Thirty Euros, Pt. 2 (Fiction)

I don’t want to imagine what I must look like, a thirty one years old homeless woman who hasn’t showered in a week and who has been sleeping on benches, walking next to a chipper Asian woman with a Japanese name, whose hair is apple red and whose gait suggests she has never known any anxiety. The sun is high in the sky, and despite the time of the year, I’m getting sweaty inside my coat.
“Here we are,” Chieko says as she points at the front door of an apartment building across the one-lane road.
“What? It’s only been three minutes!”
“Well, I don’t know why you’re complaining.” Chieko smiles. “Come on.”
I stand behind my odd benefactress as she fishes for her key chain inside her small backpack. I look down the street in the direction of the sea, and at the end of the passageway between two alabaster white buildings, the fancy kinds with embossed ornaments on the walls, I spot part of the translucent cubes that they call the Kursaal around these parts.
Chieko opens the door into the building’s hall, but as she stands aside, I feel uneasy.
“Are you telling me that you just happen to live in an apartment three minutes away from where I was sleeping recently?” I ask her.
Chieko offers me a calming smile.
“I chose this place for that reason, yes.”
I shake my head as I try to understand.
“H-how did you manage that…?”
“I have connections.”
“What kind?”
“You’ll see. Come on! What do you think I intend to do to you?”
I don’t doubt that Chieko’s intention is to get me out the streets, but this woman is an enigma, and I have learned to be wary of even those whose lives were open books. I sigh. Still, I follow her as she walks towards the elevator.
Her apartment is on the third floor. I enter behind her, and when she closes the door, which looks old and painted over, I find myself in a narrow hallway with eggshell white walls, which instead of a deliberate choice seem as if they were originally whiter but had gotten dirtier over the years. The hardwood floor has a weird design in peanut and walnut browns that looks like a power-up in a racing game, those that would make you go faster. Chieko gestures for me to follow her into a small kitchen that I can see from the front door. The walls are made of white ceramic tiles. Both the stove and the cabinets seem to have been made in the eighties. My benefactress leaves her backpack on the dining table, which would only accommodate four people because one side has been pushed against the wall. The apartment smells as if it has been sanitized in the last couple of days.
“What’s the matter, Izar?” Chieko asks casually while she rests her back against the table. “Do you find this place unpleasant?”
“I wouldn’t have any right to complain about the shoddiest of apartments, given that I sleep in the streets, but I find this one a bit too old for… Well, for you. I had taken you for a rich jetsetter.”
Chieko rubs her chin as if considering it.
“And now?”
“I have no clue.”
Chieko pushes herself off the table and walks up to the window that occupies almost all the space on the wall between the sink and the doorway out of the kitchen. She moves the curtain aside and looks towards the street below.
“We need to have a conversation, an important one,” Chieko says. “But first you need to relax, and do something about that stink. Go take a shower. I’ll wait here.”
I wouldn’t have expected this woman, who remains mostly a stranger although she has read some of my books, to offer me to take a shower. Will she allow me to live here? I’m getting anxious, but I can’t tell whether it’s out of worry or because I feel the wind changing.
“The lock in the bathroom doesn’t work that well,” Chieko adds. “I wouldn’t lock myself in there just in case. Don’t worry, I’m not going to interrupt you. It’s the first door to your left as you exit the kitchen.”
I’m too confused to think coherently. I try to rub my temples as I walk out of the kitchen, but the bathroom is so close to the kitchen that I could hold the handles of both doors simultaneously. After I find myself alone in the bathroom and I switch the light on, it bathes the cramped space in a pleasant electric blue. I avoid looking at myself in the mirror, and I sit down to pee next to the standing shower.
As soon as I feel the warm water of the shower flowing down my bare skin, I feel relieved. There’s a single sponge, and I wonder if Chieko forgot that I’m a guest and that she apparently lives alone, but the sponge has never been used before. I shake the questions away. I scrub my skin with the sponge, in which I pour an excess of honey-scented liquid soap. I close my eyes and let the water wash over my body.
