“Love you, Sierra,” my dad smiled as I climbed out of his truck.
A trapper keeper perched in my arms, I stumbled out of the lifted Ford F250, almost tripping as my purple Converse hit the sidewalk. I looked up at him and waved, trying not to cringe. As he pulled away, I looked left and right, curious who had watched that.
To my relief, nobody seemed to have noticed.
When I got inside the school, I shoved my trapper keeper in my locker and headed straight for the restroom. Upon entering, I inspected the zit on my right cheek.
“Ugh…” I sighed, rubbing my finger over it. “I popped it this morning… Why doesn’t it look any different?”
As usual, I didn’t apply any makeup. I hated makeup. Why wake up an hour early just to look a little prettier. I wasn’t getting any attention from guys anyway.
My face was very plain. I had short, light, shoulder-length brown hair, and average skin that I didn’t use any sort of product on. I wore a grey T-shirt and skinny jeans. I didn’t usually paint my nails, and when I did, it was always something simple. I wasn’t into dressing to impress.
The only thing about me I found pretty were my eyes. They were spontaneously green. The only times I’d ever been complimented were on my eyes. But, of course, my nerdy glasses had to sit right in front of them. I sighed and left the bathroom.
“Dammit!” an all-too-familiar voice resounded as a boy slammed into me, almost knocking me to the ground. “Sierra!” he whipped around. “I’m so sorry! I-” he froze for a second, swiftly looking at me and then back to where he’d been running.
“You’re good,” I rubbed my arm, which I’m pretty sure was bruising. “I’m all right.”
“Okay! Once again, I’m sorry!” he yelled as he turned and darted off down the hallway, disappearing into another hall.
I know where he was going: by Ingrid’s locker. Ingrid was the school b***h. She was a preppy blonde with a nice body and a horrible personality. She’s the kind of girl I refer to as a casket: beautiful on the outside, and rotten underneath.
But Chester didn’t see her that way. He was spellbound by the fact that she looked like a model, and wouldn’t accept the fact she didn’t want him. It drove me crazy…
Maybe if I woke up two hours before school and tried to look perfect, he’d notice me… but… nah. I just… didn’t want that to be the reason.
I got my notebook and a pen from my locker and walked to my first class: chemistry. I hated chemistry. It was confusing and the teacher, Dr. Mahoney, was an inconsiderate jerk. Most of the class, he spent berating us for being millennials, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was making no sense while “teaching.” He once gave a girl an “F” on the homework when she missed school that day for her grandfather’s funeral. He said that she wasn’t “prioritizing” her life, and that it was “grossly unprofessional.”
The only student he liked in the class was Woodrow, a senior who’d taken chemistry the last three years in a row. He wasn’t stupid; in fact, he was the opposite. He was brilliant. Because our small school didn’t have the funding, staff, or population to make higher chemistry classes, we just had the basic class. But Woodrow took it all three years, and they basically let him do whatever he wanted. I’m pretty sure he even had after-school access to the classroom, because Dr. Mahoney liked him. Sometimes, Dr. Mahoney would stand over him and watch what he was doing, and other times, he’d just let him do whatever he pleased. We never knew what he was doing, but it usually looked pretty elaborate.
Woodrow was just as crude as Dr. Mahoney, which is probably another reason they clicked so well.
I sat down, glancing over at Chester. He looked a little sweaty from his brisk dash to catch Ingrid walking by her locker for five seconds. He had fluffy brown hair and warm brown eyes. He usually wore a pair of jeans, with a plain white shirt, a jean jacket, and sneakers. He was simple, like me. He was currently twirling a pen around in his left hand, resting his cheek into his right fist as he stared bored at the front of the classroom.
The class only had twenty students in it, ranging from every grade. See, the town of Pawnee was puny, and for that reason, there was only one high school, which all the town’s youth attended. Pawnee High School itself had only around 250 students. Pretty much everybody knew each other, for that reason. And so, when a student hadn’t attended class in a while, it was obvious.
Speaking of which: Mekhi. Mekhi was a white-trash stoner that barely managed to coast through freshman, sophomore, and junior year. He was now a senior, and whether or not he’d graduate was anyone’s guess. Most of his friends called him “Ma-guy” as a fraternal spinoff of his name, and others just knew him as their dealer. He missed so much class, it was almost as if he weren’t a student here. Usually, he’d come strolling inside, reeking of weed with scarlet eyes.
He’d been absent the last two days of class, and most of us figured that by today, a Wednesday, he probably just planned on missing the whole week.
But we were wrong.
Today, something very unusual happened.
Just before Dr. Mahoney shut the door to the classroom, Mekhi appeared in the window.
“Mekhi,” Dr. Mahoney scoffed, “you’re here.”
He didn’t say anything. He just nodded. He walked by Dr. Mahoney and over to his chair. He looked very noticeably different. Today, he didn’t smell like marijuana, and his eyes weren’t red. They looked almost… purplish. He had no expression on his face as he calmly sat down in the back of the classroom.
Woodrow was studying him carefully, as was Dr. Mahoney.
“So what?” Dr. Mahoney antagonized. “No stupid excuse for why you missed class the last two days? You figure I’m just so used to it that I’m not going to say anything?”
He shrugged. “I don’t have an excuse.”
All of us were taken aback by this. Mekhi responded to criticism with chuckling like everything was fine and then blowing off everything authorities had to say. But today, he was emotionless. None of us had ever seen him like this.
“Is that so?” Dr. Mahoney even seemed confused. “Well, if that’s the case, then I suppose we’ll proceed into class. Open your textbooks to page 111 so we can continue our discussion on the properties of Bromine.”
I usually spent the class fighting sleep or gazing at Chester, wishing he’d turn back and look at me, which he never did. But today, my eyes were glued on Mekhi. This was the longest I’d seen him go without smiling. He was silent. I’d never seen him silent in my almost two years at the school.
