It is the dawn of the century, a new era, and you are the newest of them all;
Faceless, nameless, desperately you breathe it in.
There's a boy beside you, dark-eyed and staring, his smile warm and safe.
He calls you Jack; you can't disagree.
The boy helps you to your feet, smiling that smile,
And your muscles strain and your knees ache and every inch of skin stings, raw and stretched and so very new,
But still you smile in return.
You don't think you can help it.
You don't think you care.
Snow is your favorite thing about the world, you decide quickly;
It comes down in great gusts of white flakes.
A pristine, crystallized carpet, wrapped snugly around you and him;
Dots of color in an empty plane.
Wind sweeps through the skeletal treetops, whispering, calling out:
Welcome to the world.
Sleep is interesting as well, and you can't help but feel disappointed upon discovering that you can't achieve it.
Some nights you wander, your footsteps tracing every crevice of the house,
Carving every detail into your memory.
Some nights you just stay with him. Waiting.
Early on you discover a plaque on the wall, and in the hurried scrawl of a toddler it reads:
It's a very nice name.
The following day there comes a room, filled with people who look like you.
A mousy-haired woman enters, almost twice as tall as the rest, with a stern-looking face.
"Katherine Caldwell," she calls, and in the front row a little girl with hair like a fire hydrant raises a hand with a shouted "Here!" that is far too enthusiastic for this hour of the morning.
"Adam Jameson." Another—brown-haired and stocky—looks up and smiles, all gums and baby teeth.
"Daniel Fletcher," the stern lady says, and your Danny raises his hand as well.
The woman sits then without so much as looking at you, but Danny looks to you then and smiles, so you don't complain.
"Why was that lady so big?"
"That's Miss Callahan. She's a grown-up."
The words fall off his tongue like the name of some awful disease.
Like something to be feared.
You nod, because you're not sure what to say.
The crowded room is called school, Danny says, and it happens far too much for your tastes.
The people pour in and sit on a pastel blue rug while Miss Callahan calls their names,
And soon you have their schedule memorized to the second, and you know the letters listed above the chalkboard by heart,
And you know you're the best student in the class, but not once does Miss Callahan call you along with the others. You're less glad for that than you should be, but Danny says nothing, and neither do you.
Months pass, the green of the leaves bleeding into vibrant reds and yellows, before you're absolutely sure that she can't see you.
That no one can see you. No one, except for Danny.
One day a girl—
("What's the difference between us and girls?" you ask him one morning.
"Girls have longer hair and they wear flowers and stuff, and they have cooties," Danny had said, disgusted. You try to stay away from most girls from then on—)
Comes up to you, doe-eyed and freckle-faced,
The first one (apart from your Danny, of course) to ever speak to you, or even notice you.
She grins, and says to call her Kylee. It's not quite as nice as D-A-N-N-Y, you think, but it's a good name, and it suits her.
"My name's Jack."
"Nice to meet you, Jack."
The next day there is no school, and the sword in your hand matches the one in his.
"En garde!" Danny yells and you're only sure of what it means when he lunges at you, sword brandished.
His swing coasts over your head, and he pouts as you grin, adjusting the golden crown atop your head.
Birdsong leaks in through the vibrantly stained windows, soft and serene.
The air is drenched with the smell of sweat and blood, and…
"Now, Daniel. Put down the tree branch and come in before you catch your death."
"It's not a branch, it's a sword. Stupid…"
"What did you say, young man?"
"Why can't anyone see us?"
"I don't know, but Katie says that it's 'cause I'm 'maginary, and she's the only one who sees 'cause she made me up."
"Oh, okay." You think Katie is the little redheaded girl, and you're not quite sure but you don't ask.
Later you say to Danny: "Did you make me up?"
And he gives you a look, and says: "Yeah, but that doesn't make you not real."
And that's the end of it.
Wind sweeps away the leaves from the trees, and every windowpane on their street glistens.
The first time it happens is in the morning.
You open your eyes—you can never really sleep, but some nights you get close. The window is a projector screen of crystal white, fresh snow piled up to the roof in monstrous heaps.
You grin at the boy in the bed across the room, expecting him to smile in return like he does every morning. He doesn't look up.
"Morning." Danny stands without a word, not once glancing in your direction.
"Good morning," you say again. Still nothing.
