Keller stood at the bottom of a thin but wide metal ladder curving up the side of one of dozens of black trains. “Climb with me?”
Farren exhaled deeply and followed his friend, who’d already begun to ascend. “Sure.”
Keller, sassy wild child that she was, made it to the top before Farren was even a quarter of the way up. It wasn’t that far to climb, but the already-setting sun was rendering it difficult to see, and besides, maybe he was just a little bit afraid of heights.
At the top, the pair was met with a space about the length of a card table surrounded on three sides by a metal railing, consisting only of a bar as high as their waists. In the middle was raised black metal, yoga-ball-sized, flat on the top and in the shape of a circle, that they used as (what else?) a bench.
Farren and Keller settled themselves on their seat, as side-by-side as one can be on such a small and circular surface, and watched, to the train’s right, as the hazy orange sun drifted slowly down to the tops of the pine trees. To the back of the train, more were hitched; and to the front, even more, going on so long in the direction of the railroad tracks that neither were really quite sure when they ended.
On the black train’s left were a different kind, a tan color, and the body was rectangular instead of cylindrical, and the top always housed some kind of ashen substance that was altogether unidentifiable. The friends generally preferred to avoid contact with those trains, although they enjoyed their company; looming wheeled boxes in the middle of two lines of dark, like Oreos in that there were only three tracks, and the light-colored trains were always in the middle.
Keller turned for a moment, pursing her lips as she cast her glance over the massive industrial building far to the trains’ west. There were no identifying signs on the outside, and it was surrounded by a huge, usually empty lot; Keller would, of course, have liked to explore it, if there were only more places to hide should they get caught.
Behind the trains was a road that people only used when on their way to the general store, or Wendy’s, or the highway; and other than the mysterious big building and that, the tracks’ only neighbors were marshy fields and ditches, and then eventually a pine forest, so far away one could only assuming it was avoiding them.
Farren stared at his lap and not at the sunset, occasionally watching Keller’s fidgety knuckles in his periphery. When it’d become cold enough that he was starting to shiver, Farren asked, “How are you doing?”
He glanced over at Keller. Her knees were drawn up to her chin, her head resting on black leggings with tiny sprigs of peach-colored flowers sprinkled over them. She was wearing a yellow hoodie, and at the nape of her neck was gathered a wavy bun, bleached to turn it from black to brown and then again to dye strands of it pastel pink. The colors mixed, like dirt and cotton candy, under the white band with which she had secured her hair. The toes of her muddy combat boots peeked just over the edge of what Farren and Keller had chosen as their seat, and her fingers were laced together across her shins, the nails bitten just above the quick. Her hazel skin glowed oily in the dusk light, a few irregular bumps scattered across her face, marking her as a teenager. Days-old mascara was smudged beneath her eyes. Sunlight glinted off the edge of her glasses. Perhaps the most notable of her features was her lips, splattered with purple, from the frozen blueberries she’d eaten a few hours ago. That part of her face looked like a modern art canvas, a patchwork quilt; and just as Farren was studying them, Keller opened her lips to speak.
“I don’t understand why the world is so loud.” Keller sighed, still watching the sun sink behind the earth. “Everyone talking and all the sounds on the streets and everything. Last night I lay on the carpet and stared at the ceiling and it was all silent.”
“Serene,” Farren said, staring at his shoes.
“Silence sounds like something, I think. Silence sounds like little bits of wind and this sort of humming noise and the calm drifting of your own thoughts. I don’t want to live in this world. Not in a suicidal way—just because it’s too loud. I wish everything could slow down. And be quiet.”
Farren was silent for a moment. “Well, then get noise-cancelling headphones. And time warp powers.” He laughed drily. “You’re welcome.”
Keller shook her head, a few strands of hair escaping her bun and falling in her face. “Headphones make the sound of silence different. And wrong.”
“What about noise cancelling earmuffs? Like what they use at gun ranges. They filter out background noise.”
“Still not right.”
“What about…” Farren bit his lip. “Cutting your ears off.”
“Ah yes, self mutilation,” Keller replied. “The cure to every problem.”
Farren glanced at his friend’s profile, the side of her nose and lips illuminated against the setting sun.
“I just don’t get it,” she said quietly, her voice cracking, giving her words to the trees. “Why does everything have to be so bright and fast and loud all of the time? Why can’t people slow down? Why can’t they ever live?
