Bright sunshine flooded the streets, making the pavements glitter like a river of pearls. The air was the kind that scrubbed your lungs clean and made your breath smell like a snowy mountain breeze. I knocked on the polished mahogany door. Tat, tat, tat, then another tat, tat, for good measure.
It swung open smoothly, swiveling on its hinges with a soft whisper, inviting me in. A burst of warm air caressed me with the smell of freshly baked bread, and flowers undoubtedly planted in a flower pot. I smiled and stepped in, breathing in the cozy, homely air. A gentle voice came from behind me,
“Of course, old lady. Did you really think you could bake your banana bread and not have me come over to have some?” I said, smiling at the old lady wearing kitten mittens.
“No, but I’m not done baking yet.” She looked through the oven-door, frowning intensely.
“If I waited for you to be done, I wouldn’t get a single slice.”
“School isn’t over yet. They won’t be back for another hour or so.”
“Perfect! I can eat all the banana bread!”
She shook her head. “Damn kids.”
I giggled. The doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it,” I said, running to the door. I opened it without a thought.
“I knew you’d be here.”
“You always know where I am,” I said, giving him a quick kiss.
“My Lily senses are perfect,” said Runir with his trademark smile. Warm, inviting, maybe even a little dazzling, his smile was what first caught my eye when we met.
“Sure they are,” I said, heart aflutter. “Come on in, the old lady’s making banana bread.”
“Sounds tasty but I gotta bounce,” he said. “Just came over to give you this.” He handed me a package wrapped in white cloth.
“What is it?”
“You didn’t check?”
“Why would I do that?” He chuckled. “It’s yours, silly.”
My ear tingled. I brushed my hair behind my ears. “Right, how silly of me. I’ll open this later.”
He kissed me, smiled, and left, trotting down the road while whistling a funny tune. I eyed the parcel. It was large, and didn’t have a note on the outside. The cloth it was wrapped in had a strange, silky texture that I had never seen before. It was bizarre, unnatural, and I didn’t like it. I really didn’t like it. It shouldn’t have been there.
“The bread’s ready, Lily!”
“Coming!” I shouted, leaving the parcel on the desk beside the door as I ran to the kitchen. The Old Lady cut out a slice for me, poured some tea, and sat in front of me. We talked a little about how the kids were doing at school.
“And how’s Runir?” she asked.
“I know that. I heard him at the door. I mean how is he.”
I groaned. “We’ve been over this. I’m not getting married yet.”
“Why not? He seems like such a lovely boy and you’ve been dating for years. Might as well seal the deal.”
“It’s not that simple,” I complained, looking away.
She chuckled. “Come on kid, how long are you going to make me wait?”
I sighed. “Yeah, can’t make you wait too long. You’re old enough as it is.”
She looked at me with her glasses askew. “So?”
I blinked. What was I saying? I shook my head. “I just thought it was rude making you wait so long.”
“My little devil never grew up huh.” She chuckled, finishing her tea. I picked up my plate, wiped the crumbs on the table onto my plate, and got up. I was going to help her clean up and then I –
What was I going to do after that, again? I frowned. I was forgetting something, but what? Oh, the parcel, of course. I spotted in the corner of my eye as someone knocked on the door. I opened the door, putting the small parcel in my pocket. Pockets were so useful.
“Oh, hi Amy!” I said, greeting the red-haired, rosy-cheeked girl. “What brings you here?”
“Nothing, I was passing by so I thought I’d say hi,” she said.
“Good timing, the Old Lady just pulled out a fresh loaf of banana bread.”
“Nah,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful day, I couldn’t bear being cooped inside right now. Say, wanna join me for a walk?”
“Sure, just let me clean up with the Old lady.” I turned, but saw that the dishes were clean and the old lady was nowhere to be seen. Probably went to the bathroom.
Wait, what was that again? A cold breath went down my back. I turned. Amy was looking at me with confused eyes.
“What is it?” she said.
“Nothing. Say, did you see where the Old La –”
A little girl slammed into me and hugged me tightly, her scruffy hair getting in my nose. I almost sneezed.
