“Vera, in her own quiet way, had always been as proud as a cat. She never claimed superiority, never went around with a stiffly straightened back, but like a cat, she always licked her wounds in secret and never let anyone know she was injured.”
Three days later, she found herself on the riverbank. Thin breaths huddled in her chest and emerged at unpredictable intervals. Perhaps she was saving heat. The early March grass, pale and sickly, was bent a final few degrees beneath her feet. The water would have been a perfect pale blue, but it was dirtied by too many sticks and garbage and polluted snowmelt. A breath of wind, as small as her own exhalations came by, and it threatened to freeze the water in the river and on her face with all the force of a puppy playing at ferociousness. She stayed still as the smallest fraction of a smile bloomed inside her and withered a moment later, and she listened to the empty air ringing in her ears.
Vera, in her own quiet way, had always been as proud as a cat. She never claimed superiority, never went around with a stiffly straightened back, but like a cat, she always licked her wounds in secret and never let anyone know she was injured.
The winter descended on Vera late, and as she thought about it on the riverbank, she was as grateful as she could be, given everything. The first snow had been in November, but it hadn’t reached in and hushed up her soul for a good month. Even so, it had been too long. Each day she looked for some new tool or trick. Each time she seemed to be out of ideas, she summoned up enough cunning for just one more.
Still, none of them had worked (and the last one had worked least of all), and now, with the crocuses still in bloom, all she had was her own breath and a scrap of hope. The second, when she looked for it, was absent as often as it was there. Vera still held onto it like a child’s blanket, because what else was there? Sometimes she was almost glad of its absence, the breathless wanting that broke through the hush a little bit. She was always glad of its presence. Mostly the cycle, the soar and the crash, had tired her out. Still she was a little glad, because what else was there?
It was with this little bit of hope and little bit of gladness that Vera waited on the riverbank and worried a little. What if the late arrival meant a late departure? What if there was no departure at all, and the turning inside her was separate from the seasons? (This last one was too likely for comfort, and Vera tried to think of the rivers’ currents instead, the empty twisting things.)
Three days ago, the sky had been an over-bright, perfectly clear blue, as if trying and failing to make up for the below-zero temperature. Vera had gone outside, at the urging of her mother, and not just to the river a bit behind her house. She had got in the car, for the first time since the break began, and bit back a grimace at the fumes. She always imagined them creeping through her lungs and turning her insides charcoal gray, but the reality was that they were mostly just gross. Someone who avoided the car like her would probably be fine.
The seat of the car looked the same way it smelled: dirty, old, and slightly wrong. It was the sort of smell that infused the places where terrible things happened. She was being overdramatic, she knew that. She could ignore the smell. It faded into the background if she waited long enough and looked at the trees, looking empty without their leaves. Or at the road, watching the dashes blur into an unbroken line of white paint and seeing the barriers on the side of the road crash into each other noiselessly. Her gaze shifted in continual disappointment. The sun was out, the sky was doing its best to pretend it was summer, but everything was sallow, like the light was slacking off.
The trees looked like dust plumes now. Vera’s mother hadn’t said anything yet. Vera had barely noticed her get in the car and start driving. Something hard weighed in her chest.
“How long have you been driving?”
“Uh, five minutes or so.” Her mom looked a little surprised, and Vera wondered why, until she remembered that she had barely spoken in the last few days. “We’ll be there soon.”
Which meant anywhere from five minutes to an hour. Although, she had been to this store before. She really should have been able to remember. “Okay. Thanks.”
The white line kept bleeding into itself. Everything that could be seen on the side of the road hurried away from the direction Vera was heading. What were they, so desperate to get away and so good at it too? For a moment the car was stationary, she and her mom sitting passively in it, doing nothing but twitching and breathing. The earth roared past, and the air hissed along the car. Then, her perspective flipped right back, and it was once more the car racing down the highway while the trees fumbled a little in the wind. Vera sat still, breathless, disturbed. Was it any different? She still did nothing; only the car moved her. Could she even move? Vera willed herself to pick up her arm. It didn’t move, but that was to be expected. She hadn’t wanted it enough.
