Chapter 1: The Corner of Loneliness and Curiosity: Discovery
Dave knew, vaguely, that someone was moving into their neighborhood, but that was just what people in their neighborhood did: they moved. It was something that, even at the young age of four, he was familiar enough with to see it personally: even he and Bro were subject to move out of the neighborhood as suddenly as they had moved into it; as suddenly as anyone else moved in or out of it. So the event of someone moving in wasn't remotely exciting and went out one ear almost before it had gone in the other. Young as he was, after all, moving still seemed like something adults did; something that no five year-old but him would get swept up in.
The new cohabitants weren't their next door neighbors or even really neighbors in any sense that affected them save perhaps their potential say in the Homeowner's Association that Dave and his brother made a routine of defying. Still, Bro took interest in them as he always did with new arrivals. He spent a good hour and a half lovingly baking an ironic cake (which the young Dave was highly interested in for reasons entirely unrelated to its fate as a welcoming present for complete strangers), then walked all the way around the block to the house that was exactly where their backyard should have been, were they in a truly suburban neighborhood and not just some rather eerily bad approximation of one. Dave was, as always, excused, which meant that he stood on his very tiptoes to grab the still-cake-battery bowl out of the sink the second the door closed behind his brother.
So to him, aside from the spontaneous bout of cake-baking, it was a day largely indistinguishable from any other. He listened to some of his brother's music at a volume that any responsible guardian would have told him would make him deaf, mucked about the internet, and then was overcome with a storyline so amazing and so ironic that he dropped everything he was doing—music still blaring—and began to draw it all across the walls in the hall, with every color of crayon that he had at his disposal. There was a lot of red involved, and also a lot of stairs.
(Stairs were a subject that fascinated him, being that the only set in the house led directly to his awkwardly attic-like bedroom, therefore making them the perfect indicator of separation as well as struggle. Or, more often, just shapes that he liked to draw when he ran out of other ideas. The motif seemed somehow like it was destined to be his.)
What resulted was, in short, a masterpiece. An epic. Nothing short of perfection, largely-illegible captions and all. It told the story of two friends who made it through thick and thin together, even if they both kind of hated the other's guts. Or maybe it was actually about people with useless wings learning to fly. He lost track of the original concept in the sea of red rainbows and new ideas more than once.
Once he returned, his brother took it all in for a while, the negative space around his glasses the exact same as when he was looking over something he'd made for the first time, and gave his little bro an appreciative hair-ruffling. After a while, though, he seemed to reconsider, mumbling something about “discipline” and corralling him into his attic-room. Dave found himself locked in with all of his speakers missing, the sudden absence of the music louder than its actual noise could ever be. He felt suddenly bereft, confused, and more than a little bit alone. He was supposed to keep a stiff upper lip, of course, because he was a Strider, but it was barely worth keeping up the effort when his Bro wasn't around to give him approval anyway.
For a long time he just stood there, barely inside of his door frame, considering going to bed but unable to make his feet move because he felt like he was waiting for something. Waiting for the other shoe to drop.
The ringing in his ears died down a little, but the silence still shouted at him in its own way, stretching on and on into crevices of the house where it had no right to be. It was just him and the silence, alone, and he almost gave up on anything spectacular happening, when he started to hear the soft, almost haunting notes of a violin over a gentle piano refrain, straining to be heard through the silence and through a few more tangible barriers.
It didn't suddenly come into existence, but it might as well have, suddenly coming to his attention. To a five year-old, that was almost the same thing. It was, at any rate, sudden enough to make his feet move, searching out the source of the sound and the evidence that he was not completely all alone.
The soft, haunting music was loudest near his window, and, with nothing better to do, he opened up the window. It got a little bit clearer.
There was a ledge not quite underneath his window that he could easily jump onto (Strider and all) that brought him just a little bit closer to the source of the sound. Close enough to hear the humming, not quite on key with the rest of the music but still quite pretty to his inexpertly trained ears. It was, if nothing else, human, and that was pretty awesome.
