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Eli, Part I

She just looked so lost.

Seeing her standing, solitary in the center of the cafeteria, made me nearly angry. Her eyes were huge, her face perplexed and lonely. Her skinny arms dangled flaccidly by her sides, and her bulging schoolbag (which looked far too heavy for her) was slung over one shoulder, dragging it down. And I was almost positive that she was trembling as she pondered the anthill-like activity of so many teenagers swarming busily and boisterously around her.

Something in her expression, I believe, is what made me do it. We were not close confidants by any stretch of the imagination. We had shared but one visual arts class, the year before, and did not even speak often. The random grievance about homework loads, vague kind word or two, or exceptional joke passed between us; but as neither of us was even close to being chatterboxes, we did not know each other well. She had been a freshman; I had been a junior. We sometimes exchanged a pithy smile, a wave, or a shy 'hey' in the halls; but other than that, there was no contact outside of class.

She did not look so much different from last year, though she appeared perhaps slightly taller. She was still elfin and petite, almost to the frowned-upon point of 'bony'. She still had the same nearly waist-length curly hair, its color of burnt chocolate. Her expression had changed least of all. She looked exactly as lost, bewildered, and dejected as she had exactly one year ago today.

Unlike last year, I did not fail to notice her. She was just one of the herd then; one of the six hundred-odd freshmen who gawked at everything they saw. It seemed strange, almost wrong, that she looked that way now. She was a sophomore; surely she should know what to think likely of high school? But then I isolated a change that explained her expression.

What was absent was the gaggle of peers usually hovering at her elbow, babbling away. She had never been the center of that group; nor a very active participant, from what I had seen and heard. Nevertheless, it was her medium, her anchor. She had always looked more or less at ease in that environment, blending in and fitting in. For whatever reason, she was without that comfort today; and it seemed to be taking its toll on her. The cacophony of the cafeteria swirled around her like a river, and she was the constant, unmoving rock, slowly being worn away by it all.

I could stand it no longer. I was normally quite a reserved person; but her half-fearful helplessness had sparked a bit of uncharacteristic protectiveness, which abruptly burst into an unexpected flame of gallantry.

She was about halfway across the cafeteria from me, so it would have been senseless to shout; she could never have heard me. Instead, I found myself moving towards her with rapid, purposeful strides. She did not spot me. When my fingers closed around her elbow, she started violently, setting her curls bouncing. The resulting waft of air caressed my nose; I smelled pears. Her already large eyes widened impossibly as they found me, azure and long-lashed. She did not have time to speak before I was tugging her, towing her back across the cafeteria. She looked too astonished to speak anyway.

'E-Eli?' She stuttered when finally she found her voice.

Like the rest of her, it was just as I remembered it. I felt a little thrill of uninhibited elation to hear how my name sounded in her sweet, clear soprano. Reveling over this, I did not answer right away. I was also concentrating on being gentle with her; she was just so fragile. Under my hand, the milky porcelain of her skin was soft and cool. Beneath that, I could feel only super-thin muscles (too soft to be of any use), stretched over the sharp, delicate bones. The appealing vulnerability of her made it impossible to even imagine ever being rough with her.

When we finally reached the table that my friends and I habitually occupied'slowed by her stumbling sideways gait'I reluctantly released her elbow and sat down next to the only other vacant space at the table. I had pulled her close enough to the open seat that I would have thought that my purpose would have been evident. But she continued to stand, legs locked, expression as mystified as before, and now uncomfortable. I smiled at her and said, "Why don't you sit with us today?" When she still didn't move, I sighed and reached (inexplicably eagerly, though I would not admit it to myself at the time) for her elbow again. Her quick, midnight blue eyes tracked my movement and almost instantaneously guessed my intent. She reacted, snatching her forearm close to her side and taking a half of a step away from me.

'Don't,' she snapped, but there was more bewilderment in her voice than insolence; so I did not take it to heart.

Grudgingly, daintily, she seated herself.

Her eyes surreptitiously darted across the faces at the table, probably searching for familiarity. From the nearly masked disappointment in her eyes, I inferred that she found none, though the table was diverse in age group. She took a deep, quiet breath, her shoulders tightened, and her eyes glued themselves to the artificial wood laminate. She went very still.

She remained so until enough people eyed her inquisitively that I quietly announced, 'Guys, this is Cathy.'

She started slightly at the sound of her name, then reflexively yet uncomfortably corrected, 'Please, no, call me Violet.'

I had known her preference for her middle name because the forgetful teacher of our mutual class the year before had often slipped up and identified her by her first name. A purist, as her artwork had shown, Violet had always reminded her. I had introduced her as Cathy as a challenge, to compel her to speak. I felt as though I had won a battle and, though I also felt a little at fault, could not keep from feeling just a little smug as my friends greeted her. She acknowledged each of their welcomes with a slight bob of her head and an awkward half-smile, but she did not quite meet their eyes. I had never seen her so agonizingly shy before.

There was quiet conversation among the majority of the group, but neither Violet nor I joined in. I was toying with the tray before me, but the laminate in front of Violet was unfilled but for her stare. She gazed at it as if it were a puzzle she was determined to solve, or a conundrum that was troubling her.

Finally, I grew impatient with her guardedness.

