h1

C*H*O*I*C*E*S

Night was the loneliest time of day. It became so much more than just a word, but an ache, an emptiness.

He sighed wearily, acknowledging this along with the fact that sleep was impossible. Reluctantly, he sat up, the blanket draped around his head, monk-like. The makeshift hood shadowed his face, giving his intense, startlingly blue eyes a brooding quality one would never have guessed from his usual lighthearted look. His day face.

The basement room lay wreathed in shadows, the whirring of the ceiling fan and humming of the generator the only foreign sounds besides his own soft breathing. The fan cast ripples of gray against the blank far wall and over the smooth, clean planes of his face. A strong face, determined, expressive, one where a myriad of emotions from mischievous to sweet to furious to annoyingly stubborn could play while its audience lay rapt. Right now it was impassive as his gaze wandered the room slowly.

The night was kind to the room’s flaws. Worn carpet, stained and dusty from countless years of tread and living seemed fine to eyes if not to feet. Night’s healing touch hid chipped walls sporting decades worth of prints from greasy fingers.

A solitary window illuminated the room, a small rectangle from which dirty gray light bled through faded Aladdin curtains. The first week he’d slept in the basement found him watching the window fixedly all night, the uneasy crawl along his spine that something—Something—was out there looking in. After hunting around, he came up with his little brother’s old curtains to relieve his unfounded but nonetheless genuine fear. Plus, he’d loved the movie when he was little. The idea of a magic carpet ride, of escaping everything to experience the wonders of the world, captivated him. Even then, with the background of his father’s voice rasping in resentment and his mother’s defeated tears, he’d understood escape. Breaking away seduced even his grown-up and grown-realistic sensibilities.

No wonder his computer was so important. In a room so cramped that the bed was lofted just to cram in a scarred, wooden chest of drawers, the internet was a twenty-two year-old’s only relief. He grimaced. “Dude, you’re getting a Dell”. Well it wasn’t his first choice, but what was.

He was cold, the type even a roaring fire could not penetrate. He flexed the muscles in his jaw unconsciously, shoving impatient fingers through the wavy brown hair that curled softly over his ears and forehead. He was tired of this room, tired of not being able to sleep, tired of waiting for something he didn’t know what, tired of wanting and seeing but never getting—

An IM screen disturbed the star system racing across his computer screen. Nikita.

He remembered meeting her four years ago. He knew from the first that she wanted to be with him. The way her exotic eyes would look at him eagerly, and then away, unsure of her reception. Of how they looked weeks later in bed, languorous, with a complacent smile on her lips as she wrapped her lithe body around him, cat-like. And then, in the morning, the many, many mornings, the way he would wake up in her arms with her hand stroking his hair in an oddly protective gesture as she looked at him.

And what a look. Nikita could hide nothing. Desperate unhappiness would darken velvety brown eyes into black holes whose gaze he could never hold for long in fear that he would give in to their entreaty. All too many times he would see just how much he had hurt or disappointed her by the sudden awkwardness of her graceful body, the bloodlessness of her face, the stammering excuse to be anywhere but in his presence so she could be weak and cry. Mornings brought the reality that he did not belong to her. In all the years he had known her, not once had they ever eaten breakfast together after spending the night with each other. There were only restrained goodbyes with a hundred unspoken things electrifying the air between their parting bodies.

Hurting her was never something he intended to do. Of all the people he knew, he cared about her the most. Love was not the right word, but then he had never allowed himself close enough to find out. He was good at that. He built walls when people got too close, and in the process bricked himself in. Crossing the line from best friends into relationship meant commitment he could not give. Or, in truth, would not give because of a dream.

For years, music had been another form of escape and maybe his only talent. It quieted him. He got lost in it. In fact, he got so lost that on a few, remote occasions, the raw strains from his acoustic guitar seemed to convulse with the very substance of his soul. It never happened often, or for very long, but the need for that pure ecstasy in life gripped him. It goaded him on in his work to write and perform. Some weeks ago he had a gig at a small concert hall where by chance, a record agent had wandered in and been amazed by his talent. For weeks, his thoughts had been running wild with extravagant fantasies of fame, of life on a higher plain. No more feeling invisible, no more second-hand clothes and second-hand life—he was going to BE someone. He was going to leave his mark on the world besides a few kids.

