By Kevlin Henney
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Jenny was leaning towards him, her face in soft focus appearing through the folds of smoke shrouding the world around them, leaves and breeze playing with the light.
Erik hesitated, burning inside, wishing himself already home. Home rather than sitting here with Jenny between the overgrown siding and abandoned warehouse. Home rather than here in what should have been the perfect wayward walk home from school, sidetracked onto a blanket of leaves, sun quilted through undressed branches, petrichor moments woven into carefree autumn.
The stuff of adolescent dreams and memories.
Memories. He'd remember. He'd blown his cool along with the first toke, coughing it back before it could reach his lungs, just about holding it together for the second, taken quickly to smother the failure of the first. Too quickly. Too soon and all too briefly held. The second had released itself in a sputtered cloud of embarrassment. The stuff of memories.
Jenny had giggled before taking back the spliff. Through watered eyes he'd seen her draw in, hold, exhale, pursed lips the source of a steady smoke-stream into the low-hanging branches. Controlled. Confident. Cool.
Everything has a surface. Her eyes and brow, focused and furrowed, betrayed a care and concentration behind her sprezzatura, an air more practised than natural, a facade maintained by the scaffold of a less confident self.
But cool is as cool does: she was; he wasn't. Jennifer Pearce, a classroom daydream come true, luck he couldn't believe was his, but could well believe he wouldn't have for long. No matter how determined she seemed, blindness to his uncoolness was surely conditional and temporary. He was hormones and desire draped on awkward bones, wrapped in adolescence.
And now... and now she was moving towards him, expecting more from him than he felt he could get right. Emerging from the mist, eyes trained on him like prey, smile skewed, she was leaning over, one hand then the other to the ground, supporting her intent, spanning, prowling, closing the already small space between them. Her eyelids half closed as she looked at his lips, hers parting.
"The cat..." Erik said, looking past her, head pulling away from hers.
Jenny stopped. And pulled back. "I think you mean 'Jenny' -- or perhaps even 'the Jenny'." Jenny's eyes were wide open, staring now with quite different intent. He was still prey, but the meal options had changed.
"No," Erik said, pointing behind her, "the cat." A ginger cat stood on one of the rusted rails, staring at them before slinking off towards the warehouse, pausing every few steps to look back at them. Without hurry, but with expectation.
"Yes. It's a cat. And that's a warehouse. And we're alone. Together. At least for the moment."
"Quick, let's follow." Erik stood, rising above the thinning veil of smoke.
"Erik Hansson, just what do you think you're doing? If you think--"
"Jenny, you'll think I'm mad if I try to explain."
"I think I'll be mad whatever you say."
"What if sometimes things don't make sense, can't be explained, but they happen anyway." Instead of explanation he offered his hand. He looked at the corner of the building; the cat had disappeared. He looked back at Jenny. "Please."
Sighing, Jenny shook her head, took his hand and stood up. Slow then swept, led then pulled as Erik hurried down the line, matching weathered sleepers with his step then her step, sending ripples and splashes through yesterday's puddles, jumping brambles and nettles and dock leaves, past leaning wheels and rusted side rods, until she turned the corner into the warehouse yard ahead of a forgotten platform. They stopped, they stood. Across concrete, weeds and cracks sat the cat.
"Just wait a moment." Erik's breathing was heavy but even.
A year to the day. Every year. Same place, same cat. Except last year. He realised now he'd got it wrong, hadn't remembered it was a leap year, had forgotten the leap day. Today was found luck, like that first time he'd taken a longcut home two weeks into a new term, a new school, a new everything. The new boy, the outsider, but not in a way that was either cool or noticed. Four years at the school and he was still on the outside; Jenny, one year in and, well, in.
"Wait for what?" Jenny heard herself ask -- perhaps asking Erik, perhaps asking herself, perhaps just asking. Her words seemed remote -- faded, background, not hers. How she always felt her words sounded, but now somehow more real, not just on the inside. Her heartbeat held the foreground. There was more to its pace than racing along the track or the now lost anticipation of racing of hormones.
Her breathing took centre stage, as she always felt it did when she entered a room. Heavy and irregular, but she'd never known it so loud, never noticed how quiet everything else could be. All was still, except for her eyes, darting from the derelict yard to the cat to Erik, looking around... noticing herself looking around, outside herself looking in.
And Erik -- Erik simply staring, the hold of his hand his only acknowledgement of her or a world outside the yard. This boy, so unlike the other boys, so much more than surface, so much that couldn't be seen, standing in the social shadows away from the pretence and parody of teenage play.
The air closed around them, pushing the distant street sounds further off set, pushing the sun back, drawing in the clouds, the distortion of a lens passing over the moment. The wind dropped, not to stillness, but as a note dropping an octave, dropping from a force that blows leaves and clouds and hair to a chill that runs the length of the spine.
Jenny shivered, her free hand reached to the back of her neck.
"Ow!" A spark snapped between her finger and her hair. "I... Erik, I think we should go."
"What if," he whispered, as if replying, but as if he hadn't heard her, "a moment can ripple in time, forward and back, a wave that spreads out, periodic, repeating, the future and the past. Something happened here... or will one day happen here." Erik's voice was the only sound, possessed of a calmness Jenny did not share, but it was reassurance enough.
The only sound before a silence so pure it filled her head.
The world changed channel.
Their world no more than a bubble, sparks like shooting stars faded in from the edge of her vision, from nothing, falling from all directions into the yard. The light trails fell short of the centre, forming a hollow, a silhouette, two silhouettes, shadows of a man and a woman -- or a woman and a man, or... -- outlined in a corona of light, fireflies escaping a snow globe. The two figures, the two patches of night, moved towards one another, their faces touching, before they were engulfed in flames, inverted flames burning in shadows, shattering into trails blowing from the centre of the yard, passing through everything but touching nothing.
And then nothing.
Reality switched back.
The bubble of the moment disappeared into the world beyond as its greater tide of sound and sense flooded back into their dell.
The concrete was unmarked, the weeds uncharred, the sounds of the street undimmed. The cat was gone. All was still but for Jenny's breathing, uneven, heavy. She was in Erik's arms -- or was he in hers? -- holding tight, wanting explanation, but not wanting explanation, knowing none would ever make sense, knowing that at least one thing Erik had held beneath the surface was something they now shared.
Their eyes met, everything in focus. Their breathing fell into waves, washing the world away.