Condemnation

There'll be times When my crimes
Will seem almost unforgivable
I give in to sin
Because you have to make this life liveable

---Depeche Mode Strange Love

If ever, during the course of a lifetime, a man can break away from the routine that comes with being involved in oneself, then he would notice that at daybreak the clouds are lined with blood. If he would again find time to simply stare up at the sky for the few hours in which the sun rises over the horizon, then he would notice that new clouds come in and sponge off the crimson substance, dispersing it into the vast blueness of the sky. If so, he would naturally wonder why it does not rain blood every time the storm clouds gather over the city. After all, the sky is saturated with blood from so many sunrises, isn't it so?

Of course, such thoughts come only to those who have either too much time on their hands, or who have imbibed heavily in illegal substances. I mean, what normal person would get up at the break of dawn only to watch how the clouds swiftly clear the blood off the sky? We've got enough blood drying on the dirty city streets as it is. It is much safer to sleep in your bed, wrapped in the warmth of the duvet, and to dream about that kidney-shaped swimming pool you'll own along with your dream mansion.

Which is what I should be doing, except that I'm out here, at five-thirty in the morning, watching how the sun rises out of the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean. The salty breeze whips past my face, and along with it my shoulder-length raven hair goes cackling in the silence. Over to my right, I can see a lonely seagull flying disappointedly into the harbour. His long wings beat slow, steady beats, as if accentuating the overall extenuation of the bird. It is still too early, I think in mock amusement, the fish haven't risen yet.

"Sorry buddy, it's not time to eat yet," I murmur, fully aware that the bakery on the corner of the street will be open in half an hour.

Every day I see the plump woman in her mid-forties arrive noisily in her truck, park it illegally across three parking spaces, wait precisely three seconds, get down from her truck, slam the door and trek heavily up the wooden steps leading into the darkened bakery. One by one, as if co-ordinated by an outside force, the lights begin to turn on, and the blinds rise with metallic clanking to let in the natural light of the sun. I know that at precisely six thirty she will open her sales window, and the smell of the first batch of fresh pastries will begin to infuse the neighbourhood. Around this same time, her husband will arrive, calmly enter the bakery, then come back out and get in the truck to park it properly in the farthest space of the small parking lot. Then he too will disappear inside the small white wooden house, with the red flashing sign saying "Gill's Bakery".

Today, however, I do not feel like having Gill's steaming, juicy, meat-filled pastries, a custom I have established since moving to this place. I look up at the swirls of blue which are rapidly being swollen by the red, and suddenly my rancid sentiments mundane thoughts seem vulgar in comparison to my surroundings. I do not feel calm enough to stay and contemplate the rest of the sunrise, and I therefore do not find it just to sully this majestic display of nature with my scattered pagan thoughts. My stomach lurches in a pretended agreement, but I know that it is in fact trying to remind me it hasn't been filled in over forty-eight hours.

"Well, you weren't hungry. And if you weren't hungry then, you can certainly wait a few more hours," I shoot back in annoyance.

I don't make it a custom to talk to my stomach, or pay attention to it when it's grumbling. Except that now it's being incessantly annoying, and I have better things to worry about. So, in a futile attempt to get my mind away from Gill's pastries, I shove my headphones forcefully on my ears and hit 'play' on my CD player. Depeche Mode begins to blast loudly through them, dispersing any coherent thought in my head, along with all conceptions of food.

"You had something to hide, Should have hidden it, shouldn't you,"

The lyrics echo in my head, and my heart thumps harder as memories flash before my eyes. I feel the crumpled edges of the paper cut into my skin, and I feel my resentment bubble to the surface again. So much for trying to achieve peace… One simple letter, offering so many possibilities, and a single chance to go back, to have it all, again.

"It's just time to pay the price, For not listening to advice"

Should I have lied? A much wiser me says that I should have, that we could have waited for a better chance to leave, when we wouldn't have been so pressed for money, when we wouldn't have been forced to take up the first job that I could. Then perhaps, I wouldn't be here, every morning, watching how the blood on the sky is wiped away by the clouds, and wishing they could do the same for me.

"It's too late to change events, It's time to face the consequence"

Suddenly, Depeche Mode seems vulgar and childish in comparison to the emotions heaving in my chest. Perhaps the song is hitting too close to home for my personal comfort, because I hit 'stop' and I rip the headphones from my ears. Words, the whole world is filled with words that mean nothing in the long run. Well, living on words is not enough any more. I'm finally wise enough to realise that. And I don't need this letter, offering me a chance to have it all back. Because I don't want it all back. I just want her!

Since I don't like to litter, I throw the crumpled paper ball in the nearest trashcan, already full to bursting with the trash of the people who frequent the street. Well, it's the trash of those people who care enough about our planet not to throw their waste in the grass, in the water, or simply leave it wherever they have no use of it. These are the people that care whether or not their garbage is recycled and put to good use, so that the resources of Mother Earth are not exploited needlessly. I mentally make a note to buy a recycling bin for home, but the thought is quickly pushed into the back of my mind as the corner supermarket springs into view, and my stomach again alerts me that it is about to send the hydrochloric acid soldiers chewing through my stomach wall if I do not feed it. "I shall eat, no matter what, even if it's you," it warns me menacingly, and this time I know to listen.

Considering the grand three times that I have been to the hospital – the first being when I was unfortunately born and two other times while waiting on various acquaintances that required my presence – I did not wish to revisit that white-clad institution on the basis of a stomach ulcer. Knowing that paranoid aliens dressed in white, with sadistic desires to pump you full of meds and stick needles into your veins inhabit those areas is more than enough knowledge for me. So, obediently – a man is always governed by his stomach – I walk into the supermarket to purchase food, with a grand total of eight dollars and thirty three cents – which is, by the way, all the money I have until my next paycheque scheduled to come in a week.

A wiser person than I would have headed right for the vegetable rack, and considering it is summer, would have stocked up on veggies to last him a week. I, however, am a meat eater. Vegetables are just those things on the side that you use as an excuse to not be called a carnivore. So, passing right by the vegetable isle, I glance longingly at the TV dinner isle, but deciding a frozen dinner is too expensive for my eight dollars and thirty-three cents, I pass it reluctantly in favour of a bag of frozen French fries. Make those two bags of frozen French fries.

