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Stepping Stones

Synopsis:

In which a boy goes missing, and a friend struggles to keep her head above water.


Author’s Note:

Hello! I'm Mnemosyne, but you can call me Nemo for short. :))

This piece was inspired by the song 'Grey Weather' by Gregory & the Hawk. It'd be cool if you could check them out-- they're super underrated.

Here's some brain food: I snuck in a bit of symbolism here and there. And here are three of them...

1. The name Mari means "sea of bitterness" or "truth".

2. The name Park means "cypress tree", and cypress trees symbolize hope and mourning.

3. There's a Filipino superstition that the souls of the dead would reappear in the form of butterflies or moths.

...anddd that'll be all! Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a good day <3


-


Doomed socks and rubber soles skid across wet pavement in a race against the pitter-patter of rain. The streetlamps cast kaleidoscopic, warm cones of light. Soft and hopeful gold and peach, bordered by the fathomless ocean of velvet that stretched out into the beyond.


“Hey!”


Her brain mimics the flickering lamp post that catches her fall. She tightly grips onto the dripping pole, willing herself not to slip.


“Mari!”


When she turns to reply, her face squashes right into the wall her bed was pushed up against.





Mari shifts onto her back, staring up at the origami paper cranes and cut-out clouds strewn across her bedroom ceiling.


Ah.


This again.


She sullenly reaches a hand out to her side, feeling around for the cool touch of her phone screen.


Sometimes, she couldn’t tell which was worse: the times where she thinks he’s returned or the ones where she’s tricked into believing that what had happened never did.


Mari adjusts her spectacles onto her nose bridge and blinks rapidly, the vague shapes around her starting to fall into place.


She glances at her phone clock and almost chucks it to the other side of the room.


...She would have slept for another two hours.


(She scrunches her nose up at the incessant, cheerful birdsong just out the window. The sun still shined, flowers still bloomed and people still laughed, despite everything.)


But at the thought of him waiting for her, Mari peels herself from her mattress and starts her morning routine. She wriggles into a ripped carmen red sweater, giving her sleepwear a blasé once-over before dismissing it with a wave of her hand.


‘Ambiguous loss’, was how Dad had so delicately worded it, during one dinner she had no appetite for. Nobody had any bones to bury nor an obituary to show for it, even to this day, so she has no idea why people were so stubborn with insisting otherwise.


Any and all traditions or rituals society had for facing loss are rendered absolutely useless.


So, instead, people moved around it, but Mari kept on lagging behind.


(Following the others felt like betrayal.)


On her nightstand is a box of chalk, and beside it is her alarm clock (neglected, in favor of her phone) and a small collection of varying stones.


She pockets one chalk before focusing in on a Mandala stone; a splash of swirling color amongst the sea of speckled gray. The paint is sticky on her palms.


She stalks down the winding stairs before slipping her feet into rubber slippers.


Now, for the moment of truth...


The front door creaks in protest.


A pause.


When the lights don’t turn on upstairs, she gingerly steps out into the break of dawn.


The April sky slowly undresses and redresses itself, skimming through tapestries of limpid blues and dark slate to pale pinks and blazing gold. She keeps her head bowed down and shoulders hunched, making herself small and innocuous. Muscle memory down mostly deserted streets, save for the few insane morning joggers. (But, she couldn’t judge, since she was here too.)


In the blink of an eye, she’s hunched in the looming shadow of the cemetery gates. Mari pushes past the rickety bars, leaving footprints in the fresh dew as she strolls past overgrown grass and freshly laid bouquets.


It used to creep her out, having to be amongst the dead, but she isn’t here for them.


She heads towards The Tree.


“Good morning, Park.”


It isn’t much, she thinks, but she hopes he’ll appreciate it.


Mari immediately sets to work, nesting the Mandala stone amongst its many prototypes. She mutters numbers underneath her breath, her eyes glossing over each river stone.


(Two… four… six…)


A harsh stroke of a paintbrush that seemed to grow heavier and heavier in her hand as each day passed.


(Eight… ten… twelve...)


A stone for each week where Park didn’t meet her at the front door to walk to school.


(Twelve. Had she miscounted? Surely it hasn’t been that long.)


Mari absentmindedly brushes a chalk dust-caked thumb across the writings on the tree’s base.


His name and year of birth, ending in an odd blob that was meant to be a question mark.


She writes over it with her pocketed chalk, refining the curves and lines of each figure.


Perhaps she should think of an epitaph sometime— nothing too serious, though, lest she makes a fool of herself.