Though he wasn’t interrupting the class for once, he didn’t seem to be paying attention either. He was just… staring. Almost at nothing, like he was in a trance. When the class was dismissed, I watched him exit without saying a word. Everybody was visibly surprised by this.
I thought that maybe I’d say something to Chester about it, but he was already gone, off to his next class.
I sighed and scooped up my notebook in my hands before walking slowly to my next class.
“Chester…” I sighed.
I just… wished he’d notice me. You know? He was so much like me. He was my motivation, really. Sometimes, I’d feel so ashamed that I wasn’t dressed up like Ingrid or the other girls at my school. I’d feel like such a loser for not putting on makeup in the morning, like it made me a kid. But, then I’d see Chester, just… doing his own thing. When everybody was watching. He was so himself, and he was totally okay with that. He wasn’t scared to be him, even though he wasn’t popular. It… inspired me. I wished I could be as self-confident as him. I wished I could be as happy with myself. But, at the very least, seeing him exist meant that it was possible.
Still, he usually made a fool of himself chasing Ingrid around. It was obvious she didn’t like him, and he just didn’t get the clue. He was so much better than her… She would never deserve him. It was so unfair.
He and I were friends, but… that was really it. He never really sought me out, unless on an occasional whim, and we’d only seen each other outside of school twice. I wished so bad that he’d give up on that selfish b***h and realize I cared about him ever since we met in eighth grade, but he was oblivious to everything. Oblivious to my love, and oblivious to Ingrid’s absence of it.
By lunchtime, a good half of the school was talking about Mekhi. I thought it was strange, but I didn’t care about it that much. I found my usual table by myself and examined today’s lunch: some type of beef and vegetable stew, with a roll and a side of cauliflower.
I hate cauliflower.
I ignored it as I stirred the stew around with my spoon. I looked up and studied the lunchroom. The usual cliques were eating together. Ingrid was wearing a beachy white blouse that contrasted with her sun-tanned skin, and a short, colorful skirt. I couldn’t doubt Chester for being in love with her… She was… a lot prettier than me.
I rolled my eyes and looked over at Chester. He was sitting with his three friends, and they were laughing about something. Woodrow was already finished eating and writing something down in a notebook. Mekhi was sitting with a group of pals he usually sat with, and they seemed to be interested in whatever he was telling them.
“Why… do I always end up sitting by myself.”
It was one of the first times I’d heard my voice that day. I didn’t hear it much. I didn’t have much to say.
“Maybe… Maybe, if I would just go walk over to Chester and sit there with them, I’d have fun. What do I have to lose…?”
But I just couldn’t do it. I knew I couldn’t do it. I could never do it. I rolled my eyes and began eating my meal in silence. Like usual, my mind drifted off into dreams about Chester. I remembered last year at Homecoming when my dad convinced me- or, really, forced me- to go. It was the first time I’d ever worn makeup… Chester saw me and he was astonished. We hung out the whole night. I really thought we’d make a connection that night. But… for some reason… we just didn’t talk again after that. The whole summer, I sat by my phone, wanting so bad to see it vibrate with a text from him… but… nope. I mean, it’s not like he asked for my number to begin with, anyway… He got it from me in our biology class because we were doing a group project and needed to keep in touch over the weekend on how everybody was doing with their part of the assignment.
After lunch, I went to my least favorite class: health. Health was just PE but with boring, sleep-invoking lessons on the weeks we were inside.
This week was an inside week, so I didn’t have to change into gym clothes. The class began as boring as usual: Mr. Sloan talked about something lame and uninteresting, which today happened to be heartrates during and before exercise, and I fought drowsiness after having just eaten. But then he switched things up.
“Now, you’re going to try reading each other’s heartrate, so everybody find a partner.”
I rolled my eyes. Chester had already buddied up with his friend Matt, and I didn’t even bother picking someone. I knew that like usual, I’d just find the last person who didn’t get picked like me.
Today, it was Mekhi.
He didn’t even seem to have noticed what was happening. He was just sitting there in his chair, in a trance. I sat next to him.
“Hey… So, uh, who’s going first.”
“To do what?”
“We have to feel for each other’s heartrates,” I explained awkwardly. “Like, before an exercise. And then exercise for two minutes and do it again.”
He sat up casually. His usual movements, like scratching at his scruffy blonde beard, or needlessly adjusting his snapback, were all absent today. The only time he moved was when doing something he had to do. Otherwise, he was still like a statue.
“Stick out your arm,” he said plainly.
I did, and he pressed his thumb into my wrist. His fingers were cold and my hand tensed, which made me even more uncomfortable, hoping he didn’t think I was awkward about this. Ugh. This is why I hated doing things in a group. Like, it’s just better to work alone.
He counted off every heartbeat for two minutes.
“One hundred and four,” he spoke, before writing it down.
I couldn’t believe how out of the ordinary he was acting. Even with me, I was surprised he wasn’t making weird jokes the whole time and screwing up the count over and over again.
“One hundred and four?” Mr. Sloan asked, curving his neck to read the paper. “That’s kinda’ high.”
I sulked back awkwardly. It was probably high because of how uncomfortable I was. I started to blush and replied, “Oh… Didn’t know.”
Now he started to glare at me. “Yeah, you did. Average resting heartrate for healthy adults: sixty to one hundred beats per minute. I just reminded the class that before we started the exercise,” he tried to make it less awkward by smiling, but it wasn’t working.
He walked away.
“Just, let me read yours,” I touched his arm, which was as cold as his fingers. “Dammit…” I whispered, feeling embarrassment sweep over me as I felt nothing. “Where… where is it, dammit…” I moved my fingers around, hoping he didn’t notice. My hand started sweating and that made it even more embarrassing.
Finally, I just kept my fingers in one spot and made it up. He wouldn’t know the difference. I waited for a minute and said “Seventy-four.”
He didn’t reply.
I wrote it down.
