By the third week the girl had stopped coming to school, and the boy who liked her started to get worried. The teachers cared, a little, but they had too many students to focus on one. The parents said she was sick, the boy discovered when he began to pry and he was given the information to make him stop being such a bother. They were friends, he lied with bright-eyed eagerness that made him later want to go sulk in dark places, and couldn’t he at least take her homework to her? They were not exactly quick to allow him, but the permission came in time.
He had first seen her three weeks before, when her look had pinned him like a dissected frog from the other side of the fence. She was next door, at the copycat home that was green instead of blue, and she’d been leaning too far out a second-story window, and he’d waited for the inevitability of the fall. The sympathetic vertigo as she stared at him made him turn away, and when he looked back she was gone. He waited too long to see if it would return, and he was almost late to go to school, and even though it was the first day it did not bother him so much as it would have if he hadn’t seen her.
She wasn’t on the bus, but at school she was in his class, and she looked at him again like that. He had to bite his lip until his mouth went coppery to think for himself again. She watched the class, but she kept to the corner, in the back, near the radiator that everyone avoided because it kept that slice of the room desert-dry. Her name was something red and elegant, and she moved so carefully, never so much as bumping into a table or chair. And she skipped a day, and a few days, and she stopped coming, and he didn’t see her leaning out of a window again. He wanted to feel that vertigo again, tipping too far out over a twelve-foot drop in the cool morning air.
Knocking on the door made him want a mask and an orange bucket, because that’s what you did when you knocked on the doors of strangers. He thought he had the wrong house when the door opened, because the woman was shorter than him and she said something in a language he’d never heard of. She scowled fiercely at the books he held, taken from the girl’s desk at school, and stomped back inside. The door was still open. He felt queasy, again, and he paused on the doorstep. The woman did not look at all like the girl he liked, and he wondered if somehow he’d managed to rearrange the universe in his memory, so that the presence of her next door was something he’d invented to justify his sudden interest.
Keeping his shoes on a wooden floor made him feel strange and filthy. He tried to ignore what he would have sworn was the feel of grit in the treads scraping against the hardwood. The tiny old woman pointed at a set of stairs and said something he couldn’t understand. He thought it was an insult at first and then that blended into a strange and unpleasant self-doubt about it. How could he think that of someone he’d just met? The stairs were just like those in his house, but they were too steep anyway. He was climbing up the edge of a cliff, he was certain, to an Incan monastery carved into the side of a mountain, where the stairs would go past the vertical and he’d have to manage the last few yards with his fingertips in crevices of stone.
The second-story landing was disappointing. It was just like his own, but mirrored. The boy wondered where the temple guards and silver monkeys were. The door at the end of the hall was the only one that was closed. He knocked. The thin wood made it louder than he wanted, and he had to cough back embarrassment. He waited, and knocked again, too quickly. “Quiet,” the girl said with the door open, and the boy felt rubber-band pulled past the moment of it having opened. Her eyes were big and tired and not as sharp as that day she leaned out of the window.
He ended up in her room, sitting on the bed, and his thoughts lingered on the missed time in-between, when at some point the door had gotten closed and the girl in her loose-fitting nightdress had returned to the chair at her desk. His breath was tight and wheezy. He kept his eyes away, because letting them stay would have them focus all on her bare shoulders or legs. It was not, precisely, a completely unfamiliar feeling, but it was not something that had struck him ever so sharply before. He did not know what to call it, or he did, but the word was not one he would be comfortable using.
“I thought I could wait longer,” she was saying, and he had missed everything before that, and she was moving to sit next to him, and he dimly realized, like a light under a shade, that he’d dropped the books at some point. They were still in the hallway, in the rich light of the afternoon. The girl’s bedroom had the shades drawn. “I’m sorry,” she said, and then she was leaning against him, and his clothes felt altogether too tight. He couldn’t move, but he was falling as though from a great height. Her hands moved to his arms and traced up to the sleeves of his shirt and waited there. He tried to say something and it came out as a stammer, so she put a finger to his lips. He went silent.
Later, walking back across the yards to his own house where his parents would not be home for some number of hours, the scarf around his neck was not his own. It smelled like her and itched in the heat. He felt hypoxic and giddy and he had to lay down for a few minutes before he could gain his feet again enough to make his way back to his room. There he laid down again and stared at the ceiling. The little stippled dots made stereoscopic pictures when he crossed his eyes, and on the insides of his eyelids after looking at the light he saw phantom horses and strange shadows that he wasn’t afraid of anymore.
The scarf was wool and scratchy, and underneath his neck itched. It didn’t bother him so much. He wasn’t the kind of boy who had worn scarves very much, and not at all when the weather was warm, but he thought now that maybe he might change that. It would be worth it for her. Her hands had been very cold on his arms. He felt colder than he should. The next day, maybe, he would sit by that radiator that was always too hot, and he would be more comfortable than he had been.
He did his homework, and his parents didn’t comment when he wore a shirt buttoned up to the collar to dinner and didn’t bother to notice the sallowness around his eyes. The food was bland but he was hungrier than he had been, so he ate seconds and had dessert too. In his room again, he watched out the window with the shades half-drawn, but he didn’t see her. When sleep came, it tasted of salt and copper. In the morning, in the mirror he could see that the little razor cuts from the teeth the girl hadn’t had in class had started to heal. He’d still need the scarf.
She wasn’t on the bus, again, and the boy lingered outside longer than he should have, at home and at school. But she was in class when he arrived, sitting over in the corner away from everyone else, and he joined her. His stomach leapt and rolled. “…and I hope you did your homework,” she was saying, and he realized he hadn’t, and she laughed a little when she saw his face change. Her hand was warm when it touched his, in the long moment before the teacher arrived, and for a little while he didn’t think about the itching of his neck at all.