Natalie Hampton is a young writer from Texas. She has been recognized at the national level in the Scholastic Art and Writing Competition, and her work has been published in an anthology of short stories and in Truant Lit. She writes primarily fiction, and is currently working on several short stories and a novel.
My years used to number single digits; invisible fairies used to sneak through the cracks between our worlds, bringing their own magic and glitter and shine. Back then, I couldn’t wait to grow up. In the movies playing on constant loop in my mind, the teenagers were perfect - skinny, happy girls with a constant group of friends to abide to their every wish. Their nails were impeccably manicured; their hair alternated between beachwaves and naturally straight. It was effortless, a permanent smile, a crescent moon of laughter splotched across their lips. They aced every test, never bothering to study. Then come the weekend, and the tight but not scandalous dresses were thrown on, heels stretching their already long, tan legs, and a thin layer of makeup to cure any slight imperfections. Why bother to paint on a full mask when they had nothing to hide? And escorted in a carriage, hand-in-hand with Prince Charming, the parties began. No drama or problems ever made the final cut of these fairytales – only the dancing and laughing and smiling and singing. As every year passed, the standard to be even an extra in their movie grew higher and higher; I only plateaued. Instead of creamy skin, soft as liquid gold, my pale complexion grew more blotched and covered in red. Instead of growing lush and shining like stars amidst the abyss, my hair split an inch past my shoulders and dulled like old chalk, left unwashed for days. So, I was cut from their tale, plain and simple. By my freshman year when the cracks had healed, but the scars not quite, I’d begun to accept I’d seen the last of the fairies. The fictitious movies were just another aspect of my childhood to leave behind. The pictures they painted of reality were only a flawed refraction of my distorted, fading dreams. The routine I’d settled into was anything but a movie. On Monday morning, at 7:05, the cycle started again with the gentle chime of bells echoing from my phone, growing louder with every second I ignored it. With a paintbrush, I could stroke to life a rainbow so real your fingers passed through the magic, and the gleam of a pot of gold was visible on the horizon next to the coppery sun. Though, any attempt with a makeup brush would leave a clown in my place, so I remained uncovered. Besides, no amount of drug store powder could fix the face I had hoped I’d grow out of. For breakfast, some stale cereal I’d set out the night before and a glass of milk I could only stomach a couple sips off. Months ago, I would pack my own lunch in the morning, filling a paper sack with sandwiches, bars, and fruit; I now preferred the cafeteria food instead. Although tasteless and gritty, at least in the long line stretching from the school kitchen to the back wall, I could pretend. I could pretend that the last time I’d spent a meal with a friend hadn’t been with assigned seats in fifth grade. I could pretend people were saving a table for me. If I arrived several minutes late and inched closer to the expired, reheated stench they called a meal, then scarfed down the food at an empty table, I could hide in the bathroom briefly until the bell saved me. I would much rather sit on the toilet in solitude than be alone in the cafeteria as a dead, winter leaf on a summer tree. The morning classes passed in a blur. My mouth a lock with a lost key. Sometimes, I could go days without uttering a single word. It’s actually quite easy to wear the shadows as a veil once you have accepted the sun wasn’t meant to shine on you. So now, ten minutes left of lunch, I was back in my natural habitat. The white bulbs buzzed, flickering on and off, spotted with black specks. Dead bugs were attracted to brightness like King Midas to gold. The floor, newly waxed, gleamed in the lights like beaten moonbeams. Footsteps echoed outside in the hallway, but people rarely came in. Why should they, when they could gossip with a friend instead? Those who did slip into the musty, molding room always gripped a makeup bag and hairbrush – to freshen up if there was anyone worth impressing in their next period – and they were never alone. Whenever I heard the cement door drag across the tiled floor, I would lift my feet up and make the stall look empty. You would be surprised how many secrets are exchanged across the sink, how many rumors spread, and how many lies exposed. How many times a heart can be rendered a bag of broken glass. I watched the seconds tick by, the clock hands a trap as the minutes extended into hours. The hallway towards freedom only elongated. But even when the bell rang, I would not truly be free. Onto my class I would head, where a new set of rules would be imposed and to step out of line would be to face discipline. Once the school day was called to a halt, my house is just another set of prison bars more cleverly disguised. Finally, the bells rang. While washing my hands, the familiar sound of the heavy door scraping open echoed against the