Chapter 1:

A Dead-End Path

The Faen Wrath

She waits for me at our usual place, a bench at the end of a rarely used path. She wears a dark green blouse with khakis. Her deep black hair is tied in a ponytail. I give her a weary grin which she returns.

“How was your day?” I ask politely, taking a seat on the other end of the bench. She sighs softly before responding.

“Boring, frustrating. About what I expected when I woke up, I suppose.” I nod.

“I understand that feeling all too well.” I say, chuckling lightly.

“You said you work at that supermarket on forty-third, right?” She asks.

“Yeah. It’s alright some of the time.” I say while pulling a pack of cigarettes from my pocket. I pull one out along with my lighter, then pause. “You mind?” I ask.

“Go ahead.” She says and so I light the cigarette and take a deep pull from it. The nicotine buzz calms my nerves a bit.

“How long have you smoked?” She asks after a minute.

“Er..I actually started about a week ago.” I say hesitantly, feeling slightly guilty about picking up an unhealthy habit.

“Obviously it’s not my place to say it, but be careful. That stuff will kill you.” She echoes my thoughts.

“I know. I just needed to try it out. To give myself a change of pace, you know?”

“Yeah, I’ve been feeling like I need something like that as well.” I offer her the cigarettes jokingly, an amused smile on my lips. To my surprise she takes one and the lighter. The first pull leaves her coughing, but the second and third are smooth. She hands me back my lighter and we sit in silence for a few minutes.

“This really isn’t that good.” She states and takes another drag from the dwindling cigarette. We laugh gently. I toss my spent cigarette in the trash.

“It isn’t. But I’ve noticed it helps relieve some stress.” I say. I look up at the uniform, cloudy night. My eyes scan it’s surface in hopes of finding a star.

“Stress from what?” She asks as she stands and tosses out her cigarette.

“Just the usual. Bills, co-workers, life. It piles up and before I know it, I’m so tense that I can’t relax.” I shift uncomfortably on the wooden bench as I speak, suddenly self-conscious about airing my problems. She nods.

“It’s tough. So often.” She says simply. It is, isn’t it? So very tough. More often than I could ever have imagined when I was a child, or even as a teenager, about to enter life. These are the thoughts that weigh on my mind: when I wake up, when I go to work, and when I lie awake late into the night. I’m nothing special though. I can only assume that there’s a lot of people that think the same way, right?

“Hey look, a star.” She says. I follow her finger to the edge of the sky, where a small lonely star sits. Without thinking too much about it, I repeat the saying my mom would always use.

“I wish I may, I wish I might, wish upon the first star I see tonight.” I wait a few moments, then ask. “Well, what did you wish for?” She sits pensively.

“I can’t say, otherwise it won’t come true. That’s how these things work.” She finally says with a sly grin.

“I thought that only applied to birthday wishes?” I ask, keeping a straight face.

“No, I’m sure it’s for all wishes.”

“Maybe that’s why none of mine have come true.” I say, and we briefly laugh. I stare at the star for a long time, but eventually I drop my eyes to check the time on my phone. 12:47. Has it really been that long? I sigh.

“It’s late and I have work in the morning so I need to head out.” I say, lifting myself up with a surprising amount of effort.

“Yeah, I didn’t realize it was so late myself.” She stands, and together we walk back to where the path reconnects with the main one. We stop there, ready to head out in opposite directions.

“Before you leave, could I have your name now?” She asks, staring at me with dark brown eyes, that look almost black in the low light.

“I’m Ben. And you are?” I say, extending my hand to her.

“I”m Emi. Nice to officially meet you.” She says and takes my hand, a soft smile on her lips that I can’t help but mirror.

“I can’t be here tomorrow, but I can come the day after.” She lets go of my hand.

“That sounds good to me.” I say.

“Alright, goodbye.” She gives me a little wave before walking away.

“Bye.” I say softly to myself, when she’s already too far away to hear.

