Streetlights - Liz Caldwell

The Louisiana air was stickier than anyone ever gave it credit for. Droplets seemed, she thought, to hang suspended in the air, and attach to her skin as her feet trudged against the ground. The orange and pink glow of the setting sun was supposed to mean that it would get cooler, but it was a lie. The rubber sole of her sneaker scraped onto the cracked pavement of the endless strip mall parking lot as she approached him with the skateboard.


“You took a hard fall,” he said, gesturing to her bloodied knee.


“Oh. Hmm.” She dropped the skateboard, sat down on the ground, and bent over to spit on her bony knee before rubbing her fingers over the wound.


“All you did was smear it around.”


“That’s how the Native Americans did it,” she said, standing up.


“It’s not. It’s 100% not,” he retorted.


“Well, no matter. Should I try again?”


He observed their homemade quarter pipe that was expertly placed next to a paint-chipped stair rail. Back in April, he was the first to try it, on the off chance she fell and hurt herself. Her father would never forgive him. When he didn’t wipe out or injure himself, she was already behind him on the quarter pipe, ready to glide down before jumping and riding the hand rail. . He glanced at her now, dark hairs stuck to her forehead and sides of her face, her forehead sticky with sweat. But her green eyes were alive with vitality and gumption.


“You need to eat dinner,” he said.


“I’m not hungry.”


“Doesn’t matter.”


“Just one more try,” she argued.


He picked up her skateboard and pointed to one of the many fast food joints around that all connected in the same parking lot. “Dinner.”


“Dinner,” she mocked him, squinting her eyes and wrinkling her nose, her face twisted in sarcasm.


He pretended not to be amused at this. She always put up a bit of a fight when told to do something, but this time she conceded quite quickly. The air was thick and she was thirsty. He knew she must have been getting tired.


Last fall, she never would have listened to him. Last fall, he never would have told her what to do. But with his being six years older than her, he assumed the role of the leader between the two of them and she, for whatever reason, allowed it. She resented authority, but he treated her as his equal and this was enough for her for the time being. It was better than being followed around by her moronic caretaker, Bartley. Bartley, who told her she was too lazy to learn her statistics, who refuted her every wish to go do something normal seventeen year olds did, and who, when she had the audacity to get a scoop of chocolate ice cream, shook his bony finger at her and said, “not only will this induce another seizure, it will just go straight to your hips.”


Max noticed Sawyer was looking ahead at China Wok, a cold and damp Chinese “restaurant,” although Max couldn’t quite see it as that. He always felt that each time he ate there, he was dodging salmonella left and right.


“China Wok again?” he asked her.


“It’s the closest place!”


“No it’s not.”


“Well, I don’t want a cheeseburger.”


“What’s wrong with a cheeseburger?”


“Nothing!” she shrugged. “If you’re so sick of China Wok then you go get a burger and I’ll go get my food and we will meet back here afterward.”


“Fat chance of that, you’re not going anywhere alone, Sawyer.” Max knew that she was well enough today to go in by herself, but after the seizure he witnessed only three months ago, he was not at all okay with the idea of her being alone on the off chance she had one again and he was not there to help her.


“Maybe you are turning into Bartley,” she said, tugging on a piece of her own hair.


“Fine, we will get Chinese,” he gave in. “But remember to order it with no MSG.”


“Deal.”


He grew apprehensive for a moment. Not for himself, but for her. It was Friday night, and all the kids in town went out to eat. Especially at China Wok. The food was good and cheap, in massive portions big enough for people to share. There would be a large crowd of high schoolers there, her peers, her so-called friends, and she would once again see that she wasn’t invited. She rolled her eyes at these things, but he knew it bothered her deep down.


He picked up her skateboard while she checked her elbow for another scrape.


“How you crave Chinese in the middle of a heat wave like this, I don’t know,” he said.


“You gonna get a large orange chicken?”


“Are you going to eat half of it again?”


“No, I’ll get my own.”


“That didn’t stop you the last time,” he was saying as someone appeared behind him, grabbing his shoulders and jestfully tossing him about.


“Maxxie boy!” a large, buzz-cut delinquent, Joshua, shouted. “Where you been, man? We haven’t seen you in forever.” A couple of other guys Max knew from his old job at the fitness center joined in on the conversation.


Max always hated these encounters. He endured them more often then he cared to admit, and definitely more often than Sawyer knew about. Rumors circulated when he first started tutoring Sawyer. At first, it was just some math help. But when her father found out that he was CPR certified and accident trained (such was required for his job), he made Sawyer Max’s sole charge. She was young, but not too young to escape the judgmental glances and the whispered suppositions of her relationship with him.


