Shading Between the Lines – Jeremy Barakat

The relationship was still new and shiny when Summer started fading, and when my episodes began to happen more frequently. One evening I rolled over and realised that I could, very faintly, see my bedside lamp shining through Summer’s head. She glanced up from her book – Janet Mock’s biography, because Summer only ever read books of substance – and saw me staring. She whispered, ‘Go to sleep.’

I nodded and rolled back over. It wasn’t a good time to talk about it, and in any case the bed was big and I was sinking into it and sleep was too close to be gotten away from. I did rub my hand over her thigh, but I didn’t say anything. I thought transparency was a topic better left for the morning.

* * *

I woke up at around three and kicked Summer in my frantic scramble away from some dreamed-up monster which I’ve forgotten now. I do remember that the bed was shrinking, either before or after I woke up.

Summer was with me in an instant, all soothing words and touches. I couldn’t stop asking if she was okay.

She laughed in response. ‘Me? Honey, are you okay?’

‘I kicked you, I think. Did I hurt you?’

‘You barely touched me. Tell me what’s wrong.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. This happens sometimes.’

‘Can I do anything?’

‘No, it’s fine, I’m just going to have to, um…’

It’s difficult to explain, but she got the idea once I started: shifting back up the bed I smoothed my fingers over the pillowslip. Left to right, right to left, over and over.

Summer pulled the covers over her and rested on one elbow, watching. I still wonder what she saw; what I looked like, in the light of the street-lamps, falling in sharp lines across the bed, around the edges of the blinds. I’d had episodes while sharing beds with people before, but always without waking them. Having someone watch was different. I needed to swing my head back and forth, tracing an infinity sign with my chin, but after two circuits I forced myself to still and focused on the pillow instead. Some things look too odd. Some things I can’t do with eyes on me, not if I want those eyes to see me the same way in the morning.

It occurred to me that perhaps that distinction only existed for me; that to anyone else evening out the pillowslip looks no different to swishing my head. I looked at Summer and she smiled, and so did I. Then back to the pillow – circles now – until I had touched every inch of it.

‘This could take a while, by the way. You can go to sleep.’

‘Okay. If you’re sure.’ Summer squeezed my hand, then settled herself down in the bed, but kept her eyes open, still watching. I rubbed my palm where she had touched it, round and round, and then a few more swipes over the pillow. I tentatively lay my head down and stroked my hands through my hair. Front to back, curving around my ears. I don’t remember anything past that.

* * *

When I woke up everything was warm and soft: the mattress, the pillows, the sunlight blushing through the blinds. Summer opened her eyes and smiled, and crawled over to me. She was warm and soft as well.

We made it all the way to breakfast before she asked.

‘That thing last night. Does that happen much?’

I squinted at the Blue Willow pattern, just visible through the back of her hand as she held her bowl of cereal. I thought about asking her the same question – does that happen much? – but instead I said, ‘Not very much. Every few months. When I’m stressed.’

She seemed more worried than she should have been, so I added, ‘Last night wasn’t all that bad.’ Because it wasn’t.

After that Summer looked at me seriously, then pulled me into a hug. She was holding me tight but she seemed less substantial than she had the night before. I tried not to spill my coffee.

That morning she was wearing a black pencil skirt with a pink blouse and flats. She’d brought them with her from her place, just in case she ended up staying the night. She was always prepared. When breakfast was done and the dishes were stacked beside the sink she needed to go to work, but first she gave me a mischievous look and pulled me in for a kiss goodbye. Kisses took a long time then. I had been late to class three days earlier because kissing goodbye took longer than anticipated. Like I said: new and shiny.

Summer planned things better though, and she’d allowed five minutes extra before heading off to work – counselling at the local clinic. I thought her hand went clean through the door handle first try, but I couldn’t be sure. By the time I processed it she was already gone, and in any case, what could I have said?

* * *

It felt strange to be alone once Summer had left. I sent her a text, but half a minute later her text-alert sounded next to me and I found her phone beside the bowl of cereal she hadn’t finished.

I was due in class in an hour, but I didn’t want to go, so I knocked on my housemate’s door instead of getting ready. Faye opened the door almost immediately. She was dressed all in green, from head to toe. Green shirt, green jeans, green shoes, and a green ribbon in her hair, and she couldn’t stop crying.

‘Is Summer gone? I didn’t want to disturb you.’ I hugged her the way that Summer had hugged me just ten minutes before, and guided her out to the combined lounge-room/kitchen. Faye sat on the couch and I got her a glass of water while she haltingly explained that she was crying because of a nightmare she’d had two nights ago, and because she would have to catch a bus in the afternoon. Her whole body was taut as she burrowed into the couch cushions and scrunched a fluffy blanket between her fists, saying over and over, ‘I can’t, I can’t.’ The couch was green like her clothes, but the blanket was blue.

I ran my fingers over each other – index fingers down and around my thumbs, and then palms smoothing together, and then fingers lacing and unlacing, and then repeat – and I thought, ‘I know how you feel.’ But I didn’t say anything.

Words and tears kept tumbling down, collecting in her lap – I can’t, I can’t – and then both at once we noticed that she’d begun to float, just a few centimetres above the couch. The words spilled out onto the floor as she kicked her legs, trying to get down. The more she tried, the worse it got, until she was almost to the ceiling. In one hand she was trailing the blanket which she’d dragged up with her off the couch. Her other hand was clutching the light fitting.

A green balloon on a blue string.

