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after me comes the flood

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The little glowing open sign seems like it’s laughing at him. The neon orange letters distort themselves into manic grinning faces, mocking Louis for his inability to open the door and walk in. Through the window he can see people gathered in chairs, and a small stage set up, a short queue at the counter, and the smell of coffee wafts out into the hot summer’s night air.

His feet don’t move. Or rather, they do, but only in a straight line, back and forth in front of the shop, without actually veering off course into the shop. Louis can feel the outline of the folded up piece of paper in his back pocket and he touches it through his jeans with trembling fingers, but the paper gives no comfort, and his nose is beginning to burn, the way it does right before the hot tears gather in the corner of his eyes.  

There’s barely any traffic on this street, only the occasional car whisking by. Heat waves rise up from the tarred pavement, wavering and shimmering above the ground, evidence of just how hot it is on this balmy night in August. Louis can feel sweat gathering on his upper lip, in the middle of his back, at the back of his neck. He should’ve worn shorts, but he was afraid people would look at his knees while he was on stage. There’s nothing particularly horrific about his knees, no disfiguring scars or protruding bones; he just doesn’t like people looking at them.

He can feel his hair starting to stick to this forehead and he runs his fingers through it, fluffing it up and probably ruining the careful gel job that Zayn helped him with earlier in the evening. Zayn had hugged him close, whispered in his ear that he knew Louis could do this. Louis thinks bitterly that this might be the one time Zayn is wrong.

The problem isn’t that Louis can’t get up on that stage and read the piece that he has written on a piece of notebook paper, folded half a dozen times and burning a hole in his back pocket. He’s stood in front of larger crowds than this and he’s read his work in a loud, clear, confident voice. Louis is good at this. But this is different. It’s different because Zayn is at work, couldn’t get time off, Liam is out of town, Niall has a date tonight. Which means Louis is headed into this coffee-shop alone, with no guiding hand on his back, no words of reassurance echoing in his ears, no one looking back at him from the audience with shining, knowledgeable eyes. Zayn knows the way Louis always stumbles over the word inevitable, but he’s not there to nod reassuringly when Louis meets his eyes. Liam isn’t there with his strong, sturdy smile. Niall isn’t there to clap loudest at the end, wolf-whistle for “Tommo”, and buy him a pint in celebration.

 It’s just Louis and all his fears and all his anxiety and all those people watching him. And that’s the part he can’t do.

He’s been promising himself all week, promised himself and Zayn that he would go, that he could do this, and that he wouldn’t back out. Louis sat on the back step of the restaurant where he and Niall work and with each cigarette he stubbed out on the cement, he made another promise to himself that no matter what, when Thursday night rolled around, he would walk into the coffee shop and get on the stage.

The days where everything felt too sharp, like his bones were so brittle they would crack if someone bumped into him on the street, Louis would go sit on the swings at the park near his apartment. He had to remind himself how to breathe, had to stare at his hands and memorize the way they were still able to hold a pen. Sometimes it seems like his hands will fall off. Louis doesn’t know what he would do if his hands fell off. He thinks maybe he would pick them up off the ground and gently place them in a velvet-lined box, admire the way the paleness of his fingers contrasts so beautifully against the rich blood-colored velvet. Then Louis realizes he would need his hands to pick up his hands. The logistics of that is too much for Louis’s brain right now.

In third grade, Louis learned what the word morbid meant. He thinks it describes him rather perfectly.

The swings at the park were cold, hard plastic, and they dug into the bottom of his thighs, but he sat there and diligently wrote and scratched out words, scrawled some things about the taste of blood, and static, and waking up in empty beds with his nose burning and leftover pills in his pocket. He balled up pieces of paper and buried them in the sand underneath the merry go round. At one point, a small boy had asked Louis what he was working on so hard and Louis had looked at the boy with his skinned knees and the Power Rangers Band-Aid on his elbow, his grimy cheeks and his big blue eyes, and told him to never follow his dreams, because more often than not your dreams end up mocking you as they fade into the fog.

Louis’s hands are shaking as he paces on the sidewalk. The cracks in the pavement look oddly inviting, as if they’re beckoning for him to just lie down and fit himself into them. He thinks fondly that the cracks look like coffins and that they too would be lined with velvet that Louis wouldn’t mind lying in for all of eternity, or at least until people figure out what happens after you die.

The knot in Louis’s stomach is starting to make him feel sick. His skin itches with how much he loathes himself in this minute and it’s all he can do not to sink down next to the trash bins, against the brick wall, and hold his head in his hands.

“Are you going in?” A voice asks him and he whips his head around to see a girl holding the door open. The bright chatter of the coffee shop grinds on Louis’s ears and he feels like he’s going to throw up, but he swallows hard and shakily smiles at the girl.

“No, no, I’m just—”, his tongue feels too big for his mouth and his throat is too dry, “I’m waiting for someone.”

