Part I: Finding
O the sisters of mercy they are not
Departed or gone,
They were waiting for me when I thought
That I just can't go on
-Sisters of Mercy, Leonard Cohen
The promises we don’t keep are the most haunting.
One of my earliest memories is of me and my mother, driving through the rougher parts of town for some reason I failed to place now. A forgotten phone, maybe the house key. Mum never really tended to be scatter brained, but she was worn and tired, like fingernails bitten down to the cuticle. She’d reached the end of her line by then, to put it simply, and I couldn’t do much but watch helplessly. The girls were at home, so young but I wanted to go. I always loved riding in the car.
The night around us hung thick in almost a tangible way, as if I could stick my hand outside and be dyed with black ink. Mum’s schedule had forced me to become a night owl, but as I grew a little older I really came to appreciate the tangible possibility of the night. Everything was drawn sharp and clear during the day. The night was rough sketches that could be erased and redrawn.
As we neared the heart of the disastrous neighborhood, the streetlights that actually worked flickered at random intervals. They cast soft, multicolored shadows across my Mum’s face.
When we pulled up to a stop sign, she locked the doors and slowly reached for my hand. I could see why, see them just in my periphery, but I knew better than to look.
“Who are they?” I asked.
When Mum looked, a quick and nervous glance, I surrendered and did as well. They were all in a huddle near a dumpster just inside a little alley. Some were crying, some simply lying there. One repeatedly hit his head across the dumpster. In the darkness, their faces all melted into the dark bricks, their shoes almost vanishing into the puddles left from the late afternoon rain.
My mother fiddled with her seatbelt, deciding best how to reply. I was only four at the time, and Dad still loved us. My world was a perfect bubble of innocence and bedtimes stories and playing soccer in the back yard. No, we were always scrambling for money, digging in the sofa cushions for loose change, but I was content. As she steeled her breath, I could see her deliberating. Bust that bubble, shatter the snow globe covering me, or let me be. Let me dream a little longer?
She managed to answer, only leaving a few cracks.
“Those are very sad people that have lost something, and they’ll do anything to get it back. That includes hurting people. If you ever see them, run as fast as you can.”
That was a moot point. Mum clung to me every time we had to go to this part of town. Her dry cleaning business lay just on the other side, where things started to look up again in terms of building stability and likelihood of not getting robbed.
“Promise me,” she said, rather fiercely. She didn’t move the car, even though no other cars were nearby. We could go, we didn’t have to stay. But I’m glad we did. As it began to rain again, those pained faces blurred away, until they were just faint smudges of shapes. Hard to think of as people with stories and a past with pain. It was hard to think that they had mothers once that they made empty promises to.
Thinking back to how her face broke, I understand how much innocence I must have had. I hated that for her, hated that I ruined everything that she ever hoped for me.
“Promise me you will never approach those people.”
“Promise,” I said without a pause, only so that she would relieve the tight grip on my arm.
I hated breaking my promise. The guilt of that consumed me.
Even seventeen years later, I still thought of promising her, without knowing what my words encompassed. She lived a few more years after that, but each was so much worse than the last. We didn’t speak of that promise again, but I broke it all the same.
I think so much of her that I find myself sitting cross-legged at her grave on a cold winter night, nearly 20 years later, thinking back to three years ago and how I really need to tell her.
Before the end began, my dreams were red boot prints in the snow and a frantic wind pulling at my torn skin. There are flashes of things that matter and gaps of things that don’t. A voice calling to me from a car, a figure smiling down at me, saying, “You’ll owe me” and of course I would owe him.
Owing him something ending up rewarding me more than I thought.
But before there was good there was cold and a pain in my gut as I pulled from a crushed vehicle, spitting blood into the snow and watching a man stand by, eyes interested but not concerned. The bloody boot prints he left behind.
I remember that now, even with my coat tucked tight around me. I bend and gently dust away the dirt from her headstone. The gesture is tender, reminds me of the way she’d stroke my hair when she read me bedtimes stories.
Overall, I’m a mess, but I’m the calmest I’ve been in so long. I reach out and brush my fingers over her grave, trying to imagine the sun’s warmth as some remaining part of her. The headstone has gone cold though.
I almost hear her, almost see her turning around at the stove, wiping her hands on the stained and tattered apron.
“Hello yourself, Boobear.”
I’m only answered by the wind.
“It’s been a mess these past few years, huh? I really don’t know where to begin. I wanted to wait and tell you when things settled down, when I could get here and get all my thoughts together.”
I sit on the ground, tracing back everything in my mind. The prospect that my mother could not even hear me crossed my thoughts of course, but it felt good to sit there and talk to her like she was. I hadn’t had much to say before, had even been scared that saying it aloud would make the disappoint she’d feel in me more real.
“Things were rough, and then great, then terrible. You know how bad it was after you died, with me staying with Zayn all the time and then of course when we started making those awful decisions. But maybe I can start on a more positive day, one you probably would appreciate more. I’m really sorry I can’t give you a happy ending, though.”
The headstone doesn’t have much to say, but my mind already feels so much clearer. I’ve needed to get all this weight off my chest for so long. People were waiting for me. This town can’t be one I stay at for longer than a day; it’s too obvious. He’d find me here, drag me back to square one.
I shouldn’t even be back here, but I’d skirted around those houses, avoided coming out during the day. I can’t take chances here. What if I were to run into one of them?
“I’ll have to be bit jumpy here, Mum. Have to save a little bit of time. I just wanted you to know I had something real and something very good for a long while and even though things aren’t so good right now….it’s okay. One good, rich memory can last a poor man a long time. A thousand good memories can make a rich man miss being poor.”
I take a deep breath, send my mind racing back to the days when things were better, and I found the one moment where I could begin my shit story on a positive note.
“It all really started when Harvey insisted on us eating at the Mexican restaurant, even though we all knew what the consequence would be…..”
“Get the fuck out of the bathroom, Zayn!”
Harvey fell to the floor with a vague moan, clutching at his pudgy stomach. His red hair splayed across the stained white carpet like a fan of fire. That hair garnered a lot of teasing, but some clients were more eager to buy their choice drug from someone who looked innocent. With his pale skin, freckles, and rounded face, Harvey looked like that teenage boy who tugged awkwardly at his gym shorts and got picked last for games.
Especially at the given moment of him rolling on the floor screaming.
“We mean it!” I chimed in, for the sake of the carpet. Harvey wouldn’t last much longer, by the looks of it.
“I have to go out tonight!” Zayn called out lazily. “Do you want Bumper to come over here and kick my ass for not selling the quota?”
“At this moment, yes,” Luca muttered from the couch. He stretched his neck from side to side and sighed. “But seriously, get out of there. His bitching is getting annoying.”
People who saw Luca coming usually turned and went the other way, but he didn’t scare any of us enough that we believed his harsh words.
Muscular and black, and, like the rest of us, covered in tattoos, he preferred his hair shaved and everything painfully simple and sorted out into neat little time slots.
When we’d sell, how our money would go….he even had these little jars lined up against the wall of our living room, labeled accordingly. The ‘Grocery’ jar had dwindled down to a few pennies while the ‘entertainment’ jar was flush with cash. We had our priorities straight around here.
“Zayn!” Luca yelled, raising his voice over Harvey’s grunts of pain. If I was getting sick of hearing his name being yelled, he had to be as well. “You know perfectly well Harvey doesn’t handle Mexican food well at all. You can’t claim the bathroom right after a dinner like that.”
“It was a good one,” Reggie said with a wistful sigh. He sat on the floor, knitting. If anyone ever found out Reggie, bad boy with black hair, snakebites, and a literal portrait of the devil on his back, knitted, he would kill us all. “Why can’t we have more meals like that?”
“We don’t all win the lottery every night,” I reminded them, only boasting a little. I surrendered helping Harvey and flopped down on the couch near Luca, wincing at the springs that prodded through the rough fabric.
“It wasn’t really the lottery,” Reggie snapped. “It was those scratch cards you steal from the gas station. And besides, I helped you win.”
“You did,” I conceded, only a bit churlishly. “But where did all of poor Louis’s earnings go? One box of hair dye after the bills were paid. And you took a chunk of it for new knitting needles.” I rolled my eyes. “Because we desperately needed them.”
“I don’t knit,” he replied in an even, bored voice.
Luca rubbed at his temples and turned to look over the couch again, towards the bathroom where Zayn had still not emerged. The bathroom was just off the living room, so we couldn’t much escape the drama unfolding. Our flat was small, enough that one person alone wouldn’t have much breathing room. But we were all short of cash, all desperate, and all in need of someone to understand the situation. After all, most drug dealers weren’t smiled upon.
Unless you were those ghostly people I had seen with my mother all those years ago. To them, we were angels.
The flat originally belonged to just me and Zayn. We’d always agreed to live together after high school, me to escape my hellish aunt and uncle and Zayn to escape his abusive father. We’d moved without a goodbye, and had received not a word from our respective families since.
Then Harvey showed up, having been removed from his job selling camping gear for rich people wanting to test the wild. Zayn knew him distantly, from one of many flings. He showed up to sleep on our couch and stayed, forcing me and Zayn to sleep on the same mattress on the floor of the only closet sized bedroom. Then Reggie showed up, a friend of Harvey’s and fresh from rehab and the youngest of us all at seventeen, even though everyone pinned Harvey for the youngest due to his baby face. Discussing their situations wasn’t easy for any of us, mainly because whenever the past was brought up Harvey got teary eyed and Reggie’s signature snarled to resemble a rabid Doberman’s.
Luca got out of jail after petty car theft, but not many places were willing to take him in. We knew him vaguely from a few deals and agreed he would be a nice addition. At this point, Bumper had already found us, had already begun training us to sell and bring him the majority of profits.
When Bumper proposed making us a sales team, we didn’t hesitate. Each of us had a different appeal, and although I thought little of myself, I knew I could at least make people feel at ease while I ruined their lives.
Surviving each other, however, was a different matter.
“Zayn, if you don’t emerge from the bathroom right now, I will let Harvey shit on your belongings.”
Luca smirked in triumph as Zayn finally emerged, hands still working at his hair. Harvey pushed past him, slamming the door behind him and letting out a strangled sob.
“I gave up the bed for you and Reggie to share and this is how you treat me?”
Zayn ruefully shook his head and crouched over the corner of the flat were we tossed all our belongings.
“Reggie snores. I’d rather have the couch.” Luca could say these things without anyone really being offended. He didn’t mean it as an insult, just a solid fact.
“Mine!” Harvey called from the bathroom.
Zayn and I slept on pallets in the floor, moving around the flat constantly trying to find the most comfortable spot. We camped out in the kitchen most nights, but I’d spent my fair share of time sleeping in the bathtub or in the hallway. Once on the roof.
“Whatever. Reggie, did you call about getting a TV?” Zayn pushed at his hair some more, as if worried the gallon of gel he’d used would fail him.
“We don’t have to money for that,” I interrupted, squashing that thought before anyone could get their hopes up. “And you know it. Unless Bumper ups our profits, we are going to have to stick to fine literature.” Zayn cast a furtive glance at the ‘entertainment’ jar, but kept his mouth shut.
“Ugh.” Reggie made a face suggesting he might be able to smell Harvey in the bathroom. “I hate reading.”
“Then teach us to knit,” Luca said seriously. “Teach us to knit and I’ll go buy some aprons and we can learn to bake from Zayn.”
Reggie curled his lip as a piece of yarn slipped from his grasp and onto the floor. He really probably liked the idea of Zayn teaching him to bake, because the bastard was really excellent at it, but that would mean adding things to our list of groceries and we couldn’t afford that.
It felt much like a terrible joke where you had to laugh or you might just cry; five lads are sharing a cheap flat and selling class drugs, and they can’t afford a television or basically anything besides their tattoos and new body jewelry. But the painful fact was that Bumper took almost everything that we made, without a second thought, without a thank you, without ever bringing a raise to our attention.
In the end, when we had spare cash, we didn’t much know what to do with it. It wasn’t enough for something permanent like a TV. We usually ended up at the movies or eating out somewhere, or dropping it into the tiny (Luca had made sure to make it small, lest we were tempted) jar labeled ‘tattoos’. Despite his efforts to get us to spend money on more experiences, we usually ended up in the tattoo parlor several times a month.
“I don’t want to bake either,” Reggie finally said. “I want Zayn to stop sizing us up like we’re choice cuts.”
Zayn righted himself, scarf in hand. He wound it around his neck and scanned each of us in turn, in a way matching Reggie’s description.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Luca said without turning around. “And I am not helping you tonight. You should have sold the last of it yesterday and you know it.”
“Fine,” Zayn huffed, hardly fazed. “Louis, dear best friend?”
Luca watched me from the corner of his eyes and gave an imperceptible shake of his head. I understood what he was trying to tell me. We needed to let Zayn make his own mistakes, but Luca hadn’t seen the Bumper that I knew, nor had Reggie and certainly not Harvey. Zayn had glimpsed the darker side of him, and despite the way he casually typed off a text message, I could see the raw panic behind Zayn’s eyes at the thought of seeing it again. If Bumper found out Zayn hadn’t sold everything, he would be in a heap of trouble.
“Yeah, let me grab my shoes,” I said, trying to be casual. Zayn hated pity.
“Your ‘TOMS’ are in the kitchen.” Luca wrinkled his nose just a little.
“They are Toms,” I replied defensively, getting up to retrieve them. “They look like them don’t they?”
“You bought them from a thrift shop,” Reggie muttered. He always had some form of commentary going just under his breath, normally leaning toward snide or, more often than not, downright rude. “So technically, they’re knockoffs.”
“I hate you right now, but I understand your jealousy of my top of the line footwear. Despite that, I hope all the knitting needles you possess break.”
“Fuck you, Tomlinson,” he replied cheerfully. “Next time we go see a horror movie, you get to sit next to Harvey.” A smirk of satisfaction curled his lips as he took in my look of terror. Sitting next to Harvey would bring more nightmares than the actual horror movie.
The kid couldn’t help how innocent and naïve he was. Those traits don’t blend well into the world we’d taken to, but there really couldn’t be a better way to describe him. When it came to horror movies, whoever had the misfortune to sit next to him would have to submit their arm to the torture of his fingernails and his relentless questions about what would happen next, even though, obviously, you’d have to reply, “I don’t know, Harvey. I’m watching the movie for the first time, too.”
“We’re leaving, Zayn. Right now. Before Reggie decides more forms of torture. Like making us-God forbid-knit. Could you imagine a more terrible thing to do with your spare time?”
I ducked into the kitchen, muffling my laughter as Reggie began screaming a string of curse words my way. He didn’t mean a single one of them, but I couldn’t help but to feel it was best I grab my shoes and go before we ended up in another wrestling match.
“What are you lads going to do while we sell?” Zayn asked, shaking a cigarette loose from his pack. I reached for one, but he held the pack over his head, never breaking his gaze away from Luca, as Reggie was steaming with annoyance with Harvey was too preoccupied to answer.
“When Reggie finishes this pair of socks? Go dumpster diving for more furniture. I’m thinking we could use another bookshelf?”
He gestured to the corner of the living area, were we had a pile of cardboard boxes. In our spare time, we did our best to construct things that sort of looked like furniture with them. Harvey was best at it, but it appeared he would be occupied in the loo for a while.
“I actually need a new hat, Reg,” I said, giving up on snatching a cigarette from Zayn.
“I would help you, but knitting is a waste of time.”
I bit my lip and tried to find a graceful way out of the situation. Reggie made our hats, socks, scarves, and gloves. Even made us all these neat hoodies for Christmas last year, but he’d had to work his arse off for the money for all the yarn. If he really wouldn’t make me another hat, I would survive, and I would do so without letting him know that I really did need one.
“Right, how could I forget that? See ya lads!”
Just as Zayn and I were walking out the door, Reggie yelled, “Black or red?”
With a sense of mingled satisfaction and-I’d never admit it aloud-affection, I yelled back, “Black!”
Zayn merely rolled his eyes and pushed me ahead of him, slamming the door after bidding them a final farewell. Outside, a soft coolness hung in the air, with the wind rattling any object in its path and sending leaves racing down the street.
“This neighborhood is almost pretty sometimes,” I remarked. “Until you remember where it is.”
Zayn grunted in what I decided had to be agreement.
Luca had the only car, which was currently out of commission, so we set off on foot. Where we lived, everyone was just waking up as the moon peeked over the rooftops. They peered out through their windows with crooked blinds before easing out their front doors and disappearing around corners like alley cats. A few men were having a heated argument that broke into a fist fight just at the edge of our road.
“Is that Donny?” I asked, squinting. The few people that bothered to turn their lights on drew their curtains when they heard the noise. “Yeah, it is. And he just got out of jail, too.”
“What was in for last time? I forgot.” Zayn started on another cigarette before shoving his hands in the pockets of his beat-up leather jacket.
“Ummm. I think it was something trivial. Armed robbery, maybe?”
“Say, you wanna tell me where we are going? Since I’m taking time out of my busy schedule to help you and all?”
We walked in silence for a length of time before Zayn finally decided to answer. He got in these moods at the most random times, where he would be laughing and joking and eager to go to clubs to find new people to hook up with. Then he would shrink away, become distant. There would be hours were he’d sketch things you’d think would take a half second: trees, an image of the sky, or maybe a pair of hands. He’d designed a few tattoos of mine.
Then he’d be social, wild, bringing home several girls in one night and forcing us to head outside and pretend we didn’t hear the party going on in the single bedroom.
“I thought I’d try the park,” he said. Just a little tentative. “I have a few usual customers I haven’t heard from in a few weeks. I’m crossing my fingers that they’re feeling desperate.”
I watched him curiously as we walked, and he knew I was watching him but he didn’t comment until he became sick of my staring and shoved a cigarette at me. Though I took it gratefully, I wasn’t done trying to pinpoint the problem. It drove me crazy not knowing stuff, especially people I should know stuff about.
“Take a picture, Lou. It will last longer.”
“I can’t afford a camera and I wouldn’t waste any film on your ugly mug even if I could. So cut to the point of your episode here and tell me what’s gotten into you.”
For the barest of seconds, he had every intention to tell me. He opened his mouth, lips trembling, before he shook his head and changed his mind.
“It’s nothing. We just need to get this stuff sold fast.”
It wasn’t until we were nearing the park, taking the back way to avoid the cop that patrolled nightly, that it just hit me. I had stopped trying to place it entirely when it simply dropped from the sky and into my head.
“You haven’t sold anything this week, have you?”
Zayn looked indignantly at me before surrendering and shrugging half-heartedly. “I was distracted.”
“And Bumper knows you haven’t sold anything.”
“Bumper knows I haven’t sold anything,” he repeated, as a confirmation. “And no, he isn’t happy.”
“For God’s sake Zayn. What could possibly be distracting you? Don’t tell me you’ve fallen in love with a prostitute.”
Though he didn’t answer, and I could have taken that as a yes, I surmised from his distracted stare that he hadn’t even considered such a thing. Well, that was good at least. Harvey had fallen in love with a stripper once, poor kid. It took the longest time for him to understand that girls like that would do a lot to get their money. Not that we could exactly preach about anything. Especially morals in regards to earning money.
“I don’t see anyone.”
Bumper must have really let loose if Zayn sounded so panicked just from seeing the empty park. And it was, clearly, empty. The swings gently swayed in the breeze, and a few stray leaves rode the merry-go-round, but otherwise there was nothing in sight.
