The City of Lonely Lights
by C. E. Hyun
The night that Selby Sung and her co-workers arrived in the city of Mermaid’s Jewel, the first thing they received was a tour. Even though they’d just stepped off a twelve-hour flight and had to be up early the next morning to work, their driver insisted and charmed them with her enthusiasm. “This is your first impression! It is my duty to instill the best possible memory,” she explained.
So Selby leaned her head against the glass of the van, letting her vision be filled by the fast pass of pastel colors and lights. Mixed with the rain and the rare person who walked this late on a Sunday night, it was like driving through a city of the spirits.
Their driver explained that Mermaid’s Jewel was a peninsula surrounded all around by water, blocked off from the mainland by mountains. They were closer to the sea than any of their neighbors, and the only ones to learn the history of the mermaids.
“According to our stories, the mermaids did not originally come from the water, but from the sky. They lived at night and swam amongst the stars, the light always within their touch. Then water and sky reversed and the mermaids fell into the sea. Some became dark—or pragmatic, I would argue—and swam down deep and never emerged, creating a new home.
“But some stayed close to the water’s surface because they yearned. They rose out of the water to watch the light that came from the city because in Mermaid’s Jewel the lamps are always lit in abundance and in many colors. And because the city’s inhabitants are far away and unknowable, the mermaids envy us and make up stories about what they imagine our lives to be,” their driver said.
They were staying in Mermaid’s Jewel for three months to oversee the product transfer of their company’s latest adhesive. Selby’s co-workers were Emma and Kalani, and the three were all single and young and desirable in the eyes of the city. While Mermaid’s Jewel had a certain reputation during the day, the city was renowned for its nightlife.
They drove up the main street, which zigzagged to alleviate for the steep incline. Their hotel was high in the mountains, adding twenty minutes to their commute time, but they couldn’t complain because they were compensated for the distance by absolutely magnificent, floor-to-ceiling views. Late at night, Selby stared out from her room, entranced by the city that sprawled out beneath her in so many soft, colored lights.
They were on a deadline and pulled quickly into their work at the company. During the day, Selby was completely focused on her job. It was at night that the darker parts of her mind surfaced, taking advantage of her new environment and disorientation.
“Why so glum, little one?” Kalani asked one of their first nights out.
They were at a trendy lounge bar, watching Emma dance with a broad-shouldered grad student. On the dance floor were planted trees strung in tiny gold lights, creating a surreal forest-like atmosphere.
Selby smiled. “Not glum. Just soaking in the ambience.”
“I’m not used to seeing you so quiet. You’re not like this at work.”
Selby watched Emma. Lean and with her hair cut into a feathery pixie, she looked like a wood fairy, surrounded by the trees and fog. Selby swallowed. It wasn’t something she had ever told anyone about, but being out at night brought out a melancholy she was able to suppress during the day. Selby stood up and pulled at the front of Kalani’s shirt. “Let’s dance.”
Out on the dance floor with Kalani’s hand warm against her waist, part of Selby desired Kalani’s closeness while another part of her knew that she needed to maintain her distance. She was reminded of the reason why when the three of them later sat around a table, sharing drinks. Emma and Kalani talked excitedly about the next day’s plans, debating the pros and cons of doing this activity or that. Selby watched them and felt apart, unable to muster up the enthusiasm they possessed for travel and new experiences.
She started going out less, under the pretense that she was preparing for the MCAT (tentatively true). She needed time to herself after spending the whole day interacting with others and keeping up her professional face. But she was still in the city, even if she was in her hotel, and she couldn’t deny the existence of a nightlife when it stretched out in all directions for her to see and with the sea that spread out around it. Dark and deep and in all directions it flowed until it merged in some unknown location with the night sky.
The city at night was different from what it was during the day. In the morning, Selby went out to buy coffee and saw a mother scolding her young daughter as she walked her to school. The daughter responded by pinching her mother on the butt. The mother turned and scowled, and Selby smiled at the daughter’s fierce scowl in return. Sometimes at night when her melancholy overtook her, she dredged up those moments like small pearls, remembering that it was until morning that she had to last.
The night she met Calvin, it was pouring and she was running back to the hotel. She had been given free tickets to the ballet. It was less than five blocks away and she needed to get out, even if it was only by herself. She had forgotten to plan for the rain and arrived at the hotel with her long coat soaked through and her skirt sticking to her thighs like pantyhose.
And there he was, ethereal in the rain, standing under the eave of her hotel. Not smoking, not waiting. Just standing. Selby stood next to him as she caught her breath, staring out at the downpour that she had escaped from.
It was strange because he hadn’t seemed to notice when she approached, and she had been splashing and breathing heavily. But as Selby watched him out of the corner of her eye, he seemed to wake and slowly turned his head to meet her gaze. Looking back, Selby wasn’t sure what prompted her to do what she did.
