Graphic by Diane Zhao / North by Northwestern

Theodore turned away from the road to look at the rapidly contorting face of his girlfriend Katherine. She didn’t seem to enjoy hearing about the life he had led in the twelve hours since he hung up the phone.

Katherine looked at the planning calendar on her lap. The only entry for the day was an event simply titled “Funeral.” It was color-coded red for urgent. She then looked down at her black dress. It was, indeed, black. Finally, she looked at the bits of ash clinging to Theodore’s white polo shirt. She blinked hard.  

“Theo, let me get this straight, you told me three days ago that your parents died in a car accident.” She went over the words one more time in her head. “And now you’re telling me you burned their house down?”

Katherine buried her face in her hands and took a deep breath as her shoulders rose. A hissing whistle escaped her mouth as they fell again. She ran her hands through her hair twice before whipping left to glare at Theodore. Upon seeing his half-smile, she reburied her face.

Theodore knew that smiling wouldn’t help with Katherine’s rising anxiety, but he couldn’t help it. Seeing the love of his life filled him with elation, and it felt like everything would work out if she was there. He had known her since his family first moved to Willow Brook, New York, when he was six. They were the only two kids in the neighborhood, so it was natural for him to knock on her door and ask her to play after seeing her get off at the same bus stop.

They instantly became best friends and spent their abundant free time pushing each other on swings, doing homework together, and enjoying after-school snacks in front of the TV. As Theodore grew up, he came to treasure all the intricate details of her personality. He loved how smart, witty, and sharp she could be, and more so, that behind all that attitude, Katherine was fundamentally kind and sensitive. She was the type to make a playfully mean joke, get a laugh, and then apologize five minutes later because she worried that it was hurtful when it was no big deal in the first place. Theodore became sure of his growing romantic feelings entering high school and confessed to her on the last day of summer. They were twenty-four now.  

Theodore rolled his eyes sideways to admire his passenger. The pearls swinging from her ears paired beautifully with her jet-black dress.

“I guess it sounds a bit weird if you put it so frankly. But gotta leave the old behind, you know? It’s going to be a fresh start from here.” His gaze fell back on the road. “Moving on and stuff,” mumbled Theodore to the steering wheel.

Katherine gently touched his arm. “Theo, I can see your hands. Be honest with me.”

He looked down at his white knuckles and found that they wouldn’t loosen.

“You really know everything, Kath.”

“I don’t need nice words right now. I need an explanation.”

“Kath, now of all times, I can’t be still. I mean suddenly, they just – I have to move forward. It’s what they would’ve wanted. I just know it. I need to do…something.”

A cacophony of car horns erupted from behind. The light had turned green. Theodore pressed on the gas, and the car lurched forward. Neither person spoke. Something hung in the air between them. It slipped soft as a breeze through the webbing of their minds. Theodore struggled to find words to capture the shapes and colors bubbling in his mind. Simultaneously, Katherine was trying to muster up the courage to ask how the indefinite something was going to relate to the definite tomorrow.  The car glided forward in silence – out of the city, through the suburbs, and into the countryside before coming to a stop in front of a large warehouse.

Theodore exited the car and started walking towards it. He swung the warehouse door open and gestured for Katherine to follow.

Inside, a silver jet stood facing an open runway. The blurry outline of a person was visible in the cockpit window. They came around to a set of steps leading to the open hatch door.

Theodore looked at Katherine. He knelt at her feet and extended his hand.

“Kath, come with me. We’ll fly to Egypt. We’ll travel the world and do everything we’ve ever dreamed about. Shoot fireworks into the northern lights, kiss on top of the Eiffel Tower, nap in a cat café in Tokyo.” Theodore’s voice fell to a whisper. He pulled out a folded piece of notebook paper. “Look, I still have the list we made when we were sixteen. Just say yes.”

“Theo, I just got my job at the children’s hospital. I’ve been trying for years! What about the fellowship for medical school? And my sister is having a baby. And my parents—”

“Katherine, please. We’ll always be together.” The words he spoke were simultaneously a statement of fact and a prayer. It was cliché beyond humor, but it was the only clear thing in his mind. Theodore stared into Katherine’s face, and she stared back. She would say yes, he thought. She had to. Katherine would always be there. A minute passed before her face finally softened.  

