The pale skinny boy in the photo looked foreign; dark curls, hard brown eyes, features etched into what seemed to be a permanent frown. Max sneaked a glance at the vanity mirror facing him; same physical traits and yet an entirely different person.
His mother remained optimistic, coming into his room every night to show him pictures of himself from the past, hoping it would jog up his memory – it hadn’t. All it had succeeded in doing was making him feel even worse about his situation, cursing his incompetence and questioning his identity, taking refuge in unhealthy long hours of sleep to escape his bitter reality.
He had been struck by an asteroid, one the size of a football and yet its impact was enough to kill his brother who tried to shield him from the impact. The guilt of no longer recognizing the man who had saved his life was unbearable, and certain nights he wished that his life was sacrificed instead.
“Look at your anima,” his mother broke their silence, her finger tentatively pointing at the photograph where his hand was raised, revealing blue ink swirls circling his wrists with lines disappearing into his sleeve.
The bedroom felt smaller, as though the plain grey walls were closing in on him. This happened every time someone mentioned his anima, or lack thereof. He lowered his eyes, staring distastefully at his bare arms which used to be decorated with animated ink that moved with his thoughts.
As usual, his mother reached out to grab his hand and the dark blue ink on her wrist repelled him like snakes slithering away up her skin to her elbows. The comfort of it was lost to him, all he registered was the uneasiness from her cold and clammy touch. He eased his shoulders, reminding himself not to flinch away from his own mother. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not find any sense of familiarity from her. They shared similar features: a soft jawline, high cheekbones, pale skin and hazel eyes. Except hers were filed with worry and his were filled with resent.
He hated his situation, he hated being stuck in a house with two strangers who claimed to be his parents, he hated how his life was a trade off of his brother’s who he could tell based on the portraits hanging in every corner of the house was the true prodigy. Not him.
“Your anima will come back, I’m sure of it,” she said, letting go of him. Perhaps he was a stranger to her too.
She focused on flipping the photo album almost as if she was venturing back into the past herself. The pictures were from 3 years ago, from when he was 14 years old joining all sorts of championships from mathletes to international science fairs.
“Oh, I remember this, you were so nervous,” his mother said. It was a picture of his back, sitting in front of a dimly lit room with a chess set in front of him. He was looking at his palms which had blue ink that almost resembled a chess piece. Anima was the language of the skin, where every thought caused a person’s body to produce ink that moved with every internal intention. It was evolutionary technology injected into every human, making it efficient for them to communicate and share ideas. The whole ideology behind it was for scientists, engineers, doctors and all those in complicated fields to be able to understand each other by understanding their anima. It was like reading a book, except the words were constantly moving and the paper was made of skin.
After his incident, he had lost his anima, he had lost his language.
And as much as she tried to hide it, Max knew that his mother had lost two sons to that asteroid. Rogue asteroids falling into the Earth’s atmosphere had become a norm, with thousands of lives lost since the first asteroid struck. The cause of it was still a mystery, with some speculating that it was due to an approaching star which would disrupt the Earth’s position in the solar system. But one thing was clear, humans were no longer safe on Earth and had to band together to invent something to save themselves. Hence, the birth of anima. With it came the glorification of the sciences as every human was expected to contribute something to the field. STEM subjects had become compulsory and pursuing any other majors was a waste of time.
“I’m actually quite tired,” he contemplated ending the sentence with ‘mom’ but his tongue twisted at the thought.
This seemed to snap her out of her trance, and he could see her blinking back tears. He wondered why she even bothered to go through the albums if all it resulted in was tears.
Hope. A small voice inside of him said. But that word felt heavy, it felt like a big maroon coloured curtain only to be drawn back to reveal nothing more than disappointment. Just the thought of feeling made him feel exhausted, the type of exhaustion that no amount of laying in bed could get rid of.
“I suppose you’re right,” she gave him a stiff peck on his forehead, “Goodnight, Max.”
“Goodnight,” he said.
This time she didn’t pack up the albums and bring it back to her room where he knew from the puffy eyebags that greeted him in the morning that she had spent all night going through them. No, instead she left the albums meekly on his bed, and left the room without another word.
With a tired sigh, he slumped back onto the bed, not bothering to move the albums away. If he had it his way, he would rather burn it, perhaps start a new identity. Because that was how he felt, a blank slate. He didn’t deserve to have all these expected memories weighing him down. He wanted to be free, he wanted to remake himself. Or at least figure out who he was before the accident.
His bedroom was no help either, it reflected none of Max’s personality, or maybe it reflected it all too well – functional, elegant but barren. The room was spacious as if the walls were holding its breath. There was nothing more than a wooden bed frame, an obsidian study table, a leather chair and a dark oak wardrobe.
He closed his eyes, trying to return to his peaceful state where his mind wouldn’t form angry thoughts directed at everything. But the albums on the bed made it feel as though there was someone beside him, looming over him, taunting him, stealing his well deserved rest away.
Minutes turned into hours and his mind refused to shut down. With a frustrated groan, he sat up, purposefully kicking the albums. It landed with a soft thud against his carpet floor, not nearly as satisfying as he would have hoped. There were knots in his head, refusing to untangle no matter how he changed his perspective.
