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Today the sky is a mess of blue and white swirls, plastered far above my head. The sun is the color of a lemon peel, radiating enough heat to fry an egg. As I pad down the sidewalk, my feet are sweating in the heavy gym shoes they’re laced into; taking them off would mean burning the soles of my feet, which I know they would appreciate even less, so I continue walking.
There isn’t another living soul in sight this searing July afternoon, something I had expected. Sane people aren’t out on days this hot. Sane people stick close to their TV’s with the air conditioning on high. But, some people don’t have those luxuries, so they walk, no matter the weather.
The grass is brittle and stiff, screaming for water. Their cries are so loud that I let my water bottle tip in my hands, let the crystal drops trickle down to a patch of grass under my feet, and let the cracked earth greedily soak it up. Crushing my now empty bottle between my hands with a sound like a gunshot, I resume my stroll.
Somewhere in the distance, a bird trills, low and lazily. The heat must be making them drowsy, as well, because it takes several long seconds for another one to reply. There’s no wind to rustle the leaves, or to provide some meager amount of comfort, but that doesn’t deter me. Sweat stings my eyes, and my hair—lightened by the sun—feels like a heavy weight on the back of my head. I can almost see the freckles that engulf my body multiply with each second I spend out here.
Suddenly, a strange sound catches my attention. It’s almost swallowed by the shimmering waves of heat, but I can make out enough to tell that it’s coming from my left. On a whim, I change my feet around and head in that direction, and the closer I get to the music—because that is clearly what it is—the richer it gets. It turns into a tune instead of a riff, swelling and breaking like waves in an ocean, encouraging my feet to move faster and my heart to race against my ribcage. Then, without warning, it stops.
I stop too, becoming aware that I’m breathing heavily and have no idea where I am. Much slower now, I walk forward, wary of the music that made me lose my sense. When it starts up again, it’s behind me, right behind me. I whirl around—and the oddest sight is revealed to me.
There’s a house, neat and white, with a front lawn that is faded green. Sitting on that front lawn is a boy, a teenage boy around my age, with cutoff khaki shorts and a faded concert t-shirt. He has a disheveled mop of hair the color of sand, and—as I see when he looks over at me—a delightful pair of muddy-green eyes.
“Hello,” He says, fingers pausing in their roaming over strings and frets. What’s even more curious is that he doesn’t sound the least bit suspicious, or even wary, which are the two feelings I usually arouse.
“Don’t stop because of me.” I’m not sure what to say—how to explain who I am or why I’ve appeared in his yard—but it’s the one thing that I feel most strongly. I don’t want this boy to stop playing his magic guitar, the one that makes my blood boil and my heart come alive.
To my bitter disappointment, however, he sets the guitar down next to him and gives me a searching look. “Who are you?”
I know I look strange, in my gym shoes and the sundress that I outgrew four years ago, but I can’t bring myself to feel embarrassed. “My name’s Phoenix.”
“Phoenix.” He repeats aloud. It’s the first time I’ve heard my name spoken in months, and it sounds strange to my ears. “Is that who you are?”
His question doesn’t make any sense. Of course that’s who I am, it’s my name after all. “You make no sense.” I accuse, folding my arms and promptly unfolding them—the heat coming off my skin burns me.
He doesn’t say anything for another long minute, just studies me. In the oven-baked world around us, it seems as if we’re the only two people in existence. Just this wizard and me.
“I suppose you’re real.” He remarks, like he’s just commented on the strangeness of the weather—with slight wonder but no real thought. “Sometimes they aren’t,” He continues, “but I don’t think I could have thought up such a dazzling name as yours, or such a ferocious expression, like the one you’re currently wearing.”
The confession is strange enough to startle me into speech. “What’s your name? And why are you talking about me like you’ve dreamed me up?”
“I’m Sawyer.” Sawyer stands and walks toward me. Before I can think of moving, he lifts his hand and gently pushes several strands of hair out of my eyes. “Do you know,” He muses, “that your hair is the exact same color as copper? And your eyes are like two spheres of topaz—it’s striking.”
Caught between him and the sun, I don’t move, barely breathe. No one has been this close to me since I was twelve; I’ve made sure of it. But now here is this peculiar boy, Sawyer, and he’s spouting these half-poetic niceties and looking down at me with a gentleness that’s utterly baffling.
“I, uh,” I dart past him and up the lawn, where I bend down and pick up his guitar. When he doesn’t try to stop me, I pluck a few strings, my fingers trembling.
Sawyer comes over and sits in the grass next to me. “Do you play, Phoenix?”
