More Than Words
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He nodded, a jerky movement of his head. I could see his pulse thrumming quickly under the smooth, tanned skin of his throat. “What’s this?”
I glanced down at what he was pointing at. “That’s the treble clef. It tells you the pitch and key of the notes on that line.”
His brow furrowed, and I rushed to explain further. “Pitch and key are … the highness and lowness of notes.”
He nodded again, his eyes wide and shining with something I didn’t know how to name. It was more than excitement. It was … disbelief. Was he that excited to be reading in a different language? I noticed the way he hummed when we were playing. He’d put music to our games—slow, dark, and creepy when we were hunting for a villain, light and happy when we were running through a meadow of magical, talking bluebells. Sometimes I’d look at him and smile at some particular melody and he’d glance at me in surprise, as if he didn’t even know the music was anywhere except inside him. He looked up and our eyes met, causing a tremor of delight to move down my spine. “Will you bring me more?”
“O-okay. I, um, I have a keyboard, too. I could bring it? It has a carry case.”
“Yes,” he breathed. He grabbed my hand and squeezed it, and another small thrill went through me at his touch. I suddenly felt shy but glad to have given him something that obviously brought him happiness. I wanted to give him more. I wanted him to direct those clear gray eyes at me again and see them bright with joy.
So, two days later, I ran through the field and over the tracks, the keyboard case clutched in my hand and excitement filling my chest. I taught Callen which notes were which as his eyes lit with that same wonder. I’d never been very good at the piano, but I’d learned the basics, and I gave those to Callen along with the keyboard that had been in my closet unused for so long I’d almost forgotten about it.
He took to music like a fish takes to water, and I was amazed that in only a couple of months he was far better than I’d ever be, even though we had a Schimmel baby grand that I sat at each week, practicing for what felt like hours and hours, but in reality was only thirty minutes.
He showed up one day later that year looking angry, his face bruised, and sat down heavily, leaning his head against the wall. “Will you read to me today, Jessie?”
I nodded, taking the book I was in the middle of out of my backpack. “Sure.” I started The Three Musketeers, pausing and glancing up at him after I’d read a few paragraphs. His expression had settled into sadness and his eyes were closed. I gathered my courage. “Is it your dad who hits you?” I asked softly.
His eyes opened, but he didn’t turn his head toward me. He was silent for so long, I wondered if he’d answer me at all, and my heart began beating faster, scared that he would be angry with me and leave instead. “Yeah.”
My heart squeezed, and I released the breath I’d held in my throat.
He looked at me, his gaze moving over my face. “I can handle the hitting. It’s … it’s the words that … Anyway …”
I desperately wanted to ask him to say more, but I wasn’t sure how. I cleared my throat. “My dad isn’t a good man either.” I whispered it as if there were someone close by I was trying to prevent from hearing the truth. Maybe myself. I’d known it for a long time, as long as I could remember actually, but somehow saying it out loud made it an unavoidable truth. I’d never be able to pretend again. My father was weak and selfish, and he didn’t love us enough, if he even loved us at all.
Callen reached out and took my hand in his, and my eyes darted to our interlaced fingers, mine small and pale and his tanned and calloused and so much larger than my own. I kept my eyes on our joined hands and swallowed before continuing. “But the worst part is that my mom can’t stop loving him. No matter how much he makes her cry, she keeps coming back for more. I just … I don’t know how one person has that many tears.”
When I raised my eyes to his, he was staring at me. I felt self-conscious, even though he’d told me a secret, too, and I bit my lip and looked away. “Is that why you like fairy tales so much, Jessie?” His voice was soft, laced with something tender, but the question made me feel more exposed. He squeezed my hand gently. I wanted to pull away and I wanted to get closer, and the feelings running through my body were new and confusing, thrilling and scary.
“We haven’t played those games for a while now,” I answered, shaking my head. Instead of going on adventures, I read aloud or did homework, and Callen played the keyboard, his brow furrowed in concentration, creating partial melodies that were so beautiful they made my heart trip over itself. Music that often faded away into nothing, as if the loveliness had slipped right through his fingers, or he didn’t know where to take it.
His full lips tilted up. “Sometimes I miss playing make-believe.”
I grinned. “You do?”
“Yeah. You made me feel like a hero.”
“You are,” I breathed. “To me, you are.”
He shook his head. “No, Jessie. I’m no hero. God, I can’t even …”
“What? What does he say you can’t do?” I asked, feeling fierce and protective, knowing it was his father who put that haunted look in his eyes.
Callen laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “He only tells the truth.”
“No! I’d like to go to your house and give your father a piece of my—”
“Don’t you dare.” The words were sharp and icy, and I stared at him, my cheeks flushing and my eyes filling with tears. Callen had never spoken so harshly to me before.
“I … I wouldn’t do anything that—”
He leaned forward so suddenly, I let out a gasp, and then his lips were on mine, soft and warm, and a shimmery heat moved through my body. I paused, uncertain, for I’d never been kissed before, not even close. I had clunky braces on my teeth, and I had no idea what to do.
Callen gripped my hand more tightly and used his other hand to cup the back of my head as he pulled me even closer and rubbed his lips softly—slowly—over mine. I let out a tiny breath, and he hesitantly moved his tongue along my parted lips, causing me to instinctively open them.
He jolted as if surprised, and I opened my eyes to find that his were open, too. For a few moments we stared at each other close up, our eyes wide, and I was dimly aware that my heart was slamming in my chest, before he once again closed his lids. He tilted his head and pressed his tongue inside my mouth—just barely—and I closed my eyes, meeting the very tip of his tongue with the tip of mine, touching and then retreating. A cascade of feeling sparked inside me: excitement, nervousness, joy, and fear. Callen nibbled softly at my lips, and I sighed in wonder at the physical sensation, loving the taste of his mouth, the way he smelled up close like this—cinnamon, and salt, and some sort of soap. Like a boy. Like my prince.
When he pulled away, I felt dazed and half-asleep, floating in some other world. I blinked, bringing myself back to the moment, and smiled shyly at him. He gave me a crooked smile in return. “No one makes me feel like you, Princess Jessie. No one ever will.”
It was the only time he ever kissed me.
Callen never came back to the train tracks after that day. I went every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, hoping desperately he’d be there again. I didn’t know where to begin to look for him. Santa Lucinda, the city in Northern California where we lived, was far too big, and I didn’t even know his last name.
The only thing I had to remember him by was a string of hand-drawn musical notes written on a torn piece of paper I’d found in the corner of our boxcar.
As I waited week after week, I racked my brain for a reason why he had disappeared. Had I done something wrong? Had he hated kissing me? Had he felt ashamed? Had his father done something terrible to him? I felt desperate for answers I had no way to get.
Finally, one Tuesday evening in late summer, after an entire year of hoping he’d return, I sat alone in the doorway of our boxcar and said a silent farewell to my vanished hero—my broken prince—wiped a tear from my cheek, and never returned.