Kids. A wife. They seemed incongruous in the life he’d been imagining. In a psychology class he’d once taken, he remembered a theory where energy was defined as a finite thing. You could focus some here, some there, but eventually it runs out. Spread too thin, everything suffers. There were even studies with people and statistics and evidence that yelled for attention. So what would suffer? The family? His music? The drive for those few moments of perfection that first opened the door to a life he dared not dream? Nikita and the idea of a record deal seemed to stretch out in two directions, anywhere in between a black hole of failure.

He looked fixedly at the computer screen across the room. He could imagine Nikita waiting for his reply, sitting unnaturally still in that way she had, the furious churning of her brain betrayed only by the dilation of her cat-eyes.

The cursor pulsed with his heart.

He needed out. Now. The room suddenly felt claustrophobic, sucking all the air out of his lungs, and he just couldn’t stand looking at the blank ceiling and blank walls and blank life in the room that was not really his room but the section 8 barracks reserved for college students home for the summer. HIS room was upstairs, occupied by one of his many siblings whom he couldn’t really resent since who wouldn’t want their own space? He had no qualms about blaming his parents though. They had made such a mess of it. For the billionth time he vowed never, ever to settle for so little of life as they had.

Resolutely ignoring the IM, he threw off the faded blanket and pushed himself off the bunk, finally able to straighten to his full 6’1” without concussing himself. Shirtless, he rummaged around in one of the drawers, coming up with a faded, much-loved rugby t-shirt from high school. It was loved into holes, one especially conspicuous rip under the arm. He crept up the stairs, knowing from long practice of sneaking out how to avoid the squeaky spots. Softly padding through the kitchen, he grabbed his keys before disappearing out the door. The only witness to his getaway was the dog who gave a slight whine before settling down, sphinx-style, to watch his master through the glass.

The gravel crunched loudly in the quiet, echoing in the emptiness that accompanied the sleeping hours. Uneasy, he glanced around, aware that the night was watching him. The night was alive as the day never was, holding possibilities that day never could.

He shook his head as if to get free of all the romantic musings he only contemplated in the weird hours of the night. He hopped into his much-loved pearl blue 2001 Honda Civic, V4 to his vast annoyance, but in peak condition. It was one of the few things he’d spent his money on.

After driving out of the neighborhood, he went through his usual routine of figuring out what to listen to. Music was a must. Driving without it was like a party without alcohol—boring unto sleep. Needing something to match his restless mood, he shoved in Deftones. The sometimes sensual, mesmerizing voice of Chino Moreno poured out of speakers paid for in the slave labor only tolerated when working for a father. He turned up the bass. What’s the point if you can’t feel the music? The other half of his mind played with thoughts he repeatedly tried to banish to the dungeons of his subconscious. Fun stuff like what the hell he was doing with his life since he loathed his business major and was in debt $40,000 because of it. He really just wanted to cut loose and run with his creative juices, whether or not the record deal happened. Oh, but that won’t pay.

Unless he was good. Something he wanted—needed—to figure out before he surrendered himself to the despised but steady employ of a desk job. Cubicles. He shuddered. Four walls to imprison him five days a week, eight hours a day, four-hundred and eighty minutes, twenty-eight thousand eight hundred seconds…he had better stop this tangent because while it revealed his talent with numbers, it wasn’t helping with the teeth-grinding problem he’d noticed recently. Fuck that.

An aggressive driver, he kept one hand on the shift at all times and floored it. He was always in command of the car, but speed and power gave him a thrill. It let him feel a sense of control over at least one thing in his life. When he was driving anyways, he felt like he was going somewhere, an illusion he could maintain up until the final disheartening moment when he stopped the car. It was like flying, then suddenly losing your wings only to fall down, down, crashing back to earth resigned to marching two by two on foot like the rest of mankind. Screw the rest of mankind, he wanted to fly above, he wanted more…

Track two started. Digital Bath. One of his favorites, he always liked to play it at night speeding around the park, blasting it to drown everything else out. Like now. God, he felt so free all of a sudden. The tension eased out of his shoulders as he drove on, his grip on the wheel loosening so his knuckles lost their bloodless quality.

