A Stellar Flare of Young Adult Writing and Visual Art
BY ELLA SHACKELFORD
I honestly didn’t realize how hard it would be to get blood out of overalls until I was doing it myself. Especially white overalls. Charlie once told me cold water works best on bloodstains though, so I think I’ll try that. I’ve been scrubbing them in the sink since we got home from school. Stupid, ugly, school. Thinking about today is making that burning feeling bubble up in my chest again. I scrub harder.
I can’t stop seeing red.
We weren’t even doing anything. We were just trying to get to the bus. It was hot as hell- the sun was beating down and the bricks were warm. It was the three of us walking, just like it always is – Charlie, Barlow, and me. Benjamin, Charlotte, Barlow. Our full names sound kind of nice together. It’s been the three of us against the world since fifth grade. That’s six years of our lives. I don’t know how we ended up together- I’d never tell Charlie because she’d never stop teasing me, but I think it might’ve been fate. Those two are the reason I’ve survived this long. Charlie has always kept up with my dark humor and I’ve kept up with her dirty humor- it’s actually quite a good system. But that’s not the only thing. There’s a lot more to Charlie than meets the eye, and what we have is hard to describe. Again, I’d never tell her that because she’d call me corny, but it’s this unspoken thing and I’m sure she feels it too. We stick together no matter what.
And then there’s Barlow.
Barlow moved here in fifth grade, and he’s what brought Charlie and I together. It’s kind of funny, actually, because he’s so… different. He’s nothing like either of us, or anyone I’ve ever met, for that matter. He’s sweet and energetic, loving, and kind of manic. No matter how hard I try, my words will never do him justice.
I look up at him. He definitely doesn’t seem happy right now. He’s sitting on the edge of the tub in his boxers and my red t-shirt. It’s too big for him, but all of his clothes are in the wash right now, except for these overalls. He’s got short, white-blonde hair that’s a little wavy and bright blue eyes. Is hot blue a color? If it is, that’s how I’d describe the color of his eyes. His cheeks are perpetually sunburned and he’s almost always wearing this big lopsided grin on his face. Not now, though. The only bright thing on his face is blood, despite the wad of tissue he’s got pressed against his nose. He glances up at me and I realize I’ve been staring. His despondent expression sends another prickling through my chest and I have to shut my eyes for a second. I really, really don’t want to think about this. I don’t even know what to feel right now- I’m mad. So mad. I’m anxious, and I feel like it’s my fault. I’m supposed to be the chill one- that’s what Charlie always tells me. She’s diagnosed me with a resting I-don’t-have-feelings face. Well, there’s sloshing bathtubs full of feelings that I’m not ready to face right now. Especially any feelings involving the only person in the room with me at the moment. They’re oozing with a tenderness that makes me sick.
I focus back on scrubbing. I think the cold water is helping. My hands are red, though. And they’re aching like mad, but that honestly might be a good thing right now. We weren’t even doing anything, like I said. If we’d just been a little faster, we could’ve avoided it altogether. But weren’t. And now we’re here. Charlie was walking ahead of Barlow and I, trying to get a picture of some sort of bug. Barlow was rambling about art class- something funny had happened. I don’t exactly know- I hadn’t really been listening. Barlow was wearing his white overalls- the one’s I’m trying to scrub the blood out of now, actually, and a yellow t-shirt. Yellow is his favorite color, and I hate how good it looks on him. Actually, I hate how perfect everything looks on him. It’s gotten to be a problem- he’ll be rambling like he was today and I’ll miss half of it because I was busy staring at his shirt or his socks or even his stupid yellow watch. Or something. It’s stupid. That’s what was happening earlier- I was sort of just staring at his knees peeking through his overalls as we walked, blocking out everything else. It was nice, the sun was making me feel hot all over and Barlow’s face was a little shiny from sweat. I mean, I think it was the sun. I kept having to stop myself from staring. Y’know the worst part? Something was really happening between us. He noticed me staring, I’m sure of it, because he looked pointedly away. And he didn’t stop talking, but he kept stuttering and fumbling. He does that sometimes, when he’s nervous or spacey. Or flustered.
