UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
THIS IS A LOVE STORY
It went like this: frustrated and listless, tired and bruised, she found him curled up like a child in time-out, occupying her
She pushed her thick librarian’s glasses up her nose, stuck her hands on her hips in her most businesslike posture, and cleared her throat. “What exactly,” she said, “are you doing?”
He looked up at her from the cushion of his arms, mussed hair hanging over his eyes. The words came unbidden and unkind to her mind, sneered from the hallways of their school: Daniel’s got a face like a girl’s. The guy’s practically a walking fucking stereotype. That that face was also sporting a black eye and a cut lip wasn’t unusual, but then, she’d never personally happened across its owner while he crouched like an abused stray in dingy bookshop corners, taking up her favorite seat. “Aren’t you Ellen Davies?” he asked, softly. His voice was high for a boy’s, but still distinctly male. “I think I’ve seen you around school.”
She blinked at him once, then turned around. “I’m going next door to buy a first aid kit,” she said, without looking over her shoulder. “Wait.”
It wasn’t, perhaps, the most auspicious of beginnings, but it was a beginning.
* * * *
She found him at the shop again the next day, this time curled around a novel she’d read for an English class the previous year. Awkwardly balancing a pile of textbooks on one hip and clutching an overpriced coffee with the other, she glared at him over the rims of her glasses as best she could. The glasses were askew. Damn it.
He watched her with doe eyes from beneath that mop of hair, unblinking, but didn’t set the book aside. The bandage she bought him wrinkled when he smiled. He really was pretty enough to be a girl.
She completed the calculus assignment more slowly than usual, swallowing her coffee in irritable gulps, and left the shop with Daniel and his novel still in it.
* * * *
He didn’t show up again for nearly a week, and then one afternoon, the door slammed open with an uncharacteristic bang. When she glanced up from her copy of Virgil, he cautiously shuffled toward her, hiding beneath what she’d silently dubbed ‘the emo mop.' She didn’t need to see his face to know that it would be full of fresh bruises.
She tossed her pen aside, suddenly irritated, and he flinched as it clattered loudly against the cheap wooden floor. “Don’t you know anyone who isn’t goddamn homophobic?” she snapped at him. It occurred to her that they were the first words she’d uttered to him since asking him to wait while she bought him bandages, but it was too late to swallow them now.
Slowly, he lifted his head, and tried to smile at her, before wincing at the effort. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “There’s you,” he said finally, “I think.”
Sighing, she closed her book with a snap, and walked over to him, adjusting her glasses with one hand, holding the other out to him impatiently. “Well,” she said, “come on. Looks like we’re due for another trip to the drugstore.”
A moment later, she felt his fingers, slim and warm and callused, cautiously intertwine themselves with hers.
* * * *
She learned, much later, that he could sing, his tenor high and sweet, lyrics carefully enunciated as he stood with his back to the bookshop window.
He’d gone through two boyfriends by that point, and occasionally teased her for being so determinedly single. Their peers snickered and called her his fag hag, but the bruises didn’t appear so often now.
“I went to dinner the other night with Jeremy Kim,” she remarked, offhand, while he frowned over the sheets of music. She’d meant to elaborate, but in that exact moment, he lifted his head to grin at her, the late afternoon sunlight spilling over him, bright and golden on fair, unmarked skin. The words caught in her throat, right as he said, “Well, well,” and leaned forward just so. He frowned suddenly, reaching for her. “You’re tearing up. El, did he…”
She moved subtly away, into the shade of a bookshelf, before he could touch her. “It’s nothing. New contact lenses, you know how it is.”
* * * *
That night, she cried for exactly fifteen minutes beneath the showerhead.
Later, trembling with hunched shoulders over her bathroom sink, her vision blurred with nearsightedness and problem sets unfinished in a pile on her bed, Ellen Davies wondered when exactly she became stupid.
* * * *
Jeremy broke up with her a month later. “I don’t think you can even love anyone at all, Ellen,” he said, slamming the door as he left her with her hands folded in her lap, one foot tucked neatly behind the other.
She watched him from the window without moving, as he got into his Mercedes and drove away into the night. “How simple that would be,” she said to the angry roar of the engine, twirling a new pair of glasses between her hands. “How beautifully simple.”
* * * *
The last piece he ever sang for her was one still in progress, strange and poignant and haltingly lovely, rendered sweetly fragile by half-written lyrics and an imperfect melody.
“I think you’ve almost got it,” she said absently, tugging her glasses off and rubbing tired eyes. “Do you really have to run off to that protest tomorrow? You could at least get the lyrics done by the end of the week if you stayed here to work on them. Besides,” she added, “controversial issues and big crowds of angry people are a recipe for chaos. And violence. And a whole lot of noise.”
“Music shouldn’t be rushed,” he sang.
She resisted rolling her eyes. “And controversy? Civil rights? Religion and politics and all that jazz?”
He turned a brilliant smile on her, and even now, her mouth went dry at the sight of it. “Sometimes,” he said, “all you need to do is decide, for yourself, what’s right.”
* * * *
She made her confession a thousand miles away from the protest, glasses slipping down her nose during a particularly boring lecture on Locke and Rousseau, as she scrawled it quickly and awkwardly across the back of her notes: All I know of religion, and politics, and right and wrong, is you.
His half-finished song was still stuck in her head, when the bullet entered his brain.
* * * *
It took her a month to work up the courage to cry, alone beneath the yellow of the late afternoon sun, one of her glasses’ lenses shattered beyond repair where she’d thrown them against the gravestone.
It took her over a year to stop hearing his music in her head nearly every minute of every day.
* * * *
She dreamed of him only once after his death, almost five years after the fact:
In the dark, they stood in the bookshop, a fine layer of dust settled on to its empty shelves. She tried to speak of religion and politics and right and wrong. She tried to say, “I loved you, you know.”
Instead, the words that tumbled out of her mouth were, “What exactly are you doing?”
He smiled, wrinkling the bandage on his cheek. “Still waiting, I suppose.”
She stumbled toward him in the same moment he opened his arms, launching herself into his embrace and burying her face in the still-familiar cotton of his shoulder, arms going around his neck as he held her close. She inhaled the scent of him while he rubbed gentle circles over her back, the two of them clinging to one another as if each might keep the other anchored in that moment forever through sheer force of will.
And then everything was dissolving into shadow, in the way of dreams, as dawn’s light filtered through the blinds of her apartment, and she opened her eyes to the rising sun. With her vision blurred, she thought, for a split second, that she could still see him, lounging in a corner, bent over his music.
When she put her glasses on, he was gone.
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