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She startles and glances up, biting her lip distractedly as her eyes meet his. She looks away almost immediately and back down at her paper, her breath whooshing out in a faint sigh.
She drops her pen and notices for the first time how tightly she had been clenching it for the past two hours. She shakes her hand loose, trying unsuccessfully to work the achy stiffness out of her fingers, and silently berates herself for at least the fifteenth time since school let out.
Saying yes to spending an hour alone with the guy who you've been hopelessly in love with since fourth grade is not, and never will be, even remotely a good idea.
She sweeps her pens and notebook into her backpack and zips it, feeling his eyes on her the entire time. She sucks in a shaky breath and turns, flashing him a quick smile.
He shrugs. “I thought we'd do the shoot by the Physics hallway.”
She nods, too nervous to say anything. They leave the empty classroom, and she follows him down two flights of stairs to the ground floor of the school. The wall-length windows at the end of the unlit corridor cast dappled shadows on the smooth tiles, and the pale white sunlight catches in her eyelashes and throws dancing white spots across her vision. The late-afternoon November light, clinging to the last minutes of the day, creates an ethereal effect in the hall: she almost feels as if she's underwater.
She slips off her backpack and pretends not to watch as he paces the length of the corridor, searching for camera angles and shadow gradients that only he can see, his tousled hair falling just enough into his face that she can't make out his expression.
At last he turns and meets her eyes.
“Could you sit by the windows?”
She tries to walk normally, even as her heart jumps at the sound of his footsteps behind her. She reaches the end of the corridor and blinks in the stark light streaming in from the window. The stray strands of her hair illuminate with a pleasant golden toffee color as they hover in front of her face.
She turns and finds him watching her, his stare open and direct. She rolls her shoulders back as a tingle skips up her spine. His eyes drop from hers to the heavy black camera cradled in his hands, and he appears to think for a moment.
He looks back up. “Could you let out your hair?”
She nods and reaches up to wordlessly undo her braid, her fingers working through the kinks in the thick, soft locks. She lays the loose waves on her shoulders and looks at him expectantly, determined now to behave as normally as possible. She has years of practice hiding her feelings, and she can feel her defense mechanisms whirring as her face schools itself into a composed mask.
He exhales and cocks his head to the side, squinting at her in a way that instantly makes her feel unbelievably self-conscious. “Can you sit cross-legged … and look slightly down and to your right?”
She silently complies, sitting on the dusty floor and crossing her legs before glancing down over her right knee.
She hears the rustling of his jeans as he lowers himself onto his haunches, and then the snap-click of the shutter, followed by the whir of the Polaroid camera spitting out its product.
She holds still and marvels at the fact that this boy – the same one she has been staring longingly after since she was nine years old, the same one she has had to muster up courage just to talk to – has just taken a picture of her, an everlasting memory of her. She quells her laughter and wonders ruefully if he'll still have the picture twenty years from now, and look back on it and realize that it's the face of a girl who loved him.
“It's good,” he finally says, and she can tell from the low, relaxed tone of his voice that he's telling the truth. “I'll probably only need a couple more, and then we'll be done.”
She swallows. “Okay.”
He asks her to rest her head against the window, to stretch her legs out, to pull her hair over one shoulder, but he never asks her to look anywhere but down to her right.
As she sits with her back pressed against the warm glass, her knees drawn up to her chest, she finds herself fervently hoping he'll use one of these portraits in his portfolio. She knows it's unlikely – she's the last of a dozen people he's photographed today, most of them people he knows and likes better than her, but she wants it to happen so badly that she somehow can't fathom it not happening.
As the Polaroid clicks and whirs, her mind wanders back to when he asked her to model for him. She counts back the days in her head; it was the first time they had exchanged so much as a word in four months and two weeks. His request had stunned her; she'd smiled and said “sure” as casually as she could, but she remembers how her heartbeats had pounded in her ears as they parted ways.
She had come to school this morning wearing the “comfortable, nondescript” outfit he had asked for, an ensemble of a slouchy boat-neck off-the-shoulder gray sweater, gold-tasseled necklace, skinny gray pants, and black Converse that had taken her an hour to decide on, feeling more anxious than she had a right to be. And now, what now?
She's pulled out of her reverie when he rises to his feet, observing a cluster of shiny Polaroids in his hands. She brushes her hair out of her face and asks, “Are we done?”
