– The Slave-Gods superseded. The Vision of the Stl of Revealing, abolishing the Aeon of the Slave-Gods –
"I smile ironically before my own lie.
I look at the world around me searching for someone that will be able to see beyond my make-believe act.
But no one sees me... no one listens... no one feels me...
and so, in a mute scream, I fall into this dark precipice... and go insane."
When the alarm clock rang just the thought of what awaited me outside made me wish I'd never have to wake up again.
I sighed, sitting up, and looked at the small black fur ball curled beside my pillow.
"Hey ... How did you get here?" I asked, petting him between his ears, and the little kitten opened his silver eyes, stretching and yawning as he showed a perfect line of small sharp teeth. Purring soundly, he rubbed his muzzle against my hand and I couldn't help smiling. "No time to play with you now," I said, gently placing him on the floor, and stood up to open the curtains for another gray day.
With the bleak reminder of last night's talk I readied myself for the worst and opened my wardrobe. It was empty, as to be expected, and even though I'd known what was in stored for me that morning, I couldn't help feeling outraged as I opened the draws finding them completely empty as well. With the exception of the one containing my underwear and some old clothes I normally used around the house, everything else was gone.
"Ah! At least I have the right to choose which bra to wear!" I protested, annoyed, and the sound of sharp claws against the wooden door made me look back. I sighed, leaving my morning annoyance to open the door, and the kitten slipped outside smelling and sticking his nose in one of the bags waiting in the corridor.
Picking them up, I didn't even have to guess what they contained. Deprived of his new toy, the kitten followed me back inside, his bell ringing softly, his bright eyes watching me as I emptied the bags on my bed. I recalled having seen many others like these, scattered around the living room, and supposed he had left those by my door knowing I wouldn't have anything to wear.
Against my will, I put on a trapezoidal dark-blue skirt, too short for my taste, and a white shirt of which I had to cut off the store's tag. On top of it I wore a blue pullover that, unlike mine, always two sizes up, fitted me perfectly, and put on black wool stockings. I grumbled as I noticed that not even my shoes had escaped the purge and was forced to wear the new pair he'd gotten me, with a low heel and a delicate bow on the front.
I looked at myself in the mirror and took a hand to my face in complete despair. I looked like a walking broomstick, I thought. My legs too thin, my knees too bony, no chest to talk about... Angry, I threw the wardrobe's door with so much strength that it closed and opened again. I washed my face and combed my straw-like hair that never looked good, and wished I could just put back my pajamas and return to bed.
The small kitten watched me by the bathroom door and I picked it up taking a deep breath.
"If I start missing school mom will worry," I sighed, mentally preparing myself for the terrible day ahead, and went downstairs, too aware of my new shoes, trying as hard as I could not to fall from my new heels.
I peered into the kitchen before going in and felt relieved when I didn't see him. Placing the kitten on the floor I looked for a bowl that I could use to give him some milk. I noticed last day's dishes, all washed, on the rack. He'd eaten the extra pizza I'd left in the oven and I couldn't help remember how he'd said that eating was interesting.
I washed my hands and, with a sight, set the table for two.
Long calm footsteps announced his arrival and I readied myself to face him. He came in without a word, taking his usual place, and I placed the plate with the toasts on the center of the table, looking for some juice in the fridge.
I heard him bite the crunchy bread and dared take a peek at him. His hair was short again, his eyes black. The shirt he wore was dark-red falling over a pair of washed out jeans. Just like any other Human Being.
"May I ask when I'll be getting my clothes back?" I asked, not daring to sit, and he raised his head to look at me.
"When our Contract is fulfilled."
"This!" I stated pulling at my pullover with two fingers. "This won't help achieve anything! I'm still too thin and too plain! Besides I have this horrible hair and eyes that seem to be staring wide at everyone I look at! You're wrong if you think that new clothes will be enough to save my appearance!" I exploded in complete exasperation and stood there, breathless, as if I'd just spent all my energy just to throw those words at him.
"That's hardly my intention," he countered completely ignoring my outburst. "In truth there's nothing to be saved, since there's nothing wrong with you. The problem is that some Human Beings are too dumb and don't know how to see. You look, but you don't see. For those dumb ones, big, perceptive signs are needed. Your new clothes are just one of those signs. Their only purpose is to draw the other's attention to what's already there."
I was stunned, and incredulous ... and confused ....
He turned his attention back to his toast and ate it calmly, chewing it slowly as if savoring every detail of every movement he made, far from the automatic way people normally ate.
