They left early in the morning in a beat up sedan.
"I haven't even seen her in two years," Nehemiah was saying. "Haven't really known her in all that long. Can't even really call her 'mom' any more. Just some lady I used to know. Some lady who used to feed me."
Ariel slumped against the window, tracing long ovals with his fingers. Out past the smudgy glass, the green March landscape ran beside Nehemiah's car, blurring into long strips of various static colours. As they moved northward, everything began to dull, and soon there was nothing to see at all.
"Some lady who used to feed you," Ariel echoed absently. He drew the sun with his dry fingertips. "Why are we driving all the way to Portland to see her?"
Nehemiah bit his mouth, lips pursed and eyes steady on the road. "Because she asked me to spend the day with her. Since she said that you could come, I decided it was okay. Even though I didn't exactly tell her you're my boyfriend." His hand flew to the stereo and began to helplessly press buttons until the speakers blared nothing but static. "Fuck."
"I'll get it." Ariel nudged Nehemiah's hand out of the way with his own before expertly tuning the music to a station he'd never heard. "There. This is okay?"
Nehemiah's body swayed gently to the bass line. He looked out of his body, distant in his own way. His hair was pushed back behind his ear to expose his pierced ears. One hand moved up to fidget with the earrings.
"You think she looks the same?" he asked without looking over at Ariel. "You think she's the same?"
"No," said Ariel. "I think she's entirely different."
Nehemiah's fingers tapped on the steering wheel in rhythm to the music wafting between them. "She has to be," he murmured. When he finally looked over at Ariel, his gaze was distracted and peered into the blurs of nothing beyond the context of their car.
The highways slid over the hills like black ribbons. All around them, a great grey city seemed to rise out of the dust: all squares and angles and little, endless boxes. The people squirmed over each other, brushing against each other just close enough to leave smudges of cigarette ash on their comrade's late-winter coat.
Ariel examined his shoes. They were wearing a bit thin.
"This is where she lives," Nehemiah said. "I remember the way still." He'd told Ariel she hadn't moved, but the awe still rang clear in his voice. He leaned forward to look through the wind shield at all the looping, leaning buildings that lined the avenues.
Nehemiah pulled up in front of a wide, tall house on the corner of two oozing streets. They sat on the street beside the pavement, still belted in, still listening to slow, mournful Brit-pop.
"We going to go in?" Ariel asked, tilting close to Nehemiah. He watched the other boy purse his lips and nod definitively.
Nehemiah unbuckled his seatbelt and sat there.
"I can," he said. "We can. We can go in." He grabbed hold of Ariel's hand. "She has no reason to hate you. Or me. No. She'll have to be nice to you."
Ariel nodded slowly. His hands felt as if they were detached from his body, floating just inches past his bare wrist. "I don't have a problem with going in," he mumbled. The words escaped him like smoke, and his head spun for his efforts to keep even-breathed.
They climbed from the car, all tentative spider legs and wary sideways glances. Nehemiah shuffled up the walkway and Ariel followed, keeping his eyes averted to the perfectly manicured lawn.
Nehemiah's trembling hand hesitated above the doorbell.
"It's not too late to leave..."
Nehemiah rang the bell.
Summer and Keegan stood in the centre of a dozen winding paths, surrounded by cool, slate gravestones.
"I'm leaving," she said quietly, without looking up from the octagonal flagstones. She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "After school ends. My dad got a job down in Arizona."
Without warning him, she catapulted herself into his arms. For a brief moment where they were both still —dazed and confused— the entire progression of spring seemed to halt. The birds ceased to break free from their shells, new leaves to explode from buds, flowers to unfurl in the damp warmth of new life.
Beyond the safety of the oak branches above them, a domino of cloudbursts drench the awkward land.
"I'll miss you," she breathed into his shoulder. "I'll miss being here."
Keegan imagined Summer in Arizona. He wondered if she would wither there. If the colour from her skin and hair and bright purple bruises would run from her body and into the red of the desert. Carefully, as if cradling something fragile and delicate, he wrapped his arms around her.
She smelled like the sharpness that came with spending too long outside in the rain. She smelled like wild flowers, new leaves, and curry. Yellow curry.
He reached up to touch her rain-soaked hair.
"I'll miss you too."
Their skin slid together, catching and slick and warm in the coolness of the new springtime. The two of them stood in the mud, twined tentatively around each other. Even as the world resumed its resurrection, Summer and Keegan stayed frozen there, still.
Summer tilted her head up, eyes peering up at him. She didn't look so unfathomably sad; so tragic, extreme; so lonely. Not like she had for so many days before the day in which they stood in that graveyard, surrounded by stone and drooping maple trees.
