Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: ” Boredom, Elitism, Luxury, Love, Envy”

Thin whispers of silver moonlight creep through gaps in the satin curtains, not quite reaching my body. Shadows and darkness surround me. Inside and out. The silence is uninterrupted, leaving me with only my thoughts for company. It would be peaceful to many. This whole life would be a dream to most. It was to me once. Having existed within it for so long, it is no longer. I tire of fancy gowns I may only wear once. I yawn during the extravagant meals, wondering what happens to the copious amounts of uneaten food. Military displays are always the same, birthdays and balls have no unique qualities, every day is like the one before. Is there nothing new in life anymore? Is this the curse of growing old? One of many such curses. It is not always easy for me to leave this luxurious bed in the mornings these days. Sometimes it is not possible at all. My joints do not work like they used to. Let alone my eyes, my ears, my hands, the list continues but I care not for it. Those pains make filling my time an ever more challenging task. I have already read through all the books in the library, what else am I to do? What new worlds am I to travel to? There are few hobbies befitting of me that I can manage. Even fewer that I am allowed to do. Would the ordinary folk care? Truly? I find it hard to believe that they would. The staff are the only people I think would. Arguing for freedom now is purposeless, they are far too entrenched in their mindset regarding me. The funny girl. The most peculiar one.

 What happened?

Once upon a time I had ambition. I had energy. I sang my wishes in the street, my desires for a more exciting life. It was not to be. I found the love of my life, yet never the thrills I wanted. No matter where I looked. No matter what I did. Do those moments I longed for exist? I will never know first hand. I know not whether I care. My husband knows I am unhappy though he knows not what to do about me. I know not what he can do for me. He does love me dearly and I do love him with all my heart. I am forever grateful to have him. But he was born into this life. He knows no different, he does not understand. At one point I enjoyed all the pomp and ceremony he loves. Reveled in the flamboyance. Now it is all so tiresome. I am sure he wishes he could help. He does in little ways. He brings me tea and wine, he holds my hands, he reminds me frequently that he loves me. Although now I cannot see why he does. Without him I dread to think quite what state I would be in. Well, I know, do I not?

 Am I merely selfish?

My surroundings are far more than comfortable. The foods I eat would be called exquisite by the little people. I never fear the cold, or the sicknesses. Perhaps I am. Others have it worse. My problems pale in comparison to theirs. What problems do I really have? Those little people seem happier than I despite them. They have purpose. They work in some form or another. Every day they have tasks they must fulfil. Be that making bread, selling eggs, caring for books, even my husband deals with all manner of politics. He has a purpose. He talks to me of work often, I know much of his duties. However I could never assist him. No. That would not do. I have knowledge aplenty, I could be valuable. He ends his days exhausted and stressed, forever wanting extra hands. Though not mine. What am I expected to do? Smile and look pretty was what the staff always told me at all the functions when I was young. I cannot imagine being able to look pretty now. Let alone smile. Especially not for some foreign, self righteous nobleman with a lecherous gaze. How did I ever? How did I ever smile?

 This night grows long. Sleep eludes me still. Perhaps on some level I do regret my choices. Never finding an art form of my own. Never making time for others in my prime. Having children instead of enjoying my youth. Would it be different if they were not estranged? I wish it were not like this. Their father is no beast, he has been rid of his curse for decades now. If only they would listen. I tried. Oh I tried. My words fell on deaf ears, my letters were viewed by blind eyes. What more could I have done? The young people in the town these days have no idea what happened back then. There is no remnant of the curse within him. How could anyone think otherwise having met him? Having known him? My understanding can only go so far. As can theirs, evidently. Some day they surely will change. They will have to replace him. When they do they will see his work and what good he has done. Could it not be before that? Could it not be within my lifetime? I very much doubt it. How much longer do I have now? Not long at all I would hope. What purpose does hope serve other than to make us suffer? To show us a reality that will never be realized?

 Ah, finally the black tides are encroaching on my somber mind. Soon the next dull day will greet me. My knees do not ache. Nor does my crumbling spine. This slumber seems as though it will be deeper than most. So long as it drowns out my thoughts, it is enough. A few merciful hours of mental silence before I have to watch out over the quiet lands and listen to my dreary self again.

