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A Vague Trace

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the last time I held a sand dollar, it spun a sound

 

The chalk falls to the floor.

“Mr. Bux?”

For a long time, he stares at the smooth green expanse of the chalkboard, his hand hovering in the air as though frozen in place. The small stick of chalk rolls about a bit over the cherry tiles before gently landing against the worn sole of his left sneaker. The blue of his eyes is distant, clouded and unapproachable, as though weathering storms that rage inside of his skull.

“Mr. Bux?” the teacher prompts again. He squints at his student through thick black glasses and steps forward. “Are you feeling alright?”

The teenagers titter in the back rows.

It is like this, with his breath caught in his throat and the muffled sounds of his professor questioning him, with the chalk against his shoe and the clogged taste of dust tingling in his mouth, and the green board looking like an endless plain of flowing grass upon a prairie in a land far away, that Bastian wonders if he should seek help.

“Mr. Bux? If you—“

“I’m fine,” he says, and picks up the chalk. He draws the loopy answer to the problem—a 42 scrawled over the Grassy Ocean.

 

like all the children of Manhattan blinked at once

 

“Do you think Larbargar is going to give us our tests back?”

“I’m not sure,” Bastian says. He is busy studying the limp lettuce hanging out of his homemade sandwich. Although his dad has been more spending time than ever with him, he still has to work in the mornings—and that means Bastian does the foraging for his own food. “It depends, I guess.”

“Yeah. It depends on whether he’s an ass.”

Bastian laughs, still intently picking at his sandwich.

“Stop messing with that,” his friend says, kicking him lightly under the table. “You have awful table manners, Bux.”

He finally looks up, ready to flash a grin and say something—

—and he’s looking at him through the frozen glass, his breath close enough to fog the mirror’s surface, but not enough to hide his face, never his face, those olive-skinned features and the dark flicker of his eyes, the slope of his nose, the words hovering on his lips as they open, take in the cold and frigid air, and it’s so cold that Bastian can’t feel his fingers when they clench the cover of the old book in his hands, so cold that the snow has turned the boy in the mirror’s charcoal hair a freckled white, and there’s something spilling into the air between them, a soft and strong voice—

‘Bastian.’

“Bastian?”

He starts. Tries to process the sudden rush of sound through his ears, the screaming of the lunchroom. Across from him, his friend is staring—and between them, in the air, Bastian’s hand is stretched out as though reaching for the tanned line of his throat.

Feeling his face flush, he drops it. He swallows and looks at his sandwich.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” he says, and it’s not the truth of the matter, but he has lost the eloquence of words that once plagued him. There is no use in telling a story that no one wants to hear.

 

and their eyelashes were gilded gold

 

He skips the swim team practice for the third time in the past two weeks. Soon they'll be calling his father. Over time, Mr. Bux has gotten accustomed to Bastian's strange habits—the slightly absentminded quality of his son’s speech, the towers of books that have infested every corner of the house, the readiness in which Bastian will believe anything, anything at all, that’s told to him. But there are still lines drawn in the sand. He’ll want to know why Bastian suddenly can’t stand the sight of the school pool.

Bastian wonders if he should say something. Sorry, Dad. It’s just kind of a teenage rebellion kinda thing, that’s all. Oh, that and whenever I look into the pool, I see the Silver City winking back at me.

He’s double-checked with the bookstore. The Neverending Story is calm, peaceful. It has no need of its late hero again. Although, Bastian’s beginning to wonder, maybe he has need of it.

At the swim team practice, they’d be doing laps right now. Bastian goes to the park and fiercely ignores the whispers of the birds above his head, the caws that turn into sighs, the feathers that fall from the branches as if to frame his path to glory. He breaks away and runs, trying to leave it behind him, pretending not to see anymore. His heart pounds in his chest. He’s not sure if he’s terrified or excited, and not sure if either one would be the correct response in a crisis like this.

All his bedcovers smell like tanned leather and horse. If he tries hard enough and closes his eyes, Bastian can pretend he’s not going insane.

