Hey everyone. This is our last post of Life 2.0.!! Super excited to finish this. Jason and I had a lot of fun writing this together as our first big writing collab. Thank you to all our faithful readers and for your input each and every week. Julian’s story couldn’t have happened without you. I hope you enjoy this final installment, and let us know in the comments what you thought of the whole series. Should we do another one? What did you like about it? What should we have changed or done differently? You can read the beginning and rest of Life 2.0. here. Again, thank you so much, you guys are awesome!
Whispers turned into murmurs of unconsciousness. Murmurs turned into headache-inducing shouting. Couldn’t Abbi stay quiet? Blaring sirens swirled around in the air. Sirens?
Wind, cold and bitter, swept across Julian’s face. A dog barked somewhere far away. Darkness still surrounded everything.
Then he opened his eyes. The sun glared through the heavy Sixeko mist into Julian’s unaccustomed pupils. He couldn’t see anything but the blurry blue sky above him.
“Julian.” Marcus’s voice sounded like a piercing scream, “Julian, sit up.”
Could he? To Julian’s surprise, his legs obeyed him when he moved. When he spoke, he felt his throat contract.
“What? Where are we?” he gurgled.
Julian’s back went rigid as he remembered.
There was no Abbi, only three greasy brick walls. Julian was terribly cold and found himself sitting in a puddle. Marcus rubbed his eyes underneath his glasses.
Was this real? Julian repeated a question he feared already knowing the answer to.
“Where are we?”
A grimace spread across Marcus’s face. He looked into Julian’s eyes without fear; there was no apprehension.
“Where else? Sixeko.”
Julian felt like he could throw up. Was this real? There was no guarantee.
The word sounded alien and sour in his mouth. Did he really want to be back in Sixeko? Marcus glared at him weirdly.
“Julian, you’re acting weird. That hit to your head probably caused more damage than I thought.”
Hit to his head? Was he talking about the countless times that Abbi had smashed Julian’s head against the wall?
Slowly reaching up to rub his scalp, Julian found that there was only one tender spot on his head. The scrape was scabbed over, and crusty dried blood surrounded it.
“I didn’t hit my head,” Julian muttered through his teeth, “Abbi beat the daylights out of me, and then I crushed him.” He threw a hand at Marcus, “You were there, remember?”
Wait. He wasn’t there; he had disappeared. He had run away like a little bunny. Had run away down the rabbit hole.
Marcus walked over to Julian and looked him directly in the eyes. His cold hand gripped Julian’s shoulder.
“Julian, I’m sorry you had to go through that. I remember when Abbi used to scream at you. Every time I would run up to my bed and hide underneath the covers.”
Why was he talking in past tense? He had to remember what had happened moments ago!
His eyes hardened. “But I don’t know how that is relevant to where we are now.”
Julian sat up stiffly. What did he mean? He had just killed Abbi! The possibility that they were back in Sixeko made no difference to what had happened. Standing up on shaky legs, Julian prodded a finger into Marcus’s chest.
“You know what I’m talking about! I was just…” Julian pondered for a second on what he thought he had experienced. “I was taken through, for God knows why my mind and soul.”
Not just Julian though; Marcus was there too. The prospect was numbing.
Marcus peered at Julian through slitted eyes and let out a sigh.
“Unless your mind and soul came in the form of a freak hail storm, then I have no idea what you’re talking about. A storm swept in almost an hour ago as we were walking to our dorms.” Marcus scratched his head. “In fact, you were unconscious for most of it. A massive piece of hail smacked you on the head as the storm started.”
Julian’s face must have held complete disbelief because Marcus walked out of the alley and came back holding a golf-ball sized chunk of hail.
“This was what was coming down on us, and I had to drag you back here so that we were under some cover. You were senseless until a few minutes ago when you woke up.”
Why would Marcus invent this explanation? Julian rubbed his face. More importantly, why couldn’t Julian believe it? It was so much more simple; Julian had been hit on the head with a piece of hail and had a crazy, coma-like hallucination about being trapped in his own tormented soul. It made much more sense than Julian’s own theory.
“No, no. That can’t be true. Arianna, Vivek, the gold statues?” Julian grabbed him by the shoulders, and Marcus shied away. “Tell me you at least know who Sophie is?”
Marcus opened his mouth. Not realizing it, Julian started praying inside that he would give up a simple, yes. He wanted so desperately to not be crazy. His brother’s lips formed around the one word that destroyed his hope.
That was it then. Julian had dreamt it all. If Marcus wouldn’t confess, it was Julian’s word against all other fact and truth. He had not killed Abbi, even though he had felt every blow with a deeper pain. No one would know his violent capabilities. No one else would know that he had stood face to face with every dirty, ugly part of himself.
“Just get me up and out of here.”
He struggled to stand up and felt Marcus duck underneath his arm to support him. They took two steps forward before Julian had to stop. His legs were stiffer than leather.
As he stared at the red, brick wall, he muttered, “Marcus, have you ever had a bizarre dream that you wish were true?”
He didn’t turn his head but nodded thoughtfully.
Julian snorted. The sound was hard on his ears.
“I think I’ve had the extreme opposite experience.”
A genuine laugh burst from Marcus.
That was the difference between them; Julian was forced, and Marcus was real.
A nervous chuckle escaped his throat.
“Marcus, I am a terrible person.”
There was no flinching from Marcus. No shock on his face. He appeared to have expected this.
“You are human, Julian. I am human. We are all terrible people.”
Julian’s lip curled in distaste. No one could be viler than him. “Yeah, and none of us want to change.” Julian scoffed.
At the end of the alley, people clipped by aimlessly. Probably not even thinking about anyone but themselves, Julian guessed.
