Chapter 4: Monsters from the Clouds
They say that desire bars us from enlightenment. The wheel of life and death will never stop turning as long as we grasp at this world, and in the greatest delights there will always be the ultimate sorrow of loss. Desire is the only pith and essence of my soul, the reason I was born as this self. Without my desire, I would cease to exist at all, free from the cycle of rebirth. Without the sorrow of our separation I could never have remade myself in order to reach you.
I ran like I was being chased by a mythical bear from the forest, my small soft body completely powerless against the sheer violence of the pursuing force. It was a group of upperclassmen that had been playing some ridiculous sport where they hit little white balls out in a field. I was wandering by that area during my free period, and they decided to tease me for something I can’t recall but must have found important because in a moment of mad abandon and pride I kicked their huge metal basket of tiny balls to the bottom of a five meter deep swimming pool. I even paused a moment after my crime, watching the now hollow metal basket fall rather slowly and beautifully to the cool turquoise depths.
The lazy upperclassmen gave up pursuit long before I stopped diving through the trees, but I continued walking on and on as if a person infected with my madness would only be welcome at the ends of the earth. But then the wind began to pick up, and as the sweat dried on my cold body I realized that as usual I had not considered many factors on my adventure. Namely, how was I going to find my way back and what was I going to do once the sun went down in a few hours.
I heard a large animal up ahead and immediately froze in my tracks, somehow positive I had actually stumbled onto the mythical sleeping bear. When I finally spied the source of the movement it seemed to be merely a young man with blonde hair, sitting against a tree and smoking a cigarette.
“Hello there,” a slightly familiar, monotone voice grumbled. Perhaps a bear would have been better, my fragile ego winced as I realized who it was. “What are you doing this far out in the woods? Come over here.” I did as I was told and stood in front of her like a soldier awaiting orders. Her light brown eyes were squinted up in an odd smile, blonde hair a bit shaggy but still short and cut like a boy’s. “Well?”
“I was… I…” She told me to just spit it out and laughed. “I was just walking.”
“Nowhere. It’s just…” I blushed and couldn’t continue.
“Don’t be such a girl. Spit it out already.” She drew one more time on her cigarette and flicked it into the woods.
“If I go back some older boys are going to beat me up. So I’ll just go back tomorrow. Or maybe after everyone’s in bed.”
“Stay out all night in the woods? Won’t you get cold? And in trouble?”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m probably getting expelled anyway.” I had my hands behind my back and was using one foot to play with a loose rock. She didn’t say anything for some time and seemed to just watch me as I moved the rock.
“Yeah, I imagine you will be, someday soon,” she laughed oddly.
“Well I’m glad. It’s tiring having to lie all the time. To do all of it, all the time.”
“Sit with me then, take a rest.” She patted the area next to her. I did not move, but all she had to do was raise her eyebrows for me to follow her command. She was only a bit older than me, probably about sixteen or so, but she seemed immensely more mature, especially when she took out a metal box of cigarettes and offered me one.
“I… don’t know how to do it,” I said shyly, and she pulled one out and put it in her mouth. I watched closely, fascinated by his large, pinkish red lips. She really did have a pretty face, I thought as he took the cigarette out of his mouth and handed it to me.
“Draw the smoke into your lungs. You’ll probably choke so just do a little bit.” I blushed horribly, but took the cigarette, practically flinching when his hand touched mine. “Relax, it won’t hurt you.” I didn’t know how I could even begin to explain to her that I was not afraid of the cigarette. The idea of putting something in my mouth that had been in his was almost too much for my thirteen year old heart to bear, but I put the cigarette between my lips and drew in just a bit. It did make me choke a little, and she laughed and slapped me on the back. “There, now you’re a true delinquent, pretty boy.”
I smiled at him and drew in more of the cigarette. She took out another one and smoked it calmly, forearms resting on top of her knees, legs opened practically as wide as they could go. She fascinated me more than any girl I’d ever met, but at the same time it irritated me that she was a girl at all. I decided that secretly, in my mind at least, I would just consider her a boy. Or was it rude to just assign this person to my own desire? Why could my desires only include either all boys or all girls? Isn't there something else? Do I have to assign this person as one or the other? I twisted uncomfortably, not sure what to do with my thoughts.
“Are you cold?” she asked, and I looked at her again.
“You’re shivering like hell.” He touched my chilled arm, and I flinched away. “I’m not going to hurt you, Avery.”
“I, I know. How’d you know my name?”
“I’ve heard it before. Remember when we danced together once? And a lot of the lesbians say they want you for their husband, cause you’re so much like a girl.”
“I’m not really.” I drew on the cigarette and rubbed my arms. That was true as far as I knew; I didn’t have much experience with girls. All I really knew was that I was not what a boy should be, which apparently was a girl.
She laughed at me again. “You smoke that cigarette like a boy, but you rub your arms like a girl.”
“There’s a girly way to rub your arms?”
“There’s a girly way to do everything. You kind of talk like a girl too, mannerism and voice. Haven’t your balls dropped yet?”
“Eh, well, you talk like a dirty old man,” I blushed horribly but laughed. I liked the way she talked about things so straightforwardly yet without the sense she was trying to garner attention, so unlike other boys. I didn’t feel like I had to pretend to be different from how I really am, and it was an unfamiliarly sanguine experience.
“Come here.” She patted the ground between her legs.
“What?” I laughed and shook my head.
“You’re freezing. Sit here and I’ll keep you warm. Don’t worry, I promise I won’t violate you or anything.”
I immediately thought, “God, I’d let you violate me anyway you wanted to.” But I didn’t say anything and just stood up nervously. I sat down between her legs, and she wrapped her huge green coat around the both of us. Where had she gotten these men’s clothes? They were far too big on her and seemed a bit like a military uniform.
“Better?” she asked, cigarette still in her mouth.
“Yeah.” I glanced back at his face before my eyes went to the mostly bare, rusted autumn trees silhouetted against the blue sky.
“Lay back, I’m not a boy remember. I’m not going to try to stick anything in you.” He pushed my forehead back until I was laying my head on his shoulder.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive I won’t stick anything in you. Weirdo,” she laughed.
“No, that you’re not a boy?” I sighed, relaxing in the sudden warmth. I almost wanted to fall asleep.
“What kind of question is that?” he laughed again.
“I dunno. You just, seem like a boy to me.” I thought she even kind of smelled like a boy, beneath the smell of cigarettes, and I looked over at her throat and ear curiously. He didn’t say anything and just looked up at the sky for a while.
“Maybe…I don’t mind if you think I’m a boy. Because you know, when I was born, I wasn’t so like everybody else. And my parents... ” he stopped when I kissed him on the cheek. “Hey, what kind of faggot are you anyway?” She laughed and pushed me away a bit.
“It’s your fault for looking like a boy,” I laughed and blushed, stealing his cigarette.
