©2019 The Talon Times, 4375 Foothill Rd, Pleasanton, CA, 94588

picture (im)perfect

by Andrew Huang (12)

“Joshua, it’s here!”

Josh jumped, snorting loudly as his head leapt out of the warm heap of his arms. “Y-yeah, I got it.”

        His tired chair creaked as he rose, the cracks of the faded leather crying their age back at him. He yawned and arched his back, pulling his tee up just enough to show a hint of his snow-white stomach. He sat back and looked down. His Nikon DSLR camera sat in front of him, an stark hunk of modern technology on his worn, wooden desk. Tiredly, he rose once more and stumbled down the stairs to the front door. He’d started to worry he wouldn’t get the lens before he had to return for college for his senior year.

        The TV was still on the loading screen of Galaga, forgotten as he’d gone to pick up the new lens from the front door. He trudged across his cranky floorboards to turn off the monitor. Without looking, he turned and flung his controller at the corner of his room at a beanbag, imagining it hitting the target without a sound. 

 

        The controller crashed onto the floor, knocking over some photos, piled high in a cardboard box. He sighed. He had never been an athlete. 

        He picked up the stack of dusty photos, rearranging them and shuffling them back into order. They looked familiar, but all his photos started to look the same after enough time.

He read the title off the first in the stack. “snow astrid.”

Looking through the stack, three were blurred, messy photos.

Why did I print these again?

*

caption: snow astrid

January 10th, 2011

         Soft ruffles of melting snow sat upon the overhang of Lot 402, as condensation gently crept up the door of his car. Josh took a deep breath, holding it in, 1, 2, before slowly letting it out into the frigid air of the night, leaning against his mom’s ancient car that he’d snuck out. He smiled in wonder as the cloud of warm breath diffused through the air of the abandoned parking complex, illuminated by the lone lamppost he stood next to. His camera hung against his chest, the worn neckstrap of 5 years smoothly wrapping itself into the familiar groove around his neck. He glanced at his watch. Late again. 

         Of course Astrid was late. She was never on time, unless she cared to be. Astrid always liked to give herself a challenge. She’d always wait until as late as possible, before racing to wherever she had to be next. “Pressure’s the best motivator,” she always said.

         A high-pitched shout startled Josh out of his thoughts, slicing through the duvet of silence that lay thick across the empty space. 

         “FORE!”

         A dense snowball flew from behind, splattering through the thin canvas of his Converse. He threw himself back, yelping and grabbing at the sparking cold enveloping his foot. Shivering, he sighed and turned. Still running on her own schedule, dramatic as ever, here she came. Her Highness, Miss Beautiful Stupidity.

         A figure approached from the darkness, slowly coming into full view as Astrid ran down the hill behind the lot. She moved with confidence, not accuracy, choppy blonde ponytail and all. Josh grinned as she slipped and narrowly missed a rusty pickup by the entrance. Dumbass. 

        “Hey, loser! Watch where you’re going. Hurry up!”

         Astrid groaned. “I’d never thought I’d sound like my dad, but I do now. The night’s still young, Josh.” She drew out the “young” mockingly, and rose to her feet in the nearly empty parking lot. 

         Josh stood up straight. “At this rate, Astrid, the night’s gonna die of old age before we do anything. And I’ll get you back for that snowball. My foot is freezing!”

         Astrid smirked. “Your turn now.”

         Astrid hopped up onto the roof of the car, laying back with her feet dangling, swinging and smacking the passenger seat window. Josh slid himself across the beaten hood and jumped onto the roof next to her, glancing down at her before laying back and swinging his legs over the edge as well. Unconsciously, his kicks fell into a rhythm with the sound of her combat boots knocking against the thick glass, dull thuds spaced ever so slightly apart. The stars were exceptionally bright tonight. 

          Astrid didn’t miss a beat. “We haven’t a clear night in so long. It’s a miracle it’s not snowing right now.”

         Josh snorted. ”Don’t push it. With our luck, it’ll snow in five minutes.”

         A comfortable silence ensued, the quiet impact of their feet swinging in tandem against the car the only noise as they stared up into the crisp sky. Josh raised his camera, lazily snapping a shot of the stars.

          Astrid exhaled. “I’m dead tired. I had volleyball practice, and Dad dropped my math notebook off during lunch and was late, so I couldn’t sneak off to shoot. I barely got any sleep last night either, so I almost fell asleep during tutoring after dance. I didn’t get home until like, 11.”

          Josh smacked his forehead. “Why did you agree to come out? It’s literally two weeks before exams. You should be sleeping. Everyone knows teachers love to sink our grades right before finals.

         “Psh. I’m fine. I have like, an 83.”

         Josh rolled his eyes. “Astrid, have you ever thought of like, slowing down?”

         Astrid grinned now, from ear to ear. “Relax, Josh, we’ve got all of high school left. Slowing down is for losers. Besides, you could never catch me. You never do.”

