Blank eyes stared up from the bed in a way that made James shudder internally, his dark eyes hiding the slightest hint of fear that filled him every time he entered the room. “Sarah?” he asked, his voice ripping through the tangible silence like a knife through meat. “How’re you feeling today?” the same dead eyes stared up at him, the pupils barely distinguishable from the irises as the long-haired female remained silent. “I’m good, thanks,” a brilliant smile crossed James’s lips; the kind of smile that made people swoon, the kind of smile that sent hearts fluttering a hundred miles an hour, and made other men feel the tiniest sliver of jealousy worm its way into them.
He settled down comfortably on the chair beside the female, watching her with bright eyes despite the emotionless gaze that pierced through him. “I brought a book, I found it in the library, and I thought that you might like it,” he said, his rich voice met with a musty silence before he slid the book out of his messenger bag, reading through the title on the cover before holding it out to the female on the bed. James watched, his eyes encouraging as the dark eyes grew nervous, the irises seeming to lighten as they flicked from his face down to his hand, before flicking back up to his face again.
“It’s for you, Sarah,” he said, his voice softening as he stretched a centimetre more. A trembling hand reached out from under the blanket, dropping back to the navy blue quilt before lifting itself again to touch the yellowing pages of the book. Finally, James released the book, watching as the girl nestled it between her thighs, wedging the thick spine between her stick-like legs and flipping open to the first page.
It’d taken James a few days at the home to find out that Sarah preferred quiet activities, as opposed to the others that always wanted to leave the gated compound, or play a game that broke the calming silence or even play an instrument in a way that made screeching cats sound melodious. In fact, a few weeks into the programme, and James was pretty much content with watching Sarah read her books or play a board game in the haven she’d managed to turn the plain white room into.
The feeling that bubbled in his chest; that simmered like a well-cooked stew, filled him up and sent a buzz of happiness through him more than any one of those little pills or injections ever had. There was a sense of calmness Sarah managed to keep around herself, even when she was pushed around by the rest of the teenagers that walked through the doors of the home, and even when James had seen her get a bloody nose all for the sake of a little girl who’d lost her one-eyed bunny in the wrong parts of the garden.
The creak of the door as it was pushed open slowly forced James out of his trip down memory lane, his dark eyes widening in silent panic before he relaxed as he recognised Gary, the leader of his group. “James? What’re you doing here?” the older man’s voice was a little confused, but otherwise not suspicious, James grasped in relief, watching as the man walked into the room, greeting Sarah easily before realising that the girl had frozen in place. “Err … James, we’re having a barbeque, why don’t you try to get Sarah down?” James nodded soundlessly, before the man sidled out of the room in a way that made James think that he was mimicking a crab.
The barbeque hadn’t been as successful as they’d thought it would be, James mused as he piled into the van after Gary. “Well, that was great for a day, guys,” Gary said as he faced the group at large, clapping his hands together and breathing hotly against them to warm them. “Steve, Tom, I see that you guys played with the kids more today,” Gary began, his tone familiar in the sense that Tom instantly caught on, talking about how he’d wanted to give them a feel of a fun-filled childhood before Steve cut in to say that he’d simply not wanted them over his grill.
James chuckled along with the rest of the group at that; Steve, the resident mom, not saying that the man was feminine, because he really wasn’t. Any decision within the group was ultimately vetoed by him, and surprisingly, the rest of them hardly ever objected, seeing as the guy could have easily gutted any one of them with his bony hands alone.
“James?” it took him a few minutes to realise that, number one, Gary was staring at him, his mouth forming words that refused to register in James’s head, and number two, he could feel six other pairs of eyes on the back of his neck. “W-what?” his voice was rough as he spoke before he cleared his throat, flushing a pale pink before Gary repeated his question.
“You seem to have grown pretty close with that girl,” Gary said, and instantly, James felt a flash of warmth over the back of his neck, an uncharacteristically shy smile crossing his lips before he forced it off his face. “H-huh?” he scratched the back of his head, eyebrows meeting in the middle of his forehead before Gary reached forward to hit him playfully. “She’s just a girl,” James shrugged casually, his dark eyes once again hiding the emotion that threatened to break through the cool façade he always put on. “And?” Gary prompted, his tone encouraging James to speak more.
“I just don’t like seeing people alone,”
The first time that feeling tore through James, he was walking home after classes, his nose buried in a book thicker than any dictionary he’d seen yet, and he’d seen a lot of dictionaries. The formulae and the reasoning was easy enough to understand, he noted as he swerved around a fire hydrant, before hopping over an out-of-place brick easily, his eyes still fixated firmly on the confusing little diagrams that were laden with lines and dots and crosses that were arranged in patterns that made him want to gag.
