excerpt from longer fictional piece: Fever Dream / by Anna Li

Olivia has the kind of long legs that get her into trouble. Legs lithe and thin, the kind that catch looks or narrow eyes when she walks down the hallways in skirts too-short for the dress code. Legs that can’t sit still no matter what, but always kick and bend and cross and uncross themselves beneath her desk. Legs that spend every night leaning out of her bedroom window, twisting around the oak in her backyard, and running in a silent sprint across the lawn.

Now, with the way her leg works into a rhythm I can’t hear, I can tell the itch is acting up. She sits with one knee folded in and one leg stamping against the dashboard, moving her foot to an unkempt beat that clashes against the low rumbling engine.

“Braden chose her,” she says. “Screw him.”

I nod. I should remind Olivia that he already chose her, because they have been dating for a year and a half, and that Olivia was wrong in the first place to try to intervene. But we both know the reason Olivia keeps me around is because I know how to keep quiet. She wants to get what she wants and not be told no.

“What’d he say?” I ask.

“Said he couldn’t do it anymore. Said it isn’t fair to her.” She arcs her back against the passenger seat and brings her palms to her eyes. “He should’ve thought of that before fucking me.” I sit and watch the traffic light flick from red to green. No cars go by. She leans her neck against the window. Her thin shoulders heave with the movement, but she makes no noise. I am the only person Olivia cries in front of, and even then, she hides her face so I can’t see.

She lifts her head. She rubs her cheek with the back of her wrist and straightens her back.

“Drive,” she says.

“Where?”

“Don’t care.” She kicks her legs against the dashboard. “Go.”

I press the pedal and we drive into the hot night.

+

When we drive, her feet start pumping to the rhythm again. It starts spreading. Her fingers scratch at the glass, then fiddle with the knobs on my stereo. We both had the itch and that’s how we knew something was going to happen. It’s an omen that starts with a sharp pinprick at the back of the spine, settling just underneath the skin and spreading outward across the shoulder blades like a sunburn. Summertime aggravates it. The heat makes the air solid and breath slow from lungs. Insect wings ache out the same mad, metallic note. The humidity presses on all sides of the town until it pinches like a pair of shoes too-tight.

It’s the kind of syndrome that apparently everyone else is immune to. The people here are contently sedated with having more anonymous strip malls than trees. Kids lurk under the fluorescent glow of the drive-in diner as their own parents did, spiking their limeades with vodka and leaning drunken secrets into each others ears, and they do this for years until their hairlines recede, until they have their own kids who pick up where they left off. Suburbs grow like tumors, budding more cul-de-sacs clotted with brick-and-white houses. The town of Macon is safe in its cycles, and that’s what people love about it, their children and their children’s children linked in a chain of suburban reincarnation. But I have lived here my whole life, and these are the parts that drive me mad. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve laid awake at night with the cicadas drilling their same sharp note into the marrows of my bones until I think they’ll splinter. I can’t sleep because my brain swims with the multiplication of things—identical houses, cloned faces, and the fecundity of the mad, ripe world until the claustrophobia knocks the breath out of me.

Before Olivia, I told no one about the sleepless nights, but they all seemed to know in an unspoken way that makes their eyes glaze over me as if I am made of air. My mom avoids looking me in the eye too, but we both know it is because I have eyes like his, so dark that you can hardly see the pupils. She does not ask about the circles under my eyes, the color of bruises. I do not tell anyone about the trances. How some mornings I find myself awake when it is still dark out, pacing the labyrinth of sidewalks and counting the shapes of leaves printed into the cement. I drive roads, the same ones over and over again in a ceaseless mantra. I could map out the constellation of roads on the back of my hand, eyes-closed. I sit on rooftops and let the salt rise from my skin in beads. It started a few years ago, at the first and last party I went to. One moment I was sitting on a couch that wreaked of cigarettes and watching the blue light wash over people roving in one fluid motion, hip to hip, and the next I found myself moving out past the dancers, through the door, down sidewalks, and into my room because the sight of it was somehow too sad to bear. The way they were dancing pressed a weight into my chest like someone sitting on my ribs. They drifted like sleepwalkers, trying so hard to forget themselves and be anyone but their own skins.

Olivia is the only person who knows about the insomnia and the trances; we have the same restless itch, and it is the only thing we have in common. What she does not know is that I would give it up if I could. The feeling of not knowing if I’m awake or if I ever slept, the faces who look past me with an expression of vague recollection, like trying to remember a dream—I would give it up in a heartbeat.

