Libby strained up on her tip-toes, her arms wrapped tightly around her brother's shoulders. She felt his arms loosen and fought the urge to squeeze him closer, hold on longer.
Matt smiled at her as he pulled away, tickling her sides slightly before stepping back. "Okay," he said, letting out a deep breath. "I really have to go now."
Her throat felt thick, her eyes burned, her chest ached. "Okay," she whispered, not trusting herself to speak any louder or any longer.
Their mom reached out for him, kissing him on both cheeks before releasing him. "Call us when you get there, okay?"
"I will, promise. My phone is unlocked and everything, so I'll be able to call you as soon as I land."
"And send us an address as soon as you get to the clinic. We want to send you care packages."
Matt grinned. "I'll look forward to that."
Their dad stepped forward to embrace Matt. "Call if you need anything, got it?"
Matt nodded. "I will. Don't worry, though - my Peace Corps recruiter said I'd be in a relatively urban setting. Running water, electricity, paved roads. I'm going to be fine."
Libby looked at her big brother, tall and brilliant and adventurous. And brave. He was such a good person. "Matt," she said, grabbing his hand in both of hers. "I'm so proud of you."
He squeezed her hand, pulling her in tight. She pressed her face against his chest, trying to breathe him in as much as possible. Too soon, though, he was stepping back, out of her grasp. He held her gaze for a moment, and she wondered if he wanted to say something else. Instead he smiled at her, at her parents, hiked his pack up onto his shoulder and nodded. "Bye."
Libby held herself still and silent, watching as he made his way through security. Watching as he waved one last time. Watching as he turned the corner towards his terminal. Watching until he wasn't there anymore, and only then did she let herself cry.
"Hi!" Libby picked up on the first ring. "Where are you now? How are you? What time is it there?"
The sound of her voice crackling through the phone, sounding impossibly far away and yet heartbreakingly close at the same time, was enough to make a heavy pressure settle into Matt's chest. "I'm in the capital city right now, for training. I'll be here for a couple months, and then they ship us out to our permanent spots."
"Is it hot there?"
"Not too bad. It's not cold, which is more than I can say for you guys right now."
"Fall is definitely kicking in," Libby agreed. "I'd love some sun right about now."
Matt looked out his window at the bright mid-morning sun, and suddenly missed the grey skies Ohio was sure to be experiencing these days. "If it helps, I'm spending most of my time indoors right now. We've got a lot of training and classes to go through."
"Stuff about AIDS?"
"Some. A lot about local culture, getting around, health and safety concerns. I have a feeling the more specific stuff about my job will come later." He thumbed absentmindedly through the handbook he'd been given. It was already full of his notes and highlighter marks, several pages dog-eared to bookmark important information.
"Do you know yet where you're going?"
"Somewhere on the coast, they say. It gets a lot of rain, apparently, so that's nice."
Libby snorted. "Sure, for the first few days. Call me after six months and tell me how much you love it then."
"Thanks for the supportive words." He could hear her grin through the phone. "Okay, I gotta go. I love you."
"Love you too," she said softly. "Bye."
He'd only been in Cameroon for three days, but the moment of dead air that signaled she was no longer on the line was the first time Matt felt truly homesick.
Libby glared at her phone out of the corner of her eye. It was cruelly and obnoxiously silent, and it had been all morning. Sighing in frustration, she snatched it up and dialed her voicemail.
She could recite the message nearly by heart at this point: Hi, Lib. I thought I might catch you, but I guess you're in class right now. I'm going to be out of touch for about a week - I'm moving to my village now, and it might take a few days for them to get electricity hooked up at my house. I'll call you as soon as I can, but it might be a little while. I called Dad already, but make sure to give him a hug for me on his birthday. Talk to you soon. I love you, Libby.
Libby didn't know how many times she had listened to the message in the previous week and a half. As the days stretched out, she felt more and more desperate to hear his voice in her ear, to hear him say I love you, Libby before she fell asleep. And now, three days after his given week had expired, three days after she was supposed to hear from him, Libby found herself able to do little else but stare at the noiseless, useless piece of plastic and imagine throwing it against the wall.
Her phone rang. She jumped a foot in the air as the shrill sound cut into the silence. Her heart pounding in her throat, she hit the answer button and pressed the phone to her ear.
"Matt!" she exclaimed. "Where have you been?"
"Hi, Lib." She bit her lip, realizing just how badly she had missed him. "Sorry it took me longer than I said; they just now got my electricity turned on. Thank god the plumbing didn't take that long."
"No more shitting in a bucket?" she asked innocently.
"I am bucket-free," he confirmed. "I have my very own shower, toilet, and sink, and they all work, thank you very much."
"Ah, the finer things in life," she teased him.
Matt laughed. "Honestly, you have no idea."
She spent the next hour catching him up on her week, hearing all about his work and his fellow volunteers and the village he was living in. There were three other volunteers and one permanent staff member at the clinic. He and one of the other volunteers, a guy named Garrett, were sharing a two-bedroom house five kilometers from the clinic.
"I bike a lot," he told her. "There's only a few paved roads, but on my days off I like to go exploring a bit. We're right on the ocean, Lib, you should see how close my house is. Ten minutes, tops."
"That sounds amazing." She closed her eyes and lay back on the couch, listening to his voice.
"There's a little cove here that you would love. There's a bluff overlooking it, and the beach is perfectly isolated from the rest of the coastline. I wish you could see it."
"Me too," Libby said. She imagined him standing on a cliff, looking out at an endless horizon of water and sky. "Let's build a house there."
"Yeah?" he laughed. "Right on the cliff?"
"Yep. With some wooden stairs leading down to the sand."
"I'd like that," he said softly. Libby smiled, warm in her blanket and her imagined home on the African beach. "I miss you," Matt said.