A gray-haired man halted directly in front of the alley and stooped to tie his shoe. He was distressed and rushed to finish. A young boy clung to his hand. The boy’s eyes never seemed to rest in one place, like they were looking for something. Julian wondered if he knew him. He seemed familiar.
The boy’s eyes locked onto his.
“Damian.” Julian clawed Marcus’s shoulder and pointed at the boy, “Marcus, is that Damian?”
It couldn’t be. Damian was only half the height of this boy the last time Julian had seen him. A year ago. His heart started thumping.
A joyous smile spread across Marcus’s face.
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
Damian heard them and peered into the alley. Julian wanted to hide. Immediate recognition and relief flooded the boy’s face. He started pulling on the elderly man’s sleeve and pointing in Julian’s direction. Then the man turned.
Marcus tightened beside him.
It took all of Julian’s strength not to punch the wall. Here was Abbi, straight out of Julian’s nightmares. What would he do to him?
But … But he looked different. His face looked old. And grieved? Grieved? Was he really in Sixeko, or still trapped in his soul? Should he put up his fists or run? Impulsively, Julian tried to take a step forward to meet his mind’s enemy. His judgment.
“Stay calm Julian, you don’t know why he’s here.” Marcus quickly grabbed his arm, “This is reality.”
What did that mean? What was Marcus not letting on?
Abbi met Julian’s eyes, and for a moment he thought he saw joy. It couldn’t be. This was only Julian’s mind trying to trick him into finding hope.
“Why is he here Marcus? Why is he antagonizing me?”
Marcus remained silent.
Abbi approached slowly, his arm wrapped protectively around Damian’s shoulder. The boy wouldn’t stop staring into Julian’s soul! Their father froze a yard away from Julian, arms hanging limply by his sides.
“Hello, Abbi.” Marcus nodded politely.
A dull headache started to throb, and Julian clenched his teeth. He returned his father’s gaze. His soul’s enemy. A thousand thoughts swirled behind his pupils.
Abbi’s jaw was set against any emotions. “You’re alive.”
Julian waited for more, but it didn’t come. That was it? Was he really that ignorant?
“Is that a surprise?” Julian asked hesitantly.
Abbi was about to answer, and Damian pushed past him towards Marcus. He gently put a hand on his shoulder to halt him.
“Marcus, we were looking for you forever. Where were you?” Damian glanced at Julian, “Is Julian okay?”
He bent down towards his brother and started talking with him in a hushed voice.
“It doesn’t matter too much where I was. I’m here with you now,” Julian could feel the heat on his back, “He will be fine.”
Shock flashed through Julian. He snapped his head to peer at Abbi.
“You’ve been looking for us?”
Rubbing his stubble-covered chin, Abbi nodded.
“You’ve been gone for two whole days.”
His tone held traces of… worry? He had actually been looking for them? Why? Why did he care about where Julian was? Besides, Marcus told him that only an hour or so had passed.
“Well, I’m sure you survived without us.”
Why did Julian have to give a sardonic response? Why did he always have to have the last word?
Abbi’s eyes tightened, “Well, your mother would still kill me if two out of her three sons died.”
Julian stared. And sighed. So that was still it? Just Ammi.
Abbi’s mouth hung open like he needed to say more, but he continued to stare awkwardly at Julian. Julian gulped down another retort. Say something, you stubborn man!
An expanse of silence followed, and Julian refused to break the ice. There were dangerous waters underneath. Abbi opened and closed his mouth again, licking his dry lips. Marcus stared at Julian. Waiting. Accusing. Julian would make this Muslim speak first!
“Abbi, will you allow Julian to come home now?”
Damian’s gentle tone carried through Abbi’s adamant demeanor. He flinched.
He glanced at the ground and stammered.
“I-I don’t know about that.” He scratched his head and met Julian’s gaze. “There’s no…”
He halted his sentence once more. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed in hesitance. Julian almost whimpered. Say something. Anything… please. Just give it to me straight! Don’t leave me hanging.
When Julian flitted his gaze to Marcus, he found him with his eyes closed. His mouth moved in a seamless prayer. What could God do now? Julian didn’t deserve any love.
“That’s it then!” Julian stood tall and broke the silence, “I guess we’ll continue in our vague lives; you in your Muslim dedication, and me in my straying” Julian felt his face turn red as he screamed. “We can pretend that we both don’t exist in each others’ lives and be content with that.”
Suddenly Abbi was on his knees before Julian. All the rage disappeared as Julian found tears streaming through his father’s wrinkles. His words were barely discernible through his sobbing.
“No, Julian! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The words were like knives in Julian’s heart. Red hot knives that penetrated all of him. It couldn’t be. But he just wanted more.
Give me more! Give me! Tell me! Tell me you love me, Abbi! Please.
Abbi continued as he stared at his son. “I was so wrong. I treated you so badly. You needed a father who loved you, not just one who looked out for your dedication to Islam.”
Julian shook his head fervently. This was too crazy to be true. The most stoic man in all of Julian’s life was now sitting on his knees in surrender. He had won. But it wasn’t just a bitter victory; it was a deadly victory.
“No, I understand now.” Julian’s chin shuddered. “I’m a horrible, vile person. I don’t deserve any forgiveness. Especially not yours. Don’t waste your energy on me, Abbi.” Julian ran his hand through his hair. “As soon as you trust me, I might stab you in the back. I’m not worth your time.”
Abbi was in agony. He stood up tall and spoke firmly.
“Julian, I will take as many knives as you give me, as long as we stay a family.” He outstretched his hand. “I love you, Julian. I finally love you. Will you forgive me?”