When I got home, I smiled so brightly that my mum almost had a heart attack.
"What's got in to you?" Mum stares at me from down the hallway, one eyebrow floating up her forehead and the other pressed low over her eye. "You're far too happy this evening."
I smile harder. "I had the worst day ever." And now I'm home, where I can be perfectly happy all evening, and it is the weekend tomorrow which means I can stay up all night and then laze all day in my room.
"You're scaring me," Mum says. "Wipe that smile off your face before you frighten your father too."
I do. I stop smiling, but there's still a warm, relaxed glow in the pit of my stomach, because today could not get any worse. It can only get better. Timo's school is far behind me, and so are all the heaped up emotions that can drag a man down. There's just me and an emotionless weekend to come, which is the best thing I could ever have asked for. God, I am so happy.
I walk up the stairs slowly just because I can, and then I turn left in to my room and heave a sigh of relief. It is just how I left it: perfectly tidy and precise and clean and calming. I want to just stand here and admire everything, because it's such a welcome change to the frustrating messiness of outside.
I fall on to my bed, and run my fingers over the soft white blankets. I press my face into my pillow and it smells of cleanliness - all fresh and sweet, but not overly so. And then I jump up to pull my blinds and curtains closed, and let the darkness sweep in like sleep and calm. The lamp on my desk sends ribbons of silver light across my ceiling, and I switch on some music lazily. I closed my eyes. God. Who knew the world outside was so complicated? Who knew one day out of my ordinary routine would send everything into such chaos? I guess maybe today was a good idea, even if just to show me how right I am. Everyone is mad, out there. Full to bursting, minds buzzing, lips moving constantly and emotions soaring out like huge waves and affecting everyone they touch.
Out there, you can drown. You can drown in the emotion. It's only safe when you're alone, and empty, and without a heart that wants to control you. In other words, don't have friends, don't have feelings, don't have a stupid, stupid heart. I promise everything is so much easier.
There's a knock on my door, and then Mum steps round it. There's a soft smile on her face, and her eyes are glistening because it's so dark.
"What happened today?" she asks, leaning against the frame. "You seem different."
"There's this boy called Alistair," I begin, and then laugh, because whenever the word 'Alistair' is involved, there's going to be a hell of a long story behind it. "And I was helping him."
"I was helping him."
"I don't understand. You've never helped anyone in your life."
I brush my fingers over the air. "I know. But I was."
"So I missed two periods of school so I could watch him play basketball at this posh school. And it was raining. Then we sat out in a storm because they accidentally locked us out. And then we went home and we talked and it was okay."
Mum's eyes blink and widen continuously. "You made a friend?"
"Of course not. But he's okay."
"Great, great. I was beginning to think I'd be your only friend."
"You're not my friend, Mum."
"Yeah, yeah," she walks over and ruffles my hair, which doesn't even annoy me. "We both know that isn't true."
I roll my eyes, but I don't mean it. So, maybe Mum is my only 'friend'. But it doesn't matter. Apart from Mum, there's no friends.
"So, will you invite Alistair round for tea?"
Mum pats me on the shoulder, "Tell him to come over this weekend. It'll be fun."
"Please, for me?" she asks, and then kisses my forehead while I squirm out of her reach. "Then you can have two friends."
I'm about to say something else - perhaps attempt to give her an explanation about the logistics of having a simple life, because she's the only person who might actually be able to understand - but she's already leaving, quietly closing the door behind her because she knows how much I detest the sound of doors slamming.
"I'll make you a coffee," she shouts from halfway down the stairs, and I don't have to tell her that's exactly what I've been needing all day. She already knows.
I close my eyes again and let darkness to sink in. The music is still playing, and it's lulling. Slow, kind of dragging, but very beautiful. The voice is loud over the soft beat, kind of like the singer is begging someone to listen, not just hear, and see, not just look. It's the kind of song that I wish I could touch, because I think it would feel like velvet. So soft and heavy and rich as blood.
My breathing is loud, too. Louder than the song and the wind outside and the humming of the kettle boiling. Louder than a voice and louder than a heartbeat and louder than life.
I stand up and turn off the music, and then head downstairs because I can already just smell the coffee brewing. It's a mixture of hazelnut and dark, dark chocolate, I think, except more sour and more sweet and more special, really.
I stir the dark liquid in my cup, but I make sure the spoon doesn't clatter.
