The phone call comes late, a buzzing of the cell phone under my pillow. I answer on the first ring, just in time to hear the line click shut on the other side.
There's only my parents and one other number programmed into my phone. One number that has me programmed in too.
And that's when I know it. An emergency.
I sit bolt-upright in bed. The sky is dark in the middle of the woods; even with a real neighborhood just down the path and three walls of one-way picture windows, the suburban light never reaches us here. I feel my way through the room for the only window that opens all the way and climb out onto the balcony, then to the ground. I leave the window open just a smidge, just in case. I never know when they might come home. Only now do I wish I knew my parents better, if only just to know how to avoid them.
The sprint through the woods down the half-mile trail through the woods leaves the wind pulsing through my ears. Thoughts smack around in my head faster than my flip-flopped feet can hit the ground.
Naomi never calls me. There's a certain artificiality to sounds generated by electronic variance, she says -- that is, when she speaks at all. She has never been the talkative type.
I suppose she's never needed -- nor wanted -- to be. After all, her lifetime of foster care makes the spotlight look like a jail cell. She's always left the talking to me, even though my cynicism is not appreciated by anyone in our suburban sinkhole -- the place that knows better, for the most part, than to let problems show. She's always listened to my rants about my parents or my lack of faith or direction in life. She's never judged. I walk away from every interaction with a sense of lightness in my chest, and her gentle smile follows me back to the empty house and stays.
She, on the other hand -- she folds inwards sometimes, hides somewhere I can't reach her and stares at nothing for a day. But she always comes back with a quiet smile that doesn't reach her eyes without saying a word, and I know better than to ask questions she doesn't want.
Does she know I'm coming? She must.
Does she want me there?
I grit my teeth and resolve to stop thinking.
I find her alone on a porch swing on the playground. I tread softly through the grass, sound muffled by the chorus of crickets and the distant flash of fireflies. Her silhouette shuffles slightly, shivers in the cool night air. I reach over and squeeze her limp, clammy hand, but she doesn't react. Doesn't even flinch.
In the dark, I can't quite see her eyes, but I know they're staring into the nothing, completely lost. And suddenly I'm wondering if she'll ever tell me why she's like this. Why she knows so much about me, but I know nothing more than what's on the surface. And why she always gives so much more than I know how to return. And I want to ask her how I can make this all better but I can't.
She called me here for a reason. That I know.
Maybe she was waiting for me. Maybe she wanted my questions all along.
"Are you okay?" I whisper. The words wedge between my teeth, unfamiliar, unwelcome, and -- for a moment -- I think wrong.
But the effect is instantaneous. Her head snaps to me. Her eyes still don't look quite right, but I can see them now. I can see them gleaming, filling with tears.
Then, for the first time I can remember, Naomi curls up against me and holds on like she might've for a mother she never knew. She latches onto me like she's always held the past she never talks about: too close for comfort, but too important to leave behind. Her tears leave a damp crescent moon on the edge of my T-shirt.
She's breathing in hitches like a marionette on a string, jerkily swallowing and choking on her own lifeline. She's breathing like she's forgetting how to live.
And me? I'm staring up into the empty sky, the glow of faraway suburban streetlamps obscuring the stars I know are there, and I'm hoping, praying, for the first time in years.
I don't need words to see that she's hurting. I don't need words to hold her in my arms until she's ready to talk, which might be never, knowing her. But for tonight, it's enough. For tonight, for the first time, there's us, letting out the tears no one else can see, and that's all that matters.