The Horizon

 Gustave Le Gray. Bring on the Water, 1856

Gustave Le Gray. Bring on the Water, 1856

By Natalie Kirykowicz
Location: Art Institute of Chicago

She stands and closes her eyes. The rocking that had turned her insides for the past few hours has ceased. As she takes a deep breath, she opens her eyes and looks straight ahead. She looks at nothing. The sea is stretched in a straight line across the horizon. She imagines sailing all the way to the edge, where the sea meets the sky. She imagines sailing to the ends of the earth. She would reach the edge where the water tapers off and falls into space. She would stand on the edge and look out, seeing nothing but space and stars and freedom.

She stands on her toes and jumps out over the edge, and she is floating. Tears of joy fill her eyes as she swims through space. Earth gets farther and farther away. As she spins and flips gently through space she is surrounded by stars, and earth gets smaller and smaller in the distance. Everything that has ever weighed her down on earth has been lifted from her shoulders. She is completely at peace.

And then suddenly she stops floating, becoming standstill until she is being pulled forcefully. Earth is reappearing. It grows larger and larger in her field of vision. Before she knows it she is back at the ledge, where her tiny boat waits for her. She takes a step back onto the water, looking for one last time at the edge of space.

When she opens her eyes, she is saddened. She takes a deep breath of ocean air as she admires the horizon in front of her.

This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.

The Statue in the Maze

fountain of the great lakes by clarkmaxwell
By Nirali Sharma
Location: Art Institute of Chicago

Besides being a beautiful garden that people were free to come to whenever they pleased to admire the gorgeous flowers or have a quiet picnic, The Wispy Green Gardens were known for holding some of the most breath-taking weddings. For the most part, the owners of the Gardens let people do as they pleased when it came to decorations and the like, but they also offered their decorating services for a fee. When Autumn arrived a few hours early to make sure that everything was in place, she was taken aback by how beautiful the wedding scene looked. The Gardens’ decorators had done a very good job.  

There was an archway adorned with lilies and orchids, and down the grassy aisle, white painted wooden chairs were set up on each side, while pots of different flowers of purple shades lined the aisle. At the very end of the aisle, where the bride and groom would stand, was something similar to the archway but bigger and more gracious. Behind it stood the tall, white pillars that were connected by a vine with hanging plants. Off to the left side, a few yards away, was the famous Garden Maze of Wispy Greens, the one that Autumn had once upon a time been so fond of. She tried her best not to look that way, knowing it would only dampen her high spirits.

Autumn sighed, taking in a deep breath and then dropped down into one of the chairs. She’d come all the way from her school in Chicago for this. She was attending a private college, one that was only a few minutes away from downtown Chicago, and she loved it. She’d only been there for a year, but Autumn could slowly feel her dreams coming true. Well, at least what would help her to eventually accomplish her dreams. But there was second reason why she loved going to school in Chicago: it was far, far away from her parents.

Living with her parents had become harder and harder. After high school, all she had wanted to do was get away from them because the fighting never stopped. And from the little she bothered to listen to, it was always about her. She had never reached her parents so-called “expectations,” and that almost always was the source of their fighting.

“Why isn’t she going to an Ivy League like we planned? I blame you for letting her go out whenever she wanted and hanging with those friends of hers.”

“I’m to blame?! Who’s the one who comes home wasted every night?”

“At least I pushed her to do better, you didn’t even bother to come home from work most nights.”

“She’s never going to accomplish anything at the rate sh–”

That was the night of her senior graduation. It hurt that parents couldn’t be proud of who she was. No, Ivy League was not her future. No, she didn’t plan to be a doctor or some CEO of some company. But Autumn liked to think she was at least a good human being, which was more than what her parents could say. But, unfortunately, Autumn had chosen the community college route, and her parents were definitely not happy with that. She wasn’t ready for college, she had no idea what she wanted from her life or where to go yet, so why not spend as little as possible and figure it out in community college? The arguing got worse, and the yelling at her got worse than ever. Autumn knew that her parents’ problems stemmed from something else, something bigger, and she only wished they would get a divorce and make everyone happy.

“Whatcha thinking about, Harper?”  Autumn turned in her seat to see Blake, her childhood best friend, sit down in the seat beside her. After her decision to attend community college, Autumn had had a falling out with her parents, and Blake and his sister had offered her a place to stay. So for some time, it was she and Blake, taking on community college together.

