A/N: Well, this is my revised "short-short" story from my Beginning Fiction Writing class. So...hope it's good, on that note. /sweatdrops/ Oh, and this had to be titled "Boy" for the class, since it was more or less a character study, but that's lame, so I changed it, obviously, for the post here. Creative titles, yay!!
Claimer: Oh, yeah. You read that. I just CLAIMED this as MINE. God, that never gets old.
Humidity hung heavily in the oppressive August air, the atmosphere thick and suffocating. He drew shallow breaths; anything deeper proved impossible. The air caught in his throat like something awkward and solid. His bare feet sluggishly carried him across the dry, brittle grass of the yard, each yellowing blade stabbing his exposed skin. The sun beat down without respite (the sky was cloudless but hazy, the blue blurred to a weak gray), and the rays diffused throughout the uncomfortable air, causing the heat to seep in from all sides.
There was no escape from it.
Crooked-limbed trees with curling leaves wilted beneath that sickly sky, and he in turn wilted beneath them. His shoulders slumped more and more with every listless, dragging step. The grass faded away, growing sparser and sparser until his feet trod upon cracked earth. Stray pebbles and broken twigs punished his soles until they bled, but he continued trudging, uncaring of the pain.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, he recited absently to himself. But words…
The ground sloped downward into a once-muddy gully, now little more than hardness and dust. He occasionally slipped on the uncertain terrain as dirt clods crumbled in capitulation beneath his heavy tread. At the floor of the valley, he halted, his fisted hands sinking deeper into his pockets. He remembered that in June and even July this little creek bed had been muddy and dotted with life, and even though his mother had said that life was only weeds, at least there had been something green.
Now only the parched, shriveled husks of stems and leaves remained, sprawled on the unforgiving earth, fallen soldiers in a long-lost battle. They had taken on the color of their resting place, brown and sun-beaten, and all but vanished from existence and memory.
He almost frowned as he stared at the pitiful trickle of water that dribbled through the dust, but the muscles in his face seemed to have forgotten the nuances of expression. His jaw only tightened imperceptibly. He interrupted the flow with his big toe, half surprised that the water retained its coldness: he had expected it to be tepid, as murky in temperature as in color. It chilled the skin, and he retracted his toe, not wanting to feel anything, even becoming numb.
He wished it would rain. If it rained, this creek would swell anew and the weeds would thrive and the air would clear and he would be able to pretend, if only for a day, an hour, that it were June again—or July—it didn't matter as long as it wasn't August. And if it rained, then he would be allowed to cry without anyone questioning the nature of the wetness on his cheeks. He blinked, but his eyes stayed as dry as the baked earth.
"Hot, isn't it?"
He gave no reply except to stride away, his feet crushing more loose dirt as he scaled the far side of the dead gully in a few large steps.
She sighed, low and defeated.
That did nothing to slow his escape. Concentrating on the ground, he forced his head to remain bowed, clearly indicating that he wanted nothing to do with her.
The sun attacked his unprotected head and back. The heat leeched through the thin fabric of his white t-shirt; he could not tell if he were sweating or not, the air was already so thick and stifling. Tall grass scratched at his calves, but he plowed on regardless, irritated that he could hear her following: the stalks crunched beneath her shoes. More stones tore at his feet once he reached the railroad track and the iron rail seared his skin. All he could think was that trains in this town only carried people away—they never brought them back home.
They brought letters and horrible news instead.
But words may never hurt me, he concluded dully.
"Will you stop?"
He longed to disobey, but his feet ceased moving. He stood rigidly with his back to her, his shoulders lifting from their desolate slump and squaring defiantly. He waited for her to speak, half impatient and half apathetic: he could think of nothing she could say that would help.
She shifted her weight from foot to foot, the scraping of her shoes audible in the oppressive silence. "Running away won't make anything better," she finally said, her voice quiet but firm.
He exhaled sharply through his nose, staring intensely at the heat waves rising from the ground and disappearing into the haze.
"Yes, you are running away, even if you're denying the clichés and not carrying all your worldly possessions on a stick slung over your shoulder," she retorted, sarcasm edging her words.
He merely grunted.
He imagined that if he were looking at her, she would have tilted her head to one side and strands of long dark hair would have stuck to her forehead. She had mimed that action so many times in the past…he gave himself a mental shake. It did not do to dwell upon the past or even think about it for a fleeting instant.
Another sigh escaped her, and he wondered bitterly what she had to be upset about.
