Vanessa sat at the window, watching the traffic. The drizzle and persistent grey skies matched her mood, not a storm, but definitely not clearing up anytime soon. Her reflection stared back at her, a pale face and dark hair fading into the street. Somewhere in the back of the house, Vanessa heard music. Faint tinny music and she could not make out the tune. She wondered if she left the radio on, maybe some CD playing continuously at the far end of the house. She forgot about the music when the phone rang for the tenth time in an hour, and she ignored it, listening to the electronic answering machine voice tell the world she ‘cannot come to the phone right now’ followed by a long beep.
She heard the click of the phone being hung up, and then the dial tone. Her machine always took too long to hang up, so eventually, the recorded operator would pick-up, ‘if you would like to make a call, please hang up and try again.’ Vanessa picked up the phone and dropped it back into the cradle, cutting off the answering machine and the dial tone.
Leaning her head against the cold glass she stared at the sky. Willing it to rain, or for the clouds to disperse, waiting for anything to change at all.
Vanessa jumped as the first bolt of lightning cut across the sky, followed by booming thunder. And her heart raced, and her quickened breath fogged the window. With the second bolt, the house lights flicker, and by the third bolt, they failed entirely. It wasn’t new. The power in the old house regularly cut out. It was at the end of the lines, far enough out of town that no one seemed to care about maintenance.
She didn’t mind sitting in the dark. It allowed her to watch the clouds roll across the sky, the thick molten masses raging against each other until the clouds broke releasing torrents of rain.
Vanessa stood and opened the backdoor. The cold air rushed over her bare feet and through her thin t-shirt. She stepped on to the back porch, smelling ozone, and wet earth. The wind seemed to pull at her, pushing her off the porch. She stepped out from underneath the cerulean ceiling of the porch, and the cold rain soaked her to the skin.
She cocked her head, hearing what sounded like screams on the wind. She peered back into the house, wondering if she did leave the radio on. She strained to hear the sounds again, but over the drum of the rain and another rumble of thunder, the scream was gone.
The cold water pelted her skin, and she turned her face to the sky. The lightning flashed overhead again, and the smell of ozone filled the air. She stepped into a puddle, the icy water seeping into her jeans. Unfazed, she stepped out of the puddle; her feet cold and sopping fabric of her jeans banging into her ankles. But Vanessa never stopped watching the sky crashing down.
In the clouds, Vanessa saw for an instant, a blink, a falling figure, spiraling toward the earth. She stood transfixed.
With the next bolt, she saw it again, this time closer. A gust of wind blew the dripping strand of her hair over her face, into her eyes. She raked it back, clearing her eyes and searching the skies, only to be momentarily blinded with the next lightning bolt.
Blinking the searing afterburn from her eyes, she stared back at the sky, the clouds still roiling and climbing over one another in a constant boiling mass. Her lips were pale, and her fingers numb in the cold. The sounds of music and screaming returned, louder may be carried on the wind. She looked back at the door, expecting it to be open letting out music. But the door was closed.
Vanessa looked back at the sky.
The figure never reappeared. She watched the clouds and storm rage about her, and the music and screams echoed through the empty yard.
Only when the wind slackened did she move. With aching knees and numb feet, she made her way across the yard, this time stepping around puddles. The sounds still echoed, but now she was not sure if they were real or if they were in her head.
A silver glint caught her eye, and she bent toward the ground.
Reaching into the muddy water, she pulled out a feather as long as her forearm. Vanessa frowned the feather was iridescent like oil on a wet street, and she had no idea what sort of local bird it could be from.
Another crack of thunder breaks the silence, and shivering Vanessa returned to the house. She placed the feather on her bedside table, before climbing under her quilts to chase the chill from her bones. She lay looking at the feather, and watched draft pushed it from the table to glide underneath her old iron bed frame.
Days after the storm, when the ground was still soggy and the sky was still full of angry clouds, she found him on her doorstep.
His hand was raised to knock, when Vanessa had opened the door intending to go into town.
“Good morning, ma’am,” he said, his voice carrying an accent she could only identify as southern. “I was wondering if you could help me.”