Then, in the spur of the moment – and not having enough money to buy meat – I decide to peruse the vegetable rack. Zucchini sounds like a good type of vegetable right? Unlike celery, it is not toxic, and the sound of the word 'zucchini' rolling off your tongue makes it sound slightly magical. Who knows, if I eat it at night, maybe in the morning I'll wake up and I'd have won the lottery and all my monetary troubles would be over. The fleeting thought that those monetary troubles are just a façade for all the things wrong deep inside myself hits me, yet I push it away firmly. It's always easier to concentrate on the material parts of life and leave the spiritual shards buried underneath. Is it any wonder that old wounds bleed even after the soothing passage of long years?

~~~~

Later, as me and my five Zucchinis are about to leave the supermarket, me being overly ecstatic about my grand chance to win the lottery, someone clears their throat rather loudly. Now, I am just a poor excuse for a man believing he's a painter, but I do believe I know when someone is trying to get my attention. So I turn around, making no attempt to look friendly or annoyed at the interruption. Interaction with people – no matter how tiresome – is a part of the daily routine I must follow so that at the end of the day I can sink into my pillow and feel like I'm worthy to be alive.

"You forgot this," the stranger mumbles, and holds up my bag of McCain's frozen French fries. Not that I was too happy at having purchased them over the TV dinner, but judging by the size of the bags I can live on them for a week or so. I do not answer for an instant, and the stranger continues to emotionlessly hold my only means of survival.

"T-thank you," I mumble half-heartedly when I can see he that he has no intention of handing back my food. Does my voice really sound that raspy? It really shouldn't be any wonder – although it is – since I can barely remember the last time I ate, needless to say the last time I talked.

I move to take the bag from his hand, starring stubbornly at the floor, like a child caught scavenging in the cookie jar right before dinnertime. But I cannot help notice the long slender fingers, and the perfectly cut nails, as well as his flawless skin. See, someone whose example you should follow. You'll never have nice nails if you keep biting them like you do now, my mother voice comes into my head, but I shoo her away because I do not like to think about my mother.

She is a part of a past that I have willingly buried away the night when I stepped on that train. As much as I love her, I cannot regard her as anything more than a mere attachment to my father, an extension of his being, who, while in his presence, never orbits out of his sphere of influence. You see, I have long since come to regard the masculine influence in my home life as something resembling a great plagued planet with a gravitational force capable of crushing every free will within its range of operation. It really isn't any wonder I've come out nutty considering I have been a part of that family for nearly twenty-one years. How I even conceived the idea of getting on that train and high-tailing it out of town is still something that I marvel at in the long hours between sunset and sunrise. But the stranger is waiting in front of me, still holding my frozen fries, and I feel even more embarrassed by the large gap of time between my reaching for and my taking the French fries.

So, I naturally resolve to do what I've always done when I did not want to face a person. I keep starring into the ground, as our hands brush lightly in the process of retrieving my future food. There is no point in remembering another face that I'll never see again right?

"So, dreamer-boy," he continues on a light tone, "what's your name?"

His voice is deep and soft, almost baiting me into looking into his eyes. I should have mentioned, however, that I have perfected the art of avoiding, down to its finer details. After all, years and years of living with a despot teach a person how to make himself small enough to fit in a matchbox if he so wishes. Currently, I am wishing that some great tornado could whisk me away to the safety of my apartment, where I could be alone with the memories scratched deeply into the blank walls. So, naturally, I do the thing I was not willing to do five years ago. I lie.

"Robin," I reply quickly. This time I manage to make a complete turn around before the stranger speaks again.

"Liar," he mutters, passing nonchalantly by me, our shoulders brushing in the process.

A cold shiver passes through me, and I finally raise my head to look after the strange saviour of my forgotten French fries. All I see is his broad back encased in an expensive black suit, and the elegant cut of his oaken hair. Actually, his hair could not be defined as oaken, and as an artist I should be able to name that colour, but in my current state of hunger, my mind is fairly blank. All I can tell you is that his hair is darker than honey, but not quite as dark as oak, with certain blond highlights as the sunlight beats on it from different angles. Well, that description might sound slightly complicated, but it makes perfect sense to me, and if you'd ask me to draw it now, I could sketch in a heartbeat. Of course, I have no desire in sketching random males I meet at the supermarket, but every now and then you meet one of those people who inspire a great face in a painting.

So, with my artistic sense tingling, I run to catch the peculiar man as he turns the corner to go down the street. After all, what man in a suit would be walking out of a small forgotten supermarket near the dirty San Francisco harbour at six forty five a.m. on a Tuesday morning of July nineteen ninety-five?

"Hey!" I call out, and my five zucchini's rustle loudly in their plastic bag. "You're right, I lied, my name is not Robin, it's Batman," I shout, and then break a smile at my clever joke.

Actually, it's a lame joke, but it's the first joke I've cracked in over six months. So give me a break, I'm rusty, okay? I may have forgotten the last time I ate or talked, but I certainly did not forget the last time I smiled. After all, how could I bring myself to forget….

The man turns around, and I catch a glimpse of his freshly shaven face. It is an artist's dream of symmetry come true. High, elevated cheekbones, evenly positioned eyes, perfectly arched eyebrows, a wide prominent forehead balanced by a none-too-pointy chin and a straight nose, complete with full, expressive lips. I stare for a moment, absorbing all details about his appearance that denote so much about his personality.

He is the picture-perfect intellectual, born and bred in an ideal home where Christmas always comes with a tree and lots of presents. I could bet twenty dollars I do not have that he holds some sort of job of power and prestige. Why he is out here at this hour I cannot explain, but I guess life has to have its little mysteries to stay interesting, right?

I can see he is waiting, because his forest-green eyes are clouded with the expectancy and impatience that always surround a man with too much knowledge in his head. And I love nothing more than wasting an intellectual's time, only because it brings them down a notch or two from their place high up in the clouds of scholarly pursuits.

"So what's yours?" I ask, being deliberately vague.

I can find no logical explanation for my actions, other than that it was a plot orchestrated by my stomach, so I could get arrested for harassment and sent to jail, where I would receive three regular meals a day, no matter how stale. Why I – who have always struggled for invisibility – should initiate a conversation with a strange man at the break of dawn, is beyond my power of understanding. Perhaps it all goes along with the fact that I did not have the patience to connect with the emotions of the sunrise today, that I could not stand to remember her face a moment longer.

"What's mine what?" the stranger asks obtusely.

"Your name," I answer simply, feeling embarrassed in the silence that came along with that answer.

My father always told me that one rotten apple could spoil the whole bunch, and strangers were always rotten apples to my father. He hated them with a passion I never understood until my teenage years. When I finally worked it out that he hated strangers because they threatened to overthrow the power he held over his family, by introducing foreign ideas that brought awareness of the world and of his own despotism, I nearly shouted with glee. It was like picking up a stone and realising it was the proverbial philosopher's stone. Except that this stone was the key to my own freedom. What I had failed to consider, being young as I was, was the old man's stubbornness in wiping out those ideas. Even though he is hundreds of miles away, the fact that I am talking to a stranger, of my own free accord, feels like my father's shadow is about to jump out and grab me to put an end to my measly existence.

"Well, Batman," he replies after starring at me incredulously for a while, "I guess you could call me Joker."

So I'm not the only one that used to watch Batman when he was a kid. I guess that shouldn't be a surprise since the television set has been a long-time friend of the modern American parent. It is surprising that I have managed to fish myself an intellectual with a sense of humour, though. These rare oddities of the ocean are much too busy with themselves to find the time to laugh, so this one standing in front of me is a real gem. I briefly wonder if I could be awarded some sort of prize for finding the intellectual who can crack a joke.

"Well, you're the first of your kind that I've met that has a sense of humour," I spurt out mindlessly.

I should have mentioned that when I am excessively hungry I become slightly liberal with my mouth and attain the "foot-in-mouth" syndrome. As I have dually demonstrated, it takes a man two seconds to make an ass of himself, but it probably takes him a life time to crawl up the ladder of social acceptance.

I was never much of a social person so it really makes no difference to me if I insult a homeless bum or an intellectual. Perhaps it should, because unlike the intellectual, the bum will try to retaliate by means of his fists. It's amazing the kind of matinee discoveries one makes, isn't it?

"And you're the first of your kind that I've met who doesn't carry his cardboard box around," the stranger replies caustically.

I feel the heat creep up in my cheeks, and I struggle to fight it down, but I cannot help myself. In comparison to him, I truly do look like a homeless low-life. My clothes and hair are clean, but my jeans have turned grey from too much washing, and my shirt is now a tired baby blue colour instead of a vibrant navy blue. My chemise has had a horrible bleach accident and half of the blue squares on it have disappeared under random-sized splotches of white. My hair just hangs like a mop, down to my shoulders, not really having any form but still managing to stick in every direction possible. I haven't shaved for the day, so short bristles of my beard pepper my chin. In short, I look slightly better than road-kill.

"Yeah, well… well…." I stammer, not being able to think of anything really clever to say. At the moment I am wishing all the more that I could be back home, standing in front of a blank canvass pouring out my tangled emotions.

"You know, you're just exactly like Paul said you'd be," the man remarks nonchalantly, creating a juxtaposition of ideas that loses me for an instant.

"Paul?" I ask, drawing up a blank on the name.

The only Paul I am acquainted with is one Paul Frost, an art agent who offered to buy one of my earlier paintings. We formed a brief friendship, during which he helped me enter another artwork in an amateur art contest hosted by the local museum. Since I did not have enough funds to apply to an art school, winning that contest had no impact on my life, other than having what to put on the art school application at a time when it would not matter. Soon after that, I got a job as an assistant artist. I worked for a company that designed and created book covers. The pay wasn't much, but it was enough to support the rent for the apartment as well as some other additional fees. Her salary, coupled with mine gave us enough to live on from paycheque to paycheque; it was a happy life, and I do not have any regrets.

"Paul Frost, the art agent, or have you forgotten him along with the rest of the world?"

I ignore the obvious jab to my occupation of the past couple of months, piqued by this stranger and his connection to Paul Frost. "What's it to you Joker, how I live my life?"

"Well, actually, I don't care whether you live or die, and if you ask me, you're better off dead. It's just that Paul is a friend, and he requested that I try to get in touch with you, and deliver a message," the stranger explained in his soft, calm voice.

I must have had a very strange perplexing look on my face, because he did not wait for me to continue and went right on to perform his said job.

"He says that you should get off your lazy ass and stop crying for the dead, because you've got an opportunity to impress some big people and snag yourself a ticket to that art school you've been lusting after for so long."

With that, the stranger turned around and began walking down the street, away from the empty corner.

"Wait!" I call out after him. "Who should I tell him told me this?"

"Sebastian," the man replies automatically, not bothering to look over his shoulder. Seconds later he realises that he has revealed his name to me, and has therefore forfeited the position of power in our little game. He stops in his tracks for a while, but then, after the initial second of shock, resumes his course with a simple shrug.

Well, Sebastian, I think with satisfaction, see who's smarter now? It takes me a few seconds to process the name I have been given, and then with great surprise I realise that it is the same as my own. "Well, I'll be damned…" I think, and suddenly realise that I hadn't tricked the intellectual, but I had actually been tricked by him. Paul would have undoubtedly told him my name when he had sent him to look for me.

I take another look at the man slowly walking further down the street, before crossing on the other side of the intersection and following a complicated network of small roads to get to the warehouse hall I have come to name my "apartment".

