She resisted the urge to turn her head and acknowledge the uncertain voice laced with false nonchalance and the person to whom it belonged. Instead, she closed her eyes to the warm summer breeze and let the brilliant hues of reflected sunset seep into her eyelids, blending into a comforting shade of crimson.
"Hey, Melissa. You awake?"
Footsteps became louder behind her until she could hear his breathing a few feet above her head, fading into the rustle of wild grass being tickled by the breeze. She kept her eyes closed, but responded, "Hey, Jake."
He sat down beside her on the empty, tranquil hilltop facing the painted clouds on the horizon. Finally she opened her eyes and turned to look at him, taking in the uncombed shock of bleached-blond hair above his pale, sharp features. His deep-blue-eyed gaze searched the distant stretches of land half-heartedly, and she thought she heard a sigh escape his lips.
"Where the hell have you been, anyway?" She broke the silence with her quiet tone of forced indifference. Realizing abruptly that she was staring at his profile, she turned her head toward the countryside below, glancing occasionally at his worn black sneakers stretched out before the two of them.
"At Erin's house."
He seemed unconcerned about the fact that he was almost an hour late, she observed. The sunset was almost over; a star had already begun to twinkle high overhead, impatient with its younger sibling's slow departure. Who the hell is Erin, she thought. And why am I not surprised that she's more important to him than I am. She studied her fingernails, wishing she had the nervous habit of biting them down, just so she could do something right now other than sit here feeling like an idiot.
When she didn't respond aloud, he said, "You don't know her. We went to high school together. I've been staying at her place for the past couple of days, just 'til I find my own pad."
She caught the sidelong glance he stole at her, but pretended not to.
He went back to watching the glowing orb sink into a far-off hill, not unlike the one they were perched on, and she couldn't help noticing that his eyes looked bluer when he squinted.
Acid trickled into her stomach and that odd ache crept through her rib cage and around her shoulder blades.
"Erin," was all she said in reply.
"Yeah. Erin Maloney. You don't know her," he repeated, almost as if to imply that that made a difference somehow. Difference in what? She wondered. What the hell does it matter, difference in what? God damn it, he must really want to piss me off today.
Melissa, of course, had been the one to call Jake after not hearing from him for a month. Any effort on his part to communicate was rare, though he seemed to enjoy it once she got the ball rolling, and was always sad to end it. Maybe she should be grateful that he even decided to make the twenty-minute drive down here, but gratitude proved a difficult emotion to muster.
The sun disappeared, and stars began to freckle the bruised sky. Melissa stretched her legs beside Jake's and lay down among the long blades of wild grass to stare into the descending nighttime. She felt Jake watching her as she folded her hands neatly over her stomach, the way she always did when she was lying down. She glanced at him, the remaining twilight framing his face and golden hair, casting long sideways eyelash-shadows along his cheekbones. He seemed to be contemplating her folded hands with a look of inexplicable sadness. The aching in her rib cage continued.
"So what's up?" he asked absently, not taking his eyes off her mid-section.
"Nothing much. School's boring. There's no one to talk to." He already knew I was lonely, she decided. Nothing to hide there. Too bad I don't have any guys to make him jealous with. Who the fuck is this Erin chick, anyway? "What's up with you?"
"Nothing." His typical answer. It never changed. She wondered if he would lie down, too. She hated lying down while he was still sitting.
"You still working at that place?" -- no need to let him know she remembered the name of that stupid store he worked at downtown. He was still staring at her hands, so she turned over onto her side and began to pluck at the especially long blades of grass, wrapping each blade several times around her index finger, and then unwrapping them again.
Jake blinked and looked at her face again. "Yeah, I'm still working there. It sucks. I wanna quit soon."
"Well, where are you going to work, then?"
He shrugged and looked down at the grass she was plucking. "I dunno. I probably won't quit. I need the money." She nodded slowly, wondering why this Erin girl was charging him rent. Then again, maybe she wasn't. Maybe Jake was just spending money on whiskey and acid and pot and all that other crap he liked to fill his life with.
Finally he settled back into the grass beside her, resting his head on top of bony arms and staring up into the sky. Absently he played with the barbell through his chin, clacking it rhythmically against his teeth. Melissa watched him in the almost-blackness as the breeze grew cooler. How long will we stay here? she wondered. A million times before and still in the same place. Her ears tuned into his steady breathing, her eyes followed the occasional blink of long blond lashes as he pondered things she could only guess at. She opened her mouth to speak, shut it again. Her neck was getting sore from the awkward position, and she sat up, looking down into his face, her chin resting in her palms.
He tore his gaze away from the unknown and looked back at her. A million things to say went through her mind, each rejected and never voiced. His eyes searched her face, seemed to find everything she was trying to hide, but he remained silent.
Melissa bit her lip, not sure whether she was about to laugh or cry. A cold gust of wind suddenly brushed the hilltop and she shivered in her tee shirt.
Abruptly, Jake sat up, facing her, and gently leaned in to kiss her forehead. "I gotta go," he said quietly. "Erin's bringing me to her friend's party tonight." Melissa only nodded, staring at the eyes that somehow retained their blueness in the black of night. She kept staring as he got up to leave. "I'll see you around, 'Lissa. Call me sometime." He turned around and walked back toward his old, rusted blue Ford parked on the other side of the hilltop.
She watched him until he disappeared into the black, then turned
back around, scrubbing her eyes with the back of her hands. Hugging her
knees to her chest, she sighed deeply and gazed at the place, now
invisible in the black, where the sun had set.
© 2000 by the author, all rights reserved
appears here by permission