They

One step.

It is not the first step. She’d been on this path for years, suffering the injustice of detours and blockages and deserts where there was nothing. Just nothing. Only her footfalls and the vague notion to keep going. Even if it was only an inch a day, the way must be forward.

Why? Because it was where They told her to go, just like they told you.

You know, the They that starts as a feeling when you’re little. “I want to be a grown up!” You don’t know why the words come out of your mouth but it seemed to make sense and everyone laughed and patted your head. Rewards. Child-like mentality morphed this veiled self-deprecation from the adults into a Good Idea and so it tried to get more pats on the head. You dress in slacks and dresses, putting on dad’s ties and mom’s lipstick. They approve. The adults laugh some more. It’s so FUN to be an adult!

Then They shove you into a classroom for 14 years and you really begin to wonder why you ever wanted to grow up. Oh no! Throw something shiny out there! Distract! Distract! Oh phones. Oh cars. Oh wonder! This is worth it. Now it is not your parents that pat your head but your peers. You’re in with them for having the newest and best; you’re in with Them too.

Go forward, sheep. Let us shepherd you. Have we done you wrong before? Here, have a little treat.

They smack us with sex and love and desire. Now there’s a new kind of shiny in our eyes and it’s a tangled web we lay down in the middle of. Be careful, They warn, showering us with condoms and birth control and lectures of abstinence. How dichotomous. They smirk as we walk away blindly. We’re content with the knowledge that we’re doing the Right Thing. We lay down on the web, spread our legs as the chemicals mingle with our heated blood and a thin tube of latex slides over and then in. We give up our last shred of innocence for it. Shiny, happy sweaty bliss.

It’s natural! They say. God says it. Science says it. Chemistry and Physiology say so too. It’s supposed to happen. Don’t blame Us if accidents happen.

What was that? We hear whispers of the girl who dropped out of school because of an “accident”. Her friends don’t know what happened to her. She just got quiet one day and left. That boy in the locker room too. He has bruises in places boys should not have bruises. He winces when he moves and he won’t meet your eye. What–

Shhh! Shh! It’s okay! Let’s move on! See here? See that shiny seal on your diploma? That’s your ticket out kid. Ticket to better!

There’s better? Show us!

Okay. We won’t look back. It didn’t happen to us so we should look ahead right? Right. And now we’re free. Free to pursue our dreams! We’re grown ups now! But…what do we do? In the board game of Life we can either start with a career or go to college and pursue our dreams. Money is the new shiny. Do we want money now or potentially more money later with the added bonus of having our dreams come true (and thousands in debt but it’s worth it, right? Right.)

They don’t care. As long as its money. It’s the ONLY way to go. We have green blinders on with dead men’s faces glaring at us. Make money to get your own place They say. It’s freedom from your parent’s entrapment. Key word here: Freedom. No more oppression. You are your own boss! Only figuratively though. They know who the real boss is but they’ll let you believe other wise for a little longer.

Progress will be slower now. They sigh in sympathy and pat our heads again as our faces fall. There won’t be instant fame and riches like the story books say? Like Instagram and Twitter say? No, little sheep. Only work. We accept this because it’s comfort. Billions have walked this path before us and paved the way. It’s easier for us now than it was back then. It’ll be worth it, They say. Just wait and see. This is freedom! This is Life and we can live it within the parameter’s of our own determination. Go get your own place and fill it with Our stuff. We mean YOUR stuff, but really it’s our. You can make it your own though. DIY art work for the walls and cover the stained second-hand couch with crochet blankets. Call your chipped and cracked mugs “shabby chic” and display them on a shelf you made by yourself. Whatever you need to tell yourself to feed the machine.

What machine…?

We mean your soul! You SOUL. Slip of the tongue. Never you mind.

We’ll forgive you, They said, for having the thrift store crap because we know you’re just starting out. But you need to keep up with the times! New! New! New! Here’s a perk to put a smile on your face. You’re a freshly sheered sheep, bewildered and lost so here, let us give you a security blanket. Have a credit card or three. It’s free money! Why don’t you try it out, hmm? A little present for yourself. How about that laptop? You’ll need one for sure.

