She is in her bathing suit, perched on the roof, painting bold lines on a large canvas. She is spotted all over: white polka dots on her black bikini, colorful paint splotches on her arms, legs, and stomach, clusters of freckles on her nose. A thin, white scar stretches from her belly button up diagonally to her rib cage.
From my spot, by her feet, her figure is illuminated in a spilling of sunlight. I pictured her glowing this way when I heard her voice on the phone, before I’d ever seen her. She said she liked talking to boys she hadn’t met in person, but I was sure that I was a letdown because I wasn’t interesting and I was nervous.
“I’m killing two birds with one stone,” she says, waving a thick brush. “I’m tanning and working.” But there is no brown tint in her teenage skin. There is just a slight flush of pink on her cheeks and kissing her shoulder blades.
“Entertain me,” I say, because I am the guest, but also because I want her to distract me from the fact I am so high in the air that my fingers are shaking. In the distance, I trace the spiked curves of the Manhattan skyline with my eyes. Another airplane is coming into Newark airport like a giant, graceless, silver bird. It moans as it descends.
She steps back from her painting. It’s of some boy, but he’s covered in different types of feathers, long, thin ones dusting down his arms, light, downy ones coating his cheekbones. He should look ridiculous, but he doesn’t. He just looks pensive.
“Pretty cool,” I say, but the whole roof smells dizzily of paint. She’s using the serious stuff. The stuff you aren’t supposed to work with indoors, or breathe in for extended periods of time.
Sitting hunched over, I can’t seem to sit still. Roof gravel is digging into my legs; my thick jeans, useless to protect me, are trapping heat. “Stop rocking,” she says as she leans over me. I wrap my arms more tightly around my legs to stop the movement. “I’m glad I called you,” she says. She had found my father’s name on a post-it note crumpled in with her mother’s college artifacts. The post-it was such a tiny thing, but it took me away from Connecticut and humid days by the pool with my friends.
She shifts her feet on the roof. I’m afraid she’ll fall off, tremors-running-up-my-spine afraid. She is leaning over the edge and reaching her fingers all the way out so that if you narrow your eyes they seem to be in infinite space. I can imagine her mother posed the same way, my father still in love with her.
“Don’t fall,” I say.
“Don’t worry,” she says.
She reaches for my hand with her painted, smaller one. “Come on.
I take her hand and she pulls me up, roughly, quickly. I’m clutching her hand a little too tightly because I’m afraid that if I loosen my grip I’ll fall down to the street below. I visualize it like in the cop shows: a camera pans in for a quick viewing of my broken body, zooming a little bit to the side to focus on a puddle of blood seeping into the sidewalk.
“Oh, come on,” she says, pulling me a little bit closer to the edge. She smiles and it’s one of those scary smiles where you know you’re going to do anything that she asks.
“This isn’t cool,” I mutter.
“Come on,” she says again, “Just put your hand over the side. If you put your hand over the side we can go do something else.” I pause. “I’ll paint you if you do it. He put his hand over the side.” She points at the boy in the picture. I feel accused.
Accused, like when my father asked me why I was talking to his ex-girlfriend’s daughter on the telephone. He had intercepted one of her daily phone calls, suspicious that I had a girlfriend I’d hidden from him. She and I had just maneuvered out of the awkward phase where I spent most of the phone conversation asking her why she was calling me. I was so surprised that he’d talked to her, that she was not a figment of my imagination. “You’re too much like me,” he’d said when he handed me the phone.
The hot tar surface is burning my feet. “If I fall,” I say, “if I fall, I’m coming back from the dead and suing.” I reach an arm out and she pulls me closer and closer until we are side by side and our fingers are scraping blue off the sky.
“Isn’t it beautiful here?” she asks. “If I could, I would live here, right on the edge of this roof, one step away from falling over. You could live up here with me,” she says, “but you’d have to promise to be less annoying.” We sway up on tiptoes. “We would fly over people while they do all the hard living stuff.” I smile. I feel warm; there is sunlight in my head. “I think this is what it would feel like to be a bird,” she says.
In the bathroom, we sit on damp tiles, tracing little patterns on the geometric shapes. She had a migraine and thought she was going to throw up, but didn’t. She’s still a bit pale. Her long curved fingers reach up to the marble glass of the window and rest on the nearly opaque surface. She looks caged.
“I’m going to cut your hair,” she says. “It’s looked weird since the first day you got here with your dad.” She reaches into the metal cabinet above the sink and pulls out a rusty pair of scissors. “These’ll do,” she says, and she pushes me forward so that my forehead is touching the rim of the bathtub.
“You’ll make me look stupid,” I say.
“A little trust,” she says. “I cut Teddy’s hair all the time.” She giggles and wiggles her toes and I watch them like little paint-flecked worms by my side.
“Your brother has a lot less hair.” She doesn’t respond. “Is your painting dry yet?” I ask. “Bird boy on the roof?”
“Probably,” she says. There’s a pause and she leans over so she can look straight into my eyes. “I have a story I could tell you.” I feel the scissors scrape my head and I hear a snip.
