“The sun is in my eyes,” I said aloud to no one, squinting. I tried to duck under the light, and see if her Honda was parked crooked, but she wasn’t here yet. Nearly an hour late.
“How many drinks have you had?” asked a man to his friend. They were both in blue button-downs and drinking dark roast from the café a street over. His friend thumbed the gold wedding band around his finger and clicked in thought. I poked my fingers in the holes in the table and tried to make it look like I wasn’t eavesdropping. They weren’t paying much attention to me anyways.
“You can’t make me go away, you know.” I froze. That wasn’t a man’s voice. Not a real voice at all.
Not now, I pleaded silently. I tried to focus on the conversation of the men next to me but they faded too quickly, and my hands twitched like I was trying to grasp reality and leave my past behind. That’s where she was, behind me, she is behind me—
Panic began to swell in my chest as the echo of her voice grew louder, but a sting on my arm diverted my attention. There was blood under my fingernail. I was itching so hard at a scar I didn’t realize I was bleeding again. I stared at the three beads of blood welling up on my wrist, and tried to pretend I didn’t see her ripped sleeves hanging over the railing out of the corner of my eye. I made out a scribble of a song lyric on a strip of her sleeve. I used to love that song.
“What do you want?” I began slowly, careful not to get angry, because if she was yelled at, she would retaliate as violently as my mind could conjure up. I felt my heart fall into the beat of April 23rd, the day I’ve tried so hard to block out.
“Nothing,” she hummed after a moment of false contemplation. I kept my eyes lowered, but a still, fuzzy frame of her spilled behind my eyes. She leaned forward on her elbows and hooked one ankle behind the other.
“Go away, please.” I squeezed my eyes shut and scratched harder at my arm. “I don’t want you here.”
She stuffed her hands in her jacket pockets and sighed the way I sigh. Copycat. “I know, but I wanna hang out with you.”
“What?” I blurted. Dread took a hold of my shoulders. I blinked hard and stared down at my shoes.
“Let’s talk.” I watched from the corner of my eye as she hopped up onto the railing and settled down gracefully. A thin barrier between us was breeched, and a breath hitched in my throat. I pried my eyes off her shoes. Her Converse were dangling too close to me. She was in my space. In my reality. I drew my hands into my lap and took an even breath.
Oh, my God. She’s gonna touch you. She’s gonna hurt you. Her crooked teeth showed in the beginnings of a thoughtful half-smile. “Why don’t you look at me?” she murmured, staring down at me. She almost sounds genuinely intrigued. “You never look at me anymore.” I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I hadn’t decided if she was an ally or an enemy, but she wasn’t winning many brownie points at this rate.
She’s a figment of your imagination. She’s an intrusive memory. She’s not real.
She tipped her head, mouth open slightly, and for another second I was convinced she was innocently curious. In the next moment, her nails curled and dug into the railing. “Look at me!” she demanded, and suddenly her voice was screeching, painful, louder, echoing in my head, like a crash in a cavern full of hollow, metal things. She was dangerously close.
Her advance was so unexpected I clamped down on my tongue in a terrified gasp. I clutched the hood of my jacket and pressed myself lower into my chair. Don’t hurt me. She slipped from her perch on the railing, from my peripheral. Her brooding, pressing sense she carried while in sight fell from my shoulders. With a sigh of relief came a breath of worry. Where did she go?
I pressed my sweaty palm into my knee and searched frantically for a response that wouldn’t provoke her to appear in front of my face, broken nails digging into my temples, asphyxiated, vengeful, dangerous. A figment of my imagination, but so real it left a fowl taste in my mouth.
I knew it was foolish to say anything, but out of sheer bitterness and will to keep my pride intact, I muttered, “Because if I look up at you, you’ll become the dead girl that will try to kill me again.”
My heart rate spiked as I received no response in passing seconds. My eyes burned as I stared at the toes of my shoes, willing to spot her again in a glance, but she was gone.
“Pathetic,” came a nearly silent reprimand behind my right shoulder. Chills gripped my spine. Why can’t I see you?
She’s doing this on purpose, came the thought in a flash of understanding. I had no idea what she was doing exactly, but it was definitely freaking me out. “I… do not want you here,” I muttered, willing the shudder to pass through my shoulders. For a moment I wondered if she even heard me. She existed for a time, but she couldn’t hear. Maybe she could. Only she knew. She’s gonna touch you. Focus!
An odd, soft blip sounded in my right ear, and at once: “I don’t remember being this easy to spook.”
“Jesus!” I hissed without thinking. My fingers flew to the neck of my sweater in surprise. My pulse pounded in my head as I fought to focus on where she was. At this point I didn’t know if I was more annoyed or scared of her. “Stop doing that, for God’s sake!”
I finally spotted her a yard or two away perched in a chair faced backwards. She pushed her chin into her arms against the back of the chair and gazed off somewhere to my left. She was fuzzy and grainy, like when someone takes a picture in low light. I stared at her fingernails, tiny from where I sat. Her blonde split ends poked into the edges of my vision and vanished. I held on to the image. “Come on,” she whined softly in a voice I didn’t want to recognize. “Just look at me or something. Let me talk to you.” I scoffed.
