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FEATURED STORY / SPRING 2013 ISSUE
One night that August we crept onto the football field, some of us totally naked and only half-ashamed, others in our underwear, faces painted and young, all carrying the flinty rage of the unbottled teenager. Andrea’s hair was red, a flame against the height of the sky, brighter than the streetlamp or the tilted stars. Watching her across the field, suddenly I was intensely aware of our matching skin, so marked, girlish. I wanted to touch her. She looked back at me for a minute. Then—we needed a match, where were the matches? The boys struck fire to the scoreboard, electric lightbulbs popping in the heat like insects. As Andrea and the others cheered and screamed, suddenly free, I stood apart, still watching her. Each of us was reborn that night, skin sticky and ripe against the humidity that was that town, so small, so deaf. A little drunk, a little high maybe, all of us. We burned the field, each of us only pretending that he or she was not afraid. We trembled in the glory of it. Then, before the police came, we escaped back into the dark, jumping the fence that held back the slanting woods from the school.
Andrea grabbed my hand as we ran so that we ran together, kind of naked, kind of scared. She gave me one of her long smiles, and I saw that she still had the saddest eyes in the world.
Andrea’s younger brother by a year, Timmy, had wanted to come with us, but Andrea had said no (“Fuck off, Timmy”). I had been in love with Andrea since the fifth grade. None of us knew exactly what it was that was wrong with her brother, and she didn’t talk about it. But we knew, in our pack mind, that he was different. Once, at her tenth birthday party in early December, hours after everyone had gotten tired of playing hide-and-seek in the snow and everyone had gone inside for cake, someone remembered.
We found him outside a half-hour later, freezing and wet, weeping and up a tree, still waiting to be found. He’d pissed himself.
“Andrea,” he kept saying. “Andrea.” His hands were shaking.
“You piece of shit,” Andrea said, and we turned to look at her (we hadn’t yet learned her language). “You idiot, why didn’t you come in?” She turned and went back inside. Later, I found her in the bathroom, crying.
“He just messes up. He just messes up all the time. He needs help so much.” She looked at me with an intensity and a rage that I could not yet understand. Even then, I wanted to kiss her so badly, it hurt.
“He didn’t know to come in.” I offered quietly, and she looked away.
“Yeah. He doesn’t. He doesn’t know. That’s the thing.”
2:00 a.m. the early morning before the burning and I lay next to Andrea on her living room floor as she breathed in a t-shirt that was too big for her. The TV was on because it was always on at Andrea’s house—she said it helped her fall asleep—and in the dark of her night I lay awake listening as I watched her. As her small lungs worked unknowingly, the valves of my heart opened and closed, blood pouring into my darkest chambers, expanding like love.
Andrea turned on her quilt on the floor, reached out to find me next to her in the dark, found my elbow. “Hi. You’re beautiful.”
“Go back to sleep. You’re dreaming.”
“No, really. You’re beautiful in the morning.” She whispered. “You should know.”
“So are you.”
I didn’t breathe as she reached up and traced my collarbone with one finger.
“Can I kiss you?”
“How are you so perfect?” Timmy asked me when I was in seventh grade, leaning against the door in the front hall as I waited for Andrea to come downstairs so we could walk to school together. Quickly, and so quiet I didn’t know he was doing it until he did, he reached out and touched my hair.
“Nobody’s perfect.” I said, and I moved away from his hand.
“Yeah, but what about you?” He asked. “What’s wrong with you, then?”
I didn’t know how to answer him. So I didn’t say anything.
“Andrea thinks you’re perfect.” Timmy said, rocking slightly against the door. “Andrea, perfect Andrea, perfect Andrea.”
As Andrea and I touched each other quietly on that stiff Saturday morning, I was unlatching like a sail. Opening, opening, unhooked eye facing the sun. And in my mind—Perfect Andrea, perfect Andrea, perfect Andrea. The world burst into flame, and I knew for sure that lips could be wings.
Later, after I got up to pee, my feet lead me back to Andrea on the floor. She was almost hard to look at, so beautiful and angular on her flannel quilt, all knees and mouth and bruised skinny-girl hips and hair like fire. It almost hurt, that hair, so bright. I pulled the quilt up over us, trembling against her sweaty warmth. I had to think to breathe. In her half-sleep she found my hand and sighed.
“You okay?” She asked.
“Yeah.” I was shaking. “I’m okay.”
