Tobey walked to the park after leaving his neighbour’s house, calling the names of the wood-dwellers. At the lack of response, he had sat on the path and cried. Aramis joined him, giving him a balm for his bruises, and in return he sang her a song. Then they parted, his heart considerably lighter.
Later that evening, as Tobey contemplated what had happened after school that day, he observed how unreal his life had become. He sat on the chair with the bow of his violin in one hand as if about to start playing, planning his music coursework, but somehow every time he picked up the instrument, something stopped him. His mind was no longer filled with dancing semiquavers and mournful minor chords. Something brittle and cold inside had broken, leaving only silence and, somewhere above it, the sweet song of birds. He frowned. The imagery was not something he would have used a few days previously. He picked up his bow again, then stopped. He had to remember, to fix every detail in his mind so he wouldn’t forget…
He had been sitting there crying on the slatted path, disappointed to find that his plan hadn’t worked, just like everything else he had done all day. Tears of self-pity scalded his face and his noisy sobs seemed to drown out everything else. They must have done. He hadn’t heard her footsteps behind him on the path. In fact, the first awareness he had of her presence was the sensation of a change in temperature against the hairs on the back of his neck. So hot it was cold? Or so cold it was hot? He tried to remember how it had felt, the weight and pressure and sheer strangeness of having an arm around his shoulder, and turning his head to looks to find a pair of brilliantly intense eyes.
He jumped on his chair as he remembered how stunned he’s been to suddenly find those eyes fixed on him, the animal wildness- he decided that was the best description for their curious, unselfconscious expression- softened with a tangible human pity. Framed by long, raindrop-covered eyelashes, they made it look as if she too had been crying, although Tobey privately doubted it. Aramis looked far too sure of herself, far too dignified with the terrible majesty of a lion, the haughty stateliness of a panther in the moonlight, to ever lose control like that. Like he had. Like a child.
But, in spite of his childishness, there he was, sitting beside him; in spite of his childishness trying- in a wordless way that meant more to him than an entire dictionary-to comfort him. Though the situation wasn’t one jot better, he couldn’t help but be touched by the gesture, and he wiped his eyes furiously on the sleeve of his worn school jumper, determined to show her that he could be more mature. “Thank you” he croaked between funny, gasping breaths as the sobbing subsided from his lungs. His shoulders were still twitching slightly under the slender white banner of her draping arm.
A curious expression crumpled Aramis’s face as she quickly removed her arm from his shoulder and reached into the pocket of the pinafore she wore. The dress underneath was longer today, the hem slightly muddy, her feet bare and lightly covered with dirt. He followed her gaze, confused. Suddenly, his heart sank.
The sleeve of his jumper, he realised, had rolled up, revealing the Aden-inflicted bruises in all their brilliant mauve glory. Under the grey light of the overcast sky, his skin looked dead and the bruises seemed even brighter than earlier, more painful than he’d admit, much more painful even than they felt. His right hand moved automatically to pull down the sleeve although he knew it was too late. She’d seen. Not only had she seen, but as he moved to hide them in a gesture that plainly said ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ she grabbed his wrist with one slender, graceful-looking hand.
“Hold out your arm” she said.
Confused, Tobey obeyed, tentatively, because although he wasn’t expecting further blows, he had been caught out by false kindness often enough. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust her, just that… alright, it is because I don’t trust her. He watched her as she pulled out the stopper of the small ceramic pot she had taken out of her apron and dipped her long, white fingers into the pot. His eyes didn’t leave her as the hand came nearer.
“This isn’t going to do anything funny to me, is it?” he asked, suspiciously. The substance on her fingers was a kind of cream, from the looks of it, pinkish-red and smelling exotic with spice. It couldn’t have been tested properly, surely? He imagined long lists of side-effects he’d have to explain to his mother. Then he smiled ironically. As if she’d notice.
