June I (I)
I wake up and I say: Today is the day they died.
It is the kind of sentiment that slips into waking moments with no consciousness inspiring it, just instinct.
When one gets stung by a mosquito, the itching that follows the wound is not a result of the wound itself, but the spit of the mosquito spreading beneath the skin, causing the fingers to go mad for relief, to attack one’s own flesh to let the irritant out. The day of my parents’ conjoined death was the wound I could heal, the impact that would fade, if not for the itching. The saliva spread through the persistence of memory. Incomplete recall that had me begging for the real thing. Was my mother wearing red that day, or was it black, falsified through a trick of the light and my own flashing panic? Did I close the door on her or leave it open when I ran?
I keep no pictures of them in the room that my father’s sister has given me, an all-wooden corner of the house’s east wing. A series of images of them replays when their stake in my mind’s land becomes too prominent to dislodge: the two of them floating above me as vague outlines in a dreamscape, with expressions I can never understand. Their willful smiles as they both saw me off on my walk to school, hesitating before returning my wave but maintaining the smile throughout our final gaze-exchange. A warmth displaced.
My aunt is not in the kitchen when I come down to make lunch. I pause for a moment with avocado halves in each palm, listening for her. The sound of faint shuffling leaks through the ceiling, and I am content leaving with the knowledge that she is mobile.
Loren is waiting on the front steps without her shoes, her soles wearing matching mud coats and her thighs faintly pressing against the damp white cotton of her dress. She wrings out her sweater into the sparse garden beside the brick pedestal she sits atop.
“Did you walk through the river again?” I ask.
She turns around and grins, dropping the sweater to stretch her arms toward me like a child in need of a parent’s midair cradle. Bending down, I meet her lips with mine. Her wet hands cling to my cheeks. For a moment I am not a body, not a binge-and-purge cycle of remembrance; simply a kiss. Loren pulls away. “Waded is more like it. It was too late to go all the way around. Ready?”
The only stretch of pedestrian-friendly land that sits between our houses and our school is through White Creek forest, named for the creek that exists not in these woods but between Loren’s and my respective homes. A cartographical misnomer; misleading . There are few paths in White Creek, its grounds nearly untouched save for the occasional fallen nest or refuse pile. We walk with our fingers interlocking, over mounds of dirt and fallen elm branches. The air that hangs between our bodies makes me nervous in a way I am not used to. I focus on the bits of dirt tumbling from her palm into mine.
“Do you want to talk?”
This is never a question either of us asks; the options present themselves without labels. Conversation or a mutual understanding of the silence. An assembly line of adults who have cornered me in the past two years with the same opener runs through my head, bringing me to a full halt. Loren keeps walking until she senses a sudden weight tugging at her arm. The wet cotton of her dress stays glued to her as she spins to face me.
“Loren, you don’t have to—”
“June, no, I swear, it’s not what you think! It isn’t pity or anything I just…I know how you must be feeling today. Actually, I really don’t know, and I won’t pretend to, but I want to understand. You can talk to me about anything.” She smiles as she steps closer to me. Something about the way her mouth manipulates itself and the casualness of the gesture is so repulsive that I stumble. It is not because of her appearance or self, but the sympathy that suddenly possesses both. The pity that is a specter settling into the space between us, gnawing at our linked arms. Perhaps thinking that it will act as a quick balm, Loren extends the corners of the smile. I drop her hand.
“How about this. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. You go on without me.”
“You’re not coming?”
“No, I just need some time. I’ll see you tomorrow, I promise.”
Loren is gone, and I am back to White Creek. It sits directly behind my aunt’s backyard, brown crust married to fresh water and fish we never see. Far to the right of where I stand, past many houses with the same view, is where my own house once stood. When I moved out, my aunt told me that no one wanted to live in a shrine to another’s bad luck. Down it went.
Before the bank slopes into the river, there is an indent in the earth that I have only observed in passing. I thought of it as a den of some kind for creek animals. When I arrive at the face of it, there is nothing inside. It is larger than I remember. I settle into it, my head propped up on my knapsack. The slight moisture of the soil is more womb-like than invasive. I close my eyes.
Almost instantly—or what feels like an instant, because dreamscape cuts and pastes time like filmstrips—I slip into an ocean. The world has been born from thigh, hollowed out for the sky and the soft current I am swimming in. I head toward something I cannot identify, but I do not grasp for clues that will disturb my ignorance. The gentle waves that lap against my sides like loving dogs get hungrier, and I let them push me to a horizon that never nears.
The water gives out, and I am dropped into a suspended state of soundlessness. There is no color, no horizon, no end.
June I and June II Meet (I)
The dream collapses into a darkness. I see only what is directly ahead of me. There is a path suspended before my body, of dirt and concrete that feels like nothing when I step on it. I am, simply put, expecting a solid and being enveloped by air.
I hear steps echoing. The darkness around me trembles like a heartbeat. I do not call out; there is no need for questions in a dream. There is a knowing you must wait for. The steps continue, with no sense of distance or pace embedded in them, no way for me to tell if they are sprinting away from me leagues down the path or slowly approaching. A figure emerges. A girl faces me on this floating path.
I recognize her. I carry her heart’s chant, her weight, the slight crook of her neck when she is questioning what presents itself to her, her blood, the way her skin stretches and folds when no one is paying attention. She is a phantom pain my body knows before my mind does. She is me. Before her, I feel as though I’m perched on the edge of a canyon wall: comfortable, while also holding the knowledge that below my feet is a pit that could swallow me with no warning or apology.
She smiles. “I come here all the time. I didn’t think I’d see you so soon.”
“I didn’t think I’d see you. I didn’t think of you at all.”
A laugh. “Of course you think of me. You think of the could-have-been, the should-be, the will-be, the will-not-be. That’s me. And for me, that’s you.”
“Are you real?”
“Of course. I could ask you the same thing. But I won’t confuse you even more.”
She extends her hand, offering a palm smoother than mine but with the slightest discoloration snaking across it diagonally. I take it and she shivers before gripping my hand, giving it a small squeeze. Our fingers fumble for a moment before fully interlocking.
“We’re both real. I’ve always known. It was just a matter of you knowing it, too. Really knowing it.”
Her steps continue to echo around us, a record with no pause. It seems to have been playing forever, like the soundtrack of the world I’ve found myself in since a time when there was no time.
The path breaks off into slivers of scenes I do not have enough focus to consume, sprinting past me like a hurricane of photos stripped from their albums. I catch pieces of the wallpaper of my first room, Loren’s black curls against the soil carpeting of her backyard, a boy I do not know, my parents looking older than I have ever seen them. The river overflowing, creeping onto its banks.
“Where are we going?”
“We aren’t going anywhere,” she says. “We separate here.”
She stops walking, and so do I. The scenes fall, a sudden curtain drop, and we are in darkness once again.
“Don’t worry. We’ll meet again soon. And again. And again.”
She kisses me on the cheek. The unhinged photos, as if summoned from some tomb of shadows and dual images, start up again.
“Wake up, June.”