The Other Side of the Tracks | Teen Ink

The Other Side of the Tracks

May 11, 2021
By hobi BRONZE, Houston, Texas
hobi BRONZE, Houston, Texas
4 articles 4 photos 3 comments

Favorite Quote:
飛べ (Fly)


Anoli

Loud howls echo in my ears. Snow blows all around me, icy wind getting closer to my heart with each gust. Looking up, I see white trees towering above, their branches breaking the sky into a million shards of glass. I roll over onto my side, coughing. Thick, scarlet blood pools in the snow, forming little swirly rivers. My throat hurts. My head hurts. Everything hurts. I open my mouth wanting to scream, but only a pathetic wheeze escapes in a wispy puff. I must be having the nightmares again. They always start around this time of year, when the pain and pressure is the strongest. My family consists of my 6 siblings and my Mama. I take care of everyone, as Mama’s too sick to even get out of bed most days. I provide for the family, and along with that burden comes the responsibility of getting some kind of food on the table. But during the winter months most animals go into hibernation and our hunger grows, a sharp high note lasting for three eternities. It happened pretty suddenly, Mama getting sick. I was only a tiny 7-year-old back then.

I lay there motionless, on the ground. I just can’t sleep; every time I feel myself starting to slip away into the dreamworld, someone moves or makes a noise, snapping me back into consciousness. I get up and look around. Before me is my older sister, sound asleep. The sleeping bodies of my younger siblings all lay on the other side of the tiny hut. They’re huddled together in a mass of tangled limbs, using each other as human heaters. Although they are 6 and my Mama is 1, I feel more heat against my left cheek. I roll over to find this thin woman shivering on the ground beside me. Her jaw is clenched tightly, her eyes squeezed shut. But underneath those thin eyelids, I see her defined pupils moving left to right in a repeating motion. I bolt up rushing towards her, my mind a blank chalkboard waiting for someone to write something down. All my life, Mama’s always told me what to do. I’ve never felt the pressure of making any decisions for myself, or having people depend on me to provide. So when I see her on the ground, my muscles fill with lead making me unable to move. Every sound blends together into a horrifyingly beautiful chorus. It suddenly amplifies all at once until my ears are painfully ringing to a piercing whistle. Soon, I’m clutching my head, rocking back and forth on my knees, as never-ending tears stream down my face. I can feel the walls closing in on me. Time stops as I gradually descend down a deep spiral of agony and despair - as if someone were stretching out a coiled spring.

“I’m <sob> sorry,” I chant in a whisper. The two words pulse in my mind, matching the rhythm of my heartbeat. Everything is too loud. “Please. Make it. S-s-s-stop.” 

That was the first time I had truly felt pain. I look down, catching my reflection in the blood. Two round brown eyes stare back at me. They’re filled with hate and anger, but hidden even deeper beneath that, a faint sense of curiosity. My two short braids hang down beneath me. Their tips submerged in the red mirror of blood, like fresh paint brushes. Just then, in the corner of the reflection, I see another pair of eyes appear. They’re a cool green that remind me of the dewy beds of grass that a new dawn brings. I feel a sense of familiarity in those eyes; they seem to have an aura of calmness - like they’re assuring me that I’m going to be okay. I look up to find a boy. No, not just a boy. The boy.


Levi

It’s the girl from the other side of the tracks. I remember seeing her a few weeks ago on moving day. She was observing the movers, soaking up their every motion. I noticed her pretty fast (points to the good hiding spot, though; she was camouflaged in the greenery), but it took her a few minutes to realize she herself had been discovered. When our eyes made contact, a look of panic crossed her face, and she clumsily stumbled into the unknown. 

Now getting a closer look at her, I can see that she has tiny freckles sprinkled around her eyes and on her nose. And her eyes, they are so… brown. Not in a boring kind of way, but like every autumn color in one. They seem to make everything else look bland, like they’re a sort of vacuum absorbing all the color in the world. Two short brown braids flecked with white chips of ice hang down her shoulders. She’s cute, I guess. But not beautiful. I’ve met girls much prettier. Not saying that I wouldn’t date her for a bit, though. I don’t realize that she’s drawn an arrow and positioned it towards my throat. Her posture is awkward, but it could get the job done. I look behind her and see a pool of blood. The top is starting to freeze over, transforming it into a pile of sparkling rubies. 

“What are you doing here?” She ordered. 

Trying to think of  a witty reply, I say, “I could ask you the same thing.” 

