Growing up as one of four brown-skinned kids in my elementary school grade, I considered myself something of an authority on racism. Racism, I would have told you then, was when my best friend looked over at me halfway through a doll game and asked me if Indian music ever used ‘real words’. Racism, I would have said, was when I had to waste all of recess explaining to some white kids that some people weren’t Christian or Jewish. Racism was when a white friend’s mother assumed upon meeting me that my favorite subject was math. You heard talk of hatred and prejudice on the news, but ten-year-old me could’ve told you that this big “racial disparity” thing everyone seemed so worked up about was really just a bunch of minor inconveniences, a few ignorant questions that white people were forever asking and people of color were forever being irritated by. She could’ve told you that real racism, the kind that snatched lives and violated bodies, may as well have gone out of existence with the dinosaurs hundreds of years ago.
In between construction paper crafts and lessons on three-digit addition, my teachers taught me that America was a pretty incredible place to live, no matter what color your skin was. I learned to see the face of racism as a caricature, an old, balding white man who smoked lots of cigars, mumbled slurs under his breath, and spat at people of color when they passed him in the street. Looking back, I think I expected all racists to wear some sort of badge, to wave around Confederate flags or tattoo the words “proud KKK member” across their foreheads. They were rare monsters who hid out on the edges of society, leftovers from a bygone era, an ancient species on the verge of total extinction. I’d certainly never met a racist myself— and, I thought, I probably never would.
Looking back, plenty of my own childhood memories poke holes in that theory. Like finding out over a bowl of cereal that one of my father’s cousins chose to marry his wife because she was the lightest-skinned out of all the women he and his family met during the search process. Or taking visiting relatives into the city, and hearing my jethu wonder, loudly, how America kept its crime rates down with “so many blacks all around." That last line was tough to write—looking back, I’m appalled at those words, and I’m even more appalled at my own inaction in the face of them. I felt uncomfortable and guilty and ashamed, and I stood there silently and shuffled in the heat and waited for someone else to inform him what was and wasn’t okay to say in America.
I lay awake for hours that night after my mom tucked me in. I watched the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling fan spin around in circles, and I wondered what it meant that racism, that distant thing that I was so sure had disappeared decades ago, had made an appearance in my own life—in my own family. Did that make my jethu evil? Was he just that old, white caricature in disguise? Was I?
I cut the thought off there, assuring myself with a fervor that there was no reason to feel guilty. Inaction was my right. Speaking up was a decision, not a duty. After all, I was a minority in this country. I carried no burden of historical shame. My ancestors had never enslaved or owned Black people, never taken Black lives, never benefited from the era of Jim Crow segregation. If racism was mostly ancient history, and my family’s ancient history was halfway around the globe, then I was free of responsibility here, a step removed from the whole sticky situation. I had nothing to atone for.
A few years later, at a late-night Bengali get-together in Plainfield, thirteen-year-old me sat fidgeting on someone else’s couch, listening as the aunties and uncles talked about politics and real estate and their children.
“Aaryan’s girlfriend came over yesterday,” Rohit Uncle said. “She’s a lovely girl. Chinese, very bright.”
“You know,” Sharanya Auntie chimed in, “Shruti’s decided to go around with some African American.” She said African American with a certain inflection, like it was a code word that we were supposed to understand, and pursed her lips. “I don’t know why she can’t see a good Indian boy, but she’s so stubborn.”
By that point, I understood that racism wasn’t always as explicit as a KKK rally—and I knew that this was it, plain and simple. It checked all the boxes, sent all the red flags flying. I expected to hear a chorus of shock and outrage and indignation, but the other aunties and uncles didn’t say anything. Some chuckled or nodded sympathetically. Rohit Uncle leaned forward, concerned.
“You are sure he’s not a drug dealer?”
I said nothing. I stared down at my plate, I stirred my half-eaten rasgulla around in its bowl, and I said nothing.
I wish I could tell you that I had an epiphany later that night, that I suddenly understood everything that there was to know about racism and prejudice. It would make a much better story than the truth. But I was quiet for the rest of the evening, and quiet on the car ride home, and quiet that night as I watched the glow-in-the-dark stars spin around on the ceiling fan. I couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t figure out why the real world didn’t match up with everything I thought I knew. Here was racism right in front of me, again. And it wasn’t a caricature. And it wasn’t innocuous. And it had come from an Indian person— from several Indian people, actually—which meant that I could be guilty of it, too.
That evening didn’t give me the answers, but it did make me start looking for them. I turned to the internet and read articles about the history of immigration and the purpose behind the supposedly anti-Asian Affirmative Action programs that I’d heard so much about. I learned about the model minority myth for the first time, and I started to piece together where I stood in this nation’s racial hierarchy. My six-year-old self was right on one count: what we do in modern America is incredible, in the sense that it’s nearly impossible to believe. The way we manipulate history to suit our needs, the way we claim that murder is a personal freedom, the way the same news outlets that promise truth deliberately stir up the same old lies and the same old hatred.
Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out what happened that evening. I just keep thinking myself in circles, trying to make sense of everything I’ve learned and everything I think I’ve learned. I keep wondering what kept me silent that evening, whether it’s still inside of me—how many myths are still simmering inside of me, informing and manipulating everything I do.
It’s not that they were bad people, and it’s not that they didn’t get it— most of those aunties and uncles had been brown-skinned in America in the weeks after 9/11, understood what it’s like to fear for their lives, understood hatred and prejudice and fear better than I could even try to. So why was it so easy for them to turn against someone else? It makes me wonder if prejudice is inevitable—will we ever be rid of the lies, or will we just keep building new myths out of the ruins of the old ones?
I’m only just realizing that I can’t pick and choose which parts of America I want to take on. Though my roots may not be in this country, I certainly am. And though I may not benefit from white privilege, I do benefit from the privilege of not being Black every single day. I’m realizing that there’s no neutral ground—silence is complicity, and speaking up is a duty, not a favor. I’m realizing that racism never calls itself by that name, that it hides behind legal loopholes and doctored justifications and manipulated statistics made to look like truth. Racism is my shame, my guilt, my problem just as much as it’s anyone else’s.
