She ran across the halls of the school in a rush. Her brunette hair fluttered behind her like the train of a wedding dress, long and silky. The sparkle in her eyes, the cadence to her voice, and the gentle gestures of her hand were her physical indications. If I could capture that moment for the rest of her life, I would.
She looked at me from across the round table on the second floor of the library. She watched me continue to type. She waited for me to finish studying. She wasn’t attending school like she had planned. I was in college. She was unemployed. The bags under eyes mirrored that of my own, but deeper. Her eyes were dry and red. Everything about her seemed sickly. Ragged as she seemed, she still wore an ear to ear smile. She wore a long-sleeved shirt under a summer floral dress. And it was a habit. I showed her mine, and she showed hers.
I outstretched my arm, rolled the sleeves of my jacket to show her nothing, while the lines across her wrists were the roads to the infinite tears of loneliness she shed in a random bathroom sometime between her drive from home to my school. They were the physical representations of the failed promises that were made to her. Ultimately, they were her. The color of red was always Richelle Valentine.
She was seated at the passenger’s seat with her older brother. The night was darker than usual, and the wind strong. It swayed the car as they drove home from a small sibling weekday date.
Her older brother wasn’t home most of the time, always at his dorm. Andrew was her hero. She looked up to him the way a younger sibling would. The love she had for him withstood even the love she had for her parents.
She was six years his junior, but they were close. He had no problems telling her stories of frat parties and days he felt like drinking even though he was only at the tender age of 19. They were the best of friends.
The swaying car was like a crib that lulled her to sleep. She nodded off every other second, while she pinched herself to stay awake. A moment with Andrew was a precious one. She remembers the swaying, and she sways with it whenever she recalls the moment. Her body will rock side to side, and her eyes will instinctively shut at the bright light in front of her. A firm hand grapples to hold her down against her seat while forgetting everything else.
The sound of metal against metal screeches the car to a halt. There is only one other voice besides her own.
Elle was around eight when she started to make friends outside of her brother’s circle. She started liking girlier things, straying away as best she could from the toy cars and action figures her brother played with. But they would eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together every day except on days he slept over at a friend’s house. She preferred chocolate milk, while he chose orange juice. What was sour and bitter to her then was sweet to her now.
She traced the rim of the coffee cup in the same fashion I did when in deep contemplation. I had picked it up from her, having known her for almost a decade. And she continued to do so for a whole hour without looking away.
She owned only one thing in her whole life that she carried with her from one white room to another. It was a short two-feet-tall side table with one drawer. The knob had been replaced twice before. When she was six, it was a simple wooden mass manufactured knob. During her girly phase, she had it changed into a crystal knob that she screwed on herself because deep down, she was still a little boyish. Around the time of her eleventh birthday, she had a huge fight with Andrew.
She tells me all the time. She’s only ever known violence in the eyes of the people that loved her too greatly. Andrew didn’t mean to lay a hand on her, she reminds me. He didn’t mean to knock over her porcelain doll that she worked so hard to get. All the hours of doing chores that earned her about five dollars per hour wasn’t wasted. And I’ll nod because I want her to understand, she wasn’t at fault either.
The crystal knob was replaced with a wooden knob that Andrew had made for her weeks later in shop class. It was better, she will say.
The blinding light that night rendered her useless. She was strapped down by the seat belt that automatically locked when Andrew dug his foot down on the breaks. He spun the wheel with a sort of panic and determination that turned her side of the car away. The sound of metal against metal screeched into her ear like the highest note of a violin being played. The wind swayed the car; she could hear the horns. The trees rustling were a combination of the flute and viola. And it was a symphony that only she could hear. The ending of the concert consisted of drumming sounds.
At thirteen, she lugged around that small drawer with her from room to room. Men and women dressed in white coats and scrubs tried to understand why this little girl hummed as she walked. They never wondered about the drawer.
She sat still before me, still not saying a word. Her breathing was calm and quiet. No sound could be heard from her save for the soft friction between her index finger and paper cup. I could smell the strong bitter coffee that we both shared an interest in.
Her taste for bitter coffee was something she acquired after graduating high school back in 2009, and a taste she perfected a year later. No sugar, she would always say. Add an extra shot of espresso, please. Even with dessert, she preferred a mint over all the pastries a restaurant could offer.
They met between breakfast and lunch, and during recreational time. She always sat quietly alone at a corner playing chess.
“It’s a game for two,” he cheekily mentions to her in passing.
He was one of the many wearing white scrubs.
They both knew their place in the society built by the four white walls.
He sat in front of her without asking for permission. He moved the white queen to D7 in the middle of a game already in play. As each pawn fell upon game after game, she learned to speak again. The humming, the music, the symphony that played in a loop in her head disappeared. Andrew became Rowan.
Rowan was a volunteer since the age of 10 from baking cookies to selling chocolate in the name of the hospital. Elle was his age, the only one he’d ever been allowed to interact with. Of course, the adults didn’t know it, but it was a game for two.
She was released at 15. They dated months later.
She grew out her hair in high school to the middle of her back. It was beautiful, he would always say as he ran his hand through it. A smile would form on his face unconsciously. His eyes twinkled with the same stars as hers. There was a grace between them that formed. He finished her sentences. She completed his thoughts.
Somewhere deep in her heart, Elle had to keep that old drawer. She kept memories of Andrew inside a tin box tucked neatly. And she kept Rowan there as well.
She ran past me in the halls with her hair fluttering and her smile so bright. She didn’t stop to talk to me even when I shouted out her name. She simply called back, too happy to think straight.
“We promised to meet at the hill,” she laughed.
She came back engaged and only 18. I was glad for her. The happiness she searched for so long was now in her hands. The physical thing was in her grasps. She only had to hold on tightly.
She visited me once during my senior year of high school. The bags had formed under her brilliant eyes. Her wrists were as red as the rims of her eyes. Her fingers were like dried grapes. Honesty was her best suit.
She cried in my arms, her face flushed and her words broken. And he was there. We were all there like knights, bishops and rooks. We played, but ultimately, it was a game for two.
It was a win not owned by either.
She sits before me still quiet, lost in countless memories. I close my netbook to lean in. I barely take a breath before she cuts me off. Her eyes are cast down. She was quiet. She fidgeted. She scratched the itch under the sleeves of her shirt. I could see her look around for something sharp. I know that feeling.
She whispers in a soft groggy voice I’ve never heard before, “I’m going back in.”
I take her by the hand without a word because that’s what she wants, silence, even if I felt deafened by it. I grabbed for the stillness between us. It was crippling. She crumbled ever so slowly. I could hear myself swallow. It echoed in my ears, and I instantly understood the symphony. I understood both the comfort and horror of the white walls. I understood the tears that drowned her. And the faded lines etched onto my own skin itched in the same way as hers.