She was on the roof the day she found out, because she’d gotten the idea to grow tomato vines up there from watching The Learning Channel at 2am after her parents finally passed out the other night. Some guy in yellow gardening gloves had demonstrated how to cut a hole in a bucket and plant tomatoes in it. Her house used to be separated into apartments, and some tenant ten years ago had put up poles for a clothesline on the one flat section of the roof – perfect, Tally decided, for her own tomato garden.
The hardest part would be dragging everything up there, since the tiny attic was crushed full of crap from her parents’ last (bigger) house. Either she had to spend a day rearranging dusty boxes and broken furniture and avoiding the banana-sized cockroaches, or she’d have to rig some kind of rope and pulley system through the guest bedroom window. Making that decision required seeing if she could get herself through the window in the first place, which is how she ended up hanging against the side of the house, her fingers clutching the aqua-marine trim, wondering if she should have tied a rope around her waist in case she fell.
Tally bit her lip, tasted salt, and thought for the millionth time that it was too early in May for it to be so humid. Her palms were sticky and her tee-shirt sticking to her spine. It made getting onto the roof more treacherous than it would have been in Colorado. As she studied the droopy trellis two feet away, trying to judge whether the dampness made it more or less likely to give away under her weight, her eyes veered off into the shocking green of the yard next door.
The tall privacy wall had kept her from ever seeing down there before, and unlike her own grassless yard, with its stone patio and her mom’s seven potted ferns, Mrs. Jersey Dash’s backyard was overwhelmingly alive. Bushes burst with heavy pink flowers, vines covered the rear of the house, spilling with purple blossoms. Ornamental trees lined the back fence, and the grass was as emerald as a football field’s, though more wild.
A smooth white bird bath full of crystal clear water reflected the sky back at her, and beside it lay a boy, spread out on his back. From hear the roof of her house, all Tally could tell about him was that he had dark skin, faded jeans, and really quite excellent shoulders.
Forgetting her grand tomato plans, Tally swung across for the trellis and climbed down to the little alley between their houses. Mrs. Dash’s privacy wall was made of gray and pink stone, and since her fingernails were already mostly broken, Tally kicked off her shoes and started climbing. It took only a couple of minutes, but by the time she had her elbows hooked over the top, sweat plastered her hair to her temples and she was having second thoughts about meeting boys with nice shoulders.
She peered over at the boy, who had his eyes open and stared up at the thick white clouds. He wasn’t wearing a shirt at all, and now that she was closer, Tally saw that he didn’t have any hair, and his dark skin was marred with strange lines like scars. One cut a jagged streak under his ribs, two seemed to slice his arms off, and another shone at the top of his neck, stretching from ear to ear. Tally frowned, staring at the pattern of discoloration around all the scars – if that was what they were. It gave him a sort of patchwork appearance, though if she was going to compare him to a doll, it would be a very well put together one.
The patchwork boy jerked suddenly, and jumped to his feet. Facing her.
“Oh,” Tally said, heaving herself farther up onto the top of the fence. “Hi.”
“Hi,” he said, after a hesitation only long enough to notice, and flashed her a smile.
“I was climbing up to my roof and saw you down here,” she said by way of inviting herself in, and swung her leg over the wall, knocking her knee painfully, then scrambled down into the garden.
“What’s on your roof?” the boy asked.
“Tomatoes.” Tally straightened up, brushing her shorts. “Or there will be if I can get my buckets and stuff up there.”
The boy said something, but Tally didn’t notice because she was too busy staring at his eyes. One was dark brown and the other as green as the vines behind him. In the darker one, her face reflected back at her as if it was covered in a black mirror. Even in the sticky afternoon, Tally felt a chill.
“It’s glass,” he said.
“What?” Tally stumbled back, but the boy caught her elbow.
“My eye. It’s not real. Sorry.”
She touched her mouth, and shook hear head. “No, don’t be, I mean… it only startled me.” His hand cupped her elbow, and his palm was cool and dry, unlike every inch of her own body.
“Bleeding. Your knee.”
