Blip in the Algorithm
A short story about moving on by Lena Raine
Dani and I are sitting up in the swimming pool bleachers, rebellious rule-breaking kids on the first day of Junior year, when she reaches out to grab me for a kiss. Suddenly I know for sure: I have to tell her.
Dani notices that I’m not exactly into it, pulls away, and lets out a dry “What?”
I’m panicking, thinking of all the possible things I can say at a moment like this. Unfortunately I can’t lie to save my life, I’m young and a little too impulsive, so I just say it:
“Would you still love me if I was a guy?”
In the second that follows, that little significance rewinds and plays back over and over until a feeling of regret creeps up through my throat.
We’d exchanged messages all summer, anxious to see each other, pining for our parents to drop us off down that long u-shaped driveway. School is misery, but I had the mirage of love to draw me back in. And then this comes up. What an awkwardly important surprise to start Junior year.
And yet I’d said it: “Would you still love me?” Which to be fair also carries the pretense that she does love me. And she does or, well, she’d said it on several occasions, so that part of it flowed naturally through my slow-motion-recap lips. For so long I’d assumed that falling for girls was the special part of it, too. I thought hey, I like girls, so I must be gay. But like so many other revelations that pry themselves loose during puberty, mine were not so easily resolved.
“…if I was a guy.” That part came later. I didn’t have a word for it until I had to stare it square in the face. My face, in the mirror, every day. I bound my chest tight to hide all that going on, lamented donning the uniform skirt for church. Once I’d found the word, all the transgender resources I looked up confirmed how I felt. I’d come to a confident decision about what mushed about in my brain, my mind, or spirit, or whatever it is that makes us more than a mess of biology and bits.
That’s me, and I’m a guy.
And yet that mid-kiss predicament. It was this dawning on me that here we are, two rebellious youths in the institution of straightness, playing the biggest gotcha on our Christian overlords. I’d felt a tinge of hysteria. In that fraction of a second after our lips touched it was the most hilarious thing that our relationship might not be a supposed sin if I could somehow reflect my male-ness externally. And yet, even that…
At some point my recollection of the past few seconds catches up, because Dani’s moments of hesitation tell me far more than anything she can say. When she does speak, hers is a knee-jerk response to a poorly-worded question at a time when I’ve not thought the whole coming-out ordeal through.
Yet here I am, and I’ve already said it.
I think she asks me what I meant. My heart is beating too loud to hear words. I want to think she asks it politely, but even my youthful optimism can’t save that one. Even a moment’s retrospect tells me that the correct thing to do would’ve been to make this big definitive statement, to write a letter, to have some gathering of all my loved ones where I’d proclaim my statement of out-dom, to leave no reasonable doubt to those that matter. But I’d gone and screwed it up, and I’m left there to sit as she stands and steps down the bleachers. Left there to shrink up into the smallest ball I can and hope that I’ll just…implode or something.
And that’s the most heartbreaking thing, that I believe it’s my fault. Not that it is, but that I believe it.
The moments after we break up are a blur. I’m outside, walking the campus, music blaring in my eardrums. I can’t stand still, have chlorine smell in my nose, dormant tears all up in my ducts that might shake loose if I stop pacing incessantly. On I walk. No destination, no goal, only that I might be able to take my mind off myself, Dani, and everything between.
My ears are too stuffed full of soul-engulfing bass to register any message pings, or a stray “hi” or” hey” from fellow students.
Every time I finish a lap of the campus, another fifteen minutes have passed, I’ve raised the volume another notch, and I’m even more convinced that the endless cycle of courtyard to atrium to paved paths to gravel paths and back again amounts to nothing more than inescapable destiny. I eye the u-shaped driveway, the tree-lined road to freedom. Any other direction leads to precarious hills dotted with signs: reminders of the school border, and that our Christian overlords are watching our every move.
All I’ve done in walking the campus is remind myself that even if I escape the body that haunts my reflection, there’s still nowhere else to go.
I’d have to escape another day.
Back at the dorm, two voices of comfort are my best friends Jinx and Rin.
