You’re 15 by the time you realize that the phrase "death sentence" is not just an euphemism for you, but by then, it was already too late. Your parents, close friends, and even some of your favourite teachers. All gone without any prior warning, some peacefully in their sleep, others at work, two died in their cars.
You’re not sure why or how it happened, and you’ve stopped trying to find out, all you focus on nowadays is keeping count. One hundred words. That’s all you have with any given person. It didn’t matter the individual, the language, the time, or the context. Anymore than one hundred spoken words from you automatically ends in the listener's death.
It’s not all doomed, you find out later on that there is a silver lining. You can write to your heart’s content without worrying about death, and in the age of social media and text messages, that’s mostly been enough.
There’s a notebook you carry around with you everywhere, your tally. Every word you’ve ever spoken to somebody for the past seven years is in there. Each time you speak to someone new, you open a fresh page, write down the person’s name (a lot of times you don’t even have it), the word, as well as the count. You’re somewhat proud of the fact that it’s not even half filled yet; you’ve managed to keep all these people out of the morgue. When you do speak, you choose your words and the recipients very carefully. There’s that one boy whom you loudly warned just as he was about to walk into traffic, he has five words. A woman distractedly talking on her phone without noticing her toddler wandering off has three. A reckless driver running a red light has one.
Maybe it’s human nature to pine after what they can’t have, or maybe it’s just cruel irony, but after finding out about your "condition", you become mildly obsessed with words. The way they sound out loud, the meanings they carry, and the shapes they take in written form. Instead of creating relationships with other people during your teens, you immerse yourself in writing poetry and stories.
At 22, you’ve not only come to accept your predicament, but have also built something of a life around it. You own your own apartment in a nice part of town (your parents made sure you’d be taken care of after their death, even before you were born), buy everything you need online, and become a writer with an obscure penname that you’re sure can’t be traced back to you. You’re pretty certain most of the people around you think you’re just an arrogant bitch, a hermit, or perhaps even a misanthrope, but you’ve stopped caring about that a long time ago.
The majority of your free time is spent people-watching. Sometimes you’re angry at how much people waste their words, why they feel the need to constantly fill the silence with things that don’t matter and refuse to say things that do, but mostly, you’re envious that they can.
It’s a nice, quiet life. You have enough to keep yourself content. Sure, you’re not filled to the brim with happiness every waking moment, but you’re pretty sure nobody else is either.
Then one day, everything changes.
You first see her on the way to the stairs of your building, carrying a couple bags of groceries in her hand. You’ve never seen her around before, so you guess she must’ve just moved in. Like always when you see someone you’ve never met, you give a curt smile before plugging your earbuds in, thinking that’d be the end of that. Surprisingly, she falls into step with you instead of walking ahead or falling behind like most other people.
She’s cute, you let yourself think, but that’s as far as it goes. Nothing ever happens. It’s not that you don’t want it to, you just don’t think that one hundred words is enough to create any sort of bond. Anyhow, given that you spend most of your time alone, it’s not like you’ve ever gotten close enough to someone for it to become an issue.
You’re surprised that she’s still going up after the 4th floor. Your building does have an elevator, and you’ve never seen someone who lived higher than that take the stairs before (that’s why you chose them in the first place).
By the 6th floor, she looks tired, and you know you shouldn’t, but you do anyway.
“Need help?” You ask, gesturing to the bags she’s holding.
She nods and hands one over to you with a smile. “Thank you.”
You walk wordlessly, side by side, until you reach your floor. You’re about to return her groceries, but she’s already turning into the hallway, same as you.
“You’re on the 8th floor as well?”
As it turns out, her apartment is down the hall from yours.
“Great, I guess we’re neighbours then.” She grins at you when you reach her door. “I’m Clarke.” She puts down her groceries and extends her hand.
You shouldn’t. You should ignore her and walk back to your apartment. You should let her write you off as a freak or a bitch of sorts, like everyone else whom you’ve met. She’ll never get the urge to say another word to you again. But for some reason, you’re feeling talkative today.
“Lexa.” You shake her hand slowly. It feels nice, having some human contact.
At three words, you’ve already said more to her than anyone else in the last two weeks.
“I guess I’ll see you around, Lexa.” She gives you one last smile before disappearing into her apartment.
Okay, you tell yourself as you open your notebook later, writing Clarke’s name onto a new page. No more. You are not going to carelessly let anyone else die because of you.