She let out an exasperated sigh, slouching a bit in her chair. “My parents. What can I say? Coming back to my hometown does that to me.”

“I thought you’d be thinking about Wade, what with the wedding taking place in your ‘spot’, or whatever,” he said with a smirk, his elbows placed on his knees.

Her face twisted into a scowl. “Well, I wasn’t until now. Why would you bring that up, you jerk.”

“I’m sorry!” He laughed, putting his hands up in a surrender. “It’s been almost a year! I thought you would be over it by now. You’ve never been one to be hung up over a boy anyway.”

Autumn punched him on the arm, shaking her head. It was true, she had never been one to think much of dating. She never had a boyfriend in high school and had only ever dated one other guy while at community before Wade. She honestly just never had the time or energy for boys. She had other priorities. But Wade…well, Wade had been the first guy she ever got serious about, as crazy as that was to her. “Let’s just not talk about it, okay? We’re here for your sister’s wedding, if I recall correctly. So let’s focus on that.”

“What’s there to focus on? Everything is basically done.” He gestured to the altar, which was getting its last touches done by the Gardens people. It was quite beautiful. “Plus, this is a little more pressing. You haven’t even looked at the Maze since you walked into the Gardens. This is what happens when you show our spot to your ex-boyfriend.”

Autumn opened her mouth, but closed it. One thing she had learned from a very young age when it came to her best friend: Blake Johnson was never wrong. Never. And in this case, he was not wrong. Blake was still a little bitter that Autumn had gone behind his back and shared the Maze with Wade. Not that the Maze was not open for the whole public, but there was a specific spot and a specific story behind the spot that Autumn and Blake shared. So many wonderful things had happened for them in that place; life decisions been made, tears had been shed–the two best friends had grown there together.  Wade ruined that for her, and now it was too hard to think about the Maze.

Blake shook his head. “No. No, this isn’t going to just slide. You’re not going to avoid the place we met because of some guy you dated!” He suddenly grabbed her hand, pulling Autumn to her feet. “Come on.”

“What the–” Autumn stumbled to her feet, nearly tripping on one of the chairs as she was dragged behind Blake. He pulled her to the right of the altar, a good distance away from it, where The Maze of Wispy Greens stood. He stopped right under the giant green archway. “What are you doing, Blake?”

“Having you face your fears, or whatever this is. Look.”  Some kids zoomed past them and into the maze, laughing and screaming. Blake sighed. “I get that what he did to you was bad. Of course it was bad, but you can’t let him take this from you. From us. We met here when we were in the third grade, you writing in that journal and me accidentally hitting you with the basketball I was playing with. And since then, we’ve been best friends and have some good moments in here. You can’t let that shit-head take that from us.”

Autumn bit her lip, a nervous habit of hers. She glanced at the green bushes of the Maze and then back at Blake. She owed him this much. She hadn’t gone to this Maze once since Wade. Their break-up had been almost a year ago. She exhaled. “Fine, I’ll go in. But you’re coming.”

“Duh. You think I would miss this?” He smiled, gesturing for her to start walking. “After you.”

She moved left, right, right, left, her feet almost racing as Blake tried to keep up. They passed several little nooks within the maze, each filled with beautiful stone vases filled with different kinds of flowers–some lilies, some orchids, and Autumn’s personal favorite, roses– little garden gnomes, and finally, they reached the row of statues. Each statue had a little light over it that Autumn really loved, but they were turned off in the daytime. She walked the length of those statues until she reached the one at the end–the only one of a woman. She had her head bowed down, as if she was shying away from something, and had a tambourine in her left hand. The day Autumn had met Blake, she had been sitting cross legged in front of the woman, writing a story about how this statue woman was secretly very talented but was too shy to do anything about it. Over the years, Autumn had developed the concept into a short story.

Autumn hadn’t realized she had been holding her breath, and she let it out as Blake slowly came to stand next to her. He watched her carefully, making sure that she didn’t break down. She wasn’t going to, but the whole of her relationship with Wade flashed before her: when they first met, the day she brought him here, the day she found him here with someone else….

