The Gap in the Hedge

I rushed up the path, trying to keep the hedges from snagging my clothes or hair. At least there were no other students to dodge, just the brambles protruding into the walkway. I steered out of reach of most, until my bag tangled, wrenching me to a halt. I worked to release it and calculated the likelihood of getting scolded when, or if, I got to class. When the hedge relented, I moved to make a run for it, but instead found myself hurtling back into the thorns, then through them, a hand clenched around my arm. For a moment I froze, all gasps and scratches. Then he spoke.

“Where have you been?”

I responded with silence. Blinking, I craned my head to see his face, but couldn’t. Something about the angle of the sun and the flow of the breeze seemed to get in the way. His features swam and wiggled, and my eyes failed to capture his appearance. It made me feel like the earth rumbled under my feet, and I stopped trying to make eye contact.

He cleared his throat. “We have to get going.”

When he didn’t elaborate, I replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

He let out one boom of a laugh, then paused. “No?” I shook my head. “Oh.”

As he lapsed into thought, my eyes scanned his frame. The clothing he wore seemed to flicker between a business suit and monk’s robes, and the more consideration I paid these discrepancies, the more my knees wobbled, so again I abandoned my attempts at observation.

“Okay,” he said. “I still think you are who you are, or you are who you ought to be, so let’s go.”

A voice inside my head pointed out that this was the moment to run screaming and alert Campus Safety to the presence of this stranger, but instead my mouth opened and asked, “Where?”

“Hmm, well,” he responded, shifting his weight in a way that made the changeability of his features bubble and flare, and I had to look away or risk seasickness. “That is not my task, that is yours. I am the transportation, you are the destination.” At his words, thoughts and feelings rearranged inside me, like marbles rolling into knotholes on a wood floor or door latches clicking into place, and I longed for him to go on. “Shall I show you?” I nodded, and he fanned the fingers of his right hand. “Choose one.”

I touched the tip of my forefinger to the tip of his pinkie, and the sight of this man and the hedges disappeared. I saw a meadow, until my eyes winced from the smoke and my stomach heaved from the smell. Both emanated from a pile of bodies. I felt a tug and looked to see my left fist clenching a sword. A glint caught my eye, and my gaze turned to trace armor from my right shoulder to my wrist. My finger still touched the man’s pinkie. I searched his face. Although his nose, eyes, and mouth wavered as in a heat haze, I could discern his fear. I broke our connection and touched his ring finger.

We stood in a shop. Relief flooded me. The man laughed, and I broke our connection to explore. Puppies romped in a pen, and we both knelt and chose one. The man named his Honey and mine Boo. They scurried down an aisle, and the man and I chased the clack of puppy claws throughout the store. We admired the birds, fish, lizards and mice, as the slant of the sunlight lengthened. When a door slammed, I grabbed my puppy. The man hefted his, too, and fanned out his hand. For a moment I wavered, then shook my head. I hated to do it, but I took his puppy in my arms and dropped them both back into the pen before touching his middle finger.

My feet hit dirt. I opened my eyes to a path and hedgerows.

“Oh,” the man mumbled. “Isn’t this where we came from?”

“No,” I replied, and I knew it in my bones. I took a step down the path. “This way.”

If You’re Listening / Sing It Back

I am going to tell you about the day my life changed.

The funny thing about that day was that it was different from the very start. I woke up in a foul mood. The winter light was too gray, everything smelled off, and my hair had tangled so much overnight that my scalp ached. I stumbled out of my room only to find the bathroom door locked, with the sound of my roommate’s latest playlist muffled by the running shower. I swiveled a chair around and slumped into it, waiting my turn with a frustration that compounded every minute. Finally the hum of the water sputtered out and the Savage Garden song playing reached my ears with its full range, “like-a-chicka-cherry-cola…” I stood up, resigning not to say a word when my roommate emerged, since my tongue was sure to be sharp this morning and nothing good would come of it. She didn’t know I was up so early and out here waiting, after all. But then the spray of the shower suddenly muted the overly-synthed bridge of “I Want You” once again. I flopped back into the chair and buried my face in the towel on my lap to stifle a yell of frustration. I remained in that posture until my roommate finally opened the bathroom door, sending billows of steam into the living room.

“Forget to wash the conditioner out?” I asked waspishly. So much for holding my tongue.

