“Valentine’s Day Love Story”

I coughed.
She looked up.
I sat down.
She smiled quizzically.
I placed a rose on the desk before her.
Her eyes widened.
I placed a small bar of chocolate alongside.
Her eyebrows arched.
“Oh for the love of—haven’t you tired of your little ritual yet?!” she cried.
I shrugged and smiled.
She sighed and picked up the rose, tucking it behind my ear. “Now don’t you look precious! What mother-in-law wouldn’t want you?” she teased, smiling indulgently as she picked up the candy and unwrapped it. “I only eat this every year for your sake, you know.” she declared solemnly, waving the bar at me.
“And because you love chocolate.” I teased back gently as I began to stand. I knew what would come next.
She jumped up, drawing herself up to my height.
Well, not quite.
“Quit standing on your toes.”
She lowered her heels back to the floor and began to walk past me towards the door. “I used to be taller than you, when we were little. You used to be such a shrimpy little twerp.” she murmured distractedly.
“Ah, but a handsome one! I had all the babes in the 3rd grade swooning!”
I barely managed to see her laugh before she disappeared out the door. Outside, she was already seated underneath the window arch, watching something below. I leaned at the other side and followed her gaze. The school’s basketball team was practicing in the corner of a field shared with the middle school students, one of whom had wandered onto the court. His face bore the look of a lost lamb, and perhaps that was why he didn’t see the 6’3” bulk of the captain backing towards him.
“He shoots. He scores. He permanently traumatizes confused 11 year old.”
She turned towards me and smiled. “Why, every year? Why the rose and the chocolate?”
“Because the rose was all I could buy with my allowance when I was ten, and the chocolate was the first thing you accepted from me when we met in the 4th grade. But why do I do it? Because I want to.”
In the ground below, a girl flicked her hair; the sunlight caught it in a burst of burnished gold that left the infatuated boy nearby dazzled.
“I give those two a week.” she said, her fingers reaching up and deftly untying her own ponytail.
“A week? Come on, at least give them a month.”
She shook her head gently, the fingers now smoothing with rough strokes the tousled black curls that fell over her shoulders. “A week, because the interschool basketball tournament starts from the 21st. Teams from the entire region. Boys, girls.”
I nodded in silent agreement as I watched her begin to pull her hair into a ponytail again. “Don’t tug so hard, you’ll go bald.”
Her eyes flashed and she smirked.
“Well then, I’ll just have to come to you, won’t I, Mr. Cosmetic Surgeon?” she retorted, as she leaned back against the wall. “Why do you want to become one, though?”
I shrugged. The truth was, I wanted to prove myself to her and this had seemed one of the best ways. The truth was, I wanted to show her people could find motivation because of love and not just in spite of it. The truth was, she made me want to be a better person in every way simply from knowing her. And the truth was, she’d never believe any of it.
“I like art.”
Her high-pitched shriek made a few kids look up in surprise.
“Now that’s a scary thought! What sort of art do you like? Impressionist? Cubist? Abstract?” Laughter made it difficult to talk, but she managed to regain her composure. “I already feel sorry for your future patients. Art is all about ugliness. Since nobody really knows what aesthetics are—and sure isn’t going to let anyone else catch on—it can get away with it. What you see and admire on a canvas is the crude, the odd, the jarring—anything which managed to embed itself in the artist’s mind. But the beauty of it lies in the eye.”
She smiled, perhaps waiting for a response I didn’t have the heart or mind to give. I liked how steadfastly she held to her opinions; her independent mind was one of the things I loved most about her. That did not mean I could always sort out her arguments.
The sound of hissing caught our attention; a group of girls was heading down the corridor. Each seemed to be leaning on the other, casting darting glances towards us every few moments before breaking down into giggles and whispers. They simpered as they sauntered past, slowing down to get a good look. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” they sang out, like a choir of angels, if angels wore plastic bangles and dyed their hair.
I was met in their wake with a stony glare.
“You encourage them, you know. What with your silly Valentine’s ritual and that rose in your hair.” she said, her eyes narrowed.
My eyes popped as my hand flew up to the flower I had forgotten all about. Cheeks flushed, it dawned on me the girls might not have just been staring at a ‘couple.’
“Of course, they’re young. They have a God-given right to be stupid.” She continued, in a stern tone that made her sound older than her years, “But you—you know how much it irritates me and you know nobody can fall in love this young—”
“I disagree.”
“Let me finish. Yet you refuse to give up this nonsense. Mature a little, will you? You know as well as I do love does not exist—”
“No.”
A frown creased her forehead and her foot dangled a few inches of the floor, but she ignored my interruption. “—and what people imagine to be love is actually just biology mixed with social conditioning. Studies have been conducted.”
“Yeah, that was a bad idea. Who let scientists rush in where poets fear to tread?” I looked away. I knew I had managed to annoy her.
“What has love ever given the world, aside from Romeo and Juliet? Or Heer Ranjha? Everyone wants to—is supposed to—believe in the fairytale but surprise! There is no such thing as ‘happily ever after.’ The real world is about compromise and custody battles.”
A glimmer of white caught my eye.
She pushed off the sill and paused beside me.
My gaze followed its drift.
A sigh escaped her lips. “When will you stop? Because you will stop one day.” she murmured as she walked away.
I smiled. The muscles in my arm flexed as I reached out slowly. My hand gently closed around the delicate wisp of dandelion fluff from some flower that had bloomed too early. A childhood memory floated back.
Make a wish.
Eyes closed, I blew softly on the downy sphere.
Someday.

