It was raining.
The universe poured down out of the heavens, leaving the world below dry as it had been before everything began. Stars and galaxies ripped away from each other, isolated themselves into droplets of dust and void. The heat of the suns condensed into a few ounces of warmth, carried by the wind to land in the boy’s hair.
He looked up, scanning the dark sky. The evening was clear, but there was nothing above him. Not stars, not satellites—only the moon, faintly, just above the horizon. It decided to set early. He didn’t mind.
There was a vague feeling of emptiness, he thought, as he scanned the abyss over his head. He knelt down, still looking up, and he felt cool grass on his knees and the collapsing infinity on his face. The dust coated his hair, his eyelashes, his lips, and he knew this was the end. Maybe not of all things, but of a full world. It was emptying.
What would an empty world have to offer? It would need to be filled, he knew—or he thought he did. The boy didn’t know what with. The boy didn’t know what people should be filled with. Love, or happiness, or something darker, so the good could replace it? It didn’t make sense for a feeling to be the only thing people had in them. It didn’t make much sense for matter to be the only thing the universe had in it, either. Something intangible was the only sense the boy could make of infinity. It was intangible, he knew, even if it was matter. He would never touch it. It would never touch him. It would be forever out of reach. Is a world where nearly everything is out of reach the same as one that’s empty? Either way, the ants would never touch the heavens.
Unless the world was emptying.
The heavens would touch the ants.
He looked at the stars—the ones still falling to the ground. Infinity could end, he thought. And laughed. A soft, quiet laugh, meant for him and the stardust and the warmth of the dissolving suns. Infinity was ending.
The droplets of void were cold, but the liquid falling on his cheeks was thousands of times colder.
He was crying.
He knew it was ending—he knew everything had to—but he didn’t believe this was it.
He was just a boy.
Would he keep existing in the empty world, he wondered? Would he keep existing if everything emptied, fell to the earth as hot and cold tears from gods long forgotten? He felt the tears. The tears of heaven, frozen void and stardust warm as the sunrise he might never witness again, and his own, stinging cold and against the goosebumps raised on his skin, that fell down his cheeks and pooled in his hands. If the world was emptying, why was he still there?
His hand came up to his face to wipe the tears from his eyes. He didn’t know if they were his or those of infinity. He didn’t know if he cared, or if it mattered. He was by himself, in the grass, watching stardust and void fall to the ground.
In a way, it reminded him of the snow. The way the dust fell and shattered over the grass, the way the shards built into a glowing layer of everything dissolving into nothing. The void came over the dust and erased it, like it had never fallen. Like rain over the first frost.
It was raining, then, that night. But not really.
I finish the last slurp of my soda when I spot my sister Mirabella in the kitchen again. Her body convulses briefly and because of this, I can’t see much of her face. It’s moving too fast. There’s a hairbrush in her hand and she’s struggling to hold on tight enough to go through the stands of her hair. The strands are a little uneven with knots of faded green sticking to the bristles of the brush. Her face steadies and I catch a glimpse of her drooping eyes with specks of mucus peeking out the corners. Reflections of flames from small candles flicker and dance on her face, giving her lips and eyes a brief glow before disappearing back into the darkness. Sometimes I see lines sunken into her face, almost like scales. When the light stays on her face for a longer amount of time, the scars color her face green. Even though all the pictures of her are taken down by His order, it’s how I remember Mom looking.
I walk past Mirabella but don’t make eye contact. I don’t expect her to respond but the convulsions have stopped. She’s supposed to be sleeping, but she’s sitting on the short stool and can barely even rest her head down comfortably. I tap the lid pedal with my foot before chucking the soda into the bin. The clock flashes neon. 11:15. Within a few seconds, the screen changes. Clock reset. The numbers flicker for a moment and then disappear. I walk over to the light switch to try to turn on the lights, but no luck. Power has just gone out. Just great.
“Darcy?” she blinks and turns her head towards me.
“Darcy, is my hair still there?”
I take a look at it. Dimly lit knots at the end show the same length as this past morning. She’s been growing out the hair for a few months now.
“Yes,” I say quietly while pressing my shoulder into the wall behind me.
Without hesitation, Mirabella questions my answer. It’s almost normal of her.
“Are you sure? You did hear what the priest said, didn’t you? It’s only a matter of time until-until--mom’s going to come home and then-”
“Mira,” I interrupt her. She’s forgetting to breathe as she talks. “Slow down.”
Mirabella takes a deep breath and lets go of the hairbrush. She sets it down softer than she ever sits down glassware. Her hands float back up to her hair. She rubs her fingers in circles at the top of her head and she blinks again.
“The hair’s supposed to change. Mom upset the priest again. There will be consequences and her hair was already taken away. And your hair meets the standard ordinance, and I let my friend dye it. It’s against the ordinance, and when it’s against the ordinance, He notices.”