When I exit the shower, I’m a new person. I take a breath and dare look at myself in the mirror. My cheeks are pink from the heat of the water, my cinnamon brown hair is shiny. Although I feel better now than at any point of the last month, my reflection in the mirror looks as old and worn as it has for years, like a tool that needs to be replaced. I discard the thought, and I open the cabinet to find a set of towels. The one I grab feels as soft as a cotton handkerchief. I dry myself off. Unfortunately I don’t have any other clothes than my smelly T-shirt and my denim jeans, both of which have absorbed stale sweat for days. It’s too late to ask Chieko whether she can lend me some clothes, as I don’t want to walk up to her wrapped in a towel.
When I return to the kitchen, I see that Chieko has changed her clothes. She’s wearing a grey, long-sleeved T-shirt with the black and white drawing of a woman’s face sticking her tongue out, along with beige pleated shorts that barely cover half of her toned thighs. She looks even younger, more vibrant. I’m jealous.
“Oh, that’s right. I should have offered you some fresh clothes,” Chieko says apologetically.
I sit down wearily at the head of the table.
“That’s alright, unless the sweaty smell bothers you.”
Chieko shakes her head, and then she wrings her hands as she looks at the hanging cabinets.
“Before we begin, do you want a coffee? I need one myself.”
“Do you have any whisky?”
Chieko stops midway, and shoots me a look of pity over her shoulder.
“I don’t think so.”
“I was kidding anyway. Coffee sounds good.”
Chieko smiles. She opens the first cabinet next to the fridge, then stands on her tiptoes to look inside, but she doesn’t find what she’s searching for. After she fails to find it as well in the second cabinet, she mumbles something to herself. She takes out a container of powdered coffee from the third one, and then she grabs two cups from a cabinet she had opened before. She’s showing me her slender back, along with her long, shiny red hair, as she empties two spoonfuls of coffee in each cup. I give her a break while she opens a new carton of milk from the fridge, pours cold milk in each cup, and then she puts them in the microwave.
“Who does this apartment belong to?” I ask carefully.
Chieko freezes, but then she presses a couple of buttons on the microwave’s panel and starts it up. As the appliance makes its noise and the cups turn slowly, Chieko turns towards me herself, and offers me an apologetic look.
“Because I didn’t know where the coffee was, huh? I’m not that experienced with this kind of thing.”
“What kind of thing? Approaching homeless writers?”
She doesn’t reply. The microwave dings, and she takes the cups out. She places mine in front of me. As I take a sip of the coffee, which is warm enough but tastes too bitter and artificial, I watch how my benefactress puts the milk back into the fridge.
Chieko finally sits down across from me. She leans back and rests her right ankle on her left knee. For a few seconds she avoids holding my gaze.
“If you mean who’s paying the rent, that would be my employer,” Chieko says. “I haven’t spent a single night here.”
I narrow my eyes at her, more confused than anxious. I don’t understand this situation.
“Alright… What did you want to talk to me about, or propose…?”
Chieko smiles again, now that I’ve given her the opportunity to get back on track. She takes a big gulp of her coffee. She reaches for her backpack, which she had rested against a leg of the table, but she only holds it as if she’s about to open it.
“You’re a talented person, Izar Uriarte. You have a lot of potential, but your talent has never been fully exploited.”
“That’s too much praise. I don’t feel that way at all, and in addition, that’s absurd. I’m thirty one years old, I have published seven books, and those were the ones I convinced strangers to publish. I abandoned plenty of stories along the way because I couldn’t make them good enough. What else do you expect me to do?”
“It’s not about what you have been able or not to do. It’s about the future.”
I shift my weight in the chair.
“About me not rotting in the streets, you mean?”
Chieko lifts her backpack onto the table, and pulls out a book. A glimpse of the cover reveals that it’s my first one, which I wrote when I was twelve years old and that got published, thanks to my father’s connections, when I was thirteen. I don’t want to bother with it, but Chieko places it on the table and pushes it towards me.
I shake my head.
“Yeah, ‘The Flowers of the Forest’. Even the title is stupid, isn’t it? But what did I know about life or about anything at all back then?”
Chieko shakes her head sadly.
“Even as a child you invented complex imaginary worlds because you intended to escape the broken reality that the adults had put together, with its greed, cruelty and violence. Isn’t that right? You wanted to be free.”
I’m silent for a few seconds.
“And yet, I have been discarded by everyone.”
Chieko drinks some more coffee, then taps on the cover of my book as if intending for me to focus on it.
