by Lydia Gazelka
Maranatha Christian Academy
The Choices We Make
The pale curtains danced as a gust of frigid Minnesota air meandered through the open window. From the rickety desk in the corner of the room, Elouise pulled the blanket tighter around her, glancing over at the grey cat resting on the unmade bed. Elouise wasn’t sure when she had opened the window, unsure if she had ever even opened it in the first place, but in the past couple of days, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to close it. She lacked both the energy and the desire to do so.
With the cold coming in constantly, she was sure that her room’s bill had to have gone up quite a bit as she ran the heat at an ungodly high temperature. Whatever she did, the room was always freezing, the air always biting, and her body always numb. She realized that she could never quite find the right balance between scalding hot and punishingly cold.
One thing she had also realized was that, in some strange way, something about the cold was comforting. It was a different kind of cold than she had ever been used to, considering her home had been so rainy and so very green, but she supposed that was what made it comforting… knowing that she was so far away from the place where the grey men had haunted her— body, mind, and soul.
Since she had fled to the midwest with her cat Dante, she often felt a sense of unease. She knew that it was probably because she constantly had to look over her shoulder as she always kept moving, never staying in one place for too long. Sometimes she thought that her unease may have been because she knew that no matter how far she went, she couldn’t go far enough. Or maybe it was the constant state of unknowing — of foggy memories and secrets still shrouded in darkness.
She didn’t think she could ever escape her hazy thoughts and anxiety. She didn’t think she could ever escape anything she was fleeing in the first place. Not truly.
Lately, Elouise rarely slept, and when she did, it wasn’t well. More often than not, she found herself awake before the sun, simply sitting in an eerie silence with no one but herself, the cold, and a constantly-on-edge cat.
So as the sun barely peeked up from its place beneath the horizon, she stretched out her aching limbs and stepped out of the cold motel room and into the colder air, Dante following closely behind her.
As the two had traveled together, escaped their personal hell together, she learned that even if she tried to keep him inside, he seemed to be hellbent on following her around. At night, she swore that he would only sleep on the bed to keep watch over her as she slept, and in the daytime, she could rarely go anywhere without him following closely on her heels. She was beginning to wonder if the cat was trying to be her protector. And, as ineffective as a small domesticated house cat could be as a protector, she found comfort in this thought.
The pair silently moved through the parking lot, girl and cat, as Elouise tugged her pink jacket’s hood up over her short, golden curls. November was proving to be colder than she expected. Much colder.
Just beside the motel was a twenty-four-hour diner that seemed in constant lack of business, and in her past few days at the motel, she had grown accustomed to sitting almost entirely alone in it, drinking a coffee and attempting to suppress her wandering thoughts and paranoia.
Ding-ding, the bell hanging over the glass door of the desolate and dimly lit diner sounded as the teenager stepped inside, breathing in the warmth as it spread over her body, a slight chill remaining on her nose.
Elouise saw only one server, who said nothing about the grey cat that followed her inside or the faded bruises on her face. She silently thanked both God and the server, walking further in. Although this wasn’t the first time that she and Dante had come into the restaurant, it was the first time they had seen this particular server, so whether or not he would express suspicion had been a concern.
“Hello,” she smiled softly, tucking her hands into her jacket pockets to both warm them and get her wallet.
“G’morning,” the young man greeted her back, curiously assessing both her and the cat.
He asked her how she was doing, and she responded by remarking that she was “as fine as she could be at six a.m.” He laughed quietly at this before taking her order: a small cappuccino and a muffin — any muffin would suffice.
Oh… and maybe a small dish of milk. He didn’t charge extra for the milk.
Once she had her mug and her muffin on a small white plate, Elouise sat uneasily in the corner booth, keeping her back to the wall and her front to the door. Dante rubbed against her legs as he drank from the dish of milk she had set on the ground, and she picked up the newspaper on the table and began to skim its headlines, hoping she wouldn’t find what she was looking for… sightings.
Sightings of men in grey and of teenagers looking as if they were beaten within an inch of their lives, gasping for breath and covered in dark bruises and scarlet gashes.
She remembered the first time she had seen them — the men in grey, and she’d never forget when she was one of those teenagers, battered to the verge of death and gasping for the air that just wouldn’t enter her lungs.
When the grey men first came to her, she had thought that they were strange and benevolent creatures, but throughout the time she had spent with them, she learned otherwise. She never knew if they were human or something else entirely. But by the way that they had treated her and the other teenagers they had come to — had selected — she guessed that if they were human, they had lost their true humanity a long time ago.
