The next day was brutal in every possible way. Pills, scattered across the floor, dug into Belle’s bare feet as she padded around the wooden surface in search for clothes. Francesca had been persistent with text messages and phone calls all throughout the evening, but Belle knew at this point that it was concern, not just curiosity or maybe a chance to laugh at her for having a nervous breakdown. Literally, the reason for such an incidence was because a boy had asked her out. Belle wasn’t sure she was fit for life in general if she couldn’t handle someone asking for a seven digit number.
She had scarfed down the pills after stumbling through the door, tear streaked. The apartment had been empty, a common occurrence lately. Not just any anxiety, but frightening anxiety greeted Belle every time she considered why her still fairly new home was almost always quiet now. Or why the light had appeared to somehow leave her fathers’ eyes. Because of this, she tried her best not to ponder.
Usually, overwhelming thoughts questioning her belonging at Cameron or in New York City itself would jump through her mind, kicking at the most sensitive spots. But this time, because she knew Frannie well enough to have a sense of security, she was slightly more at ease. Ease was foreign to her unless it involved homework, and now she was experiencing it with a relatively social situation, and she wasn’t sure how it felt. Was Belle supposed to feel relieved that she wasn’t as worried? How could she when worries and mental torture was such a big part of her life? Maybe she was just afraid of change.
Her legs now dangled over a concrete ledge while her thin arms rested on the metal banister in front of her. She kicked the air gently, while it kicked her back by swaying her hair and the nudge of her skirt. The stretchy fabric of her leggings scratched with the concrete every time she moved. She had found this small area during her first week of school, when she thought she would sit alone for the rest of the year. Comfort was forever present in the small balcony that was just outside a school hallway, and before the bell would ring, she could hear footsteps of students heading to their classes early.
Across the street was a brown building with many windows. She didn’t know what the building held, but she could spend a decade studying the glossy black frames in search for a sign of life held on the other side. The group had sat in the cafeteria again today, and she couldn’t bring her weak self to stay back in that place. Not after what happened with Brandon.
Distant footsteps echoed in the gray hall from the other side of the window she had climbed out of. She assumed it was another student heading to their class early until the echo edged nearer. Her heart pulsated, fingers suddenly ticking. What if it was a teacher? What if they had caught her dwelling in a place she wasn’t supposed to be and expelled her from the school? She would never be able to see her friends again. She might even have to move out of the city.
“Belle?” A profound voice spoke, curiosity dangling on the last syllable.
“Maxus?” she replied before even turning around. How did he find her? Why would he be attempting to get an early seat in his class? But then Belle slowly realized, as he sat down next to her with a pleasant smile on his face, that she didn’t mind his presence. Pretty much anyone but Frannie or her parents made her nervous at this point, but the more she became acquainted with Maxus, and since he had rescued her at the party, something he didn’t have to do, she appreciated him.
“I’ve never been here,” he told her as he dangled his feet over the ledge.
“Yeah,” she said. Knowing at least a few details about the person helped conjure conversation; at least it did for Belle. She knew almost nothing about him, which disappointed her, because he seemed like a person worth knowing. But as the seconds ticked by, she knew he was growing annoyed with her because she was too rude and closed off to simply talk to him. She had to say something before he left to tell everyone how awkward she was.
“I stumbled upon here not too long ago,” she muttered too quietly, but he turned his head, so she knew he had heard.
“Ah, so you’re like the adventurous type,” he announced, inclining his head back slightly to look at the sky. “I think I am too.”
“What do you do that’s adventurous?” she inquired, forcing herself to look at him. She didn’t do well with talking and looking at the person. It was either one or the other in most cases.
Maxus looked down, his eyes somehow distant. He then laughed lightly, a laugh Belle had witnessed derive from him many times. She didn’t know what it meant, because he had used that laugh in different situations.
“Nothing really,” he replied. Belle tried to read his tone and match that with his expression. He appeared secretive just in that moment, though overall, even Belle could grasp that he wasn’t a secretive person. Or maybe that’s just what she thought; perhaps he had many secrets. “What have you done?” he asked.
