Leila sat on Becca's front step, surreptitiously gazing at her shoes. She danced her feet from the left to the right, and then back from the right to the left, making the checkered laces of the beat up Vans flop on the green painted wood like overcooked spaghetti. Her hands grew restless in the oppressive casing of her black Magic Gloves so she wriggled out of them and began absentmindedly picking at the juniper bush that grew next to Becca's steps. She started by pulling at the evergreen leaves, but soon found herself picking off the dusty blue berries one by one, imagining to herself that they were the edible magical cure to some disease that she would be lauded for defeating and relishing in the sweetly pungent smell the plant left on her fingers, a smell that reminded her of the time she'd snuck a sip of her father's martini. That got her thinking hard about martinis in general, and she had just begun to lose herself in a semi-passionate James Bond-themed fantasy when Becca arrived.

"Leila?" Rounding the corner to find your best friend sitting on your door step can never bode well, Becca thought. It never means good things.

Leila had a minor spasm—caught in the act of plant defacement! She cast a swift, guilty glance at the berries in her hand before tossing them away under the bush from whence they had come and sprang up to greet the other girl.

"Heeeeeeey, Beccaaaa!" she drawled. "What's going ooooon, maaaan?"

"Um. Not much," Becca said, molding her face into a puzzled look that befitted Leila's uncharacteristic display of utter weirdness. "What's up? With? You?" She said it as if each word were its own question—because that's how confused she felt.

"Oh, you know," Leila grinned laughing. "Same old same old you know me!" Leila made her best sarcastic face, her eyebrows raised and her mouth stretched wide in a humourously insincere smile, shaking a finger lackadaisically for emphasis. Her antics, however, met only Becca's cool hard stare and she stopped, suddenly self conscious, and crammed her hands into the shallow pockets of her faded black hoodie. "So," she began.


"We, um." She struggled a little with the words, struggled with the seriousness of the situation, the seriousness that she didn't want to be there but did her best to impose anyway. "We missed you today at lunch, eh?"

Becca raised an eyebrow. "You did?"

"Yeah, and in Art, too," Leila sighed, the words coming more easily now. "And in History, and after school."

Becca shook her head and narrowed her eyes. "Missed me? What do you mean? How could you miss me?"

"Well," and Leila put on her professor air, "it's quite simple, you see. I believe Webster would define 'miss' in that context as the longing for the presence of something or someone in its absence, and as you were most certainly absent from the second half of the school day today, and since we are your friends and as such naturally care dearly for you, is it not perfectly reasonable that we would have missed you?"

Becca only kept shaking her head. "But I was there," she asserted. "I was there the whole—time—" or had she been?

She thought frantically back over the events of the afternoon. English, and then—Bryan. The museum, the quiet high-stakes chase, the bird—

And then riding the bus home, just like any other day.

Leila watched the confused contortions of her friend's face, and approached with a sympathetic hand to place on Becca's shoulder. "Now, now," she teased gently. "No need to fool me. I'm not going to heckle you over it. And besides, I want the story! Where were you today?" She gasped, throwing her hands up to her mouth. "Is it a boy? Say it's a boy!"

Becca, still not convinced of her alleged absence, thought silently for a moment more and then, in a stroke of inspiration, slipped out of her backpack straps and dropped the heavy bag to the porch, where it made a loud thud against the wood. She rifled through her belongings, feeling like some sort of criminal, and finally found what she was looking for—her lunch bag. Which was empty. And she couldn't remember having eaten with Bryan, ergo—

"Ha!" she exclaimed, triumphant. "If I was gone all day, how come my lunch is eaten? Huh?"

Leila only shook her head sadly. "Silly, you could have eaten that anywhere."

Becca's face fell and turned red with embarrassment. As she was resignedly putting the lunch effects back into the backpack, however, she chanced upon something else—an old weekly drawing from Art, the drawing from the previous week, to be precise, that she couldn't remember being handed back but that had most certainly not been there at the beginning of the day. She smirked triumphantly.

"Ok," she said, "fair enough, but what about this?"

Leila scrutinized the drawing for a good minute, and when she looked said, "This is good. What is this?"