BY @JadeBlack21

Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: “Once Upon a Time on the Chesapeake”

It wasn’t easy being queer, not in the early 2000s, and certainly not in a conservative Christian family. I sighed, adjusting my cropped sweater over my long white cami as I lay down on the dock, ignoring the splinters that pricked my bare calves. The breeze over the Chesapeake bay was cool, but the late afternoon sunshine warmed my skin. I smiled as the next song by Anberlin came on, the CD skipping occasionally. High school had been rough, but my graduation party was the next day. For now, I was alone, with no siblings to annoy me and no parents to badger me. As tough as I was, the past two years had been hell on earth. The music bled out my frustration, sorrow, and loneliness. No one knew how close I had come to ending my life that winter, and that’s the way I wanted to leave it. By some miracle, I was still here, on a perfect May day, and nothing was going to bring me down. I closed my eyes and drifted.

A shadow fell across me, immediately blocking my source of warmth. I shielded my eyes and looked up. I yanked my earbuds out and jammed the stop button on the Walkman. It was just Noah glaring down at me. At least mom wouldn’t know I had been listening to ‘the devil’s music.’ I pushed myself up on one elbow, wincing as a shard of wood pierced my skin. I twisted my arm around and searched for the offending splinter while my brother droned on.

“Alex!” Noah barked at me. I looked up, wide-eyed.

“What?” I asked, a little afraid. If I had managed to piss him off, things could go south very quickly. Noah had a temper that was explosive and unpredictable.

He pointed back towards the house. “I tried to tell you, Leah is here, and she brought some dumb Italian kid with her. Mom wants us back at the house.” Our sister-in-law was always bringing kids around, and I frequently ended up babysitting. There were worse jobs, I mused as I came to my feet. Noah didn’t offer to help, just turned around and stalked back the way he had come. I followed, determined to be happy no matter what.

The screen door squeaked open and crashed shut behind me. I winced at the noise. That thing was a menace. In the kitchen, the family was busy with food prep. Leah was chopping carrots, and a tall, dark-haired boy was pitting olives next to her. He had glossy curls that fell to his ears. The “dumb, Italian kid” turned to say something to my sister-in-law and I felt my eyebrows rise in surprise. He had a strong brow, intelligent hazel eyes, an aquiline nose, and dark rose lips. They were so perfect that I wondered if he was wearing makeup. The rest of his outfit was so ordinary–basketball shorts and a sports t-shirt–that I knew it wasn’t the case. Italian boy turned those eyes on me, and I got the distinct impression that he didn’t really want to be here, playing sous chef to my mom. I stuck my hand out anyway.

“Hi, I’m Alex. It’s nice to meet you.”


When he said his name, rolling his r’s, it sounded like a poem. I smiled and looked down at my hand. Belatedly, Aurelio must have remembered how to shake hands, because he stuck his hand in mine with an embarrassed look. It was a bit wet from the olives, but I felt a zing when his large, warm hand enveloped mine. We stood there for a moment until I blinked and withdrew my hand with a laugh. I suddenly felt cold, using that as an excuse to escape the odd atmosphere around Aurelio.

We ate pizza all together, and Aurelio was introduced to the family. Apparently, he was a foreign exchange student that was staying with my brother and sister-in-law in Philadelphia for the summer. My brother was a budding entrepreneur, so his wife had driven Aurelio down for the weekend, since there was nothing else for him to do. After dinner, we stayed up late playing cards. I tried to figure out the foreigner, but he was so taciturn. When I teased him, trying to get a rise out of him, he stayed quiet. At some point, I felt Aurelio’s annoyance grow sharp with my sarcastic wit. That’s what I did, push people til they showed their hand, and I knew their weaknesses. It was a twisted insurance policy.

We were sitting on the couch, and no one else was around, so I turned and lay down, my head on his thigh. It was taught under my head, and his jaw was clenched. I sighed. Aurelio seemed like a smart, interesting person, but he was way too uptight. He answered my questions evasively, and he took forever to take his turn in Uno. I lay there for a moment, trying to define his smell, like lavender and spice. The moment had gotten awkward, and I felt a twinge of frustration that nothing I did let me past his facade. I smacked him in the side of the head with the throw pillow I’d been holding to my chest. His face flashed anger, and I backed off, retiring to my room for the night. Nobody could say I hadn’t tried.