I don’t know why I did it- it was so completely stupid. I guess I was kind of caught up in the moment, though. I get like that around him- he completely shatters my normal judgements. I just reached for his hand without thinking. I don’t know. It was nice. His hands are warm. He tried to keep talking, keep the words flowing like he always does- I could tell- but his voice cracked. So he noticed. And I noticed. But he didn’t pull his hand away. In fact, he squeezed my hand tighter, which kind of made my heart hiccup. Which was dumb, because we’re just friends, right? Friends hold hands sometimes. It was normal. It is normal. Still, my hand got sweaty, my chest felt all scrambled, and my head was hazy that whole time. Maybe that’s why I didn’t even notice them until they caught up with us.
Them. I want to punch something. Or shout, or break a window. Or maybe just cry. I don’t know. They are the worst. I mean… I didn’t even believe kids like that existed anymore. Well, they do. They consist of two boys and a girl, like us. But they are nothing like us. I don’t even want to give the satisfaction of thinking about them, but I can’t stop running over the memory in my head, like a fresh wound. (I’ve actually got a few of those right now.)
They kind of crept up on us- one moment I was choking on my breath because I was holding Barlow’s hand, and the next moment he was sort of being choked himself. It happened in a flash-one of the boys tugged his arm and then the girl took his bag and by the time I had turned around he had a bloody scrape on his cheek. I remember Charlie shouting something and my hands curling into fists with my thumbs on the outside, just the way my brother taught me, and then the adrenaline kicked in and everything was fast. Too fast to snag many details. I do recall some of what they said, though. They called me a lot of names, and they called Barlow a lot, too. F words that weren’t fuck and cut about ten times deeper. The one I remember most was when they called him my boyfriend. As an insult. Funny, right? Thank god Charlie was there- I’m a decent fist fighter, but there were three of them and one of me. Barlow was there, but he was pinned against the wall by the taller boy. God, I don’t even know. I felt so helpless. The girl was going through his bag until Charlie got there, and then she was colliding with her in a full force body slam that sent papers flying. Charlie might literally be fearless. Anyway, that was that and then I was grabbing Barlow and his stuff and absolutely booking it. I didn’t look back, and I guess I should have worried about Charlie, but I knew she could handle herself. She ended up walking out with just a black eye and some scrapes. She’s kind of a superhuman- Charlie’s a better fighter than Barlow and I combined. I mean, that’s not saying much. But she can really kick ass when she needs too.
After that, I’m not quite sure how we got home. Maybe the bus. Maybe the metro. I was staring at his face the whole time, so I don’t know. Barlow was only half conscious. They didn’t beat him that bad, but seeing that much of his own blood was making him dizzy. Blood always makes him dizzy. Most of it was coming from his nose. He wasn’t talking, just crying. I didn’t realize how unnerving that could be until it happened. We went to Charlie’s house.
I glance back down at my scrubbing. It’s just a faint pink stain now. Good enough, I guess. I turn off the faucet. My hands are pretty much numb from that frigid water. I don’t know how long I was scrubbing. I glance back at Barlow, trying to ignore how jarring the drops of blood look against that white tile. He’s fidgeting with the hem of that red shirt I lent him. It makes my chest bubble again. I drop the soaked overalls over the towel rack. Maybe they’ll dry. I know it’s time to turn my attention to him, but I’m scared I’ll cry. I’ve got to keep a brave face on- for Barlow’s sake and for mine. And Charlie’s- if she sees me crying, she’ll be really worried, because I never cry. Never. (Resting I-don’t-have-feelings face.)
I keep reminding myself of this as I reach for a washcloth above the sink and run it briefly under the now-warm water. And I grab a pack of bandaids from under the sink. Deep breaths. I can do this. I walk over and kneel in front of him, and he eyes the washcloth warily, sniffling. I have to stop thinking about how small he looks and focus on the task at hand.
“Hey. Sorry. I’m- I’m just gonna clean you up a little.” I mutter, and to my relief Barlow relaxes, nodding slowly and letting his hands rest on his lap so that I have full access to his face. I focus on those familiar cheeks, now red with tears as well as sunburns, and I try not to memorize how he looks right now- broken Barlow is not the Barlow I want to think about- but it’s burned into my head. His nose has stopped bleeding, so that’s something. I guess. That’s where I’ll start- and I do, bringing the washcloth to his skin and wiping gently until his whole face is clean, and then I open one of the bandaids and press is down over the scrape on his cheek.
“Ben?” He asks a moment later, and my breath catches in my throat because that’s the first time he’s spoken since we got to Charlie’s house. His voice is hoarse.
