By Layla Carr
She sat in the desk closest to the window, at the end of the third row. Her eyes were big and dark and her fingers were constantly moving—running over the surface of her desk, tapping her pencil, pushing through her hair. When we went around on the first day of European History and introduced ourselves, I didn’t catch her name.
I hadn’t been paying attention—this was senior year. Most faces in this room were already dully familiar to me. This was the last time I would have to sit in a neat little row of assigned seats and talk about my extracurricular activities or my favorite Pokémon or whatever other bizarre question the teacher came up with to try to seem hip and groovy to the younger generation.
I remembered the name of the girl in the back row with dyed red hair and the terrific legs (Melissa) and the name of a girl in the front with three inch heels and a nose ring (Sarah), but for the life of me I couldn’t remember the Window Girl’s name. It was white noise, in and out of my brain.
At lunch a few weeks into the semester, Shaun snapped his fingers in front of my face. “Dude. What’s with that expression?”
“Nothing.” I stabbed my fork into a gluey lump of mashed potato product. Lots of things got better in senior year, but cafeteria food was not one of them. “Just thinking about your mom.”
“Ah man, I knew you were gonna say that!”
“Yeah, original,” said Shaun’s long-suffering girlfriend Pam, who was eating a turkey and cheese sandwich without the crusts.
When I said she’s long-suffering, I meant she always seemed to be stressed about something: the primary elections, the state of the ozone layer, sea lions. It wasn’t that Shaun made her suffer. I mean, he was sort of an idiot, but he was a pretty good guy.
“Uh huh.” I stirred my potatoes together with the lumpy carrots, pushing them toward the decaying meatloaf.
As stimulating as Shaun’s mom could be, I had actually been thinking about Window Girl. I still didn’t know her name—she never raised her hand in class, and the teacher never spoke to her. Looking back on it, that was strange, but I didn’t find it strange at the time.
She wasn’t the best looking girl in the class. That honor fell to Melissa Stevens in the back row—the one with the legs and the hair. But whenever I entered the cafeteria, in all its dingy, fluorescent-lit glory, I didn’t look for Melissa.
“Do you guys know anything about that girl?” I asked. Today she was sitting alone a couple tables down from us, reading something, wrapped up in a blue coat that looked too warm for the weather. It had a row of silver buttons down the front. Two of them were missing—I’d seen it when I’d gotten up to get a fork. I’d needed that fork. It wasn’t like I was stalking her or anything. Swear to God.
Shaun and Pam followed my gaze. “What girl?”
I did a weird rolling movement with my shoulders and head, trying to point out Window Girl without actually pointing.
Pam shrugged. “I’ve never seen her before.”
“I…” Shaun squinted, like he was trying to think and it was causing some muscular strain. “I don’t know. Why, got a thing for her?”
“No,” I said, which was a gigantic lie. I definitely had a thing for her. I just wasn’t sure what kind of thing it was.
“She’s a little too big for me,” said Shaun, squinting her way.
“What?” Pam hit him on the shoulder. “Are you serious? She’s like, the same size I am!”
Shaun’s eyes widened. “What?”
Pam slammed her pudding cup down against the table. “You know, by today’s standards, Marilyn fucking Monroe would be considered fat!”
“I didn’t say she’s fat,” Shaun protested. “I meant she’s tall, for chrissake. Why do you always have to freak out?”
I tuned them out, glancing back at Window Girl’s table. She was gone, but for just a second I thought I could see her outline shimmering in the air, like she had left something of herself behind.
I rode my bike down to the pier the first week of October. The wind pulled continuously at my clothes, trying to creep inside and cop a feel. The boardwalk was closed down for the season, storefront windows shut and padlocked, the carnival rides chained in behind a metal grille. The painted faces of wooden clowns leered at me as I whipped by.
The boardwalk wasn’t as empty as I had thought it would be—there was an old man in a carpet coat and fedora walking a dog with a wrinkled face that matched his own, and a bunch of middle school kids smashing bottles on the rocks that scattered the coastline. Every couple of seconds there would be a crash, and the kids would cheer.
