A story inspired by a certain book series I read in my childhood. For those who have realised something important in life, but at too late a time.
Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense,
and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes.
— Oscar Wilde
In my dream I hear a hollow voice, faraway, barely audible. A low murmur, yearning for a listener, longing for understanding and acceptance. I try to go closer to the source, but I feel a tension on my ankle.
I find myself bound by a thread of glass, clear and glistening, distinctly reminding me that I should not go forward, that I do not need to find out what — or who — is making the sound. The murmur does not cease; it merely fades away, until it is nothing but a faint buzz in the hazy background, of my world of slumber.
– – –
"How's the layout coming?"
"Fine, just fine, I just need a couple more captions for the photographs . . ."
"Fillers! I need fillers! Does anybody have interesting information about the teachers or any of the admin people?"
"You mean gossip."
"Whatever! Just fill up this bit of space with something, anything!"
"People, we've got to hurry up! There's a deadline to meet! Or do you all want the Powers That Be to terminate the paper?"
It was rather amusing, actually, to see everyone so flustered while trying to put together the first issue of the year of Verge. Especially when a considerable number of articles were rather outdated; even more especially when Jasper seemed on the brink of going crazy. I smiled to myself, and reverted my eyes to the computer screen.
"You know, I think there's no point for me to edit these stories. Your columns are always error-free."
He seemed a little incredulous at my comment. "Really?" But after a little more fine-tuning of his caricature, he added, "Maybe I'm just too kind not to let you get more stressed being part of the ed-board."
I nudged him lightly. "Like real."
For the next few minutes I scanned through the rest of Dresden's column — perfect and ingenious as usual — and saved the file. I leaned easily in my roller chair, and took a sneak peek at the cartoon the he was working on. It looked pretty different from the strip I'd managed to glimpse just now: a boy holding a single stalk of daffodil behind him, cheeks flushed under the magic of the airbrush tool.
"Wow," I blurted.
In a flash he jerked the mouse and closed the file window, revealing the actual comic to be put in the newsletter behind it, in the workspace of the picture-editing program. "There's nothing to see," he declared, perhaps a little too hastily.
Interestingly, I noted the same shade of red on his face as the boy's blushing cheeks. "Really?" I asked, with the same scepticism as he had used before. "Don't tell me it's for someone you like?"
His chocolate-coloured eyes remained fixed on his own monitor.
"Sneak," he muttered.
– – –
In my dream I see a figure standing tall at the distance, forming a lean shadow that stretched to where I stood. The murmur continues, and vaguely I can make out some jumbled, random words — words that make no sense to me.
I strain both my eyes and ears, and tug at the taut cord on my foot. It would not come loose; it would not snap. "Who are you?" I call out, in a desperate bid to get an unknown answer.
The figure seems to grow larger gradually, before the glaring light at the infinite horizon. In one fluid motion two massive wing-like structures span diagonally outwards from it, not unlike a giant bird of prey, not unlike an alien insect specie, not unlike an angel devoid of neither acquaintances nor intention.
The mild wind flowing through the light air carries a solitary black feather, brushing against my face, and I shudder at its surreal touch.
– – –
It didn't help that I was already struggling with my schoolwork. Having devoted so much time and effort on the school newsletter, I hardly had the mental ability to complete my assignments and projects. And I wasn't the least bit surprised to see the discouraging D on my latest physics test paper.
Dresden came over just as I was stuffing my worksheets into my bag. "Fern?" he asked.
"Not now. I have to buck up already and bury myself in some mountain of textbooks and notes before I get kicked out of this bleeding school." There was no more space in my book-saturated bag; irritably I folded the papers into a lopsided quarter and forced it in between the pages of my literature guide.
"Just . . . just one minute, Fern. That's all I'll take, I promise. I've got . . . something to tell you."
I didn't understand why he wanted to stick around me when he was the one who topped the entire cohort in English. "Look, I'm in a very bad mood right now," I told him, very plainly. "I just want to go back and do . . . something, until it goes away. Before I lose it and murder someone."
