Rylie was walking through Second Street, as she did every day except Sunday and Saturday. It was a tiny street, about five feet wide, littered with trash, and filled with suspicious-looking stores, one of which was a psychic’s shop. It had a display case with a crystal ball, and the words “Palm Readings, Mystic Consultations, 25 cents a minute” printed in green letters over the ball. Heretofore, it had only held the crystal ball and the painted words, but today there was something new. A necklace was hanging in the display case; a gold chain, and on the chain was a sizable green gem.
For the first time while passing through this neighborhood, Rylie was intrigued. What was an emerald necklace doing hanging in a psychic’s shop? So, even though she had to go home and study for her science exam, Rylie decided to step inside the shop and investigate.
“Hello! You are the school girl who always walks by my shop, aren’t you? I see you’ve finally decided to come in.”
“I just came by to ask if the necklace on the display case for sale.”
“That old thing? I’ll give it to you for free.”
“Really? For free?”
“I only have one condition: that you sit down with me for a mystic consultation.”
The psychic led Rylie to a table in the back covered with gilt cloth. On it rested a large crystal ball, like the one in the display case. The crystal ball resembled a sky about to rain, filled with swirls of gray and white moving and twisting in a mesmerizing dance. But all Rylie could think about was the fact that she was in a psychic’s shop. What had come over her? What if the psychic decided to kidnap her, or murder her? Rylie was stronger, but there was nothing she could do if the psychic pulled out a knife or worse, a gun. All she could do was hope and pray.
“I see… a bright future. Many wonderful things.”
Despite herself, Rylie felt a rush of pride.
“Oh dear. What a terrible ending, though. At least she had a good life.”
“What is it? What happens?”
“There is a little accident, a very little accident, at the end of your life, but don’t worry, everything before that is golden. The important thing is to stay in school. Do you hear me? Nothing I saw will be possible if you drop out of school.”
The psychic took the necklace from the display case, giving it to Rylie, and ushered her out of the door. Rylie continued walking home, puzzling over the psychic’s words. What had the psychic seen? Would she get cancer? Die in a car accident? Something even worse?
She tried to forget about all that, and when she got home, she ran up to her room and pulled out the necklace. Holding it up to the light, she turned it around again and again.
“I don’t know if it’s a real emerald,” Rylie said, “but it sure is beautiful.”
Putting it on her neck, she sat in front of the mirror, turning her neck to see the way it looked from all angles. She sat like that for a long time, admiring herself, and would have stayed for quite a bit longer, if she hadn’t looked down and seen the science textbooks piled a mile high on the dresser.
“Must I?” she thought, “Must I study? So what if I get a B? So what? Will getting an A stop that terrible ending the psychic saw? Besides, studying is so terribly boring, and I have already done so much of it already. Why not do something else, something fun? Life is meant to be lived, after all!”
An idea came upon her, a terrible idea, but one so tempting she could not resist. When she was younger, a profligate preteen, she used to spend most afternoons eating candy and watching TV. Why not revive that old tradition? Racing downstairs, she pulled a brownie mix out from the bottom of the cupboard.
Half an hour later, urged on by the irresistible smell entering her nostrils, she cut a piece and snuck back up to her room. Getting out her X-Men DVDs, she put one in her computer and hit play. Dropping brownie crumbs all over her lap, she became absorbed in the world of Wolverine, Magneto and Professor X, where is no such thing as science tests. About halfway through the movie she heard the door open, and ten minutes later it closed again. Both of her siblings had soccer practice so she wouldn’t be seeing them or her parents until the next morning.
After finishing X-Men, she put in X-Men 2, and got another slice of brownie for dinner. She fell asleep to the sound of Wolverine screaming at Magneto.
Beep! Beep! Beep!
The screech of her alarm clock fell upon her ears, and Rylie pushed herself up onto her elbows. Her laptop was perched on the edge of the bed, and she felt something hard and cold underneath her; it was a plate covered in brownie crumbs. Her hair looked like a tangled ball of yarn, and she swore she had gained an inch of belly fat from that brownie. It’s bad enough waking up with tangled hair and larger stomach, but it’s even worse when you have to get dressed and out the door in 20 minutes.
Why did she have to go to school? Why? It was the same every day- she went to school, she worked on homework at lunch, she went home and studied and did her work for debate club, and if she had time left, she ate dinner with her family. Why? Why? In English class, the Golden Rule was always ‘know your purpose in writing’. But what was Rylie’s purpose in living?
Right now, she decided, her purpose was sleeping. Rylie crawled back into bed, and was soon dreaming that she was Wolverine. She even felt Magneto jerking her around, slamming her against walls…
“School started 15 minutes ago, Rylie. Why aren’t you awake? Did you forget to set your alarm?”
“I’m not going to school.”
