This story is by Monique Legaspi and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
There are three sounds that define Leilyn’s world:
Buzz. There is only one light bulb in Leilyn’s room. It dangles just above eye-level from a string that drips down from a ceiling she cannot see, too high and too dark no matter how hard she squints. The bulb occasionally hums with its own fuzzy brilliance. It has no on or off switch; its glow exists in a dull permanence.
Tick. Affixed to one wall is a clock, round and smooth. The minute and hour hands do not move; only the second hand, red and slender, clicks its way across an enumerated face. It taps with every tiny jerk of red across white, faultless in its timing, but without a minute or hour to compare to, it is ultimately useless. Leilyn thinks of the ticking as a countdown; to what, she isn’t quite sure.
Patter. A window, square and subtle, is built into the wall opposite. Leilyn can see nothing out of it; the only hint that anything exists beyond it is the rain. It beats gently against the glass, leaving long, wobbling trails as the droplets slide down. There is no latch or hinge. The rain is always asking, but the window never lets it inside.
Leilyn tucks short, ebony hair behind olive ears and looks around. It is a simple existence, but it is the only one she has ever known. Buzz, tick, patter. She lays down, curls an arm under her head, and sleeps without dreaming.
“You’re running out of time.”
Leilyn wakes with a start and looks around apprehensively. The lightbulb glows softly, and the only shadow it casts is her own. “Who’s there?”
For a moment, there is no answer. Then a knock comes at the window, almost as soft as the pattering. A second knock swiftly follows, slightly louder, as if it is worried it might not have been heard.
Leilyn stands and walks slowly toward the window, unsure of what she expects to see.
The seconds that follow are first full of darkness, at least from the outside. Leilyn stares at her own reflection until a girl about her height comes into view, replacing Leilyn’s reflection with her own form. The rain flattens her mass of curly hair against her head; droplets slide down her forehead, her cheeks, her shoulders. Her wide eyes stare at Leilyn almost fearfully. Leilyn cannot help but be afraid, too.
The girl presses her palm against the window. Leilyn is too surprised by her mere presence to do anything in return. They exist in near-silence until the girl speaks.
“You’re running out of time,” she says again, more insistently. She is dark-skinned and glowing in a way Leilyn cannot describe.
Leilyn has a million questions, but she can only bring herself to ask one. “Who are you?”
The girl looks pained. “Don’t you have any better questions?”
Of course, Leilyn does, but none of them can tear their way past her lips. She only shakes her head.
The girl sighs. “Eliora.”
“Eliora,” she repeats, rolling it around in her mouth. “I’m Leilyn.”
“I know.” Eliora’s hand falls away from the glass, and she steps away.
Leilyn, in a panic, jerks forward as if to catch her. “Will you be back?”
Eliora nods, and she fades into inky darkness.
Buzz, tick, patter. The imprint from Eliora’s hand on the glass still lingers. Leilyn almost reaches for it, doesn’t. She goes to lay down again, but she knows she will not be able to sleep.
Eliora comes back a few uncountable hours later. Leilyn is there waiting, chest feeling tight with worry and something else she cannot describe.
Eliora offers a smile, though her eyes are as big and concerned as the first time. Her clothes stick to her skin, damp and heavy. “Aw, I was going to knock again,” she says. It almost sounds like a joke.
Leilyn doesn’t laugh, swallows instead. “What did you mean, before?” she asks. “When you said I was running out of time.”
Eliora’s smile falters. “Those don’t last forever,” she tells Leilyn, pointing to the bulb behind her. “It’ll get dimmer with every second, and once it’s out, it’s out. You have to climb the string and get out of there before it happens.”
Leilyn glances up at the bulb. “What happens if I don’t?”
“It’s hard to say.” Eliora looks at her seriously. “Living in the dark is a terrible thing to endure.”
Leilyn thinks of having to sit in darkness, with only the sounds to keep her company. Buzz, tick, patter. “Do I have to leave now?”