His eyes are fixed on the Polaroids, the shifting chiaroscuro light that fills the hallway throwing patterns of light and shadow across the topography of his face, and she feels a sudden pressure in her chest and finds herself hoping that he has photographed his fill of her so she can grab her backpack and run and preferably never look back. But then he looks at her and says, “Almost. Just one more,” and she swallows and asks, as she always does, as she always will, “Which pose?”
She expects him to say “Down, right,” and he does, but then adds, the inflection of his voice changing slightly, “Keep your face tilted like that, but look up at me.”
A sudden hot flush flares up at the back of her neck, and she can feel it infusing into her cheeks, but she pushes it down, inwardly kicking herself for reacting.
“Sure.” She turns her face in the usual direction, then glances up at him. “Is this okay?”
“Yeah. Just like that.” He pauses, looking at her, and she feels her heart thudding hollowly against her ribs, feels the hot flush rise up into her cheeks. Then he lifts the viewfinder to his eye and takes the shot. Click, whir, and the camera deposits a sepia-toned Polaroid into his waiting hand.
His eyes linger on the picture long enough to send skittering sparks of uncertainty across her skin, but he nods and glances up, his eyes meeting hers.
“Perfect,” he says, and she feels a mixture of relief and disappointment break over her like a tidal wave, pungent and salty and bittersweet.
She gets to her feet and pulls the tangled cluster of her hair over her shoulder. “Cool. Am I free to go?”
He nods quickly. “Yeah. Oh, wait … do you want to see the pictures?”
“Sure.” Her body feels oddly weightless as she walks to his side. He gets down on his knees and spreads out a dozen or so Polaroids on the floor, forcing her to kneel next to him. And as she looks at them, she feels a strange sensation bubbling up in her chest, and her throat goes dry.
The pictures are good, really good, in a way that she hadn't expected. They are sharp and clear, the shadowy underwater light of the corridor accented in the way it suddenly segues into the brightness of the sun setting through the window. The grainy, sepia wash of the photos giving them a precious look, as if they're treasured memories, fragile, to be treated with care. There are a couple close-ups where her downturned face takes up most of the photo. In these, each toffee-colored strand of hair hovers like a halo around her head, and her usually indiscernible freckles can just barely be seen on her cheekbones. She notes how her eyes are not visible in any of the pictures.
Then he lays the last one on the floor and her heart almost stops. In the photo she sits, shoulders up, and the sun is setting over the pine trees behind her. Her hair curls around her face, and her eyes stand out in sharp relief, looking directly into the camera. Even she can make out the tense, anxious yearning in her eyes.
She practically leaps to her feet, smoothing out the front of her dust-smudged sweater with trembling hands, looking anywhere but at him. “Wow, great, I mean, they're all really great. I have to go, but, um, good luck with your, with your portfolio.”
“Yeah,” he exhales. “Thanks for doing this.”
She begins to walk away as quickly as she can without breaking into a run, her breathing sharp and angry, silently screaming at herself for being stupid, so stupid. And then suddenly she stops in the middle of the hallway, so suddenly that her Converse squeak against the floor, and before she can change her mind, she turns and asks, “Why did you ask me to do this?”
He glances up. “What?”
“Why did you ask me to model for you?”
“I …” he trails off and exhales, and suddenly her insides turn to lead. He glances down at the Polaroids in his hand. “I wanted to show emotion.”
She stares at him. A cold, chilling thought slowly creeps over her. “So you knew.”
He nods, slowly. “Yeah.”
He pauses. “Since freshman year.”
“Freshman year.” Her voices sounds oddly flat echoing down the empty corridor.
“Yeah, but I wasn't,” his eyes flicker away and back, “I was never sure.”
She swallows, “Are you sure now?”
This time he does not look away. “Yeah.”
She feels sick and dizzy and lightheaded, and she doesn't know whether to cry. “Oh, okay.” She shrugs. “You knew.” She bites her lip, laughs; the words sound bitter and sardonic echoing along the empty hall. “So you just thought, ‘Hey, I'll use all of that, that crazy, pent-up emotion for my photography portfolio,' did you?”
“No.” His gaze is open, unflinching. “It was the other way around.”
She opens her mouth, then closes it again. “What, what is that supposed to mean?”
He shakes his head. “I wanted to know for sure. And now I do.”
They stare at each other, her breathless, him waiting, and then, in a single, instantaneous second, the realization hits her like a double stroke of lightning, like an entire world crashing down on her. She gasps and tears spring into her eyes.
It takes him seven steps to reach her and kiss her. It takes her seven seconds to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him back. Seven steps, seven years, seven seconds. The Polaroids drop from his hands and flutter around their feet.