And the thing about the ledge, other than putting him within hum-hearing distance, was that it was casually conjoined with another such ledge, sticking out from exactly beneath another window. He was one step away from a completely different world, vague darkness all around him but one clear, obvious step right in front of him. And, of course, he took it, because Striders aren't scared of anything, and also because the light coming through the window also revealed something brilliant.
A girl twirled aimlessly around her room, the former the source of the humming and the latter the source of the haunting refrain. He was struck again by how her noise somehow didn't fit with the music, enchanting in an entirely different way. Rather, the music didn't fit her at all; she was too bouncy, too happy.
With a great deal of care, standing on the threshold to a new world, afraid that he might burst the bubble and make it all disappear, he knocked on the glass of her window. The humming stopped, but the music continued on without her, and the absence—the hollow music that flooded in to fill its place—sent a shiver down his spine. Her wide, green eyes stared right at his glasses, open and innocent and like nothing he'd ever seen before. Her feet carried her quickly to the window, but she didn't open it. “Who are you?” Her voice, like everything else, was just a little bit muffled by the glass.
Dave tucked his head, looking vaguely back in the direction of his house and scratching the back of his neck. “I... uh... I live in the house behind you, apparently. They call me Dave.”
She stared at him for a while, and he could feel it on the top of his head, like she could sense everything he'd ever thought or ever done. Not that it was a whole lot, but it felt like a big deal then. “How old are you?”
“Five,” he answered, almost too quiet to be heard. She had to be older than him, with everything that she was.
“So am I.” She nodded, thinking hard for a moment, like she was thinking up a really, really good question to make sure that she didn't wind up talking to the wrong kind of stranger. She finally settled on “Do you like music?”, to which he merely nodded.
With a smile that overtook her whole face, she enthusiastically threw the window open, her hand sticking out. “My name's Jade!”
He stared at her hand for a while, puzzled as much by the dark tone of her skin as by the gesture she made with it.
“You know how to shake hands, don't you?”
In all honesty, he didn't, so he did the first thing that came into his mind involving shaking hands. He danced a little, on the ledge in front of a strange girl's window, making sure to shake his hands in her face in some ironic mutation of jazz hands.
When he stopped and looked at her, she blinked, processing, before she began to laugh, a sound that was mostly giggles and seemed to be falling all over itself. He let himself smile at it, overtaking the still-eerie music in the background.
“No,” she said when she finally calmed down, leaning dangerously out the window to grab his right hand, “Like this!” And, regaining her balance, she moved their conjoined hands up and down a few times. It was a motion he'd seen old people do in TV shows once or twice, but he didn't actually think anyone ever did it. When she was done, his hand dropped awkwardly back to his side, and an awkward silence would have ensued, but he heavily suspected that Jade had never so much as met the concept of awkwardness.
“You're silly. I like you.” And then, with her hundred-watt smile, not even pausing to consider the fact that she was in a skirt, she hopped over her window ledge and motioned for him to scoot back onto his own threshold. They both settled down into sitting positions, and then began to talk. Jade did most of the talking, at first. She had more interesting things to say, anyway.
She had lived on a island with her Grandfather, but they were moving into the city (he laughed, when she called it that, and they had to pause her story so he could explain to her Manhattan and Boston—places he'd lived before) because she'd begged him to let her go to school with other kids, and he eventually caved, even though he hated how cramped everything was in the cities (another chortle, but she seemed intent on calling their little pseudo-suburban neighborhood that). At least they had a big house, and she was trying to convince him to paint it rainbow, since it was just a big white canvas at the moment.
She'd already gone fishing for real fish and hunting with real guns, and she was a really good swimmer. She could play a few musical instruments, like the piano, even though she hated it: she much preferred things with strings. Her grandfather had taught her, but she mostly just liked to listen to it, since she wasn't very good at doing anything but making noise yet (she was fond of making noise).
At this point, Dave started talking about his brother: the music he made for money and the way it always filled the house, almost loud enough to break the speakers. The way the house felt empty whenever it wasn't there, like missing a parent or a pet.
