This is my entry into Koromo and Empy's Song Competition. The song I was given to work with was Like A Stone by Audioslave.
Update: This story was listed as second place in the winning circle! Thank you to EmpyrealInvective and The Koromo for the listing. You can read more about this here.
“On a cob web afternoon, In a room full of emptiness, By a freeway I confess, I was lost in the pages of a book full of death; Reading how we'll die alone. And if we're good we'll lay to rest, Anywhere we want to go.”
— Like A Stone, Audioslave
Naya waited in a local café situated above one of the many subway stations that cut their way beneath downtown New York. It seemed like she had been waiting forever for her beloved niece Avery to arrive. It had been so long since she’d seen her niece that… no, she didn't want to think about how lonely she had been without her. She didn’t want to remember the day that Avery had left her those many years ago.
Avery had come to live with Naya at the age of three when her own mother could no longer take care of her. Naya’s sister Helen had struggled with her alcohol addiction for years. Naya always had the feeling she’d end up raising her niece one day if Helen didn’t clean up her act and she was right. She claimed the custody of her niece when she was three years old, under the instruction of a city attorney. Somehow her niece had gone missing from her life after only two years of raising her as her own child. Little Avery was only five years old when she disappeared into the vast oceans of people and buildings that gave New York its reputation of swallowing faint-hearted people alive. Naya’s sister never forgave her for losing sight of her.
New York is a big city. Many items have been lost to its streets, parks, and alleys never to be recovered. It was a city where things and people disappeared in a flash of a second and neither was easily found. Despite this fact, Naya always thought she would find Avery. She always hoped she would see her playing outside one of the downtown shops when she was running errands for the law firm she worked at. Avery would run up to her giggling and Naya would take her home to her apartment where she would make sure that she would never lose sight of her again. She always imagined that she could see her when she took long strolls in Central Park, engrossed in thoughts about the times they once shared together.
Now, Naya was so mixed up inside. She didn't know whether she was happy or frightened to see the person she loved like a daughter again after four years of being apart. Little Avery would be nine years old now. One of the regulars of the café told her that she saw her niece hanging around the lobby a few days ago. Naya had posted her picture on the walls with her name and address in the hope that someone would find her. Avery looked older, but the man who found her niece said he would have recognized her facial features anywhere from the pictures she had posted.
Naya came to the cafe every night since the regular had told her the details of her niece’s whereabouts in the hope of finding her again. She would do anything to have her niece in her arms after spending so many years apart. She was tired of living her life alone. She was tired of the guilt that she had been lugging around for five years from losing her. Her sister’s inebriated curse words stuck out the most in her mind.
“I hate that you are my sister. I hate you more than anyone. Damn you. I hope you rot in hell.”
The drunken words Helen screamed at her the night her daughter went missing often played over and over like a broken record in Naya’s mind. They made her hate herself more and more the longer she was apart from her niece. They made her want to curl up somewhere and let herself waste away to nothing. She had felt worthless ever since she had heard them. She could not face her sister ever since the loss in both of their lives had taken place.
Tonight, the service was slow and when the waitress did speak to her, the young woman with red hair pulled into a ponytail told her that she would meet her niece soon. Naya had talked to the regular at the café who had originally seen her niece and said that she had also seen Avery playing by the subway a few times as well. The regular at the cafe insisted that she had seen Avery hanging around these parts since last August, but Naya had yet to see her walk through the glass doors of the small establishment. She had been waiting for her niece to show up for a while now and had somehow found the courage to pull herself out of her depressive haze, if only for a while, at the prospect of seeing Avery walk through the front entrance. Perhaps this evening would be the moment when she could finally own up to the fact that there were some things in this world that were out of her hands and could not be faced alone.
She couldn’t explain why she was waiting here; she felt completely disoriented. One minute she was driving home and the next moment... she wasn’t sure what happened. Naya assumed that she had stopped at this place because she knew Avery would be here. Maybe she possessed some kind of ESP. Naya remembered that her sister told her once that all aunts have psychic abilities that tell them when their family needs them most. That was one of the many things that make aunts special.
Helen had told her that gem of wisdom before Avery had gone missing from their lives. Naya knew that her sister would say that all family is worthless if they had the same conversation these days. Helen lost her last reason to retain some sort of sanity in her life when her daughter went missing. She started knocking back eight beers a night. The last time Naya heard anything about her, she was serving time in the state penitentiary for being caught drunk behind the wheel for the third time.