Maybe Katherine wanted to be a kid again and bask in the undivided attention of the boy next door. Maybe she missed giggling as she dreamed up elaborate, global tours with the boy who would go anywhere if it was with her. Maybe Theodore needed to take his mind off reality for a bit, and it was flattering that she was his escape. In the span of her pause, Katherine thought of hundreds of different reasons why she agreed to Theodore’s offer – selfish reasons, selfless reasons, calculated reasons, ignorant reasons, or perhaps even a lack of reason.  

But the truth was that she loved him and was scared because of it. She saw Theodore’s desperation and crumbled in her fear, which told her that she wouldn’t be able to help him but that if she didn’t, she would lose him. Katherine chose to idly hope, to let present flow into future and be embraced by the spirit of something.

“Fine, I trust you and your cheesy rom-com script. But drag me around for nothing, and I’ll send you to prison myself.”

She emphasized the words with a closed fist and a pout. Theodore laughed.  

“Deal.” He took her hand, and they ascended into the jet.


On the plane ride to Cairo, Theodore found himself twirling a ballpoint pen in front of his face. It was a familiar sensation. The tip of the pen spun around and around his fingers and glinted when it passed under the beam of the overhead reading light, which intentionally left his face in darkness to avoid any sort of annoying glare. Katherine’s light was off, and he found himself unable to acknowledge her presence with eyes alone. It was a well-designed reading light, he thought. The aperture of the glow enhanced the divide between self and attention. It isolated the subject of attention, which for the present moment, was solely the rolling motion of the ballpoint pen twirling in Theodore’s hand. The rubber grip warmed as it slid across skin over and over again. The warmth was of a numbing character, so it was natural that he didn’t notice the thin coating of condensation forming from his breath until the pen silently slid out of his hand, onto the carpet, and into the void beneath his seat.

Without the ballpoint pen, the dull glow of the exit sign at the end of the aisle sharply focused. The sign bounced in erratic ellipses in a way that made the afterimages overlay into a single amorphous shape that flickered like a tiny flame. Theodore stared into the overlaying shades of red and found his thoughts drifting away to a distant scene of fire and falling snow.

On the night of his parent’s car accident, Theodore stood in front of his childhood home in the middle of the night. He had just finished calling Katherine. Standing there, he rubbed his middle finger across the head of a match. A little bit of red came off. He placed the flat of his thumb on the red coating. It was coarse to the touch. Crack. A piece of the wooden body splintered off. Theodore had been gripping too tightly. More red. A speck of blood appeared where a jagged end stabbed into his finger. It was hot, burning even. Theodore’s eyes widened, and his pursed lips parted. The pain was refreshing. He imagined his finger on fire. The sensation traveled up his forearms and crawled up his shoulders before nestling into the curve of his neck. He took a deep breath and blew out a cloud of icy fog. The air singed his throat as it filled his lungs.  

A chuckle escaped his throat. Whatever. He was so tired.

Theodore looked down and noticed the snowflakes gathering on his open-sandaled feet. His toes were turning red. It was cold, he realized. He closed his eyes and imagined a spiderweb of frost growing up his legs and branching out in cracks across his chest. Hot passion and cold indifference produced a dangerous lack of inhibition. He couldn’t hold it in anymore. His wrist flicked and the match ripped across the ignition pad clutched in his other hand. The tip sparkled before blazing to life. Theodore stretched his arm out in front of him and dropped the little flame onto the trail of gasoline leading into his parent’s beloved Victorian townhouse.

The fire spread quickly through the dry wood. It had been a cold winter in Willow Brook. Theodore scratched his nose. The front balcony snapped off and crashed into the front steps. He thought about searching for the moon with Dad on the telescope they set up together. The attic collapsed next in a cloud of sawdust. He thought about the albums of photos tucked away in cardboard boxes. One by one, the windows ruptured into glimmering shards. Theodore counted them on his fingers. He thought about Mom’s bird feeders and how the red robins and sparrows would soon starve to death. It would all be dust soon anyway.

