Hello, here you can read the prologue of the book and the visual novel. This chapter is a little different from the others because is written in second person (yes, not first or third). Hope you enjoy it.

 

PROLOGUE

A bright, white light: a blinding sunrise greets  your senses making them uncurl like petals.

“It’s a girl, a beautiful baby girl!”

Rough fabric on fragile skin, the vapor of disinfectant prickling delicate pink gums.

Oh! Let me… let me see her.”

“In a moment, dear.”

Hands in latex gloves seize you and take you away. Fragments of images in black and white flash before your eyes — blurred, passing glimpses of sterile surfaces and glinting steel instruments. Your eyes still haven’t adjusted to the outside world, and the light makes them weep. Echoes of incomprehensible words sound in your ears.

“I feel like I’m dying…”

“It’s OK, honey, I’m here.”

“But why isn’t she crying? Why?”

A sudden motion and the world is turned on its head.

That first breath is so cold. Oxygen fills and swells your lungs, bringing with it molecules of the billions of people who have lived down the centuries; traces of their sin and their pride steal into your very being. Your heart beats fast, the fibers of your muscles contract, and the vital imperative of life resonates in your eardrums.

“There! Did you hear that?”

Your cry, the piercing liberation of a new life, gives expression to your harsh first encounter with the world.

Sheets rustle and trolley wheels squeak.

Two hands take you.

“Isn’t she tiny… so much hair! What a beautiful red!”

“Look, our daughter!”

Finally you feel safe again, enclosed in your mother’s swan-like embrace.

“What are you going to call her?”

You are studied thoughtfully by eyes damp with emotion and glowing with  triumph and hope for the journey of this new soul.

“We’re going to call her…”

***

“ Come on, sweetie. Come to Mommy.”

After a few hesitant steps, you wobble and drop to the floor, your diaper-clad behind making a soft thud. But you get right up again, because you aren’t one to give in easily.

Your father’s strong hands guide you as you travel across the room, making for a brightly colored plastic bee. The blue carpet tickles your bare feet.

“Good girl, come on, keep going.”

The infinite joy of that moment is seared into your memory together with the image of the glossy white breast of a stuffed penguin. Your parents are young and radiant. Nothing can touch you, or harm you.

You are like a mushroom, or a tiny seedling growing in the shade of a great oak. You reach out to your mother’s embrace and let yourself fall into the endless well of her love.

“That’s my baby” she smiles, and makes a sweet cooing noise.

She kisses you and caresses you, but then she is gone, leaving you with just a soft toy for company. You are alone again and wonder why, but inside you already know the answer: out there in the world, there will be no hands to catch you.

***

“I saw it first, give it back!”

“No, it’s mine!”

Two small girls fight over a doll with curly hair. The teacher isn’t close enough to intervene. You watch the scene, savoring the knowledge that you have a doll just like that, prettier in fact, which you keep carefully stored away in a box at home, in a trunk in your bedroom where you keep your very favorite things.

It’s recess.

Surrounded by the silvery voices of children at play, you push through the forest of desks and small pale green chairs. It’s hide and seek today. Everything for you is a game now, a journey of discovery. The scent of jasmine wafts in through the open window, and a little girl’s hair stirs in the perfumed breeze.

You go into the corridor. It seems vast. You go past the lockers, each with a sticker on it. They are all different; yours is a tricycle next to a ball, and your best friend’s is a mouse with enormous ears. You are looking for her, she’s still hiding somewhere and you absolutely must find her. You have to win, because if you lose you know you’ll cry.

You run to the restrooms, where some of the other children are brushing their teeth. You ask where your friend is.

“Can’t tell you” says one through a mouthful of apricot flavored toothpaste. But another is willing to help. With an expression of sly complicity she points to a closed cubicle. You can see your friend’s sneakers under the door.

“Found you!”

She is cross. “It’s not fair, they told you. They’re spies.”

She looks ready to cry, and you’re unhappy too, because even though you have found her and won the game, you feel like you’ve hurt her.

Why is it that whenever someone wins someone else has to lose?

***

“They’ve published the results.”

“And?”

“They’ve failed three in the year above us, so that means we’ll have three new classmates.”

You aren’t pleased to hear this. In fact, you hope that one or all of them will decide to move to some other school; you don’t want any newcomers in your group, certainly not girls a year older. You catch sight of the reason for your reaction, wandering past the stone columns a little way off. He is wearing jeans and a black t-shirt. He slaps a friend on the back and exchanges a few handshakes.