         “What if you don’t make the team AND fail?”

         Astrid snorted, bursting out a laugh. “Come on, stressball. A 1% cushion is enough. Shut up about grades already and let’s have some fun. I still need to practice my dance.”

         Josh began to flush, crimson waves of embarrassment rolling across his face. “Um, no thanks, Astrid. I can’t dance. You know how people say they have two left feet? I have three.”

         She shrugged. “Your loss, loser.”

         She took off her zip-up hoodie, the soft maroon fabric rolling off her milky white skin smoothly. Flipping it inside out, she took the vintage arms of the sweatshirt in her hands, sweeping a sleeve over her shoulder and grasping the other in her right hand. She strutted gracefully in the snow, fast steps throwing up clouds of powdery snow like ballroom dust. 

Josh sat up, watching the burgundy blur of her jacket partner twist and turn, curving to the shape of her body. She really was Miss Beautiful.

          Astrid missed a beat and tripped over herself, stumbling into the snow. Clumsy too.

Laughing, Josh rose his camera to his eye, positioning her squarely in frame. He’d never let her forget this. She came into focus, dripping snow and frustration. Smirking, he adjusted and placed his finger, ready to take the picture.

Lightning-quick, Astrid turned, winking devilishly, and just as the shutter snapped, she lunged to her right, blurring out of focus. 

*

caption: white ambulance

April 14th, 2013

         Josh sat at the table, scrolling through his phone, his uncomfortable tuxedo pants scratching his legs. He itched his thighs fruitlessly through the scratchy fabric, then stood. 

         “Astrid, hurry up!” he yelled up the stairs. “We’re gonna be late! I can’t drive 6 trillion miles an hour!”

         “I’m coming, you dope. I’ll be down before 8. Come up here and do my eyeliner yourself.”

         Josh glanced at the clock above the kitchen counter before sitting. The hands read 7:45.

         At 7:59, Astrid sauntered down the stairs. Josh stood and rolled his eyes, muttering “Finally,” but he couldn’t help but smile. She looked damn pretty. Her old chopped blonde hair was now a long, silky mane of gold, cascading over her slender shoulders. 

         Astrid laughed, jabbing her finger into his side. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! Whatever happened to being late?”

“I’m coming. You weren’t so keen on leaving 20 minutes ago.”

         “Well, you’re driving me, not Matthew, because he can’t. You always drive fast, doofus.”

         He smirked. “You know, I could’ve driven Jessica instead of letting her mom take her in the van. I’m doing you a favor, Astrid.”

         “Boo-hoo, you didn't want to drive your date. If I didn’t know any better, Josh, I’d think you wanted to go with me. It’s too bad Matthew asked me first.”

         Josh rolled his eyes. The sarcasm dripped like poison off her tongue, corroding into his heart. “Sure, Astrid.” Maybe I did.

         A suburban neighborhood, Hunter Court was usually peaceful. The occasional Mustang would speed through, shaking trees and drawing disgruntled mutters, but the second-hand minivans and old pickups that populated the community usually drove past at a reasonable pace. Accidents were few and far between, and Josh wasn’t too nervous about the traffic.

         Walking to the car, the biting cold cut Josh like a blade, slicing across his skin. Beside him, Astrid started to shiver. Glancing over, Josh suddenly whipped his jacket off and wrapped it around her. 

         “Wha-”

         “Shut up, you’ll freeze in that dress.”

         Blushing, he unlocked the door and got in, glad for the slight distance.

         Josh strapped the seatbelt in, feeling the tension against his chest. The passenger front door inexplicably forever locked, Astrid opened the rear door. A slight wistfulness awoke in him. I wish I opened the door for her. He turned the key, waking the old sedan, its ancient engine shuddering to life and sloughing off the old age and freezing snow. 

         Reversing into the street, Josh glanced up at his rearview mirror, and caught sight of Astrid, earbuds in, playing music in the backseat. He paused, the car jutting out halfway in the frosty street.

         The green in her dress really brings out the green in her eyes.

         Astrid looked up suddenly, smiling as she matched his eyes. 

         “What’re you looking at?” she teased.

         “Stay right there. Don’t move, I’m gonna take a pic.” If Matthew gets to dance at junior prom, at least I’ll have this.

         Josh scanned the passenger seat, searching for his camera. Her emerald eyes gleamed in the darkness, the hazy thickness seeming to drape itself across her shoulders. 

         “Josh, if you take any longer, they’ll lock the gym before we even get to park.”

         Josh brought the camera up to his eye, directing it at the mirror. He focused, locking the set of green gems into frame. The wail of an ambulance rose from down the street, but it seemed muffled, distant.

         Astrid sat still, staring back at the mirror. Josh flashed back to the parking lot, smiling at the memory. The last time he’d taken a picture of Astrid, she’d soaked him in snow. She wouldn’t get away this time. 

