Facts // a story by Lauren Bryan

Facts // a story by Lauren Bryan

The average human being walks a total distance of three times around the earth by the time they die.

This is something Isla Naomi Griffin has always remembered. Other facts her brain retains: the quadratic formula, the capital of Canada, exactly how many prime numbers there are from one to one hundred. Facts her brain can not retain: her name, her age, her parents, her life. On the outside, she looks normal. In fact, with her borderline almond eyes the color of a storm cloud, her raven colored mane drying in ringlets, her round face with a prominent chin, she looks more like a boxer than a “memory challenged” teenage girl. People told her so. Not that she remembered.

Every morning follows the same schedule of events. The following is a description of how her morning’s commence: Isla wakes up, her eyesight muffled by her gray plaid sheets, crumpled into a ball. She has no idea exactly where she is, or how she came to get there, but she does know to shift onto her back, so she can stare up at the ceiling. She reads what stains it in scrawling blue ink. “Your name is Isla Naomi Griffin. This is your home. Your parents are going to come get you.” After she reads this note that her previous self has written her, she’ll move her eyes a fraction of an inch to the left and soak in the name that takes over the rest of her ceiling. Ari Gray Loften. Then she’ll speak it out loud, and a sense of happiness will make her heart jump into a perfect toe touch.

At precisely six, the doors to her bedroom will open, her parents will enter, and, with words that have long ago been memorized, they will tell her what is wrong with her. They’ll assure her they aren’t aliens trying to brainwash her, and that, no, they haven’t kidnapped her from her actual parents. Then they’ll help her out of bed on unsteady feet, lead her to the bathroom and turn on the heated tile flooring, and remind her of the day’s events. She’ll shower. Eat breakfast. Get ready. Go to school. Then she’ll sink into utter and complete embarrassment.

This morning is no different. The only deviation from the normal routine is the command her mother states, business-like. “Shave your legs. You have a dance recital today.” Then she is driven to Grand Castle Private School and dropped off before the school’s impressive brick visage and soaring buttresses. As she stands blinking unhappily into the morning sun, shouldering her backpack so it does not slip off, her phone begins to fall. It plummets towards the earth at 9.81 meters per second squared. She notices its absence, though, and whirls around to try and catch it. Instead, she comes face to face with the most beautiful creature she has ever seen.

Ari Gray Loften effortlessly spins the phone to face her, right side up, and smiles. His green eyes dance beneath quirked eyebrows. “You dropped this,” he tells her. Isla does not move, and in the awkward silence, he nervously runs his free hand through his short blonde hair. He does not behave this way with any other girl in Grand Castle, and sometimes he curses himself for choosing the only human being that actually intimidates him as his girlfriend.

“Thanks,” Isla finally stammers, accepting the proffered phone. Then she smiles, and it clotheslines Ari’s heart. Oh, yes. That’s why he chose her.

“Of course, my queen. Anything for you,” he jokes, bowing. When he straightens, Isla isn’t looking at him. She’s walking away. “Hey, wait!”

“I don’t know who you are,” she says, and the agony in her voice tears at Ari’s smirk.

He catches her elbow and she rounds on him. Her muscles tense. “I know,” he says. “I know. Isla, can you guess at who I am?”

She stands perfectly still, like a doe in the meadow, before answering. “You’re Ari, aren’t you?”

“I wait for you here everyday,” he tells her, nodding. “Everyday.”

“And we’re…” Isla starts, but her words catch on the final word. The bell rings.

“About to be late,” Ari answers, letting his hand slide down from her elbow to her hand. She follows reluctantly, and he leads her to their first hour class. They don’t sit next to each other, and it hurts Ari to let her go. For the first ten minutes of A&P, Isla’s lifetime classmates introduce themselves to her all over again. Although Isla laughs and repeats their names and takes their memory jokes in stride, her gray eyes always drift back to Ari’s. Even as Mr. Greg teaches them about the skeletal system, it is as if Ari is her magnet. The cycle continues throughout the day, as he walks her from class to class and tells her which senior has done what and who exactly to stay away from. Even when she meets Hazel, her best friend in dance, she can’t stop feeling as though Ari is the only one she can trust. After all, did she not wake up with his name on her walls?

