I. Her world is black blood and white noise. She walks through life seeing things in sepia and people's faces in shades of gray. And right now, the boy who is looking at her has a face dark with scorn and malice.
"Come on," he wheedles. "It's due tomorrow." He flicks inky hair from his face and leans close so she can smell his sweat. "Everyone says you're a nerd. This should be easy for you."
She crouches further into the wall where he'd cornered her and shakes her head. Her mommy used to read her fables at bedtime about how important it was to be good, brave, and honest, and she'd always tuck her in and whisper, "work for what you deserve." When she was ten, she started getting out of bed herself to turn out the light because mommy was too busy yelling at daddy downstairs.
Work for what you deserve were the words she remembered when her mother walked out and never came back. Now her father drinks himself into stupors and she never opens the door or picks up the phone because nowadays, anyone who knocks or calls wants something that she can't give.
The boy grabs a handful of her hair and yanks so hard that she squeaks. "Did that sound like a question?" he growls, dragging her forward. She crawls backwards, but his friends are looming over her and they are all crowding her in, their shadowy figures blocking the sun.
But then they scatter, and the boy who was holding onto her hair drops her. She scuttles back, ignoring the pain in her scalp and watching as another boy lifts her attacker, his fingers closed around his neck. His hair is gold like wheat and when he turns to her, his eyes are the brilliant green of grass and growing things. Blood is streaming from her attacker's nose, and he sputters, saying things about how he didn't mean it, and please don't tell on me.
The new boy lets his victim slide to the ground. He moves toward her, and she moves back in kind, like they are choreographed to oppose each other.
He stops, rubs his neck. "Is your head okay?"
She nods silently, and he pauses, looking awkward. "Sorry." She looks at him questioningly. "I should've let you punch him too."
Somehow, that statement makes her smile. His smile comes slowly, like the sun peeking out from the clouds. "See you around," he says, and walks away.
She reckons that's when she began seeing the world in color.
II. Sometimes, she watches him from afar. His confident happiness exudes from him, and she feels warmed in his presence. He is popular, surrounded by girls and boys alike. People say that his father started his own company and he is next in line to inherit an empire. She doesn't care about that, though. She just remembers the boy who protected her even when he believed she could protect herself.
Once or twice, he catches her eye, but she looks away quickly. She works diligently in class, listens to her teachers, pores over homework assignments, always remembering her mother's words. She will deserve what she gets, and she will work to deserve the best.
She misses the bus because of an exam that runs late one day, and it turns out he's just finished soccer practice, and he says they can walk together since they live so close. She knows that nobody that dresses and acts like him would ever live in her neighborhood, but she can't say no. It's a bit bizarre at first, but then they start talking about classes, music, and anything else that can be said in words. She starts staying later at school, just for an excuse to have those twenty glorious minutes with him.
She doesn't know that he looks at her long after she's looked away, that the first time his friends ribbed him for having a crush on the scum down the street was also the last. He tells his parents to stop picking him up from school and begins anticipating those twenty minutes when he gets to walk beside a girl with freckles on her nose and sadness always lurking behind her blue eyes.
III. The first, long-forgotten girl he kissed was named Amy, everyone says. There are rumors that after her, he kissed his way through the alphabet. People say that half of the female teachers are in love with him. She smiles and shakes her head at these rumors. Some of them are true, but they haven't changed who he is. Of course, the sun from so many soccer practices has bronzed his skin, he has begun to carry himself like a man who will one day own the world, and girls have started comparing his eyes to emeralds. But he still rubs his neck when he's nervous, and he still takes her home, though he's in the process of getting his driver's license.
They realize that twenty minutes are not enough for them to say everything, so he starts sitting with her at lunch so they can resume their after school conversations. He learns not to bring up her family, and she learns that he can't stop talking about his. Ever since learning about the industrial revolution, she is obsessed with the idea of a self-made man, and he wants to leave a legacy just like his dad. He learns that she doesn't eat anything besides carrot sticks and anything under three dollars on the cafeteria menu, and she learns that he just doesn't give up. He leaves notes in her locker with chocolate bars and tuna sandwiches, but whenever she accuses him, he denies it fervently and says that somebody obviously didn't want them. So she eats them, because she has no better argument.
His friends ask him why he's always so jittery the period before lunch, and he doesn't reply. But all of them already know that their best friend, the king of the school who could have anyone he wanted, has given his heart to a girl with sad blue eyes.