Belle struggled, tongue fidgeting for words she couldn’t supply. “Um,” she murmured, her tone sounding insecure as always. “I don’t… I don’t,” her heartbeat moved to her throat as she spoke these words. She wanted to leave desperately.
Maxus was looking at her, and it was as if he had created a question about her that he couldn’t solve. “I gather,” he spoke finally, his eyebrows together in query, “that you’re really bad with questions.”
Apart of Belle felt relieved because his interruption meant that she didn’t have to answer his previous question, but another part was scared, because she knew how pathetic she must have appeared to him.
“Wait,” he held up a finger, “that might have been somewhat of a question. You don’t have to answer.” He smiled before standing up just as the bell sounded. “I’m gonna take you somewhere if that’s okay.” He announced, placing his hands on his hips in a somewhat proud stance.
Belle paused momentarily before placing her backpack straps on her shoulders. “What?” she asked, unsure of his motives.
He looked at her expectantly, as if she was stupid for being confused. Belle noticed that in the sunlight, his eyes were almost alarming, their brashness trapping the viewer in. His bold eyebrows gave definition and confidence, allowing whatever to be said heard. She wondered if he was an influential person, because he appeared that way.
“We’re leaving school grounds,” he said slowly, a mischievous smile on his face. He retrieved his back pack from the ground and placed the straps over his shoulders in one swift move, pacing over towards the window and climbing through into the hallway. When Belle didn’t follow immediately, he poked his head through the window, his expression impatient. “Come onnn,” he pressed.
She could feel every ounce of reluctance as she forced her body forward to follow him. There was no possible way she could just… leave school. Never a day in her life has she skipped, or resulted tardy. The only day she’s ever actually left school other than sickness or injury was because of her mental breakdown the other day. And, technically, that would be considered a sickness what with her disorder. But to just simply leave for the rush of amusement was far outside her boundaries. Ditching was what all of the idlers did, and Belle found herself disconnected from their circle. She was a dork, but proud of it, because she could hope that at least her future was okay.
But she had to say something. This was not a circumstance she could just let slip by, because if she skipped with him, she would be sacrificing her grade and school attendance, which sacrificed college, which sacrificed a successful career and life, which sacrificed possible happiness. She was already late to her class.
“Um,” she muttered from behind him as they walked through the now empty hallway. “I don’t think we should leave,” she said. The nerves were in her tone, but this time she didn’t care. She was too frightened of the consequences of being outside class to rip apart her every move. Moving her legs slightly faster to catch up to his long strides, she glanced up at him for a response.
With his hands in his pockets, he chuckled. He did not appear worried at all, but instead laid back, taking his time as if the hallway was his kingdom. “Don’t underestimate my abilities to sense character, Belle,” he replied with his usual light laugh, “I know you’re the super innocent one who’s never skipped class,” he glanced at her, grinning, “or have probably never gotten a grade below a B, and that’s alright. I just think you could use a little freedom. You’re always so… tense.”
“Me?” she inquired, “Tense?” There was a moment of self-evaluation as she realized she was most likely one of the tensest people in the school. She knew mentally that her mind was wired for angst. But physically, she assumed she had been hiding her nervousness well enough to go, most of the time, unnoticed. This of course made her nervous. “But what if we get in trouble?”
“Oh pish posh,” he retorted, waving his hand dismissively. He was one of self-reassurance; someone who could persuade themselves that everything will be alright, and that consequences were nonexistent. Belle wished she could have this trait, because she was so opposite and that was stressful.
“No one really gives a shit at this school,” he continued, “like, you could literally run naked through here for at least half an hour before anyone did anything.”
Belle processed this. “Have you run naked through here?”
“Nah,” he replied casually, “I’m not about that life.”
