Crystalgia (In Stranger Steps) by Basiliké Pappa


The drizzle had no idea how to take the next step and burst into rain. A leaf the color of autumn drifted towards the never-ending stream of yellow and red lights. One of the drivers honked angrily and swerved.

She was a young woman whose favorite color was black and who liked to walk alone. She walked past buildings with FITNESS and LIFESAVERS plastered across their facades, past an old man with a cane and a woman carrying a bag of groceries. Fingers fumbling inside her pocket, she walked past a man selling flowers. There were no real flowers in his bucket, only plastic ones attached to sticks. She thought she saw one that had some sort of insect crawling around on it.

Then she found herself looking at a girl sitting on the sidewalk, feet bare, eating grapes out of a bowl. She reminded her of a picture from a children’s book. In that story, the girl was always happy.

Finally she came to the crossing where the intricacy of the old town began. There was no noise here – only empty windows, shadow cats and a stillness of air. The streets were lined with two-story houses, handsome once, now decrepit, mossy, rooks nesting under the roof tiles.

She rounded a corner and went up a flight of steps, the thud of her combat boots marking a quiet rhythm on the stones. At the top, her friend-house waited for her, just like a friend who has been dead for years sometimes still waits for us around a corner. Grass grew out of its cracks, its roof a tangled mess of vines. Curtains still hung from its windows, yellowed and brittle with age; a bronze fist of a knocker stubbornly clung to the wooden door.

But this time the house wasn’t alone; leaning against its wall –arms and ankles crossed– was a man in a black leather jacket and faded jeans. She cursed under her breath.

“I heard that,” he said, raising his glare straight. For a couple of seconds they dueled in silence. Then grins dawned on their scowls, and they began to laugh with a light they usually kept hidden.

“You have the talents of the sun,” she said. “What brings you to these dark alleys?”

***

The drizzle stopped. The sun’s fingertips reached out through the grayscale to paint everything tangerine. Then the color drained away, and the crystal eye of the night settled above the city. She stared into his eyes, made no effort to disguise the fact that she liked what she saw. A thrill ran up her spine.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked. “I don’t know you and you don’t know me.”

He nodded, heart pounding. He had done many things in his life, but never before had he agreed to something so immediate, so absolute.

***

Their steps matched as they wandered the alleys. They didn’t know what it was that held them side by side. All they knew was that this was a good place to hide and say things like, how the lights in a dark part of the city seem more frightening than the lights on the top floor of an apartment building. Or talk about memories and the pomegranate seeds of dreams. About that place and how they would never find it, because it is impossible to find anything you want to go back to. That last phone call, and how it had sounded like an old record skipping. The first time you realize you are a bit of an asshole, like when you steal someone’s lighter or someone’s fire, and you start to wonder: What does it mean to love? How every time you get to be gatekeeper, you have trouble finding the keys, and then you start getting itchy again in a room full of people. You try to convince yourself to believe, but there are too many dead things in your path, so you give up on the idea of a soul and avoid human contact. Eyes closed, you want to lie under a fig tree, and sing in unison with swarms of bees that you are your only chance and you are failing.

***

The dawn didn’t want to intrude, but the alarm chorus left it no choice. The world was waking up with all its voices – some angry, some fearful, others pleading for a way to survive. In the wash of the new light, their faces took on the colors of an old photograph, of nostalgia.

“Goodbye, stranger. Think of me sometimes and smile.”

***

The years passed. Weeds started to grow around their feet, birds came to build their nests on top of their heads. But the memory of that night, like keys jingling in their pocket, saved their hearts from turning to stone as they grew older.

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