She frowns, wrinkles forming on her forehead, her tiny nose scrunching up. But she doesn’t say anything, and the silence stretches out between us. After a few awkward moments, she lifts herself off the ground letting out a grunt of pain, and slowly starts trudging away. I can hear the slosh of her taking another step getting fainter. She’s almost disappeared into the hazy whiteness of the storm, when I suddenly call out for her to wait up. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe I was concerned for her safety; surely a fragile thing like her wouldn’t make it even a few minutes before getting too fatigued to move any longer… Or maybe I was just selfish and didn’t want to be alone.

I’m surprised she actually stood by for me. When I finally make it to her, I see how exhausted she truly looks. Where the snow is at my knees, it’s at her waist. She looks so fragile, like if I touch her any second, she’ll collapse. Dark (almost black) circles stain her eyes, and her cheekbones are deeply sunken in. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? She bends forward, head hanging loosely from her neck like a wet scarecrow. I immediately rush to her side, scooping her up in my arms. It feels as if I’m holding nothing, just stupidly imagining I’m carrying an actual being. I continue blindly trudging through the snow, no longer possessing a sense of where I’m going or even started. Every step is getting more strenuous, but I try to go faster to get her to safety. It’s a repeated cycle of - pick up my foot, drop it somewhere ahead of the last step I took, and wait a few minutes to catch my breath. I’ve lost track of basically everything; the white is ubiquitous. I don’t know how long I’ve been out here. And even if I try to keep track of time, my brain’s too sluggish to keep up. I feel like a toddler again - all my attention can only be directed towards one thing at a time (getting the girl back home), and even then, I’m struggling. 

It takes a while for me to realize that we have no chance of getting back home right now. Suddenly, the girl feels like she weighs a hundred pounds in my arms. “Dammit,” I huff, my frustration easily planted like an unwanted barrier in my mind.

She’s a dead weight slowing me down. I would’ve left anyone behind in a heartbeat. Not like they would care about me either. What’s wrong with me? I don’t even know this stupid girl. I look down at her. She’s staring up at me with acrimony, though stittled eyes. Her dry lips part to say something... and she starts coughing. Blood spatters across my face as she goes limp in my arms. I’m determined to seek immediate shelter. Everything is tainted a slight red. I scan my surroundings, only to find nothing. As I take another step, out of the corner of my view, a hollow tree appears. Shelter. Warmth. Safety. In a split second every part of me is focused on getting to that single tree. 


Anoli

I can feel eternal slumber approaching, as I fight to stay conscious. He’s lurking in the edges of my vision, at the back of my mind, trying to consume my everything. It seems easy - death. I could just close my eyes, and let him take me away. No more pain, or sorrow. I could just relax after nine years of hell. I would just revel in it. But Mama and the siblings… who would take care of them? The weight that had been lifted off my chest for a bare few seconds slams back down, making me wince, and go back under the surface. I don’t know how long it’s been since my last blackout, but my body feels like it's its own detached entity. My throat feels like someone has ripped it apart with their bare hands, and is repeatedly stabbing in holes with a dagger. And at this point, I’m honestly surprised my arms haven’t fallen off. I imagine myself slowly turning to ice, frozen forever in an interchangeable position. Although it’s penetratingly cold, my 2 layers of worn-out clothes are drenched in sweat, clinging to my skin. I can see unprepossessing scars underneath, from injuries that never adequately healed. We’ve just never had the money to acquire appropriate medical supplies. But we’ve always come up with our own remedies… And suddenly I’m a 6-year-old again.

I sit there in fetal position rocking back and forth. “It hurts, Mama. Really, really bad,” I whine, “Can I please have some medicine?”

Mama just looks down at me, all poker face. Then she sits down and curls up next to me, gathering me into a huge embrace. She’s silent for a few seconds, listening to me complaining in whimpers. Then she does something I’ve never heard her do. She starts singing softly. A faint melody - lulling and benevolent as sunny fields in the summertime. 

 

I’m finally dancing, and I feel just fine

If you don’t want me, then I’ll be alright

I don’t want another life that isn’t mine

Because I’m dancing in the light

In the light


The memory of her voice makes me go silent and disregard the pain. It’s all around me, a woven rainbow of colors. I’m broken, yet whole. And just like that, my mind goes blank. 

