A Very Fine Line
"Who are you talking to?” she questioned as she reached him, her voice piqued with a child’s curiosity.
“The blue horses, of course,” he answered, giving her only the barest of glances before looking away again.
“I don’t see anything,” she looked around expectantly.
“There are eleventy-two of them right in front of you,” he pointed impatiently.
“You’re strange,” she giggled.
The boy merely cocked his head sharply at the sound, a broad grin splitting his face as he shifted to face her.
“What’s your name?” she asked, pleased with the attention.
“Name?” the boy’s bright eyes met hers, perplexed, as if the question had never occurred to him. “I don’t – ” he paused, staring down at his hands for a few seconds, sand trickling through his fingers. Then suddenly confident, he looked up and answered, “Justin.”
“Justin,” she parroted, scooting closer to him.
“What’s your name?” he asked, stressing each word individually.
“I don’t know what that means,” he admitted gravely, “but it sounds very important.”
“It’s just a name,” she shrugged. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It should,” he stated firmly.
“Come hunt for treasure with me, Chloe!” Justin called excitedly as he ran past her, arms outstretched like the wings of a plane. He continued to careen about, weaving between the other students with his sharp turns and dizzying circles. At one point a basketball narrowly missed his head, coming close enough to ruffle his hair, but he didn’t seem to notice, or maybe he just didn’t care.
Chloe scowled at him. It was her fiercest scowl, she was sure of it. Her eyes were squinted, her nose was crinkled, and he was missing all of it. Growing irritated, Chloe folded her arms tightly across her chest, clearing her throat noisily. The boy who had thrown the basketball earlier, Tommy she thought his name was, gave her a disapproving look. She stuck out her tongue at him in answer, and he rolled his eyes before running away.
“You don’t want to go hunting?” Justin asked, his voice more disappointed than concerned as he landed his invisible plane, stopping to stand directly in front of her.
“I’m not allowed to talk to you,” she told him bluntly, her tone clearly disapproving.
“Oh,” he paused to think about this for a moment, brow creased in concentration. “Why not?”
“I can’t tell you. If I did, it would be breaking the rules,” she explained haughtily, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“I don’t like rules,” Justin complained. “They’re just a lie the light tells the shadow, but anyone can see the math is all wrong.”
Chloe sighed. Holding Justin’s attention was proving far more difficult than earning it in the first place.
“You got me in trouble,” she explained, her tone accusing.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized, all too quickly. “What did I do?”
“Ms. Baron called and told my mommy I was talking to you during class. Now she thinks you’re a bad in – in – influence,” Chloe stumbled over the unfamiliar word, “and she doesn’t want me to talk to you anymore.”
“Am I a bad influence?” he asked curiously.
“I don’t think so,” Chloe admitted, “whatever that means.”
“I think it means your mommy doesn’t like me,” Justin offered with a shrug.
“I like you,” Chloe reassured him, somewhat timidly. “Besides, my daddy just laughed and told her ‘kids are kids.’ That made mommy angry, but then daddy told me it’s okay to talk to you as long as it’s not when I’m supposed to be doing something else important, like learning in class.”
“Is it okay to talk to me now?”
“Of course, we’re at recess,” Chloe explained.
“Does that mean we can hunt for treasure now?” Justin asked distractedly.
“Alright,” she agreed.
“Hurry,” he urged. “We have to find it before it escapes!” he ran off, leaving Chloe shaking her head as she chased after him.
Chloe looked up from her sketchpad and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Justin sat just a few feet away, fingers tapping out an uneven rhythm that didn’t at all match the song on the radio. Every so often his head would tilt at an odd angle, eyes bright and focused on something she couldn’t see. That was when she liked watching him most.
Countless times she had tried to capture his intensity on paper, but no matter what medium she chose, the lines fell flat, leaving her with a lopsided shadow of the boy she knew. She looked down at her most recent attempt, and quickly crumpled it in disgust, tossing it aside. Turning to a fresh page, she lifted her charcoal and started once again, concentrating on his profile; the way his hair rested against his forehead, the slope of his nose, the arc of his lips. His features were nothing like Matt’s, whose nose was sharp and narrow, his mouth full and round. Justin’s lips were thinner, darker, blending neatly with the even gold of his skin. More often than not they were pursed together, his expression one of deep thought.
“Yes?” he replied absently.
“Have you ever kissed a girl?” she asked nervously.
“Kisses are quite dangerous,” he answered seriously. “They can sneak up on you at any moment, and they have very sharp claws,” he added, fingers curled for emphasis. Chloe couldn’t help but laugh. “It’s hardly a laughing matter,” he scolded.
