Festerbump’s Fantasy Village, Pt. 2 (Fiction)

Like most nights, I lie awake as I stare into the dark. I can’t breathe properly, something is squeezing the inside of my chest. I’ve wasted the last few hours turning over in bed because I can’t switch off my brain. I need to get at least a couple hours of sleep, because I’ll spend the first half of tomorrow programming the latest gadget for a client’s website. I can see myself hunched over my desk, programming away to meet the deadline, the entire time wishing I were sleeping instead. Even the crazier dreams make sense to my subconscious, while waking up makes less and less sense every day.
My thoughts continue churning. If only I could reach out, grab hold of something solid. A rope ladder that leads upwards. A staircase that leads downwards. Anything that doesn’t disappear under my feet whenever I put my weight on it. Or maybe something to lean on, that would support my tired heart.
The whole night passes in a feverish blur. When the alarm blares, I can’t tell if I have slept at all. I can hear cars passing by on the road below. I sit up in what I call my bed, which is just a mattress and a blanket, and I rub my eyes for a while as I gather the strength to stand up.
I prepare a warm cup of coffee and I sit in front of my desk. I’ve received new emails from a few clients who want updates, but I haven’t managed to reply to other clients who wrote to me days ago. They wait to hear from someone who’s barely here anymore.
After some long hours of typing, I’ve had enough for today. I make myself a grilled cheese sandwhich for lunch. I face that I will need to go out and buy stuff to fill my almost empty fridge; it may be around a week and a half since I bought groceries. I take a shower, mostly to clear my head. After I dress myself with jeans and a shirt, I grab my old-fashioned leather jacket, my oversized black woollen beanie, and my favorite heavy boots. Once I walk down the stairs, I realize I’ve left my apartment without the obligatory mask. I turn back and grab one from the coat rack.
It’s dark outside, as if the sun was already setting, because the clouds hover low, threatening rain. The air is damp and chilly. On my way to the supermarket, I pass in front of the occupied outside tables of bars, mostly frequented by strange people whose languages I don’t understand. Everybody speaks so loud. I want to shove my index fingers into my ear canals.
I hadn’t worn a mask for a while. I’m breathing lukewarm air mostly made of carbon dioxide, and every time I exhale, air escapes through the gaps between the mask and my nose, blowing particles into my eyes. I feel sick to my stomach, and every step is an effort.
As soon as I enter the supermarket, a staff member checks my temperature, then lets me pass. I feel a sudden wave of exhaustion. It’s so hard to ignore the constant noise of the shoppers, and the brightness of the fluorescent lamps, and the smell of the food stalls, and the background music, and the sound of the cash registers. My head is bothering me, my skin itches.
All the customers are wearing masks, and most are dressed in warm clothes. They stand at a safe distance from each other while they check out the goods. I try to avoid meeting anyone’s gaze, afraid of being infected with whatever virus they are carrying, or with their humanity.
I spot someone familiar out of the corner of my eye. For a split second I recognize Sue, who wears a coat and a scarf, and holds a shopping basket while she reads the back of a cereal box. But she’s just a middle-aged woman with long, dark blonde hair and above average breasts. She looks like a mother.
Sue. What a stupid name for an elf. Other players complained about the lists of names from which the generators make their choices when creating new NPCs. There must be mods out there to expand or improve those lists, but I haven’t bothered to search for them. Besides, the game just updated, so those modded lists may not work with the current build.
I’m already infatuated with that elf; she’s as perfectly hot as only a virtual person can be, she admires me because I’m powerful, and she belongs to a world where I’d rather live instead. I can hardly wait to return home and lose myself in the virtual realm, where I may forget, even if just for a few minutes, that my real body lies on a lounge chair located in a world that’s crumbling at an exponential pace.
My head hurts. A dull ache, like a hangover. I’m waiting in queue to finally leave with my groceries. I smell stale sweat. The noise level is unbearable, especially when the store assistants try to communicate in loud voices. I’m nervous, tense, as if I were standing close to wild animals and waiting for them to attack me.
As I hold my three shopping bags filled with groceries that may last a couple of weeks, I hurry out of the building. I’m feeling increasingly ill. While I head straight towards my apartment building, my vision is blurred, my mind feels foggy. A feeling of unreality lingers in me, as it has for long. I feel as if I could punch a wall only for my fist to pass through the molecules of the paint and the bricks; it would make sense if this entire world was a scenario built to fuck with me, given how every aspect of it assaults either my senses or my mind.
I just notice that a rancid reggaeton song is increasing in volume and approaching me from behind when the source brushes me by: it was a couple of teenagers on a bicycle, who are zigzagging through pedestrians as if racing at an obstacle course. At least I’m not the only pedestrian who stops and glares at the couple of shitheads, who know that riding a bike on the pavement is illegal, but that even if police officers were to spot them, they wouldn’t bother telling them off.
When I finally reach my apartment, my right hand trembles as I unlock the front door. I shut it behind me. I take my mask off and throw it on the console table. I wish I never had to leave the safety and sanity of my apartment. How does anyone tolerate spending time around human beings?
Once I’ve undressed myself down to my underwear, I set my purchases on the kitchen table. I unpack the groceries and put them away either in the few cupboards or the fridge. I’m itching to lie on the lounge chair to lose myself in virtual reality, but I’m also hungry. I pull out a couple of tins of tuna and eat straight from the container. I wash it down with water.
A few minutes later, I’ve done all I needed to give up being human for a couple of hours. I lie back comfortably on my lounge chair, I put the VR helmet on my head and I adjust it. When I exhale, the accumulated anxiety that had been squeezing the insides of my chest leaves through my nostrils. My mind is now calm, clear, almost lucid. My heart is pumping fresh blood into every part of my body.

* * *

I’ve returned to the clearing surrounded by a temperate forest, and I’m floating weightless. The hands of my avatar are as transparent as a jellyfish, but my whole body remains invisible for the three people I left sleeping on the grass. I fly down to observe the young woman lying in front of me. Sue is curled into a ball with her hands covering her face. Every last one of her dark gold hairs is perfectly placed.
As pleasant as the scene feels, I won’t wait around for hours until my three villagers wake up, so I accelerate time. The villagers stir frantically in slumber. Kurtz, the dwarf, snores loudly, while Joseph tosses fitfully, turning every now and then as if enduring a bad dream.
The sun hasn’t risen yet, though the day is starting to turn blue. A cool breeze rustles through the trees, carrying the smell of dew and pine needles. The birds are chirping happily in their nests. Now that the villagers are mostly silent, I hear that water trickles somewhere nearby. Everything is vibrantly alive. I’m overwhelmed by an urge to explore and learn more.
This clearing and the surrounding forest will be home soon enough, both for the villagers and for me. Life will begin anew. We’ll grow food together, we’ll hunt animals for meat and fur, we’ll make baskets and wickerware. We’ll live together in harmony. And in time we will forget how miserable we really are.
Sue’s hair is spread out around her face, and her breathing sounds like a gentle sigh. Her eyes appear closed, but they are merely covered by her eyelashes. Her lips are slightly parted, revealing the tip of her tongue, and a strand of saliva is dripping onto her chin. Her arms and legs rest motionlessly next to her torso, giving the impression of an angel statue come to life. I wonder how her skin would feel like beneath my fingertips.
When the three villagers finally wake up, though, they’re hungry, tired and irritable. Kurtz stretches his back carefully while grimacing, as if it hurts.
“So, where does your god go every morning? To worship himself?”
He laughs at his own joke. I’m not sure whether he has a sense of humour or simply likes to provoke me.
Joseph scratches his stubble. The sun shines bright upon the dew-covered grass.
“I doubt that a god needs to sleep.”
“He’s also your god for now, Kurtz,” Sue says. “But I sure hope he appears… I don’t want to spend a whole day here without any direction.”
Kurtz shakes his head. He looks down at his boots, which are caked in mud and dirt.
“I guess the only thing a dwarf can do is obey god, and then ask for forgiveness when he makes a mistake.”
“Try to avoid making mistakes to begin with,” I say with my booming voice.
The three are startled and turn sharply towards the source, although I’m invisible for them. The dwarf frowns, but Sue seems relieved.
“Did you three sleep well in this idyllic clearing?” I ask.
“I did, yes,” Joseph replies.
“I had such pleasant dreams,” Kurtz starts resentfully, “knowing I have been kidnapped into slavery.”
“What slave master are you talking about?” I ask.
“You! Damn invisible wizard!”
“That’s ridiculous. There’s no slavery involved.”
“Don’t play dumb, magical fart! You stole us away from our people! From our stores! You think this place is heaven?!”
“It is a beautiful forest,” I say.
Joseph is quiet, gazing intently into space, and the lack of support bothers the dwarf.
“What is it with you, human?” Kurtz asks to Joseph, and taps his arm with the back of the hand. “Don’t you care that this god has snatched you away from home?”
“I haven’t had anything resembling a home for years,” Joseph answers calmly. “This is a nice break for me. I feel quite free here.”
Kurtz snorts, and shakes his head.
“Free? Free to what? Go and commit suicide? Join the army of orcs? Wander around the forest and get eaten by wild animals? I guess some people are made for servitude!”
“If not a godling, a baron or a count. At least a god, even a local one, has genuine powers.”
“There’s nothing noble about serving another person. Serving is just submission.”
Sue lets out a noise of disbelief.
“I guess you are single, Kurtz.”
The dwarf’s face turns red.
“W-why would you say that?!”
“I can tell you don’t like to share. Serving others means helping other people achieve happiness, isn’t it?”
“Sue is right, Kurtz,” I say. “We’re all equals here. We’ll help each other out and work together for the common good of our community. That is a sort of mutual service. Right, Sue?”
“Equal?” Kurtz mutters. “To a minor god?”
“Bottom line, Kurtz, if you are unhappy, you should just quit. Don’t want to live in this beautiful forest? Then leave.”
The dwarf grunts, and rubs the side of his nose.
“Yeah, right! Just walk off into the woods alone? Without money? With nothing except the clothes on my back?”
“So it’s in your best interest to cooperate.”
The dwarf’s anger disappears, replaced with sadness.
“I don’t have any choice. I can tell that you are a prick, godling. The kind of minor god I wouldn’t approach willingly. But now I’ll only get to leave when you allow me to.”
I sigh.
“Good enough for me. Any other objections?”
Joseph stares at the forest as if he’s devising a plan of action.
“We can’t afford to waste any more energy. We have work to get started on.”
“You can’t see me smiling, Joseph,” I say, “but you are a breath of fresh air. How about you, little elf lady?”
Sue looks down shyly. Her golden hair falls onto her eyes and she tucks it behind an ear. She smiles sweetly and shrugs.
“Sure thing. It feels good to be useful.”
Once again I regret that the developers of this game have refused to add the ability for the players to interact physically with the villagers, because I want this elf so fucking bad. All I can do is fantasize about her naked body, and once I log off I can masturbate furiously.
Kurtz stops rubbing his eyes, then speaks in a dejected tone.
“Have you three forgotten that we lack any food, that the deer carcass has spoiled? How are we going to work on an empty stomach?”
“That’s true…” Sue says. “Godling, you couldn’t conjure a barrel full of grain by any chance, right?”
I suck air through my teeth. To be fair, any decent player would prepare a list of provisions carefully before embarking on a new playthrough, and those provisions would have fed my villagers for at least a couple of weeks. But I was so depressed that I couldn’t be bothered. Poor bastards.
“I made sure to pick a forest with plentiful berries. And whenever we locate the nearby stream, we’ll have clean water that you won’t need to boil.”
“It’s not exactly the same as finding a big bag of rice,” Kurtz grumbles. “But I guess there are worse ways to fill up our bellies.”
“Alright,” Joseph says as he bends down to pick up the bow and arrow. “What direction should be follow to find the stream?”
“I don’t remember,” I admit, embarrassed.
“You don’t remember?” Joseph repeats, unsure if he’s heard me right.
“I’m a minor god, not the God, if there’s any in this universe. I forget things. Just explore the forest for a while. You’ll come across water, I’m sure.”
Sue points at the knife lying on the ground. The blade is stained with dried blood.
“Who’s handling that?”
The dwarf grunts and picks it up gingerly.
“I guess it belongs to Kurtz now,” Kurtz says.
“Just don’t kill any of your new friends with it,” I say.
He rolls his eyes, and looks at the human and the elf as if to reassure them.

Festerbump’s Fantasy Village, Pt. 1 (Fiction)

My mind is fogged up again, my eyesight has started to go funny. The world is turning a dull, flat grey. My old pal depression is paying me a visit.
I’m so tired all the time now. My head feels heavy and leaden. Whenever I try to force myself to leave my cramped apartment to take a walk, I wonder what’s the point. There’s nothing for me in those streets. No friends left behind to greet. All gone, or just never there at all.
I have the means to escape, the old tried method: I take a pee and a shit, I undress myself down to my boxers, and I lie down on my VR chair. Then I strap my brain into place and load up the virtual hub.
I’ve been trying this recent game, an advanced clone of the old ‘Dwarf Fortress’: the player is a godling that oversees the development of a fantasy village. The sentient AI characters are the stars, for as long as the player can stand to witness their beloved villagers suffering.
It takes some skill and imagination to build a medieval village that doesn’t make you want to pull your hair out. It’s complicated to get the right balance between resources and population density and infrastructure and housing stock. You need to plan carefully, arrange everything like a clockwork mechanism, and then keep an eye on things as they happen, so that you can respond if something goes wrong. I’m barely getting the hang of the game.
I start from zero, in a generated world. Temperate forests are newbie territory, but the depression hinders my ability to focus, and I’m using this game to distract myself. I choose a wide clearing surrounded by a forest. The trees are full of little green leaves, the grass is bright yellow and lush. It smells fresh here, clean and sweet.
I generate my starter three AI villagers. The RNG gods provide a nice combination of personalities: a human farmer (Joseph) who hates his life; an elf girl (Sue) with big breasts; and a dwarf merchant (Kurtz), who thinks he owns everything.
The villagers stand around confused, while my avatar, invisible to them, hovers over the scene.
“How did we end up here?” Joseph asks.
The dwarf, Kurtz, narrows his eyes in suspicion.
“Dunno. Maybe you’re the one that got us into this situation,” he grunts.
Joseph rubs his temples.
“I think we were all wandering around in the woods when suddenly we found ourselves here.”
Sue is looking around frantically. Her hair reaches down to her waist, and is a pretty dark gold. I can tell I will spend plenty of this playthrough ogling this virtual creature. If she survives.
“My sister is home alone!” Sue says in a high-pitched voice. “I need to get back!”
I speak to them with my stentorious voice, “Listen to me, villagers! I’m your god now, and I have brought you here to this forest so you three would establish a new village. This is an adventure that will test your abilities.”
They all stare blankly in my general direction. Then Sue looks down at her chest.
“I don’t have abilities, merely big breasts.”
“Yes, I’ve read your bio.”
“What’s the point of having these? They just get in the way sometimes.”
“You’ll develop some. Abilities, I mean. Anyway, get to work. You need to entertain me, or else there might be consequences.”
“Why are you even doing this to us?” Kurtz asks. “I’ve been through enough already. We didn’t ask for any of this.”
I sigh as I hover above their heads. The three of them look up at the source of my voice, puzzled.
“H-how should we call you, godling?” Joseph asks.
“Refer to me as Festerbump. It’s an internet thing. I’m going to give you three a chance to prove yourselves worthy of the task that lies ahead of you. You must build a village in this sacred land, and survive for at least a few years. If you do, then I shall reward you handsomely.”
“A-a few years?!” Sue yells. “My little sister is alone!”
“Your sister will be fine, I’m sure.”
“When will we return to our homes?” Kurtz insists. “I have a store to run.”
I laugh bitterly.
“Oh, the three of you are too pathetic. There’s no such thing as a home, only a prison cell called reality. Now to begin. Start working!”
The three villagers look at each other nervously.
“What do you want us to build?” Sue asks. “I’m not good with tools.”
Joseph, the farmer, rubs his stubble as if thinking about the weeks or months of work ahead.
“For anyone to visit our future village, we’ll have to figure out where exactly we are, and build a road…”
“This is stupid!” Kutz complains. “Why have we been chosen, of all people?!”
I’ve gone over this crap with other games that feature sentient NPCs. A significant part of the playthrough involves convincing the AI to do your bidding, or preventing them from going insane.
“I let the RNG gods choose you because I need to switch off my brain, forget how bad things really are,” I say. “So just get to work, damn it. Make something. Build a house. Build some houses.”
“Build some fucking houses,” Kurtz mutters. “You know, you could build yourself a house instead of making other people do it. You are supposed to be a god, aren’t you?”
“I’m not omnipotent,” I confess. “I don’t have that kind of power.”
Joseph keeps talking to himself out loud, “They’ll need roofs, doors, windows. And furniture.”
Sue puts a hand on the dwarf’s shoulder to calm him down, but he shoots the elf woman a nasty look.
“Hey, a god has put us to the task,” she says. “We are building for someone, aren’t we? So let’s make sure he likes it.” Sue looks up to address the invisible presence. “Will you make sure my sister doesn’t suffer any harm while I’m gone?”
Her sister likely doesn’t exist as data in the game, but this kind of background info helps round Sue out as a character.
“Sure, I’ll take care of your sibling,” I say, then sigh. “So all of you, stop bitching and get to work already.”
Kurtz keeps shaking his head.
“Just leave me alone, damn it. Do you think we know how to make houses? I’m a merchant! I can tell these two are clueless as well!”
“You’ll figure it out, I’m sure,” I say. “Quit whining.”

* * *

The three villagers venture into the surrounding woods to gather sticks and logs light enough to carry. Watching them walking around is boring, so I make time pass faster until, a couple of hours later, the three villagers have amassed a decent haul. They are already tired, but they start building a simple wooden fence, enclosing a square plot of ground. It’s just planted sticks and logs that will keep the villagers inside the boundaries of their future village, and hopefully will keep dangerous wildlife outside.
Sue is busy planting a few saplings along the perimeter. The other two villagers watch her as if they had nothing to do.
“I’ve never built anything before,” Kurtz grumbles. “Why should I have to do this?”
“It gives you a sense of accomplishment,” Joseph replies. “You’ll look at the stuff we will build, and you’ll think ‘I was partly responsible for that’.”
“I don’t even know what I’m doing. I just want to go back to the city.”
Sue stands up and wipes the dirt from her hands. Then she looks up at the sky as if I were floating in the clouds.
“Godling, we are hungry. How does one survive here?”
“Yes, what kinds of crops grow well in these lands?” Joseph asks me. “Is there water nearby?”
I’m hovering close to them, and when I project my deep voice, they are startled.
“You can hunt deer, or wild boar. Also, I believe I picked an area with a stream. I’m sure you’ll find it.”
“Hunting?” Kurtz complains. “That sounds like so much work! And we don’t have any weapons!”
“Well, then I’ll help you. I’m a god, after all. The more you obey me, the more points this game, so to speak, grants me so I can in turn materialize tools for my minions to use.”
I look up in the interface what I’m able to buy with the points these three useless villagers have accumulated by gathering the sticks and logs and building that fence. There are only a few things unlocked, mostly simple objects like a hammer, a pickaxe, and a shovel. However, I could spend the points on a big knife or a shoddy bow with a dozen arrows.
A few seconds later, the three villagers are staring with a mixture of awe and fear at a bow and a quiver full of arrows that has appeared on the grass in front of them.
“Now you have a tool able to murder simple animals,” I say. “Let’s get to hunting.”
“That’s amazing. It came out of nowhere,” Joseph says in a thin voice. “You truly are a god, oh mighty Festerbump.”
Sue steps back, looking paler.
“Our god has granted us a boon. We owe him now.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Kurtz mumbles.
“I’ve never used a bow, though,” Sue says.
“Don’t worry, I’ll do it,” Joseph tells her. “It will be easy.”
“I guess we could use some meat for tonight,” Kurtz mutters. “And vegetables.”
Joseph picks up the bow and the quiver. He seems impressed by their size and weight. Then he pulls back on the string as if testing it.
“Alright, let’s find out if there’s some game in the woods,” Joseph says confidently. “Come with me.”
Kurtz shakes his head.
“Nah. This is your project. Do it alone.”
Sue frowns in disbelief.
“What kind of a merchant are you? Don’t you have any respect?”
The dwarf shrugs as if he doesn’t care one way or another. Sue sighs, but then she walks up to Joseph’s side.
“I’ll go with you! Because you will provide food for us, right?”
Joseph gulps, and looks away from the elf’s breasts. I follow the two villagers as they walk into the woods together. I accelerate the passage of time until the two villagers come across a bunch of deer. Joseph and Sue crouch behind some bushes. The farmer nocks an arrow carefully, then draws the bowstring and holds it against his cheek. He whistles as if calling to the deer. When one raises its head, Joseph lets the arrow fly. It hits dead center between the deer’s eyes with a sickening sound of impact, followed by a grunt and a fall onto the grass. The dead deer twitches feebly.
After the rest of the deer have scampered off, Sue cheers and grabs Joseph’s arm.
“Good shot! We’ll eat deer tonight, thanks to you!”
“Yeah,” Joseph says with a grim smile. “I forgot how good killing feels. My wife hated hunting.”
Sue’s own smile falters.
“Alright, I’ll… help you carry the carcass back to our camp!”
She bends down to grab the deer by the legs. Joseph follows her lead and lifts it up. They stagger back towards the edge of the clearing.

