I first feel it late Friday night.
I’m lying on the ratty carpet in my cluttered room, among stacks of books I’ve been meaning to read and piles of clothes I’ve been meaning to hang. I throw my arm across my face, and the cuff of my sweatshirt smells gently of old butter; a milky scent that reminds me of empty bowls and crusted-over microwaves. Yet also a little like flowers...but nothing in my room should smell like flowers. You could probably come to that conclusion just by glancing at this mess.
Briefly I wonder why it smells so nice, my sleeve, before lapsing into a somnolent staring contest with the ceiling. It’s hot and I can feel a rivulet of sweat meandering down my temple, and although it bothers me I leave it there. Somewhere outside an insect is calling ardently, alone.
A filmy spiderweb from last week is still swinging languidly in an invisible breeze, and the sweat has crawled to somewhere deep in the carpet when my breath hitches and the feeling overcomes me.
It’s a peculiar sensation; sort of like riding down a fast elevator, when your stomach feels as if it’s been left somewhere on the twenty-first floor, and your body seems weightless in the few moments between the pleasant little dings the door makes as it opens. For a few minutes I lie completely still, alarmed.
Momentarily I wonder if I am dying.
Finally when I begin to feel as if the wild elevator is beginning to slow, I reluctantly glance around. And there is a boy.
Yes, a boy, and a very pale one at that, maybe close to my age. He’s next to the lopsided shelf with the empty orange juice cups, leftover droplets coagulating in the summer heat. At first I think he might just be very tall, but on closer inspection, he’s actually hovering above the ground. As I squint in his general direction, he wafts towards me, casually, like an old friend. His fingers are clenched into tight fists. I’m still sprawled awkwardly on the ground, wondering if I should get away before the horror music begins to play and I have to die suddenly off-screen; the tragic first girl to perish by the hands of the supernatural.
“Hello there,” he says placidly, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. For some reason his nonchalant greeting and lukewarm expression in the midst of my mounting panic really piss me off. So before I can even begin to freak out, my first thought is, “I really want to punch this guy”.
In the surreality of the situation I guess my brain decides to shut down, and just before I fall asleep all I can smell is the thick fragrance of flowers.
Upon waking the next morning, a heaviness is wrapped around me. It seems unnatural, sudden. I feel my lungs straining against ribs, expanding with nowhere to go, like an unwanted thought, as I slowly inhale through dry nostrils. Gradually the weight reestablishes itself as a normal, comfortable pressure. At that point I dismiss the events of the previous night as a too-much-orange-juice induced dream. Yawning, I stretch into the routine of another restless day, another sunup to sundown full of the same familiar faces and the usual sounds, all blending into an aimless smear of fleeting color.
My parents have already gone out somewhere; their shoes are gone as I stumble down the stairs and try not to trip over my own ankles. Blearily I scrub at my eyes with sleeves that no longer smell like anything, and start to reach for a bowl. It’s what I do everyday in the summer; wake up late, have some cereal, think about doing things when nothing’s really happening, maybe loiter around at the library, do my chores half-assed, and then the grand finale, stare at the ceiling late at night, wondering about what life should be making me feel. Rinse and repeat.
Sighing, I look through the screen window. The sky is blue, deep blue. Blinding blue. Quickly I look away before I can lose myself in it.
“Hello again,” a voice says. My head jerks up.
He is seated on top of the refrigerator, holding a large pineapple with deliberate arms and the same irritating half-lidded eyes as yesterday. I guess it wasn’t the orange juice after all. We stare at each other across the counter, and for some reason it isn’t uncomfortable. His irises are so dark I can’t find his pupils.
“What’s up with the pineapple?” I blurt suddenly. Because who cares about meaningful questions like “Are you a ghost?” or more importantly, “Is this really happening?”. Let’s cut straight to the pineapples. Mentally I punch myself in the face.
“I have to hold things,” he says simply, unfazed. “Or I’ll float away. And when I grabbed your soul the other day you passed out or something so I figured I should hold something else,” he continues apologetically. “I won’t do it again. It’s just...I was so tired and...it’s so easy to hold onto a soul. Like holding someone’s hand”. He finishes by waving his own hand through the tepid kitchen air. His fingers are long and they move like silver minnows.
Dumbfounded I just stare back at him.
“Well, I kind of need the pineapple for a smoothie,” I say randomly. I think I made a smoothie once before. When I was like, seven. So more than half a lifetime ago. I don’t know why I say it, but I just want to take that pineapple from him and smash it to a pulp. With some bananas and strawberries. And then drink it.
He seems crestfallen, and I finally see his face deviate from yesterday’s half-open eyes and linear mouth. His eyes droop further and the thin lips curve down. It feels somewhat triumphant but at the same time painful.
Conflicted, I say, “Listen, you can, uh...hold onto my soul or whatever for a little while and I’ll just take that pineapple and make a nice little smoothie, ok?” I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore. This all feels like some strange, shimmering hallucination.
“No no no, it’s fine, I’ll just hold this refrigerator handle or something, don’t worry about it. What if...I...nevermind.” He trails off and clutches the pineapple, uncertain.
“You said it was like holding a hand, right? How bad can it be? C’mon, I need the pineapple.” I reach up towards him and he leans in closer as if pulled by a string. Tentatively, he reaches for the air above my head, and begins to float slowly down from the refrigerator.
My stomach lurches and for the second time I feel as if I’m holding a large umbrella against a mighty upwards gale; as if the organs inside me are restlessly lifting skywards towards the lemon sun.
This time I laugh, and my eyes are wide. The pineapple tumbles down and falls anticlimactically on the linoleum with a dull thud.
Now suspended in the air, he looks nervously at me, probably thinking I’ll fall over like an opossum after last night. Instead I grin at him, a real smile, and I feel like I’m remembering how to ride a bike.
