I woke up to the sound of the end of the world. It was the sound of splintering crystals, a keening fire, and my heart bounding in strange palpitations against my eardrums.
I stood by the window of my bedroom, staring out at the chaos that had engulfed my glowing Citadel of crystal and dreams. But it did not glow with the celestial light of the stars, as it once had; instead, it glowed with the tongues of flames that digested everything in their paths.
Am I dreaming? How can this really be happening?
But the answer stood right before my eyes.
The fire was billowing outwards from a single building, small and out of place amongst the spiraling towers that surrounded it, a building that had been relegated to the dark corners of my mind.
It can’t be…
But how could I deny its existence, when it was standing, untouched amidst the flames, while the crystal edifices around it went down in flames?
And before I could think another thought, my feet were carrying me out my bedroom door and down the spiral staircase, as if heeding some unconscious command beyond my control. As I pushed open the doors of my palace, a blast of sweltering air struck me with the force of a tornado, ripping a sharp gasp from my dry throat. The fire had not yet spread to the structures around my home, but I knew it would only be a matter of minutes before my palace would go up in flames; it would only be a matter of minutes before everything I knew would be turned into ashes, leaving behind nothing but a mere whisper of what had once been so beautiful and magnificent.
Unless I put an end to it.
So I ran. I ran through walls of shimmering heat, past buildings collapsing and shrieking under the weight of the burning flames. I ran for what felt like an eternity, until I found myself standing before the lone building, the Pandora’s Box of my memories of old. It was a squat, rectangular building, ringed by a halo of gray smoke and rings of fire. Tongues of red spilled out the square windows, billowing like clouds against the backdrop of the setting sun. Tendrils of gold leaked out of the crevices of the doorway, licking at my bare feet, threatening to singe the hem of my dress and burn my flesh…yet I could only feel a strange, tingling warmth as the flames seemed to wordlessly part before me, forming a glowing pathway to the door.
I stood there for who knew how long, staring at the dark, formidable door that had, for years, been collecting dust in the darkest corners of my mind. My heart fought against the confines of its ivory prison, screaming at me to run away into the safety of my palace. Yet my mind whispered softly:
“You knew—you always knew you couldn’t run away forever…”
I let out a shaky breath.
It’s now or never…
And so I began my journey towards the door that had kept out all the dark monsters of my past. The walk was agonizingly slow, as waves of heat billowed out and flanked me from all sides. But I pushed on, carefully placing one bare foot in front of the other, until I was within an arms-breadth of the door.
I raised a bare hand. It trembled like a ghostly apparition against the glowing inferno, as it came to a rest around the carved doorknob. I knew the heat should have eaten through the flesh of my hand by now, but all I could feel was the same buzzing warmth that engulfed the rest of my body.
I closed my eyes, and my grip around the doorknob tightened.
“Please…don’t do this!” my heart cried out.
“But what choice do I have?” my mind whispered.
I wrenched the door open.
A blast of hot air, accompanied by a loud whoosh, immediately greeted me, wrapping its suffocating arms around my body. I put my arms up instinctively, as I let out a strangled cry of shock. I struggled to peer out between the cracks of my arms against the searing heat. But the sight that met my searching gaze made my heart drop.
It was all for nothing, I thought, as I found myself staring at an impenetrable wall of flames, there’s nothing to be done—
My breath caught in my throat at the sound of my name. The voice seemed to have come from beyond the scarlet impasse.
No…I must be dreaming…
This time, the voice rang a bell in my head. It was the voice from the dark, shifting depths of my memory, the voice I thought I had locked away forever.
“No…” I breathed, backing away from the open door, “Go away.”
“Rachel…Can you hear me?”
And, for a fraction of a second, a familiar face flickered in the flames, smiling crookedly at me from the depths of my past.
And then I was running, running, running. I hurtled past buildings reduced to ash, magnificent structures burning under the darkening sky. I leaped over the crystals that littered the ground, infinitesimal embers pulsing with heartbeats of their own against the fiery backdrop of my once-majestic Citadel. I didn’t stop until I reached the steps of my palace.
Once there, I turned around, breathing rapidly. My heart skipped a beat at the sight that met my eyes: The fire had formed a perfect ring around my palace. Even the path I had taken back from the dark building had been swallowed up by bright tendrils of scarlet and yellow.
The voice jerked me out of my reverie, and I ran into the palace, heart thumping erratically. The crystal floor was cool to my feet, after the uncomfortable warmth of the ground outside, yet I barely noticed, as I clambered up the spiraling staircase of my home. Halfway up the stairs, my foot slipped and I banged my knee against the edge of the staircase. Yet again, my mind barely registered the pain, because one thought, and one thought only, consumed my mind: I have to get away from Him.
With a newfound resolve, I dragged myself to my feet, and limped up the stairs, until there were no more stairs left to climb.
Breathing heavily, I collapsed on my hands and feet to the cold, hard ground of the roof. I clutched at my heart, willing it to quit pounding so painfully against my chest. But it was no use; my rebellious heart continued thumping to a wild rhythm of its own, uncontrollable by my word. I squeezed my eyes shut, letting the ashy wind waft over me. How lovely it would be to just curl up here and never get back up. How lovely it would be to give into the embers, to fall with my Citadel of light. After all, what else did I have to live for, if not for my empire of crystal and dreams?