walls. I didn’t have anywhere to hide, to pull my legs up and shrink down. I couldn’t burrow my face into my hoodie and pretend the world didn’t exist. Not now. Not while I was so exposed. I missed the sink handle the first time, my hands shaking like an earthquake, trying to crack my soul in half. Why couldn’t I be normal? Why couldn’t I be a social highlight, have friends? Instead, I am the last cloud of an expired storm, the lighting and thunder gone, and everyone just wishing for clear skies. I glanced up, darting my eyes towards the reflection beside me. Her hair was straight, highlights too perfect to be natural but expensive enough no one would question. She ran a hand through it, twirling strands around her pointer finger. Her makeup was barely visible, a face carved from gold detailed with diamond. I had never paid much attention to the popular crowds, but they all are variations of the same mold – flawless confidence. But as I stared, I realized she was shaking just as bad as I, if not even worse. Her forehead was dotted with the same perspiration, beads of worry overflowing from inside - the only droplets to escape the pressure compressing everything internally. Before she had the chance to notice my stare, I turned back to the sink, counting as each foaming bubble popped. Go away. Go away. The bathroom was narrow, in order to leave I would have to brush by her - my pale skin lightened by her sun kissed glow. I kept counting down the seconds until she entered a stall; she only stared at her reflection as a cycle of frowns and smiles rotated across. She finally turned away, and I prepared my escape into the halls. I heard the swing of the stall door, a thud as it closed, and finally silence. But as I looked up to run, she was still outside, reaching into the waistband of her jeans. Our eyes locked, but it wasn’t eye contact. In her dark brown eyes, where I expected joy and pride, there was no life - no person to connect with. There was no soul to greet, no spirit to wave at from afar. There was only darkness. Even I could hide the pitch black most days, but in her case, it was overwhelming, all-consuming. I no longer saw the perfect hair, designer outfit, pearl teeth, or flawless skin. There was only ink. Gallons and gallons of spilled ink seeping and trickling deeper and deeper. But I had fallen too far in the void in her eyes to pay any heed to her hands, to the glint of light against metal, to the maniacal grin creeping across her face. I only heard a clink gagged on the ink began to drown and feel too far down
So this is what broken feels like. I am the white foam on swept sands, never quite reaching land. I am forever held at a distance from my goals, from my life, from happiness. I am empty, and I am imperfect. When I look in the mirror, I see scars beneath the surface - unspoken pain. I see an empty chamber. The heart I used to own, snapped into fragments, grinded into grains of sand, and the scattered specks blown across seas of lilac in faraway meadows. Perhaps I used to be the “it girl,” the one everyone envied. And maybe they still do; but behind a mask of makeup and curls, friends and hookups, smiles and laughter, I am but a burnt-up cigarette, discarded onto the sidewalk and stepped on. But when fresh, people didn’t see me as dangerous, toxic. I am addicting. I was addicted to myself. I gave people a rush of excitement; I was the top of a roller coaster, right before you plummeted down into the unknown abyss. But eventually you would stop falling and rise back up. Rise back up to the moment of euphoria, to the moment of me. Except I would not rise. I was trapped alone in an empty cart, an abandoned ride, heading down, down into the ebony black of pure nothing - the sky before being sprinkled by stars like lucid snowflakes, the back of a closet, home to the monsters. I lived in the fear I crafted myself. But to others, I was normal. To others, I was the diamond, not the blood-stained marble. To others, I was the sun drenching a beach with butterscotch rays; in reality, I am just a moon, overseeing the washed-out, winter blue snow invade. My true face is the dark side of the moon, the hidden wall of the pyramid. There is a reason it was hidden, but with every passing day, my paint supply begins to dwindle. My wallets have long since run dry with the money to buy any more. I no longer can paint on this mask anymore, I no longer can hide the shadow poisoning my blood from the inside out. Perhaps I could’ve hidden for another couple of days; the truth is, I no longer wanted to. I no longer basked in stares of admiration, envy, and jealousy in the halls. I no longer saw the awe plastered in their wide eyes and slack jaw; only the expressions of disgust and revulsion. I was the fallen out piece of hair on your desk, the moldy cheese in the back of your fridge. I am no longer desired. And I am okay with that. Don’t ask me where the gun came from, how I laid my hands across the metal crafted from the iron of a thousand men’s blood, loaded with silver bullets with my name sprawled and printed across them. I do not know, I do not remember. But I don’t want to, so I choose to ignore it. All day, the cool metal had been pressing against my stomach, against an