Constant by Virginia Black (Short Story, 2021)

You are born.

The only child of young parents, you are their beloved but burdensome son. Most but not all of the time, they clothe you and feed you and keep a roof over your head. They try too hard at the wrong things and, before you’re ready to live on your own, they die without having lived.

You stay within the boundaries of your parents’ world, even though they’re gone. They had expected you to finish school, so you do but go no further with your studies. They expected you to get a job and contribute to the household, so even though you’re alone in a life that isn’t pleasant or comfortable, you choose work instead of university and a professional career.

You never travel more than a mile from your apartment, a spare room over a small market where you work day and night. You share a bathroom at the end of the upstairs hall with the tenants of other rooms like yours. You had no hobbies as a child, and learn no new ones as an adult.

Is it life if you’re not living?

Is it life if all you do is breathe?

The first time you see her, you’re not sure what you’re seeing. A person, yes, but you lack the words to say what’s different about her, even if you had the courage to say a word to anyone else about it.

Petite but strong, she walks like she’s never made a mistake or let someone down and you can’t look away. Her hair is short and, like her, never stays put. When she turns your way, her brightness stuns you.

She’s made of light and is always kind. Whenever she sees you, she smiles – always, even when you trip and spill the mop bucket all over her boots. Sometimes, she buys a sandwich at the deli in the market and eats at the counter. Sometimes, she tells you about her work, her studies, her life. She lives across the street in a walk-up, she says, with little room but a lot of light for her plants.

Sometimes, she asks about you, but there’s nothing to tell. You work, sleep, and work some more. Was this what your parents did? Spent their time without counting its cost?

She comes into the market often, and after awhile, you realize you love her, though all you ever say is hello.

One day, you see her across the street trailing someone behind her by the hand. She’s smiling, like always, but this smile is different. Brighter yet somehow softer, full of love and not in your direction though you stare anyway.

It hurts, seeing that smile she has for someone else – a woman with dark hair and brooding features – but you’re happy she has someone at all. Perhaps that someone is braver than you.

You’re content to nod when she comes to the market, though not as often as she used to.

Then you see someone else watching her.

He sits outside the cafe next door. You don’t know him, but you know of him from the people in the market. He’s a big man, a dark man for all his paleness, and he’s done terrible things. He served years in prison for those things, but now he’s free and he lives nearby. He watches her, and his face says he plans more terrible things.

You’re sweeping the sidewalk in front of the market one afternoon, moving trash that will be replaced within an hour, and you see her. She’s pulling her lover by the hand again as they walk toward her apartment building.

Outside the cafe, the watcher stands but leaves his paper on the table.

He follows them into the building, and you know he’s done watching.

The market owner yells when you drop the broom and run across the street.

Inside there’s a flight of stairs, and you see them but not him. They’re slowly climbing, pausing to share a kiss and a laugh, but the watcher is nowhere in sight.

You run forward to warn them, but the words trip on your lips, they won’t form and while she frowns patiently, her lover looks angry and tells you to go away.

And then he’s there.

He’s behind them, holding a knife and they don’t see. You race up the stairs and grab her hand, but her companion pulls her free and stares at you like she knows you. Who is she? She screams in recognition, and you slip as he drives his knife toward the brooding lover but you can’t speak.

You fall.

Your skull cracks on the marble stairs.

You die.


You are reborn.


In this life, you are cherished. 

Your parents raise their only daughter as if she cannot fail, but you fear failure anyway. Encouraged to deviate from the norm, to try new things, you balk and tread the worn path. Bad things happen to people who step away from the known. You don’t know how you know this, but you know. Though they offer you travel and adventure, you are bound to that inner voice that tells you to stay the course, to avoid attention, to limit your choices.

When you meet her, the pang of familiarity and longing makes you skip the pleasantries and tell her all your truths. Her eyes light up when she sees you, easing an ache in your chest you’ve never noticed before. The wisps of her blond hair dance in the breeze as she pulls you around a corner, toward her building halfway down the block.

You don’t like her street.

It’s not because of the trash or the cheap cars or the panhandlers on the corners. The small market, though, across the street from the entrance to her building makes you uneasy.

Whenever you walk into her building, there’s a man in front of the market. He’s tall, but with bad posture as he hunches over his broom. He’s young, but old enough to cause trouble, and he’s what happens when life’s opportunities are declined.  He always stops what he’s doing to stare, as if he can only perform one action at a time.

He watches her. He’s never said anything, never crosses the street, but your hindbrain alerts you to the danger of him.

It stirs something in you, some fear you can’t isolate enough to form a response, but it leaves you wary as you follow her into her building.

She’s smiling and laughing as she climbs the stairs, tugs at your clothes to pull you closer. Her lips hint at adventures you wish you were strong enough to take.

A loud slam is accompanied by an unwelcome voice. The young man from the market races up the stairs and takes her hand, and you fear for her. You pull her closer, push his hand from hers.

This one moment, when you push his hand away, lasts a lifetime and an instant, and you know who he is and what happens next.

You scream, yelling to stop him from moving, but he starts, slips, falls.

The crack of his skull is loud in your ears.

Crystal clear memory of your face through his eyes shows you what’s behind you, and that knowledge drives you to shift your body to one side. The dagger misses you, the villain overextends, trips, falls on his own blade. You stare down at the stairs at them, twisted and unnatural, not side by side but both dead.

You have been here twice now.

The woman with the flyaway hair, now safe, dotes over you as she checks for injury. Satisfied that you’re well, she looks at the dead men below you, laments the one from the market across the street.

She says he was kind, though his eyes were always sad.

Does it repeat until you learn the lesson? Right now, is another instance of you being born? Will that version of you choose the safe path as well unless you veer now at the fork?

She says your name, nothing but love in her eyes, and you choose a different life from this moment forward.

When she pulls you by the hand this time, everything in you leaps to follow.

This time, you live.

Copyright 2021, Virginia Black. All rights reserved.

Previously appeared in WRITING FREEDOM, Brisk Press (2021)