If We Shadows Have Offended

 A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Jennifer Justice


If life was fair, clouds would have darkened every inch of the summer sky, obscuring the stars’ merry dance. Thunder would have crashed in waves over the quiet suburbia of Lake Park, disturbing the idyllic silence. Instead, the night was perfect. The moon, bright and full, hung heavily in the sky like a silver fruit, just ripe and ready to be plucked from the velvet sky. The stars seemed to dance with the quiet song of the crickets and cicadas. The air was warm, and thick with the smell of night.

The night’s beauty was wasted on Shana. Despite the heat, her windows were closed, and the shades drawn as she huddled in her room. She had Bon Jovi blasting on her stereo, successfully drowning out the crickets, but it wasn’t able to hide the storm that raged downstairs. Between songs she could hear the shouting echo up into the hallway from below, tearful shouts and accusations stabbing through Shana’s closed bedroom door.

She sang along to the music, as if she might be able to wish all the fighting away by ignoring it. But with each new silence, the shouting returned, and her disguise was blown away. It wasn’t alcohol this time or, at least, Shana didn’t think so. She hadn’t really taken the time to check. But it reminded her of too many nights, too many fights where alcohol had been involved.

She would have welcomed a real storm if it could take the anger and pain from the house. Trumpet it for all the world to hear. Maybe then she would be able to stop pretending that everything was all right. But the night was quiet, and the fighting continued until she couldn’t take it anymore. They wouldn’t check for her until the fight was over, which could be all night. It didn’t matter what it was about. Her parents didn’t really need a reason to argue.

Shana spun the handle on her window, opening it as far as it would go, before removing the screen. She worked quietly, as if they might hear her escape over the fighting and the loud refrain of “You Give Love a Bad Name.” She half wished they would, that her door would slam open and her mother would be standing there, hands on her hips, demanding to know what she thought she was doing. But the door stayed closed, and she slipped out onto the roof, followed by the sound of a guitar solo.

The quiet of the night washed over her, and she took a deep breath, thankful for the silence. She couldn’t hear the shouting out here, in the night air. With the practiced ease, she shimmied along the edge of the roof until she could step onto the branches of the old oak that grew alongside the house, its sturdy limbs reaching to hang over the eaves. After that it was only a short moment to climb down to the ground and walk away.

Not that she had anywhere to go. She shuffled slowly down the street, her arms crossed around herself as if to ward off a chill, her shoulders hunched. She didn’t want to think. It hurt too much. She wished she was a bird. Then she could flap her wings and fly away. Maybe she would even fly to the moon, pick it out of the sky, and eat it. The thought made her giggle, the slightly hysterical sound disturbing the quiet. For a moment she even stopped in her plodding walk, half tempted to wave her arms and see if, maybe, she could actually do it. But the absurdity of it made her blush, and she hunched her shoulders again and kept walking. She focused her eyes on the ground, afraid to look over her shoulder to see if someone had seen her from their window.

No flying. Instead, her feet carried her to the small community playground. Swings hung from a rusted pole, and an old tire swing swayed quietly in some unfelt breeze. There were the remains of a sand castle in the sand box. Most of the playground had long been too small for her. She was too grown up for such things, anyway. But, right then, she wanted to forget that she was 18. She wanted to be young again. She wanted to still believe she could fly. So she sat down on one of the two large swings, closed her eyes, and pushed off.

At first, her feet brushed against the sand, slowing her. She hadn’t done this in a long time. But soon she was moving, her long legs kicking in a slow rhythm, until the swing went higher, and higher, and higher. With her eyes closed she felt the breathless rise and the sharp thrill of the fall as the swing moved beneath her. It seemed to go higher, if she didn’t look. If she let herself believe…

But she couldn’t. With a sigh, she opened her eyes and let her feet drag through the sand, jolting the swing from side to side. None of it was real. None of it ever would be. Even the perfect peace of the night wasn’t real. Real was the storm that would be raging at her house. Childhood was just a daydream. Like flying.

