FANFIC: For the Ones We Leave Behind – U is for You (Gossip Girl)

Warnings (for this and later chapters): disordered eating, self-mutilation, rape. Dark themes and heavy subject matter in general. Nothing too explicit, but please proceed with caution if you are triggered by these types of things.

I. PROLOGUE
II. B IS FOR BYZANTINE
III. U IS FOR YOU

you |yo͞o|

pronoun [ second person singular or pl. ]

1 used to refer to the person or people that the speaker is addressing: are you listening? | I love you.
• used to refer to the person being addressed together with other people regarded in the same class: you Australians.
• used in exclamations to address one or more people: you fools | hey, you!
2 used to refer to any person in general: after a while, you get used to it.

 

i.

This feels inevitable. She’s been watching them all since they were babies—maybe even earlier if you can count watching their parents as watching them, and she does. Generation upon generation, waiting for this day. The cycle never ends.

It’s not long after his birth that she’s taken a special interest in him. Is he the one? By the time he starts school, she already has a nickname for him: Lonely Boy.

Flash forward to the present, when she sees him step out of the shadows and into the light, the burlap sack coming off and she looks at his eyes—still full of wonder and awe and fresh-faced innocence and it’s almost too much to bear because it reminds her of how she used to be before she was taken all those years ago, and that’s the last thing she needs a vivid memory of right now.

D steps toward her with an outstretched hand, ever the polite young man. “You must be the Archivist,” he says. It’s an honor to meet you. I’m D.”

“I know.” She gives him a nod of recognition and sees the flickering in his eyes, the gears inside his head turning. “Welcome to the Archive,” she says, and she gives his hand a firm shake: “I’m nobody.” The confusion is immediately evident on his face. “And everybody.” The quizzical look on his face says that he still doesn’t get it. She tries again: “To put it another way—I’m U.”

It’s late, though time has little meaning in this underground dungeon where there are no windows to reveal the light, or lack thereof. Still, she tries to keep to a strict schedule, marking days off the little makeshift calendar she keeps by the kitchen. It’s the only way to keep from going mad. She heats up two bowls of soup on the small stove and they eat without speaking a word to each other.

His regular pill is waiting for him in a small dispenser, and he takes it with a gulp of water, not giving it another thought. She swallows hers dry. Afterwards, U tells him to get some sleep because tomorrow is going to be a long, long day.

ii.

She spends the next week introducing him to his new home. The Archive is dark and dank, a cavernous space that seems to stretch for miles and miles. These tunnels were hollowed out long ago for commuters who rode the subway from one part of town to the next, in and out of the city limits. But the trains and tracks are long gone now. D walks up and down the aisles of shelves and it seems to him that they go on forever.

For the first couple of weeks, the two of them live together awkwardly, like mismatched roommates still learning each other’s daily patterns, but gradually they learn the secret to cohabitation. Every few mornings, they receive new supplies, delivered via a chute in the central library: food, toiletries, typewriter ribbons, whatever they might need.

But when D tries looking up the pneumatic tube to get a glimpse of what lies on the other side, all he sees is blackness.

Slowly but surely, U teaches him how the job works—what’s expected of him.

Even on the surface, it’s not quite what he envisioned. TPTB always made it sound honorable and exciting—but this is dull at best. Invasive at worst. Little does he know that there’s more she’s not telling him.

The hardest part is detaching himself from the community he used to call home, becoming purely an observer. Writing daily reports, like a scientist studying the inner workings of a terrarium. These are people he grew up with, looked up to, called “mother” and “father” and “friend.” Now they are like subjects and he is the objective historian who must chronicle their every move with language that feels too formal.

While he works, U is always watching him. She can see him thinking it through, puzzling it all out, one piece at a time.

In his free time, he wanders the shelves, lightly running his fingers along the spines of old, dusty journals. These tomes house the work of earlier Archivists. D picks one out at random and starts to open it to the first page when he realizes he isn’t yet ready to open that can of worms. Instead he settles for a worn paperback novel that he doesn’t recognize from his life above ground. He can’t escape the fact that his mind often turns to B as he’s reading. The side plot reminds him of a movie they once watched together. The narrator’s razor-sharp wit reminds him of her affinity for tossing bon mots in his direction. He begins to realize how living in this hub of history and culture might get lonely without anyone to share it with.

At the end of the aisle are an assortment of dictionaries. D picks through them, page by page, during his lunch break. He starts to learn how to spell.

iii.

