12:05. Just after midnight. I lowered my wrist, devoting my eyes to the stars. The summer triangle was clear in the sky. It was wonderfully simple, a marker of lazy days and outdoor heat. I could also pick out Draco, the dragon. The constellation was curled up by Ursa Minor, guarding it in an uneasy sleep. With barely a warning, the steadfast dragon could come alive in my mind and eat its neighbors: Hercules, Bootes, Ursa Major, Leo, Cancer, Gemini. That would be a fitting revenge for the dragon. I could recall more, but I found my thoughts wandering.
Life. Sometimes it just gets so meticulous. Other times, so mundane. One minute, we’re plodding along in our regular, humdrum, repetitious day, going through the motions again and again until we either escape or we burst into flame. When we finally do explode, it’s a cascading reaction: every little charge that’s been planted by every little slight just adds fire to that flame. Too many of us are still waiting for our fuses to fully ignite. We just hope our hearts don’t sputter out before we make it there.
The trees were tall enough here that I could see their leaves clawing at the edges of my overhead view. They were shadowy, snake-like in the thin light. In my perpetually-tired state, I could vaguely see them moving, like the tendrils of an encroaching sea monster. My stomach mumbled an ancient chant: Feed me! Feed me! Feed me! But that wasn’t happening until morning. When my hand landed back on the roof shingles, I let my fingertips scrape at the roughness. Gen was still talking:
“And I wanted to push her away. I mean, I told her I already had a date, but she just kept pushing herself up on me – ”
I pretended to listen, letting him vent. Above, the light pollution was a nuisance. It had been growing worse in recent years, right? At least, I think so, but it feels like it all goes foggy after a while. Does it really? I don’t know. But sometimes little details seem to slip away. We were on the roof of my mother’s house, having climbed out the window after Gen had snuck over. Again, I let my fingertips scrape at the shingles. Gen was still going on and on:
“I kept trying to get away from her, but she followed me. Seriously, she followed me all the way out to the parking lot. I got to my car, pulled out my keys to unlock it, and there she was still in my face demanding I go with her. I tried to step around her, but no that didn’t happen. So, I told her again that I already had a date, but she tried to convince me that he doesn’t count–”
“Just tell her no.” I interrupted, turning my gaze to look towards him. Gen sighed audibly, his hands fidgeting over his stomach. He leaned his head back, finally letting his gaze drift upwards.
“That might work for you, my friend. But I’m not you.” Gen stated, exasperated. But my eyes were on the sky.
“She knows she’s bothering you. If you keep dodging her she’ll just keep trying.” I added.
“But I can’t just say no.”
I felt myself sigh aloud, a sudden hollowness to it all.
“Why not?” I asked.
Gen paused here. I thought about looking over at him, but I figured I knew about what I’d see. So, I kept my eyes on the stars, going over some of their names in my brain: Altair, Vega, Deneb, Eltanin. Those were probably among the easiest for me. Then there was–
“What would happen if you told your mother no?” Gen.
“Stella is not my mother. She’s a pushy brat.” I let my fingertips scrape against the shingles, my thoughts thoroughly taken back to Earth. Gen:
“You know what I meant. If we were talking about your mother up here and I tried to convince you to just tell her no next time she does something you know will – ”
“We were talking about Stella.” I interrupted him.
“Well, now we’re talking about someone else. What did Ambrose say about that job?”
I let another sigh escape.
“I don’t want to talk about this now.” Me.
“Exactly. You never want to talk about it.” Gen.
I could feel my blood beginning to boil. Was that a challenge? I tensed up my fingers, hitting the roughness of the shingles a bit too hard. Conveniently, I chose this moment to shift my shoulders for a few seconds, repositioning to crack my back and stretch out my neck. I let my head fall back into place, rolling it like an old pendulum. The bumps in the back of my skull battered the shingles, losing considerable ground. But I could feel a rant coming on.
“I start tomorrow morning on Yamada’s team.” I told him, feeling another sigh escape. I guess we were talking about this now. I was holding off that rant, but maybe a few too many sighs were ready to break out. I was doing that a lot tonight, wasn’t I? Gen was pressing me for details:
“Yamada? As in Frank Yamada? That dude’s no pushover. You’ll be running around ladders and reading numbers ‘til your eyes want to roll out. You sure it’s him?”
“Yeah. I requested his team.” I stated, my tone neutral.
“Wait, what?” Gen sat up to face me, his dark hair almost comically uneven. “Why would you do that to yourself?”