“Back then you dreamed about a nation ravaged by war and destruction, that had barely avoided collapsing into an Apocalypse, and about the girl who escaped that world to live wild, to talk to the animals of the forest as well as to the magical beings that inhabit it. That was the kind of life you wanted to lead, wasn’t it? Your protagonist’s parents looked for her insistently, but the couple of times they caught her, she just escaped again.”
I rest my elbows on the table and rub my eyes. The thin steam of my cup of coffee, placed between my elbows, goes up my nostrils. I hear the muffled sounds of the traffic behind the window.
“I suppose that you intend to remind me of how magical and necessary the act of writing used to be for me, but that’s not going to work. Don’t tell me about the contents of this stupid novel. I was a child, and I thought that writing this story could change everything for me.”
“You turned out to be a much better writer than what that twelve years old version of you could produce.”
I sigh, and as I shake my head I hold the book in my hands. It’s a new copy, as if Chieko had bought it a few days ago. I didn’t know it was still in print, but I hadn’t looked at my sales for a long time. They only depressed me.
“I recall lying on the sofa in my father’s office as he worked at his desk. That’s where I wrote most of this book. I guess that there were complicated reasons for why I thought I needed to write. Certainly, I wanted to impress him. He worked in the industry, so for someone as detached as him to pay enough attention to me, I should have stood out, become a writer. But you know how that turned out.”
“No,” Chieko says, “I don’t know.”
I narrow my eyes. She does know, and yet she wants me to keep talking. But she has fed me breakfast, she has invited me home, and there’s the chance that I might get to sleep indoors.
“Why would anyone write, Chieko?”
She looks away, and then back at me.
“The same reasons for which anyone would produce any kind of art, right? To be understood, to belong?”
“All those readers you believe you are connecting with are ghosts in your head. You don’t have access to how other people are experiencing your stories, scene by scene, word by word. The only tangible effect is the money you receive for your effort, which never rewards you enough.” I push the book towards my benefactress. “In the end, it’s just words on a page. None of our creative efforts have amounted to anything, have they? Am I wiser for having written all those books? Has my life improved? Have they allowed me to understand people better?”
Chieko props her chin with her hands, and her expression turns almost condescending.
“You aren’t the same girl who wrote about magic all those years ago.”
I roll my eyes. I take a big gulp of coffee to handle my irritation.
“How many millions of people have been killed practically yesterday, from the perspective of how long human life has existed?”
Chieko is taken aback.
“None of that is your problem.”
“If millions of earnest human beings creating art didn’t stop millions of deaths, didn’t end greed nor injustice, then what are we playing at?”
“It’s not your fault. The world is broken.”
I hang my head low and grit my teeth.
“What?” Chieko insists. “You’re mad because you feel responsible for the misery of humankind? Because your books didn’t save them?”
“It’s not that simple. I hate the delusion of it, believing that all these intellectual exercises, or even the genuine attempt to explore one’s inner worlds, will make us significantly wiser. It’s just a past-time, a way to ease the decline into illness and death.”
“Just a pretentious equivalent of watching television, then?”
“When I die, Chieko, my books will be forgotten. Barely anyone cares already. I will have passed through this world without changing anything. What I hate the most is that when I was younger I convinced myself, or allowed others to convince me, that it would be different. That I would be different. I nurtured that hope. I trusted people.”
“And now you are ashamed of it?”
“The biggest fools are those who think they have something vital to offer. This world is a terrible place with people that will hurt you if you give them the opportunity, and every effort will only lead to disappointment and pain. It’s foolish to hope for anything in a world built to break your heart. It’s also exhausting.”
Chieko raises her eyebrows as she tilts her coffee cup towards her mouth.
“You know the world could be much better. That’s why you have always been disappointed.”
“Yeah, but that’s not enough reason to write books.”
“But it is a reason to keep living.”
I look at Chieko, the self-assured expression in her youthful, pretty face, and I sigh. I lift the book back up towards me.
“So you’re telling me to return home, whichever one of my previous homes, and try to be a normal person?”
Chieko shrugs.
“I could tell you that you shouldn’t write any books for a while, nor try to fix anything. Just live. But there’s no time left for that.”
“You mean because I’m in my thirties already and completely broke, so I can’t play around any longer?”
