Nothing Gold

Alaina Symanovich

Saturday morning dawned cold and clear as Nikhil drove the seven-minute route to the high school. His mother had clucked over him until he agreed to stuff his gloves with hand warmers, to bring a thermos of hot tea. After endless bartering with Dr. Jeffreys, Macy had finally sulked out of the office with nothing more than a cotton-soft admonition to take care of herself. Nikhil didn’t feel right about rescinding his offer to clean the wall, and Dr. Jeffreys didn’t ask him to. Macy hadn’t looked at him in class all week.

Nikhil’s lips had turned to pufferfish, numb and stupid from the wind chill, by the time the last of the gold residue surrendered to the Wipe Out gel. When Macy’s shadow spilled over the damp brick, he could barely manipulate his mouth into a greeting.

“I was thinking you could do me a favor,” Macy said, ignoring his hello. She stared at his chin, seared scarlet by the mauling wind, letting him know he looked ridiculous—a Rudolph gone wrong.

Backlit by the gold sun, Macy’s hair turned to fire around her temples. The memory alighted on Nikhil, fast and frenetic as a hummingbird: Macy striding through the corridor that first day of freshman year, Austin at her helm. How her eyes sliced through the crowd, undaunted. Had she stood closer, had the light glinted any brighter off her charm bracelet, had he not been a gawky and glasses-faced honors student, he would have reached for her hand.

“I need a ride,” she explained, tilting her head toward his car in the adjacent lot.

“Where to?”

But she was already pacing toward the vehicle, ducking her head against the wind. Nikhil jogged after her, feeling for his keys. She tugged the handle of the Escort as he fumbled for the unlock button.

“Home Depot first,” she said after the engine huffed to life. Nikhil nodded, noticing the astringent chemical scent that plumed around him when he maneuvered the gearshift. Macy sat on her hands.

“I’m sorry I’m such a bitch.”

Nikhil nodded, unsure how to respond. He’d never been on a date with a girl, nothing more intimate than a partner project in the library. He wondered what sort of things a girl like Macy would want to hear.

“I can be normal,” she continued, looking out the window. “I used to be normal. Here—ask me something. Go on. Anything you want.”

He swallowed. “I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do. It can be anything. Like—I don’t know—what’s your favorite flower?”

He glanced at her, a side-swipe to verify she was really curious. For once she met his gaze. He sat up straighter, cleared his throat.

“My mom used to plant marigolds,” he said. “Back when we had a garden. Every spring.” Macy didn’t speak for a long time; Nikhil felt the silence chisel a space between them. Just when he thought he’d misspoken, thought the chasm would swallow them whole, she laughed. It sounded hollow, debris tumbling down bedrock, but it was a laugh nonetheless.

“We had a garden, too. My mom was too goddamn lazy to take care of it, so she paid Austin to do it.”

Something about Austin’s name seething between them felt disconcerting to Nikhil, inauspicious like a humid winter night or storm-charred afternoon sky. He couldn’t muster anything more than I’m sorry, which he said to the dashboard.

“He was always there,” she said as Nikhil steered into the Home Depot lot. And she didn’t say anything else, except that she’d be out in a minute and that he should keep the heat running.

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