I wish I could bring this to some sort of conclusion, say something definitive and groundbreaking and tie a pretty bow around the whole essay, but the truth is that I’m sitting here at my desk in the early hours of the morning, and I’m still trying to figure it out. A pandemic is raging outside, and protests are breaking out across the nation, and I’ve been sitting in quarantine for the past ten weeks with lots of questions and lots of fear and more time on my hands than I’ve had in years. And the same old quotes keep on taking on new meanings, and the same old patterns keep playing out around me, and I’m only just realizing how much time I’ve wasted trying to pretend that I’m not a part of them.
There is nothing to the world but the here and now, that there is nothing more to humanity than consciousness and fumbling molecules and the sheer will to live. That we have seventy, maybe eighty, years of ourselves, and then the atoms rearrange and we leave behind an eternity of dust. We flare, each one of us, brief and bright and alone in our minds, and in our instant of a life, we grasp at connection. We are human; we thrive on connections. We survive on it.
It’s futile, really; true connection, the complete comprehension of the mind of another, is impossible. In all of my life, I will never truly see or know another being, and I will never truly be seen or known. Pure thought and pure emotion are bursts of lightning, and language is the wire that harnesses them. It can carry only a semblance of the real thing, only a slowed-down, tempered flow. It can’t transfer experience; but it can transfer the record of it. If you’ll excuse the clichéd metaphor, each of us is an island, and books are messages tucked into sea-tossed bottles.
I read because language is beautiful, because Fitzgerald’s words seem to glimmer against the heat and because Hemingway’s are bone-dry and clean as windblown dust. I read because I can’t help but read. Because it’s beautiful, but beyond that, because it’s real. Because though language is only a wire, wires can build circuits.
As the boy trudged back in the failing light of dusk, the creaking trees leaned in towards him and cast barren shadows across his face. His features were fresh and bright, though thin with hunger and dark against the setting sun, and in his eyes, there was a sharp alertness, drawn out by years of cold. In his arms he cradled a faded knapsack, the same worn and aching gray as the autumn sky, and wrapped snugly within it lay a pile of dry kindling for the earl’s fire.
Squinting at the blurred outline of the manor in the distance, he could see that he had a long walk ahead. There had been plenty of sticks and dead leaves closer by, of course, but they had been slightly damp and already on the ground and unfit for his lordship’s noble hearth. So, the boy had been sent deep into the woods to fetch kindling deserving of his lordship’s status, and he had spent the past hour snapping new branches from the trees with his bare hands. Now those hands were raw and blue, and trembling from the weight of the wood.
The boy knew only exhaustion and hunger and a deep, cold desire to go home. But he knew, also, that he would be slapped or beaten or worse if he did not return in time for the earl’s supper, and so, despite the aching in his legs, he began to walk faster. He could feel numbness prickling on his fingertips and the taste of coming rain on the air, and a shiver ran through him as he clutched the knapsack tighter to his chest.
When his father had died, his mother had sat him down, her eyes still rimmed in red. After his father’s death, she said, his lordship had taken their ox, and they could only use it to plow their fields if they paid him. Since they had no money, they would have to pay by sending him a servant. So here he was, fetching kindling in the cold for the fire of a stranger.
He had run out for wood several times before, but never on a day quite as cold as this one, and never before without his mantle. He had forgotten to snatch it up as he scrambled out of the servant’s quarters, and he had not dared to turn back upon noticing its absence.
The boy sighed. To his right towards the near horizon, peering through the breaks in the rows of trees, he could just make out the sky-stained echo of his old village. A thatched roof here, a gentle firelight there, the dark shapes of animals wandering into their pens for the night. Perhaps he could go home instead – turn away from the clear-cut path and pick his way through branches and brambles, towards the lights bobbing on the horizon. Even amid the wind and the cold, a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, and he sighed again into the frigid air.
He was cold and alone, and suddenly he told himself that, he would go home. The lord did not matter; money did not matter; the ox did not matter. All that mattered was himself and his family, and he was going to see them tonight.
He would stroll down the familiar path to his cottage, and his mother would catch sight of him as she dug up cabbage to put in the broth for supper. The world would be bathed in subtle blue, soft and silent as the evening light, and her hands would go up to cover her mouth and her eyes would shine. She would run forward to take him in her arms. She would insist that he stay.
The sun sank lower in the sky, the fiery sunset swelling up into a penetrating gray, then a lonely blue. It was colder now than ever, and the boy realized that he could no longer feel his arms. At least, he thought, I will have the fire when I get home. The thought comforted him, and he walked faster, thinking of his mother’s embrace.
He came to the cottage now, and he froze, for he could see them through the window. The seven of them – his mother, his four sisters, his brother, and the baby – sitting around the table. The fire was crackling in the corner, silent and safe, and they were talking and laughing…and they were all happy.
And suddenly, he could not bring himself to knock. The rain began to fall now, all at once. It pounded on the ground like a fist, running down his face and seeping into the fabric of his shirt. He could feel it hitting his shoulders, and the cold seeped through his skin and down into his bones. It soaked into the gray fabric bundle in his arms.
Slowly, he turned around and trudged down the muddy path, through the shuddering fields, back into the woods and towards the manor. He walked for a long time through the cold and the rain, and then came to the manor gate and knocked.
The door opened, and the boy, shivering, thrust the soaking pile of kindling into the cook’s arms. She took it from him, a smirk frozen on her lips as she took in his state. Then, without a word, she stepped aside to let him through. He rushed forward, sighing at the slight burst of warmth, and immediately stripped off his soaking boots.
The lord regarded the boy silently. He was cold and shivering, and his eyes were misted over with a quiet contemplation that the lord mistook for wistfulness. The lord felt a sudden stab of guilt.
“Sit, boy. Warm yourself by the fire.”
The heavy orange streetlight dipped into the shop through the window behind the front desk. Soft and stiff, it crumbled in like amber—here it was in the corner, hovering with the dust; and there, on the door chime; and there, in the aisle, settling into the lonely folds of abandoned tablecloths. The light softened the firm rim of the boy’s cap – and as the click of the old register cut through the silence, the light spilled across the thin pile of cash and a few dirty coins.
Running through the numbers once more, he added up the day’s earnings in his head. He stopped at a hundred and thirty-seven, figured that would do, and palmed the last few bills, slipping them into his pocket just as a sweet chime trickled from the bell above the door. He jumped and reddened, pulling his hand from his pocket and taking a sudden interest in a spot of ink on his thumb.
“How much today?” The owner, his father, closed the door behind him and turned the key in the lock before sinking into a chair and pulling off his shoes.
