The colors of city lights bleed out into the blank sky, smoke rising to the atmosphere, and ashes falling back to the asphalt. In the back of his mind, he hears music—Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. For the boy, it has always been the song of the after.
Outside the thin windows of the apartment, Kai can hear the sound of falling rain and the low breeze, screeching cars and drivers spouting profanities. The streets are never quiet. He hears the beating of a moth’s wings as it flutters around the street lamp, but not the urgent words that leave his mother’s lips as tears streak her face. Her mouth keeps forming the same shapes, and it occurs to him that she’s saying one thing over and over again.
“Everything is going to be alright, sweetie.” The sound of her voice feels like the earth has dropped onto his chest when his mind returns to his body. He becomes aware that the side of his face is pressed into the cold, wooden floor of their living room. Sweat makes his dark hair stick to his forehead, and he can taste iron when he breathes. He feels like shit, personified.
“Do you need to go to the hospital?” she asks, knowing that after seventeen years, it has become a useless question.
“I’m fine,” He manages to croak out a half-convincing response.
Kai struggles to pull himself up into a sitting position; there’s a sharp pain flowing in the blue of his veins. The heavy soreness in his side makes him think he’s broken a rib. The room is empty except for the two of them, and Kai is relieved to know they are alone, at least for now.
“Are you okay?” Kai asks. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
His mother shakes her head, looking years older than she did the hour before.
“I’m alright,” she says, leaning down to wrap her arms around his torso. The action is supposed to be comforting but she quakes in fear. His mother helps him off the floor and to the bathroom, which proves to be quite the task. Since starting high school he has grown a foot taller than her, and now his limbs still aren’t fully functioning.
He leans against the sink, and his eyes wander to his once-white shirt, advocating Sigur Ros, some indie rock group whose music he has never heard. It’s covered in blotches of dark red, the color of wine. The red seeps through the fabric. The stain will never come out.
“Just wash up, okay?” his mother coaxes. Kai pulls the shirt over his head, and she snatches it from his hands. Her eyes jump from the shirt to back up at her son.
“I’ll take care of everything,” she says, clutching the bloodied t-shirt to her chest and shutting the door behind her.
He takes off the rest of his clothes before stepping into the shower. He turns the faucets, and a stream of cold water hits his back. The red washes away, pooling on the white tiles at his feet, and the pain under his bruised, olive skin dulls. There’s a long, thin gash running diagonally across his chest. The cut is not deep enough to kill, but it will leave a scar.
He can try to forget, again. Try to remember all the good things, but the memories of those are fading. Besides, there is only so much you can wash away, and only so much that you can forget in the after.
Kai walks into his bedroom, looking for something constant in all the change. Instead, he finds that most of his stuff is dumped out into suitcases strewn across his bed. The shelves that once held pictures in frames are now bare. His mother stands in the center of the chaos, packing their lives away into trash bags. When she sees him she tries to smile, like this entire scenario is normal. It’s a slap to the face, a reminder of just how fucked-up their lives are.
“I have to go to the bank, Kai, sweetie. Finish packing up—I’ll be back soon.”
“Okay,” he says, because there is nothing more to say.
She reaches up and ruffles his hair, like she did when he was younger. Even though he is seventeen, he still finds comfort in it.
There’s still food in the fridge—mostly just takeout. Kai grabs a few relatively fresh-looking apples, but there’s not much to salvage among the rest. A bottle of wine catches his eye, cigarette butts floating in the dregs. He winces. The room smells like his father, like despair and fear. The burn on his arm feels vicious, singeing. He grabs the bottle, hurls it out the open kitchen window, and watches the glass shatter on the street. He laughs like it’s his last day on earth. It might as well be.
By the time his mother returns, Kai has packed everything. They pile the pieces of their lives into the back of the Impala, leaving the place they once called home barren and empty.
“Where are we going?” he asks as he shuts the trunk. His mother smiles warily before answering.
“Somewhere far away,” she tells him as he slides into the passenger side. The tiny green pine tree air freshener looks almost like an arrow pointing them away. The car’s engine sputters to life, and the sound is already so much better than any empty promise she could make.
The city is grey and flat, like a paper cutout, drawn with the tip of a needle. This city was the backdrop to his life, yet this is the first time Kai has ever thought of it as something other than his personal hell. Cars pass like water through an iron grate as they drive away. Everything looks perfect from afar, windows in buildings perfectly identical, symmetrical.
It was never so beautiful up close.
Written by: Jamie H
Photograph by: Skyler Smith
This is my short story “Beginnings“ see it in all its glory at 1:1000.
I wrote this piece a couple months ago, and it has finally been published!