A Fairy’s Tale

If I tell you a story, will you go to sleep after? No more snacks or trips to the bathroom. You have to promise. Crossed fingers don’t count, it’s a promise anyway. You can’t fool me.

Okay, listen. Sorry, yes. Once upon a time, in a land far far away, up in the mountains lived a fairy. She wasn’t the kind of fairy that sits around on mushrooms or swoops in to sew for a god-daughter. She’d always been a fairy. You could tell by the wings that rose like stiff lace from her shoulders, and the fact that she was four inches tall. Most fairies lived in forests, not up mountains, and that was exactly the problem for this fairy.

Hush, darling, I’m getting to the important part. Don’t you know that in order to learn the heart of a story, you need patience? You must be able to hear your own breaths if you ever want to find the pulse of a tale. Listen.

And the fairy was very lonely, for she had no friends. She had lived with her mother and father on the mountain, but they had gone and she had lived for a long time by herself. She was still almost a child, because fairies live so very much longer than we do, but for us her lonely childhood would have seemed a very long time. The mountain was cold for a little fairy by herself, and when it snowed she huddled in a crevice between her favorite stones and imagined that the flurries of white were warm. She had no friends, and so she had a very good imagination instead.

Of course, you can have both imagination and friends. It’s just much harder to live if you haven’t got either.

The fairy had enough one day. She was tired of wedging herself in a crack in the rocks and pretending she wasn’t shaking with cold. Living alone and lonely was exhausting, and she wasn’t going to do it anymore. The mountain was very tall and very steep, but the fairy was determined to start flying. Her little lace wings held her up as she hopped and skipped from one crag to another cliff. She took a leap off an edge and beat her wings until they blurred in the thin air, and she drifted until she settled on her tiptoes and jumped off again. Finally, after long days and long nights, the fairy reached the bottom of the mountain.

I don’t know what country the mountain was in. Sweetheart, it’s a story, so probably it’s in a country that doesn’t exist on this planet. While I’m telling the story it exists in your head, and that’s the place you should look to find it.

The fairy was so glad to feel the crunch of gravel and the satiny shush of dust on her feet that she walked after she left the mountain. She walked through a valley and a plain, and she swam across the river. The water was cold and bright against her skin, and she thought in a lovely delirious blur that she’d never felt anything so beautiful and pure. Once across the river she was in a field. She walked through the field and found herself in a meadow. At the edge of the meadow—her breath caught—she saw the furry edges of trees bristling on the horizon. The fairy loved walking. The grasses brushed against her feet like friendly cats. But now she was impatient, for she knew that fairies live in the forest. So what do you think she did next?

No, even if you could guess the answer would be the same. Some stories change shape to fit around you, but this one has its shape already. If you close your eyes you’ll be able to see it better.

She tried to fly. Running wasn’t fast enough. Only wings could take her to where she knew friends were waiting. The fairy leaped upward and felt the air catch under her wings, and then she sank back down to the ground again. Her knees folded under her, and the little fairy crumpled on the grass. She didn’t understand. What was wrong with her wings? Stumbling, she pushed herself to her feet again, and she walked across the meadow. She almost didn’t notice the grass brushing against her feet, because she was so worried about her flying. She entered the forehead with a creased forehead and an anxious stare. She almost tripped over someone, who let out a cry and asked who she was.

“I’m a fairy,” said the fairy.

“Yes,” said the stranger, unfolding wings from her shoulders. “I can see that. In fact, I’m a fairy too. My name is Lianet. You look upset. What’s your name?”

“I don’t know,” said the fairy. “I never needed one before. I used to live on the mountain alone, but now my wings don’t work.”

“Ah,” the stranger smiled. “Wings only work on the mountain, in the cold. When you hop down from on high you have more space to fly in, and the frozen air can keep you aloft. Lacy wings like yours won’t work in the forests or the meadows, the fields or the valleys, over the river or through the plains. Sometimes to fly for a minute you just have to climb a tree and jump.”

I know you’re very tired, and so we’re almost at the end. Do you think our fairy will give up the glory of flight to live in the forest, where the trees crowd one another and the squirrels chatter at everything that moves? Yes, I think so too.

