By erica l. kaufman
My mother is a painting that lives in the attic.
My father is a hibernating bear.
And I am more shadow than girl, comfortable amongst the cobwebs, wispy, transparent, expert in nighttime.
That is why I am not worried about sneaking out of the house tonight.
I listen for noises but my house is nothing but an echo, faint, unidentifiable whisperings. I have to hurry, hurry, because everyone knows that the best music and the best magic happen at midnight. And I am always searching for both.
I draw my eyeliner on like it’s a fat felt-tip marker, deep dark shadowed lids, and let my nest of hair do what it wants to: tangle, swoop, hide. Put on sleek, slim, draped black clothing. I am trying to make my outside match my inside.
Sometimes I think that I might be the shadow ripped from my own body—but I, unlike Peter Pan, am in no hurry to reattach the two parts.
I say, let the body go on its own. I have no need for it.
I always flee to the music. I need to feel it seep inside me, move my blood, beat my heart.
I am so good at being a shadow that nobody in this ice-castle even knows when I leave. Down the hallway. Past the shadow puppets cast by the meticulously chosen furniture of my mother when she decorated things besides her face. Slip out the door.
I take off into the night, towards the music, towards dark rooms and bleary-eyed boys and mixed-up girls.
Feel the gravel beneath my heavy black boots, gritty. Unlock my bike. Fiddle with the dial of the vintage radio. Tiny little click, click, clicks.
I am looking for the station, where he lives. Radio Boy, singing, accompanied by just a piano, his voice slightly flat, affected, the piano out of tune, thin, and old-fashioned.
I always search for him. And he always finds me.
Radio Boy sings to me as I ride. He says, “A girl encased in crystal/getting colder by the day/no chisel/gold or iron/could chip her shield away.”
I ride and I listen and I try wishing myself to him. But when I open my eyes, when my wheels stop, I am at The Bottom, the same punk house where I always end up.
The Radio Boy sings goodbye, “Crystal girl in waiting/mourning far too soon/will someone come to save you/or will you perish by the moon?”
Outside The Bottom, bikes are all chained up and twisted together against the metal fence. Inside, it is tilted, cracked, leaky, and crowded, air gritty and damp and tinged with beer, sweat, the crackle of creating. I am almost at home here, twitchy with anticipation.
I might be in love with the voice on the radio. I think about how he sounds like the light that makes shadows disappear, that reveals what they really are.
Maybe in some other-world, some different dimension where I am more than just a shadow masquerading as a girl, or a girl masquerading as a ghost, a dimension where my mother is not in the attic, where my father is not a bear, maybe in that dimension, the Radio Boy could love me, too.
I find my best friend Tommy, and he kisses my cheek, smooth on smooth. Tommy is not a shadow so much as a scar, bubbled up over the years, tough, tight, and constricted. We are the same because we either want everything, love, passion, anger, all of it, or else to be numb, and have no interest for anything in-between.
But we are different, too, because he believes that the music makes magic and I believe that the magic makes music.
I come because I cannot be contained. I come to feel electric, to hear pulsing amps pump out scratchy, warbling notes, to hear bleeding words from leaning, sleepy-eyed singers.
Tommy touches my hand and his fingers are icicle-cold. Tommy is in love with me, and I love him, in the way that I love the pounding of my own heart—thumping like a drum slightly off beat—but I am not in love with him. We are slippery sliding around the subject, trying to forget. We trip over it sometimes, crashing, falling. We bruise.
In swirling moments, in arms-wrapped-tight-around-each-other seconds, as we gasp and grasp and fumble, bony fingers and sharp nails, in music-comas, I think maybe I could be in love with him.
But then the music stops. And he is just Tommy again, and we remember.
I don’t blame him if there’s a jagged, cutout part of him that hates me for that.
I like to say: it’s not like Peter Pan ever fell in love with Wendy, anyways.
Everyone knows that midnight is the witching hour. Everyone knows that ghosts only sing on the radio, and never in front of audiences.
All of that is true but it doesn’t change what I wish for deep down, underneath my organs and the blood that runs pomegranate, sticky and glinting, onto my limbs. Every time someone gets onstage I hold my breath, shut my eyes and wish for Radio Boy.
