Henry, a thirteen-year-old boy, sat upon the ground and crossed his legs Indian-style. From the interior pocket of his jacket he removed a small spiral-bound notebook and placed it open upon his right thigh. He leaned back against the concrete wall behind him and carefully flipped through the pages. Henry stopped at what looked like the most recent entry and spent some time reading it over. It covered one page front and back:
November 1, 2006
Next year I should be a cowboy. It’d be easy to wear and I wouldn’t feel silly leaving the party to go get lunch. I can’t believe the gorilla won. People have neither taste nor imagination when it comes to costumes.
I need to write Kal a letter. She’ll be wondering why it’s taking so long. Ask her where she’s going for vacation this summer. It’d be neat if we could meet up. Tell her thank you for the stationery. Need to find her a present. I wonder, if we went to the same school, if we’d be friends. Probably not, she’d be a cheerleader or something, and wouldn’t know that I exist. She’d be beautiful and tall and tan, wearing her cheerleader outfit, jumping and yelling with a smile on her face, dating Brad or Tanner. They’d get drunk on Fridays and ride around town. I’m sick of writing letters.
Spaghetti would be good for dinner tonight. I should go with Mom to the store, to make sure she gets the right kind of cheese. Kraft is bullshit.
Maybe tomorrow I could sit under the bridge and write. After breakfast, make an early start of it, work until lunch, then read in the afternoon. I need to not watch cartoons. Breakfast, coffee, then outside for an early start. No more wasting time.
Words to look up:
Henry pulled a plastic ballpoint pen from the hip pocket of his shorts, uncapped it, and began to write on the next page. He smoothed a small patch of ground in front of him and laid the notebook down, leaning forward in concentration.
November 2, 2006
This morning I made eggs. They turned out well. The day has begun and so far I’m on track.
I must beware the perfidy of my desires, though.
Ambuscaded distractions might get the better of me.
I think stores should be closed on weekends. Everyone could have the days off, and no one would be tempted to shop. Shopping is stupid. Mom should read books instead of sale ads.
Today I will sit and write until I get hungry. Then I will go inside and read while Mom and Dad are at the flea market. I think I can get a lot done. Be sure to not allow Colby to come over. All Colby does is distract me. I’ve wasted too much time doing silly things. Video games have their time and place, but so does serious literary endeavor.
After making this last entry, Henry paused and thought for a long time, holding his pen close to the paper. He made the first mark for a new letter, and then abruptly stopped. A car passed over the bridge above him with a roar. The tires made three clicks as they coursed over the joiners.
Henry did not realize that he was being watched from a short distance away. About ten feet to his right, crouched among the weeds, a young girl steadily observed him. She had not been there when he arrived. It appeared that she was comfortable in her position, as she rested entirely motionless, like a cat about to pounce. There was nothing in her posture to suggest aggression, however, and the tilt of her head indicated curious engagement. Her eyes focused on Henry’s right hand as he held the pen poised above the paper, as if willing him to continue. She looked about twelve, though the intensity of her gaze belied such youth. Henry capped his pen, an action that caused her to rise slowly and move through the weeds toward him, stepping gingerly with bare feet. The only sound was the rustle of her cotton dress as she parted the stalks with sweeping motions.
Henry seemed oblivious of her approach until she stood directly beside him, at which point he closed the book and placed it and his pen on the ground to his left. They remained like this for a moment, the girl looking down at him with an expression of tenderness and concern, Henry focused on the spot where he had laid his accoutrements, mouth tight, eyes shaded. A breeze blew through the area beneath the bridge, ruffling the girl’s dress and tossing a few locks of hair across her face. The air carried with it a faint hint of lavender, and as the scent filled Henry’s nostrils he felt himself relax. He looked up at the girl.
“Do you mind if I sit?” she asked, inclining her head in a gesture of cordiality.
“No, but the ground’s kinda muddy,” Henry said, “and you shouldn’t get your dress dirty.”
“I don’t mind,” she replied. She sank to her knees next to him, settling down on her heels and tucking her dress underneath her legs. Her eyes never left Henry, and her soft expression remained unchanged. “How do you feel that you waste your time?” she asked.
“I’m not at this precise moment,” said Henry, “I’m listening to you.”
The girl placed her hands upon the tops of her thighs. Henry’s gaze traveled down to them. Her long fingers tapered to small nails that glimmered with a nacre-like iridescence. They caught a beam of sunlight, a third presence that had invaded their space and rested on the ground before them. Tiny particles of dust floated within the pale light, suspended between rising and falling like a dream that borders on the edge of wakefulness. Henry dipped one hand into the light up to his wrist, cupping his palm to scoop the golden effervescence. The dust shattered momentarily, as if shocked by the intrusion, before settling a moment later into the same half-stasis. The girl offered her hand with a movement as silent and graceful as the drift of a feather. Henry took it, pulling her hand from the light and covering it with his other.
“Sometimes I wonder how important I am to you,” said the girl in a voice that betrayed neither anxiety nor sadness. Her soft smile remained fixed. Between Henry’s two coarse, grubby hands, hers appeared impossibly white and fragile.
