Michelle and her two friends saw the young man walking down the broad stone steps of the Fleet Stairs. He paused when he reached the bottom, and for a moment she thought he might turn and see the three of them sitting on the grass watching him. Instead, he jumped the last few steps, crossed the foreshore path in two large strides, before hoisting himself onto the squat stone wall and sitting with his back to the three school girls, his legs dangling above the harbour water and rocks below.
“Look at the way he moves, will you.”
“Uh huh,” said Sarai, nodding. “He’s beautiful.”
The three girls were sitting to the right of the Stairs with their backs to the small cliffs marked with rock climbers’ chalk. The young man took off his coat and laid it down beside him. Michelle chewed her lip and pushed the hair out of her eyes but the breeze blew it back. Twenty bucks, she told herself.
Rachel nudged her and Sarai made a noise through her teeth. “Go on, then,” she said and gave Michelle a little push so that she had to put out her hand to keep from rolling.
“Don’t push me. All right? I’m not quite ready yet.”
“You said you would. You might not get another chance.”
“He was here yesterday. He’ll be here again tomorrow.” Michelle wiped the damp grass from her hands and continued her battle against the breeze but the hair kept flipping back, brushing against her cheeks and eyes. ‘Anyway, it’s getting late. Don’t wanna get busted again.”
Sarai looked at her watch. “Only just after seven. No way are we gonna be late.”
“Don’t want to rush, you know,” said Michelle. “Got to be ready. Anyway I was thinking about that history assignment.”
“Bullshit. You’re just scared.”
“Shut up, Sarai. I’m not.” Michelle pushed the hair out of her eyes again.
“History assignment? You hate Cooper.”
“I like history, but.” Michelle smiled and then stared at the man on the wall.
He had started his whistling. She wasn’t close enough to hear it but some birds had arrived and were sitting near him, some on his coat, some on the wall. Both his arms were stretched out beside him with his palms resting on the stone, one of the smaller birds was perched on the back of his left hand.
“Go on,” said Sarai again. “Thought you could do anything, Chelle.”
“I can. Just not ready yet. That’s all.”
“Well, hurry up,” said Rachel. “I’m hungry. We could go get breakfast.”
“You’re always hungry,” said Michelle.
“And s’got to be proper. Okay?” said Rachel, ignoring her. “Tongues and everything.” Rachel stuck her tongue out and licked her lips in demonstration.
Michelle turned to her and glared. “As if you’d know what to do anyway, Rach.”
Rachel blushed. “Yeah, like you know any better than I do.”
“Sure she does,” said Sarai. “Chelle knows everything. Especially about boys.”
“Shut up,” said Michelle. “I know more than you two, that’s all.”
Sarai rolled her eyes. “So do it then.”
“I will. I am.” Michelle stood up rubbing her backside damp from the dew. “I said I’d do it.”
“Doesn’t count though if he won’t be in it.”
Michelle nodded and looked past the tall young man and his birds to the light shining on the water, on the tiles of the Opera House, on the metal and glass skyscrapers. She shielded her eyes with one hand, keeping her hair as well as the sun out of them for a few moments.
“Hurry up then,” said Rachel.
Sarai laughed. “Yeah, do it, Chelle.”
Michelle turned and looked down at Sarai and Rachel. She lifted the chain out from under her shirt and kissed the small golden crucifix that dangled from it.
“You are scared,” said Sarai.
“No, I’m not. I’ve done it before.” Michelle slid the chain back under her shirt. She pulled at her hair, conscious of the mess, in the steady breeze it would not stay in place. Did she really need that twenty bucks? She drew in a deep breath, but quietly so they wouldn’t hear it, and started her short walk down the slope to the path.
“Reckon she will?”
“He’s gorgeous,” said Sarai, staring at his back. “We should’ve picked someone ugly.”
“Nah, an ugly guy’d kiss anyone.”
They watched Michelle pause briefly before crossing the path and climbing onto the stone wall a short distance from him.
“I’d be too scared.” Rachel pulled up some grass with her hand.
“Yeah. Me too.”
Michelle eased herself up on to the wall. How bad would it be if she turned back? She glanced at Rachel and Sarai, thought about not getting the money, them telling everyone, and stirring shit out of her for weeks. She walked along the wall on tiptoes, slowly, a little skink darted out of her way as she crept closer. Then another one. Then a small grey lizard. Kind of gutsy of them to be taking in the sun so close to those birds. She thought the young man would turn and say something as she got nearer. He didn’t.
He continued his whistling. She could hear it now, tuneful and melancholy. She disturbed more lizards and then the birds as she approached. The birds flew up, hovered a moment, and then settled on his other side. Four more steps and she’d be in his lap.
When she was so close that it was hard not to touch him, she stopped, and lowered herself onto the wall, letting her legs dangle beside his. The stone of the wall was cold. She shivered.
His whistling turned to humming, then to singing. His voice was beautiful, like his face. Michelle’d never heard anyone sing so well. She didn’t recognise the words he sang. It wasn’t English. Wasn’t any language she’d heard before. The birds seemed to understand it though. One by one they flew up, hovered around the young man’s head, and then when the tune changed, flew away.
Michelle felt something prickling along her skin, something electric that felt neither bad nor good. She drew her knees up under her chin and hugged them. What she was about was not just a dare, not just showing off in front of her friends, not just for the money. Her skin tightened. She turned and raised her head to look up at him. Every reflex in her body twinged, said run. Without conscious thought, she was afraid. He turned to look at her and the moment when flight was possible disappeared.
