Track One: The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning
I will never forget the first moment I met him. How could I? It was my darkest hour.
It was the night of the meteor shower, an event so extraordinary that it had been everywhere on the news—something about the meteors coming from out of nowhere, how there was no pattern to their existence, no known colliding orbit with the Earth, and how they left long tails of brilliant, bright light as they fell from the sky. It was a night of romantic proposals, and a crazy guy saying the end of the world was near.
Normally, I would have set up a chair in my backyard, surrounded by the fields of my small hometown, and watched the shower with an enthusiastic curiosity and naïve sense of wonder. Instead, I’d spent the evening dragging myself through the gloom of dimly lit city streets, far from home, where no one could even see the stupid stars for the streetlights and rainclouds.
I breathed in the smell of rain-soaked pavement and exhaust as I darted between buildings, cradling a broken arm. It was numb now, but only a few hours earlier it had burned like the bone had been set on fire.
Echoes of the scene resonated through me: the feeling of helplessness, losing all control of my body as it flew backward when my now-officially-ex-boyfriend shoved me. The feeling of weightlessness as I fell. The resounding crack when I tried to catch my fall. Lights had popped and fizzled in my vision as I tumbled down the stairs. My stomach had twisted with nausea and I couldn’t breathe for the pain. Reliving it in my mind, my stomach lurched all over again, still unsettled, still threatening to climb up and out of my throat.
I looked down at the wet pavement, my hair sticking to the sides of my head in the rain as I watched the drops break against the ground. I could still see his face. I’d looked up at him from the bottom of the stairs and he had just stood there, his pale eyes looking but not seeing, his mouth half open. He had remained frozen like that long enough for me to pull myself together and run.
And I was still running, but it was without any direction. I had no destination. I was a confused and wounded mouse whose only thought was of escaping the monstrous cat who’d tormented me. I was scared to stop. I turned at every red light just so I could keep moving. If I stopped, he might find me. If I stopped, he’d dig his cruel claws deep into my soul and I’d have to go back. I could never go back.
But I couldn’t return to my hometown, either, though I visited it in my mind. I could see it, cradled in the arms of the mighty mountains, where I could bust out a lawn chair at a whim and gaze in awe at the vast canopy of stars. The place was a broken memory, resting in jagged shards that I cut my heart on every time I thought about it. Tears burned my eyes as the beating of my heart grew heavy, as though it were bleeding and couldn’t stop. That was when I’d usually try to think about something else, but not this time. I continued to cut myself against the memories, because all I wanted was to go home.
I wanted to see my dad again, to hear him play the piano and sing. I wanted him to tell me some crazy tale that couldn’t possibly have happened then hear him end it with, “True story.” I wanted to hear his advice, and I wanted to listen to it this time. How I wished I could go back and say, “You’re right, Dad. That guy is not good for me.”
But I couldn’t go home. Not after what I’d done. I had no family. I had no friends. I had nothing but the shoes on my aching feet and the wet clothes clinging to my body. I was an outcast, one with the shadows. A stain on the pavement.
A stain on the pavement.
I’d lingered too long on the memories. A hole had opened up in my heart, black and dead, and my soul was being pulled in. The good memories were consumed by the horrors that had shattered them until the guilt, the shame, the helplessness and darkness were all that remained. I trembled, but not from the cold. I could feel the shadows dancing just under my skin. It hurt so much. I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t.
Desperate to feel something else, I dug my fingers into the elbow of my broken arm and fresh pain shot through me—pain that hurt less than the hollowness that was growing inside me. My breathing came in ragged gasps like I was drowning. I stumbled into walls and people. People who pulled their coats up over their heads and turned away. I winced as I bumped into a tall woman, my fingers brushing against the back of her hand as she rose from adjusting her boot. She had a very deep, manly voice and asked if I needed help. Without really looking at her, I smiled and said I was fine. She moved on. They all moved on, which was for the best, really. This… me… what I had become… I was beyond repair.
No one could help me.
I let out a hopeless sob. How was I supposed to keep going? How was I supposed to keep carrying this? How?
I muttered under my breath, “A stain on the pavement… a stain on the pavement…”
For the first time in hours, I stopped. I listened to the rain spattering against the sidewalk and the laughter of a couple as they passed by, the sounds vivid to me in that moment. My thoughts drifted after them. I imagined the warmth of the home they must be going to, the smiles of the loved ones that probably waited for them there. I’d wanted to be them once. Still did. I longed for that kind of love. The real deal. To share a life with someone who actually loved me and have a family. To hold a child in my arms. My heart writhed in agony as I watched them walk away, as though I were a homeless kid with her nose pressed against the glass of a bakery window at Christmastime, peering at something I could see so clearly but had no hope of ever having.
