A story inspired by Stargirl, a book by Jerry Spinelli.
". . . That's it! I've had it with you! I'm leaving!"
"Die for all I care! And don't ever come back! If you do I'll have your hides!"
I did not move.
"I said get out of this house, you hear?"
I guessed that was the first time in all those years that I obeyed her. As the door slammed shut behind me I could hear her seething and cursing. ". . . that blasted son of mine! If only I'd killed him right after Caesarean . . . He'll bring me to my grave on Sunday!"
I stormed my way down the sloped path, kicking at the grass and tearing their blades off their roots. The rubber under my shoes crushed hard against stone as I reached the road.
The sky was cloudless, but as I paced across the empty street the breeze grew quite strong. It was a cold spring wind, sweeping up from the south, carrying with it a memory of winter. I tucked my fists under my folded arms and breathed a small mist of air.
There was no guided path. I was alone. The streets were empty. The town became extremely unfamiliar all of a sudden — a mirage that settled on the reality around me — and I did not know where to go. Everything was deathly silent, but I wouldn't call that tranquillity, not even desolation; inside my mind it was downtown New York at rush hour.
There is always more than meets the eye.
Along the long stretch of road, more than half the row of shops was already closed for the night. It seemed almost endless, the way the little orange lights hovering from the metal chains at each storefront merged in the distance into one incomprehensible mass.
Absently I walked past a closing boutique, then a pastry shop. In the glass counter were a couple of stale chocolate tarts. In a matter of minutes they were already on their way to my stomach.
Something was lacking in those tarts, but I couldn't quite put my finger to it. It flitted at the tip of my tongue for a moment — then was gone, into the night. I shrugged it off.
– – –
I framed a marquee with my fingers against the salt sprinkled sky. Buildings loomed into view from the roundabout road where I now was, lying at the fountain in the centre of the circle.
All my life I wanted to be a movie director — to be in charge of the big screen, making up films and documentaries, earning it big. Though, I never fancied myself appearing in the movies themselves.
"And now," I whispered to myself, panning the camera around till it settled on the thin sickle of silver in the sky. "For the first time in the history of man — if man ever has one — the Crestoria Galaxy appears in our sky at a visible magnitude. This incredible star system is thirty-nine million light years away, and moving towards the Milky Way at a speed of five thousand kilometres an hour. What might happen — as scientists around the world speculate — is that this Crestoria Galaxy will eventually collide with the Milky Way, and once that happens, every single star and planetary system in both galaxies will —"
"I see the next Steven Spielberg in there," a voice suddenly said. An innocent smiling face appeared amidst the sea of diamonds framed by my fingers.
I yelped and scrambled to get myself up, almost falling into the fountain. When I regained my bearings, I saw a mysterious girl a small distance away, standing akimbo and laughing her head off. Sitting on her shoulder, I realised incredulously, was a tiny blue-coloured bird.
"Who are you?" I asked, warily.
She stopped laughing, and focused her eyes on me. They were wide and bright, like a doe's and for a split moment I felt surrounded. "Me?" she asked, blinking once.
"Yes, you." I sat properly on the shiny slate edge of the fountain and rubbed at my lower arms, chilled by the cold despite the sleeves of my shirt. "Who are you?
Are you from another town? I haven't seen you around here before."
She flounced about on the road, stretching out her arms and dancing to no one in particular. Or perhaps, to me.
I watched her silently, as she lost herself in the dance and the bird flew above her like the propeller of a helicopter. I was beginning to suspect that she was some escapee from a nearby asylum. Indeed, she looked strange — her hair was a curious shade of navy blue, flowing down to her waist and loosely tied back with a white ribbon. Her clothes looked almost like the costume from a Western movie — a caramel-coloured leather vest, with fringing along the hems and brown straps loosely crossing down the front; a white long-sleeved blouse; a floor-brushing pioneer skirt in midnight blue, billowing out around her and flowing in perfect rhythm to her dance.
And it was then that I noticed her shoes. At first I reckoned they were cowboy boots that completed the entire cowgirl getup. Then, I realised that they were tap-dance shoes, black and shiny even in the dim streetlights. The clicks they made against the road echoed from her feet, and all the way into my ears.
