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in the wide, open air

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“And it seems as though
I'm on my own
And time transcends, oh.

Charon – Keaton Henson

 

 

 

 

 

 

                “Wow, your coffee must have said a hell of a thing about your mother,” a voice says, lilting and soft and somewhere to Theo’s left. He looks up from where he’s been glaring at his coffee, not really seeing it – not really seeing anything, to be honest.

                There’s a boy standing there, roughly his age, shorter than him, but lanky so he looks taller. He has the brownest eyes Theo has ever seen, and hair that is only just blond and veers dangerously close to ginger. He’s wearing a faded band t-shirt under a khaki knitted hoodie that looks like it’s seen better days, and black skinny jeans that cling to his thighs just so. If the boy notices Theo staring, he doesn’t comment, instead sliding into the seat opposite Theo.

                “I’m Felix,” the boy continues, offering a hand across the table for Theo to shake. Theo notices the remnants of chipped black nail varnish and half washed away biro notes on the boy’s hand. He takes it reluctantly, unsure, but the boy gives his hand a gentle squeeze and shakes it, smiling.

                “So,” says Felix, tilting his head slightly, like a terrier, “what should I call you?”

                “Theo. Theodore. Theo,” Theo says, not entirely sure why he’s nervous, but damn, he is. Felix raises an eyebrow, and mouths Theo’s name to himself, before saying it aloud.

                “Fee-oh-door,” and there’s that accent again, Irish, possibly, but roughened by time away from home. Definitely nothing like Theo’s brusque Brooklyn twang.

                “I like it,” Felix remarks, as though his job is to judge people’s names. Theo doesn’t quite know what to make of this. He shrugs. He can’t help the name he was born with.

                “So, tell me, Theodore, how did your coffee wrong you?” Felix presses, leaning in, elbows on the table, stray sprinkles of sugar clinging to his skin.

                Theo shrugs again. How does he explain, begin to explain?

                “I think,” Felix interrupts his thoughts, “that maybe the coffee isn’t to blame,” and then he reaches out a hand, takes the mug Theo’s been nursing, half cold by now, and takes a sip. Theo watches with something akin to wonder and bemusement, if he can still feel bemusement. Is this what it feels like to feel bemused? Well, consider him bemused.

                Felix winces at the frigid coffee, but still swills it around his mouth before swallowing. He places the mug back into Theo’s hands.

                “It’s not the coffee. So, what’s the matter?”

                “It’s nothing,” Theo says, trying to brush away the other boy’s interest. He doesn’t want to talk about it. That’s why he’s so far away from home, after all, so he won’t even be reminded of it. What he did. The demons that chased him in the dark of the night. No, he doesn’t even want to think about it. He squeezes his eyes shut, before snapping them open again. Felix is watching him. Intently. He feels scrutinised, like a bug under a magnifying glass. He’s worried the sun will catch the glass and he’ll burn up into nothing. It’s unsettling.

                And yet – he knows Felix isn’t being deliberately unsettling. There’s something about him, something oddly calming. The way his posture is totally relaxed, the way he melts into his surroundings as though he isn’t made of muscle and bone but of some strange otherworldly material, there’s something almost alien about him, his big eyes and pale eyelashes and the way he hardly seems to blink as he watches Theo from across the table.

                “Stop lookin’ at me,” Theo says, voice slightly rougher than he’d like. Felix leans back in his chair and holds up his hands.

                “I’m sorry,” he says, and he looks like he genuinely means it, a line appearing between his eyebrows which Theo feels the irrational urge to smooth out. He opens his mouth, closes it. Can’t find the words. Not even sure which words he’s looking for.

                “I only just moved here,” he manages. It’s not much, but it’s an olive branch. He holds it out figuratively out to Felix, and Felix takes it willingly.

                “So, how are you finding the big city?” Felix smiles, and his smile is slightly crooked, and bends down as it reaches his cheeks. It’s an odd smile. It looks almost sad, even though it’s not.

                Lowestoft, whichever way you shake it, is about as far removed from a big city as you can get. Lowestoft is a small sea side town with a stone beach and an eccentric array of shops which can’t possibly survive in a world where Amazon and eBay exist, and yet somehow do. Theo remembers what it’s like to live in a real big city, the biggest big city, really, New York, where he was born and bred, and which makes his breath hitch when he thinks about it.

                “It’s –  ” he struggles to find a word that adequately describes the utter culture shock of it all, “slow,” he settles on.

                “Slow can be good sometimes, no?” Felix asks, and it feels like a loaded question, like Felix is teasing out more than Theo is willing or able to give.

                “I guess,” Theo compromises. “I miss – I mean, I don’t know. It’s just different.”

                “You’re American,” Felix states. Theo nods.

                “I’m guessing things are bigger there. Faster, too.”

                Theo nods again. Too fast. Thoughts racing and swirling and dancing like dervishes, difficult to grasp and hold onto. Outside, a seagull shrieks. Theo turns to look. Felix doesn’t follow his gaze, instead still focusing on Theo. His gaze makes Theo’s skin burn, red under olive. He ducks his head and looks steadfast at his coffee instead.

                “Everyone was always in a hurry,” Theo surprises himself.

                The café is empty aside from himself and Felix, and a very bored waitress, snapping bubble gum behind the counter and texting, eyes down, ignoring them completely. Theo’s never been somewhere so slow.

                 “Lots of people?” Felix prompts.

                Theo considers. That’s the thing. New York was always – packed, bursting at the seams, anonymous and quivering with life. Noisy. So fucking alive it was like living on the back of a rabid dog. And yet.

                “Too many, sometimes. And other times, not enough,” Theo says. It’s a contradiction of sorts, but it’s true. New York, his New York, was both the fullest place he’d ever known, and also the emptiest.

                Felix ‘hmms’, and his face screws up and he looks – cute? Theo has to admit that to himself. And there’s the line between Felix’s eyebrows which Theo could just reach across and flatten with a finger.

                Theo remembers sitting on the fire escape, listening to the bustle of people in the streets below, the yells and the laughter and the sirens and the car horns and just the life of it all. Sitting there with the metal seeping cold through his jeans and wondering why he didn’t fit into the jigsaw, that fast moving stream that other people just stepped into without thinking and allowed themselves to be absorbed. He moved too slowly, walking at a different pace, heart beating out of sync with this brilliant, vibrant expanse of humanity. And it cut to the bone.

                Felix taps his fingers on the table, not noticing the sugar, the small white particles gripping to his skin and it bugs Theo. He can’t explain why, just, he wants to brush Felix’s fingers clean, to take him somewhere nicer, cleaner. Felix follows his gaze down to his fingers, and for the first time, seems to notice the sugar.

                “Sticky,” he murmurs, and it’s all Theo can do to nod. “It doesn’t matter, Theodore,” Felix continues.

                “Huh?” Theo splutters.

                “It’s just sugar,” Felix says, and Theo wonders if Felix is actually inside his head, reading his thoughts, does he know? How much can he know? This odd creature of a boy with Bambi features and an aura around him that begs the viewer to just breathe.

                “But – ” Theo starts. But what? If Felix wants to cover himself in sugar, it’s his prerogative. He doesn’t know why he cares. He shouldn’t care.

                Felix lifts a finger to his mouth and his tongue darts out, quick and pink, and licks the sugar off. Theo is mesmerised by the movement, and at the same time, disgusted. He pulls a face.

                “That was disgusting!” He can’t help exclaiming. God knows when the table was last cleaned.

                Felix’s face gives nothing away, but he soon grimaces, before bursting out laughing. His laugh fits the rest of him perfectly, airy and light and it turns his pale cheeks red.

                “Oh god, I know,” he says, catching his breath. “I just needed to see your face.”

                Theo flicks his empty cream packet at the other boy.

                “You asshole,” he growls, but he can’t be properly mad. Felix quirks a smile at him. Felix is an irritant, Theo decides. But a nice one.

                Felix seems to mouth the word ‘asshole’ to himself. He smiles. His teeth are slightly crooked, Theo notices. He’s noticing a lot today. It strikes him as odd, before for a long, long time, he hasn’t noticed much of anything.

                “I’m normally very nice,” Felix comments, and Theo can believe that. Felix seems like the sort of person who’d read your angsty 2am sleep deprived Facebook status and text you just to check that you were okay. Yeah, Felix probably is a nice person.

