House by house, the lights went out, leaving Hickory Street draped in darkness, laced by a single, flickering street lamp. I lived in house number 312. It was a quiet old place that looked the same as all the others, but I didn’t mind, because number 312 belonged to me. It had two bathrooms, three bedrooms, and five windows; and it was perfect. We were close enough to the city to hear the car horns through the night, but far enough away not to lose any sleep over them.
In the crisp outside darkness, there was a stillness that staled in the air and bubbled up inside the living soul that dared to venture into this unrecognizable dream. Hopes quivered on the tip of his tongue; fantasies danced in the whites of his eyes. He was a stranger to Hickory Street, but no stranger to darkness, and anyone who can swim through darkness is welcome anywhere.
He lurked like a cat through the shadows, ringing around the dome cast by the street lamp. The figure walked north, watching as the house numbers dropped with every step. His hands were in his pockets, where they ought to be on a cold night like this for a man with no gloves. His jacket was zipped up to his neck to keep out the darkness.
I watched this from my window sill, holding a bitter breath in the back of my throat. He was getting closer. I saw him take out a lighter and wave it through the air, squinting to read the small print on the mailbox in front of him. He saw 314 and knew that my house was the next one down. He put the lighter away and stuffed his hand in behind it. It was a bitter cold night, even in stale lamplight.
I never caught his name, or held on to it, but I knew his sideways grin and his pushed in eyes. He was a friend, if that’s the right word, but I never caught his name. I suppose then I was too afraid to ask. And then he was here. He didn’t knock because I had given him a key. A key with a scarlet ribbon so that he would never forget that it was mine, to my house, to me.
“What light is this that casts a shadow on my ebon rose?”
“Light? Light say you? Say you not in this house of woe, for it be bright as night when light is drawn from the lips of a dying moon.”
He grinned at me with teeth that sparkled in the light from outside. His cheeks were stung with cold, and his hands still hid in his pockets.
“It’s safe now. My parents just went to bed.” I said, grabbing my coat. Then we slipped out the back, and I locked the door with the key in the flowerpot. He squeezed my hand in his. Like fire and ice, our fingers locked and danced to the song of a not-so-merry man.
I hadn’t been out for a while now, ever since the sky turned cold. But tonight I didn’t worry, because he was with me tonight. All the cozy fireplaces in the world could not have held me back, not now, not tonight. And I was already halfway down the street, past the street lamp that meant safe. Not tonight, not tonight. Tonight was my night. Tonight I wasn’t turning back.
We talked, but I didn’t really pay attention to the conversation. I was in a daze that only nightmares could free me from. The black of the silver sky was fuzzy and heavy and wanting. He held me to the pleading ground and made sure I didn’t float away.
The fighting cold shook the hollowed branches and the icy breeze slashed at my long, un- straightened hair. It had been a long while since the night wind bit at my nose and uncovered my ears.
We walked and the concrete turned to dust and the empty lamp posts turned to barren trees. When I was young, I never dared to touch the outermost sapling of this forest, but now, I am foolish enough to walk among the wicked branches. It was he who first took me into the woods, and now I can hardly keep myself from their gentle embrace.
But that was ages ago, when I was hardly young anymore, when my hair was tied back in pigtails and my socks were laced with frill. When I wore pink nail-polish and didn’t know how to play the guitar. Long ago; before he was more than a friend, before the lamplight learned to shine in my midnight sonnet.
But he led me like before, deeper into the twisted, wooden fingers and among the frozen trunks, to a place I’ve never been before. If I was young, he might have asked me to close my eyes. And then we, he and I and I and he, were there, in a small clearing just outside of 12:00 am where a small and old and pleasant house that creaked with every dying gust of wind was structured. The windows were boarded three boards thick and dark and the walls were chipped and rotting and I’m sure that white cloaks draped the waning furniture inside.
“Is it haunted?” I asked through cracking, trembling lips.
“Only if you want it to be,” he replied, in a whisper, “C’mon. This way.”
He led me around the house to the back, where a wooden ladder stretched up to the top and latched onto the low-hanging shingles that might have once supported a gutter. And above the roof, gray clouds swarmed and swirled, stirred by a witch’s long and twisted finger.
He climbed up first, and then I followed, placing my pale, freezing fingers on the bars after his worn, untied sneakers lifted off.
And then we were on the roof, looking down at the trees below, and, in the distance, at the tiny outline of a lightbulb-city that will never burn out.
While that little girl with pink nails and frilly socks slept and dreamed of palaces and princesses, I watched the world with wide-open eyes, feeling more alive than ever before. My heart was racing and trembling and burning in this frigid darkland.
He looked at me just as a single, lonely tear fell from my cheek and disappeared in the abyss of time, lost for all eternity. And then his face and my face got real close and I could feel his warm breath blowing the icy cold away, and then our breaths became one as our lips touched and pressed together. His hand slid into my long, black hair and his other grasped mine. I closed my eyes and never wanted to let go.
The girl back home in her parents’ house would never know what forever felt like. But on that roof, with the boy that didn’t have a name, where the city lights don’t know how to shine, where the street lamps are all far away; that is where forever likes to linger.
And then he pulled away, breaking the bond that was meant to be. I was confused, almost frightened, that something wasn’t right, but then he pointed up and I saw why forever had to end.
The sea of clouds had parted.
The midnight sky was ablaze with light, with thousands and thousands of tiny lightbulbs that could fit in pickle jar and rest on my bedside table. And I knew why forever had to end; because there we so many more forevers out there for us to see.
We put our backs on the loose shingles and stared up at the forevers, trying to count them in our heads and collect them for our own forever. My hand wiggled into his, and we laid there, forgetting what the city was, casting imaginative butterfly nets up into the infinite forevers and watching them slip through the holes. But that didn’t matter. One forever was enough for that little girl back home.
Competition: The Pen Factor 2016, Round 2
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