“You’ve gone and done it again!” Niall laughed, nudging my side. But this time, I didn’t stiffen. Instead, I laughed with him.
“You know, it’d be a ton easier if we’d figure out how to make the rest of it first,” I said, scooping up the mess of dominoes I’d just knocked over - again.
“We have the whole day to figure this out,” he answered, glancing at the clock, which read one-thirty in the afternoon. “Let’s just experiment for now.”
I nodded, pushing the dominoes back over to him. “You set them up, you’re better at it.”
Niall chuckled, making me smile a bit. “Whatever you say.”
I watched him set up another row of dominoes, lining them up perfectly to fit into our next set of the project. This piece was a pulley system. The last domino in the row fell into a cup, which knocked it over and pulled on a piece of yarn attached to it. In the map we’d drawn, when the yarn lifted on the other end, it released a ball that rolled down an incline and into another pulley-type system. So far, the dominoes had been stumping us.
“There,” he said, placing the last piece. He pointed toward the cup. “It should work to fall into this without problem.”
I nodded. “Alright. Shall we try it?”
Niall laughed. “Well then I would’ve set it up for nothing.”
I brushed a stray piece of hair behind my ear. “Well the point of this is trial and error, is it not?”
He shook his head and laughed. “That’s true, but I don’t want to take the time to set it up again.”
I playfully jutted out my lower lip. “And I don’t want to take the time to do this project - but the world just has a way of shoving inevitability in our faces.”
His smile dropped. “I suppose you’re right.”
His sudden seriousness surprised me. Niall only got serious right before he got angry. Had I done something wrong? I tried to read his expression, but I saw no sign of a coming anger that I knew too well.
I gave him a half smile before my gaze dropped to my hands that rested in my lap. We sat there for a minute, the quiet hum of the ventilation system sounding in the background. I felt weird just sitting there, wondering if I’d done something wrong. If I had, though, he sure wasn’t showing it.
“So,” he finally said, making me jump slightly. “How about that map?”
After nearly three hours, we’d finally gotten about half way done. Though this was only an experimental run and we’d have to film the actual set-up, we’d agreed that we wanted to at least figure out how to build it. So - with several snack breaks and teasing in between - we only had the last half to go.
“So this goes here,” Niall mumbled, tying a string from the end of a pencil to a SOLO cup with a hole in it. “And this should work like that.”
He rolled a ball down the ramp and into the cup, making it fall over and bring the pencil with it. I smiled, nodding in approval as I picked the ball up, after it had rolled a bit away. Niall beamed as I set it back up, in the exact place he’d put it before.
“This is turning out great,” he said, gesturing to the contraption we’d made, running up the stairs and curving into Niall’s room. “We just have to remember how this all goes together.”
I shrugged. “We could take a picture of it.”
He snapped his fingers. “Brilliant one you are!” he laughed, quickly hopping to his feet and maneuvering around what we’d made to go up the stairs.
Niall appeared out of his room a few seconds later, holding a digital camera. He smiled, full of pride, as he took pictures of each section of the model. As soon as he’d finished, he bounced down the stairs and tossed me the camera as he sat down next to me. “How are they?”
I pressed the ‘view photos’ button, bringing up the photos Niall had just taken. I looked at each one, making sure we’d gotten everything. When I’d reached the last one, I accidentally hit the ‘next’ button twice, and another picture came up.
This one depicted four people; Maura, a younger version of Niall, a boy a bit older than the Niall shown, and a man who looked a lot like the older boy. They all wore genuine smiles. The man beamed, his arm around Maura. Maura’s arms were slung around the older boy’s shoulders, and the man’s free hand was resting on Niall’s shoulder. In the background was a brick wall, like one you’d find on an old farm or house. This looked like a picture taken in a studio, though Maura’s hair looked a little wind-blown. But no matter where this picture was taken, it looked like this lot would be genuinely happy anywhere.
I was so dumbstruck that I didn’t hear Niall saying my name. It wasn’t until I felt his soft, warm touch on my arm that my head snapped up from the camera’s screen.
“Samm,” he said, looking at me with brilliantly blue eyes. I snuck another glance down at the picture. Yes, they were the same eyes. “Are you okay? How are the pictures?”
“They’re - They’re fine,” I stumbled over the words. I don’t know why I was so surprised. Maybe because this picture had opened me up to an even odder side of Niall? Maybe because I was so used to the darker side of Niall, I didn’t even recognize this happier, more welcoming side of him?
He gave me an odd look, then took the camera from my hands. I bit my lip as he inspected the screen. Something flashed across his eyes. I couldn’t read it well. But when he looked up, the vibrant blue that had been in his eyes was gone. It was a duller shade, more of a gray-blue. Within the gray-blue, there was a complicated mix of emotions I’d never seen from him before.
Without another word, Niall shot up from his sitting position. I jumped, the abrupt movement scaring me a bit. I watched him stride over what we’d built, and go around it as he nearly flew up the stairs.
“Niall,” I said, standing and trying to follow after him. If it’d been a day earlier, I wouldn’t have followed after him. I don’t know what I would’ve done in this situation a day before. But now, after I’d become comfortable with Niall, I really did consider him as my friend. I felt as if his current behavior was my fault - and in some ways, it was. Was I not supposed to have seen that picture? Did it have some significant meaning to him?
I tried to say his name again, but was cut off by his door closing. The sudden noise halted me, mid-stride walking up the stairs. I stood there for a long time, trying to understand what’d just happened. It all happened so fast, though - I hadn’t really had time to comprehend the situation. All I knew was that I’d seen the picture, Niall had seen it too, and now he was behind a closed door with me standing there like an idiot.