The next morning, I stretched and dragged myself out of bed, excited to wear the new white pencil skirt and electric purple button down my mom had bought her. It was my first new clothes in two years. Our family had always lived under the poverty line, and every cent I earned went towards my college fund. I sighed, thinking of how many houses I’d have to clean this summer just to be able to pay for one semester. I tamed my wavy brown hair, not taking the time to straighten it.  With the encroaching summer humidity, it wasn’t even worth it. Besides, I looked great. Usually, girly clothes made me feel deeply uncomfortable, but I really liked the way the deep purple shirt made my blue eyes shine. I minced sedately downstairs, the pencil skirt restricting my movement in an unfamiliar way. Aurelio was sitting in a chair with a full view of the stairs, and our eyes met for a moment. Feeling on top of the world, I twirled.

“What do you think?” I smiled, but Aurelio gave a noncommittal grunt and looked back down at his laptop. My heart sank. He didn’t think I looked pretty. Seriously?! His apathy stung worse than his anger had the night before. I left in a hurry, determined to ignore him for the rest of the day. My real friends were coming for the party, anyway.

Four hours later, I’d changed my mind. My “friends” had pranked me nonstop, ambushing me with airsoft guns and silly string. I was sore all over, and my lungs were still burning from an asthma attack. Apparently, I was severely allergic to silly string. I watched from behind the curtains of the darkened library. They were still at it outside, spraying each other like I hadn’t just left my own party, hacking my lungs out. I had no idea where Aurelio was, but I’d only seen him in passing, chatting up the adults. He didn’t seem indifferent to them, I thought with a bitter pang. A small part of me wondered why I cared so much. Perhaps because I wanted to make a good impression. Screw that. Melancholy had sunk its claws into my chest, and I couldn’t shake it. Today was supposed to be happy, I berated myself.

I sat down at the piano, running my hand over the smooth cherry wood. The first notes of the Moonlight Sonata wrapped around me, pulling the pain out of my chest. All my sorrow over being unseen and unloved, all my self-loathing and self-lacking poured out in the piece. I knew everyone was outside, and the thick carpet deadened the sound so I could play just for myself. A door creaked open, and Aurelio slipped quietly into the room. I faltered for a moment, then shut him out and let myself breathe in time to the final slow fall of the Sonata. I held that last note until it faded into the darkness, my anger emptied out and left with the familiar hollow, hungry ache. I searched for my smile and came up with a fake. I painstakingly plastered it on, anyway, directed it at Aurelio, and left the room. He raised no objection, so I returned to my party.

Again with the regrets. Everything with my friends started well. “Let’s go down to the docks,” someone suggested. Somehow that turned into “Let’s push Alex into the water and if she resists, let’s hold her down and throw her in and if she fights and screams, let’s gang up on her and do it anyway until she freaks out and has a total panic attack.” That’s how I ended up having a full-blown panic attack, while five of my friends struggled to pick me up off the dock and throw me in the disgusting bay. I could hear the panic in my voice as I screamed and kicked: “No! No! No!”

There was a gap, and the hands gripping me suddenly let go. Aurelio shoved his way into the circle, pushing everyone back. “Stop!” He glared at them fiercely. “Can’t you hear her? She said ‘no!’” My jaw dropped as he stooped down and offered me his hand. “Are you okay?”

I nodded, but my face probably betrayed the traces of my terror. Aurelio pulled me to my feet, and a small and hard lump in my chest unwound. The party died down quickly, and everyone left, including Leah and Aurelio.

That very evening, I checked my Facebook and found a friend request from Aurelio. I answered it and shot him a quick message thanking him for coming to my party. I had barely pressed send when I got a message thanking me for welcoming him and letting him crash my party. I smiled, and the conversation was off like a shot. Turns out, Aurelio really was friendly. We found that we saw the world much the same way. He had traveled so much, and I dreamed of traveling. We talked about his experience of the States, and my nieces, and all the people he was meeting. Every day the length of our messages grew. I worked my summer job, but every break had me scarfing down food to have time to message him.

The next weekend he came down to visit Baltimore. I had never met a nicer person, someone who heard me when I spoke. He was a little distracted, wide-eyed at all the disheveled glory of one of America’s most crime-ridden cities. Frankly, I was concerned we would lose him as we walked the length of the harbor. Watching Aurelio go full tourist made me laugh, and he even started smiling. We had to cross a street and I grabbed his hand, towing him along behind me. When we were safely on the other side, I sort of forgot to let go. The calluses from his saxophone rubbed against my skin, sending a shot of heat up my arm. There was something familiar about his hand in mine, like the smell of pizza on a Friday night, the piano keys, or a good run. I felt home. This is what friendship should be like. All the barriers, his facades, he dropped them all. I had felt there was so much he hadn’t dared show at first.