Perhaps it was the dim lights that robbed him off his rest. He couldn’t turn the lights off, no, he had to be able to see his surroundings to know that he still existed. Far too often he felt like a ghost lingering in the dark, with an irrational fear that the darkness will swallow him up with no one to remember him, that he’d descend into nothingness.
He couldn’t continue living like this.
Snatching his phone, he scrolled through a contact list filled with unfamiliar names with the word ‘friend’ bracketed behind them. His thumb lingered at one contact in particular ‘Ava (Girlfriend)’. When he had first gotten his phone back in the hospital, all the names had been neutral and he took it upon himself to label each one.
He had avoided talking to Ava, simply because she was a little too much for him to handle. She had visited him throughout the two weeks that he was in the hospital. Everytime she entered the room, she would be brimming with expectations and end up leaving disappointed like a deflated balloon. The disappointment he felt from her drained him but perhaps she could be the one to trigger a memory, any memory would do. The last thing he could remember was standing in a forest alone and staring at his reflection on a lake when he was 11. Not a useful memory.
Squeezing his eyes shut, he pressed her name and beeping noises enveloped the quiet room. She answered at the fourth ring, “Do you have any idea what time it is?” her voice sounded raspy.
“I’m sorry, I’ll call some other time,” he rushed out.
“Max? Oh sorry babe, I didn’t expect you to call, you’d usually be asleep at this hour,” she said, her voice softening. Too soft in fact. He hated how her pitch changed with him like someone talking to a child.
He heard some ruffling noise, possibly the sound of her sitting up from bed.
“What’s up? She asked.
And his tongue turned dry. Calling her was an impulsive decision. He just wanted someone to talk to, but now that he heard this stranger’s voice, he felt like he made the wrong choice.
“I- Um, it’s nothing.”
“Maxwell Johnson, don’t you hang up on me.”
He cringed. How the previous Max fell in love with this woman remained a mystery to him.
“What’s on your mind?”
“Now, come on, don’t be like that-”
“No, that’s the thing, I have nothing on my mind. I have no memories, no thoughts, no identity, what’s supposed to be on my mind? I don’t know. It feels like my mind is a black hole and every thought I have is sucked in to disappear forever.”
She paused, taken aback by his outburst. He even surprised himself.
“I’ll come to your house and pick you up.”
And the next thing he knew, it was 1:54 a.m. and he was in the passenger seat of his girlfriend’s lime green Volvo. He rolled the windows down, taking in the chill of the air brushing against his cheeks and ruffling his hair. They barely made conversation, leaving the soft sounds of the radio to fill the silence. It was an old song as the music industry dried out from lack of government funding.
Ava hummed the songs and from this angle he supposed he could comprehend his attraction to her. Ava was pretty; dark caramel skin, thick hair that puffed up, large eyes and luscious lips. She wore a white tank top, showing off her anima gliding across her skin to the beat of the song. He could read its language: she was happy to see him but she was worried at the same time. The anima’s design moved with every word she sang under her breath, but it was the blot of ink shaped like a human heart resting on her collarbone that grabbed his attention the most. She still loved him.
That made him grateful that he did not have his anima on display because he doubted he’d show the same signs and the last thing he wanted to do was offend her.
“You know, if you were yourself, you’d never let me kidnap you like this,” she said, breaking their comfortable silence.
“Oh, is this where you reveal that you’re not actually my girlfriend but an obsessed stalker?”
She chuckled. “Fair, I was the one courting you. But what I meant is that you’d never let me take you out past 12, you’d always be too sleepy by then.”
“I sound like a fun guy.”
“Trust me babe, you are,” she said, holding his hand with the other on the steering wheel.
“You should probably keep both hands on the wheel.”
“Now you’re starting to sound like yourself.”
A figure ran across the streets, causing Ava to hit the brakes at the last minute. He jerked forward, slumping back hard against the seats. The blaring sound of the honk heightened his migraine as he was still in his recovery period and he doubted this was helping the process.
Ava rolled down the window to yell at the boy, “Watch the road!”
The boy replied with a string of cuss words as he ran to the other side of the road, revealing his bare back to them. Lines crawled around from his shoulder to his back. But this anima was different, while all the anima he’d seen had been blue, the man bore red angry lines instead. Warm tones symobolized artistry, a trait frowned upon in society as everyone had made an oath to band together to find a way to stop the Earth from ending. Art became a luxury, a piece of selfish human desire that should be repressed.
“The nerve! I hate those people, a waste of space on Earth,” she screamed, speeding away from the scene.
A dull headache had taken form and the last thing he wanted was to ruin a peaceful night cursing at a stranger. He forced a chuckle. “So where are you taking me?”
“Your tree house, it’s where you’d be when you’re not at home or the library,” she replied. Her tone was clipped but he was glad that she agreed to change the subject even though he could see a stagnant anima expressing her anger peeking from her tank top straps. The more intimate the thought, the closer the anima would move to the heart.
“I don’t remember a tree house, but that’s cool.”
“You don’t remember anything,” she tried to say lightheartedly but he could hear the frustration seeping in between her words. “I can’t tell you much because you never let me in the treehouse. I usually pick you up from here in the mornings.”
