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Next Year

Writing Prompt:

Once per year, you’ve attended a private party consisting of your past and future selves. This year you’re the oldest attending. As per tradition, you must give a toast.

“28, yes, this year that’s you, could you take care of 1 please? You can use the practice! Thanks.”

“Get on with the toast!”

“36, take it slow with the gin, okay? Remember you have to watch 8.”

“Oh, come on, 35 can handle it.”

36 took another swig.

“Dammit 36, you know the rules. Watch him.”

“Fine, 49, play the rules then. Get on with the toast.”

“I will, once you get 8 away from the cake, alright?”

8 quickly shuffled behind the cake, as if that would make us forget he was there. 9 and 11 too were eyeing their chances. 36 pushed himself off the chair, walked over to 8 and, with the trained grip of a father, pulled 8 back to the table. 11 turned back to me, but it took 9 another three or four seconds before he noticed my stare.

“Sorry,” 9 said. Then he sat down too.

Somewhere in the background 2 and 5 were laughing. Those young days. How the hell did they just pass by without a trace in my memory?

“Guys, can I start?”

“Sure!” 17 shouted, like I had done back when I was his age.

I sucked the air deep inside my chest. It had always looked so easy from the other side, but now, with all those faces staring at me, it felt very differently.

“Okay guys. Guys!”

The room settled and even the laughter in the back stopped. I smiled. Another breath.

“I know most of you heard this speech quite a few times before. But I know that, if you listen, you too will discover again something for yourself; something that reflects on your coming year.”

“Oh, get on with it!” shouted 36.

He was even more visibly drunk. 8 was back there again, like every year. Until 36 noticed the empty chair and turned and cursed until the cream-covered fingers froze and slowly pulled away from the cake.

36 should have known. But somehow we never learn it. Somehow we always just watch ourselves and the others just don’t quite feel real. Especially not 49, not the old one, not the one standing up there, speaking, because he will never return.

“If it has all worked right this year you have learned some lessons. And in a few minutes we will have some time to share those lessons, each one of us with the younger ones. And with all the questions that no one else wants to answer – well, come to me.”

A step forward.

“This life, our life, it has been wonderful. Every one of you, I am jealous of every one of you. Even you, 36.”

36 spoke and the younger ones did not hear, but the older ones, we all knew that he called me a “fuckwit.” We all had done it once.

“You know there are certain rules we have to follow. We have to pass the numbers on, each year to the previous one, don’t forget that, okay? Else one of us might actually have to work as a cleaner or something, alright?”

They laughed, like every year. But no one would forget. No one ever forgot.

“18, this year is your lucky year! You’ll get your first win and they’ll print an article about you in the local press. But keep it modest, okay? Don’t show off. And don’t say a word about this. I know most of you know that already, but if we were to break the silence this all would break, okay? Don’t tell a soul about this day.” I looked at 18. “Not even Angelika from the front row once she starts noticing you, okay?”

A nice tease, like every year. 18 – too cocky. She will only notice 19, when he has embarrassed himself and learned to behave. Right now 19 still feels betrayed, lied to, but he is happy at the chance to pass the joke on. He thinks it’s funny to play it on 18 since we all played it on him. She ignored him all year, even as we all told him she would swoon straight into his lap when the millions come. 19 glared at me.

“Sometimes pain is good. That is why there is no blame here. If we withheld something from you; some vital piece of information – believe me, believe the doomed one, that we did it because we know it was the right thing.”

19, he is frustrated. He’ll try to show off, buying all that stuff he shouldn’t buy. And he will throw up on himself at David’s beach party. Everyone will laugh. Everyone – only she won’t. Angelika will offer him tissues and walk him to the bathroom. And then he will know that the right woman is not the one that is nice to you, it’s the one that is nice to you – even when everyone else is not.

“Pain is good because there are lessons that words cannot teach. But also good things can bring lessons, right 28? How is it going back there? That thing you’re smelling, that’s our lovely number 1. And you have the honour to change him! 32, show him what to do, okay?”

32 grinned while making his way to the back. 1 cried when the two men, one with smooth movements and one with the shivering fingers of a bachelor, peeled 1’s clothes and finally his diaper off. 29, with a sleeping 2 in his arms, was laughing.

I waited for them to finish while some of the others turned to each other, some exchanging wisdom and most exchanging jokes. Surprising to think how, even with such a unique chance, we would still waste it with jokes.

What things would men be able to achieve if they would use all their chances to learn? If they would dare to take every shot and ask every stupid question, rather than pretend to be smarter in front of people that know they are not?

“Can we have an applause for 28?”

