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Torpid Smoke

Chapter Text

It had been awhile since she saw Norman.

The realization came with a start earlier in the day, as Emma helped unloading medical supplies off the cargo trucks the Minerva allies sent them. They were converting the three-story building at the center of the town next to the squat red-roofed one they now used as a meeting center into a hospital. It was decided in one of the meetings that the older females—Emma was learning to omit the use of the phrases “ex-sisters” and “ex-mama trainees” off her vocabulary—were going to be their paramedics, making use of the knowledge they attained during the training as well as covering the dire need of people who actually knew what they were doing with syringes.

“Glad to know I get to heal people so that they can life as long as possible, instead of long enough to be harvested,” a woman that Emma referred to as Sister Miss Irina remarked with a small smile.

Miss Irina was a pale-haired, docile looking woman in her late twenties with a signature mole under her left jaw. She had earned quite a fame among the … the people (they had yet to find the right substitute for the “cattle children” term, but had gradually left it in favor of the bright future ahead) for her role in the mama trainees rebellion at the Grand Valley Plantation. With that slender stature and anemic, downturned eyes; Miss Irina gave one an impression of a teary, damsel-in-distress kind of character; and yet she was the main leader of the cause, uniting the oppressed highly intelligent women who were made to turn against each other to destroy the system instead.

Emma’s friends had often drew parallel between Miss Irina and Gillian—the tiny girl with cat-like smile whose intense disposition always betrayed people’s first impression—but as Emma put the last box on the pavement and voiced her agreement over Miss Irina’s remark, she noted how the woman reminded her so much of Norman.

The same gentle countenance, the same kindness that seemed to sway the air around them even when they were at their sternest. As Emma recalled Norman’s image in her mind (his pale hair, almost silver, paler than Miss Irina’s; his quivered smile; his right hand under his jaw whenever he was mulling ….), as she constructed him in her thought with the precision belonged only to those who knew a person very closely; that was when she realized she hadn’t seen the real Norman for a while.

And how long had it been, exactly? They first stepped into this town early in the winter. A soft melancholy caressed the nape of her neck. It was November, the month that Norman got shipped out all those years ago, and as if wanting to make up to that horrid feeling of loss, now fate had given her freedom—a true, absolute freedom— just at the same month. So many sacrifices had been made. So many blood spilled, both from the demons’ side and theirs, for neither hers nor Normans’ ideals the exact right way toward this victory.

And yet there they were, on a gray windy afternoon, standing at the gate of the town William Minerva had prepared for them for so long, waiting to be touched to life. The new promise had been sealed— not without a price, yes—but the remaining demons lived peacefully in their world and them cattle human got to life in this side of the world, forever peaceful, never to worry again that one day, in that place they had left behind, another generation of human had to endure the same grim life. William Minerva’s ever-thriving allies welcomed them with open arms.

Norman stood next to her that day. Norman on her left, Ray on her right; and at that time Emma could only be grateful that she was allowed the lives of the two of them. She sobbed, wiped her face with their hands clasped in hers.

Norman said, “Thank you, Emma. For bringing us here.”

After that drunken bliss came the task of organizing of this new life, something they had foreseen yet never actually bothered to think through. There was so much to take care of: the fair distribution of settlements, the forming of councils, the care of the young ones, food supplies, hygiene, education, law, rules. None of them had the slightest experience in this, not even the older ones from the training camps, for what use of the knowledge of democracy and town administration when you were going to spend the rest of your lives under the care of the farm? Minerva’s allies helped as much as they could, and still Emma—appointed to be one of the town’s council member—found herself running from one thing to the next, hands always full with overflowing responsibilities (and the troubles that came with it) that at one point she decided to put aside her personal indulgence. Oh, tomorrow, surely, I’d have lunch with Norman … I guess it can’t be helped, I’ll reschedule the lunch to the next weekend … He’s busy too, I have to be considerate ….

Now sunlight glinted in the tapering translucence of the branches’ last icicles and they still hadn’t had that poor, forgotten, probably thought they had abandoned it lunch.