She asked about his parents, and he asked about hers, and neither of them had a good answer. The silence that ensued, thoughtful and doomed to be short-lived, only accentuated the final dropping of the other shoe. Jade's door opened, and both kids snapped to look at the eccentric old man entering her already-messy, box-filled room. His head swept from his right slowly around to his left when he didn't immediately see his granddaughter, brow growing steadily more furrowed, before he entered the room proper. “Jade?” he tried, like he was testing the water, the nervousness not fitting well around his refined, gentlemanly voice. Dave suddenly thought he was very cool in a way he'd never even tried to imagine.
Twisting around, Jade poked her head more clearly through the window. “Over here, Grandpa!”
“Good heavens, girl, what in the blue blazes are you doing out there?” He crossed the room with confident strides using a tall gun like a walking stick in one hand and tugging a piece of cloth out of a pocket to sweep across his forehead with the other. “If you're not careful, you'll give your old man a heart attack one of these days!”
“Naw, you're too good for that.”
“I used to think that, too, but that was before I had children... and just who might this strapping young lad be?”
Jade introduced Dave without even waiting for him to register the question, which was just as well, because he probably wouldn't have known how to answer anyway. Residing on the edge of two worlds like they were made him feel like he was doing something wrong; something worth punishing, but Jade didn't seem to think so. She introduced him with all of the innocence and unbridled enthusiasm she continued to show for every topic that wasn't her parents. And her grandfather took it in stride, laughing heartily out of somewhere deep within him, sharing the most unexpected honest timbre with Jade's laugh.
“Wrap things up with your new friend, would you? You know where he'll be tomorrow, and if you're not deliberate about falling asleep, jet lag will catch up to you.”
“Okay, grandpa!” She smiled back at him, and he smiled a very similar smile before leaving them behind. Jade immediately went back to talking, revealing that, in her world, jet lag was some horrid monster comprised of the mottled corpses of crashed airplanes. Dave knew better, of course, having had it himself, but he didn't want to correct her.
He told her some revised version of the story he'd told his brother through the apparently-punishable medium of the wall, and she told him that she'd rarely had to use stairs because they had a glass elevator running through their house on the island, but that she had grander dreams of something more instant. Through a yawn as the darkness started to spread across the sky in full, she called it a “transportalizer”, or something like that, and that was one of the last topics of conversation they managed to have, because they both fell asleep on the ledges in-between their windows, in-between their houses, in-between their worlds.
The next morning, they both woke up safely back in their rooms, windows firmly shut. One of them awoke considerably later than the other.
Chapter 2: Intertwined and Cascading: The Messy Graph That Is Growing Up
Gaaaaaaaaaah, I'm sorry it's been so long. I've actually had this part both written and edited for forever now, but I didn't want to post it because I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with it after this. It's long, though, so hopefully it makes up for it.
Let me know what you think, or if you have any ideas of things you'd like to see. Feedback and encouragement might just keep me writing this monster.
They were six, a year later, and neither of them had moved, and neither of them had grown up too fast or too slow or too different for their little friendship to work. They hung out in both of their houses and in the various playgrounds littered around; at the two birthday parties that inevitably happen to a pair of individuals in a year and during a good percentage of the other holidays. They, somehow, managed to wind up assigned to separate schools, but their friendship, as with most little kid friendships, knew no bounds, even in the white-paneled wasteland that was their neighborhood.
But the ledge space in-between their windows was a place that stayed firmly theirs, among all of the places that they played. Sure, Dave's brother and Jade's grandpa both knew about it (could usually tell when they were out there together), but it was a place where they couldn't—wouldn't—take any of their other friends. It was their little secret, and something about it felt like no other kids had ever been there before (which made sense, because surely the neighborhood had never held two six year-olds at once before).
It was not a place for playing, because there wasn't much room. It was a place for whispering, for telling secrets, for making them up just so they would have something to whisper furtively, for sharing music and sharing stories, for making those up, too, though usually in a much more fantastic vein. It was a place to share and collaborate, which was something that most kids probably have problems with but the pair relished, starved for most of the early stages of their life for anyone with which to share things. It was a novelty, and they both knew the loneliness that came with having everything to keep to yourself.
The ledge was their shared world, on the edges of both of their realms and minds and everything they physically owned. It was a space where everything was theirs and nothing belonged exclusively to either one, because, at their age, there is no secret too big or too bad to be kept from your best friend.