"Do you even know where you're running to?" she asked, the sarcasm gone, replaced with weariness or perhaps exasperation. He couldn't quite tell.
"Nope," he responded, his tone full of false nonchalance.
"Will you know when you get there?"
"Stop being metaphorical," he grumbled, kicking at the white pebbles gathered between the wooden slats. "I hate that."
She huffed loudly, and he nearly smirked; she was rolling her eyes, he knew that much. "I wouldn't have to be if you would just be straight with me. Denial isn't good, you know, no matter what people say about it being a natural part of grieving. It's been a while—"
"A while?" he echoed incredulously, and he turned halfway, glaring at her. "A while? A month isn't a while, damn it, a month is nothing!"
She cocked an eyebrow, her arms calmly folded over her chest. "So you do have feelings. I'm shocked."
"Shut up," he snarled. He stalked farther down the tracks, splinters stabbing his feet at painful intervals, and he regretted not wearing any shoes. She was right: he needed to run fast and far and forever and away from memories.
A crooked smile crossed a young man's face as he stood proudly between his parents in his midnight jacket and stark white pants, his decorative saber balanced perfectly against one broad shoulder. A basketball thudded again and again on the black-hot asphalt, bouncing eternally between hand and ground.
He refused to stop and continued doggedly, angrily blinking slow drops of sweat from his vision.
Long chains creaked as swings flew back and forth, two boys' laughter filling the gaps between creaks. Puddles erupted into fountains as feet impacted, and the rain dripped down, pleasant, cleansing, steady. A hand—grimy from basketball or chafed from swing-chains or wet from rain or covered in a pristine white glove—ruffled his already-messy hair, and the crooked smile flitted from scene to scene.
He lurched, his balance momentarily sacrificed. He hauled his focus back to the present, his breath hitching raggedly in his chest.
Her protests rang in his ears; he stubbornly ignored her until a hand latched onto his upper arm and dragged him to a halt. She spun him around to face her.
"Alex, listen to me," she demanded, her fingernails digging into his flesh. "A month is a very long time to spend as an emotionless, wandering shell! You need to move on if you ever want to get better—"
"Shut up! Shut up!" he roared. She visibly flinched, but her grip did not loosen. "Stop pretending like you have any idea what I'm going through—that it's easy to get better." Still breathing heavily, he wrenched his arm free and stormed off, his battered feet protesting, his blood pounding in his ears.
He whirled on her, seeing red. "He was my brother!" he yelled, the words tearing at his throat. "God damn it, Kate, he was my brother, and now—now—" One hand made a futile, sweeping gesture, tracing some trajectory through the August air. Gazes locked, and he hated the half-formed tears in her cobalt eyes. She should not cry for him, a boy who could not cry for himself.
His jaw worked uselessly for a second or two before he snapped his mouth shut and veered off the tracks. His entire body was tense. He belatedly tried to force himself to calm down because if he remained angry—remained feeling—then anything, everything could creep in. The sun glared down impassively from its vast domain, and he dashed the sweat from his face…that was sweat, wasn't it? His eyes burned, but that could easily be from the salt or the heat or anything at all…couldn't it?
His legs shuddered—that had to be from the heat—and he crumpled to the earth, one knee snapping an errant twig in half, his shoulders slumping in defeat. His fingers sought purchase in the dry and crumbling ground, digging multiple furrows, and he set his jaw, determined to ignore the pricking behind his eyes and the thickness in his throat that had nothing to do with the humidity.
Again, he heard her approaching footfalls. He concentrated hard on some invisible spot in the sky.
"I'm fine," he told her, his voice as level as he could make it but still trembling.
"I know," she replied quietly, stopping several feet behind him.
A teasing breeze brushed past them, ruffling their hair and rustling in the long, tufted grass; it promised cooler days and shade before disappearing too quickly and leaving them begging for more.
"I'm not crying," he insisted inanely as the tears left shivery trails on his cheeks.
He gnawed on his lower lip and tried to suppress the involuntary shudders that threatened to wrack his body. He bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut in a desperate attempt to stop the flood; the tears merely leaked out faster. Drowning, he surrendered to the torrent, and with his blurred vision he could almost pretend that it was June and that it was just raining.
His voice came out as a shaky, half-choked whisper.
"I hate this war. I hate this stupid, stupid, God-awful war."
She sighed one last time, and her fingertips brushed against his hair.