Written by Keesilla Chan.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.

There was a knock on the front door. Three taps, quick, quiet, and somewhat familiar. I moved to the front door and opened it. I couldn’t hide the surprise in my greeting, but you didn’t say anything. You walked in before I had even stepped back, already taking off your shoes. 

“Well, alright then. Rough day?”

You looked at me, and I knew the answer to my question. You walked into the familiar rooms of my house. You turned your head left and right, sniffing at the air, and I chuckled a little.

“Holiday candles? It smells like gingerbread and cinnamon,” you said.

“Just finished cooking. The candles are to get rid of the smell. Coffee’s in the machine.”

You knew the place so well that you strolled into the kitchen without sparing a glance to the living room and reached for your special mug sitting on the counter. I sunk back into the worn leather couches of the living room and sighed at the plushness cushioning my limbs. 

“You don’t like the holidays.”

I jumped a little. I hadn’t heard the rustling of you pouring your coffee or even your shuffling from the kitchen to the living room, but you were already at my side, sitting next to me on the couch and setting your mug down next to my own cup of coffee. They could have been identical, except that mine was steaming still from being reheated again.

“You don’t like the holidays,” you repeated.

I stopped looking at the coffee and gave you a playful glare.

“I don’t not like them. They’re just a lot sometimes.”

You tilted your head as if you couldn’t believe me but nodded in the end. Looking at the coffee made me want another sip, and I reached for my mug, blowing on the steam before taking a gulp, relishing the bittersweet warmth flavoring my mouth.

“Wow, I really do make great coffee,” I laughed. 

Nodding, you continued staring blankly ahead of you. A few minutes passed before I decided to fill the silence.

“So why’d you come over today? So randomly too,” I asked.

“Just because.”

I looked at you. You didn’t look different from usual, but something in your voice sounded strange. The plucky tones that accented your words seemed to sag at every letter’s enunciation, and the ends of your sentences seemed to fall and taper away. I shrugged though, thinking that maybe I imagined it.

“How was your day like?” you asked.

“Well, after school, work, and being reminded that I’m wasting my life, I guess it would be inevitable to be sitting here drinking coffee despite all my stuff to do.”

Nodding again, you leaned back into the couch, looking up at the ceiling. And I took that as my sign to keep rambling.

“I mean, I like the promotion and raise, since I feel like I’m now appreciated. And I finally got the city to sponsor that weekly soup kitchen. But I’m still so busy. Even though I got that sleep mask I wanted, I can hardly sleep to use it. I’m surprised my limbs haven’t fallen off yet. Though they are kinda numb.”

I laughed, but you only nodded. Through sips of my coffee, I stole glances at you. I had known you for a long time, but you were never this quiet. You were either scolding me for doing something stupid, rolling on the floor with complaints, or laughing. Seeing you so still, so expressionless, made me uneasy.

“So what were you doing before you came over?”

“This.”

I raised an eyebrow and pointed at your listless position on the couch as you still stared at the ceiling. 

“This?”

You nodded.

You usually never just did nothing. When you didn’t say anything further, I sunk back into the couch. “Don’t you have stuff to do? Like chores or errands?”

You nodded again.

“But you’re not gonna do it? You’re just gonna sit here like that?”

You were silent for a few minutes, like you hadn’t heard me. When I opened my mouth to repeat my question, you spoke.

“Is that bad?”

I chuckled. “I don’t think I’m qualified to tell you whether that’s bad or not.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I do the same thing sometimes, or I guess lack of thing, so who am I to judge?”

“You’re lying.”

I turned to look at you. You were still staring at the ceiling. 

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not nothing. It’s thinking.”

I laughed, but it didn’t come out as joyful as I thought it would. “I think you’re stretching the truth a bit.”

“No, you’re diluting it.”

“Diluting it?”

Shivers shook me. I wasn’t cold. Waves of steam swayed in my mug, but I felt my hands numb while holding the warmth. I didn’t want to talk anymore, to ask you exactly what you meant. The more I stared at you, the more I dreaded what you would say. Maybe I could change the subject or avoid it somehow. I intended to laugh it off, to comment on the painting hanging above the fireplace that I knew you’ve seen countless times before, anything to halt this conversation. But the question escaped from my lips before I could stop myself. 

“How?”

You held up your hand in front of your face, but you held it with your palm facing the ceiling, your fingers curled in a fist.

“All our thoughts are filtered through society’s lenses. What is great, what is productive, what is right, what we’re supposed to have, what we’re supposed to be. I don’t mind that these values were instilled into me to create a simpler homogeneous individual that would be less likely to cause trouble. I’ve learned to accept them and to try understanding those with different lenses. But there’s something, no matter how different people’s values are, that everyone strives for, that everyone wants.”

You uncurled a finger. I gripped my coffee mug tighter.

“It’s not status. There are those that couldn’t care less of their position in life.”

You uncurled a second finger. The coffee steam had faded. The cold ceramic pricked at my hands. I lost the feeling in them and slammed the mug on the coffee table. 

“It’s not making money. There are people that throw wealth away, because they fear its corruption.”

You unfurled a third finger, and I felt my shivering turn into a shaking. 

“Stop,” I said.

“It’s not doing things for others. There’s plenty of selfish people.”

You unfurled a fourth finger, and I rubbed my arms, not even feeling the comfort of touch on my skin.

“Don’t say anymore.”

“It’s not having comfortable things either. Your sleep mask is proof.”

You still hadn’t stopped staring above you, but all your fingers had loosened. You were reaching towards the ceiling, towards something intangible. Unobtainable.

“You know what it is, because despite all that you have achieved, the feelings of emptiness and worthlessness still invade your mind. It’s the feral dog lurking at your heels, that seeks you out just to bite you. Sometimes you can run away long enough for some peace, but then you turn the corner and it buries its fangs in your flesh.”

Your hand stopped reaching towards the ceiling. It was hard to breathe. I clutched at my chest, wound the ends of my fingers around my neck, scraped and rubbed my skin, as if that would rend apart the layers and layers of desolation molded about me.

“You’re reminded of how that soup kitchen you pioneered will only blame you for all the faults they will have. You’re reminded of how that promotion and raise only sets more responsibility on your shoulders and erases the excuse of not being everything you’re supposed to be. Others see your acts and label you perfect, a model citizen. Or maybe they do so to justify their inaction and prepare your personalized shame for when you finally crack.”

You laughed once, quick and quiet, the sound of soft scorn reverberating throughout the room. I raked my hands through my scalp trying to cover my ears. I threw myself across the couch, trying to block the whispers that slinked through the pillows, my hands, and my mind. 

“Here is the funniest thing. You actually have, have done, and are everything they require. But you can’t seem to be the one thing you, yourself, want. And you’re reminded of this over and over again every time you think.”

The pillows slipped to the floor, I sunk into the couch, looking up at the ceiling. That familiar numbness seeped into my every thought and every breath and immobilized me. I lost any idea of a different possibility. I lost my will to stop listening. I couldn’t do anymore but stare at the ceiling that I could never reach and ask the same familiar question.

“What is it?” I breathed. “What is that I’ll never be?”

You tore your gaze from the ceiling and loomed over me. The ceiling vanished. All I could see was your shadowy form and a flash of your white fangs.

“Happy.”

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