Tenderfoot

Fiction: Set in Stone

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by Geneva Goldenberg

Willow takes her lunch break on an old park bench, and watches people streak past down the path, their after-images fusing into colourful comet trails. She holds her sandwich with the tips of her fingers, so as not to smudge her body paint. Today she is pretending to be made of bronze, asking people for money in exchange for immobility.

Beside her on the bench sits a real statue, so to speak. He’s white and weathered, with cracks on his cheeks and someone’s name scrawled on his outstretched right arm. Sharpie love-hearts on his jacket, with teenagers' initials and crude suggestions. She notices the chips in his skin, and likes the way his eyelashes are so intricately carved. She is studying them closely when he winks.

Willow does not flinch. She stills, and then reaches slowly forward to touch his outstretched arm with her own dry hand, hoping to feel the warm give of skin over bone, a human in costume. Instead he is cold. And pitted. And solid as a rock.

She sucks in a breath, and mutters at a statue’s pace, “Hello?”

People flash past, vague and indistinct. Peripheral.

Slowly, like melting wax, slowly even to her, he smiles.

Willow bites her lip, and looks around. A small boy, being dragged down the path on his mother’s arm, is twisting around, staring back at them. Willow pulls herself to her feet. She steps back from the bench, looking away from the statue, looking everywhere but at the statue. The people flooding past her suddenly slow, or seem to, as she concentrates on moving, drags herself towards a human pace. In spite of herself, she glances back down at her lunchtime companion, just once. He’s still smiling, but she thinks it may have faded. Just a little.

She doesn’t stay to find out.


She needs to slow down again to busk, but she's too agitated, can't stand the thought of “playing” a statue, staying still for loose change. She shuts her eyes and takes deep breaths, talks herself down. If he's waking up, so what? It’s a big city, someone else can deal with him. She opens her eyes, and drifts back towards the stillness. The casual stroll of the blonde woman in front of her snaps into fast forward, and motion trails criss-cross past Willow's eyes as she watches the day go by.

No-one can sit still like Willow. Her friends, and she has two, like to laugh at her and tease her –with a wink and a hug – about how the world could end, and Willow wouldn’t notice for at least an hour. Willow always smiles, after a while, and teases them back. Her friends giggle and joke, and move so quickly.

It feels like only ten minutes before Jo and Lee turn up today. Willow squints at them, noticing the dusk for the first time. She licks her lips, furrows her brow, and the cars on the street beside her jump from blurring to crawling. She climbs down from her stand.

“Just a minu—”

Jo rolls her eyes at Lee, and before Willow can react the two of them have packed up her busking gear for her, and draped her bag over her shoulder. Lee grabs Willow’s free hand, giggling, and starts to drag her down the street.

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” Willow’s laughing now, and focusing hard. Moving each foot just as the last one hits the ground. Bursting her words out almost before she can think of them.

“Come on, come on!” Jo puts a hand between Willow’s shoulder blades, and adds her push to Lee’s pull. “I refuse, Will, refuse to wait an instant longer!” Jo raises her free hand and flourishes it. “Tonight, at least, we shall make it to the ball before the stroke of midnight!”

“To the house party?” Lee is unimpressed. “Hon, he’s calling it Harry’s Halloween Hothouse. I don’t think there’ll be a prince in sight.”

“Pah! Mansion-party then.” Jo flaps her hand.

Lee laughs. “Harry’s house is not a mansion, Jo.”

“A mansion?” Willow gasps.

“It has a pool table!” Jo insists.

“And rats.”

“Lee,” Jo cuts in, “we need to run, that’s the 57!”

The playful pressure on Willow’s back becomes a full-fledged shove, the tug on her right arm a yank. She struggles to stay upright as she’s swept across the road, shins finally colliding with the bottom step of the tram. Willow scrambles inside after her friends, and collapses into a seat near the door, to the sweet sound of muffled curses from the driver.

Willow grins at Lee. “It can be a mansion if the rats are rich.”


The backyard of the party is filled with fire. Lee and Jo let out whoops while Willow just stares, eyes wide, the chill on her skin at odds with the tiny lights whirling through the air. In one corner is a small bonfire, where a motley collection of op-shop vampires and greasepaint ghosts are drinking, talking, dancing and watching the show. Music is playing from somewhere, jigs and gypsy reels, and the fire twirlers scattered across the yard flow in and out of time with it. Willow cannot look away.

Lee punches Harry on the arm. “You didn’t say it was a fire night, Haz! I didn’t bring my stuff…”

“All good, you can borrow…” He drags Lee towards a corner where buckets and bottles are being minded by Frankenstein’s monster. Jo moves to follow, then hesitates.

“Willow, you gonna be okay?”

“Hmm? Oh. Yeah.”

Jo claps her on the shoulder, and races off.

Willow doesn’t sit down. She means to, but it never happens. Patterns appear and fade in the mix of light, figure-eights become spirals, like shapes in the clouds.

“Are you okay?”