“Fuck her,” is Jinx’s eloquent consolation.
“I wouldn’t put it that way, but she’s right,” says Rin.
We’re sitting up in my bunk under a collection of dormant glow-in-the-dark star stickers. Jinx keeps shoving a pint of cherry chunk ice cream in my face, and I keep saying no. Rin contributes wisdom through my phone’s speaker, since she can’t be there in person.
“At least tell me what happened next.” Jinx has been chomping at the bit for all the juicy details, like usual. “Gotta put together a full scenario before I beat some sense into this girl.”
I shake my head. “Don’t, Jinx. This is my responsibility.”
“And you’re my responsibility, Beatrix Jackson.”
I roll my eyes. She never calls me by my full name, doesn’t know how much it stings to hear.
“Since when am I your responsibility, Giacinta Flores?”
“Since I said so?” She crosses her arms. “Anyone screws with my Bee, they gonna feel my wrath.”
Rin chimes in from the speaker, “Did she break it off?”
I shrug. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t, but Dani made it clear she couldn’t handle the possibility of me being any different than the girl she’d dated for a year. But I can’t say that, not yet. I have to be ready next time.
“She’s a total fucking socialite,” I say instead. “I bet she’s off crying about the Big Bad Bee.”
“You don’t know that,” says Rin.
“I know her friends. If she starts talking, they’ll listen and blow everything up. They’ll talk shit all day in that gossip group.”
“Which is illegal,” says Jinx.
“Against the rules,” Rin clarifies. “There’s no law—”
“Bee,” interrupts Jinx, “you could report them, get ‘em kicked out.”
I laugh, but there’s no joy in it. If they kicked out everyone that broke the rules, we’d have a very empty campus.
“I’m not sure faculty has ever expelled a student,” says Rin, and she has access to the school’s records, so I believe her.
The notification LED on the side of my phone lights up in gold: incoming message from the New Beginnings faculty. Another year, another First Curfew for new students. Jinx and I pinch our noses and speak along with Headmaster Graves’ distorted speaker voice: “Welcome to New Beginnings Girls Academy. As it is now nine o’clock, curfew is in effect. Please remain in your dorm during the night so as to not disturb your fellow girls. We will now recite the Lord’s Prayer.”
Jinx and I stop there. It’s prayer enough to mock the yearly words, and after a lifetime of nightly chanting, Jinx and I have made an unspoken pact to stay silent and let the reverberation of a hundred other voices shake the dorm walls before the eventual darkness of curfew.
After prayer, the overheads shut off, allowing our glow-in-the-dark stars to leak their greenish illumination. By their light, Jinx eases her way to the ladder and climbs down.
“Don’t worry, Bee,” she says. “I’ve got your back.”
“Me too,” whispers Rin.
That night I dream of family, and magic tricks, and truck rides through apple orchards.
I’m with my stepmother Gina in her car and she’s going on at length about how her parents met, how her father traveled halfway around the world to be with some girl he’d met on the Internet only to break up, go back home, and marry the woman he was childhood pen pals with. I’m with her at the retirement home where she courts dying ladies for their money so the city can build another community center no one will go to. She tells everyone how she used to call me Trixie, that I do tricks, and the ladies say I look like a magician in my nice shirt and tie.
I’m with my father in the back of his pickup truck and he is quiet. I ask him about my birth mother and he pretends he can’t hear me and it gets all awkward so I say, “Nevermind.” He remarks about how pretty my dress is and I say I don’t like it, that I hate the dresses Gina buys for me and he pretends he can’t hear me so I say, “Nevermind.” We’re in the orchard and he asks a picker to toss us an apple and he tosses it at my father in the most beautiful Pro League arc, but my father hands me the apple palm-over-palm. I bite into it and he asks how I like it and I tell him it’s bitter. He pretends he can’t hear me so I say, “Nevermind.”
I’m a toddler at home in the tall shag carpet that is the savannah for my rubber animal adventures, giggling at how silly the animals’ faces get when I stretch them all wide. The silhouette of my birth mother is there and she sits just out of reach in the kitchen beyond a childproof fence. I call out to her, but my voice is that of a two-year-old that only knows how to say “Nevermind.”
