Lips of Rust | Chapter 1

Chapter 1

The wind howled again; it sent the shutters on my windows clattering loudly against the glass.  It had been doing that through the night and into the morning.

I shifted my focus to the mirror in front of me as I smoothed down the white collar over a powder blue sweater on top of it.  I took a long sip of coffee from the travel mug sitting on my dresser.  Despite the caffeine, I still felt like a zombie.

I’d struggled this morning to find the emotional strength to leave the warmth of my bed and get dressed.  Spring was due any day now, but the mornings were still black as pitch, and I could almost hear my frustrated circadian rhythms grumbling, “It’s still dark out.  Why on Earth are you awake?

As I bounded down the steps with my backpack slung over one shoulder and the mug gripped in both hands, I heard people in the kitchen followed by the pitter-patter of paws on wood flooring.  Not a second later, my dog—an Australian Shepherd/Bernese Mountain Dog mix—flew around the corner to greet me.

“Hello, Beau,” I cooed.

“Gabby, are you ready?” my mom called from the kitchen.

“Yeah, Mom.”

She walked into the living room, holding the bag she took to work and her own cup of coffee.  She narrowed her eyes when she saw mine; she disapproved of my caffeine addiction.

“When’d you get that?”

“When you were in the shower,” I stated evenly.

I almost got a shit storm from her that morning, but she seemed to forget about it as she took in my attire, which I generally reserved for special occasions.

“Are you ready?” she asked again, but this time she was talking about something else.

I took a deep breath, “I think so, but I’m nervous.”

“Just remember: you worked hard for this, and nobody knows your work as well as you do.  I have no doubt you’ll blow them away.”

There was, in fact, one person who knew my work better than I did, but I let it slide as she put her hand on my back and walked us to the car.  She drives me to school every morning since the high school is on the way to her job—the local community college, where she works as a biochemistry professor.

My mom reminded me that she loved me as she dropped me off.  I walked into the school while my jet-black hair whipped around mercilessly in the wind.  Everyone bustled about, waiting in the breakfast line or hurrying to their classes.  It seemed like a painfully ordinary day at Reds Brook High School, but not for me; my stomach did relentless somersaults in anticipation.

I turned right down a short hallway, to the converted garage that was the art room.

Paintings, drawings, and murals utilizing charcoal, pastels, ink, and more lined the walls.  The room reeked of acrylic paint, but the smell had long since become comforting to me.

I snuck off to drop off my bag in the back room.  The art room was already fairly full and getting fuller by the minute.  She hadn’t been kidding; half the damn town showed up.  I spotted Ms. Carter from across the room, talking to a few adults with tags titled “Visitor” stuck on their chests.  Butterflies flooded my whole abdomen.

“So, how are you feeling?”

I knew who it was the instant he spoke.  I turned around to look at him.

“To be honest, I’m sort of terrified.  What about you, are you ready?”

“Not in the slightest,” my best friend since the age of three replied with a grin.  “I was worried I’d throw up, but then you showed up, and I thought, ‘Oh good, at least now I’ll have Gabby to give me emotional support as I spew my guts.  Maybe we can even do it together.’  You know, the ultimate bonding, Gabby-and-Alek-style.”

I was giggling from a mix of Alek and my own nerves when Ms. Carter appeared out of nowhere.  She spoke quickly; the stress of the occasion on her was terribly noticeable.  “Gabby, Alek, I’m sorry to drop this on you now, but I want you guys to open and close the presentation.  I’ll let you choose which one you’d rather do.”

Alek and I exchanged an uncertain glance but nevertheless said yes.  We both loved Ms. Carter too much to refuse.

“Well, crap,” he mumbled.

I nodded in agreement.  I wracked my brain and managed to came up with a plan within a few seconds.

“I’ll do the introduction, okay?  You can conclude, it’s far easier, and by that time you’ll know exactly what to say.” I thought it was pretty fair.

“Do you want to do the introduction?” he asked.  “I can do it, if you really want me to.”

“I mean, not particularly,” I admitted, “but I’ll be fine.”

Both of us knew this day had to go well—actually, more like perfectly.  TOday determined the future of the art department, which had been struggling for years.  The school budget was about to be voted on, to expand art or cut it even farther than it already was, so this presentation was our best chance at gaining the town’s support.

I took a deep breath and walked toward the wall where our pieces had been broken up by name.  Alek followed me over.  We leaned against a counter and crossed our arms in perfect synchronization.  There wasn’t much else we could do but gaze at all the people filling up our little converted garage.

“What do we do if it doesn’t work?” he asked suddenly.

“Hmm.  When we become rich and famous, we give them one million dollars and personally oversee that the art department get its own building.  Something a lot better than a damn garage.”

“Deal.  It’ll be called the . . .” Alek crinkled his face in thought.  “Gablek building.”