* * *

When we return to the clearing enclosed by the fence, we find out that Kurtz had kept busy gathering firewood, and is tending a campfire.
“Oh, so we are eating deer tonight,” Kurtz says as he stares wide-eyed at the carcass. “I thought you two would return empty-handed.”
“We were lucky to come across some deer,” Joseph says.
“It was a magnificent kill,” Sue adds.
Sue and Joseph leave the carcass close to the fire, and sit down wearily.
“If we hadn’t been able to kill a deer, I’m sure that the godling would have produced some alternative,” Sue says confidently. “We won’t starve, not with a god watching over us.”
I wouldn’t be sure about that.
“This place is getting on my nerves,” Kurtz says as he stares at the flames. “There’s nothing but trees and bugs here. And I can’t even smoke.”
Joseph is kneeling next to the carcass.
“But how do we prepare the meat when we lack the proper tools? Maybe I could use an arrowhead to skin the deer…”
“That’s where your god comes in,” I say.
Thankfully, Joseph killing that deer had produced enough points for me to buy a big enough knife. I materialize it on top of the deer carcass, and the three villagers let out surprised noises.
“Now you own both a bow and a knife, to hunt, prepare the food or defend yourselves from the numerous monsters that likely await their opportunity to hunt you down. Rejoice!”
“Does it have any special powers?” Kurtz says as he inspects the blade carefully.
“It’s just a fucking knife. It should be more than enough at this juncture.”
Joseph sighs. The three villagers stare at the blade curiously as it gleams silver and gold in the flickering orange glow of the campfire.
“I’ve butchered a few living creatures in my time,” Joseph says. “Or do you guys want to do it?”
“No, no, take care of it,” Kurtz says.
Joseph cuts open the pelt with practiced ease. He pulls back the hide, exposing a bloody mass of muscle and fat. Then he slices the flesh into chunks. The elf watches intently at first, but then she starts trembling and grimaces. She covers her mouth.
“Are you sick, Sue?” I ask. “You are sweating quite a lot. Do you feel unwell?”
She blushes. Her eyes dart over to Joseph, who is plunging the blade into the ribcage of the beast with a crunching sound. Sue swallows hard and turns away.
“Y-yeah, I’m feeling a bit nauseous.”
After chopping the deer’s legs off, Joseph places them beside the torso. The guts are exposed to view, and the smell of blood has filled the air.
“Don’t worry, it’s only a deer,” the human farmer says casually. “It’s not like what I ate in prison.”
“Prison? What did you do?”
“Oh, nothing.”

* * *

The night has fallen, and the three villagers have filled their bellies with cooked deer meat.
“As a bonus exercise,” I tell them, “let’s see how far you idiots can throw a stick.”
Sue picks up one of the sticks that Kurtz had gathered for the campfire, and holds it as if it were a spear. She throws it a few times, determined to get better quickly, so that she can prove to me that she deserves to be my follower. Joseph has let another stick fly through the air in a straight line. Kurtz has ignored my godly request, and is sitting cross-legged by the fire. He shakes his head from time to time. His long beard makes him look like a madman.
Both of my willing minions get bored in a few minutes, and sit on the grass to contemplate their pitiful existences. Sue brings up how unused she is to hanging out with both humans and dwarves, and that gets Kurtz going.
“I’m sure you would be able to mingle with humans almost anywhere in the world, but my own species has nearly died off. Only the lucky survived the war against the orcs.”
Sue hangs her head low, and hides her face in her forearms.
“Don’t remind me of my brother,” she mutters.
“Your brother?” Joseph asks casually. “What happened to him?”
Sue hesitates. She takes a deep breath before answering.
“He disappeared during the war. As I looked for survivors in the nearby villages, I kept hearing rumors that many had escaped the approaching orc warbands. I held on to the hope that I would catch up with my dear brother eventually. But several years passed, and we never received any news.”
“I’m sorry,” Joseph says. “It must have been terrible for you.”
“His name was Eric. He was a farmer, same as you. He always hated it, though, always complained. He used to say he wanted to change the way society worked. That the whole system needed fixing. But one day he simply walked away, and nobody saw him again…”
Sue cries softly into her forearms as her shoulders tremble.
I wonder if the game made up that piece of backstory for Sue because she didn’t seem interesting or sympathetic enough. I recall vaguely that the process that generated this new game world spewed out notifications about orcs taking over other races’ settlements.
After a minute, Kurtz breaks the silence.
“We should all return home,” the dwarf says grimly. “The sooner we leave this place, the happier we’ll be.”
“You can’t, though,” I say. “You need to build a village.”
Kurtz looks with contempt in my general direction.
“But we can count on your assistance, can’t we, oh mighty god?”
“I’m sure I can do a thing or two for you.”
Sue sniffles and peeks out from behind her forearms.
“You’ll keep us safe from orc raiders and other vermin, won’t you?”
I shake my head, but they can’t see me.
“Of course.”
“If we die for whatever reason, will you send our souls to heaven?”
I don’t believe there’s a heaven, nor a hell. Life isn’t fair. But I need to keep these idiots believing in me, or else they may rebel. Even kill themselves.
“Sure. Just don’t blame me if you end up in hell instead.”
Joseph chuckles nervously. Sue kneels and thanks me profusely as tears run down her cheeks. It makes me uncomfortable, but the angle gives me a privileged view of the cleavage of her peasant dress. All that tit meat makes me wish I had a physical body.
“Then we shall trust in you and pray for protection!” Sue says.
“Good, good,” I say, and clear my throat. “That settles it for today, I think. I’m leaving for a while. Go to sleep, and I’ll see you in the morning. Just remember to avoid killing each other in the meantime.”
“Right, godling. We won’t mess it up,” Joseph says.
I remain among them for a while after I’ve stopped talking. Sue wanders around alone, deep in thought. Kurtz sits by the fire and eats more deer meat, most of which will spoil. Their lives move slowly forward. With time, this place will become a home for them. Then the orcs and trolls other crazy shit will likely come to destroy everything.
Now my villagers lie down to sleep on the grass, exhausted after having spent all day gathering firewood, hunting, preparing meat, throwing sticks, and erecting a fence in a tiny patch of land.

Interspecies Misdemeanours, Pt. 2 (Short Story)

I stopped Frank to open his backpack and pull out two flashlights. I gave them to both of my friends. Betty switched hers on to try it, which whitened her face.
“What’s our plan here?” I asked.
Frank pointed at the edge of the nearby forest that we had explored many times, but that usually didn’t contain aliens.
“We walk in there, and if nothing happens, we leave.”
I disliked the implication that we wouldn’t leave the forest if something happened. I narrowed my eyes at Frank, but he gave me an impish grin.
“If nothing else,” Frank added, “I’m hoping to find out how many aliens were in that ship.”
“Yeah, I guess that’d be nice. To know exactly how much trouble we are in.”
When we approached the edge of the forest, I realized how dim the space between the tree trunks, and under the canopy, was already; the sun would hide in less than an hour. I pointed my flashlight at the space between the two trunks that acted as our doorway, and I switched the light on. My heart was pounding with excitement.
As soon as the canopy covered us, the air felt moist, and it smelled like fresh earth and leaves. We picked up the pace while we kept shining our lights in all directions. Betty was jogging next to me. I glanced at her, and as usual it disturbed me how much she had grown in this last year.
“You’ve become so beautiful, Betty,” comes out of my mouth.
I wanted to punch myself in the teeth, but she replied in a sarcastic tone.
“Thanks. You’re not so bad yourself.”
Our flashlights flickered over the trees and the undergrowth. We were getting anxious; so far into the forest, the trees were large and the foliage so dense that anything, or I guess anyone, could hide in there. The path we followed was made by people walking through this area for decades, or hundreds of years, and it was lined with tall bushes. What little remained of sunlight barely poured down the holes in the canopy, so we mainly relied on the flashlights to follow the path.
I heard wheezing coming from somewhere behind us, and the hairs on my arms stood up until I realized that it was Betty. She coughed in her hand as quietly as she could. Frank and I stopped so she could reach us.
“I’m sorry,” Betty said in a raspy voice, “but my asthma is acting up.”
I patted her on the shoulder.
“It’s okay, Betty. We understand.”
As Betty catched her breath, Frank pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his backpack, then held the cigarette between his lips as he lit it with a match, which he snapped in half and threw in the mud. He took a long drag, and blew smoke towards the trees.
“What are you doing?” Betty asked.
“Nothing. I’m going to smoke.”
“I thought you quit.”
Frank checked his pulse.
“It’s just one fucking cigarette.”
Afterwards we barely spoke as the trees grew thinner and the forest floor became more open. We came across the small stream we knew, and after crossing over it, we could see the clearing through the gaps in the foliage. It was a wide open field with tall grasses all around, a couple of ancient fallen trunks, some scattered leaves and twigs, and more importantly for our purposes, a huge otherworldly spaceship that looked like a flattened pyramid. It was bigger than any truck or bus we’d seen. I could tell that its lights must have come from the surface that was now touching the ground. Although the three of us crouched behind some bushes, and made sure to avoid touching that ship with our flashlights, the faint sunrays reflected off the metallic surface.
We listened in silence for a few seconds as we held our breaths. I shook my head.
“That looks like a huge coffin,” I whispered, “for transporting dead people.”
“It’s huge,” Frank said, too loudly for my tastes. “I think it may be indeed a cargo carrier of some sort.”
Betty put her hands on both my left and Frank’s right shoulders, and almost pushed us down.
“It’s far too small to be a cargo carrier, stupid,” she said nervously. “It’s probably full of aliens, and we should be careful with the unknown. We might get abducted by those people, and we’ll never be able to return home!”
“Well, we are already here, Betty,” I said, although I was doubting myself.
“What if we return and tell the police that an alien spaceship landed in our neighborhood? Then maybe we wouldn’t have to worry anymore, because they’ll send a team of experts to investigate. That’d be a lot safer than us sneaking up to the ship. Besides, we haven’t explored the entire forest yet! I’m sure there are lots of more interesting things to find than a spaceship.”
Frank’s nose kept running, but the handkerchief he brought from home was already wet.
“Yeah, and who knows what kind of dangerous creatures live in these woods. Aliens, monsters and ghosts… There’s no telling what could happen. But what about your asthma, Betty?”
“You don’t know anything about asthmatic people, do you?” she replied annoyed. “They can go anywhere and do whatever they want.”
I patted Betty on the shoulder to calm her down, because she was shuddering, but I was getting annoyed as well: I remained the only one who didn’t want to waste the opportunity to explore an alien spaceship.
“Frank, look over there, at those footsteps,” I whispered.
The three of us stared in that direction. Some of the grass of the clearing had been trampled by odd footsteps scattered as if the aliens had walked around while inspecting the area, but a trail of footsteps leads out of the clearing and into the depths of the enclosing forest.
“If they are advanced enough to build a spaceship and travel to Earth with it, they must already know we are here,” I said confidently. “Whether or not we get into their ship, we are going to end up seeing them. One of those choices ends up with us having explored an alien spaceship. So we already know what we have to do, don’t we?”
Betty nodded nervously. I smiled, hoping she would relax her stance. Frank pulled out his camera.
“Alright, I can’t argue with that. Let’s get going then.”
It took us about ten seconds for the three of us to regain full mobility. We advanced carefully towards the treeline; once we would pass it, we’d stand exposed in the clearing. I stayed close to Betty, as much as possible. If the aliens ended up ambushing us, I didn’t want them to target Betty with their captivating powers, so it only made sense to stay this tight to each other’s side. As it had been happening for the last few months, whenever my bare skin brushed hers, I shivered warmly. I didn’t know why nor what to do with that.
Frank was leading us. He was covered in sweat and holding his nose. His eyes kept darting around, searching for the next place of concealment. The sun was already setting behind us and the moon would soon rise. The air felt colder. My heart pounded on my chest as I realized how close to the mysterious ship we were getting.
After we hid ourselves behind one of the thickest tree trunks in the edge of the clearing, the first one of us to speak was Frank: he had found something interesting between our feet. He gasped.
“Let’s check it! Quick!” Frank exclaimed excitedly.
The three of us crouched to check out the spot. Frank lifted the object. It was a stone, and our friend was inspecting the color pattern underneath.
“Holy cow! It’s a fossil! It looks like a jawbone too, of a carnivorous species!” He ran his fingers over its grooves. “It must be thousands of years old!”
I wasn’t as enthusiastic. The chances of finding a real dinosaur fossil in these woods were pretty slim, and we had aliens to worry about.
“It’s just an ordinary rock, Frank,” Betty said in a quavering voice.
He twisted his torso to reach for the backpack, likely to store his finding. I moved faster, snatched the stone and threw it behind us. It landed in the dirt that had accumulated under the roots of a bush.
“Sam!” Frank complained.
“Don’t yell, damn it. That wasn’t a dinosaur, and this spaceship isn’t going to wait around forever.”
I looked at Betty for support, but my friend’s face had gone pale. She was trembling and squeezing her thighs together while she stared with her eyes unfocused through the trunk we were hiding behind.
“Betty, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“I need to pee. I already had to go when we were playing ball.”
“Shit, then just go,” I pointed at the nearby bushes. “We won’t take a peek, I swear.”
Betty looked around frantically.
“B-but what about the aliens?”
Frank, still frowning, wiped his nose with his sleeve.
“Unless you resemble a female alien, I wouldn’t worry about it. They are unlikely to want to mate with you.”
Betty’s face brightened as she anticipated emptying her bladder. She duckwalked awkwardly until a thick bush hid her, and I heard a long sigh as well as splashing sounds.
I addressed Frank, mostly to distract myself.
“Don’t you want to check out what’s inside that thing? The spaceship, I mean. I wanna know, for sure.”
“I don’t know, man. Betty had a point there. It’s possible the aliens plan to capture us and use us as hostages.”
“They are just a bunch of stupid people from another planet. It’s no big deal.”
Frank shrugged.
“Well, alright.”
I wondered whether I was trying to convince Frank or myself. I had read many books about aliens and UFOs, and I knew how dangerous they were.
“Besides, we already went through that nightmare on the aircraft carrier, right? And the army of robots, the space station, and the giant monster that’s still chasing us.”
Frank looked to the side as if trying to remember.
“I’m not sure if any of that ever happened…”
“Sure it did, Frank. We’ve been chased by a giant robot before, haven’t we?”
My friend nodded.
“Yeah, and it was really scary. But now I think of those things as being more like movies than real life.”
“No, it’s real. It’s all real, I’m afraid.”
Something was telling me that the aliens would try to do us harm. I hoped to find some weapons that would help us fight them off, if it came to that.
When Betty duckwalked back to us while fixing the skirt of her dress, it was clear that her relief made her forget all about aliens, but then she realized I was holding like a baseball bat the biggest branch I had found.
“What are you going to do with that?” she asked, concerned.
“Just in case I have to knock on their door.”
The three of us stood up and slowly walked towards the spaceship. When we crossed the border into the clearing, I felt we were going to get zapped by laser guns at any moment, but we could only hear birdsongs and our faint sounds as we stepped on the tall grass.
The oval windows of the spaceship were blackened glass. From up close the hull looked dirty, scratched and dented in places, and with large patches of a rust-like substance. It reminded me of some kid’s first car which originally belonged to someone’s grandpa.
“If we hadn’t witnessed it descending, I could have sworn this ship has been abandoned for decades,” I said, disappointed.
As the three of us stood in front of a part of the hull where I would have installed a hatch, because they hadn’t put a window there, we looked at each other, confused about how to proceed. My heart was beating fast with excitement.
“Well, I’m going to touch it.”
As soon as I pressed my fingertips against the metallic surface, which felt like any other cool metal, in less than a second, an oval hole the size of an adult opened silently in the hull as if it had been cut with scissors. Both Betty and Frank jumped back, but I was mesmerized by the eerie, soft blue glow that filled the interior. The air smelled like something was burning.
The three of us stepped cautiously inside, then we were cut off from the remaining sunlight when the oval entry turned into solid hull, this time with a loud clunk. I realized that Frank was about to panic, so I chuckled.
“That’s probably how alien spaceship hatches close. It doesn’t mean we are trapped here.”
“I-I guess.”
We forgot about our worry quickly, because we were standing in the dimly lit interior of a spaceship with four seats, but plenty more room for several other people standing up. One of the seats was smaller than the other three, to fit someone of the size of a tween, and it was facing a small control panel along the wall.
Betty kept looking around as if searching for something.
“Where is the bathroom?”
“What, you need to go again?” I asked as I rested my big stick against a wall.
“No, idiot. The aliens need to pee as well, don’t they?”
“You have pee in your brain,” Frank said. “Maybe they don’t do that stuff. We have no clue about alien anatomy.”
Betty narrowed her eyes at Frank, but then she seemed to reach a satisfying conclusion, because she smirked and tilted her waist.
“Maybe they landed so they could take a leak.”
I was impressed, and didn’t know what to say. She had come up with the most absurd idea I’d heard yet.
A sudden flash startled me, and I realized that Frank had snapped a picture. Now that the novelty of having entered an alien spaceship was fading quickly, I felt as if I had sneaked into the cockpit of a plane, but no cooler than that. We had done crazier stuff, in the grand scheme of things.
Betty and I started looking around for anything that could give us a hint about the aliens. The control panel was inscribed with weird characters that we knew in advance we wouldn’t comprehend, and other than that, a few wires and cables were attached to the walls and ran to the back of the craft, where they sank into the floor.
I sighed.
“So what’s the deal with this ship? It looks like it was designed by a teenager who wasn’t very good at building things. There’s not much to see in it.”
Frank must had snapped about five pictures, likely having documented everything there was to see. As he stored his camera in the backpack, I plumped down on the pilot’s seat, or at least the one that was in front of the control panel. The cushion was made of a material harder than I would have expected. It reminded me of sitting on a rock, but I guess I couldn’t complain after having walked all the way here.
I looked up. The soft, blue glow that bathed the interior came out of nowhere, and made this cavity look as if it were a cave, but instead of stalactites hanging from the roof, there were wires that looked like old spider webs. The silence inside the spaceship was eerie; the hull cut us off from even the birdsongs outside.
The three of us sat around for a while, but as the minutes ticked by, nothing happened.
“I’m bored,” Betty said.
I groaned. I was also getting impatient.
“I guess exploring alien spaceships is pretty boring compared to exploring forests and caves. Why bother with a spaceship?” I got up. “Let’s just go home.”
Betty smiled at me.
“Don’t forget to take your baseball bat!”
I shrugged.
“They can keep it.”
Although the three of us stood in front of the section of the hull that had opened before, and that I was pressing my fingertips and palm against the cool metal, it wasn’t reacting.
“Shit, we may actually be trapped in this boring ship,” I mutter. “Let’s look for buttons or some sort of control panel for the hatch.”
The three of us ran our hands over the wall, and Betty ended up finding an indentation that, when pressed, opened a controller cabinet. It looked like a breaker box. Before I could say anything, Frank grabbed a handle inside and attempted to twist it.
“This panel is too close to the hatch to be unrelated. And we need to get home, man, my dad is seriously going to call the cops.”
The handle didn’t budge until Frank pulled it, and the oval entrance appeared suddenly. The three of us let out sighs of relief, but when we switched on our flashlights to brighten the darkened clearing, our beams revealed that two humanoid beings were stepping on the tall grass, heading towards us.
The one on the left was a chubby alien shorter than me. His head was bald and bulbous and his nostrils large and pointing downwards. He was wearing thick goggles, like those of an aviator. He had red lips with white lines around them that resembled the stripes of a feline, and his long, thin fingers, four in each hand, ended in black claws. His skin color reminded me of Frank’s dad. The alien on the right was as tall as an adult. He was covered in thick, matted fur, and his head was egg-shaped and mostly featureless, lacking ears and a nose, except for two circular eyes that reminded me of coins, and big, sharp teeth that peeked out from under his lips. He had an odd mane that resembled snakes, and he had been born with double the usual amount of legs. Both were wearing identical black jumpsuits without insignias.
When they saw us standing like idiots at the entrance of their spaceship, they stopped, startled. The bald, shorter alien looked up at his pal and let out a series of clicks and chirps.
Frank grabbed my shoulder, which almost made me drop my flashlight.
“Sam, these guys are not human.”

