– The Garden of Nemo. The Work of the Magister Templi.1 –
“Why can’t Human Beings learn their lesson, like all the other creatures of the Earth?
And the cycles repeat themselves, day after day, year after year, life after life....
In truth we can only perceive the treasure that we held when, too late, we see it sink in eternal seas of life.
And then all that’s left is pain, sorrow and silence...”
We’d just finished dinner when the sound of our doorbell rang, leaving us both immediately alert.
“Maybe it’s that inconsiderate cousin of yours,” Rachel tried to sound critic but hopefulness was all I could hear.
My heartbeat increased immediately and I almost ran to the door.
“Who is it?” I asked and waited for an answer, my hand already on the door handle.
“It’s me, Stephanie.”
Her clearly female voice made me feel as if a bucket of cold water had just been poured over me, but I still opened the door as fast as I could, still doubting that I would really find her standing there.
Steph looked at me, cold and hard, as it had became customary in last few weeks, and I just stood there, not really knowing what to say.
“Hei, Stephanie! Long time no see,” I heard Rachel’s cheerful voice coming from behind me, and Steph looked over me smiling politely.
“Good evening Mrs. Mellis,” she greeted her.
“What are you doing, Mari!” my mom demanded in a reprimand. “Hurry up and invite her in!”
I blinked, still at a loss, and awkwardly stepped aside, so that she could come in.
“I’m really sorry to intrude so late at the night,” Steph went on, still talking to my mom.
“No problem at all! You’re always welcome! But tell me, have you had dinner?”
“Yes, thank you. I just came by because I have an important matter to discuss with Mari. I promise it won’t take long.”
“No problem at all. Make yourself at home. Anything just shout,” she added, winking, and trotted back to the kitchen to start on the dishes.
I looked at her once more and couldn’t help feeling intimidated by how quickly her smile was gone the moment my mother turned her back on us. As fake as mine, I thought.
“Think we can talk in your room?”
I simply nodded and went to the stairs, showing her the way, although she’d been there in many other occasions. I could almost swear I could feel her piercing gaze stabbing my back and took a deep breath as I entered my room, offering her passage, before closing the door behind her.
Stephanie walked in with a broad, decided step, and sat down, her back very straight, in the chair by my desk. Her gaze scanned my entire room as she observed her surroundings with a critical expression.
“Everything’s the same, around here,” she noted. “Since he managed to make you change your wardrobe I kind of expected that he’d manage to change the rest as well.” That truly irked me and I folded my arms, frowning.
“What do you want from me?”
She looked at me for a moment and leaned her head on her hand, observing me intently.
“You, on the other hand, have changed. Before it would have be unthinkable hearing you use that tone of voice. You’re not the same timid, shy girl that could hardly say what she was thinking.”
“You have also changed,” I accused and she sighed.
“Yes ... Well, since it’s late I’ll be going directly to the point. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I’m here to talk about Gabriel,” she frontally told me and waited for my reaction.
“Contrary to what you might think, there’s nothing going on between us,” I clarified and she sat upright which made her look even more intimidating.
“I know.” I blinked, completely baffled.
“If you know ... why all this?”
“Because you’re an idiot that doesn’t understand much of anything!” she dryly declared and stood up, pretending to be interested on my bookshelves. I didn’t answer and waited until she turned back to face me. “Do you know why I got close to him? What a stupid question ... of course you don’t,” she replied herself without giving me the chance to do it. “It was all because of you, of course. Because we were friends. And because I thought I was the only one who could understand you. Because it was as if you needed me to talk, to move. Because I was the only one who knew about your impossible love ... And yet, even being so close to you, I never managed to make you change one single thing about yourself. And then ... then he came along, out of nowhere, a cousin I’d never even heard about, and in a couple of days he successfully did what I’d been trying to do since the beginning of the year. I felt frustrated! I guess I even felt jealous. Suddenly the time you used to spend with us had to be shared with him and, as if it that wasn’t enough, he even succeeded in making Michael and you grow closer. I guess I just didn’t want to feel left behind. And so I decided to get close to him, since he’d become the center of your everyday life ...”
