It is the year 2010 and the summer sun drives beads of sweat across my face with torrents of heat pouring over my skin, drenching my clothes and making my hair stick to the skin of my neck, cheeks, and forehead. I drown in the sunlight as though I am a baby who has opened her eyes and experienced open air for the first time, all sensitive skin and mouth, throat, and nostrils gasping for breath. I am suffocating and I think I will surely pass on before I can acquire my own driver’s license. I breathe, pushing air in and out of my face as my feet step, calves pumping, thighs burning. Almost there. Just a few yards more. Up ahead, River Yang laughs, his voice mocking and bold, thick like maple syrup but not as sweet.
“Too slow, Wren. Too bad.” River lifts his arms to the sky and grabs fistfuls of blue atmosphere. He jumps in celebration, fingers more than grazing an outstretched oak branch, landing on the balls of his feet with his legs spread wide apart. He is joy and bliss in human form, his accomplishment turns him into a caricature of satisfaction. A crooked smile stretching across his face threatens me with shame for my failure, encouraging me and my oxygen-deprived lungs forward. When I do finally reach him he reaches out his hand for a slap. “Getting slow there, Wren.”
“Hey,” I gasp out the words, “when you’d become superhuman.” My hands on my knees I pant, my sides aching, the lunch in my lower intestines seemingly reversing its journey through my gut.
“We can’t all be Superman, some of us gotta be backup. You’re Robin. Get it? Since your name is Wren.”
“Robin’s my cousin. Six times removed. I might as well not even be related to him.” I slap River’s right hand, meaning for a quick grasp and release but he holds on. His fingers and palms are rough and calloused from playing ball. There is a mud stain on his shoes from football practice with his teammates. He pulls me into him and for the first time but definitely not the last, I feel a twinge somewhere deep inside that region where they say your heart lies and where they say we all have a vulnerability to the sharpened tip of cupid’s arrow, but I say, they lie. It’s all in my head. Just oxytocin and dopamine from not having a close friend and suddenly I’m dancing in the streets under the midday sun with none other than my stepbrother, River.
His post-puberty tendons tense and jump under the skin of his forearm. I can smell the scent of his sweat, the liquid soap my family places in the shelf by the shower head, and the laundry detergent we use on our laundry. I can feel the warmth emanating off his torso. His chest tapers into shoulders rounded by football practice and late hours lifting weights with teammates laughing about “pumping iron and girls.” I sneak what means to be a furtive glance at his face but find myself ensnared in Cupid’s crosshairs. Above, sun beams glint off River’s russet hair, like a reddish-brown beacon for homesick girls like me, lost and confused, who return home to a place that no longer recognizes them. His eyes are blue like an ocean that has never known peace, a sea of chaotic waves and currents that maroons sailors on islands not yet discovered, yet not worth noting discovery for lack of flora, fauna, and human life.
“River.” The word comes out sounding more like an involuntary passing of gas between my lips like a belch, or as my middle-school self would have said, a burp. His once-confident smile falters. He gives me a quick glance-over, my sweaty hair hastily tied under a baseball cap, wayward strands escaping under the rim stuck to the sides of my neck in a sticky mess. My T-shirt untucked and knobby knees with calves that could do with more than a bit of toning. His pouty lower lip teases me with the words he is about to breathe into existence, but then he lets go of my hand and backs away. Wordlessly, he leaves my realm of indecision and constant cautious hesitation and returns to his world of athletic bravado and bold curiosity and clever puns. River walks away from my insignificant corner of the world with my obsessive insecurities and crazy hopeful thoughts and returns to being River, the athlete, the straight-A student, the good son. River the stepbrother, and I, his younger sister.