The way Maia saw it, the universe was an endless cycle of giving and taking. It had its way of keeping balance between good and bad, love and hate, this and that. For the givers, the most difficult part was trusting that it would happen for you. For takers, this was the easiest thing in the world.
Maia’s grandmother used to always warn her, “Sonnyeo, the world inside your mind is much prettier than the one out here. You must find a bridge between the two or else you will only do harm to yourself expecting the pretty things with none of the ugly that comes with them. Listen to what the universe is telling you. Don’t get trapped in your head.”
As a child, Maia always imagined finding her bridge between worlds would be satisfying, like sliding two pictures up against each other that don’t quite line up until they do. When that happened, everything would make sense. Now, she was still waiting, and it was slipping from the foreground of her mind. Her grandmother was always imparting wisdom that Maia felt she didn’t need. She appreciated her family and worked hard for a scholarship so they could prioritize her grandfather’s healthcare bills. If she took from the universe now, it was because she had compiled a surplus of giving. She wasn’t ashamed to admit she felt entitled to the current ease at which she experienced life. Though perhaps it was no bridge, Maia had found a touchstone to ground her relationship with the universe. It was called Cairn Hall.
Cairn Hall wasn’t a particularly attractive place of learning. It did not have large windows, slender designs, or impressive ceilings like the well-lit, well-funded buildings in the west end. It was a forgotten sanctuary on the outskirts of prestigious society, housing primarily those whose success was adjacent to suffering. There was an underlying understanding (see: desperate hope) that the latter would translate to the former. This dry, winter night, Maia and her girlfriend Becks were the building’s sole inhabitants. Those who frequented the dimly lit, shrubby paths surrounding it would know this was becoming a
common occurrence. Becks dragged herself home every night with twitching eyes and dust in her nose. Still, they returned. It was worth it.
Maia knew that the word busy battered around Becks’ brain with a persistence unique to contradictory things. Some days, the word was a pathetic excuse. Others, she wore it like a badge of legitimacy. Maia was worried that Becks was losing every other aspect of her identity. She was intimately familiar with the face Becks would make as it became more difficult to ignore the inclination to vomit. Giving everything in exchange for success never felt like enough. Maia watched this and vowed it would never be her. She guarded her mind and wellbeing staunchly. The universe would understand. Of course, Maia still had high expectations of herself, so if she had debts to repay, she would gladly do that later in life when she had amassed a slough of wonderful experiences and was prepared to wind down. As two students passed through the hall where they sat, Maia watched Becks duck her shoulders and poise her arm to write, tactfully appearing both diligent and destroyed. Becks was singularly proud of the dark circles stamped under her eyes. Lately, she had been feeling an amicable shift in attitude towards the mental fatigue her work was costing her. It was something to cling to when the daunting fear of worthlessness crept in. The fatigue was worthy of reward. Maia was worried that the fatigue was a punishment.
The click of heels on tile roused her from her thoughts, but when Maia peered down the hall, nothing manifested to explain the sound. Unphased, Becks rubbed her eyes and continued her work. It was possible Becks couldn’t even hear it. Cairn Hall was always working in ways it would only reveal when necessary. Trust was an essential part of the relationship it had with the students in its bowels. No one in their right mind broke its trust.
Maia sipped her tea and encouraged Becks to do the same before it cooled. The girl obliged with a half-hearted smile and received a peck on the cheek. She sighed.
Maia fiddled with a pen and took the opportunity to admire the diligent girl before her. Becks didn’t know it, but she had the kind of presence that drifted like salty air across people’s faces, softening crevices and healing cracked skin. Every step she took gave a piece of her away. I am a part of this, her shoulders said. I have a purpose. Maia could spend all day trailing behind her, admiring her earthly craftsmanship. Becks looked up at her and Maia knew there was an apology on her lips.
“You’re tired,” Maia emphasized, forgiving her before she had admitted to anything.
“Good thing my type is women who haven’t slept in a millennium.”
“It’s worth it,” Becks explained.
Maia rolled her eyes and kissed Becks’ palm. She pulled her girlfriend up with only some resistance. “You work so hard. I’m sure if you took more breaks Cairn would understand.”
