"There is always hope," she told him. "When that dies, there is nothing." Ever since they had grown up together he had not said a word about the strange way she made things slow down. He would be with her when everything was still, and she would just sit quietly, breathing so slowly and so calmly that the whole world slowed down with her. The leaves fell so gently that their winding journey down to the ground would take days, the branches they had left behind now swaying as unhurried as the things that grew deep under the ocean. When they were by the sea, he would look at her, watching her hair in the breeze, wondering why it never slowed like the tide did, and when he looked back at the waves he sometimes swore that they were turning backwards, just for a moment before they noticed him looking. In that moment he felt like the years of his life were beginning to unravel with them, like paint liquefying, washing back over a fresh new canvas. That was when he felt like there would always be hope, when everything else was gone.
It only ever happened with her. He had never seen it in anyone else, and that was why he loved to be with her. He turned to look at her now, her eyes so peaceful it was as if everything she looked at let go of all its wild energy and settled into a soft calm, endless atoms releasing and slowing their vibration until they could finally rest. She reminded him of the lakes he had seen in all those pictures of mountains he loved to look at, mirrors of water with surfaces so flawless he couldn't tell which part was the reflection and which part was real. She pretended not to notice him looking as she stared out at the ocean, but he saw a faint smile touch her lips, and he felt a deep and sudden urge to say something to her, something big that would change things and shift what was inside both of them, but he didn't know what to say.
He looked back at the sea, and the waves rolled back, ever so slightly. He turned to her again. "I want to know how you slow things down," he told her, breaking the silence that he had held onto for all the years he had sat with her. "We might not see each other again, and I want you to stay and I want to know."
This time she turned to him and smiled, a broad smile that turned into a grin. "Really?" she asked. "Do you really want me to stay?"
"Yes," he said, smiling back at her, suddenly feeling a rush of nervous terror. "I want you to stay and I want everything to stay like this, forever."
She leaned over and hugged him for the first time in his life, and although it was just a quick and gentle hug, he felt all of her warmth and knew she had been waiting to hear him break his silence. "Then I'll stay," she said, and sat back, smiling.
He watched the sea moving, speeding up, back to how it was before she came, then they got up and walked back to meet their families and go home. Both of their parents had been joking all week that their children were now too old to come away on family holidays together, but he knew that it was more than just a joke. He knew that if he hadn't said anything today, then it would have been the last time he could sit with her.
When he got home he stood in his room and wondered what to do. He no longer had to wait another year to see her. He had moved from the comfort of something known into an unknown world of possibility, like finally noticing and opening a beautiful book he had only ever walked past.
He thought about her a lot, and when he realised that with the passing of time he was only thinking of her more instead of less, he knew he had to go and see her. It was still summer, and the long days were slowly creeping into September and painting their lazy sunsets across the blue sky, and he went and saw her and took her into the countryside where there was no-one else to be seen.
He sat with her and they watched everything, the wind and shadows of clouds skimming over the grass, and he began to notice that things were not slowing down like they used to. He looked over at her and wondered why, and he saw that she no longer looked so peaceful as she sat next to him. He frowned, but decided not to let it worry him this time, and after an afternoon spent amongst the rustle and shadows of trees they went back home.
He saw her again after that, but again it didn't happen. He remembered their last holiday, telling her that he wanted to know how she did it, and he realised that since that day she had never done it again. He wondered if finally breaking his silence had stopped it forever.
He didn’t know how many days or weeks had passed before he finally asked her. "How did you do it?" he asked, but all she did was turn and look at him with a strange expression of being lost. "Why did you stop?" he asked her.
"I can't," she said eventually. "Ever since you told me, I can't do it."
He just sat quietly, looking at her, watching her as she turned back to look out over the grass. He felt a weight settling in his stomach. "It's me?" he asked her, but she said nothing. "If it's me then... then I have to go."
She turned to him again, and he saw that her eyes were so deep and so blue that when they filled with her tears they looked like those crystal-clear pictures taken of the earth from miles away out in space. They looked like the perfect mountain lakes after the surface has been touched, a perfection ruined, just like when he had broken his silence and told her, sending out the ripples that forever stained the picture.