“Man, there’s another way you’re like a girl. Acting all shy and innocent when you’re really just a sneaky little pervert.” She took the cigarette back and then blew the smoke down into my face. “I bet you frustrate the hell out of those boys.”
“Ugh, I don’t like any of those boys,” I half lied, and he laughed at me again. There were a few I found attractive, but in the end there seemed to be an unbridgeable gap between us, and their simple way of looking at the world bored me practically to death.
“Maybe you were meant to be a lesbian then?”
“Maybe, but I don’t think so. I don’t like the way girls smell, or I mean it’s not gross. It’s just, not the way boys smell. Is that weird? I mean, girls are so pretty and most are nice to me but I dunno… it’s not the same.” I was a little nervous that I had started to say something offensive and blabbered on a little too long.
“What? You don’t make any sense.”
“You smell good though, not like other girls.” She stared at my face as if she had a naughty secret that answered that mystery.
“Never mind. How did we get on this topic? I barely even know you."
“Because I kissed you.”
“Oh yeah, I remember. You’re a pervert.”
“I think I really might be.”
“Yeah, apparently you’re a fag with a dyke fetish. I remember that time when you were totally staring up my skirt, like a straight boy. But it’s all right, everyone secretly is a pervert of some kind or another.”
“What kind of pervert are you then?”
“I don’t go around sharing that kind of thing with every weird little boy I meet you know."
“Hey, you can tell me! Does my, what did you call it again?”
“Does that weird you out?”
“Hell yes!” He laughed, but then quickly blew a rush of air onto the top of my head. “But I’m not worried; I think I can defend myself against your advances.”
We were quiet for a while after that, and I was oddly even more comfortable. Perhaps because he wasn’t a biological male? Perhaps because she had blonde hair like my sister? Or because he’d kissed me once and told me that I was beautiful? When I decided it was the latter, I relaxed even deeper into his coat, almost wishing I could stay in its protective shell forever.
“We should head back,” I sighed but made no move.
“Oh, I’m not going back.”
“What? Are you trying to run away again?
“Yeah and you seem to have side tracked me again, haven’t you? I’m waiting out here for a friend of mine from the outside to come and meet me.”
“Are they going to find a place for you to live?”
“I’m not all that sure really. All I know is we’re going to the river.”
“By the Outer Rim. Maybe we’ll even go there instead.”
“To the Outer Rim? Are you crazy? Why would you want to go there!?” I sat up and looked at him as if he really were mad.
“Well, I hear you don’t have to have a religion there, and no one cares who you sleep with or if you rub your arms like a girl or any of that shit.”
“But you’ll be poor! You’ll get sick and die!”
“Maybe, but hey, freedom you know, it’s worth it.”
“I think you’re crazy.” I settled back to my comfortable position.
“Yeah, but whatever. Everybody’s crazy in one way or another.”
“So everyone is a crazy pervert?”
“Yes,” he laughed and flicked me in the side of the head. We fell silent again. “Avery?”
“Your name is androgynous, did you know that? I know a girl named Avery.”
“Really? No, I never thought about it.”
“No? Names are important you know. I hate being called Samantha. It’s a rich girl’s name, the name my idiot parents wanted their daughter to have. Sam is better; I should have had a boy’s name.”
I knew he was confessing something to me, but at the time I didn’t quite understand the implication beyond the fact that I decided I could safely think of him as a boy, since he seemed to enjoy it. I simply replied, “Sam is a nice name. I wonder where names come from anyway?”
“Some are from the Lord’s book.”
“I’m not sure. Samuel is though. It’s all made up crap anyway. The Lord, names, all of it. Everything.”
“You don’t believe in the Lord?”
“No,” he answered solidly.
“Me neither. Maybe something, but not the Lord. It feels like a mean lie to me, and the adults know it’s a lie, but they just want to be mean to us.” I was shaking with adrenaline as I let this deep confession finally escape.
“Heh, but they’re being mean to themselves too. Half our teachers are total fucking homos. Still, I think some of them know it’s a lie, but then some of them really believe it all.”
“It would be weird to have faith like that.”
“It would be, wouldn’t it? I kind of wish I had it sometimes, but I don’t.”
“Me too.” I snuggled closer to him so my face was pressed by his arm. “Hey Sam…” I looked up at his face, his eyebrows slack in ease as he still vaguely inspected the sky.
“You’d really be a cute boy.”
“Get out of here pervert," he laughed and pushed me away until I tumbled out of his jacket.
“Hey, I’m cold,” I complained and tried to crawl back in but he wouldn’t let me. “Don’t be mean.” I sat on my heels and pouted.
“Oh fine, come here.” He laughed, and I immediately crawled back in. “Now behave yourself, miss.”
“I will.” I happily started playing with the buttons on his coat.
“You know, Avery, now that I’m thinking about it, why don’t you just come with me? You’re just gonna get expelled and lose your rank anyway.”
I didn’t really know what to say and just shrugged. It was more than a little bit of an exciting idea, and I had secretly hoped that he would ask me to go. Even the thought of the Outer Rim was terrifying, but then again running away with him to a dangerous foreign land also seemed rather like a fantastic, painfully romantic adventure.
“Sure, why not?” I said and glanced to see his smile.
“You have to be serious though. It’s going to be rough at first. No whining.”
“I’ll be fine. No whining, I promise.”
“Well help me pack up then. We’re only about one third to the rendezvous.”
After we packed up all of his things into his massive pack we started walking, apparently in a direction he had planned because he kept looking at a compass. He walked a lot faster than me despite the heavy pack, but he was much bigger and fitter than I was. He took off his jacket as his body heated up and even rolled his sleeves up over his shoulders, also tying a bandana around his head to catch the sweat. Not for the first time, I noted how amazingly muscular he was for a girl. Can girls even get muscles like that? I was imagining touching his arms, running my open palm over his hard round shoulders, down over his biceps and thick forearm.
“Hey Sam, let’s hold hands,” I said and took one of his in mine.
He looked at me with raised eyebrows but did not take his hand away, even letting me swing our arms as we walked. It was embarrassing, but he had a way of making me feel uncharacteristically bold.
“Are you going to keep holding my hand forever?” he asked suddenly, and I just shrugged. “You’re weird. What’s so great about holding hands anyway?”
“You don’t hold hands with your friends? I thought girls always did stuff like that? Like held hands and stuff?”
“Who told you that?” he laughed again.
“I dunno.” I shrugged. “I thought it was something girls do. Like wearing dresses or dancing or braiding each other’s hair. We’re not allowed to touch our friends unless we have a preapproved reason. Like sports, or… maybe just sports.”
“No wonder you fags play sports all day then.”
“Sports are the worst. Mean boys will touch you in weird places if you’re not careful. Not because they like you, just to make you feel bad, like to say you’re not masculine enough. They do it to me all the time. ”
“Yeah, boys are idiots.”