I stared at him square in the eye, expecting to see indifference — but all that reflected from his was a tiny tinge of disappointment.
I didn't understand him. I didn't understand him at all.
He shifted his weight to his right foot. "It's okay. I get the point. I guess . . . I guess I'll just tell you some other time, then . . ."
I didn't stay to catch the rest of his words. With everything packed up I stormed out of the classroom, leaving him stranded in a dialogue-turned-soliloquy.
– – –
In my dream the glass string disintegrates, smashing to smithereens before my very own eyes, and I am free. The curiosity overwhelms as I run towards the winged figure, more and more quickly. And I stop, right before it.
It is a human, almost a head taller than me, and his eyes are closed. He appears indistinctly familiar, but I cannot put my finger to it. The murmur — more evident than ever — seems to come from him, yet his mouth is closed and inert. His hair is a silvery blue, and stands in irregular spikes. The white undershirt and pants on him flutter slightly as the vast black wings flap slowly behind his back, shining like dark crystal in the light. A series of metallic blue armlets lines down his left arm: symbolic ornaments with random epigraphs on them.
He looks unreal, and my hand reaches out to try to touch him, to confirm his existence. But before it does his eyes open, revealing a pair of soft silver-grey orbs that draw me in as I gaze into them. His arms extend towards me, and somehow I find myself stepping nearer to him. I try to put my arms on his shoulders, and he holds me close, the coldness of the metal seeping through my shirt onto my skin.
The wings flap a little more swiftly, and his bare feet leave the ground. He doesn't let go of me as I cling on, feeling the silken material of his shirt and the hint of a heartbeat deep within. Out of the corner of my eye I see the wings span to the front, the tips meeting behind me to form an enclosed space, protecting me, shielding me, guarding me from the wind, from the dazzling light of beyond, from the unfamiliar virtual reality — my sanctuary. My eyes close, and I am airborne.
– – –
She folded her arms crossly. "I think you have a lot of explaining to do, Fern."
"I did nothing wrong," I said, defiantly.
"Nothing wrong." Her eyes narrowed to dangerous little slits. "Of course. Little Miss Perfect here would never make a mistake, wouldn't she? Because she totally forgot about an article she was supposed to write and pushed the blame to someone else instead!"
"I did not! You knew I was sick the day during the sports meet, Jasper! How could I possibly come up with an account of something I didn't even witness?"
"Stop giving me all your lame excuses already," she snapped, her orange hair bobbing wildly in its ponytail. "I knew it was a mistake to put you in the editorial board in the first place. Too bad I couldn't refute it after it was all finalised . . . because apparently you chose to prioritise your family's pathetic bakery business over Verge!"
I hated her. Right at that moment I hated her more than anything and anyone else in my entire life. "Leave my family out of this," I said in a low whisper.
"Did I? Then I'm sorry," she faked scornfully, arms thrown in exaggerated gestures. "But if you're not happy with being part of the paper you can jolly well leave. No one's stopping you."
"And leave I will," I spat. Much as I didn't want her to achieve her aim, I would rather preserve my dignity than to suffer under all her ridicule. "I pity the next person you're going to torture next, Jasper. May I offer my deepest condolences."
I grabbed a marker from the worktable and struck my name off the members' list pasted on the wall. With all the strength I could transfer to it I hurled the marker to Jasper's forehead, seized my bag from the chair, and yanked the office door open — only to see Dresden just about to get in.
"Fern? What —" Before he could utter anything more my foot buckled at the step, and a searing pain shot up my leg. I let out a strangled yelp, and he just managed to catch me before I fell. That condescending carrot-head was too busy screaming and cursing to actually see my accident, but I didn't want to make sure she did, either. I tried to shake him off, but he firmly held on to my arm.
