Tag Archives: Friendship

Alone Together

Let’s be alone together

We can stay young forever

~ Fall Out Boy, ‘Alone Together’


Burning.

Red.

Heat.

That’s all she feels as the fire reaches her. There is chaos all around her as she tries to find him. People are screaming, their faces and hands stained with blood as they embrace their friends and family for what might be the last time. Her wounds are smarting painfully, the cuts on her arms and legs pushed to the back of her mind as she forces her way through the throngs of people who are running from the hailstorm of smoke and ashes.

She’s screaming now, her lips trembling as she calls for him desperately. A part of her knows that he’s gone, but the rest of her perseveres stubbornly. She stumbles over bodies, and gags as the blood-stained, crumpled corpses crack under her as she searches for him.

Please, she screams as tears roll down her cheeks, and she thinks that she sees a shadow of him around the corner. Fire rains from the sky as she shields her head from the rubble, the thin scarf that she’s wrapped around her head hardly enough to protect her from even the thick dust.

It’s only after she comes to that she realises that she’d lost consciousness at some point as the flames fell from the sky, and she scrambles to her feet. There’s a sharp twinge in her ankle which tells her that there’s a possibility that she’s broken something, but she forces herself to keep moving.

She can’t help the tears that roll down her face as she walks through the broken, war-torn streets in the cover of night. The pain in her ankle has spread to her thigh, and she’s limping and waving off the people who come to help her. She tells them that she’s looking for him, and their broken, sad faces make her heart stutter in her chest every time she repeats the reason she’s still walking.

It’s pitch black when she finally sees him, a hint of him peeking out from under a particularly large slab of concrete. No! The tears double, her eyes aching from the dirt as she wipes her face with her filthy hands before attempting to dig him out. A few others come to help her, and it takes them a while to move the large rock. After that, they leave her as she sobs over the relatively large body.

She runs her hand through his grey-streaked fur, her tears soaking into his blood-stained head and muzzle as she curls up against him. This was a mistake, she tells herself even as she mourns for him. She should have never left him alone, especially when he was so old. His body is cold and stiff as she flattens the fur on the top of his head with a trembling, dirt-caked hand. He looks like he’s sleeping, and if she believes hard enough, she can almost fool herself into thinking that he is.

So she believes.

She curls up beside him just like she usually would and she wills herself to sleep. When she wakes up, the sun is burning her skin once again, and the screaming is all around her. Beside her, he’s still unresponsive and stiffer than ever, and she ignores the arms that try to pull her away, swatting them aside as she holds on to him.

When the fire reaches her this time, she welcomes the burn and the red and the heat.

Burn this pain away, and sear a new life into these bones.


Daily Prompt: Something So Strong

[Prompt]

It’d been years, really, since we’d first met.

Years since our paths had crossed, and our journeys muddling together until I couldn’t really tell whose journey we were on most of the time. It’d been years since we’d had those awkward, stuttering conversations that lasted no more than half-a-minute, or those cricket-chirp-filled hours of simply standing and staring into nothingness. It’s been years, and the memory fades as time goes by, but I can still feel the sharp emotion that cut through all else when I’d first met you.

An inky-black mop on your head, and eyes that flashed with every smile instilled an odd kind of fear in me, I’ll admit. Those were intelligent eyes, I warned myself, cautioning myself and doing my very best to keep a safe distance from you. But alas, like a moth to a flame, I was drawn into the oddness of emotion I felt around you; and that, simply put, was the moment I’d started gathering the courage to speak to you.

The first time I spoke to you; the words are a blur now, but it most certainly was nothing more than trivial sentences that had no further purpose than to fill the impeding silence. I still remember that for the longest time, I’d tried so very hard to be someone decent enough; someone another member of the human race wouldn’t mind talking to, until, of course, I realised that we were most realistically on the same wavelength.

The last conversation we had, not the final one; Christ no, still made me weep with laughter. There had been stares, and it had been a while since the conversation before that, but, as it were; it was like nothing had happened in those months of serene quietness. There was no dramatic change that made worry fluctuate through me, no awkward catch-ups that we stumbled through, because it hadn’t seemed to matter.

The laughter was new, fresh and completely breath-taking, and every inhalation sent a burning sensation that was well-worth the ache that rumbled through my bones at the slightest movement that was not relieving.

It was simple, but still one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced.