She pirouetted just then, and I caught a glimpse of the tiny silver spurs behind the heels of her shoes, glinting like stars in a second sky. Then I saw them no longer, as her skirt covered them once more.
I raised my eyes to look at her.
"My name —" she paused, dramatically, and gave me a blithe smile — "is not important. What matters is that I am here."
She walked towards me, training her huge eyes on mine. They seemed to corner me with every step she took — punctuated by the soft tap-tapping sounds of metal against asphalt — and finally she stopped. She slowly brought her face closer to mine, and I tried not to lose myself in the murky depth of her eyes — blue, I realised, in the same shade as her skirt . . .
"But if you really want to know . . ." She flashed her pearly whites with a mischievous grin, and tweaked my nose. "Just call me Rina."
And as she pulled away a cold rush of air swept across my face, and I closed my eyes, exhaling deeply.
– – –
Rina — or so she called herself — would not tell me where on earth she came from ("From Earth, as you said."), or why she wore all those bizarre clothes ("I just like to."), or even how she knew my name ("It's a really quiet night around here, Jun.").
I rolled my eyes. "Well, excuse me, it's 'good morning' already." Then it struck me. "Wait. How did you know my name?"
She dangled her feet over the edge of the fountain, tapping her shoes against the slate and gently stroking the feathers of her bird. It twittered in delight and flapped its wings, its plumage catching the moonlight and reflecting a brilliant blue. Then she turned to me with a secretive smile. "I have my ways," she said simply.
An awkward silence followed her reply. I did not try to ask anything more, and instead continued inspecting her. The pale moonlight outlined her profile with a thin white line, like a fountain pen running out of ink, as she gazed serenely into the distance. I could almost see an aura of light surrounding her.
Then I saw why. She wore no makeup — there was no mascara or lipstick, no painted eyelids or rouged cheeks. But her complexion was perfect — at least, from my angle. She looked natural. She looked real. She looked as real as the clouds in the sky, as real as the sun during the day, as real as any other human was, as real as I was.
The bluebird peered from her left shoulder and cocked its head to one side, its tiny black eyes observing me.
"Don't be rude, Shine," she chided to it.
It hopped closer to her neck and nuzzled against her loose strands of blue hair, chirping softly, as if apologising. I smiled.
Even though Shine inspecting me was a little rude, I didn't seem to realise that me inspecting its owner in return wasn't very polite as well. Rina seemed to have popped up from nowhere. Or had I overlooked her before? I racked my brain, flipping the pages of my memory, trying to find a face in the endless sea of people I had met before that matched hers. At last, it hit me.
I whirled around to face her. "It was you!" I exclaimed. "It was you all along!"
She blinked innocently at me without a word.
I pounded my fist into my palm. "I remember now! All through the school year I always felt that there's someone trailing me, always somewhere near me wherever I went! It was you! I caught sight of your face before once." I narrowed my eyes at Rina. "Why did you?"
She laughed, her voice light and tinkling like little silver bells, like the spinning spurs on her feet. "So you knew."
"Why did you?" I repeated. The curiosity was killing me. Never mind it killed the cat. That wasn't important.
She rolled her spurs up and down the slate, gripping the edge of the fountain with her fingers and tilting her head back towards the night sky. Shine hopped onto the carved pattern jutting out from the base of the marble sculpture in the middle of fountain, and lapped at the moat of water. The stars, like little candles from the heavens, peered down at us, and suddenly I felt invaded by their attention. It was as though there was nothing wrong hanging out, alone, with this strange girl in the middle of the night, and her hyperactive bluebird.
Now that's disturbing.
I shifted uneasily.
"Because, I'm your guardian angel," she said. She spoke in such a floaty manner that for a moment I was entranced, and believing every single word in her reply. But I recalled who I was just then, and the meaning of her words vanished.
"Ri-ight." Shine fluttered into the space between us, and I scooped it up, cupping it in my hands gingerly. "You can't even protect your pet from predators of the night, and now you want to protect me?" I mocked.
She laughed again, and the bluebird sang.
– – –
Rina seemed to know everything. Or rather, everything that ever happened to me. Even Shine would nod its tiny head enthusiastically as she listed out the many events — the time when I fell and fractured my foot during the cross-country meet; the time when I received an anonymous 'Congratulations!' card in the mailbox the day after I won a poster design contest; the time when I argued with my father and slammed the bedroom door so hard it fell off the hinges . . . It was endless. And it impressed me.