Becks reminded Maia kindly that sacrificing sleep was part of her agreement with Cairn. But she always had more to give. She would give anything. Maia procured a sweater for her and she gathered into it with a deep breath. As they retreated home, Maia dropped a snack-sized bag of Hickory Sticks into the vending machine. That was part of her own deal with the building. Becks waited for her to finish and let out a silent prayer as they stepped into the night. She didn’t say it to Maia, but she was growing afraid that her girlfriend wasn’t giving enough. Becks tried to have faith in her, but in truth she didn’t understand. For her, the desire for success was a physical ache. She had to trust. It would all be worth it.
Killing yourself for success was not worth it. This was a hill Maia would die on, and how could anyone argue otherwise when billionaires sit on piles of money pulling themselves up by the bootstraps of those they took advantage of for profit? So, she asked more of Cairn. This was a dangerous game, but she knew her limits. Just one more request, then she would re-establish a balance.
She was at a public table in between classes, drawing in her sketchbook as Becks studied when her friend Emory joined them. The boy standing before Maia looked like he had just walked in from a spring shower with his rain-spattered shoulders, blustery hair and pink-tinged face. It was 23 degrees Fahrenheit outside in the Tennessee winter. She removed her bag from a chair for him.
“Hey Em,” she greeted as he sat. They had met in ‘Intro to 19th Century Homoerotic Literature’ and he was a formidable discussion partner. They chatted easily until Maia took a fleeting bathroom break. The toilet on the far right was flushing incessantly as she walked in. Six minutes later as she left, it was still roaring. As she walked, the sound faded to a muffled echo. The stiff, hushed atmosphere in the hall seemed infinitely more pronounced now. Soon, she promised Cairn, knowing her assurances would be received. She hadn’t had the time to arrange a suitable settlement for all that she took, but she would. When she sat at the table again, her chest was tight.
Across where Becks’ books were spread, Emory had retrieved a deck of cards and was shuffling them in his hands. He looked up as she approached. He had child’s eyes. “You like tarot?” Maia’s interest was piqued.
“It’s reassuring,” he nodded. “It doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know, but it says it better than I ever could. Helps me focus my energy.”
“Do me,” Maia urged excitedly. He complied and handed her the deck. The cards were gritty, faded things, like they’d been worried over by furtive hands for years. Emory instructed her to shuffle the cards while focusing inward and choose one as it called to her. She did.
The poised lady on the card looked pensively down at the chalices clutched in her hands. Water flowed between them and around her feet where she stood, toe dipped in a pond and fertile land all around. Her wings and brow emitted a regal glow. She was upside-down.
“Temperance reversed,” Emory nodded slowly. “You out of balance, Maia?”
Becks’ eyebrows made a condescending shape. Maia scoffed, tearing her gaze away from the woman on the card. Looking pointedly at Emory, she insisted she was fine. He had dead eyes. Maia asked him what his card was.
“The Fool. Reversed,” he said. “Same time next Tuesday?”Maia nodded and watched the 1989 World Series patch on his backpack bounce as he disappeared to his next class.
Maia had everything under control. She could afford one more request. So when Becca confronted her about her behaviour later that week, Maia was sufficiently taken aback.
“You can’t keep going!” Becca insisted when Maia had shared her intentions at lunch.
“You’ve taken too much; Cairn always gets its dues.”
“And it will, I just need help one more time. You know my future depends on it.”
Maia didn’t understand. The two girls had spent countless nights awake whispering their deepest fears and dreams. Of all people, Maia expected Becca to support her.
Becca threw her hands up. “You never needed it Maia, how can you not see you’re capable on your own? You used to be so hard working, and now? You’re in deep debt.”
Suddenly, Maia’s confusion landed in a far more substantial pit of anger. The chill of understanding settled over her. She felt she was seeing her girlfriend with a new clarity, and she let out a cold laugh.
“Oh, I see,” Maia barked. “You want it all to yourself, is that it? And god forbid anyone threatens your precarious little affair with the only thing that can help us.”