So Emma sighed a little, went to the nearest community kitchen; and after some chat with Gilda who was in charge of the kitchen (Emma! Where have you been? Oh I see … It went well, I hope? Good, good … be sure to eat well or I will personally drag you here and your remaining ear wouldn’t like that, I promise you) she borrowed some containers, filling them with meat, sautéed vegetables, mashed potatoes, and—to Gilda’s insistence—a hefty amount of sticky maroon-colored confections; then headed to Norman’s place.

.

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“Emma!”

A pleasant luck indeed that when she crossed the dwindling red brick path dissecting the town’s sole park she came across her other friend she had been missing as much as she missed Norman.

“Ray!” She beamed, bounding towards him as he too closed the distance with long, determined strides. “Glad to see you here!”

“Same to you,” Ray smirked his usual lopsided smirk that made him looked somewhat arrogant. “Whatever are you up to? I haven’t seen you in ages!”

Emma told him the same story she told Gilda only twenty minutes ago, about the council and the responsibilities that came with it. “But it’s not just me. I never see you around town either.”

Ray combed his bangs, a habit he came to adopt whenever he felt sheepish. “Ah, yeah. I’ve been in and out of town for the past two months. I just got back, actually. They took me touring around some schools and libraries.” He was, after all, among those who were in charge of the children’s education, and was working on a suitable curriculum for them.

“That’s good to hear,” Emma hummed, touched his arm fondly. She had visited Ray’s school on a few occasions and witnessed first-hand of how well Ray took his role as a teacher. He always had some sort of maternal knack in him that made children flocked around him despite his sour, ill-tempered affectation, and he balanced well the sternest and tenderness that only those prominent mama candidates could match. Emma, while affectionate and popular among children, was prone to be too soft on them, too carried away.  

“By the way, I’m going to have lunch with Norman,” Emma showed him the plump brown paper bag, the bottom side blotched a little with grease. “Would you like to join?”

Ray shrugged. “Sure. Been awhile since I meet him.”

“You too?” Emma asked, arching an eyebrow as the two of them resumed walking. The puddle on the uneven pavement reflected the milky sky above, patterned with bald linden branches like skinny fingers. “Didn’t he work at school too?”

“No, never,” Ray shook his head, tightening the red scarf around his neck. “He was going to be assigned to the school, but the council—didn’t you know this?—changed their mind and assigned him somewhere else.”

“I didn’t know that,” Emma frowned, chewing her bottom lip. It wasn’t that she was at fault for not knowing—the council was a massive organization and they dealt with so many diverse matters. Emma didn’t have the time to pay attention to the things she wasn’t assigned in. And still a pang of guilt lingered, how come she didn’t know what her best friend had been doing ….

She sighed. Well, it was a good thing she decided to visit Norman today then. She would catch up with him, and even better—now that Ray was here too, the three of them could make some plan to keep in touch. Weekly outing, perhaps, or sleepover, or maybe visiting the neighboring town, she had been itching to see what they called the “movie theater” ….

They made it out of the park’s iron-fenced precinct and took a sharp turn to the left, where the road went downwards in a series of long, heavily sloping steps. They were nearing the edge of the town. Instead of elongated buildings jam packed side by side, the houses here were stout and sparse, like turtles scattered among the wide expanse of grey-white snow. Emma blinked to adjust her sight on such plain, monotone whiteness, finding the black twisted figures of roadside trees a relief to the eyes.

Norman’s house was a small polychromatic cottage a little further away from the street, with its own dirt path, now barely visible under the powder pile of snow, leading to the narrow wooden porch. It was an old style thing, almost fairytale-like in its antiquity. The walls were painted egg yellow and olive green, the windows round, charming things with delicate carvings of dancing rabbits on their frames. A chimney peeked out of its smooth, slate roof, like a tuft of hair of a particularly handful little boy. In the midst of grey-white late winter landscape, the colorful house was the first sign of spring.

Emma struck the rabbit-shaped door knocker. The metal meeting the flatted plate fitted on the door gave way a pleasant sound, a series of echoing knocks which promised one of a warm room and the scent of fragrant cedar wood.

