In case you haven’t read:
“Come on, Nate. You knew what this was about.”
“No, obviously I didn’t.”
She scoffed, shaking her head and keeping her eyes from meeting his. “Look, it was fun. I enjoyed it really. But, I can’t imagine why you thought there’d be anything in it. We’re just in the same Art Club. You draw good, you helped us win our scholarships and we had a little fun on the side. Leave it there.”
He licked his lips and slid his hand up into his hair, pushing it back from his face as he blinked rapidly. Pushing away the confusion, disappointment, and quite heavy embarrassment he felt wasn’t so simple but the gesture helped. He lifted his eyes to her even though she refused to look at him, to give him attention, to give him closure despite the cruelty of her words. No, he couldn’t blame her. Nothing had been promised. Nothing had been set in stone. There wasn’t even a confession before this day and it had come from him.
So why did he still feel so damn used?
Nate nodded and said nothing else. He grabbed his bag and his sketchbook and left the room.
“Nate…wait, we’re about to start.”
He ignored her opening the door and heading out into the hall. There was someone standing there as he brushed past but his mind wouldn’t register. That was probably why he jerked when his arm was grabbed and he whipped around with a nasty glare. He stared at the darkly freckled face of one of his classmates, whose name he couldn’t even think about now. There was something. Something in passing. Something subtle that flashed between them, almost like a darkening but he was already jerking away. He didn’t even bother to look back at her or even acknowledge that she had touched him. Instead, he made his way down the hall while the girl stood there, eyes keen on him and lips slightly parted with words stuck in her throat.
The back of the school was blessedly empty where he often let himself lie on the slight incline near the football field. The athletic teams had gotten their practice in and were not present to make rambunctious noises to disturb the alternative extracurricular activities. A nice benefit of running the Art Club late, no one would be there to badger them or question what went on. No one would notice the drama. A bitter thought that made Nate laugh halfheartedly. Bag sliding from his shoulder, he let himself drop onto the cool grass and lay back on the manicured field where he didn’t have to look at anything or anyone except for the sky. It faded into colors he’d often worked hard to capture and spoke the words he couldn’t. Dusk was settling in dying it an angry, almost frustrated red with tinges of deep violet at the cusp in attempt to sooth its intensity.
Deep breath. 1… 2… 3… Out.
Eyes closed against the glare of the sun as it sank into the horizon and Nate focused on breathing. Don’t think about it. It was stupid anyway. He was stupid. A girl like her was beautiful, had higher ambitions than to just be stuck with an art student who had no real plans for himself of his own. She was a plotter, a planner, and had the look of someone who wanted something. He was merely a stepping stone and together they’d gotten what they needed from each other. They’d won their scholarships and so the collaboration was over. She simply reminded him that it wasn’t about feeling or connection, it was just a transaction and now it was over and nothing would come of it. He swung his arm over his face and breathed out a heavy breath once more, shaking his head. He always got it confused. He always wanted to fall in love with other artists. They were amazing and the connection always felt good even if it was just a means to an end. He’d been doing this to himself since sixth grade and probably should’ve made a conscious note by now to be more careful with himself. Yet, here he was again.
Her compliments, her gentle touches, how close they’d become over the course of the past year. Then that night at the award exhibit… How delicate her hands hand been… How could he have not fallen for her after that? Ah well, no use whining about it. It was too troublesome to hold a grudge against her. He couldn’t really blame her, anyway. No. It was just supposed to be fun. He’d been foolhardy and said yes. Careless, really.
The crunch of grass brought him back to reality where dusk had settled in and the angry red of the sky was dulled to soft violet preparing for abyssal black. With a slight tilt of the head he looked at who was coming and saw it was the girl in the hall, the same girl from his classes; his little stalker. He blinked slowly at her awkward stance, her fingers toying with one of two thick French braids that rested against her chest with heavy cerulean knockers holding them in place. Thick framed and off balanced as if her body didn’t know what to do with the extra weight. Not quite fat though, but never skinny. Nate never really saw anything in her as a guy, nothing really attractive, but he supposed she could be considered pretty. Her freckles were a bit interesting to him. Black little spots peppering dark skin. He caught himself counting them more often than he’d admit, but other than that he had no real interest in the girl. This made her a problem if he were being honest. She’d been stalking him since her first day.