The tears in her eyes spilled over and ran down her cheeks, their wet trails thinning and disappearing in the breeze, and when he got up and left her she stayed there, still sitting and watching, not moving and not saying a word.
When it got dark she wiped away her tears and stood up to go home, the air now cold against her face as she walked back. When she arrived she stood, not even hearing the voices of her family and what they were asking and telling her, and she went up to her bedroom and locked the door, staring out of her window at the garden it overlooked. She watched the moonlight slowly rise and throw the soft dark tendrils of its shadows across everything, and she knew it was all her fault. She had never told him that she could only make things slow down when he was near her, and now she had let him leave and would never see him again.
She sat until the moon went down and the sky lit up with the morning, and she watched the sun's shadows chase away the darkness, moving and turning across the grass, the wind blowing clouds of blossom like confetti, and the more she looked and the more she cried the slower it all seemed to get, the subtle movement of the whole world stopping in its tracks and freezing, a minute's silence where all that could be heard was her, all alone, now standing up and walking down the stairs of their sunlit house through the frozen shafts of floating dust, out into the garden to stand in the freeze-frame of floating shadows and suspended petals, surrounded by drops of dew that would never quite hit the ground.
She sat down in the damp grass, in the middle of it all, and she closed her eyes, squeezing out more tears that fell from her cheeks and down through the still air, slowing until they froze just above the grass. She opened her eyes again and saw them, reaching out to touch them, feeling them wet on her fingertips. She drew a long breath and began to breathe slower and softer, deeper and quieter, until she was almost as still as the air around her.
Slowly, very slowly, the shadows turned back and lengthened again and the blossom floated up from the ground, back onto the trees, and the dew sped up as it travelled back onto the leaves and back into the air, and she knew that somewhere the waves on that same beach were flowing backwards too, faster and faster until the world began to spin the other way, creaking as it reversed all its engines and moved back around the sun, and her own tears were flung upward into the air and time peeled back to reveal the blank canvas of life before she had met him, before even their families had ever met. She cried and cried as the earth threw everything back outward and shed its weight to discover a long-forgotten hope, and when she was gone everything very slowly returned back the way it was meant to be, back to how things should have been before it span away down the tangent it had somehow been led to take, the fork in its path that never should have been there.
Like fragments of paper thrown into the air, everything settled back down and found its place.
They were born, a boy and a girl, separated by miles long enough to keep them apart. This time there was no chance meeting, no coincidence, no synchronicity to flap its butterfly wings and recreate the storm whose brooding eye had watched over them before.
It was only an infinitely small memory, like two windows passing, a train past a bedroom, when the earth felt a glimpse of its own déjà vu. At that moment it let them peer through their windows and see each other again, at the precise moment where last time he had sat on the wall and told her and she had hugged him.
He was sitting in the exact same place on that exact same wall, when she walked up and sat next to him, precisely where she had sat before, down to the tiniest atom. There was no-one else to be seen as the wind came alive and whipped the sand and the water. Without even looking, he knew that something had just completed itself, and that the one gap that had nagged him all his life was now closed forever.
He looked at her and knew in that instant that he had always known her. He smiled. "It's you isn't it?" he said, and she smiled back at him. "Yes," she said quietly. "It's me."
He watched the waves, driven into wild rolling hills by the wind, crashing slower and slower into the sand, hanging in the air until they would take days to unfurl, and in that perfect moment he knew he had to be with her. Whatever had happened last time, whenever or wherever they had been, this time they would never fall apart. "It's different this time," she said, as if she had known exactly what he was thinking.
They never parted after that day, and sometimes, even years afterwards, whenever he looked at her he would wonder what had happened when he had known her before. Everything felt so much like he had finally got there after the moment had long gone, like the settled still aftermath of a storm he had missed, like he had entered life at old age and found peace only at the expense of missing all of the vivid experience his youth might have held.
He would watch her and think about all of those mountain lakes he loved so much, and he would wonder which part had been real and which one was just the reflection.