empty pit, against old but never quite fading scars. With every movement, my waistband clenched it tighter, yet the burn as it slid against exposed skin was anything but painful. It was freeing. I felt like a butterfly pirouetting across the sky, wings spun from enchanted silk. The weapon was not a curse, more of a wand; it was the key to another world, to the right side of the mirror when I lived in just a broken reflection. I played the part well today, putting more care to my appearance than normal, fitting into the friend group I unwillingly joined years ago. Funny, how so many people would trade their soul to the devil ten times over just to sit at our table for one lunch; all I wanted was to cut through the rope binding me in, to break the glass wall others observed from outside of. This life was anything but perfect. I straightened my hair, dotted on splotches of concealer, and ran a light layer of mascara through my eyelashes. My outfit was designed enough so everyone noticed but no one questioned. At lunch, I was just another member of the round table. I flirted with the boys and laughed with the girls. My mask was painted just a little thicker. I excused myself early. My seat was instantly stolen by a want-to-be. Desperate. He didn’t realize demons are expert actors and spin impeccable designs from threads of lies and fibs. The echoing of the cafeteria faded into a background buzz as I entered the outskirts, the loners. Here, I felt the most comfortable. For most people in the cafeteria knew my name, whether they praised it to the winds to hear it carried across the globe to all ears, or cursed it into the deep pits of hell - well that depends on who you ask. But regardless, I was known and I couldn’t hide. But here, in a sea of uncaring water, I am just another droplet in an overflowing bowl. It does not matter if I am from the freshest pond in the world, here, I mean nothing. The bell rang, and the stampede churned in the background. I was not ready - far from. So, I slipped in the first door on my left, not stopping to read the sign. The bathroom. Figures. Filthy and musky. Me. I wasn’t alone, but it was someone I hadn’t even seen before, an unknown. Although, all faces had begun to blur into one, the pen drawing them spilled, the ink running from feature to feature, face to face. I stood there for a minute, drops of sweat rolling down my back like a broken dam; she just washed her hands, staring down. Chunks of light brown hair, oily under the yellow-tinged lights, peeked out from under the edges of her black hoodie. In the mirror, I saw the reflection of the corners of her eyes peek up, trying (and failing) to hide her obvious stare. So, I turned to the stall, away from her; halfway there, I felt the cool metal press up against my stomach again. And in that moment, I was ready. I was ready for the end; I was ready to write an epilogue. I was ready for the painkillers to be permanent. I was ready to live the remaining few seconds on a high I crafted myself. I swung the stall door closed, clanging as the uneven lock clashed against itself. But I stayed outside, I stayed ready. I watched as she turned, ready to escape, only to see the reflection of a corporal ghost, the reflection of a dead man walking, staring back. For a second, she stood frozen. But I could see the moment she noticed the ink that had been smeared while drawing her face, the faces of everyone blurred into one, had been bottled, and once again split. Spilled onto me. Spilled by me. Our eyes held steady as I reached down, the tips of my fingers brushing against my waistband until I had a solid grip. I let the ink fly at her and then let it choke myself
A scream cascaded down the halls. A piercing, blood-boiling shriek that made the words swimming under your skin dance even faster. “I- I-“ A freshman, no more than five feet, trembled like the flickering flame of a burning candle, her palm still pressed against a scraping closed bathroom door, her expression molded into one of horror. The teacher across the hall - new, fresh out of college and already overworked - rolled his eyes while peaking a head out the door. “Keep it down, people are taking a test in here.” “You don’t understand.” “Just keep it down.” She shook, a gazelle in the face of a lion. “No, no. They, they . . .” Her voice broke off as drops of molten lava burned canyons down her cheeks. Finally taking heed to her trembles, he stalked across the hall and lightly knocked on the door. “Anyone in here?” Silence. There, side by side, lay two corpses, hearts fallen still, lungs shallow and empty, skin pasty and dry. Lips partially open, never to close on their own again. A ruby river leaking onto the floor, thick honey that had lost its sweetness, a crimson sunset spread across an obsidian sky. A single gun lay between them. “She was perfect.” The young student echoed back to the teacher. In their minds, they both thought they knew what had happened. Who had wielded the gun, who had said goodbye for both of them, who was at fault. The perfect girl, the one with friends - the one with a life. Of course, she had to be to victim. The outcast was the one to blame, the one no one would mourn anyway. And these two were also taken over by the ink.
