where ghosts live

Lovely’s room, which was at the far end of the house, had the best light. The curtainless window stretched from floor to ceiling right in front of the bed, allowing sunshine to pour in uninhibited. Today, however, there was no sun. Snow fell instead, gentle but insistent, and the light that trickled through was dying. These days, a fire roared in the hearth to keep Lovely from getting chilled.

“Good morning,” Ethan said, setting down Lovely’s customary breakfast tray next to the bed. Lovely’s eyes were closed, and Ethan carefully brushed his limp bangs from his forehead. The bedridden boy’s skin was cool to the touch and almost translucent – pale blue veins could be seen running just beneath his fingertips while bleached-bone antlers protruded from his silver hair. Ethan loved those antlers. They grew outwards like the branches of a tree, and Ethan liked to imagine them wreathed in garlands of flowers. Maybe I can make some when spring comes, he thought.

Ethan couldn’t remember when he’d moved into the house. It was a grand old thing reminiscent of a castle, set deep into the hillside and surrounded by residual trees from the forest’s edge. It had stone walls and huge floor-to-ceiling windows in all the rooms, though most of these were permanently covered by curtains. (He had vainly tried, one bright summer afternoon ages ago, to remove those heavy drapes. They refused to budge. After extensive exploration of all the rooms, he found only one with bare windows. The first Lovely moved in a week later.) Ethan felt like he’d always lived in the house, the intricate layouts of both the dark hallways and winding garden paths ingrained in his memory since day one.

Lovely lived in the house as well, but he spent most of the day sleeping, so Ethan passed the time by taking long walks through the forest. The world was still here, save for the light crunch of leaves beneath Ethan’s shoes. It reminded him of a poem, something simple yet stirring. Something about the woods, dark and deep. He couldn’t recite exact lines, though. It felt like certain hours dropped from his day and created gaps in his memory while his ability to recall details dwindled, too. One moment he’d be at the house, in Lovely’s room; a minute later, he’d find himself in the middle of the woods, following a path he knew intimately for unknown reasons.

 

“Ethan.”

He looked down. A boy’s face, ghostly and wide-eyed and brown-haired, stared up at him from the snow. The tip of what looked like bone protruded a few inches in the ice above the boy’s head, close to Ethan’s foot. Ethan forced himself to stare back at him.

“Why aren’t you at the house, Elliot?” he asked, keeping his voice level. He stooped down to brush flecks of ice from Elliot’s cheeks, then spent the next few minutes digging out the rest of his body. Ethan was familiar with this routine. His fingers gripped the fabric of Elliot’s jacket, which was nearly frozen solid, and he cursed himself for not bringing gloves. He forgot them every time.

Elliot tried to wipe at his mouth with one shaking hand. “Ethan, I’ve come – to make – atonement,” he managed to say. “None of this is – I’m sorry. I abandoned you.”

This, too, Ethan had heard before. He had never understood what Elliot meant, but by now it didn’t matter. Elliot was merely delirious from the cold. He took the shivering boy’s hand and began leading him back towards the house. “You mean, I’ve come to get you out of the snow,” he replied, not looking back at Elliot’s face. Their fingers intertwined, and Ethan relished the way Elliot’s grip tightened. “It’s freezing! How did you end up here?” Elliot didn’t respond, but Ethan hadn’t expected an answer, anyway. He focused instead on what to do next.

The first time he found Elliot in the snow, he’d deliberately avoided taking him to Lovely’s room even though it was the warmest in the house and Elliot was half-frozen. At the time, he treated Lovely’s living space as something sacred. But when Ethan checked on Elliot that night, his hair had already turned silver. Lovely’s bed was vacant; all that was left was a pair of white antlers.

(Now Ethan had a full closet of antlers. They gleamed in the dark and looked beautiful in the spring, when he strung flowers over each branch.)

Since then, Ethan had learned the pattern. Elliot – or at least, ghosts who looked and acted and spoke almost exactly like Elliot – would find him. They’d argue with him and try to convince him he was dreaming.

“It’s my fault. I created you and this house and – all of this! I still don’t know why, but you got stuck here. I’m sorry, Ethan.” Each Elliot would cover his face with his hands. “Your body’s nearly gone. I wish I had stayed with you, back then.”

But why would Ethan believe them? The house was all solid wood and stone. He knew each step in the staircase and every ridge in the wall. One time, he’d stuck his hand close to the fire in the hearth – just to prove Elliot wrong – and nearly burned himself for it. The proof for reality was definitely there.