“Of course not,” she bit her lip to hide a smile.
“You don’t believe me,” he growled, turning to meet her eyes. “Have you ever battled a kiss?” And in one swift motion he lunged at her, a mass of tangled limbs, pinning her to the ground.
Over the years Justin had done many things that had shocked her, so this should be no surprise. Yet he’d never been so aggressive. Chloe shivered, his closeness sending an unfamiliar chill across her skin.
“You don’t fight kisses, Justin,” she replied tartly. “Now, please –”
“Well, you clearly don’t,” he scoffed, his eyes glowing when they met hers. “Kisses bite,” he snarled, baring his teeth. “They stab,” he continued, poking her sharply in the ribs. “And they tear,” he finished, grazing fingers across her cheek to trail lightly over her lips. “They’d shred you to pieces.” he finished matter-of-factly.
She lay there speechless, suddenly unsure, the butterflies in her stomach threatening to transform into something far more vicious.
“I – I promise to be careful,” she managed to stutter, not entirely convinced she didn’t mean it.
“I suppose I could protect you,” he whispered, the edges of his voice soft and hushed, his face just inches away from her own.
On impulse she raised her hand, fingers curling around the base of his neck as he watched her, uncertain. Slowly, she leaned up to brush her lips against his, and at that barest of touches he seemed to melt against her, eyes growing wide and focused. Chloe was certain that in that moment he was there in her world completely, and a fierce rush of possessiveness filled her, knowing that for a moment, no matter how brief, he saw only her. Then all too quickly he was lost again, tense and wary, a look of pure bewilderment on his face.
“Why did you do that?” Justin asked, his voice strained.
“I – I don’t – it was a kiss,” she finished lamely, her cheeks flushing.
“A kiss,” he repeated, as if tasting a once familiar word to understand its new meaning.
“It’s something you give someone you care about, or something they give to you. I suppose it’s something two people share really,” she willed herself to stop speaking. How could she have allowed a daydream to override common sense?
When Matt had kissed her, she’d felt clumsy and confused. Of course, Matt had been a gentleman and asked permission first. She’d blushed and nodded, her mouth forming assent while no sound came out. She had been foolish to hope kissing Justin would be different, though in truth it had been, just not in the way she’d expected.
“Like a gift?” he asked curiously, oblivious to her internal ranting.
“Something like that,” Chloe agreed numbly, her eyes stinging with the beginning of fresh tears, as she struggled to keep her face from crumpling.
“May I give you one?”
“A – a gift?” she asked hesitantly, her voice cracking.
“A kiss,” he corrected.
“Oh, Justin, I – no, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Chloe surprised herself, the words coming out against her will. “I’m sorry, but I think you should go.”
She watched his face fall, all of his light suddenly snuffed out, and she instantly hated herself. Justin shifted away from her, all the while staring down at the floor. She carefully sat up, scooting a few feet away from him, as if the distance would help her summon the right words to say. It wasn’t fair. She’d only been curious; she hadn’t expected this reaction. Flinching as he bolted past her, Chloe watched him fumble to open the latch on her window before disappearing.
Chloe closed the door with only a barely audible click, quietly turning the key in the lock. The clock down the hall began its repetitive chiming, declaring her later than she’d originally thought. A light snapped on in the living room, and she froze on the stairs, wondering why of all nights this had to be the one her mother chose to wait up for her.
She could count the number of times she’d snuck out on her fingers, all of which had occurred over the past few months. Once, she’d even stayed out all night, making it home just minutes before her father left for work.
“Chloe Elizabeth Sullivan, do you have any idea what time it is?” her mother hissed.
“A quarter after midnight?” Chloe tried to sound innocent, though the use of her full name made her want to cringe.
“Do you know how worried I’ve been?”
“Mom, you worry about everything,” Chloe replied sourly.
“This isn’t a joke, Chloe. You have a curfew for a reason, and your father and I expect you to follow it.”
“My curfew is eleven, it’s not that big of a deal,” Chloe argued, although she knew it was pointless to do so.
“This isn’t up for debate,” her mother snapped. “Now where were you that was so important you’re over an hour late?”
“Out,” she answered cryptically.
“Chloe,” her mother warned.
“I was with Justin, Mom. Okay?”
It was only a half truth, but her mother didn’t need to know that, Chloe thought. It didn’t matter anyway. She wouldn’t be seeing Daniel again, the bruises on her hips only serving to reinforce that decision. He’d seemed harmless enough with his long lashes and slow smile, but appearances could be deceiving. The night had not gone at all as she’d planned, and when he was through, he’d leaned down to kiss her goodbye as if nothing was wrong. Her stomach churning, she’d forced a smile that never quite reached her eyes, and after she was sure he’d left, she’d gone looking for Justin.