The fairy thought about it for a while, and then she shrugged. Her lacy wings rippled in the air with the movement. There are worse things, she thought, than jumping out of trees with new friends. She could be flying alone. And so the fairy lives in the forest now, with a new name and a new friend. Sometimes she climbs to the very top of the tallest tall tree, and while she’s there she can see the very tip of the mountain where she used to live. Then she jumps into the air and lets her wings carry her down. She knows that there will be somebody to meet her at the bottom.

Good night, love.

Tell Me A Story

Okay, honey, one. I’m tired and it’s been a long day. You have to go to sleep after that, promise?

Once upon a time in a faraway forest there was a fairy named Erstenpraktertolanima. She was a very lonely fairy, because she had no friends. This is because all of the other fairies who tried to befriend her could never pronounce her name, and so they gave up. One day Erstenetc. walked away and climbed up a mountain and then she met the trolls. She met a lovely (though ugly) troll named Prince Lumpy, and he told her, “Ersten… um, Fairy, you should go visit the goblin-people of Shhhhton. They are exactly what you need.”

Don’t you remember Prince Lumpy from the other story? Well here he is. He’s doing fine, happily ever after. Are you feeling sleepy yet?

So Erstenetc. walked and walked and walked, and just when her feet were so blistered that they had polka dots and her body slumped so that her fingers nearly dragged on the ground and her wings were folded like a moth’s to her body, she came across the goblin-town.

Well, it looks just like our town except that all the houses are green and there are signs everywhere. Like there’s a sign outside the first house that says, ‘House Number One! The Collinses!’ and the second one says ‘The Post Office!’ and the third one says ‘The Bennets! Also The Bakery!’ You see, goblins really like signs, and they are often excited about everything.

She walked in and tried to introduce herself to the little old goblin-lady selling doughnuts, but the lady shook her head helplessly. She waved her hands in the air and looked at Erstenetc. with a look of expectation on her goblin-face. After several failed attempts at conversation, Erstenetc. realized that the goblin-people of Shhhhton did not speak with voices. They spoke with the quick-sharp-graceful-soft fluttering of their long-fingered goblin-hands, and they shaped words and sentences and whole stories with those drawings in the air. Erstenpraktertolanima learned the sign-language of the goblin-people and made wonderful friends who never had to pronounce her name at all, and she lived with them happily for ever after.

There, sweetheart, there’s a story. Did you like it? Oh, you’re half-asleep already. Good night, darling, see you in the morning. Sweet dreams.

 

Unapologetic

“I’m sorry about the fight.”

“Yeah. I know. Me too.”

They sat in companionable, relieved silence for a minute.

“It’s just that it’s your fault.”

“What? You started the argument.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Okay. If you say so.”

“Whatever. It’s not like it really matters.”

“Sure. Of course not.”

They sat in spiky, broiling silence for a minute.

“I have to go.”

“Bye.”

“Yeah. Bye.”

Insides

Doesn’t it ever amaze you the you have bones building the shape of your body and muscles layered onto those bound on with tendons and sinews and there is fat pillowed around those and veins laced and woven and then skin stretched and sagging over the whole damn thing and when you glance over and see that teetering miracle of unlikely fortune, all you see is a person? Someone you like or someone you want to get out of your way, really, but isn’t it just so strange that you can only see the very outside of all a person is? It amazes me. It certainly does. It is so strange that people stop being amazed by it. When there are little babies and they’re all wide-eyed at everything because the world is so brand-new beautiful, that’s what that is. They are amazed at the folded twisted wrapped-up gift of guts and grime that is a human being.

There was this little kid I used to see at the playground when I went sometimes after work. I would just sit on the swings with a cigarette. It’s okay because there usually wasn’t anybody there that late, not when it was getting so dark I couldn’t see the black of the smoke that swept into the air and sank into my skin. This kid though, she would show up like a ghost, walking down the sidewalk and appearing of a sudden like something come to haunt me. She would come and sit next to me on the swings at eight at night, just casual, sitting with a stranger like it was no big deal.

I don’t know what kind of parents this kid had, but it must have been something strange that they let her wander around and talk to strangers like that. They must’ve been holding onto her so loosely that they nearly let her drop and fall and hit the ground. It was lucky that all she met was me, because I never did a thing, I’m not like that, but there are some real creeps out there. I told her stories sometimes but it didn’t help, she just listened all solemnly to me telling her that the pervs and murderers might be just around the corner. She didn’t even care. I’m pretty sure there was something really screwed up with her family I guess, there had to have been.

