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Mom is wearing a red, strapless, flower-patterned sundress. Her damp hair curls around her face. She’s not wearing makeup or jewelry. Really, she looks like an alternate universe version of the mom sitting next to me now. She seems to belong on that beach with those people more than she belongs stuck here in this room with me. She’s holding me in her arms, and she’s the only one not staring into the camera. Instead, she’s laughing at me. I’m grinning that silly, gummy smile that only babies can smile.
I’ve never seen a photo of myself Outside before. I didn’t know such a thing existed.
“Where’s this?” I ask.
“Hawaii. Maui was your dad’s favorite place.”
Her voice is almost a whisper now. “You were just four months old, before we knew why you were always sick. A month before the accident.”
I clutch the photo to my chest. My mom’s eyes fill with tears that don’t fall.
“I love you,” she says. “More than you know.”
But I do know. I’ve always felt her heart reaching out to protect mine. I hear lullabies in her voice. I can still feel arms rocking me to sleep and her kisses on my cheeks in the morning. And I love her right back. I can’t imagine the world she’s given up for me.
I don’t know what to say, so I tell I love her, too. It’s not enough, but it’ll have to do.
After she leaves I stand in front of the mirror holding the photograph next to my face. I look from the me in the photo to the me in the mirror and back again.
A photograph is a kind of time machine. My room fades away, and I’m on that beach surrounded by love and salt air and the fading warmth and lengthening shadows of sunset.
I fill my tiny lungs with as much air as they can take and I hold my breath. I’ve been holding it ever since.
Later, 9:08 P.M.
Olly’s already waiting for me when I go to the window. In big, bold letters he writes:
I pantomime my complete and utter lack of jealousy.
Madam, I’m Adam
Sometimes I reread my favorite books from back to front. I start with the last chapter and read backward until I get to the beginning. When you read this way, characters go from hope to despair, from self-knowledge to doubt. In love stories, couples start out as lovers and end as strangers. Coming-of-age books become stories of losing your way. Your favorite characters come back to life.
If my life were a book and you read it backward, nothing would change. Today is the same as yesterday. Tomorrow will be the same as today. In the Book of Maddy, all the chapters are the same.
Before him my life was a palindrome—the same forward and backward, like “A man, a plan, a canal. Panama,” or “Madam, I’m Adam.” But Olly’s like a random letter, the big bold X thrown in the middle of the word or phrase that ruins the sequence.
And now my life doesn’t make sense anymore. I almost wish I hadn’t met him. How am I supposed to go back to my old life, my days stretching out before me with unending and brutal sameness? How am I supposed to go back to being The Girl Who Reads? Not that I begrudge my life in books. All I know about the world I’ve learned from them. But a description of a tree is not a tree, and a thousand paper kisses will never equal the feel of Olly’s lips against mine.
The Glass Wall
A week later, something startles me awake. I sit up. My head is foggy with sleep but my heart is awake and racing. It knows something that my head doesn’t yet know.
I glance at the clock. 3:01 a.m. My curtains are closed, but I can see a glow from Olly’s room. I drag myself over to the window and push aside the curtains. His entire house is ablaze with lights. Even the porch light is on. My hearts speeds up even more.
Oh, no. Are they fighting again?
A door slams. The sound is faint but unmistakable. I gather the curtains in my fist and wait, willing Olly to show himself. I don’t wait for long because just then he stumbles onto the porch as if he’s been pushed.
The urge to go to him fills me up like it did the last time. I want to go to him. I need to go to him, to comfort him, to protect him.
He regains his balance with his usual speed and spins to face the door with fists clenched. I brace along with him for an attack that doesn’t come. He remains in fighter stance, facing the door, for a full minute. I’ve never seen him so still.
Another minute passes and then his mom joins him on the porch. She tries to touch his arm but he jerks away and doesn’t even look at her. Eventually she gives up. As soon as she’s gone, all the tension leaves his body. He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes and his shoulders begin to shake. He looks up to my window. I wave, but he doesn’t respond. I realize he can’t see me because my lights are off. I run to the switch. But by the time I return to the window, he’s gone.
I press my forehead, my palms, my forearms against the glass.
I’ve never wanted out of my skin more.
The Hidden World
Sometimes the world reveals itself to you. I’m alone in the darkening sunroom. Late-afternoon sun cuts a trapezoid of light through the glass window. I look up and see particles of dust drifting, crystal white and luminous, in the suspension of light.