"You, too. I didn't like not talking to you for that long."
He exhaled. "Me, neither. I'll call you tomorrow, I promise."
"Kay. Love you."
"Love you, Lib."
Matt looked at his phone and debated not answering the call. He wanted to talk to her, badly needed to hear her voice, but after the day he'd just had he wasn't sure he should talk to anyone. He didn't want to burden Libby with what he was dealing with tonight.
The phone fell silent. Matt pinched the bridge of his nose and stood up. Going into the kitchen to make himself dinner, he opened the fridge and stared blankly at its contents. Nothing looked appetizing, not even the amazing corn bread his boss had sent them home with the day before.
Resigned, he grabbed a bottle of water and went back into his dark room. Lying down and closing his eyes helped nothing - he only saw the face of the boy on the cot, still and ashen and never to move again. He opened his eyes and stared into the dark, wondering if he would sleep that night.
A light blinked. Turning his head, he saw the green light on his phone blink again. A new message was waiting for him.
Hesitating for only a minute, he seized the phone and called his voice mail system. Ten seconds later his sister's voice filled his ear, warm and cheerful and free of pain.
Hi, big brother. So, you're usually home by this time, but I'll assume that you're out enjoying that wild Cameroon nightlife - and by that I mean the nightly Cameroon wildlife. Get it? Because you're in Africa.
He grinned despite himself, running a hand over tired eyes.
So, I've been thinking about our house. And I've decided we're going to need crops. I don't care that we're living on a cliff - you keep talking about all that damn rain, so I'm going to assume there's arable land close by. We'll need a couple plots - vegetables, mainly, and maybe some grain. Wheat? How about corn? Then we can learn how to make our own bread. Doesn't that sound nice?
I'd like some flowers, too, and you're going to need to call me back and tell me what kind of trees are indigenous to Cameroon. I want something like an oak - a big trunk and wide branches to sit under. I want a place to read.
So that's your assignment: plant our garden. And soon - we don't want to miss growing season. I love you.
The silence that greeted him when the message ended felt much less heavy, and the darkness felt warmer too. And when Matt closed his eyes, instead of seeing the clinic he saw a house on a cliff, and a garden.
Libby felt her phone vibrate in her back pocket as she left the school building. Pulling it out, she looked at the ID and smiled. "Isn't it, like, one in the morning there?"
"What are you, eighty?" came the response. "One am is a perfectly reasonable hour."
"Sure, if there's actually something to do," Libby shot back. "Was there a webisode you absolutely couldn't miss?"
"Smartass," Matt ribbed. "Fine, never mind. I'll call you tomorrow during my old lady hours."
"Don't!" Libby yelped. "I want to talk to you."
"Only if you're nice to me."
"I don't think so."
"Okay, only if you're nice to me for one sentence."
"I love you very much and I miss you a ton. Asshole."
"The asshole was in the second sentence."
Libby thought her favorite sound in the world was her brother laughing. If only she could see him, too.
"I need to tell you something," she told him. Excitement thrummed through her nerves, anticipating his reaction.
"I got into Johns Hopkins."
"Shut up!" he exclaimed. "Libby! That's fucking amazing."
"I know!" she said, her fingers tapping spasmodically on her hip as she walked. "I got the letter this morning. I would have called, but I assumed you were already at work."
"Sure, of course. Congratulations, Libby."
"Thanks, Matt." Her chest felt warm and full to bursting. "They've got this epidemiology program that looks incredible."
"I bet they do. Lib, I'm so proud of you. We're going to have to have an entire room in our cottage just for your awards and degrees."
"We can share."
"Happy birthday to you!" Matt grinned into the camera, relishing the faces on the screen in front of him as they sang to him. In honor of his birthday, he had arranged to use the clinic's one computer and webcam for a few minutes. It was the first time he had seen his family's faces in over seven months.
"You look so tan!" his dad said, peering into the camera.
"What're you talking about, Dad?" Libby said, brow furrowing. "Everything is tinted green."
"That's the tarp," Matt explained, pointing at the plastic walls behind his back. "It helps with the rain. And I'm definitely not tanner - like I said, there's a lot of rain here."
"Are you eating well?" his mom asked. "I hope you're getting a lot of vegetables."
"Tons," Matt replied. He watched Libby's face as he spoke. "Cameroon has a great climate for growing crops." She smiled softly.
"That's nice," their mom said. "And your roommate?"
"Great guy. I'd love for you all to meet him someday."
His dad nodded. "He should come visit when you come back in December."
"He can't. We get different vacation days - he'll be early December, I'm the second half of the month."
Libby's face lit up. "You'll be home for Christmas?"
"Hopefully," Matt confirmed. The smile that spread across her face would keep him warm for days.
Libby listened to the ringing, imagining the signal traveling over land and through the air. She followed it's path in her mind, over miles of road and leagues of ocean, finally reaching a beach she had only ever seen in her mind.
"Hello?" His voice sounded scratchy with sleep. She did the math and realized that it was just before seven his time.
"Did I wake you?"
"It's okay," he yawned. "What's up?"
She sat against her pillows, looking around at empty shelves and bare walls and full boxes. "I leave for Baltimore today."
"Right, I forgot. You excited?"
"No," she whispered.
She heard Matt sitting up in bed, and could imagine his hand running through his hair, over his eyes. "Libby."
"I feel like it's never going to be the same again," she blurted out. "You're gone for another year, almost, and then who knows where you're going next? What if we never spend more than a week or two a year together?"
"I promise you," he said firmly, "that we will see each other more than that. But Lib, this is just...part of growing up."
"Growing up sucks," she said, gratified to hear a decidedly childish tone to her voice.
Matt laughed. "Tell me about it."
She hesitated. "Is it hard there?"
