I've stood in a thousand street scenes
just around the corner from you
on the edge of a dream that you have
- The Kills, ‘Black Balloon’
Vala runs through the green grass with her hair loose and the thin soles of her shoes slapping the hard ground. The grass is long, almost up to her waist, and the faster she runs, the more it bends against her sides, the more each strand is tugged along and blends into the next. She stretches a hand out into it as she stretches the muscles in her legs to work harder, spreading her fingers out and pushing them into the dusty heads of the crop.
It’s almost like being touched.
Daniel’s grandfather is the first person to take his hand at his parents’ funeral.
The rain slicks down around them in a flash and around the respected academic community huddled under umbrellas that they send arcing into the sky like a flock of crows or a mourning salute.
Daniel is aware of his feet on the grass, sinking and squelching even though all he does is stand there, sinking further. He is aware of the coffins in front of him, of the many nationalities arrayed around him, of the many safety nets he is about to fall through when the company departs. But none of it wipes the trace from his eyes, his fingertips and the erratic beat of his heart, which hasn’t slowed for days.
The stone had fallen without warning in the museum during the installation his parents were overseeing. The horror of what was happening in front of them had kept adult eyes at adult level until Daniel had skidded to beside the stone, knees smacking the hard ground and reaching his hand under the stone in the narrow space between it and the ground. He felt blood, wet and warm; he reached further, shoulder straining against the solid stone until he brushed larger fingertips with his own.
He turns nine five days before the accident, and the traces of pain, worry, fear, and names (Claire, Nick, Claire and his own, underneath each of the others like the second, weaker beat of a heart) are still thudding through his veins at the funeral.
Daniel’s grandfather is the first person to take his hand.
The high school is newer than the middle school; it has wider hallways and stairwells and classrooms that fit twenty-five desks with space between them. Vala’s old school between the villages had nothing like the same space, but it was from the forties - before - her mother had said. Classes - like morning traffic, like airplane seating, like most things - are staggered so that the hallways never have more than a quarter of the school’s population in them at a time.
She sees Ba’al giving her the signal at the end of the hallway. She nods.
He pulls the fire alarm.
The sound pierces through the quiet of the empty halls and for a second Vala reels.
May we remind students-
Her eyes meet Ba’al’s at the other end of a long row of lockers and she sucks in a breath.
do not use the elevators-
The doors slam forward like a drum solo and the hallway fills between them, full of people - more people than Vala has ever seen in one place before. The corridor behind Ba’al fills and she loses his dark hair among the crowd. The crowd.
‘Come on,’ someone hisses in her ear, ‘don’t you know your evac zone?’
do not stop for your belongings-
There’s a push at her back - fingertips as briefly as possible - there’s a cacophony of voices in her ears - there’s a gloved hand under her elbow - there’s people, they’re everywhere-
except for outerwear and gloves.
Daniel looks up from his Farsi textbook and winces at the sound of voices in the corridor. He turns his back and leans further onto the desk. He would ask ‘who let you in’, but the answer would be the same as it always is - his grandfather.
‘Come on,’ Steven says from the doorway to the study, ‘you aren’t actually going to keep reading all night, are you?’ When Daniel doesn’t reply, Steven sighs dramatically. ‘But Sarah’s over and everything.’
Steven walks forward to the other side of the desk and groans when he sees what Daniel is working on. Daniel snatches the book further towards him when Steven reaches for it, keeping his hands on the bottom of the page. ‘My dad says linguistic differences will be irrelevant by the time we’re older,’ Steven says, and Daniel can practically hear him puffing his chest out.
Daniel looks at him over his new glasses. ‘And when we’re all talking with our hands, what language do you think we’re going to be writing stuff down in?’
Steven blinks. ‘English, I suppose.’
‘That’s why your dad is wrong,’ Daniel replies, looking back at his book. ‘Or at least I hope he is.’
Vala has read about people like her on the internet, she thinks. Addicts. Starved. Fixes.
She’s seen people on drugs and heard about people who can’t get out of the house without a shot of something from a bottle, like her father all the way across the valley. (Her mother writes him off with, ‘it isn’t easy to be a parent nowadays, but that’s not enough of an excuse not to try.’) She doesn’t think that’s what she is, but she shies away from the word ‘lonely’ and all it stands for, which seems to be the alternative.