         The sound of squealing tires suddenly filled the air, and with a blur of green dress and blonde curled hair, Astrid whipped around, just as Josh clicked the picture.

         “Josh, dri-”

         Josh frantically threw his camera aside, throwing the gear out of reverse, into neutral by mistake, and then finally into forward. He slammed the gas down, fast. Not fast enough. 

         The ambulance slammed into the backseat of the sedan. Everything moved so fast. The thick crunch of the door, the rolling of the car, Josh and Astrid thrown against the roof, sliding, scraping, slipping, rolling again. Grey spots swirled in his vision, pooling and expanding, black pouring into grey. The world slowly faded away. 

         Josh awakened to the sound of sirens and yells, half-awake and groggy. The sirens reminded him of his alarm clock, beeping him into reality every morning. He felt a vague sense of fingers, grasping and pulling at him, and suddenly, a floaty weightlessness. The ambulance didn’t beep when it hit the car. Or him. Or them. Plural. Why, who, where? A single word drifted into clarity through his haze. Astrid. 

         Something was wrong. He could feel himself sliding upwards now, rolling into a white space, covered and layered in nothing but white. A fuzzy memory came back to him now, of something white, something soft and cold, a snowball. Where was she? Astrid. 

         His thoughts flitted back and forth, overextending and exhausting him. His head seemed to sink even lower in the pillow as the pain began to throb harder. Suddenly, he saw her in front of him, her grinning smirk and sweet voice mocking him. “You’ll never catch me. You never do.” 

         Josh reached out to grab her, stretching his arm as far as he could. Astrid flitted away, within a mere inch of his fingertips. Come on. So close. She laughed at him, teeth glinting in the pale manufactured light of the ambulance. “Too slow, Josh. You should’ve grabbed me when you had the chance. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.” She wagged a finger, toying with him. A scrub-clad arm floated into his vision, grabbing his arm and pushing him back down into the bed.

         Astrid began to fade, slowly drifting into a brilliant white. Hold it, Josh. He struggled to hold the thought, straining mightily to open his eyes. Hold it! Astrid’s image flickered, slowly eroding, her smile slipping away, nose dissipating, fading, until nothing but her eyes, glimmering with laughter, remained. He couldn’t hold it any longer. Unable to overcome the heavy weight of his eyelids, the shutters of his mind snapped shut.

*

caption: imperfect landscape

October 14th, 2013

         Josh opened the door of his new Civic, brushing off the sandy dust that drifted off the roof onto his shoulders. The soft orange of the setting sun shone through the trees behind the parking lot, fractals of light slicing their way through the leafy trees. Looking up at the grassy slope behind Lot 402, the sunset fading across the gentle arc, he could almost see Astrid sliding down recklessly, with a flying ponytail and a gentle carelessness that made her so much prettier. Josh raised his camera and snapped a blurry shot of the landscape. An imperfect background, surrounding the blurry subject of his memory. He sighed.

         It had been six months since Astrid had left town. He still remembered the day she left, seeing her dad’s pickup rolling out across the city limits and waving from his mountain bike. She didn’t wave back. She never even saw him. 

He hadn’t told her he was following her out, that he’d memorized the license plate on the back of their truck, and woken up at five to get a headstart so he could see her pass by that rusted welcome sign at the edge of town. In fact, he hadn’t really told her anything.

         He didn’t tell her what he’d thought when she came to tell him she was moving, what’d flitted through his mind the instant she hugged him before she left. He didn’t tell her how he wished he could give her the prom dance had been taken away from her, the one he had taken away from her. He swore he could still smell the scent of her perfume lingering on the sweater he was wearing. He’d never told her to stay. 

         She’d weakly smiled at him, gingerly stepping inside, wincing at the sharp pains still lingering six months after the accident. “I can’t stay. Not after the crash, not after all the bad memories. I can still hear those wailing sirens at night, Josh.” He’d agreed. How could you ask her to stay after all that? It was such a selfish thought, he’d chided himself. 

It was all his fault, wasn’t it? The crash, her leaving, his regret, his jealousy. He could’ve acted earlier. Was that the word? 

 

           No, he could’ve just acted. He could’ve told her how he felt, could’ve asked her to prom instead of Matthew. He could’ve taken that damn picture faster. Faster, braver, better. Anything but being scared would’ve kept her here.

He missed the late night trips to the parking lot, their midnight talks. Rain or shine, the routine had rolled on. He missed that stability, that direction. But she wasn’t here to lead him anymore, to show him where to go. She was gone now, nothing but a bittersweet memory stringing him along. Astrid’s voice rang into his ears, bright and clear. Your move now, Josh.  

         Astrid had always been ready to move, screw the consequences, let’s go. 

         A pang of warmth shot through his chest, radiating outwards, swirling to his toes, and rolling to the roots of his hair. No more what-ifs. It had cost him enough. Astrid’s face flashed across his eyes once more, smirking. It was time to go now. 

         Josh turned away, determined and content. Time to get in frame.

end.