(She envisions the flash of crooked pearly whites, tied together in knots with elastic bands, metal wires and bronze brackets.)


Never mind, she’ll at least try. She’s a rotten poet, but at least her attempts always make Park smile.

Mari hesitates to swipe one of the dried-up bouquets on the more faded graves, so she opts for the chrysanthemums that grow along the graveyard’s path instead. She picks out buttery yellow (his favorite) and snowy white (to vary the display, for her sake) blossoms and inserts the stems in between the Mandala rocks.


Park will like this too, she thinks, and then he can tell her all about that language of flowers she’s been meaning to bug him about when he comes back.


Soon, sunlight starts seeping through the tree’s foliage, casting dappled shadows onto her back: a warning that her parents would be up in an hour or so.


“Well, that should be enough for now,” Mari raises her hand in a lazy salute. “I’ll see you tomorrow, loser.”


She hovers over the tribute in awkward silence before doing an aborted movement with the empty air that she thinks was meant to be patty cake. Mari settles for lightly fist-pumping the mossy bark instead, trying to come up with the beginnings of the future secret handshake Park always bugs her about.


Oh well. They’d work on it.


Anyway, she wouldn’t have to keep at this for long; just enough for him to have something to return to.


Just.


Just enough for him to have a sign that someone cared.





The last thing she’d said to him was, “Oh, I’m loaded with last-minute homework tomorrow So… we’ll hang after you come back, yeah?”





On The Night, Mari closed her bedroom window shut, the stench of smoke and gunpowder dizzying her to no end.


The streets were alive with choruses of cheers and banging pots and pans, and the midnight sky was alight with explosions of color. She watched as a trio of middle-schoolers pranced along the asphalt road, waving their sparklers around and spouting made-up magic spells.


Paper wicks ignited, giving life to a momentary flame. Then, once it reached its climax, it fizzled into a puff of smoke; a display of transformation that she was sure Park would’ve waxed poetic about.


That is if he wasn’t so slow in getting to her house and honoring their New Year’s tradition.


(Something was wrong. She knew it down to her very core.)


When the dying growl and sputter of an engine sounded from the driveway, she practically hurtled down the stairs.


Park finally returned with his mom, thank God. It wasn’t like their neighbors to be so late, but he could totally make it up to her by eating dirt in a round of slapjack.


For one, slow, terrible moment that seemed to stretch into hours, she stared at the front door and watched it open.


It was only her parents.


Foreboding morphed into despair that swelled up in her chest, ultimately fizzling out into desperate stubbornness before it could even explode.


(It’s just a joke.)


The three of them piled into her parent’s bedroom. They… hadn’t done that since she was in elementary.


For a moment, they just laid down there, a mass of suffocating warmth, listening to nothing but the labored rise and fall of each other’s breathing.


(It has to be a joke.)


Mom broke first, and then they all began to cry.


When it became clear to the search party that they needed to take the surviving mother to the hospital straight away, they drove off without finding her son.


(Please. Please, be joking.)


They hadn’t recovered Park’s body, on The Night.


Or the next day, when people swam through the reeds and navigated through the litter at the crash site.


Or in the following weeks, even after ads and posters were put up and she had to sit through a somber school assembly announcement. Not even after classmates and teachers began to awkwardly move around her, just as they did with him.


They never found Park at all.





When stones are tossed into rivers, they’re supposed to return to the shore battered, yet smooth and rounded out. Instead, Mari felt like pumice, with sharp and rough edges and several holes that only grew and grew.





Park is still on Christmas break. Park is at drama club. Park is in Atlantis. Park’s a bit busy right now, try again later.


Mari drags herself back home, the consequences of less than eight hours of sleep beginning to take a toll on her.


She is the epitome- the poster child for having it all together.


She abruptly props her arm against a random garden wall, channeling her nervous energy into the tattered hem of her sweater.


She’s not going to cry. She’s going to cry. She’s not going to cry. She doesn’t have a good reason to. She’s no cry baby.


She cries anyway, vigorously rubbing her face with a sleeve. She allows herself six minutes before heading back home.






“I think I’m scared.”

Mari said, back in the frigid air of February, as she lathered dish soap across porcelain.

She had been staring at the window above the kitchen sink the whole time, leaving behind poorly-scrubbed dishes in her wake.

Mom hummed softly, drying a coffee-stained cup with a rag. A bleached yellow moth hovers near the glass pane. “Of?”

“Forgetting.”

Mom purses her lips at that. She vigorously scrubs at a stain on the fine china, leaving Mari to stew in her spiraling thoughts.

