Out the window, cascading down the glass, I could see them streaking. They were racing, and my eyes traced their paths for well over the millionth time. I stood there looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows in my bedroom naked before a shower. I had just returned from my nightly run and just needed to feel liberated from my workout gear. But those lines—I may never be able to free myself from those lines. They come and go as they please. One white, one black. Both sucked.
I don’t exactly remember when I first saw them. Seventeen? The winter of senior year is when I knew they appeared. My father and I—we were on a road trip to the farthest state school. Found out I was rejected after the trip. Bet they regret that now. But I get it, school wasn’t my main focus back then. It’s not my fault.
We left the gas station. My father was tired and asked to switch seats and let me drive so he could get some rest. At the stop sign, a mother in a minivan packed with children paused right next to us at the intersection to get on the two-lane rural road ahead of us. I had the right of way, but my dad insisted that I throw the lady a bone.
This is the first time I can recall seeing them. The dull, yet glowing lines cut from under the car and spread in two directions. The black line budged ahead of the van. The white one took a soft, sensual curve to the right as if it were tricking us to follow. Both were faint and easy enough to ignore. I may have mistaken them for street lines on the pavement or something. A thin blanket of ice covered the road ahead, so I chose to follow slowly as the van sped into obscurity.
Some time later, my father and I were caught in a five-hour traffic jam. The whole road closed because there had been a fatal accident ahead of us. Turns out it was that mother and her kids. They were hit by an oncoming truck that slipped on the ice.
As we passed the wreckage, the black line redirected itself from in front of the van onwards down the road. The white line reappeared and shot beyond the traffic ahead as well. They both fled into the distance where I couldn’t see their destination. My father was real shook up about the whole thing. Rightfully so. It was his damn fault that family died. He should’ve just let me go first. Kept wondering if maybe—just maybe—we had gone first instead of letting them go first, things might’ve been different. Maybe we would have died instead. I don’t know. All I know is, sometimes, it doesn’t pay off to help someone else before yourself.
That’s the thing, though. I’ve been involved in a fatal accident through my job. I’ve been involved in several near-misses that could have killed me. Well, maybe I wouldn’t be here if things played out a little differently. I understand that most of who lives and who dies comes down to a coin flip. Or just being in the right place at the right time. Makes me wonder if following the white line would have saved them. Or the lady should’ve just went first. She had the right of way. I still can’t figure out what led to that family’s deaths.
I still can’t say for sure how many times that black line has been ignored. But I know one thing for sure: I vowed never to go that route again.
I tried to talk about the lines back then. To my mother. She called me crazy and kept her eyes glued to the TV. I told my friends. They feigned enthusiasm and came up with crazy conspiracy theories to placate my paranoia. I eventually told my father about them. We went and got my eyes checked. There was nothing out of the ordinary with them. Nothing worked, and no one believed.
So I started to shut up about them. But I was always watching. They came in and out of my sight. Both would change locations like that line you see on the screen when you watch a football game on TV. You know, the yellow one? That one. And, like any person with a brain, I burned with the need to see where they led. It wasn’t curiosity that overwhelmed me, it was the memory of the first time I saw them that remained pyrographed in my mind—of the black line leading to danger. Death.
I came home one day after track practice some time after the incident. They appeared again. The white line was a beaming fluorescent streak of light running along the ground with straight edges. But the black line emitted a thin layer of mist that hovered over the linoleum floor. I looked to my left, then to my right, and tried to waft it away. But my hand touched nothing. My mother was right.
My bags weren’t sprawled out on the floor for more than ten seconds before I put my workout gear back on. I slipped my cell phone and earbuds into the front pocket of my track team hoodie, and I followed them. The white line, of course. White is pure and black is…bad, right? It just seemed right. The white line took me on a path out of the city into the northern suburbs. A path where every street had a sidewalk. Speed bumps sprouted up in the roads to control traffic. All the street lights illuminated the expensive houses. The black line seemed to blend into the night as the white line glowed on the pavement.
The white line proved it’s innocence that day as it took me to a building in a developing neighborhood. Well, specifically to a half-finished Georgian mansion. It had a front door that could accommodate a family of giraffes. The white line took flight toward that door, again, inviting me forward. The doorknob let out a shrill as if were trying to alert someone of my intrusion. The foyer could entertain a Gatsby party, I thought. I stood at the foot of a vast, curving staircase that probably went to up heaven. It was wondrous.
I didn’t take another step into the house. Instead, I started to imagine how I would complete its construction. I had no knowledge of proper architecture at the time, so my additions would have probably put the building out of context. But my interest was piqued. I didn’t particularly want to live in a home like that, but I wanted to be the one who built it. I wanted to make something of my life. I had made my decision. And I marvelled at that bright white line with a newfound reverence.
So I pursued it again.