As she moves through the hallways she sees couples. Some of them are a few years older than her, meaning that there’s classes they’ve had that she hasn’t. She doesn’t think she’s lonely like that- nothing looks lonelier than those couples, hand in gloved hand.
Vala likens herself more to some kind of magpie. She plucks forgotten pencils from desks on the way out of the room, snuffs out the candles her mother lights and quietly takes cups that aren’t her own to the counter in cafes, sometimes pilfering a tiny espresso cup into her bag on the way. (Starbucks has plenty of them.) She has rules: it can’t be someone she knows, and she can’t learn who it is.
And then, like today, she finds her way to some secluded place like behind the bleachers and takes off the glove on her right hand. The gloves are the thinnest cotton, light and flexible enough that she doesn’t really notice them - except for all that they keep her from.
Vala pulls the espresso cup from her satchel with her left hand and raises it to her nose, smelling the coffee that still lines the bottom of it in a grainy stain. She takes a breath, then raises her right hand and places the flat of a single, bare fingertip to the rim.
Irritation. Relief. Guilt, the barest twinge, the kind that comes of spending a couple of dollars on a coffee out. Homesickness, but only enough to suggest the drinker has a home to return to after work.
Nothing remarkable in the life of another person. Except that it’s another person, their feelings as close to her as if they were a warm arm pressed against her own.
Daniel looks up and blinks. It must be dinner time, his brain thinks slowly, and in Latin.
‘Your dedication to ancient languages when people are debating the continuing need for live ones is touching,’ Nick comments with a barely restrained grin.
Daniel rolls his eyes as his grandfather sits down. ‘Languages are part of culture and history,’ he shoots back. ‘Just because some spoken language might become unnecessary at the precise moment of speaking -’ He laughs when he realises his grandfather is watching him rant with a raised eyebrow.
‘I have to ask you some questions now.’
Daniel pushes his glasses further up his nose and sits the book to the side. It’s rare for Nick to look so serious so suddenly. He’s usually more of the tell the truth / but tell it slant variety. ‘About what?’
‘The school will be inflicting some classes on you young people this year,’ Nick begins, pushing a letter across the table. It’s a permission slip.
Daniel freezes. ‘I thought that wasn’t until next year.’
‘It’s government mandated that you have to be taught before sixteen, though I think ‘taught’ is entirely the wrong word, though I agree-’ he pre-empts Daniel’s counter-argument with raised palms, ‘that you’re right, and you should be … cautioned. Warned. But perhaps not with the stringency that they desire you all to be.’
‘...And I’ll be in classes this year because...?’ Daniel tries to draw Nick back to the point. They’ve lost a lot of evenings since he came to live with his grandfather in discussions like this.
‘Because your grandfather sent you to a school with a traditional curriculum that includes Latin and paying fees, and you may begin hating him with a teenage fervour if you so wish, and that school does not spend a lot of time worrying about government mandates,’ Nick answers, weary but amused. There’s a moment when Daniel doesn’t know what to say. He takes a breath, savouring the smell of old books and dust. ‘I can deny them their permission if you want, Daniel.’
He swallows. ‘Mandated by sixteen,’ Daniel reminds him, trying for a smile. ‘It’ll come sooner or later. They’ll find out sooner or later. And do what, I don’t know. It’s happened before.’
Nick puts a hand on the top of the table and lets out a sigh. ‘That is all true. And I did not give you quite enough credit in this. But even if they learn that you have experienced traces before, you mustn’t -’
Daniel nods sharply. ‘I know. I won’t mention the words. Bella gerant alii - for now.’
Nick lets out a breath. ‘Good. For now. Come down soon, I’m making something with tomato, pesto and chicken.’
‘Oh and Sarah called,’ Nick says as he reaches the doorway and Daniel nearly throws something at him because why couldn’t he have said that first? ‘She says, and I quote, “log onto your email already.”’
‘So this show your mom watches-’
They’re sitting on the hood of Ba’al’s car in the school parking lot on a night without a football game or any other reason to bring anyone by.
‘Well, it’s ridiculous, of course,’ Vala takes a long drag of the cigarette and passes it to Ba’al. ‘Hold this.’
He raises an eyebrow and Vala enjoys watching his throat move as he reaches out, holding the cigarette as far from the end her mouth had met as possible without burning his hand.
She jumps to her feet and tugs her hair from the braid to thread her hands through it until it’s smooth.
