“Make it quick.”
Sunbeams seemed to print railway tracks across her skin and her lips were crunched into a trainwreck of half-truths. She was facing away from me, but I knew her lashes were curling into ferns and viridescent eyeshadow covered her lids in a collage of leaves and sea glass.
“Tell Clark to come to the funeral,” I told her.
Sage tilted her head as if she could set the world offbeat with her eyes. “Why should I tell him?”
“Because he’s your brother.”
“He’s your friend,” she countered.
My fists clenched into camera shutters, opening and closing with strained motions. Sage tossed her chin to the sky and I imagined how this moment would look captured in time. If I held a picture frame over her profile, would it be a window into her thoughts? But I remembered all I’d learned and I knew if I peeled off the backing, behind the cover her mind was a broken record with the same tired love songs spinning on repeat.
The silence raged into a hive that burst in my ears, stinging and smarting like a thousand honeybees. Heat condensed into rivers down my shoulder blades, carving canyons and secrets and rising frustration.
The sun hated us. On bad days, I’d say it just hated me, but that was continents away from the truth and heaven knows it. It was a funny thing, a strange curse. In sunlight we were enemies. Out of breath and sweating into a puddle of unsaid pleas. Wishing the clouds would shift and wash it all away with April showers. But it didn’t rain. The sun hated us and the rain held back, so we were stuck in between, under a grey sky.
“Matteo,” she called and I looked up. “As far as I know, Clark's going.”
I hated her for this and I was sure she resented me too. Her cheeks were dusted with raspberry pinpricks and I wondered if it was from the warm air. In these fragile moments, her mask cracked and I could see the girl who laughed when she fell. The girl who wore shimmery makeup that she despised just to match with golden stars.
The one who’d buy lunch for freshman bullies simply to spite them and who cried when I skinned my knees on a chain-link fence. Now, she kept her smile on a leash.
I had a wagon of mistakes that I carried behind me and she patted her errors into children's buckets, swaying them into sandcastles with cheap pails. But when we faced each other, I broke the wheels and pushed my guilts off a cliff and she let the tides wash away her regrets. Neither of us willing to exchange flaws like playing cards, keeping the hearts for ourselves and putting the clubs on display. Neither of us brave enough to confront the other for the hurt they'd caused in our lives. For the pain we'd brought to each other.
We'd grown apart, but it wasn't always this way. We used to talk about the littlest things, papercuts and ladybugs on mossy twigs. Then distance became a thing, a dark and blaring red line and we selfishly chose to let it shred the earth between us.
“It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other,” I spelled out carefully, “so he should come.”
“He was at your place last night.” Why wouldn't she understand?
“It'd mean a lot to me.” As an afterthought, I added, “If he was there.”
“Say what you want to say.”
“The funeral,” I kicked a pebble, “it’s this evening.”
I knew she was losing her patience because I was losing my spark. The sun chuckled at us and blew the clouds out of its eyes. Sometimes I wished I could pull on strings attached to the sky and flip through weather like television channels. Breakdance my fingers over a battery-operated remote and switch to the best moments in my life. Then I’d press replay over and over, but never pause.
My mom would smile in those moments. Maybe she was smiling now, with braided daisy stems clasped in her hands and a cold sheet fanned over her lithe frame.
Maybe the moment I had rewound to was a rainy day and we were inside with stainless steel pots on our heads and our hearts were woven tight like we weren't falling apart. Mom would be raising the ceramic bowl to the ceiling with laughter sifting through her hair and Clark would be licking cookie batter off his fingers. I would have my fist over my chest and the sky would keep crying into the flowerbeds because we didn’t care. Sage would be there too, pinning smiles to our cheeks as music tangled into her eyes.
They were genuine smiles, not the plastic we had ironed on our faces now. I wished she would walk away first and never tiptoe back into my heart while I was gardening outside and not paying attention to who was opening the gates. But she didn’t leave and it drove me to the edges of the world. She didn’t turn away, but she wouldn’t speak either — wouldn’t spit out what she truly wanted. It wasn't like I cared anyway.
But I knew I was lying and it felt as though my nose was growing longer, stretching into a woody branch that betrayed my thoughts. Yet, I couldn't seem to cradle the clay of truth between my thumbs and mold it into unchipped words. It was much simpler to skim a broad brush over my attempts at misdirection so they dripped with thick coats of fake confidence and I could call them white lies.
For a second, the sun contained its glare but I didn’t notice that. All I focused on was trying not to trip on my untied laces as I stumbled away. An airy voice inside my head warned me not to look back. A velvety, dark song strumming my heartstrings made me hope she’d call out and let me hug her.
“Matteo.” I stopped, but ever so slightly. “What makes you think Clark wouldn't show up?”
“I don’t know,” I muttered, but the words weren’t even my own.
* * * * *
Bitter cold painted over the afternoon, but I couldn’t bring myself to go back to my apartment. The day was lilting and the clouds rushed the sun out of the sky. They amassed, plotting and scheming and whispering chills through empty alleys.
