Chapter 1:

Where It All Begins

Life Eats Us Now

As everyone settled into their seats, our teacher began to distribute the handouts one by one. The sound of paper shuffling and pens scratching streamed around as everyone started jotting down their thoughts. The handout had a simple yet powerful title at the top, "Dream in Life," written boldly to capture attention. This was one of those familiar exercises where we were meant to pen down what we wanted to become in the future, what we aspired to explore. Every school did this at some point, but in our school, it was an annual tradition. They believed that writing down our dreams and watching them evolve over time served as a reminder of our personal growth, and the value of pursuing those dreams. That's why, every time I fill it out, I smile to myself, grateful for the opportunity to reflect on my goals each year. 

It's like I'm sketching the map of my life.

However, in the end, the contents of our dreams often boiled down to something simple and predictable, like 'I want to be a doctor' or 'A pilot'... or 'An astronaut'... the usual fare. Well, kids aren't meant to aspire to things that are firmly grounded or, well, just plain realistic, unlike adults. And that's how it was for all of us, for me as well.

When I was still a kid, my father would always bring me toy airplanes as birthday gifts. I remember receiving my first one when I was around 7 or something, although the exact details have become somewhat hazy. After the first one, my requests consistently revolved around toy airplanes, and nothing else could match their appeal. And as for the handouts, that's exactly what I did too – year after year, I wrote down 'pilot,' there too.

It's essential to dream and set goals, no matter how big or small they may seem. They're really important... to keep us motivated... to remind us of what truly matters in life. But what if those dreams fade away all of a sudden? Like how the dawn brings an end to the dreams we see while sleeping... Those maps that I'd drawn of my life... at some point of time, I'd left them behind, and after each passing year, I just kept getting further and further away from ever getting them back. 

As we all moved forward to high school, and everything around us seemed to be sailing straight ahead, it felt like I was lagging behind for the first time. Everyone else seemed to be progressing, whether in academics or other pursuits. It wasn't for lack of effort on my part; I was consistently below average in studies and unsuccessful in anything I attempted.

This pattern had persisted since my childhood, when my mother made me try everything under the sun. I have an elder brother, quite a few years ahead of me. He is, what you may call picture-perfect in anything he does. The complete antithesis of me.

It was the first semester of the year. Just like every year prior, our teacher was moving through the rows, distributing the handouts among us. But this year, there was something different about it. Unlike in middle school, there were no bold and assertive letters gracing the top of the page. Instead, a small, almost unyielding 'Future Plans' greeted our eyes. And instead of jotting down anything in our minds, this time, we had to come up with something beyond that. 

There were series of boxes, each one a prompt for different aspects of our future – college, university, profession, and the like. The page brimmed with expectations and uncertainties, unlike before. 

As I looked down at the paper before me, my pen remained stationary, as if frozen by an invisible force. My muscles refused to respond, unwilling to even make the slightest mark on the page.

My dream is to be a pilot, yeah... a pilot. That's what I had been writing all this time. I remember that much. A pilot... or is it though? Now that I think about it, just how much of that dream was truly mine? 

Was it because my father brought me those toy airplanes? 

I don't know. Maybe, as there wasn't much I could've thought about back then, that's why I decided that I would become a pilot. 

Just so that I could live up to their expectations...

It's all coming back to me now...

Those toys weren't simply what I desired; they were symbols of my attempt to measure up. I rarely played with them, but I kept them close, as if they were silent witnesses to my persistent efforts to be my best self, to meet the expectations of those who believed in me. Yet, as I grew older, the truth began to unravel before my eyes. The dreams I held onto were never truly mine – they were stitched together by others, from the desires to please others. The boundaryless realm of imagination I once knew seemed to fade, replaced by an unsettling void. Now, whether I close my eyes or keep them wide open, the canvas of my mind remains blank, shrouded in the suffocating darkness of uncertainty and doubt. It's as though I've become a canvas myself, painted entirely in shades of black.

Where is the "me" from back then? The one from the days gone by... who dreamed big without limits, who wasn't afraid to trust in a tomorrow filled with countless opportunities. When the world was a book wide open, and I could turn its pages whenever I wanted. It wasn't too far back; I can still hold onto those memories clearly. It's not about time passing; it's not about the years that have moved on. 

So, what is it then?

In the end, I ticked all the boxes marked 'yes,' and I penned down 'pilot' as my chosen profession. I know there might be laughter when others see this choice, coming from me...

"Reol, really... pilot!?"

"Have you ever looked in a mirror?"

"Try something that you can actually do yourself."

However, my mind was blank, and 'pilot' felt like the least inappropriate option. But does changing my response really make a difference? It seems inevitable that no matter what I write, I'll be perceived as a letdown, a disappointment in the eyes of those who glimpse it.

"Hey, pesk, you can't avoid this," Hugh yelled, cornering the boy against the wall. A fit of coughing wracked the boy's body as he struggled to hold his ground. "Just hand over the money."