Mari startles as Mom suddenly sets the cup down with a quiet clink. “He hated tofu. Didn’t like the texture.”

“…Okra, too. He says it’s like eating snot.” Mari agreed.

The moth is splayed out against the window now, brown-speckled wings spread wide for all to see.

“To his credit, he never refused food. He didn’t like to waste things, I think.”

“To the point where he hoards these random things in his room,” Mari snorted, the sheer effort of doing so sending a hollowing pang straight through her heart. “He’s like a bird stealing things for its nest.”

The tap water ran down Mari’s hands, the soap suds giving way to tawny skin. “There was also a time where... I found his harmonica in the fridge. It was in between the PBJs and stuff. I don’t think he realized he had a sandwich in his pocket until he blew jam on himself.”

Mom stifled her laughter with a loud cough. “Maybe he was too busy to notice…?”

“More like distracted. Park is the least busy guy in the world. I found him following a snail for a good twenty minutes, once. He didn’t notice me at first, but when he finally did, he chased me around with the thing. Ick.”

Mom didn’t bother hiding her snort at that point, taking over Mari’s part of the chore. “Was that the time when you ran back home crying your eyes out, but he was the one with a scraped knee?”

“I- Mom, that was still a couple of years back, I think, after he moved next door from his old street. I was just scared that he was hurt bad.” Mari sputtered defensively, pink warmth blooming in her cheeks and creeping down her neck.

“But… honestly, we both panicked. And tried making bandages out of my sweater– my favorite one too.”

“As in the red one?”

“Yeah, and it was a really nice one too, so that was… yeah. He kept the cloth as his ‘lucky charm’, which is gross, by the way. But that’s his weird way of trying to cheer me up, I guess…”

The two stood in a more comfortable, amiable silence after that. Mari tried to ignore it when Mom lightly knocked their damp shoulders and elbows together. She wouldn’t dare to have fun, not when Park was…

But then Mom had cheekily splashed a hand into the filled sink, sending a spray of water in Mari’s direction.

To which Mari finally retaliated, ultimately resulting in an all-out war, unfinished dishes, a poor Dad who had just walked in, and two soaked, but smiling, girls.

When Mari looked up at the window again, the moth had gone.





As it moves with the river, sometimes the stone’s course is disturbed, or it gets damaged.


The marks that are left don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with the stone. It’s merely going through life, just like everything else.


It still doesn’t make the current any easier to navigate through, though… nor any less painful.


Pumice is the only rock that floats. Its edges and holes shape and lighten it so that it may overcome the forces that seek to drag it under.


It endures the waters until it resurfaces.





Dad arrives at her room an hour or so after she’d clambered over their fence and slipped through the kitchen door.


Mari had been sitting down on the floor, by that point. She’d just put everything that is Park on top of her undone bed like some kind of bizarre shrine. You know, as you do.


“Mari? You’re…” Dad began carefully, hovering by the doorframe. “...Up early. What’s all… this?”


She moves to sit down on the edge of her bed, fiddling with the frayed threads and uneven edges of her sweater.


She needs to do… something. Anything.


Mari reaches down for a dog-eared school notebook; one of many that she had to salvage from Park’s locker before the school could throw it out. She flips through the pages, squinting at the hasty chicken scratches.


Park would have left clues behind, right? Maybe a letter, or some kind of cryptic riddle, like the absolute cheese-ball he is. She’ll look closer, this time, because the only other alternative would be to…


Think. Think, there has to be something, somewhere.


Dad continues, his hands shifting around as he tries to find somewhere to comfortably place them. “Were… you the one who unlocked the front door?”


She leans back down to fetch another notebook and sees the sleeve of one of Park’s ratty hoodies peeking out from under one pile.


Her thoughts become like insects struggling in amber. She barely catches Dad’s soft huff of exasperation and the heavy thud of retreating steps.


(Mari remembers that specific shade of crocodile green passing by her in the hallway, yet she can’t seem to clearly picture the face above it. A mess of poorly bleached hair and freckles…)


“Mari.”


(...and light eyes that didn’t really betray much of what he was thinking at any given time. They differed, in that respect.)


A firm voice drags her back to the surface as ceramic softly thuds against laminated wood. The mattress shifts as Dad plops himself down at the foot of the bed.


She takes the mug from the bedside table, raising a brow up at her father. When did he go to the kitchen?


The mug was (yet again) Park’s, the edges chipped from age and (poor handling) love.