“Okay.” I nod.
“I got my scar with him—the bird boy. I fell climbing over a fence at night.”
“That’s the whole story?”
“I’m only telling you because you don’t live enough.”
“I live plenty. I’m here aren’t I? I’m letting you chop all my hair off.”
The scissors pull on my hair and I wince. I try to look up at her, but I can’t see her with my head pushed down. I can hear her, though. She’s rustling around making sinister snipping noises with her scissors, hair coming off with each swipe.
“We should go on an adventure,” she says. “You want to?”
I don’t answer. Instead, I ask, “So what’s the rest of the bird boy story? Is he your boyfriend?”
“I need to dampen your hair. I don’t think I’m doing this very evenly.” She doesn’t seem panicked about my hair, so I try not to be. “You would like the boy in the picture. He reads a lot too.”
“What books does he like?” I ask.
“He’s likes Conrad and some Russian writer. Everyone thought he was quiet, but then sometimes he would get this idea that he had to go do something crazy and he would just do it.
I pick my words carefully. “It sounds like he doesn’t come around much anymore.”
“No” she says. She stops. “I finished your hair. You look cute.”
“He moved?” I ask as she drags me up.
When she hesitates, I look in the cloudy mirror over the sink. Immediately, it’s that horrible gut feeling that no one can avoid when they know they look like shit. I reach my hand out to touch the uneven, frayed pieces of my hair. The tips are splayed out in different directions. I can already see it beginning to curl on the ends, and I do look slightly like Teddy. It would be cute if I were eight. I groan. This is why I don’t cut it short.
“Yeah,” she says, “he moved.”
I look at her and she looks so small. Her head probably still aches, and for a moment I really worry about her. “I could go on an adventure,” I say. She smiles.
He springs into my bed and stares at me. His eyes slope downwards like a sleepy dog.
“Hey, Ted,” I say.
“She said you’re gonna sneak out and I can’t tell Mom and I can’t come,” Teddy says in a rush.
I lean back against my pillow and put down my book. She never told me our adventure would be tonight. “I’m sorry, Ted,” I say, and he frowns at me. He leans over until he is lying on his side and then he curls up around my feet. His face is in such an exaggerated pout, I can see his dimples.
“I liked Will better,” Teddy says.
I push my shoulders inwards. I know it probably shouldn’t bother me. “What was he like?”
“He used to take me swinging at night and I would go so high, I would touch the tree-leaves with my toes.” He looks hopeful. The dimples go away.
I’m saved when she walks in. “Hey, Teddy,” she chirps, all smiles.
She leans on the edge of my bed and pulls Teddy into a tight hug. “Time for bed, Ted,” she says. “It’s ten and that’s when all the monsters come out.”
He giggles and she chases him across the hall to his bedroom. I watch her through the doorway as she tucks him in.
She left something tilted against the hallway wall. It’s the painting—the bird boy in his full-feathered glory. He almost smiles, but not quite. It bothers me. I want to reach through the canvas and grab both of his cheeks and force them up into a real smile. I’m also tempted to find the real boy and punch him because she made him into a bird but she still hasn’t painted me.
“Shit,” she says. “There’s a dragon lady in a kiosk.”
“What?” I ask. Then I turn around and look. There’s a woman in a glass ticket box. She looks ancient and harmless, a little like a bug in a glass display case.
“Seems like she’s reading,” she says. “Maybe it’s okay.”
“Don’t we need to buy the ticket from her?” I ask.
“Of course not.” She turns towards me and rolls her eyes. “We’re turnstile hopping. It’s fun.” She motions that I should go first and then grabs my arms and hoists herself over.
She leads me outdoors to the empty concrete platform, scuffing some dirt with her ancient sneakers. She starts reading the graffiti. “’Jen loves Billie.’ Wow those are some sad names. ‘Life is shit.’ How edifying. Look, this one is some gang sign. It looks pretty cool. Maybe I should join a gang.”
I roll my eyes. I try to picture her and her oil paint-covered arms in a gang. It doesn’t work. I sit on the dirty concrete. It’s peaceful waiting for a train in the dark. I try to imagine this moment without smog covering the stars.
“God, I hate waiting.” She groans and plops down next to me.
I shrug. She puts her head on my shoulder and we wait.
The train arrives in a blur of black shadows and yellow lights, louder than I expect it to be. I smile as she pulls me up to one of the doors. I always look down as I enter trains, just so that I can see the gap and know that if I fall it will be bad—really bad. It’s as bottomless as usual down there.
We sit together, but she leans against the window and looks out at the station pulling away behind us.
“Is the bird boy Will?” I ask.
She shifts even closer to the window. She presses the whole side of her face against the greasy, unwashed surface.
“Teddy told you?” Silence. “Yeah, yeah he is.”
We ditched our shoes somewhere and now my feet are frozen, but I keep wading through the water anyway, letting the little rocks cut into the bottoms of my feet. She’s laughing at me, at the way my fingers are shaking as she holds my hand.