Thinking about her time spent being used as a test subject and an informant made her blood run cold, goosebumps spreading across her skin. She glanced up from the newspaper to the door to reassure herself before looking down again to finish scanning the headlines. The only thing she could hope was that she wouldn’t see news of a dark-haired boy turning up the same way she had a few months ago — beaten beyond recognition — or even found dead with “no leads at this time” and with no leads ever to come.
There were times that she felt guilty for leaving the Pacific Northwest, for not waiting for her own dark-haired boy at the bus station. She felt guilty even though she knew that if she had waited, she would have been caught again, likely not to be found this time… Or to be found. Dead and unrecognizable.
But what else was she supposed to do when she saw the grey men across the street? When she saw the lights flickering in the street lamps above her? What else should anyone do when they have to choose between being detained by a dangerous, unnamed group or barely escaping with their life?
Still, he was who she missed the most, who she worried about the most. Although now she wasn’t sure if she wanted him to find his way to where she was now. If he did show up, she wasn’t sure she could trust him… Not now. Not after it had been a few weeks. If he showed up, she wouldn’t be sure if she could tell if they had gotten him again. Or if he was even real.
Her hands shook as she took a drink from the mug, the taste of burnt coffee running down her throat. She wondered if her hands would ever stop trembling. If she’d ever have a sense of security again.
When she finished her muffin — cranberry and white chocolate, a mixture she never would have combined herself — and drank the rest of her coffee, she slid from the booth in the diner and walked back out into the winter air. Dante followed directly behind her, padding silently over the layer of snow that coated the otherwise colorless earth.
It only took her a moment to collect her backpack, to roll her blanket up and secure it to her bag, and to clear out of the motel room. She dropped the rusted key to room 09 off in the main office, which had been unattended since she arrived and was as quiet as a cemetery at night.
Next thing she was at the bus station, paying for the cheapest possible ticket she could in cash and clambering onto a dirty bus to leave the small town on the outskirts of northern Minnesota.
On the bus ride, Elouise fell into an uneasy sleep. She knew that she wasn’t fully asleep, nor would she feel any more rested, but it was something to keep her thoughts from racing, as much as it was an excuse to avoid talking to the rest of the strange wanderers on that early morning bus.
She should have known better than to sleep. With her backpack strap wedged between her foot and the floor, she was assured that here things wouldn’t be stolen, but theft wasn’t what she should have been worried about.
Even with Dante sitting on her lap, awake and alert, it wouldn’t matter if something was to happen. He was, after all, just a small, grey, domesticated cat.
“You should’ve picked a less conspicuous jacket, Elle,” a gentle voice roused her from her half-sleep, and she immediately sat up, startled, and moved as far from the aisle and as close to the window as she could, staring with wide eyes at the dark-haired boy beside her.
“Leo,” she breathed. In her lap, Dante stared at the boy suspiciously. They both knew him, knew Leo, but that was what made him all the more dangerous. That they knew him. That she had left him.
The blonde girl voiced her distrust as she looked at the boy, wary of his presence and suspicious of how he had caught up with her. “When did you get on this bus?” She asked abrasively.
Leo’s brown eyes had always been comforting. They had always felt like home and had always reminded Elouise of a smoldering hearth. Even when she knew she couldn’t trust him, she found comfort looking into his eyes, taking in the rest of the features of the dark-haired boy beside her — from his half-hearted attempt at a playful smile to the rather prominent black-eye on the left side of his face.
Dante growled lowly, grey ears pressed against his head and tail puffed up, staring with a deadly glare at Leo.
“Couple of minutes ago,” he responded, leaning against his seat as he looked at her, his gaze assessing her, taking in everything he hadn’t been able to see since she escaped. “You were doing a good job at disappearing, y’know? I almost couldn’t catch up with you.”
She didn’t know if she was uncomfortable or if she was nervous, but she leaned back against her seat anyways, trying to at least act relaxed. Trying to act as though she was in control. “That was the idea,” she remarked off-handedly.
“Well,” he began, seeming to be at a loss for words. He moved his arm up to rub the back of his neck awkwardly. “I missed you.”
“I bet you did.”
Elouise missed him too. Far more than she’d admit aloud. And when she thought about it, she realized that she had worried about him more than she had missed him. She certainly wouldn’t admit that aloud either. But maybe she would have if he didn’t have that black eye. If he hadn’t taken two weeks to catch up with her. If he hadn’t have missed their bus out of Washington.