U hears typewriter keys clattering late into the night, finds false starts crumpled up in the waste basket of D’s bedroom the morning after.

“Dear B,” he writes. One simple letter; the beginning of another kind of letter. He pauses in front of the page for the longest time. Back when he wasn’t allowed to put them on paper, words flowed from his mind, steady as a waterfall. A nearby dam threatening to burst. Now that he can see the letters staring back at him, they seem so permanent—unalterable. He balks. He removes his fingers from the keys.

Dear B,

He lets the first line of the missive linger there.

I miss you, he thinks, somewhere in the back of his mind where it’s safe to think such thoughts. He doesn’t write it down.

iv.

The days pass quickly at first. He follows U’s example and crosses them off each night, determined not to lose track of time, not to lose himself. His new job is more demanding than he ever imagined. Nearly every minute is accounted for. Hundreds of video screens cover the walls of the underground theater, broadcasting at all hours of the day from every corner of the city. Of course they can’t watch them all.

A month goes by before he can bear to view some of the streams, the cameras that are hidden in bedrooms and bathrooms and the other places of our lives that were meant to remain private. But nothing is private here. It all feels suspiciously like voyeurism.

“It’s part of the job,” U insists when he protests or squirms. “You do want the job, don’t you? Because we can still find someone else. Maybe we were wrong about you.”

“You weren’t wrong.” He doesn’t say anything else, just forces himself to watch the screens and play the role he was given.

She softens, witnessing this. “It’s not supposed to be easy, you know. It wasn’t for me, either, not at first. In some ways, it still isn’t.”

He doesn’t say much in return, but she can see his mind working overtime when he observes, processing everything he’s been told, everything he’s witnessed.

“Is this where GG gets her material?” he finally asks her one day, anxious to have his fears quelled. He always wondered who she was, what she looked like, how she got the job.

U is silent for so long he begins to think she didn’t hear the question.

“Yes,” she says finally. “Yes, GG reads our observations.” She doesn’t offer any more than that.

He can’t help but think that they could end this now.

When B enters one of the stalls in the school’s restroom, it’s a day like any other. D doesn’t realize at first that she’s not there for the usual reasons. He averts his eyes as a courtesy when she latches the lock, but then she gets down on her knees and jams two fingers down her throat, and all he can see when he looks back at the screen is the back of her head, a mass of her dark brown hair, hovering just above the toilet bowl.

When she looks up again, her eyes don’t just land anywhere. They go directly to the camera, and if he didn’t know better, he’d think she’s looking right up at him—their eyes meeting each other, from miles apart. Her expression is impossible to read. Finally, she lowers her head, flushes the toilet, and walks out of the stall. The camera, of course, doesn’t follow. But when she reappears on another stream seconds later, she is chatting animatedly with S as if nothing is wrong.

D finally tears his eyes away from the scene to look behind him, wanting to see the look on U’s face. She’s watching, too. But she seems more interested in how he’ll react. That’s when it dawns on him: She’s seen this routine many times before.

“You knew about this.” The accusatory tone in his voice is unmistakable to her. The self-righteousness and contempt.

She snorts derisively. “Of course I did. You didn’t? You spend more time with her than anyone.” She no longer tries to keep the judgment out of her voice and he hears it in the center of her statement, like a ticking bomb ready to explode.

Fuck you, he wants to yell, and in another lifetime, he probably would: Fuck you. You don’t know anything about it—our lives. He wants to call her a heartless bitch, but she knows that he can’t find the words. He reaches into the darkness of his literary arsenal to find only phrases with blunt edges, too innocuous and tame for the damage he so badly wants to inflict. He’s searching for the kind of words people used to wield like weapons, the ones that would cut you from the inside like a rope of barbed wire, slowly uncoiling and drawing blood. He comes up empty. Those words were stripped from the English language years ago. They barely exist anymore.

“How was I supposed to know? I can’t see everything like you can, you know,” he says, and the excuse sounds weak even to him. “Or at least, not till now. You have no right to judge me.”

U barks out a laugh. “I could say the same to you. What is going on behind those hooded eyes of yours? I know that you think that I look at these screens and I don’t see people anymore, that this is just a game to me now; I don’t have emotions, I’ve forgotten how to feel. But that’s easy for you to say. You just got here—you don’t know.” Her voice is brittle like an old sponge that crumbles at your touch. He wants to scrub his hands under the tap after he hears it, wants the water to wash away the remnants that seep into his pores and how they makes him ache in all the worst places.

