last edited 15 days ago
The pursuers hesitated as she bolted into my office, glass door sliding shut behind her.
A tangle of knotted voices, dense and crushing, congealed against the mist which coated the panes’ exterior. Muffled shouts, raised fists, barely restrained aggression electrifying the humid night air outside: all insulated by a transparent divider, a barrier none dared breach.
But my focus was now on the broken girl in a small grey skirt, leaning against the table, shaking like a leaf, gaze resolute. Raindrops and blood marred her attire.
So fragile. Stark against birch countertop, cream walls, chrome fixtures, windows painted with clear blue skies.
Rows of potted succulents gazed upon them. Her eyes darted, seeking an anchor, settling on the most recent additions: five splashes of green on white.
“Hide or seek?” I took a seat opposite her, knowing the answer, hoping I was wrong.
“E-explain,” her voice wavered and she coughed. Crimson seeped between her fingertips.
She declined the cup of tea I offered.
“Are you here to take refuge, or for our services?”
She opened her mouth, coughed again, tensed and turned away. Posture rigid, features stoic. “The latter. I kn- know what you do.”
“What do you know about us?” Already my hands directed themselves about the desk drawers, withdrawing and assembling apparatus.
“Y-you give your clients second chances.”
The tremor in her voice. She knew.
“As to why, if I may?” A connection here, a switch there.
“Said the wrong things, upset the wrong people, m- made the wrong mistakes. Nothing left for me here. B- better than to-”
“Then you are familiar with the terms. Two years in our service here, regain what you’ve lost, help us recoup the costs. After which you’re free to go.”
“I- I am, yes. Aware.”
A cable into its socket. A pen, several leaves of paper, thrust towards her. A slew of diagnostic tests. It’s been a while.
“The pen,” Claire asked.
“Leave yourself a note, it’s all you’ll get.”
Had the gravity of her decision only just hit her?
“Fifteen minutes. Think carefully about what you write.”
Claire hesitated before raising the pen: words halting, tremulous, till the desperation overtook and with her hand scribbled platitudes of frantic frenzy, filling the page with inkwells of sentiment before it could all be drained dry.
I left her be.
Instead I pushed the door open. Glass slid aside to expose the vultures who circled still, hungry, lurking.
“She wronged you?”
“Then go away. There’s nothing left for you here.”
“You’re saying she’s already gone,” a hiss.
At length they dispersed alongside the wisps of fog which cool air left in their stead, subsiding into a dark alleyway’s shadows and crevices.
A lone wind-borne leaf skated along the fissured tarmac outside, crumpled and cracked.
Hearing the door ease shut once more, the girl signed the letter with a neat flourish. She bisected it, and again, and again.
She offered me the square of paper. One of our hands was shaking.
“Take a seat on the bench.”
She swallowed the pill.
“Anything left to say?”
She opened her mouth, desperate thoughts awakening at last behind wide eyes.
And then they weren’t.
“Claire made her choice, and she had her reasons.”
The white-robed child clutched the letter like a lifeline, wide eyes darting, observing. “And how do I know I can trust you?”
Perceptive. “You could leave. And what then?”
“I look for traces of my old life, see what my previous self left behind.”
“She burned what little she had, so not very much.”
She twitched visibly.
“Surely I didn’t come all this way and write myself this letter just to disappear. Why even scatter these ashes before setting myself ablaze?”
My gaze met the sixth potted cactus on the wooden shelf, blooming verdant, vibrant.
“You of all people know that wildfires clear forests for regrowth.”
“That’s knowledge I don’t have anymore.”
“Don’t you? The specific memories are lost, unless you were to wilfully trigger them, a course of action I really don’t advise. But you should recall general skills, retain general expertise.”
Skills which become an indelible reminder of who you are. Expertise you’ll never quite let go of, no matter how hard you try.
“So I won’t be debilitated. I just serve my time, while looking for t-this missing piece of me.”
“For two years.”
“Two years, and I’m free.”
