I flexed my fingers. The flesh was so white and the veins so blue it was indistinguishable from a sheaf of notebook paper.
So I was pale today. Yesterday my skin had been tan. The day before, purple.
You could never count much on your appearance here. The Author had never described what we looked like. So, our appearances were more fickle than the wind.
“You’re late!” Mother Figure cried from downstairs. The only way to know when school started was when the clock in the main square chimed.
There were no hands on the clock or anything. It would just chime. One when school started, twice for when it ended. That was the only thing it did.
The only mark of passing time.
I ran down the stairs, jumping over the railing and breezing through the kitchen. I grabbed some bread off a platter that was waiting by the front door and shoved it in my mouth. A blast of frigid air slammed into me as I yanked the door open. Maybe I could make it out before-
A clammy hand dug into my shoulder. Mother figure loomed behind me. Father Figure hovered in the stairway and clenched the railing. He’d held that railing in the same place so often, impressions of his palms were appearing in the mahogany.
They stood straight as sword blades and towered over my perpetual slump. Their faces (like all Non-Main Characters) was just a circle of grey. The edges of it faded into the roofs of their mad-scientist style hair. Two pinpricks of light served as eyes. Slashes of white that opened and closed sometimes served as mouths. I guess the Author described no one who wasn’t central to the plot which made for these creepy half-people.
“We’re counting on you to end this today. It can’t be that hard.” Father Figure said and straightened his broad shoulders so he cast me in an even larger shadow. “Win this game. Put on a good show-just, end it.”
“You just need to try harder… I know you can do it.” Mother Figure’s voice was sickly sweet and full of empty promises.
I shoved her hand away with a hard push of my shoulders, and then slammed the door shut behind me.
Try hard enough? That’s a new low -even for her. Of course I try, I don’t even have a choice. The only way to end this -is if I succeed. I turned around to make a face at my house and stopped. Her gnarled fingers had gotten caught in the door. She must’ve tried to stop it from closing. The skeletal fingers slivered back into the house, with no grunts of pain.
Outside, every kid sprinted towards the clock stationed near the school. As they ran their backpacks all shifted to different colors and designs in unison. It looked like a silent pulse that never ceased in it’s beating.
Their faces were all gray too, except for a select few who were Main or Supporting Characters. Even though those were unrecognizable unless the Author had described their Staple.
I didn’t head to the schoolhouse. The last interesting thing to happen had been three hundred clock chimes ago. Love Interest had dropped her pencil, so I’d picked it up. Our hands had brushed.
I hadn’t cared, though my face turned red as blood, and as itchy as an anthill. Every once in a million chimes, the Author would write that I did something, so I did. That was one of those times.
Imagine someone yanking on your marionette strings. Imagine their pull being so violent your arms broke. That’s what it felt like. It was the most painful thing in the universe.
Though it was also the only painful thing in the universe.
There was no sharp pulling on my veins, or nausea in my stomach and throat, so the Author wasn’t working with me through this chime. Their attention must be elsewhere in the story. Either way, it was a relief to be in control of my actions for a little while; even though it probably wouldn’t last long.
Instead of going to school, I went to the bridge. The bridge was only a short walk across the white abyss, interrupted with gray, identical, cube-shaped houses. It was a constantly swaying wood abomination, ugly and burly. If time existed in this place, it would have eroded and destroyed this piece of junk long ago.
Ugh, water. If you could call a blob of blue water. I’m not sure how anyone could fail at describing water, but the Author was full of surprises.
She stood there. Of course. She looked different today- she was shorter and paler. I could still tell it was her by the gold heart strung on fishing twine she wore around her neck. It was her Staple, like mine was this black sweatshirt. It was the one thing that the Author had overtly described, so it stayed constant.
I leaned against the bridge next to her. Maybe today she’d finally give up.
“I was too afraid to tell you,” she twirled to face me. Her hands clasped under her chest, “I love you.”
No response. Love Interest scowled, then bugged her eyes out and bit one lip so hard it vanished. “I said, I love you.”
“You too I guess,”
She pinched me, though there wasn’t any pain. That was one thing the Author was good for.“You could’ve tried. Just like you could have tried yesterday. Or the day before that. Or for the million chimes, we’ve been doing this.”
“Could I have? I mean, that was way over the top.” I huffed, my hands slipping into their customary positions in my sweatshirt pockets. “Like everything you do,”
“At least I try!”
This again? “Why does everybody- I do try! I try and try and try! I couldn’t try any harder if I wanted to!”
