It is only 5 PM but I already know with certainty that the day will end not in a period or exclamation point, but a sigh. I stare with wide-eyed dismay at the disarray of papers upon my desk. 3.8. 63%. 1490/1600. 10th place. $50,000 per year. The clock in my heart is sprinting at twice the speed of the one on the wall; my hand, frantically trying to maintain pace. My mind stumbles into dark labyrinths, only to meet with dead ends and closed doors; thoughts tangle themselves into Gordian knots. Logic disintegrates. What is the integral of tan(x)? How much energy is dissipated by friction? What is the optimum annealing temperature for PCR? My mind is shrieking, screaming. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. Pain saturates my veins as a cold fear drenches me, until slowly, a paralysis grips my muscles up from my toes until all that remains moving is the rapid quivering of my pencil, my cramped fingers begging me to
My shaking mind slows. Somehow, somewhere, it finds an unlocked door amidst the pitch-blackness. It takes a while of groping around before my fumbling fingers find a doorknob and twist it open. Beyond it, I am greeted by a flood of light. I lift my face to embrace the sunshine, to allow myself to imagine—
I picture before me a sunset. The sky is awash with color— the sun bleeds scarlet, trailing in its wake bright oranges, warm yellows. Along the horizon, it peeks out from behind the silhouette skeletons of trees throwing their wild, flickering shadows across a wide expanse of grass. I stand, in the midst of a field, a field with no end, no limits, no boundaries. Surrounding me stand acres upon acres of shoulder-length grasses swaying their heads to the rhythm of the breeze, stretching in all directions a patchwork quilt made of all different variant shades of ochres, of umbers, of greens, illuminated by the orange light of the dying sun. As the last rays of its brightness fade first into soft lavender, indigos and ultramarines, finally into darkness, it scatters its ashes in the form of stars. I can see, in my mind’s eye, a resurrection, for the next day the sun will, like a phoenix, rebirth from the very ashes that mark its grave. The next day dawns a new day, a naked and innocent child untouched by the stress of the past.
In this world within my mind, I am content. I spend many a day setting my easel on the banks of a small babbling brook. Shadows flicker, bright stars blinking in and out of existence against the darkness of the stream. Time evaporates as the clouds drift by, as transient as my thoughts. The day wanders away as my paintbrush strolls across the canvas, light and springy on its toes. Birds take flight, mere specks wiggling like tadpoles across the cerulean sky. In this place, no worries exist. It is here where I am completely immune, completely invincible to doubt, to negativity, to the stubborn chains which have clung to me for so long, weighing me down. Here, the burdens of my past release their grip on their emaciated prisoner imprisoned too long in an inescapable reality. Nothing in the world could matter to me: I am completely carefree.
In this world in my mind, I am happy. I have left that world— I belong to another. There is no pain, no heartbreak, no death, no destruction, no desire, not even love. It is a world in which disease and famine have been cured and war abolished. I dwell in a small cottage by the brook. Each day, I am awakened by the chorus of birds, by the first few slanted rays of sunshine dancing across the floor. I can see my late grandfather, resurrected from the depths of his paralysis from Parkinson’s. He sits across from me in a magnificent library, impressive for our small cottage, and sways back and forth on a rocking chair. My sleeves rolled up, I am beside a small wooden table, pondering the meaning of existence as I stare out an illuminated window, my hand gently pressing open a book upon its spine. From the other room I hear my sister echoing my heart with a tune bursting with exuberant joy and unrestricted hope. Many an hour I pick up the clarinet and admire its silvery keys glimmering in the sunlight. My fingers flit up and down the wooden holes as I breathe soul into the instrument, infusing into it a life which reverberates past the walls of my cottage and resonates for miles around. It is as though I am speaking to an old friend, one who also speaks through my mouth, as though I have never left his company. In my mind, he is immortalized as that forgiving old friend whom I have never neglected to a corner to accumulate dust even as others were prioritized above him.
I want to remain there, in this wonderful season of eternal spring.
But alas, I at last am forced return to that lonely reality.
It is my mind who forges these fateful chains of reality, but also my mind alone who can shatter them. It is a fatal error belonging not only to me but to our generation. We have bound ourselves to the unending yet meaningless pursuit of success, denied ourselves the right of taking refuge in our own minds, the time to respite, to lose our minds into that terrifying prospect and wilderness of reverie. We have all confined ourselves to numbers, simple delineations between right or wrong, to reality, as a result elbowing out the possibility of imagination. We have deemed daydreaming a delusion, a delirium entertained only by the insane. We have rejected the childish immaturity of our youth out of fear that reality will disappoint expectation. And while these thoughts may be lies now, there is solace in knowing that perhaps there is still time yet to convert the fantasies of our dreams to reality.
I look down at the unfinished paper clenched in my fist. What is your dream college?
I answer with a serene smile.
I don’t know.
Adele Peng is an incoming freshman at Princeton University, where she plans to major in neuroscience. She is an avid biology enthusiast and aspiring visual artist/writer. She believes that love as we know it is nonexistent and has made peace with the fact. Find her at adelepeng.com and on Instagram @linaria17.
~This story was previously appeared in Threshold, the literary magazine from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. ~