“Hmm?” my roommate squeaked, by way of a question. She was probably startled to find me there.

“What was with the start-and-stop routine?” I rephrased.

“Oh,” she said with a hint of a nervous giggle, making sure her towel was wrapped around herself snugly. “I was all done but I dried off in the wrong order. So I had to rinse off again and start over.”

My roommate can be a very unusual girl.

I decided against further conversation and dodged past her to enter the slippery bathroom. My bad temper blossomed as I grazed a bottle along the rim of the tub, making the whole row of body washes, shampoos and conditioners tumble like dominoes. The water temperature alternated between icy and scalding, twice making me flinch and knick my legs with my razor. And uncanny annoyances kept plaguing me as I rushed through the other preparations for the day: hangnail snagging on the towel, toe stubbed on the doorjamb, eye poked while I tugged on my shirt.

The foul mood simmered as I threw on clothes (my usual layers of black and charcoal), swiped on makeup (the iconic and miraculously easy combo of black eyeliner, mascara and red lip stain), and assembled a large tote of Saturday essentials (current book and magazines, iPod and headphones in case of noisy kids, camera in case I saw anything worth photographing, paper and pens and journal in case I felt creative). In a hurry I jammed on my parka, gloves and hat in the entryway, shouting a perfunctory “Bye!” over my shoulder just before the door slammed, heading off any possibility of my roommate tagging along.

I made it three strides out of my building before the cold hit me. For a fraction of a second I considered turning back, but my temper roared against any deviation from the plan, so I marched on. It was the kind of cold that is hard to describe unless you have experienced it yourself, the kind that makes you feel as though you perfectly understand the sensation of getting trapped beneath the ice of a frozen river. A steady wind of frigid air slapped my face and wriggled through my seams, down my collar and up my sleeves to freeze me through and through. In the brunt of such a chill, the nagging embarrassment of my rudeness towards my roommate my anger quickly evaporated, to be replaced by wonder at the stark emptiness of the streets on a Saturday morning, and then amazement that any human had ever lasted through a New England winter without indoor heating and polar fleece. Even my well-stoked bad mood got snuffed out on that walk. One by one, the cold extinguished all thought, like a fire deprived of oxygen, until only one pulsed through every fiber of my body: I am freezing.

Suddenly, through my frozen numbness, I found myself slamming the door behind me as I entered my safe haven, Trident Books. Once I had moved beyond the shivering stage to a state of frostbitten autopilot the walk had seemed absurdly quick. I followed the maitre d’ to the small café area and chose the table closest to the radiator. I shed my jacket, the cold clinging to it as though it had been soaked, and huddled up against the hot metal. After a minute or two I started shivering again, a sure sign that my body had survived and was coming back to life, because I suddenly noticed how atypical the scene was. Trident Books is the ultimate weekend destination, Boston’s last private bookstore complete with a to-die-for, postage-stamp-sized restaurant attached, and the usual wait could be up to an hour, easily. But the arctic conditions had apparently scared most Bostonians and tourists into staying home, as only a few other patrons occupied the tables around me, and the bar and booths in the back looked entirely vacant. With a surge of hope, I realize that I might be able to camp out here for the better part of the day, instead of wolfing down a delicious brunch and hurriedly making way for the next customer.

A couple of hours later, I surfaced from my book long enough to realize that the noise level and temperature of the café had risen considerably. Although still not at its normal Saturday capacity, the restaurant was certainly busier, and a line had even begun to grow. I saw my waitress, a goth-hipster with purple eye shadow, send a glare my way, and I pointedly took a few more bites of the remnants of my frittata and toast crusts. I tried to settle back into my book, but I knew my minutes at the table were numbered, and in fairness my waitress could only hope to score a tip of a few dollars on my cheap, two-hour-long breakfast. Before I could dejectedly reach for my coat, though, someone approached and pulled out the chair across from me.

“I have a proposition for you,” said the black-haired, brown-eyed, scruffy boy who had plopped into the seat. “I told them,” he nodded to the increasingly frazzled-looking maitre d’ and waitresses, “that I was meeting you here. You can just hang out, keep reading, maybe get another hour at the table, and I can get some hot food in me and possibly survive the hypothermia I’ve contracted.”