The drugstore down the street was open 24/7 and had circus lights and neon signs of flashing teeth. I’d considered getting roses from the florist, but Mom had never liked how pampered roses sighed with manicured petals, soaking in flavored water. She'd never been fond of fluffy bouquets that spread like wigs and burned matches in your nostrils.
“A rose, please.”
The cashier folded his fingers into drumsticks and tapped the counter. “Sorry, sir. Just sold our last one to that lady there.”
Did Fate sip coffee when writing our destinies, with sugar coursing through her fingers and adrenaline fueling her crazed smile? Or maybe it was the universe, with its odd way of making us think in circles. My gaze trailed past the cashier's unfurled thumb and Sage turned around at the exact second I flicked my eyes to the floor. Her eyes bloomed with shock and excuses, as she pinched the flimsy tissue paper cone around the rose stem, toying with the evergreen ribbon.
“Buying roses?” I stepped outside and when the chimes rang again, I knew she’d followed.
“Mhm,” she droned, “For my neighbour.”
The sky had lost its blue now, with a veil of charcoal clouds obscuring its view. A weak clip played behind my eyes under a sepia filter. Adjacent windows and nonstop doorbells. I chose my words like my life depended on it. “I was your neighbour once.”
“My neighbour,” she continued, but her lips almost weren’t moving. “Reed.”
“Reed,” I repeated, as my shoulders bumped into hers.
Our breaths mixed, sweet and bitter and I could almost taste it. “Yeah.”
Sage traced her nails over my coat and I shivered, closing my eyes. We used to play this game, etching pictures and scrawling letters. I grit my teeth and waited for the strokes to seep into my bloodstream so I could interpret them. I-t. . . g-o-n-n. . . b. . . o-k-a-y.
Okay. Would it ever be? The curse was changing and I almost snickered: In sunlight we were enemies and under grey skies we were friends. Sage squeezed my shoulder and I locked my jaw over her skull.
“I wish Clark would come,” I murmured, silently hoping she understood what I meant.
She bit her lip and I wanted her to stop. “Maybe he will.”
* * * * *
The clouds had stolen my tears. Maybe that's why they were sobbing and I was not. The suit was itchy and my tie was hanging limply as if it were a burned tongue. The procession had been too slow for me to feel at ease and I'd stayed a fashionable distance away from the hearse. A flood of black dots washed over the reception as if the sky hadn't been dark enough. Black skirts, black cuffs, black umbrellas and black eyes.
Dad was extending palms to funeral directors with pink ears that looked too happy. Mom wasn’t on his lips; I heard stocks and shareholders and assets and briefings. The things she'd hated most. Someone handed me an umbrella but I pulled away. I longed to feel the water, cold and sharp, until it numbed everything to ice.
“Matteo, you’re wet.” My father’s white lips stretched into coiled wire.
“It’s raining,” I said blankly, but he didn’t seem to hear.
His fingers curled into grappling hooks around my elbow. “I want to introduce you to—”
Glad I hadn't seen his bloated expression, I hovered away without uttering a sound. I hoped my mother would be glad I hadn't say something I'd rue late into the midnight hours surrounded by empty bottles with dolphin spouts.
I had my chance to talk to Mom — countless stolen minutes in the hospital and before she'd sunk into her coffin like a buried ship. Now mourners released wailing tears like cymbals and people I didn’t know gave hollow toasts through fake teeth. If you unwrapped my flesh, my ankles would be bruised, so I couldn't tell you how I was standing. Just as my vision started to subdue to oblivion and my knees began stammering, the rain stopped.
When I looked up, the sky was blocked by a taut dome and the downpour fell outside of a red umbrella. Delicate lips pecked my cheekbone and melted into the crook of my neck.
“Your mum used to like the rain,” a voice said and the world smelled like roses and sage.
Tomatoes ripened across the bridge of my nose when her fingers knit through mine. Surprisingly, my heart wasn’t present in the gathering; it was way up above the clouds where no one could tear it down. But I wasn't scared because Sage’s heart was beating beside mine. I laughed quietly then, because curses were ridiculous. Or maybe it was madness.
In sunlight we were enemies, under grey skies we were friends. And only when it was pouring like tomorrow could shatter, did I remember that I loved her. And as she cushioned her head on my shoulder, I knew she felt the same.
“You. . . Clark came,” I whispered, though none of us were really looking at Clark. He was probably wolfing down hors d'oeuvres or staring at Mom's headstone transfixed so that even his freckles were solemn.
“Of course I came.”
Sage plugged an AirPod into my ear and Adele sang into my cochlea. Gently, painfully, we drowned out everything. Clark could have been setting fire to the rain and I wouldn’t pay any attention. With time slowing to a waltz, all I could hope was that the rain kept cascading over my eyelashes and the blasted sun never showed its face again.