Pocketful of Sunshine

Warm golden light cut through the air like a knife in soft butter, sending a million shards of soft yellow light spinning over the white-headed daisies that littered the lush ground. The calm, smooth heat was inescapable as it pierced through everything, pushing the shadows until they were mere strips of grey laid on cheery colours. Alex stared around the overgrown garden; at its wild, tangled vines that grew matted together like the unkempt hair of a tramp, and at the specks of crimson and pink that were dotted with a careful grace, almost like fireflies in the darkness.

Her cerulean eyes sped over the scenery, hesitating for just a moment too long as she absorbed the rough finery of the garden. It was here, that she had reinvented herself. In this very seat, that she had picked up her paints for the first time in years, and ran her brush over the dry canvas. Now, almost five years later, she still remembered that first painting, that was now the centre-piece of her gallery, her most prized painting; albeit not the best.

She slicked her fiery hair back and turned her brightening eyes to the sketch-pad in front of her, and balancing it precariously on her knees, allowed her pen to scribble over the page in an erratic movement. Alex’s eyes moved away from the page as her hand moved over the mass of white, pushing the dark ink from her pen over it, smudging the paint and defining the lines even further as her hand blurred over the paper.

Steadily, the garden began to form on her page, starting with simply a tree, each leaf drawn with uncanny precision and with inexplicable detail as she moved to the next object in her mind. A smile formed on her face; beginning with a small curve of red lips, which led to a full-blown grin that brightened her entire being, until she almost glowed with joy, radiating her emotions from her body.

Alex stopped abruptly, and tucked her pen away, satisfaction radiating from her in waves that permeated the air around her. She stood up, almost as if in a daze, and stretched, feeling the chinks in her muscles as she cracked her knuckles gently and pulled each limb carefully. She turned her turquoise eyes to the sky, as her eyebrows arched into her hairline, as she realised the darkness that had surrounded her.

With a whoop of laughter, she ignored the chilly breeze, and kicked her pumps off. She jumped into the air, her arms raised as she carelessly tossed her work aside and ran down the path, weaving through the overgrown plants with a sense of familiarity. She ran her hands over the flowers, lingering on each one with a loving touch, and a warm flick of her fingers as she touched the underside of their silky petals.

She raised her hands, palms facing the skies as she took in the cool night, a complete difference from the warmth of the day, but always welcome. ‘Thank you,’ she said, her lips widening in a smile as she noticed the photograph that had been pushed between the branches of the overgrown rose bushes.

‘Thank you, Lily,’

Move

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.

Crying

He turned his eyes to the figure that entered the mostly empty café, his eyes dimming as he caught sight of the disgruntled expression on her face. Her dark hair was perfectly sleeked back, coiled in a tight knot at the top of her head as she slid into the seat in front of him. “Well … I’m here … what d’you want?” she snapped out, her voice just above a hiss as Kevin sighed. “You haven’t been answering any of my calls …” he began, his voice fading into nothing as the woman rolled her eyes.

“We’re not all as free as you are, Kevin,” she said, her voice tart as a waiter approached their table. “We’re good,” she said, her eyes never leaving Kevin’s lighter ones as she snarled the words out to the teenager who simply nodded shakily, scampering away from her. “I make time for things like this, Kate,” he said, his voice softening as he tried to rip through the tension that swathed their table. “Then maybe you’re making too much time,” she snorted out, scoffing at his words.

Kevin simply looked at the red table, tapping his fingers on the old, worn wood before the woman in front of him opened her mouth again. “Kate … what’s wrong … you’ve never been like this,” Kevin’s voice was soft as he spoke, trying, and failing, to look the brunette in the eye. “It’s nothing,” her voice was sickly sweet as she gave Kevin a saccharine smile. “I’ve got to go, and it’s alright, I’ll get a cab,” she rose daintily from the table, giving Kevin one last glance before flouncing to the door.

Kevin simply stared as she left, shooting one last glance as she walked out of the café before flicking his finger to the teenager she’d scared off earlier. “One coffee please; black,” he said sharply before slumping down into the seat, his breath leaving him in a huff. The girl reappeared with a jug of black coffee and a mug, her green eyes shining with understanding as she poured him some, the liquid steaming as Kevin took a sip, ignoring the scalding sensation that dribbled down his oesophagus and into the pit of his stomach.