“Your move,” I told him. Mentally, I was trying to place where a few customers would be. On a Sunday night, we had a few church goers that slipped away to bars to escape their nagging wives, but the time had passed for that opportunity.
“Let’s walk around. Swing for a little.”
I stared at him. “Bumper is going to kill you in the morning and you want to swing?”
“Off we go, then, mate. I call the red one.”
Just as we approached, however, Zayn froze with such brusqueness I felt a pang of fear. He stood, all tense muscles and focused eyes, much like a dog spotting something it didn’t much like and had every intention to chase.
“Zayn? What’s wrong?”
“Listen,” he hissed. “Dammit all.”
I obeyed, not expecting to actually hear anything. But there it was; the distant sound of music being blasted form a car stereo, as well as floating laughter that congregated in the night, catching on the lowest tree branches.
“Are those the hippies that Reggie complains about?” I asked, brimming with curiosity. Reggie cursed their names up and down, because they were supposed to be stoners for fuck’s sake but they never bought a damn thing from us. I’d never had the unpleasant experience of meeting them, since the park wasn’t my choice selling spot. Zayn had met one of them, just once, and the hippie had tried to tell him how to make his life better and how to pull him out of the spiraling path to hell he was on.
“They are. They have to be. I swear if that one guy is here….”
“You want to give them a go? They might have changed their minds.”
“Absolutely not.” Zayn let out a half-laugh. “I hate the bastards.”
“Do you hate them more than you hate the thought of Bumper finding out that-“
Zayn stalked towards the music-an old Beatles song by the sound of it-muttering under his breath about how much his life sucked sometimes. I followed, keeping my mouth shut in case he turned his bad mood on me. And-this really fell under mushy things I hated admitting-I felt panicked for him. I refused to let either of us head home until we’d sold everything.
I’d buy some myself if I had to and just wait to buy the other box of red hair dye I needed.
The group of hippies were not, technically, hippies. Not by anyone else’s standards, at least, because most people agreed that hippies camped out at music festivals and were permanently stoned or trying a new drug. This group, according to Reggie, wouldn’t touch drugs but fit the bill just about everywhere else. No shoes, flowers in their hair, baggy shirts with deep V-necks, and a disgusting appreciation for life.
They were constantly playing music, whether out loud or in their heads, and, even worse, dancing to it. Luca told me once he’d seen them at one of our town’s many festivals and they had been playing drums and doing interpretive dancing before handing out pamphlets on recycled paper about how the world should embrace peace and consider it a treasure more valuable than gold. Barf.
Personally, I wouldn’t even know how to react to the lot of them.
So, okay, maybe I was just a tiny (infinitesimal) bit wary of what they might be like through my own eyes and not Reggie’s. Well, turned out we saw pretty much the same thing for once.
They were huddled around the back of a van in one of the parking lots, the one near where the food venders parked their trailers. Five of them total, each completely different and exactly the same. As we approached, Zayn groaned and I knew the one that had lectured him must be here. But which one? My eyes flickered to each of them, taking in their features and dopey smiles. Well, four of them and the one huddled under a blanket in the back of the van, mostly obscured from view.
“Haven’t we already told ya how we feel about that stuff?”
A short boy stepped forward just as we approached, lazily crossing his arms, like we weren’t worth even trying to be menacing towards. He had an unkempt look to him, with unruly, dirty blond hair and an unshaven face. The overbearing facial hair made him seem older than his teens, but his eyes told me he couldn’t be a day older than seventeen.
From the fire in Zayn’s eyes, I took a shot in the dark and assumed that we’d found the hippie that had lectured Zayn.
“You told me how you felt, bud, but not the rest of your clique.”
“We feel the same.” A muscular boy with a shaved head and warm brown eyes regarded the both of us with polite interest. “But it’s starting to get cold out, ya know. Autumn’s almost here. Want to sit with us?”
“We can’t,” Zayn replied promptly, for which I was grateful. “I have to get back home and write out my suicide note.”
The group shared alarmed expressions when Zayn gave no signs of joking. Sadly enough, I wouldn’t blame him. Once Bumper found out….
“You don’t have to do that, now.” A boy with tousled blond hair and an obnoxiously obvious Irish accent stepped forward, twirling a flower beneath his pointer and middle finger. “Nothing can ever be that bad. You comprehend, mate?”
“I envy their stupidity.” Zayn rubbed both hands down his face and heaved a sigh. “Let’s go. I have no idea what we were even thinking by trying this lot.”
The group watched us before shrugging, turning inward towards the van and carrying on with their conversation as if we had never even shown up. That was for the best. People needed to forget us the second they knew us. In my world, leaving permanent marks and ties proved to be catastrophic, especially if those ties led to the outside world.
We would never be parents. That much we’d all agreed on. We’d never have children, never have a normal, cookie cutter routine. There would be no parent-teacher meetings, no shopping at the grocery store for anyone but ourselves, no backyard cook outs. We would never get anything permanent, not even each other. As much as we hated that, we knew there would come a time where we’d break apart. Like an ice drift, slowly crumbling away, losing its pieces to an unforgiving sea.
And no one would ever be able to ask us, “What do you do for a living?” without us lying.
So no, I never expected anything out of my life, and unquestionably not that moment.
Frankly, I could have turned away from them right then. Walked away, went home and bought some of Zayn’s drugs to lesser the blow from Bumper. I could have carried on struggling but enjoying the company of the idiots around me until I grew old(er) and died, probably in some motel bathroom.
Also, believe me when I say that I didn’t believe in fate. I didn’t believe in love or romance because it is proven emotionally, scientifically, and physically, that all good things will end. But for whatever reason, I stuck around just a few seconds longer, my off-brand Toms frozen to the asphalt that was sticky from gum. Zayn lit up yet another cigarette behind me, and it was in perfect synch with the flicking if his lighter that the bundle in the back of the van threw the blanket away up as if jolted awake by someone.
The blanket pooled on the van’s orange carpet, revealing a young boy with big green eyes and a mess of dark curly hair that stuck up in several directions at once. A circle of flowers hung crookedly on his head, one of the petals brushing at his sleep-heavy eyes.
“What’s going on?” he asked in a voice raspy and thick.
As if I’d spoken, his eyes flickered past his friends and fixed on me with faint interest.
“Louis?” Zayn’s voice sounded far, far away. The boy’s wide, pink lips stretched into a lazy smile at my name. Like he cared, like he was interested.
But I couldn’t process it fully. It felt like I’d just woken up to find myself falling off the couch, and even though I knew I was falling and I tried to catch myself it was a bit too late. My stomach clenched almost painfully as I looked at him, trying to claw my way back to reality, trying to understand what the hell was happening to me.
“Are you coming or what?” Zayn’s voice broke the spell, suddenly loud and persistent, like I’d been hearing him underwater before.
“I am,” I croaked. “I just thought Curly over there might want to buy something.”
“He doesn’t want anything either,” said the hippie with long blond hair. I could hear him, but I didn’t care. My brain catalogued him as a distraction at best. The boy with curly hair righted with wreath of white flowers on his hair and shrugged.
“Sorry. That’s not my style. And Liam and Niall would kill me. Right, Li?”
“Damn right,” said the boy with the shaved hair. The Irish one, presumably Niall, nodded sternly as well, though he didn’t seem as strict.
“Time for you to leave,” blondie growled waving his hand at us and sounding distinctively pissed off. “You’ve interrupted Harry’s nap and you’re pissing us all off.”
“They aren’t harming anyone,” Harry protested. “Just asking questions.”
Harry. His name was Harry. I studied him with unabashed interest, wondering why he’d woken up suddenly, why he needed naps. Why the blond jerk hippie was so protective of him.
“They need to go,” blondie insisted.
“You do have somewhere to be soon, Harry,” Niall pointed out.
Neither he nor Liam looked happy about whatever Harry had to do. To my delight, Harry glanced over at me again and shrugged.
“I don’t need to go. So let them stay with us for a bit.”
Liam appeared to be torn between delight and anxiety.
“I’m not sure it’s the best idea since….”
“No, we need to go,” Zayn agreed. For some reason, he glanced uneasily at Niall and Liam. Maybe they’d yelled at him too and he’d never mentioned it. “Nice seeing you all again. It’s been a proper pleasure.”
He kept a tight grip on my upper arm as he guided me a different way out of the park, past the van and towards the clubs in town. We could both feel the tension in the air, and all their gazes on our backs as we headed up the hill.
“Don’t look back at them, Lou. I know you’re thinking of it.”
“I’m not,” I objected. “They aren’t worth even looking at in the first place.”
And Zayn, who knew me just a tad too well, said, “One of them was for you, I’d bet.”
But I felt it, no matter what I said. I wanted to look back really bad, not out of curiosity or interest exactly, but just because I could stare if I damn well pleased, right? Still, I resisted, cresting the hill and blinking in the lights of the town. From behind me, I heard a chorus of laughter ring up. I swear that, despite the few seconds we had interacted, I could hear Harry’s above all the others.
“Don’t look back,” Zayn warned again. And I didn’t, even when I heard the Irish lad, Niall. yell, “For God’s sake, quit your staring Harry. That lot is trouble and you know it.”
I didn’t get the privilege to hear his response, but that is for the best.
The last thing I needed was some crush on a guy like that. No matter how attractive or cute he looked rubbing sleep out of his eyes.
Zayn agreed to listen to me after that, and we headed towards my parts of town; clubs.
Once inside a favorite place of mine, I could forget about the hippies and get to work. Even though Sunday was a slower day, a decent sized crowd still hung near the bar, jostling the bartender for one more shot of liquor. Swaths of people were on the dance floor, flirting and clearly beyond intoxicated. The Sunday were harder to deal with, mainly because they didn’t want to go to work still feeling the effect of drugs, but enough charm and the right amount of encouragement could get us a respectable chunk sold.
A girl with long, bright blond hair bought a dime bag of weed from Zayn after he all but seduced her into doing so. She would be too drunk to remember him by the time the sun rose. Her college friends ended up taking it, lighting up right at the bar until the bouncer threw them out. When they pointed their fingers at us, we shrugged and feigned the utmost innocence.
I was particularly gifted at the ‘what-the-fuck-are-they-talking-about’ look.
A few more hours, and I managed to convince this boy from a local university that cocaine would be the best thing that ever happened to him. Between him and four other college girls trying to live up to every party movie ever, we sold almost everything. The girls were buying for a whole party, and the boy clearly figured he’d like cocaine as much as I told him he would. We chatted for a bit, while Zayn danced with a few older girls that tweaked his cheeks and made invitations for him to join them for the rest of the night. He wouldn’t go. Not tonight, while he was still so stressed.
“Your friend is getting a lot of attention,” the boy next to me said, tucking the bag into his coat pocket. “Weird, because I think you’re more attractive.”
“Gee thanks,” I laughed, but then I realized he was dead serious.
“Oh, I’m not…that way,” I finished lamely.
Okay, I was a raging liar as well. I’d had a few girls in my life, and two boys. One was a prostitute. But having a good roll in the sheets with them was far and above different from having a relationship with a boy. Or a girl for that matter. When I told him I wasn’t ‘that way’ I was merely saying I couldn’t afford any attachments.
“I’m not either.” He shrugged, causal, but underneath the bar his fingers slid over my thigh. When I didn’t immediately flinch, away, he moved higher, fingers grazing over my hip bone.
“One night?” he asked, voice whispery and soft. I couldn’t help but be impressed by his directness and confidence.
And his eyes were green.
I opened my mouth, to say okay but it would have to be at his place, when Zayn emerged from nowhere and all but yanked me off the stool.
“Zayn, what the fuck?” I sputtered.
“Cops. Those bitches squealed.”
“Guess this is goodbye,” the boy said, shaking his head like it really was a shame I was leaving. To be fair, I spared him one glance. More than I would have given most other people, and a lot more than I’d given Harry. The difference between the two was that once I started running, I didn’t have the sickening urge to look back.
In fact, it was a relief to let the back exit door slam behind me.
In the alley, the night had grown even colder. A welcome relief on my flushed skin, really, but now I would be up all night trying to forget about Harry while at the same time trying to control my hormones.
“Close one,” Zayn uttered, clutching at his side. He was still winded from dancing.
I opened my mouth to agree when a lone figure emerged from around the dumpster and peered at us. His presence was so unexpected both Zayn and I gave a start of surprise.
“Fuck!” Zayn placed a hand over his heart.
“Not what I want,” the figure said humorlessly. He inched closer to us, the illuminated exit sign casting slanted shadow over his sickly face. One of those people, like I’d seen with my mother so long ago. The desperate ones that saw us as saints.
“How much?” Zayn asked, casting an apprehensive glance to the end of the alley. The cops would invariably check here, but if we could get a quick sale in it would be a blessing.
“All you have.” The man wrung his hands nervously, his perpetual tremor worsening. “I want it all.”
This would be the point where Zayn and I took precautions. Ask how much he’d had that night, ask if he really needed it all. Even raise the prices, make it out of his grasp, to maybe save him some grief later on. We weren’t all bad, after all. But when Zayn named the highest price yet for so little, the man took out a crumpled wad of cash and shoved it at us.
“Are you serious?” Zayn asked hoarsely. I stared as well. Even with Bumper’s cut, we’d have enough alone there for groceries. Maybe even a portion of the bills.
“Hand it over. Please.”
The man stumbled and grabbed at Zayn’s jacket, nearly falling.
“Sure thing, buddy.”
He dug the last of it out and pushed it towards the guy. Once it was in his hands, he took off, out of the alley and around the corner. I wondered where he was going, and why the hell he was hanging around the dumpster behind a club.
“I know,” I agreed. “But we need to go. Text Bumper and tell him you sold it all and let’s get to bed.”
But even as we fell into our pallets on the floor, even after Reggie began to snore in the little bedroom, I wondered about the group of hippies in the park. We were all guilty of having a hang up at least once. Harvey’s had been the stripper, and Zayn had favored a prostitute named Summer for several weeks before she vanished without a word. And even though Zayn and I had brought back male prostitutes, and the boys never questioned it, I felt guilty for thinking of Harry.
So I barred him from my waking conscious, told myself that I would probably never see him again. If I did, it would probably be on the street or in a store, and we would pass one another with no reason to say hi.
I managed to fall asleep when the sun’s first rays prodded their way through our slanted blinds, cutting golden paths across the stained tiles of the kitchen floor. I fell asleep watching the dust motes swirl lazily, as I desperately told myself that Harry, whatever the fuck his last name was, certainly wasn’t thinking about me.
Which was just fine. I wasn’t thinking about him, either.
Most of the time, we sleep a good chunk of the day away, wake up, exercise, then sell. On the safe days, the days after we turn our money into Bumper-or rather I turn it in and they wait for me back at the house-we bum around and spend every penny out of the entertainment jar.
Sometimes, I felt like we belonged on a nature show or some shit. Like we were our own breed, our own sub species of humans that had nocturnal habits and stupid stuff like that. I’d mentioned it to Zayn once, and he’d laughed for a second before stopping and realizing I was right. Our bodies had adapted to our odd habits, the lack of food but the extra push of more weights.
So when Luca shook me awake the next day at three in the afternoon, I hadn’t slept my fill. Needless to say, I wasn’t pleasant.
“The fuck, Luca?”
After I swatted his hands away from my shoulders, I pulled my cover over my head. I regretted it instantly. The false autumn of yesterday gave way now to a full remembrance of summer. It was sweltering inside our flat.
“Don’t fucking cuss, Louis. We have a problem. Now get your ass up and get in the living room.”
Luca called these meetings all the time. For whatever reason, he ended up being labeled the responsible one out of all of us, even though he was the only one to ever go to jail and actually stay for more than a week. When we mentioned that, he defensively explained the car he stole belonged to a rich man having an affair. He didn’t need anything good in his life, right? Or at least that was the story he told most people, and us some times when he forgot we knew the real story.
In the living room, Reggie rubbed his forehead and yawned. Often, he wore his black crotchet beanie to bed, a weird habit but a habit we were all used to. Harvey nodded off, chin drooping towards his chest before he let out an odd snort and jerked up. Then, he smacked his lips and watched Luca with a blearly expression I’d seen before; on a cow chewing cud.
Zayn stared blankly ahead.
“What is it?”
I settled on the arm of the couch, watching Luca pace in front of us with his hands clenched behind his pack.
“We’ve got a dead one,” he finally said, with no warning or further prodding.
Harvey sat up straighter, blue eyes stretching wide as he looked at each of us in turn. His gaze lingered on Zayn and me longest.
“Ours?” Zayn whispered. He’d guessed it.
Luca halted, directly in front of the couch. Even though he did his absolute best to appear as if he could care less, he looked away with a hollow expression as he answered.
“Yours. And Louis’s.”
“Who?” I demanded. But already my mind was flashing, pulling up their faces like playing cards. The man behind the dumpster. There couldn’t be any other.
“His name was Greg Horan,” Luca said with the same even, calming tone. He knew I had found his face in my mind. “And Bumper is furious. Apparently he was a black-listed customer….”
“Mine,” Harvey piped up, picking at the loose skin around his fingernails. “He was trying to get clean. Told me to bug off the last time I approached him. But yeah, I remember his name. I remember his face, too. Before he straightened up I would always meet him behind the club….”
He trailed off, taking in our expressions and inferring that the location Zayn and I met him was the same.
“He was threatening to call the cops on us,” Luca continued, sparing one sympathetic glance for Harvey. “But what’s done is done. Now, we have a bigger problem.”
“You are going to keep yammering and not let us go back to sleep?”
Reggie tugged his beanie directly over his eyes.
“You can sleep in a moment. But we have to deal with the bigger picture here. Bumper told us to stop selling for a little while.”
If any of us were even half-asleep, we were all certainly awake now, mouths hanging open at the pure absurdity of the thought of what Luca said. Stop selling? We couldn’t. We’d be broke and starving within two weeks, taking our pile of cardboard and settling down in a nice alleyway with all our old customers. This had to be a joke.
“What else are we supposed to do?” Reggie tore his beanie off and wrung it between his hands. “We can’t just jump out there and…” he lowered his voice, as if the next words were blasphemous. “…get jobs.”
“Why not?” Harvey asked. “We had them before.”
“That was before I went to rehab! That’s on my record, Harv. People don’t like psychos working for them. They don’t like nose rings.” He gestured towards Harvey’s. “They hate eyebrow rings and sleeves.” He pointed a hand at me. “Gages? Forget it.” Zayn probed his, growing defensive.
“They’re small! They won’t even matter.”
“…And they are probably going to be really hesitant over someone with jail time. Now add tattoos, piercings, jail time, and my rehab together. Do we really have a chance?”
We all sat there, staring at him with dumb, hurt expression. We’d all had jail time, sure. Not as severe as Luca’s, of course. Zayn’s was for indecent exposure. But we did have records, we did have tattoos, and we sure as hell all had piercings.
“We can try,” Luca said firmly. His three words neutralized Reggie’s rather harsh ones, simple as that.
“There are places that smile upon our types,” Harvey agreed. “We just have to show them our winning personalities.”
He tried to grin widely, but it turned into a yawn.
“Can we go back to sleep?” Reggie asked the question on all our minds.
“Yeah,” Luca sighed. “But we need to get looking. Bumper’s message said he doesn’t know how long it will take for the cops to cool it with the drug hunt.”
