Chapter Two: I've been through the desert/ And I've been across the sea
I’VE READ AT LEAST a thousand books in my seventeen years of life. I mean, a thousand minimum. In all the fantasy books, there’s a heroine, right? And sometimes, she has dreams. In those dreams, she sees a guy. He’s over-exaggeratedly hot and he’s typically calling out to her. She doesn’t know why, but she feels like she knows him. She feels this connection stronger than anything in her waking life.
Then, somehow—completely by chance—they meet each other in her waking life. Wham, bam they fall in love, get married, have a crapload of kids, yadda yadda. I’ve read that same story a thousand times before at least ten different ways.
But, this? This is the real world. This is not a perfect world and there are no such things as men who come straight out of your dreams and into the real world. If that were the case, I’m pretty sure a fuckton of women wouldn’t be broken hearted. If you could just dream up the perfect man or woman, who knows how the hell this world would turn out?
“Hello,” Clarissa says, waving her hands in front of my face.
I come back into myself, blinking rapidly at her.
“Sorry, Lari, did you say something?”
She leans back in her seat and frowns at me. We’re at our usual table at the far corner of Adalene’s. The interior is very Parisian chic and despite having some of the biggest restaurants all over, Adelene’s is a local favorite. People flock here for their croissants and their coffee, for their fresh crepes and eclairs. If you want good French desserts and amazing coffee, Adelene’s is the place you go.
“You’ve seemed distracted since you walked in,” Clarissa points out, picking up one of her Madeleine’s and taking a bite.
“She’s right, you know,” Ty speaks up, looking at me over his cream puffs and hot chocolate. His eyes—gentle and the color of emeralds—appraise me worriedly.
Ava pays us no mind as she happily digs into her chocolate mousse, either unaware or completely uncaring of the fact it’s getting all over her tiny, chubby face.
Adalene’s is quiet. There is the sound of murmurs as people around us speak to each other quietly. Adalene’s is one of those places you could come by yourself and not feel uncomfortable. Like, if you went to a Friday’s or and Applebees by yourself, you’d feel awkward, you know? It’s a place where if you don’t have at least one other person with you, you feel like the loneliest person in the world.
But at Adalene’s, the quiet atmosphere was the perfect place to go whether you were with other people or alone. Even now, I can see many people who have come alone, typing on their computers or reading books.
The smell of coffee and baked goods is so amazing, it’s almost intoxicating.
“See? Ty agrees,” Lari says, shoving another madeleine in her mouth. “You haven’t even touched your lemon tart and it’s your favorite.” She leans in closely, blue-grey eyes watchful. “What’s up with you?”
I look away from her piercing stare. It’s strange to find I’m avoiding the eyes of a twelve-year-old, but there was something about Clarissa’s gaze that made you want to spill your guts. Especially when you were hiding something.
I’d kept my dreams of Xerxion a secret. It isn’t that I’m embarrassed by them—I mean, what person didn’t dream of the perfect world with the perfect person—but my dreams of Xerxion always felt like more than dreams.
They are like memories, those dreams. Treasure, private memories. The idea of speaking to anyone of the way he smiled for me or of the way he built me a castle out of gold and stardust feels like I’m violating our relationship.
Smiling, I say, “I’m fine, you two. Really. It’s just that...” I struggle to think of an excuse. “Aida offered me a job at the library this summer. I was spaced out because I was hoping I’d get it. Everyone else has plans this summer. You three are going to London with Miss. June and the others completely ignore me, so I was worried about being stuck in my room for the next two months. If I don’t get this job, I’m trying to figure out what I’ll do.”
Honestly, I haven’t thought about Aida offering me that job ever since I saw the Xerxion look-a-like. How can I? A direct replica of the man who lives in my dreams was strolling down the sidewalk like it was no big deal.
I remember how frozen I was, on that hot, crowded sidewalk, watching him walk into the library. I remember thinking how it was a strange coincidence that the Xerxion look-alike ended up in the same library I had been in a few minutes prior. I recall wondering if he had the same tattoos Xerxion had in my dreams. The same swirling patterns from his hip, to his broad chest, making its way down the skin of his muscular back.
Then, I’d shaken my head and reminded myself that he was not Xerxion and he absolutely did not have those tattoos and that I needed to just get my shit together.
It has been an hour since then and my shit is absolutely not together.
“Working at a library suits you,” Clarissa is saying as she leans back in her seat, watching me carefully. “It’s so crazy Aida didn’t offer you the job sooner. You’re always going anyways.”