“That’s terrible.  You should be executed for coming up with that.”

He merely grinned and lightly punched my shoulder.  Alek felt, in so many ways, like my soulmate, except in friend form.  Was there such a thing?  A friendmate?

There was no time to dwell, though, because Ms. Carter called everyone over to the far wall.  Alek, nine other seniors, and I crowded around her.  She gave a hasty, supportive pep talk not unlike one from a football coach.  Then she broke us up, allowing us to get into our appropriate positions, and introduced herself as the IB Art teacher for Reds Brook High School.

I’d been rehearsing my part for about two weeks before, but now I was doubting every moment of it.  My parents and friends told me I would do fine, but I’ve always hated public speaking, and being the first to go put on a different kind of pressure.

What felt like mere seconds later, however, I was suddenly speaking.  The words came out of my mouth surprisingly smooth and articulate.  As I went on, it became easier, and I relaxed into a natural flow.  I didn’t feel the need to wring my hands for once; the nervous tension seemed to melt away.

I was also hyper aware of Alek’s constant, never-breaking gaze.  Knowing that we were going through this together helped immensely.

“And lastly, this piece called ‘Moon and Ash’ was created on white canvass and utilizes the medium of charcoal. . . .”

It depicted a shriveled white tree that struggled to stand its ground among heavy snow.  Its branches were bare, yet a handful of leaves had managed to cling on for dear life.  Hazy clouds reassembling ashes stretched across the sky; so much so that they threatened to engulf the entirety of the moon, which let off a sheer glow in the night, turning the tree silver.

When I first completed the drawing, Alek had said he thought it was simply amazing.  I disagreed with him, being ever the artist.  I didn’t think it was anything special.  But now I was showcasing it, Alek’s beaming gaze feeling like a spotlight.

“ . . .It’s a very different kind of piece for me.  It really opened me up to the medium of charcoal, which is now a personal favorite.  In fact, one theme all of us had,” I said, gesturing to the fellow art students around me, “is how art opened up parts of us that may have never noticed before.  While being an artist may be quite possibly one of the most frustrating things ever, it also rewards.  It allows you to learn more about yourself, and it also truly satisfies the need for self-expression,” I finished, adding a firm, final tone to my voice.  The crowd’s eyes shifted to the girl next to me,  and then all I worried about was calming my racing heart.

Alek met my eye for a split-second and offered me a smile that reminded me of the good old days, when things were simple—days we’d spent wading in the creek behind town, poring over LEGOs, and hosting two-man jumping contests on his trampoline.

The rest of the presentation flew by.  Before I knew it, Alek was concluding.  He always said he wasn’t ready for these sort of things, but when it came time for him to do them, those words were moot.  The fact of the matter is Alek loses himself with certain subjects, art included.  To the point where nothing else exists.  So listening to him talk about his art was intriguing.  I knew the audience felt it because the room was deathly quiet aside from Alek’s voice.  Yes, letting him conclude the presentation was the right decision.

When he finished, the room was silent for moment before exploding into applause.  Ms. Carter didn’t get the chance to talk to us because she was swarmed by people asking questions.  She seemed very pleased, and I began to breathe again.

Alek’s voice appeared beside me,  “Nice job.  I was swept away.”

“Same to you.” My cheeks flushed.

And we didn’t puke,” he said with a grin, which I returned.

Several people came up to us to ask questions.  We stood in front of the wall for the next couple hours doing that as people shuffled in and out.  Ms. Carter broke away from the visitors long enough to praise us and congratulate us on our hard work.  Alek and I both said goodbye when it was finally time to leave.

At that point there were only two periods left for the day.  I really didn’t want to go to those classes; I was itching to go home, get into pajamas, play with Beau, and make hot tea, but like a good student totally not suffering from senioritis, I stayed.

Alek was waiting for me at my locker when the final bell rang.  He was wearing his windbreaker and listening to music; if I knew him at all, he’d be listening to Alt-J.  He took his earbuds out as soon as he saw me.

“Hey,” he greeted.  “Thank God you’re here.”

“Why?” I asked as I entered the combination.

He pointed his chin at the couple next to us.  Bradley was very busy pinning Soph against the wall.  They did this every single morning and afternoon, as if their very existence depended on exchanging saliva.  Definitely freshmen.

“I was actually about to chuck my trig book at them.”

I pouted sympathetically,  “Alek, when you get a girlfriend, I’ll chuck mine if you ever do that.”

He didn’t respond at first, so I glanced over to make sure he was actually still there.  He was, but he had stared into space.  “Okay,” he said suddenly.  He was clearly distracted about something.

Quickly, though, he snapped out of it, and held my backpack for me as I shoved my books inside.  His grin appeared again so quickly I wondered if it had even left.