Lunchtime makes her stomach growl and lurch, and the bell can’t come soon enough. She’s out the door and into the purple-colored hall before anyone can call out her name. While she stands in line waiting for the ketchup, Ari appears by her side.

“And where do you think you’re sitting?” he asks, and the way he says it makes her annoyance spike.

“Wherever you’re not,” Isla snaps, forgetting the condiment and sidestepping away.

“Isla,” Ari laughs, and she bristles. “Did I do something to you?”

“Yes.” Her stormy eyes search the long, rectangular tables that occupy the cafeteria. Maybe she could sit with, um… Ari’s fingers wrap around her elbow and gently steer her the other way, but she digs in her heels. He sighs.

“What? Why are you mad?”

“You realize I know nothing about you. Everyone says that we’re…” Again, she can’t say the word. “Well that we’re us, but how can I be sure? You’re so confident, Ari. You’re so confident, and I’m not. How can you want to be with me? It bothers me.”

“Does it?” he asks, and she snorts disgustedly and yanks out of his grip. “Isla, wait! Wait. I’m sorry, I can’t help it. Come sit with us?” When she turns to stare into his eyes, she is shocked by the change in him. His posture is slack and loose and his mouth has let go of his normal smirk. The bright emeralds that surround his pupils no longer shine.

She takes him in for a moment, letting her eyes dart around his face. “Okay.”

He leads her to the farthest table on the right, and she is greeted by friends—Hazel, Finn, Ashlee, and Jason. Their smiles are real and genuine, and nearly dazzle her out of her mood. Ari sits beside her and watches as she takes in the others’ conversations.

“You can not walk in those heels. You’ll break an ankle!” Hazel exclaims, clucking at Ashlee’s phone.

“I can walk in whatever I want to walk in. I’m planning on being as tall as Nick, so he doesn’t have to bend so much when we dance. Ugh. It was so awful last year.” She pinches her nose and rolls her eyes, but even that gesture can’t ruin her beauty.

“Where are you dancing?” Isla asks, and the group exchanges glances.

“Homecoming, honey. It’s this Saturday!” Hazel eyes Jason and tosses a green bean at him. “Only if Jason actually manages to pick me up on time, that is.”

“Homecoming? Do I…” Isla’s voice wavers. “Do I have a dress?”

“Of course. We bought it last week,” the girls remind her, but it doesn’t make her feel any better. Her head hangs a centimeter closer to the chocolate muffin. Ari fumbles in his pocket and pulls out his phone, flicking through photos until he finds the one he is looking for.

“Here.” She takes the phone into her long, slender fingers and lets it sit in the palm of her hand. For a moment, she can’t recognize herself. The Isla in the photo is smiling and laughing, her hair in a messy bun that frames her head like a peacock’s tail. The dress is a dark, elegant purple, and the bodice is bedazzled in sparkling jewels. Ari studies her face, and then leans over to whisper into her ear. “You look gorgeous.”

Her face reddens, and she hands the phone back to him. “Are we going together?”

Ari blinks. “Of course. I asked you a month ago, at the football game. Do you… do you remember?” It’s not a dumb question, or at least not one made without thought. He does this sometimes, asks for her to dig deep into her mind, just to see if she’s getting better.

She never answers.

The rest of the lunch, she lets go by in silence. The others talk, but her mouth remains firmly set in a thin line while she peels off the wrapper of her muffin. Ari’s food goes cold. School drags by in drowsy lectures, one practice fire drill, and three quizzes. When the final bell rings and the announcements have ended, Ari and Isla find themselves standing alone in front of the school. Every other sensible kid has cleared the perimeter, but they just stand. She hugs her books to her chest, and he shoves his hands in his pockets. When she finally speaks, it makes every nerve in his body fire at once.

“Do you love me, Ari?”