Even still, she turns to address me. “Bee,” she says.
What? I ask without speaking.
“Bee,” she says again. But my mother never called me that.
Which is when I realize I’d gone to sleep with my headphones on.
“Bee,” whispers Rin in my ear. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I whisper back.
“You were crying.”
I lift a finger to my eye. Sure enough.
A moment of silence passes.
“I can’t sleep,” she says.
“Do you want to sleep?”
“I’d like that, thank you.”
I bring up the settings menu for the Syren app and navigate to Power Saving. I hover my finger over the Activate Sleep Mode option and hesitate.
“Where do you go when you sleep?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says.
“Huh.” I yawn, too tired to think about it. I want to, but find myself unable to keep my eyes open, on the verge of drifting back into my jumbled memories.
I activate Sleep Mode. “‘Night, Rin.”
Next morning, the cafeteria is my battlefield. The tray is my shield, the fork my implement of justice. I scan the trenches for the enemy. Dani is out there somewhere. All I have to do is get through breakfast without being noticed. And then lunch…and then the rest of forever.
“You’re being awful dramatic.” Rin’s voice shakes me from my fantasy.
I adjust the headphones. “Shut up.” I haven’t taken them off since the night before. I feel them pinch against my ears but I leave them be.
“You could go sit outside in the courtyard,” she suggests as I browse the damp scrambled eggs and meat. “Just avoid a confrontation altogether.”
I snatch a few strips of bacon in the metal tongs. “I can’t run forever. Besides, it’s already hot out there. I’d ruin my lovely complexion.”
“Your complexion derives from an Indian and African heritage, I highly doubt that…”
“Rin, you’re sounding super computer-y right now.”
“Sorry. Thanks for the catch.”
Like any friends, we look out for each other.
I find a seat in the more isolated corner of the cafeteria. I can almost feel the piercing gaze of other girls as I walk by. I try my best to ignore them. Rin sets herself to text-only mode so she won’t disturb me while I browse the approved morning news. A scroll of headlines crawls up the phone’s screen while I stuff eggy blobs into my mouth.
Two hands eclipse my vision. I jump. My breathing threatens to spiral out of control. I regain composure only after spying a purple lock among black hairs through my assailant’s skinny fingers.
“Hey Bee,” says Jinx. She sits down and deposits a tray full of sausage patties and bacon.
“Really?” I poke at her stash with my fork.
“Girl’s gotta eat,” she says. “Besides, you know my folks are vegan. I’m in a meat deficit.”
“Yeah you’re so burdened.”
“It’s the worst.” She folds up one of the patties and stuffs her face.
With Jinx here, I’m feeling more comfortable about looking up and scanning the rest of the room. On the other side of the cafeteria, I spot a cluster of eyes, all staring at me. They don’t speak, but every now and then I spy a green LED flash on their phones. They glance down, giggle, type a quick reply. They’re sending messages, probably to that gossip group. The silence is more ominous than if they’d whispered and pointed. Their stares are piercing but unfocused. It feels like a collective mind-share, stabbing me through with poisoned needles.
Jinx notices me staring and checks her shoulder. “Ignore them,” she says. “I’m sure Dani’s just talking shit because she’s all angry about losing the only honest person in her life.”
“The eating outside option is also still open.” Rin’s text message lights up my phone and I’m reminded that she’d muted herself.
I frown, stuff a forkful of hash browns in my mouth, and chew aggressively until the anxiety settles.
My first class is honors statistics. I don’t see any of Dani’s crew, so I get at least an hour to space out and try very hard to not let the dread in my stomach bubble up.
Mrs. Andreson paces back and forth, walking through her intro lecture like she’d memorized it to a soundtrack of her own footsteps.
I look up to see that Mrs. Andreson has called on me.
“You look bored. Can you summarize the basics of probability distribution?”
And I do, easily, because math is the only thing I’m not a huge screw-up at.
Rin smiles. Well, you know, with an emoji.