I followed it over and over. Each time it happened to show up in my sight, I was rewarded for it. The white line led me to the college and career office where Ms. Dempster worked. Her guidance is directly responsible for getting me into CAD software that converts architectural and engineering designs into technical drawings. The black line seemed to go towards the back of the school where the burnouts smoked during school hours. A few years later, it took me an alternate route home after work as the bridge collapsed downtown. The black line was pointing me toward the catastrophe. The white line even threw me into the hottest guy I’ve ever seen. Literally. It kept moving faster and faster until I smacked into him in a park. The black line, however, pointed me at some homeless guy. Nothing could stop us, me and the white line.
So, here I am. 27 years old. The world in my hands. Naked. I stood and stared out of the third floor window of a house that I had designed. The city illuminated with my creations down the hills. The walls were covered with the awards I had won in architectural design or city planning. Jamal was downstairs in the kitchen making something in the microwave that smelled burnt. Or was it Jason? I always get those two mixed up.
It was perfect, really. All thanks to that glowing white line.
Also because of that pure white line, I’ve been hanging out with a lot of celebrities recently. Well, after I won that whatever award, and they put me on that British guy’s late night talk show. You know, if you want to impress a normal person really, tell them you designed half the custom houses in Hollywood, New York, and Chicago. You’ll have their ear. And their respect.
That’s how I met…Jamal? Yeah, Jamal. It had only been a month since he asked me to design the headquarters of his new company near his apartment in the city. Ever since I started seeing Jamal seriously, he’s been real sweet. Too sweet. Clingy. I didn’t like it. I could handle things just fine without him having to check up on me every few seconds. But I like him. He didn’t want to go out the first time I asked. I rarely, and I mean rarely, get rejected by the men I ask out. They almost always drool over me.
But did I ask him out because I liked him, or because the white line told me to? For the past decade, I’d been so reliant on an invisible streak of light to lead me through life. It never bothered me when I was younger. I was stupid, and apparently crazy, but this line kept me safe and gave me the exact opportunities I needed to make something of myself. I can’t even remember the point where I started to follow it without hesitation. Now that I’m older, now that I have the time to just think about it, was all of my success due to my hard work, or solely that stupid white line’s decisions? Was this all for the best? Had I just let an arbitrary, imaginary, yet beautiful streak of light just take the steering wheel? If I said this was the first time I have thought about this, I’d be lying.
And through all of the luck, through all of the money, sex, and fame, the other remained. It was a parasite that cemented itself in the corner of my eye. The black line. It pleaded for attention, praying that I walk the path as often as I did its white sister. My heart knocked against my ribcage as I began to perspire.
I put my workout gear back on and slipped my cell phone and earbuds in to the front pocket of my old high school track team hoodie. A smirk emerged onto my face as I saw my reflection in the window. I probably looked just the same as I did all those years ago when I first took the white path. This time, however, everything felt wrong.
Jamal had just left the kitchen and into the living room as I walked down the stairs toward the front door. He looked me up and down, rolled his eyes, and sucked his teeth.
“What?” I said. “I’m about to go out for a run.”
“You’re joking, right?” Jamal complained, “You just got back. And it’s almost midnight”
“No. I’m serious,” I said, pulling my shoulders back, pressing my chest against my hoodie.
He glanced down at the bulges and of my muscles through the thin cotton. He started to laugh. “Oh my God, you’re so full of yourself. Fine.”
I didn’t know what to make of that. Was he joking? But in a sense, he’s right. I probably shouldn’t show off as much, you know, so I don’t make people feel bad.
So with a quick goodbye, Jamal accepted my excuse of being a fitness junkie. I pressed a kiss to his cheek and walked out the door. I hate to admit it, but he’s one of the best things the white line has given me. I pushed my elbows in tight and rubbed my arms to relieve myself from the shock of the snowfall and winter air.
I looked down to the misty black line and began to jog.
The black line took me on a path deeper and deeper into the southern part of city. A path with no sidewalks. Cars sped through yellow lights. The street lights were far and few in between. In the darkness of the night, I could only see the mist of the black line that guided me to my unknown destination. This was the worst part of the city. I averted my eyes down away from glares of contempt and pulled my hood over my head. I hoped this wasn’t going to be the last time I followed these lines. My jog became a run.
The buildings became more dilapidated. The black line took me through roads and alleyways filled with filth until I was standing on a line leading me in front of a convenience store. I was about to give up and assume the white line would return me to safety. But my stomach ached with hunger seeing as I didn’t eat the dinner Jamal cooked.
So I walked into the store for a snack. The door chime alerted the clerk of my arrival. She turned her head to greet me and smiled. I walked to the back to grab a water bottle for the jog back home. Finding a healthy snack at a convenience store is hard when you’re trying to watch your figure, and I just needed something in my stomach now. I pulled my hood back a bit to get a peek back at the store clerk to see if I could sneak a quick drink and leave. Her attention wasn’t on me, but on adjusting her pale white shirt. It fell in folds around a bump on her stomach. She held her hands around it, cradling it like she would the baby within. The bump was larger than I expected—about the size of a small throw pillow. Before I could drink from the bottle, the door chime alerted us of another customer’s arrival.