She said, ‘I’m stuck.’

I jumped up and took a hold of her leg. It wasn’t hard to pull her down; she was floating so gently. Once I’d gotten her back to the couch I tucked the blanket around her and under the couch cushions and that seemed good enough to hold her for a little while. Then I went to her room and found a heavy pair of boots.

* * *

Once she started floating while we were walking home after grocery shopping. I stood on her foot while I sorted through the bags, then I put the two litres of milk in one of her hands and a bag holding flour and rice in the other. That kept her down until we got inside.

I was good at looking after Faye. Or I was used to it, at least. I was used to the floating and in comparison fading seemed rather small, and maybe that’s why I held back, with Summer. I didn’t want to make a fuss over something that could have turned out to be no big deal. Fading isn’t all that uncommon and often people come right back into focus in their own time.

When I returned to the lounge room Faye had stopped crying. I helped her put the boots on so she wouldn’t drift away when she went to catch her bus. Sometimes I dream that Faye is out alone and no one stops her from floating away into the stratosphere. Sometimes I’m awake and I just can’t get the image out of my head.

She tested the boots, walking around the room. Holding onto the counter she did little jumps to see how high she’d go before the boots pulled her down. ‘So, Summer stayed over last night? How was that?’

I shrugged. ‘It was fine. I mean, it was good. I had an episode but she seemed okay about it.’ I can talk about it with Faye. She floats, so my episodes aren’t a big deal. I don’t know why I thought to mention the episode and not the fading, but then, the fading wasn’t really mine to talk about.

‘Are you going to see anyone about that?’

I shrugged again. Big, whole body shrugging. Mostly I look at the ground so I’ve gotten good at expressing things with my body rather than my face.

After that I decided I’d try to get to my class after all.

* * *

These days Summer fades in and out. It varies, day to day. Some days she fills right back in, until it’s hard to believe she’s ever flirted with transparency. But the change isn’t permanent. Once she got the idea she couldn’t let go of it. Even now things will happen: last week she tripped over and fell through a chair instead of into it. There was something familiar in the way she stumbled forwards, and I thought of Faye, drifting up, as I watched Summer falling down.

Sometimes I don’t picture Faye just floating away. I imagine pushing her. Last week when Summer reached out a hand, asking me to help her up, I saw Faye in front of me, just starting to lift off the ground, reaching out to me. I saw myself taking her hand, then her waist, then flinging her upwards as hard as I could, and watching as she flew up and away. Out of sight. Out of breath. The image comes to me more and more often these days. Sometimes when I’m walking, or in class, and sometimes at night until I can’t close my eyes without seeing her staring helplessly down at me as I shove her into space. Perhaps that’s what I dreamt of, the first night Summer stayed over.

What I’m trying to say is that once I get an idea I can’t let go of it either, and that neither of us do it on purpose. Thoughts take root sometimes. Something took root so firmly in Summer.

* * *

Just the other day she was trying to get into bed – I was sitting up on the other side with my laptop, writing an essay – but she couldn’t quite grasp the edge of the sheet to peel it back. The fabric is too thin for her to hold when she is stretched so thin as well.

I took her hand, very carefully, or it might have gone through me, and I said, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’

She tugged my hand to her lips and kissed it. ‘Me too.’ And after that her hand found purchase on the sheet, although when she lay down the floral pattern of the pillowslip still shone through her hair.

Sometimes I can help like that, a little, and sometimes I can’t. Sometimes when I try she only gets more translucent. Either way it’s not permanent.

Summer watched me rubbing slow circles over the back of my hand, where she’d kissed it. When I was done I went to type, but I had to run my fingers over the sides of the keys, and then over each other, and then the keys again.

‘Shouldn’t you get help with that?’ Summer was looking at me, hard, so that it was difficult to look back.

I shook my head. ‘It’s fine.’ I said, because it was. I don’t understand that question. Not from Faye. Not from Summer. ‘I’m fine.’

* * *

I am fine. They see things differently, is all. Faye’s perspective has gone all bird’s eye. Always looking down. And Summer, well, who knows how Summer sees things, especially at the times when there’s barely anything of her to be seen.

* * *

Summer was in hospital for it, a little while ago. She checked herself in. She must have seen something that properly scared her, or maybe it was what she didn’t see; maybe she looked right through herself in the mirror because she was barely there, for a while. It got bad. She’s sensible though, and she checked herself in and they got some shape back around her edges then sent her home to fill in between the lines herself.

It got bad, and I saw, but I never said a word.

* * *

The week before she went away she walked in through the front door without opening it first. I’d heard her car and come out from the kitchen to meet her, so I saw. I saw but I pretended not too. I had to get back to the soup I was making for dinner and she was all smiles, if not at full opacity, and it didn’t seem like a good time to bring it up. She looked so happy, so it didn’t seem like a problem.

* * *

In the end it was Summer who brought it up first.

I remember exactly: she said, ‘Honey, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been having some issues lately.’

At the time we were sitting on the couch and the tartan pattern showed through her, from her shoulders down to her feet. Her head looked almost as though it were disembodied, suspended just above the couch.

I said, ‘What kind of issues?’

Jeremy Barakat

Jeremy Barakat is a creative writing student at Macquarie University, who started writing at age six after scribbling a story about birds on scrap-paper. He is interested in exploring new and unique story-telling forms, and is passionate about minority representation in fiction. Jeremy’s current projects include a speculative fiction novel, and experimentation with lyrical prose.

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