Interspecies Misdemeanours, Pt. 1 (Short Story)

As the three of us witnessed the spaceship descending from the sky, the soccer ball continued its parabolic trajectory and ended up hitting Betty in the head. However, none of us three friends commented on it, because we were mesmerized by the three tiger-orange, glowing lights in a triangle formation, which seemed to be attached to a metallic frame. The spaceship was clearly headed towards the forest near our home, which we had explored countless times.
Both Frank and I took off running in the direction where the spaceship was heading, although there was no way we would catch up to it. Betty sprinted after us and grabbed our shirt tails.
“I don’t like that one bit!” she complained.
Reluctantly, Frank and I stopped and followed Betty back to Frank’s yard, but we kept looking over our shoulders as the three glowing lights passed behind tall treetops. I could tell it was heading to the clearing near the center of the forest. We had gone through a lot of nonsense already, and I could understand Betty’s reluctance. There was that whole thing with the haunted factory last week. Our group of adventurers had never encountered anything as interesting as a spaceship, let alone an alien spaceship, but the last thing we needed was to get involved in some alien drama involving UFOs. Still, none had landed at such close proximity to where we resided.
Anyway, in order to explain properly what we ended up finding, it’s necessary to first introduce myself, Betty and Frank. I’m Sam, and back then I was a fifteen years old kid living in a typical suburban town. My friends were Frank Haimer, who lived a couple of blocks away, and Betty Krommer, whose dad worked at the auto plant. Betty and I were quite interested in space and science, but Frank was a dinosaur guy. The three of us had in common that since we were much younger, we rarely wanted to return home from playing in the street, and we explored around town whenever possible.
Betty crouched to pick up the soccer ball, and she lifted it to her shoulder. She was wearing a pink dress with white polka dots on it, and her hair was tied in pigtails. She turned to face me with a smile. I wanted to tell her that her hair had looked quite nice recently even when untied: it covered the sides of her neck and the top of her ears, giving her a more mature look.
“Forget about aliens. Let’s keep kicking! Although we’ll need a bigger yard if we keep playing with this.”
She kicked the ball down to Frank, and after he caught it, he tossed the ball to me without taking his eyes off the alien spaceship, that was hovering over the clearing in the middle of the forest.
“I’ve got to admit this is pretty exciting,” Frank said.
“Yeah, I agree,” I said.
The alien spaceship slowly lowered itself to the forest floor, and disappeared fully behind the treetops.
“Forget about it,” Betty said as she motioned for me to throw her the ball. “It had to be some kind of secret military aircraft.”
My heart was beating fast. I didn’t want to wake up one day and think to myself, ‘You know, I should have taken the chance to see some aliens’. I could tell that Frank was waiting for me to come to a decision.
“What do you think, Sam?” he asked, both worried and excited. “Do we go or not? The aliens are waiting for us.”
“Fuck no,” Betty said.
“Let’s put it to a vote.”
Betty lost, but she conceded her defeat quickly enough. As we were about to run to the forest, we realized that Frank’s father was staring at us from the big living room window, but he quickly turned around and moved further into the house. Although he may have glanced at us casually, these last few years all of our parents always seemed suspicious about how we occupied our time, and I guess we gave them enough reasons.
“Maybe we should tell my parents first,” Frank said. “I don’t want to deal with the police again.”
I sighed.
“Yeah… And we probably need to get your flashlights.”
“And my camera!” Frank said as he ran to his front door.
Both of Frank’s parents approached us cautiously as we were filling up a backpack in the kitchen.
“What the hell are you kids planning this late already?” Frank’s dad asked gratingly. “Aren’t you tired enough from playing soccer or whatever you were doing?”
“Something more interesting came up,” Frank answered as he made sure a flashlight worked.
I realized that Betty was preparing too many sandwiches. Her butt looked way more appetizing, though.
“What are you doing, Betty?” I asked.
“The aliens are probably hungry, so I’m making them something to eat.”
Frank’s dad snapped his head back.
“What are you talking about? What’s this about aliens?”
“Didn’t you see the spaceship?” I asked the big man. “It had three glowing lights and was flying over the forest. It clearly landed in there.”
The old man’s eyes went white, and he hunched over to grab his son’s shoulders.
“Frankie, UFOs are not a joke. These aliens are dangerous. I already told you what I learned in the war! One night they shot down a bomber as it was heading to Dresden, killing everyone on board, and then it disappeared in a flash of lightning! I also heard that some aliens killed a guy by hitting him over the head repeatedly with something heavy, and then they stole everything the poor guy had, before escaping with no traces.”
“They are just visiting,” Betty said as she smeared a slice of bread with jam. “They haven’t killed anyone. I’ve read about aliens in the paper, and nothing bad ever happened.”
“You’re endangering yourselves! Just think of the consequences if you meet one of those bastards.”
Frank’s dad was getting more and more agitated, and this time it wasn’t because of a football game. He was starting to look like a madman. Frank and I exchanged glances, and I could tell he had also realized we had to get out of there.
“Well, dad, anyway…” Frank said, and he wiped his nose with a handkerchief. “We are leaving.”
Frank’s dad shook his head and grabbed the doorknob, pulling the door shut with a loud click.
“I won’t let you out. This isn’t the time to be playing around.”
“Think about your dad’s heart pressure, honey,” Frank’s mother said weakly.
Frank frowned.
“Dad, this is nothing new. The forest near our house has never been safe. There are monsters and ghosts, and lots of other things to worry about. If you don’t believe me, ask Betty.”
Betty nodded at Frank’s dad. She had finished making all the sandwiches and was now putting them in a box. I attached my usual flashlight to my belt.
“Don’t you want to see the aliens?” I asked Frank’s dad. “They could be the only ones left alive in this whole world! They could help us against the Russians and the Nazis.”
“To be fair, these aliens are probably just some dumb guys from another planet who got lost,” Frank said.
“Frankie, stop acting like a child,” his dad said severely. “This is serious.”
Frank and I looked at each other, and as usual we came up with the same plan. I offered his old man my brightest smile.
“We were just pulling your leg, sir. You’ve been to the forest plenty of times. There’s nothing there but trees and animals. You know that.”
Betty nods.
“Aliens are just stories for kids.”
“We dreamed that whole thing about the UFO,” I said. “Or maybe we were lying. In any case, we are going out for a bit, probably disappear out of sight.”
As I unlatched the door and opened it, Frank’s dad grabbed me by the shirt.
“You little brat!” he yelled.
Frank looked embarrassed, and put a hand on his dad’s forearm.
“Let him go. He didn’t do anything.”
His dad couldn’t face his son’s embarrassment, and hung his head low, but his face remained red and angry. As he stared at the ground, a tear dropped from his eye.
“Sorry, Mr. Haimer,” I said.
“My name is Paul,” Frank’s dad grumbled. “Don’t call me Mr. Haimer.”
“Okay, Paul. But you don’t have to worry about us. Betty and I will be careful, we’ll take care of Frankie. I promise.”
Frank’s dad turned towards the living room, from which came a spirited play-by-play.
“Just make sure you guys don’t stay out too late.”
“Yes sir, we won’t.”
Once we closed the front door behind us and we hurried out of the yard, we sighed in relief.
“Your dad has problems, Frank,” I said in a low voice.
Frank looked away.
“You don’t have to tell me that. And he’ll end up calling the police on us again.”

Our Spot Behind the World (Short Story)