“Sometimes I think, man, I wish we could be like the girls and just walk around holding hands and playing jump rope.”
“You have a seriously bizarre image of women,” he laughed.
“Well, I don’t know that many women.”
“I guess you wouldn’t.” He paused a moment and then suddenly asked, very plainly, “Avery, are you a virgin?”
“What?” I blanched and finally let go of his hand.
“Never mind, of course you are.” He laughed and then put his hand on my head, messing my hair. “I forgot your balls haven’t dropped yet. And you don’t have the look of one that’s gotten molested.”
“Shut up already, you pervert,” I also laughed and slapped his hand away.
We walked on for a while, and then he asked again, “How about kissing? How many boys have you kissed?”
“Come on. Shut up,” was all I could say, and I kept my mortified eyes on the ground.
“Hey.” He stopped and put his hand on my head so that I looked up at him. “I wanna kiss you.”
“What? Why?” I gasped, but he had already started doing it.
“Cause I want to,” he laughed right before his lips pressed against mine. I just stood there and let him do what he wanted, compliantly accepting his lips against mine until he pressed the tip of his tongue in my mouth.
I pushed him away and gasped again. “Don’t. You’re being weird, Sam.”
“It’s not weird, everyone kisses like that. That’s how grownups do it.”
“It is not.” I whined and crossed my arms over my chest. “You’re just being mean, aren’t you?”
“No. You didn’t like it? Was it gross?”
“It was just weird.” I said, and he bent towards my face.
“Let me do it again. You’ll like it if you just let me do it.”
“I don’t know…” I let him do it anyway, and he was right because once I was over the initial shock it was actually strangely pleasant to let his tongue press into my mouth, and I could immediately feel an embarrassing rush of blood to my lower areas.
“See it’s not so bad. You’d make a really cute girl, Avery.” He was mocking me, but I really didn’t care and just stared at him in a daze. I was looking at his mouth, but after that I had no idea what he went on saying because I was just waiting and hoping he would kiss me again. He did not, however, and then suddenly I could hear someone yelling.
“Run Avery!” Sam gasped, ditching his pack and grabbing my hand. All at once we were bolting through the woods as fast as we could go, and I could hear whistles and men’s voices following behind us. “Fuck, we are fucking caught again!” Sam cursed madly and pulled me along just as violently. All I could see were dry leaves and two small pots banging together, tied around Sam’s waist. I tried to catch them to stop the noise, but he was too fast and too brutal.
“Sam!” I heard an adult voice very close to us, and Sam came to a complete stop. I took the pots in my hand and looked up to my left where the voice had come from. There was a hooded figure in green, tall and thin, mostly silhouetted against the afternoon sun. I could hear footsteps approaching us from behind, and Sam looked at me desperately.
“I’m sorry, Avery. We’re not going to make it.” I remember he looked so frightened and young at that moment, and I could feel something swelling and aching in my chest.
“Then I, I will lead them away.” I used my pocket knife and suddenly cut the pots away before he could figure out what I was doing. Then, as I was about to run he caught me by the wrist, looking me right in the face.
“Avery…” he said sadly.
“We don’t have time! Let me go!” I burst and tried to struggle. He pulled me to him quickly and kissed me on the forehead. I couldn’t bear to look at him and ran as fast as I could away from the hooded figure of death that had come to steal him, banging the pots and breaking as many branches as I could. And then hands were grabbing at me from all over, and I was pulled backward, staring up through the branches, wondering why they wanted to hold me down and make me look at nothing but blue when green could be so beautiful. Or red. Or purple. Or brown. Why nothing but blue?
“Avery! Aaaavery! Get up! Aaaaveryyy!” I opened my eyes under a blue blanket in the Outer Rim, cringing at the sound of the voice beckoning me. It was Simon’s newest lover, Mikhail, who not only had been sticking around well beyond his allotted two weeks, but also seemed to imagine he needed to befriend me.
I couldn’t imagine what Simon saw in him, apart from his good looks, which only irritated me more because I did not want to believe Simon was susceptible to the same shallow impulses as everyone else. Mikhail was very tall, with skin an orange brown color that was very clear and pretty. His straight black hair was glossy and beautiful, kept very neat both on his head and his bearded face.
I snuggled back into Simon’s bed, reveling in the delicious, vicious warmth of completely ignoring Mikhail’s commands. “I know he’s awake, the little bastard,” I heard him mutter to someone. Realizing who was most likely with him, I pushed myself up lethargically and tried to look at the bright light coming from above.
“Don’t be so harsh. People his age have to sleep a lot,” Simon laughed. I could vaguely see their outlines, one large and ridiculously bulbous in muscles, and the other amusingly thin with wild hair on top. “Avery! It’s eight o’clock already, you should get up," Simon called.
“I’m up!” I called back, hurriedly scrambling to get dressed. I wouldn’t have time to go to the showers or bathroom, so I just brushed back my overgrown curls as best I could and climbed up.
“Simon’s not your mother, you know,” Mikhail muttered as we started walking. "Wake yourself up."
“Leave him alone,” Simon grumbled and punched him a little.
“I was only joking. He knows that, right Avey?” I just rolled my eyes and walked ahead of them with my hands in my pockets, trying to think about the work day but distracted by how much I disliked Mikhail. “You might need a haircut, Avery,” he said randomly, almost touching my head. I cringed away from him and walked faster, frankly tired of their company. We were at my workstation, and I turned to go in without looking at them.
At eighteen I had become a manual laborer, and being that I am extremely lazy, I was absolutely terrible at my job. I went to my locker and changed into my work clothes while I wondered if Simon would come home that night. He’d taken up the habit of actually staying the night with Mikhail, something he’d never done with the others.
I missed him but as a mere border in his house it was not my place to object. Still, everyone but Simon seemed to notice that I was obsessed with him. Even Mikhail knew, but he did not seem to find a short, lazy, eighteen year old boy in the least bit threatening. With good reason, I thought, because I was convinced that Simon could never have any interest in me. His lovers all seemed to have several things in common. They were older than him, taller than him, and masculine. I, of course, am not even one of those things. I had lost a few more kilos of fat and gained a bit of muscle mass, but I was still only about 168 centimeters. And history had already proven that there was no way I could sustain any decent amount of masculinity. Those dreary thoughts made me sigh as I put my shovel over my shoulder, and one of my co-workers laughed and clapped me on the other.
“What’s the sigh for, Avery?” he laughed. We were about the same age, but he was a lot thicker, taller, and looked older than me. He also had a round face and very dark skin that made his charming smile look very bright. His name was Sou. Even though I could use seeing his cheery face, I didn’t look at him and just shrugged.
“I’m tired.” I yawned and put on my helmet.
