Annika has fallen in love. Annika is a bit bedraggled looking if all she gets is a distracted glance as the watcher passes by. If allowed time to contemplate her, though, looking at her face is all the watcher would want to do. Pain, beauty, and wonder wound up tight in a deceptively boring package. Annika thinks it’s better not to be noticed, but now she’d give anything to be seen and found appealing by this one person. But each day at school, the love of Annika’s life glides away as Annika trails behind, quiet but alert. They don’t smile at each other, but Annika has caught a mutual glance here and there. It’s hard to say why the two never connect, as time goes whooshing past.
Her name is Summer. She’s a senior and Annika is a sophomore. Annika can sometimes be found just below Summer’s bedroom window, having paused there on her own way home—at first it was infrequent, then about once a month, until it became an almost weekly occurrence. Summer and her visitors are often high together on her bed, moving to the rhythm of the Beatles blasting over the stereo. When they feel like being cool, they play the Beatles. When they feel like indulging in the pride of being predictable, they play Hanson. No one mmm bops better than Annika’s love.
Annika thinks Summer is a beautiful songbird. One that is meant to be admired, but not up close. Most days, she just watches Summer go about her routine. Preening herself in front of the mirror. Clashing with her mother in a volume so loud all the birds in the vicinity fly for cover. Reading a magazine with music blasting and drowning out her thoughts. Summer’s father often comes in to yell at her to turn it down. She is unflappable. She gets up from her bed without a word, slams the door in his face, puts on enormous headphones, perfect for blocking out the sounds of the unwelcome world around her, and dances with a wild energy.
Annika hopes that someday Summer will be free.
“What are you doing?”
Annika is startled by Summer’s melodious tones behind her as she is caught staring up into her empty bedroom one afternoon, waiting for her. Annika drops into an unsettling crouched position, as though there is a bush she’s hiding behind, but she’s out in plain sight.
“Oh,” Summer says. “It’s you, you weirdo. You know, I’ve seen you watching me. At school. Here. What’s the matter with you anyway? Do you even live around here?”
Annika’s throat and mouth are dry and cracking into a thousand shattered shards. Her love is speaking to her! Her love wants to learn more about her! She forgets to answer her.
“What, are you slow or something?”
“No,” she says and stands up. “I’m Annika.”
Summer laughs. Annika doesn’t dare look away from her love’s mouth. Her lips are cranberry colored.
“Okay, Annika. Well, you look lonely and hungry and like you could use a friend or a hit of something. C’mon in.” She leads a spellbound Annika into the rundown apartment building she calls home. To Annika, it’s a grand palace to which she’s been granted unexpected entry. It’s a fourth floor walk-up, so she follows the sound of Summer humming a familiar tune all the way up the stairs, not pausing her rapt attention for even a second. She fears if her love stops singing, or if Annika stops listening, the magic will be over and she’ll wake up, back outside and alone.
Once inside the long watched bedroom, Summer offers her a joint and some Wheat Thins. They sit on the twin bed and pass it back and forth as they smoke together for the first and last time. They don’t talk much during this brief visit. Summer mostly comments on how strange Annika is, but how she seems sweet enough and it’s hard not to feel sorry for her. “You shouldn’t just hang around outside people’s windows, you know. It’s creepy as fuck.” She takes a hit and coughs out her continuing stream of thoughts. “But you seem harmless. You’ve got kind eyes, I think. I mostly just feel depressed as shit when I see you out there, always alone.” Annika is silent but tries to be charming with too eager nods and smiles at the end of every statement her love utters. At one point, without awareness of what she is doing, Annika reaches out and strokes Summer’s hair while she is busy gazing out the window, stoned, and doesn’t see Annika coming in time to stop her.
Summer rears back. Annika knows she’s spooked her. Better to watch. Never ever touch. “Well, that’s done anyway.” Summer grinds the crinkled, blackened, rolled up paper into an ashtray and then goes to flush it down the toilet in the bathroom at the end of the narrow hallway. When she returns, she stares at Annika until she realizes it’s time for her to leave.
Summer gave her a chance and Annika blew it. It’s awkward and painful to spend the precious minutes and hours of a finite life spying on someone who doesn’t want you anymore. Annika is embarrassed to be banished back to her old position outside the building, but she can’t go home either. It’s hard to hide from Annika’s parents and their constant arguing there. There’s also no Summer.
Summer seems to have written off the incident as some oh, we were just high and she’s socially stupid thing, but she doesn’t invite Annika up again. Annika is pretty sure she’s invisible to her most of the time, but once or twice, she thinks that Summer notices that Annika is still out there, watching and waiting. Otherwise, Summer continues on with her life as it was before the interruption—the unremarkable blip—that was Annika’s visit.
A few weeks pass and one day, Annika is kept waiting longer than usual. Her love should be getting home any minute. She hears her musical laughter and is startled when it’s followed by a deep male voice. They round the corner and enter Annika’s line of sight. He is tall with brown hair coated in gel. His pants sag too low and he’s got an impertinent arm around Summer’s shoulders. He’s not from their school. Annika might be growling and baring her teeth, but she isn’t sure. He walks Summer home to the propped open door of the reddish-brown building and they stay there a while. Summer is leaning back against the doorframe, her breasts and hips thrust up and out in a clearly primal stance that Annika is uncomfortable to witness. He has his arm extended over her head, his hand pressed against the doorframe, as he leans in over her. He’s looking down at her. She’s looking up at him. Their voices grow softer. Annika wishes she could be happy for them, if Summer is happy.
