The afternoon was warm and the air was thick, unseasonably so for a June day, even as the orange sun began to dip beneath the treeline. All around us the dry, rasping chorus of cicadas filled our ears, the marching song as we made our way along the train tracks at the bottom of the ravine. The rails were a deep rust red save for on the tops, where friction had worn the metal pristine and it shone bright in the setting light. Helena balanced atop it some ways ahead of me, and it looked like she walked on a trail of fire. Sometimes she would lose her balance, the pale blue sundress she wore fluttering in the sudden shift as she fought to regain her footing and she would slow a bit then, picking her way carefully but always hastening again to a daring speed where she would, once more, eventually, misstep. I thought she was playing a game; she was always playing one, usually with me, but when or if I wasn't game, she would carry on by herself. It never seemed to bother her much. She was just in it for the thrill of it.
My path was the pitted, weatherworn wood planks spaced evenly between the rails, like a ladder. I was staring down at my feet, counting the steps one by one, just like I had been doing ever since we first came here together six years ago and two weeks after we first met in class. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine...
We were ten years old the first time we went there, or I was ten and she was eleven, as she was fond of reminding me, because she was a month older. Careening aimlessly, the two of us gave chase to one another, breathing heavily and eyes shining, not caring how tired we were or how hot it was, until we finally stopped to catch our breath. She may have been a month older but my growth spurt had begun early and I stood several inches taller and much lankier, so that she had to lift her chin slightly to match my eyes.
"Do you know why I brought you here?" Her speech sounded funny to me then, the accent was even thicker, but I still liked it.
"No," I said, because I really didn't. In class the other kids thought I was a teacher's pet and I buried my nose in books so they wouldn't pay attention to me. But where that had repelled the others, it only appeared to draw her. "Why?"
"There's a lake there, just beyond the trees." She lifted a hand and pointed now, cocking her head to the side. "I found it last Saturday."
I followed her finger with my own gaze. From here it didn't look like much of anything at all. "Really?" I asked.
"Mhmm. Come on, I'll show you," she said, smiled in that way she had even then, and took my hand, tugging me along. I followed, because I would have followed her anywhere. I didn't know why she wanted to be my friend, especially when it meant she would largely be ignored by our classmates, too. It never seemed to bother her much.
We were ten, and we didn't know what love was.
"Myka," she said again, and this time I actually heard it. I liked how my name sounded when she spoke it, much more than when my dad did. From him it always sounded as though I was in trouble; from her, it sounded a prize she had caught between her lips. Helena's accent could make any word beautiful.
Engrossed in my thoughts, I had passed her by a foot or two. I looked back and returned blandly, "H.G." It was the nickname I had given her six months after she moved here from England. I had been reading The Time Traveler, which I had nabbed from the shelves at my father's bookstore, and was captivated by H.G. Wells' vision of the future. She was always dreaming and I was captivated by her, too.
Helena took a couple steps forward until she was level with me. "Race you to the lake?"
Squinting, I looked up ahead. The tracks began to curve to the right, the marker for where to diverge and enter the copse of trees that hid the lake beyond. A grin was wide on her lips as she eyed me and I felt my own begin to draw in kind. Her thick black hair had begun to slip from its tie and she tucked a lock behind her ear as I drawled out a slow, "Sure."
"On your mark?"
With a sharp cry of giddy triumph, like she hadn't aged a day in those six years, she took off, and I scrambled a moment to do the same, caught off guard. The tie was lost and her hair slid entirely free, and I focused on that black wake as I ran hard to catch her. Helena liked to play games, but she liked winning them more.
We split into the trees, forced to slow to dodge rocks and fallen limbs and undergrowth, and I was gaining on her as we reached the thinning edge and came into view of the lake beyond. I knew she was gunning for it. I reached out with a hand, steadily closing the couple-inch gap between my fingertips and that dress strap, and it was funny to be moving so swiftly but so slowly.