~~~~

The garage door screeches painfully as I manually lift it just enough so that I could crouch under it and enter my personal lair. From outside, you would not give two cents on the giant warehouse with the peeling walls and worn-down look, but once you step inside it is like you're in another world. Not necessarily a better one, but slightly different from what you would normally expect to find in a place like this.

While it is true that the building used to be home to a warehouse in its younger days, it has long since been transformed into a fifth rate living arrangement. Each of the three different sections of the building have been split off in half, leaving a room twice as wide and twice as tall as any regular apartment. Then, the owner went ahead and built half a ceiling midway through the upper wall, and joined the original ceiling and the new ceiling with a vertical wall, creating a semi-open room on a top floor. Then he added a set of metallic stairs providing access between the two floors, and voila, there was a pretty shabby, spacious living arrangement. The top floor also has a small balcony from where the occupant can occasionally get a breath of polluted air. Not that I've ever used the balcony for anything since I've moved here.

I kick off my worn-down sneakers and walk in my socked feet across the concrete floor. Normally I wouldn't perform such an action, but I have been walking for over an hour and my feet feel like they were boiling in the shoes. The owner stopped the renovations right after building the second extra room, and punching a few square holes he called windows in the bottom exterior wall, so there is no linoleum or carpet to cover the bare concrete underneath my feet. We never bothered to cover it up with anything because there was always something else of more priority waiting to be bought at the store, and after the accident, I didn't want to change anything of what she had left behind.

My bags of groceries rustle, and the sound echoes loudly in the large room. The zucchinis are really not getting along with the French fries, but that's okay because they're going in the vegetable box and the fries are going all the way to the freezer. With that in mind, I go over to the small kitchen and open the fridge. A foul odour hits me as the door opens with a tiny creak, and my stomach lurches loudly in upheaval. Thankfully I have not eaten today, so there is nothing else but stomach acid to throw up. I immediately spot the instigator of the smell, in the form of a blue carton of expired milk.

"Away, away, you foul scum!" I exclaim as I precariously pick it up, with two fingers, and put it by the sink to empty it of content sometime in the near future – preferably before the odour kills me.

Aside from the carton of milk, my fridge contains two eggs – which I wouldn't eat if you paid me - a can of vanilla coke – I so hate vanilla coke – bread – don't ask why I keep the bread in the fridge – and something that looks like fish, although with all the fungus on top of it you would not know it is fish. Calmly, I take the bag of zucchinis and put it on the bottom, fungus free rack of the fridge and close the door. After housing the French fries comfortably in the freezer, there is nothing left to do except get rid of the rotten milk. Since I don't feel like doing housework, and my eyelids are drooping with sleep I pass by the expired carton on my way up the stairs to the bedroom.