She shrugs and lets the door slam behind her, the sounds from inside deafening immediately, leaving only the buzz of the cars as they bump over the grates in the street.

Its 5:49 pm. The reading is at 7:00. Louis had allotted himself exactly 100 minutes to work up the courage to walk into the coffee shop. He’s been here since 5:21. So far he bought a cotton candy ice cream cone, took one lick and almost threw up, tossed the cone in the trash, walked back and forth in front of the coffee shop a dozen times, listened to records at the shop across the street, and peed in the gas station across the street three times. The girl behind the counter started giving Louis weird looks after the second time he walked in and went straight to the back to the bathrooms. He only peed the first time anyways; the second and third times he stared at himself in the mirror and demanded his reflection to tell him why birds fly south in the winter, why the words in his mouth taste like dryer lint, why he is still breathing. Louis splashed cold water on his face, threw his sweaty socks in the garbage, and bought some beef jerky to chew on. It was gross; he felt like he was chewing on pig intestines. He might’ve ruined that gas station for any future visits. That’s okay. Louis thinks he might not be coming back to this neighborhood for a while.

At 5:59, Louis’s vision is so blurred with unshed tears that he can barely see where he’s walking. He almost steps off the curb but flails wildly at the last minute and keeps on walking in his straight line. Louis doesn’t stop when he’s past the coffee shop door.

He walks.

He walks down the street, turns the corner, passes a hole-in-the-wall grocery store with sausages hanging in the window, bumps shoulders with a large man who snarls at him, and in front of a store with stacks of books so high in the window that Louis can’t actually see what’s inside, the tears in his eyes actually well over and spill down his cheeks. But he can hear the sounds of Regina Spektor floating out through the open door, and Regina Spektor has never let Louis down like his dreams of being a writer have, so he walks inside and is met with the song Après Moi pulsating around him.

Shelves of books tower over Louis, the smell of old paper and dust clogging his nostrils. It’s unbearably warm in here, which would explain the half a dozen fans set up all over the shop, blowing air across the room and rifling papers.

As he walks towards the back of the store, the sounds of Regina Spektor get louder and louder until he finds himself standing in front of a desk, watching a boy who stands with his back to Louis, singing at the top of his lungs almost louder than the already ridiculously loud music.

“I—”, and at the word oh he gives a violent hip pop, “must go on standing, I’m not my own, it’s not my choice!” The boy’s voice is deep and rough but surprisingly good, and Louis smiles through his tears as the boy does some sort of weird shoulder roll at the end of the line he’s just sung, and then the strange Russian part of the song begins, and the boy goes back to stamping the stack of books that Louis can see teetering beside him. Apparently the boy is not Russian, because he doesn’t sing along to this part. Louis has lain on his bed with this song blaring out of his computer and attempted to learn this part, to no avail, mostly because Zayn always interrupts him halfway through to yell at him for having his music so loud.

Louis doesn’t say anything. He watches the muscles in the boy’s back as he stamps the books, his arm moving efficiently back and forth between the ink pad and the stack in front of him. He’s bobbing his head. With the last few words of the Russian section of the song, he shouts out some random gibberish words, which Louis himself has also done many times, and then bursts back into the chorus.

There comes a pause in between two words, and Louis takes the chance to announce himself. “Hi,” he says, and his voice is loud in the brief silence, and then Regina is off crashing again, and the boy behind the desk has jumped a foot in the air.

The boy picks up a remote control, presses a button, and then it’s deafeningly silent in the shop and the boy is slowly turning around.

His eyes are green. Green like the mottled color of an empty wine bottle. That’s the first thing Louis notices. His red mouth is wide and lovely, although at the moment its open in a round o, his eyebrows knit together like just the sight of Louis has made him more confused than he has ever been in his life. His hair is big. Weirdly big, Louis thinks. Curly ringlets sprout out of his head like they have a mind of their own.

“I thought I was alone,” he says slowly. He speaks slowly, so slowly that Louis finds himself leaning forward. His voice is deep.

Louis shakes his head. He can feel tear tracks on his face. He hopes the boy doesn’t notice that his eyes are probably red and swollen.

“Are you okay?” The boy asks, and well, okay, maybe he did notice. He moves closer to the desk, puts his palms flat against the wood and leans across to look at Louis closer. Louis shrinks back. He doesn’t like people looking that closely at him. Beneath the loose neckline of the boy’s tshirt, he can see the points of some tattoos, other pieces of ink poking out from under his shirt sleeves. Louis wonders what they say. He wonders if somebody close to the guy tattooed them, or if it was one of those coldly impersonal tattoo stores with pictures of butterflies and dragons on the walls. Zayn did all of Louis’s tattoos in their living room, so Louis isn’t sure why he thinks he knows what it’s like to get tattoos done at a store.

Louis’s not sure why he’s thinking about tattoos.