Anyway she liked to come and sit next to me like some weird friend or something, this little girl who must have been nine years old or something like that, about half my height so that she had to hoist herself up when she wanted to sit on a swing by gripping the cold bumps of the chains and pulling until her entire little body was suspended in the air, and then she would thump into the swing.

I told her mostly other kinds of stories, I mean I didn’t just tell her the ones about the crazy people who wanted to hurt her. I didn’t want to scare her or anything. Mostly I told her about me. I don’t talk that much in general, there aren’t so many people who want to listen to me ramble. It was a nice thing to be able to tell this little kid stories of who I was and watch her face all still and calm, listening to me go on. She had some kind of gift for listening, that kid, I swear she could hold herself on that swing and be so statue-still until the only thing that moved were her eyelashes when she blinked. She just listened like nobody else ever did.

Sometimes I also asked her about her life, of course I didn’t just tell her stories about me and never want to know anything about her. She didn’t like to talk about herself though, so that’s where my best stories came from. Anyway I would ask her how her day was, how things were going, and when she wouldn’t tell me or didn’t say much I would make something up. I would tell her that the reason she was so quiet was probably because she was tired from spending the whole day climbing the very tallest mountain in the world and then climbing down again. When she was at the bottom she realized that she left her fuzzy hat at the top of the mountain and had to go all the way up again. Plus then after that she had to get on a plane and fly around the world to get back to our neighborhood so she could come sit on the playground with me and my cigarette and listen to me. She laughed at that. Sometimes I think that there is nothing in the world as delicious and strange as the laugh of a little kid like that. It just curls through a person until it nudges a smile out.

The one thing she sometimes said to me, without me asking her and bugging her to tell me things, was that she was thinking about how people were made. She would say that there was so much stuff inside a person, so much blood bottled up under skin and bones pushing their way around in there. We can only see the faintness of veins wandering the paths of our body, and there’s so much of it. From that little kid I learned to look for the depths of people. I know now to look at the tangles and woven strands of a person, even the ones I can’t see at all.

I don’t see her anymore because she stopped coming to the playground. I don’t know what happened, maybe she just got too old to hang around on the swings with a stranger. Maybe she moved away. I hope that’s what happened, anyway. I don’t know. Sometimes I still go to the playground and smoke a cigarette, hoping that I’ll blink the stinging smoke out of my eyes and turn my head and she’ll be there, appearing on the sidewalk in the dark like a ghost. I don’t think she will, though. You will probably never meet that little kid, so I’m telling you to look. Pay attention to people, because all you see is their outsides, the way they talk and move and the curl of their neck as they pull in their head because they don’t want to say what they mean. That tells you something but it doesn’t tell them enough. The next time you look at a person, try really hard to see all of it, the blood moving under the skin and the softness inside and the bones holding the whole person up because otherwise she’d fall and be nothing but a pile of pulpy muck on the ground and not a person at all.

Taking Care

“I don’t know, what do you think?” Lisa turned, her eyes trained on the mirror and her hands clasping the shoulders of the dress against her chest. The hem of the dress bounced and swirled on her ankles and her feet side-stepped and spun. Annie rolled her eyes, but not so Lisa could see.

“I like it,” Annie said. “I think it looks great on you. You have to know what you think, though.”

Lisa looked over her shoulder, batted her eyelashes at Annie probably without meaning to. “You don’t think it’s too much?”

“No,” said Annie. “It suits you, really it does.”

“Then maybe Katie will like it, right?”

“Maybe.”

“Why are you always so indifferent? Don’t you ever just want to be encouraging?”

Annie sighed. “Sure, honey, maybe Katie will like it. I bet she will.” Lisa’s face cleared and she turned back to the mirror. Annie stifled another sigh, watching her friend’s gaze fixed in the mirror, apart from her. Lisa was always looking to Annie for something, and then ignoring it. Even in high school it was that way, even when Annie was too young to be taking care of anyone.

“Is it too long?” Lisa’s head dropped and she studied her feet.

“No, it’s perfect. It almost brushes the floor like that. Stop fussing.”

Lisa turned now to face Annie. “What’s wrong, sweetheart? Are you okay? Did I say something?”

“No, of course not.” Annie offered a smile. “It’s not you, I’m just tired. Really.”

“Are you sure?”

Annie nodded.

“Want a hug?” Lisa tossed the dress on a chair and held out her arms.

