Contest #37 shortlist ⭐️

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Mystery

“Are you happy?”


I look up, startled. The subway car was empty when my girlfriend and I got on. Now there’s someone sitting across from us; I don’t know how I could’ve missed her. I must have nodded off and missed a stop.


She’s pretty. Auburn hair cropped at her chin. A smattering of freckles across high cheekbones. Copper eyes, bright, like newly minted pennies. A forlorn smile on her pale lips. I’ve never seen her before, but something (-----) tugs at me. A strange feeling in the back of my mind, like I’m searching for a file that doesn’t exist. A fluttering feeling of deja vu. She’s looking at me like she knows me.


I glance around the empty subway car. There’s nobody else around but the three of us, and Judy is asleep on my shoulder. The girl across from us is staring right at me, her eyes unwavering. Judy mumbles something incoherent in her sleep and sighs.


It’s after two in the morning, and I worked a full shift before the concert. The show was amazing and totally worth it, but I’m exhausted. I’m probably imagining things. 


“Are you happy?” the stranger repeats.


Am I happy? What kind of a question is that? The kind of question a stranger asks on the subway at two in the morning, I suppose. I’ve answered weirder questions from scarier people, and she seems oddly earnest. It’s a harmless enough question. “I… Yeah. I’m happy.”


The stranger smiles, and it’s a sad thing. “Good,” she says. “That’s good to hear.” She sounds like she means it.


I nod off some time after that. When I wake up, we’ve missed our stop and the stranger (-----) is gone. I shake my girlfriend awake, and we get off at the next stop to double back. 


---


It’s as if there’s a pebble in my shoe that I can’t get out or even find. Like some indiscernible, invisible thing is just… off, somehow. But I don’t know what.


My life isn’t perfect, but it’s good. It’s better than it’s ever been, as far as I can recall. 


Things with Judy have been going well. There was a shaky period about a year back where I worried I would lose her. For a time it felt like the smallest thing could break us apart - a wrong word, a breath of wind, the flap of a butterfly’s wings. But we feel solid now. For the first time in a long time, we feel like something real.


It’s wonderful. It’s amazing. It’s more than I ever thought I could have with anyone.


And yet.


And yet.


Something is off. Something (-----) is missing. It nags at me. I don’t have a name for it. I can’t put it to words. Most of the time I can ignore it, but every now and then…


A child with freckles will smile at me.


A ray of sunlight will strike a stranger’s hair just right, and it’ll glow red and gold.


A woman will laugh, light and carefree, and my heart will swell until I can’t breathe.


Something will happen, some small thing that should be of no consequence, and I’ll feel a jolt of recognition. I’ll go chasing after this fleeting sensation without even realizing I’m doing it, dropping conversations mid-sentence to trace the origin of a laugh carried on the breeze from blocks away. I don’t know what I’m looking for.


I never find it, anyway.


---


I love drawing. I hate socializing. I wish that I could just draw and not have to do all the elbow-rubbing and hobnobbing that comes with even the smallest, meanest sliver of success.


Judy’s been amazing all night. She’s been sticking close to my side, speaking for me when my voice catches in my throat, deflecting all the worst conversations. She looks pretty incredible in the suit she’s wearing for the occasion, too, which doesn’t hurt. But even an absolute hero like my girlfriend has to use the bathroom at some point. I attempt to tag along, but someone catches my arm on the way and I’m into the vortex of nodding politely and feigning interest just in case someone wants to buy or show my work while Judy disappears into the crowd.


I grip my wineglass like it’s a shield and smile until my face aches.


When I finally break free, I squeeze through the crowd to the outskirts where I can breathe. Judy’s at least a head taller than most people in the room, so I keep an eye out for her. She’s nowhere to be seen. Maybe someone cornered her into a conversation of her own by the bathrooms.


Everyone seems much more interested in talking to each other and stuffing their faces with free wine and cheese than they are in the art, which is both annoying and a relief. I study the artworks with interest that’s partly genuine and partly to look occupied so no one will try to engage me. I haven’t met most of the artists in the group show, but I’ve heard of some of them. It’s all a bit over my head, honestly. 


I make my way over to the lonely corner where my own drawings are hung. There’s someone standing in front of them, actually looking at my drawings rather than at her plate or her phone. 


I aImost drop my glass when I see her (-----) face.


She looks the same as she did three years ago on the subway car, the last time that I saw her. The memory unburies itself from some dark, forgotten recess of my mind. Suddenly it’s as fresh as if it had just happened. I can almost feel the juddering of the subway. I can almost feel the exhaustion in my bones.


She doesn’t appear to notice me. She’s staring at one of my drawings with a transfixed expression, her eyes open wide with a mixture of fascination and fear.