I pulled a chair and sat down, grabbing a toast.
I had the feeling ... no... I was sure! That had been the biggest compliment I had ever received.
The bell of the small kitten woke me from my dream-like state and I saw him jump on his lap, rubbing against him and purring, his silver eyes closed in pure bliss.
"Morning, Lea," I heard him say in a low tone, and his voice was so soft that it was lost amongst all that purring.
It was simply too much, I decided while watching him caressing the kitten's black fur. That cat... that cat was magical!, I decided in a moment of pure delusion.
However, by the time we left home, I was already very much aware of the dark influence of his presence over me, even though I walked to school keeping my distance, constantly resizing my footsteps according to his.
I stopped by the classroom's door for an instant and took a deep breath. I wished with all my heart that, like usual, no one would notice me, and went in. For a second it looked like my prayers had been heard but, as I crossed the room towards my desk, eyes started to follow me, making me blush and rush to my chair.
"Wow! Mari! New clothes?" Joanne asked enthusiastically and I just nodded. "It fits you really well!"
"Oh, please. Stop making fun of me..." I pleaded between clenched teeth, making use of my hair to hide my reddened face as people were still staring at me, commenting under their breath.
"But it's the truth! Steph was right. Dressed differently you totally look like someone else." Joanne insisted, trying to cheer me up. I wished I could cry but, as usual, I could never do it when I wanted.
"I hate these clothes ... I hate all of this ...!" I muttered and, to my relief, Mr. Frederich arrived, putting an end to all the muttering talk.
Recess came too fast and, with a deep breath, I faced Steph's curious expression that, as usually, had arrived late.
"So? What happened that gave birth to such a change?" she asked me all excited and I sighed.
"Nothing, really," I answered, feeling more depressed by the minute. Of course I could have told her that my old clothes had magically disappeared but I thought it better and kept my mouth shut.
"What do you mean, nothing?!" she insisted and I knew I wouldn't get rid of the subject that easily.
"My cousin wouldn't leave me alone, until I went shopping with him," I replied. If only I could cry whenever I felt sad enough to do it... By then I'd be a river of tears...
"Your cousin?!" Steph repeated sounding even more incredulous. But then a smile touched her lips. "Oh, I see we think alike, him and me."
I took a deep breath. That was nothing I hadn't already anticipated. Steph had always insisted that I dress differently, trying to make me buy new dresses and skirts every time we went out. To top it off, I'd been forced to justify Gabriel leaving with me, at lunch, by telling her he'd decided to support me in my unrequited love. After all, even though the others thought I spent my lunch break in the library, Steph knew the truth. And so, not surprisingly, Steph had started to see Gabriel as her ally in managing my love affairs.
"At last! Someone to put some sense in that thick head of yours!" she retorted as I bagged my things. "And it looks really good on you!"
"Spare me...!" I objected and she hit me lightly over the head.
"Don't be a fool!" she retorted angrily. "If it didn't look good, I'd be the first to tell you! You really have a distorted image of yourself!"
"Come on, Steph. I'm too skinny," I argued placing both hands on my nearly flat chest.
"Nonsense! That's what I call having a distorted image of yourself! If someone were to hear you they'd think you're anorexic or something. There are many girls around thinner than you. You have a delicate look about you, and there's nothing wrong with that. I find it very pretty. You always remind me of a ballerina." She gave me a friendly smile but I sighed, deeply unhappy.
"A five-feet-tall ballerina," I grumbled and she placed an arm around my shoulders, enveloping me with ease.
"Just wait and see. Michael won't be the only one staring at you," she added, sounding amused, and I wanted to cry just thinking about what awaited me at lunch.
I spent the rest of the morning hearing murmured comments behind my back and seeing people I hardly knew watching me with the most various expressions. It was as if suddenly I'd become the school's novelty. It reminded me all too well of when Gabriel had just shown up, saying he'd been transferred. So, as soon as class was over, I ran out the door, waiting for Steph in corridor.
I was practically glued to her when we went down to the cafeteria. Remaining near Steph always gave me a feeling of security and, out-going and funny as she was, normally all attention was drawn towards her and I could pass by unnoticed. Even so I couldn't avoid Sarah's encouraging words, Albert's stunned look and Kevin's smile, much less Joe's idiotic comments.
Gabriel joined us, greatly increasing my levels of stress, and I had to hold onto Joanne's arm in order to keep following the line as if nothing had happened, since Steph had abandoned me. I saw her approach Gabriel with a smile and tell him something. He smiled gently as he listened and they went on talking, probably about me. If only I had a hole I could crawl into ... All I wished for was a deep, dark one ...