“Sure.” Annie stepped forward into the embrace and let herself sag against Lisa’s body for a moment. It felt familiar, but wistful. The strangeness of it caught in her throat. She couldn’t remember the last time Lisa had looked at her to see that she’d needed a hug. Finally they disentangled from one another and Lisa busied herself folding the dress. She tucked it into a bag, slung it over her shoulder, and rested her fingers on Annie’s shoulder for a brief touch of time before she turned to leave. As she stepped into the outside hallway, she waved to Annie, and then the door bounced shut behind her.

Annie sat and watched the flashes of her friend until the door settled closed. She called out too late, her voice wavering a little, “Goodbye?”

Popsicle Prompts 1

“I like hats.” That’s what Donald said the day before he killed Sally. He didn’t say it to her, just to me. She was watching him put the hat on, turning it this way and that, pulling the brim low on his forehead and posturing for her, throwing a coquettish glance over his shoulder at me. She was still unhappy, I could tell. He couldn’t, and he went on fidgeting with the stupid hat until she stood and left.

I watched him pause, his eyes following her as she shut the door behind her and kept on walking. She was never very loud about being upset. I imagine that she died that way too, barely a whisper of a scream when she felt his fingers on her neck.

There was a long moment when Donald’s fingers fluttered and twitched on the felt of the brim, and then he tossed the hat off. He was always very loud about being upset. He was probably shouting, cursing, crying as Sally heaved and scraped for breath. He went out the store after her, letting the door bounce shut after him. I watched them fighting on the sidewalk, his finger pointing, as the fedora lay abandoned at my feet.

On the following Friday, we packed our bags and planned our escape. I put the fedora into my suitcase first. When the clothes and shoes piled in on top I’m sure it was crumpled into the corner, where it was safe. I would unfold it and press out the creases when we were somewhere new. I didn’t look at Donald at all as I packed. I put his jeans and t-shirts in his suitcase and asked him which shoes he wanted without turning. He didn’t move from the chair. His fingers tapped on the arm and his feet shook and jittered, but I didn’t look. I watched my own hands move instead, the clothes that hid the hat and were soon nearly overflowing. I didn’t have much luggage. I never really planned to leave.

We ate dinner hurriedly that night. We were leaving when it got dark, so we left the pots dirty in the sink. The half-eaten food was still clumped on the plates and we sneaked out without putting away the lemon sherbet that melted all over the counter. We weren’t going to have to wipe it up anyway. When the door closed behind us, shutting my apartment away in the past, it made a slow soft thump. We walked down the hallway together listening to the small sound of our footsteps and our ragged breath.

Unsatisfying Encounters

Ned hadn’t talked to Sarah for a long time. When he saw her, pondering three brands of spaghetti, he stared for a long minute before he realized who she was. She looked up, with that crooked eyebrow he remembered, skeptical about the strange man eyeing her in the supermarket. When she saw him her face brightened and she smiled, until she seemed to remember and the gladness dampened a bit. He grinned, steeled himself, and lunged for a hug. She let him, though her arms were stiff and she pulled away too soon.

“Sarah, my God, I haven’t seen you for ages. How have you been?” His voice wavered with the question.

“Pretty good, all things considered. You know, working and things. I’m really busy lately, actually, which is nice. How are you?”

Ned nodded. “Pretty good too. I actually just moved back around here, I’m about half an hour away but I work near here. Never did go back to school.” Her wry grin crinkled at the corners just the way it used to.

“Well,’ she said, “you’re working, you’re doing okay, right? So I guess you never needed to.”

“Guess not. Sometimes I wish I had. What about you?”

“You mean, do I wish I had? I did. Or were you asking something else? I mean, that’s what I would have wished, if I hadn’t. Oh, that’s all confused. Do you know what I mean?”

“I think so,” he said. He didn’t, but he didn’t think it mattered.

Sarah snatched a box of pasta off the shelf and tucked it into her basket, starting off down the aisle. She said, “Listen, I actually have to run. Good talking to you.”

Ned wheeled. He called after her retreating back, “I’d love to catch up sometime, if you have a moment, you know.” He cursed his tongue-tied fumbling. That felt familiar. “I mean, we haven’t seen one another for a good while. It’s been too long.”

She looked at him. “Has it, though?”