Laughter followed, only a few of the younger ones tried to clap.

“I have to say, I’m probably jealous of all of you. For all those things that are still ahead. Even 48, shivering here in front of me and carefully trying to remember ever word I say, even he will still have a great year. But the one I’m most jealous off, that’s certainly 28. My god, you’ll be a father! 18 has become a man – but you, 28, you’re soon a father! Just remember not to spill the beans on who it is with – we don’t want to kill all the surprises for 27, okay?”

28 was staring at 1, but I knew he heard me because I remembered hearing the same words. And back then they were not just words, they meant something much more deeper, a life change, a whole change of storyline. A baby – and suddenly, when it is real, you know that you don’t just live for yourself any more.

“35, I want to say something to you too. I want to say so many things to each of you and for most of you I want to say mostly positive things. But 35, please stay strong. Look around you here and when the moment comes, please remember the scene here and remember that life goes on, alright? There will be difficult times this year, but it is worth it to go on. Things happen that should not happen, that is, sadly, how life goes. Please don’t be upset if we don’t tell you what it is – believe me, it makes it easier that way. And 36, the two of us have a little chat after this, alright?”

They both nodded, but they both didn’t mean it.

“But I’m not standing here to say sad words. I suppose it should be a goodbye, but when you come here you’ll all realise how many things we would like to say and how many things we regret not saying earlier. The thing is that we are lucky. We are probably the luckiest man alive, to have this opportunity to meet one another. Each year we get this unique chance to learn and to teach – not anyone, but ourselves. Each of you, remember the words that you were told last year. Yes, even you 5. Remember the words you were told – not the exact words, but what they meant and how they changed your life this last year. And then make sure to pass them on to the next one that will need them.”

This time nearly everyone nodded, even 36, just the young ones and 30 were somewhere else with their minds.

“The thing is, whatever makes us come here, it is a wonder. It is a pleasure. It is an incredible gift and I am glad that we have received it. This life was so precious, with all the love we received and all the love we had the chance to give.”

“But I have to admit, there is just one thing I always missed. I know we are free and you all know to keep the advice vague enough not to spoil the excitement – but still it was strange, all these years, to always know what would come next. Isn’t that crazy? While all the people around us live with nothing more than their eyes to watch out for speeding cars, we all had one another, each watching out for the younger one and making sure that the year would work out well.”

More nods. And, even for those that heard the speech so many times – silence and pure attention, the same attention for words that I too had felt every year on my birthday and only ever one other day, when she was lying there, surrounded by wood and pillows and her sisters stood at the front, to the left of the altar, with tears in their eyes, to tell a room full of people, but, really, just me, how much she had loved the kids and me.

“You know, all those years I looked up to the stage, to 49, fearing that age. And a few hours ago I still dreaded this moment, to return home, wake up, and suddenly not be sure any more of what will follow. I was so scared of coming here that I was desperately trying to stay awake – but I guess you all see how that turned out.”

This time the laugh was dry. Fear dries the throat.

“The thing is, now that I’m here and looking at all of you – I have to say I’m not afraid any more.”

I spread my arms and raised my voice, unconsciously shouting the last word. “I’m actually excited.”

“I know you think I’m crazy, but you know what, I think it will be interesting not to know where I will go or which mistakes I will make. I mean, you all think I will die – but, really, do we know? Maybe I just can’t return here any longer!”

41 turned his head to 32, whispering “I think he’s gone mad.” Just like I did back then.

“So there is just one toast I want to give this year. It is a toast that will mean something different to each of us. It will mean something different for each of you, considering what was and what will come. Let us drink a toast then.”

They all raised their arms, even 1. Only 2 was still asleep.

“On next year,” I said.

“On next year,” they echoed.

 

It just won’t stop ringing

It was always there. When I was young it came rarely, maybe when I was close to crossing the street and hadn’t looked left and right yet, or when I left a sharp knife on the kitchen counter, or that time when I was at the supermarket and there was a man that kept following me for four or five aisles, until I found mom again.

I think it somehow connects to my intuition. I’ve heard others describe that they can feel a shiver on the back of their spine, or that the hair on their arms stands up when they are nervous. For me the only time the hair stands up is when I’m cold.

And else, when I’m scared, there is the bell.

I can’t remember the first time I heard it. The first memory I have of hearing it, when I was at my grandmothers’ place at the strange round pile of stones, and I was digging through the stones to look for rabbit babies, when it was ringing, thundering in my ears, I wasn’t surprised or scared. I must have heard it before. It started ringing, loud and clear, and when I kept digging it got louder, as if a huge church bell was slowly moved closer to me, ringing more vigorously and faster with every single stone that I pulled to the side.