Shizuko waits for me, as always, leaning back against the moss-stained low wall that encloses a house that always seemed deserted. On the other side of the narrow path leading to the main street of our tiny town, some neighbor has accumulated wooden planks, piles of rubber wheels and tarp-covered refuse on a gravel backyard. Although nothing about this spot spelled out romance, for many years I only needed to close my eyes and picture this view for my heart to ache.
Shizuko is wearing her long-sleeve, checkered, white and pewter grey shirt, her black pants and her indigo, white-rimmed sneakers. She’s holding a notebook against her thigh. Her black hair is pulled back and tied with a ribbon. The gaze of her nut brown eyes is focused in front of her, on the overgrown vegetation next to the asphalted path. Whenever I caught her like this, I wanted to stand out of sight and keep looking at her. I wished to know what she thought about, what images were passing through her mind. I would give out every single yen I ever made to see them the way she did.
She notices me approaching her, and I stop a couple of steps away. As she bows her head slightly, she offers me a shy smile. A warmth rushes to my throat, tightening it. For a couple of seconds I hear nothing but the white noise of insect noises that always surrounds us in this town, and another instance of the squeaking call of some insect, a mix between a robotic laugh and a door with rusty hinges. The breeze plays with Shizuko’s hair.
“Hello,” she says. “How was your day?”
The same old youthful, vulnerable voice, tinged with an undercurrent of sadness even when she was happy. I take a step forward and hold her hand. It’s warm, a contrast with the breeze of this cloudy day that may break into rain at any moment.
I squeeze her fingers gently. Her hands are smaller than mine, fragile, delicate. I feel the pressure of her fingertips against my skin.
“It will be much better now that we’ll spend the afternoon together.”
Shizuko nods, a little smile appearing in her lips.
“Yes, the same for me, although I’ve gotten some writing done in the morning.”
We descend along the asphalted path as my heart reacts to Shizuko’s body heat, the skin of her hand in mine, her scent. We pass by the corrugated wall of the building on our left, and the small, menhir-like sculpture that stands on a tiny yard to our right, and we exit into the main street of our town. We turn right. We can barely fit in the old, cement sidewalk side by side, so I put my arm around Shizuko’s waist. She doesn’t say anything, just holds onto me tightly. Behind the single row of rice white buildings on the other side of the street, with windows that have the shutters closed, the tall, dense trees of the hilly forest that this town is encroached by looks faded due to mist, or low clouds. The air smells like water, a promise of rain, and it makes me want to narrow my shoulders.
The streets are deserted. There is a single white van waiting for a traffic light to turn green, even though no other cars are around.
“Are you cold, Shizuko?” I ask her.
She shakes her head slowly.
“It’s a bit chilly, but fine otherwise.”
I look at her face, at her warm, gentle gaze that always seems to be wondering whether I’m alright, whether I’m sad, anxious, worried. She smiles a little.
Other identical afternoons I have guided Shizuko up the path on our right to the graveyard. For many generations, the locals have built the graves on a stepped hill, and the nearby grounds are pleasantly green, with trimmed bushes and a gravel garden with many stone buddhas in varied poses. But today I want quiet, I want to return to our secluded spot. Although I know that nobody will bother us, I want to erase from my brain the possibility that anybody will.
We cross the road to walk in front of the convenience store. Its tattered awning, which originally might have been sandstone orange and white, is the only detail that adds color to this building. We pass by the eternally closed store with its half-empty shelves and the faded posters announcing long-gone days. The rounded, mushroom-like bushes, that have grown in a narrow, long planter between the building and the sidewalk, graze the left arm of my jacket as we walk by.
“Can we get something from the vending machines?” Shizuko asks as she points at the conspicuous red and green machines a few meters further ahead.
I nod. While Shizuko inserts some coins into the slot to get her usual Kirin Lemon Tea, she turns her head to look down the street, which ends in a wall of vegetation. A flock of pigeons flies across the sky above us.
“The town is so deserted today, isn’t it?” she says. “At this hour of the afternoon, I’d expect to see at least the kids returning from baseball practice, but it feels as if everyone is asleep, or hiding behind their windows.”
Her bottle of lemon tea makes a thud sound as it falls in the machine. Shizuko crouches to take it out. When she straightens her back, she lifts her gaze to mine, but she drops her notebook accidentally. I hurry to pick it up as my skin tingles; looking into her eyes always does these days. After Shizuko retrieves her notebook from my hand, she twists the cap of her bottle and takes a drink. She must have noticed how tenderly I’m staring at her, because she blushes slightly.
“Don’t you want anything from the machines?” she asks. “I’ll invite you.”
“No, I’m good.”
“Alright. You can drink some of my lemon tea if you want.”
I look forward to drinking it, but not from the bottle. I put my arm around Shizuko’s waist and we continue along the sidewalk. A few meters later, only a guard rail separates us from a drop to a dirt-covered terrace overlooking the river, that runs maybe twenty meters below the street. Now that I’m staring at it, I hear the seaweed green water flowing. The tall trees rising from the forest, which starts on the other side of the river, have stretched out long branches with fern-like leaves a few meters over the current. The breeze blows through them and rustles the leaves.
As we keep walking, we pass by the wooden front of a restaurant that will never open. Beyond the parked minivan next to the building, the owners had installed outside a fish tank, protected with a metallic lid, in which the long, silvery fishes swim around frantically as if trying to figure out how to escape. Shizuko glances at it, like she always does. She used to mention that she felt sorry for them, because some of the fishes she had noticed disappeared from week to week.
“Shall we go to our spot?” I ask her softly.
“Of course.”
We reach the opening between two stretches of guard rail where a floor paved with pebbles ends in stairs that lead down to the riverbank. Ancient-looking moss has grown between the pebbles as well as on the worn and cracked steps of the stairs.
Shizuko stops by the stone railing. She looks at my face, then she puts her hands on the railing and leans against it. Her hair flutters in the breeze.
“Before we started coming here together, descending that stair gave me the impression that I would get lost somehow and that nobody would ever find me. You know what I mean?”
My heart beats faster. I nod. Although she shoots me a look, expecting an answer, I remain silent. She ends up smiling softly, but her eyes are sad.
“But now, I feel as if we’re the only ones who have come this far,” she says. “The rest of the world is sleeping or hiding behind their windows.”
As she was peering down at the river through the dense treetops, she closes her eyes and they remain closed as she rolls her eyeballs towards me. She shoots me a strange look, one I can’t describe; maybe too confident, unlike her shy, sad self. One that I wouldn’t associate with her. For a moment, it takes me out of my dream.
“Let’s go,” I say in a thin voice.
While we descend the steps and step on dirt-covered landings, I get the feeling that many decades ago we would have been able to walk on proper floors, but the vegetation has long broken through, making it seem as if we are walking through a forest trail. Once we reach the foot of the stairs, a tall cement wall on our right separates us from the town as effectively as if we had driven far away. The loudest insects must be hanging out in the nearby trees, because their strident, insistent calls come from all around us, and only the sound of the flowing water is competing against them.
I stop and turn to my left to face the river, maybe ten meters below. Shizuko rests her head on my shoulder. My skin tingles again. As I stare at the river, I see the reflection of a large black bird flying past above the current.
“It feels like we’ve become the last people in the world,” Shizuko says.
“I wish.”
We stand there for a while, listening to the birds’ cries. The cloud cover is drifting across the sky, and the temperature has dropped slightly.
“Do you think they have places this secluded in Tokyo?” she asks. “A river running underneath the houses, few to no people around, a view of the mountains. Somewhere we can be alone together, just the two of us.”
My heart aches, making my eyes twitch. I gulp.
“I don’t know. Probably not.”
She lets out a deep sigh and turns her face away.
“Whenever I think about all those streets full of busy people, it makes my skin crawl. It has always been like that… The same way you always wanted to leave our nowhere town.”
“Yes,” I answer, trying to hide how much it hurts, “ever since I was a child, I wanted to leave. I thought I was too big for this place. I certainly wanted to be.”
Shizuko’s shoulders droop.
“You are. I know you have to leave. You would be miserable if you remained here.”
I don’t want to turn my head to look into her eyes, because I fear I won’t be able to contain myself. But I do anyway. Shizuko’s eyes are red. She looks as if she has been crying for a while, but the tears aren’t coming.
“I was so sure about it,” I say in a low voice. “Made all kinds of plans. I would study in Tokyo, then start a company that would make so much money. And after you and I got together… I thought that I would return to bring you with me.”
Shizuko puts her hand on mine. She doesn’t have to tell me that she wants me to stay. She was always too bright to utter wishes that couldn’t come true. Even now, I remember her as a little girl who loved to write stories, dreaming of becoming a novelist one day.
“You sound unsure…” she says. “Are you changing your mind?”
“I don’t want to leave anymore. But I can’t change the fact that in about two months I’ll be gone from here. Nothing will stay as it used to be.”
Shizuko furrows her brow in confusion. When I look away, she leans her forehead against my chest. We stand there quietly as I look down at the river. Her hair brushes against my chin.
I know that Shizuko would prefer us to have an in-depth conversation, in which she would convince me to change my plans and choose to study nearby enough that I wouldn’t have to move from our small town, a place that she doesn’t imagine herself leaving. I don’t feel strong enough now to bring those memories to the surface. I urge her to continue walking with me.
We reach another set of stairs that go further down. These ones are made of rusted metal, and look like they belong in a long-abandoned construction site. The moss has managed to conquer these metallic floors as well. I step over a couple of broken branches. In the last stretch of stairs that ends in the riverbank, the overgrown bushes and the branches have encroached so much of the space that we have to push them away with our forearms, or let them bend against our bodies as we continue descending.
We reach the foot of the metallic steps: it’s a curved stretch of cement, about the size of a bed, that would allow us to sit on its edge and almost touch the clear water with our shoes. When we stand down there, the nearby trees and dense vegetation hide us from the world. Many times we sat here to talk, to make out, to make love, away from our relatives and anyone who might know us.
Shizuko walks up to me as she drinks tea from her bottle. When she lowers it, I hug her by the waist and kiss her wet lips. Her saliva tastes like lemon. I close my eyes and I wish to lose myself in feeling Shizuko’s tongue caressing mine slowly, and in how her hands are rubbing my back.
When we pull away, she hugs me tightly.
“It feels so good,” she whispers. “I wish it would never end.”
Shizuko’s body is trembling as if she were cold. I blink away the blurriness in my vision. I feel her heart beat fast against my chest as I look down at the water. The riverbed is made of small, cinnamon brown pebbles, but patches of stripped bedrock show through. The river runs along the bottom of a steep slope, in a corridor of tropical-looking vegetation that stretches from left to right. Floating mist blurs the distant vegetation on both sides. So close to the water, it feels that I’m inhaling water particles every time I breathe.
“I wish days like this never ended,” Shizuko says softly. “I’d like to live in a house that’s been standing for thousands of years.” She takes my hand and squeezes it hard, as if trying to get some warmth from me. “I’ve always wanted to make something that would last forever.”
I hold Shizuko’s head against my chest.
“I want to live here forever,” I say in a low, trembling voice. “I wish we could spend our lives just sitting on this bank.”
“You will still leave. But you will return one day, right?” she asks me as she looks into my face. “I will keep coming here, alone. I will imagine myself holding your hand, looking at the river together. I will see our faces reflected in the surface of the water. And I will remember all that happened here.”
My heart hurts as much as it always does when I can’t stop myself from remembering. I don’t speak for what feels like thirty seconds, so Shizuko continues.
“When we are apart, maybe I’ll manage to get published. I’m sure I’ll do little else than write. So maybe one day you’ll enter a big library in Tokyo and you’ll find yourself staring at one of my books. I hope you’ll like them.”
My throat constricts.
“I would have loved to read anything you had to say. For many years I’ve dreamt of holding a book you wrote and trying to make out what it contained. The text was always blurry. I don’t know what I would have read in there if I managed to focus on it in my dreams. You never finished any book.”
She wants to pull away to look me in the eyes, but I don’t want her to realize how much my eyes have watered.
“You are acting strange today. I know I haven’t finished anything yet, but I’m sure I’ll get down to it in the future.”
I force a smile.
“I’ve been acting strange for many years. That’s what regret does to people. And mine has never gone away. I don’t want it to go away either.”
I allow Shizuko to look at me. She reaches out to touch one of my tears. Her fingers are warm as they run over my skin. Now that I have opened up, she lets her worry and pain come to the surface. She never spoke up about how much it hurt to know that although we were in love, she had a limited time to spend with me before I left the town for the foreseeable future. Both of us knew that even if I kept my promise to return every few weeks, the distance would abrade our relationship, maybe to the point of severing it.
Shizuko wraps her arms around me. I feel the warmth of her body and the softness of her hair as I watch the river flow.
“I’ve never regretted having met you,” she says in a whisper. “Although I knew from the beginning that eventually we would stop seeing each other, I have never felt anything similar for anybody else.” Shizuko takes a deep breath. “I will stay strong. I will keep living. I will try hard to publish something. I’ve never needed much, and I have always been able to be alone. I’m sure that when you return, you will find me waiting for you.”
“That was my intention. I believed I would come back soon. Even as I met that other girl, I’m sure I thought she was temporary. I felt so lonely in Tokyo, after all. Another stranger among millions.”
Shizuko’s hand rests on my shoulder as I look at the water.
“Are you already thinking of going out with other girls when you move to Tokyo?” she says with a hurt tone, barely believing that such words would come out of my mouth.
I shake my head.
“I’m talking about what will happen. I will leave like I always planned. As I try to make a name for myself out there, I will return home to see you, regularly at first. But it won’t take long until I feel a gulf growing between us. So much stuff will happen to me in Tokyo, even without looking for it, but you will remain the same. I will end up believing that you are weak for it, that you are afraid of growing up, of becoming better.”
Shizuko is staring intently at me. She isn’t sure what point I’m trying to make.
“Maybe you will meet someone in Tokyo who makes your heart skip a beat,” she says in a trembling voice. “I’m terrified of it, but I know it’s very likely. I’m far from perfect. I’ve never believed that I matched you. If… you end up forgetting me, it will mean that you found a better life. When the pain goes away, I will be happy for you.”
I close my eyes. I can’t see Shizuko anymore. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to imagine what it would have been like if we had stayed together. How I wished that it could last forever. I grit my teeth, but my lower lip is shivering. As I rub my eyelids, Shizuko hugs me from the side and rests her face on my torso. I rest my arm on her shoulders.
“In the end I will allow one of those Tokyo girls,” I say, “one that I was attracted to, to convince me that I didn’t need you anymore. I will lie to you on the phone, I’ll tell you that it isn’t working, although by that point I will have dated that other girl for a couple of weeks. I remember… I can still remember your voice on the other end of the line. So many times I have pictured you sitting on your bed back at your parents’ home. The last time we saw each other we came down here. You read me two short stories you had been working on, and we kissed, but my heart was no longer in it. I felt pity for you. You felt so small, so… beneath me.”
Shizuko looks up at me. Tears are running down her cheeks.
“You are breaking up with me,” she says with a hollow voice. “That’s what you are doing.”
Her body shakes against mine. I takes me a while until I feel ready to speak.
“I don’t want to leave. If I could go back, I would have stayed here, Shizuko, for the rest of my life. But I didn’t. After that girl for whom I betrayed you, two others came. Everything I took for granted with you, that feeling of being home just by holding you in my arms, I never felt it with anybody else. I loved you, Shizuko, like I will never be able to love another human being. I have been aware of it every day, ever since.”
Shizuko closes her eyes and keeps them closed for a few seconds. I stop talking, because my throat hurts. She puts her hand on my cheek and tries to get me to look at her.
“I don’t understand what you are talking about,” she says, “I love you too. I already knew that I won’t ever love anyone as much as I love you, even though you were always meant to leave me. But now that you realize that, just stay. We’ll move out together. If we don’t find any decent house in this town, we’ll move nearby. I will always be yours. You are the only person with whom I’d rather be than alone.”
For a moment I feel that my left hand will fall through Shizuko’s shoulder. The frozen ache has spread throughout my body, which I rarely allow it to do, only when I don’t care if it ruins my life, if it prevents me from continuing.
“I remember the day that I received the call from your mother,” I struggle to say. “I was sitting on a bench in a public park, a few minutes after I got out from work. I was looking up the news on my phone while I drank soda. I don’t know what went through my mind when your mother’s name appeared. I hadn’t spoken to her for years. And when I heard her animal sobs, time stood still. You had been taking a walk along the outskirts, the same route you followed three or four days a week. You used to sit somewhere and write, your mother said. But that day, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Shizuko’s watery eyes have widened. I can’t imagine what she’s thinking. I take a deep breath while my chest burns.
“It was raining, and they said that the car slipped off the road. Your mother told me that you died instantly from the impact. I never believed it. I kept dreaming of you lying there broken in the rain, suffering. I imagined that you thought of me in your final minutes, realizing that we would never see each other again. I wondered whether you resented me because I betrayed you. I had told you that we would love each other for the rest of our lives, and I had believed it, but I had broken your heart.”
Shizuko looks at me with a blank expression. She doesn’t seem to have understood anything. I feel so tired, my legs are trembling. I lower myself to the cement floor, and I sit on the edge. The insects and birds keep calling out to each other like they always did.
“Once my mind registered your mother’s words, and I understood she wasn’t joking or lying, although she wouldn’t have, I experienced the ice cold sensation of something snapping inside of me. Everything around me had turned into a blur. I thought I would collapse on the spot. When I looked down at my feet, I realized that until then the knowledge that you existed, that you would be there for me if I wanted, kept me tethered to this world, but ever since I’ve felt like an astronaut drifting away in the void. I met what I always needed, everything I could have ever wanted, back when we were children, back at home, and I would never look at you, talk to you, or hold you again. You would never write those books you needed to make. I would never learn what you thought about.”
Shizuko is sitting next to me. She rests her hand on my knee as she pleads with her eyes for me to make sense.
“I’m still here with you, and I will always be. I haven’t gone anywhere.”
“The world has changed too much in these last decades, Shizuko, particularly for a man anchored to the past, but I have made sure to remember you, whether through recalling our moments together or writing them down when they seemed to be slipping off my mind. As long as the memories of you remain, and the means exist, we can have the life that I threw away, starting from the afternoon when I told you that I would leave for sure. I have barely thought of anything else for so many years, and every time I try to recreate our past, I get a bit closer. I believe I don’t have to change much more. One of these days I will meet you again as you lean against that moss-stained wall, and for the rest of the afternoon I won’t notice any movement, any reaction, any word coming out of your mouth that doesn’t belong to you.”
I take Shizuko’s hand. Her fingers are thin and delicate. I squeeze it gently.
“Every time I return to you, I fall in love all over again. It’s so hard for me, like you wouldn’t imagine. I can barely handle looking at you, talking to you, smelling you, touching you. The sadness and regret make me want to die. They insisted I should try to forget you through whatever means necessary. None of those people understand. There’s nothing worse than realizing too late that I had already met and lost the only one who mattered. That whatever remained of you has kept haunting my life is my only relief.”
I stop talking because I am crying. Shizuko puts her arms around my shoulders, and I bury my face in her neck. We stay like that for a while. The sound of the insects, birds and frogs fills our ears.
“I feel that you are telling me the truth,” she says, distressed. “Or else we both have lost our minds.”
I move my vocal cords without uttering a word, to order the interface to appear. A couple of orders later, the cacophony of the animal noises and the sound of flowing water cease abruptly. The sound of our breathing and our quickened heartbeats echo as if inside a chamber.
Shizuko tenses up, and pulls away from our embrace to look around. The world has stopped. The reflections of the sun, filtered through the cloud cover, on the river are static as if drawn with a white crayon, and the ripples of the water are still like the wrinkles in a sheet.
“What is this?” she asks in a voice about to break. “W-who am I?”
“You’re my girlfriend from the past.” I close my eyes, and try to calm myself down. My heart pounds like it’s going to explode. “You are a miracle. One I built up from zero, based on the foundations laid by many other people much more intelligent than me. It has taken me so much time, I have fine-tuned the contents of your brain every day, based on how this afternoon went. But one of these days I will walk you home, you, my Shizuko, and not some forged version, and from that day on I will spend the rest of my life with you.”
Shizuko is trembling. She is staring at me, her face pale. Tears well in her eyes.
“I’m not real…?”
“Of course you’re real. You have been made to be exactly like the Shizuko I knew in my youth. You are more real than anything else in the outside world. You shouldn’t have died. I should have been there so you wouldn’t have died. But now I can bring you back.”
“Why did you do that? Why have you made me to be alive again, even though I’m dead?”
She will never accept what I say; she never has. But it doesn’t matter. This version isn’t the last one. I have so many versions of her, and each of them is slightly different from its predecessor. I can keep on making new ones until I find the perfect replica of the Shizuko who will always be in my memory, and will live forever.
“I love you,” I say. “Back when you stood in front of me and looked back at me with your own eyes, I didn’t understand properly what I meant when I uttered those words. Now I know that I was put in this world so I could love you.”
Shizuko looks down at her lap. Her face is frozen in stunned anguish. I take her hand and place it gently over mine. Shizuko’s chest starts convulsing as if suffering from silent hiccups, and I verbalize another order out loud:
“Stop the simulation.”
Shizuko freezes. Her fingers turn rigid in my hand. I shut off the rest of the world, and Shizuko and I sit in a pitch black void. The sound of my heartbeat is deafening. I feel like a child lost in a dark forest. The blackness makes me think that I am the only living creature in the universe, and I wonder if I would ever have the courage to go forward and make my way alone through the woods. For a long moment I allow myself to keep holding on to Shizuko’s lifeless hand, to grant me enough strength to endure the next days, hours or minutes I will spend away from the love of my life.

If by some miracle you have read the stuff I self-published in Spanish two or three years ago, you may know or remember that this story is basically the same as one of them, except with a completely different setting and a narrative that goes more or less straight to the point. What can I say, I wanted to tell that kind of story again, and I knew I wouldn’t do anything else today. I hope you enjoyed it to some extent. I certainly did, but depression has felt like a second home for a long time.

Thirty Euros, Pt. 5 (Fiction)