“But the seasons aren’t changing!” the latest Elliot insisted now. He stood by the couch. Ethan tugged at his hand, but the antlered boy didn’t sit. “Think about it. When was the last time it wasn’t winter? When was the last time there wasn’t snow?” His cheeks flushed red.

“I don’t keep track of those things,” Ethan said patiently. “I don’t particularly care for time.” And I’ve seen spring, too, he added silently, because Elliot was too confused right now to understand. Winter would end, as all seasons inevitably did, and spring would come. The sun would shine. Elliot would be Lovely, and petals would tumble into his hair when Ethan finished making his flower garlands. Maybe this time Elliot wouldn’t leave him. Ethan thought of the pair of detached antlers lying on a cold pillow upstairs, waiting for him to collect.

“I have a spare room,” he told Elliot. “There’s a fireplace, and I can grab some extra blankets. Why don’t you spend the night here?”

(more…)

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déjà vu

There are people everywhere.

Crowds of pedestrians surround you and spill out into the street. They’re all dressed fashionably, either vividly colorful or blatantly monochromatic, and they seem to hurry from one destination to another. You try not to feel dowdy in your jeans and sneakers as a woman with dark red lips and towering high heels glides past you with the grace of a dancer. Stop being so self-conscious, you tell yourself. You should be used to this by now.

You’d dreamed of escaping to the city for ages. Mom had fed you countless horror stories about the Big Bad City (“A college freshman got pushed onto the subway tracks, you know! And another girl got stabbed in the neck in broad daylight!”) to try to dissuade you, but you didn’t take her cautionary tales seriously. Millions of people lived in the city, you’d reasoned, and why couldn’t you do the same?

Now that you’ve wandered onto an unfamiliar street, however, homesickness starts to creep in. Dimly, you remember a surreal summer evening, at the edge of dusk, when you and Penny had stood in the center of an empty road and felt day-old heat against your bare feet. (Penny had still been your best friend back then. Hooking her arm into yours, her eyes faded from blue and pink to purple to black as she watched the sky fall asleep. Your heart thrilled when she turned towards you and smiled. You had never loved anyone more.)

It’s impossible to go barefoot in the city, though. There seem to be teeth everywhere. Shards of glass line the gutter, and sharp pieces of metal glint in warning. Odors rise from mysterious brown puddles while piles of trash clutter the sidewalks. The thought of walking through all of that without wearing shoes makes you want to vomit.

“Watch where you’re standing!” someone shouts, elbowing past you. Jostled out of your reverie, you keep moving, blood pounding in your ears as you stare ahead and take care not to step on anything too revolting. Cigarette smoke curls high in the air and almost looks beautiful in the sunlight, but the stench reminds you of shriveled black lungs.

Despite the noxious fumes and the waste and the dirtiness, however, you love the city. You love the energy that thrums off the crowd with the regularity of a beating heart. You love how streets weave in and out of each other, how you can walk from the library to the market to the gardens in less than ten minutes and take the train for any distances greater than that. The city’s so different from home, where everything had felt languid and drowsy. Even after a year, you still marvel at the novelty.

Penny would have loved it here, too. You try not to think about her nowadays. You left home to move past your grief, after all. But the city constantly reminds you of her. You can imagine her sitting on the roof of your apartment at the crack of dawn, waiting for the city to wake up and come alive. She’s dancing effortlessly through swarms of people, her hums and laughter ringing above the noise. She’s leaning against you on the subway ride home from campus, breaking the general quiet with stories until it’s time to get off –

Penny’s not here.

Like the city, Penny could never stay still. She’d first disappeared from the school you both attended, moving on to university two years ahead of everyone else. Less than six months later, she vanished a second and final time on a plane that flew into the ocean.

You’d felt so lost at the time. Why did she leave home – without you? How could she leave you behind and not look back? And how could the world swallow her so cruelly? You fled to the city when home, the place the two of you had explored since you were four, became too unbearable to stay.

You still miss her like a phantom limb, but the sadness is briefer now. She’s finally stopped haunting your dreams; you feel relief and a twinge of guilt when you wake up without tears drying against your cheeks. Maybe I can keep going without her, you dare to think that morning, and you feel a little less hollow.

Sometimes, though, you try to catch pieces of her from faces gleaming in the crowd. You see someone with her eyes, or her laughter, or her birthmark just above the jaw. It’s silly and impossible to find her, of course, but you do it anyway. You only give yourself a few seconds at a time – you’re not allowed to stop, to stare, to search.

Today, you lock eyes with her.