The next few days, you barricade yourself inside your bedroom. You use some of the sick days you’ve accumulated and you bury yourself in books. Maybe they’ll make you forget about the cute girl at the end of the hall, Clarke.
After a week, you assume that it’s safe, and you should probably get back to work before someone files a missing persons report. Even if you’ve failed in getting her out of your head, she’s probably forgotten who you are anyway.
You use the elevator this time, just to be sure. It must be your lucky day, because it’s empty when you step inside. As the doors are closing, you see a flash of blonde hair running towards you. The thought of pressing the ‘close door’ button runs through your mind, but you figure that she’s probably in a hurry if she’s running like that, and while you are many things, cruel isn’t one of them.
“Lexa, hi,” she grins at you, a tad breathlessly, while brushing a strand of blonde hair away from her eyes. “Thanks for keeping the doors open.”
So she does remember. It’s nice, the thought of somebody remembering your name,
especially someone as pretty as she is.
You turn to return her smile, and you notice that her cheeks are rosily tinted, and she’s wearing a low cut top that just shows enough cleavage to…
Fuck. This elevator can’t get down quick enough.
“So what are you listening to?”
She’s gesturing to the earbuds hanging from your shoulders. You never leave home without them, even if there’s no sound coming out most of the time. You mainly use them to deter potential conversations.
You hand over an earbud and pull your phone out, searching for a track to play. There aren’t many, and most are Top 40 pop songs. Luckily, you have some classical music, so you choose a Mozart symphony. It’s stupid, but you don’t want her to think your taste in music is lame.
“You’re a classical girl, huh? Who would’ve guessed,” she smirks as she hands your earbud back.
You shrug, but you can’t help the smile that creeps onto your lips.
The elevator reaches the ground floor with a ding, and Clarke steps out first.
“See you later, neighbour.” She waves at you with a wink, and your stomach twists into knots.
Later turned out to be sooner (isn’t saying ‘see you later’ just an expression people say?). You’re halfway into Leaves of Grass when you hear a knock on your door. It startles you. It’s the first time that’s happened since…well, you don’t remember the last time it's happened.
You open the door, and Clarke is standing there, tentatively biting her lip. Your eyes are drawn to how soft they look.
“Can I borrow a cup of sugar?”
She wants to borrow a cup of sugar?
There’s like 5 other apartments in this hallway alone, and you’re sure they’re all better company than you’d ever be.
Still, you have lots of sugar in your cupboard, so you let her in reluctantly.
She looks up and down your apartment like a kid at a museum. Your home is not messy, but it’s not pristinely kept either, because it’s not like you were expecting company. You don’t really have any sentimental items like photos or odd gifts lying around, you’ve never had anything to be nostalgic about. Most of your possessions are just books. You don’t know whether to be embarrassed by this or not.
She makes her way over to one of your bookshelves and runs her hand along the spines of your hardcovers, while you walk to the kitchen to get that sugar.
“Are all these yours?” She questions, taking out a novel and flipping through the pages. The wonder in her voice makes you chuckle (which doesn’t count as a word, thankfully).
“Why not have, like, a Kindle or something?”
You want to tell her that you do have a Kindle, and that, too, is filled to the brim. You want to say that there’s no beating the feel of a worn paperback in your hands, or the smell of the pages as you go through them. But obviously, you don’t.
She grabs another book from the shelf, and it’s one written in French. You bought it while you were learning the language, but you still haven’t managed to get past page 50.
Clarke turns to you with a glint in her eye. “Tu parles français?” She asks without any trace of an accent.
You hold up your thumb and index finger with a small distance between them, indicating that yes, you do speak a little of the language.
“Good,” she says, returning the book back where it belongs. “French speakers are incredibly sexy.”
You swallow. Yes they are.
She finds the poetry section next, scanning the selection before picking out something you recognize immediately. You’ve read Pablo Neruda possibly hundreds of times in your life. He is probably your favourite poet.
Clarke must’ve sensed this, because she brings it to you and asks you to flip to your favourite poem.
That’s easy, Sonnet XVII. You start to regret telling the truth as soon as she reads the words out loud.
"I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body-"
Your stomach flips, twists, and twists into knots as she reads. It’s exactly how you imagine it should be read. Softly, with vulnerability, and yes, a hint of tender affection. The warning bells start to go off in your head as you remember the promise you made to yourself earlier.