“I’m not going to school.”
“Nonsense. You have a science exam, don’t you? Get dressed, and I’ll make you some breakfast.”
“I’m not going to school, mom.”
“Honey, are you sick? Is that why you don’t want to go to school? Do you have what your brother had on Tuesday?”
“No, I’m not sick, Mom.”
“Then why don’t you want to go to school?”
“What’s the point? Why do I work so hard to solve equations and read books and write papers? What happens, Mom? Can you tell me what happens? What changes? Nothing.”
“You got into a really good college, that happened.”
“So what? What’s so great about going to a prestigious college?”
“Honey, don’t go down that road. Soon enough you’ll be asking what’s the point of doing anything-“
“What is the point of doing anything? Why are you in my room, telling me to go to school? Why do you go to work? Why do we have a house? Why?”
“Rylie, this is no time for an existential crisis. You are going to school, and that’s final.”
Rylie’s mother walked with her to the attendance office, signing her in and giving her a hug before she left for class. She went through her morning classes listless and dead, staring at the ceiling while the teacher was talking, and trying to count all the bugs fluttering about. As soon as the bell rang for lunch, she ran to her locker, shoving her backpack in it. The only thing she kept was her phone, wallet, and a large piece of brownie she had brought from home. To avoid anyone she knew, she used the dingy corner stairs to get to the first floor. Leaving the school, she ran across the football field, through the street, and got honked at by a car, but she kept running. She ran until she was in an unfamiliar part of town where she could not see the school.
She walked around for a while, eating her brownie, watching the people. They were all the same. To be fair to them, she had been like that, too, once. She had believed the ultimate achievement, the holy grail of life, was to be successful. Success was measured in money acquired and wisely spent, in acclaim for a remarkable career, in relationships built over years of love and kindness, in dying in a hospital bed surrounded by family.
Rylie had pushed herself to be something, killed herself studying and working. She had got into a good college, had made everyone proud. She had done what she was supposed to. But why? So she could be happy? No, that wasn’t it. If she wanted to be happy she never would have worked that hard. It was because she wanted to be important; she wanted to make a difference.
But why? Why did she want to make a difference? Why was everyone obsessed with making a difference, with leaving their mark on the world? Rylie understood why people wanted food or shelter or love, but not why they wanted to make a difference. There were some, of course, who were motivated by a desire to please, or religious devotion, but what about the others? Why did they want to make a difference?
Rylie was beginning to suspect that, maybe, just maybe, there was no secret motivation behind everyone’s desire to make a difference. Maybe there wasn’t a reason everyone got up in the morning, and went to work, and pestered their children to do their homework and practice the piano.
No, there was a reason. That was their parents had done, and their grandparents, and their great-grandparents, so they did it too.
But Rylie would not live in the same endless routine, doing the same things over and over again. She was determined to cut through the fog, and the meaninglessness, even if it meant taking drastic measures.
Turning the corner, she came upon Nevsky Bridge, a metal structure built in the 19th century, with images of gargoyles and dragons and all sorts of fantastical creatures on the side. It was the pride of the town.
Rylie stepped onto the parapet and gazed down into the river below. It was dark gray, like her mother’s eyes, and flowed calmly, ruffled here and there by the brisk wind. All around her, passerby gasped. Someone dialed 911.
“Is she going to jump?” they whispered “Is she going to do it?”
Within minutes, three cop cars and her parents had arrived, her mother crying hysterically, her father paler than an ivory statue. Their voices joined in the chorus telling her to get off the parapet, reminding her of all she had to live for. Their voices became desperate, hoping the agony would catch her notice.
Why all the fuss, all the worry, all the anger and sadness? Why all the emotions? They were all like robots, following the code that had been programmed in them since birth. When someone stands on a bridge- cry. When someone dies- cry. When someone is born- laugh. When someone gets married- smile. When someone is successful- celebrate. It was all the same. Why couldn’t they be happy she was about to jump?
“Goodbye,” Rylie said, taking off the psychic’s necklace. She knew it was silly, but she did not want the necklace going to the bottom of the river.
But when she took off the necklace, she had a feeling like waking up from a eerily realistic dream. She stared in wonder at her situation, standing on a bridge, surrounded by a crowd of people. Her mother was crying, and a policeman was talking rapidly into his walkie-talkie. What had happened? Why was she standing on a bridge? Had she been trying to kill herself? She staggered off the bridge, falling into her mother’s arms.
“Mom,” she said, “what day is it?”
“Rylie,” her mother sobbed, “thank goodness you’re ok.”
“Mom,” Rylie said, “What day is it?”
“It’s Friday,” her father said, “the 25th.”
“No,” Rylie said, “no, no, no, no.”
“What’s wrong?” her mother said.
“I missed the science exam.”