I try to be as careful as possible with my expression. Clarissa and Tyson are young, but they are sharp. If I show even a hint of what I’m going through, they will see it. I’m typically impressed by the way they notice things, with the way they see into people. But when I’m the one hiding something, their ability to see past lies is not impressive.
“Well, a few of the librarians who worked there before me moved away, so they’re pretty short-staffed at the moment,” I inform them, my mind leaving the Xerxion double and instead going back to the library and Aida. “Aida was saying they were really swamped. I just hope I get the job. I don’t want to spend the summer in that house.” I sigh.
Every summer for as long as I’ve known her, Miss. June goes on these vacations. They’re short vacations, only lasting for two or three weeks, and she always takes the youngest kids with her. That’s how I ended up in North Carolina and Virginia, New York City and Texas. Because of this, Tyson, Clarissa, and Ava would be gone for two whole weeks—maybe more depending on whether or not Miss. June decided she liked the place she was staying—and I’d be alone in that house with a group of people who ignored my existence and cringed at the sight of me.
All in all, I obviously do not want to be in that house this summer. When Ava, Tyson, and Clarissa were around, all of the bad stuff was tolerable. I could get through the way my foster siblings hated me as long as they were there, showing me that I was still human, telling me my parents didn’t know what they were talking about and there was nothing cursed about me.
But when they were gone, I just don’t know how that would go. It’s not like I fear that my foster siblings would try to hurt me or anything like that. It’s like I’ve said before, I know they’re all good people. But there’s more to being hurt than just the physical stuff. Like, whenever I see them cringe away from me, my heart twists in my chest. When they go silent when I enter the room, their laughter abruptly cutting off, that silence feels like a thousand blades.
Ty is frowning. Tyson is a gentle soul. He’s as kind as he is smart and he’s always conscientious of those around him. He’s always thinking of others, always putting their needs ahead of his own. Needless to say, he is a rare gem in a world filled with rocks.
“It’s stupid of them to avoid you like that,” he murmurs, his frown deepening. “It’s not fair of them to believe something so silly.”
My heart warms at the fact that he cares so much. It really is an amazing thing to have someone care so much about the way you feel. To have someone else be bothered by what bothers you.
Waving a hand nonchalantly, I say, “It’s been like this for years. There’s no changing it. People are either terrified of me or are fake nice to me. There is no in-between. The only real friends I have are you three and Aida. I’m okay with that.”
Clarissa reaches across the French marble table, grasping my hand.
“You know, Rania, one of these days you’re going to have a crapton of friends. Real friends. One day, someone’s going to come along and see the soul inside. You’ll see.”
I smile at her gently and squeeze her hand.
“You know, you two are awfully insightful for twelve-year-olds,” I tell them, shaking my head. “Aren’t I supposed to be the one giving you advice?”
Clarissa snorts a little, looking wildly amused.
“With the way you shove your face into books, I wouldn’t exactly say you had enough life experience to give anyone advice.”
I want to stick my tongue out at her and say she’s wrong, but all I can do is roll my eyes and smile because I know she’s right. The only real experience I’ve had with life has all been crappy. The good experiences—like falling in love and this big, great adventure—are unknown to me.
We finish our treats and Ty suggests we catch a bus and head to one of the museums about an hour away. Since they’ll be gone tomorrow, I think we all want to spend as much time together as we can. I wipe off Ava’s face and once it is chocolate mousse free, we head out the door, the bell jingling as it opens.
But, of course, fate is a cruel and fascinating thing, because at the moment we’re walking out, the Xerxion look-a-like is walking in.
Clarissa is blinking at him in awe and even Ava is looking up at him wide-eyed, the beginnings of a first crush growing in her wide, innocent eyes.
This is the second time today I’ve seen him. What is he doing? What is fate doing? Why is he ending up at all the places I’m going to? What in the hell is going?
Those are all the thoughts in my head as he passes us by. And then the weirdest thing happens. You know how in those movies or in anime, they have this slow-motion scene where the main character and another character pass each other and their eyes meet.
That’s what happened to me and this look-a-like.
As he passes me and I pass him, his eyes meet mine and Holy Christ, his eyes are exactly like they are in my dream. There is a ring of green around the pupil, but the rest of it is a deep blue. His dark hair—too soft looking to be human—falls over his eyes as he studies me intently, almost quizzically. Soft coral pink lips—lips an exact replica of lips I’ve kissed a thousand times in my dreams—part in wonder. He is slightly rugged. Not as clean shaven as he usually is in my dreams, but this rugged look works for him.