I locked my bike up and was just looking for a covert place to smoke a cigarette, when I saw Window Girl.
I still didn’t know her name, which finally struck me as a little odd. You’d think I would have had the presence of mind to seek it out. I sure thought about her enough, and she frequented my dreams with the same regularity as Scarlet Johansen in that outfit from Ironman 2.
She was wearing her usual big floppy coat, the weather finally cold enough to justify it. She stood at the end of the pier, hair streaming out behind her like a flag.
I was walking out there before I could help it. The pier was a thin, jagged construction of weather-damaged wood, jutting out into the water like a fist. There was no way I could pretend I was just strolling by. No, oh hey, you’re that girl I have this huge, groundless obsession for. How you doing?
She turned around when I was almost to the rail. Her makeup was smudged at the corners of her eyes and she had books in her arms, like she’d just stopped by on her way home, even though school had let out over two hours ago. She smiled when she saw me.
I nodded. Her voice had just the slightest flavor of an accent to it, but not heavy enough to place.
“I…I, uh, don’t remember your name,” I told her. “But we’ve got Euro together.”
And you’ve got French before that and Chem after.
I was sick, I needed help.
“Yeah. I’m Alessandra.” She pronounced it in a way that made me think Mexican. Or maybe Italian. Hell, I had no idea. “You can call me Aless, if you want.”
“Cool.” After a couple moments of awkward silence, I stuck out my hand. “Nice, um, nice to meet you.”
We shook. I expected something cataclysmic upon finally touching her—an earthquake or a gust of wind. Possibly a pulse of energy that would unlock the hidden power that had been lying dormant inside us ever since we had both been experimented on in the same secret government facility. But all I felt was her hand, skin slightly damp from the ocean air.
She turned back to the water as I stood there beside her. “Do you mind if I smoke?” I asked, regretting the question the moment it left my mouth. Girls sometimes got weird about that.
She shook her head. “Nope. As long as you don’t try to kiss me afterward.”
“Okay.” I wondered if that meant I could kiss her if I didn’t smoke. I lit a cigarette after a couple seconds. Probably not.
I cast around for something to say, glancing at the books she was holding. One of them was our Euro textbook, but the other I didn’t recognize.
“Are you taking Anatomy?” I asked, blowing smoke up into the air, only to have it caught up in the jet stream and pulled down toward the water.
“What?” She followed my gaze down to her books. “Oh! No. There isn’t one offered. I’m just interested.”
“Oh. Okay,” I answered. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be interested in something in a textbook. “Leonardo da Vinci invented anatomy, right? I mean, discovered it. Or, or was really into it, right?”
She laughed. “Yeah. He was. He also invented a calculator and an airplane, in the fifteenth century.”
“Really?” I’d heard that before, somewhere, but I was sort of distracted by the way the sun had broken through the clouds for a moment and was making her hair shine a bunch of different colors.
“Yeah. He was convinced that men could fly. Do you ever dream about flying.”
She didn’t inflect it like a question, so I didn’t answer for a couple of seconds.
“Oh, um…” Then I actually had to stop and think about my answer. “Yeah. Sometimes. Mostly on broomsticks, though.”
Frickin’ hell. The best thing would probably be to stop using words.
Aless laughed. “I’ve never dreamed about that.” She turned her face back to the ocean and I had to strain to hear her. “I always dream that I step off the edge of the world and keep going. Just climb up into the sky.” She glanced around, and now she looked sad, like she had said something terrible. “It’s kind of stupid.”
“No it’s not,” I said, too fast to sound like I really meant it, even though I did. If anyone else had said it, maybe. But not her.
She laughed again, but I didn’t think she was laughing at me.
“I’ve gotta go,” Aless said after a minute or two, turning back toward the boardwalk. She glanced over her shoulder one last time, like she was checking to make sure the ocean was still there. “It was nice talking to you.”
“Yeah, you too.”
She smiled again and lifted her hand in a two-fingered wave, walking back up the pier toward the road. As she started along the sidewalk, I noticed two people I hadn’t seen before. Their faces and hands were pale, and their hair and clothes were very, very black. Their suits were way too nice for bumming around at the beach.