She removed a candle from her bag. (The candle was from a recent dinner party, whose host decided that a group activity involving aromatherapy and art was in order to end the night on a festive note.) “Have a light?”
He put a hand into his pocket, pulling out a lighter. As he moved to light the candle, Selby received a closer look at his face. His eyelashes were like feathers and she wanted to brush her finger against the ends.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m Selby.”
“Calvin.” He looked over Selby’s wet coat and skirt, then at the rain outside. For a moment, his mind seemed to struggle to make the connection. “Is it cold?”
“Actually no. I will be in a minute though, as soon as I catch my breath.”
Calvin smiled at that, and it caught Selby’s breath, the delicacy of his smile.
She looked Calvin over. He wasn’t like the men she usually met, exuberant and full of energy, or irritated and full of energy. He was still, and there was something there, but it was hidden. He was lonely. She felt her heart jump as she watched the side of his face. He could have been standing here waiting for her. There was a vulnerability about him that she had long been seeking and unable to find.
“Come up with me?”
Calvin looked at her, apprehensive. Selby took his hand and led him through the revolving glass doors. As they walked toward the elevator, Selby glimpsed their reflection; she saw two vague but beautiful shadows. The elevator dinged, and Selby took Calvin upstairs.
Later that night, Selby lay over Calvin’s chest, carried in the rise and fall of his breath. One finger traced over his ribs, up the center of his abdomen. His body was warm and Selby wanted to pillow her head against it for the rest of her life.
There were surprisingly few words between them, despite the strong feelings that went both ways. Every night, Selby met Calvin—outside, in the lobby, in the bar—and brought him to her room. Emma and Kalani never met Calvin. They glimpsed him, but it was always when they were passing in opposite directions and during moments when there was no time for introductions.
She loved Calvin. With him, it was like making love for the first time, every time. Her heart would squeeze when his breath caught and his throat arched vulnerable and bare. His lashes would flutter and close. He always looked away when he opened his eyes.
She brought her mouth to his ear: “Look at me, Calvin.”
He turned his head, and Selby wanted to lose herself in his eyes that were like water and stars, a place where the ocean merged with the night sky and she could dip her fingers into the waves as she stretched her toes to brush against the stars.
She knew she should ask questions about him. They never talked about their lives outside of the bedroom. She never asked why he was always gone before she woke up in the morning. She thought about it often during the day, as she argued with her co-workers in meetings and supervised tests on the line. The weeks were passing quickly and she knew Emma and Kalani wondered why she spent so much time with a person she hadn’t bothered to make a point of introducing.
But at night, her mind seemed to blank and her questions left her. With Calvin, there was no past or future. She could float away from reality, drifting toward the web that was made of yearnings and dreams, even as she knew there was a strangeness about Calvin that she couldn’t evade forever.
Sometimes she would wake up in the middle of the night. He would be standing by the window, and was it the outside light that gave his form a pearly edge? Or she would turn in bed to see Calvin next to her, awake but unaware, looking nothing more than like a floating ghost. It was easy to rationalize away such moments because when she touched him, he was solid and warm. Whatever translucency there was about him would disappear as his eyes turned to focus on hers.
“The city of lonely lights,” Calvin told her one night. “That’s the other name it has.”
He was standing by the windows and she walked over to join him. They pulled back the blinds and sat wrapped together in the sheets, staring out at the city that was spread out beneath them.
“Why do you suppose they call it that?”
But as Selby looked out, she thought she understood why. The city was full of colored lights, all beautiful and blinking and of varying sizes and shapes. At first it swept you up—the colors and the diversity. Then you became aware of the darkness that separated the lights. After a while, you saw that the blinking and movement were like distress beacons. All the different lights—all close but apart—fought to be heard and seen, to stay lit so they wouldn’t fade and became a part of the dark.
“It’s hard being here,” Selby said. “I don’t know what it is about city life, but it reminds me of being sad. Just seeing everyone, not being able to feel a part of it. I thought I was getting better, but being here just brings it all back.”
One night, Calvin told Selby that he would take her to see the mermaids. They went to the Raindrop Pier and bought a bag of onion rings, then walked along the edge of the water until they came to an area of abandoned warehouses. Calvin led her over gravel and onto a boardwalk that extended into the water. In the dark, Selby couldn’t tell where the walk ended and the water began.
Calvin gently pulled her hand. “This way.”
He led her down a previously unseen wooden stair. It took them below the boardwalk to another small dock. A rowboat sat hidden away, anchored by a rope.
“Get in.” And Selby did.
Calvin untied the line and they rowed off into the water. The waves were soft and sloshed against the sides of the boat. They rowed until Mermaid’s Jewel was a tiny lady in the distance, adorned in colored lights and with a stole of silver fog around her shoulders.