As I crawled back into my pallet, I stared across at Zayn, fluffing his pillow. I’d seen him through a lot of hell, and he’d been there for me through rough things. It was me who bailed him out of jail, walking through town with him while he sported hot pink, cut off boxers.
He’d smashed my cake over my head and told me to grow some balls when it turned out my step-father had gotten the Jurassic Park themed cake instead of the Power Rangers one. Best friends, right? I knew what he looked like when he was miserable. He looked perfectly okay, and that was what alarmed me.
“Zayn?” I whispered, in case Harvey was still awake on the couch.
“What? I’m trying to sleep.”
“It wasn’t our fault. It wasn’t yours.”
He had his back turned to me, but I had a clear view of the tremor that coursed through him. The neighborhood outside was asleep as well, but the distant sounds of birds punctuated the thick silence.
“That’s the first time someone died from what I sold.”
Then, he pulled his cover tighter to him, around his ears like he didn’t want to hear my condolences. Honestly, I was relieved, because I didn’t know what to say in this situation. I’d never lost anyone. Reggie had, and Luca had. But not me, not yet. They weren’t exactly ours to lose. In the state most of them were in, they belonged to nothing but the high and the addiction. But we had a claim to them, in a sick sort of way. We were the last bridge to them and sanity. Even though we always pushed them over the edge, we were still there.
And in some terribly sick way, I feel like that counted.
The next day, I dug out my long sleeved shirt from the pile of clothes in the corner. Reggie presented me with my new beanie-made in record time. The best pair of jeans I owned had a few fraying holes, but they would have to do. We had all been up way past our usual bedtime, seeing if we’d have to adjust to a normal work schedule. For the most part, we were hoping for jobs that could work with us, were made for people similar to us. Reggie aimed for a bartending position at a strip club, and Luca was intimidating enough to be a guard at a club. Harvey, Zayn, and myself headed downtown, near the beach were a strip of stores surrounded a night themed skate park.
When I was a child, I thought that part of town was heaven. About six stores circled the skate park, a variety of music shops and punk themes places that could care less about tattoos. The rental skates had wheel that glowed ghostly green in the night. The beach, less than a mile away, was famous for hookups.
If we got all the jobs we currently aimed for, we wouldn’t have to change much in our lives.
Harvey applied at Adam’s Playlist, the music and record store with grimy windows and little light on the inside, so it was hard to read much on the albums. Zayn went to the skate rental, where he had sold to the manager before. That left me to wander the circle of stores, watching a few tweens attempt to skate. During the day, the elderly people and children were allowed to try out a few moves. But once night fell, you had to be over 16 to skate, due to the town’s curfew.
I had just made a full circuit, smiling as I watched a little girl stumble over her pink skates, when Harvey ran out of Adam’s. At least he was smiling.
“Think I got the job. The workers are very nice, told me I’d fit right in. I think you should apply there for sure. Where have you put in already?”
“Nowhere,” I admitted. “I’m waiting for one to catch me eye. I’m thinking about the little skater clothing and board shop.”
“Well don’t take too long. Luca is ordering pizza tonight. I think he’s trying to cheer us up.”
“Pizza would do the trick.”
“Any food would do for me. Except maybe Mexican food. I need to take a break from it. See ya!”
He hurried away, clearly elated, and I had to suppress feeling jealous. For Harvey, it didn’t take much to be happy or satisfied with life. He didn’t ask for much so when he got anything it was a welcomed and deeply appreciated surprise. Jerk.
I lit up a cigarette and took a hearty drag before letting it out in a sigh. I didn’t want a new job. I liked my old job, shitty profit be dammed. I had what I needed, even though deep down I wasn’t satisfied.
“Those are bad for you.”
I gave a jolt before tipping my head to the side to acknowledge the person that just walked out of Andy’s. Oh fuck. It was that damn hippie. Harry Styles. The insanely cute, stupid, stuck up hippie with the sexy voice.
“A lot of things are bad for you, love, but if you enjoy them…fuck it.”
As Harry approached, I found myself having to tip my head up to get a good look at him. Damn, he was tall, a decent bit taller than myself.
“I guess that’s reasonable.”
He lifted one of his bony shoulders in a shrug, but I couldn’t stop staring at his eyes, a rich green color, or how his lips looked chapped but inviting all the same.
“You work at Andy’s?” I finally asked, when it became obvious he was okay with silence. “My friend just applied there.”
“Andy’s a friend of my uncle. And yeah, I like Harvey. He’s funny. He mentioned that him and a bunch of his friends are job hunting.”
“We are. I’m going to apply at Bart’s Clothing in a moment.”
“He’s nice. But don’t you have another job?”
He raised his eyebrows, but the warmth in his eyes cooled, as if it were a touchy subject.
“You’re done selling?” He seemed genuinely taken back, his eyebrows furrowing and his lips puckering a little. I needed to stop staring at his lips. And I had no obligations to tell the truth to him. If he wanted to think I was done selling…well, whatever.
“I guess I am.”
Oh for fuck’s sake, why did he care? Why did he even look hopeful, like me giving up that lifestyle might benefit him or make him happy?
“Forever,” I repeated, seriously. I’d been a great liar since childhood. People told me all the time I should be an actor.
“That’s great,” he said seriously, shoving his hands in his pockets. I took another drag as I looked him up and down. He wore black gym shorts and a baggy white shirt with what might have been a ketchup stain near the bottom. On his feet were leather sandals, typical beach shoes. I wouldn’t be caught dead in them. A daisy was tucked behind his ear, almost buried beneath his curls.
“Hey, I don’t even know your name,” he said suddenly. And just like that, he refused to look at me. Instead, he focused on his feet, kicking at the stray grains of sand on the sidewalk. Almost like he was shy. But that would be ridiculous.
“Louis Tomlinson,” I said. Knowing his name but him not knowing mine bothered me.
“I’m Harry Styles. Sorry we had to meet at a park in the middle of the night. Especially when I was napping.” At my blank stare, he did another one-shoulder shrug and went on. “I have insomnia. But when I get tired, I have to nap right away.”
“I’m used to sleeping during the day,” I admitted. “I’m going to ask for the night shifts if I get on somewhere. To be honest, I forgot how annoying the sunlight was.”
“Buy you an umbrella.” Harry’s lips twitched in an almost smile. “And some shades. Everyone will think you’re a vampire.”
“Please… no. Ugh. I’d be something way cooler.”
Harry gave me a lopsided smile, but he never got the chance to ask me what I would be. Our conversation ended when a grizzled old man wearing a Bob Marley beanie-dreads attached and all-stuck his head out.
“Harry, I have to cut your break short. Tourists are coming through, I can feel it in my bones.”
“No he can’t,” Harry said under his breath to me. “His best friend probably called him and warned him.”
Out loud, he said, “I’m coming, Andy. Do you want me to sort the CDs?”
“And sweep,” the old man, Andy, said. “And wipe off the counters. Hurry along now. That ginger boy doesn’t start until tomorrow, but at least it’s your last day handling it on your own, right?”
“Right. Can’t wait!” Harry winked at me before turning and heading back inside. Once he opened the door, he turned and smiled at me again.
“Hope to see you around, Louis. I’m glad you’re choosing a new career.”
“And why is that?” I asked cheekily. Okay, so I was flirting. So what? It’s not like it would lead to anything. It’s not like it could even be allowed to lead to anything.
“Because I think you’re probably a very good person and you don’t belong to that life.” He looked to his feet, as if debating something. “One of my friends lost his brother to an overdose last night. Niall Horan. He’s been a mess and we don’t know how to make it better.”
I could hardly watch the way his eyes clouded over with distant pain. It felt as if someone dumped a bucket of ice water over me, freezing me to the sidewalk. Horan. Greg. That little Irish bastard from the park?
So Zayn and I killed his brother.
And just like that, the faint guilt and sadness consumed me. The life lost had a face now. Greg and Niall had been brothers. Greg had probably taught him how to play football, and how to color inside the lines. Or outside them. Whatever he preferred.
This Greg meant something to someone I had met. This Greg meant someone to the curly haired bastard I couldn’t stop staring at.
Harry was staring at me, concerned, so I had to force myself to say something.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I managed.
“Thanks. He was a good guy. Just a little turned around, you know? A little messed up. But I’ll be seeing you, I hope.”
As the door shut behind him, I tried to calm the jumble of emotions in my stomach. The guilt. The panic. The sorrow. The embarrassing, and very faint thank you, interest I had in Harry. And the infuriating smugness I felt over the fact that Harry had been blushing as the door shut behind him.
After I pulled myself together and put out my cigarette, I applied at Bart’s Clothing. The man, with gages bigger than I would ever joke about getting, told me they’d call me very soon and let me know if they were interested. Despite the stores being small and started by one single person, they received a hearty amount of business. If I got the job, I’d have to get used to being busy again.
Back at home, Reggie had crashed on the couch, which upset the balance of everything because the couch was not his designated sleeping area.
Luca was sorting through our bills on one of the stools we had stolen from a bar. That was a long story, but to make it short a fight broke out one night and Luca took his weapon of choice right out the door with him when they told him to leave. Since then, we’d taken a fancy to testing how many bar stools we could steal. We had no other read furniture besides the couch, but it was more of a joke than a necessity.
The other stools were mismatched, but we didn’t mind at all. The table was actual a prime example of our cardboard furniture, made from a couple of refrigerator boxes stacked on top of each other with support from various other boxes. Harvey was harping on excitedly, and every time he stopped to draw in another breath, Luca smiled up at him, silently encouraging him to go on with whatever nonsense he was spouting.
Zayn, as usual, was in the bathroom.
“Did you get a job?” Luca asked without looking up but clearly speaking to me. Each of us had the privilege to be spoken to in a certain tone of his. The one used for me was that of a very tired father.
“Don’t know yet. They’re going to call. What about you guys?”
“All good. Zayn got his job at the skate rental. I got my security position, and Reggie is, unfortunately, a bartender.”
“He’s going to get fired. Especially when all the grease in his hair dips into the drinks he’s mixing.”
“Very funny. Tell Zayn that the pizza should be here soon.”
If Zayn is just fixing his hair or sitting on the sink texting, he’ll leave the bathroom door cracked a little. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to push my way in and take a seat on the edge of the bathtub. Zayn sat cross-legged on the sink, tapping his fingernails against the screen of his phone.
“Pizza soon?” he asked.
I watched as he stared vacantly at his screen and chewed at his thumbnail. I’d seen him do that more times than I could count, particularly during our calculus tests in high school. It was just one of the little things he did when he was upset, or confused, or mostly just stressed.
“What’s wrong with you?”
The time it took him to answer confirmed my suspicions.
“I just…I’ve been thinking.”
“Oh, mate. Don’t do that. If you keep it up, you might injure yourself.”
He cracked a reluctant smile.
“Okay, okay. We can be teenage girls again. What’s troubling you?”
I put my chin in my hand and fluttered my eyelashes, doing my best to provoke another smile.
Almost subconsciously, he checked his phone and returned to chewing at his thumb before he answered.
“Liam and Niall…the Irish bloke from last night and the one with the shaved head…it was pretty clear that they were dating, right?”
“They might have just been fuck buddies.”
“Why do you care?” I asked sensibly. Zayn hated them all, and he’d made that clear. And they hated him, too. Well, as much as their pacifist and mushy lifestyle allowed them to dislike someone.
When he didn’t answer, I decided it was a good time to mention what I learned from Harry.
“Niall, that blond one, ya know?”
“Greg Horan was his brother.”
Zayn bowed his head and placed his hands over his eyes, and if anyone else walked in they might think he was crying.
“The man from last night,” I reminded him.
“I know which man it is!” he snapped. Right away, he regretted being so harsh. “It just feels a lot more real now that we know his name.”
Sighing, he dragged his hands down his face and uncovered a deep scowl.
“How did you find out his name?”
“Remember the hippie in the van, with the flowers in his hair?”
“Curly?” Zayn squinted, like he was picturing them all standing in a circle.
“Yeah, Curly. He works at the place Harvey got on at. Came outside and talked to me.”
“Did he now?” Zayn smirked and typed out a message on his phone. Who he was texting, we only had the faintest of clues. We were the most permanent people in his life, and the strippers and prostitutes hardly wanted any attachment to a customer. Zayn didn’t want that either. At most, we figured he was dirty talking to his old friends, making arrangements to hook up.
We never stopped asking though.
“Who are you texting?”
Not that I expected an answer.
“Don’t change the subject, Lou. I find it very interesting that Curly came outside to chat you up. Almost seems like he’s interested.”
“Zayn. I don’t know him. We’ve spoken for a combined total of less than ten minutes.”
“Romeo and Juliet hardly talked at all and they killed themselves for each other.”
“That’s kind of a lot different,” I pointed out. Sarcastically, if you couldn’t tell. “They were stupid, and that’s being kind.”
“Okay, fine. You aren’t experiencing doomed love. But you feel attraction, right? Because you couldn’t stop staring last night and I know you wanted look back at him when we were leaving.”
“So? If someone’s cute, they’re cute. That doesn’t mean shit.”
“Okay. Let’s play a game.”
He swiveled on the sink so that he fully faced me. What really got me was that Zayn put his phone down. He never set it down when he was in hook up moods.
“Louis, I’ve known you for too long for you to lie to me like this. I’m a busy man with many hook ups to have and many parties to attend before I go to this shit fest called work.” His expression soured further. “Simply put, I don’t have enough time to sit here and listen to you lie. You like this stupid boy, for what reasons I can’t fathom. So do something about it. Jesus, we aren’t five years old anymore.”
The whole time he talked, my face grew warmer and warmer until I was sure I was flushed entirely red. His speech had a scolding tone about it, which shamed me more. But it wasn’t that simple. Oh sure, I could like Harry. I guess I did. Oh hell, I know I did. But who could I trust something so new, so fast? Answer: I can’t.
“It’s just not a good idea Zayn, and you know it.”
“What did you tell me a couple of years ago?” Zayn’s level stare froze me. Oh God, who knew what I said?
“Was I drunk?” I asked tentatively.
“No, surprisingly not. You told me you’d know if someone was worth putting up with the second you saw them. So, is this overgrown spaz worth it?”
I let my mind falter, gave into myself and let the images come forth; Harry and I, actually dating like normal people do, sitting close on the couch while we ate a pint of ice cream and watched trash telly. At his flat of course; I’d do my best to let him never see mine. We could exchange gifts on Christmas.
I snapped out of it, realized the deadly mistake I’d made by letting a wide smile cross my face.
“I am not! Like I said, he’s cute and I like talking to him. But so what? It’s not like we can even afford to have relationships.”
My excuses were feeble, even to my own ears. I didn’t want to make any excuses now that I let myself hope.
“You’re thinking that far ahead already?” He let out a low whistle, implying that he was impressed.
“I’m not thinking anything,” I replied stubbornly and what I thought was honesty. “I probably won’t seem him too much. And I don’t care. If I wanted something from a guy I’d go downtown and find one outside working. You know that.”
“I know that.” Zayn became distant again, picking at the loose skin around his thumbnail. Whatever had changed, it had changed fast. He was upset again, over the something he wasn’t quite ready to share.
“But like I said, we’ve hardly talked at all. And I don’t care. What I do care about is that someone is going to have to wake Reggie up from that nap.”
“It won’t be so bad when he finds out there is pizza involved.”
Zayn slid off the sink and stretched, eyeing the length of his arm as he did so.
“I’m getting more tattoos soon. I’m getting that itch, you know? What are you getting next?”
I stared down at my sleeve, tracing the designs with my fingers. The bird on my forearm, the storm of feathers leading to my elbow, lyrics, and various symbols and patterns, all forming a solid sleeve of ink. My mother would have been aghast, but that made my smile instead of feel ashamed. When I pictured her being a mother to me, especially as I grew older, I was happy. She would have been the best.
“I’m thinking something ludicrous.”
“Angel wings on your back?”
“I forgot I use to want those. Devil wings might be a bit more accurate now, don’t you think?”
“You know they say the devil was once an angel.”
Zayn ruffled my hair and nudged the bathroom door open with his foot.
“Come on. Let’s volunteer Harvey to wake Reggie up, and then I need you to help me with a little something. Oh don’t look at me like that, it’s going to take less than an hour. I just need to tell one of my customers I’m cutting him off for a while. I was supposed to sell to him tonight.”
“I hope I get that damn job,” I mutter. “Then you won’t be able to drag me out on your stupid missions.”
“I’m thinking you’ll be getting a phone call pretty soon. Those places are always firing and hiring people.”
Turns out, Zayn was right. I got the call halfway through my third slice of pizza, and chewed my way to my fourth while Bart himself ranted about how his last worker had been a moron and I’d better not let him down. I promised to do my best, and then told him I’d see him tomorrow night. How long Bumper expected us to lay low, I had no idea. But I hoped it wasn’t too long.
We all favored selling over normal jobs for a reason, after all.
After dinner, Zayn gave me this glare across the table and jerked his head towards the door pointedly.
Luca didn’t miss a thing.
“If either of you dumbfucks are going to sneak out and try to sell something, at least do it subtly,” he said, sipping his coffee.
“Yeah, dumbfucks,” Reggie chimed in.
“I don’t believe that’s a word. Luca, pass me the comic section, eh?” Harvey leaned across the table and snatched at the newspaper in Luca’s hand, tearing the corners a little.
“We aren’t going to sell!” Zayn protested hotly. “In fact, I just need to tell my most loyal customer that I won’t be able to provide for him for a couple of weeks, but not to give up on me. If I lose him, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“Why didn’t you sell to him a couple of nights ago and save us a shit ton of heartache?” Reggie muttered.
Harvey giggled at the comic section, oblivious as ever.
“Because he still had enough left over from last time.” Zayn thrust his chin in the air with haughty defiance. “You don’t think I thought to ask him?”
“I don’t think you think anything through anymore,” Reggie snapped. “But pick me up some Doritos on the way home, okay?”
And just like that, the squabble was over. Zayn agreed and stood to shrug on his coat while I slipped my shoes back on.
“Thanks for going with me, mate,” he said once we were on our way. “I hate facing these ignorant blokes alone. Teenagers these days speak their own language, I swear.”
We spoke little, each going away to our private thoughts. Zayn and I were never those people that liked to walk and talk. If we were going to have the time to enjoy the view or be alone in our heads, we were going to fucking take that opportunity.
So I let him lead the way, matching his steady pace until we were walking up a track to a football field. Just on the other side, the horrid school rose up like an ugly brick hill. It had two stories, jam packed with hell chambers and teachers that thought teaching degrees meant they could personally shit on your dreams and call it education.
My high school career couldn’t have ended faster. Maybe if I had joined a team or some sort I would have liked it more, but I’d always been so restless, hopping from job to job, getting a new tattoo just because I had that itch. It wasn’t until I started selling that I found a bit of respite from it.
As we crossed the gates and began the climb into the bleachers, the pungent smell of freshly mown grass hit me, as well as the smell of sweat. Not such a lovely combination, but the laughter arising from the field was nearly infectious.
“What are they doing practicing nearly a month before school starts back?” I asked, flopping down on the sun-warmed metal beside Zayn.
We were sat about halfway up, where I could still take in the more pronounced details of the players. Zayn had always been a people watcher, perhaps because of his interest in art. He chose our spot tactfully.