“I think he’s not home,” Emma tried peeked through the window, but it was covered with thick lace curtains.

Ray huffed. “How come he’s not home? You have a lunch date together!”

“Ah, actually I didn’t tell him I was coming,” she admitted sheepishly. And then, in defense to Ray’s nasty look, she added, “Whenever we planned a lunch date, something always came up in the last minute and we had to postpone it! So I think I’d just snatch the chance when I have it!”

“Fine. Guess we have to wait then,” Ray plopped himself on one of the two chairs on the porch, separated by a small round table with an empty blue vase on it. Emma sat on the other, pulled out an oval transparent container from her paper bag and offered the content to Ray.

“Oh, it’s Turkish delight,” Ray commented as he picked one of the sticky maroon cubes covered in icing sugar. He popped it to his mouth and chuckled.

“What’s so funny?” Emma inquired with a mouthful, the gummy texture of the candy starting to melt in her mouth, releasing a rich taste of fragrant rose and sharp cinnamon.

“Nothing. It’s just funny to eat Turkish delight in the winter, is all,” he grinned to himself. Emma decided it was not worth to mull on the subject—Ray often amused himself with the inner jokes he shared with no one, chuckling and snorting at something other people found menial. Norman remarked that it might have something to do with Ray’s vast reading experience (must have something to do with his books, Norman muttered one day, when Ray got hysterical over an overripe cucumber in Grace Field’s private kailyard).

“So anyway, how’s things been doing?” Emma asked instead, tracing her thumb on the chair’s arm, following its abstract carving. Ray smiled, leaned back so his head rested on the wall behind. He closed his eyes.

“Good. Almost too good, I guess. Sometimes I’m afraid to open my eyes in the morning, fearing that this all is just a dream and I’ll be waking up in the hideout or in the woods somewhere. I’d thought—God, I wouldn’t be able to bear it again; and then I’d feel wrong to think that way.”

Emma nodded. Oh how she knew the feeling well, been tracing and retracing it in her wake. The new life she was living gave her none but an immense happiness, a peaceful state of being that she remembered only from her days of ignorance behind the walls of the Grace Field House. Giddily she kept this bliss close to her chest, fearing any slightest disruption that might have stolen it from her.

And yet at the same time she felt guilty for hoarding it. Maybe, just maybe, she was plump with happiness because she was gobbling the share of those who didn’t make it. Maybe she took, say, Barbara’s share of happiness, or Hayato's, or Phil's …. They had a memorial statue at the town square, a solemn, dignified piece of art; a winged child on the verge of flying, one arm reaching out to the sky, bronze gown billowing, face a blazing valor, the patron of bravery bearing the names of the children on its feet. A bouquet of flowers every day, placed along the rows of similar flowers (there were also baskets of food, tiny bears, mittens ….) but sometimes it felt like it wasn’t enough. This mime of formality respect wasn’t enough. Things couldn’t have happened any other way, this they all knew, but if only, if only ….

I wouldn’t be able to smile again, she remembered saying, back then when the thought of losing her friends terrified her so. It still terrified her, still haunted her; but there were also the smiles of her surviving friends, hope shining in their eyes. The quiet nights, falling asleep without having to worry about demons breaching. The little ones, too young to remember the horror of their previous life and would grow up normal and happy with only comfort in their memories. These, Emma mused, was worth smiling for, even when the ache in her heart wouldn’t ever heal.

And so she worked hard. That was how Emma made up to it. She worked hard, pushing through the obstacles, dodging them, breaking them; because whatever hardship she endured here wasn’t entitled to the word “hardship” when there were already so many lives lost for its sake. She worked hard, because this was the only way to show how grateful she was for the chance, and hopefully the lost children’s legacy lived through with her.

“Ah, here he is.”

Emma followed Ray’s gaze. Through the curtain of droplets, dripping from the tips of icicles hanging at the edge of the roof, they saw him. Norman was walking down the dirt path, warped in a trench coat a little too big for him, his white features making it as though he was a snow mink, risen from the cold hard soil beneath.