But that’s not the weird part. The weird part is the fact that the moment our eyes meet, I feel this... jolt. Like volts of electricity from the crown of my head to the tip of my toes, ricocheting through my bones and turning my blood into fire.
The weird part is that a voice—my inner voice—whispers this, ”My love, did I not promise to find you?"
Tyson waves his hands in front of my face as people pass us by, not even giving us a second glance.
“Are you okay, Rania?” He asks, worriedly. He seems to be the only one unaffected by the Xerxion look-a-like.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
I’m lying. My heart is throbbing, each beat seems to be singing. My legs are like Jell-O, they seem to want to run to the Xerxion look-a-like, but at the same time, I can’t move.
Clarissa leans in close to me, her eyes still fixed behind me.
“He’s staring at you,” she informs me.
I’m aware of this. I’m aware that he is staring at me even though my back is turned to him. His gaze is like liquid fire on my skin, burning a hole into my back. I can only imagine what that gaze would be like if I turned to look at him.
But, he’s not Xerxion. Xerxion does not exist. This is not a book. This is not a movie. This is real life and in real life, people you dreamed about—people who built castles out of gold and stardust smack dab in the middle of the Cosmos—don’t exist.
Standing up straight, I grab Ava’s small hand, smiling tightly at them.
“Let’s get to the museum, shall we?”
“I still think you should have asked for his number or something,” Lari is mumbling, looking very put out with me.
The Xerxion look-a-like is all she has been talking about for the past two hours. She talked about how hot he was for the entire hour long bus ride. Then, as we got off of the bus and made our way to the museum, she talked about how he stared at me and how strange that was. When we went to the bathroom for Ava, she talked about how obvious it was and how I should have gotten his number. She was quiet as we observed the art and for a moment, I let myself believe I was safe.
But now, as she sits across from me at In-N-Out, her disapproving glare is like that of a shamed mother.
“You’re always trying to marry me off,” I mumble, eating a fry as I roll my eyes. “You’re like a mother from the 1800s having to marry me off so we can keep our farm and our cows.”
“Don’t you take a tone with me, missy,” she says sternly although she looks wildly amused. “You should have talked to him. He was dreamy.”
“He was some random guy on the street,” Ty chastises Lari, frowning at her. “He could’ve been a serial killer who lures women in and then skins them alive and wears their skin as medals afterward.”
“Jesus, Ty,” I say, sneaking a peak at Ava to make sure she didn’t hear what he’d just said. As always, she is too engrossed in her food to care about anything going on around her.
“What? It’s true. ”
“A guy that handsome couldn’t possibly be bad,” says Lari dreamily.
Ty rolls his eyes. “In the real world, guys that attractive are always bad news,” is all he says, frowning down at his burger and fries.
I tilt my head to the side. Ty has been a little different this past week. Not so different that you’d worry he was into something dangerous, but different enough that you worried something happened that he wouldn’t tell anyone about. He wouldn’t even tell Lari or me and although they were young, there were no secrets between the three of us.
“Let’s try to just have fun tonight,” I say, taking a sip of my Neapolitan milkshake, tasting how one minute you could taste strawberry and then the next you could taste chocolate and then the next, vanilla. My taste buds burst out into the chorus of “Hallelujah” whenever I order this.
“Today is your last day here before you’re dragged off and I don’t see you for weeks,” I continue on, placing a hand affectionately on Ava’s soft, curly hair. “So, let’s not talk about random attractive strangers on the street. Instead, let’s just enjoy each other’s company, yeah?”
Ty is quick to agree and Lari grudgingly obliges. Ava looks up at me, her big eyes sparkling as she smiles.
We end up back at our place later that night. I am carrying a sleeping Ava in my arms, her small hands holding on tightly to my shirt, her tiny head nestled on my shoulder. Ty and Lari walk ahead of me on the sidewalk surrounded by suburban homes. The sidewalks here significantly less busy than the sidewalks on the main streets. They are arguing about some conspiracy theory Jacob told her about. Ty thinks it’s ridiculous, but Lari’s not so sure.
“Aliens?” Ty scoffs. Even without seeing his face I know he is rolling his eyes. “That’s ridiculous.”