The silence returned, only this time it felt uncomfortable. They were driving up to a park reserve, passing by trees and benches illuminated under streetlights. Ava turned to a corner, driving up a narrow trail with dense trees barricading the area from the public. The drive along the trail was short with the lanterns on the trees guiding them.
“We’re here actually,” she said, coming to a stop at a small clearing in front of a massive tree with a simple wooden structure resting on its branches. The treehouse looked to be a decent size, large enough to comfortably accommodate 5 people inside at once. The windows were poorly sawed square holes with light peeking out from it. He assumed everything was battery powered.
“You’re kidding. That was like, a 10 minute drive, we could have walked.”
“You hated walking, always said it was a waste of time and an insult to the magnificent invention of cars,” she said, stepping out of the Volvo.
“I must have hated the environment a lot then,” he said, following her lead as she walked towards the tree. It held bright lanterns like the other trees and fairy lights wrapped around the ladder.
“You said it didn’t matter because the world is going to end soon anyway.”
“How optimistic. You really scored with me,” he answered drily, eyeing the area. It did look creepy at night, the branches resembling claws ready to attack him.
“You’re a good boyfriend, even if you’re busy 23 hours and 59 minutes of every day,” she said with a grin. She did have a beautiful smile.
“My, and what do I do with all that one whole minute of spare time?”
“Worship the floor your brother walks in.”
Another ripple of silence came in between them. Her eyes widened and she began distractedly fixing her hair, “I’m sorry I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“No, I’m fine. I wanted to ask you more about him actually, well mostly about me but we can start with him,” he leaned against the side of the trunk beside the well-lit metal ladder. The forest was quiet with the occasional sound of crickets heard from a distance away. The air here was colder and he regretted throwing on a t-shirt instead of a hoodie.
“Well you two were almost twins basically, you guys always have the same anima that rarely changes. You two were the town’s prodigies.”
“You don’t get distracted easily, like your thoughts stay on one topic for the rest of the day. One look at other people’s anima and you could tell that you’re different, you’re…meant for greater things.”
He took a while to digest the information. From what he had gathered, he and his brother were both star pupils as proven by the trophies littered in their living room. They had bright blue anima that could be recognized easily. So why did he feel so disconnected to the idea of himself being “great”.
“Are we going up?” he asked, looking at the rusted ladder.
“You go on ahead, I want my first time in your special treehouse to be when you actually remember me,” she said, faking a laugh.
With a deep breath, he climbed up the ladder. It took awhile for him to reach the flat platform that acted as the foundation of the treehouse structure. Too tired to think, he opened the door, allowing the room to stun him.
The treehouse held everything he lacked in his bedroom – a personality. The walls were painted in vibrant colours, with splashes of orange and yellow decorating the wooden panels, creating intricate shapes that resembled anima. Each stroke of warm colour conveyed its own meaning with dark shadow contrasting against the orange, bringing it to life. It was as though the walls were bleeding a story for him to read. The one side of the wall had jagged shapes of red, narrating a tale of frustration; the other side had dripping shapes of pale lifeless yellow, a song of sorrow; another side covered in cobalt blue, similar to the colour of anima ink he’d seen; but the last wall took his breath away with a mural like painting of all the warmest shades against a cold blue, looking like a sun setting in the ocean.
The centre of the sunset caught his attention. It looked as though it was bleeding in gold, he’d never seen anything so beautiful. Gingerly he touched it and fragments of memories came crashing in his mind like being caught in the middle of a tidal wave. He saw images of his brother in this very treehouse painting the walls with him. He saw visions where he was painting his arms with blue ink, copying his brother’s anima on his own skin.
“You know you should be proud of your artistic side, I won’t always be here to cover for you,” his brother had said.
Max rolled his eyes, “I’d be kicked out of the house.”
When the flashback ended, he fell to his knees, watching his anima take form through tear filled eyes. Bright red and expressive. The very thing he’d spent his whole life hiding.
His brother was dead. The sorrow of it all weighed him down, like a fist clutching his heart and threatening to crush it. The tears fell freely now, and all he could do was lay completely still. He felt like a sailor in the midst of a storm, with waves rocking the boat, threatening to throw him off board and leave him to the mercy of the cold endless sea. This storm will never end, he numbly concluded. Because his brother will never come back to life. This storm will follow him and haunt him down for the rest of his life.
The red anima on his wrist turned dull, and he welcomed the warm familiar glow of it, comforting his body from the cold hard truth. He could barely register the situation. He had told Ava that he needed to be alone, that he’d find his way home on his own. And after what felt like an eternity later, he heard the soft buzz of her engine before she left.
After that, time seemed to trickle away, and the soft glow of dawn broke him out of his trance. And he could not help but admire how the orange burned against the dark night in a glorious line, forcing a new morning to befall upon him.
He sat up; he could be that. The anima on his body turned livid with the hope swelling in his chest. He took off his shirt, watching the red lines grow on his abdomen, dancing around his back and resting above his heart – his brother’s name in burning red.
And the real Max walked home.
By: Natasha Maya