You clear your throat loudly enough to get her attention, and proceed to do everything short of thrusting the unopened bag of sugar in her face.
She seems somewhat taken aback by that, maybe she was hoping you’d ask her to stay. You wonder how many other neighbours she’s read love poems to.
“I can’t take the whole thing,” she says finally, but you don’t budge.
Clarke sighs defeatedly when she realizes that you aren’t going to say anything further. “Well, thank you.”
She takes the sugar, hands the book back to you (you’re careful not to let your hands touch), and walks towards the door.
Maybe this will be the end of it. Surely she won’t –
“Come over sometime. Let me cook dinner for you or something.”
You must have a surprised expression on your face, because she playfully holds her hands up in surrender. “To repay you for the sugar! Just to be neighbourly. I swear I’m not a serial killer.”
If only she were the one you’re worried about.
“Okay.” You regret the word as soon as it comes out. It’s the quickest way to get her to leave, yes, but maybe you shouldn’t have been so quick to agree, or have sounded so enthusiastic.
The next morning, you’re back to taking the stairs, and you make extra sure that there’s nobody waiting for you.
You’re on the 5th floor when she catches up to you, and you get hit with a wave of Déjà vu. She’s wearing that same low cut top from that day in the elevator, but this time her cheeks are flushed from chasing you.
(Seriously, who did you piss off so badly in your previous life?)
“What is it this morning?”
You realize she’s talking about your earbuds again, so you hand one over to her. You go with Beethoven this time. Für Elise.
You think it’s kind of weird that you’re listening to a piano love ballad with your neighbour on your way out of your building together, but whatever. Classical music is good for the soul.
It’s two days later, and you see each other in the elevator. You’re prepared this time. You have a whole collection of classical music from all the notable eras. Unfortunately, you miss Tchaikovsky and end up on Taylor Swift instead.
“What symphony is this again?” She smirks, and you give a playful half glare.
It becomes a little daily routine between the two of you. On odd numbered days you take the elevator, and on even numbered days you take the stairs. When she begins to talk about her day on these walks, you don’t even bat an eye. Instead, you do what you’re good at, listen. She tells you she’s artist who’s recently just moved into the city. She has a weird obsession with constellations and blueberry pancakes. She likes to dance, but isn’t very good at it (you don’t believe this one bit). It’s the closest thing you have to a friendship, and you don’t want to give it up yet.
On Friday the 13th, just before getting out of the elevator, Clarke pulls out her card and hands it to you.
“In case of emergency.”
You nod. In case of emergency. You’re just being a good neighbour.
It’s not until later that you notice the card smells like her perfume. You wonder if all her business cards are like that, or if she’s specifically spritzed this one.
You cave by lunch, and pull out your phone.
‘Hey, it’s Lexa.’
You press send before you can chicken out. The reply comes 10 minutes later.
Your face falls a bit. Well, you should’ve know-
‘Just kidding. I still owe you that sugar, and a Griffin never forgets her debts.’ There’s a winky face at the end, but you figure that it doesn’t mean anything, because, y’know, it’s just an iPhone emoji.
The texts come back and forth more regularly after that. Let’s see…
She makes you grin like an idiot.
She makes you laugh (which is saying a lot).
She has this weird thing with emojis.
She makes you feel like all the air’s been sucked out of the room.
Your schedule suddenly changes, and you don’t have to show up to work as early anymore, but you reason that you should keep to a routine you’ve already set for yourself, you know, for your health. Plus, the early bird gets the worm and all that jazz. And if you happen to see Clarke Griffin on your way down every day, then you can chalk it up to a happy coincidence.
Another week and a half goes by, and you’re on the 4th floor when she brings up the dinner she “owes” you.
Man, you thought she would’ve forgotten that by now and you wouldn’t have to turn her offer down.
You stay quiet, give her an apologetic look, and her face falls visibly. You can’t help yourself. “I’m sorry.”
Her face snaps up. Clarke wasn’t expecting you to say that, or probably anything for that matter.
“How about a walk, then?” She suggests hopefully. “I want to show you something.”
You nod after a few seconds. Technically, you’ve been walking with her every morning, and nothing bad’s happened yet, so what’s the big deal?
She texts you that she wants to meet up outside her apartment at 11pm. You’re a tad worried that you might be going to rob a bank or something, but she makes no mention of masks or black clothing, so it’s probably fine.
