In The Ground Where We Lay
None of us can say otherwise that the time we spent together was a lie….Or at least, that’s what I told myself. To fly back to where we all congregated under an open sky was…not something everyone could afford; reasonable, understandable. But…empty. It makes being the only one who stayed behind, just that, the only one who stayed behind.
Our old elementary school was shut down due to lack of attendance. And by association: population. Not many people chose to have children in this area, stained by miles of old homes, with unkempt yards and glaring stares. Every once in a while a car would slowly trudge by the streets, kicking up loose stones. They were there to keep an eye on us. On those small cliques that roamed the streets with echoing laughs. On those men in suits who were just a tad bit too wary. And on those that were just there to live. Finding my way around them was just another day.
Except, on that day in my hands was a sheet creased with the years it was tucked away in my room. Fluttering away sheets of bills and loose clothes led me to find the envelope it was sealed in. Handled by neglect, I opened the letter to find our childhood sprawled on a map.
From my house to the school, it was a few streets away. Enough time to let the sun glare off of the broken glass. Enough time to let the sun fill the space between alleys (to wake those who didn’t know better). Enough time to see that my phone was shaking with a call from a place beyond the sky.
“I didn’t think you would pick up, Tristan. It’s been…a long time, hasn’t it?” Her voice spilled into my ears with a slight reverberation.
“It’s been a long time for everyone, Lili.” Her name slowed my steps. A few bodies came down the streets with loose eyes. Ignoring them, I held the map in one hand, watching as it flapped with the chill winds. In the distance, I heard the laughs of those hanging by the remaining corner shops. Turning into the streets, those laughs flooded over my face.
“So you really are going to go back there? Knowing it’s still there might be nice but…that was a long time ago.” Her words were light as they filled my mind. Light syllables. Light breaths. Light filled the empty corner stores. They always did. Even as children, running by those shelves of candy and snacks made those lights warm. It was a pointless pastime. But it was our time.
“I’ve made my decision. This is what I want to do. And I’m going to do it, no matter what.”
I listened to her light breath.
“No one’s asked you to. And, no one particularly wants you to. But you’ll do it anyway. I guess that’s just who you are in the end, right?” Her words stung me. Stuck in the middle of the street, I listened as she gave a small chuckle. A couple came walking down the street, an oddity. But they smiled and laughed, glaring past me.
“That might be so. But, it’s also who you are to call like this. No surprise there. That’s just who you are in the end.” The gates to the school blew into view. They were rusted, peels of brown beginning to fall towards the clawing grass.
“In the end we haven’t changed at all.” I smiled at her words. Bracing my feet, I steeled myself for a climb, tracing my skin to the rough edges of the iron. Scraping against my hands, I felt small taps litter my palms. Taking in a waft of the material brought my mind out of it until I flipped to the other side.
The building was left all the same; worn bricks and dusted windows faced me as the flag waved gently in its faded pole. The double doors leading to the main entrance had its paint chipped, revealing a soft grey under its blue. Nudging its handles produced a large clash. Trying anymore only puffed up more dust. Leaning towards the glass panels I squinted for a peek but found nothing. Pressing my ears towards the doors I heard a few creaks, and skitters. Must have been rats; the new students. Checking the map, I doubled around the entrance, to where the yard was used for recess.
“Do you still remember what we left in there?” I hummed at her words; five children running around town as if the world revolved around our laughs, our smiles, or our games….It was incredibly, well, childish. Those laughs, and those smiles, and those games still lingered, in those who hung in the streets, in the alleys, and in the empty stores.
“Not in the slightest,” I lied.
“I see. Well, I hope whatever it is that we did leave, makes for a wonderful reunion.”
The yard sprouted an array of dandelions overtaking: the swings, the sandbox, and the slides. In a single gust, puffs of white all swayed as if they were there to fill the missing time. Beyond this was a tiny space where the school used to keep a garden tucked away for study. Drawing the cycle of life as we grew with those flowers and trees made for…something none of us could forget, or at least that’s what I told myself.
“You must be at the garden now. It was in part an excuse to have us experience life as it was to be greener.” She gave a small chuckle. “But it was nice.”
