STRANGERS


(Note: This is a series of short stories I’m uploading onto my site. You can find the other short stories on this page.)


STRANGERS

Part I

You could say that it was Fate who separated us, a simple instruction written in the universe ordering our casual passing—

*

There is nothing crueler in this world than the randomness upon which it is constructed. 

The casual deliverance of suffering, hunger, pain—if there is one thing in common with every one of these demons that those millennia ago believe escaped from Pandora’s Box, it isn’t a karmic cycle that ensures we get what we deserve, it isn’t a cruel God who looks upon us like experiments in a glass case, it is the way that those demons are sprinkled upon us without care or regard.

Sometimes it is tragedy we cannot avoid. Sometimes it is poverty, warfare, a set of skin and bones that puts us into a social order actively working against us.

And sometimes it is just loneliness that we are stamped with, branded with the fate at birth and sent out with the demon huffing down our shoulder at every turn, leading us away from salvation with a shaking head and a low, throaty chuckle.

So it starts at a crossroads.

Bee is moving into the neighborhood, barely taller than her father’s knee and speaking with a lisp after losing her first tooth. Despite the warmth of summer bearing down on the concrete pavement, this new place feels like an ill-fitting shirt. Every inch is saturated with the soft colours that make up the rooftops of suburbia; every moment is complemented with a chirping cricket or the hum of a lawnmower in the distance.

Bee imagines the dirty glass of the car window to be misted over with ice. Her mind hasn’t yet managed to grasp the science of the seasons passing, so she closes her eyes and wishes for winter, wishes for the trees to freeze over and shed all their strange greenery until their cold, bare limbs resemble the only state she knows: barren and unkind. 

“Are we there yet?” she asks, interrupting the conversation in the front seats of the car. She picks at a loose thread on her dress, dropping a peach-colored strand on her mother’s shoulder.

“Nearly,” her mother replies, oblivious to what Bee is doing. “A few more minutes.”

Once the door opens, Bee cannot continue believing the other side is simply a movie screen, another ninety-minute foreign animated feature that she sits down to watch in the mornings. Once the door opens, there will be no more Nana cooking eggs in the morning and bringing them into Bee’s room on a tray every Sunday, when everything—everything is quiet. 

The rapidly approaching traffic lights turn red and her father eases the car into a brake. Her mother tells him to watch the roads, despite the wide, smooth paving of the cement, despite there being no other vehicles in sight. It is a habit unshakable after decades spent in a labyrinth of a life. Their little family unit has only even known a cramped apartment in a city teeming with tired people. Bee could trace every leaky line of the rotting four walls that enclosed all she was, but those walls were kind, and sometimes those walls would talk with the voices of the neighbours, those walls would laugh about whatever strong aroma was drifting up from the kitchen of the apartment below.

This new country is large but it does not care to make space. It welcomes your body but not your mind; it salivates at your skill but sneers at everything else you are constructed of, until you can wish for nothing more than to crush yourself into the mold of a perfect newcomer.

But this new country has given them a second chance. For that, they are grateful.

“Oh, dear,” Bee’s father remarks now.

The sunshine has disappeared suddenly. It has been scooped up and bagged away, making space for rain to fall from the sky instead, first as one initial smack against the pavement, then as a steady downpour upon the earth. Bee scrambles to press her face to the window, thinking she has been heard in her wish, but as her father turns on the windshield wipers and the interior of the car glows with the hazy, muddled red of the traffic light, she sees that the neighborhood is wrapped with warmth even in storm.

Everything is still.

Except for the little boy who stands beside his mailbox, Matty.

“Hello,” Bee mouths, fogging up the glass in her language, not his, though it doesn’t matter, because he has not seen her.

What he has seen is the flash of white-hot lightning in the distance, and he tilts his head curiously. He is a peculiar study of a boy: he moves slow like the Tin-man, like his joints need oiling, but he is also as graceful as a wraith, slipping in and out of the little corners before one has even thought to look.

Matty has not known the ache of hunger eating at the lining of his stomach, but he knows of a coldness growing around the membrane of his heart, a frozen layer that, day by day, slows his pulse to a crawl until it can barely beat past the space in the ice.