She scowled, her eyes glittering. “Oh, please,” I hated her almost as much as I hated myself.
“Don’t you get it? It will only end if we love each other! We can only save everyone if we love each other! And I can never love you.”
For once in a million chimes, she opened her mouth but nothing came out.
Though. In all our million chimes, we’d never said it. I’d never said it.
Her eyes focused on me. They were different now. They were big. There was something sparkling in them. Tears, I guess.
I hadn’t seen sparkles. Tears. Water. Only the blue speck on the white blankness that surrounded us every day, every second, every year. If time even existed in this place beyond those abdominal chimes.
Water was... pretty.
I couldn’t speak. Why was that? That hadn’t happened before. Why did it feel like something was clogging my throat? Why were wet things coming out of my eyes? Me too? Were they pretty like hers?
“I can’t love you either.” She said, after who knows how long.
I clenched the wood, and a shiver of pain wormed through my palm. “Have you ever loved anything?”
Her arm brushed against mine as she leaned closer. The added heat disoriented me. She bit her lip, hard, so hard that after a while I could see blood beads edging from under her teeth.
“I might love this.” She lifted her locket.
“The Author described this charm around my mother’s neck, so it stays stable. My father was described as playing with fishing twine one day, so that was stable too. One day without a word, my mom and dad gave this to me. It didn’t hurt them. The Author didn’t make them do that. They did. They wanted to give it to me.”
“It’s like a gift.”
“It is a gift.”
“Then that means they love you.”
“Do you?” Her whisper sounded more like broken glass dragged across rocks than words. I didn’t reply. I couldn’t when she sounded like that. Her dark brown hair faded to white, then grew blue highlights as my silence enveloped us. Finally, she tired of waiting for a response I’d never give.
“Do you love your parents?” Now her voice was safe.
I stared at the two shades of blue lapping at the beige crumbly material under their shore.
“No. They’re just reminders that…” With a shrug, I pressed my lips together.
“That what?” She asked, blinking even faster than my ever-quickening heart rate, and turning to face me.
“I can’t do the one thing I exist to do.” My hands clenched even harder against the wood, and the pain shot through me. I winced.
“Yeah,” she said.
Tears -wet and cool against my skin- trickled down my nose. They plopped on my hands. They made a noise. A noise other than us talking. The sound of our voices had always sounded the same. Now every word sounded different, trembling and shaking, growing louder and softer. It was unpredictable. Had anything ever been unpredictable before?
The clock chimed.
Usually, by the time one chime sounded, you couldn’t remember when the last had been. Though strange, it wasn’t inherently unheard of. Love Interest continued talking. “I try so hard. To love you. For them. But it never works. I guess I just have to try harder. But ...” She threw her head down at the railing, the movement so fast my heart jumped. Her hair fell in a colorful curtain around her heart-shaped face, the wind blowing it forward. Almost elegantly. There were gold highlights growing from the top of her head through her purple locks, as it grew longer. I blinked, and it was a long golden curtain so thick I couldn’t make out her face.
“I don’t want to love you. I don’t want to know that my entire existence is to make yours happy. To know,” She was crying for real now. She could hardly speak through it, the crying.“ All I have here is my pride! If I love you, if I save everyone, then I lose that. I can’t do it! I’m letting everyone down because of my pride! How selfish can you be?”
Was I supposed to pat her back? I didn’t know. “Only as selfish as I am.” Is what I said instead.
She looked up at me through her golden curtain.
“I can’t be the failure fixed by a girl with pretty hair. I’d rather fix myself-if I can figure out what’s wrong first.”
“You’re only as wrong as I am.”
We appraised each other. The bridge was total silence.
Her lips stretched in a smile. A genuine smile. Beautiful. I’d never seen one before. No one had reason to. “Do you know what that means?”
“We have something in common.” And she pressed her arm against mine.
The wind tousled our hair and sent waves flickering over each other in the glittering turquoise waters below. Curling ivy with crinkled, yellowed edges inched up the supports. On the underside of the bridge, moss faded to barnacles in a rainbow of textures. Through the crystal water, I made out the gray pebbles worn smooth by currents, and fish darting through waving seaweed. The bridge itself creaked slowly in the wind, its wood a rich oaken color.
I guess the Author finally described the bridge. Maybe the Author was here, at this moment, getting prepared to write us into submission.
The clock gonged, only this time screams and shouts accompanied it. We turned around to gawk where everyone else was gawking- the clock-tower.
Numbers appeared on the clock face. Coal-black against the pearly white.
“What does this mean?” She gasped.
“Something new is happening.” Finally.