Thanks to dreaminginnorweigen who read my very first draft and gave me the confidence to keep going with this. Also, my thanks to Hadley Hemingway for waving her magic beta-wand over this. I appreciate your assistance, lovely ladies.
This one's for Believey. She's the very best friend a girl can have.
A Tiny Little Gift to Me.
Soft hair and a velvet tongue/ I want to give you what you give to me/ And every breath that is in your lungs / Is a tiny little gift to me.
The puzzle pieces were already in place. I just didn't know what I was seeing.
A Jack White-inspired ficlet for my friend, BelieveItOrNot.
An hour before sunset. For just a few minutes, this part of town is beautiful. Orange light falls across the crumbling concrete castles. Grime turns to glitz. The sun drags its burning hand across the streetscape, its fingertips catch on the quartz crystals embedded in the pavement. Sparks fly.
The cement is cool under my legs, none of the day's warmth stored there. I close my eyes, tip my face toward the sky.
When I open my eyes, the sun has been pulled behind that new building up on Station Street where it seduces the nicer side of town with her fresh paint and her shiny windows.
Shadows lengthen across drab grey and, like the woman who for a moment felt beautiful in her cheating lover's arms, the industrial complex feels sullied. Dirty.
Concrete stained with graffiti, wads of blackened chewing gum, birdshit. Grimy windows. The ones that aren't broken or boarded over with sheets of ply.
My skin crawls. The filth is contagious.
A flight of sparrows touches down on the other side of the street. Their heads turn this way and that—it feels like they're keeping me in their sights. Two hop off the curb to peck at something in the street.
I stand up slowly. My knees crack and my spine pops as I stretch. I spit my gum out, another scar on the pavement.
Leaves, scattered like shreds of brown paper, have collected in the gutter. I step off the sidewalk, crunch through them. I like the feeling of them crumbling under my feet.
I dig my phone from my pocket and send you a text: What you doing?
I kick at the piles of dry leaves, waiting for you to reply. A pebble, hidden under the leaf matter, bounces across the street. The sparrows startle, rising into the air with their tik-tik noise.
Why haven't you answered yet? That phone's been fixed in your palm since the day you got it.
The next hidden pebble gets stuck under the sole of my boot and I almost trip; the pavement looms toward me until I steady myself. There's a white scratch left behind on the concrete.
I drop to my knees and pick up the rock, make a few experimental swipes across the ground.
I start to write. Rock on rock, I feel the vibrations climb into my shoulder, just under the blade, buzzing there as I scratch my heart out on the filthy ground.
waiting in your silence
who gets to hear you
waiting in your shadow
who gets to see you
glowing like you do
in a pile on the floor
hair like a haystack
and black-streaked cheeks
when you're ruined
"Stupid." I stand up and try to wipe the words away with my boot, this heart-on-my-sleeve outburst. I've scuffed out the first two lines when I realize it doesn't matter. Who's going to read it?
From you, there's only silence.
I pull a hand through my hair and start walking again. My fingers come away tacky. Wiping my hand on my sweater, I tell myself I'll wash it tonight.
Green starts to sprout up as I walk on. At first it's just weeds and shit in the seam between two slabs of concrete. A few blades of grass in the middle of a cracked driveway. Then a little white flower, staring down at the dirt.
A small pot of yellow daisies on someone's ricketty balcony. A bent and leafless tree that looks like one more gust of wind will pull its roots from the ground.
Life creeps in through the city's cracks. Little by little, until I'm walking up a street with neatly mown lawns and manicured hedges. Rose-less bushes that are disciplined more strictly than the children who race across the grass and through open front doors, their high-pitched voices singing farewells across the street like little birds calling out from their nests.
And I'm home. Apparently.
It's never felt like a resting place, though. More like base camp. A place to eat and sleep between the adventures I always wanted to have but never quite got around to beginning.
I stop in front of a ornate-looking letterbox, all wrought iron and curlicues. The only thing that's ever delivered into it are flyers from the local pizza place and the occasional bill my mom hasn't got around to switching to online payments. The days where you'd leave me notes scrawled in pink glitter pen are long gone.
I lie down on the verge, wriggle around until I'm half-hidden by the hedge that serves as a fence. Mom pays some guy way too much to trim it so the neighbors can't criticize her for letting the place go.
On my back, with the grass itching that gap between my jeans and my sweater, I stare at the sky. The sun's sinking low now, night creeping in.
Where are you?
A star or two peep out overhead. We don't see many of them out here. Don't need them. Not with the thousands of dollars of twinkling lights that line the roofs and windows and fences of every house in a neighborly game of "We've got more Christmas Spirit than You."
They're enough, though, those scattered stars, too stubborn to be outshone by a galaxy of LEDs. Enough to remind me of how big the universe is and how insignificant we are inside it.