“You look like you could use this,” a friendly voice chirped as the girl walked away from him, before returning with a slice of creamy cake topped with a thin layer of mauve jam. “Cheesecake?” Kevin stared suspiciously at her, before taking the silver fork she offered him. “The jam’s not too sweet, if you’re overly worried,” she said, her voice wistful as she eyed him. Kevin sliced the tip of the triangle off, his blue eyes fixed on the girl as he put it into his mouth, the cake turning to mush on his tongue, a tart, sharp taste filling his mouth as he swallowed it.

“Not bad,” he amended, slicing into the cake again. “Why’re you still here?” he asked, watching as the girl flicked her eyes to the clock for the third time. “I’ve still got to close the café, right?” she said, the cheeky smile on her lips telling Kevin that she had held back a witty retort on the tip of her tongue. “Because everyone wants to steal coffee beans,” Kevin smirked, leaning back slightly as the girl slid into the previously un-occupied seat in front of him.

“She didn’t get a cab, you know,” the girl said suddenly, her green eyes glimmering sympathetically as she watched Kevin freeze. “I know,” was all the man replied, his voice softer than she’d ever heard it. The silence wasn’t uncomfortable, Kevin noted as the girl’s attention was drawn to the way the clock ticked, the longer needle slowly but surely approaching the large ‘6’.

“Well, it’s time to close for the day, mister,” Jess said, finally speaking when the clock read twelve-eighteen. “Kevin,” the man replied as he pushed his dark hair out of his eyes. “Sorry?” she stared blankly at him, not understanding until he smirked again. “It’s Kevin … not ‘mister’,” he shot her a small smile before leaving, the bell above the door tinkling gently before silence reigned the small store.

Jess shook her head as she wiped the table, the damp cloth erasing any sign of the mug she’d given Kevin without a coaster. “Relationships,” she snorted softly, still shaking her head as she collected the money he’d pushed into the pocket beside the receipt.

The very next day, Jess saw the same man, Kevin, as he’d introduced himself the day before, sitting at one of her tables, eyes scanning through the paper in his hands. He chuckled to himself as he read through the articles, muffling the sound behind two fingers before looking up when Jess reached his table. “Coffee, black,” he said, eyes dark and unreadable despite the warm smile he offered her when she looked up. She nodded slowly, penning the words neatly onto the pad before tucking both the pen and the notebook into the pocket on her apron. A few minutes later, she returned with a pristine mug, pouring the coffee into it carefully before leaving wordlessly.

From afar, Jess watched as the man read through the paper, sipping the coffee before draining the mug and looking up, putting the paper down before raising two fingers into the air. Rolling her eyes, she fixed a smile on her face before sidling through the closely-packed tables to hand the man his bill.

Kevin watched her hardly react to the more than generous tip he’d added on to the rest of the bill, frowning internally as she dipped her head respectfully, her chirpy voice wishing him a good day before she scooted back to the cash register. He hung around just long enough to watch her put the tip into the register, her small fingers pushing the wad of notes meticulously into their designated boxes before she shut the register, locking it smoothly before tucking the key safely into the pocket of her jeans.

For the next three months, their routine became habitual. Kevin would always sit at one of her tables, order his coffee black, and read the paper before leaving. And as always, Jess would put the tips he gave her into the register, not even glancing once at the money as she slid it in. “What else do you do?” Kevin asked her one day as she approached him with the bill. “Me? I slice cake and pack sandwiches too, you know,” Jess retorted, the smile on her lips telling him that she was joking.

Kevin rolled his eyes, turning back to his empty coffee mug before the girl mumbled her answer through heavy lips.

“I sing evenings on the weekends at the bar down the street,” she said quietly, flushing when Kevin turned a shocked gaze to her. “What?” she asked defensively. “I never pegged you for a singer,” he chuckled, shrugging as he slid a crisp note into the envelope before pushing into Jess’s hands. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said softly, a chuckle exiting his lips as he rose, towering over Jess before leaving the café.

“Kevin, must we really have coffee? I’m baking here!” the man groaned as Kevin dragged him through the door, a disgruntled expression on his lips as he pushed the man into a seat against the window. “Shut up, John,” Kevin groaned, pressing the heels of his palms into his eyes before quickly snapping his eyes open as a familiar, yet slightly different voice chimed a soft greeting.

Good lord.

