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The Art of Staring at the Sun Without Blinking
I had always found Autumn Apatow just a little bit strange. It could have been her pale skin, or her eyes that always looked right past you, even when her body language suggested otherwise. Maybe it was the fact that she was born smack-dab in the middle of the hottest summer in her town- I'm not sure now, and I don't think I ever will be. The only thing that I've known about that girl, without a doubt, was that she was the closest thing to a best friend I ever had.
The first time I ever saw Autumn was on a humid Saturday evening walking up from Blue Field where I had just played a game with the guys. Twilight was just setting in, and to tell the truth, I was a little disappointed that I had missed my favourite part- sunset. The kind of sunset that looked like some abstract artist had gone crazy and used the sky as his canvas- those were the sort that I loved (not that I ever told anybody about it or anything)
Anyway, as I was cresting the hill that lead to my house, I saw a silhouette at the top. She was surrounded by wheat fields that rippled in the wind like waves on the ocean, head tilted heavenward, arms hanging to the side. A curtain of sunbleached hair fell gracefully to the small of her back. I stopped, not having expected to see anyone this far out in the country- especially not a girl.
I could see the wheat brushing against her bare legs and the little sun that there was left warming her ivory skin. Autumn's green irises were fixated on the sky, unblinking, unmoving.
“Hey!” I ventured, jogging a little closer. “Hey, do yo live around here?”
When she turned her face, I could see that her features were pale and weary, as if all she needed was a good, long rest. The girl's guise was white as Elmer's with huge, glazed-over jade eyes that held just the tiniest bit of dreary gray. Her thin pink lips were drawn into a perplexed line, accenting the furrow to her brow. “No.” Autumn replied simply, voice smooth and almost...curly. There was a slight twang to her words that made me aware that she wasn't from around here at all.
“Do yo have friends that live up here?”
“I don't...” Her eyebrows knitted further and I was worried I had said something wrong. Her mouth drew in so far it was almost non-existent. “...have many friends, exactly.”
I felt like such a jerk, standing out there with my bat and my ball and the air of I just-had-fun-with friends that I was suddenly aware to be radiating. “This is Mrs. Dalloway's wheat patch.” I swiftly changed the subject “She's a mean old widow who yells a lot. We like to play here and get her real riled up.” I extended the baseball in my right hand “Wanna play some catch?”
I was thirteen, life was new and so was she. I loved her for that, for just an instant.
We played in that patch of grain until the last splotches of sunlight dissipated from the sky, leaving only a modest smattering of streetlights to guide me and Autumn back to the road. We had waded through the wheat as far as the eye could see, and still saw farther into a gently swaying horizon.
“Where do you live?” I asked, stumbling over my old pair of nickers as we reached the street. We had gotten lost twice, and I wasn't exactly sure as to what part we had emerged at- my companion didn't look worried, though, she just smiled at me blithely and took off speeding in the other direction. “Hey! Autumn!” I fumbled a bit, but got a running start after her.
We chased on the edge of that field for what could have been hours, light from the lamps illuminating our faces at controlled intervals, making us look like light-up slides. I followed her as diligently as my adolescent self could, my breaths beginning to burn and my chest constricting as if one of the older bullies was sitting on it. And yet Autumn kept on, spry and young, laughing like a madwoman- I lost her at the last street lamp on our street, too exhausted to follow her into the dark.
Summer hit my little town unawares, not even giving people enough warning to buy a decent pair of shorts or get a cooler of iced tea ready. Me and Autumn were pretty good friends by then- though I swear I'll never know exactly how she got home that night. She must've lived even farther up the road than I did- which, at the time, I thought to be impossible.
“I was born on one of the hottest summers in my town, you know.” She commented passively as we ambled down Coonsbury lane in a lethargic shuffle. It was far to hot to speed up to anything more than a slow trot, which boded just fine with me. “It was a hundred six degrees in the hospital- with air conditioning.”