Theodore clenched his fists as he pictured the fire creeping into the old furnace room.

The clock struck 3:40 in the morning, and a loud explosion reverberated through Willow Brook Township as the house bloomed into a bouquet of rose, velvet, and amber. Curling through the petals, tendrils of smoke danced into the starless night. The air was silent except for the sound of airy breaths and the crackle of flames. Theodore screamed into the ballad of ash and shadow and laughed into the night as it all burned away. And when it was all gone, he ran. Away from his regrets, away from the cruelty of chance, and away from the vile feelings flowing toward him like black tar. Theodore ran into the winter night, as far as his breath would take him, to where no one would ever find him again.


Katherine looked up at Theodore’s perch at the top of the Great Pyramids. His eyes were closed as he screamed into the Sahara. It was accurate to say that Katherine looked. This was undeniably true. Her eyes were pointed at an angle that caught the light reflecting off Theodore’s reddening face. But to look and see are two vastly different things. She looked and saw his body contorting into tension. Perhaps with her medical knowledge, she saw the vocal cords in vibration at vastly elevated frequencies. However, it was impossible for Katherine, let alone anyone else, to see the inner workings of his mind – the specific order in which feelings crystallized into thoughts, and thoughts crystallized into the muscular impulse to scream. Theodore’s mind had indeed, for the time being, fled to a distant place.

Even so, Katherine really did trust Theodore. For six months, she let herself fall into the rhythm of his dream. Years later, she would look back on those months with great fondness and remark to herself that they carried an intoxicating sense of adolescent spirit. She remembered the thrill of high-fiving Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and being pulled back into the helicopter by Theodore’s hand and the way her heart floated 906 feet in the air above Paris when that hand pulled out a palm-size velvet box. Thinking about those months meant feeling his arms shaking with laughter at being called a hopeless romantic in the City of Love. It meant underwater waltzing in the Great Barrier Reef and drifting her eyes across the towering clouds of the Manchurian grassland on the tailwind of his flying finger.

It was an undeniable fact that Katherine was often happy, yet it was just as undeniable that in between the loud bouts of laughter and shouts of joy, on long plane rides and quiet café mornings, she found guilt welling up into stagnant pools that filled her mind with a yellow odor. Katherine’s memories of those six months would always be tattered at the edges, and it was the case that while she had happiness, never once did she have peace.

On every day of the trip, an item was checked off the list in bright red Sharpie. London, Seoul, Bangkok, Abu Dhabi, Stockholm, and Tokyo were gone before she knew it. Theodore would give a location and activity, and she would call him crazy before breaking out into a grin. Before long, she would scoff, then sigh deeply, and finally nod. Katherine enjoyed this prickly act. It made her feel light and floaty like a flight of butterflies was migrating into her.

She was in love like never before, and to love is to remember every mundane moment. Like how they cried tears of laughter on the shore as their cruise ship pulled away into the distance. “You turned off the alarm,” she accused. “No! You turned it off!” he replied. In their rush out of the hotel, neither noticed that the alarm was out of battery. “You can do it!” cheered Katherine. “Hurry the hell up!” cheered the line of Italians waiting for their turn at the currency exchange machine. “We have microwave ramen,” he said in defeat to Katherine, who was giggling furiously as he tried to tug her away. With their last euro, she bought a can of tuna for him to eat as a consolation prize. Theodore tucked a piece of hair behind her ear in the coffee shop line. He said that she needed to hear better to match his pitch. This is a nice melody, she thought. Katherine tuned his high baritone sound to her low alto with elbow nudges and finger squeezes until they hummed in harmony. His boot tapped a quarter-note rhythm, and somewhere outside, a songbird chirped. “It’s a starling,” said Theodore. He pointed to a branch in the canopy. “No, dummy, it’s a swallow,” said Katherine. The tour guide informed them that it was a toucan, native to the Amazon rainforest. Their eyes traded an agreement to take the interaction to their graves. Katherine swore never to forget any of these memories. Thus, it terrified her to even think that none of it meant anything to Theodore.