I stand beside her and look at the drawing. The features are soft and ill-defined, a portrait as seen through frosted glass or the haze (----l) of much-faded memory. It’s one of the few portraits that was done from my imagination rather than from a live model.


Auburn hair. Pale skin. Copper eyes. Freckles.


I want to ask her who she is, but she turns her head slightly and catches sight of me before I can say a word. She gives me a stricken, panicked look before she flees.


---


More and more, I try to draw something that I can’t forget but also can’t remember.


Shades of copper. Shades of red and gold and brown. Shades of pale. (---el)


Abstractions that are both too abstract and not quite abstract enough. Portraits that are never the right face. Landscapes that always end up with a figure in them, somehow, even though I never notice I’ve drawn her (H----) in until there she is, her back to me. She’s always there, somewhere, hovering on the edge of perception. She’s never really there at all.


It’s like chasing a shadow. Like chasing a dream. Even when I’m not trying to draw her at all, she’s there.


Maybe I’ve got this all backwards. Maybe I’m not chasing her at all.


Maybe she’s the one chasing me.


---


The doorbell is ringing. I’m not sure how long it’s been ringing for: I keep the music on pretty loud when I’m drawing. I only notice it in the breath between one song ending and the next beginning. 


I hesitate. It can’t be Judy; Judy wouldn’t ring the doorbell to her own home. Even if she forgot her keys, she’d text me. I don’t have any missed messages, and it’s only one in the afternoon anyway, so she wouldn’t be coming home from work already.


Jehovah’s Witnesses? Some kind of door-to-door salesman? Is that even still a thing?


I should ignore it. I’m in a groove, and an interruption would undoubtedly throw me off. This drawing is the best I’ve done in a while. It feels almost dangerous, close to something not meant to be touched by mortal hands. If I can finish it properly, it may well be my masterpiece.


Another song is playing, but now that I’m aware of the doorbell I can hear it when it rings again, striking a discordant note beneath the music. Something tugs at me. I set down my pencils, and I answer the door.


(-----)


“May I come in?”


I don’t know why I say yes. I don’t know why I step back and hold the door open for her (H----), welcoming her into my home. She’s a stranger. We’ve never met before. But her face is a briar under my skin. Her face is a memory.


She doesn’t introduce herself or explain what she’s doing here. She walks around the apartment, looking about with a surprisingly intense curiosity. She studies the books on our shelves, the pictures on our walls. I follow her. I should be alarmed, probably. But I’m not.


“So, this is what a life looks like…” she says, so softly I can barely hear the words.


“It’s what my life looks like, I suppose. Are you… Can I help you?”


She (Ha---) turns and gives me a sad shake of her head. 


It comes back to me in fragments, sharp and sudden as shards of glass. (H----) My first art opening, twelve years ago. (-a---) Years before that, on a subway car after a concert. (--z--) Glimpses on random streets, flashes of reflections in shop windows. (---e-) A hundred little paper cuts of memory, stinging and burning. (----l) An image I’ve never managed to capture. (-----) An image I can’t help but try to.


“You...” I freeze. The last time she spoke to me was fifteen years ago, and she hasn’t aged a day. I’ve got crow’s feet at the corners of my eyes and my first gray hairs are coming in, but she’s still exactly the same. “You aren’t real.” (---el)


“I used to be,” she says a bit defensively. “Is that your studio?” she asks, pointing.


“I… Yeah. I mean, it’s really just a spare room that I’ve kind of taken over with my art stuff, but--”


She pivots and opens the door to my studio. I follow her. It’s a bit awkward: seeing her here, surrounded by my drawings, it’s painfully obvious that they’re trying to be her. (Ha---) Pale imitations, but still. It looks creepy and obsessive. “I didn’t realize,” I tell her through my embarrassment, trying to explain.


She looks as uncomfortable as I feel, but there’s a deep vein of sorrow that runs through her expression that I can’t quite grasp. (Haz--) “It’s…” She chokes on a sob. “Shit. I’m sorry.” She turns to me with teary eyes. “How did you… How?”


I shrug, profoundly out of my depth. “I didn’t know that I was drawing you.”


“You shouldn’t be able to-- You weren’t supposed to remember.” She gestures around the room. “This shouldn’t be possible. This shouldn’t exist. I don’t exist.”


The statement is so absurd I almost laugh. “But you’re right here,” I protest.


She shakes her head, horrified. “This is my fault,” she decides. “I wasn’t supposed to come back. I shouldn’t have done it. But I had to see you again… I had to know.”


“What’re you talking about? What did you have to know?”


She steps close to me and touches my face, her touch both strange and achingly familiar. “You’re happy, aren’t you?” She asks it as if it’s the only thing that matters in the world.