Naya kept drawing a complete blank. She knew that she couldn’t be dreaming. She felt the warm air of a heater on a nearby table blowing in her face. This had to be real. She couldn’t remember when she had showed up to the cafe. There were other people sitting next to her table. Some were sitting by themselves, looking out the window facing out onto Twelfth Avenue deep in thought. Others are laughing with old acquaintances.
It made Naya wish that her niece was sitting at the table with her. After she pictured Avery’s brown curly hair and blue eyes in her mind she saw her walk through the door of the café like a vision come to life. All Naya could feel was a combination of relief and excitement. Avery began to talk to her but she did not hear the words. An overwhelming feeling of happiness overtook her body. Naya finally worked up the courage to give her niece one of her famous "Aunty Naya" hugs, ignoring what she had just told her. She smiled and took Naya’s hand.
"Don't worry Aunt Naya; I'll never leave you again," she heard Avery say as Naya took her hand and led her out of the café to the entrance of the nearby subway station.
After receiving a pair of tickets, the two hoped onto one of the subway trains together, holding each other’s hands. The subway seemed to travel down the set of old steel tracks for ages as it speed out of the city and cut through the rolling hills of a green valley. Small towns popped up every once in a while between each stretch of landscape Naya and Avery passed on the way to their final destination. On their way home to start a new life, Naya asked Avery where she had been all of those years.
“With dad,” Avery had replied.
“Dad took me back and made me live with him. I was so afraid to leave. But daddy said I would be all right. He took me to the place we are going. He told me you would probably be at the café if I met you at the right time. I wanted to be the first person to find you no matter what.”
Naya all at once felt very weak in the knees. Avery’s father had died a few months before she was born. Her niece had to be mistaken. Perhaps some man like her father had been taking care of her but… no that didn’t seem right. Naya stared down at her niece who was smiling up at her. A headache stared to form at the back of her head but everything was staring to become clearer now. It was the fact she had assumed that she’d stopped at the café on her way home from work that got her to thinking. Naya never remembered reaching the café in her car. It was as if she had just shown up there and started waiting for her niece to arrive.
It made little sense that they were taking the subway since Naya had supposedly showed up at the café in her car. And the two had no reason to be heading out of the city. Naya lived in an apartment not far from where the Café was situated. She just had to jump in her car and take the freeway to the downtown area and… the freeway. Another wave a pain shot through her head as she started to recall all of the moments leading up to sitting in the café.
She remembered that she was driving on the freeway, headed to meet with a café regular about a possible sighting of her niece. That is when a truck had started to tailgate her from behind. Frustrated, she had tried to go faster but the truck caught up with her again. This speeding game continued for a while until the truck became impatient and attempted to pass her on the side. But he didn’t have enough room and he ended up sliding into the side of her car.
The last thing she remembered was a tall, lanky man banging on her car window. He was yelling through the window, asking over and over if she was okay. She looked around her and saw that the car was turned upside-down. For some reason she couldn’t move any of her limbs. She could only hear the man saying that he had called for an ambulance and to hold on as everything had faded into darkness. And then she had ended up in that café, waiting for her niece like nothing had happened.
Naya felt her emotions wash over her like a wave. She put her arms around Avery and held her for what seemed like an eternity. Naya held her niece for so long that Avery had fallen sleep in her arms. Naya laid her niece gently on her lap to allow her to continue resting. She took her cellphone out of her purse after a while and scrolled through the list of names in her contact list to her sister’s cell phone number. She knew she couldn’t reach Helen by the number in her cellphone. Helen was locked up behind bars on account of her latest drinking incident and there was no way she could personally visit the state prison to get any message about her daughter’s whereabouts to her now that she had passed on. Holding the cellphone in her hand, Naya left a single text message on her sister’s cellphone knowing she would probably never receive it.
It read, “I found Avery. You don’t have to worry anymore. I’m going to make sure that she is happy from now on.”
“If Helen is ever sober enough to get her cellphone privileges back, there is a chance she might finally know that I have reunited with her daughter. Maybe then she will be comforted knowing that I intend to care for Avery until it is her turn to return home,” Naya thought to herself as she slipped the cellphone into her purse and watched Avery sleep on her lap as the subway train pressed on far outside the boundaries of New York city limits.
After traveling for a few hours, the two of them finally reached their old home in the suburbs where the two of them had once lived before Naya moved to the city. She had rented a small apartment to have easier access to the café people had reported to see her niece hanging around. It was also within walking distance of her job. She thought about who would take care of her apartment now that she was gone. She wondered what would happen to all of her possessions. It was a strange feeling pondering everything that would happen after she was dead.
