Anthea is forest eyes and nimble feet and hair dancing in the breeze. She is the sun, the air, that which your family revolves around.
In the spring, she takes you to pick dahlias and roses that match the cadence of your hair. In the summer, she packs picnics with peanut butter and jam sandwiches and chilled lemonade. You splash each other with pond water and she catches you when you fall. In the autumn, you watch with wonder as the leaves blush red and drift towards the ground. You don't understand it as a child, why the leaves change colour, why the ground turns cold. You know nothing of photosynthesis and the cycle every cell follows. You will learn better. But for now, you catch the edge of Anthea's dress, that bright raspberry red of love and passion (and later, you find out, the welcome shade of oxygenated blood of transfusions and IV tubes—anything that can save a life) and hang on with all your might.
It is winter, you remember, when it all goes wrong. Anthea is always tired, wrapping herself in afghan comforters and sitting in the rocking chair by the window. The fire does little to warm her swollen feet. At first, your father thinks it's a sickness. Maybe a disease of the winter, a state of mind. Then, he hypothesises that a little brother or sister is on its way. Then, the bruises start to appear at an alarming rate. Bruises from chairs and tables that Anthea can't remember herself bumping into. From actions that she doesn't even have the energy for. Before you know it, your life is a whirlwind of hospital visits, forgotten family members, and before long, the nurses know your name and send you sympathetic smiles.
In the winter is when they come. Black suits and dark expressions, large hands and angry shouts. You're only putting the finishing touches on her snowman, patting his round belly to make sure he won't fall apart when your parents come to inspect him. Your boots crunch in the snow as you turns around to call them over, and you hug herself a little tighter and shiver against the sudden chill. It all goes into slow motion, the sun darkens its glare, your father calls out frantically, and Anthea screams and screams (and for months, your dreams build themselves around Anthea's terror and the wolves)—
the wolves. And here is the beginning of your deep-rooted fear of wolves, a knee-jerk reaction you carry for the rest of your life. They come at you out of nowhere, snapping and growling. You've always been told that wolves are only big dogs, but their teeth are so close you can count them point by point. Your mother screams again, an echo in the distance, and even though you're only five and scared, you run, not caring if the wolves are friendly or not.
Anthea is dead before spring sets in. Her body is wrecked and ravaged by the chemotherapy. The funeral is small. Your grandmother, Anthea's mother, arranges the whole affair, down to the type of gravestone and the eulogy. Your father is too grief-stricken to pay attention to his daughter, and when he does, it's only a year later when he's gone mad with love and sick with tears and has sent you to a strange new world. Much later, you'll wonder if you could have done anything. If you could've assuaged his heartsickness or made things easier on him. Been less of a broken child when you could've been nothing but a broken child.
No amount of therapists will be able to tell you that it's not your fault, that you were only a little girl.
This is the burden that survivors carry.
Anthea is gone long before your tiny legs can carry you halfway across the yard. She's swept into a black van along with the men in the black suits, and you run for what must be eternity before you must accept defeat. You collapse onto the ground in a crying heap.
You wish with all your heart that you were faster. Stronger. Angrier. Anything to bring your mother back. But as you learn in the first of many hard lessons, wishes are useless.
Your father is gone before he dies. Blank stares and fingers grasping for something you can't see.
Once, you cut herself with a knife, and he turns away.
Your father sits at the computer all day, taking notes, scribbling furiously, occasionally adjusting the slant of his glasses. You feel flashes of déjà vu, remember the days like you've experienced them a thousand times before. It pounds at you, and you start complaining of headaches whenever Franz attempts to bring you to his lab.
One day, he insists you go, and he sets you in a large tube. Those glasses of his block whatever emotions he may still have, and you nod. He is still your father, after all.
When you find herself in a strange land of trees and endless skies, all you can feel is relief.
Primary school is a daze. You're still not sure what happened, years later, but you know there were valentines and a first kiss. In the back of your mind, you remembers taunts and teasing for your dresses and and brown shoes. Mme Loisel brings you to the store to get new clothes every once in a while, but old ladies aren't any better at little girls' fashion than you are.
Your time on Lyoko is a dream. Your body is that of a fourteen-year-old, and though you don't know it at the time, you have been gone from Earth for eighteen years. You wake up to a boy with serious eyes and dishevelled hair.
He is your saviour. He is just as confused as you.
Secondary school passes by almost as dreadfully, the white noise in the background, a blur of your life. The only colour comes from the blood on your knife, your weapon of catharsis, but no one ever notices the field of cuts you carry. Those wounds of battle that you hide so skillfully with long sleeves and long pants. Not that you want them to notice.
