I can just see the newspaper reports now. Aspiring Local Physics Student Missing. There would be mention of the girl’s father, head of the science department at Clear Water Academy in Calgary and definitely something about my numerous young scientist awards. Not the way I’d have it, that’s for certain. It’s strange how people get measured by all the names and places relating to them that the public at large would tend to recognise. The University of Alberta, Clear Water Academy, NRC Research Best Paper Award. If that’s the case then my life will be summed up in a long list of academic touchstones, frankly I’ll be surprised if my first name even makes it in. I’d hate to think what they’ll put on my headstone. If I had any say in the matter, none of the accolades, no beloved daughter or fiancée (he hadn’t yet proposed, but I wouldn’t put it past him to be that presumptuous), none of that, simply this: Ashley Harwell, Exited via the West Window. This is all getting ahead of me though; it’s probably better to start from the beginning, when I first noticed the changes.
– – – – – – –
It was almost exactly 2 months ago, towards the end of October; the snow had already started, with the odd light fall every few evenings, a stern warning of the cold winter that was on the way. The evening in question was one of these, with a gentle descent of skeletal snowflakes lazily melting against the pavement. I was standing outside a nightclub in Edmonton, waiting for my boyfriend, cold, sober and inescapably aware that the meridiem had shifted from post to ante a considerably long time ago and I had to be up at 7. I was only wearing a mini-skirt and a sleeveless top and the snow was settling on my bare, folded arms while the heels I had on struggled to achieve any purchase on the sodden ground. I was so wrapped up in my own impatience that I was almost caused to cry out with fright when a boy tapped me on the shoulder.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” He said, smiling crookedly. I took a moment to examine him before responding, I’d seen him standing with another group of guys on the other side of the bus stop, he hadn’t really grabbed my attention before but up close I couldn’t help but be taken in by his eyes.
“My fault, I was miles away.” I said, a slight giggle running under my voice. Completely unintentional you understand, but it was prominent enough to encourage him.
“Seemed that way, just came over to make sure you hadn’t wandered out of the club without realising.” He said, smile widening. I laughed, but only indulgently.
“I do have a habit of forgetting where I am sometimes.” Just a lie, but I was content to keep the dialogue going, something about attractive people just makes you want to keep them around, no matter what their ineptitudes might be. He chuckled and offered me a cigarette, which I took without question. It had become the same story every time I had a cigarette. This is the last one. I knew it wasn’t true, but the self-placation was comforting and spared me the reminder that I only started to annoy my parents, which was a hollow victory, given that they didn’t know. In all honesty I doubt they’d have even cared if they had found out, my personal life was of little to no interest to them, they were just happy for me to stay the course, so long as my exam results were consistent they just assumed that my social life, health and so forth would follow suit. Nathan on the other hand, hated the fact that I smoked, he’d tried it a few times but being on the varsity rowing team as he was, fitness consciousness was paramount. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it seemed a little hypocritical to chastise people for smoking and eating junk food when he went out and drank himself stupid every week. Irritatingly enough his judgemental side actually became more evident with alcohol, a fact I was swiftly reminded of as he pushed his way out of the double doors just in time to see this other boy light me up.
“What are you doing, babe?” He asked condescendingly, I’d made it clear more times than I cared to remember how much I hated that term. “I thought you’d quit for good this time.”
“What can I say, I’m a slave to my urges.” I shrugged. Before I said it I’d intended for the phrase to be laced with sarcasm, but somehow it ended up sounding hideously saccharine when it came out, enough that Nathan didn’t come close to detecting that I was angry with him. I don’t think he’d have clocked on to that if I’d done anything less than kick him in the head in that moment though, he was far too busy wondering why I was talking to another male.
“And who might you be?” He asked, coldly, standing as close to me as was humanly possible to emphasise his height (an undeniably impressive 6’7”).
“Ben, I saw her-”
“Ashley. My girlfriend.” Nathan corrected, in some attempt to mark his territory or words to that effect.
“Right, I saw I Ashley across the way and thought I’d say hello.” He said, submissively leaning back and smiling.
“Well, it was nice to meet you Ben, but we have to off now, it’s pretty cold and home’s only a 5 minute walk, no sense in getting a cab” He said, trying his worst to sound friendly and failing miserably. He was right, home was 5 minutes, for him, he could walk an entire city block in about 4 steps, while I had to shuffle across the icy pavement in my ridiculous heels like an emperor penguin with rickets. The other thing he hadn’t mentioned was that it was his place he was referring to, I lived about a 20-minute drive from the campus near Lois Hole Centennial Park, semantics I suppose. He turned to me and brought my gaze to his level by guiding my chin upward with his index finger. “You coming?”
I didn’t intend it, it just happened, he didn’t take it too well. I told him that I wanted to finish my cigarette before we started walking, straight shot, no sarcasm or anything. When I took a drag it felt as though my entire body tensed, as if it was all one muscle, I felt light headed, euphoric but above all else I felt strong, like I’d just taken a dose of pure energy to the brain. It was the strongest, deepest breath I’d ever taken. As a result of this, the cigarette burnt all the way down to the filter immediately. I stood there in utter disbelief for a few seconds, glancing up at Ben I could tell he was on the same wavelength, then I turned to face Nathan again, he wasn’t so impressed.
“Is that supposed to be funny?” He asked. I didn’t answer; I just breathed back out and started walking in the direction of home in silence.