Louis nods. He forgets what he’s nodding at. Oh, right, if he was okay. Louis wonders why he’s nodding, because he definitely is not okay. His blood is streaming in his veins, as if it’s a race to get to the finish line and burn up, dry out, and leak out of his eyes and his knees and his palms.

The guy stares at him. He has very nice collarbones, with these lovely dips where Louis would quite like to place his tongue and discover what he tastes like. His nostrils are rather large. Louis likes these things about him. Louis wonders what the boy’s ears look like, but he’s distracted by the red curl of the boy’s mouth as he asks, “Are you lying?”

Louis nods again. Might as well answer truthfully.

“Okay.” The guy crosses his arms in front of his chest. He has nice arms, long muscles moving under his tanned skin. A lot of bracelets, Louis can’t help but notice. Big thick leather ones and skinny silver chains. It looks like he’s wearing a charm bracelet, because Louis can see a charm that looks rather like a dolphin. That’s weird, Louis thinks. But then again, he has a teacup tattooed on his arm, so Louis abandoned judging other people for their accessories a long time ago.

“Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m not okay?” Louis’s voice is scratchy, out of use. His throat is full of tears, aching. Those things at the side of his neck that his doctor always feels for when he says his throat is sore, they’re sore. Louis thinks they’re called glands. He should ask Liam.

Oh, right, the boy.

He shakes his head. “Do you want to tell me?” He cocks his head and looks at Louis. He’s very tall. But Louis is very short, so maybe it’s all relative.

“I want you to ask me.”

There’s a silence. It seems very loud, and Louis blinks twice, hard.

“Why aren’t you okay?” The boy finally asks, leaning his elbow onto the counter and planting his chin in his palm.

“There are ghosts inside my head,” Louis announces. “That’s rather dramatic isn’t it?” He doesn’t mean to say the last part out loud.

But the boy nods anyways, as if he thinks the question was directed to him. “I’m sorry about your ghosts,” he says calmly. His eyes are big. Louis already noticed that, but he can’t help noticing it again. They’re almost too big for his face, just like his nose, and that ridiculous mouth with those ridiculous lips, but somehow it all works. His face is big and pretty. He’s pretty, Louis notices with a jolt. There are dark purple hollows under his eyes though, as if he’s been up too late, and Louis wonders what it is that kept him from sleep.

“Are you?” Louis asks, and pokes his pointer finger into the corner of his eye, as if that will stop any more tears from coming. He checks his watch. It’s 6:09.

“Am I what?”

“Sorry. For me.”

“Yes, I am.” The fan sitting on the corner of the desk rotates slowly and when it hits the two boys, the boy’s curls try to lift up and then flop back down like they’re too heavy to be lifted by the breeze. Louis’s sweat soaked fringe halfheartedly moves around on his forehead. It’s so hot.

“Well, don’t be,” Louis replies. “I don’t like pity.”

The boy just nods. “I’m Harry.”

Louis shrugs. “I don’t care.”

The boy’s eyebrows furrow together, looking like little caterpillars trying to crawl across his face. His forehead is tanned and Louis counts exactly three little freckles gathered in the shape of a triangle right above his left eye. “Okay,” he, Harry, says again.

“I’m Louis.” Louis supposes he could give Harry that, after all. He does have a dolphin charm on his bracelet, which Louis thinks is kind of cool, and also Daisy is in love with dolphins so he kind of wants to ask Harry where he got it, but that feels stupid.

“I don’t care,” Harry lifts his shoulders and drops them again in an exaggerated shrug, but his eyes are twinkling and the corner of his mouth curls up into the first smile Louis has seen since he walked in here. He has a dimple, which Louis finds kind of unfair. Louis likes dimples. His last boyfriend, Aiden, always said dimples were ugly, something about them being a muscle deformation, but Louis secretly loved them and every time they went to the grocery store on the corner of the street, he couldn’t help but stare at the girl who worked register #3, because she had a dimple. Louis thinks it doesn’t matter that Aiden didn’t like dimples, because Aiden is not here right now, (he won’t ever be again), and Louis wants to sink his finger into Harry’s dimple.

“Very funny.” Louis rolls his eyes. It feels kind of funny to roll his eyes after he’s been crying, almost as if his eyeball is loosened in its socket, squelching around. He presses the palm of his hand into his eye, just to make sure his eyeball stays inside his head. He wonders, if his eye popped out, if it would bounce on the hardwood floors, but the thought is rather gross so he thinks he’d rather not find out.

“What’s wrong with your eye?” Harry questions curiously. Louis pulls his palm away slowly, confident that his eye sockets are functioning correctly and will do their job.

“Where did you get your dolphin charm?” Louis asks, instead of telling Harry that he’s nervous that any minute, his eyeballs will be rolling around on the floor.

Without missing a beat, Harry says proudly, “From this jewelry shop in the Manchester! My sister gave it to me for my birthday!” His long, slender fingers rummage around on his wrist to find the dolphin charm, and then he pulls it away from the rest of the bracelets, so Louis can see it clearly. “Pretty cool, huh?”

