Home. It wasn't a place. It was a person; or rather, a feeling. It was the feeling of the silky bunny hat you let me wear on a chilly december walk home or the feeling of your hands on my waist when we slow-danced in your screened-in porch. Home dripped from the stars, beautiful and close with the comforting night sky until it was swallowed with the lucent rays of sun. Home killed me when I found myself in that high school parking lot miles away from you, lodged itself into me and refused to let me breathe until I learned to live without oxygen. Home. I haven't been there in more than a decade.
Ashlynne’s hair was drenched and now her windshield was clouded, leaving barely more than the streaks of red-and-blue from the cars around her. This was the curse of rain. Rain wasn't always bad, though; She remembered biking to Astrid’s house as the storm began, seeing Astrid wet and shivering, her dark hair clinging to her soaked dress, waiting for her at the edge of the field. Ashlynne knew Astrid hated rain, but still she waited for her, and clasped Ashylnne’s hand as the two shrieked with joy, running uphill to the screened-in porch as the rain bucketed down. Once they got there, the two would watch the summer storm drift across the countryside, sitting in comfortable silence as the rain drenched the outside world, shimmering droplets like liquid crystals falling from the sky. That was ten years ago. Before.
And now Ashlynne was in Astrid’s basement, helping her kids take off their rain jackets. This was her first day of babysitting, and her first day of her librarian job. Ashlynne had no idea that Astrid lived here-that she had a husband and three adopted children.
But now, the sky had split open- the rain poured down relentlessly from the outside, and she heard the muffled sounds of an argument between Astrid and her husband coming from downstairs. As Ashlynne wondered why they were so upset, she felt a tug on her sweater. She looked down to see Olive, the youngest child, staring up at her. ¨ Orange juice?¨ She asked. Olive had drinken this citrus beverage at least four times today. ¨ Are you sure?¨ Ashlynne let out a laugh, even though the gradually increasing volume of the fight from downstairs made her tense. ¨ Pleeeaaasee..¨ The four-year old pleaded. ¨ Alright, I’ll get you some.¨ Ashlynne agreed, walking down the stairs, Olive trailing behind. As the two walked into the kitchen, they were greeted with the sounds of screaming and glass crashing. ¨ Please, Elijah!¨” Astrid shouted at her husband. ¨ Just this once, please do this for me! I take care of the kids all the time, you never- ¨
¨ But I can’t cancel this!¨
¨ Do you know how much I cancel for you??¨
As they continued to shout, Ashlynne tried to pour the drink for Olive, who was looking up at her with big worried eyes, as quickly as possible.
¨ You know what?? Ashlynne, want to go on a roadtrip with me? Because I can’t handle this right now!¨
She looked at her childhood friend pleadingly, reminding Ashlynne of Olive’s eyes when she asked for orange juice. But this was different. Her friend was in pain, and she hadn’t seen her in so long. Actually, a road trip sounded perfect.
¨ You know what? Fine! I need space too! Leave me here stranded with the kids!¨
¨ Oh, god forbid leaving a father with his kids!¨
And just like that, Astrid slammed the door, and Ashlynne and Astrid were off.
As the two got into Astrid’s Toyota, slamming the doors, Ashlynne noticed a small pink box peeking out of the door compartment. She picked it up. It was an empty cigarette box, light pink, with a pattern of painted cherry blossoms arching out from the corner.
¨¨¨ Do you smoke?¨ She asked her old friend as they began driving down the winding gravel road. ¨ No,¨ Astrid said, her eyebrows coming together in concentration as she drove through a thin patch of the road, ¨ but I used to. Did you see the cherry box?¨
¨ yes, ¨ Ashlynne said, looking out the window at the citrus- colored sky and clouds, glimmering with orange at their corners.
Ashlynne was glad Astrid wasn’t harming her health, but the relief was interwoven with the deep, quiet ache of all the things she missed with Astrid, the fact that she never knew when or why she smoked, alongside everything else she wasn’t around for.
As the planet of love buzzed around her, Ashlynne could only take comfort in the fact it was pouring rain. Ashlynne was stranded on her first day at the new high school, without any once of familiarity- and without Astrid, the most important person in the world to her. Valentine’s day used to be sweet and sugary and perfectly generic, tasting like the candy Astrid and Ashlynne traded on the bus as the sun began to rise. Last year, the clouds looked like cotton candy and Ashlynne sat so close to Astrid that their shoulders were touching. Electricity had coursed through her like a sugar rush.
But not anymore. Now it felt like the deep throb of loneliness in her chest and bitter coffee- the only thing that could get Ashlynne out of bed. Ashlynne tried not to cry. Not a single person greeted her-not that it would fix anything.
But all around her, the sky wept until there was nothing left, until the clouds were hollow and had to scrape out their insides, and the sky was bitter and cold.
As Astrid drove out onto a highway, Ashlynne turned the small box in her hand, looking at the tiny, intricate petals of the painted blossoms.