Chieko holds my gaze meaningfully, as if wanting to tell me more but being unable to.
“I mean that your allotted time in this world is ending.”
“How do you know?”
“I will ignore answering that directly, and instead I will bring up my final, most meaningful topic. Go back in time to when you were eighteen years old, a few years after your beloved father abandoned you to start a new family. You are being forced to share a hotel room with your mother, who just told you that she was marrying into a built-in family.”
I put the book down again. I take a deep breath and hide my face in my hands. I don’t know who I am speaking with, I don’t understand anything that has happened to me in the last few years, and I have lost the strength to go on. I wonder if this is a taste of how my grandmother felt in her seventies, once that personality-stealing illness was rotting her brain.
“I am grateful to you, Chieko,” I say, pained, “particularly if meeting you will lead to me sleeping in a warm bed tonight, but I hope you understand that you are pushing a knife into my heart.”
“I don’t care. You need to find yourself again. So tell me, once you understood that your mother would discard you so she could continue on her own, and you attempted to lower yourself through the window with that improvised rope made out of sheets, where would you have gone, if they hadn’t stopped you?”
Nobody but my mother and her new boyfriend at the time should have known this information. My own mother never even brought it up again, and I kept it hidden deep inside me. I wasn’t strong enough to continue living a normal life with the knowledge that she wanted a new family, that the last person who should have cared for my well-being intended to get rid of me.
“I don’t know,” I say in a dry voice.
“You don’t know? You weren’t that far from the ground. You could have landed, could have run away. Where would you have gone?”
I lift my head and look at Chieko. She’s staring at me with a maturity beyond her years. I feel like a child again, looking up at my father.
“I don’t want to know,” I mutter weakly.
“Were you going on an adventure? Back to the woods, hoping to join the magical kingdom?”
My hands are trembling. I want to hide them, but this strange woman has already noticed it.
“You are truly bothering me now, Chieko.”
“Were you going to kill yourself? Did you want to die in some remote place, where nobody would find your body?”
“I wanted to leave this prison. Not die, I don’t think. I wanted to escape from the cell I hadn’t chosen to exist in, where I was only able to daydream about the half-imagined world I glimpsed through small holes in the walls. And I remain trapped there.”
Chieko smiles widely, somehow pleased with the result of her prodding. She takes my first novel from my hands and puts it inside her backpack. Chieko then pushes her empty cup aside and leans on her elbows while staring at me.
“I work for the SFPT,” she says.
I blink a few times, wondering whether I should know what that implies or if my brain is getting as liquified as it has felt since I met this person.
“Is that supposed to mean anything?”
“It means that I have a mission. To rescue you from this world and its limitations.”
She gets up from her chair. She shoulders her backpack as if we are leaving the apartment. I snap my head back, and I can’t help but massage one of my temples in confusion as I get up wearily myself.
“Where are we going?”
“To the living room. Follow me.”
Chieko passes by me as she enters the hallway. I hurry up behind her. The eggshell white corridor is so narrow that I wouldn’t be able to walk side by side with Chieko. She passes by two closed doors, that I guess belong to the bedrooms, and she opens the door at the end of the hallway. First I notice a berry blue sofa pushed against the wall, resting on a hardwood floor with a rhombus pattern that looks as it would fit the disco era. Both are bathed in a frost white light as if coming from a lamp with a powerful light bulb.
Chieko enters the living room and stands next to the sofa, waiting for me to come in. Then I see that instead of a coffee table, on the carpet is standing a white, vertical rectangle with the dimensions of a door, and made of opaque white light. I stop, then stare dumbfounded at the vision. I twist my head towards Chieko as if to confirm that I should be alarmed, but my odd benefactress looks back at me calmly.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she says. “It always draws people’s attention.”
I’m stupefied. I can’t even mutter a response. I approach the side of the door with caution, hoping to find out that it has volume, that it’s some monolith-like artifact covered in ultra reflective paint. However, as I stand a few steps to the side of the vertical rectangle, I stop seeing it, although its white light keeps illuminating its surroundings. It’s a two dimensional object.
“What… What the hell is this?” I ask in a dry voice.
Chieko holds her hands behind her back, pushing her backpack. She offers me a playful smile.
“What does it look like to you?”
“A door. It’s the only way I can describe this thing.”