He answers without hesitating. “I love you, Isla Naomi Griffin.”

Slowly, shyly, she turns her head and brushes black curls out of her eyes. “I don’t know you, but I think I love you, too.” Her words are soft and thoughtful, unaware of the effect they have on Ari’s heart. Like she has found some strange creature and doesn’t want to scare it away.

“I know you don’t know me,” he whispers. “Not today. Not tomorrow. Not the day after that.” Pain leeches out of Isla’s chest and collects in molecules beneath her eyes.

“I can’t explain it, Ari. Not to anyone. Not in English. I can feel that you are a huge part of who I am, but I don’t know why or how. It’s at the very edge of my mind, the tip of my tongue, but it will never ever come to me.” She stares at the black converse that don her feet. He stares at her.

“Then don’t say it in English. There’s a word for that. Do you know what it is? The pain of wanting something you can never have.” It’s another test, and Ari regrets the words the moment he speaks them. He shouldn’t be testing her. He shouldn’t be pushing her. She’s upset all ready, and she’s crying, and she has a dance recital, and her makeup might be ruined… He starts to panic. “Hey, listen, forget it. Hazel will kill me if she has to redo your-”

La douleur exquise,” she whispers. The world stops spinning. She remembers, he thinks. She remembers.

“You told me that on our very first date,” he tells her.

“Why?” Isla cocks her head and her curls brush her elbow.

“Because,” he laughs, “I forgot to bring you my dad’s homemade cookies, and you were rather upset about it.” His smile makes her tears vanish.

Her dance recital goes by perfectly. She pirouettes, arabesques, arrastres, calypsos… her mind does not remember the song, but her muscles remember the moves. It’s in her DNA, carved like Egyptian hieroglyphs into her bones. And when Ari gives her a huge, enveloping hug afterwards, she can’t stop herself from throwing her arms around him. The next day, they go on a picnic, and the day after, they decorate the school to match the Homecoming theme. They breathe in helium and laugh so hard they cry, they make masks out of the leftover paper,  they mock Hazel in her seriousness. For every new day, Isla doesn’t remember whom Ari is, but every morning she waits at the edge of the school for the boy she knows will come. Sometimes she is annoyed, and sometimes she is elated. But everyday she waits, and doesn’t quite know why.

One day, he doesn’t show. After her parents leave, she stands there all alone on the sidewalk, waiting, searching the crowd of kids, but no one comes to her. No one. Panic makes her legs tremble and her stomach twist into knots, and even the bell can not move her when it rings. All she knows is that someone was supposed to come get her, and it’s not the red-head walking by or the boy in camouflage letting himself be swallowed up by the school’s ancient mouth. Ten minutes pass, twenty, thirty… the sky begins to cry. It allows only a few tears to succumb to gravity and splatter into millions of pieces at her feet. Isla wonders if she should just go home.

“What are you doing?” a high, clear voice raises above the sky’s mourning. Isla twists to look at her, the girl peering out from the doors.

“Where is…” but she can not fill in the blank with a name she does not know.

“Isla!” The girl trots outside, trying to shelter her caramel hair from the rain. As her face gets closer, relief nearly brings Isla to her knees.

“I know you,” she says, and her smile wobbles.

“I’m Hazel. Why are you standing outside? You have to come in,” she snaps, but she isn’t mad. She wraps her best friend in a hug and leads her towards the doors.

“I was waiting for…” Her eyebrows wrinkle.

“Ari is sick today. He should’ve told your mom. I’m sorry, I thought you were in your first hour!” Hazel laments.

“It’s okay.” But the rest of the day is not. Her mind refuses to focus, and the facts she should have remembered from yesterday vanish into the murky mess that swallows her memories. School is tasteless and bland, just like the air that fills it, and all Isla can do is breathe it in and try not to gag. Hazel told her that she had been waiting for Ari, but something else was missing. Something Isla could never have without him.

She skips dance practice, and her mom has to drive her home. “What’s wrong, sweetie? Isla, please talk to me. Tell me what’s wrong? Do you know who I am?”