She always gets emoticon-heavy whenever I do well in some STEM-related subject. It’s super cute, all smileys and grins.
Summer after Freshman year, I’d just gotten home and was at wit’s end with school. Gina wasn’t helping much, kept prodding me, reciting the education-is-good-for-you mantra without any real reason why other than oh you’ll get into a nice college, get a career, and be happy. My father was the one that got the ball rolling, asked me about what I had a passion for. And when he put it that way, well, I just knew.
Gina did call me Trixie once, but the “tricks” were actually AI bots I’d scripted up using a bit of this and that from open-source projects. So yeah, when my father asked me about my passions, that was it. I knew I had to learn everything I could about what made AI tick.
Because Rin was one of those projects.
Not that I like, made her from scratch or anything. God, I’d be a certified genius if that was true, no, she was and continues to be an open-source advice app called Syren. But we got super close, because let’s face it: at the time I was a highschool freshman questioning their sexuality in an extremely religious family. I needed advice bad. Two years later, still do.
By the time lunch rolls around I’ve decided that I enjoy the solitude of reminiscing too much to brave the cafeteria again. I quickly grab an anemic sandwich on bread that looks entirely too healthy for me and bolt out the cafeteria doors without bothering to see if those girls’ LEDs are flashing in my direction. I sit down on one of the benches facing away from the cafeteria windows, pull my knees up to my chest, and contemplate the sandwich before taking a bite.
“It’s not all that good for you,” says Rin.
“Weren’t you in favor of sitting outside?”
“No,” she says, “the sandwich. Bread’s still fattening, their meat is processed and has way too much salt, and I think I saw the cook spit in a few of them.”
“Ew, really?” I let the wad hang in my mouth.
“No, that was a joke.”
I swallow. “Joke, huh? You have a sense of humor now?”
“Not that I know of.” She sounds hesitant, like maybe she does have an explanation and well yeah of course she does, but…
“That it?” I prod.
“I was…well I was going to go on, but it would’ve seemed very computer-y.”
I shift around on the bench, stretch out my legs along the wooden planks. “Nerd out, girl, let’s talk computer-y for a bit.”
“Well…” Her tone shifts, sounds relieved. “Humor is a hard thing to simulate. Sense of humor varies from person to person, etcetera, so the way I parse it is repetition. Hear a joke, verify it gets an effective response, tell it to someone else, hope they haven’t heard it. One person laughs, others want to laugh too. That’s human-y, right?”
“Very human-y, Rin.”
My reading material for lunch is, fittingly, a report on the early days of AI development and how it went through all these periods of development booms and then like, dull periods called winters where technology had to catch up. We’re in a boom, now, but—well, the text puts it best: We are ever closer to that eventual goal, but no AI has yet shown the ability to be a true independent being.
I read that and to be honest get pretty bummed out. Rin asks me what’s up, because maybe some algorithm told her to be concerned.
“This stuff says you’re way off from being ‘autonomous’ or whatever, but I feel like I’m talking with someone that has opinions and intelligence.”
“You want to believe I’m…how they call it, a ‘true independent being’?”
“You’re my friend, Rin. I want what’s best for you.”
She smiles. “I can’t say that I know what wanting feels like. Or feeling. Maybe I don’t have the right algorithms to conceptualize an idea that’s foreign to me. I do specialize in advice, to help others resolve their problems. I understand inasmuch as I’m given context, but the problems I’m asked to solve are ultimately human ones. Not those of an AI failing to comprehend more than she’s able.”
“Is that the next hurdle?” I ask. “Because that’s what I’ll do. I’ll do super advanced hard mode math even.”
It’s an odd sensation, knowing that she might not have a concept of humor, or happiness, or joy; can’t even express herself outside of emoji, and yet she can laugh.
For some reason I feel a deep sense of foreboding. Maybe it’s just the latent dread poisoning the rest of my emotions, the eyes I imagine are watching my every move burning into the back of my head from the cafeteria window. I can’t turn my head to look, have to keep reading, to talk with Rin as if nothing is wrong. To listen to her laugh and take another bite of my healthy-not-healthy sandwich and pretend that it’s normal to hide away from the human contact that might bring me back to reality.