“Alright. Doors lead somewhere. What awaits on the other side, Izar?”
I swallow. I have retreated closer to the exit of the room, if only because I feel safer near the odd stranger that led me to this impossible sheet of white light. I’m getting dizzier. I’ll need to sit down soon.
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t you want to, though? What would crossing over be like, and what would you see the moment you stepped through it? It sounds like an adventure.”
My body feels weak. I have eaten so poorly in the last week, and my nerves are frayed after having stood guard against anyone who might have wanted to attack me in the night. I shudder.
“I’m not into adventures.”
Chieko chuckles. She walks until she stands next to me, facing the opaque doorway.
“You aren’t, huh? What was that book of yours, ‘The Mountain Cracks’, about? A group of anthropologists who were the last to live among and relate to natives of a beautiful island that was used as a testing ground for atomic bombs. Or your ‘The Interval of Shadows’, about a young soldier who enters a time machine in the middle of the first World War, so he can travel to the past and save a woman. Or ‘A Serpent of the Desert’, about a woman who has ventured into a strange land and finds herself between two warring tribes. Or ‘The Frozen Seas’, about another woman who travels to a forbidden island in the Arctic Circle in search of a mystical artifact. Or ‘The River of Dreams’, about a third young woman who searches for her lost boyfriend in the jungle. This life is sad enough. Don’t make it even worse by lying to yourself.”
Chieko places her right hand on my trembling shoulder.
“Who are you really?” I ask her. “What are you? Where do you come from?”
Chieko’s eyes turn kind. She looks at the opaque doorway.
“I told you, I work for the SFPT,” she says quietly as if trying to comfort me. “I’m not their go-to person for this kind of operation, but I took it as a personal project.”
“You know that doesn’t mean anything to me.”
She smiles at me, narrowing her eyes.
“This doorway leads to a far away place, Izar.”
“H-how far away are we talking…?” I ask nervously.
Chieko places her right hand on my cheek and caresses it gently with her fingers.
“If I told you the exact number of kilometers between here and there, you wouldn’t believe me. But I came from the other side, and set up this meeting so we could stand in front of this option I’m offering you.”
“Is it dangerous?”
She winks.
“It could lead to a room full of leeches and spiders if you aren’t careful. That’s a bit unlikely, though.”
I swallow. My legs are getting wobblier. As I stare at the impossible doorway, much brighter than a computer screen, I squint and try to make out details, but I don’t notice any imperfection. It’s like some deity cut a rectangular hole in the universe, and light from the other side was leaking through.
“I’m offering you two options, Izar,” Chieko starts as she shifts the weight of her backpack. “You can live in this apartment until the lease runs out at the end of the month. Naturally, they won’t let you continue living here past that point, but it would have given you time to figure out how to continue existing in this lonely world. Your other option is to venture through that opaque whiteness to find out what awaits you on the other side.”
“Which one are you suggesting?”
Chieko laughs.
“Neither, Izar. Both. I believe in personal choice. But I should clarify that once you go through this doorway, you will never see this world again. So have that in mind.”
I want to say something, but my throat closes up and I can’t even breathe properly. Chieko’s eyes are serious.
“What do you think?” she asks me.
“I-I don’t know…”
“Everyone who should have cared properly for you has abandoned you. In less than a week your lungs will fill with filthy water until your brain shuts off.”
“W-why are you doing this for me?”
“To save you, of course. I want to see how far your talent goes.”
“I’m no good, Chieko. I’m worthless. I did my best work when I was thirteen years old. That’s the truth. I was never as honest, as original, as creative as when I was a girl who still believed in this world.”
Chieko smirks.
“Then maybe you need time to improve.” She takes a couple of steps towards the doorway. When she turns towards me, the white light haloes her as if it were white water splashing against her back. “This door will remain here until the last day of the month. Afterwards, it will never appear again, and neither will I or any of us return. We will assume that you have made your choice.”
She holds her hands in front of her waist and bows slightly towards me.
“In case this is the last time we see each other, Izar,” Chieko adds, ” I hope you manage to live a life of which you are proud.”
My vision is blurring, and I can’t push words through my closed throat. Chieko’s misted figure raises a hand to wave while she steps through the white doorway, which engulfs her as if she fell through the world.

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