                “So you’re being an asshole special for me then?” Theo asks, and Felix smiles again. Theo likes making him smile. Felix mouths the word ‘asshole’ to himself again, which is weird, but okay.

                “I’m not being an asshole,” and his accent wraps around the word like it’s utterly foreign, “I just wanted to make you laugh,” Felix says.

                “If you spend the next week puking your guts up with some awful virus, don’t go blamin’ me,” Theo says.

                “Theodore, I wouldn’t blame you,” Felix says, earnest. “Well, maybe a little,” he adds.

                Theo kicks him under the table, only lightly, and Felix yelps, before wrapping his legs around Theo’s foot.

                “Gotcha,” Felix smiles, triumphant. Theo pulls his leg free.

                “Yeah,” he says, weakly, and tries to smile.

                “You know,” Felix starts, “you don’t have to overthink everything. Some things, it’s okay to just be in the moment. I can see you disappearing into your head again, Theodore. You do that a lot, don’t you?”

                Theo frowns. Why does Felix care? Is Theo just his entertainment for the afternoon? He represents the implication, almost like he’s some kind of freak show. He just wanted a cup of coffee. His aunt had forced him out of the house, told him to stop moping. Which, frankly, he thought, was a little insensitive, all things considered.

                “Why did you start talking to me?” Theo asks Felix. Felix scrunches up his face again, and smiles.

                “This is a big deal question, isn’t it? I get this wrong, and you’re going to stop talking to me, huh.”

                Theo shrugs.

                “Yeah, I thought so,” Felix’s smile flickers, just a little. “You know, I’ve lived here nearly all my life? I was born in Ireland, hence the accent,” he gestures to himself, “but we moved here when I was three. And I grew up in this fuck off village where nothing ever happened, a church, a school and a village hall, and that’s it. And would you believe I wasn’t very popular?” He raises an eyebrow. “Hard to believe, I know, but true. I never knew when to leave well enough alone. If a kid was crying in the playground, I’d go over and try to figure out why. My ma – she says I care too much. But I think I care just enough. Theodore, would you leave a little girl alone if she were crying in the playground?”

                Theo isn’t sure. He probably would, if he were honest. He’d grown up learning fast how to avoid trouble, how to go about his own business and avoid stirring the pot. Then something strikes him.

                “Am I the crying little girl in this scenario?” He asks, pouting.

                Felix barks out a laugh, and shakes his head. He pulls at his bottom lip with his top teeth before responding.

                “Okay, a little. But honestly? I walked in here, and saw this not-unattractive guy glaring at his coffee as though it were personally responsible for all the world’s ills, and I had to know, you just looked so grumpy,” he grins, the corners of his mouth turning down, deepening.

                Theo bristles.

                “I’m not grumpy,” he says.

                “A little bit you are,” Felix points out, and fair enough, Theo is kinda grumpy. But he’s not going to admit it without a fight.

                “So what would happen when you’d go up to the crying girls in the playground?” Theo asks. He’s curious.

                “Oh, you know, near total social ostracisation, as far as I can tell. Turns out bothering girls who don’t know you and offering them a tissue is frowned upon in society. Word spread and soon I was the weirdo who bothered crying children. I mean, I was a children, but apparently it’s still odd.” Felix shrugs, he doesn’t seem too bothered by this.

                “Did you stop?” Theo fights back a smile.

                “Nah. Because – and this is the important thing, Theodore, what if one of those days someone had actually wanted a shoulder to cry on? Some people, most people, they think they should never bleed on anybody else, that they should hold it all in, but you and I both know, internal bleeding is the worst kind.”

                Theo does know. And not in the metaphorical sense that Felix is talking about. His head takes him to sterile hospital rooms, starched bed sheets and his mother’s face, so pale and worried, features pulled tight and scared. He nods.

                “You don’t bleed on people, do you, Theodore?” Felix asks.

                “Why do you say my name all the time?” Theo answers instead of actually answering.

                “Fee-oh-door, I like your name. It’s a good name. I told you that,” Felix says, drawing out Theo’s name and treating every syllable like it’s a word in its own right. Theo’s never heard his name said like that before, faintly accented and almost caressed. It falls from Felix’s lips as though it’s something beautiful, not clunky like he’d always pictured it.

                “You should call me Theo. Everyone else does,” Theo says, despite knowing without really knowing, that it’s pointless. As expected, Felix shakes his head.

                “Am I everyone else, Theodore?” Felix asks and it’s a question Theo can’t really answer. Because he is still the bug under the magnifying glass, and he’s still not sure whether Felix is going to tilt the glass towards the sun and watch him burn.

                “I can see why people thought you were weird,” Theo says, and instantly regrets it when Felix’s face falls and his mouth becomes so ve

very small and pinched.

                “Oh, right then,” Felix says, and it feels like an ending. He scrapes his chair back, and moves to get up. In a hurried motion, Theo reaches out and grabs his arm, pulling him back down to the table. Theo is bigger than Felix, stronger – whilst Felix is lean muscle, Theo is broader, he has the edge and Felix lets himself be pulled towards Theo, back into his seat.

                “I’m sorry,” Theo says, words rushed and unpractised. “I didn’t mean that.” He lets go of Felix, who settles back into his seat.

                “It’s okay if you did,” Felix says. His eyes look a little less bright, and oddly, it seems almost as though every part of him has lost something vital, he’s a little greyer, a little smaller.

                “It’s not okay. Felix. I didn’t mean – hey. You’re weird, but it’s a good weird. You care. And that’s – that’s really. It’s rare. But the thing about bleeding on people, letting them see your wounds, you end up getting them all bloody too, ya see? And it’s not fair on them.”

                Felix considers him for a long moment.

                “What if I’m okay with that? It’s not real blood.”

                Theo shakes his head.

                “Sometimes it is. And sometimes, sometimes you don’t want people to have to deal with that.”

                “Theodore, look at me,” Felix says, and Theo finds he can’t. He keeps his eyes fixed to the table, at his hands, tangled together, long fingers and bumpy knuckles. Not elegant hands, not by any stretch of the imagination. Like the rest of him, they look like they were put together from spare parts.

                “Theodore,” Felix repeats, and Theo reluctantly raises his gaze to Felix’s chin. He doesn’t meet those brown eyes, instead noticing the small patch of dark blond (not ginger, but almost) spiky hair Felix must have missed when he shaved this morning.

                “Theodore,” and Theo can see the way Felix’s chin moves as his mouth shapes Theo’s name. “I mean it when I say it’s okay. I want you to believe me. And I know I’m a stranger, but maybe that makes it better, in a way. You can talk to me, and then I’ll disappear. You never have to see me again. If we pass in the street, we don’t even have to acknowledge each other. It’s all good.”

                Theo is repulsed by this, this idea that he could lose Felix, that Felix would be okay with that. That they could just go back to being nothing, strangers, just two people in the world, not – something. It feels like something. This whole conversation has felt like something. Since the moment Felix sat down opposite him. It feels precious and rare and not entirely terrible, and given how Theo’s been feeling lately, this is unusual at best, and he wants to cling on, dig his fingernails in and refuse to let go. And that scares him more than anything.

                “No,” he says, flat and certain.

                “No?” Felix asks, and that deep grooved smile is back.

                “Don’t disappear,” Theo says.

                “I wasn’t actually planning on it, Theodore. How does the song go? I’ve got you under my skin.”

                “That sounds vaguely creepy,” Theo says.

                “I realised that as soon as I said it,” Felix admits. “But you understand the sentiment?”

                Theo nods.

                “Me too. The skin thing. A little,” he says. The words feel bigger than they should. It’s a confession. It feels too intimate for a rundown café by the sea front. He glances over at the waitress. She isn’t paying them the slightest bit of attention.

                “To be honest, I thought you might punch me,” Felix says, with a small smile. Theo frowns. “No, don’t go all frowny, I just – it wouldn’t have surprised me, you know?”

                “I wouldn’t have punched you,” Theo says, and it’s true. He doesn’t punch people. He knows first-hand how much it hurts, for one thing.

                “You wouldn’t have been the first,” Felix shrugs, smile a little goofy, a little sad.

                “You need to reconsider your hobbies if you’re gettin’ punched,” Theo says.