The voice is barely slow enough for her to catch the words. Reluctantly, Willow speeds up and turns to face the interruption.

It’s a witch, her hat askew, her face flushed under pale green make-up. She’s smiling at Willow with her eyebrows raised, tilted into points.

Willow’s face heats. “Yeah. I’m fine. Thanks. For asking,” she says in a rush. “I’m Willow.”

“Mel.” The girl tucks her hair behind her ears, where it fades into the dark. “No problem. How do you know Harry?”

“My friends. Jo and Lee. They’re…” Willow squints into the spinning lights, “…somewhere…”

Mel laughs, flashing teeth which glow in the semi-light. “Don’t worry.” She looks Willow up and down, eyes moving slowly enough for Willow to follow their path. “So what are you?”

Willow blinks. “I’m a statue.”

Mel laughs again, and fiddles with her hat. “Do statues like to dance?”

Willow frowns at the dancers by the fire, yelling and twisting. She listens hard, and concentrates, speeding up her perceptions till she can just make out the beat. She chews her lip and looks back at Mel.

“I’m not very good…"

Mel takes her hand.

 

She sees Mel again. And again. And a fourth time too.

Mel laughs loudly, and hates pepper. Willow doesn’t mind, she doesn’t eat much anyway. On the second date Mel brings her puppy, which jumps around, licks Willow’s hands and pees on her shoe. Willow hates dogs. The puppy is never brought again.

They go out for lunches, and coffee dates, and walks in the park. Willow laughs, surprised, at everything Mel says, and forces herself to speed up, speed up. To think so fast and for so long that her skull begins to pound. She ignores the headaches. It's an effort to keep herself from snapping back to slowness, as though she's pulling taut a rubber band inside her head, but she doesn't want to waste a second.

“What’s up?” Mel asks on the fourth date.

“Have you ever had a migraine?” Willow rubs her temple.

“You should take it easy.”

“I will. I have time for that. Later.”

“You sure? You’re looking pretty tired. We can just go back to mine, it’s not far. Take it slow?”

Willow hesitates. “I'm fine. I like the park.” She smiles at a tree, and Mel’s eyes crinkle.

“Well, okay. Today. But on Friday, I’ll send the dog to my sister’s, and you’ll come to mine and I’m gonna feed you, and then we’ll just relax. Deal?”

Willow chews her lip. Mel arches her eyebrows into points again, and Willow smiles reflexively.

“Pasta?” Willow asks.


 

“Hello.”

The sound of a clear voice amid the buzz startles Willow from her thoughts, and she turns her head around with comedic slowness, forgetting to speed herself up first. Standing beside of her, with pedestrians streaming around him, is the statue from the park bench.

“Hello,” says Willow, staring down at him from her pedestal. “How long were you asleep?”

“I was hoping you might tell me? I last sat myself in 1902, November.”

“Things have changed.”

He looks around him, with a grin.

“I know,” he says, staring at the traffic. “Everything gleams.”

Willow chews her lip and steps down from the box. “Are you hungry yet?”

He shakes his head. “It has only been hours. But I am thirsty.”

Willow leads him to the sandwich shop, and buys him a bottle of water. They sit at a table, and he puzzles over the cap before finally prising it open.

Willow taps the edge of the table. “Can I ask...? Why did you wake?”

“Why should I not?” The statue sips his water cautiously, then takes a gulp. “New sights, new
sounds!” He pauses. “The truth is, I put myself to sleep in bitterness and anger.” He laughs, but it is not a happy noise. “The spite I felt then remained with me... Well, you know how it is with the dreams.”

Willow shifts her gaze to his. “I've never really... I've heard the strong ones last forever. Unless you wake up.”

His mouth twists. “The deep sleep is a chance to preserve a single moment, one to inhabit forever. I chose my dream... poorly.” He sighs, and the water bottle crackles as his grip on it loosens. He glances down. “I felt I had company when you came to sit. I felt it was time to wake.” He squints at her, “Though perhaps you did not seek company yourself?”

She fidgets, “I’m Willow.”

“Garth. Named after my carver’s son. And ‘Willow’?”

“I was under a tree when I woke up. The first time.”
He leans forward on his elbows. “And how long since? How many times?”

“Three. The first was 1880.”

“So young!” He grins at her. “Yet you appear my age. You were you carved as you are? Or… perhaps... have you been awake a long while?”

“This time is the longest.” She hesitates. “I’ve been up five years.”

Garth whistles, and leans back in his chair, studying her face.

“Practically native,” he murmurs. Willow flushes and shrugs, shifting in her seat.

“Maybe. I don’t know. I still get the headaches,” she says defensively.

Garth smiles, spreads his palms. “I did not intend offence. I find it strange, but that is nothing terrible in itself.”

“I’m still stonewarm,” she insists. “I'm not human.”

“I would never suggest otherwise.”

“Well. Good.” She frowns out the window at the streaming people. “I just... like it here. I have a life here. That's all.”