"Tell me about Alistair," Mum says, drinking her own tea.
I shrug. "There isn't much to tell," I say, even though I can think of a lot of things about Alistair - just perhaps not thing I want to tell anyone. "He plays basketball," I begin vaguely, "And he has grey eyes," - more like silver - "And he's not very clever," - but he has a pretty voice - "And he talks a lot and he's annoying."
"Does he have a girlfriend? Boyfriend?"
"No," I say.
Mum looks at me, eyes narrowing a little, "Does he fancy you?"
"No, Mum," I say.
"Do you fancy him?"
"No, Mum," I say.
She blinks, "We'll see."
"I don't know if I've told you, but I'm straight. By the way."
"I actually am."
"I said okay."
Mum drops her mug into the sink, and switches on the hot water. There's a light whirring from the pipes, but apart from that, silence. The blinds are pulled closed, and the only light are pale white ceiling skylights that let out a white glow over the room. The whole kitchen it mostly white and pale blue and silver, like the top of a lake overcast with mountains and snow. And then the moment goes, just like that, because there's the whoosh of wind by the front door, and I know Dad's home.
"I'm back!" A few footsteps and then the dripping of rainwater, and I can see Mum's face droop when she realises her husband is leaving puddles up and down the hall.
Mum moves away from the sink and bubbles cling to her fingers, "Shoes off-" she shouts, and then starts when she feels the hot water fall onto her blouse. "And hang your coat up because it'll be soaking."
Dad comes through in to the Kitchen with his coat and shoes still on, and Mum rolls her eyes, but doesn't say anything. She doesn't mind that much.
"Hira," Dad pulls me towards him and then gives me a large kiss on the cheek, and I groan.
"Dad, stop it-"
He laughs loudly, and it sounds more like a rumble, like it always has. "I haven't seen you in ages. You're always cooped up in your bedroom."
"I'm revising," I say curtly, but there's a soft edge to my words as there always is when I'm talking to Dad. You can't stay angry with someone him for long.
"Yeah, yeah. I never revised as a teenager," Dad says, shaking his head. "You've got a much stronger will that I had."
"Thank you," I say.
Mum laughs, and Dad grins, ruffling my hair in the exact same way that Mum did earlier today. It's like the say goes: a married couple becomes more similar the longer they're together, and I think it's true. I'd rather smash my head into a wall that become like someone else: I'm the only person who can possibly live the right kind of way.
Mum keeps on washing, but joins in the conversation, "Hira's had quite the busy day."
"More than normal?" Dad asks, and Mum replies with a nod of the head.
When I don't expand, Mum takes over for me, "He's friends with this new boy," she says, and Dad's face breaks into a grin.
I close my eyes. "No, Dad."
His face falls. "Oh. Well, at least you have a friend at last."
"He's not my friend."
"Yeah, yeah," Dad replies, and pulls Mum into an awkward hug because he's still in a rain-splattered raincoat and her hands are still covered in soap suds. "What's for dinner?"
"Indian," Mum says, "You know I don't like takeaways, but-"
"We all know you secretly love takeaways, Sara."
"That isn't true! I like home-cooked meals-" ...And the light-hearted squabbles begin back and forth, with Dad putting on his apron that Mum absolutely detests, and Mum swatting Dad in the face with a dirty dishcloth, and Dad tasting the sauces out of the pan with his fingers and Mum rolling her eyes and attempting to clean out the curry where Dad's eaten from.
I watch them, half-asleep. It's been tiring, today, and I'm never normally tired. It's all the emotional stress I've been exposed to.
I sigh heavily as I realise what I am about to do, even though it is most definitely a bad idea and against all of my morals. I pull my phone out of my dark blue jeans, and find Alistair's contact. He doesn't even have a profile picture to his name.
My fingers hover over the keyboard with uncertainty. I don't know what to say.
"Do you want to come over for tea tomorrow?"
"My mum asks if you want to come over for dinner tomorrow ."
I delete both immediately.
"My mum was wondering if you wanted dinner tomorrow. Please come over at six o'clock." I type out, then check for any grammatical errors, or spelling mistakes. I check again twice, just in case.
"Who are you texting?" Mum asks without even looking over her shoulder.
I say, "Alistair, like you told me to."