“I didn’t know you believed in that.”
We rarely discussed religion beyond the ordinances.
“If I don’t believe in Him, how do you explain Mom?”
“Mom is-well, she’s fine. Okay? You’re fine. You’re going to be fine. I’m going back to bed. You should too.”
I turn to go to the stairway. I pace up the stairs, not bothering to grab hold of the railing anymore. I think I hear a doorknob turn, but I push the thought out of my mind. We’re not supposed to pay attention to those sorts of noises. You don’t ask too many questions, that’s how you lose. Your hair, your job, your family. That’s what I was told and that’s what I listened to.
When Mirabella knocks on my inside wall a few hours later, my voice turns sarcastic and I don’t even open my eyes.
“They came last night.”
“Of course, they did. Was the knife sharp?”
“It wasn’t a knife.”
“But how else are they supposed to cut your hair and then attach snakes?”
“I think it’s what they used to call magic.”
She steps closer. I grip my pillow harder. Maybe if I fall back asleep, I won’t have to suffer through this conversation for the fourth time this week. Her hair will be there when I open my eyes. Her hair will be there like it was yesterday morning. Her hair will be there like it was when Mom questioned his right. Her hair will be there like it’s been there since the night she came home slightly past ‘few, but I hadn’t been given the time to care.
She’s hovering over me with a finger rubbing a brown strand of my hair between her thumb and pointer finger when she whispers.
“Do you not hear them?”
She didn’t say that yesterday morning, but I push that thought away. Mirabella is okay, and the symptoms of this paranoia will wane.
She straightens up her posture and the hiss gets louder. She must’ve tugged on one to get a glimpse of it. Most likely to prove its existence.
“You don’t believe me, but look. Their eyes are orange.”
I force my eyes open. Her hair is completely gone with not even a single green knot attached. In its place are scaly snakes weaving in and out trying to catch glimmers of light. My eyes attempt to trace the former hairline when the reality sinks in: I was wrong.
Mirabella was actually right.
I don’t know what to say about this. I swing my legs over the front of the bed and push against the sheet with my hands to prop myself up. I tap against it to gesture for her to sit. The snakes have started to stir, and I’d rather not have them in my face.
“This means Mom is coming home, right? Actually coming home. I haven’t seen her in forever.”
There’s a moment of silence between us. She doesn’t remember, and I don’t want to remind her. How Mom really was.
“Darcy?” she asks.
She doesn’t answer right away. Snakes continue to slither and hiss at each other on top of her head. Mirabella grips the bedsheet to maintain balance as her head starts to lean to the left.
“Does this mean you’re going away?”
I don’t answer her, but I shake my head. Even though it’s lying, it reassures her.
She reaches out a hand to my eyes. It pushes down against my nose and traps a curl or two under a blanket of cold. I understand that she doesn’t want me to see her like this. I close my eyes and try to ignore the reality of tomorrow.
“Do you want a pillow?” I ask her.
“No, I don’t think they’ll like that.”
“So you’ll just learn to sleep sitting up?”
“It’s not like I’ve been sleeping recently anyway.”
That’s the last word she says. I wait. And wait. For her to say something else, but she doesn’t.
I swing my legs back over and turn onto my side. I don’t want to be awake through her silence. I can’t bear to hear another hissing noise from the snakes. Through the night, the snakes tangle and untangle while I intentionally look away.
One afternoon in the middle of November, the crisp autumn leaves gradually became masked by the pearly white dust brushing the Toronto sidewalks. The air was filled with a cool breeze, reminding residents of the approaching winter. In a small flat in downtown Toronto, Canada, the rocking chair creaked louder than the news, which is always playing gently from the kitchen television, assuring Adam that his grandma, Kendall, was still in fact sitting in her favorite living room seat. Crisp leaves had just finished crunching beneath shoes as Adam ground them into the frosted sidewalk. This assured Grandma Kendall that Adam was home from the library at last.
Adam, though pushing 23 years old, still held on to his 3rd grade personality; he was a very shy and reserved man who trusted no one’s heart but Grandma Kendall’s. Adam loved music, and really nothing but music, besides, of course, Grandma Kendall. Adam played his music almost as much as Grandma Kendall played the news. Adam still lived with Grandma Kendall, and relied on her for much more than just his happiness, as he was unemployed. His ginger hair complimented his pink and white skin with freckles: lots and lots of freckles. Adam was a very awkward person, so he would stand hunched over to distract others from his towering height.