Annika passes Summer’s apartment building without stopping for a couple months after that day. Summer has chosen him. Continuing to watch can only bring Annika pain. She spends most of her time at the library to evade the reality of her parents’ impending divorce. She throws herself back into books, which is where all her concentration had been focused before Summer, but this doesn’t work. It’s July now, so she can’t catch glimpses of her at school anymore. She’s reminded how lonely she was before falling in love. She returns to her post, knowing that to truly love with devotion, it can’t matter whether it’s given in kind. Her love for Summer is determined and unyielding like a river, satisfied to flow in one direction.
Sometimes Summer and the boyfriend fight. He’s not as loud as her, but he curses a lot. When he really gets going, there’s barely any clean language to be excavated from the rubble of the tirade. Summer knows how to infuriate him when he is like this. She fixes him with her bored stare and then flutters about the room, tidying up like she can’t hear him, like he isn’t even there.
On the day that he is the most upset she’s ever seen him, Annika observes him gesticulating and hears unkind words float down from the window. Summer’s casual ignoring him tactic is too much for him to bear this time. He grabs her by the wrist and yanks her to his chest. Then he’s got her by the shoulders and he’s shaking her and shaking her, as though he can make the words and emotions she’s withholding come spilling out against her will. Summer breaks free and with a sound that echoes through the neighborhood, she slaps him across the face. Now he’s throwing her down on the bed and climbing over her. His long back is blocking Annika’s view. Annika knows she is there for watching, not interfering, but this is her love. She is rare. Annika has to save her.
Annika runs to his car in the parking lot, a beat up old orange Impala, and looks around for a weapon. She sees a stray plank of wood on a nearby patch of grass. She’s picking it up and swinging it at the driver side window with all her might. There is glass everywhere. She hears the sounds of their arguing stop and she ducks down to lay flat on the blacktop.
“What the hell? My car, baby, someone’s stealing my car!”
“Oh my god, well, hurry up and go stop him!”
His face disappears from the window and Annika knows she has a mere minute to get away. As she flees the scene, she glances back over her shoulder to see Summer, with her elbows on the windowsill, staring back at her. She whispers, “Go away, Annika, and don’t come back.”
On a too hot Sunday morning, Summer and her parents are loading her things into the trunk of the boyfriend’s car. There’s shiny duct tape on the window. She’s turned nineteen a week earlier. The summer months are drawing to a close. She is going away to college on a scholarship. He is going to drive the four of them there to help her move into the dorms. Annika has heard the term “heartbreak” before, but never has its meaning been so literal. She watches as he and Summer’s parents head back inside for the last of the boxes.
Summer remains behind alone and turns, looking around uncomfortably. She knows she is being watched. “Come out, Annika. Stop fucking with me. I know you’re here somewhere.”
Annika emerges and approaches, careful and cautious.
“What do you want?” Summer says.
“I don’t want you to leave,” Annika says.
“Me neither. Trapped in a car with him and my parents? It’ll feel like forever. But then I’ll be away at school and my life can start.”
“You’ll be free,” Annika says. She hears the front door to the building creak open behind Summer.
Summer, suddenly ferocious, flies at Annika. “You’re obsessed with me! Quit stalking me. The next time my boyfriend catches you lurking around here, he’ll kill you! Do you understand me?” She looks worried for a second. Annika almost misses it. “I’m serious!” Summer shoves her so hard, Annika feels the bruises already forming on her chest. She imagines they’re blue, like Summer’s earrings. “Get out of here!”
Annika’s eyes are round and wide. She does what she’d do if any vibrant bird flew into a tizzy and turned on her, when all she’s doing is admiring their beauty—the outside kind and the inside kind. She starts crying and blurts out, “I’m so sorry”, before taking off to run as fast as her shoes will permit.
When she is far enough away, she turns to be sure no one is following her, while still running. She is not coordinated enough for all this multitasking. Her sneaker catches on the upraised edge of a pothole and sends her crashing to the pavement. She’s relieved to realize she’s no longer crying.
Annika knows Summer has needed her, too, in a way. If a bird flies and chirps above with no one to watch or hear, is there any point in soaring and singing up there at all? At least Summer’s migration patterns are nothing if not predictable. She’ll be back for a short spell in the cold winter with the tree outside her window as lonely and empty as Annika. She’ll be back in the humid summer days, lazing around in those baggy tank tops she looks so fetching in. Annika has always planned on waiting. But she’s wanted Summer to be free of the boyfriend, her parents, the tiny bedroom. Until now, it’s never occurred to her that Summer might need to be free of Annika, too.
She stands up, humming her and Summer’s shared favorite song to herself. She stares at the ground and as the sun sets on her shoulders, she starts walking in the direction of home.
Anna Vangala Jones serves as Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket and is an Editorial Assistant on the fiction team at Split Lip Magazine. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of The Net Anthology, and selected for inclusion in Longform Fiction’s Best of 2018 list. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Berkeley Fiction Review, Little Fiction, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and Jellyfish Review, among others. Find her online at annavangalajones.wordpress.com and on Twitter @anniejo_17. Image: High Summer II, Edvard Munch, 1915