Some thick tangle of emotion engulfed her. She looked through the gaps, doing her best to ignore it and waiting for time and oxygen to take it away, even as it was about to stop her throat from beneath. “Mom?” she said.
“The play you went to last week, what was that about?” Might as well distract herself.
“Oh, I don’t really remember. Adultery or something?” Vera’s mom didn’t look at her. Of course she couldn’t, she was driving, but she had drilled into Vera the importance of looking people in the face.
“What do you mean, adultery?”
“Like, people cheating on each other.”
“No, I know what adultery means. I mean what else happened in the play? Lots of plays are about adultery.”
“Exactly.” A corner of her mom’s mouth flicked upward, just for a second. “Can’t keep them apart.”
“Hm.” Vera didn’t see the point in seeing a play you couldn’t remember, but she decided to shut up about it. “Was it good?”
Her mom shrugged. “It was like the rest of them.”
A sense of déjà vu struck her; she could have sworn she’d had this conversation. Only it wasn’t déjà vu at all: she had said these things before, or close enough to them, and her mom had just gone on seeing the same plays. Her stomach turned, and the smell of exhaust that she had ignored till now flooded it. “Then why did you see them?” she demanded. Her voice had an edge of anger in it that made her mother flinch.
“Don’t talk to me like that.”
Vera sulked and didn’t stop until her mom pulled into the parking lot, where the endless concrete was too overwhelming to really do anything but look at it. Something compressed her chest; she could hardly breathe. The buildings were not concrete, but they were the same color, or else a bleached beige totally devoid of personality. All the local colors had been drained out and stuffed into a handful of logos. Minus the sky. The sky was the same oversaturated blue, and at that moment Vera couldn’t imagine it ever changing. She would simply have to live out her life stalked by that sky, leeching all the color out of the landscape.
It was with — not gladness, but something close enough to it that Vera slipped out from under the sky and entered the store, following her mother blindly. The place was lightly crowded. That should have been easy enough to get around, but no one here could move at all, and Vera found herself bumping into person after person. Scowling, she retreated into a corner. Her mom could do the shopping herself.
The corner she found herself in was not a corner, exactly. That is to say, it was not a place where two walls met. It was a place where they collided as if thrown together by some frustrated god of retail, with any adherence to the laws of physics or aesthetics entirely accidental. The cement was rough enough to almost hurt when she leaned against it, and the caulk was filled with dirt. Had anyone, she wondered, ever taken care of this place? Or was it one of those permanently untended patches of civilization, built to keep out the wind and nothing more?
Something flickering by her nose surprised her, and when she traced the light back to its source, she found she was eye to eye with a dragonfly. It dragged itself up the caulk over bits of dirt that must have seemed to it as large as boulders, staring at her with glittering compound eyes; she scarcely breathed for fear of disturbing it. It drank in the empty light with its whole body and converted it, casual as anything, into iridescence: this must have been what made the alchemists think that they could transmute lead into gold.
The sound of her mom’s voice made the dragonfly take off. Vera tracked the blue and green glimmers for the moment it was still in sight, then reluctantly turned around. “Coming!” she shouted, then winced at the sound of her own voice. The store was the same as it had been a few minutes ago. The lights flattened the linoleum floor into a featureless expanse, and everywhere, bright packages and conversation blurred into a meaningless haze. The place smelled overwhelming, but it was an unplaceable scent, the smell of hundreds of processed foodstuffs. She thought of the dragonfly, how for a moment the sight of it had carved into her the desire to simply watch it. Forever, if she could get that.
But this was the real world. It was shallow and chaotic, and she couldn’t sit and want. Can’t sit and want. It was a message she would do well to gouge into a wall somewhere, but of course, nothing was that permanent or that simple. She would have to remember it. Perhaps she should leave a note for her future self, telling her not to empty herself out, to let the tides of the supermarket and the car trips wash over her and fill her. For the time being.