Drowning Lessons

[This is a re-written, edited version of Drowning Lessons. Yup. Literally just that.] There's a trick to building yourself back together. Sam mastered it long ago, and now he's got to try and teach his best friend the same thing. Brandon is sinking fast, and all Sam can do is try to teach him to swim.

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3. Chapter Two

novaturient

adj

desiring or seeking powerful change in one's life, behaviour or situation

 

 

It was four o'clock in the morning when Sam finally gave into the unrelenting desire to give up on his essay and to climb into bed. The words on his laptop screen had began to meld into an incomprehensible blur of key terms, fillers and connectives- each vowel and consonant meticulously arranged for the perfect explanation on what tools were needed, why and in what order for a successful heart transplant. Metres of words tumbled into miles of sentences, explanations and pin-point details pouring from his fingers like water and pressing themselves against the pages like lovers.

Godamn, he was tired. The two Red Bulls that he'd thrown into down his throat over the last four hours were a desperate- desperate but ultimately foolish and pretty damn vain it seemed- attempt to remain awake for another few hours in order to finish his work. The caffeine had left him physically trembling- his fingers flexing and then spasming as he tapped out a dreary, repetitive beat out on the keyboard. The letters would twist and hide and change places with others, leaving him pausing after every other word to find this vowel, or this number or that space bar.   

He sighed, dragging his palms over his face as if he could tug the weariness out of his eyes and limbs. He used to be able to stay awake every night a few years ago, if he remembered correctly- always the last one in his household to go to bed, always checking to make sure that his sister was asleep, his mother still alive. Ten years of responsibility for a little kid too young to properly understand how easily death came around.      

Sam was dragged at ninety-eight miles an hour into the present by the protesting buzz of his mobile. He'd only just turned his phone back on- kept it turned off for the last handful of hours to prevent the distractions- and now the notifications were flashing. Multiple missed phone calls, all from the same person.     

As usual, he'd worked completely on autopilot- packing away his laptop, changing out of his shirt and trousers into something relatively comfortable, switching on his phone and flipping off the light, just about ready to crash for the next few hours- but of course, something had to snap him out of it just as he was falling into sleep. And tonight, that something happened to be Brandon's contact flashing up on his phone screen to hail the incoming call.

"Brandon, dude, you said you wouldn't do this to me anymore. I've got work tomorrow, remember?"

The voice on the other end wasn't Brandon's. It was cold as ice and twice as smooth, and Sam felt like he'd just shoved his hand in a bucket full of dead eels.  He shuddered. He felt cold, sick with something he could only associate with fear, but wasn't exactly fear, trickled down his spine like rainwater. "Am I addressing Sam?"

"Who is this?" he asked, and the fragility of his voice worried him. Because if he could hear it buried in his tone, then whoever had Brandon's phone could too. "And why do you have my friend's phone?"

The person's answer seemed too practiced- to fluid and flawless- to be honest or even remotely trustworthy. "Your friend... I found him on the pavement next to a club... The Rusty Tiger, have you heard of it?" Yes, he had, vaguely, from friends of friends of people that he shouldn't know. "He's in a bad way, anyway, your friend. Cold, certainly, and wet- I would say he's been out here for over an hour- but I am also certain that he has been taking things... drinks, drugs... that he should not have been."

That voice... the accent was unrecognizable. Constantly fluctuating, the tone twisting between mocking and effortlessly serious, with clipped consonants and strung out vowels. Simultaneously liquid as silk and rough as gravel. 

Sam was already out of bed and stumbling around frantically, blindly, for the first pair of jeans and t-shirt he could find and throwing them on, mobile still pressed against his ear. "Right, um, well, I'm on my way now then. Thanks." he was fumbling around for the right- and the safest- words as he almost tumbled out his door. 

When he was younger, he used to play a game where he would imagine that animals could talk. It had been one of his few sources of amusement: a lion's voice would be as dark and deadly as a thunderstorm, and cat's would have been seductive: carrying promises of cherry-kissed lips and soft murmurs in the night. This person sounded exactly like a snake- a black mamba, that, with a single bite, would leave you flailing like a fish on a line, desperately dragging oxygen down a closed windpipe into starving lungs. 

He hadn't made a step towards his car- a lime-green Ford Fiesta, that was as hideous as it was before nearly keeling over in the freshly-fallen snow. The cold didn't hit him so much as a wall but more a barrage of white-hot bullets, burning holes in his exposed skin over and over again, brutally, mercilessly. 

Christ... Brandon had been out in this?

