Updated: Feb 16
By Tierra Woodford
Chapter 1 Time is a circle
Being happy takes a lot of work. The real problem was trying to decide if it’s actually worth all the trouble. Living expecting the worst could be a breed of healthy pessimism and she’d never be disappointed.
Aria ran a hand through her hair to keep the roaring wind from messing it up anymore than it already had. She shivered from the misty air that was blowing right in her face. Of course she should close the window before she got a cold but this was as close to going outside as she was getting for the next hour. She took a drag of a cigarette she had already lost interest in. The taste of it would stain her mouth and make her crave a burger but she was already filled with chips and dip so she saw no need to get out of bed. Aria stared out at a sleepy city. Despite the rain she could still hear birds chirping, and people going about their business. ( Cars slashed puddles onto the sidewalks, light reflected onto the grounds from stores- distorted but pretty. People were unseeable due to their umbrellas which left the city to be seen as vacant when viewed from above. Her smooth jazz playing from her radio combined with the pitter patter of raindrops completed the scene. It was absolute perfection if anyone asked Aria. She flicked her cigarette butt and closed the window. With a deep sigh she rolled her neck to rid it of the crick she had acquired at work. Five days of staring down at artificial light really did a number on her back and neck.
Aria threw herself across her bed with a content sigh. Finally, just her and her bed. No paperwork to pass around or co-sign, no co-workers looking over her shoulder like she didn’t know how to file a franchise inventory request, and no need to leave the comfort of her own home to deal with other people’s bull. Aria stretched out, enjoying the relative calm.
Her alarm blared out of nowhere causing Aria to slam her hand down on her phone so hard she thought she broke the screen. Thankfully it wasn’t broken and instead relaid a reminder to her; Lunch with Madeleine, one p.m. Aria could have crushed the phone right then and there- no, if she could she’d travel back in time to punch herself in the throat. Why in her right mind would she even consider giving up her lazy afternoon to drive for an hour to see someone she hadn’t seen in over two years. Highschool would never let her escape it or it’s influence. Not to say Madeleine was a bad person, her voice just gave Aria a headache.
She wasn’t even sure if she really agreed to go. Madeleine’s cheerful voice came buzzing back into her brain. “Aria! Finally, I’ve been looking through the books for hours to find you. It’s been so long.” Aria had said something along the lines of it’s good to hear from you whist trying to figure out how Madeleine got this number. “Do tell me. Have you taken over the world yet? Since the city hasn’t been painted pink yet I’d assume no.” Aria had laughed with her although she was more annoyed that she hadn’t painted the entire city pink yet. “Listen, I know you're busy but how about Lunch this weekend. Sunday, you me, we’ll catch up.” Aria wanted to say she was busy but couldn’t bring herself to. To say she was not busy was a lie. She was busy- relaxing her muscles while watching shadows on the ceiling. A very important affair indeed. “Be sure to take route 42 okay?”
Her alarm went off again, this time sounding more like a warning. Aria slammed her hand down on it again, “Yeah, yeah.” She threw herself from her bed, and ignored her body’s screams and tingles from it’s neglect. It would go away eventually. One shower later she put on a pants suit and pulled her hair into a loose ponytail and was out the door. She continued her use of jazz music to brighten her day, she kept one window half down and her jacket pulled up. Once in her car she turned off her brain completely disappearing into her jazz, she was patient through the stop and go of the city traffic that should have been emptier due to the rain. She let her mind wander when she got past this stop and go knowing there would be a straight highway that would be between her side of town and Madeleine’s side. The same highway she took to work every single week morning. Every single morning. A sign of an exit to Blyth beach showed up on her right, a beach despite being right next to she hadn’t revisited since the senior graduation party five years ago.
Aria’s scrunched up her face, a class of 107- an incredibly small high school- all grown up. Or at least getting there. She remembered seventeen of their names, and only kept in actual contact with maybe three. Madeleine and herself had only spoken ever so often in math and science class where they didn’t sit next to each other. They did however compare their grades on every test, quiz and assignment. Aria usually won by two or three points to which Madeleine would proclaim she’d win next time. It was a great way to keep keep her motivated and practice time management- that virtue she immediately lost once in college. They treated their grades as signifiers as to who was smarter, worked harder and would rise to the top as the cream of the crop in the long run. They both wanted to be business women evidently. Others in their class had gotten what they were gonna do for at least the next year.