“Less people I have to deal with.” That was easy. “It’s not that I dislike people, it’s just that sometimes . . .” That was not. I let my voice trail off here, not wanting to put that sentiment into words. I hesitated instead, letting that thought hang out there unfinished. In the meantime, I swallowed down some saliva past the dryness of my throat. My one hand was at my side, the other scratching absent-mindedly around my stomach. The night seemed oddly quiet.
“Sometimes what?” Gen asked.
I sighed again, wondering how the mythical Atlas must feel. Had I sighed enough to know yet? I could sense Gen’s eyes staring at me, inquisitive and probing. I knew without looking that he was still sitting up, his gaze locked on me like a missile heading for its target. When I chanced a glance, my eyes confirmed it: my friend’s gaze was staring into me like he could probe out the recesses of my deepest, darkest fears. I knew my friend, but that realization still sent a shiver down my spine – it must not be a gaze I was willing to meet tonight. Instead, I sent my eyes back to the sky.
The air felt uneasy, our conversation on shaky ground. I could feel the roof under me, the rough tiles clawing my body down in dogged reality. Did I want to voice this thought aloud? Could I not? For a moment longer, we hung in limbo. Then I gathered up my puny courage.
“Sometimes people are jerks. I just get tired of dealing with it.” There, I said it. The thought was finally out there in the air. My blood was simmering, my temperature slowly sliding down. But I knew my friend.
“Like your mother?”
“Don’t call her that!” I caught my voice rising, so I cut myself off. But my blood was boiling again, my temperature exploding. My fuse was standing on end, like an electrified strand of hair lifting towards the light. Maybe it was preparing itself to become some kindling. The flame was growing closer, stronger. But I could feel my hands swooping in to shield my little corner of the world. Oh well if they got burned.
I wasn’t ready to explode yet.
“Why not?” He asked. I knew I scraped my fingers too hard on the shingles, but I didn’t care. I turned my head to face my friend. There was a serene, almost innocent look to his eyes. The bags beneath them were accents, like eye shadow underneath his brown surface voids. When he didn’t blink, I could imagine his brown irises just growing bigger and bigger. Soon they’d consume the white part. Then the eyelids. Eventually, I could see them taking over the top of his face. Next his lips, mouth, throat, and skull. The image was beyond unsettling. When I blinked (twice), I turned my head away. I knew it was just my imagination, my tired brain trying to scare me off to sleep. In fact, sometimes I think my imagination does that on occasion because my brain gets bored. But that image was still uncanny.
I took a deep breath, trying to force myself to calm down. This could become a night filled with existential angst. Or it could stay too strangled by reality. Sometimes these nights were more enlightening or uplifting than others. But I wasn’t really sure how to answer him. Slowly, I did take in a few more deep breaths, reminding myself not to let her bother me. I could not let her control my reality. Otherwise I would be forever living in her world. I’m not sure I’d survive that.
“I love my parents, and they love me. I have plenty of memories, and I will continue to make new ones.” I was talking a bit too loud, so I brought my voice down to a more controlled level, pausing for breath before I continued:
“I just don’t want to make so many of the bad ones.” My eyes met with Gen. It was my world-weary gaze staring into his intense but almost naïve curiosity. Well, maybe that last thought really did sound a bit naïve. Not so many of the bad ones? It summed up my views perfectly, albeit simply. I guess that really was the best way I knew to say it. Gen added a thought:
“She’s still a jerk.” He was smiling at me, lilting his lips like he wanted to sing it. By now, his fingers were locked behind his head. He sank back to lay next to me, choosing to peer at me over his elbow. That grin was still across his face – childish, but almost calming and oddly endearing. I opened my mouth:
“Do you have to call her that?” My blood was no longer boiling. Had someone turned the heat off? I didn’t have the willpower to answer that one – my eyelids were growing heavy. I blinked. Gen:
“Yep.” I could just imagine him texting me that with a flavorful smiley emote. Maybe he could cheer me up tomorrow. I blinked again, my tiredness growing stronger. My head was growing heavy, my extremities oddly distant from my exhausted mind. I gave another forceful blink against the incoming tide, but it was of little use – I could feel the waves of my body’s inevitable slumber coming for me. This day was just another speck of sand, ready to be washed away. In the meantime, I felt a distinct desire to change the subject.
“Are you doing anything for your birthday?” Gen asked eagerly, changing the subject for me.
“Nope.” I gave him an easy answer.
“Why not?” He asked.
“Don’t feel like it.”
“But you’ll be an adult.”
“I don’t feel like one.” I explained succinctly. Gen paused for a moment, a loose smile still lifting the corners of his lips. I could feel my lips trying to mimic him, but I consciously held them back. That just didn’t feel right tonight.