He stepped into the porch and stopped short as their gaze met. He blinked, once, twice, as if making sure he wasn’t seeing a mere haze, and then uttered, in a thin, dream-like voice,

“Ray. Emma.”

Emma’s chest burst with longing she didn’t realize had been holding, and she leaped onto him.

.

.

.

Emma tried to conceal her embarrassment as she met the state of Norman’s house.

Like everyone else’s it was scarcely furnished, filled only with the most needed necessities. A dining table with four mismatched chairs, a few plates and mugs on the drying rack, a cabinet with miscellaneous boxes. There were two doors adjacent to the front door, one leading to the bathroom, the other to the bedroom, the doors identical that an absentminded guest could have mistaken one over the other. He had no coffee table nor seating set, only a rectangular tassel rug in front of the fireplace.

But what differed Norman’s house from her own, one that made her thankful she didn’t invite him instead, was its intimidating orderliness. Scarcely furnished as it was, Emma’s house had managed to show the quality of being lived in. The slightly damp mat in front of the bathroom door, the coats hanging haphazardly on the rack, the sauce bottles on the table. Even when she took time to tidy up what little she had, there would always be traces of daily life—books stacked on the easy-access places, kitchen utensils that didn’t line up perfectly, blanket draped on the head of her sofa bed.

Norman, on the other hand, kept his place in a pristine condition. Had she not visited him before on the first day he moved in she would have believed that the house hadn’t been occupied. It was like a model room, made for show with the unnerving picturesque neatness; but it was cold and detached, untouched by human life. The cold lingered even after Norman turned on the electronic fireplace.

“Please make yourself at home,” Norman pulled the dining chairs for them. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you are coming. I have only water ….” He served them a jug of cold water from the kettle.

“It’s fine, Norman. Of course you didn’t know. Emma decided it on a whim,” Ray glowered at her, who was standing next to the counter, transferring the meal from the containers to the plates. He didn’t mean harm, however, for when she pouted, he smirked.

“Well it’s good following a whim if we end up eating together like this,” Emma answered, bringing the plates to the table. There was only one knife, however, so she cut up the meat bite-sized and served it with a fork.

The food was delicious and the atmosphere was pleasant. They caught up on each other’s lives, joking, teasing, laughing. Emma filled up on the town’s next plans, confirming that yes, they were going to keep the communal kitchen for a while longer, the council decided it was the best course of action compared to the alternative—the opening of grocery stores and thus, the use of currency—for many of the townsfolk were either too young, not confident with their trading skills, or simply never cooked anything in their life.

“Besides, eating together in the dining halls gives them comfort.” It was something familiar, something they could rely to. With this new world came so many new things. Rules that were common in this world were often bewildering to them (for example, the fact that they had to pay for almost everything they had. The Minerva allies were supporting them for now, but they had to learn to trade with the neighboring towns. And there was this complicated thing called citizenship ….). Eating together was something they had always done, in the plantations, the training camps, the hideouts …. When the world was starting to get confusing and jumbled, they only needed to wait for the clock tower to chime out the meal time. They would fill into the halls, meeting with friends, and finally a calming realization would rush in their spine, that they were not alone after all, that they were not the only one confused by all of this, and so it was okay.

It was okay, because they had friends here.

“Where do you guys usually eat?” Ray asked, raising his eyebrows. “I never meet you in the halls when I’m in town.”

“Well, I rarely eat in the halls these days,” Emma admitted, grinning sheepishly. She was on her feet round the clock so it was hard to keep up with the halls’ schedule. Most of the times she slipped into the kitchen, taking bits of leftovers or—when the kitchen staffs figured out her haphazard timing—the meal pack they had prepared for her, and ate whenever she could.

“Yeah, me too,” Norman nodded, but explained no further.