“I know who you are,” she says, but that’s the only sentence she utters the rest of the ride. The moment the car stops moving, she jumps onto the ground and races inside. Her father’s “hey, pumpkin,” is ignored. There is only one destination in mind.

Her mother follows, face twisted in defeat, and her father gestures angrily at her. Arguing fills the kitchen. Car keys are slammed down onto the counter, and shouting is amplified by the walls that are closing in around Isla. Her shoulder slams into the corner. Her breath hisses out of her. Yelling. She opens her door. Cussing. The door slams closed. She huddles onto the bed and muffles the world with her gray plaid sheets before closing her eyes and praying for her memories to be taken.

~

He is waiting for her the next morning. His throat is raw from too much coughing, and the pain that bounces around between his temples is a constant burden, but he forgets all of this when he sees her step out of the car. She wears black leggings and a loose fitting blouse that blooms with red and white roses, and her hair is pulled up into a ponytail.

“Hello again,” Ari says, and smiles. She just looks at him. He sucks in a breath and prepares to explain who he is, as he does everyday, but she stops him.

“You weren’t here yesterday,” she growls.

“Yes.” He pauses. “How do you know that?”

She flashes her palm at him, and he briefly catches the ink staining her skin. Then she storms away, heaving open the doors and not looking back. Ari follows her at a brisk jog, alarmed. What did he do? What happened yesterday? He doesn’t get to ask her, though, because her long legs have already carried her to first period class. Ari stops in the middle of the hall and places his hands on his head, closing his eyes. She had been so good this week…

“Having issues?” Hazel asks, and Ari opens his eyes to find her standing in front of him with her hands on her hips.

“She hates me.”

“You left her. You didn’t text her mom.” Hazel sighs and shakes her head. “You know she’s fragile, Ari. I don’t understand-”

“She’s many things, but you and I both know she’s not fragile,” Ari snaps.

Hazel shuts her mouth, and her brown eyes blink sadly at him. “Don’t lie to yourself.”

“She’s not fragile.”

“She has a disease!” Hazel hisses, walking closer. “I know she fights hard. I know she’s spirited. I’m her best friend. I know. But there’s only a couple things holding her together and you’re one of them. She remembered you yesterday, and she needed you, and you weren’t there.”

They face each other, glaring, two warriors locked in a battle. Even though Hazel is a foot shorter, it’s an even fight, and at last Ari sighs. “I was sick.”

“Suck it up and say sorry,” she growls, and then turns her back and walks away.

Ari’s late to class, and Isla refuses to make eye contact with him when he slides into his seat with a mumbled apology. When first hour is over, though, she waits for him to leave the room.

“Hey,” he speaks, brushing her arm with his.

“Hi.”

“I’m sorry I left you yesterday. I was sick,” he frowns. “Forgive me, my queen.”

“I’ll think about it,” she says, but the beginnings of a smile have started to form at the corners of her mouths, tugging at her dimples.

“You missed me yesterday?” he asks, teasing.

She turns her gray eyes his way and says, flatly, with no emotion, “I don’t remember, I just know you weren’t here.” They are silent on their way to second hour. They don’t speak a word over lunch. Inside, though, Isla is screaming. Yesterday had been the start of something awful, of forgetting more than usual, of feeling less and less, and it has carried over to today. Her brain whirrs and works and tries to access the files of memory she desperately wants, but it won’t. She is totally and completely numb. Her body is betraying her. In algebra, she can not answer a single question.

Hazel asks her what is wrong, placing perfectly manicured nails gently on her shoulder. “You’re off today.”

“Was I off yesterday? I’m not entirely sure,” Isla replies darkly.

“Don’t feel sorry for yourself. You’re better than that,” her friend chides.

“There’s a term that scientists use when mentally ill or sick people have what looks like sudden recovery. They feel better, they understand everything that’s going on around them… It’s called terminal lucidity.”

“You’re not going to die,” Hazel snaps.