“The truck is out today, so we’re walking to the site,” he said, knowing I would be very disappointed.
“Good god, the day couldn’t possibly get worse. I had the worst nightmares last night too.”
“Well, it could be raining like it was first shift,” he laughed.
I smiled a little and followed him out of the locker room, into the bright morning sun. Sou was one of the only grown people who regularly talked to me, and I was glad that we were working the same shift. I made most other people quite uncomfortable, partly because I am from the Middle, but also because I am quiet, strange, and oddly effeminate.
The other person that spoke to me at work was our group coordinator named Rena, but I disliked her probably even more than I disliked Mikhail. She was blonde, very masculine, also homosexual, and when she spoke to me it was always slightly condescending. I was obviously too young and naïve to know anything about the world or myself. She also disliked Simon and used female words and formations when she talked about him. She seemed to somehow think he’d betrayed all of the women in the world by changing his sex. She irritated me so much that I would often find myself staring at her, seemingly blank but in my mind sadistically bashing her loud, greasy head in with my shovel. In the end, I just nodded to whatever she said, ignored her, and vaguely did my job.
“Are you going to the opening of the festival tonight?” Sou asked as we walked into the job site. We were digging the tunnel for a new road to the village.
“Yeah, it’s the festival of the dead this year. Every three years in the summer,” he answered.
“Oh? What are we celebrating? Death?”
“No,” he laughed. “It’s for honoring the dead. You’re supposed to set up a shrine to your family, pray to family spirits. It’s mostly just a big festival these days though.” We were told where to dig and started working slowly. “Simon doesn’t have a shrine?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I guess he doesn’t really have much family, does he?”
“I don’t know. I never asked him.”
“No one here’s related to him, and he's only been here a few years. I heard he’s originally from the other side of the mountains, those wandering people that live in the outskirts."
“He did say something about that before.”
“How the hell did he get all the way over here then? Do you know how long that would take? Years! Who knows, maybe he’s really from the Middle like you? He does talk a little funny." The idea made my heart race. “But he doesn’t quite have your funny way of saying your vowels. Still, he knows a lot about the Middle.”
“He does know a lot. I’ll have to ask him sometime. He doesn’t talk about that kind of thing though.”
“Ask him tonight if he’s got a shrine. That way he’ll probably tell you something.” Sou took a break, stretching his back.
“Yeah, I don’t know if he’s coming home tonight though. He’s with Mikhail today.”
“Oh?” Sou was staring into space and leaning on his shovel. He seemed to be thinking for a moment and then suddenly started shoveling again, a bit more quickly than usual.
“I don’t know what he likes about that guy. He’s so obnoxious,” I complained and started again as well. “He never stops talking, he’s rude, he’s ugly, old, and he’s arrogant. I really just despise him.”
“Jealous a bit?” Sou laughed oddly.
“Maybe,” I laughed too. “I just don’t understand why Simon likes him. It’s frustrating, you know?”
“Oh, believe me, I know what you’re talking about." Sou nodded and opened his eyes a little wider. “It’s definitely frustrating when someone you like likes someone else instead.”
“He’s just got no reason to. It makes absolutely no sense.”
“He probably has some kind of reason. I mean…” Sou took another break, looking down at the ground. “Why do you like Simon?”
The question caught me off guard, and I stopped shoveling to think. I didn’t have a clear answer, and when I thought about it my mind was just bombarded with various odd memories and images of him. I liked the sound of his voice at that moment, the way he was sitting, the way he seems to know about everything, the hairs separating on the back of his neck, the dimple under his bottom lip, the way his eyes look like I could dive into them forever and never, ever hit bottom. I was too embarrassed to relay any of this silliness to Sou, so I just shrugged and said, “He’s beautiful.”
“That’s it?” Sou seemed displeased with the answer and started shoveling again.
“Well, I, I don’t really know.” I watched him shovel a few moments before starting again. We worked in awkward silence for a while.
“Avery…” Sou said, shoveling hard. “If you’re interested, you know, do you want to go to the opening with me?” He seemed a little nervous, and I was too dense to realize why.
“Hmmm, maybe. Will there be food?” I laughed and so did he.
“Oh yeah, lots of it. And you don’t need rations.”
“Oh, I’ll definitely go then.”
After work I was in a fairly good mood and was listening to some people at the market talk about what they were going to wear to the festival. It was a little embarrassing that I hadn’t noticed all the preparation going on around me, especially since our village, being a rural place, was extremely excited about this festival. It was tradition for men to wear a certain type of tunic over their clothes, and all the women were in long fancy orange or yellow skirts, both tied around the waist with a yellow cloth. I hadn’t noticed until I was listening to two local women walking in front of me discuss where they could buy the yellow ribbons for their family. I followed them vaguely and got in a long line behind them, pretending to have known where I was going.
As I was waiting I stared up at the bulging white clouds above, making up a dream like story about monsters and heroes and heroines, even a perfect city built upon rounded glass buildings that floated above our world, beyond the sky. I was still dwelling on this imaginary utopia when I heard a voice say softly in my ear, “What are you waiting for?” I jumped, looking to my side in shock. Simon laughed and took a step away from me.
“What?” I asked, a bit confused about what he meant.
“Are you waiting to get ribbons?” Simon had his hands behind his back, already holding several and slowly rocking on his heels.
“I heard we’re supposed to wear them tonight, so I thought I should.”
“You’re supposed to give them to people. Your relatives, your sweetheart, your friends sometimes.” He stood still and presented the ribbons for me to examine. He also had a dark blue one. “At the end of the night you give a blue one to your favorite person.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.” I was extremely embarrassed. “I don’t know if I should still get them.”
“Of course you should!” he laughed a little, kicking some rocks by our feet. “I at least expect to get one from you. I tried to buy them for you, but you can only get a few per person.”
I blushed and crossed my arms over my chest with a sigh. “I guess I will get them then. And I’m supposed to have a blue one too?” I wanted to give mine to him, but was sure I’d be too afraid in the end.
“Yeah. You wear it laced into the arm of the tunic. You don’t have to give it away if you don’t want to.”
“Oh? I don’t have a tunic either.”
One of the older ladies in front of us was listening to our conversation, and laughed a little as she told me I’ll never find one this late, you have to get them at least a month in advance, even for the plainest one.
“Ah, don’t worry. I got one for him,” Simon said, giving her a charming smile as he put down his pack. He took out a lightly shimmering green tunic with dark brown brocade around the front opening and sleeves. Tiny orange swirls were embroidered over the entire surface, with small white flowers swirling around it like a flock of birds. And if you looked closer there were dark green and brown shapes of frogs and toads.
“Oh, isn’t that beautiful. The color is so exotic! Try it on!” the old lady gasped.
I stared at it a moment, somehow doubting it were really okay for me to own and wear something so beautiful.