“By the way, what you’ve been doing lately, Norman?” Emma inquired, chewing on her broccoli. It was curious indeed, when she thought about it, the fact that she hadn’t heard anything about Norman. She knew more or less the whereabouts of the former Grace Field children, what they were doing, which task they were trusted in, but with Norman she was at a loss. She guessed that she never tried to find out because she was sure Norman had been busy, just like herself.

For a second Norman looked at her with this strange dazed expression as if he didn’t understand what she was asking. And then he blinked and smiled. “Oh, I’m not doing anything in particular these days.”

“Oh?”

“Some time ago I was asked to work on this constitutional project, but it’s finished now and they told me to take a break. So here I am, taking a break.”

That wasn’t the answer she expected.

Not that she was against Norman taking a break—if anything he probably among the ones who deserved it the most—it just that, to see him accepting it so willingly seemed odd at best, alarming at the worst. He was not one to willingly stay still. While Emma was the one dubbed hyperactive of the three, she knew for a fact that Norman was just as restless as she. He couldn’t stand not doing anything for too long—he would itch for a challenge, would actively seek for intellectual thrills. She remembered how, back when he was still a sickly little boy, she often smuggled him clocks so he could amuse himself by disassembling them.

And then there was that dazed look. Every now and then, as Emma or Ray talked, she noticed that Norman’s gaze would falter. One time he paid the talker a sincere attention, and the next he floated out of focus as if there was an otherworldly handsome butterfly fluttering in front of his eyes, that he had no choice but to shift his attention to this more enchanting, more charming sight. The butterfly teased him with its crystalline wings, twitching, swirling, landed at the tip of his nose; before it vanished into golden, sweet-scented dust. And then Norman blinked, and here he was again with them, missing a few lines of the conversation but otherwise intact.

“Well, if you are interested, we’re turning the building near the town square a hospital. We can always use a helping hand—if you’d like to, of course,” Emma smiled, touching his shoulder gently. It was thinner than she thought it was, her palm met with the jagged contour of bone under his shirt.      

Norman nodded. “Of course. I’d be glad to.”

When they were finished, Emma frowned at Norman’s plate, still more than half full of its content.

“I had plenty of breakfast this morning,” he smiled apologetically, “I’m not really hungry yet.”        .

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.

Norman offered rather timidly if they would like to play cards. Emma had planned on helping in the hospital again and Ray had wanted to clean up his class, but as they saw Norman stood there in his empty living room, a single thin rug the only furnish he had, they decided that they had had too much work lately and their colleagues would understand.

The three of them sat cross legged on the rug. Ray insisted that Norman sat near the fireplace—he too had noticed Norman’s thin wrist, its bones jutting out like cords under the pale taut skin; his wan complexion, too transparent for his liking. Emma sat close to Norman, their knees touching, as if she was afraid he would suddenly disappear into thin air.  

They played poker, Norman’s favorite, expecting him an easy win; but Norman was too distracted. It wasn’t too noticeable at first. He forgot that they played clockwise, so he skipped Emma’s turn. Or, in the midst of jesting, he forgot that he hadn’t taken his turn yet, offering it instead to Ray, who in his excitement also forgot that Norman hadn’t had it. He discarded his cards then took three instead of two.

But then it got to the point where he casually revealed his cards to Emma, asking what she thought his chances were, to which Emma responded with a bewildered look before Norman realized what he was doing. They had a good laugh, but as Emma glanced at Ray she was met with the same thin lipped worried expression. After Norman forgot the rule of the variation they were playing, they decided to change the game to blackjack, and then patience, and then, as Norman kept getting sloppier, Ray called for a crazy eights.    

Norman stood up in the middle of the game. Emma, busy with her penalty cards, didn’t notice until Ray asked, in an alarmed tone, “Norman, where are you going?”

Emma snapped her head up so fast her neck cracked. Norman was standing in the doorway, already shrugging in his coat.

“I’m going for a walk,” he answered, looking at Ray with a nonplussed look on his face, as if it was obvious that a person who was playing cards was allowed to leave the game without preamble to take a refreshing walk.

“How about the game?”

“You two can still play, can’t you?” Norman opened the door. A gust of cold wind swept into the room, sending in flakes of snow to the wooden floor around the door and messed up the cards.  