There were shadows under her eyes that made her look as if she hadn’t slept at all, the hint of a bruise peeking out from under the collar of her shirt and her lower lip brutally abused by her teeth as she shakily penned down the ‘regular’ before turning to John. Her knees were shaking, Kevin realised as he watched her take John’s order. Her normally warm smile was weak and frightened as she scampered away from their table, her breaths shallow and panicked before she returned a few minutes later, the black coffee already poured into a mug as she placed the latte in front of John before lifting the white mug off the tray to put it in front of Kevin.

He simply watched, her hand trembling, the coffee sloshing around the rim, staining the white ceramic a pale brown before she apologised quietly, her voice just as shaky as her hand, and left. “I thought you said there was a really cute waitress here,” John said, taking a gulp of the latte as he caught sight of a slim blond taking the orders from the other side of the café. “That was her …” Kevin was lost for words.

How many months had they been seeing each other? He’d seen this girl happy, furious, narcissistic to the point of rudeness, but never this. She’d never been frightened of approaching him. Her eyes had always been light and cheerful when she brought him the coffee, a smile fixed on her lips and her eyes sparkling while they had their two-minute conversation as she poured the coffee and set the coaster down.

“She looks like she could use a few painkillers and a few days’ worth of sleep,” John snorted, sipping the remnants of the latte before stirring the last bits of it with his straw.

Kevin returned to the café the very next day, waiting patiently outside the glass door until the sign was flipped to ‘open’ before walking in briskly. “W-what can I g-get you?” Jess whispered, the words sliding out through her teeth as she looked desperately at anything except Kevin. “You could tell me what’s wrong,” his words were blunt and his eyes dull as he looked at the girl.

Jess winced at his words, her arms wrapping tightly around herself before she turned her emerald gaze to him.

Kevin had yet to experience the emotion that flooded him when he met her eyes. Something, something in those once-bright green eyes was gone; her gaze was fractured, he realised, there wasn’t any emotion in her eyes despite the suddenly wide, plastic smile she’d painted across her lips. “I’m fine, really,” she said, her voice still trembling but her eyes brighter than he’d seen them in a while. “H-has there been anything wrong with my s-service?” he shook his head impatiently, frowning slightly before the girl left his table only to return a few minutes later with a white mug in her hands, the dark brown liquid threatening to spill over the edges of the rim before she set the glassware down and all but ran back into the kitchen.

The awkwardness seemed to last for a few more weeks, until Kevin entered the café to see the smiling girl looking at him from the counter, her green eyes sparkling in the burning afternoon sunlight as she hopped off the stool behind the counter to reach him. “Coffee, black?” she asked, her hands stuffed deep into her pockets before she smiled as Kevin nodded.

Kevin frowned; why was she acting the like the last few weeks hadn’t happened? Her hands were quick and strong as she placed the mug in front of him, pouring the dark liquid swiftly from the jug before returning to her seat behind the counter. An hour later, when Kevin finally left the café, having read the paper twice over, but still not understanding a single word he’d read; he looked at the girl who waved enthusiastically from the counter, watching as she shot him a brilliant smile that put the neon lights to shame before he walked out of the small lot.

The next time he saw her, her eyes were light as she handed him the coffee, her eyes smiling even if her lips weren’t.

It took Kevin a few weeks, not to say that the whiskey hadn’t helped, to gather enough courage to wait for her outside the café.

Even in the bitter cold that seemed to want him to leave, Kevin waited patiently until the lights outside the café died, and the girl walked out the door, wearing a coat that looked too thin to be doing anything against the wind. “Hey!” Kevin called, jogging after the girl before falling into step beside her when she slowed down. “So … you’re a stalker now?” her voice sounded like wind-chimes in a breeze as she grinned up at him.

“What happened?” Kevin asked, his eyebrows meeting in the middle of his forehead as he forced himself not to grab the girl’s shoulders and shake her in the middle of the street. “What d’you mean?” she answered, her voice confused but her tone infused with a hint of playfulness that made him growl. “Stop acting like you don’t know what I’m talking about!” he yelled, spitting the words out before watching as her expression fell.

“Kevin …” there was something in her voice that sounded distinctively inhuman, Kevin realised as she said his name. Slightly ashamed, he stared at the toes of his shoes, eyebrows furrowing as he thought hard, before catching on to her what she had said. There was a depth to her words he hadn’t yet heard from anyone. “Don’t you ever read the papers?” her voice chimed over the wind before he whipped his head up.

