I watched the stone as it jerked from my hand and jumped far too high into the air, before taking a nose dive back towards the stream. A disgruntled looking duck gave me the evil eye and fluttered noisily up onto the bridge, a moment before the stone hit the water with a thump, throwing up spray before sinking heavily to the river bed.
I sighed and shifted position on the bank, picking up a lighter pebble to try again. I used to be good at skimming stones, now I chucked them like a cricket bowler. It was just a pity I could never throw a cricket ball like that, or it might make up for it.
Drawing my arm back to throw the new pebble, I winced momentarily as sun spots filtered through the willows danced across my pupils, forcing me to wait until my face fell into shadow again to release the stone. I didn't really expect a result any different from that which I had been getting for the last half an hour, a heavy thump and more splashing, but hey, it was always worth another short. There was nothing better to do.
This would be far more fun with a friend, but they were all busy, somewhere without me, I'd heard them talking; and even I had to admit "Hey, you want to spend an afternoon chucking stones at a stream?" Didn't sound like much. The pebble soared into the sky higher even than the previous stone, missed the stream entirely and landed somewhere amidst the rushes. At least the last one had hit the water.
"Well you're not going to get far throwing them like that, are you." I looked up. There was a girl sitting on the bridge where the duck had been, bare feet swinging loose and kicking idly at the wall. The wind blew pale brown strands of hair round her face, but I caught a brief glimpse of light blue eyes revealed underneath.
She put her hands behind her and launched herself into the stream to wade across to perch on the bank next to me, ignoring the pebbles sticking into the soles of her feet. I winced for her; that must hurt.
"If you throw the stone the same way each time, it's hardly going to land differently is it. If you want it to land properly, throw properly." She picked up the conversation casually, as if it wasn't at all odd that she had been staring at me for who knew how long in silence, evaluating my stone skimming skills.
Ah well. "How do you throw it then?" If she knew how, she might as well show me. She looked about my age, maybe we could get on later, if she introduced herself properly.
"For starters, you're picking the wrong stones. Too round, too jagged, too small" She picked a large, flat, shiny stone. "Then you need to put more of a spin on it and you don't want to throw it up, just across, see?" The stone slid gently from her palm and across the water as if it were glass, only sinking at the other side of the stream. We sat there and watched as it disappeared soundlessly beneath the surface.
"Now." She prompted. "You try." I looked down and pulled some grass up, twisting it around my finger. Why could she do it and not me?
"I've practised." She said. "Lots. I have plenty of time on my hands." I just shrugged and pulled up some more grass. Was it that obvious to people how annoyed I got when they could do something I couldn't?
"No." She said. "I'm just perceptive."
I turned to her. "What?" She fiddled absently with her hair and smiled, sweetly. "You wanted to know whether it was obvious you get upset,when people succeed and you don't? Well it's not. You really cover it up quite well. Like I said, I'm just perceptive."
"Yes." I mumbled. Yes. I hadn't said that out loud though, had I? About wondering if people could tell when I was jealous of them. Maybe I had, maybe I couldn't even control my mouth any more.
"Oh no." The girl interrupted, in an assuring tone. "You didn't say anything. I could just tell. Just like I can tell you're upset, because you're friends are at a party and you're not invited." I turned and stared at her, shocked. "It's a shame." She added, as an afterthought. "You seem like a perfectly nice girl to me, I don't know why they don't like you any more than you do."
I looked at her in blank amazement. "How?"
She laughed. "How did I know you were jealous of me, for skimming that stone? How do I know your friends didn't invite you to that party? How can I tell you're a nice girl anyway?"
I gave up talking and just nodded.
"Well, there could well be a perfectly reasonable explanation. Maybe you just have that sort of face."
"You can't tell all that from someone's face." I spluttered. "Besides, my face couldn't tell you how to"
"Finish all your sentences?"
"Yes." I banged my fist down on the bank in annoyance, then grabbed it and cradled it in my other hand, wincing in pain. I really needed to remember not to hit things, it hurt.
"You are a little closed minded." The girl chided. "You can't prove I couldn't see all that in your face. I mean, I didn't, but I might have done. I'm afraid I can't tell you how I worked all those things out. It always frightens people when I tell them I can read their thoughts."