“Damn it Zoe, you’re too old to be jumping on me like a puppy,” I said, swallowing my giggles.
Zoe lifted her face and smiled gleefully. “No!”
I shook my head, hugged her back, patted her hair, and fought my way out of her grip. “Where’re Kelly and Chen?”
“Making out under a bridge.”
“Then what do you know?”
“That they said they were going to be late.”
“Oh, I just remembered something!” she interjected, ruffling in her pockets while ignoring me. She pulled out a parcel, this one wrapped in a black cloth with the same awful texture as the white one. “Had to give this to you.”
“Where’d you get it?” I asked, frowning as she put it in my hand.
“Kelly said someone wanted to give it to you.”
“Do you know who?”
“Does it matter?”
“Of course it does! You don’t know who that person was, you can’t just trus–”
A sharp pain pierced me head for an instant. I blanked, mouth agape, regained my senses, and blinked.
“I can’t just what?” asked Zoe.
“Huh?” I said, disoriented. “I don’t… oh yeah, like I was saying, you can’t just thrust this at me without telling me who it’s from. I can’t handle the suspense!”
“Then open it,” said Amy.
“I’m not going to open it in front of you guys! This is a private package.”
“Fine.” Zoe shrugged. Her eyes lit up and she sniffed the air. “Is that… banana bread?”
“Yeah, go help yourself.”
“Yay!” She skipped inside, brushing my shoulder with her hair as she went past. I caught a whiff of something strange, something salty. Like a… sea breeze. I frowned again.
“Hey, let’s go already!” said Amy, as she tugged my hand. “It’s such a wonderful day!”
“It’s always a wonderful day,” I said, chuckling. “Where’d you wanna go?”
“I don’t know, let’s explore!”
“Explore? What’s there to explore?”
“Sure, let’s go.”
We left the golden gates outside the house and walked down the pearly street. Manicured lawns and trimmed hedges lined either side, with a few fountains of clear water sprinkled in for good measure. The roads were empty, no pedestrians in sight. The sun was still shining brightly, like always, and the wind was still fresh enough to wash away my worries. Why would I have any of those, anyways? Life was perfect.
“Oh hey, it’s Adriana’s place,” said Amy. “Let’s go say hi.”
“Sure,” I replied, letting her lead me inside a blue house floating on a crystal-clear pool.
“Hey Adriana, you home?”
“Yeah, come on in.”
The interior was warm and cozy, although the walls and floors gave off a chilly air, like a fresh mountain stream. Adriana lay on the couch, reading a magazine while scratching her belly. I threw a pillow at her.
“What was that for?”
“Wanted to spook the lazy cat.”
“What lazy cat?”
“Nothing,” I said, looking around. “Where’s Granny Nipa?”
“In the kitchen,” she grumbled.
“Hey Amy, look after this dumbass while I go find granny, will ya?” I turned to Amy but she wasn’t behind me.
“Got it,” said Amy, making me swing around. She was sitting next to Adriana, ogling at the magazine. I frowned. What was so great about a dumb magazine, anyway?
The kitchen was bright, cheery, and exactly as I remembered it. Granny Nipa had her back to me, the smell of porridge wafting from the pot she was stirring.
“Hi granny!” I said.
“Is that you, Lily? I’d turn around to hug you but this porridge is just about done.”
“Take your time, granny. I’ll be in the living room.”
“I’ll be with you in a jiffy.”
Amy and Adriana were still on the couch, staring at the magazine. I raised a corner of my lips and tutted. Was this magazine really that special? I asked them what it was called but they didn’t respond. I peeked at the cover myself and found that it read, “Write Way Magazine.” A cheezy ass title, to say the least. The cover was pretty trashy too.
“The porridge is ready dears!”
“Coming granny,” said Adriana and I, while Amy kept reading the magazine. Adriana ran into the kitchen but my foot caught the corner of the carpet, making me sway. The white parcel fell out of my pocket but I grabbed it before it hit the floor. The cloth still felt strange as I ran my hand over it. Now was as good a time as any to find out what was inside. I reached for the knot.
“It’ll get cold,” said Granny from inside.
