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ashes of a life once lived

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Something was not right. May couldn’t explain why, but that feeling sat heavy in her gut, curdling like milk gone bad and leaving an equally unpleasant sour aftertaste. Something had happened, something more than just having a spaceship appear in New York City again, an eerie déjà vu of the last time aliens had visited Earth six years ago.

Then some of the people on the streets around her started to disintegrate, to turn into dust before her widened eyes. A slice of panic stabbed her, piercing through her shock at the impossibility she was witnessing. Without conscious thought, she pulled out her phone. She had to make a call.

She had to call –

She needed –

Who did she need to call?

There was… There wasn’t anyone. Ben had left her a few years before, and he was the only one she would’ve called in a time like this. When the world didn’t make sense anymore, when people with strange abilities popped out of the woodwork year after year ever since that fateful day when Earth learnt that aliens were real.

But Ben was long gone. So why? Why did she feel this desperate need, this deep-rooted instinct to call… to make sure… to…

She gave her head a little shake. It was because the world was being turned upside down before her yet again. It must have been Ben she wanted to call, even though she had had time to come to terms with his death. But in such trying circumstances, she must have fallen back onto old, comforting habits.

She must have.

…right?


 

When she reached home, too early for a normal day (but it wasn’t a normal day), she stared at her surroundings from the doorway. Everything was familiar to her and on a day when it seemed like an alien invasion was threatening New York once again, when she had seen people, strangers, turn into ash in the wind, familiarity was something she craved – the closest thing she had to comfort in these last few years without Ben.

She stepped further into her home, took a turn into the kitchen. And froze.

On the dining table, there was a bowl of half-eaten cereal, as if its consumer had suddenly upped and left because they were running late. They were Fruity Loops.

May hated Fruity Loops. They were nothing but processed sugar.

Why would she ever buy it? Much less eat it?

Besides, she was certain that she’d made herself a BLT sandwich for breakfast this morning, as well as a cup of tea. She could clearly recall all of that. So why couldn’t she remember the reason that there was a bowl of half-eaten Fruity Loops on her dining table?

Confused, and more than a little unnerved by the innocuous-looking items in her kitchen, May went to clear away the bowl and its now-soggy contents.

Yet despite how much she hated the cereal, and how she knew she wouldn’t ever take a single bite of it, she just couldn’t make herself throw away the opened, half-empty box of Fruity Loops that she found in the cupboard.


 

The next few days passed with a quiet sense of unease. Something had happened. Something big. Something that had shaken the foundations of the universe. Something that left the governments all the world over scrambling to make sense of things.

To make sense of how half of the world’s population had just disappeared like in a bad horror movie. But yet, it was their reality.

Frustratingly, she still couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was different about her own life now. It was all familiar, and yet she could feel that something was inexplicably off, like the axis of her world had tilted just a millimeter off center. It was like she was playing Spot the Difference but with her whole life instead, with the demarcation point being the day half of Earth’s population turned into nothing. But no matter how hard she tried, despite knowing that something wasn’t right, it kept slipping out of her grasp, disappearing out of the corners of her eyes, falling away into dust and scattering with the wind.

Her home suddenly felt too empty for herself, too quiet, and yet she had to have been alone since Ben died. She should have had enough time to get used to it. But… but instinct told her that she hadn’t been alone, that it had never been this quiet, that something (“Someone”, her mind whispered but she could never quite catch that thought and so it slipped away, unheard) was missing.

Something tied to that box of Fruity Loops that she still couldn’t bring herself to throw away.

Something tied to how she kept wandering towards the biochemistry section of the local bookstore when she wasn’t noticing where she was going, and science had never been her strong suit nor a great interest.

Something tied to how she sometimes found herself walking towards the extra room across the kitchen and then stopping short of actually opening it.

There was nothing significant about that empty room.

…was there?


 

Just over a week since that fateful day, she received a call from a number she didn’t recognize. It was also the day when everything changed for her once again.

“Hello, May speaking?”