They're enough, too, to make me wonder if you're staring at the sky, wherever you are, whoever you're with. Or maybe there's electric light shining over you.
Maybe your eyes are squeezed closed and all your existence is focused, not on the vastness of the Milky Way, but on the feel of someone else's lips on yours.
My stomach flips. Feels like it could fall right out of me. If I got up and walked away right now, it'd stay behind on the grass, spasming.
Craning my neck, I look at the house a few doors down. Your house since we were nine. Before that, grumpy old Mr. Stonefield lived there. I used to move his collection of gnomes around after dark, hoping to scare him, make him think they came alive by night. I don't think he ever noticed.
Your house is all lit up, and I can just make out your mom's silhouette in the kitchen window. She's probably got dinner on the stove and the twins perched at the kitchen table, reading to each other.
Are you in there, too?
I could go over. Knock.
Your mom'd probably tell me to take a hike. She'd be more subtle than that, of course.
Your parents think I'm a "bad influence" on you. They see the greasy hair and the unwashed clothes, the eyeliner and the chipped black nailpolish, and they press their lips together and shake their heads. They sigh, like they wish they could expel me from their lives, and yours, as easily. Just blow me out of their lungs like a spent breath and have me dissipate into the atmosphere. When they think I can't hear, they mutter about "that poor woman" being left to raise "that little hellion," "that queer kid," all on her own.
They remind you that my priorities are different from yours, tell you I'll become a distraction if you're not careful.
"Bella," they say, "we just want what's best for you. We're not so sure Edward has the same concerns."
"You two are almost finished school now." Your mom. "You've had your fun. Time to get serious."
"That kid just needs some discipline." Your dad. "A stint in the Army'd sort him out. Teach him some responsibility and respect."
And sure, maybe they have reason to feel that way. Because maybe it was from my outstretched hands that you took your first beer, your first shot… your first cigarette. And yeah, maybe I rolled your first joint and slipped you your first pill. I may also have had a hand in your first orgasm. But I've never given you anything you didn't ask for first.
All the trouble we've gotten into over the years… maybe it is my fault. But not because I instigated it. Because I can't say "no" to you.
I sat on the edge of the bathtub, watching you dust your eyelids with a shimmery silver powder.
"Where does your mom think you are?"
You lifted one shoulder. Your attention was on your own reflection. "Studying with Alice."
"Nice. You haven't used that one for a while."
You smirked at that. "Alice's mom has a new boyfriend. He's about fifteen years younger than she is. She's happy to cover for us."
Of course. Mutual back-scratching: you keep my secret and I'll keep yours.
Another half-shrug. You didn't elaborate as you set down the eyeshadow and picked up a black pencil.
I watched you outline your eyes in black. It looked good. Made them look wider or something. Made them stand out in your face.
"I like that stuff," I said. "Makes your eyes look pretty."
You turned toward me, and I could see mischief sparking in those black-lined eyes. "You think?"
I nodded, wary as you stepped toward me, the pencil aimed in my direction.
"Can I do yours?"
You waved the pencil like a magic wand. "Can I do your eyes? It'll look great, I promise."
You weren't really asking. You straddled my legs, perched on my lap, and put your finger on my cheek. "Don't blink."
Ten minutes later, we were standing on the front porch, you bouncing on your toes as I locked the door.
"So," I shoved my key under the doormat, "where are we going?"
The bulb overhead flickered a few times, made it look like the light was bouncing off your shoulders as you shrugged. "Who cares? It's better than being stuck at home reading to two snot-faced four year olds."
There was affection in your voice as you spoke about your sisters, and I knew it wasn't them you were escaping. You loved them. But you wanted to escape that strange role your mom had jammed on you like a badly fitting sweater. From the day she brought them home you'd been part sister, part mother. An unpaid and unthanked babysitter, guilted into caring for two little girls ten years your junior.
"You spent all those years begging me for a sister, Isabella," your mom would say. "Now you've got two, and you can't watch them for an hour while I get my hair done?"
"What kind of example are you setting for your sisters, Isabella?"
"Isabella, pay the girls some attention. They'll end up costing me a fortune in therapy bills on account of you."
It made me squirm in my chair when I heard her say things like that. I would put the tip of my tongue between my teeth and press down, the sting to remind me that I'd just make things worse if I said what I wanted to. I could've pointed out, for example, that you'd also been asking for your own cell phone for the last three years—she didn't grant that request. You were too young for a cell phone, but not to be left in charge of two little kids.
"Okay." I stepped off the porch, fumbling with the zip on my sweater. "Let's go."
There were only about a dozen people at Riley's, gathered in the basement. Three or four of the guys were squashed together on the mold-stained couch playing the latest version of Grand Theft Auto. Everyone else was sprawled out on beanbags, stoned or on their way there.
I took off my sweater and zipped you into it, pulled the hood over your head.
"I'm not cold," you said. You giggled as I tucked your hair behind your ear.
