(Author's Note: Please abandon your concepts of reality and definitions for impossible before reading this story, they will do you no good here.)
(Sorry About Dresden)
(Chapter I)(Swimming Lessons)
Once upon a time there was a girl who was so miserable it began affecting her physical appearance. She awoke one morning to discover herself lying in a puddle of her own color, all the pink in her skin having dripped out her fingertips to stain her bed sheets and leave her whiter than innocence. Her flesh became grayscale, nothing more than a charcoal rendering — a shadowed reminder of what she used to be.
Each day she walks to the park and sits upon the bank of the lake, digging her toes into the muddy summer shore while watching the happy couples float around in their little wooden boats. They recite sappy poetry back and forth to one another as she pleads a mantra to her own invisible lover. "I wish I could disappear." Roses are red. "I wish I could disappear." Violets are blue. "I wish I could disappear." Everyone's disgustingly happy. "I wish I could disappear." Except for you. "I wish I could disappear!"
Words clicking off her tongue like the rhythmically inevitable beat of a metronome, the color in the grass and fallen leaves where she sits becomes horribly frightened, deciding to put a good five and a half feet of distance between itself and the unpleasant girl. It doesn't understand what she's doing there; the lake is for happiness and love, two things she obviously does not possess. Neely doesn't know why she comes either. She doesn't enjoy it; looking at everything she doesn't have just makes her all the more miserable. At first she would come to sketch and practice her drawing skills, but now she returns simply out of habit. The lake holds no real appeal for her — a girl who cannot even swim.
That's not to say she never tries. In the hush of night, when no one is there to see her fail, she tests a secret theory she could never bring herself to admit to during these hours of embarrassing daylight. Wading into the water with the folds of her dress clinging to her knees, she hypothesizes that if she can learn to swim, then perhaps she could also learn to be happy. Except, that simply isn't true.
She often sits with her chin resting in her palms, fingers pushing into the ghost-flesh of her cheeks, trying in vain to convince the corners of her mouth to rise from their defeat. These forced attempts at smiling fail just as predictably as her attempts at swimming do. Such tactics have never come close to working, which only makes her smile less, and so it would be fantastically repetitive to say that Neely began frowning at her thoughts while staring enviously at the happy lovers of the lake, because Neely always frowns. Today is much an always as todays have ever been.
Well, at least that's true for the moment.
Allowing her elbows to sink into the softness of her cotton sundress, she contemplates how odd she must appear to strangers. Idly weaving stiff blades of grass between her bare toes while marveling at her own colorlessness, she re-imagines herself as a curious girl who has stepped out from an ancient black and white film where all the women are beautiful and all the men are gentlemen. Five and half feet of antique celluloid landscape even accompany her to complete the daydream, flickering at the edges like projection light skipping across the surface of the world's screen. Were it possible, such a lovely escape from reality could almost inspire a smile. Unfortunately, Neely knows no gentlemen and nothing, not even a woman like her mother, feels beautiful in her life. There is just the lake with all of its wooden boats filled with their annoyingly happy couples and —
There's an and?
Indeed, there is an and and there is also an unusual rowboat floating around with a peculiar little boy inside it. In all the days Neely has spent watching the boats here, she has never witnessed anything except couples within them and yet here is a lone child peeking over the side at the depths of the water, searching for fish or mythical lake monsters beneath the shining surface. With a mop of wonderfully red hair, a flaming contrast to the murky blue of the water, strands wisp about his face in a halo of curls that must either be glowing or reflecting the sun with fantastic strength.
Caught in a state of miffed fascination, she doesn't really enjoy that he's there without explanation and yet he has declared himself an intriguing variation to her normal routine. Somehow, he must feel her stare reaching out to tap him upon the shoulder, his head jerking up to inspect her as he pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose to take a better look. Neely is hypnotized. Until this very moment, she had never known brown eyes could be so pale and vibrant or able to travel such distances as entire lakes. If she didn't know better she might believe he'd taped two shiny copper pennies to his closed eyelids. Cautiously lifting his hand in acknowledgment to Neely, a smile infects the boy's lips as he begins waving with a furious sort of energy, acting as though he knows her and as though he likes that her knows her. That would be different.
