Spring 2007 Volume One Issue Two
Dragonfly Heights - Chris Azure
It shouldn't have been this easy to run away from her.
The cold, windy streets of Edinburgh were swallowed up by Hong Kong's comforting humid embrace as I ran, and by the time I reached the hillside trail, my bag of thoughts was lighter than ever. I clutched it tightly. Emma's memory was fading fast, but some things I didn't want to lose.
A violet gate stood before me on the path, gleaming in the twilight. The roar of water thundered in the distance, and below that, a deep pounding bass. I grabbed the warm, moist metal bars and shook them, but the gate did not budge.
A boy and a girl skipped towards me from the other side and poked their heads through. They were both about six years old, the boy with dark, messy brown hair, the girl with shoulder-length blonde locks.
"Can I come in?" I asked.
They giggled. "Penny for your thoughts?" the boy said.
I held my bag close to me, as though the kids might slither through the bars and take it. "They're worth a lot more to me than that."
The boy peered closer. "Then why do you let them all spill out the bottom?"
I cursed silently, clutching the small hole near the bottom of the bag. "This is all I have left."
The kids swung out their arms in unison and opened the gate. They leapt onto the trail and into my spilled thoughts as though leaping into a paddling pool on a hot summer's day. "Thanks for the memories!" they shouted, laughing and splashing in the puddles that shimmered with fading images from my past. I turned away from them and followed the sound of the waterfall.
A tower loomed over the trees, a twenty-storey apartment building that would have looked like an average Hong Kong apartment block, were it not for the soft purple and green glow covering the length of the building, just a little more subtle than the tacky mood lighting of Miami or Sanya.
Dragonflies skittered past me as I trudged up the path, skimming across turquoise pools that cascaded down the hill. A tiny cat lay beside one of the pools, sending sprightly ripples through the moonlit waters as it swatted any dragonfly that got too close. As I approached, the cat looked up at me and purred in a most familiar way. It was Leaf, my pet cat when I was younger. He'd died... how long ago? Eleven years.
The cat dashed into a cluster of banyan trees. I followed. The trees closed in around me, and disco lights flickered across the tiled enclosure. Leaf was gone. Dark, hazy figures swarmed me, smelling of rum, designer perfume, and menthol cigarettes. As I took in the smells, the figures began to resemble something human - vague half-remembered faces from my past. Tabitha, my first crush. Wendy, the wild girl who'd chatted me up and then run away. Caitlin, my best friend's girl, who I suspected would have been much better off with me. But no sooner did I recognize these girls than they faded away, back into the shadows.
Then a bright figure, long blonde hair radiant in the darkened room, wove her way through the faceless masses, and suddenly Alicia, the girl who'd walked out of my life ten years ago, stood before me.
"Patrick?" she yelled above the music, standing before me in disbelief.
I grabbed her hands before she could float away like the rest of the ghosts. Her warmth pulsed through me, and suddenly we were back there, in the smoky disco twelve years ago when we'd first met, "True Faith" by New Order pounding through the room. Our song, so long ago.
"What are we doing here?" she asked in her faint Estuary accent.
I shook my head and drew her closer, basking in the familiar scent of her hair. "Shh," I whispered. "Let's not worry about that now. I don't know how long this moment will last." I kissed her. The blood rushed to my head, and I began to spin, as though I'd gulped down a whole bottle of whisky.
"Let's just dance," I said.
When I woke she was still next to me. Her naked, sweaty body clung to mine, her breathing slow and deep. I sat up, and she stirred. Her eyes struggled open, and after a moment of confusion, widened in recognition.
"You're still here," she said, slipping her leg out from under me and resting on her side. She didn't let my arm go.
I nodded, taking in our new surroundings. We were in a luxurious bedroom that I didn't quite recognize. Blue silk bedsheets, fancy oak furnishings, attached bathroom with marble fittings. It had a definite familiarity about it, like everything else around here, but I couldn't place it. I could only assume we'd somehow found our way to the apartment building last night.
