“Don’t let go,” she chastises. “Don’t you ever let go.”
You sleep because you don’t understand—not yet, not for a few years more—and when you wake, the blanket is gone and the clock:
three hundred sixty-four days
In the early years, the gifts match your age. Your rocking horse on which you pretend to be a cowboy, lassoing your pillows. Your stuffed octopus with its swirly limbs that wrap around you, usher you into dreamless sleep. Your favorite book of fairy tales, the gruesome ones you insist Mama reads though they fill your head with nightmares. Always things you’d rather keep, but not as much as your life.
In the adolescent years, the gifts get strange, awkward like you as you push the limits of what will keep you alive for one more year. You offer your outsized retainer, whose impression remains in your perfect teeth. Your cellphone, so precious you know you have to give it up. Your history paper, your first B after nine years of As, the one you’ll always keep in your mind as a reminder to work harder. As long as it’s a piece of yourself, one you hold dear, the offer cannot be rejected.
In your twenties, the gifts become personal. Your hand-annotated copy of I Capture The Castle, spine broken, pages spilling out because you read it twelve times after your first heartbreak. Your daddy’s watch, overlarge, stopped at half-past four, a comfort on your freckled wrist. Your picture strip of you and your best friend from a carnival photobooth, heads thrown back in laughter.
You’re twenty-eight the night you chance it, three decades of Mama’s warnings ringing in your brain. “Early to bed, late to rise, and never, never open your eyes.” Immortal knowledge is not for mortals to seek, but this year you do it because you’re adrift and what could you lose?
You slip under the covers without undressing and hold onto the wooden plane that represents all the things you never became. You wanted to be a pilot until your eyes forced you into thick glasses and your seventh-grade teacher convinced you girls couldn’t do math. So you gave up on flying. You gave up on dreaming.
You’re shaking with the sorrow of lost potential when it appears as a glimmer that resolves into a human figure, into a woman, confusion in her eyes.
“You’re not supposed to be awake,” she says.
“I wanted to know.”
Confusion sparks into curiosity. “Know what?”
“Whether it’s worth it.”
“Every life is worth it.”
You don’t believe it. You can’t believe it. There’s nothing worthy about living without family, dreams, hopes. You’ve lost your way, and you don’t know how to ask for it back.
You spend the next year waiting for your twenty-ninth birthday. You go to work, eat, sleep, sometimes read. When coworkers ask you out for drinks, you make excuses until they stop asking. When the night comes, you hold a book in your lap and stare at the same page until she comes.
“This isn’t living,” she says.
“I know.” You know and yet you have no desire to change. You can find no value in this rundown apartment, the fridge that keeps breaking, the stale smell of cigarettes that won’t come out. You can find no value in endless labor.
“Why should I accept your offering?” she asks.
“If it’s a true one, you’re not allowed to refuse.”
She purses her lips and crosses her arms and waits for the offering.
You hold out the book. Imagination. In this dull life, your most precious commodity.
Her eyes narrow. She knows this, and because she knows, she doesn’t ask. Instead: “What will you give me next year?”
“I thought it was supposed to be a surprise.”
She smirks—an honest-to-goodness smirk. “I’m allowed to guess, but you never give me what I expect.”
“Well, perhaps I won’t have anything to give at all.”
“Don’t,” she says.
And every night for the next year, you dream of this one, the word echoing in your cavernous chest until its murmur resonates at the same frequency as your bones.
The night you turn thirty, you don’t even pretend to sleep. You sit against the headboard, a mug of tea in your hand, and wait for the person who has become your reason for staying alive.
She smiles for the first time in your brief acquaintance and greets you with a wry, “How surprising it is to find you awake.”
You think you’re friends enough not to have to stifle your chuckle. If she hasn’t gotten you in trouble the past two years, she won’t start now. She’ll keep this secret in her life like you keep it in yours.
Beneath her breath: “The things mortals do for forever.”
“I don’t want forever,” you say, not realizing the truth of it until it slips out.
“Then what is it you want?” she asks.
You cannot answer. You cannot answer, and so she takes your mug and the comfort it symbolizes and disappears for another year.
Her smile is small, gaze focused on your empty hands. “You have nothing for me.”
“Not true. You asked me what it was I wanted. It’s taken me a year, but I have the answer now.”
She sits on the blanket at the foot of your bed and waits, patience in tangible form. You wish you hadn’t spent the last
feeling like your skeleton was vibrating right out of your skin. Now, your whole being is still.
“My offering is that I’ll take something from you.”
And she is quiet for so long you think you may have accidentally stolen her voice.
When finally she speaks, the question that surfaces is:
“Will you take my loneliness?”