The parcel could wait. There was porridge to be had. I tried to pry Amy from the couch, but found that she wasn’t there. When had she snuck past me? Must’ve rushed to the porridge so she could grab a bigger portion!
I raced into the kitchen. Light filtered into the room through the blinds, casting shadowy lines over the wooden floor and table. The room was full of the smell of porridge, and a large bowl of Granny’s signature porridge lay in the center of the table, giving off wisps of steam.
Yet, there were a few problems with this perfect moment. First, Amy and Adriana weren’t there. Second, Granny was still facing the stove, motionless, a large ladle in her hand, and apron fallen around her feet.
“Granny,” I whispered, my hair on end. “Are you alright?”
She didn’t respond. I hesitated, before taking a deep breath, and reaching for her shoulder. As soon as I touched it, she spun around, and I tried to wiggle out of her grip, instinctively. Instead, she grinned viciously and stared into my eyes.
“Happy birthday!” shouted several voices, Granny’s included.
I blinked in surprise. Someone pulled up the blinds, letting in more light. Runir, Amy, Zoe, Adriana, the Old Lady, Kelly, Chen, and Granny Nipa stood around me, grinning lightly, some of them chuckling. Runir had a big box in his hands, which he laid on the table and opened to reveal a beautiful cake.
“Surprise!” said Zoe, hugging me. I laughed as my heart fell down my throat. Why was I worried anyways? Everything was perfect. Nothing could go wrong.
“You got me,” I admitted. “I thought something weird was happening.”
“Well it is your birthday, which is pretty weird in itself,” joked Runir. I punched him lightly on the shoulder.
“Damn, I was worried too. What if… nah, never mind. Hey, let’s cut up this cake.”
Granny Nipa pulled out a knife and cut the cake for everyone. There was so much of it that no one complained about getting smaller pieces. We talked and ate cake, the smell of frosting mixing with the grainy aroma of the porridge cooling on the table. We’d have to eat that soon.
“Thanks everyone,” I said, tears of joy welling up in my eyes. “I love you all so much! You’re the best. You’re perfect. Everything is perfect!”
With my blurry vision, I saw my friends and family enjoying my birthday cake on a warm afternoon inside a cozy little kitchen. There was enough cake to go around, Granny Nipa was alive and well, and the kids from the orphanage were here, right in front of me. Runir grabbed my waist and flashed his perfect smile, making me giggle like a little kid. I met his eyes and thought about how much I wanted to…
Steal a kiss; such an awkward expression. Wonder who thought of it. You didn’t need to steal a kiss if they were willing to give you one anyway. I kissed Runir. No stealing here, not anymore. You don’t need to steal anything in a world where everyone has everything they want!
Laughter. Swimming vision. I was happier than I’d ever been.
“Did you see what was inside the package yet?” asked Runir.
I chuckled. “So, it really was from you, after all!”
“No,” he said. “Our gifts are on the table over there. I think the package was from someone who couldn’t be here and was sorry for missing your party.”
“Oh,” chimed Zoe. “Then the one I gave you was probably from someone like that too.”
I blinked my eyes clear. Although, I couldn’t think of anyone I cared about who wasn’t already here, I guess I could check them out. I fished inside my convenient pockets and took out the white package. I opened the knot, revealing a white chocolate cookie. There was no note, just a cookie. Yet, I felt – in the back of my mind – like I knew who it was from.
I couldn’t touch it. In fact, I almost dropped it. It wasn’t a gift, it didn’t belong to me. I didn’t want it to belong to me.
I heard a whisper in my ear, “Take it, you already paid for it.” The voice was familiar but it filled me with anger, not nostalgia. Anger, I wasn’t supposed to feel that here. There was no reason to be angry in a perfect world. Nothing to be angry about, nothing at all. Not even he could make me angry here.
“What’s the matter, Lily?”
“It’s okay Granny, I just –”
My voice got caught in my mouth. Bright lights, but not sunlight, flared. Flames; Granny was on fire. She smiled as the flames licked her tiny frame. “Why are you crying dearie?”