Louis nods. It is. It’s a dolphin. “My sister loves dolphins.”

“Yeah?” Harry smiles big, his lips stretching out into a smile that seems too wide for his face, but just like his eyes (green) and his nostrils (flared) and his hair (springy), it suits him. “Do you just have the one sister?”

“Four, actually.” Louis laughs and it kind of bruises his throat, violently pushing past the tears clinging to the sides of his esophagus. “All younger.”

“Fun childhood,” Harry muses, his fingers stroking his chin as if he’s some sort of evil Moriarty-like villain.

Louis shrugs and slides his finger through a patch of a dust that’s illuminated by the dying sunlight peering into the front window of the shop, cut into shapes by the skyscrapers of books blocking it. He can feel Harry’s eyes on him but he doesn’t look up, instead checking his watch. It is now 6:14.

“Why do you have ghosts in your head?” Harry queries casually, as if he’s asking about the weather or what Louis’s favorite movie is or if Louis has ever contemplated killing himself. Well, maybe not the last one. The answer is yes though.

Louis looks up at Harry. The sunlight is in a bar across Harry’s face, and one of his eyes is trembling like he wants to close it against the glare, but he doesn’t, instead calmly looking Louis in the eye.

Louis looks around at the desk, picks up a stapler and a roll of dimes. He sets the stapler closest to him and the roll of dimes he tilts up on its end so it’s standing up straight.

“This is the universe,” Louis points to the stapler and Harry nods as if Louis is making perfect sense. “This is me,” he wiggles the roll of dimes. Harry nods again.

The shop is very silent as Louis slowly picks up the stapler and slams it down on the roll of dimes, which bursts open, making dimes fly everywhere, dropping onto the floor with loud pinging noises. Harry doesn’t move, just looks at the forlorn looking cardboard roll that lies smashed on the desk.

“That’s still me,” Louis says, pointing at the cardboard. He kicks at one of the dimes and it skids across the floor and bumps into a book shelf. “The dimes are the pieces of me. And this,” he waves the crumpled piece of cardboard in the air, “is what is left.”

Harry stares at him. And then, “The universe sucks.”

Louis agrees. It sure does. Louis used to want to go to space when he was younger, before he learned that there was nothing out there but blackness and balls of fiery gas that pretended to be stars. Louis doesn’t have time for things that pretend to be anything but what they are.

Louis drops the cardboard on the desk and glides his fingers through the little patch of dust again, coating the tips in it. “I was supposed to go to a poetry reading in—” he glances at his watch, “40 minutes.”

“Why aren’t you there?” Harry probes, fingers pulling at his bottom lip thoughtfully. His eyes are big, doe-like, and they seem to be asking Louis a million questions without demanding the answers. Louis wonders how that’s even possible.

“Because my hands shake when I do things on my own.” Louis scratches his forehead. He needs to cut his fingernails, can feel them scraping against the remnants of a sunburn he garnered while lying on the fire escape the other day, splitting a joint with Niall. The sunburn hurts.

“Don’t you have any friends?” Harry pushes as he plants his other elbow on the desk, resting his chin in his cupped hands. His hands are huge, long fingers tapping absently on his cheekbones.

“Yes, I have friends, you ass,” Louis glares at Harry who just grins cheerfully. “They’re all busy tonight.” He sighs heavily.

Harry glances at a clock on the wall. It’s shaped like a cat, with a tail that’s swaying lazily back and forth, marking the passing of the seconds.

“I’ll go with you.” Harry pulls one hand out from under his chin, pushes it across the desk, and pokes Louis’s wrist with one long finger. Harry has tattoos on his wrist, but he pulls his hand back before Louis can read what they say.

“Why?”

“Because I like you.” Harry shrugs, shoulders moving jerkily under the thin white tshirt. His sleeve shifts and Louis can see a tattoo of a ship on his arm. Maybe Harry was a pirate in another life; Louis likes the thought of Harry with a bandana, standing at the helm of a ship with oceanic spray soaking those curls, and a discovering glint in his eye. Working in a bookshop, Louis thinks, must be very trying for a pirate.

“You don’t know me,” Louis argues. He can feel his tshirt sticking to his shoulder blades. It is a very disgusting feeling, rather claustrophobic, and he has to remind himself to push air in and out of his lungs. He does like this tshirt though; it’s got this little owl on it, which Niall affectionately named Matilda when he bought Louis the shirt. Louis and Zayn overrode that decision and renamed him Rufus.

“Buy me a drink after, and we could change that.” Harry winks at him and that’s just, that’s exactly what Aiden had said as he pushed Louis’s double caramel extra foam cappuccino across the counter at him three years ago when Louis was eighteen and naïve and all he knew about Aiden was that his hair was floppy and he wore glasses and swore at the coffee maker when it splattered all over his trousers.