And then the lyrics “I want more” electrified him, froze him as they roared out, around, through him.

He growled in frustration.

Hell yes he wanted more. More than hand-me-downs and sheets a decade old and a future of mediocrity. He wanted more EVERYTHING. He wanted companionship which he had, but still. Dammit, he wanted sex but he couldn’t face Nikita’s Look or the indifferent arms of another. Stupidly, pointlessly, he wanted money to waste on things like washing machines with so many BUTTONS and LIGHTS like he’d seen at his friends. Or even better, he wanted to buy brand-name clothes costing more than his whole wardrobe combined.

His breath became more erratic in his fury even as his teeth clenched and he drove faster, fast enough to keep up with the out-of-control train of his thoughts.

Abruptly he decided to drive to The End of the World. Discovered in high school, he had named the hill for the split-second of pure sky he experienced when speeding over its top, almost as if he had run out of earth.

Jerking to a stop in a driveway, he squealed the tires in his sudden obsessive need to visit the one place he felt was his. His expression as ominous as the dark clouds forming on the horizon, he wound his way through the snaking roads of the park.

Close now, he felt mounting excitement. He had no idea why. He’d driven here a hundred thousand times and other than a brief moment of exhilaration, nothing was ever new.

Driving up the steep hill, the speedometer climbed much higher than the limit on the sign he’d just passed. He could just make out the top of the hill. Flooring it, hysteria bubbled up as he reached speeds never risked before.

He saw it—the top—and he was there, soaring over the crest so that for one incredible moment he seemed frozen, his only sight the view through his windshield: the dark as sin sky swallowing him up, peering at him with dozens of its dazzling eyes. He really did believe he was never coming back down to earth…it was The End of the World.

But then the loud thump of his wheels hitting the ground jarred him back to reality as he rolled down the other side of the hill, wincing at the damage he might have caused his car in a brief moment of madness.

No sooner did he think this that he realized one very strange thing.

It wasn’t dark anymore.

No, the sun was up, early morning, but nonetheless not the dead of night he had been in no more than thirty seconds ago. Did he pass out? His mind hurriedly raced though the list of possibilities, rejecting each one as quickly as he thought of it, his practical black and white world suddenly exploding in infinite shades of gray.

Smoke almost coming from his ears, his feverishly whirring mind crashed to an abrupt halt as he focused on a man coming from the front door of the house he was directly facing.

A man who had his face.

His heart stopped, time stopped. The blood pounded sickeningly in his head. His vision swam for a second before steadying on the stolen countenance.

Well not his exactly, more mature and lined, a man’s face. Him but not him. No mistaking that. The scar was even there, from when a bully in first grade double dared him to use a lighter to burn off one end of his eyebrow.

A thought dawned, impossible but making more sense (sense??) than anything else: him in the future. He felt like he’d dropped into a Michael Crichton novel, had accidentally fell or flew through a random time loophole only to land where he shouldn’t yet be.

Himself was getting into a car. An old Ford, gray, his hated shade, probably with enough miles on it to get to the sun. Maybe back. How could that be him? His mind absorbed all this with shock, stupidly hung up on the fact that Himself had no car sense whatsoever. Everyone, hell anyone, knows not to buy American cars. Patriotism stops at the wheel. However, there was no arguing with the fact that the future him owned that monstrosity, and was currently driving it down the street.

Split second decision: follow him or not?

Like always, he acted decisively without questioning himself into a corner about where his actions would lead him. An almost dispassionate calm settled over him as he quickly shifted his car into drive and eased the car out to tail Himself at a distance. He felt remote. Shock, perhaps?

They arrived at an office building. Tall and gray, the rows upon rows of sun-shaded black windows coldly mirrored the world around it. Somehow, the reflection mutated everything into something much more depressing.

For the first time the entire drive, he felt something inside him stir: his heart sinking into his stomach to boil in acid. This couldn’t be where Himself worked. This was corporate hell.

But Himself was already getting out of the car with his briefcase, striding into the building that so impersonally looked on. He had no choice but to follow.

No one seemed to notice him or even take any interest. He didn’t take time to analyze this phenomenon; act first, question later. They came to an elevator, Himself in the lead while he trailed a little behind. When the doors opened, he was at a loss for what to do as Himself got in and turned to face him, leaving him to stare directly into his own eyes.

