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Sen Salazar took care of sunflowers.

They sat on his veranda, overlooking the city, facing the east and watching the sun over the sound of traffic blaring up from six floors below. They were splashes of color against the glass and graysteel tones of Dubai. Warm and bright and yellow, the sight of his favorite flowers always greeted him when he woke up. They reminded him of home in the Spanish countryside; of a vast field of sunflowers, twisting their necks to follow the sun.

His aunt Sofia always told him that they represented lasting happiness. That so long as the sunflowers could greet the morning, it didn’t matter how cold or quiet the night before was. They reminded him of summers in the fields, sprinting under a swarm of dandelion seeds sweeping along the sea breeze.

They were beautiful.

And today, he woke up to find them dead.

 


 

“No, tía,” Sen said, the phone tucked between his neck and shoulder. “It’s not white mold. I would’ve noticed if it was, and I checked the stems. It’s like they just—no, no. I didn’t forget to water them. I know Dubai is hot. It’s… yeah. Yeah. It’s just stupid they died like this, right? They’re supposed to be hardy plants.”

He nodded along as his aunt scolded him about responsibility, then about his complaints. A lo hecho, pecho, she said. There was no use crying over spilled milk.

Tía Sofia sighed over the phone, “Are all of them dead, sobrino?”

Sen glanced down at the gathering of wilted flowers, brown and shriveled, and the one survivor, hiding under the shadow of the balcony parapet. He kneeled and brushed his fingers over the petals. “No, no. One survived,” he said. “The small one I planted a few weeks ago. It’s fine.”

“Pues, bueno sobrino! Do your best to care for it, then. It did its best to stay living—you must repay it by working hard to treat it good. Take it indoors until late afternoon, when the sun is not as hot.”

Sí, tía. I’ll bring it inside for today. Thank you.”

“Stay safe, sobrino. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

The call ended with a click, and Sen pocketed the phone. He grabbed the pot of his last sunflower and looked up at the sky. The sun was scorching, and it burned so bright in the Middle Eastern sky that the dark hair on his head turned fire-brown under the light. Sen glared back and stepped inside, feeling the welcome blast of air conditioning wash over his skin.

He brought the pot past the small kitchen and into his room, where he set it down on his bedside. The lively little thing in it stared up at him, all rays of yellow spearing out from its brown core, sitting under the dim of morning leaking past his curtains.

“You keep fighting, little guy,” he said, patting the flower lightly. He tipped a bottle of water into the pot and smiled, “Don’t die while I’m gone.”

Sen turned away and resumed his morning ritual. A quick breakfast—eggs over bread, a sausage on the side—and a frantic flurry of rustling clothes as he donned his school’s uniform. The college blazer was thick and hellish to wear under the sun, so he wore it with the sleeves tied around his waist, the cuff links on his shirt rolled up to his elbows. He threw his laptop bag over his shoulder and rushed out, the apartment door locking behind him with a click.

He took the stairs.

The sound of his leather shoes echoed down all the way to the lobby on the first floor, and Sen jogged out into the sun, bouncing over the lines in the sidewalk as he ran past the palm trees lining the side of the road.

Like his sunflowers, their leaves were wilted and dried up, hanging down around the length of the trunk like a mop of dead weeds. The bark looked like stone from where he was—cracked and discolored; dry enough that it seemed to beg for moisture even as the sprinklers flicked water over the lifeless grass. Sen slowed down at a bus stop, raising an eyebrow at the sight.

He raised his hand at a nearby worker, hunched over a line of flower bushes that had turned into shriveled mounds overnight. “Morning,” he said as he approached. “Man, do you have any idea what happened? All the plants at my place are dead, too. That isn’t normal around here, is it?”

The worker looked up, an Indian man in his forties with sunken eyes.

“New to Dubai, my friend?” he asked, before shaking his head. “And no. This is very strange. The palm trees usually have no problem surviving here, so why this is happening is…” the man shrugged and let out a tired smile. “Maybe God decided he didn’t like plants today. Kabayan?”