 Louis shakes his head violently at Harry, because no, no that’s not what Louis wants, he doesn’t want a boy with bottle-green eyes and big hands to buy him a drink, or have Louis buy him a drink, any kind of a drink, a martini or a soda or a goddamn juice box.

“Or we don’t have to?” Harry’s voice tilts up at the end as he watches Louis’s head move from side to side like its being pulled on a string. Sometimes, Louis feels rather like a marionette doll.

“No, thank you,” Louis says as politely as he can muster.

Harry just looks at him. “It’s 6:35.”

“Yes, I am aware, Father Time,” Louis snaps sarcastically. He sighs heavily and drops his forehead down onto the counter with a loud thunk. “I’m not going,” he mumbles into the wood. It’s cool against his lips. Tastes kind of like nail polish remover, and Louis would know because he once swallowed an entire bottle of it in an attempt to make the ghosts stop whispering, and ended up having his stomach pumped at the hospital on Christmas Eve. Alternatively known as his birthday.

“So should we go?” Harry reaches under the counter and pulls out a jangling bunch of keys that he waggles in Louis’s face. “I can close up in under one minute, I’ve timed myself. Want to see?”

Well, yeah, Louis wants to see, he doesn’t think it’s possible and now all he can think about is what Harry looks like when he’s not behind the counter, so yeah, he nods eagerly.

Harry smiles, big and bright and shiny and Louis’s heart reluctantly thumps an extra beat.

“Okay! 3-2-1,” and Harry rushes out from behind the counter, legs churning so quickly that Louis can’t really tell what Harry’s bottom half looks like, except to know that he’s wearing ridiculously tight skinny jeans. He must be sweltering. Louis wonders if Harry doesn’t like people looking at his knees either, and he almost opens his mouth to ask before Harry disappears into a back room. Louis hears a slam, a crash, and then Harry barrels back out of the back room, grabs Louis’s hand and they sprint down the skinny aisles of the shop, bursting out the front door and into the heat, Harry slamming the door shut behind him. He gives a loud whoop as he inserts the key in the lock, turns it, and then laughs loudly, mouth stretched so wide it looks painful.  Harry is still holding Louis’s sweaty hand in his own gigantic hand, dwarfing his fingers. He wrenches his hand out of Harry’s grip.

“So which way is it?” Harry asks, his smile still splitting his face, despite his hand now being empty of Louis’s.

“I’m not going,” Louis crosses his arms and glares at Harry. Glares up at him, because Harry seems even taller than he did when he was standing behind the counter. His legs are miles long and he’s wearing ratty white-turned-gray Converse. Louis wonders if Harry’s socks are sweaty, like Louis’s were, before he dumped them in the trash bin in the bathroom of that gas station.

“What?!” Harry exclaims indignantly. “I tripped over a box in the back, I almost punctured a lung, and all for nothing?!”

Louis shrugs. “Sorry.”

“Louis, its 6:41. You have 19 minutes to get to that shop. Are you really going to give up on this?” Harry demands, his hands on his hips, eyebrows scrunched down so far on his face that he looks like a disgruntled kitten who just found out it’s raining outside, so he can’t go out to play with his other kitten friends. Louis likes metaphors.

Louis shields his eyes from the sun that’s glaring through the buildings at him. “Yes, I am!”

“You shouldn’t.” Harry reaches out, long arm bridging the small distance between them and prods one long finger onto the left side of Louis’s chest, where he’s pretty sure his heart would go, (if he had one – how dramatic of him). “You won’t be very happy with yourself,” he pokes Louis’s chest hard, “in there.”

Louis stares at Harry, still with his long arm dangling awkward between them, finger still resting on Louis’s chest. “You’re weird.”

Harry nods. “You’re weirder if you don’t go to this thing,” he replies, and it sounds like a challenge. Usually, in books or movies, after something sounds like a challenge, a disembodied voice, or the narrator, says “and [insert name] never backs down from a challenge”.

That is not true with Louis. Louis likes to stand on the side of the road and wave at the challenges as they zoom past him in their fancy sports cars, watch them disappear into the distance while he scuffs his feet in the dust on the shoulder of the road.

The thing with Harry’s challenge though, is that Louis thinks it’d be okay if he backed down from it, which somehow is what prompts him to say, “Fine.” Louis raises his chin at Harry, who grins widely, his eyes scrunching into little half-moons, eyelashes tangling at the corners. “Let’s go.”

The coffee-shop is packed when they push their way through the door. Louis’s hands are shaking and he pushes one palm against his back pocket, making sure he can still feel the outline of the paper there. It calms him to run his finger along the edge of it, although after he does that once, he realizes that anyone watching him from behind probably thinks he’s sensually stroking his own bum, so he stops quickly.