It's been so many weeks since I've been up there. Six months ago I moved to live on the futon, not wanting to disturb her last resting place. Nowadays, I rarely go up the stairs to the haven that used to be ours. In a way, this decision shows the separation between us. While she inhabits the vast heavens, I am forced to live down on the cramped earth where the days pass in different shades of grey. From time to time, when the nightmares plague me for endless hours, I climb slowly up the stairs to our old bed, where I always collapse on my side and my side only. I'm always too afraid to disturb hers, childishly believing that if I do not imbibe it with the smell of my own body, then hers will remain imprinted in the pillow and the sheets forever. In fact, her smell has been long gone, but I just like to pretend its still there. Sometimes forming taboos helps encase the pain of loss.

In my feverish, sleep-deprived imagination, the sheets still smell faintly of violets. It was this divine smell that had drawn me to her in the first place, and I remember faintly doodling a violet on a crumpled piece of paper, and sending it her way along with a very amateurish love poem. I still remember the way she had smiled at me from across the classroom, because the rays of sun had protruded through the thick grey clouds, and they were outlining her reddish locks in traces of gold.

It had been love at first sight, and for a while I had been in denial, knowing that I was not the kind of person prone to such a miracle. And indeed, I was not, because my love was taken away from me in the same sudden manner that she appeared inside my life. I can still feel my hands soaked in her blood. God knows that I tried for weeks to get the stains off and I could still see the outlines even then.

By the time I finally reach the bed and my head hits the feathery pillow, I already see her smiling face behind my eyelids. Every night, it's the same dream that ends in the same disastrous fashion.

We start out walking on the street, whispering sweet nothings in each other's ears, playing a bitter-sweet game of cat and mouse. We are so caught up by each other that we are oblivious of everything around us. However, there is always a point in the dream where I become acutely aware of my surroundings. The street suddenly seems deformed in the foggy night, and the buildings seem to be bulging out of the background, their distorted faces and faintly glowing eyes howling in a silent plea for caution. Her pearls of laughter and soft caresses, however, put my fears in a dulcet sleep of one too deep in love. Strangely enough, the thought that we went too deep too fast always enters my mind, but I push it away telling myself that what we have discovered will last forever.

"Come with me…" she whispers, and heads deeper into the darkened street, as I trail cautiously behind. It always feels like we're both puppets bound by chords, and my puppeteer has tangled mine. I must stay back and wait for him to give me length to join her once again, while she soars freely up ahead. My heart throbs with pain inflicted by the distance that is separating us.

"No! Wait! Don't go quite so far, it's…" I try to warn her, but she pays me no heed, seeming to half-float, half-dance into the pitch-black street.

I can see the yellow lights flicker from around the corner, and I can feel the rumbling of the earth as the truck approaches. I try to scream, to warn her, but no sound comes out of my mouth. So I begin to run, but she seems miles away. All I can see is the white sparkle of her dress as the headlights settle upon her. I can hear the beating of my heart loudly in my ears, as the moment stretches for a painful infinity, letting my horror thoroughly infuse my being. Realisation makes my footsteps heavy and awkward, and just as I am getting closer, I trip and hit the ground in powerless exhaustion.

"NOOO!" I scream, and my shriek bounces off the walls deafening me, and blocking the shriek of the breaks against the humid asphalt. "Stop! No!" I cry, the horror still playing on my mind's secluded stage.

In the moments before the truck is about to hit her, I can see her turning around, and in every other dream before this one, she is still smiling joyously, motioning me to come to her. This time however, while I know that the being who is turning around is my beloved, it does not look like her. The magnificent red locks have transformed in short, darkened honey bristles and her violet eyes glow with the vibrancy of a forest green. Then, the loud honking of the truck and the blinding headlights erase her figure forever.