Grandma Kendall had supported Adam since the very beginning, and she was Adam’s best (and only) friend. From past experiences with bullying, Adam fully believed that Grandma Kendall was the only good-hearted person left on Earth. Grandma Kendall spoke with Adam one day about learning to support himself, specifically in the form of a job. She set up an interview for Adam at a local record shop to fit well with Adam’s immense love for music. It took a while for Adam to gather the courage to go to the interview, but once he did, he didn’t look back.
Adam ran back home as fast as his long legs would take him to tell Grandma Kendall all about his very successful interview. Once he burst through the door, however, he slowly made his way to the living room, where Grandma Kendall’s chair was always creaking louder than the news. He found it very odd that he could hear the reporter clearly from the kitchen counter, and that there was no sign of a creaking chair. Adam slowly crept through the winding hallways to the living room, not knowing what exactly to expect. ‘That chair has been creaking non-stop for almost 14 years; why on Earth would it have stopped now?’ Adam thought to himself as he struggled to drag his feet to the living room. Adam, rather than checking on Grandma Kendall, paced back and forth through the foyer, thinking of nearly every possible reason that the creaking of Grandma Kendall’s chair was inaudible. After nearly 10 minutes of pacing and worrying, Adam finally mustered the courage to stride into the living room and tell Grandma Kendall all about his interview. When he made it to the foot of Grandma Kendall’s chair, however, he came face to face with the one conclusion that hadn’t crossed his mind in the foyer.
Adam fell to his knees with shock; he was only out of the house for 45 minutes. He spent nearly an hour on the floor crying by Grandma Kendall’s feet before finally calling the police. For once in his life, Adam was alone. He didn’t just feel like he was, he wasn’t all alone except for Grandma Kendall, Adam was completely and utterly alone. No shoulder to cry on but his own. The police took Grandma Kendall away, leaving Adam to the empty house. The silent house, for that matter, for the living room chair was no longer creaking, and the evening news was no longer playing for the first time in 14 years.
Adam, at the funeral he had planned for Grandma Kendall (because it only seemed like the right thing to do), sat alone in the front row as the funeral director shared emotional words about losing a loved one, and as the chorus sang out to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’. After the funeral was over, the funeral director noticed that Adam was the only one still sitting silently in the pews. He went over to Adam and gently said the four words Adam needed to hear most.
“You are not alone,” Adam heard softly whispered on his left side as the funeral director placed a loving hand on Adam’s shoulder. “I know it may feel like that sometimes -”
“All of the time,” Adam cut in.
“But,” the funeral director continued, “ There’s always somebody there to help you through anything and everything. Even the most unlikely person you ever thought would.”
Adam was astounded by the generosity and love of this random person, so he introduced himself. The funeral director, Mike, after introducing himself to Adam, offered to buy Adam a coffee, so they went to the nearest cafe and sat down for a warm drink and a long talk.
“Can I be honest?” Adam asked Mike 30 minutes into their conversation, “I really thought Grandma Kendall was the only person who would ever make me feel like I was worth something, like I wasn’t alone, like there were still good people on this Earth. But now I know I was wrong. There are some amazing hearts on this planet, it just might take some time, some hard times for that matter, to find the people whom those good hearts belong to.”
He hated it.
Hated the way the cold bit into his skin, like a great hound hungry for a meal it hadn’t tasted in aeons.
He swore he didn’t hate dogs.
He swore he hated the heat more than he hated the cold.
And he did— He hated the way the heat burned like you were getting smoked out of your own skin.
The cold was different.
The cold was hungry where the heat was lavishing in merriment. The cold had need where the heat snapped its fingers and had the world brought to it.
He understood the cold.
He was hungry, he had need.
But he had skin where the cold had teeth. He had blood and a heart warmer than a forest fire, burning with feeling. He had fingers with touch and eyes with sight.
The cold had only its lungs and teeth. No stomach to satisfy hunger, no mind to understand what or why it needed. It had no life of its own.
He could imagine it did, he imagined it as a hound, as a hunter, as a hate deeper than anything disguised as exaggerated distaste for something else.
He imagined many things, just as he swore many things to himself like they mattered at all.
Mostly he imagined that anything did matter. His hate, and his love.
He did not love as much as should, he knew, and hated.
He loved the cold on his skin when the heat burned it, he loved the heat when the cold bit at his heels. He loved the comfort of another, be it hunter or hound. He loved the way things felt under his fingertips, the way colours played in his mind. He loved his hunger and his need and the reminder that he was alive. He loved.
But in that dark and cold and snow and winter, he hated.
He hated the reminders of life. He hated that he was more than teeth and lungs. He wanted to rip off his skin and tear out his stomach, wanted to bite back at the cold. Wanted to forget his humanity and life and if he must exist, exist without need or hunger.
He hated the cold.
He loved the cold.
He understood the cold.
He longed for the cold like he longed for a comfort he had never known. He longed to be anything other than human.
Anything other than hunger and need.