“Not much.” He licked his finger and scrubbed.
“A hundred and thirty-seven.”
“Not much, then.”
The boy swallowed, and his hand dipped to his pocket. “I counted it right.”
His father glanced up, surprised. “I know you did.”
He could feel the bills pressing into his leg – he was almost sure he could hear them rustling as he turned to the window. Night seemed to have stumbled across the street by chance; it had settled early and carried with it long shadows that drifted down the sides of the shops and curled like petals on the pavement.
“How was work?” he asked. Since their mother’s death three summers ago, he and his sister had run the deli while his father worked shifts at the convenience store three blocks over to pay off the medical bills.
“Work was work. How was it here?”
He shrugged. There had been no customers since half past two, the bottom end of lunch hour. “The same.”
His father had asked him weeks ago to find an additional part-time job for the summer. His sister worked already, at the snack booth at the local AMC – on Tuesday and Thursday, and she came back late at night smelling of popcorn butter and peanut M&Ms. He’d tried to find a job. He really had. He’d gone door to door, but he’d found no one willing to hire a sixteen-year-old for pay. No one but the ice cream store, and he hadn’t told his father about that. He knew Cassie went there often, and he didn’t like the idea of her recognizing him behind the counter.
The boy untied his checkered apron and pulled it off over his head. “I’m going out, alright?”
His father glanced at the clock – it read half past ten. Before he could look back around to protest, the boy was halfway down the street and from his seat near the window, his father saw that he had forgotten to take off his cap. The green cloth bobbed up and down with his footsteps, and yellow letters glowed golden under the streetlight: Oscar’s Deli.
Upstairs, the older sister, Mia, was lying in bed and rifling through brochures. She selected one of the pamphlets at random and flipped to the third page. From the largest picture, two students in stark white lab coats smiled broadly at the camera. One held a petri dish with nutrient agar, and the other had her left eye pressed into a microscope. Her father’s footsteps creaked on the stairs and faded down the hall and into the farthest room, and she heard the soft creak which meant that he’d collapsed onto his bed. She hadn’t heard her brother come up behind him on the stairs – after a few moments of silence, she decided that he must have gone out.
She set the brochure down on the nightstand and let her head sink into the flat pillow. She had to rest. She had work tomorrow. She forced her eyes to close.
She’d picked them up on an impulse, really, the whole pile of brochures at once from the wooden stand outside the guidance office. She shouldn’t have. It was too late for her; she’d graduated in June. She hadn’t even bothered to apply. If one of them could go to college, better it be Ben – he was smarter than her – the things he read, she didn’t think most boys his age had ever heard of. She wondered if he’d taken her advice. She’d given him the little she’d saved up when she thought there was still a chance for her, and if he slipped fives from the register for the next three months, he could save up enough to take the SAT in the fall and apply to at least a few good schools next year. She hoped he was doing it – she thought he was; he’d started to look a little bit guilty when their father asked him how much they’d earned – though she couldn’t help but notice that he’d been going to the movies a lot more often lately. And new books kept appearing on his bookshelf, too…but she was sure he knew better than that. He was bright. He knew better.
And as for her – well, her father needed someone around to help him. She opened her eyes, turned over, and stared at the silhouette of the green cap that hung on the doorknob, fluttering with the rushes of air from the vent to its left. It had begun to rain outside, and she let the sound of water on pavement carry her far away.
A few streets over, tires kicked up puddles, and windshield wipers rattled like a vast sea of clock-hands. The asphalt glowed purple through the thin film of mist, and a flat blaze of horns and swears flowed downtown through the dry night air. A boy wearing a dark green cap wove through the columns of stalled cars and slipped through the door of the corner store. At the sound of the bell, the owner glanced up. The boy’s shirt was heavy with rain, and he left damp prints on the carpet as he walked. His hair, at least, was dry.
He reached into his pocket and drew out the crumpled wad of bills. He counted them slowly. Twenty – thirty-one – no, fifty-one dollars! Fifty-one dollars, in four bills – two twenties, a ten, and a one. Mia had warned him never to take too much – but he didn’t care – fifty-one! Ten times what she’d told him to take. Ten times, and he’d gotten away with it – he had enough now to buy three books, maybe even four, or two particularly nice ones – though Mia would ask about those for sure and he’d have to come up with an excuse –
He’d meant to save for school, he really had. But he hadn’t been able to look at the growing pile of bills in his sock drawer without thinking of the new movie that his friends were going to see on Friday, or that one last book that he wanted to read – and, he figured, if he took tens instead of fives for the rest of the summer, he could have enough to spend and save, and then it would all work out.
Fifty-one dollars, and all that was left was to decide what to do with them. He examined the spot of ink on his thumb. The books, of course, had been his first instinct – but was it really worth it? He thought of Cassie, of her silver smile and her laugh like rainwater and her clear lemon-gray eyes. She’d probably be at the ice cream shop now. She and her friends always went there on summer nights.
A few blocks away, his sister rose from her bed and pushed her sheets to the side. The clock on her wall hung bright against the darkness. Half past eleven – Ben had stayed out this late before, but only rarely.
He was alright, she told herself, probably at the movies. She pulled back her hair and scooted out of bed. The floorboards were stiff underneath her bare feet. She moved into the carpeted hallway, down the cramped flight of stairs, and out onto the cold tiles of the deli floor. The lights flickered on automatically, and she found herself blinking against the sudden surge of white. Her father had forgotten to draw the blinds. She hurried over and pulled them closed. Then she pulled out a chair, rested her head on the table, and closed her eyes.
When she woke up, her mind was grainy and dry. She couldn’t remember any dreams. She glanced over at the clock. It was half past twelve – Ben had never stayed out this late before. She sighed and rested her head in her hands. Cassie would be getting ready for college now, she found herself thinking – she’d be halfway packed, her room in disarray with a suitcase on the floor. She’d bring her favorite black boots and her new blue backpack and the stuffed white bunny rabbit she’d slept with until she was eight, and she’d be ready to move in.
The two of them had been inseparable since the first grade. She had asked Cassie if she was nervous once, weeks ago. She smiled that half-smile of hers, and the corner of her eye crinkled in the way it always does. “I mean, sure,” she said. “But it’s MIT! Can you believe I got into MIT?” Her eyes danced, and her voice echoed with longing. She’d already let go of her by then.
