Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
She was jogging up the stairs and laughing at the others, who were frantically waving and shouting to her as if she could have missed us in this empty room. She slid into the seat directly in front of mine.
“Thank you all for coming. I know Lily was so excited. I’m so glad she has sweet friends like you.” She looked at me. I knew my eyes were wide. I felt pale. My hands were still shaking. My elbow was rubbing against the cushion of my chair’s back. Something in the back of my mind was looking for clay, something I could shape. But there was only cheap polyester, man-made and scratchy.
Ms. Hartley reached out and rubbed my knee. My tremors stilled. My muscles didn’t loosen, they just went tighter than I could have imagined.
The others saw us and started making forced conversation to grant Ms. Hartley and me the illusion of privacy. She let her hand rest on the worn fabric of my jeans.
“Are you alright, Ashton?” she asked. I swallowed. My face screwed up with the effort. I thought I nodded. All I could see was Lily’s muscles. Her tendons. How she knew exactly what to do and when to do it and that she could do it. I looked like such a brute compared to her. Was I a brute?
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” Jace and Payton had moved to the side to give Ms. Hartley and I some room.
“Nothing,” I whispered. My breath flit like a feather. It caught a loose strand of Lily’s mom’s hair, which swayed just enough to be perceptible.
“You’re wound so tight you look like you’re going to snap,” she said, laughing. I thought it was good-naturedly. There may have been veins of concern hidden there too, but they were too far down to me to hear.
I attempted to laugh with her. I had no idea if it worked. But I did stretch, kneading some casualty back into my muscles. I made some half-hearted excuse that I prayed was coherent. She seemed satisfied, giving my knee another squeeze before turning back to the group down the row. She asked some insignificant question to signal them to come back, and they did. Jace and Connie shot me queer looks, but were immediately swept up by the enthusiasm of Payton and Addison. I sat and thought. About what, I didn’t know.
I didn’t know how much time had passed when Lily came out from behind one of the curtains flanking her stage. All I know is that there was shouting.
Payton vaulted themself down the rows towards her, Connie jogged down the stairs followed by Jace, and Addison leapt to her feet where she was. All of them were shouting. Lily blushed and waved, making her way to the front of the stage and waiting at the lip to meet her friends.
Payton tackled Lily in a hug, and Jace drummed excitedly on her shoulders. Addison left to meet them, tailed by Ms. Hartley. One of them asked me over her shoulder if I was coming, and I followed.
The three of us filled in behind the huddle surrounding Lily and singing her praises. It was something about the costumes, how she could have designed better. As she laughed, Connie came in from the side and there was a flash of red. She was holding a rose.
Lily’s face lit up and she wrapped her hands around Connies’ which in turn were wrapped gingerly around the stem.. I hoped there were no thorns to prick her.
“Should have gotten her a lily!” Addison called as we reached the stage. Payton whooped in approval, and Lily looked up, startled. She seemed to come to her senses and slipped the rose from Connie’s fingers. “That’s a flower, right?”
The others joked and laughed as Lily slipped out between Payton and Jace into her mother’s arms. Lily took her elbows after they embraced and gently pulled her over to her friends. I stood on the fringes. I wasn’t sure if my knees could hold me up for much longer. I felt like a ghost, haunting this theater, this moment, intangible and hazy.
My hands floated to my neck to straighten the collar poking out from under my sweater. The cloth rasped against my quaking fingers.
My ears were ringing, I realized. Everything sounded like I was underwater, cross-legged at the bottom of a pool like when I was a kid and watching rippled images pass above me.
The others turned to me. Lily said something, and began making her way to me. Every step she took sent a bolt of pain shooting through my chest. Her steps were careful and measured.
My head was pounding.
The way Connie put a hand on Lily’s shoulder burned. It was gentle and anticipated. Payton let their limbs swing loosely, but they had such control over their heart. It burned in their eyes.
Jace’s eyes pierced through me too. He had control of his mind, his art, his life. The gentle sway of his pendant.
Suddenly, steely arms wrapped around him from behind. I looked up at Ms. Hartley.
She said something, but I was still at the bottom of that pool. My lungs were burning as if that were true.
She waved her hand in front of my face and I recoiled. I thrashed with such harshness compared to her downy movement.
I saw my father’s hand. I saw the palm, with the little freckle that sat at the base of his thumb. I saw the back of his hand with its wedding band: glinting, tarnished gold. I saw both sides fly towards me. I also saw them soar away. All I had done was watched. I could have had power, known what would happen, chosen the outcome. But I had let it pass me by. I had stood and felt or listened to whatever my father or God or the universe demanded I bear witness to. I had paid to repair the shattered lamp.
I thought the muscles of my legs started to go lax. Either that or Ms. Hartley had tightened her grip. Either way, my feet were scrabbling against the floor. I wanted to move. I wanted to move my own body with my own feet. I was thrashing.
I heard the brisk clip of footsteps, and my head snapped to the side. White pain ripped through my skull and my limbs locked straight. The cotton in my ears slipped out, but the ringing started up again.
“Ads, what the fuck?” That might have been Payton.
“They do that in the movies, yeah?” Addison. Her voice sounded like it was right in front of me. “It’s supposed to help people who are freaking the hell out!” There was a tremor in her words. I couldn’t see. I wasn’t even seeing black or white; it was like a wire had been cut. My eyes were unable to process the simple sensation of sight.
My stomach lurched. I thought I was being lowered. Linoleum cradled the back of my head, and a rough hand smoothed my hair down across my forehead. It felt too rough to be young.
People may have been talking to me. Shock waves were still resonating down my spine from the burning in my cheek, and I wondered if my blood had been replaced with raw energy. Pure light.
I caught a red prism, and a flash of silver. Jace’s earring. My lungs swelled, and I could see again. I could move. Five faces were clustered around me, perfectly framing Connie’s profile. She was standing down away from my feet, wide-eyed and chewing at a hangnail.
This would make a lovely sculpture, I thought as I dug my nails and heels into the linoleum and scrambled desperately backwards. Before anyone had even registered my return to consciousness, the stage flew out from under me. The first thing that hit was my stomach plunging down as I slipped into open air. Then the edges of the small staircase leading up onto the stage, each step digging against the muscles that had thrown me down them.
Like knocking four quick times on the door of my mind.
The supernova searing my veins quieted, and I slipped into exhausted oblivion.