“This is the dream I have every night:
I. The Never-Ending Breathing
Sometimes I struggle to remember. I can get there eventually but it’s a journey, an adventure. Do you ever cry yourself to sleep? If you wake up in the middle of the night, terrified and shaking and staring at the darkness because it’s going to kill you, who do you call out for?
The invasion began in April. Was it the fourth or the fourteenth? I can’t remember.
It struck at night. Quiet and simple, slithering and standing around the corner. I flicked off the lamp on the bedside table and that’s when I felt it, the presence just beyond the open doorway of my room. I knew it was there, and no matter how much I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t real, I didn’t sleep that night. Were those footsteps I heard? Was that the shifting of a body, a hushed and lengthy whisper? Was that the sound of breathing?
It haunted me for four days. Or was it five? Every night. I kept the light on. I didn’t close the door. I knew it was there and yet I also knew it couldn’t be. Statistically speaking, logically deducing, there was nothing there at all, and yet I could sense it as surely as I could feel that there was oxygen in the air. Because I breathed, it was breathing.
“What on earth are you reading?”
Tiffany almost dropped the book in shock at the sound of Taeyeon’s voice, and tried to gulp down her heart as it jumped up her throat.
“You look like a little goblin, crouched over that thing,” Taeyeon said, resting her hands on her hips as she gave Tiffany a playful smile. “Is it something you would prefer to keep a secret?”
The book made a sharp slapping sound as Tiffany closed it quickly. She laughed offhandedly. “No, no. Just getting into the atmosphere of it, I suppose. It’s pretty intense.”
A loud, high-pitched beeping sounded over the speakers and they instinctively looked up. A routine weather update was robotically verbalized, and they relaxed again. Taeyeon glanced around the dusty, metal-walled room filled with bookshelves and open boxes of folders. The large window between two shelves allowed orange sunlight to pool in through thick glass.
“I wonder what really happened to this place,” she commented absently. With the tip of her foot, she pushed at an empty box next to her. “There are some pretty extensive records. What’s that you have there?”
“A diary,” said Tiffany, looking down at it. It lay unassuming in its tattered, loose binding.
“Whose diary?” asked Taeyeon. She walked over to stand next to Tiffany and tried to read the cover. “Did it belong to one of the patients?”
The words on the front of the book were smudged and written by a hand so shaky it was illegible. There might have been an s, possibly a p, and either an H or two letters melded together.
“I don’t know whose it is. But whoever it was, they had problems.”
The beeping came again, and they listened to the next announcement; an update of the time. Before it even finished, they drowned out the rest with the rustling of moving feet and papers. When the area was slightly tidier, they made their way to the door.
Just as Tiffany was about to leave, there was a loud thud and she spun around with her pulse racing.
The book she had been reading was now on the floor, fallen from its shelf. She took a breath to calm herself, glanced around just in case, and went to pick it up.
“Hey, where are you going? We don’t want to be late for dinner.”
Tiffany paused and called over her shoulder, “I’ll be right there! A book fell down.”
Taeyeon made a noise of acknowledgement and her steps sounded over the metal girder of the corridor outside, in time with Tiffany’s boots tapping over concrete as she went towards the book.
She picked up the book carefully, feeling like it should be treated with kindness after the hard life it led, and she rested it on the shelf again.
This time, it let her leave. She didn’t see the ripped sheet of paper that now hid beneath the shelf, and so she didn’t get to see the harshly etched plea.
Tiffany kept her eyes trained on Taeyeon as they ate. They were surrounded by the other students who were part of their group for this excursion, but Tiffany only ever cared about Taeyeon. She didn’t even realise what her sandwich tasted like until she was almost finished with it. The dull pounding sound of people walking over the thin metal floor and the noise of their chatter was nothing compared to Taeyeon’s laugh when Tiffany said something witty, and the others surely had nothing to offer that could be better than Taeyeon’s shy glances.
They had only gone on one date so far. Just one, and Tiffany was trying not to seem too eager but she really wanted Taeyeon to know how much she wanted another one. Dating Taeyeon was glorious; something she could already tell would be a pure indulgence of the sweetest kind. But they were young, and inexperienced, and shy. Tiffany didn’t want to scare Taeyeon with her eagerness and Taeyeon didn’t want to make some embarrassing mistake. Neither of them knew exactly why the other was interested in them but both were so happy that they were that they didn’t want to spend too much time questioning it.
Together on this excursion with other students, Tiffany really wanted to hold Taeyeon’s hand but she knew she couldn’t. Were they even at that stage yet? They’d held hands, but that was before the date, and holding hands now would be about dating more than friendship… right?
Was that a whisper? Tiffany frowned at herself, then erased the frown and replaced it with a smile, looking at Taeyeon who was laughing about some silly thing. She loved silly things. She thought silly things were great, and easy to laugh about. The easier the laughs were, the more she wished she could keep them.
Tiffany shook her head, though she wasn’t sure if it was in response to her own thoughts, or in reaction to Taeyeon’s joke. She kept the smile, in either case.
On the way back to the library, she deliberately brushed against Taeyeon. “How about we have dinner again tonight?”
In other words, let’s go on another date. Why not just say it? Is this what they call being ‘coy’?