THE END OF CHARLES BAKER
I don’t quite know what I want from life yet; what I beg it to give me, where to end up. All I’m certain of is I’m still miles away from the finish line. My tale has just begun, the second chapter still in the introduction, words still being written, tread still being spun. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ve even begun the race. I hope this isn’t all I amount to, stuck in an endless loop of work and paying bills. I don’t hate my life, it is just nothing special. I don’t love my job, but I don’t abhor it. I’m not the heart of the party, but I hang out with friends on weekends. It is all just mediocre. Every week day, I unlock the office door at 7:55, toss my black leather bag that cost more than it’s worth onto the carpeted floor, take a seat in the faded chair and flip to the next page of my small desk calendar. One more day down. The doctor is always late, and I have learned to never schedule appointments for him until at least nine. I never like to keep the patients waiting, not when their time has grown so precious. I try to help people in those subtle ways, although with the crowds drifting in this waiting room, no number of smiles or the bowl of candy I constantly keep filled to the rim, will relieve any of the pressure grinding their hearts into sawdust. And all of these people, I either saw one or three times. There was the initial consultation, normally on a Monday afternoon, such a normal time. Sometimes they walked in with Starbucks in their hand, others with sunglasses pushed back on their forehead. Some held a book; others wore a suit as they were leaving work. Some come with family and friends, more alone. Some minors, some past retirement. And then there was the crowd who appeared as you might imagine, loose clothes cascading to the floor in a waterfall of gray, eyebags painted in a single stroke. Their skin pale, marble as their blue veins peeked through. Yet no two people were ever the same. In this hour-long appointment, they were told how to die, what other doctors to consult, what other paperwork to fill out before the next meeting. They always left from the back door, so I never saw the reaction after, but as I went to empty the trash when closing at night, the cans were always overflowing with tissues. Some never made it back to the second appointment, as they realized the weight of their actions. Even though their end would come naturally in months, they couldn’t take the final leap to cut the string on their own terms. Who could blame them? But those who did come a second time to begin their final countdown were never the same. If they had managed to draw on a smile the first time, they no longer put forth the effort. Even if we had exchanged slight small talk prior, there was now only empty, hallowing silence. I never wanted to grow attached, and they never reached out a hand in the first place. Our silent system worked well. The final appointment, I pretended to not remember who they were. I pretended to not remember every face. I pretended to not know this was their last appointment. I pretended the back exit would still be needed. Even the few who had been accompanied earlier were almost always alone. And they said good-bye to an empty room.
I liked to always be prepared and skimmed the patient’s files before they ever came in. Today was someone new, their beginning of the end. Charles Baker, 26. Two years younger than me, the gap only to widen in years to come. Two years that would multiply into four, eight, sixteen as I continued living – a luxury he was denied. While a horrible game to deal myself cards for, I always tried to imagine the lives of people, just based on their names. And while at work, I pictured the life they should have lived, should have laughed, should have loved. And then they walk in, and I see the shortened life they were cursed with instead. As I spun his tale around, knotted and cut it, frayed the string and let it dangle low then raised it high, I built a person. A person cursed by the gods, as no one with just months to live could ever be called lucky. While I continued to knit the fabric of his existence, the bell above the door chimed. The man who strolled through didn’t fit the mold I built him, but rarely do my imagination and reality align. His hair curling rays of sunlight, while I painted chestnut; his skin blessed with a luminous, golden glow, while I pictured white snow packed into a thin figure. While I envisioned outcast, he embodied the life of the party, someone who had so much to live for. Someone who had been robbed of his freedom and youth. Quite out of place in a room smelling like bleach with washed out white couch cushions, black tables, and cream walls – a splash of color in an old black-and-white film. He stopped on the torn, graying welcome mat and let the door swish closed slowly, and then methodically dragged his soles against the floor. His heavy steps