“Wait. Where are you going to—the park?”

“I don’t know. Maybe not the park. I’ll decide as I go.”  

And that was as much sign as they needed not to let Norman went out alone. Ray and Emma clambered up to their feet, hastily closing the small distance between them as Norman stared with a small confused frown, not understanding what all the fuss was about.

“We’re coming with you,” Ray announced, leaving no place for argument as he grabbed Norman’s arm as if preventing him from running away. But Norman only cocked his head and smiled, nodding slightly. Emma handed Norman’s gray, fuzzy scarf, which Ray snatched and helped put on with a little more force than necessary. “And wear your scarf, silly Norman. Else you’ll catch a cold.”

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How Emma had imagined this scene a thousand times.

The three of them went for an afternoon walk in a quiet, lovely road. There was no need to whisper, no need for tiptoeing; each brazen step they took was followed with a pleasant crunch of pebbles, a snap of branches; for it called attention to no creatures aside from a fuzzy-tailed squirrel who, ears prickled at the sound of the approaching humans, scampered up the grated trunk of the elm tree and watched with black, bulging eyes as they passed by. Beyond the murky sky a burst of feeble orange appeared, a shy sunset unable to overcome the thick loom of winter. Yes, how Emma had entertained this image for years, using it as a lever to her spirit when she lied down in a damp forest floor, trying to catch some sleep before a wayward demon sniffed the stench of her unwashed clothes.

Yet this wasn’t how she expected it to play out.

In her imaginations, the three of them were smiling. Laughing, even, engaged in pointless conversations that were pleasant exactly because of their lack of quality. In reality she did try to start such conversation, pointing a random shrub and wondering what flower it might bloom in spring, remarking at the flying pattern of the ravens; but while Ray did try his best to keep it going—in his endearing teacher way of following a childish babble—Norman wasn’t engaged. He muttered unintelligible responses, nodding noncommittally as Emma chatted his ears out—chatted her ears out, she could hear the desperation leaking between her words—but his eyes were distant, hollowed out at last. The butterfly came and stole him away.

Norman walked with the speed of someone whose frantic mind was preoccupied with everything but in the act of walking: unintentionally brisk, as if his instinct was urging him to outpace his own thoughts. The tallest of the three, he strode faster than his companions so that, although they started the walk as a set of trio dominating the width of the road, by the first fifteen minutes he walked a few good steps ahead. Emma tried to catch up to him but Ray held her by the arm.

“Don’t,” he instructed, eyes never leaving Norman’s retreating back. It dawned on Emma then that Ray was trying to figure out what was happening, and observing Norman without mingling with him might gave way some hints. She followed Ray's order, despite her screaming inner self.

Finally, after they passed a wooden hunting cottage with a creaky weather vane, Norman’s stride slowed, not out of fatigue but rather, as it seemed, the calming of mind. He began to take his walk more lightly, contemplating his routes in a childish absentminded way a young boy in their own lucky adventure (as his sitters, in the distance, screaming in distress and urged the maids to look for the little master).

Sometimes Norman turned his head this way and that, slowly, diligently, as though looking for a small object slipped a while ago from his pocket and only just now he realized was lost (and, since he didn’t find it, he continued onward). Other times, he halted—so sudden and without a particular reason it made Ray’s heart jumped in his throat—and simply stood there, in the middle of the road, back straight, hands in his pockets, facing forward as if waiting for an imaginary train to pass in front of him. Always, before Emma and Ray caught up to him, he resumed walking, the last car of the train passed and the plank lifted once more, still with that loud warning bell blaring.

Norman picked his route seemingly at random—he might as well flipped a coin to decide which next turn would he take—but also with such blatant precision that meant only one thing: he had been doing this for some time, this mindless walk around town; his invisible tracks embedded on the cold pavements and soil like permanent marks. He knew, for certain, which road led to where, never once met a dead end, and while they started by heading toward the woods at the outer edge of the town, after some twist, turns, climbs, and descends, Ray found—with a bemused humor—that they arrived at a narrow path right behind his school. He could see, scattered all over the windows, the paper insects his children made at yesterday’s craft session. If he tiptoed—or in Norman’s case, only straightened his neck—they would see the whiteboard at the front of the class. Ray ran in his mind the many times he teach, wondering if during one of those times he caught a glimpse of Norman’s silver head bobbing outside.