Nothing happened. Himself didn’t yell “Clone” and run screaming for the guard just around the corner. Instead, the elevator door seemed to wait patiently for him as he slowly inched his way in, still mesmerized by his own eyes.

They got off at the 27th floor, barely a halfway point from the impressive column of numbers in the elevator. First glance of the place was not reassuring. He could already see the cubicles looming in the background. Zigzagging his way through a dense thicket of desks, Himself smiled every now and then at people calling “Morning” to him. The smug smile from being so well liked was wiped completely off his face when they finally paused in front of a cubicle. NONONO. But no amount of ranting could change the plaque on the desk with his name on it.

Like a nest of livid wasps, thoughts buzzed through his mind, rapid-fire. What happened to my music? To California? To having enough guts to live his dreams rather than look back in regretful silence? He wouldn’t do this to himself, this had to be someone’s awful, dreadful idea of a joke.

But no one jumped out of the shadows merrily yelling, “You’re on Candid Camera!”. No, this was as real as the heartburn he had right then.

He sat there for hours, stonily watching himself, a derisive, half-incredulous expression on his face. Himself’s job was spent entering outwardly meaningless information into a computer, answering phone calls, and every now and then getting up to refill his cup with more muddy-looking coffee while joking around with coworkers.

His frown steadily darkened as the full implication of what this cozy little scene meant. He’d failed himself. He would work in an office like a million other offices doing work that bored him to tears with the “normal” every day bunch of people he’d always been surrounded by. It was all so bourgeois. And he disliked the French so that was a real insult.

Where was the excitement he had looked for? The new surroundings, meeting exotic people, having a job which never became boring because it changed with each assignment?

He resurfaced from his thoughts to realize that Himself was on the phone, but there was a new note in his voice not present with any other callers. Softer, patient…affectionate?

Warning bells crashed discordantly in his head—a wife?! Still trying to grasp this fact, he tried to keep up pace with Himself who all of a sudden seemed to jump into action; he was smiling, and was that humming he faintly heard? Lighthearted step, buoyant smile as goodbyes were made, and they booked it to the parking lot in half the time he remembered from this morning.

Grumbling, he wondered at the hurry. The trip back was just long enough to let him completely immerse himself in self-pity.

Look at that house. With a sick, disappointed feeling in his gut, he realized that he had gotten nowhere; his future was exactly like his present. This house was a carbon copy of the crowded, falling-apart, old piece-of-crap house he had grown up in. Aren’t things supposed to improve? Aren’t you supposed to automatically do better than your parents? Instead he was climbing no further up the Ladder of Life than they had. God, how depressing. How mind-numbingly disappointing.

His shoulders sagged. Defeated before he even really began living.

He watched Himself jiggle a key in the lock, jammed, before finally managing to open the door. Scowling at the awful irony of life, he hurriedly followed, catching the door and boldly walking in—only to stop dead.

Eyes. Drowning in them. Velvety brown, but that color didn’t do justice, didn’t describe the warmth he saw there. Staring at him. No, through him. And smiling so that the sun seemed to come out from behind the clouds.

It was Nikita. Matured, blooming, shining with confidence and something else he had never seen. For a tiny second, gone before he could even recognize it, he felt complete.

Ominous rumbling. A figurine on a table nearby actually started to rattle. Earthquake, he thought wildly, in Ohio?

The couple in front of him didn’t seem particularly impressed with nature’s fury. Laughing, they turned to the stairs where two little boys appeared from thin air, stampeding down the stairs, practically tumbling over one another in their haste to see Daddy. A huge golden retriever helped them tumble a little faster as it tangled itself up in their chubby legs before leaping down the last couple stairs to stage a little doggie dance for its master. Not to be left out, a little girl rounded the corner; determined to follow her brothers, she sat down one step at a time, lowering herself with one thumb jammed in her mouth steadily sucking, and the other hand wrapped in a half-nelson around a one-eyed teddy bear.