“What, isn’t that what you just tried to do?” She paused and furrowed her eyebrows.
“Yeah, well, okay. I see your point. But I’m done, I’m done now.” Her tone lifted and warmed in a cheeky grin. She tugged on her sleeves again. A vision of her wrist scored with fresh, bright, shallow cuts floated in, misty behind my eyes. I don’t cut there anymore.
I picked at a scar on the opposite arm and decided to shut up and let her explain. The faster she talked, the faster she’d leave.
“You don’t need to be afraid of me, you know. Remember, I told you I’d only hurt you at night?” A sour taste hit the back of my throat. I grimaced, narrowing my eyes. The maroon pavement between my shoes went fuzzy. “I only wanted to scare you because I don’t really know you that well anymore.”
“That’s kind of the point,” I retorted under my breath. I drove my teeth deeper into my lip as the troubling reality of who she is—was—weighed heavy in my gut. I followed her fingers picking at the blue jacket sleeves, and a thought flashed in my head.
“You don’t know who he is now.” I raised my eyebrows at her hands where unraveled fabric rested. That was my brother’s jacket.
“Not anymore,” she agreed in a murmur. Her voice was muffled and far away from where I sat. She sounded gentle, nonthreatening.
I didn’t reply right away. “I think you’d like him.” At once I wanted to take it back. The left side of her mouth lifted in a grin.
“It’s not like I’ve forgotten him altogether.” At this, a wave of nausea passed over me and I bit my tongue against a moan of disgust. She’s never said my name before. “He couldn’t have changed much in two years.” In case she tried to look at me, I turned my attention to the street and watched cars whiz by.
A sour taste rose in my throat again and I grimaced. “I’m not gonna talk to you about him.” Resentment flared in my veins, and I breathed in through my nose to keep my temper. Not about my brother, not about my life now.
I heard her click in protest. “Well, why not?” Her voice sounded much clearer, not muffled under piles of cotton like it was earlier. I clenched my jaw shut and frantically tried to decipher her tone. At any moment she could catch me off guard and hurt me. I couldn’t be sure she was being sincere.
Why is she switching tones like this on me?
I’ve always been pretty gullible, and she became alarmingly manipulative since we’ve been apart.
“I deserve to know about them, don’t you think?” she drawled. Her voice kicked up a notch in my head, and a wave of panic took hold. Was she testing me?
Keep your mouth shut. I focused on my chest rising and falling and struggled to find the right response. I was at a loss for words, and didn’t know what I could possibly say to avoid conflict. As soon as she noticed I was floundering, she would have the upper hand.
“I don’t know,” I hissed at last. I hoped the defeat wasn’t obvious in my voice.
From the corner of my vision, the girl leaned back luxuriously and pointed her toes out in a stretch. “Mhm.”
She wasn’t convinced.
I curled my fingers into my palms and pressed them in my lap. Panic began to fill my lungs like a faucet filling a shot glass. I swallowed hard and forced it down. Shards of images of her flashed translucent and smudged behind my eyes. Despite my effort, I couldn’t cling to one long enough. They darted by until I glanced at the chair where she was sitting.
There wasn’t anyone there.
There are rare moments when I’m lucid; I can break from my tunnel vision of trauma-induced intrusive memories and register my surroundings in real time. I can acknowledge her for who she is: not real, a memory my brain conjures up to protect me from my trauma, but only for a second or two. Then, she takes me by the wrist and drags me under the surface.
I shifted my gaze around and caught a glimpse of her the same way I left her in the chair. She seemed pleased to see me again. Maybe she was just smug. I scowled and picked at the lint on my jeans.
Neither of us spoke for a while. I anxiously tensed up for a retort, a snarl, a threatening reprimand of some sort. But she stayed silent. I was half hopeful she would stand up abruptly and kick off through the parking lot, into the glare of headlights and street lamps and dissolve. But she didn’t. The girl scuffed her shoes against the ground and stuck her thumbnail between her teeth. She was incredibly relaxed compared to me. I cursed my trembling hands and the sweat forming on my neck. You’re the man here. Get it together.
My muscles felt stiff and hot under my skin, and I worked my jaw in tiny, scraping circles. I frowned at the freckle on her left hand.
“Ease up, man.” My shoulders twitched and I felt terror rush down my back. She nudged her nose deeper into her elbow and let her head loll to the other side. “I won’t bite.”
I tried to keep my obvious nervous fidgeting to a minimum. She gave a heavy, bored sigh. “Oh for the love of God, would you just say something?” she groaned at last. I flinched against the echo in my head that made her sound more amplified, larger than she really was. She is dangerous, I reminded myself. Give her what she wants. She won’t hurt you if you give her what she wants.