“Yeah. I don’t think I will either.” He added. We both let that thought linger in the air a moment, our eyes on the stars. Loosely, I let my gaze trace a random line beyond Ursa Major, like I was making my own constellation. Now, this time, it was my opportunity to change the subject.
“Have you been practicing?” I asked, letting a smile lift up my lips. A gentle breeze blew across us, bringing along that pesky summer pollen stench. I wiggled my jaw and swallowed, convincing my ears to drain. It itched when the fluid moved (a sensation Gen had either never felt or never noticed), but my congestion would hopefully ease up a bit. Gen was giving me a confused look.
“Practicing what?” He asked.
“Your dance moves.”
“Oh, uh . . . about that . . .” He had a goofy grin across his face, mixed ambiguously with sheepishness. I watched as he lifted up his right arm – there was a golfball-sized bruise near his wrist and a twin by his elbow.
“I earned this yesterday.” He explained proudly. I knew he had great control and footwork; it was just his surroundings that he often missed. My friend here was known to take a running start and scale a fence, or suddenly vault a rail and maybe backflip if he felt like it. Bodily control was not the problem. And he had rhythm – I had seen him pick up some drumsticks and instantly hold a beat. Keeping aware of what was around him was still an issue, however.
“What was it this time? A lamp?” I asked, my voice accidentally falling a bit dreary. Gen understood.
“Nope.” A quick answer with another goofy grin.
“Okay.” I hesitated, letting my vowel trail off.
“Guess.” I knew my friend – he was about to get incessant and insist on playing around. I wouldn’t get an answer out of him if I didn’t just give in to his antics. Was that verbal war worth fighting? Nope. So, this time, I did guess:
Gen gave me his depressed puppy look, like this sudden revelation was about to get a kitten killed. His eyes were big and sad, leaning in. Slowly, his lower lip protruded out like he wanted me to hang something on it. I knew he was emphasizing the look, exaggerating it for our benefit. It was hard not to let a laugh escape. Maybe a smile did.
“Tell me.” I said. It was my turn to insist. I made eye contact with him and did my best to hold his gaze. This was difficult, I’ll admit, especially when his gaze deepened. I felt my stomach try to jiggle (I was still holding back laughter, after all), but I consciously held it still. His look was beyond over-exaggerated, and Gen was the king of awkward humor. Finally, I gave in.
A laugh escaped me, ringing out into the night like an obnoxious hyena cackle. I heard Gen echoing me, his body collapsing back on the shingles. Had he been holding it in too? Yeah, probably. But I could feel the tension from earlier just melting off of me, like green tea ice cream on a hot summer day. But laughter was more contagious than sticky. So maybe the tension was jumping off like in a slapstick scene of an old cartoon.
“A windowsill.” Gen stuttered a bit through his laugh. “It was a windowsill.”
“Twice.” He added, holding up an innocuous peace sign. I could just imagine him clearing the furniture and dancing in his living room (yes, he would clear the furniture). Did he forget about the wall? At least those two small bruises seemed to be all. It could easily have been worse. When we were kids he took so many tumbles he always woke up with mystery bruises. So, at least he knew where these two were from. And we could laugh at it.
But my laughter was beginning to die out. I think Gen’s was too. I blinked again and my eyelids were so heavy they almost didn’t reopen. The night sky was beginning to blur together, the branches fading. I blinked again.
“I’m getting too tired.” I stated to the world. Which one was that really? Sleep deprived or world weary? I sent my eyes to my friend.
“Yeah, me too.” He echoed. Sleep-deprived, apparently? He blinked at me, the purple lines seeming to deepen beneath his eyes. As I looked towards him the world below us seemed to slide, like little raindrops were skimming along it. The roof shingles no longer seemed solid, their coarse, uneven surface almost morphing before my eyes. I caught myself staring at it, like the time I thought water droplets were sliding up the wall. Sleep-deprived. Definitely.
My eyelids were too heavy to continue. Gen understood, so we said our goodnights. I watched in mild astonishment as he leaped off the roof. As always, I shifted down towards the edge so I could watch his landing: breakfall in a safe forward roll on a patch of grass. He took a running start to jump the fence. I knew he was going to make it, but I kept my eyes locked anyways. His right foot tapped the body of the fence, his hands gripping the horizontal plank along the top. He pushed with his feet and, in apparent ease, maintained his grip to lift himself up. In moments, he was over, safely on his family’s side. I still let out a sigh of relief.