Ba’al is watching each motion of her hands.
Vala grins. ‘You can, if you want.’
He looks at the cigarette and then back at her, recovering something like the badass exterior Vala broke through years before. ‘You think you’re so clever it hurts sometimes, V.’
She pulls her hair across one shoulder and raises an eyebrow at him. ‘You’re still holding that. Keep going and it’ll burn right out.’
Ba’al extends one leg and then another with the slow grace that saw him bullied for being too effeminate and too different for the in-crowd until he filled out, grew tall and bought a truly excellent leather jacket. He moves until he’s standing in front of the car, and then in front of Vala. She doesn’t move back. He steps forward again. The cigarette burns between them, held between his thumb and index finger.
‘Last chance,’ he says, left hand side of his mouth quirking.
Vala raises her chin. The dim lights of the streetlights in the distance fight with his eyes for her focus, but if she doesn’t do this, she’ll never know, and she repeats the thought over and over until it numbs any fear that might be lacing the adrenaline in her veins.
She finds the car with her hands behind her as Ba’al takes a breath that shakes and puts his lips to the cigarette. Her heart thuds in her chest as he inhales the nicotine and the trace sinks in from the paper to his mouth to-
His eyes widen.
Vala stands still.
The cigarette falls from his hand and his pupils dilate.
Ba’al nods curtly; it’s his first trace. Vala swallows and feels a hitherto unknown imperative not to screw this up.
He raises a hand halfway and freezes. Vala looks up and feels the warmth of his hand as it finds her hip. She scoops up his other hand and places it firmly on the other hip.
She looks at him and thinks of every hint, every smile, every time they’ve jumped a fence together in the past three years. Vala’s always wondered if-
‘Can I?’ She asks, voice sounding distant to her own ears, merging with the sounds of the street and the buzzing of the lamps and the long-forgotten car radio. She hates how much like those classes she sounds because they were damn creepy, but it really is consent. It’s all always about preserving consent after all.
Ba’al nods and Vala puts her hand along his jaw, her thumb on his cheek; her skin to his skin.
He and Sarah walk from the cinema along with the others, when its their row’s turn to move. ‘It’s like that old British thing about queueing,’ Daniel comments lightly. Sarah doesn’t comment, but smiles tightly.
When they’re out on the street and walking in the direction of their neighbourhood, he feels the cotton of Sarah’s glove brush his.
Daniel knows what he should do. He should take her hand in his, feel the thin fabric against fabric and swing their hands back and forth. Talk about the film. Like he did last week. And the week before, when they went to the exhibition at the local history museum.
And it’s not that he doesn’t like Sarah.
He doesn’t want to-
Then they’re at his front door.
Daniel’s heart is thudding so hard he really thinks it might break his ribs.
Sarah pushes a blonde curl back and looks at him, taking her nerves out a little on her bottom lip.
Daniel doesn’t know what he says under the porch light except that it’s polite, perfunctory and utterly disappointing; he can tell this by Sarah’s eyes as she walks away. He keeps his eyes on his shoes, the hall carpet and the door handles on his way to his room. He ignores Nick’s shout from the study.
Sarah doesn’t call again.
It’s not until the junior officer visiting the school asks her to come by his temporary office that Vala realises she has no idea what she’s supposed to be doing with her life.
She’s smart, she’s efficient, and she’s pretty sure she can find a way of being useful to herself (and others, if it happens to suit her). She even has a few offers from colleges her mother says they’d find a way to afford.
‘I didn’t take those,’ she says automatically, looking at the pile of objects on the desk.
Major Davis grins and gestures for her to close the door. ‘Between you and me, my department probably wouldn’t care if you did.’
‘Let me guess- it would show initiative?’ Vala arches an eyebrow and curls a hand around her satchel strap.
‘Something like that,’ Major Davis answers and then points to the table. ‘Tell me, Vala. Which of these objects have been handled in the past two hours?’
Vala blinks. ‘You want me to try to find traces?’
Vala wonders who noticed her magpie habits and sold her out. She doesn’t wonder long, a trace of cigarette smoke in her nose until she shakes her head to rid herself of it. The thing with physically touching another person, though, is that she’ll never be completely rid of him.
‘All right, commando. I’ll play your game.’ She closes her eyes and draws a hand across the objects, feeling for that telltale warmth - as if it were warm skin with blood pulsing under it, not an inanimate object, beneath her palm.