                “Sometimes, you can’t help getting punched,” Felix says, and then pauses, “I feel like you might know something about that.”

                Theo’s instantly on edge, because it all hits a little too close to home. Felix hits a little too close to home. And home is somewhere Theo doesn’t want to think about right now. He misses his mom, but as a place to be, a place to exist, he can’t – he can’t think about it. He closes his eyes, squeezing his cheeks upwards, before fixing his gaze somewhere over Felix’s left shoulder. His eyes sting a little.

                “Yeah,” Felix says softly. He chases sugar granules around the table with his finger.

                “Yeah,” Theo echoes, and silence falls, properly falls, for the first time in their conversation. Outside, Theo can hear the distant in-out-in-out whisper of the sea hitting the shore, and the cries of the gulls overhead overlaying it all. The waitress’s phone buzzes as she receives another text. Theo looks at Felix now, really looks at him.

                Felix is the sort of boy who wouldn’t have survived Theo’s high school. The otherworldly way about him, something just slightly left of centre, beautiful and delicate and wonderfully crafted, it’s the sort of thing bullies love to rip to shreds. Something Theo made sure never to ever show. They got him anyway, but – well, he’d tried. With his spare parts body, he has none of Felix’s easy grace, his body moves like one of those horses that pull farming equipment, heavy and muscled, sturdy, whilst Felix moves like a thoroughbred, as though he’s trained his entire life to show no effort at all. Even sitting down, looking at him is like looking at a dance.

                The bullies would have eaten him alive. Theo hates that he knows this. And more than that, Theo hates that it’s not just hypothetical, hates how he knows that someone bruised that pale skin, probably more than once.

                Theo hurts for Felix, and wonders how often Felix was the little boy crying in the playground, trying not to bleed on anybody else. That’s it – isn’t it? You become so selfless, the word itself becomes literal. Self less. Two words. Without self.

                And Theo knows, and hates himself a little more, that he would have walked past Felix in the corridor, head ducked, because to show any form of weakness, any sign of kindness, it was a death wish.

                And doesn’t Theo just know everything about that?

                Something brushes over his knuckles, and he looks down and realises his fists are clenched on the table, and Felix is running a soft, feather-light finger over his skin, where the bones press against flesh, turning it white. Felix’s mouth is parted, just a little, in concentration, and he looks up at Theo through his eyelashes.

                It goes unspoken. There’s a moment, when they both acknowledge it about each other. It doesn’t need saying aloud. There’s a kinship, a telepathic understanding. I have suffered for the same reasons you have. And whilst it broke Theo, it seems to have just made Felix kind.

                Ain’t that a kick in the teeth?

                Theo unclenches his fist, and Felix’s hand draws away, hovering, uncertain. His nails are chewed and stubby, Theo notices. Not quite so perfect, then. He wonders if the black nail varnish flaked off, or was nibbled at, a hidden burst of anxiety.

                Theo lays his hand on the table palm up, exposed. Felix’s hand jerks, and it’s the first movement that he’s made that doesn’t seem perfectly choreographed. He doesn’t drop his hand onto Theo’s, like Theo had expected (hoped), but instead, traces one of the crinkled lines there.

                “I wish I could read your palm,” Felix murmurs, and traces another line, wrist to where hand becomes finger. “I could find out all your secrets.”

                “Just from my hands?” Theo asks.

                “Yeah,” Felix breathes. He walks his fingers along Theo’s middle finger. It’s weird, comforting, loving. Theo could never have conceived of it, of someone dedicating time and energy to his hands, to looking that closely.

                “That would be scary,” Theo says, and it’s barely above a whisper. He doesn’t know why they’ve gotten so quiet, and yet.

                “It depends,” Felix traces a spiral on Theo’s palm, ever inwards. “On what you’re hiding. Or what you’re hiding from.”

                Theo closes his hand around Felix’s finger, trapping it, stilling it. Felix looks at him with something akin to surprise.

                “Don’t,” Theo says.

                “I – ” Felix starts, but Theo cuts him off.

                “I know. It’s not your fault. It’s just – sometimes, it’s safer to hide.”

                “Like if there’s a bear?” Felix smiles a little, and catches Theo off guard.

                “Like if there’s a bear,” Theo confirms. And smiles.

                “I like your smile,” Felix says, and wiggles his finger against Theo’s. “You should smile more.”

                “It’s not easy,” Theo says, and tightens his grip a little, not hurting Felix, but keeping his finger between his own.

                “Sure it is,” Felix says, nudging at Theo’s hand with his other fingers. “What makes you happy?”

                Theo lets Felix’s finger go. Felix lays his hand beside Theo’s, almost but not quite touching.

                “I don’t know,” Theo answers.

                “There must be something. No matter how silly,” Felix needles away at him, and Theo tries to think of something, anything. Felix is looking at him, eyes bright and almost pleading with him to give an answer. Theo hates that he can’t.

                “What makes you happy?” He says instead, turning the question back on Felix.

                “Lots of things,” Felix answers brightly. He smiles, and those grooves beside his mouth deepen.

                Theo shakes his head.

                “Not good enough, Felix. Damn, I wish I knew your last name so I could last name you. That would add a certain level of seriousness to my point. Pretend I did anyway,” Theo says, knowing he’s half talking nonsense. Felix grins wider, showing those crooked white teeth.

                “Farmer. Felix Farmer. And before you say it, I know.”

                “Wow,” Theo says, “did your mom actively hate you or did she really not notice that she named you like – hang on. Felix Farmer will have his revenge on Seattle,” Theo hums a riff briefly, before grinning. “Yeah, your name is ridiculous.”

                “I understood about twelve per cent of what you just said. Ma likes alliterative names, okay? I know I sound like a particular cheap superhero,” he shrugs, “hey, what was the… why would I have my revenge on Seattle? What has Seattle done to me?” Felix asks.

                “Stop saying the word Seattle, christ. You know, Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle? It’s a Nirvana song? Nirvana, the band? Smells Like Teen Spirit? Have you heard music?” Theo knows he’s overreacting slightly, he didn’t really expect Felix to know the song, but it would have been cool if he had.

                Felix shakes his head.

                “I know Smells Like Teen Spirit. I just – never really got the whole grunge thing,” he looks a little bemused.

                “You never got the whole grunge thing?” Theo mimics, not unkindly. “You look like you should be wandering around a record store or something, in fuckin’ Seattle.”

                “But that would make me predictable,” Felix says, contrary.

                “Well, you’re not that,” Theo agrees, and shakes his head a little. “So, Felix Farmer. Rubbish superhero. What makes you happy?”

                “I have to pick one thing?” Felix asks, and pouts.

                “Yeah,” Theo says, because it’s an arbitrary rule and he likes the way Felix’s lips are plush and red when he pouts. They stand out from his pale skin and look downright edible.

                Felix whines.

                “Don’t be a baby,” Theo smiles.

                “You’re mean,” Felix says, sticking his bottom lip out as far as it’ll go. He looks ridiculous. Theo nearly gives in, before realising Felix is playing him like a fiddle.

                “And you’re not mean. So we go well together, huh?” Theo grins a little evilly.

                “I don’t like mean people,” Felix tries.

                “Tough,” Theo says, “pick a thing.”

                “I like – ” Felix begins, dragging the word out as far as he can, “I like girls on long boards.”

                “You like girls?” Theo ignores the second part for a moment.

                “It is possible to like both, you know, despite popular opinion,” Felix points out.

                “Okay, point. Long boards?” Theo asks.

                “Think skateboards, but longer,” Felix explains, as though Theo is particularly slow.

                “I know what a long board is, I was just wondering what was so brilliant about them.”

                “Down by Gorleston seafront, have you been to Gorleston yet?” Felix glances up to check with Theo. Theo shakes his head. “Well,” Felix continues, “it’s this town like Lowestoft, but just over the county border. Like, maybe twenty minutes away. There’s this bit down by the beach where all the skaters meet up and, well, skate. And it’s all very cool and, you know. It’s fun to watch. But then these girls showed up one year, with their long boards, and they’re fucking majestic, it’s like watching ballet or something, it’s seamless. It makes the boys on their skateboards look clumsy. It’s an aesthetic thing, douchey as that sounds, but it is. Just the flow of it, it’s beautiful. You should come watch some time.”