She pressed her mouth up against his, just briefly, before she turned and ran. Mud splashed over her bright Sunday dress, marring the pink gingham with splatters. It clung to her hair, weighed it down as he followed her over the dipping land and markers of dead things and cobblestones loose under foot.
Gasping, gleeful, Summer turned her head to grin at him.
Spring smiled with her.
Ariel peered at Nehemiah's mother. Foster mother? Former mother?
"I am." His mouth quirked a little. "I'm here because Nehemiah asked me to come. We go to school together, and he asked me for a ride."
Nehemiah's mother had hair like braided wheat, with eyes that reminded him of boring, damp dirt. Her clothes clung to her body: hunter-green shirt, khaki slacks. The gaunt woman pursed her maroon lips at him and shook her head.
"No. None at all," she said. "Nehemiah mentioned you, and you're welcome."
Ariel smiled at her for the first time, gleeful by the uncomfortable expression that leaked into her brown eyes. "Good." He ran his hand through his hair. "It's very nice to meet you, ma'am."
"Call me Maria," she said, offering him a tight-lipped smile. "The pleasure is mine."
He shook her tiny, lily-white hand.
"I have three children," she began, starting through the house, motioning for them to follow. "Nehemiah, you of course know Katie and Nicolas, but after you left, we adopted a Cambodian girl. Botum's English is very good, considering..."
Ariel stopped listening to her. He let himself wander the halls after her, examining the art offhandedly. Mostly Asian: masks, brush paintings, tiny statues. He let his eyes wander, over Maria, Nehemiah, the bright white expanses of wall. It felt dirty being in someone's house and at the same time, loathing them so completely. He felt sticky, heavy, awkward.
Nehemiah and Maria seemed to have forgotten he was following them. It wasn't so far-fetched: from his hazy state, Ariel couldn't make out what they were discussing as they moved into the dining room. All he could see was Maria's mild expression and Nehemiah's body, slowly trembling more and more until he shoved his hands into his jeans pockets to keep them out of sight.
Ariel wanted to reach out and press his skin against Nehemiah's, fuse it together to exchange —if only for a few brief moments— strength.
"We'll be eating pork chops, potatoes, and pasta, if that's all right with you two."
"I'm Jewish," Ariel replied abruptly. He fidgeted. "Sorry. Just potatoes and pasta for me."
She peered at him through her caked mascara. "Jewish?" She turned from them and continued into the perfectly angular kitchen. "Would you like something to drink?"
"Sure," Ariel mumbled. "I'll have whatever."
His eyes drifted out one of the windows, over the buildings pasted up against the sky in an impromptu skyline. His whole body felt tightly wound, ready to spring on the slightest movement out of place. His muscles were taut, his eyes narrowed and flicking, back and forth, every time a noise echoed through the cavernous rooms.
"So what do you like to do, Ariel?" Maria asked conversationally. "What's your best subject in school."
"Art," Ariel replied. The kitchen felt like it was spinning, all silver surreal and something else. "I'm an artist."
He picked up the hint of a disapproving look in Maria's sharp eyes, but he forced himself to ignore her. She was moving in and out of his reality and he didn't mind, he didn't care. She meant nothing to him. He stared back at her, into her mud-brown eyes, and arched an eyebrow in challenge.
Her lips pursed, and she turned away.
"Dinner's in fifteen."
Lev and Joe sat on the porch, dangling their feet off the edge of it and staring at the rain just past the shelter of the eaves.
"How's work been?" Joe asked absently. He peered down into the round opening of his coffee cup. The coffee in the blue mug was pale and boring. "You haven't been talking about it much."
"I don't want to think about it." Lev eyed the wet concrete before them. "Exams, I mean. Exams and papers and students and deadlines and oh it's horrible." He swung his legs back and forth, leaving ruts in the smooth mud. "I hate it."
But he didn't hate it.
They lapsed into a tangible silence.
"I'll get another job," Joe said finally. He bit his lip until he tasted blood. So stupid of him to bring up. "Just in case you, you know, worried. Because I have an interview Friday and I'm way over qualified."
Joe sloshed the coffee in his coffee cup. It had grown greasy and cold. He didn't want to drink it.
The rain tapped against the roof, the ground, the leaves on trees and the petals of newly emerging flowers. Joe leaned back a little against one of the columns that held up the porch and sighed, heavily, slumping.
"I'm sure you'll get that job." Lev yawned absently. "You're really good with interviews." He leaned over to kiss Joe's temple and return to his respectful distance, legs swinging and eyes sweeping lazily over the March.
Even though he couldn't quite explain the surge of hope that eased through his body, Joe smiled in spite of himself.
They sat around the dining room table, eyeing each other suspiciously.
