Authors: Suki Fleet
In her hand she had a bag of shopping, but it didn’t look like anything more exciting than a cucumber and a loaf of bread. I wasn’t hungry anymore anyway.
“Are you sick?”
“No. Got wet, now I’m cold,” I said. My hand was shaking as it held my phone under the pillow, out of sight.
“Did you go to school today?”
I stared at her.
“I got a call at work this afternoon saying you hadn’t turned up for classes this afternoon. Again.”
Shit. I felt queasy.
Corinne raised her eyebrows, waiting for me to come up with some pathetic excuse, something she could yell at me about, but I could see she was too tired to fight with me. There were dark rings around her eyes and her hair was a mess, as if she’d run her hands through it too many times.
In the few childhood photographs we had, we looked alike. But not anymore. Corinne was seven years older than me, and now our features only echoed one another faintly. I’d become all straight lines and hard angles, and Corinne was all curves. There was nothing soft about me anymore, nothing anyone would ever want to hold.
Her eyes tiredly searched my face as though looking for a way inside my head to see what was going on. She reminded me of Mum when she did that. It made me feel even worse.
“What am I supposed to do, Sasha?” she implored, shaking her head.
I didn’t know. I really didn’t.
After half a minute, she gave up trying to outstare me and closed the door to my room.
I phoned Thomas back when I heard the TV in the living room go on—the catchy theme tune of some soap opera or another replacing the quiet.
“My sister came home,” I said in a barely there voice when Thomas answered. My heart was beating fast.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said faintly. I knew I didn’t sound very convincing. “She wanted to know why I skipped classes this afternoon.” I paused, a dark weight growing inside me, heavy with the way she looked at me—with the way everyone looked at me—all just waiting for me to fuck up. “I’m not someone you should hang around with, you know.”
I meant it. Thomas was a top student. He got good grades. He was destined for a normal life—destined to have friends who went around to his house and didn’t insult him, a good job where people would tell him what a fucking amazing artist he was instead of asking him what the fuck it was he did again, a family smiling and happy to be around him. Fuck, he
a normal life right now!
“I want to hang round with you. I think I kinda know what I’m getting into here,” he whispered gently.
My throat felt choked, because I had absolutely no idea. I drew my eyebrows together and pressed my face into the pillow to alleviate the pressure behind my eyes. What the fuck was happening to me? I didn’t fucking cry on the phone. Or anytime anyone else was around. But I couldn’t put the stupid thing down. I wanted to hear Thomas’s voice. I think I needed to.
“I’m a fucking awful person,” I croaked back.
I truly despised people feeling sorry for themselves. But it was the truth. I had no redeeming qualities. I
a fucking awful person.
It didn’t mean I wanted to be that way, though. And I hated myself all the more because even though I didn’t want to be, I just was.
“No, you’re not.” I could hear a rustle as though he was vigorously shaking his head. “And one day I’m going to show you how completely wrong you are. You’re going to see, okay? One day, Sasha, you’re going to see.”
next week, Thomas walked with me at lunch as I wandered slowly around the estate, searching for glass. Every day he bought a large portion of chips from the chippy on the corner and shared them with me without a word about where my lunch might be.
Perhaps he was only being kind—he was a kind person—so I ate the chips and tried not to feel like I was swallowing my pride.
“Where did you live before this?”
For a minute I pretended I hadn’t heard him, and I bent low to the ground as if I’d found a particularly difficult-to-retrieve piece, needing to let the shock wave of memory pass.
“By the sea.”
That much was true. I’d only moved in with Corinne at the end of last September after a summer spent alone and penniless in an empty flat in Brighton. A shopkeeper had caught me taking the out-of-date food they were chucking in the bins and called social services. I didn’t tell social services Mum had left me and gone to Spain with some bloke she was fucking. I didn’t really have to tell them anything as I was over sixteen, but Corinne was down on some file as my next of kin, and there was no way I could pay the rent on Mum’s bedsit, so she got saddled with me.