Calvin stopped rowing when they were close to the line where water merged into sky. He pulled the oars inside. “They live out here,” he said.
Selby looked around. The water was black and moved like velvet. She wanted to stroke her hand over the surface and stretched her fingers out to do so. Then out of the water, a mermaid rose.
Like a cat, its eyes were mirrored. Its hair was dark and sleek and like a continuous part of the ocean. The mermaid regarded Selby with dark, luminous eyes.
“I have something for you.”
Selby turned to see that Calvin had opened the bag of onion rings and was holding a ring toward a mermaid that had appeared on the other side of the boat. The mermaid approached, taking the onion ring into its mouth and chewing slowly. Its mouth moved toward his fingers, opening slightly. Like a koi, it sucked his fingers.
“What is it doing?” Selby asked.
“For the flavor. It’s also how they touch.” He took another onion ring from the bag.
Selby watched Calvin and the mermaid. Other mermaids slowly rose to the surface, surrounding the boat. Some kept their distance while others curiously approached. One reached out to run its finger over the sleeve of Selby’s coat. Calvin passed the bag of onion rings to Selby so she could feed the mermaids. Some took the rings quickly and backed away to eat them under the water, while others took their time, their mouths tingling and cool against her skin.
As Selby watched the mermaids eat, she realized they were nothing like the mermaids described in the driver’s story. They weren’t yearning or sad; they were curious. If an alien landed on earth and started handing out presents, it would be the curious humans who would approach, not the lonely ones.
“Calvin, why do you like to come out here?”
He was quiet, letting one of the mermaids suck the tips of his fingers. “When I first came to Mermaid’s Jewel, I wasn’t doing well. Coming out here, watching them.” He smiled. “It helped me, being able to watch and feel close to a world that I wasn’t a part of.”
It was that tentative but genuine smile that flooded Selby with relief. There was comfort to be found in alienating oneself and being an outsider, and there was another person who felt the way she did. Her throat tightened. Watching Calvin, Selby wanted to convey that this moment was special, that she was glad that he had shared this with her. But his gaze was somewhere else as he let the mermaids touch him.
One bold mermaid rose up to put its fingers to Calvin’s mouth, to see if he would suck its fingers like they did. The mermaid drew back disappointed to learn that humans used their mouths for some purpose other than exploration. He was blurry about the edges and deep-down Selby knew it wasn’t just the fog. Watching him, she realized he had forgotten she was there. Even the mermaids, he had forgotten.
Later that night, Selby dreamt what it would be like to be one of them, back when the mermaids swam amongst the stars. Calvin was with her, laughing, and they chased the flash of a mermaid’s fin, the glitter of its rippling hair. Then it was just her and Calvin in a dark corner of the night, and he came close to brush his lips against hers.
He drifted away from her and Selby watched as Calvin began to change. As she watched, she wondered if it was the darkness that hid his edges, that softened the lines of his face. She could see less of him now.
She was changing too. As her edges slowly merged with the night sky, she felt her fingernails become stars, the strands of her hair become droplets of rain. She wanted to close her eyes, but her eyes were stars and stars cannot blink. She tried to wiggle her fingers, but the stars anchored her in place. The only way to separate was to separate from the light entirely, so Selby separated and lost all semblance of physical form.
She drifted then, like seaweed in the foam, letting herself be carried by whatever wind or wave it was that could push a bodiless form. She forgot about Calvin, forgot about everything that had kept her anchored to her everyday life. How long might she have drifted if not by chance she passed a familiar planet? Selby woke up in bed with a start. It had been three months. Tomorrow was her last day in Mermaid’s Jewel.
It wasn’t yet three and she couldn’t go back to sleep. Was she really leaving Mermaid’s Jewel tomorrow? Some part of her had known and prepared for it; the majority of her belongings were organized and packed. Selby rolled out of bed. Going to her suitcase, she pulled on clothes for going outside.
“Where are you going?” Selby turned to see Calvin sitting up in bed.
“I couldn’t sleep.” She watched as he shifted so that the sheets bunched around his waist. His face and chest were two pale smudges in the dark. She wanted to tell him that she was leaving soon. “Come outside with me.”
She looked away as Calvin got out of bed and moved to change. He put his hand on the back of her shoulder when he was ready. She looked up at him. His gaze was lowered and Selby traced the contour of his eye with her thumb. She took his hand.
They half-ran, half-walked from the hotel. Down the zigzag streets, block after block, the city was utterly still except for the fog that wove around their legs. They passed the Suha, one of Mermaid Jewel’s historic castles. In front of the castle was a long pool with a Bellagio-style fountain. Water sprayed up as they passed, the colored lights catching in Selby’s peripherals.