“Okay, now we have to try exercising and doing it. So, uh, I guess you go first.”
He stood up and calmly did jumping jacks for two minutes. Every second of it was staggering to me. He was acting so damn bizarre. Think of your class clown in high school, the guy that never shuts up. The guy that’s always late, and always has an awful but hilarious, half-assed excuse why. The guy that’s ironically likeable, despite how annoying he is. That was Mekhi.
And today, he was indistinguishable from Woodrow.
When he was finished, he sat down. I tried to measure his heartrate but couldn’t find it, of course, so I wrote something random down. Then I cringed with the idea of having to do it myself. I got up and started the jumping jacks. It felt like everyone was watching me. When I was done, he put his finger on my wrist.
I waited in the uncomfortable silence as he read my pulse.
When he wrote it down, we both sat down and waited for everyone to be finished. The awkward silence was growing as neither of us said anything to each other.
This surprised me. I don’t think he’d ever made conversation with me in my life until that moment.
“Why are you so uncomfortable?”
I cringed. “Uh… I…”
“I’m not meaning to make you awkward. I’m just curious what’s making you feel that way.”
I was speechless. Who was this person? Because it wasn’t Mekhi.
“Listen, Sierra… I can help you. With your awkwardness.”
“What… are you talking about?”
“I have something in my car. It’s called Xanadu. It will take all your awkwardness away.”
I was feeling a plethora of emotions. First and foremost, I was astonished by the way he was acting. It was beyond unusual for him. Secondly, I was confused. Was he trying to sell me a drug? And also, it was almost funny, if that were the case. It was weird in general that he was talking to me, but would he really try to sell me something?
“I don’t do drugs…”
I didn’t have an answer.
“Drugs are bad,” he made air quotations and spoke with a fake sternness. “They rot your brain.” He looked deep into my eyes. “But, so does fear. And inhibitions. And awkwardness. So, it comes down to what you’d rather: have a ‘fully functional,’ ‘healthy’ brain that won’t let you enjoy yourself, or use something that, maybe in the long run is a little harmful, but will make everything- I mean everything, Sierra- better. Would you rather live longer, and in pain? Or shorter, but without pain?”
This was all far too much for me to think about at the moment. I scooted back and said, “Really, Mekhi, it’s okay. I don’t need any drugs.”
I expected him to look disappointed, but he didn’t. In fact, his expression was still blank. He didn’t say anything after that. I sat there for a while, mulling over what he’d said.
When class got out for the day, I waited out front for my dad to pick me up. It was hot outside, as summer was approaching, and I began to feel beads of sweat collect around my forehead.
“I hate sweating…” I grumbled. “Where are you, Dad?” I looked at the row of cars, but his unmissable silver F250 was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey, Sierra,” I melted when I heard his voice. “Waiting for your dad?”
“Yeah,” I replied, turning around and facing Chester.
Of course he started talking to me when I was sweating. I thought about wiping the sweat away, but then it’d be obvious I was sweating. Or, was it more obvious if I didn’t? I just wiped it off my forehead and hoped he didn’t care.
“I’m so sorry about bumping into you in the hall earlier!” he scratched his head awkwardly, and his fingers seemed to disappear into his fluffy brown hair. “That was a total accident.”
“I know, I know,” I nodded, looking down at the ground. “Where… where were you in such a hurry to get to, anyway?”
I knew the answer. But I wanted to hear what he’d say.
“Oh, uh,” he started to blush, “I thought I was going to be late for class.”
“We have first period together,” I started to smile. “Chemistry? In the opposite direction you were running?”
He froze up. “Okay. Everybody knows anyway. Just trying to catch a glimpse of Ingrid before class.”
“You were running that fast? To do that?”
“I… I don’t know,” he shrugged. “I’m a mess, huh,” he chuckled, shaking his head.
“Like I’m not…” I smiled at him.
“Really?” he cut his eyes in interest. “In who?”
“In who?” I stepped back nervously. “Absolutely none of your business.”
“Come on,” he smiled charmingly. “Tell me. I won’t tell anyone.”
“No, Chester… Really. Forget it.”
He sighed. “All right, whatever.”
He was so confusing. He never hit me up, and he’d almost never approach me, but when he did, he always talked to me like we were best friends. It confused me to my wit’s end.
“Hey, so, Mekhi today…”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “that was really weird.”
“What the hell was up with that? And did you notice what happened after lunch?”
“Huh? No, what happened?”
“All his buddies came into my algebra two class acting the same exact way.”
“No…” I whispered. “He… he got them on it.”
“He tried to tell me about some drug… He was asking if I wanted to try it.”
His eyes widened.
“For real? What the hell?”
“He called it Xanadu. He was telling me about how it’d make me feel a lot better about life or something. And when I turned him down, he just stopped talking.”
“Oh, hey, my mom’s here,” he smiled. “Uh, but I’ll talk to you later, Sierra.”
“Bye, Chester,” I waved. “Talk to me later, huh… Later this month?”
No surprise, my night was boring and uneventful. I fell asleep around ten o’clock, too bored to stay awake any longer. That morning, I expected to engage in my usual morning routine: fifteen minutes before we had to leave, I’d wake up and throw on a shirt and skinny jeans- pretty much nothing else ever, and my purple Converse, which were my only pair of shoes. I’d brush my teeth and hair, put on some deodorant, and that was it for me, really. I’d usually feel convicted by the fact I didn’t put on any beauty products- or, you know, own them in general- and then I’d just kind of stare at myself in the mirror and sigh.
My drive to school would insist of my dad playing old country music- usually Hank and sometimes Johnny Cash, and I’d just sit in the passenger seat and stare at the trees outside on the drive and dread school that day. The only thing that calmed me down was my dad’s voice. He loved to sing along, and he sounded great.
When we’d get to school, I’d get out, and without fail, he’d tell me he loved me.