¨ You know, I haven’t thought about that cigarette box in a while.¨
Astrid began, a smile forming at her lips. ¨ But it was beautiful. That’s why I kept it.¨
Even just walking out into the rainy, starry night, Ashlynne immediately thought of the constellations of freckles on Astrid’s face, ones that only appeared at summer, the silver streaks of hair that Astrid had dyed near her ears. Everything connected back to her somehow. Ashlynne tilted her head upwards, the sky covered in stars liquefied by the tears she had tried so hard to push away all day. More and more tears slipped down her cheeks, becoming synonymous with the rain pouring down on her. Ashlynne stood shivering in the empty parking lot, her hair and clothes slowly getting drenched, staring up at the stars. Even when the lonely, aching pain opened up in her chest, even when it took over her whole body.
That night, the two headed to a hotel to sleep in. Astrid and Ashlynne sat side by side on the bed, Astrid reading a fantasy novel (Astrid loved Fantasy, while Ashlynne was typically partial to more realistic novels)
However, tonight she had started to write the sequel to A Queen In Exile.
It was an unlikely pair. The two girls sat together in the classroom. Astrid always hung out with the popular kids, until recently, when she started eating lunch alone. The two had never talked before. Still, the way the sunlight streamed through the windows gave Ashlynne a rush of inspiration.
¨ Do you like to read?¨
Astrid smiled, her eyes sparkling.
¨ Yes! Have you heard of the queen in exile?
The two girls talked the rest of the period, Astrid telling her all about her favorite book, The Queen In Exile. The two began sitting at lunch together, heads bent over Astrid’s well worn copy of a thick fantasy novel. Even though Ashlynne had always been partial to realistic fiction prior, the captivating way the book was written swept both of them away to faraway lands. A few weeks later, when Ashlynne had the stomach flu, Astrid was right by her side, getting her water and reading about sword fights and royal drama and queens that rode dragons. The book ended with a cruel cliffhanger, in which the princess is sent to war. Both of the girls lost hope of a sequel after a few years had passed.
Still, It was comforting to just be near Astrid as Ashlynne scribbled down, revising and revising…
Zania had been at war for years.
At least that’s how it seemed.
When the troops had first marched out to war, Zania’s stomach had been bloated from her son born just a few weeks before, and the flurries of snow glistened in the cold air, coating her silky hair with white. At that point, Zania had never seen death. She was surrounded by life. She was going to give her son the world.
Zania would never be that person again.
The next day was spent at parks and picnic blankets and now, sitting atop a picnic table at the sky began to flower.
As the two sat on the picnic table, Ashlynne noticed the sunset-casted colors over Astrid. The lightest taint of pink outlined her face, and the buttery golden colors swirled with blue in the sky left blue and yellow light cast over her, just barely, like the last glimmer of magic left with an angel on earth. ¨ You know, Elijah and I have had fights like this before.¨ Astrid began, looking out at the park. ¨ But It doesn’t mean we don’t love each other. Sometimes, I don’t give him credit for how he helps me. Same could be said for him, but, well..¨ She trailed off. ¨ I think it will all be okay.¨ Ashlynne was happy Astrid had a happy marriage, but deep down inside her, the words felt daggers in her chest. even if Astrid doesn’t love me, She reminded herself, I’m happy to be with her. I could have never seen her again. ¨ This sunset is so beautiful, Ashlynne.¨ She smiled, turning to her. Ashlynne was so close, she could see all the freckles littered on Astrid’s face. Ever since they met in high school, Astrid’s face had lots of freckles, scattered across her face like stars, that only appeared in the summertime, like little constellations.
You’re so, so beautiful, Ashlynne thought
I want to trace all the constellations on your face
I want to be with you forever
¨ It is.¨ Ashlynne agreed, staring up at it alongside her. They sat so close together their shoulders were almost brushing.
Later that evening, as the first stars began to appear in the darkening sky, the two women began heading back to where their car was parked alongside the road, hoping to find a hotel to sleep in. But as they approached the car, they noticed two things were different: first, the road that was bare a few hours before was jammed with cars on every direction, a haze of blinking red- and - blue lights that seemed to go on for miles without an end. Second, there were two police officers standing nearby, talking to huge cameras mounted on reporter’s shoulders and microphones. ¨ Yes, this might possibly be the biggest sinkhole in history.¨ One of the police officers, the taller one, said grimly. ¨ Ted, ¨ he began, turning to the other police officer, ¨ go down to where Lea is standing. She’ll tell you how many miles she’ s covered.¨ ¨ Aye-Aye, Sir!¨ The shorter man saluted and began running down the hill. ¨ Um, excuse me..¨ Astrid started, greeted with the giant cameras and a fistfuls of microphones. ¨ Uh.. What’s going on?¨
¨ Well,¨ The police officer started, taking off his hat for a second to slick back his greasy hair, ¨ Like I said, this is possibly the biggest sinkhole in human history. We’re backed up for miles. We got police officers blocking it up and police officers running around for miles, telling people. And we got Fox news,¨ he gestured to his right, ¨ CNN,¨ he gestured to his left, ¨ and-¨ Before he could finish, a woman with fluffy blonde hair and a bright green pantsuit began running towards him. ¨ Hello, I’m from MSNBC News! ¨ She began excitedly. ¨ What exactly is going on here with this sinkhole?¨
As he began to repeat the information to her, each reporter wide eyed,
wielding their microphone like a weapon, Astrid and Ashlynne looked to each other with shock. What do we do?? Astrid mouthed to Ashlynne.
