Saturday, December 18, 2021

More Alone Than Others

A bonus chapter from book 1, as we're approaching Christmas.

Originally, this was titled 'More Alone Than Others' and it was written for a Christmas writing competition, but somehow it ended up being Gwen's story.

Some minor spoilers - do not read if you're looking experience book 1 to the fullest!



Some Are More Alone Than Others



My room is on the top floor, in our highest tower. When you climb the stairs they end on a small landing, little more than an oversized step. There's only one door, and the sign on that door says, 'Gwen's Secret Hideout - Do Noot Enter!' I was a lot younger when I wrote that.

Nobody does ever enter but me, even if my hideout isn't that much of a secret. My family doesn't know I still live here. They simply cannot remember. Don't look so sad, it isn't that bad because I'm alive. I'm not a ghost, you see, I'm merely cursed to be forgotten by all. Who wouldn't take forgotten-but-alive over remembered-but-dead every day, right?

It's a Thursday afternoon, and it's quiet outside. Quiet for San Francisco standards, that is. The traffic moves as slow as usual, and the streetcars and cablecars do their thing. The people outside hurry home. Even on Christmas Eve people will be hustling and bustling about. This is San Francisco, after all. It's never quiet, and it's never winter. Not the real kind with snow flocks and ice skating, and little stalls that sell hot chocolate, Christmas pie, and apple fritter. Tonight the temperature will be in the high sixties, low seventies. Our winters stay north every year, no matter what the weather people promise.

Last year my family had a half-hearted attempt at a Christmas tree. The three itself was a last-minute idea from dad--I think Kevin's my father--who picked it up on his way home. It was made of plastic and looked its price--cheap, and almost cheerful. Mother retrieved the boxes with balls and other baubles from the attic, and she, dad, and my brother Jason bought presents for one another. The whole thing was a muted affair, but I didn't mind as there were no presents for me anyway. Once they were done I stole the tree and moved it into my room where it's still standing.

I can't blame my family. They can't remember me, because the curse makes them forget. It makes everyone forget. People do see me, but the moment they look away I simply disappear from their world. And because my older brother, the now dead one, also took away the memories from before the curse there's not much left but an empty spot. Elvis didn't leave the building, I did. There's still the oil painting in the hall, the one that shows Mother, Father, and my brothers Jason and Arthur, and me. When that painting's gone I'll be gone too, totally.

Jason left. He vacated his room and now lives on his boat full-time. To be honest, he already spent most of his time there. He just removed the last personal things from his room, and there wasn't even enough to fill a duffel bag.

I wish Ellen was still here.

Last week she sent me a little present and a letter. I rescued the package from the garbage can, as my father tried to throw it away. A year or two ago I would have cried. It wasn't a very nice thing for him to do, but it's both the curse and the state of his mind. Things weren't going well in their marriage, and Mother made sure he would have no control over the Tillson-Sweetvale foundation when she would no longer be around. I think my father will be leaving soon too.

That just leaves the staff, and I wonder how long they will stay in this haunted house. It's me, of course, but they can't remember.

That's fine. I still have friends.

I put on my best dress and brush my hair. I cut it myself. Barbers are hard to deal with if they keep forgetting the customer sitting in their chair. I allowed Old Johnson to touch my head and face, and he thought me pretty despite the 'hack job' I made of my hair. I thought it wasn't that bad, but Ellen told me to sue my hairdresser, so he might have a point.

Ellen's present goes into my backpack, and so does her letter. I hesitate before lifting my yellow winter coat from its peg. It's not that cold, but... Oh well. The lights in my tree wish me good luck as I make my way downstairs to raid the kitchen. The smell of roasted chicken welcomes me. I wonder for whom the staff is preparing dinner with the house mostly empty, but I won't complain. I rummage through the cupboards until I find two plastic containers and a thermos, then stuff them with chicken, some mashed potatoes, and a little gravy. The thermos flask swallows all the cups of heated chocolate milk I feed it, and as a final thought I add some paper napkins and spoons to my backpack.

There's ice cream in the freezer, but it's warm wintery San Francisco weather and so it would melt. I'll keep it for when I return.

It's a few blocks downhill, towards the Marina, where Old Man Johnson is waiting for me. I walk slowly, carefully, and pay attention at each traffic light and pedestrian crossing. They are extra risky when drivers keep ignoring you, right?

Old Man Johnson is sitting on a black, forged iron bench, which offers a splendid view of the harbor. A soft wind rustles cloth and sails, lazy waves roll in, and seagulls squeal. His coughing has become worse lately, and he should go see a doctor. I told him. I offered to pay for it, but I would have done so using my mothers' credit card, and Mister Johnson says that's stealing, simply not right. I can't help but notice his cough has been getting worse though.

"Gwen?" he asks when I approach the bench.

"Yes, it's me, Mister Johnson. It's a beautiful day, isn't it?"

"Oh yes, it is. My old bones prefer this over the winters I experienced as a youngster, up north. Maybe that's why I drifted here. Still… How I would like to see it once more, the snow... Please, come, sit."

"Well, they say we will have snow this year." I sit down, place the bag between us and open it.

"What's that I smell?" he asks.

"Chicken and mashed potatoes," I tell him. I put a spoon in his hand, then guide the hand to the container.

He suddenly gets suspicious. "Wait. Where did you get these? You did not steal again, did you?"