Even so, she found herself questioning if Theodore was happy, too. She sometimes wondered why she couldn’t be sure. Had he not laughed enough? Walked fast enough? Or was it the way he would sometimes get lost in his thoughts and stare into the distance at something far beyond the world in front of him?

Dear gods, she prayed as she passed under the grand O-Tori gate of Itsukushima Shrine, please, you’ve taken so much from him. Please, may he smile even when no one is looking.

Katherine clapped twice, bowed twice and bowed once more. The low tide was cold against her calves. She looked to Theodore, and felt his gaze travel, past the sacred gate of the old gods, past her and past even the titanic silhouette of the distant mountains.

He stood motionless on the shore, stranger to her than the ancient beams around her.


On the plane ride to Iceland, Katherine looked up where the most beautiful sunset was in the world and found that it was in Antarctica. She imagined herself walking out onto the ice with Theodore. With nothing but white as far as the horizon, they would have no choice but to be swallowed by the sunset. She smiled. Maybe Theodore would have an ice palace prepared, complete with heating and plumbing. It would be very in character for him to do so.

She looked back on the years. He was always there. Theodore had always known her the best. Katherine thought back to her senior year of high school when their dream school rejected her, and how she crawled into bed and cried after pretending that she didn’t care on the phone. She was screaming self-deprecating curses into her pillow when she heard a tap at her window.

There Theodore was below her windowsill. He stood on the lawn in a puffy white jacket, and his hands were balling up another T-shirt to throw. She opened her window to yell at him to go away, but before she could, he screamed that he had been rescinded! With Katherine temporarily stunned into silence, he explained that someone totally insane and obsessed must have falsely reported him for lying on his application and that it was unfortunate, but at least they would go to school together. After a moment, she called him an idiot, slammed the window shut and ripped the blinds together. Her face burned scarlet with a mixture of embarrassment and joy, and she feared that even from his position on the ground, he would hear her giggling.

Katherine thought back to the Great Pyramids and closed her eyes to try to imagine the world through his. She looked out at the ripples resonating through the dunes at the beckon of desert wind and imagined his scream gliding through the sunbaked tides. In her mind’s eye, the scream had shape and color. What did the scream carry as it traveled? Words? Fury? No, a song, she realized. The song of a great ivory whale swimming through the desert.

The magazine tucked into the seat in front of her contained a story about a whale named 52 Blue, who sang at the unusual frequency of 52 hertz. The author mused that it might spend its whole life singing into the void, always waiting for a reply and never to receive one. Katherine, still in Theodore’s eyes, looked around at the empty expanse around her. A cloud passed overhead, the land melted into the sky and she found herself floating in the ocean.

Katherine heard it now. It was Theodore’s true voice, singing along with 52 Blue from within its lonely shadow. She had always heard. From her perch in his heart, of course she could see into his mind. Back then, she noticed it at the tail end of the scream, when the volume began to fade – a little crack, a slight change of pitch, a syllable held too long to be spontaneous.

It reminded her of the night Theodore’s parents died – when he called her late in the evening and said he needed to tell her something. She picked up immediately thinking he wanted to talk about marriage. They were twenty-four, she thought, and it was about time. She giggled to herself and began twirling a strand of hair around the index finger of her free hand. Her thoughts wandered to the list of wedding dresses saved on her laptop, and a procession of frilly white skirts and embroidered silk sleeves paraded through her head. Theodore’s next words fell onto the promenade like torrential rain, and before her, carefully crafted hems crinkled, and floral headdresses withered as reality soaked into her rosy daydream.

He tried to act strong and pretend their deaths didn’t affect him, but she knew he was lying. He told her that it was just bad luck and that “crying over spilled milk” was pointless, but Katherine knew. Katherine always knew how he really felt. She heard the sadness in his intonation, the false swagger that indicated he was hiding something. She recognized a crack and slight change of pitch in the way he said, “Love you,” before hanging up. His words hung in the air for a bit too long, and a moment of silence passed before the phone line cut.