Already Mari, an old friend, had gotten married and was two months away from having her first child. Keir, Mari’s ex-best friend, was hitting the gyms everyday-or so his daily updates online would have her believe- to be a professional boxer and Kat, her childhood friend and neighbor, was considered MIA despite her still being in America messing something up elsewhere. Kat had to be the odd one out, she just packed up her bags, sold everything she couldn’t fit in two bags and took off right after college. Aria didn’t need to know all of these things but since everyone seemed to be incapable of keeping their lives to themselves Aria was subjected to being their involuntary witness. Kat would send what was essentially a photo album of each place she invaded. She not only went to cities and tourist traps she would stop at small towns, houses in the middle of nowhere and small time landmarks that were sacred to the locals. Mari sent her letters of her adventures in marriage which had Aria convinced that would be something she’d never do, as well as vitsit when she could. Aria went to work, cleaned, cooked or ordered out and got a head start on the next day’s orders. Aria rubbed her temple. Copy and pasting her tasks, day after day. Humans are creatures of habit so it wasn’t so bad.
Wind whipped by her head, as did the thin sun starved trees. Maybe she could sell everything her apartment didn’t need, get a loan and find a small business to buy somewhere in a small town perhaps. Aria shook her head, the owner would want someone with experience, experience of which Aria was getting from Hiraeth corporation.
The rumbling of her car veering off the road brought her mind back to the task at hand. She steered back onto the road and looked around, no one was around to see that. No harm no foul. Aria’s eyes found no end to the road in front of her. It was a straight shot for a few miles, sure, but it wasn’t this long nor this void of life.
Aria pressed the gas pedal harder. She had to have taken a wrong turn or was hallucinating. It felt as though she were passing the same trees over and over again despite each tree being nothing more than a blur. It couldn’t be that though since the very ground she rode on had different markings from the yellow reflective paints that separate lanes for her nighttime safety to skid marks from stopping suddenly to the pieces of car that were left over from crashes. Aria’s chest tightened as she felt time passing her like an arrow whizzing past her face. Aria sped up. No signs popped up beside the roads, no one was passing her, not even a fourth lane that would need to merge with the one on her right. She slammed on her breaks realizing that no one else was on the road. Just her. Although this highway was never congested it was never empty either, there was always some speeding jerk shooting right past her, a grandma cruising beside her or someone pulled over with their car hood up. Aria’s throat closed up, the soft rocking of her own car rose the anxiety in her chest bringing her to the doorstep of anxiety attack.
Thankfully, or rather unfortunately, she had been here many times before. Before she graduated, after she got rejected from her colleges of choice, and everyday before work. Therefore was equipped to deal with herself. Aria leaned back and closed her eyes, five second breathe in, three second breathe out. She placed her hand over her chest so she could feel it rising and falling. She was still alive, still breathing. Nothing was wrong with her. All she had to do was keep breathing and nothing more, nothing less. Breathe in, breathe out. As soon as she got to work she could mentally shut down and let her body take control while she was elsewhere- it wouldn’t matter. No one expected anything of her but to keep breathing. Breathe in, breathe out. Aria’s hand rose with her chest, she could feel the steady beating of her heart that matched the rhythmic rocking of her car. No one expected anything of her but to keep breathing. Breathe in, breathe out. She was fine. This is fine. It’s fine. This is just great. Everything’s fine.
Aria pressed on forward. Her eyes shifted from side to side, all she needed was a sign that she was going the right way. Someone driving the way, or a literal sign or even a tree she recognized, would do it. Yet all she got was a repetitious scenery of thin gray and brown trees with bonier branches and dying leaves despite it being mid spring. Pathetic excuses for trees. Trees that couldn’t even become paperwork.
Aria gripped her steering wheel tighter to keep from punching something. Where had she taken a wrong turn, yes she wasn’t necessarily paying attention to the road since she had been down it everyday for the last ten years and thus thought she could relax- let her memory guide her way but of course she was wrong. Her stomach growled. She sighed, she was already running twenty minutes late this morning due to oversleeping after working on her annual report of their sales for the past year. They had also entrusted her with creating a plan to make the office community stronger since the merger had left them distrustful of fellow employees. A company that was far too big for its own good collapsing on itself was only trouble for those who were the clogs that kept the machine moving. Aria could have been excused for being a little late just because both were done. Her being more than an hour late would not be overlooked, not to mention that she couldn’t call in to warn them since she didn’t have service on this road. Aria’s stomach growled at her again, this time she not only heard it but felt it rock her body more than the car did. She stopped her car again before she slammed her head onto her steering wheel, never again would she skip breakfast. Never. Being on time wasn’t even worth the discomfort. Dock her pay if they wanted to but she’d be at a buffet eating her fill every single morning before she even thought of showing her face at the office. She placed a hand over her stomach, for all she knew it could be hours before she would find her way back towards her job or a rest stop. With a groan she pressed the gas and rolled forward not even bothering to look up since no one was around. She lifted her head, eyes still shifting about for some semblance of direction… just on the right of her, nearly hidden by trees and shrubs she saw it.
