Marshall stood with his back against the row of lockers, looking out into the crowd.
The halls were packed shoulder to shoulder with people. They milled in clusters, waiting for the bell to ring. At his elbow, Ollie Poe was holding forth on a slightly flawed theory regarding ways to meet girls.
Marshall nodded, not really listening. He was considering the subtle mysteries of night. Of the only girl who mattered.
She stood on the other side of the locker bay, talking to her friend. They looked appropriate together, painfully wholesome. The sun coming in through the skylight was buttery, but even under the bright cover of morning, Marshall had the distinct impression that she was, at heart, a night person.
At night, her skin looked smooth and touchable. Now, in the daylight, it had a hard quality, like she’d been hand-painted by someone—probably in Europe. She looked too self-consciously made-up, too close to perfect. When she opened the locker for her books, she moved with the grace of a dancer.
The things she said to him in the dark were vague and cryptic, always colored by a sense of regret, of wanting. She talked about clubs and sporting events and music, and in her voice, he heard all the ways she berated herself for not being better, but she never said those things out loud.
The night before, he’d been alone, stoned in a pointless, guilty way that dulled everything to a manageable pitch. She’d appeared in the doorway, in her pastel pajama set, then flopped down beside him on the couch and asked the question that complicated everything.
Why do you treat yourself like this? she’d said, and he hadn’t known how to answer. It was a simple question—so simple that it was difficult to navigate. He might be passive or indifferent, reluctant to take action, but she was just as bad, held captive by her perfect life.
Now, with the crowd chattering all around them, and the sunlight making her more unfathomable than ever, he knew what he wanted to say.
He pushed himself away from Ollie and crossed the locker bay.
When he came up behind her, he could smell toothpaste and shampoo, feel the low-grade anxiety coming off her like electricity. He moved to touch her shoulder, then hesitated. His heart was beating so hard that it seemed to fill his throat. He was afraid that when he reached for her in the daylight, his hand would go right through, and so he stood close behind her, breathing the desperate smells of impossible standards, of striving for perfection.
When she turned, she moved very quickly, whirling to face him, and he was frozen in the chilly spotlight of her gaze.
Her eyes were a ringing hazel with very little brown in them. She sighed and stuck out one hip, crossing her arms over her chest. “Okay, I’m sorry—but can I help you with something?”
Marshall opened his mouth and didn’t answer. The question was like a slap.
The bell rang then, and all around them, people leapt to action, slamming lockers, moving off down the halls to fill empty classrooms like the product of a heartbeat, a single surge of blood.
Her friend, the rosy-pink cheerleader, was looking at him like he disgusted her.
“Why do you treat yourself like this?” he said, and he meant it in all the ways she had not. Why brand yourself permanently inadequate, why crucify yourself for never being good enough. Why come to him at night and then ignore him every morning, always so terrified of what other people might say.
Her eyes were softer, suddenly. Less confrontational. He looked down into her face, waiting for the explanation that would change everything.
She opened her mouth, then closed it again.