Rupert’s hand would always go to his pocket when his sensibilities strayed too far beyond the fray. His focus would glaze, amber irises dimming like the telltale signs of life slowly ebbing from a character in a tragic film. He’d rub the things sheltered in his left pocket. Three rubiginous balls. Cold, plastic shells cocooning the essence of the lives lost to him in the fire that razed his home three years ago. His three girls.
He’d stopped questioning his sanity at the faint, pulse-like vibrations thrumming from within. Instead, he’d learned to draw comfort from the warmth ghosting the scars that scorched his crooked fingers. The bones had never truly slipped back in place after that desperate attempt to break the grill with his bare hands and get his girls out. He clenched the balls tight, eyes squeezed shut to snuff the flames that licked at the edge of his memories. The screams faded from recall. He was almost certain he felt a small hand grip his own.
He looked out to the cyan loch softly rippling as seagulls called. His vision focused to catch the sun in a bashful descent of soft pinks and purples. He stroked the balls again. Rolled them around gently in his palm. Whether it was real, or all in his head, it was all he had. All he could cling to. It was all he had to keep him grounded.
His touch was always like a phantom wind. A zephyr grazing her cheek. As if he was afraid fire would trail his hand and burn her. And he always kept his distance whenever they walked together. Careful that their hands never bumped or brushed together. The subtlety of his avoidance perplexed her. But she would swallow every question, losing concern in the glimmer of fondness from his silver gaze.
Maybe there was a condition he was sensitive to, something he wasn’t ready to share with her just yet. Which was fine. They’d only been talking for a month, meeting by the lake in the evenings beneath the indulgent starlight. And as they strolled that night, him listening to her recall a cherished childhood memory, she grabbed hold of his hand. Just to surprise him. Just to feel the warmth of his large hand within her own. But her fingers caught nothing, except a fleeting, chilling breeze.
We watched the shadows
Stretch and entangle themselves
Folding into each other over the beige walls
Like secret lovers
Lured by the pearl-tongued murmurs
Of the moon
While the wind danced and whistled coolly
By the window
And we were still by each other —
Silent and supine–
Our chests in tandem
With echoes of our soft breath
Pulling in anxiety
Rattling our rib cages
For sleep couldn’t tranquilize
The awareness of our difference —
Our changing bodies
The flux of hormones
His finger brushed mine
(An incidental stroke, perhaps)
But the second nudge
Its deliberate lingering heat
Drew my gaze to find his
In the darkness
And we held hands
Beneath the covers
Cradling vestiges of innocence
Between our palms