He let his campfire go out, let that frigid hound snatch it up in its great and deadly jaws and hoped and hated he wouldn’t be next.
He let sleep take him like he refused the cold.
But what the cold hungers for the cold will always find and devour, tasting and unfeeling and unsatisfied it will move on. It hungers alone and needs and longs for another.
The cold understood him.
The cold loved him.
The cold hated him.
And so those teeth and lungs gently took him in their great maw, and paused. And imagined.
Carefully, that cold and hungry hound quieted its stomach and took off, racing and working those lungs like they had never been worked before.
It had imagined a way for peace. For hatred and love and understanding and satisfied longing and hunger and need.
Maybe that imagination hadn’t been so alone.
He awoke, no longer next to the scraps of hated heat and unsatisfying meal, now, having been borne there by that which he loved and hated and understood, he stood beside that great hound with its terrible teeth and lungs. And together they had imagined, and now they faced the gods.
Gods they had both forgotten and neglected.
Gods who, looking at him and looking at the cold, imagined. Gods who made imagination true.
And so touch and sight and stomach and teeth and lungs became one.
Cold that was satisfied with its meal. Cold that was no longer alone. Cold that was no longer terrible or great. Cold that simply was. Cold that simply felt. It felt hunger and howled through mountains until it was full, it felt hate and love and understanding.
Cold that nevermore longed.
Cold that was at long last, satisfied.
Ivy, Charlotte, and the Ghosts
The clouds were a dark grey, as they usually were this late in October. All color had been sucked out of nature from the fall season. My shoes pattered rhythmically against the pavement. I had started walking to school just that year; it gave me time to clear my head. Glancing up, I could see tons of them. They’re easy to pick out, their forms transparent and their light eyes unseeing. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been able to see and communicate with ghosts, spirits, the dead, whatever you call them, I can see them. They had become a lot to handle. There was so much pressure on me to help them move on, or come to peace, or something. They knew I could see them, so I tried to ignore them as much as I could. Can you imagine what someone would say--what someone would do--if they found out? I kept my head low as I stepped into high school.
People tended to avoid me at school, which I didn’t mind. As a sophomore that late into the school year, I was sure each little clique has already made some wild assumption about me. I didn’t dress as well as they did, basically wearing the same light, black jacket every day with a rotating set of t-shirts underneath. I wasn’t able to sleep because of the ghosts, and the dark bags under my eyes were proof. You wouldn’t have called me a social person, that’s for sure, and I didn’t plan on changing that anytime soon.
My first class was a blur, as it normally was. But my second class had a new seating chart, and I was placed next to a girl who’s name I didn’t recognize. She must’ve been new, unless I had forgotten about a Charlotte Nichols. I found my spot to see her already there. She was staring off into the window, absently playing with her hair. She had big, blue eyes and small freckles across her pale cheeks. Her hair was wavy and blonde, and she wore all pink. We looked like complete opposites. I stayed quiet, and the bell rang for class to start. A few minutes in, and she was writing busily on a notebook. There were sketches, charts, timelines and most of all, halves of conversations. Confused, I jumped slightly to see a ghost leaning over her shoulder. They were talking. Charlotte wrote her half of the conversation and the ghost replied verbally.
She took notice of my staring and we made eye contact. My expression must have been of shock, because she suddenly gave me a look of such recognition that it made me grab a sticky note and write just one sentence. You can see them too?
The hour-long class flew by. She could see ghosts as well, although I learned she had only been able to see them for a little over a year, after her grandfather had passed. I had told her that I ignore them, she had told me that she helps them. She was helping the man, who had since disappeared.
Then class ended, and she simply asked, “What’s your name?”
“Ivy,” I replied with a small smile.
We skipped our next class together to hide out in the library. It was completely empty at this time of the day, which was perfect. We had to talk.
Of course, I asked her why she even bothered to help the ghosts. A little shocked, she replied, “They need the help.” After I protested and she explained, she brought my whole world down with just one sentence: “They’re people too, Ivy.”
My whole life, the ghosts were just annoyances, only there to distract me and occupy my time. They were only there to make me an outcast at school. I never thought of them as people. Not once I thought of them as equal to me. But, Charlotte did that every day. She went out of her way to protect and help them as best as she could.
I glanced up, seeing the library full of them. Most were looking at us, some were just going about their business. They were reading, flipping through the shelves, or talking to each other. Just like normal people would.
I suddenly became aware of Charlotte talking to me, “Ivy? Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m okay.” I replied, turning back to her with an involuntary smile.
There, in the library full of ghosts, sitting next to a girl in all pink who I’d only known for an hour, I vowed to myself to try and help them. It would be a difficult balance, but Charlotte would help me, and I would help the ghosts. I would try and help them as best as I could.