N.B. A different version of this story was co-authored for publication in Young World magazine.

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“Clouds”

“What’re you doing?” Symar asked.

I didn’t answer. Up in the sky, wisps of clouds were moving towards the west. Some formed strange shapes I couldn’t figure out.

“What do you suppose that is?” I wondered aloud.

“What? The cloud? It’s a cloud.” Symar deadpanned.

I looked at her.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

Symar made a face and said, “The village fête. They want you there.”

“Tell them I’m fine here.”

Symar pulled me off the ground and began to lead me towards the field where the festivities were going on.

“I hate the village fête. Noise, crowds, people staring at you…not my idea of pleasant.” I grumbled.

“They were staring at you because you happen to be the world’s worst dancer. And you had one foot in a bucket of…of…something.”

I decided the best reaction would be to keep quiet.

As evening approached, I left the festival to go back to my cloud watching.

Symar joined me.

“How can you even see them now? Besides, why do you love watching clouds so much?” she asked dully, picking blades of grass.

“I…they’re like people. There’s just something about them…”

“Maybe you’re a cloud maiden. Maybe you’re one of them clouds up there, but you fell down and your parents found you. Like in the legends. Clouds being real people who’ve passed on or something.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Nah, you’re just a crazy freak. And a lazy one at that!” she said and began laughing.

I made my ‘Oh-God-can’t-believe-how-lame-you-are’ face, but it didn’t work.

I couldn’t sleep that night. Something Symar said had struck a chord. I got up and went to the window. The clouds were blocking out the moon.

My heart began pounding. Could it be? I thought. I decided to test it. I climbed down the trellis and ran over to a field. There was a ridge-like projection in that field, about eight feet high.

I climbed it and stood at the edge.

This is stupid, what kind of an idiot jumps off a ledge because of something an equally idiotic friend said as a joke? I thought.

And yet, there was more to this. As if I’d known all along…

 

I ran through the grass. I had an awful feeling that Billie was going to do something stupid.

I was right; she was standing on a ledge.

“Get down, you idiot!” I yelled.

“Oh, hi Symar. Just checking my cloud maiden-ness. Like you said.” Billie called out.

“I can not believe you bought the cloud maiden story! Come down before you fall and break a bone!”

“No, Symar. You were right. Tonight, the clouds…watch what happens!” Billie said and jumped.

She plummeted straight downwards and lay at the bottom in a heap.

“Ow.”

I laughed, a little nervously perhaps.

“See?” I said.

“Symar, my neck…” Billie whispered, and then lay still.

“Billie?”

Silence.

Then Billie turned into smoke.

Her entire body became a cloud that billowed away in the night air.

They had come for what belonged to them.

And they had taken it.

“A Fairytale”

I tossed my textbook in my bag and picked it up. Then I went downstairs.

“Mum, I’m going to school.” I yelled.

“What about breakfast?” my mother called out from the kitchen.

“No time.” I said.

I stopped in front of the hallway mirror and checked to make sure I looked okay. Hair a little tousled, parted sideways in an attempt to make it look better. Sort of frazzled. Lips not pink enough, not big enough. Small eyes, short eyelashes and dark circles. Horrible skin, sick-looking complexion.

Oh, how I hate my face, I thought.

