1. Ezekiel Jones
Here is a thing my heart wishes the world had more of:
I heard it in the air of one night when I listened
To a mother singing softly to a child restless and angry in the darkness.
When other kids had grown up and put away their imaginations and started focusing on the practical, Ezekiel Jones was still firmly impractical. He had dreams of fighting dragons (and stealing their gold) and rescuing princesses (for a hefty ransom) and stealing the Hope diamond (because why not?).
When he was ten, he fished around Bianca Amary’s backpack and came out with a tenner. His not-friend beamed at him with pride.
When he was thirteen, he returned home, elated by his first foray into breaking and entering - the principal’s office, hardly a respectable lock, but still a first - and she shared his joy with him.
When he was fourteen, he twirled the precious gem - his latest acquisition - in nimble fingers and shot a grin at her. She smiled back sweetly.
Ezekiel Jones grew up. His imaginary … not-friend stuck around. As he grew older, she stayed there, acting as lookout at museums and pointing out vulnerabilities in code. He could see her clearly in his mind, even though her appearance changed. Sometimes she was a little shorter than him, sometimes his equal in height. Her hair ranged from jet black to an auburn brown. It was wavy, then straight; cut in a pageboy, then hanging below her shoulders in a fine curtain.
The thing about imaginary friends is that they are usually not supposed to be older than you. They’re meant to be playmates and share in your adventures, not hug you afterward and tell you how proud they are of you.
Ezekiel Jones is nineteen, and he knows you are not supposed to call your imaginary friend “Mom”.
2. Cassandra Cillian
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
She made murmuring noises of agreement and understanding, feeling dazed and sick to her stomach. She hadn’t eaten breakfast today.
“Ms. Cillian?” Dr. Nguyen called gently. “Ms. Cillian, I know this is a lot to take in… do you have anyone who you could call? A partner? Parents? Sometimes it helps to have someone with you.”
Her parents. Where were they, she wondered. She had told her mother about the more-frequent nosebleeds at their last phone call, promptly on her mother’s birthday. Her mother had said something about her always being a delicate child before turning the conversation to her parent’s latest vacation and the neighbor’s yard.
“No,” Cassandra said when she realized the doctor was waiting for her answer. “No, I don’t… I don’t have anybody.”
Dr. Nguyen frowned and pressed a card into her hand for a grief counselor, recommended that she talk to him. It could help, she had said. Cassandra thanked her and left in a fog that dulled her senses so she almost didn’t count the bricks on the wall beside her and calculate the building’s height based on her own (almost). The taste of chocolate milk flooded her mouth and she choked on it.
The grief counselor stood 5’10”, dressed in a emerald-green button-up shirt that looked mussed and a dark pair of slacks. His hair was salt-and-pepper and he looked like he should have been wearing thick black-rimmed glasses. She wasn’t going to go back to him; he seemed to think the interloper taking root in her brain was a problem, not a gift, and she didn’t have the math to explain it to him.
“Writing a letter can help,” he said, flashing her a smile. He had coffee stains on his teeth. “It sounds a little silly, but it can help you put your feelings into words.”
And so she had. A pen in one hand and a piece of paper in front of her, she had written a long letter to her parents.
“Dear Mom and Dad,” it began. She thought about telling them how much she loved them; how much she wanted to do and see, and how none of that would happen now; how she was going to die, and what she wanted her funeral to look like.
And then she thought of her mother, complaining that the neighbor never mowed his yard often enough and how it was bringing property values down, and her dad, asking why she was working as a janitor when she could be so much more.
Unbidden she wrote, “I wonder, if you knew, if you would love this thing inside me more than you loved me. It’s what gave you your perfect, prodigy daughter, after all.”
She stared, appalled, at the words. Her parents drilled perfunctory politeness into her since she was old enough to speak. Always say thank you for a gift. Always say, “What a lovely home,” when you were a guest. Always call your mother on her birthday. The vitriol leaking from her pen was as foreign and intrusive as the tumor nestled in the gyri of her brain. And yet… and yet. Like this new discovery, this was a part of her and always had been. It was there all along, even though she hadn’t known it.
“Will you miss me? Or will you miss what I could have been? Will you miss your perfect daughter, when she’s gone? Or will you be relieved, somewhere deep inside, when you don’t have to explain why your genius daughter isn’t living up to your potential. Will I be a martyr when I die? A tragic life cut short. You won’t have to explain why I am the way I am. You’ll have a ready-made excuse.
Will I die and leave you a memory, or a dream of what could have been?”
She wrote for hours, pouring out her fears and frustrations, her sadness and suspicions, and the aching beneath her breast of knowing she was going to die. The pages grew thick and cloudy with ink, loose scrawls of words that snarled and twisted. They were messy, messy in a way her math never was, and it felt good.
And when she was done, Cassandra Cillian did the first brave thing of her life: she neatly folded the papers and put them into an envelope, and she mailed them to her parents.
