junk and meant nothing to me,” the man continued as he started the car and pulled it onto the road. “But I came back. Because there are things here that I care about and they’re worth returning to.” He looked at her pointedly.

She squirmed under his gaze and turned to stare at the window at the passing streetlights. As much as it pleased her to hear those words, she still felt flustered, so much so that she could feel the heat spread across her cheeks.

“I didn’t want to leave, Red. You knew there were things I needed to take care of. Life’s like that sometimes. I hoped you wouldn’t take it personally, that you’d move on with your life and find a new… friend.” He laughed softly. “But another selfish part of me wished you wouldn’t because I knew I’d be coming back and didn’t want you to forget about me.”

The heat continued to spread across the girl’s face and over her neck, so much so that she began to lower her head in an attempt to hide it. But even in the dusky darkness, he could see her obvious blush with every flash of light from the streetlamps. He grinned. “Now there’s the color that earned you your nickname.”

“Go to hell,” she tried to snap, but it came out as an embarrassed stutter. As always, she was terrible at hiding her flustered state, and it gave him obvious enjoyment.

Later that evening, as they sat in a booth at a diner on the corner of 17th Avenue and 38th Street, he pulled out a silver flask to pour its contents into his coffee cup. The girl, who had ordered a cup of hot chocolate (much to the man’s amusement), watched him do so. “Is that whisky?”

“Maybe.”

“Give me some.”

He shot her a warning look. “You shouldn’t drink.”

“Shut up.” She glared at him and reached for the flask, wishing he wouldn’t chide her for the immorality of underage drinking. She’d never actually had alcohol before, finding its smell repulsive, but wanted to show she had changed and was capable of consuming something that was once too “adult” for her.

He held it out of her reach. “No, I mean it. You shouldn’t drink. You’re not the type to enjoy it.”

She eyed him suspiciously. “How would you know what I like these days? I’ve changed a lot, you know.”

He resisted the urge to smile. She was starting to sound like her old self. “Alcohol numbs. You drink to forget. Believe me, I know. But you were never one to numb the pain. You always did things to distract yourself, or make yourself feel alive. It’s why you’d go for runs at 3 AM or swim in the creek in winter. Or—” and he motioned to her cup— “order hot chocolate with extra sprinkles for the sugar rush.”

“Fine.” She crossed her arms and settled back in her seat, the cherry leather squeaking slightly. “But I have grown up since you’ve been gone.”

He took a long drink of his coffee. “I don’t doubt it.”

“I’m serious,” She insisted, leaning forward. “When my world starting to fall apart, it was up to me to keep it together. I was the one who survived on my own, I was the one who took care of myself, I was the one who picked myself up off the shower floor each night.”

He also leaned forward, their noses now inches apart. “And you have my respect. Life’s a bitch, we both know that. But Red, don’t let the world turn you bitter. I know you’ve always wanted to be some tough girl, tough like me, but you gotta learn to stay good and honest and… soft.” His eyes drifted to her lips, but only for a second and then they were back to holding her gaze with unwavering resolve.

To hide the awkwardness, she rolled her eyes and feigned annoyance. “What kind of gender role bullshit is that? Next you’re going to be telling me I shouldn’t have lost weight because girls should have a little something to hold onto.”

The man smirked. “Well yeah, I wouldn’t be opposed to that.”

She kicked him beneath the table and he winced, but nevertheless they both smiled at each other. The tension was gone. They talked for hours, laughing and joking and arguing until the waitress finally asked them to leave because it was long past closing. After stepping outside, the summer air felt warm and sweet, even though earlier it had been suffocating.

“Well… what now?” She asked, staring up at the night sky and getting lost in the sea of darkness.

“Get in, I’ll take you home.” He walked over to his parked car and opened the door for her. “Where are you living these days?”

The girl climbed inside. “You might recognize the place.”

It was a white house with blue trim and matching shutters, pansies growing in neat rows along the walkway and yellow Hibiscus in bloom beneath the windows. The white tin roof gleamed in the moonlight, and stars peeped through the leaves of the vine-covered tree beside the driveway.