In those long messages and the long conversations, I learned about his pretty violent life with three brothers and a very ill mother. He was mind-blowingly smart, and he never made me feel bad for my geeky, nerdy self. The best was playing the piano. He would invariably drift into the room. At first, he looked at the books, then I’d feel him standing right behind me. Then he sat next to me and turned the pages for me. Our shoulders would brush and my whole body would relax. This boy had turned my life upside down, and I felt so comfortable with him. He never judged me, never asked anything from me that I couldn’t give. He was like the ying to my yang. My very best friend.

A few weeks later he was staying the weekend, and I was incandescently happy. Then I got sick. The cold medicine helped, so I drank half the bottle, with the stupidity only a teenager can muster. My cousin was there, so we hung out in the guest room with him, Aurelio sitting on the carpet between us. The feel of his arm against mine was like a drug. It’s like the closer I got to him, the less pain I felt. I couldn’t believe I’d found my bosom friend. Sure, maybe I told him that, and then I had to explain to him what a bosom was. That didn’t help in clearing the matter up, so I showed him Anne of Green Gables, at which point he pointed out that those girls definitely weren’t straight. Unfortunately, I had no good arguments against that, so I let it slide. I fell asleep on his shoulder at some ungodly hour and woke up with no idea how I had gotten to bed.

That morning we bundled into the car to tour Washington D.C. with my sister-in-law, cousin, and sister. There were no crosswalks, so I had no excuse to grab his hand. Somehow that really put a damper on the day. I couldn’t figure out my own crappy mood, and Aurelio’s sunshine was gone, too. We moped around the capitol all day. When I asked him what was wrong, he pointed out that we couldn’t hold hands, not with so many people watching. I just couldn’t figure out how something so good could be perceived as bad. We disagreed, and an impossible rift opened between us. We spent that evening laughing and talking with my cousin, but I felt a vague sense of frustration. There was no space for distance with us. It was killing me.

Then the day was gone. I changed into pajamas–a pair of short shorts and an oversize t-shirt. When everyone had gone to bed I tiptoed out of bed and went for a drink of water. I stopped in front of the guest bedroom door, eyeing the band of yellow light. I hadn’t gotten a second to talk to him alone, and that I was in withdrawal from the lack of one-on-one conversation. I turned to walk away, then I turned back, tapping my fingers on my thigh in indecision. Just then, Aurelio’s door opened a crack, and he peered into the dark hallway.

“Hello?” He asked.

I moved into the light. “Hey. Can I come in for a second?”

His face was taught with indecision, then he nodded sharply, stepping aside to let me pass.

I paced back and forth, but he caught my arm, pointing to the floor. “The floorboards, they make noise, no?”

I nodded and stopped my pacing. “You’re right,” I sighed, and plopped down cross-legged on his bed. I patted the spot next to me and he gingerly lowered himself, holding his back stiff the whole time.

“I don’t really know why I came.” I hesitated, certain I should leave, but not certain why. Things had been so easy. Why did everything suddenly feel tense, poised on a knife’s edge? Why had I even come here?

Aurelio was looking at his hands, and I felt a sudden spurt of anger at this new indifference.

“I’m sorry,” I practically spat. “I’ll let you go to sleep.”

Aurelio looked up at me and I recoiled at the shadow of pain I saw there. “That’s not what I want.”

“Then what the heck is going on?” I whispered. An edge of desperation cut through my words. I couldn’t lose this boy. He was my other half. Just being separated like this was agony.

“I’m afraid to tell you.” His accent slipped through, coloring his words, and I smiled.

“You don’t have to be afraid of me.”

“I’m not afraid of you, I’m afraid of losing you. You mean so much to me.”

I nodded, my heart lifting at his words. I put my hand on his arm and felt his muscles tremble beneath my touch. What was happening? He stood up like he’d been burned, facing away from me.

“Whatever it is, I’m here for you,” I assured him. I followed him and pulled him in for a hug, then froze. His eyes were wide with shock, and my mouth went dry, feeling his very big, hard problem against my hip. Aurelio closed his eyes, a muscle in his jaw working as he stood there, waiting for my reaction. My mind raced, putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Suddenly the truth was very apparent, but I still had to hear it from him. The house was still around us, but our bodies seemed to hum and crackle with tension. “What is it you want?” I asked.