The time between our meetings seems to pass supernaturally slowly. To a point where I wonder if God’s mocking me for actually looking forward to something. If there was a God, would he do something so trivial? Maybe it gets boring when things start to go smoothly for his creations? Or perhaps this is punishment? That type of God, who deals punishment with an iron fist and wants to mess with us, seems most likely to be true. It would explain a lot about this messed up world.

“Hey Ben, you good man? You’ve been spacing out a lot today.” Arian asks, walking past with a pallet of drinks. After getting it out the way, he stands beside me, a slightly quizzical expression directed at me. I pause from working, dropping my scanner to my side.

“I’m fine. Just a lot on my mind I guess.” I say with a soft smile.

“Alright, if you say so. Just don’t let it eat away at you too much.” He says, giving me a comforting smile and a pat on the back.

“I hear you.” I say with a nod. Arian goes back to pushing the pallet onto the shopping floor, and after a moment or two I pick back up the scanner and keep doing inventory. Just a few more hours. Just a few more. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10…. I count the seconds as they go bye, minute by minute for the rest of my shift.

Emi waits for me at our usual place, a bench at the end of a rarely used path. This time she’s dressed in jeans and a tee with an abstract graphic on it, along with the name of a company I’ve never heard of. Her hair falls around her shoulders and frames the most surprising part of her getup, a lit cigarette pinched between her forefinger and thumb. I can’t hold back the laughter that pours out from me in great heaves. Emi watches my outburst with an amused smile as she finishes her cigarette. Once I finally calm down, she speaks.

“You alright there? You were laughing so long I thought you might hyperventilate.” She says, still smiling brightly.

“Sorry. It’s just…” I falter as I chuckle more. “I thought you said it wasn’t that good?” This time she joins me in laughing. I take a seat beside her, still grinning like an idiot.

“It still isn’t that pleasant to smoke them, but…” She pauses a moment to gather her thoughts. “It occupies me, and distracts my brain for a period of time, so it helps.” After she finishes her sentence, I glance over and notice her smile is gone, replaced by a stoic and thoughtful expression. I lose my own smile quickly and wait patiently to see if she wants to say more. She remains motionless for a long while, staring into the shadow of the trees across from us. It’s so quiet that I can just barely pick out Emi’s breathing over the sound of my own heartbeat. All of a sudden, she sighs explosively and sits up straighter on the bench.

“How are you?” She asks, looking towards me with a carefully blank face.

“I’m…. alright,” I say slowly, “how are you?” I finish with a pointed look.

“Well, that’s a complicated question.” Emi says bitterly. “Do you want a neat and prim answer, so you don’t have to be bothered?” Or do you want the truth?” She speaks stiffly, her frustration oozing into her words.

“I’d like for you to speak your mind.” I say gently. She laughs hysterically for a few moments. I remain silent in confusion and wait for her to gather herself.

“You know, you’re a rare person to say that to me.” Her smile turns into a snarl as she speaks. “It’s actually for that exact reason that I’m acting in this way.” She falls silent, watching the trees again. I debate speaking but decide to give her space to continue explaining if she wants to.

“They force me to make all these tough decisions, then don’t allow me to explain myself. The stress, the regret, the anger; all of it fights each other, attempting to monopolize my mind…” I have to strain to hear her speak. “And it all seems so pointless.” She glances upwards, and I follow her gaze, to a seamless black covering of clouds, “I had wished that they would hear my voice. They didn’t. Now, I fear what’s to come.” The conviction in her hushed tone causes a shiver to run down my spine. What could she possibly be talking about? Fear of what, and fear for whom?

I take a deep breath and attempt to compose myself. I don’t know what she’s referencing, and I feel it may be a mistake to try and get more details. All I can do is take what she told me at face value. It’s not my place to get involved too deeply with her affairs anyway, I am simply a grocery worker, and essentially still a stranger to her.