Not ten feet from the water I snagged fabric at last and clenched tight, pulling her back, and she gave another yell with her shortlived struggle to wrest herself free. I fought to slow and she twisted about, crashing into me and suddenly grabbing both my wrists in her hands, taking me spinning and spinning with the momentum of our sprint, and laughing, and I was laughing too, the sound of it too large and too loud for that place. Our feet caught--maybe it was hers, or maybe it was mine, but we went down together--and all at once we were on the ground, tangled together and quiet save for our laboured breathing that was as much a result of the laughter as the running. As we lay there she pressed her forehead to my shoulder for a moment or two and I stared up at the thinned canopy, the dark silhouettes of tree limbs against the dusk sky like veins in backlit skin. Her skin was hot, but the sheen of sweat upon it was cool. Helena was panting and ruddied, hair swept back and tousled with the wind, the thin fabric of her dress now clinging to her, damp. A trickle of perspiration ran down my temple and I knew my hair must have looked a state too, because I could feel the curls plastered messily to my forehead.
"I won," she breathed, the hot air was uncomfortable on my shoulder, and then pulled back, looking down at me and grinning wildly.
Tucking my chin to my chest, I met green to her black eyes. I swallowed thickly and shook my head. "But I caught you."
"Only because I wanted you to." Helena rose up on her elbows and, quicker than I could react, kissed me.
It was chaste and borne of heady exuberance but I felt its burn on my lips all the same, a tingling cinnamon red-hot. Another of her games. She laughed again, and the sound of it filled my heart. I threw my head back and gave my smile to the pastel sky, whose colours seemed brighter in the flush of exertion.
We were sixteen and loved life.
It's first-times like these that come to me as I'm picking my way through the woods, something I can do by memory, which is good because it's well around midnight and any light from the moon and stars has difficulty reaching the ground. It's prom night. Not that either of us care, but it means our parents think we've gone out with the rest of our classmates and aren't expecting us back until the next morning. The last feeble rasps of winter can still be felt in the night air and I wrap my arms around my waist. Look at her, still thin as a rail, I hear my father say, and hug a bit tighter.
I don't know how I knew she'd be here, but if I had to guess, it would probably be the same way she knew I would show up. This is just what we do, knowing one another. It makes my father snort, derisive, and my mother smile when he isn't looking, like she's in on the secret.
With the treeline broken, she's so pale that she almost glows in the unfiltered moonlight shining down and skittering off the water, like she's made of it herself.
Something, probably the crunch of leaves beneath my steps, gives me away and I see her turn her head, smiling, which I just know more than I can really see.
It's something that never stops amazing me, the way she just easily and unabashedly is.
"Hey you," she calls, and I can hear the smile, too.
"Hey," I say back, and for a while that's all we say.
I sit down next to her and draw my knees up to my chest, pulling them in close, but that doesn't last long because she reaches out and takes my hand, threading her fingers with mine and tucking both hands to her chest. Straightening my legs and laying out flat on the ground instead, I turn onto my side toward her. If I close my eyes and concentrate, and I do, I can just barely catch the occasional beat of her heart against the back of my hand. Her skin is warm. I hold a bit tighter. Pressing her lips to my knuckles, she makes sure I can feel her smile now, too, which is another thing I like about Helena. She knows I know, but she also doesn't mind making sure of it. It's this thought that leads me to wriggle in a bit closer, the motion graceless but with good intention, until our hands are trapped between us and she's lifted her chin again in anticipation of what's to come; I want to let her know, too.
I can make out the features on her face now, and the glint in her eyes. If I had to guess, I would say she's every bit as calm and sure as I am nervous but sure.
"I've caught you." She whispers even though we're alone, and it makes me feel like we're the only two people in the world. Her hand squeezes mine emphatically.
"Only because I wanted you to," I whisper back, one of our games, and now I see her grin and it's too much to bear, so I close what little distance there is left and capture her lips with mine. The kiss is slow, soft and curious, and we pretend like we've never done that before because we have plenty of time to learn one another again, and better.
We're eighteen and in love.