Volume 31



Still By My Side

A short story by Angela Ren ’26

Sprawled on the floor, she made no attempt to move. Planting her face in the puddle of expired milk was a better option than facing the fingers, flashes, and laughter that surrounded her. That, however, didn’t satisfy her classmates. They dragged her up onto her knees, so her hair hung, dripping the rancid liquid onto her already constantly stained uniform. It was only when the bell rang that the crowd finally dispersed, the girl made her way to the restroom. It wouldn’t matter if she came to class late. After all, none of the teachers paid her any attention. Her hands splashed the gelid water onto her blank face before fixing her oversized clothes with practiced motions. All she had to do was to wait for the end of school. 

As rumbling sounded in the distance, the girl tossed and turned under the thin covers. From time to time, she could wake from the chattering of her teeth. When she finally believed that sleep could finally take her to a fantasy land, her eyes burst open. Her face became illuminated by a flash of lightening before delving back into the shadows. Somewhere, she heard the creaking of floorboards and attempted to allocate it to a member of the orphanage. But maybe it was just an illusion. The questions also began to inundate all her thoughts. Are you back? How was your journey? 

Suddenly, her disorientated state broke. I’m still searching for others, there are still people I want to meet. She frantically searched for a ragged jacket that did not bear the burden of food and drinks. Sliding it off the hanger, she slipped it on before dashing through the hallways and down the stairs, entering the kitchen. Snatching an apple and some crackers, she prepared to sneak back out. However, the door to the dining hall was closed. Her mouth quickly formed unutterable words before she tiptoed over to the door. Ever since she had lived in this building, she struggled to open the door without the shrieking of the hinges. Cautiously, she turned the handle and pushed slightly. Silence. When she pushed it just wide enough for her to squeeze out, an almost deafening screech sounded from the hinges. Her ears twitched, listening for the signs of

movement from the bedrooms above her. Just as when she thought she had succeeded, her ears caught something. 

“Leah? Is that you?” 

The voice of the director caused Leah to freeze in her steps. “Leah?” 

The creaking of the floorboards sounded, and the girl knew who it was. She bolted down the short distance from the dining hall to the main entrance, sliding on a pair of frayed sneakers. Throwing a look over her shoulders, she shoved the heavy doors open and burst into the ruthless streets. She began to run. 

The dry thunderstorm continued to rumble in the distance as Leah continued her journey. From the streets of the outskirts to the hills. . .over the hills to the forest. . .past the forest and across the lake. When the sun finally decided to greet her over the horizon, she had stopped. Thousands of dandelion seeds danced around her before returning to their clock. They were there to greet her. For once again, she was back. To watch. Reminisce. 

In a barren landscape, there lies a small cold lake next to a dilapidated house. Dandelions attend to the lakeside with a sweet, musky scent. Trees guard the abode and adorn the hillside, while a slight breeze is always passing through. The rustling leaves are 

always absent. Sometime long ago, gales of wind welcomed the opening of innocent eyes. The silver sky greeted the infant, shedding a few drops of rain upon her glowing cheeks before an umbrella became a shield. A smile sneaks onto her face when she sees her mother. Her tongue then sneaks out, urging a beam from her older brother’s eyes as they peeked over the folds of the blanket. 

It wasn’t long before the wind that once caressed her left. In midst of glowing flames, her eyes reflected her family’s limp bodies, sacrificing their blood to the asphalt, as she unknowingly watched them depart. Gentle hands pull her away from the danger, but her small, chubby hands reach for the embers while her feet kick at her savior, begging to join the rest of her family. She was too young to

be alone in this world full of facades. She sat in a daze. Her eyes took in everything, but her mind did not bother to process them. They caught a stranger in cuffs. Crimson decorated his head, while bistre vomit embellished his shirt. She sighed. Focusing on the view before her, she savored the first few raindrops before she felt something hit her head. Raising her head, she catches the disappearing edge of an umbrella. Twisting her body to glimpse behind her, she finds no one. Turning towards the sky, she closed her eyes and wished for the rain to fall towards the heavens. 

Mother, the one with a simple flowery dress. Father, the one with a slightly crinkled suit. Brother, a hand over his suffocating tie. And there was her, Leah. A face full of bliss as she clung to her parent’s hands. She catches a dirtied reflection of herself in the photo frame, an object she had rescued on the day they had departed. Her face was blank, and her eyes did not carry the tears of sorrow, for she still did not understand. 