~~Years in the Future (but maybe just one)~~
Seven is not much more complicated than six. School is starting to become something that more kids dread than enjoy, a ratio which generally starts out low and then rises sort of exponentially. But Dave disliked it all along, and Jade's enthusiasm would not be tempered by something so small as work or so insignificant as other kids. So they began their career as the outliers, still lying out together in the very center of the graph.
Girls were technically cootie-ridden, but Dave had only just really started to understand irony, meaning that he only occasionally played into the trope, and even when he did, the course of the story was usually drastically altered by the way that she looked at him, with just a touch too much real pain and real betrayal, like after all this time, a dork like him might actually just decide to drop his best friend over something that stupid.
Some days, he started to worry that the kids at her school were picking on her or something, and it wasn't a thought he liked. It was, in fact, a thought that made him want to parade through the school on a crusade. He couldn't imagine why in all the universes they'd ever thought up someone wouldn't like Jade Harley.
What he was too young to know yet was that, even in their not-quite-southern not-quite-city, her skin was a bit too dark, her upbringing a bit too nontraditional, and her eyes a bit too slanted for the other kids (more correctly, the other kids' parents). Apparently, it was more not-quite-southern than not-quite-city.
(Their bubble was a place of exclusive, unconditional acceptance, even though they barely recognized there was anything needing of acceptance yet.)
~~Years in the Future (but maybe just one)~~
Eight is a year in which you start beginning to know things. Things that aren't drilled into your memory by teachers or else gentle lessons brought to you on a platter of arts and crafts and sing-alongs. Eight is, quite often, the year in which you are expected to grow up and fill a niche. Dave went after his brother's stoic irony, while Jade began to pave a path that was entirely... Jade.
“And then you just mix it up and pour it into the peroxide, and BOOM! It's like a foam-SPLOSION!” She giggled a little, and even the full girly force of her giggle and the bouncy music coming from her room and everything else about the tangle buddy-obsessed girl in front of him couldn't offset the quickly forming image in his head of Jade as a mad scientist.
She was sitting sideways with her legs dangling over open air just so she could swing them, and as her musical laughter died down, she declared that “Science is my favorite. I think maybe I could be a scientist.”
“That's not science, Harley, that's called pyrotechnics. If anything, you're fit to make movie explosions. Or maybe, like, exploding houses of mean people or something. There's gotta be a job for that.” While forming early assumptions about the habits of cool kids, Dave had been exposed to some old, slightly cheesy movies by his Bro. In said movies (and even more current ones), the cool, standoffish antihero always referred to everyone else (especially girls (and especially love interests)) by their last names. The habit he'd picked up wasn't entirely ironic, at least not in Harley's case, as he loved the sound of her name on his tongue. But if you asked him, of course it was. Obviously. The only negative you'd get would be a thoroughly ironic negative, and he wasn't quite old enough to understand that many levels yet.
“Explosions are still science.”
“Mad science, maybe.”
“So it's settled. I'll be a mad scientist.”
“Awesome, You can start by resurrecting my dead cat.”
“You used to have a cat?”
“It was the coolest of cool cats. Had its own pair of shades and everything.”
Her giggle was one of the many things about her that still seemed immune to time, like it was never going to grow up, and she wasn't going to, either, so long as there was something to laugh about in the world. The sound of it had only gotten more musical, if anything, and it made him feel at home. “And then you taught him how to bark ironically, right?”
“No, of course not. Who teaches their cat to bark? I taught it to caw like a crow.”
“There need to be more barking beasts in this neighborhood.” Jade looked from him up into the darkening sky above, which is what she always did when she was formulating a plan. Sometimes, Dave would humor her. Sometimes, he wouldn't.
“You're just crazy biased. You're gonna grow up to be that crazy old lady with like fifty cats who gets kicked out of the neighborhood because she's awful at doing anything but looking after her cats, and eventually they make a TV show about her. Except with dogs.” Sometimes, it was hard to say exactly which one he was doing.
Whichever one it was, it seemed to put her thinking at least on pause for a few minutes. “What's wrong with wanting a bunch of dogs?”
