What's On Your Mind

I see him there all the time—sitting alone on the park bench, watching the sky, the trees… anything but the people. If his gaze does happen to fall on us, it's unwillingly: his eyes take on that cast of coldness, as though recalling something unpleasant. It is, I speculate, not quite an arrogant gaze— just a disinterested one. I wonder why he comes if it isn't to people-watch, and occasionally I think of asking him—but I'm only twelve; he's got to be over sixteen and he's beautiful, with incredibly bright amethyst eyes and long, gorgeous hair which should make him look feminine but doesn't, and whenever I convince myself that I'm about to approach him my courage fails me at the last moment.

But I watch. I swing on the swings and play soccer with my friends and occasionally indulge in some 'girl talk' with those of the feminine persuasion, but throughout it all I watch. I learn that he comes in every day, usually in the evenings, except for Sunday; I learn that he dislikes squirrels but has a fondness for birds; I learn that he refuses to drink water from the public fountains, and will instead bring his own drink; I learn that he knows he's being watched, for every now and then he'll return my regard with a slightly amused look of his own—but since he doesn't protest, neither do I stop. It's not an obsession—I'm not stalking the poor guy—but it is a habit that I find myself reluctant to break. I'm… curious, more so as time passes rather than less. Why does he visit the park so often? Why alone? Does his seeming dislike of humanity extend to his family? Does he have family?

I'm thirteen, and I still can't bring myself to ask.

"What are you doing?" my best friend, Risa, finally asks me one day after catching me throwing a glance at the silent figure for the umpteenth time.

"I'm just…" I shrug, my face flushing a little at the foolishness of it all. "Looking."

She snorts, sends me a knowing glance, and tells me, "Good luck with that," with a voice that clearly says You're waaay out of your league here. And even as I open my mouth to protest the implication (It's not like that—not at all!) she's already moved on to the next subject. That's the beauty of best-friendage, though, and by the time the day is over we've both forgotten all about it—mostly.

When I'm fourteen, I have a dream. The blonde boy is in it, but he's not a boy: he's a dragon, and he has a hoard filled with treasures—ropes of pearls and emeralds, and huge chests full of gold and silver. But he sits at the mouth of his cave and looks out at the sky, smiling at the birds above and scowling at the occasional squirrel.

"Why do you watch him?" asks Risa. I almost don't hear her, because it's one of those times when he's watching me back—but this time he doesn't seem amused, but rather annoyed—with that cold look in his eyes that I've seen so often directed at others, but never towards me. It hurts a lot more than it should—and I hate it.

I scowl and look away. "I don't know," I mutter. "It's stupid." And the words are true enough that I don't direct my gaze toward the park bench for the rest of the day, not even once. When I do finally spare it a glance, right before I leave, it's empty—and the realization that I didn't notice when he left (I always watch; I always notice) leaves a curiously hollow, sort of lonely feeling in the pit of my stomach. But it's freeing, too.

When I'm fifteen, I don't visit the park much. I have better things to do, like hang out with my friends and baby-sit for my neighbor and try to work up the courage to ask my crush, Jacob Atherton, to Homecoming. Even when I do visit, the dragon-boy is rarely there—it seems that he's found better things to do with his time as well. It's about time, I think cynically, rather put-out about the whole thing but not about to admit it.

One cold Saturday in autumn I wake up early, before the rest of the household for once, and step outside with a warm coat tucked securely around me. The sun is out, but it hasn't had time to warm things up yet, and my breath frosts the air with a thick cloud of white every time I exhale. I stroll down the street with my hands safe and warm within my coat pockets, enjoying the quiet, but when I reach the park I stop, surprised, though I shouldn't be; somehow I expected him to be there, sitting on his park bench—but it's empty, the seat covered with a thin sheen of fern-patterned frost.

I cautiously move forward and frown at it, but when nothing of great import immediately springs out at me—it's just a bench—I sigh and sit down, leaning back against the backrest. For once I am content to be still and allow the world to unfold around me without my interference. Birds chirp, stubbornly cheerful despite the early hour, and squirrels bustle about excitedly, determined to gather as much as they possibly can before true winter sets in.

When the first humans arrive, it's unexpectedly jarring—and I find myself frowning slightly at the mother-and-child duo unconsciously. Of course, as soon as the expression is noticed I erase it, but it makes me thoughtful. Is that how he sees us? I wonder, thinking of the bench's usual occupant. As intruders? … But intruders on what?