                “Girls aren’t really – you know.” Theo manages.

                “You don’t have to be attracted to someone to find them beautiful, you know?” Felix says. Theo nods, ducking his head.

                “So what else?” Theo asks, looking up at Felix again.

                “I know what you’re doing, you know,” Felix says.

                “Me too, but humour me,” Theo says.

                “Okay. I like – I like sitting in the woods on my own with my music turned up as loud as it’ll go, headphones tight against my skull, and just feeling utterly at peace with the world. Sometimes I don’t even need the music. I just listen to the birds and the trees. The trees make a lot of noise, you just never realise until you’re completely still,” Felix smiles at the memory.

                Completely still. That’s it, isn’t it? The fear. Slowing, stopping, still. Theo holds back a shudder. He can’t imagine anything worse.

                “You okay?” Felix asks, picking up on something impossibly small Theo must have given away.

                “Yeah, just felt like someone walkin’ over my grave is all,” Theo tries to smile, but it doesn’t sit right on his face.

                “Yeah,” Felix says, like he doesn’t believe him.

                “Doesn’t it scare you?” Theo blurts out before he can stop himself.

                Felix looks at him in surprise.

                “What?”

                “Being still. Doesn’t it scare you?” Theo can’t back out now, so he just says it.

                Felix bites his bottom lip, a flash of teeth, before answering.

                “No. Why should it scare me?” He asks.

                Because if you slow down too much, you’ll never catch up again. Because you’ll be left behind. Because people will forget about you. Because nobody will think to look back and wait for you. Because because because.  

                “I don’t know,” Theo says instead.

                “Theodore,” Felix says. Fee-oh-door.

                “Yeah,” Theo acknowledges. Felix tilts his head, and again, all Theo can see is a terrier, confused by a command.

                “Something bad happened, didn’t it?” Felix says quietly.

                Theo doesn’t recoil, but it’s a close thing.

                The sound of the traffic, the impatient blast of horns, taxis stuck at stop lights, then revving up as the lights changed. So much colour, so much noise, and the fear, everyone else dashing around, and the feeling of being stuck to the sidewalk, unable to move. And then suddenly –

                “Yeah,” Theo breathes. He can barely admit it to himself, and yet here he is, on a slightly overcast afternoon, admitting it to a near total stranger. And yet. He trusts Felix. Is pretty sure that Felix would never burn a bug with a magnifying glass. Trust is a weird feeling. Tight and clenching whilst at the same time like a weight has been lifted. He feels suddenly so very tired.

                “Hey,” Felix says, and moves his hand just enough to brush the side against Theo’s. The touch is electric, the briefest flash of warmth, singing through nerve endings. “Do you wanna go somewhere?”

                Felix looks at him earnestly, eyes wide, so fucking brown, Theo’s never seen someone with such brown eyes. There’s no word he can use to describe them, and he doesn’t know enough about precious stones to possibly compare. And yet brown feels so monumentally imprecise.

                “Go where?” Theo asks. Felix bites his lip again, white on red, and grins wide. Theo never really realised how rationed he’d always expected smiles to be before he’d met Felix. But Felix smiles because he can, and whilst that should lessen the effect, it somehow doesn’t. Felix is like looking at the sun, Theo feels almost like his vision would blot if he were to look away. He’s transfixed. He’s never – never even considered letting himself look at someone this way. And now he never wants to do anything else. New York seems suddenly so far away.

                “How about a little fuck off village in the middle of nowhere? I have something to show you,” Felix says, letting his hand stray close to Theo’s again, and yes – there’s that burst of electricity again. It’s fleeting, but the aftershocks linger, buzzing through Theo’s skin.

                “I feel very positive about a little fuck off village in the middle of nowhere,” Theo says, and he does. It’s hard to find good things, to hold onto good things, to acknowledge them and treat them as good. Better to hide away. But sometimes –

                “You’re smiling,” Felix points out, and Theo didn’t even realise. Is this what it’s like to be happy? To just be, just for the moment, and allow himself to be happy? It feels so startlingly alien to him he almost has to shake himself.

                “Yeah,” Theo says.

                “Do that more,” Felix says. It’s almost a command, but the words are wrapped in kindness.

                In one smooth movement, Felix is rising from the table and gripping Theo’s hand with his own, pulling him up too. Theo remembers grabbing hold of Felix, dragging him back down, and wonders if maybe he underestimated the other boy, and that Felix is stronger than he looks, because Theo is on his feet before he can even think, his hand held tight in Felix’s grip. Felix shoots him a quick glance, checking in, a silent ‘Is this okay?’ which means everything. Theo glances to the waitress. Still completely absorbed in her phone, her jaw working the bubble gum steadily. It’s okay.

                Felix bumps his shoulder against Theo’s as they walk to the door. Felix walks with a slight bounce, and Theo realises for the first time that Felix is almost entirely legs, and realises that his Bambi impression of Felix wasn’t so wrong. Theo is a couple of inches taller than Felix, but he doesn’t feel too tall. The ache in his right leg when he puts weight on it is frustrating, and he tries to hide his limp as best he can, hoping Felix won’t notice.

                Felix holds the door of the café open for him, the small old-fashioned bell hitting the top of the door and jangling, and the waitress glances up for the first time, her face unreadable, and Theo realises he doesn’t care what she thinks. He looks back as the door swings shut, looking through the smeared glass, and she’s back on her phone, her jaw still working rhythmically, mechanically, and he wonders if she’s happy. And he kinda hopes she is.

                Theo hasn’t given much thought as to how they’re going to get to the small fuck off village in the middle of nowhere, his head is still computing holding Felix’s hand, walking beside Felix with their shoulders brushing, being led but not led by Felix, this quiet, easy thing which seems so breakable and new, a baby bird freshly hatched, exhausted from hours of trying to break free.

                They stop walking, Felix easing them to a halt, in front of a black motorcycle, leaning heavy on its kickstand. A black helmet with various band stickers hangs off a front handlebar, and Felix lets go of Theo’s hand to pass him the helmet.

                “You should wear this,” Felix says, and Theo just sort of holds the helmet, really realising that Felix is serious.

                “This is yours?” He asks, gesturing to the bike. It looks old, some relic from a past era, like a street brawler, all snarled exposed metal and leather.

                “She’s my baby,” Felix smiles warmly. If smiles were dollars, I could fly back home, Theo thinks to himself, but would I want to? Felix swings one long leg over the seat, effortless, and rests one hand on the handlebars, whilst twisting to look at Theo.

                “Put it on,” Felix says, dipping his eyes to the helmet in Theo’s hands.

                “Don’t you need it?” Theo asks. Felix shakes his head.

                “I’m fine,” Felix says, and nods at the helmet again.

                “What if we crash?” Theo asks, and the last word is choked out, full to bursting with imagery of Felix smeared across tarmac, blood and broken bones and the knowledge that it would be Theo’s fault.

                “We’re not going to crash,” Felix assures him. He shifts in his seat, rolls his head on his neck, easy and loose.

                “Then why do I need this?” Theo points out. Felix barks out a laugh.

                “Okay, you got me. In case we crash. But we won’t. I promise. It’s safe. I’d just rather you were wearing it than me, you know? Let me have this.”

                “I just – ” Theo starts.

                “We’re not going to crash,” Felix says, firmly, stopping all argument. “Please put the helmet on, Theodore.”

                Theo does, the tight fit of it almost claustrophobic at first, and he finds it hard to breathe, the soft interior squashing his head, making everything more closed in, smaller.

                “Breathe, Theodore,” Felix says, and reaches out and flips the visor up. Theo takes a deep breath, tasting the salt in the breeze, and allows his body to relax slightly. Felix looks at him for a long moment, before nodding to himself. “Hop aboard.”

                Theo isn’t sure how to approach this, but he clumsily swings a leg over the seat behind Felix, unsure how close to sit, where to put his hands.

                Felix must read his mind, because he manoeuvres Theo’s arms around his own waist, locking them together over his belly button. Theo expects Felix’s stomach to be all hard planes, solid, but instead there’s give there, a softness, which is unexpected but nice.

                “This is really important, okay?” Felix is saying, and Theo listens hard, careful. “When I want to turn, I’m going to lean into the corner. I need you to lean with me, not against me. Do you think you can do that?”

