I spent the short break before my dreaded math exam gazing out a hallway window at the desolate landscape, unable to construct one cohesive thought. Standing with arms folded over my chest and the nail of my thumb rubbing across my lips, I listened to the chaos unfolding around me. Groups of all sizes were forming, some in circles, some shuffling past each other to make it to the next class, their random murmuring interspersing with recaps of formulas in an effort to hammer them deeper into their brains. Those who did not have an exam to worry about stood in small clusters, watching others and sharing their observations in hushed whispers.
The bell rang, breaking up the human constellations and one by one the students settled behind their desks. As soon as the teacher wrote our test problems on the blackboard with white chalk that kept breaking, I put my pencil to the paper in front of me with the intention of finishing the test in record time. I turned in my exam without even double-checking my answers, all in the hope that I might catch the stranger before anyone else showed up.
Walking briskly, I exited the school, and crossed the gate, and street before rounding the corner that led me behind the theater. But the plaza was devoid of life. There was only the cold wind howling between naked branches of the trees, amusing itself by rolling empty bottles across the cement. The time I had hoped would have allowed us to have an impromptu private conversation now seemed long, empty, and stripped of opportunity.
My stomach growled. I walked up to the same tree I had stood beside this morning and dropped my backpack onto the frost-covered ground.
Squatting, I reached my hands inside it in search of my sandwich.
“Who are you?” I felt his gaze on my back and smiled to myself.
“Do you always materialize out of thin air?”
“Most of the time, actually. Who are you?”
“My name is Evelina, but most people call me Eve,” I said, standing up and turning toward him. He stood a few paces away, hands burrowed in his pockets, steam coming out of his nostrils. “What else do you wish to know?”
“There’s only one problem.”
“What is it?” he asked, eyes fixed on my face.
“I can tell you where I was born, where I live, and how old I am, but something tells me you don’t care about that stuff.” He smiled and his body budged a little, confirming my conjecture. “I no longer know who I am,” I said to him. I had a strong feeling that he was somehow aware of the internal battles I’d been fighting with myself. The outside world not only failed to provide clues, it kept muddling the waters, blurring my vision. But the gaze with which he penetrated me, seemed to reach all the way to the core of my soul, the place where the pulse of my existence and the truth of who I was laid bare and obvious for him to see. For a moment, in his eyes, I caught my own reflection.
“That does present a problem,” he said, and walked up to me until he was an arm’s reach away.
My lids grew heavier and my feet sank deeper into the soles of my boots.
“Not knowing who you are or at least what you want makes you vulnerable to outside influences,” he said, and his eyes brightened as if someone flipped on a light switch inside of his body. The outside world grew dimmer.
“But I actually do know what I want,” I said and bit my lip.
“I’m all ears.”
I realized there was little point in evading this stranger. He could see right through me. “I want to understand the meaning of my dream.”
“Tell me more,” he leaned closer.
“It’s this thing, this chasm that keeps luring me in. I’m sure this sounds weird to you, especially because I suck at describing it, but—”
“You are being called,” he said, and I looked around to make sure he was talking to me. “Something is summoning you.”
“How do you know?”
“I can feel it through you.”
“Who are you?”
He put on a lopsided smile. “I’m what I want to be. And that changes daily.”
“What a great way to live,” I said, with a tinge of sarcasm. I felt completely exposed while he was doing a superb job at camouflaging himself with elusive answers.
“You’d think it’s all about being free and unbound, huh? But it’s more of a pain than you think.”
“Like you, I’m always searching for lost traces of myself.”
“For as long as I can remember. It’s not easy being me,” he said. “How much time do we have before the bell?”
I checked my watch. “Seventeen minutes.”
“Come,” he beckoned. I grabbed my backpack and followed him to the concrete stairs spilling out from back doors of the theater.
A black raven flew closer and landed by the stairs. “Sit here and just relax. Put your back against the door. Close your eyes. And now tell me everything that comes to mind,” he said, leaning his forearms over the railing at the top of the steps on which I now sat. The cement was cold, but I quickly forgot about that detail.
“What are we doing?”
“Taking the fast lane to getting to know each other. You need help interpreting your dream, don’t you? I can be of better help the more I know about the inner workings of your mind.” As if sensing my hesitation, he added, “Don’t fear. I mean you no harm.”
The conviction flavoring his words made me relent and follow his lead. I closed my eyes until my inner blackness expanded, muting the sound of the wind outside. The world under my lids spun a little and the visions arrived.
Pangs of fear mixed with anger. My fear, my father’s anger. I only asked a question.
Why did you hit her? I repeated, as another thundering sob shook my aching chest. The hot tears burned my cheeks. I was eight years old.
It’s between her and me! You stay out of it. He yelled back, the deafening sound of his reply bouncing off the walls of his garage, loaded with hardware and rolled-up cables of various colors and thickness. The place smelled of paint, engine oil, and benzene.