 

Levi

I’m so close. Just. One. More. Step. I’ve completely exhausted the adrenaline I was running on. So when I finally get inside, my body naturally starts to collapse. But before I fall on my face and smash my skull, I put the girl down with the bark wall against her back. Despite the bitter cold, her whole body is drenched with sweat. She’s slumped down against the wall, looking ghostly thin. I reach down and grab her wrist to feel for a pulse. There’s nothing. Just a cold, lifeless hand. My blood runs cold, as a frigid chill shoots like a bullet, through me. Sheer panic proliferates in me. Before I drop her hand, I feel a small pulse come to life like the struggling heartbeat of a baby sparrow. It’s scattered in an abnormal pattern. Though it’s so faint, each beat of her heart courses through my body and mind. It rings in my ears, as my breath escalates. She’s alive. But reality being reality, always setting in at the wrong moments makes me realize that I have absolutely no medical experience. Pure dread fills my lungs, knocking the air out of me. I’m no help, and the chances of her making it to the next morning are very slim. I slide to the ground next to her body and put her head in my lap. A deep moan escapes her throat just as blood starts dribbling out of her mouth. I remove my coat and wrap it around her, not sure if it’ll help at this point. 

Dreadfully long hours pass, as the girl’s time pursues in running out. I find myself carefully stroking her hair, painfully aware of the amount of pressure I apply. I’d expected her to be dead by now; she was already in a horrible condition. But I couldn’t have expected her to be quite healthy either. Judging from her hunting gear and prominent muscles she was no doubt out trying to secure a dinner for her family, but they either didn’t come across a single animal, or failed to capture one. Actually, the animals haven’t been out for quite a few months now, much longer than last year and the years prior. I examine her face. Now that she’s so close, I can see each individual freckle. They’re a light chocolate brown spotting her golden skin. There’s one individual spot that’s bigger than the rest, right below her left eye. I don't know why but, I’ve always seen freckles like island nations, the tiny islands all randomly dispersed and some substantially larger than others. I pull away in a single swift motion. I shouldn’t be looking at her so close. For some crazy reason it all just feels erroneous. I gently, but briskly set her head down on the ground, and scoot away to the far side of the area.


Anoli

“You have a whole life ahead of you to live, empty pages to fill,” states Mama. 

It’s funny how she made that reference, considering my illiteracy. “But I’m so tired. I feel like I’m always on the verge of drowning, and I can’t breath right. It’s been like this since the day you got sick.”

She smiles sorrowfully. “So use that as your motivation, my hummingbird. Do this for me…”

I crack my eyes open, wincing in pain. My body has significantly cooled down, but it’s still quite warm. I rise to my feet, only to double down in a coughing fit during the few seconds following. Something heavy falls off my back, causing a shiver to run down my spine as if I’ve lost the top layer of my skin. Beside me lies a big, black coat. I stare at it. It looks so luxurious, like it was bought yesterday. I feel like I’m not worthy enough to wear or even touch it. After a few moments of hesitation, I reach out and flip it over. The inside is soaked in blood. 

“Guess you’re going to have to pay me back, huh?” a voice from across the room begins. 

I freeze and look up in sheer panic. It must’ve cost him millions of dollars, or something. 

“Jeez, I’m just messin’ with you,” he laughs, “You can keep it; I’ll just get a new one.”

“Oh...thanks,” I sigh, my voice hoarse as I slump back against the wall. I sound like a mummy who’s come back to life after a thousand years of sleep. Against my back, I feel a thick, rectangular object. The red book. I quickly pull it out (as quick as an almost immobile mummy can go), feeling perturbed. But when it’s in my hands, a sense of familiarity and with that calmness, washes over me. I run my fingers over the wet, rough leather cover, feeling the stories in each crease and tear. 

I remember the day I had found it, abandoned. Just lying there in the grass. It wasn’t long after Mama had gotten sick. I was alone outside, so close to having a mental breakdown. But then it was almost as if it was fate, like it was meant to find me; I found the seemingly untouched book laying right there beside me. As I opened the book, observing the strange, prepossessing handwriting, I pondered how someone could possibly ditch such a valuable object like it. It’s possible the book was just left behind by accident, or the previous owner didn’t want a certain person to get their hands on it. I still wonder sometimes, but not as much as I did back then. Before, It had taken over my mind, controlling my thought process. Over a single question, I’d had countless sleepless nights. Maybe one day I’ll find out, or maybe I never will. It’s crazy how just one unanswered question can affect thousands of others. 

“What’s that?” the boy asks. 

I peer down at the book. Water has seeped through the first few pages, making them stick together. Black ink swirls around, as the words start to gather into a single black hole in the middle of the pages. All at once, my heart squeezes, as I inhale sharply. I can feel tears threatening to fall. But I swallow, forcing it all down. I can’t let this stranger see me like this. Weak.

“This? Oh, it’s…” I pause. I want to say that it’s my hope and motivation, helping me block out the voices that constantly tell me to jump off the edge. When the silence is too loud, and I all I want is to finally let go. It makes me feel like I have a choice - even though I don’t. But instead I say, “It’s really something.”