IV. She gets a job because otherwise, she wouldn't be able to pay the bills. She walks there after school and leaves exhausted, the coffee of angry customers staining her shirt. Varsity soccer practice is longer, and his father starts teaching him all the basics of running a company. As college application season approaches, every minute becomes too precious to waste. His friends join them at lunch, and they include her in their jokes and conversations. She laughs with them, but her moments with him are reduced to the minutes when he sits next to her before everyone else gets there.
On his birthday, his parents give him the new car he's been begging them for since he got his driver's license. The two of them sneak away during lunch and he drives them to a fast food stand. They get garlic fries, trying to see whose breath smells strongest by the end. He doesn't tell her that the only reason he wanted a car so badly was so he could take her to the places she always wanted to see.
AP classes and extracurricular activities consume their lives. They still try to carve out time to spend with each other, and at first she is standoffish when he mentions coming over. But she relents because having him see her shame is better than never seeing him at all. She begins listening for the telltale sound of wheels grinding against rock as he pulls into her driveway, and he can't help feeling a little more complete when she emerges from her rickety house with hair wet from a shower and glowing eyes.
When he starts smelling her strawberry shampoo in the strangest places, he begins to tell himself that maybe he is starting to love this girl with melancholy smiles and a conviction so strong that it still startles him sometimes. She tells him she loves music, and he finds himself buying a guitar and shredding his nails on chords. He tells her about the books he reads, the many books about entrepreneurship and philosophy, and she starts looking for them in the library, checking them out along with SAT review books. She skims them and memorizes deep-sounding quotes, sneakily finding ways to insert them into their conversations to test if he's actually read them.
V.They start talking about the future more. He tells her that maybe he's not so interested in inheriting his father's company, that maybe he wants to travel the world first before he decides what he wants. She smiles at the way his eyes light up as he ticks off the places he would visit. She tells him to send her postcards, and he tells her he'll bring her with him. And sometimes, she closes her eyes and sees them taking a perfect snapshot in Paris, Prague, or St. Petersburg with onion roofs and Gothic spires that reach for the sky.
They take their SATs in the same classroom, and when the scores come out, she opens his and he opens hers. He scores a little higher, and she smiles because she would have expected nothing better.
Her father gets taken to the hospital for cirrhosis, and she alternates between his bedside and the library. Sometimes the pressure gets to be more than she can bear, and she spends those nights with her head buried in her arms and tears soaking her sweater.
He notices the redness around her eyes every morning, but she won't tell him about her father until he coaxes the truth from her. And then she breaks, and it's the first time he's really seen her cry. He reaches for her tentatively, but he holds her tightly until the waves of panic subside and she is left clutching his shirt like a child. He promises her that everything will be okay, and a day later, her father gets moved to intensive care and the bills vanish from her table. She hates him for it, but she knows there is no other choice. She promises herself that she will never need anyone like that again.
He counts her smiles and sees them diminish.
VI.People start calling them Romeo and Juliet, and she ignores the jabs even when she can feel them. She is all too aware of the chasm between them, of the rage that his father flew into when his son told him he wanted to take a gap year before he went to college. First the huge charges on his credit card, now these liberal notions. He tells her these things with a reassuring but strained smile. It's okay, he'll get over it. But she doesn't think he will, and even though he tells her not to, she blames herself. She knows that because of him, she started seeing the brightness the world could offer, but she wonders if maybe she has only been stealing his light.
She gets a scholarship to Harvard. He gets into Stanford for soccer and excitedly tells her that it's the university famous for its entrepreneurs. Her father goes into rehab and writes her letters about his recovery, and for a while, things are okay. After the thrill of college acceptances, she lets herself relax more, and he makes her catch up on all the teenage things she missed out on. They go to a drive-in movie and she lays her head on his shoulder because she's too tired from studying to stay awake. They try to make chocolate chip cookies but end up smearing flour on each other's faces. In the cool nights, he sings to her ridiculous little songs that he writes while she listens with closed eyes, her chin propped on her hand and a small, contented smile on her lips. She realizes that it's the people that make the high school experience, not the things you do.
Prom comes around the corner, and suddenly the hallways are full of boys offering their fervent declarations. He plans a massive display that ends with a rooftop serenade and ropes his friends into helping him, much to their horror. He knows a lot of boys are planning to ask her, this silent beauty with endless mysteries behind her eyes that he has only begun to solve. And he's not ashamed to admit that maybe, just maybe, he might have threatened a couple of them.