His dark brow arched at her as she awkwardly stood there, shuffling on her feet. Nate looked away from her and returned his gaze to the sky.
“Hey,” he greeted.
“Mm.” She sat down, slightly clumsy with legs tucked beneath her.
Silence. It was awkward. A little weird. She’d always been quite strange but never openly approached him before. Never crossed that boundary before. It was unnerving to have her this close, really, and he felt the need to fill the space with something even if it was just sound.
“You know,” he began, watching her out the corner of his eye. “You keep following me around like this and people are gonna say stuff. Like you like me or something.”
Her hand slid from her braid to the back of her neck where she itched at the thin hairs on her nape.
“That bother you?” she asked finally, posh British accent a bit disarming since he was not used to her speaking much.
No? Yes? A little? “I dunno, it’s just weird.”
“I-if it’s not true, then it doesn’t matter…”
Well, that wasn’t wrong. Still, it was really weird and Nate didn’t know what to do with it or her. Decidedly, he was the only one who’d noticed her… observing him. He took note that she was often careful not to be seen by others, but when caught by him, she showed no embarrassment and didn’t stop. It was actually a bit creepy.
“I-I’m not… it’s not like I’m stalking you right now. I-I, for some inexplicable reason, was concerned after…”
Ah, she’d heard.
“W-why?” Her brows furrowed, though she never looked his way.
“We don’t talk… I mean I didn’t even know you could talk until like a week after you got here. We just sit next to each other in class.”
“Ah… I-I don’t have much to say to be honest. I don’t have much to say now, but, it seemed counter-productive to my objective to… k-keep this up with everything that happened to you today. I assumed continuing on would only upset you. You’ve been very tolerant of me.”
“Doesn’t really answer why, though.”
“Well, your why seems a bit multifaceted. Could you narrow down exactly which why?”
Nate rolled his eyes. “Just, why any of it! The low-key stalking, the eavesdropping, all of it in general.”
She leaned a bit away from him, body tensing as she kept toying with that braid. Her teeth worried at her lip and there was a slight tremble in her hand. To his surprise, she kept talking.
“It seemed logical at the time. You were a good candidate for what I wanted to accomplish. What I needed.”
“And that just makes your stalking weirder.” He scoffed, keeping watch as the stars grew a bit brighter with the passing time. “Just, weird way of saying you wanted to talk to me.”
“That’s because it isn’t what I’m saying. As I said, I have very little to say… you don’t really intrigue me that way…”
Nate arched his brow and turned on his side to look at her irritably, hoping she’d notice that he felt insulted. “I’m sorry I’m only interesting enough for you to stalk me. What the hell do you want?”
Her lips moved over, testing out words silently before putting voice to them. “I want…” She pointed at his sketchbook. “That… I want that.”
“What?” Nate frowned and looked towards the spiral sticking out of his bag. “My sketchbook?”
“Oh?” he muttered. “You trying to earn a scholarship off me too?”
“Why would I? I don’t need someone else’s work to excel.”
Nate almost called her arrogant, but her tone denoted that she was completely serious and genuinely confused. He stared at her for a long moment trying to comprehend how she didn’t catch the sarcasm and shook his head deciding to let it go.
“Never mind, what exactly do you want with my art?”
“Right,” she murmured reaching into her own bag. It took a moment as she rummaged around the school books and subject folders he could see tossing around the satchel from where he was, but finally, she produced a hand decorated notebook covered in tape, scribbles and what appeared to be scrapbook paper. Seemingly random, but Nate could spot the color scheme of warm oranges and faint pinks. She held the notebook in both hands, gazing at it in contemplation before passing it to him. “I see your work, your pictures, and they inspire me.”
Nate didn’t take the notebook at first, but she shook it slightly at him causing him to roll his eyes and pull it from her hands to peruse. Some of the rigid tension she’d had throughout the conversation appeared to ease.
“Your pictures create words for me… so I thought… I thought if I-I…” she cleared her throat. “I have observed you—”
“Stalked,” he corrected, flipping through the pages a bit distractedly albeit uninterestedly.
“Observed… I thought perhaps we could… we could create something together. I want to write the words your pictures create for me…”
“Mm-hmm…” Nate narrowed his eyes and flicked his dark gaze to her. “And if I don’t want to?”