 

and in my fingers, it surged to the sea

 

Really, it must have begun with Atreyu. All things, Bastian has been finding, start with and lead back to Atreyu. In that way, he is like AURYN—what originally bites is bitten in return, what grants wishes takes from your mind, and you always find that what you hold isn’t a symbol but the fragility of your own heart. With Atreyu, all things seem possible and yet no question is answered. For a long time after the beginning, Bastian had wondered if Atreyu was a mirror image of himself, and after that, if he was bonded with Bastian in more than friendship; perhaps some odd thread of fate that tied them together. Bastian thinks about the grace of his friend’s limbs when he swings up on Artax, thinks about the clarity of his eyes, the emotions that would heave his chest like his heart was too heavy to withstand them.

Not a part of Bastian, then—too different, too fantastic. Atreyu is everything that Bastian could have wished to become, in the beginning. In the end, now, coming back in full circle, with these visions plaguing him and the brush of grass against his ankles when there should be nothing but concrete sidewalk under his sneakers, now Atreyu is everything that Bastian could have—

When he dreams at night, sometimes Bastian wakes up and feels like he’s swallowing foreign words. There’s sweat beading on his collarbone. A story vanishes in his head, along with the smooth softness of skin of another color. He stays awake for hours, concentrating on the evenness of his breath, pretending to forget and pretending it doesn’t matter. Sometimes he hates Atreyu, those nights. The poison, raw and weeping, only melts with the morning sun.

Sometimes Bastian wonders which earth child dreamt up Atreyu—who was the imaginative soul that created him and put his existence into place in the Grassy Plains? Who thought up the arrows, the brave edge to a smile, the fluid gestures that plague Bastian’s sleep at night?

Sometimes Bastian wonders if it was him—some fierce, joyous wish he’d long ago forgotten upon waking.

 

gently knitting together the story, pages on pages

 

“We should talk,” Mr. Bux tells his son, glancing over the glass of orange juice he’s pouring. If Bastian tilts his head up, the sunlight from the window hits the counter in a glare and he doesn’t have to look at his father’s face. He lets the image last a bit longer; the blurred, tranquil feeling distracts him from the concern so plain in those eyes.

“That’s fine,” he says.

Mr. Bux puts the orange juice back in the fridge. “We just don’t talk as much anymore. That’s all. We used to talk all the time, but lately you’ve been…”

He trails off and doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t have to. Bastian knows. With some degree of detachment, he feels sorry for worrying his dad. But the biscuits on the table have recently turned into limestone rocks when he wasn’t looking and now, fingers wrapped around gritty stone, he can’t find the proper words.

“I’m a Rock Biter now,” Bastian says, weakly.

“What?”

“Dad, I think I’m gay.”

It’s just as well he didn’t add, I think I’m going crazy, too, because there’s only so much Mr. Bux can take in a day and they only have so many glasses to break before there aren’t any left.

 

the last of the whispers spent on words for the wise

 

Bastian expects that any day now, he’ll look up and see Falkor swooping through the clouds instead of American Airlines. It’s just a matter of time. He takes to hiding in the bookshop or his bedroom, skipping school on the worst days, but Fantasia is finding him everywhere—there is no mercy.

“I don’t understand why,” he tells the bookshop owner. The man only smiles, huffs on his pipe, and asks if Bastian prefers a happy ending.

Sometimes he sees a flash of olive-green and brown from the corner of his eye, only to turn and see a mirror. Sometimes he imagines there’s someone watching carefully, a steady gaze centered between his shoulder blades. I’m here, it says, insistent, soothing. I’m here, all you need to do is call my name. You of all people should know the power of names, Bastian.

It’s not fear that stops him. Bastian has learned a long time ago that names are powerful things, but he also knows that they can only create, never destroy.

No, what stops him is the hope.

 

a thousand deceptions, one million sighs

 

What is my purpose, if not this, Bastian? Low, quiet, the sort of voice that cajoles beasts and puts men to their knees, the sort of voice that Bastian reaches for beyond the boundaries only to find nothing but desert. He wakes up with the heat of the sun on his shoulders, a blistering red scattered across his neck and nose.

At breakfast, he spills the milk.

When he opens the front door, there is a single arrowhead on the welcome mat.

