The city lights pulsed through her window. The Empire State building was just visible if you pressed your left cheek to the glass. She lay in bed, one leg thrown over the covers, head propped up on two pillows, and listened to the traffic outside. It was hot in her room. A steady stagnant July heat. The air conditioning wasn’t working and a fan that was propped up against one of the legs of her desk only circulated the same air around with a consistent whir.
Whir. Whir. Whir. Alia leaned out of bed and shut it off. The clock blinked red. 1:46. 1:47. Even the minutes felt sluggish and sweaty and slow. She counted in her head and imagined sheep jumping over a low brown fence. One sheep. Two sheep. 1:48. Fifty sheep.
Her parents were asleep. She knew that because their light had been off since 10:30 and when she peeked into their room at 10:56 they were both snoring lightly. Their air conditioning was working and it was cool and dark.
By 12:17 she had gotten so hot that she sat up straight in bed and wondered if she should drag her mattress into their room. She flicked on her bedside table light and tried to lift the mattress off the bed frame. It wouldn’t come off and she gave up.
1:53 and she was still counting sheep.
Alia got out of bed and walked over to her window. She pressed her forehead to the glass and looked down at the street below. She watched a woman in high heels wobble to the curb and hail down a yellow cab. She watched a man run towards the cab just as the woman was getting in. He was waving his arms wildly.
She cracked open the window and could make out his voice, faint and staticky like a long distance phone call.
“Wait,” she thought she heard him shout. “Alia, Alia, Alia.” Alia, Alia thought. Alia, Alia, Alia. She’d never met another Alia. The cab peeled away from the curb just as the man lunged forward to grab the door handle.
She watched him for a moment. He sat down, face in his hands. Then she closed the window and headed back to bed. Her muscles felt leaden. She had pushed herself even harder today. Fifteen laps around the field, ten of them dribbling the soccer ball just in front of her. Three sprints. Then a scrimmage. Most of the people on her team were in middle school. They had braces and talked loudly about boys.
She wanted to make her school team in the fall. She wanted real games. Real teammates.
242 sheep. 243 sheep. She threw up afterward in the Parade Ground tennis center bathroom. Nauseous, dizzy. It smelled like cleaning supplies. In the car service home she drank two bottles of red Gatorade.
She closed her eyes, willed herself to sleep. Relax. Her heart thumped its solid beat, but there was something else, something that made her feel rushes of urgency in the pit of her stomach. 251 sheep.
She got out of bed again and went back to the window. The man was still there. He’d moved away from the curb and was sitting against a dark store front.
She didn’t know why, she’d never done anything remotely like it before but she suddenly found herself slipping on flats and grabbing keys from the entry way’s bowl. It was only when she had finished quietly shutting the door and was in the cream hallway that she drew in a sharp breath and stopped.
Alia had never snuck out. She’d never disobeyed her parents. She’d never lied to them. Not serious lies. She’d never asked for more than she thought she deserved. She always made her bed. Always listened attentively. Always sat up straight. Always did her homework.
She’d never snuck out of the apartment at 2 am on a Tuesday night. And she’d never imagined that she ever would.
But as the light in the hallway flickered slightly and air pumped through the vents she felt such a restless angry feeling stir inside her that the notion of going back to her room and trying to sleep seemed unfathomable. She started walking, running, to the stairwell. She took the stairs two at a time.
The banisters were a shiny gold and chandeliers hung on the landings of each floor. It was like a hotel she had once stayed at in Amsterdam. She wondered why the stairs were so opulent; nobody ever used them except her.
She darted behind the potted plants in the lobby so that the doorman couldn’t make out her face clearly and pushed open the heavy doors into the night. Once outside she stopped and caught her breath. She realized she was still, stupidly, in her pajamas. Pajama pants from Victoria’s Secret and a thin white tank top. At least it wasn’t the nightgown her mother had bought her for her 12th birthday.
Across the street, the view from her window, she could just make out a figure slumped in the shadows. She twisted her blonde hair off her neck and slowly walked towards him.
Alia could see him better now, see his sandy brown hair, his sweat stained plaid shirt. His eyes were shut tightly but when he heard her approach he opened them and warily looked her up and down.
“I don’t normally do this.” She started, surprising herself. She didn’t think she’d actually talk to him. She’d left the apartment just to go for a walk around the block, hadn’t she?
“Do what?” he asked. “What do you want?”
Alia nervously crossed her arms over her chest. “I….”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you. It’s just the whole shittiness of this situation…it’s been a crazy night. ” He threw his arms up and she flinched backwards.
“What’s your name?” he asked, standing up and facing her. He was tall and good looking, heavy lidded and a narrow nose. She felt small and inconsequential.
“Alia,” she shifted from foot to foot.