“Do you wanna come over today?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure, I just have to stop at home first.”

“Okay, cool.  I’ll come with you.”

Alek called his mom, Elaine, to pick us up.  She stopped outside my house as promised.  I ran two stairs at at time to my room, where I traded my textbook-filled backpack for a drawstring bag.  I put a couple of books inside, along with my rollerball perfume, my wallet, a tube of Burt’s Bees lip balm, and my favorite mascara.

Downstairs, I let Beau out for a minute.  While he ran in circles around the yard, I drummed my fingers against the counter and drank half a bottle of peach-flavored Snapple.

In retrospect, I wish I could have taken the time to really say goodbye to Beau that day.

I walked outside toward Alek and his mom, skipping the bottom two porch steps.  I shivered; the wind was still bitter.

Once we were buckled in and driving, Elaine said, “Well, how’d it go guys?”

Neither of us spoke for a moment.

“It went . . . well,” I finally said.

“I’m sure it did.”

From the side mirror I saw Alek nod.  “It went better than anyone expected.  Ms. Carter was ecstatic.”

“Yes she was,” I agreed.  “She dumped the intro and conclusion on us last minute, too.”

“She did?  Jeez.  That must have been stressful.” Elaine paused thoughtfully.  “But she knew what she was doing.  Nobody in that class is as dedicated to their work as you two are.” I blushed and fixed my eyes on the passing houses.

“Speak for yourself, Mom,” Alek chimed in from the backseat.

Elaine was an artist herself, and an incredible one at that.  She also raised Alek without the help of his dad.  She became pregnant during her first year at college and was determined to carry Alek to term as well as stay in university, of which he wanted no part.  And so she did.

Alek and Elaine were pretty close, and I was basically the daughter she’d never had.

She sighed, “Thanks, honey, but I think you could give me a run for my money.”

Alek is a very good artist.  His art is surreal, like something straight out of a fever dream fantasy novel.  It fit him perfectly, for several reasons.

Elaine pulled into the driveway of their house.  It was small, tan-colored, and quaint.  I knew it as well as I knew my own.

Alek and I jumped out of the car and walked up the stone path to the front door.  Inside, it was the same as always: airy and clean and inviting.  I kicked off my Converse and made a beeline for the refrigerator.

Elaine walked in after us then, completely unphased by my raiding the fridge.  Alek and I have some unspoken agreement that his food equals mine and vice versa.

“Dude, I’m so hungry,” I drawled.

“What would you like?  We have unlimited possibilities, if we use our imagination,” he joked.

I exaggerated a gagging sound.

“You want real food?” he said with mock astoundment.  “Wow, you plebeian.”

I laughed and watched as he smiled to myself and grabbed a saucepan and a box of mac and cheese from the pantry.  I was perfectly content.  warm; (the wood stove warmed the small house with ease).

He pushed the black fringe of his hair aside.  I had to admit, my best friend was attractive.  Girls flocked to him constantly, but he always politely turned them down, or on the off chance he was interested in them, it didn’t last longer than a week.  Alek and I were similar that way; I hadn’t met many guys I was interested in, and certainly no one serious.  I wouldn’t doubt the small populace of Reds Brook High School as a factor.

People unceasingly thought we were together, no doubt because of our closeness.  But the fact is, Alek and I had been best friends since we were toddlers and that’s all there was to it.  That certainly didn’t stop our friends, though, from teasing us about it.

My mom texted me while Alek and I were discussing the art of some people in our class.  She asked me about the presentation, and I told her nearly the same thing we’d told Elaine.  My mom was glad to hear it and also asked if I would be home for dinner, to which I replied, “Probably not.”

When we finally ate, we sat at the kitchen island while listening to Arctic Monkeys on Pandora.  We devoured the box between the two of us.

“Do you think we’ll get the funding?” I asked suddenly.

“Hmm.  I think I’ll be surprised if we don’t.”

“Yeah?  I guess so.  It went pretty well, huh?”

“Yeah it did.” He grinned again, brightly.  “Gabby, we did it.”

I smiled back as it sank in.  “Yes, we did.”

We talked about our upcoming graduation for a little while and reminisced over memories dating back to preschool.  Neither of us could wait to be done with high school.

“Well, Traitor, Doctor Who time?”

“Doctor Who time.”

He pushed aside his fringe again—which I noticed had gotten very long—and stood up, taking our plates with him.  He emptied them inside the dishwasher and led us upstairs to his room.

Alek’s room was a reflection of Alek himself, though I believe that’s true for all of us.  His bed was twin-sized and covered in a forest green comforter.  His desktop computer sat atop his desk, next to the bed.  A bookshelf perpendicular to his bed was adorned with planetary models and filled with various paperbacks, every one of which I could recall from memory after coming over for nearly 18 years.