Journeying

It was already six when Evan showed up at the house. They’d meant to leave at five, but Sarah’s phone needed charging and Evan’s keys were at the bottom of his laundry basket. He got inside, hugged her in a perfunctory kind of way, and sat at the kitchen table while she flitted from room to room, taking a bag from bedroom to kitchen and then hurrying it back in to add something else. It was seven by the time they left, throwing the bags in the trunk and scooping up an armful of snacks on their last swing out the door.

They played music for the first hour of the drive, humming or singing along. Some of the time they just sat in companionable quiet and listened to the voices buzzing from the car’s speakers. Sarah drove. She promised Evan that when she got tired they’d pull over and switch. He was glad, because he didn’t like driving much anyway. It was dark out, and their headlights hollowed a patch of night before them as they went. He was easily spooked and more easily anxious, so he watched comfortably as Sarah navigated the twists in the roads and the stoplights blinking to yellow as they approached. They were on the highway within half an hour, and from there the way was smooth and plain. There were no more turns and no more interesting buildings at the side of the road.

Highway at night

When the radio played the song they both loved, they threw their voices into it. Their singing filled the car, thin and wavering as it was in their imperfect voices. On the flat straight highway the notes bounced and rocked. They wailed the last soaring word and fell silent as the next song began to sprinkle pinging notes into place, and their song faded out. Sarah, without looking, turned down the volume and said, “I love that song.”

“Yeah,” said Evan. “I know. Me too.”

“The ones I love best, the songs I mean, they’re the ones that I feel like really say something. You know what I mean? Like the songs that have lyrics that make sense to me, or that I relate to. That sounds dumb, but you know, the words that I feel like I could’ve written. If I were any good at writing songs.”

“Exactly.” Evan smiled. “I know exactly what you mean. Things mean more to you when they have to do with some experience, or feeling or whatever, something that you’ve lived. Some kind of common perspective, kind of.”

“Right,” said Sarah. “That’s what makes something really meaningful, right? Something that people have in common. Right. But like, not that you have to have the same interest or situation in common. You can feel the same way about a situation, though.”

Evan said, “You know, I always wanted to write songs or something like that. It’s like poetry, I don’t know. Because you said, I mean what you’re saying is exactly what I always really loved about songs or movies or whatever. Movies, actually. I would love to write movies, the kind of movie that you watch and then it ends and you just feel understood. You ever watch a movie to make you feel like that?”

“Just last week, when we watched that one online, that gave me that feeling at the end. I totally know what you mean. When you see something, and you hear it saying something you already know. Except in a new way, maybe. Or like you have the same problem in the movie and in the movie they find the solution and watching it makes everything make a little more sense for a while.”

“Right!” Evan’s voice rose. “You so know what I’m saying. You should help me write a movie. We could do that, you know. Make something that helps people understand their lives a little better.” He settled back, quieted a bit. “I mean, okay, I know that sounds crazy. But we could, I think.”

Sarah smiled at the dark highway ahead, and signaled right. “Yeah. Okay, anyway, I’m going to go to that gas station at the next exit, I want to switch for a little. Or maybe I just need to stretch my legs.”

Evan nodded, though she couldn’t see. She pulled into the gas station, filled up the car, and leaned over to his window. She said, “Actually, you know, I think I’m fine. Just needed to get out of the car for a minute.”

She went around to the driver’s seat again and started up the car. She sat, staring out the windshield, for a long moment until Evan’s voice pulled her out of her reverie. He said, “Right then, let’s go. We still have a long while to go.”

Coffeeshop Stories

Eva sipped her coffee. It was just cooling to lukewarm. The curls of steam had fallen like limp ribbons and the bitterness was tepid on her tongue. She was still holding the pen in her right hand, clicking the retractable tip in and out, in and out. The two women at the table behind her were animated. Their voices rushed along, clattering together.

“I know, but then at the end –”

“When he did, and then it could all have been, I don’t know –”

“Like a dream or something, the whole thing made up –”

“Brilliant, right?”

They paused, presumably to sip their drinks. Eva leaned over her notepad and scribbled a few words. Talking, conversations, television, vampires? She scratched at the letters idly, and then noticed her pen wasn’t writing. She’d clicked it without noticing, and she jabbed the button again. Then she looked at the pad, focusing on it. Time to really write something, get a head start on this story, maybe sketch in an outline. Anything, really. The women began to talk again.

“So have you heard from Charlotte?”

“Yeah, actually, she just called me a couple days ago. You know she broke up with, um, what’s his name?”

“No way, really? I thought they were going to stay together forever. She was so crazy about him.”