“Practice is intense here, don’t you remember? We couldn’t sit through one class without the jocks harping about how many hours they spent on this field.”
“Zayn, I honestly don’t remember much of high school. I remember sleeping a lot, and that’s about it.”
Which was half true. I remember getting yelled at often as well, and being told I wouldn’t amount to anything. Just the highlights of the best years of my life.
“I remember trying to wake you up before the teacher raised hell, too. Good times.”
His tone didn’t suggest as much.
As Zayn and I reclined onto the bleachers just behind us, waiting for them to finish drills, a certain something caught my eye.
“Oh bloody hell.”
“What?” Zayn straightened up beside me, eyes drifting away from his phone. “What’s wrong?”
The ‘he’ was none other than Harry Styles, sitting hunched onto a bench on the sidelines. As the players moved down the field, his head followed them unfailingly. The angle of his body suggested interest, the tapping of his foot maybe a little impatience. Did he play on the team? Somehow I had a hard time picturing it.
Maybe he had a certain interest in one of the players.
“Oh and so is he,” Zayn muttered crossly. “Great.”
I spotted Zayn’s subject of disgruntlement; Niall Horan, in uniform and sprinting to keep up with his teammates. Though he wasn’t the best, he moved fast and clearly knew his game. Within minutes, he scored. Afterwards, he performed an Irish jig that had his teammates laughing and clapping him on the back.
Harry gave him a thumbs up from the bleachers.
Beside me, Zayn took a deep breath in, but never made a show of releasing it.
“He doesn’t seem so bad,” I offered. “Bit odd, yeah, but not all bad.”
The look he gave me implied that I was too young, too stupid to grasp what must have been a simple concept, such as Niall Horan being absolutely terrible.
“I’ve never noticed him here before, or I wouldn’t have even bothered. Oh, and shame about Harry being here.”
My eyes flickered back to Harry, now scribbling in a journal, tongue protruding from the side of his mouth. I couldn’t help but to watch him the short remaining part of the practice, how he’d shift around a little, watch Niall’s scores and cheer even though no one else watching made a single noise of encouragement. Not even the girls gathered on the end of our row, clearly an assortment of girlfriends and overzealous mothers, deigned to crack a smile.
What an idiot, he was.
When the practice ended and one of the players bounded over to talk to Zayn, I watched Harry carefully fold a page in his journal and set it down. Niall kicked the ball his way, and in a heartbeat Harry was on the field, barefoot and tripping over the ball, but unquestionably trying his hardest. Niall laughed, shouting encouragement, but after a few failed kicks Harry collapsed on the ground, laughing.
Niall joined him, kicking his feat in the air.
“They’re both a bit touched.”
I gave a little start at the voice.
Zayn’s customer, whose jacket announced him as Captain of the Team, shook his head.
“Both of them. Niall is alright but that Harry lad comes to all our practices and acts like he’s practicing for the cheer squad. None of us can stand him.”
The harsh words had me bristling. Inconsiderate jerk. Harry probably hadn’t done a damn thing wrong to him. Okay, he was an overgrown freak, but what right did this airhead have to talk about him like that? Zayn sensed my mood and cleared his throat.
“Can’t you just ask him not to attend the practices if it’s that bad?”
“He’s one of the volunteers. He knows first aid.”
Captain shook his head, as if Harry’s charity was the worst thing that could be offered to them.
“We can stand Niall because he doesn’t make it so obvious, but Harry’s a flaming mess. Honestly, I’d rather bleed out than have that faggot near me.”
I jumped up, fists clenched, scared at the feeling overcoming me. I hate how protective I feel, hate how angry I am due to a stranger’s word, but I can’t help it. I hate bullies like him, especially when their object is someone that might be my friend at some point.
Zayn sprang up with me, his hands going to my shoulders and forcing my body behind his a little. Trying to quell my anger by keeping the little snot’s face out of my sight.
“We’d best be going, it’s just getting so late. I’ll see you soon?”
“Of course.” Captain cocked his head and stared at me oddly. “Count on it.”
Once we were just out of earshot, Zayn gave my arm a last harsh squeeze before letting go. Crossly, I pulled away from him. If only he would just let me say what I wanted to. We didn’t need customers like that asshat.
“You still sure you don’t like him?” he asked, wide eyed and solemn.
I grabbed him in a headlock, a little tension draining out of me as he yelped like a child. We’d play fought countless times, and I found a little respite in the routine. Thrashing around, he managed to get free and land a playful punch on my shoulder.
“I’m teasing, Lou! But I bet you next month’s rent that he’s watching us right now.”
“Is not,” I protested. “What would he be looking for?”
Of course, we had to check, just to be sure.
So he was watching, legs sprawled out, his palms in the grass in front of him as he leaned towards us. My heart did a backflip as I took in the sight of him-grass stained knees, dirt smeared face, flowers tucked into his hair. He might have been a child waiting for story time, but instead, when our eyes locked, my name escaped his lips.
Niall’s head turned our way, eyebrows raised in keen interest, but I couldn’t stick around and chat with him, not without collecting all my thoughts first.
Instead, I did what I did best; I grabbed Zayn and we ran.
The next night as I arrived at the skate park, I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. My mother had been the last person to take me, right before she passed away, but it felt like there had been less people back then. Marginally so.
People flashed by me, laughing into the wind. A few newbies were stumbling around, not daring to try the actual ramps and half-pipes. A group of girls zipped by me, spinning to skate backwards and wink at me as they went, and I thought that I might just like this set up after all. Bart met me at the door and delivered a ten minute crash course on the whole running of the store.
“Band shirts are along the left wall, arranged alphabetically, and yes we do have body jewelry but they have to ask to see it. It’s here under the counter. We don’t sell socks. This is a beach side store. Why the hell would you want socks?” Bart curled his lips like socks were disgusting inventions that should never have been. He was a stocky man with a red beard that stuck out in a long point. Whether his hair matched or not, I didn’t know; he was bald to the point where his head shined. Tattooed by his ear was a star.
“Clean the windows if you’re bored. Dressing rooms are that way….”
He went on and on this way, not giving a definite stream of instructions but instead jumping from one subject and area to another.
“I’ll let you have your cell phone out, too. So long as we’re slow.”
I didn’t bother telling him I hadn’t had a cell phone for years. If I needed something, I could call one of the lads from a phone booth.
From the counter, I could see the middle of the park with spotlights streaming down. It was as if a giant scooper had scraped away a giant circle of concrete, leaving slanted walls and scraped knees. Watching all the people kept me busy. The way that boys would fall and laugh and tease each other but when girls fell they were embarrassed.
Physical pain for girls was embarrassing, but emotional pain was expected. Vice versa for boys. I thought this odd, that no one could never just hurt and it just be okay. There were limitations, only so much pain you could be in before people turned away and refused to feel bad for you. All in all, it was a shitty concept.
Bart noticed me watching them, but he figured it for the wrong reasons.
“Got a girl you wish you were skating with?”
“Nah,” I replied evenly. “I broke my last skateboard last year. Haven’t been able to afford one since.”
“I can’t promise you’ll be wealthy here, but Jesus, kid, you can definitely afford a skateboard. What were you doing before?”
I stared blankly at him. Here was the same obstacle that had been prominent in my life since I started selling drugs. How do you tell people you were on a path so frowned upon, so despised? Like I said, we didn’t exactly have spare cash, but we were in the place we wanted to be. No, had to be. We didn’t have proper education, and odd jobs and low income wouldn’t keep us appeased for long. Then what did we have?
“I worked little odd jobs for people,” I answered. “Pet sitting, mowing lawns. That sort of business. But I don’t come off too trustworthy so I didn’t get a lot of opportunities.”
“Shame.” Bart shook his head. “People judge too fast these days. If it weren’t for society…”
He trailed away, eyes lifting to the front door as a small group squeezed into the shop, laughing loudly and drowning out the sound of Slipknot playing overhead.
“Not again,” Bart groaned. He raised his voice to the small crowd. “How many times do I have to tell ya…if the kid can’t skate keep him off the board! This isn’t a fucking hospital.”
I was taken aback by his language until I turned to get a good look at the group and fuck I wouldn’t ever escape him would I? Harry stood between Niall and Liam, clutching at his scraped elbows and grinning foolishly. Blood stained his fingertips, outlining his nails. Liam appeared exasperated, but Niall and another young lad were laughing still.
“I’m sorry, Bart,” Harry said, not sounding sorry at all. “Andy let me on break and these girls asked me to try out their board and make sure it worked all right…”
“You should have let me check it.” Liam sounded like he wanted to smack both Niall and Harry. The other boy turned his head to stare at the band shirts covering the wall.
“They were so nice though.” Harry stuck his bottom lip out further before shrugging. “But if Bart wants to let me bleed to death…”
“For pity’s sake. Louis, go to the back and get that first aid kit.”
As Bart said my name, all four boys turned to the counter, Liam with astute wariness and Harry with a glow of pleasant surprise that made my stomach churn. What was his problem? Grateful to escape him, I scurried into the back closet Andy called an office.
When I brought the first aid kit back, Harry was sitting on the stool behind the counter, legs swinging as his hands gripped the edges.
His friends were apparently browsing, but I could hear them whispering urgently, as if something monumental occurred in the short time I was gone.
“Where’s Bart?” I asked, not wanting to be entirely in the small space with just Harry.
“Went to tell Andy that I would be back soon. I’m a mess, aren’t I? I’m sorry I bothered you guys.”
This time, he truly did seem sorry, his green eyes peering up at me like a dog waiting to be scolded. Even sitting, he was almost as tall as me.
“You aren’t bothering us. Well, not me. This job is boring, to be honest. I’ve spent all my time watching people skate, wishing I could join them.”
“Bart will let you.” Harry watched my hands as I pulled a few supplies from the red kit. “Just ask. The shops are very groovy here. They let you do whatever.”
“Did you just say groovy?” I snorted involuntarily. “God, you’re such a hippie.”
“And you’re a punk,” Harry countered jovially.
I didn’t bother replying, instead rubbing at his scraped elbows with a washcloth and rubbing alcohol. He winced, but when I glanced up he beamed at me and waited, so I went on.
If Reggie saw me playing doctor with one of the hated hippies, he would shit himself laughing at me.
“You’re cute,” Harry said suddenly.
“What the bloody hell?”
“Just the way your face scrunches up. You’re concentrating really hard on doing a good job, and it’s cute. You remind me of a teddy bear.”
“A bear?” I rolled my eyes, but my neck felt hot and sticky with sweat I’d been previously unaware of. Who did he think he was, dropping a bomb like that? Harry didn’t need to be calling me anything. He should thank me for patching his clumsy ass up. Then he should stay at Andy’s store, and leave me alone until I got my real job back and didn’t have to worry about seeing him every day.
“A teddy bear,” Harry repeated, utterly sure of himself. “You just think you’re a tough bear, but I bet you’re really a big softie.”
“My mom called me boobear.” It slipped out before I could even stop it. Like a butterfly slipping between my fingers, I was aware of the thought-the painful memories-and then it went through my fingers. Set free into the air.
“Boo bear,” Harry repeated, like he was testing it out. “That’s embarrassing.”
“Shut it, giraffe.” I stuck the last band aid on him and tried to step away, but his hands shot out and grabbed at my waist. His wiry fingers dug lightly into my hip bones.
“I’m sorry,” Harry said. Jesus, how many times did the kid apologize in one day? “I just don’t know what to say. I’m not any good at making friends.”
“You seem pretty sociable to me,” I replied, trying to think of a polite way to get out of the net of his fingers.
“I am. I can talk to anyone, get along with anyone. And I’ll listen to any stranger’s problems. But I don’t have very many people willing to hear me out.”
“Well I’m not going to.” I let out a barking laugh, and I know I was rude, but the more Harry tried to work into my life the more walls I had to put up. And that was a hell of a lot of effort on my part.
“You will.” Harry dug his fingers in a little more, so that the soft gesture took an edge of pain and-dammit it all-pleasure. I wouldn’t dare let my thoughts wonder any further than his chin. His eyes were a danger zone, filled with his complete self-assurance as his called me on my bull shit. His lips were a no. I imagined touching them. “You’re going to listen to me because I want to be your friends and you can’t shake me off. I’m like a sloth.”
‘Friends?’ I thought. ‘Get real, Curly. You can’t be friends with someone you get horny about when they touch you.’
“Giraffe,” I corrected with a light sigh. Harry knew he’d won.
“Ask Bart to let you come out and skate.”
“It’s my first day of work,” I protested, half-heartedly but at least I was trying. Zayn couldn’t begrudge me that much. “I don’t need to leave now.”
“If you come with me, I’ll buy you your own skateboard to work with.”
The disappointment I felt as his hands slid away from me was washed away by an intense mix of shock, excitement, and reluctance to let him take pity on me. Friendships weren’t exactly supposed to work that way, right? But Harry Styles had a dusting of freckles on his nose and a mischievous gleam in his eyes, and my resolve weakened when I looked at him.
And I thought of what Zayn had looked at me and said, that I was already gone. Things didn’t happen this fast, not ever. Not even in the movies.
“Fine, Giraffe. I’ll watch you bust your ass.”
Harry’s lips tugged up into a crooked smile, slanting like a slung crescent moon. His teeth were pretty and white, but it was then that I noticed the front most left one had a little chip on it.
“It’s from a wannabe skating incident,” Harry explained easily, as if he could read my mind. “I know; it’s awful.”
“It’s…cute.” The word felt foreign rolling off my tongue, catching in the spaces between my teeth. The girls-and those few boys- I had brought home didn’t settle for those endearing terms. Our exchanges were sparse as we rolled in the dirty sheets, and at most the words that slipped out were desperate and thick with filth. Things weren’t cute in my world.
But Harry, with his chipped tooth and how his shoulders hunched up in excitement was, unmistakably, cute. As I followed him out the door, leaving Bart with a porn magazine and a lazy scowl, I decided that, after tonight, I would say goodbye to him. One night of light-hearted and no strings attached fun before I told him to let me be before I returned to my old, Harry free life.
That was before I finally extended my hand and grasped at his hips, showing him how to push off the ground with his foot. The places where my fingers touched him were tingling like static, and I scarcely heard his cry of delight as he took off at a light glide.
“Push!” I called, kneading my fingertips into my palm absently. As he took off, I admired his gangly form. From basic knowledge, I could deduce he was no older than 18, and definitely still in high school. Harvey mentioned once that most of the hippies were. I wasn’t much older- just 21, and yet he was so much taller than me, more angular in the jut of his bones. Then you met his eyes you knew-definitely still a kid.
That might be what frustrated me most. He was probably still innocent, still uncontaminated. What would my dirty world do to him?
“This is fun! Lou, catch up!”
Taking off at a light jog, I couldn’t help but to admire the curve of his thighs as they slid down to slim legs, and then, for the first time, I noticed his absence of shoes. Normally, that would be very noticeable, but his face distracted me so much. I didn’t even know how great his butt looked until right then.
He stopped, chin raised like he was indicating towards something in the sky.
“Did you see that? I picked up so fast!”
“I’m an excellent teacher,” I bragged, jamming my hands in my back pockets, to keep them the hell away from Harry’s body. “But I think you already had a basic understanding. You just needed tips.”
Harry placed one barefoot on the ground and pushed the skateboard slowly back and forth with the other. I tried to focus on the scratch of its wheels against the concrete instead of the way Harry raised his shirt up to wipe the sweat from his face.
“It’s getting hot out,” he said conversationally.
Shit, we were talking about the weather. Is this how friendships were formed? Hell, I didn’t even remember.
“Very hot. Kind of makes you wish you were back in the air conditioned store, huh?”
“Nah,” Harry replied with zero hesitation. “I like it better out here with you.”
When he saw my face, he added quickly, “I mean, we’re basically getting paid to knock around right now. Groovy huh?”
“Again with the groovy?” I groaned.
“What’s wrong with saying groovy?”
He sat down at one end of the skateboard, leaving plenty of room for me to join him. Even as I thought that I absolutely shouldn’t, I settled down, my knees drawing up to my chest.
“It’s so…hippie. You know you guys are infuriating, right? With all your peace shit and the flowers in your hair.”
Almost guiltily, he raised a finger to prod the flower of the day-a dandelion- tucked behind his ear. To be frank, I hadn’t even noticed it before, as it had been obscured by his wild curls; much more concealed than yesterday’s had been. Seeing him prod it in a self-conscious manner made me regret my harsh words.
“Okay, it’s not that bad,” I amended. “Just…why?”
“Why did you sell people things that can easily kill them?” he replied gently. He wasn’t accusing me of anything, just pointing something out.
“A hell of a lot of things kill people that they enjoy. But they still do it. People still sell them. Me being the bad guy is getting old.”
Harry’s shoulders tensed, but his voice was steady.
“Okay, okay. Sorry. But it’s over now, right? So let’s forget it. To answer your question, I don’t remember where I even got the hippie stereotype. It’s just who I always was. I hated shoes, and violence, and arguing with people. I loved the sun, yoga, and picking flowers. Somehow, I ended up with a group of kids who felt the same and next thing I know who we are is an insult.”
“Hippies did drugs,” I argued, only half-joking.
“That’s not right. That’s stereotyping. And even then, hippies wanted freedom and choice. They just wanted to live their lives in peace, right, man?”
Harry studied me, not satisfied with my surly answer.
“I know what you need. Come to yoga with me in the morning.”
“Yoga?” I gripped the bottom of the skateboard and leaned away from him, as if his hippie vibe would sink into me. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I’m not. Please? And if you show, you can tell the others about how you and your friends have stopped selling drugs. They might really like you then.”
He leaned into me, bumping me with his shoulder and trying to provoke a response. Other than my look of near disgust, of course. Yoga? Seriously? No thanks. I didn’t want to praise the sun or whatever. I wanted to sleep in then come to work and make my money. But Harry started pouting.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, fine. Can I bring Zayn?”
At the name, Harry’s brow furrowed as he tried to place him.
“The lad with the Elvis hair?”
“That’s the one.”
I didn’t bother mentioning that it would take a great deal of bribery on my part to get Zayn to show up to a hippie gathering, but I wasn’t going alone, that’s for sure.
“Of course you can bring him. Liam is a big Elvis fan himself. He really appreciates the hair.”
At that moment, a cute girl with pink rollerblades glided up, spinning expertly to a stop. One look at her, and you could tell she had been skating for many years. It was apparent in the easy way she balanced, the lack of any padding on her knees or elbows. When she smiled at Harry, I noticed a small gap between her two front teeth.
“Hey, Harry. Get the hang of it yet?”
She completely ignored me, instead twirling her blond ponytail with her delicate fingers as she batted her eyelashes at Harry. Right away, I knew I wouldn’t like her.
“Almost. Lou’s been helping me. Louis, this is Clara. She competes in competitions. And she lets me copy her notes when I fall asleep in class.”
Of course she did. Clara finally turned to me, peering down her button nose to analyze me with suddenly cold eyes. Definitely a bitch. But hey, I thought Zayn was an ass when I first met him, so it wouldn’t hurt to give her a chance.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I told her, standing up. Harry scrambled to join me, nearly falling over the skateboard.
“You klutz,” Clara giggled, ignoring me again. “I swear. You trip over air.”
“I can’t help it,” Harry replied good-naturedly. “There’s just too much of me.”
The girl, Clara, flushed, peered once more at me, and then set her shoulders.