I shuffled out the door, purposely dragging my feet on the ground. School wasn’t far away, and I usually walked to it. I went to the end of the street and turned a corner. Then I stopped. There was an alley between the shops, and this I ducked into. I hoped, prayed, fervently that no one had seen me. Get used to this, stop fretting, a voice echoed in my head. I walked to the fence at the end of the alley and tossed my bag over it. Then I climbed it myself and jumped down on the other side. Picking up my bag, I walked out onto the street. An ordinary kid going to school on an ordinary day. I delighted in my little secret. I imagined a group of anguished-looking people surrounding me.

“Please, please tell us your secret because we must, oh we MUST, know!” they’d say.

And I would answer gleefully, “Oh, I’d tell you but then I’d have to kill you!”

I tripped on a crack in the sidewalk. A blood drop squeezed out from a cut on my chin. I cursed the sidewalk, got up clumsily and began walking again. I could see another alley close by. My pace quickened. I reached the alley and stopped for a minute before strolling ahead. I had realized an old lady, in the cake shop opposite, had spied me.  I walked on till she wasn’t looking anymore and then ran back, into the alley. I crouched behind a garbage container in the alley. A basement window, just large enough for a person, opened. I crawled through and fell onto sacks of old hay.

Shrew was already there. And, of course, Gnome never left.

“Hey-y, Wraith’s here.” Shrew drawled.

Gnome mumbled something.

“What’d you say? Shrew asked softly.

That was what I liked about Shrew, she was never too quick. Not when speaking, not when thinking.

“I said, ‘Welcome to this Hell-Hole’!” Gnome said loudly.

Shrew made a face, and then turned to me.

“How’d you get that cut?” she asked.

“Fell on the sidewalk.”

Shrew shook her head sadly and said, “Don’tcha like this world better?”

“That’s why I’m back, right?”

“Damn sidewalks. Don’t what they’re good for.” Gnome said gruffly.

“Gnome, you swear too much.” I said.

“I don’t!”

“You do.”

I slid off the hay sacks. Gnome turned to Shrew.

“Do I ******* well swear a lot?” he demanded.

Shrew made her ‘I’m-thinking-hard’ face.

“No-o. I don’t rightly remember. But you have a big nose!” she said and began giggling.

Gnome frowned and sat down on the floor.

“It’s time.” he mumbled.

“It’s time!” Shrew cried and flopped on to the floor beside him.

I crawled to them. Gnome began digging the earthen floor of the cave. Then he brought up a small tinderbox.

“Ready?” he asked.

No answer.

Carefully, he lifted the lid. A cloud of white powder rose and then settled. He took out three little pouches and gave two to us.

“Remember the rules. You will not be able to come back until this finishes. Keep yourself safe.” Gnome instructed.

We nodded, and each of us took a little powder from our pouches.

It began almost immediately.

I knew I was being transported, being taken away. A strange sensation began in my body, but then everything stopped. I was vaguely aware of Gnome trying to reach out to me.

And then I was gone. Or maybe, I arrived. I could hardly see in the dark. There was light coming in from the other end.

I tried to find my weapon. My hand touched a hard object. My sword, I thought, relieved. I began walking towards the light.

Suddenly, I was standing in the middle of a large pasture. But something was wrong. The animals of this world were grotesque, but that wasn’t it. There was something here that shouldn’t be, and something that should be, was missing. I heard a twig crack. I turned.

A boy was looking at me. He was tall and ghostly thin. Stretched, almost. He should not be here, I thought. I couldn’t see him clearly; there was a mist about him. I opened my mouth to speak, but he disappeared in to the trees. I swallowed.

I knew that forest. No one ever went in or out of it. But I knew that I had to follow him. But I knew that I had to follow him. I tried to jump across a river that bordered the forest. The face of a demon loomed before my eyes and I was thrown back onto the ground.

I had suspected this would happen. That my fears had been confirmed did not give me any relief. I brandished my sword in front of the demon, only to find that it was actually a bone. I screamed and dropped it.

The sky turned red and purplish-crimson clouds began welling up. All sounds, except a stormy roar, ceased. I tried to scramble away, but the demon was gaining.

Suddenly, someone pulled me away from the demon’s jaws. I recognized the large nose.

“Gnome? Gnome, how’d you get so tall?” I asked.

I had never seen Gnome so clearly before. I couldn’t help noticing that he looked very handsome.

“I told you to keep yourself safe.” he said abruptly and began walking away.

“Gnome, don’t go!” I cried out.

He stopped.

“I have to find Shrew.” he said.

“But Gnome, I saw—” I began.

