He steals things most people won’t notice. Wishes on pennies from fountains. A delicate second here, winks of sleep there. Small things, it’s how he lives. But he’s never needed to steal from you. Because you would gladly drop your unwanted memories into his cap and walk away feeling new. In fact, every time you leave his bench, you never look back.
The weather is sticky, with a mild chill — not uncommon for January in Alabama — and you tie your hair into a knot to keep it from dipping into your shoulders. Johannes is where he always is: on his bench. He isn’t without his newsboy cap and his withered, ebony skin glows against a backlight of evening sun.
“What was it this time?”
You inhale shards of air which bury into your windpipe. The recent pandemic has a way of searing panic into overworked eyes and jobless hands. In turn, widespread panic manages to shake up bottles of expired emotions, popping the lid off with its thumb. Emotions you vowed never to relive.
“It was only a snippet. Bloody gums and petal-shaped bruises.”
Johannes drags his fingers through his beard and your heart drops faster than an anchor, colliding hard with the seabed. After a second, he bobs his head slowly and takes your hand.
The feeling is familiar, yet you can’t help but curl your toes in every time. It starts in the hollows under your ears and tumbles into rain that gathers in your jaw. From there, it sprouts wings, sweeping across your collarbones with a feathery caress. Finally, it congeals into a paintbrush that strokes and tickles your lungs, leaving you breathless. When you open your eyes, you can’t seem to remember what you were thinking about.
“What was I saying?”
Johannes chuckles, and in his hand is a tiny glass egg. He holds it up to the light and it plays catch with sunbeams. “Well, that'd be against the point, right?”
That must be the memory you came to erase then. You adjust your mask over your ears and reach into your recyclable bag.
“First angel of the year.” Johannes says, sketching his pinkies over the aluminum dish you place on his lap and you let the metallic whistle of the foil keep unsolicited thoughts at bay. “Here’s hoping it’s a better year than the last.”
You laugh into your palm, but it doesn’t quite permeate through your mask. “The End Times hasn't ended just yet, Hans.”
The park is a masquerade ball these days. Only, it isn’t eyes that are concealed, with sequins and fake feathers. Masks crisscross over chins like second skins, so that sincerity is only present in fake words and smiles are hidden in plastic. Every pair of shoes crossing half-vacant sidewalks is waltzing to their own rhythm, to the beat of untimely phone calls and erratic alarm clocks.
Six-foot-tall with broad shoulders doesn’t seem to matter as much as six-feet apart with your hands in your pockets.
You massage your nail beds and check your watch under the gloves you wear simply because you feel like it. Or rather, because you know that people brew judgements in the back of their minds faster than sneeze droplets transmit. You prefer not to receive pitiful glances due to habits you've adopted for reasons you don't want to remember. It's how you know you'd be the reclusive aristocrat at the ball, the tardy one pretending to sip white wine alone on the balcony.
The park is half empty, safe for the occasional committed joggers or the mothers with hawk eyes taking their restless toddlers out for a much needed stroll after being caged in for too long. A handful of schoolkids steer kites into lamp posts. Red, blue, yellow. You watch the primary colours stamp the sky and you know that’s what you want for yourself. Having freedom ring in your ears. Roosting in the clouds as the wind welcomes you dangerously.
You know you’ll join them one day. But for now, your frame needs work and your paper has holes.
“I want to be a kite,” you blurt out, “and fly with the wind.”
Johannes smirks and your lips tug down. “But kites only fly against the wind, dear girl.”
You almost don’t register the trepid tap at your shoulder; too bothered wondering what the hell Johannes meant.
"Can you help me get my kite?" The voice belongs to a middle schooler, who gestures to a tree bough where you can make out billowing ribbon tails. When you ask where his parents are, he shrugs at a group of kids instead. You can’t seem to fault him for defying caution and parading himself outside because you’re an avid rule-breaker yourself.
The tree is bent to a hunch and gnarled with neglect. Climbing it isn’t too much of a struggle; with some well-placed holds and well-timed pushes, the spool is within reach and you fold the kite into the boy’s waiting palms. It’s a lovely purple, not quite the colour of twilight and just lighter than an orchid. The colour tattoos itself into your mind and clicks into the space where your memories used to be like a key into a lock.
Purple. Like bloody gums and petal bruises. Your mind produces a blurred image, winking on and off. What is this? Where have I seen this before? You borrow strength from legs that suddenly don’t feel yours and take harried steps onto the pavement.
More images flood the darkness behind your eyes, all of them screaming with lilac puddles. Purple, like basement tiles and peeled back nails. Passersby wrinkle their noses like triggers and shoot bullets from their eyes as you bump past them, clutching your skull. Your shoes are pounding in time with your frantic heartbeats. Hearts. They’re purple. Purple like onion breath and his eyes. Whose eyes?
The marathoners in the park are about six feet tall but you don’t notice that until your forehead collides into one of them like a rogue asteroid. The impact leaves behind a comet trail of apologies and what you’re sure are some nasty blemishes.
"Sorry," you mumble. "Keep going — hope you reach your goal!"
You bow your head and step around the runner's fluttering jacket. His purple jacket. His. Whose? The tall stranger’s face melts, pooling in some areas and cutting to bone in others. Midnight hair and universe eyes. You. . . No, not you. Why are you here?
You stumble into yellow weeds, holding your arms in front of you. After a blink, the photoshopped memory has dissolved and the runner has wheat hair and olive irises. He grins weakly, scrunching one eye and flashing a thumbs up before falling into line with his fellow athletes. You watch them race away, farther down the track lining the playground.
“Elliot!” You pinch your temples and breathe a loose grin at Johannes when he catches up to you. His own smile is flanked with wrinkles and facial hair. You think it to be magic, much like him. “You okay?”