He sighed and opened his eyes to meet mine. “You,” he answered, the tenderness and fire in his eyes sending a shiver down my spine. I didn’t move. I couldn’t process what this meant, the rightness as all my questions were answered. I’d never seen him coming, never imagined that he could want me as more than a friend. But when he licked his lips, his chest rising and falling with his rapid breaths, I knew exactly how he felt.

My body was tingling from the contact, and I stretched onto my tiptoes, earning a groan from Aurelio where our bodies rubbed together. His hands came to my waist, and I wrapped my arms around his neck, where I could run my fingers through his silky curls. It felt so good to be here like this, but I found a pit of desire opening in my stomach. I wanted him so badly it hurt. I pressed my body close to him, and it wasn’t enough.

“I want you, too,” I breathed out, and Aurelio didn’t hesitate. His lips brushed mine like a question, and I pulled him to me even tighter, opening my mouth. He instantly deepened the kiss, and I shifted to give him access. It was a kiss from the storybooks; everywhere our bodies met it was like fire burning through my veins. We were so close, but still so far. I pushed him back to sit on the bed, freezing for a second when the hinges squeaked. But all was quiet, so I straddled his lap, rolling my hips against his length.

Aurelio hissed. “You can’t do that, please. Not if you don’t want me to take you right here, right now.” I stilled my movements, aware that my parents were sleeping right across the hallway. “But you can still kiss me,” he suggested. So I did.

BY @JoyMarcelWrites

Santa’s Secret Pen ’21 – Prompt: “Unknown Number”

10:12 AM, Eastern Standard Time

Carmen Au curled her hands around the takeaway cup and let the warmth seep into her fingers. Sickly sweet steam rose from the opening. Walnut fudge brownie announced a tag jammed into the cardboard sleeve. It was somewhat sacrilegious for her, the daughter of two very traditional tea drinkers, to be holding something that literally sounded like an ice cream flavour. But when else could you get away with it if not at Christmas?

A flimsy plastic divider separated the enclave of David’s Tea from the rest of Pearson International’s domestic terminal, one side light wood and turquoise accents and the other the dull grey of utilitarian tile and uncomfortable seating. Ceiling to floor glass provided a view of the planes nudged up against the building. The sky over them was the palest blue, nearly white but just a shade off. A baggage cart snaked its way around snow piled high on the side of the runway. Carmen wrinkled her nose at the flecks of dirt embedded into the white.

The first time she’d seen snow was in October. Carmen had been living in Toronto for just two months and studying for a psychology midterm when her roommate tapped her shoulder. They got up from their textbooks to stand at the window together, transfixed at the snowflakes flurrying down to gather onto the road, trees, and cars a few storeys beneath in peaceful and suffocating silence.

Now, she was used to it. Michael Bublé crooned over the speakers to bid them the holliest and jolliest. Carmen sipped her treacherous tea and watched seconds tick down on the digital clock beside one of the departure gates.  

Something buzzed in her hoodie pocket. Carmen dug out her phone and quickly plugged in earbuds before swiping green towards the quivering phone icon.


A high pitched shrill bombarded her ears. Carmen winced but nothing could stop the smile spreading across her face. “Hi, Carleigh.”

“Hi!” her little sister shrieked again. Then the camera spun and Carmen caught a blur of the place that had fixated in her mind for the past twelve weeks: a living room furnished with a worn pleather sofa, cluttered glass side tables and Ikea shelving surrounding a TV bright with dancing commercials. The sliding balcony door was open, warm air wafting in as Carleigh wiggled bare toes on the cool tiled floor.


“Carmen!” another familiar voice cried out. The screen jostled and shook again until the beaming face of her father filled it. Plastic rimmed glasses perched on his nose and silver peppered his sparse black beard. “Waiting at the airport?”

“Yup,” she said back. “Boarding at 10:25.”

“We know,” he said, pulling the camera away so it could catch the open laptop on the desk crammed into a corner. “We will be tracking your flights until you arrive home.”

“You will arrive in Vancouver at 4 o’clock,” came the voice of Carmen’s mother. Crows feet winked at Carmen every time Mom blinked. “So when we wake up, you will already be on Cathay Pacific. I’ll go to the market tomorrow so when you come home, we can have steamed fish and coriander soup.”

“Wahhh. Thank you!” Carmen almost teared up thinking of the first homecooked Chinese meal she’d be having since August. Four whole months. “I can’t wait.”