The subway reached the suburban area where Naya’s house had once been located. She assumed that it was her place to get off. She gently woke Avery and the two stepped off the subway onto the platform. They walked up to the street above and made their way to the house the two of them had once lived in.
As Naya stood at the iron large gates of the Victorian style house her niece and she lived in eight long years ago, she felt a tear slide down her cheek. It had taken many years, but Naya was finally reunited with the young girl she had always viewed as her own daughter. Her niece continued to hold her hand as the two of them walked through the large iron gates of the property to the house’s front yard. Naya smiled when she realized that from this day forward the two of them could live the rest of their lives out together in the place made of the landscape of their dreams.
It was a year before Helen was released from the state prison but she had heard about her sister’s death while she was still serving her time. The news had devastated her. She had once been angry at her sister for losing sight of Avery but now she couldn’t bring herself to be angry at her anymore. For the first time in her life she was able to accept some of the blame. If she had just been a better mother to Avery she would never been taken away to live with Naya. She could have prevented the disappearance of her daughter and the death of her sister. They had told her that Naya had been driving to follow up on a sighting someone had had of her niece at a downtown café. That was when the truck hit her car and she wasn’t able to hold onto to life before the medical team of paramedics arrived.
Helen had gone through an AA program when she was at the state prison and was now sober. Today was the first real time she had had to visit her sister’s grave. She was still locked up when the family had held the funeral. Although she could not make it, her mother had visited and brought photos and news of the event. Her mother had told her to think about how her actions led to everything that happened and begged her to start turning herself around before she was met with more tragedies in her life. Helen took her mother’s words to heart and had been working hard to stay sober and employed. Shortly after being released, she started working at a small flower shop near the café her sister used to frequent. She liked working there because flowers reminded her of her sister. Naya had had her own garden when she was still alive.
She rented the same apartment her sister lived in as it had fallen unoccupied after her death. She visited the café every day in hopes that she would find some news about her daughter.
It was an early Saturday afternoon when she took a taxi out to one of the inner-city gravesites to visit her sister’s final place of rest. She was carrying a bouquet of flowers from the shop she worked in. She had made it special for this occasion, with all of her sister’s favorite candies and even a stuffed bear she knew her sister would like if she was still alive.
When she reached the cemetery, she walked along the path until she saw the row her sister’s memorial was located in. She walked along the path of headstones until she saw her sister’s name carved on a stone that read, “In memory of Naya Stevens. A loving daughter, sister, aunt, and friend.”
She placed the bouquet of flowers at the base of the grave and had a moment of silence in honor of Naya. As she stood praying over her sister’s gravestone, she heard her cell phone’s ringtone blare from her back jean pocket.
“In your house I long to be; Room by room patiently, I'll wait for you there like a stone. I'll wait for you there alone.”
The familiar sound of the ringtone she had set for her text message notifications cut through the silence.
She considering taking her cellphone out and silencing it but something told her not to. The ringtone continued to play into the empty spaces around her.
“And on I read until the day was gone; And I sat in regret of all the things I've done; For all that I've blessed, and all that I've wronged. In dreams until my death, I will wander on.”
The ringtone finished its final pass. Then a sharp buzz sounded, letting her know that a text message had just been sent and was waiting for her to view it. Helen couldn’t explain why she felt so compelled to look at her cellphone. Even though she ignored most text messages when she was doing something important she felt as though she should read whatever text message was sent her way. She pulled the cell phone out of her pocket and read the text message that had set off her cell phone’s ringtone.
The message read, “I found Avery. You don’t have to worry anymore. I’m going to make sure that she is happy from now on.”
Helen put a hand to her mouth in shock. It was a message from her sister. It was dated the exact day and hour that she had died in the accident with the truck. At that moment something clicked inside of her, a deep rooted instinct of knowing that all of her deepest fears had come to pass. She somehow understood the meaning of her sister’s last words. She wasn’t going to see Avery again; not in this plane of living. Not until she crossed over into wherever death had taken two of the most cherished people in her life.
The realization that Naya and her daughter were together gave her a mixed sense of peace and sadness. She was at peace because she knew her sister would take care of her daughter in the afterlife but she was also sad that she would never see her daughter alive in this realm of existence again.
Helen sunk to the base of her sister’s grave grasping the cell phone in her hands. She held the cell phone close to her face with her sister’s last message displayed on the screen and wept at the base of her grave for what seemed like forever.