My helpless sobs and hiccups awaken me from my nightmare, and I find myself rolled onto her side of the bed, tears staining my cheeks. I quickly roll over to my side, and remind myself that it was just a dream. Dead people can't die twice. Exhaustion quickly sweeps me into a dreamless sleep, before I have the chance to wonder at the irregular occurrence in my nightmare.

~~~~

Falling asleep in pain translates into waking up in pain. Later in the day – how much later I cannot tell you, because the clock by her bed stand has long stopped at one minute to twelve –

my stomach cramps awaken me from my haunted sleep. I stumble down the stairs and stop right at the fridge.

With eyes still half-clouded with sleep, I take out one trembling zucchini and butcher it mercilessly into thick round pieces. Now what to do with it? I try to taste it raw, and it tastes fowl. My stomach vehemently threatens to give me an ulcer if I do not feed it anything comestible, so my good friend the brain concludes logically that if it tastes bad raw, then perhaps it is meant to be fried.

So, using the last of my sunflower oil, I begin to fry the remaining pieces of zucchini. The result, is an inedible failure. Fried zucchini tastes worse than raw zucchini, and while they take a trip to the garbage dump, I decide to try frying the French fries. That should not be a problem right? Wrong.

When I said that zucchini was not a toxic vegetable I was very much the uniformed consumer mislead by a name. In revenge for declaring them just as bad as celery, the zucchini left their poisoned residue in the sunflower oil and consequently my fries became a crossbreed between potato and zucchini. This said crossbreed tasted worse than anything I had eaten in a long time, and my stomach continued to revolt against its empty state.

Now, I was in a bit of a dilemma. There was no more sunflower oil in which to fry the fries, yet my stomach was mutinously demanding food. Thankfully, my keen sense of observation came into play and saved me from my stomach – my brain having obviously been a bad person to trust. While I did not have any more oil, I still possessed an oven so I could defrost the fries and cook them until they were edible.

Time passes by awfully slow when you're hungry and waiting for your food to cook, so in an attempt to distract myself, I left the kitchen and began pacing up and down my living room.

Disinterestedly, I noticed the phone that was collecting dust on my side table. I had unplugged that particular household item the day of the funeral, when I had decided to lose contact with everything and everyone that potentially reminded me of her and our life together. Now, however, the words of the stranger rang through my head.

"Perhaps it is time to venture into the civilised world once more…" I mutter, not fully convinced that it's the right choice to make.

I do stop to consider for a moment, the advantages of living life as I am now. Basically, I have fallen into a routine where I work, I come home and paint if I am able to, and if not I stay and stare at the ceiling until either I fall asleep or it is time to go to work again. Life came to a standstill the day I buried her under seven feet of earth, and I just stay here in my hideout, waiting for the day when it's my turn to die. Six months later, it does not seem that the awaited day will come soon.

Finally making my decision, I plug the phone back in its outlet, and pick up the receiver, hearing the familiar sound of the dial tone. Now, to call Paul. Perhaps this important meeting could offer a new direction and purpose to my bleak life.

Having thrown the letter from my mother asking me to return home away, it seems time to finally try and come out of the dark pit of sorrow I have dug for myself. Life just doesn't suddenly stop at twenty-tree because your girlfriend has died. I am aware that I will never stop loving her, and that I will probably continue to love her until the dusk of old age, but until we can be joined in death, I've still got to make my life on this earth a pleasant one.

Being the most important person that I have met since I moved to San Francisco, Paul's phone number is on speed dial one. It's ringing, and I suddenly feel very awkward about what I am going to say to him.

"Hello?" he answers, and immediately I recognise his deep, baritone voice.

"Paul?" I ask tentatively.

"Sebastian?" he asks a little unsure of himself. "How are you doing? Finally decided to come back to life?"

As much as I hate stupid questions such as "how are you doing" and "are you okay", I recognise their need as a bridge to seal the awkwardness between us. After all, what can you say to a guy who has lost the only woman he has ever loved? "Yeah, hey buddy, how're you doing? Yeah, did you see the game last night? Isn't it great that the New Jersey Devils won the Hockey Cup?" No, you can't talk to a disillusioned man about such minorities of life, because he has no interest in them, and he'll just go on ignoring you and think about his sorrows. So, the dreaded "how are you doing" comes in, and it's better than nothing, because at least you get a response, no matter how vague or short.

"Yeah," I answer weakly, not willing to get into the details of my decision. "Your lackey delivered your message this morning."

"Isn't he useful?" Paul asks with a tinge of amusement in his voice.

"I never got his name by the way,"

"Oh, his name's Sebastian as well. Odd, I would have thought he'd introduced himself by now."

So the stranger wasn't lying. It's creepy, meeting someone with the same name as myself, yet so radically different than anything I've ever been in my whole life. It's like meeting a forlorn version of me. It always gets me wondering if perhaps things in my life would have been different if would I have been he, and would he have been me?

I struggle to keep my mind from wandering to other places, so I open up the subject of my phone call. "So how can I get into the art school?"

"Well, well, Tiziano, it's great to see that you're taking an interest in your future again." Paul replies with warmth. "Here's the plan. A professor from the art school will evaluate the works of a few other candidates to the school. If he finds you gifted enough, then he will offer you a scholarship to attend the school."

"What do I have to do?" I hear myself asking, and for the first time in a long time the blood is racing in my veins at the prospect of finally achieving my innermost goal.

"You need to present yourself here in exactly a month from today, with a portfolio of thirteen of your best paintings, no matter how big or small. You also need to submit an essay discussing and critiquing the technique of a painter of your choice. The essay needs to be submitted at the school in two weeks. Then, if you make it to second round, the professor will come and assess your paintings."

"So it's some sort of contest?" I ask, not particularly pleased with that concept.

"You got it ace. Some rich art collector just tanked a week ago, and his will dictates this rigorous contest, offering one outstanding artist in the city the chance to attend the school on his money," Paul stated gleefully.

I pause for a second, considering my choices. An opportunity such as this, is one of those once-in-a-lifetime things that you hear about on soap operas. People usually pass those up in favour or something better that never comes. I, however, am determined not to make the same stupid mistake.

"Okay, if I do this, and I win, what's in it for you?"

Although Paul is my friend, he is also a businessman, and a businessman never does anything without his own secret agenda. It doesn't seem that Paul's wishes would particularly affect my goals, but nevertheless I'm still curious about what he's receiving in return for his magnanimity.

"Oh, just the prestige of finding the hidden genius painter, and the satisfaction of knowing you haven't slit your wrists from depression," he answered truthfully.

"Well, okay. I'll do it. Except that I…" I pause in slight embarrassment. "I have no clue on how to analyse a painter's technique and critique and such. I mean, I've got no clue how to do it formally…." I stop, annoyed at my own stuttering.

I can hear Paul laughing at the other end of the line, and I feel myself blushing yet again both from anger and embarrassment. I mean, it is pretty funny that a man who envisions himself a painter has absolutely no clue of artistic techniques and knows very little of the history of art. However, this fact ceases to be a wonder if I take into consideration my upbringing.

My father always discouraged any kind of artistic pursuit in his son, while he heavily encouraged it in his daughter. The result, however, was opposite to what he had expected, and my sister grew up to adore science while I grew up to adore art. However, while living under his roof, any trespassing upon foreign territory was heavily interdicted, and punished accordingly. So, all my knowledge of art came from scavenged bits and pieces in the late hours of the morning.

"Don't worry about the essay. I've got someone who's going to help you with it," Paul told me once his laughter had calmed down.

"Really? Who?" I ask, eagerness echoing in my voice.

"The man you met today is a famous art and book critic. He has agreed to help you with your essay."

"Why?"

"Because I asked him to, and he owes me a favour."

"Well, give him my address, and have him come by tomorrow after five. I get off work then."

"I already have. Make sure you treat him well. He's one of those irascible types."

"Yeah, yeah. Bye now," I tell Paul as the smell of my baked fries reaches my nostrils and my stomach tugs at me to get off the phone and feed it. I feel as if I'm going to collapse on my feet from hunger.

"Bye." The conversation ends with a click on the other line and the sudden return of the dial tone, and I hurry to eat, because this time there is nothing to stop me from having a decent meal.

~~~~

The water running off my hands is black from toner and ink. I scrub thoroughly with soap and a brush knowing that if I don't get the stains off now, it'll be weeks before my hands will look clean again – even though I know that they could never be clean. Today was obviously not a good day at work, as my frowning face greets me from the mirror. The evil printer got a paper jam right when the bookbinding machine decided that it didn't like the new taste of the glue we bought. While my boss was yelling at me to fix the printer, his boss began yelling that the bookbinder broke and that it needs to be fixed right away. Guess who is also emergency technician and had to swim through a sea of goo before getting to the blessed power button? Then, it was go back to try to fix the printer, only that a dozen other people had tried to fix it before me, which caused it to become only more irreparable. Nevertheless, it was my duty to try to fix it before declaring that it is unfixable, so I ended up ruining my favourite shirt along with my only pair of sneakers.

Suddenly, the apartment is filled by a foreign noise that at first induces me to believe that my crazy neighbour has set the building on fire. Everybody knows he's a crazy pyromaniac, but at least he's better than the amateur bomb diffuser two doors down from him. Then, of course, I remember that this building does not have fire alarms installed inside the apartments. With great pains I remember that I do in fact possess a doorbell, and that is the sound it generally makes when it is rung.

"Oh crap!" I moan as I remember yesterday's conversation with Paul. That art critic is supposed to come by and help me with my essay, and it doesn't look like I'll make a better impression today either.

