When you’re unemployed there’s no vacation. Every day is the same; you wake up when you have to relieve yourself, eat when you can be bothered to walk to the kitchen, and sleep when you can’t bear to be awake anymore. You can have the greatest aspirations for work or for your life, but those are usually just delusions created by your subconscious to prevent you from realising your failures. It’s a sad, downwards spiral.
Such was my “Gap Year”. I had been accepted into the university I wanted, but on the advice of my parents I deferred entry for a year. I’d heard a couple of the people at school talk about it, but never really paid much heed. I wanted to go to university and get it over with. I wanted to live!
“You’ll never get a chance like this again. Once you start working – that’s it. There’s bills to pay, car loans, mortgages… hell, one day you’ll probably be married with children, just asking yourself ‘Why didn’t I listen to my Dad and have one trip before all of this nonsense started?’.”
It wasn’t the first time my Dad had rattled off something like this. I knew that he was happy enough where he was; travel wasn’t really his thing. But he always wanted me to go to those places for him, to live the life he didn’t want to.
And for some reason I listened to him this time. The university offered a Gap Year to me as an option, so I just took it. It was as simple as ticking a box and mailing in the form. Twelve months free time to spend as I pleased. I spent days online, surfing the tourism sites for countless countries. Every far-away land that I had ever heard of was now under scrutiny as a potential destination. Eventually I settled on a list of six, each further from home than the last. I could spend a few weeks in each country backpacking, working in bars, seeing the sights. When the magic wore off I would pack up and travel to the next little gold star on my map. It was the perfect plan.
My mum was in tears on the day I left. I’d never been away from home for more than a fortnight and she was sure that some terrible fate would befall me. I suppose that’s what mothers do. They fret. Of course I was full of bravado, heading into the world in order to make that transition from Boy to Man.
To be honest it was a pretty good trip whilst it lasted. I blasted into Vietnam with a near-empty backpack and a head full of dreams. I saw the sights, I drank with the locals, I ate a snake. But perhaps life was a little too good. Even with the exchange rate being heavily in my favour I was burning through my funds faster than expected. Finding work was nearly impossible with no language skills, and I had no qualities or experience as an employee to speak of. An thus, a mere six weeks later I boarded a plane back home. I had learnt a lot about the world we live in, and upon arriving back in my room I realised the grave mistake I had made. University had already started, my seat had already been given away to someone on a waiting list, and I now had ten months to fill.
So I did nothing. I tried a few part-time jobs, but they were mere distractions. My parents still provided me with food, and apart from petrol money I had very little need for money. I would work until I built up a small stockpile of funds and then quit. This cycle was repeated every couple of months, only each time I could tolerate the mind-numbing work less and less.
My life was going nowhere, placed in stasis for a year. At times I would even consider ditching university next year. Everyone in my class would be a year younger than me. If anyone recognised me from my old school I would die of embarrassment. I wasn’t that smart, and I would hate to think that someone would look at me and think that I was held back. When you’re doing nothing every day you have a lot of time to get depressed.
It was then, at the height of my depression, that I met Elissa. She was like a beacon of hope for me, an angel delivered unto me from the heavens. I wanted to do things to impress her. I even cleaned out my car, just in case I had the chance to give her a lift somewhere. It was that kind of inexperienced, childish love; I wanted to do anything I could to please her, to spend time with her. Sure, I’d been with girls before, but they had never inspired me to change myself. Perhaps that is why noting ever lasted more than a few months with them.
I woke up every day that week a new man. Knowing that I wouldn’t see her for a number of days didn’t stop me; every day I would make a Thermos of coffee and head up to the hill. I would just sit there and reminisce over our brief meeting. I would chuckle to myself as I remembered something funny she said, only to realise how empty my laughs sounded up here, alone. But even though I waited until after nightfall every day, she never appeared. I would go to sleep each night convincing myself that we had promised to meet on the weekend, and that was the reason that she wasn’t there.
She was waiting for me exactly one week after we had first met. I got out of the car to see her sitting at the picnic table, pushing a leaf around with her index finger.
“I was starting to wonder if you would turn up at all…” her deadpan tone lets me know that I’m not the only one that was looking forward to us meeting again. My heart skips a beat in anticipation, and I nearly choke on my words.
“And why would you think that?”