"Hi Nehemiah." Katie waved at him, small fingers wiggling. "I haven't seen you in...two years now?" Her mouth threatened to curl into a smile, but she restrained it. It would have looked strange on her: in the eight years he had known Katie, Nehemiah had only seen her smile a handful of times. She always looked so morose, so sullen.
How different she looked, grinning like that.
"Where are you going to college?" Maria asked conversationally. "Ariel?"
"I don't know yet," Ariel said. "Wherever Nehemiah goes, so long as it's got a good art program. It'll be nice to have a friend when I get into the fray, you know?"
How easy it had become to keep up this charade: he barely needed to try to keep her mind focused on something else. The art of misdirection suited him. He picked at his potatoes.
"Well, I'm sure you can go to college almost anywhere," Maria bubbled. "You just seem so intelligent and well-grounded." Her swan-like neck snapped around to look at Nehemiah. He cringed under her gaze. "What about you? Where are you looking at schools?"
Nehemiah sliced his pork chops into thin strips. Methodical strokes of his knife distracted him, calmed him until he sat sluggishly, remorsefully at the table. "Portland State," he offered. Maria's face lit up. "But then there's a good school in New York."
He was shaking. Ariel could see Nehemiah's silhouette quivering.
"Well. I do hope you decide to stay West Coast."
Ariel distracted himself with the other members of Maria's family. "My husband," she had said earlier, "will not be joining us."
The look of relief on Nehemiah's face had made Ariel sick to his stomach.
Katie eyed him suspiciously. "You don't seem like you'd get along with my brother." She bit her mouth, eyes falling still on a salt shaker. "Nehemiah, I mean. You don't seem like you'd get along with Nehemiah." Nervously, she folded and refolded her napkin.
Nicolas offered the same tight-lipped smile as his mother. "You're an artist?"
Ariel nodded, drawing squiggly lines on his plate with the tines of his fork. "Yeah."
"How do you think you'll make money at this?"
Ariel did not reply.
Botum —a slender, ethereal girl with black eyes and black hair and tiny, bird-like hands— sat silently in her chair. She had an expression of calm spread over her delicate features, but her shifting eyes betrayed her confusion.
She didn't know why Nehemiah was there.
She probably didn't know why she was there.
Ariel wasn't sure why he was there either.
"Dinner was fabulous," Ariel said, opening the door into the grey daylight. "Thank you so much for having us."
Katie pulled Nehemiah into a hug. "Don't be a stranger," she whispered to him, pressing her cellphone number, scrawled in blue gel-pen on a tiny slip of paper, into his palm. "I love you."
Nehemiah nodded and pulled away from her. He hadn't seen her in two years, and there she was, clinging to him like she had the day he'd gone. Not twelve any more, though. She'd aged without him.
He wondered what she was like.
"Are you going to see her again?" Ariel asked, when they'd slid into the car. He sat in the driver's seat, eyeing a curled up Nehemiah warily.
"Is she still your mum?"
Nehemiah faltered. "Yes," he murmured. "She has to be. She's done all these phenomenal things: gone on missionary trips and adopting starving children and helping the world be a better place. I want that for my mother, even if she doesn't want me."
Ariel said nothing for a long moment.
"You know how when you're painting a picture, you have to clean your brush?" he began, once they'd fallen into silence with the rhythm of the rain. "And after a while, all those colours —those beautiful colours— mix together to make brown?"
"She's like that. Even though she's fantastic things, she's still brown."
Biting his mouth, Nehemiah picked at his fading shoes.
"You still have the picture though. And that's gorgeous and fantastic and beautiful."
Nehemiah clamped his eyes shut and yanked his legs up to his knees. "I want to be beautiful," he whispered to them. "I'm tired of not being skinny enough or smart enough or straight enough. I want to make people happy."
Ariel stared at the steering wheel. "You make me happy."
The rain tapped on the wind shield.
"I love you."
Ariel perked up, eyes snapping over to Nehemiah. Nehemiah's face was still buried in the frayed knees of his jeans, eyes clamped shut. "What?" Nehemiah never said that to him.
Nehemiah lifted his face and peered over at the other boy.
"I love you," he repeated. The rain blurred the background until all Ariel could see was Nehemiah Nehemiah Nehemiah. He looked serene, tranquil. His hair hung in his face, and he grinned from behind the flat strands. "I love you."
The words glowed.
"I love you too."
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."
1 Corinthians 13:4
Last update of 2009 for me, 5 minutes to go until it's 2010.
May the new decade bring everyone a little more piece of mind, and may governments be honest. While we're at it, I would like a pony and a million dollars.
Love Thy Neighbour is officially over. I'm going to miss it, but I can now work on other projects.
Thanks to everyone who reviewed. I appreciate every one of you.
Good night and good luck.