College or career? Money. Either way it’s still slavitude. Oh but don’t call it that! Having a negative attitude won’t do anybody any good. You’ll do your job and be happy about it or back to your parents you go. Remember that cushy hell? Remember the curfew and the fights and the oppression? Smile! Work for Them and you’ll surely go farther than you’d ever dreamed. Surely! Determination! Only you hold yourself back. Pay no mind to those shackles on your ankles. They’re just another convenient shiny to make sure you don’t lose Their way. Look, if you save enough money you can even get them in diamond and gold. Shiny.

After our shifts at the factories and after classes are done we sit tiredly with our new computers and browse the web with hate-filled eyes turning greener by the second. We stare longingly at pictures of fish faced models and rookie super stars discovered right out of high school. AMAZING!  We start thinking too much then. I Wish (insert chosen words here). Wish I’d stayed in that rock band. Wish I could have that car. Wish I could fuck her every night. Wish I could back pack through Europe. Wish I had that much money. Wish I could get breast implants.

Greedy sheep! Greedy menial sheep!

They’re furious. They scold us for wanting more. They have a plan for us and we’re going to follow it dammit or else They’ll–

No. No no, this is fine. Okay. You’re unhappy. Let’s revisit. They spread the silvery silky web out over our beds again and fill our eyes with love and lust. Little Beautiful flies. Intimate fantasies playing in our strange heads. Heart pounding and heat building. Suddenly our hands aren’t enough anymore. We have money now. We have our own place. We don’t have to hide anything or be quiet or leave the minute he’s done out of fear. Hey, your old boyfriend is single. Facebook says so. And that girl at work looks pretty cute. Wonder if she’s into threesomes.

Money and sex. Free. New. SMILE.

They steeple their fingers in front of Their Cheshire cat grins. We don’t hear their sadistic laughter. It’s drowned out by the moaning, grunting and cursing; the boss yelling and the parent’s complaining they never hear from you anymore. Our eyes are filled with tanned firm flesh and glittery gold and sculpted perfection.

When they yank away the blinders, Real Life rushes in like a starved succubus.

She fucks us like no tomorrow. She flays us with reality. There are accidents and lay offs and evictions. What? What? Help! We can’t blame them remember? They warned us. Everyone warned us. We were just too overwhelmed to hear; too blind with the shiny. Too full of wanton. We wanted and we got. Congratulations.

“Give em’ the ol’ Razzle Dazzle…”

She found out what happened to the girls who stopped coming to school. It wasn’t her fault, or his. Accidents happen. She had the chemicals and he had the latex. Bad day was all. Circumstances. They warned us. Can’t go back. Only forward along the path of millions of heart-broken and shattered.

They shook their heads and folded their arms. Fucked up didn’t you? There’s  away out you know. One easy procedure and you’ll never have to think about it again…

NO! NEVER! Moral high ground kicks in. Dreams get trampled under the crushing weight of disappointment and fear.

They take her shoulders and turn her down another path. Is this what you want? Take a good look. 18 years of that. Can you deal? We offer so much more opportunity. Work for us! Get the procedure. Forget. And when you’re ready, when you’ve paid your dues; try again.

She looked back and forth. They looked the same.

Now the truly hard grown up decisions have to be made. The ones that make us want to be a kid again. What to do? She called out. What to do? They were silent.

“I’m keeping it,” she said stubbornly and they thrust her roughly down the new path, disgusted. She landed on her knees and was scarred forever.

“Useless! Moocher! Stupid!”

They are angry now. Now THEY have to support HER. One less drop in the bucket for them. They withdrew. Now she was in their shadow, their backs turned. Forgotten like all the other girls. No more Shinies to distract. They were done investing in her.

She was alone now.

This is what she got for wanting too much. Being greedy. They told her. They showed her. Now life begins again from the other side and she will see with new eyes. She will be shackled thrice over. Ankles and breast and left ring finger and they will weight on her like a solid steel yoke. A cross to bear; a scarlet letter that in nine months will forever be walking beside her, a reminder. In its tiny newborn eyes she will see the last vestiges of her dreams die. “I do” sounds like a knell to her ear. She was round like the earth in her long cream silk dress.