And by the time Andrea’s parents had gotten up the next morning and the usual ceremonies had taken place—breakfast, newspaper, shower—both of us sat side by side on stools in the kitchen, red hair against blonde, chafed heels swinging, sometimes touching under the table. I think Andrea’s mother saw but pretended she hadn’t, and her father slipped out quietly without saying anything. I, syrupy in love.
“Andrea.” Timmy said later that day. “Want to come with you. Tonight.” He stood outside her bedroom door as we painted our faces with some crusty Halloween makeup from five years ago. I was watching Andrea change her shirt in the mirror. She was watching me watch her.
“Fuck off, Timmy.”
“Andrea.” Timmy pleaded, and his hands were shaking as he looked at his older sister, his face half broken, half-full of admiration.
“Timmy, I said fuck off!” She turned to stare at him.
Timmy’s face suddenly changed, and he put both hands over his ears. Suddenly, he was crying. “Fuck off Timmy! Fuck off Timmy, Timmy, fuck off! No, Andrea fuck off! Andrea.” And he was gone.
“Why were you like that with him?” I asked later as we were walking to the football field in the dark, both in our underwear and war paint. “You could have let him come.”
She stopped walking. Suddenly her eyes were mirrors, her jaw was a lock with a key, and I could not access that bitter mouth that I loved. For the first time, as I looked into her face I felt a huge divide stretch between us like a minefield. I stepped off, afraid of being swallowed or blown away.
After the burning, we recollected later the same night in an all-night diner on Main Street, and we didn’t speak of it. All of us had changed back into the clothes we had worn earlier that day, and the girls had washed the oily paint from our hair in the scarred diner bathroom. Once again we looked, if tired and a little ragged, human. Although none of us said this, we were all frightened by our ability to make such a smooth transformation from monster to child.
“That was good,” Thomas said, and got up to have a cigarette outside. “That was really good.”
Susanne blushed. Devin was silent, Chris distracted and anxiously high. Andrea touched my foot under the table.
No one had the money for the cheap waffles anyway, so we left.
Back at Andrea’s house that night, her mother met us at the door.
“Where’s Timmy?” Her eyes were opened so wide that they could have grabbed each of us and shaken us like panicky hands. “Did you bring Timmy with you?”
And we were suddenly drawing back. Suddenly someone had punched me in the stomach.
Andrea’s mouth was filled with lead. “He’s not with us. He didn’t come with us.”
Andrea’s dad went out looking with a flashlight while we sat on the couch. Andrea was somewhere I couldn’t reach, her mouth opening and closing slowly, her eyes seeing something I could not. I had never seen a person look so empty or scared. I wanted to touch her, but I couldn’t.
“I think you should go home,” she interrupted. She didn’t look at me when she said it. “I think you should go home.”
“Okay. Andrea, I—”
“Just go. You should go.”
“Okay.” I shut the front door quietly. The tears came easily on the walk home.
They found him the next day, of course, under the bleachers. I imagine that his skin, burnt, fell off his body in ashy flakes as they lifted him out, and I picture his melted rubber soles melded to the metal of the stands. His hair, which used to be red like Andrea’s, had been eaten by a greater flame. He had no face left.
Crouching on the floor of my kitchen that morning, pressed up against the wall and biting the palms of my hands, unable to speak, I could only wonder how long he had waited for us to find him that night. Then I threw up.
None of the rest of the kids who started the fire went to the funeral, but it didn’t matter. Andrea was there. At the end, she knelt beside the coffin and rocked on the balls of her feet.
“Timmy, come in. It’s too cold out here. Please, come inside, Timmy, come back inside. I’m sorry. Timmy, come inside, please come inside. It’s too cold.”
At the very end, her cousin had to take her by the arm and bring her back to the car. As she was guided past, she looked right into me, but saw nothing. I saw that we were universes apart.
I don’t sleep anymore. Not really, anyways, not like I used to before. Now I’m nervous even in my depthless dreams, those blank anxious spaces which sometimes turn into nightmares on black wheels, taking me back to the places I don’t want to go back to. “Timmy, come inside. Timmy, it’s too cold.” Then I get confused. “Fuck off, Timmy, Andrea, come back, Fuck off, Andrea, Andrea perfect, perfect Andrea.” Some nights I just dream of the fire and that stupid football scoreboard, burning bright as Andrea’s hair, burning brighter than the stars. Sometimes I dream of Andrea asleep on her living room floor. She’s kicked off her blankets, but she still has her wool socks on even though it’s only August and it’s hot, so hot. This time I know that if I touch her she will come apart into ash, that her skin will burn mine. In my dreams she never wakes up. And in the shameless eye of truth I am too scared to touch her.