"No! You can't walk with your ankle like that! You've sprained it real bad. Come on, I'll help you to the —"
"I don't need your help! And I certainly don't need anyone else to pretend to be nice to me! Just shut up and leave me alone!" At that moment in time I cared no more about my pride; I merely wished to hide in a corner and shut everybody else out. It wasn't the embarrassment that did it — it was the words from the editor's mouth, sharp and hurtful and utterly sarcastic, all because I wasn't half as good as she was. And she had seemed so sincere then, when she announced me as part of the team, part of the editorial board.
I had wanted to prove to everyone that I could do it, that I could achieve something even though my background was imperfect. But now I didn't. Not anymore.
Dresden picked my bag up from the floor. "I'm not going to leave you here, Fern. And I won't stay either. If I'd known Jasper was that kind of person I would've quit too." His arm gripped my shoulders as he helped me along. "Let's go."
I said nothing. I did nothing but hobble my way across the floor until we turned left to the deserted main corridor, where the light of dusk streamed in through the window at the far end.
Perhaps it was because nobody else was there to mock at me; perhaps it was because for once, the truth was too much to bear. I stood on my other foot and felt the heat pricking at the back of my eyes. Dresden gently wrapped his arms around my shoulders as I reluctantly broke down in helpless tears, holding me close to him, consoling me, assuring me — the only things he could have offered me, right there and then.
– – –
In my dream I no longer hear the quiet murmur, but instead the amplified compliment of it: the strangely deep and irregular heartbeat against my ear. A warm draught sifts through the spaces between my toes; the few feathers that continue falling from the wall of shadows encircling the two of us caress my skin every now and then.
I do not know who he is, but I do not wish to know, either. As the sunlight streams down from above I feel weightless, and my arms leave his shoulders. Intuitively I lift a hand to touch his face, and his eyes close. At that moment he reminds me of someone in my life, but I cannot seem to find the match, the image that hid itself in a crevice at the back of my mind. Instead I ask, in a soft whisper.
"Who are you?"
He does not answer, and nor does he open his eyes; instead I see the ghost of a smile, and he raises his head towards the zenith, the blue of his hair catching the sunlight and glinting along with the silver.
The wings retract to their original position, and I realise that the floor is deathly white and distant from where I am hovering. His body curls up slightly in a foetal position, and he rises again. But the solid black of his wings are fading, turning more and more transparent, less and less dark, losing their colour, their opacity, their magic.
I want to question. I want to let him know about it. I open my mouth, and no words come out. I can only watch in silence as the last trace of colour vanishes from the crystalline feathers. Like an intricate chain of broken wind chimes they shatter, breaking apart from the huge structure. Nothing is there to keep him aerial any longer; a pained expression passes across his face like a fleeting shadow.
And as he falls his eyes remain closed. I catch a single tear sliding from one of them, glistening miniature droplets forming a long beaded trail as he plummets headlong towards the ground far below, along with the shining splinters of night.
– – –
I didn't know what I was hallucinating about. From morning till now I'd been stumbling, fearful of what I was seeing, what was happening to all the people whose images seep into my picture windows.
For suddenly each and every one of them had spreading white wings bursting from their backs, flapping and fluttering like they always do on flying creatures.
"Fern? Are you okay? You look . . . disoriented." I had tried to assure myself that I was normal, that I was merely seeing illusions which took the form of vast wings, that Mother was who she always had been — weary and struggling to provide me with the best, as much as she could.
Yet I could not possibly ignore the agonisingly familiar pair of feathered structures that had erupted from her body for no reason, glaring and glowing a pure, frosty white.
I had told myself to believe that it was all a dream, but the wings did not even diminish. Trying to catch my breath again, I had shaken my head and assured her in a false, trembling voice, "I'm fine, Mother. I just . . . I just didn't have enough sleep, that's all. No worries."
But I had also glanced at the small mirror on the chest of drawers as I left for school, and there was nothing foreign, nothing unreal behind me, nothing at all.
It was worse than I had expected. Dashing through the corridors I kept coming in contact with the people my age, and all of them bore the giant emblems of firmamental beings that were no longer confined to fantasy; instead they fused themselves with the elements of reality, and the feathers drifted from nowhere to nowhere, like an extensive digital animation I didn't want to be part of.
