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She holds on to darkness, with a tightly clenched fist. Because of that summer, because of his fingertips, the night is the place she finds comfort, where she can finally exhale. The sun is setting, and her walk towards home is endless. Her eyes shift, scanning the concrete that stretches across the streets and up into buildings. Her fingers twist together nervously, and her feet speed beneath her.
His house is only a block away. She could use the track skills she’s been perfecting to sprint over there. She could bang on his door, and kick him where it hurts, as soon as he opens it. She could pound on him, even though he wouldn’t really feel it. She could just swear at him until her cheeks were sore, or even try to kill him. She could allow him to see the person he’d turned her into. She could, but she won’t. Fear is what motivates her to walk hurriedly, and what tells her to steer clear.
They hadn’t exactly been friends. She had been 10 and he had been 16. They were both part of the group of neighborhood kids who spent their summer days together at the park.
“I’ll protect you.”
That’s the first thing he’d said to her. They had an intense capture the flag game going on, and he’d promised to make sure she wouldn’t get caught when she made a dash for the other team’s scraggly yellow flag. He’d promised to look out for her. And that day, he had. Their team won, and everyone collapsed into the healthy, summer-green grass.
“The sun is going down,” she noticed aloud, watching the fireball as it sunk, and exploded streaks of color through the sky. That was always the group’s cue to run back to their apartments and leave the park for the next day’s play.
All of the kids started to stand up and disintegrate, promising to meet at a certain time, and shouting playful threats for the rematch. As she got up, he gently grabbed her hand. “Isn’t the sunset nice?” he asked. His voice was rough, and reminded her of sandpaper. She looked in the direction his finger was aiming.
“Yeah, I like it.”
“Come on, sit down and watch it with me.”
And just like that, she was perched next to him, grasping onto his hand like the little girl she still was. They sat on the hill of that park, just the two of them, and watched the horizon swallow the sun. She had never felt the tingling in her stomach, until that night. She knew she had heard someone call it “butterflies.”
“My dad is gonna freak if I don’t go home soon,” he told her, a hint of disgust entering his tone. “He’s set my curfew for when it gets dark, you know? And that sun is all but gone.”
She felt a quiver in her throat, so decided to nod instead of trying to choke out a word. They both stood up to walk, and without question, he hoisted her up, so that she clung to his shoulders, and her spidery legs wrapped around his torso. He carried her home.
Now, as she rushes through her neighborhood, she remembers that night with a sickening knot in her stomach. It’s been 3 years since they had first watched the sun go down, and she is starting high school in a month. She’s already made it onto the varsity track team, and things are looking good for her future. But she knows he’s home from college for summer.
She focuses her eyes down, and watches her flip-flops as they skim over sidewalk cracks and anthills. It’s getting darker; the sun is draining from the sky. All she wants is to be home.
That hadn’t been the only night they had stayed behind after the fun and games were finished. They would lie in the field of grass and watch the sky transition. He would always clutch her hand like a life preserver. He would always make her laugh. And eventually, she grew comfortable with him. He asked her about 5th grade, and her friends, and her family. He refused to answer anything she asked him. He remained just out of reach, emotionally, but she was too young to tell the difference.
Her trust in him was becoming stronger everyday. He has almost turned into the big brother she’d always wanted, but never gotten. Being an only child had always been lonely growing up. Plus, with her absent father, he was the strongest male influence she had And he told her that he loved her.
One night, they were lying together as usual. A strange pause came between them, and she heard the grass rustle as he turned. He lifted her t-shirt just a tiny bit, and placed his large hand on her belly. She giggled. That was the place Mommy always tickled her. But then, she realized he wasn’t tickling, he was just holding his hand there. He seemed frozen, or transfixed, staring at her tan skin. She peeked over, seeing his impish and acne-covered face, and the wide smile glued to his mouth. She closed her eyes.
From there on, he got more and more bold. And she let him; she was silent. Technically, she never agreed, but technically, he never asked. So, technically, she never said no. She had no words to protest, no strength to say “stop.” She didn’t even understand whether or not he was supposed to stop. She was lying on her back, staring up at the blazing orange sky, with his hands travelling across her adolescent body, underneath her shirt. She counted seconds until the sun was gone, and held her breath. They never spoke. He never made threats, or made it scary. “It’s loving,” he always explained afterwards. “This is what people in love do.” He stroked her training bra with his thumb, and used just the tips of his fingers to slide beneath it. She closed her eyes, and pretended that she was somewhere dark.
Once he began touching her, she didn’t want to watch the sunset with him. She had wished the sky could just flip from bright to dark, like with the flick of a light switch. She was afraid to go home when the other kids did, because he would probably get sad. “He loved me,” she thought. He had even told her that. How was she supposed to be mean to someone that loved her, and that she loved? But the darkness became her salvation that summer. He feared something at home that made him spring to his feet when the sun became a sliver above the horizon. And she would run home, run away from him, the boy who loved her.
“Only two more blocks,” she tells herself. She has this superstition about her journey back from her job at the park building: If she doesn’t make it home before the sun sets, she will see him. And somehow, he will suck her back into his spell. Somehow, they’ll end up waiting for the darkness together again.
She fidgets anxiously, pulling on the gapping waistline of her jeans. She’s proud of the body that she now inhabits. For the three years since that summer, she’s been battling weight like it was the next world war. The number on the scale kept getting bigger, and she stopped being the boyish and skinny little girl she used to be. But after hitting her peak weight, and her peak sadness, she tried out for track. If there was one thing she knew how to do, it was run. Soon, she was constantly exercising, and eating better. Soon she was back to a healthy weight.
She blames him for her fat phase. And anything else that she doesn’t like in herself.
The night he’d grazed his fingers against the button of her plaid short was the night she decided that they couldn’t be friends.
She just got up, and walked away from him, with the sun barely touching the boundary between ground and sky. She never explained herself, but she really couldn’t have if she’d tried. She decided that love was for old people, and that she’d rather not watch the sun go down. So they never spoke again.
She chews on her bottom lip, tasting the sweat she’d worked up chasing the toddlers around the recreation building for her summer daycare job. Plus, it lessens the pressure in her mind, takes her thoughts off the fear. Her tan arms have started to pump with her as she moves, acting like the blades of a motor. “One more block.”
The wind is knocked from her lungs as she collides with a figure, and it crushes her shoulder. She would recognize his face anywhere, especially here, in the dimming light. He looks like an adult now. A normal young man, with gelled hair and a t-shirt. But his eyes are narrow, his face looks leathery, and she can smell cigarette smoke on his clothes. She feels a pulse everywhere, from her fingertips to her tongue. Her surroundings have slowed down, and she is utterly aware of the deep breath he takes, lifting his hunched shoulders.
“Sorry,” he mutters, and navigates around her, continuing nonchalantly in the direction he’d been going.
Once the street stops spinning, she continues on her way as well. Slower, this time. She had found comfort in his eyes, not terror. She knows him well, and she knows this situation well. But she also knows that he meant it; she knows that he’s sorry, and that he still loves her. He probably didn’t recognize her, or at least chose not to. But she knows, deep down, that he would apologize to her if he could. Maybe, if she turns around fast enough, she can catch up to him….
But she stops in her tracks, realizing the honesty of her superstition. He had almost sucked her in. She is not a little girl, though; she does not belong to him. He doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is moving on. So she keeps going, one foot in front of the next, towards home, and towards the darkness.