Libby waited for more, but for once her brother wasn't forthcoming with details.
"Matt, you can talk to me. You know that, right?"
He exhaled. "I will, someday. Right now I'm just...right now there's a lot to process."
"Have you seen people die?"
"Libby." There was a sharpness in his voice she had rarely heard before. "I really don't want to talk about it."
"Okay," she said, feeling very small.
The distance between them seemed incredibly far, all of a sudden. Then:
"I'm sorry." His voice was soft. "I don't know how to talk about some of this. Believe me, though - when I find the words, you're the first person I want to say them to."
"I understand," she said, although she didn't. Not really. She could tell him anything, and she hated not being able to help him with this. "Let's build a hammock."
"On our porch. On the cliff, overlooking the ocean. Big enough that we can share it."
"That sounds nice."
"We could go out there in the evenings and read until the sun goes down," Libby said softly, imagining.
"And then the stars would come out." Matt's voice was low. "Libby, I've never seen so many stars. The sky is incredible here. I wish you were here to see it."
"I am. We're in our hammock, looking up at the stars."
They both fell silent, and for a long moment Libby closed her eyes and listened to him breathe and could almost believe they were laying together in a warm African night on their little beach.
"Have you made friends yet?"
"Yes, Dad," Libby replied.
Matt winced, dropping into his chair in the lunch room. "Ouch."
"Serves you right. Anyways, yes, I'm making friends, I'm liking my classes, I'm getting enough sleep and doing my homework and eating lots of salad."
He laughed, pouring dressing on his own salad. "Good girl. How's the dorm?"
"Not bad. I've got a single room, actually."
"How'd you swing that?"
"They had a really large freshman class this year. I just lucked out."
Matt speared a piece of tomato on his fork. "Sounds like things are going well?"
"Yeah." Libby hesitated. "I actually...I have a date tomorrow night."
Matt coughed, narrowly avoiding inhaling his tomato. "A date?"
"Yeah." Libby sounded nervous, or excited. Maybe both.
"Who is he?"
"Um, his name is Jeremy. He's in BIO 202 with me, and he asked me to a movie this weekend."
"Wow, that's..." Matt felt his stomach knot up. Libby had never had a boyfriend before; he couldn't say he was thrilled about her dating some guy she had met in her first week of college. That never ended well.
"Matt?" Libby definitely sounded nervous now. "Do you think this is a bad idea?"
He could imagine her face, her teeth worrying her lower lip, her eyes boring into his. "Of course not," he replied with as much conviction as he could muster. "I'm sure he's a great guy."
"I hope so." A book slammed shut on her end. "Shit! I've got to get to my class. I'll call you soon!"
"Love you," Matt said, but she had already hung up.
Libby woke up with a start. The sun was just peeking through her drapes and she could see the frost on the edges of her window. She had a moment of disorientation before realizing she wasn't in her dorm room; she was back at home for winter break. And then she remembered what day it was, what was happening today. She jumped out of bed, not able to stay still any longer.
Five thirty-seven, her clock mocked her. Matt's flight had been delayed about thirteen hours, so she couldn't hope to see him until at least seven. The eighty-three minutes remaining seemed impossibly long. There was no way her nerves could stand it.
Trying not to rush, trying to wring every second out of every possible action, Libby walked downstairs and started a pot of coffee. She tapped her fingers impatiently on the large red can, watching the first drops begin to fall into the pot.
Seventy-six minutes, her watch told her now.
She was staring out the window blankly, seriously contemplating starting on her economics homework just to have something to occupy her time, when the taxi rounded the corner. Libby gasped out loud. Stop, she implored silently as the taxi drove down their street. Stop here, stop here.
It stopped outside of their driveway. Libby spun around and raced to the door, ripping it open just as Matt stepped onto their porch. He pulled back, surprised. She drank in his face, a huge, silly grin on her own.
"I must have the wrong house," Matt said, glancing at the house number. He looked back at her with a growing smile.
Libby giggled. "Sister!" she said, as if he'd actually forgotten. Not waiting for him to speak, she threw herself into his arms. "Oh, I've missed you so much."
Matt held her tight, his face pressing into her shoulder. "Hi, Lib," she heard him murmur, his breath ghosting over her skin. She shivered.
"Come on in," she said after he had put her down. "It's cold."
He dropped his pack by the stairs and followed her into the kitchen. "They waited up for you, you know," she told him accusingly. And so did I.
"It's a long way from West Africa," he protested, walking past her to the coffee pot with a hungry look on his face. "Ah, real coffee."
"Nope, just Folgers," Libby apologized, jumping onto the island. "We ran out of the real roast."
"I don't care." Matt poured himself a mug and stood next to her her, his elbow almost touching his knee. He looked so perfectly ordinary, standing in their kitchen in his old grey sweater, his hair a little longer than she'd remembered but still him. The sight made her heart hurt.
"I got you something, from far away."
"Really?" Libby asked, watching him drink coffee and be six inches away from her, and wondered what else could possibly live up to this moment.
"Here." He pressed a small box into her hands, wrapped in a pretty pattern of black and white and topped with a red bow. He must have put some actual effort into wrapping this - she didn't imagine his village had a lot of gift-wrapping stations. She turned the box over in her hands, almost not caring what its contents were. Matt had thought of her, Matt had wanted to do something special for her.
She lifted the bow off the box and pressed it onto his chest. "There."
He looked at her, confused. "What are you doing?"
"You're my present this year," she told him, hoping the little gesture would let him know how much she missed him, how fiercely glad she was to see him again.
He looked touched. "Lib," he said, a small smile playing on his lips.
"Matt!" Their parents came into the room in dressing gowns. "You're back!" Their mom laughed happily as he hugged her tightly.