“One-year anniversary, Chloe,” I nodded as she passed by.
“Whose?” A joke laced with the smile of someone who counted the hours.
“How does it feel?”
“Conflicted. The medical research we’ve done is certainly a fascinating and noble science— but it isn’t one for me.” Indeed she preferred the concrete and rigorous to the abstract, flourishing especially under specific conditions and constraints.
More than once I’d watched her tend to our trophy case of succulents, adjusting and inspecting, occasionally prising a paper square from the pebbles and chancing guilty glances through its author’s and recipient’s last words.
“Any recent flashbacks or breakdowns?”
“A bad one last week, but they’ve mostly subsided. I’m learning to ignore the memories. But what about you? Your two-year stint ends soon?”
“It’s my last day,” I lied.
A recollection flickered, a sensation wrenched deep within me.
I pushed it aside.
So if you’re reading this, Chloe, I’m truly sorry. It– you– we had something good. We had a good dynamic there. And I’m… I’m sorry. I’m weak. I’m stupid. I’m scared. I’m getting attached, and I can’t– I can’t get attached to anything. It brings me back to that first night, when my two years were up. When you ran into the room and I found my hands shaking and I realised I wasn’t ready to leave after all.
And, above all that… the day I first walked into the office. Before working here.
I’m a coward, and you’re a stronger person than I ever could be.
She’ll be waking up soon. Say hi to her for me.
The boy peered through the glass door. The sky was clear.
The girl stood before the counter, filling a kettle. She pressed a button and the panel silently slid aside.
“Sit,” she stated.
She offered him a cup of tea, which he wordlessly declined.
“Do you know what we–”
"They won’t leave me. They were such close friends, but one mistake after another and… we’ve put ourselves through every type of pain, we’ve hurt and maimed so many, just– just– cut it all off! Please!"
The last word ended in a sort of inarticulate scream.
She studied him closely, an impassive observer to his free-flowing tears.
Purely on impulse she reached out to touch him; he stumbled back at once, hand clutching the weapon in his pocket, gaze wary.
She shrank back, cursing herself.
“Those who love you-”
“All gone. I’ve failed them all, hurt them because they tried to catch me.”
“Died with the first life I took.”
“Don’t try to say it’s okay, don’t try to tell me why I’m broken! I know I’m broken! Why do you think I’m here?”
Déjà vu? Hadn’t she had this conversation before?
That familiar ache.
“Because… you fight?”
“If nothing else.”
She recoiled as he stared her down. Cornered, trapped, surrounded.
A recollection flickered, a sensation wrenched deep within her.
She used it.
“Because you charge, and you’re caught in a headwind, and the others only see your desperation? The stress and panic and pain which you endure just to wrench yourself out of these spirals? When you need a… a paradigm shift. To open that torn, scarred journal and, well, turn over a new leaf.”
She’d dealt in plants once, her predecessor had said, and she was not so naïve as not to know what that meant. Certainly enough to leave her a wraith, hood masking ringed and bloodshot eyes with long dark grey dress obscuring the self-hatred on her arms, a ghost of who Chloe was now.
“I’m… I’m not going to take that from you. But of course you know it’s all cycles. Spirals of spirals. I mean, the owner before me… she never quite got over her fear of connection with her reliance on it, thought she was ready till she wasn’t. It’s the third time she’s reset herself. I checked her records.”
Chloe’s gaze found the last of seven cacti upon a shelf, an addition from two years prior– midway through her own term.
“Y-you know, you’ll be stuck here for two years regardless. Store policy. So… consider staying here a while before you…?”
She was sipping at nothing, she realised, another mindless ritual she’d gained here. Often she found the brewing had greater effect than the tea itself.
“…I’ll consider it,” he eventually replied.
She concealed her smile. “Tea?”
A tacit nod.
She refilled the glass teapot with water from the kettle, and colour leached from dried leaves to bloom forth.
A short story written for the prompt
a new leaf.