Cold, feathered fingers brush your cheek before a gust of wind cools your mind. Eyes open and its 4PM. Where’s your body? Close that window, it’s blurry outside. You want to escape. You need control over something. So you commit to building a hideaway in the city. So, you commit to living with your heart on fire.
I know. I did, too.
“Hello?” I whispered into the emptiness. Frozen, I glanced about the ramshackle shed, at the sunlight filtering through the splintered wood and at the vines threatening to strangle the solitude. It smelled like pine, but not in the way you’d imagine. Too acidic. I took a slow-motion step backward. My breathing was shallow. Nineteen minutes running and I’d be back at the new apartment with Dad and his synthetic-grapefruit-scented girlfriend.
I turned and collided right into honey-chestnut flesh. “Sorry,” I gasped, shifting back onto the floorboards.
“Get out or I’ll have to kill you.” His unconvincing sarcasm induced a wave of panic up my spine. He pushed passed me and disappeared around the shed’s corner.
“Sorry, I’m...sorry.” I felt a raindrop on my cheek. Then-
A splintering boom.
Flashes of pain. Black light.
Blinding light and strong hands shaking my shoulders.
Another raindrop on my cheek but we were inside. A voice saying wake up, wake up.
I looked up at the boy bending over me, his eyes brimming with tears, a bloody rag near my ear. The small fire in the centre of the room cast muted orange on his face. “Are you okay?” he asked, concerned. I blinked. My brain was going to explode.
“Actually, no.” He told me a rotted plank from the roof had struck my head. Outside, the sky was storming.
“Stay here. Don’t fall asleep.” One minute later he returned with a warm juice box. I frowned.
“Thanks, but I don’t like juice.” He raised his eyebrows.
“It’s for me.”
I spent tenth grade in a crumbling Toronto school, living with my divorced father, wondering if you missed me, too. July brought the honeyed dew of a newborn summer and I was hypnotized into a sleepy trance, dreaming of second chances and promising myself an adventure. Needless to say, I found one.
His name was Stephen, and at first he seemed unremarkable. He wore jeans and a white top. He always referred to his red runners as sneakers because he prided himself on his slyness.
When we were young, we splashed in puddles and braided each other’s hair and ate blackberries. Do you remember? Being lonely meant being alone and hate was the opposite of love. Well, innocence’s bliss is nothing but a cruel magician.
There were pinky-sized circles, maroon targets rimmed with faint pink peppering his hands and forearms. He was so quiet at first, I ignored my intuition crying out that he needed help. Silence does that, it swells and swallows so that I shunned my questions.
I choose to tell you only a certain amount of information about him. Too little, and you won’t care enough to listen. Too much, and you will damage the details with your cross-examination. And I’m sorry, but the impending cliff is a hanger as much as a dead-end.
“Stephen,” I murmured. He was lying face-up, gazing at the pastel yellow hues slipping in the window above his head. I was sitting beside him, feeding dry curls of wood to the crackling fire. “Today’s August 17.”
“I thought it was your sixteenth birthday.”
“Shouldn’t you be home?” The evening threw long shadows across the shed. He wore a blank expression. I shifted so that our legs were touching and thought about how carefree the past few weeks had been. Suddenly, a spider scattered near where my left hand was resting. I quickly pulled away and stood up, swaying from dizziness.
“What is it?” Stephen asked.
“Spider. Kill it.”
“No way! It has just as much a right to live as you.” Was he serious?
“I’ll kill it, Stephen. It’s not a big deal.” I grabbed a stick off the ground and lit the end. I moved the flame closer and closer to the devil spider.
“Stop!” He was nearly yelling. I didn’t care, I stuck the scorching splint into the spider’s hairy abdomen. Stephen jumped up silently and used both palms to shove me into the wall. I dropped the splint onto the dry wooden floor.
“You don’t know me,” he said weakly, eyes feigning courage. We spent a split second challenging each other’s stares until there was more fervent scarlet tinting our vision than the sunset could possibly supply. Fleeting flames leapt at our feet and ankles. If you saw us stamping them out, you’d think we were maniacs.
The overall damage was minor. We got out hastily and waited for the fumes to dissipate. Huddling on the long grass, Stephen confessed why he practically lived in that shelter all summer. The cigarette burns on his skin, scars of neglect, were his mom’s doing. I traced each as he explained, “This one’s because my brother got arrested, this one’s because my uncle lost his job.” Most, though, were just because. The morning of the 18th, he would escape that life and move permanently into the shed. He had it all planned out. I wish I could’ve predicted that our hideaway was not the hidden recluse we believed it to be. Somebody else knew.
He said I couldn’t tell the police. I said I’d visit him.
I would’ve been able to sleep if I had the patience for tomorrow. No excitement, though. There was only spine-tingling, pupil-dilating anxiety, and it was crawling up my arms. But by then, I had the route memorized: down the stairs, through the alley, under the bridge, into the woods. Down the stairs, through the alley, under th--knock knock. Him. I cursed as I fumbled with the rickety lock and threw my weight into the door, staggering blindly onto the balcony. Sweet summer air lounged over bleary city lights below, and my eyes strained against the gloom. All at once, his mouth was light as a flame on my neck, and just as bright. I tilted my head back and let him gather me. That is, I thought I was falling apart.
I know that we all want to be noticed, acknowledged, praised. But someone likes someone who likes someone more who likes someone more. Imbalance is balance. The problem is the solution. Individuals are masses. Youth, mirrors. Eternity is an immortal moment. Would-could-should. We are worthless when our polarities cannot be quieted. We are worthless when we give of ourselves and are not reciprocated.
Something was wrong. Heady thin fume-y remnants of cigarette odour clung to his shaggy hair. He didn’t smoke. “Ruby,” he gazed out at the night, distantly, “I don’t want to run. Without you.” It was all too loud. Will you follow me? Do you trust me? I shook my head.
“Wait another day.” I faced him, felt fear when I pressed my palm to his heart. He reached out and held my fingers gently. His eyes were begging forgiveness.
“Please.” Do you love me? I let my eyes shut.
This was desperate and we were damned.
We saw the smoke before the flames. We heard the sputtering whimper of fate before the shout. We tightened our grip when we couldn’t anticipate the end, but it loosened as we lost our hope. Our hideaway was on fire.
It wasn’t a secret, simply a blazing mockery of a boy’s faith.