LEAST COMMON FACTOR
At the beginning, we’re five. The sidewalk’s cracked, but your hand that hasn’t yet gone hard at the edges reaches for something wet and warm on the pavement. Our moms are talking over tea somewhere in the backyard as you step forward, crackling at the edges. Look, you say, and you hold out your finger, worm curled around it. Take it. And even though my eyes water and my stomach churns, I do.
We’re ten and I’m still following you around to learn how to skin my knees the right way, jagged at the edges and almost pretty-looking. I don’t know how to tell you that the pits of your knees are raw as the mouth of a peach too. You’re leading the way to the woods–no, the bridge. I can tell because your brother’s butterfly knife’s hanging from your pocket like someone killed it. Where our shorts end, the grass starts. Hurry. We hop the fence, hands tangled in the chain-link, and you flip the knife open like you’ve done it a million times (you haven’t). I know what to write. You carve our names into the wood and look back over your shoulder with a razor-sharp smile and for a moment it’s like we’ve got the whole world in our hands.
We’re fifteen and looking for things to say that aren’t about taking each other’s throats in our hands and strumming them like harps. The roof of my dad’s barn is cold and hard against our backs. You’ve got a cigarette between your lips, one you nicked from the corner store instead of going to homecoming. Me, I’ve got a peach tree growing from the pit of my stomach. You ever wish for something more? you ask. And I’m not sure what you mean but I say yes. You turn to face me, teeth gleaming milk-white. They’re gonna sing songs about me one day. I’ll die if it means I’ll be in the stars.
We’re twenty, a thousand miles between us, but the AC still sings of you. Last time I heard from you, you still thought you’d see me again, and I still thought I felt no guilt. There’s no dream here, only do, only whittling time into dollars and dollars into sleep. School, work, home, and then I coax myself from my head for the next morning. Blink and the night will swallow you whole. But I’m more a person now than I’ve ever been. You, you’re barely real except for the echo through my throat whenever I see a beetle on its back, kicking and kicking at nothing but air, shiny black wings pinned beneath it.
I’m twenty-five and a ghost in the town that raised me. The nails on the bridge are as rusty as I remember (do you remember when you got one stuck in the heel of your hand? Like a shard of treasure, like a living gem breathing metal through your skin?). The funeral was last Friday. I swallowed apologies over the phone to your parents so I wouldn’t have to see your empty bed. But here I am now, anyway, looking for traces of you wherever there’s life. I never thought that your search for immortality would drive you to death. The wood dips beneath my hand in the shape of our names. I trace them now, all soft and mossy. Maybe we were never kids at all, just stories waiting to unhatch. I dig out the keys from my pocket, carve us deeper into the bridge, and at once, deeper into my skin and the fabric of this place. The wood splinters across my thumb and I watch it, watch the hot blood seep down my wrist and into my sleeve. I think I’ll let it scar.
previously published in outlander zine