Katherine had smiled back then in the desert. She opened her mouth to speak, but her words caught in her throat and dried up in the arid air. It was the porcelain smile of a girl who didn’t know what else to do, the kind of pitying smile given to broken birds, wilted trees and other sad little things that were hard to imagine fixed. It would all pass with time, she thought, and the sweet scent of dreams would drive away the stench of rot behind them.

Katherine looked at Theodore’s sleeping face and recalled its journey through the last six months. She tried to convince herself that with every dream fulfilled, a wrinkle folded away. There were so many bags under his eyes. They were darker than last time. She placed a hand on his chest like he was one of the patients she practiced on. His breath was unsteady and ragged. She let her hand sit there and felt his heartbeat quiet to a gentle murmur. No one else saw this Theodore, the one broken down from pretending to be happy even as he wondered every minute whether the dreams he fulfilled would ever replace the love he lost. No one except Katherine.

She knew him in the same way that he knew her, and she had to do what he was too afraid to ask for. Katherine kissed his forehead. An airy whisper escaped her lips as she pulled away. It wound through the air and wrapped around them. Her courage had finally bloomed.

“Theodore, do you hear it? It’s me, singing back. You can run from everything. Not me though. It might take a while sometimes, but I’ll always find you.”


Katherine hummed to herself on a black sand beach two miles south of the Grótta Lighthouse in Reykjavík. It was a warm, summer night, and Theodore’s hunched silhouette stood fifty steps from her feet. Above, trails of neon lit up the clouds. The shapes in the sky twisted like the smoke of a witch’s fire. She watched the waves as they crashed on the jutted rocks farther from the shore. Every now and then, a drop of light fell onto the water before being swallowed into the black depths. She watched Theodore’s face. Every now and then, he turned, and a pale glow spread across his cheek before settling into the pupil of his eye.

Jumping up suddenly, Theodore began to run towards Katherine. He pointed upward and yelled words drowned out by the sea breeze. She started running towards him but stopped when he tripped on a bit of uneven sand and tumbled to the ground. He turned himself towards the sky and screamed once more.


The rocket exploded into the northern lights. It showered the horizon with golden sparkles. A second one exploded. It blossomed into a crimson rose. A third one exploded. Then a fourth, and a fifth. In the sky above Grótta, great flowers of fire bloomed across the rolling neon expanse. A kaleidoscope of colors was filling up the empty space. She took it all in – purples, blues, reds, oranges, and the rainbow gradients of their afterimages.  

The colors lingered long after the last explosion, long after the sound of the waves was audible again. It was the celebration of another dream fulfilled.  

Katherine looked at Theodore on the ground. He lay flat on the sand, face up. The shadow of the cliffs hid his expression. It was a void, she thought. An abyss into which even the most brilliant of memories disappeared, never to be seen again. The silence that crawled out was deafening. She wondered if he had felt anything for the last six months – if the smile he wore every day was made of plastic and only good for breeding broods of paper butterflies.

“Theodore, you can’t keep running. I won’t pretend to know everything you’re dealing with. If I did, I would’ve said something long ago. But you can’t keep using me to run away.”

“I know, Kath. But I’m afraid of what I’ll find when I stop this craziness.”

“Hey, there’s one more place I want to go. I added it to the end of the list.”


“Just trust me.” Katherine knelt to the ground and extended her hand to him.

“I trust you.” He took her hand.

The soft shimmer of the aurora illuminated their ascent out of the cliff’s shadow.  


Six months and seven days after his home burned, Theodore crested the summit of Willow Brook Hill, the pride of his hometown. He stopped to catch his breath and looked downward as he braced his hands on his knees. The grass was moist from the evening rain. He tracked the drops of sweat as they fell from his chin and broke apart as they hit blades of tall grass. One after another they fell to the rhythm of his breath. He closed his eyes and lifted his head. His right hand rose to push back the tangled mess covering his forehead. The sweat was cold on his palm. He flicked it off to the side as he opened his eyes. The beads sparkled in the air as they fell. Before him, all of Twilight Meadow was in sight, bathed in an otherworldly platinum. It was as if the land had been blessed by a shower of moonlight in preparation for the spectacle to come. Theodore looked up at the full moon above. It was a cloudless night, perfect for the return of the Stellaris Meteor Shower.