In the end, the traffic jam was so severe that it was blocked for miles upon miles, and there was no way to go north without hitting the sinkhole. They decided to sleep in the car for the night and make a plan the next day.
So after a surprisingly tasty meal of pancakes from a nearby diner, the duo went back to the top of the hill to their car and, amidst the ongoing sinkhole chaos, and tried to go to sleep.
Ashlynne flicked on the radio, turning the dial until she was greeted with an unfamiliar station and soft, bittersweet songs she had never heard before. It was the kind of station she would only hear once or twice in her life, only at night, playing songs that were beautiful and that she would never hear again. And that was okay, because everything about this moment was so fragile and beautiful, like a flower crown about to be swept away by the wind. She kept feeling her mind drifting to other topics, like Astrid’s husband and new adopted kids and their life together. She needed to focus on now.
What was the point of life? Zania found herself asking herself over and over.
Before, she was living for her son, but there was no sign she was a mother anymore. Her stomach, once holding a life inside, was thin from the lack of food Zania had grown accustomed to. How old would he be now? Three? Four? Time had gone fuzzy and unrelentless. All Zania could rely on was the seasons. But sometime it would grow bitterly cold, but the clouds would remain full and grey, or it would grow sickly and stickily hot, but something in her still felt like it had frozen over. The only constant in Zania’s life was the bloodspill, the constant stream of a life lost again and again and again. Life had become something that was easily thrown away. No one knew or cared if you were a mother or a father or a child. There was only swords jabbed in necks and faces and legs.
The last time it had snowed, Zania felt like herself. She had never killed.
As Astrid slept, her chest rose up and down, and her hair fell around her like a inky waterfall, mixed with glimmering streaks of white. Ashlynne wasn’t sure if it was dyed, just like in high school, or if it was a sign of age. Ashlynne didn’t care- she was Astrid, and Astrid was beautiful. The windows of the car were open and Ashlynne reached out her hands, letting the cool night air pool around her fingers. After all this time, the starry sky was soft and close again.
Ashlynne gazed at Astrid until the sky had faded from ink to fire to snow, until all her tears were dried and the music on the radio turned into static.
Eventually, Astrid’s eyelids fluttered open, her eyes the color of coffee with lots of cream and sugar. She reached out her hand to open the car door, slowly getting out of the car, and into the petrichor of the white-skied early morning. The grass was dewy and the air had a slight chill. The cars jammed around them had disappeared, leaving only a few in the outskirts of Ashlynne’s vision, driving down the faraway hills and away, until disappeared, on to bigger and better things than this highway. Ashlynne got out of the car, her limbs numb from not moving for so long, exhausted from staying up so late. Only snippets of the songs playing on the radio stayed with her, and they were already fading fast, like a dream dissolving with the rhythm of ordinary life.
She stood on the hill a few feet away from Astrid, looking up into the sky.
It almost looked like a blank slate.
But in reality, it was the opposite, so clouded the blue couldn’t come through the cracks.
Zania died with a sword staked through her heart, her silhouette collapsed and sticking out at odd angles like a broken toy against the blazing sunrise.
Eventually, the two women got back into the car and began driving south. It was so silent all you could hear was the soft thrum of the car and the slight scratching of Ashlynne’s pencil on paper.
¨We’re going home.¨ Astrid said softly.
It sounded so final. It almost made Ashlynne want to cry, but what chance did she even have with her? What was even the point? Life wasn’t a road trip, and Astrid wasn’t going to leave her life behind. Ashlynne could taste the bitter coffee of tomorrow, could feel the salty tears that would fall down her face, staring out the window of the hotel and seeing a sea of buildings. Everything would be back to normal; except wouldn’t it be worse? Because, after all this time, they were so close and everything was almost perfect?
One of the king’s servants sent home a letter of Zania’s death to her family. Her parents had assumed she was dead, of course, because of the absence of letters, but the dull ache that came after the letter was worse. There wasn’t even the slightest sliver of hope, just a tangible piece of paper that said your daughter is dead and a lot of flowery language that made her mom want to scream.
Why did she stop writing them letters?
Was she too frail? Or did she die valiantly in battle? Did she not care about them?
Or was it something else?
Ashlynne looked up at the windshield as Astrid drove, the first raindrops of an approaching storm sliding across the glass.
Neither of them was ever going home again.