Another whine pierced her eardrums. “I don’t like coriander!”

“You only have to drink one bowl,” their mother assured Carleigh. Carmen’s seven-year-old sister groaned and threw herself onto the sofa, a dolphin in human form and wearing a bright pink Lol Doll shirt.

“Carissa!” called Dad. “Come and talk to Carmen. She’s almost getting on the plane!”

The camera dipped again and resurfaced aimed at the hallway. Carissa shuffled out from the shadowy depths with long dark hair swept over her cheeks. Her arms, spangled with a multitude of worn woven bracelets and tiny stickers on her fingernails, were wrapped around a mass of fur, tongue, and rumpled sweater.

“Scruffles!” Carmen gasped. The tea barista startled and stared from over the counter. “Oh, my baby boy!”

“Wow, hi to you too,” Carissa drawled. She had clearly been practising a teenage deadpan in preparation for this day.

“I didn’t forget, you distracted me with maximum Scruff. In a Christmas jumper! Happy birthday, by the way.”

Carissa averted her eyes, but she couldn’t hide the faint flush of pride dusting her round cheeks. “Thanks.” She secured her hands around Scruffles the pug’s extremely rotund body and held him up to the camera so Carmen could properly coo over those bugged-out eyes, floppy ears, and skinny paws that kneaded the air frantically. After significant squirming, Scruffles was released and immediately scurried beneath the dining room chairs to try and escape from woolen, though festive, captivity.

“I miss him so much! I wanna smoosh his face, then smooch his face.”

“His breath smells like chicken,” Carissa said. “Carleigh has been sneaking treats.”

“It’s Christmas time, Christmas time, no time for diet!” Carleigh sang, popping back into frame. She held up a wrapped gift that dwarfed her head. “Look what Auntie Ruth gave me.”

“Carleigh, we need to end the call now. Carmen’s going on the plane soon!” Dad’s bearded smile reappeared. “Can’t wait to see you soon.”

She swallowed the last gulp of tea and returned the smile. “Can’t wait to see you too.”

Ten minutes later and walnut brownie’d to the brim, Carmen stood in a snaking line with her backpack and carry-on. Every few seconds, she inched towards the airline attendants who flanked the departure gate.

Her hoodie pocket buzzed. Carmen automatically moved her passport and boarding pass to one hand and swiped with the other without looking.


Carmen listened to the sound of heavy breathing. “Hello? Can I help you?” The breathing paused for a beat before resuming. Carmen frowned.

“Excuse me, miss. Your boarding pass?”

Carmen dropped the phone from her ear and fumbled with her belongings. The airline attendant waited with infinitesimal patience as Carmen first tried to hand over her phone, then swapped it with her passport alongside muttered apologies. Her thumb jabbed the red End Call button just as the attendant handed back her boarding pass.

“Have a good flight,” they called as Carmen pulled her carry-on down the ramp. The scent of plastic and machinery met her nose. She grimaced and prepared to be smelling nothing else for the next five hours.

Home, she was on the way home.

1:42 PM, Pacific Standard Time

The Starbucks at YVR was cleverly situated smack in the centre of a departure gate cul-de-sac all laden with international flights whose hours were in the double digits. Naturally, it was crowded. Carmen shuffled to the side after giving her order and waited.

Compared to what she was used to, five hours on a plane had been a piece of cake. Carmen didn’t even mind having a window seat as the daytime flight allowed her an interesting view of the patchwork plains of Canada below. Of course, at this time of year they looked like large icy puddles stitched together by muddy road, but she forced herself to take in some natural scenery since soon, she’d be sequestered in a dense metropolis of concrete and chrome.

Soon. Carmen sighed deeply, inhaling sugary coffee and exhaling the longing for Hong Kong’s neon skyline.

Her phone buzzed. Carmen pulled it out and looked at the screen. Unknown Number. She put her phone back into her hoodie pocket. As a rule, she didn’t answer anyone who wasn’t a saved contact on the first go. If someone really needed to find her, they’d call again.

They called again. Carmen pressed the smooth, cool screen to the ridges of her ear. “Hello?”

Nothing but breathing again. This time, it was slow and measured. Carmen strained for any other clues, but there was nothing but a deep inhale, a deep exhale. Inhale, exhale. “Um. Hello?” 

A barista plopped three coffees on the counter and shouted names that weren’t hers. Carmen took her attention back to the call. “Who is this?” she asked, slightly louder.