He explained that he was looking for something, but after he told her what it was, she forgot. As soon as she tried to recall what it was, the idea fled from her mind like water from the rain gutter. She invited him in to look because it seemed so very important to him, and somehow he never left.
Soon enough, she took it for granted that he was there. He was never in the way and always kept the refrigerator stocked. And after a while, she thought that she’d always had a roommate. And she had, hadn’t she?
Most nights, they would sit on the back porch, under the cerulean ceiling at the small table, and they would fill the ashtray with cigarettes.
She liked to think they always filled each other with words, her talking about her dreams, the strange worlds she visited in her sleep, and him telling stories, tall tales he called them.
But tonight, they were both silent.
The sunset was behind the house, so they only noticed the growing dark. It was only days after the solstice, so it remained light later. It was the kind of muggy, sweltering night her daddy had always called a crossroad’s night.
When she told him about it being a crossroad’s night, he looked frightened, then confused when she couldn’t explain why her daddy called it that. When she grew distressed at not being able to explain, he laid his warm fingers lightly on her hand.
The scent of jasmine hung in the air between the smoke, with its cloying, syrupy-sweet smell.
“The jasmine reminds me of you. It reminds me of your voice, slow and softly southern,” Vanessa’s words were quiet, wanting to erase the confusion, the discomfort of the crossroads from the night.
And he laughed, low and rich in the growing gloom.
It was the first time she ever heard him laugh.
He let his fevered hand cover hers, squeezing her fingers. She thought it felt too hot, but he always felt incandescent, febrile. But his skin is never flushed, never marred – always smooth sepia.
It was completely dark before they spoke again. The jasmine scent was still between them. His words were careful and slow. It made his accent less pronounced when he spoke that way.
She liked his accent, the warm southern sound, but he said it made him sound like trash. She thought they were trash, but she came to believe that it was a point of pride for him.
He said it was different down there, but never talked about “down there.” Vanessa was not sure where “down there” was. Only that he came from there and never seemed interested in going back.
He bit his lip, “I don’t know how to say this.” His words melted into the sticky air, and he slid his long fingers away from hers. His dark hair slithered over his shoulders in an obsidian cascade.
Vanessa shrugged, her hand feeling very cold and reached for the cigarettes and matches. The burst of phosphorus exploded and was gone in a second. “Don’t say anything then,” she said as the smoke-filled her lungs. “We can just sit here if you want.”
His black hair blended into the night sky making his face seem to hang in the darkness. “But I want to,” his black eyes darting around the darkness. “I need to talk to you. I need to tell you.”
His accent was coming back. He reached around her for the cigarettes, letting his arm brush hers and she felt his heat. When he lit cigarettes, she never heard the match.
“So talk,” she said shifting in the chair, “tell me anything you want. I’ll listen.”
His eyes jumped back to her, and he frowned, making a tiny crease between his eyes. “I don’t know how,” he paused, and she can almost see the words racing around his brain. “You don’t really know me,” he looked lost with his gaze flitting across the sky and Vanessa and the porch as if looking for the answer. His hands were clasped loosely in his lap, one still holding the cigarette.
“I don’t get it? I know your name, and that you live here,” she waved her hand in the air in a gesture of dismissal. “What else is there?”
“Everything, nothing,” he shrugged. The movement caused his hair to fall over his eyes. His hand swept it back unconsciously, and it stayed cleanly swept back from his face. He bit his lower lip, again. It makes his lips turn dark. “Why haven’t you ever asked where I came from?”
“Because it doesn’t matter,” she ground out her cigarette. “I don’t need to know anything else about you,” Vanessa started to reach for another cigarette. “Do I?” The air was still warm and heavy with the scent of smoke. Vanessa didn’t want him to talk like this. There was something dangerous in his words, something she didn’t understand but something that left her sick with dread.
His cigarette had burnt out and he dropped it in the ashtray. He moved and let his hands rest against her bare knees. “Maybe you do,” he smiled, his teeth flashing white in the darkness. With a sigh, he leaned forward in his chair.
