Warnings: Non-graphic sexual activity by minors.
Summary: The summer before Claire starts high school, she's uneasy.
Author's note: First femslash. Please be gentle. :) Thanks to carmexgirl, perdiccas, and boymommytotwo for betas/title suggestions.
Even for Odessa, this summer is hot. The sun rolls across the sky with big spiny ragged arms and burns everything in sight. Shadows are deep and inviting pools of coolness that disappear as you get close, like mirages in the desert. Everything lies half-dead, scorched, flat.
It's the summer before Claire starts high school. Public high school, it's been decided, although her dad fought mightily against the idea. She's not sure why. Lyle goes to public school. She knows she's Daddy's favorite, but she doesn't quite get why she gets coddled, why she's so special. But Mom won the fight, and that means Claire will enter the real world come September.
Claire's got no reference point for high school. The private school she'd been in was a quiet, small, enclosed affair. Twenty students and three teachers, and that's all she's known for nine years. At least Jackie is making the leap with her. They've promised to hold hands as they dive in.
But Claire's uneasy. Lately Jackie's been different, hounding Claire to try out for cheerleading with her and talking constantly about boys and makeup and cliques. They're the same things they talk about in the high schools on television and in books. All that stuff bores her, and she's afraid of it. She doesn't want to be crammed into a little box and told what and how to be or end up cast out and lonely.
Claire's afraid high school will change Jackie, and Claire doesn't want her to change. Claire doesn't want to end up changing herself, either. She's afraid she's not strong enough to stand up to those forces-- popularity, pressure, stress-- that seem to drag everyone into their orbit. Will she be able to resist that black hole? Or will the bright lights turn her to cinders, like the sun does the grass on this hot day? She lies on the ground beneath the abandoned oil rig, squinting up at the bright white expanse of sky, and longs for something incorruptible, unchanging. The burning bush that is not consumed. Something invulnerable.
She gets on her bike and continues to pedal around the outskirts of town aimlessly. She likes it out here; it's wild and a little bit lost, just like Claire is. Today she's wandered further down the highway than usual, in search of her invulnerable something, just pedaling and listening to the sound of her heart speed along with the whirring spokes. A building sits lonely along the dusty road, and Claire accelerates, curious.
The sign makes her laugh. What kind of diner names itself Burnt Toast? That's like naming a baseball team the Strikeouts. She hopes the food isn't actually burnt. At the very least, she needs a glass of water. She's parched.
She walks in and looks around. Only a few diners. Some truckers. A jukebox and a cluster of photographs. Laughing faces, jovial grins and jowls on elderly cooks with gray mustaches or hairnets. A community. There's a younger girl among them too, pert and cute with a flash of red hair and a winning smile. Claire likes the look of her. She wanders over to the diner counter and picks up a menu.
The doors squeak behind the counter and with a flash of silver and glass that same young girl is right there in front of her, in the flesh. She's wearing a uniform and a name tag, and her red hair is a cloud of mist around her shoulders. She looks like something refreshing, cool and clean. Like a drink of water. Her lips have a sheen of pinkish gloss on them that makes them seem moist. Claire is fascinated. She can't tear her eyes away.
The name tag says Charlene, but the girl says, "Hi, I'm Charlie. Can I take your order?" Her voice is soft and there's a Southern softness but sharp, twanging Texas edges to her vowels. Strong and soft. Claire wants to lie back in the hammock of her voice and close her eyes, enjoying the cool shade of sound.
"Hi," she hears herself say, but her voice is dry as dust, and she coughs.
"You need a glass of water," Charlie says, frowning, and Claire laughs through her cough. Charlie's frown is just as severe as her smile is gentle, but she still looks like heaven. Luminous like the sun, but not harsh. The sun burns everything it touches, but Charlie couldn't burn toast.
She grabs the glass Charlie pours for her and drinks down the coolness. Why does water taste so sweet when it's so cold? Next to her, Charlie chuckles. "What are you doin' so far out here? You can't be fifteen."
"Fourteen," Claire immediately pipes up, and Charlie laughs again. She looks like someone who laughs often. "Anyway, you're working here, and you're not so much older."
"No, I'm not." Gentle smile gracing her vision again, and Charlie leans forward, propping her chin up on her palms. "Gosh, you look just like someone's little sister," she says. "You have a big brother or sister around to protect you?"
Claire shakes her head. "I'm the oldest," she says.
"Oh, that must be scary, being the oldest and fourteen," Charlie says. "I don't know what I woulda done if I hadn't had my older sisters. I'm the baby of the family."
"I'm Claire," announces Claire loudly. One of the other diners turns around in the booth to look.
Charlie's face is blank for a moment, and then she smiles. "Nice to meet you, Claire," she says.
"What's high school like?"
The question's out before Claire can tamp it down, and Charlie's lips part. Her forehead furrows in worry.
"I mean," Claire says quickly, "is it as bad as the movies and things say it is? Because it seems really bad."