It only took him twenty seconds away from his book to see the man sitting against the pole, the pathetic excuse for a shirt hanging like the rags his father used to wash their old car every weekend on a body that resembled sticks in a sack. It took him a further twenty seconds to reach the man, crouch in front of him and offer him the untouched lunch that was still warm in his bag. There was a kind of happiness that filled him momentarily as he saw the lovingly prepared lunch his mother had managed to sneak into his bag vanishing into the beard of the older man.
Sure, the man was half-deaf, his blurry replies yelled out in the open street where anyone and everyone that heard him created a wide berth around both James and the man, but his story was one that made James put a hand on his shoulder and help him up onto his feet and down the street to the restaurant that served hot soups and teas. Hours later, when James finally had to excuse himself and leave, he’d never actually felt any better, the ever-present weight in his chest having been reduced to nothing even though the money he’d been trying to save had also been shaven down to a few coins that clinked noisily as he walked.
No one would ever find out that he’d done that, James would later realise, as his mother yelled at him, tears soaking her cheeks even through her anger when James walked into the house in the blackness of the night, with an empty wallet, and soaking wet from the sudden downpour. He’d even taken the beating his father had given him silently, the belt leaving welts in his skin that made it uncomfortable to sit for days after that, and made him scared enough not to ask for money for the two months after that.
The next time James saw Sarah, he was telling the kids a story around the ‘campfire’ he’d made in the hall with the torches they’d scrounged form the corners of the house. His arms waved around excitedly, his smile feral in the white light as he mimicked all sorts of sounds he hadn’t thought he was able to. The girl was sitting cross-legged, a thick woollen blanket covering the thin excuses she called legs and arms. Beside him, he could feel Gary shake as the older man doubled over, wheezing pathetically for breath before he pushed James aside, cutting him mid-word as the children instantly whined.
“Sorry!” Gary yelled out, yelping as a four-year old pelted him clumsily with caramel-covered popcorn, the sticky kernels diving between the thick locks of hair, sticking to the strands with a vengeance. James laughed gaily with the rest of the group, his dark eyes flicking to watch Sarah cover a smile with her curled fists, her blank eyes brightening as the blond beside her fell into her lap.
The rest of the night seemed to go on rather well; James surmised as he helped Tom and Steve pack the remainder of the food they’d cooked into containers, the older man ordering the both of them around like a drill-sergeant. Just as they were leaving, a dark shadow appeared in the darkness, James’s eyes adjusting in the lack of light to see the four-year-old who’d pelted Gary with popcorn wrap his arms around the man’s middle, his button-eyed bunny dangling endearingly from one hand as he tried his best to hug Gary around the waist.
Later, Gary would have sworn that he’d been holding back a sneeze, but in that split second, James saw the tiniest sliver of tears in the man’s eyes. “Go to sleep, kid,” Steve said quietly, his voice low so as to not disturb the multitude of kids and teenagers who were sprawled out over the living room in make-shift ‘tents’ and sleeping bags that were simply bundles of blankets held together between their match-stick fingers.
James strolled easily into the neat little house, tossing the ball that flew at his face back at the lanky teenagers who simply yelled out an apology before resuming their thunderous match, feet hitting the cement like a never-ending drum solo that made his chest vibrate. A smile crossed his lips smoothly when he caught sight of the white-haired couple that simply grinned cheerily at him before resuming the black-and-white movie that was playing on the large LED screen.
By habit, he walked into the kitchen, pulling the fridge open to check on the number of containers that littered the shelves. Shaking his head, he began removing the empty containers, before cringing and realising that the only other person who would have done this was probably Steve. Behind him, he heard the water in the sink begin to run, before the familiar sounds of a wash rag on plastic filled the air. The man frowned in confusion before turning to look at the familiar dark-haired girl.
“Sarah,” he whispered her name softly, almost afraid to speak too loud; almost afraid that she would shatter before his very eyes if he did. “D-” he watched as the girl swallowed thickly, her voice a hoarse whisper as her cheeks flushed crimson. “D’you want to … go for a walk?” it was amusing to watch her twiddle her thumbs, her dark eyes moistening with rare emotion as she flicked them between James and the container in her hands. “Sure,” James chuckled, biting his lip to stop himself from smiling too widely as her hair shifted to frame her small face.
Sarah allowed herself to relax as she leaned against the tree, her fingers holding her legs to her chest as she stared up at the clouds as they drifted overhead. “Why’d you volunteer?” she heard herself ask, her voice shy and quiet despite the bright-eyed smile James shot to her. “It’s a group thing … rehab …” he seemed embarrassed, as his voice died away, not giving away details like he usually did. “Oh,” Sarah’s dark eyes were unusually serene as she turned her attention to a tree, dark eyes roving over the star-shaped leaves that curled as they fell to the ground.