Libby sat on the counter, the tableau in front of her enough to keep her warm and happy for days. She watched Matt talk to their parents, and flushed warm when she saw his fingers reach up to lightly, absentmindedly, touch the bow on his sweater.
The two weeks sped by way too fast for Matt's comfort. He saw old friends, celebrated Christmas and New Years with large groups of aunts and uncles and cousins. He got used to telling the same stories over and over again. Working in a clinic in Cameroon. Yeah, we deal a lot with HIV/AIDS. No, it's really very safe there. Actually, a lot of them speak English, and I've been working on some local dialects. No, really, I'm perfectly safe and happy there.
There was a level of frustration in answering the same questions over and over again, the sense that most people didn't understand what he was working on, didn't understand Cameroon or Africa or the Peace Corps. Despite that, the night before he left he found himself dreading the coming morning, the flight that was going to return him back to his village and his clinic. It wasn't that he didn't want to go back, he just didn't want to leave. Not yet.
A light knock brought him out of his reverie. "Yeah?" he answered.
Libby opened the door. "Oh, good, you're still awake."
"Hey," he grinned, gesturing her in. "What are you still doing up?"
She shrugged, climbing into the other side of his bed. "I've only got you around for another nine or so hours. Sleep seemed like a waste of precious time."
His heart warmed at her words. "At least it won't be as long this time, right? I'll be back for good in October."
She winced, leaning into his side. "Ugh, that still sounds like forever."
"Yeah," Matt sighed. "It does."
"Are you not happy there?"
"I am," Matt replied quickly. He was, truly, but it was still hard at times. A lot of the time.
Libby looked up at him. "I know you don't like to talk about it, but..."
He leaned back against the headboard, closing his eyes with a sigh. "I don't really know how to start."
He felt her shift closer, settle back against the headboard. "How many patients do you see a day?"
"Anywhere from ten to fifty. It really varies."
"Are they all sick?"
"With the virus?" She nodded. "No, a lot of it is just infections, fevers, injuries. We're the only clinic in about twenty miles."
"Do you think it's worse than working in any hospital anywhere?"
Matt hesitated. Yes. "Mothers bring in babies. And we try to help them, but they've been infected since birth. And there are drugs out there, drugs that can help prevent mothers passing on the virus to their kids, but they're so expensive. They're so hard to get when you're in a village hours away from any city and any pharmaceutical. And so mothers bring in their kids and we have to tell them that there's nothing we can do, because they didn't happen to be born in a western country where this all could have been prevented."
Libby pulled her legs up to her chest. "They have drugs for AIDS?"
"Yes, but more importantly, they have drugs for HIV which can prevent most transmissions if taken properly. And way too many people throughout Africa don't have access to these drugs."
"Wow," she said quietly. "That really fucking sucks."
"Yeah," Matt agreed. And then they fell silent again, because neither of them knew what else to say that was more appropriate than that really fucking sucks.
Morning dawned and Matt lifted his head to see Libby tucked against him, breathing softly. They had fallen asleep some hours earlier, after the conversation had shifted from his clinic to her school. She had talked shyly about her boyfriend, about the friends she was making, and he had soaked in the sound of her voice and the warmth of her pressed against his side, just like she was now. His eyes traced her face, his fingers curling into hers where they rested on his stomach.
Too soon, she shifted away and her eyes opened. "Oh," she said, her voice thick with sleep. "Oops, sorry."
"It's okay," he said, his hand squeezing hers. "I'm glad you stayed."
She smiled at him, then sat up, her eyes growing sad. "You're leaving."
She stood up, wrapping her arms around her stomach. "Fuck."
He rose, going to stand in front of her. "Lib."
"I know," she said, smiling shakily. "You're doing amazing things over there. It's selfish of me to want to keep you with me."
Matt didn't know what to say in response. I'm not sure how much of a difference I'm really making, after all. Or, I want to stay with you, too.
She stepped into his arms, squeezing him tightly around the middle. "I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you, too," he said softly, hugging her. He ran his hands down her back, memorizing the feel of her spine and shoulders under soft, worn cotton. "Call whenever you need to hear my voice."
"So, every day then?" she laughed slightly. "Take care of our house, okay?"
"Sure," he grinned, pulling back. "It's waiting for you whenever you need it."
Libby plugged her phone into its charger, cursing its diminishing battery life. Once it powered on, she looked at the clock. Five pm her time meant eleven in the evening for Matt - he could still be up.
"Hi! Sorry I missed our date, my phone died."
"It's okay. I was still awake."
She fell back onto her bed, clutching her phone tightly. "I miss you."
"I know." He sounded tired. "Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, sure." And for some reason, that was all it took.
"Libby?" Matt sounded startled when she burst into tears. "Lib, sweetheart? What's wrong?"
He sounded so close to her, his voice was so sweet, and she wanted nothing more than to wrap her arms around him and lay next to him for hours.
"Everything sucks a little bit," she whispered, tears leaking down towards her hair and pillow. "I failed a pop quiz and there's this absolutely horrible asshole professor who has it out for me, and Jeremy turned out to be a jerk. And I'm not sure I like my friends all that much."
"Libby - "
"And I miss you," she said, her chest aching. "I miss you everyday."
Matt was quiet for a moment. "I miss you too. Like crazy."
"Tell me about our house," she pleaded, wanting to imagine their home, their beach, their sky.
"We're in the hammock," he responded immediately, and just as quickly she was there with him.
"My head is on your shoulder, and your arm is around me," she murmured.
He hesitated. "I'm stroking your hair, your back."
She smiled. "It feels nice." She could feel his fingers, warm and heavy, slipping through her hair. "I just want to press into you, hold you as tightly as possible."
"Hold me tight," he said, his voice rough in her ear.
She imagined pressing her nose into his neck, her lips at the juncture of throat and collarbone. Her heartbeat sped up to triple-time, and she suddenly saw the precipice she was on, had been on for ages.