"It's the weekly drawing from last week, silly." She relished in this misappropriation of one of Leila's favourite words. "The one that Mrs. Leypas handed back today?"

Leila looked a little scared.

"I wouldn't have it back if I hadn't been in school today, right? Clearly you're blind, and just didn't see me even though I was there the whole time. Some friend you are." And she crossed her arms, sure she had won.

Leila put up her hands. "Ok, uncle, I give," she murmured. "I still don't believe you, but I give."

Becca beamed in her triumph. "Well. Now that that's settled, you wanna come in or something?"

"Nah." Leila shook her head and squinted sideways at her friend. "I gotta get home, man. Do… homework… or something…"

"Suit yourself," Becca shrugged. She slid her key smoothly into the front door's lock, delighting in the heavy click of the mechanism as she turned gently clockwise, and stepped over the threshold and turned to close the door just in time to see Leila finish lurching down the driveway and turn to begin her long plod home. Becca shook her head a bit and let the door fall closed once more.

Becca had let her backpack come to rest on the worn old sofa and was on her mentally ingrained path to the kitchen for her ritual afternoon snack, but then thought better of it. Instead she turned and trod upwards over the shabby carpeting of the nine stair steps between her and her bedroom. Opening the door to her private space, she inhaled deeply and the thick, dusty staleness of the air caught in her throat, inducing a halfhearted cough. After closing the door she moved purposefully to the windows, throwing up the deep orange blinds and cranking the three windows as far open as they would go. She lingered at the last one, gazing out over the hills. The steely grey clouds moved with lugubrious precision across the low-hung sky. The wind caught their coldness and carried it in through Becca's open windows. The girl shivered.

Then, as she watched, as slow and unfaltering as suffocation, it began to snow. Becca could see into the clouds, could see the tiny filaments of ice knit themselves together and then hurl themselves groundward in a divinely winsome act of suicide. They came slowly at first but the gentle fall gained momentum quickly, the hexagonal crystals clinging desperately together as they descended to coat all the world in their oppressively taciturn purity. Becca looked closely for a moment at the ground, which had already been completely un-coloured by the snow, and then turned her eyes to her own skin, realizing with mild disgust that her own flesh held the same cold, icy hue as the archetypal stuff outside. Becoming one with the fall, she ceased to feel the cold draught, ceased to feel anything at all. Numb.

But out of the clouds and mists and supernal wintry splendors came a brightness, a passion, dealing harsh, glancing blows of red and orange to the otherwise blank bland canvas that had covered the earth and sky. The hot, bold colours reflected and burned in Becca's cool, blue eyes, entering her retinas and taking the short path straight to her core. And out of a great cleft in the murky welkin's depths he came, phoenix, streak of pure hot fire and bird. Transcendent, breaking dimensional boundaries with smart, pert force, he came out of time and out of sky, he came through aeons and through her window, he alit on her floor and on the taught fibres of her being, he dripped hungry pieces of fire on the carpet of her bedroom and on the carpet of her insides. She shuddered and met his steady gaze.

Those same dark, glassy spheres cut straight through her. The bird arched his persistently scarlet neck and ruffled his feathers just a bit. Becca only watched, entranced. He tilted his head so that his long, golden beak caught the dim light and shone a little, a long bit of bright in an otherwise dull world. Becca wanted very much to touch it. She reached out her hand, leaning forward, and as their two bodies got closer and closer she could feel his heat, could feel the hairs on her arm curl and her skin become dry as parchment, could almost feel herself beginning to scorch—

So she pulled back. The bird cried out, disappointed, and spread his great wings. She fell back in awe as he pumped the air once, twice, and took off, back out the window, back through the haze from whence he had come. She watched his fire grow smaller and smaller in the sky until she could no longer see anything but the uniform grey, until there was nothing left of him but the memory and the residual warmth. She could feel the fire coursing through her veins. He is better for staying warm, she thought, than a wool sweater. Better than thick grey socks. Better than oversized crocheted afghans. Better than chai tea. Better than alcohol. Better than an open fire.

Becca stripped off her jeans, t-shirt, and sweatshirt, letting the winter garments crumple and blend together on the floor. Determined, she donned the old-tshirt-and-shorts combo as well as her old tennis shoes. Thinking ahead far enough to leave a note—"Gone out for a walk. Will be back in approx. half an hour."—and far enough to leave a specific time off the note to allow herself the greatest possible leniency, she nabbed a house key and was out the door.

