by Marian Park
Art by Carolyn Zhao
Issue: Audeamus (Winter 2011)
The warm touch of autumn swirled around the town the moment the sun’s radiant rays stretched over the grassy hills in the horizon. The breath of dawn blew away the blanket of mist as Allena gently put her hand through the curtains and peeked at Daphne’s house, the house in front of hers. The rosy pink curtains over Daphne’s window were already drawn.
She yanked away her own coarse cotton curtains, knocking down a photograph on the windowsill in the process. Gingerly, she picked it up, and her hands trembled as she gazed at the picture of her sister, Kelsey, jumping over a wave while a light spray of blue formed a delicate fan behind her. It was the only picture of Kelsey, the only proof that Kelsey had once lived in this world. Allena scrunched her eyebrows as she tried to remember what had happened to her. Her sister had gone through the Passage, arrived home safely, and then what? Vaguely, she remembered the engine of a car while her mother was at work. Nobody touched that car after her father had died from influenza…Then why did someone start the car? Allena, shook her head in distress. Nobody told her anything.
The fresh-baked aroma of warm gingerbread cake from the kitchen brought her back to reality, and she quickly slipped into the white dress her mother had laid out for her.
When she saw her mother’s sad smile, Allena looked away as she felt something tugging at her heart. She must not show her anxiety and nervousness to anybody, especially to the person who trusted her most.
“Good morning, Allena. Did you sleep well?”
Why was she acting as if today was like any other day?
“Yeah,” Allena lied.
“Good. Here, eat this scone.” Her mother handed her a warm blueberry scone.
Allena drew in a sharp breath out of frustration. “Mom, I have to go through the Passage today.”
Her mother continued to ice a gingerbread cake without looking at her. “I know.”
“Any last minute advice?”
“That’s it? Even myteacher at school told me that.”
“Oh, and use your common sense, too.”
“Anything else?” Allena tapped the table with her fingernails urgently.
Allena’s mother laughed softly. “Really, Allena. That’s all you need to remember. Your sister didn’t remember and look what happened.”
“I don’t know what your talking about. You said she died of a car accident.”
“Well, yes, but I knew something like that would happen after she took the Passage.”
“You mean…she died because…she didn’t choose wisely?”
“That’s my smart girl.”
“And you didn’t do anything about it?”
Allena’s mother looked up suddenly. There was a sudden flash of anger in her eyes, but despair quickly replaced it. “I tried.” She looked older and more vulnerable as she seemed to remember what had happened. “I tried. I warned her. She didn’t listen, and when she came back from the Passage, everything went wrong. Your father caught influenza. We lost everything, our money, our home, and we had to move here.” Her eyes darted around the room sadly. “But that’s nothing. We managed, haven’t we? But Kelsey, she couldn’t stand it. She couldn’t stand that we were living like this because of her silly mistake. I told her it was okay, but she wouldn’t listen. You know the rest.”
Allena remembered. The pieces came together. The sound of the engine, the strange men in uniforms who told her mother something that made her cry, a wrecked car, a funeral in the starlight…
Her mother nodded. “Choose wisely.”
“No way! I can’t do this! Why are you telling me this now? Now you’re telling me that in several minutes, I’ll have to make a choice that’s either going to kill me or keep me alive?”
“I know, I’m so sorry. But I need you to remember that the Designers don’t always make it life or death situations. When I took the path it was a wise or foolish situation. Think of it as a game-a game that tests your common sense and strength. Okay?”
Allena looked away to hide the warm tears that trickled down her cheeks in salty streams. Her mother was relying on her, and she was crying. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’ll try.”
“That’s my good girl. Now you better go, you don’t want to keep Daphne waiting, do you?”
“Allena! It’s about time you came! I’m so glad that we get to go through the Passage together. Mother told me that she’ll have a feast waiting for me by the time I return home! What’s so hard about walking on a road anyways? My older friends told me that all you have to do is walk on a road until it splits to two, and then you just choose one, and you’ll come right back home! And why do we have to wear white dresses? White reminds me of ghosts,” Daphne said with a shudder.
“White is also the color of innocence.” Allena sighed deeply. Why was she even paired up with this girl? Like the way how rakes brought all the scattered leaves together, Daphne’s quick question about the dresses sparked something in Allena’s memory, and she suddenly remembered an incident that had happened last winter…
It was snowing. Allena trudged through the blanket of fresh new snow, enjoying the touches of Christmas greenery and the wintry crisp scents of the frosty woods nearby. For once, she forgot about how tightly her numb toes were squished together, how the snow kept pouring into her weathered boots with every step she took. She forgot about the pressure her backpack was putting on her shoulders and about the shortness of her only winter dress until Daphne’s and her friends’ voices sounded from behind her.
They were eating. The scents of gingerbread cookies, rich with nutmeg and cinnamon, and cupcakes covered with sweet buttery holiday icing drifted to Allena through the wind. All of the girls were daughters of successful businessmen, and one of their fathers was the owner of a well-known bakery. For the past few years, Allena had always stared at the displays of the bakery with awe. But no matter how strong the crisp, golden buttery cookies smelled, Allena hadn’t dared to enter the bakery without any money. Instead, she had always admired the beautiful icing that gave the vanilla bread color and sweetness, or at least she had thought that it might be sweet. Maybe the girls got the cookies and cupcakes from that bakery. She held her breath, not wanting to smell those mouth-watering scents of the delicacies. Why must she be the one who could only look and smell rich foods but not taste them? Why must she be the one who always admired and envied others? She had only drank a cup of warm milk for breakfast.