“My family is having their weekly dinner, but my perfect sister is coming home with her doctor-to-be fiancé. I could really use some support. Would you….”
She trailed off, waiting for Harry to agree, but he titled, his head, confused.
“Would I what?”
If I wasn’t so annoyed with the girl trying to ask him for a dinner date, I would have thought about how cute Harry’s naivety was.
“Come to dinner for me?” Clara looked down at her skates, chewing on her bottom lip.
“Oh.” Harry blinked, and then looked at me for some reason. “I don’t see why not.”
That had not been the answer I was expecting, but thinking back, I shouldn’t be surprised. Harry was, undoubtedly, sweet and friendly. He wouldn’t turn down anyone. I could conclude that much even after the short time I knew him. He would probably tell Clara’s mom he loved everything at dinner and if Clara reached her hand under the table to hold his, he would be too polite to pull away.
I looked down at his large hands, tracing the veins with my eyes so I didn’t have to watch Clara squeal with delight. I didn’t want her to touch him.
“Thank you so much! I can’t wait to tell Mom. She thinks you’re the best looking guy around. She’s right, of course.” Again, she blushed. “I’ll text you later and we can talk some more about it.”
When she glided off to meet up with a group of equally giggly and eager friends, Harry picked up the skateboard and tucked it under his arm like he hadn’t just made a date with a girl that several guys were gawking at.
“So I’ll see you tomorrow, right?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, feeling suddenly cold. “I might be kind of busy.”
Harry frowned and peered down at me with an alarming intensity.
“But I want you there.”
“Yeah well…” I kicked at the ground, avoiding his eyes again. They would be the death of me. “I have to ask. And I wouldn’t go unless Zayn went with me. So I have to see what he’s doing.”
I forced myself to look up at him, and was thrown off guard by how forlorn he looked over the fact that I might not be able to join him for some morning stretches. It wasn’t fair I had some unreasonable crush on a damn hippie. It wasn’t fair he was making me feel guilty over being jealous.
“I hope I see you. Really.”
Then, before I could even protest, he reached out and took my hand, his thumb gliding over the tattoos on the top of my hand. The gesture felt too intimate for the rest of the world, his skin tracing ink, touching parts of me that no girl had ever bothered with. Something changed then, and we both knew it. We both knew I would show up for that damn yoga class, no matter what I said. And Clara didn’t matter.
“Bye,” Harry whispered, backing away. I clung to him for just a second, not ready to surrender the sensation of his hand in mine. Then, I was embarrassed over clinging to him like a child, and I let go. As he walked away, back to Andy’s, he glanced over his shoulder at me four times, his smile growing wider each time, until I could see dimples pinching his cheeks and hear his laughter of the bell on the door.
I completely forgot about him promising to buy me a skateboard. I didn’t care.
At home, the group sat around eating Chinese take-out and relating our newest stories of the casual working life. We didn’t bother using the cardboard kitchen table, instead sitting on the floor and listening to the radio. I hadn’t realized how much I missed them after only one day apart, which was kind of sad. After years of constantly being with your friends though, it was weird that the closest one was across the street from your own workplace.
Harvey mentioned Harry several times, waving his chopsticks around and talking about how all the girls would come in just to stare at him, until Andy had to throw them out for loitering.
“They compare him to a Greek god. If only they knew how clumsy of a god he is.”
This talk didn’t particularly interest anyone but Zayn, who watched me from the corner of his eyes with a wary expression, like I might go hunt down the girls. I needed to tell him about Clara in private, see what he thought about it. Just as I was trying to think of a time that I could get him alone, Harvey turned to me.
“But Harry adores you, Louis. He asked about you a few times, but he got kind of shy when I asked why he was so curious about you. Then I saw you two skating and I figured he got over it.”
Harry? Shy? That was odd. But then again, I could see it if I tried hard enough. Perhaps I just needed to get to know him better. Not that I should.
“They were skating, were they?”
Zayn tipped his head and shot a sly grin my way, the type of grin that made skating feel dirty and perverse.
“Yep. When Harry got back in, he was really excited about yoga tomorrow. I kind of wanted to go.”
“Don’t ever associate with them more than you have to,” Reggie snarled. “They are filth, all of them.”
“I can’t think of Harry that way,” Harvey protested hotly. I was all for him defending Harry, but I was a bit taken aback by Reggie’s passion.
“What have the lot done to us, anyway?”
Luca cleared his throat, like a warning, but Reggie set down his food and folded his hands together. For the longest time, he said nothing as he evaluated each of us in turn. The look he adopted was familiar. It was how he looked at us when he wanted to put in his opinion on things, but thought it best not to.
For Reggie, this was always an accomplishment. He tended to say exactly what he thought. But for once, he didn’t hold back.
“They ruined my life. And before you jump on my ass about how they aren’t all the same, just get that it’s hard hearing the same words come out of their mouths that came out of his. Their minds are wired the same and I can see it when I look at them. I see him and his mannerisms and his ideas and I remember him so clearly I feel like I can reach out and punch him like I should have all those years ago.”
“Who is he?” Harvey asked, setting his fork down. Reggie had each of us taut and brimming with curiosity.
Whatever he thought of in those moments must have been bad, but he heaved out a sigh and told us what he had never told us in all our years together.
“I had a girl. Really sweet, always wanted a dog, but I couldn’t afford shit for us. Still, she was happy with me. God knows why. The more I realized she wanted, the more I needed to give her things. That’s when I started selling, just me. My prices, all my cut of the profit. I bought her a dog, and then a ring. No matter how much I wanted to stop doing what I was doing, I couldn’t stop because she was so happy. Then she met one of those hippies. Not from that lot, of course, but still one of them. He taught her all this shit about finding happiness in nature and outside of material things. And all that I had worked to get her was suddenly dirty. She threw away almost everything, and the only thing I did right apparently was get her the damn dog. Even threw away the ring.”
He let us digest that while he stood, strolled to the miniature fridge, and pulled out a beer.
“She wanted to stay with me, of course. She still loved me. Until that flower bastard blamed me for the overdose of one of his friends. Told her that I sold him the stuff, and she found my stash, threw a fit. Told me I was worthless and disgusting. And I finally met this hippie that she had been telling me about. And guess what? I sold drugs to him all the time, him and his poor, naïve boyfriend. After she left me, he showed up at my house, really smug. Told me he’d lied about a lot of things to her, that he’d used her for a good shag and that I could have her back. All because I apparently sold him some bad stuff. And this kid was so young. I mean, so were we, but he had to have been just out of his teens. ”
Harvey moved over beside him and patted his back in a soothing way. If anyone else had done it, it would have been awkward, but Harvey was Harvey, and he could get away with the mushiest of things.
“What happened then?”
Reggie took a swig of beer and shrugged in a casual manner that didn’t match his sad and bitter expression.
“She came back to me a week or so later. Told me she was sorry, cried her eyes out and I didn’t even feel anything. I just watched the mascara run down her face and thought, ‘I thought she was all about the natural beauty now?’. Eventually, she realized I wasn’t going to be answering, and she left.”
Absently, his fingers moved to trace the scars over his wrist.
“Heard she got married. Last year. She wrote me a long ass letter about how she used to dream about us standing at the altar, and how maybe it was for the best I didn’t let her hurt me anymore. I don’t know why she did it. It didn’t change anything.”
Reggie peered through the curtain of his hair at each of us, suddenly self-conscious. Though he probably hadn’t expected to tell us his story tonight, I was glad he did. I’m not one for these moments, but I could understand Reggie a little better, even more than I already did.
“I used to knit her scarves,” he went on softly. “One for each day of the week. Her mother taught me how.”
Luca rose resolutely and returned from the mini fridge with enough drinks for all of us. As he passed them around, we all pretended not to notice the tears in Reggie’s eyes. We all had been there.
And we all knew that no one else but each other would ever understand.
Zayn’s story was not as tragic as Reggie’s, but it hurt me more because I had always been so close to him. He grew up in a large family, with parents strict on how he should be and what to do. We were at the same party when a girl dared him to take a drink, just one. She was older than us, by a good three years. Zayn was only 13 and hoping to maybe score, something that was on our hormone fueled thoughts 100% of the time, so he did more than just take one drink.
Later, as he was throwing up everywhere, he told me about how his parents were cheating on each other, how his sister was possibly pregnant, how he’d become so disgusted with his life that he would do anything to get out of it. A lot of truth tumbled out with the potato chips and hot dogs that had been served at the poolside event, and though I scrunched my nose up at the sight, I stood by him and patted his back.
I remember him cradling his face in his hands, words muffled by tears.
“Why do they want me to be perfect when they can’t even do it themselves?”
Zayn fell in love that summer, with a girl that sang in a choir and played field hockey. He would drag me to her games, and continuously elbow me and mention how great her legs looked, or how wonderful her smile was.
This was before the party, before his parents told him he could never be with a girl like her, before the party where Zayn went to drown away his problems for a night and emerged with a reputation to last him until the end of his high school years.
That girl, and we don’t usually say her name, cried for hours when she heard the rumors about him hooking up with a bunch of girls, and she stopped talking to him as the rumors grew worse. The one girl Zayn had half a mind to care about hated him, but instead of being sad, he became irrationally angry.
“If I’ve already got the reputation, I might as well live up to it,” he muttered to me one night, after mayday. I was trying to give him the best comfort I could, a hard task in itself as comfort was the last thing on his mind. I didn’t ever ask him if the rumors were true, though in my heart I knew Zayn may have been tempted, I also knew that Zayn would never cheat on someone.
Shortly after, he began living up to the rumors to the best of his ability, more out of spite than desire.
With different girls all the time and flings so wild that all the men envied him, he became quiet and withdrawn, Mr. Mysterious and the one that kicked his shoes up on his desk and smoked in the parking lot before his first class. Despite the girls saying how much of a pig he was, they wrote his name on their binders and checked him out as he strolled by.
In spite of the tough demeanor he took on-the leather jacket, the cigarettes, and the tattoos at sixteen-I knew he still cared that one girl more than any other. Not essentially because she was the one that got away, but more so because she was the girl who made him smile involuntarily, the girl he called and talked to until they both fell asleep on the phone. Call it what you want-first love, an irrational crush, puppy love-but Zayn did care for her. The fact that she was the first to turn on him due to reputation damaged a part of his mind, the essential wiring to trust and faith. She was only the first of so many, but she was the last to cut a connection.
Zayn was a terribly troubled person because of our school years, but he always watched that one girl and wished that things had been different between them.
It was with all this in mind that I nudged my way into the bathroom to speak with him. Even if Harry was-for lack of a better word- an undesirable, Zayn would help me if I told him the extent of my feelings over such a short time.
He was curled up in the bathtub staring at his phone. Also, he’d positioned his head under the leaky faucet. Each time it dripped into his tangle of black hair, he winced.
“If it bothers you, you can lay the other way, ya know.”
He raised his head a little to peer over the edge of the tub at me, gingerly maneuvering so he didn’t bang his head.
“I don’t care, my recent advances have been rejected for entirely superfluous reasons. And you want something from me, right?” he asked, before I could questions said reasons. “I can see it in your face.”
Half of me wanted to, but I didn’t try to protest. Instead, I closed the door and took Zayn’s usual seat on the sink, sliding my back against our scratched mirror.
“I taught Harry how to skateboard today.”
When Zayn didn’t do anything but stare, I went on.
“I mean, he already kind of knew what he was doing. His balance was just a bit off, ya know?”
Still, I received nothing but silence until Zayn let out a groan and righted himself completely. Without his hair to cushion the noise, we were subjected to the maddening drip of the faucet against the porcelain tub. It was one of those simple things in life that you simply forgot to appreciate that absence of.
“Harvey seems to think he’s taken a right shine to you.”
Absently, Zayn rubbed at the wet patch on his head.
“He might have, but maybe possibly because I told a tiny lie. He thinks we all stopped selling and that’s why we all got new jobs. To start over or some happy shit like that.”
“We did stop selling,” Zayn said in a slow, patient voice, as if I were a child not comprehending a simple subject. Possibly omitting the last part of my explanation in favor of tending to the hair he’d just mentioned not caring about anymore.
“I mean permanently. He thinks we’ve all jumped up and turned over a new leaf. For good. And his expression was the worst. I couldn’t help it. I lied and told him we had stopped. But he’s so eager to talk to me, and for some damn reason I wish I could make sense of, I kind want to talk to him.”
“Do you have a crush?” Zayn smirked.
“Why are you asking? You already know.”
I looked anywhere but at his smug expression. I hated the term crush with a fiery passion, mainly because it sounded like such an elementary term when really Harry had me both A.) turned on and B.) eager to hold his hand at the same time. Crushes seemed to encompass wish B more so than wish A.
That hardly mattered though, as I had to drop the bomb before Zayn got bored and went out socializing or some shit.
“And I told him we would go to some yoga class tomorrow.”
At that, the smile slipped off Zayn’s face so fast it might have been comical if his eyes weren’t so deadly.
“We? I hope you aren’t including me in this shit, Tomlinson. Because if you think I’m waking up to praise the sun, you’re sorely mistaken.”
“Please Zayn. I really don’t want to go by myself and it won’t be so bad, right? All his friends will be going, and if me and Harry are going to have whatever we have, I want them all to like me.”
“Since when do you care who likes you? Because ever since we were ten you’ve been flipping people off and saying exactly what you please, when you please. Why should it matter now?”
“Harry matters,” I said, before I could stop myself. A part of me wanted to add ‘already’ because it was really that fast, faster than I ever could have dreamed. Though I had no clue where me and Harry could possibly go, I thought far too much about him to dig back to the part of my mind that didn’t know him.
And most disgustingly of all, that day was less than a week ago. I really was a mess.
Zayn could have taken the chance to laugh at me and tease, but he shrugged with a resigned sigh and took his phone from his pocket. He clicked away at the keyboard, his tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth.
“I have to cancel on Natasha, who does not have petty excuses for not hooking up with me. Now I gotta give her one. You’d better love me for this.”
“I do. Just don’t let on that I actually cared to go tomorrow.”
“Act as bitter and bored as possible? Can do, mate. Can do.”
When I curled up to sleep that night, I pictured Harry’s smile, how he moved and how his fingertips felt brushing against my skin. They say what you think of before you fall asleep is the most important. If I mentioned this to the other lads, they would make jokes. On a sober night, Reggie would speak of how he thought of knitting and Harvey would say food, while Luca would scoff and say that he thought of fancy cars from foreign countries.
Which happened to be a lie. The question had arisen during one of our drunken nights, and we’d all confessed.
Zayn thought of how no girl would ever compare to his first love, how her ponytail bounced between her shoulder blades as she walked down the hallway, books cradled to her chest. With his hands, he waved away the ghost of her image, and his glassy eyes darkened.
Luca thought of the young teenagers, present the day he was arrested. His story is another that usually doesn’t come up, but he thinks about those kids a lot. How they are, what they’re doing now. And Luca, who swears all religion is shit, will pray to any ethereal being he thinks might be listening that those kids are having the best damn life possible. It’s just like him to be a compassionate prick.
Reggie thinks of his mother, how she used to put Band-Aids over her arms so he didn’t know about the drugs she injected herself with. He thought of how she would lay her head down on the kitchen table and cry and curse Reggie’s father, who had enough money to buy six houses but after his death left them on the street. He’d gambled all his money away. Reggie told us he thought about the night before she died, how she tiptoed to his room and kissed him on the forehead, and when he woke up she made up a bedtime story for him, right off the top of her head.
He wrote it down, he told us, years later. Read it to us once, and then let us read it ourselves multiple other times.
The next morning, he went to fix himself a bowl of cereal and found her with her head down on the table. She never woke up.
Harvey told us that he thought of how much he took for granted in his old life, how easy of a job he had, how he could sit outside and appreciate the sun and sweet air. He told us that the time where he still appreciated these things were most important, because it meant that those times existed and were not lost in the desperation of the present.
When it was my turn, I didn’t know what to say. I told them I thought of my mother, but really my thoughts were scattered and distant. Thinking would have kept me up longer, and I didn’t want that. I valued the lulls of blackness and calm.
But that night, I thought of Harry, and when I awoke, I thought of him. His image swum before my closed eyelids, and his existence hung about me like a warm summer breeze. And I knew he would love that comparison. My brain had a hard time shifting to rational thoughts through the haze of happiness, something it couldn’t be used to. Everything else in my life had been neutral to decent at best.
Harry said the morning yoga session took place in the park, about the time the sun was rising, so it was still dark when I shook Zayn awake. For a moment, he was confused, but when I reminded him of where we needed to go, he grumbled a few curse words and hauled himself up.
“I can’t believe I agreed to this shit.”
The walk to the park proved to be quiet, with Zayn only mentioning every now and again that he had lost his mind, that I had lost mine a long time ago, even though I’d already told him that Harry and I hadn’t known each other long enough to use that phrase. I only had half a heart to argue with him because I did feel bad dragging him out of bed so early.
As we neared the park, I tugged my beanie tighter over my ears. The morning wasn’t chilly. In fact, it was quite a pleasurable warm that would certainly become a sweltering heat by noon. But my hair looked a terrible mess, and I didn’t really want Harry to notice, so beanie it was.
“Oh look, there are your new best friends,” Zayn said in a dull monotone.
On a stretch of lush grass were a good two dozen people, some wearing the same crown of flowers that Harry had worn the first night I had seen him. Maybe it was just hippie fashion. All of them were chatting and laughing, and most were doing a couple of warm ups while sipping at water bottles. The girls had long hair, thick with waves and leaning towards the greasy side, but a few normal looking girls were huddled together near the front. They didn’t match the rest of the group, with their dyed hair and brand name sports gear. Their fingernails were painted hot pink.
Still, the only girl that really stood out was almost completely bald, but also proudly wearing the flowers over the thin layer of hair growing back. Squinting, I found something so joltingly familiar about her that I couldn’t help myself; I chose a spot next to her without hesitating, even though Zayn gave me a ‘what the hell’ look.
“I’m Louis,” I told her, attempting a few stretches of my own. They weren’t as structured as hers.
She turned towards me with a wide smile and winked. Definitely familiar, and my mind was trying to draw the connection-but it couldn’t quite get there.
“That’s good for you. Before you even ask, it was leukemia.”
She didn’t say it as if she were throwing at the name of her condition for attention, just as if it was a stone cold fact and that was the end of the story.
“I wasn’t….” I trailed away, guilty. I wasn’t going to ask, but I certainly had been curious.
“It’s okay, I get looks all the time. And the questions of course.” She bent down, touching the tips of her toes. “I don’t mind so much,” she said, voice slightly muffed, “but it is getting old. And I’m only a few weeks in the clear.”
“You’re in remission?” I asked, feeling a weird sense of relief. She couldn’t have been much older than me, which made the whole thing scary enough, and she was certainly cute. But I didn’t have the usual urge to try flirting. Not that I would anyway, now that I could admit I had my eye on Harry. That didn’t mean I couldn’t make friends with Harry’s friends, and this girl was spunky. I liked her already.
“I am. Cancer is tricky territory, you know. But you take it as it comes. Is this your first yoga session?”
Zayn cleared his throat.
“Hopefully our last. Louis dragged us out here because he has a crush on someone attending.”
“Zayn!” I hissed. What had I told him on the way over? Oh right. Please don’t make it obvious how excited I was to be here. To anyone.
