Here was a woman who had had many escapes. You could tell by the way she hovered in the doorway, green eyes wide and wary. Watchful. Watching him. Watching him watching her.
He picked up the palette knife, smashed his pigments together, smeared her hair the colour of pale strawberries. The paint was soft beneath the knife, malleable as he moulded her hair glossy and thick, a lively frame for her melancholy face. He spent an age shaping it, sculpting the pale strands, the sound of his father shuffling paper far away and indistinct, as comforting as a heartbeat.
Time passed, the sun moved high across the sky, a warm wind blew unhindered through the open patio doors. Voices sounded on the balcony and presently John entered, quiet in his bare feet, smooth as a cat across the parquetry. He came to stand beside Virgil, his breath stained with the odour of fresh cherries. Virgil glanced sideways, took in the t-shirt stretched from too many dips in the sea, noted the tell-tale stain upon his brother's lips. Wordless, his knife dipped back towards the palette and he daubed the woman's dress a vivid cherry red.
'Hmmm,' said John as he walked away.
The sun dipped towards the horizon and the light changed, tainted the room with orange. His father had left long ago and Virgil was alone with his paint and a heavy tumbler almost empty of bourbon. He lifted the glass to his lips and stared hard at the canvas.
The woman floated in the doorway and the doorway floated in the air. At her feet stretched an endless green grassland, behind her yawned a cerulean blue sky. She seemed poised upon the threshold of Time, too hesitant to go forward, too smart to go back.
John was back, smelling of Colgate.
'Cissy,' said John again. He gestured towards the painting. 'From Bennett's road.'
Virgil drained his bourbon.
'That was years ago,' said John, 'but it looks just like her. Only… grown up. Y'know.' He turned to Virgil. 'A woman.'
That summer Virgil was thirteen, and so was Cissy.
Cissy was covered from head to toe with freckles, her red hair hanging like straw from her head, her eyes as green as a cicada when it's just come out of its shell. And Virgil was poised ignorant on the cusp of adolescence, the first spots of puberty blooming on his face, his soul curling wild and completely out of control.
For that one summer Virgil moved only in Cissy's shadow. His every thought centred around her, her freckles and her fraying canvas sneakers. There was Cissy, shouting outside the window for Virgil to get out of bed and didn't he know that the day was half over? There was Cissy, striding with the west wind down to the creek, Virgil running along behind her and laughing so hard he could hardly keep up. And Cissy, running all the way to old man Groats' orchard and giggling about how last time she ate so many apples she felt like her stomach was going to burst all night. And there was Virgil, grinning and grinning, his whole life forgotten, thinking only of Cissy.
Then one day, as they lay beside the creek and stared into the clear blue air rising hot above them, their clothes rolled into tight bundles beneath their cool damp heads, Cissy opened her mouth and brought Virgil's sky crashing down.
'We're moving,' she said. Just like that. Her high thin voice shattered even the birds into silence.
'Moving?' said Virgil, after he'd thought about it for a bit, and what it might mean.
'My dad's got a new job.'
'Huh?' It was all he could think to say.
'Man, are you dumb or what?' said Cissy, sitting up, her hair snaking wet and red across her shoulders.
She leaned over and studied him closely, her face very serious. Virgil chewed his lip as her shadow passed across the afternoon sun.
'I said,' she enunciated loudly, 'my dad has a new job. In Brunei. It's an island a long way away from here, and everybody there is really rich.'
Virgil remained silent, staring up at her. He knew all about dads and jobs. And he knew all about moving, too.
'And we're gonna be really rich.' She stood, and poked at him with one bare foot. 'That's what my mom says. She can't wait.'
He hadn't known what to do, what words to say, so all the way home they'd walked in silence along the gravel road, the hot sun burning into their backs. And then they'd come to her house and climbed the porch steps and stood there, awkwardly.
Virgil's tongue had frozen in his mouth. He stared at the scuffed toes of her sneakers, tried to find words to say, to express how he was feeling that his best friend was moving away.
And suddenly Cissy had kissed him. It was a child's kiss, innocent, and all the warnings about girl germs were brushed aside for that one split second as Virgil felt her lips press hard against his own. He tasted the dust of the road on her mouth, and salt, and the faint aftertaste of apples mulled to cider on her tongue. He felt her breath move warm across his cheek as something inside him shifted. A cog turned and something heavy and cold fell into the pit of his stomach, the dull realisation that this was the last time he would ever see her.
Then lightning struck. The screen door rattled open and they leapt away from each other as if burned.
Cissy's mother stepped onto the porch and the moment fell away, disappeared forever through the warped grey floorboards beneath his feet. He looked up at her, at Cissy's mother, and he hated her. Hated the world that was forever changing, hated how everything and everybody died or went away. Hated how nobody ever asked him, nobody ever cared what he wanted. Understood for the first time what helplessness really was. And he hated it.
'Seeya,' said Cissy, after a moment.
'Seeya,' he replied at last, in a voice as faint as a whisper.
Virgil drained his glass, allowed the bourbon to rest for a moment in his mouth, a flame upon his tongue. He put the glass down before he swallowed, covered the canvas with a paint-stained cloth.
'I wonder whatever happened to her,' John said.
Virgil picked up the palette knife, silently wiped it with a rag.
'Ever want to find out?' persisted John, ignoring every sign.
Virgil dropped the rag and turned, the knife poised between his fingers. 'Would you want to know what happened to that Jenny you were so enamoured of when you were that age?'
'No,' said John, blushing faintly at the thought.
'And would Gordon want to find out whatever the hell happened to that godawful skinny Kathleen?'
John barked a laugh. 'Maybe!'
Virgil shook his head. 'God, she was horrible.'
'She was just a kid.'
'Yeah, but she was such a bitch! I couldn't stand her.'
'You couldn't stand Gordon around that time either, if I remember correctly.'
'You do.' Virgil dropped the knife into its box and looked at his brother, his face serious and solemn and so like the boy he had once been, so many years ago. 'I don't know why I painted this. It… she… just came out of nowhere.'
John searched Virgil's eyes, his tongue unmoving in his mouth. Virgil didn't have to speak, because John could see it all laid bare upon his face. There was Cissy, poised forever in his brother's mind, unripe as a green apple and faded with dust of the road. And there was Virgil, the unspoken dreams of his youth coming to life beneath his fingertips.
John knew what Virgil had been trying to do. It was something that John did when he was alone, with the world laid out like a jewel beneath his feet. Tried to capture what could have been. What might have been.