Del was sitting in a parking space.
Or to be more specific she was sitting in one of those lawn chairs that you buy from the dollar store that seem old and used even when new. The space was a wonderful spot, really it was. The car beside her blocked the sun, the stench from the garbage didn’t carry over this far, and she could see everything even down the road where the waves gleamed like expensive gems against the neck of the beach.
Somewhere down there was her mother. Before she left, she’d stood in front of Del with her ripped towel folded neatly under her arm, her flip-flops a bright smear against the dark of the pavement, and her skin as white and tragic as the shell of a cracked egg, and she’d asked Del if she wanted to go down to the beach with her.
Del had never really enjoyed going to the beach. In fact, she’d always kind of hated it. Her memories of it were twisted, a place in which every one of its enjoyments was an attempt at trying to steal you away—the water pulling at your body dragging you further from the shore, the sand swallowing your footsteps and making each one more difficult and the people so desperate to be content with the theft that their smiles were all that was left of their face, nothing but white teeth, bloodless gums, and lips stretched so far that they cracked over their own happiness.
So, she’d told her mother no. She did not want to go to the beach.
Now, sitting in the parking lot, she couldn’t stop looking at the fucking beach. She could see people mingling about and she knew that her mother would be down there by now, the only spot of stillness. Every time Del closed her eyes, she could see her; limbs unfolded like a pair of pale petals, hair spread around her face like vines ready to entangle anything within reach, and her mouth the macabre amusement of a Venus Fly Trap snapping at any young flies that would wander close enough. Even the beat of her heart would be like a plant, roots uncurling to encase all of her limbs so that each sensation and each touch would gain as much nutrients as it could from the world and people around her.
Del decided that the day was too hot to be sitting out in the smoldering parking lot, so she packed up her chair, leaving it leaning against the stairs of the apartment complex before climbing to her floor six flights above.
The view was dizzying.
The railing didn’t feel solid beneath her hands. It made her feel like she was standing on a bridge, creaking and shuttering, the ground tilting, her feet sliding, the waves as hungry as starved sharks, leaping to the water’s edge to reach her. It felt inevitable.
Then, as she was looking down, thinking about falling, there was a boy standing next to her, saying her name. She recognized him, but only just. He was the kind of person whose own looks conspire to make them forgettable. Not ugly, not handsome, not pale, not dark, but simple brown hair and brown eyes. It was as if each of his features were beginning to unmake themselves, beginning to fade back into the Earth. The only thing that set him apart was his magnificent height, but even that was forgettable for his form was so tall that it wavered with every shift as if it was nothing more than a trick of the light.
She wrenched her arm away from his hold, “What?”
She was still looking down at the pavement, but he leaned in front of her, blocking her view and for a moment she couldn’t see him, the sun at his back burnt away his image. For a moment the sight made her think of her father and how sometimes late at night he’d sneak into her room and kiss her forehead and tell her that he loved her before retreating back to the doorway where for a moment his form in the hallway light would look so black and empty, so small and pathetic that she’d have to turn away. Then…
The moment passed and the boy was himself again.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
When her mother came home from the beach, she wasn’t alone. Her boy was beautiful. He didn’t seem to belong in their kitchen, beneath the bare bulb, which usually turned everything sickly and yellow, but when touching him made him glow. His movements were effortless, the limbs sliding as if the air offered no resistance, as if he lived naturally in the air and had only recently decided to see life from below. Del could see why her mother had picked him.
Later, Del could hear their movements in the other room, the boy’s rough breath broken only by her mother’s moans which really sounded more like sobs. Each one sounded more broken then the last, becoming more and more hitched until the last one erupted into a shuddering cry like that of a hurt child that overcomes the initial shock and fully realizes the extent of their pain.
The quiet that came after was sometimes worse, Del could feel her body tense as the minutes passed, dreading the moment when the two emerged. The boy was always first, tugging at his shirt, zipping up his pants, and leaning against the counter with a smile. He tried so hard, but he always seemed to look to Del like someone who had fallen and hadn’t gotten up yet. Her mother though always looked fucking great. She was a new plant, growing up between the outstretched fingers of the boy trying to find the strength to push himself off the ground, her leaves green and vibrant and still rustling in a breeze that had already passed.
Then her mother would make something, fingers brushing along the stove top to see if it was hot yet, throwing her head back to laugh at something the boy had said, asking Del questions about what she did for the day, if anything special had happened. Del answered each of these questions easily, automatically, giving the kind of answers that you would give strangers in an elevator when they asked the same kind of questions. She never once told her mother about the calls she got from her father.
