Shadow Stranger

by Kagamine Marin (鏡音愛鈴)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/172101.html)

“Sometimes when I walk home I see my shadow stretching out, and I feel like it belongs to someone else entirely. When it’s sunset and the sky is orange and everything else is tinged with rust, I walk home together with my shadow. Even though we’re going the same way, it’s a little bit like walking with a total stranger.”

+++

Whenever her parents fought, Kelley would first retreat to her bedroom, then open the window and climb out to go for a walk. Her bedroom was on the second floor, but it was right next to an oak tree, which (her mother would often say) had been planted the day her grandparents had bought the lot to build this house. It did not take a lot of effort for her to reach the closest branch, and from there she could easily climb her way down.

Her favorite time was at the latest point of afternoon, before it could be properly called evening, and the sun was mostly-set, but not completely gone from sight. On warm days she would walk down as far as the river, her hands in her pockets and her eyes focused on the ground. Sometimes she would bring her headphones and she would listen to music, but mostly, she preferred to be alone with her on thoughts. On colder days she would only walk about half as far, but she would pay more attention as she walked, watching how her breath steamed up before her face, then faded away again. If she went the longest way around, she could go for nearly two hours without seeing a single other person, and that was how she preferred it.

Other times, though–now and then–she would encounter someone else as she walked. Sometimes they were jogging the same direction as she was, sometimes they went the other way. Sometimes they were on bikes and they would yell at her as they whizzed past, “to your left!” or “to your right!” and by the time she had processed that they were talking to her, they were already gone. Kelley didn’t really like them, but she never really had the chance to call them on rude behavior. When she could, she walked in the grass to avoid them altogether.

When she was done, she would make the trek back home and climb back up the tree and slide across the one branch and back through her open window. She would take off her shoes and leave them by the window, toes pointed to the wall, and she would go to her door and press her ear to it. It used to be that she would only hear silence and she would know it was safe to emerge from her bedroom the other way, to go downstairs and get something to eat, but more often than not, these days, she would hear her parents still yelling, furious and ripping into each other with words, or it would be a horrible icy silence that made the pit of her belly feel awkward and twisted. She couldn’t say how she knew what the difference was, just that she knew it was there, and on those nights, Kelley would wait until she saw the light under her door switch off before she would ever leave her room. She would creep down the hall and keep herself pressed close to the walls, and if she saw either father or mother she would freeze in the shadows and wait for them to pass.

At school she said nothing about this, though sometimes she listened to the other girls talk, chattering and bright and oblivious. It was not that she was unpopular, it was just that she wasn’t outright popular. People tended to only remember her half of the time, particularly when they wanted help with homework, or someone to compare test answers with. There was a group of girls that she would eat lunch with, and they tolerated her with a bemused sort of fondness, as if they could not quite make heads or tails of why she was with them, but not unkind enough to drive her off. Kelley didn’t mind that they never really talked to her, but around her. She liked the sounds of their voices, clean and high or rough or sweet. They soothed her in a way the voices of boys never did, though sometimes the other girls would talk about boys, which was not nearly as interesting as they seemed to think it was.

One of the girls, whose name was Elizabeth and who went just by Beth and was in four of Kelley’s classes, had parents who were going through a divorce. She still talked, though occasionally she would be quiet and stare down at her lunch until someone would nudge her and say, “Now you’re turning into Kelley!” and they would all laugh, including Beth. Kelley didn’t mind that either. Sometimes she smiled when they made that joke, because it wasn’t really a cruel one, in her opinion. It was just the truth.

Beth had long blonde hair and large brown eyes and she was both very popular and very prone to talking about herself when there were silences to fill. She had a sort of voice that was very easy to listen to, mellow and just high enough to be sweet, but low enough to not grate on the ears. She would talk about her parents’ divorce at lunch sometimes, with her chin on one hand and a plastic fork in the other, poking at the noodles she brought from home in blue-lidded Tupperware. Once, halfway through the lunch period, she said, “Sometimes they yell so loud they wake me up, and I thought that maybe one of them was dying. But no, they were just fighting about money. Again.”

Another time, she said, “They throw things,” with her gaze preoccupied with the tiny braid she was weaving into a pinch of hair from her temple. “Dad threw Mom’s favorite vase and broke it, so she threw away some of his bowling trophies. My brother and I hid the golf clubs because we didn’t know what was going to happen next. It would have been awful if they’d actually started hitting each other.”