I loved him too. A lot. But I was just too embarrassed to say it for some reason. He didn’t take it personally. I knew he knew that I loved him.
He’d drive off, and then I was on my own again to survive another day of my sophomore year. That was the way it usually went.
But not today.
My dad had woken up at four in the morning throwing up. I heard him walking through the hall and got up to make sure he was okay. I spent the morning nursing him and making him breakfast. He had a high fever and decided- or, more was prompted by me- to take a sick day off work. I told him I’d find a ride to school.
Not sure what I was thinking, though. It wasn’t like I had anybody’s number.
My heart was racing as I pulled up his contact. When I got to our message log, the last thing we’d talked about was the project from a year ago.
I slowly typed the message, reading it and erasing it over and over again. Did he even live close by? Was I like, making his mom drive out of the way? I was so apprehensive, but I knew my dad needed it. If only I had just gotten my damn license. I didn’t even have a permit.
Finally, I just typed the message and hit send.
“Hey, Chester! So, my dad is really sick this morning, and I’m hoping that maybe your mom could give me a ride to school? If it’s not too far out of the way.”
I gasped in horror as I realized I didn’t mention who I was. Like I was assuming he knew! I was so embarrassed. We hadn’t texted in a year, and I was acting like he should know whose number this was. I was cringing as I waited for a response.
To my surprise, he replied only two minutes later.
“Hey, Sierra! No problem. What’s your address?”
I was bewildered. He actually had my number saved in his phone. When he got to my house, I hopped in the small car. He was sitting up front with his mom and his little sister- I’m guessing she was around thirteen- was in the backseat. She didn’t look very enthused and was busy typing away on her phone with earbuds in.
He and his mom made small talk with me, but it was a pretty awkward drive, and I attribute that mostly to myself, because I didn’t know what to say. It was the first time I’d met anyone else in his family. We dropped his sister off first. When we got to school, I stepped out of the car, and wondered whether or not I should wait for him. I decided I would.
For the very first time, walking into school with Chester, it almost felt like we had a real relationship. Like I wasn’t just an acquaintance to him. However, my mind quickly shifted to something else.
“Chester…” I whispered. “Do you… see that?”
“Yeah…” he replied. “What the hell…?”
A good quarter of the school was walking around emotionlessly, just like Mekhi. They were standing around out front, conversing quietly, with no expression on their faces. Those that were acting normal seemed to notice the strange behavior too.
There was something else weird I noticed about the people, too. They all had this purplish skin under their eyes, and their irises carried flecks of purple, too. Almost like the blood around and in their eyes was turning violet.
It was no different inside. Students stood around the school, fishing through lockers, exiting bathrooms, holding the door open for teachers… and the rest were emotionless and silent. I’d never heard the school so silent, except for one day when my dad was late to pick me up, and I took a walk through the hallways by myself.
When we got into chemistry, almost everyone except for me, Chester, and Woodrow, were acting strange. Dr. Mahoney even seemed to notice, but he taught the lesson as if everything were normal.
“Xanadu…” I whispered the name. “It’s spreading like wildfire…”
What struck me as the most strange was that so many people had taken the drug before school. The only drug students usually smoked before class was weed, but potent drugs like this were saved for after hours. It was only a matter of time before all of them were rounded up and drug tested. Still, something just felt… wrong. It didn’t seem like everyone was just, high, on some depressant. They were acting soulless. Like they were dead.
Mekhi sat in the back of the room complacently, not appearing to be listening to the lesson. He was catatonic. I didn’t focus for much of that class. When it was dismissed, I felt like approaching Chester, but didn’t want to make it weird. Then I realized something else bizarre.
He looked sad.
“Hey, Chester,” I walked over to him, overcoming my nerves. “That sure was a weird class, huh?”
“Yeah…” he nodded. His mind was somewhere else.
I felt like asking him if everything was okay but I didn’t want to pry.
“Well, I’ll catch you later, Sierra,” he walked off.
When I got to lunch, I was bewildered by how many people were on Xanadu. It seemed like almost half the school was on it now. Were people trying it between classes? I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d never seen so many people on drugs at once. And at a school, of all places. I couldn’t believe none of them were afraid of getting caught.
But, like I said… Something about Xanadu seemed so much stranger than a regular drug. The way it was spreading so fast… How so many people were trying it, not scared of getting caught… And the way people acted on it. Like they were… corpses. Walking corpses.
At seventh period that day, in my philosophy class, I was shocked yet again. Chester was sitting with Ingrid.
Ingrid’s eyes were glossy and carried a hue of violet to them. Chester was sitting next to her. He was quiet, mostly, as he waited for the class to start, but sometimes he’d whisper something to her, and she’d whisper back.
“What the f**k is going on?” I whispered.
Everything that had happened in the last two days made completely no sense. Mekhi being stoic, the whole school trying a new drug overnight, everybody trying it while at school without being scared of getting arrested, and now Ingrid was sitting with Chester?
It felt like I was in some other dimension.
“Good afternoon, class,” Mrs. Roux began. Today was Thursday: discussion day. Every Thursday, we’d forego a lesson, schoolwork, homework, and so on, and instead, all as a class give our opinion on a certain topic. Some days, it was a discussion, and other days, it was more of a debate. At times, it got to be an argument, but she’d interject when that happened. It was almost always a controversial topic, but at the very least, a complicated one to answer. “Today, we’ll be discussing,” she introduced as she wrote it on the whiteboard, “what is the point of life?”
“Dear god,” I thought to myself. “I’ve got enough on my mind right now. I don’t know what the point of life is.”
“Mekhi,” she smiled at him. “We’ll start with you. You seem to be acting quite different lately. Perhaps you’ve made a recent discovery that relates to this topic. Share with us your interpretation of the point of life.”
He stood up. He faced her and explained, “There isn’t one.”
That was all he said. With that, he sat down. She looked disappointed.
“You’re not going to elaborate any further?”
