Home > All That We Never Were

All That We Never Were
Author: Alice Kellen




“Everything can change in an instant.” I had heard that phrase many times throughout my life, but I had never stopped to really chew it over, to savor the meaning those words can leave behind on your tongue when you break them down and feel them as your own. That bitter feeling that comes with every “what if…” that awakens when something bad happens and you ask yourself if you could have somehow prevented it, because the difference between having it all and having nothing is only a second. One second. Like back then, when that car swerved into the wrong lane. Or like now, when he decided he had nothing to fight for and the black and gray swallowed up all the color that was floating around me just a few months ago…

Because, at that second, he turned right.

I wanted to follow him, but I hit a barrier.

And I realized I could only keep going to the left.





* * *












I was lying on the surfboard while the sea swayed around me. That day, the crystalline water seemed held by a giant swimming pool; there were no waves, no wind, and no noise. I heard my own tranquil breath and the splashing whenever I let my arms drop, and then I quit and just stayed there motionless, staring at the horizon.

I could say I was waiting for conditions to change so I could catch a good wave, but I knew perfectly well that there wouldn’t be one that day. Or that I was killing time, as I often did. But I remember what I was really doing was thinking. Yes, thinking about my life, with the sensation that I’d reached all my goals and lived one dream after another. “I’m happy,” I told myself. And I think it was the tone that echoed in my head, that faint question mark, that made me furrow my brows, still gazing at the undulating surface. “Am I happy?” I asked myself. I didn’t like that quivering doubt, vivid, demanding my attention.

I closed my eyes before taking off into the sea.

Later, with my surfboard under my arm, I went back home, walking barefoot over the sand of the beach and the trail lined with weeds. I pushed the door open––because of the humidity, it was always stuck––left the board on the back porch, and continued inside. I placed a folded towel on the chair and didn’t get dressed, sitting instead at my desk, which was the embodiment of chaos and took up an entire side of the living room. Chaos, at least, for any sane person. Papers full of notes, others with discarded proofs, the rest of it just meaningless scribbles. On the right, there was a clearing with pens, pencils, pictures; above it, a calendar with days marked out before the deadline, and on the other side, my computer.

I looked through the accumulated work and answered a few emails before continuing with the project I was working on just then, a tourist brochure for the Gold Coast. It was basic, an illustration of a beach with the curved lines of waves and the blurry shadows of surfers. The kind of job I enjoyed most: simple, quick, clear, and well paid. No nonsense about “improvising,” about “keeping your suggestions in mind,” just a simple “draw a fucking beach.”

After a while, I made a sandwich with the few ingredients left in the fridge and served myself my second coffee of the day, cold, without sugar. I was about to bring the cup to my lips when someone knocked at the door. I didn’t usually get unannounced visitors, so I left the coffee on the counter with a frown.

If I’d known in that moment what those few short raps would bring, maybe I wouldn’t have opened up. Who am I trying to fool? I could never have turned my back on him. And it would have happened either way. Sooner. Later. What does it matter? From the beginning, it feels like I was playing Russian roulette with a bullet in every chamber, and one of them was fated to go through my heart.

I was still leaning my hand on the door frame when I realized this was no courtesy call. I stepped aside to let Oliver come in. He was taciturn and serious. I followed him to the kitchen, asking what had happened. He ignored the coffee and opened the liquor cabinet, taking out a bottle of brandy.

“Nice choice for a Tuesday morning,” I said.

“I got a fucking problem.”

I waited without saying anything, still dressed in the bathing suit I’d donned when I got up. Oliver was wearing long pants and a tucked-in white T-shirt, the kind of thing I’d have sworn he’d never wear.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do; I keep thinking of alternatives, but I’ve tried them all, and I think…I’m going to need you.”

He got my attention. Mainly because Oliver never asked for favors, not even from me, his best friend since before he’d learned to ride a bike. He didn’t when he was going through the worst moment in his life and he rejected almost all the help I offered him, because he was proud or because he thought he was bothering me or because he wanted to show himself he could handle the situation, however difficult it was.

Maybe for that very reason, I didn’t hesitate.

“You know I’ll do whatever you need.”

Oliver downed his drink in one sip, left the glass in the sink, and stood there, leaning on his hands.

“They’re sending me to Sydney. It’s temporary.”

“What the fuck…” I opened my eyes wide.

“Three weeks a month for a year. They want me to oversee the new branch they’re opening and then come back once everything’s stable. I’d like to reject the offer, but they’re doubling my goddamn salary, Axel. And now I need it. For her. For everything.”

I watched him run a hand through his hair, nervous.

“A year’s a long time,” I said.

“I can’t take her. I can’t.”

“What does that mean?”

Let’s be honest: I knew perfectly well what that “I can’t take her” implied, and my mouth went dry just then, because I knew I couldn’t say no, not to the two people I care most about in the world. My family. Not the one you’re born into—I had enough as far as that goes—but the family you choose.

“I know what I’m asking you for is a sacrifice.” It was. “But it’s the only solution. I can’t take her to Sydney now that she’s already started school, especially with her missing last year. I can’t pull her away from everything she knows right now; it would be too many changes. You’re all we have left. Leaving her alone isn’t an option. She’s got anxiety, nightmares; she’s not…she’s not right. I need Leah to be herself again before she goes off to college next year.”

I rubbed the back of my neck, following Oliver’s lead from a few minutes before and taking out the bottle of brandy. The shot warmed my throat.

“When are you leaving?” I asked.

“In a couple of weeks.”

“Jesus, Oliver.”










I had just turned seven when my father got the pink slip and we moved to a bohemian town called Byron Bay. Before then, we’d always lived in Melbourne, on the third floor of an apartment block. When we got to our new home, it felt like a permanent vacation. In Byron Bay, you often saw people walking barefoot down the street or through the supermarket. The air was relaxed, without any real schedule, and I think I fell in love with each and every corner of it even before I’d opened the car door and struck the gruff-looking boy who would be my neighbor from then on.

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