My family was a quadrant of clashing personalities, my mother and I occupying the more submissive corner and my father and sister, oppressing us from the opposite end. The way Rena treated me often didn’t make sense to me. The more I worshipped her, the nastier she got. In the early years, my sister was my idol and I used to follow her everywhere. I did not resent the authority she commanded. In fact, I used to be her devoted sidekick. That was until the day she belittled me in front of her peers. The event was distressing enough to kill my trust in others and question humanity’s innate good nature, something that school further reinforced.
From that point onward, a feeling of alienation began to sprout within me. I learned that showing any sign of weakness was like begging for a jab. And the kids were merciless in their menacing attacks, never missing a slip-up. Each day required a new level of skill in proactive self-defense. With time, I learned to pay less attention to the visible and spent more time inside of the malleable sphere of my thoughts. Gradually, that became my favorite thing to do, especially during the warm months when I had my meadows.
The swaying plains of tall grasses stretched far and wide beyond the edges of the little development where our house stood. To reach them, I had to cross our strawberry garden, traverse an open field with a lone oak at its center, and descend down a steep, narrow, and shaded dirt path that dropped between old swooning oak trees. The path lead to a creek. Its waters were murky and brown, the result of the officials’ relaxed approach toward regulating municipal waste. Its bed was shallow and sometimes I could see the bottom. But the creek had unpredictable currents, which at times swirled and shifted the mud beneath. When approached carelessly, the waters had the power to suck a body into its slimy underbelly, as it did one day when it took the life of a small boy, traumatizing our neighborhood. I had to cross that creek on an aging narrow bridge, two long overlapping pieces of wood held together in the middle by a series of protruding nails. Each time my feet stepped on it, it squeaked and quivered, sniveling in protest.
A handrail made of a thin wooden pole nailed to two trees, one on each side of the creek, ran along one side of the bridge. I usually tried to steer clear of touching its rugged surface, so as to not have to pull splinters out of my hand later. I had to be watchful of every step, but all the effort would be worth it because the moment I jumped off the bridge’s ledge and reached the other side, I was in a different world—one that much better suited my unconventional proclivities.
“Someone’s coming,” the soft murmur of his voice broke through the mist of remembrance. My body felt heavy, as if I was waking from a dream. I opened my eyes just as his hands rose to his temples, fingers lightly tapping his pulse. “Thanks to you I am also starting to remember more,” he said, before turning toward the interloper.
“Do you guys have a smoke?”
“Sorry, mate!” We shook our heads and displayed our empty hands in unison. The youth left to mind his business elsewhere, kicking an empty can in front of him.
“I’m going to have to go soon,” I said.
“I want to tell you something before you go.” He reached for my hands. “It’s about a vision I had of a girl walking across the surface of the moon. She was searching for something,” he said, his aqua-blue eyes once more freezing upon mine, making me shiver. “She looked like you,” he added without blinking. The world around us became silent and still. New memories began to form in my head: the surface of the moon, the searching. And then the memory snapped, like a branch breaking, and disappeared. He jumped off the ledge and coughed a couple of times, scaring the raven.
“Are you cold?” I asked, alarmed by the state of his physical body, and chastising myself for not paying better attention.
“Not really,” he blurted, wiping his runny nose with a white sleeve peeking from underneath his battered leather jacket. “Well maybe a little, but I’m used to it.”
“Here,” I said, reaching into my backpack and handing him my untouched ham and cheese sandwich, wrapped in grease-marked parchment paper. “It might warm you. It’s yours if you want it.”
“You must be hungry, too. It’s your lunch.”
“When was the last time you ate?”
He thought for a moment, “I don’t know. Yesterday, I think.”
“Please, take it! I have more.”
“Thanks.” He grabbed the package and began to unwrap it with quick movements. “What’s in this town anyway? Besides you, of course,” he asked, after a couple of bites.
“Dreary buildings, lots of mud and bored-out-of-their-mind youths looking for trouble. Or escape. But maybe if you were to look deeper—”
“Are you looking to escape?”
“Your town sounds like everywhere else I’ve been,” he said, his mouth full. “But things seem different now, at least for me. Some parts are starting to make sense.”
I hung my head, “I still feel muddled.”
“Tonight will be a full moon. Maybe that will help . . . illuminate things?”
“Or maybe next time I dream, I should just jump?” I said, thinking of the chasm.
The sound of the school bell scattered my focus.
“Soon we will no longer be alone,” he said, looking around, and brought the uneaten half of the sandwich toward his lips. “Good sandwich by the way.”
“I don’t feel like going to class. Maybe I should just stay?” I said, desperately wanting him to agree and suggest we go somewhere to continue our explorations.
“It’s not your style. You might regret it later.”
I knew he was right. Skipping class would only add to my growing anxiety and piles of homework. I would be already missing school during two consecutive days if I went with my parents. It’s just that I didn’t want to end our exchange so soon.
Groups of youth were arriving at the plaza. I could hear the growing stampede of their footsteps behind me.
“Keep following the breadcrumbs,” he said. “I will find you when the time is right.” He raised his hand in a goodbye gesture and turned to walk away.