In the attempt of dispelling the common idea that I am a homeless bum, I went ahead and borrowed one hundred dollars from a colleague today. Since Paul said he is irascible, he is probably pretentious as well, and those pretentious irascible types do not work well on an empty stomach.

The doorbell rings again, and this time I hurry out of the bathroom, still wiping my hands on a towel. My clothes are a mess, but that should not matter if I bribe his stomach with the right kind of food. I hurry to the rusty garage door, and with a grunt I pull it up as far at it goes, which is about halfway of its normal length.

"You're going to have to bend to come in. It's not going up any higher," I tell him more coldly than I intended. Perhaps my pride is still injured from being called homeless.

I can hear small footsteps approaching, and there is a slight hesitation before the oaken head of hair appears through the opening, dragging in the rest of the lean body. When he is finally in, 'Sebastian' straightens his jacket, and stares critically down at me, before his eyes roam freely around the room.

"What a dump," he mumbles critically.

"How very like a critic." I growl. "Pardon me, mister, if it's not your multi-million dollar mansion, but in this world there's gotta be the rich and the poor."

A faint smirk stretches his full lips. "Very well put, nice to meet you, Sebastian," he mumbles in amusement, stretching out a large hand.

I blink in surprise at the sudden juxtaposition of ideas – he has a habit of doing that, doesn't he? - and I weakly clasp his hand. "Yeah… uh… nice to meet you too…" I stumble, not knowing if I should say his name or not.

"You can call me Adrian. It's the name I prefer to Sebastian." He says, as if sensing my discomfort.

"Right, well, Adrian, come right in. There's no need to take off your shoes, there's no carpets in this flat." Flat? When did I start speaking like a Brit?

I nonchalantly leave Adrian in the living room and enter the kitchen, although my stomach is clenching with anxiety and apprehension. Being an introvert makes interacting with other people a real pain. As an artist, I always handled stage fright badly, and knowing that I need his help to be recognised as such makes me all the more nervous. With shaking hands I take out some snacks from the fridge.

"What kind of beer would you like?" I hear myself asking, and I am amazed at the level of calm that echoes in my voice.

"What do you have?" Adrian asks back.

"Uh… Heineken…" I answer weakly, struggling to pronounce the label.

I usually do not drink any sort of alcoholic beverages, so I am absolutely illiterate when it comes to good beer. This is why when I went into the liquor store and asked for their best kind of beer the saleswoman there starred at me and asked me to produce identification showing that I am over twenty-one.

"Well, I suppose that's good enough," comes the confirmation.

So, I grab the beer, a can of Classic Coke and the snacks and I head back to the living room. Adrian is standing up and perusing my "artist's corner" starring at the latest unfinished picture spawning on the half-blank canvass.

"You make interesting use of colour," he remarks coldly, eyeing the picture critically.

"Yeah, I'm a new Van Gough," I reply bitterly, refusing to look at my unfinished artwork. It is a painting of her teary face, as she appears in my dreams every night. I do not want to remember her if I am to make a new start for myself. That painting is a last good bye, a tribute to my undying love until the day we meet again.

"Well, you've still got a long way before producing something that's worthy of being called good."

His remark should not bother me as much as it does, but knowing that he is a critic and his eye is formed to spot such irregularities in artwork drives me crazy. I remind myself that I have much to learn about art, but when I try to speak, I find myself unable to. So, I silently count to five before trusting my vocal chords once more. "Well, you shouldn't be quick to judge something that's half unfinished." I snap angrily.

"I wasn't referring to this picture," Adrian tells me with a dangerous smirk. "I was talking about that mediocre thing you sold Paul."

"I thought critics were not supposed to give their opinions unless they were requested." I state coldly, folding my arms across my chest in a defensive manner. The action makes me feel more invulnerable to his sharp words, though I know that my heart is still on the table waiting to be butchered. There is something about an artist and criticism that magnetically draws them together.

"You make a good point," he tells me, moving away from the paintings to sit on the couch. "Anyway, since we're in your home, I shall not make it a point to insult you any further." He announces in a definitive tone.

I stare at him speechlessly for a while, trying to sort out if his last statement was an apology or merely an announcement of some sort. "Uh… yeah… here's your beer," I mumble, and set the snacks on the table before I hand him the beer and retain the Coke.

"Well now, let's see what I can do for you," Adrian says in a relaxed voice, taking a sip of the beer and pulling up from the floor a school bag.

When did he bring that in? I honestly can't remember him ever having a bag on his back when he came in, having been too flustered with his coming to pay attention to details. Now that the initial shock is over, I take a moment to examine him as he scavenges through its contents.

He is wearing loose jeans and black shoes that match his black clad shirt. Overall a neat but unimaginative way to dress up. For an art critic, you would expect something much more imaginative, but everything from the soles of his shoes to the tips of his hair scream out ordinary and boring. I sure as hell would like to be him, because I can bet he doesn't wake up screaming in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, we seem to be two different poles on the social axis, and while he appears as the cultured, intelligent man, I can pass off as something between barbarian and cadaver.

"So, what do you want to write that essay on?" he asks, his green eyes pinning me into my seat. I can feel the cold stab of one hundred knives pierce through my back.

Geez, no wonder he creeps me out. This guy could kill with one look. "Uhh, I don't know, what can I write it on?" I ask innocently.

Even though I sort of have an idea of how it should be done, I want to hear him say it. There is immense pleasure to be derived from seeing him sink to the level of someone not as intelligent as himself. Intellectuals usually have trouble doing that, and I would like to see him face some difficulties in this task, just to prove to him that while he may be smarter, I am not just somebody he can kick down and walk all over.

Perhaps the one thing I can attribute to my father's treatment of my younger self is the fact that he forced me to develop a rebellious nature and consequently the backbone that lead me to escape his domination. Of course he also conditioned it to emerge only when he pushed me to the limits of my patience, which is why this man before me believes I am no better than a virus he must be rid of. I will never forgive my father for that.

"Well, since you apparently like to play around with colour, I think that you should pick two artists from the same period, and write a comparison essay discussing their use of colour and the impact it has on their art pieces," Adrian replies calmly.

I can see no annoyance in his face, nor hear any in his voice. Could it be possible that he has patience? Then how would he be an irascible type of person? There must be something more to what Paul told me yesterday.

"Are you even listening?" the sharp tone of his voice snaps me out of my contemplation.

"Uh, sorry, can you repeat the last thing you've said?" I ask glancing down at the floor.

I can feel the frown in his response. "I said, that you'll need to get yourself some books I'm going to recommend, and the next time when I'll come to visit I expect you to have read them thoroughly."

"Wait, shouldn't we formulate some sort of thesis statement now, so that my research shall not be in vain?" I ask, remembering what we were always taught back in high school.

