By William Higgs III
A man and woman wait impatiently for the check in a busy cafe. Downtown Chicago, a sunny afternoon, the man taps his shoes on the faux hardwood floors. The woman with him is embarrassed by his behavior. Her sigh is inaudible over the chatter of the dozens of other people, who themselves, like remote islands, remained unperturbed by the pair’s quiet struggle.
After what seemed to the man like an eternity, he sees the waiter round the corner. He flags the waiter down, asking him for the check and hurriedly passes on his credit card. After a pause, during which the couple stared blankly at one another, the waiter returns, rounding the wall to the kitchen, nearly breaking into a jog across the spacious dining area as he dodged the small round tables and deep, rich brown leather chairs occupied by, to him, faceless guests in order to get the check to this one particularly inconsolable customer, the whole time understanding that the speed at which he traversed the cafe would hold the fate of his tip in the balance.
“Thank you,” the man grunts, taking the check. He leaves no tip.
For the past month, Jolinn had been frustrated by Daniel’s actions. He had stopped being the person she met. He silently expected that she had come to this realization, one that he had known for some weeks now himself. Daniel knew that like markings left in the sand by a playing child, his old demeanor, the method through which he had related to the world, had been washed away by waves and storms. He was, and always had been, changing.
He had met Jolinn on the campus of the university she attended. Daniel never went to college. He had been sitting high and drunk in the grass attempting to play a guitar. He was terrible. Inebriated, his fingers tried and failed to form chords that his wrists could strum, bend, or beat into a tune. Jolinn had watched him from across the yard. She sat cross legged on a stairway entrance of the building where she had just gotten out of class.
Jolinn wanted him. Daniel looked up to see her, brown hair pushed messily, almost sloppily, over one shoulder, the other bare in the green, sleeveless shirt he would always remember her wearing that day, her skin rich, brown, a deep hue that lapped up the rays of sun like water. She smiled. Her teeth were perfectly straight.
“You, uh, your smile is nice,” Daniel said. He attempted to smirk. Instead, he returned a fatuous grin. Jolinn laughed.
Daniel was smitten. He remained smitten through three months of awkward dates and evenings spent watching Netflix. He remained so smitten that after those three months, he asked Jolinn to marry him.
Her parents were not pleased that she only too enthusiastically agreed to his proposal. What followed were three more months of engagement. Daniel quit drinking as often. His remaining proclivities also dropped away, one by one, as the remaining layers of adolescence washed away. He changed. On the first day of the seventh month he had known her, he stood in the small, dust filled chapel, scrubbed to the bone of any trace of adolescence. He began looking for work. Jolinn found out about the job right after their one week honeymoon.
“What do you mean we’re going to Chicago?” She had asked the question so incredulously.
They had only known their small town in central Illinois. Small, unassuming, unthreatening, placating, they swam through the peaceful waters of this tiny mere for the better half of a year in warm, dreamlike beatitude. The cold water of the move poured into their happiness like the icey current of a snow peaked mountain tributary chilling the warm, spring waters of an isolated lake. Daniel accepted her incredulity. He reassured her that the pay would be great . They would be living in a luxurious apartment. They would be “set,” he insisted. She agreed.
In fact, the money was better than good. Jolinn adjusted to city life. Even though they didn’t need the money, she took a position working as a creative specialist for a major advertising agency. Ever since the marriage and the move, she felt like everything she needed had been provided for her. The job gave her a sense of direction, a conviction that there was something she needed to do. She felt that everything that needed to be done already had been. Everything was taken care of. She was desperate to find something, anything, that needed to be done. She needed a task that required her absolute presence and attention. She was bored.
Even as she fought her boredom, she could not deny that she was slipping back into a placid, easy contentedness. She had always thought of herself as living in the city. Her cousin had lived in Chicago, along with her aunt and uncle. Jolinn visited twice. Those weekend visits existed in her mind only as faint memories. The days had blurred together. She never really saw any of the city, only the dimly lit interior of her aunt’s house. The brown, sooty hardwood floors seemed to almost fuse with the pale, blue wallpaper that was the same in every room. Thick curtains prevented any external light. Only the pale orange coming from the antique glassware on the ceilings provided a source of light. As vague as these memories were, Jolinn still imagined herself walking in a downtown she had never visited and returning to a spacious loft after visiting a fancy, overpriced cafe with a handsome stranger.
