The sky was so black it looked like less of a sky and more of a wide, stretched mouth, gasping for breath away from smoky clouds and gaping at toy houses and toy people it couldn't reach. The horizon still blinked with tiny flyspecks of gold and melted silver, and there was still the occasional twitch of planes glistening blood red and pale blue. The city breathed laughter, and late nights, and foreign beauty.
I was sitting on the river's bank, fingers twirling in the white sand, allowing the powder to fall across my palms to nothing. Therapeutic. I'd told Mum that I was going to do some revision, but my English book had been closed for about an hour. A shower of water had ruined the first few pages, and sand had festered between the cracks in the spine. I would get in trouble for that when the new week started, but I didn't seem to mind.
I was drowning.
The light lifted me up, and dropped me down, curled and coiled around my long arms and folded around my neck - an embrace and a noose both at once. It filled my senses and I could hear the light like it could whisper, the way it melted words into my mind and then spoke them like a headache. The water in front stretched out to me, begging, creeping toward my toes with a feral grace. I almost gave out to it. It was so beautiful.
"You always look like you're thinking something profound."
I just remember not moving - not an inch, not a finger, not letting a single breath out faster than normal. I just twisted my fingers deeper into the pale dust. It didn't take me long to figure out who the voice belonged to - in fact, it took me less than a few seconds.
The speaker always spoke the same. The words were less said, and more just appeared. Sure, his mouth moved, but it was like his mind shaped them and you just knew them. Smooth as marble, each letter sounding the same but still managing to make sense. I really liked the voice, but I didn't really like the words.
A shiver of fabric, maybe a shirt curling inside a fist. "What were you thinking?"
"I'm hungry," I lied. My voice sounded like a drone, drawled and dragged out and about as interesting as the buzz of an alarm clock at 6:30am. That was kind of the idea, though.
"Liar." He said, dropping down next to me like a dead weight. He looked a little different, I thought, just seeing him from the corner of my eye. He seemed older. Kind of like his emotions were stretched out on a washing line, hung out, washed out, left out so long they were kind of drained. It wasn't beautiful, like he normally was. It made me frustrated.
I pulled my English book onto my knee and opened it to a random page. There were lots of words. I couldn't really read them, though. "Why are you sitting next to me?" I said, hunching my back a little to block him out. "We're not friends, you know."
"Then find one of your friends. I like being alone," I flickered through some more old pages, occasionally pausing to pick up some random fact to remember. The spaced out colour made it to difficult to concentrate, and- And he interrupted my thought process about the text book, which might have become quite profound, if he'd only given me another minute or so.
"I don't really have any friends, Hira."
I rolled my eyes. Alistair was rather a drama queen. "Of course you do. You have lots of friends," I said matter-of-factly. It was true enough. "You're the most popular boy in the class."
"You think so?" A vague, lazy grin, kind of matching the river. It fell away. "Can you put the text book down. Please?"
"I'm trying to revise," I said, still not daring a look in his direction. He looked kind of intense, his eyes bright, but not joyful, just kind of staring, digging right down into my face and through my skin like little needles. It made me shiver. I didn't really like it when people looked like that. It meant they were thinking too hard, letting things skim passed their head and straight through to their heart for a killer blow. I think loads, but I don't really feel loads.
"Look at me please."
I dropped the book. "Why? Why are you even here?" Instead of picking up the book again, which I really wanted to do, I did the bravest thing I'd done that whole passing year. I turned around, so we could face each other. He looked kind of confused at how quickly I'd managed to move and face him, but it didn't take him long to look intense again. His eyes hardened up, the silver in them turning heavy and weighted, kind of like it could press me down and stop me living. I hunched my shoulders a little, and he scraped his long fingers down the side of his cheek.
"I don't know what to do."
I stopped trying to pretend he's okay. "Maybe you should throw something at me. It'll probably make you feel better."
I sighed. "Okay."
He gulped again, swallowing down the air like he's hungry. Really hungry. "I don't know what to- how to-"
"Okay." I found myself dropping a ruler straight arm down on his shoulder, and applying as little pressure as possible. "You should probably stop thinking about it."
"If I stop thinking about it, then I can't figure it out. I'm back to where I started."
"Okay," I repeat. "I always leave my problems unsolved."
His laugh sounds like it might be passed its sell-by-date. "You have problems, Hira?"