"Are you trying to invade my privacy or something?" I blurted.
"Of course not." She chuckled to herself. Her fingers ran down the flaps of her suede jacket, and tied the undone strings into a slipknot. "Care to tell me why the disputes?" she asked.
I kept quiet.
"Come on, Jun." She smiled at me, and held up her little finger. "No secrets. We're friends, aren't we?"
I stared at her. What a nerve. What an ego, for her to say that she was my friend when we had met less than an hour ago. No — she has no ego at all. She didn't even appear embarrassed. Or at the very least, shy. No, she was as confident as a public speaker, as confident as some braggart who scored all A's in the examinations.
But somehow, I hooked her finger all the same. We looped and hooked and twirled every possible combination of fingers, for she knew them all. And I was surprised she was all game for it. The whole process took us about two minutes.
"Right!" she cried happily, clapping her hands once. "No more secrets!" With a hop and a jangle of silver stars she was trespassing my territory again. She levelled her head to mine and smiled at me — an earnest smile, captured between her indigo hair that framed her naturally chiselled face. The tip of her shoe tapped gently against mine. "Now tell me."
"Tell you what?" I mumbled distractedly.
"Everything." She closed her eyes, and for the split second there I finally felt myself exhale.
"Remember," she continued, in a voice that was nearly a whisper, "I'm your guardian angel. I'm here for you."
Those last words touched my heart and sent me all the way up to cloud nine — but a little devil on my left shoulder clicked his tongue and shoved his trident into the side of my face, and I was sent crashing back to earth. I blinked at her, and suddenly she was just a stranger in my personal space.
"No deal," I said to her, coldly. She blinked at me in genuine surprise.
I turned my head away from her face and stood up, aiming my tirade towards the empty street instead of her. "First, I have absolutely no idea — and I mean no idea — who or what you really are.
"Secondly, I know you have a motive for doing this." I scanned the surroundings just then, paranoid. My eyes finally landed back on Rina — this time on her forehead, for fear of falling headlong into those eyes of hers again. "Are you some investigator sent by my parents? Or some maniac planted into this town by the school to interact with problematic people like me?"
She did not say anything.
So I went on. "Whatever it is, I know your motive. If you think you can succeed on your task — if you think you can blind me with your childish 'guardian angel' trick —" I pointed an accusing finger at her. "— then forget it."
She stroked Shine's back, and fixed her blue eyes upon mine, unfazed. "So you're not telling?" she asked.
For a small moment I regretted what I had said to her earlier. In my mind I pictured her suddenly breaking down, and Shine flapping its wings into my face angrily while I tried to swat it away in vain.
But she didn't. She merely burst into a huge smile, and tweaked my nose again. "Then I'll do the telling," she declared.
All my denial of her reality ended with that single touch of her fingers on my nose — and I finally believed her, however grudgingly. Shine sat on my left shoulder and drove away the devil sitting there, trident and all.
– – –
"There!" She pointed.
"There. Can't you see it?"
She danced over to the base of the streetlight and picked up something from the ground. With another carefree smile she held out her arm towards me. The dim yellowing light from the lantern above her drew hazy patterns on her dark blue hair, and I thought she looked insanely unreal.
"What's that?" I asked.
She sliced the air in front of me with the metal bottle cap as though it were a knife, and burst out laughing. Shine twittered along with her.
"Careful!" I warned. "The edges are . . . sharp," I added lamely.
Mutely, I watched as she turned the cap over and over again with her fingers, inspecting it from every angle possible — up close, far out, against the moon, into the streetlight, and even positioning it against my shirt as if it were a brooch.
"What's so interesting about this trash?" I find myself muttering.
Rina widened her eyes at me. "Trash?" she breathed, as if it were a crude word. "How can you say this is trash?"
"Of course it is," I argued. "It's nothing. Less than nothing, even."
"Less than nothing?" I was glad she wasn't screeching by then. "How can you say this is less than nothing? How can you say anything is less than nothing? Nothing is the lowest, the least you can go. Nothing's the limit. Nothing's the extreme. You can't go further than that. If anything is less than nothing, then nothing will be something, even if it's a very, very little bit! How can something be nothing and still be something at the same time? If that's the case then less than nothing should be called nothing and nothing should be called something!"