She thought for a moment that he was going to kiss her. He’s done it before, just reaching over and kissing her with no explanation. It was always fast and soft, his lips just brushing against hers. Afterward, she’d always wondered if she’d imagined it. This time he didn’t kiss her. He just leaned forward, and she wondered what he would do if she kissed him.
“I want you to know,” he stopped and bit his lip again, his gaze darting over her face. “I want to tell you that, I” he paused again, “I want to stay here.”
She felt a little deflated; she’d expected something more, or maybe she’d expected nothing. She heard the phone ringing in the house. The shrill bell filling the silence between them. The machine picked up, and the drone of a dial tone drifted outside.
She leaned forward and wrapped her hand around his neck, her hands becoming buried in the thick warmth of his hair. Tilting his head up, she kissed him letting her lips brush over his, insistent. Her tongue slipped out to brush against his lips, and she felt his tongue meet hers before he pulled back. Her hand slipped through his long dark hair, like it was smoke.
His black eyes met hers, and she could hear herself breathe, but she can’t seem to say anything. His hands still rested on her knees with the same heat burning her flesh. She clutched at his hand and held it, trying to speak.
He untangled his hand from hers and lit a cigarette, and even watching she did not see the match.
“I guess that wasn’t what you expected to hear?” He looked away and into the dark yard.
She shook her head until she realized he wasn’t looking at her. “No,” she’d managed to whisper. She remembered to breathe, “It’s ok though.” She waited a moment expecting him to look at her, but his eyes remained locked in the darkness. “I want you to stay here.”
He squeezed her hand and his eyes swung back toward her. He pulled her to him. His arms wrapping around her. “I love you,” he whispered into her neck, and she felt his lips move against her skin. He drew back then and kissed her. His hand holding her face.
She could feel his heat through her cut-off jeans, and suddenly she could not breathe. His tongue snaked into her mouth, warm and alive, searching and tasting her. Drowning in the kiss, her hands tangled in his hair not sure if she is pulling him closer or pulling him away.
The air was suffocating with the heat and the jasmine and the smoke. And with him.
He kept one hand on her neck and the other pulled her closer to him. I love him, she thought, I think I love him. Don’t I love him?
His mouth broke from hers and she still could not breathe. The air was too hot. His lips rested on her cheeks and neck and he whispered constantly to her. The words flooded her brain, leaving her gasping.
“I love you. I need you. I have to tell you,” the words jumbled around each other until he finally whispered, “I’m sorry.” He drew away from her and the heat receded.
She could breathe again and took deep shuddering breaths watching his dark eyes shine.
Vanessa felt her face flush, and she could feel the rush of her blood under her skin. “I love you,” she whispered, still trying to catch her breath, and she laid her head on his shoulder. The heat from him was overwhelming. She laid in his arms barely breathing, still loving him.
“But I’m not what you think I am. I’m not,” His voice is thick with his accent. “I’m not, not…”
She raised her head and placed her hand over his mouth. It felt like her hand was burning, but she stopped his words. She watched his shining eyes break into tears. She thought she could almost hear them sizzle down his face. She kissed them away, tasting his tears bitter with salt.
“It doesn’t matter,” she whispered the salt sting still on her breath.
Her hands found the scars on his back. They made his shoulder blades feel strange like his bones stick out too much. His shifted in his chair and she let my hands slide away from the scars.
She imagined the scars on his back shifting under his t-shirt. She had seen them once when he changed after getting caught out in the rain. Two angry red scars, that ran from his shoulders and disappeared into the waistband of his jeans. She never told him that she’d seem them.
He let her hands rest on his shoulders, but bowed his head, letting his hair fall forward to hide his face. Vanessa wondered if he was still crying, wondering what could make him cry. When he finally raised his head, she pushed his hair back, letting each black strand run through my fingers.
His face was tear-stained and he bit his lip and just stared at her.
His eyes were wide, and she couldn’t see her reflection in them, only what looked like flames and smoke. Her hand rested on the sharp curve of his cheek, and she watched the flames, thinking about the iridescent feather pinned between her iron bed frame.