By Emma J. Lannie
I can smell the pepper of his skin. It is three a.m. Everyone who lives here is asleep. I know he isn’t. He is lying in the dark like I am. He is two floorboards away. We’re both cocooned in sleeping bags, so I feel safe, like our spaces are well defined. But the way he’s breathing is filling the room with anticipation, and even though I sink myself down into the fabric, I don’t feel like I have a chance at escaping.
He starts it with a whisper. It’s harmless enough. But underneath the Are You Awake is a conspiracy he wants to drag me into. I know this even as I say the word Yes. Even though I say it as quietly as I can, I know it’s loud enough to count, to be heard. It signals my engagement, my acceptance of the rules.
I think this will be all done with words, with the bounce of vowels and the stringing together of sentences. I know that’s something I can handle, something I can deal with. He can say whatever he wants. And I will answer back, in whispers and riddles and abstractions of ideas. He will maybe start to feel exasperated after a while, but he won’t let me win, he will just keep on and on. It will be like a game of poker, with him raising me another question, and then another, each time I throw a stack of rebuttals onto the table. I’ve only played poker once. For sweets. We used Dolly Mixtures and cola bottles and those pink shrimp things. I had a good poker face. It was a constant grin. I think it put everyone off a little, because they never asked me to play again.
Do You Remember Last Time, he says. And my Yes also calls for a little laugh. He expects it and replies with one of his own. It is a quiet laugh that doesn’t last for very long but manages to mean: it was so long ago, and we were practically kids then, and how embarrassing. The laugh means all these things, but to anyone else, it would just be a small laugh, it would be uneventful, it would mean nothing. The last time, we were just kids. And he wanted to run out into the world and touch and taste everything, and I stood next to him, unable to speak, my head full of ideas and dreams but my voice completely absent.
It’s different now. Words are things that spill out of me and into me with ease. Some, I tuck inside my ear, so that I have them with me constantly. Others I keep under my tongue, so they are ready to spring out at a moment’s notice. The secret ones I hide inside my rib cage. I would say In My Heart, but there’s way too much going on in there as it is, and also, it would be a really obvious hiding place. They’d be too easily found. I have twenty-four ribs. You wouldn’t know where to start.
You’ve Changed So Much, are his next words. And maybe to him I have. Maybe all he saw back then was the silent girl who had no substance to speak of. I still look the same. The grey-blue eyes and the straight blonde hair. It’s probably longer or shorter than it was when we last met, but since when did a haircut really alter who you were. The change he is talking about is something other than the visual. It is the change in the way I now interact, engage. It is the clarity of my voice. It makes him see me now as I wanted him to see me then.
Things pass. There is a window of opportunity for any happening. Sometimes it is wide and vast, spanning decades and aeons. Other times, that window is the size of a five pence piece, and vanishes a moment after it is opened up. I think with us, the window was somewhere in between. It was probably the size of a small van or a big car, or maybe it was even the size of a giraffe. Maybe it had a long neck so it could see further down the line, but it’s legs were too long so it could never quite get its balance properly, it never managed to be steady on its feet. And then one day it just gave up.
In the still of the room I hear him breathing. He is waiting for me to speak. Even in the dark, I know his mouth is a smile. He hasn’t changed at all. His arm escapes from his sleeping bag and swims across the floorboards. It thinks mine will meet it halfway. But I shrink myself further into my cocoon and his arm just lies there in that space between us, a thing that can’t speak. And I know the words he is waiting for. But I have twenty-four ribs, and I don’t know where to start.
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