She tried to slough off the cross in the beginning. They had one thing right; determination was everything. She railed against the ring bearer, blaming him. She secretly loathed the milk sucker but fear kept her mouth shut. What monster hated her children? And she didn’t really hate them. But it took away her choice; her freedom. Her dreams.

One foot in front of the other. Forward and more forward.

Years blended together. Same scenes. Sun rise and sun set. Bottles. Sippy cups. More sex and another one came. Another milk sucker but she was less scared this time. Less everything. She became comfortably numb. This wasn’t so bad. The path wasn’t as bad as she thought. There were others walking with her, bent over, eyes on the ground. Nobody wanted to look around, even for comfort. What was the point? There was no hope here. But there they all were, together.

Broken record. Broken record. Broken rec–Yes she knows this was her fault now. Hind sight is 20/20. It’s not so bad. She is beaten. They are smug. She travels deeper into their shadow.

She learned a new kind of strength, carrying her yoke around. She learned patience and acceptance. She learned it wasn’t so bad having her heart being torn; half on the inside, half outside walking around. It wasn’t bad being comfortable; being taken care of. She learned to master a new kind of role as Mother. They pigeon-holed her into it and her shoulders fit snugly into the metal machines and shiny screens that flashed numbers and dollar signs. Too little. Never enough. More! They molded her to it.

Step. Step. Step. Stumble. Knees. Get up. Dust off the scars.

Step. Stumble. Knees.

She knelt there for a minute, eyes still on the path. The others shuffled around her, stepping in time to a dull march like useless soldiers in a war they’re going to lose. Grow up, grow old, grow dead. Feed the machine. Make money. Who cares about happiness and dreams. Those are for shiny-eyed children and idealists. The rest of them…keep going. Up, Old, Dead.

She didn’t rise. She didn’t rebel. She didn’t think. She just knelt. She didn’t wait for or expect anything. Her path was laid out for her. It was easy. In a minute, she’ll get up again.

“Can I show you?”

A blue bird landed on her shoulder and she stilled. So beautiful…not shiny at all.

“Can I show you?”

“You can’t. My path. My choices. There is nothing else.”

“There is. I can show you. Let me show you.”

She shrugged and the bird flitted away. She didn’t watch it go. But she did get up and step again. Same as she’d always been; same as the others. Why her? It came back but was silent and she tried to shrug again. It fluttered and his wing brushed her cheek. For a moment, the glaze over her eyes shifted and she saw neon. The bird settled and she settled as well. Months more. She grew to accept this trifling burden and grew accustomed to saying “no” when he asked.

“Can I show you? Will you see? Let me show you.”

“No. No. No.”

“Why?”

“I chose this. This is my life.”

“Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?”

She stopped. Yes or no. It didn’t fit. It was always yes or no. Yes the path. No the walker. Yes the walker, no the path? The glaze shifted again and she saw a glimpse. Jewels. Not diamonds and facets and shiny. Colors. plants. Flowers. Where?

“Where?”

“Look over there. Look! Look!”

The bird flew from her shoulder. Her neck was stiff and ached to turn. The yoke gripped tight and it was almost too much to bear. But from the corner of her eye, she saw. A break in the path. A dark tunnel and a speck of rainbow. Her heart thudded once, very loud and then her head was forced back around and down. Back into position. She relaxed back into the mold; the effort was tremendous.

“It’s fine for now. Let me show you.”

There were more words. Not just no? She tried.

“Give me time?”

He was pleased. He ruffled his feathers in contentment. She didn’t know why.

“All you need. I am here.” And he was.

Everyday she stretched her neck farther and farther around, wincing against the yoke but deciding the pain was worth it. She tracked the blue bird with her eyes as he flew circles over her head and hid in the dull scenery of her life path. Wherever he touched seemed to glow and become alive. Brown became ocher. Green became emerald. Red became crimson. Always he would fly back to her shoulder. He would bend his wing out and tickle her cheek in greeting and her mask cracked a little more with every smile. Step by step he drew closer to her. Step by step, together, forward.

