HER COUSIN • by Jason Stout

Four inches away is the closest I would get to Melanie that summer.  Four inches of movie theater armrest between two uncertain elbows.  It seemed close enough then.

It had started as a lost summer, but I was beginning to recapture it, take it back from being the summer when my brother left.  Hanging out by myself at the theater on Thursday dollar night made it seem a little less lost.  Then one Thursday night Melanie walked in with her cousin and it was lost all over again.

There was no talk about who would sit where.  Like so much that happens when you’re thirteen, we just sat down and there we were.  Melanie and I side-by-side with that protective four inches between us — her cousin, Sara, on Melanie’s other side.

Then, for a time, Melanie wasn’t there.  I don’t remember when or why or how.  I imagine now that she touched my arm as she scooted past to get to the aisle.  I imagine that I watched her walk away to the concession stand or the restroom with her red-hair ponytail bouncing back and forth, looking back over her shoulder.

What I don’t imagine is that Sara moved over to Melanie’s seat and looked at me with a gap-toothed smile.

“You like her, don’t you?” she asked.

I told her we were just friends.

This was a truth and a lie wrapped together and my first understanding of how the two could coexist so powerfully.

She leaned in close to my ear and her breath on my neck was not hot like you read in those stories, but cold and bracing.  I could smell the cherry lipsmackers lip-gloss she wore, and that, too, was a truth and a lie mixed together.

Or maybe a promise and a rebuke.

And as she started to whisper I could feel her talk–the vibrations on my ear–before I could hear the words.  That is the moment I live in now, that moment before I could process what she said to me.

She said the words slowly and with no malice: “She doesn’t like you. She just doesn’t see you that way.”

This, too, was a truth — a beautiful, simple, perfect truth, and I would live in it, too.

When Melanie came back, the four inches grew to a foot, then a yard, then a mile.  And then I was no longer there at all.  I was no longer there when Melanie started dating a thick-necked football player named Kenny who was five years older than us.  I was no longer there when she would show up at school with bruises on her neck and arms and laugh them off.  I was no longer there that day — the next summer — when Melanie and Sara swam to the buoy at Patoka Lake, but only Melanie made it back.

I was no longer there in my bedroom, with its orange shag carpet, lying on my leftover-from-childhood Star Wars sheets and listening to Ziggy Stardust.

I was no longer there wondering which of the two I loved more.

Jason Stout lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife and 5 children. His works have appeared in: Every Day Fiction, Flashquake, Twelve Stories, Shine!, Pequin and A Thousand Faces, among others. Additional information is available at jasonstout.jimdo.com.

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