It was the decrepit house no longer. The man could only stare in awe, disbelieving that it had radically changed in his absence, no longer resembling a junkyard or troll’s hovel but instead sleeping peacefully as the picture of suburban charm. “Is that my house?”

“You never actually owned it, remember?” She raised an eyebrow. “After you left, a new family moved in and totally renovated the place—as you can see.”

“I’d say.”

Silence settled between them as they stared at the house for a few moments longer. Finally, the man turned back to the girl. “So you live there now?”

She shrugged. “Okay, I lied. I’m actually in an apartment on the south side of town. I just thought you might like to see what became of your old place. You know, to show you it was capable of being a proper home after all.”

“Huh. I guess so.” He cast it one more look before he started the car again and drove away. “It looks like many things have changed since I left.”

“For better or for worst.”

“Well, that’s how it goes, Red.”

“You really need to stop calling me that.”

And so off they went into the night, the house that was no longer decrepit but instead fresh and new silently watching them go. They were an unlikely pair, and the girl was unsure if they could be as close as they once were, but she had hope that it would all turn out alright in the end. Things could never go back to the way they were, but the future was still bright with endless possibilities. Because that’s how life is: everything changes but somehow still stays, people grow up but can never forget their past, and home isn’t found in houses but in something deeper.

—-

A/N: Inspired by a house I saw on May 11th, 2016.

© 2018 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

Peonies

She went to the beach. It was a little strip of sand along the inky coast, just a short walk from the rocky cliffs that faced the Pacific ocean. She was alone, save for the occasional wayward gull. A gypsy child carelessly drifting along, as quiet and transparent as the gusts of wind whipping the foamy waves into swells.

She wore her favorite bathing suit. It was a pastel pink and blue little thing, matching her soft pixie hair. The top had extravagant ruffles which suited her figure well. There was no one else around to see it, and the sea would not judge, so she felt at peace.

Her purple peony tattoos at the top of her thighs were finally apparent. They hid the scars well, the leafy vines of the flowers curling around the pale, jagged skin, bursting into bloom wherever the cuts overlapped.

She really did love those tattoos. She got them in college, where she had better learned to love herself.

The water was freezing, but it felt refreshing. Cleansing, even. It reflected the cloudy sky, and she stared up at the silver rays of light peaking out from clumps of cotton fluff, wondering what it would be like to lay upon a cloud and drift away. It was a dream she’d had for years—to get away from it all, to be as delicate and weightless as a butterfly, but out of reach from reality below. Wasn’t that what everyone wanted at times? To just escape?

Death was an escape, this she knew, and suicide the greatest escape of all. Her best friend had told her that most people commit suicide not because they want to die, but because they wanted to truly live and couldn’t. It was one of those cliche quotes she’d mumble at midnight after she’d had too much ginger ale, followed by a declaration that therapists were just prostitutes for your emotions. She was funny that way.

She thought about her little brother, the younger one, who’d had the accident. She wondered if he enjoyed Death. She imagined he did. Heaven seemed so nice, and she knew he had to be there. She missed him but knew she’d see him again one day.

Finally, after all the nostalgic reflection, she got out and stretched herself out on the sand, covering her eyes with the crook of her elbow. For some time, she was quiet, the rhythmic waves lulling her into a peaceful half-sleep. And then, in a hoarse whisper, she breathed the words:

Count every second
Till the skies are blue

But then she was silent again, for there were some feelings that only silence could explain.

© 2018 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

A Poem for the Moon

She is what I wish to be
Glowing, radiant
And perfect.
When I am hot, she is cool
When I am gone, she is there.
A sparkling eye, a shining face
Veiling a layer of subtle grace
What is it like, to be adored?
It seems like a burden
She is too humble to bear.
It is a duty performed
With modest flair.
There she is
And here I stay
Small and far away
My mind full of starlight
My thoughts in the clouds.
One look puts me in a haze
Lasting for days
And it warbles all the sounds.
I’ve always been blue,
But I daydream in red when I see you.

© 2018 Obliquity of the Ecliptic