She was gone.

Wildly, he looked around the street, ignoring the pedestrians that steered clear of him, muttering as they walked around him, creating a clear patch of ground for him to stand in. His breathing deepened as he sprinted to the newsstand, riffling through the mess of magazines before he plucked the paper he usually read from the pile. His heart dropped right into his stomach; he could almost hear the acid gurgling around it, breaking the lump of what he’d once called a muscle into bits and pieces.

Right there, right smack on the first page, was a cropped picture of her, her brown hair curled and loose, a bright smile on her lips as her green eyes shone like he’d seen it so many times before. The words that were printed in bold red ink made him want to throw up every cup of coffee she’d poured him.

“FOUND DEAD IN ELEVATOR”

Now You See Me

Tom glanced at the girl beside him, her deep blue eyes blank and emotionless despite the serene smile on her lips as she led him through the park. Everything was familiar, yet alien at the same time; the buildings they strolled past were replicas of the link-houses Tom passed everyday on his way to the café, minus the crude ‘art’ that decorated them, of course. He continued staring at her, captivated by the way she seemed to glide over the grass that simply refused to stain their shoes. “Tom!” she called, a bright smile widening her cupid’s bow as her voice snapped him out of the silence he’d sunken into. “We’re here,” the smile was plastic, he realised; his eyes darkening as he closed in on her.

“Where are we?” he heard himself ask, before he shook himself and forced his eyes to meet hers. “We’re in the city, silly,” he faintly heard Hailey laugh, her small hand hitting him playfully before he heard a sigh leave her.

Looking over the ‘world’ he’d created, Tom couldn’t help but feel proud, his eyes taking in the results from the weeks he’d spent meticulously typing in each layer of the coding that had finally taken shape in the form of the alternate reality he was standing in. But even as he took in the sights; the perfect world where the skies were clear, the birds still sang harmoniously, where people smiled and laughed; where you couldn’t hear the screams of victims, where the screeches of car tires didn’t result in deaths, Tom could see the flaws that made ice slink down his spine. The world was pixelated, he realised, his eyes fixing instantly on the flaws where the cars appeared to blur into the tarmac, and where the lines of definition were less than the perfection he demanded from himself.

“Tom,” the girl beside him was tugging him furiously now, her blank eyes wide and filled with something he almost could call fear as he let her pull him into the elevator, her breathing harsh and panicked before she forced the emotion behind the plastic smile she’d tailored for herself. “What was that?” Tom turned to look at the female shaking her head to herself, her eyes downcast as she backed into a corner of the elevator. The rest of the ride was in silence, Tom noted, shrugging and resorting to fixing a critical eye on the inside of the elevator. Finally, when they were jogging through the park, the girl stopped short under the shade of a tree; her mouth opening before a small voice left her.

“They get rid of the Defects,”

The tapping on the window was getting rather annoying, Tom realised as he flicked his eyes up to the window pane, watching as the red-breasted bird chirped before hitting the glass once more with its beak. Getting off his chair, the man made his way to the window, glaring darkly at the bird before wrenching the curtain over the small animal, effectively blocking out the only source of light into the room at the same time. “Perfect,” he snorted, running a hand through his rumpled hair before sinking heavily into the squeaking chair.

The glare from the screen in front of him was painful, but bearable, he told himself firmly as he set his fingers onto the keyboard before resuming the furious typing he’d been doing. There were piles and piles of pages, a mesh of numbers, letters and special characters decorating the page in fading black ink as Tom worked his way through each of them. He cursed himself every time there was a mistake in the coding, shaking his head occasionally at his work before tossing aside a few pages, a dozen or more scattering in the same instant before Tom finally snapped. His eyes were furious as he grabbed a fistful of sheets off of the floor, the pages crumpling easily in his hand as he tossed them carelessly onto the table.

Three weeks later, he was whistling merrily as he scanned through the thousands of lines of coding, reading through each before making a few minor adjustments. “What about security?” a deep, familiar voice asked. Tom turned to look at Daniel; the shadows under his eyes making his skin look paler than it actually was. “Security?” Tom repeated, his voice completely confused and the unbeatable exhaustion he felt ringing in the single word as Daniel rolled his eyes. “Yes Tom, security … what about viruses, glitches? You can’t expect yourself to be monitoring this thing twenty-four seven, do you?” Tom winced at the man’s words. He had in fact, been completely ready to monitor the game permanently.