Although it seemed like he was trying to remain playful and lighthearted, she could see the hurt in his eyes. No matter what he said, she knew what he was really thinking. He was wondering why she hadn’t waited just a few more minutes. He was thinking about how she ran, abandoning him, even though he was so close to the bus station. He was choking feelings of abandonment just as much as he was trying to pretend he was the same as he always was — flirtatious and all-too-friendly.
But the black eye was his tell.
It was all Elouise needed to see to know that he was compromised, that he had been caught again, that he wouldn’t voice his feelings of betrayal or the things he was really thinking because he couldn’t. Not if he didn’t want another black eye.
Or a broken nose.
Or a snapped neck.
“How long are you going to stay on this bus?” He asked softly.
Elouise had planned to get off after a few stops, maybe in the middle of nowhere, maybe in the biggest city she could. But now? Now she was thinking of staying on it forever. Nothing could really get to her if she didn’t get off the bus. Not really.
“A while,” she remarked coolly.
Leo looked concerned. She couldn’t be sure if it was concern for her or concern for himself, but it was true concern nonetheless. Seeing that concern, she realized she was faced with the decision of going with him or continuing on paranoid and alone… again.
She exhaled, swearing as gently as one can swear. “Or whenever you do, I guess,” she finally said after a brief silence.
How long could she prolong it anyway? She had been running from the inevitable, and eventually, she’d have to face it. It wasn’t something she could avoid forever.
“Oh.” His eyes closed.
Elouise would never understand that response. She knew that he didn’t want her to go with him — not really, but she also knew that if she didn’t, it was likely that he wouldn’t live to see the next week. To see the sun, to feel the steam that comes with an exhale in winter, to hear the crunching of footsteps over white patches of snow.
If Elouise didn’t go where Leo was going, where the men in grey wanted them both to go, she believed that Leo was going to get more than just a black eye. That he wouldn’t be alive a whole lot longer. Not in this world at least. And as self-preserving as she was, she knew it would kill her to know she could’ve stopped her dark-haired boy from dying.
“Wherever you go, I go,” she mumbled, unsure of herself. Dante hissed from her place in her lap, and she could tell he didn’t like the sound of that. She knew that putting herself in such a vulnerable position was a horrific idea. Hell, her cat knew that it was.
She had already left him once before, and at this point in her journey, she wasn’t sure what she should do… if she could live with herself if she left him again.
“I don’t plan on leaving you again.” Elouise felt that she only said this to satiate the guilt gnawing at her, to ease some of the unease she had been feeling endlessly. But wasn’t that the only reason anyone said anything like that? To satiate their guilt? Wasn’t that how humanity worked?
Leo’s large hand covered hers, pulling it over towards him. “The next stop then,” he breathed. His eyes were filled with an emotion Elouise couldn’t name — one she wasn’t sure she ever wanted to be able to name.
It had been maybe thirty minutes when the bus screeched to a stop.
The pair slowly exited, Elouise shouldering her backpack and picking Dante up to carry him instead of having him follow her like normal.
In this place, there was more snow on the ground, both hers and Leo’s footsteps coming out in muffled crunches. She couldn’t remember if the bus had been heading north or south, but she figured if it was north, it must not have been too far. There was no way they were in Canada, but she felt like they weren’t in a place she had ever been before either.
They walked in silence through an eerily empty street, seeing no one as they progressed. It was when they reached the outskirts of the desolate town that Elouise saw the forest ahead, decidedly grey and void of color in an almost unearthly way.
As they ventured into the colorless forest, Elouise became distinctly aware of her pink coat, thinking that maybe she should have gone with something less conspicuous.
The further they went, the more she felt Dante tense against her, glancing down to see the fur along his spine standing up and his ears pressed back. She felt the hair on the back of her own neck standing, goosebumps pricking her skin, but this time she didn’t think it was from the cold.
Elouise and Leo pressed forward for what seemed like ages as the sun moved lower and lower in the sky before coming to the edge of the forest. There stood a greying shed slanting towards the colorless expanse of trees.
“This is where we’re meant to go, Elle.”
The dark-haired boy’s hand reached towards hers as he led her towards the front of the building. The closer they got to the door, the more uneasy she felt. In her arms, Dante was uncharacteristically silent, suspiciously eyeing the shed.
“But we have to make a choice,” Leo spoke unsurely. Elouise didn’t need to ask what his choice was. She knew he couldn’t keep trying to escape, outlast, outrun. It was exhausting.
She stood beside him, gently placing Dante down on the cold ground.