Levi

I don’t know what to say after that. This is the first time I’ve ever been at a loss for words. By the way she fondly looks at that red book, I can tell it means the world to her. After a few moments of silence, I ask, “What’s it about?”

She just gazes down at the ground, suddenly in the middle of a staring contest. The silence between us slowly stretches out even further.”I don’t know,” she mutters, barely audible.

I’m stunned. “Wow, you really are horrible at commitment,” I smile, ”How do you even know if it’s good, though?” 

She still keeps her head down. I see her bloody hands move beneath her, fiddling with the soggy leather cover. She’s ruining it even more. Or am I, by pushing her? Then I realize - she’s illiterate. The kids from across the tracks probably never learn to read. They’re probably all out hunting or weaving like her. “Oh…” I whisper. 

“I’ve just always found the writing so beautiful. With the curves and swoops, and all.”

I’ve never looked at it that way. I’ve just always seen them as… words. Well, I guess not always - when I was very young and couldn’t understand. Writing and reading are so important, I can’t imagine life without them. The least I can do is… “teach you,” I say, “I can teach you… if you want.”

She looks really surprised. And almost immediately after, she replies with a quick nod. 

I scoot over to her. “So what word do you want to learn first?” “ I suppose maybe your name?” I quickly slip in. 

She frowns pursing her lips, then announces, “My name is Anoli, if you wanted to know.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Don’t get too flattered, Anoli. I’m not that easy,” I grin, “But I suppose since we’re here,  I can tell you my name as well,”

She rolls her eyes, clearly annoyed. 

“Levi. Nice to save your life,” I pursue holding my hand out.Our red bloody hands meet, then are back to our sides. That one second that we touched is lost. It’s somewhere, floating further and further away in the universe, along with all the other moments that have passed. No moment will ever be the exact same, even if it’s professionally recreated. That’s why even the most useless moments in life count, because you’re never going to get that exact feeling or thought again. 

“Hummingbird,” she mutters. 

“What?’ I ask, disoriented. 

“I want to learn how to write ‘hummingbird’.”

“Are you sure? - that’s a long one,” I reply.

“Yeah. It’s something my mom calls me.” 

I trace a capital ‘h’ into the cold dirt with my gloved finger. “This is ‘h’. As you know, it’s pronounced as ‘hu’, like in ‘hungry’. Okay?” I continue with all the other letters, trying to go as slowly as I can. I keep waiting for Anoli to get frustrated, and tell me to stop treating her like she’s a three-year-old. But she just keeps her mouth shut, eyes focused, nodding along.

“Okay, now you try writing it,” I prompt. 

She holds out her finger, it suddenly becomes very shaky and starts writing. A minute later, she looks up with worried doe eyes. It looks like a first grader’s handwriting. No, worse. 

“Not, bad,” I lie. 

She beams, and I can sense a small bit of pride coming off her. She has that kind of smile, where in that moment you just want to take a picture of it, so it will stay with you forever. And when you’ve lost the stars, you can just pull it out and see the sun.


Anoli

I wake up to a cold morning. I must’ve fallen asleep last evening. I squint my eyes; serene sunlight is streaming through the tree hollow, cast on my face. Levi is standing at the entrance, a golden silhouette. I try to lift myself off the ground, being as silent as possible. But he quickly senses me and turns around.

“Oh, I almost thought you’d become frozen Anna,” he laughs. 

Anna? I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“Nevermind,” he mutters, turning back around to face the outdoors, “We should probably get going soon; I really have to get back home.” Then he twists his head around 180° and leisurely looks me up and down, his eyes finally coming to rest on my legs. “I can carry you, if you want,” he begins. 

 “No, I’m…” I get up, wincing, “fine,” I quickly add on a sharp exhale. I hobble straight outside, past Levi without looking up. It’s still deadly cold, but it’s stopped snowing, and the sun was able to melt some settled from yesterday into a mere gray slush. 

“Whatever you say, captain,” he jokes. Then disregarding the fact that he just named me ‘captain’, Levi starts trudging right. 

I pause for a moment and inhale deeply, then start sprauchling through the snow. Sometimes I wonder if I’d rather die on an exhale or inhale of breath. I guess an inhale would be very dramatic, similar to a gasp. But an exhale would mean calmness as you die - something many people would kill to have. It shows that you’re finally at peace, and you’re ready to let go of the hand grounding you to this earth. You’re the past, the future, and the present all in one. Nothing else would matter in that single moment. I know the feeling; I’ve had many close encounters with death himself. Over time, that one moment of peace became my happy place. I feel like I can just live in that moment forever, never undergoing any trauma. 

