The metal door scraped open as a man stumbled into the almost-empty bar. This converted warehouse wasn’t his usual spot, with its mixed clientele and rough edges, but it wasn’t safe to frequent a more elegant venue right now. Though sober, his steps had the unsteady quality of an infant as he made his way over to a barstool.
The woman sitting adjacent looked up from her drink, startled by the tension in his broad shoulders and the way his lips gripped each other in a tight line. When she saw his crippled leg, understanding and disgust flickered over the woman’s face and she scooted away.
The newcomer’s eyes shuttered at her contempt. He tonelessly ordered an obscene number of shots and drank them in quick, reckless succession over the next quarter of an hour. As he drained the last glass, he swiveled around to lean against the bar, waiting for the liquor to produce the numbness he craved. His lean frame began to relax, and the sharp pain filling his amber eyes slowly dulled to a steady, throbbing ache. He leaned towards the woman next to him and slurred, “Hey, d-do you ever feel like you’ve messed things up so, so badly?” His head lolled to one side in question. “Like, you’ve screwed up so thoroughly that it’s not even worth going back and trying to work things out?”
The woman studied the countertop. “Cause that-hic-that right there, is exactly how I feel,” he continued, fingers jabbing the air. “You see, there’s this-there’s this girl. And she’s so perfect, and amazing and beautiful and kind and you know what? Somehow, for some crazy reason, I was lucky enough that she decided to be my friend.”
His neighbor asked the bartender for her bill.
He reached toward her clumsily, protesting “No, no, no wait! You can’t leave yet! The best part of the story is next.”
A harsh laugh escaped as he let his head of tangled red curls collapse into his hands. “See, I wasn’t satisfied by friendship. I-I fell in love with her. And even worse...I told her I loved her.”
The bartender and the woman looked up sharply at his words, shock and disgust etched on their features. The woman whispered, “I knew he was one of the Marred. He’s not wearing the yellow badge, but the way he’s walking, it looks like one leg was crippled recently.”
The bartender’s lip curled as he replied, “It must have happened when he told that girl he loved her. I can’t believe there are people half-witted enough to do that.”
“Oh, I know what you’re whispering about over there, don’t think you can fool me! Yes, I was one of the Pristines, I used to look perfect and now...” He picked up his shot glass and shattered it against the wall. “I don’t! There! Are you fucking satisfied?”
He stumbled out of the bar, chased by contempt-edged silence.
The closet door shut behind her, a comforting weight against her back as she slid down to sit on the floor. She couldn’t breathe, hadn’t been able to all day. Every time she inhaled, it felt like her chest was wrapped in iron bands that kept pulling tighter and tighter. She tugged her thick black hair out of its tight bun and let her head meet her knees, staring at the silver detailing on her uniform.
How had everything fallen apart so quickly?
Write. I need to write, she decided, clenching her fists in affirmation. She pulled her navy-blue soldier’s notebook and pen out of her pack. The silver Council insignias stamped on both of them winked in the light, mocking her with the absolute obedience they represented.
Staring at the smooth white surface of the paper, she tried to find a starting point. Her mind felt battered by the constant replay of the radiant hope in his smile, followed by the hurt and anger in his eyes.
Everything had been fine and now it was completely, almost perfectly fucked up.
Maybe it’s easier to start with questions. Council knows I don’t have any good answers, she thought. Her pen began to scratch across the paper:
Do you ever feel as if you’ve wrecked a relationship so thoroughly that it’s not even worth going back and trying to make things right? That even if you were to pick up the broken shards you would only re-open your wounds, layering new blood over the old?
I am trapped in slow motion, watching as it fractures, fragments, falls apart, this one and only anchor of mine. I am caught between the arranged pairings that I know to be right for us and what he swears to be our right: affection, companionship, even love.
Her steely blue eyes paused on the last word, captured by its illicit allure.
How could he have expected her to give up everything, everything just to be with him?
“Sergeant!” A voice rich with authority called out from the other side of the door.
The cold of panic kissed her cheeks and hands as she stumbled to her feet.
