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art by Ron Sanders

If You Want the Rainbow

Bio: Eliza Hirsch is a science fiction, fantasy, and romance writer living in the Seattle area. She is a Clarion West alum, loves cats of all kinds, and collects deep thoughts about serial killers. You can find her online at exploringeliza.com.

***Editor's Note: Adult story, and some adult language***
The sky is clear because I'm calm. Or maybe I'm calm because it's clear. Hard to tell, sometimes.
The guy beside me has black hair and a guitar. We're in front of the downtown college campus and it's summer and I'm supposed to be at work, slinging coffee to yuppie assholes and their two-point-six kids, but I'm here.
When he asks my name I tell him "Kali," which is truer than the truth. He laughs, plays me a few bars of something strange that sounds like a mix of Sublime and Bach and Black Sabbath.
"No, really," he says, his arms resting on the body of his cherry colored acoustic, the wood all but covered with band stickers. Smoke curls from the cigarette stuck in the frets. "What's your name?"
I look at his guitar, and then back at him. His eyes are blue. Like, really blue. That crazy blue I've read about in books but don't quite believe in, and I wonder if maybe he isn't real.
"Call me Cherry," I say. He shakes his head, but he's grinning.
"Cherry..." He starts strumming again. "She's my cherry pie, sweet drink of water..."
"Never heard that before." I roll my eyes and lay back in the grass.
"What's your name?" I ask the sun, but the boy answers.
"Reece," he says, and plays a slow song that makes me close my eyes. When he stops he moves over next to me and lies down. I can feel his arm close to mine, our hairs just brushing.
I wrap my fingers around his wrist, and think I'm going to hurt you, and say "I'm going to kiss you," which is the same thing.
He lets me.
He tastes like cardamom and coconut. His fingers, when they touch my eyelids, are rough. I can feel music in them.
Reece comes to my coffee shop the next day and tells me to make him something sweet and strong.
"Just like me," he says.
I laugh, because that's what I'm supposed to do, but I'm really hoping he'll leave. Because he does seem sweet, but he's not strong enough.
He waits until my shift is over. He's carrying his guitar in a black bag on his back. The strap across his chest is woven of bright threads, like a rainbow, and his shirt is gray, like an angry sky. He kisses me on the cheek and I catch the scent of him through the clouds of espresso and steamed milk billowing around us.
"I want to show you something," he says, and pulls me out into the sun. His hand is cold from the air conditioning. The bench seat in his truck is warm. He pulls me over so we're sitting next to each other, and then puts a tape of Led Zeppelin in the stereo.
He drives into the hilly suburbs and beyond, to the red rock gardens our city is known for. No pine trees grow here, no stretches of imported grass or juicy purple flowers. Only dry stone and tourists. He pulls into an empty parking lot and kills the engine.
"I've seen this," I say. I grew up in this city, and I know all its nooks and crannies, all its skeletons. I've created a few of my own.
"You haven't seen it like this."
I bet I have. But I follow him, because the sun is making his hair shine, and the calluses on his fingertips are strumming the tendons in my hand. The ground is dusty, and we leave footprints with our sneakers that will disappear in the next heavy rain. He drops my hand when we get to a scrambling section of rock. A few feet of climbing and we emerge into a flat area about the size of my childhood bedroom, with walls of orange-red rock on every side. But the walls are misleading, and Reese slips through a gap between two of them. I follow him, having gone this route a dozen times and more since cresting puberty.
Through the gap, onto a platform. Below us, stretching out across the plains, is the city in all its mediocre glory. I can make out the dingy old strip malls where you can buy teriyaki and used books; the regal hotel to the west, still beautiful but taking on the jilted edge of a dying starlet; the fringes of the city where big box stores and suburban sprawl peter away into dried out fields of fescue and wildflowers.
Other boys have brought me here. Other boys I hadn't gone home with. I wonder if this time will be different. If the music in Reece's blood might somehow protect him.
From me.
"Doesn't look any different," I say.
Reece walks behind me, forcing me close to the edge of the platform. He wraps one hand around my face and covers my eyes. His other arm circles my waist. His mouth is close to my ear. I shiver and press against him.
"I can call it down as well as you can," he says, each word tickling me with promise. And suddenly all the warmth of the summer leaves me. I freeze, inside, outside.
"What do you mean?"
But instead of answering he starts to sing, soft at first but with rising intensity, in a language my brain doesn't understand and my body recognizes as home. Before I know what is happening my face is wet with tears. My hair is soaked by rain.
Reece's rain.
I duck out of his arms as his singing stops. The sun still shines through the droplets, though dark clouds move in fast. A rainbow bisects the sky. He grins at me. His hair is plastered to his face, sharp triangles of black drawn on pale skin.
Reece's rain runs down my forehead and my cheeks, into my mouth. It tastes sweet, like the sugared water my grandmother feeds her hummingbirds. When I kiss Reece, he tastes the same.
I wonder if I taste like electricity.
The first bolt comes when I find out Reece has been cheating on me.
I don't need a song to call the lightning. It comes when I want it, and it comes when I don't. It's the times when I don't that are the worst. The times when the boy or the girl I'm with starts pushing and pulling. Insisting. When the person I'm with proves to be someone I don't want to be with. That's when the hard lightning comes. But there's never any rain.
I see them in the food court at the mall, sitting at a table next to the Orange Julius. He's holding her hands, and I know she can't feel his music.
The firefighters come to put out the flames on the roof.
Reece finds me in the parking lot. I'm standing next to a red sedan, watching the water catch the last of the sunlight. It looks like they're throwing diamonds on the blaze, fistfuls of them, and I think they'll never put it out that way. These flames don't respond to jewels.