That is, until that fateful winter morning, when you see, really see, Sissi Delmas for the first time. There's something about the wounded quality of Sissi's expression each time that group throws an insult back at her, that cry of help you recognise in another.
You tell them to back off in no uncertain terms, and while they do, perhaps because you have never been anyone but the quiet girl before, you know that you have made new enemies.
Your return to secondary school is greeted with cheers by your friends. You share a lunch table, plotting pranks, talking about new movies, and when Sissi comes up to you guys, as if in unspoken agreement, they all turn to you. You laugh and because it has become second nature, insult Sissi's intelligence once more. Sissi turns away almost immediately. You still glimpse the hurt though, and it crosses your mind that maybe you shouldn't say such things.
Then you remember what Sissi has said to your friends, and your empathy disappears.
Whatever may have happened to Sissi, it doesn't excuse her behaviour.
You guys become fast friends. Partly because you share each other's wit, partly because you've both lost your mothers. For once, you feel like you fit in. For once, you don't have to go through the motions alone.
Eventually, Herve and Nicholas make their way into the group.
You find themselves quite the patchwork group. The principal's privileged daughter. The quiet princess. The dumb musician. The acne-covered geek. But it is your group, and for a while, you are bound in the tight spring of desperation and the need of acceptance.
You are better friends than any of you could've imagined. Day and night, as tirelessly and as stubbornly as the flowers that pop out of the softening ground, you fight XANA. Lyoko is your job, your passion, your connection.
You may not look it—the quiet footballer, the snappy princess, the womanising artist, the insecure nerd, the confident foreigner—but you are the best friends you will ever find.
Your group do not need Lyoko for their friendship, but it sure does smooth out the ties of your bindings.
He enters the world of computer programming. She goes to beauty school. He trails after the world of strobe lights and concerts in the middle of the night.
You decide you will take an exciting job, one that will jet you to glamorous cities and sparkling beaches. The work will be hard, the competition will be fierce, but you want so badly to get away from France that anything is worth it.
Jeremie the engineer. Ulrich the footballer. Yumi the lawyer. Odd the artist.
Aelita the doctor.
You will never be that girl with nine-to-five days and the steady stream of typing and shuffled papers. You want to make a difference, do something, send out a big screw you to XANA because you are alive and you are going places.
New York City is bright lights and loud noises. People hold their heads up, shove their hands in miniscule pockets, and no one gives a damn about anyone else. They recognise that they share the same world, that they must coexist with seven million others on a piece of land the size of a postage stamp, but that's life, and they're late for their next appointment.
This is exactly what you need. A place where you can hurry and scurry in the bustle of the crowds and worry only of the latest headline and how you can milk more gossip out of the locals.
New York City is being alone. It is knowledge that you are no one to hundreds and thousands of strangers. It is losing yourself in the crowd and allowing yourself to be a sheep for once. It assures you in a way no human can.
You sit on a bench in Central Park, biting into a fresh gyro, watching kids run after a golden retriever and throw frisbees and fall down and pick themselves up.
You are no one here, and you want to savour that, that freedom of no one giving a damn about you or your life or what you do, and it is here you can remember that you may be studying to become a doctor, that you may have saved the world hundreds of times, but none of that matters to kids running after a dog.
At twenty-three years old, you have hopes and dreams too.
After years of Miami and no winters and plenty of sunshine and tanning, you find yourself on a plane back to Paris. You're sat next to a man and a crying baby, whom he explains is his nephew, and you attempt a smile when he apologises over and over again.
When the baby gurgles at your touch, you feel a smile spread across your face.
You haven't felt the comfort of acceptance since your schooldays of Sissi, Herve, and Nicholas.
By the end of the flight, you and the man find you are both twenty-eight and alone. You exchange numbers and promise to meet again.
After years of toiling, doing grueling work as a lowly trainee, feeling your grasp on sanity wane, you find yourself at the light at the end of the tunnel. You are almost done with the third cycle of medicine studies, and Jeremie takes you out to dinnner to celebrate.
The low lighting highlights the crevices of his face, those eyes you love so much, that mouth of his that quirks up when you've said said something silly.
You don't do much but stare at each other, and at the end of the dinner, you put a trembling hand on his and kiss him.
You both agree to do this again.
You send a grateful smile to the barista as you pick up the coffees. On the way back to the table, you stumble and almost drop them, but in the second it takes for your feet to malfunction, he's steadied you and has taken a long gulp of his drink.