Bee realises sadly that Matty has no umbrella, but it seems that he still came prepared. Tiny red gumboots sit on his feet, and as the rain pours down, a smile spreads along his chubby cheeks. He’s being soaked: the water rivulets are running in streams down the lines of his iron-pressed, color co-ordinated clothing, but in the storm, he’s spinning, spinning, spinning, until all the tips of the evergreen trees merge together and become spiral whirlpools.

On his fifth spin, he sees Bee.

He immediately finds her wide-eyed stare funny, and holds back a small laugh at the sight of her flat, squashed nose against the glass. His fingers are lifting to wave, but then he remembers his mother’s warning about not interacting with strangers. In that indecisive moment, the little boy’s hand is frozen in time and frozen in movement, caught between the infinitesimal second which lifetimes are built upon.

The traffic light turns green. Matty doesn’t wave. Bee doesn’t wave. They stare at one another and then the car drives on, pulling Bee away. Come evening, as Matty is lifted onto his high chair and left to eat alone, as Bee settles into her new space under a cavernous roof too high to see, they will have long forgotten about the other.

 

Part II

—or perhaps it was Distance, demanding we gravitate apart in the manner which magnets repel—

*

In the time between moving to this country and growing a set of thorns from her palms to her throat, Bee bites first and reaps the consequences later. She has found her unbreakable group of friends despite only beginning middle school, but still she feels strange, still she feels foreign, as if any moment now she is prepared for the carpet to be pulled out from underneath her.

Any moment now, she is waiting for the finger to point down at her and accuse her of being a failure, for the world to crumble and drop entirely. For what is it that keeps the earth constant and revolving? What is it that says the beads of soil won’t grow sick of each other one day and pull apart, dispersing into chunks and chunks and chunks and drifting off into deep space, evicting all the inhabitants who walk upon it?

Gravity, people would say. Physics and proven mathematics. Or maybe it’s just human belief. Maybe the only thing keeping the rules of this world intact is the lack of conviction that there could possibly be anything different.

But Bee thinks about it. Bee cannot stop herself from thinking about. She cannot pull herself  away from this constant wanting, she cannot stave off this hunger to be better than expected, to be more than she is.

“Do you feel like Mrs. Denver doesn’t like me?” she asks her best friend, Zara, and when Zara laughs it off, Bee almost thinks it’s ridiculous too. Perhaps the eyebrow raises were all friendly. Perhaps being told off for talking when Meagan across the table was chattering too, at a louder tone about her sister’s spray tan, is only the small blonde teacher looking out for her.

Or perhaps it is something a lot bigger than Bee can understand.

And if Bee is the screaming, fighting pawn, a piece just begging to be let off the board, then Matty is the stoic king.

He doesn’t have friends, he has followers. They may be twelve years old and barely able to grasp the exchange of pleasantries, but when Matty laughs, his boys laugh, when Matty rolls his amber eyes, those in his shadow titter too, and even if he doesn’t mean to, it drives away the outsiders trying to find their way in. 

Matty doesn’t know why they like him. He barely likes himself, but there is something about him that demands attention, there is something about him even while on the cusp of adolescence that screams for you to listen. 

He would be a fool not to use it. He would be a fool not to try fill himself up with the attention like a hollowed puppet seeking cotton.

It is dullest when school lets out. No more schoolmates, no more worship. Only a flight to visit his relatives in their dusty manor, in a land that used to rule the world but now crumbles under the weight of its own sins. 

If Matty knew better, perhaps he would conclude that his dislike of that place comes from the terrible foreboding it has on his own future. But he doesn’t, so he goes, because it makes his mother happy, because he has no say in it.

And when he arrives, though they do not know it, Matty and Bee find themselves on opposite ends of the world. If they were to both drop on their knees and press their hands into the soft earth of the backyards they wander through, perhaps they would feel the pulse of the other beating a direct line through the layers of this planet.

That is the only place Bee can go: her own backyard.

“Why don’t we ever take vacations?” she asks one day in the height of summer, when her parents are both in the kitchen, looking at some cookbook. 