“I don't believe you.” I scoffed, wanting to shove my hands in my pockets for good measure before remembering the climate. Autumn told tales tall as the great reds that grew in the forests, and that isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it- they were ridiculous and completely enthralling.
She turned to me and grinned, pale dandelion hair clinging to the sides of her face. I could see beads of sweat pooling at her temples, and with every rising of the mercury her story became that much more believable.
We got icecream at old man McCullen's shop and ate it on the way to Blue Field. By this time a pleasant breeze had begun, cooling our skin at least substantially. We tossed our napkins in the trash bin on the corner and continued down for a few blocks before reaching our destination.
“I want to learn to hit,” She said with finality, giving me a tenacious look. I agreed, because demolishing a building with my bare hands would be easier than tearing Autumn away from one of her ideas.
Surprisingly, she was a natural at swinging- every time her arms moved in that smooth arc, I swear time slowed down. And when she actually hit the ball, that crisp crack sending shockwaves through the heady summer air- well, time stopped then, for a moment. Just a nanosecond as both of us watched the ball sail through blue sky and break the atmosphere- it touched heaven before coming down and landing in the grass.
“Holy God.” I breathed in awe, half expecting the sphere to be smoking as I approached it. Autumn stood back, bat hanging limply from one hand. Her face was flushed with excitement and heat, a smile barely tugging at the corner of her mouth.
“Holy God.” She agreed.
It took a good hour before we both decided to take a break. There was a brief squabble over whether or not one of us should pick up lunch at the corner market, but we both thought it a better idea to just relax in the sun.
So me and Autumn lay on our backs in the middle of the field, me shading my eyes and her staring straight forward. I'm not even joking- staring straight into the sun like she did it every day (and maybe she did). I wanted to comment about how she was going to go blind, but thought better of it- that girl was one of the toughest I'd ever known.
She could handle it.
She could handle anything.
That afternoon at Blue was one of the best I had ever spent, the sound of Autumn's bat colliding with the ball like music to my ears. I swear I could get the rhythm stuck in my head if I tried hard enough.
But as everybody knows, space and time tears all good things apart (to put it poetically). As we walked home, drenched in sweat and post game euphoria, Parker Malone approached us. Park was one of the meanest kids in our class, and he got primal joy out of teasing younger students. I felt my companion tense beside me.
“Hey, Auto.” He said, venom and cruelty that couldnt've been human oozing from his words “When you gonna move outa here, huhn?”
“Leave her alone, Parker.” I defended, fist clenching. His lips curled into a sinister simper, taking a step closer as we moved back. “I said, leave her alone!”
“Why should I? You know her dad killed somebody?”
“That isn't true!” I shouted, taking a protective stance in front of her, barely hearing the ''Please, stop' Autumn muttered.
“It is, and every body in class knows it. That's why she moved here, didja know that? Didja?” Moving forward, he gave me a little shove. I almost toppled over on top of my partner. “Didja? Didja? Didja?” Each syllable was accented with a push. “Well? Di-”
Before Parker could do anything else, Autumn had sprung free from behind me. I hardly caught a glance at her face, stained with tears I hadn't even known she'd shed, before the girl bolted down the road.
Autumn didn't come to school the next day.
She didn't answer her phone.
She didn't come to her door.
Before the next week was through, a 'For Sale' sign had appeared on the Apatow lawn. I saw it on my way back from a hike in the woods, swearing I hadn't noticed it there before.
I got that feeling where your heart drops into your stomach and then your stomach drops into your feet and everything's shot to hell as I walked on, head hung.
Birds scattered, wildlife fretted, and I looked at the sky. Had I imagined it? It sounded like a baseball bat, but the Blue was too far away from Autumn's house to hear much of anything. I extended my ear, trying to catch something else- but nothing came. So I walked on, thinking about her and that smooth arc she made swinging the stick. Thinking about her, eyes open, staring at the sun and smiling.
I thought about her, and hoped that wherever she went, it had sun. Lots and lots of sun.
I thought about her, and I walked on.