were slow, empty seconds ringing between each thud of his worn tennis shoes against the woolen carpet. As the echoes halted, I turned up, pretending to just notice him. “Hello. How may I help you?” He stared at the name plaque on my desk, furrowing his eyebrows together, dodging my question swiftly. “How are you Ms. Hamlin?” “Fine and it’s Hamilton, but close.” He blushed but covered it up with a deep chuckle. “Dyslexic. Never cared much to read anyway.” I nodded my head and stared at him expectantly until he got the message. “Oh right. Uh, Charles Baker, here to see Dr. . .” “Nelson,” I finished for him. Not the best with names I see, I thought but didn’t voice. After sitting at the same, white desk for years, I had acquired a much-needed filter. “Right, right.” I checked my watch. 8:45, fifteen minutes early. I was yet to hear the doctor’s constant cough, or the creak of his old, wooden door today. Of course, he wasn’t here yet. If this wasn’t one of the only offices who could legally perform as the patients requested, I had no doubt he would be out of business. “The doctor will be with you shortly. You can just take a seat over there.” I gestured to the small waiting area, rows of unused chairs. There were never even close to fully occupied, for Dr. Nelson didn’t share the office with anyone else and appointments never overlapped. Most of the time, I was alone with my thoughts. Just how I liked it. But Charles didn’t move, nor make any visible effort to. He just leaned forward, resting an arm on the edge of the counter, and his blue waves crashed against my brown rocks as our eyes snapped together. My mouth thinned into a tight smile and I went back to typing nonsense, pretending to be busy. I hated attention and his stare put me right under an unwanted spotlight, glowing so bright the rest of the world dulled. Even after a minute of just the rattle of the keyboard and occasional shuffling of papers, he still didn’t sit. I raised an eyebrow, pretending his presence didn’t put me on edge. Didn’t make me feel self-conscious of how aggressively I typed or the way my left eye twitched as I focused. “Anything else I can help you with Charles?” He rolled his head left to right, cracking loudly; then laced his fingers together and reached out, the knuckles their own symphony of snaps and pops. “Charlie.” “Hm?” “I go by Charlie.” At any other office, a nickname would just be another forgotten drop in an already overflowing ocean, but I knew it would stick in my mind the same way faces did. Whether a blessing or a curse, the rest of the world’s memories may fade as the people’s gravestones grow mossy, but they would forever live on in my mind. They would leave some mark, even if only on me. Finally, footsteps rang from behind, and Dr. Nelson’s wrinkles and grey beard peeked through a crack in the door. “Charles Baker, come on back.” Charlie turned back around, winked, and was gone. And I could breathe again.
The second time I saw Charles Baker was a Tuesday afternoon, two weeks later. He’d thinned considerably, broad shoulders hunched, chest sunken, cheeks hollowed. Evidence of a war he couldn’t hope to win, but was still forced onto the front lines every day with no weapon. No way of defending himself as the bullets ripped into his heart, tore his flesh, and stained his skin crimson. But his smile hadn’t changed, still lopsided and almost flirtatious. Still the smile of a man with his entire life in front of him. Still the smile of freedom, life, and flight. And perhaps that was the saddest part. Because his eyes were three shades darker, the pain strangling all light, and yet he still put on a masquerade. He pretended he wasn’t drowning, but I saw the water slowly filling his lungs. “Good-afternoon Ms. Hamlin.” He set down a binder, probably filled with his paperwork and approval from other doctors, and resumed an identical pose to prior, leaning against the desk casually. “Actually, it’s Hamilton.” I shouldn’t have been offended Charlie didn’t remember me, but when I could recall every detail of our last encounter so vividly, it admittedly stung a little he couldn’t even read the name plaque correctly this time. For a minute, his eyes weren’t quite so hallowed and the hurricane raging within weakened, but the shadows quickly returned, never quite gone. “I thought it was our little inside joke now.” “Whatever Charles.” I emphasized his full name as he jokingly pouted, but couldn’t help the satisfaction flowing in that he had remembered me. Even without trying, Charlie held an air you couldn’t help but try to impress. To leave a mark on, like the one he unknowingly drew everywhere he went. He peered over my desk; onto the stack of papers I was translating to the computer. “Whattcha working on?” “Confidential.” But I made no effort to hide the written words, for it was nothing of any interest to him. Just old transcripts and reports. Just a bore to occupy eight hours a day. “Wow, and