“I-, what?” Becca looked taken aback. “Maia, I’m careful, I always give Cairn an equal exchange, you think maintaining this balance is easy? I’m tired too!”
Maia was dismissive. “You clearly don’t want to see me succeed. You just like having someone you can tote around through all your accomplishments but as soon as I might get enough help to be better than you, you’re trying to hold me back!”
“How can you say that?”
“Maybe I should just give up this relationship to Cairn since it’s founded on nothing but your selfishness. Maybe I’m tired of being controlled!” Maia watched with a sick sense of satisfaction as Becca’s face shifted countless times in a desperate scramble to comprehend the situation. Meanwhile, Maia felt as though she had just had a massive weight lifted off her chest. Breathing heavily, she gave a firm nod. This was what she had to do.
Becca stammered. “Maia that’s not—it won’t—it has to be a sacrifice.”
“So you’re admitting there’s nothing in this relationship worth clinging to. Well, it’ll have to do. Cairn will understand.” With nothing more to say, Maia sauntered off with a sick sense of satisfaction. As she distanced herself further and further from the conflict, a lump crept greedily into her throat. She ignored it.
It didn’t take long for Maia to find Emory and unload her frustrations on him without a word of warning. He only nodded several times throughout her rant, and motioned for her to sit, sliding Temperance across the table.
“Are you going to ask for more anyways?” he asked dangerously. Maia didn’t see how she had another choice. Petty rage had seized her, and she would do anything to prove Becca wrong. She had it under control. In the end, it was a swift request, a hefty plea into the atmosphere, and the deed was done.
Now, she could only wait to see the results. Emory was nodding again. There was a tightness to his jaw.“Let’s try something new,” he said. “I know a good studying spot.” His bitter voice did not match his youthful eyes at all today. Maia, prideful and impulsive after her recent actions, agreed. He guided her to the rearmost staircase.
“Does this one have windows?” Maia joked.
“There’s a really great view.” Emory’s voice was strained, presumably from the ascent.
When they reached the uppermost public access door, he didn’t even glance, instead continuing to a mall utility entrance against a shoddy metal railing. The ceiling was low in a way that was agonizing to Maia’s peripheral vision. She swallowed down the churning in her throat and focused on how she adored the charming, nagging sensation that she was part of something more. Her chest was tight.
Emory approached the door with an unexpected hesitation. A dull buzzing filled the space between their breaths as it swung silently open. Fluorescent lights flickered almost imperceptibly fast, harshly illuminating the white floors. Maia waited for Emory to move.
Then, she prompted him forward and he seemed to jolt, like she had woken him unexpectedly from a dream. Nodding slowly, almost to himself, Emory stepped inside. Maia was unsurprised to find the room dusty, dim, and yellowing. What she was not expecting, however, was the pristine, carefully crafted paper model of the city that spanned its entire floorspace. She made an involuntary sound and took a step as if it would disappear at any sudden movement. Weaving through the gentle craftmanship, Maia admired the delicate skyscrapers, tiny cars, and people frozen in time. It felt uncomfortably intimate. Her eyes landed on the unmistakable figure of Becca in the class Maia knew was happening right now. The pattern of her own sweater was immaculate in the fluorescent light. She had forgotten Becca was still wearing it. Maia’s eyes flew to Emory in alarm.
“Did you make this?” Maia asked, but she already understood the impossibility of that. Everything in the room felt impossible. “Is this now? Where are we?” She didn’t mean physically. Her eyes scanned the model almost frantically.
Maia froze. She couldn’t breathe. In the rafters of the university theatre a paper person swung gently from a paper rope. Through the pallid, translucent skin of the doll, Maia’s own angular nose was unmistakeable.
“But…I’m right here,” she said with a growing sense of desperation. “Em? I’m right here!”
“I was too,” Emory said sadly, and his face flickered like the lights. Cairn Hall was watching.
Maia whipped towards the door. Locked. She turned back. Emory was staring at her.
Maia wondered if he’d always looked so defeated. Without breaking their gaze, he
drew his gritty tarot deck from a pocket. Took a deep breath. Plucked a card. In his
outstretched hand, the winged woman wore Maia’s face.
“Oh,” she whispered. “Oh.”