Sometimes she would return to her glazed state and plod along in line with the others. The bird knew these were times for introspection for her and he remained by her side instead of flying, ready to draw her out if she’d been under too long. She didn’t see it, but he ever so slightly loosened the bolts and screws holding her yoke in place so that every time she came awake again, she could move a little more freely.

They did not see. They did not care. She was a drop in the bucket, unworthy of Their attention. She was a Mother, not a worker. She did nothing for them. Why would They care?

He cared. He watched. She stumbled that time and paused. He saw it was time. Slowly; so slowly, she was beginning to see. There were paths hidden in plain sight if she would only look. He could show her. He could lead her. But he was only so small in her mind. A tiny voice. A pretty distraction. He needed to be bigger. So he became a child, full of dreams and ideals.

“Let me show you.”

The shock of a warm and tiny hand sliding into hers jolted her awake, the glaze leaving her eyes permanently. She was a mother. She knew instinctively what to do. She picked him up and carried him and he laid his head on her shoulder, clinging to her. She kisses his cheek and raspberried his neck to make him laugh. Her arms never grew tired of carrying him and she didn’t complain. That was what They taught her to do. This was her life. But it was more now. She began to feel joy again.

The boy watched over her shoulder as she left a trail of seedlings and sprouts in her footsteps. Bright little footsteps of green moss like a beacon against the brittle thistles. The others trampled it almost immediately after but he saw it. She didn’t but she would. Soon it would be in front of her and she would be amazed at what she could create. He would wait.

The happier she became, the bigger he became. Soon she couldn’t hold him on her hip anymore and instead, decided to carry him on her back. The yoke slipped off. It didn’t make a sound as it hit the ground and disintegrated into dust. She didn’t seem to notice. He laid against her back and watched the gold in her hair flicker in the light as she walked. Step. Step. Step. Now tireless. Strong steps. She was getting stronger.

“What do you have to show me?” she finally asked one day. It wasn’t any kind of special day. But she asked.

He rejoiced and danced and ran away and then back, carrying flowers with such brilliant shades they stung her eyes.

“What are these?” she asked, running a finger along a graceful petal. She remembered this shape. She remembered this color. There was dew on them as if a spring rain had come through when she wasn’t looking and coated them in liquid crystal.

“They’re yours,” he insisted.

“Why are they wet?” she asked.

“It’s your tears.”

She smiled at him and stood. Her eyes looked away though and were sad.

“Not mine. They’re pretty but not mine. You keep them.”

He did but he became just as sad. She still didn’t see. They didn’t speak of the flowers for a long time. He started to go away for longer and longer periods of time and she fretted. She tried not to show it. Kids will be kids. She stepped in time; kept the line. Step. Step. She was used to this.

Step. Stop.

She looked left. Looked for him and then looked right. She needed to find him. Which way? All ways were wrong except forward. No one deviates. No one sees beyond.

“Just pick and I will be there.”

She wished the Blue Bird would come again and show her which path was safe. Paths were safe and not safe. She’s stumbled before and gotten hurt. But always going forward. What kind of pain would come if she went sideways?

“You can do this. Take a step. One step not forward.”

That voice. So clear. So sure. She chose Left. She interrupted the path of the person beside her but she didn’t seem to care. Step Left. Step Left. The shiny shackles caught at her, trying to trip her, trying to re-correct her. She was almost free of the Path. One more step! The shackles dug in like a bear trap around her ankle and jerked her leg back, pitching her forward. Always forward. She would have hit the ground except for the strong pair of arms caught her. They pulled together and she felt the agonizing grip of the shackle biting into her leg. Blood dripped and tears dripped and sweat beaded on her brow.

“I WANT TO SEE!” she screamed.