And then I heard a bang.
The air and the ceiling shattered. The bullet tore through space and silence fell upon us in its wake. The intruder spoke, but his words were lost in the quiet. I sunk down to the floor to avoid being the bullet’s next target.
“Give me the money in the register.”
“P-please, take whatever you want. Just don’t shoot. Please, no. I’m pregnant. Please just take the money and leave. I-I swear I won’t call-“
“Move out the way!”
The woman’s voice cracked and spewed out in staccato spurts. Her face drained itself of all liquids and drowned out her words. The voices were coming from the front of the store. The black line sizzled, urging me towards the door.
Almost as if someone was dragging me, I found myself crawling past the aisles to my exit. And then I saw her, hunched over protecting her seed on the floor. The man was standing beside her, tearing through the cash register in front of him. He dug through it with one hand trying to dislodge the drawer to put the cash into his bag for a quicker haul. In his other hand was the gun. He pointed it with a locked elbow at the woman, shaking up and down as he emptied the register.
I needed to call the cops. I reached in my front pocket for my phone. But all I felt were my earbuds. No familiar rectangular shape. No warmth from running too many apps at once. It wasn’t there and must have fallen out during the jog. This was all wrong. Fucking black line. There was nothing I could do to help anymore. I was just going to end up getting us both killed if I did.
As I crawled on the ground to make my escape, I noticed a wallet wedged between the front door and the center post. Perfect, I thought. Maybe I could remove the wallet and sneak out without the chime going off. They were right there in front of me, but neither saw me. The man’s face was buried in his bag and the woman was in no state to notice anything but that gun.
My hand extended out to unseat the wallet clamped in the door jamb. After a few soft tugs, I had it in my grasp and caught the door before it could fully close. I looked back at the intruder. One hand remained pointing the barrel at the woman’s face. His finger slipped from the guard to the trigger. His other hand attempted to zip up the bag. He was almost finished.
Before I had time to think, I pried open the door a bit faster. The wallet was still clutched in my grip, and my eyes locked on the burglary. If I could get out of this alive, I promise I’ll never betray the white line again. I’ll be nicer to Jamal and commit to him. I don’t deserve him. Just let me get back home to him.
Then the worst, most terrifying sound rang through the store. Not another gunshot, but a long, echoing ding. The door chime went off.
The man’s head and gun snapped at me at once. My body was a corpse rigid with rigor mortis. During a pause that seemed like an eternity, he examined my hands. “That’s mine. You’re not leaving here with that,” he said.
I saw a flashes, and felt a sudden chill. Two devastating, loud crashes followed by rushing air broke me free from my frozen spell. He shot me.
Well, at least I thought he shot me. My heart was beating at a vibrating pulse, but I felt no pain. I patted myself down searching for holes in my clothes and back at my hands hoping they wouldn’t be stained red. I was fine. The black line appeared through a thin layer of smoke and jetted right at the woman. Why is the black line always pointing me to danger? The white line shot out the door. So I trusted my old friend and ran with it.
I started running in the direction of the side alley. My mind swarmed with so many questions. How did I get here? Am I going to die? Where are these damn lines now? He shot twice. One bullet broke the glass. Where did the other one go? It didn’t hit me. I thought of the pregnant woman. For a second, my eyes started to water at the thought of someone else dying. Or maybe it was just the wind since my feet were carrying me faster and faster away from certain death.
I heard one crack, then more cracking. And with each crack came a flash of light cutting through the darkness. In those moments, I could see everything around me: the dumpster at the end of the alley, small pot holes to be avoided in a few steps, the entrance to the subway down the block. I thought maybe I could run down there to be in a more public place, but the subway was in a straight line ahead and that path was begging for me to get shot. Then I saw it. A pocket knife on the ground. Maybe I can run back around the block to get the knife.
Swinging my arms back and forth, I pushed to my destination, cutting around corners and striding my legs as far as they would go. I dodged those small pot holes nearly spraining both ankles in the process. I hoped someone would try to come in and save me before I had to attempt to bring a knife to a gunfight. As I neared the spot where the knife originally laid, I couldn’t seem to find it. Did I run past it? Or accidentally kick it? No matter what, my only chance for survival was lost. My breathing was labored, my legs were tired, and the wind was just torturing my eyes. I stopped and wiped away several tears; this time because I was crying. This was it. This is where the black line leads me to. I’m going to die.
The man closed in on me panting, still holding his weapon firmly pointed at me. I backpedaled slowly toward the end of the alley near the entrance of the convenience store. I put my hands in my pocket to accept my fate while wrapping the ends of the cord of my earbuds around my knuckles ready for one last fight.