“Fear not,” she laughed, a laugh too melodious for everyday use, and she smiled properly for the first time. “You will not become a tree. Have faith, Tobey, in both myself and my balm.” Without further ado, the balm on her fingertips made contact with his white skin. It felt smooth and cold and it tingled as she applied it, tenderly rubbing it in as if he were a wounded animal that might bolt any minute.
As he sat at his chair, his own finger tightened around the bow of his violin. Had he really let her do that? He didn’t think he’d ever been that close to a girl before. Certainly, Josie would never have allowed him to be that near. At the thoughts of her name, he uttered a little sigh that fluttered the paper in front of him. Under love’s heavy burden do I sink. Perhaps he should have tried harder at the time, to preserve the occasion in his memory- it was probably as near as he was going to get to a relationship, ever. At the time, though, it had felt comfortable and mundane, like coming into a warm room after having walked out in harsh winter winds: pleasant, certainly, but nothing particularly special. Cursing his own foolishness, he returned to his memory, trying to salvage what he could of what had happened.
“That tickles,” he had said, and pulled his arm away instinctively. He could sense a strange tone to his voice that he realised was laughter. It sounded hysterical to his unaccustomed ears, but she didn’t seem frightened, even though he was sure he must have been grinning inanely.
“It will help, hold still,” she replied solemnly, dipping her fingers back in the pot.
He held out his arm again for her to continue, but pulled it away even more quickly than before. “Stop it, I’m really ticklish!” he complained, and then, suddenly- he would never quite comprehend why and how it had happened, only that it had- somehow, he found himself tickling her in retaliation. She fought back, making him squirm too, until the pair of them were rolling on the path in a giggling heap, the little pot of balm rolled away, forgotten. When eventually they sat up again, breathless, dishevelled, they were both grinning, newly firm friends.
“Thank you again,” said Tobey, pushing his glasses, which had been knocked askew in their ticking fight, back up his nose. “For the balm, and for just being here. I’d had a really bad day, it was nice to see a friendly face.”
Her cheeks were flushed pink, and she was smiling in a slightly uncertain way, looking all around. There was a long silence as she continued to search the area, then, when Tobey had almost believed that she hadn’t heard, she replied, “The pleasure was mine.”
“Seriously though, I haven’t smiled like that in… I can’t even remember the last time. You have actually saved my sanity. If there’s anything I can do for you, you will let me know, right?”
He stood up to leave, it was beginning to get dark, and said goodbye. He had barely made two steps along the path when, automatically, he began to sing the song he had most recently added to his iPod, and before he had taken three, she had tapped him on the shoulder, seeming to have glided over there in one fluid movement.
“Would you sing for me? Please?”
Tobey flushed, he hadn’t realised that he had begun to sing until she had pointed it out. It was a habit he had had before, but after Anna died and his friends began to gradually drift away, strange quirks like that attracted him too much attention. Unconsciously, he had stopped, and now, equally unconsciously, he had started again. Deciding to worry about it later, he spun round, facing her. “What would you like me to sing?”
“Anything you like.”
Wanting to impress her, self-doubt suddenly crippled him. What if he did it wrong and she just thought he was weird? He’d rather liked that she didn’t seem to actively dislike him.
Closing his eyes, he opened his mouth and allowed the song to pour out, the first song that came to mind; faith, hope and sadness all jumbled together in a sea of quavers. When he had caressed the final note, he looked up to find her watching him, spellbound.
“You have a gift, Tobey, and far from being in my debt, it is I who am in yours.”
She looked around once more, slightly more warily, before stiffening, becoming more formal. “My brother will be waiting for me. He is sorry to not have been able to meet you himself, but he had urgent business to attend to. He should very much like to become better acquainted with you, please return another day. Tomorrow, perhaps. Goodbye, Tobey.”
Then, just as suddenly as she had appeared, she disappeared into the darkening trees in a swirl of white dress.
Placing the violin carefully onto his bed, Tobey picked up his pen and began to write.