“There’s no reason to. Life is a blinding light to sensitive eyes. And instead of shutting our eyes to it, we try to make sense of what we’re seeing. It’s asinine. The point of life is that there is no point. There are only two things: what we experience, and how we react to it. And the key to reaching peace is to feel nothing at all, because happiness and sorrow come from the same thing: emotion. One can’t exist without the other. And both are inevitable, thus, sadness is inevitable. Unless you’re numb.”
She seemed deeply enthused. “I’m reading a sort of Buddhist vibe from you, Mekhi, with your belief of giving up desire for peace. How intriguing. I don’t mean to offend you in any way, and I hope by saying this that I’m not forming a barrier, but I never would have guessed you had such a wise outlook. I’m impressed.”
And neither would I. My mouth was hung open in disbelief. Last week, in the very same class, he’d responded to the discussion question “Is love, by its very design, meant to be monogamous, or is that an unfair standard to which society holds relationships” with “I don’t know what you said but s*x is great.”
And now he was saying… that.
“Let’s hear more,” she smiled excitedly. “How can we, as humans, with overwhelming emotions, ever hope to achieve pure numbness? Because it almost seems that you’ve done that.”
“Xanadu,” he responded. “One must find Xanadu.”
“Xanadu?” she inquired. “But, doesn’t Xanadu refer to a realm of pure ecstasy? Of idyllic bliss? How is numbness the same?”
“True bliss is a false idea, a human construct. There is no such thing as pure, unadulterated, unending joy. So numbness is the next best thing. The true Xanadu.”
“How does one find Xanadu?”
He was silent a moment. “I could tell you. But I don’t know that it would be appropriate.”
She clearly didn’t expect that answer.
“We’ll… talk about this later, Mekhi. I’m very interested in what you have to say. What about you, Woodrow? What do you believe the meaning of life is?”
He stood up. He adjusted his glasses. He had neat, orderly, short black hair, and turquoise eyes behind glasses. He was taller than most of us, standing at six feet tall and one inch, and always dressed up for school as if it were a formal occasion. I didn’t think it made him look weird, though. It made him look intimidating. Maybe to us, school was a joke, or an inconvenience. But to him, it was his first step into the professional life he was bound to live. Every time I was around him, I felt that I was in the presence of a genius.
“The meaning of life is subjective. Every individual has their own understanding of it. As there is no benchmark personality, there is also no benchmark purpose in place. Whether or not there is a reason for existence is contingent on your own experiences. I believe there are forces at play in this world that science alone cannot explain. So, I would venture to say there is a “purpose” so to speak in this world. But I do not believe the purpose of life is the same for me as it is for you. Otherwise, would we not all be crafted to seek the same thing? But every soul has different desires, and different fears. One soul’s desire is another soul’s fear. Every human reacts to life differently. With all that said, I will confess, I believe there is a hierarchy in place. I believe there are those whose purpose is great, influential, history-changing, even- and there are those whose purpose is to exist solely so that another more important person may embark on whatever path the forces of the world have chosen for them.”
She was silent for a moment, digesting what he’d said. I was completely lost. At this point, I was hardly even listening anymore. This was all way too much for me right now.
“So… you believe that some people exist solely to result in experiences that shape other, more valuable people, to achieve their higher purpose?”
“Precisely,” he nodded.
“But who, or what, decides whose purpose is important, and whose purpose is just to assist others into achieving their own?”
“That is unknown to me,” he answered. “I judge this simply off the fact that while some humans- few, I might add- have gone and will go down in history for their remarkable contributions to mankind, many others simply perished without even a name to remember them by. Forgotten in the pages of history, forever. It’s unlikely to assume that all of those people failed to achieve their purpose; rather, their purpose simply wasn’t as great.
“Fair enough,” she nodded. “And these ‘forces of the world’ that you refer to… Are they religious figures? Such as Jesus, or Allah? Or are they ambiguous?”
“That, also, I don’t know,” he responded. “But evidence of these omnipotent forces is obvious in everything we do. I do not believe that science disproves paranormalities. I believe it strongly points to them. Take, for instance, the theory of special relativity. This states, in laymen’s terms, that a tangible object can never reach the speed of light. Essentially, as an object increases in speed, its mass also increases. And while this change is nanoscopic at a traditional, realistic speed, if an object were to come within a considerable reach of the speed of light, this increase in mass- which is a result of increase in speed- results in the object moving slower. Or, at least, not fast enough to achieve light speed. So, said dryly, the reason an object can never reach light speed is because it is going fast. It’s paradoxical and strange, but one must really consider how and why a force such as this is in place. It is as if something has designed objects to never reach the speed of light. And do forces as mysterious and prevalent as this also govern other concepts we attribute to religion, and chance? Do these forces govern love, and death? Who knows. But regardless, there is abundant evidence of deliberate forces in our universe that govern our way of life.”
She was silent. She slowly shook her head. “Woodrow… You are brilliant. I don’t even know how to respond. I can’t wait to see what you become one day. Well, with that said, Sierra,” my eyes widened. She picked me to talk after that? Seriously? “What is your perception of the meaning of life?”
“I…” I choked up, standing there like an idiot. “I don’t know… Love.”
Woodrow looked deplored.
“Love, Sierra?” Mrs. Roux tilted her head in interest with a kind smile. “What exactly do you mean?”
“It’s… you know… the strongest feeling in the world. You can love somebody that isn’t even alive anymore. And love can make you do crazy things. So it’s probably the point. I think it’s the most important thing in the universe.”
Woodrow raised his hand. Mrs. Roux allowed him to speak.
“Does important- which, in this case, important is only derived from societal interpretation- equal universal purpose? And does it really matter what you consider to be important, anyhow? These things are why I disagree with you.”
“Wha… What…?” I replied hopelessly.