Beside the girl, James sighed, his vision blurring as he leaned against the tree trunk, spirits dampened slightly by the vague memories he still kept even after months of trying to bury them.
He let out a sigh as he pushed the plunger down, the cloudy white liquid entering his bloodstream and sending a spasm of pleasure running through his veins; the sensation thick, heavy and permeating every cell in his body as he sagged in the worn-out leather chair. The cigarette between his lips rolled lazily, a puff of smoke leaving his mouth before the roll of paper fell to the ground. The crease of his elbow was dotted with specks of darkened, healing skin, a few of them turning crimson when the movement of his arm sent a few of the scabs fluttering to the tiled floor like flecks of dust.
His vision was completely blurred, he realised as he frowned, trying his hardest to focus despite the weights that seemed to pull his eyelids down. About an hour later, or … maybe less, seeing as he wasn’t at the peak of his abilities, James could already feel the heavy heat in his chest grow, thundering over the roaring pleasure the shot had given him.
“Another …” he fumbled with the syringe, the needle twisting and almost breaking as he pulled it clumsily from his arm, hissing in pain before tossing the used item aside, his eyes narrowed angrily. He cursed when he realised that he’d run out of shots, a vain attempt to stand sending him sprawling to the floor where he lay for a few moments before crawling to a cupboard. “Dammit,” he whispered, colourful curses spilling from his lips when he failed to open the wooden door, the short stubs of his nail scrabbling uselessly against the smooth, polished wood before he managed to force the door open; the flap swinging on its hinges weightlessly.
James managed to drag a bottle of amber liquid out of the cupboard, the glass rolling on the tiles dangerously before he pulled a small bottle of pills, the transparent plastic showing him that there were only a few more pills lying pathetically at the bottom of the bottle. “Here we go,” a lopsided smile crept onto his face as he shook the pills into his hand, his hazy brain still managing to count out the five white spots on his caramel-coloured skin.
The moment he chased the pills down with the whiskey, he felt his brain turn into mush, the sensation similar to someone making mashed potatoes with a vengeance. The bottle slipped from his hand, the thick glass shattering easily on the tiles. A weak groan left his lips when he felt the edges of his vision turn black, a half-hearted panic making him twitch as he leaned back against the cabinets, a lone tear leaving his eye as he let his world go black.
“I checked myself into rehab after that,” James said quietly, his eyes still fixed firmly on the darkening sky as he spoke. Beside him, Sarah simply listened, her fingers tearing strands of grass from the ground, weaving a green braid from the strands before looking up at James when he fell silent. “Thank you,” James said suddenly, shocking Sarah out of the silence that had momentarily taken over the clearing they’d sat themselves in.
“For?” she was adorable in her confusion, James mused as he smiled softly down at her, his dark eyes glistening in a way she’d had to see yet. “Listening … no one really listens,” James muttered, falling silent as he looked back up at the sky, before scrambling to his feet, cursing when he caught sight of the crescent moon.
Hours later, after James had apologised a hundred times over to the owners of the house, and to Gary who’d been waiting patiently for over two hours, he caught sight of a well-dressed woman leading Sarah out of the house, her expensive heels clicking noisily on the white tiles as the girl followed her obediently, her arms holding all her worldly possessions in a worn-out cloth bag that was tearing at the seams.
A long-forgotten happiness flitted through James, bypassing his heart and warming him from the bottom of his stomach, right to the tips of his fingers and his toes as he recognised the book he’d given her all those weeks ago. The book was wedged between her arm and her body, the thick bundle of pages diminishing her petite figure even further as she stumbled out of the house and into the large silver car. “She’s found a good home … there’ll be no one to bully her, and she’ll not be alone there,” he faintly heard the white-haired woman speaking to Gary, a relieved smile in her voice before she turned to James.
“I’m sorry, I know you’ll miss her …” the tinge of genuine sadness in the woman’s voice made the happiness freeze in his chest, the pleasant sensation turning painfully cold before an odd kind of anger filled him. “My feelings are my own,” his voice sounded alien even to himself as he spoke, his dark eyes pain-filled for a moment before he constructed a wall around himself. He knew what she was doing, he realised, after all, hadn’t he been doing it to himself all along? Hadn’t he been taking blame after blame on himself, even when he’d had nothing to do with the situation?
“You don’t have to take responsibility for them,” a chill settled in the room as he spoke, Gary apologising to the woman wordlessly before leading James out of the house. “I …”
“We all have to move on sometime,” James cut the older man off, a half-broken smile hanging crookedly off his lips as he leaned against the headrest and let himself go.