I roll my eyes. "Of course. Everyone has problems. You're one of my problems." After the last sentence came out, I felt a pale blush creep onto my cheeks. That sounded pretty bad.
If he thought the same as me, he didn't mention it. "You're pretty unapproachable, you know. So I don't know why I'm talking to you."
"Probably because I don't talk to anyone, so I won't talk about you," I suggested, kind of helpfully.
The sea roared gently in the back of my mind, and a few lights in the city flickered out, telling me some child was being forced to go to bed because it's school tomorrow but he wants to play some dumb xbox game, or maybe some old lady living by herself had tired eyes and wanted some sleep, or maybe some young, ambitious couple had dimmed the lights so they could watch TV until midnight drops and they fall asleep on each other. I could hear the groan of car wheels sliding across smooth gravel, and the hiss of engines as they begged for rest. The clink of wine glasses and the chug of rose-coloured liquid swallowed until the bottle is empty and they're opening another, even though work starts tomorrow and they'll hardly be able to get up.
"No," Alistair said, and then coughed, because his voice had turned into a raspy kind of whisper. The kind of thing that would never usually have embarrassed him, but now turned his ears a deep pink and made him avert his gaze for a few seconds. "It's something else. I kind of trust you."
For the third time, and probably not the last, I rolled my eyes. "Why, why, why?"
"I don't know," he snapped this line, and I jumped in surprise, again feeling the rush of emotion that streamed toward me. His eyes glowered, then cooled like the embers of a fire. "I don't know. You are my friend, okay?"
"If you want to be friends with me, then I'm okay with that," I said. Thinking back, it probably wasn't the nicest thing to say, but it seemed okay then.
He chuckled, a sound that resounded less from noise, and more just from the way his chest moved with the action. It was kind of fascinating, seeing someone clogged up with so much thought that it creeped at their vision. I didn't understand. Not one bit of it, obviously. But in a way, I wanted to understand, because the idea of seeing things that were coloured with your own heart was kind of incredible.
"Do you want me to give you advice?"
"You don't know what my problem is."
I laughed, and felt my face split. "I know exactly what you're problem is, Alistair."
He looked up, more startled than upset, his dappled eyes widening and moving quickly. "You do?"
"You feel too much here," I said, placing my hand over my heart. "It ruins you."
He stared at me, first right into my eyes, and second to my outstretched fingers over my plain shirt. Like he didn't really get it. "That's not my problem."
"Okay. It isn't the problem you're thinking about, but it is the problem that your problem stems from."
"I don't think I particularly want to stop feeling, Hira," he said plainly, running his hand through his silver-gold hair as an after thought.
"You shouldn't have to," I said. "Just, it would solve your problem. And I'm not sure I would know how to give any other advice."
"You could try?" he muttered, playing with the sand like I had done when he arrived. Maybe it relaxed him, as well, or maybe he was just really nervous. I could tell he was on edge, but I couldn't pinpoint his problem. He kind of made me see him like some huge mind map, with lines spreading and splitting everywhere to options and thoughts and feelings and ideas, while I was kind of like a straight line. I couldn't decide which was better.
I shrugged. "I could. But I'd have to know the secret, and you don't want to tell me."
"Don't say anything, okay?"
"I thought the whole point was-"
He interrupted me, an urgency flashing across his face that instantly silenced me. "Don't, okay? You're kind of scary enough normally, so you'll scare me even more when you're staring at me like that while I'm telling you my biggest secret ever."
"You sound like a child."
He growls. "Shut up, Hira."
His white-knuckled fingers danced together, and his breathing became irregular, kind of like a desperate heartbeat. "I'm going to tell you my secret." Okay. "Don't look at me." I turned away. Hurry up. "I'm a bit nervous." Damn you. "Okay, look at me again." I rolled my head in front again. He opened his mouth just a little, and then it almost closed but not quite, and his eyes widened every so slightly, then narrowed so they turned his whole face from fearful to angry. He shivered. Then he bit his lip, and his tongue skimmed over his front teeth nervously and he wrung his hands a little more and he stuttered a few I's out but never spoke further than that.
Then he swore. "I can't say it!"
"Maybe you should write it down."