“That’s enough, Chloe. You know how I feel about that boy. It’s not right for you to have a relationship with him at your age.”
“It’s not like that with Justin, Mom. Besides, I’m seventeen. I’m old enough to see him or any other boy if I want to,” she answered defiantly, though her mind screamed that her mother was right, that she should release the gnawing ache in her chest and confess everything.
“Yes, you’re seventeen,” her mother stressed. “We let your behavior slide when you were a child, you didn’t know any better,” her voice drifted off as she raised a hand to rub between her eyes.
“I am not a child!”
“That’s exactly my point! You need to stop acting like one!” her mother’s voice raised in exasperation. “I hardly think taking away your phone or grounding you will prevent you from seeing him, you’d only alienate your few remaining friends more. But Chloe,” her mother paused to take a deep breath, “if you continue to break the rules, if you continue to see him, I will be forced to contact St. Catherine’s. Your father and I only want what’s best for you, even if it means sending you away.”
“Mom, no!” Chloe shrieked.
“Don’t test me, Chloe. This conversation is over, now go to bed.”
Chloe spun away, her chest tight as she ran up the stairs and down the hall to her bedroom. She considered slamming the door, but thought better of it. She couldn’t face her mother again tonight. Exhausted, she collapsed onto her bed, the sobs coming in wracking gasps.
And then Justin was there, having climbed in through her window like he’d done so many times when they were younger. He lay down next to her, curling his body around hers, arms wrapping around her as though without them she’d fall apart.
“Shh, Chloe. I promise I’ll protect you,” he crooned. “The monsters can’t hurt you while I’m here.”
Chloe woke with a gasp, a cold, clammy sweat covering her bare skin. Yet the fear lingered like a clenched fist in her gut, tight and uncomfortable. She took a few deep breaths, willing her heart rate to slow as she turned to look at the clock. Only two, she sighed, knowing there would be no chance of getting back to sleep. Quietly, she crawled out of bed, biting back a curse when her toes touched the cold hardwood floors.
She stumbled out into the living room of the apartment, and seated herself in front of the easel. The crisp white canvas had been sitting there for weeks, begging to be fleshed out in colors and shapes. Chloe had felt the building pressure for some time, the itching in her fingers to create something. And yet each time she’d consciously made an effort, the empty space stared back at her, a laughing, taunting challenge. Tonight was different. It had been a familiar face that gave her chills, and she knew exactly what would take shape on the canvas when she raised her paintbrush.
Several hours later, Chloe sat hunched on the small stool, legs stiff and back aching as she stared at her efforts. Sighing, she lifted her palette knife to mix a new shade, hoping it would somehow fix her crooked lines, blend the uneven shading, and change the all too familiar eyes staring back at her into someone else’s.
“You’re up early,” Charles’ voice startled her, sending the palette knife slipping from her fingers, splattering paint all over the floor as it fell.
“Ugh,” she groaned, reaching to pick it up. “What time is it?”
“A little after seven,” he answered with a lopsided grin as he leaned against the door frame. “Couldn’t sleep?”
“Bad dream,” she answered simply.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” he asked concerned, moving towards her.
“I didn’t want to worry you. Besides, not everyone can sleep like the dead,” she jested, dismissing his question as she knelt to wipe the floor clean.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” Chloe answered, perhaps too quickly, though she accepted his hand when he offered to help her stand.
“Okay,” he allowed, eyes narrowed as he pulled her closer. “Do I at least get to see what you’ve been working on?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just another portrait, but it’s not finished,” she shrugged against his chest. It was as if the whole world disappeared when she was in his arms, the air grew still and quiet, life forgotten.
“You say that about all of your work,” Charles accused, half mocking. She felt his responding laughter as a deep rumble in his chest, flowing into her. “That doesn’t mean I don’t want to see it,” he assured her.
“No,” she repeated, her voice too loud in the small room, but he didn’t listen, releasing her to move toward the easel. Chloe saw his face change as realization hit, his mouth transforming into a thin, hard line.
“I thought we were past this, Chloe. Have you been seeing him again?” he accused, arms waving wildly.
“No? Then why are you painting him?” he challenged.
“It was the dream, that’s all. Please believe me, Charles. I didn’t – I haven’t seen Justin, not the way you mean, I swear it!” she pleaded desperately, hands reaching for him, but he jerked away from her touch.
“I can’t do this anymore, Chloe, not if you won’t accept help. I refuse to compete with him for your attention,” his voice came out sharp with pain, his eyes shining and angry.