The next inhale stuttered and snorted. A cool sense of relief surged through Carmen, but instead of a response she continued to only hear breathing. The caller gasped, soft and urgent, and it sparked fear through Carmen’s chest.

“A-are you okay? Do you need any help?” She glanced around, but other travellers paid her no attention, their eyes trained on the counter, once again devoid of beverage.

Suddenly, the gasping stopped. Carmen waited, and the sniffing began. Sniffing, eager and rapid. Heat flared up in Carmen’s cheeks as something akin to a wheeze, almost like laughter, echoed into her ears. She ended the call, heart hammering and anger flowing through her muscles.

“Gingerbread latte for Carmen!”

The barista ignored her red-faced glower, ostensibly used to it, and zipped back to the steamers to prepare the next drink. Carmen steadied herself with a new cardboard tube cradled in her hands and took a long sip of scalding bittersweet.

To Carmen, a Starbucks Gingerbread Latte was the taste of Christmas. It was what she got at Ocean Terminal before walking past all the hipster buskers at Star Ferry to walk along the harbourfront with her friends. The island skyline would glitter at them, all silver and chrome if it were during the day or like multicoloured starlight during the night. Her friends from school would sit there under the palm trees and catch up on the semester while the Tsim Sha Tsui Clock Tower chimed.

Less than a day now, and she’d be home.

5:07 PM, Japan Standard Time

Carmen gazed out at a glorious Tokyo sunset from the windows of Narita International Airport. Jet streams from hours-departed planes streaked the pink and orange sky that slowly evaporated into the dark blue of oncoming night.

Time had no meaning anymore. For the last quarter of her 13-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean, Carmen had watched episode after episode of The Good Place until they blurred together and she no longer knew whether she was in a Good or Bad place. Narita certainly felt like a Good Place. People glided around with their puffy jackets laid atop of suitcases stacked upon trolleys, their voices low while the announcements chimed gently in Japanese and English. Seeing the signs use Chinese characters – though Carmen understood that it was formal Japanese – reminded her yet again that she was another bout closer to home.

She tapped a fingernail against the metal side of her Coca Cola absentmindedly. Japan and its generous lifestyle of efficiency and convenience had her fumbling in her wallet for a debit card to tap against a vending machine. Japan was one hour ahead of Hong Kong, so she didn’t need that much caffiene. It would still be four more hours on the plane, then roughly another hour to disembark, fetch her belongings, and commute back home from HKIA.

Her phone rang.

Carmen pulled it out slowly, mentally praying that she would see Mom or Dad on the screen. But of course… Unknown Number. Carmen stared at it. Who the hell could it be?

Against her better judgment, Carmen swiped green and held the phone to her ear with trembling fingers. “Hey,” she hissed at the now familiar heavy breathing. “I’m going to change my sim card right now. Never call me again.”

No reply except for pant, pant, pant, so Carmen mashed her thumb into the red button to hang up.

She had just put her earring back on after using the stem to poke at the hidden button on the phone’s side to release the sim card tray when a polite, clipped voice announced that rows 148-159 were ready for boarding. Carmen snapped up her carry-on handle so fast that it rattled. But she didn’t care. She was ready to be home, to be with her family, not alone like the past four months and twenty hours.

Five more, and home.

10:12 PM, Hong Kong Time

She made it. Carmen was home.

Almost, anyway. She rolled through the quiet but well-lit walkway between housing blocks of the apartment complex in Lam Tin, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Nobody was around to give her a glance as her suitcases jostled over the bumpy bricks towards Block 6. Her phone had only buzzed with text messages from the family group chat since landing at HKIA an hour ago, so maybe changing her sim card really had been the way to stop the creepster caller from targeting her.

It didn’t matter how, really. They had stopped, and she was relieved. She could relax.

That is, until she passed Blocks 3 and 5. (There wasn’t a Block 4, of course. Carmen was back in Asia.) With her hands busy with two suitcases that threatened to pull her arms out of socket, she couldn’t answer. The security guard at Block 6 recognised her and buzzed her in with a big smile.

“Ahh, welcome back! Must have been a long trip!” They peered at Carmen’s hunched shoulders and sagging hoodie pocket. “Oh, your phone–”

“I know,” Carmen snapped. “I mean, I got it. Thank you!”