"Danny. Dan!" Finally he sees you there, and grins.
You hesitate only for a moment before returning it.
The little redhead, Katie, comes up to him one day with Kylee trailing behind her, shoulders slumped. You've seen Kylee walking behind Katie almost every day, but never quite like this.
"Hey. You're Daniel, right?" She grins, and behind her Kylee cringes.
"Oh, um, yeah. It's, it's just Dan," he stutters, and you frown. Your Danny never stutters. Or talks to girls, especially not in the way he is now. "Hi."
"I'm Katie, Katie Caldwell." She beams at him, and he gives a shy grin that you never, ever want to see ever again.
Kylee looks at you then, and her smile is like molded wax.
Soon Katie leaves, not even glancing back at Kylee who follows meekly, invisible.
Smiling still, her eyes dull and hollow, she doesn't say a word.
You don't see Kylee again.
Winter falls away, and school stops as spring fades into summer,
The air becoming heavy and thick and far more comparable to custard than air should ever be,
But regardless the two of you carry on, slaying terrible beasts and rescuing damsels;
You are kings, and this is your castle.
The second time it happens, you start to worry.
It is the second week of school that year; lunch comes slowly to an end and the students flood outside.
You're sitting in the shade against a wall of the school, listening to the birds in the trees, when suddenly Danny turns and smiles at you.
A grin spreads across your face, and it takes a few agonizing moments for you to realize that he's not smiling at you, but through you.
At her. At Katie.
And you feel sicker than you should, and the feeling stays until the next day when he smiles and calls you Jacky.
Danny is smiling, so everything is okay.
Winter snow comes and goes once more, and spring follows.
One day you confront Dan, your Danny; tell him girls are the enemy, girls are the enemy, a mantra that he had been telling you for years, and that he's spending too much time around Katie, Katie Caldwell.
He shouts at you. You shout at him.
He says you're jealous, and you can't say anything to that—not because he's right, (of course he's not, of course) but because he looks so much like her then that it's uncanny.
Danny storms out, and it is hours before you truly know what you have done.
It's a long time before he sees you again.
Spring passes, and things have changed.
Dan (just Dan now, never Danny, not anymore) has grown in almost every sense, and hair is short and his temper is shorter.
Castles and crowns of sticks and stones are replaced by texting and video games and, God forbid, dating.
Girls are no longer the enemy, cootie-infested creatures from an alien dimension, but instead they have become trophies to be won. All except for her; she is now a comrade, a sister-in-arms, and lots of other big words that your Danny wouldn't have been caught dead using.
Danny is smiling, so everything is okay.
Summer comes. School ends.
The months are starting to run together, one day flowing seamlessly into the next. They're all the same to you, anyway.
Every morning you get up, wishing that he would just look at you again, and every day ends with you knowing that he won't.
The memories of the good days are faded and smudged like Miss Callahan's chalkboard.
A part of you wishes that you could just leave.
You tried, once, making it as far as the backdoor of the house before you started to feel it:
A dull, unwavering ache in your chest and in your limbs and in what you think is your soul that became steadily harder to ignore the farther you traveled.
It was like your whole body was jammed in a trash compactor, and the walls were closing in.
You made it to the edge of the backyard before your legs dropped out from under you and you fell,
The crushing weight of every inch separating you from him pressing down on top of you.
Dan's friendship clings to you like a disease.
This is how your days are spent, now:
Watching, waiting for him to move so that you can follow.
You have taken to singing loudly whenever you're bored, which is most of the time,
And then you know he doesn't hear you; he'd laugh if he did.
His laugh is devastatingly familiar and you'd hate him for it, if you could.
School ends, presumably forever this time, and Dan moves into a smaller place that smells like the cigarettes you don't remember him starting, and the apartment living closer to the city then you've ever been—he's alone apart from you.
Weeks pass like years, and eventually Dan's birthday comes along, and his new friends take him out to "celebrate."
Of course you do.
The hours that follow are a blur of sweat and vomit and white noise, and it's nearly sunrise when Dan stumbles out and piles into a waiting taxi.
Your head is pounding in time to the bass beat from inside the club, and you're just now starting to register the two fifths of something strong in Dan's system, and you almost don't notice him staring straight at you.
"Jacky?" he asks weakly, sounding more innocent than he has in years despite the alcohol on his breath, and you suddenly remember how good your name sounds when he says it.