It had been late. Autumn liked coming to the Maze to clear her head, or if she was simply bored and needed something to do. It was towards the end of her second year at community, and she was about to get her Associates Degree in Business. She knew that soon a lot was going to change with her moving to Chicago, the biggest being that she would be away from Wade and Blake. Most nights, she liked to bring Blake along to help her keep her mind off of things or to keep her company, but because he was on her mind, she decided to go alone. She walked mindlessly, knowing by heart how to get to the spot, enjoying the quiet of the Maze. Well, almost quiet.

She heard some noise coming from her spot as she neared it, and the closer she got, the clearer it got. Wade was there– with some other girl. He noticed her right away, his eyes wide, like a deer caught in the proverbial headlights. He got up quick and moved toward Autumn, rambling apologies and excuses. He reached out to her, taking her hand in his, looking her in the eyes as his filled with guilt and regret. Autumn stood there, motionless, watching as he kept going on and on about how sorry he was.

It took her a moment to process what was happening, and slowly Autumn began shaking with fury. She took her hand out of his, opening her mouth to say something, but she shut it. What was she supposed to say? Autumn could feel her eyes begin to burn with tears, and she knew if she tried to speak, she would only start crying and wouldn’t be able to stop. She tried to look at Wade past the tears that were beginning to blur her vision, and she noticed that he had stopped talking. He only looked at her with eyes that seemed…hurt. Hurt that he had hurt her. Autumn simply pressed her lips together, turning her back to him, taking a shaky breath to stop the tears, and walked away. She could have cried, shown him how much he had hurt her in a span of a few minutes, but why give him that? What would that achieve? She walked home, ignored Blake when he asked what was wrong, and locked herself in her room. Autumn cried until she fell asleep.

Wade tried calling, talking to her in school, and even tried to talk to Blake. But Blake knew if he stepped in, it would only mess up Autumn’s attempt to avoid Wade. So he stayed out of it until Autumn would feel the need to bring him in. It was just how he and Autumn functioned. In the meantime, Autumn stayed away from Wade, too angry, too sad, and too heartbroken to talk.

After a few days, Wade seemed to give up, and Autumn couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. She really didn’t want to see him, and especially didn’t want to talk about what had happened. Where would that lead them? Nowhere. But her luck was not that good because a few nights later, Wade came knocking at her door.

“Autumn–Wade is at the door,” Blake said, standing in her doorway, his eyesbrows arched as if to ask her what to do.

“Why??” She whined, putting her face in her pillow. “Tell him to go away.”

Blake rolled his eyes, stepping into her room and taking a seat on her bed. “Well, I can’t. I let him in.” She shot up, glaring at him. He quickly threw his hands up in surrender. “Sorry! Look, you know I normally stay out of this kind of thing, but dude, you have to talk to him so that this whole thing can end. He won’t stop until he talks to you, you know that as well as I do.”

Autumn’s mouth twisted, her eyes narrowing at her friend. “I hate you, you know that?” But she got up anyway, straightening her shirt to look somewhat presentable.

“I love you too. Now go, you look fine.”

Autumn closed her eyes, took a breath, and walked down the stairs and into the living room where Wade stood. His back was to her, he was looking at some photos on the wall above the fireplace. This is a bad idea, she thought, and quickly turned around to go back up the stairs, but Blake was standing there, his hands crossed over his chest, eyebrows raised. He mouthed, “Go talk to him. Now.” She shot him a glare before clearing her throat. “Hey.”

Wade startled, turning around. “Geez, you scared me.” Autumn only raised her eyebrows. Now it was his turn to clear his throat. “You’ve been ignoring me for days. We have to talk about this, Autumn.”

“That’s normally why people avoid other people–I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I want to say I’m sorry,” he replied, ignoring the comment. “I didn’t mean it.”

Autumn scrunched her eyebrows and scoffed. “I’m sorry, you didn’t mean it? Wade, do you know how ridiculous that sounds? Whether you meant it or not, you did it. You…” her voice got a little quiet. “You cheated on me. With Nina Stamelos, no less. I thought you didn’t like her?”

“Nina just happened to be around…”

Autumn raised her eyebrows again. “You’re not helping whatever case you’re trying to make, Wade.” They looked at each other, falling silent. After a moment, she finally asked, “Why’d you do it? Why’d you cheat on me?”

He swallowed before he talked. “You were leaving. I was…upset. I was drinking. And it just happened.”