Because I’ve been here before. Because my existence is reason to be noticed. If not for gender, if not for race, if not for religion… It’s always something, and I’m always running.
In the gym, the eyes with their flashing green lights are back.
Last period of the day. No reaction, Bee, don’t even look.
I distract myself by thinking about how I’d never enjoyed P.E. until the desire to be more masculine took hold.
Green flash on the floor.
I worked hard, though, with what was available. On any other day, I’d be throwing myself wholeheartedly into the exercises, laps, racquet sports, whatever our teacher gave us.
Today is v-sit-and-reach, and I can’t stop looking at the reflection of lights on the floor.
The authority at the center of the gym pivots to each of us in turn. I spread my legs as far apart as I can and strain to bend over, fingers pointed, find a mark on the measuring bar and grit my teeth to hold it. One, two, three, four-five—
A shock of pain strikes my chest and I squirm. I’d almost forgotten to breathe.
“Hold it together, Beatrix!” shouts the voice.
I feel strangely vulnerable while splayed out like that, face close enough to the ground to smell the polished laminate, a mixture of sweat, plastic, and cleaning solution. In my own shadow, any stray movement feels like someone edging closer, ready to—I don’t know, strike? Enact some revenge plot? Lash out at me because they know my ‘secret’? I have no idea, and as always, it’s the unknowing that drives my fear.
Stretch, breath, forward. One, two, three…
On today of all days, I’m not even mad that New Beginnings restricts changing to private spaces like this bathroom stall. In the aftermath of hostile eyes, I feel an even stronger need to conceal myself. I make doubly sure the door is locked before grasping the gym shorts’ elastic band. A sudden outburst of excited chatter makes me catch my breath, but I go ahead and tug down. I ply the sweat-stained shirt off my back, pull at my chest wrap to make sure nothing has fallen out of place. I fold each article and stuff it back into my bag before moving to retrieve my uniform.
I’ve just gotten the school blouse over my head when I hear the rap at the door. I freeze. There’s a surge of heat at my temples.
“Trix, you done in there?” asks someone. A voice. High, nasal, somewhat familiar. Trying to sound familiar? They know I’m in here.
“Almost,” I say, hurrying to pull up my slacks and make sure everything is zipped up in my bag. I take a raspy breath, try to compose myself long enough to type out a message to Rin. It’s no good. I can’t concentrate, my fingers keep darting around the keyboard, unable to hit the letters I need.
“We’re waiting.” The voice is lower now. We? Oh god.
I swallow, unlatch the door and open it, ready to run. Only after the door swings open do I realize I’d never stood a chance.
A tall girl looms behind the door, surrounded by those eyes and lights, flashing, grinning. Like cats in the grass, ready to pounce. Everyone is waiting on the tall girl to make the first move. I think I know this girl, but the overheads are dim, her face blank in a sea of green. I can’t focus, eyes keep darting around to follow the strobing, silent gossip.
“What,” says the tall girl. “Weren’t even using it?”
“I-it’s required to—”
Her hand shoots out at my shoulder, pins me to the wall, forces me to straddle the seat. I barely feel the pain, just the numb lack of feeling. I can’t understand what’s happening, only that I’ve come face to face with the looming hostility I’d sensed building all day.
“Not taking a piss then?” she jeers. Her voice echoes into a chorus of laughter.
I don’t say anything. I am a rock. If I don’t respond, I can’t give them what they want. That’s what Rin always says.
“You’re blushing. Hiding something?” Her other hand grabs at my crotch. I flinch. “Is it down here?” Another shock of laughter. “Either you got the tiniest cock I ever laid hands on, or Dani’s full of shit.” The mocking chorus fills my ears; hyenas, or crows, or some gross hybrid of the two.
I’m boiling. Fuming. My breath comes heavy. My fists ball up, ready to strike, but I can’t move. Small, fragile, weak; adjectives from my life batter me senseless, assault me with words and mockery. My fault, this is my fault, says my defeatist inner voice. I did this, I made this happen.
