I trudged around with feet of lead,
To calm my mind and soothe my head,
So I talked to a friend,
For hours on end,
Before it hit me that she isn’t dead.
(Not just yet)
I trudged around with feet of lead,
To calm my mind and soothe my head,
So I talked to a friend,
For hours on end,
Before it hit me that she isn’t dead.
(Not just yet)
I could feel her gaze upon me,
Even when I was alone,
I could sense her try to taunt me,
On the metro and at home
At first I tried to brush if off
And blame it on the nerves,
But our pasts chase all of us,
Till we get what we deserve
I tried to say “I’m sorry!
“I didn’t MEAN to pull the trigger!
“Babe, it was an accident!”
But the truth she seemed to figure
She shadowed me obsessively,
She knew my every move,
She persevered for many a week,
Her point she had to prove
I soon grew wild and frantic,
I pitied my sorry plight,
Any security I once had,
Packed off, took hasty flight
When I would feel her looking,
I’d spin around, heart ablaze,
But every time I’d miss her,
She’d escape without a trace
As I later learned, that wasn’t true,
She was always there, my love,
Instead of peering to my sides,
I should have looked above…
“I quit, Mr Abaddon,” I sigh, my fingers twisting around the hem of my skirt as my palms start to feel clammy again. Stay strong, I whisper to myself, the job is tempting, I know, but the omnipresent guilt…
“You… you what?!” Mr Abaddon stammers, spinning around to look me right in the eye. “You can’t QUIT!” He bellows in response to his own question, incredulity etched onto his face.
“I can, actually. And- And I will,” a sudden burst of confidence flows through me, forcing out words that are calm and dignified when on the inside, I feel anything but.
“Mara,” He coos, his voice softening abruptly. His eyes scan me almost hungrily as he says, “Think about all the great work you’ve done for us, all the flawless… presentations. You’re amazing at your job.”
“Nowadays, I feel burned out and dissatisfied,” I confess, a hint of doubt starting to pick at my brain. “All the new… assignments… They’ve taken a toll on me,” I add, not sure if I really mean what I’m saying.
“But you used to LOVE this life, Mara,” Mr Abaddon counters smoothly. “You adored the field trips out of the office and you tackle challenges so well. Your numbers are fabulous and I can’t remember the last time an employee had a drive like yours – not to mention the amazing records,” He pauses to slip in a watery smile.
“I know you don’t REALLY want to leave,” He wheezes, and I feel my resistance start to crumble.
“Give me one good reason to stay, then,” I challenge with a final spurt of severity.
“Look outside and you’ll find a million,” Mr Abaddon promises and so I twist around to get a good look out the window. The view, although a familiar one, takes my breath away.
Saffron flames lick every visible surface as ragged beings trudge through an arid wasteland. Suffering hangs in the air like an obstinate cloud that refuses to relieve itself and the pain… Oh, the pain seems to be the only constant.
Despite my resolve, I feel a beaming smile creep onto my face. Mr Abaddon’s blood-red eyes study my reaction carefully, waiting for a response.
“I don’t know what got into me,” I confess, my stomach unclenching. “It would take a fool to pass this kind of job up. Of course I’ll stay.” I smirk.
“I knew you would, old girl. You never could resist the smell of suffering, could you?” Mr Abaddon chuckles, his scarlet skin crinkling up at the eyes.
Just as I start to shuffle back to my corner office, Mr Abaddon adds, “So will I have that loss-and-loss chart on my table by ten?”
“Sure thing, boss,” I whistle, my heart almost singing.
Whoever said that corporate life was hell?
“We’re he-er,” A voice from the front seat cooed as I groggily tried to rub off the faint traces of sleep that still haunted my eyes.
The sleek, white Renault trundled to a stop just as I popped my head out its window to get a good look at the view outside – and I DEFINITELY wasn’t disappointed!
“Oh. My. Granola bar.” I sputtered, pinching myself to make sure that I was really, truly in the beach capital of France, and not tucked away in bed, half a world away.