When her father called, the line was always scratchy as if it had torn and broken itself across the distance in which it had to travel.
Del didn’t care though. Just hearing his voice was enough for her. She would hold the phone close to her head and she wouldn’t imagine the mountains or the rivers that divided them. Instead, she would imagine the few times that he was home and they would go down to the arcade by the beach. He would nudge her shoulder and laugh as they played ski ball together. The sounds and lights from the one machine had been like a carnival to Del.
He would ask her how she was doing and she would tell him everything. She would tell him how hard it was here without him, how her mother seemed to be seeing a new boy each day, and she would tell him that she missed him. God, how she missed him. The words came easily and she would mean each one, but they were never important to her, not like his words were.
When he described his life for her, it seemed like a dream, some place that she could visit if she just closed her eyes.
She wanted to hear all of it.
He would tell her about the mountains that seemed to glow blue in the moonlight and the nights that seemed to be pinned down only by the stars and about the forests that when the wind brushed through them made the same sound as the waves at the beach. He made it seem magical and Del would always wait for the day when he would tell her that she could come to see it too, that he was going to take her away from her life here where the only dream like thing were the fires on the beach at night, sparked up from people that had nothing to shield them but the sand and the surf. Del would watch them from her window, the people gathered around, hands held out to gather warmth. They looked like witches casting a curse and sometimes as she stood and watched them she swore she could hear their words, whispered against her neck.
Each time her father didn’t ask though, Del thought of the witches and their curse. Was this what her curse would be, to be stuck here? But, no, she convinced herself that it wasn’t like that. The only reason that her father didn’t ask was because it wasn’t the right time, that he wanted her to come when his world was the most beautiful.
Del never stopped imagining what it would look like when he did finally ask her.
Her mother’s new boy was different than all the others. He had an age to him that the other boy’s didn’t have, and the way he shone underneath the light while still brilliant was more subdued as if the light was coming from within him instead of simply reflecting off the gold of his skin.
At first, despite his differences, Del thought he would be like all the others. Her mother would sleep with him and that would be that. He’d be gone within a few hours, but, no, they didn’t disappear into her mother’s room together.
They stayed in the kitchen talking.
It seemed like they talked for hours.
After that he was a regular at the household.
He would be there all the time.
He was there morning.
He was there at night.
He was there even when her mother wasn’t.
Del thought it would pass. She was certain. Her mother would move on to someone else sooner or later. She always did.
Then Del came home one night to find the two of them singing. She stood there watching them for a while. It’d been a long time since she’d heard her mother sing. The last time had been when Del had been sick from school and her mother had sat at the edge of her bed and sang her to sleep just like she used to do when Del was a kid. Del had loved the way her mother’s voice had sounded, a single note rising and falling in the darkness behind her eyes, and Del had loved how the last feeling she’d had before fully drifting to sleep was the feel of her father’s hand against her arm as he stood with his other arm wrapped around his mother’s shoulders listening to her sing
But now it was her mother and the man, so close to one another. They clung to each other like a pair of vines that had grown so close and have forgotten that they were ever meant to be separate, and the way they moved, so gentle and slight, swaying only with each other’s movements as if nothing could loosen the hold they had on each other.
The man was singing, a song that was clear and bright like a hummingbird zipping through the garden, and her mother’s voice rose up to meet him so light and sweet like drops of sugar water on a flower petal.
Del wanted to rip them apart. She wanted to yell and scream until she couldn’t hear their music anymore. She wanted to tell them that this wasn’t supposed to happen, that none of this was supposed to have happened.
But, she stayed silent and it was still the man and her mother leaning against each other, it was still the man’s neck that her mother had her arms wrapped around, and she was still smiling up at him as if she was thanking the sun for its warmth.
And her father was still hundreds of miles away.
When her father called the next day, Del told him all about the man.
She could hear the way her voice shook like an old window against the wind. It sounded like she was going to shatter at any moment, like she could do nothing more to stop the wind and the rain from pouring forth. For a moment she closed her eyes trying to steady herself, but every time she closed her eyes she kept seeing the man and her mother leave, heading toward the beach and leaving her all alone.
Del didn’t know why she cared.
She didn’t want to be here anyway.
“What’s he done?” Her father asked. He could hear the way her voice shook too.