I could hardly eat anything. I looked at my practically untouched plate and felt frustrated. Eating was pretty much the only thing I could do in terms of trying to improve my looks. It was the only way to fight against the genetic code embedded in my cells, the only strategy left so I wouldn't be defeated! And now I wasn't even able to do that.
"Shall we go?" his soft voice echoed above the general noise of the cafeteria although he had spoken in a normal tone.
I wished I could tell him no. I didn't want to go anywhere. However is dark gaze placed such a heavy pressure on me that I felt, should I dare refuse, I'd end up being crushed. I clenched my fists and forced my trembling legs to move. Steph winked at me, confident. He said goodbye to the others, always with that nice-guy smile on his face, joking with Joanne and promising to lend Joe some CD, and walked away taking his tray.
The moment I stood I was once more the center of attention, people looking at me from head to toe, commenting on my appearance. I raised my head and told myself I had to stop being psychotic. As bad as I might looked in those clothes, or as strange as I might be, it wasn't like I was something that rare. As for the title of unusual, the creature walking just a few feet away from me would certainly win the cup. And then I noticed that he too, was the target of many appreciative rumors.
When we got outside he opened the door for me, like always, and fell to my side. That was the only moment of the day when the distance between us was that short; the few steps between the door and where Michael's friends talked lively. My body became tense with his proximity, my heart beating painfully fast. And yet, unlike every other day, when all I could think of was to get to our destiny as fast as possible, my steps became smaller and smaller until I couldn't walk anymore.
"I ... don't want to ..." I whispered, feeling like a child being forced to go to school.
"Nonsense. And I have no time to lose with nonsense. I have a Contract to fulfill," he informed me coldly and my legs trembled, this time for everyone to see, since I wasn't wearing my usual baggy pants that always managed to mask it somehow. "Let's go!" His soft tone was stronger than a shouted command and, unable to think clearly, my body simply obeyed. Steven was the first to spot us with a friendly wave.
"Gabriel!" he called out and Gabriel smiled, waving back as he picked up the pace.
It was incredible, I thought. I could hardly believe we only knew each other for less than a week. Michael's group had accepted him frightening well, as if they had known him their entire lives. And to think that I had watched Michael silently, from afar, for months without even being able to greet him. It was really frustrating!
I dragged my feet considering the possibility of simply turning back and run and, almost as if he'd read my mind, Gabriel turned to me and offered me one of his fake smiles.
"What are you doing, Mari?" he asked, casually, but it was enough to make everyone aware of my presence.
I walked the short distance that was left, conscious of the silence all around, and the few moments that took me to do so felt like an eternity.
"Mari?!" I heard Steven's voice as to confirm what he saw.
"Wow, Mari! You look great!" Francis, the most outgoing but also the most critical of the three added, and I asked myself if he was making fun of me. "Hey Michael, don't you agree? I could hardly recognize her."
Michael ... Fearing what I was about to see, but still wanting to know, I raised my head and looked for his reaction. Michael was staring at me, his bright eyes looking surprised, even a bit lost, and I blushed from ear to ear.
"Stop gaping, Michael!" Steven scoffed, hitting him hard in the back, and Michael stumbled forward, coughing. Steven and Francis laughed, making fun of his embarrassment, and Lauren walked up to me reminding me of her presence.
Her red hair fell down her shoulders in perfect curls. Her green sweater matched perfectly the color of her eyes, and the tight mini-skirt she wore brought out her perfect curves. I felt like a foolish child near her.
She smiled lightly, an obvious and many times studied smile, and tilted her head to the side.
"Francis is right. You look great," she told me in her dragged sensual voice and I wished that, at least, I'd be able not to blush so easily.
"Thanks ..." I answered knowing that, unlike Francis, there were no doubts of how false her statement had been
Maggie didn't pay me any attention. Holding on to Gabriel's arm she seemed determined to make him notice her deep neckline. I couldn't be more grateful for that.
I blushed even deeper when Michael approached me and I saw him take a book out of his handbag.
"Here it is. Safe and sound. I really liked it. Though some of the poems are a bit sad."
"'Cause in life not everything is happiness ..." I replied caressing the book's cover, only then noticing I'd said it out loud.
"True. Some of the poems talk about things we've lost and look to retrieve, but never find, since we don't actually know where to look for. I really liked those."