She expects him to ask her, but she knows that their story is ending. He will travel the world before moving to the other side of the country, and their lives that had been stitched together so perfectly will begin to unravel.
So when the very same boy who bullied her years ago asks her to prom, she says yes and tries not to see the moment when the smug expression on her best friend's face turns to ash.
He doesn't want to go to prom if it's not with her, but his friends convince him to ask another girl. They try not to look at each other when they're there, but she wears a sky blue dress that matches her eyes, and he fills out his tuxedo in a way that makes all the other girls jealous of his date.
Midway through the dance, her date tries to kiss her. He gets a bloody nose again, but this time it's because of her.
He finds her sitting outside, looking up at the stars and rubbing her knuckles.
She urges him to go back inside, but he only stands and reaches for her hand, pulling her up. I saved the last dance for you.
She knows that this defeats the purpose, but she rests her head on his shoulder as he holds her waist, and they dance slowly to the stream of music coming from inside. Tonight is a dream, and tomorrow she will wake up and face reality again.
VII. They graduate to blinding flashes and smothering hugs. She speaks about doing great things and the wonderful unpredictability of the future. To her surprise, her father shows up with a bouquet of crumpled daisies. He's unkempt and the other parents wrinkle their noses at him, but he's there and that's all that matters. In that moment, she would not wish to be anywhere else.
He sees her father and knows that this joy is hers alone. He leaves after her valedictorian speech because he's catching an early flight and his parents chose not to come in a rebellious and immature protest against his decision to take a gap year before he goes to Stanford. An extra plane ticket burns through the pocket of his jeans. She watches him leave the festivities and knows that this is the beginning of the end.
VIII. She encourages him to enjoy his travels fully, and that includes the people too. He listens to her and dates girls. Exotic beauties and stunning goddesses parade through his pictures, but none of them last long. Finally, he gives up once he realizes that none of them could ever come close to replacing her. For a while, he sends her postcards and she responds with handwritten letters about how much she's enjoying school. It's everything she could have imagined and more; she just wishes he could be there to share it with her. He sees animals and structures that look like they came off the pages of fantasy books and sends her pictures with vivid descriptions, all signed off the same way. I miss you.
Sometimes, when he finds himself in civilization, he calls her. But their time zones are uncoordinated, and one of them always ends up falling asleep. He likes to listen to her soft, even breaths, and his snores make her giggle.
His last stop is Boston, and she waits for him at the airport with a cheesy sign. He doesn't realize how much he has craved her presence until his eyes find her in the crowd and he moves forward, and suddenly she's in his arms and all the pieces in his uneven jigsaw of a life shift into place.
She skips lectures for a day and takes him around the city. They picnic by the river, and he gives her his jacket, but she gives it back when she notices his lips turning blue.
She makes him ride the swan boats with her, a Boston tradition that she's never been able to do because it's never seemed right to go with anyone else. They lie on the grass facing each other, and she touches his face, unable to believe that they have come this far from two children only knew the difference between good and bad, to a man and a woman with dreams that encompass the universe.
Their first kiss is sweet and a little bit cliché. She has daydreamed about this moment so many times, but none of her elaborate setups truly compare to this. He tells her, a little smugly, that he knew it was coming. When she pinches him for the comment, he tackles her to the ground and kisses her again, saying he doesn't know how he's managed to live so long without it.
IX. He gets on a plane to California and calls her the moment he arrives. They coordinate their sleep schedules so they talk every night. It's hard, but she thinks it works.
He tells her that traveling has instilled in him a sense of responsibility. He wants to help the world, and sometimes she stays up far too late brainstorming creative and oftentimes ludicrous ways to world peace, like giving every child a different flavor of cookie each day or annihilating one percent of the upper class and air-dropping all their money over the Sahara.
She gets her midterm scores back and her life screeches to a halt. Suddenly the hours she's spent on the phone with him, the dreamy doodles she scrawls over her notes, the lectures she skips because she accidentally sleeps in after a late Skype call, all come back to her. Her counselor reminds her that her scholarship is contingent on her GPA. She doesn't tell him about her worries; she keeps them nestled beside her heart, a constant reminder that her small successes are not enough.