The boy stopped in front of the ice cream shop and bit down on his lower lip. The fifty-one dollars in his pocket had been whittled down to twelve. $30 for a cobalt blue infinity scarf – wrapped and neatly packaged in a paper bag – and another $9 for a bunch of pink-nosed flowers which he hoped were chrysanthemums. The woman who he’d bought the flowers from had taken him out to the back of her shop and let him pick them out himself. He’d always felt a little bit guilty picking flowers, the way that they shook and knocked against his fingers like they were flinching away. He did it anyway, though, because he knew that Cassie liked chrysanthemums – and the woman had sworn to him that these were, indeed, chrysanthemums, though the petals did look just a little bit too round.
Through the window, he watched her get up, smooth down her shirt, and come towards the door – towards him. Two boys walked with her, one with dark hair and a river-stream of freckles and another with the beginnings of a thin red beard. The door swung open, and the chime rang through the air – Cassie stopped, mid-laugh, and stared at him.
“Ben? What are you doing here?” Her voice sifted like sand, and he felt as though he was dissolving into it.
“I, um--.” yes, he was sure he was dissolving, losing all his words to the thick summer wind. He would come across them years from now, stranded in the road with the candy wrappers and the dry newspapers and the cold skulls of pigeons.
The boy with the beard looked like he was stifling a laugh. “You’re from the deli, aren’t you?”
His hand went up to his head. He felt the cap there, wet, dark green and emblazoned with golden words – he pulled it off, folded it, and stuffed it into his back pocket. He felt his face grow hot, suddenly aware of his too-big shirt and his too-small shoes, of the water dripping down the side of his face and the puddle he was making on the ground.
Cassie looked back at him. “What’re you doing up so late? Do you want me to take you home?”
“I’m sixteen.” He heard his voice squeak and winced. “I know you’re going to college tomorrow, so I – got something for you.” He shoved the paper bag her way and studied the stretch of sidewalk between his sneakers. It glistened, wet, under the streetlight. “They’re chrysanthemums. I think.”
He heard the sound of her opening the package, her gasp as she drew out the scarf. He looked up. It rippled in the midnight air, soft and blue, and he let out a breath. “Oh, Ben, wow! This is so sweet. Was this Mia’s idea?”
“Mia?” He felt his throat go dry and swallowed. “I…yeah.”
She was laughing a little – the sound of it made him flinch. “Very sweet,” she repeated. “I’d give you a hug, but you kind of smell like deli meat.”
The green cap burned into his back pocket and he turned redder.
He stood there, quiet, and watched her go.
Her brother came in at a quarter past one and fell into the chair beside her. The deli was bright and clean, and he left a trail of water behind him as he walked. His footprints glimmered under the soft blush of the fluorescents, and he reached into his pocket and pressed twelve dollars into the palm of his sister’s hand.
“You take it. I don’t want it.”
She got up and made him tea in a cup with yellow flowers. He downed it in three swallows.
“You should get dry.”
He nodded, but he made no move to get up. He was staring directly into the light – he stared at it until the beams broke apart before him, sputtered white like a thousand pointed stars. When he looked away, a dark spot hung in his vision. He got up, slapped his green cap down on the table, and started up the stairs.
Look with me, reader. There! Do you see it? Far, far down beneath the rolling clouds, there is a walled-in, closed-off, town. It is miles and miles away from the twinkling cities on the coast, and there are no lights here. No streetlights, no flashlights, no book lights -- not even a single candle. The windows are all small and square-shaped and shut tight against the cold, and every last one is dark.
All except for one. Yes, at the very heart of this little dark town, there is a single window that is full of light. And beyond that window is a bedroom, and within that bedroom is a boy. His name is Peter, and in his right hand he holds the only light in his entire town, and in his left hand he holds a book.
Soon, my reader, we will come back to him, for this is his story. But first, let me tell you about his world.
Peter’s little town was a rather terrible place to live, although no one living there quite seemed to know it. The weather was always cold. The colors were mostly dry and dull. The people were mostly dry and dull. The books were mostly dry and dull, and all filled up with nothing but ordinary facts. Every morning at sun-up, every last grown-up picked up a big beige briefcase from beside their front door and began to push through the long streets of the town, to their factory or their station or their office. Every night at sundown, every last grown-up pushed back home through the streets in more or less exactly the same way. It was quite useless for anyone to stay at work past sundown, seeing as no one could see a thing in the dark. Much to the confusion of the founders of the town, not a single form of light, man-made or otherwise, had functioned inside of the wall for nearly three centuries (except, of course, for the sun and the moon, which will always cut through even the darkest of darknesses). And so, from eight at night to six in the morning, the town could do nothing but sleep and wait.
Yes, the town truly was a horrible place to live. The night sky, always heavy with smoke. The children played, of course, as all children must. But they were only permitted to take part in organized activities, like golf and tennis and chess, and they were never allowed to imagine up games of their own. At school, the children recited their sums and their multiplication tables, and practiced their letters and their spelling and their definitions all day. And, worst of all, in the entirety of the town -- in every last home, in every last classroom, in every last library -- in all of these places put together, there was not one single storybook.
Peter, a rather ordinary little boy, grew up in one of hundreds of gray homes that were lined up neatly near the central square of the town. He dressed just like all of the other children. He spoke just like all of the other children. He seemed, for all intents and purposes, to be exactly like all of the other children.
No one knew what would happen, of course. No one can see the future. But even then, the signs were there, and those who looked closely could see them. Peter had always been the kind of boy who sat for hours and hours by the window on rainy days, watching the grown-ups pass by his house with their blue umbrellas and their brown coats and their plodding black boots. He liked to make up stories about them. Where had they come from? Where were they going? Why? He was the kind of boy who liked to watch them melting snow darken the dull gray stone of the front steps, and who saw shapes and faces and all sorts of creatures in the clouds.
Now, reader, I am sure that at this point in the story, you quite like Peter, and you want to be his friend. So, do I. But you must understand that the grown-ups in Peter’s little town did not like children who were not dull and serious and just like little grown-ups themselves. And so, it happened that Peter’s teacher called his parents into school to discuss his classroom behavior.
“Would you like to see what your son did on yesterday’s addition quiz?” asked the teacher, leaning forward over the desk and slapping down a sheet of paper with Peter’s name scrawled across the top in pen. She pointed sharply to a question about halfway down the page. It read:
4 + 7 = ?
