Wren is boring. Boring and perpetually bored and uncharismatic and unforthcoming and subdued and terrible really.
She doesn't have many opinions, and the ones she does have are weak cookies, not enough sugar or too much butter and with grainy gluten-free flour. Wren is also a weak cookie.
No one hates her or likes her, she's just there in the background of yearbooks and in the memories of people who remember The Great Vomiting of '05, which is also her one defining marker.
Wren is the personification of room temperature tap water. This is written down in the unalterable script of the universe.
This is, of course, hyperbolic. I, Wren Niven, don't self-analyze my drab existence on the best of days. But my arms are beginning to tremble and my shoulders and elbows are locking, and there is an itch in the small of my back and smelly sweatpants are all up in my face.
"I swear to God that if you drop me- Wren! I will literally, literally kill you."
I sniffle into the soft fabric on his ankle, "Are you done yet? My arms are going to break and then I'll need to go to the hospital and you'll be the one they charge because you forced me, a minor, to lift you into a window and then the police are going to come and they'll be like, "What is the matter, Civilian?" and imma tell 'em that you coerced me to take part in breaking and entering and then-"
"Shu' awp," he garbles, screwdriver in mouth as he works the last locks open. With a click and a moan, he's finally able to push the window inside, bracing his hands on the sill as he heaves himself up into the cozy interior of the shed.
I shake back some feeling into my arms and mumble, "You should be the one lifting me up."
"Good on you, Wren Niven, for promoting gender stereotypes!" He shouts from inside, "You're such a weak cookie, you know that, right? Besides, how would I be able to trust that you wouldn't mess up the plan by grabbing the wrong stuff? Here."
River drops a bottle of lighter fluid into my waiting hands, and wastes no time dallying, already ducking back inside. He pops back a few minutes later, several more cans of fuel in his arms, as a grin with too much teeth to be innocent lines his face.
River Sea, his parents were playing bingo with his name, he says. "It's just gonna keep going down, Wren, I'm going to call my kid 'Puddle', see how his grandparents like that."
Lovable and loved, devious and mischevious. Exasperating and charming teachers and parents. No one has ever complained about him and held a grudge. Mothers return feeling nostalgic, father feeling put in their place. He is adored by the nation.
River Sea, too much of everything to want to hang out with someone like me.
I am, of course, not delusional enough to think that he wants me for my astounding company. I'm good at following orders, I don't feel entitled to his attention, and really, I don't care if I'm being used. I really don't care about much of anything.
(It may also be because I'm the only other not-related English person within walking distance, a patriotic camaraderie isn't terribly out of the picture.)
River Sea, always getting me into trouble. River Sea, standing by my side in the nurse's office. River Sea, knees red and face afloat. River Sea, giving me matching bruises.
"Mr. Hussain, cross my heart and hope to die, this is the last time I'll try to ditch class. I really didn't think the wall would be that high."
Mr. Hussain isn't buying it, he crosses his ankles from where's he's leaning onto the desk. It'll be my turn next. "River, don't swear on your life, it's foolish, and shut your mouth for a mo', alright? It's one thing to go trapezing around outside school property during class, another to drag in Ms. Niven here with you."
I widen my eyes to the fish stare that unnerves most everyone, it looks weird and slightly manic when I do it. Unblinking, I monotone, "Asfa."
Rolling his eyes at the Arabic he lifts himself off the table and pulls out a file and a pen. "Sign here, full names, the time is 11:05. I'll be back in a sec. Don't try anything, Sea."
When he leaves, River is immediately on the move, going straight to the fire extinguisher propped up on the wall. He lowers it gently off its harness and sets it against the creme-colored walls.
He nods at me in a nonverbal instruction, before brushing past to the papers on Mr. Hussain's desk, skimming the assortment of files.
I'm already at the window, fire extinguisher in hand when he finds the ones he's looking for. He ruffles my hair later, while we're crouching in a blind spot behind the school and smiling has never felt more painful.
"If you wanted a fire extinguisher badly, I have one at home, we didn't have to fall off a wall to get one."
"Firstly, I will never pass up an opportunity to steal from Hussain ergo the school, ergo the government. Secondly, I've always wanted to climb that monstrous beast."
Both lies. It was the papers.
It was a teacher who introduced us, my accent was light and clumsy on the guttural, heavy Arabic; River's was fluent, almost native.
The teacher thought that I'd be a perfect guide to the new foreign student, both of us English. He seemed disarming enough, shy almost. It didn't take long before he established his position in the social hierarchy, though. Everyone knew who he was in two day's time, they starting venerating him a week in, and now, the entire student body adores River Sea.
There was no space for me in the equation. But if River is great at one thing, it's making room.
I can't get over this: River is loved, loved, loved. So I really don't understand why he'd say what he said on that Saturday.
Saturday. That day met me with a twin pair of shovels and cracked dirt. The fire extinguisher was gutted, modified, ironic. Papers were stolen from the nurse and the principal and countless untold others; a paper trail of his existence, a narrative of every single problematic thing he'd done.
The hole was dug, the pages and manilla files were thrown in with collected branches and waxy white cubes. River cleared his throat: "We are the last English of the sandy plains, we are on the brink of extinction! Harken, my friends, my subjects, for you shall not despair any longer. Vive l'empereur!" He eases on the handle, the DIY flamethrower spits out a glorious stream of fire, for a stuttering second. Just enough to light the pit.
(Have you ever lit a fire?)
(It is .)
I feel it and he feels it, and it feels it. The air is excited, distorting the edges of the flames. River is shaking.
River is shaking. Then hiccuping. Then crying.
And then he calms down because that's all you can do. Calm down: Suffocate your emotions. Descend into default. There were words said that Saturday that wrote themselves down on the sky, stars for punctuation.
"In burning these papers, I'm burning my existence."
River Sea's envied life doesn't have that right. I didn't say.
'The flame dances, a hero turns martyr. He died that day. River Sea died that day.' Wren Niven, a sophomore at X, reports.
When the house behind us starts getting hectic at the fire, he tries to save face. Voice splintered, pointing at the bones of a rat, ants finishing off the last vestiges of flesh:
"Look at that, Wren, millions of years later, after we are buried by hundreds of layers of earth and dirt, and deserts drown in waters, someone is going to dig that up, and tell his folks, "Here, a fossil from the ancients! This creature helped kill a third of Europe!"" River's quivering smile props up his reddened cheeks, and he crushes the fragile bones in one step. I wait for the quip. "Knowledge is a preventable disease. Let's see our futures try to piece that together."
"I'm sure there are millions of rats out there, this isn't really preventing it."
"Well then, the only thing to do now is to destroy each and every one, isn't that right, Wren Niven?"
"You're too wistfully romantic today, River," I whine. Too bold, you idiot!, I think right after.
He laughs, though, ugly and snotty and pig-like. And when the sirens get too close to comfort, I don't know which one of us grabs the other's hand first.
I do know, however, that it was me who whispers: