Cut Me Open
I ran into Beck the other day when I was in Happy Valley. I’d gone to this out-of-the-way little boutique to pick up a sweater for Joey, and there he was, leaning into a display mirror and trying on new glasses frames. Even from across the aisle, the blue of his eyes bit back at me like ice. I watched him for a moment, frozen before the shelves of knitwear.
His face was stern, but then again Beck always looked like that. It was something to do with the angles of his jaw—and the glasses, of course. I caught a glimpse of his natural face when he swapped frames, and that was when I noticed the faint lines that had engraved themselves next to his eyes in the years since we’d last seen each other. Because of where I stood, I couldn’t see my own face in the mirror, and for some reason this pushed a sigh of relief from my lips.
The wisp of sound pulled me out of my frozen stance. I turned away and carried Joey’s sweater to the check-out. By the time I’d paid and was leaving, Beck had moved to a different part of the store.
Outside, the sun had been pierced by a snowy incisor, and the sky was beginning to deepen. The wooden steps outside the shop had been carefully swept of the flurries that were shivering in the air. I descended quickly, knotting my scarf and looking for an Eyrie taxi.
When I got down to the street, I glanced back at the shop for a moment. And there he was, liked I’d never left him, a blue Lupe framed in the glassy doorway. I reached to brush a few strands of hair from my forehead as I watched him take the first step down. He lifted his head, slipped his hands into his pockets, and winked at me.
“Still a goofy kid, I see,” I said when he joined me at the bottom of the stairs.
“What’s that?” His eyebrows drew together.
“Why would I wink at you, Laurel?” Beck waved for a taxi and then touched the rim of his glasses. “It was probably just the sun glinting off these,” he said. “Designer frames. Brand new.”
My ability to part the serious tones of his voice and see if a joke was lurking behind them must have dulled over the years, because I couldn’t decide whether or not to laugh. I used to be able to look into that face and know exactly how to react. Now, Beck’s eyes were unassailable, like sapphires encased in tourist-proof glass.
“So how are you?” he said. “Now that we’re talking.”
“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” I was still studying him. He waited for me to continue, and I thought I detected some tightness in his jaw.
That jaw—it used to drive me crazy the way Beck kept it locked up tight like a bear trap. We’d be sitting on a rooftop in the clouds, looking out at the stars that we used to brag you could only see properly from Faerieland. I would talk us through that inky part of night where it’s secretly morning, telling him about how differently I saw things now than I did when I was little, about what I was going to do when I moved down to Neopia someday—just to see the world a bit, not forever—about my parents, our other friends, and, well, everything. And Beck would take it all in like black clothes absorbing sunlight. But unless I asked him a direct question, he didn’t say much, and I had to imagine the thoughts that were passing through him instead of hearing them for certain.
“I’m doing well, thanks,” I said as a taxi pulled over. “Pretty busy lately, but you know how it is.”
Beck laughed. “Yeah.”
“What?” I gave him a sideways glance. “You’re not busy?”
“Not as much as I’d like to be. Everything has sort of slowed since I left, actually. I guess I need to find something that’ll stick with me, keep me going.” He smiled and looked down, then glanced up at me tentatively. This was a look I knew. It was always those three things: the half-smile, the slight incline of the head, and those eyes that wandered back up to my face, seeking my opinion.
The taxi slowed to a stop. Maybe my awareness of the driver, who blew vapor into the air and looked over at us, was what stimulated the flush of energy that suffused the back of my mind as I held Beck’s gaze. Maybe it was something else.
“I’ll tell you what the problem is,” I said. “I think I’ve got it unraveled, finally.”
One of his eyebrows raised slightly, as if taking a breath.
“You cut and run.”
The words emerged with a sharper edge than I intended. I didn’t see anything change in his face, but that made it worse, because that meant I had to imagine.
Behind his glasses, Beck’s eyes became the blue sky over Faerieland that fell away while I was doing homework on my bed. And his silence—I tore it open to drown myself in the memory of that awful hurricane of freefall, the rumble of collapsing stonework, and gasp of fear caught in my throat.
I didn’t think of it at the time, of course, but that’s when the stars at last stepped out of reach. I had to stop dreaming of things and start doing them. That was the day I became busy and didn’t have time to guess what Beck was thinking anymore. And before I had even begun to realize how everything had changed, he was gone.
A lot of Neopets left the city during that time, of course. I never blamed him for that. But how could I forgive him that night when we sat on mossy rocks above the waterfall and all he could do was shrug his shoulders?
The water flowed past with the sound of an endless exhale. After all these years of me spilling over with plans, it was finally Beck’s turn to tell me everything, and here he was just shaking his head. I wanted to hold his face in my hands and grip his jaw and unwind the wires that clenched it shut. I wanted to shake him, or hug him, or push him in the river. All he did was look at me.
He and his family were moving. Beck didn’t know exactly why, but he didn’t want to ask his parents to explain it because he could guess well enough. If they had to rebuild, he said, it would be easier to rebuild somewhere new.
“What about me?” I said to him. “I can’t follow you.”
He smiled at me sadly. “I’ll write.” Those two words were so feeble an apology that I wanted to get up and walk away right that minute—and if I had, it would have made everything easier. But Beck had to reach and grab my hand just then, so that I looked into his eyes, where he was trying desperately, I realized, to say something to me.
It was probably his stupid glasses that got in the way.
Beck cut and ran. How else could I say it? He abandoned me to countless nights of lying awake, drifting through the secret morning and imagining enough translations of that last look to populate the sky.
It was me who got cut open, wasn’t it? But as the taxi Eyrie stomped restlessly and the slender mountain peak at last split the sun in two, I saw that my words had done something to Beck as well.
Then the tightness went out of his jaw, and my focus faded from his face to mine, reflected in the lens of his glasses. There, around those pale, white Ogrin eyes, I discovered engravings identical to his, and I knew that the same thing had happened to both of us. At last, I knew. Too late, of course, and that made it almost unbearable, to understand that our two pieces had broken along the same edge, but the years had smoothed them over so that they no longer fit together.
“The taxi’s yours,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. I looked behind me. “No, you should take it. You hailed it.”
“I hailed it for you.” He pressed into me with his eyes, but this wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding, which I felt somewhere too deep to touch. Beck smiled. “I live here, remember?”
“Of course.” I returned a small smile, but he took a step back.
“I’d better be going. Busy life and all.” He threw me a little wave and turned around. “Have a safe trip home, Laurel.”
The wounded piece of me wanted to watch him as he walked away, but I could hear the taxi driver breathing, so I climbed onto the seat. “Faerieland, please. I apologize for the delay.”
As the taxi skidded off down the road, I realized I was clutching the bag from the boutique with both hands. I opened it and looked at the crimson sweater inside. By the time I thought to turn around, we were in the air, and Beck had disappeared into the diminishing crowd below.