They caught up to her. Their loud laughter vibrated to her in heavy waves. Allena moved her hands, inch by inch, to the front of her coat and thrusted them into her pockets to cover the front of her rick-rack dress. The girls weren’t laughing at Allena. Her self-consciousness was laughing at her. She was so ashamed that her hands felt warm in her thin mittens. Hands in soft, woolen mufflers, the town girls ran ahead to the school, their brushed curly hair and long satin dresses blowing with the wind.
Allena touched her hair. They were as short and brown and straight as twigs. She had tried curling her hair with food cans once – a terrible experience.
The icy freshness cooled her burning cheeks.
Allena’s head snapped up. “What?”
“I called you ten times.”
“What do you want?”
Daphne narrowed her eyes at the sudden hostility.
“When is this path going to divide to two roads?”
When she got a silence for her answer, Daphne repeated, “Allena? When is this path going to divide?”
Allena kept silent. The last thing she wanted to do was to spend her last hours as a child answering a bunch of useless questions. Allena tightened her lips as Daphne blabbered about what her older friends had said about their experiences through the Passage.
The breezy autumn air continued to swish the girls’ light dresses as Allena and Daphne trudged through the sandy road. Allena longed for the familiar retreat in front of the cozy hearth at home as her legs started to get sore. Even Daphne’s constant chattering ceased to silence.
“Want to take a quick rest?” Daphne finally spoke again.
Allena shook her head. “No. The faster we go, the faster we’ll get home.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Daphne glance at her in surprise, but Allena refused to stop even though her legs were on fire.
“But Allena, aren’t you tired? My older friends told me that the first path was short. Why is this one so long?” Daphne pouted. “Let’s rest before we go up that hill!”
When Allena looked at Daphne, the beautiful golden hair gleaming in the sunlight, she didn’t back down. It only made her angrier, remembering that day. Daphne, misunderstanding that moment of silence, raised her head triumphantly and smoothed her dress as she sat down at the base of the hill. Allena shook her head with disgust.
“No! Never!” Allena covered her mouth in surprise when she shouted but quickly recovered and declared, “I’m not stopping.”
“Well, why not?” Allena noticed the way how Daphne’s eyes were starting to cloud out of nervousness.
Because I want to be different from you.
“Because I don’t want to. I’m not going to rest.” Allena approached the hill with determination.
“Well I am.”
It was dark. The brilliant stars twinkled at Allena with pleasure and excitement as she trudged up the mighty hill. She fell many times when her legs gave way, and she cried out with agony as the sharp, tiny rocks pierced the soft skin on her palms and knees. She tripped over a large stone and drew in a quick breath as, once again, the grains of sand went further into her skin like shards of broken glass. Her eyes let flow tears that glowed in the moonlight when she felt tiny streams of blood ooze out, and the blood dimly shone like rubies. Allena wanted to sit down and spend the night sleeping. Besides, the night air was pretty warm. But she remembered that she would be exactly like Daphne – a loser, a weakling, a girl who wasn’t much different from a child. But her whole body had a burning sensation, and she sank down to the ground, holding her hands together tighter and tighter until the tiny streams of blood expanded into rivers. Fine, Daphne, you won.
She looked up at the moon and saw her mother’s encouraging face, telling her to continue, to have courage, to have strength. Not so long ago, her mother had told her a quote right before Allena went to school to take a final exam. “Shoot for the moon,” her mother had said. “Even if you miss you’ll land among the stars.” It was a nice quote, but Allena had only grumbled, “Yeah, but you’ll die both ways.”
Allena bit her lip with regret.
Her mother disappeared and the smiling girl in the photograph Allena had held in the morning slowly formed on the glowing surface of the moon.
“Kelsey,” Allena whispered. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this.”
The girl in the moon frowned with disappointment, and a gray cloud floated over her face.
“Never mind. I can do this.”
Allena gasped as she gingerly removed the blood-stained grains out of her skin, and she started to go down the steep hill with small steps. She thought about Kelsey…then about her mother…
When she saw the lights in the town, Allena was still thinking about her mother, how pained and stressed she must be right now. Losing her first daughter because she made the wrong choice and then losing another one for the same reason? No way.
Suddenly, she realized, with extreme horror, that she had arrived to town already without choosing a path. She didn’t remember the path splitting into two. How could she have been so careless? How was she going to approach the townspeople without choosing a road? She started to scrape off the dried blood on her hands nervously.
Then, two of the largest stars against the blackened sky each brightened Allena’s eyes, and the townspeople would never forget how confident and effulgent Allena’s eyes were as she approached them with determined steps. She walked past Daphne’s anxious parents who searched for their daughter. She walked past the other girls who had decorated their hair with ribbons and were eagerly ready to jump and cheer wildly for Daphne when they saw her. Allena walked straightforward, both conscious and unconscious of her surroundings until she reached her mother and hugged her as if she wasn’t ever going to let go.
“I tried to shoot for the moon,” Allena whispered into her mother’s ear.
Her mother chuckled lightly. “And you didn’t die.”
Daughter to mother, mother to daughter, they stood, silently sharing an understanding, showered by the luster of the starlight because, after everything, the stars had seen it all.