Her arms and legs goosefleshed in the chill, but, still floating and filled with the firebird's projected heat, Becca scarcely noticed. She just started running, generating her own delicious wind chill as her feet pummeled the ground into iced submission. Over the cracked yet orderly grey sidewalks she ran, and then when those gave out on the shoulders of the black, glossy, chip-sealed road.

Her hot blood had begun to make the inside of her veins sweat and itch, and she ran to rid herself of it, ran to alleviate the irritation and to get herself breathing again. Her pores opened wide like saguaro blooms after a long hard dusty rain and her angst and her itch and her fears and her salty essence seeped out, escaped through the miniature orifices and were wicked away by the dry cold hungry air. Soon enough she was emptied of everything. She was a vessel, a thirsty glass ready and waiting to be filled.

And her pitcher came driving a beat up red pickup truck with a sun shaped antenna ball. She was about a mile and a half out when she saw it—saw it pass her going the other way, and over her shoulder saw it pull out a ways behind her and turn around to come up beside her and all she could think was shitshitshit, everything she had been told about creeps and rape and how not to be a victim of it completely deserting her in this time of most need. But the vehicle came to a halt and her fears subsided when she had ascertained the identity of the driver.

"Need a ride?" Bryan Vogel's coppery hair caught the soft twilight from the snow and gleamed ostensibly in the darkness of the truck's interior. His white teeth likewise gleamed, rivaling the snow outside in brightness and blueness.

Becca shook her head and climbed in and he smiled as the busy car heater went to work thawing the girl's flesh. Bryan pulled the car around, headed back towards Becca's house.

"Where am I taking you?" he asked. "Home?"

"No." She gazed at him with widened eyes. "Not home. Not anywhere. I don't want to go back yet."

To that he smirked and pulled a quick u-turn to wheel back into the hills. The abruptness of it bred bugs in Becca's gut but when she looked on the boy she was instantly absolved of all her fears.

He turned left after about a mile on the smooth, icing road, left up a barely visible dirt track. In response to Becca's nervous glances he shifted into four wheel drive and tried to look as professional and confident as humanly possible.

"I," he said. "I've been here before," he offered.

She lost track of the time as he drove. At first she tried to watch the scenery, to keep track of where they were going, but the endless off-white tired her eyes and she drowsed. Bryan woke her with a gentle nudge, some time later, and she cast around a little disoriented. He smiled, always smiled, at her confusion or at her mere presence there, and then he climbed out of the cab came around to open her door.

"Mademoiselle—" and he offered his arm. She took it, and he led her to the pickup bed where he produced, from under the blue protective tarp, a thick worn blanket. He started to walk, up the hill at the foot of which he'd parked, and she went along on uncertain feet, slipping and crunching in the snow. The reached the crest of the hill and Bryan spread the blanket on top of the snow. He sat and she followed and he put his arms around her and pulled her back towards him, and she shivered at the warmth of him.

And then he began to sing. She only listened at first, let the sweet notes pool in her ears and let the thrumming vibrations of his deep voice stir her bone marrow. Soon, though, she could feel his rich baritone growing lonely, so she added her shy alto in sweet harmonization. As their voiced tumbled together and wrapped around each other, she realized that there was no melody, and was pleasantly shocked to discover that music could so simply be.

They sang the snow and the sunset that they knew must be happening behind the clouds. They sand the hills and the mountains that stretched even higher above them. They sang the city stretched out far below them and the ardor that they shared between them. They sang tomorrow and they sang forever and they sang flight.

And when they stopped singing, Becca turned her head to look at Bryan sitting so close behind her. She looked until the very last note had been whisked away to some distant place and been replaced with the deep muffled silence that only can be found in the middle of nothing. He looked back patiently.

Finally she said, "My feet are cold."

And he laughed, and kissed her.

((It really amuses me how schizoid and haphazard the style of this story has become… which I suppose is what you expect when you've been writing it over the course of five years. I don't know how novelists can take so long on their work and have it come out cohesive and coherent. I'd go mad.))