She kicked the heavier suitcase through the swinging glass door and swerved towards the lifts. While the LED numbers over the doors morphed silently, Carmen snatched up her phone. She shouldn’t, but she was furious and she wanted to give them a piece of her mind.

“How,” she growled before they could utter an opening huff, “did you find me?”

The lift had arrived by then, and it was mercifully empty. Carmen shoved her belongings into it, still snarling into the phone. “I’ve had a really long day, like the past 24 hours, and I do not have any patience for this.”

The silver doors clanked shut and heaved her upwards. “You must think this is so funny, right? Well, if you do this one more time, I’m going to find a way to block and report you–”

She paused when she realised that there was no more breathing. Carmen looked at the screen. The connection had cut out.

“Oh my GOD!” she screamed as the lift arrived at her floor. Flat A’s door swung inward to reveal her beaming father whose smile melted into confusion. 

“What’s wrong, Carmen?” 

She flung her phone back into her pocket. “AUGH!”

Dad unlocked the gate and she stepped over the threshold. The smell of ginger, green onion, garlic, and coriander wafted out towards her like warm, welcoming fingers. Carmen swatted them away. She was too riled up to enjoy any of it, and that thought made her heart cave in.

Carissa, perched on the sofa armrest and slippers dangling off her toes, pulled a face. “Uh, welcome back?”

“Some weirdo keeps on calling me and never says anything! They just breathe super loudly until I hang up.” Tears pricked at Carmen’s eyes. The entire ordeal had ruined her first time coming home from uni.

“Don’t worry about that anymore,” Dad soothed. “You’re home now.” 

Mom emerged from the kitchen bearing a tray of dinner they must have been keeping hot for her: a bowl of rice, sautéed vegetables, the belly of a steamed fish, and another bowl for soup. “Where’s Carleigh? Carleigh! Come out, Carmen’s here!”

The three of them turned to the hallway. There was a telltale scrabble of claw on tile. Carmen squatted down so Scruffles could more easily launch himself into her arms, all basketball-shaped body and trembling legs with a jiggling butt making up for the coiled stub of a tail. He shoved his nose into her ear to lick her face, and while she laughed at the adorable grossness of it all, something clicked.

Panting… and wet sniffing?

Suddenly, there was screaming in the distance. Carleigh finally graced the scene at top speed with Carissa hot on her trail and waving a new Huawei. “You thief!”

Carleigh hurled herself on top of Scruffles to claim sanctuary in Carmen’s arms.

Carissa was hysterical. “She stole my phone!”

“Since when do you have a phone?” Carmen managed to cry out whilst pinned down by sister and dog.

“We promised her she could have one when she turned 13,” Dad admitted, adjusting his glasses to look at the screen. “So it’s only been one week.”

“She’s been stealing it,” Carissa hissed, pointing at Carleigh, who hid her face in Carmen’s neck.

“You said you missed Scruffles, so I called you so you could talk. But I couldn’t get him to say anything! He just sat there.”

Carmen stared at Scruffles. His big black buggy eyes shone in the overhead lights, folded ears trembling with every laboured heave of his broad pug chest, humid breaths puffing against Carmen’s skin out of his open mouth glistening with drool.

It had been Carleigh and Scruffles. Every time. It was so dumb. It was the dumbest. And it was so sweet. It was the sweetest.

Dad handed Carissa the phone. “Add your fingerprint to the security so only you can unlock it.”

It took another 15 minutes before everything settled down. Carleigh was sent to bed for causing such undue stress to both her sisters, tissues were handed to Carmen to wipe off Scruffles’s drool, and Carissa lurked around the dinner table while Mom heated up the food again and Dad hauled the suitcases to the right bedroom.

“Why didn’t you let me know you have a phone now?” Carissa asked between slurps of soup. “I could have added you and not freaked out every time it called.”

Carissa froze, her lips pouted in a frown. “I did add you.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I did!” Carissa’s frown deepened as she tapped open her contact list. “Isn’t this your number?”

“No. It’s a 9 at the end, not 1.”

Carissa stared at the screen. Carmen tipped the bowl to drain it of soup. Carissa placed her phone on the table and scooted it over to Carmen. “Then… who’s this person I’ve been talking to?”

They stared at the texts. Bright blue and white speech bubbles beamed insidiously into their home. Carissa and Carmen jumped when suddenly, the phone began to buzz.

Carmen slowly reached out to swipe the green call button. “Hello?”


Except for heavy breathing.

BY @pearlgreylatte