Swallowing hard, I nod. “B-Back in Nashville, when I was nine or so, I had been living in a canoe in the middle of a lake. Well, one morning this old man, Beck, found me with my canoe smashed to pieces from a raging storm the night before, and he took me in, without question. I lived in his house, just him, his wife Laurel, and myself. He taught me how to play this old guitar of his, played it with me every day for three years, until one day he died very suddenly in the night. The next morning Laurel sent me away, letting me go with just a backpack and his old guitar.”
“That sounds rather unkind.” Sawyer interrupts, frowning.
I shake my head. “No, you don’t understand. It wasn’t…unkind, it was just that I was never meant to stay there forever, and once he was gone I would have become a burden on her. So I left, and travelled for miles and miles, mostly on foot. I sold everything I had—first the clothes and compass in my backpack, then my backpack itself…then my shoes…my socks…the one thing I couldn’t bring myself to part with was Beck’s guitar. It wouldn’t have sold for much, probably a meal or two, and I convinced myself that it wasn’t worth it. One night, though, I was sleeping under a tree when I heard a sharp sound of breaking wood, and a growl. I woke up fast and saw a wolf, twice my size and white as snow, with its front paw caught in the guitar. The distraction gave me enough time to scramble up the nearest tree, where I stayed until the wolf had gone and long into the next morning. The guitar was completely destroyed, but it had saved my life, and I feel like in the end that had been its purpose.”
It doesn’t fit, for me to be vomiting my story to someone I don’t know hardly at all, but there was something in the music he had played. Some part of me knows unquestioningly that he would understand, demands it of him. It was the silliest notion to ever weasel its way into my head, but somehow that doesn’t make me unsure. That doesn’t make it untrue.
Sawyer keeps quiet for a long time, long enough for sprinklers across the street to turn on, splutter a few times, and go out again. When he looks at me, worry lines crease his forehead. “Where are you living now?”
The answer was simple. “In my shoes.”
He laughs, but its humorless. “Phoenix…there’s a lot of your story I don’t know, and you know nothing of me, but at this moment I’m willing to give you anything you want. I feel you’re extraordinary, and that I have my own part to play in whatever adventures you’re ensnared in. So, right now, ask me for anything—a place to stay for as long as you like, food, money—ask me now and I’ll find some way to give it to you.”
It is not an offer to be taken lightly, and should be seriously weighed before answered, but I knew what I needed from him long before he asked. Brushing my hand against his guitar one last time, I hand it over to him. “Play for me,” I implore, “Give me the courage I need to keep on walking.”
Sawyer hesitates, clearly very troubled. “Phoenix…you could stay, you know.”
The thought is sweet, and I briefly entertain the idea of me staying with him, of living in this suburban town and listening to his guitar, and staring into those sleepy green eyes of his…but there would be so many questions—questions from parents, from schools, from the government. Things that have been quiet for years will start to be turned over, things that are better left untouched. So I smile at him, knowing what my answer has to be. “Just play.”
The first chords are reluctant, but soon Sawyer gets into the song—a wistful melody, but nonetheless one with a jovial tempo—and his playing lights a fire under my feet. The taste of adventure is thick in my mouth, tasting like the fairy floss I had when I was seven, and the zest of the lemon I bought at a stand by the road two weeks back. Smells rise to my nose; there’s the salty spray from my trip to the ocean, the heady scent of wildflowers carried over a light summer breeze—wildflowers that grow unmolested in a field far away from any human interference.
The longer he plays, the thicker the spell he weaves around my consciousness. I listen to him play until the sun starts to sag, and the brilliant blue of the noontime sky fades into a dusky violet. I listen to him until streetlamps flicker to life and the crickets clear their throats, preparing for their nightly symphony.
Finally, I lean close to him and let my lips gently brush his cheek. He will never know how grateful I am, or how great a gift he has given me. “Keep playing.” I whisper, my mouth flush against his ear. “Keep playing until you can’t see me anymore.”
Sawyer shivers, but nods, his mouth tugging down at the sides. I see in his eyes what he won’t say, what he already knows I won’t hear—he doesn’t want me to leave. For a moment, I let myself wallow in what-if’s—I want to hear every detail of his life, why he thought I wasn’t real, why he was playing his guitar outside, on the hottest day of the summer. If I was meant to find him or if it was chance. There are still so many things I want answers to, and stories that I want to share with him, but that’s not the life I’m destined to live. I’m a nomad, a wanderer, forced to walk everyday in shoes that are both my prison and my wings. When the moment passes, I walk down Sawyer’s front lawn, cross the street and keep going, closing my eyes and letting the sound of his guitar wash over me, carry me as I go.
Tonight the sky is a deep purple, shot through with twinkling stars. The moon is a silver smile, hung crooked on its peg, damp air clinging to everything it brushes. And as I pad down the street, feet sore in my heavy gym shoes, if I close my eyes and listen real close, I can just hear the faintest strands of Sawyer’s song.