“Do you like it, Avery? Touch it. It’s really soft. It’s a special kind of thread.” Simon smiled a little nervously. He was looking down at me and holding up the tunic, black eyes completely unreadable.
“I, I do. But I’m still dirty from work.” I touched it just a little. He seemed to relax, but flushed as he handed it over to me.
“Don’t worry about that. Want to try it on? I might still be able to alter it if it doesn’t fit you right.”
I just nodded and took the tunic, removing my over shirt before slipping it on awkwardly. It settled on my body comfortably, very loosely. “Is this how it should fit?” I asked, looking at Simon.
He stared at me strangely, half smiling and half sort of in a daze. He blinked rapidly after a few seconds and said, “It fits perfectly.” Then his face changed a little, to a more playful yet less sincere expression. “Let me tie a ribbon on you.” He pulled one out of the yellow bunch and slipped it around my waist, embarrassing me beyond expression. I looked to the side, at the ground, anywhere but up at him. He just laughed and pulled me closer with the ribbon.
“Avery…” he said, and I finally looked at him. His lips were smiling playfully, but his eyes seemed strangely distressed.
“Yeah?” I said, looking away immediately.
“Sometimes…” He started tying the ribbon into a neat bow in the front. “You are very cute.” He got closer to me, whispering a few strange words as if to himself.
The older lady giggled a little and slapped Simon lightly. “Stupid boy, that’s how you tie a girl’s ribbon.”
“Is it?” Simon laughed, pretending to be embarrassed. He looked at me with raised eyebrows and untied the bow. “Well, you better take off the tunic. You don’t want to get it dirty before we go to the festival.”
We go to the festival? I didn’t know whether to be offended or charmed that Simon assumed I’d be going with him. Maybe if it were just the two of us it wouldn't be so bad to cancel with Sou. “Is Mikhail going with us?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Simon said and shrugged.
“Oh.” I took off my tunic, and he folded it neatly for me. “Actually, a friend of mine asked me to go with him.”
Simon paused for a moment and then looked at me with strangely feigned surprise. “He asked you to the opening?” I nodded, and Simon looked back at my tunic. “You know, its custom to ask someone you especially like to go with you.”
“Oh?” I thought about how nervously Sou had asked me. “So it’s like a date then?”
“Yeah,” Simon laughed lightly and stood. “So, who is it?”
“Sou. You met him once, right?”
“I’m not sure.”
“He’s a bit taller than you, with really dark skin and kind of thicker. He’s really nice, smiles all the time. He works with me.”
“Oh, I think I remember him. He’s pretty cute, huh?” Simon elbowed me light heartedly.
A deep pit seemed to open in my stomach and pull my heart down into it. I just blushed and nodded. Sou was generally an attractive man; I couldn’t deny that. But I had hoped that Simon would be at least a bit less excited that someone else wanted to take me.
“Maybe we can all go together? The four of us?” Simon continued as we approached the people selling ribbons. He bought me four yellow ones and a deep, sapphire blue one.
“I don’t need four. I think I only need two right?”
“Well, Mikhail will probably take one of yours. He’s the type to collect them from everyone he knows and show them off.” Simon put my ribbons in his bag. “And you should have an extra just in case.”
We walked back to our quarters lazily, stopping to buy bits of food and a few noisemakers. I stopped to shower, and Simon waited for me.
“Sou told me you’re supposed to set up a shrine to your family,” I said when we were near home. “Do you do that part?”
“I don’t have a lot of family. So I just have a tiny one for my mother and an old friend of mine.”
“Your mother, when did she…?”
“She died when I was younger. When I was about, fifteen or sixteen maybe?” We were silent awhile after that.
“I’m sorry. I haven’t seen my mother in almost a decade. Sometimes I think of her as dead. I don’t think I even remember her face anymore.” It was a horrible feeling and not one that I ever meant to share with another person. Simon didn’t say anything but put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it a little.
“I have something else to give you when we get inside."
“You don’t have to give me so many things.”
“You’ve been here for two years now.” Simon started down the ladder first. “And you turned eighteen this spring.”
“It’s strange, you know, my birthday is supposed to be in the fall.”
“Oh?” Simon smiled as he immediately started unlacing his tall boots. “Well, you do seem like you were born in the fall.”
“Really? When were you born?”
“I don’t know. Just that it was winter.”
“You don’t know your own birthday?” I stared at him in amazement.
“My mother didn’t know what day it was, but she remembered that it was very cold and there was a lot of snow.” He half laughed, pulling off one boot. “She used to say that’s why I cling to people, because I was born in the winter.”
“I don’t think you cling to people. What does it mean if you were born in the fall?”
“It means that you’re generally fine alone, but the nights are cold in the fall and only at the end of the day you look for someone to warm you." He wiggled his eyebrows a little suggestively. “People born in the summer are independent and passionate. People born in the spring seem shy, but are unpredictable and adventurous.”
“I dunno. There aren’t enough variations for everyone to fit in,” I laughed.
“Well, it really depends on the year and what part of the season, is what she told me. It’s all really complicated stuff.” Simon waved his hand in dismissal. “Don’t worry about it.”
“But it’s interesting.” I sat next to him, helping him pull off the other boot.
He stared at me a moment, then looked toward the smallest trunk. It was open, much to my surprise, as I hadn’t seen it open since the night he drunkenly gave me a piece of the sky. It was set up as a small shrine, two tiny copper urns on either side of a top shelf with a few foods and things set up around them. In the center there were three large white flowers in a brown vase and a row of eight unlit, colorful candles.
“My mother was a witch you know.” He nodded toward the shrine.
“What? Don’t be stupid, there’s no such thing,” I laughed but was secretly intrigued.
“Be careful, it’s bad luck to laugh at a dead witch,” he teased. “She really was, at least that’s what some people said. She came from over the mountains, and she knew how to make a lot of medicines and drugs. She taught me how to make most of them, and we traveled around selling them. That's partly how I first got my job here, as sort of a doctor. ” He stared at the shrine. “She wasn’t married, and sometimes she told me I didn’t have a father, that she’d found me in the ice of a mountain pass.”
The description made my heart jump into my throat. I had always associated Simon with ice and snow, but I had no logical explanation. He wasn’t particularly cold to me, or to anyone for that matter. He smiled often, was polite, giving, funny. But his eyes were different, and I almost cherished the fact that only I seemed to know that there was a thick layer of ice covering their true depths.
“Maybe she did?” I said after a while.
He laughed dryly. “No, I look exactly like him, like my father. I’ve met him.”
“Oh? I look like my mother.”
“Then you can remember her face, if you look at your own. I always see my father when I look in the mirror. Except his eyes were very blue.” Simon did not look in mirrors often, and then I knew why. He did not have a shrine for his father, which meant that he was either still alive or not considered part of his family.
“You don’t like him?” I asked hesitantly.