Autumn took a moment to process this. She sat down on the couch, her head in her hands. “Let me get this straight–you cheated on me because I was going to move? What? How does that make sense in your head? Because it doesn’t make sense in mine.” She looked up at him, meeting his eyes.

“Well, what did you think? I was going to be thrilled with the idea of you leaving for Chicago in the fall? I’m sorry, I got upset about you leaving me!”

Now she was getting angry. This was his reason? How was this a valid reason? “I wasn’t leaving you, you asshole. I was going to school there. We could’ve talked about this! And if you were really that unhappy, we could have ended it. Cheating on me was not the answer.”

They stared at each other for a few moments before Wade spoke again. “I’m sorry.”

Autumn exhaled, angry. She’d heard many reasons why people get cheated on: falling out of love, never truly being in love, scared of commitment, the list went on. She couldn’t help but think that this was the stupidest reason she had heard for hurting someone. She shook her head, closing her eyes. “You should really go. I think we talked enough.”

He looked at her as if he was about to say something, then thought better of it. Wade walked to the door, but before he left, he said, “I really am sorry for what I did.”

She bit her lip, and sat on the couch for a few minutes before getting up. Walking to the stairs, she saw Blake sitting at the top–of course he’d been listening. Autumn put on a fake smile. “Ya happy? I talked to him. Now it’s over.”

“I am happy, now you at least know why he did it. Talking about the problem is always a good thing, even if it ends badly. The truth helps with closure.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She walked to her room, ruffling Blake’s hair to let him know she appreciated his effort. She should have cried, or punched something, but she didn’t. It wasn’t because she wasn’t sad or angry, but because she had no energy for either. Instead, she just sat on her bed, and thought about how to move on from here.  

“You okay?”

Autumn shook her head, snapping her attention back to Blake. “Yeah…sorta.”

“Okay, maybe forcing you was bad idea. Sorry.”

“No, no, this was….an okay idea. I mean,” she sighed. “Maybe this will be like closure. The kind of closure that doesn’t hit you until a little later.”

“Oh-kay.” He looked at her weird and then shrugged. “As long as you can come back with me here one day, I’ll be fine.”

Autumn cracked a smile. “One day, Blake, one day. I promise.”

Blake’s phone rang, breaking the silence. He said a few “yeses’’ and a few “okays” before hanging up. “Okay, here’s what’s up: one of the bridesmaids had to back out because her kid was playing around and decided to try flying. Anyway, he had to be rushed to the hospital because he might have broken something, and now my sister needs you to be a bridesmaid.”

“Sam wants me to be a stand-in bridesmaid? Why not just go with one less bridesmaid? She has enough as it is.”

“‘Cause Sam’s crazy and needs it to be perfect. So we gotta go now so you can be fit into a dress.”

“She has an extra dress?” Autumn couldn’t help laughing at how ridiculous it sounded.

“I said crazy, didn’t I?”

“Okay, I guess…?”

The two walked briskly out of the maze, making their way to Blake’s car to get to the hotel where a dress would be waiting for Autumn. As they drove away, Autumn could see the archway of the Maze, and a small smile spread on her face. She promised Blake one day, and hopefully, one day would come soon.

This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.

Shattered Tree

Shattered Tree, Otto Dix 1941

Shattered Tree, Otto Dix 1941

The year was 1959. One year before, the Americans and the Soviets finally decided to blow each other up, taking much of the rest of the world with them. Most of the fire, it seems, was concentrated on the USSR and America, though major population centers of allies on both sides were also hit. One of the sides, though nobody was really sure which, decided that they didn’t want to leave Berlin to be taken by any remnants of the enemy who might survive the nuclear apocalypse. As governments broke down, anarchy began to sweep across the European countryside. Global communications were down, but rumor had it that in Switzerland, whose neutrality had saved them from the nuclear fire, law and order still prevailed. In the mountains south of Munich, I sought to escape the anarchy let loose by the war.

In the late afternoon, I stopped to rest for a moment by a shattered tree on the slope of the mountain looking out across the plains. I saw the river like a shining road leading to a town of white buildings, barely visible beyond the forest. Surely I could find food and shelter there. But across the plains, over another range of mountains, the sky was gray. A storm was coming, and the town was so far off, even the steeple of its church looked no larger than a pin. It was too far.