“Then… then I’ll leave. It won’t be an issue. Won’t be a big deal, you understand. After all, we don’t talk.”
He grew silent, regarding the notebook as though it were something alien before he attempted to pass it back. She held up her hand and pushed it back to him.
“Please?” Her voice was suddenly so soft, forcing Nate to pay attention to her. Her posture was tight again. High strung. “Please? Just… take it and read it. Perhaps it will influence your decision. It’s a copy so it won’t bother me if it’s lost.”
Nate frowned and looked down at the notebook, the decorations handled with a certain attentiveness that should not have been given to a copy. He flipped through the handwritten pages and realized it was filled from end to end. A hundred pages of text, all written in neat script with gel ink. The colors were not for her, no. These were warm and inviting; they made him pay attention. These were colors he used. He looked at her once again frown deepening, more in a passive curiosity than disdain. Though she was being openly stared at, she never once met his gaze. Squinting at her, Nate slid the notebook into his bag with a deliberately slow movement. As he thought, her eyes followed the motion and once against the tension eased. Fucking weirdo…
“Why did you come out here?” he asked.
“I told you… I was concerned.”
“Yeah, okay. But why?”
Her body shifted a bit and she seemed to curl into herself. She turned her head away with a shrug. Her tone, however, was very matter-of-fact as though he should’ve already thought of the answer. “Because you didn’t deserve what she did to you… At least I didn’t think so.”
A sudden fount of anger bubbled up, the hurt he’d held back and clamped down on came forth in an almost tidal wave and he smacked his lips. Shoving himself from the grass, he got up and shouldered his bag.
“If you’re gonna fucking stalk me, stay out of my business!” he spat nastily. “I don’t even know your name. That’s how little what you think matters to me!”
She looked up at him then, a quietness about her that punched a hole in his gut. She didn’t respond… only stared. It was unnerving how little was projected in that gaze as though his nasty words were more confounding than wounding to her. He didn’t like how it twisted guilt into that hole her eyes burned into him. Rather than continue, he scoffed and walked away without another word. If he’d spoken, he would’ve apologized and he had nothing to be sorry about. Why apologize to someone like her?
Nate paused and glanced back at her. He didn’t even know why he’d stopped.
“My name… It’s Danika Bennett…”
I don’t care he wanted to say. Yet, it didn’t come out. Instead, he continued his trek away, somehow the grass beneath his feet sounding that much louder beneath his shoes.
Nate chuckled a bit at the high shriek as he entered his house, with the slightest of cringes.
“You are late!” accented voice called from the kitchen. He shrugged and went in, following the scent of dinner and the muttering of Korean at him. Nate wrapped his arm around the diminutive plump figure that was his mother, Bom Yi, hugging her head to his chest. He fluffed her shortly cropped hair playfully causing her to make an annoyed sound and hit him once more. She hated how tall he was and he enjoyed making her feel small. She was only five feet tall and often stood on a stool to reach the cabinets and shelves. Nate had taken after his father, settling at a healthy 5’10 in his teens.
“Where have you been!” she shrilled a bit and Nathaniel had to close his eyes a minute waiting for the echo it to ebb. He’d lived with her adorably pitched voice since infancy, yet still couldn’t quite handle when she was irritated with him. Her voice always went up an octave and took him a moment to adjust to it.
“I had art club, remember?”
“Nice try. Ashley said you walked out early when I called. Told me you quit.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Nate whispered.
“Watch your mouth!”
Bom put her hand on one popped hip and gazed up at him, unintimidated by his height. “What happened?”
Nate frowned. “There was kind of… a thing between me and… we kinda broke up.”
Bom held up her finger in front of her face catching Nate’s attention and he followed it as she pointed vaguely to the hall where his father’s study lay. Nate licked his lip and shook his head, making Bom sigh in relief and resume her concern.
“So what happened with her?”
“We just… I was being stupid with myself again. I thought there was something there wasn’t,” Nate replied, a sharp undertone of bitterness clipping his words.
Bom hummed, her face falling from concerned to an almost pity. “It’s just one girl, Nate. There’s always others.”
“It’s not a big deal, Mom,” he assured. “It’s not like I went in all out. Didn’t propose or anything… just… thought I’d try.”