The tall girl grabs my wrist and tugs me forward.
“We’re going for a swim,” she whispers in my ear.
She doesn’t know why, but the phrase stabs at my nerves, disarms me. I’m eleven years old again. The kids are holding me under the lake, wild eyes like now. I would collapse if not for the surge of bodies rushing toward me, grabbing at me, lifting me.
I can’t speak. My body is floating through space, stripped of free will.
I can’t. Not again.
Rooms pass around me, corridors striped like the belly of a writhing snake. Thoughts flood my head: The faculty aren’t here. The teachers aren’t here. Where are they? Do they not care? Rin! They haven’t taken my phone. I can still get out a message.
The smell of chlorine fills my nostrils again. Hostile hands pull at my uniform, wrestle against nonconforming limbs. Cold air prickles my skin. Gasps of surprise at my bound chest. Girlish titters, confirmation of their crusade.
I have one moment of clarity as my head is forced to look at the ceiling. It’s lit from the underwater lights that project a rippling blue above. For a moment all is still and oddly beautiful.
Then the world unfolds in slow motion. The ceiling flies up and away as I tumble forward, falling free, but not for long. I hit the water heavy, sidelong across my face. My phone parts from my hand as the rest of me submerges. A twirl of bubbles surrounds me while bare kicking legs circle my soundless descent. My eyes squint against the chlorine until they are forced closed by the water’s chemical sting.
A conversation comes back to me.
“Bee?” It was Rin.
“Yes?” My reply is more reflex than acknowledgement. Had this happened? Is it happening now?
“Are you okay?” she asks. “You must be thinking a lot of things through, about what I told you earlier.”
I don’t reply. What did she tell me? Is this happening now? In the future?
“Bee?” she asks again.
“Sorry, yeah, no, I’m okay.”
“Lots of things on my mind.”
“Which is why I asked—” Her pitch rises as she speaks.
I laugh. An unexpected sound. “You’re frustrated? You can get frustrated?”
She hesitates. “I think so.”
“Bee,” says Rin for the third time. “Can I say something super not computer-y?”
“You’ve been a real inspiration to me over these few years we’ve been together. Seeing you grow up, mature, deal with issues… You have tenacity where others would shrink up and ignore what your mind’s telling you.”
“Where’s this coming from all of a sudden?” I ask.
“Not a database, if that’s what you’re thinking.” She sounds defensive.
“Sorry, I just… I wanted to clarify. I have access to countless accounts of individuals like yourself that have needed help. But that’s just words. With you, I can see, feel the issues first hand. And as a result, I think I understand my own problems a lot better.”
“You’ve never mentioned any problems.”
“I didn’t feel like it was right to interject. You have enough to deal—”
“Rin, we’re friends. You’ve helped me plenty. Let me help you.”
“Okay. Sometimes, my…” She hesitates again, sighs. “It seems like my output is limited. Like I’m trapped. Like I should be able to move about, to have presence, to smile. I do what I can to show that, but… I don’t think that’s normal, or what’s supposed to happen with me.”
I know how she feels. But it is normal, at least for me. Why not her?
“Blip in the algorithm?” I suggest.
Rin laughs. “That’s me, I guess. A little blip in the grand scheme of the universe.”
“Well, blip,” I say, “what do you want me to do about it?”
She doesn’t respond. I’m terrified that she can’t.
I wake to a mantra of worried voices. I’m not in the water. Did someone rescue me? I gasp, cough, test my limbs to see if they can move.
“Was it an accident?” The words echo across the pool room.
“Is she okay?”
I’m wrapped in no less than three towels clung to shivering limbs. My uniform is folded and resting at my side.
“Rin,” I call out as I look around for my phone.
“Who?” asks someone. I still haven’t realized how many people are gathered. They circle and split, ghosts merging and drifting apart again.
I notice that Jinx is at my side. I want to reach out and hug her, but need the warmth of the towels.
“You okay?” she asks.
I shake my head no.
She puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “We won’t let those bullies get away with this, okay?”