“It’s okay.” The girl rose back up and arched her back in a cat like stretch. “I’m betting it’s the yoga instructor. Lots of girls come to see him.”
“Even you?” I asked, smiling.
“Nah, that would be seriously weird.” Her face twisted in faint disgust.
One of the mismatched girls from the front straightened up, shimmying her sports bra up to make her boobs appear bigger. Her friends looked at one another before doing the same. The hippie chicks around them rolled their eyes and shuffled away a little, as if they had an airhead disease.
“Oi! There’s your lad now,” Zayn said, elbowing me in the ribs.
And it was. The gathered group all settled down on their mats, perked up and attentive as Harry took his spot at the front. Liam and Niall followed after him, both taking one of his sides. I knew enough to infer that they were his assistants. Beside me, Zayn tensed up, but I couldn’t focus enough to comment on it. Harry wore black athletic sweats, despite the warm temperature, and a white muscle shirt. No shoes, of course, and a flower crown made from the same flowers as the other one I had seen.
“Hello,” he began in his slow, deep voice. If the crowd wasn’t so attentive, it might have been hard to hear him. But everyone, myself included, leaned forward and focused on him alone.
“I’m Harry, of course. If you’re new to this class we always start out rather slowly, to let you get the hang of it. If you have been here before, you know what comes next. We all partner up go over the basic stretches, as a warm up. Grab someone, preferably a new person with an older member. And we’ll get started shortly.”
Though he hadn’t so much as glanced at me during his introduction, the second people began breaking up around us, he headed straight for me. The way he wove around the crowd and kept a steady gaze in my direction told me he must have noticed where I was standing earlier, maybe while he was walking down the hill. For whatever reason, this made my heartbeat increase and a sickening delight spread through me.
Liam followed after him, eyes locked on Zayn with an amused expression.
“Heard about the change in life. Good for you. Mind being my partner?”
Zayn shrugged, distinctly uncomfortable.
“It’s whatever. I don’t care.”
They moved off as Harry stood in front of me, lips parted in the beginning of a smile. His chipped tooth was just visible.
“You made it.”
“So I did.” I shrugged, just like Zayn had, and cursed myself for being around him enough to pick up his little habits. “I didn’t know you were the instructor. I thought you just attended the class.”
“I used to, until we lost our old teacher. Now I do it. We hate to charge people for this sort of thing though, so I mostly just take tips.”
“Fair enough. Well go on. Teach me, Styles.”
So he did, entering a strangely calm and patient demeanor that I myself had adopted when teaching him how to skateboard. He showed me basics before diving into standard poses, most named after animals such as crane, dog, and dolphin. He also explained the meaning of each, how they required focus and breathing and were not simply moving your body from one position to another.
“You let that peace of mind flow to your limbs, and the next time you walk, it will be with ease.”
“You’ve never sounded more like a hippie. But I’ve got a grand question.”
Our heads were close as he demonstrated a downward dog pose; the girls fawning over him earlier were all craned to stare at his butt. Lucky girls.
“Ask away,” Harry replied, his lips tauntingly close.
“Yoga gives you a clear mind and is supposed to make you graceful and cat like and all that great stuff. So why the hell can’t you stay on a skate board?”
“I can,” he protested. “I wasn’t so great a few months ago, but then I really devoted myself to yoga, and I got a little better. It’s fast paced things like running and, well, skateboarding, that really get me though.”
“You call last night’s mess a little better?”
“Well,” Harry said off-handedly, rolling upward, “I might have been a little more clumsy than usual in hopes that I would see Bart’s new employee. Word on the street is that he’s hot.”
“I’ve heard the same.” I mirrored the newest pose-the half-moon.
“He has a lovely arse. But again, that’s just the gossip.” Whether Harry was red from being so bold or from the blood rushing to his face, I didn’t know. I didn’t care. He was flirting with me, for fuck’s sake.
“Someone was telling me about how hot the yoga instructor was,” I replied, trying to match his cheekiness. “He doesn’t seem to be my type, though.”
“You’d be surprised,” Harry answered, righting himself. His eyes flitted over my body, blatantly checking me out. I almost crossed my arms over my stomach, an old and embarrassing habit, but I forced myself to remain still and soak in the obvious appreciation in his eyes.
“I think it’s time to start class. Stick around afterwards, okay? I want to ask you something.”
The moment he slipped away, I wanted him back. I’d heard about this instant maddening attraction my entire life. I knew that everyone singing about instant attraction and dedicating movies to it weren’t all insane, but for me? I never thought it would happen.
People see things like this all the time, miracles and disasters. Yes car wrecks and plane crashes and your friends dying are terrible but they don’t happen to you. Miracles like long lost parents returning with an explanation besides them being sorry as hell and finding a lottery ticket and winning the whole damn thing happened, but not to me. Good things never happened to me.
And then the most disastrous miracle of all happened; I really cared about someone. Now I might be the crazy one, for liking Harry, for caring about him in such a short time, but the whole point of finding someone that makes you feel so alive is that you can’t remember what you did without them.
With Harry Styles, I had just stepped into a pool and found it much deeper than I thought. I didn’t ask for this, really. But I was already under.
“You’re making me sick with your love struck stares,” the bald-headed girl from beside me said. She giggled as Harry shot a playful glare her way. Despite my earlier decision of liking her, I couldn’t help but stiffen as she winked at him, and his grin grew.
“I’ll try to stop,” I said as evenly as possible.
I did, by the way. I tried not to watch the way his muscles worked underneath his skin, or how his eyes would skim over the crowd but stop at me. I tried not to dwell on his soft smile, the dimples that dipped into the hollows of his pink cheeks, or the way his voice hummed like a lullaby over our own private space in the world.
But I shouldn’t have had to try to stop caring about him in the first place. If I wanted to stare at him, why shouldn’t I be able to?
“You like him,” the girl beside me whispered, near the end of the session, and her smug tone had me on edge.
I wondered when people would stop pointing out what I was well aware of.
Before I could think of a remark, Harry ended the class without much grandeur and headed straight towards me.
“Hello, darling. Good to see you here.”
For a second I thought he was talking to me and my heart stuttered, but then he drew in the girl for a hug, his arms not quite grasping her but more so hovering above her skin, as if she were a breakable figure.
“I’m glad I got out. The sun feels really nice you know, even though I’ve been a total vampire lately. Will you show for dinner tonight?”
“Of course I will,” Harry cried, as if offended, he placed one of his hands on his chest. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
Watching their exchange, I felt both annoyed and awkward. How many girls did Harry go to dinner with? Okay, so I didn’t need to be jealous over a young cancer survivor, especially not this one. In fact, I shouldn’t be jealous over anyone that acknowledged Harry. I didn’t have any claim to him, right?
Just as I was backing away, thinking I could chat with him later (and work back up the nerve to consider asking him out), he reached out and grabbed my hand.
Without breaking his gaze away from the girl, he tugged me back towards him, smile growing wide.
“I’m also really glad you showed, because I wanted you to meet Louis.”
“Louis?!” The girl placed her hands over her mouth and squealed. “I’ve heard more about you in three days than I have heard Harry speak of anyone. Oh, this is so exciting. You must come to dinner tonight!”
My name in her mouth twisted at my gut. I had to remind myself to breathe, in and out.
So what if Harry mentioned me to the girl?
“But…” I turned to Harry, puzzled. Did he really want two dates? I already knew I would step out of my comfort zone for the bastard, but an open relationship might be too much.
“Oh, right,” Harry laughed, a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “You must not have been introduced properly. Lou, this is my sister, Gemma.”
Sister. Oh fuck. No. She couldn’t be.
“Nice to meet you Gemma,” I managed. How could I have been so stupid? I guess anyone who didn’t know better would think they looked alike. Somehow, they had the same eyes.
“Nice to meet you! Do those lip rings get in the way when you eat?”
“I guess you’ll find out tonight,” I said, recovering quickly enough.
I needed to get it together. I could sleep when I got home, wake up, shower, and be good as new. And my mind wouldn’t be so frazzled.
“Don’t worry about Mom,” Gemma went on, stooping to pick up her yoga mat. “She doesn’t care about tattoos or anything. As long as you aren’t a murder, or ya know, a drug dealer, she’s gonna love you. And Harry offered to cook, thank God. I’ve missed his specialty dishes these past few weeks.”
Harry stiffened beside me at the drug dealer part, but I merely smiled and shrugged.
“I’m not going to confirm or deny ever being any of the listed.”
Harry let out a light sigh of relief when she laughed and moved away, to join a small group of hippie girls in a circle. When she approached, they expanded their circle to leave just enough room for her, all in synch as if they had been waiting for her the whole time. Seeing her with such loyal friend made me irrationally happy.
“Sorry about her…she’s full of it.”
“So you haven’t been mentioning me to your family members?”
I lifted my chin and waited with a suppressed smile as a blush crept up his neck.
“Maybe a little. They already know I don’t have a certain preference in who I…erm…date. But, I mean, it’s not like we’re dating. So…you don’t have to come to dinner.”
“Oh but I want to. It should be fun. We don’t have to be committed to one another to eat in the same room, do we?”
“No, of course not.” I swear there was disappointment in his eyes. “But it will be nice having you. I don’t bring many people home.”
“Really? Not even darling Clara?” I asked, aiming for an aloof tone, but my irritation bested me.
“Clara?” Harry scratched at his hair, skewing the flower crown. “She isn’t darling anything to me. Didn’t you just say that it doesn’t mean anything to eat in the same room?”
“She likes you. A lot. But you’re too sweet to realize it and even if you were you wouldn’t turn her down.”
“She likes me?” Harry asked, with all the confusion of an eight year old being tossed a ‘do you like me? Check yes or no’ note. “Are you sure? But I don’t like her.”
“But when she asks you to go have dinner with her, what does it sound like?” I asked, patiently. Around us, almost everyone had moved off. Niall was giving a few pointers to an older lady. Zayn and Liam were deep in conversation, sitting on one of the old park benches and laughing, more at ease with each other than an hour earlier.
I wanted to be anywhere with Harry but here, explaining something so mediocre.
“It sounds like we’re going on a date of some sort.” The realization dawned on Harry’s face, and I had to fight the urge to both roll my eyes and sigh over how adorable he was, even when he was being stupid.
“But I don’t want to be on a date with her,” Harry protested. “I would have asked her to my house and cooked for her.”
“You just asked me to your house,” I pointed out. “And didn’t Gemma say you offered to cook?”
Harry peered down at our still-joined hands with another bout of realization. This idiot would be the death of me.
“Yeah…I guess we’re going on a date?”
“I guess we are.”
“All that falls once stood,” he said randomly, after a moment of companionable silence. It took me a good five seconds of confusion to realize what he was referring to.
“And all the falls must rise again, or it shall never have existed,” I concluded, my own eyes locking onto the phrase tattooed on the underside of arm.
“What does that mean?” Harry asked.
He touched the tattoo lightly, only to jerk his hand away as if it had burned him.
“It’s…confusing. We’ll just say it came from a very sad story.”
“But it means something to you?”
“Oh yes. It means a lot.”
“Will you tell me about it?” He squeezed my hand, not quite distracting me from the vulnerable edge to his voice. Did he think I would snap at him, tell him to mind his own business? I had before, to strangers judging me, to mothers glaring at me in the grocery store.
“Stick around, Giraffe. I just might,” I eventually said. It was the first time I had (almost) agreed to tell my stories to anyone besides the lads.
Zayn waltzed up, a lazy smile gracing his face as he took in mine and Harry’s entwined hands.
“Sorry, but we need to get going. Much sleeping to do, much scavenging for dinner money to take care of afterwards. Nice session, though. Learned a lot.”
“Thanks,” harry replied, blatantly flattered and missing the underlying sarcasm. “That means a lot. I’ll see you tonight then, Lou?”
He squeezed my hand one last time and walked away without waiting for my answer.
“I suppose you’ll be in the bathroom for hours tonight fixing up your hair?” Zayn snatched my arm and drug me away, setting us on the course for home. “And guess what? We won’t be saving you any of our shitty food.”
“Good. I didn’t want the shitty food anyway. And you didn’t have to be rude about the class; Harry really loves teaching the class.”
“I was only half-joking. It wasn’t all bad. And you do too want our shit food. And we can take your cut and put it towards the Farewell to summer carnival. It’s coming up fast, you know.”
“I know. Everything is.” He let my arm go, humming in agreement, and the conversation should have ended there, but I wanted to pursue it. “No, really. Ask me what we were doing a month ago. In detail.”
“We woke up around eight o’clock at night, showered and ate or whatever, then we went out on our drug runs and partied or whatever. On days where we all sold our stashes, we would sometimes see a movie or go for drinks or maybe go bowling. We were living the same life as everyone else, Louis. We worked, and then we had fun when we could. What are you getting at?”
“Ask me what we were doing a week ago,” I pressed, avoiding his eyes.
“We….” He opened his mouth and closed it, troubled. “The same thing I guess. Why does it matter?”
“Think about how fast things just changed. We’re out in the daylight, attending a yoga class. Socializing with relatively normal people. Things just…changed.”
“You’re starting to sound like one of them.” He turned to look over his shoulder, grimacing. “But I admit it. They aren’t so bad. Despite what Reggie says.”
“I think Reggie is wrong about them. He just let one person ruin everything.”
Zayn threw his arm around my shoulder, drawing me closer and rubbing his fist against my head.
“Look at you, being all wise. I thought the sass master wasn’t capable of such a thing.”
“Sass and wit are cousins.”
“And you’re an idiot.”
As we neared home, he cleared his throat, a habit he had when nervous.
“Liam’s a nice guy.”
“He is, from what I know,” I agreed, confused at the subject change. Then I looked to him and found a certain kind of misery in his eyes that I hadn’t seen for a long while. “Ah, hell, Zayn. Do you like him?”
“No! Not ever. You couldn’t pay me to like one of those flower bastards. But he’s nice, yeah? And him and Niall seem very cozy?”
“They do,” I agreed, dragging the end out like a question. “Cozy as a porcupine and an eel.”
“What?” Zayn gave a short half-laugh involuntarily. “What kind of an analogy was that?”
“Mine!” I hooked my arm through his and bumped him with my shoulder, trying to keep the smile on his face. “And it was so infuriatingly clever that I understand if you require a few hours in the bathroom to ponder the wonder of it. But I do need it an hour prior to my…well…’spose it’s a date.”
He shook his head, trying to be stern, but broke out in laughter a moment later. Everything was great in that moment, exactly as it was. Normally I feared losing these brief times of contentment, but for once I had hope that if things were to change, they would only get better.
“Black skinny jeans, for sure.”
Reggie pulled them from our pile of stuff, examining the wrinkles in them with a scowl.
“Regardless of that, you will rock them. They make your butt look out of this world. Even more than usual, that is.”
“What are you lads doing tonight?” I asked, accepting the black jeans that were thrown my way. I trusted Reggie’s fashion sense. He was by far the straightest gay guy I’d ever known, and despite his prior hesitation, once I told him every detail about Harry I could without spewing out enough mush for a teen romance novel, he was on board to help me wade through the most choppy waters I’d ever faced; what to wear on the first date.
“Working,” Luca said from the couch. He and Harvey were putting a puzzle of puppies and kittens together, but it was one of those puzzles with at least 10,000 pieces, so the clearest thing I saw was the eye of puppy. “Suppose we are going to have to get used to that. Did you get off tonight for this date?”
“Nah,” I said, trying not to feel sick at the word date, not because I wasn’t excited, but because I my stomach had tied itself into thick knots of nerves and anticipation. “I’m going after. I start about 8.”
“I’ll see you there!” Harvey proclaimed, excited. He picked up a few pieces and studied them before tossing them down with a huff of annoyance. “I can’t find the black puppy’s tail. If we don’t get that part finished before work…”
“We will,” Luca soothed, his rich voice soothing, kind of like a late night radio deejays. “You just need to practice patience, Gingy.”
From the kitchen, Zayn emerged, eating a bowl of Cheerios with a bored expression.
“Do you need any flirting tips?”
“No, Zayn. I think I can manage well enough. This isn’t my first date ever.”
“It’s your first in a long time,” Harvey pointed out, rather sensibly. “Just don’t be nervous.”
“And cut back on the curse words,” Reggie added, digging through the pile of shirts. The only way they were discernible was my size small and Luca’s extra-large. Even then, we made do for the most part. Luca couldn’t fit my shirts, but everyone else’s worked just fine.
“I can’t believe I’m helping impress one of them,” he added as an afterthought. “Just don’t blow it, or I’ll be pissed. Oh, and this is the one.”
Without looking my way, he threw a dark red sweater my way, one that hugged my biceps but didn’t cling to the slight roll of fat on my stomach that I had always been so sensitive about.
“Is it not hot out there?” I asked, thinking it a sensible enough question that didn’t deserve the look of irritation Reggie presented.
“It cooled off while you slept. Now, your red Vans or your red toms would both work And rolls the sleeves up to flaunt the tattoos. She might as well know what her son’s getting into. Literally.”
“Christ, Reggie!” I felt my face go hot as Zayn spat out his cereal and sputtered with laughter. Luca did his best to be mature, but even he cracked a smile.
“Oh I assure you, Christ has nothing to do with this. This is a controlled bad boy look. Leave the eyebrow ring and snakebites in though. You’d look freaky without them.”
I changed in the bathroom, patting at my feathery hair and tugging on the hem of my sweater, trying to assure myself I looked okay, that it shouldn’t matter anyway, but it did. It all mattered, and I hated that. Even as a child, no matter how much I liked to stand out, I was scared of people judging me, tearing away the balance I had found in myself. And no matter what people said, no matter how many roses I received on Valentine’s Day or innovations to dances, I couldn’t find myself comfortable in my own skin. So I rebuilt it with ink and stories and pictures of life and promises and memories. My mind flooded my physical being.
It started simply, with a single tattoo of a raven taking flight between my shoulder blades.
One tattoo turned into a sleeve, and soon I had a quarter sleeve on my other, as well as ankle tattoos, and rib tattoos, and countless others. I couldn’t love what lay beneath the ink, so I hated covering it up.
When I finally gave up on my hair, I rolled the sleeves of the sweater up, the tattoos a welcome sight. If anything, they distracted people from the areas I was more sensitive towards.
Before I could chicken out or spend another prolonged amount of time fussing over myself, I went outside and grabbed my skateboard, reciting the directions to Harry’s mother’s house in my head. We all knew the area well enough, and didn’t mind walking, but it was about time we chipped some money towards getting the car fixed.
“Have fun!” Harvey called, his voice causing me to jump. He was hanging from the open window.
“Practice safe sex!” Zayn tacked on from somewhere inside, snickering.
“You can’t see me but I’m giving you the precious gift of the middle finger!” I yelled back.
The neighborhood gave way to the central part of town, where restaurants and clubs flourished, along with the assorted expectants of a normal place; doctor’s office, a pet store, and a formal wear store where every girl purchased her prom dress and every boy bitched about renting their suits.
Harry’s mother lived in the quainter part of the town, with wrought iron gates and various flowers lining the Technicolor sidewalks. Her home might have been the same as the rest, if it weren’t for the ceramic cats lining the porch. I recited the address in my head, just in case, but one look and I knew that I’d found the place.
To affirm this, Gemma bounced onto the porch, wearing a pink sundress and a yellow bandanna around her head. Her eyes zeroed in on me, from my hand resting uncertainly on the latch of the gate to my lip rings.