We turn into the lot of the convenience store. It’s almost empty except for three cars that rise like dark islands. Moths twist underneath the streetlights. Olivia strides through the doors and the necks crane in her direction. I’m used to it by now, not like the day that she first showed up at our high school last year. She drifted the hallways with the certain kind of gait that knew you were watching. Skin tan and peeling because, rumors went, she’d just moved from California. The confidence with which she tapped Braden Colby’s left shoulder in front of his blonde girlfriend and asked if he would give her a ride home, and he surprised everyone including himself by saying yes. That was the Olivia they knew. Even after they stopped whispering her name from locker to locker, the whole school watched her from their peripherals. I knew Olivia as the girl who moved next door. Our windows face one another. Every night, I’d hear the same dull thud and look up from my desk to see her, back turned, legs sprinting across the lawn as fast as they could move. I never told a soul.

One night on the brink of summer, a rock hits my window. I look out. Olivia leans against the house with one leg propped against the wall. She waves me down. The itch is starting to get at me. I find myself with fingers gripped around the trellis, landing on the ground and pumping my legs fast against the lawn.

We loop our limbs over the cast-iron fence and break into the neighborhood pool. Olivia passes a case of beer through its bars. She opens a bottle and takes a swig. “My older brother. It’s the only thing he’s good for.” She hands it to me. I take a few sips. It simmers and the blush spreads from my stomach outward in a warm glow, the way birthday candles feel under your chin when you’re about to make a wish.

We put our feet into the pool. The color of the water tints our skin green. She tells me how in California, you can drive from the sea to the mountains all before the sun sets and collect sea glass under braids of seagull wings. I ask her what she misses the most about home. “The ocean,” she says. Even if the sea is miles away, there are some nights as you’re drifting off to sleep when the air lifts and you can smell it, the faintest edge of salt.

“I’ve never seen the ocean before,” I say. “Not in real life.”

Her mouth hangs slack. “How can you live with yourself?”

“I’ll see it eventually. I’m getting out of here. As soon as I get a chance, I’ll be gone.” I tell her about my dad. How one day, he couldn’t take it anymore. He packed his things in a single box and drove to one of the coasts, just somewhere with an ocean because he couldn’t stand the feeling of being landlocked, whether by fields or by my mom and I. Some years we get postcards featuring a new beach that looks almost the same as the last, but most years it is silence. I realize I can’t remember the last time I talked about my dad. I look over and her head is cocked back and eyes glazed over. She isn’t listening.

We keep emptying more bottles and the secrets keep emptying from us. She tells me about how her first kiss was in seventh grade and she didn’t ask for it. She never minded the curious eyes that followed her, but something about that high school linebacker’s eyes were different, dilated like watching prey. The look turned her insides cold with fear and she liked that. Several times when she walked home from school, she could feel a body lurking behind her. She’d look over her shoulder, and he’d be there, hovering like a shadow. She kept walking. “I never asked him to follow me,” she says. Her feet shape vortexes in the water. “But I didn’t tell him to go away either.”

One day she went behind the school to look for cigarette stubs long enough to smoke when he grabbed her wrist. She said that when it happened, she didn’t even realize what was happening when she was on her knees, and that she didn’t shed a tear, she didn’t make a sound. That she was somewhere else and she could feel all the soft pieces of herself crystallizing into marble, buildings with concrete walls rising so deep into her chest that she knew she would never find the soft dot of who she once was. And that when he left her with her knees drawn up to her chest, she found a cigarette on the ground—a good one, over half of it left—and she smoked it until she finished the whole thing off. She never reported him. “I know it’s messed up,” she says. “But there’s a part of me that owes him for showing me that a body is just a body.” She pulls a foot out onto the ledge. “That if you build thick enough walls, no one can get to you, not a single one.”

We let the only sound be the crickets and their mad screeching, the sound of our feet kicking up waves. She puts her hands to her face. "I've never told anyone that before."

All of her secrets might be lies, and I hope that they are. When she says she's never told anyone, I hope she is lying. I hope she has told every soul she shares a beer with, every stranger she walks by, in her voice like a passing dream whispering every terrible thought she’s had. I want it all to be lies, but I cannot help believing. The light casts lines under the skin of water.

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask.

She looks up at me. I notice for the first time that her eyes are barely two different colors, one the color of moss and one like bark. “You keep your mouth shut. Sneaking out every night. The world needs more of that.” Her feet make ripples. They look like rings on the inside of trees.

The bottles are emptied and our faces turn upward, mouths open. I can hear us laughing in the distance, but the laughter feels separate from me. We start heaving for air again. I hear myself tell her that I love her. I don’t know why my mouth chooses those words. They are blurted into the air before I can stop them. She does not turn away, she does not blush. She tilts her head back and laughs a crisp sound like biting into the skin of an apple, a laugh that says she's been told that every day of her life.

[...] end of excerpt