"I think I want to kiss you."
His breath was harsh and ragged when he drew it in. "Lib..."
Her blood froze solid as ice when she realized what she had said. "Oh my god," she said, sitting up so quickly her head spun.
"Libby," Matt said. "It's okay."
"No, god, no it's not. I'm so - Matt, I..." Libby felt sick, dizzy. "I have to go."
She heard him call her name through the thousands of miles between them the instant before she disconnected. Throwing the phone away from her in disgust, Libby retreated to the corner of her bed. Knees to her chest, hands clasped tight over her mouth, she let out a desperate, pained sob.
Matt listened to Libby's voicemail message for what felt like the nineteenth time in the last day. And although he had already left several messages, he waited patiently for the beep and began to talk again.
"Libby, please call me back. It's okay. I promise you, I don't care what you said. We'll talk about this, we'll get through this. It's okay. Please, just, please call me back. I'm going to keep calling, so you can either throw away your phone or pick up. All right? I love you."
His friends noticed his distraction by midday. "You okay?" Garrett asked him as they ran inventory of the clinic's supplies. "You seem quiet."
"Yeah," Matt sighed. "My sister and I had...a fight. She won't answer the phone."
Garrett clapped him on the back. "I'm sure you'll work it out."
Matt nodded, but didn't say anything more. He had barely slept last night. When he wasn't leaving futile voice messages on Libby's phone, he was replaying the conversation that had started this whole mess.
His hand had been in her hair, her leg tucked over his and her hand resting over his heart. He could see and feel her and their hammock as clearly as if it were an actual memory, rather than an invented figment they shared late at night. He could feel Libby's heartbeat, pounding against his ribs in tune with his own pulse. And he could see her lifting her head off his chest, looking at him and saying I think I want to kiss you.
And god help him, he wanted to kiss her back.
He tried her three more times before falling asleep with his phone still in his hand. He woke up gasping when it rang shrilly at four-thirty in the morning.
"Libby?" he answered, his heart pounding.
She was quiet, but he could hear her breathing. "Hi."
He closed his eyes as a powerful wave of relief flooded over him. "God, Libby."
"I'm so sorry, Matt," she said softly, sniffling.
"It's okay," he said.
"No, it's..." she trailed off. "Can we just pretend it didn't happen?"
Matt opened his mouth to agree but found the words lodged in his throat. He could say yes, and they could try to return to normalcy. The only problem was, he didn't want to.
The sob he heard on Libby's end of the line made him want to die. "Matt, please?"
"Libby..." He took a deep breath, trying to muster up his courage. "Libby, it's not just you."
"What's not?" she said, confusion in her words.
"I wanted to kiss you, too." The moment he said the truth out loud, Matt felt lighter than he had in...a long time.
Libby sounded very small and incredibly far away. "Matt?"
"I wanted to kiss you, too." The words were easier to say a second time. And a third. "I wanted to kiss you. I wanted to lay with you in our hammock and kiss you everywhere and touch you everywhere and...God, Libby." Every nerve in his body hummed with wanting. Wanting her.
"You did?" Libby took a great, shuddering breath.
"I did." He hesitated. "I do."
She was silent for a long, cruel moment, where he wondered if he'd gone too far. If he'd lost her forever. Then finally, finally, she spoke.
"So kiss me."
His body felt electric, his blood hot in his veins. "I wish I could," he said desperately.
"You can," she said, her voice quiet. "We're on our beach."
"Sunset?" he asked, wanting to see what she was seeing.
"Nighttime," she replied. "The stars are out."
"The tide is high," he added. "The waves are loud."
"Is the water warm?"
"Let's go swimming," Libby murmured. He could feel her tucked into his side, sand under his toes. "Let's take off our clothes and dive in."
He thought briefly about the symbolism of jumping into dark, unknown waters. "You look so beautiful in the moonlight."
"So do you," she said, her voice catching slightly. "Matt, I feel..."
"Can I touch you?" Matt asked before he could stop himself. "Libby, I need to - "
"Yes." Her response was immediate. "Matt, please."
"I..." The possibilities were endless and terrifying. Matt swallowed. "I drop to my knees in front of you. My eyes are level with your belly button, but I'm looking lower."
Libby gasped. "Oh."
"I want to lick you, to taste you."
"I want to lay you down on my jacket and trace you with my finger and my tongue."
Libby moaned, and the sound made his half-hard erection stiffen fully. He groaned as blood rushed almost painfully into his groin. "Matt," his sister whispered. "Are you...touching yourself?"
As if in response his hand flew down and grasped his cock. "Yes. Are you?"
The visual of Libby with her hand between her legs was almost enough to make him come right there.
"What else would you do?" she asked, her voice shaky.
"I'd lick you and suck you and fuck you with my fingers. First two, then three."
Libby keened loudly and Matt saw stars behind his eyelids.
"Would you make me come?" Libby managed in a ragged voice.
"Over and over again," he said roughly. He imagined her twisting on his coat, her hands digging through the sand as he made her clench tightly around his head. She would make sounds like the ones he could hear now, except she'd be warm and pliable beneath him instead of thousands of miles away.
"And then..." she gasped.
He drew in a deep breath, the visuals burned into his brain. "And then I'd crawl up your body. I'd kiss a line up your stomach, over your breasts. I'd lick a stripe up your throat and kiss up your jaw until I reached your mouth."
She whimpered. He might have, also. "And then?" Her voice was almost a cry.
"And then I'd settle between your thighs. And I'd pump two fingers in you - in and out, in and out - "
"Matt!" she whined.
"And then." He stopped, his heart beating madly in his throat, his hand gripping his cock firmly. "I'd take my fingers out and I'd enter you."