“Thanks.” He says, practically whispers, and my heart does another funny little hiccup. I wonder if he can tell. There’s a pause, and then he speaks again.
“I’m sorry.” He’s looking down. My hands rest on his shoulders and I know I should have taken them off a while ago but somehow I just can’t bring myself to. My fingers are still red and achy from the cold water, and the shirt is just thin enough that I can feel the heat radiating from his skin.
“Don’t- don’t apologize. It’s my fault, really- if I hadn’t been so fucking stupid and held your hand then maybe- Maybe you’d be fine, and then none of this would have happened! And maybe I’d just stop ruining things all the time and think before I do all this stupid shit and then- and I’d-”
I falter, stopping mid-sentence. I don’t know why I said all that. Shit. I definitely shouldn’t have said all that. But once I started, I just… I couldn’t stop. God, I’m stupid. My eyes are suddenly feeling hot and prickly. Stupid stupid stupid. I can’t look at Barlow. If I do I’ll probably cry, or melt, or collapse, or maybe try to kiss him.
I pull my hands away fast, and I’m about halfway through standing when there’s a hand on the front of my shirt, pulling me down with surprising strength. All of the sudden I cannot even breath because Barlow’s face- his red cheeks and big hot-blue eyes- are centimeters from mine.
Every single thought is suddenly plundering my mind because what the hell is going on right now and my face is burning up and my heart is beating out of chest and- And then my mind goes blank. My brain just short circuits. Bzzt. Gone. Because Barlow beat me to it. He’s quite literally kissing me. It’s gentle and soft and tender and I am frozen on the spot, his head tipped back and me leaning over him. I want to react but I can’t- nothing is working. It feels like I’ve been electrocuted- my whole body is suddenly hot, even my hands are warm- and my heart rate has tripled. I’m hyper aware of every inch of my skin, especially the bits that are touching Barlow. I feel raw.
I think I like it.
As soon as I’ve come to this conclusion, Barlow pulls away gently, his breath ghosting my face. My eyes are still wide when he opens his, and they look shiny. He whispers, “Ben- I- I shouldn’t have done that.”
I ignore him because I’ve regained control over my body, and before this boy can say another stupid word I’m back kneeling between his legs with my hands around his neck and now I’m the one kissing him. I’m kissing Barlow! I’m not as graceful as he was- I’m kind of rough and clumsy from my lack of experience, but I don’t think he minds, because now his hands are back on me, shaking a little, one of them resting just under the sleeve of my shirt. I want to stay like this for a long, long time. Ok, I guess I have to breath, though, so I pull away. We’re both breathing hard and it’s the only sound echoing through the bathroom. I still feel like I might cry, but my chest isn’t empty anymore. I feel so full I might burst, actually. I open my eyes again and he comes back into focus- face flushed, eyes big. “Ben.” He breathes, and I’ve never liked hearing my name, but maybe I do now. Thank god Charlie isn’t in here to see this- I’ve got no clue what’s going to happen when I tell her. I guess I’ll have to, right? I don’t know. I don’t need to focus on that right now, because presently Barlow is smiling for the first time in hours and I’m a total mess. I mean, I don’t even know what to do with myself. He can keep my shirt, it looks better on him anyway. I stand up with wobbly knees and sit next to him on the side of the tub, trying to scoot close without being too obvious, but I’m pretty sure he notices, because he giggles. It’s weird because I think he’s still crying- he keeps wiping his face on the back of his hand, but he’s also smiling. I sort of feel the same way- like laughing and crying at the same time. It’s dizzying.
“Is that… Did you… Are you okay?” I manage, and he turns to me- his smile is much fainter, shyer- not the usual dazzling, dopey grin. It’s still got the same effect, though, and I’m pretty sure my whole face is red right now.
“I’m amazing.” He breathes, and despite the bruises on my knees and the band-aid on his cheek and the sniffles I can still vaguely hear from both of us, I think I’m feeling pretty amazing too. Which is weird, considering today. Maybe I’m still seeing red. But I’m seeing it differently.
I glance over at the overalls in the sink, then at my hands, at the bloody tissue, at his stupid sunburnt cheeks, and down at the shirt he’s wearing. I think red is my new favorite color.
Fifteen year old Ella Shackelford attends Chatham Hall in Washington, D.C. This story comes from very raw and true feelings that she hopes to channel and share with other young people experiencing their first love.