As I watched, they bent their heads together in conference, before heading up the same road Aless had taken, their movements smooth and synchronized.
That night when I dreamed, Aless stood at the edge of a white cliff, staring off into an ocean a hundred times wilder than any I’d ever seen. Waves crashed against the rocks, crest meeting crest, piling high with a clap as loud as thunder. The water and the sky were the same bleak, endless grey.
Black things with wings and dark eyes were crawling up from the edge of the cliff, diving down from the sky. They tried to force their way past Aless, to me, to the world beyond me, but she raised her hands and held them back, even as her face twisted up in pain.
In class the next morning, Aless looked exhausted, eyes wide and unfocused as she stared out the window. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “I’ve been having trouble sleeping.”
Finally, we had something in common.
“Any more dreams about flying?” I asked.
“What?” The word was quick and suspicious.
“I just mean—.” I sat down on the desk beside hers. “Like those dreams you told me about. The ones where you step into the sky..?”
“Oh.” Her shoulders slumped. “No, no flying yet. What about you, any broomsticks?”
“Move your ass, freak.”
The guy that sat next to Aless dropped his backpack on my foot. His name was Lars, or possibly Lance, and he played a sport that involved chasing after a ball in a really masculine way.
I hopped off the desk, my foot stinging. “Um, see you.”
Aless smiled sadly. “I hope so.”
At lunch, Shaun rapped his fingers on the tabletop. “Are you listening to me? I got tickets to Oktoberfest, man. Joe’s brother is a bouncer and Joe says he’ll totally hook us up with some wristbands. We’ll be able to order from the bar.”
“Mmm?” I pulled my eyes away from where I’d been stealing glances at Aless for the last twenty minutes.
“Dude. Just ask her out. I mean, she’d probably say yes. Doesn’t look like anyone’s lining up to get some of that action, if you know what I mean.”
“Screw yourself,” I intoned thoughtfully.
Just ask her out. That had not even occurred to me as a viable option. Aless just seemed too…well, strange, to do anything as mundane as go on a date. Where the hell would I take her? To some cheesy horror flick, or maybe to the Double T Diner, which had tabletops so dirty you stuck to them? No freaking way.
On Friday after school I rode back down to the pier, not even bothering to come up with an excuse as to why I was going. Aless was standing on the same pier, under more or less the same grey sky.
She wasn’t alone. The men in black were back. I was instantly reminded of the dark things from my dream, and the skin on the back of my neck prickled with cold. Aless was shaking her head, holding her arms protectively over her chest, fists clenched, like she was getting ready for an attack. As one, the men stepped forward, and she stepped back. From a distance, the two of them were totally identical. Their clothes hung oddly on them, tight in some places, oddly baggy in others. It gave me the weird impression that they had grown them, rather than put them on.
After a moment or so, Aless lowered her arms and nodded. When they turned and left the pier, she walked with them. They weren’t holding on to her or forcing her or anything, but they kept her between them, like an armed escort.
I waited until the three of them turned the corner, before getting back on my bike and shunting myself across the street, narrowly avoiding getting clipped by a shiny green Chevy Malibu. It ran the stop sign at the end of the road, the driver flipping me the bird as he skidded around the curb. Any other day I probably would have been pissed. Today it barely hit my radar.
When I got to the corner I realized that there was no possible way I could follow them on my bike. The road was wide and open, heading sharply inland, flanked on either side with beach houses with their siding peeling from the damp. A couple of them had little fenced-in outdoor shower areas that I doubted anyone used, especially not this time of year. There was a sprinkler going in front of one, the brown grass completely soaked. I dropped my bike on the curb.
I followed at a distance, staying behind shrubs and palm trees as best I could. I felt ridiculous. And like someone was probably going to steal my bike.
At the top of the hill I lost them.
They got there half a minute before me, literally, and there was absolutely nowhere they could have gone. No side streets, no alleys. My head filled with just about every horror-movie scenario in the world. Why in the world had Aless gone with them?