Bom sighed and nodded. “Well, you go get cleaned up. I’ll call you down when dinner is done.”
Nate nodded and ventured down the hall to his father’s study, knocking on the frame. “Hey, Dad.”
“I thought the art club was something you really wanted,” Andrew Yi commented as he typed away on his computer. Andrew was a solid six-foot even and had a slight middle-aged spread. There were a few lines in his face that told of a hard struggle from bottom to top that Nate probably was too young to remember. “I didn’t mind you taking up art, but I thought you’d be more consistent, what happened?”
Nate shrugged averted his eyes from the older man. “I got what I needed from it. I got the scholarships and the awards for my resume so…”
“It was a girl, huh?” Andrew said pausing to look at him. “It’s always a girl.”
“Well, at least it wasn’t anything serious. Straighten up, being rejected isn’t the end of the world. She’ll regret it when you’re doing better than she thought.”
Nate nodded and gave a half smile. “Just wanted you to know what was up.”
Andrew nodded. “Try to look into some other scholarships. You’ve got a load of achievements under your belt, there’s no reason why you can’t earn them.”
“Yeah. Thanks, dad.”
In the solitude of his room, Nate locked his door for a bit and flopped onto his bed with a loud sigh. Mental exhaustion gnawed at any coherent thought he had and it didn’t help how embarrassed he felt. It wasn’t that he often confessed. He didn’t just go throwing his feelings out to every person that came along and made his stomach flutter. It was just… he’d been so sure. They’d shared so much between them. Philosophies, aspirations, and so many laughs. They’d created things together. They’d touched, they’d kissed, they’d even…
She was his first…
He wasn’t hers…
Maybe that’s where he’d messed up? Going in without knowing the boundaries… or maybe he should’ve noticed that she never called him hers. He didn’t know. He’d been so wrapped up in how he’d felt about her, how he’d gotten so close and how he’d let her so close that he hadn’t even bothered to ask…
“This is bullshit,” he muttered rolling on his back, his satchel – still attached to him – fell off the bed and thudded on the floor causing the strap to jerk him. “Tsk!”
Nate took it off and let it fall completely to the floor, noticing Danika’s notebook falling from the unlatched pouched. Well, that was another weird thing he had to deal with. What the hell was that girl’s deal? Stalking him, approaching him like that, and putting her nose where it didn’t belong! She had to be nuts. Nobody he knew acted like that and she was so damn… awkward about it. Like she didn’t know the proper way to talk to people, like she didn’t understand that following him around even if he was the only one who’d noticed, was still stalking!
His fingers brushed over the edges of the hand-decorated notebook, frowning. It was made quite nicely, with all the different paper tapes, scrapbook papers. He picked it up and squinted at it, his frown deepening. He was going to say “no” to her anyway. There was no point in worrying about that… so it wouldn’t hurt, right?
He opened the cover and began reading the neat script.
This is the story of a universe we created…
A place where you and I sat at opposite ends of the darkness painting the cosmos with iron and will, putting words into a symphony of color that lay dormant between us. Waiting to explode. Waiting to be born. Waiting for both of us to wake up and begin our dream. My eyes opened first and I watched you sleep from a dark place where I could not reach you, where my dream could not touch yours…
Startled, Nate jerked his head up from the notebook. “Uh, yeah, okay! I’m coming down.”
Nate breathed out a sigh and looked down at the cryptic opening paragraph, frowning a bit as the sentences painted an image in his mind that felt… so familiar. Brows furrowed and he felt a strange nervousness. No, that’s ridiculous. Still, his body was moving and he went to one of his portfolios from a couple of years ago, flipping through the plastic incased images until he came across one in particular. He stared at it, a strange sense of trepidation. Fingertips traced the stars on opposite ends of the image, darkness resting in the middle where they could not meet… a whole cosmos split in two unable to bridge the gap. Those words… were exactly…
…exactly the same…
Author Notes: Sorry about the wait!!! I got side tracked yesterday and then had a bit more to do today before I could get this out. I hope you enjoy the first “Episode” of 15 Degrees Skyward and I hope it intrigues you. Tell me what you think in the comments. If you like: Like, Share, Follow, etc.
Harli V. Park