But they do respond to rain, and Reece pelts me with sweet words that taste only a little bitter, and then only when I think about them. He swears she meant nothing to him. He swears he loves me. The lies fall on me, cleansing my mind as the water he brings stems the fire I've started. The air smells like charred things, like soft asphalt and singed hearts.
After I let him kiss me, Reece takes me to his truck, and takes me to his home. He lives in the basement of his parent's house, and I think it's sort of sad and it's sort of cute and it's sort of normal.
I wonder who else he brings here.
His walls are paneled in dark wood, another remnant of the seventies, like his truck and his music and the half-smoked joint he pulls out of his headboard. We sit on his carpet, beige stained brown and black in places, and pass the joint between us. He puts on a record, an honest to god vinyl. Something I don't recognize but the pops and fizzes of the old material remind me of air crackling with energy. I close my eyes and lay back. Reece lays on top of me, kisses my eyelids one at a time, hard, so I see stars and color.
"You're so beautiful," he says. He still tastes like cardamom, like coconut, but like something else, too. Cherry Chapstick. Betrayal. The musky marijuana. He slips his hand beneath my shirt, over my ribs. It's his strumming hand, and his fingertips are soft because he uses a little plastic pick. Black, with the name of a music shop printed in gold where his fingers squeeze.
We have sex on the floor, even though his bed is just a few feet away. The carpet chafes, leaves a tender red mark on my ass that I can still feel the next morning when I wake up, alone, in my one-room apartment. I didn't want to sleep in the basement. He didn't ask me to stay.
Outside, the sun is shining.
I call the second bolt a month later. Reece has just left my place after a night in my bed, and I find my blue and red striped piggy bank emptied. He isn't here to stop the fire, this time, and the Korean family in the top apartment have to get a hotel while their place is cleaned. I would give them money, if I had any.
Reece doesn't answer his cell phone, so I call his house.
"Hello?" A woman. His mother. She sounds tired. I ask for Reece, trying to hide my anger behind a slick-sweet cover of calm.
"This isn't a good time," she says.
"I--okay." I'm not sure what else to say. I left him a message already, full of the same fake serenity I'm dredging up now.
She sighs, a heavy, heavy sigh. I can hear someone yelling in the background, and I'm about to hang up, when she says, "Can I tell him who called?"
I hang up. And I wait. But I pretend I'm not waiting. I check my email. I read a few pages of an overdue library book. I think about doing my dishes.
I wait.
Three hours and thirteen minutes later my phone rings. It's him, calling from his cell. He's crying. His parents kicked him out and he has no place to go. Can he come over?
No, that's not quite right.
"I'm coming over," he says. "I'll be there in twenty. God, this is so fucked."
He comes in, red faced and reeking of pot and shitty beer, and rages around my apartment for a while. Then he falls into my bed and passes out. I wiggle his cell phone out of his pocket. One new voicemail. The notification blocks a picture of a rainbow, arcing over a valley of flowers. A preloaded photo on his throwaway phone.
I listen to my message and erase it.
It takes a long time for me to fall asleep that night. I spend hours listening to him breathe, watching his face in the moonlight after I turn off my bedside lamp. His brow twitches, like he's having a nightmare. I run my fingers over his cheek, hoping to soothe him.
He turns away from me.
I smell the rain before I hear it, a trickle of ozone in the muggy night air. Then I fall asleep.
I dream of lightning.
Reece takes me to the park, to the overhang, and tries to leave me. This is when I call the third and final bolt.
We have been living together for two months. In that time I have acquired a pair of lace panties that don't belong to me, a tiny baggie with a thin film of white powder left clinging to the plastic, and a charge on my credit card from a bar I've never been to.
I tell myself I love him. I'm beginning to perfect the lie. I warned Reece, when we first met, that nothing good would come of this. From me. I destroy everything I love. That's what love means. I was foolish enough to think his rain could cleanse me, foolish enough to think that I could have anything but pain.
"We should see other people," he says. He has his back against the rock, his feet dangling over the ledge. "I think it would be good... A break."
He is looking at the city, I am looking at him. Finally--I think for the first time--I see him. He is not my counterweight, not my salvation. He is not my friend, and will not be my lover. He is fragile and flawed already.
I smell the bolt before it strikes, like the distant scent of burning hair. My bones thrum with intensity. Reece finally looks up at me. He opens his mouth, as if to speak. The spark begins in his teeth, a vague glitter of white-blue charge. His beautiful black hair begins to float round his head as his eyes go wide.
I grab his hand.
The earth connects with the sky and my lightning surges through him.
For the first time, my lightning surges through me, too. We cling together, unable to release, as the energy crackles over our skin. I can't believe I've never felt this before. It's the first time I feel alive, holding onto this ruined boy while I share with him the most intimate part of myself. It's better than sex--our sex--because I'm in control.
Then, as soon as it started, the connection breaks and we fall apart. My mouth tastes of ash and ozone. There is not even a hint of cardamom or coconut. The sky begins spitting rain and I close my eyes, letting the cool droplets hit my face and dampen my hair. Rain and lightning. Together. He won't leave me now.
It isn't until my legs start going numb and I have to stand that I realize Reece hasn't moved. When I kneel beside him I realize he never will.
I tell the sky to stop raining.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Author Comments

"If You Want the Rainbow" was inspired by a writing dare sent to me by fellow Clarion West classmate, Cassie Krahe. From the line "I destroy everything I love. That's what love means." grew the story of the girl whose love could--and did--kill. Because what's more fragile than the heart we let someone else hold?

- Eliza Hirsch
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