“I’d like to live by the sea,” Thomas said. “But only in the summer. I bet it’s pretty grim in winter.”
I shrugged. I hated Brighton.
“I lived here until I was twelve. Up on the Hillside estate. When Dad walked out, Corinne left home, and Mum took me with her to Brighton.”
I didn’t know why I was telling him. But perhaps he could see I didn’t want to talk about it. We walked back to school in silence.
Sometimes we walked together after school too. Just across the fields until our paths separated.
birthday next Friday…. Will you come over?” Thomas asked hesitantly.
Even though I’d spent so much time with him these past few weeks, and I was more comfortable in his presence than I’d ever been with anyone before, our face-to-face conversations still sometimes began on unsure footing as Thomas’s shyness took control of his tongue.
On the phone with me, Thomas was more at ease than I was—as if the distance gave him confidence—but this, right now, was as though we’d lost seven months and it was the first time he’d ever spoken to me, except he wasn’t stuttering like he had the first time. I shook my head at the ridiculousness and studied my sculpture.
We were in art again. I still wasn’t supposed to be communicating with anyone in class, but Thomas stood in front of me so Sparks couldn’t see.
“Is that a no?” Thomas said quietly. I was shocked to see he looked wounded and realized he’d taken my head shake as my answer.
“No. I was shaking my head because….” I shifted a piece of yellow glass about a millimeter on the base and squinted at it, thinking it wasn’t quite in the right position yet. “Never mind. Yes, of course I’ll come.”
Thomas’s expression brightened instantly.
I forced myself to focus on my sculpture so the bubbles in my stomach would dampen down. I tried to imagine I was full of flat lemonade rather than champagne. It wasn’t working.
“My gran has got this artist guy, a friend of hers, to come. He’s got a gallery down in London. He likes my drawings. He might take a couple back with him.”
Drawings. Sketches. That’s what Thomas did. I’d seen them last week, forced myself to walk over to him when Mr. Sparks was out of the room, told him they were good. I’d meant it. It wasn’t that hard.
“I want him to see what you do too. Would you bring something?”
I frowned. He wanted me to bring a sculpture to his birthday? All my sculptures were here at school—I never took them anywhere. They were far too heavy.
“My gran can come in the car and pick them up,” he said as if he could read my mind.
“Is that what you want?” I asked, puzzled at his request and wondering if there was some subtext going on that I was missing.
“Yes, that’s what I want,” he answered, eyes shining happily, though his smile looked relieved.
Thomas a present—though I was possibly too nervous to ever give it to him. I kept taking it out of its box and staring at it, holding it up to the light and trying to work out if it was grossly inappropriate. I’d spent all the money I had on it, and some of the secret stash Corinne hid in her bedroom too, knowing she would kill me if she found out.
What if he thought I was trying to say something with it I wasn’t? Because I wasn’t trying to say anything, was I? What if he thought I was trying to say something and hated what it was I wasn’t trying to say?
I was tying myself up in knots just thinking about it.
I’d always liked to imagine I didn’t need anyone, that I was fine on my own. But I wasn’t. Perhaps I’d been so pathetically desperate for a friend that I was adhering myself to the one person who’d shown the slightest inclination to like me.
people, and I’d
people, but they were mostly interchangeable. There was no one I wanted to stay just as they were because I
who they were more than anything. I’d never had someone reach out to me like Thomas had. I’d never had someone not give up when I’d pushed them away.
It fucking terrified me, and I didn’t understand it in the slightest.
had picked up one of my smaller sculptures in the morning—a clear glass wave that glittered in the sunlight as we carried it across the car park. All I had left to do now was get myself over to Thomas’s house by seven. But I was delaying. I took a shower and brushed my teeth. I stared at the mirror over the sink in the bathroom, not really certain of the boy staring back at me. My stomach was full of slippery leaping frogs. I was a frog boy—my eyes were too big, my hair too dark, too messy, too long. I was going to be sick. I brushed my teeth again and somehow made it out the front door.