His first conscious thought, besides that his heart stopping this many times couldn’t possibly be healthy for him, was that the boys were mini-hims. Sturdy little boys with laughing blue eyes and heads covered with mops of wavy brown hair. His second was that the little girl was the most precious thing he had ever seen. Considering his usual reaction to babies was to hold them like they were foreign creatures while looking completely miserable, this stunned him. But she was precious, a little angel with his hair. And Nikita’s eyes.

The family moved into the kitchen, everyone laughing and chattering and talking at the same time, even the dog giving a few important woofs. He stood watching them, thinking they almost seemed to glow at that moment, emanating a halo of good cheer and love and happiness that made something inside him tighten. It was everything he had wanted growing up.

They sat across from each other at the dinner table, the children on either side talking excitedly, every now and then stopping to shovel some food in their mouths at their mother’s prompting. The baby was absorbed in trying to get a spoonful of applesauce from her bowl into her mouth without spilling it. The vast amounts of food adorning her bib revealed her success rate, but she got an A for effort. Plus the dog was anxiously watching for any misses to vacuum up with its tongue.

While all of this was going on, he noticed Himself and Nikita exchanging private adult looks every now and then across the table. Their eyes would meet up for a moment, she would smile, he would grin and wink, before they looked away at something else that caught their attention. He remembered seeing his parents do that when they were happier and without their constant weary look. He had been completely certain for a while that his parents were capable of telepathy. That’s how Mom always knew when he was kicking his brother, even from the complete other end of the table.

Bedtime came all too soon and the kids were simultaneously threatened and persuaded into bed.

The couple walked out of the room, hand-in-hand, to the bedroom down the hall. Again he trailed after, drawn to them. They were so comfortable with each other, getting ready for bed, a routine they’d done a million times before and would do a million times again. Too soon, the light went off as they got into bed and Nikita twined around Himself’s body in that achingly familiar way.

And they looked so right. So perfect lying there.

He wondered what kind of look she woke up with now.

In a daze, he drifted from their room and out the front door of a house he had only a couple hours ago despised. Now it seemed lit with the happiness of the family within.

This isn’t what he wanted. But suddenly he wasn’t so sure anymore. He just kept seeing those eyes of hers, of that single clarifying moment where he had felt whole, and suddenly everything he had ever thought unraveled only to come together again—but differently.

And he knew it was worth it. Maybe his future didn’t include some exciting job on the other side of the country, or enough money to afford a decent car and a spanking new house, but he would have something better. He would never again be lonely at night.

He turned the car around, the tires bouncing over the ruts in the dirt road leading back to The End of the World. Focusing his eyes on the hill’s summit, he prayed to whoever or whatever was in charge of this crazy, mixed up world before flooring the gas. He held his breath before he went over, weightless, only open sky for a grand second until, like a curtain, night fell.

* * * *

Home, he swept a glance around the room, his room, and suddenly it wasn’t just the darkness that hid the flaws, but his own newly opened eyes.

Before undressing, he went to the IM screen on his computer. She had been idle for hours but he messaged her anyways.

Bittrsweeet: hey, sorry i missed you before. ridiculous night. so much to tell you and i don’t know where to start. lots of changes for us. call me.

Auto response from Enigma27: a person can only wait so long

Bittrsweeet: i know.

He undressed before pulling himself onto his bunk with an exhausted groan. Out before his head even touched the pillow, he fell asleep wondering what it would be like to spend a whole morning with Nikita.

* * * *

The phone rang.

Bleary eyes peeked out from under the faded blanket.

It rang again.

So cold. Such a long way to the phone. Misery. Anger at the world.

Third ring.

Muttering darkly, he slid off the bunk, stubbing his big toe in the process. Hopping around on one foot, he swore through gritted teeth.

It rang again.

He expected the answering machine to pick up before remembering that his brothers managed to kill it while playing basketball in the house. Sigh.

Ring five.

He picked up the receiver.

* * * *

The record company had finally called. He had a deal. LA after graduation in two weeks. Things were suddenly moving so fast that it made his mind even more sluggish. Without thinking, he absentmindedly picked up the phone when it rang again.

Nikita. The grogginess of first waking up had for a moment given him temporary amnesia about everything that had happened last night. Now with the barely-leashed excitement in her voice, it all came crashing back in one nauseating wave of remembrance.

“Hey, so what happened last night? The IM you left…big changes?”