“I’m Nadia,” I say, trying to breathe properly under the strange weightless feeling.
“I’m Arthur,” he replies, back to the same unconcerned expression.
I glance at the pineapple cast to the foot of the sink, and suddenly realize I have no idea how to make a smoothie, much less how to properly cut a pineapple. So instead I ask, “Say Arthur, would you like to come to the library with me?”
The air is cool in the library, maybe a little too cool, and I shiver without meaning to. Arthur follows me wordlessly, drifting behind me, a strange companion belted to me through my soul. The library is mostly empty on this Saturday morning, yet the few people I pass by don’t seem to see Arthur. Good. The last thing I need is to explain this bizarre situation to random strangers. I just want to get to my usual spot, so I move quickly to the back shelves, where there are large windows allowing golden light to filter through and illuminate the motes of dust that swim around in the circulating air.
I grab a collection of poetry off the shelf and plop down against the wall. Arthur settles down close, and I can feel the soft whisper of his presence against my arm. Something smells transiently sweet, and then just the musty smell of books.
As I breathe shallowly and begin to read, it feels less soporific with someone beside me, even if they’re not a confirmed human being. Less like the same day stuck on repeat. Less like I’m trapped in this moment staring at the bookshelves and trying to understand the beautiful words I see, yet never completely grasping them. Less like I’m wasting time yet never using it at the same time.
“What are we doing back here?” Arthur whispers into my ear just as I flip the third page, a cold mist of words tickling the cartilage. I shiver.
“Stop talking into my ear, that feels weird. And nobody can hear you anyway.”
“Fine,” he says, still whispering, and turns away from me. His thin back to me, I feel remarkably alone despite the fact that he is still sitting by me, and despite the continual feeling of being pulled towards the clouds.
It get quiet for a bit, really quiet, and the only sound is the soft hiss of the air vent, blowing an occasional clump of lint towards the high darkness of the ceiling. The colorful books are still and silent. Arthur is turned away from me, head leaning against the rough brick of the wall.
I can see bumps of his curved spine through the cloth of his shirt. Reluctantly, I open my mouth and begin to speak. “Sometimes I come back here and just sit down. Other times I read poetry and pretend I know what it means. Well, even if I don’t know what it means I still cry sometimes, ‘cause of the words, you know?” He says nothing, still turned away. I don’t know if he hears me, and I ramble on, unsure of myself. “Anway I sit and I read, pretending I have a purpose and pretending I know what’s going on.” His back is still to me, shoulderblades shifting and realigning like lost planets. “Pretending I have a clue about the real meaning of this poem,” I whisper a little louder, flipping the pages of the poetry book, waiting for him to look at me and nod or something. My voice is rising. “Pretending I’m actually doing things. Pretending I know what I’m living this life for. Pretending this corner doesn’t feel like an entire universe I’ll never get out of. Pretending…” I take a shaky breath. “Pretending that my life is about to begin someday.”
My chest is heaving and I don’t remember when I started getting so worked up. I want to grab all the words I just said and swallow them back quickly, down into my stomach where they can burn and disappear. I close my eyes and watch the sunlight burn the skin of my eyelids translucent orange.
Arthur is silent, but suddenly I feel a crushing pressure.
He must have let go.
Alarmed, my eyes fly open and as the weight of the world crushes down on me I throw a desperate hand out, gasping, reaching instinctively for something just out of reach.
I can feel my throat catch, some pathetic tears pooling. I’m a tiny dot shrinking smaller and smaller. Soon I’ll be nothing.
Then suddenly a hand is around mine and for the third time in two days I think I am going to surge up into the open air. His fingers are not cold and not hot, just solid and reassuring against the tremblings of my own.
“Sorry. I wanted to hold your hand,” Arthur says, not looking at me. “It’s just like holding a soul”.
I don’t know what to say, so instead I suggest we go to the park.
I haven’t been to this park for years, even though I live close enough to walk over. Once again the sky is an effulgent and radiant blue, small pearls of cloud murmuring across. Children shriek and chase one another, their tiny hands reaching for each other until they touch and hold on tight. Some of them are singing a song I used to know.
I take Arthur to the field.
Here it’s wide open, the sky bright and full and curving over us like an overwhelming swath of silk. There are no benches here. No trashcans. The faint joyful cries of children can be heard, but none of them run here. Just me and Arthur and some thin grass. He’s still holding my hand.
“Arthur,” I start quietly. “I don’t know where you came from and I don’t know why you found me in particular that day, or yesterday really, even though it feels like it was longer ago. I don’t even know if I’m still dreaming and you’re just something my stupid brain made up.”
The sky seems to yawn at us, widening at the edges, and a breeze picks up, moving the grass slightly in waves.
“But I...even though you stole my pineapple...wait, I got the pineapple back...What am I saying?” I struggle to find the words, and his fingers grip mine a little tighter.
“I - even though...even though I said some weird things and I thought you disappeared, you’re still here.”
He meets my eyes with his dark ones, and I feel like the sky is swallowing us both.
“I just - why did you hold onto my soul that night?”
Arthur smiles for the first time, and I feel myself slipping.
I almost can’t hear his whisper over the wind. “I lied. It’s not easy to hold onto a soul. It’s because yours was shining.”
My fingers lose their grip and Arthur begins to rise, not quickly like you’d expect, but gradually, like his body is unsure which way is up. He looks just as calm as the first second I saw him, but he still smiles faintly. I don’t try to grab him, I just watch as he slowly ascends and I am again firmly in the Earth’s grip, riveted to its vastness. I try to breathe.
The scent of flowers is all around me and inhale deeply, until I can only smell the dry clippings of grass and the hot summer air. Until Arthur completely disappears in the great blueness of the sky, and the children continue to laugh and sing.