They only laugh. Bee doesn’t understand. She has no choice except to pretend—to put on a hat and stomp through the tall grasses that line the picket fence, listening to the sounds of the crickets in the trees and the soft rustle of the warm breeze. She feels the sun against her skin, and when she closes her eyes, she is an explorer in the unknown wilds, traipsing at high speed towards treasure. In her haste, she trips and falls, but it is not diamonds she comes across, only a muddy puddle, one that reflects back her sigh as she leans close into the outline of her face. She long understood the passing of the seasons but still she closes her eyes and wishes to summon winter.

On the other side of the world, Matty mirrors her exactly. England rain falls in layers around him and he has not outgrown his love for the downpour. He sinks to his knees and laughs into a puddle; he remains until he can barely see through the blur in his eyes, until his own slight reflection looks like a stranger.

“Who are you?” he asks himself, or perhaps he is talking to Bee on the other side, Bee who hovers in her sunny backyard a second longer—almost, almost as if she can hear him, almost as if she can feel the parallel being drawn, but then she gets up, and trudges back inside her house.

 

Part III

—even Time played her role, stepping in when Distance failed—

*

They almost collide. 

Almost—it’s always that word. It’s as troublesome as a physical barrier: troublesome like the disaster that results upon a miscalculation to the millisecond.

They are convergent angles heading for one oasis. Two applications snarled on twin arrowheads arching across the sky, flying towards one institution, where four years will put their chance of collision to almost certain.

Until—

Matty opens his most anticipated portal and sees, Congratulations, we are delighted to welcome you into our incoming freshmen class. Your application spoke of your strengths and we believe you will add a valuable contribution to… 

turns around and announces the news to an empty house, his voice reverberating across the neighborhood where Bee collapses in front of her chair—

—and reads, This year more than 37,000 candidates applied for places in the freshmen class, making this the most difficult selection process in our history. The Committee on Admissions has carefully reviewed your application, and we are sorry to inform you that we cannot offer you a place in…

Just like that, one arrowhead has split from its arch, running divergent instead.

Bee isn’t devastated, not when she was already accepted elsewhere, but it does scrap at her insides, it does feel like a chunk of her guts was bitten out and chewed down by a tangible beast that grew with her every doubt.

“Do you ever feel like,” Bee whispers to Zara the next day, in the shade of a willow tree, with the nearby river running clean, “like there are notifications in your phone waiting to be checked, but all the red bubbles are already gone.”

Zara offers her friend a sidelong glance. “I think you have a phone addiction.”

“Not quite,” Bee replies simply.

The truth: Bee is an anxious person. She finds it hard to imagine that other people don’t rehearse their coffee order twenty different times while waiting in line, that other people don’t read over their emails to their teachers until their grasp on the English language becomes nothing but a jumble of syllables and half-hearted vowel sounds because they are afraid of sounding rude. She doesn’t know at what point in her life that this cruel monster grew larger and larger in her belly, but she knows that this isn’t normal, and this isn’t the sort of nervousness people can will away with a few bouts of deep breathing.

And she wants to scream. Instead of taking tiny little pills that take too long to work, she wants to scream away the feeling—to pick up a hammer and smash every window in her house if it will make the world hear her, look at her, look at the poison dripping into every line of her skin.

“Are you excited?” Zara asks, oblivious to the thunderstorm funneling beside her. “God, I hate being seventeen. I’m so ready to graduate.”

Bee blinks at the question, breathing out until her lungs collapse. The willow tree sways above her—green, gray, brown, tender. It blows like melancholy over her cheeks, brushing for dampness that threatens to spill. Is she excited? She almost doesn’t want to reach for the emotion. It is simply that Bee feels like she has never adjusted to normal life, and it is a feeling she has never been able to put into words. It is only a sensation that her day-by-day routine never feels right, and yet it is the only one she knows, it is the only one she can follow with the hopes that a better one will come along soon. 