But it’s never him, and it’s not him now, either. It’s just a regular boy, singing about sadness.
I wonder if when you grow up, you forget what it’s like to feel so much. Maybe that’s why my parents are the way they are, why their eyes glaze over me.
Tommy rolls his eyes at the singer because Tommy doesn’t believe in sadness. And he doesn’t want to listen to songs about it. He doesn’t believe in houses or parents, especially his own, and that’s why he floats from place to place, living like a ghost on couches and floors. In my ice castle, he is as invisible as I am, staying for weeks at a time and never leaving an imprint.
Tommy and I, we talk about our nightmares. We search for a way to fall asleep intertwined and save each other from our minds. He twitched, I cried out. Tommy’s mother is a sea witch with coiled hair and a venomous mouth that lashes out, and his father is a power-hungry god, with heavy thunderbolting fists that never miss their target.
That’s why Tommy ran away and now he doesn’t understand why I haven’t.
The music is pausing, resting, and the boys and girls with scarred up arms and cigarette mouths are talking, but I am curled up like a gargoyle, sitting on the stoop outside, looking at the black starless sky and I am wondering why tonight the music isn’t working, isn’t making the magic I need to survive another week.
Peter Pan didn’t need the pixie dust to fly, because he already knew he could do it. But the others needed more than that. They couldn’t just leap out the windows, fearless, following him.
Tommy is kissing a girl with a raspberry-painted mouth, her bootlaces impossibly knotted around her calves. He is kissing her but he is looking at me and it is making me tired, and weary, his wanting.
What is that crimson-mouthed girl thinking right now? What is she searching for? Does she shut her eyes, and think of someone else, like we all do?
When my father roars, I don’t think about him, and I don’t think about me.
I think about Tommy, and the thin scar that runs like a river down his cheek.
The girl on stage is a fairy, her face all glitter and freckles, and her wings so thin and drooping that they’re almost imaginary. Her voice is a shattered rasp, and her band mates are Lost Boys, leaves and sticks in their hair, holes in their pants.
None of them belong to me. I turn, and I walk up the stairs, and I leave The Bottom.
Radio Boy sings, “sprouting wings from our backs/didn’t teach us how to fly/we soared into the pain/I don’t understand why.”
I pedal faster and faster, my calves burning and my eyes watering in the midnight.
Radio Boy sings, “I knew a crystal girl/with silver stars for eyes/we never said hello/but had our share of goodbyes.”
I pedal, pedal, pedal, like the pulsing of a bass drum, pounding heart and ears, leaving everything behind.
When my bicycle finally stops, I am in front of a looming old warehouse with a crooked, fading sign that reads Neverland Productions.
Radio Boy could be inside. Here, far away and in another world. I want to know him, his pain, find out what hurt him.
My ears buzz and I can’t hear Radio Boy anymore. Sound has stopped.
I might find it—love, light, an un-hollowing—here. I could slip inside, quick and small as a paper crane.
So much rests on the unknown. So much that I hang, like an albatross, on his voice. Endless possibilities. A mouth, two ears. Not real. We are a glass story.
I am—not ready to shatter that veneer.
I get on my bicycle and I head back home.
Radio Boy sings to me, “sleep little shadow girl/and don’t fear the cold/we will meet only/when our stories have been told.”
Tommy finds me, like always. I am sitting, scrunched-up, on the swing on my porch. I listen to the creaks and think that there’s no decibel that my parents could hear.
It is safe, to sit here. I know exactly who Tommy is and who he will forever be.
Tommy doesn’t ask where I went. He tells me about the band, how they cut their chests with razors, how you could see music in the blood, hear blood in the music. Magic.
Someday, I will be ready to meet my Radio Boy. To escape.
But not yet.
Tommy takes my hand. He is warm now, fueled by the night. I don’t ask him about the crimson girl, and he doesn’t ask me about the Radio Boy.
Our whole lives are about pretending. That we’re okay. That the music is enough. That someday, we’ll be ready to be fearless, to open the window, leap out into the night sky, and fly.
erica l. kaufman is a New England based young adult writer. She earned her BFA from Emerson College and her MFA from Lesley University. Her work recently appeared in the Candlewick Press young adult anthology “Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves.” You can find her tweeting @ericalkaufman.