I should call the police. I had my phone in my hand before I stopped to think about it. What could I say? A girl I barely knew had walked up a hill with two extras from Men in Black? They didn’t have guns or anything, and she had gone with them willingly.
My bike was still at the bottom of the hill, looking sadly abandoned, one of its wheels revolving slowly. I picked it up and rode back down to the beach.
In a moment of extreme disorientation, I saw Aless on the pier. She was alone, looking out to sea, hair flapping like a ribbon.
I dropped my bike again at the edge of the boardwalk. “Aless!” She didn’t turn around. “Aless!”
The pier creaked as I ran full-speed, grabbing her by the shoulder, pulling her around. She moved too easily, as if she’d just been waiting for someone to direct her.
“Aless, how did you—.”
Her eyes were missing. The pupil, the iris, everything that made them human. In their place was grey—a perfect copy of the cloudy sky.
“Holy shit! Aless!”
As if in response to my voice, a ripple went through her and she blinked. “Caleb?”
Her eyes were back, dark and familiar and gorgeous, and I wanted to kiss her. Even more than usual, I mean.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.”
“Aless, your eyes disappeared, and you, like, warped!”
“It was the only way I knew how to get away.”
Suddenly, without meaning to, I was shouting at her. “Aless, what the fuck is going on?”
“I don’t know!” she yelled back. She clenched her fingers in her hair, twisting them in tightly. “I have no idea what I’m doing!”
I didn’t know what to say—seeing Aless scared was more frightening than seeing her with no eyes. But then she drew in several deep breaths and let her hands drop, calming like the surface of the ocean. She closed her eyes and said, “I’m fine.” It didn’t sound like she was talking to me. It sounded like she was trying to convince herself.
“Who were those guys?” A chilly ache was forming in my chest.
Her eyes snapped back open. “Enemies,” she said.
“Why do they look like that?”
“All…weird. And identical.” The thought of their suit/skin made goose bumps break out on my arms.
Aless laughed shortly. “They’re trying to blend in.”
“They’re doing a shitty job.”
She shrugged. The fear was gone, replaced by a placid numbness that was almost worse. “Most people barely even notice them.”
I hesitated. Then I said, “Like most people barely notice you.”
Aless drew in a sharp, whistling breath. She sniffed a couple times, like she was fighting back tears. “Yes. Like that.”
I reached for her without meaning to. “I want to help you.”
She skipped away from me and turned, heading back up the pier to the road. Any answer she might have given me was swallowed up by the wind.
That night, I woke up suddenly. Aless was standing over me. Her eyes were the only part of her I could see.
“Caleb,” she said, as I reached out to turn on my lamp. I clicked the button on the base, but it didn’t turn on. I clicked it a few more times just to check.
When I looked back at Aless I realized that I didn’t need it—my eyes were adjusting to the darkness, enough to see that she was soaking wet, hair and clothes dripping onto the carpet. She smelled like the ocean.
“I didn’t know where else to go,” she said quietly.
“Why are you all wet?”
“I tried flying. It didn’t work.”
I laughed, because it sounded like a joke, but when I looked back at her face, it was expressionless. Water droplets broke away from her hair and rained down onto the bed. One of them hit the back of my hand.
“Aless, what is happening?” I wanted to reach out and shake the answers out of her.
She closed her eyes. “Sometimes I…I think I’m a girl named Alessandra who is becoming something else. Other times I think I’ve always been something else, and Aless was just a dream that I’m waking up from.”
“Something else,” I repeated. “Something like what? Like those men in black?”
“No!” She almost shouted it. Her eyes widened, and we both waited a few seconds to see if it had woken anyone else up. When the house stayed silent, she added, “Not like them. They’re a different…a different side.”
“Side of what?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t, okay?”
“Okay.” I sat up a little further in bed. I wasn’t wearing a shirt, and it was a dumb thing to worry about, but I really didn’t want her to notice how skinny I was. I wrapped my arms over my chest, hoping she’d think I was just cold. “But you’re on the good side, right?”