But I soon came back to awareness, and continued my trek up the stairs. As soon as I reached his door, I stopped to listen for a moment. All I heard was what sounded like heavy, frustrated breathing, along with footsteps. He was angry, and he was pacing. Nervousness flooded through me. Whenever Niall got angry, I got hurt.
I backed away from the door. Though I’d not seen the angry side of Niall in nearly three days, I was still fully aware and weary of it. It was usually I that made Niall angry, and whenever I did, I got the brunt of the impulse. Either a hard pinch, a pull of my hair, digging his nails into my skin, or maybe even a heavy shove.
But what also struck me as odd was that Niall hadn’t taken it out on me immediately, like what usually happened. Niall had left, moving himself away from me. That had never happened before. I’d always gotten the first of his anger, which happened to be the worst of it. But now… The look that Niall had given me - the mix of emotions. Could one of them have been empathy? Or maybe even… Compassion?
I shook my head, stepping back from his door further. No, that couldn’t be it. How could Niall go from condescending to compassionate it a matter of four days? He couldn’t. That was the issue. Niall couldn’t change that quickly - no one like him could.
But in the last four days, I’d witnessed so many sides of him, so much of Niall change. What was going on? Did he finally understand that targeting me wasn’t a good way to handle anger? Did he finally understand what he’d put me through? Did he finally understand that we could be friends?
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was a dumb stroke of courage. But maybe it was something entirely different. All I knew that the person inside my body wasn’t the usual me. It was a better, more confident Samm.
I collected the few steps I’d lost, approaching Niall’s door. My hand reached out, gripping the nob in my steady hand. I turned it softly, and to my surprise it opened - Niall hadn’t locked himself in. I pushed the door open slowly, poking my head in the room once I’d gotten it far enough open. My eyes landed on him, his back to me with his head in his right hand, the other holding something within it.
I pushed the door further open, sliding my whole body through. Niall didn’t look up, and I assumed he hadn’t heard me yet. I approached quietly, now extremely more cautious of every move I was making. If I made the wrong move, I might get hurt - but that thought didn’t seem to bother me horribly. I only wanted to figure out what was wrong with Niall. What in the name of God was wrong with me?
I stepped closer, and the floor creaked, nearly making me jump out of my skin. I cursed to myself as Niall’s head whipped to the side, though he didn’t turn around. What had been in his hand fell to the bed. I noticed that it was the camera, still on the screen of the picture I’d seen.
“Samm,” he said, his voice scratchy and dry. “Now isn’t a good time.”
I should’ve been smart and taken his warning. But I didn’t. Instead, I took a step closer. “I’m sorry for whatever I did, Niall.”
I saw his jaw clench and unclench as I heard him draw in a long breath. “Please leave the room, Samm.”
I was being an idiot. I really was. I came even closer to him. My gut twisted, and all of me said to leave before I actually did get hurt. But I didn’t move away. “If you want to talk about it, I-”
“Samm,” he cut me off, fully turning around. I flinched hard, expecting a blow from him. This reaction seemed to upset him more. He huffed, turning back around and stalking over to his bedside table. He stood there, watching me as I took another step closer. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
I shook my head. “That’s not true, and you know it. Please, I want to help.”
“Don’t say that!” Niall suddenly shouted, his voice echoing throughout the room.
My body jolted in surprise. I cursed internally as I began to shake like the timid person I was. I shouldn’t have been afraid of Niall, not anymore. I knew that his nice, hospitable side was inside him somewhere. I gritted my teeth and chose to stand my ground, not leaving like he’d warned.
“I’m sick of everyone trying to help all the time!” Niall shouted again. This time, the only reaction I chose to show was a wince, out of reflex. “No one can help.”
I watched as his eyes changed from a gray-blue to a complete gray, full of sadness and anger. My chest tightened again and my palms began to sweat, expecting in the next few minutes to get hurt. I’d never pushed this far with Niall - in fact, I’d never pushed at all. This side of him was horribly scary. Suddenly, I wasn’t so courageous anymore. Suddenly, I wanted out.
“Just leave me alone!” he shouted, making me jump as his fists clenched. His brow creased in frustration and I took a hasty step back.
“Niall,” I said quietly, my gaze fixed on his deep, gray eyes. I didn’t want to help anymore, not if it meant getting hurt. I forgot what I wanted before. Suddenly, I didn’t want to be Niall’s friend anymore. I just wanted to be away from his abuse, away from his insults. “Please, calm down.”
“Go away, Samm!” he shouted, turning away abruptly and resting his arm on the wall above his head. “Please,” he said, more quietly. “I can’t right now. Not now.”
I don’t know why my eyes suddenly filled with tears. Maybe it was because I was weak, just like Niall said. Maybe it was because my confused emotions were too strong for me to handle. But maybe it was because I was disappointed - disappointed that the previous Niall still existed in him. He’d been so nice. I’d actually felt wanted in the past few hours. But now... This side of Niall was far from welcoming.
I needed to get away from him. Not only was he upset, but I also was. I needed time to sort everything out. So much had happened in the past four days, and though it only had been four days, it felt like so much longer. I’d bonded with Niall. I was now closer to him than I’d ever been to anyone else. And losing the good side of him to this other side was more painful than I could have ever imagined.
I began to back away. Niall stayed where he was as I exited his room. I assumed that’s where he stayed as I quickly left his house. Somewhere between his front door and the sidewalk I realized that my car was still at home, and I still had Niall’s clothes on. But there was no chance of me going back in there.
So, tucking the large polo into his boxers, I began the long and hasty walk home.