A Stellar Flare of Young Adult Writing and Visual Art

Between Dead Worlds

hallway-867226_1280BY CONNIE GUO

Past certain concealed glass doors of a shopping center there are staircases and elevators that take you up to the second floor lobby of battered, sun-bleached buildings, and past the lobby, a long narrow hallway branches out on either side of you like a pair of thin outstretched arms. The hall is lined left and right with offices, and there’s always that same hideous red and green checkered carpet laid out at your feet, rows of blinding fluorescent lights overhead, an expanse of faceless white walls, and 80s music playing softly in the background as though it’s seeping insidiously through the ceiling tiles. Staring down the length of the corridor, it looks as though the passageway is being reflected against itself, extending outwards in dubious perpetuity.

We used to come here together. In fact, it was because of her that I ever came at all.

She liked to visit these halls on the weekends when no one was at work; most offices were left vacant, the lights dimmed behind frosted glass doors. There was a particular eeriness about the place then, something about the stillness that appealed to her. She once told me that it felt as if the air hung heavy with solemnity, that the atmosphere carried a pervading hallowed or sacred quality within it, and that, if you spoke, your words would drift, unhinged, and settle along the plain walls or sink into the cheap carpet to remain burrowed there forever.

It was in stark contrast with the world just below us, where hosts of people slid by each other on sidewalks in the sultry heat, crowding around fountains and ponds and sitting by bright yellow tables scattered outside storefronts, ducking under umbrellas of shade. Cars plugged up parking spaces and lined themselves snug against the curb like trails of gleaming metal ants.

In the upstairs offices, everything was air-conditioned austerity. We would go around reading the plaques beside doors and found that the spaces were leased to law firms, insurance companies, dermatology clinics, management offices, mortgage groups and the like. Sometimes the doors had frosted windows we could peek through to see dark, empty waiting areas illuminated only faintly by a lone entrance light. Sometimes the rooms were completely lit up, yet there would be no one posted at the counter, no one sitting at open desks and cubicles, and the place would look like an empty stage waiting for actors to slide into view to bring it to life.

Not all doors could be seen through, however, and each one of them was locked. At every visit, the first thing we’d do was to check the knobs and handles, but they remained stuck and unyielding beneath our insistent hands.

She said it was probably better that we didn’t know what was beyond them since it made it more interesting. That way we could imagine that they were entryways to different worlds. Like how she claimed that the varnished, flat paneled wooden door across from the plastic surgery office actually led to a distorted realm where people’s bodies changed shapes according to their shadow sizes throughout the day. Their shadows would be extensions of themselves, tangible filmy splotches on the ground, so whenever someone stepped on them, it would be like stepping on a leg or an arm and just as painful. She used to say that in that world, a person’s appearance depended on the quality of their shadow, so it was a common practice to groom them meticulously and handle them delicately. They often had to be properly laundered to keep out stains and blemishes, but it was a constant challenge to keep them pristine and clean, and over the years they would inevitably fray around the edges and acquire this milky grey sheen that could never be removed, a type of sickly infection or corruption.

Suspended behind another opaque door, we conjured up a world where time was erratic. There were instances where it would move slowly, languid, and each moment would be stretched out like a thick rope of taffy so that one day could last years. But time moved quickly too, so rapidly that sometimes a decade might be compressed into the time span of a second, that the moment someone blinked they might find themselves hurtling onwards into the future in a sudden dizzying rush, like a driver speeding through the rabid mass of a highway interchange, equal parts terrifying and exhilarating, until it fast forwarded too far and their life exhausted itself within a minute.

The people of that world were subjected to time’s capricious temper, its mercurial lulls and lurches; it even faltered and stopped indefinitely at undetermined intervals. I used to describe to her how you could see dogs frozen on the sidewalks in mid-step, birds dangling in the sky with partially extended wings, slanted raindrops glistening in the damp air; the moments before a first kiss or a last breath, before the spark that lit the wildfire or the bullet that started the war. A motionless interlude that came crashing down when it ended, no one the wiser.