“That actually happened in our neighborhood, you know. The whole crazy cat lady thing. A camera crew came in one day to film old Mrs. Jenkins slowly cat-ladying herself to death.”
“Well I'm not going to be a cat lady, so I don't see how it's an issue!”
“You will be mad, though, and that's pretty close to crazy.”
“Yeah, I guess.” She returned to staring at the sky, thoughtful, and Dave would have given everything to know just what was in that head of hers. He sometimes hoped that she would think about it so hard she would dream about it, and then, since their rooms were so close, it would spill over out her window and he could see inside. If it had ever happened, he couldn't remember.
~~Years in the Future (but maybe just one)~~
Nine years old and going strong (growing strong, too, height starting to become a thing as Jade gained an inch and a half on him), Harley and Strider no longer believed in the Easter Bunny or in Magic or in Santa Claus (though, again, they defied constants, and Dave still believed ironically, while Jade, despite her metaphorically rosy glasses, had never believed in them to begin with), but they did believe in the sacredness of the not-ground between their houses with a reverence only the children, childish, and childlike can manage to possess.
Without having to schedule (at least out loud, at least consciously), they were getting better about meeting up when they were both bored or both wanted to talk, or even coming out at the same time. For a while, Dave took to doing his homework out on the ledge, but then winter came, and the cold and the wind drove him back inside for that particular activity. He would still brave the cold for Jade, all scarves and red, stuffy noses. She was, as well, though it somehow looked less ridiculous on her, and they would talk like they always did and smile like stupid fools because they couldn't feel their faces.
Once, they even had the beginning of a snowball fight on the ledges (spoiler alert: they ran out of snow).
Instead of meeting up in the park for more snow or doing the sensible thing and going into one of their houses where it was warm, they stayed outside and debated whether it was one ledge or two that bridged their houses. After all, such a sacred place deserved to be referred to properly.
~~Years in the Future (but maybe just one)~~
Graduating tends to make people thoughtful. No matter which one, no matter how small or large an accomplishment, no matter your age, the closing of not just a chapter but a book is a scary thing. Because you see the last blank pages, or the acknowledgments, or other things that don't matter, and buzzing in your head are all of the thoughts you just spent all your years thinking and learning and forgetting, and then you see the back cover and you're sort of just frozen, thinking, staring at something that has nothing to do with anything you just did. It isn't long before you must reach for the next book and continue on, but the overwhelming feeling of being done at long last is staggering.
As neither Jade nor Dave went to pre-school, Fifth Grade was their first graduation. They were done with Elementary school, ready to go be big kids now.
And, it had been revealed, they still wouldn't be going to the same school.
“It doesn't make any sense. We're right next to each other, so we should be going to the same school. And this is the second time!” Jade was huffy, ready to march into the headquarters of the world and protest loudly as soon as she got her orders.
Dave was more level-headed. He was a Strider, after all, and it didn't really even matter. They still had the ledge (it was definitively one, singular thing, and had been for a year, even though he had argued otherwise at first), and that was good enough for him. “They have to draw the line somewhere, and they probably figured no kids lived in this neighborhood, so it was a safe place to put it. That's what I thought for a long time. That I was the only kid who made it through the anti-kid force field or whatever.”
Jade heard him, but she hadn't really needed his words, because she wasn't looking at him. Her brow was furrowed and her hair was in her face, and Dave was fairly sure by now that that was the “trying to think of what to say” version of her thinking face, one he liked more than most.
“Have you ever thought about how weird space is? Like, not the outer kind, but the kind we have right here, the kind between us right now?”
“Sorta. It's just... really weird how two things can be so close but also so far away. Like our houses. Your brother, right? He came over on the first day we were here, and I barely even remember it. You didn't come. Even though we live right behind one another, even though we share this ledge, we almost didn't even meet. It's weird, y'know?”
She looked at him, finally, ready for a real answer, but something occurred to her first. “Why didn't you come that first time?”
Because he didn't have to. Because it would have been different, then. Because moving was such a boring thing and he had geese to cook. Because he was stupid. So, so stupid. “I don't know. I don't really remember it that well.”
