Hey guys! This is the eighth installment of our Life 2.0 story series. For more information on Life 2.0, visit our Life 2.0 page here. Hope you all enjoy!
Sophie, the strange woman who claimed to be from next door, set a punishing pace as they sped through the halls.
Her white hair flowed behind her in a billowing manner, almost in reach of Julian’s arm length.
They were blindly following her through a nightmare, on a whim that she really knew what she boasted.
Julian shook his head. They really were desperate.
Maybe she would lead them out of this place, or maybe she would be like Vivek, deceiving them.
Putting a sneer on his face, Julian despised the thought of being so easily tricked.
This truly was an act of faith.
Back home in Sixeko, faith was of no consequence to Julian; a subject that distracted him from real work. But in the past, Julian would have also called himself sane.
There was no shred of sanity in this.
Twists and turns in their path disoriented any sense of direction that Julian had gained. He felt totally lost physically, but also mentally.
Where were they going? Was this Hall of Remembrance a safe place?
Yet, Sophie seemed to know exactly where they were supposed to go. Unless she was faking it.
“Marcus, be careful of her tricks,” his brother glanced over at him curiously, his lips pursed. “You never know with these strangers.”
Marcus sighed and said without turning his head, “Didn’t I tell you that when you were so confident about Vivek?”
Julian didn’t snap back at his brother. He bit his tongue fiercely. There was no arguing with that. He had allowed himself to believe in someone, and gotten bitten in the process.
As Julian ran, every breath became harder.
The distance they were covering wasn’t even a small portion of the ten-mile races that Julian had completed in the past, but he was losing his strength with every step.
Julian let out a small whimper; this hell-hole was a paradox.
Julian forced himself to look at his brother, who was still running strongly.
Why were they running? It seemed that they were in a rush to get away.
If anything, Julian knew that he and Marcus deserved to know if they were being chased.
Sophie looked wary. The new possible threat nagged at the back of Julian’s mind as he ran.
His legs shook as he tried to force them in front of each other. He knew he must keep going. If he stopped, he would be lost and alone. No comfort would come to Julian, only the knowledge that he gave up. He gasped for breath.
“I can’t. Please… stop.”
His eyes bulged as he tried to talk to Marcus, whose gaze, and apparently all his senses, were set on Sophie. How could he not see Julian’s pain?
“Marcus! Slow down,” it sounded like a chicken dying underneath a tractor-trailer’s wheel.
Instead, Marcus ran further and further away. The flapping back of his baggy grey hoodie started to blur in Julian’s vision. Then he disappeared.
The realization that he had turned a bend was lost to Julian in the moment, and he didn’t process the solid wall in front of him until he had slammed into it.
He bounced off the wall and onto the floor, pain rocketing through his body.
Julian lay on the icy cold ground. He felt like he was going to have a heart attack any moment. He stared at the seamless floor, fighting the urge to throw up. How could Marcus not see that he had fallen behind?
Julian could see little now. His surroundings seemed dimmed, and he couldn’t even hear footsteps anymore.
Spread-eagle with his limbs flopped all over the place, Julian finally was able to find air in his lungs.
Darkness surrounded him. The meaty thunk of Julian’s fist against the floor fell flat.
Sophie had planned this. She had blatantly tricked him. She had made sure he was left behind, alone again.
A throaty scream erupted from his exhausted lungs.
Sophie’s intentions were lost to Julian, but he could feel in his gut, quite literally, that they weren’t to benefit him. Somehow, she had made him fall. Somehow, she had caused him to fail. It wasn’t Julian; it was her.
He knew this feeling. He’d felt it before. Abandonment.
Suddenly, Julian could see the wall next to him in further clarity.
A faint light started to rise around him.
To his total shock the floor no longer felt smooth; it was rough pine-wood.
Sitting up abruptly, Julian jerked his head around the room. His room. This had been his bedroom in that ancient house placed at the end of a cul-de-sac.
How was this possible? It couldn’t be.
But nevertheless, a large My Years of Heartthrob poster hung from the far wall. That was his favorite band when he was fifteen.
Perhaps Marcus’s proposition, that this box of paradoxes was in fact connected to Julian, wasn’t so crazy after all.
Standing up slowly, Julian took the whole room in like a breath of nostalgic air.
He missed this place. It had been his safe haven. Now, this room didn’t exist.