"Like I said, I don't have any today..." His voice barely rose above a whisper, struggling to reach our ears.

"Huh! I can't hear you!" With those words, he brought his foot crashing against the wall, mere inches from the boy's shoulder. Leaning in even closer, he sneered, "I just want the money! Do you honestly think you have any say in this situation?"

This scene wasn't unique to our school; it unfolded everywhere. Everyone is split into two distinct groups. There were those who feel superior, and those who feel overshadowed. Because not everyone is created equal. We all start the same, and this truth holds just until we're born. Moreover, most of the time, we have little control over the groups we end up in. As a result, a small minority, stuck in the lower ranks, may resort to pushing others down in a desperate attempt to secure their position at the top.

Hugh turned to me. "Reol, check if he's holding out on us. He's nearly done for. No point in beating him senseless."

I searched the boy's pockets and bag, scuffling through his books and stuff, yet only finding an ID card with the name Kit Turner. Class C, but the same grade as us.

I found myself among those who stayed in the shadows, living in the world of the unnoticed. Yet, I hesitated to confront the terrifying situation the boy on the floor was going through. I had no wish to become the helpless prey caught in their spiral of chaos. That's why I tried to steer myself toward a different aspect of the situation.

"H-he's telling the truth, Hugh. No money on him."

"Are you kidding me?" Hugh's rage was released on a chair, sending it crashing into a nearby desk.

"Um... let's leave him be. More violence won't solve-"

He didn't let me finish, throwing me aside. "HUH! He still needs a lesson! I can't let him forget it next time."

Though I was physically safe, the situation repulsed me. Not because of my actions, but my inaction. I loathed myself for allowing this, for being part of their games. I was no different from the boy on the floor, a pawn in Hugh's control. If he snapped, there'd be no escape for me too.

"Reol, you've got some cash, right?"

"W-what are you suggesting? I don't have anything..."

"Quit lying. You've got something."

"But I lent you money already-"

"Lent?" He tightened his grip on my shoulder, pain shooting through. "You call that lending? Aren't we friends?"

It all disgusts me. How did things end up like this? I never wished for getting entangled in this mess. What I wanted was to only keep myself safe. So that I wouldn't get hurt. But I got dragged along in the end, and my name got branded with something for which I had little to nothing to do with. I never wanted to be a bother in anyone's eyes. If anything, I would like to just fade in the background. That would be way much better. But now, their gazes were intense, while I find myself unable to meet anyone in the eye – not my classmates', not my parents'.

If only I had a little more courage, there would've been so many things I could've done right. I want to look back at them straight, and not divert my gaze away. I want to let them know that they're getting everything wrong.  

But each time, the weight of all the mistakes from before weighs down on me, a heavy burden that wraps around my chest and squeezes until it's all suffocating. The gazes of those around me feel like hot needles, piercing right through me, as if they can see every flaw, every insecurity. But never the pain inside. Never.

In front of them, any shred of courage to change myself feels as insignificant as a grain of sand waiting for the relentless waves of the ocean to wash it away.  

It's like... you know those pictures where the faces are covered in black ink scribbles all over. It's really frightening, that sensation of being the only one unable to grasp anything about them. And it's the same in the opposite direction. Those black strokes act like barriers, or perhaps chains, keeping me tied to the sorry self I already am.

I knew couldn't allow myself to be swayed by the opinions of others, but I didn't have enough courage to spare on that too, making me feel so restless... and unstable. My voice was killed and lowered, as I thoughtlessly nodded to things I'd never wanted to do.


"Keep your head down! Don't even glance our way!" The words echoed in my mind, pushing me further down. It was too much to bear.

It was all just so draining.

As I clung to the belief that there was still time, the regrets for my past inactions and the fear that kept me imprisoned in the gaze of others swirled together like a tangled knot, unclear and overpowering.

Amid this chaos, there was only one thing on my mind...

How many times have I experienced those fleeting moments, those instances when I believed I could wake up and transform into a better version of myself? How often have those moments come and gone? Every single time, I find myself caught in the same cycle, like a broken record endlessly replaying the same mistakes. It's beyond frustrating; it's a continuous struggle that leaves me exhausted.

I'm haunted by the ghost of my own selfish dreams, dreams that I once held close to my heart and believed in with unwavering determination. Yet, I've become the architect of my own disappointment, shattering those dreams with my own hands, piece by piece. It's a bitter irony – to want something so badly, only to let it crumble down when it's within reach.

What can I even do now? Is there anyone, just anyone, who can answer for me? 

The people around me seem so carefree. Their happiness only intensifies my envy. How can I make them understand the chaos that burns me inside out, the storm I battle every day? When will someone step into my darkness and offer a glimmer of light, a hand to pull me out? Is there hope for rescue, or am I left to wander this abyss alone?