Sen smiled, “Spanish, actually. But this really is crappy for everyone, huh? The roads look so miserable now. I liked it much more when there was some color around here. Now it’s just… brown.”

“Wait until after lunch when the shiny sports cars start filling the road, my friend. You will not even notice the grass.”

“And feel jealous about how I'm not in one of them? Nah,” Sen replied, waving a hand to the side. His lip quirked into a wry smile, “What’s your name?”

“Bali,” the man said, extending a veiny, calloused hand. Sen took it as the bus pulled up behind him, the doors opening with a small hiss. Bali gave it a glance, “Your bus?”

“Sen, and yeah. Looks like I’ll be off. It was nice talking to you, Bali.”

Bali let out a warm laugh, “You too. Good luck with school, my friend. College gives us as many tries as we need to graduate, but our wallets can only take so much!”

"Mine can barely take one. I'll make it count."

He tossed the gardener a final smile before boarding the bus, watching the road pass him in tones of shriveled brown that clashed against the distant, blue sea. Sen stared out at the broad waters, endless, crossing a thousand horizons without so much as a speck of land. The vastness of it was refreshing. Sen plugged his earphones in and listened to the music at full blast, grinning, until a sharp pain cut through his lower lip.

He blinked, looked down, and touched it with his finger.

Dry.

When his hand came away, the tip of his finger was stained red by a speck of blood. Sen pursed his lips and tasted copper. He ran a dry tongue over his peeling lip and quirked the corner of his mouth. Sen fiddled with his bag to retrieve a bottle of water from inside.

He took a long, satisfying sip, and only realized how dry his throat had become once the water had passed. He coughed, then took another long swig. That wasn’t enough. Sen took another. One more.

It was strange, how thirsty he was. Sen had downed the whole bottle by the time his bus stopped in front of the university, yet he still felt like his throat was sandpaper, each breath scraping its way out of his mouth.

He dashed out of the bus as soon as it stopped. He crossed the side of the school’s football field and his fellow clubmates greeted him, but Sen’s mind barely processed their words as he dashed past. He rushed into the hall and paused, freezing at the sight of an enemy he’d known for as long as his stay in Dubai.

Vending machines.

He knew what relying on one meant. What it would do to him. But he was desperate, and so he shoved a paper bill into a school vending machine. It rattled—the wires uncoiling—before it stopped. The bottle of water stayed inside.

“Goddamn it!” he said, grabbing and shaking the machine. “Again!”

Sen kicked the side of the machine and it rattled. The wires inside shook for a moment, and the block in the machine miraculously cleared away. The wire moved. The bottle of water fell into his waiting hands.

Sen scooped it up and gulped it down.

Not enough.

He paid for another, then more, shaking each stuck water bottle free and drinking, the water rushing into him until his stomach felt like it was going to burst.

Only when he couldn’t drink anymore did the unnatural thirst go away. He leaned back against the wall, sighing and wiping at his mouth. Someone leaned against the vending machine next to him, hitting his side with a bag.

“That was a lot of water. You aren’t planning on using the bathroom excuse to cheat during the exam later, are you?”

A voice rang next to him. A girl’s.

He glanced up at her and gave a wry smile. The brunette wore her uniform as messily as he did, and her curly hair fanned out from her scalp like a lion’s mane. Nissa blew a strand away from her face and eyed him with suspicion, her eyes pinched into near slits. Sen pushed himself off the wall and waved her concerns off with a lazy hand.

“The bathroom excuse? Really?” he asked, tossing the bottle of water past her and into the bin. “I’m not a sixth grader. I’ve already upgraded to advanced tactics like taking notes and actually studying for the exam. You know, instead of playing football and watching sitcoms all day.”

She blinked at him, “For real?”

“Not at all. But I’m trying my best. Can’t go hanging out with an honor student if I don’t pull my own weight, right? You already tutored me for Physics. I might as well put your brain donation to good use.”