“Woooooow! You look hot. Harry’s going to lose it.”
“Get in the house!” Harry said from behind her. He emerged, his annoyance thinly veiled at best. “You’re going to scare him away.”
“I’ve been through more frightening things, Giraffe. I swear.”
Her words had a paralyzing effect on me. She had been through some terrible shit.
I unlatched the gate and stepped through, noting the overgrown grass as I walked. My line of work taught me to read people. Harry’s mother either had a severe lack of a man in her life, or Gemma’s condition had been rough in the last few weeks and distracted any male figure (such as Harry) from cutting the grass. Or, if she cut the grass herself as my mother had, she was too pained to do so.
“Ignore her, please. And pretend the cat statues don’t exist.”
I watched as Harry shifted his weight from one foot to the other and nervously wrung his hands. Tonight, he wore tight jeans and a peach shirt with flower designs on it, and though I would never say it out loud, I was almost positive it had come from the girls department. The flower crown was still in his hair.
“I like cats, I guess. If that’s what you’re into, that is.”
“I love cats,” Harry said, almost reluctantly.
At the foot of the steps, I paused and looked up at him, how he towered above me but still came off as being a small person. Sure, I had my insecurities, and my height was pathetic at best, but I had learned to be strong. Luca taught me how to fight, from his years on the boxing team at his school. Harvey had taught basic defense and such at the campgrounds, though I had no clue what any of it had to do with camping. No wild creatures were going to be trying to start a wrestling match.
And Zayn and I had been fighting since we could swing our arms with enough precision to actually hit each other.
I was strong physically, if not emotionally. I wondered if the opposite were true for Harry.
“Do you want to come in?” Harry asked, when I made no move to do so. He shifted again, all signs of confidence from the yoga session gone.
“No, I thought we’d eat on the roof.”
His head jerked upward, eyes wide.
“Joking! I’m joking. Yes, I would love to come in.” When he didn’t show any signs of loosening up, I added, “In fact, the only thing I would like more is to have tickets to see The Fray.”
“The Fray?” he groped behind him before finding the handle of the front door. He opened it and waited for me to go through first before following.
“What’s wrong with The Fray?”
“Nothing! It just seems so…tame. Compared to the bands I would have guessed as your favorite.”
His eyes swept over my arms pointedly.
“Then what’s your favorite?”
“Of course it is. Why am I not surprised?”
“Elvis is a close second,” he said, meekly attempting to sound irritated. The poor boy obviously couldn’t act.
“Again, no surprise. You’re predictable, Curly. But that’s okay.”
He smiled brightly before taking the lead towards a cheery kitchen with walls painted a soft and subtl green that locked in the wonderful smells of flood slow cooking. In front of the stove, a woman poked timidly at a stirring spoon.
“There you are!” The woman, who must have been Harry’s mom, threw her hands up with exasperation. “Gemma said you ran off and I had to stir this mess. You call this pasta?”
“You’re used to your blackened pasta, Mum. This pasta will actually taste good, eh?
Harry’s mom was pretty in a timeless way, with a lean frame and dimples to match her son’s. When she saw me, her playful tone changed to one of open delight and excitement.
“You must be Louis! I’m Anne, sweetheart. Oh, Harry, he’s so handsome!”
She made quick work of wiping her hands on a dish towel before hurrying over to me, arms outstretched. Awkwardly, I returned her hug, thinking the last time I had embraced anyone had been a prostitute and that might not bode over well as far as first impressions go.
“Muuuuum!” Harry whined from behind her. “Did you and Gemma make a pact to embarrass me tonight?”
“Of course not,” she cried, whipping around-and taking me with her-so that she could glare at her son. “I’m just excited that you brought a handsome man home. Is that a crime?”
Before Harry could, undoubtedly, agree, a loud raucous ensued from the front door, and then the rest of his hippie gang poured in with Niall leading the pack, swinging Gemma around in his arms.
“Liam, Niall, Gemma I already kissed you this morning but I will again, and Donald.”
She kissed each person as she said their name, Gemma squealing as Niall tickled her sides. Harry merely looked pained at the sight of them.
“What are you lads doing here?” he demanded.
His group finally turned to acknowledge him, with only Liam’s face expressing a slight bit of shame.
“Harry, welcome them!” Anne said, aghast at her son’s rudeness.
“Gemma mentioned a family dinner to us,” the hippie named Donald said. He happened to be the same one from the park the other night, the one Zayn hated most, the one I thought might have been a bit too protective of Harry.
“We are family after all!”
Niall sat Gemma down and took Liam’s hand, swinging it back and forth to emphasize the point. All their shirts had either peace signs or flower designs, and again they had the flower crowns.
I had to ask about those, like when they took the time to make fresh ones every day or why they even bothered.
“I didn’t make enough to control Niall’s appetite,” Harry protested meekly.
“We didn’t expect you to do something so impossible,” Liam teased. “Now sit down and let’s eat!”
They all rushed the table, Donald pulling chairs from the corner of the room while Harry watched on with an expression halfway between amused and annoyed. But from what I knew of Harry, he couldn’t be truly annoyed at anyone, especially his friends, so he turned to the stove with a shake of his head and began making two plates while his friends quizzed me in a typical brotherly way. Except Donald, who watched with a surly pout.
“Have you always grown up here?” Liam asked, leaning so that his elbows were on the table.
“For as long as I can remember. I went to secondary school until I got out at sixteen, played some football, then tried a few careers, but nothing clicked.”
“Do tattoos hurt?” Niall asked, seriously. He’d been the most reserved towards me, but maybe I was winning him over.
“Some spots do, yeah. But I think they’re worth it.”
I kept my chin up as all of them, even Donald, peered at my forearms.
“What do you do for a living?” Donald finally asked, leaning back and turning his stare over my shoulder to Harry and Anne.
“I work at Bart’s Clothing right now, you know, in the Night Life Skate Park.”
“No, I meant the other thing.”
The sound of silverware clattering to the floor interrupted us.
“Harry! Pick up those forks. For pity’s sake, Niall is about to eat the end of the table and you’re dillydallying.”
“Sorry, Mum.” Harry’s ears were red.
Donald, thankfully, did not pursue the rest of the conversation, instead shrugging and shoveling food into his mouth from the moment Anne placed it in front of him. I turned, feeling excruciatingly out of place, and found Harry holding a plate out for me.
“They’re done with the interview, if you want to go now.”
“Go where?” Donald asked around a mouthful of pasta.
“We’re eating on the roof,” Harry said, matter factually, and he set off through the nearest doorway without looking back to see if I followed. Which, of course, I did. He led the way through a living room with overstuffed couches and up a set of stairs with more ceramic cat figures placed on each step. Plants hung from the ceiling, from ferns to actual flowers spilling over the plastic pots. As a result, dried petals littered the floor.
We turned left once upstairs, and into a bedroom that was unmistakably once Harry’s. For one, it smelled faintly of him, with his mingled scent of the ocean and flowers, and another give away was the music posters hung everywhere, faded and peeling at the corners. A fat tabby cat curled up on his bed, its whiskers twitching as Harry placed his plate on his nightstand and proceeded to pry open the window.
“What’s the cat’s name?” I asked, moving to pet him.
“John.” Harry grunted as the window finally slid open. Downstairs, Liam was screaming at Niall over something, while Gemma’s giggled drifted up through the floors. But as much as I liked them-save for maybe Donald-I wanted to be alone with Harry.
Even though he was stupid enough to name his cat John.
“As in John Lennon?” I guessed, rightly.
“Well of course. I had a black cat named Elvis. Meanest bugger ever, but I loved her anyway.”
Harry nodded before crawling through the window and onto the flat leveling of roof that looked down into an overgrown yard. In the middle, hanging from an old tree with knobby limbs, was a wooden porch swing. The effect of the flowers and weeds curling around it was almost timeless, and a little sad. Had Harry and Gemma played on that swing, before her cancer? Or had she been the type to not cling to her childhood because of everything surrounding her life?
“Hand me my plate, would ya? And give me yours, I can go ahead and sit it out here for you.”
“You know I was joking out there about eating on the roof.”
But I obeyed after shaking off the last of my doubts, and joined him outside. At first, we ate in silence. This would be the first time we were entirely alone with each other, and the sensation was new, the ground uneasy beneath us. But soon we found that the silence was not necessarily awkward, but sweet in its opportunities. Anything could be said right then, any question asked, and something about that felt precious.
When the fireflies began floating up through the tangled jungle beneath us, Harry set aside his now empty plate and moved closer to me.
“Putting the moves on me?” I joked.
“No, just getting ready for my own questionnaire.”
“Oh, have mercy. What deep and wonderful questions have you prepared for the occasion?”
“Will you go to prom with me?”
Harry said in a rush, and once the words were out he bit down on his lip with a determined look that challenged me to laugh.
“Prom? That dance near the end of your school days? Isn’t that kind of formal? And a bit off?”
“Yeah, but by then I’ll be 18 and ready to leave. I can work in Mum’s bakery for a bit longer and then get started at Uni.”
“A bakery?” I bumped his knee with my own, widening my grin. “How sweet. Just what I’d expect from you, Cupcake.”
“Again with the pet names. How many more are you going to come up with?” Harry asked, seemingly pleased by the prospect.
“As many as you can possibly imagine. I think I get the right to annoy you if I’ll be attending…” I scrunched my nose up at the word, “….prom.”
Despite my face, he brightened, straightening up and leaning even closer to me, so that I could smell the remnants of dinner on his breath.
Prying my eyes from his lips, I took to his eyes and found them just as frustratingly attractive.
“Yeah, I’m going to your damn prom. But you owe me. Something really big. Roughly to the proportion of either buying me a Lamborghini or making more of this wonderful pasta. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and insist on the car.”
He threw back his head and laughed, so that it echoed through the streets below and became lost in ensnares of grass and hidden flowers. I hated how much his laughter enthralled me, how it put me so at ease. But I loved it more than I could ever despise it.
“I’ll see what I can do. Say, do you mind if we stay up here? Just until you have to work?”
“Sure, Hazza. Anything you want.”
“That makes four names,” he said, with a grin that surely must have been painful to accomplish.
He reclined, putting one hand behind his head and taking mine with his other. Before long, I joined him, pressing close to his side and watching his chest rise and fall, admiring the way the fabric clung to him. The way a certain happiness clung to him.
“Who’s counting?” I asked. Though I thought it was too late for him to remember what we were speaking of prior, he smiled again. Not the face pinching kind, but the in the way that told me he was thinking of something, something that made his heart beat beneath our tangled fingertips.
“Me. I have been since we met.”
“And now we’re on a date.” As I let that sink in, he turned his head to me, our lips impossibly close. There was nothing left for us to do but kiss.
“How did that happen?” he pondered, breath teasing me. “I know I’m not your type. You know I’m not yours.”
“Not your type? How could infuriatingly handsome not be anyone’s type?” I demanded.
“You know what I mean,” he said, now a little sad. “I thought I would just pack it up and be asking Donald to the dance before much longer. I was going to ask him that night at the park, but then you show up…under circumstances I hate thinking of, and I couldn’t stop thinking of you. It was stupid, really, to like someone so much so fast, but then I just decided I liked being near you. Isn’t that all that matters?”
“Of course,” I replied quickly, my eyes fixated on his lips. Now would be a good moment to kiss him, I knew, but his expression had turned so vulnerable it would feel like a thievery. Instead I wiggled even closer, sealing off the opportunity for a kiss in turn of him burying his head into the crook of my neck. The feel of his soft hair and the scratching of the flower petals weren’t as desirable, but he was close, right?
“I suppose it works. But you should know that my career on the streets as a both the biggest and baddest smart ass is now tarnished.”
“Sorry,” Harry replied, genuinely so. Just like him to care so much about something so silly.
“You’re worth it.”
He was, after all, but him saying something about Donald bothered me, more than any girl flirting with him had. Donald, Liam, and Niall were Harry’s family, but I’d known from day one that Donald had an uncanny interest in Harry, and Harry had, more or less, been aware of that. What would have happened if I’d listened to Luca that day and let Zayn go sell on his own? Would Donald be sitting with him on the roof, holding his hand and thinking how messed up but wonderful the whole situation was?
“That’s good to know. I’ve been kind of worried. So you’ve been interviewed. Anything you want to hear about me?”
‘Everything,’ I thought.
“Whatever you want to share,” I said aloud. “Tell me something you want me to know about you. I’ll listen if you talk.”
Something changed in his posture. His shoulders became stiff against my chest, and his lips brushed over my skin as they formed a frown. Then, he poured out in a rush, “I’msoscaredforGemma.”
He took a quivering gasp of air before burrowing further into my neck, as if trying to hide from what he’d just said.
“Why, Hazz? She’s in remission, right? And she came to yoga today, which is such a good sign.”
Maybe I was reassuring myself as well as him.
“I know, I know.” To my alarm, I felt a tear on my neck. Dammit all, he was crying. How the hell did I comfort someone who was crying?
Like the genius I was, I managed to sputter out, “Oh no, please don’t cry.”
“I’m not!” he insisted, crying harder. “I’ve just had no one to talk to about this. Mum would lose it and Niall and Liam are so busy with each other-oh that came out wrong. And Donald would pester me about it until I wanted to strangle him-“
“Now that’s my hippie,” I crowed. “Typical peace loving bastard, threatening to strangle his best friends.”
“You curse too much,” he hiccupped. He was giving me an out, letting me know he had breached sensitive ground and I could back away and let it be if I wanted. But if Harry wanted to discuss Gemma, I would listen.
“Why are you scared for her?” I prompted.
“She’s-well.” With a deep gulp, and tilted his head, so that his words were not as muffled by my sweater.
“She’s…adopted,” he finished lamely.
I said nothing in return, thought it best to keep my mouth shut, and he mercifully goes on.
“We know she had this family, not parents but like an aunt and an uncle who didn’t want her, and mum worked at the hospital and volunteered first when she heard. But she was already older-like 13- and she got her cancer the next year. It just really sucked, that I got this great sister and we shared this immediate bond right off and then the rest of our time together is tragedy. That can’t be how it’s supposed to work.”
“But she’s getting better, right?” I soothed him, rubbing circles into his back.
“The doctors talked to Mum and me, just last week. They told us that she was in danger of regressing and that we didn’t need to get out hopes up. I don’t know what to do. My little sister went from playing with dolls to having to learn an extensive medical vocabulary just to keep up with the chances of her living or dying. It’s so unfair, and the bills are killing us. I’ve been trying to find a third job outside of mowing lawns and Andy’s, but not many places are willing to work around my schedule. I work at the bakery too, just about twice a week, so Mum doesn’t have to hire anyone new. And with fall coming people won’t need me to cut their grass anymore…”
It was a lot to process, and he was hurried, like he could sense me being overwhelmed with the information overload, but I wanted to hear more even though my mind was counting up the hours he worked in my head.
“Jesus, Harry. Do you sleep?”
“Not really, not anymore. I go to school for a better job, and when I get out of school I go to the bakery and help a little until I have to cut grass until around nightfall and then I go to Andy’s until just an hour or so before school starts. And on the weekends I do the yoga classes, and hell I shouldn’t, but Liam and Niall insist I take the tips for the bills. My insomnia was pretty bad before, but now I don’t know if it’s still the reason I don’t sleep. I don’t have time anymore.”
“You don’t sleep when you get home from Andy’s?” I asked, not expecting a yes.
“I do my class work then.”
“Sleep now,” I whispered in his ear. “You obviously aren’t working at all today. So sleep.”
“Today was a rarity and a luxury I can’t afford….” He let out a yawn. “But you’ll be here when I wake up?”
Even then, his eyelashes fluttered close. He had already made up his mind, as had I.
“I will be,” I said, my heart breaking. I hated lying, because it all boiled down to one thing; Harry and I could not be together. I had known that all along, but I’d pursued him anyway. Bumper would call soon, giving us the green light to sell again, and Harry would inevitably find out. The only reason he had bothered asking me on this date at all is because he thought I had broken away from that part of my life. He didn’t know I was lying before we were even something.
I could bring my mess into his heartache, I couldn’t bring the things I did into this cheery home with its plants hanging from the ceilings and the hand stitched quilts. It wouldn’t be fair. And I couldn’t ruin something that he could have between Donald, someone like him, while he was pursuing someone dirty and used like me. Besides, he’d said it himself. He had no time for sleep, so where would I fit in?
I kissed his forehead and hummed my own little tune until his breaths were soft against my own. I had no chance in hell of carrying him anywhere, fighting strength be damned. But when he vaguely woke up a few hours later and stumbled into his bed, he was too out of it to notice that I didn’t join him.
Instead, I slipped out the door, past his friends and mother gathered in the living room, and out the front door.
I prayed I wouldn’t see him again.
I might fall in love with him, or even worse he might love me. And if that were to happen, things wouldn’t work out right.
My track record was already, at best, an abomination. But when Harry got to know me further-the mistakes I had made, the people I had lost because of my stupidity, and the places I used to have to deal with for money…well, I wouldn’t want to put him through something like that. And he needed to spend time with Gemma while he could.
I wouldn’t want the Harry I cared about ripped apart by the cruelty of reality. Let him live his life, in his imperfect bubble and in the warmth of his family’s love. Let him be happy in his home without opening the door and seeing the world was an ugly place and that world was all I had ever known. Let him stay inside and keep his smile, and that way I could keep mine.
When I returned home, Zayn was sitting up in his pallet, tapping his fingernails against the screen of his phone.
27 text messages.
“How did it go?” he asked eagerly. His expression shifted when he saw me clearly.
“You’re not going to talk to him anymore, are you? You’re doing your heroic thing were you let them go so they can find someone sweet and caring because you don’t think you deserve shit.”
“I don’t,” I said, voice breaking. I tend to hide this part away, to keep it buried under and in my inked skin. These are things people do not see, things that people judge so fast that I regret being alive. “And don’t tell me I do. Not after everything I’ve done.”
If I was telling this to anyone else, they would have laughed, but Zayn had been there through it all. He understood.
And, like the truest friend I’ve ever had, he rubbed my back while I sobbed into my frayed pillow. Crying made me feel so pathetic, so weak, but I didn’t know what else to do to get rid of the all-consuming sadness welling in me.
“That’s exactly why you deserve something, Lou.”
Harry did not know where we lived, but I still had to avoid him the last few days I worked. He stopped by the store three times, rough voice asking Bart if I’d been in, and the gruff man would simply say, “Haven’t seen him kid. Sorry.”
When the bell chimed and he left, Bart would look down at me crouching behind the counter and say, “Coward.”
I knew I was. But how fast Harry had opened up to me was alarming. How much I cared and thought about him after such a short time was fucking terrifying. Whatever we had couldn’t carry on, or we’d both be hurt by the crash. Reggie didn’t bitch at me about ruining things like he said he would, and Harvey told me to go ahead and quit at Bart’s so that I could save everyone the heartache.
A week after I left Harry at his home, I told Bart goodbye and took on Luca’s job of sorting out bills and dividing money while the others worked. When I received my first, and only, paycheck, the lads insisted I go get something for me with it.
Kelvin, the tattoo artist who had attended to me since I was seventeen, met with me and tattooed my hands with fancy spades designs and intricate tribal bands leading up to mesh with the rest of my tattoos. Some of my tattoos weren’t even personal. They just were. There were days-much like today-were I just sat down, pointed at a blank patch of skin, and said, “Go for it.”