Maybe grandma heard the bell too. I remember she came running, screaming for me to get away from the well. I was on top of some of the stones. And the stones started moving. And grandma grabbed my arm, but my legs, they fell with the stones and hit against the wall. I remember how grandma’s arm shivered when she pulled me out of the hole. She was old then already, maybe 60 or 70, and she was the same thin that she has always been in my memory.

“Hold onto me,” she said. “Hold onto me.”

And below us, far below, I heard the stones hitting a hard floor. Continue reading

Memories

She says she studied at Yale, but it’s so hard to believe her when I remember it so vividly.

I met Kodi just a few months back. She was sitting in a café with a copy of Lord of the Rings on her table – or was that me? I was wearing a bright purple sweater and I approached her and took the book of the table while I made a joke about never having heard about it. I’m not really sure if it was a joke. And I’m not really sure if it was me or her that said it.

“Tolkien, what a strange name.”

It’s confusing, this amalgam in my head. There’s somewhere a dent in the conversation.

“Yeah,” she said. “Don’t you know him?”

“Not really,” I said. “Is he new?”

I laughed and looked at her face and the tight purple sweater. Continue reading

Blackout

They kicked the front door in, screaming for me to get down.

Only when one of the officers turned me over and pulled my arms behind my back, only then, with my face shoved into the pillow, did I feel the massive headache.

They were pulling me out of our studio and when we were on the stairs I finally woke up enough to turn and shout for Reana to wait, that I would come back, that it must all be some mistake. In about the same moment an officer said that it was no mistake while I realized that Reana wasn’t in the room.

I’m trying to reconstruct it all, I tried in those four hours of questioning, and I’m still trying. But there’s nothing to reconstruct. But there’s nothing in my mind to reconstruct. We were on the couch, watching TV and waiting for the fireworks shows. She was cuddled up against my chest and had a blanket wrapped over her feet. We were speaking the countdown together with the announcer on TV. There were the first fireworks. We raised our champagne glasses – and then all is just blank. Or maybe rather black. It’s a black curtain that’s blocking me from my own memories.

I didn’t drink any alcohol before midnight. I don’t even remember drinking the champagne, but they still found a blood alcohol level of 0.2 % – in my body, not in hers. Continue reading

“Don’t ever let them in.”

I am terrified of the dark. My grandmother, on the other hand, had an affinity for the dark. She loved and enjoyed the dark so much that most windows in her house were walled shut and the few that remained were, except for rare occasions like family visits, blacked out with several layers of black curtains.

It was only when I was about 16 that I realized that those two, her love and my fear of the dark, were connected.

When I was small I was, supposedly, very hyperactive. My mother never managed to control me and my father only did so on those rare occasions when he threatened me with punishments. But I loved my grandparents and, as my parents, said, I always behave right when my grandmother was around. Accordingly my parents dropped me many times at my grandmother’s place so that they themselves could have a calm weekend.

I was 8 years old when she died. At that time I was already scared of the dark – except, of course, when my grandparents were around.

Those eight years I stayed many times over. I remember vividly how I played with my grandfather and uncle Owen in the darkness. We had our special games, like a noise-based version of hide and seek which only worked when the house was particularly quiet and my grandfather taught me how to carve wood into spoons and flutes with just my sense of touch.

I remember their faces exactly – the way their faces were lightly visible in the dark but their eyes always penetrated even through the thickest curtains of darkness with a black pupil surrounded by a bright white that seemed to glow from inside.

My grandmother was always working around the house – cooking and baking for me, cleaning or tidying or preparing the beds for the night. The room always felt warmer when she was there and so, usually, i asked my grandfather and uncle Owen to play with me in the room that she was in.

Those weekends I never missed the light. Even my dreams were, often, just noises and smells and textures and shapes – never colors or visible objects. Still today I can navigate perfectly in the dark. And still today I can see very well in the dark and around my 16th year of life I concluded that my strong vision at night was the cause for my paralyzing fear of the dark.

The fear had been there as long as I remember and on most nights I slept with a nightlight. On those weekends with my grandmother the darkness had never been a problem. Cuddled up to her warm body I never felt fear and I never minded the figures that seemed to stand in the room, all around my bed.

They only came with the darkness. Never when there was a slight flicker of light, just with the absolute blackness of a night in a room without windows.

My grandmother called them the ‘Outcasts.’ She said that they were family and friends, former close ones, that wanted to return from the other side. She taught me again and again that I should never let them return.