It’s cold outside when you leave. Well obviously, it’s 11 o’clock at night in February. On the way there, she absentmindedly tells you about her exhibit yesterday. She keeps trying to hold your hand, but you don’t let her. This isn’t a date, you remind yourself.
You walk for maybe ten minutes before you stop at a big building. It’s an art gallery.
Oh. It’s her exhibit.
When she opens the doors, the first thing you notice is how utterly Clarke every piece was. You feel like you’re standing in the middle of her life story, and since a picture’s worth a thousand words, you kind of are.
“Mi casa es su casa.” She spreads out her arms, and you can tell she is at home here.
You explore the space a bit on your own, but then Clarke offers you a tour and of course you say yes (by nodding). You don’t want to seem rude in someone else’s casa, after all.
She leads you expertly around the room, animatedly explaining the inspiration or story behind each piece. Some are of her friends, two are her parents, and the rest is natural scenery and the stars in the sky. You can see how passionate Clarke is about her art, and it is mesmerizing. You get to literally see the world from her eyes, and you briefly think about how nice it’d be to be a part of it.
Then you get to the last painting in the room, and it’s…well, it’s you. On that first day in the elevator. She painted on the earbuds and everything.
“Like it?” She takes a couple of steps forward so you’re standing side by side.
You don’t know how to reply to that. You’ve never been the object of a piece of art before. You don’t even know when was the last time someone’s given you a second glance.
You fish out your phone and type out a message.
Clarke laughs when she reads it.
“What do you mean, why you? Look around, I like things that are beautiful.”
She leans over close to your ear. Close enough that the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention. “And I can’t take my eyes off you.”
You freeze. Your jaw clenches. You should turn around and go back home. It’s no longer just her life you’re toying with, but her friendship as well. You want both those things to continue existing. Your feet, however, are firmly rooted to the ground.
Clarke sighs and takes a couple of steps back. “I know, I know. You’re not going to kiss me tonight. God knows why.” She huffs out that last part.
You think she’s leaving when she walks off in the opposite direction, and you start to follow, but then you hear music flowing from the speakers.
At first you’re sure you’re just hearing things, but then Clarke re-emerges and it hits you, what she wants instead of a kiss.
“How about a dance? Is that allowed?” It comes out as more of an accusation than a question.
“I promise I won’t try to make a move. Because God forbid something happens.” You can hear the sarcasm drip from her words. You guess you deserved that. You should’ve left when you could…
But now that you’re here, in the presence of all this beauty, with arguably the most famous piano ballad playing, well…you guess that no harm ever came from dancing.
“You remember how I said I was a terrible dancer?”
You give a shallow nod.
She smirks, invading your personal space and wrapping her arms around your neck. “Well I lied.”
Her eyes stare directly into yours as you move together, as if she has her own direct line to your soul. You’re not even sure you’re dancing to the correct rhythm. Your whole body tingles with something that’s dangerously close to arousal. The music is the last thing on your mind.
Her eyes dart down to your lips, and you are lucky that a police car just happened to be speeding by at that exact moment, sirens blaring. It’s enough to snap you back to reality. You quickly untangle yourself from her and take a few steps backwards for good measure. Talking to Clarke in the elevator or the stairs is one thing, but being surrounded by her in the middle of the night was not something you were, in any capacity, prepared for.
She looks monumentally disappointed; maybe even a little pissed off, but nods her head without another word. When you arrive back at your building, you take the stairs and Clarke opts for the elevators.
She is already waiting for you in the lift the next morning. You’re both silently looking straight ahead as it descends to the ground floor. You wonder what you would say to her right now if you could.
“I’m sorry about last night. I shouldn’t have pushed you like that,” Clarke finally breaks the silence when you’re down to the 4th floor.
This takes you by surprise, even though you don’t even know what exactly you were expecting.
“Come over for dinner tonight.”
You tense up again.
“Just dinner,” she assures you. “As neighbours.”
She even holds her hand out for you to shake. You quirk your eyebrows, but shake it anyway.
A dinner with your neighbour. You could do that.
As a precaution, you set up some ground rules for yourself. You will not drink any alcohol. You will tell Clarke that this cannot ever go any further. You’ll eat and compliment her cooking like a polite guest, then you will leave. You’ve even given yourself a word limit. 12 words, which would bring her total to 20. It should be more than enough.