Before she can fully register the scene playing out before her (this is a twist in the plot of her film that she never saw coming) he is already squirming around, jumping as much as one is able to in a small boat, desperate for Neely's attention. Caught in shock as his energetic flailing causes his glasses to somersault off his face and into the water — a shimmer of something following into the air that cannot possibly be the twisting flips of a pair of copper pennies — Neely's thoughts stumble in confusion. Pulling herself to her feet so she might attempt to sort out what's causing his confusing behavior, her jaw drops as his balance is lost and the boat flips, holding him beneath the surface of the water.
Neely's eyes flick from boat to boat with panic, but none of the people within them seem to have noticed the boy, as vibrant and eye-catching as he had been. Without realizing it, she finds herself racing into the water, discarding her inability to swim, because she is the only one who has noticed that this odd little child needs saving. Evidently Neely — the girl who cannot swim — is to be the one to prevent his drowning.
Since she can't swim, she runs. Taking a deep breath and sprinting into the water of the lake, she travels the more difficult road across the muddy floor instead of skimming across the surface, her bare feet plunging into mud that fights to prevent her from her goal. Small minnows look upon her with startled curiosity before making the connection that she is heading in the direction of the child who is so beautiful that even the fish have fallen in love with him.
Gathering behind her in a dazzling swarm of silver and gold scales, hundreds of guppies and goldfish begin helping her along, their slick noses nudging her toward the boy with the renaissance curls until he is within her sight, peacefully suspended in the water like a holy ghost. Eyes closed and smiling, he seems content with his situation, waiting patiently for Neely until the fish carry her within arm's length and her fingertips brush the backs of his wrists. As she reaches out to him, she realizes that he has already come to life, intertwining his hands with hers, a broad grin rampant across his lips. The molecules of water surrounding them shudder in anticipation, sensing a moment of powerful change.
Transfixed, Neely's blood flutters in wonderment as he begins a metamorphosis. The strands of his flawless ringlets unwind to grow as smooth and tumble-tossed as the water's subtle current, their copper color tarnishing to black as his pale skin turns transparent and makes his body appear as if it's a shimmer made of nothing more than the water that holds them. With each blink of an eye, he seems to age, years passing within moments as the young boy sheds any resemblance to what he had been only seconds before and becomes a young man, chubby cheeks hollowed into angular bone structure and button nose sharpened defiantly at the bridge. Fish begin congregating around them, bewitched by the pair. Neely becomes fascinated as well — fascinated with the lack of air and how little she cares. All that matters to her are the hands woven into hers and the lips that have suddenly found their way to her mouth, exhaling new breath into her.
If ever she has been aware of her own lungs, it is in this moment. That home for empty space within her chest feels as full as the sky, alive with bird's wings, sunlight, and the kind of clouds that might give life to an entire world. When the contact ends as quickly as it had begun, she gasps in objection; suddenly the fish aren't the only ones infatuated with him — or that can breathe. Instead of her lungs being filled with lake, they unexpectedly find oxygen as he begins to speak —
"You can't swim and yet you still came to save me." Astonishment edges his voice as the words bubble around the pair, popping like invisible fireworks against the bellies of the thunderstruck fish flitting around them. Blushing gray, Neely cannot fathom the way he speaks to her as though she has done something amazingly selfless. To come after him hadn't been a choice of courage, but rather something optionless and strangely greedy. It would have been more difficult not to. "You would have died." The quietest hint of bittersweetness lays hidden in the crook of his pale lips as his mouth softens into a wry smile, their eyes locking onto one another's as he searches her for evidence of an understanding she's too distracted to give him. His stare is endlessly dark and she finds herself unable to distinguish his irises from his pupils, their blackness rippling as dangerously as fabled rabbit holes beneath the water. It would be so easy to fall, she finds herself thinking, leaning forward as though standing with her toes past the edge of solid ground.