"Really?" Mum turns around, a grin on her face, "That's great. What do you want to eat? Do you want to watch something? It's been forever since you invited anyone round."
"I don't know. What do you think?"
"Perhaps a horror film," Mum suggests, "And maybe I should get another takeaway, if that's what he likes?"
"I don't know," I repeat.
Dad nods at my phone, "Ask him."
"But he hasn't even said he's coming yet," I say.
"I'm sure he'll like pizza, right?" Mum runs her fingers through her brown hair, combing it into place.
I open my mouth in protest, "But I don't like pizza-"
"Guests first, Hira," Mum pulls dinner off the hob, and then passes me a plate. "Honestly, you're going to have such a good time tomorrow."
I got a text later than evening from Alistair: "ok, should I bring stuff for overnight?" And I almost texted back "certainly not", but mum took the phone off me and replied "yes". So I didn't really have a choice.
I check the clock, and it says 6:02. I gulp: I have exactly 58 minutes before Alistair arrives, and I don't know what to wear, how tidy the house should be, what takeaway we're ordering, what pyjamas I should wear, what film we should watch... I groan inwardly. I am so afraid. No doubt Alistair goes to people's houses all the time, whilst I haven't been to a sleepover in about ten years. I consider reading a WikiHow page on how to have a sleepover, but it's aimed at ten year old girls planning a princess birthday bash with face masks and nail painting.
I've just showered, and my hair hangs low over my forehead, still damp. I pull on a soft, navy jumper and matching Levis, then a pair of socks because I don't know if it is socially acceptable to be barefoot at a sleepover or not.
I check the time. 5:30.
After quickly checking over my room to make sure it is completely tidy, I go downstairs to see Mum.
She looks up at me. "We're having Indian again because it was nice and easy. Will you both eat in your bedroom?"
"I think so," I say.
"Nervous?" she asks softly.
I frown, "No."
"Good, because he seems like a lovely boy."
I have stopped listening, now. Instead I run my hands through my hair and take a see, slow breath.
"There's some films by your laptop, and there's food in the sink cupboard," she smiles, "I'll try and stay out of the way, but I can't make any promises."
"What you mean is, you can make promises you just can't keep them."
Then we both stop, frozen, as the doorbell rings.
I check my watch. It's only 5:47. He can't possibly be here yet: he's supposed to arrive at six. I start to panic, a rush hitting my head and swamping me.
A second ring, and my feet and hands are like lead, useless.
"Answer the door, Hira," Mum hisses, giving me a shove down the hall.
I pull open the door so quickly a surge of air hits me. Alistair has his hand poised over the doorbell, about to ring again, and looks vaguely shocked.
I glower at him over the threshold of the house. "You're thirteen minutes early."
He rubs the back of his neck uncomfortably, "Yeah, sorry. My bus was early."
I swallow thickly, "No. It's fine." I move out of the doorway so he can come inside, and then I shut the door carefully. Alistair drops his shoes by the door and for some reason, blushes.
"You've got a nice house," Alistair says, a little dumbly. "It's pretty big."
"Yes," I say.
He smiles a little. "Thanks for inviting me." I realise he is partly looking over my shoulder, because my Mum us hovering by the kitchen, quite obviously listening to our conversation.
Mum comes out, "It's nothing. Hira hasn't had any friends since he was in nursery."
I shut my eyes for a few seconds, and then see Alistair smother a laugh.
Mum continues, "I thought you were his boyfriend."
I might cry.
Alistair's face turns red, and he stammers a bit, "Er, no, no."
I step in front of Mum so I'm blocking her view, "She says that about everyone I meet, don't worry," I explain. "We're going upstairs." I push Alistair 's shoulder gently in the direction of the staircase, and he moves quickly, eager to get away from Mum's calculated gaze.
"Sorry," I mutter.
He laughs, looking at me over his shoulder, "It's fine. I just wasn't expecting it."
I nod, and gesture to my room - the first on the left. I switch the light on and then firmly shut the door, blocking out all sound. It's still pretty dark, because winter makes nights come early, and I got a special power-saving light bulb recently that doesn't actually give out much light at all.
Alistair just stands and blinks, "Your room is so tidy," he breathes, "And where's all your stuff?"
"Here," I say flatly.
"Wow," he grins, and runs his fingers down the wooden drawers. "Amazing."
"So," Alistair smiles brighter, "What are we doing?"