Tally pulled back and hissed. The top layer of skin was skimmed off her knee, and blood seeped out in slow drops. Before she could say anything else, the boy scooped her off her feet. She shrieked, but only in surprise, and clutched at his perfect shoulders. He carried her to the bird bath and set her down gently on the grass. Tally tried not to think about what she probably smelled like. Or the smear of her sweaty hands against his arms. She wiggled her butt as she settled, wiped sticky curls off her face, and finally managed to say, “My name’s Tally.”
The boy took her leg and straightened it out. “My mother calls me Dash.”
“Isn’t that your last name? Wait… she’s your mom?” Tally winced, realizing how stupid she sounded, just because Mrs. Jersey Dash had blond hair and sorority-tan skin.
Dash nodded, and reached up to cup water out of the bird bath in his hands.
“Hang on!” Tally scooted back, “that’s got to be dirty – my mom always told me not to touch bird feathers, and they swim in that water!”
“It’s fresh,” Dash said, “I promise. And we don’t…” he glanced up at the sky, and Tally thought she saw his glass eye roll up just as much as the green one. But when he looked back at her and his mouth fell into such lonely lines, she decided she must’ve been mistaken. “I don’t get birds in my garden,” he finished.
“Oh,” she said.
It was oddly quiet in the garden, as if the bright colors and still, heavy air drowned any chance for noise. Tally didn’t move again as Dash spilled water over her knee. It was sun-warm and soothing, though the burn in her knee had never been sharp. The blood thinned into pink and trickled down the sides of her knee into the grass.
Dash leaned back to sit near her, and ran his hands over the dome of his head. Another weird scar line peeked around the top of his hear, as though part of his scalp had been sewn together. Tally wanted to ask, but whatever had happened must’ve been traumatic, and they probably weren’t at that stage yet.
“Tell me how you grow tomatoes on your roof,” he said.
Relieved to have a neutral topic, Tally rambled on about the process of planting tomatoes upside-down in a bucket, and how her parents had bought the house when it went into foreclosure so they were able to knock out walls and turn it back into a single-family home. “Not that having so much work to do kept them from fighting,” she added, “which was really their plan.” Then she grimaced, sorry she’d added the commentary.
“You aren’t like my mom at all,” Dash said, a slow smile spreading over his face. He had perfect teeth, Tally realized at the same time she struggled to figure out how to respond to his statement.
“And that’s…. good?” she asked.
“She probably wouldn’t think so.” His smile got edgy, and that Tally understood.
“Which is definitely a good thing,” she said, sharing his smile.
“So, how come I’ve never seen you before? I mean, other than because I had to climb to my roof in order to see over the wall. Don’t you go outside? How come you aren’t at my school?”
Dash picked at the perfect grass. “I don’t leave the house, or I could… die.”
“What?” Tally laughed. It was the most absurd thing she’d ever heard.
“It’s true. I’m not very well put together.”
Tally’s face curled up. What an odd way to put it. “You’re… sick?”
“No, just… fragile.”
“Nuh-uh.” Tally reached out and punched his shoulder lightly. It was firm. Her eyes lowered down his stomach, past the scar under his ribs. Her own stomach quivered and she snapped her gaze back up to his. “No way. You’re perfect.”
“Nearly, but not quite.”
She laughed again. “Lucky, then. Not all of us can be so close.”
Dash didn’t say anything, but he stared at her. Tally watched herself in his black eye. The shape of it distorted her expression, making her own eyes seem to cover half her face. She took her hair out of its ponytail and retied it, just to give herself something to do. “How long have you lived here?”
“All my life,” Dash said grandiosely.
“And in, what, seventeen years, you’ve never, ever left?” Tally stood up and wandered away, intent on exploring those flowering bushes in the corner. She’d never seen anything quite like the round pink blossoms. Maybe she shouldn’t be so focused on tomatoes.
His voice came from right behind her. “Oh, no not so long as that. Maybe three weeks.”