He was out, and we both were desperate.
He tackled me, like a defensive end drilling a quarterback from the blindside, a clean shoulder-to-chest hit that arched my spine and blew the wind out of me. The gun clattered from his hand and slid into a drainage ditch. His wallet fell from my pocket beside us right in my line of sight. The man kept coming, driving his shoulder in, finishing the hit. The white line didn’t prepare me for this.
He searched for the wallet I no longer had. I absorbed the trauma, swallowed the pain, then kicked my way slowly back to my knees. I still had the cord of my earbuds tied around one hand. I shifted my weight so that I was on top of him while he was on all fours searching for his get-out-of-jail-free-card. I wrapped the cord around his neck and pulled him back into me as if I was pulling back the reins on a horse.
The cord squeezed his skin back towards me leaving him without air. I couldn’t see his face, and I didn’t want to, but I could see his fingers grasping at his throat and feel his body slipping down from my abdomen. The cord tightened around my palms making them red, but I needed to keep him from escaping. Think quick. I could hit him in the groin or bite his ear next to my face. Before I could act, the cord snapped and I fell backwards. He sprang up grabbing his throat and coughing.
“What the hell?” He spat and said something worse afterward. “Forget this, I’m out.” He picked up his wallet and vanished down the alleyway.
My hands were sore, but I rubbed them together to soothe the pain. I took a deep breath. It hurt my rib cage. I exhaled, inhaled again, planted my arms underneath me and pushed myself up on my hands and knees. My head felt light. I felt my lungs burn from the chase and began to cough, which hurt the ribs some more. I stayed that way for a bit, on my hands and knees with my head hanging and hair brushing the pavement. My eyes focused a little better. I could see the footprints in the snow left from the hunt. I crawled over, got hold of the nearest wall and slowly got myself upright. Everything blurred for a minute, then came back into focus gain. I inhaled some more and exhaled to see my breath.
I glanced down.
The mist from the black line hovered over the gravel. I cursed under my breath. More? The black line was turning back towards the convenience store. My curiosity was piqued, so I walked back. This time, I flinched at the long, echoing ding from opening the door.
The woman was a mess, eyes bloodshot while trying to stifle her trembles. But she pulled herself together as I approached her. She swept up the glass missing the dustpan with every other stroke.
“Y-you’re safe?” the woman said, cradling her stomach. “Did the guy get away?”
“Yeah,” I winced at the pain of breathing. “We kind of got in a scuffle down the alley. I fought him off and he ran.”
“Are you ok? I called the police.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m just glad I was here to help.”
“Thank you. I don’t know what would have happened if you—”
“—Didn’t use myself a distraction? I know.” I smiled, but couldn’t tell if she knew I was joking. I tried to recover. “Uh… I mean the important thing is that you and your baby are safe.”
I knew the signs of emotional breakdown, so I took off my hoodie and wrapped it around her as I walked her out to the curb to wait for the police to arrive. And through all this, the lines remained. The black line pointed at the woman, and the white line directing me on a path I assumed was to home.
I could hear the wailing of police sirens faint in the distance. But as the woman seemed to be calming down, the black line began to redirect it’s path. It burned red on it’s outside edges, screaming for emergency. The line fixed itself down the alley. I paused, and looked into my bruised hands trying to find the answers to questions that had been shoved away in my mind for years.
What if there was a piece of the puzzle I was always missing? What if the black line isn’t the bad line. It just leads to something…different? White is good, black is…not bad, just different. Makes me think about which line was the best line for me to follow all my life. I always had the thought that the black line might lead to something bad like drugs or addiction or bad habits that feel good or a freaking car wreck. The white line was pure. I knew that much. It took me where I needed to go. It showed me the easy way. The path that I needed to take for myself. But what if the black line just showed me the hard way? Not the path that I needed personally, but the path that other people needed me to take? Took me to where other people needed me to go? Is that why the first time I saw the black line, it was in front of that van with the mom and all her kids? If we were in front, we would’ve saved them? I still didn’t know.
“Are you all good from here?” The words blurted out without my consent. The woman looked at me like she wasn’t all good, but then painted on a faint smile.
“I think so. Shouldn’t you wait for the police?”
“I..I think I have to go.” I stood up and didn’t look back at her. I followed my new friend down the alley once more. My eyes were locked onto that subway entrance way down through to the other street. The light bulb put the stairway in a spotlight. It flashed on and off like lightning bolts until the bulb completely went out. I checked back on the woman without turning my body releasing the sirens closing in on us, and reassured both of us that she was okay. In that moment, I thought about asking for my hoodie back. I mean, she’s good now, right? It’s freaking snowing. Whatever. She needs it more than I do.
I looked down to the misty black line and broke into a run.