“Uh… hi, May. This is… um, Tony. Tony Stark.”

For a moment, May thought that this was a prank call. Because why would Tony Stark (billionaire, Iron Man, Tony Stark) actually be calling her? Then she remembered that she had actually met the man before. Tony Stark had sat on her couch and had eaten her meatloaf and… and…

Why had he come by? There shouldn’t be a logical reason for them to have met.

But she knew they did. She remembered it. She just didn’t, couldn’t remember why.

“Oh, hello, Mr Stark. This is… kind of unexpected…?”

“I know… But I wanted…”

Something was different with this Tony Stark. If it truly was Tony Stark whom she was speaking with. She felt that it was, but why, why did he sound so… sad?

I’m sorry,” Tony Stark whispered, his voice cracking and May could hear the guilt weighing each and every syllable down. “I’m so, so sorry. P-Peter… he…”

“Who’s Peter?” she asked, even though it was rude to interrupt someone. But a need had gripped her and she couldn’t help herself.

The name had struck her, like a lightning bolt. It was such a common name, and yet it shook her for reasons she couldn’t comprehend.

“Who’s- You… you don’t remember?

Stark sounded stunned by her question, but before she could reply, she heard him utter a soft “no” just before the line cut off. That one word was laced with so much raw anguish, so much naked grief that May found herself sitting there on her couch, phone still held to her ear, and her cheeks wet with silently falling tears.


 

Peter.

She clung to that name, somehow knowing that it was an important name even though she still didn’t know why it was important.

But she was beginning to see that it wasn’t a something that had gone missing from her life. With that abrupt call from Tony Stark, it had given her a clue. Someone was missing from her life. Someone had disappeared from her life so thoroughly, she couldn’t even remember them even though she knew with a certainty etched deeply into her heart that there were parts of the foundations of her life that had gone missing.

She wondered if she was the only one. She couldn’t possibly be the only one, could she?

No, she needed to know more. So, May did something she knew she rarely did Before: she went onto the Internet, and she started to search. And she was right. She wasn’t the only one. All over the world, there were many accounts of people feeling an inexplicable sense of incompleteness. Of people having things in their homes which they would never ever thought they would own, and yet being unable to throw them away. Of people being overcome by sadness over once innocuous sights, sounds, and smells (a baseball cap, the color yellow, the scent of lavender). It was a global phenomenon, and the world was grieving even as its citizens sought explanations.

She wasn’t alone in feeling the way she did, but she was possibly the only one with an answer within her grasp. If she dared to reach for it.

Peter.

Such a common name, but it now brought with it a swell of jumbled emotions. With her heart in her throat, she made herself head towards that empty, extra room. She came to a stop before it, found her hand trembling as she reached for the knob. She almost wanted to turn back, but she had to know.

The knob turned easily in her grasp, and she pushed the door open.

Before her lay not an empty room as she had thought. It was a bedroom, a bedroom of a teenage boy. There was an intricate structure made out of Lego bricks in a corner, socks sticking out of a partially open drawer, piles of science textbooks on the study desk. As if in a trance, she stepped into the room, her feet taking her towards the desk of a boy who lived in her home, a boy whom she couldn’t remember and yet her heart was aching more than ever.

There was a half-finished card on the desk. Happy Birthday was printed on the front. May found herself reaching out for it, flipping it open to read the inside. There were only three words written there:

Dearest Aunt May

Aunt May. She was an aunt. She had a nephew.

Dearest Aunt May

She clutched the unfinished card to her chest, her vision blurring as tears welled up in her eyes before they spilled over to run down her cheeks.

Her birthday was in another week. She didn’t remember having someone with her to properly celebrate her birthday since Ben died. But here was a card to prove otherwise. That there had been someone…

Peter.

She still couldn’t remember him. She still didn’t know how he looked like, how his voice sounded like… She knew nothing about this boy who was supposed to be her nephew. Yet her heart ached terribly, and her soul cried out like it had been broken… because it had, and she just hadn’t realized it. Until now.