Beth spoke about these things easily and carelessly, like it never actually hurt her at all. Sometimes she would look sad, but she always forgot that when someone talked to her. She was a bright person who enjoyed attention. Kelley liked to watch her more than anyone else in the group of girls she sat with, though she didn’t think Beth would appreciate knowing that much at all. When she walked to leave the sound of her parents’ fights behind, Beth was Kelley’s favorite companion inside her head. They would walk and Beth would talk and Kelley would listen. She liked the sound of Beth’s voice, and the way Beth said things like divorce and awful so that Kelley herself never had to. After lunch, when they were walking back to class, the sunlight would settle upon Beth’s hair and make it glow.

And then there was an afternoon where, as Kelley was putting her shoes on and preparing to climb through her window, she heard a crashing noise and then the sound of her mother screaming. It was not like the normal screams, but something closer to actual panic, and that made Kelley fall backwards, onto the floor of her bedroom. Kelley rolled onto her hands and knees and crawled to her bedroom door, reaching up far enough to open it and no further. The lights were on downstairs, and she could see her mother’s silhouette, blown large by the angles, reflected upon the second-floor ceiling. She heard pounding footsteps and another crash and then both of her parents were yelling so loudly that they scarcely sounded even human.

Gently, carefully, she closed the door again and went back to her window. Her favorite stretch of time was nearly over–the sky was more deep violet than orange now, and the sun was nothing more than a red slit on the horizon. She still climbed out of her window, trying not to tremble, and made her way down the tree–gracelessly, quickly, and once her feet were on the ground, she ran. Without a second thought, she ran and she ran and it felt like her feet weren’t even touching the ground, the wind in her face and her hair and her lungs aching. She ran for what felt like forever, until finally the toe of her shoe caught on something and sent her flying for real, through the air for a short fast distance before she hit the ground again.

For a moment she lay with her cheek and her palms and her belly pressed to the ground. Pain filtered back to her in small degrees: the strain in her lungs, the fire in her scraped hands and knees, and the bone-deep ache of something that she couldn’t quite name. Even after the tightness in her chest faded, she remained lying where she was, watching the shadows under her hand as it changed and then melted with the coming of evening.

When she looked up, a girl was standing beside her.

The first name on Kelley’s tongue was Beth, but that wasn’t right. Beth’s hair was the color of sun-bleached straw, yellow and pale and would probably glow a little in the dark. This girl had hair as dark as the evening sky, black and shot through with highlights of blue and dark violet. But she had the same small mouth and heart-shaped lips and the same large eyes, and she said nothing as she held out her hand. Kelley pushed herself up to her knees first, then took it. The girl pulled her up to her feet with easy strength, up close so that for a moment they were belly to belly. She had an odd smile where the corners of her lips would twitch up and then relax down again, as if she could not quite figure out how to sustain it properly. It did not look quite the way a normal person would smile at all. It was kind of beautiful.

She said, “My name is Liza.”

Kelley began to say, “My name is Kelley,” but Liza stepped away and tugged on her hand and said over her, “Let’s go for a walk, Kelley.”

Her knees hurt and her palms hurt and there was a pressure behind her eyes that she couldn’t quite ignore, even when she looked at Liza’s smile, but Kelley nodded and laced their fingers together and felt a little like there was a weight lifting from her shoulders. Now that she was on her feet she could see that she was down by the river she liked so much, though further along it than she’d ever gone on foot before. The place where she’d fallen was in sight of the school. Something about that thought relaxed her, picturing the hallways full of people and the girls she ate lunch with every day. She looked at Liza, who looked straight ahead, like she knew exactly where she meant to go. Kelley wanted to ask where they were going, but at the same time she didn’t feel terribly compelled to do so; Liza knew, and that was enough.

They ended up behind the schoolyard itself, in the short thick line of trees that lined the property. The moon had just begun to rise, and there were fingers of pale light filtering in through the treetops. Liza pulled Kelley with her until they were deep enough that it was difficult to see the building itself. She smiled her odd little smile again and said, “I like this place. Don’t you?”

Kelley nodded. She closed her eyes and let Liza kiss her. She said something into it, something that would have been, I don’t know what to do, but she allowed Liza to pull her along until her back was against a tree, mostly in trapped by Kelley’s own body. Kelley didn’t open her eyes until the kiss ended. Liza smiled at her with an expression that was nearly like Beth’s face, and she touched Kelley’s face once. She said, “It’s easy. You just have to relax. All right?”

Kelley nodded. She didn’t quite understand, but she wasn’t afraid. It felt a little exciting, and a little bit like running again. She put her hands on Liza’s shoulders and said what she’d meant to before, “I don’t know what to do.”