“I don’t really know him very well. And my mother... she was a strange woman. Can’t speak ill of the dead though, you know.” He stood, which meant that he wanted to change the subject. “Do I look clean enough? Should I go shower?” I had just gone to the shower after work, but Simon still looked even cleaner than me.
“I think you’ll be fine.” I rolled my eyes, and he laughed.
“Let’s get dressed then, even though it’s early.”
I changed into my nicer pair of brown pants and started cleaning up my boots to avoid watching Simon change his clothes. I still peeked at him of course, but only a little. He was turned away from me, pulling white pants over a pair of skin tight white trunks. I gazed at his back while he was buckling his belt, watching the shadows on it change with the motion of his arms and the way it seemed to heave gently with his slow, deep breaths. The muscle and bone and skin seemed to move with such strange, tender purpose, so beautiful and amazingly free of my own volition. What a strange thing the otherness of another's body can be. He pulled a white shirt over his head, and I looked away, furiously cleaning my boots.
“Do you like the colors of your tunic?”
“Yeah. I like green.”
“It makes your eyes look nice. A very rich brown,” he said. “The orange reminded me of that hat you had, the one I burned a hole in.”
“Oh yeah, I lost it a little while ago.”
“Really?” Simon had pulled his tunic over his head, and I was watching him lace his blue ribbon into its sleeve. The base color was a beautiful, rich blue, the trim and brocade a creamy white. The embroidery throughout the cloth was also mostly white with small bits of light blue and green that depicted tall waves, bits of ice, tiny fish, and one large fish like creature with ribs on its belly wrapped around his right side. He was brushing his overgrown red hair with his fingers and trying to place it without using a mirror. It wasn’t long enough to pull back, and the wild strands curled in some places, were straight in others. I watched the shadows of his white fingers tangling into the glowing orange, and to me it looked like burned ice trying to tame fire.
“Beautiful,” I sighed, and he smiled while holding out his arms to show me the tunic. Embarrassed because I was not talking about the tunic, I looked away and started putting on my boots.
“My mother made it,” he said. “I told you she was strange, obsessed with water. Very good at embroidery though. That's something else she taught me." He pulled on a pair of tall, cream color boots that I had only rarely ever seen him wear. They went to his knees, but they had buttons hidden on the sides that made them easier to take on and off than his normal boots. He stood up, still adjusting his clothing as he brought a long, cloth covered object out from under his bed.
“Put on your tunic,” he said, and I did as he asked. He adjusted it for me, and then unwrapped the object, revealing a beautiful, somewhat ornate sword. I had guessed it was a sword the moment I saw the shape of it, but I hadn’t imagined it would be so unique. He brought it to me, laying it over his hands so I could see the entire thing.
“This is really for me?” I asked, wanting so badly to touch it. The cross guard was silver with light, sprawling leaved branches of overlaid copper. The grip was brown leather and the pummel a silver ball swirled around with the same copper tree branches. The blade was a medium width, and it seemed just the right length for someone my size. “It’s beautiful. It had to cost a fortune.” I looked at him again, and he just shrugged.
“My friend Lerato made it. It’s a late birthday present, since he couldn’t finish it on time. You like it?”
“Then take it.” He laughed, holding it out to me.
“I’m still terrible with a sword. I don’t deserve to have one so beautiful.”
“It was made for you, Avery.” Simon took my right hand and put it on the sword. “So take it already.” I looked at his face, his frightening dark eyes staring sternly right into mine. And as I closed my fingers around the grip, he seemed to relax a little, eyes softening as I lifted the weight out of his hands. It was a lot lighter than the communal metal swords used for practice, but the weight was still substantial, comfortable, and very pleasing.
“And of course!” Simon said happily once I’d removed the sword. He started wrapping a belt and brown scabbard around my waist, pulling me close while he fastened them on. It was quite embarrassing, and I looked to the side to avoid looking at him.
I found myself staring down at his shrine, and into the box he always kept locked. There were a few embroidered handkerchiefs inside, little bits of jewelry, photographs, and papers.
“It’s just old junk,” Simon said, and I looked at him quickly. He was still extremely close to me, but he’d finished putting on my belt long ago. “I can’t seem to throw it away though.” His face was so close to mine I could feel his breath on my mouth. I was only ten or so centimeters shorter than him, but it suddenly felt like he was much, much larger than me. I couldn’t look at his eyes, desperately trying to find somewhere else to look but always finding his lips or his neck. Those were almost just as terrifying. “Avery…” he seemed to be whispering. “Can I ask you something?”
“Um, sure, okay.” I was not very graceful and could feel the sword already slipping out of my sweating palms.
There was a loud noise above us, and he stepped away from me quickly, looking up to the door. I blanched in shock and turned away from him, inadvertently pressing my free hand to my pounding chest.
“Simon!” Mikhail called down. “Are you two dressed yet?”
Simon rolled his eyes and called up, “Yes. But you’re awfully early again, Mikhail. It seems like I just left you. Like you’re around every moment, of every day.” This was how all of Simon’s relationships ended; he got tired of them.
“Should I go and come back then?” He was already climbing down the ladder.
“Don’t be stupid.” Simon crossed his arms and glared at Mikhail. They must have gotten in a fight while I was at work, because their attitude toward each other was completely different from earlier.
Mikhail’s tunic had orange for the base and bright yellow trim, the embroidery mixed with yellows, more oranges, and some reds. He already had three yellow ribbons tied around his waist, two in the male fashion and one in the female fashion. His blue ribbon was still laced into his sleeve, and against his tunic it reminded me of the inside of flame.
“What is that?” Simon laughed; pointing to Mikhail’s forward facing ribbon.
“Just an old friend’s joke, my love,” Mikhail laughed, fixing the ribbon back to the male fashion before taking a ribbon from his pocket.
“Avery gets to give me my first one,” Simon said plainly and pushed him away.
“Oh?” Mikhail was more offended than I expected and looked at me quite sharply.
“We live in the same house; that’s how it works.” Simon turned away from him and looked at me. “Are you ready Avery?”
“Ummm, yeah.” I fumbled around for my ribbons, finally locating them and clumsily pulling one free from the others. “How do I tie it?”
“However you want,” Simon laughed.
I thought I would die as I stepped behind him, my hands shaking a little as I pulled the ribbon under his arms and over his belly. Then I tied it neatly into a bow in the back. When I finished and stepped away, Mikhail burst with laughter.
“That’s perfect for you, Simon.”
“What? What’s wrong with it?” Simon asked, trying to look at the bow.
“It’s a girl’s bow, but done in the back like a boy’s.” Simon glared at him, clenching his jaw, black eyes unmoving. “Like you.”
“I’m sorry; I’ll fix it!” I tried to untie it, but Simon put a hand on my chest and pushed me away.