But Taeyeon’s expression was far too serious for anything but an unhappy ending. “I don’t know, Tiffany.” She looked away, bit her bottom lip, and brushed against Tiffany as if in commiseration. “You know I’m not sure it’s a good idea for us to be doing that.”
“Doing what?” Tiffany asked, hovering between playing dumb and being sardonic. “We haven’t even really done anything.” Bitter, in the end, was what she went for.
Taeyeon nodded to acknowledge that as a fact. “Even so, I’m not sure it would be a good idea. We should probably just focus on our studies, and you know our families are –”
Tiffany rolled her eyes. “I know all about our families, thank you Taeyeon. Don’t bother, then. If you’re going to turn me down just be frank about it.”
Taeyeon actually stopped; there weren’t many students behind them but they were forced to manoeuvre around the two. She frowned, deeply.
“What’s up with you? You know I don’t mean it like that, Tiffany. Come on, you have to be reasonable –”
“Sure I do,” Tiffany said. She didn’t bother looking at Taeyeon anymore; she didn’t want to accept that she was even talking to Taeyeon – her Taeyeon – about this. “Come on, Taeyeon,” she whipped, “let’s just be honest. You’re scared, aren’t you? Scared of our families, scared of me, I don’t know, but scared as hell.”
Taeyeon looked briefly affronted, but Tiffany could see the shadow of shame beneath it. Jackpot; she was right.
“Well, I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of anything, least of all our families, least of all you. I’m into you, Taeyeon, and I was really looking forward to going out with you and getting to know you better. I wanted to hold hands with you and kiss you. If you’re saying you don’t want that as much as you want our families to control our lives, well, then, I guess that’s it, isn’t it?”
Tiffany, meanwhile, had no idea where this was all coming from. True, it was what she was feeling, but the fact that it was all just pouring out of her like this was unprecedented and not a controlled action. She decided to accept it as a timely outburst; she really wanted to make this clear to Taeyeon.
“It’s not like that,” Taeyeon said, glancing around, eyes distracted. “It’s not like that at all. Well, it is, somewhat, but not entirely. I mean, yes, I do have those convictions, but I don’t think it’s impossible to get past that. Or… something along that line.”
Taeyeon was rattled. Gloriously, deliciously rattled. Tiffany wasn’t sure why this was what she wanted, but it was certainly what she wanted.
So, she grinned. “Prove it to me. Kiss me right here in this hallway.”
Taeyeon jumped immediately. She looked around; the cool corridor was empty aside from them, and their presence alone was practically insignificant in the metal silence that surrounded them. But, still, she stayed where she was, and she shoved her hands in her pockets for what seemed to be emphasis.
Tiffany didn’t say a word. She simply raised a single eyebrow, which Taeyeon avoided looking at.
She turned on her heel and set off down the corridor again. Words weren’t needed for an exit like that.
But Taeyeon wanted it to be different. “Tiffany, wait! I’m sorry; I really am.”
Sorry, sorry, sorry. The words had a slant in the whispered edges of Tiffany’s mind.
It made her stop. And then it made her turn around. It even made her – “Okay, then. If you can’t make up your mind; find me in the library later and tell me yes or no. If you can’t find me, then you’ll see it as a sign, won’t you? A sign that we’re not meant to be and that I don’t want you. Isn’t that right?”
It wasn’t true understanding that she saw in Taeyeon’s eyes at those words. It was some grudging kind of acceptance. An acknowledgement that her words were true and undisputed.
It made her smile. And she turned away again, leaving Taeyeon behind.
Far behind, something whispered in her mind.
She closed her eyes.
My body is heavy. I can’t move. I will myself, I say move please move please I beg you just fucking do it already just do it, just get up do things move move move but my body is dead, I can’t move, nothing happens, I see the immobile weak frozen flaccid state of my being and I despair, this is what makes me cry, the very emptiness of my heart, it hurts me. It keeps hurting me but I don’t feel so I just keep going like a total fool,
look at that idiot still living without life.
Tiffany looked up from the words. Was it a sound she heard? There was nothing there. Far, far away she could hear the other students, exploring and learning like she should be doing.
But she was back with the weird, freaky diary and its dark, deep contents. She felt like she could fall in to this, the world or the abyss that it created, the endless sadness it emitted.
And, of course, still there was no Taeyeon.
What she had been thinking when she handed out that challenge, Tiffany had no idea. It seemed like a good idea at the time, perhaps, or maybe she was telling herself that now as a comfort at a time when it seemed like a terrible idea. Why would Taeyeon go for something like that? Why would anyone, who wasn’t a fictional character, go for some crap like that?
So, she was still alone with the book.
She stroked the edge of its binding because she didn’t have Taeyeon’s jaw there to do the same. She traced the outlines of the handwritten words because she didn’t have Taeyeon’s palm do to the same.
She let it draw her in because she couldn’t kiss Taeyeon. And she let it hold her once tight and then tighter because Taeyeon wasn’t there and Taeyeon wasn’t coming.
And just like that, Taeyeon became her everything and was immediately presented as an absence, eternally missing, ripping her apart.
She dug back into the diary, savouring every word, wrapping the tendrils around herself without any exertion from the darkness.
Tiffany hoped, in some small way, that when Taeyeon arrived later, that she really would accept that Tiffany just wasn’t there anymore after all, and that maybe the darkness could be a comfort to her.