‘3, 8 and 11,’ she answers, pointing to a purse, a computer mouse and a tupperware box that Davis probably stole from the school staff room. ‘What do you want to know about them?’
‘Vala- that was the test,’ Davis blinks. ‘What can you tell me about them?’
Vala gives him a look and hesitates.
‘For being able to answer that one question, we can offer you a three-year full ride to any college you want, a job at the end of it and extra-curricular training while you’re there,’ Davis leans forward to say, ‘and just for giving us a chance, we’ll pay your mother’s medical expenses for life.’
The trace swims in front of her eyes - her palm flat on her mother’s arm on a gurney, doctors in coloured gloves, her mother’s babbling thoughts, trying to reach, trying to speak. Vala does something she’s been trying really hard not to do. She turns her palm slightly upward and keeps her face as straight as she can; she reaches.
She lets out a breath and looks at him over the objects he asked her to read.
‘I can tell you’re not lying. What else can you tell me?’
‘Through here, Nick,’ Daniel calls back, shruggling off his satchel and jacket.
‘Could you join us?’
Daniel pauses, one foot on the bottom of the stairs, then heads to the living room.
‘We’re in the kitchen.’
Daniel frowns but heads to the kitchen anyway. He can’t think off-hand of anyone his grandfather would entertain in the kitchen that would need his presence, and certainly not any of his parents’ old friends.
‘Daniel, have a seat.’
He sits, looking over the man who spoke to him. Brown hair, hard jaw, leather jacket, late twenties, possibly frowned his way into looking early thirties. Then he stops. ‘You-’
‘So you do speak Russian. What else?’
‘Shouldn’t you tell me your name, at least, before you start interrogating me?’
The man grins and waves it off. ‘I already know yours. What’s the point of pleasantries?’
‘You’re kind of an ass.’
Daniel doesn’t know where that came from, but it makes the mystery man and his grandfather laugh.
‘Congratulations, Daniel,’ Nick puts in, putting a mug of tea in front of him. ‘Even you aren’t immune to Jack’s dubious charms.’
Daniel raises an eyebrow and the man - Jack - lets out an ’oy.’
‘Colonel Jack O’Neill. Bringer of the best out of people - supposedly.’
He stretches out a hand for Daniel to shake. Daniel fixes him with a look - he doesn’t look that old.
‘Kid, I could pretend I’m here because you have a knack for languages that’s going out of fashion faster than short sleeves, but I’d be lying, because I have a comprehensive list for that. Can you tell me what I’m thinking or not?’ Jack keeps his hand out. His voice isn’t unkind.
Daniel tries to keep the sheer betrayal out of his eyes as he looks to Nick. ‘You were right when you said they would find out sooner or later. This is my way of making sure that it’s the good people, Daniel. You can trust Jack.’
Daniel doesn’t reply. He sighs and rolls his eyes to the ceiling.
‘I get a lot of that,’ Jack says mildly, putting his hand on the table and turning it palm up.
Daniel feels his heart beating the way it always does when he can feel the traces itching like old scars, enough that he sees flickers at the edge of his vision. Which is, as Nick has told him more often than he can count, exactly what they are: old, invisible scars. Daniel pinches the bridge of his nose, takes a breath and slaps his hand forward to meet Jack’s before he can regret it.
It knocks the breath out of him and he sees Jack’s eyes widen.
Daniel pulls his hand away as quickly as he’d put it there. He grabs the table’s edge to hold himself up and takes sharp breaths.
‘Charlie. You’re thinking about Charlie.’
Jack looks to Nick with a questioning glance. Nick shakes his head. ‘He’d never heard of you or the boy, Jack.’
‘I was thinking about orange sunsets and Froot Loops, actually, but-’ Jack shakes his head and looks as pale as Daniel feels. ‘I suppose I always am. You’re not the only one carrying traces, though I have to say yours are something.’
Daniel doesn’t know how to respond to that. He’s still stuck on you’re not the only one carrying traces. It’s one thing to read (and read) about it online. It’s another thing to feel it down to his toes. It’s another thing to know with such an absolute certainty that he isn’t alone.
Jack reaches into the case by his foot and slides a piece of paper over to him.
Daniel looks at it and frowns. ‘You’re here to talk about college?’