Is it just me or is the snow still falling? It seems to be getting higher and harder to shift through. I can feel myself preparing for a blackout, knowing that at this rate it’s bound to occur anytime soon. Levi surpassed me a while ago, and is now about 10 feet ahead of me. He hasn’t looked back or even said a word since we left, which I have to admit is making me feel uneasy. I’m even starting to miss his sly, irksome remarks. To break the silence, I call out, “You good up there?”

“Mmhhmm,” he mumbles. Clearly his mind is occupied, so I clamp my mouth shut, and don’t push on. 

It’s late afternoon when we finally make it to the now slushy river across from my village. Levi is folding his pants up, preparing to traverse. But I just go straight in, my feet already too numb. 

“Levi, don’t move,” I harshly warn.

He stops dead in his tracks, transforming back into that ‘Anna’ he was talking about. 

I peer up at the arrows aimed towards him, meant to eliminate any intruders planning to rob the village. There are exactly 12 hidden well in the canopy of green leaves and convoluted wild branches. But not well enough for one of their own to notice. If Levi’s foot had landed just slightly further from his last step, he would’ve perished by now. 

He twists his head around, painfully slow. I can see fear blooming like delicate flowers in his wide eyes. I just stare; he’s finally the one in the vulnerable position. He gapes up at me, not being able to move, for the slightest motion could set the trap off and get him killed. After a few seconds, I see something flash in his eyes, like something has broken inside. And he looks away wearily. How could he lose hope so easily? I was only messing with him. I force myself to focus, and try to figure a way to get us both out of this. Knowing my people, if Levi tried to walk back the way he’d come, he’d certainly be dead meat. One of the rocks he’d previously stepped has probably been triggered and lifted, setting up yet another hunting trap.

I stand there and think hard for another few minutes. Anywhere he steps is a risk - it could trigger the release of the arrows. Finally, I come to a conclusion. “Do you trust me?” I ask.

“Hmm, not really,” he smiles, careful not to make any sort of movement. 

“Ok, then take my hand and jump,” I demand. 

“Are you trying to get me killed?” he raves, “Could’ve just left me earlier - it would’ve been much easier,” he adds, bitterly. 

“Listen, I’m right here. I’ll quickly pull you as soon as we make contact, and you’ll make it out unscathed.” 

He sizes me up and down, an eyebrow lifted. I’m not even sure myself; our trained hunters are exceptionally smart, and will have them all aim a few inches apart, so there’s almost a guarantee that at least one will hit the intruder. 

“Fine, if it’s the only way,” he finally gives in. 

Electricity courses through my veins. I don’t have any time to think about my stupid idea. It’s just an act. “On my count. One, two, thr-,” I’m suddenly screaming. He leaps forward and like I said, I pull him back with all my power. 

Levi topples down on me, knocking the breath right out of my lungs, rolling onto the ground and letting out a moan. I pick myself up onto my butt, looking into the river. As I’d expected, the arrows are each spaced about six inches apart. But there are only eleven. Panicking, I look over at Levi, and see a single arrow embedded in his right calf. I reach out, to try pulling it out, but my hands are violently shaking. And suddenly, I’m back to that same night… 

I can’t breathe or even think straight. I just want to curl up and disappear from existence. 


Levi

Anoli’s face is frozen in terror. But it’s different from the last night - it’s like she’s being forced to face her darkest fear over and over. On the other hand, my left calf is on FIRE. I don’t want to- I don’t need to look; I already know that there’s a wicked black arrow embedded right there. 

“Anoli. Anoli, can you hear me?” I ask, softly. She doesn’t reply. I reach over with all my energy left, and put my hand against her cheek. Suddenly, she snaps out of it and is out of my reach in a second. My hand uselessly falls to the ground beside me. Man, she was off so fast. 

Anoli’s eyes are glued on my calf. She looks anxious, as she opens her mouth to speak. I already know what she’s going to say. 

“I’m going to have to pull it out,” she says, her face going pale. 

I nod. I can’t see her that well anymore - my vision is clouded with red, similar to after you look directly at the sun.

She bends down, hesitating. 

“Just get it out,” I order through gritted teeth. 

She just stares down, looking like she’s about to throw up. She’s not going to do- Anoli, pulls it out of my flexed muscle in one swift motion. 

I’m screaming. I can feel the arrowhead tear through my skin on the way out. I’ve leaped off of a cliff without even thinking. 