                Theo nods.

                “Can you say it for me, Theo? What I just told you?” Felix asks.

                “You’re going to lean into the turns, and I have to lean with you,” Theo says, the words thick on his tongue. The reality of the situation is setting in, and he’s terrified.

                “Don’t let go of my waist, don’t lean back, if you need to stop, use one hand to tap me on the shoulder, and I’ll pull over. Okay?” Felix says, his voice bordering on stern. Theo nods again. Then, because Felix expects it, repeats the instructions back to him.

                “Good. Hey, Theodore. Don’t be scared. You’re going to love this.”

                Before Theo can say anything else, Felix is flipping up the kickstand, and the bike sways heavy, but Felix steadies it with both feet on the ground. He does something, and the engine roars into life, startling Theo, and Theo finds himself squeezing his arms tight and just below Felix’s ribs. Felix uses one hand to reposition him, and runs his fingers over Theo’s knuckles.

                “Trust me,” he says, over the growl, and Theo nods. “Ready?”

                And then they’re moving, slow at first as they pull away from the sidewalk, Felix guiding the motorcycle into the road, and Theo leans in close, wondering if Felix can hear his heart beating, because surely it must be that loud.

                They move slowly through the town, Felix easing them through traffic lights and one way streets. It’s when they hit the straight flats heading out of town that Felix allows the engine to really let loose, and the wind surges around them, and Theo feels like this isn’t riding, this is flying. He holds on so tight to Felix, watching the empty green of fields around them go bursting past, as Felix weaves and wends his way past cars and through gaps and Theo feels like if this were a movie, he’d throw his head back and holler at the sky, because this is fast and visceral and brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and he’s alive, he’s so fucking alive, for the first time ever his heart is beating in sync with the world and it feels like breaking the surface after being deep, deep underwater for so long. He struggles to catch his breath, as though the air itself can’t keep up with them, and he knows he’s laughing, and his eyes sting and he might be crying too, but it’s good, it’s so good, and his arms are wrapped around Felix and his thighs nudge the back of Felix’s legs and they’re almost melded into one being, the bike beneath them holding them together, metal, leather, blood and bones and the soaring, astonishing feeling of being utterly weightless and brutally, wonderfully present.

                It can’t last forever, though, and before long Felix is turning left and heading down winding country lanes, the trees bending over, blocking the sky, houses coming first in ones and twos, and then building up into a community. Felix turns into a blink and you’d miss it road, if you could call it that – about ten foot of tarmac giving way to dirt, bumped and potholed and Felix slows to a crawl and guides the bike around the larger holes, trying not to jolt Theo as they reach three houses, hidden from the road they’d just left, seemingly the houses at the end of the world, so surrounded by fields that they might not even be there at all. Felix pulls up beside a black painted barn, turns the engine off, and flips the kickstand down, resting a foot on the ground to steady the bike.

                “This is me,” he says, and nods to the barn. It’s small – not a large barn like the kind Theo has seen on property programmes, he doubts animals have ever lived in there, but it seems to be converted, the white paint of the wooden window frames fresh and uncracked, the black of the barn’s panelling almost perversely deep and forbidding against the yellow of the corn field opposite, the brickwork free of vines and ivy.

                “You live here?” Theo asks, and struggles to take the helmet off. Felix shifts and turns enough to help him, and the sudden loss of the constricting headwear feels so good. Felix smiles at him, and ruffles his hair.

                “Helmet hair,” he says. Nobody’s ruffled Theo’s hair since he was a kid, but when Felix does it, it doesn’t feel childish. Felix brushes a couple of dark curls away from Theo’s eyes. “I thought your eyes were blue,” Felix says softly, “but they’re actually grey, aren’t they?” He takes the helmet and hangs it over a handlebar. “Hop off.”

                Getting off the bike is a lot harder than getting on, especially with his right leg being so much stiffer than his left, but Theo manages it without making a fool of himself, and is soon on solid ground, though it feels distinctly unsolid – wobbling beneath his feet as though he’s trying to walk on a bouncy castle. Felix gets off the bike, using Theo’s shoulder as a crutch, and leans the bike carefully, steady.

                “My legs are like jello,” Theo says and Felix breaks out a huge grin.

                “Jello,” Felix shakes his head, “jello.”

                “What’s wrong with jello?” Theo asks, intrigued.

                “Jelly – Theodore. We’re in the heart of the British countryside; you can’t be American in the heart of the British countryside.”

                Theo smiles despite the fact his legs still feel like jello – jelly, whatever. Felix nudges him with an elbow, gently in the ribs.

                “I expected the heart of the British countryside to be less… flat,” Theo says, for want of anything else.

                “It is rather flat, isn’t it?” Felix muses. “I wonder what can be done about that. Not much, I’d imagine.”

                “Inconsiderate of them,” Theo says. Felix looks at him, and that deep grooved grin is back. It must go away, but Theo never catches it leaving, only managing to be shocked every time it returns.

                “Very. How am I supposed to impress cute American boys with surroundings like these?” Felix shrugs, and his cheeks have gone very red. Cute, Theo’s brain repeats on a loop. Cute, cute, cute.

                “Never mind,” Felix carries on, as though he didn’t just break Theo’s brain. He seems to shake himself. “I said I had something to show you.” He holds out a hand to Theo, who takes it, savouring the warmth of Felix’s palm against his own. Felix tugs Theo away from the bike, towards the field in front of them.

                “Will your bike be okay there?” Theo asks, worried.

                “This is the countryside, Theodore. Nothing happens here, especially not bike thefts,” Felix assures him, but the nothing doesn’t reassure Theo, it feels dead, it reminds him of standing on the street corner, surrounded by everything, and it doesn’t make sense, because the two situations don’t even compare, and yet.

                Felix whines slightly, because Theo isn’t moving, stuck staring at the bike.

                “Come on, Theodore,” he pouts, and Theo forces his feet to move, and allows Felix to lead him up to the field and around the corner, where a footpath barely makes itself known. Theo is on the right, where the path is smoother, more visible, whilst Felix bounces along to the left of him, walking in a deep trough, skipping over brambles and stinging nettles. “Normally it’s just me,” he says, “and the path is only really big enough for one person. But it’s okay,” he says, when he notices Theo watching him. Theo appreciates that there’s a path at all, his leg aching beneath him as he tries to match Felix’s strides.

                “You know,” Felix says, as they walk, “for the longest time, I wanted to get as far away from here as I could,” he’s still holding Theo’s hand, but his other hand trails over the top of the corn, and Theo can’t help but wonder if it tickles.

                “I thought I’d go to London, Paris, New York – anywhere but here. Somewhere where you could look out of the window and see that the world was still alive. Waking up here, day after day, the stillness of it all, it made me want to throw up, I felt physically sick. Like there was something in my stomach that didn’t belong, like I didn’t belong. It frightened me, the idea of being trapped here forever, not even being able to watch the world go by. Waking up to the same old sunrise, red over the corn, and feeling so completely isolated from, well, reality, really. I never went anywhere, never did anything, I just became stagnant, a ghost haunting my own life. Everything seemed like so much effort, you know? The only thing I had was the woods – I would go there and just scream, scream until my throat was sore, angry at everything and most of all at myself, and I wasn’t even sure why, just that I’d let this happen, let myself become stuck, I hated how fucking quiet it was, how nothing ever happened – shouldn’t I be out there, surrounded by people, creating, doing something, anything, contributing, being seen, seeing, experiencing? I couldn’t put it into words, this rage, this punch to the gut I woke up with every single day, this utter hatred I had, and I didn’t understand why I had to be here, and I schemed and tried to think of ways to escape, to just get away, to go where the people were, because I was sure, so sure, that if I could just find people everything would be different, you know? I was built for the city, so sure of it, so sure that there was a place waiting for me, and I’d just slide in and it’d be like I’d always been there. I was so sure, you know?” He pauses, glancing at Theo. They were walking at a snail’s pace now, and Felix’s grip on Theo’s hand was borderline painful. Felix smiles and relaxes slightly, allowing Theo to flex his fingers.

