The Woman of the Sunset
I have encountered a great many things.
I have encountered thieves and magicians, crooks and heroes, people rich and poor and wise and ignorant. I have encountered renowned scientists and scorned ones, and I have listened to them both. I have lived many lives, one for each person I have ever met.
It is a strange thing, to reach out for someone's hand. To watch them bare their soul to you, unknowingly. The moment of contact, my last sense of grounding before I am falling into them. It is a much more natural thing to brush against skin accidentally, grabbing an arm when I trip on the subway, sinking into memories.
I am a strange thing, but that has never bothered me.
Thousands of lives have been mine, but there is one that always eluded me. The Woman of the Sunset, she was called, in whispers from voices no one but me would believe. She was said to read a soul with the touch of a hand, to bring death with a breath and return it with the next, a goddess of change come to walk the earth. In short, she was the closest I had ever found to someone like me.
I did not have a name like hers. I had lived dozens of lives before I could force my infant mouth to speak; I knew the value of silence. No one had ever known my secret, and no one had asked. Disappearing is a simple act. I can talk to a shopkeeper about my daughter, to a friendly mom on the train about my grandfather, to a temporary coworker about my oldest sibling, and then I will return home to a house that will always be empty save for me. There is nothing to ask about, so no one asks.
Of course we did. I had been chasing the Woman of the Sunset for years and years, I knew every step she would take before she took it.
I followed her for over a week in Barcelona, a month across the Southern part of Africa, a fortnite in the suburbs surrounding Shanghai, but when we met, it was in Los Angeles.
The City of Angels welcomed us. She sat down for dinner, and I sat opposite her, and she did not say a word, but she did smile.
She was beautiful.
She was terrifying.
I was also both beautiful and terrifying, but beauty and fear are masks that will always be hard to see through. No amount of experience could allow us to see each other clearly from across a table. She did not offer me her hand, and I would not have taken it.
"Well met," she said over dessert, after a meal of silence. I left my spoon balanced on the side of the plate to look at her. She looked back. We both saw nothing.
"To you as well," I said.
"You have questions."
"You will answer them."
"Dependent on content."
"No," I said. "You will answer them."
She tilted her head, as if she would see me clearer from an angle.
"How long has it been since anyone asked something about you?" I pressed.
A long silence.
"You're right," she said. "I will answer."
There was no world beside us. The table was inconsequential, the dinner just a game, the whole conversation just foreplay for the most important night we would ever have. Two souls stared at each other to see whose would blink first.
"Are you Death?" I asked.
She looked surprised. She looked confused. And then she laughed, and it all crashed back, the half-eaten plate of chocolate cake in front of me, the bowl of sorbet in front of her, the noise and the light and the humanity.
"The question, dear stranger," she said, after wiping her eyes on her napkin. "Is this: are you?"
She held out her hand, and I took it. We exhaled, and nothing happened. She was unreadable. I was a mystery.
We went our separate ways.
In the news the next day, I saw her picture along with an obituary. Ava Carden. Just a person, like anyone else, but now dead. Like anyone else. Like the doctor who had first held me, the one facing an abusive husband she could not escape forever. Like my parents, doomed to a car crash days after they first held me. Like my childhood neighbors, victims to disease and disaster just as I knew enough of their secrets to become attatched.
For the first time in thousands of lives, I wondered that I never met the same person twice.
The Oldest of Stories
There is an innate desire in every human being to watch the world burn.
From the moment we escape the womb, we are shrieking; it is ingrained in our genes to create chaos, to attract attention, to fend first and foremost for ourselves. In our most basic level, we are monsters. Children, what a horror to behold! They have not been conditioned yet, so they are free to give in to their instincts without question. They crush sandcastles, they wrestle with siblings and friends, they hurt others and don't understand why they are supposed to feel bad.
Complacency is a learned skill, and it runs rampant. A calculated move by some government long past, who realized power was more easily held when destruction was something that was frowned upon. "Peace" was coined. The downfall began.
The problem with complacency is that is makes things so dreadfully boring.
Beth has told me that this is a slightly inappropriate way to begin a story, so I will start smaller. With the smallest thing in this whole story: myself.
Penelope Carleton. A name for a highborn person, you would think. You would not be incorrect, but incomplete. Beth is the elite one, the favorite child, the heir to whatever sums Father has acquired. Ironically, she is the bastard child, but you wouldn't believe it to see us. She understands politics, social events. I have not bothered to make them understandable.
Besides, Mother is dead, so it's not like her titles grant me any standing anymore.
I grew up rich until it became clear that I would not bend to any rules set upon me, at which point I was sent to school. It was a close to being disowned as Father could get, risking Beth's disfavor if he went any further. Then, I grew up among delinquents and addicts, skipping class to figure out if I could see the city from the roof of the main hall.
