Darby was born flying, and I was born hating her for it. Our house was just across the river from Darby’s family’s, our backyard and theirs stretching warlike to the banks. Their house was smaller than ours but more forceful; it was three stories tall and white and wide and had grand glass double-doors that looked out toward our back porch. We were born the same year, and our mothers would stand on either bank rubbing their bellies and swelling in the June heat.
But then Darby and I were born, and we were never friends. Darby slipped out a few days before me. Darby had gold-fuzz ringlets and wide blue eyes. Darby could fly. Not right away, but soon enough.
The year we turned six Darby’s parents brought her to the traveling fair for her birthday, and she watched the trapeze show in the carnival tent and became insufferable. All day, she practised cartwheels and flips, somersaults and complicated handsprings. She scaled the trees on the riverbank and flung herself from branch to branch. I sat criss-cross on my side of the river and watched, waiting breathlessly for her to fall.
The next year, Darby’s father built her a series of high-wires and trapeze bars because the tree bark was harsh on her hands. I dragged a beach chair with a failing seat into the shallowest part of the river to watch her. She hung from a bar by her knees and waved to me when she caught my eye. I looked away. She swung herself backward and executed a rippling twist before catching hold of another bar with her fingertips.
Our lives went on like this for years: Darby soaring between the trees, me staring up at her. When she flew like that, something curled in the pit of my stomach. Once, in the hopes of making her lose concentration and slip to the ground, I called: “Shouldn’t you have a net?”
“No,” Darby laughed, rotating her body three times in the air and hanging again by her knees, “I’ve never feared falling.” We had the same Southern drawl, but she shaped her sentences with such an easy confidence that her voice sounded exotic. I wanted to eat the words off her lips.
It was that moment I realized that I truly, truly hated her—because she was beautiful. She moved like nothing I had ever seen, un-human and reckless. The gravity of the treetops broke down at her whim; she lifted up and up and up and I squinted for wings trailing behind her. I wanted to crush her body against mine to prove that there was something substantial to her, to grip her roughly and show myself that she was more than air. I wanted to hold her hands and see if they remained birth-soft and uncalloused because perhaps they never touched the trapeze at all. Maybe she really could fly. Darby was lovely in a way that reminded me of my own mortality; something as beautiful as she would doubtless last forever, and I would be left behind. I feared that if I touched her she would dissipate.
I scooped a handful of pebbles from the riverbed and passed them from hand to hand.
“Liz,” Darby called, “Look!”
She swung her body back-and-forth a few times and pushed off. When her hands left the trapeze I began to scream at her; I threw a spray of pebbles across the river and they nipped at the lowest-hanging parts of her feet. She caught the second trapeze one-armed and prepared to leap again. I waded further into the river and lurched a fistful of slick, ghoulish algae from the bed. When I threw the algae, it wrapped around her ankles, weighed her down. I threw another clump of algae. Another. Another. Faster and more frenzied until I was raining algae from both hands at once and screaming all the while. Darby had dismounted and stood waist-deep in the river a few feet from me, her clothing soaking through and algae binding her face and arms. It was in her hair, streaked green across her cheeks. Slowly, she peeled a piece of it off of her neck, leaving a trail of sickly wet.
The river soaked through my stockings and grasped at the bottom of my dress, heavy, and I suddenly felt the cold. I shivered. It was only February; Darby convulsed wonderfully as she pushed toward me. I screamed at her, meaning stop, stop, and made to throw more algae. I found my hands empty and they fumbled toward my chest, because I wasn’t throwing algae at all but had pulled myself open and was coating her in my heart, bit by bit, hurling everything I felt at her and willing hatred to stick. My fingers twitched at my skin for a moment before I plunged them back into the river. In my lapse, Darby surged forward and grabbed my hands in hers. The algae had left stains down her face like tears.
“Please,” She said, “Stop saying my name.” I realized that I had finished screaming and was now murmuring DarbyDarbyDarbyDarby in freakish rhythm. I clamped my mouth shut and flinched my hands away.
“Liz?” Darby continued tentatively, “You okay?”
We were thirteen. I hated her. Darby shuddered with cold and tried to touch me again, to share warmth. She looked at me without a hint of fear, wide blue eyes overfilled with concern. I felt sick toward myself.
“Don’t look at me like you care for me.”
“Oh.” Her voice was so soft it grated. “But I do care for you.”
“Shut up. Shut up.” I walked up the bank without looking at her. My heart beat fast at the thought of her skin on mine. “I wish you didn’t.”
For years after I replayed that day as I watched her fly. The moment she had taken my hands in hers kept me awake well into the night. I couldn’t understand why she had done it. Terribly, she only grew more talented as we aged. I had hoped her body would change and become devoid of grace, that puberty would warp her into something beyond desire and that I would no longer hate her. But she was magnetic as ever, lithe and golden and winged, and I rotted. I pulled my chair out to the river each day and sat watching her for hours, resenting how she seemed to evade the pull of becoming dirt. I understood by now that to hate her so furiously I must have something dead inside me.
For four years after I flung my heart at her Darby and I didn’t speak. I no longer yelled insults in attempts to make her fall. Instead I sat and watched, flicking my eyes away when she turned toward me, silently willing the supports of her trapezes to give way. Despite my distance, Darby waved without fail when she managed to meet my eyes. She was never anything but gentle.
A month after we turned seventeen I found Darby standing on my side of the river, clasping a small piece of paper in her hands. Her legs were wet up to the knee; she had waded to see me. She split into a grin as I came down the bank. I made to turn back to my house.