I hadn’t intended to start an argument with him that night but in retrospect I’m glad that I did. Standing up to Nathan was something I’d often told myself to do but never followed through with, just a sad irony that on that particular night I’d done it entirely by accident. I didn’t even turn and leave out of anger, I just couldn’t think of anything to say back to him. My silence during the walk home was largely due to my examination of my breathing, I found that my airways felt clearer, stronger and whenever I took a deep inhale it vibrated through my entire body. I didn’t understand it, but I didn’t question it, I’d been staying with my parents up until a week prior and assumed this was just evidence of my histamine reactions subsiding. Not long after I’d gone to university mom had finally decided to get a cat, since my allergies were no longer such a pertinent issue.
– – – – – – –
For a time that was the only thing that changed, not only did I discount it as an issue, I was glad of it, I felt more energetic for having more breath in my body, I even started playing soccer again, having been forced to give up in my freshmen year of high school due to conflicts with study. Then I started having the dreams. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact date when they first appeared, but it wasn’t too long after the nightclub incident, I remember that the snow had started to settle by this time and I also remember that I was at home the first time I had one, not at Nathan’s, in fact I think I was always at home when I had them. It started out with darkness, but not the normal kind of night-time dark, complete darkness, close, constricting. I could tell that I was in a confined space. Then there was a sound, like a brittle creaking, sheet metal in a strong wind, gradually I began to notice the walls around me warping and contorting before, finally. Crack. Small openings began to rift their way through, letting thin blades of pure light shine in, getting wider and thicker until finally the whiteness enveloped me. The next thing was the white got darker, became solid and distant, fields of snow, as I looked up I saw them stretch out further and become a forest, realising that I was looking straight down at the ground from thousands of feet up. That’s the funny thing about dreams; you don’t notice feelings until you’ve seen enough of your surroundings to appropriate them. As such I didn’t feel like I was high up until I saw that I was. I felt like I was hanging, suspended by invisible ropes, my arms and legs felt as if they’d been stretched out on a rack, but I couldn’t move my head around to see them, it was as if I’d been positioned this way by design. Then I started to fall.
At first it wasn’t a direct plummet, I was drifting like a particle of dust, curving across the air currents like I was rolling up and down between the edges of a bowl, soft and gentle. I could feel every intricacy of my body with each gust of wind, so beautifully focused that the epidermal ridges on my fingertips felt like vast craters to carry the breeze. It felt like my every molecule was coming apart and letting the air flow through. I began to pick up speed, but still in control, able to direct my movement to and fro, choosing to aim for the ever-growing forest ahead of me, but still unable to turn my head or bring my arms together. As the ground came rushing up the speed began to bludgeon me and push me around, but still I was paralysed. I remember this being the time when euphoria yielded to fear. I began to feel the roots of my hair tug violently and fearfully away from my skull, my fingers rake back and my knees quiver. I remember thinking I was going to die. Just as the trees raised up around me like pillars everything slowed down so much that even a raindrop would be suspended like an icicle. I felt my arms get longer, stretching out left and right but also joining together behind my back. My head sank into my shoulders. My legs slid forward and curved out. Then I reached the ground.
I woke up, not afraid, not confused, merely curious. I rolled out of bed and padded around my room for a while, naked. The only reason I even owned pyjamas was for when I stayed with Nathan, I’d slept naked all my life up until I started dating him (being that he was the first and only serious boyfriend I’d ever had, we were introduced through family friends at age 16 and had been together ever since). My room was an inexcusable mess most of the time, one of my distinctly less than mature failings being my untidiness. I knew some people far worse for that than myself, once I had questioned how one of my friends cleaned the toilet bowl, being that he didn’t keep bleach in the house, he replied very flatly that ‘the flush cleans it’. The worst I got was leaving clothes all over the floor, along with CD cases and the odd errant pizza box. For my parents that was enough to warrant complaint, clean room, clean mind was the term my mom always used, saying that my unkempt living arrangement would only serve to the detriment of my grades, ultimately. My room was kind of odd in structure, it was at the end of the hall, so it was very wide, but also very short, the bed went in sideways, desk at the opposite end, almost like I was living in a corridor, it also meant that I got the sunrise and the sunset, I could see the fields stretching out through the east window behind my bed, while the west window next to my desk had the lofty trees of Lois Hole Park spreading out beyond it, which certainly made for a stunning sight when the ground started turning pale.
I stood, looking out of the west window into the darkness for a long time. I’d woken at around 5am and the sun wouldn’t be up for another few hours, so I could see almost nothing. It didn’t matter, knowing that the long thick walls of trees, ranges of grassland and dark lakes were out there in the blackness was comfort enough. They were the thoughts I always used to pacify myself when other things brought me down. Whenever I had an argument with a friend, got chided by my father or Nathan gave me grief I sat in front of the west window or even went out walking in the woodland. The verdant beauty reminded me how laughably stupid it is to dwell on a memory like a condescending phone call from a parent or a drunken whispering match in the back of a club when you can stand in a forum of hundred-year-old trees, absorbing the thick silence around and realise that you are in the epicentre of the most important history lesson anyone could ever teach you. You’re standing in a faint, misted snapshot of the world as it was; quiet, and peaceful, and balanced. Before we came along with our cares and amateur dramatics and fucked everything up. That particular night I stayed by the window long enough to watch the sun come up.
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