Libby cried out. "Please."
"I'd start to move," he said unevenly, his hand sliding up and down. "You're so perfect and wet and tight."
"Libby," he breathed.
She couldn't speak, only made inarticulate noises that were so amazing it hurt.
"Libby, come." And she did, with a half-cry, half-moan that he knew he would never forget. A couple more strokes and he was spilling all over his hand, his orgasm leaving him lightheaded.
They said nothing for a few moments. His head was spinning, but he felt oddly calm at the same time. Peaceful, even.
"Matt," Libby whispered, and then trailed off.
He didn't know what to say, how to respond. Libby grew quiet again. He wished he were with her, or that she was with him. He wanted to pull her in tight to his side. He wanted to kiss her so badly it hurt.
"What happens now?" she asked, breaking into his thoughts.
Matt looked down the bed, at his flaccid dick and the mess on his hand and the sheets tangled around his knees. "I don't know."
Libby woke up slowly, warm and comfortable in her bed. Morning light streamed through her window, landing on her walls and pillows. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the warmth for a minute, soaking it in.
The memories came rushing back with enough force and clarity to make her gasp. Suddenly she could hear Matt's voice in her ear, feel the sand through her fingers, see him above her, backlit by the moon and a million stars. His words played over and over again, his moans as loud and rough as they'd been the night before. He had been so close, so perfect.
She throbbed, her body remembering imagined touches and kisses that never happened. Almost of its own accord, her hand dipped beneath the drawstring of her pajama pants and found her clit. As she began to move her fingers, her phone rang from her bedside table.
Her head jerked up, her hand freezing. She grabbed the phone with her free hand to silence it - and almost moaned audibly when she saw Matt's name on the caller id.
Hesitating only for an instant, Libby answered. "Hi."
"Hi," he said, his voice washing over her and making her bite back a groan. "Are...how are you doing?"
"I'm wonderful," she said honestly. "Are you okay?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Last night was...Libby, what happens now?"
She heard the uncertainty in his voice, the questions she couldn't answer. Instead, she said the only thing she could think of. "I'm lying in bed right now, thinking of you."
He was silent for a long minute.
"I'm touching myself, Matt," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "I wish it were your fingers in me right now."
A choked sound came over the line. "Libby."
"You have no idea what it does to me," she said, her fingers moving faster, "hearing you say my name like that."
"Libby..." he said, almost as if it were a mantra, an instinct. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply.
"I wish I could touch you, too. I wish I could wrap my mouth around your cock. I wish I could feel your hands in my hair."
"Oh, god," he gasped, and she could hear his breathing speed up in time with her pulse.
"I bet you taste amazing," she whispered. "Coming in my mouth."
An unearthly sound ripped from his throat and it was enough to send her over the edge, the world going hazy for a moment where everything disappeared but his breathing on the other end of the line.
"You still there?" she asked a moment later.
"Yeah," came the response. "It's a good thing this is my day off - what if I had made that phone call at work?"
She giggled. "A constant possibility. Keep that in mind."
He groaned. "I'm never calling you again."
"Don't say that," she said, the humor draining from her voice. "Matt, don't...is this going to drive us apart?"
"No. No, I promise. We're going to be fine."
Libby bit her lip, reassured but still feeling the slightest chill in the back of her head, like there was worse and darker and harder out in the mist. "Matt, I need you," she said, the words ringing true in every sense.
"I need you, too, Libby," he said, and she was comforted by how quickly and easily he said it. "I need you, too."
Matt learned quickly not to answer her phone calls at work or in public. The sound of her voice was enough to make him half-hard, even when she talked about topics as mundane as schoolwork and cafeteria food. Before long he started leaving his phone at home when he left for the day; the temptation to hear her voice if she called would be too much to handle, and that could only lead to trouble.
Before, they had spoken on a semi-daily basis, two to three times a week on average. Now, he couldn't start his day without hearing her voice in his ear, without visiting their cabin on the cliff. He would still be in bed, early morning his time, and she would be getting ready to fall asleep. In those hazy moments of dusk and dawn, where they both were halfway between sleep and waking, night and day, they could be together.
She talked about the flowers blooming in the early summer heat, the vegetables from their garden that she would make into a stew. He took her on bike rides, telling her about the local village and the people he'd met. They went on trips - to the mountains, to the beach, on small plane rides where they could see for miles in every direction. He found himself remembering places he'd never been, foods he'd never eaten.
He found himself on the verge of telling Garrett about his latest hike before remembering that he'd never taken said hike; he'd never left his bed, in fact. He and Libby had walked that trail earlier in the week, but only in their heads.
He started to wonder if this was what insanity felt like - two worlds separated by the flimsy curtain of dawn. At any moment, he knew, someone could look in and see what was going on. The real world wouldn't wait forever. It would intrude soon on the life he was building with Libby. It had to.
Matt wondered if he cared.
Are our flowers blooming yet?
Full bloom. The colors are gorgeous.
We should get a dog. Or a goat. Or a horse.
You just want us to start a zoo, don't you?
Yeah. Screw the garden, I want a giraffe.
We could go on safari, you know. We could go to Tanzania. Or India.
India! Let's go to India! I love naan.
Okay, deal. We'll go to India someday and go on a tiger safari.
Can we really?
Okay, then. I'm booking tickets.
Are you, now? Tell me, Lib, when are we going?
Next year. For my birthday.
I'd love to, but I think you have a little thing called school, and I have something called 'being dirt poor'.
Matt, you're such a buzzkill.
How about a road trip instead? When I get back?
A road trip?
I was thinking the Grand Canyon.
That sounds perfect...we'll go camping.
Well, it'll be December by the time you're on break, so...maybe motels.
We could get a trailer camper thingy. Attach it to Dad's truck.