Jade curled in on herself, as if the thought of what could have been, of all the could have beens and all the weirdness of space, scared her. It was rare for Dave to see something that genuinely scared his flamboyant best friend. “I guess I don't really remember that much about that day, either. I remember... I remember thinking that the city was really loud, especially from my room, and then it wasn't. And I remember a lot of you, but when I really think about it, none of the memories I have of you could have happened then.”
Her gaze drifted away from him, and then she looked back at him, really looked at him, her eyes wide and open and prone. Like she had taken off the rosy glasses and, even though she had always been innocent, she had still been hiding behind her own shades, and now she was giving him a peek behind them. “It really scares me. Because I remember a lot of really random things, a lot of things that don't matter at all, like the first time I asked my grandpa for a puppy and the end of my third day in regular school, but I can't remember the time we met. And... and I don't know. But shouldn't I be able to remember it?”
Dave was careful about how he responded. It wasn't like him to show weakness or open up, wasn't something he knew how to do. He didn't take the shades off, but he did use one hand to shove them back so he could rub his eyes. The motion was carefully practiced, a motion that conveyed a million years he didn't have. He liked the way it looked, usually, and nothing more, but it just seemed to fit now, a mixture of pulling back the shades but still not stepping out of his comfort zone.
“I don't really think about space that much. It's just... a thing... that's there. That's here, I guess, but mostly there. I do, though, think a lot about time. About how strangely it moves... especially here, and especially at school, which is about as far from here as you can get. Time moves so slowly here and at school, but its two entirely different kinds of slow. At school, you just can't tear your eyes away from the clock long enough to let time do its thing. But here... it's like time can't even touch it, like it doesn't matter.”
He dropped his hand, choosing to close his eyes and lean his head back against the never-quite-cold white of his house. “It's kinda scary to think about how different we would have been if we hadn't met, but we did. And we've known each other for almost five years now, you know? Basically half of our lives. So I think that, while the time we met was important, we've both lived in the houses behind each other for five years since then. It would have happened somehow. And, regardless of what you remember about that day”—he remembered everything—“I think that what's happened since is much more important. Five years is much more important than one day. And it's the five years that have made us best friends, not the one day.”
Jade looked at him, impressed, and then reached over and have him an awkward leaning-sitting-down hug.
When she leaned back, a rare awkward silence did a bad job of settling, chafing and fitting into the space between them all wrong. Jade broke it haphazardly by blurting out “What color are your eyes?”
“Maybe it's just another stupid thing I can't remember, but I don't think I've ever seen your eyes.”
Dave was silent for a length of time somewhere between a moment and just barely too long. He didn't know how to explain it to someone as open as Jade. She might have known him for years, so she knew that he always wore shades, but she didn't really understand the Strider mentality of irony, so she didn't understand why. “You probably haven't. I don't exactly go around flashing my lovely peepers often.”
“Yeah... I was kinda hoping I'd just forgotten.”
He looked at her through his shades, and for just a fraction of a moment apparently it didn't feel so impossible, because then suddenly he wasn't and they were in his hand, resting somewhere close to his lap. His hand started to twitch as soon as it sunk in that he was seeing the too-bright world without his mask, but he kept his hand down.
“They're...” she fumbled for a word, and he cut her off, and he immediately moved to put them back.
“Yeah, I'm pretty sure red isn't a normal color for eyes to be...”
But her hand stopped his, and she was leaning towards him again, apparently to get a better view. Dave squirmed, far too exposed.
“They're pretty. Rare, but pretty. Like rubies.”
The red leaked from his eyes into his cheeks, but he smiled just a little. It was nice to have someone he could always share things with. He wasn't sure he liked the what if that could have happened if he didn't: if he hadn't met her, or worse, if he had met her differently.
Because, like he told her, they were bound to have met. But they weren't bound to have found their little ledge intersection of worlds. And what could possibly be worse than knowing Jade without the ability to share with her? What could possibly be worse than the chance that he could have known her without the five years since? Than the possibility that he could have gone over with his Bro, meeting her sooner only to never get to know her?
It wasn't their houses that could have been hypothetical miles away, or even their selves. It was their lives.