I’m still not sure what exactly it was that stupefied my senses so dramatically in that moment. Maybe it was the piercing blue of the ocean, its waves crashing onto the shore with a symphony of sounds. Or maybe it was the sight of the darling cobblestone streets, twisting around town in a mosaic of brick and mortar. It might have even been the rows and rows of quirky, sea-facing cottages that threw me – but whatever the reason, I was completely DAZZLED.
And, as I was going to find out, each moment that I would spent in Marseille would just make me fall deeper and deeper in love with it.
In the five days that we spent basking in the glorious French summer sun, we did little more than eat, explore and enjoy everything to the fullest [and did I mention eat?].
We prayed for world peace in the celebrated Marseille cathedral, browsed artsy cafés and galleries on La Canebiére, ate our weight in bread and cheese, witnessed a thumping flash mob [and, yes, it was just like walking onto the set of an SRK movie], took a tiny train up a hill to get a look at the beloved “Notre Dame de la Garde” sculpture, bathed in the frigid waters of the sea [which was followed by a sun-bathed yoga session on the shore] and swiped every single freebie within a 3-mile radius of our apartment [hey, you know what they say; you can take a girl out of India, but you can’t take India out of the girl!].
And, oh, don’t even get me started on Marseille by night! Every evening, just as the sun started to dip towards the horizon, the lights from the yachts docked at the port would shimmer in the frosty air and lend an exotic glow to the entire coast. The high-rises that dotted the port side would light up just as twilight would start setting in and add a glamorous touch to the whole affair.
It really is true; moonlit Marseille is the perfect place for a little stroll. As we ended up eating out almost every night, we were able to take utmost advantage of this and gawked at the beauty all around us as we made our way home.
When the time came for us to leave the picturesque coastal haven, there’s no doubt that I’d have given pretty much anything to stay. In just five days, Marseille had already made me feel like I belonged within its sun-kissed borders.
My only consolation as I looked out into the infinitely large ocean one last time before getting back into the Renault was that somehow, I just knew that I was going to return one day.
And that thought makes me very happy.
The metro creaks along its rickety tracks, the fluorescent lights flickering to expose the handful of passengers seated in its garish seats. Fourteen stops, I count mentally. Fourteen stops till I’m back at home.
I have only myself to blame for my current situation, of course. When Kathryn suggested we go for a 02:00 am screening of an obscure Japanese movie at the cinema downtown, I should’ve known better than to say yes. But she’s Kathryn and I’m desperate so I jumped at the chance to spend a little extra time with her which is what eventually lead to me now being mostly alone in a gaudy metro.
Tired to the bone and more than a little creeped out by all the deserted stations we were passing by, I heave a relieved sigh when I hear the distant chugging of a train nearing ours.
Desperate for some sign of human life [apart from the three sleeping forms that constituted all of my fellow passengers], I crane my neck to get a better look at the other train.
Surprisingly, it seems like the vehicle is packed with people. Even more surprisingly, out of the seemingly 100,00 faces that whizz past me in a blur, one of them stands out as clear as day.
The strange thing is, I couldn’t describe the face even if my life depended on it. I can’t say if its eyes were brown or if the skin was pale, but I can somehow tell that it’s been imprinted into my mind, somewhat permanently.
Brushing it off as an oddity, I settle back down in my seat just as the neighbouring train clatters away. My mind already working on erasing what just happened, I’m a little perplexed when I hear the hoot of another train set to cross paths with mine.
Now, I don’t have a PhD in metro schedules, but it seemed a little off that there were two trains hurtling along the same line in such quick succession. I peer out of my window to get a closer look and immediately feel a jolt run up my spin as I realise that this one is identical to the one before; it’s brimming with life forms and the same peculiar face is glaring right at me. Except…
Except it feels like the face is closer than before. My brain already turning this into a Paranormal Activity sequel, I decide that I’m just tired and firmly close my eyes. At any rate, I’m only twelve stops away from home now and then it’s bye-bye-insidious-hallucinations for good.