Liza said, “Do something that feels good,” and she reached up to undo the buttons of her shirt herself. The skin underneath was pale, but the white bra underneath was paler, the top of the cups edged with thin lace–the sort of cute bra that a younger girl might wear, and Kelley stared at it for a moment before she let her hands slide from Liza’s shoulders and across skin (cool at first to the touch, slowly warming), and hooked her thumbs under the straps. She tugged until they were sliding down and pulled until Liza’s small breasts were revealed, almost perfectly round. Her nipples were small and dark and already very hard.

Kelley looked at them until Liza arched her back as if in invitation, then looked up and said, “You’re very pretty.”

Liza smiled. Kelley bowed her head and pressed her lips to Liza’s collarbone, breathing in. She smelled something like the first lungful of cold air in winter, sharp and almost spicy somehow, something that made Kelley’s chest and throat ache even more. She opened her mouth and pressed her teeth carefully to the sharp rise of bone under thin skin and listened to how Liza’s breath caught. Still cautious, she ducked her head further, using just the tip of her tongue to trace across the curve of Liza’s breast, down to the nipple. The skin was smooth until that moment, and then it was strange and nubbly. Kelley rubbed the flat of her tongue over the nipple and shivered a little herself. It almost tickled somehow, to do this. Liza’s fingers worked their way into Kelley’s hair, and she breathed something that sounded like encouragement. Kelley parted her lips and touched her teeth to the nipple, first without any sort of actual pressure and then catching it between both of her teeth. She put her hands now on Liza’s hips to keep her mostly still when the other girl jerked.

It felt good, she thought, to touch someone else like this, to be close to someone who almost had Beth’s face and almost had Beth’s eyes and voice, but was still a completely different person. Beth would like something more gentle, Kelley thought dreamily, as she shaped her lips over Liza’s nipple. She would need something softer in a touch, something that was kinder and would reach out to the sad, sometimes distant look in her eyes when she thought no one else was looking, at lunch. She would wear white too, but they would be plain, without embellishment, because she wouldn’t know yet that sometimes what was underneath might be nicer than what was on top. Kelley bit at Liza’s other nipple and reached to undo her pants, fumbling once with the button of her jeans before working it free. Once she had it open, she went to her knees and looked up.

Through the tree branches overhead, the moonlight made Liza’s face glow in a way that her hair could not. She was flushed with two spots of color high on her cheeks and she had her lower lip between her teeth. Her eyes were very bright. She wasn’t smiling now, but her gaze was focused unwaveringly on Kelley, and Kelley thought she liked that. She hooked her fingers into the sides of Liza’s opened jeans and tugged both them and the white-lace panties down to about Liza’s knees. It took a moment longer to look away from Liza’s face and between her legs, at the small thatch of hair that was nearly the same color as the hair on Liza’s head but a different texture, wiry and sparse. Kelley put her hand next to it, more on Liza’s thigh than her abdomen, and swept her thumb out through that hair. Liza made a little noise, and Kelley thought that yes, that would be what Beth would sound like, startled by someone’s touch, but not unwelcoming, not upset. She stroked again and again, moving her thumb lower with each pass until she touched warm wetness. Liza was mostly quiet, though occasionally she would sigh or gasp, and they were all very nice sounds.

After a thought, Kelley pulled Liza’s pants down to her ankles, then slid her hands to put them lower now, palms flat on Liza’s thighs, until they spread wider. She couldn’t see very well in the dark, but she could see the outline of the other girl’s sex, the shape suggested under the thick hair. It looked a little like the pictures in the books, and nothing like that at all. Kelley looked up at Liza’s face again, meeting her eyes, and leaned in. She stuck her tongue out and pressed to the spot where the labia split. The hair on her tongue tickled in the same way the nipple had, though less pleasantly, and then she had to close her eyes and tilt her head to concentrate better. She felt her way blindly with her tongue, listening to the way that Liza’s breath hitched and caught, moving when the fingers in her hair yanked or tugged in a certain way. The taste and the smell were both nearly the same, something sharp and a little sour, a little clean. Kelley did not think she would be able to compare this to anyone or anything. She could only wonder what Beth would smell like.

