She breathes in the dark. Behind the four fragile walls of her bedroom she hides in the dark and breathes in the atmosphere of solidarity. Curled against the pale wood of her bed frame, she huddles as if a stray dog in the cold. Head buried in the soft, welcoming folds of her inner elbows, her tears drop on the dark stained wood, painted carefully by her mother. Her mother, who argued that the paleness of the birch was too plain to be comforting. Her mother in her own waves of friendliness and anger, her mother like the stained birch wood insulating the little room.
A knock on the door raises the girl’s head. Eyes far apart and a nose just slightly upturned give her the appearance of a deer or a fox. She sniffs and stretches out to reach the doorknob. A knock again, quiet and subtle and a whisper of someone she knows. She cracks the door open and her little sister comes barreling into the soft loneliness of her room, caressed by the harsh waves of the yelling in the kitchen.
They cry together in the softness of each other’s arms.
He has been in love with her since the dawn of time, he convinces himself. He plays with fire and candles and twine in the darkness of his own time, and he convinces himself their souls are like comets - always passing and never colliding. He wonders what kind of secrets she holds on the surface of her skin. He plays with matches and candles and imagines the taste of her lips.
His notebooks carry images of the love he imagines in the sketches of dying flowers, naked daisies. He strips the petals of roses and flings them into cold water. He lives in the smell of fine earth and rain, and in the hopeless fantasy of being loved by her. He sees her in the image of elves and fairies, and her face on the foxes and deer that traipse in the backyard among the weeds and rose petals.
He imagines the warmth of being on her mind.
Tuesday morning she catches him watching her on the bus. She smiles and turns back to the window. Frost in the leaves of the trees flying by. Frost on the roofs of the houses. Frost in the war ground of the kitchen at her house.
After school, she takes off her skirt at a stranger’s house. She kisses his neck and breathes in the smell of affection, tastes it on the tip of her tongue. He calls her beautiful with such conviction she nearly believes him. He is the boulder in the middle of the rapids. She clings with desperation to the land that he provides.
When she’s done, she calls herself an Uber.
Tuesday afternoon, he sketches a pale pink rose behind the lines in his notebook. The ghost of her smile haunts his day and night. He looks at the stars from his window with a new satisfaction and he thanks the moon before going to bed.
In the following weeks he glances at her on the bus. He catches her eye in hallways and across medical cafeteria floors. He plays out his dream of being loved like a strategy of war. He inches closer and closer to the tangibility of her being. He learns the exact color of her eyes from the way she looks back at him. He learns the way she walks from noticing her in crowds. He imagines the softness of kissing her from the way her lips turn up when she sees him watching her.
He learns the beautifully icy brittleness of her voice when she asks him what his name is.
In between battles, she reaches out to the rest of the world. She still samples affection from the bedrooms of strangers and retreats to her womb in the graveyard of attention. She still lays her head in the softness of her elbows and holds her sister as she takes her turn coming to terms with the war raging throughout their house.
But she lingers at the bus stop on the days he doesn’t show up, wondering if it’s worth it to watch the trees fly by without being watched herself. She wonders if it’s worth it to exist if she’s not a soap opera for his attention. She lingers at the bus stop and questions her link to the world.
In between battles, she reaches out to the rest of the world in the connection with the boy who watches her. She talks with him some days, when she speaks first. She has a confidence unparalleled by Odysseus. She breathes the fire of misdirected passion, and he relishes in the ashes she leaves him with.
He finds her after school and speaks first.
He shows her places only he knows, and watches from the sides of his eyes, gauging her reactions. He notices the change in the way she carries herself when he shows her the forest behind his house. He smiles at the freedom in her shoulders as they pull back from the sides of her face.
“Show me more,” she says, her breath making clouds in the cold winter air.
So he shows her the sketches of flowers in his notebooks and the crystals on his windowsill. She smiles in the background of his room, painted like a deer in between the lightness surrounding him. His parents find them listening to music on his bed and they invite her to eat with them.
The dinner is a slow tragedy. She finds herself understanding the falseness of her reality. She wonders if, when she goes home that night, they’ll stop pretending. She acts with a stiffness she learned from mistakes. She learns what peace smells like and tastes the tenderness of long-nurtured fondness. She nearly cries when they ask her how her day was.
“Good,” she says, as she imagines that’s all she’s allowed.
He begins to notice her happiness inflating throughout the day. She smiles when she sees him and skips to the door of his house. She nearly kisses the doorframe of his bedroom and closes her eyes in blissfulness while she sits at the dinner table. He begins to wonder why he’s never been inside her house.
On the roof of his house, on the Everest of the suburbs, they pretend to be astronomers. She points out Ursa Major as he studies the constellations of freckles on her face.
He asks if he can come over and her smile tilts and falls like a sinking ship. She turns her face, her night sky of constellations, and whispers the truth to the roof tiles.
With a fear as sudden as death, she realizes her reliance on his affection. She drifts away from his warmth and his house of sunshine and dreams, releasing herself to the rapids. The most painful part is the indifference of the world to the loss of what could have been.
His infatuation never fades. It swells to an addiction so strong he stays home most days. He drives himself to school for the rest of the year. He imagines the shape of her body in his bed. He sketches her face in between the wildflowers tossed across his notebooks. Color never looked so good as it did around her.
He breathes in the excess memories like a drug.
In June, school ends. She walks home like a dog to the master who kicked it. The warzone in the kitchen and the crying in the bedroom. Days of summer like a sandcastle being washed to grains by the waves. She listens to the music of winter evenings in his backyard. She takes her shirt off for a stranger and thinks a different name when she says the stranger’s.
She hums the tune of his favorite song while her parents wage war in the kitchen. Her sister exists on the cliffside of her mind, and she pushes her off in July, when he pulls up to her house in the car she never knew he had. He has duffles in the trunk and a sadness painted on his face. He tells her he’s going to a university on the other side of the country, and he tries to convince her he’s telling her goodbye. He tries to convince himself he means it. And with an agonizing desperation, she grips the sides of his existence as if he’s the land on either side of the rapids. She drags her emaciated body through the cold, rushing water.
He breathes fire into her lungs and soul. She smiles when she hears her own heartbeat in the softness of his voice.
He doesn’t ask about the little girl he sees in the window of her bedroom as they pull away from the curb. He doesn’t ask about the woman running out to the middle of the road - a ghost in the foggy glass of his rearview mirror. He doesn’t ask about her silence for the first day they exist together.
He tells her about the matches and the candles. He explains his idea of souls and points out the moon when they drive through the night. He fills the emptiness of her past with things he knows will make her smile. His chest fills with warmth when he turns and sees her closing her eyes like she used to at his dinner table. He gives her his clothes to wear and his toothbrush to use and doesn’t comment on the things she left behind.
On the first day of August, just before they reach the coast, he tells her that she’s beautiful. She turns to study the terrain of his face - his smile, his eyes, his hands on the steering wheel. He looks at her and he continues. He describes the color of her being and the brightness of her smile and the confidence she carries behind her like a bulldozer. She smiles as he compares her to fire - so far from the rapids she was raised in. And by the time he gets to the poetry of her happiness, she believes him.
Despite the scars of her past and the stains her parents left her with and the blemish of guilt she’ll carry for the rest of her life, she believes him when he tells her she’s beautiful.