And suddenly, she was free. The arms swung her up as if she now, were the child. She rested her head against the man’s neck, her ankle burning, her chest burning and the ring finger on her left hand burning. Her slavitude chains. Warning! Warning! This is not the way! Turn back and go no further. Beware. Beware! They stood there for a moment and watched the sheep-like zombies move forward.

“It’s time.”

“Yes.”

They turned away together from the forward path. She was keenly aware of her chains and it made her afraid. She buried her face in his shirt and closed her eyes. What if They saw? What if she was ripped away and sent back to follow? Could They do that? She almost wanted to turn back. The fear of the unknown haunted her and gripped her heart painfully.

“Let me show you. Look.”

The man set down and settled her in his lap, one hand on her face, coaxing her to see. Soft, like a bird’s wing. Like a child’s fingertip tracing her cheeks. She fisted a portion of his shirt in her hand, like a scared child might do, and cautiously opened one eye.

Flowers. There were Everywhere. Bright perfect blooms as far as she could see. She opened both eyes and finally Saw. There was a tiny break in the chain. She didn’t notice. She was enthralled.

“They’re yours,” he insisted.

“What?”

“You said I could keep them. I planted them and they grew.”

She climbed down off his lap now and moved toward the blossoms.

“I remember this one,” she whispered.

The shape and color of it were so familiar but she could barely remember why. When she touched it and it opened, she saw dew inside.

“Look closer.”

She bent and cupped the blossom in her hands and squinted in at it. And there it was. Once upon a dream. Her dream. She caught another flower and it bloomed in her palm, showing her another.

“All mine? You’ve kept them all?”

He smiled and came forward to take her hand. They walked through the field. Before her eyes, more and more flowers grew straight and tall, revealing their delicate blushing insides. Tender dreams and hopes, cultivated and grown with loving care.

“I thought they were lost.”

“Only forgotten,” he said. “You had to see to believe.”

The chains around her chest softly slithered down her body and disappeared into the field. She sprinkled the flowers with the tears from her eyes and they grew bigger. Hand in hand they looked and saw.

“Where are your dreams?” she asked.

“Can I show you?”

“Yes.”

The word felt alien and sumptuous on her tongue.

“Yes. Show me. Yes I want to see.”

If he can do this to her dreams, how much more alive and beautiful are his? Did everything he touch grow so fantastically? She wanted him to touch her more. They started moving uphill toward a Honolulu blue sky. She struggled a bit and he helped, boosting her up. One foot in front of the other they leaned on one another, struggling until finally coming to rest on a precipice.

Out in front and above was a clear cloudless forever. She could fly out there now. The yoke was gone. She could build herself wings from the colorful dreams in her garden and she could fly higher than she ever imagined. No anchor. No chains. Only her and the air and the sun. The thought appealed to her so much she nearly stepped into it from longing.

But then he caught her and pressed her close and she looked down. She clung to him as she looked down in terror at the dark abyss of unknown below.

“What’s down there?”

He squeezed her tighter and she felt his heart pounding against her back.

“You can’t see it yet, but I can. It’s dark for you but I see my future clear. It has you in it.”

He turned and cupped her face in his hands, kissing her forehead, her cheeks, her nose. She closed her eyes and tried to see.

“Can I show you?”

For the first time in a long time, she wanted. Wanted to dream again, wanted to lead her own life, wanted to explore this man and what he had to offer. Not follow. But be at his side for whatever he wanted her to see. It was just…

“Can I take my dreams too?” she asked.

He understood. He saw the fear of replacing one shackle with another. She didn’t know him yet, but she would and she would see everything clear. Make her own decision. He bent down and plucked a brilliant orange flower and tucked it behind her ear.

“We can plant them beside mine and they’ll grow together, if you like.”

Her heart raced with fear and excitement, alive again in her garden of eden. No Shiny. No Them. Just him and her. Organic, home-grown, love and hopes and dreams. Could she leave it for him? Could she grow another one alongside him, cherish his dreams alongside hers?

“Are you ready?”

She clasped his hand and looked only at him, trusting.

The ring from her hand tinkled on the rocks as they dove down into her unknown. It tarnished, disintegrated and blew away and she never thought about it again. She was free.