Every time I asked her this question she would ignore me, but this is the one thing I needed to know. “Just tell me this one thing.” I tapped my foot in slow thuds with each syllable, dragged out deliberately to prepare for any signs of advance from her. “J-just this.”
“Hm?” She bit her upper lip and stared ahead past me, out into the parking lot. She’s still paying attention. You know that. I slid my heels onto the edge of my chair to tie and untie my shoelaces. Her fingers slid back inside her sleeves. She balled up the ends of her sleeves in her hands and exhaled, waiting.
We never had much patience.
Part of me wanted to look her in the eye, to know I was getting a sincere answer from her, but if we made eye contact it would be all over. She would become the dead girl I should’ve been and take it out on me.
“What is your name?”
She went stiff, the inside of her lip caught between her teeth. I felt fear prick the back of my neck. She scuffed her toe against the ground and unhooked her foot from her ankle, and I felt my muscles tighten. She didn’t breathe as she slowly pushed herself upright in her chair. I didn’t realize I had clamped down on my tongue in terror until she narrowed her eyes, glaring into the weak sunlight.
“You think I owe you that?” Her biting snarl exploded in my head in a burst of volume. I bit back a yelp of surprise and held my breath to wait out the ringing in my ears. “I don’t owe you anything!” I fought to stifle the rising panic in my stomach and watched her out of the corner of my eye. Long moments slid by without a word between us.
Gradually, she let her shoulders relax. She reached behind her. I followed her hand as she tugged at the tie she used to keep her hair up with and let her hair drape the hood of her jacket. An unsettling shiver rattled my spine. She looked that much more familiar. The girl turned in her chair and let her gaze fall on my shoes.
“You remember,” she began snidely.
“I do not. Absolutely not, girl,” I snapped at once, fighting to keep my breathing under control. “I do not remember you.” I wish I didn’t.
“Hey!” I saw surprise, of all things turn her cheeks pink. “Don’t yell at me.” She pushed her fingers through the length of her hair and fiddled with the zipper on her jacket. I used to have that jacket. We had the same freckle on the left hand. She leaned her elbows on her knees and let her head hang.
“You were me, after all.” She lazily flipped the hood over her head and smiled to herself.
Oh, my God.
A flash flood of anger boiled in my chest so intense it took my breath away.
“That is Keegan’s jacket!” I gasped, slamming my palms on the table. Every nerve in my hands tingled. I watched her freeze, like someone hit “pause” on a movie; her limbs were not stiff this time, she didn’t go rigid all of a sudden, but she was still. I could feel the tense silence stretch between us. My pulse roared in my ears.
Hot rage flushed my cheeks and my stomach churned. I let seething anger hiss through my teeth as the moments dragged on. She has no right to meddle in my life now, to pretend my existence is still part of hers. We are separate now. A bitter feeling of disgust welled in my chest as seconds ticked by and she didn’t make a move.
To my horror, a knot began to tighten in my throat. I decided to break the silence. “Keegan John is not… not your brother anymore,” I demanded through gritted teeth, willing my voice to not give out. “He is my brother.” I glared at her and pressed my palm into my chest. Suddenly I was aware of my racing heart and squeezed my eyes shut.
I’ve never yelled at her before.
She’s gonna hit you, she’s gonna hit you! You’ve done it this time!
Terror flooded my system, and my heart rate spiked. I felt my muscles tense painfully in preparation to flee. Instinct. I forced myself to not move and open my eyes.
After what felt like an eternity, she—agonizingly slowly—shifted her focus to me. I flinched as we met eyes for the first time.
Reality slid out of motion into a time crawl. A frame of an image a second. I could hear time drag it’s claws against the concrete and everything was too slow that even my heart felt like it didn’t want to keep up.
She gazed back with a level, steely gaze I wasn’t prepared for. I did not recognize it. She flicked hair out of her face and stretched the sleeves into her palms.
“Yeah,” she nodded. “I know. But he was our brother at one point, remember.” She looked at me the way I suddenly realized I looked at Shane.
A bolt of horror shook my limbs and I said nothing. I yearned to look away, but she held my gaze in hers for several more moments, staring intently. As seconds passed, her eyes unfocused and changed. She seemed to look at me softer than I ever thought she was capable of, gazing shyly. For a moment she didn’t look threatening. Her voice didn’t fill my head. She didn’t move. A noise I’ve never heard in her presence began to buzz softly. White noise comfortably filled my head like cotton as she chewed on her lip in concentration. She continued to stare.
I haven’t changed much from her. I have more freckles, straighter teeth, a better haircut, a deeper pattern of scars. But our eyes were the same. Are the same.
I let her search my expression for a reason I couldn’t put my finger on. She didn’t deserve my permission. She didn’t deserve to know any more about me.
However, I suppose I’ve taken enough from her. The least I can do is give her a window to who she created, who I’ve become, who she can no longer be.
I blinked, and her chair was empty. An unexpected ache hollowed my chest.
“Bye. Thanks for talking.” Whether that was her or I who spoke, I don’t know.