Burning made me feel alive. Pain provided me with a passing, excruciating escape from the bombastic blissfulness of life. Everybody was happy, but nobody knew why. The faces strolling past me shone with hedonistic delight and perplexed enchantment. Vapors of gray smoke wafted around our heads, obscuring the hidden truth of the City, hiding the truth of us. Nobody knew what caused the happiness. Nobody knew what caused the pain. We roamed the deserted streets of the dark, looking for the cause, searching for the cure. We allowed the night to null our hearts together, following the eternal lights of the City to the inevitable end. They showed us the way to nowhere.
The tower across the water pulsed its precious lights constantly, casting the City in continuous illumination. The harbor bustled with movement, the darkened outlines of boats creeping inwards from the black ocean. The skyscrapers stabbed the sky; the opaque clouds choked the shining stars above. A chill mist permeated the air. A steamy fog lurked down every hollow alley and silent street. It was always dark in the City. The sun never stabbed its way through the stagnant gray clouds, and if it occasionally did, the light was fleeting and faint.
I was burning inside. Like the inexplicable happiness of pain, I couldn’t explain it. I had given up trying to understand my condition. I should be happy like everyone else. No one wore their dismay during the night. We wore our dismay during the day, when the lights hid the pain. I hadn’t always possessed the pain. I wandered the streets each night in search of the cure.
Something nefarious, growing, spreading, was gnawing at my heart. I searched for freedom and the cure, but neither existed in the City. They likely existed somewhere, hidden in a crevice, a dank alley, a defeated den, but the City was too great to ever have a chance at finding it.
The City was large and we were small. We looked, but we would never find it. We all were prisoners of the City, chained to our hopeless pursuit of the cure, chained to each other, chained to ourselves. We followed the blazing lights, but we were all lost. The way was illuminated with the false lights of the City, but our paths were dark. We were lost, searching the sea of suffering and uncertainty for something, anything to diminish the pain.
I followed the cold lights to a dimly lit bar on the west side of the City. The place was faintly lit. I liked the dim lights more than the bright ones. The bright ones made me feel anxious and exposed. People could see me too clearly in the bright lights. The place was buzzing with enigmatic exhilaration; there was something alive in here, but none us knew what it was. I waded through the surging crowd towards the bar. People noticed my passing. They could sense my sickness. They could feel the burning inside me; they could sense my suffering. People noticed me and parted in my path.
I saw a small shape creep out of the back door onto the balcony. I knew that shadow. I recognized that shy walk. I fought through the crowd, following the shadow. Everyone was raging in bizarre delight. Their incomprehensible faces showed their sickness, but I could tell none of them were as sick as me. Nobody knew me here, but they all noticed me. A few attempted to shake my sallow hand and strike up conversation as I passed. I did not want to get to know them. I wanted to find the shadow that I knew. The shadow would save me.
The shadow hid on the edge of the balcony, peering out at the blazing skyline of the city. The black bay sat completely still; the water reflected the scintillating stars of the heavens above and absorbed the hazy gaze of the veiled moon. I tried to swallow the stale air. The tumultuous din of the people inside grew fainter. There was no else on the balcony except us. They could feel my sickness and they avoided me. The shadow did not move.
I sat down next to her, unable to breathe. She did not notice me.
“I’m sick,” I told her, exhaling the words as I gulped down the perfume-permeated air around her.
“I know,” she replied, never breaking her gaze from the flickering skyline across the dead water.
I watched the shimmering skyline with her and it reminded of a distant time long ago before I was sick. We sat there for an eternity and watched the City burn slowly with lingering light. We loathed the City, but it was our City. It was all we knew. It was the only thing that remained of us. We didn’t touch, but we could imagine. We watched the lights dancing across the water and imagined. We remembered.
She did not say anything more. I could not say anything because I could not breathe in her suffocating shadow. Besides, I had nothing to say. I was sick and that was all.
I got up and left the balcony. As I exited the bustling bar everybody noticed my passing. She did not.
Conner is a twenty-one year old English major pursuing a career in writing and academia. He is currently a senior at Birmingham-Southern College planning to obtain an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English Literature. He has been published in 221 Magazine and The Copperfield Review in prose and Transcendent Zero Press’s Harbinger Asylum in poetry. Additionally, his novel was considered in the First Annual Young National Writers Contest at age sixteen.