Once a year, I returned home for Christmas. When I became of age, I stopped returning.
I have not spoken to Father since an arranged meeting by Beth: a trick I will not fall for again. Beth writes me weekly. Sometimes the only words I can hear in her voice are "Dear Penny". Other times she monologues inside my mind. I have never been one for excess talking, so she is the one who must be relied upon to fill the silence.
I moved to the city, and that is where the story begins.
Beth thinks it rather superior of me to refer to my own life as a story, but I continuously state that my life story has rather proven my superiority to the average person. And besides, where is the fun in life if not in romanticizing it? Beth will never understand the appeal of fantasy, not while she is herself.
I moved to the city, and I went out for drinks, and I met a dead man.
The general understanding is that the dead do not continue breathing, much less drink several pints in a night, but this particular dead man was rather set on disproving the general understanding of things. This is a sentiment I respect, which is how I found myself sitting next to an old classmate. Henry had been two years above me, but our paths had crossed often. He was a reliable supplier of hard drugs, and I found people more entertaining when they were high. He had met the expected fate -- overdose -- months before his graduation. I remember some excessive sort of school funeral, like administration hadn't been schemeing to get rid of him for nearly a decade.
Henry was a good drinks partner. It was unclear if he recognized me from whatever former life he'd had, but he shared his life story easily enough. A traveller taking odd jobs after family life fell through following his schooling. He told me his year of graduation. He did not speak about his death. I did not tell him that I'd seen his dead body in a coffin. It wasn't the sort of conversation you had over drinks.
By the end of the night, I finally had found what my life had lacked for so long: excitement.
That night, I wrote a letter to Beth telling her I was going out of town, and then I went to the address Henry had given me and watched him attempt to skip town unnoticed.
I am a Carleton, after all. We have a knack for noticing.
"Penny," he said, and sobriety was in his voice, though it hadn't yet reached his eyes.
"Henry," I said. "That's an awful large bag you've got with you. Be a shame for you to leave so soon after connecting with an old friend."
"It would be more of a shame for us to stay connected," Henry said. He stumbled over his own feet, trying to hurry away from me.
I faked shock, more for my own enjoyment than for his benefit. "Henry, darling, I thought you had no eyes for the fairer sex, but there's no need to be rude about it."
"The fairer sex being your department, eh, Penny?"
I did not reply, but I smiled, and that was reply enough for anyone in their right mind. Henry, not being in such, repeated his line as though I had not heard. See? Entertainment. I needed to go out for drinks more often.
"How would you like company on your little journey?" I asked cheerfully, watching as he narrowly avoiding dropping his bag onto his feet. They -- the feet -- were still moving too slow for his liking.
"If you come with me, people will surely get hurt," he said worriedly.
"Excellent!" I said.
I moved forward to link my arm through his, since he looked like he needed the support. Then there was the unmistakeable sound of a gunshot, and I found myself falling from consciousness.
It is only human nature to seek answers for an inexplicable event, which is what I would proceed to do once I awoke in my bed, a gunshot wound in my arm neatly bandaged. My involvment after procuring the answers I desired is the part that the world finds immoral, as that was the part in which people were harmed by my part in the story. But we are selfish beasts, and it is always in my self-interest to have something entertaining to live for. Or to die for. I have many vices, but I am not picky.
Beth does not know the true extent of the harm I have caused, because she does not wish to know. It is not difficult to notice, especially for someone with Father's blood. But there is another shared Carleton trait that Beth chose employ instead: stubborness.
She still insists that I am a good person, and I do not have the heart to convince her otherwise. Beth believes, and I create chaos. It is as natural to us as anything else in this strange world. The oldest of stories have both believers and chaos-bringers, though they are called differently. To most, I would be called nothing but a villain.
And who was I to argue with that?
It was raining.
Wet wasn't exactly a problem when you worked at a lake, but it was when your paycheck sorta depended on if people showed. Stevie wondered if anyone would even bother to stop by while absently tracking Rachel's path along the water's edge. Of course Rachel could make a bright-red baggy hoody look like something from one of those expensive brands where the strap on a purse cost more than Stevie's whole outfit, excluding maybe the lifeguard hoody itself. They'd made her pay for it when she'd gotten the job.
Rachel was one of those weirdos who wasn't working for the money. Her aunt lived nearby, and she was staying there for the summer. Her commute was a five minute walk that she spent humming and looking for monarch butterflies. Stevie spent thirty minutes in her slightly beat-up car, cursing at bad drivers. When she arrived, Rachel was always already there, chatting with another employee or one of the old women that volunteered to bring them sandwiches for lunch.
Rachel was the only volunteer under fifty. Stevie liked to tease her about it.