It is simply that there is this constant fear lurking in her heart, a fear that she long passed the point where her life should have begun, passed it again and again with every path she was too afraid to take. It is that she worries college may be just like high school, she worries she will end up constantly pushing and pushing forward for no reason other than to finish this next stage of her life she has been assigned with, expecting the future to be better, until one day she ends up in a two-room house nestled deep within the suburbia with cockroaches crawling across the floor and a bulb swinging above her, realising that the future is now and this is her future and this is her life and there is nothing better in store for her because this mundane constancy is how it will always be.

But aloud, all she says is, “Yeah,” and she gets up with a goodbye, thinking it time to leave. 

It has become dark: the sun is setting but it is not visible beneath the thick, thick clouds gathered overhead. Some bird caws in the distance, but the sound is muted, dream-like.

Bee pauses on the stone bridge. 

She stretches out a hand, stretches out her breath. She feels too tall, too gangly. With the bridge railings only coming up to her knees, she feels like one stray breeze could push her over the edge until she is fully submerged within the gushing white current, sinking deeper, deeper, deeper into the cerulean waters until she becomes a collection of glass shells at the bottom.

She takes a step back.

On the other side of the stone bridge, Matty stops too, frozen into stillness by a chill running down his spine.

But he is watching the sun rise, marveling at the orange colors running vivid across the sky.

He appears just like the statues fixed along the underside of the bridge, staring out into the distance with his loose hair ruffling in the wind but his face as passive as ever. Bee cannot ever stop thinking; Matty has a problem with holding onto one thought for longer than a fleeting second.

No, that’s not quite right. That makes it sound like he has impulse issues, that makes it sound like he doesn’t fully consider the weight of every little step he takes. Matty knows. In that millisecond before he turns the ignition for a joyride in his father’s car, in that beat before his arm and his baseball bat slices through the air and makes contact with the neighbor’s mailbox, in that gasp from Cole—his best friend—before he throws a drink into the face of a man bigger and burlier than he is inside a club he shouldn’t even have entered in the first place, Matty knows what trouble he’s getting himself into.

It’s just that he can’t find it within himself to care, not when no one else does. He is a raging spitball of activity, a hurricane of do-overs, again and again because no path in life can ever satisfy him when every single other route is open to his taking. Nobody dares to stop him when they can’t reach him up on his pedestal.

But since that letter arrived—a collection of gibberish, meaningless words and a result of six digits transferred directly from his parents’ bank account to the dean of admissions, his parents have him on a leash, watching his every move until he has been safely deposited into a freshman dorm without getting rescinded.

Matty supposes he should be happy. Finally, his parents have noticed he exists, right? They had gone as far as to actually ask where he was going when he thundered out of the door this morning, frowning when he shot back, “A walk.”

He laughs bitterly into orange light.

This isn’t what he wanted. This isn’t what he tore himself apart for.

“Excuse me, mister.”

Matty startles and looks down. A little girl stands next to him on the bridge, tugging at his sleeve. 

“Are you a policeman?”

Confusion at first: tangible waves rolling off of Matty as he looks down at himself, wondering what part of him led the kid to conclude so. He has no idea, so he only shakes his head, crouching so the girl doesn’t have to crane her neck. 

“No, but what’s wrong?”

The little girl’s lip wobbles. She’s wearing a peach dress: the colour of youth, the colour of innocence. “I can’t find my mommy.”

Matty peers over her shoulder, spotting a woman in the distance almost immediately who is running around frantically. He grins, and ruffles the kid’s hair.
“I’ll help you find her.”

 

Part IV

—and when Distance and Time are shoved aside by the stardust in this universe, Fear steps in to rear her ugly head—

*

Bee and Matty are facing one another.

Well, sort of.

It is their neighborhood’s last hurrah before they send their lot of kids off to college, a masquerade event around a bonfire on the beach as the summer comes to a close. Fitting, given that not a single soul here has ever bared their true face.

“Hey,” Cole says. He nudges Matty when Matty fails to respond. “That chick has the same mask as you.”

Matty looks up from his own thoughts, frowning, wondering who on earth would have picked out the same mask from the dollar store: a trashy looking thing that he finds kind of funny. It is wrapped in denim on one side and almost rusty on the other, curving in and out like a serrated blade. Sure enough, on the other side of the fire, someone else wears the mask in the same awry fashion that Matty stuck his on, as if she only made the selection for irony’s sake and couldn’t be bothered with too much effort either.