I had no hangover, no lingering effects from any sort of intoxicant, though my hazy memory of the night before suggested otherwise.
"Tell me you're not just another memory," I whispered.
She wrinkled her face at me. "A memory?"
I shook my head. "Maybe I'm wrong," I answered finally. "But doesn't it seem like we've been here before?"
She propped herself up and looked around the room. "Aren't we... isn't this the hotel we stayed in? In Bali?"
I grinned, remembering. "Do you have your mum's credit card with you?" Alicia had funded our trip with that card, without her mother's knowledge of course. We both laughed. "But this isn't exactly the place. There's no TV. No balcony window. It's sort of like your old bedroom. And that cabinet reminds me of home."
Her face became strained. "I don't remember coming here. Last night..." She paused as an inkling of memory crossed her eyes.
"Last night was beautiful."
She shook her head. "But before that... there was nothing before that." She drew herself away from me slightly, but still held my arm. "No, that's not right."
"This is everything," I said. Everything that mattered. Everything I hadn't run from. Everything she hadn't run from, presumably. On the other side of the violet gate was nothing of consequence.
"Before that..." she repeated. "There must have been a before that..." And she sank into me again.
All I was feeling right now, my chest pounding as I clung to the most important girl of my past, was the sense that I'd found something forever lost. I didn't want to lose it again. Then she widened her eyes, releasing me entirely.
"Oh." She cast me a sheepish grin. "I'm supposed to be getting married tomorrow."
My chest tightened as though she was breaking up with me all over again. I guess she saw it in my face, because she kissed me then. "I won't leave you," she whispered. I returned the kiss and wrapped myself around her once more.
"Do you want to talk about it?" I asked later as we picked up our clothes from around the room.
"The wedding? Not really." Alicia pulled on her shirt and shorts and walked up to me. "What are you doing here? That's what I want to know."
I shrugged and said nothing. I was afraid that if I tried to remember, Emma's memory might somehow take form again and find its way through the violet gate.
Alicia opened the curtains. I braced myself for the sun, but it was still twilight outside. "What the hell is this place?" she asked, pressing her fingertips against the glass as though to confirm it was real.
In the haze below, trees disappeared into misty nothingness in all directions. The turquoise pools still glistened below, but that was the extent of my vision. I couldn't even see the gate from here.
I leaned against the glass and looked up. The mood lighting rippled gently over the tower. We were near the top. "Do you think your old roof is up there?"
"Your old apartment building's roof. Where we spent all those evenings when your parents grounded you after Bali."
She peered up with me. "Let's find out."
We stepped out onto the steamy rooftop, a large empty concrete area. On one side, by the stairwell, was a switch room, just like the one we'd made good use of during the rainy season in the months before Alicia was officially allowed out again. But it wasn't the rainy season now, so we sat, dangling our feet dangerously over the roof's edge.
From here we could see the forest surrounding our building, but nothing beyond that. With one exception. The mighty Himalayan peak of Dhaulagiri rose in the distance beyond the trees, a dark blue ghost of a memory in the ever-dim light. We'd planned to visit Nepal together after high school, the first step of a year-long backpacking trip that never happened. I'd never had the heart to do it alone.
"We never did get to see it," I said.
"Hmm," was her only response.
"Maybe we can now."
She said nothing.
Twenty stories below, Leaf swiped at dragonflies.
"You used to paint dragonflies," I said as I watched the resulting ripples.
She smiled. "Who says I don't any more?"
"No, you're right." She looked away. "Life got too busy."
I frowned. "I always hoped you wouldn't abandon it."
She clenched my hand. "I was thinking about it all again. One of my projects at work had a dragonfly logo. It made me think about you. That's when I went for my long walk. Ended up here. Do you think Alan's noticed by now?"
That twinge of pain again. "You're marrying an Alan?"
She sighed. "I don't know. I mean I agreed to it, but maybe I just felt like I needed to grab hold of something. He seemed like a good catch at the time, but..."