I rapidly weighed my options in my head, the likelihood of an annoying crazy stranger ruining my lazy Saturday versus the very appealing prospect of staying indoors, and in spite of myself, I laughed. The moody waitress approached and scolded me in a nasal voice, “You shouldn’t have taken a table if your entire party wasn’t present.”

“When I got here the place was empty,” I replied, and with a final appraising look at the hopeful, very cute boy across from me, I added, “and besides, this wasn’t planned, we just happened to be in the neighborhood at the same time.”

The boy broke into a huge grin, and peeled off his gloves to warm his hands on the radiator. The waitress took his order, then pivoted back to me.

“You’re not going to make him eat alone, are you?” she raised one narrow penciled eyebrow.

“Of course not. Another cup of coffee, and the challah French toast, with extra strawberries and sugar,” I told her with a too-sweet smile.

“Oh my God,” the boy said when the waitress had slunk away. “Thank you so much. I didn’t think she would blackmail you into ordering more food!”

“Not at all, it’s no big deal,” I shrugged it off. “I kind of owed it to her anyway. I’ve definitely overstayed my welcome.”

“Don’t let her scare you off! We’ll win her over again,” he said with a conspiratorial smile. He extended his hand across the table, and I noticed densely intertwined lines tattooed around his fingers. “I’m Kieran.”

“Molly,” I said with a smile, briefly meeting his eyes, then focusing on the intricate designs on his cold hand. I kept hold of it and rotated it for a better look. The six parallel lines and irregular spacing of dots and dashes had to be musical notes. There were small words running along his knuckles underneath the sheet music, but I couldn’t make them out upside down. With a start I realized how intimate the moment suddenly felt. I released his hand with a casual, “Nice ink.”

“Thanks.” He watched me intently, trying to judge whether I recognized it, while his left hand automatically rubbed the places on his right hand that my fingers had touched.

I was pleased to see that my bad manners hadn’t made him feel too awkward, and felt encouraged. “What song is it?”

He broke eye contact and unconsciously shifted in his seat. “It’s a song that meant a lot to me when I first started playing guitar,” he responded evasively. With a forced laugh he added, “The tattoo artist told me point-blank that if I didn’t want it as a conversation piece, I’d better not put it on my hands!”

Before I could think of a response the overly made-up waitress returned with our drinks, and I was glad for the interruption. Between holding his hand and then bluntly asking him about a personal topic, I was clearly making the interesting and painfully good-looking Kieran uncomfortable. And the possibility that he was a crazy stranger sent by fate to ruin my lazy Saturday only seemed half as likely as it did when he sat down! All of these facts combined to start the hint of a blush blooming in my cheeks. I knew that having gotten so cold earlier in the morning, my almost-albino skin would flare bright red if I went on this way, and in the midst of the waitress’s intrusion I haphazardly stripped off layers of clothing until I got down to a tee shirt, hoping my flush was stillborn.

After the waitress had cleared my old plate and we had each taken a moment to tend to our coffees, a loaded pause hung in the air. My mind raced as I tried to come up with a roundabout way to ask him about his tattoo-melody, since obviously I was not invited to repeat my question directly, but then he broke the silence first.

“You have some ink of your own,” Kieran said, somewhere between a statement and a question. “Your collar…” he added by way of explanation.

“Yes,” I responded, a little jumpy, as my hand shot to my rumpled tee shirt to smooth the fabric back over the blue and pink lines just peeking out. “The reason I’m no longer allowed to wear anything strapless in the presence of my mother,” I said with a laugh, my usual diffusion of the topic. Kieran nodded politely and pushed his food around the plate with his fork. I hesitated, wondering how to steer the conversation back to a stranger-friendly, harmless place. He seemed unsure whether to reach for his book or not; after all, he had promised me a small talk-free meal in his bargain. I decided to push ahead. “Did you say you used to play guitar?”

“Oh, no. I mean, yes. I mean, I do, still,” he answered, caught off guard. “I’m finishing up at Berklee actually. I play classical and electric guitar.”

“Wow, that sounds awesome,” I responded encouragingly. “I play acoustic.”

“Yeah?” He sat up straighter in his seat.

“Just for fun,” I clarified with my hands raised. “Really nothing special. I search out tabs for songs that I like and learn to play them, mostly to amuse myself. I’ve been at it for ten years, but I swear I’m still totally amateur.”