My hand touched my cheeks. My fingers were wet.
“Come on dearie,” said Granny as the flames engulfed her. “Don’t you cry.”
I screamed. Adriana cried, scowled at me with disdain, as if she blamed me for what happened to Granny. She evaporated into mist.
“What happened, Lily?” asked Zoe.
I turned to her voice but couldn’t find her.
“Where are you?”
Giggles. No answer.
“Lily, dear, who are you talking to?” said the Old Lady who ran the orphanage.
“Zoe, you know her, she –” I paused. “Why do you know her. You never…”
The Old Lady chuckled. “Little devil, always breaking things. You broke your own perfect world.”
“Why are you here?” I shouted, wild-eyed. “You shouldn’t be here, who’s taking care of the orphanage if you’re here?”
“But I was never here.”
I blinked. The Old Lady was gone. Kelly and Chen stood in her place, their faces empty of features, except for large, white smiles.
“Big sis,” they said together. “You left without saying goodbye. You even forgot to bring the snacks. The snacks that you stole and got killed for.” Their bodies vanished but the ghost of their smiles hung in the air.
The light in the room intensified, making my eyes water. In my blurry vision, I caught sight of Runir, approaching me with his perfect smile.
“Lily!” he said, his voice clear and worried. I felt his hands grab my shoulders, his eyes met mine, cutting through the muddled tears, straightening out the world for a second.
“Runir,” I cried, clinging to his arms. “Everyone, they, they…”
“Shush,” he said, hugging me closer. “It’s going to be fine.” His hands rubbed my back. His warm chest rose with mine. I was safe. Things made sense again.
Then he stabbed me in the back.
A croaking noise escaped my throat as pain shot through my back and something warm ran down my skin. My hands shook as Runir’s hands loosened and I staggered back.
He smiled his perfect smile. No, he smirked. The smirked the way he always did. I didn’t want him to do that, it sent shivers down my spine. That was the least of my problems, though.
“Shush,” he said. “It’s fine. You can trust me. No one will betray you in a perfect world.” His smirk grew larger and brighter, until it filled my vision.
I fell on my back. The pain was gone and my back was cold again. The cookie was gone even though I didn’t remember dropping it. Everything was gone; replaced by blinding whiteness. My heart jumped as I felt something warm on my waist. I put a trembling hand into my other incredibly convenient pocket and pulled out the black package – the only sign of color apart from my sorry self.
My face shot upwards. “You…”
“Open it,” said the skinny, brown haired boy wearing a grimy yellow t-shirt and patched up jeans.
“No,” I said. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you,” he said. “To open the box.”
I grit my teeth, rose to my feet, and charged him, anger propelling me forward. A hand grabbed me as I neared him. It threw me to the ground. Someone kicked me. It didn’t hurt after the first kick.
“No,” I groaned.
The kicks continued but I wasn’t paying attention. The package was on the ground in front of my face. The knot had come loose so I could see inside. A bottle of chocolate milk lay inside, a reminder of a different time, a different place, a different world. An imperfect world, just like this one.
The kicks stopped.
A gust of wind blew the black cloth away, leaving the chocolate milk alone on the ground. My breath appeared in front of me, misty, and still smelling of cake. Snow fell on my cheeks, melting, and rolling down them like tears. I propped myself up, my heart caught in my throat. I knew what was going to happen but I didn’t want it to.
Sure enough, a woman lay in the snow, shivering while curled up in a ball. A little girl shook her, the little girl’s hair covering her face. I backed up and my foot hit something with a clink. I stopped. The bottle of chocolate milk lay beside my foot. I looked at the girl, the woman, and the milk. I couldn’t hear the girl’s shouts but I knew what she was saying. I knew exactly what she was saying.
I picked up the milk and stepped up to the girl and her mother. I stood right behind her, holding the bottle of milk with a trembling, outstretched hand.
It slipped from my fingers and shattered. Brown liquid splashed over the pavement. My mother vanished in a puff of snow, getting blown away by the biting winds. The younger me turned around, her tearful eyes, snot, and puffed cheeks glaring at me.
Then a voice came from afar and everything went black.