A sign at last! “Type City, exit 63”, Aria let out a sigh of relief. Beside that message was an advertisement for a restaurant with homemade cooking just up ahead. Aria stepped on it. She chuckled to herself, she really needed to relax, worse comes to worse she could always just turn around to make up an excuse for her absence and take another nap. Either way she needed to be patient and look for an exit. Her stomach growled again.
A diner the size of a cozy countryside home came into view on her right side. Her stomach growled again. She glanced at the clock once more- three hours and two minutes late. Screw it, a break couldn’t hurt. She was already late. Aria rolled into the dirt lot and pulled up next to a navy blue jeep made for off road detours. Aria whistled at it, whoever it belonged to had already broken it in judging by the mud splatters covering the doors. Her mom had one just like it before she traded it for a station wagon- a downgrade but it gave her the ‘suburban look’ she was going for. Whatever that meant.
Aria stepped of her car and felt the wind smack her right in the face. The ground was crisp and crunched with her every step. Winter had already gone yet the effects lingered, she might need to keep wearing her winter coats. Aria pulled up her hood, although the rain was light it felt freezing against her warm skin and made goosebumps form from small touches. The diner’s window went straight to the chefs who were running about silly, yet still had smiles on their faces. Only three chefs were present and they had five stoves lined up in a row. It kinda reminded her of the hotel restaurant she worked it while going to school, it was set up the same way but had more staff and more stoves. The chefs paid Aria no attention and thus she went inside.
A heat wave blasted her the second she got inside. Only five booths were inside and all on one side of the diner, only four were filled with patrons of varying ages. All the faces in the place seemed familiar, perhaps from passing them on the street or road. Either way the warm air combined with the patron’s familiar faces eased the tension from her shoulders. Aria went straight to the bar style seats, if she sat in a booth all alone she’d feel out of place. Two waitresses came from the back of the restaurant with a meal in each hand, Aria saw steaks, vanilla pudding, barbecue ribs, chicken soup and salad. Her mouth was watering already, she looked over the menu already placed in front of her; chicken noodle soups, grilled cheese stacked on-top of each other, grilled vegetable soups with fried fish… Aria’s mouth watered as she saw exactly what she wanted on the menu. Macaroni and cheese, and steak with green beans as a side, and a strange request; she wanted a spoonful of steak juice to be poured on her macaroni. Her mom used to do that all the time to give it extra flavor. If she had more time to cook at home she’d make it herself more often but going out all the time wasn’t so bad. That’s what fast food places are for. She wondered if Madeleine would be angry that she ate before they met up, or mad that she maybe a bit late. Aria placed her chin in her hand, maybe she shouldn’t be here.
“Aria!” Her heart skipped a beat
“What are you doing here?”
“Got a bit peckish myself while coming to meet you. Thought I’d have a snack here and a meal there but since we’re both here might as well just stay here. It’s much cozier anyway.”
“That it is.” Aria’s eyes scanned the healthy 23 year old as she sat beside her.
The years seemed to have been treating her well considering how comfortable she seemed or it was an act for this meetup. But if it were an act it’d be strange to call up someone such as Aria just to pretend she were better off than she actually was. Her auburn hair was pulled into a bun, her peach pants suit looked as pretty on her brown skin as it did expensive not to mention the blush on her cheeks highlighted the light in her eyes. Aria looked at her own navy blue pants suit, she should’ve worn something bright.
“It’s good to see you.” Aria said quietly.
“Right back at you.” Madeleine leaned over the counter, “Don’t leave me in suspense now. What has my life rival been up to for five years?”
“Now that college is out of my way I’ve been working with a Hiraeth as the supply manager, basically an in between for the franchise owners in the areas and the big wigs .”
Madeleine tilted her head. “That’s a large corporation. What happened to the managing position at Petrichor. Your internship there should have made you a candidate.”
“Too small, too new. It wasn’t exactly to my tastes.” And Hiraeth seemed more practical at the time. Debt was no joke.