A thought crept into my mind, and not for the first time that day. But this time, its presence seeped into the dark, lonely crevices like tendrils of fog, filling them with an eerie sense of comfort and peace.
I didn’t have to keep going.
I didn’t have to keep carrying the pain.
I’d been thinking about it for years. I’d researched the best ways to do it. And over the last few months, it had been the only thing to bring me any sense of peace—a calm in the eye of the storm. My breathing steadied, the whirlwind inside of me settled and faded. The shadows under my skin grew still, soothing and enveloping me like a comforting blanket. For the first time, the feeling of peace didn’t go away. It was such a relief to the agony I felt that instead of shoving it aside, I clung to it.
I knew exactly what I needed to do. I’d known for months, maybe even years, but now, I was ready.
As I made the decision, the weight of my world lifted from my shoulders. I even laughed a little. I was done! I didn’t have to do this anymore. No more worries about what I was going to do about my arm with no money or insurance to fix it. I didn’t have to worry about that guy finding me, or about food or a place to live or about my broken soul and the black, rotting hole inside of it.
I was done.
I no longer walked aimlessly. Instead, my eyes searched for the right building. Just a little ways down the street to my right, a man hurried into an old apartment complex, his coat over his head, eager to get out of the rain. It was about ten stories or so, an appropriate height. It must’ve been undergoing renovations, as there was construction equipment parked nearby and scaffolding wrapped around one side. I darted toward the door as it closed and caught it with my shoe. I tried to pry the door the rest of the way open with my shoulder, but the stress of the movement shot fire through my arm again. Nausea swarmed, my vision spun and I thought I might faint until the guy who’d gone in before me doubled back and helped me with the door.
“Thanks,” I managed to say without throwing up.
“Sure, no problem.” He paused, his eyes widening a little as he noticed the shape I was in. I didn’t look in the mirror much these days. It was always the same reflection—the gaunt specter of a twenty-three-year-old who’d been sealed in a tomb, alive. My green eyes were dull and sunken. My curly, blonde hair—which was now a wet, matted mess against my skull—was thin and broke like straw. My Deadpool T-shirt and jeans hung off my bones, being two sizes too big, though they hadn’t started that way. He probably thought I was a banshee, coming to warn him of his imminent death.
“Hey, uh… you don’t look—” he caught himself and changed his comment to a question, “Are you all right?”
I gave him a weak smile. “I just need to lay down.”
I meandered down a hallway lined with peeling, peach wallpaper until I found the elevator. I stared at the worn arrow button and tried to press it with my mind, since my good arm was busy keeping the other one from dangling from my shoulder like a bag of rocks. When that didn’t work, I mustered the courage to pry a finger away from my elbow and pushed it. The doors immediately opened. I stepped inside and pressed the button for the top floor, then leaned back against the wall as the doors closed, exhausted.
It was a long ride, listening to the elevator creak and groan like at any second a cable might snap. I inhaled the scent of a floral air freshener that tried in vain to mask the stench of moldy carpet and beer as the weight of my decision began to sink in, making my heart race. I instructed myself, Make sure you dive head first. My stomach fluttered.
I wasn’t sure why I did it. Probably because my dad had been a preacher but even then, I’d felt sure that if there was a god, he’d given up on me long ago. Yet without really thinking, I cried silently from the depths of my soul out into the unknown, Please… save me.
A cheerful ding signaled the end of my ride and the doors rolled open.
I stood there for a moment, staring at the peach, oak-lined wall in front of me. As I willed myself to step through the elevator doors, they started to close, almost as if to try and stop me.
You can’t stop me, I thought at the elevator as I darted out into the hall, the doors creaking back open as it sensed me pass through. I turned to it, stared it down, and said, “Give me one good reason why you think I shouldn’t.”
The doors rolled close.
I knew darn well the elevator never intended to say anything back, but still, my heart sank a little. “I thought so.”