She watches him closely. “For someone who has always claimed to hate her, you sure seem to care about what happens to her.”

“Of course I do. It has nothing to do with hate. She’s destroying herself. I’m helpless. Compassion—it’s only human, isn’t it?”

She laughs again, like his words have no weight in this chamber. She can tell it is taking everything in him not to rage at her. “Human?” she says. “What do you know about being human? What do any of you know about being human?”

She’s right, he thinks. Humanity doesn’t look like this. They might as well be robots, programmed by TPTB to carry out their assigned tasks, to follow the herd. Worse yet—puppets held up by strings.

For the remainder of the day, his mind swirls with thoughts and questions: What did it all mean? To what end? For what purpose? And why keep them in the dark? He’s so distracted by his queries and that gnawing guilt, that for the first time in his life, D forgets to take his pill.

v.

“Dear B,” he writes again, but can’t finish the thought. Another false start, another crumpled page finding its way into the trash.

I know now, he wants to say, but his fingers won’t obey, won’t type out the words.

Why?, he wants to ask, but he thinks he already has an inkling. To fill an unfillable hole.

For the first time, he feels like he’s had a glimpse of some secret part of B that she keeps hidden from everyone else. But why did it take a strategically-placed camera for him to notice? U wasn’t wrong to place the blame on him. He should’ve seen it much earlier.

You’re the truest person I know, he thinks later, when he’s lying in bed and can’t sleep a wink. I think you’re beautiful the way you are. But it’s a fleeting thought that dissolves like a powder tablet the moment sleep finally comes: You don’t need to do this to yourself. And when he sleeps, he dreams of the past he’s read about in the books among the library. About life as it existed hundreds of years ago. Chaos and passion. Love and hate. A mixture of beauty and ugliness—two sides of the same coin. You don’t need to do this to yourself.

We don’t need to do this to ourselves. He doesn’t write it down, not under the bright glare of the next morning. It’s only a metaphor. He realizes that day that he hasn’t seen sunlight in months.

vii.

He isn’t supposed to give them any special treatment, but D spends more time than he would care to admit watching the feeds for Class 1111. He can’t help it. He grew up with these people. For better or for worse, he’s invested in their lives and in what happens to them. He’s come to care about them, all of them: B and S and N and even C. And this is the only connection he has with them now, however one-sided it may be.

S continues to rebel, amassing quite a collection of un-swallowed pills. B spends more time than ever locking herself away in the restroom. C is on a path to self-destruction. D worries about all of them from afar.

He even makes sure to watch A in the hospital as she begins her final decline. Her desk in the classroom empties out. She no longer joins the others in their lessons at all.

He watches as she’s pumped full of poison. As she pukes her insides out. As her hair falls out. As she’s subjected to yet another MRI, another round of false hope and bad news. The tumors keep spreading, and with them, the rumors of her inevitable fate are spreading, too.

Technology has made significant advancements over the past century, but medicine has stagnated. We’ve traded lifelines for circuit boards. It’s clear that she isn’t going to get better. That it’s only a matter of time. He watches the nurses go in and out of her room, their expressions betraying a stream of positive and uplifting words. Anyone could see she’s halfway out the door.

Pretty soon, he can’t bear to watch anymore.

viii.

On a day that feels like it might never end, C takes B to the rooftop of the city’s last remaining high-rise, where the sky above them is full of stars. No longer surrounded by too many lights, so much smog. You can finally see stars in New York City, but now no one stops to look at them in wonder. No one marvels at the great expanse of the universe anymore.

D flips a switch on the dashboard, and the scene fills up on the main screen.

On the roof, C has B’s forearm in a vice-like grip, his face is inches from hers. “Do you know how it feels, knowing, that she would rather die, than be with me? Don’t you abandon me, too.” His grip tightens, nostrils flaring.

From his vantage point, D can’t see B’s face, but he can tell by her body language that she’s scared. She’s just too proud to ever admit it. “You act as if she had a choice,” she tells C, and her voice is shaky. “Your mother, A, either of them. They didn’t, you know. Sometimes accidents happen. Sometimes they aren’t even accidents, they’re just things that happen. Random things, they don’t mean anything. Just bad luck. Flukes of nature. Not everything revolves around you, C. You’re not the reason the world is the way it is.”

“Doesn’t matter, does it? Reasons don’t affect results in the end. Either way, they’re both dead! They’re both gone.”