I sat on his bed pretzel-style.  He moved aside a very thick book, Lycanthropia in Medieval England, to adjust the monitor on his desk toward us, and started up Doctor Who where we’d last left off.

We’d been watching Doctor Who together for a couple months now.  He’d gotten into it first and binge watched the first two seasons before even telling me about it, hence his new nickname, “Traitor.”  Now I was watching it too and trying my best to catch up to him.  It had easily become both our favorite show.

I sat back against the wall with my hands resting in my lap.  He was sitting similarly.  Our shoulders touched, but it wasn’t at all awkward or uncomfortable.

We watched the concluding two-part episodes of season two.  After these, I would be caught up to Alek.

By the near end of it, silent tears ran down my cheeks as Rose and the Tenth Doctor said their final goodbyes through a mere projection, the last connection between two different universes, and The Doctor’s last words to her were lost forever.  The tears ran quicker down my face. I tried to wipe them discreetly with the heel of my hand.

Alek noticed.  He paused the episode when the credits crossed the screen and wordlessly opened his arms.  I rested my head on his shoulder and we both stared into the darkness of his room.

“Oh my God,” I sniffed.

“I know,” Alek replied softly.  “There was a huge lump in my throat when I watched it the first time.  I think this second time was worse, though.”

I nodded into his shoulder.  He smelled the same as he always did: utterly indescribable, but pleasant, and distinctively Alek.

His honesty didn’t surprise me at all.  He was rather emotional for a guy.  Not in an emotionally unstable way, but in such a way where he didn’t let his masculinity suppress all of his feelings.  The way I frankly think more men should be.

Meanwhile, I was plenty emotional.  Sometimes a little too much, people tell me.  But I rarely cry, save over film and books, and only a couple people have seen me do it.

I sighed deeply and checked the time on my phone.  It was just after seven o’clock.

“I should probably go home soon,” I mumbled.

He nodded distractedly.  I looked up to see him staring into space again.

“What is it?”

“Just thinking.”

“About what?” I pressed curiously.

“Nothing, really.  Just . . . random stuff.”

“Hmm.” I let my eyes close for a brief moment.  The last episode of Doctor Who wouldn’t get out of my head.  Rose’s last words, and The Doctor’s lack of them, made my heart ache.

After a few quiet minutes, Alek spoke.  “I would do art, but I’m literally so sick of art right now.”

I giggled and sighed again.  “My aching teenage bones agree.”

Exhaustion creeped in.  I hadn’t realized how tired I’d was, but with my head still resting on Alek’s shoulder and the darkness filling the room, I could have easily fallen asleep there for the night.

Suddenly, Alek’s phone lit up on his nightstand.  My head lifted instinctively.  He reached over to read the text.  As he did, he frowned at first, and it soon turned into a look of shock.

“What is it?” I asked anxiously.

“There’s an accident in town.”  His voice was bleak.  He handed me the phone; the text was from his mom.

hey, its urgent.  on the way to the store i ran into an accident in town.  its really bad.  ive never seen a car so totaled.  i wont be home for a while.  if youre still hungry, order pizza.  ill keep you posted.

“Oh my God.  I hope the passengers are okay,” I said, my voice filling with anxiety.  At least Elaine hadn’t been involved.

“You’d better give your mom a call and ask her to come get you.”

“Yeah,” I murmured, and pulled out my phone from amidst the covers.  I called her number three times with no luck.  It went straight to voicemail.  Then I called my dad, whose phone was off.  Most likely dead.

An image of my parents, bloody and bruised and unconscious with air bags in their faces, popped into my mind.  I started to panic but forced the image away.  They were okay.  They had to be okay.

I rose from the bed and stretched  “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve walked home.”

“I’ll walk with you,” Alek offered, rising too.

“No, Alek, it’s okay.  It’s cold out there and I don’t wanna make you walk the distance twice.”

He hesitated, pursing his lips a little bit.  “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.  I’ll be fine.”

“Alright, fine, but text me when you get home.”

“Will do.”

We walked down the stairs to the kitchen, where I put my shoes on and shrugged on my coat.  The wind was slightly better than it was this morning, but now it had also started to drizzle.

“Are you still—”

“Yes,” I interrupted immediately.  “My house is not even a mile away, remember?  I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

He frowned slightly.  I looked into his perceptive hazel eyes and hoped he’d find reassurance in mine.

“Sure, Gabby.”  Then he gathered me in a hug.  His tall lankiness contrasted my short, curvy figure.  I loved his hugs; they were always so warm and comforting.

I should have savored this goodbye, too.

I broke away, smiling, and headed for the sidewalk.  I glanced over my shoulder back at him standing on the porch where’d I’d left him.  We waved at each other, and then I couldn’t see him anymore beyond the treeline.

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