"But is he really what I want? I keep thinking about the old days."
"Well, we could just stay here."
She snuggled next to me. "What were you running from, Patrick?"
I stared across the woods. The hazy darkness rippled, threatening to take unwanted forms. "Shall we go exploring?" I asked. "This place must be filled with secrets."
But there were no surprises to be found, just the sweet comforts we'd known so long ago. And that was all I really wanted. We explored the tower. The rooms were all slightly different variations on the same themes - my old apartment, her old apartment, the hotel rooms we'd been to - but we agreed that the one we'd ended up in somehow seemed the best amalgamation of all our old memories.
A little landscaped park clung to the hillside behind the tower, just like the park we'd lost our virginity in. We'd planned to do it in my apartment when my parents were away for the weekend, but our impulses had intervened a week earlier. We had a lot of fun re-enacting that one.
But when I tried to take us deeper into the forest, Alicia stopped. "Where are you going?"
I nodded into the woods, in the direction of the Himalayan peak. "I always wished we could've seen it."
She frowned, but continued walking with me, her hand still clenched around my own. The ground below us became swampier and more unstable, and it became difficult to advance. She released her hand.
"Let's go back," she said, grimacing at her mud-stained boots.
"I think we can make it." I stepped forward into the swampy mess.
Alicia didn't follow me.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"I... I never wanted to go."
My heart sped. "You told me... "
"You wouldn't have listened if I'd told you the truth. You were too stubborn."
I breathed heavily, trying to comprehend her words. I shook my head. "We can do it this time. Just give it a chance..." I reached out a hand to her. She reached out reluctantly to take it, but before our fingers touched, the earth shook. I stumbled backwards into the mud and found myself slipping. We tumbled. Alicia's scream echoed down the hill and vanished into the distance.
A fence halfway down the slope brought me to a stop, shattering as I hit it. My bag of thoughts was on the ground beside me, the last of its contents seeping through the hole in the fence into the wet ground beyond.
I pulled myself up, my pulse still racing. Alicia was nowhere to be found. Not even a sludgy imprint in the mud. I shouted for her, but there was no answer. The only sound was a light breeze gushing through the fence. What if she didn't want to be found? I tried not to think about it.
A darkly-lit street wound down the hill beyond the gate, tall derelict buildings lining its sides. I followed the street, passing from the dim glow of one orange streetlight to the next. The sounds and smells of exhaust pipes gusted out from the backs of cheap restaurants. It was the way back to the train from Alicia's apartment in Mid-Levels, back when we'd both lived in Hong Kong. Last time I ever saw her before we broke up I'd taken this route, and the next time I saw her, she was at university, with a new boyfriend.
I didn't want to go down this path again.
I turned, took a dim alleyway down a different route. I thought it should lead to a small park, but it took me to a narrow cobbled street, ancient stone buildings clinging to the sides. Candlemaker Row in Edinburgh, towards Grassmarket. I'd end up at home if I kept walking in this direction. A coldness gripped me that had nothing to do with the Scottish weather. The buildings greyed in my mind and shadows flitted past me. The shadows I'd been running from.
My fiancée, Emma, stood before me on the street, her dark brown hair in disarray. The bulge in her belly was visible. The crux of all our arguments. I wanted cats. She wanted babies.
"Our baby," she whispered, but it was only an echo. This Emma was just a shadow, after all. My pulse raced and I felt a tightening in my throat. My arm muscles tensed. I wanted to scream and swear, or worse. It wasn't my baby. I'd made sure of that a year ago. But I hadn't confronted her about it yet. I couldn't bear to.
Thunder roared, and the skies opened, but even the downpour wasn't enough to wash Emma's shadow away. I turned and ran. Through the Old Town, across Princes Street, and down the dreary length of Leith Walk, her shadow pursued me.
I kept running until Edinburgh was washed away and the rain became warm. The old clock tower gleamed in the rain as I reached the safety of the Central Star Ferry pier back in Hong Kong.