“It really was. Do you think, those drawings might have found their way in?”
“Maybe they did. Would you be happy if they did?”
I turned her words over and forced my feet to move forward.
“I’m not sure,” I lied. The garden itself was a tidy guardian, with towering trees holding lumbering leaves and brandishing branches. Wild flowers and even small animals made their homes here. A tear in the fence might have let them in, an admission to study. The school had always taken up far too much space for its good. But it was our place, our home, when the morning came, and our time, crawling through it all.
“What do you want to be in that time capsule?” I couldn’t help but laugh with her question. In the distance, I could hear the slight drift of a car.
“Maybe a picture would be nice. A picture of our smiles or even just how it used to be before. Maybe a picture of the school, of the streets, anything of that time.” Pushing away gnawing branches and watching my steps, I listened to the small of her breath.
“If there was a picture, would you share it with the others? I’m sure it would make for a nice moment.”
“Yeah. Yeah, if there was a picture, then I think it’d be nice for all of us to see it again,” I lied.
“Do you think we’ve grown up since then?”
“Of course. That’s just how things are. If we’re the same then things would be –” The words that tried to complete my sentence spilled itself to the floor, lumping with the dirt. “Horrible.” Another lie.
With the overgrowth, the map quickly became minute. Just winding paths and sprouting bushes greeted my every step. However, there should have been a clearing in all of that mess. A place where we came together to bury what I came to find. It had always been like that, parted away from the flowers we studied, and even the teachers never stepped foot in that circle.
“What about you Lili? What do you want in a time capsule?”
“Candy.” Her declaration stung my body, though not enough to hold it in place. I held in my laughter.
“I see. Yeah, that might be nice.”
The vegetation began to thin. My body slowed, catching itself in the strutting rocks. I held onto a tree for support, before my legs began tapping. It was close. Edging on further I met with the sun, filtering through the leaves. Even further, the leaves stopped, and the sun met my eyes. A circle stained only by grass presented itself. Near the edges of the clearing, small petals gathered. None made it to the center, but they all grasped with every breath of wind that came. Breaking into that sunlight, I stepped over the petals.
“What do you think the others would have wished for in our time capsule?”
My body ached the more I moved forward. Holding my sweat, I gave a light breath. Landing at the center of the clearing made my arms shake. Leaning over, I let my arms rest over the soil, until they began to dig, the motions finding themselves.
“The others? Maybe…money? Though would we really have had that kind of foresight?”
She gave a slight laugh.
“In that case, maybe a favorite book?” Every handful came with hardened breaths. The only rest I had was in my words. “I’m not sure any of us were big readers. But maybe a picture book. Though the box wasn’t that big I think. As children, did we really have anything to treasure? Maybe it really is just candy.” Soon enough my hands became numb. Thinking about the sensation halted my body.
“I think you might be right about that. But, would you really think we went through all that effort just to stow away some candy? We must have been an ambitious group then.” Repeating her words let my hands continue.
“How would you describe us? After all these years…I wonder what you would say.”
Soon enough, a hard clank stopped my digging. Rooting it out, I was thrown back. Stained in dirt and glimmering lightly underneath its veil, I laughed.
“We were really great friends back then, at least. And now?” I let my eyes rest on the fading metal. “I’m not sure.” Another lie. We didn’t keep a key. But my hands shook as they held onto its top. An airplane above shattered the air as I closed my eyes.
“How would you describe us? With someone like me, I’m not sure my answer would be very viable.” Striding over its top, I let the rust singe my skin.
“Do you really want to know?” Trying to answer her made my words scramble across my mouth. The only thing I could do was trace the metal box, tracing the path our young fingers must have took to bring it underground. Tracing the words we must have said as we buried it together. Tracing the laughs we had…the laughs we must have had.
“I don’t.” Letting my fingers over the cover, I lifted our capsule open. She laughed.
“You’ve finally become honest.”
I strode my hand against its empty bottom.
Lilith was gone.
So was everyone else.
Though, surely the time we spent together had happened, and the smiles and the laughs and the games and the warmth of the light we let each other have surely had to have happened.