You take your seats at the two-person table, as you do every Monday. Sometimes you talk about politics, about how you want to change the world, travel to other countries and learn about Brazilian coffee beans and bananas and sustainable farming. Sometimes you talk about your days, the drag of sensationalist headlines and developing microchips and laptops.
Sometimes you don't talk about anything at all and sit there in silence, and you can zero in on the warm, hearty aroma of the coffee, the squeak of wet shoes and snow against linoleum, the rush of the people around you, the traffic lights that blink a steady pattern of green-yellow-red.
Hope bubbles inside you in a way you never thought it could've.
You see him chatting with your regular waiter when you walk in. With one last press of your dress, one last glance in the mirror, one last tug of your hair, you walk up to him and tap him on the back.
You sit by the windows as you always do.
You think you could spend the rest of your life like this, just with him, just the two of you.
The phone rings, almost with a frantic undertone, at four in the morning. Your boss' command is sharp and quick, but you get it. There's a news story that's got to be covered, and since you're moving up in the ranks, why not you?
You get to the scene with screeching tires and a pen and pad in hand. Alain, one of the cameramen, nods at you.
There's been a break-in at a government facility.
Maybe it's the lack of coffee, maybe it's the adrenaline that makes you forget everything except for the prospect of a promotion, but it hits you like a ton of bricks. You feel your breath being suctioned away, and your world crashes down to your feet, to the slush on the ground, to the mud tracked by winter boots and sneakers on pavement. The building blurs and the shouts and camera flashes fade till you're not there anymore.
Your alarm clock beeps loudly, the sound cutting in your dreams of Jeremie and first loves and forever, and your hand creeps out from beneath the covers to slam on the snooze button. There are many perks to doing residency at the Hôpital Européen Georges-Pompidou, but waking up at four in the morning is not one of them.
You dress in a daze, take a few sips of coffee, and rush to the hospital.
When you get there, nurses are running by with horrified looks on their faces, people are shouting, and sirens are wailing. One of the doctors catches you by the shoulder as you make her way to your cubby, and you nod as he tells you to head to the surgery department.
You rush to the door that separates blood and screams from a serene Paris morning, and when you see one of the patients and his all too familiar face, you feel yourself sinking into the ground as if it's spring, and the air is warm and the ground is alive.
Much like Anthea's, his funeral is small. The nephew that brought you together is there wailing, along with his mother. There's no one else, she tells you with sad eyes. His parents died in a fire when he was five, and he came to live with us.
The air is cool, the flowers are dead, and you think it's fitting that it's winter. The season of Anthea's death, of insanity, of black flowers and crying.
Much like Anthea's, his funeral is short. He's buried beside his parents. Yumi cries on Ulrich's shoulder, and he glares at the ground, refusing to make eye contact with anyone. Odd just stands there, clenching his fists, unmoving, unblinking, like he's not sure how to process it.
You stand there, four dark figures in a bleak winter scene.
Life goes on as it will. Seasons pass, friends come and go, the scenery changes. You find yourself unable to stay and flit from place to place with each change of leaves.
Florence is beautiful. St. Gallen is peaceful. Heraklion has gorgeous architecture. St Albans has a long, rich history of Romans and markets.
It is not home though, and you have wounds that time cannot heal.
Life passes by quickly after what you soon come to refer to as The Incident. After your internship is over, you pack up and apply for a job in Montreal. Their accent is a little funny, and you have no friends here, but this is exactly where you need to be.
Gone are the ghosts of Jeremie at the park or the local Japanese restaurant. Gone is the smell of him in your shower. Gone are the reminders of his life, the print he left on your heart. You shove it all away and try to embrace your new home. What you don't realise is that gone is also what is home to you.
You spend your life moving and working and completely weary of life, but like the wicked queens and stepmothers of the original fairy tales, you are condemned to this path, forever and always doomed to a slow death. What else is out there but misery and heartbreak?
Step by heavy step, you stop at the end of the cobblestone path. The scent of begonias and dahlias drifts over to you, and your parents and Jeremie wave from a picnic blanket. Yumi giggles while Ulrich tickles her to the ground. Odd is swinging, almost touching the sky because for him the sky has always been the limit.
You can hear the muffled voices and beeping heart monitors somewhere in the distance, but right now, after all these years, you have found home.
You can hear them, your family and friends you'd thought long gone, and step out into the pasture.
"Aelita, Aelita, Aelita..."
In the midst of loneliness and misery, you've passed your last breath smiling.