Just for a split second, shock flickers across his features, then he rolls his eyes and groans. "Haha, very funny. I only fell for that because you never make jokes," he gives me a playful punch on the arm, and I rub my forearm afterwards because I think it might be bruised.
I sit down on the floor and cross my legs, and Alistair comes down too. He lies on his back with his legs bent, and pulls at a strand of his hair boredly.
I look down on him, "I have some films we can watch. And we can talk," I say, and drop my eyes a bit so I don't have to meet his.
"Cool," he props himself up on his elbows and passes me a toothy grin. "Which ones?"
I don't know. I have absolutely no idea. I pull my laptop onto my knee from on my desk, and there's three films on top. They all look pretty horrific, but not boring. I can't remember the last time I saw a horror film clearly; I just remembered not really being afraid. Alistair takes the small, thin boxes out of my hand and examines them.
"Do you like these?" He asks.
I shrug. "My mum picked them out. I'm sure they'll be okay." I pull the top one open first and slip the DVD into the side of the silver laptop. I look at Alistair. "Unless you don't like horror films, of course."
"No, I don't mind."
I nod. The screen flickers from black to silver, and I pull some headphones out of the drawer. "Come closer, or you won't be able to put these in."
He does, and takes one side for himself. Whilst he is occupied, I take into account what he's wearing to make sure I have done everything right. He's also wearing dark blue jeans, and a white t-shirt - possibly Nike. I don't think he's done anything particular with his hair: it just looks kind of soft and feathery, as usual. He is wearing socks too, and the only stark difference between us - since our height and stature are so similar - are our hair and skin tone. He's golden and I am pretty pale, and his hair is silver gold, whilst mine is very dark.
I quickly stand up to switch the lights off, then I sit back down. It has got a little colder, so I curl my hands into my jumper sleeves.
The film begins slowly, with an annoyingly stupid protagonist and some seriously disturbed young children with crimson ribbons in their hair. I don't understand why any of the characters are even in the town, but apparently factors like a plotline that makes sense aren't really necessary in the long run. I frown when a couple of dolls fall of their shelves and their heads split open like those birthday things you get where children hit them until the sweets come out. Except there isn't any sweets.
"This is a bit weird," I say flatly. "Maybe we should change it."
"Yeah," Alistair nods, and drops his earphone.
I pick up the next one to put in, which is a higher rating and looks a bit more promising. Mum knocks on the door, and pops her head around the frame comically.
"Some drinks?" she asks, and I reply quickly with something about lemonade. The lights go off again, and this time it's mainly pitch black in the bedroom. I feel a bit sleepy.
The film is actually pretty scary. I find myself subconsciously curling my knees in to my chest and checking the time on the laptop. There is still one and a half hours to go, and Alistair and I are waiting for the first jump scare. There's a ticking clock, somewhere in the background, and shadows slide across the walls like dancing ghosts. The little boy is just lying in his bed, eyes flickering around the room like little torchlights. Then- Black and silver, and a face stretched out across the window, and I swear loudly and, I might add, uncharacteristically, because I make a point not to swear too much.
Alistair yelps, and his hands grasp my collar and yank me closer.
I let go of a breathe I didn't know I was holding, and find one of my arms looped around Alistair's neck without quite meaning to put it there.
"It's okay," I mutter. "It's over."
He only loosens his grip on me when his breathing slows down a bit - I know because I can feel the air hit my chin.
"Are you joking?" Alistair whispers, "We still have another hour of this."
I gulp. "It'll be fine. Calm down."
He shivers, and then moves in closer. "Can I hug you?" He whispers again, and I have no idea why he's whispering but I decide I better whisper too.
I try and sit more comfortably on my rug. "Okay. Just don't strangle me, okay?"
I try and pull me arm back onto my knee, but I can't get it passed Alistair's shoulders, so I just end up leaving it wrapped around him.
The film drags on, the scares becoming even more frequent. I manage to get used to it, but Alistair just becomes more paranoid after every one.
The latest is a shattered vase and a hand dropped onto a woman's shoulder, closing around her throat. He jumps out of his skin.
"Holy shit," he breathes, fingers tightening in my jumper.
I pull him closer. "How many horror films have you actually seen?"
"Not many. I hate them."
"Oh," I say. "Sorry."