She was a stranger to those who were once closet to her. When she had been first been brought to the orphanage, she was oblivious of her name. A label that was only revealed on the back of the family photo. They told her that it meant delicate or lioness. But they forgot to tell her that it also meant weary. And she was exhausted. She wished to be the wild child whose parents would struggle to hold. But that would not be her reality. 

The fireplace once danced a waltz, warming the family as they sat in a circle, full of mirth. Now, Leah sits on the chilled wooden floor, unwilling to light the logs and coal that lay in the ashen hollow. A long forgotten story book lays in her lap as her hand dances, waving at the little man on the pages. She looks up, as if there were someone next to her, and laughs. Small hiccuping laughs that make her whole body tremble. Rocking herself, Leah remembers how she, as a toddler, had pointed into the distance, where the hills disappeared along with the horizon. Just like how she had rocked in

the car along with her family. Wildly turning and waving her hands, she remembers. 

A hand yanks at the back of the girl’s collar. 

“Leah! What in the world do you think you are doing?!” She did not care to stop. Her eyes were a complete void as she remained mute and listened to the director’s tirade. Once the director was panting with anger, Leah paused her movements. “If you resent me so much, leave me on my own. You go do your duties and watch over the other children. Since I cause you so much trouble, give me my freedom. . .Aren’t those who are waiting, those who fly away, just so similar?” 

The director was aghast. Leah had never dared to talk back. How dare she do so now. Her ire that had almost seemed to subside was back, brimming within her body upon seeing the child’s dreamy smile. She snatched the wrinkled photo and ripped it in half, throwing the pieces up into the air. Looking at Leah’s face for a reaction, the director was disappointed to find an impassive expression. Turning around, she marched out of the house, leaving Leah alone once more. # 

Leah had returned home many times before. Once, as a middle schooler. She had placed the torn photo within the pages of the chapter and tottered to her feet before trekking to the lakeside for a walk. It was her morning routine, to observe the dandelions, for wild flowers can’t remember the frustrations overheard, but can carry the grievances with the wind to a place where they can be understood. Leah squats down and blows hard at the little white clocks. One puff. Two puffs. The seeds race into the air and go on their merry way. She follows some to the nearby spring. Gulping down the sweet water, she takes the crackers from the depths of her pocket and munches on them as she returns to the house. 

Wandering through the all too familiar rooms, Leah finds some of her brother’s unfinished homework, carefully hidden away from the hawk eyes of their mother. She pulls it out from the crevice, smoothing the creases of the paper. So long ago, she had believed her brother to be a genius. But maybe it was because she was just too

young. Finding a small stub of a pencil, Leah finishes the worksheet before tying her frayed shoelaces into a confident look. She knows that the door is ajar, but the merciless time is rolling, flowing, running. She brings out the apple she had taken from the orphanage and ran outside the house, to the bleak little garden. After Leah had buried the pristine fruit into the ground, she placed her hands together and softly inquired: 

Are you back? Are you tired? How was your journey? 

The naïve eyes opened as the zephyr deliver the smoky, licorice aroma of anise, the pungent scent of garlic, and a whiff of ginger’s woody and floral accents. The teenager plucks an apple from the tree and rubs it against her clothes before taking a bite. Stumbling into the house, she appreciates the steam of fresh soup wafting up from 

the stove and bowls and plates that decked the table with duck, vegetables, and scallion pancakes. Squeezed in between the dishes, she finds the test papers with handwriting so similar to her brother’s. The red marks only indicate a full score. On her seat, there’s the backpack that her parents would have helped her wear. A blooming smile plants itself across her face. They’re back! 

Leah glances out the window. Parched leaves embellish the empty tree, stubbornly hanging onto their wishful thinking. The corners of the smile balances out into a line. The heavenly fragrances dissolved into the earthly smell of the somber dwelling. 

Returning her gaze to the scenery in the window frame, Leah knows. Somewhere, the dusk that hides behind the clouds exposes the bewilderment of her heart. Somewhere, chaotic high-rise buildings occlude the face that refuses to accept defeat, only accepting those who were full of yearning and ambition. Those who are pining, who are in pursuit; those who are waiting, who flew away; they are just too similar. 

She silently ties her battered shoes, ignoring the holes and the thin fabric. As she turns to look behind her, she sees the open door. They had come to her back to the orphanage. As they had always

done. A tear fights to escape her eyes as she watches the unyielding time flow and flow and flow. 

Have you gone back? 

Please return. 

Come back.

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