I wandered through the hallways, following signs that led to the stairs. Stumbling into the stairwell, which was lined with sheets of plastic that covered remnants of construction things, I saw the sign reading “Roof Access.” The doorway appeared to have once been blocked for safety reasons but someone had broken through it, leaving the door unable to close properly. It felt like a sign. Everything had fallen into place. I took a deep breath to solidify my courage and as I did, peace returned with a sense of the rightness of what I was doing.
I pushed open the door to the roof with my shoulder and stepped out into the night. The rain had slowed till it had become a mere mist, though the sky remained as dark and starless as ever. I trudged over to the barrier of the roof and closed my eyes, drinking in the smell of rain. When I opened them again I saw that, far across the city, a nearly full moon was now peering out from beneath a fluffy blanket of clouds. I gazed down and wondered how I was going to climb up onto the barrier.
From the shadows behind me came a rich, deep voice, gentle yet all-encompassing, like thunder at the end of a storm, “Beautiful night tonight, isn’t it?”
I whirled around, my long hair whipping me in the face. I winced as my arm throbbed with the sudden movement, buckling over as the agony consumed my body. My vision faded with stars and I was sure I was going to throw up. Anger and frustration rippled through the shadows under my skin.
He spoke again, his tone cheerful at first but growing concerned as I didn’t move from my about-to-barf-everywhere position. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you, I, uh… are you okay? That’s a stupid question, you’re clearly not okay.”
I tried to breathe, to steady myself and not faint into a puddle of vomit. I forced a polite smile without moving, saying in the strangled tone of someone who’d just been punched in the gut, “I’m fine.”
“Oh! Well good,” he said with upbeat sarcasm, “That’s good. I’m glad we got that cleared up because for a moment there, I thought you might be in terrible pain. And then, of course, I’d want to do something about it, so, I’m relieved to get out of that. Of course, I would be happy to help, you know, if you needed help because you were in pain, but since you’re not… but if you were…”
I didn’t know what it was—maybe it was so he’d stop talking—but something about his words forced my surrender. Tears brimmed my eyes. “All right, I’m not.” I sniffed, wishing I could wipe away all the snot and tears or even just brush away the strands of hair that were sticking to my face. “I’m not okay. But there’s nothing anybody can do about it. Not unless you can work miracles. Maybe turn back time.”
After a moment of silence, he said, “Well, unfortunately, I can’t turn back time, but I have been told I am a miracle worker.”
A small smile—one nearly nonexistent but genuine nonetheless, and the first in months that wasn’t triggered by the thought of death—made its way to the corner of my lips. I willed my body to straighten itself enough for me to look up at him and, after a great deal of effort…
I still couldn’t see him. My hair was plastered to my face and blocking my vision. I usually hid my ugly face behind my hair and should’ve felt relieved that he couldn’t see me, but I was beyond caring now, and my curiosity outweighed my reservations. When jerking my head to the side didn’t work, I tried blinking as a method of brushing it away, but it was only as effective as blinking-wet-hair-out-of-your-eyes could be. He had an accent. British, maybe? No… Portuguese? I didn’t know what a Portuguese accent sounded like, but I thought his might be it. All I knew was that he sounded fancy, and I imagined him wearing a suit, making me uncomfortably aware of the shape I was in. But so far, the only evidence I could see to confirm my theory was that he appeared to be wearing a lot of black.
For all I knew, he could’ve been wearing a Snuggie.
He continued, “For example, right now, I am going to perform the miracle of restoring your sight.”
My smile grew. “Oh, hallelujah!”
His shoes clicked against the pavement as he stepped toward me, his tone becoming that of a doctor about to perform surgery, “Now, this may feel a little bit awkward, since I’m just some strange stranger hanging out on a roof who actually hates touching people and being touched by people, and really, just, most people in general.”
I smirked and nodded. “I get that.”
“People are absolutely terrible, aren’t they?”
He had no idea how true that statement was to me. “They really are.”
“I’m glad we agree,” he added thoughtfully. “I feel like we’ve developed a special bond over this and are strangers no more, but best friends.”
“I think we need matching bracelets.”
“Yes! We should go pick some out on Tuesday.”
My smile grew a little more. “Sounds good.”
“Perfect! Now, onto the miracle, then.”
I closed my eyes, flinching a little as very calloused fingertips brushed across my forehead, pushing the strands of rain-soaked hair across my cheeks and eyelashes. It was only a moment, maybe two fleeting seconds before it passed, but in that mere flicker of time, a warm, soothing light spread throughout my body from his touch. And not “light” in a metaphorical sense, but in a very literal sense. There was no other way to describe it, it was light, warm and radiant, like basking in the sun on a summer morning. My shoulders relaxed, I hadn’t realized how tense they were. My breathing steadied. My broken arm and heart grew pleasantly tingly and the pain in them diminished until I could hardly feel it. The heavy shadows were chased out of my skin and I stood upright, feeling lighter.