The subway was yet another inexperienced but previously marveled phenomenon Belle had taken in during her prior seventeen years in California. Of course, she never thought she’d ride one, considering she’s too shy to even leave her apartment on most days. But here she was, standing side by side with a charming boy she’s only known for about a month, on her way to the East Riverside Park in lower Manhattan, skipping class.
She knew better than to complain out loud, because that was annoying, and explaining the possible costs of skipping was obviously not a care to Maxus, rendering it pointless. Also, thanks to her horrible refusal skills because she was too scared to actually tell someone no, she went with him. Apprehension buzzed in her mind, and he was unaware.
As the subway continued, the train began to ascend from an eerie underground tunnel to vast open outdoors. What the passengers beheld outside shifted from buildings to bridges over water. The lake was glistening under the sun, its light powerful but its heat dimmed because the weather was kissed with winter. As citizens departed, venturing to locations that will remain unknown to her, Belle and Maxus stepped off the train.
“Okay,” he started as he began walking forward, Belle following. The edge of the sidewalk was accompanied with a rusty railing, the lake remaining on the other side. Benches were aligned along the walkway, but Maxus’s destination was clearly elsewhere. “A long time ago a friend and I discovered this cool little area that no one bothers with. You have a perfect view of everything and it’s awesome,” he explained with a smile. He appeared reminiscent, as if he hasn’t been to this location in a while.
Belle pondered why he brought her here, because clearly this place meant something to him. She didn’t feel worthy of his long lasting remembrance she was being led to, but she felt a sense of reassurance that she was at least worthy to him.
Wind laced through their hair and danced with falling leaves as they continued in silence, the birds and society nearby creating noise for them. Kites flew through the air, leaving Belle entertained as she watched them glide along the blue sky. Her eyes shifted to Maxus, and upon this she discovered he’d been looking at her. He focused on the ground, glancing back to her and smiling. She worried for a moment that there was perhaps something on her face, or her hair was messed up and he was too polite to say anything, but she tried her best to push the thoughts out of her mind and enjoy the moment.
“Here it is,” he announced, climbing over stumps and rocks towards an area Belle couldn’t see from where she stood. She brought her arms in closer, wrapping her sweatshirt around her body tighter because of the sudden breeze sending a chill.
“Come on,” he said, eyes fixed on her as he reached out his hand. She took it after a few moments, letting him guide her upon the rocks and branches. A lump moved to her throat. The only thing she was focusing on was not tripping, letting the world around her die temporarily.
“Man,” he remarked, “you gotta let up, their just rocks.” He laughed as they approached a rock bench, held together by branches and leaves that cast a canopy over the stone seat. Large boulders surrounded the bench, leaving the area guarded from civilization. Belle could hear the swish of water behind her as she studied the seat, amazed.
“Wow,” she responded. “It’s so pretty.”
“Yeah,” he replied, nodding. “People here think they’ve discovered everything about the city,” he told her while making his way towards the bench, sitting down casually, as if this was his home. “But there’s a bunch of beautiful shit they haven’t seen.”
“And you just… found it like this?” she asked.
“Kind of,” he answered, “me and Vic-” he paused, his current expression slightly dropping before returning again, “me and my friend made some improvements.” He grinned on the last word before leaning back, placing his hands behind his head as he gazed in the distance. After a few moments his crystal eyes flicked to her. “Well,” he said, “sit.” He patted the area next to him contentedly.
She sat, feeling the cool of the stone on her legs as she inclined and let the canopy above cover her. Looking forward, her jaw dropped. The view was amazing; gray buildings aligned, the tour boats below traveling through the sparkling water while black birds voyaged overhead. The sky was so blue, and Belle sighed.
“I know right,” he said.
“Why did you bring me here?” Her voice was traced with awe as the words spilled out.
His expression was confused for only a second as he pondered this. “I don’t know,” he replied. This seemed to be the last of the answer as he brought his arms down, leaning forward and clasping his hands together, resting his elbows on his legs in the typical guy sitting position.