They passed the school, turned right into a nearly hidden trail between the small groups of pine trees (Ray had been passing it countless times and didn’t even know the trail was there), then crossing the double arches bridge that connected the south side of town to the north where the town council headquarter was. Norman took his time on the bridge, stopping as he arrived in the middle, next to the street lantern, peered out to the icy river below (Emma and Ray instinctively picked up their pace); but again, before the two of them reached him, Norman departed again.

They slipped into yet another hidden path, wedged between two buildings; traversed a vast field that would have been a winsome flower bed during spring but now merely an irritating snow pit. Emma glanced at Ray, asking with her eyes whether they had to stop Norman for good, but Norman had disappeared into the woods that they had to run after him before they lost track.

After another fifteen minutes (their shoes was soaked through beyond help by this point), they finally, finally arrived at Norman’s (hopefully) intended destination. It was the town’s only lake, the one Ray took his students to for a skating trip a few weeks ago (when the ice was still thick enough); but with the strange, ritual-like route they took it might as well be another lake entirely, on the other side of the world.

Norman sat on a bench at the edge of the lake. He looked up as Emma and Ray scampered toward him, and they found he had on again that dazed, whimsical look, as if he was sleep-walking, as if he had forgotten that he had brought his friends along with him.

Ray sat on his right, Emma on his left, and without cue they engulfed him in a hug. Norman tensed before he melted completely into their embrace.  

“Norman, do you come here often?” Emma’s voice was soft, cooing like a pigeon.

Norman’s gaze fixed to the lake, still clad in its frozen ice. “Yes.”

“So you like to go for a walk like this, huh?”

“Yes.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

A beat. Norman frowned, tracing back into his mind, then shook his head. “A while.”

“Where else do you go?”

Norman shrugged. “Places.”

It felt like talking to a stranger. Was he the same Norman they had a lunch with, or was there a gap in time—a minute or two—when Emma and Ray left him alone, and the real Norman was snatched away from them? Was it really less than four hours ago that they sat together in that table, eating, chatting, Norman teased Ray who slipped the term “my children” when telling stories about his students?

Yes, the realization jolted them like a douse of cold water beneath the frozen lake. He was the same Norman, the one who every now and then assumed this far-off dazed look, just a trickle insignificant few seconds before he blinked and came back to them. The same Norman who didn’t finish his food, the same Norman who had lost so much weight the shoulder line of his shirt sagged to his upper arm. The Norman who lost in a poker because he had forgotten the rules. This was Norman, and he had been walking in and out of whatever stupor he was in, but only now he went long enough for them to notice.   

Emma cupped Norman’s face—cold and dry to the touch—stroking it with the circular motion of her thumbs. It was gaunt, his cheekbones jut out starkly under his baggy, black eye sockets. A rupture in her chest. “Norman, are you alright?”

If it was the Norman she knew, he would have said a short, convincing “yes” (with a gentle reassuring smile that tricked everyone but the three of them). It was a lie, but at least it was a lie she was familiar with, something she had come to expect from him and hence, prepared the response for. She could nag him. She could yell. She could gather him in her arms, reminding him again and again that he wasn’t alone, never had to be. Norman was a selfless man of a thousand masks and she had learned to unravel them one by one until she unearthed the boy inside.    

But this Norman didn’t hide his face. There was no stern façade, nor sweet, self-assured smile. He looked at her with eyes so lost, a wild boy thrown into civilization not knowing what to do. An emotion so raw it was harder to understand than layer after layer of protective lies.

It was harder to understand, because the man himself didn’t understand it.

Norman put his hand on hers, and his answer carried a genuine, almost innocent confusion.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”