“It’s fine the way it is,” he said quietly. Then he picked up another ribbon and slipped it around me, tying it in the front, but without making it into a neat bow. “You’ll wear the match to it.”
“Oh, okay,” I said and blushed.
“That’s a very queer way of tying a ribbon you know, Avery,” Mikhail said. “Everyone will think you’re queer.”
“I, that’s okay,” I said, looking at the ribbon. “I am, I guess.”
“Yeah, so shut up already Mikhail. Not everyone wants to expend so much energy pretending to be normal,” Simon laughed and put a hand on my shoulder. “We’ll wear our ribbons however the hell we want to.” I was highly enjoying the way Simon was treating Mikhail and really wished he would just get angry and leave so that Simon and I could go to the festival, just the two of us, only one queer ribbon each. But Mikhail just rolled his eyes and tied a ribbon around Simon in the male fashion.
We walked to the festival early, and Simon volunteered us to help set up free children’s games. Mikhail found something more interesting to do after only a few minutes and left. I was glad for once that he was so self-centered. However, there were also a lot of young women helping with the games, and one in particular that would not stop staring at Simon. He didn’t seem to notice, but I made sure to glare at her as often and as meanly as I possibly could, even attempting to make her eyes explode in her head merely with my thoughts. From my many attempts to do this to Mikhail I knew it wouldn’t work, but I enjoyed the imagery nonetheless.
“Can I stay and help run the games?” Simon asked the women in charge.
“Don’t worry about it honey,” one of them said and put a hand on his shoulder. “You two go enjoy the festival.”
“He’s got another date, I’m afraid,” Simon laughed, scratching the back of his head. The girl that was staring at him blushed and remained very attentive to what was being said. I glared at her still, but my heart had already sunk. I started to wonder what time it was, wishing we’d left earlier so I had more time to spend with just Simon. “And it looks like mine has ditched me.” The girl squirmed happily, and I imagined holding her head under water until the life just expired out of her. Doesn't she know that Simon is mine and only mine?! She should just stop it already!
“Poor thing,” the woman laughed. “Stay here with us then. We’ll feed you.”
I said I wanted to stay and watch the little kids play games, but Simon was already guiding me out of the tent. He put a yellow ribbon in my hand, and told me that I had better get going or Sou would think I stood him up. “You’re already late.”
“I am? We can come back and help out if you want.”
“Don’t worry. I’m just going to wait for Mikhail. He’ll come sulking back when it gets dark.” Simon straightened my tunic for me and started turning my ribbon to the back.
“Leave it,” I said, grabbing his hand for a moment and then taking my own away in embarrassment. My god, I thought, I really am getting over stimulated by him lately.
“All right,” he laughed. “If you want it that way.” He pushed me out of the tent and patted me on the back. It reminded me of the way a father would send out a son, and something solidified in my stomach. I walked forward anyway, looking at the ground in misery.
I found Sou where we’d arranged to meet. He was sitting around a large rock with several other people that seemed to be waiting. His tunic was yellow with orange trimmings and small green leaves and grasses for the embroidery. I wondered if he had been born in the summer because his tunic reminded me of warm, carefree days. He noticed me coming and stood up, brushing some dust from his black pants.
“I wondered if you would have a tunic,” he said, smiling brightly. I held my arms out, but he was looking at the ribbon tied around me. “It’s very beautiful.”
“Simon gave it to me.”
“Did he make it? Green is a rare color for that fabric.” He started walking behind me. “The plant doesn’t grow in that color around here, and you can’t dye it.”
“Really? I don’t know where he got it.” I was a little startled that he was standing behind me so closely.
“His is even stranger, totally blue. And you’ve got a sword? It’s just as pretty.”
“I like the leaves on the copper branches and…”
“Did Simon tie your ribbon like that?” He interrupted, his hands suddenly under my arms as he slipped a ribbon around my waist and tied it plainly in the back.
“Simon, I mean, I, I made a mistake and tied his oddly. So he tied mine like that too.”
“You know what it means right?”
“Well, Mikhail said it was a queer thing.”
“It means you’re a boy who wants to be treated like a girl.”
“Oh?” I said, playing with both ribbons.
“Do you want me to fix it for you?” I looked up at him, but then back at the ground as I shook my head. Then I remembered that I had a ribbon for him as well.
“Can I tie this on you?” I asked, and when I looked at him he was smiling and gently touched some curls that had fallen in my eyes.
I looked away from him immediately. “Of course,” he laughed and turned around. I tried to slip the ribbon around without touching him, but he was much larger than me and it was impossible. The hardness of his body was strangely surprising, namely the seemingly never ending expanse of his broad, straight back. I accidentally tied the ribbon into a bow, but thought that Sou would not find that amusing and fixed it.
“Let’s go get something to eat,” I said and started toward the festival booths. “I’ll buy the first thing.”
“I’ll buy for you,” Sou said, and I looked at him suspiciously.
“What, Simon can tie your bow backward, but I can’t treat you to dinner?”
I shrugged. “You need to save your money.”
He let me buy the first of the food, which we decided would be some spiced chicken on a stick. Then he bought us some stuffed pancakes, and I bought us mugs of beer. It was fun not eating in rations, and it reminded me of picnics we’d had together on off days at the archives. It was generally a pleasant evening, though we didn’t have much to talk about aside from work and the foods we were eating.
We played a few games, lit some candles for the dead, and gave some money to Sou’s family spirits. All the guardian spirits were animals, and Sou’s family belonged to the ox clan, as they had come from the mountains or something. I had wondered what Simon’s family spirit was but never got around to asking him. Sou was as nice as always, maybe a bit flirtier than normal, and for some reason, so very, very tiring.
I remember also eating hard red candy mushrooms on sticks, an odd tribute to decay, and I immediately found them hilariously phallic. I smiled about it and looked at Sou. I didn’t know if he’d find it as amusing as I did. He’d probably think it was just a little bit funny or kind of disgusting. Right? I really didn’t know him that well. I was about to tell him about it when I saw Simon out of the corner of my eye. It was just a flash of dark blue and white and red, but my eyes followed it immediately and left me walking right into the person in front of me.
“What are you looking at?” Sou laughed and followed my eyes. “Ah, ” he said when he saw Simon, still not showing much agitation.
Simon was sitting at the tables under some large yellow tents, drinking pink wine and looking at Mikhail in irritation. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I knew why Mikhail refilled Simon’s wine glass before it was even empty. Simon is a good-natured drunk; he’d probably let you do anything to him. I was already walking toward them when Sou put a hand on my shoulder to stop me.
“I don’t think you should bother them,” he said. “Looks like they’re fighting.”
“They usually are. It won’t be a bother.” I shrugged off his hand, and we both walked up to Simon and Mikhail.
“Oh, hi Avery,” Simon said, smiling widely. He already seemed quite drunk.
“How did the games go?”