“Fine, fine,” Tom muttered, mostly to himself, before slumping in front of the computer, eyes dead as he quickly entered a crude programming for the ‘Sweepers’ as he called them.

 

“Hailey …” Tom’s voice was guilty as he spoke, the female smiling cheerfully at him before taking his hand and leading him back to the apartment. ‘Remember Tom, she’s just a program,’ he scolded himself, frowning before smoothing out the crinkles in his expression when the female turned a curious pair of eyes towards him. “We shouldn’t be out too late,” her voice was hushed as her grip on his hand tightened, her small limb grabbing onto the sleeve of his jacket and pulling him hurriedly through the streets.

Tom wanted to laugh at the absurdity of her words. Late? The sun was barely setting.

“Come on!” her voice was forcefully polite now, her fingers clawing into the thick sweater before Tom gave in. He trailed after her as she led him to a pristine looking building, each pixel glaring at Tom in a way that made him wince. Her blank eyes stared back at him, lightened by the reflection of the setting ‘sun’.

Tom was glaring at the man now, his teeth gritted so hard that he thought that he’d have chipped a tooth by now. “Tom … you need to stop,” Daniel’s voice was firm as he spoke, his dark eyes flashing with emotion as he barred Tom from moving towards the seat with an arm. “Get out of my way, Daniel,” Daniel hadn’t yet heard the man’s voice as it was, and honestly, with the shadows under his eyes and pasty skin that made his once-pale freckles stand out, Daniel couldn’t really say that he was looking at Tom at all.

“Tom, I’m serious,” the older man spat out, gripping one of the headsets and moving to drop it to the ground. “Don’t you dare,” Tom’s eyes were slits of ice as he glared at Daniel, his words hissed as his fingers hooked into claws. “Two days, Tom, that’s all I’m asking,” Daniel said quietly, putting the headset he’d designed back onto the designated leather chair. “Two days?” the exhaustion that finally settled on Tom’s shoulders made him stare confusedly at the man.

“Two days without the game,” Daniel repeated, stretching the words out and slowing his speech, like he was talking to a child. “And you’ll stop bugging me about this?” Tom’s eyes were narrowed in suspicion; it wasn’t like Daniel to cut deals … it was either you did it, or you didn’t. “… Fine …” Tom found himself nodding swiftly, grabbing his jacket and leaving the small apartment quickly. “I’ll see you on Saturday then,” he called as he stepped into the elevator, his voice ringing down the hallway.

 

For the first time that month, Tom stepped into the sunlight.

He hissed as the golden rays lathered his skin, wincing as his eyes stung, and as his teeth began chattering. Quickly, he made his way down the street, pulling his jacket tighter around himself and breathing heavily into his fisted palms. God, his calves screamed and burned as he reached his apartment, fumbling for the security card for a moment. ‘They didn’t have these in the Game,’ he thought, remembering the hundreds of times he’d entered Hailey’s apartment without ever seeing her pull one out of her pocket.

It was easy enough to fall back into his routine; coffee, sleep, coffee, sandwich, then programme.

He looked out of his window, revelling in the lack of pixels; the lack of terror-filled programs greeting him with blank eyes and plastic smiles. He breathed in the pollution with a smile, ignoring the sting that immediately attacked his eyes and nose, sending him into a coughing fit. He stared into the sky, the shapeless clouds filling the darkening sky, looking less than perfect in every aspect, but still better than anything Tom had seen in a while.

Tom remembered the memory of Daniel with a small smile as he lazed around on the couch, propping his feet on the table before resting his head on the back of the couch. When he’d returned, Hailey had greeted him with a stiff, polite smile, her eyes darker and blanker than anything he’d seen in the Game, and her back ramrod straight until they’d reached her apartment.

Finally, Tom had seen something akin to emotion. She’d yelled, screamed, and hit him with her small fists when he’d tried to quieten her down. Finally, when she looked up at him, her eyes were damp, fat drops of liquid clinging to her long lashes before dribbling down her cheeks. She’d asked him if there was something wrong with her, because she wasn’t supposed to be sad; she was supposed to be happy, perfect.