“I’m on the side that doesn’t want to swallow the world whole and pull it into blackness so deep that nothing will escape.”
“Oh.” Sounded like she was on the good side to me. “I want to help.”
“You’re already helping, Caleb,” she said, sad, beautiful eyes softening. “You’re the only reason I haven’t vanished completely. The kids at school, teachers, people in the street—they don’t see me. Not even my parents remember me.”
I thought of our Euro teacher, who never called her name when he took attendance, Pam and Shaun, who only noticed Aless when I pointed her out. “Why is this happening to you?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I can’t remember that part. All I know is that I have to hold back the storm.”
I remembered my dream, where she stood on a cliff and held out her hands to keep back the monsters. And all I had done was stand there and stare.
She let out a single short sob, like it was the only one she could allow herself. “I didn’t want to have to do it like this,” she said, moving closer to me, so close I could see her shivering. “You really want to help?”
I nodded. I really, really did.
She smiled at me the way she had when we had first talked on the pier. “I don’t want to disappear,” she said. Her skin was cold and shivering, but her mouth was warm. As we kissed I began to feel heavy, my muscles shaking. My last conscious thought was that this was my first kiss, and I was going to fall asleep during it.
I woke to my alarm clock blaring in my ear. I rubbed my eyes and swallowed a couple of times. My head felt like it was full of wall insulation, and when I spoke I sounded like an old man. I wanted to get up—Aless was gone, and I needed to find her, it was imperative I find her—but it was like all the energy had been sucked out of me with a giant, energy-sucking vacuum.
I was sick for awhile. Really sick—dog-sick. Complete with fever and chills and the inability to do much more than lie in bed and eat the soup my mom kept making for me like it was a compulsion. My dad even stuck his head in a couple times to ask how I was, which made me feel like I must really be on the brink of death.
I saw Aless in my dreams, or maybe they were hallucinations. She was always out of reach, and there were moments when I had trouble remembering what her face looked like. Those moments were terrifying. They were free-fall.
When I finally went back to school (it was only five days later, but it felt like weeks) I looked over at the window in history, searching for Aless, even though I knew she wouldn’t be there. I knew it in the same way I knew that night had not been a dream. Mr. Picard gave Aless’s desk to some sophomore who had been bumped up to the AP class, and even though I knew it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t remember Aless, I still wanted to punch him in his weasely face.
When I mentioned her to Shaun and Pam, they looked at me like I was crazy, before going back to the subject of Pam’s Halloween costume, and whether or not the skirt was too short. Aless wasn’t there for me to point out, to focus their attention on, so it was like they hadn’t even heard me. I was the only one who remembered there had ever been a girl named Aless.
I didn’t know where she went—I barely even had a working theory. All I knew was that I kept seeing the image of her standing on that cliff, holding back the dark as the whole world slept around her. It haunted me, but in a way I was also grateful for it, because it meant that I hadn’t forgotten her too.
Toward the end of October I went back down to the pier for the first time since I’d gotten sick. It was five days before Halloween.
The breeze off the water bit at my fingers, trying to take them clean off, and made me wish I’d worn something more than a hoodie. The boardwalk was empty at this time of year, so I saw her immediately. Dark hair against the stark blue of the sky, coat just a little too big for her flapping around her legs. After a couple of seconds she turned around, like she had felt me staring. I raised a hand in a wave. She didn’t respond, but I knew she saw me. Had she achieved her goal? Had she stopped the creatures in black that wanted to swallow the world?
The world was still here. Maybe that was the best victory anyone could ever hope for.
As I watched, she walked to the edge of the pier and stepped off. I waited for the splash, for her to emerge from the sea soaking wet like she had been that night in my room, but it never came. She stepped off the edge of the world and kept going—just climbed up into the sky.
Layla Carr was born just outside Washington DC, where she received firm instruction in science fiction, 80’s music, tae kwon do, storytelling, and irrational behavior. These are in no way ordered by relevance. She has a B.A. in Philosophy, and currently lives in Chapel Hill, NC, where she works at an independent bookstore.