“The traveling fair asked me to join them,” Darby called after me. “I showed the director my trapeze act and she loved it.”
“Why are you here, Darby?”
Her smile never faltered. “The first performance is tonight, in town. I thought…I brought you a ticket, since you’ve always been with me.”
The sound of those words in her honeyed voice seized my body. I waded to stand beside her in the river. She reached for me—to press the ticket wonderfully into my hand—and I stepped back.
“And what then?” I asked.
Darby’s smile wavered. “Then I leave.”
The overwhelming loneliness of the river lapped against my legs. I thought of sinking down into it and forcing Darby with me. I thought of what would happen if I begged the car from my mother and drove into town to watch. I would sit in a proper folding seat in the audience and gasp at all the right moments and worry over her not using a net. Maybe I would feed on the way other people cheered for her. I’ll come, I imagined myself telling her.
And what then? The fair would fold all its chairs and roll up the tents and leave town and Darby would follow. She would perform sold-out shows. The fair director would style her a costume with wings of rippling silk, and I would never see her again. I would sit in my broken beach chair in the river and look across into nothing while Darby entranced strangers. No one in the world felt the intensity of emotion for Darby that I did. All of me had dedicated itself to her; it felt as though Darby had been living within me and was being ripped out. To look at emptiness, after a lifetime of looking at Darby, was a soul-crushing thought. Darby’s leaving would break something crucial in me, force me to breach my hatred for her. If I never skirted understanding, I could live forever pretending hatred was enough.
“Liz? Will you come?” Again Darby tried to press the ticket into my hands. I couldn’t stand to look at her, knowing that I was losing her every second. Instead, I looked at the water and let Darby’s fingers linger against mine. The river felt like an act of violence. Its chill was touching Darby, touching me; I had never felt smaller and more alone. I curled my fingers around the ticket and took it from Darby and before she could smile I let it go and we watched the current sweep it away.
“I don’t want it. I don’t want to see you there,” I told her. Her eyes welled with tears, but she cried not for herself but for me. She had cared for me despite how desperately I had meant for us to hate each other. The kindness in her eyes reminded me again of my own ugliness; my insides were coated in algae.
“God, Darby,” I said, “Didn’t I tell you not to look at me like that?” And I hit her across the face. I don’t remember picking up the rock, but it was in my hand, fat and comfortable, and her cheekbone crumpled inward when I swung at her. The rock crushed the right side of her face into something soggy and cracked her nose to the side; she began to bleed. Her mouth hung half-stupid. I could see her bottom row of teeth because of the way her lips had started to droop. All together, her face gave the impression that she was in the moment before melting had entirely taken hold. Her blue eyes were still very wide, just the same as they’d been before. Tender.
I breathed heavily, my fingers curled around the rock I had swept up from the ground. She had watched me do it, I realized. Watched me grab the rock and bring it toward her, and she had done nothing.
“Stop it,” I hissed at her. “Stop LOOKING!” Blood flushed from her nose over her slackened lips. I hefted the rock again and brought it down into her forehead. It caught her by a sharp edge, carving a hunk of flesh out above her right eyebrow. “You make me hideous.”
She blinked at me, fawnish, the rest of her so still that I thought I had killed her nerves. I crashed the rock into her cheek again, thrilling the squelching, gelatinous sound her skin made.
“You can’t leave. You can’t leave. You can’t. You can’t. You can’t. There won’t be anything left of me, don’t you get that?” The despair in my voice startled even me. I was begging her. I was killing her and begging her not to kill me. But she was standing there and letting me beat her face into bits and I screamed her name and screwed my eyes closed and brought the rock down over the top of her head.
I could feel the rock go through her skull. It was so much easier than I could have imagined. I could feel when her skull split and the rock reached her brains, because suddenly my swing had no resistance and the rock was slicing something meaty.
“Liz,” she said, but her voice was underwater, bubbling from the blood in her mouth. I opened my eyes.
Darby’s head was misshapen but somehow still beautiful, her hair matted with blood and small bits of rock that had broken off. She raised her hand to my face, brushing her fingertips over my lips, which were still wet with her blood. Her lips twitched into a sort of saggy smile, and I noticed some of her teeth had wiggled loose. The eye on the crumbling side of her face was shut, hot and sticky with blood from the missing piece of her forehead, blood rushing so thickly down her face I doubted she could pry the eye open if she used both hands. Slowly, her other eye drifted shut, and an airy satisfaction washed over me. I dropped the rock. She folded to the ground.
I pulled her body to the muddy edge of the riverbank, close enough so that the river lapped against the side of her face I had hollowed-in. She was dead, I had found, pressing my ear to her chest, watching for a faint sign of breath at her lips. I was dead. She had been a wonderful acrobat. She had been careless for looking at me softly. I felt a subdued horror at what I had done, but it was buried under a thick relief that she was still there. I was appalling, but my macabre loneliness had faded. I had Darby.
I lay down next to Darby in the dirt, letting our arms touch from shoulder to wrist. Her blood had started to dry over my right hand, and I wrapped her still fingers in mine. Her hand was hard and calloused from days spent practising trapeze. I thought of the crowds who would have seen her perform and not known what her hands felt like. Not known how she looked the instant before she grabbed the second trapeze, when she was suspended between trees with her hair streaming around her, otherworldly.
“I hate you,” I told her. I rubbed circles on the back of her hand with my thumb and laid with her in the dirt, waiting for someone to wander down to the river and find us decaying together. It took me a while to understand that I was crying.
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