Suddenly he is in front of you, fixing you with his piercing gaze. You’re distracted by his strong chin and the graceful line of his neck.

“Hi,” he says.

You mumble in reply, turning bright red.

The girl alongside him giggles, she can’t help herself. She is an airhead, you think to yourself. He deserves better.

“Have you seen the grades?”

“Er, yes.”

“How did I do?”

“I…? You? Er, well, great! You even got an eight.”

“Let me see!”

He goes over to the noticeboard where the marks table has been pinned up behind a sturdy pane of glass. He rests an open hand on the glass as he studies the table. When he steps back, the sun allows you to see, for an instant, the print left by his hand. It’s like a fossil of light. He makes a joke. He’s a funny guy; that’s the main reason you like him.

The girl with him gives you a look. She saw you were watching him and she laughs again.

Anger takes the place of embarrassment. You’ll show her what you’re made of! Clenching your fists you decide to make your move. It’s up to you to invite him to the prom.

“Listen…”

“Yeah?” he turns and looks at you, waiting. His eyes meet yours and your mind immediately goes blank, like the cinema screen at the end of a showing. Unable to find the words, you frantically search through your suddenly meager vocabulary.

“Well, I was wondering whether to ask you to the… er I mean, it’d be great if you’d be my partner for…” you begin, your voice trembling.

He shakes his head almost imperceptibly, a tiny gesture, and at once you crumble like a plaster statue.

“Sorry, I’m spoken for!”

Head down, you make your getaway without looking back. You feel foolish and frustrated. You go out through the main gates trying not to meet anyone’s eye. You hope against hope that he’ll call after you, but of course he doesn’t. All of a sudden the world has nothing left to offer you; your marks are meaningless now. The air has become heavy and the colors muted. You hurry along, your failure blinding you to everything. The earlier exchange and its humiliating outcome plays out in your mind on a never-ending loop.

A boy’s arm brushes against you. He stops and seems to want to say something. You barely notice and keep on walking, ignoring him.

At the crossroads you disappear from sight: his gaze remains trained on the spot where a passing truck has just blocked his view of your flame-red hair. He tries to capture the trail of your scent in the air. The emotions filling his heart and yours are the same, but his shy words, so nearly spoken, have been stopped in their tracks by your misery.

***

“This is a wonderful day, and it calls for a toast!”

Your father raises his glass. He has the attention of everyone present, friends and family. The golden bubbles in his champagne rise and break on the surface.

“Here she is! The first in our family with a degree. When she came to me and said: “Next week I’ll be presenting my thesis”, I really couldn’t believe so many years had gone by, and I found myself thinking “Wasn’t it only yesterday that I was taking her to kindergarten?”. But there you go. That’s life, and things couldn’t have turned out better. So, everyone, please raise your glasses to our wonderful graduate. Congratulations, honey!”

“Congratulations!” echo all the guests.

You are brimming with joy. At last you are free of the burden you have been carrying for the past five years — years of blood, sweat and tears; long nights spent poring over books and pages of scribbled notes, willing yourself on, determined not to give up. And now you have finally made it. You manage to swallow a quick sip of champagne before your mother takes you in her embrace. You notice threads of white in her hair.

“You really are a grown up now, you know!”

Cheek to cheek,  you realize that hers is a little damp. She is a sensitive soul and  hasn’t been able to hold back her tears of joy. She is glowing with pride. Your happiness is her happiness.

You would like to prolong the moment with her, but a friend clutching a camera appears and starts taking pictures.

Uncles and aunts, cousins, casual friends and close friends, mere acquaintances — everyone seems to want to be in the frame, ready and willing to don a warm and easy smile, a smile perhaps rarely bestowed on their own family, or their own husband or wife.

You don’t like photos: you think there is something theatrical and hypocritical about them; they are like fake pearls strung on the thread of a life that actually has far more precious colors to be admired. It always amazes you how people seem to prefer the artificial to the natural.

You go out into the garden for a breath of fresh air. Your boyfriend joins you. You met two years earlier, when neither of you was really looking for the other. Like all magical things, it happened by chance, with no logical explanation.

“So, what now?”

“Well, first of all, a proper holiday.”

“Yes, but then?”

You stroll slowly and thoughtfully across the grass, eyes down. You are aware of the sound of birds twittering in the bushes. You still don’t want to think about what comes next.