“As long as it’s fulfilling”, Madeleine glanced over the menu for only a second, “speaking of filling.” She whistled at the waitress who promptly came to them with a smile. The blonde woman had an air around her that reminded Aria of her ninth grade science teacher, soft and unassuming yet pleasant and present. Homely, inviting. Aria’s shoulders fell even more.
The waitress took their orders and shimmied off to fulfill them leaving the two women to speak of the years they missed. Aria wished that most of their interaction was nonverbal from fear of not having much to say yet Madeleine held the conversation by herself she went on and on. And on and on and on. And Aria remembered why she kept their interactions to a minimum.
“It’s like a dream, or like floating in the air over your bed trying not to float away because your family is calling for you downstairs. Have you ever flown before? Skydiving is the closest most people get to it, more power to them sounds dangerous but I had to attend a few classes to close a deal with an investor who was a thrill seeker. It’s exhausting trying to keep up with everyone else, work, school, personal life. I don’t wanna but I’ll regret it if I don’t at least try, not to keep up but make my own path, even if I wasn’t in the business of sweet talking walking dollar signs I’d be living my best life no matter what tried to stop me…” Aria toned her out a bit, there was a lot coming out of her mouth and no questions directed towards her.
Aria couldn’t stop staring at Madeleine. Her hands were at her place on the bar, near her chest, her back was straight and her smile was one that pulled the eye away from any other part of her. Aria’s shoulders were at ease allowing for her body to move gently with so much grace Aria found herself trying to imitate her movements. Confidence emitted from her pores. The confidence of a woman who had it all together and was still tough as nails.
“Aria.” Madeleine pulled a little booklet from her suit pocket. “I bare gifts.” By gifts she meant instruments of overwhelming torment. High School photos.
Aria cringed at the bright rainbow hair she had on the top of her head and nowhere else. Just the top. Not to mention the bright clothes that paired colors not meant to be together like orange and purple, form fitting but baggy at the places where it counted which gave her a look that said she bought the wrong size. Madeleine fared no better, her bangs had been bleached past blonde to be turning silver on top of her graphic tees with wolves on them and skirts over skinny jeans. Aria covered her eyes.
“We should wipe those off the face of the earth before our enemies find them.”
“I thought the hair was interesting.”
“Everything in that picture is a blit on my flawless fashion record.”
“In my effort to outdo you I lost my spot as resident fashion icon too.”
“To fall so far and still settle for a simple peach.”
“I know, Miss. Nocturnal, hasn’t slept in three years looking, come to the darkside, ‘I’m a creature of the night,’ did not just call my suit simple.” Madeleine leaned in, Aria snorted.
Aria slowly got closer, her lips pulled into a snarl as she spoke. “Excuse me, Miss. pocket full of pilled happiness, generic princess looking, void of personality so I’ll hide it with bright clothes and not talking.”
Eye to eye they stared for a moment. They burst out laughing, Aria gently bumped into her shoulder, Madeleine elbowed her gently in the ribs. They were so mean to each other back then, good to see the fire was still there. Their high school was one where they had to quick with their tongues to be left alone. Speaking of high school.
Aria pointed at Madeleine. “Mari told me our high school is doing a full overhaul, more tests, more clubs, more students. A bunch of our teachers are jumping ship.”
“Ms. Roxy too.”
“She’s retiring all together.”
“Those poor kids won’t get the amazing experience of an elderly woman throwing plushies at the door if someone was too loud while walking by.”
“Mari said she’d gonna take her retirement and get outta the city.”
“If I could I’d revive an old dying small town, make it half tourist trap, half homely residence. I’d get to expand business, start up my own to rival yours and get to travel a bit. ”
Aria smiled into her folded hands. “I’m happy where I am.”
Madeleine offered a tired smile. Just then their food came out and was placed in front of them. Madeleine’s meal of grilled cheese and a salad paled in comparison to her own balanced meal, and thus she has won this interaction. Even if Madeleine had the better clothes, attitude and general position in life. Aria picked up her knife and fork.
“It’s so great that you can be honest with each other,” Madeleine raised her grilled cheese to her lips, “it always works out in the end.” The food stopped the woman’s mouth and Aria was glad for it.
Aria cut her meal into pieces and lifted it to her mouth. She took one bit into her steak, and her vision went hazy. Aria swayed slightly, like if she were on a train that was coming to a stop. She leaned over the bar counter and held herself still as she tried to blink away the confusion. Aria touched a hand to her warm stomach. It was full but she didn’t taste the food that was gone from her plate. She blinked a few times trying to clear the blur from her eyes.
