Moments Like These

— Zoe Zhang

I grew up a city boy, but Mom owned a ranch until I was barely six, before she had to sell it because Dad lost his job.

I still remember a lot about that ranch.

I remember running through the little vegetable garden and the small square footage of corn stalks, pretending I was wandering through a corn field-turned-forest. I remember the fresh-turned dirt beneath my fingers while I helped plant another ten tomatoes with Grandma, the way it felt smooth, like the texture of beach sand and brownie mix combined. I remember the smells of fresh apple or peach pies being baked, wafting through the always open kitchen window, calling me inside. I remember open land and uninterrupted sky that both went on for miles, like two separate oceans meeting at the mountains far away.

I remember missing that the most: its openness. In the few springs and summers I spent on that ranch, I learned that noise could be limited to a creaky windmill, or the muted sounds of ranch animals roaming about in a faraway pasture. Every breath I took was of comforting smells, and every friendly gust of wind, brushing up against my skin, would ruffle my hair like an affectionate father.

That’s not to say I don’t love the city. When I think of home, I still think of that ratty apartment my parents and I lived in for too long a time. It now belongs to a young Vietnamese couple last I saw when I walked past the building, on my way to the bank, walking past the bakery, smelling Missus Francis’s fresh brownies, the same brownies she’s been baking for almost ten years. The city will always be my home.

But it’s moments like these:

I’m barely twenty-three and I’m at this boot camp, being trained in everything so I can qualify to work for a secret international governmental agency, to be as efficient as I can be.

“To be killer assassins,” my bunkmate Harper jokes, and I’ve given up telling him that those words are redundant. He’s not totally wrong, but he’s not completely right, either. We’re trained in many areas, from a-little-more-than-basic first aid, to how to crack-and-hack under pressure.

I will admit that, in our stealth and hand-to-hand combat classes, the people I find myself placed with have become increasingly more competent and have overall better control over their reflexes. So I can’t exactly discount Harper’s “killer assassins” theory, as much as I want to.

But after a long day of forgetting how to create a radio signal out of leftover battery juice, of getting chewed out because I’m supposed to know how dry a dehydrated person’s skin is by look alone, of getting my ass handed to me because my opponent honest-to-God pinched me during what was supposed to be a demo for the newer trainees…

After that kind of day, I’ll sit on my bunk, while Harper’s out trying to find the water cooler gossip because he’s secretly a teenage girl, and I’ll stare at the wall. Not blankly, not because it’s an interesting wall, but because it’s a wall instead of a window. Which makes sense since, yeah, we’re a secret government agency with an underground facility, but it still bothers me that I don’t have an outside world to look out onto, a terrace from which to spit at pigeons or into trash cans, which my pre-teen self enjoyed very much. I’m not able to crack the window open just to smell Missus Francis carrying a fresh batch of cupcakes down the street to her grandson who lives two buildings away, and I’m not able to stare at the sky, be it blue or gray or black, wishing to see more than just airplanes and stupid Venus, because Venus was always in the sky, the North Star was way cooler, and why did city air have to be so smoggy?

It’s moments like these when I’d give up Pancake Day in the mess hall just to see that dumb planet in the sky.

It’s moments like these:

There’s a knock at my door, opened without an answer, and Belle’s blonde head pokes into the room. I have to call her Belle, because it’s all surnames around here, because if I call her Iris it’ll be like ninth grade algebra or eleventh grade world history, or making hungry faces at expensive sushi belts through the windows while walking home. It’ll feel too much like not-really-whispering in movie theaters about our favorite bad actors, or sitting atop monkey bars at night and singing increasingly bawdy versions of campfire songs. So it’s Belle who steps in, despite orders that no one enter a bunk we’re not assigned to, but it’s OK since everyone breaks that rule anyway, Belle has assured me. And then Belle smiles and she literally lets her hair down when we’re alone. Her hair, no matter how dirty or sweaty it is from the day, settles neatly around her face, drifting past her shoulders despite short-hair regulations, because she’s always hated rules.

It’s moments like these:

I shift over on my bunk to let her sit on Her Side, and I take in her dark blonde hair (“I’m going to be a brunette by the time we’re ever let out of this hell hole, I swear,” she says) and her mischievous grin as she tells me the stories I’ve missed (“Thomas is out to get me: he’s always mad at me for something I never did, what’s his problem?”).

The air is stale but the moment is sweet. I close my eyes and let her presence wash over me (like a breeze), let myself nod along as her voice fills my ears (like warm air) so she knows I’m listening, and it’s better than looking through an open window.

It’s like golden corn forests, brownie dirt, and fresh pie. It’s the two of us stretching over to reach the other, land and sky, meeting at the mountains.

These moments are our mountains.



Zoe Zhang is an enthusiastic reader, wannabe writer, aspiring editor, and all-around geek. She loves to surround herself with creative minds and music, and constantly craves great storytelling, all foods, and sweater weather. Though the future be dubious and daunting, Zoe looks forward to a hard but happy life…so long as there are rollerblades involved. Follow her @zoeczhang for sometimes sarcastic updates.