There was some type of honor in being an artist’s canvas, and Kelvin had never let me down.
Harvey tried, at first, to mention Harry.
“He’s been asking about you, Louis. He’s really hurt and confused. Says he thought you two would be official by now and he doesn’t know where he messed up. Maybe you should…”
“Can it, Harv,” I snapped waspishly. “I’m not talking to him. He’s going to realize what a mistake I was very soon. Then he probably won’t even remember my name.”
Internally, I was burning with agony at the thought of Harry pouting, pestering Harvey and asking about him making mistakes when they were all mine. Of course he would blame himself.
“Okay,” Harvey agreed, albeit reluctantly.
Another couple of weeks passed, until the Farewell to Summer Bash arrived. The carnival came into town, cheap rides and stuffed animals galore. I’d managed to successfully sulk in peace, hardly leaving the home save for some late night grocery runs and going to the movies with the lads.
The day before the carnival, the stench of cotton candy clung to Harvey’s clothes when he returned from his shifts at Andy’s. Harry’s name being blacklisted, he spoke with eager fervor of the rides he had seen going up from the windows, and how the firework wagon had rolled in with the promise of dazzling everyone more than they ever had been in their lives.
“You’re going, right?” Reggie asked, prodding me.
“I guess,” I mumbled. In truth, I’d become a hermit, huddling in the house and staring at numbers on cards, trying to see what we could afford while I rubbed cream on my itching tattoos. In all honesty, my mind had adjusted itself to the silence, to rejecting advances from the few girls I did see when I went out anywhere. All I could think about was how sticky their lip gloss would be, how overwhelming their perfume would be.
The prospect of going to a full blown carnival thriving with people screaming and giggling in my ear would be an unwelcome change to the routine.
Zayn emerged from the bathroom, saving me from answering. He took in the sight of Harvey and Reggie cornering me and Luca reading the paper before clearing his throat.
“Bumper says we should be good by Saturday to start selling again.”
The words had a grand effect on all of us; even Luca flashed his white teeth in one of his rare and honest smiles.
“About time! Why didn’t you tell us sooner, Malik? We’ve been waiting for this news!”
“I wanted to be sure Louis heard it, but the main hold up was walking the distance from the bathroom to here when I got the text message. Maybe it will get Lou out of his funk.”
“Harry still mentions you,” Harvey mumbled, as if unsure of himself.
“HARVEY, DAMMIT ALL.”
Zayn slammed his fist down on our makeshift kitchen table, which folded into itself until it was a flat rectangular slab.
“Go sit in the corner and don’t mention the flower bastard,” Reggie barked.
Harvey dutifully put his hands up in surrender as he backed away and into the corner where we kept all our clothes. There, he sat atop the piles of shirts and jeans, still listening to our conversation but certainly not contributing.
“Sorry, man.” Reggie patted my back, and I flinched.
“Sorry for what? He doesn’t matter.”
No one seemed to believe me.
It was, as you can guess, with great reluctance that I pulled on a torn tank top and ripped jeans and followed them to the beach, skateboard tucked under my arm.
Cloversville was the first thing we learned about in our small history classes at the local school. Our town had been first among the settlers, founded by a chap named Barkley would later swore his name meant he had a past life as a dog before he went raving mad. No one really knew what to think of him, though any scholar will swear he’s a genius. Anyway, when his ship pulled up on the coast and they docked, he hiked up the hill to a spot a few miles from Bart’s and collapsed in a field of clovers.
According to people, but not to the history buffs, everyone thought it strange the particular plant grew so close to the beach, and more so since a majority of the clovers had four leaves.
This was not exactly considered lucky, but instead special. So this chap, Barkley, told his shipmates that he’d found the spot he’d wanted to live. The story is odd, at best, but our town had a mascot, history, and legends all built around Barkley and his obsession with the clovers growing so close to the sand.
The small town, however, still had it’s broken up parts. The magical place that Barkley had boasted of had expanded, the population spilling into broken down neighborhoods and then the better gated communities on the hills, surrounded by, you guessed it, clovers.
All this has to do with why, when we arrived at the carnival, everyone boasted clover themed shirts. The Farewell to Summer Bash marked the time period when Barkley founded our town, and the time period where no one would pick another clover until summer came again. It was all superstitious, but in a rundown town like ours people needed something silly to hold onto.
“I bet the Irish lad loves this,” Zayn whispered in my ear.
“Niall,” I corrected him automatically.
“I know.” Zayn made a face. “I’ve known him before this.”
I jerked my head up to meet his eyes, shocked. I certainly hadn’t known that bit of information.
“Oh look, rides!” Zayn dashed away before I could properly confront him. Disgruntled, I shoved my hands and my pocket and slipped away from the rest of the group, weaving through a sea of people with green shirts and girls with clovers tucked behind their ears.
A group of drunken men on stage sang Irish jigs, temporarily forgetting we were, mostly, British and not Irish. It worked though, and the crowd sang along, growing louder at the men’s encouragement.
I thought I had found a safe spot to watch something, but I had just settled into the crowd when Niall himself jumped onto the stage, dancing just as you would picture him doing, legs flailing and beer slopping onto his white shirt from a bottle in his hand. My eyes landed on Liam, watching and taking pictures from the side of the stage. No sign of Harry, but it was close enough that I felt the compulsion to leave.
As I maneuvered my way through everyone, hearing the occasional chants of Niall’s name, I was awash by an urgent sense of loneliness. I had friends, friends that were family, but at some point friends didn’t cut it. Not that they were undesirable, and not that they were being pushed aside. But a part of my mind had opened up, filling the empty spots in my life with ‘what if’s’, and I hated that question so much. What if I stopped being stupid and went back and told him I cared about him? Well what if I didn’t? What if it was me and my friends stuck together until we were old and alone?
The worst part of those what if’s is when you know the answer.
There were answers that could not be brought into my small part of reality. My loneliness would have to take a backseat, and Harry would have to go on with his life and that would be okay. We had, at best, a small mutual crush on one another. It wasn’t like I was saying goodbye to him as I had my mother and sisters.
But the ache was so acutely different. I had lost a plethora of ‘what if’s’ when I walked away from him, and even if I knew the ending, the middle of the story is what I’d always treasured most. That’s when things happened, when a crossroads hadn’t been reached yet. To have a happy ending, or not? Who cared. It would end no matter what. But the middle of the story could be anything. It could contain a million emotions and possibilities and the lines between those what if’s and reality blurred.
I was convincing myself that the ending did matter when I walked away from the flashing lights and the distant calls, as I walked down the hill towards the beach and saw two figures sitting together on the sand. Just as I was turning away to give them privacy, one of them turned in my direction.
Bloody hell it would be just my luck. I spun on heel and made to run.
“No, Lou, don’t go away!”
Harry stood, just as breathtaking as he had been a few weeks ago. The vague image of him in my mind renewed itself, leaving all his details sharp on my eyelids: His shiny curls, his almost impossibly pink lips, the dimple in his cheek, and that fucking disgustingly cute chip in his tooth.
He was so happy to see me.
The figure sitting beside him, however, looked anything but.
“Hi, Louis,” Donald said, standing and moving to put his arm around Harry with obvious possessiveness. To my mingled delight and horror, Harry shook him off with a shrug and skipped to me. He grabbed one of my hands in both his, and kissed our mingled fingertips.
“You aren’t mad at me?” I asked, almost desperately.
‘For fuck’s sake, please be mad at me; tell me I’m an ass and that you can never forgive me,’ I thought.
Surprise. He didn’t listen.
“No! I know we were moving a bit too fast, I guess. But I’m sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have talked to you about such things so quick, or have forced you to meet my mum so soon.”
“No, no. I loved her. I loved hearing you talk. I mean, I guess it was tolerable,” I amended.
He laughed, until the sound had floated away, over the waves and swallowed into the water.
“Come sit with us.”
Donald didn’t look excited at the prospect.
“I’m going to find Niall and Liam,” he told Harry, pained. “You can come if you want.”
“I’ll be here,” Harry said without missing a beat.
I fought to keep the satisfied smirk off my face as he scowled and trudged up the slope and into the bustling crowd. After he left, Harry tugged me to the ground with him before releasing my hand. I couldn’t help but be disappointed, even after all the grief I had put us both through on what Zayn called ‘my quest to save us both from myself’.
I’d expected him to be a normal human being and be angry, so that it would be a little easier to walk away.
I couldn’t help how intoxicating he was, how his face lighting up made my insides squirm and how I hadn’t wanted to kiss or fuck anyone since I’d met him, and even Harvey had been laid lately. I couldn’t help that two weeks of telling myself he didn’t matter and he didn’t care as much as I didn’t care all went down the drain when he said, “I missed you.”
“You don’t know me,” I protested.
“I do. I know that you’re here, and I’m not letting you escape again. I don’t think I could go through missing you like I have.”
“You aren’t mad?” I peeked at him through the fringe of my bangs, but his expression had not changed from his face-splitting smile.
“No! Like I said, I just figured you needed space. I mean, I was upset and stuff, yeah. But I didn’t plan on giving up on you that easy. I told Harvey I’d give you another week to cool off from whatever I’d done to upset you and then I’d try to talk to you again.”
“You didn’t do anything,” I all but screamed at him. He hadn’t, after all, done anything but make me feel more than I had in years. Enough that I had dreams again instead of smelling smoke and hearing the crunch of metal in my nightmares. I didn’t hear my sisters crying or my mother demanding I cared for them on her deathbed.
I had dreams again, and that in itself was such a monumental shift in my life that I could never forget Harry on that basis alone. But now I dreamed and smiled and laughed in a way that I felt in my stomach, in a way that made me smile even hours later. Or at least, I had before I walked away from him.
The term attraction could never have been used so literally. I was drawn to him, almost magnetically, to his energy and his smile, and how he brought forth a buried sense of peace in me.
“I must have done something,” Harry went on, oblivious to my turmoil. “I always do.” He frowned, as if recalling a bad memory, but breezed on. “But it’s okay. Just consider giving us a chance? If not, I respect that. But I have to warn you; you will never receive personal yoga sessions.”
“That sounds dirty,” I pointed out, finally able to smile and mean it.
He blushed but poked his lip out.
“Don’t corrupt me.”
“What? It’s not like you’re a virgin. Not a guy that looks like you, with all your charm on top of that.”
I laughed when he didn’t answer.
“You’ve never been with anyone.”
“I’ve been waiting for the right person,” he said, crossing his arms and turning his head away, feigning anger. Despite the facade, his lips were twitching in an almost-smile.
“Have you ever been kissed?” I asked, dubious.
“Yes, a few times,” he answered, not convincingly.
“You’re a liar,” I breathed, and I don’t know if he was about that kissing part (I sincerely doubt it) but the itch in my fingertips to touch him overtook me, and I gave in to the tension that had been building between us. I grabbed his face, relaxing my hold as he jumped, and turned his face towards me.
“I’m not lying,” he insisted over ragged breaths.
I kissed him. Kissing had always wasted time in my flings. Why kiss when we could be getting the job out of the way? But this was my first kiss that didn’t trail off to something else. Instead, it was just us, our lips molding together perfectly, his sigh slipping into my mouth until I tasted his breath.
The angles of our faces were made to tilt and touch, our noses brushing together in a soft way. When he groaned into me and pressed closer, I had to remind myself that we were just kissing, that’s all I was proving. And he was proving something to me. The kid knew how to kiss. The way he moved his tongue in my mouth was a learned technique, and the way his fingers stroked my hair with light touch felt too good to be real. It couldn’t be his first time. Not for this anyway.
When we finally broke apart, I had to pinch my palm to remind myself to keep it all slow, to not lunge at him again.
“Okay, you aren’t lying,” I breathed. God, those lips.
“I wasn’t,” he replied, cheekily. “But that definitely felt like the first kiss I ever had.”
“How great do you think the second kiss will be?” I asked. My eagerness showed through, but Harry merely laughed and moved until he was almost in my lap. His towering figure, perched on my legs, was breathtaking, bleached in the moonlight that hung just over his head.
No flowers this time, but instead a tie of clovers. Even being as festive as the mass crowd behind us, I still could only imagine seeing him.
“I don’t want to share you with anyone,” I blurted out, mainly speaking of Donald.
“Then don’t,” Harry replied, dipping and nibbling at my neck, sucking and kissing in turn. “But I can’t share you either. Say, what’s that called?”
“A relationship.” I groaned when he stopped, amused. Damn I hated his confident side but it was so sexy I loved it.
“Are we in a relationship?” he asked, touching his pointer finger to his chin in thought. “Because I don’t kiss strangers. What would my mother sa-“
I cut him off by grabbing his face and pulling his lips desperately to mine. Call it what you want. A blind man seeing the sun for the first time, or a mother hearing her baby speak, and child holding a new Christmas toy and knowing that something wonderful had just been given to them.
The feelings I had found in Harry were so raw and new but so wholly precious that the tempo of my heart affirmed I would not be able to go without again.
At least not as a whole and happy person.
My mind cut off as we continued to kiss, but when we emerged from our private bubble, we found that the crowds had thinned. It was that easy to get lost in him, and that scared me as much as it enthralled me. If this was week one, what would say, month on, bring? Year one? Would I become a raving lunatic, completely addicted to the emotions he flooded me with? All I could hope was that caring so much would stop being overwhelming.
“Let’s go find the others, yeah?” Harry asked. “I don’t think we missed the fireworks.”
We found Liam and Niall passed out on stage, having drank too much of the cheap beer Niall had drug along. They were curled in towards one another, not exactly touching, but the sight of them gave me just a little bit of hope.
Harry led the way to the less private part of the beach, where Gemma sat on a town with her head angled towards the sky. I figured she’d be the typical over-protective big sister and forbid me to be near her or Harry, but when he saw us she smiled knowingly and patted the sand beside her. The three of us watched the fireworks burst over the waters, set off from a drifting boat in the distance. The crowd ooed and ahhhhed in just the right moments, but half way through the show I blocked them out and turned my complete attention towards Harry.
I watched the colors light his face and bloom in his eyes. A part of me kept bringing up all my prior reservations towards us dating, but I couldn’t stay away from him know that I’d kissed him. I was hooked.
Near the end, he turned towards me, lips already forming words, maybe to tell me about how lovely the show was. When he caught me already watching, his grin grew and he kissed me softly.
“Glad I can do that whenever I want now.”
I was too.
Zayn and the others found me after the show, standing alone while Harry walked Gemma to her car. When I told them about Harry, they all looked at one another before we collapsed into one of our rare group hugs, rare as Zayn’s phone being silent. A very, very unheard of occurrence, to put it simply.
“We figured when you disappeared,” Harvey said, just a tad smug. “I was ready to bet money on it.”
“It’s just so beautiful.” Reggie wiped at imaginary tears, but even he couldn’t kill my mood. Harry would be taking the drunks home after he saw to Gemma, but I would be going over later, I had promised. He’d left his number with me, in case I needed to contact him through Zayn. It was as they eyed his number on my hand that Luca finally spoke.
“Like Harv said, we figured it would happen. We already let you take a cut and get your knuckle tats, but we wanted to do something else for you, just for the rare occasion of you having positive emotions for someone.”
“Can it, Luca, or I’ll tell everyone they designed a few characters from grand theft auto after you.”
“Oh? I suppose you don’t want this?”
From his jacket, he pulled a tiny cell phone. Just as older of a model as Zayn’s, but a phone nonetheless.
“That’s my favorite game by the way,” I said in a rush, and Luca handed me the phone. As I powered it on and programmed Harry and Zayn’s numbers in-they would be all I had, along with Bumper-Luca lectured me. I should have expected that.
“You’re on a data plan. Do you understand? You can’t send as many texts as you want. You also have limited calling. There’s a number on the log that will tell you how much you have of each. We bought the phone, you buy the phone credit and stuff. Deal?”
I pulled them into another embarrassing group hug and sighed.
“I had no idea tonight would turn out like this. I thought I might see Harry and be miserable for a long while, but for the most part everything would return to normal. This is even better.”
They all shared a smile, and I knew how much they cared right then. No, I’d never had much material wise, but I had always had them to support me. And now, by some weird twist of fate, I had Harry.
I couldn’t wait to kiss him again, and thinking that made me feel giddy to the point where I damn near skipped the way home. Harvey joined me, while Reggie screamed curse words at random animals in our neighbor’s yards and Luca shook his head. Zayn tapped away at his phone.
For once, things were exactly right.
A drop of poison fell into my life.
Bumper called me personally the next night. Now that he knew I had a phone, he would stop bothering Zayn entirely over sales, as he considered me his number one punching bag. After all I owed Zayn, I didn’t dare complain, but Bumper was, essentially, our boss, and a terrifying one at that. He’d always had a mad temper that he tended to take out on me, but lately it had been worse. Needless to say, I dreaded answering the call when his name popped up.
“Green light,” he told me, before I could get a respectful hello out.
“Green light?” I repeated, straightening up on the couch. The lads heard, Harvey dropping his puzzle pieces and standing up with a grin.
“Yes, Louis. Green light. You know where to meet me to pick up this month’s stash. We’ve got the standard set this time around, nothing flashy or designer. You’re going to have to make the drab stuff like weed seem better than ever. And don’t go into any big name places. We got a clear, but I can’t see too far down that road.”
His piece said, he arranged to meet me, the only one besides Zayn who had ever seen him in person, and bring the set back to the others around midnight. By two a.m., we were out. The calls to our workplaces had been made, even though Harvey pouted.
“Can’t we keep both jobs? It’s more money that way. Come on, common sense.”
“We can’t live in both worlds, Harvey,” Luca explained with patience. “It’s too difficult. We make better money from this; no taxes, no waiting for checks, and we have fun making it, even if it doesn’t add up as well as other places. Plus we have more freedom.”
No one mentioned my relationship with Harry, how I had a place in two worlds and I didn’t plan on changing that. What he said made sense though. The lives we had known couldn’t be changed with the flip of a switch. We had grown up around this sort of thing, had thrived off of it. We knew our stuff. You couldn’t expect a saltwater fish to last long in a swimming pool reeking of chlorine.
And that’s what the real world was-a polished swimming pool with perimeters and lines and markers. We belonged in the ocean, bottomless and unpredictable, unyielding and feared.
Harvey mumbled something under his breath about freedom, about moving away where we could actually have it.
“No town would have us,” Luca reprimanded him gently, having heard.
“There is one, on the other side of Eddington,” Harvey began, the hopeful little fool.
“You’ve got a text message,” Zayn said as he zipped up his hoodie. We were almost all set. Reggie would be sticking with me tonight. Our personalities always clashed well for the college girls. I could really play up my former involvement with football to make it sound as if I were a professional athlete.
“I’ll read it on the way.”
I half-hoped it would be from Bumper, lecturing me further, but it was Harry. Sweet and innocent Harry who deserved better than me and my shit but I was too addicted to him and too selfish to think about letting him go.
John says goodnight. Can’t wait to see you again, boo bear. What are you up to?
With a bag of cocaine on the inside of my pocket and a dime bag of meth in my jeans to weigh me down with guilt, I answered him before shoving my phone in the pocket away from the drugs, trying my best to sharpen the line between this world and the one I was coming to know with Harry.
Just listening to zayn snoring. I’ll be round for breakfast before I crash on your couch. tell john I said hi! Xxxx.