i don't know.

❝ my head is a radio, and every so often the dial is turned the wrong way, and all that comes out is white noise. ❞

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16. sixteen

high-rise buildings stand out against a white sky. it may be cloudless, but in london, that definitely doesn’t mean it’s warm. the sun is a dull yellow ring suspended some way above the horizon and the air is fresh but slightly heavier than usual; i can smell rain.

around me the pavement is crowded with commuters hoping to catch early morning trains to work: blank faced businessmen with wrist watches and briefcases and an overwhelming sense of purpose. it must be terribly draining to have to be somewhere all the time. i can be in three different places at once, just by getting lost inside my own head - i don’t have to worry one bit about being late to work. of course, there’s school, but at least there i’m required to use my brain a little bit, even if it’s just for learning facts. these people have an entire city to explore yet they never once venture outside the coloured line on the tube map, or the window of their office. being important sounds awful. after all, our entire planet is vastly unimportant in the scheme of things;  it’s wonderful. we can do whatever the hell we want, and the only people who will know about it is us. there’s no one else in the universe to impress, so we can mess up as many times as we want. (i mean, it is entirely likely that there are other species in other galaxies who are not at all impressed by our idiocy, but since we’re still not actually sure they exist – thanks to all our beautiful mistakes - i guess it doesn’t matter.)

i turn the corner past the railway station and soon it gets quieter, the streets less crowded. the silence is almost eerie; i haven't been round this part of town before. Mo and i always catch a ride deeper into london to escape the suffocating familiarity of our own area. i suppose we should make a point of discovering what's always been around us after ignoring it for so many years: the lattice of cracks in these paving stones are different to those my footsteps fall on every day; the soundtrack of these streets has a different bassnote to the car alarms i am used to, a different drumbeat to the rhythm of car doors and swinging gates that i know so well. it's strange how little it takes for me to be anxious again, how easily the demons can enter my bloodstream and crawl into the spaces between my bones. i am a pinpoint on a map i don't know how to read, and i have barely left my front door.

 

quickly i glance at my phone to check the address. the words on the screen direct me down an alley which opens on to a street so alien to me that i am quite sure i'm lost. rows of flats stretch out left and right, each a carbon copy of the one before, all boxy windows and blunt edges and stained bricks. staircases fold in on themselves but climb higher and further to each set of doorways; a maze of footsteps yet to be tread, of diferent marks to be left on these identical homes, like fingerprints with no identity attached to them: separate, but all seemingly the same.

 

this is not what i expected.

 

i make my way up the staircase leading to the fourth storey, arriving outside the door of flat number 434. a hesitant knock, and many horror-filled imaginings of awkward encounters and strangers and small talk later:

"hi, gecko."

my friend appears taller without his uniform on: the trousers and tie-less shirt always pulled him inwards, always gave him an aura of shyness which surrounds both sven and i too. now gecko looks broader somehow, his lean frame filling the cramped doorway. he cracks a smile; those round eyes of his soften slightly in the weak morning sunlight.

"hey, charlie. come on in."

i step into the hallway and slip off my shoes.  gecko stands with his hands in his pockets, looking down at me. "so... studying."

i straighten up and flash him an awkward grin. "yeah."

the narrow hallway proffers two doors on the left side and two on the right; gecko heads towards one in the far corner of the small apartment. each door is painted a different colour. at my curious expression, gecko says, "my mum's pretty artistic. she likes to liven up the place." the door gecko opens is bright green; his bedroom. he shrugs. "i thought it fitted with the whole 'lizard' thing."

 

his room is small, with a desk and bookshelves taking up one wall and a hastily-made bed pushed up against the windowsill. timetables, reminders and post-it notes cling to the ivy-coloured walls. thinking about it, this is exactly how i would have imagined gecko's bedroom to be: the books stacked on every shelf, the faded world map stuck above the door, and all the clutter - not artfully placed, not there to make an impression, just residing in crevices and corners that make it all look so natural, as if it's a part of gecko. i never realised how much a person showed of themselves in the spaces that are solely their own; how vulnerable we are when we have complete control.

 

the heavy thud of books falling snaps me out of my reverie. my friend's desk, previously clear, is now concealed by revision notes and textbooks. "you wanted to prepare for the maths exam on friday? " he asks.

i nod, my gaze sweeping over the pages before me. this is going to be tough.

we each pick up a textbook and settle on gecko's bedroom floor. the plan is to read over some questions and compare answers afterwards. silence ensues, during which i try to focus... but something doesn't feel right. something's missing somehow. 

"it's kind of strange not having sven here," the words fall from my lips after the realisation hits me.

gecko looks up from his reading, head cocked to one side. "oh yeah," he raises an eyebrow. "i guess it is."

sven and gecko have always been close - despite arguing like a married couple 99% of the time - and the absence of our swedish friend's loud voice and blunt remarks make it seem odd that today it's only gecko and i, having never seen each other outside of school.