They would see it when they returned from vacation. They would never see her again.
3. Jake Stone
He said, 'My name is Love.'
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, 'He lieth, for his name is Shame,
But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.'
Then sighing, said the other, 'Have thy will,
I am the Love that dare not speak its name.'
He doesn’t like to remember the next part.
The slam of a door and his father’s footsteps into the barn, quicker than he or Brian could untangle themselves from each other. And his father’s face. Isaac Stone had a working man’s face: hard and cracked in the sun like he was made out of dust and clay. But his eyes were drowning with anger.
Brian had hightailed it before his father could shout more than a few curses his way, but Jake was still lying in a bed of hay, fear making his feet cold and leaden.
Fifteen years old and he already knew how his father sounded when he was mourning the love of his life, how his voice slurred when he was a handle of whiskey deep, how his hands clenched when the permit for new drilling was late. Fifteen years old, and he learned something new. He learned how the barn wall felt against his back, a nail catching on his back and leaving a long scratch, how his father’s fist felt against his cheekbone, and how fear tasted bitter in the back of his mouth.
Brian slinked past him in the hallway the next day, not making eye contact, and Jake asked Jenny Reams out the next week and made sure everyone heard him in the locker room at practice talking about the sweet curve of her waist in his arms.
Jake put it away, locked it in with the way he taught himself Latin and the way his soul lingered on brushstrokes of art. Pushed it into a box along with his admiration for smooth lines of architecture and the whirling interplay of lines of poetry.
He had already hidden so much of himself away. What was one thing more?
4. Eve Baird
God pity them both! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall.
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
She had risen up the ranks and was the youngest commander of a NATO team of her own. She still remembered the pride that had made her almost giddy. Here were young men and women looking up to her, trusting her to know what to do, and if it scared her sometimes, it also made her want to do that much better.
Her commanders told her that getting that command was going to open up new doors for her career, but she also thought sometimes of the road not taken. Because for every new door opening, more were closing. Because Captain Innez had shown her pictures on his phone of his new baby boy, an ugly little creature with rashy red cheeks and a bald head and the most perfect smile she had ever seen. Because Major Sherridan kept a photo on her desk of herself posing in civvies, beaming at the camera, arms wrapped around a man with a bright smile and a gold ring on his finger.
Because Eve had no pictures on her desk, just awards on the wall and a stack of paperwork waiting to be filled out.
She thought it might happen one day: that she’d meet someone and fall in love. She had, a few times, but nothing stuck for long. And so she had made her choice, and quietly put that dream away like an old quilt being tucked into a dusty linen closet. A few days to grieve what might have been, and she was back again, determined to look out for those who did have wives and husbands and children back home. Her role wasn’t to live that dream; it was to make sure others could live theirs.
Most of the time she succeeded. Sometimes she didn’t.
And then, improbably, she had met someone. And fallen in love. And it had stuck.
When she looked at Flynn, she saw a man who made her feel 19 again, on the cusp of something new and with all the paths open to her, so many that it scared her where he flung himself headlong down one of them, beckoning for her to follow.
She might never look down at an ugly little creature with a perfect smile that was all her own. But she looked over her charges and saw a brilliant young woman with a heart to match that shining mind of hers; a young man, full of life and mischief, who would one day stop running from himself and show the world everything he could be; another man who ached over Sassoon and loved Lewis Carroll with a child’s joy and who was always at her back in a fight.
And she heard her heart whisper: Mine.
She could live with that choice.
5. Flynn Carsen
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
The artifacts slept at night. The swords quieted, the mirrors shuttered, and the books dreamed. It was so quiet that he could hear the Library breathe against the stillness of the dark.
When all the lights had gone out, he would wander to the Reading Room and sit among the shelves, surrounded by books - some not dissimilar to copies found in regular old libraries, and others more precious than any of those combined. He could reach out and his fingers would find leather spines gilt with age. The scent of vanilla and papyrus drifted up and reminded him of the time before.
Another dashing rescue, another dapper adventure; he wouldn’t trade his life for anything.
But sometimes… Well, sometimes, the reason he liked the Library at night was because it felt like old possibilities. He never would have thought a possibility could grow old. The word felt new. It felt young. But things changed at night, and especially in the Library, and possibilities could grow old and weary and linger like ghosts in the corner of your vision.
Here in the Library he was surrounded by history and art and literature. They wrapped around him like a blanket, but each one carried a weight. This one, the harpoon that had left a scar on his left leg. That one had the heavy drape of a town that shrank beneath the waves and two hundred spirits lost at sea.
He remembered looking at books and feeling only wonder and amazement, the joyous curiosity of novelty. He remembered how finding a book gifted him with theory as light as cloud-silk, unreal and unpracticed and untried.
The Library was beautiful at night.
It kept its secrets, and his. And in the dimness of age and antiquity, it didn’t feel real if he admitted, silently, that he sometimes missed his life Before.