I swore to myself that I would never hear the words 'nothing' and 'something' again without screaming and going mad. "For goodness sake, Rina," I exclaim to her, somewhat shakily. "Just . . . just calm down . . ."
She blinked at me. Then she leaned against the lamppost, and her shiny ponytail and satin ribbon pressed against the metal. I had the impulse to reach out and touch her hair, but my hand suddenly found its way deep into my pocket, and I only stood beside her warily.
"This —" she held up the bottle cap — "is not trash. You may see it that way." She eyed at me. "But it isn't supposed to be. It isn't supposed to be here. And in fact, it has a history."
It intrigued me how she could say anything with that floaty tone of hers. It captivated me. It fascinated me. It even frightened me. But it drew me closer. It hypnotised me. It made me want to know more. It made me want to hear more. I did not know why.
She seemed aware of what I was thinking, as she tilted her face towards mine. I could feel the soft fluffs of warm air from her breath, like feathers skimming on my skin. It shook me up real bad, and I couldn't concentrate on her words.
"It has its story," she said, her voice reduced to a haunting whisper. "Everything has its story. It can't be lying here for nothing. Something must have happened to it. Someone must have brought it here for me to find. And now I tell you its story.
"It's a cap from a bottle of vodka. Eight percent alcohol." I noticed that the top of the cap was clean as a whistle, wordless. "From the supermarket. A man called Sean bought it. He's thirty-two, and single. He works as a clerk in a small company and lives in a rented apartment down the road. He bought it after he was given a promotion and a salary raise. He gave himself a celebration by buying the vodka, something he treated as a luxury. He opened it here. And he drank it here. And he sang. The bottle ended up on his bedroom shelf, but the cap was left here. And that's my story."
"How can you be so sure?" I was incredulous at the confidence with which she related that tale.
She smiled slyly at me. "That's my story," she repeated.
"You can't be so positive over things like that." I racked my brains for a good plot. "I tell you my story. This cap's from a beer bottle. Let's say — I don't know, some strong stout. A drunkard bought it — no wait, he stole it. Yes, from that Seven-Eleven over there. And what a pro he's at shoplifting. So his name . . . his name is Bertrand L. Saharan, he's fifty-two and he's got a wife and six kids. His wife screams at him every night for drinking and shoplifting and she wants a divorce. They got into a big fight once and he stole that bottle in a fit and . . . yes, he drank it here and he retched and he finally staggered away and right into the fountain where he drowned."
"Drowned?" She widened her eyes at me.
"Don't ask me how." I was practically beaming with pride after my speech, like I had scored 90 in my English paper. "It's my story."
She laughed again, her spurs clinking, her shoes tapping, and her hair flowing in the wind that whispered through it. I was just about to take my hand out of my pocket when she nudged my arm with her elbow. "You're learning fast," she tells me, pleased. "And you're cute. I'm glad I'm your guardian angel."
I blushed at her words. I couldn't even bear to look at her now. My eyes would betray my thoughts, I was sure.
Shine hopped back to her shoulders and teased me with a crisp chirp.
"So you see," Rina continued. "Everything has its own story. Just like this cap." She shifted over to me such that both her hands were placed on the metal post, and I was trapped between her arms. Her proximity was taking the life out of me. "And I'm sure your mother has her reasons for shouting at you," she added, softly.
I stared at her.
"Look at it from different angles, like how you can at the bottle cap. Think of the reasons your mother might have, like the different stories that we came up with, just from this bottle cap. Or rather, from this trash." At the last word she tilted back slightly, her smile growing wider. The loose strings on her leather vest swung back and forth between us.
It was so strangely hard to speak properly when your mind was so jumbled up. "You . . ." I ended up mumbling. "You're really deep. Really profound." I tried to raise my eyes, and forced a weak smile. "And you're real."
She finally pulled away and skipped to the next lamppost, swinging around it with one arm and flinging out the other, as if dancing around some sacred totem pole. Her long skirt flowed around her in the night wind, and the spurs at her feet whirred and glinted. Shine flew to the top of the lantern and flapped its wings, its pearly black eyes gleaming orange in the light.