Cursing herself for creating any physical evidence, she began to rip apart her writing and shove it into her mouth.
“You are ordered to report to Division III, Sector 5A by 1400,” barked the officer as he waited for her to follow his commands.
A pause followed, punctuated by the sergeant’s barely audible swallow. Her secrets travelled down her throat, settled in her stomach and lay in wait to make her sick.
The sergeant exited the closet, dark blue uniform spotless, face dispassionately blank, and walked briskly towards her assignment.
He stared at his leg in the mirror, marveling at the new expanse of ruined flesh. He could still see the change happening, immediately after the words came out of his mouth: I love you. He could still see her eyes, filled with shock and repulsion as she watched him leave behind life as a Pristine forever.
It was different from what he had expected, being one of the Marred. It was never supposed to be like this, alone, unloved, rejected.
He spat to the side, anger and bitterness filling his mouth.
For so long, he had worshipped the Marred. He’d been envious of their freedom of expression, their openness, their families rooted in love and choice. He could still remember his nursemaid Heather, the very first Marred he’d ever met. She had been so kind, so openly affectionate to everyone around her.
Once, when he was seven, his mother decided he was too old to sleep with all of his stuffed animals and ordered the maids to remove them. When he found his room desolate and empty without his beloved friends, he burst into tears and curled up on the floor. Heather had picked him up tenderly and held him close. She had whispered in his ear: “I love you.”
He had whipped his head around at her words, shocked to have heard them for the first time. Heather smiled sadly at his surprise.
She kept smiling even as he watched one of her hands wither with fascinated horror. He begged her to put it back, he didn’t want her to be hurt, couldn’t she fix it? She shook her head gently, and promised him it didn’t bother her.
A few days later, his mother introduced him to his new nursemaid, a stony Pristine named Ysabeau.
The Marred had seemed like the perfect antithesis to the Pristines, standing in beautiful opposition to the contractual arranged marriages and the stigma against articulating love for one another.
He wasn’t so sure that giving up all his status, all his privilege was worth it. At least not without her.
He whipped his head side to side in desperate defiance of the mess he’d made. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” His words began as a whisper and clawed up his throat into a raw, sobbing scream. “She loves me too, I know she does—she has to!”
A maze of fractures erupted as his fist slammed into the mirror. His body crumpled at the impact, sobs travelling through him like earthquakes of the spirit. Shards of glass, gleaming blood, and briny tears met on his hands as he wept for the dreams that could never be.
They hated each other when they first met, two beautiful little children, even by Pristine standards. He was always impulsive, charming his way out of trouble with an impish grin. She detested his antics, and kept her toes pointed straight forward on the path her parents had built for her.
Gradually his cheeky warmth and her steely determination gravitated towards one another, like opposite ends of polarized bodies. They grew from faithful enemies into inseparable friends, with each clash of personalities softening the sharp edges of their extremes. Even as they entered the perilous journeys of adolescence and young adulthood, they remained tightly intertwined.
He, the troublemaker and class clown turned teacher.
She, the self-disciplined success story turned soldier.
Even as their families promised them in marriage to two irrelevant strangers, they continued to grow closer.
Close enough to be noticed and to cause concern. Close enough that there were long moments of charged silence. Close enough that he dared to dream.
She pushed through the glass door of Council headquarters, body aching from training. Rolling her shoulders to ease the soreness, she began the walk home before stopping, captivated by two children playing in their front yard.
“Bet you can’t catch me, Sammy!” The little Pristine girl stuck out her tongue.
“Of course I can, Amy, I’m older!”
“Nana-ne-nana!” She darted away from her fellow Pristine, who chased after her, yelling, “I’m so gonna win!”
Laughing over her shoulder, the girl crashed into another child on the sidewalk. They tumbled to the ground in a pile of schoolgirl, limbs indistinguishable for a moment.
“Ouch! That hurt pretty bad, huh? I’m sorry I ran into you, I didn’t see you.” Amy said, reaching out a hand to pull the other girl to her feet.