All in a mere two seconds.
His touch left, but in its place there was a little flame that had been ignited in my soul. A light that was all my own. It was barely a match-light in comparison to his sunlight—flickering, sputtering, and threatening to go out with a mild breeze—but it was there and alive, and certainly hadn’t been before. I kept my eyes closed, basking in it. I let out a sigh, and the few lingering remnants of darkness drifted out of me into oblivion, replaced by something I’d forgotten. Something that hurt but in a good way, in the way wounds hurt as they heal. Something I hadn’t felt in years.
It was hope.
Tears spilled down my cheeks, but they were a different kind this time. A kind that was welcome, that came from the small flame; a life inside of me that had been reignited with a single spark. And I realized, this… this was real peace.
I felt like I was waking up from a deep sleep. I didn’t want to open my eyes. I was refreshed and happy and yet disoriented. I’d forgotten where I was. I was… on a roof? Why?
Then I remembered. The memories flooded back to me, but instead of drowning in them, they were held at a distance by this little light and the indescribable feeling of optimism that came with it. I was aware of my heart, broken but still beating; of the warmth of my pulse against the chill of the air, and of the mist of cool rain I breathed into my lungs. Traffic hummed below. Nothing else existed but this moment and in it, I was alive, and somehow, that now meant something. Somehow, that gave me room to hope. It was as though I had been seeing the world from deep under water and had been pulled from the murky depths and placed back on my feet where I could see it all more clearly, though I hadn’t yet opened my eyes.
My mind raced. But wait, only two seconds ago, I was… what just happened? None of this makes sense. It was just a moment, a touch. What did he do to me? And how… how did he do it?
I was determined to ask him the second I opened my eyes—but I couldn’t do it. What if this feeling was the dream? What if I opened my eyes or spoke and it all went away?
“There,” he said. “Now, not only will you be able to see, but you also have a face!”
I laughed. Actually laughed, which made no sense. How was that possible? I could’ve sworn I’d forgotten how. Then, without thinking, I let go of my broken arm and quickly wiped my face with my sleeve, hoping the tears and snot had blended in with the rain. When I realized what I’d done, my eyes shot open and I looked up at him.
My jaw dropped.
He was, hands down, the most beautiful man I had ever seen. His bright blue eyes seemed to glow in the night against his dark skin like bottled lightning. The face they were set in was the commanding face of an angel, and not in a Nicholas Sparks novel way, but in a very literal sense that if I had pictured an angel—well, this man exceeded all of my expectations and was what I should’ve been picturing whenever I’d heard the word. It was as if each feature had been cut from stone and blended together so flawlessly that no piece was out of place, neither more prominent nor distinguishable above the rest.
And all of these features were expertly highlighted with eyeliner, black and silver eyeshadow, and dark red lipstick. A gorgeous mane of black curls framed his face, protected from the rain by a large, black umbrella. What I could see of his chest beneath his black cocktail dress and long black coat made it clear his body was that of a sculpted, muscular god. Though he wasn’t feminine in the way he carried himself or in his physique, he wore that dress with an air of confidence that stated that not only was he perfectly comfortable wearing it, he knew he looked good in it.
I thought of the wrestler, Zangief, from ”Wreck-It-Ralph” and how he could crush a man’s skull between his thighs like an egg. This man could do the same, while wearing high heeled boots.
He furrowed his brow at me. “What?” He glanced down at himself. “Is there something on my dress?”
I picked up my jaw, feeling stupid and apologetic. “No, no, I just—”
He waved this away. “I’m just messing with you. I get that look all the time. When I’m wearing a dress, when I’m not wearing a dress. I’m in a band. Tonight was Ladies’ Night at the club where we play and, as you can see, I take the responsibility very seriously. On ‘80s night, I wear a ruffled shirt and a suit jacket with blue sequins.”
I busted up. “That sounds amazing. Do you do the big hair—?”
“Oh, absolutely. What is ‘80s night without big ‘80s hair?”
“I would love to see that. I bet you rock big hair and blue sequins, but probably not as well as you’re rockin’ that dress.”