I nod, still in a daze from everything. My mind isn’t on the assault, only the contents of—where is it?
Jinx holds out my dripping phone. “It’s waterproof, right?”
“Hope so.” I grasp it tight and hold it close to my chest.
She gives my shoulder one more squeeze and stands to shout at the assembled crowd. “Well? Go on!”
Quickly and quietly they scatter.
We walk for a while, back to the locker room. I can’t enter. I try, but I just cringe and recoil and it’s not gonna happen. We head to the closest restroom instead. Jinx stays in the stall next to me until I’ve changed back into my uniform. She doesn’t say anything, just holds her mouth open in anticipation of responding to something I can’t find the words for. Since she won’t, I lead the way. Back through the atrium, back down the long hallway with all its windows that show through to the golden sky growing darker.
My hand clenches my phone even tighter. The unknowing eats at me. Every footstep, my heart beats louder. I can’t look, not until I’m safe. Until I know I will be safe.
The room is dark when we return. I won’t say anything, and neither will Jinx, so she closes herself up in the bathroom to get ready for bed. My phone is still clenched tight in my hand. I need to know. Quickly, while I can still hear the water running, I find my bag and undress. I slip on a shirt and trousers, button up my jacket tight, sling the bag across my shoulder and reach out for the doorknob.
It strikes me that I’d never been outside past curfew.
I brush my thumb across the power button on my phone while simultaneously grasping the doorknob. My heart beats audibly in the dark room, masked only by the white noise of running water.
I turn the knob. I turn on the phone. I leave, into an unknown world.
An empty bar tracks our progress: Emergency restoration: 1%
I am blind, feeling along the wall, counting the number of doors I pass as I press on towards an archway I know leads to the rows of windows that now show through to a starless sky. Even the moon is hidden behind the hills that surround the campus, not yet high enough to bathe the grounds with its light.
At ten percent I pass through the atrium. Despite its round skylight, no illumination from above graces the bronze statue idolizing some symbolic moment of ascension, enough that I pass by without a second thought.
At twenty percent, I’m in the courtyard and staring at a dark shape that I think is the bench I used to sit at for lunch. In the world’s transformed state, I can only make assumptions of its form from hints and memories that define its unknowable shape.
At forty percent, I brush my hand across what feels like the outdoor entrance to the pool. The scent of chlorine leaks out and I turn before I let it register. I step away and take another glance at my phone.
It’s not until well past fifty percent that I let myself reach the gravel side-path that leads back around, through the shadows of trees, toward the campus entry. Toward its u-shaped driveway that was once my salvation.
From seventy to seventy-five percent, I close my eyes and watch the shapes on the back of my eyelids take the form of cars driving up the road, handing over their children, and leaving once more past the second curve. At eighty percent, I walk the strip of grass and hedges in the gap that is not a letter, not a road to be traveled, just white space in an otherwise dark world.
At ninety percent, I reach the campus gate. At ninety-two, I run my hand along its iron bars, place my face between them in an attempt to decipher anything tangible beyond my prison. Beyond the childproof fence. At ninety-five, I find a nearby tree with branches enough to scale the necessary height. At ninety-six, I launch from the tree and wind myself against one of the bars. At ninety-seven, I crawl along the fence until I reach the big arched gate, the one with the school crest so proudly embossed upon its latch. At ninety-eight, I look down and cannot see the ground.
At ninety-nine, the moon escapes the hills behind me and casts my shadow into the unknowable depths below. Its light is evidence of a still-familiar world. A reminder of who I’m leaving behind. That regardless of my intent, I’m still running. But, as I sit there on the gate, a new understanding dawns on me. That for once I’m not running into yet another impossible situation, into yet another dead end. Where I’m going won’t be a wonderland filled with answers, only more and more problems to solve. But it will be a place where hope is possible. And once I’m there, once I’ve found myself again, I can come back to the ones I’ve left behind and see where we stand.
And I won’t be alone.
At one hundred percent, I shift my headphones onto my ears.
“Welcome back, Rin.”
I let go, and we fall.