Her momentary happiness fled, Shana stood up, shaking her head as if she could chase away all the memories. Which was when she saw the eyes. They were watching her, no more than a foot away as they hovered above the next swing over, brilliant as they seemed to catch the starlight and reflect it back at her. Then came the face, a mischievous smile alighting beneath the all-too-knowing eyes, topped with tousled hair that just begged for someone to run their fingers through it. Then the body, a young man’s, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. His appearance reminded Shana of the Cheshire Cat. But then she was back in reality, knowing that it was impossible, of course, that the boy next to her had ever been anything but whole. More fairy tales and daydreams. She’d just missed his arrival. How long had he been watching her?

That smile widened slightly as he studied her unsettled expression, like he was reading her mind. Like he knew her. “What fools these mortals be.”

Shana blinked, confusion wrinkling her brow. “Who are you?”

He grinned. “Me.”

“You don’t live here…” There was a wild edge about this stranger, something that attracted her and made her want to run away at the same time. Slowly, she took a step backward, giving herself the comfort of distance. He didn’t move. Only watched her with that knowing smile.

“I live everywhere.”

Shana took another step backward, her expression uneasy. Suddenly the night seemed much less friendly, with this stranger here. Much more wild. He didn’t move. Which was good. She would just go home. But she didn’t want to turn around, partly because she couldn’t keep an eye on the young man, partly because it meant going back to the storm. But the young man was silent, and she had no reason to stay. Finally, she turned reluctantly away from the uncomfortable silence.

“Don’t you want to fly?”

Shana stopped, and turned back, her brow furrowed. “What?”

“You wanna fly, right?”

“You’re nuts.”

He only grinned. “Maybe.” He stood, and she took another step backwards at the look in his eyes. But she didn’t try to leave. “You’re afraid of me.” It wasn’t a question, but Shana suddenly felt defensive.

“No… it’s just… that…” She took a deep breath, not even sure why she felt she had to explain herself. “You caught me off guard, is all.” More than that, and yet she couldn’t say what it was. She thought she might be the crazy one.

“You don’t have to be afraid.” He stepped towards her, and she didn’t move away, but she felt her heart catch in her throat. He was taller than her by several inches, and the effect was intimidating, whether he meant it to be or not. She had the feeling he did. “I can teach you to fly.”

Shana was silent, confused. Then her eyes narrowed as a thought occurred to her, and she backed away quickly. “I’m not interested in drugs, if that’s what you’re selling.” Her breath caught as he laughed softly and she turned to go, to run, anything to get away, but he caught her arm and turned her around to face him.

“Not drugs. I can help you really fly. You can even reach your moon.”

She tried to pull away, but his grip was firm, though not tight enough to hurt her. “Let me go.”

He watched her for a moment, before his smile faded away. The silver of his eyes seemed to darken. “Sure.” Shrugging his shoulders, he released her, and turned away. Shana stood for a moment, frozen to the spot. She should run. Should go now. He was willing to leave her alone. But she couldn’t. Had he actually looked disappointed in her?

He didn’t look at her as he sat back down on the swing, but he spoke, as if he knew she was still listening. “Go back to the storm. It’s where you belong, right?” There was a sting in his words that had to do with more than the sounds his lips shaped. It cut something in her, tore away a part of her defense. For a moment all she could do was stare, silent, shaking. Then the tears came, and she turned away, hiding her face in her hands as if it could hide her pain. She didn’t ask which storm, or how he knew. She didn’t care. He was right. She couldn’t get away from it, no matter how she tried.

She never heard the creak that should have announced as he rose from the swing, never heard him approach, but suddenly he was holding her and she was clinging to him as she sobbed into the rough material of his T-shirt. His hand stroked her hair, soothing her, reassuring her that she didn’t have to be ashamed as she broke down. He didn’t speak. Instead he simply waited, until she’d released the pent up frustrations, cried her hate and anger out into the night air. Then, when she was silent except for the uneven catch of her breathing, he let her go, his smile a little less wild and a little more kind as he looked down at her.