“What I think he’s trying to say,” Mrs. Roux dumbed it down for me, “is that you stated you think love is the purpose of life because it’s, in your opinion, the most important thing in the world. But, in the long run- and I don’t mean this offensively at all, but just to elucidate Woodrow’s point- does it really matter what Sierra Hunt considers important? In the total, grand scheme of things? And even if most of the human race considers love to be important, which it does, does that mean that it becomes the purpose of life? Because if humans changed their mind tomorrow that love wasn’t important anymore, what, then, would be the purpose of life?”
I was out to lunch.
I just sat down.
“Aww, Sierra,” she sighed, “I didn’t mean to-”
“You didn’t ‘form a barrier,’” I cringed at even saying her politically correct catch phrase. “I just can tell that I’m not at all experienced enough to be talking about this.”
“Sierra, we’ve all lived life! And that makes us all experienced to answer this.”
“Whatever,” I shrugged.
Needless to say, by the time I got out of that class, the only thing I was thinking about was my headache. I didn’t even bother to watch Chester walk out of the classroom with Ingrid. Good for him. She’d finally talk to him on drugs. Wasn’t much of an accomplishment, but if that’s what made him happy, then so be it.
I went to my locker and hoped I could just live normal life again after that class, but when I started noticing everybody tripping on Xanadu again, I started to feel restless. It didn’t even feel like I was on Earth anymore. Everything was getting so complicated and bizarre, in just a matter of days.
“Sierra,” Ingrid’s voice shocked me and pulled me out of my silence. She sounded completely different. There was no sass in her tone, or a condescending smirk on her face. She was staring at me plainly. “Are you confused?”
“That’s a vague question.”
“I can see it in your eyes, Sierra. You look troubled. Lost.”
“What in the holy mother of god is happening?” I thought desperately. “Ingrid… Look… I don’t know why you’re talking to me, but… I’m fine. Okay?”
She was silent for a moment.
“Are you on Xanadu?”
“Why at school? Aren’t you scared you’ll get caught?”
“I took it last night,” she responded. “But it doesn’t end. Xanadu isn’t just a high. It’s a revelation. It’s a never-ending trip.”
“What…?” I whispered. “Ingrid..?”
“If you ever want to come here with me, let me know. You’re a very emotional girl, Sierra. Emotions hurt.”
She turned and walked away. I’d never been so confused in my time on Earth. What the hell was happening here? That wasn’t Ingrid talking. And neither was Mekhi, Mekhi anymore. They were both the same now. Like both of them were possessed by something. By the same thing.
Then a horrible idea came to my mind. I was covered with dread as I remembered that Chester had been sitting with Ingrid. He was acting like himself, but she just offered me the drug. Did she offer it to him?
For some reason, I felt almost like crying as I considered the possibility. I was running through the halls, my emotions taking over my body completely. I got to his eighth period class but he was already inside.
“Dammit…!” I rested my head against the door.
I stepped back, and anxiously found my last class of the day. The entire class, my mind and heart were racing. I didn’t want that beautiful human being to become dead like Mekhi, and Ingrid… I was so scared he was going to take the drug.
He was my inspiration.
He was my reason for trying to overcome my self-doubt. He was the reason I thought there was a way to be okay with being myself. He was my rock… whether he knew it or not.
“No… No…” I assured myself. “He’s Chester. Chester doesn’t conform… He’ll never do that drug.”
But he was so deceived by Ingrid. He was such a slave to her. It started to dawn on me how independent I’d always considered Chester. Was he independent? Or was he… oblivious? Was he himself because he didn’t care what anybody else thought, or was he just himself… because he couldn’t pull off being somebody else?
I’d never had thoughts like this before. And I didn’t like it at all. I was totally okay with waking up and being awkward at school, and wishing Chester would talk to me. That sucked, but it wasn’t this… longing. This sinister feeling that something horrible was happening. And the feeling that I might lose Chester forever.
And that Chester maybe wasn’t who I thought he was at all. And I was banking everything on nothing.
“No!” I shook my head. “I won’t think about this anymore! It’s too much…” I thought to myself, feeling nauseous.
When class got out, I sprinted to Chester’s class, but it had already been released.
“Dammit!” I cursed, changing my direction to the school parking lot.
I got outside just in time. I found him walking into the student parking lot, Ingrid at his side.
“Chester!” I called, running over to him. “Hey, Chester!”
He looked over at me, seeming embarrassed.
“What are you doing?” I whispered.
“He’s finding peace,” Ingrid assured. “He’s resting his weary, worn-out soul.”
“What the f**k are you even talking about, dude?” I stared at her. “And, Chester…! You can’t… do this!” I felt tears pour from my eyes unexpectedly, to the point it was blinding my vision.
“Sierra!” he gasped. “Are you okay?”
“No!” I yelled. “Nothing’s okay at all! I’m so confused, and scared, and… you… you’re my rock, Chester… You are. Whether you knew it or not.”
I couldn’t believe I was saying all of this. I never thought I’d tell him. But here I was, pouring it all out to him, and Ingrid just watched lifelessly.
“You know why I never wear makeup? Because I don’t want to! But I feel like I have to! You know? And I feel like I should wear fancy clothes, like Ingrid, and get my nails done, and wear perfume, but- that isn’t me! And I try so hard to accept that, but it’s so difficult… And then I see you,” my stinging eyes peered through my glasses, meeting his soft brown. “I see you dressing in old jeans and tennis shoes, and acting like yourself. I see you never giving up on Ingrid, when everybody tells you it’s not gonna’ work. I see all your little quirks, how you run through the halls to see her walk by her locker in the morning, and how you snort when you laugh really hard with your friends at lunch. I see you never conforming to the standard, just being Chester. And it makes me confident. Confident that one day, I can be like that, too… So… you can’t go to Xanadu… And not be Chester anymore…”
I was trembling. He looked down slowly.
“I… I think… that you got it wrong, Sierra… I’m… not very content with myself at all…”
The words crushed me. They destroyed me. I stood there in agony. Silent agony.