Your grin never breaks, though you know your sanity is. “You bet.”
You kick off your shoes back in the unit and your roommate raises a brow at your haste. After unconvincing reassurances that you're not being chased by an axe murderer, you lock yourself in the bathroom and peel off your gloves, furiously scrubbing as if you could drown the newly blossoming memories in the basin. Cut them off before they mutate into a sickening virus. You rub until your nails draw blood and red streaks disappear down the drain. Then you sink into your pillows and collapse into a nightmare.
* * * * *
All is silent when you wake up. It’s snowing outside and there’s a note licked onto the fridge handle from your roommate. Snow. How rare down in the south. You’re transfixed for a while as sugar sifts from the clouds and the trees shake their noses from the cold.
Picking an apple from the fruit basket, you hover into the hallway, your toes leaving the ghost of your touch on the floor. There’s light spilling out of the laundry room, tapered snakes of brightness escaping from under the door. Maybe Barbara left it on? The hamper is empty and the machine is gurgling, choking up shirts like wads of gum. You close your eyes for a second and the whirring falls into a steady pulse until you don’t hear it anymore. Or anything else for that matter.
It’s then that the door slams behind you and melds into the wall. You stumble forward, but only find yourself falling, as blunt edges steam-press into your spine. Stairs? There aren’t supposed to be stairs here.
You’re underground — in a basement, you decide. The walls rise up around you, forming a castle of bricks. But what good is a castle if I’m a prisoner in its halls? You try shouting at first, but the ceiling digests the sound, chews it up and spits out silence. Knuckles meet stone time and time again until you’re sure they must be dust underneath your flesh. The tiles are lavender gray and peppered with bones and liquid fear. The apple in your hand is heavier, flaky. Only it isn’t an apple now; it’s an onion.
It’s the dragging that sends piano notes skittering up your neck. The sound echoes in the empty spaces and gossips into your ears. Suddenly, metal digs into your face until your teeth drill into your gums and everything tastes like copper.
“I told you to be quiet, bitch.”
It’s him. The man trapped in bars made of your memories, trying to claw his way out. He walks among your thoughts and impales them with his cane. Your stepfather. But he can’t be here, he’s behind real bars twisted with metal and rings around his wrists.
You wonder if you’re outside because you see tiny stars. Or perhaps they’re fairies. Either way, everything is locked in a purple filter. Purple gums and purple bruises. Purple tiles and purple nails. Purple breath and lips. And his very, very purple eyes.
“This might hurt a bit,” he says, and purple fades to black.
* * * * *
Your disorders are just letters to you, scrabble pieces from an alphabet you no longer have. Empty words from hollow doctors pretending to care when they just want to get paid. You’re lying in your bed, curled into a question mark. Wishing you could hold something like an answer. You know you’re much more than where you’ve been. You’re stronger than your stepfather gave you credit for. And he’s gone now.
But the past seems to be a boulder that blocks the entrance to your rib cage. Crippling your growth and leaving you crawling back into the hole you’ve built for yourself every time.
The night is cool and the moon refuses to heal your scars. Johannes senses you long before he turns around and holds up the glass memory from earlier, but now it lies in eggshells over his palm. “Rough night?”
“Erase all of it,” you tell him. “Erase my past before it taints my future.”
Johannes purses his lips. “Your past may be stained, but your future is clean.”
“Please take them,” you insist. “Everything was fine, until I started remembering.”
Johannes combs his fingers through the hair by your cheekbone, sweeping it behind the arch of your ear. He compresses his knuckles and they glow with the light of rejuvenated embers. When he opens them, the frosted glass has cracked together into its whole form. He loops a leather cord from his sleeve through the memory egg.
“I take things that won’t be noticed. I accept things that won’t be missed. I live on things others don't need, but,” he winds the cord with the memory under your chin, “are you sure you don't need these memories to live? Because I certainly don't need them. Or want them if it's only going to hurt you.”
With collapsing suns in his eyes, he threads his fingers through yours and energy sprints through your veins. Slowly, thoughts trickle out, leaking through your lips — but it feels unstable like horses on the edge of a cliff. Johannes tells you that these things come with a price — that it's just an illusion masking the truth — but you drone out his voice because you can’t afford to dwell on it.
Or maybe, you can’t accept that you’ll never truly erase the past. As the memories drain out one last time, you forget your worries along with them and resolve to hold onto your dreams instead — branding the air with their presence.
“I want to be the kite that flies without a string.”
“Elliot.” Johannes’s words sound small and the rushing feeling stops. “A kite is never really free. And maybe that’s for the better. Because a kite needs its spool to ground it. If the string breaks, it’ll fall — not fly. Its freedom depends on its anchor.”
It’s over and your recollections have gone blank. You don’t remember what you came here to forget, and you can’t seem to remember if this was what you really needed. There's a weight on your collar and you glance down at a crystal orb suspended on a cord. Your memories. Your past.
It will be there until you're ready to face it. At this point, you're too tired to decipher whether the voice belongs to Johannes or simply inhabits your head.
"I don't need it," you vow, not sure who's listening or making note of it in the stars. Your hands are dry, so you tug the rim of your gloves further over your wrists. Pigeons vibrate their heads on the cement and gulp down stray flecks. You kick your boots at them and they disperse into a mass of feathers and dandelions spores. Slicing your fists through the air, batting at them as they soar out of your reach.
“Come now,” Johannes jokes, “It’s not their fault they use their wings. Aren’t you the girl who flies kites?”
“Actually, I’ve never flown one before,” you say, looking at the sky. You can’t tell if he’s frowning under his mask or simply laughing at you as you walk away.