This is the story: a girl came and went with a train whistle, the galaxy broke, and somewhere between a decaying church and white walls, I fell in love.
That is a mess. I know it's a mess, and that's really only the story, but that's not the truth. The truth of what happened is one big ball of near nothingness and half forgotten could-be-truths. I don't want to remember. I have to remember.
This is not a love story. This is a story about a girl with black hair and cracked fingernails and these are words I have taken from her skin, words that haunt me and words that thrill me. But more than anything, these are words for her, the unbreakable shattered girl.
* * * *
It is May 25th, 5:56 a.m.; I watched sunrise with a pounding heart. The light spilled over the train ahead of me, the 6 a.m. Freight, and I felt that crack in the universe right between the sunlight and the dark, and part of me imagined Apollo pulling the sun over his shoulder. It's in those few seconds that you look at the ground under your feet and you remember the secret agreement you have with the earth. I could feel the gravel through the worn soles of my running shoes.
I was just about to turn around. The train was just about gone, the sun almost up, and my brain began to shift into full awareness. Out of the corner of my eye, I swear that I saw something coiled inside the morning fog. A flash of black, biting pale skin, and then nothing. I put my headphones back in my ears and ran home. It was a morning I wouldn't bother to remember.
By 8:05, the morning was full, the last of the sunrise almost over- I watched it from the window of my classroom. The last day of my sophomore year. Our English teacher had written “Have an Excellent Summer” on the whiteboard in slick cursive, and he smiled at me when he handed me my final exam. The paper was
“You have until nine twenty-five,” Mr. Ramsey said as he sat down. “Go.”
Then there was the tapping. Pens and pencils hitting the desks, shoes, lips, and the wind pushed against the screen; the window was open. My hair blew over my shoulder.
I signed the bottom of my long response essay with a steady hand, and I stared it for a while, studying my own name as the ink dried. Josephine Harriot. I didn't dot the i's; I never do. Mr. Ramsey nodded at me when I turned it in, and I was the first one out of the classroom and the first person in the parking lot. There was a heavy sort of silence. I climbed into the bed of my neighbor’s truck and put my headphones back in.
By the time Carter got out of class, I was almost asleep. He hit his palm against the rusty side and motioned for me to get in. His music was up all the way. It always was, and I thought that fit Carter, because he was silent but he was full of words. He was a quiet paragraph. Something you'd read over and not remember for years later, and then you wish you would have remembered it better. If I were to have a best friend, it would be Carter, because he's quiet and soft and the most human person I'd ever known.
We didn't talk a whole lot on the way back. He rolled down the windows in his beat up truck and I stuck my hand out, and he light up a cigarette to pass the time. His smoke rolled over to me. I didn't know the band that was playing, but I never did. Carter's music is comfortable; it never prods too deeply into your heart. It's good driving music. The music got mixed with the oncoming wind and my hair, and for a moment I felt as if I were in the eye of a tornado.
“Do you work tonight?” I asked him when he pulled into his driveway.
I smiled and closed his door. “Yeah.”
I never mean to fall asleep. It happens so easily. I never mean to dream, either, but I don't think that anyone does. They say people can't remember their dreams, not fully, but I think that's wrong, because beginning with that night, I remembered every single one. Those images stood rooted in the base of my skull. I still feel them.
My sheets were tangled around my ankles when I awoke- I sat tracing the shadows on my mattress for a while and tried to piece together the fragments of my dream.
There was fog. A morning sky, opening up like the palm of a rose. The clouds were iridescent; they shone and it hurt my eyes, but I didn't look away. I wanted to turn away. Something in the air was hot and wet, like the sidewalk after summer rain, and it lodged itself in my throat. My lungs quivered.
A flash of black, elongated in the pale sun. It seemed to stretch for miles. I thought I felt it brush against me. I could make out a wisp of porcelain, something doll-like. There was nothing but a mash of colors, black and white, yin and yang, and then there was nothing, only the train. Only the noise.
But I woke up with my heart racing and a fine layer of sweat over my chest.
Carter was tapping on my window. The silhouette of his head was cast onto my curtain. I pulled on a fresh shirt and grabbed a water bottle, locked my bedroom door and slipped out my house through the window, leaving it open a crack.
The air was still. Our town was silent, the calm buzz of the street lights the only noise as we cut down an alley. Carter's arm brushed against mine. In the dull light, the glow from the end of his cigarette looked like the light at the end of a tunnel.