There was nothing unusual about the question itself, and for a moment, Peter’s parents were confused. But then they saw what his teacher was pointing to: in place of the answer was a swirl of lines and shapes, scribbles that seemed to take on the form of wings and a beak and two short legs.
“It seems to be...a small, two-dimensional representation of some peculiar flying beast. It’s absolutely absurd!”
Here, I must pause to let you know that the curious figure that Peter’s teacher referred to as “a small, two-dimensional representation of some peculiar flying beast” was, in fact, a simple drawing of a bird. You see, since the wall had been constructed, no one new had come into the town, and no one old had left it. And so, while even the youngest children who lived there could explain the meaning of “algebra” or “monotonous,” not even the most learned members of the population were aware that the word “drawing” existed. No one in that town could have told you what the word “story” meant -- or “elf,” or “magic,” or even “prince”!
“And, sir, while we’re discussing your son, I must inform you that he has been lying, as well! Yes, lying! He wastes precious daylight hours telling the other students all sorts of awful tall-tales, filled with talking birds, and walking trees, and singing flowers. As if flowers could sing!”
Now, reader, you and I know well enough that Peter had not been lying at all. He had only been telling stories. But in this little dark town, no one except our dreamer knew the difference.
Peter began to cry as soon as he and his parents stepped out of the school building. He cried all the way home, through his dinner, through his daily bedtime math problem and through his weekly bedtime spelling test. And at last, still crying into his pillow, the boy fell into a deep sleep.
In his dreams, he drifted up -- up, higher and higher, out of his bed and straight through the closed screen of the little, square-shaped window. His soft white pajamas glowed like butterfly wings in the moonlight, and he stared down in wonder at the darkness of the city as it faded to a speck beneath him. He rose up farther, higher and higher and higher, above the layer of smoke and into the land of the stars. There he wandered for hours and hours before falling back to Earth and finding himself on the shore of a beach with the twinkling lights of a city behind him. Far off in the distance, he could see the speck of darkness that was his home -- and all around it, beyond its wall, were other villages and towns and cities, filled with twinkling, laughing lights. He stared at those little lights for what felt like days -- he thought that they were the most beautiful things that he had ever seen. And then, he turned to the ocean.
If you have ever stood on a white-sand beach at night, you will know that by the time the stars come out, the water is warmer than the shore. If you have ever waded into an ocean in starlight, you will know that the earth feels soft and cool beneath your feet, and that the rushing waves feel safe and warm around your ankles. Somehow, the whole world feels closer by night than it does by day. Fiction becomes truth. Dreams become reality. The impossible becomes possible. As Peter waded farther and farther into the water, he felt all of this and more.
He didn’t remember quite how it had happened -- perhaps he had stumbled upon it embedded in the sand, or found it floating on the surface of the water -- or perhaps it had simply appeared before him. All he knew was that one moment, there was nothing -- and the next, there it was, in his outstretched hand. He stared down at it in the moonlight, the brown leather cover and the worn yellow pages. It was soft to the touch, and far heavier than any book that he had seen before. He stared for a few moments at the gold-lettered title. It was a single word, strange and beautiful on the page. A word that he had never come across before.
He ran a finger over the letters. Traced them, one by one. He sounded it out, slowly. “Fair-y-tales. Fairytales.” What more can I tell you, reader? He fell in love.
When he woke up, hours later, there it was under his pillow: the book, with its brown cover and its gold print and that one strange, beautiful word. And beside it, something extraordinary: a flashlight. His hand trembling, Peter reached out and flipped it on.
Light, the first light in three centuries, flooded the boy’s bedroom. In that moment, there was nothing that Peter wanted more in the world than to read those stories. And so, he did, cover to cover, with the town’s first light in three hundred years clutched tightly in his palm.
And now, reader, here we are: back to the beginning of our story, looking down on him from above the clouds. Do you see him? Do you see his light? There he is now, with the book in one hand and the flashlight in the other.
Watch, as he finishes and puts the book down. Reads it all the way through one time again. Then, all of a sudden, realizes that he holds magic in the palm of his hand.
Watch, as he runs to his father and shows him the book and the flashlight. Watch, as his father calls his mother. Watch, as his mother calls the mayor, and as the mayor calls the governor, and as they both come over to the doorstep at three o’clock in the morning to see it all for themselves.
Watch, now, as they all sit down to read, all four of them together, and the boy, too -- as they laugh and cry and let the words fill them up in a way that they have never quite been filled before.
Watch, as storybooks are printed and drawings are made, as children are told that they may play their own games. As the walls are torn down and the parents take their children down to the sea for the first time in their lives.
And watch, now, as the little dark town’s lights come on, all at once, shining there in the darkness like a thousand floating candles, drifting across dark, deep waters. Watch, as, for the first time in nearly three hundred years, it is not always winter.
You see? The world takes care of its dreamers.
He stood with his back to the room, his face to the great arched window that extended across the east wall. It was the break of dawn, and he could see the sun rising above the towering skyscrapers, painting the sky a rose-touched periwinkle. He sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. He’d love to paint the scene—he pictured the way the oil paints would glide over the canvas, how the pale gray would blend subtly into the touches of golden and the lingering traces of clouds. The skyscrapers would rise up to meet the sky, firm strokes of black and silver, highlights in white and reflections in pale blue… I should take a picture, he thought. To paint later. He leaned forward and pushed open the window. It slid up smoothly, so unlike the stubborn, stiff windows in his own apartment, with their thin metal frames and cracked glass panels. Again, he sighed. He drew his phone out of his pocket. It had once been sleek and silver, but now it was caseless, a jagged fracture spreading over the silent black screen, the back covered in scratches. It took three attempts to turn it on.
He opened up the camera app and took a deep whiff of the air from outside. It smelled like the city, somehow fresh and polluted all at once. He lifted the phone and snapped the picture, then glanced down at it and wrinkled his nose. The lighting was wrong--all wrong. He slid the window up farther, and stuck his head through the frame, peering down at the asphalt road and rapid cars below. If he could hold the phone out the window, just so…
He narrowed his eyes in concentration and pushed his entire upper body through the frame, holding the camera out in front of him at arm’s length. He stared at the image on the screen for a few moments, contemplating it, then smiled.
