You and I, we try on a new last name for me when I am eleven and you are fourteen.
We’re at a summer camp, a place with weepy hemlock trees and cabins that smell like bridle leather. After dinner at the mess, we stand in a circle of your cabinmates, boys with too-long limbs, as they steal looks at me from under their baseball caps. Scuff their sneakers against the dirt.
“This is Annie,” you say ruffling my hair with one wide-open palm. “Annie Cartwright. Friend from back home.”
It sounds so easy out of your mouth. It sounds so easy that I believe it myself for a second – forget that we share a name, Killbray, and that our black eyes are the same.
Any lie sounds real, if you believe in it, you tell me later, by the campfire while the others roast marshmallows. Try it, you say. The sky is purple. I’m twelve feet tall. I’ve seen a bird fly underwater, in the lake. Starla takai.
And you’re right. The lie about my last name does feel real, real as my sunburnt skin, the smoke-smell in my clothes. It feels so real that nobody does anything but smile sideways when you slip your hand into mine, against the log where we sit.
Even I believe it.
I lean over and press my mosquito-bitten shoulder against yours.
We speak in tongues, you and me. That’s what my mama calls it.
Furla la rey.
There is a memory:
Us in the tree house, my back pressed against mildewed paneling. Dead leaves pushed around my knees. My head close against your chest.
“You want your mother crying all night again, Skylah?” my daddy screams up at us. “Don’t think it’ll stop me—”
You are wearing a sweater Mama made for you when you first came to us, after your mama died. When you changed from cousin to brother and Mama made the basement into your bedroom.
“Skylah Killbray, I’m counting to ten—” my father shouts.
I imagine him outside, on the ground looking up at the tree house. I grip the rope ladder, coiled near our knees, and promise myself I won’t come down, no matter what.
Your hand is on the back of my neck. I can feel your breath against my ear.
I imagine his face tipped up in twilight, purple martins reflected in his eyes. The cicadas hum and I imagine him and his sister, your mama, frozen black-and-white on the picture on our mantle. The two of them, dark-eyed like us, with their arms loose around each other, wheat fields stretching wide behind.
“Kala toor,” you whisper against my forehead when the first beer bottle crashes against the other side of the wall, and I imagine the place you say we live – a thatch-roofed cottage on the edge of a crescent-shaped bay. I can smell the salt in the wind. I can hear the cry of the seagulls. “Furla toomay.”
“Staya treece,” I whisper back, smiling, as another bottle comes, then another, broken bits of amber clattering through the windows. You push my forehead to yours and we sit nose-to-nose, whispering stars and fireflies. Purple waves.
I am thirteen. You are sixteen. The people in this new camp think we are old family friends, that my name is Amy Siler.
“Ste kunya,” you say to me, and kiss me between the eyes.
My back is pressed against a tree, and a knot of root grates my spine. You graze your mouth against the side of my neck and just stand there, waiting. I blink hard.
“Do you think they’ll find us?” I say. “The counselors?”
“It doesn’t matter,” you say, and you don’t bother to explain that nobody’ll miss us during Capture the Flag — not out here, at least, where the oil-slick swamp water shines around your ankles. You put your hand against the side of my waist, slide your thumb under the hem of my shirt, and I am shaking so hard that my teeth knock yours when you lean in for that, our first kiss. Tears slide hot down the side of my face.
“I don’t know—” I say.
“You don’t know what?”
“Skylah, what did I tell you?”
“That other people don’t matter.”
“That other people don’t exist.”
“That they can’t stop us even if they did.”
“Starla rey,” you hum in affirmation, and you kiss me hard, hard like the surest kind of deceit, like you believe in every breath of it.
And after a while, I do too.
I kiss you back. Your tongue tastes like it’s telling the truth.
And then this, for language. This lie, for love:
That night in the hayloft, with the fireflies sparking in the straw, the calico cats wailing as they wrestle and roll on the barn floor below. Isolde Cay, we call me, just for that night, and I like the name.
“Nesta treece,” you say as you lift my skirt, me fifteen, you about to go off to college.
We lie to each other in earnest then. Lie knee-to-knee, nose-to-nose, while somewhere in the dark my daddy swings the lantern and screams my real name, while somewhere your dead mama watches you hitch up my skirt, slide your skin against mine, hears me cry out, hears you say, Starla, starla … and Cousin, you lie like the truth.
We speak in tongues of men and angels then. And already I know: our skin is the same. Our long-fingered hands look mirrored, laced together like that. And I breathe, breathe against your neck, waiting for the story we’re telling to fray, waiting for your salty neck to dissolve into stardust, waiting for beer bottles to break and lanterns to swing fire to our straw, but for that moment – that moment – I want to believe in the future you’re seeing.
So we lie to each other all night long.