Half of that is true. Bee thought the mask was hilarious, but it is poor time management that had her tying it on with one hand and zipping up her jacket with the other as she runs out the house so she isn’t late.

She’s here now, having a giggle.

Both take a step forward, thinking surely they must talk to their twin across the shore. But then the music starts, and a spell sweeps through the sand. It is a siren song: the beat low and throbbing with despair, summoning every limb into fluid motion.

Matching masks or otherwise forgotten, the partygoers are spinning. When the music builds to a crescendo—the band giving it their all up on the bank, letting the beat of the drum reverberate into every nook of the shore—there is no resisting the flow, the pull, the tide of the fervor. The feeling is an eternal freeze-frame with your breath caught in your throat; the feeling is that thrill right before the drop on the rollercoaster.

There is a fraction of a second—one so small that it has passed before it has begun—when Matty brushes up against Bee, him going one way, her going the other, sleeve against sleeve, a breath passing between the two as the clouds run a cosmic question mark through its inky folds. The sky, surprised, breathes, Who are they? and the bonfire with its angry, orange sparks shakes its head and says, Don’t worry about it.

Because they have passed each other by and the distance grows now. They throw their heads back and catch each other’s eyes, their strange masks finding solace in its companion, but the music is thrumming, thrumming, thrumming, and their feet keep moving, bouncing light on lead toes and pulling in opposite directions. 

Bee and Matty drift apart, just like the world has dictated again and again and again, and when the night comes to an end, the both of them can’t help but feel like they left something behind on that beach.

 

Part V

—but in the end, Fear has nothing on Chance.

*

The story should end here.

It certainly appears to end—it certainly appears as if Bee’s fears of a mundane existence are realised when she blows out her candles each year in a dorm only fifteen minutes from home: eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, and no epic adventure. 

She finds that she doesn’t mind, though. She finds that sometimes, sitting atop her favourite hill on campus is enough. Curling up during a snowstorm with her favorite book is enough. Running outside at the turn of winter to spring while the air is still delightfully crisp and piercing is enough. 

Bee has come to the quiet, quiet realisation that her life can be precious without being dramatic. She doesn’t know why this conclusion took so much time to broil before floating to the surface; she doesn’t know why it took so many years and too many nights laying awake in the dark, but gradually—gradually she sees the truth.

She becomes a college graduate with tragedy in her heart, a heavy sort that tells her she’ll never be someone seeking the great unknown with wolves at her heels and a timekeeper screaming between her ears, but it is also a sort that lifts her high, a sort that fills her with a strange sort of curiosity for being plain, because willingly, she has seen how insignificant she is in the grand scheme of the universe, and she’s just fine with it.

Bee takes it upon herself to build the rest of her life with her own hands, even if it petrifies her. Armed with all the bravado she can summon while her stomach rebels in knots, it starts with a trip to the place she was born, to a memory she can barely recall, with naught but a small suitcase in her hand.

It just so happens that the country she returns to is where Matty has relocated.

The sky is bluer here. That was the first thing Matty noticed upon exiting his aircraft two months ago, and there hasn’t been a single day since then that he doesn’t think it, his eyes constantly drawn to the single, small window in the high-rise office.

Not the plain, baby’s breath blue of midday. During the day, the sky is sooty and gray and reminds him of slick, industrial ash coating the dome above. No, the sky is bluer in that time when the sun has already set, in that time referred to as night, yet clearly, residue rays refuse to slink below the horizon. A time of debauchery, Matty almost wants to say, that turn of atmosphere when the night-prowlers come alive but the day-breakers are still holding on.

It is so blue.

Matty doesn’t belong here, and yet there is no place he belongs more. What did he work for in those four years as a legacy if not for his father’s approval? He wants to say he doesn’t care anymore, not like he did as a teenager, but it will always be an urge itching away at the back of his hand. He has no energy for leading this foreign division of his father’s company, among people far more qualified, people who eye him begrudgingly at the break table overflowing with sugary menace, but he must continue—one, because he doesn’t know what else he would do, two, because this city has blown its allure all over him.