I’m just about to plunge into a first-rate nap when I feel my skin turn cold for no apparent reason. My heartbeat starting to accelerate, I open my eyes…
…Only to find the face, seated at the far end of my train booth. An inexplicable fear starts to creep up my throat because it hits me; the face is going to keep coming closer…
This I am taken aback by.
“What are you trying to say??” I spit out just as Emma shouts, “Really?? After all those rehearsals, THAT’S how you say it?? Just spring it out onto her like that?!”
“What rehearsals?? Em, what’s happening??” I feel the panic rising in my throat and clutch the side of the table.
“Juno, sweetie,” Emma turns to face me with an expression of sympathy painted onto her features. “Ashton and you… You weren’t engaged. You didn’t date. You didn’t even meet once.” She says and chugs on before I can slip a word in.
“He was a character in your book, love. A figment of your imagination. A- A coping mechanism,” She adds, stretching to place a comforting hand on my shoulder.
“A coping mechanism?? What the bloody hell are you trying to tell me??” I can’t help the venom that seeps into every syllable I address to my sibling, just as much as I can’t help the nausea that is threatening to overtake me.
“June, I know it’s a lot to take in, but you have to listen, okay??” Emma tells me.
“It was the day of your all-important Penn State admission interview when Mom and Dad died in a fire,” –I utter a horrified gasp but she ignores me and keeps on- “and so you started writing a book as a method to handle the grief. You wrote about the life you could’ve had, about all the things you dreamed of. Ivy League universities and dreamy blokes beg for your company, a mansion for a house and, of course, two very much alive parents. For so long, June, you were holed up in here, living a fantasy. I tried so hard to get you back in touch with what’s real, but you were so determined and there was only so much I could do.” She hangs her head for a split second, a flash of guilt passing through her face.
“So I gave up. I plugged your entire house with cameras and monitors so I could constantly make sure you were okay and I dropped by every so often with groceries and sometimes Dr Ramore came alone, but we left you alone for the most part.”
“The truth is, June,” Dr Ramore butts in, “Clinically, you were in perfect health. Your brain was functioning normally and you ate regularly and you were fit as a fiddle,” He justifies. “You just seemed to be living another reality.”
“However, Juno,” Emma continues, “When I dropped by last week, you weren’t furiously clanking at the keyboard anymore. You were sprawled on the mat with your typewriter right next to you, papers covering every square inch of space. I contacted Dr Ramore and after a quick check-up we realised that you were alive, but in a deep slumber. We admitted you in the Tamara Hospital and after a few more tests it was clear that you’d passed out because of severe emotional trauma. We were baffled as nothing potentially scarring had happened in a while. So we decided to read through what you’d written in the past couple of days and realised that you’d killed Ashton, in your book,” She halts and eyes me quizzically.
“I-I murdered my own fictional fiancé??” I stammer. “You did, Juno,” Emma confirms. “But why??” I press on, only to be met by shrugs from either side. “We’re still not clear about that, but one possibility is that because you’ve already dealt with a lot of loss, you’ve programmed yourself to think that all happiness must come to a brutal and abrupt end. So it was only a matter of time before you decided that Ashton was too good to be true and killed him,” Dr Ramore suggests.
Loss. That reminds me of something.
“Mom and Dad are… they’re really dead??” I sputter and Emma gives my arm a squeeze. “I’m sorry, Juno,” She says and kisses my forehead.
“I didn’t go to Harvard?? And this is my actual house??” I go on, a sense of desperation starting to submerge my senses. For the first time that day, I take a good look around and it sinks in how different everything is. Sure, the basic structure is about the same but just about everything else isn’t.
“We got you out of the hospital yesterday evening and laid you over here. The doctors recommended taking you back to the bed you’re most comfortable in as they believed you might recover faster. And,” Emma gazes at me with a dash of relief, “They were right.”
“Twelve hours later and you’re back to your old self,” Dr Ramore pipes up.
Not sure how to respond, I spin around and survey my house. Fragments of what I’d imagined it to be keep popping up in my field of vision.