Carefully, he moved to snap the picture, but just as he was about to, the phone slipped from his sweaty fingers. He scrambled to catch it, and in the process, he felt himself slide forward, farther out of the window. He gritted his teeth and grasped at the phone, teetering against the window frame as he struggled to secure it. After what seemed like an eternity, he grasped the metal surface in his fingertips, and he let out a sigh of relief. It was safe.
He realized it was happening a moment before it did. For a moment he felt himself suspended in air, free.
Then, he plummeted and he hit the road below with a sickening thud.
I can’t quite remember what it was about that story -- the crimson flash of the cloak, maybe, or the quiver of the lilacs as she scooped them from the soil, or the moon-stricken whistle of wolf padding through brush far beneath the darkening storm. But I do remember those dry summer nights, all paper and flushed watercolor and firm lines of ink. I remember how the flashlight trembled heavy between my fingertips -- how beams of light sprawled across the rolling covers when I lowered it to turn the page. Through the spun-silver curtain, the moon smiled down on us (the book and I, the two of us), its bright breath coursing on the wind.
I was there, in my bed, and yet it isn’t the bed that I remember, but a land doused in lamplight, swift and in concrete, with a population of one. Me, red with the cloak, sweet with the lilacs, moonlight-stricken with the wolf. Night by night, I wore the corners soft, the paper thin -- folded back the cover and breathed secrets to the spine. Even then, there was something in the words that I couldn’t help but love.
The door creaks once at the touch of her fingertips, then swings open in smooth silence. The room is at once sparse and lavish, empty save for the piano bench and the wooden harp and the pale, billowing bedsheet that hangs over the window in place of a curtain. Deep shadows wobble across the floor, shifting with each subtle breath, with each flutter of the air. This room provides no view of the sunrise, of the sky’s first blood-stained breath or of the rising wind’s fierce twist. Instead, it envelops her in darkness, in a heavy, early-morning gray that settles over the watchful air. The setting moon hangs in one corner of the open window. It laps silver at the legs of the worn leather bench, runs a firm gray hand down the wooden curves of the harp. She is reminded of how the gray tide slips ever further from the shore, of how white sand crumbles underfoot, cool and coarse between her toes, of how the earth rushes towards her as the waves pull away, leaving her ankles cold and her knees trembling.
The moonlight shrouds her shudders, winds itself around the rise and fall of her breath. She moves towards the window, ducks behind the sheet. It drapes lightly over her shoulders, wrapping her in its own pale world. Dying moonlight rushes in, tracing patterns on the pale cloth behind her, alighting on the scattered floorboards beneath her bare feet and casting her papery hands in soft, fragile white. She lifts a palm to the glass. It feels like wax beneath her fingers, soft and cool and lenient, as if it will cling to her form long after she is gone.
I wake up in a sea of white. Blinding sunlight pours in through an iron barred window, casting dark, slashing shadows across my body. Stark white walls, grayed linoleum floor, and the voices are silent again. I take a deep breath, relishing the feeling of air swelling in my lungs. Breathe. Where am I? I look down to find that I am wearing a plain white slip, the cloth rough as paper against my skin. Who am I? I close my eyes and fall back into the darkness.
Not much registers that first day. Women dressed all in white come in and out, bringing trays back and forth and, every so often, murmuring a comforting word. They change the sheets and bring in meals, which are always accompanied by a thin paper cup and a pale blue pill. The pills numb the pounding in my head, but I feel sluggish when I swallow them -- like my mind is encased in a thick, soapy film.
The next time they come in, I ask them why I must take these pills. They tell me that I am sick. Can you believe it? Sick! What a terrible lie. When I am sick, I feel tired and flushed and empty in my stomach, and as I do not feel any of that, I cannot be sick. At least, no more than I can be insane.
Days pass, months, perhaps even years. I do not know; time is all the same in this place. After a while, I am allowed to wander the halls, and then to eat meals with the others, and then, finally, moved into a room without bars on the windows and the door. The food here isn’t bad, to tell you the truth -- actually, I rather like the mashed potatoes that serve in the dining area. I’ve met some new people, too. They’re nice, if a bit strange. There’s a man who believes that his skin is made out of tissue paper, and an old woman who has four different people inside her head.
The women in white are everywhere. I thought they were nice, at first, but I soon realized that they are not so much polite as distant, and not so much caring as formal. They may be kind, but it is a cold sort of kindness, abrupt and never enough to fill you up.
When I ask them why I am here, I am met with swift buttered smiles and wandering glances. Their laughs are strained, and lies spill from their lips.
I find them strange, so strange -- even stranger than the other people here, sometimes. They are marionettes; their movements and their words and their thoughts are wooden, and I long for people made from flesh and blood.
The glass glows blue under the strobe lights – so calm, so blue, so cold and fresh. Trembling beads wash down from the lip and break the smooth waterline, one by one, one with each thump of the music against the soles of my feet. My whole self turns with the pulse and squish of that stereo. Stomach jumps, up and down and up. Bones in my hand jitter. The little umbrella stirs and blows loosely in the glass.
You know, I have this image in my head, and I can’t shake it, of all these people – umbrellas and hoods and newspapers – skittering down the New York street like raindrops down a window. They’re looking down, down, down, always down. I’m looking at them, not from the street, but from above, in a building, and in a yellow raincoat. So high that the raindrops are wider than the cars, that the people are only pinpricks. I wonder if they’ve ever looked up and seen me, or seen the clouds roll home.
And, you know, once I sat in front of the glass, a pen in hand and the crashing rain before me, and I got it in my head that I would write it all down, every drop – only, I touched down that pen to paper, and all that came was a little blue dot. No words in my head clean enough to show you how it fell, in patters and stones and soft sizzling sheets. None playful enough to show you how it landed, the sighs and ripples, the drumming rings. The empty page – what a world. White as the wind – this still, raging white – and hollow as the prickling stars.
So instead, I stood up and I pressed my nose and my own two hands to the glass, for so long that it grew warm and waxy under my fingers. It started thinning, the glass, like it was melting, only softer. And I think, just maybe, I fell right through and became the rain.
One autumn night, as the heavy blue of dusk cut through the sweet golden of sunset, a single white tulip arose from the dusty riverbank and caught sight of her own silken reflection in the still, breathy water of the river. It was the night of the new moon, and as the low clouds around her dissolved into stardust and the heavens above her crumbled to black, the tulip turned her delicate head this way and that, combing down her brilliant petals and admiring the way that the last star of evening graced her slim form with swift lines of silver. It was not until the trees shifted and darkened the sweet spell of starlight that the flower, at last, seemed to notice the lively woods around her. Slowly, she turned up and took in the long forms of the trees and the flitting of the lightning bugs and the slipping shadows on the grass. She turned at once to the great oak, who had lived in the forest for many seasons, and knew much about the world.