Sam didn't realise that the man was still on the line until he spoke again, and Sam jumped."Would it not be better for me to wait with your friend until you arrive? He's not completely conscious yet, although he appears to have woken up slightly." No no no no.  He felt sick. The voice was terrifying.

Out loud, though, he said: "yeah, that'd be great, thanks." He chose his words cautiously, and it was also because he didn't trust himself not to start screaming down the phone. Sam would be the one to look after him. Always had, always will.

He had the heating system on full blast the moment he threw himself into the car, but still had to wait four minutes for the engine to warm up enough for heated air to replace the cooler air being propelled toward his face and feet. He should have bought a jacket. 

It was quarter-past four in the morning, but cars still littered the roads like autumn leaves in the middle of winter, clinging to the tarmac determinedly. Sam figured that most of the vehicles- as sleek as oil, and twice as shiny- belonged to rich businessmen who'd bought the car on a whim, or promising entrepreneurs desperate to make a good first impression. Maybe some of them had drivers- underpaid employees working double shifts in order to feed their children, perhaps even as hyped up on caffeine as he was. 

It was starting to snow; fat, hungry flakes drifted lazily like wedding confetti from sickly-grey clouds to land on his windscreen, and even though he had the windscreen wipers on they were almost completely obstructing his vision.

The Rusty Tiger was a club synonymous with the dirty, the addicts and the bloody. And although Brandon was sometimes prone to over-reacting and recklessness, as far as Sam knew he wasn't any of the above. He eased into the curb behind an impressive looking car (keeping a safe distance away from something so expensive, obviously) and climbed out, wincing as he did so, but left the door open, just on the off chance he needed to make a quick exit. He lived half an hour from this part of London, and Brandon's dorms were even further away, but he'd heard enough about the dozens of people who'd been dragged from the face of Earth from this area, the claw marks that they'd left- gouged frantically, into their disrupted apartments and the bloodstains on the walls- suggested something relating to gang activities. Brandon was still insisting that it was a cult, but it was more as a joke than anything else. Things like that never really happened around them.

But still, Sam had no desire whatsoever to paddle in that pool of oil. That kind of life was a consuming one- it swamped you, pulled you beneath the surface with promises of... promises... and then choked you, forced itself down your throat, pushed itself into your limbs and took control. From then on, you became a puppet, an attack dog, utterly at the mercy of your own brutality and the orders from above.  

There was the slightest sound behind him, the barest crunch of snow that shouldn't even have been audible over the London muzak. Sam whirled round, almost slipping over on the treacherous ground, his nerves jangling as loudly as the car keys in his hands. 

Back when he was a kid, he'd spend most of his free hours laying next to the thin mockery of a stream that trickled delicately behind his mother's house. Rainwater would find itself trapped in the narrow indent that began at the top of the village and would run between the ramshackle houses, dashing between the rubble that lay in the street like abandoned corpses like children playing Kiss Tag. Sam would spend his afternoons lying on his stomach, one hand trailing languidly in the water, mixing it with warm, sun-kissed earth and flecks of dead grass. 

The man's eyes reminded him of that particular concoction: at first, they simply appeared a soft, muddy brown in the sickly amber of the streetlights. But when the man stood less than a foot away from him and didn't move, Sam noticed that they were flecked with a pale green, and the pupils were fenced from the iris by a halo of gold. They were reptilian- cold and clever and calculating, as if the man were considering a thousand different ways that he could kill him and dispose of the evidence, running through a shopping list of different methods and weapons, crossing off the more unscrupulous suggestions and closing in on the perfect solution like a starving predator. 

The rest of the man, Sam decided, flicking his gaze unimpressedly over him in a cautious once-over, was utterly unimpressive. Upturned nose blushed red from the cold, light hair clipped almost as short as Sam's, and a head slightly too large for his features. He appeared maybe- what?- seven or eight years older than him, thirty at most, but was almost the same height- so probably a head taller than Brandon, at least- and decked in the smart, businessman-type clothes: shirt and tie neatly ironed, even at this hour. He'd probably been on his way back from some official dinner or meeting and some expensive hotel, where discretion came as part of the price tag and folded neatly in with the evening's bill. It didn't really explain why he'd stopped to help- Brandon could have been an axe-murderer for all anyone knew- but Sam couldn't stir up the thankfulness that he had.

Those cold eyes glittered, and Sam realised that the stranger had been examining him as well; pouring over every minute detail and dragging from them tiny fragments of information. 

Sam wished he could tell how much the man had recovered.