She had painted a poor replica of Eric Carle’s butterfly onto it, misshapen and not at par with eight-year-old Mari’s grandiose expectations. Nonetheless, Park always insisted on using it whenever he came over.


“I’m just thinking,” Mari tries to feign nonchalance, but her voice betrays her with that monotone numbness that she knows makes her parents squirm like worms on a hook.


She traces wobbly smiley faces into the condensation on the mug’s surface, trying to manifest the power to really smile again too.


“Do you… want to clean this up?” Dad murmurs, pushing back his frizzy bedhead. “I can help.”


Water. Water always helps, right? She takes a conveniently long sip.


“No thanks, I’m fine,” Mari says, eventually. She moves, anyway. “Actually, I don’t… really know why I brought this all out in the first place. Sorry.”


Dad weakly musters out the beginnings of another attempt at reassurance, but his voice dies out midway. They begin to gather up everything-that-is-Park into their respective places.


Eventually, Dad’s voice finds its courage again, starting off with a gauche cough to clear the cobwebs from his throat. “It’s… alright to be- to be sad, Mari.”


Why would she be sad? Sure, she misses him, but she'd only have to feel that way for a while.


“I’m fine.” Mari echoes, setting the mug back down. Dad makes a small noise, a little disapproving, so she tentatively adds, “You… forgot the coaster. Mom won’t like that.”


She waits for his familiar, lighthearted quip, but it never comes. He gives her a ghost of a smile, but he at least leaves her to bury herself in the Park-shrine-abomination-thing again.


Park’s neglected schoolbooks, hidden report cards, and wrinkled harmonica music sheets.


Park’s secret stash of caramels that made Mari pity his orthodontist.


Park’s films that he “accidentally” left and dismissed Mari’s attempt to return the cases by insisting that she could have them.


Park’s bestsellers and graphic novels, with post-it notes about his reactions or lines he thought she’d like.


Park’s spare box of hidden treasures that his mom sent over recently, including bits and bobs and a ragged strip of carmen red fabric-


Stupid. It’s stupid, so stupid, how that’s the thing that hits her, out of all things.


She unfurls the make-shift bandage, wrinkled and smelling of river water, and lines the missing piece up against her ruined sweater.


Park never went anywhere without that cloth, whether tucked safely in his pocket or bag or tied around his wrist.


Except, on The Night, when Park had been on his way back home from Christmas with relatives. Maybe he’d left his so-called lucky charm in the back of the car and the one time he didn’t have it with him he-


Wait, no, Park always brought an extra backpack for his stuff, which he would’ve been holding in his lap when- but they were only able to return the cloth and not her friend because-


It’s stupid, and he didn’t bring it with him, and out of all the things he’d forget, this was never, ever one of them, and so- and so-


Her heart lodges itself in her throat and her eyes burn and suddenly it’s so hard to breathe, why can’t she breathe?


Dad, ever so watchful, abandons cleaning duty to open his arms. She wordlessly takes him up on his offer.


His whiskers tickle her forehead, but she can’t bring herself to push him away. Mari nudges her glasses up on top of her head, wiping her nose and blotchy cheeks with the heel of one hand.


What is life without Park?


(Remnants of him were entangled in daily routines, in empty streets and in sunsets once shared, like a dandelion dispersing into thousands of seeds upon its ruin.)


She didn’t know. She doesn’t think she wants to, anyway.


The mattress shifts again, and she lets both her parents envelop her in their warmth before being tucked back into bed. Their muffled words fly over her head, despite her attempts to grasp at them with worn mental fingers.

She wasn’t in elementary school anymore, but this was another special exception, she thinks.


As she begins to drift, she somewhat registers Mom’s callused hands tying Park’s lucky charm around her wrist.


(The image of his face, gaunt and pale and entangled in river weeds haunts her. Is he still waiting for someone to pull him back up?)

(Would he hate her for giving up?)





Needles and leaf mulch crunch beneath rubber boots. Smooth, straight cypress trunks loom all around her and disappear into shadow on every side.

“Mari!”


A sliver of dreadful hope settles in her belly like a boulder, her knees wobbling with the sudden weight of it all.


Sucking in a deep breath, she turns around and runs straight ahead, following the trail of red thread tangled along low-hanging branches.


Overpowering canopies and damp moss bleed away into idyllic coastlines and tangy sea salt. A figure stands by the beach face, his bare feet planted firmly against the water’s push and pull.


Drenched clothes and sandy hair are plastered against blemished skin. Pale hands cup around chapped lips as the ocean roars alongside him.


“You’re going to be okay!”


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