When Matty walks home, after locking up the front doors of the building and shoving his hands into his pockets, still looking more like a sulky teenager than a professional expat, that is all he knows: this city, this city, this city.

It is cold but it is vibrant, whispering foul words with the sweetest twang at every street corner. There is the constant, murmuring sense that the skyline and the neon lights have been pulled directly out of a storybook: one that tells the tale of a distant future, but that future is now, and Matty is staring right into the eye of it. Some nights, a low mist will float in and shroud the ports, for the people here call this place the land above the sea, and when that happens, the waterfront is Matty’s favorite place. He is more alive than ever here, but he cannot help but think there is also something incredibly sorrowful sewn into the seams of the streets, into the block by block construction of the towering steel homes.

So many threads pulled from body to body, so many synchronised beads of life in a place so dense. So many individual souls, all merged together en masse without room to grow.

That is something Bee has forgotten about until she sees it again.

It’s strange, isn’t it? How humanity can pulse so large and so small both at the same time. Its charge runs vivid inside one girl trying to put her foot down in a jostling space occupied by seven billion different people, and yet it still has the energy for its blood to beat on and on and on, fuelling seven billion simultaneously, all at once, all at once. 

Are you tired? Bee asks the world. She looks to the indigo sky, imagines poison seeping into its system. I would be. 

The world doesn’t tell her that its fine. The world doesn’t tell her that it lets everything run its own course, it lets its people run chaotic in the waters until humanity learns to part its own damn waves, for when has humanity ever needed anyone else?

The world doesn’t tell her that sometimes, only sometimes, it relents. With a sigh that tears from a sleeping babe to the last gasp of a dying soul, it relents. 

So it all ends on a crossroads.

Bee tugs her suitcase after herself, pausing at the pedestrian crossing even if not a single car here appears to adhere to the laws of traffic.

Then Matty approaches from the other end of the street, and stops right next to her, meaning to cross as well.

It is something too, too utterly simple for two people so complicated. It is something that seems like it should be bigger, but it is only this: Matty has paused right next to her, right there, without a barrier in sight. He just… stops.

And they look at one another.

“Hi,” Matty says, startled, in the language that Bee learnt first, because his tongue has become accustomed to speaking it here.

“Hi,” Bee replies, in the language they both know better. She tilts her head curiously. “Have we met before?”

For some absurd reason, Matty finds the question funny, and his lips are turning up before he can help it. “I don’t think we have.” 

He sticks his hand out. The gesture is so delightfully formal against a backdrop of blaring horns and distant screaming from marketplace vendors that Bee has to bite down on her cheeks so her laugh doesn’t escape.

“I’m Matthias—Matty.”

She shakes his hand firmly. His warm fingers engulf hers. “I’m Bianca. Or just Bee.”

“Well, Just-Bee, would you like to get some coffee and meet officially?”

“You know what? I would. Even if you’re making fun of me right now.”

Matty throws his head back and laughs, and in that moment, the child who spun in the rain without an umbrella is back. Of course, Bee does not remember that version of him, but nevertheless, the familiarity is instant, and warm, and tender.

A soft wind curls around them.

It is tempting to believe that some people are built to intertwine: to believe that no matter which world they occupy, no matter the time or distance, they can find the red string of fate wrapped tight around their index finger, and if they only care to follow it, they can find their way back to each other.

But the truth: the truth is that most people are grounded in reality, and despite being constructed of the same stardust, despite being made of the same soul when the universe tore apart, most people are lost amidst the chaos of this world, another number to the population, another face in the crowd, another soulless gaze among those who haven’t been given the chance to grow.

The world is cruel that way. The world is vicious, but it doesn’t mean to be—the world is only here to host you for a short while before it boots you off when you become nothing save dust and ash.

There is no lesson in anything. Except to wait. To hold still. To breathe.

The lights at the pedestrian crossing finally turn from red to green. It feels more than an instruction of traffic. It feels like a stage direction dropped directly from the sky: go.

Bee and Matty begin to walk.

As strangers, but not quite.

 

FIN

 

© Chloe Gong

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