This story was a submission to our March 2022 Short Story Contest.
In the hours immediately after I land, everything feels out of focus. Around me are things I remember. Untrimmed bushes and rusting travel-trailers, chipped paint coloring the asphalt beneath. Sleepy August beams filter through mesh windows, creating a fine grid of golden haze on the floorboards. The rooms are empty and the walls are bare. Holes in the drywall indicate where paintings once hung and water stains show the remnants of torrential rainstorms. I walk the late-summer pavement with bare feet, searing callouses into my skin. Places, for years floating disconnected in the confessional chamber of dream becoming real and tactile again. Restaurant televisions and magazine covers portray the drama of a world cup. New faces catch my eye. Memories of watching the final with friends, crammed in front of the too-small screen with lemon squares and frozen berries. A sense of guilt envelops me, as if an archeologist has exposed a long-undisturbed fossil hidden deep within my chest and is trying to remove it for their collection. I will contact them soon, I tell myself. In my heart, I know that I am lying. If I really wanted to, I would have emailed them before I got on the plane.
Flailing in the quicksand of early adolescence. Only 2 years? France wins. I don’t watch the final, immersed in the boxes that arrive from long-term storage. Hamster cages. The Hamster’s been dead for longer than it was alive. We take an Uber to a decrepit industrial complex on the other side of the city. Orchards of steel warehouses sit on both sides of the road. Across a desert of sizzling tarmac is an oversized metal door leading into a crypt of antique vehicles and flickering lights. Ours has been brought to the front. The sterile black seats and air conditioning dull the senses. I open the sunroof and stare up at the cirrus clouds, curly white strips surrounding patches of unbroken blue sky. An airplane flies out from behind a cloud, bisecting the vast canvas before being swallowed up again.
On Tuesday they finally set the internet up. In my Email, a wall of discounts and promotions is only interrupted by a photo of my mum in Hong Kong. I see a text from Alina. How was your flight? — long, I reply. Above is a photo she has sent of us together near the fountain at Orion Mall. My uncut hair clings uncomfortably to the sides of my face and the early-summer humidity has coated my forehead in moisture. Bloated masses of accumulating precipitation are ready to burst and clear away the fine dust that coats the city. Just a few weeks earlier, the memories now feel distant. As if they were from a time when intercontinental travel required long months in the bellies of rat-infested ships and a goodbye meant not hearing someone’s voice for years. As if the ropes that tied me to her and to everyone else had been snapped clean through by circumstance and drifted away before we could even acknowledge their absence. I want to write something, if only to minimize this distance — to tell her something more concrete than “I’m still alive” or “I hope to be back one day” but my hands refuse to comply. How could I say this when I can’t even convince myself to speak with those who are right in front of me and who I promised these same things to two years ago?
It rains again when I finally see them, although this time it is the frosted, piercingly sharp torrents of autumn that lay siege to rooftops and terraces for hours rather than the nomadic summer downpours that can be outlasted under verandas and in doorways. I am barely able to prevent my raincoat from catching the wind and lifting me into the air like the seedpods of a dandelion and yet in the midst of my struggle I spot them running along the muddy sidewalk on the other side of the road. I call out to them by name, immediately certain of who they are despite years apart and the reduced visibility of the October afternoon. I call again, this time with greater volume and their heads turn curiously in my direction. They yell something to me, indiscernible beneath the onslaught of noise, and one of them drops their bag and runs across the road. He has as much of a smile as one can bear in such weather and asks why I didn’t contact him. I make excuses, different from the ones I have been making for myself and expect him to confront me but he ignores them. Instead he offers only a hug and for a moment I feel as though it will be exactly as it was before. It lasts barely longer than a breath before he steps back and claims that he must leave, needing to be at an occasion I can’t distinguish, perhaps a movie screening or a sports practice. He fumbles a goodbye before running back across the tarmac despite my protests. I try to apologize but my attempts are frustrated by the roaring engine of an approaching pick-up truck and when it passes, I can only glimpse their red umbrellas disappearing into the dense fog.