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The stars are bright in the sky. As she half-stumbles, half-walks out of the hotel where she does not belong, she muses over the simple fact that the universe is limitless at night. It makes her feel like more than half a person, a necessary feeling after an evening dealing in her trade. She sells herself. She takes infinity in exchange.

She’s halfway down the block, New York City bustling around her, the air crisp against bare legs and razor burns, before her world collapses in on her.
He spots her first, of course.

“Britta!” he shouts, and she freezes, because she knows that voice. It haunts her nightmares and her daydreams. Slowly, slowly, she turns towards its source, and Adrian’s leather shoes skid and scuff along the pavement as he stops in front of her.

The world stops moving. She can’t breathe. He is speaking but she can’t understand the words. They blend together in her mind, her clouded mind, and she is full of him. Her pores are drunk on his presence, the kind of drunk that inhibits her, ruins her.

And as she looks at him, examining the new laugh lines etched across his skin, the happy marks that she is not the cause of, she remembers everything. She remembers high school, the naïve fullness of her heart and endless days drained cramming for tests. She remembers skipping prom and spending the night at his house instead, dreaming of glittering dresses and elaborate curls. She can recall with vivid detail, crisp and sharp images, the way his entire being had lit up when he’d found her crying on the floor of the hallway the first day of freshman year – a broken bird for him to heal.

She remembers the exact hue of his cheeks when she’d beaten him on that calculus exam, the one he helped her study for. She’s committed to memory the color of the sky on the day she realized she’d become his plaything.

(Toys should be brainless. She couldn’t be that for him. In her most blackened moments, she wishes she had been.)

She remembers the way his eyes had brightened when he’d first kissed her, greedy and domineering, and she remembers the way they’d darkened after she’d gotten her acceptance letter to Harvard. He waited weeks for his. It never came.

“How have you been?” he asks, and the question sounds mocking to her ears, because he knows. He must know. Her leather dress presses up against her skin uncomfortably as he eyes its short length, before his pupils rake up to take in her mussed hair and smeared crimson lipstick.

(Red – the color of love, and the precise shade of blood.)

“I’ve been fine,” she tells him, wishing the earth would swallow her whole. He nods, as if he believes her. She smiles, as if her lies are the truth.

“What have you been up to?” he says, pulling his hands out of his pockets and rocking back on his heels. Casualness personified. She is a tidal wave, shaking and shuddering. He is the wind, beguiling and unconcerned.

“This and that.”

“Of course.”

When she looks at him, she remembers high school, but she also remembers what came after. Her hands twitch slightly towards the pocket in her jacket where the pill bottle once was. She’d liked that bottle. If she squinted hard enough, the bright orange had reminded her of the brick wall he’d leaned against as he told her it was over. If she stared long enough, the smeared label reading “Xanax” looked a lot like the curve and fold of the words “We’re pleased to inform you” as her ticket to her future burned in the fire.

(She’d started that fire without him. It had felt good, at the time.)

“I’ve missed you,” he tells her, voice caressing the words. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the good old days lately, haven’t you?” He seems to stand a bit taller around her now than he did back then. His posture is relaxed, as if he knows he’s won the twisted game that he’d started all those years ago. She hadn’t even known that they were playing – that is, until the final whistle blew and everything fell apart.

“I’ve been fine,” she says again, and it’s not an answer to his question, but it’s all that she can say. She is afraid of speaking. She is afraid of choked-out sentences and coughed-up lies, so she watches him instead.
His face is serious, a marble mask. He is still so very beautiful, mussed black hair and full lips, and he watches her as if she is still beautiful too, the fragile girl he thought he’d rescued. They are both acting as if the purple circles under her eyes don’t exist, as if she hasn’t spent every day for the last six years fighting to escape his calculating stare.

(It always finds her, worms its way into the back of her eyelids and the dark, lonely corners of her conscience, the corners that crave his particular brand of destruction.)

She doesn’t know what to do with herself, how to position her body around him, how tall to hold her chin. He’d stitched her into his side all those years ago like an extra limb, a dangling limb he’d wanted to bandage, but not quite, not all the way. He’d liked the blood that dripped from the seams of her, the stitched and fraying marks. That was his power, had always been his power, and he relished in it. Her autonomy had been his, and she was always nothing more than a shadow in his presence.

“I’ve been working at the company downtown,” he blurts out, apparently tired of waiting for her to ask. “The one we used to talk about as kids.”

She smiles slightly in recognition, but her stomach is in knots. Kids. Kids. She was never a kid. She never got the chance to be a kid. The only light in her world was him; he’d made sure of that. And now he’s here, in front of her, and she is so tired, so very tired of thinking and lying and cheating and selling everything she is. She knows too much, has always known too much. She wishes she were a kid. She wishes she knew what that meant.