 

a gift box of despair, cloaked

 

“I know what you’re trying to tell me,” Bastian says to the book. He won’t open it. Doesn’t dare. Through his bedroom window, he can see into the neighbor’s yard, their yapping dog and the splintered fence that barely holds him. In the bedroom, there’s only silence and this. “I figured it out a long time ago. The answer is no.”

There isn’t any wind today. But Bastian feels something brush his cheek.

He sits for a long time, waiting for the gesture to repeat. When nothing happens, Bastian puts the book away and feigns sleep, even if no one is there to call him on it. He wonders if that was goodbye, somehow.

In his chest, the Emptiness gnaws like a dog.

 

in the things you daren’t dream of

 

When Bastian dreams of his mother, she smells even better than she did in real life and never scolds him for doodling in the margins of his picture books. She’s beautiful and soft and kind. She’s the vague traces of a perfect memory, the time he held something pure in his arms, something real, something that dissipates in the morning into the golden light and the spider web outside his window.

He dreams of her tonight, now that he’s lonely. Fantasia has slunk back from the shore, into the darker waters of the ocean. Now she comes to him, though, as he trembles in the dark, and takes his face in her hands.

Bastian, she says, quiet.

He closes his eyes and lets the scent of pulpy fruit overwhelm him. But where it once brought comfort, now an irrepressible sadness sweeps over Bastian. Mom, I’m sorry. I couldn’t take it.

She strokes his hair, his ears. What’s that, baby?

My happiness, Bastian whispers, and then she says something he can’t hear, a little like laughter and the sprouting seed that breaks into sunlight. When he wakes up, Bastian is alone and Atreyu is sitting on his bed.

 

in the world built up at your feet

 

“Atreyu,” Bastian says.

“It’s good to see you, my friend,” says Atreyu. He doesn’t quite smile, but there’s a gentleness to him that tells Bastian he’s happy.

Not much has changed, not really. Except where it has. Atreyu is older now, but so is Bastian, and if he put his hand to his friend’s there would be little difference beyond the dirt wedged beneath Atreyu’s fingernails. His skin is green like leaves darkening into autumn, deepening to black along the shadowed edge of his jaw and neck, where the fall of his hair overtakes his shoulders. His eyes are kind. Underneath the buckskin there are lithe muscles that wind over his body, rewards from strife and practice, a ragged bunch of scars at his exposed ribcage that Bastian doesn’t recognize. Atreyu is at once the man he’d always been in spirit, but unearthly, or perhaps of the earth entirely too much. He is beautiful and strong. He is not what Bastian would become, but all he could have.

It is good to see him, Bastian realizes. For all his trepidations, it is good to see his friend and put a name to him again.

“Why are you doing this?” asks Bastian, not because he’s upset but because the answer is elusive. Atreyu exhales and it’s real, it’s here, it’s warmth skittering over the slope of Bastian’s nose.

“You made a wish.”

“I don’t have AURYN anymore.”

“It is not AURYN,” Atreyu says, “that grants it.”

And that is a thousand times more terrifying, somehow, that no power holds Atreyu here but what he and Bastian have created. Some spun message, a web, an entangled series of longings unspoken and rarely given awareness. Maybe he’d been careless. Atreyu is too solid to be a dream. Another story, Bastian thinks suddenly—they’re always in this neverending story and a part of the tales. All the universe with its meanings, with its little powers, given by the mere act of existing. Stories upon stories. Atreyu leaning forward to slide his fingers across Bastian’s cheekbone.

“I can’t,” whispers Bastian.

“Then don’t,” Atreyu answers, his scent like the mud of the sorrows, and Bastian meets him halfway and kisses him. He tastes like the burial of Arjax, like a wild weed, and Bastian pushes him down to the bed because if he doesn’t, if he doesn’t follow, then it’s over and it can’t be. It has to be neverending. It has to be love: the final speck of light at the end of a world.

Atreyu is like a dream and also not. Bastian tells him a hundred stories, peppered over flesh with his lips and fingertips, not worshipping but warming, and each story he makes worlds on the landscape of his favorite wish.