They grab two chairs on the end of the aisle nearest the door, where Louis always plants himself so that if he chickens out right before he’s supposed to go on stage, he can get out the door and down the street before anyone has even noticed he’s gone. He thinks, though, that Harry would probably realize he was about to bolt before he even left his seat and he doesn’t know whether that comforts him or terrifies him. He doesn’t think about it, though, and just concentrates on the calming feel of the cool metal seat pressing through his jeans.

“You okay?” Harry murmurs, putting his huge hand on Louis’s knee, oh god his knee, and Louis jerks away from Harry’s touch. Harry just smiles softly, that dumb smile with the dimple, and Louis returns it hesitantly. Harry’s eyes have gold in them, he notices, right around the pupil. It sort of looks like there’re words written there, and he wants to try and read them, but then Harry turns back around to the front as a woman walks onto the stage holding a wireless microphone, which she sticks into the stand harmlessly set up in the middle of the stage. There’s a stool, but Louis never sits down when he reads, in case the stool falls over in the middle of his piece.

“Our first reader is Eleanor Calder,” the woman announces, and a hush falls over the crowd as a thin girl with melancholy brown eyes stands up in the first row.

After the girl Eleanor there’s a long list of people, all reading something different. Some poetry that makes Louis groan inside his head, more flowery words about a garden in the spring time; a comedic piece that Louis finds himself chuckling at, along with everyone else in the room. One long, string-bean-like boy with tall hair and sharp eyes and lots of freckles reads a story about how he became a radio DJ. Louis hates him. Harry has stars in his eyes. A girl with purple hair and too much eyeliner reads a poem about a miscarriage and Louis loathes himself for being scared of going to a poetry reading by himself, when this waif-like girl stands up there with tears wavering on the edges of her black-lined eyes, telling a group of strangers exactly what it felt like to have a medical vacuum suck her dead baby out of her.

After the purple-haired girl sits down in her seat, her shoulders shaking, the woman from the start of the reading looks at her list and says, “Our next reader is Louis Tomlinson”, at which Harry’s neck turns quickly to stare at Louis.

Louis wants to throw up, wants to slowly break all of his fingers, but he stands up out of his chair, turns his back on Harry and walks to the front of the room. He can see dust motes in the air where the burning sun is streaming through the front windows. He can smell the brewing coffee, and he can feel Harry’s eyes digging a hole in his back. He presses both palms to his eyes, just to make sure they’re still there. They are.

When he reaches the microphone, he clears his throat, and a noisy grinding sound bumps around the room and a few people titter, radio DJ guy included, so Louis glares at him and receives a smug smile in return.

“Hi, I’m Louis,” he mutters into the microphone. “This piece is called The Monotony of Falling, and um—”, he stutters over his words, his mouth too dry, “it’s dedicated to the kid with the green eyes.” As he pulls the paper out of his back pocket, and smoothes it out, his eyes find Harry in the crowd and Harry is just serenely looking at him, green (and gold, Louis knows now) eyes blinking back at him. He smiles slightly at Louis’s dedication.

Louis breathes, in and out.

“When I was a child, I drew a map of my body. And when I showed my mother, she asked me why I was showing her a blank piece of paper. I didn’t understand what she meant and I pointed, I pointed out my elbows and my knobby knees and I said mother, I am right there, and she said I see nothing but emptiness. I was embarrassed, the red hot shame of a seven year old boy who thought himself the next Monet. I thought I knew myself, thought I knew the world and the ways in which I existed inside of it. I thought I knew the whole of it, the beginnings and the ends, and sometimes even the middles. I believed, without a doubt, that I knew the lovely details of the sharp edges that later tore my eyeballs to shreds and left pools of blood seeping through my eyelashes. I know better now.”

Louis looks up. Harry’s eyes are closed. That’s okay; he sees comfort in the lines between Harry’s eyebrows. Louis continues.

“We’re in a car, and we are going fast, and I say go faster because I want to touch the stars, I want to burn my fingertips on their betrayal of the moon and I want to know what the stars look like when they are fast asleep. I am desperate to know how long it will take for my body to burn because of its closeness to the sun. I thought I knew the outer edges of the universe; that we would reach it and I would know its secrets; that it would exist inside of me thereafter. I believed that I was the universe and that maybe you were too and that I knew your beginnings and your ends and sometimes even your middles, and that you knew mine. I had no idea that it was possible to lie to myself, or that I would be so unaware of my own post-apocalyptical existence that I failed to see that I was even breathing. I never knew that a bottle of nail polish remover will not kill me, and that’s too bad, because I tried so hard. I never knew that I would come into the world not wanting to remain.”

It is silent in the room. Louis sees nothing but his scrawl slanting across the notebook page that has been folded too many times, the ratty edges of the paper where he tore it out of his notebook. He breathes. His lungs hurt.