A blurry Anoli is clutching an arrow in her hands, her knuckles white. Blood drips down onto her tattered shoes. I can just barely make out a soft whimper under the waves of blood roaring in my ears. She swiftly tears a piece of fabric off her grey shirt and wraps it around my calf. It’s soaked through in seconds. She lets out a huff of frustration, and tears another piece right off, this time making sure to tie it just tight enough to interrupt my bloodstream and make me want to reach out and slap her into Africa. I drag myself over to the nearest tree, letting out a grunt of pain. And rest my back against the rough trunk. My whole body aches, and I yearn to just shut it off. My eyelids are fluttering, and suddenly it’s as if I haven’t slept in weeks. I close my eyes. I’m just going to rest for a little while…

I wake to the sharp feeling of water slapping my face. Anoli has retreated back to the river to get some more water to slash on me. “It’s fine, I’m awake,” I call out, my head throbbing as I speak. 

She immediately rushes to my side, then startles me by enveloping me in a big hug. 

“Woah,” I chuckle. 

She immediately pulls away, pinning her hands to her back. “Sorry,” she stutters. “You were just unconscious for so long, and a memory I’d buried deep down resurfaced. I had to go through it all over again…” Anoli babbles on. 

“It’s okay. Just glad to be alive,” I urge, not sure about that last part. 

She looks at me expectantly.

“Thanks for saving my life,” I say sarcastically, completely against my will. 

“Now we’re even,” she declares.

“Woah, we’re nowhere near even. I carried you for hours through the craziest storm, let you save my life, and even let you rest your head upon my lap. You, Anoli are a very lucky girl. Not many have had that opportunity, and some may never,” I grin. 

Anoli rolls her eyes, but it’s already too obvious she’s hiding a smile. 

My ebullience disappears right as the memory of Peter re-emerges. “I have to go… now,”  I blurt, “Bye!” And in a second I’m up, hobbling as fast as I can in the other direction. 

“But, you have to re-” she calls out, a shade of worry tainting her voice.

I don’t have any time to look back. Even though I’m already so late, the spare seconds won’t make a difference, I still pursue on, driven wholly by fear. 


Anoli

I’m left standing there alone after Levi suddenly rushed away. Did I do something wrong? Maybe it was the eye roll. But he’s sarcastic all the time… It doesn’t matter. I can’t dwell on it; I must get home. Mama must’ve been worried sick when I didn’t return home last night.

When I finally make it into the clearing of the village, after almost dying from traps twenty times (I don’t know why I’ve never come across them - maybe they were installed last night), it’s unsettlingly dark. There aren’t any stars out to light up the black sky after the sun has gone down. The whole village is fast asleep. To add to the eerie silence, not a single cricket nor bird chirps. There is absolutely no breeze, even though it’s piercingly cold. Leaving the leaves of the trees ‘unrustled’. Everything is utterly still. 

After a few steps, I slip my shoes off because they’re making too much noise. I guess not loud enough to usually wake anyone, but since the whole world has decided to take a rest. As I’m the only functioning being, each noise I make seems to be amplified by a hundred times, and echoes around me in circles, ceasing to stop. Luckily, the snow has been shoveled away in the village, so my feet don’t fall off. Instead, they decide to go numb. 

Even though I can barely see a few feet ahead of me, I know the way back home by heart. This has never happened before - me staying out the whole night without warning, which just makes the situation even worse. I wonder what lame excuse I’m going to use. I could say that I fell asleep hunting and lost the catch, which is the truth. Well… half truth. Or that I really needed a break from all the chaos around the house. No, I can’t say that to her; it’s so selfish. She would be crushed. My time to think of a reasonable explanation has quickly run out, as I find myself before the entrance to our tiny cottage. I bend down, placing my shoes next to the foot of the door, careful not to make any noise. I take a deep breath, holding the exhale, and creak the door open, just enough to step in. As usual, there’s a cluster of bodies laying on the floor. No one’s awake. I exhale a breath of relief, just as a hand clamps over my mouth and jerks my body away with an insane amount of force. 

I’m being dragged away. At first, I’m thrashing around, trying to get free, but soon I lose hope and stop fighting. I watch as the mini cottage gets further and further, blending in with all the other ones, till I can’t tell them apart. My kidnapper whizzes away, maintaining an alarmingly fast pace. Soon, the trees of the forest are back above my head, and I have to squeeze my eyes shut to keep from passing out of dizziness. They’re definitely not being gentle. Jagged rocks cut into my skin, and serrated twigs irritatingly poke my flesh. The bottom parts of my pants have torn off and Levi’s coat is all ripped up. This is going to be a long ride.

The kidnapper finally stops. What surprises me is how they gently rest my head onto the ground. They bend down over me, and I can finally get a good look at their face. Kashvi. 

“Are you hurt?” She asks worriedly. 

“You think?” I mutter.

“I’m sorry. I had to get you out of there without screaming. I’m astonished I was able to hold you off.”