“Than what’s the matter, Del? Your mother has to move on too. I’m just glad she’s finally taking it seriously.”
“Del, you should be happy for her.”
She closed her eyes again, but again the picture of her mother and the man entered her mind. It had been like a dream. The ocean set lazily in front of them like a blue gem that they need only reach out for, their hands interlocked, and her mother’s yellow flip-flops all but glowing as if even the sun was guiding her steps.
Why were her parents the only ones who got to dream?
The static buzzing from the line sounded like the ocean, a false promise from empty air. Del had never wanted so badly to get away from the ocean, to get away from her mother.
“Can I live there? With you?”
“Del,” Her father sighed her name. The last time he had heard him say her name like that had been the night he left. She’d asked him then as well if she could come with him. At least then he’d held her for a moment as she cried, but now she was alone and the tears felt colder than ever before.
“We’ve talked about this. It’s so far away and we don’t have the space. I’m sorry, Hun.”
“Yeah, yeah,” She answered quickly. Her fingers clenched against the phone so tightly that she could hear the plastic creak, “I get it. Sorry I asked.”
“Del, don’t be like that.”
Beneath his words, drifting up like smoke from a fire she could hear their voice, the sound of his new wife and his new kids. Every time she heard them during one of their conversations, Del could never stop imagining them. His new wife so pretty and pure, never yelling as Del’s mother often had, and his new kids that looked nothing like Del or her father with their green eyes and hair so dark that it was waves of black and dark blue like the ocean at night. It had never mattered that they didn’t look like her dad though. Del had seen all the pictures they had posted on line. Her dad hoisting them up above his shoulders, giving them bunny ears in all of their pictures, and grimacing in the face of their cheers when he let them win at some video game. No, he loved them even though they weren’t his own.
“Del,” Her father said, his voice a whisper, “I love you,”
He’d said the same thing the night he left.
Her father hadn’t called since he’d told her he loved her and Del hadn’t felt like calling him back. She could still hear the sound of his other family in the background, still see the image of him leaving. Had he ever planned to come back for her?
And, her mother was even more engrossed into the man she’d brought home. Each day it seemed harder for Del to tell the difference between the two of them, the way her mother wrapped her hands around him when he was in the room like a vine reaching for something to pull it upward, completely entangling the thing they grabbed. Soon there would be no need for anyone else.
Del started to feel like a ghost, one that her parents had inherited but were now trying to escape from. She wondered what would happen to her when they finally did escape. Would she even notice their absence? After all, it couldn’t be much worse than this.
Del was back in the parking lot.
She was sitting in the lawn chair, staring up at the night sky. It was cloudy tonight and all she could make out above her was an orange tinted darkness. It reminded her of the jack-o lanterns that she saw littering people’s porches after Halloween. All rotten and dark, a smile still twisting their faces even though the only place left for it was the dump. Just another thing that hadn’t known it was meant to be forgotten.
She squinted against the darkness until her eyes landed on the boy, the one that had leaned too close to her on the railing, the one who had reminded her of her father. Del considered throwing the beer she’d been drinking at him but reconsidered. It would be such a waste, and after all the trouble she’d gone to getting it, sneaking past her mother and her boyfriend, lying when her mother had looked up for a moment to ask where she was going. So, taking another drink Del turned back to the sky, watching the night rot.
“Del?” He was still there, moving closer, and Del squinted up at him again. He didn’t look any more memorable than he had the other night. Still simple and wooden like a face carved into the bark of a tree, no definition to its edges, but without the light making his form waver, he at least looked more solid. Del couldn’t help but wonder how much he saw from that height? Did the world seem simpler, less cruel? God, for his sake she hoped so.
“What do you want?”
“Are you alright?”
“Why do you care?” She looked back toward the sky. The moon was slipping between the clouds now, its light dim and exhausted as if it had been struggling against the clouds for days, for years even, and had only now been able to break free. Too bad the clouds were moving back in.
“I don’t know. I guess I just do.” He shrugged, rubbing a hand at the back of his neck. He sighed; once more reminding her of her father and she flinched before she could stop herself. If he noticed, then he didn’t say anything, for which she was thankful. “You are my neighbor after all.”
She looked back up at the apartment. Her mother and her man had long since gone to bed. When her mother had finally slept with the man, her sounds had changed. She wasn’t the child that had discovered their own brokenness, but the angel that discovered they could fly. Her sounds like the beating of wings in the air, her cries like she was discovering the sky for the first time.