As she pulled me off the train, she disclosed our destination. “The beach,” she said, “looks best at night.” We had walked together the two blocks from the station to the water.
Now, she is ahead of me running through the gentle surf. I’m supposed to be chasing her, but at night, it’s hard to see and I keep running towards shadows.
“You’re so slow,” she shouts.
She takes off towards the heart of the ocean. First she wades, then she dives deep into the black; the water is exactly one shade darker than the sky. I wait for her to come up. It takes her several long moments and I find myself wading deeper just as her head appears far out. She is just a spot in the dark.
“Come out here,” she yells.
I start swimming for deeper water. When I reach her, my feet can’t touch the bottom. I just look at her.
“What happened to Will?” I ask.
She looks at me, and I can feel the thickness of the water mixed with seaweed, the sensation of sinking into the dark. She looks light floating on top of the water.
“What happened to Will?” I repeat.
“Do you want to see who can go out the farthest?” She starts to move like she’s going to keep swimming forever. We are already too far out, and I have enough common sense to worry about riptides and drowning.
“Wait,” I call out. She keeps swimming. “Wait!”
“What? What do you want?” She turns to face me again. She has stopped swimming, and is paddling to keep herself afloat.
I swim towards her, and she stays perfectly still. I grab her and she lets me tow her back to shore. We collapse right at the edge of the ocean. There are shards of shell in my sweatpants and I’m trying very hard to ignore them.
I stand up. “Why did you call me? Why did you keep calling me and bring me here? I don’t buy that you’re really this brave about everything. I really hate fakes and liars.”
She looks at me, sitting with her arms around her knees. “I hate liars, too. Will used to lie to make me feel better and I hated him for it.” She shrugs. “Now I’m the one accused of lying.” She laughs, but it’s bitter. “He died. It wasn’t an accident or anything. He was just really sick and then he died.”
“Okay,” I say. “That’s okay.” I run my hands through my hair and bite my lip. “That was not the right thing to say.”
She shrugs. “It has to be.” She starts running towards the surf cawing like a seagull, but she remembers to look back at me over her shoulder.
We’re on the roof. She’s standing in an old t-shirt and cut-offs. Her feet are bare and her toes are messily painted red.
I’m sitting near the edge of the roof. She keeps joking that I’m going to fall, so I’ve stopped listening. She’s painting and she’s painted. Her arms are coated up to the elbows, and I wonder what exactly she’s doing, but the canvas is turned away from me.
“I can’t paint you while you’re watching,” she said.
An airplane is taking off in the distance. It’s smaller than most. Sleek, it cuts the skyline clean.
I think about my father, about how I asked him if I could come here so quietly he didn’t understand the first time. He waited for her daily phone call, and I let him pick up. “Do you really want him to come visit?” he’d asked her. “Okay, then, let me speak with your mother.” When he got off the phone he just looked at me. Then he said, “This is a really bad idea. I’m only saying yes because you’d never understand why I said no.”
She turns the canvas toward me. I start to let go of the edge of the roof, lose my balance for half a second, and right myself. I open my mouth when I realize that she’s waiting for my reaction, but I don’t know what to say. The painting is of me waiting for the train. My knees are tucked up to my chin, my hands clasped in front of me, my face hopeful.
“I don’t get to be a bird?” I ask.
“No,” she laughs. Sensing my disappointment, she looks skyward and says, “You don’t need to be.”
For most recent high school grads, the summer before college is a gateway to freedom. For Youth Category winner Anna Hennigan, it’s one more opportunity to expand her creative repertoire.
“I’m taking a poetry class right now,” Hennigan told C-VILLE from her break period at the Young Writers Workshop at Sweet Briar College. “I love it a lot. It’s a different way of thinking about language. There’s more room to play.”
Play is important to the young author, for whom this is year two in the winner’s circle. Last year’s recipient of the Youth Category prize for the C-VILLE/WriterHouse non-fiction writing contest, she says that regardless of genre, her work typically starts in the same place: exploration.
“Both [fiction and nonfiction] are rooted in experience, though with fiction you can take more liberties. I think a lot of my characters are based on real people, but you can play more with the situations,” she says. “You can make things larger than life in a different way just to see what would happen.”
In her winning story, “Taking Flight in the Summer of 1987,” that expansion of reality includes edgy exploits between an artistic free spirit and her semi-unwilling companion.
“The main character was in my head for a long time,” Hennigan says. “How she saw the world and how different that was from me. I saw myself as the narrator—I’m more cautious.” At first, she says, she romanticized the characters, but over the course of several years, she began to figure out how much she fictionalized them.
Practice makes perfect, especially when a writer spends as much time on her craft as Hennigan does. During the lifecycle of this particular story, she’s written at Governor’s School, workshopped through classes at Charlottesville High School and been accepted to Columbia, where she plans to study creative writing.
After all this time, she says, the work is “sort of finished. If anything
is ever finished.”—Elizabeth Derby