“Aren’t I beautiful?” she asked him. The oak, awed by the pristine ivory of her petals, smiled and dipped his branches gently at the next touch of the rushing wind. But the flower did not see, for she had already moved on, peering beyond the oak into the open night.
“Aren’t I lovely?” she called to a young lilypad, who had made his home a little way up into the water. The lilypad, quite taken with her melodious voice and her delicate perfumes, blushed furiously and ducked his head under the froth of the river. But he said nothing, for when he surfaced to tell her that he loved her, he found that she had already moved on.
This lamp does not belong in summer. It is a winter lamp,
with its twin in the window, its echo in the bone-cold wood.
Summer lamps, they all gleam yellow.
This lamp was not made for lemon light --
for damp porch swings, blue-bluster nights like glass --
It cannot rival the fireflies.
This winter lamp, it sighs – it scrapes – it pounds – it singes
the ice-marble-air. It does not dare to quicken to being,
only to soothe and soften,
throw gossamer sheets over still and beaten forms
Even through the threadbare curtains, Sam can see the traces of frost creeping across the window glass, throwing slivers of moonlight across the hardbound book in her hand. She doesn’t check the spine for the title.
Shivering, she tugs on the sleeve of her pajamas. The wind outside has grown fierce, gnawing at wood and flesh alike; winter has finally arrived. Branches groan against the walls of the house, as if to escape the frigid air, and she sits cross-legged on the hardwood floor, listening to the sound-filled silence.
The room is dark, and her head is pressed back into the side of her desk. Her wire-rimmed glasses, bent ever so slightly out of shape, lie discarded on the ground beside her. She traces the cover of the book in her lap. Its corners are well-worn, curved inwards, and almost reverently, she runs a finger down its pages. She smiles as the moon washes her hand in silver light.
Even as her heart tightens, breath comes more easily, and her shoulders sag. Already, she can feel her own worn-out world trickling away through the cracks between the floorboards, hear new existences blossoming at the turning of a page. Already, she can taste escape in the air.
She draws a breath through her nose as the fresh scents of dust and paper trickle up from the pages. Sleep holds down her eyelids, and she still can’t remember what book it is that she holds in her hand. Only that it is the one she fell asleep meaning to read, and the one that she turned to, hours later, when she sat straight up in bed, choking down a scream. Reading by moonlight has always been her remedy for a nightmare.
And for her first failing grade.
And for her grandfather’s death.
Scratch that--reading by moonlight has always been her remedy for everything.
She’ll have to go to school tomorrow, and she’ll have to go to sleep soon. But for now, there is only her and this book. She hopes that she will lose herself somewhere in the pages, in a world away from this one; she hopes that when she returns, she will be a little more whole than before.
But I still remember
Scribbled notes on orange post-its
Flicked across a desk
I remember making faces at friends across crowded rooms
And laughing when they finally noticed
And I remember when we ran in circles against the wind
Without a care in the world
I remember when we became dragons.
Read the full poem here
It’s been a while since we left. The sun should be well into the west by now, casting shimmering streaks of pale pink across the deep blue evening. Would be, if it weren’t for the huge wall of pure black that spans across the horizon, spreading out slowly, steadily, casting its looming shadow on the world. The crowd surges around us. As far as I can see stretch faces, people, some pushing ahead of others, some lagging behind. Blond hair, brown hair, white hair, dark eyes, it all blurs together until the faces stop being faces at all. Every so often I think I see someone that I recognize, but when I look again, they’ve turned away, vanished into the crowd, and I tell myself that it was just my imagination.
I don’t remember when I offered to take Caecilia from Mother, or when it started feeling like I was holding a sack of bricks instead of a child. I pull my sister closer to me and continue to walk forward, trailing Mother’s dancing shadow, cast in the darkness by the vague flicker of a candle instead of the ever burning sun. Mother glances at the sky, swallows, and increases her pace, pushing through the crowd. We keep walking.
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Growing up, there were four boys on my street, all of us about the same age. Danny, my best friend from birth and the clown of the group, with his dimpled smile and his freckled face. He went on to be the only one of us to enroll in the army, but at the time, he was a mop of hair, haphazardly parted and falling into his eyes when he ran. There was Jacob, the youngest of us and something of a tagalong, who went on to become a famous movie critic. There was me, the quiet one. And then there was Evan, who moved into the old house at the end of our street when we were in first grade.
Evan was the storyteller of the group, to say the least. His eyes shining, he’d spin us golden tales about his grandfather, who had singlehandedly led the American Army to victory during the Great War. He’d swear on his life that old Mr. Dupont was a Russian spy, and he’d speak in low whispers about the time he’d seen a dragon on the horizon as the sun disappeared over the edge of the woods. Being seven years old and new to lies, I hung onto his every word like a precious stone.
My favorite stories were always those about his father. “He’s a pilot,” Evan would say, his back straightening and his mouth going stiff, “and he owns three planes, and he flies ‘em all day. He ain’t got no passengers, no one else with him. He’s up there all alone up in the air, jus’ like a bird. Every day.” Once, he had flown right across the Pacific and skimmed the top of Mount Everest with his wing. Another time, he had broken right out of the earth’s atmosphere and scraped against the edge of the moon. In fact, he was so busy with his planes that he was rarely home. “But I don’t mind,” Evan told us. “He’s the best Dad in the world.”
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I have my back to him, but I know he is here. I thought perhaps he could only visit in my dreams. But I can see the shadows on the wall shifting with his every breath, hear him shuddering in the winter air, blue-skinned and cold-eyed and drowning in shadow. The cold gnaws at the back of my neck, and I can feel the trails of water running down his face, hear them dripping onto the floor and pooling at his feet.
I close my eyes. Breathe. I need to breathe. I must take in air, must brace myself for the voices. They are only murmurs, now: whispered fragments grasping at something they cannot quite reach. But they will grow louder, as they always do when he visits me, bubbling up in my mind and hammering into my spine. They grow and weave, washing over one another like coursing waves, but I can never figure out what they are trying to say.