"I may be real. Or maybe I'm not." Her voice was almost lost in the music that her shoes made against the ground. "It's up to you to decide. Leave the problems for later."
She strode towards me, and smiled at me for the umpteenth time. "Now . . . we dance."
It was with both bafflement and surprise that I looked at her. "D . . . dance?" I stammered.
She yanked me by the hand and pulled me back towards the fountain. "Tap dance. We'll do it step by step. It's easy."
And slowly, she guided me through the basic movements of tap dancing. As she held my hands in hers I felt this gentle flow of her warmth — this strange, gentle feeling that seemed to have come from the bottom of her heart — and gradually I learned.
With a sudden snap of her fingers she changed her tempo, tapping her feet vigorously and dancing to an inaudible rhythm. A melody sang inside my head, and I danced along with her. The sight of her pleasantly smiling face glowing in the moonlight made me stumble in my steps, and she laughed.
Somehow that brought the song to an abrupt stop, and I realised I couldn't take my eyes off her face.
"Are you real?" I asked her for the second time, in between breaths.
She never heard my question. From the inside of her leather jacket she fished out something and held it up to my face. It was a rawhide necklace, with three pendants of what seemed to be a creature's teeth or claws of sorts.
She did not explain what it was — or what it was for — but merely pulled up something that dangled from her own neck, and showed it to me. It was the same necklace, only that hers only had one pendant. She pressed a finger to my lips and continued, "Don't ask. I'm your guardian angel, remember. And I'm giving this to you."
I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. It was as if she forced this whole ball of cotton string down my throat. And I could only watch as she put the rawhide necklace around my neck, and tied it properly in a double knot. I watched the three pendants glow against my chest in the moonlight.
But she stopped there. Her arms were still on my shoulders, and it surprised me that there was a weight on my body. Her delicate white breaths tingled the sides of my neck. She searched for my eyes, and frantically I avoided them. But it was too late. I fell into the bottomless blue pit of her gaze.
And I gave in.
With an illusive smile she leaned closer, and I squeezed my eyes shut. Something touched me on my cheek, along with the faint, faint scent of spring. The feeling didn't last long, though. It lingered for two seconds, then dissolved into thin air.
I couldn't look. I wouldn't look. I didn't want to look.
Her floating whisper reached my ear again. "Now you know whether I am real."
I thought I died right there.
– – –
By the time I opened my eyes, she was already gone. So was Shine. But the rawhide necklace still rested around my neck. And there was a tiny blue feather on the ground.
– – –
The kitchen lights were still on. When I opened the front door I saw a familiar, haggard figure at the kitchen table, with her head bowed and resting on her folded arms on the surface. Her mug was beside her, and it was half-filled with cold coffee.
Quietly, I took the worn maroon coat from the couch and draped it over her shoulders. She didn't stir. I guessed she was too tired waiting up for me.
– – –
The wall clock read half past one. I slipped into bed and stared at the moon beyond the window, as its dim light streamed in and spilled onto the covers, painting the bedposts silver, and touching my arms with a hint of lilac. It reminded me of the scent of flowers I had detected, just minutes ago, and I couldn't help but wonder.
Was she real?
Normally I couldn't sleep with any lights on, be they the bedside lamp or the rectangular halo of light from outside the door. I had to be in complete darkness.
But not tonight.
Somehow, I acquired the sense of the otherness of things. Somehow, what the moon gave me was not irritating light, but a kind of blessing from the heavens, watching over me, and guarding me. Somehow, I felt that there was hope for me, for all my wishes, for all in the future that was to come. Somehow, I noticed the unlit side of the moon — a side that is never revealed in the darkness of the surroundings, of things that have been thought to be non-existent, of things we take for granted, of things that are there but just never realised.
Somehow, she has reached out of her unmarked boundary, and crossed over into my world, my life, my heart. She drifted in under a starlit sky. She left me dazed. She made me obsessed. She let me understand. And then she was gone.
Maybe I had imagined her. Maybe she really was there. Maybe she was just a wonderful, hazy blend of colours, of fact and fiction. Maybe the rawhide necklace and the blue feather would fade away into the night. Maybe it was all a dream.
But I knew I wouldn't forget her. She would settle quietly at the back of my head, always with me — like bendable moonlight, shining around every corner of my day.
I'm here for you.