“No, that’s cool that you keep at it,” he said with a wide smile, stretching out his hand. “Let me see those calluses.” I placed my left hand in his, palm up, and he poked at my fingertips with his nail a bit. “Now those are not the calluses of an amateur.”

Another ticklish wave rushed from the fingertips he was prodding over the rest my skin. I pulled my hand back and nervously ran it along the neckline of my shirt again. “I’m not even intermediate, I swear!” I countered, trying to lighten the moment. “I still use silk and steel strings, since they’re softer.”

“Hey, classical uses nylon,” he responded with a shrug. “It’s not the gauge that makes the musician.”

“I like that,” I smiled back. In the safety of a shared interest, we talked over guitar brands, tablatures, and musicians well after our food arrived. Kieran had the simultaneously well-rounded and eclectic taste of someone who spent most of his time thinking about music, and I found that it comfortably overlapped with my more limited catalog. We had just discovered that we had both been at the same House of Blues show a few weeks earlier, when our purple eye-shadowed waitress reappeared and dropped an unasked-for bill between our plates. I looked around and saw that the afternoon had finally packed the store to its normal sardine-can level.

“Would you let us keep the table for a twenty?” Kieran asked. I swiveled back around to see that he had pulled out his wallet and was brandishing a crisp bill at our server. She gave him an appraising look, then pointedly glanced over her shoulder at the line. Kieran met my eyes with a sheepish smile, clearly saying, it was worth a shot.

“Make it forty,” I said, pulling out my own wallet.

“Done,” purple-eyes agreed, stuffing our bills into her back pocket. “It’s all yours.”

Alone again, Kieran and I shared a quick laugh over our victory, then lapsed into another tongue-tied moment. I felt embarrassed at so boldly investing in this conversation, and I could tell he did, too. Any chance of politely pulling out my book or heading back into the cold to do some shopping had been forfeited. Bribing the waitress had definitely pushed this chance meeting into something more serious, and in an unexpected wave of panic my mind went totally blank. Across from me, Kieran fidgeted, then lifted his coffee mug for a sip, forgetting he had already emptied it. My eyes lingered on the lines and dots woven around his fingers.

“It’s a peony.” He looked up again, and I tugged down the neck of my tee shirt deliberately, showing a purplish-pink flower under my left collarbone, with delicate script curling over and under it. “It says I was spinning free with a little sweet and simple numbing me. It’s from a Jimmy Eat World song. People give me shit about, like, having emo lyrics tattooed forever over my heart, but I don’t really care. It’s a powerful song.”

“‘Sweetness’? Really?” Kieran leaned as close as the table would allow, his face all lit up. He even let out a laugh, but it sounded like amusement or relief, not the derision I was half-expecting.

“Like it?” I asked, a little surprised at his enthusiasm, but mostly glad that I had decided to concede my secret. My smile matched his, and I laughed too.

“Yeah, no, absolutely,” he said, sitting squarely back in his chair and looking into my eyes with a renewed intensity. “I – I love that song, too. They’re the best…”

“…just not live,” we both said at the same time, then started laughing again.

After that there was no stopping us. The chatter of the crowded restaurant fell into the background as we raced through topics: albums, movies, books, pet peeves, childhoods, future plans. All of my usual ambivalence about explaining myself to someone new, picking and choosing what to reveal and how to present myself, simply melted away. This was fun. When a short, blonde waitress interrupted us, it took us both a moment to remember where we were.

“How long have you been here?” she asked curtly.

“Oh, um, a while?” Kieran responded.

“Where’s the waitress with the purple eye-shadow?” I asked.

“Her shift ended,” the waitress said. “Can I wrap anything up?”

“No, that’s okay, we’ll get out of your way,” I said, gathering my things as Kieran dropped a few bills on top of the check. Back on the street, the wind had stopped, and the air felt so mild I didn’t even bother putting on my hat or scarf. Maybe the brutal chill earlier in the day had simply skewed my body’s conception of cold. We kept talking as we ambled down Newbury Street, until we reached my cross-street.

“This is me.” I stopped on the corner, and he did too, turning to face me. “Thanks for lunch.”

“Hey, thanks for letting me join you.” He shot me an enticing smile as he tugged off a glove and began fumbling with his cell phone. “I’m getting your number, right?”