May didn’t know how long she stood in the small, dusty bedroom, clinging desperately to the one physical proof she had of the existence of a boy named Peter even as she grieved. But when she had finally run out of tears to cry, she knew what she had to do.

She clutched her birthday card in one hand as she placed a call to Tony Stark, praying that he was still contactable at the number he had used to call her previously. An extinction level event had occurred, and from the fact that Tony Stark had called her, it meant that the Avengers were involved. And they could still be in the thick of it all, she didn’t know for certain. It still felt surreal that somehow, she had been drawn into the direct orbit of the Avengers, or Peter had been drawn into it… and she wanted to know all of it. She had to.

The call rang for long moments, and just when May thought it was going to ring out and that she was going to have to try again, the call finally connected.

“…hello?”

“Hello, hi, um… am I speaking to Tony Stark? This is May Parker.”

“May? I-”

She cut him off again, because despite wanting to know, she was also afraid. Afraid of knowing exactly what she had unwittingly lost. So, she had to get her words out before courage failed her.

“There’s a room in my house which I thought was empty. I opened the door today, and… and it wasn’t. It’s a teenage boy’s bedroom, and there was a card. A birthday card, addressed to me. From him,” she said, trying not to ramble, but wanting to let Stark know why she was calling and how important this was to her. “You remember him, don’t you? I want… I want to know everything. Tell me everything about Peter. Please.”

There was silence on the other end, long enough that May was worried that Stark would hang up without another word. But then Stark started to speak, sharing with her this brilliant, brave young man who was her nephew, who became Spider-Man through a freak of an accident (a spider’s bite of all things), who gained the attention of Tony Stark, Iron Man and then said man’s respect and love (even though she was almost certain that Stark would deny it if she asked). She learnt everything that Stark knew of Peter Parker, and it disappointed her that she still could not remember this wonderful young man Stark had described.

She still could not remember Peter, but the pieces of his life were scattered around inside of her home (her heart), in the ways she still did things unconsciously that only made sense if there was someone else important to her in her life. All of it was irrefutable proof that he once existed even if she didn’t remember.

Peter Parker is a boy she doesn’t remember but she knows him. In her heart of hearts, she knows him.

“Thank you,” she said after a long silence, after Tony had finished telling her all that he knew of her once-nephew, after she was certain she could speak without her voice breaking from the knowledge of how much she had lost (but also gained, because it was worse not knowing). “Thank you for sharing him with me.”

“H-how… Why are you thanking me?” Tony’s voice was incredulous, and so very broken.

“Because Peter is,” and her breath hitched as she corrected herself, “was a wonderful boy. I can’t remember him, I still don’t remember him even after all you’ve said… even though I know him. I do. But he deserves to be remembered for who he was. So, thank you, Mr Stark. For remembering him.”

Tony made a low, broken sound, and wherever he was, May suddenly wished that he was beside her instead. The other man sounded like he could use a hug. A lot of hugs.

“Don’t… don’t call me, “Mr Stark”. Please. That’s, that’s what he…”

“Tony,” May said instead, even though it felt strange to be calling a famous billionaire superhero whom she’d only met once by his first name. “Thank you for remembering him, Tony.”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t… I couldn’t protect him.”

“It’s not your fault,” she insisted, and she meant it. Truly. Earth hadn’t escaped unscathed; she had seen strangers turn into dust before her eyes, just like what must have had happened on Titan where Peter had been on that day when it all changed. “That… that Thanos, you said? It’s his fault. Not yours, Tony.”

“…I’ll fix it. I swear to you, May, I will.”

There was an almost manic quality to Tony’s voice now, and it sent chills down her spine. She didn’t know what Tony thought he could do, but… But for all that she hadn’t liked Tony Stark at first – mostly because of what she knew of him through the media she could admit – these two phone conversations she’d had with him had changed her mind.

Now...

“I’ll bring Peter back to you. I swear.”

She believed him.