Perhaps it was because she was half-asleep that she imagined she slipped on a puddle. The slip caused her to dive into the pool and when she resurfaced, she was in some faraway ocean, back when the world was mostly water and the sky was perpetually night. The full moon lit up the sky. In the distance she saw an island: a continent being born. Calvin was somewhere close to her, even though she couldn’t see him.
“Are you a ghost?” she asked this invisible Calvin.
“Not a ghost,” Calvin said.
“Then what are you?”
“I don’t know.” He was quiet, his tone faraway. “I just know I wasn’t always like this. I started to change and for a long time, I didn’t care.”
Selby started to swim toward the island, lap after steady lap. Calvin no longer spoke, but she thought she could feel him close to her. When she swam so long that her mind began to drift, she opened her eyes to see that she and Calvin were at the Raindrop Pier. The spray of water she heard was the sound of a late-night fisherman hosing down his boat.
It was cold and the wind whipped against their clothes. Selby and Calvin stood against the seaside wall of one of the stores. The water crashed against the pier, spraying them with moisture and salt. Calvin’s tone was tentative. “Selby?”
“I’ll miss you.” Selby looked up to meet his gaze. His face was solemn and pale. She wrapped her arms around him, pressing the side of her face against his chest. “I have to go back home.”
He didn’t say anything, but his body pressed closer to hers. They stood like that for a long time, the cold keeping them together as the sound of the water lulled them into a hazy dream.
It was around six, when the sky began to lighten, that Calvin began to stir. “I need to go.”
She tightened her grip. “Go where?”
He didn’t answer.
“Go where, Calvin?”
They were no longer alone on the pier. Storeowners were arriving to open up their stores. Early-morning tourists and civilians were coming out to meditate or take a run before they were overtaken by the later crowds.
Selby noticed that Calvin was fading, that her arms were around him but that she was no longer touching him. “You’re not a dream,” she said.
“I’m not real, at least not in the day. I wish I could remember, before I started to change.” He smiled slightly, and through his lips she could see the rising sun. “I feel something for you, but it’s so far away.”
Selby reached out to touch his face, her fingers ghosting over his skin. “That night I found you, I knew.” Seeing him standing outside her hotel, when it was raining and how his face appeared above the candle. She knew he was lonely—they both were—but he had crossed over to where there was no return from his loneliness. “You weren’t always like this. Do you ever miss it? Living in the light?”
He might have answered—did he try?—and she saw his lips move. Then his voice left and Selby watched as Calvin faded into the water and the light.
She turned, staring with slow comprehension as Emma and Kalani approached her out of the fog. They were real, which in her current frame of mind made them appear unreal. Emma, bright-eyed and wearing a baggy sweater. Kalani, hands in his pockets and a dusty blue baseball cap jammed on his head.
“What are you doing here?” Emma asked.
It was their friendly scrutiny that made her feel like she was the last actor from the preceding play; she struggled to grab her things and make her escape before the next group noticed her. “I was saying goodbye,” Selby said finally.
When she didn’t elaborate, Emma nudged her with a playful smile. “Bye to who? That guy you’ve been hiding away from us and who you kept refusing to introduce? What’s his name?”
“Should have told him to stick around. We stopped by your hotel room. We’re grabbing our last breakfast. Come on!”
“I have to go.” The words left her reluctantly, as though she were learning how to speak a new language. Kalani watched her with an odd expression and she knew she had to say something, give something back to reassure them. Selby attempted a smile. “I still have things to pack. I’ll see you back at the hotel.”
They eventually let her leave, and Selby watched as Emma and Kalani walked off along the pier.
There was a passing streetcar, one that was going back up toward the hotel. Selby went to get on. Standing in the back, she looked out the open window as the streetcar jerked and began to move.
The sun now rose fully out of the water, a dripping globe of fire and light. There were people everywhere, hurrying and moving, arguing and laughing. Two little girls wearing traditional Mermaid’s Jewel dress pirouetted on the sidewalk. A businessman talking too excitedly on the phone spilled coffee all over himself as he passed them.
The warm sea breeze wove through it all like a ribbon, through the bright silk of the girls’ dresses, around the legs of the café tables. It ruffled the curls of a young woman’s hair, the festoons that decorated the stores. Selby watched it all, wanting to keep the memory of their moments for her own, but every time she came close to discerning an individual’s face, the streetcar pulled her farther away.
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Originally appeared in BFS Journal, British Fantasy Society, April 2011.
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C. E. Hyun's stories have appeared in The Good Men Project, decomP, The Northville Review, and Foliate Oak. She currently lives in Orange County, California and at cehyun.com.
What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
The opportunity to experience other worlds. I also think fantasy can serve as a great backdrop to more intimately explore character motivation and conflict.