“Not so fast,” I said, and he looked up, surprised. I reached up and pulled his uncovered left hand toward me, and read aloud the words printed along the base of his fingers. “What a dizzy dance.” My stomach flipped, and I pulled the glove off of his right hand. “The sweetness will not be concerned with me.”

Shredded Women

Callie had red hair. So did her mother and three sisters, but one sister had dyed hers a more-strawberry-than-blonde shade of yellow, and the remaining sisters and the mother tinted theirs darker to reach the safe haven of all red heads, auburn. But Callie let her orange-red hair grow long, and every taunt of “ginger” or “carrots” or “leprechaun” made her tilt her nose higher and vow never, ever to change. Her friend called her Cherry Bomb, a nickname she wore with pride and not just stubbornness, since it fit her well: a big personality in a small package, with flame-colored embellishments. Callie loved her friends, because she had the sort of personality that brought out extreme reactions in people, so she knew the ones that stuck around were true blue.
After college Callie moved to Boston for work as a market trends analyst, because girls weren’t supposed to be spectacular at math or business and there were few things Callie savored like proving people wrong. She rode the Green Line twice a day between her Brighton apartment and Back Bay office. It was on one of these rides when she came to a conclusion, “I think it’s time to fall in love again.”
She had been staring at the bulky sweater emblazoned with a fuzzy red heart on the granny sitting across from her. And just like that, she swept the moderately crowded subway car with her eyes. She discounted most of the businessmen immediately, not ready for her accessory-to-a-midlife-crisis phase, and eliminated any of the boys who reminded her of ex-boyfriends: the ripped jock in the college varsity jacket, the hipster whose earbuds were color-coordinated with the belt buckle on his skinny jeans, and of course the slightly-short, slightly-stocky, dark-haired, Sox-lovers that made up the majority of the male population.
This task of appraising all men in sight aboard the 5:11 B-Line Outbound made a bubble of happiness well up in Callie’s heart. It combined two of her favorite pursuits: impulsiveness and statistics. She read once that, given the massive world population and a basic compatibility on personality traits and social values, any person could have a very happy relationship with a selection of approximately 10,000 potential mates. Some of Callie’s friends found that number ridiculous – what happened to the idea of The One? Others used it like a handkerchief, handy and comforting after a tearful break up, a consolation that there would be another, better relationship soon. But Callie had taken on that number as a dare, an exhilarating challenge to find a match for the girl she was now and the one she’d be next. Callie had announced that she would try her hardest to fall in love with every single one of her designated 10,000. Her friends tried to point out that if she successfully dated, and presumably broke up with, all 10,000, she would have defeated the purpose of the statistic altogether, but Callie didn’t pay that any attention.
So this train of thought, and her self-satisfying stream of ratios, dividing the men once and again to narrow down potential soul mates, had inadvertently produced a radiant smile on Callie’s face. Such a display of emotion was a risky act on the Green Line – better to look politely bored and draw no attention to yourself, otherwise some crazy person might take as a sign of provocation or invitation. Lost in thought, Callie had forgotten that bit of street smarts and let her face reflect the true and private enjoyment she was feeling.
And then the speeding subway train shot into a dark tunnel, and like the flick of the switch the window turned into a mirror. And instead of beaming absently out into nothing, Callie was suddenly making eye contact in the reflection with a boy further down the row. For a beat Callie’s exuberant expression began to morph into one of surprise at finding this young man staring at her in the glass, but then he returned a smile just as sincere as hers. A mere moment later the subway barreled into a bright station and the mirror turned back into a window, but Callie knew there was nobody else on the subway car that day that she could fall in love with.
In the confusion of exiting commuters clogging the entrance for passengers waiting on the platform, and the passengers on the platform blocking the egress of the exiting commuters, Callie slid through the crowd to get closer to her smile-boy. His seat was vacant, though, except for a paperback book. Looking at the slowly thinning mass by the doors, Callie caught sight of the boy just outside the car, patting his pockets and peering into his messenger bag. Still seized by the bliss of impulsiveness, Callie wrapped on the window with her mittened hand. The boy turned at the dull pounding, and smiled again when he saw Callie holding his book. Emboldened, she joined the push-and-pull of boarding and disembarking passengers, a yellow streak in the mass of black wool. She caught up with the boy on the platform and they stood facing each other while commuters flowed around them in a river of dark winter coats.