                “Sorry, I just – I want you to understand, because your world and my world – they’re so different that I feel daft dragging you out here. But I have to remind myself that I don’t feel like that any more. That I stopped feeling like that a while ago. But sometimes, I can’t help it. I don’t – I don’t get angry any more, you know, but I’m suddenly seeing all of this through your eyes and realising you must hate it.”

                Theo squeezes Felix’s hand, hard.

                “You’re right,” Theo says, then stops, because Felix instantly looks haunted, drawn, and Theo squeezes his hand again, before continuing, “this morning, if you’d have asked me what my worst nightmare would have been, it would have been this. Growing up, there was always life outside my window, and for a while, I thrived on it, loved how the city seemed to breathe and move and sigh, the street lights keeping the dark away from my window, you know? It felt safe, until it didn’t,” he stops, and Felix leads him around another bend, where the path has become overgrown and even more difficult to find.

                “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise about your leg – ” Felix apologises. Theo shakes his head.

                “So ya noticed, huh? I thought maybe I could hide it, but yeah. It’s fine, though, just aches a little. Trust me when I say I’ve had worse,” Theo says, and Felix nods. They begin down the path, slower even than before, Theo holding on tight to Felix when his foot skids slightly.

                “So what changed your mind?” Theo asks, and Felix looks up at him, blinks a couple of times.

                “My ma. One day she woke up and she couldn’t stop vomiting. Sorry, it’s gross, I know. She couldn’t get off the floor of the bathroom, her stomach – she kept saying how much it hurt. I didn’t know what to do. She told me she’d be fine, but it was like, I don’t know, I just knew something was wrong. It was bad, you know? So I rang for an ambulance.”

                “Shit,” Theo says, not wanting to interrupt but unable to help himself.

                “Yeah,” Felix agrees, and continues, “it was just me and her, always had been, you know? The ambulance came and they picked her up off the floor and she was grey, just – I didn’t know skin could be that colour, and this was my ma, the best person I knew, and her lips were so pale, and I almost didn’t recognise her. My head just kept yelling at me that this was wrong, and as I rode with her in the ambulance, her hand was cold, and she was shaking, shaking so hard that I thought she’d vibrate right out of her own skin. I was scared. No – I was so scared. Because suddenly there was more to the world than just me, this ghost of a boy, there was my ma, who’d always been like sunshine on a rainy day, who’d worried about me and tried to get me to go outside, and it felt like I was losing her, and I wasn’t ready. I mean, I’d never be ready, but this was, this felt almost impolite, you know? Rude? It’s a weird way to describe it, but I felt insulted. Like, how dare you, you know? How dare you take my mother away? And I held onto her hand and the ambulance had its sirens on, going so fast, and I was so angry and so scared and so sure that this was it, I was going to lose her, and resigned, fucking resigned to that, but so unprepared.

                “The ambulance ride seemed to go on forever, but at the same time, we were at the hospital before I could blink. I wasn’t allowed back, they took her away from me, and I just stood there, rooted to the spot where they’d left me standing, and I knew I’d never see her again, never hear her voice again. And I didn’t know what to do. I stood there, outside the doors of the hospital, and it was cold, I remember, winter time, and I was just in jeans and a t-shirt, and wellies, not even proper shoes, and I was shaking almost as hard as she had been, and I was just – a statue. The world was moving around me, and I realised what I’d done. I’d asked for this. For the world to move, to surprise me, to absorb me, to let me be a part of it. In that moment, I realised I’d caused this.

                “I threw up, I hadn’t eaten breakfast, so it hurt, you know? Just there outside the doors of the hospital, bent over, and I guess a nurse or someone must have seen, noticed me, because the next thing I knew, someone was leading me to a small room, and the light didn’t work properly, so it was kinda dark, and someone got me a glass of water, and someone else put a blanket around my shoulders, and I couldn’t hold the water still enough to drink it properly, and I sopped it all down my front, my teeth chattering, in this dark room, and someone told me my ma was in surgery, that they didn’t know anything more than that, and I knew there was nothing I could do, so I just sat in this dark room, listening to the world outside the door, so many footsteps and voices and I just realised, I would give this all up if I could have my ma back. This isn’t what I wanted. This wasn’t what I’d meant, you know? I felt so fucking selfish. I’d told her so many times, I’m going to leave, ma, I’m going to leave. And all she must have heard was that I wanted to leave her. And I’d never meant that at all, but it was me and her, always, we were a team – she’d say that, you know? And here was me boasting, begging, to leave. And now she was beating me to the punch and I was realising that I’d never meant a word of it. It wasn’t the place I wanted to escape from. It was myself. It had always been myself. I hated myself so much, Theodore, and I’d never realised. I’d always projected it onto other people, onto my surroundings, and I’d never looked inward long enough to realise that the rot was inside me, not everything else. And now my ma was going to die and it was my fault.” Felix took a deep breath, wiping his eyes with the hand not holding Theo’s. He sniffled a little.

                They’d reached the end of the path, and stood instead at a small opening between a row of trees. Felix led Theo inside, revealing an organic tunnel, leafy and green, the pale sunlight shining through the trees overhead. There was no path at all, but the ground was flat and grassy.

                “Your ma – ” Theo says, because Felix is breaking his heart. Felix who is good and kind and would go up to the crying girls in the playground. Felix who got lost inside himself and blames himself for it. Felix who doesn’t realise just how similar he and Theo are. Felix who is beautiful, who spoke to Theo when he could have gotten punched – who expected to get punched and did it anyway, Felix who allowed himself to believe he was responsible for his ma getting sick when it couldn’t possibly have been his fault. Theo wants to shake him, hug him, something, just to get all the bad out, to tell him there is no rot inside of him, terrified that deep down Felix still believes that, the way Theo does about himself. Felix who just wanted to escape, to run away, like any teenager, after suffering at the hands of bullies for something he never asked for. For being kind. For being so utterly himself. Felix who loves his ma so much he’d give up the world for her. Theo can’t find the words, because there are so many and none of them are good enough.

                “She’s fine,” Felix says, and though it’s watery, his smile is honest. “She was in surgery for five hours, and you know what? When she came round, the nurses said she was worried about me. Because I hadn’t eaten breakfast. She was worried I might be hungry. Had anyone fed me, she’d asked. They let me see her, and suddenly she looked – you never notice people aging when you see them every day, you see them as this kind of fixed portrait, she’d always looked exactly as she had when I was a child to me, but suddenly I saw her, really saw her, the way she had wrinkles at the edges of her eyes, and how her mouth – the same mouth as mine, was puckered slightly at the edges. And how small her hands really were. I held her hand in mine, still so cold, and realised how much longer my fingers were than hers. And she said to me, and it’s so daft, you’ll laugh, she said ‘if this is what it takes to get you out of the house, Fee’. And I just burst into tears. I’d been crying all day, I didn’t realise I had any tears left, but I did. I cried for her, I cried for me, I just cried. I held her hand and just cried, and she just smiled at me, this tiny smile, and I realised she hadn’t managed to brush her hair that day, it was knotted, and it hit me all over again. I felt so fiercely protective, it wasn’t a rational thing, but I promised myself I’d never let this happen again. She fell asleep, and I just watched her breathing, and every breath felt like a gift, you know? I felt so guilty, and sad. I just felt so sad. Like I was mourning, almost. She was alive, she was going to be okay, it wasn’t that. It was me. I’d been haunting my own life for so long, and I’d never stopped and noticed how sad that was.