“We’ll have to see.”

Abruptly, he takes your arm, and you realize he has something important to say.

“The other day I saw you reading a letter. You screwed it up and threw it in the trash.

So you know, then”, you think.

“And you went and got it.”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have, but I thought you were keeping something from me, something bad. I know I’m stupid.”

You wait, wanting him to get to the point.

“I read about that offer you got, to go and work abroad — it’s an important company.”

“Yes, but I’m not interested.”

He stops. Something makes him pause. The future suddenly looks less certain.

“It’s a golden opportunity, well paid too. Why aren’t you interested?”

You look at him.

“Well, because of us. I don’t want to leave you.”

“But it’s only for six months. Trust me, think about it; I really don’t want you to put me before an opportunity like this.”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

It is painful to talk about this. You weren’t expecting him to want you to go away.

“Promise me you’ll think it over.”

“All right, I’ll think about it.”

***

Your plane landed an hour late. It’s not a problem though. You’re on holiday after all. You lift your feet from the scorching sand and rest them on the sunbed.

“At last, a holiday on our own. I still can’t believe we managed to pull it off!”

“Yes, it wasn’t easy and I still feel a bit bad about pulling out of those meetings, but what the hell!”

Your husband is wearing a straw hat and a pair of sunglasses. They make him look a bit like a film star.

You have never seen a bluer, more brilliant sky, but it is no more brilliant than the intense green and blue of the sea. Behind you, a string of a high-rise hotels runs along the coastline like a white wall; they all have air conditioners on the rooftops.

“Thank goodness my parents were happy to have the girls, even though it seems a bit strange without them.”

“I miss them, too” you admit, and immediately picture your daughters busy doing something or other at home. Whenever you think of them, an invisible force takes hold of your hand and places it on your chest, on the part just below your breastbone. It is as though you conserve them, almost physically, in that spot, but right now that part of you has been ripped away, leaving you with a sense of longing.

“We’ll give them a call this evening.”

You fold over the corner of the page you have just read and put your book down on the sand. You close your eyes and listen. You fancy you can hear the gentle breeze ruffling the surface of the fine sand. It is the sound of the world gradually crumbling, and it starts to carry you away on a sweet wave of idleness. You have worked so hard lately and only now are you starting to remember how to relax. Your husband’s voice breaks into your thoughts.

“There’s that big welcome buffet this evening. I hope I’m not tempted to overdo it.”

Your husband has put on a little weight, and you, too, no longer have the svelte figure you once had.

“I guess we’ll be spoiled for choice.”

“That’s the trouble!”

You track the flight of a seagull as it dips and swoops, free in the seemingly endless sky.

“Well, the thing is to choose well.”

***

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Mommy, happy birthday to you!” the girls sing together. You take a deep breath and steadily extinguish all fifty candles on the cake. During the ensuing round of applause, a sugary, waxy, smoky smell starts to rise.

“You don’t really deserve this. Fancy celebrating with your colleagues before us!” your husband says, feigning indignation.

“It wasn’t that great! Everyone just kept saying Welcome to the club!

Your younger daughter takes the candles off

the cake and starts cutting it into slices. It’s a sponge filled with whipped cream. She puts an extra-large strawberry on your portion. That’s another reason to be glad to have aged: you certainly didn’t find strawberries that big when you were a child.

“There, especially for my middle aged mom!” teases your daughter.

“Didn’t your father teach you any manners? You shouldn’t broadcast a lady’s age you know!”

“Except on her birthday” interjects your husband without waiting to empty his mouth.

“Middle age is when you stop growing at each end and start growing in the middle” giggles your other daughter. Everyone seems to have it in for you. But you can’t help laughing. There’s definitely some truth in that.

“Of course,” you say a little slyly, “you have to be optimistic to call yourself middle aged at fifty, either that or you can’t add.”

“Oh, Mom, you’ll get to a hundred easily!” your daughters reassure you.

“Just so long as I’m not the size of a house by the time I do!” you say and, with that, bite firmly into your enormous strawberry. It was impressive to look at, but it has no flavor at all.

***

Your daughters are sitting on the living room couch. They are waiting for you to get back. They both feel that, since they got married, everything here seems to gets older each time they return, that it takes on an ancient, sepia hue. The pictures, the framed degree certificate and the old photos all look down on them from the past. To you, it is as though these things are part of an era that no longer has anything to do with you, that perhaps never even happened. The furniture now gives off a rather stale, old smell. Your husband doesn’t help with the chores like he used to. He gets tired and he forgets things.