“Charles,” she whispered, but they’d had this argument so many times before. Nothing she could say would change his mind.
The ground was covered in drifting leaves, skeletal branches sending reaching shadows across the uncut grass. The lot had been abandoned years ago, leaving a few scattered structures, rusty skeletons of her childhood memories. Chloe stood next to one of the smaller trees, its base firmly rooted in what had once been the playground’s sandbox.
“Over here, Justin,” she turned to search for him, and there he was.
His hair stood up in every direction in shocking waves. As he walked toward her it caught the fall sunlight and shimmered in a thousand shades, making his eyebrows look like wriggling, rainbow caterpillars. She laughed at the thought.
“I love that sound!” Justin exclaimed, his eyes unfocused, “like butterfly wings and angels sighing.”
Chloe felt her cheeks grow warm. “Angel’s aren’t real,” she protested.
“Of course they are!” he assured her. “I met one once. He was a pale and bloody thing, recently fallen,” his lighthearted tone at war with the imagery of his words.
She stood still, drinking in his presence. She realized he was changing before her eyes, as if only now that she was there to witness it could his body accept the time that had passed. So slowly it was barely noticeable, he grew older, taller, his hair fading to a sandy shade of brown. Pieces of it fell haphazardly in his face, obscuring his eyes, though they at least had remained the same. For as long as Chloe had known him, his eyes had been constant, a hauntingly vivid green with gold rings dancing around the iris, always glowing with a feverish sheen. It had been too long since she’d last seen them, a thought that made her feel both relieved and guilty at the same time.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” she scolded.
“Do what?” he asked alarmed, transforming again, and in one swift moment he was her Justin again. At least it was how she pictured him in her mind, a gangly young man with unruly black hair and thick arching brows.
“Never mind,” she shrugged, suddenly feeling foolish.
“No, you’re sad. I want to understand why,” Justin persisted, reaching for her hand. Chloe opened her mouth to reassure him, and then thought better of it. He so rarely focused his attention in this world, let alone anyone in it. It didn’t seem fair to dismiss him.
“I don’t like it when you change,” she said simply, gesturing at him. “Sometimes I can hardly recognize you.”
“I only change when you want me to, Chloe,” he replied, squeezing her hand. “Any change you see in me only reflects a change in yourself.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she snapped.
“Now you’re angry.”
“Answer the question, Justin.”
“Chloe,” he began, his voice low and patient, “your radiant shades of violet and blue have become marred with streaks of grey. Your smile grows thinner and thinner, and I fear each day that I have seen it for the last time. Sometimes I call your name, and though I’m standing next to you, it’s as if you can’t see me,” he let the words trail off.
“That’s not fair,” she argued.
“No, but it’s true,” he replied sadly. “Every time you leave, you’re gone a little bit longer. You come back different too. The things in your life, school, work, the friends you’ve told me about, they all drain you. Him especially.”
“Is that what this is about? You’re jealous of Charles?” she accused, jerking away from him.
“I know what he’s like Chloe, better than you ever can. He was killing you!”
“That’s enough nonsense, Justin. There’s no one to be jealous of, not anymore. Charles left months ago.”
“I know. I felt it the second he was gone, but I thought you’d come to see me.”
“I needed time, Justin.”
“Time away from me you mean.”
“Justin, you know how I feel about you,” she stumbled over the words. “I care about you, I do. Maybe more than I should, but you’re – ”
“I’m what, Chloe?”
“You’re not – ” she couldn’t bring herself to finish, as if saying the words would make them true. She looked at him desperately, her eyes tearing.
“Real,” Justin finished for her.
“I never have been,” he admitted.
“I think I’ve always known that,” Chloe shook her head, sending tears streaming down her face. “But you’ve always been real to me,” she added, thinking of every odd look her friends had given when she’d mentioned his name, the hushed whispers when people thought she couldn’t hear, the repeated threats her parents had made to have her committed, and the heated arguments she’d had with other men who grew jealous of a boy they couldn’t see.
“I know,” he smiled weakly. “Inspired minds have conjured me again and again, and yet there has always come a point when they’ve accepted reality, even if it’s forced upon them. It’s simply how the human psyche is meant to work. There’s a very fine line between you and I, Chloe, and you’ve spent far too much of your life balancing on the edge. I blame myself for encouraging it. I was selfish, but it’s time for you to choose a side,” he rubbed a thumb across her cheek, gently smoothing away the tears.
“I think I already have,” Chloe confessed, holding out a trembling hand.
“Let’s go home,” he offered, closing his fingers around hers.