I looked up at her sharply again. "You can what?" She clapped her hand against her mouth and banged her head against the bridge, then drew it away without showing any outward signs of pain. She was the same with the stones, you could probably stick a knife in that girl and she wouldn't feel a thing. Well, she reads my thoughts, she can't feel pain either, why not?"
"Sorry." She said sheepishly. "I really didn't mean to tell you that, I do this every single time. I'm having a nice conversation and then I start answering people's questions before they've asked them and once they've realised things are never the same and we just can't be friends. Every single time." She hit her head on the bridge again.
"What do you mean? I asked, voice rising slightly. "You do this a lot then? Sit on river banks waiting to read people's thoughts and scare them away?" I edged away from her, felt my hand land in a patch of nettles, looked back, saw I could go no further without sitting in the midst of the plants, cursed and edged back towards the girl, against my better judgement. Maybe I could hit her on the head, with a rock or something and just run away and forget about her. She frowned, tiny wrinkles creasing her brow as she stared at me.
"Well that's not very nice." I would have asked her what wasn't, but she meant the rock, of course she did. I couldn't hit her over the head, she would just see it coming.
I eventually settled on a question instead. "Who are you anyway?"
She thought for a moment, tipping her head to the sky and watching as the duck from earlier touched down on the water again and bobbed there warily, watchful for more stones.
"My name's Araera."
"No it's not." I started, then checked myself. "That's an interesting name." Araera, if that's what she was called, just laughed at my discomfort.
"Oh, it's not my real name, don't worry, you're not being rude. It's just far more interesting than what I'm actually called. I would tell you my real name, but that would rather defeat the point of making a name up, don't you think?"
I almost, almost, hit something again, then stopped. She was so evasive, maybe I should slap her. No, slapping people wasn't nice and anyway she probably wouldn't even notice. She reminded me of someone. Who did she remind me of?
"You." She said, as if it was obvious. "I mean, you made me up after all. You look surprised, which is odd really, you came to the same conclusion forty seven seconds ago precisely."
"So I made you up." I said aloud. "Did I? I don't think I'd have made up someone as annoying as you. I'm allowed to insult you now, I think, if I made you up. Did I subconsciously want to punish myself or something like that, so I made you annoying?"
She shrugged indifferently. "Well, I think it's unlikely and if you made me up you probably think the same. To be honest, you probably just tried to make yourself. That's what most people do, because there's not much you can disagree on with yourself. They say even God made man in his own image. Perhaps you're a bit on the irritating side."
I picked a leaf off the willow tree, tore it into pieces and let them fall into the stream, watching as they drifted away. "Perhaps. Maybe that was why they didn't invite me to that party." There was an awkward silence.
"Well," she said "I'll be off." Just like that, she was gone. No sound of receding footsteps, nothing. She was just gone. How strange. So maybe I had made her up. If so it was worrying. I'd always been able to imagine things, but never that vividly. Maybe I was mad, maybe she was, maybe we both were. Probably the last one.
Looking at the river, I could still see the stone she had thrown on the other side. So she did exist, she was lying. On the other hand, if she did exist how had she disappeared like that?
If she was really just me, like she's said, or basically me, I was rather annoying. Then again, I thought I was likeable, in my own special way. So, if people didn't like me, they could go hang. Then again, maybe she wasn't me. Maybe I was annoying, but not likeable.
I turned to the duck. "Was she like me, or was she not? Was she real or was she not? You might as well judge, I don't know. It's all rather confusing." If ducks could look puzzled, I thought, they would look like that. "Sorry." I said, "you probably don't get asked questions like that much. You're only a duck after all. Or maybe people ask you things like that all the time, just like me, because there's no one else to ask." Someone should make a study into that one day. How often do ducks get asked philosophical questions?
I picked up a stone without thinking, then turned and looked again. Dropping it, I carefully selected a new one. Bigger, flatter, shinier. Concentrating hard, I let it loose gently from my palm.
It didn't go as far as hers, but while it remained moving, it was perfect. When it fell into the water, I watched as the ripples spread and slowly faded to nothing. The duck looked on, unmoved.