                “I had no money for a taxi to get home, nobody I could call, so a nurse got me a cot bed to sleep on in my ma’s room, and I just laid there thinking, things will be different. They have to be. I realised there was something black inside of me, something that had been eating away at me for so long, something that made me feel so awful and so divorced from everything. There was nothing holding me inside the house, except this blackness. So I had to exorcise it. I listened to my ma breathing, and tried to breathe in sync with her. I knew I had to look after her. But I had to look after myself too. It felt like such an alien concept. I didn’t care about myself, so why should I look after myself? But this instinct, animal, primal, it was growling at me, cornering me, making me open my eyes and really look. I fell asleep as the sun rose, not over corn fields, but over a car park, and it wasn’t red, and I realised this was a new sunrise, a different sunrise, and then I slept. I dreamt my ma was reading Cat In The Hat stories to me. The words and the plots were all jumbled, nonsense, but her voice – her accent is so much stronger than mine, lyrical, it sounds ancient, passed down through so many generations. It had been the voice that had kept the monsters away when I couldn’t sleep. And I knew, then, that when she was well again, I had to let that voice guide me again, that I was allowed to ask for help. So, some months later, I did. I asked for help. And gradually, things got better. I would walk to the woods, and listen to music. Then I’d walk to the woods and just listen to the woods. My ma, she bought me my bike. Told me to go exploring. It was a lifeline, a connection to the outside world. I could leave. She was giving me permission, allowing me to give myself permission. But I knew I’d always come back. And I do. I always come back. The house by the barn is hers – we used to rent the barn out, but she insisted I move out there, that I was a grown boy who needed his independence. But I still see her every day, unless I’m travelling. But I never go too far. Because I don’t feel like I need to any more. The quiet doesn’t bother me any more. If the world is quiet, it means nothing bad is happening. The world still spins, even if you can’t perceive it. I thought it all hinged on me, on my being able to see things happening, but it didn’t. I was the one who was stuck. And now, now I’m not. I’m just slower than most. I breathe. And sometimes, when I’m on my bike, I can go as fast as I like. It’s a compromise I’ve made. To be happy. To know that it’s enough. Because it is. And I know as I’m saying this you don’t believe me, your face, if you could see yourself, Theodore, but honestly, it is. Enough. It really is,” Felix takes a deep breath in, then releases it slowly, evenly.

                Theo doesn’t know what to say. How to say how deeply terrifying the idea of the slow life is to him. He doesn’t mean to pull a face, but he can feel his features are contorted, a mix between anger and fear. He tries to smooth them out. Felix squeezes his hand. Looks at him like he understands everything.

 

                “We’re nearly there now,” Felix says, pulling Theo ever forwards. “That’s the thing, moving forwards, towards something, even if you’re going slowly, you’ll still get there eventually. It doesn’t matter how fast other people are going. It took me a long time, and a lot of therapy, to realise that. It’s not a race. We all know there’s a finish line, but it doesn’t matter what speed you cross it at. It’ll always be there waiting. It’s what you do along the way – that’s what matters most of all.”

                Theo is silent, thinking about the urgency, the horrible feeling of falling behind, of not being good enough, of wanting it all to stop, but at the same time being terrified of being stationary. Remembers watching the yellow taxis carrying people to their destinations, wishing he could be so certain, wishing he knew where he was going. Remembers realising how much easier it would be if he just didn’t have to think about any of that.

                They reach a hole in the trees, and Felix lets go of Theo’s hand, and lets him step through first. Theo doesn’t know what he’s expecting, but it certainly isn’t this. Before him is – there are trees, but they don’t overwhelm the scene. The landscape before him dips and peaks, the ground curves and seems to bend, so absolutely organic that it could never have been sculpted. On all sides, the ground rises up, creating what is almost a room, walls, contained and dappled yellow where the sun seeps through. Nothing bad could ever happen here, Theo thinks. It’s silent, and still, and everything he hates, but it’s not scary. It feels like Felix, otherworldly, sinuous and elegant, beautiful and just – like nothing he’s ever seen before. He could spend the rest of his life here. It would be an honour.

                New York feels like another planet. Lowestoft feels like another planet. The motorcycle ride feels like a centuries old dream. This place, it feels like it’s been here forever, and Theo has this feeling in his gut, knows it’s the beast part of him, some part of his hind brain, that tells him that this place will be here long after he is gone. He takes a step inside, and the ground slopes downwards, and it’s hard, with his leg, to follow the slope, but the next second Felix’s hand is slipping into his again, and Felix is letting him lean into him, and together, they walk into this sanctuary, and it’s like stepping out of the world into something beyond words, something so old, something which demands respect, hushed voices. The closest thing Theo can find to compare it to is a library, except there are no books here, just whispering trees, the rustle of leafs, birds flitting from branch to branch. Suddenly, Theo realises it’s not silent. That Felix was right. There’s so much noise it’s difficult to catalogue, but he finds himself wanting to. To separate everything he hears and to let it roll around his brain, and ain’t that a thing?

                They reach a plateau, and Theo is still leaning heavily on Felix’s shoulder. They stand there, like the only two living boys in the world, and when Theo barks out a laugh, he surprises himself, and Felix, who looks up at him, smiling.

                “You like it,” Felix says, and his voice is soft, tempered to the environment. Theo likes it. Theo likes it so much he can’t begin to thank Felix for giving him this, this gift. For allowing him to stop. For giving him permission. For so much.

                “I like it,” he murmurs, and leans his head slightly towards Felix’s, letting his hair brush against the other boy’s. “Thank you.”

                They’re quiet again, and Theo feels Felix shift slightly, so his nose drags across Theo’s cheek, light and undemanding, but there.

                “It’s sacred,” Theo says, and realises he’s stumbled across the word he was looking for. He never gave much thought to religion, never searched for the divine. And he hasn’t found it now – it’s not some manmade god he’s found here, it’s something much harder to fathom.

                “Sacred,” Felix echoes, and Theo feels the drag of Felix’s lips against his cheek. If he moved his head just a little, their lips would meet, but there’s something to this teasing, almost but not quite touch that feels so much more than chasing after Felix’s mouth with his own.

                There’s an old tractor tyre sitting off in one of the corners of the strange outdoor room they’re in. Felix leads Theo over to it, and Theo sits down heavily, Felix following him, their thighs so close there’s no space between them, Felix’s hand coming to rest on the knobble of Theo’s right knee, and Felix’s head finding the crook of Theo’s neck, the weight of it reassuring in a way Theo could never have imagined.

                Theo closes his eyes. Knows in that moment that he is going to kiss Felix. Not now though, but that it is a thing that is going to happen. A future event, carved in stone for the pair of them. He’s never kissed a boy before, and he wonders if Felix’s lips will be soft like a girl’s or different, somehow. They felt soft enough on his cheek, and they look plush, red like strawberries. But all that will come. Because he has to tell Felix, has to tell him what he did, and Felix has to know, because it’s not fair otherwise, because the scales are weighted heavily and unevenly, and balance must be restored. And because, Theo realises, he’s never told anybody why before. Never vocalised it. Always stepping around the question. But Felix – Felix is possibly the only person in the world who could possibly understand. Who wouldn’t find those seven words, seven words, an impossibly small excuse for the hurt he’s caused, who wouldn’t find them pathetic. Who would understand that sometimes, seven words is enough to explain everything.

                “About three blocks from my apartment,” Theo begins, and Felix shifts his head, a little, and Theo knows he’s listening. Theo closes his eyes, but the dark is too overwhelming, he needs the sunlight to tell this story. “About three blocks from my apartment, there’s a set of traffic lights. There’s an accident about once a week because the cabs go too fast when they cross the intersection. Sometimes it’s pedestrians, sometimes it’s cyclists, sometimes it’s other cabs. I’d always hear the sirens, and know, and wonder. Did somebody die today? And it was weird, because it seemed like there was nothing anybody could do about it. I mean, you can’t move New York around just because people are getting hurt, even if you’d like to. So, people just kept getting hurt and going too fast and I’d hear the sirens.

                “It gets hot, and I never had air con, so I’d slip out onto the fire escape and smoke, listening to the city around me. When I was a kid, I found it reassuring, that it was alive. Growing up in Brooklyn, then moving to the city proper, I felt like I belonged. I wasn’t a tourist, I wasn’t – I wasn’t slow like a tourist. I moved with the crowd, never taking a moment to really look at anything, because slowing down meant you weren’t a part of it. The movement of it all, like a river of people, different faces, but always the same river. Pounding the sidewalks. I used to wonder how they didn’t crumble into dust. So many people. Thousands, millions probably. And I was one of them.

                “You feel anonymous. Everyone else is. There’s no time to really see anybody, so they’re not real. They’re people, but it’s abstract. Removed, somehow. You’re surrounded by humanity, and at first, it’s brilliant. Because you’re moving with the flow, you’re one of them, and everything everyone ever said to you about you being different – well, they must have been wrong, because look, nobody’s even looking twice at you. Just keep walking, stay in sync, keep moving with the current, and you’ll be okay. And when you go back to your empty apartment at the end of the day, the smell of the city on your clothes, smog and sweat and grease, it should feel like a victory, right? Another day in the big city, another day and nobody noticed that you’re wrong. That there’re cracks inside you that go right down to the foundations. Because nobody’s even looking at you. You got away with it. The city forgives everything, because it forgets in an instant.