She can feel herself sinking back as he scrutinizes her, back into the harsh constraints of her skin and the tight confines of the rigidity she has long since left behind. She’s slipping, falling, fading. She is nothing. She is nothing. She is nothing. She is straight edges and sharp angles. Her soul is a square and she does not control its symmetry. She is flat, tightly wound, a snake without fangs, a monster without a weapon. He is the lion that corners the snake, tantalizing it in the agonizing desert sunlight. His beauty is his weapon. His teeth glint and his mane glistens.
(She is nothing.)

They simply look at each other for a while, just a boy and a girl, and for a moment it could be high school again. She can almost feel the blank white walls of the place surround her, envelop her, whisper that she is safe as long as she is within, that she is safe with him, only him.
He glows, like he did back then, emitting a sort of radiance that pulls her in, will always pull her in. Maybe nothing’s changed. Maybe nothing has to change. Maybe she can still be a kid, maybe she doesn’t have to be anymore. She’s tired of being, tired of darkness and jitters and the constant press against her heart, like a weight that can never be lifted. If the doctors’ muscles weren’t enough, if their prescriptions and files and needles couldn’t do it, no one can. She’s sick of trying, sick of breaking her bones to fix her warped brain, her twisted neurons and atoms.

She takes a small step closer to him, an infinitesimal movement, heels scuffing as they drag along the ground.

(She is nothing.)

But then he smirks, just the smallest curve of his mouth. His mask slips, only for a moment, but it’s long enough, and she sees. The lion is golden and good and bold, but the lion kills and rips and shreds and there’s nothing left when he’s done, nothing at all.

She steps back. He frowns, brow furrowed. He doesn’t understand, but it is all clear to her now. In her world of squiggly lines and blurred shapes, this is something for her to hold onto, a defined image in a world where nothing is real and everything fogs up in the end.

Britta could fill several novels with the things she doesn’t know.

She doesn’t know why people wear sweatsuits. She doesn’t understand how fast food is so awful if it tastes so good. She doesn’t know why the color of the sun is also the color of her father’s tie the day he left for work and never came back. She can’t remember the smell of the strawberries in her garden when she was a child, or whether or not they really had a taste. She doesn’t know why the girl on the news jumped off of that bridge, and she wonders what it would feel like to fly.

She’s not sure how she got that acceptance letter. She doesn’t know why she needed pills in order to exist. She doesn’t know what Harvard would have been like, and she’s not sure why she can’t find it in herself to regret her drunk and desperate choice.
She doesn’t remember what life had been like before Adrian. It must have been better. It has to have been better.

He reaches for her. He glows. She burns.

“No,” she says, and she is red, she is flaming and smoldering. “Don’t.” She is a circle, three hundred and sixty degrees of infinity, and she is not nothing; she is everything. “I’m going to go now.”

A pause. “You’re not going to leave,” he replies. Confident. He was always confident. She was always invisible.

“Goodbye, Adrian.”

And that’s it.

She’s surprised by how easy it is, how liberating. He drops her arm, eyebrows raised. She can see her reflection in his unfathomable irises – wild-eyed, mascara smeared, blonde hair tangled and dirty.

She looks like a mess.
She looks free.

He is shouting something after her as she walks away from him, body trembling, but she tunes it out, delighting in the fact that each syllable his sharp and savage lips utter falls on deaf ears. Because there are many things Britta doesn’t know, but there are so many more things that she does.

She knows that the firefighter saved that little girl in the burning building down the street, and the child slept soundly that night, having found something to believe in. She knows that man may have ruined the Earth, but ninety-five percent of the ocean is unexplored. She knows that energy in the world can’t be created or destroyed, and that the blood in her veins is the only religion she’ll ever need. She understands that she is half nerves and half hope, and she knows that each tomorrow has the potential to be better.

She watches the moon as she turns a corner down 53rd Street, and for just a moment, the pounding in her head, the ever-constant drum sequence, ceases. Cabs honk and lights blare, and she is centered.

Britta may not be able to fly and join the stars in their corner of endlessness, but she knows she is more than who she is and who she was. She knows that a lion’s mane serves to make it look bigger than it can ever be, and she knows that the broken fangs of a snake will always grow back.

“I am more than him,” she whispers to the empire above her, a confession that only the sky can hear. The stars twinkle down at her, and for just a moment, she is illuminated by light.

The city doesn’t still, horns keep honking, and the young girl, heavy heart bared against the wind, walks on.

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