A sense of that former purity and innocence has been retained in his quiet features, but they are shadowed with an edge of something more — as if the blackening of his hair and thin eyes has burnt a warning into his body. Despite this, she finds herself helplessly captivated, overcome with the realization that he has transformed into something from her world, becoming a being of black and white, just like her. In this way, they are simultaneously similar and opposite, Neely's longer white hair and unsettling pale eyes a starkly demure inverse to his ominous appearance. Nonetheless, she examines the palms of their hands, linked by intertwined fingers and flawlessly colorless skin, marveling at how precisely their complexions would mirror one another were it not for the undulating shadows the lake water casts over them.
Continuing to grow transparent until he vanishes entirely into the water of the lake, Neely is hollowed out, the sky she had felt within her leaving as though carried away by its own breeze. Gasping at his departure — not from shock, but through objection that he isn't with her anymore — her lungs fill with water and she sinks back to the lake's floor, aching from sudden loss rather than the pain of drowning. The fish, remembering how she came to be in this situation by valiantly attempting to help the boy they too were captivated by, swim beneath her, amassing until their numbers are capable of pushing her to the surface. Knitting their bodies into a gathering dense enough to carry her, they propel her upward and away from the realm of sea creatures, lifting her back into the world of humans.
As Neely breaks through the barrier between air and water, she swallows a desperately violent inhalation — not for the sake of oxygen, but in hope that she is still beneath the lake and breathing despite it all. Disappointment at having been returned to a world she had been thrilled to escape for a few precious, fleeting minutes aches within her all the way to the marrow, her reluctance turned into a kind of heavy iron weight that she's too weak to lift herself up from. There had been an unnameable possibility beneath the drifting waves, the startlingly familiar shadows of a stranger's face giving her a reason to believe that she might not have to remain this lonely. The world may have stepped so far back from her that even color has retreated from her grasp, yet when she reached out for him, her hands had not remained empty.
Seeing her lack of will to save herself, the fish right the boy's wooden boat and toss her into its safety. There she lays for hours until moonlight swallows the sky, longing to see him again — desperate for another moment with the only other person she has ever encountered who seems to be like her. The boy who existed somewhere within her black and white movie had made her blood flicker with something like hope for the first time she could remember, a lack of fear upon his face despite being so close to a girl who appears so unsettling and strange.
Raising her arm to study her hand, she pretends his fingers are still intertwined with hers and attempts to will the air to transform into him. Imagining particles of starlight into bones, she weaves the dust of evening into his muscular system and builds his flesh from her own breath. Inhaling with deep concentration, she blows the air up her arm to her outstretched hand, snapping out of her daydream with shock as the brush of her exhalation catches upon the skin of her inner forearm to peel a layer away like the shedding of a snake or onion skin. Examining her arm, she can find no scar or visible explanation for what has happened other than the fragile fragment of evidence drifting down to come to rest upon her belly.
Tentatively picking it up, it seems foreign to her body, as if it were made of impossibly thin glass, but with the flexibility of paper — or skin, she reminds herself morbidly. Written across it like a tattoo in beautifully handwritten cursive are the words One-Way Ticket To Happiness.
(5.20.09: With the help of my lovely beta effervescent-sentiments, I've been editing/doing some slight rewrites to these first three chapters before I post new ones. This is my "this is the edited version of the first chapter" note. The edits for chapter two and three should be up soon, as well as the shiny new fourth chapter.)
(12.20.13: After a ridiculously long time, I'm suddenly back and working on this again. I'll be re-editing the current chapters a bit before I post the fifth, fleshing things out here and there and attempting to tone down a few things that are too obvious or cheesy, although that chapter is complete and ready to be posted so I should have it up soon. I'd like to do a major rewrite at some point, but for now I'll just focus on finishing and save the larger overhaul for afterward. Sorry for my excessive absence, although it was admittedly kind of fabulous to come back to discover I had been missed by a few people! Thanks for the love!)
(1.8.14: One of the plot elements I changed in my edits of the first three chapters, I've realized, means that I need to do a fair amount of rewriting to chapter four for it to be cohesive. Whoops. It's all for the better though, I promise. I'm also changing up the word-tense to make the writing of future chapters easier for myself, so I apologize for any temporary difficulty this may cause. Also, if anyone is interested in becoming a beta for this story, please contact me! I'd love to have someone willing to mercilessly tear my writing apart once again.)