He always asks, but I rarely answer. Mister Johnson knows about my 'shopping trips', and disapproves of those. I don't think I have that much of a choice though. There's only so much you can order online, and with Father refusing to accept deliveries in my name, and Mother's credit cards all expiring, it is getting harder. I have some cash, but when I try to hand it to the cashiers they're not accepting it, and when I walk out without paying they start yelling that I'm a thief. Until I turn the corner and they no longer can see me... and promptly forget about the girl with the pink hair. It doesn't matter if she carried two bags of groceries. Or a brand new laptop. Or a sixty-five-inch color TV and a refrigerator.

But these mashed potatoes are from the kitchen in my own house. That's hardly stealing, right?

I shake my head. "Not this time. Please, eat."

He hesitates, but then brings the spoon to his lips and closes his eyes. The gravy runs through his beard, and we both laugh.

He licks his lips. "Ah… I remember how Louise liked mashed potatoes. Sometimes, when I came home late from work, she would be working in the kitchen, and I would ask her what she was doing. And she'd tell me she finished the potatoes and was making new ones for me. Not as good as yours, of course."

Then I give him one of the chicken legs. The old man is just as alone in his world as I am in mine. There's a certain symmetry in our fates, two lonely people on Christmas eve, sharing dinner. We finish our meal in content silence.

"Louise was your wife?" I ask.

"Yes. We met on a winter morning, you know. She was up early, working at McGillen at the time. The snow was thick and heavy, and me was working on that fence that kept breaking down. She slipped and I laughed. She was so mad at me and I couldn't help but laugh even more. So we had coffee in the back room, and I helped her with the ovens. Those were the good times."

A woman with two kids, one in a stroller, the other one holding her hand, trudges up the small hill, hesitates, then asks him if he minds if she would sit down next to him. Old Johnson tells her to go away. Her next words range from 'egoistic bastard' to 'why does he need that whole bench to himself, the foul stinking bleep bleep'. Her children start crying. I watch them go.

I'm not entirely sure why the curse doesn't affect Old Johnson, but I have some ideas on the matter. Perhaps, one day, I'll be able to lift it myself, although I'd first have to learn magic. Maybe Ellen's mother can teach me.

"One of those?" he asks.

"Yeah, she ignored me." I watch the woman leave, taking her kids with her, and shrug. "Coco?" I ask. "Careful, it's hot!"

"Skating and coco." He sniffs the air. "Is it me or is it getting colder?"

"It's the clouds, I think. They look heavy." I shiver and make sure he hears my teeth chatter.

"You shouldn't be outside without a coat," he tells me. "You're going to get a cold."

"I'll be fine. I have a coat. I'll find you one too."

"As long as you don't steal it."

"No, no. My dad has an old coat he never uses. He was going to throw it away. I think it'll be best if I ask him if I can take it. He won't remember anyway, but at least it will make you feel better."

The old man is silent for a moment. "So, the curse still works?"

"It still does. And I got a present. It's from Ellen."

Old Mister Johnson smiles. "Oh! I think I remember her... " He coughs. "I still wonder why she could see you. So, she kept her promise?"

"Oh yes! It's beautiful!" I grab the postcard out of my bag and hold it up for him to see. "She sent me a card and a letter."

"Really? How is she?"

"Well, she wrote she's still living in that little town she calls Hellhole, and that she was rescued by a wolf and had a crazy Halloween. She's not telling everything--I bet she's up to something. Oh, and she's going to learn to fence, and she's going to ask her mother if I can visit them."

I tell old Johnson about their Halloween costumes and we both laugh--until his laugh ends in another coughing fit.

"Did you tell her about the other girl?" he asks once he has recovered his breath.

I look down at my feet. There is something I haven't told Ellen. We've met before, she and I, twice actually. The last time must have been a year or so before the curse took hold. Ellen and I visited the zoo, and she called me her sister. It's something she doesn't seem to remember, but I do.

I have no real memories from the first time we met, as I was only a toddler. But I leafed through Mother's old photo albums and found several interesting pictures. One photo shows five people, crowded around a small pen holding several rabbits. Ellen holds a white, fluffy beast up, and seems afraid it might bite her. I'm there in the arms of my mother, reaching for the creature. Another woman--I assume it is Ellen's mother--looks at the two of us, smiling. The fifth person is standing behind her. She's a very tall, blonde girl, around Ellen's age, with large, brown eyes that stare straight into the camera lens. Based on Ellen's description it has to be Sweets.

I didn't tell Ellen about this photo. I didn't tell her about the other ones either, the old ones, yellowed and faded, where she and Mother wear old fashioned clothes and drink tea. Or maybe it's Eleanor, I can't tell. And I certainly can't tell her.

The old man senses my unease and lets it rest. "How about the card?" he asks.

"Oh! It's a Christmas card!"

I tell him about the picture on the card, and about the snow-covered cars next to the overpass of the subway. How flocks of snow drift down and cover everything in a peaceful white blanket. How the lights shine behind the windows of the Winter Cafe, illuminating angels and Christmas trees. Further down the road, the porter of hotel Main blows his hands, waiting for a late dinner guest. It all has the quiet peace of a snowy winter evening.

Old Mister Johnson's smile is still, and his hands feel cold. His eyes, full of white cataracts, have settled on the invisible horizon. I silently apologize for my lies, leave him the thermos and go home, sweating in my winter coat under the warm afternoon sun.

It isn't even December yet. Some of us are simply more alone than others.


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