"Okay." I looked down. He was managing to make me feel nervous too, which I didn't appreciate. The feeling made me want to jump into the river and sink beneath the blue until it filled me up completely. And dammit, because I wanted to know his secret. Badly. I wanted to know Alistair's secret worse than I'd ever wanted to know anything. It was just resting on his lips, hovering, almost spoken out loud, but so far away from ever being known. "I'll tell you one of my secrets, in exchange," I said softly, fear graying my control a little.
"You have secrets?"
"Of course I do."
"Say yours first."
My eyes twitched. "No."
A grin crept onto his face, and I wanted to punch it off. "You're afraid, Hira?"
"Of course. I'm about to tell you a secret."
"Say yours first."
One of my fingers curled to touch my palm, and it frustrated me. I could always stay completely at ease before, but now I was having trouble sitting perfectly still. I was trying to move Alistair's gaze from my eyes and to my awkward gestures, but that only made me seem even more anxious. Don't overthink it. "You might not say yours right after."
He looked a little surprised - no, a little offended. "I swear I will."
"What if you try to, but you can't?"
"I said, I swear I will."
"And I said, what if you can't?" My voice, thankfully, stayed at the same level through my whole sentence, not fumbling at all like Alistair's sometimes did. He's not good at keeping himself in check, which is stupid. Alistair is pretty stupid.
"I will, Hira."
"Fine." I swallowed, and I breathed, and I blinked. "I like chocolate in my tea sometimes."
"That's gross," Alistair said, "But it isn't a proper secret."
I frowned, angry, all of a sudden. "What do you mean? It's my secret!"
Alistair stared at me, open-mouthed and looking kind of dumb. "No it isn't! I mean a bad secret, that you wouldn't want anyone to know!"
I sat up really straight, my features contorting a little. "I don't want anyone to know it! It's part of who I am, and if someone found out they would know part of me! I count that as a bad secret, okay? You wanted a secret, and I gave you one."
Alistair said, "I'm sorry. I just- my secret hurts a lot more than how you drink your tea. But I guess, if that makes you feel worried, then fine." I knew he was probably thinking about how he'd just seen me get angry for the first time, and was probably considering how he could have got it on video, but I didn't mind, as long as he recognised my secret as a secret.
"Your turn," I said. "You can take some time. I have all night."
"I won't take all night."
"You sounded like you would."
Alistair looked at me. "I like this person."
I rolled my eyes (I knew I'd have to do it again). "Congratulations, Alistair. You've just set yourself up for a school year of heartbreak and tears and trauma. There's nothing you can do, except stop feeling, which is what I said in the first place."
"How can you say that?"
I stood up, and pick up my school book. I shouldn't have been so interested in his secret - I should've known it would be something as pathetic and stupid and Alistair-ish as simply liking someone. It was all a waste of time.
He jumped up, fast like a blink, his fingers snaring my wrist into a cage-like grip. "I haven't finished."
"I'm not bothered about hearing the rest of it."
"Sit, down. Now. I'm not finished."
I sat down. Why, I didn't really know.
"I really like this person. They maybe like me. But they're afraid to be with me," he said, and I swore I could hear his heart over his voice. It was pounding. "You said you'd give me advice, so help me."
"I do not understand love," I said as clearly and precisely as it could possibly ever be said. I should've known Alistair wouldn't understand it, though. He was incredibly talented at being stupid.
"Oh," Alistair smiled, and it seemed genuine. Sad, but genuine. "Okay."
"Maybe if you simplified it down, I could work it out," I suggested.
"Okay." Alistair said. "This person is gorgeous. You get that?"
"I need them in my life."
"Not really understood, but accepted."
We laughed together at that, but it was cut short because I almost wanted to hear more again, and Alistair seemed to find it easier talking about his secret like this.
"They seem like they need me. But they haven't said anything or done anything properly."
"They might hate me."
I felt a few things click together. "Since you're referring to this person as a 'they', I'm guessing they're a 'him'. Which is part of your problem?"
Alistair looks both incredibly relieved and utterly terrified both at once. "I need your help. Can you be subtle?"
"No," I said. "And no, I'm not helping you." Before I could decide to stand up again, Alistair pinned my hand down again.
"I'm not finished with the secret yet. He's like you, Hira. He doesn't really feel very much."
My eyes lit up, like a flyspecked sky. This was going to be the biggest challenge I'd ever solved, or perhaps not solved.