We walked slowly. Carter's steps were absolutely silent, somehow, quiet amongst the hum of misquotes and burned out porch lights. At night, our town was beautiful, but only just. The sidewalk looked the color of the moon. The usual noise that bumped against the old houses was hushed, replaced with the steady pull of the wind and occasional dog bark. At midnight, our town looked so ordinary.
As it was right now, the sound that stuck to me was the crackle and sigh of Carter's cigarette. I imagined his ask making a trail behind us. We could always find out way back home.
We were walking on my usual running path. The grass was pale but not quite dead, and it thinned into just dirt the closer we came to the railroad. Half hidden among the trees and brush, and abandoned church stood white against the night. Our footsteps became the loudest thing around us. I always took comfort in that.
Carter put his cigarette out under his foot.
“Come'n,” he said.
It was the first thing he'd said all night. I followed him through the broken window in the back. Carter helped me jump through and picked a leaf out of my hair, catching a few strands between his fingers.
There is not a correct word to describe how Carter looked around the room. His eyes were soft and his lips parted; at peace but with something harsh clinging to his chest. I don't know why Cater loved that church so much, but he really did; he loved it with all his heart. I didn't know it then, but, later, I would come to fall in love with the cracked plaster and the smell of mold and the dusty statues. As it was right then, I let my hand rest on the back of a pew. Carter pulled a bowl from his pocket, packed it, and started smoking, calm and sleepy eyed.
The smoke made a sort veil over his features. When he offered it to me I took it. A semi-sweet taste filled my mouth, bit into my lungs. After a while we sat down, leaning side by side against the pedestal where a statue of the baby Jesus sat. Our knees touched. Carter's skin was warm, warmer than the early summer night, and I felt the meaning of that grow in area until it filled the room. We shared a cigarette.
“Happy summer,” Carter mumbled.
It was stiflingly quiet after that. Carter started to hum to fill the void. His voice was deep and far away, and I stared at his hands, contrasted sharply against the dirty wood floor.
And then he stopped; not gradually, but he swallowed the verse on his tongue, turning his head up towards the ceiling.
I did. Above us, the wood creaked and groaned. Dust fell from the railings. Someone was walking upstairs. At first, I tried to tell myself that it was an animal; a raccoon, maybe, that had come in through the broken window. Carter got up and I did the same.
Back past the statue of Jesus and the one of Virgin Mary, there was a door that had remained closed for years, and I stood gazing at the line in the dust from where the ajar door had pushed it over. My heart started to climb to my mouth.
Let's go back. Something I didn't say, but something I really wanted to.
Carter put his hand on the knob. There was a muted tune coming from the top of the staircase, like some kind of muffled lullaby. I could see the beads of sweat on Carter's arm. The air was warm, and I think I started to choke on it all (the dust, he smoke, the crumbling pews behind me). Carter's palm was slick against the metal. I swear that I heard the two collide– his skin and the doorknob– and there was a burst of energy as the atoms swarmed, angry from the disturbance. It was the kind of moment that hung in the balance of life.
One turn– a sound like a nuclear bomb– and the tune went silent. Scuttering, then, like one of a small animal.
“Do you believe in ghosts?” Carter asked.
This is how Carter communicated; he would ask questions through a series of different scattered ones. In the end, you never really knew what he wanted to ask, but you got the feeling that he got his answer.
“I don't know. You?”
We were quiet again for a spell. Then Carter turned the knock all the way. The creak was echoing, slow and dramatic, like something out of a horror show. Carter whispered that they should really oil the knob; I didn't know who he meant by “they”, and I never found out.
It was I that took the first step. The air around e tasted sweeter, somehow, on the staircase. Like strawberries- that's something that I never forgot. It shoved its way down my throat. I still wake up choking on it. That air trapped me.
By the time I made it up to the second floor, I was sweating. It was humid and dusty, like that of an attic, and it kind of stuck to you like another skin.
I thought I had hit a wall, but when I looked down I saw, instead, a stack of books. Carter came up behind me and pulled out a zippo. The light was dim and flickering. I could hardly see the curtains blowing against the wind– and I almost missed the face right beside the window.
The lighter coughed and then went out. I could hear three people breathing, three sets of lungs crying, and that's what made my heart falter; I found Carter's hand in the dark. Our atoms collided, and for that I am eternally grateful.