“Your hand looks like it’s made from porcelain,” Henry said, ignoring or not hearing her.
“Does it?” she asked, leaning forward, her face marked with an expression of intense interest.
“Yes,” he continued. “And your fingernails shine like mother-of-pearl.”
The young girl laughed, throwing her head back. “That’s wonderful,” she said. “What does my hair look like?”
Henry shifted his weight onto one hip and turned more fully toward her. He stared at her hair for a moment with a vague and dreamlike expression, his lips moving soundlessly.
“Does it look dark?” she said. “Dark as pitch? Dark as the blackest night?”
Henry looked at her. “No. It’s darker than that. It’s dark like the end of a highway on an unlit stretch of road. Darker than the other side of that even.”
The girl lowered her gaze.
“Darker than the inside of your eyelids. Darker than anything, dark as the space between the stars. Dark as the bottom of the sea.”
The girl looked up. She slid her hand free of Henry’s and placed it on top of his. He was chewing on his bottom lip while searching her expression, eyes no longer dreamlike, but feverish, darting over her features, as if seeing her clearly for the first time, as if creating her.
“Tell me more,” she said softly, “how else do I look?”
“You’re very pale. Your skin is in perfect contrast with your hair. You have big eyes, big brown eyes with beautiful lashes that sweep down like velvet curtains.”
The girl giggled. “Do they?”
“Yeah,” Henry continued, smiling, “and you have a small, oval face, with a nose that crinkles when you smile, and a left ear just so very slightly higher than your right.”
“I have lopsided ears!” the girl said with a laugh. “When did you first notice?”
“The day that we met, of course.”
“And when was that?”
Her question hung in the air. As her words died away, the space between them filled with silence. An expression of forbearance crept onto the girl’s face and mingled with the soft smile. Henry’s neck tightened and his expression became rigid with thought. He withdrew his hand and raised one finger absentmindedly to his mouth.
“We met the first day of fifth grade, when you were a new student who had just moved here,” Henry began, slowly and hesitantly. The girl nodded, urging him to continue.
“I thought you were so pretty. You weren’t like any of the other girls in my grade, the way you dressed, I mean, and the way you wore your hair. I wanted to know you immediately, I wanted to be your friend, and I imagined us being friends, talking at lunch, passing notes in class, walking home after school. I thought these things from the moment I saw you.”
“How did you get to know me?”
Henry smiled, warming to the creation. He reached out and took the hem of her dress between his fingers, trying to understand it, to hear it.
“We got paired up in Science the second day of the year. I was so happy, you can’t imagine. I thought I would fall over dead from happiness, when the teacher numbered us off together. I’d created so much of you the night before, in my mind, what things you liked to do, what we would talk about –“
“Yes, yes,” interrupted the girl, clapping her hands in excitement, “tell more about those things!”
Henry laughed in surprise at her response, his face breaking into an exuberant smile. “Well, you would have loved to read! You loved books so much, and stories, that we would sit and talk about what we were reading for hours, and we would read the same book and race each other through it, finishing whole books by dinner and then talking about them all night! We would write stories, and poems, and leave them in places for each other to find!”
“We’d read them to each other, right?”
“Yeah! We’d read them to each other, and we would write beautiful things, especially you, and I would always write about you, but I’d be embarrassed and tell you it was about someone else.”
The girl beamed at Henry, her nose crinkling, her face glowing.
“We would have a secret meeting place, where we would go after school, or in the middle of the night, when we were supposed to be asleep,” Henry continued, “it would be, like, a glen in the forest, or –“
“Under this bridge!” cried the girl in glee.
“Exactly!” said Henry, his eyes wide. “Under this bridge! And one night we would come down here, after sneaking out of our rooms, and we would meet as spies on a dangerous mission. The utmost secrecy would be required, and after exchanging information, excited by the danger of it all, we would seal our secrecy with a kiss. Then, after that we would start going steady with each other, but we would keep it a secret from everyone else, so people wouldn’t make fun of us. And we would start spending more time together, until we became inseparable. You would come to my house, or I would go to yours, and we would spend the whole day running around outside, pretending to be archaeologists on a dig. When it got dark we would come inside and play games on the floor of my bedroom, and sometimes we would kiss. You’d come to all of my family stuff, and I would go to yours, and our parents would take us to movies and out to eat, and you’d be like my real girlfriend. We would hold hands under the table, and then –“
Henry stopped for a moment and wiped away a tear that trickled down his cheek.
“And then, one day you’d say you loved me. And we would hug and spend the day walking through town. When it got dark we would come here and promise to never leave each other. To love each other forever.”
Henry stopped and rubbed a hand under both of his eyes in turn, sniffling to clear his nose. He was alone underneath the bridge. The sun had risen high in the sky, directly above, and the space where he sat was sunk in shadow. Picking up his pen, he removed the cap, then picked up his notebook from the ground next to him and opened it to the page following his last entry. At the very top, in the center, he wrote “Ariel,” then closed the book and rose, suddenly hungry for lunch.