“It’d be better if I did,” Isla whispers. Without warning, Hazel reaches down and grabs Isla’s hands in hers. Isla waits, hair sticking to her cheeks and eyelashes. “Why can I remember that, and not him? Never him. Never you. Never me…”

“Do you know what this means?” asks a voice, and the two girls whip around to stare at Ari. The paper in his hand droops and his mouth is still open. “Sorry, did I…”

“I can’t go to Homecoming with you,” Isla says, matter-of-factly, the normal fluctuation in her voice now gone.

“What?”

“I’m not going to go to Homecoming with you.”

Ari’s eyes flick towards Hazel, but she’s just as surprised as he. “Why?”

“Because,” Isla says, looking away, “I won’t remember it.”

“We’ve gone to dances before. Why is this different?” Ari asks. His words hint at fire and water all at once. “Do you remember the last one?”

“You know I don’t.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?” Her eyes flash. “How dare you. You know why.”

“You don’t remember, but I do.” His entire demeanor changes, and his shoulders slump in defeat. “Don’t you understand? It doesn’t matter if you remember it. For those twenty four hours, it’ll be all yours. And me? I’ll get to see your beautiful face over and over and over again because I’ll remember for both of us. I promise. Please.” His voice cracks. “Please.”

She bites her lip and a stray tear rolls down her cheek, but she doesn’t speak.

“Do this. For me. I’ll do anything. I’ll videotape it if you want, or I’ll wear a GoPro on my head, or…” he trails off when she starts to laugh, a noise that resounds from deep in her chest, bright and clear.

“Don’t do that… don’t wear a GoPro,” she chuckles. “Just buy me flowers.”

Ari’s cheeks light up and his eyes brighten. His strong arms scoop her up into a hug. “I’ll buy you the whole world if that’s what you want.”

~

Isla can’t stop moving. She glides over the floor, her feet never falling still. Sometimes she trips and lands on her side, but Hazel is always there, laughing, helping her up. They have the studio all to themselves. It’s technically not a day for practice, but they went anyways, calling in to their teacher to ask for the code. Even though her chest gasps for air, and beads of sweat drip down her neck, and the bottoms of her feet ache from too much work, she doesn’t regret coming.

It’s the only way to release the happiness that demands to be used.

“He’s so amazing. How can he deal with me all the time? How can he handle my issue? I’m one hundred and ten percent sure he’s not of this world!” Isla gushes. “Will you help me get ready for the dance? Please?”

“Of course,” Hazel smiles, grabbing her hand and pulling her towards the stereo. While she scrolls searching for their music, Isla sighs and falls to the floor, letting her hair land in pieces across her face.

“I can’t believe he’s mine. Mine, mine, mine, mine,” she squeals from behind her raven colored curtain, which tickles her nose. “He’s so handsome, and funny, and smart. He’s-” The door opens, and Isla lifts the hair out of her face. Hazel whips around. They stare as Isla’s parents stumble onto the dance floor.

“Isla! Thank God…” her mother’s voice trembles.

“What’s up, Mom? Dad?” Isla asks, standing up. She’s never seen her mother so… so not perfect. So disheveled. Her makeup is smeared in dark clouds beneath her eyes, and the foundation she uses has nearly rubbed off completely. As they watch, her hands begin to tremble.

“It’s Ari,” her father says, grabbing his wife’s hand. “He’s dead.”

“And he… he had this…” her mom says, pulling something out of her pocket.

Isla’s eyes drift down to the crumpled corsage in her hands, and her heart stops beating.

~

When the door to her bedroom opens, Isla doesn’t bother to look for who it is. She just stares up at the ceiling and reads his name, over and over and over. She rolls the syllables, the vowels, the consonants around in her mind and urges them into her bloodstream.

“Isla Naomi Griffin,” her mother begins, voice groggy from waking up. “We’re your parents. You were born with a very rare disease that-”

“I know, Mom,” Isla says, stopping her cold. “I remember. Everything.” And she does. Only, for the first time in her life, she wishes it wasn’t true. She remembers yesterday, how he said he would buy her the whole world. She remembers their argument, their agreement, her parent’s announcement. She remembers the news. Ari Gray Loften was killed in a hit-and-run accident, crossing the street to get to his car. He was going home after buying his girlfriend the flowers he had promised so she could have the Homecoming she always wanted.