 

"charlie?" gecko looks up again. i direct my gaze from the indecipherable mathematical equations on the page in front of me and glance at him. "yeah?"

gecko shifts awkwardly, tucking one long leg under himself and leaning back against the wall. "why did you want to come and study with me today?"

for a moment i am puzzled, but suddenly an image forms in my mind: the day of our second exam. gecko, slumped at a desk in the library, stressed and agitated, worrying that he won't do as well as everyone had assumed he would. worried that people would be so suprise if he got anything less than top marks.

gecko... i say earnestly, i'm not using you. honestly, i'm not. i didn't arrange this just beause i know you're smart and you could help me, i swear -

he shakes his head with a quiet laugh. dude, it's okay. i know. it's just weird timing, you know? you've never had a problem with studying.

yeah, well, i've had a problem with procrastinating. my light words are edged with sarcasm. maths revision is something i've put off for a very long time, and now i don't understsnd any of it, i continue, almost afraid to admit it to someone whose second nature is schoolwork. but again i remember that gecko isn't just some knowledge-machine. he's human. he probably procrastinates too. (although he probably isn't an expert at it like i am.)

nah, gecko shakes his head, black hair falling over his eyes. you're smart.

and how do you know that?

this time he looks up at me, a playful trace of light in his pine-coloured eyes. because you've never asked me to do your homework for you.

i guess, i chuckle. then, on a slightly more serious note: you must make quite a lot from that little business, huh.

gecko shrugs, but gives no response. the glint in those dark irises is fading. charlie, his gaze bounces from the textbook below him back up to me. you're not going to fail this exam. you get that, right?

my smile softens at his words. i get it. this one's pretty important, that's all.

do you think you're going to panic?

the words catch me off guard. i never thought anyone at school took much interest in the demons, and that's exactly how i like it. no prying eyes or curious gazes when my breaths start to quicken, when my heartbeat spirals into a funeral march, when my head feels like it is imploding and exploding at the same time. i can barely deal with the voices in my head. i don't need anyone else's opinion.

i... i struggle to find the words. i don't think i'm not going to panic. but... it's not really about that, this time.

silence settles, but the kind of silence which only serves as a prompt towards more noise, as if i am standing on the edge of a cliff and there is nothing left for me to do but jump. i don't want to hit the bottom of this canyon; the truth is heavy but i'd rather be above it than have it on top of me. i have never been this honest with gecko. i feel like these words aren't for him to hear. if i shout this into the void, how much of it will echo back? i don't want to be hit with it twice over.  what if gecko doesn't understand?

still he waits. with patience. with stillness.  with open arms.

i take a breath and fill the silence like i am supposed to.

it's about my parents.

gecko's brow furrows. what? are they putting pressure on you?

not exactly... i guess i'm putting pressure on me. i think that if i can ace this, it'll make them feel better. make them feel happier.  like it used to be. like i'm not broken.

if i can pass these exams, is that proof enough?

proof enough to show that i'm not broken?

i don't know.

dude... my friend says slowly. don't get hung up on that. you're going to do well, i'm sure, but even if you don't... they'll get over it. there are other ways to make your parents proud of you, to make them feel good.

but what if it's too late for that? what if it's too late?

that, the demons quickly decide, is a topic to bring up later. i'm sure my head will be filled with worry when i next panic;  the demons have a habit of saving the bad things for later. in a way i suppose they support all we have is now, too. they take the bad thoughts and they use them against me when i am most vulnerable, when the once-dormant volcano in my mind erupts with enough force to turn the happiness into ruins, the confidence into lost cities covered in ash. what if it's too late to help my parents? what if these exams are my only chance to help them? i guess we'll all have to wait and see.

 

what about you? i ask with a forced smile. (i have found that the most effective way of getting out of my own head is to direct all of my attention onto someone else. it's selfish, but it works.) how are you holding up, gecko?

another shrug. i'm alright.

you're alright?

gecko sighs. it's complicated, charlie.

i close my textbook with a wry grin. i have all the time in the world.

he laughs. this time it is my turn to follow with the not-quite-silence. gecko takes the lead.

it's different for me.  i have to do well. it's... payment, in a way.

i toss him a puzzled look. payment?

he nods slowly.  yeah. or repayment, i suppose. he gestures around the room. my parents, they give everything for my sister and i to have what we have. and what we have isn't much, but it's enough. my parents came here with nothing, and they worked every day to provide for us, to give us a good education so that we can work harder, achieve more. so i pay them back in good grades.

i say nothing. he looks slightly sheepish after the sudden outburst of truths. i wonder why i've never noticed gecko's lack of lunch money, or how he's always the last to hand in the fees for school trips. and the reason why you don't wear a tie... i say out loud.

...is because my parents can't afford it. he finishes. 

gecko, that's... inspirational. i say, cringing at the cheesiness of my supposedly heartfelt comment. you're a good guy, gecko.

he doesn't meet my gaze. i work hard, that's all.

 

as we both open our textbooks and begin to study again, the equations on the pages i'm reading make even less sense to me. it dawns on me that yet again i am reminded of that quote, the same one i told gecko on the day of our second exam: everyone is fighting battles you don't even know about. we are all ignorant in the troubles of others, because we are so rarely called upon to be anything but the leader of our own little world. it's important to realise that we should help out with other people's problems, too. there are planets within our planet and worlds within that. if only we opened our eyes and looked.

 

 

see you around, charlie, gecko says as he shows me out of his apartment. it is late afternoon and, for a study session, today was vastly unsuccessful. (although gecko did make some progress in widening my understanding of algebra.) but for a councilling session (of sorts) we definitely haven't done too bad. miss mirlott would be proud.

you can do it, charlie. gecko says just before i turn to leave. i know you can.

i'm not sure exactly what gecko is referring to: the exams, or the struggle with my parents.

if only he realised that we just don't know.

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