“Gnomie!” a soft voice exclaimed.

Shrew walked out from behind a large rock. The rock was so large, it touched the sky. The tip was pointy, so maybe it cut the sky. And maybe the sky had turned red because it was bleeding. There was certainly a lot of red stuff on the ground. No, the red stuff was actually flowers. Lots of them.

I turned my attention to Shrew. She certainly looked nothing like a Shrew. And she was standing to close to Gnome. My Gnome, not her’s.

I was about to tell her this when she said,

“Wraith, do you know what I saw? I do-o declare, it was the scariest thing! I–”

“This world is being destroyed, Shrew. And it wants her lifeblood.” Gnome interrupted, pointing to me.

“Me? Why me?” I said aghast.

They shrugged.

I knew why. I had lied to them about so much. Perhaps I had been hoping that by denying it, I could avert it. Shrew and Gnome thought they had come to this world first, but they were wrong. It was my world. I was the Guardian. It had begun when I started having visions, when I would fall into a trance and the portal leading to this world would open up.

But I betrayed it. An overwhelming sense of guilt washed over me.

“I’ll do it Gnome. My lifeblood. I’ll give it every drop I have, it’s my…” I said, looking at the ground intently.

Silence. Then,

“Have you gone out of your mind? Why the hell do you think I’m here?!” Gnome yelled.

He strode over, gripped my shoulders hard, and said through clenched teeth, “Don’t you dare do anything stupid like that!”

“You don’t understand, I–” I began.

“I do understand. Just what do you think of yourself?”

I began to get angry.

“Gnome, you stupid ass, I am the Guardian!” I yelled.

“And what do you think I am?” he snapped.

I stared at him. Suddenly, the world turned black. I was being thrown back to the Middle Space. I found myself sprawled on some of the hay sacks. Gnome was lying face down next to me, an arm thrown across my mid-riff. Shrew was leaning on to my other side. I got up clumsily.

“Gnome? Shrew?” I asked.

My ears must be malfunctioning, I can only hear garbled noises from my mouth, I thought. Gnome and Shrew began stirring.

“What happened?” Shrew asked in, a slightly more slurred way.

“Guardian…” Gnome mumbled.

I began putting away the little pouches.

“Wraith, you’re a Guardian.” he said slowly behind me. I nodded and said,

“So are you, remember?”

“I don’t remember anything.” Shrew moaned in a child-like tone.

Gnome was quiet.

“I have to go.” I said.

“Me too.” announced Shrew.

Gnome nodded. Shrew climbed the sack pile and scrambled through the window. I looked at Gnome for a few moments.

“Leave.” he said, and began burying the tinderbox.

“Will you be alright?” I asked.

“I’m always alright!” he grunted.

I climbed up the sack pile and scrambled through the window, like Shrew had.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I tossed and turned, but I knew that it wouldn’t be of any use. Finally, I got up and opened the window. The night air was unusually cold. I climbed out onto the ledge and jumped down. I survived the fall, but my body ached.

I ran to the corner and followed the route I had taken during the morning. There was a faint glow in the basement window. I knew it.

I opened the window and scrambled through. Gnome was in the center of the room, about to open the tinderbox.

“I…I…” he began.

Amazing, Gnome was never at loss for words, I thought.

“I know what you’re doing. You can’t. Your blood alone won’t quench its thirst. This is the price we have to pay Gnome, you know that.” I said.

Gnome looked crestfallen. I sat down next to him. He began lifting the lid gently.

“You two idiots really think everything’s going to be fine if you don’t take The Third with you?”

We looked up. Shrew was standing at the foot of the sack pile, her arms crossed.

She walked over to us and sat down.

“Besides, I love that world. And in case you didn’t know, you don’t really die. You just become a part of it and stay there forever and ever and ever.” she said dreamily.

I nodded and Gnome began to lift the lid again. Then he stopped.

“Who’s going to take our place?” he asked.

“…My brother. I have a baby brother. He will…” Shrew said sadly.

I wanted to look at her face, but the candle had gone out.

Gnome thrust a pouch into my hand.

“All of it. Nothing must remain behind, not one crystal.”

I took all the contents of the pouch.

It began happening very quickly now, much more quickly than I had ever experienced. My mind started becoming completely blank. I heard someone say,

“I love you.”

Who was it? Gnome? Shrew? Someone else? I couldn’t tell. I was gone in a second.

And So Ends Our Fairytale

N.B. This story was later published in Us Magazine.