I suppose ghosts have the right to haunt those who have wronged them, but his presence still unnerves me. I do not want him here. Go away, Luke. Please.
Nothing; I can still hear his breathing. Must I turn and face him? I cannot bear to see what he has become--
Please, I try again. Please. I’m not ready.
A moment, and then he listens. I can hear his breath wilt into the air as he fades. It’s a soft sound, gentle, like the breath of air that kills a flame.
Silence follows, and then the raw cry of the wind. I open my eyes. The shadows are still; the street lights pour in through the windows. I sigh and rest my head against the windowsill. The painted wood is cool against my cheek, and I feel an urge to sink into it and never wake up.
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The white paint has been peeling ever since she layered it on, and it clings to her palm when she brushes against it. She doesn’t mind it; she likes to think of the small white flakes as lost thoughts, snatched up in the elusive tide of memory.
But when the afternoon sun streams in through the window, it’s not the paint that it catches, but the solid oak underneath, and she finds herself wishing that she could crawl underneath it again, wrapped in thin sunlight, listening to the sound of her father’s loafers tapping against the floor. Even now, it smells, ever so faintly, of honeysuckle.
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The slipping shadows are slick and warm, and soft and thick as cotton, and they guard him against the still, damp lights of the stars. They wrap around his dangling ankles, around legs too small to reach the ground, around his round-eyed face and his drumming fingers.
She wonders if the case in his arms is stolen or his own, if the smudges on his cheeks and forehead are oil or coal or only shadow. She wonders why his fingers tap so furiously the wooden seat.
He’d been the first one to speak at her funeral. It was an odd crowd – a few of her friends from Church, three or four ex-students, an obscure European cousin who she had lived with for a few months in her thirties. He shouldn’t have spoken – he was the least qualified of them all, really. He and Lillian were strangers, had been for all but the first ten of his fifty years. Strangers who shared blood, but strangers all the same.
He’d prepared a story for the podium – some made-up gibberish about the innocence of childhood and Lillian nursing a tabby cat named Juniper back to health. He can’t imagine his sister actually doing anything of the sort, can’t even remember how the story went, but it had brought the meager audience to laughter and to tears, and after receiving heartfelt condolences from the majority of the room, as well as the odd bouquet, he was sure that he had played the part of loving brother reasonably well. He wonders if he should have brought flowers with him today – roses for love, lilies for peace, poppies for remembrance. That’s the point of it all, really – remembrance. She was loved, flowers call out to passerby. She was needed. She will live forever in our hearts. But that would be a lie, wouldn’t it? He can’t conjure memories of a stranger; can’t offer her the mourning she deserves.
At last, he comes to the end of the graveyard – to a clean, chiseled stone standing straight among the forgotten and decrepit. Fresh dirt clings to his shoes as he moves towards the tomb – pale gray, almost hazy under the curtain of descending night. Slowly, he runs a finger over the name. The stone is cold, and the hard line of the L leaves an indent in his skin.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
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The night sky seems to buckle under the weight of smoke, and his voice seeps into the cobblestones, golden notes lingering in the firelight long after they are gone. Though his words are barely whispers, barely bursts of breath in the darkness, there is a sorrow in the touch of his voice. It wraps around each shuffling footstep. Each passing car.
He sits on the curb, perching on an overturned paint bucket just under a flickering gas light, and though his tune is familiar to all who listen, it is his own. Some do not see him; others cast furtive glances as they pass by. First to his guitar, to worn-smooth firelight coursing through wood. Then to his hands, trembling against the strings. And, at last, to his face. Skin like wet paper, clinging to protruding bones. Chapped lips, whispered words. Pale eyelashes, fluttering in time to his song.
And, quickly, they look away. Something about him unsettles them; perhaps his tattered clothes; perhaps the pain that lurks in the silence between his notes. Perhaps it is only his luck.
Some glare; others speed up and pull their children closer. A few search for a donation box. They fine none.
An old man frowns as he approaches, pulls the cigarette from his lips. His footsteps pause, and his breath draws circles of smoke in the air. He nods, slowly, and slides a dollar into the palm of the singer’s hand.
The singer hands it back.
Winter takes a brush to his lips, painting them blue, and his hands tremble against the strings of his guitar.
He sits with one leg outstretched, and every so often, his voice scrapes. His notes grow sour, his words catch, and he pauses. Opens his eyes. Looks to the sky, and finds only smoke.
And still, he sings on.
The wheels drum briskly against the darkened tar, and silence sweeps out the hollow between the dashboard and the front seat. The moonlight falls on the rushing grass, each blade heavy with the weight of the wind, and casts her hands in fine, pale silver. Fingers tight on the cold wheel, bones, ghostly white through the skin of the knuckles, she turns easily onto the curling highway. A lone bright car swerving between dashed white lanes, humming and breathing at the slightest touch of her hands. Behind, the windshield she takes refuge from the roaring world: there is only her and the gas and the gears and the still, stifled air.
The mountain itself stands solemn, towering over all and aching with pride, a silent protector. Its gaze stretches to the whispering sea, to the vast horizon beyond and to the setting sun, who graces the face of the mountain with her warm, golden light. The mountain rolls gently into the sea, which stretches far into the distance, each breath a wave, each exhale a whisper.
Though it tries, the sea can never quite trace the horizon; so, instead of reaching up, it reaches down. It knows the chill of icy depths where even the sunlight dares not wander, and so, it longs for the warmth. Each day, when the sun is closest, it paints itself with vibrant hues of russet, saffron, golden, and rose. Each day, the sun brushes the horizon and smiles at the painted sea, then bids the vast gradient of the sky goodbye, ducking under the land and giving way to the stars and the night.
I wake up, hours later, to the dawn bleeding through my eyelids. The aching sun drags its fingers over the horizon, unraveling spools of crimson into the sky. It warms the gravel beneath me, but makes no move against the bitter chill in the air. Somewhere down the road, a lone engine sputters, wheels kicking up dust.
No one is watching me; no one is even awake. All the same, I keep up the pretense of nonchalance as I glance down at my watch. The face is cracked, almost shattered; it must’ve happened last night.
Grabbing hold of the railing, I pull myself up. The gravel has left a deep pink imprint in the right side of my palm. Absently, I rub it against my sweater. The pink imprint hasn’t disappeared; if anything, it’s gotten deeper.
I'm a high school senior from Millburn, NJ.