“Here you go,” Callie said, extending the book.
“Thanks,” the boy said back. “That was nice of you.”
“I didn’t have a choice,” Callie responded solemnly. “Neil Gaiman is one of my favorites. It wouldn’t be right to make you miss out on the ending.”
The boy laughed and asked her, “How can I ever make it up to you?”
“You’ll think of something,” she assured him.
In the warm pause that followed, two curious strangers in the midst of an important introduction, Callie realized how still everything had become. It was one of those periodic peaceful city moments, when the trains had all come at the same time and the passengers had all dispersed, and the street stood empty and calm until the next wave of travelers and traffic.
“How do you feel about winter ice cream?” he asked.
She smiled. “That sounds perfect.”
The boy led the way across the road and down a side street to an ice cream shop she had visited a few times before, with a bright awning and the cheery murals of cones, sundaes and splits along the walls. Callie found out that her companion’s name was Will, that he worked as a research assistant in Cambridge, and that he liked photography, probably more than he was letting on. He seemed reserved, but sweet, and she liked his choppy laugh and the way the corners of his eyes crinkled.
Back on the sidewalk, each carrying a cone (Callie’s with rainbow sprinkles), they reached the point in the conversation when one of them needed to leap from vague, polite, stranger-proof topics to the intimidating, convoluted, exhilarating process of really introducing themselves. Callie, practically a pro at this, held her tongue. She usually had more fun if her date demonstrated a willingness to keep up with her vivacity, and so she began a measured pause that would be long enough for him to think of something to say but not so long that he panicked and talked about the weather to fill the void. She was about a breath away from initiating when he took up the charge.
“Do you have a type, Callie?”
She looked away and bit her bottom lip to stifle a laugh of triumph. Not only had he taken the conversation to a very personal level at just the right time, but he had asked the most scintillating question, and remembered her name on top of it all! She was so pleased she almost forgot to answer.
“When it comes to men, I mean,” Will clarified as she composed herself.
“Yes, a very strict type,” she responded, and even though she had only been acquainted with his face for less than an hour, she could tell that he was interested in the answer. “My type is that I have no type. I never date the same guy twice.”
Will’s mouth curled into a sideways smirky sort of smile that Callie couldn’t interpret yet. “Well how do you know which guy you’re dating until you’re dating him, and get to know him?”
Callie rolled her eyes. “Well as far as character traits in the boys that I get along with the best, they tend to be kind of mellow, I guess? But that’s not what type really means—it’s all about physical attraction, isn’t it? Or what your gut instinct reading of a person is.” She took a deliberate lick of her ice cream cone. “And I make an effort to find distinct, unique boys to spend my time with.”
“So what’s the logic behind that? Unless I’m mistaken I hear a theory coming on.” Will nudged her with his elbow. She almost giggled.
“I just like to see how I react in situations I haven’t encountered before. I’ll put it in your terms—introducing new stimuli to illicit different, unpredictable results.”
Will’s smile now was easier to read. “What’s the name of this experiment?” he asked with amusement.
“Love,” Callie answered. “Or self-discovery.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” he said thoughtfully.
Surprised by how much she was enjoying this conversation, Callie interrupted his quiet moment of reflection. “So what’s your type? If you have one.”
“I do have one,” Will told her with an expression that Callie had decided meant playfulness. “And it is much stricter than yours.”
She felt emboldened by the flirting, and boldness was her forte. “Oh yeah? Are you going to share it with me? I hope I fit it to the letter.”
“You do,” he said, stopping short. For the slightest moment Callie felt a flicker of apprehension at his seriousness. Then he broke the tension with a smile. “I only date readers.”
She laughed along with him, and smiled anew when he held out his hand to help her over the frost heave that gaped in the sidewalk ahead of them. She wouldn’t have minded jumping it, but there was something intoxicating about the gesture, and when he grasped her hand in his it felt as if he knew exactly how it ought to be held.