“Well, I did say some pretty weird stuff last time. Some people get scared off by that.” Something in her voice told me that this was more true than she’d like to let on.
“Really? I thought it was kinda cool to meet someone interesting.”
She cocks her head slightly in contemplation. I’m not sure what to say, so I say nothing. Now, more than ever, I feel the urge to practice that old adage; it’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and prove them right.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been called interesting,” she says in a quizzical voice.
“Well, that’s what I think. I don’t know how much that is worth, but it’s usually enough for me.”
“Okay. I’ll believe you – this time. So, where are we off to?”
“Off too?” I was so surprised to actually see Elissa here that I haven’t really taken stock of the situation. She’s wearing a red dress with white polka dots. The fabric and the cut look suspiciously like they are from the 1950’s, but there’s a hint of modernism in there, too. She has a matching handbag and is wearing red high heels.
“Our date. Or did you forget?” her face drops slightly, as if I had forgotten something vital. Which is, I guess, exactly what I have done. Although I don’t remember us saying anything about a date.
“You said we were going to meet up again here. I only assume that meant that you wanted to take me on a date,” she follows up her sentence without even waiting for an answer. This is bad. I don’t have anything planned, and my cash reserves are running low. I doubt I could even manage dinner for two at MacDonald’s. Taking a girl home for a family dinner on the first date probably isn’t a good look either.
“I don’t suppose you like hiking, do you?” I’m grasping at straws here.
“I don’t dislike them.”
“Well there’s a few trails around here. They go all the way back down the hill, or a little further up to the summit. If you think the view is good here then you should see it from up there…”
“Sounds nice. A little exercise never hurt anyone.”
“Well then, let’s head on up there. We should be able to make it in time to see the sunset again if you’d like.”
“Sure thing. Lead the way.”
I strike out up the little goat’s trail that leads up to the peak. I’ve been up and down this track so many times it feels like I’m walking up the garden path to my front door. Every little rock, bush, tree and obstacle is so deeply engraved in my mind that I step over it without thinking. As such, I don’t notice Elissa lagging behind. It is not until we reach the top of the trail that I realise that this is probably not the best hike for someone in high heels.
“Um, I’m sorry. I should have realised this was a bad idea. Are your feet okay?” My weak apology doesn’t really stand up to the pain I must have inflicted. Seriously, what was I thinking?
“It’s okay. I’m used to these shoes. Plus, it wasn’t that hard of a track,” she pants, letting me know she is lying. I have barely broken a sweat and yet she looks as if she has run a marathon.
“Here, there’s a good place to sit down just here.” We’re going to need to rest for quite some time before attempting the downwards path. Descending a hill is much more difficult than climbing. If you slip whilst climbing you will generally face-plant, but that is it. If you fall on the way down there there is nothing to stop you. The tired Elissa slumps down on the rock and leans against a tree. I’m guessing that she doesn’t dress up like this all that often. Then again, there’s not much point in being lady-like when you’re in the middle of nowhere and sweating a river.
“Thanks, I just need a little rest and then I’ll be fine.” Her panting is dying down, allowing basic conversation to take place. It’s still a good half-hour before sunset, and then we’d better make a move. The path back down to the car park is at least thrice as treacherous when you can’t see where you are going. Not knowing where to start the conversation, I pick up on the one thing that stuck in my mind since our last meeting.
“You said you can make dreams come true. What exactly did you mean?” I feel a little childish for asking. Last week we were talking nonsense all day; maybe she just got a little carried away with our game. At least, that’s what I had hoped, but her serious consideration of the question makes me wonder.
“You know how most dreams fade almost as soon as you wake up? That’s pretty normal; your brain just kind of flushes away the gobbledegook you built up during the night, right?”
“Er, I guess…”
“Well, those types don’t count. But you know how sometimes there is a dream so crystal-clear that it stays with you forever?”
Of course I do. Everyone has those. Not so often, but I can still remember a couple of dreams from primary school.. But she seems like she is on a roll, so I don’t dare to interfere.
“Sure I do.”
“Those are the dreams I’m talking about. I call them ‘Shards’, like they are shards of time that someone sees before they are supposed to. Every time someone explains one of them to me then it seems to come true.”
“So, it’s not like you wave a magic wand or use some kind of fairy dust?”