“Well, I almost died last night so...,” I replied sourly. 

She looks hurt. 

“I’m sorry,” I confess, “I’m just... really tired.”

We both pause for a moment, looking each other up and down. Then she accuses, “Where were you last night and today?”

“I was…” I can’t lie to Kashvi; she always knows when I’m lying. “I fell asleep hunting and woke up to a snowstorm. It was so bad, I had to find a place and wait it out,” I finish. I leave out the part about Levi literally saving my life. No one can know that I talked to a person from the other side. They’d kill both of us. It’s just too dangerous. 

Kashvi looks down at me, eyes narrowed. She knows something’s off. 

I try to make the straightest face I can. “Nothing else happened. Nothing else happened.” I tell myself, attempting to fool myself into believing it. 

“Okay,” she says reluctantly. “At least you're fine now. The whole family was worried sick.”

I don’t say anything, just nod. Kashvi and I don’t have the “normal” sister relationship. Normal sisters tell each other everything and are always each other’s best friends. They talk about boys, and what happened at school. And sneak out every night to go to parties without telling their moms. We used to have that relationship till Mama had gotten sick. That had torn the whole family apart. After, I felt as everyone I’d once known except Mama, was now a stranger I’d just politely acknowledge on the streets. Never to see them again. 

“And you might want to hide that nice coat of yours,” she adds, before turning around to walk back.

The next day starts off normal. I have to apologize to everyone in the morning and repeat the same half-truth I’d told Kashvi last night. No one turns out to be mad, they’re just relieved to have me back. Then once again, I’m sent off to go hunt for food to fill my family’s empty stomachs. 

I walk around, eager to find at least one animal. And soon I find myself thinking about Levi. Why did he leave in such a rush? Did I do something wrong? Maybe he didn’t like when I’d made it seem as if I weren’t going to help him. But he would’ve done the same thing… I had only given him a taste of his own medicine. A sour one.

I’m startled by the tiny noise behind me. I can hear the delicate crunch of snow underneath its paws or hoofs or so. It would be pretty helpful if I knew what the animal was, so I could estimate the timing and speed I’d have to swing around to shoot it. And whether to point my arrow up or down, so it doesn’t go flying away from the target and I lose basically my only chance at a meal. But I don’t. I’m self-taught; no one in the village will help me hunt. ‘It’s just not what they’re meant to do - girls’. The rest of the girls weave baskets, and carry water back to the village with them on their heads, pick berries for when there’s absolutely nothing to eat, take care of the old, and get forced into marrying to save their families. Girls have extremely vital jobs that help us survive. However, everyone always wants boys when they’re having a baby. “They’re just...better,” Chief Eklavya always says. That’s just bullcrap. There’s no difference between a man and a woman. Women are just as capable of doing something a man can, and men are just as capable of doing something a woman can.

I swerve around at the speed of light, and the arrow goes soaring into the trees. I immediately look down, and the animal has disappeared. The only sign of its existence is a neat track of petite pawprints. I could follow it, but judging from the animal’s speed, it’s probably far gone by now. I slowly sink down onto the snowy ground. I feel worthless. I’m going to be the death of my family. What would Kashvi do? She doesn't even know how to hold an arrow. All she wants to do is walk around outside and observe the same damn scenery, talking about how ‘beautiful it is’. Or stare up at the sky the whole day, while I run around almost dying, trying to help our family survive. 

“Stop it,” I tell myself. I can’t blame Kashvi for everything. I’m just trying to take some of the weight off my shoulders, that is mine to deal with. I pull out the red book; it’s digging into my back, practically begging for some fresh air. The cover is now torn and muddy, along with being soaked with water from melted snow. It’s in poor condition, but can still be saved. I’ll have to wet a cloth in the river and try to wipe all the gunk off without soaking through the whole book. And maybe I can get my hands on some stitching material. It’d be patchy but I’d still be able to read it. Read. I still don’t even know the whole alphabet. How am I going to be able to read? The thought of Levi resurfaces. He promised.

H-U-M-M-I-N-G-B-I-R-D - I repeatedly draw into the thin snow with my now desensitized fingers. At first, I’m unsure of each line - my hands are shaking, forming swiggles. But soon I sort of get the hang of it and can see each letter clearly laid out before me. It’s not the best handwriting, but Levi said he liked it. He might be lying, but at least he cared to cover it up.