Jolinn leaves the cafe with a man she doesn’t know. She has not known this man for weeks at this point. Daniel had scheduled this Uber earlier. Why did he have to do that? Why did he have to always have the minutiae of every outing planned out in advance? Couldn’t he just once be caught off guard? He looks deeply out of the rear passenger side window. He watches the distant city skyline remain constant behind the passing boats in the water near Lakeshore drive. Every year, he spent summers in the city with his uncle, who, not being the paternal type, often left Daniel to his own devices. Late nights were wasted in the company of friends he saw every year in the summer. Entire months were spent together, merging into the human swarm of locusts devouring the precious yet always self-replenishing crops of the Magnificent Mile. He spent those evenings rejoining with his friends on the walkway on Lake Michigan where he would watch the same ships all those years ago.
Daniel turns to Jolinn. She looks back at him. She wonders if he will say something to tear down the window of tension that was shutting them away from each other. Daniel awkwardly looks past her, glancing at the buildings outside the car window on her side. He looks through her. Her face is like an opaque glass, visible but still transparent, simply another window through which the passing city can be viewed.
That night, they argue. Jolinn throws a glass. It shatters on the impeccably clean floors. Thousands of tiny windows are created, each revealing the unique topography of the hardwood.
“If I could go back…” Jolinn stops herself mid sentence. The antecedent “if” haunts every word that follows it. If she could go back, if she could change her reaction to the young man she had seen, if she had listened to her parents, the many “ifs” that race through her mind like rabid greyhounds rupture into a million aborted possibilities.
“Then you would do what, Jolinn?”
If-then, the statement of causality- the “if” sets forward a possibility, real or imagined. The “then” tells the story of what would unfold out of that possibility. However, on the glass covered floor of the downtown Chicago apartment, with the beautiful, incandescent skyline against the smog filled night sky, visible from the large window, stretching across the apartment flat, smooth and, unfazed beneath the sparse, monochrome grey furniture and simple, minimalist kitchen, no possibilities could emerge. The floor is a field of pure immanence, a flat, barren wasteland of affluence and, now, glass. Like ancient demons emerging from the void, Daniel and Jolinn each confront the other. Where there would be speaking, there is silence.
“If you could go back, then you would do what, Jolinn?”
Jolinn brushes her teeth in silence. In the bathroom, with its door open allowing the orange light coming from above the mirror to flood into the open, empty living and kitchen area, where Daniel sulks on the couch in darkness, she stares blankly at her reflection. Bags had formed beneath her eyes. She is tired. Every breath pulls out the dim pain of anxiety from the pits of her stomach. As she puts her curls back into a bun and slips off her brassiere, the only thing that takes up any residence in her thoughts is the idea of her bed.
As she leaves the bathroom, she turns off the light. In the mirror, her reflection captures her image as she leaves. Her silhouette is cast against the pale light of the moon and cityscape that shines in through the large, north facing window. The door closes. Her reflection remains.
The world is colder behind the glass. Crueler, everything is tinted with a reddish blue light. A pale blue, like the wallpaper in Jolinn’s aunt’s house. She is there opening her eyes for the first time. She is Jolinn. She is thirteen. It is summer and everything is a blur. She has passed through the mirror. She is a reflection.
“How did I get here?” Jolinn mutters softly, her breath taken by frozen angst. It is 2008. Her cousin wants to go downtown.She is unable to get to the other side of the mirror in the small bathroom. She can not see anything behind the glass, only the reflection of the toilet, the tiny closet behind her, and, in the right corner of the mirror, the bathtub and shower overlooked by a small window. Steam obscures the sight of anything else. She is 13, she remembers it now. It is time to leave.