I didn't want to go to class. I didn't want to sit down in a room with my mutated peers. I didn't want to listen to the teacher repeat the printed words from a textbook while distracting me with the feathering contraptions looming behind her back.
I wanted to escape.
"But how?" I cried to myself.
I couldn't walk without cowering to one side as people passed — people who looked my way like I was a social anomaly — or pressing on to the wall as I made my way towards my locker. With shaking hands I tried to insert the key, but then my frantic eyes caught sight of a white envelope tucked in the vent of the compartment, and I pulled it out.
Inside was a piece of drawing that I had seen before, only this time hand-drawn and watercoloured — the same boy, holding the same yellow flower, his eyes the same shade of brown, his cheeks the same tint of rouge. I ran a trembling finger down the smooth fibre of the paper, and the indentations where the pen had smoothly glided over to form the outline. It was simple, yet it indicated something else that I had never thought about before.
As if anticipating the divulging of a concealed secret, I turned the painting over, and saw the short message in pencil, at the bottom of the empty page.
Can we be more than just friends?
My hands gripped the sheet tightly, quivering like never before — but inside I was
numbed, numbed by the surge of emotions that broke the internal barrier and threatened to flow out to the outside world, to reveal to everyone how ignorant I had been, how insensitive I had been, how unreservedly stupid not to have realised, not to have understood it all.
Blinded by the growing saline tears in my eyes I broke into a run, shunning everyone else as I did, trying to find the same face that frequented my world of vision, the same face that haunted my flights of fancy. I went to the news office; the hall; the storerooms; the classrooms that we'd been using all along — but he was gone.
In a room on the topmost floor at the far end of the building I finally found him — his fist clutching his chest in agony, his eyes squeezed shut, his face gleaming with sweat, his breaths short and shallow, coming as sharp, painful gasps.
And high above his back stretched a pair of vast black wings — a stark contrast from all those that I'd seen — arching over him like a permanent lifeline. They shone in the flood of daylight, and with a sick wrench of my heart I managed to piece the last segment to the image jigsaw that I had been trying to complete all this while.
In one horrifying moment his eyes snapped wide open, and they were a macabre shade of glowing silver-grey. Behind him the dark wings extended to their full length, and all fell silent.
I could not breathe, and neither could he. He gazed at me one last time, a clear trail falling down his face. His wings shattered to shards right before my very eyes, and he collapsed, perpetually still.
I sat, trembling, by his limp body, reaching out to touch his face, for the very first time. The coolness of his tears stung, much like the tiny fragments that grazed between my leg and the cold, dusty floor.
"Dresden . . ."
For the next few minutes I could only let my own tears fall onto the sleeve of his shirt, the shirt that lightly fluttered in the same breeze which had existed in my dream. And there he lay, amidst the sable remnants of wings — of glass and feathers — the drawing by my side: orphaned; disremembered; purpose attained at the wrong moment of time.
"I didn't know . . ."
– – –
In my dream a voice enlightens me with the truth — a truth which I have never known, a truth which I rather be unaware of, yet a truth which makes me unable to forgive myself for not realising what I had missed all this while.
He was born with a heart murmur, an atypical sound from it that indicated a structural abnormality. No sooner had he came into the world than the surgeons discovered there was a hole in his heart. It had been too dangerous to operate on him just then — and as the days passed complications arose, and the hole became too large to be possibly sealed.
He grew up with it, diverting any public attention and opinion from the defect, and lived — as a son, as a brother, as a friend, as a guardian angel to a certain person — though he had no awareness of it.
And that person is me.
The murmur was not a verbal whisper, not a voice from deep within. Instead, it was the rhythm of his life, and it beat its finale after its intention was discovered, comprehended — although at too late a time — and forever treasured.
We never know who that special someone is. Time can only tell — till we dawn upon it ourselves, till that person reveals the truth (what is the truth?), till we succumb to the sweet offerings of the unknown future . . . till death us do part.