The logical part of your brain says that you could just do it through text, a letter slid under her door, or even an email. You ignore that voice as you knock on her door, exactly on time.
“Hi.” She’s wearing that damn low cut top again, and your mouth feels like a desert. “Come in.”
It’s just dinner, you tell yourself firmly as you enter her home. You’re allowed to eat.
Her apartment is much more homey than yours, which is expected, but your eyes are immediately drawn to the grand baby piano in the middle of her living room. Your parents had one just like it, and even after their deaths, you kept taking lessons for a while; partly because it’s what they would’ve wanted, partly to remind yourself of the consequences of your actions.
You straighten up and clear your throat. “Clarke, I -”
“Look, I get it. Neighbours. No more. I’m not going to chase after someone who clearly doesn’t want to be caught.” There is a slight edge to her voice, but you should be glad. This makes it easier. You can stay and eat like a normal human being.
Dinner, as it turns out, is actually breakfast. She’s made pancakes, bacon, and eggs.
You give her a quizzical look as she sets the plate down in front of you.
“What? Don’t tell me you don’t like pancakes?” She mocks a shocked expression, and you take out your phone to type out a reply, but she snatches it out of your hands quickly.
“You know what? I think I’m going to try your whole quiet, stoic thing tonight.” Clarke turns off your phone and returns it to you before doing the same with hers and places it down on the table. She grabs a few sheets of paper and some pens from nearby and sets those down as well. “We’re going old school.”
The whole thing almost makes you laugh. Does this girl ever do anything predictable? Still, this is technically in your wheelhouse, so you grab a pen and paper and start writing first.
I’m sorry, I didn’t know we were back in high school
Don’t remind me. I was such a nerd back then.
I don’t think “nerd” means what you think it means
That’ll probably take a while.
I have all night.
Clarke has mischief in her eyes and amusement on her lips when you look up at her. You’re flirting, and you shouldn’t, but the giddiness each time you get a note back is addictive, and technically, you haven’t reached your word limit yet. Plus, you’ve just realized how badly you miss being able to communicate with someone without going through an electronic screen. So you look back down at the piece of paper, and you write.
By the time you finish eating, you’ve used up about 10 whole sheets of double-sided paper.
I saw you looking at my piano earlier. I’m guessing you play?
A wave of memories hit, and it makes you sober up.
Play something for me?
It’s late. I should go.
“Just one song before you leave then?” It’s the first thing she’s said aloud since sitting down.
You bite your lip, thinking. She did make you dinner, after all. It’d be rude not to do something to thank her; not, y’know, neighbourly.
Ok, but just one. Any requests?
She pours herself a glass of wine from the kitchen as you make your way over to the piano. Your mind suddenly goes blank on you. There’s only one song you remember the notes to. It was drilled into your brain over and over by your old piano instructor. Too late to back out now, Clarke’s already leaning against the side of the piano and looking at you expectantly. So you take a deep breath and start playing.
Your eyes are trained on the keyboard, even though they don’t need to be, the notes are ingrained in your muscle memory. You can sense her surprise when she realizes it’s Für Elise, and you would stop if she says something, but she doesn’t, so you don’t.
It’s just a song, you tell yourself, even though you’re fully aware that neighbours probably don’t play love songs on each other’s pianos while alone in their living rooms.
The irony is not lost on you, a girl who can only say one hundred words out loud, playing a piece written by a deaf composer. The song must be cursed, because apparently Beethoven never got the girl
, and neither can you.
When you finish playing, it is silent again. You can hear your heart hammering in your ribcage when she looks at you, the air seemingly leaving your lungs all at once.
You shake your head no, but your feet refuse to cooperate. Instead, she moves to sit next to you on the piano bench.
“What are you afraid of?”
You want to tell her, you do, but you’re scared that she’ll never believe you and you’re even more scared that she will. Everyone you love, and even some you don’t, has died because of you. Clarke will not suffer the same fate, you won’t let that happen.
She places her hand under your chin and turns your head so you’re facing her, and you know what’s coming next. You should back away, but you're all out of willpower. All you can think about is how her lips will taste.
“Clarke-” It comes out more breathy than firm like you wanted, but she does halt.
“Say my name again,” she murmurs. Her lips barely half an inch from yours now.
To your credit, you don’t. You do something even worse.
You lean forward and close the gap.