“Steph ...” I muttered, moved. I was speechless ... What could I possibly say? Gabriel’s influence over me could never be compared to a friendly advice. He hadn’t suggested that I should change. He had forced me to do it. The Contract that bound us demanded so. And yet I’d never even noticed how she felt, and for that I was the only one to blame. Self-centered as I’d been, only seeing my own problems, I’d never even stopped to wonder how the people around me felt about everything that was happening. I’d hurt Steph, and Joanne, and I hadn’t even noticed it.
“No need to feel guilty. In the end the error was mine. Because I wanted to monopolize your attention,” she told me but, even so, her tone was hard and cold. “He didn’t tell you, did he? What happened that Tuesday.” I shook my head in response. The Tuesday when everything had changed. When I’d ran away and hid at Michael’s place. “I followed him. I’d done it many times before, not knowing exactly what I expected to find. Sometimes I’d just tell myself that this was the only way I had to learn a bit more about him. Sometimes I wished I would find some dark secret that could prove to you that he really wasn’t the friendly, selfless character he seemed to be in front of everyone else,” she confessed and I felt sorry for her. Show me that he wasn’t who he seemed to be at school ... ? No one knew that better than I did ... “I can still clearly remember it as if it were yesterday. When I finally caught up with him he was punching a tree, repeatedly, wood chips flying everywhere, as silent tears slid down his face. He looked utterly furious to the point of frightening, and yet ... I would have never imagined that he could cry like that. And so I went to stop him. And for a split second I thought he was going to hit me instead. But then something detained his hand. I didn’t know what else to do. Of course something had clearly happened to make him so upset. And it was obvious he was in no condition to deal with anything else, or even to talk about it. It was almost night and so I offered to walk him home, but he refused. So I decided to take him to my place instead, at least until he calmed down enough to think straight,” I swallowed hard and squeezed my hands together, bracing myself for what would follow. Steph seemed to notice my anxiety and a cruel smile stretched her beautiful lips. “My mother had left to do some shopping, my father still hadn’t come back from work. I made him sit on the couch and he just sat there, staring into nothingness. I offered him something to drink but he didn’t even blink. I asked him what had happened but he didn’t answer. He only reacted when I asked about you. His face went back to that scary expression, his fists clenched into tight balls. And do you know what he told me with a hoarse voice? ‘She’s with Michael.’ Were his only words.“ The sharp pain was back in my chest making it hard to breathe. I couldn’t imagine his perfect face distorted into the expression she described. I couldn’t understand how his soft, velvet voice could ever sound hoarse. And yet she’d seen all that. In her words he was so Human ... ! “I kissed him,” she stated and I stared at her in disbelief. “That’s right. I don’t know why I did it, but I did,” she confirmed with a smile, touching her own lips as if she could still feel him. “He was naturally taken by surprise but looked calmer than before, and didn’t push me away. I’d never kissed anyone like that ... And it made me want him in a way I’ve never wanted anything in my life! And since his hands didn’t push me away I decided to make him mine,” she concluded, her perceptive gaze not allowing her to be deceived by my apparent indifference. “That’s right. I took him to my bedroom and, when my mom came back, told her I was too tired and that I wanted to go to bed a bit earlier than usual. I spent the whole night with him, feeling him inside me, smelling the scent of his skin, tasting his breath in my mouth.”
I felt my legs shaking and, in that precise moment, was sure I felt for her the same exact thing her expression had shown me every single day since that Tuesday.
She smiled again, as if appreciating the moment, and sat down once again, crossing her elegant legs.
“Does it disturb you? What I’ve just told you?” she questioned, her sarcasm all too palpable to go unnoticed.
“No,” I lied and raised my head not wanting to admit defeat. At least not in front of her! “Why would it? Everyone knows you two are together,” I declared. Steph averted her gaze and her nonchalant posture became more tense.