“No, it just kind of happens.”
“Right,” I try to say sincerely, but somehow I think I failed. Elissa sighs deeply.
“I knew you wouldn’t believe me. No-one ever does until it’s too late.”
“It’s not like I don’t believe you, but it’s pretty far-fetched, don’t you think?”
“I’ve found that it’s usually best to let people know sooner rather than later. If I’d done that before then maybe things would be different.” Sadness envelops her words like fog clinging to a valley. Maybe I went too far. I feel like I’ve laughed at someone because they are deaf or colourblind or something.
“Well, thank you for that. I’m not going to hold it against you. The ‘Shards’ thing that is. I think it’s kinda cool to have a friend with super-powers. Even if they don’t have a magic wand,” I say with a weak laugh. Elissa examines me quizzically for a second before laughing herself. In an instant the tension is broken and all is forgiven.
“If you really want I can start to use a wand.”
“I don’t know. If you’re wearing that dress people might think that you’re filming a movie.”
“Oh, you don’t like this dress?”
“Are you kidding? It suits you. Kinda retro. I like retro.”
“So do I. It makes me feel like Audrey Hepburn. My mum bought it for me for my high school formal. I don’t really get the chance to wear it often though.”
“Geh, and now I’ve made you traipse up a hill in it. Sorry…”
“It’s okay. Somehow it makes me feel a little better. You know how dates usually are. You meet up, you go to dinner, you maybe make out a little, and you go home. Sometimes together. Sure it’s fun, but it’s the same every time. There’s no drama, no adventure. So things like this are a little fun sometimes.”
“Well, I’m still sorry. The view from up here isn’t all that different from the lookout below.” Elissa stands on the rock, using the tree to steady herself. She puts her hand over her eyes like a sailor surveying the horizon and sweeps her head left to right across the scenery. She looks like a child looking out for their friends. After a few scans she sits back down.
“Told you. All in all, this was a bad idea, wasn’t it?”
“Well, when you put it like that, I guess it is,” she titters an honest laugh that dissolves into the breeze, just like our conversation about her “magical power”. But, for some reason, I can’t seem to let it go.
“You know, I think I’ve had one of those dreams you’re talking about.” The atmosphere changes, and I can almost feel her jump in shock.”
“You… don’t have to tell me about those.”
“It’s nothing big, honest.” I know this is a bad idea. Even if everything she has said is crap, she certainly looks like she believes it. I still think I like this girl, even if she is a little crazy. Why do I feel the urge to push her?
“Really. I had this dream that I slip whilst walking down a path. It’s such a shock that I wake up straight away. I think that’s why I remember it so well.” Immediately I know it was a mistake to mention this dream. But I’m not sure if you’d even call that a dream. I’ve heard that everyone feels like this when they are falling asleep. Something to do with the oxygen levels in your blood dropping. Your muscles move to try and increase the circulation… or something like that. Still, I don’t think that this is something that Elissa wants to hear. She closes her eyes and sighs.
“Everyone does this. They think they have to test me out. Why can’t people believe me?”
“It’s a question of faith I guess. If you’re brought up being taught something, like that ‘God’ exists, then you believe it without question. But if someone explained the story of the Resurrection to someone raised as a non-believer, they would think it was fiction, right? At least In your case I have a chance to prove it.”
“You don’t have to, you know.”
“Maybe not, but that’s the kind of idiot I am.” And really, I feel like an idiot. I could have played along with Elissa for as long as she had wanted to. When she was talking to me before she seemed like she was having fun. Now she seems deadly serious, almost to the point of hating me.
We are so caught up in giving each other the silent treatment that we all but miss the sunset. Somehow the vivid colours seem dull today.
“We should bust a move. Trying to get down that path in those shoes is suicide.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“Here, I’ve done this a million times. Let me give you a hand.” I reach out to her, taking her slender hand in mine. I take a moment to savour this gesture of trust and friendship before starting to lead her down the goat track to the car park. Even in the dying light I can still scramble down the path at a fairly good speed. Initially I move slowly enough for Elissa to keep up, but the further I go the more confident I become. Before too long I have unconsciously increased the pace.
“I…” is the last thing I hear before feeling Elissa’s hand clench onto mine. I hear a soft thud as she impacts upon my back, and before I know what is going on, I start to fall.