“Alia,” He said slowly. “You know Alia, I just got left by a woman named Leah. Just now. She’s crazy you know. I guess it’s all over. All of that, over. And you know the worst part? You know?” he lowered his voice and moved closer to her. “You know the worst part is she blames it on me. Says I’m the problem, I’m the fucking problem. It’s not me though. It’s not me who’s screwing my boss. Oh no, not me!”
“Ah,” Alia stuttered taking a small step back. “Maybe it’s best she’s gone then.” He stared at her, his dark green eyes widened and his mouth opened slightly.
He sat down again and glanced at his watch.
“Isn’t it a little late for you to be out? Where are you going anyways?”
“I…I couldn’t sleep.” She stuttered. “It’s the heat I think.”
“Oh no,” he responded. “It’s because of tonight. It’s a wonder anyone can sleep tonight.”
“Nothing is tonight. But don’t you feel the energy? Coursing through the air? The heat is disguising it but it’s there. It’s strong tonight.”
“I didn’t know that,” she stopped unsure of what she did and didn’t know. “I didn’t know there was energy.”
“There’s always energy,” he said evenly. “Why do you think people do the things they do?”
“Tonight does feel different.” The words felt true and suddenly it seemed to make sense to her. The energy. Of course, it was the energy that was making her feel this way! “I feel it, I feel it so strongly!” she was starting to get worked up, gesturing with her arms wildly like she was swimming through the air. “It’s this feeling, it’s affecting me. Inside of me.” She stopped, breathless. The city seemed to throb around her. The sound of a horn honking a couple blocks away felt like it penetrated her very being. His eyes never left her face as he reached out an arm and grasped her slender wrist, pulling her down next to him.
“I know exactly what it feels like. Like you’re ripping yourself from the inside out. Like there are little hands tearing you apart right below your heart. Right there.” He put his hand against her ribs.
A group of people walked by. Cigarette smoke and laughter wafted around her but she hardly noticed. She just felt his hand, a steady pressure, almost touching her bare skin. She wasn’t afraid. He was right. She could feel it. It was everywhere and the place that he was touching was burning. Her cheeks were burning. She felt wild, and hot, and brilliantly alive.
“It’s a wonderful feeling, wonderful and horrible,” he was saying, and his voice brought her back to reality. Back to the reality that his hand now really was touching her bare skin, stroking light circles under her tank top with his fingertips.
“It’s burning me,” she managed to whisper.
He leaned forward until their faces were level. Even in the darkness she could see his individual eyelashes. Dark and long, he was so close that when he blinked she could feel the tips of them brush her cheeks.
When he kissed her it came as a surprise. She knew it shouldn’t have, she knew that she should have realized what was going to happen the minute he pulled her to sit down next to him. So close.
He was kissing her with urgency, one hand looped around the back of her neck and through her hair, the other one still under her shirt.
At first she was stiff. Scared, frightened, bewildered. It was the first time she’d felt those feelings the entire night. They washed over her like how waves must feel to a child first going into the ocean.
And then they were gone and she was kissing him back. This is what it feels like to kiss somebody she thought. And she felt the little hands inside of her just under her heart ripping and tearing and hammering a thunderous drumbeat.
Da dum da dum da dum. Her heart went.
Burn burn burn. The fire licked her cheeks, her lips. She opened her mouth wider, inhaled it, felt herself fill with smoke.
Then the hands were suddenly in her stomach punching at her with such strength she gasped and pulled back. The street light cast shadows across his flushed face and his lips shone wet and dark.
He pulled her to him again and this time she was less surprised, less frightened and scared and bewildered. She accepted him, and wrapped her arms around his neck, moving even closer. She didn’t want this to stop, she never wanted to stop.
She was going to explode! The little hands beat faster, in her stomach, in her chest.
And then it was all gone.
She felt the scratchiness of his stubble, the sliminess of his tongue as he thrust it around her mouth. She wanted to gag and she pulled back in horror. His eyes remained closed. He was repulsive.
He leaned in again. She saw him open his mouth before he even reached her and then his hands were all over her and he was pushing her down.
She shoved her weight forward, hearing his cry of surprise as he fell backward onto the pavement. She ran across the street, through the lobby and into the staircase where she took the stairs three at a time until she got to her floor.
Collapsing on the carpet, she gagged, her mouth filling with bile. Her face was wet. With tears? With sweat? Her hands kneaded the carpet. She tried to tear it up, she would rip it apart if she could!
She could still taste him in her mouth, feel his tongue, his lips. She grabbed the bottom of her tank top, and stuffed it in her mouth.
Her eyes burned. She closed them, lying down onto her back. Relaxed, slowly. The light was golden through her lids. One sheep. Two sheep. Three sheep.
Age 15, Grade 10
Saint Ann’s School