“We were never together,” she told me dryly. “Sure we spent that night together but, even then ...” She left it hanging and turned to me, hatred filling her eyes, making me realize just how much she’d been pretending to be indifferent to my presence, sitting beside me every day at school. “I could come here and make a wreck out of you with tales of a wonderful romance that would make you cry the rest of the night. But that’s not why I came,” she told me and I swallowed my protest of denial. “I came here to end this once and for all! During this holidays I had some time to think things through which, I confess, I still hadn’t done. I’ve been so determined to keep him away from you that time seems to have slipped away between my fingers. But, as strange as it may sound, since the end of the term, when I stopped seeing him, things started to become clearer. For example, would you believe me if I told you that during the whole night we were together he didn’t touch me one single time?” she added, bitterness filling her voice, and some of the hate I’d felt for her just moments ago started to dissipate. “Not even once ... not a single caress ... nothing ... no matter what I did or how much I wished for it ... and so I was sure that everything was over even before it began. That it would never be more than a one night stand, especially after I woke up in the morning to find out he was already gone. However, even though I’d decided to be a grown-up about it all, by the end of the day something irreversible had changed inside me. I missed him deeply, to the point that it hurt and not only emotionally. My body was burning up without the touch of his cold skin. And so I decided that I wouldn’t allow things to be over just like that ... But when I talked with him I was once again shown what I already knew; that what had happened between us had had no importance whatsoever to him. And yet, even then, I just couldn’t give up! Of all the times I tried to talk to him about us, he’d just listen in silence and, in the end, always told me the same thing, that what I wanted was never going to happen. But for me! For me was as if I couldn’t live without him! And so I made sure to use all the arguments I had at my disposal, even those I knew would hurt him most, like the fact that you only had eyes for Michael. I even hopped he’d lose control again, so that I could take care of him as before. But he never did. Always so cold and indifferent ... I’m sure you can imagine how I felt when he walked up to me, a few days later, and told me that he was willing to try to make things work between us ...” she added and I shuddered with sudden realization.
All those times he’d disappeared ... up till then I’d been sure he’d spent them with her. Which was true, except not the way I’d imagined it. He’d been trying to break up with her. Their relationship had been limited to just that one night, until I interfered, forcing him to accept that stupid agreement, making him go back on his decision. Because of that, he’d gotten closer to Steph again, something he obviously didn’t want to do. How could I’ve been so blind!
“Steph, you’re wrong about us!” I pleaded, as I’d pleaded before, and she folded her arms raising her head to face me.
“Please don’t insult me! You think I’m stupid? Sure I know about your fixation with Michael Newton! But surely you’re not arrogant enough to think you’re able to measure everyone else’s feelings through your own!” I couldn’t help feel as if I’d just been slapped. “I know what I saw and felt next to Gabriel,” she added. "And if I refused to face the truth, or acknowledge it, it was because I couldn’t even imagine being apart from him. But now ... now that’s not even possible anymore.“ She opened her small purse and took out three white envelopes. “Take them. This is why I came.”
I took a step forward to accept her strange gift. I turned them in my hands, noticing they’d all been opened, and read his name on all of them where it said ‘from’, in that beautiful calligraphy. These were letters he had written to her, I realized, that strange pain piercing my chest. But besides his name and hers there was nothing else. No stamps, no dates, not even addresses.
“They were written for you,” I pointed out, trying as hard as I could to hide the bitterness in my voice, and prepared to return them to their rightful owner. The last thing I wanted was to know what he had written to her.
“That’s what I thought, when the first one came. But then, after the last one everything got much clear. Although they’re addressed to me, he wrote them for you. All he did, he did it for you. And I just can’t find enough words to tell you how much I hate you for it.” Her words stung in my already raw chest. “But I also know that he did what he did because he was taking into account your feelings for me, and so I just can’t help feeling bad, because I know that it’s wrong of me to hate you the way I do; you who always wanted what’s best for me ... I’m really sorry, Mari. In the end it’s not your fault ... nor his. The fault is all mine. I was the one who decided to take him to my room. But, from then on, it wasn’t my fault either. Because no one can control or decide what to feel.”
“Oh, Steph ...” I sobbed crushing the letters in my hand, feeling the paper crumble under my fingers. “None of this is your fault. It’s mine! It’s all mine! And I just don’t know how to ask for your forgiveness ...” I lamented and she frowned, annoyed again.
“Will you please get over yourself?! Who do you think you are?” she demanded angrily.
“But it’s the truth!” I insisted. “I was the one who brought him into our lives!”