Belle looked at him, watching his eyes study the buildings. In that moment she felt something, gazing from his profile to his messy red tinted hair, down to his white t-shirt and jeans. Her mind couldn’t place it. Maybe she just thought he was attractive. Belle had seen many attractive guys in her lifetime, though their douchey snapbacks and muscle tanks usually put a damper on the appeal.
He must have noticed her staring, because he glanced at her unexpectedly, sending her a wave of panic. Belle’s fingers ticked as she looked at the ground, eyes scanning the dirt and patches of grass. Out of the corner of her eye, he smiled, returning his gaze to the city. He’s a friend, Belle reassured herself, friends stare at friends.
Because Belle was aware of the harsh consequences that she was yet to receive for skipping school, she tried to take her time and use her own willpower, as if to find any, by enjoying the rest of the day. Maxus was too easy to lose track of time with, and that meant she was feeling careless. Though she would love to go day by day, sleeping long nights without a care, she couldn’t. She just couldn’t.
Belle never really laughed that often, and she never thought she was the type to chuckle at simple humors until arriving in New York. She knew, after being accustomed with him long enough, that Maxus enjoyed making people laugh. It seemed he wanted to make others around him happy, and the way he did that was with his humor. He was easy to talk to, and easy to be around. Belle felt her shyness and social unease slip away at some moments before she realized she was losing herself and regained her habitual mindset.
She felt in those moments as if he had some sort of mental knife, cutting away the ropes that trapped her mind from normality. But how could anyone do that? Not even her parents had the capability of setting her free. No one would be able to get through her barrier, and she was shocked when she realized she didn’t want them to. Her cage became her home.
The pair rode the subway train back home, and the ride felt shorter than the first. Belle didn’t want to look outside, and she didn’t want to look at other people. She trained her eyes on the ground, and kept them there for a long time.
After a while Maxus asked, “Are you alright?”
She nodded, but she knew she wasn’t totally alright. And there wasn’t really an explanation, other than the possibility of her being scared. Why am I afraid? she asked herself. Though her social anxiety ruined her, she also felt like a better person with it. This weakness had been her strength, and she wasn’t sure what kind of person she would be without the disorder. She wanted to be free, and she wanted someone to help her out. But she also wanted to remain the same, intact and unbothered. Why did she have to be so difficult.
Students crowded the street grounds as the two approached the school, faces moving rapidly as teens discussed topics with their friends and peers. There were always police officers guarding the doors, eyes furrowed and bodies stable, resulting in everyone keeping a safe distance.
“Oh fudge,” Maxus said, his tone sarcastic as he snapped his fingers in mock disappointment, “school is out. Looks like we can’t go back to class.” He looked at her with a pleased grin. Belle chuckled in response, unable to hide her amusement.
The familiar voice of Francesca Parker echoed in the distance before Maxus and Belle turned. “Hey,” she started before studying the two, expression changing from excitement to confusion, and then suspicion, “where were you two?”
“China,” Maxus replied, bored, “where do you think we were?”
Frannie narrowed her eyes, crossing her arms. “Don’t you dare start on Belle now. She’s too nice and innocent for your charming shit.”
“So you think I’m charming?” he said, smiling, “That’s like, the third compliment you’ve given me since we’ve known each other.”
“Oh, don’t be a shithead,” she remarked, “You know I love you. But that doesn’t mean Belle can trust you. Don’t trust him,” Francesca pointed to her as if she was a child being scorned for drawing crayon on the walls.
Belle pondered over the possibilities for not trusting him. He was clearly nice, and Belle knew that. But then again, she barely knew him at all.
“Yeah okay,” Maxus retorted, “I’m always the bad guy. Look I gotta get home and do really important shit, like sleep. Bye.” He waved before placing his hands in his pockets, walking the opposite direction from them.
They watched him leave, Frannie pulling out her phone while chattering away about a topic Belle wasn’t truly concerned about. Her eyes lingered on him for too long, so she looked away. Francesca linked her arm with Belle’s, the leaves above them weak and shedding as they went forth down the street, the crowds of students yet to return home forming a chaotic barrier around them.