Take our home with us on the road?
If it can't be on a cliff...
We'll always have our home on the cliff, Libby. We can put up bookshelves in the room that faces west.
So we can watch the sunset over the ocean every evening. Drink tea and read quietly...
...I want that.
So do I.
No, Libby, I...Libby, I want this life with you. I want bookcases and gardens and walking at sunset.
Please don't cry. I know we can't ever have this, not really, but...
I know. I want it too. Sometimes it scares me, how easily I might abandon everything else. School, friends...Mom and Dad...
We can't. God, I wish we could.
I don't want that for you.
I don't want that, either. Except for how much I do.
I love you.
You, too. More than anything.
She went running, that day. She'll think back and remember the run; the way she smelled fall in the air and the wind seemed crisp and cold. She never loved fall, never loved the heat slowly slipping away, knowing it wouldn't return for several months. This fall, however, she welcomed with open arms because with it would arrive her brother, returning home to America. To her.
What's that saying about God and plans?
Her phone was ringing when she got back to her room. She had kicked off one sneaker already and was toeing the other one off when she registered the muffled sound. Digging through her sheets, she uncovered the phone under a pillow, still chiming insistently.
"Hi, Mom," she answered. "I was just about to hop in the shower. Can I call you back in - "
She heard a sniffle on the other end. "Mom? Are you okay?"
She'll replay the conversation over and over again, for months. Years. And she'll never be certain if she knew the instant before her mom told her, or if that detail has been added in years since. Either way, she felt a chill race down her spine as her mother struggled for words.
"Mom?" Libby asked again, desperate to hear more and absolutely terrified at the same time. "Is Dad okay?"
There's a small part of her that knows, but will never admit, that she was hoping her dad was the one her mom was calling about.
"Libby, it's your brother. A director from the Peace Corps called. There's been a - an accident."
She sank to the ground, her legs shaking uncontrollably. She could hear her breath, coming in fast, angry gulps, and on instinct ducked her head between her knees.
"Mom, is he...is he okay?" she asked, knowing that the next words out of her mother's mouth would change her life into Before and After. Please, she prayed. Please, please, pleasepleaseplease.
"No, sweetie." Her mom shattered her world with a whisper. "He was biking, the woman said. And there was a sudden storm, and he lost control. She said he'd been on a cliff."
Our cliff, she thought. And she could see it as clearly as anything, the cliff and the house and the small patch of sand. She could imagine the craggy rocks he'd been riding on, could hear the sudden crash of rain and see the stone become slick and unmanageable.
And she saw something else, something she hadn't added to her mental picture of their home. At the base of the cliff, instead of sand meeting the sheer rock wall, there were rocks instead. Not many, just a few feet out towards the water, but enough. Just enough to catch someone's fall from above.
Her mom was talking still. Something about plane tickets and arrangements. Funeral arrangements. Body arrangements. Putting Matt in a box and putting the box in a hole and filling the hole with dirt, arrangements.
Libby dropped the phone next to her, reached for her trash can and vomited, until nothing was coming up anymore and she didn't have the energy to dry heave, so she just sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed.
She stood at the kitchen sink in her black silk dress scrubbing dishes under scalding water. Behind her, the sounds of family and friends talking in hushed, mournful tones were like nails on a chalkboard. She turned the water on higher, trying to drown out Matt's wake with the sound of rushing water.
The funeral had been short and simple. Their childhood pastor had sermonized briefly, their mother had given a tearful eulogy about Matt's promise and his dedication. Their father had stood silently at the pew for a few long minutes to collect himself before he was able to memorialize his only son, the boy who had grown into a man he'd been so proud of.
Libby had said nothing. Not in eulogy, not to guests, not even to her parents. She had been silent aside from the most necessary of words since her parents returned from Cameroon a week ago with Matt's body. She knew, somehow, that she was holding on to her grief with the most tenuous of threads. She was allowed to be devastated, as far as everyone else knew. She had lost a beloved brother, her hero and best friend. If she let herself mourn, however, if she let herself talk about Matt to anyone but the deepest recesses of her own psyche, she would lose all control. And who knew what she would confess, what others would be able to infer? She owed it to Matt to keep silent.
And so, silently, she sunk her hands into steaming hot water and scrubbed grease and grime off of casserole dishes and pie pans. When the sink was empty she moved quietly through the throngs of mourners in her house and collected dishes, returning quickly to the kitchen where she would clean those as well. On her third cycle through the living room, her mother followed her back into the kitchen.
"Libby, sweetie, why don't you leave the dishes for now?"
"There are some people here who would like to talk to you. Aunt Jill, your cousins, the Hunters..."
"I'll talk to them in a bit."
"Libby, please - "
Libby turned and walked away, weaving through the crowd once more until she made it up the stairs and into the relative peace and dark of her bedroom. Once inside, however, she realized she had made a grave misstep. Arranging for the funeral and wake, cooking and washing laundry and doing dishes - these had all allowed her to keep her hands busy and her mind blank. Now, upstairs away from distractions and activity, she had stumbled her most painful state of being these days - solitude.
She closed her eyes and took a deep, fortifying breath. Don't talk to him, she willed herself. He's not here, he's not -
She half-sighed, half-sobbed out of relief and pain when she heard his voice. I miss you.
I'm still here, Libby.
I still love you. I'm still with you, I always will be.
Please don't, Libby thought, sinking to the carpet. Possible ends to her unspoken plea echoed in her mind: Please don't do this. Please don't promise what you can't deliver.
Please don't ever, ever leave me.
I won't, Libby, he said, and she sagged against the foot of her bed.
You can't just eavesdrop on my thoughts like this, Matt.
Your thoughts are mine. Mine are yours.
You're not real, then.
What really is?