What I’d thought of as impressive national awards on the mantelpiece were replaced by a couple of high school diplomas, the plush couch set in front of the smart TV turned out to be a set of cane chairs set facing a rusty old television…
“How long??” I tremble. “How long have I been like this??”
“Remember that ornamental, faux-diamond case Mom had, June?? The one she gave you for your eighteenth birthday??” Emma enquires. I mumble in the affirmative, not sure where this is going.
“It had exactly one hundred and twenty clear jewels, each the size of a pebble, remember?? Well, every week that you were… Away, I injected a blue serum into one gem. And this week, I would’ve dyed the last one.”
Wordlessly, she walks over to her handbag and pulls out a jet black box. Handing it over, she half-heartedly jokes, “They look more like sapphires than diamonds, now.”
I silently open it up and the sea of azure that stares back at me is nearly blinding. I almost have to look away.
I’ve been living a lie for more than two years. Two entire years of fairytales and a perfect life that never existed…
All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am…..
I must have slipped into a nap because I am woken up with a start when I hear Emma punching the buzzer, waiting to be let in. My head still sore, I shuffle to the scratched-up front door and peer through the peephole.
To my surprise, Emma is on the porch with a man draped almost entirely in white.
“Why is Dr Ramore here??” I muse, my forehead creasing with confusion. “Did Emma ask him to come??”
Hastily plastering a smile onto my face, I swing the door open, greet the two of them as cheerily as I can manage and offer to take their coats.
In two minutes, my guests are seated around the glass dining table [that looks nothing like it did when I saw it last night] while I add heaped spoonfuls of cocoa powder to the scathing water.
“Here you are,” I awkwardly hand out cups of the steaming beverage and keep one on the table in front of me while I take a seat.
“This feels great against the cold of the morning,” Dr Ramore remarks, taking a measured sip. “Thank you, June.”
“Yeah, thanks Juno,” My sister adds, beaming at me.
I nod in response and everything is silent for a moment.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I blurt out all of a sudden, “Why are you here, doctor??”
I catch Emma and Dr Ramore exchange a fleeting glance before the both of them fix their gaze onto me.
“June, there’s no easy way to say this so I’m going to just cut to the chase, okay??” Dr Ramore begins calmly, placing his glass onto a scruffy floral coaster.
“I guess so,” I agree unsurely, internally trying to work out what could be so important that Dr Ramore felt the need to abandon all his critical patients and come over to visit… Well, me.
“Juno, before Dr Ramore begins, I want to ask you something,” Emma interrupts suddenly. “Do you think that today is of any special significance??”
“Yes,” I shoot out before she even finishes her question. “I’ve been thinking along that line from the minute I woke but I can’t seem to put my finger on WHY,” I finish in a hurry and just about notice Emma flashing a slight but triumphant smile.
“Okay. Go on, Doctor,” She gestures for him to continue but I hurriedly interject.
“Why do I think that, do you know??” I persist. “It’s really bothering me that I can’t figure it out.”
“I’m getting there, June,” Dr Ramore patiently assures me.
Bobbing my head for him to continue, Dr Ramore inhales sharply and says, “You see June, a while ago, your fiancé Ashton was in an accident,” pause, “A fatal accident.”
Just like that, I can feel my heart melt away.
The hurt is so raw, I can’t even cry. No tears, just a pronounced throb that echoes through my body. The dull thuds keep in time with my heartbeat, which has slowed dangerously close to a full stop.
Despite the pain, somewhere deep down, I realise that I knew. I was aware that he was gone. I just wasn’t willing to admit it.
Dr Ramore is handing me a tissue but I wave it aside.
“Please, go on,” I beg him; “Why is my house so different and why do I feel that today is important and why the hell am I aching all over??” I gush, helplessly.
“June, Ashton doesn’t exist,” Dr Ramore bursts out and Emma stares at him with a glare that could kill.
“I know that, Doctor. You just told me he died. I understand that that means he doesn’t exist anymore,” I explain, surprised that saying it out loud doesn’t hurt very much.
“Actually, what I meant, June,” Dr Ramore carried on despite the death glares being shot at him from Emma, “Is that he never existed in the first place.”