“And since when are we responsible for other people’s actions? Stop being so full of yourself, thinking that you have control over other people’s lives just because they’re close to you!” She took a deep breath, as if to calm herself down. “Did you know that Mark called me a few days ago?” A soft smile touched her lips making her look more like the Steph I knew. “At first I even refused to talk with him. I was feeling so desperate with Gabriel gone that I just couldn’t face him. But he kept insisting and called my home every single day. He even went to my house and refused to leave until I saw him.
“We talked a lot. What I did to him ... is unforgivable. I just left him like that, without a single word. But, even so, he says he forgives me. We went out a few times and, near him, I discovered this peaceful feeling I didn’t recall feeling before, but that I’d strangely missed. Of course things aren’t like they used to be. Don’t know if they’ll ever be. I’m perfectly aware that I’m in no position to demand or expect anything from him and, for now, I feel rather content with the way things are. We promised to be completely honest with each other and so I told him everything, even the things I knew would hurt him. And he accepted everything. And then it was my turn to listen in his own voice to all the hurt I’d caused him. But do you know what he told me in the end?” I stood silent, waiting for her to go on. “He told me that Gabriel had been the one to give him courage to come look for me. That Gabriel went to him and told him to stop being a coward and start fighting for what he really wanted.” A bitter smile tugged at her lips. “It’s like he delivered me into Mark’s arms,” she added spitefully. “Not that I’m complaining. Mark is really wonderful.”
“Does that mean that ...” I muttered, not knowing how to ask the question, and Steph stood up in her whole female glory, looking completely sure of herself.
“I have nothing else to do with your cousin. I don’t even intend to ever talk to him again. Please tell him that, next time you hear from him. And now I should go. It’s late and I don’t want to worry my mom. Keep those. They were written for you, anyways,” she added, looking at the letters crumpled in my hand, and went straight for the door.
“Wait, Steph!” I asked and she stopped for a moment, still keeping her back to me. “What about ... us?” I questioned, nervously. “Can’t we be ...”
“You don’t need me anymore, Mari,” she stated coldly.
“That was never the question! I never thought about being your friend because I needed you!” I countered and she took a deep breath.
“You’re not the same. I’ve changed as well. Who knows, maybe someday our paths will cross again. But for now ...” She left it hanging and I couldn’t help feeling sad. What had been broken between us couldn’t be that easily repaired. “No need to escort me out. I know the way. See you Monday,” she told me dryly and left, closing the door behind her.
I sat on my bed and cried in silence and without tears. Stephanie would never be my Steph again. My first friend in that new life Rachel and I had started together had just disappeared.
My tired gaze ended up on the envelopes I’d set down beside me and I grabbed the first one, taking out a single piece of paper. The letters printed on it were long and elegant, carefully drawn and not simply written. The date, in the right corner, was from the first day of holidays and I couldn’t help feel disappointed.
At least she had received news from him. I, not even that. I’d told myself I couldn’t care less about what he’d written her but now curiosity took over. Yes, because whatever Steph had said, thinking those letters were meant for me, she’d been the one to receive them. And so I allowed my eyes to wander over his beautiful handwriting.
London, 7th of April
I’m really sorry for having left without a word. I had to go back home during the holidays and, as it was all a last minute decision, there was no time for goodbyes. I hope you won’t miss me much.
Now that I’m no longer around, please try and talk things over with Mari. She always worries more than she should and only wants what’s best for you. Remember she’s not your enemy. If anyone should be, then it’s me, since I was the reason your friendship fell apart. I never wished for things to turn out like this.
If you do see her, please tell her that I’m all right. I don’t want her to worry needlessly. One the other hand, I guess she won’t worry at all. Most likely she doesn’t even care. So maybe it’s best if you don’t tell her anything. It would most likely just disturb her peace. If you do see her and she asks for me, just tell her that my little brother talks about her every day. That should be enough.
If everything goes as planned I’ll be back next week.
I passed my fingers over the perfect letters and found myself smiling gently. He’d thought about me, although I’d mentally accused him of disappearing whenever it suited him. And Lea ... Lea too, hadn’t forgotten me.
I put the paper back in its envelop and grabbed the next one. Like the previous one it also contained one single sheet of paper.
London, 12th of April
I know I should be returning today but, unfortunately, that won’t be possible. Things are a little complicated, right now, and it will take some time sorting things out. Still, you mustn’t worry, please.