Chieko flew us back in her pineapple yellow, antigravity car to the small town where she lives, and where the office of the SFPT that I know is located. I keep staring out of the surrounding windshield at the town, which has been built on both sides of a wide, winding river with fern green waters. I wouldn’t have considered this community a town. The buildings, which are megalithic, constructed from huge stone blocks, are distant enough from the rest as if they were farmhouses surrounded by grazing fields back in my native Gipuzkoa, but we keep coming across colorful flying cars, so I guess that the inhabitants of Mars walk around on the stone footpaths for leisure and exercise.
Both suns, the original and the one that Chieko called artificial, are dipping into the horizon, dyeing the sky in coral and watermelon pinks. I’m tired, my body is heavy. I feel my clothes touching my sensitive skin. I can’t remember how much I’ve cried, overwhelmed by having been rescued from a certain death on the old Earth. The gratitude I feel towards Chieko is an alien warmth in my heart that makes me feel like a bashful little girl. I can’t pay back what she has done for me, and I can’t live up to the artist she believes me to be.
Our ride through the sunset ends when Chieko points out that we have arrived at her place. She lowers her vehicle until the windshield shows an arched stone bridge that crosses the tranquil river, and beyond it a vast estate that features a garden with trimmed hedges, vibrant statues of human figures and animals, and a central ornate fountain that is shooting streams of water. The footpath leads into the two-story portico of a large villa that extends in colonnades to two adjoined buildings, forming a blocky ‘U’. The villa is also made out of huge stone blocks, but they are painted alabaster white except for the roofs that cover the colonnades, which are penny brown. It’s so fancy that I can’t close my mouth nor move out of the car seat I’ve sunk into, although Chieko has already opened a hole in the frame next to her seat.
“Chieko, you are loaded,” I say in a dry voice.
She smiles, but waves a hand back and forth.
“Oh, you have no idea how rich some people are. This is just a regular house.”
“I’m ready to marry you, just so you know.”
Chieko laughs and jumps out of the vehicle. I follow her down the airstair, then stand unsteadily next to her as I squint against the setting suns.
“Let’s get going, Izar,” Chieko says as she walks on the footpath towards the bridge. “I’m so hungry.”
I admire the white paving stones as we walk up the arc of the bridge. In the waters below us, I glimpse a couple of fishes swimming through underwater weeds. The greenery on the river’s edge has grown big and healthy. I hear the distant echo of a dog barking. I’m not surprised that these people brought dogs over, but I wonder if they get to live for hundreds of years.
As we cross through the garden, we pass by flower beds of bright yellow-pink flowers. Some look like daisies, and there are also violet and blue flowers that I can’t name. I feel like I’m walking through their scent.
“You must spend so much time tending to this place,” I say.
“What? Nah. The AIs trim these thick hedges, they make sure that the flowers don’t die, all that kind of stuff. Most days I barely notice they are there, to be honest.”
The cooling breeze blows water droplets from the fountain’s streams in my face, refreshing my skin. The central statue is a bronze, stylized fox, depicted as if it represents a deity.
As we approach the large portico, I spot a man jogging in the shadows of the colonnade leading to the front door. I’m startled, but in a couple of seconds I realize that he must live with Chieko. When he notices us, he stops. Once we stand in the cool shadows under the ceiling of the portico, I look up at the tall man, who holds my gaze with his brown, slanted eyes. He must be around a hundred and eighty-five centimeters. His face, which is beaded with sweat, looks like he’s in his mid twenties, but that might mean little around here. His hair is apple red, short, thick and unruly. He’s wearing a simple T-shirt and shorts, although their fabric looks expensive. By how vigorous the man seems, he must work out regularly, and knowing that the inhabitants of this new reality also run for exercise comforts me.
The man wipes his nose with the back of his hand as he recovers his breath.
“You brought your new friend over without giving me a heads-up,” he says with a deep voice. “That’s really rude, Chieko.”
“Oh, shut it!” she answers good-naturedly. “Don’t listen to him, he already knows I was working on your case.”
I bow slightly. I feel like I’m intruding in the lives of rich people when I’m just a peasant.
“Nice to meet you. I guess you already know that I’m Izar, that I come from the past and all that… Are you Chieko’s husband?”
The man makes a dismissive wave with both hands.
“Izar, you have screwed up your introduction. What a way to give me a bad impression! Me, Chieko’s husband!”
My rescuer lets out a noise of dismay. She shoves the man’s chest, but he barely budges.
“You know that she just found out about this society! Damn idiot…” She looks at me apologetically. “This is my brother, Yuichi. We both live here. He’s usually nicer when you get to know him.”
Yuichi smiles thinly, and bows his head.
“So, are you going to live with us for a while?” he asks me.
I look nervously at Chieko.
“I think I’d be a burden, but…”
Chieko grabs my shoulder and narrows her eyes at her brother. I can’t tell if she’s actually mad or if they are used to interacting like this.
“Yes, you know that’s the standard practice. A representative takes care of the artist they bring over from the past, until they can live on their own. And I would have invited her to live with us anyway if I had found her living in the streets!”
Yuichi rolls his eyes.
“That means close to nothing. When was the last time you saw a homeless person on Mars? But I guess that Chieko needs someone to share the workload with. Don’t worry, we’ll keep you fed. I can’t imagine what the people in town would say if we allowed a servant to starve.”
I’m smiling like an idiot, unable to defend myself or contribute to the conversation. Chieko puts her hands on my shoulders from behind.
“No workload of which to speak! I have barely done anything but laze around recently. C’mon, you just keep running! We are getting in and replicating some food.”
When Yuichi gives up and continues running, Chieko pushes me gently towards the front door, which is made of some smooth, brown metal. She presses her hand against it, and the door opens inwards.
We enter the cool house, which smells like leather and saffron. A low-key jazz song starts playing from somewhere deeper within the house. My gaze is glued to the floor of the foyer, which is a mosaic of carefully laid out pieces that display beautiful scenes, in reds, yellows, whites and blacks, filled with Japanese imagery: white-faced ladies wearing yukatas, the silhouettes of traditional Japanese houses, heroic images of samurai. Areas of the large mosaic also show depictions of animals. Maybe I should already expect to find arresting masterworks wherever I go in this society, but my brain has a hard time associating this artistic display with someone’s home.
Chieko grabs my hand, and then swings my arm as if we were both children. I’m getting dizzier and a heat is rising to my cheeks as I walk further into the large space. I may be staring at the central room of Chieko’s house: it’s an atrium bathed in pinkish light. The beams come down from the skylights built into a vaulted ceiling made of stone, that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a cathedral. The slanted beams of light from the sunset are bathing sofas, hammocks, dining and coffee tables, a structure that looks like a chimney, and some isolated machines that resemble game consoles or ovens. Flowerbeds and water gardens are arranged near the furniture.
The illuminated space is about four times larger than I would have expected even a luxurious living room to be. You could play a sports match in here if it weren’t for all the obstacles. All the walls are covered in kaleidoscopic frescoes that represent scenes both from ancient myths and from either my era or one that came after, because I recognize the skyline of modern cities from my original present, as well as spaceships. This living room is ringed by an interior balcony. From down here I glimpse an arched gallery that must lead to bedrooms, offices and other personal rooms.
“Come!” Chieko says as she guides me around a tiny fountain towards a sofa. “You clearly need to sit. Let’s eat something, shall we? Or do you need to go to the bathroom first?”
I look at her nervously.
“Well… I don’t know… No, I don’t think so.”
If I were in my house, I would have emptied my bladder, because I’m feeling those two glasses of water that I drank at the SFPT office. But I need to sit down and figure out a way to stop my mind from reeling. When I sink into the sofa, the velvety fabric embraces me lovingly. Next to the gilded, pleated arm of the sofa, a cluster of red buds that have grown in a flower bed are wafting a sweet scent.
Chieko sits next to me, takes off her shoes and folds her slender legs so her bare feet rest on the cushion. She smiles at me and opens her mouth to say something, but I interrupt her.
“Do you have any clue of the life of luxury you and your people enjoy?” I ask in a weary voice.
Chieko shrugs.
“It’s a matter of comparisons, isn’t it? But yes, when I travelled to your era, I was shocked by how tiny the houses were, and stacked on top of each other! It was suffocating. You could hear the neighbors going to the bathroom, and could even make out parts of their private conversations! That couldn’t have been good for people’s mental health. No wonder people were so neurotic!”
I sigh.
“Yeah, I have always thought that living in cities, let alone in a metropolis, turned people crazy. We aren’t meant to live in such cramped spaces. But then again, it’s not as if we could have chosen to live in some better way. The Earth was vastly overpopulated, moving to the countryside was expensive, and everyone needed to get used to being a speck of dust that would likely amount to nothing.”
Chieko twists one side of her mouth into a grimace.
“I don’t think Earth has improved much in that regard. If you thought that it was overpopulated, if you see it now you may vomit. Truth be told, many of those people have never been ready to leave the nest. But thankfully we don’t have to worry about that on Mars, or other colonized planets.” She claps once. “So, are you hungry? Because I’m starving.”
I nod quickly.
She turns to make eye contact with an oven-like machine that is propped on a stand.
“Replicator, we want your services.”
The indicators over the cavity of the machine light up in arctic blue, and to my surprise the machine lifts off silently and floats up to us, until it hovers a meter and a half in front of Chieko as static as if it was propped on an invisible stand. It reminds me of a butler, another one, waiting for instructions.
“Pay attention to this, Izar,” she says. “You’ll rely on the replicators and the decomposers to fulfill your basic needs, and you’ll also use them whenever you need to replicate objects like cutlery, clothes, books… Everything that could fit this cavity, really. These are the personal models. For cars, furniture and similar objects you go to a shop, because they own industrial replicators.”
I swallow, then nod. I stare at Chieko’s reflection in the reflective front of the machine.
“Alright, replicator,” Chieko says. “Recommend us a menu for dinner!”
The machine radiates a solid-looking beam of light that unfolds and spreads until it forms a mosaic of images, around thirty, which are as colorful and detailed as those in the computer screens with which I’m familiar. Each image shows a plate with food as they would appear in the menu of a restaurant, and the images also feature associated dishware such as bowls, saucers, glasses, spoons, forks… as if they came with the dish.
I point with a trembling finger at the options.
“Chieko, are you telling me that I can choose any of this food and it will appear in that cavity inside of the machine…?”
“You get it quickly.”
I rub my eyes.
“I don’t. I really don’t… How is this possible?”
“Don’t worry about that for now. As you know, you don’t need to understand how something works to use it! I wasn’t the one who invented this thing. Just order whatever, Izar.”
I take a deep breath and look over the options. Although I only recognize about a quarter of the food I’m staring at, my mouth salivates.
“Oh, that looks like pizza.”
“It certainly is. Cheese pizza in particular. The replicator always recommends it to me, because I love it. Have you ever tasted pizza before, Izar?”
“If I have… Nevermind, yes. Pizza sounds good. So how would I choose it?”
“Remember, the machines are sentient. Replicators and decomposers are silent by design, but they understand. So just tell it what you want.”
When I stare back at the replicator, I have a hard time believing, or facing, that a person is waiting for my order. I’ll need to get used to dealing with artificial intelligences, but thankfully that Guide showed me that I could make myself understood without issues.
I point at the image of the cheese pizza.
“Alright, then give me that one, please.”
The mosaic collapses, and the beam of solid light dissolves. As the machine hums, the cavity fills with a similarly opaque and featureless light, and when it vanishes, the inside of the replicator contains a steaming cheese pizza. Even a pizza cutter. The pizza’s crust looks so crispy, and the golden yellow cheese so thick and juicy, that my mind forgets its doubts and worries. I only want to fill my stomach with that impossible food.
The replicator’s cavity opens, which allows the pizza’s aroma to reach us, and Chieko pulls out the plate. After she leaves it on the coffee table, both of us are quick to grab a slice, which came pre-cut although the replicator also produced a cutter. When I bite and chew the morsel, my mouth fills with the expected taste of a cheese pizza. My shoulders relax.
“Chieko, you live in heaven,” I say with my mouth full.
“This pizza always tastes amazing, yes. The same as the pizza that was scanned to produce this blueprint. Not that I ever tasted the original pizza, but that’s the idea.”
After I finish eating my slice, I wipe off the juices left behind on my lips. I go for a second slice.
Chieko also orders glasses of orange juice. We eat as we lounge on the sofa. Night has fallen, and some floating orbs have switched on and are bathing us in soft white light. I’m so comfortable that I get mental images of kittens rolling around in their cat bed.
We finished eating a couple of minutes ago. My benefactress’ eyes have turned sleepy. After she picks up crumbs from her puff sleeve blouse and eats them, she leans back and offers me a tired smile.
“That’s all you need to know regarding replicators, I think. Now I’ll show you what you’ll do when you want to get rid of something.”
Chieko looks directly at the replicator as she addresses it. Maybe it’s necessary to make eye contact.
“Replicator, return to your stand, please.” As the replicator floats towards its stand, Chieko gazes at the similar machine propped up on a stand next to the empty one. “Decomposer, come here.”
The decomposer obeys like a pet. Although this machine’s purpose is the opposite of the replicator’s, its main difference is that the cavity is hidden by a round hatch. The machine stops a meter and a half away from Chieko, who gets off the sofa and puts the pizza cutter on the plate on which only crumbs remained. She adds both our empty glasses. She opens the machine’s hatch and leaves the plate inside. After she closes the hatch, she sits back down.
“Decomposer, destroy your contents.”
A round indicator on the front of the humming decomposer lights up in red, and a couple of seconds later it shuts off.
“That’s it,” Chieko says.
I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that any machine could get rid of any object with such speed. This society must have solved the issue of the growing mountains of garbage, as well as the patches of plastic in the oceans.
“Doesn’t it worry you that someone could kill another person,” I ask, “dismember them, throw their remains into a decomposer and make them disappear?”
Chieko laughs merrily, closing her eyes and holding her hand against her mouth.
“Your mind goes directly to murder, huh?” she says. Her fingers flick outwards to open her palms towards me. “What a horror… You should want to help other people, Izar, not end them.”
“Hey, that’s a worry that anyone would have.”
“That’s why they built in a system that notifies the authorities in case it detects that it would decompose human remains.”
“Alright, so you future people haven’t outgrown homicidal impulses. You haven’t evolved that much.”
“The animals that evolve to outgrow violent impulses get killed by those who didn’t. Isn’t that the case?” Chieko replies with a smile.
I realize that jazz was still playing in the background when it stops abruptly, and gets replaced with music similar to soft rock. I’m confused for a moment, because Chieko didn’t order it, but a more important question pops up in my mind.
“How does this replicator of yours produce objects from zero? Are the raw materials inside the machine? Even 3D printers from my era needed some sort of cartridge.”
“It makes a request for the needed periodic elements to the deposit that every town has. We pool those resources together, it’d be too much of a hassle otherwise. They get sent through quantum teleportation.”
“Of course, it had to have quantum in the name.”
“Haven’t you both gotten comfortable,” Yuichi’s deep voice reaches us from behind.
Chieko and I look over the back pillows of our sofa. Yuichi must have taken a shower, because his thick, wavy red hair is combed back and damp. He’s wearing a grey sweat jacket and sweatpants. His sweat jacket features the drawing of a multi-limbed mechanical being with a red cape. I won’t try to deduce what it represents.
He struts to the replicator, which is resting on its stand, and tells it to produce his usual protein shake. In a few seconds he’s holding a metallic-looking, opaque flask. He approaches the armchair closest to us and plops down on it. As he unscrews the cap of his bottle, he stares at me brashly as if he intends to challenge me.
“So, Izar, are you religious?”
Chieko lets out a noise of dismay.
“Yuichi! You barely know her!”
The man doesn’t tear his gaze away.
“When my sister told me that she had taken one of the rescue missions, I was sure that she would bring home some nut from the Middle Ages, or an Ice Age sculptor. I would find myself having to listen to that person freaking out and wondering how his or her god fit into this new world.”
“I see how that would be annoying,” I say. “I’ve never been religious.”
Yuichi sighs, then leans back on his armchair as if he figures he can relax.
“What century did you come from again?”
“Early twenty-first.”
Yuichi arches his eyebrows as he takes a big gulp of his protein shake.
“Was your era as terrible as we picture it from the surviving records?”
“I don’t know what you’ve seen. I’m sure that any other era looks like hell when compared to living in this town. But I admit that I didn’t enjoy living in my time. I dreaded that everything was going to collapse eventually.”
“To me, it looked apocalyptic,” he says with sympathy.
I let out a long sigh.
“What can I say, I’m glad that Chieko brought me here. I can’t begin to explain how safe I feel now.”
A cat-sized creature is moving close to a flower bed filled with purple and yellow flowers. I glance at it absentmindedly, expecting to see a cat, but my gaze falls on a sleek, metallic octopus that’s watering the flowers through its flexible tentacles. My eyes widen, but neither of the siblings pay the robot any attention.
“You are a writer, right?” Yuichi asks. “Many of those around.”
“Yes, and not one that deserved being saved. There were millions of writers like me in the world back then. We were lucky enough to get published, but didn’t sell enough to pay the bills.”
“Izar, you need to stop putting yourself down,” Chieko says, more upset than I would have expected.
I lower my gaze to my lap.
“It’s true. I have no clue why you saved me.”
“I don’t know why my sister chose you in particular,” Yuichi interjects as he smirks at Chieko, “but your heroine was motivated by procrastination. You have avoided a sad fate because Chieko couldn’t figure out what creative project to start next. That’s the truth.”
My benefactress looks down and fiddles with the corner of a pillow. More than embarrassed, she seems guilty. I reach over to put my hand on her arm. I don’t want the person who saved my life feeling bad about any aspect of her decision.
“She didn’t tell you that she had lofty, virtuous reasons for bringing you over from the past, did she?” Yuichi asks with some concern.
“No, she told me that she was going through a dry spell,” I say. I try to hold Chieko’s gaze, although she’s avoiding it. “I wouldn’t care if you rescued me because you were paid to do so, or because you wanted to impress someone. If it weren’t for you, I would be living in the streets, and in less than a week I would have drowned in the river. You were never clear about how, but I don’t care. My life is yours.”
Chieko mumbles something as she blushes. Yuichi snorts, then shakes his head.
“She’s charmed you already, huh, Izar? I guess you can’t help it. That SFPT, they are running the ultimate seduction scheme. You have no idea how many of the people they bring over here from the past end up naked in their representative’s bed by the end of the first day.”
Chieko straightens her back and glares at her brother.
“It’s nothing like that!” She looks at me. “You lack some qualities necessary for me to… feel like that about you.”
“Hopefully just the physical ones that I can’t change,” I say nonchalantly. “I wouldn’t mind if you intended to seduce me. With this new life you have given me, I should fall in love with you out of principle.”
Chieko sighs and rubs her temples with both hands. Her brother empties the bottle, then chuckles as he wipes his mouth. He leans back again, with one hand behind his head.
“You know, it might do you some good, Chieko,” Yuichi says teasingly. “It’s been too long since you’ve been with anyone.”
“H-hey. I don’t have time for boyfriends!”
“What do you mean? You barely do anything now that you aren’t working on new movies!”
“You know I’m going through a dry spell.”
Yuichi grins as if he was expecting his sister to say it.
“That’s what I meant, sis.”
Chieko snaps her head back and stutters her reply. I have been letting my weight sink into the velvety cushions and the back pillows for a few minutes, my stomach is digesting that delicious pizza, and now that the siblings have forgotten that I’m here, a smile tugs on my lips. Every other person I had met either walked past me, or proved to me that I should have kept hidden the most important parts of myself. But now I can close my eyes and let out a long sigh as a warm feeling spreads throughout my body.

Chieko showed me how to use the toilet, which works the same way except that it contains a tiny matter decomposer that takes care of the waste. We keep hanging out in the siblings’ luxurious atrium. By the time that Yuichi left to his bedroom, the skylights on the vaulted roof brimmed with stars. The floating orbs failed to illuminate the huge open room with their soft white light, so it felt as if Chieko and I were sitting on an island surrounded by darkness.
My benefactress guided me to replicate cotton panties, because I needed clean underwear, along with silk pyjamas, which were lemonade pink and shimmered in my hands as I ran my fingers over the fine and smooth fabric. I follow Chieko up the stairs to one of the guest bedrooms. Once she opens the door, I find myself staring at the most comfortable-looking and luxurious bed I have ever seen. The bedding set, which is embellished with gilded, royal motifs, is made of thick silk that overflows the mattress with a liquid feel. The four pillows resting against the headboard look so inviting that I want to run over and jump face down into them.
I close my mouth, then speak in a dry voice.
“This is ridiculous.”
Chieko places a hand on my shoulder, and my heart jumps. I feel every hair on my arms. I wasn’t kidding earlier: if she tries anything, I’m done for. Chieko is pleasant to look at, a joy to be around, and now that my heart stores nothing but boundless gratitude towards her, I don’t need much incentive even though I’ve never gone for women. Back on Earth I wanted to disappear; now that she has brought me over to this paradise, the notion of disappearing into everything she might have to offer is intoxicating.
“That thing on the double dresser is the multimedia center,” Chieko says, oblivious to the tingles running through my body. “Talk to it when you want to listen to music, watch movies, browse the net… Stuff like that. I’m sure you’ll figure it out. The gear to experience virtual reality is in another room, though.”
I turn around and look at Chieko in the dimness of the bedroom, only illuminated by the beams of honey-colored light coming out of two lamps on the nightstands. I stare for a couple of seconds at her apple red hair, gathered in two buns. I wonder what Chieko sees on my face. Even with both of us standing just a step apart, our personalities are standing on the opposite sides of a wall.
“I think that tomorrow you should take a walk around town by yourself,” Chieko says softly. “See the sights, focus on what interests you. People are friendly around here. And hopefully one of these days you’ll feel like writing again.”
We look at each other silently. While Chieko glances at the bed, I get the feeling that she’s unsettled, as we are both held hostage by this comfortable, secluded bedroom.
“You better get out of here, Chieko,” I say in a low voice. “I told you that I sink my claws in the people that I care about.”
She blinks rapidly and nods.
“Yeah, I’m feeling weird myself,” she says, befuddled. “Anyway, sleep as much as you want, alright?”
We say goodnight. Once she closes the door behind her and I hear her footsteps fading, I shuffle to the side of the bed and sit slowly on the mattress. I wait until my heart calms down.
I undress, I put on my clean underwear and I try on my new pyjamas. They feel like they float over my skin. I can barely tell that I’m wearing them. When I slip under the silk sheets and the comforter and then let the back of my head sink into the pillow, I feel ready to die. My old life, with all its troubles, has ended. I would be happy if I never had to move again. I wouldn’t think, I wouldn’t talk, I wouldn’t write. I would keep floating in a warm cloud and never worry about anything else.

Note from June of 2021:

Yesterday I went back to work, and this contract will last until the end of September. I’m not the kind of person that is happy whenever he’s able to work for others, nor do I understand that kind of slave mentality. My last contract ended on May 11, if I remember correctly, and in about a month and a half I wrote frantically a novel the length of 2.2 regular novels, as well as a few short stories and lots of poetry. Yesterday I barely managed to write anything at work, because they kept me walking throughout the hospital complex to fix annoying problems that nobody wants to handle, and by the end of the day I was exhausted and felt like shit, so my brain kept trying to convince me to lie in bed and just rest. That’s the routine that I’m terrified of returning to for the next months. I hate living like that when I could be writing otherwise, but like everybody else, I need to accumulate money.

Anyway, I have planned the rest of this novella, and I’ll finish it for sure sooner or later, even though I suspect that it barely works as a story. I’m having fun with it, and that’s what matters as far as I’m concerned.

Thirty Euros, Pt. 4 (Fiction)