“You’re not answering my questions.”


“But you are, aren’t you? You’re happy?” she presses. 


“Sure, I’m happy. Are you?”


She stares back at me in confusion, like she doesn’t understand why anyone would ever ask her such a thing. Like the question has never once crossed her mind. Like the answer wouldn’t matter even if it had. (Haze-)


“I know you,” I tell her. “Somehow, I know you.”


“You don’t,” she’s quick to say.


“I’ve seen you before. I don’t know how I could have forgotten.”


“You don’t know me,” she repeats, which isn’t actually a rebuttal.


My eyes trail over the drawings (-azel) that surround us. “But I guess I didn’t really forget, did I?”


Her hands fall away from my face. She backs away from me slowly, withdrawing into herself. “You weren’t supposed to remember. Nobody is supposed to remember. I’m not supposed to be here. I can’t be here. The only way for… for all of this--” She gestures around the room again. “The only way for your life to be what it is, the only way for you to be happy… I can’t be here.”


“You’re here right now.” I hold out my hands and wait. The ceiling doesn’t cave in. The building doesn’t collapse around us. I don’t drop dead of a heart attack. “You’re here. I’m here. My life is here. So, obviously, you can be here.”


She shakes her head desperately. “I had to make a choice,” she insists. “I tried so many different times, so many different ways… The only way for you to be alive, the only way for you to have all of this, is if I’m gone. I had to disappear. Then you could be with Judy, and you could have your career, and your life, and be happy…”


“This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t even know who you are!”


“You used to,” she admits. “When I existed. You knew me very well, better than anyone. But it destroyed you. It killed you.” She shudders at the memory of something that could not possibly have ever happened. “So I had to change it. I had to go back. I went back over and over, trying to find a way to keep us both alive, to keep us together… It never worked. So I did the only thing I could. I went back, all the way back, and took myself out of the equation.” She smiles at me tremblingly. “It was the only thing that worked. And if only I’d been strong enough to resist checking on you, then everything would still be okay. I’d be gone, but you’d still be okay.”


It isn’t possible. On so many levels, in so many ways, it isn’t possible. 


And yet… “Hazel,” I say. And I remember.


I remember a girl who never existed. 


I remember us as children. She was a gap-toothed, grinning little thing with freckles and pigtails. I used to push her on the swings. I protected her from bullies. We went everywhere together.


I remember her being my first crush in middle school. I was scared. I didn’t want to be queer. I sketched her in my notebooks. Our teachers told me not to draw so much, to pay more attention in class. 


I remember our first kiss.


I remember promising I’d love her forever. I remember arguments that shook the walls. Breaking up and getting back together, over and over again, a vicious cycle that seemed it would never end. No matter what I did or said, she always took me back.


I remember loving her. I remember hating her. I remember hating myself. 


I remember her. She was beautiful, and sweet, and kind. She laughed without any trace of inhibition. She was brave in all the ways I wish that I could be. 


I remember impossible things.


Hazel. I remember Hazel.


Hazel cradles me in her arms and whispers to me as I weep. “I’ll fix it,” she promises me. “I’ll fix it.”


“Don’t you dare,” I try to say, but the words stick in my throat and stay there in a traitorous lump.


---


I wake up with a stiff neck and a pain in my hip. That’s what I get for falling asleep on the floor, I suppose. I must’ve been exhausted; I don’t even remember lying down.


I drag myself to my feet and stretch, cracking my neck and then my knuckles. I study the unfinished drawing sitting on my easel. A self-portrait, like most of my drawings. It’s a good likeness, but something’s missing.


Something’s (-----) always missing.

April 17, 2020 23:04

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5 comments

Arwen Dove
22:00 Apr 18, 2021

Amazing story!

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Tom .
00:10 Nov 06, 2020

Wow...

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Izzie Q.
19:46 Sep 14, 2020

Fabulous, I adore this story. I love how you said her eyes are like newly minted pennies. :D

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Michelle Sea
21:49 Apr 22, 2020

Lovely story, really interesting descriptions. Love how it builds, some instances take a little longer to build than others, but the flow is so well done, it doesn't matter.

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Nick Perez
21:43 Apr 22, 2020

The name that flutters through one's mind but never quite lands...until it does. Your use of the dashes works to create that effect. Well done. This reads like a Twilight Zone episode; Rod Serling would be proud, I think. So the mystery of this, for me, is "how?" How does Hazel "fix it"? Admittedly, I may have missed it - time travel? Inter-dimensional travel? For me, the mystery is what helps the story stand out in my mind. At the same time, I could see how others might want more of an explanation. For what it's worth.

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