I shook my head. "I do my own laundry."
"Ohh… Well, thanks."
If that had been the extent of our friendship, then, yeah. Maybe your parents would have a point. Their fingers would be pointing the wrong direction, but it would be fair to say we weren't any good for each other.
But we've always been more than that. More than just "partners in crime."
From the first time we walked home from school together, wearing the same shoes and discovering we were reading the same book, we've been connected on some other level.
We had fun with the rest of our friends, mucking around, talking shit, laughing. Experimenting. They had our backs and we had theirs. A boisterous group of girls and guys who didn't give a shit about labels—on clothes, CDs, or people. Misfits all of us, the "leftovers" who'd rejected, and been rejected by, cliquism. We were happier for it.
But with you… There's always been something more. Some kinship, something felt but unnamed. An understanding that who we were yesterday might not be who we wanted to be tomorrow. We gave each other the space to be whoever we needed to be. And taking, giving, that space? Somehow it brought us closer.
We were sprawled on your bed and the new blonde streaks your mom insisted you try "for the summer" were bright against the purple comforter. You smile told me I was in trouble. "Tell me a secret," you said.
"You know them all." Anything I ever needed to hide from my mother, my friends—you were probably by my side when I did it or said it.
You pouted, lips shiny with the gloss you picked out that afternoon when we filled my prescription. It was red and sticky-looking, smelled like cherries. Tasted gross.
"Aw, come on. There must be something I don't know about you."
I rolled onto my back, looked up at your ceiling. Johnny Depp no longer smoldered above me. He'd fallen down about six months earlier, leaving three pieces of Blu-tak behind.
Maybe you didn't know everything about me, but you knew all the important things.
"I write really bad poetry."
"I know. I've read most of it."
My hands made fists as I turned my head back to you. "You what?"
You shrugged. Didn't even look guilty. "The Moleskine in your desk drawer."
I looked for the anger I should have felt at your invasion. It must've been running late. It'd probably show up, huffing and red-faced, the perfect words ready, an hour after I went home.
"It's not so bad," you said. "But you've gotta have a better secret than that."
I pushed the hair off my forehead. "Why don't you just ask me? If there's something you really want to know."
You were quiet, too quiet.
"My mom says… I mean, it doesn't make any difference to me, either way… But my parents, they think you're gay."
Your gaze met mine and I could see nothing different in the way you looked at me. It wasn't the first time I'd been asked that—or accused of it—but I could see that no matter how I answered, I'd still just be Edward to you.
"I–I don't think so," I said.
"Is that a no?"
Was it? I'd only had sex with girls—well, a girl. Only a few months previously, during the summer break before junior year. We had fun, but then Tanya went back to the small seaside town she came from and I never heard from her again.
But before I met Tanya, I'd had a… crush, I suppose, on Pete Stevenson. It lasted a few months. He was kind of pretty and he had these ridiculously long eyelashes and those blue eyes and I liked the way he looked at me. And he was a guy. So I couldn't say I wasn't gay.
You said nothing, waited for me to explain.
"I– Do I have to be one or the other?"
"N–no." I sucked on my bottom lip for a moment. "Maybe. I've liked girls and guys… but I don't really…"
There was a painting I hadn't seen before tacked to the board over your desk. Pink feathers, huge round eyes, green claws. An owl. The painting was childlike, but the writing in the corner wasn't. Probably something one of the twins had done at school.
"Edward?" Your voice wobbled.
I wondered if you'd understand. "Can't I just be interested in a person. Not a whole–" I waved a hand "–group of them? I usually like one person at a time, you know?"
You considered that, twirling a piece of hair around your index finger. "Yeah," you said. "That makes sense."
You sat up, took my hand in yours, and began tracing patterns across my palm. It tickled, and it took effort not to curl my fist, to still your fingers.
"Maybe," you said, the tip of your finger moving across one of the lines cut into my palm, "it's really not that complicated. Maybe you just love who you love."
I closed my fingers. Not because my palm was too sensitive—because my heart was. You'd been my best friend for eight years and right then I knew you would be for the rest of my life. You understood the things I couldn't even put into words. You got me.
I've turned that memory over in my mind countless times. If it were a photograph, it would've long since faded, the oil of my fingertips degrading it as I tried to commit every detail to memory.
Lying here, watching a few wisps of smoke from the neighbor's chimney curl over the street, with the colored lights of Christmas blinking in my peripheral vision and the heavy smells of burning wood and roasting meat in my nose, and with your silence ringing in my ears, it's like I'm breathing in understanding with the winter air. It's something I think I've always known, but it feels brand new and exhilarating, too.
Maybe you just love who you love, you said.
Maybe I just love you.
P.S. BelieveItOrNot and I (daisyandphoebe) are currently writing Heart's Desire (Ceanothus gloriosus). It's in my favourites if you want to join us there.