At first, he doesn't notice when she starts withdrawing. Their conversations go from daily to weekly. He's busy too, with soccer and school, but he checks his phone every night and staunches disappointment when the same blank screen greets him. She does better on her finals and barely manages to hold onto her scholarship. He feels ridiculously happy when he sees her name flash on his cell phone display for the first time in weeks. They resume their calls, but their distance is a physical wall between them. She goes home for summer break to visit her father. He stays in California for an internship with a non-profit. His absence clings to her childhood home and she is eager to return to Boston, where she feels closer to the life she's always wanted.
An idea begins to blossom in his head, an idea that started when he saved a little girl from being beaten up on the streets. She has always teased him about being too philanthropic, but it's a compliment he has always kept close to his heart. People listen to him when he speaks, amazed by the eloquence of his speech and the strength of his passion. Soon, everyone is talking about a Stanford boy whose idea has the potential to change the world.
He tells her about it, and she smiles at the excitement in his voice that is so reminiscent of the childhood boy she admired from afar. Back then, and now, she is still disconnected from his happiness, a planet that does not deserve to be in the presence of the sun. So she throws herself into her own work and professors delight over the depth hidden within this quiet girl who says so much in so few words. She hides the pleasure their compliments give her; she is always afraid that this colorful life unfolding before her will end, and she will be back in a black alleyway with dirty hands gripping her hair.
X.He gets funding for his startup and can barely believe that this fledgling dream of his is about to take flight. He wants to share it with her, but she's busy preparing her first paper for publishing. The two of them toy with the idea of meeting each other halfway in some godforsaken state like Tennessee or Oklahoma, but those are vague words that float meaninglessly before disappearing with the conversation.
His friends take him out to celebrate their launch and he calls her after one too many shots. She picks up on the third ring, surprised that after weeks of not talking, he's calling her at three in the morning. At first, she laughs at his angry yelling about how tomatoes aren't fruit, but it dries up in her throat.
He asks why she is almost a stranger to him now. He tells her that he wanted to take her to see the world, that more importantly, he wanted to be the one to show it to her. He tells her about two plane tickets and graduation and how it didn't feel right. He tells her that his choice that day is his greatest regret.
She cries. She cries over the unknowing sacrifices she made for her ambition and the knowledge that given another chance, she would still choose this life over being with him. Most of all, she cries because she knows nothing will ever be the same.
The next morning, as he nurses a raging hangover and tries to remember what happened, he gets a call. She says that a clean break will be easiest, that it won't be hard since they haven't talked much anyway.
He begs. He begs her not to do this, even though he doesn't know what this is. And he begins to see their relationship for what it was: a tenuous bond that became weathered and beaten until it could do nothing but break.
It's hard at first. The loneliness makes her head ache and sometimes she dreads waking in the mornings. The light that streams in through her windows turns gray, and the autumn leaves are dull. But it gets easier. She returns home for a while and confides in her father. He tells her how proud he is of her, and his embrace makes the world go away for a while.
Although black and white have seeped their way back into her life, she knows that he would not want her to shut away the world's color just because he is no longer in her life. She tucks her longing away. But in the minutes before she falls asleep and her will grows weak, she begins to dream.
She is a recent graduate with a published book already under her belt. He is the newest genius whose company is shifting the course of the world. They meet again because they reached for the same carton of milk in the grocery store. After a few nights in restaurants with one Michelin Star, he stops trying to impress her and they start eating takeout from home while watching horror movies. She likes it because she can snatch the orange chicken from between his chopsticks. He likes it because she has a habit of burying her head in his chest if she gets scared.
When he shows up early to pick her up from work, the other women titter at the way he fills out his three-piece suit, and she blushes. He does it often, and she suspects that he only does it to see her off-balance. After all, he doesn't even wear suits to work.
They go a couple years like that, and she thinks that she should get tired of seeing him every day, but she never does. More of her clothes end up in his drawers, and soon she can't even find a fresh pair of underwear in her own house. That's when he suggests that she might as well move in, and to his surprise, she agrees.
And when he whisks her away to a private beach in the middle of nowhere and gets down on one knee, there is no other word she can think of but yes.
That is what she dreams of sometimes, a story that fills the empty space on her bed. A boy, a girl, and an ending that they both deserved but could not have.
A/N: There was no shortage of cheese in this story, but there you have it! It was written for ADoR's Star-Crossed Challenge for the Sleeping prompt. Hope you enjoyed, and as always, feedback is most welcome!