by Lani Khuu
Byron Center High School
A Theory About Distance
The sun is ripe in the sky, soft edges dripping with lemon nectar. On the west side of town, the lonely willow sags beneath ample rays. The air is heavy today, charged with the unspoken fervor of goodbye. It clings to my skin and stings my lips, coating my throat with something that tastes like chalk. I lick dust and sweat off my upper lip as my legs dangle over the edge of the roof, shingles digging into the soft flesh of my thighs. I take a swig of the cherry coke in my hand and wipe the chilled condensation over my forehead. If he were here, I’d pass the bottle over to him and he’d finish it all in one monstrous gulp, adam’s apple shiny with sweat. I don’t need to remind myself of his absence. It is loud enough. Thick enough to cut a slice out of and pull apart with metal forks. The syrupy sludge burns its way down my throat, so sweet that it’s sickening. I finish the bottle in hiccuping gulps and bite the sides of my mouth to keep it down. Then I slip my eyes beyond the ledge, peering fifty five feet down to the hard packed dirt, sparsely dotted with yellowing grass.
In theory, five stories is quite a long way to go.
But from up here, if doesn’t feel so high up.
If you ask the neighbor children, they’ll tell you the same thing they told me. They’ll tell you that The McAbeson House is a dreadful, empty place. But he loved empty things and sought to fill them up with traces of himself. Maybe that’s why he loved me too. Said it made him feel like he existed. Vacant ever since Mr. Billy McAbeson was found floating belly up in his own tub like a gutted fish, it is the type of place that scrapes people clean like the insides of oyster shells. They say that it is so unholy, even the ghosts have fled. That it is the type of place that would force the air from my lungs and chip bones as they lie in my body. But I’ve always had thick bones anyway.
He didn’t believe them either, but maybe he should have. We were the two miscreants who couldn’t hold their curiosity in the pockets of their cheeks and just bite it. We knocked our teeth against other things. For me, it was the hard knot of womanhood that spoiled in my mouth. For him, it was the lack of traffic, noise, and people with somewhere to be. It was the way our lackluster town was not enough for him.
I called it curiosity.
He called it desire.
They called it sin.
Perhaps those three things weren’t too far off. After all, it had been that which delivered him to me and that which took him away from me. Now that he’s gone, I am not quite sure where I stand.
He never told me that he was leaving. Never opened his mouth and told me that I wasn’t enough anymore. Parking his car in front of The House, he had looked at the peeling pink paint, now bordering yellow, and said that this was our place. A one way plane ticket to London stuck out of his left pocket. I think about all he left behind. A framed picture of us on the three-and-a-half legged coffee table, a knit rug in front of the bashed in television stand.
He left traces of us everywhere, teeming with life. But now, the house rings so full of emptiness that I feel it in the hollow of my chest. I try to suppress it, but somewhere in the process I drag it into my lungs and it expands, stale and insistent.
I wonder if he feels the same thing. This resolute nothing. Unlikely, it is. He is probably chalk full of the city by now. Swarms of traffic and people with someplace to be filling up the space between his ribs and pushing me out. I want to be angry, so I pull red hot scarlet to the back of my eyes, but scarlet is still just a color and I am still alone.
Of all the broken and battered parts of this house, the stairs have always been my favorite. Just about every other step was missing, but five flights of stairs made for something of a game. How far could I climb till I reached Heaven? Crawling upwards, could I still find myself in Hell? He had said yes, that he’d meet me there.
I pull the corners of my lips back at the residual lace of his words, and my bottom lip splits open. I brush my tongue over the hurt, and it tastes of cherry coke. This time, I forget he’s gone till I’m searching for him. Till I turn my head, glancing across the roof and down five stories to the ground.
In theory, five stories is quite a long way to go. But now that he’s three thousand miles away, five stories is just a bit of distance. Just a bit of distance from my body, already coiling in on itself, and the ground. I lean forward and a bead of sweat dribbles down my temple and plunges fifty five feet down.