There was a world where people were sometimes stuck in the same place their entire lives, unable, no matter how long they walked, to reach the end of the street; if they were lucky they might move a few yards, a mile or two, before they’d get tangled up again in a new place. And another world where people had to climb up ladders to get to heaven, burning in the atmosphere like flaming meteoroids if they fell, charred bodies landing in an open field. Or it might be through another set of nondescript doors that you entered an additional plane of existence where your past trailed behind you in a parade of ghosts, where people were rendered insomniacs by a fictitious disease conjured from the pervasive, hovering mass of human fears, or where people were interminably suspended in sullen anticipation, refusing to move, to cough, to stir, without instructions from a voice emanating from the sky, speaking in a soft, low drone, life stripped down until billions lived as though they inhabited a waiting room.

We went through worlds as if they were water rushing past our hands.

But it was during one of our later trips that she invented the most significant world—the one I remember clearly even now, mainly because of what she said afterwards. I didn’t it understand then and, honestly, I still don’t comprehend it. Sometimes, though, I almost thought I could.

The world was at the end of the hall to the right of the lobby, nestled behind a wide set of double doors. We could tell that no one was renting it because the plaque on the wall was blank, so she decided it was the perfect place to begin her creation.

It was a world of half-lives, she said. People lived in half-lives, in an eternal state of decay which began the moment a person was born. There was no time for living, she explained, because everyone was too busy dying. Each person came into the world with their own designated half-life of varying lengths, with ranges as far apart as five minutes to five hundred years, and after a half-life elapsed, their body would degenerate into progressively worse and worse conditions, diminishing in size and rapidly taking on chronic diseases generally associated with old age. Their existences would be slowly filed away in that manner and would atrophy to sub-human levels, never quite disappearing completely as if they were forever skimming the edges of an untouchable asymptote. The problem here, she told me, was that loved ones decayed too quickly or not quickly enough. There was always someone who would be left behind.

That was how she justified leaving me behind.

She had other excuses of course. She described how she went up to the offices once, alone, without me, just to clear her head and to think. She had already checked all the doors and thought she was alone in second floor when a man—a janitor she assumed—came out of the room with the wooden door across from the plastic surgery office. When he was out of sight, she twisted the handle, found that it yielded under her grip, and eagerly slipped inside to find a storage closet: brightly lit and crammed with cardboard boxes, slender shelves topped with papers and supplies, entirely unremarkable. She didn’t know what she expected, definitely not her worlds manifesting before her, but she was nevertheless disappointed even as she acknowledged the irrationality of her disenchantment.

The reason was difficult to relay, she insisted, claiming that it was sort of like watering pavements—when sprinklers with their little turning heads sprayed a deluge of water on the impermeable concrete sidewalks rather than the grass, letting thin sheets of precious liquid pool into stagnant puddles by the roadsides. Or she would explain that it was like grooming grass.

She told me part of the reason was because of an incident that had occurred recently, where she was sitting by the glass wall of a café, suddenly paralyzed by a numbing fear of the people around her, those faceless strangers laughing, talking, smiling, drinking, eating, gesturing, leaning towards one another like stalks of wheat bowing in the wind, utterly incomprehensible. She couldn’t shake that feeling anymore. Wherever she went, it haunted her with a touch of nausea, a distinct discomfort sharpening like a thin clear note to its climax.

Finally, she also admitted that, like in the world we made, she’d moved away from me somehow and got tangled up in a new place, and that she was stuck. She also said that I was stuck. Stuck in a better place than where she was, maybe, but still undeniably stuck.

I realize she’s right when I see her image in the halls. She trails her fingers along the smooth white walls, testing every doorknob and handle, on her tiptoes trying to peek through frosted glass.

I want to ask her if it was because I couldn’t understand or didn’t know how she felt. I want to ask her if I am allowed to hate her or if she thought she was allowed to hate me, because that’s precisely what she did. I want to ask if I should’ve saved her or if she even wanted to be saved, and if me asking this question was part of the reason I couldn’t understand in the first place.

But then she disappears. The words die and dry up in my mouth.

About the Author

Connie Guo is a 16 year old rising senior at Seven Lakes High School, located in Katy, Texas. She views writing as a medium that allows her to explore the multitudinous facets of the human condition. It is through her work that she can fully express her personal sentiments and portray the culmination of her experiences through an art form, and she greatly appreciate the power, grace, and beauty of language and the connotative subtleties that words contain.

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