When he had been kicked out- no, when he had left- Abbi had removed all his stuff and thrown it in the trash.
As Julian walked around the space in wistfulness, he unconsciously closed the door that was hanging ajar. Ammi’s words rung in his ears, almost like she was here with him.
“Please don’t close your door, Julian. Don’t shut yourself out.”
He had always closed the door. No one needed to know what he was doing. Julian muttered his faithful response.
“Why? This is my room.”
But the words had come from somewhere else.
He bolted to see himself sitting on the rickety bed that was shoved into the corner, except he was fifteen.
All the blankets on the bed were thrown about carelessly, like the owner was in a constant rush.
Julian’s four years in highschool immediately came to mind.
The boy scowled, working at a cube puzzle held in his tan fingers.
“What is this?” Julian asked to the air.
There was no response whatsoever from the younger version of himself, not even a flinch or gasp.
Julian walked over slowly and waved a hand in front of the boy’s eyes. He continued working on his puzzle like nothing was there.
Was he always this oblivious?
Suddenly, the door creaked open slightly.
The thought of hiding crossed his mind, but he abandoned it as Ammi’s form squeezed in.
Her raven hair flowed smoothly over her shoulders, and her full lips were pressed together firmly. She frowned, her body tight, but her eyes looked sympathetic. There were no gray streaks in her hair like there were today.
“Ammi? What are you doing here?” His voice was strained.
Julian’s mother didn’t even turn to acknowledge him.
He involuntarily reached out to touch her arm, but his fingers passed through. There was no real substance to her body.
What was this? This scenario seemed so familiar.
Her eyes flitted to the green backpack that was carelessly thrown onto the floor, and the disappointment in her face deepened. A can of pink spray paint was peaking out of the zippered top.
Suddenly, recognition swept across Julian.
This was the day that Abbi had found out about his late night rampages and stolen his only freedom.
Julian scowled. He remembered the disgust that had crossed Abbi’s mustached face.
Ammi wrinkled her nose and placed her hands on her hips.
“It smells like a dead animal in here.” The other Julian turned his head towards her, and she raised an eyebrow. “Have you retrieved those dirty shirts from under your bed?”
Smiling to himself, Julian remembered his mom’s icebreakers always involved the smell in his room. The fifteen-year-old version of Julian sighed heavily and flopped back onto his mattress.
“No, of course not! I have too many shirts already.”
Ammi put on a tired smile. She perched on the edge of Julian’s bed and ran a hand through her long, raven hair. Unconsciously, Julian realized he was doing the same thing. She dropped her hands into her lap in the awkward silence. Young Julian continued to stare up at the ceiling.
“So,” she looked around the room, “Which one of your brothers is going to get your room when you go off to college?”
The young Julian rose his eyebrow. In his mind, he probably wished he could leave sooner than going to college. He would get his wish, but not in the way he was thinking of.
“Neither Marcus or Damian deserve their own room,” he muttered, “They have enough trouble cleaning up the room that they share. When I move to college, this will be my room when I visit on weekends.”
Ammi’s relieved expression made Julian laugh bitterly. There would be no visiting on weekends. There would barely be any interaction. When he had left the house at the end of the cul-de-sac, Ammi had not tried to stop him. That day he had left the home, her final words were like a knife in his side.
“Why Julian? My little malak. My angel. Why do you hurt me so?”
It hurt her terribly, Julian knew, though she had no idea how much torture he’d gone through.
The past Ammi leaned forward uncomfortably, trying to formulate her next words.
“Julian, you know that we’re just looking out for you. Your father and I are concerned with how much time you spend away from us.”
He flinched at the response he knew would come. Julian had never been looked out for. His other self sat up abruptly, eyebrows creased tightly.
“Ammi, did you know that other, normal kids spend days away from their family? They do something special; it’s called having fun.” The sarcasm laced his voice like a deadly poison. He threw his legs off the bed and pointed out his narrow window. “I’m concerned about how much time I’ve wasted in this room, typing endless papers about the Muslim faith, social justice, and all the stuff that Abbi wants me to work on! Every once and awhile, I just wish I could do something for me.”
Julian stared at the clunky desktop computer that sat on a squat bureau in the corner. That computer was his oldest friend and biggest nightmare. There could have been so much more that he might have achieved.
As calm as ever, Ammi nodded her head in response.