Nissa snickered, “Hah. Brain donation’s a good one, but don’t get used to it. It’s Eid next week and I’m only practicing giving alms to the poor for the sake of respecting the local how-dos.”

“Aren’t you Catholic?”

“Yep. That’s not gonna stop me from using a Muslim holiday to enjoy a week without classes, though.”

He nodded. “Thank God for other religions.”

She laughed and stepped away from the vending machine, turning to stride down the hall. Sen poked a final button on the machine and caught the bottle it spat out. “Take this,” he said, before he raised it up and threw—overhead, in a long downward curve towards Nissa. She swiped it from the air and raised an eyebrow his way.

“Espresso iced coffee?”

“You look tired. It’s ‘cause you stayed up to review after I dragged you into a sitcom marathon, right? Go and drink it before your exam starts.”

Nissa smiled wryly, “If you’re applying to be my mom, I hold interviews on Tuesdays.”

“I’ll make sure to wear my best apron.”

She uncapped it with a small laugh, before chugging the bottle in a few, big gulps. Nissa threw it into the bin and turned with a small grin, “Don’t go failing your exams, Sen. We can’t finish the rest of that series if you’re busy making up for bad grades.”

“I will. And try not to ace yours too much, either. It’ll make me feel better.”

“Nah, man. I’m gonna crush it.”

Sen watched her raise a fist into the air with a grin. Nissa stepped into an elevator at the end of the hall, turning to face him with a wave even as the doors closed. As she went up the floors to take her tests, he turned the other way, towards the exam hall for his fifth semester’s final exam. The long hall crossed over an open path outside, under the sun, and the shriveled grass all around it stood miserably under the glare.

He took one look at the scorching heat distorting the air outside and immediately came to a decision.

“Long way it is,” he said, before jogging up the stairs to his left. Up one floor, then two. He wove around the crowds filling the third floor and crossed over the overhead bridge connecting building one and two. On the way back down, he felt his hands turn clammy the closer he got to his classroom. His throat dried and his stomach felt tight, as if his guts had spun up into a coil ready to spring.

He was nervous. He’d studied and done his best, but he was nervous. Sen hesitated in front of the exam room, suddenly very aware of all the money his aunt had spent to send him here. He swallowed. The lump in his throat remained. Sen glanced at his watch.

‘1:32 PM,’ it read. Close to thirty minutes before the exam.

He had time.

Sen turned on his heel and headed straight down the opposite side of the hall. He walked at a near jog, feeling more nauseous by the second, before taking a hard turn into one of the many university restrooms. He took one of the booths inside, the door slamming behind him, and his knees trembled as he took a seat on the toilet.

Sen released a slow, shaky breath. Nerves. Of all the things in the world, exams were a major button for his anxiety. Skydiving? Amazing. Sports, rock climbing, and parkour? He was all for it. But exams? The thought of them made him jittery and weak in the knees. It was an ever-present struggle for control with him and his utter inability to face academics. Sen wiped a palm down the side of his face and noticed the slickness of his forehead. Sweat.

He closed his eyes. Murmurs of conversation. Distant clicks and footsteps in the hall, and the smell of lime freshener choking the bathroom stalls. Each of them made the world spin. Each of them made his hand shake harder, his gut twist farther, and every beat of his heart against his chest made the pack in his bag more appealing. He reached inside, and shaky hands brought out a pack of cigarettes, crumpled and old, with seven sticks still inside.

The little things stared at him. Waiting. Several seconds of silence passed.

And then Sen clenched his fist, crushed the pack further, and shoved it back inside his bag. He covered his face with his hands and waited for the nausea to subside.

No need to get in trouble with the professor if he came in there smelling like smoke and tobacco.

Sen felt a breath leave him. Slow, steady. He took another in, and another, until the shaking in his hands calmed. He exhaled slowly and stood, and his feet walked out from the stall. Sen faced the bathroom mirror, and the sight of a sunkissed young man barely into his twenties made for a miserable sight. His long shoulder-length hair clung to the side of his sweaty face. Dark lines curved down from the corners of his sunken eyes, begging for sleep.