I remember the way she said it. We were lying in the bed, my head cuddled up to the warmth of her shoulder. Somewhere behind me my grandfather was snoring and when I turned I could see his face glowing in the darkness, with his white skin it was even more visible than that of my grandmother.

“You can see the difference in their faces,” she said. “Their faces are darker. But if you really want to make sure then you have to look at their eyes. If their eyes are as black as their face or even darker then they are on the wrong side; they are dead and and they should stay that way no matter how much you miss them.”

“So they can’t come?”

“They can’t come unless you allow them to come.”

“What if I let them in?”

“Don’t ever let them in.”

Black on black, but I still saw them as clear as a pencil line pressed hard on a piece of paper, the type of pencil line that doesn’t just color the paper but rather pushes itself into the paper.

That night my grandmother fell asleep quickly but I, in the safety of her arms and with my grandfather behind me, watched the figures. They were gesturing and moving, voiced words and sometimes fought against one another; they pushed each other to the side and backwards, fighting for a spot on the borderline to life.

I saw their figures and I recognized their sizes and hairstyles, often I even thought I knew which clothes they were wearing. I never asked my grandmother about that, but for myself I concluded those were the ways they looked in the moment that they stepped from life to death.

With my grandmother I was safe. But without her the nights were terror. They came closer and they seemed more energetic, more violent, more likely to break through that barrier. Maybe they were closer because I was closer to letting them in, half out of fear and half out of curiosity.

The nightlight was my savior, but in those nights when my parents forgot to plug the light in there was no salvation. They stood above me with their dark figures pressed into the darkness and those eyes so dark that they seemed to extend deeper into space; as if they were hollow.

With 16 I tried to cure myself off my fear by “shock therapy.” I threw myself into one dark night after the other but rather than improve the situation got worse.

There was one figure particularly pushy. A smaller one with wild, curly hair and the darkest eyes of them all. I always knew who she was. She had only been there since I was 8.

The conclusions of my 16th year made too much sense to be overturned. I gave up my defense and accepted my fear and eternal dependence on nightlights. When I moved to university I even chose an apartment with a street lamp outside so that the light would certainly come through my window and keep the figures at bay.

With 23 I learned the truth about my fear.

I was at my mother’s place. We were at our second bottle of wine and a soothing melancholy, the type that you can see in a French actress’s eyes, had enriched the air. Somehow we came to speak about my grandmother.

“I miss her,” my mother said.

“Me too,” I said. “Sometimes I still dream of her cookies and when I wake up I can nearly taste the vanilla.”

“Oh,” she said. “Your grandfather loved those.”

“Did he? I don’t remember him eating any?”

My mother laughed.

“You were probably too young to remember that.”

“Not really. I remember playing with him.”

“Oh, you do?”

“Yeah. I played with him all the time.”

“Really, you remember that?”

“Of course.”

“Wow,” she said. “I’m really happy for that.”

“Me too.”

“I always thought you wouldn’t remember him because you were so young.”

I took a sip from my glass and let the bitterness fade from my mouth.

“I don’t remember going to his funeral.”

“Of course not,” she said. “We left you with a friend and went alone.”

“What? Why?”

“We thought you wouldn’t understand it. You were just 2 when your grandfather and uncle Owen had their accident.”

When I was 16 I thought I was scared of the figures standing at the borderline to our world.

Since I’m 23 I know that I’m not actually scared of those figures at the borderline. I’m scared and wondering how many others were allowed back inside.

My Grandfather Knew Why We Run from the Dark

I always admired my grandfather’s courage. He had fought in the war on what we nowadays think of as the wrong side, but he had never been a believer in the cause. Sometimes a rifle is pressed in your hand and your choice is either to fire and worry about being shot from the front, or not to fire and be sure that you’ll be shot from behind.

He was young when he was drafted, barely 16. Before he left he gave his first kiss and a promise to a girl. She waited five years until the end of the war, surviving on just five or six letters that she kept as treasure.

The war ended but even the defeat was celebrated. Not openly, but in the hearts and eyes of the people. People never wage war, it is politicians that wage war. No soldier that ever stood in the line of a rifle believes that war is heroic, only those divorced from reality, those that sit in tidy offices, those dream of war.

Soldiers came home with thin bodies and bandaged limbs. They hugged their wives and women before they fell onto beds and relived the front in dreams that made them toss and turn and wake up from their own screams.

His girl watched with tears in her eyes while her sister and mother each welcomed their men home. She heard the men scream at night and each scream lodged a stone in her throat. She prayed that the man she had kissed did not have to scream and then she prayed that the man she had kissed was alive enough to scream. Then she prayed for forgiveness for her selfishness. Continue reading