“Amy!” Sammy’s voice rose in pitch as he rose up onto his tiptoes, urgency stretching his body tall. “Amy, stop! Don’t touch her, stop talking to her, can’t you see she’s one the you-know-whats?”
Amy’s eyes widened, horror coating her features. She snatched her hand away and ran as fast as she could back to Sammy.
“I didn’t know, I swear!” She promised him. “I couldn’t see her badge, otherwise I never would have...She’s really one of the—” Amy looked around uncertainly, “—the Marred? Why is she on this street? She shouldn’t even be here. Only we live here.”
The sergeant stood rooted to the sidewalk, watching the Marred girl pick herself up off the ground and walk away, arms wrapped around herself.
So this is what it would be like, she thought. This would be my child’s life if I gave in. This is what he wants me to sacrifice, not just my future but my child’s too.
She began walking again, as quickly as she could, trying to escape the decision that was now pressing in even closer.
How could he expect me to go along with this insane idea out of nowhere? He just dumped these irrevocable words on me and looked at me with those stupid, expectant, hopeful eyes. He gave up everything for me without even stopping to ask if I wanted him to.
Her steps took on an angrier rhythm against the cement. It was impossible, what he wanted, what he was asking of her, she decided. She couldn’t jeopardize everything just to satisfy his inane fantasy of love.
Bolstered by her resolve, she turned the corner of her street, glad to be almost home and done with these ridiculous emotions.
There he was, standing in front of her apartment, looking like he belonged there.
There he was, with the leg he had crippled for her.
There he was, as endearing and exasperating as ever.
There he was, the boy she loved.
“Raven!” He called out and stumbled up to her as quickly as he could, eyes travelling frantically over her face. But Raven was expressionless, the tightness around her mouth and eyes the only sign of emotion.
“Go home, Aspen,” she said flatly, her gaze sliding past him as if he was just another piece of sidewalk.
“Raven, please, you have to hear me out—I can’t let you give up on us, on what we could have together.” He trailed after her like a lost puppy as she strode towards her apartment building, through the lobby and into the elevator, lips tightly sealed.
Aspen followed a few seconds behind, his crippled leg forcing a slower pace. He shot his hand between the elevator doors just before they met, and limped his way in. “Can’t you see that I’ve given up everything, just for a chance at a life with you? We both know that we love each other, so what’s the use of trying to be happy in some frigid arranged pairing? Don’t abandon us. Not after years of friendship, of laughter, of memories. Please, I can’t...I can’t even imagine living like this—” he gestured to his withered leg, “—without you.”
At Aspen’s last words, Raven finally met his eyes. The steel in her gaze relented a fraction as she took in the dark circles pooling beneath his amber eyes, the disarray of his tawny curls, the way his tense shoulders and clasped hands traced lines of desperation.
Raven opened her mouth as if to say something, only to be interrupted by a cheerful ding as the elevator arrived on her floor. She snapped her eyes away and began to walk quickly towards her apartment, Aspen continuing his lopsided pursuit behind her. “Raven, please say something. I’m begging you, don’t give up on us, don’t leave me alone like this.” His voice dwindled to a rasp as he spoke, grief clinging to his words.
Tears slowly began to pool at the bottom of Raven’s eyes, but she didn’t break her stride, didn’t look back, didn’t say a word. Tears blurring her vision as she scanned her fingerprints, Raven stepped inside her apartment. She turned to face Aspen as he stood, waiting, just on the other side of the threshold.
“Please, Raven. Can’t you see how happy we would be? All it takes is three words—three words and we can be together for the rest of our lives!”
Raven shook her head, even as her mouth began to tremble and her breath grew shaky. Tears streamed down Aspen’s face, draining the hope from his eyes as they went. “Can’t you see it? Can’t you see how beautiful our lives would be?” He breathed, his words barely audible.
“Goodbye, Aspen.” Raven whispered, and she shut the door with a soft click.
Jana Gaskin (SC '25) is a first-year at Scripps studying chemistry from the Bay Area. You can usually find her reading a fantasy/sci-fi book, playing a board game, or in a dance studio somewhere. She hopes you found something new or eye-opening in her writing.