Down the Rabbit Hole: Tracks
Down the Rabbit Hole is a section of The Mirror that showcases student work from across campus. Submissions of all genres are welcome — please send works of 3,000 words or fewer to firstname.lastname@example.org. The following is a work of fiction.
I do not go quietly. My heart pounds with feverish anticipation. Breathless, my footsteps fall with heavy thuds as I rush down the stairs. I heave open the door, slide out and slam it shut behind me. I shove my key into the small hole below the doorknob and rotate it counterclockwise until the old lock clicks with finality. Leaning back against the door, I stop to catch my breath and watch as the small clouds materialize in the cold air. Outdoors, a hush of silence falls, so sudden and so complete that it’s dizzying.
Slowly, I take my first steps into the frigid darkness. I’m tempted, almost immediately, to turn around and go back inside. The air has a particular quality about it — it’s almost tangible somehow, like sleet — and I imagine that I can feel it pressing into my skin, each molecule like a tiny acupuncture needle. A shiver runs down my spine, but I shove my gloved hands deep into my coat pockets and set out on the icy path.
I tread cautiously at first, but soon begin to pick up speed. There’s no sense prolonging the inevitable. Frozen pockets of snow crunch beneath my boots, protesting against my determined footsteps. I imagine I must be disturbing nature. The wind howls, or perhaps it is an airplane. I glance up at sky and nearly stumble, taken aback by the forceful beauty of the stars. For some reason, I had assumed that they wouldn’t be visible this time of year. I remind myself that stars are immune to frostbite. Already I can feel the numbness radiating through my fingers.
For weeks, things have been changing. That’s not to say that things hadn’t been changing before. It would have been more unusual had the world suddenly stopped changing — as helpless victims of inertia, we’d be thrown off-balance. But these particular changes have been laser-focused, concentrated solely on me, as if there is an uncontrollable metamorphosis taking place beneath my skin. I have never felt so untethered, and yet I have been unable to pinpoint the source of my newfound desire for motion.
I clench my jaw to stop my teeth from chattering, to convince my body (if not my mind) of my resoluteness. I am leaving.
The straps of my backpack are digging into my shoulders, and the wind whips at my face. The ground beneath my feet has changed abruptly — slick asphalt. I’ve reached the street. Overhead the streetlamps glow faintly, as though they understand that I will be the only one walking the streets on a night like this one, that I am the sole presence who will benefit from their light. Yet already I am feeling less alone.
Perhaps this is a juvenile idea, and I am merely fulfilling some capricious daydream of running away from home left over from childhood. The footsteps I leave behind me in the snow make a path to directly the door. They seem to beckon me back to the warm indoors, the mild and unreasonable sense of security provided by the click of a lock. But tonight I am on the other side of the door, and I am not turning around. The narrow trenches left behind by my boots will disappear by morning, filled with fresh snow. It will not erase my path, but it will fill in my tracks, which is the next best thing.
I think that maybe it is impossible to leave without a trace.
As I make my way along the salted pavement, I reassure myself that I am not avoiding my problems by leaving. I’ve learned that the only way for me to escape an anxious mental loop is to travel in a straight line, at least until I can resist the pull of its gravity and tear my thoughts from its orbit. I wonder how long it will take for all of the cells in my body to die and regenerate. Maybe that is when I will go back — when I have an excuse for why I had started to feel so unquiet. “I’m a different person now,” I’ll explain, winded from rushing back up the snowy path. You will stare at me with suspicion, and I will hold my breath until you open the door to let me back in.
A streetlight above me flickers, then loudly sputters out. The resulting darkness that comes after is deeper than I would have expected, and I’m forced to pause and regain my bearings. The street is deserted, and as I stand in the middle of the pavement waiting for my eyes to adjust, it dawns on me that perhaps I have put myself in a dangerous situation. For the first time since the lock clicked behind me, I begin to consider the extent of my solitude and the magnitude of the risk I have taken. At once the wind roars so fiercely that I am thrown off balance, and I fall to my knees, my palms grazing the frozen ground. Shaken, I take a few moments to recover before I feel ready to continue on my way.
Soon the streetlights have returned to their neutral state, their faint light fading with the first signs of morning. The sky has transitioned from star-studded black to a pale, muted gray. I am almost at the train station, which is fortunate timing as my boots are soaked through and what started as a stark determination to take drastic measures against my uneasiness has begun to fade to a vague stubbornness. Even now, moving forwards is more intuitive than turning back, and my mind resists the oppressive silence that surrounds me when I am motionless.
The train arrives, and I slide into the first window seat in an empty car. Soon I have the unsettling feeling that I am hurtling through the countryside alone, that this dreamlike sunrise and flickering landscape will go unseen by eyes other than my own. I’m accustomed to solitude, but something about the situation is uncanny. I understand that I am fundamentally alone, now more than I have ever been before. I am away from home, but I’m also a different kind of away — disconnected, outside. More than just a physical distance separates me from where I was. I close my eyes and drift into a fitful sleep, lulled by the low rumble and click of the wheels on the tracks below.
My eyes fly open with a start. My short sleep ends abruptly. I am no longer moving. I blink quickly, willing my environment to come into focus, wondering why the train has stopped. I realize that I am much more comfortable than I ought to be, that I am lying down. Slowly, I raise myself up onto my elbows and squint in the bright light. I am back in my room, the blinds open halfway, the sunlight creating dappled patterns on my bedspread.
My mind sluggishly attempts to piece together what had happened before waking up back in my room. Last night, lying in bed, the sensation of imprisonment had been overpowering. Displeased by my inability to escape the labyrinth, I had been seized by a desire to crawl out of my own skin.
I had nearly made up my mind. I had nearly left again.
I slide the covers off my body and set my feet on the wooden floor, walking toward the window. I open the blinds the rest of the way.
Immediately, my eyes are flooded with light — the whiteness of the fresh snow is dazzling. There are no footsteps leading from the doorway, and nothing but a few stray pine needles litter the crystalline blanket covering the ground. The memories of that faraway night, so deeply entrenched in my past, had been reawakened with such sharpness and clarity that they had taken on a visceral, lifelike quality. It was not the first time that I had relived the experience of my escape, but it did not fail to shake me with each recurring dream.
The idea of leaving — the thrill of setting out on a journey, of leaving everything behind — has always been intoxicating. But I have never again tried something as drastic as I had on that other winter’s night, to once again try severing all the tethers that tie me to the one place where I am expected to remain. I understand now that a physical journey is not always necessary. It is possible to induce a change in scenery by assuming a different perspective — but the mind will often nervously resist the imposition. Sometimes, it is necessary to leave.
This morning I am as at home as I ever have been, both mentally and physically. But I am unable to shake my conviction that, although it appears that nothing is different, it once again feels as if everything has changed.