When I'm sixteen, Atherton takes me to Homecoming. I learn that he hates garlic and the color blue. I learn that he loves crime shows and wants to be a cop when he grows up. I learn that he talks a lot, is rather self-absorbed, and is not nearly as interesting or mysterious as he seemed before. At the end of the night I smile, tell him I had fun (which isn't entirely untrue), and reenter my house knowing that if he asks me out again, I'll politely turn him down.

The next day I visit the park, for some inexplicable reason hoping that my dragon-boy will be there (would he, too, lose his allure if I ever actually spoke to him? I wonder), but he isn't—hasn't been for months, so it doesn't really make sense for me to be disappointed. But I am, all the same.

When I'm seventeen, dragon-boy starts showing up at the park again. He's never there for as long as he used to be (understandable; he's an adult now, and must have other commitments on his time), but he comes often, and I find myself responding by drifting by more frequently also—age has given me more perspective, though, and my curiosity is almost at the breaking point.

"You should talk to him," says Risa softly one day as we lay on our backs in the grass. I'm cloud-watching, completely zoned out, and for a moment I have no idea who or what she is talking about.

"Hmm? Who?"

"Park-bench guy," she explains with an air of longsuffering, as though it is terribly silly of me not to be able to follow her wild and illogical leaps in thought.

I snort. "Right. What would I say?"

"Well…" she considers. "You could say, 'Hi, park-bench guy, I've been drooling over you since I was twelve, so could you take pity on a poor, obsessed stalker and give me your number?'"

"Risa!" I protest in a scandalized voice, but she just laughs, and after awhile I give in and laugh along, knowing that she doesn't really mean anything by it.

It's another cold fall morning; earlier, this time, and I'm determined to catch the sunrise. I venture out into the predawn dark, almost tip-toeing down the silent street, with each breath and scuff of a foot sounding absurdly loud in the silence. When I finally reach the park I go past the playground and basketball court, straight to his bench (I can't think of it any other way after all this time), and curl up there, tucking my knees up against my chest for warmth.

I watch the eastern skyline grow brighter, soft pinks and pale blues pushing against the richer azure of the nighttime sky, but I never do get to see the sunrise; by that time, I've fallen fast asleep.

I dream that the golden dragon with amethyst eyes is at the mouth of his cave again, but this time he's not looking out; he looks in at a cave which is empty, devoid of all its former riches, and the sadness in those amethyst eyes is aching—more than mere material riches can account for.

When I wake up, dragon-boy is standing over me, looking down curiously. I blink.

"What's missing?" I mumble in question, my voice still slurred and unclear from sleepiness.

"Excuse me?" he asks, tilting his head sideways to furrow his brow at me. His voice suits him—low, pleasant-sounding, though sort of detached—but it manages to wake me up the rest of the way, and I flush with embarrassment, hastily scrambling to my feet.

"Oh!" I say. "Oh, uh, nothing. Sorry." I smile at him because if I don't then I'm afraid that I might frown and leave him with the wrong impression, and then I turn to walk away. There's an odd feeling of surrender to it. It makes me pause, disliking, suddenly, the thought of retreat.

I glance back over my shoulder.

He's standing right where I left him, watching me with that slightly bemused expression he sometimes gets. Morning mist skitters around his feet, and the first beams of early light glisten golden in his hair.

Risa would kill me if I stopped now. The thought is oddly encouraging, and I ask quietly, still not turning to face him fully, "What's your name?"

He tilts his head slightly to the side, reminding me of the birds he is so fond of. "Selendrile."

My heart leaps, but my voice is steady and even. "I'm Alys. Nice to meet you." And then I shuffle away as quickly as I can while still maintaining some semblance of dignity, hoping that he hasn't noticed the ridiculous grin that refuses to stay off of my face.

The next afternoon, as I enter the park with Risa, I catch Selendrile's eye and he waves a casual greeting to me. Slightly stunned—honestly, I hadn't expected anything to change, especially since I've never seen him acknowledge anyone without being directly addressed first—I wave hesitantly back and make to continue walking, but Risa's suddenly vise-like grip on my arm stops me.

"What. Was. That?" she demands, her brown eyes huge and tennis ball-like. "Did park-bench guy just wave at you? Seriously?"

"His name's Selendrile," I correct her absently. "And yes. He did."

Her incoherent sputtering is music to my ears.

AN: Thought I might as well throw you all a bone after leaving you update-less for so long on either Nothing Left or Dragon's Blood. I've had this sitting on my computer for awhile - I didn't actually write it with the intent to post - but I've decided that even if I don't continue it I sort of like it as-is.
The title is taken from the song Paperweight, by Joshua Radin and Schuyler Fisk.

Thanks for reading, and don't forget to review!

~Killer Zebra