Those were the only two lines that Tom needed before he had her tight in his arms, his face buried in the crook of her neck as he sobbed into her shirt that didn’t seem to get wet. Then he’d laughed through his tears, chuckling wetly when she panicked, her fingers dabbing uselessly at his cheeks in an attempt to stop him from crying.

Then he’d revealed everything.

And by everything, he meant everything.

They stared up at the black sky, white patches of pixels called ‘stars’ glimmering down at them before Hailey spoke quietly beside him. “What’s it like … what’s it like where you come from?” Tom didn’t want to look at her, because no matter how emotional she sounded, her eyes would be blank. “It’s … not perfect,” he replied, staring into the sky and realising how each ‘star’ seemed to be the exact same size.

“Not … perfect?” she sounded confused, Tom smiled as he twisted to look at her. Even in the darkness, with the remnants of her tears drying on her cheeks, she still managed to look perfect. Each curve and point on her face highlighted smoothly by the barest glint of light that managed to touch it.

“Yeah … people are rude, it’s dirty, the air doesn’t smell great, and the animals aren’t really as friendly,” Tom laughed quietly, “but I guess that’s our fault, anyway,” “It sounds … odd,” he chuckled at that, before shrugging. Underneath his shoulder-blades, the grass felt too soft, too smooth.

“But it sounds nice,” her voice was wistful when her eyes met the man’s; her blue eyes shadowed with a kind of sadness that made Tom want to hug her. His eyes widened. He could feel tears prick at his eyes, emotion … there, he’d finally seen it.

“It’s only a matter of time,” she said suddenly, her voice heavier and lower than he’d ever heard it. There was a darkness in her expression that made Tom feel like a million bugs had made their home under his skin. “What d’you mean?” he asked, forcing his voice to lighten; forcing himself not to act like he already knew what she meant.

“I’m a Defect,” the moment the words left her lips, it was like someone had punched Tom in the gut. A Defect, no, Tom wanted to laugh at her words, but he couldn’t. “It’s my fault,” he knew what to expect even before she nodded.

“I made you change … I made you this way,” something shifted in the darkness around them, and even before he saw it, he knew what it was. “I’m glad for it, though,” there was a small smile on her lips as she looked at him, her dark hair silver in the false moonlight; splayed across her shoulders and down her back.

It ended quickly enough, Tom realised when his eyes snapped open, and he was facing Daniel once again. “I’m done with the game,” he told the man, watching how, despite the relieved smile that lifted his lips, his dark eyes were still filled with worry. “What changed your mind?” Tom shrugged at his words, not replying even when Daniel got into his face. “It’s good to have you back though,” a small, nervous smile lifted Tom’s lips. “Thanks,” his voice cracked when he spoke, and in a minute, he was out of the apartment, ignoring Daniel as he yelled after him.

It was rather nice, Tom realised, to be sitting in the real world again. The smoke stung his eyes, and the rudeness made him want to scream, but he still managed to see the glints of happiness here and there.

The girl with her mother across the street getting an ice-cream, or the man who was lifting the injured puppy off the road, wrapping the limping animal in his coat before returning to the sidewalk; or even  the old man who was reading his paper on the bench, his hat flying off his white head with a gust of wind. It took a teenager less than a minute to chase after the black cloth on his bike, riding back to the man to hand it to him with a nervous smile.

It wasn’t perfect, sure, but it wasn’t really the worst thing out there, was it? Tom looked up from the notepad of codes just in time to see a shockingly familiar woman walk past him with a steaming jug of coffee in her hands.

Or maybe, somewhere out there, perfection did really exist.

Friend

Friend … What is that? A word?

It’s a word, for the person who deserves it the most,

A friend, is always there, through thick and thin, the person only second to family, and sometimes, even before a family,

A friend is the person you can count on, to be there, always, to help you.

It is the word given to the person who helps you, and never lets you down,

The one who’s always there, to celebrate, to cry, and to party with,

It is the word given to the person, or persons, that are going to stay with you, no matter how many miles away, or even a dimension,

A friend is the person … who lets you be who you are, without judging you, or thinking that you’re weird.

‘Friend’ is the word given to people who stick, the people who don’t let you down,

It’s given to the people who don’t drop you for the next best thing,

A friend is a friend, like a cat, is a cat,

Friends are like stars in an open sky,

You don’t always see them, but they’re always there,

Waiting, and watching