“I don’t want to go back,” she mumbled, feeling very much like a small child. At some point during her cry she’d forgotten to be afraid of him.

“You have to.”

“I know.”

The young man didn’t speak, instead tilting his head and listening to the night sounds. When he did speak, he seemed to be no more than a small child, excited, breathless. When Shana looked over the moonlight seemed to play a trick on her eyes, so that he really looked younger than he had before. Impossible.

“Let’s fly. I’ll show you.”

She opened her mouth to protest, to say it wasn’t possible. But something about his excitement caught her, and she found herself nodding. The boy caught her hand and jumped up, pulling her to her feet. He was so close, his mischievous smile inches from her, and the wild look was back in his eyes. Shana felt a quick pulse of fear, but she was too entranced now. She couldn’t pull away. “Believe,” the boy murmured, his voice a surprisingly soft contrast to the wildness in his eyes. He leaned forward, closing the last bit of distance between them, and kissed her.

Suddenly, the whole world was spinning around her. She could feel herself rising, as if she was back on the swing, her eyes tightly closed. Except, when she opened her eyes, she wasn’t on the ground. She wasn’t even on the swing. Beneath her the ground swept past, man-made lights small specks of gold and silver against the darkness of the night. Frantically she looked around, and felt herself begin to fall. Panic rose in her, until she heard the voice, as if in her head. “Flap your wings!” Flap her wings? She didn’t have wings! But she did as she was told, moving her arms in a desperate attempt to keep herself in the air. And it worked. She rose again and, awed, stared around, trying to catch a glimpse of herself. She could see the tips of her feathered wings, rustling in the wind. And she could see another bird, not far from her, showing off in the warm air. Because she truly was a bird. Then the realization faded away, along with memories of storms and tears, until all she knew was being a bird. Being free, and flying.

“Thank God… here you are. Shana, wake up!” Shana blinked, startled awake as hands shook her roughly.

“Wha…”

“Don’t you ever scare me like that again, young lady!” Her mother’s words broke through her dazed mind as she was pulled into her arms, the hug squeezing the breath from her.

“What happened?” Pulling away, she looked around herself. She had been sitting on the swing when she woke up. She must have fallen asleep there. Glancing around, she saw her father, standing off to the side, his expression a mix of guilt and angry worry. Shana nodded to him. He didn’t have to say he was sorry for her to know it. She was sorry too. “I didn’t mean to… to fall asleep.” She didn’t remember sleeping. She remembered a boy. And flying. But she must have been sleeping.

“It’s all right. Just… just don’t do it again. Please.” Her mother’s eyes begged her forgiveness, and Shana nodded. She understood. She wasn’t angry anymore. The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon, tongues of flame licking away the deep violet of the sky. She’d been gone all night. “Let’s go home.”

Shana nodded again, but as she began to walk, following her parents back, something caught her eye. For a moment she almost thought she saw the boy, sitting on the swing next to her, smiling mischievously at her. Then it was gone, but the light caught on a single white feather that shone brightly against the black plastic of the swing. “Hold on a sec.” Pulling her hand from her mother’s protective grasp, she picked it up, staring at it, before she smiled wearily at her parents. “…Caught my eye.” Holding it carefully, she walked to the car that was parked alongside the curb, and slid into the back seat. She didn’t know if it had been a dream or just her imagination. She didn’t know if there had ever really been a boy at all. But none of that mattered, because he’d taught her how to fly.

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Jennifer Justice is a freshman in college who adores chocolate, books, and air conditioning… something that her dorm is lacking. Her favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy, but she will read just about anything that is put in front of her, including the backs of cereal boxes. E-mail: GoldenEyes1[at]aol.com

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