“I don’t understand,” Ingrid consoled. “Why do you want to hold onto this pain, Sierra? Why won’t you let it be? Move on from the limitations of emotions.”
“Come on, Sierra…” Chester tried to smile. “Come on. Let’s do it. It’s fast, and then you stop feeling pain. Forever.”
I was so broken, I couldn’t fight them.
We walked to her SUV, a new, white Lexus RX 350. We climbed inside and shut the doors. Her windows were tinted, and she parked far from the school in the shade. I could smell her perfume as she leaned over and opened the glovebox.
She pulled out a plastic bag full of something that didn’t look like it was from Earth.
Inside the bag was a pile of shimmering violet dust. It was almost glowing. There wasn’t a lot of it inside, but I was guessing she didn’t need much, because she pinched a very small amount with her fingers and took it out of the bag.
“Who first?” she inquired.
I was swarmed with that feeling you get when you do something wrong. Something really bad. And you’re terrified, and you wonder “Am I going to get away with this? Is this going to really change my life?”
“I’ll go first,” Chester was almost shaking with nervousness.
“Lean your head back,” she instructed.
“Xanadu enters through your eyes.”
I was starting to lose it. This couldn’t be my very last moment with Chester. With the real Chester, anyway.
I watched hopelessly as he obeyed. With his head cocked back, he stared at the ceiling of the vehicle. Her fingers hovered above those loving, warm brown irises.
My heart exploded.
“Chester!” I cried. “Please, don’t do this!”
“Sierra…” he assured, still looking up. “Please… I need this… I can’t feel so broken anymore…”
“Broken…?” I choked out, tears dousing my face. “I… I didn’t think you were broken…”
“Why… why wasn’t I allowed to be in pain to you, Sierra?” he looked at me. “I don’t get it. Like, you’re offended that I’m sad, and that I feel pain like everybody else. Who’d you think I was, huh?”
I couldn’t say anything.
“I’m crushed. I’m tired of feeling like I can’t have love. Tired of being ignored by everybody.”
“Ignored by everybody…? But, you have friends… and a family that loves you…”
“Yeah…” he looked down. “But… still. I can’t be who I want to be. Popular, important… You know… I’ll never be that. And it’s painful. It’s painful I can’t be important to people. It’s painful I can’t get a girlfriend.”
“You could! You always could! I was always here! And you just ignored me!”
“Sierra…” he looked astonished. “I… never knew…”
“Yeah, I know! Because you’re an oblivious idiot! It was obvious that I love you, and you never did anything about it! You don’t even care, do you?! You… You just want Ingrid… The s**y, popular girl… Forget girls like me, right? The girls that don’t like to dress up and look presentable. Yeah, we’re not worth it.”
I was silent.
He shook his head.
“Ingrid… do it.”
He looked up. She held her fingers over his eyes. I felt like I was going to puke as I pushed the car door open and slammed it shut, walking away into the parking lot. I tried not to cry as I hustled to the restroom. When I reached a stall, I curled up in a ball and cried my eyes out.
I knew he was gone.
Finally, after my aunt had texted me twice and called me three times, I worked up the strength to tell her where I was and that I was coming. I felt bad that she had come to pick me up because my dad was sick and I’d kept her waiting.
The rest of that day was a blur to me. She interrogated me on the ride home, asking if everything was okay, and I just told her it was boy trouble. She understood and tried to give me advice, but none of it applied.
She didn’t understand.
He was dead now.
When I got inside, my father was overcome with relief. He told me over and over again that he’d thought something had happened to me, but I told him I was just being emotional and lost track of time. I told him not to worry about it right now and get some rest, because he needed it if he wanted to get better.
Most of that night, I spent on auto-pilot. Everything I’d always lived by was gone. Chester was gone. Love couldn’t be the meaning of life, either, could it? So what did it matter anyway? Did it matter? Apparently, the only thing that mattered in life were forces. Ambiguous forces, with weird policies that we have no choice but to live by.
At least, that’s what Woodrow thought.
And he was a lot smarter than me.
I cried myself to sleep that night, unable to comprehend that Chester had really given in to Xanadu. That he was emotionless now. All I could think about was when he bumped into me on Wednesday, the life and vibrance in his eyes and voice. It was all gone now.
Because a Xanadu trip never ends.
The next day at school, I dreaded even getting out of the truck. My dad told me goodbye and that he loved me, and I told him that I loved him too. When I got to first-period chemistry, I couldn’t even face Chester. Seeing the flecks of violet in his eyes… his catatonic gaze… was incomprehensibly agonizing. Besides Woodrow, I think I was the only one in the class that wasn’t drugged.
I couldn’t think straight all of that class. My brain was plagued with what had become of Chester, and of Pawnee High School. It was overwhelming. It was horrible. I felt so nauseous…
When class got out, I went straight to the front of the school and called my dad. I told him I think I had his sickness, and that I needed to come home. He told me he’d be right there.
My day at home was awful. I tried to distract myself with TV, but it did nothing to get my mind off what was going on. I started to consider that maybe I should talk with my dad about it.
I started to consider something else.
How much pain I was in.
How much pain I’d always been in.
And all… from emotions.
It was there, at that moment in my living room, that I had my epiphany: what were emotions good for? What was the reason to hold onto them? What was the importance? It didn’t really matter in the slightest, did it? Wouldn’t it all be so much easier if I felt nothing at all?
It felt like the entire Earth were melting and falling around me like rain, and I was left staring at whatever nothingness remained. Everything I’d ever thought about life was proved wrong, in a matter of just three days.
It was just too much.
I didn’t want this anymore. The pain of emotions.
They were all gone. The whole school. It was only a matter of time before it was the whole town. And I didn’t want to be the only one sane enough to be appalled by what was left. Thoughts like “What will my dad think?” popped in my mind, and they hurt to think about.
They made me sad, and sorry, and hurt.