Charlie looks at her for a long time. Finally, sympathetically, she says, "Yeah. Yes, it is sometimes. But it's not forever." She leans in as if in confidence. "And by the time you're done with it, you've got a badge of honor. You're strong enough to do anything if you can get through high school. You can walk through fire and not get burned."
Claire's eyes go wild and round. She feels like Moses coming upon the burning bush. "Wow."
"Aren't you sweet?" Charlie gushes. "I wish you were my little sister. We'd talk about everything, and I'd help you just as much as I can."
The sun shifts overhead and sends angled rays in through the diner's window. Outside there's nothing but desert, but Claire's found a sanctuary. Maybe Charlie meant the words only in passing, but they've ignited a desire in Claire that won't let go. She desperately wishes Charlie were her big sister for real.
She orders eggs and toast, which comes out unburnt, of course, and then some tea, and then strawberry pancakes. Charlie laughs merrily and wonders how she can pack so much away in that tiny frame. The hours slip away in pleasant conversation and shared smiles, and when the sun's dive beneath the horizon is nearly complete, Charlie invites Claire back through the kitchen to the back steps, where she likes to sit and watch the desert turn sharp oranges and reds in the last hours of daylight.
The dumpster smells a little bit like banana peels and rotting lettuce, but it's not too bad, and the bulk of the metal casts a cool shadow over the pair as they sit. There are cigarette butts strewn over the area, but Charlie swears none of them are hers. "You can't risk your life with that stuff," she declares. "It's stupid. I'm going to go around the world someday, when I've saved up enough money, and I'm not going to cut my life short so I can't enjoy it."
"Around the world? That sounds fun. Where would you go?"
Charlie stretches out her legs and leans over to touch her toes. "Everywhere," she says as she straightens up. "I want to see mountains and oceans and forests and all the things we don't have around here. I always wanted to visit Japan. I want to drink their tea and look at the beautiful fabrics. They do wonderful things with folding paper, too. And I'd like to see Africa. Can you believe, I've never been to a zoo? I want to see what giraffes and elephants look like. For real, not in pictures. And manatees! Have you ever heard of a manatee? They call it the sea cow. In the pictures they look ugly, but they're supposed to be very gentle. Someday I'm going to swim with one."
She's been bouncing animatedly, the cloud of orange at her neck shifting and swirling around her like so much dust, but her eyes drift far, far away as she speaks. Claire imagines she's trying to see all those forests and jungles and mountains, and there's something sad about the way they keep trying and failing to conquer the limits of the horizon. Claire puts a hand on the slender one in Charlie's lap, as though making that connection will allow them both to see the future they're hoping and waiting for.
The faraway eyes return in an instant and Charlie's looking at Claire, no further. The gaze is almost reverent, as though Claire herself were the jungles of Africa and the green tea of Japan. "It's so funny," she says in a low, bemused voice, "but I feel like you and I have something in common. Something really deep down. It's nothing I can name, but..."
"We're sisters," says Claire quickly.
Charlie raises her free hand to Claire's face. Fingertips are light on sunburnt cheek. "Yes," she says quietly. "Sisters."
Impulsively, Claire leans in and kisses her on the cheek. She means to sit back down, but something in the heat of Charlie's breath stops her a few feet out, and she stares into eyes that are so close and so bright with life. She exhales, and Charlie's lower lip shines and trembles at the feel of the breath. Claire stares at her lips again. They're still shimmering with gloss, and it's like she's finally found the oasis that she'd thought had been just a mirage. Real and sweet, just a breath away.
They kiss, something tentative and unsure. Testing, touching the sun to see if they'll singe. They don't, they survive, but there's warmth deep inside that is hot but liquid and welcome as water. Claire sits on Charlie's lap and puts her hands on the back of her neck, and the two girls sit kissing on the back step of the Burnt Toast Diner as the sun disappears beyond the horizon and the desert goes from red to blue.
After work, Claire takes Charlie out to the oil rig. They sit under the stars on the rocky expanse of nothing and touch each other tenderly, searchingly. Charlie surprises Claire when she comes; it's not something Claire ever thought she'd do to another person. But Charlie tells her it's OK, it's OK even to do it to yourself sometimes, too, and Claire blushes because she has. So she touches herself now, and Charlie's wet pink soft mouth is all over her, and afterward they pant and sweat in the hot Texas night, smiling at each other. They lie there until midnight and laugh softly, swapping secrets like sisters.
Dad's mad when she gets home, and Claire knows she probably won't be allowed to go out on her own again this summer. That's OK. Claire doesn't need to go back. She has a big sister out there somewhere who loves her, and that's enough.
Over the years, she holds the image, the taste and feel and sound of Charlie, close to her heart. Charlie becomes not quite a human being; she's an angelic dream, a fading memory of a faraway day. And that's what she should be. Jackie may change and the world may change and Claire herself may even change a little, but Charlie will always be the same in her mind. She's unchanging, incorruptible. Invulnerable to time or pain.
And when things fly apart, Claire closes her eyes and hears that cool, gentle voice. And she knows that by the time she's done, she'll walk through fire without fear.