Soaked, I clambered up the stairs onto the pier. Alicia was already there, waiting for the ferry.
"This isn't here any more," she said, water still streaming down her face.
"This pier. They tore it down last year." We'd taken this ferry so many times, on the warm, moonlit nights when the city was our playground.
"Why did you run away?" I asked.
"I mean... before."
She turned away and sighed. "I couldn't just put my life on hold for a year, like you could. I had a future to think about."
"So you gave up the dream. Like the dragonflies."
She squeezed my hand. "Sometimes I wish I hadn't. I was back in New York for a moment, just then."
She nodded. "I moved there two years ago. At the bottom of the slope it all came back. I saw the marriage registry, my family, Alan, everything." Her breathing hastened.
"But you ran from it again?"
She nodded. "What did you see?"
I told her the whole thing this time, trying to rid my mind of it all as soon as I mentioned it. She said nothing for a while, but stared out into the harbor. "We don't have to go back, do we?"
There were no ferries approaching, just the sea being battered by the rain. "Doesn't look like we're going anywhere." I hoped I was right.
But as we stared, the rain died down and two lights appeared in the distance, sailing slowly towards us. A feeling of dread rose in my stomach.
"Why are there two?" she asked.
I pointed to the gates. One was labeled Edinburgh, the other New York.
"Can we just go back to our room?" she said.
"The ferry's the only way out." I didn't know if that was true. The path back to the tower might have still been there. But going back was only going to postpone the inevitable.
"We can't just end it like this," she said. "Not this time."
I looked at her questioningly.
"I should never have broken up with you," she said.
I shook my head. My throat tightened. "It would have happened sooner or later anyway. You were right. We had different dreams."
"Maybe we just needed a break."
"A ten year break?"
She ran her fingers down my arm. "Maybe. What if we take the same ferry?"
I shook my head, my eyes watering.
Tears rolled down her cheek, and she looked like she was about to argue for a moment. Instead, she dragged me behind the counter of one of the pierside stalls. "Then let's enjoy what we have, while we still can."
I widened my eyes and grinned. "We never did it here before."
She laughed as she pushed me to the ground. "Seems like a good time to start." Over the intercom, our song played for us, one last time.
Getting up after that wasn't easy. We lay together on the hard floor, thinking of one thing after another to add to the conversation, and doing our best to ignore the bells that signified the arrival of the ferry.
"Will you still get married?" I asked.
"I suppose we'll put the wedding off, at least for a while. I think I'll need a good long talk with him first. Do you think it'll still be tomorrow when we get back?"
I nodded. "It never turned into daytime while we were here. I think we're good."
"What are you going to do about Emma?"
Sharp pain in my chest. "I have to confront her. I have to tell her I know the baby's not mine. Not looking forward to that."
She wrapped her arms around me. "You'll be okay."
"After that, maybe I'll get a cat."
"I've never lived alone before. I have to have some company. Maybe I'll call it Alicia." She nudged me. "Just kidding."
"You better be." She laughed.
I sighed. "I was stupid to just run and hope it went away, wasn't I?"
She shook her head. "We needed this. A little reminder of ourselves. A last farewell."
I kissed her.
We dressed slowly and reluctantly, and we were back at the gate. The New York ferry was here, and the little blonde girl held the gate open. I clenched Alicia's hand. Neither of us moved.
"I guess I should go," she said.
"I suppose." But she stayed still.
A new emptiness rose within me as I finally let go of her hand. She stepped towards the gate. "Paint me some dragonflies," I said. "Maybe I'll even get to see them one day." Her warm blue eyes glistened with tears as she glanced back at me one last time, and then she was gone.
The morning sun streamed through the windows of the pier as my own ferry approached.
The messy-haired boy came up the gangway, clutching a bag. My bag of thoughts, mended and fuller than ever. Reluctantly, I took it. "Take me back to Edinburgh." I boarded the ferry, ready to do what I had to do.
- END -