“Working my way up the corporate ladder,” she said slowly. She looked around, no one else seemed to be having any trouble and Madeleine didn’t even notice the disappearing act. Madeleine’s food was half done as well. Perhaps she had become so focused on Madeleine she didn’t even notice she ate it all. Madeleine leaned back with a content sigh.
“Amazing, I love it here. Everything’s so tasty.”
Her food was gone and she was full. Perhaps she had blacked out of the experience. She needed to get a grip. Madeleine rubbed her stomach, “Still a bit hungry. Desert! Let’s get desert in the city, they’ve got some cheap freshly made cheese cake. We’ll take your car.”
“What about your car?”
“Don’t worry about it, let’s go.” Madeleine grabbed her hand and pulled her out into the parking lot, Aria’s eyes blinked in and out- she thought she saw nothing but a dirt road where the cars were for a moment, and blinked again for everything to come back. She would make a trip to the eye doctor sometime that week.
They hopped in her car and rode off. Aria turned up the radio when jazz music started to come through, to encourage Madeleine’s silence, while scanning the area. No more signs were popping up around them, nor did she see any exits yet. Irritation settled into her bones at the length of the highway and emptiness she had never in her life seen before. Madeleine pressed her hand to the window, a child like wonder crossing her face as trees whipped past them. Madeleine turned down the radio and turned to Aria.
“If you’ve ever wondered about this road and why it’s so long between two cities there’s a legend that explains it.”
Aria pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Really, enlighten me.” A story should keep her mind off the surprisingly daunting task of driving.
“There once was a man who roamed these old roads before there were roads to trot down. He was an old fashioned hitchhiker. Not by choice but of necessity, you see his family had disowned him for an affair he had when he was in an arranged marriage to another. Ridiculed and humiliated he was actosized from his own town and his beloved who he thought would still take him abandoned him and thus he set out on his own with nothing but a single canteen of water and the clothes on his back.”
Beside her Aria thought she saw a tree twisted into the shape of a thumb pointing forward.
“He was barely past living eighteen years and figured he’d find a home before he grew too cold or hungry. He was wrong. For days he wandered without a clue as to where he was going, which resulted in a slow death on his way to another town on foot. Even when he had no energy, no water, no hope he didn’t stop. Not even when the soles of his feet bled. His bloody footprints could still be engraved into the ground for all we know. Eventually he fell asleep under a willow tree deep in the roadside forest and slept forever.”
The clouds grew even darker in just a few seconds and the rain dropped harder. Aria’s breathing quickened a bit.
“Fast forward years later to a woman hitchhiker who was just as lost as he had been. Hitchhikers are always searching for something, some answer to a question that’s been haunting them for years and only just now do they even realize they can make the answer for themselves. Low on food, water and energy she had laid down to rethink her life choices on a road that just wouldn’t end. That is when his old bloody footprints revealed themselves to her and took her straight to him. His body was part of a tree, his eyes were silver to look right through her, his presence was bigger than the forest itself. She wasn’t as frightened as she was impressed and awed by this creature. When she approached she heard him speak though his mouth was closed. He asked only one question.
“Why travel this road alone?”
She answered with a voice that quivered. “Answers to the questions about life’s meaning before my life is over.”
“Then answers you shall have.” His eyes shined and her physical pains were taken away.”
Aria felt a sudden rush of fear run up her spine and hit her head with an ache she was not familiar with. She pressed the gas pedal wanting nothing more than to get off this road. Alright she's definitely losing her mind. She took deep quiet breaths trying to calm herself.
“When she blinked she found herself back on the main road with a single word written on her palm. Gifts. Over the years she found what his gift to her was. The power of complete control over the road she bled over. Immortality. Perception. Disguise. Elements. But only when on this road. She mastered her abilities and leaves her home every so often. She can see right through you. She knows when your lying to yourself and punishes those who deny themselves the truth. It’s not active all the time as the woman leaves to spy on others but it’s said that if you ride these roads while she’s on them you may never see the real world again. The road just goes on and on and on and on. Every 50 years or so she rebirths herself to take part in the human world, go to their schools, meet new friends. Track new lives. Punish new souls.”
Aria gave a side glance to Madeleine and couldn’t see her eyes anymore, her heart skipped a beat and she held the steering wheel tighter.
“So long as they’re deserving.” Madeleine smiled.