He had come here a long time ago, back when his parents were still capable of hoisting him up into the air. He could see farther then, lofted atop Dad’s shoulders. Any moment the first meteor would fall and etch an aquamarine streak into the sky. He gripped the sheet of notebook paper tightly in his left hand, so tight that he thought the ink would squeeze out of the page and stain the pearly white ground he stood on. He looked behind him. Katherine was there, at the base of the hill, visible to him only by a ghostly outline. She gave him a nod. He gestured for her to come up and was met by a shake of her head.

Suddenly, she jumped and pointed upward. Theodore turned around and caught it in the corner of his eye – a line of light traveling across the sky. The blood roared in his ears.

At first, it was slow. One or two meteors every few seconds. In between, Theodore’s gaze fell on the mist coming from his mouth and how it dissipated into the darkness. He felt his thoughts being tugged towards a distant memory. The meteors came faster now, one after another. His chest felt warm, and his throat felt bloated. Each meteor lodged itself into his body, gradually adding weight until his knees gave out, and he crumpled to the ground with hands gripping his head. He couldn’t remember their faces. Hands clawed and slapped against his head. He had to remember. The half a cup of coffee dad gave him when he was 12. The creak of the floorboard that mom always stepped on her way to his room. The toy Ferrari he raced into his dad’s big toe. Orange blossom perfume. Pinky calluses. Left shoe first. A bookshelf organized by color. Post-it notes on his laundry. Sensations. Feelings. And love.

For good or bad, it was love that couldn’t be forgotten. Theodore looked up once more.

The meteor shower, or rather, the meteor storm was now coming down in full. They marched across the sky. Hundreds of brushes painted the space between the stars. Each one left a mark in his vision that lit up every time he blinked. He watched them for a while. A tapestry of the past was being weaved before him.

A chill crawled up his neck, and he felt something hot against his cheek. Theodore raised a hand to feel it. Wet. A teardrop. Theodore was crying at last, and he couldn’t stop. His eyes burned. All he could see was the foggy haze being created by his heaved breaths.

He reached a trembling hand into his pocket and pulled out the stack of photos he had gathered on his journey. Before the teardrops stained them, he flung them into the air. They scattered into the wind, twisting and turning as they floated off towards the painted sky.

“Hey, Mom. Hey, Dad. I went on the trip with Katherine. You know, that trip I planned on a list with Kath when we were 16. That list was still on the fridge when I came back. You guys laughed every time you passed it. I guess it’s not up anymore. You know, all these photos would be perfect for the fridge. And you guys would be so curious about the stories behind them. Maybe you guys would ask me to stay up all night to tell them. But I wouldn’t give in easily. I would tell a single story over many days and get my revenge on you guys for laughing. And you guys would complain and tell me that you lost interest, but you would secretly celebrate whenever I cut off a story for the day because it guaranteed that I would visit for at least one more day to finish the story. Because God knows I never call.” He paused.  

“I’m sorry. There wasn’t more time. Mom, sorry for not replying to your 6 p.m. check-in texts. I saw them. Every single one. Dad, sorry for never fixing up the shed with you. I know it wasn’t about saving money. I wish you guys were here. A dream vacation could never change that. I love you, and this time, I’m really moving forward. So please, at least say goodbye.”

He took a long breath and wished upon the falling stars.

Silence filled the air as the meteor shower slowed. Theodore stood and stared into the sky. Eventually, he felt Katherine’s hand on his shoulder. He sighed and started descending the hill with her. Halfway down, a warm breeze slipped by his cheek. He looked backward. One last meteor drifted into the horizon. He smiled. Already, the sky was returning to black.  

“What are the chances you get arrested when you go back?” joked Katherine.

“With a little luck, insurance will have funded this trip. Probably.”

Katherine laughed. He took her hand and together, they took one step forward.