I wanted to stop feeling them. I was done resisting.
I took out my phone.
“Chester. I’m tired of feeling pain. Get me Xanadu please.”
He responded instantly.
It felt so strange to negotiate the time my soul would disappear.
“Some time tonight, when my dad’s asleep. He’s been sick lately. I think he’ll be in bed around ten o’clock. How about eleven? I’ll meet you in front of my house, or whoever you can get to come here with it.”
“I’ll be there.”
I thought about how excited that text would have made me feel three days ago. Now, it didn’t feel like much. It was weird. I was in so much emotional distress that I was starting to actually go numb already. The rest of the afternoon, I couldn’t really talk with my dad. Even speaking with him made me tear up. I wanted so badly not to hurt him.
But I couldn’t feel this anymore.
There was no reason to feel this anymore.
My dad went to bed around nine o’clock, and sure enough, at eleven o’clock on the dot, I saw headlights in my driveway. I stepped outside to find Chester sitting in the passenger seat of Ingrid’s car. I walked over to the vehicle without saying a word. I climbed in the back, and they pulled off, driving down the road and parking by the woods.
Chester turned around and looked at me.
“Are you ready to rest?”
“Sure…” I sighed.
It was so disturbing to see or hear Chester like this. And to think I’d be the same way in five minutes. But he was right. Ingrid was right, and even Mekhi. What was the point of emotion?
He pulled a spec of Xanadu out of the plastic bag in his hand. I studied it curiously, wondering what on earth it was, and where it came from. It shimmered like stars in the sky.
“Lean your head back,” he instructed.
I started to lean my head back. Then, I froze. I started to feel this incredible urge to hold Chester. Kind of how someone feels when somebody dies in their arms. They know they’re dead, but they hold them a little longer. I’m not sure why humans do this. But it’s exactly what I felt as I saw him there. I just wanted to hold him for a moment, maybe like that was me parting with him, and myself, even.
I reached over and touched his face.
And all I felt was ice.
I gasped as my hand launched back.
“Chester!” I was confounded. “Why are you… so cold?!”
He didn’t say anything.
“Calm down, Sierra. Stop all of this. Your brain must be exhausted. It’s time to rest.”
“No…!” I was trembling. “You… You feel… Dead.”
And everything clicked at that moment. It all made complete and utter sense. Perfect sense. That’s what emotions were. The difference between life and death. Emotions made us alive. They weren’t a reason for existence- they were existence! And that was the reason for them! And it was a domino effect of understanding. There needed to be sadness, because without sadness, there couldn’t be happiness! Happiness would then be nothing, numbness. So sadness had to exist. And that meant that to feel happiness, and to be alive, I had to feel sadness.
And that was okay.
“All along…” I stared at him. “I bet my life… and soul… on you. And that was my mistake right there. I thought life was about having you… but it isn’t. At all! I don’t… I don’t know what life is about! But that’s for me to decide! My purpose isn’t another person! Because people are bound to disappoint! I… was so lost…”
“You’re saying things that don’t make sense,” Chester tried to console me. “Come here and feel Xanadu.”
I pushed it out of his hands and it scattered on the floor of the vehicle.
“I don’t need Xanadu! I don’t want to be… dead! I want to be alive! I don’t need to know why I’m here yet! I have my whole life to figure that out! But I know one thing. Numbness isn’t the solution to living… it’s giving up on life entirely.”
“Don’t leave, Sierra. You’re making a mistake.”
“A mistake? Funny you’re telling me that… when you’re dead. You two made the mistake.”
I got out of the car, shutting the door behind me and not looking back. They drove away moments later. I walked back to the house, came inside, hopped in my dad’s bed, and I held him.
“I love you so much, Dad… I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that before… I’m so sorry…”
“Aww, Sierra,” he soothed, trying to sit up so he could peck my forehead with a kiss. “I understand. You’re sixteen! You’re growing up, and-”
“There isn’t any excuse,” I insisted. “I love you, Dad. And I won’t hesitate to tell you ever again. I won’t hesitate to do anything again…” I thought to myself. “I’m alive. And emotions make me alive. And there’s a reason I am who I am; it’s not an accident. So, I’ll never be ashamed of that either.”
I took a long, deep breath.
“Sierra, I don’t want to get you sick.”
“I know, Dad,” I smiled. “I’ll leave. We should do something tomorrow, if you’re feeling up to it. Or maybe we could just watch a movie at home.”
“Sounds great,” he nodded.
When I left the room, I walked back to my bedroom and sat on the floor. Don’t get me wrong; I was still hurting. It broke my heart that Chester was gone. It disturbed me that I almost betrayed my dad and left him behind, selfishly seeking an escape. I hated to think that so many innocent lives were taken by that drug. But, at the same time, for the first time in my life, I found peace. I felt like me.
And I was happy to be me.
That Monday, I was mortified to find the school almost empty. Police began an investigation of the strange occurrence. What they found haunts me to this day.
One hundred and ninety-four students, dead. All of unknown causes.
All of them had died the same way: lying peacefully on the ground, as if they’d died in their sleep.
To this day, I don’t know what Xanadu was. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know how it spread so fast. I don’t know why all of those under its influence seemed to be a hivemind, like they were all the same person in different bodies. I… don’t know how it made corpses move, and speak. But I felt Chester’s face with my own fingers. He was dead long before Monday.
It’s terrible what happened. I don’t know why it had to occur, and I’m still searching for the meaning of it, or whether there’s one at all. But in some ways, that tragic event saved my life. It pulled me out of years self-doubt, of worshipping Chester and basing my self-worth off his attention, of my obliviousness to why I’m here on Earth. So while I hate Xanadu, and everything it stands for…
I can’t deny I’m the woman I am today because of it.
I’ll never know what happened.
And I don’t have to.
Not knowing is okay.
Because as long as you refuse to feel nothing, you’re not done living.