More Than Words
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JESSICA—ELEVEN YEARS OLD
“The night was dark and …” I took a tentative step forward, the dry summer grass crunching softly beneath my feet. Stormy? No, it wasn’t even misty. I squinted at the pale sliver of moon overhead. It wasn’t even really dark yet, the evening sky just beginning to take on a deeper twilight blue. A dog barked somewhere in the distance, and then it grew quiet again, my footsteps echoing around me as if I were the only person alive in this strange, treacherous land. “Lonely,” I finally decided, whispering the word. I squared my shoulders, summoning courage. “The night was … dim and lonely, and yet the princess continued on her journey, believing with all her heart that the prince wasn’t far behind and that he’d rescue her. All she had to do was hold on to hope.”
I kept walking, my breath hitching as my pulse sped up. I’d never walked this far from home before, and nothing looked familiar. Where am I? As the sky turned gray, lights suddenly blinked on up ahead, and I moved toward them as if they were a beacon, a guide. “The stars glittered in the sky, and the princess followed the brightest ones, sure they would lead her to safety and”—my stomach growled, louder than the soft rise and fall of the cricket song in the evening air—“food.”
A slope stood between me and the glowing lights—what I could now see were streetlamps—and I began making my way up slowly. I clutched my book in one hand, using my other hand to balance myself on the steepest sections. “The princess was tired from her journey, and yet she gathered her strength and scaled the cliffs, knowing that she would be able to see where she was from higher ground. Perhaps she’d spot the prince, galloping toward her on his trusty steed.”
The lights were very close, and when I reached the top of the incline and emerged through some bushes, I was standing in front of a set of train tracks. I let out a harsh exhale, looking one way and then the other, turning around to survey the land below. Looking down the slope in front me, I could just make out the edge of the golf course that backed up to a wide field. I sighed in relief now that I had my bearings. My house was in a neighborhood on the other side of the golf course. How could I have been so caught up in my own fantasy that I hadn’t realized how far I’d walked?
I should head home now that I know which way to go.
I stood for a moment looking in the direction of my house, hearing the echoes of my mother’s tears, my father’s annoyed voice, and the slamming door telling me my little brother had gone next door to spend the night at his friend Kyle’s house. I don’t want to be there. It’d be hours before they noticed I was gone anyway. If they noticed at all.
I turned back toward the tracks. There was a lone boxcar sitting still and silent a short distance away, and I eyed it curiously, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, a strange fluttering in my chest. “The princess spotted the caves up ahead,” I murmured, “and was drawn to them for some reason she couldn’t explain.” Fate.
I walked slowly through the gravel, stepping over the first set of tracks and moving toward the boxcar. The sound of the crickets from the field below grew faint, and the night seemed suddenly quieter and more still, as if the entire world were holding its breath. My heart began beating faster again in anticipation of … something. I touched the side of the boxcar, the metal cool and smooth beneath my fingertips as I trailed my hand along it, moving toward the wide blackness of the open door. My whisper was a bare breath of sound. “The caves were dark, and yet the princess was brave. She would stop here for a while and wait for the prince to catch up with her. He was very close now. She could feel it.”
Pausing at the edge of the open door, I leaned my head slowly inside, my breath catching and my eyes widening. A boy sat leaning against the far wall, his long legs stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles, his eyes shut. My heart galloped in my chest. Who is he? One of the streetlamps cast a glow into the shadowy interior, enough for me to see that the boy’s lip was bloody and his eye swollen. I stared, noting the way the boy’s dark hair fell over his forehead as if he were too exhausted to move it back. His face was bruised, his eyes shut, and I thought there might be tear tracks on his cheeks, and yet, even so, he was the handsomest boy I had ever seen in my whole life. He was a prince. A … broken prince. My mind spun. The princess thought she’d been waiting for the prince and yet … and yet, she’d had it all backward. The prince had survived battle and crawled to the dark cave nearby to hide, where he’d been waiting … to be rescued by her.
The boy opened his eyes, which were shiny with tears. He started slightly as he spotted me, his hands curling into fists. But then he blinked the tears away, his brow furrowing and his hands relaxing as he sat up straight.
I pulled myself into the boxcar and stood in front of him, my knees weak with the unexpectedness of finding him. “I’m here to save you,” I said in a rush of words.
I felt the blush rising in my cheeks when I realized I’d said the words out loud. He didn’t know what I’d been playing, and I suddenly realized how strange and awkward I must seem. I’d been far too involved in my own made-up world. Although … clearly he did need saving. Maybe not by a pretend princess, but by someone anyway.
The boy’s dark eyebrows rose as his gaze moved down my body and then back up to my face. He laughed a small laugh that ended in a sigh. “Oh yeah? Then I’m screwed,” he muttered.
Well. I put my hands on my hips, the sympathy I’d felt a moment before turning into irritation. Maybe I was strange and awkward, but I didn’t deserve to be laughed at. “I’m stronger than I look,” I declared, drawing myself up to my full height. I was the fifth-tallest girl in my class.
The boy smirked and ran a hand through his hair, moving it off his forehead. “I’m sure. What are you doing here? Don’t you know little girls shouldn’t be wandering around train tracks alone at night?”
I stepped farther inside, looking around at the graffiti sprayed all over the walls. There were several pieces of writing on the wall nearest me, and I leaned in to read them. “Better not to read those,” the boy said. I turned to him questioningly. “Probably not for kids.” He raised an eyebrow. Probably? As if he hadn’t read them himself. Right.
I cleared my throat, deciding to take his advice anyway. For now. I figured they must be dirty sayings. I’d come back another time and read them when I was alone. Maybe I’d memorize them, too, just because. “You don’t look that much older than I am,” I said. In truth, I couldn’t really tell. If I had to guess, I’d say he was a middle school kid, although there was something about his expression—or maybe his eyes—that made him seem older.
“Yeah, well, I’m a guy, and I know how to protect myself.”
I considered his bruised face, thinking there was at least one person he’d had some trouble protecting himself from. “Hmm. How old are you anyway?”
He frowned at me for a moment, as if he wasn’t going to answer. “Twelve.”
I smiled. “I’m eleven and a half. My name’s Jessica Creswell.” I kneeled and put my hands on my thighs.
He studied me for a minute, as if he wasn’t sure what to think of me. I glanced away, biting my lip, feeling suddenly insecure. I knew I wasn’t the prettiest girl. My hair and eyes were both a plain, boring light brown, I had a scattering of freckles over my nose and cheeks that I’d tried to scrub away with lemon juice, which hadn’t worked, and I was pitifully skinny. The girls at my snobby French school never stopped reminding me how knobby my knees were or how the stupid cowlick at the front of my head had a mind of its own. I’d smoothed it down with my mom’s hair gel, but it had resisted, standing straight up in a stiff spike. Hopeless.
“What are you doing here, Jessica Creswell?”
I sat back on my butt, drawing my knees up in a more comfortable position, and leaned on the wall next to the one he was sitting against. “I sorta got lost. But now I know where I am. I know how to get back home.”
“Then you should do that. Go home.”
I pressed my lips together, frowning at the thought of home.