“I wouldn’t know. Someone didn’t let me stay.” Simon glared at Mikhail and drank more wine.
“Just keep drinking, sweetheart,” he grumbled in return.
“God, I hate you,” Simon sighed flatly. He stood lethargically and put a hand on my shoulder, looking down at my face then up to Sou. Sou was only a few centimeters taller than him, but much thicker. His smile returned. “I don’t remember you being so tall, last time we met.”
“I was down in a hole, at work with Avery.”
“Ah, that’s it!” Simon laughed and lightly slapped him on the chest. Then he went back to me, holding out my arms and then looking at Sou. “Don’t you like his tunic? It’s perfect for him right?” He giggled a little, and then I was sure that he was beyond drunk, maybe even a little bit stoned or something?
“It’s very nice.” Sou smiled politely, and I found the tone of his voice heartbreakingly condescending.
Simon stared at him a moment, perhaps not as drunk as he was pretending to be. “Guess where I got the fabric to make it?” He kept his tone of voice very cheery and though still talking to Sou he suddenly bent down to my ear and whispered, “The Middle.”
“What?” I asked in confusion, but he just laughed and downed half his glass of wine.
“Come on Simon, you’re embarrassing the kid,” Mikhail said and took him by the arm.
“I am not!” Simon laughed. “Am I darling?”
“No,” I laughed and shook my head. I started eating my candy again, staring up at him and swaying nervously on my sore feet. He burst out laughing and pulled my candy out of my mouth.
“Don’t eat it like that, Avery,” he laughed.
“Why?” I asked with a smile.
“You’re secretly very pervy aren’t you?” Simon raised his eyebrows and squinted at me in mock disapproval. “I thought you didn’t like sweet things?” He took my candy and started eating it, dipping it in the glass of wine and then licking off the melted liquid. I couldn’t help but stare at his mouth as the red tip of the mushroom pushed through his moist, pink lips.
“Gross. Come on, Simon. We’re going,” Mikhail grumbled.
“Ah, going where?” he sighed, giving me back my candy.
“I told you.” Mikhail hushed his voice through gritted teeth. “Back to my quarters.”
“Do I have to?” Simon whined, but took Mikhail’s outstretched hand.
“Yes,” Mikhail growled as Simon’s arms wrapped around one of his.
“Really?” Simon no longer seemed amused and looked down at the ground blankly. Mikhail rolled his eyes and started walking them forward. Simon followed. As they pressed into the crowd, for some reason Simon turned his head and looked at me. His eyes looked completely different than they ever had before. They stabbed into me, pulling me along as they disappeared. I couldn’t move or breathe, and it took me a few moments to realize the eyes were gone in reality long before I’d stopped staring at them.
“Avery,” Sou put a hand on my shoulder. “You shouldn’t think about it so much.”
“Think about what?” I said with a smile. “I’m just tired. Let’s start home.” I was eating my candy again, but it tasted like wine. And Simon was right; it was disgustingly sweet. My teenage mind also thought it was kind of like an indirect kiss, and I felt a bit strange doing it when Simon was gone. I threw it away, and Sou ordered us beers. Then we walked away from the tents and slowly made our way out of the festival. Once we were alone on the path, I remember the sound of the festivities felt oddly distant and frightening.
“You really, really like him don’t you?” Sou said suddenly, making me flinch. I didn’t say anything and took another drink from my beer. “You, you do prefer men, right Avery?”
“Yes, I do,” I sighed. It was an annoying question, and I was getting tired of hearing it.
“Simon’s only pretty like that because he’s really a girl,” he burst, suddenly showing all of his aggravation. I stopped walking and stared at him, not sure what to say. I was firstly surprised he actually believed I liked Simon for his beauty. Simon is beautiful, but I can objectively say he is not physically beautiful enough to make someone really love him just for that. And did he really think I could love anyone just for their beauty?
I was also very annoyed that he had so neatly decided that Simon was ‘really a girl.’ What does he know about it anyway? Being really a man or really a woman? Was it about genitals? What a deeply boring and impossibly inaccurate way to live. Sou was nice, a relaxing friend, but in that moment he became another of the ordinary ones that only want to see what they can touch. The type that sees a beautiful mountain, so then they must climb all over it to be sure it’s real and conquerable. Why not feel the breath of a sleeping giant? Or just appreciate the beauty of the purple slopes against the bareness of the night sky. I really wished he would just go home and let me mourn tonight’s loss in peace. But I knew he wouldn’t, and we continued to walk along silently.
“I don’t think you understand…” I started to say. He cut me off.
“No, I don’t think you understand. I kind of like you Avery. I understand if you don’t like me but... I just don’t want you to get hurt falling for someone who can’t satisfy you in the end.”
I looked at the ground, kicking some dirt as I thought about what he was saying. He put two hands on my shoulders and then put one under my chin to make me look up at him. I had a feeling he expected me to be crying or something silly like that, but my forehead was only wrinkled heavily in annoyance. He kissed me anyway, wrapping a hand behind my head and pulling me up towards his mouth. I let him kiss me, but when he broke I put my hand on his chest and tried to push him away. He was too heavy, and I ended up making myself fall backward a little instead.
“I…” I looked at the ground and immediately saw the ribbon that Simon had tied on me. I touched it, and a strange wave a relaxation splashed over my shoulders. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to be. I know you’re new to this life, and you’re probably confused.”
I realized then that Sou had built an image of me that was completely different from reality. I was not soft and sweet and nice, attached to Simon out of gratitude and ignorance. I was never really afraid of the world in the Outer Rim, and I wondered what Sou thought the world I came from was like, if he knew about the way people treated someone like me there. I’m not just some delicate rich boy; I am stubborn and strange, angry, silly, perverted, lazy, idealistic, conniving, and definitely both intelligent and bold enough to understand that only I have the right to decide who can satisfy me.
“I…” I reached behind my back, feeling the loose knot. He watched me pull on it, eyes filling with pain. “I’m not confused.”
“Avery, I’m sorry,” he said, but I kept untying the knot. “You don’t have to…”
When the knot was loose, I tied it into a bow. He looked confused, not knowing what I had been doing behind my back. “I have to go get him.”
“He’s with Mikhail.”
“I know. That’s why I have to go. I’m always doing nothing. But today I…” I turned away from him. “I love him. I’m sorry, Sou. I’ll see you at work?”
“Yeah,” he said slowly, and I could feel his eyes staring at the bow on my back. “I’ll see you at work, Avery.”
I started running slowly, then faster and faster as I got further away from him. I felt like I was running from the entire situation, hoping that if I ran fast enough I could undo what had just happened. I didn’t want to lose Sou’s friendship, and I found myself running to keep it, running to make myself take Simon away from Mikhail while we were still standing in the tents, when his eyes were asking me to save him from the monsters hidden in the clouds.