Stevie was native to New Hampshire. She'd grown up surrounded by liberals and trees, both of which she was pretty okay with. Rachel had grown up in Chicago. She liked to tease Stevie because she'd never left the state.
Stevie had never wanted to.
It was raining and Stevie was shivering even though winters in New England got far colder than this. Rachel seemed perfectly fine, water bouncing off her dark hair as she toed at the edges of the lake with her boots. Not combat boots like her cousin, but a worn pair of yellow rain boots unearthed from one of the few thousand closets at her aunt's that they had explored together the one time Stevie had gone over for pizza.
Rachel's cousin was called Jade, and it wasn't clear if it was her real name or not. She wore things like leather jackets and listened to things like Fall Out Boy and drew skulls in sharpie on the backs of her hands.
She was everything like Stevie and nothing like Rachel. Rachel loved her. Stevie hated her. Jade was seemingly unconcerned on both accounts.
A branch above Stevie's head shuddered, then dumped water onto her head. She swore loudly, and Rachel laughed. The tree seemed to be laughing too, as it poured more rainwater onto Stevie's upturned face.
[excerpt from a longer work]
His legs looked paper thin.
Really, they weren't much different than mine, because I was a thin kid, pale with veins glowing blue, a police siren that told the world I was alive. But where I was just taking root, he had grown big and beautiful until that was not enough and he began to shrivel. Old photographs are stunning because they show the before and after of things.
More than anything, I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to ask about being old and remind him of being young. I wanted to listen to a lifetime of memories.
Something Real, Maybe
I have a career in seeing things that are real, surrounded by things that are not real.
It isn't as fun as it sounds.
I wake up every morning to people dying, even though it seems I shouldn't care, as my passage from the living to the nonliving is not moving as abruptly. Sometimes the bombs wake me up in the middle of the night and I can't remember what I was dreaming about even though it felt like I was still awake.
Reality is harder to pinpoint when your dreams are realer than your reality.
I read books in one sitting, and afterward I think for a long time until my thoughts catch up to the world and chemicals balance themselves out and I can pretend that I am just like any of the others.
Sometimes, though, I get to sit in an empty house save for myself and a dog and sing songs that mean something to my soul even when I forget the words. Sometimes I sing to myself, when it's late and the thunder is calling demons whose names I cannot pronounce. I hear my words, and I am real.
Or I am not real at all.
I can feel the keys under my fingers, click-clack in time with my sputtering thoughts despite the steady thump of the music inside my ears. Real. The story they create, though. Real, some days. Not real, some days. Authenticity, a subject to the master's reality.
I am a king.
The reality changes daily.
Benjamin was too long a name for so young a person.
So he was Benny, when he was young enough that it seemed cute and not condescending. And then he was Ben, when caring about your parents was no longer the cool thing to do. And then he was BJ, when he needed a cooler name because he was with cooler people now.
He was Benjamin again when his mom screamed and held up a bag of cocaine. He stopped hiding things under his bed and didn't speak to her for a week.
He was Benny, still, when she cried.
Only good things happened on gloomy beaches.
Hot days were for tourists, for people tanning like the sun wasn't just going to burn their skin into blisters. The nice days were for people who liked nice things.
The days with too many clouds and waves that were too big and seagulls that were more eager to feast on crab meat then french fries were the days for beach people.
Those were the days for sea glass that made horrible things beautiful, and old shells that made practical things beautiful. The surf crashed into them while they sunk into the sand.
Scientists might have discovered a fifth force of nature, but there has been a fifth for more millennia than we can comprehend. It is the drumbeats that make your chest thump and your heart swell. It is the voices, in every language that exists and a few that don't, creating melodies out of nothing and everything. It is waves of sound that turn into waves of bodies around the world, turning the sound into something tangible. It was synesthesia in the most common form, the ability to take sound, the force that drove us to create music, and create movement.
Nonna taught him that the forest behind her old house was filled with fairies. He listened with the most attention a five-year-old could compile, and she spoke with the most simple words a grandparent could find after eighty years. The elves were his favorites. Nonna said they lived inside the trees; that was why it always felt like the forest was watching you.
When he was sixteen, Nonna was gone. Mamma told him she was with the fairies. He didn't believe her, but he went to the forest anyway. For old time's sake.
As he walked, he felt something watching.
They cried themselves to sleep, one night, mid-October, leaving swirling in tornado spirals at every entrance to the house. They had been young and they had looked love in the face and promised to make things work. No matter what, they said. Now they were two bottles deep in whiskey and loneliness, a phone shattered on the floor and a dent in the wall above it.
They thought they had been smart, promising monogamy or loyalty or love, something of the sort, but they forgot that such rivers run two ways. Tomorrow they would scream, but today they just cried.