She shakes her head. “No, but… the sooner, the better.”
“Can I think about it for a little bit, then?”
Eliora nods. “I’ll come back later.” She leaves a handprint on the dew-patterned glass, then disappears.
Leilyn stares at the handprint for a long time before turning back to the bulb. She wonders if the ticking is for this—if it was always for this.
“How do you stay warm,” Leilyn asks, “without a lightbulb?”
Eliora’s finger traces the path of a fallen drop. “We have a bigger one,” she says simply. “It won’t go out as quickly.”
“But where is it? How does it still glow through all the rain?”
“It doesn’t. It disappears when it rains.”
Leilyn looks puzzled. “But it’s always raining.”
“It’s always raining here,” Eliora corrects. “If you get far away enough, it stops sometimes.”
The idea is almost incomprehensible to Leilyn, but at the same time, it sounds… appealing. “Do you live there?”
Eliora nods, smiling a little. She almost glitters in the rain. “Once you get out, I’ll take you there.”
Leilyn smiles back. Buzz, tick, patter. “I’d like that.”
The bulb gets dimmer and dimmer, and the clock’s ticking only seems to get louder. You’re running out of time. Leilyn knows she has to leave eventually, but this room is the only place she has ever been. Inside offers temporary warmth and comfort. Outside promises freedom and uncertainty.
She looks up at the string, at how long and thin it is. She wonders if she is strong enough to climb the whole way. She wonders if the string is strong enough to hold her.
“Did you have a room, too? One with a bulb and a clock and a window?”
“Once, a while ago.”
“How did you know you had to get out?”
“I had someone who talked about it, the way you have me.”
“How long did it take you to work up the nerve?”
Eliora cracks a grin. “Not as long as you, that’s for sure.”
Leilyn laughs, but she still looks afraid. “I’ll get out eventually.”
Eliora nods. The bulb casts dim shadows across the room. “Take your time. But remember that it is finite.”
Buzz, tick, patter. Leilyn presses her lips together. “Will you wait for me?”
Without hesitation, Eliora replies, “Of course.”
Once, when Leilyn is alone, the light flickers. She finds herself on the floor, shivering, curled in on herself. The ticking is almost deafening. She wishes Eliora were with her, but there is no knock amongst the pattering. There is no handprint amongst the droplets.
You’re running out of time.
“Are you sure?”
Eliora’s palm presses raindrops into the windowpane. She looks at Leilyn, not expectantly, but with worry and a profound patience.
Leilyn takes a deep breath. Her hand reaches up to meet Eliora’s, and for a moment, everything glows.
She nods firmly, despite how her hand shakes. “I’m ready.”
The bulb’s light is a whisper of what it used to be, but it buzzes with the same vigor it always has. The clock’s ticking seems to ring throughout the room; Leilyn resists the urge to take it down and smash it.
She looks over at Eliora, who stands at the window and smiles encouragingly. A halo of wet hair frames her face. “Just climb,” she tells Leilyn. “You’ll be okay, I promise.”
Leilyn nods, takes a deep breath. She grasps the string with both hands and hoists herself up. The string already feels like it’s about to snap, and she sways helplessly.
Buzz, tick, patter. “Keep going.”
She nods, eyes squeezed shut, and starts to climb. Every new inch terrifies her, and she can’t help but think about what would happen if she fell.
She pictures Eliora, and the way she is always reaching for her. She pictures the bigger, brighter bulb that awaits her, and she wonders if it will be as brilliant as Eliora’s smile.
She sucks in another breath and keeps going.
Buzz, tick, patter. As the light leaves her vision, the sounds get farther away, too, as distant as a memory. At some point, she realizes she can’t hear them anymore.
In the midst of soundless, sightless space, Leilyn feels the first raindrop on her cheek, and she smiles.
She looks down and sees Eliora, eyes shining, arms outstretched.