here I was really thinking we’re best buds and you gotta pull that on me. Not gonna lie, kinda hurts.” I simply said, “The doctor will be with you shortly; you can take a seat.” But I was grinning and didn’t even attempt to sound serious. Before an awkward silence completely pooled over, his phone buzzed. Without even checking, he shook his head as the corners of his lips danced even higher. “It’s my mom. She still makes me text her whenever I get somewhere. Doesn’t trust my driving at all.” “Does she have any reason to doubt your ability?” “Now that’s just mean.” He paused. “Okay, fine. One accident, and it wasn’t even really my fault.” I cocked an eyebrow up but didn’t say anything. “It wasn’t! I mean, maybe I should’ve stopped when the light was yellow, but really the other driver went before his light was even green. I give myself no blame, but my mom still thinks I cruise down the streets at 100 miles an hour. Like my old piece of junk could even get above 80. But that’s a story for another time.” While I wished we could sit here all day, him telling stories and pretending he has time to live through millions more, I knew his days to create more memories were ticking by and any new ones would be tinted with gray and faded colors. Ruining the moment, Dr. Nelson stuck his head into the room. Charlie stood up straight, stretched, and we latched eyes one final time. As I saw the last slimmer of his back through the crack of the door, I pretend we wouldn’t meet only once more.
The next time Charles Baker waltzed into my life; I was ready. Admittedly, I’d been searching the system for his name every evening since last Tuesday, waiting for it to appear. And two nights ago, it finally had. The final appointment, Monday morning, 10 am. I could pretend I hadn’t been staring at the clock since 8, torn between begging the hands to move faster so we could meet again, but also wanting to trap us in this moment so Charlie wouldn’t have to go. I’d sat at this same desk for years, watching patients say goodbye, check their phone for the last time, but it never really clicked. While my brain understood the facts, my heart lived in a world paved by denial. In some ways, it was better that way. It saved heartache, I shed less tears. But today, all I could see was his smile, the grin that would die with him as his breathing boiled to nothing and his heart sat in a still chamber, stopped midbeat. As his eyes closed, the blue diamonds would forever be hidden. I was in a daze all morning, typing, scribbling, speaking the bare minimum to everyone else. Until 9:50 and the bell above the door chimed. Instead of only one, I heard the murmur of two voices, one familiar, the other a lighter tone. I looked up. The skin once sun kissed rendered white; the hair once bouncing, flat and lifeless. His eyes once full of life, hollow. For the first time, his grin took leave. And by the walking skeleton, an older woman with no makeup attempting to hide her wrinkles, eyebags to rival Charlie’s, and the same empty stare. Both standing on the edge of a cliff, knowing he was only minutes away from jumping. They grasped hands tightly, a thin line of sweat between the two glistening under the incandescent lights. And suddenly, I wanted to be anywhere but here. I couldn’t even employ my normal tactic of pretending to forget him, not when the scar he’d left on me was already too long and visible. “Ms. Hamilton.” He nodded, and it almost hurt to hear my true name from his lips. What happened to our little inside joke? Why did it have to be like this? “Mr. Baker.” I gave a feeble smile back, turning to who I assumed to be his mother. “Mrs. Baker.” I tried to smile again, but it cracked into a million pieces in seconds. “I’ll check you in, you can take a seat and the doctor will be with you shortly.” My voice was but a whisper. For the first time, he listened, leading his mother over to the chairs. I wished he had leaned forward on my desk, made a sarcastic remark, laughed. I wished he’d shared a story, I wished we’d joked. I wished there wasn’t the heaviness in the air, contaminating our oxygen, poisoning us from the inside out. I wished I could breath, I wished it was normal. But the day Charlie was diagnosed with only months to live for whatever reason, he veered off the road of normal. And I’d fallen down right with him. But at least I would eventually bounce back up. He would never get the chance to. Once he fell, there would be no more standing, there would be no more choices, there would be no more life. For the first time, Dr. Nelson wasn’t running behind schedule. With a sullen and overly sympathetic face, he walked over to their seats, something only done the day of a final appointment. Charlie and his mother stood up slowly, their hands still entwined, and took a step forward. Before reaching the door, he turned back and we locked eyes for the final time. And I saw the last slimmer of Charles Baker’s smile.