Denial

Her lips were blue from the Slushie melting next to her. Sitting on her front porch, she stared at the sidewalk absentmindedly. Her neighbor from two houses down came out and stood in front of her house, hands shoved in his pockets awkwardly.

“Whatcha doin’?” He had a boy’s voice, and a boy’s face. Most of him was still boy, except for those legs, propelling him to new heights—he’d bested her by at least two inches. He had a man’s legs. This was a recent development, and it made his body look like puzzle pieces put together incorrectly.

“Waiting for my prince,” she replied immediately. Her chin was in her hand, and her elbow was propped on her knee. Her hazel eyes did not leave the sidewalk.

“What? Why?” He shifted his weight from one leg to the other, eyes searching her face. She sighed, and looked up at him, exasperated.

“Obviously I’m not really waiting for my prince. It’s just that my dad and I used to watch all these Disney movies, and when I was little I wanted to be a princess. All those princesses do is wait for their princes, so that’s what I’m doing. Since my dad isn’t around to watch Disney movies with me.”

He weighed her answer and appeared satisfied. “Okay.” He shifted his weight again and added, “If you really want to watch a Disney movie, I’ll watch it with you.”

She shook her head impatiently, taking a sip of her Slushie. “No. I’m just going to wait,” she said, making it clear she was dismissing him.

He looked down at his feet. “Okay. Bye.” And he turned and walked down the street back to his own house.

She went back to staring at the sidewalk while drinking her Slushie. Despite what she’d said, she did not look like a princess waiting for her prince. She looked like a girl in denial.

--

He saw her at the tennis courts the next day. He’d watched her leave her house, early in the morning, before the heat was unbearable. He left half an hour after she did, strolling down to the high school to watch.

She had turned on the machine, and it was shooting tennis balls all over the court. She was practicing, working on her backhand, her serve, her style. It was a complicated dance, and she was dancing by herself, methodically thwacking each ball that was sent her way.

When she stopped, she came over to the patch of grass where he was sitting.

She stood before him, sweaty, tired, but beautiful, he thought, watching her trying to catch her breath. Her legs were quivering with her fatigue, and her tennis uniform was crumpled from her exertion. She plopped down in front of him, laying her racket to the side. Then she opened her mouth and sighed out words like she was exhaling her soul.

“My father was great at tennis. My mother wants me to be just like him.” His eyes bore into hers, and his stare seemed to say, I know you better, though. I know you’d rather sit on your porch and drink Slushies all summer. I know there’s only one tennis player in your family, and I know that he left a year ago and never came back. I know that you’re still waiting for him. I’ve been your neighbor since forever and I know. He knew because he’d been there, watching. Not because she’d shared her life with him, but merely because of fate. She was not one to share her secrets.

--

“So. Have you had a good summer?” Athena was spread out like a snow angel on the grass in her backyard. She angled her neck and shot a look at him. “Harper?” She’d always called him by his last name, always kept him at a distance. To her, he’d always been the Harper boy from down the street, never Jack.

His eyes were closed, and a brief smile twitched on the corner of his mouth. “Harper?”

He turned his head and met her gaze. “Definitely.” His voice was warm, the closest she’d heard him come to expressing emotions. She turned away, satisfied, and went back to watching the stars.

“What about you?” he asked politely, still watching her. Her long hair had bits of grass in it, and he found himself wanting to pick them out.

She closed her eyes and thought about this summer. It’d been the one-year anniversary of her father’s departure. She’d spent a year waiting for him to come back, a year sitting on her porch, a year checking the mail and running for the phone. “Yeah. My summer’s been okay.” In comparison to the rest of the year, the summer had been a breeze. Two months of waiting with no distractions? Easy.

She found words again, and spoke softly, without looking at him. “Harper? I’m sorry. About yesterday.” And then, quietly, barely breathing, she murmured, “I just miss him a lot.”

He moved and found her hand, covering it with his. “I know.”

“I wish he’d come back. I don’t know why he doesn’t come back. Do you think he misses me?” she asked, surprising herself. The words had just tumbled out by themselves. She hadn’t meant to bare herself to him.

Before he could answer, she shook her head quickly and babbled, “Of course he misses me. He’s going to come back. He has to come back. I just have to keep waiting. It won’t be much longer,” she said, voice quivering. She sounded like a lost little girl, alone and frightened.

She swallowed, wishing she could take back the words that were echoing in her ears. Her vision became blurred, and when she blinked, she realized that her eyes were watering.

He squeezed her hand. “Oh, Athena.”

--

He found her again at the tennis courts two days later. It was early in the morning and it was drizzling already. A fluffy comforter of mist was in the air, and he didn’t see her until he was right in front of her. She had positioned herself exactly at center court, sitting cross-legged on the damp cement. He stopped as soon as he spotted her, and kept his distance. She knew he was there, though, and turned her head slightly toward him. She moved her mouth, but he couldn’t hear anything. He took a step toward her, but she shook her head. She sighed, and spoke again.

“One time I got lost. We went to a tennis game—my dad got tickets to the U.S. Open somehow, I don’t know. I was little. It was like this,” she said, gesturing to the mist, hand swirling it around.
He said nothing, just stood there waiting for her to say more. He didn’t know what to do, and although Athena longed for comfort, she knew that he wasn’t ready to give it to her. She didn’t blame him.

“And then I got lost. Just let go of his hand for one second and he was gone. There were so many people…” The fog absorbed her voice again, and she swallowed.

“I remember thinking, what if I never see him again?” She finally turned toward him, meeting his eyes. “What if I never see him again?” Her voice clashed with the drizzle in the air, rumbled in the mist. “What if I never see him again, Harper?”

He didn’t move. He didn’t know what to do. Under the cutoff of his shorts, a muscle in his knee was jumping, and he blinked, but he didn’t move. Her anguish had frozen him, body and mind.

--

It was dusk and the humidity was suffocating. Fireflies were beginning to make their debuts for the night. Athena was once again on her front porch, watching the fireflies dance.

He stood in front of her house. She looked up at him, mouth open, hair falling around her face. He was holding a blue Slushie out to her, a question illuminating his eyes. She patted the porch next to her. He reached her side in two easy steps, setting the Slushie between them. They sat quietly for a couple of minutes, watching the fireflies, and then he spoke.

“I can be your prince, y’know. If you’d let me.”

She turned to look at him, eyes unreadable.

“But I don’t think that’s who you’re really waiting for.”

She did not even blink. Tears began to work their way into her eyes.

“Athena, I don’t think he’s going to come back.”

One tear fell, leaving a wet circle on the porch. She looked away. His arm came slowly around her, unsure if it was the right thing to do. She leaned into him, and the air shook with her sobs.





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