by Rachel Johanna Darroch
They are eleven years old when they become friends.
They are in the baseball field behind the school. All the other kids are gone, their catcalls and chirpy laughter nothing but a sidewalk memory etched in chalk and bubblegum. It's just the two of them; Danny Edger and Rhylen California.
In the grass next to them are a few seagulls, eagerly watching the proceedings. One of them squawks, the sound quarrelsome. Petulant.
Danny does not know what compels him to talk to her in the first place. For the past few days, he's only watched her from afar. The way she neatly avoids the other kids and sits in the middle of the empty baseball diamond during recess and after school. The way she never answers questions in class and takes to staring out the window with a perennial look of boredom etched on her face.
Everyone thinks she's a weirdo and they're probably right. Still, he's a mixture of curiosity and dread when he approaches her through the field, pausing to pick up a dandelion and blow the puffy clouds of seeds before tossing the stem away.
She tells him her name when he asks, even though he already knows it.
"You're Danny," she says afterwards. She slowly rises to her feet and wipes at the seat of her pants. "I know you think I'm weird."
He doesn't blush like he normally would. There's something candid in her eyes that makes him think she knows she's a little weird herself.
"Why do you sit out here?" he asks. That’s what he really wants to know. What they all want to know about her.
"The seagulls are good company."
He laughs. Hesitantly, the way his mother does whenever their nosy neighbouring wanders over the property line to disparage over the state of other people's gardens. Rhylen tilts her head at him like he's the one who said something odd and then eyes his shoes.
"Those are cool."
Red and blue lights flash with at the soles of his shoes as he shuffles them in the grass. He pauses, flicking his gaze to her belongings on the ground; a knapsack that might have once been red but has now faded to a dull pink, an open pencil case containing what he suspects to be cigarettes and a lunchbox. But it’s not just any lunchbox, he realizes. It’s the very same lunchbox he had been eyeing at the store just before the start of school a few weeks ago. The one his mom refused to buy him due to its hefty price tag.
He whistles, melodic and low.
"So is your lunchbox." Maybe now he is blushing although he would never admit it. "But… you're a girl."
"I am?" She gasps, disingenuous with surprise.
He shakes his head, persevering with this strange, idle small talk even though he still does not know why he’s bothering.
"Your lunchbox has superheroes on it and you’re a girl.” He stares at her while he says this, incredulous that she does not understand this very rudimentary concept. “Shouldn’t you have ponies, or princesses or something like that?"
She doesn't get mad like he expects her to. She’s just… quiet and watchful. Evaluating him the same way his mom does when she’s about to tell him and his brother that his dad can’t visit this weekend. Parsing words, usually after a trip to the ice cream truck, after which she might push his hair out of his face and tell him he needs to be a big boy about this. That “daddy has to work this weekend, but next weekend there will be baseball and pizza…” but that all somehow gets lost under the weight of disappointment.
Danny does not know why he keeps thinking about his mom when he’s talking to the weird kid of all people. Why her face keeps flashing in his mind while he watches Rhylen watch him. Maybe it’s because they both have the same colour eyes, he decides.
Then, she looks up, towards that blue September sky. The sun is still warm this time of year, but it’s only pretending. Danny knows once the sun goes down, there will be a cold bite in the air. Winter’s teething.
Mom always says that, he thinks, only moderately alarmed that she has popped into his head once again. He never thinks about her this much.
"I can fly, you know." Rhylen nods even though he does not say anything and he is too flabbergasted to try and come up with a response. "Wanna see?"
His response is automatic. He is eleven years old. He does not believe in Santa, or the Tooth Fairy, or in the ugly ogre his brother told him lives under the stairs in their basement. He is eleven, which means he is worldly in all things possible and impossible.
“No you can’t.” Danny is laughing when he says it but a stone has settled in his belly. Part of him wants to believe, that’s the thing. Just like part of him wants to believe there really is such thing as magic. Eleven is a conflicting age.
Rhylen smiles like she is indulging in some private joke and when she doesn't break eye contact, he raises his eyebrows and sputters the first thing that comes to mind.
"You know your name is kind of dumb. It sounds like the stage name for a stunt driver. Not a girl's name."
"And you sound like an asshole," Rhylen gravely informs him. "Do you want to see me fly or not?"
She sounds bored. Maybe a little annoyed. Danny nods at her, indulgent and something else as well. Awed, perhaps. He expects her to jump in the air and land on her feet. He expects her to run away, now that her bluff is caught up in his disbelieving smirk.
Mostly, he expects nothing at all.
Rhylen jumps and many things happen at the same time. The seagulls take off with indignant squawks. A breeze ripples through his hair, leaving his skin chilled in goose flesh. A car backfires in a neighbouring street, the sound jarring in the quiet of the baseball field, and in the distance, he can hear police sirens. A whole bunch of them, in fact.
Danny does not notice the seagulls. Or the wind and the shrieking sirens. Or much of anything else, really.
He only has eyes for Rhylen.
Her feet leave the ground and in the long shadow she creates, no longer tethered to the earth, she proves him wrong. It won't be the last time.
An hour later, after Rhylen begs him not to tell anyone what she showed him, he makes his way back home, his heart racing and a grin plastered on his face. He is going to tell everyone. His mom, his brother, the neighbours - maybe he’ll even call a few of his friends. Rhylen seems alright. She uses curse words, which is pretty cool on its own, but the things she can do - everyone should know. No one would call her the weird kid again. Hell, maybe the two of them could set something up to make people pay to see what she can do.
It’s not until he gets home that he notices red and blue lights, soaking up his street in shifting flashes. There are a dozen cop cars in front of his house. His neighbours are all outside, gesturing towards the front yard he has not gotten around to mowing. Police officers are directing people away, their eyes hidden behind black sunglasses.
Danny stops at the end of the street and all thoughts of Rhylen California evapourate from his mind faster than a balloon losing air. His next-door neighbour notices him first. Her face is pale and splotched with tears, and there is a raggy old tissue in her fist. She starts walking towards him and he recognizes the look on her face. Through the coldness that has begun to settle in his stomach, he recognizes that look all too well.
He is going to need to be a big boy very soon.
The neighbour reaches him and he finds he suddenly cannot recall her name even though she has lived next door to him his whole life.
He already knows before anyone can tell him. All he can see is his mom’s face. Her eyes, the colour of that September sky, as she ruffles his hair and hands him his ice cream cone.
His voice is wooden when his neighbour reaches him. Dull. Monotone.
“Where’s my mother?”
About the Author
Rachel Johanna Darroch is an emerging Canadian author. Her first published work, The Paradox, will be featured in a short-story anthology Archipelago this spring. She resides in Kitchener Ontario and is fond of stories that shake the confines of reality.