'Aren't you going to eat? This is lunch, after all,' I tacked on the last bit hurriedly and in as teasing a tone as I could manage, to lessen the demand in my question. Her gaze slowly rose to mine, as if I had pulled her from deep thought. Perhaps I had; penitence. Her reply was quiet.

'No,' she said, and then slowly lowered her eyes again.

I found myself desperately wishing to raise her chin with a fingertip. I had had about all I could take of this minimal communication. I was surprised when she offered more information sans prompt, and less surprised that she did so without looking at me. 'I'm not hungry.'

I was grateful for this sign of life in her, and tried teasing again in an attempt to lighten her strangely melancholy attitude. Between my thumb and forefinger, I carefully gripped her thin wrist and lifted it from where it lay on the table by a few inches. She offered no resistance to my actions. In a halfheartedly mocking tone, I joked, 'You look hungry.' She met my eyes again, briefly, and offered a strangely bitter half-smile. 'High metabolism,' she mumbled as if it were an oft-repeated explanation. 'And I ate a big breakfast.' A moment of silence weighed heavily between us. Then she shifted uncertainly in her plastic chair, and I realized that I was still grasping her wrist. Embarrassed, I coughed and released it. She let it fall to the table with a soft thud.

Suddenly: BRRRRRING! We both jumped at the sound of the shrill new bell, and all scrambled to gather their trash and books. I hastily tossed my tray, and then rushed to fall in step beside her. She seemed neither surprised nor expectant to find me at her side for a second time. When she did not speak, I nonchalantly inquired, 'What class do you have next?' She had to think for a moment; but she did not, unlike the many freshman and sophomores alike milling seemingly aimlessly around us, dig for her schedule. When she responded, her voice was sure. 'Drama Two, with Davidson.' Damn. For some reason that I could not make clear even to myself, I felt a strong desire to be near her, to unravel the mysteries behind her silences and her stares. My disappointment may have shown, for briefly she looked dismayed; but as usual she made no effort to speak, and her face resumed its natural masquerade of placid apathy. I broke her imposed silence. 'Can I walk you there, then?' I fiercely hoped that I did not sound as distressed as I felt. I rather thing that I did not, because she allowed a small, demure smile and half-nodded. Then she added, 'I'd like that. Thank you.'

I knew where she was going, and perhaps she did not; for she let me lead the way through the teeming, raucous halls. For the first time in her presence I felt comfortable in her silence. It wrapped itself around me, warm and comforting. I felt that I almost began to understand Violet. But this did not eliminate the unfathomable, burning need I felt to be near her.

I escorted her across two halls and up a flight of stairs. I noticed that I had to slow my pace carefully to compensate for our considerable difference in leg length. I was so drawn to her that I could not resist guiding her all the way up to the threshold, though the door was plainly marked with the class's and the teacher's names. She seemed about to step into the classroom, but then she seemed to consider my company. She swiveled ninety degrees in a graceless half-step, and seemed surprised to find herself so close to me unintentionally, her eyes level with my chest.

She came close to stumbling; but, luckily for her, I anticipated this and took her (all the while whispering anxiously in my head to be gentle) by the tops of her arms, righting her and steadying her. She was naturally maladroit, though when she held a paintbrush in her hand the things she could cast with it were delicate and precise; were bold and strong; were elegant and graceful. Nevertheless, she was never in more danger than when standing on her own two feet. I had rescued her from the flat, hard unkindness of the floor one more than one occasion, but somehow this felt different. I was hyperaware of how it felt to have her body so close to my own, practically in my arms. I liked it'but it felt somehow forbidden.

Not wanting to make her feel uncomfortable' ridiculously anxious to avoid anything that might oblige her to desire my absence'I hastily dropped my arms, releasing her, having held her a tense second past what was necessary to ascertain her safety. She met my eye, and her face was not as solemn as before. There was a shimmer of humor flickering deep in her eyes that I had never seen before. That made my heart flutter and my throat tighten, just for an instant. Though she was blushing'the translucent skin stretched thinly over her cheekbones glowing a sweet, rosy pink'the corners of her lips tugged upwards just a bit. A single dimple popped into existence upon her still-flushed cheek. I felt a very nearly overwhelming urge to explore the dimple with a fingertip. It was so potent that my right hand thoughtlessly fluttered up; but I brushed a lone stray lock of her hair from her shoulder instead, so that it rejoined the dark masses held at bay from her face and neck by her shoulders. As I did this, her dark, serious brows arched over her probing indigo eyes; and her wry half-smile grew slightly, but she did not remark. I slowly lowered my seditious hand, coughing and avoiding her shrewd gaze. I felt that I could not share all of my secrets with her, not just yet.

'Well,' she said, 'I guess I had better get to class.'

My reaction was a little overdue by the surprise ensuing from her unanticipated choice to speak first, but finally I blurted, 'See you.'

I had turned one hundred and eighty degrees and begun my first reluctant step away from her when she murmured, 'See you.'

Her voice was thoughtful, as though she was wondering whether or not I really meant it.

I was dying to twist back for a glimpse of her expression, to see whether it was hopeful or apprehensive. But I would not, I vowed right then and there, allow myself to act upon these emotions until I could identify and wholly comprehend them.

To rid myself of the temptation, I walked quickly away; yet I was so very careful not to walk so swiftly that it might make her think that I was eager to be away from her.

I felt her gaze like a physical touch, light as a whisper, until I was out of her sight.





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