“And I’m sorry, C. I really am. But what does any of this have to do with me? You and I, we’re not meant to be.”

He scoffs. “Who else is there? D?” C says his letter like it’s nothing, like the very notion is preposterous. “You know he left too, right? He’s not coming back to be your Prince Charming. I thought you’d be glad.”

There’s a long silence. D wishes he could see her face when she says, quietly, “I can’t talk about this with you right now. Please let go of me.”

To his surprise, C obliges.

He lets her go, just like that. It’s all too easy.

He leads her back down the stairs, out of sight from the view of one camera, right onto another.

He’s found dead the very next morning, on the pavement next to the building. His wrist is carved open in the shape of a C, like he was trying to dig something out, some part of him that could never be removed. One by one, the dominoes are falling. C always had a penchant for theatrics.

As far as D can discern from the video feed, the medical examiner ultimately finds that his stomach was full of pills from Serena’s stash. That he was so numb he didn’t even feel a thing when he hit the ground.

D can’t help noticing that B excuses herself to the restroom more and more frequently in the following weeks. Each time, just as before, she looks up at the camera before flushing the toilet. The expression on her face is still unreadable, but it’s almost as if she’s testing whoever is on the side—trying to see if anyone, somewhere, someplace, actually cares.

I do, he thinks. I care. I just wish I knew how to help from all the way out here.

He walks in on U composing on her typewriter, mumbling to herself, sounding out yet another rhyme. Her fingers leap across the keys with the grace of gazelles’ legs, nearly silent. She’s about sick of trying to find new ways of saying the same thing. Always speaking in riddles, saying absolutely nothing all the damn time. That’s when D walks in and finally puts two and two together, finally figures out her secret.

“So you’re GG, huh?” Halfway in the room and halfway out, he stands there framed by the doorway. “When were you going to tell me?”

She looks him in the face, caught, and she realizes that more than anything she is relieved he finally knows. She’d had no idea how to break it to him. “I’m U,” is all she says in response, just like that first night, but now he hears it differently: “I’m you.” I’m you. You’re me. In that moment, it hits D that this is the post he’s supposed to be taking over.

“No,” he says, and his voice sounds more authoritative than he feels. “No, I’m not going to do it. That isn’t what I signed up for.”

She gives him a wry smile. All at once, it’s like the years she’s lived appear on her face, around the corners of her eyes. “You know you don’t get to choose.”

He’s starting to get that now. Suddenly that old life he’s been reading about doesn’t look so bad after all.

ix.

“Dear B,” he begins again, fingers hovering over each of the letters on his trusty typewriter, and now he has so much to say that he doesn’t know where to begin. So he just starts writing. He doesn’t second-guess himself this time. He understands now that he no longer has that luxury. Perfection. Criticism. Self-doubt. Those were the things that kept people from ever communicating, evolving, taking action. Becoming the people they were meant to be. Worst of all, there’s the paralyzing fear. But they can’t afford to be scared now.

“I think I made a mistake,” D types, and immediately wants to press backspace, delete it and write the words over. But instead he keeps going, fingers moving on their own now. “This isn’t anything like I thought it would be. Being the Archivist isn’t what I thought it was. Writing isn’t as easy as it always seemed. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Tell me what to do.” He can’t believe he is asking B of all people for advice. He can’t believe that he’s admitting to himself that she’s the one whose opinion he trusts, but he thinks that it’s always been true.

“The more I learn about this place, the more I think I’m not supposed to be here. I think I understand now why they keep the past hidden from us. Why they banned all those books and movies. Why they won’t teach us how to write. Something bad happened here. They don’t think we can handle freedom. But why do a handful of people get to decide what’s best for everyone? They’ve erased everything that’s beautiful about our lives. There’s so much outside that we don’t know about. Do you ever wonder what’s out there? Do you ever look up at the sky? You’re the only one I can talk to about this stuff. Please take care of yourself.”

I miss you, he thinks again. This time types it out, rubs his thumb over the words. The ink smudges, but the imprint the letters have made on the paper remain. Permanent.

x.

U can hear him tossing and turning at night. She can hear him give up on sleep and stumble over to his desk, where he’ll insert a fresh sheet of paper into the machine. She can hear the rhythm of the typewriter keys, like percussion instruments in a jazz band, syncopated beats drumming through her head till morning—each individual letter working together to help him say whatever he needs to say, get those buried feelings and idea out of his chest. She’s been there before. But those wells of words have long since run dry for her.

