I'm half asleep when something--a finger, a branch, a talon--scritches at the window above my bed. the lights are off, and my eyes are squeezed tightly shut, but I still roll over with a groan. "It's open, you idiot."
because I know it's not a tree or a claw prying its way into my room. it must be a perfectly ordinary finger, its nail painted a shiny coal black.
the scratching stops, replaced with a heavy thump, pattering footsteps, and the warm presence of someone climbing onto my bed.
"gross," I grumble, shoving the person away half-heartedly. "It's summer. don't touch me."
"you know, if you wore less black, you might actually enjoy these lovely months of freedom and sunshine."
I crack one eye open to glower at my best friend. "in your dreams, Cora."
Cora Hart, my next door neighbour and partner in crime, just grins mischievously. her two front teeth cross just a little, giving her smile an impish quirk, and as I lay there, drowning in my own sweat, I couldn't help but break into a soft smile. "won't your mom notice that you're gone?" I ask, rolling over. Mrs. Hart has always hated me, just like my mom has always hated Cora, and neither of us have ever understood why. We're just kids. why do I have to hate her for her moonlight hair, and why should she have to fear me because of my glowing eyes? we have to be more than reapers and guardians deep down, right? We are human too.
Cora taps the side of her nose with a sly finger, her wink barely visible in the dusky shadows. "what she doesn't know won't hurt her." she shimmies a little closer to me, her right leg spread lazily across my left. her skin is cool and smooth--a breath of fresh air in this stifling box of a room. "so how was your first day of summer school?"
"ugh." I roll my eyes and stare blankly at the ceiling. "Wilson was there. it sucked. end of story."
"why?" she turns so she's staring at the profile of my face like its a puzzle she needs to solve. a thin braid of bright silver hair rests on the curve of her dusky throat, rising and falling with every slow and steady breath. "Wilson likes you."
yeah, but he hates you. nothing can make me say that aloud, though. especially when she's this close--close enough to smack me for being an idiot. still...even though Wilson and I are two of the same kind, I can't forgive him for all that he does to her. that's the one thing I can never turn a blind eye to.
"hey." I say softly, shifting to face her. our noses are inches apart, and for once, her eyes are the ones that glow, the shimmering effervescence of the moon illuminating her deep brown irises. "do you think there's something wrong with me?"
she pulls back, startled, and her relaxation hardens like granite. "what? who told you that?"
"no one." my brain. every day. without stop. "I mean, with this." I gestured to the thin space between us, the way her legs rest on mine, and how our hands loosely clasp between the warmth of our bodies. "I feel nothing. no attraction. no desire. that's not normal for a guy, right?" not if the remarks made in private and male dominant groups meant anything.
the hardness slips away as realization softens her features. "oh, Neil." her free hand taps my cheek affectionately, then slides through my thick and tangled bed hair. "we're friends. I doubt that you ever would feel anything about me. that's just not how we work."
"but it's the same for everyone else. not just you." desperation tightens my vocal cords, making my voice unsteady and broken--I am fifteen all over again. "I don't like girls. I don't like guys. I don't feel anything like that. does...does that make me broken?"
once again, she recoils. "no." her grip on my wrist tightens. "you are in no way broken."
"then what am I?"
this isn't part of being a guardian. I can't ask my parents about this; they don't have the answers I long for. this...this is part of being human.
her eyes shimmer with starlight and something deeper, something less tangible. her lips twist into a rueful smile, and she looks at me like I'm the world to her. "you're just different, Neil. so very different. but that doesn't make you broken. you're exactly who you need to be, and I wouldn't trade this Neil for one who isn't different. I would probably hate that Neil."
"you would not," I chuckle. my eyes prickle as I watch her, despite the warm smile on my lips. "you don't hate anyone."
"true." her nose crinkles in that way I love so much. "but I would totally hate it if you were any different from the you next to me right now."
I pull her a little closer and rest my head against her shoulder, breathing in her familiar scent of fabric softener and cigarettes. her wild curls tickle my skin reassuringly. "thank you," I whisper into the calm, and she squeezes my hand in response. "love you."
"love you too."
and then we just lay there, close but not together, in the most intimate, untouchable way we knew possible. together. not alone. safe.
"Neil! Wake up!"
I pry my eyes open only to see Cora leaning over me, her own golden eyes on fire. "Seriously, Neil. Give me the keys--I'm late for work."
A few blinks later and...nope, the world still doesn't make sense.
a worry wrinkle settles between her brows. "Neil? are you okay? you look startled."
"I...I'm fine." my ears are ringings, but when I shake my head, everything falls back into place. "just a weird dream, I think."
but I can't shake the feeling that something, deep down, is different, and I don't like the unsettled discomfort that it leaves firmly lodged in my already broken chest.