An unfinished draft of a young adult novel. Excerpt is below. The full manuscript is here.
Laila was soaked. She stood there in the doorway for a minute, arms spread helplessly, hair matted to her face. “Towel?” she said finally.
“Uh. One second.” I ran down the hall to the guest bathroom, grabbed one of the pink towels from the rack, and watched as she dried off. She smelled like rain. I didn’t know that was possible.
“That’s a good look for you,” I said, as she brushed the leaves out of her hair. She frowned and threw the wadded-up towel at my face.
“What were you and Mom talking about? Me, probably.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. We’ve got more interesting stuff to talk about than you.”
“Good for you. I bet you a million dollars she was telling you about the snails. Come on, I need to change.”
This is typical. We bicker. On my part, it’s a defense against all the things that I really want to say. On her part…well, I have no clue.
“Where’s the ferret?” I said uneasily as we walked down the hall, under the watchful eyes of the Rahbani ancestors. Oscar has learned to scare the crap out of me on a regular basis.
“Probably waiting to jump out at you when you least expect it,” Laila giggled. “It’s because he likes you, you know.”
“I’d hate to see him when he decides he doesn’t. Wow, I love what you’ve done with the room.” As bare and white as ever. One of my running jokes.
“Thanks. OK, turn around and entertain yourself for a minute. Changing.”
“Wow, that did not sound right,” I pointed out. A stupid thing to say, but now, with a girl stripping behind me and my throat suddenly filling up with phlegm, my defenses had gone into overdrive. I fumbled with my backpack, managing to drop it twice on the floor.
“Done,” she said, after what seemed like an hour, and I turned around.
One thing I’ve learned by now, at this ripe old age of sixteen, is that there are times in life when something more powerful than yourself takes over. I don’t know how to describe it, except that it’s like there are two people, really, in every body. There’s the one that walks around every day, the one that everyone sees, or thinks they see, but it’s really just a sham—a flimsy thing, made of words, all patched together and constantly falling apart. Then there’s the one inside it, like a tiny ball of light, that shines through only a few times in your life, maybe. And every time it does, it threatens to burn your whole world to a crisp.
This was not the first time it had happened with Laila. But this time it hit me like a thunderbolt. I just stood there, looking at her in her thin white T-shirt and her running shorts, putting her hair up. She seemed tiny, and delicate, and and the same time she filled up the room. Her skin glowed, like she had a ball of light inside too, and it was fighting to get out. I looked at the curve of her neck where it met her shoulder. I wondered what it would be like to put my hand there.
“What?” she said.
“Nothing.” I swallowed.
“What?” She took a step toward me, letting one hand drop. “You have these moments, and I never know what they mean.”
I shook my head. My voice sounded small. “I was just…thinking about stuff. Sometimes…”
“Yeah?” She waited, her eyes big. Big enough to fall in.
For about three seconds there was a war inside my chest, an epic, all-out war, the kind of war that songs are sung about a thousand years later. Then it was over, and I could only grimace and say: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
She could have backed off then. Or she could have gotten mad; I wouldn’t have blamed her. There must be a million parallel universes where we both just moved on and started working on the musical. But in this one, her face went soft. She took another step towards me. She let her hair fall, and reached out a hand, and said something about how I had a leaf on my shirt, but my hand came up and took hers before she could get there. And my other hand reached out and touched her hair, just touched it, and it was trembling, my hand was, and she blinked and looked up at me with a look that I knew somehow was full of fear and relief.
And then neither of us knew what to do. “Do you want to sit down?” she said quietly. So we sat, clumsily, on the floor. I laughed for some reason, and she laughed back, and then my laugh started to turn into something else, a cry, so I put my hand to my face, and she brushed it aside and took my head in her hands and kissed me, a simple kiss, on the mouth.
I thought I should say something, but it was impossible with all the light pouring out of me.
Laila lay down on the floor and curled up her knees. I lay down too. She pushed her hair aside, exposing her neck. I reached out and traced my finger down its length, feeling, for a moment, like one of those tiny people you see in pictures on the soft endless dunes in the Sahara.
She closed her eyes and smiled. I thought for a second she was actually going to sleep. For some reason that didn’t seem so strange, here, with the rain outside and the house quiet and still, with everything suddenly in its right place, in this one giant moment full of light.
Maybe we should have gone to sleep. But I was there next to her, and I was smelling her smell for the first time, the real one, beneath all the conditioner and body wash and whatever girls wear, and down beneath all that she smelled like good things, like earth, or a forest. So I touched her again, on the shoulder, and then down along the side, and I found that there was nothing under her shirt. Then I touched her hip, barely touching it like a thing made of glass, and followed it up, my fingers bringing her shirt with them. And then I saw it.
There was a scar on her stomach, a gash from her bellybutton down, about as wide as my finger and perfectly straight. Because the light in the room was still on, I got a good look at it in the half-second before she realized. The skin in the middle looked pink and thin.
I must have hesitated, because suddenly her eyes snapped open and she sat up, pulling at her hair, looking flustered.
“Sorry, I…” I tried, but she was shaking her head rhythmically. She stood up and turned to the window.
“Stupid,” she said after a long silence. “Stupid. Stupid.” She put her face in her hands. “Just go. It’ll be so much easier.”
I scrambled to my feet and stepped toward her, reaching out, searching for words. But when I touched her shoulder, she whirled and stared at me with her eyes blazing. With her hair still wild, she looked like an animal, cornered.
So I went.