the empty spaces


For a city so full of life, the dark street corner is remarkably quiet. The glow of a million distant lights have turned the sky hazy, leaving the moon to shine weakly above a convenience store parking lot, empty except for a single stray cat. The rain-soaked crosswalk glistens in the darkness, every puddle in the street reflecting countless shades of red and yellow and green and blue. Each passing car makes soft splashing noises against the dirty street curb, filling the air with a trembling mist that seems to shimmer with a fragile light, leaving the world just slightly out of focus. A tiny library stands like a stone-eyed sentry over its own little corner of the city, watching hunched figures shuffling by, jackets tight around their bodies, failing to keep the rain out of their tired eyes.

It’s the place that countless dreamers wish to be, standing in some quiet place of darkness, caught between asleep and awake—something so crudely unnatural and manmade, yet somehow strangely magical, filled with a mysterious kind of life that seems to hover just out of reach behind those cold lights. It’s the kind of place that was made to long for, the kind of place that does something irreversible to the empty spaces in your chest once you stand, feeling small and strange, on that shining sidewalk. 

Standing there, feeling like you’ll never move again, grounded painfully by the crushing realization that all the glistening lights in the universe can’t fill your aching emptiness. A sharp-looking man and his gentle-faced dog bump into you, and the dog’s head brushes against your hand, its wet coat warm beneath your fingers. You sink into the feeling, rubbing the dog’s ears, and it looks slowly up at you with the widest eyes. You pull abruptly away when you realize that the man is glaring at you, pulling on the end of the dog’s leash. “Sorry,” you breathe quickly, the sound of your own voice the last thing you wanted to hear. They turn away and disappear around the corner, leaving you staring at the place where the dog was standing, wondering if you imagined them both.

You stare for a long moment before turning back to the distant city skyline, the lights sprawling out in a million different directions in the darkness beneath you. It’s all so beautiful, shining in the rain, and somehow it’s making you more hollow than you’ve ever been before. You close your eyes, praying that when you open them, you’ll be back in some quiet place, dreaming of this moment. The longing was far better than the knowing, you understand that painfully well now, and you want to go back, forget the whole thing, but you can’t

Your phone rings. You almost lose your footing and tumble into the street as you yank the phone from your pocket and fumble with the screen, not recognizing the number through your blurry eyes. You manage to swipe in the right direction, shoving it against your cheek as a bright voice fills your ear.

“Hey, kiddo!”

You stumble to the edge of the sidewalk and sink onto the steps of an unidentified building. Wet leaves fall from somewhere above you, clinging to your clothes and catching in your hair. The voice in your ear is growing louder. “How’s the trip? Are you eating enough? Sleeping well? I was so excited for you, because I knew you’d always wanted to come, and it’s such a wonderful opportunity—hey, are you there?”

You breathe as deeply as you can. “I’m here.”

The voice is nearly overflowing with excitement. “Oh, can you believe you finally made it? You’ve been talking about this trip since you were so young, how does it feel to be there at last? Is it everything you were hoping for?”

You hesitate for a moment too long, and you can hear the silence on the other end of the phone grow uncomfortable. “It’s very… well… it’s a lot.”

The voice is a shade softer now. “Oh, there’s so much to see, isn’t there? I remember my first time in a big city—I was so busy taking in the sights, I was nearly hit by a bus!” Laughter follows, so loud that you lean away from the phone, wincing. You stand up, gripping the metal stair rail. “Listen, I’m going to have to let you go.” You’re fighting the urge to run, and it’s building up inside of you dangerously fast, like it never has before. The voice grows quiet, and you remember how bad you are at hiding things in your voice. “What’s the matter, kiddo?”

Suddenly, it snaps, like a rubber band breaking against the inside of your chest. If you stay still for another second, you’ll suffocate. You shove the phone inside your pocket and run, your head and legs and heart moving without your permission, and all of a sudden you’re dodging cars and people and more cars, and the world is a blur of rainbow lights, and you dart around an umbrella and a sign and a woman and a lamppost, and someone screams—

You’re not running anymore. You reach up and grab your face, unsure if you’re really here, and you feel yourself shaking, your breath coming out in heavy gasps. The realization that you’re alive drags your racing heart back into your body, and you open your eyes, blinking slowly as your vision adjusts to the new darkness. You’re in a small space between two brick walls, surrounded by wet piles of cardboard boxes. It’s dark and warm, and you draw your knees to your chest, letting your breathing begin to grow steady.

A new sound cuts into your slow-spinning world. A familiar muffled voice, shrill and helpless through the tiny phone speaker, repeating your name in an increasingly panicked tone, begging you to answer—

You press the phone quickly against your ear. “I’m here.”

The longest breath follows a moment of shaky silence. “Honey, what was that? I heard someone scream, why didn’t you answer me? Are you okay?”

You nod, then realize that she can’t see you. “Yeah.”

“Don’t hang up,” she says firmly, sounding completely unconvinced. Her voice, which you wanted to escape just minutes before, is suddenly the most comforting sound in the world. You realize that you have the phone in a white-knuckled grip. “I won’t, I promise.”

“Good.” You hear distant shuffling sounds, as if she’s settling down somewhere. You listen, waiting, until she speaks again. Her voice is hesitant, as if she’s unsure what to say. Finally, she says, “Tell me.”

You tell her. The sentences are all mixed up and heavy and painful, and it takes a lot of time and effort to even get close to explaining, but with every word you speak, you feel a little less empty. You turn your head as you’re talking, and you see a new angle of the skyline. This time, the glow is framed by a fire hydrant and an empty taxi. You lean your head back against the wall, and you can hear yourself growing calmer. “So, yeah,” you say slowly. “Really, though, it’s alright, because this place is beautiful. It was just a few minutes where I was confused, but it’s okay now, and I can’t wait to watch the sun come up.”

She’s been listening to you, really listening. You can tell, aside from the occasional “mmhmm”s, because you can see her in your mind’s eye, curled on the couch as she nods along with those wide, kind eyes. Most likely, she has a blanket around her shoulders, and she’s probably yawning, because of the time difference—“Oh no, I should let you sleep now.”

She laughs a tiny laugh. “Actually, I want to hear about this sunrise. It’s not long now, want to wait together so you can describe it to me?”

You can hardly speak through the tightness in your throat. “I’d love that.”

How did you forget it all so quickly? Just like that, the empty spaces are so full that they’re hurting in a good way. You’re smiling like an idiot with leaves in your hair, soaked from head to toe, sitting on a stack of boxes in an alleyway with absolutely no idea where you are. “You there?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Just wanted to say, uh, thanks.”

“Anytime, kiddo. Tell me when the sky starts turning pink. I might fall asleep, but I’m not going anywhere, okay?”

“‘Kay.”

You rest your elbows on your knees, smiling, waiting for the sun to rise.


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