“Oh well, I guess. She’ll do better next time.”

“That doesn’t help now, though. She must be crushed. Poor thing.”

Eva clicked her pen again and wrote, Breakups. Gossip. Friendship. Two friends discuss the life of a third. Are they concerned? Just gossiping? Do we learn more about the friends or about the subject of their conversation?

That seemed like a good start. It was an interesting idea. She took another sip of her cooling coffee and made a face. She didn’t love it to begin with, but when the heat masked the taste she didn’t mind so much. When it was barely warm she couldn’t fool herself that she was drinking coffee for anything but the caffeine. She stood and walked a few steps to toss her cup into the trash. When she sat back down, she picked up her pen and click-click-clicked. She had to really concentrate.

“Anyway, we should hang out and watch something. Have you been watching anything good lately?”

“A few things. I have ideas. What are you in the mood for?”

“Huh. Well, nothing too sad. Nothing dark, not today. Not romance either. Something funny, or maybe an action sort of thing. How’s that sound?”

“Let me think about it.”

They kept talking, but Eva stopped listening for  a moment. She wrote more words. Movies. Escapism. Grief. Pretending.

She would go soon. She wasn’t getting any work done here, not really. Click-click-click. The page looked so empty with just her lists and half-broken sentences down one side of it. Absently, Eva doodled a flower in the corner. That cheered the paper up a little bit. Maybe she could get a little farther with the story once she got home and thought about it some.

The women at the table behind her were talking still. One said, in a lowered voice, “God, that clicking is really annoying. Is that her pen? Maybe we should go.”

“No,” said the other. “I think she’s leaving. Look, she’s getting her stuff. She was here with a notepad. I wonder what she’s writing about?”

Five Minutes to Breathe

Clouds stood crisp and white against the blue of the sky. The edges furled and wrinkled, faraway fjords in nothing but sunlit mist. It looked so close that he could touch it. Higher up the clouds dissolved and swirled like sheer scarves of gauze. Brian settled back onto the grass, letting the soft blades tickle the back of his neck and his shoulders. He had five minutes left. Then he’d have to get back to the factory for another four hours. He let out a long, slow breath.

A sigh sounded next to him. He’d nearly forgotten that Tam was next to him. She scooted over to press her arm against his. The warmth of her skin thrilled against his own, deeper and more solid than the sun melting on his face. He turned his head to smile at her. She was looking at the sky too, her eyes fixed on a cloud or maybe just lost in the dusty blue. He smiled at her profile instead, at the intent eyes and the peace smoothing her face.

After a moment she turned and saw him looking. They were so close that her breath whispered against his cheek. Abruptly she shifted, pushing a hand onto his shoulder to lever herself up. Once standing she offered a hand and pulled him to his feet. She kept her hand in his, her fingers small in his, and tugged him toward the road. “We should start walking back,” she said. Her voice was husky after the silence, raw in the still air.

Trees and sunlight

Photo credit: Takashi(aes256)

They walked side by side on the scruffy grass at the side of the road. She let go of him, and his hand felt empty. He curled it into a fist, and his curled hand hung by his side. The sun was high in the sky. The trees were shattered kaleidoscopes of light. The greens and yellows and blues tangled and sliced together, bright and beautiful. Brian could never walk past this street without staring a little. Even after six years in this town, his eyes went to it at once and stayed.

Tam checked her watch. She had to get back at the same time as he did, though she was going to the school instead of the factory. They were right across the street from each other, though. They stole off nearly every day during lunch to slip down to that secret spot of theirs. Sometimes they even brought food, though mostly they forgot. That had been their tradition for a year, since Brian graduated and had been working at the factory. On days when Tam couldn’t meet him, he wandered around listlessly. Sometimes he felt like when he didn’t see her he was holding his breath. The world faded a little bit, and when she was there again it was like the air rushed back into him and he could breathe again.

They were still a ways away from the school factory. They should have left earlier. Lines were creasing in Tam’s forehead as she fiddled with her watch. “We’re going to be late,” she said. Her voice had evened out, losing the quiet rasp it always got when she didn’t speak for a while. He loved that rasp.

“Race you back,” he said. Tam grinned, and then sprinted off. “Hey!” he called, jumping forward. She laughed back at him over her shoulder, her eyes bright in the midday sun. She ran, her feet kicking up little puffs of dust and her elbows swinging. Brian took a quick deep breath and followed.