Without waiting for her parents to speak, she rolls over, curls up in a ball, and presses her face against her pillow. She lets the tears make translucent splotches on the fabric. She stays like this for two hours until she can cry no more, and then she calls Hazel. Her best friend can barely speak, especially after Isla tells her she knows exactly who she is, but Hazel agrees to help. Her parents do, too. They start cleaning the house, and go to the store to get food while she showers.

They start to show up as the sun bleeds across the sky.

Their coats, which they hang on the many hooks upon their hall, soon cover the hardwood flooring. Shoes pile up in the entryway. Music blares across the house and makes the walls tremble with its bass. In the kitchen, sandwiches and sympathy cards are served on the same tray. Kids and adults occupy the Griffin’s house, stare at the pictures on their walls, spill on their floors, dance in their living room. Nobody cares about the mess. They only care about him.

It’s amazing how the human brain works. Isla can not remember anything beyond yesterday. She only remember his death. But at this celebration of life, the celebration that is laced with agony and defeat, she meets him all over again. They tell her about how they first met, what their first date was, why he hated the card game named after a cow’s excrement. (Hint: She beat him. Every. Time.)

She falls in love with him all over again.

When she is so full of his memories that she feels as though she will burst, she retreats into her bedroom and sits, cross-legged, on her bed. The corsage holds her attention and blurs out everything—the music, the people, the chatter, the crying. She sees only him. And then she grabs the red pen that sits on her bedside table and starts writing. She records every single word she just heard, and she marks them on every inch of her skin. Ink stains her hands, her arms, her legs, her feet, and the pen’s tip bruises her. Isla does not care. One single fact keeps her writing.

She’s not going to remember him. This is a truth. As much of a miracle today is, she knows it will not last. She gets up and erases sections of her chalkboard walls that speak of her school schedule, or her extended family, or when her next test is, and she fills them with everything she knows she will forget. The way his eyes would light up when he saw her. The way he said her name. The way his face looked every time she told him she couldn’t remember who he was. At some point, the people begin to leave. The D.J. packs up last of all. When the music is gone, she knows the house is empty, but she doesn’t care. She hopes he knows it was never about them. This party, it was not about them or their memories. It was all about him.

When she has finished all the recording, she grabs the corsage and settles back into her bed. Her head tips back and she stares up at her ceiling, at his name, wondering how letters could look so much like stars. And she begins to speak.

“Ari Gray Loften,” she says, and the name sends shivers down her spines. “If I could give up every single memory in the world, every useless fact, every math equation, and exchange it for one more minute with you… I would.

The average human walks a distance of three times around the earth by the time they die. You never made it that far, but I’m so glad I got to walk your journey with you, even if I didn’t remember any of the steps after we had taken them.”

Her heart. It hurts so bad. She closes her eyes and wonders how it is still beating.

“When they ask me how I feel, I won’t be able to tell them. They’ll never understand the pain I’ll sense everyday I step onto the school’s curb, or I sit down for lunch, or I go on picnics. La douleur exquise. You are the thing I want but can never have, and I’m glad that you are the one who is causing me to feel this way. You’ll be like music to me, Ari. Music and dancing. Even if I’m born again, you’ll still be part of my DNA. Death can not change that.”

She says this, and realizes it is true. She slides under the sheets. She lays her head on her pillow, her dark black hair fanned out behind her, and curls up in the fetal position. For a minute, she lets her stormy gray eyes stare at the flowers around her wrist.

“I might forget your name, but I will always feel your pain,” she whispers. “And I’m grateful.”

She falls asleep thinking only of him.

Lauren Bryan is a sophomore at Wethersfield High School in Kewanee Illinois. She worked on this story in the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio’s Spring 2017 online fiction course taught by Liz Weiss.