He could hear the feigned calm laced into those words. Time stood still. Scenes from last night scrolled through his head as furiously as though he’d hit the fast forward button on a video before jarring to a stop.

It didn’t seem real. With the sun shoving itself through the blinds and the normalcy of hearing his brothers arguing upstairs or the mailman’s truck outside, it seemed ridiculous. Time travel? His dreams had always been vivid; this was his imagination soaring to new levels of realism. It was just his conscience berating him for taking what Nikita would give without ever giving back. And even if it wasn’t, night and day were two different realms. Night was for dreaming the possibilities and day for lurid reality.

Like the branches of a tree, he saw his entire life snaking out in every direction, splitting infinitely in the millions of every day decisions he would ever make from deciding to brush his teeth to driving high. It was up to him to choose which branch—left or right, Nikita or the record deal in LA, stability or the unknown.

He made his choice. “I’m leaving for LA after graduation. That record deal came through. That’s all I meant.” He held his breath.

The long silence that followed was enough of an answer. He pictured her clutching at the phone, her lips pressed white with the pain of expectation dashed.

“Congrats. I know how much that life means to you.” He heard the hollowness of her words, the pain making her voice tight and high-pitched.

“Yeah, thanks, you know it’s been a dream for—“

She cut him off, her words suddenly rushing out with violence, “Why are you doing this? Why are you making things so black and white when nothing in life is? I know you’re choosing, don’t even deny it. It’s me or that goddamn dream world you’re always fantasizing about. Why don’t you understand that compromise doesn’t mean failure!”

He tried to interrupt, but the rare instances of experiencing Nikita in a passion had taught him that this was one fire that should be allowed to burn out.

“You are not your father. I understand that you don’t want to be your parents, but it’s like you’ve centered your entire life around some crazy fear. Yes, your dad had the chance to make it big in music. Yes, he married your mom and they accidentally got pregnant with you. The bills piled up, he sold out for a more solid career choice and resented all of you from then on. I get that, ok? But you know what? It was his choice. He could have kept up with music on the side, he could have been happy for the wonderful family he did have, but instead he chose to be a loser. And now you’re faced with the same kind of choice. We can be together, we can make it work. I’ll make my own way through med school, it’s not like I’m asking for anything from you except you. I’m not going to stop you from doing anything. We are not in the same position as your parents. Please, can’t you see that?” Her voice dropped into a beseeching whisper.

“But I am. I am like my father. You don’t know all of me. You think I’m better than I am. I’m not. He walked out and left us alone and what if I did the same to you? In four years I’ve been too selfish to let you go even though I knew how this would work out. Think about that. Yeah, you’re right, I don’t want to repeat my parents. I’ve done everything to avoid being the bitter asshole he turned into and nothing I do is going to endanger that. I need to go do this for myself and I don’t want…distractions. I can’t, I won’t, be tied down! I might not make it otherwise. It’s what I’m about, don’t you understand? I don’t want to live on this level.”

A deep breath sounded before Nikita spoke again, composed once more. “It sounds like you’ve made your decision and nothing I say is going to change it. I just want you to know that I still don’t believe you, you’re not your father, and more importantly, I’m not your mother. I’m not, you know me, it wouldn’t be the same at all. And you are selfish, but more than that you’re so stubborn I could scream. The worst part is I still love you. I can’t wait any longer though. Goodbye, good luck, and I hope, truly, that the life you’re getting is what you want.”

The phone went dead.

He collapsed against the wall and slowly slid down until he was sitting, drained. His fist clenched the phone spastically as he squeezed his eyes shut in a valiant attempt to stave off tears. Oh god he was sorry. As sorry as he could ever be for anyone but himself. She had been there through thick and thin, tolerating his depression and stubbornness and still insisting that he was worth it, that he was lovable. Even at the end she believed it. His selfishness was incredible.

But wasn’t it the selfish people who made it? They were the only ones who reached out and grabbed whatever they wanted, despite the people who loved them. His father stupidly tried to deny his nature, making everyone around him miserable before giving in and running away. He wouldn’t make that first mistake. Maybe, like she said, life wasn’t black and white. The point was that life was easier to deal with when choices were.

With the image of her twined around him scorched painfully into his mind, he called the airline to make flight reservations.

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