And so Callie and Will arranged to meet for a dinner, and then another, and tried harder and harder to catch the same subway car whenever they could, and soon they were talking everyday, and faster than even Callie could have anticipated they were hardly talking to anyone else every day. She reveled in the intense connection she felt to Will, an attraction with its own gravitational pull so fierce that it began to polarize the other relationships in her life. Callie reflected on this fact with surprise some months after the subway day as she lugged her duffle bag up to Will’s fifth floor walk-up. When her landlord had sprung the quasi-emergency plumbing repairs on her that morning with the notice that she had to spend the weekend elsewhere, Callie had immediately called Will, even though she knew he wouldn’t turn his cell back on until his lunch break outside the lab. In her state of panic, she decided to try arranging back-up accommodations, in case somehow Will’s place was off-limits this weekend. And it was at that moment that she had realized the two things that were still nagging at her, a whole workday later: first, that she had spent so little time with anyone besides Will lately that she felt uncomfortable calling any of her friends and asking this favor, and second, that although she had eaten the occasional meal at Will’s place or watched a movie there, she had never actually stayed more than a few hours.
When Will swung the door open a moment after Callie’s knock, he stood there, deer-in-the-headlights, for just long enough to make Callie’s skin prickle. Then he hurriedly swallowed the spoonful of cereal that had frozen mid-chew, plopped the bowl onto the corner of the counter, and heaved Callie’s duffle off of the floor.
“I would’ve come to help you, but you didn’t buzz,” he said, clipping his words a bit.
“Someone was leaving and held the door for me.” Callie trailed him as he dragged the duffle across the living room and into his room, moving unusually quickly. When Callie reached the room, the duffle lay upside down on the bed and Will was nowhere in sight. She wavered for a second in confusion, then he shot out from behind the door, appearing suddenly directly in front of her. Now it was Callie’s turn to stand in a doorway looking surprised.
“Sorry” and “It’s nothing” they said at the same time, then simultaneously, “Huh?”
They both laughed a little, and the tension broke. “I was just, uh, cleaning a little, it’s nothing.”
“Hiding your old sex tapes?” Callie chided.
“Something like that,” Will responded, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly.
“Sorry I didn’t buzz. I didn’t realize I was so early.” Callie stepped closer, wrapping her arms around his waist and burying her face in his tee shirt. “Thanks for offering shelter to a damsel in distress.”
“Anytime,” Will said, his words muffled with his mouth pressed against her red hair.
It wasn’t the first time a moment of tension had sprung up like that, but such instances were so infrequent and brief that they were easily forgotten. Now, holding her in his arms, humming gently so that his throat gently buzzed against her forehead, he was just her reserved, mild-mannered, sweet boy.
In no time Callie’s banishment to Will’s apartment for the weekend began to feel like a much-needed impromptu vacation. She was surprised by how quickly it felt like home, and even once or twice entertained the idea of staying permanently. The thought gave her a shiver. Her relationships tended to burn hot, and by the time a more normal girl would be considering the living together phase, Callie was already rising from the ashes, feeling new and changed, and ready for the next challenge.
When she awoke on Sunday morning, Callie had decided she absolutely could not leave. She could not even get out of bed. With bright light streaming in the windows, she lolled in the bright, fluffy bed. Never had a boyfriend’s bed been so exquisitely soft! No threadbare cowboy sheets here – Will’s bed was all down and fleece and combed cotton.
Then the sun shifted just enough to catch the corner of something silver, and a shaft of bright light drew Callie’s attention away from all else. In that flash she remembered that she had been waiting for an opportunity to investigate Will’s room, a place she had never been alone in before. She paused for a few seconds, calculating how long it would take him to come back from the bakery down the street, then deciding to risk it she burst from the bed in an explosion of pillows, blankets, and duvet. First she was gratified to realize that the reflection came from a silver framed picture of her. It was the first photo Will had taken of her, and she glowed to see it displayed in prominence atop the bookcase in the corner by the door.
Quickly she scanned the spines of his books, and emitted a little squeal of delight when she saw the copy of Neverwhere Will had been reading the first time they met. She slid it from the shelf and flipped it open. Its spine gave a sharp crack, which struck Callie as odd. She turned it and ran her finger down the glossy paperback, which revealed no sign of ever being opened before, let alone being read in entirety. This made no sense. Callie’s eyes searched the shelves for another, more worn copy. But had she ever seen him reading it? And had they actually ever talked about it together? Well, maybe she had talked about it, with Will nodding along accordingly… No, it was crazy to think like that! There were a million explanations: maybe this wasn’t his copy; maybe he had started reading it and didn’t like it, but didn’t want to hurt her feelings by trashing