“You’re saying,” Lari argues, “that you genuinely believe we’re the only species in the galaxy? Eight planets—that we’ve discovered so far, who knows how many actually exist?—a seemingly infinite galaxy. You can’t possibly believe we’re alone in this universe. Not to mention, NASA recently discovered a ninth planet!”
“There have been documents of aliens for a long time,” Ty allows, though I can hear the skepticism in his voice. “Still, though, Jake told you sounds crazy.”
Unable to help myself, I lean forward a little.
“What did Jacob tell you exactly, Lari?”
Clarissa turns to look at me, slowing down to match my pace as our home starts to come into view. Another five minutes and we will be home.
“So, you know all about Jacob’s obsession, right?”
“Yeah, he’s more obsessed with conspiracy theories than most conspiracy theorists.”
“Yeah, that’s the one. So, get this, seventeen years ago, a star fell from the sky and down onto Earth. But this star wasn’t an ordinary star, it wasn’t made from hydrogen and helium, this star was made from something almost human.”
I blink. “You’re saying the star was a person.”
Lari nods wildly. “Okay, according to Jacob, an inside source said it was an alien woman. She looked human, but she the fact that she had literally fallen from the sky was proof she wasn’t. She was dying, though and right as she took her last breath, her soul rose from her body and shot off somewhere. When her soul was gone, her body turned to dust and the scientist were angry they didn’t have anything to probe.
“So, they went looking for her soul, hoping maybe it was giving off some kind of weird energy signal, but it didn’t. And now, all these years later, Jacob says his source swears two alien spacecrafts landed in the Sahara Desert a week ago.”
I raise a brow. “Is there any proof of that?”
“That’s the thing. Jacob’s source and a few other people were in the Sahara when the ship landed—or more like crashed—into the sand. People were freaking out, grabbing their cell phones, recording and taking pictures. Not even ten minutes later, helicopters were overhead and these guys were climbing down from ropes like something out of a freaking James Bond movie. They confiscated everyone’s phones and ordered them to keep silent. Right at that moment, the ship just... disappeared. No one’s seen it since. Jacob thinks the aliens are humanoid, like the woman from seventeen years ago. Maybe her people have come looking for her or something, you know. Jacob thinks they may be living among us. That we could be passing them daily and not even realize it because they look just like us.”
I can’t even lie, that story is interesting. I mean, if you really think about it, the galaxy is a huge place. It would be egocentric to just assume that we—humans—are the only beings that exist. That our planet is the only planet with life.
Still, another part of me just thinks the entire thing is crazy. Maybe because for so long, people have been telling you if you believe in aliens you’re schizo. But there is something... frightening about it. Something beautiful, but frightening.
Lari and Ty launch straight back into their argument as we open the front door to the house.
Fatima, Luke, Tori, and Carl are in the main room, watching TV on the sixty-five-inch flat screen. They turn in our direction when the sound of the door and Lari and Ty’s friendly arguing cut through the sound of the show they were watching.
“Hey, Clarissa, Ty,” Tori greets them. “I see the four of you are back.”
She doesn’t look my way, she doesn’t say my name. It’s as if she’s afraid that looking at me or saying my name will curse her, too.
Sighing, I pass Ava off to Clarissa. Tori always puts her to bed and I know she won’t take Ava if I’m holding her. That would require acknowledging me.
“It’s late,” I say to them, ruffling Ty’s hair. “Go to bed.”
As I climb up the stairs, Clarissa shouts a “yes, Mom,” behind me. I smile, but don’t turn.
In the end, I’m too drained to go on my run. I peel off my clothes, shower, change into my most comfortable pajamas and climb straight into bed.
I’m mentally exhausted. Mental exhaustion is a million times worse than physical exhaustion. The weight of all your muscles wanting badly to relax is nothing compared to your mind begging for relaxation. You can sit down and force your muscles to be still, you can’t still your mind once it starts running.
And run it does.
It runs right to him.
Seeing the Xerxion double has shaken me up in more ways than I would care to admit. When I saw him, it was like every single dream had come to life. When I saw him—the walking personification of the man of my dreams—I can’t deny that part of me that came to life.
But, I will never see him again. And even if by some chance I do, I tell myself I won’t acknowledge him. He’s not Xerxion. He did not build me a castle in the Cosmos and he did not kiss me sweetly as stars twinkled and shot through the sky.
He was not Xerxion.
And with those final, uneasy thoughts, I slip into a dream world. A dream world where Xerxion--my Xerxion--is waiting.