There’s water in my lungs, but drowning isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.
My eyes focus on the ribbon on my wrist; white with yellow flowers, a heart-shaped coffee stain, frayed edges.
I wish I wasn’t dying. I wish I had been a stronger swimmer. I wish I had smiled back at my brother before he left.
I wish I had travelled to America, I wish I had seen the blossoms of Japan, felt the sun of Australia, tasted spices in the Indian air.
I wish I had a chance to find out if I was right about the colour of her eyes.
I wish I knew every cadence of her voice, each freckle on her skin. I wish I had felt her hand in my own, I wish I had kissed her even once.
I am drowning in wishes.
I’ve loved a boy since I was six years old.
Maybe children can’t fall in love so fast. Maybe it did take years, maybe there was a day when everything changed. All I know is that we met once and from then on I never wanted another.
My Imaginary Boy. That’s what everyone called him. I didn’t mind. He was my secret.
He lives in that little corner of my mind reserved for perfect things; the first star to appear in the sky, a flawless ring of ripples in still water, a daisy with snow-white petals, round and untrodden. I think he smells like earth in the rain, like the colour of moss and sounds like the rustling of paper.
I stand watching the rush of the river I love and hate. There is no sound above the roar of the cascading waterfall, gushing like milk and shattering into droplets of glass. My eyes focus on the green stretch of land above the wet rocks on the other side.
How unfair for the world to be a stone throw away, and yet unreachable.
Sometimes he doesn’t show, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes we stay until the sky turns black. Sometimes all we need is a fleeting moment.
I clutch the edges of my too-long woollen sleeves as I wait for him.
Finally, finally he comes.
Slipping into view like that first star, rippling across the horizon, pale as a daisy petal.
Is it possible for a heart to break and fill at the same time?
His first words roll across the grass to my feet, wrapped around a black rock. I peel away the paper, drinking in the messy scrawl that is more familiar to me than my own handwriting.
When the sun begins to bleed and fall and he is lit up in a fiery red, I know I have to go.
I walk away, looking back as I always do.
I watch as he steps towards the ravine.
He slips into the water as if he’s slipping into a blanket.
I can hear my heart beating in my ears and my eyes refuse to believe what they see even as my feet run back to the river.
I refuse to see him thrashing in the waves that push him towards the waterfall, refuse to fear, refuse to die.
I have known for too long that I will die loving this boy, but we will live first. I will leave this place with him by my side. I will watch silver pour into his dark hair and laughter make tracks in his skin.
I know this as I leap into the cold water.
Why did I never go to her?
The same reason we don’t look too close at the sun. It is perfect from where we are, unharming and unharmed, beautifully constant. That’s what she is. Blazing and light and there.
And when you find something pure and beautiful in this world, you do everything you can to keep it safe from the very same world that bore it.
Once long ago, I dreamed that we walked through snow, hand in hand, her pulse against my wrist. We dropped like snowflakes and found ourselves encased in a glacier diamond.
My brother smacked a hand over my head when I told him.
‘Go get her, you idiot,’ he shook his head.
Those words circled like vultures in mind, screeching and hissing go get her, go get her, you idiot, you idiot, you idiot.
I was terrified to lose her, it’s true. But to never find her was what I feared above all else.
So I stepped into the river.
‘She’s not paying attention.’
‘She’s thinking about Imaginary Boy.’
‘I bet she starts drooling in a minute.’
‘Shut up,’ I raised my chin and picked up my pace, as if I’d said something that actually would have made my friends shut up. I wasn’t sure whether they believed in my Imaginary Boy or not, but they would gladly tease me either way.
‘Maybe he’s an elf! One of the hidden folk, come to steal our girl away.’
‘He’s perfectly human and that’s all you get to know.’
I wondered sometimes if they felt slighted. I could have introduced them. Taken them with me so they could wave at him across the river, giggling and throwing notes to fill him in with every embarrassing story from my childhood.
But I wanted to keep him all to myself.
I wanted to find him, feel the roughness of his shaved jaw and the softness of his grown-out hair. I wanted to hop on an air plane and lay my head on his shoulder as we watch the world shrink beneath us. I wanted eyes to follow us; admiring eyes, envious eyes, charmed eyes. I wanted to tell the story of how we met and loved and I wanted to document our lives together in a photo album overflowing with adventures.
I also wanted to keep meeting on two sides of a river. I wanted to stay young and broken. I wanted a secret, a story that could never be changed or spoiled.
I wanted and wanted. A creature of yearning that would never be satisfied, a hungry monster from a fairy tale.
I fled to the riverside in a mood that felt like grey, rain-full clouds ready to burst.
I don’t remember why, but I would be grateful every day after for whatever terrible moment forced me out the door.
Running like only a child forbidden to run could.
I halted at the rumbling of the waterfall.
I looked across the river to the other side, remembering the one time I had walked across the earth there. The grass is always greener, I’d heard people say.
She was there. My tiny heart fluttered and shivered, a new born bird feeling for the first time.
Golden haired and pretty as the girls painted in books.
I watched her pull a ribbon from her hair and wind it around…. a stone?
She tossed it across the river and I had to run near to the edge to catch it before it fell into the water. I skidded on the wet grass as I caught it in my hand.
I untied the ribbon, white with yellow flowers, and held out the scrap of paper it had secured to the stone.
‘Hello’ it said in messy yellow crayon.
I looked up at her and smiled
We met under a dying sun.
Just once. One night on the same side of the river.
Both of us fair-haired and fair-eyed and foul-tempered.
The youngest in a crowd of sky-gazers waiting for a little touch of magic to stain the sky.
We had chubby hands that met over a small rock, flat and round and perfect.
Our parents were fascinated by the fact that we lived so close, neighbours if not for the river and waterfall. We were fascinated by each other, two tiny souls finding each other in a vast sea of giants.
We shared a tent of sticks and stolen blankets, delighting in having evaded our parents. We watched the bright green auroras light up each other’s eyes.
One clumsy kiss on the cheek, two jam-coloured blushes, three fingers that clung together the longest.
We fell in love on one side of a river.
A short story by Holly E.E. Garrow