When he used to come here, just a few odd days ago, we’d sit on this very ledge, daring it to come free beneath the weight of out bodies. I swore I’d hold his hand on the way down, sweat mingling in our palms and in our mouths. But he is not here, I remind myself again. I am still here, and he is not.
I squeeze the neck of the glass bottle so tightly, for a moment I think it might shatter in my hands, shards finding home in the delicate skin of my palms. I imagine my blood dripping from the window panes beneath me.
The one thing the neighbors had gotten right was the absence of ghosts. For the longest time, it had just been the two of us in this house, very much alive. Maybe too alive.
The silence cuts so loud, my ears begin to bleed. Or perhaps it’s just the bitter sun, pounding against my head and driving me closer and closer to the ledge. Perhaps it’s retribution for everything I’ve done and have yet to do. The everythings I can’t seem to remember right now.
As tears graze the stretch of skin pulled tightly over my cheeks, a certain type of loneliness settles over me. It’s cold, yet I think I might die of heatstroke. It’s charged, an electric current humming in my ear. It curls along the shape of my body like a serpent, cold and scaly. Yet, all at the same time, warm. It hisses in my ear, but when I don’t make out any words, I begin to think that loneliness has departed me as well. My hands slide along the shingles, pushing, pushing, pushing, till I am grasping the ledge with blanched knuckles, a fingertip’s length away from losing balance.
I wonder, in a town like this, where half the population consists of cows roaming farmland, what they would do with me. If I did my time and bloomed into a woman, where is there to go from there? I wonder what they could do to deserve me, or deserve to be rid of me. I wonder if he could become stricken with guilt. If it’d sprout from his gums and slither down his throat, singing my name. Would he realize that I could have been enough? That I should have been enough? That I was enough? It occurs to me that he wouldn’t pay any mind, and my fingers slowly uncoil from the ledge, gaining color once again.The thought is unbearable. And for the brief entirety of a second, I am suspended. A personal purgatory, caught between one or the other. The strain of unending silence or the comfort of the ground. The moment is fleeting because I realize that I do not want to leave one sort of loneliness for another. I do not want to be the only ghost here.
Pushing myself away from the ledge, I am searching, searching, searching, for something other than a memory and my own clammy ghost hands to hold onto. I am putting distance between my body and the ledge. My body and the ground. I’m not sure which it is that I don’t trust.
I thrust the glass bottle, gleaming with syrupy residue, into the air. It sails fifty five feet down, whistling in the wind, and harbors in the dirt. In the sun, the remnants are a kaleidoscope, and I think that it could have been my kaleidoscope limbs jutting awkwardly in the grass. Or maybe it’s him, emptiness rooted in his gut, ballooning and buoyant. I’d never liked cherry coke anyway.
But bareness is a rather impending presence, and I decide to make my own ghosts to keep me company. The first one is everything I am not. She is tall and fair. Her golden whorls sit above her shoulders in an orderly fashion. A plunging satin dress hugs her ethereal body. Nobody can say no to her, not when she wears this. At first, the dress is a burning scarlet. Then, I decide that it is a deep seductive green. The hem catches in a drift I do not feel. She holds a pipe in her left hand but does not smoke it. Wiping at the dampness tinting my cheeks, I taste salt. It is all mine and none of it his.
A walking bassline emanates from the willow, followed by a swinging blues scale, warm and oozing around the center. It is saturated in molasses and seeping into my senses. It blankets everything in a soft breeze. I pull slow, numb breaths as she opens her pillowy red lips. They are the inside of a rose in bloom. The curve of her tongue flicks in a slow scatting melody. Her sugary voice slides down my spine and coils in my gut. I beg her to give me something to hold onto, something that doesn’t reek of him. She simply leans in, pushes an unruly curl behind my ear, and tells me that in theory, five stories is isn’t a very long way to go. The most crucial distance is that of a fingertip’s length. The difference between stability and imbalance. Between roof shingles and a ledge. Three thousand miles is nothing compared to a fingertip’s length. All that’s left to do is fall.
Lani Khuu is a fourteen-year-old student from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has played the violin since the age of seven and plans to continue her studies in music through college along with pursuing creative writing and filmmaking. This is her first publication.