As soon as I walk into what Garima, the receptionist of the SFPT, called a waiting room, I feel as if I’ve wandered into a palace. This room is even larger, and two curved staircases lead to an open second floor. Crystal chandeliers embedded into the ceiling, and that look like upside down wedding cakes, radiate golden light that bathe four sets of crystal tables and the surrounding leather chesterfield sofas, which are banana yellow. I’m the only person in the room, and yet it’s hard for me to keep my composure as I walk on the porcelain-like floor, which features a mathematical pattern represented with orange and gold colors, and that reminds me of a sunflower. Eight Corinthian pillars, artfully distributed, are holding the ceiling. I hadn’t had time to notice the walls, but one or more geniuses have frescoed meticulous scenes that depict many different cultures in their dedicated stretches of wall. Peculiar attires, monuments, myths. I recognize some Greek mythological creatures, Hindu gods, Buddhist temples and Japanese shrines. I’m quite sure that I’m looking at some of these cultures for the first time, because I don’t recall having gotten glimpses of them in my thirty one years. These frescoes would feel at home in a Renaissance cathedral, except that they aren’t limited to representing figures of a single religion. This supposed office belongs in a dream.
I approach one of the sofas, although I feel like I have no business being here. Bringing me to this era must have been some cosmic mistake. The closer I get to the crystal table, which has a base made out of a geode filled with pointy, violet crystals, the more it smells like orange and vanilla. The aroma comes from an egg-shaped diffuser on the table. I sink into the sofa, which envelops me as I sit back.
I close my eyes. I must have disconnected for a while, because I only realize that someone has walked towards me when the person is standing next to my table. It’s Garima.
“You’ll be just fine there,” she says, and then she puts on the table a tray with a silver cup and a jar of water, along with a small plate loaded up with a colorful snack that reminds me of fried potato chips.
Her embellished, flared gown, fit for a princess, makes it a joke that she’s the one serving me. Before I know it she has turned around and is walking back into the room from which I came. I fill the cup with water, then drink. I confirm that the same old water I’ve always known exists here, and that its cold fills my stomach as expected. The snack doesn’t have the shape nor the color of potato chips, but its crunch sticks against my palate bringing similar sensations. For a moment I wonder how come they knew I wasn’t allergic to whatever kind of nut this snack contains.
I spot movement out of the corner of my eye. A machine that resembles a robotic vacuum cleaner, but with the shape of a lenticular disk, is gliding down the stairs without touching them. It moves way too fast for a vacuum cleaner, and it’s maneuvering to approach me. I sit straight. I can tell it’s not dangerous, but I doubt I wouldn’t have jumped out of the sofa if Chieko hadn’t come from this reality.
The top of the disk emits a vertical beam of light around a meter and seventy centimeters tall. The light gelatinizes as it expands taking the shape of a person, and in a second I find myself looking up at a man in his forties who has a neat comb over haircut, and who wears a black suit. The image reminds me of a Victorian butler.
“Pardon me,” the person says as he bows elegantly. “I’m the Guide, and I’m at your service for whatever doubt you have about how things work around here. Your information was already in the system, but now we are aware that you live among us. Don’t hesitate to approach any of the Guides for help.”
My skin shivers with electricity.
“You are a machine, right…?”
“That’s right, miss Uriarte. Most of the people in this town are human, yes, but a certain percentage of us are artificial intelligences. Our creator is the famous inventor Konrad Zuse.”
I nod in silence. I’m sure I will lose my mind by the end of the day. Maybe I will faint in front of this seemingly sentient machine.
“I know, miss,” the Guide continues. “Back in your time, artificial intelligence hadn’t advanced much. No worries, just remember that we exist to fulfill our roles, whether to help humans or other artificial intelligences! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.”
I close my eyes while I take a deep breath. For a moment I think that whenever I open my eyes again, the man made of opaque light will have disappeared, but he’s still looking down at me.
“Have I truly come to the future, or have I gone insane?” I ask in a thin, weak voice.
“Both are possible,” the Guide says jovially. “Don’t be scared either way. Now seriously, no, you haven’t gone insane. One of the representatives working for the SFPT, with the name of Chieko Sekiguchi, focused on your case and managed to rescue you from a terrible fate. Rescues such as these are why their whole operation exists, I suppose.”
My face grows warm.
“I-I’ll need time to adjust to this…”
The Guide smiles pleasantly.
“You are doing quite well. Now, would you like to listen to the story of Konrad Zuse?”
I nod as I rub my right temple.
“Konrad is someone you have never heard of, I fear,” the Guide continues, “but we consider him a genius who invented new programming techniques that eventually gave birth to the first sentient AIs.”
“Sounds like a competent man.”
“He wasn’t a man, though. He was an artificial intelligence himself!”
“Is that the case…?”
“Now, you might be wondering how come a sentient AI was the one to invent sentient AIs. There’s something called Gödel’s theorem that says that even though it’s impossible to give a formal proof, the conclusion of an algorithm can hold under almost any given circumstance.”
I’m having problems keeping up with the Guide’s speech.
“Gödel’s theorem? Sounds complicated…”
The butler laughs, and then winks while turning his head theatrically.
“I’m afraid I was pulling your leg, miss. No, the creation of sentient intelligences was a gradual process involving transformer-based neural networks with quatrillions of parameters!”
A wave of vertigo ripples through my body.
“Well, at least I’m glad you understand what a joke is,” I mumble. “And that we can hold a conversation, even if it goes over my head.”
The Guide smiles again.
“Oh! Now that you’ve been rescued, miss, you will love visiting any of our Librarians, I’m sure. So much literature to discover! I’m very partial to it myself.”
I’m too dizzy to come up with a proper answer, but I also don’t want to seem like an idiot to a machine who seems more intelligent than me. However, as soon as I start speaking, the butler straightens his back and looks to the side as if listening to something in an earpiece. Then he smiles cordially at me.
“It seems that your representative has arrived. She’s been informed of your whereabouts. Just remember, if you see any of us Guides gliding around and you need information about anything, just call us over. Guiding people is our raison d’être, and we are glad to do so. As you might imagine, I will make myself scarce now. Until next time!”
The Guide makes a bow so elegant that it would fit in a museum.
“Uh… Thank you for your help,” I say.
The figure of the man, made of light, collapses in a split second as if the top of the lenticular disk had absorbed it. The disk then turns around and glides quickly up the left staircase, leaving me alone at the table.
My head is filled with white noise as I fill my silver cup with water and drink it in a single gulp. I doubt this encounter was some sort of practical joke. I’m going to live in a world where artificial intelligences are so advanced that they consider themselves to be people. And it seems that it hasn’t caused significant troubles, at least to the extent that this ostentatious office continues existing. I should just go with the flow, at least for a while, taking everything in. These people know I come from the past, and they will be lenient of my stupidity. But I worry that any of the inhabitants of this strange reality will realize that I don’t deserve to be here. When they do, they will send me back. I doubt I would be able to continue living normally back on the Earth I know after I’ve been here.
“Izar! I knew you’d come,” Chieko says from above.
A warmth grows in my chest as I look up towards the railing of the second floor. Chieko, the same Asian woman whom I thought I would never see again, along with her apple red hair and her kind smile, is leaning on the railing of the second floor, close to the right, curved staircase.
“Come on, get up here,” Chieko says. “We are going for a ride.”
The tone of her voice suggests I have become someone special to her. Despite the deceptive way in which she approached me, she did it because she cares. My whole body feels too light and weird, and I fear I will faint any minute, but I walk carefully to the right staircase and climb up, stepping on stairs that glimmer like gold. The second floor is an imitation of the lower one, except that the sets of tables and sofas are arranged according to the narrower space. On the opposite end of the room, an arched doorway, with an elaborate lintel that displays a rhomboid pattern, leads into a single staircase that goes up and out of view.
As I approach Chieko, who keeps smiling warmly, I can tell that the clothes she had worn to meet me were chosen to fit in. Now she’s wearing a pearl white, puff sleeve blouse with a scoop neckline, along with black pleated shorts with suspenders. She has gathered her red hair in two buns that give her a spacey look.
I’m about to greet her properly when she steps forward and hugs me tightly. I’m not used to people being this nice. I may melt. When she pulls away, she keeps resting her hands on my shoulders.
“What are your first impressions?” she asks. “It seems so wild, right?”
This must be what they call charm. I want to trust Chieko, and I’m sure she told me the truth when she assured me that I would have died in less than a week. She can’t fake the sincerity in her eyes.
“It’s great…” I say carefully, unsure how to continue describing this world. “I met one of your robots, or artificial intelligences.”
“Some towns have more of them than humans.” Chieko chuckles softly. “They are great. I’m sure he helped you kindly.”
“I was too dumbfounded to take advantage of his services, but I’ll come across any of them again. He also mentioned a Librarian…”
Chieko nods.
“Ah, the Guide knew how to entice you. Yeah, we have buildings dedicated to these Librarians, who will recommend you books based on your preferences and previously read titles, and will produce the books for you. You wouldn’t consider them libraries, I don’t think, because they don’t store any books. When you are done with any of them, you throw it into a matter decomposer.”
“Matter… So you people break everything down, and they end up turning into… ashes?”
Chieko pats my shoulder.
“Into their periodic elements. Don’t worry about it for now, Izar! After all, you don’t need to know how a computer works in order to use it, right? And in these parts, computers will ask you what you want! We don’t use mice. Anyway, let’s just go up to the roof, shall we?”
She leads me by the hand up the stairs until we exit through a big door onto the roof. I’m looking down, as I fear getting overwhelmed as if I were staring at majestic paintings in a museum, so first I see that the floor of the roof is flat, and made out of impractically large, buttermilk yellow stone slabs. I feel cool air on my skin. I look up quickly towards the sky. It’s a vast expanse mostly as blue as I expect a sky to be, but it’s blended in parts with a peach pink, and the few wisps of cloud are blurry as if dissolving. I search for the source of the warmth on my skin, and my breath leaves my lungs for the first time since I came. I don’t dare look directly at the sun, but close to the lemon yellow, burning disk, which looks smaller than I expected, hangs a second, larger sun. The sunrays of the second sun seem stronger, and as they hit the clouds floating nearby, they meld in a radiant blend of red-orange.
Chieko pats my back.
“Good? Isn’t it spectacular?”
“W-we aren’t on Earth.”
“Just take it easy, Izar. I don’t want you to faint. Also, don’t stare directly at the sun, whether the original or our artificial one. It’s a terrible idea no matter what planet you end up standing on.”
I look at Chieko’s pretty face, tinged in the sunlight.
“W-wait,” I say. “W-where are we exactly…?”
“The future, of course!” Chieko exclaims with glee. “As for our current whereabouts…”
Chieko stops talking, because something out of the corner of my eye had startled me. Up to my left, in a forty five degree angle, a metallic vehicle is floating through the air silently. Its slick shape reminds me of a zeppelin, but it has fin-like ridges. The sunlight is whitening the upper part of the vehicle, which reflects the light as in a mirror. There must be people inside.
“That’s a UFO,” I blurt out.
Chieko chuckles.
“It’s perfectly identified. That’s just… a flying bus. I prefer the personal models myself.”
My benefactress tugs on my hand, and I stagger in the direction she’s following. She’s guiding me towards a row of rectangular parking spaces painted in white. Two of the spaces are occupied. Chieko leads me to the closest vehicle. It’s about the size of a van, but if that flying bus reminded me of a UFO, I’m staring at one right now: it’s an upside down plate standing on a landing skid, as if the bottom shouldn’t touch the ground. Its metallic frame seems to have been built without seams, and it’s painted a pineapple yellow except for decorative black stripes. The windshield encircles the frame in a band of glass, but I can’t see the inside, as the reflections of the sunrays are curtaining the interior.
I’m trembling uncontrollably. My knees go weak. Before I know it, Chieko is holding me in her arms. Her neck smells like tea. I want to go limp, but we’d fall to the floor. I swallow, then force myself to stand straight.
“I’m having a hard time…” I start to say, but I shut up.
“No need to worry. Izar, many, many people over the years have reached this present in a similar way than you, and they now live their lives just like any other citizen. Believe me, it will be far easier for you to adapt than it is for people of the Middle Ages, for example. Once you’ve become familiar with computers, your brain can handle the rest. So, don’t you think it’s a splendid vehicle?”
“S-splendid… How…” I stutter while I feel as if my tongue is stuck.
Chieko approaches her vehicle and tells it to open. An opening appears in the side of the frame, and an airstair gets lowered to the ground. I look around. This large, flat roof is enclosed by tall hedges and rimmed with still, decorative pools, but the skyline of a town or a city is peeking out from behind the hedges. It’s more sparse than I would have expected. I make out the treetops of pine-like trees, shaped like spearheads. All the buildings I can glimpse look like ancient monuments, cathedral-like monsters with incongruous designs, as different as those of apartment buildings in a city. I’m surprised that none of the buildings reach the height of a skyscraper. They remind me of how tall the Colosseum must look. Also, I don’t spot any mountain nor hill, which I always expect to see, as I was used to living in Gipuzkoa.
“Here, get inside!” Chieko says.
She pushes me gently so I ascend the airstairs to the interior of her vehicle. I only have to hunch over a little. The interior smells like warm leather and coffee. There are only two seats, which are black with vertical white stripes, and they look as expensive and comfortable as the sofas in the office of the SFPT. The only part of the wall resembling a dashboard with indicators and displays is in front of the left seat, so I sit on the right one. Once I sink in the upholstery, I let out a long sigh. I’d gladly sit here for hours.
Chieko sits down to my left. She says ‘close’, and the opening in the frame closes like a pore. She reaches for a plasticky device attached to the dashboard, which reminds me of the cigarette lighters that many cars have, but when Chieko pulls out this device, it’s tethered to the inside of the frame with a loose cable made out of spiral metal. Chieko presses a surface of the device to her temple, and it latches on to her skin. As soon as she drops her hands to her lap, the indicators and displays come to life. They aren’t screens, but the closest thing I’ve seen to solid, 3D holograms. Two of them clearly display our surroundings with three-dimensional models of buildings and trees.
Chieko leans back. Our vehicle lifts off, but I can only tell because the tops of buildings and trees that I can see through the windshield are sliding down. Soon the view is filled with sky.
“I-I don’t feel any engine,” I say. “I’m not being pushed down against the seat.”
Chieko smiles at me, narrowing her eyes.
“Those kinds of engines are long gone. This baby creates its own gravitational field. We are moving through spacetime in a bubble. Far more complicated things have been invented. I wasn’t responsible, though, so I can’t be that proud about them.”
I let out a breath as if something was squeezing my heart. While the view of the sky changes, and the models in the holographic displays turn around like cups in a microwave, Chieko is eyeing me as if she’s about to smirk.
“I get the appeal of impressing someone with a ride in my fancy car.”
I rub my mouth nervously. My heart is pounding on my ribcage.
“Be careful, Chieko. I don’t get attached to people, I sink my claws in them.”
“That’s alright, I think. This world allows all kinds of emotions.”
She sounds like a wise and worldly older person. For the first time I wonder about her age. This society has managed to travel back in time, construct such majestic buildings and move through the skies effortlessly with antigravity vehicles. I’m sure they have managed to solve the riddle of aging.
Although Chieko is just looking down at the displays and hasn’t touched anything, our vehicle tilts, and I find myself staring at a much smaller version of the roof we lifted off from. The building is standing in the middle of a park. I spot a few serpentine footpaths, structures similar to streetlights, and even the small figures of people walking around or sitting on benches. Some are hanging out near a cerulean blue pond. So many statues strewn about, some of them painted in vibrant colors. I shiver. From the outside, the office of the SFPT reminds me of a Roman building, and one side, maybe the main entrance, even features a colonnade.
Chieko slouches in the chair and holds her hands on her lap.
“So yeah, I work for the SFPT. I’m not big on working for others; kind of a lone wolf, do my own thing kind of person. But they’ve done fantastic work for generations. You only need to look around to realize that we wouldn’t have become as great if it wasn’t for the many people they’ve rescued.”
“This SFPT’s role is to bring here people from the past…?” I ask, bewildered.
Chieko facepalms, and then shrugs apologetically.
“Sorry, I should realize that you know close to nothing! SFPT is the acronym for the boringly named Society For the Preservation of Talent.”
I look down to my lap. My hands are trembling, but now I’m mostly excited.
“You told me that you approached me because you wanted to preserve my life and my talent.”
Chieko doesn’t answer, and when I look at her, she’s staring at me with a solemn expression. Her mouth makes a wet sound when it opens.
“Izar, what has been the biggest enemy of humankind for hundreds of thousands of years?”
“Humankind? Well… War and injustice.”
“I don’t think so, no. Those are terrible things we do. Try again. Something much more frightening.”
“More abstract? Darkness and fear?”
“I’m not getting across…” Chieko rubs her chin. “The main evil we have faced has stolen everything from us for hundreds of thousands of years. It has murdered an uncountable number of us. It has stolen parents from their children, and sometimes children from their parents. It has stopped talented people from being able to benefit the world further, not to mention discover of what they would have been capable otherwise. For so many millennia we submitted to it as a tyrant we wouldn’t dare to stand against.”
My throat is closing, and a shiver runs through my spine.
“Y-you are talking about the passage of time.”
Chieko narrows her eyes like a hawk.
“About the effects of time on living beings. It has rendered us incapable, it has killed us. One by one, generation by generation. Well, it can get fucked now. Talent no longer falls through the cracks of reality, hopefully until some other brilliant human being among millions and millions picks up where the previous genius was forced to stop. Not only that, those brilliant people are able to interact with one another. Our translators bridge the gulfs between every language that currently exists or has ever existed.” She points at the small hemispherical device attached to the skin behind her ear. “I wouldn’t have been able to understand any single word coming out of your mouth otherwise. And you can read any text like a native. Don’t need to take it off either, it’s hydrophobic.”
I hide my face in my hands. Chieko thankfully gives me some seconds to calm down.
“I know, it must be pretty overwhelming,” she says.
“Yeah, I feel as if I were hallucinating. So you are telling me that your society is partly made out of artists and inventors from every previous era of humankind’s existence, that have been brought over methodically…?”
“That is right. We figure out when and how they died, if there was any doubt, and we save them. We feel good in the process, it’s like we are gallant knights. I’m mostly an artist myself, though, but I was born here. I make virtual reality experiences. I’m going through a dry spell, though, as I told you.”
I shake my head slowly.
“Ah… So, which brilliant people have been rescued from the past, names that I might know…?”
Chieko shuts one eye as she tilts her head, maybe because she’s trying to come up with artists with whom I may be familiar.
“Well, for example, Isaac Newton was resurrected, although that happened a few generations before I was born. I only saw him once from afar. I recall he always wore the same clothes, kind of an eccentric guy. But he has become good friends with philosophers of old, Greeks and Romans mainly. He doesn’t live around here, though.”
My mind is reeling. I don’t feel capable of understanding all the implications of the SFPT’s work.
“S-so, writers like… Let’s say, Shakespeare. Is he alive too?”
Chieko lets out an appreciative noise, and nods enthusiastically.
“He was one of my main inspirations even as a child! He moved on to virtual reality experiences. So much of his new work is astonishing, and he adapted quite quickly to our modern times. Because I work in the medium, one of my goals is that he gets to experience my movies and enjoys them so much that he writes a recommendation. That would make me famous overnight! I’ve never interacted with him in person, though, but I’ve seen him at festivals.”
“Y-you could become friends with an immortalized genius like the father of the English language… I think I will end up vomiting.”
Chieko laughs, but she shakes her hands as if to dissuade me from throwing up now.
“Not in my car, please! If you seriously need to vomit, we can land.”
I feel so small, even in the presence of Chieko. She might be a thousand years old for all I know, although she looks younger than me.
“I-it’s alright, I was being… Thank you for making this whole situation so clear. I get it. Some of your predecessors made sure to rescue people like William Shakespeare, Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein and such, huh? No wonder everything looks so amazing. And after so many years there’s only small fries like me to bring over.”
“Don’t refer to yourself like that. So what if you aren’t Shakespeare? Neither am I! We can still be better than the day before. I’m not into competing with other artists, and it’s a suicidal notion anyway, when you might wake up one morning only to find out that any of the greats have released their next big experience, and after you watch it you know you will never be able to come up with anything remotely similar. But you gotta take it as a humbling experience.”
I hang my head low. I feel as vulnerable as a child in the cold. When I start crying silently, Chieko pats me on the thigh.
I only realize that she’s flying this vehicle in some other direction because the view changes. Once I feel strong enough to look up, my gaze falls on a vast plain. We are so high that the panorama must be encompassing dozens if not hundreds of kilometers. Other flying vehicles are cutting through the sky in different directions, and some of those vehicles are so tiny that they have been reduced to specks of dust that glisten in the sun. There are curved ridges in the distance that look like the raised rims of craters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the lakes, some of which are fed by serpentine river systems, are ancient craters filled with water. The landscape is green, probably because grass is growing everywhere, but I make out amorphous expanses of forests. Curiously, I don’t see any farmland. Plenty of human communities are hugging the coastline of lakes and have grown on both sides of wide rivers, but they have also allowed their architects to go wild, because some of the monument-like buildings sitting on the plains are the size of mountains.
I point at a group of those conspicuous monuments.
“T-those are pyramids.”
“Hmm? Ah, yeah, those were made quite a long time ago, a few decades after they invented time travel and started bringing people over,” Chieko says nonchalantly. “They weren’t here before we came!”
“Chieko, where the hell are we…?” I whisper.
“This whole area is called the Hesperia Plains. It’s close to a humongous inland sea called Hellas.”
I rub my temples. I feel a headache coming. Where have I heard those names before?
“Are we in… I mean, this is a different planet.”
“Mars. Just next door. It’s not like I’ve brought you to another solar system.”
I get goosebumps. I’m on Mars.
“H-have you guys colonized other solar systems…?”
Chieko grins happily.
“Hell yeah.”
I can’t face the view any longer, so I hang my head low. I take deep breaths to keep my chest from convulsing.
“Your people have made it, haven’t they…?” I say in a quavering voice. “My era was a nightmare. I was sure we would self-destruct, maybe to the extent that we went extinct. B-but you have survived, and made… all of this.”
“It’s a better world, sure, for new art to come forth!”
I’m feeling calmer and calmer. I’ve never felt this comfortable with any other human being, although she belongs to a different world.
“People don’t wage wars anymore? People don’t kill each other?”
Chieko laughs awkwardly.
“It hasn’t gotten that bad, not like it did in the centuries around your time. But people are people. Some communities are on the verge of war any given day, and for one reason or another, some bastards always want to cause havoc. Our town is as quiet as they come, though.”
“W-well… At least you’ve saved people’s lives.”
Chieko offers me a childish smile, almost closing her eyes.
“You were my first. I told you, this was a personal project. I had little clue about what I was doing, I was following the training. I’ve mostly done other kinds of jobs for the SFPT, related to working with artists brought from the past. We still live and learn through making mistakes! But I might get into it and figure out which other people I should travel back in time to rescue. However, the SFPT is very careful about these assignments. Frankly, if you had been an author of great renown, they wouldn’t have let me take the case.”
I stare out of the windshield. The sky is so beautiful. If a person could fly in those colors every second of the day, they would retain their sanity.
“I’m not…” I mumble. “I only wrote some stupid stuff…”
“Oh, shut it. There’s always enough food. People can print it on the replicators, even from the materials that the freighters bring over from nebulae and gas giants. There are enough jobs for those who want other people to tell them what to do. And you can lounge on the roof of your house and write for as long as you want.”
My mouth is twisting and my shoulders shake as streams of tears run down my cheeks. My throat burns.
“Alright, Izar,” Chieko says jovially. “You’ll live in my house for a while, until you get used to this place. Let’s go. You’ll feel different after a good night’s sleep.”

