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“It’s not real,” he says to me.
“It’s not real,” I say at the same time.
He lets go of the branch but remains where he is on the wall. Climbing for him is like walking for the rest of us.
“Are you going to stay up there?” I ask, because I don’t know what else to say.
“I’m thinking about it, Maddy. Carla said I had to stay as far away from you as possible and she doesn’t seem like the kind of lady that you piss off.”
“You can come down,” I say. “Carla’s not as scary as she seems.”
“OK.” He slips effortlessly to the floor. He puts his hands into his pockets, crosses his feet at the ankles, and leans back against the wall. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so still. I think he’s trying not to spook me.
“Maybe you should come in,” he says, and then I realize that I’m still in the doorway holding on to the knob. I close the door but don’t take my eyes off him. His eyes track my movements as well.
After all the IMs I felt like I knew him, but now with him standing in front of me it doesn’t feel that way at all. He’s taller than I thought and way more muscled, but not bulky. His arms are lean and sculpted and his biceps fill the sleeves of his black T-shirt. His skin is a tanned golden brown. It would be warm to touch.
“You’re different than I thought you’d be,” I blurt out.
He grins and a dimple forms just under his right eye.
“I know. Sexier, right? It’s OK, you can say it.”
I guffaw. “How do you manage to carry around an ego that size and weight?”
“It’s the muscles,” he shoots back, flexing his biceps and raising a single comical eyebrow.
Some of my nervousness falls way but then comes right back when he watches me laugh without saying anything for a few seconds too long.
“Your hair really is so long,” he says. “And you never said you had freckles.”
“Was I supposed to?”
“Freckles might be a deal breaker.” He smiles and the dimple comes back. Cute.
I move to the couch and sit. He leans against the rock wall across the room.
“They’re the bane of my existence,” I say, referring to the freckles. This is a ridiculous thing to say because, of course, the bane of my existence is that I’m sick and unable to leave my house. We both realize this at the same time and then we’re both laughing again.
“You’re funny,” he says after our laughter subsides.
I smile. I’ve never thought of myself as a funny girl, but I’m happy that he thinks so.
We are awkward together for a few moments unsure what to say. The silence would be much less noticeable over IM. We could chalk it up to any number of distractions. But right now in real life it feels like we both have blank thought balloons over our heads. Actually, mine’s not blank at all, but I really can’t tell him how beautiful his eyes are. They’re Atlantic Ocean blue, just like he’d said. It’s strange because of course I’d known that. But the difference between knowing it and seeing them in person is the difference between dreaming of flying and flight.
“This is some crazy room,” he says, looking around.
“Yeah. My mom built it so I could feel like I was outside.”
“Does it work?”
“Most days. I have a really excellent imagination.”
“You really are a fairy tale. Princess Madeline and the Glass Castle.” He’s quiet again, like he’s trying to build up to something.
“It’s OK to ask me,” I say.
He’s wearing a single black rubber band around his wrist and he pulls at it a few times before continuing. “How long have you been sick?”
“My whole life.”
“What would happen if you went outside?”
“My head would explode. Or my lungs. Or my heart.”
“How can you joke … ?”
I shrug. “How can I not? Besides, I try not to want things I can’t have.”
“You’re like a Zen master. You should teach a class.”
“It takes a long time to learn.” I smile back at him.
He crouches and then sits, back against the wall, forearms on his knees. Even though he’s still, I can feel the need to move coming off of him. The boy is kinetic energy.
“Where do you want to go the most?” he asks.
“Besides outer space?”
“Yes, Maddy, besides outer space.” I like the way he says Maddy, as if he’s been calling me that my whole life.
“The beach. The ocean.”
“Want me to describe it for you?”
I nod more vigorously than I expected to. My heart speeds up like I’m doing something illicit.
“I’ve seen pictures and videos, but what’s it like to actually be in the water? Is it like taking a bath in a giant tub?”
“Sort of,” he says slowly, considering. “No, I take it back. Taking a bath is relaxing. Being in the ocean is scary. It’s wet and cold and salty and deadly.”
That’s not what I was expecting. “You hate the ocean?”
He’s grinning now, warming to his topic. “I don’t hate it. I respect it.” He holds up a single finger. “Respect. It’s Mother Nature at her finest—awesome, beautiful, impersonal, murderous. Think about it: All that water and you could still die of thirst. And the whole point of waves is to suck your feet from under you so that you drown faster. The ocean will swallow you whole and burp you out and not notice you were even there.”