Sawyer quickly took her skateboard from Max’s hands, seeing an opportunity for her to keep practicing, and skated back to her quarter pipe.


“Been working,” he said, avoiding eye contact.


Joshua lowered his voice, “Putting in some work on that?” His eyes danced all over Sawyer and a hyena-esque smile creeped on his face.


“Dude, she’s seventeen.”


“Yeah, and your point would be?”


Max noticed the other two boys staring at Sawyer as she stood on top of the pipe. She was completely unaware of their gazes.


“My point is you’re twenty six. Lay off.”


“Is that coming from defense or just hogging her to yourself?”


“Neither,” Max said, frustrated. “It’s just weird. Her dad hired me to help look after her and help her with her school stuff, you know that. She needs supervision, she--,” he stopped, feeling guilty about using her condition to fall back on. “She has some health stuff and she doesn’t need to be alone.”


“Get her a dog,” one of the boys said, and the other two snickered.


Max didn’t meet their eyes. He stared at his feet and shook his head. “Don’t joke about that,” he said in a low voice. He remembered how scared he was to see her helpless, shaking, and the tears that followed when she had recovered.


“You’re just--,”


It was her voice that stopped them all. “Max?”


They looked at her, one foot under her board and her hand pushing the loose hairs out of her face.


“Can we get dinner now?”


“Yes,” he said, making his way next to her without so much as a backwards glance to the others.


Their high-dollar sneaker encased feet carried them to their car and out of sight.


Max wondered if Sawyer heard a word of what his former friends said.


She walked with him across the pavement to reach his car, handing him her skateboard. He put it in the trunk and then went to the front for his wallet. She sat on his trunk while she waited for him.


“I guess this is better than being in that big empty house all by myself,” she said.


He shut his door and looked at her. “Yeah?”


“Yeah. I was so sick of that green wallpaper. Nine years I’ve been stuck in there. Well, nine before I met you.” She crossed her legs and put her elbows on her knees, cradling her head.


He hadn’t given any thought to the rumors he knew had spread through the small town like wildfire. He didn’t want to even give them the credit to be worth thinking about. But when he saw how Joshua had looked at her, how he used the phrase “all to yourself,” and how the other boys could only stare at her, something in his stomach dipped. He had taken her existence for granted, most days. He considered himself used to her.


It wasn’t that he hadn’t noticed her beauty before. The way her olive skin was always clear and shimmered when she sweat or when she impulsively splashed both him and herself with the water hose. He’d noticed her unruly hair when she would throw it in all front of her face, frustrated with her school work. He’d noticed her, but he’d never looked at her.


He cast a long glance at her as she unfolded her legs and pushed herself off the car. The orange and white light from the street lights flickered across her face and accentuated her every move as she walked beside him. She looked up at the lights, down at her shoes, her once white socks were gathered at her ankles, splattered with mud from her fall. She hummed a song that they both liked before she stopped mid tune, abruptly.


“You know, that song on the album doesn’t receive nearly enough credit.”


“No,” he agreed, still glancing at her repeatedly as he walked. “Not enough credit at all.”


As he observed her through millisecond stares, he realized there was not enough time to take in all of her. He wanted more time, more stillness, more opportunity to notice her. And the realization sickened him. As if he had suddenly taken a wrong turn into a very bad neighborhood.


She was speaking now, although he didn’t know what about. He couldn’t hear her words. All he could hear was her voice and her lips moving in the same rhythm. A cursed synchrony.


“I want to see it, really. The trailer looked so great. But I’m just afraid it won’t be as good as the trailer made it seem and then I’ll be disappointed.” She had jumped from music to movies now, topics she often visited. “But then again, what if it’s even better than it looks and I’m robbing myself, you know? Part of me thinks I just need to see it for myself. Just take the plunge and see whether it was worth it or not. Make the decision. What do you think?”


“Yes,” he choked out.


“To which thing?” she asked after a pause.


“All of it. I think you should just see for yourself.”


“Will you take me?”


“Yes,” he said without thinking. He was overcome. “I mean, what? Take you?”


“To the movie,” she said. “You said I should see it and you said I can’t go anywhere by myself. All those lights and sounds. So, will you take me?” she asked.


“Oh. Right. Yeah,” he wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “Yes. I’ll take you.”

Liz Caldwell is a 22 year old writer from Missouri.

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