What about Mari? Have you talked with her. If you didn’t please do! You just have no idea of how much she worries about you, of what she’s able to put herself through, in hopes of protecting you. You know her well, probably better than I do. And I’m sure you’re aware that all the nonsense you filled your head with is totally baseless. Please don’t make her suffer. She doesn’t wish you to.
Please tell her that we’re fine, next time you see her. My little brother just won’t shut up asking me to return as soon as possible. However, it’s out of my hands. In any case, I know she feels better and more at ease now that I’m gone. If she ever even remembers me it must be to thank the heavens that I still haven’t returned. And now, that I’m far away, she has even more time to spend with Michael. I’m sure that that makes her smile more often.
As soon as I know when I’ll be back I’ll let you now. Until then, please don’t wait for me. I’m sure you have other people with whom you can pleasantly spend your time with. Enjoy your holidays.
I lowered that piece of paper deeply annoyed at him. Why did he have to constantly put thoughts in my head that weren’t even there to begin with? He hardly knew me! How did he dare to think that those poor arguments could justify the fact that he hadn’t called even once during the entire vacations?
I took an instant to go through his words once again.
Well, I couldn’t really deny that he’d been right, that those were all logical things ... things I should probably be thinking right now. After all, I’d finally managed to resume my normal life. I no longer had to fear meeting him around every corner. I could go out with Michael whenever I wanted and return home without having to fear his reaction. I didn’t have to try to wrap my brain around concepts that no other Human Being had even heard about, or hear names and words that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Weren’t it for that mark, reddening the soft skin of my wrist, everything would have really gone back to normal. And yet ...
Smiling ... or even crying, were things I wasn’t able to do on my own. I knew that somewhere inside me inhabited a new kind of pain, one that I didn’t dare face or question, for fear of what I might find out. And so I just kept everything really still, completely motionless, knowing that the softest gust of wind or even the smallest of waves could be enough to wake up that other part of me. As long as I kept still the pain could be forgotten and I could go back to being who I was before, reflecting other people’s emotions and faking them whenever needed.
I smiled bitterly and placed the letter on the bed, picking up the last envelope. I couldn’t help feeling sad. I felt like a broken doll that he’d managed to get to work, but once he was gone, slowly went back to its primary motionless state.
I unfolded the last piece of paper and it took me only one look to notice that this was the longest letter so far. The date was from the day before, as if it had been hand delivered to Steph’s door.
London, 16th of April
I don’t really know how to tell you this. I fear I may cause you pain and I truly hope this is not the case. Mari would never forgive me if you were to shed a single tear on my account. In truth, all I did, even accepting to try and make things work between us, I did it all at her request. Obviously the initial mistake was all mine, for allowing someone like you to get involved with someone like me. And, once a mistake has been committed, it’s only fair that one should pay for it. Mari’s anger at me for what I did to you was so intense she even dared raise her voice. I wonder if you can even imagine her doing something like that. She demanded that I didn’t hurt you and all I’ve done up till now was to try and fulfill her demand. Mari may not understand me, but she knows my true nature. She knows I’ll never be able to make anyone happy. So, please, don’t cry for me. If possible, just pretend it was all an illusion, a magic trick from which you’re finally free. We both know you don’t truly love me. You’ve always been a smart, observant girl. I, on the other hand, will never be able to love you back. That is a word whose meaning is unknown to me. Even so, while living with Mari, I experimented and did things I’d never even imagine I could, like writing a letter like the one I’m now sending to you.
I’m not going to return. I wish I could say I’ll never return again, but, although I know this is the right thing to do, I just can’t make any promises. I left many important things behind, things that I may yet come to need. But you can tell Mari that if I ever have to return I’ll be so fast that she won’t even notice me. I’ll never interfere with her life again, as long as she keeps living in that house.
I hope that, with time, everything goes back to how it was before, since that’s Mari’s true and only wish. Maybe we’ll meet again, some day.
I only noticed how my hands were shaking when I tried to read his name for the third time, the elegant letters before my eyes constantly escaping me. The bitter taste that filled my mouth made me sob. I took a hand to my mouth, sealing it shut, refusing to believe that I’d be crying like a child if only I could cry when I felt like it.
Gabriel was not coming back.