She’s either a grade above or below your son, you’re not sure. You’d ask, but even from the first day you noticed her she has had your skin crawling. The thought of her makes you grimace. You try to set a good example for your boy and so you don’t ask, you never mention her, since you know you wouldn’t be able to do so without making a face. She attends all of the soccer games and school functions. She is always with her younger brother; sometimes their faded mother is there, too, but usually not.
What bothers you isn’t her expression, so oddly detached and distant that for a long time you’d just assumed she was autistic – you’ve decided this can’t be the case…who would make an autistic child stand guard over a younger sibling to this extent, or send her to bike to the school’s Open House alone? – or the plain beige or ash-brown shifts she wears, outfits so far out of fashion that they might have come from another century but for the exceedingly fine weave.
No, what bothers you second-most is the way she carries herself, moving and walking with an odd gait which is awkward and lumbering one moment, incongruously buoyant the next. It’s as if she is accommodating some shifting weight, something excessively heavy, which continually slides about her frame as she walks. It makes you worry about developmental problems in more sensible moments; in darker ones, unwanted images of old, tentacled gods moving under her skin make you twitch away from the child.
The thing that bothers you the most is her gaze – the only time she ever looked directly into your eyes, it seemed that she looked into you and weighed your spirit; she looked away with discomfiting speed, and it felt as though she had found your soul lighter in grace, heavier in sin and dark impulses, than she had expected.
The girl is closer than you usually tolerate, but the bleachers are full and you would have to squeeze past two other families to reach the aisle. You know that such a little girl shouldn’t make you so nervous – but even with her back to you, you fear those dark, distant eyes. She is sitting in the row ahead of you in the bleachers, head cocked in the direction of the soccer field. Since she sat down she hasn’t moved, doesn’t seem to be following the game at all. You look at the odd cut of her shift in the back. She’s turned at an angle, and you can see the shape of her strangely prominent collarbone; it juts out too far and seems to go too far down, a small shelf of bone where there should be only a slim rod. You think: wings. Balancing for wings could explain her curious movements, and her careful detachment might be simple fear of discovery.
A whistle blows; the game is over. Your son comes running in from the field, alongside a pale boy with dull, lank hair: the dark-eyed girl’s brother. The girl stands and waits for the bleachers ahead of her to clear before starting down.
She glances at you for the tiniest moment: just a shy middle-school girl, nowhere near a beauty but prettier than she probably thinks, too young to be carry so much responsibility for her little brother, and, in the way of insecure children of whom too much is expected, utterly engulfed in her own inner world. You laugh at yourself and begin to gather your things.
You rummage in your purse. From the corner of your eye you see her turn to leave; as your fingers wrap around your keys, you feel the soft touch of huge, invisible feathers on your cheek.