She was happy now, truly happy now. Del could see it in the way she moved, so alike the boys she’d brought home in the past, untethered by anything as foolish as gravity. Del should be happy for her. That’s what her father had said, but how could she be when it meant she was left all alone on the ground.
“Hey,” Del looked up at the boy, but he wasn’t looking at her but down at the beach. “You wanna go to the beach.”
“It’s the middle of the night,”
“I know, but I was heading down there anyway. It’s quiet,” He looked back toward his own apartment. Del could see the light on there, shadows moving angrily against the light as if trying to reach for it and put it out. “Helps me sleep.”
“I don’t really like the beach,” Del told him.
“Come on,” He smiled at her and finally Del found something about him that was worth memorizing. “What could you have to lose?”
Del looked at him and then down at the beach. She’d always thought of it as a place that was always trying to steal you ways. The sand, the waves, the people; all of them conspiring together, but the boy was right. She didn’t have anything left to lose.
When they got to the beach, Del’s eyes immediately went to the fire that was burning in the distance. She could still conjure up the image of witches that she always thought about when she saw these people down on the beach, but closer up they looked exactly like what they were—people. Some of them were simply cold and trying to get warm, but others further down the beach were laughing and drinking around their fires, music softly cooing to the night as if in a serenade.
“You act like you’ve never been to the beach before,” The boy laughed looking down at her as she stared at the people.
“Never at night,” She turned toward the waves, taking off her shoes so that she could feel the water brush against her feet. The waves were endless and dark, but so gentle as they washed against her bare skin as if they knew how she felt about them but was determined to change her mind.
“Hm,” He moved a little closer to her. She could feel his warmth even before he touched her. “Why not?”
She leaned against him. His fingers were so warm like her father’s had been when she was younger and he would hold her hand as she walked to school. Del hadn’t realized how cold she’d gotten over the past few years. “Because my parents wouldn’t let me. They thought it was too dangerous to go alone.”
“I guess that’s true,” He leaned down and scraped up glob of sand, throwing it into the water. She couldn’t hear when it hit over the sounds of the waves. “But you’re not alone.”
She looked up at him, “True,”
“Besides,” He laughed bending down to pick up another glob of sand, “Who wants to go anywhere alone. It’s boring.”
He started to laugh, but then must have heard the seriousness in her voice or seen the shimmer of light off the tears in her eyes—foolish, foolish tears. When he touched her, his hands were gritty with sand, but she could still feel their warmth pouring into her. Compared to his warmth, she felt like ice. “Del, are you sure you’re alright?”
Why’d he have to be so nice?
Why couldn’t he just kiss her like other guys would have?
“I’m feel so alone.”
“But you’re not,” He said, his voice was so quiet that it could have been one of the waves brushing her skin, “You’re not. I’m here.”
“No, you’re not,” She pushed him away. God, she was a fool, crying in front of someone she didn’t really know. Maybe that was why everybody ended up leaving her “You’re just a stranger!”
“Hey! I am not just a stranger,” He grabbed her arms and she jerked in surprise, but then he smiled, his face brighter than the light from the moon or the stars beginning to glimmer against the clouds, “I’m your neighbor.”
Despite herself she laughed.
“And,” He leaned down closer to her so that she could look him in the eyes. His eyes were still brown, nothing changed them, but like the rest of them they were oh so warm. “I’m not leaving… at least not right now. Can’t you just… enjoy my company while I’m here?”
She kissed him.
She wasn’t sure when exactly she had made the decision to do so. It had seemed like one moment he was smiling down at her with that stupid smile that seemed to have stolen the stars from the sky and the next moment she was kissing him, and he was kissing her back (because no guy was that nice not to kiss her back) and he was so warm, so goddamn warm that each touch made her shudder as if she had caught on fire.
He kept saying her name as if he was afraid she was the one who was going to leave and he was the one that needed to call her back, but she wasn’t going anywhere.
In fact, she couldn’t pull him as close as she actually wanted. She wanted him close enough to eclipse all the images inside her head of her mother and her man, of her father and his children. She didn’t want to see them leaving her anymore, like everyone seemed to be leaving her. She wanted to be the one that left, the one that turned her back on them, and for a single moment when she closed her eyes and her body was shuddering against the searing heat of the boy’s skin, she wasn’t alone.
She wasn’t alone.