Your stomach does a flip. She’s standing on the other side of the crosswalk, waiting for the signal to change. You blink once, twice. She’s still there, and her gaze, appraising and familiar, is on you. You recognize the quirk of the lips, the sharp chin, and the dark eyes set against high cheekbones.

It can’t be Penny. She fell into the Atlantic years ago. But this lookalike crosses the street with the same confident step, her arms bare and her hands resting comfortably in the pockets of her track pants. Her hair’s pulled back into a russet-colored knot at the base of her neck, rather than cut into the straight, short bob you remember Penny wearing. The two of you continue to watch each other over the din of the crowd, her eyes never leaving yours as she draws near. She’s already breaking the rules you’d set for yourself when you first came to the city. No staring! you think frantically, but you can’t tear your eyes away.

The two of you are only a few feet away now. Now that you’re closer, you realize with a pang of bitter disappointment that the doppelganger’s eyes are green, not the warm brown you remember. Her cheeks are smooth and devoid of any birthmarks.

She’s really just a lookalike after all. You almost laugh. Leave it to the city to find Penny’s ghost.

Just as you glance away and pass her, she stops and seizes your arm. You jerk to a halt.
“Are you who I think you are?” she asks desperately. Your mouth opens, closes. “I’ve missed you,” she continues in a rush, stealing the words from your mouth. Her eyes shine. You swear they look brown at that moment.

“Penny.”

Your voice cracks on the second syllable. You can’t believe she’s actually there, standing with you in the middle of the sidewalk.

“Let’s talk,” she says, taking your hand. Everyone else seems to melt away. When she tentatively offers you the same smile from years ago, you can’t help but hope that this isn’t a dream after all.

paper places | june + july 2016

summer is now in full swing!

this post is just a montage of the bookish places i’ve been to during june and july. book shops, libraries, and other book-filled places have always been my favorite. as jen campbell puts it, “bookshops are time machines, spaceships, story-makers, secret-keepers, dragon-tamers, dream-catchers, fact-finders, & safe places.” and this, for me, applies to libraries too! i hope the photos of these places fill you with the same bookish love that overwhelmed me when i visited in person.

(more…)

The Novel: a confrontation between the Writer and her Protagonist

“Please stop following me.”

She felt ashamed of the whine in her voice and the desperate tone of her words, even more so when the Protagonist cast her a look of pity.

“You were the one who dreamed of writing a Novel.” Such cold words.

“A rejected novel,” the Protagonist continued, draping herself across the empty desk, “will always be better than an unwritten one.” She reached over and seized the notebook sitting silently beside her, and casually flipped through it. “Empty pages,” she said, with a hint of contempt. “What will you do, my dear Writer? Do you even deserve your title?”

The Writer trembled, and suddenly thrust another notebook at the Protagonist. This one bore a dog-eared cover, and held pages smudged with lead. “I did write! I planned out the entire novel!” the Writer cried, blushing furiously. The Protagonist stared at her, then nodded. Quiet prevailed for the next hour, save for the rustle of paper as the Protagonist carefully turned each page, pouring over the writing as though it were Scripture. The words were hastily scrawled for most of the notebook; the Writer didn’t want to lose any ideas, since they rarely came to her.

“Lovely stuff,” the Protagonist murmured when she finally shut the notebook closed and gazed at the Writer. “A sprawling plot line, with rather vague descriptions. You cleaned it up quite nicely at the end, though. Why aren’t you writing the actual Novel now?”

The Writer bit her lip.

“I’m…” She paused. “I’m afraid. Of writing. Because I don’t think I could ever properly convey the Novel with my lackluster skills. The ideas are too grand and brilliant for me. If I were to write it, they would never reach their full potential. If only another Writer could take my place instead…” She buried her face in her hands and choked back a sob. The Protagonist regarded her silently. A shame that my Writer is such a small mouse, she thought, scrutinizing the Writer’s small, thin frame and disheveled hair. When she looked up again, tears threatened to fall from the corners of her pale eyes.

“I’m sorry that I created you, only to give up,” she whispered.

The Protagonist had had enough. She leapt from the table and slammed the notebook into the Writer’s chest, ignoring the latter’s cry of surprise and pain. “You haven’t given up at all, shameful coward!” she cried. “Just look at all the outlining you’ve done! Stop wallowing in self-pity! Get some confidence and start writing! I won’t stop following you until you’ve finished the first draft.” The Writer nodded nervously and dried her eyes. That’s right, she thought. I need to put an end to my spinelessness. “Now?” she squeaked, noticing the time on the clock, and how dark the room’d become. The Protagonist merely rolled her eyes. The Writer chided herself for putting off the daunting task yet again, sighed, and opened up the blank notebook.