"It's fine. I should've said," he grins, "But I can't help but be kind of fascinated by them, you know?"
I chuckle. "I know."
The film ends not so happily-ever-after, with more of the characters dead than alive before the credits begin rolling. I gesture at the third film, and Alistair groans.
"I honestly don't know if my heart can take it."
I grin, and put all the discs back in the boxes, even though Alistair is still clinging to my neck.
"Can we put the lights back on?" he asks.
I look up, "Wait a second."
There's a light knocking on the door, and before I quite realise what is going on - before I can push Alistair off my knee - Mum is in the doorway, with two glasses of lemonade in her hands. She nearly drops them both.
Her eyes flicker over the two of us, and she puts the glasses down on my desk slowly. She's blinking a little too quickly for everything to look natural, and now she's specifically not making eye contact, like she thinks she's walked in on something as bad as a dead body.
Alistair's face pales a little, and he says, "Sorry, this isn't what it looks like-" He begins to disentangle himself from me, but I stop him. If we move now, we'll only look even more suspicious.
"Alistair got scared during the film," I explain, keeping Alistair in place next to me. "It doesn't matter.'
Mum smiles brightly, "Okay," she says, and then she leaves, and Alistair turns to me.
"Hira, honestly, I'm so sorry - I didn't mean it in that way-" it's weird him apologising when he's still so close to my face, but I don't really feel that bothered. I think we've crossed all personal boundaries already to start feeling embarrassed, although - apparently - Alistair is only just starting to feel uncomfortable, which is weird.
I roll my eyes. "I know. Stop worrying. I was scared too."
I can hear him swallow, and I can also hear the faint thump of his heartbeat beneath my arm. It's interesting. The way it beats irregular, like a bad drummer forgot his tune, or a tide that isn't sure whether to move in or not. I quite like it. My heartbeat feels normal, slow, kind of boring.
"What do you want to do?" Alistair asks, exhaling long and hard. "I mean, I'm not sure I can look either of your parents in the eye anymore, so we'll have to stay upstairs.
I chuckle. "Don't worry about it. My parents predicted this since primary school," I blink, "Not that this is actually happening."
I feel my ears go pink, and I only hope Alistair hasn't noticed yet. I shrug. "It's a long story."
"We've got all night, literally."
"I'm not telling you," I say, kind of defiantly.
"Please, please, please."
I don't move a muscle. He can plead all he wants, but I won't give. I'm not like other people, who seem to want to let their secrets out even though they're terrified of them. "You can't persuade me."
Alistair's lips fall into a warm smile, and he says, "I'll tell you a secret in return. Then you can tell me another secret, then I'll say another one in return."
"Mine isn't embarrassing. You'll only upset yourself."
"I don't care," Alistair taps his fingers on my shoulder like he might be playing a piano instead, "Tell me."
I do not know why, but I open my mouth and begin the story, because Alistair seems to have a way of getting me to do things I really, really don't want to do. First making me agree to help with Timo, then making me miss school, then making me wear shorts, then making me watch a basketball game in the rain, and now he's making me tell him all my secrets. It's dangerous. He's dangerous for me. Who knows? When he's finished with me, I might end up a sentimental, emotionally unstable teenager - just like him and everyone else.
"When I was in Year five, I thought everyone was annoying and I always told my parents all my friends were irritating. But there was this one boy who wasn't irritating, and I told my parents I thought he was beautiful," I click my tongue with agitation. "I meant the silence was beautiful. Not him. But they didn't get it."
"Oh," Alistair laughs quietly. "Well... my secret is that," he pauses, trying to find one, and then smiles, "When I was really small in school," he laughs, and then tries to stop, but then laughs again, and stops, "I used to hide in the toilets at every break, and I ate my lunch in one of the cubicles. And there was this one day this other boy came into the toilets, and he somehow realised that I'd been in there the entire lunch time. The next day, and the next, he saw me inside the toilet, and then he told our teacher he thought one of the boys had a serious problem. Everyone was really worried and they talked to everyone individually, but they didn't catch me." He bursts into more laughter, but I don't really get it. The punchline is missing.
"You obviously had to be there," I say.
He shakes his head, "Probably." He looks at my watch, but can't see because of the awkward angle. "What time is it?"
I check, "11:30."
"I'm not very tired," Alistair says. "I think your parents are going to bed, though. Are you tired?"