She recognised him. Not his face, but what he was. She couldn’t move.
He smiled. His short red hair did not move in the breeze. It was thick but soft looking. She swallowed and looked into his eyes. They were the colour of the darkest green on her mother’s malachite jewellery box. An impossible colour for human eyes: dark, dark green. His lashes were long and black like his brows.
“Are you going to kiss me now?” he asked. He swung his legs around, sat cross legged in front of her. “You’re very pretty,” he said sounding amused. “I have no objection to a kiss.” He reached across and brushed the hair back from her eyes; this time it stayed back. His hands were overly warm, as though he had a fever.
“I–” Michelle paused for a moment overcome with dizziness. She closed her eyes and willed herself to be proud and strong, not to let him laugh at her, not to dissolve into her fear. She opened her eyes and raised her head. “Yes,” she said, not letting her voice tre”mble, “I’m going to kiss you.”
Michelle knelt so that they were face to face. She inched a little closer. He was so beautiful. She felt his breath hot on her face. He smelt sweet, cloyingly sweet, like fairy floss, no, more like ripe, ripe pineapple. I am not frightened, she told herself.
Michelle felt herself tingling as if she were about to start shaking; she was determined not to let it show on the surface of her skin. She put her hands on his shoulders–hot beneath her fingers–then let her lips touch his face. First she kissed his right cheek, then his left, then she kissed his forehead, then his chin. She felt him cool just a little beneath her kisses.
“I’m stronger than that, you know,” the man murmured.
Michelle felt the heated breath of his words against her lips. She placed her lips on his and kissed him dryly. Then she made the cross with her lips again: both cheeks, forehead, chin, he cooled again, but he didn”t say anything. She closed her eyes and moved back to his mouth, parting his lips gently with her tongue, feeling the heat inside him. She thought about pulling away, sliding from the wall, walking back to her friends. They had already kissed. She had done it. She could walk away. She was not afraid. She was afraid. She could feel nothing but his heat, his body. What if she opened her eyes and everything else—her friends, the harbour, the city, all of it–was gone?
She probed the insides of his mouth. Hot and dark and electric. She twined her tongue with his. Her awareness centred on her mouth, his mouth, as they wrapped round each others” lips, teeth, tongues, sucking, licking, barely drawing breath. It felt good. It felt bad. It hurt. She was afraid. She felt as though she were dying. Dissolving. Something started in her head–her heart? her breath?–beating out the repetitive strains of a wordless prayer learned rote. She tried to focuss on it, to make the prayerbeats run through her veins.
She felt the heat come off him in waves, felt sweat run into her eyes, down her back, between her breasts. Felt her fingers burn as they ran along his spine. She felt her hair crinkle, smoulder, vanish in flames. Felt thorns, horns, crowning her head. Above it all, surrounding it all, she felt the heat of their mouths, of their kiss. She gave his bottom lip a trinity of kisses and felt her temperature cool fractionally. She did not want to dissolve.
He leaned closer into her; she held him tighter. She felt the pressure of cold stone on her back, the heat of his entire body pressing down on her own. His hot hands began to scorch their way up her leg under the brown skirt of her uniform. She felt her underpants burned away into nothing, felt his hands moving between her legs. She felt as if their bodies might fuse into one, as if her skin were melting, revealing muscle, tendons, blood, bone, marrow beneath, and all of it were merging with his.
No, she thought. No. It hurt to think. The tiny prayers in her head were nails. She bit down again on his lip, once twice thrice. The prayerbeat began to swell, to pound in her temples. A crown of blood formed around her head. It hurt worse than any of his fire, yet the trickle of it down her face was soothing. Gave her strength. She sent words out along her throat and into his mouth, Hail, and his hands shifted away from her skirt, Mary, and he drew back from her a little more, Full, she felt hair against her face, Of Grace, he moved up and away, their mouths still interlocked, she moving with him, until they were sitting upright again. She kept the prayers coming and continued to kiss him–tongues, lips, teeth–until she was drenched in sweat and her prayers were stretching themselves thin.
She pulled away with all her strength, removed her mouth from his. There was a faint popping sound as tongue, teeth, lips finally disentangled. It stayed in the air a moment before vanishing. Michelle opened her eyes. No part of their bodies was touching. There was a only thin layer of air between them. Michelle tried not to be afraid.
He was smiling, dark-eyed and beautiful. Michelle slid her hand under her shirt and gripped the crucifix tightly in her hand.
“Congratulations. On your little victory,” he said, moving forward through the air wall as though it were nothing. He pushed back her fringe and planted a kiss on her forehead. She felt it grow, sharp and hot, into her skin. “My victory will last much longer.” He jumped down neatly from the wall, picked up his coat, and bowed to her, low and elegant, before turning and walking away.
Michelle stared at his red hair for a second. She blinked when her eyes opened he was gone. She wasn’t shaking. She didn’t think she was. It was as though her nerve endings were dead, or too alive.
“What?” said Michelle. She turned to see Sarai and Rachel grinning at her.
“Here’s your twenty bucks. You sure can kiss.” Sarai and Rachel laughed nervously.
“My what? Oh.” Michelle took the money and tucked it into her pocket.
“Did you like it?”
“Was it fun?”
“Was it gross?”
“It looked gross. Did you really like it?”
“Was he a good kisser?”
“Do you think he’ll be here tomorrow?”
“Yeah. Is he going to be your boyfriend now?”
Michelle said, “Yes,” without thinking. “I guess he is.” She felt the imprint of his lips under her fringe and said nothing else.