                “But – here’s the rub. You sit alone in your apartment, or on the fire escape, and you’re lonely. Because you’re surrounded by people and you feel like it should be enough, and it’s not. It’s not even close. It just makes it worse. You wonder what’s wrong with you, because you’re doing everything right, and you’re still on your own at the end of the day. You go to work, and exchange pleasantries, but nobody really cares. Faces change, co-workers come and go, and you realise that the city forgets. And it’s not a blessing. It’s a curse. Because you realise that if you stopped going to work, nobody would wonder where you were. If you stopped buying groceries, nobody would ask after you. You’re surrounded by people, and not one of them gives a damn about you. Whether you live or die. So you start to wonder. Or you realise you’ve always been wondering. Whether it does actually matter at all.

                “If you stop in the middle of the sidewalk, people barge past you, elbowing you and cursing, as though you’re an obstacle, something in the way. I wanted to stop, to scream. Just to see if anybody would even notice. You see so many different things in the city, that you don’t really give anything a second glance. You become immune to the quirks of humanity. You Photoshop reality. You just have to keep walking.

                “When you said you would go to the crying kids in the playground, it made me think of the city. Because I’d seen people crying, sometimes in a contained, gentle way, and sometimes violently, angrily, as though their world was ending. And I never stopped. Never looked twice. That’s what the city shapes you to do. There’s no time to stop. So you don’t. You have to keep moving. Because if you get left behind – you’ll never catch up.

                “I got paranoid about being left behind. I spent all night on the fire escape, finishing one cigarette and using it to light the next. It was the only time I allowed myself to be still. And even then, I felt like I was failing somehow. Shouldn’t I have a social life? Friends? A girlfriend? I honestly believed I could have a girlfriend, if I tried hard enough, I could change something as fundamental as that. I just wanted to be like everybody else. And as I airbrushed out the glitches, the people who were falling by the wayside, I made the idea of normal into something so utterly unattainable I was setting myself up to fail.

                “I hadn’t slept in three days, and everything was slightly sideways, slightly off. I’d smoked the last of my cigarettes and needed more. I hadn’t been into work, had only left the fire escape to use the bathroom. I hadn’t eaten. I just – I just needed more cigarettes. I thought I’d walk to the shop and get some more. Then I’d figure everything out. I was fine. This was a blip. I was fine.

                “The taxis were going past and I was getting close to that intersection, the intersection where people got hurt, and I reached it and I just. Stopped. I stood at the edge of the sidewalk, close enough that I could feel the rush of the cars against my skin as they passed me. And suddenly, it became very clear. Like I knew what I had to do. I knew with crystal clarity that the only way to stop in this city was to stop permanently. No getting left behind,” Theo paused, because the seven words were on the tip of his tongue and he’d never said them aloud before. He hoped that Felix would understand. Because they were all he had.

                “I wanted to see what would happen,” Theo said. Seven words. An excuse. A confession. A plea to the universe.

                “I waited for the lights to change, and then I ran. I ran straight into the traffic, where they couldn’t miss me. It was the work of seconds. I remember the crunch, realising it was my body, the sick slick crunch was my bones breaking, and I wondered why I was still able to think and feel. It was weird. I’d expected – nothing. I had wanted nothing. And yet I was on the tarmac, and I was still breathing, and I wasn’t even losing consciousness, and all I knew was that my leg shouldn’t be sticking out like that, that was wrong, and I started laughing, because from where I was laying I could see the sidewalk. And a few people had stopped to look. But even as I watched, they were rejoining the flow. They’d forgotten me already. And then – then the taxi driver, the guy who’d hit me, got out and started cussing me out, and I just laughed. Because it was funny.

                “And then the sirens were for me. I’d broken my leg in three places, two compound fractures, and I’d bruised my ribs. The doctors told me I was lucky. Lucky. I alternated between bouts of laughter and bursting into tears. If this is lucky, I thought, then I’d hate to see the guy who’s unlucky.

                “My mom came. They talked about sectioning me. She talked them down. I told her about the city, about how it forgets. I think – no, I know I scared her. I scared her so much she sent me here, to live with my aunt. So here I am. A grown man, living in a single bedroom with his aunt, stuck with a leg which aches to walk on, and nothing to show for my life except this fear, deep in my bones, this fear of stopping. Because I even fucked that up. I didn’t manage to stop. I just hurt myself real bad. I wanted it to stop. But it didn’t. And they tell me I’m lucky.”

                Felix shuffles his head away from the crook of Theo’s neck, and cups Theo’s chin gently with one hand, bringing them face to face. They’re too close, sharing air, breathing in sync, Felix’s brown eyes boring into Theo’s grey ones. Theo feels like he’s being judged. Not to be found guilty or innocent, but by some deity or other, to be found worthy or unworthy.

                “I’m sorry,” Felix says, his hand still cupping Theo’s jaw, his thumb rubbing small circles there. “I’m sorry,” he repeats.

                Nobody’s been sorry for what happened to Theo before. They’ve been sad, or angry, but nobody’s ever just said sorry. Like he’d suffered a loss. Like it wasn’t his fault. And, somehow, when Felix said it, it felt like forgiveness.

                Theo leant forward, resting his forehead against Felix’s, their noses brushing. Theo could feel Felix’s breath on his skin, little puffs of life.

                “This isn’t ideal, but I’d really like to kiss you now,” Theo murmurs, lips almost touching Felix’s. Felix draws back for a moment, considering.

                “This isn’t ideal,” Felix agrees, “but I’m going to let you. And – I want you to know. Before. Because it’s important. I want you kiss you because you’re you. Not because of what happened to you. I want to kiss you because you’re Theodore and you’re here and because you were so grumpy in that café that I had to talk to you to figure out why. And now I know why. And I still want to kiss you. So.”

                Neither could tell you which of them leans forward first, but that’s the nature of a kiss, isn’t it? Theo meets Felix’s lips and they’re soft, so soft, and he lets out something that might be a squeak, a small noise from the back of his throat, and he can feel Felix grin against his lips, and he wants to taste that grin, bite that grin, so he does, and Felix’s mouth opens to him, and he wants to taste that too, and Felix lets him. Felix is different from the girls, because Theo actually wants to kiss him, and there’s no rush to it, it’s unhurried and exploratory, almost but not quite innocent, and when Felix’s tongue runs against his, he marvels at the oddness of humanity, that this is a thing he can do, that they can share. He’s in the woods, with a boy, a boy who wants to kiss him, and he’s kissing him, and this boy knows the worst thing he’s ever done, and this boy doesn’t care. No – he cares, but it’s okay. Because this boy knows what it feels like, to wish for something to happen just to break the awful monotony the blackness brings. To want to see what would happen.

                The trees rustle above them, around them, surrounding them, a sanctuary, a place outside of the world, away, and let somehow the closest to home Theo’s ever felt. Felix’s hand moves through Theo’s short curls, and Theo can’t help but be utterly thankful. For everything. He nips at Felix’s bottom lip, pulling at it with his teeth, and Felix responds with such eagerness that Theo knows, knows, that if he had to do it all again, he would. Just for this moment.

                The world seems to slow, nearly to a stop. There’s little more than hushed breaths and small, held back moans. Everything moves in slow motion, and Theo isn’t thinking, not really, just being, existing in the moment in a way he never has before. Felix keeps him grounded, a hand on his knee or fingers in his hair. They sit on the tyre, the only two people in the world, at least for now, and the world allows them this, the world gives them a space to breathe, and slowly, each boy remembers how to, each realising at slightly different moments, an unconscious shift in perception that mostly goes unnoticed, except for a deep, settling sense of calm, and of belonging.

                Later, as he watches the sun set over the fields, Felix’s hand in his, Theo will think about the word sacred and wonder how on earth he found the most perfect word. And then, he will tighten his grip on Felix’s hand, and watch as the sun settles itself down to sleep, safe in the knowledge it will rise again, unhurried, unrushed, promising all the time in the world.

 

“It’s opener, out there, in the wide, open air.”

Oh, The Places You’ll Go – Dr. Seuss