It only took her a moment to realize that, while there was snow around the shack, there was none in the field adjacent to it. The field was filled with more color than anything they had passed since getting off the bus. It was bathed in golden light, long grass swaying in the breeze she could see but couldn’t feel against her flushed cheeks.
The young girl kept her gaze on Leo, taking in the features she had been missing and worrying about. She took in his warm brown eyes, marred by a black eye and an emotion of almost-defiant fear and decisiveness. She took in his dark hair, the way it barely moved in the breeze that she herself could not feel. She took in the softness of his features, the distinctly youthful and boyish parts of his face that made her remember that they both were young. Too young to have seen as much of the universe as they had.
Elouise leaned forward, wrapping her arms around Leo’s tall frame, her pink coat and golden hair contrasting against his dark clothing and dark hair. She didn’t know what she wanted to do, what choice she wanted to make, but she did know that she didn’t want to let go of him in this moment. She wanted to keep holding him, having his arms around her in a moment that couldn’t be erased by time… or by anything else.
But she let go.
His path wasn’t hers.
She watched as he gave her a sad smile, a smile he didn’t even try to make into the half-teasing one he had on the bus. He stepped away from her slowly, his decision made. He knew what he was doing, where he was going, how his journey would continue.
She watched as he walked to the door of the greying shed, pushing it open as he was bathed in grey light—coated in a fog that billowed out from the door in an all-encompassing manner. For a brief moment, she could see the silhouettes of the men in grey beyond the doorway, their figures blending into the fog in the sort of way that makes a person question if they ever really were there in the first place.
She watched as he gave up his right to choose. And as the door closed behind him, she was left with silence and a feeling of sadness… and a choice to make.
Outside the rickety shack, its walls grey and frostbitten in the late November air, Elouise faced the golden field, watching the breeze as it made the beige grass dance for miles and miles.
This field went on forever.
At her feet, Dante sat upright, his feline gaze upon the same thing as her own — upon the infinite field.
Leo had already entered the shack with the frostbitten walls, meeting whatever fate awaited him behind its secretive doorway and in that enigmatic grey fog.
She had told him she’d go wherever he went. She had told him she wouldn’t leave him again. She had told him a lot of things.
“Dante, I think you’re the only one in this world I really trust anymore.” Her blue eyes remained fixated on the field, the imposing, grey world behind them gnawing at her very soul.
“God, I wish you could speak,” she mumbled.
If her cat could speak, she probably could have avoided this. Avoided everything. He somehow seemed to know a lot more about the universe than she did, and she figured if he could speak, she’d know what choice she should make. She would have known a long time ago.
As Elouise stood there, she felt as unsure and uneasy and anxious as she had for what seemed like ages.
She thought about how she had told Leo she wouldn’t leave him again, but she knew she wouldn’t be leaving him this time. Not really. He had chosen to go where his journey had led him — where the men in grey had been leading them both all this time — and he had gone on without her… but his journey was not hers.
If Leo was still next to her, completely unscathed by the violence they had seen in their shared journeys, the same as he had been before it all really began, she had a feeling she knew what he would tell her. “We bloom out of the choices we make. Just as easily as we can rot by them.” Something told her that if Dante could speak, he’d say the same thing. Because to Elouise, Leo and Dante had always seemed similar, despite the two of them being entirely different species.
A puff of steam formed in front of her as she exhaled. “Alright, Dante,” she smiled down ever-so-slightly at the grey cat, at her protector and the only creature left on Earth she trusted anymore. “We really oughta get going, huh?”
She knew that Leo’s decision would send him down a different path than they had been on before. She had a feeling that in that grey shed with the grey light and the grey men, he’d be safer than they had been in this world, as colorless as both places were.
It’s the choices people make that color their stories, that make them either deteriorate or grow. It’s the paths they choose that propel their journeys forward. And it was there that Elouise made her choice — forged her own path.
With her dark-haired boy in her heart and without looking back, she took a step into the endless sea of swaying, golden grass, the cold winter sun setting at her back and bathing her pink jacket in a rosy light. The rest of the world was spread out ahead of her with open arms, and she felt more real than she had in a long time — more tangible. She felt a sense of sureness and of peace that she hadn’t felt in an even longer time yet. And she would never look over her shoulder again.
Lydia Gazelka is coming to the end of her senior year at Maranatha Christian Academy in Minnesota. She found her love of writing at a young age and has continued to develop it through the years along side her numerous other interests. She finds much of her inspiration through these interests, and through travel, humanity, and nature. In the future, she hopes to do as many things as she can, continue traveling, and keep up writing.