A loose breeze began to pick up, bringing an odd sway to the air. Suddenly, I felt exposed up here, like the last untouched target at an archery range. I took in a deep breath and steadied my grip; the shingles were like coarse sandpaper scrapping beneath my skin. I was still crouched at the edge. So, I kept my feet grounded, shifting back towards the window. My practiced footsteps carried me up there, but I consciously made sure to maintain at least three points of contact. I was unsure how well that would really serve me up here. But I did it anyways. Lily and Gen, at least, would cry for me if I fell. I took in a conscious breath.
Suddenly, my pulse was in my throat. The world was going wobbly (and this time it wasn’t the sleep deprivation). I had to inch my footsteps forward, like a little kid who thinks the storm drain goes to the edge of the world. But I wasn’t staring at a metal grate. I was on a rooftop, barely forcing my feet forward. Another step and I would be there. But I was struggling to shift my feet. When I sent my eyes up, the stars were bending, curving in a circular tilt. But I had to keep trying. I strained and reached my arm out.
My left hand gripped the window frame. I let out a relieved sigh, my body finally relaxing. Why did that happen? The sudden fear, exposure, aloneness. Was it that Gen was gone? I knew he was safe. My best guess was it was the feeling of being exposed that really did it, just like the feeling of being watched. And, although I felt myself relaxing, I was still stuck with an edged light-headedness. Like my heart was having trouble beating at a more regular speed. I could still taste my pulse, but my throat had grown dry and raw. My eyes were still refocusing, staring at a mostly-stable window frame. I blinked at it, feeling the solidness of the roof beneath my feet.
I hated when the world went wobbly like that. It made me feel like a terrified human blob. Helpless, yet bumbling for coherency. But at least the feeling was subsiding.
My desk was waiting for me across the windowsill, like a welcome mat for my bedroom. I had a cluttered mess on top of it: old papers, pens, a stylus, some books, an old audio recorder, and a certain stack of paperwork I was intent on ignoring. In the center was a distinct foot-sized gap where I could see the exposed wood. It was worn down, the stain fading away and the wood visibly scratched. But it served its purpose well. Beyond my desk was just the darkness of my room. I knew my bed was to my right, the door open to the bathroom on my left, and a locked door roughly center left on the opposite wall. I could jump to my bed if I wanted to, but that thought was for a different day.
I brought my right foot up to rest it on the windowsill. The tip of my shoe knocked against the broken screen – I had shoved it behind my desk months ago. I reached inside with my free hand, turning on my desk lamp. My left foot came in to land in the convenient gap. Carefully, I began to shift my weight.
There was blood on the window frame. I don’t know what made me look there, but the red was clear in the lamp light. It was jarringly bright against the peeling white. My eyes lingered for a moment, staring. That wasn’t a lot of blood, so nothing was gushing. But it still took a while to tear my eyes away. When I finally did, I stepped fully into my room (via my desk chair) and shut the window. Next, I quietly but dutifully went to the bathroom to wash my fingertips. I didn’t even clean up the blood.
That night, I dreamed I was floating beneath the ocean. At first, I was aware I wasn’t breathing. But it didn’t matter. I could just be, in a world that could just let me be. Time was irrelevant; space, even, was irrelevant. Nothing came to disturb me – no sea life, no currents, no motion. It was just me and the water. My eyes were open.
I couldn’t feel the weight of the expanse above me. Even my own form was wonderfully light. The water just washed it all away. The problems of the waking world were gone, running amok for somebody else. Here, it was just me. There was no one else to be accountable to, no reality to have to face. No time to be bound to the passage of. I let the water wash over me, the problems of the world fully cleansed from my skin, like dirt dissipating in the bath. The water was too vast for that filth to stick around.
A smile slipped across my face, a sudden bliss to it all. I was free. Slowly, I found my attention turned to the tips of my toes. There was still some tension there, the tips tingling like bouncy stardust. Consciously, I let them sleep, like they were bubbles drifting off into the water. Each iota took it’s turn, unstressing and floating away. I felt every one of those little bubbles break off and dissipate, like watching a carbonated drink fizz in slow motion.
Next was the bottoms of my feet. I imagined a gentle, lavender, octopus-like sea creature massaging out all of their stress. It was so relaxing, to let someone else do the work. My back already felt like it was floating away, as if it were greeting the clouds. I was growing lighter, enjoying my peace here. When the sea creature hit a knot, they worked it out for me. Their appendages felt like mushy silk, but with force. Like a foam-covered animatronic, but softer and more life-like. I was safe entrusting my feet to them.