“I need to spend less time on the TV,” he muttered, reaching down to turn on the faucet. He splashed water into his face, and the cold drove away what remained of his dizziness. Sen rubbed his face and dried it with a pair of tissues, wiping away all the fear. All the nausea and the stupid, mindless terror of failing an exam he’d already spent weeks studying for.

There was no room for that, today. He was ready. And he was going to pass.

Yet, he couldn’t stop sweating. And even as he calmed himself, his breaths still came ragged and dry, rasping up his throat like Velcro; dry and raspy, sandpaper against skin. Sen blinked and saw spots, and then he was suddenly leaning against the sink, light-headed, staggering and fighting to stay upright through the surprise and confusion.

His thoughts felt muddled and his joints grew stiff. There was a heat on his back—like fire, spreading sickly warmth through every corner of him.

Sen looked up at the mirror and saw the light.

It was coming from the window behind him. Sunlight. Yellow and bright, shooting through the window in streaks of half-solid gold. It struck his back and burned. It kindled a fever that roared through him and outside, through the bathroom doors, Sen heard people shouting, stumbling into lockers. He heard the thud of bodies against floor tiles, collapsing, and he felt the warmth grow stronger. Brighter still.

He fell. His knees gave way.

Sen collapsed to the floor, breathing slowly, his eyes wide and his body seemingly paralyzed from the waist down. Still, the sunlight fell on him as it grew brighter. So bright that it began to fill the room, spearing through the windows and leaking through the gaps between the doors to the outside.

It was killing him.

He reached forward, pulled. Sen crawled with his elbows in delirium, every inch of movement sending sweat dripping and splattering from his chin. His shirt was soaked. His legs felt numb, and his muscles screamed in protest. But Sen kept moving. He dragged himself away from the light and back into the stall. He closed the door, fumbling with the lock, his shaky hands missing and falling short. Until—

Click.

The door locked. Sen collapsed, and his face squished up against the floor, cool, cold, the only reprieve to the oppressive heat that filled the world.

The light outside grew stronger still. Brighter, brighter, until all was white static and Sen crying out in pain, feeling the pores in his body burn and scorch and scream, his numb legs kicking at the stall walls as the shadows melted under the heat. He tucked himself into a twitching ball, hidden in the corner of the room, under the barest sliver of darkness that the light couldn’t snuff out.

And just as the pain became unbearable to endure, the sunlight vanished, and the bathroom lights winked out.

Darkness.

Sen sat in a ball of sweat and ache, panting and trembling like he’d just been pulled through several marathons in the same day. He sat there, in the dark, his brain blank save for the memory of excruciating warmth that remained in him. It filled his limbs like an aftershock, running up and down his arms, his spine, his legs, and gathering—gathering in his chest, in his heart, where it pooled and compressed and—

The warmth flowed out of him and Sen gasped as the heat tore itself free from his heart. It rushed out of him and turned into solid, golden shapes in the air.

 

August 18th. The Sun has released excess Odd into Earth. Next discharge in 03 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 43 seconds.

Realm altered. World Desiccation has begun.

Flow levels critically low, death imminent. Replenish with Essence or sustenance.

 

Sen stared at the words. At the glowing, shining letters that told him he was on the verge of death. He should have been asking questions. Trying to figure things out. And yet, his mind was roaring, pushing beyond his skull and telling him to move as Sen’s lips cracked. His eyes sank. His skin turned taut against his muscles.

With trembling legs, he forced himself to stand.

He needed water.

Right fucking now.

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Dissonance

  • Yes.
  • The Vomit God

Bio: Artist, writer, and singer. Sounds good if I say it like that, right? Nah. I draw twice a month, I sing like a strangled duck, and I'm a college student that writes in his free time. I like pears, I eat raw tomatoes off the fridge, and I spend every waking moment thinking of how to procrastinate next. Nice to meet you.

Email: [email protected]

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