Liza was finally whimpering now, short sharp little gasps that were not Kelley’s name. Every now and then, Kelley’s tongue would brush over her clit, small and hard, half-hidden amidst wet folds, and every time that she did Liza’s whole body would arch and she would squeak as if she had been shocked. Kelley liked that particular noise, so she focused more on that after another minute of exploration, tracing around the clit, sometimes skittering over it, always with light, light pressure. Gently, the way Beth would prefer it, even when Liza growled and said, “Come on, come on, please,” and sounded a little as if she were dying just to ask. Kelley slid one of her hands up, fingers skittering a little over sweat-damp skin and very near the crux of Liza’s thighs. When Liza made another demanding noise, Kelley curled a finger and pressed it up, through her folds, and into her. It was a strange feeling, especially at the way that Liza’s body tightened and flexed around her, at the way her hips arched, pressing herself more firmly into Kelley’s hand and Kelley’s mouth.

A moment later, she gasped, “Another, another,” and Kelley was obedient this time, shifting her hand until she could press a second finger into Liza. As she did she framed her lips around Liza’s clit the same way she had the nipple earlier, and sucked in time with her rocking fingers. This she thought Beth would like, but only given time and some practice, when her body had grown accustomed to someone else’s touch. Liza whined and trembled and then suddenly she arched up hard and froze against Kelley, her body tight and still, her fingers knotted into Kelley’s hair so tightly that it made Kelley’s eyes water. For long seconds she held that stiff shaking pose, and then she shoved insistently, pushing Kelley’s head away. Kelley leaned back easily, and the movement made her remember own aching knees, still burning from her earlier fall. She licked her lips and willed the thought of it away. She looked up into Liza’s face.

Liza smiled at her, that strange small beautiful smile, and finally let her fingers slip out of Kelley’s hair. She reached to take Kelley’s face in her hands instead and she said, “I can do the same for you.”

But Kelley shook her head. She put her own hands on Liza’s arms, near to the elbows, and used that as leverage to pull herself to a standing position this time. Her legs ached, both at the knees and between them, but once on her feet she just covered Liza’s hands with her own and she said, “I don’t need it.” Then she leaned and she kissed Liza herself, warmly, almost friendly, and Liza kissed her back at once, pressing her bare breasts to Kelley’s chest. She felt small this way, like something that Kelley could actually protect, or someone that she could maybe, maybe, make happy.

Into the kiss, into Kelley’s mouth, Liza said, “Good. There’s someone else who’d be much better.”

Kelley smiled and opened her eyes.

She was lying where she’d fallen, cheek and belly and palm to the pavement. Her head felt oddly tender as well. When she sat up, she had to pause for a moment as the world spun dizzily before it righted itself. She touched her temple and found a small bump there, then looked at her both of her hands, scraped-up and dirty. Her jeans were both spectacularly torn at the knees and stained dark from blood. It took some effort, but Kelley eventually pulled herself to her feet, and began the slow limping walk back home.

When she arrived, she went in through the front door, rather than the tree. Her mother was awake, sitting on the couch wearing her housecoat and a furious expression–one that melted into shock at the sight of Kelley. She got to her feet and said, “Kelley, honey, what on earth–”

“I’m fine, Mom,” she said softly. “I went for a walk and I fell.”

“Fell? Fell? You look like you went over a cliff or something–”

Kelley went to her mother and stretched up to kiss her on the cheek. “Sorry, Mom,” she said. “I just got careless. I’ll be more careful next time.”

Her mother stared at her, deeply suspicious. Her mouth twisted and twisted, like Liza’s had and yet completely different, like she had a different way of not knowing how to smile. Finally she said, “Go get yourself cleaned up,” and she sounded deeply tired.

Kelley, for the first time, felt a wave of pity for her mother. It was not her fault, any more than it was her husband’s fault, that things could so terribly fall apart. There were so many things in the whole wide world, beautiful and wonderful things that couldn’t be understood or explained even if you lived for a thousand years–things that could never be if you never took a chance. And sometimes those chances failed, but, Kelley thought, at least her mother had tried.

“Okay,” she said. “Night, Mom.”

+++

On Monday, after school, Kelley found Beth at her locker.

“Beth,” she said.

Beth looked up, her pretty brown eyes wide and her mouth in a little o. She looked both exactly and nothing like Liza had, under the stars. “Kelley?” she asked. “What’s up?”

Kelley leaned forward. In that school hallway, surrounded by other students engrossed in their own little daily dramas and thoughts, with the light of the late afternoon sun streaming in through the high windows and lighting a halo on Beth’s pale hair, Kelley kissed her: almost politely, very gently, and then she stepped away. Beth was wide-eyed and a little pink, her hand resting limply on the door of her locker.

“I’d like it if you’d walk home with me,” said Kelley. “Will you?”

Beth licked her lips. She glanced around nervously. No one in the hallway was even paying attention, and eventually she relaxed and even smiled back.

“All right,” she said. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. I will.”

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