“Do you know that feeling when you are sitting in a room which is brightly lit and it is dark out and you look out the window and all you can see is inky blackness and your own face staring back at you? You smile garishly and so does your reflection. You stab yourself in the throat and so does your reflection and it hurts doubly so, and there are two fountains of blood and two funerals and there are two burnt out galaxies; but there is only me in the cold grave and the reflection of me becomes corporeal and sleeps in my bed and hugs my sisters and pretends to love the same people that I love.

“This is an apology. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. Sorry for being this way, sorry that I know what alcohol tastes like when I’m drowning in it, sorry that I am intimate with the feel of the barrel of a gun against my temple, sorry for the barbed wire, sorry for that, sorry for this, sorry for the cathedrals I ruined and the monuments I set fire to, sorry for the deadbolt and the chain and the lock with no key.”

Louis folds his paper eight times, until it is a perfect square that fits in his back pocket. He puts it there. He looks out at the crowd and his ears ring with the applause, but he sees nothing except two eyes staring at him from the back row, green and gold and every color in the universe at the same time. He smiles at only that boy, and the boy, Harry is his name, smiles back.

People begin to stand up, talk amongst themselves, the reading over; Louis, it would seem, was the last reader. He is walking back to his seat when a hand grasps his shoulder and he turns slowly, comes face to face with the radio DJ with the hair that defies gravity and the eyes that defy God.

“That was quite the piece,” the man drawls. His freckles look like stars on his face and Louis wants to step on his foot, so he does and the man winces.

“Thank you,” Louis replies, eyes narrowed.

“Can I buy you a drink?” The man gestures to the counter where people are queuing up for their last coffee of the night.

A shadow crosses the man’s face, his eyes look over Louis’s shoulder, and Louis turns his head slightly to see Harry’s profile, his broad shoulders looming above Louis’s. Louis turns back to the man. “No, I don’t think so,” he says with a smug grin. The man shrugs and melts back into the crowd, but all Louis can feel is Harry’s hand on his hip.

“So you’re a writer?” Harry inquires when Louis turns to face him. Louis nods and Harry hums thoughtfully.

“What did you think?” Louis asks carefully.

Harry’s answering smile is quiet, just between the two of them, and his eyes are soft and green like washed out silk. “I thought it was beautifully sad. Or sadly beautiful. I haven’t decided yet.”

“Then why are you smiling?”

“I don’t know, I can’t help it.” Harry’s grin gets bigger. “Can I take you for some food?”

Louis laughs softly. “What kind of food?”

“What kind of food do you like?” Harry shoots back. They’re outside the shop now, standing under a red awning. The sun is almost down. Louis checks his watch. It is 8:09. It has cooled off some and the slight breeze is a relief on his sweaty forehead.

“I like chicken nuggets.” Louis smiles at him, bumps their shoulders together. He likes chicken nuggets.

“Well, I know a place with the best chicken nuggets in the whole city,” Harry laughs and his laugh sounds like stars and chocolate and everything that Louis has ever associated with the sun.

They end up at a deserted McDonalds and buy chicken nuggets, vanilla milkshakes, and a packet of fries to share, and they walk in the dwindling light to the park near Louis’s apartment. They sit in the center of the merry go round, but Louis shrieks at Harry not to spin it otherwise he’ll throw up vanilla milkshake all over him.

Harry eats French fries very strangely. He inserts one end in his mouth and then pushes the other end until it crumples and disappears in the cavern. Louis cannot stop watching him eat his French fries.

“Did you know that chicken nuggets are made from the scraps of chicken left on the floor?” Harry announces with his mouth full of vanilla milkshake, and a little bit dribbles out the corner of his mouth. He doesn’t notice and Louis doesn’t tell him.

“Shut up, I don’t want to know that,” Louis snaps at him and shoves an entire chicken nugget into his mouth. Louis likes to live a life oblivious as to the content of his chicken nuggets.

Harry shrugs.

“So what is it that you do?” Louis asks. “Or is your occupation stamping books with a part-time job as a back-up singer for Regina Spektor?”

Harry rolls his eyes and pokes Louis in the stomach. He shoves a French fry in his mouth and Louis is entranced with the way his entire tongue comes out of his mouth before the fry even comes close to his lips. Harry has a nice tongue, Louis notices. He has nice everything though, a little voice in Louis’s head says.

“I go to uni, actually,” Harry says around the clump of fries in his mouth. “Studying law.”

“How fancy,” Louis teases and pops a chicken nugget in his mouth. He had noticed that Harry liked the barbecue sauce, so he tried not to eat any of it, but he steals a bit while Harry is preoccupied with trying to tie a French fry in a knot. He gives up and just stuffs the thing in his mouth and nods happily, cheeks bulging.

Harry swallows hard, coughs, and then, “It was supposed to be music and that whole thing,” he waves his hand “but my mom thought it was a better use of my time to do law.” He puts air quotes around the last few words and Louis stifles a giggle into his hand. “So now I do that and I just, like, sing and play guitar on my own time.”