He tossed his hair back and posed with his hand on his hip. “You’re right. That is simply impossible.”
Laughing this time reminded me that, though my arm didn’t hurt near as much anymore, it was still broken. I winced, cradling it again. I wanted to ask him how he’d taken so much of the pain away. I wanted to know if he was, in fact, an angel, and if the other members in his band enjoyed looking pretty. My mouth opened once or twice to make words, but my brain couldn’t process any of it well enough to form them.
His expression grew concerned. “So, I can see that your arm is very broken, and I was wondering, what in the world are you doing on a roof when you so obviously belong in a hospital?”
I looked down at my beat-up Sketchers. “Well I… I can’t go to a hospital because… I don’t have…” I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t say it. I didn’t want charity and I didn’t want to look like I was looking for charity. “I just can’t go.”
I could hear in his tone that he saw right through me. “I see.” He pressed fingers to his lips thoughtfully. “Well, if you’d like, I am sort of a doctor. Not really, but sort of.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Sort of, huh?”
“It’s a long story—sure to bore you to tears. But the point is, I can help you, if you’ll let me.” His eyes brightened. “I know you have no reason to trust me. I’m just some stranger on a roof, but I won’t be at peace until I know that I have done all I can to help you.”
I shook my head, my heart pounding as I tried to wrap my mind around everything that was happening. I couldn’t help but hope he was telling the truth, and I was terrified I’d see that hope shattered. I’d been let down so many times, if I was let down again, I knew I wouldn’t survive it. “I don’t want charity—”
He gave a small shrug. “Nah, this isn’t charity. This is just a friend helping a friend. That’s what friends are for, isn’t it?”
My breath caught on a sob, those stupid tears returning to me. I masked it with a derisive snort and blurted, more angrily than I meant it to be, “We’re not friends! I mean—why? Why do you want to help me? Nobody cares about me, why do you? You don’t know me! You don’t even know my name!”
He didn’t miss a beat. “What is your name?”
I hadn’t expected that. I hesitated. “It’s Emily.”
He repeated it with reverence. “Emily. Well, Emily, my name is Richard. My friends call me Rick—except when I’m in drag like this, then they call me Lipstick Rick. And I can tell that you are in pain—”
I snorted again. Of course I was in pain, my arm was broken.
He hurried on. “I can see it in your eyes, it’s more than a broken arm. And I can see it because I’ve seen it in my own eyes before. And I know, I know what it feels like to be broken.” He thought for a moment, smiling a little in a dark sort of way. “Indeed, I’ve actually felt a bit of a connection to that Humpty Dumpty character you hear about. To have a great fall, and to be so broken that no one, not even you—especially not you—has any idea how to put you back together again. And people go away, you know. They abandon you because it’s too much work, and sometimes it’s because they don’t know what to do. And other times, you push them away…”
My eyes filled with more tears as I watched him, his expression growing distant, reliving some dark moment, before he continued, “Because who in the world could possibly help you? Who are you to be saved?” He looked down. “I get it, Emily. And I know how terrible it is to be alone through it, and right now, you don’t have to be. Sometimes, you just need some help picking up the pieces, and I’m here to help you do just that. I enjoy puzzles.”
I choked out a laugh to keep from sobbing. With his words, the sunlight he held radiated from him, comforting and kind, wonderful and strange. So strange. How did he do that?
He smiled. “And you know, I’ve found in my life, through these terrible storms, that what often seems like a tragic ending turns out to be the beginning of some… fantastic adventure. The beginning of a new chapter. But only if we keep going, you know. Keep reading to see what happens next. It’s up to us to turn the page—just one page at a time. That’s all you need to do. So what do you say? Are you ready to turn the page on this?” He thought for a moment before adding, “I realize that I’m quoting at least three different songs in saying that—that’s the mind of a musician for you—but don’t let it deter you from the very real idea.”
I smiled, then frowned at my shoes. The darkness that had left me had returned, pressing upon me, reminding me it was still there. It made the little light within me flicker as I thought of what walking away from the edge of the building would mean. I’d still have to carry the burden of being broken. I’d still have to hurt. I’d still have to run. The weight of my world sat back down upon my shoulders, looming over me like a dark shadow. “What if it’s too late?”
With a curt shake of his head, Lipstick Rick said with a matter-of-fact tone, “It’s never too late.”
At this, I seized the little thread of hope I now had and turned to him. “Then, yes. I am.”
He smiled. “Follow me.”