“Jo, come on!” her cousin shouts from the living room. Jolinn can not move. She is 13. She was 26. She was just in an apartment, with a man she had met in college, dancing barefoot around broken glass on a hardwood floor. But that apartment seems like a dream. The apartment is in the future. That building exists in 2021. That building was being drafted, now, in 2008. It would not be built until 2012. It would be rented out to a shopping center on the ground floor and then a series of losts and high-rise apartments on the 12 floors above it. She will move there at the end of 2020.
However, here, in 2008, the building is only an unrealized possibility. The building is a ghost, but Jolinn is real. Her cousin is calling her name. She walks out of the bathroom into the narrow hallway. Looking to the end of the hallway she sees her reflection in the antique mirror that hung on the wall, catty corner to her cousin’s bedroom. Her face was rounder than in the future. Her limbs hung awkwardly from her body, which is leaner and ganglier now.
“Girl, can you come on already?” her cousin, Alana, teases.
“Oh, sure, yeah,” Jolinn says. Before she can look back at her reflection again, she is rushed into Alana’s bedroom. The walls, like every other room in the house, are palish blue, but Alana has decorated them with posters of My Chemical Romance and Falling in Reverse. Hidden underneath her bed is a large Black Veil Brides poster, although her pentecostal mother, Jolinn’s aunt, would not let her hang this in the room. Jolinn would keep the secret of this poster over the years.
“I still don’t get how you listen to this stuff,” Jolinn remembers saying. The words come out of her lips. “Why not listen to something normal?”
“You sound just like my mom. Fuck,” Alana laughs.
They are preparing to go downtown. Alana plays her music to Jolinn’s annoyance. An hour passes. Alana called an Uber twenty minutes ago, and as it arrives, they walk through the long hallway, down a small set of stairs, and into the living room, where Jolinn’s aunt sits watching a televangelist on a small, mounted TV set.
“We’ll be back before midnight, mom.”
“You two better be!” she responds. “Remember, God is watching you!”
Under God’s angry stare, the two girls set off into an unplanned evening. Unlike her husband’s mechanistic, planned outings, Jolinn enjoys the spontaneity of youthful, stupid fun. The ride downtown only takes around 20 minutes. The driver skillfully weaves in and out of the heavy, expressway traffic at speeds Jolinn did not care to peek at on the dashboard. Alana and Jolinn walk out of the car into a pulsating mass. Their presence does not disturb this behemoth. In its sleep, the creature, composed of thousands of individuals it had subsumed, included among them Alana and Jolinn, silently prowls onward.
The memory of now returns to Jolinn. Tonight they will shop at the Water Tower. They will walk down the street to the lakeside. Tonight will pass by uneventfully until Jolinn is cornered by two men. Jolinn will run for help. Alana will be taken into tall grass on the shoreline. The man will stab Alana seven times. They will rummage through her pockets and still her phone, wallet, and the pepper spray she never had the chance to wield. Then, the men will run. Alana will die in her arms tonight.
Jolinn looks at her cousin. She is alive, young, and beautiful. Jolinn knows this beautiful girl will die. She remembers what is inevitable.
“But is it inevitable?” Jolinn thinks to herself. “Does it have to end the way it has ended?”
Alana is drinking hot tea. Steam rises from the opening in the lid of her styrofoam cup, stamped with the image of a siren. She never ordered coffee, only tea.
“What’s the matter?” Alana asks.
“Nothing, nothing,” Jolinn lies. “Just thinking about something.”
Saving Alana’s life will be easy. All that has to be done is to avoid the lake. They could stay longer at the mall. Jolinn could suggest the two of them see a movie together. Only weeks after the killing, Jolinn will have, or maybe would have, seen The Conjuring. It was an attempt to take her mind off what had happened. It is playing tonight at the River East theatre. There is an AMC only a short uber ride away from where they are. Jolinn has the money.