Midday is creeping over the windowsill and Dan is groaning himself awake again before you feel ready to say a word.
Seasons and scattered holidays creep by like tar. That night is hidden away in the following haze of Aspirin and coffee, and it's almost easier that way.
Dan's school reunion is suddenly upon you, and that is where he meets her again.
It's Caldwell, Katherine Caldwell now, but she is just as she once was: compassionate and considerate and all those other big words, and she beams when she sees him and poor Danny is just gone.
And though you despise the little red-haired girl who stole your Danny away, that little girl isn't so little anymore.
When Dan asks her out for coffee in a stupid, stuttering phrase, you can't help but smile.
A year passes. Three years. Five. One day a call comes to the house, a cozy little place in suburbia that your Danny would have sneered at.
"Mr. Fletcher?" The voice is coarse and sticky like wet cement.
"I'm sorry to tell you, but a Miss Katherine Caldwell has passed away. She was in an automobile accident, about five miles outside of Clinton? We were told to inform you, as you are the first number on her emergency contacts list...hello?"
"Mr. Fletcher? Daniel?"
Dan sees you that night after drinking more than a single glass of Pinot Noir for the first time in a decade.
You look at him. He looks at you.
He blinks once, twice, and that hooded stare is deceptively lucid until the laughing starts. You flinch at the sound.
It doesn't last long, and you're gladder for that than you should be, and still Dan's smile widens like a crack.
Then the tears come at last and the smile is still in place, and your thoughts turn to Kylee for a moment—the girl with the wax smile, who you never understood until just then.
But that's not important now.
"Jacky. 'M sorry, Jack."
"Yeah. Yeah, me too."
Dan falls asleep with his head on your shoulder, a halo of empty bottles and cigarette butts surrounding the pair of you, and the ring in Dan's pocket shines like the new snow.
Years go by. Hair grays; skin sags; snow falls.
Dan settles on the couch, flicking through channels with a nondescript brown bottle in one hand and that ring in the other, still tucked in its box like something sacred.
"You shouldn't drink so much, Danny (not Dan, never just Dan, not from you,)" you tell him for the hundredth time, and for the hundredth time he doesn't hear you.
You didn't really expect him to.
Three months left, Mr. Fletcher. There's nothing we can do, Mr. Fletcher. I'm so sorry, so very, very sorry—that was what the doctor had said, clipboard in hand, frowning like someone had died.
You should have expected this. He should have expected this.
"Jack." No. Not now. "Jacky, I know you're there." Please, not now. Not like this. Please.
"I'm here," you force out. If he hears you, he doesn't say anything about it.
"I'm going to die, Jack." His voice is shaking almost more than his hands, and you wrap your arms around him then. It's more for your own benefit than his.
"I know, Danny. I know."
The winter is harsher that year than any before it, but the clouds are unyielding and the ground has been dry for months.
The room feels almost as cold as the icy outdoors—antiseptic and illness singe your throat when you breathe, so you don't.
The intermingling tastes of bile and hospital food coat the roof of your mouth thickly when you swallow, so you don't. Those things seem so unimportant these days.
The EKG in the corner screams through the stillness at anyone who will listen,
And the distant drone of people in scrubs hurrying past just outside is almost completely audible, the open door providing nothing to muffle the sound, and it's too much and it's not enough.
You move slower than you should to stand beside him as Dan reaches out blindly, eyes flickering about the room. His face is thin and sallow, worn by age and sickness, but those dark-eyed stare is too familiar to belong to anyone else.
"Jacky, where are you?" You grasp his hand in yours, running a finger parallel to the road map of tired skin and arteries and nicotine stains. Evidence of life that means everything and means nothing at all.
Beep. Beep. BeepBeep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
"I'm here. I'll always be here." It's less bitter than you thought it would be, than it should be.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
"Jack…" His gaze stops on you, and it feels like the first time you've breathed in ages. The stench of clean brings everything into focus.
You look at him.
He looks at you.
Beep Beep BeepBeepBeepBeepBeep—
And your eyes water and you heart stops and everything hurts—
But still you smile in return.
You can't help it. You don't try.
Because he's here, and you're with him, and your Danny is looking right at you, right now, and it means so little and it means so much.
Danny is smiling.
Everything is okay.
Outside, snow starts to fall.