Tally stopped. She kept her back to him, her skin prickling. She rubbed one hand against her opposite forearm. How fast could she get out of here? Could she get up the wall without him grabbing her? Maybe running through the house was a better idea.
“Tally?” he said. Directly behind her. So close she felt him pressing through the humid air.
Best thing to do was to play it off, she decided. Turning with a shrug, Tally said, “Yeah? I was just going to ask you about the….” The words trailed away as she realized he was looking at her like he was terrified. It made her own fear wither away. “What?”
“I want to leave,” he whispered.
Tally took his hands. They were nearly as warm as her own now. “Ok.”
“I’m not supposed to.”
“I’m not supposed to climb on my roof.”
“My mother said there isn’t anything out there for me. Not anything good, just more sky and more walls.”
“That’s… sort of true. There’s a lot of sky, and plenty of walls.”
Dash stepped closer. “And you.”
“A lot of girls like me.”
“Girls who climb walls?”
Tally stretched her mouth out into a cringe. “Some. I wouldn’t say it defines most girls.”
“Does it define you?” Dash’s eyes were so close Tally had to pick one to focus on, or keep glancing back and forth, back and forth so fast it made her dizzy.
She chose the green one. It was warm and real, and Tally thought she liked the idea of being defined by climbing over walls.
So she kissed him. Even though part of her was a little bit suspicious he wasn’t real. Maybe, she considered, that was why she kissed him.
Dash didn’t move, but it didn’t stop Tally. She put her hands on his face, and ran her hands up over the skin on his head, which was completely smooth and soft, no scratchy stubble. And soon he kissed her back, pressing in, taking her waist in his hands as if he knew exactly what to do.
A quick squeaking got both their attentions.
On the rim of the bird bath perched a tiny chickadee, flipping it’s dour gray wings in the water. It trilled again, and Dash smiled. The bird leapt away, flapping fast over the wall toward Tally’s house.
“Let’s go,” she said. Since Dash didn’t have shoes on, she didn’t have to tell him to get rid of them. She scouted out the best place to climb, and up she started. Dash grabbed her hips and boosted her, startling a laugh free. Tally grasped the top of the wall, relieved by the hot, rough stone against her palms. She twisted around to watch Dash dig his fingers into the crack between rocks, and pull up.
Together, they straddled the wall. Their knees touched, and Tally ignored the pinch of his jeans against her raw raspberry burn. Slow breeze touched them, and Dash turned his face into it.
Tally touched his cheek, just lightly with her finger. He glanced back at her and she smiled. “Let’s go!”
Swinging her leg over, Tally held her breath and dropped to the ground. She hit hard, but bend her knees, her breath going out in a quick whoosh of giddy laughter.
“Tally,” she heard Dash say, but it was garbled, like his mouth was full of pasta. Catching herself on one hand, she said, “You can do it!” as she unbent, standing up and turning.
He wasn’t there.
Tally stepped back to the wall. She craned her neck up, searching for some sign of him. “Dash?” There hadn’t been any sound like he’d gone back over the other way.
Sighing, Tally wiped back her hair and scaled the wall again. She hooked her elbows over exactly as she had the first time.
He was gone.
The thick air shimmered before her eyes, and Tally wondered if she had heat-stroke. If she’d imagined it all. Here she was, hanging over her neighbor’s wall, and here she’d been for half an hour. Her arms ached, her knee burned, and she smelled her own sweat plus this slightly coppery scent in the back of her throat.
She shook her head slowly, as if that might reveal the truth. Three little chickadees with their black caps fluttered down out of the sky and landed in the bird bath. They tipped down and drank, one of them flaring out its wings for balance. Another squeaked at it, and the both flew in a tight circle.
Inexplicably, Tally felt her eyes water. My eyes might as well sweat, too,, she told herself irritably, and just as she shifted to let herself fall back into the alley, she noticed the black glint winking at her from beside her right elbow.
It was a dark sphere, like a giant marble. Deep brown when the sun caught its center, and in it, Tally saw her reflection.
picture by IrenicRhonda via flickr Creative Commons