I give the side door another push. Its handle is a struggle. Black and old, it is not turning. It . . . is . . . not—
The door gives. Shit. Ouch. Shit. I fall in on my hands and knees, coughing. The room holds the smell of smoke and old, damp paper. And definitely dust, because my eyes and nose and probably my lungs are starting to jump and say, “Nope, no way, nosireebob,” and I imagine red school fire alarm bells pinging in my hyper-reactive, wobbly KNEX structure of an immune system.
I stand up feeling idiotic. Brush off my knees a little.
“David? Whats in there?” Alison stands behind me, looking into the room, but, sensibly, asking first before going in. God, I am in love with her. She wears these little T-shirts under her shirts every day, and one day I asked her why and she actually admitted it was because she sweats a lot and didnt want anyone in school to see. She did not want to be The Sweaty Girl of the 10th Grade.
Love her. Have not told her.
I rub a finger under my nose, trying to wipe away the dribbling that’s beginning. I’ve already been named The Allergy Kid of the 10th Grade. Or, well . . . Ive been named “Snot.” But Alison never calls me that.
“I cant really see,” I say, answering Alison. It looks like there are some chairs, a table, some bookcases, and a few windows covered with broken wood. I take a hit from my inhaler. “Smells in here,” I say.
Alison pushes past me, careful not to touch her body against mine. She can make herself so small, so thin, so that she is like a wispy paper window blind that no one notices unless a breeze shivers her.
“This is not cool,” she says. She wipes her hand across the arm of an armchair and it comes up with dust and hair and God-knows-what. “Why would someone let this place get like this?”
Alison and I have this thing we both like: old houses. Like, really old. What we wouldn’t give to go to, like, England or someplace and see some old places there. Around here, we just have houses from the early 1900s. I like the attics best; she likes old bedrooms.
“Well, no one’s lived here in thirty years probably,” I answer.
“But someone must own it.”
I nod, agreeing with her. But there are tons of houses like this—old, empty, outside-of-town, bent and flaking houses. Houses people own but don’t really own.
Alison taps the wooden legs of the armchair with her toes. Then she moves over to a table and kneels down to look it over. “Funny they left all the furniture,” she says. “Like they thought they’d be back.”
Alison likes old houses because she likes to make up stories about the people who used to live in them. I like old houses because I like history.
Alison puts her fingers in her mouth, chewing her nails, and I’m a little freaked out because it was the same hand she just used to brush through the fluffy mess on the armchair. A place like this could still have Plague germs maybe. “We should get out of here,” I say. It’s getting close to 7 p.m. We still have to bike back home. But if she wants to stay, I’ll stay. Like I said, I love her. Heck, I’d slide nude through the Plague dust if she asked.
“Look,” Alison says. Shes holding up a greenish bottle. “Its so old, the glass is wavy.” She brings it up to her eyes and looks through it, right at me. “Youre green,” she says. She giggles. Then, while my heart starts to beat so hard I can feel my shirt shake, she walks right up to me, puts her face in mine, the glass bottle pressed and held between our eyes by the bridges of our noses.
I’m looking right into her eyes, through the bottle.
I’m going to need another inhaler hit.
After a minute, Alison reaches up and takes the bottle down and backs away. “Here, you keep it,” she says, tossing it to me.
I nod and catch the bottle. I’ll look through it again and again, I know. It’s the closest our two faces have ever been. I will sit on my bed alone at home and play Peter Gabriel and look through it.
“I love you, Alison,” I say. Out loud, like, blurt it. I say it in this room, in this house, because people went away from this house and they left their furniture. That’s why I tell her. Because you always think there’s going to be another chance and then there’s not.
She’s standing facing away from me and she’s completely still. Finally, I see her head bob forward in a nod. “Cool,” she says.
“Cool,” I say. I dont know what that means. Cool?
“We should get going.” She turns and walks back toward the door.
Outside, we grab our bikes by the handlebars. I’m breathing hard and it’s not my asthma.
Alison looks at me. “You got the bottle?” she asks.
I hold it up to show her.
“Good,” she says. “Gimme.”
I hand her the bottle. She bends over and picks up a piece of gravel. She kisses the stone, then puts it in the bottle, and hands it back to me. It makes a little ‘tink’ noise as I take it. I shake it again, to hear the tink.
“Dont be a dork,” Alison says, watching me shake the bottle. But she’s grinning, so I grin, too. She stretches a leg over her bike. “Dont lose it.”
“I wont,” I say.
I pedal home behind her, one hand on the handlebars. My other hand holds the bottle that tinks every time I hit a bump or turn or move, or when I shake it on purpose, just to hear it.