"Matt," she whispered, the tone of admonishment surprising her as much as the sound of her own voice. She shook her head, rubbing at her red eyes and the stiff back of her neck.
Libby, he responded, his tone almost sarcastic. She found herself smiling. There you are, he said in her mind. I've missed your smile.
Serves you right.
The Matt in her head paused, but in reality it was just Libby herself trying to respond. She didn't blame him, did she? She couldn't. That wouldn't be fair at all.
Nothing's fair about any of it, a soft voice replied.
Life went on.
Libby got off the bus, her neck aching from the long, bumpy ride. Grabbing her backpack from the storage below, she straightened and took in her surroundings. It was a small bus stop, little more than a sign and a street - the only paved road she could see. The rest of the paths were dirt, and it was one of these dirt paths that the Jeep came rumbling up.
"Elizabeth?" the driver asked as she pulled up in front of her.
"It's Libby, actually," she smiled, hitching her bag onto her shoulder.
"I'm Demi," the woman said, hopping out of the car to help Libby with her bag. Together they hoisted it into the backseat, and then they were on their way.
"How was your training?"
"Goed," Libby replied in Dutch.
"Ah, uitstekend," Demi laughed. "You learned Dutch?"
"I'm learning Dutch," Libby corrected. "And a little Saramaccan."
"Good, good. You'll be working mostly in English, but some local languages will help with your teaching."
"I hope so."
"Did you request South America for your assignment?"
"I said I preferred to work in health care, but I left the 'where' up to my recruiter."
"Well, I hope you like Suriname. You'll be right by the coast, there's some beautiful scenery here."
Libby smiled to herself.
An hour and a half later, they entered the village. It was larger than she'd expected, with several dirt roads spiraling off from the center of town, which appeared to be an outdoor market and the school. Demi pointed both out before driving on. "We'll get you settled first, then later you can come and meet everyone at the school and clinic."
"Thanks," Libby said, looking forward to unpacking, showering, maybe even a short nap.
Her house was a two-room hut, with a tin roof and a pump outside. There would be no electricity or running water in her personal home, she'd been warned, and it turned out to be very true. Despite this, she looked around at her low bed, her small wood-burning stove and her icebox with a great deal of satisfaction.
Dumping her bag on the floor, she stepped outside and breathed in deeply. Suriname was warm and humid and would remain so for most of the year. Her hair stuck to the back of her neck and she could feel sweat pooling at the base of her spine. She didn't mind. It felt restorative, cleansing.
Knowing she had a few hours to herself, Libby started walking. She followed one dirt path until it met another, and then she stopped, listening. The unmistakable sound of waves could be heard close by, half a mile at the most. Walking faster, stopping every once in a while to memorize her path, she followed the sound of the water until she saw the beach and beyond it, the ocean.
The coast was a low, flat beach, sand stretching out until it slipped under the clear blue water. She walked forward, kicking off her shoes so that she could dig into the sand with her toes. Walking directly into the waves, she stood and let the small current pull at her ankles, the warm water lapping at her calves in constant motion. It had been a long time since she'd been on a beach - whether choice or circumstance was to blame, she honestly couldn't say.
It had been four years since Matt fell to his death from a low cliff in western Africa, and Libby had been forced to recreate her world from the shattered pieces he'd left behind. She had returned to school shortly after the funeral, mostly so she would have something to do with herself other than think about Matt. For months she'd eaten very little and spoken even less, ignoring phone calls from her parents and refusing to answer the knocks on her door when friends came calling. Eventually her friends gave up on her, and even her parents seemed to despair of any chance of getting through to her.
That Thanksgiving was the darkest point. Libby had refused to go home, opting instead to sit in her room alone, eat a PB&J sandwich and pointedly avoid any holiday tradition. That cold November day was a cruel mockery, one that Matt should have been home for, one that should have been joyful and celebratory and complete. So she nibbled on the edge of a sandwich, curled up on her bed and talked to her brother in her mind.
Did it hurt?
Of course. But it was quick.
Why weren't you more careful?
I was looking out at the scenery. Trying to decide if we should build a boat, go sailing.
I get seasick.
How would you know? You've never been on a boat.
I get carsick. I'm making the logical conclusion.
No, Libby, you'd love it. We'd go out at sunrise, watch the water get lighter and clearer. It would be so quiet, peaceful.
I'm sick of the quiet.
I talk to you.
He didn't respond, and she fought down a spark of annoyance at her imaginary version of her brother. Getting off her bed, she walked to the window and stared out at the quad, seven stories below. Did it hurt? she asked again.
The following Monday, she walked into the student health center and made an appointment with a counsellor.
To say things got easier would be a lie. Every day was a struggle. Every milestone was a sharp reminder of her loss. Birthdays, holidays, vacations. When Libby walked off the stage after receiving her college diploma, his absence next to her parents knocked the wind out of her. Even her relationship with her parents felt like a diminished echo of what it had been, and even years after Matt's death, they still had yet to recover their former closeness. And yet, life went on.
She called her parents. She graduated with honors and went on a two week trip to Mexico with friends. She went on dates. And she slowly, gradually, stopped talking to Matt. His voice faded over time, until she realized it had been weeks since she had heard him in her head. Months later, and it was hard for her to even remember what he sounded like - a realization that left her sobbing quietly in her bathroom.
Life went on.
And now, she found herself on a beach in Suriname, at the start of her own adventure with the Peace Corps. She missed him more today than she had in a long time, wishing she could call him and tell him of her new village, her little hut, the wet sand she was greedily sinking her toes into.
Looking to her left and right, she could make out the shapes of small, distant cliffs on either side. Whadya think, Matt? she asked. Could we build a house here, too?
But the Matt in her head remained silent, as he had for years now. Nodding slightly, Libby backed out of the water, picked up her shoes, and started back to her new village.