“A slice of a life.” Garth shakes his head. “A tiny corner of ten million days, of a thousand years…” He stares out the window. “Do not fear the deep sleep, little Willow. Eternity can be beautiful too, if you choose your moment well. Still...” He shakes himself, and turns back to her. “It's not my place to lecture, I am sorry.”

Willow shrugs and says nothing.

Garth raises his half empty plastic bottle, “To new sights, and perfect dreams!  Yes?”

When they’re done, she points Garth towards a hostel, and gives him enough for three nights’ stay. It’s hospitality, like a code. You help each other out.



Mel opens the door at the first knock, and the hot, sour smell of tomatoes wafts past her and down the stairs at Willow’s back.

“Um, here’s some chocolate.” Willow holds it up, and Mel reaches forward. Instead of taking the chocolate, she presses her hand to the back of Willow’s neck and pulls her forward to kiss her.

“Keep blushing, please.” Mel grins and leads Willow inside. On the table are a bottle of wine and two glasses. Mel points Willow to a couch, and sweeps over to the stove to stir something. “I’ll just be a sec, almost done.”

Willow sits beside the open window, nursing another headache. It’s almost summer, and the light is just fading. The sky is splashed with clouds, and the street below is full of people bustling home. There are pigeons perched on the overhanging windowsill, and Willow smiles, and holds out a hand. The pigeons cock their heads, and one of the younger ones flutters forward onto her finger. He perches for a second, and Willow shuts her eyes.

“Willow?”

Willow opens her eyes again, but the bird is gone. He’s fluttering down to the opposite end of the roof, rustling his feathers as he settles. A hand is on her shoulder, and she turns to face Mel.

“Food?” murmurs Mel. “We can sit on the couch.”

Willow smiles and nods, ignoring the rising pressure in her head as she speeds herself up again.

“Yes. Thanks. It smells—”

“No. No, you stop that.” Mel holds a stern finger in front of Willows face. Willow opens her mouth to reply, but Mel cuts in first. “The whole point of being here was to relax.” Mel taps the tip of Willow’s nose. “You don’t need to try so hard. I’m fine if you want to just zone out.”

“I’m fine–” Willow starts, but Mel raises her eyebrows, and Willow reconsiders. She shuts her mouth, and releases her grip on time. Before she’s finished smiling, Mel’s begun to move.

Mel blurs forward, kissing Willow, touching her hair, her skin, buzzing around faster than Willow can trace, but she finds she doesn’t mind. Mel’s fingers leave feathery trails, traces of where they were which blend into one like drops of rain. Willow starts to laugh, trying to follow Mel with her eyes, to keep up without shifting pace, and she hears Mel laugh too, one high-pitched warble, and that makes her happier than ever.

They eat pasta, and Willow leaves her leftovers sitting on the table. Willow drinks the wine at a sip an hour, and Mel has gone through most of the bottle by the time she notices. So Mel stops, grabs the bottle by the neck and, giggling madly, tips the final trickle out the window, into the gutter for the sleeping pigeons. Willow still laughs at her, hasn’t once stopped. When they go to bed, Mel flutters before Willow in the corridor, teasing her until they reach Mel’s room, where Mel tackles her onto the covers, knocking out her breath.

“I wasn’t going to wait all night,” she giggles into Willow’s ear. Her words are the briefest puff of warmth. Mel turns off the light.


Willow lies awake with her eyes wide open, and lips just parted with not quite a smile. She’s taller than Mel, and the shorter girl is snuggled into her, spine to breast, asleep. Willow isn’t sure, but she thinks she might explode with the tingling fizz that pushes out against her skin. She wonders if it could get better than this? How this could ever last? The fear and melancholy rise up until she cannot breathe for all the terrifying joy, the knowledge that she’s stretched along a knife-edge, balanced in a perfect moment just about to shatter.


 

Mel opens her eyes. She blinks in the midday glow from behind drawn curtains. It is cold, and quiet, and the covers are on the floor. The general nausea of a hangover settles lightly in her gut. She can’t recall much yet.

She pushes at an elbow, to reach down and grab the blanket. There’s something on top of her, she’s not sure what, can’t remember, but it’s probably a book. Or her laptop. Or something else, it’s not the right shape for either. And heavy. And hard. She finds she cannot move.

And she’s starting to remember.

“Willow?”

The sound of the traffic outside her window compresses the silence of the room around her, and Mel begins to sweat in the chill.

“Willow?!”

She tries to turn over, but the cold, snaky thing is fitted around her. Stone, she thinks, perfectly moulded, holding her still. Mel’s breathing speeds up, and she trembles and shivers, struggles and starts to scream, little bursts of noise. She claws at the stone arm, wriggling, trying to get past it, slither out of the loop, but her leg is stuck, pressed against the mattress by so many kilos of marble. Somehow she slides her chest free and wrenches away, leg still trapped. The sheet snaps loose of the mattress as she drags at it, panting, gasping. Finally she pushes her top half up. Trembling but not sobbing, she twists around. Mel holds her breath into the silence as she stares at the perfect smile of her polished lover, who pins her down to the bed.