"Well, you have a research question to go on. We'll formulate the thesis this Friday when you'll meet me at the library and we'll do some work there. This place is a dump with no real proper lightning. I feel my brain shrivel and die just by being in this room." Adrian remarks coldly. I can see his jaw set in a firm line, and his green eyes sparkle dangerously, almost as if challenging me to answer him.

"You know, I don't understand how you can be helpful one moment and a complete ass the next." I state, adopting the same coldness that he employs with me.

"It's all part of the package."

"Yeah, well you can take your package and shove it. If you've got anger management issues, then go sort them out with one of those beanie babies that you can punch until you feel better!" I did not mean to be yelling by the end of my statements, but the tone of my voice has risen during the course of our conversation. To match this heightened tone, I stand up out of my seat and begin pacing in front of him.

For a split second, there is absolute silence in the room, and I can sense his shock from the rigidity of his posture on the couch. It also could be that the furniture is really uncomfortable, which is not an option out of the question since I did buy it at a second hand store nearly two years ago. However, I prefer to think that his stony face and straight back are caused by my previous speech.

"I would appreciate it if you'd just do the job that Paul asked you to do. I'm sure he pays you good money for it," I finish, starring down at him with disgust etched deeply in my face.

"Well, it's better to converse with someone who has a bit more backbone," Adrian replies with a wide smile.

For a moment, I stare at him in confusion, not understanding that his previous words were merely a provocation to my true personality, the one that worked up the courage to run away with his beloved on Midsummer night.

"Ugh," I reply with effective annoyance as I plop back in the armchair across from him, the better of the two pieces of furniture in my living room.

"Now," Adrian replies, and I can see that something about the tone of his voice has changed. While he does not yet treat me like an equal, he treats me as something better than trash. Improvement is a good thing, right?

"I'm sure you've written an essay before, so I'm not going to go over these basics. I would suggest borrowing all the books I've listed here for you, and reading them. I'll help you with the discussion and then you can put it together and I'll edit the good copy."

"Well, that sounds like a plan," I agree, taking a look at the neat handwriting on the blank page he has just handed me.

"In any case, I have a meeting to get to. I'll come by again this Friday. Do as much as you can," Adrian tells me, standing up and turning to leave.

I stand up with him, and follow him to the door, where I once again raise the rusted garage door as far as it will go.

"Thank you," I mutter simply, starring at the ground, somewhat at a loss of what I am supposed to do. I should apologise, but the part of me that is hurt by his remarks argues definitively against this. Now that my initial explosion is over, I feel somewhat ashamed at how I have behaved. Not only have I allowed myself to be manipulated into overreacting, but I have also continued my well-established tendency to put my foot in my mouth. Although Adrian does not seem angry, I feel like a jerkasaurus for judging him so suddenly and then just yelling out my thoughts. After all, he isn't obliged to help me, and if I am not careful then he can choose to walk away at any time.

"No problem, it's all I could do to help Paul out."

"Well, uhh… yeah, thanks. See you Friday." I mumble once more, and then bend down to go back inside.

Adrian's hand latches onto my shirt, preventing me from disappearing inside the safety comfort of my lair. "Just remember, we're working to win this thing. Oh, and emphasise her tears against a black background. The effect should be dazzling."

I blink and nod, but before I have a chance to speak he is gone, walking away in the same carefree, easy fashion I had witnessed only the day before.

I go back inside, and pace for a while, torn by the decision to offer no apology for my behaviour, before I snag my wallet from my jacket and leave for the library.

A living man always has something to do.

~~~~

I wake up because my throat is clogged and I can't breathe. This time, however, I know for certain that it cannot be another nightmare, which has awakened me. The valium I took a few hours before, was meant to plunge me into a deep, dreamless sleep. I don't normally take sleeping pills, but tomorrow is the big day, when the professor is going to judge my paintings, and I cannot risk making a bad impression. Adrian himself confirmed that the first impression of the artist standing beside his painting makes up for half the difference when the judge criticises an artwork.

I cough violently, and realise that my eyes are stinging from all the smoke that is floating in the room. Smoke? How did smoke get here? My brain is sluggish from the influence of the drug, and the realisation that the room is on fire impacts me after long moments of sitting up in bed.

Slowly – fast seems to have dissolved from my vocabulary – I get out of bed and try to look around me. Black smoke seems to crowd the top of the room, making its way downward with a rapidity my movements are unable to match.

Leave! You will die! My survival instinct – who has never led me astray before – urges me with vehemence. Suddenly, it is like the world is snapped back from slow motion and I feel my lungs constrict painfully from the lack of air and harmful gasses.

I begin to make my rushed way to the door, thinking only of my own survival, when I remember the painting of her. To let it become consumed by fire would mean to allow her to die a second time, and have my hands stained with both her crimson blood as well as the oil paints that cover the canvass.

Never! Not twice in this lifetime!

I stop and look around me, trying to discern the direction of the fire, however, all my eyes can see is smoke – smoke and darkness. I can hear the crackles, snaps and pops of wood burning, and I know that the fire is all around the building. The walls are moaning with the pain that slowly seeps through them. I, however, am hopeful that perhaps the fire has not yet chewed through everything in his path. There must still be time.

I will save you now, if it's the last thing I do!

With my mind made up, I turn around, and quickly run across the spacious living room towards my workshop. My lungs burn with pain, and my speed and steps falter as I progress. The smoke around me is so thick that I cannot see anything but the guiding sparkle of her tears against the dark background. Adrian was right. It does stand out to create a dazzling surreal effect.

"I'm coming Ianthe! I'm going to save you this time!" I call out, my mind racing feverishly. Reality merges with fantasy in a swirl of quickly moving darkness, out of which I cannot seem to escape. My senses leave me, as my brain begins the journey on the feverish path of the nightmare. I run, and run, and run, yet she still does not seem even remotely close.

As consciousness intrudes upon me, I feel the sweat roll off my brow and the heat rise around me. I also feel the chords slipping away; finally I have broken away from the puppeteer!

Despite the burning in my lungs I seem to be running faster now, and distance disappears before my leaps. Her tears, however, keep on falling, and each crystalline droplet is erased forever by the encompassing darkness.

Suddenly, there is a great rumble, and the definitive thundering of a crack above deafens me. I stand frozen in my tracks, waiting for something to happen – there would not be so much noise if nothing were to happen. Indeed, with much snapping and popping, a fiery chunk of the roof plummets towards the ground like a demon cast from heaven, falling between us. The tongues of the fire gluttonously spread around the room, and in the moments, during which I clean my eyes of ash, it begins to feed on my worldly possessions.

In heartbeats, a wall of fire stretches between us, with its tongues hissing and snapping at me, lusting to turn me into the blackest of ash. I can see it laughing, teasing my inability to reach the other side and save the woman who is still quietly sobbing in the smoky darkness.

Without a second thought, I plunge through the fire, uncaring whether or not the flames burn me. Indeed, small poisoned tongues have already latched onto me and have begun chewing through my clothes, eagerly working the layers away, to take a bite of my flesh, to taste my blood and poison it more with their grief. It will be a surprise to realise that it is already poisoned, by a sin as great as falling from the heavens. Soon enough, however, I feel their sting, but I pay it no attention, for she is merely a few feet away.

The ceiling gives out another crack, but this time I do not stop to listen. I am so close that I cannot stop now. I must hold her in my arms for one last time. I must say good-bye…

The wooden planks ripple through the air, cutting the smoke sharply, yet nothing but her tears and her fading smile exist for me. I reach out to touch her face, when the boards hit me, and I crumble under this unexpected blow. Her face as I see it through a darkening haze, is already defiled by the pagan tongues of fire who chew threw its perfection with insulting ease. All that remains clear, besides her wraith-like outline, are the tears which still shine brightly in the dark.

I can feel them hotly slide off my hand before I pass out.

