A GAIN by JULLIANNE FAYE ONG

From Issue 2, Iron in the Fire – May 2017.

“Are you happy?”

Floundering, tossed around in spuming waves, I am lost. Then I’m pulled under, by her stare, and the world around me silences. A vacuum crushes my lungs and burrows a hole into my chest. Wordlessly, chillingly, her stare dives into mine and I’m certain we can both taste the salt in each other’s oceans. I’m almost mistaken that she can see me, that we’ve by some loophole crossed into the same dimension. But she turns away, and my breath returns.

*

“I… ” Her whisper is stark against the quiet. Her voice is pure, young, and scratched, “I really don’t know.” The hands of the clock tick softly, snipping away at time, and mentally I count the seconds. The ceiling above us is too still, too heavy. I’m waiting for it to fall and crush us.

“Then I don’t know what you want me to say,”

She’s suffocating. The crying clogged her nose with mucus, like a self-destructive instinct. Fighting for air, it would ebb into pained whines. Her own body was forcing its own type of consolation, like it had the right words to say, knew what to do. But there I am, speechless. “Rowen, you’re not a failure.” I say. She makes a noise in her throat, “No, no don’t you dare lie. You know that I’m a failure, and I know it too.”

“You’re too young to have failed anything. Stop.” I press.

“I’m trying,” She’s trembling.

“Stop it, you idiot.” I yell into her conscience, causing her to drop her fists that were pounding against her own temple. A silhouette appears in my memory, a straightened hand swinging towards a smaller girl’s face. My fingers shake, and I feel the need to slap her, “You’re just doing all this to yourself, Rowen. All these expectations for yourself have done nothing good.”

“Then who am I without my expectations? I need them, I want to actually be someone one day.” Listening to her cry was like listening to my own child, tears burning our identical weary brown eyes that seemed to know each other too well. But I was hurt and livid.

“You’re pathetic,” My tongue is sharp against the flesh of my cheek. “Drop the pity party and get a grip on yourself.” My own eyes begin to sting and hiss, the sharp lines of her form I’m watching over dissolve. Vague colours in the dark blur together. “I’m here again, for you, I’m sacrificing myself,” my jaw clenches, “for you. And if I am not someone you want to become in the future, then honestly, I wish you all the best.”

“You have all the answers, don’t you? You know, you sound just like them. You–you don’t understand.” she’s accusing me. “I’m not trying to-” My nails dig into my palm. I feel like I’m sinking into the bed beneath us, as I curl my fingers around the comforter. My eyes venture the nooks and crannies, the faint brown lines of leaks, dissecting every feature and retrieving its memories. I missed it here, at home. Mom and Dad were sleeping in the opposite room, and I tried not to imagine myself running in there and hugging them. I tried not to tell Rowen that they weren’t immortal.

“Are you happy?” Rowen whispers. She’s looking at the ceiling too, her tear streaks shining under the fair lights strung above the bed. No later, I mirror her.

“No.”

“All the wallpaper has torn down, and I’m only now realizing how ugly the truth is, how dark and how… scared I am for the future.” Her voice is soft, quivering, “All my friends have left me, you know.”

I knew.

 

*

“I really want to be something great, but in the process, I’m losing everyone and everything I care about.”

“Then change this, Rowen. You have the time to change all of this.” I’m exasperated, I want to throw in the towel. I was playing with glass here, thin, sinuously made glass. I wonder if there really is hope. What happens if I die for her, and this whole cycle perpetuates. “Let me tell you, your future is a dark road if you don’t. Stop living in solipsism, because you don’t want to see where that has lead me.”

“I can’t do it, I can’t.” She was done and tired. “I’m a failure. And I’m drowning, and floundering, but they all think I can’t just goddamn swim, and they can’t hear me.” I know she’s tired. I remember how she was this defeated. One last crack, and she was gone. “I can’t stay afloat, and as much as I want someone to pull me out, I just want to inhale and–” she whimpered. This time I turn around to face her. I look into her eyes the second time, and I see myself in them. Everything else about her in different–younger, pallid. She can’t see me, but I wish for more than anything that she could. She could see the wrinkles of a miserable life that scarred my skin.

“Rowen…”

Nothing.

Like a long held breath, the truth seeps out. It stains the air. This was something I’d been too afraid to admit to myself as a child, always pretended that it wasn’t tearing at my insides. “Rowen,” I round the bed and look at her. Her glassy, red eyes stare straight ahead, at nothing; her line of sight curves and loops and enters somewhere else. “You don’t have everything, and you never will.” I sighed, just as absentmindedly. She ruined everything for me, I think, wanting desperately to just wipe her tears away. This child so fragile like glass wasn’t meant for this world. Her skin was still taut, smooth; it knew too little.

“Pass it to me.”

I can see her unblinking eyes tremble. “How?”

“Just close your eyes,” My coarse hand reaches out tenderly and strokes her cheek, but the gap between our dimensions sends my hand right through her face, “don’t think” Her eyes flutter and I smile, so sadly, “Make them leave.”

“Then what about you?”

“I’m old and I’ve lived. An awful life, at that. You’ll make a better me in the future. Promise me you’ll do that, Rowen. Appreciate the people around you Rowen, they’re not worth losing in the battle.”

        *

She started to channel her pain to me. I could feel it, almost as if through an umbilical cord connected by time. My heart slows, with purpose and with intent, it writhes. I feel every increment of her sorrows, her regrets, her failures, her expectations, all slowly but steadily entering. Her eyelids droop, like flower petals, reclusing.

My body burns feverish and a few moments pass before my vision is conquered by black pixels. It’s becoming hard to breathe again, but now I embrace it. I hear an automated voice envelop me. I don’t even know where I am. But I’m consciously fading, I’m aware of that, of how my body is slowly dissolving into this blackness. I feel like I’m falling asleep. But it’s a good sleep, a sleep of someone who’d conquered life’s biggest trial — herself.

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