I looked more closely at the tree beside me. It may once have been a great, tall thing, but now the better half of it was missing, broken in last month’s storms, perhaps. The winds had been pretty mild since then. This tree, like all the others still had most of its red leaves, though a fair quantity also coated the ground. They glistened, wet with last night’s rain. When I squinted, they almost looked like splotches of blood splattered across the ground and sky.

In the valley below, between this mountain and the next, I spotted a small house in a forest clearing. It looked to be in good shape, but its windows were dark, and I could not see anyone moving around in the clearing. Was it abandoned?  I wondered. Perhaps there was some food and water left behind. In any case, it would be a place to sleep, and get away from the storm. I began to make my way down the slope.

As I approached the house, I began to feel uneasy. The house was still dark. There were no signs of life in the clearing. This should have reassured me, but the shadows on the empty porch seemed somehow ominous, and the line of the roof seemed to take on the appearance of a sinister brow, furrowed in hostility.

It was true that the house looked lifeless, but I had heard stories of bandits who staked out such abandoned buildings, hoping to lure in unsuspecting scavengers. Could this be one of those deathtraps? I then recalled rumors I had heard back north, of creatures horrifically mutated by the radiation in the nuclear wastes of Russia, so twisted that no one could even tell whether they had been born human or animal. Could such creatures have wandered this far west? With doubts and fears gnawing at my mind, I stopped and crouched in the shadows at the edge of the clearing.

The rustle of leaves filled my ears along with the creaking of trees, as the wind whistled all around. Even this close, I wouldn’t have been able to hear anyone or anything moving around in the house. The creaking floorboards would be indistinguishable from that of the surrounding trees. Still, I needed a place to sleep. Twilight was setting in, and though ominous, the continued darkness of the house was convincing. Deciding to take my chances, I walked out into the clearing toward the house.

The second step up to the porch groaned as I put my weight on it. I paused for a moment, and when nothing leapt from the shadows, I kept going. The door opened without a sound. It was well oiled; if this house really was abandoned, it hadn’t been for long. I entered the house and walked directly into a hat stand, knocking it over with an apocalyptic clatter. Once again, I froze. My eyes, slowly adjusted to the darkness, and I could dimly make out the hallway beyond this little entryway. A staircase on the left led up to the second floor. A door on the right stood slightly open, though beyond it, I could only see inky blackness. After what felt like ages, hearing nothing but my own ragged breath, I finally stood up. It seemed there was nothing here to maul me, no one here to shoot me for my meager supply of food.

I walked through the door on the right into what looked like a kitchen. Finding a candle on the counter, I lit it and began to search the room. It was a nice little place. The cabinets, table, and chairs appeared to all have been made by hand from the same sturdy oak. They were plain but even and smoothly finished. The light of the candle gleamed off of the woodwork like the ghost of the brass fittings that might have been found in an expensive restaurant in the city. Though I was disappointed to find the cabinets empty, the water was still running. I set the candle on the counter and refilled my canteen, then brought some spare bottles out of my pack and began to fill those as well, when just about three feet behind me I heard the distinctive double-click of a shotgun pump.

The sound came so suddenly, with so little warning, that at first I doubted my own hearing. For just a couple of seconds, I wondered if the wind had simply blown the door closed or if I had really heard anything at all. The voice that hissed, “Keep your hands where I can see them, you filthy bandit,” was deep, but shook ever so slightly with fear. As I raised my hands above my head and began to slowly turn around, I felt a sharp pain on the back of my head before I blacked out.

I woke to find myself sitting in a basement closet with my hands tied behind my back. I had been captured, not by bandits, as I had feared might happen, but by a small farming family. I know this because it was explained to me by the eldest son of the family, who seemed to believe me when I said that I was a simple traveler who meant them no harm. In fact, when I mentioned my destination, his face lit up. It seemed he and his family had not heard that Switzerland still had a functioning government. The boy stepped out of the room and began to argue with his father about my intentions. I began to drift off again, hoping they wouldn’t kill me in my sleep.

They did not, in fact, kill me in my sleep. Indeed, the family began talking about coming with me to Switzerland and invited me to stay with them as they debated whether or not to leave their home. What transpired during those days and the family’s final decision, however, are stories for another time.

Writer: Ian Maeshima
Location: Art Institute of Chicago

This story was written in Salli Berg Seeley’s Explore Chicago class at DePaul University in collaboration with the Chicago Literary Map.