I raised my head, daring to look at him, and thought I saw a glint of nostalgia in his eyes. It was only natural, I reminded myself. He was someone who didn't know where he'd come from, much less who he was. I wished I could hug him and comfort his lonely expression. But Michael was used to dealing with that pain, and to do it with a smile on his face. And that was exactly what he did. His smile made my heart race, warming my whole body, making it so that nothing else really mattered.
"I brought you one of mine," he informed me. "It's also a poetry book. I didn't think you'd like this style," he confessed, laughing, and I wanted to jump of joy. "It would seem we have very similar tastes."
I took the book he'd just lent me and hugged it against my chest.
"Thank you. I'm sure I'll like it," I said, happy to be holding on to another little piece of him, and he placed his warm hand on my head, reminding me of how short I was. His touch brought me a sense peace as I'd never felt and I wished his hand could remain there forever.
"Not fair!" he objected, jokingly, as if I were no more than a misbehaved child. "First you read it! Then decide if you like it or not. And if you don't, say you don't!" he scolded me, slightly leaning forward to be closer to me, and I blushed deeply at how close our faces were. "Deal?"
I nodded, knowing I'd never be able to answer him otherwise, and he pulled his hand away leaving a warm feeling in its place. If I could I'd never wash my hair again, I thought and immediately felt like a silly fourteen-year-old lovesick schoolgirl.
I peered towards where the others stood, worrying about what they might think if they saw me acting like that. But Gabriel had monopolized the two girls, telling them all about our shopping spree and about how I needed his help since I had no trace of fashion sense at all. As soon as they understood that he'd be the one to practically pick all my clothes, Maggie started asking him what he thought would look best on her, while he looked at her from head to toe pensively, making her positively ecstatic. Francis watched from close by, obviously displeased as he spitted out unpleasant comments that only made the girls hate him even more. And Steven was just listening as he shook his head in disapproval.
"Your cousin, he's really something," I heard Michael's warm voice and looked back at him. He was also watching the others but his expression was surprisingly serious.
"Ah, not really..."
"But he is," he insisted. "There's something about him that seems to attract everyone else. No one seems to be able to really dislike him, even though he's not likeable at all." I was amazed at his observation skills.
I tempted to tell him that he too possessed something like that, a kind of magnetic force that attracted people around him, albeit something quite different from what I felt from Gabriel.
"Francis doesn't seem to agree," I joked, and he looked at me, laughing.
"Yeah. But Francis has his reasons ... Maggie."
"Maggie," we both said in unison and laughed together.
It was so easy being close to him, talking with him. As if everything was right and harmonious. As if the world were an enchanted garden. Sure my heart beat faster at the sound of his laughter and my cheeks blushed every time he looked at me, but near him I was ... me. I didn't have to make myself look happy. I didn't have to make myself look serious. Near Michael I was able to really speak my mind and, most of the times, I even did it unintentional, which always led to some degree of awkwardness. Even then he accepted everything so naturally that, what I'd first thought better unsaid, became the right thing the next instant.
Michael asked me about my weekend and I told him about my mother leaving, something that I hadn't even had the chance to tell Steph. Like Rachel, he too thought it was good that, at least, I had Gabriel staying with me, and I felt bad for the limits imposed on my honesty. Right then the secret of my supposed cousin was like a dark and ugly stain I had to keep hidden from every one.
I told him about an afternoon spent shopping, something that had never happened, and about the small kitten called Lea, that I'd found wandering about the house. It was only after I told him about the cat that I noticed that, unconsciously, I'd ended up accepting Gabriel's naming of the kitten.
The sound of the bell interrupted our talk and broke my enchanted garden into pieces. My disappointment must have been so clear that Michael laughed.
"Is your next class that boring?"
"Ah, oh, no ..." I answered, embarrassed. "But it was better if we could stay here ..." he laughed again, as if I were a child throwing a tantrum, and Gabriel kissed the other two girls goodbye.
"Only two more hours and you'll be back home," Michael mentioned, trying to comfort me and I sighed. The idea of going home was even worse that going to class. "Well, if we don't see each other around, see you tomorrow."
"See you. And thanks for the book." I added, squeezing it against my chest.
"You're welcome," he answered and his smile widened. "Oh, and Mari, you look really great."
I stood there breathless, not knowing what to say, unable to react. I saw him walk away and my gaze followed him, stunned. The others told me goodbye, I slightly recall the echo of their voices, but I couldn't even reply. Those words, coming from him, were the only important words I had heard all day.