~~~~

Miraculously, the fire did not claim my life, and I woke up in the hospital guided by the gentle voice of the nurse urging me to wake up. At first though, I thought I was in hell, because my body ached and itched in all its length.

"What happened?" I ask, and I can taste the blood from my cracked lip seep into my mouth.

"You were the only survivor of the fire which devastated your building," the nurse replies softly.

The last survivor… It takes a moment for it to sink in properly, and when it does I feel the tears threatening to spill down my cheeks. Luckily, my eyelids are closed so I can hold them back. Why must it be that I am always the last? That there is always this merciless fate – for I cannot call it luck – that drags me back from the land of the dead and forces me to keep on living, to explore a new world, where my old perceptions are just ashes scattered by the zealous wind?

"Nothing… survived?" I ask, my voice trembling.

"No, nothing," she answers back.

This time, the confirmation causes tears to spill hotly down my face, and I open my eyes to see what time of day it is. If I am lucky, it will be nearly dawn, and the sunrise will greet me with its bloody birth once more. Then I can wish, upon its endless radiance that all my memories could be erased, and I could die in peace.

"Nurse?" I ask when all I see before me is endless darkness. "Why… why are there no lights in this room? And where have you gone?"

I can feel her trembling hand touching mine, and I can hear her dry swallow. "You… the fire…it…"

But I already feel the emptiness inside of me, and do not hear the rest of her words. There is no need to hear the rest of her words to understand what happened. "Oh gods!" I exclaim, but it comes out more like a strangled cry. My whole body is trembling, and I sit up bringing my bandaged hands to my face. Against my skin, the bandages feel rough and smell odd.

"I'll tell the doctor that you have awakened. He shall like to speak to you now," she tells me, but I can barely hear her through the howling of my own mind.

"Why? Why couldn't I have simply died?" I cry, feeling the anger, injustice and pain all mixed with hate into an emotion that cannot be described by human words.

As she leaves, I hear the door shutting behind her, and I am left once more with a silence haunted by my own failure.

Twice I have tried, and twice I have failed, and twice has death escaped me. What have I done that has been so wrong? What have I done that deserves such cruel punishment even now?

My feet dangle by the side of my bed, and I tentatively put them down on the floor. It feels cold, and it stings in a very unpleasant manner. I can feel the smell of the medical cleaners rise up and infect my nostrils. They seem to suffocate me for a moment before the air becomes breathable once more.

I try to stand, and as I do that something rips painfully out of my left arm, and to my right a machine begins to beep loudly. I pay it no attention as I try to take my first step on the cold polished floor. My feet burn at the same time that the floor cools them. It is a very strange sensation, both pleasant and painful.

"What are you doing! You're not supposed to be walking!" the nurse exclaims as she quickly bursts through the door that shuts behind her with another clack. I can hear another set of footsteps in the room with her, but I dismiss it as the doctor who has heard of my awakening.

"I want to go to the window," I mutter, and try to take another step. "I need to go to the window."

I can feel the presence of a warm body beside me and a pair of arms wrap around my waist as they support my sluggish body.

"There we go, now step carefully so as not to fall," I hear the familiar timber of the voice echo in my ear.

"A-Adrian?" I asked, shocked that he is here.

Although we did become acquaintances ever since he helped me with my essay, and we had been visiting each other every Friday since, I would not have expected him to patiently wait outside the room until the nurse announced that I was conscious once more. After all, I still hadn't apologised for being rude, nor had I properly thanked him for all his help.

"Surprised?" he asks, and I can feel amusement in his voice.

"Well, yeah. I would have expected Paul to be here and berate me for not getting out of that building faster. I… lost the contest," I sigh, and my chest clenches painfully. "I mean, I didn't do it on purpose, so I could continue moping around, but all my paintings… I had to save them! I had to!" my exclamation comes out as a shriek, and I can feel my legs trembling from the effort of standing up.

"Hush, you said you wanted to go to the window, now all you need to think about is walking. There is plenty of time for decisions later," he tells me, in the commanding tone I have heard him employ so many times.

This time, I do not argue – a habit I have easily fallen into. Together we take small painful steps in the direction of what I assume is the window.

An eternity later we stop, and by this time I am leaning heavily on his shoulder, because I am about to collapse from exhaustion. I feel as if every bone in my body is going to pop through my skin if I stand a moment longer.

"Chair," I huff tiredly, indicating the level of my exhaustion.

I can hear the hurried footsteps of the nurse behind me, and immediately a chair is dragged across the room and presumably brought to where I am standing. Adrian takes my hand and guides me gently into it.

"Thank you," I groan through clenched teeth.

When I sit in the chair, it is as if I have discovered heaven without actually having died. I take a moment to regain my breath and my composure before asking.

"What time is it?"

"Just a little before dawn," he answers.

I force myself to get out a smile, although I can feel the corners of my mouth screaming at my hypocrisy. "You can go, I'll watch the sunrise for a while," I mumble quietly. "I'm sure you've got more important things to do," I add, my voice barely above a whisper.

The nurse leaves quietly, but I can still feel Adrian's presence behind my own. Although I do not tell him, I am grateful for his presence, through this first day of my new life. Then, as the thought passes, I straighten my back and struggle to find the calm that comes with watching the sunrise with eyes that shall never again see its beauty. The irony of my situation strikes me as I sit in still silence, and its realisation makes my heart bleed all the more. Life has granted me the wish of erasing the stains from my hands, only my clouds are made of guilty ashes instead of puffy cotton. I hold up my hands, and they are a pure reflection of immaculate darkness. The stains are gone forever. I am free. And the tears just continue to flow down my cheeks in endless rivers.

However, I console myself with the fact that in time, her face will also become, just a faded contour of a well-learned lesson in making wishes.

The End