"Your friend is over there, behind the skip." Cool words slid out between gleaming teeth arranged in neat, uniform rows. "I gave him my jacket when he refused to move into my car."

And thank God he did refuse, Sam wanted to snarl, but instead he nodded politely and made his way over to his best friend. Brandon's shirt, beneath the rich suit-jacket, clung to his torso, dark and damp from sweat and snow. His once black jeans were matted with dirt and vomit, and Sam grimaced as he pulled Brandon to his feet, wrapping an arm around his waist. His dark, floppy hair  was freckled with snowflakes, the gentle white a stark contrast to the raven shade. In the dim light, Sam could recognise the blue lips and ashen skin, and the waves of shivers that rolled over Brandon's skin like ripples over a still pond were so sever that Sam almost began to shake too. 

"C'mon, Brandon, you nutter," he murmured, using that voice that Cat had said he only used for his beat friend. "Let's get you somewhere warm, alright?"

Brandon mumbled something incomprehensible, dry words stumbling over trembling lips, but allowed Sam to half-carry, half-walk him to the car. As he buckled him in, the jacket fell from Brandon's shoulders and into an ungainly puddle on the floor. As he reached down to pick it up, a hand covered his. 

It was large- long, spindly fingers wrapping around his own like spider's legs. The fingers, despite the numbing outdoor temperature, were warm, burning actually, as if it were lava gushing through his veins rather than human blood. 

"Leave it with him," the man said, his tone as soft and silent as the snowflakes spiralled and drifted and pirrouetted around them both, like they were dancers on a grand stage. "I believe he needs it more than I do, wouldn't you agree?"

Sam froze. The man stared back. The world was smudged grey, as if some God had wet their thumb and dragged it over a painting of the London cityscape. He accepted defeat with a fake smile and draped the coat back over his friend, who was conveniently passed out in the passenger seat, wet flakes dripping down over his lips and down his neck. 

"Your friend will be fine, you know," he continued, as Sam clambered back into the relative comfort of his car. 

He shrugged. "Yeah, I know: give him a hot drink, a shower and a change of clothes- he'll be right as rain tomorrow." Start, engine, start. Why wasn't it starting first time?

"That wasn't what I meant."

Suddenly there was a face next to Sam's own, reptilian eyes boring into his matt-black ones. "Your friend will be fine with you, but not well. He needs other... people... to talk to, to share with." And then the man straightened up and shut the door. He didn't slam it, but Sam could feel the metal skeleton shudder around him. Almost as if even inanimate objects could sense that there was just something plain wrong about him. 

And as he drove away, the stranger's final words echoed around his head, reverberating, repeating like a child's nursery rhyme, the record creaking and groaning and cracking with each turn... "Ensure that your friend stays safe, Samuel Farah."

 

Back at his apartment, Sam held Brandon's fringe away from his face as he threw up. 

"Do you even remember what you took?" he frowned, but he was answered with a desolate shrug before Brandon retched again. "I'll get you some water." He stood, knees cracking after so long spent kneeling on the floor, but he was stopped by Brandon's hand as it wrapped around his wrist.

"I'm so sorry Sam," he whispered, his eyes clear for the first time since they'd got into the apartment. His eyes were shattered glass- the deep blue-grey fragments glittering in the painfully bright bathroom light. "I'm  just so... messed up sometimes, y'know? And sometimes I don't want to talk about it, even to you, because then it means that I have to think about it some more, and I really just want to forget about it all. Everything. Just for a few hours. And then if someone comes up to me like 'Hey, try this, it'll make you feel so much more confident,' I just think 'why not?' It might kill me... that might be nice." 

He was interrupted by another spasm of shivers and Sam sighed and crouched down next to him, brushing the damp hair from his face. 

"We need to get you warm first, okay? I'll sleep on the sofa. We need to talk about this, I know, and you know I'll listen to you whenever you need to talk to me, but right now you should probably try and keep yourself physically well, okay?"

Brandon smiled slowly, but it was a fragile smile, seemingly plastered together with muscle memory and a need to assure Sam that he was about to fall apart. "You're going to get bored of me talking one day., you know."

"Not true." Sam shook his head, "You could probably end up  talking about fifty different ways to peel an orange and I'd still end up listening to you."

"You need to get some more friends if that's true," Brandon said, but his smile was warm. "I mean... wait, you're wearing one of my t-shirts?"

"It's not my fault you leave your clothes lying around my place every time you come round."

The smile flickered and then grew. "I'm gonna want them back again sometime, you know." he said, but he let Sam pull him to his feet.

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