The voice pierced through my dark thoughts, making my eyes fly open. I dragged myself to my feet, backing away from the stairwell, heart pumping madly. I gazed out across the vast expanse that stretched before me. The sun had set at this point, giving way to the stars that glinted like so many jewels against a depth-filled backdrop above me. It was such a beautiful night. So how was it fair that my world was burning to the ground before my very eyes?
I whipped my head around, trying to locate the source of the voice. After turning in a full circle, realization hit me with the full force of a blast of heat.
The voice was all around me.
I turned my gaze back onto the spiraling flames that reached for the stars.
The flames seemed to turn fuzzy before my very eyes, as if I was staring at them from behind rain-spattered spectacles.
Something wet rolled down my cheek. Then another. And another. And then it was as if my eyes had turned into waterfalls, leaking torrents of salty streams down my soot-streaked face.
I felt my knees buckle, and I hit the ground, my arms wrapped tightly around my stomach.
I raised my head, expecting to be greeted by the same scene of chaos and destruction as before. But I saw something else instead…
It was Him…He was sitting beside me, His dark, scruffy curls tousled by the wind…One hand on the wheel, another beneath my chin…His eyes…they shone behind a pair of rimmed glasses…His lips…they were curled into a crooked smile…coming closer…and closer…And then a loud blaring sound, ringing against my eardrums…A sudden flash of blinding, white light…
And then nothing.
I let out a loud gasp as the scene flickered before my unbelieving eyes, and I found myself kneeling, once again, before a night sky shot through with streaks of red.
I closed my eyes against the heat of the night, reveling in the memory of the young man. In my mind’s eye, I could still see His shy eyes, hidden behind thick glasses, His upturned lips, thin and trembling. I could still feel His hand under my chin, a bit sweaty from the nervous excitement that had engulfed us both, the rush of warmth that sang through my bloodstream…I blinked open my eyes. Slowly, I raised myself to my feet.
A lone tower stood in the distance, its trunk blazing with ropes of red and yellow roses, waiting to blossom. Like me, it was the last of its kind.
“No,” I whispered, “I can’t.”
At the sound of my voice, the roses blossomed, spreading their pulsing petals across the length of the trunk, as the entire structure expanded in one last great heave. And there I stood, watching helplessly as the last of the glowing towers splintered into infinitesimal shards of light, a sight so beautifully terrible, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to forget it.
There…my Citadel is gone—
But the feeling of the ground trembling beneath my feet interrupted my grief-stricken contemplation. At first, it was the slightest tremor of the floor, no more significant than the gentle vibrations of a guitar string, accompanied by the guttural whisper of fire. But the tremors steadily increased in intensity, until they could no longer be called mere tremors anymore. I backed away from the edge of the roof, afraid I would be pitched off, because perhaps the fire could not kill me, but hurtling thousands of feet to the ground might.
As I cowered by the entrance to the stairwell, hands clamped over my ears against the harsh crackle of fire melting crystal, a sudden realization hit me: My Citadel was not yet gone; I was standing on the last rock of civilization.
Desperation rose in my throat with the taste of bile. “You can’t take this away from me!” I shouted into the heavens, my voice rising high above the roaring of the fire, “Not after you’ve taken everything else.”
But He can. He can take this all away from me…
I crawled to the edge of the roof, clutching it with sweaty hands, and looked down. A cold fist squeezed my heart in a choking embrace, as I watched the flames slither their way up the side of my palace, like so many vines crawling towards the sun.
I closed my eyes against the drying wind, unwilling to watch the last of my Citadel collapse before me. Everything, everything I had ever built was crashing to the ground around me because of Him…but it was suddenly…”Okay.”
At once, the sound of the roaring fire ceased altogether, as if someone had tapped the square stop button on the radio. The ground beneath me, which had just a moment ago been wracked with intense palpitations worthy of an earthquake, stood awfully still. Carefully, I forced my eyes open.
The spectacle that greeted my eyes rendered me speechless. The curling fingers of red and gold were frozen against the dark backdrop of the night sky, like so many stained glass pieces delicate enough to be shattered with a single sigh of the wind. Yet there was no wind to blow the carved masterpieces to the ground. It was as if I was staring at a snapshot of my ravaged Citadel, a single scene taken from a montage of chaos. Time and space had frozen over, and I was the one who got away.
I turned my gaze upwards. It was only then that I realized how beautiful the stars looked, suspended in midair like lightning bugs in the sky. “Yes?” I whispered.
“It’s time to let go…”
I tilted my head until I was staring at the frozen flames that stood where the glowing towers of my Citadel had once resided. It was gone, the last of it crumbling beneath my bare feet. And the only thing that would remain would be the mere ghost of something that had once been so breathtaking, so sublime.
And it was…it was…”Okay.”
The word seemed to hang in the air for a lifetime, for there was no breeze to carry it forward into the night. Then, all at once, a strange feeling of weightlessness overcame me, and I felt my feet leave the ground. It took me a moment to realize I was flying, spread-eagle, soaring up, up, up into the stars.
I gazed back down at the Citadel that was fast disappearing into the distance. Time had resumed once again, as the wind ushered the tendrils of fire onwards. I watched as my palace was engulfed by the roiling flames, and collapsed with a final dying sigh.
And so, my Citadel of crystal and dreams fell. But for some strange reason, it was…”Okay.”