a book she obviously cared so much about; maybe he had in fact loved the book so much that he had demolished the other copy and this was his fresh replacement. She laughed to herself, having only gotten through three of her “millions of explanations” and had already reached the absurd. She tried to shake off discomfort that had started to set off her spiky temper, and resumed her inspection of the bookcase. There were photography books, a few old novels that looked like they’d first shown up as high school required reading, and odds and ends like lab goggles and a beaten up baseball. Feeling calmer, Callie turned to poke around Will’s desk, or maybe just flop back into bed, when she realized she still held the pristine copy of Neverwhere in her hands. She flipped it around to orient it back on the shelf precisely as she had found it, and an index card slipped out. Leaving the book jutting out from the shelf, Callie knelt to retrieve the card, and along the bottom of the bookcase she noticed a narrow drawer. It was slightly ajar, but was probably meant to be shut, because the small clasps of its lock grasped upwards towards a catch it wasn’t quite aligned with. Callie grasped the tiny knobs on either side and slid the drawer open.
Its shallow bottom was covered with shards paper, most of it white but some of it colored with streaks of green, blue, and red. Callie dipped her hand in to scoop some out for a better look, and jerked it back when a sharp tip pierced her finger. These were photographs, sliced into haphazard rectangles and triangles. Looking for a big piece, Callie gingerly fished one out and brought it up to her eyes. It showed a pale torso in a yellow bikini, with waves crashing in the background. A fraction of smile gleamed in the upper point, and a stream of long red hair curled over the girl’s shoulder. Callie flipped the fragment over, but the blank back held no explanation. Unable to repress the impulse, Callie yanked the drawer out and poured its contents onto the floor, assembling the ruined photos like dozens of little puzzles.
As Callie sorted the pieces, an awful feeling made of guilt, apprehension, and something worse blossomed in her stomach. She did not analyze it, but mechanically picked out shards of faces and bodies from the irrelevant background images, rushing as fast as she could. By the time she heard Will’s key turning in the front door, she had created seven little stacks of pictures from the chaos of shards. Each portrayed a different girl, as far as she could tell from her hurried analysis of facial features, height and season. A couple were taller than her with fuller figures, one was very tall and lanky, the rest her height or slightly shorter. All had long red hair.
She was throwing items back into her bag when Will entered the room to serve her breakfast in bed. He opened his mouth to form a question when his shoe skidded a little on the photographs, and at once his expression turned from confusion to something darker. For a beat he and Callie froze, sizing each other up, waiting for an indication of what was to come. Bursting with anger, Callie finally struck first.
“You never read the book,” she spat at him.
This had clearly not been what Will had expected to hear, because his eyebrows contracted into surprise once more. He continued gaping at Callie, half-dressed in a pair of tights and one of his work shirts, each of her hands balled into fists around unpacked items.
“Neverwhere. I found it. You never read it. Why did you have it? Why did you let me think we shared it?” As his silence grew excruciating, she flung her toiletry bag and yesterday’s jeans into her open bag and screamed, “Why did we meet, Will?”
His voice came out quieter than she expected it to, after her reverberating yell. “We met because I wanted to.” Now it was Callie’s turn to stand silent and still. “Because I noticed you. And I thought I would like you.”
“Say it,” she shot back at her full volume. He looked at the floor, and she dropped her voice, though it still resonated with anger. “Because I’m five-foot-three with red hair.” She zipped up the bag and heaved it onto her shoulder. Will flinched out of her way as she barreled out the door.
“Don’t act like you didn’t do the exact same thing,” he muttered, and she was unsure whether or not she had been meant to hear him, but she spun on her heel all the same. He turned to face her, too, looking readier than she expected. In a louder voice he said, “Don’t act like you didn’t pick me out because of all the traits you hadn’t checked off your cosmic to-do list yet.”
“That is so unfair, and completely untrue.” Her cheeks burned, and she knew she must be looking red all over now, which made her blush even harder. “I thought we had something real, and you were just looking for the hundredth replacement for whatever red head screwed you over, like some sort of serial killer. How many versions of me have you tricked into caring about you?”
“I know that’s why you’re really upset—because you’re always trying so hard to convince everyone that you’re nothing like anyone else, but you know you really are.”
Before he could say another word, Callie strode out of the apartment and slammed the door.