Lost time flies away as I frantically search for a single animal to shoot, and along with it does my hope. I realize why I’ve had Levi on my mind the whole day - when I was with him, I felt… free. Even though I was practically unconscious the whole time, not to mention in acute pain, I had this sense of relief. Like some of the weight of a crushing boulder I’d been carrying for 7 years, not being able to set down, had been removed. It was still there (as it’s always going to be), but Levi and I shared the weight, making it easier for the both of us. Being with him just made me happy. It’s been years since I’ve laughed. Maybe even smiled. My joy quickly fades as I realize the chances of us meeting again are exceptionally low. I don’t want to put Levi in any sort of danger. If I try to chase after him, we’ll just both end up dead. A few weeks from now, I probably won’t even remember him. He’ll just return to his normal, girl-filled, luxurious life. And I’ll be living my definition of normal - barely making it by. 

“Nothing?” Kasvi queries.

“What do you think?” I huff, annoyed. 

“Sorry, I just thought that within twelve hours you’d get something,” she accuses.

“It’s different during the winter. The animals are hibernating,” I pause, “You wouldn’t understand.” 

“Fine,” she reluctantly says. “Take a shower, you smell.” Then she disappeared back into the cottage. 

She’s probably right. My clothes underneath are soaked through in blood, my skin slathered in mud, and my legs are completely torn up. I’m extremely prone to getting an infection - I need to wash myself. But before I can head back to the river, someone steps out from behind the cottage. I scramble to pull an arrow out of my quiver and get it positioned in my bow. 

“Anoli?” a familiar voice urgently whispers.

“Levi? What are you doing here?” I caution. 

“Meet me at the tracks at twelve.”

“What! Are you crazy?!” I begin.

“No one’s going to be awake at midnight. You’ll be safe,” he assures.

But before I can reply, he’s disappeared into the night. 


Levi

I limp around in the clearing. There’s nowhere to hide out on the tracks. There’s no way out now; if someone sees me, there’s no possible excuse I could make besides confessing I’m meeting a girl from the other side. I had to get out of the house, though. Away from Peter. I can’t shake the memory of his face all up in mine, spit spraying as he slowly walked around me in circles. Drawing joy from seeing me helplessly frozen in horror.

I see a figure emerge from the darkness. Anoli. 

“You never let me finish,” she starts, “This is crazy.” But I can hear the smile in her voice. 

“I knew you couldn’t resist the suspense,” I smile.

“We’re even now, right?” She charges, ignoring me.

“Still nowhere ne-” I start.

She raises an eyebrow.

“Fine,” I laugh, then wince.

“Wait, look at me,” she demands.

I tilt my head up, not wanting to make eye contact. 

“Gosh, what happened!?” She exclaims, worriedly. 

“You don’t want to know.”

“Levi, this serious,” Anoli proceeds. She looks down at the tracks between us. A streak of panic flashes in her, eyes and she gulps. Then she folds her legs underneath her and sits down on the gravel without breaking eye contact. Obviously implying that I should do so as well.

When I’m settled down next to her, I start, “It’s Peter - my dad. He’s always been crazy drunk… ever since my mom left.” I look down at the ground.

“I’m sorry,” I barely catch Anoli whispering. “Why can’t you stand up for yourself?”

“It’s… tough. You have to actually see him to understand. And he’s definitely two-faced,” I say, trying to push the constant image of him out of my mind. 

“I believe in you. You are stro-”

A sharp blast echoes all around me. A gunshot. I frantically scramble down the slope, into the shadow of my house. My heart is pounding in my ears, trying to break free of my chest. And my breath is deep and staggered. I throw myself flat against the wall, my bruises biting into my back, and swallow a scream. “You’re going to be seen!” A voice screams in my head. But no one comes. An unsettling silence stretches out in the thin air. I squint my eyes, trying to make out anything or anyone in the darkness. But everything has disappeared.

Minutes pass by. Something’s off. I’m getting the same feeling, creeping in the back of my mind that I get when I’m forgetting something. In the black, something slowly trickles onto my feet, thick and warm. My blood runs cold.

“Hello, son,” a voice behind me mocks.


The author's comments:

I wrote this piece at the beginning of seventh grade, but it's now that I've actually decided to share it. I just recently discovered Teenink and seeing countless opinions and views of people from all around the world was breathtaking. So I thought I'd contribute. This piece is meant to represent the beauty of diversity, and the true meaning of equality. Throughout the story, the two protagonists - Levi and Anoli, coming from totally different worlds, must work together to survive a deadly snowstorm. When stuck together, they find that though quite dissimilar, their differences are actually what helps them pull through. Anoli, coming from a poor family, has a biased opinion of the wealthy. However, progressing through the story, she learns that no matter where you come from, or the dark things that linger in your past, you are equal to everyone else - no one inferior, nor superior. How good of a person you are isn't based on your wealth - it's what you do for the world and the people it holds.


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