Friday, October 4, 2013
Crossing the bridge takes patience. Thirty seven planks that need to be counted just right. If I miss a step, the clouds surround me. They scream and roll, twisting into stampedes of midnight colored horses or snarling wildcats. My own personal demons. And they know who's in control.
I do everything they demand of me. Skip the third plank because it squeaks. Go back if I forget to count one. Go back if I say a number wrong. Go back. Go back. Go back. And when I finally reach the end, I breathe a sigh of relief that I made it. Every day. To and from school in an endless cycle, as if I'm caught in a whirlpool and no one is stretching out their arms to save me.
But today...today I can't do it. It's too hard. I don't want to cross the bridge anymore. So I turn around and go home. Tell my mom I'm sick and hide in my room where the light switch taunts me. I feel the rectangular knob, worn nearly to a point from overuse. Flick it. Once, twice, three times... The clouds burst into my vision black and menacing, deeper and stronger than thunder. Seven, Eight, Nine...
I yank my hand off the switch and breathe through the urges. "My obsessives," I used to say. Before my mom noticed. Before the doctors named the imbalance in my brain. Before the medicine. Before I lied and said I was better.
In a way, I was better. And worse.
I pull my fingers through my hair and stumble into bed.
The ceiling fan spins too fast to count the rotations, so I watch it to focus my mind. To blow away the clouds. To remind me of what's real. Of school and drama club, and the cute new boy Mom hired to tutor me because I'm failing math.
“It's just a bad day,” I whisper beneath the hum of the motor. “Tomorrow will be better. Please, please let tomorrow be better.” But I know it won't.
Eventually the fan makes me dizzy so I bury my head beneath my covers and sleep. No clouds. No darkness. Just living breathing colors. A safe zone.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Three taps pull me out of my dream. I emerge like a cranky ostrich forced to remove its head from the ground.
“Go away,” I mutter, mostly to the hearts on my sheets. All 352 of the damn things.
“Sarah. It's me, Luke.”
No. No! No! Not my math tutor. He already thinks I'm stupid. He can't know I'm a freak too. That the reason I take so long to do my work isn't because I don't know the answer. It's because I keep messing up the curves and the lines of the numbers.
Because I'm messed up.
He comes in anyway. I press my fingers into my eyes. I don't want to count the stripes in his shirt or his dimples.
“I've got your school work. Your mother said to bring it in.”
I drag my hands down my face. “Of course she did.” God forbid I miss an assignment.
He takes another step toward me. His army green backpack strains at the seams with the extra weight of my books. “I can help if you like.”
I shrug, though I would like it. Very much.
His narrow eyes squint until they nearly disappear. They're soft. Perfect. “Are you okay?”
I sniff. I hadn't been crying, but it feels like the thing to do. “Yeah. I just...” I gesture to myself, not sure what I mean by it. “Do you want to get started?”
He stuffs one hand into his pocket and scrunches up his shoulders, sucking his neck into his collar like a turtle. “Can we?” He hooks his free thumb toward my desk.
I slog out of bed, fight the urge to count my steps, but do anyway. When I reach my desk, I grab hold of the corner so I don't go back and recount them. The intensity in his eyes helps.
Eyes. Can he see? Does he know?
I blow out a breath, pushing the clouds away as I sit down and open up my math book.
He sits next to me.
I have two chairs in my room. The swivel kind so when I fidget, our knees touch. I want to draw hash marks on the side of my paper to count the number of times.
I stay home from school again, sticking the thermometer against a light bulb so my mother has proof of my illness. If I tell her the real reason, she'll make me take the medicine again. I can't do that, because then I'll be crazy and an insomniac.
I count the hours until Luke comes. I think of his perfect shoelaces, and the way he writes. Round and straight, like a kindergarten teacher. I wish I could do that.
He's exactly on time, and wears a smile all the way up to his eyes. For the first time in thirty eight months, the clouds don't seem quite so dark.
We trudge through our work, and while I erase my numbers, he takes my hand. I stop erasing and think of his hand and the calluses on his fingertips. I wonder if he plays guitar.
My work takes less time than usual.
My third day home. My mother insists it's the last.
When Luke comes, I'm already at my desk, gripping my pencil because I don't want tomorrow to come.
Math is more difficult. The numbers bend where they should be straight. Wilting and pooling on the page. The clouds claw at the edge of my vision. I grit my teeth and reach for my pink eraser. Luke stills my hand.
“No,” he says. “Once is enough.” I drop the eraser and turn to him. His eyes glisten with the same perfection that defines everything about him.
My breath catches. He knows. He understands. “Did my mother hire you because--”
He shakes his head slowly, his eyes fixed on me. “Only my family knows. And now you.” He slides his hand behind my neck, and I tremble.
“How do you--” My words choke and burn. He loans me his shoulder, and I soak his shirt with my fears.
How do you do it? I want to ask.
He tilts his mouth toward my ear and whispers, “I'll show you.”
An hour later, we stand in front of the bridge. The clouds roll in, shifting and swirling, obscuring everything. Growling. Gnashing.
“Sar--. Yo-- r—dy?” Luke's voice comes through tinny, like it's being broadcast over my grandpa's old CB radio. Bad reception. Syllables popping in and out.
I want to run home. Watch the fan. Hide.
His hand catches mine. Our fingers tangle, and I squeeze, finding my purchase in an intangible world.
“I'll count to three,” he says, “and we'll do it together.”
I stare at the bridge. At its thirty seven impossible planks. “Numbers, huh?”
He makes a sound, like he had wanted it to be a laugh, but it broke somewhere along the way. “Yeah.”
“Okay, then.” I puff out my cheeks and blow. “Three.”
One foot. Then the next. I dare the clouds by not counting. Instead, I focus on Luke's hand. The calluses on his fingertips. The press of his palm against mine. A board creaks. I freeze. Claws swipe at me, but I don't go back. I blow out another breath, sending the beasts back to their hidden caves, and move forward.
It takes several minutes, but we reach the end and step off onto the flat dirt path. The clouds don't follow. I look at him and sniffle; the tears give me a reason. “I did it.”
He cups my face in his hands and presses his lips to my forehead. “You did.”
But there are still so many bridges. “Will you walk me to school tomorrow?” It's not so much a question, but a plea.
“Every day.” An absolute.
I curl up against his chest and feel his arms tighten around me. I press my ear against his heartbeat and listen forever, until I lose track of the numbers.
Picture by: Jim Crossley