Thirty Euros, Pt. 3 (Fiction)

When I open my eyes, my gaze falls on a crack in the eggshell white ceiling. Dusty strands of cobweb span the crack near one end. For the second night in a row, a sheet and a duvet have kept me warm, and instead of being woken up by the laughter of children and nearby footsteps, it seems that my brain considered that the noisy toilet cistern from the upstairs neighbor was a threat. Or maybe it was time to wake up, because the morning light is filling the bedroom through the glass panes of the door to the tiny balcony.
Chieko, my benefactress from a faraway place, is gone. She fell through reality. And I bet that, as she assured me, whenever I walk into the living room, that opaque white doorway will be waiting for me.
In the kitchen, I prepare myself a coffee and I also grab some slices of salty ham. Chieko, or her employers, had stacked the fridge with groceries, although some of them will expire sooner than when the lease runs out. Also, the first time I entered the bedroom I found the apartment key next to a wad of banknotes, which looked as fresh and crisp as if they had been printed a few days before. A total of two thousand euros in tens and twenties.
Once my stomach starts digesting the slices of ham, I carry the steaming cup of coffee through the hallway into the living room, and I stand near the white doorway. It remains as lifeless as any other door. Nothing moves in this apartment but me and a couple of spiders. Although the impossible doorway doesn’t scare me anymore, it gives me the anxiety of a ticking clock. It would be nice to take advantage of this shelter and be alone for a few months, although I’m sure that I’ll feel as broken a few years from now. I want to lounge around thoughtlessly. Still, the money would run out eventually, and nobody will support me anymore. I’d need to find a job, at some office no doubt, and those nightmares would begin all over again.
For several minutes, while I sip my coffe, I observe the white void through which Chieko left. I barely got to know that odd woman, but now that she’s gone, the silence gets heavy and oppressive at times. She has abandoned me. No, she hasn’t, I barely knew her. And yet that’s how I feel. I miss her smile, those ostentatious dimples, and how much she cared. I finally met someone nice who wanted to help me, but she has disappeared in a more definitive way than the other people in my life had, even those who died. I get the feeling that unless I follow Chieko through the doorway, I won’t be able to find her anywhere even if I spent the rest of my life searching.
“Once I go through this doorway, I will never see this world again,” I mumble, repeating her words.
Why didn’t she stay and help me in person instead of giving me the freedom to choose? I’m tired of making decisions, of pondering what road to take. For years I focused on losing myself, on escaping reality, through fictional stories, and I left the technical details of how to survive in this world to my boyfriend. Maybe to a fault. I’m sure I wasn’t mentally present for plenty of it. I let Víctor worry about everything but cooking, and I would have gladly allowed cobwebs to grow in the corners of the ceilings. Maybe if I hadn’t lost myself into fantasy, if my living heart still beat properly, maybe he wouldn’t have stopped caring about me. I shake my head. No, nothing justified him cheating repeatedly on me. To break the covenant is unforgivable.
After three quarters of an hour standing there like a zombie, my brain gets tired of thinking about it and decides to wake up. I take a shower. I clean my skin with the amount of liquid soap that any other person would have spent in four showers, but during this past week I became self-conscious about my stink as if I was constantly trailing around a noxious cloud.
The first night I spent here, finding my clothes in the wardrobe of the bedroom should have astonished me. They are the clothes that I left behind in Victor’s apartment after I decided to become homeless, without any thought about how I would survive the following days. The only way I imagined that anyone would have retrieved my clothes involved Víctor agreeing to let those strangers in, but I stopped myself from trying to figure it out. Chieko, or Chieko’s employers, had produced a two-dimensional door that led to another world. I’m sure they had their peculiar ways of transferring my clothes to this apartment.
I put on some jeans, a short-sleeve V-neck blouse, and on top my favorite hooded knit cardigan. I don’t feel that it suits me well anymore, but it reminds me of sitting next to a window to write.
I test the key in the apartment’s door a couple of times, just in case I’m suffering a psychotic break and I’m still living in the streets. I can lock and unlock the door, so I should be able to return here after a walk. At this hour on a Thursday, beyond the regular traffic on this one-lane road, I spot delivery vans supplying shops, along with housewives and retirees walking around. The same old anonymous, monotonous parade. I saunter towards the parts of the Kursaal that show up at the end of the street. The slanted, translucent glass cubes stand against a porcelain white sky. Once I reach the intersection, I stop and take in the view. The line of flags that promote some event that the Kursaal is hosting are fluttering in the breeze. To my right, although the outside sitting area of some restaurants block most of the view, a wall-like, foresty hill blocks the horizon. Cars are passing in front of me in both directions. A couple of surfers are driving electric scooters, heading likely to Zurriola beach, which is located behind the Kursaal.
I feel unreal. Everything seems fake, as if I’m staring at a painting. These past two nights have granted me enough rest, and my mind must be detaching itself from this world that it had already relinquished when I became homeless a week ago.
I cross the street and I keep walking in front of the Kursaal until a flat view opens up, that shows the beachfront promenade and beyond it a band of steel blue water. I’m seeing myself from above as I approach the low wall that borders the beach. Tanned men and women, either barefoot or wearing sandals, are standing or walking on the sand. A muscled man wearing orange trunks is climbing the safeguard tower.
I won’t see this view, or any that I have stored in my brain, ever again. Whatever awaits me on the other side of that white doorway will become my new reality. I will follow the only person who cared enough to save me. I refuse to continue in this world that has thrown me aside so carelessly, and if it turns out that crossing that impossible doorway will kill me, then so be it.
As I rest my back against the low wall, I focus on whether I’ll miss anything or anyone of this world I was born in. As I got older, fewer and fewer people cared for my books, which were my only contribution. All these strangers walking around don’t glance my way; I looked my best in my mid twenties, too long ago already.
The breeze is cooling my face. It smells like salty water and crustaceans. My ex-boyfriend’s face pops up in my mind. All that’s left of those five years with him is bitterness and pain. I’m sure any of his other women will take his calls. Although I threw my cell phone in the garbage, I doubt he would have insisted on calling beyond the first couple of days otherwise. In any case, I no longer feel capable of loving people. It’s not worth the trouble.
I stare at the distant view of the hill, and how it slopes down until it ends in cliffs a couple of kilometers into the sea. I can make out the silhouettes of distinct treetops on top. What about my father? I haven’t seen him for years, since he started his new family. Even though I was older when he abandoned us, I always remember him as he looked when I turned my head towards him while I lay on the sofa of his office, back when I was a child. He wore his glasses when he went over papers related to his work in the publishing industry. He always printed them out, he hated reading them on a computer screen. Sometimes when I would ask him to tell me more about what he was looking at, he would just laugh and give me an offbeat smile. He has been dead, as far as I’m concerned, for a long time.
I never cared much about my mother. That day at the hotel, when she announced that she was going to move out with her boyfriend and her kids, she made it clear enough that I would become a secondary concern from then on. Still, she called me regularly, and I was the one who refused to meet her in person as much as she wished. I didn’t attend her wedding, and I’ve only met my half-brother a few times. Once I cross that opaque white doorway, I will disappear as if the earth had swallowed me up. My mother might have tried to contact me in the last week, but she never met my ex-boyfriend, so she wouldn’t know how to locate me. I picture her realizing that I’ve gone missing, that she will never see me again, nor will she ever find out what happened to me. I suppose that she’ll assume that I killed myself so proficiently that nobody would find my body.
My chest gets tight, and I’m having trouble swallowing. I close my eyes and breathe slowly. A black cloud is enveloping my heart. My mother will grieve for years. I won’t stick around just to spare her the pain of not seeing me again, but at least I want to let her know that it was of my own volition, and that maybe I moved out far away, somewhere I could be happy.
As I walk back towards my current apartment, I realize that I haven’t seen a phone booth in years, and I don’t want to ask a random stranger for his or her cell phone, mainly because I don’t want them to stand nearby as I have a difficult conversation. There’s a pub in the corner of the street that leads to my apartment. Its front is made of wood, and painted cobalt blue. I look in through the window. It reminds me of Irish pubs. The interior is dim, and at this hour there are only two customers, both retirees. One of them sips a beverage in a large pint glass.
I enter the pub nervously. I approach the bartender, who is a woman in her forties. Her hair has plenty of greys already, and she’s wearing a striped, black and white T-shirt. I get on a bar stool.
“Give me one of those potato omelette sandwiches, please. And… would it be possible to use your landline? I have to make an important call, but I’ve forgotten my cell phone at home. I’ll pay if necessary.”
The bartender grabs one of the plates with those sandwiches and slides it towards me.
“No problem. It’s in the kitchen. Do you want to call now or after you eat your sandwich?”
She’s looking at me as if she can tell I’m troubled. I’ve spoken too fast and loud, as I always do when I’m speaking with someone for the first time.
“Yeah… I’d rather get the call out of the way first.”
The bartender gestures towards a door between shelves stocked with alcoholic drinks. As I walk behind the bar, she shoots me a look of concern.
“Are you ok? Your face seems very pale.”
“I’ll be alright soon enough, I hope.”
The kitchen is empty. I guess that they don’t open it for orders until closer to midday. The landline is mounted on the wall, close to a sink. My heart is beating fast. I hope I remember my mother’s cell phone number correctly. My hands are sweating.
I start counting backward in my head to give myself some time. Then, while holding the receiver with a sweaty palm, I dial the number. To my surprise, a kid answers. I can’t tell at first whether it’s male or female.
“H-hello? Who is this?” I ask impertinently.
“Uh… Iker. This is my mom’s phone, though.”
It’s my half-brother.
“I’m… Is your… mom around?”
“No, she left an hour ago. I guess she forgot the phone.” The kid coughs. I wonder if he’s at home because he’s sick. “Who are you anyway? Your voice sounds familiar.”
“Uh… I’m… Izar Uriarte.”
My mouth gets dry when I say my father’s last name.
The kid doesn’t speak for a few seconds, and I don’t hear his breath either. I have no idea what this kid thinks about me. If our mother has insisted that we are half-siblings, maybe he wonders why we have barely seen each other. I wouldn’t know what to tell him.
“Hi, sis,” Iker says.
I swallow. I’m nobody’s sister.
“Yeah, hi.”
“Did you want to tell mom something? You can leave a message.”
The kid is old enough to realize that I only called in the past because I had something to say, not because I enjoyed small talk nor wanted to catch up. And I’m sure that all of them remember the bitterness in my voice.
“Yes, I want you to tell her something. Listen… I’m going away. For a long time, maybe forever. So she should… You both should know that I do it of my own volition.”
My last words are lodged in my throat. I feel tears building up behind my eyes.
“Where are you going?” Iker asks, concerned.
“I can’t tell. Far away, that’s all. I wanted to tell her that I’m sorry… for the way things turned out.”
“You aren’t going to call again,” Iker says as if he just realized.
“No, I won’t. I don’t think I will ever hear your voices again, nor will you hear mine.”
Tears come into my eyes slowly. I wonder what this kid is thinking, but he’s a stranger. Will he remember this conversation years from now? Will he blame himself for having been unable to say the right thing?
“You can call back whenever you want,” Iker says nervously.
I wipe my eyes.
“By the way… how old are you? Twelve, thirteen…?”
My lips twitch as I try to figure out what to say.
“None of this was your fault. It’s me. I’ve never known what to do with people.”
Iker remains silent. I hear something playing in the background, but I can’t tell if it’s a movie or music.
“Are you going to be okay?” Iker asks in a low voice.
“Yeah… I’m going to try something new. Neither of you need to worry.” I force myself to smile at nobody, but instead my mouth quivers. “Anyway, that’s all. Don’t forget to tell mom.”
“Sure, I will. Take care.”
I hang up. As I turn around, I want to walk directly back to the potato omelette sandwich I ordered, but I end up leaning against one of the kitchen counters, and my gaze falls on the dirty, stagnant water pooled in one of the sinks.

I thought of packing a backpack, but there isn’t one in this apartment, which doesn’t contain anything except for groceries, food-related objects and clothes. I wonder who is going to find my remaining possessions in the wardrobe of the bedroom, but I guess it doesn’t matter. I have no doubt that Chieko was telling the truth: I won’t return to this world. Everybody who knows me here will forget me soon enough.
I didn’t bother changing my clothes. I would hate to leave this cardigan behind anyway. I stand a few steps away from the featureless, white doorway in the living room. The front half of the soles of my shoes are resting on the edge of the carpet. I keep shivering every few seconds, and I fear that I’ll end up pissing myself, even though I made sure to empty my bladder. My heart beats wildly. Something awaits me on the other side of this hole in reality, and I can’t begin to imagine what it might be. But it contains someone like Chieko, so it should be fine. Still, I’m sure that this doorway will lead to more disappointment and pain. No other world can be that different.
I step forward and reach with my right hand slowly. I follow how the white light brightens the fabric of my cardigan. Once my fingertips touch the white surface, I expect them to find some resistance, but they disappear into a void that lacks any sensations. I draw my right hand back. The ends of those fingers haven’t been cut off. After I probe them with the fingertips of my other hand, they seem undamaged.
Alright, this is it. I close my eyes, but the powerful bright light shines through my eyelids. I take a deep breath and walk through the doorway.
An electric current runs in my body from end to end, but only for a second. I’m receiving muffled sounds. Although they seem familiar, my brain can’t make out what they are, as if I had started playing a song midway through and it would take a couple of seconds for me to recognize which one it was. I panic; even a moment of disorientation feels fatal. However, when I open my eyes I find myself inside a glass bell the size of four phone booths, and beyond the clear glass I see that this bell has been installed in a large room, one similar to the lobby of a luxurious hotel. The floor is marble-like, as smooth and reflective as a pool, and it features circular designs in shades of brown, from tortilla to hickory. Soft orchestral music is playing somewhere, a mix of string and wind instruments.
My mind freaks out by itself. I take a step forward and turn around as if to make sure that the doorway I came through remains there, but as Chieko said, it’s gone. I might as well have popped up inside the glass bell as if I materialized.
When I turn back, a rounded hole the size of a door has opened in the glass bell as if it was cut out with surgical precision. My mind is reeling as I step out of the glass bell. There are three others to my right, set up in an arc. They are closed and empty. The ceilings and the walls are engraved and embossed with labyrinthine motifs, some of which seem to depict animals. I realize that the building was constructed with stone, not bricks, as if it were a surviving monument from a long-dead civilization. An arched doorway stands tall on one side of the room, and around it hang green and purple wreaths that remind me of peacock tails.
As I was listening to my footsteps echoing in the large room, I feel someone’s gaze upon me. I look in that direction. There is a large recess in the wall where they have installed a reception desk of sorts, but it’s also made of stone, and bedecked with gilded motifs of flowers and vines. A curved wall of screens is obscuring partially the sight of the person standing behind them. When I realize that the screens, which are too slim, paper-like, are floating in the air as if mounted on invisible displays, I face that nothing like that would have been possible in my previous world. I’m either in another dimension, or in the future. Either way, I’ve reached a whole new reality.
The person behind the wall of screens, a woman, says something, and it takes me a moment to realize that I just heard my name but pronounced with a strange accent. My legs are trembling as I approach the desk. The woman stands on the other side of the desk in a way that the back of the screens don’t hide her. It’s a human being. I had feared she wouldn’t be. Her skin is peanut brown, but her eyes are much darker. She’s pretty, beautiful even, the kind of attractive woman they would want to greet the clients at a hotel lobby. She’s wearing two round earrings that remind me of the sun, and she’s also wearing a long-sleeve, crimson dress made of a velvety fabric. The torso of the dress is covered in intricate, gilded motifs of blossoming flowers. I feel as if I entered the most expensive hotel in the world.
The woman smiles with perfect teeth, and pushes a hemispherical device over the counter towards me. It’s about the size of a fingertip. The woman gestures for me to pick it up and press it against the skin behind my ear. I saw Chieko wearing an identical device behind her ear, which I had confused with a wart. I obey the woman. As soon as I press the device against my skin, it latches on painlessly, and then something alien flows throughout my brain. I stagger, and I step back until my legs hold me properly. I feel as if my mind were larger, as if it suddenly held more content, but the experience is painless and unobtrusive.
“Do you understand me?” the woman asks, now lacking any accent.
I snap my head back. Only a couple of seconds later I realize that I’m standing there with my mouth agape. I feel tears coming.
“Y-yes! I understand perfectly!”
The woman offers me a kind smile.
“Welcome to our present. You are now in one of the offices of the SFPT. Can you confirm for me, just in case, that you are Izar Uriarte?”
“Yeah,” I say as I wipe a tear from my right eye. I want to sob. “W-what’s your name?”
“Why, I’m Garima.”
“Garima… I’m so pleased that we can understand each other. For a moment I thought I would be trapped in a strange world without being able to make myself understood.”
The woman chuckles softly, and then points at the identical device latched on to the skin behind her ear.
“We aren’t born knowing every other language, Izar. That’s why we have technology. In case you lose your translator, just come here or to any of our other offices and we’ll give you a new one. I’m sure that random people would also help you in that case, maybe lend you one.”
I’m overwhelmed. My legs are weakening, my throat closing.
“This is a miracle,” I mumble.
“You will get used to it, dear. I already notified your representative, Chieko Sekiguchi. Very nice girl, I’m sure she’ll be eager to show you our town. You can just walk around for a while if you want. We have a beautiful waiting room beyond that doorway.”
“Y-you have welcomed many others, right?”
“Dear, I don’t know how many. I hope I’m being cordial enough, even though I’ve had the same conversations over and over.”
My mind is going numb. The animal part of my brain is having trouble integrating what’s happening, or maybe it’s trying to push me out of it, as if it has assumed that I’m hallucinating. Garima keeps staring at me calmly. She must have seen it before and it’s nothing to worry about.
“Sit somewhere. Do you have to go to the bathroom?”
“N-no, I’m fine.”
I teeter away towards the arched doorway, and I pass under the hanging wreaths of green and purple flowers. I avoid looking over my shoulder, because I fear that I’m about to break into uncontrollable sobbing.

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.