And thus began the story of the Writer, the Protagonist, and the problems they faced while creating a Novel.

~

[note: nanowrimo starts next week!!]

coping mechanism

Miranda is twelve and angry with the world. So when she leans over the battered music stand and aligns her lips with Annie’s ear, she’s not sure how to continue.

“Guess what,” she breathes. She’s never done this before, and she’s afraid of sounding insincere.

“What?” Annie replies, grinning as she leans unsuspectingly towards her. (Suddenly Miranda feels dizzy and lightheaded. How does she move forward?) 

I love you. A straightforward confession, but an ambiguous one as well. The love of sisters and blood ties, the love of best friends forever, the love of strangers who seek passion and acceptance. Tie a blindfold over her eyes and have her point to one (maybe to two, maybe pick all three and more). Everything is so complicated and messy. Miranda wishes that they could all turn into flowers and photosynthesize together. Then she wouldn’t have to do this.

I might move soon. The keyword here is ‘might.’ That implies an off-chance that Miranda might not move and switch schools, that she’ll stay until the end. That provides hope, and Miranda knows that Annie would cling on to that and ignore everything else. So there’s no need to say that yet, no, not until ‘might’ solidifies into ‘will.’

But the words Grandma died last week (the very last thing she wants to say) are the ones that slip from Miranda’s mouth. It’s an ugly truth, and the effect is immediate. Annie’s eyes widen first with disbelief, then with a rotten mixture of shock and grief.

“…What?”

Miranda realizes how horrible it must sound to have a mismatched chord slammed against the keys in the middle of a nocturne. She backpedals accordingly. “April fools,” she whispers with a forced smile. Today is the first day of the month, and she doesn’t want the person she loves most to cry. There had been a funeral, but all Miranda can remember are rain (there is always rain, soft and grey and sad) and flowers, still fresh and bright yellow against the dark earth. There were no tears, and there will be no tears. Within a numb Miranda float well-hidden secrets and quiet restraint. I’m an awful friend, she thinks. How lovely it would be if everything remained static.
For her, the death of an angel is the biggest April Fools lie of all.

doubted reality

No matter how quickly she paced her selves, she always lead the way, strolling beyond her speed. There really wasn’t any doubt about it. In all honesty, where did the truth go? It probably nestled itself among the soft grasses that brushed against her ankles as she wearily hiked up the mildly steep hill once again. “W-Where are we going?” she gasped, panting slightly. She grinned without slowing down. “We’re going somewhere, obviously.” She rolled her eyes, even though she knew she wasn’t watching. Sometimes her vague speech frustrated her. “Explain yourself!” she demanded. “No need to,” she whispered, before placing a finger over her lips. She hesitated, puzzled, waiting for that crucial moment to pounce. She shrugged. “Well, I doubt my reality. I will always doubt it. The World spins on its head. The Oceans are splattered by the rain of tears and rose petals that forever spill from the eyes of Cloud. My World just isn’t. Yet I doubt that as well. The narcissistic Sky weeps in sorrow for the blocked mirrors of Lake, while the Sun bleeds crimson and gold across the Horizon before Dusk arrives with its veils of Stars. My fingers are stained by the feathery wings of dying butterflies. My soul burns from the lemon juice that’s squeezed from multiple attempts at Life. Which part of myself is real? Which one is a fake? I shall never know.” She watched the Sun above her. Soon her eyes burned to crisps, yet she could still see beyond the stars and planets that revolved around the Earth.

Yes, this indeed was a doubted reality.

sometimes we think before we speak, but not often enough

Everyone is born with wings.
People usually learn how to fly by the time they’ve matured, physically and mentally. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Being able to soar through the sky, knowing where to go and how to get there, is proof of success and the happiness that follows, the ultimate goal. But for some reason, I feel like someone tore at my wings while I was still in an inchoate stage of development. I’ve toppled into the sea without any means of rescue, and I can already feel myself slowly, slowly drowning. I’m tired, sometimes sad, and always suffocating from the monotony that faces me. When did the hopelessness first worm its way into my life? When did I begin to choke on the water that endlessly swirled around me? I don’t remember, can’t remember, and sometimes, I wonder if the salt water that stings my eyes is from the ocean or from my own uncontrollable tears. And above is me is the sun, so pointlessly bright and high in the sky that it’s a miracle I haven’t yet snapped under the pressure.