“I understand where you’re coming from, but that isn’t an excuse for sneaking out at night.”
Julian clenched his teeth tightly. They always pulled out that one. His feelings and struggles “weren’t an excuse” for his rebellion. It wasn’t an excuse; it was an explanation.
Young Julian rolled his eyes. He stood up and gestured to the window.
“If you just let me have a little leeway. . .” His tone turned negotiable, “some space to breathe then I might feel more obliged to actually listen to you.”
Ammi’s mouth hung open as she thought. She glanced at the door, obviously thinking about Abbi and his dedication. She knew the right thing to do, yet she couldn’t do it. Young Julian’s face held expectation, a hope from the person he loved.
Ammi’s expression hardened. “Your father is doing all he can to make sure you follow Islam faithfully-”
The current Julian punched the wall; it always came back to what Abbi wanted.
“Think about your son, woman!” he pleaded with the past.
Ammi continued, and her fifteen-year-old son balled his fists till they were white.
“He understands how defiled the world is. How difficult it is for a man to live righteously.”
He whirled on his mother. “The world is a place where there is freedom! In this home, I do not feel free. I am not free.”
Ammi’s head drooped. Part of the current Julian wanted to slap himself. He was oblivious to the fact that Ammi was trying her best. The rest of him knew how he felt. This was him after all. He did not feel loved, and he was not free.
Ammi closed her eyes and took a breath. She was fighting back tears. The younger version of Julian crossed his arms tightly, looking at the ground.
“Please Julian, promise me you’ll at least think about how your example will affect your brothers. Marcus and Damian are so young; they need to have an older brother to follow.”
The plea of his mother hit Julian straight in the heart.
He knew both of his brothers were taken away from him when he left.
They had grown so much. They had grown so fast. Where had Julian been?
Even when Marcus had gone to the same school as his brother out of his free choice, Julian had distanced himself.
Damian, now a nine-year-old boy whom Julian barely knew, was being raised into the religion that had destroyed Julian’s faith.
Young Julian’s shoulders slumped a little. He rubbed his head slowly.
“I guess I can try to.”
Julian scoffed at his younger self. Try to? He barely tried! For some reason, he had tried instead to make two lives for himself; one without his family, and the other that included the problems that came with them.
Ammi put on a small smile. “You know that we love you, Julian.”
Julian looked deeply into Ammi’s eyes. Was that still true? Did he have any love left for them? He shook his head and muttered bitterly.
“No, I don’t know that you love me.”
She reached out to touch young Julian’s arm.
He jerked away from her fingers, “Don’t touch me!”
Ammi spoke over him, trying to get her words through, “We just want you to share the same beliefs as us, so that we may live in peace with each other!”
A fire snapped into his eyes. His lip curled. He stared ahead of him, and just shook his head several times in dead silence.
“Get out. Just. . .Just get out.”
At first, Ammi stared at him pleadingly. Determined, he thrust his finger towards the door. Julian wanted to break the stupid thing as it shook.
“I said get out!” He screamed hoarsely. “So move it.”
Julian’s mother backed away slowly, and he found himself reaching out for her. He needed her. She turned away, and the tears started streaming down her face.
He stared at her desperately, as the door clicked shut.
But she didn’t, she couldn’t, hear him.
“Please. I can’t do this on my own.”
It was a whimper, a plea for help.
Julian slid to his knees. He looked down at his hands, and realized that they were wet with tears. He hadn’t cried in forever.
Through his tears, Julian could see that he was alone in the room again. It seemed to be his destiny. Could he be sick of distrust and loneliness? Ammi believed in him, and he had betrayed her. Or maybe she was just talking.
“What’s wrong, my darling?”
The suddenness of a voice made him jump. He was supposed to be alone. Julian darted his head around, looking for the source. It sounded like Ammi.
“Why are you crying?” Julian whipped his head towards the door.
Could it be Ammi again? Here to soothe Julian’s hurt? A slender hand reached in and pushed the door open.
“You’re stronger than this, Julian,” Ammi’s reassuring tone was replaced by a smooth, alluring one.
A tall figure stood in the doorway, wearing a sleeveless crimson dress. Her head was tossed back, and her long blond hair flowed freely. She gazed at Julian intensely.
“Who the-? What are you?”
“You know who I am, Jules.” She smiled lopsidedly. “Though you doubt me more than you should.”