Thirty Euros, Pt. 1 (Fiction)

I’m woken up by the same alarm that has dragged me out from the oblivion of sleep this past week: the blithe voices of children, the footsteps of passersby, the conversations of people who met on the square and wanted to share details about their lives. And I exist at the periphery of all these moments, a speck smaller than all of them.
I sit upright on the bench. The dirty blanket slides down my torso. At least the coat kept me warm enough, because the nights will only get chillier and chillier. And then I’m hit with the same pangs of hunger that I’ve needed to get used to recently. I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday at midday, when I managed to snatch some half-eaten food that a family had left at the outside table of a restaurant. At least the waitress didn’t shout at me.
I rub my eyes, and when I blink the sleep away, I catch an old woman giving me a look of pity as she passes by. Even though it must be around nine and a half in the morning, there are already a good amount of children playing happily in the playground at the center of this square, under the supervision of their relatives. I must be an uncomfortable sight, but at least people pay me as much attention as to the garbage bins. While I like that most people ignore me, it’s unlikely for anyone to throw money my way when they’d prefer I didn’t exist.
I have woken up tired for years, but never as exhausted as when I abandoned my boyfriend’s apartment last Thursday. It’s like my brain never shuts off entirely at night, maybe because some part of myself needs to remain alert in case some marauder realizes that I’m a woman. I don’t want to imagine what some of the night crawlers in this rotten world would do to me, but I can’t help but picture those things anyway.
After I pee in the public bathroom close to the imposing cathedral, one of the main reasons I’ve stuck around this area of Gros, I return to my bench and set up my piece of cardboard. If I’m very lucky, some of the many strangers that walk through this square will throw enough coins my way that I’ll be able to eat some breakfast, far enough from other customers that they won’t smell my stink.
As I wait, my mind insists on torturing me with pointless worries. For example, how many of these mornings I’ll have to endure before I manage to write another word, and whether the words that I write will be published this time. I don’t know if I’ll be able to eat today, and I haven’t written anything in a year and a half. Still, that’s what my broken brain focuses on. I have no business continuing in this world, and yet I go on. Is it the same for the veterans, the other homeless that barely remember having lived in an apartment? Do they also wish to disappear, to finally be freed from the involuntary effort of being?
Around an hour and a half later I’ve only gotten three coins of twenty cents. My stomach keeps gurgling, my throat is parched, my saliva tastes like cat breath. I hear footsteps much closer than the other passersby dare to come, and when I lift my gaze, it falls on a woman in her mid twenties who is approaching me with determination. Her long, apple red hair is flowing in the breeze, and both her facial features as well as her slanted eyes evidence that she’s Asian. Plenty of Asians have settled in the Basque Country, mostly Chinese, but this one looks fancier, like those Japanese girls that I saw in videos as they walked around the futuristic streets of Tokyo. She’s wearing a striped, red, navy and white scoop neck sweater, as well as a black pleated skirt that covers her knees. She’s holding a book with her right hand, but with the other she’s holding the strap of a small backpack. When she stops a few steps away, making it obvious that she came for me, I want to hang my head low. She looks so young and full of life. Although I want to ask her to leave me be, maybe she’s a tourist and will consider that throwing some coins my way is her good deed of the day.
I can tell she’s about to speak to me, but I’m stunned by the familiarity in her kind eyes and the slightly raised corner of her mouth, which reveals a dimple under a prominent cheek. That’s not the way you look at a stranger.
“Uh… Hello,” I say with a dry, weak voice.
The girl nods as she drops her gaze to my piece of cardboard. Her sympathetic expression makes me uncomfortable, and it’s the first time that anyone has regarded me as a full human being since I stopped living in an apartment last week.
“That doesn’t look like much. Will you be able to eat some breakfast?”
Her voice is lively and achingly young-sounding, but I’m surprised by the lack of accent. She must have been living in this area for a long time, or was even born here. Perhaps her parents are Basque and she was adopted.
“Not yet, no,” I say ashamedly. “But I might get lucky yet.”
She’s shaking her head as she smiles.
“And what if it doesn’t happen today?”
I can’t help but furrow my brow. What’s this woman’s deal?
“It will. I just need a little more time.”
The woman grins, showing perfectly-shaped white teeth with prominent canines. I would have expected teeth like those in a Hollywood movie, but not belonging to someone who would interact with me.
“I love that you retain hope! It’s important to keep your spirits up.”
“Yeah, it is,” I agree while trying to hide my embarrassment. “I don’t think I would be able to speak one word if I had run out of it. So… did you want to make me feel better at this hour of the morning?”
“I do want to make you feel better, for sure, but not as a random stranger would! My name is Chieko.”
For a moment I wonder if I should have a name, living in the streets.
“Ah… I’m Izar.”
“Chieko Sekiguchi. That’s how you call me.”
She holds out her hand. I hesitate, but I shake it, and she squeezes it warmly.
“I like your name,” she says. “It’s so nice to meet a writer.”
I’m shocked. She knows me, or at least what I have done.
“I like your books, too,” Chieko continues. “Your stories are very beautiful.”
Maybe I should feel better, appreciate that someone who knew I existed and who had taken time to read some of my stories bothered to approach me and treat me with such warmth, but I’m ashamed of having fallen this low, of having become a non-entity. My life is over. Nobody should be interested in hearing about me anymore.
Although I feel light-headed, I stand up so I can face this Chieko like a human being. My legs are already tired. I’m slightly taller than her. I don’t want to stand too close, because my breath must stink.
“Thank you, Chieko,” I say as I try to keep my voice steady. “I wouldn’t expect anyone to pay such attention to me. I suppose it can’t be more obvious that I’m doing poorly, huh…?”
“You don’t look bad at all! I mean it!” she says, and she beams at me like an angel. “Are you hungry?”
I nod.
“Let’s go find someplace where we can eat breakfast together,” Chieko adds.
She’s already turning, but I shake my hands to gesture that she shouldn’t worry. I try to smile, but my lips refuse to obey.
“No, that’s okay. I’m sure I’ll end up getting enough money to grab a bite.”
Chieko’s bright smile falters. She hadn’t expected me to resist her offer.
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be glad to treat you!” she says. “I’ll buy us both something to eat.”
“I’ll be fine.”
I sit down dismissively. Chieko tilts her head as if she’s trying to comprehend why I’m refusing.
“Aren’t those coins, less than a euro, all the money you have? Haven’t you slept on this bench?”
I shrug and nod. My stomach grumbles again as if chastising me.
“I don’t need your help, Chieko, or anybody else’s beyond the money some will throw my way. I appreciate that you’ve read the stuff I’ve written, but that doesn’t mean much right now.”
“No, it doesn’t. But I still want to help.”
Chieko’s eyes shine with compassion and understanding. I lower my head.
“I’ll figure something out. Please… leave me alone.”
She doesn’t leave. My gaze remains fixed on the pavement between her legs. She’s wearing garnet red tennis shoes, which don’t match well with her black pleated skirt, but they look expensive. I can tell she will stand there until I address her again, so I sigh and lift my gaze. Chieko is smiling.
“You are a beautiful person, Izar. I wish you the best, and that you will be able to do what you want.”
“You are a stranger. I’m not sure how you’ve ended up reading my books, as they didn’t reach that many people, but I’m not the person you believe me to be. And if you truly want me to be able to do what I wish, you need to leave me alone.”
“So you can rot by your lonesome, is that it?”
I couldn’t have looked more bitter. Chieko laughs affectionately as if trying to make me smile, but I refuse. She then shows me the cover of the book she was holding. It’s one of mine.
“You wrote this!”
I avert my gaze. I couldn’t feel more distanced from the version of me who struggled the whole way through, until a publishing company printed my stories and delivered them to bookstores.
“Yes,” I mutter. “I did.”
“Come on! You are still the person who wrote it. You are not as bad as you think.”
I take a deep breath, then rub my eyes. I don’t want to face her cheerful expression.
“Chieko… You are annoying me. I beg you, please let me rot in peace.”
“Nope! You shouldn’t be here, Izar. A prodigy like you shouldn’t be sleeping in the streets.”
I’m getting dizzy, both from the hunger and the anger that’s building up.
“You’re right. I should not be here. I’m going home.”
I stand up and start walking away from her, abandoning the few coins I’ve gotten so far, hoping that I’ll be able to come back for them, but Chieko steps forward and grabs my hand. I’m too stunned to speak.
“I know you won’t return to your boyfriend’s place. You expect me to walk away, and in a while you’ll come back and you’ll either continue to sit here, hoping that kind strangers will give you enough money so you can eat, or you’ll move to some other square in case I choose to come by again.”
“How do you…?”
This Chieko appeared out of nowhere holding one of my books, and she knows that I lived with my boyfriend. She hasn’t come across me by coincidence. But how would she know about those private details of my life? I never became famous enough that people would pry into my life like that.
“You are right,” I say somberly. “I can’t go home. I have nothing left.”
Chieko offers me an understanding smile.
“Because that boyfriend of yours cheated, didn’t he?”
My eyes widen. Chieko’s expression manifests that she’s aware that she shouldn’t know that information, but that she’ll open up if I give her the opportunity.
“Yes,” I confirm. “He did. He’s a bastard. He fucked several women, and I had enough. Who the hell are you, Chieko?”
“I’m your friend, Izar. You’re not alone anymore.”
My nostrils dilate. I feel as if she’s pressing the tip of a knife against my belly.
“Hey, let me buy you some breakfast, alright?” Chieko insists. “You’ll need all the strength you can get.”

We don’t have to walk far. At the end of the large square, passing by the side of the cathedral, we cross the stone-paved, one-lane road. Chieko points at the outside seating area set up in a roundabout. It’s separated from the adjoined road by glass panels, and the tables are covered by patio umbrellas. The morning light is bathing the glass panels in gold.
“I think this is where we should eat,” Chieko says, smiling. “It looks very inviting.”
“It does, for sure. Not only too expensive for what I could afford in my circumstances: they also wouldn’t like me as a customer.”
Chieko pats me on the back of my coat. I narrow my shoulders.
“But you are with me, so that’s okay! I look quite fancy, don’t I?” she says. “And it will be much cheaper than a regular restaurant. Come, sit down, and let’s have breakfast together.”
I choose a table distanced from the two couples that are enjoying their coffees. I worry about them smelling my stink, as well as glancing at me. Once a chair supports my weight, I realize that Chieko, who has sat down in front of me, is looking up at the nearby cathedral. As she has her head turned, I notice a wart-like protuberance behind her ear, but I had just realized that it was made of a plastic-like material when Chieko turns her head towards me again.
“You aren’t from here, are you?” I ask her.
“Because I’m Asian?”
“Because you keep looking around as if you haven’t seen this part of the city before.”
Chieko smiles mischievously.
“You’re right. You are good at noticing things. That’s your nature as a writer, I’m sure.”
“Any regular person would have been able to figure that out.”
I was about to ask her about her lack of accent, but a waiter approaches us. I can barely look at him in the face, because anyone can tell that I’m homeless. Chieko assures me that I can order whatever I want, and this being a restaurant as well as a bar, I take advantage of my mysterious new friend and I order a coffee with milk, as well as a plate of Iberian ham and two eggs. Chieko giggles, and orders a cappuccino for herself. Once the waiter leaves, I keep my mouth closed for a few seconds. I’m salivating too much and I might end up drooling.
“Anyway, Chieko, I want to clarify something,” I say. “I’m not a prodigy. I never was.”
“Maybe you think too little of yourself.”
“That’s not true. I was a precocious child, sure, and I wrote almost every day, but it had little to do with talent and more with my wish to escape into my daydreams. It just happens that when my father sent that manuscript, the idea of a thirteen years old girl who managed to publish a book was a notion that they could sell to the newspapers. And he worked in the industry anyway.”
“Yes, I remember. It was quite popular, and even got some awards.”
I squint towards the sun, letting it warm my weary face. Its warmth feels so different now that I can anticipate a proper, even excessive breakfast.
“Isn’t it true that all the cells in a human body get replaced in around seven years? I haven’t been that young girl for a long time.”
Chieko smiles as if humoring me, highlighting her dimples.
“You’re right. In fact, you don’t look like someone of twenty seven. You look younger than me, I have to admit.”
“Very funny. I look very aged for my thirty one, and it’s going to worsen now that I live in the streets.”
I smell my plate of Iberian ham and eggs before it arrives. Once the waiter places it in front of me, its aroma makes me want to cry. I hurry to dip bread into the runny egg. The taste explodes in my mouth. I’ve never eaten something so delicious. I close my eyes and let the taste linger. I had almost forgotten who granted me this breakfast, and when I open my eyes, Chieko is sipping her cappuccino. Her expression has turned serious.
“I’m sorry for what happened with your boyfriend.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Chieko. Nobody forced him to cheat on me. And it wasn’t the first time, either. I forgave him last year because… I couldn’t afford not to, I suppose. I hoped to write again, and I can’t go back to working in an office. I couldn’t stand it. But this time, I had enough. Of him, of my parents, of struggling… So that’s that. I left his place, and I will never go back.”
Chieko puts her cappuccino down. I don’t know how much time passes before she speaks again, but I’ve kept busy savoring the salty ham.
“But you mustn’t give up on writing,” she says. “I have faith in you. You’ll be fine.”
“Let me ask you something: do you write, Chieko? Are you a creative person?”
Chieko licks some coffee foam from her upper lip, and looks at the building front to our left as if trying to remember.
“I suppose anyone would consider me a creative person, although I’m going through a dry spell at the moment. I’ve never technically written anything, in that sense at least.”
I gulp down some of my warm coffee. I was feeling like crap this morning, but I can hardly be more grateful towards this rich-looking stranger who has bought me a tasty breakfast.
“Then let me tell you something: people who romanticize writers might as well romanticize peeing in bottles and keeping a collection of them. That was a compulsion. I did it because my father was too busy with his job as a publisher to care for me, and when my parents’ marriage fell apart and the both of them abandoned me, I needed to escape to those fantasies. That was all it was: my inability to deal with reality in a healthy manner.”
Chieko looks down at the table as if saddened, but then she holds my gaze and narrows her slanted eyes.
“You said was. Was a compulsion. Do you intend to never write again?”
I was prepared to confirm it, but I stutter instead. I feel as if I was about to give up on breathing. But I hadn’t lied nor exaggerated about the role that writing played for me.
“Chieko… I have been writing since I was a girl. They published that silly book when I was thirteen. Even that story was about me escaping from my troubled parents and living in the woods among magical creatures. I’ve published maybe six or seven books afterwards, I can’t quite remember now, and each of them sold fewer copies the older I got. I have a single story to tell: that of wanting to escape from a life in which I am unhappy. There are only so many ways you can portray the same brokenness. And… are you aware of my issues with my parents once I grew up? You knew about me living with my boyfriend, so I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Yes, I knew. Your father betrayed your mother and left her for another woman. Then both of them betrayed you, as they focused on their new families. You were pushed to the sidelines. They shouldn’t have treated you like that.”
My throat feels dry, but I can drink some more coffee.
“You must be my number one fan, Chieko.”
She giggles. This girl looks so carefree that along with her clothes and perfect teeth, I wouldn’t be surprised if either she or her family are millionaires. I better hold on to this one.
“No, that’s an honor reserved to someone else I got to know to some extent. But I’ve gone over your stuff, learned about your background, and… came to care about you. Which is why I couldn’t let you rot in the streets, could I?”
“I appreciate that, Chieko. I really do. But if you care for me as a writer, you’ve met me at the worst time of my life, because the notion of pushing myself to delve into creating fiction again makes me nauseous. Producing those books involved me delving into a personal hell, only to come out scarred further by the experience. You could say that at least other people got some enjoyment out of reading the result, but what does it matter at the end of the day? I never sold enough copies that I could write for a living, and my experience working in offices solidified that I was too broken to survive in the real world. I needed someone to pay for my expenses. That first time he cheated on me… I suppose that although I had expected people to betray me like my parents did, I had held on to the hope that this one person wouldn’t. Afterwards, even though I stayed with him, I did it because I didn’t want to struggle on my own. I couldn’t love someone like that anymore. But what I can’t take are the constant betrayals over and over, knowing that the person who is supposed to care for you, love you even, goes out to screw other women only to come back home and smile at you as if he wasn’t stabbing you in the gut. Everybody has their breaking point, and last Thursday I discovered mine. I stopped caring, not only about that cheating son of a bitch but about myself, about the future, and whatever could happen to me. And I tell you all this because you seem to believe that it was a great thing that I wrote those books. After so many years of pain, of squeezing so many tears out of these weary eyes, I found myself on the streets with only thirty euros to my name. I wasn’t worth anything else.”
“I don’t think that’s true, Izar Uriarte.”
I sigh, but I appreciate her support, as well as the egg that my stomach is digesting.
“Of course you don’t, you are the image of hope. I can’t imagine anything bad happening to you. Anyway, those thirty euros are gone. I didn’t even get to spend them all, because someone stole my last ten euros note, or I lost it.”
Although I laugh nervously, Chieko stares at me as if she’s about to ask me something important.
“So then,” she says, “you have nothing left, no money, and you’ve given up on writing.”
“Yes, exactly.”
“What are you going to do from now on?”
“I was thinking about staying in Donostia and begging.”
Chieko tilts her head and purses her lips.
“So do you intend on being a homeless woman for the rest of your life?”
“Probably. I can’t think of anything better to do. I guess I’ll find out how that goes.”
I smile, but I feel my throat choking up. I lower my head. I feel the warmth of Chieko’s hand as she takes mine, that I was resting on the table, and she squeezes it gently.
“I don’t think that’ll go very well for you, Izar,” she says.
I wipe my eyes.
“I don’t care. I guess that… I have given up. Can you blame me? I can’t even blame myself. I’m sick of all of it.”
Chieko looks at me with sympathetic eyes.
“Wouldn’t you prefer to go somewhere else?”
“Somewhere else where? Where is there a place for me?”
Chieko rests her face on her palms. She has finished her coffee, but she seems content with witnessing how I take my time with my breakfast.
“You can’t stay in the streets of Donostia forever.”
I finish my second egg. Chieko seems to be waiting for me to come up with a plan for my future.
“Whether I can or not,” I start, “it might do me some good to finally be alone for a while. Everyone I’ve given my heart to has betrayed me. I guess it’s time to learn the appropriate lesson, don’t you think?”
Chieko shifts in her chair. A car goes around the roundabout, the noise of its engine splashing against the glass panel that separates the outside tables from the road.
“Didn’t you enjoy travelling the world back when you were much younger, with your parents?” she asks.
I guess that information has appeared in some press note.
“I did, actually. I was happy with them, and I felt safe, before I knew what they were going to do. I was naïve, as a child who daydreams about magical beings can be. I didn’t know anything about the world back then, nor about how people work. In any case, are you suggesting that I should travel the world again?”
Chieko smiles at me, and despite my mood, that bright face makes me want to believe in something better.
“Maybe you should,” Chieko says.
I eat the last bit of Iberian ham, and savor it carefully. I can’t rely on Chieko paying for my next breakfast.
“I think I’m done with adventures,” I answer. “And I need to be alone.”
Chieko leans back on the chair and stares as if daring me to hold her gaze. I can’t get over how red her hair is. It looks too good to have been dyed, but I have never bothered to look into such matters.
“Would you have been happier in another era of this world?” she asks.
I don’t know what to say. If she had asked me that question when I was thirteen, I would have answered without hesitation.
“I feel too old for such hypothetical questions.”
“You’re thirty one years old, Izar Uriarte. You can’t afford to be afraid of the future, not to the extent that you won’t prepare for it.”
I sigh.
“I guess you have paid enough to lecture me… Well, do you actually want to know if I would have been happier in another era?”
“Yes, I do. So, if you could choose an era of this world, or of humanity’s presence in it more accurately, for you to live in, which would you choose?”
“Probably the Renaissance.”
Chieko smiles playfully.
“What’s so great about the Renaissance?”
“Well, there was the invention of the printing press, a huge step forward. And I would have preferred living during the golden age of chivalry, as opposed to the iron age of capitalism.”
“You are Joan of Arc material, aren’t you?” Chieko says with amusement. “The Renaissance was a very different time.”
“I’m just saying that it might have been better. I would have had a more appreciative audience.”
Chieko leans on her elbows as she smiles at me.
“It would be nice, wouldn’t it? To disappear from here?”
I sense a fatalistic tone, or maybe I’m imagining it, but I want to clarify the point.
“I don’t want to die, Chieko. I wish I hadn’t ended up like this.”
“Then you shouldn’t have given up on your life.”
I shrug, then slouch on the chair.
“What’s done is done. Besides, I’m going to end up dead sooner or later anyway.”
“It’s going to be sooner. This current existence of yours doesn’t have a future.”
“Well, I prefer this one over the others.”
“Because it’s mine.”
Chieko crosses her arms, her first defensive gesture. She seems to have come to a conclusion.
“If you think you are done, will you follow me? I can offer you some other place.”
“What kind of place?”
“You’ll see. It involves a certain amount of trust, although I know that will be hard for you.”
I feel a sudden coldness on my skin. Chieko is still smiling, but she has become a bit more solemn.
“You are enough of a fan that you wouldn’t want me to be homeless, I understand that. But what is your intention with all of this? You searched for me and approached me deliberately.”
“You’re right,” Chieko answers calmly. “I had a purpose in approaching you, and I still do, Izar Uriarte. I intend to preserve your life, and your talent.”
“Do you mean preventing me from dying in the streets?”
“Yes. Because in less than a week you’ll be a bloated corpse floating in the Urumea river.”
I stare at her in disbelief.
“You are… one odd person, Chieko.”
“I don’t know if I’m odd, but I think you’ll like what I have to offer. If you really want to live, then it’s better to go with me now.”
Chieko gets up from her chair and looks behind me, probably to signal the waiter for the bill. I’m confused, but I stand up as well and rub my cheeks.
“I will follow you then, if only because you are more likely to feed me than any of those strangers.”
“I thought you were going to say something like that,” Chieko says with a smile. “Let’s get out of here.”