Her minds wanders as her eyes roam around the room, barely identifying the dark shapes around her. She thinks about how felt like the outcast for decades, stranded alone on this deserted island called The Archive. When she thinks of the rest of her Class, she thinks about how they all grew up, chose names, started families. She’s never had any of those things. But she comforts herself with the fact that all the “U” names were ugly anyway: Ursula, Umbria, Uma. U is the letter of negation. Untold, Unforgiven, Ungrateful. The list never stops. No, she told herself it was better this way.

Decades earlier, she was just another young girl with so many impossible dreams. She yearned to write, even though she knew it was bad. That she shouldn’t, couldn’t. But she came into the world loving words. She didn’t even need a full stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, once-upon-a-times, happily-ever-afters—none of that. She just needed words in her life. She imagined taking them apart, putting them back together, studying their etymologies and elegant shapes. Their quiet power fascinated her.

And then one day, her dream came true. She’d never thought she could be chosen because, as her worried parents constantly reminder her, she was born about fifteen years too early. It wasn’t even time for a new Archivist yet. But they made an exception or something—she didn’t know the details. She was so happy she didn’t even ask for an explanation. She just let them take her, cover her head with the burlap sack and take her to live here for nine months, to learn from the Archivist before her, just as D was doing now.

But the experience wasn’t at all what she thought it would be, mostly in the subtle ways that our imaginations always prove different from reality. She could live with those minor discrepancies. No, the problem was that the Archivist before her was a lonely middle-aged man who had stopped taking his pills. Like her, he’d never had a chance at a “normal” life. He’d spent half his life watching other people fuck on endless screens when he only had his hand to keep him company.

She was seventeen when she first arrived for training, still so naive and sheltered. He didn’t seem like such a bad guy at first. He didn’t cross any lines. But bit by bit, things began to change. His gaze would linger too long at the breakfast table. He would place his hands on her even though she knew he must realize that it made her uncomfortable. The day that he forces himself on her is the day she lets her fear take hold of her life, and it never quite lets go. It happens in the stacks inside the library. Right there. Between those shelves. The memory has dulled with time, become less visceral, but she still can’t escape the feeling every time she walks past the spot where it happened. The worst part is she’s had to keep living here all those years.

In the darkness of her bedroom, she can still hear D pounding away in the next room. By the sheer volume of his keystrokes she can guess that he’s angry. Good. Anger is good. She’s glad he’s found a way to channel it. She closes her eyes and the sound slowly morphs into a lullaby that sends her off to sleep.

At breakfast the next morning, U catches D looking at her with a curious expression on his face. “Are you okay?” he asks. His own eyes are bleary with sleep. She can tell that he was up all night, writing.

She nods. There’s a silence, and then she decides to add, “You were right, before. When you said I can’t see everything. But that’s not the point. After a while, it all starts to blur together, the bad and the good. You’d be surprised at how fast it gets old, being privy to the whole city’s most intimate moments. Seeing behind closed doors. Learning everyone’s secrets. Deciding which ones to keep, which ones to expose. It isn’t long before you wish there weren’t cameras anywhere. That we could all live our lives without worrying all the time about being seen. I’m tired, D. I’m old. I don’t want to play God anymore.”

U can see that he thinks he’s been here long enough to empathize, to understand, but these are the things you can never really fathom until you’ve lived it in real time, until you’ve been the one watching and waiting for a lifetime. It eats at you. She hopes he never has to know that feeling.

“Did you ever think that maybe you could be the one to change it?” D finally says, and when he does her chest tightens with guilt. It sounds like an accusation, even if that’s not how he means it. “Do you really think these people, this TPTB, actually have power over us? What can they do to us if we don’t obey?”

The truth is, she’s thought that for a long time, but she isn’t brave enough.

The truth is, she noticed early on that he had a preference for his left hand, a trait even more rare now than it used to be. She thought maybe that signified a rebel in the making, someone who could grow up to fight against the grain.

The truth is, she thinks she’s ready to do her part now.

They make careful plans in D’s last few months of training. Outside, the city is already changing. GG rarely interrupts lessons with her rhymes anymore. No one asks them why. Their supplies still arrive regularly through the usual chute. They wonder if this will be easier than they thought, but of course nothing is.

D leaves in the spring with his last letter to B sewn into his back pocket. He gives U a wink right before they slip the burlap sack back over his head and whisk him away.

IV. D IS FOR DIONYSIAN

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