“Strong lights hurt my eyes. I always keep the brightness down on my laptop, until I can see my reflection in it, and then I turn it up because I can’t stand to look at myself. But everyone is always making everything so bright, all the time. Have you ever been in a strip mall at closing time? The stores are all shutting down, and cars are starting quietly in the parking lots, and the only light is from street lamps, fuzzy and hazy but beautiful because that light doesn’t mean to hurt you. White light does. Bright light is harsh and hard and it hurts. But street lights aren’t like that. Streetlights care.
“Everything is always so fast. We have to build highways, and then we have to enforce speed limits because people are killing themselves--literally ending other humans’ lives because they’re in such a hurry. Have you ever thought about that, Farren? Have you ever thought about how the human civilization kills other people solely because we’re so impatient to advance?
“And noise. God, sound. Everyone is always talking over each other at family gatherings, screaming into the crowd at political rallies, chatting in the middle of a movie theatre showing a film you’ve never seen and blaring over the loudspeakers in a supermarket.
“Why? Why does everything have to be so loud? Can’t we just talk, reason it out like human beings? Why do we have to shout?”
Keller slowly slid the glasses off her face and held them hanging over her knee.
“Those things are so triggering to me, Farren. They give me headaches, make me want to drop to the ground and curl into a small, achy fragment of what I used to be and let the tears liquidly seep from my being until I’ve become nothing at all.
“Adults infuriate me. They laugh at kids who want to grow up, mock the young people who say there might be benefits to being older. Grown-ups claim they wish to go back, say they want to be a kid in simpler times.
“But then. But then.” Keller clenched the fist that wasn’t holding her glasses. “They make no steps to change anything. They rush to get in their car. They hurry into work. They laugh so loudly and turn the lights up and make everything go so fast all the while lying through their teeth, saying they want to slow down.” Keller set her glasses down beside her. “Have you ever heard of something more terrible?”
Farren breathed in, letting the cool air prickle the side of his lungs. His arms, he knew, exposed in his white t-shirt, were dotted with goosebumps, each hair standing up in reaction to the cold. But he wouldn’t have left Keller, not for anything.
“All the time, I’ll sit in my room in the dark. Mom thinks I’m just on my phone, hiding from her. Or when I try to make an effort to understand, to be around her, to just watch a TV show together, she always turns the volume up, up, and whenever I try to lower it she complains that she can’t hear.”
Keller stood up and walked over to the railing. The sun was completely gone now, streaks of yellow and pink light slowly fading from the sky as they were replaced by the deep purple of night. The stars weren’t out yet; maybe they wouldn’t appear, not at all, that night. Sometimes it was hard to tell.
Farren, too, got up after a moment, careful not to knock Keller's glasses over, and stood beside her, resting his hand on the railing just inches from hers. Silence sparked like electricity between the two of them. Out of the corner of his vision, he observed her, her black eyes foggy with the blurriness of tears.
“Keller?” he whispered.
She turned, slightly, to look at him.
“Yeah?” She blinked several times as she dragged two fingernails across her face, trying to push back the strands of hair that were being flung around by the wind.
“I’m not sure I completely understand you. But--”
Keller stared up at him. Farren knew that, without her glasses, he must look out of focus. He wondered if that would hide the heat slowly creeping into his cheeks. “Is it okay if I kiss you right now?”
Keller looked at him for a long, long while. He tried not to look at her lips, but there they were, scattered with color from eating the frozen fruit she'd finished before they got there. Farren wondered what it would be like to taste that; he thought it might feel as if he were kissing blueberries.
Keller continued to study his face as Farren berated himself. I’ve messed it up. I got everything wrong. It’s all ruined.
Finally, Keller looked away, sighing. She walked a few steps to grab her glasses and put them back on. She glanced once more at Farren, who was one hundred percent certain that absolutely everything was over, but to his surprise she paused before climbing down the ladder.
He was just a foot in front of her. She hesitantly touched the pads of her middle and index fingers to the top of his bicep, just below the sleeve of his shirt, and ran her fingers along his arm, along the prickly hair, the goosebumps. She ended at his hand, then rested the tip of his fingers on top of her thumb.
“I don’t think so, Farren,” she whispered. She retracted her touch and let his arm once again fall to his side. “But hey, there’s always tomorrow, right?”
As Farren watched his friend’s head disappear under the curvature of the train, he knew that they would never give up on each other. And maybe, maybe one day, he’d know what it was like to have kissed a blueberry.
After all, there was always tomorrow.