“Lawyer with a secret life as a popstar!” Louis laughs. He pushes his feet across the merry go round and nudges Harry’s shin with his bare toes until Harry grabs them and pulls them into his lap.

“More like folksy indie stuff, I guess,” Harry chuckles. Louis notices happily that Harry laughs like a child, all hiccups and scrunched eyes and wide mouth. He likes it.

“I’d like to hear your folksy indie stuff sometime,” Louis pokes his toes at Harry’s stomach, feeling hard muscles, and his heart goes all fluttery because Louis may be many things, but he is not immune to the loveliness of a boy’s abs.

“I only do private concerts,” Harry looks at Louis, and then his eyelid drops into such a ridiculously exaggerated wink that Louis falls over backwards on the hard metal surface of the merry go round, clutching his stomach and laughing hysterically while Harry pouts and insists that his winks are sexy.

“They’re not, they’re really not!” Louis sits up gasping, lips twitching in an effort not to smile. He crosses his legs, criss cross apple sauce like he was taught in primary school. Harry’s long limbs are twisted into a complicated, can’t-be-comfortable pretzel shape. Louis peeks up at him through his eyelashes.  “You’re dumb.”

Harry tilts his head at Louis, eyes starry. “No, you’re dumb. You almost didn’t go to that poetry thing.”

“No, you’re dumb, because you timed yourself closing up your shop.”

“You’re dumb because you’re wearing shoes with no socks,” Harry retorts, his mouth curling into a grin.

“My socks were sweaty. You’re dumb because you’re wearing jeans when it’s hot out.”

“I don’t have any more reasons for why you’re dumb, but I would like to kiss you, if that’s alright with you.” Harry grins at Louis and it’s hesitant and Louis thinks that if Harry were a cartoon character, he’d have question marks bouncing out of his eyes right now.

Thankfully, Harry is not a cartoon character, so Louis leans across their little pile of ketchup packets and the French fry mountain and presses his lips against Harry’s, tasting the vanilla milkshake that still lingers on the corner of his mouth. Harry’s lips are soft and full and they fit quite nicely around Louis’s lips; he can hear crickets singing in the grass and he thinks about the fact that his abandoned words are buried underneath them at this moment, thinks about Harry’s eyes looking at him from the audience, and he thinks about the fact that he’s kissing a boy right now so he should pay attention.

Harry’s thumb comes up and strokes across the line of Louis’s jaw, fits itself into the hollow behind Louis’s ear and when they shift, their knees bump into each other, and Louis’s calf squishes some French fries, so they laugh into each other’s mouths.

Louis can taste the salt of the French fries on the back of Harry’s tongue and something sweeter, maybe milkshake. The air is still and heavy around them and Louis feels like he’s drowning, like the silence is so thick he can feel it pressing down on his bones and his eyeballs like a giant weight. He chases the taste of Harry into his mouth, sweeter than the burn of vodka on its way down, sweeter than the rush of pills, sweeter than the euphoria of standing on the edge of a roof. He can feel Harry smiling against his mouth, eyelashes brushing against his cheeks, and he pulls back with a soft noise.

Harry’s eyes are wide and glazed, mouth red and bitten and wet, and Louis wants to kiss him again. So he does. Once, twice, three times.

When Harry moves back again, he’s smiling and there’s a flush high in his cheeks. “You taste like chicken nuggets,” he laughs and spiders his fingers along Louis’s bare ankle. Louis’s toes twitch with the ghostly feeling.

“You taste like vanilla milkshake,” Louis shoots back and they grin at each other, giddy like school children. Louis resists the urge to press his palms against his eyes. He’s confident his eyes are still in his head, because he can clearly see the gold around Harry’s pupils that he noticed earlier, and he still wants to read it, but he thinks he’s got a little bit of time, so it’s not very urgent.

“Now what?” Harry beams and takes a long gurgling gulp of his milkshake. Louis smiles because he gets to lick the taste of it out of Harry’s mouth.

“I dunno,” Louis shrugs. He doesn’t know. He’s never known. He doesn’t know the beginnings and the ends, and he’s never known anyone’s middles. He’s not the universe and he doesn’t want to be. He likes where he is, sitting here at the park with the setting sun glowing behind the trees and the crickets singing, the muggy air, and Harry munching thoughtfully on his food.

“Okay.” Harry nudges their knees together.

“Okay.” Louis pokes his finger into Harry’s dimple, like he’s been wanting to do since Harry first smiled.

“Stop saying okay,” Harry instructs.

“Okay,” Louis grins. “Can I kiss you again?”

The sun disappears behind the trees and Louis’s feet are cold. He wants to know what the tattoos are underneath Harry’s shirt, and he’s not the universe and he doesn’t know if that’s good or not, but it doesn’t matter, because Harry is grinning at him and coming closer and he tastes like vanilla milkshake and Louis can read the gold in his eyes and it says just breathe, so he does, and the universe breathes back.