His rib twinged on inhale. Streetlamps lit the night waxy and the air smelled of damp asphalt—it must have rained that evening. It was quiet on the roof. Reid preferred the rumble of the freeway to the buzz of fluorescent bulbs. He ran his thumb over the zippo's spark-wheel and flicked it ablaze, the cigarette hissing as it caught flame. The stars winked down at him, as if the nightly puffs of smoke carried his secrets right through the atmosphere and into their orbits.
"Thought this place was meant to break bad habits," April said and scrunched her nose at the cigarette. She sat on the ledge of Gilmore Sanitarium's roof, legs crossed, her nutmeg hair hanging wavy and frayed just below her ribs. Her dress's yellow hem sprawled over her knees.
Reid laughed. "Think I've got bigger things to worry 'bout."
"Things like me?"
April smeared the little piles of ash that had been flicked onto the ledge, relics of Reid's nightly habit. Her fingertips stained black with soot.
"Heard your doctor talking last night, thinks you might be ready to leave this place soon. 'Course he doesn't know about me." She wiped the ash on the fabric of her dress, smudged fingerprints. She narrowed her penny eyes. "What do you think?"
"Doesn't really matter much what I think. Not in a place like this." By now the cigarette was halved in length. It fizzled on inhale.
"Matters to me." She flicked a tress of hair over her bony shoulder. Her movements were gangly and broken. Seventeen now, she still looked girlish. Never really filled out the way most other girls did.
Reid's eyes flicked to the doorway. On the other side, the hallways were fluorescent and sterile. The lights hummed with electricity, swarmed in his ears like bees. Three months and he still wasn't used to the acrid smell of bleach.
His first week in Gilmore, he painted the night sky. Every night at seven—after dinner and before medication—he sat behind a dusty easel and worn canvas. Blobs of paint crusted around the corners on his palette. Some nutjobs painted faces, the devilish ones that whispered bad things in their ears. Others painted families, pets, one-story homes with a fat oak in the front yard. He painted the sky—peacock and mulberry, with little dots of yellow as the beckoning stars. His fourth night there, Miss Genevieve had given him a tube of silver.
"Here, boy. Use this to paint the stars. Paint them how you remember them. I know the stars ain't yellow." She was short and stout, hair graying and skin sagging. She smelled like soap. She had a gap in her teeth and tattooed eyebrows stuck in permanent surprise. All that week she brought him different paints, from ginger to olive to cherry wine. She snuck him caramels when the other nurses weren't looking and brought him old mystery novels that she was leaving behind during the move. Her daughter and baby grandson were waiting for her in Kansas.
On her last night, her eyes skipped around to make sure no one had followed them. She led him to the stairway.
"Now I ain't have the energy to climb those stairs, but there's a door up there. A door with a lock." She handed him a small, silver key, frigid in his palm. "I think the stars'll do you some good here. Don't do nothing too stupid."
Three months ago, she'd left him with one last gapped-tooth smile and a key to the roof.
April glanced to the doorway. "You thinking about Miss Genevieve?"
Reid nodded and ashed the cigarette on the ledge. He tossed the butt into the dewy grass below and sat next to her—she smelled like maple syrup. Cars zipped on the freeway half a mile from them, their headlights dancing shadows across April's face.
"Know what's funny about the stars?" he asked.
"Most of the ones we see are already dead."
Her eyes softened.
"Part of me wonders if I should stay here forever. Not much waiting for me back home," he said. "Maybe I'll keep letting 'em think I'm a drunk or a schizophrenic. Least here I have you." He nudged her shoulder.
She sighed. "Some point you've got to let me go, been six years now." The timid breeze carried a strand of April's hair to his cheek. He let it rest there.
"Come 'n catch me, slowpoke!" April laughed.
The June sun beat down on them, the smell of fertile soil and dewy grass in the air. April ran barefoot through the strawberry field, her yellow dress like melting butter in the breeze. She was eleven, then. Reid chased her, a stitch in his rib.
"My mama runs faster than you!" She called over her shoulder.
His ribcage felt ready to snap in two, but his legs pumped faster. She ran and ran, her syrupy hair flowing behind her. Her heels kicked up soil.
When the sky faded from lapis to lavender, they sat at the brook's edge. Cool water bubbled around their ankles as they ate PB&Js. Crickets chirped unseen.
"Mama's boyfriend's getting bad again." April said after a while. "Comes home drunk and mad most nights." She slid her dress up her thigh—plumes of purple and blue stained her pale skin.
Reid put his hand over hers. "Come stay with us. We've got that extra bed in the hayloft."
She smiled, but her eyes didn't crinkle in the corners like they usually did. "Can't leave mama alone in that house."
At thirteen, Reid wished he could do more. His brother had taught him that sometimes people need an ear, not a mouth. Be a good listener. Be a good friend. Then Manny went off to the military. Left him with a zippo lighter and a piece of advice.
So, he listened.
They watched the stars that night, stayed out even after the crickets went to sleep. They made up their own constellations. They watched the sun rise.
The stitch never went away. Bloomed in his ribs from running too fast and lingered from letting April walk back into that house that morning. A six-year-old ache.
"Yeah, I've got to let you go at some point," he repeated. "But not today, and probably not tomorrow either."
She nodded and set her hand over his. He looked up at the stars.
"Besides, probably shouldn't leave the nuthouse when I'm still talking to a ghost."