I turn to speak, then freeze. Emi’s jaw is clenched tightly, and her eyes are narrowed. They are a deep black which absorbs the streetlight. She is focused intently on the same spot in the trees that she had been looking at earlier in the night. I realize that I can’t hear anything except my rising heart rate, which is impossible for a city at night, and is deeply unsettling. My hands tremble ever so slightly, but I dare not move to clasp them together. My eyes dart rapidly between Emi and the trees, utterly perturbed and fixated by what’s happening. In the blink of an eye, she dashes forward to stand on the far side of the path. Her back is to me. Her hands are clenched into fists and on her shoulders sits a shadow. It falls down her back and pools at her feet, obscuring her slightly from my sight. I wait with bated breath for the conflict to reach its climax.

I blink and hear cars in the distance. Emi stands relaxed in the pathway, the shadow non-existent, and I wonder if my eyes played tricks on me in the darkness. I place a hand on my beating heart and try to calm myself. Just as I’m able to do so, Emi turns to face me. She maintains her usual, neutral expression, and I look squarely into her dark brown eyes, searching for traces of the animosity I witnessed moments ago. There is none. She’s completely back to normal. Or almost normal. I notice how carefully she watches me. It causes the hair on the back of my neck to rise ever so slightly, though I reassure myself that this is the same woman who I was just joking around with minutes ago. If I’m to believe what I saw, then she’s not normal, but that doesn’t change her personality. I pull out my cigarettes and take a brief moment to compose myself before offering her one with a steady hand and a soft smile. She stares at me blankly for a few uncomfortable seconds, before taking me up on my offer.

She slowly walks over and plops down onto the far end of the bench as I light my cigarette. I pass her the lighter and she lights her own. Neither of us speaks and we barely move for many minutes.

“Now I owe you one in return.” Emi says, breaking me from my thoughts. Seeing my confusion, she gestures to the cigarette she holds.

“Oh. Don’t worry about it. I was thinking about making this one my last anyway.” I say, finishing the cigarette with one long draw in an air of finality.

“Well, that’s rude. Aiding me in my addiction and not letting me pay you back.” She says mock offended. I chuckle, and I feel some of my tension escape me though my laughter. She really is the same person. I have to keep that in mind. There isn’t any reason for me to be so timid is there?

“You have a point,” I concede, “but I don’t think it’s fair to guilt me over making a healthy decision.” I finish with a smile. She smiles as well, though she doesn’t laugh, and looking at her eyes I can tell she is half-here, and half-elsewhere. My smile slowly fades into not quite a frown, and I hide the urge to sigh by exhaling steadily. I sink lower into the bench. I don’t know what to say. We both know of what I witnessed today, although I can’t begin to grasp the implications of it, much less what it even was. Things can’t be the same anymore. These times, brief and shallow as they were, were also an escape. Everything about it, the late nights, this bench at the dead-end of a rarely used path, and an interesting stranger. It all seemed magical in a way. I fight off a bitter laugh from escaping me. I suppose I did see magic, and it was wonderful...and terrifying. This brief encounter with something out of the ordinary is all I can hope for in my droll life. This is the end of my time together with Emi, I can feel it in my bones, and in the silence that stretches between us, widening each second, I remain silent. Abruptly, Emi stands and looks at me. I glance at her sharply, somewhat startled.

“I should be heading out now. It’s getting late.” She says with no discernible emotions.

“Oh, yeah. That makes sense.” I say lamely, following her lead to stand. Wordlessly, we make our way back to where the path connects to the main one. I trudge along, each step heavy, as if I’m wading through waist-deep mud. When we make it to our usual place of farewells, we pause and stand awkwardly. I can tell she wants to say something. I steel my nerves.

“Thanks. It’s always nice to see you here.” She smiles. It’s fake, that much I can tell, though I don’t know what emotion it hides beneath it. I mirror her, my smile making it as far as the muscles in my face.

“Yeah, it is nice.” Is all that I can say. Why can’t I say something else?

“Well, goodbye.” She says with a small wave. I wave back, but don’t say anything. I know the answer all too well. She turns and walks away.

“Bye.” I whisper when she’s already way too far to hear me. It’s because I know my lot in life, and I’ve known it for a long time. I turn and take a lethargic step.

Back to my life.

Back to work.

Back, where I belong.