Still, I was late. The sun was starting its long slow descent, and the evening light was deep, deep blue and full of unexpected shadows.
I’d wrapped Thomas’s present in some pretty silver paper I’d bought in a gift shop in town, and now I wanted to fling the whole thing in the bushes. I stared at it and then shoved it in my back pocket.
My hands were shaking so badly, I couldn’t even knock on the front door.
But it turned out I didn’t have to. Thomas opened the door after about thirty seconds of me just standing there, frozen in place.
“Sorry. I couldn’t wait for you to knock any longer,” he said, trying to contain the smile that seemed intent on splitting his face in two.
was full of his gran’s delicate paper cuts. They were beautiful as a snowstorm—everything monochrome and striking. The front room was set out like a showcase of Thomas’s work. It was slightly weird and pretentious and seemed to say
This is Thomas, and he’s an artist—come look at what he’s done.
My sculpture was on a table at the end of the room, where it reflected the light coming in through the window and cast weird fractured shadows over everyone.
It was Thomas’s birthday, and we were the youngest people there. None of Thomas’s other friends had been invited. It was mostly his extended family and old family friends—not his parents, though—they were still away on some mission or another and would be for another few months. He introduced me to everyone. It was strange, but I’d never seen him so happy. His enthusiasm was like a mildly infectious disease.
When the doorbell rang, he left me talking to his gran, or rather she was talking
me, which I didn’t mind. She liked my sculpture. She said it had a very cold, ethereal beauty. I nodded, feeling a little detached—it was just a sculpture; it wasn’t part of me. Once I’d finished them, I didn’t really like to look too closely.
“Sasha.” Thomas’s hand touched my arm. I could feel the excitement thrumming off him as if he were holding a severed electric cable. “I’d like you to meet John Greene,” he said, his eyes shining. “The guy with the gallery,” he mouthed.
Middle-aged but dressed like a man refusing to accept it, John Greene fixed his gaze on me as Thomas introduced us. Reluctantly I took his proffered hand but inside my guts squirmed. He looked at me appraisingly, and I was sure I saw a hunger in his eyes, a hunger I recognized. I felt as if I was trapped in a vat of honey.
Some small part of me told me I was being irrational. My reaction was irrational. But whenever I sensed the man looking at me, I wanted to run. Run so far my lungs burst. And at the same time, I didn’t. At the same time, I wanted him to look, to strip away the layers and see what was beneath.
And I wanted him to do it because it hurt. Because I wanted it to hurt. I was so fucked up.
I was sick in the head.
Everyone treated John Greene as though he was a celebrity, hanging on his every word. Thomas was the only one who didn’t have his tongue virtually hanging out. Though that was probably because Thomas spent most of the time looking at me—then pretending he wasn’t when I caught his eye.
I know he really wanted John Greene to like his art, but he didn’t suck up to him or treat him with any more quiet respect than he treated anyone else. I liked that.
Standing next to the table with my sculpture on it, I watched John Greene talking to Thomas and his gran. Thomas glanced over at me and smiled, beckoning me with a small movement of his head. Reluctantly I walked over. I was happier not having to interact with anyone. Well, anyone but Thomas.
“Want another drink?” Thomas pointed to my empty glass. I nodded. John Greene’s eyes were like needles in my skin. Thomas’s gran touched my arm as she moved away to talk to one of Thomas’s uncles behind us, leaving me alone with John Greene. I wanted to crawl under the carpet.
“It’s Thomas’s birthday, and yet you two are the only young people here,” he said with a smile.
I nodded, hating that his words mirrored my earlier thoughts.
“You two are good friends?”
I didn’t know what he was implying, but it sounded as if he was implying something.
I nodded again, and John Greene pursed his lips as if to work out how he was going to try and get me to talk.