“Tangerine” by Helena O’Connor

She squeezes sun like grapefruit into a glass. Preserved and pressed until the rays are marmalade thick, condensed, and orange rich. The scent of burnt sugar. Bittersweet, like tangerine.

“Shall I teach you?”

I sniff, snagging a strand of red-streaked bacon fresh from the stove. She’s teasing. My sister knows a night girl can’t bend the sun. I compress the dark. I steal the shadows and always have.

“I’m going out.” My mouth is drip-full of bacon grease and the words are chewy.

“What’s she like, this friend of yours?”

“She bakes rainbows.”

“Invite her here. Are you embarrassed by your sister?”

I shake my head, sucking on bacon fat. I hate-love my sister sun shaper. The way she holds the light like an insect, turning each glass this way and that. Crafting her captured fires. The beauty in it.

My jars of trapped darkness lie in another room, away from prying eyes. No one needs the murmurs of angsty shadows over breakfast. The marmalade-glass shimmers, rays solidifying like amber. When I leave, my sister is setting the glass on the shelf with the rest of her collection.

I hurry to your home. A sweet journey through silk grass, humming the melody to freeze moonbeams. I’m not embarrassed by my sister. Our endless dance of light and shade. I knew you wouldn’t come if I asked. And you shouldn’t. Shadows aren’t safe for a rainbow girl. They block out the light. I come to you. That’s how things are.

Your hut is made of rainbows. Colors stream from small windows, bathing the trees in incandescence. Crystal shapes flicker from the ceiling. When you walk across the room, rainbows twinkle all around you. Your own tiny symphony of stars. When we kiss, rainbows shine in your eyes. Do you see them in mine?

You bake cookies with shimmering technicolor chips. We eat them after swimming, sunning ourselves on luminous rocks with waterfall-spray cold against our flushed faces. I bask in your rainbow smile. Say that I love you. When a piece of rainbow cookie sticks to your chin, I lick it from you. Your eyelashes flutter, dandelions spinning on a spring breeze.

The next day, you visit me. I never asked, yet here you are, and my heart flutters on fragile wings. My sister juices sun in the kitchen. The rays from the row of glasses are warm as we sit on velvet stools and watch her twirl the sunlight. Ephemeral solar patterns weaved in humble glass. She’s showing off–pleased I’ve found a friend. Casually, you ask to see my room.

Your fingers are warm in my cool hands. I’m always cold, but you don’t seem to mind. I take you into my shadow glade. My room, black as night. The jars that line my walls are full of twisted shapes, squirming and writhing against their prisons. Yearning and whispering.

“You sleep here?”

“Of course.”

Your expression is not judgmental nor afraid. Surprised perhaps. It’s hard for someone who spins rainbows to understand the comfort of cold dark. My murmuring shadows. These jars have always brought me peace. The thought of you disturbs my sleep far more than the darkness. I don’t know how to explain.

I’m showing you everything I have. This room, the dark, is who I am. To me, my jars shine brighter than all my sister’s endless suns. And I need you to see me. So much it hurts. I’ve never let anyone in this deep. Am I enough? I have to be enough for you. And I’m terrified I won’t be.

You listen to my shadows—their whispers and moans, head held close at an uncomfortable angle. The way your hair brushes your forehead and clasps your neck, it’s everything. As you come to understand the creeping words your expression shifts, like longing, and my stomach twists.

“Are there shadows the other side of my rainbows?”

I don’t know what to say so I pull you to the bed. I’m shaking as you lean into me, our breathing soft among the shadow shapes and dark. We meld together. Our kisses are fire. I can’t catch my breath when you touch me. Your hands sizzle across my cool skin, making stars. Rainbows mingled with my dark. Colors I’ve never seen. My void is ripped open to the sun. You are my first. My only.

“I like her,” my sister says after you leave.

I stare out the window, and my breath keeps catching. Is this what they mean; love changes you? Because my shadows were always enough, and now they aren’t. Not even close. I want to see more. Touch every part of you. Taste your bittersweet, burnt sugar, tangerine heart. Lick rainbows from your dandelion eyes until I die.

We drink each other in over the slow-burn summer. Sunsets ripe with soft tangerine glow. On the first day of fall, you vanish. Your hut is empty. The rainbows are turned ordinary glass. A note on the table reads: I want to see more.

You’re gone. My rainbow girl. Leaving a hole in me. My shadows are no comfort. They whisper and moan, but I can barely hear them. I only think of you. Our iridescent love.

My sister tries to understand, but how can she? People never leave her. She only draws them in with her warmth. She spins rays like amber whirlwinds to heat me, but it’s no use. The chill is all the way through, heart and bones. My soul is cold.

“Where did she go?”

“To find the other side of her rainbows.”

“Is she coming back?”

I shake my head, a lump squeezing my throat. The shadows are too strong. I should know. They say I ate rainbows as a child, but I don’t remember. The shadows are all I have, my constant companions. You were a single light, a beacon in my dark, and now you’re gone.

My sister frowns. “You caught one. I don’t believe it.”

I hold my head at your uncomfortable angle as she scoops a solid tear from my cheek. Sunlight burns within the drop—a spark of amber sorrow. Rainbow-edged. A memory of you.

Her face is happy-sad. “You have to let the light in, to catch it. She taught you.” Her voice cracks, aching to cry.

“Why did you never teach me?”

“It hurts to shape the sun. I should know.” I look at my sister sun shaper with new eyes, see the pain lurking beneath the warm-glow surface. “I wanted to protect you. My little night girl. Let you live in the murmuring dark, for as long as you could.” Tears glimmer in her sun-stroked eyes. Relief shines there too. She must have been lonely, all these years. Squeezing the sun with a smile, unwilling to let me in. Waiting for me to find my own way, until we could shape the sun together.

“We sip rainbows, then chase shadows,” she says with a sigh, “and finally we shape the sun. It means you’re all grown up.”

“I’m not ready.”

“No one ever is. It hurts, letting go of our former selves. But it’s always been this way. The cycle of our people. You’ve always been a sun shaper; you just didn’t know. No matter how well we taste rainbows, the shadows are too strong. No matter how much we keep to the shadows, eventually we have to touch the light. This is who we are.”

When I go into my room, the shadows are muted. Faded almost to clear glass. I no longer hear their voices. Can scarcely remember their whispered words, or yours. All I can see is the sun. So bright, it’s blinding. Searing the past with an inescapable glow. A rite of passage that burns deep inside, leaves me gasping.

I turn my solid teardrop this way and that. There is beauty in it. The reflected light from my reluctant sun-shaping. At its heart, the tear glows burnished, faded orange. The color of forgotten dreams. Lost love. The scent of burnt sugar. Bittersweet, like tangerine.

Helena O’Connor is an Australian academic turned writer with fiction published in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, Aurealis, and Nature: Futures. She likes coffee, video games, and bittersweet tangerines. Twitter: @HelenaFiction.