Everyday I watch Jesse English walk home from class. Not because I’m a stalker, but because I’m her neighbor. Today she walks with purpose because it’s colder than hell outside. That is what I like to call an oxymoron.
Jesse English is beautiful in the way that winter is beautiful. Fierce, and all gray and sharp and that kind of cold that hurts but you let hurt you because you’d rather catch a snowflake on your tongue than hide from the cold. Which is exactly the kind of day it is. So she walks with purpose. And in doing so, a piece of paper escapes from her bag and flies like a wounded dove to hitch up against the curb. I snatch it up, and the wind pulls at it. I expect it to be algebra notes, but it’s not. It’s a drawing. It’s the tree that lives in the field behind our neighborhood, although I expect it’s been dead since forever.
The skeleton tree. That’s what we called it when we were little and we would play back there. Its trunk is twisted and the branches and bark are dark and ashen even in summer. Its ever-naked limbs reach for the heavens like maybe God will save it, but from what I don’t know. Maybe Jesse English knows, because it’s all sharp angles and dark like her. She used to be blonde and sunny, but now I can’t think of a worse description.
“Jesse!” I call, jogging to catch her.
She stops on the sidewalk, and has to hold her night sky hair out of the wind and her face to see me.
“Dex?” She says my nickname so easily, like it hasn’t been years since the last time it fell from her lips.
I hold the paper out to her. “You dropped the skeleton tree.”
“Oh.” She shoves it back into her bag. “Thanks.”
“No problem. I used to think that thing was magic,” I laugh.
Her dark eyes narrow. “You did?”
She’s looking at me with her eyebrows raised like you know, but I don’t. I pull a hand through my hair, and the wind fights me for it.
“It was just different,” I say. It’s a question disguised as a statement.
Her eyes search mine for something. They used to be blue, but now they’re so dark they’re almost black. She bites her bottom lip and I try not to look at her biting her bottom lip. Something passes across her face like she is seeing me for the first time. She grabs my wrist. “Can I show you something?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer. “Follow me.”
So I do. I follow her into her backyard and through it, out into the field where the skeleton tree stands still in the gale, so stubborn not even the wind can move it.
“What are we doing?” She’s still holding my wrist with her gloved hand, but I can feel the heat of her skin even through the glove.
“I want to show you something,” she says again. “I found something.”
I trip and stumble across the field that grew summer corn but now only holds the sad stubbled remains of a crop cut months ago. Jesse English does not falter in her footfalls, as if she does this all the time. She tows me along, and I start to sweat under my coat.
“What did you find?”
She looks back at me, her eyes flickering in the growing twilight. Charcoal then gray then blue. “I found magic, Dex.”
“Wh—” I start to ask a thousand questions, but her fingers tighten on my wrist, and I think maybe asking is a bad idea.
“You’ll see,” she says. “You know.” But I don’t.
“Jesse.” Her name sounds like a complaint in my mouth.
“Deh-ex.” She draws out my name, matching my tone exactly. “What are you afraid of?”
I don’t know how to answer that.
We’re at the base of the skeleton tree now, and she takes off one glove, placing her palm against the rough bark. Her eyes flash blue again, and this time they stay that way, the color glowing and electric. Her veins shine pearly and blue under her skin. Her hand gets hotter under her glove, and I want to pull my wrist out of her grip, but I can’t. I’m frozen, equally enamored and frightened.
A subtle hums surrounds us, somehow separate from the howling wind. It’s coming from the skeleton tree.
“Do you hear that?” she asks. Again she answers before I can find my voice. “It’s calling you.”
I feel rooted to the earth, like the soles of my beat up Chuck Taylors have become magnets to the ground.
She removes her palm from the trunk of the tree, still all blue and glowing, and pulls my glove from my hand. Her skin is electric on mine. She presses my palm where hers was. The bark is rough under my fingertips, and when my palm is pressed to the skeleton tree my body is shot through with heat and light. I try to pull it away, but it has me pinned by an unknown force. I look at Jesse English, and again she’s looking at me like you know, but I still don’t. And then she’s not the only one who’s glowing. Except where she was blue I am green.
I struggle, but still can’t pull my hand from the tree’s trunk.
“Don’t be afraid,” she says.
“Jesse. What is going on?” I try to sound demanding, but I just sound desperate.
She glows like a new star in the darkness as she pulls my hand from the tree. I glow like nuclear waste. My breath rakes in and out of my lungs, and I feel hot all over. She is fiercely beautiful and I am green and what the hell. Whatever she is, whatever I am, we’re not entirely human. I feel charged.
“Now we’re the same,” she says. She presses her fingertips into a knot halfway up the trunk of the skeleton tree. Sharp snaps and a low groan fills the air, and the tree splits open to reveal a tunnel that glows like we do. Fresh air ruffles out from the tunnel, and I hear music.
“Wh—the same what?” I ask, my thoughts skittering around in my brain.
“I want to show you something,” she says, her own words in the air again. “Green suits you.” She brushes her thumb across my cheek. “Trust me.” She holds out her palm to me, her love line glowing sapphire.
I take her hand, and follow her into the skeleton tree.
“How do you feel about fairies?” she asks.
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