Your older daughter is breastfeeding your second grandchild. She has grown into a worrier; she must have inherited her grandmother’s anxious nature.

“Will she pass?”

“I doubt it” her sister replies. “Yesterday I tried to get her to read the billboards on the other side of the street, and she squinted at them as if they were a mile away. And her glasses are already as thick as bottle bottoms as it is.”

The child being nursed squirms and his mother

sighs.

“Perhaps it’ll be just as well if her license is withdrawn. She’s becoming a menace on the road.”

“I know, and she doesn’t even seem to realize how slow she’s become! You know, I’ve been wondering…do you think we should try and find her a place somewhere? There are special clinics you know…”

“Don’t say that. What if Dad hears you?”

“Dad’s as deaf as a post! Oh dear, they’re like a couple of old fossils, aren’t they? Perhaps it would be best if we could get them into a home. At least then we wouldn’t have to come running each time they get stuck in their armchairs.”

Your older girl removes the child from her breast and raises him up gently, watchful as a lynx.

“I heard something. She must be back.”

You open the door and hang your scarf on the coat stand. The face reflected in the hallway mirror is dull and lined; despite their promises none of the endless creams have stopped your skin from sagging. Your hair is a mess, too, and it conserves nothing of its once splendid  and much admired red color. You can’t even seem to keep it tidy any more. There is always some tuft sticking up somewhere. There doesn’t seem to be a thing you can do about it.

“How did it go, Mom?”

The voice penetrates from the other room. Your daughters don’t even bother to get up and come and greet you. Well, you won’t bother replying. There is nothing to tell anyway.

“Mom?”

You pull the slip of paper saying “failed” from your cardigan pocket and, with an indifference you do not feel, drop it into the bin. You start to climb the stairs: they creak, just like your bones.

By the time your younger daughter reaches the the foot of the staircase you have almost reached the top. Your feet hurt and all you want to do is lie down.

“Mom!” she shouts, taking you to be deaf, “Did you pass the test?”

You stiffen with irritation and frustration. You continue climbing the stairs, slowly and in silence. She doesn’t dare ask again. Without a word passing between you a wall has gone up. She still has some remnants of respect for you and realizes she must defer to your dismay. She returns to the living room.

You are worthless now, and it’s a painful truth to swallow.

Your younger daughter looks at her sister. They hear the door upstairs being pulled firmly shut. No one must see you as you silently shed your tears.

***

“Her heartbeat is very weak now, I doubt she will make it through the night.”

Your eyes are half open, your thoughts half closed. You are lying in a hospital bed. In turn, your daughters take your hand, stroking the protruding veins, gazing unseeingly at the bruised skin on your wrist where the cannula is inserted.

All you feel now is an overwhelming sense of despair, abandonment, remoteness. So many people you have known have gone before you, and you never wanted to be the last one left. Life has been a long sentence and it has culminated in humiliation and  loneliness. You would like to say something but you can’t even feel your lips. You are in limbo, a kind of fog, waiting for the end.

Your older daughter holds a string of rosary beads left her by your husband. But she says nothing, suffering her pain in silence. She is waiting for it all to be over. Your other daughter speaks.

“Doctor, do you think she can hear us?”

“Possibly. I can’t say for sure.”

The blurred shape of her face draws closer. She once had a smell, but you can’t remember it now; she once had a name, but that has gone too. You sense, though, that it is her, and that she is there right now, a definite presence — a ghost from the world of the living.

“Mom, stay strong.”

These few words are thick with the suffocated emotion that cannot be expressed, that childhood love that, as adults, we become ashamed to show.

“Mommy…”

These two soft syllables struggle to be heard against the insistent, high-pitched sound of the equipment. She takes your hand: her fingers white, your veins dark where the cannula is taped to your wrist.

“Her breathing’s changed.”

A light is shone in your eyes.

“There’s no response…”

You exhale your last breath: it is both a gasp and a sob, and for a moment everything is suspended, dreamlike.

“I’m sorry, she’s gone.”

The words are mixed with the sound of your daughters crying. All becomes remote and confused. A black cone envelops everything,  devouring it with the jaws of oblivion and dragging it down. You feel yourself sinking into the calm of nothingness, descending deeper and deeper, further and further away.

 

 

 

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