“But what about Daniel?” she asks herself. He is near the lakeshore tonight, too. Her future is on the water. The pain and loss of death is possible. However, those events are connected, as if by half a million invisible threads, to the hands of her eventual husband, which right now are bringing the glowing ember of a spliff to his lips.
She can save Alana, but she will lose Daniel. Will she see The Conjuring again in theatres on July 27th to swap the nightmares of Alana’s gaping throat with visions of ghosts? Will she enroll in journalism the following August, even though she hated writing, to take her mind off this summer she had pushed to the very back of her mind? The possibility presents itself that she might never do these things, she might never find her love of writing in the paper, she might never win a full-ride to the University of Illinois, that she might never fall in love six summers from now. Six is the number of completion, and in the seventh summer will come the placid, domestic sabbath of marriage. Her husband smokes on the lake. She agonizes over his existence.
Two girls, young and alive, leave the cafeteria and move upwards to the floor above. They ascend like righteous souls through the heavenly gates of Dillard’s and spend what seems to Jolinn like an eternity comparing articles of clothes. Alana laughs. Alana smiles. Jolinn hides a woman’s pain behind a girl’s laugh. She wants to cry. Her husband or her cousin, that is the choice she has to make. Jolinn must choose soon. She remembers that this is about the time that Alana is going to suggest an uber over to Navy pier. Time runs out.
“So I was thinking-”
“We could see that new movie that just came out?” Alana interjects.
“Oh, um, sure. Which one?” A brief reprieve, the gruesome scene of Alana’s bloody murder has been averted. Jolinn breathes out a sigh of relief. “Maybe we could see The Conjuring.”
As that future disappears, Daniel exhales a cloud of smoke from his young lungs nearly a mile away. Walking with his friends two hours later, they pass a spot where two girls would have been walking had they not decided to see a film. Two men approach the group of teenage boys.
“Hey, guys! Hey! I’m fucking talking to you!”
Daniel throws a punch at one of the two men who tried to reach into his pocket. The other assailant pulls a knife. The blade slips easily into his throat. Daniel is stabbed seven times as his friends run away. He bleeds out quietly staring blankly into the distant lake horizon. He can faintly make out the lights of passing boats.
Jolinn and Alana make it back to the house around one in the morning. Jolinn is scolded briefly by her aunt. She is reminded of the times.
“There’s a lot of crime this summer! Girls getting raped, killed. God forbid, God forbid. You girls need to stay in the house. “
“I know,” Jolinn says. She hugs her aunt.
As Jolinn fell asleep in the guest room staring at the pale blue walls, she wondered if she would ever see Daniel again. His memory failed to leave her mind as she went back to school. As if to recreate the exact steps leading up to when they met, she went out for journalism her junior year of high school. She went to University of Illinois, although she didn’t receive a full ride scholarship as she had before. Her memories of now still clear in her head, she made sure to go outside on the final week of classes her second to last year of college in an olive green shirt with her shoulders exposed to the cool, Autumn breeze. However, when she looked out onto the yard in front of the library steps, there was no terrible musician.
Over the following two years, the memory of Daniel faded. She still moved into the same highrise. She still became a creative director for the same advertising company, and even moved into the same apartment unit that she had before. On a clear, sunny day, Jolinn goes downtown to a cafe where she looks in the faces of passing strangers for a friendly smile or indication of shared humanity. She finds nothing and leaves the waiter a tip.
She walks into her apartment. The window gives a clear view of the city skyline. In the distance, she can see the deep, fateful waters of Lake Michigan. There is no glass for her bare feet to avoid on the empty hardwood floor. She makes her way to the bathroom and takes a shower.
Jolinn looks in the mirror. She can barely see herself through the steam and heat of the room. She looks at her reflection as she bathes. Through the steam she can see, like the faint glimmer of shiplights on the black night sky over the lake, someone standing behind her.
William Higgs III is an environmental policy analyst who writes fiction in his spare time. He enjoys experimenting with different narrative forms that play with imaginaries of time. When he’s not writing or working, he enjoys hiking through the woods of southern Illinois with his wife and brewing exotic teas.