Authors: Suki Fleet
“Are your family from Eastern Europe originally?”
“My mum is,” I said with a frown, wondering how he’d known.
“You have great bone structure, Sasha.” He gave me a knowing smile and sipped his wine. I didn’t know if it was just a compliment or if he was coming on to me. “One of the models I use for portraits is from Bucharest, though he now lives in Dubrovnik. You look quite a lot like him.”
He reached into his tight jacket for his phone and flicked through a few screens of photographs. Most of them were nudes.
“This is Marco.” He held the phone out to me.
The man on the screen was beautiful—and naked—though he was tastefully posed, lying on his side. He had thick dark hair and pale skin, but there were no other similarities I could see. He looked nothing like me.
“I thought you were a portrait painter,” I mumbled, glancing around the room. My glass sculpture sparkled in the artificial brightness, throwing a thousand stars onto the walls and the carpet.
“Photography is part of the process. Sometimes I sell the photographs with the finished art. Some people like to buy the full process.”
“Sometimes I model for people.” I couldn’t stop the words, even though I knew the twisted path this could lead me down.
A second later, Thomas appeared and handed me a drink. Gratefully I swallowed a mouthful, not even tasting it. My mouth was completely dry.
“Have you ever been photographed, professionally, I mean?”
I’d read about masochism, and I wondered if that’s why I did it. I wondered if that’s what I should have told Thomas the day he asked me—if I should have said I let people photograph me because I wanted the pain it caused me to be seen like that. I wanted to hurt. I deserved it. It wasn’t about being wanted—it was punishment.
As John Greene held my gaze, all I could see was me, naked, on Jessica Cassidy’s Tumblr page. Then that image flicked away, and the dark space was filled with a dozen more images—like the broken velvet chair I’d draped myself across in Jeff Deal’s cold sitting room. The walls had been bare, the flat empty. He’d called himself a photographer. But he’d only been a gangly student helper in our art class. He’d invited me to his flat to model for him, and after he’d taken a few shots, he’d asked me if he could touch me, but when he’d gone into the next room to change his camera lens, I’d grabbed my clothes and run.
Next to me, Thomas frowned.
Perhaps he knew if John Greene asked me to model for him right then, I would have said yes, and I hated myself for it. Especially because Thomas was right there with me. I wanted him to shake me. Make me stop.
Everything about this situation hurt, a thousand shards of glass cutting into my skin. And the worst thing was I wanted more. In some small dark recess of my mind, I wanted the shards to cut deeper. I wanted to be blinded, annihilated by the pain.
I smiled even though I felt so ugly. I had no idea why I needed this stranger to find me beautiful. Why it mattered.
Ugliness was all I could see. All I could ever see.
“Excuse me,” I said, roughly shoving my drink into Thomas’s unready hand. It spilled a little—pink drops like watered-down blood splattered on the carpet. It was only lemonade. Pink lemonade.
I felt like I was going to throw up. I needed the bathroom.
Panicking a little, I realized I had no clue where to go. Upstairs? I really didn’t want to go upstairs. I glanced wildly round the room.
“The bathroom is through the kitchen,” Thomas said, looking concerned and pointing toward the back of the house.
I’m not sure how he knew what I needed. But I was grateful he did. I didn’t want to make a scene, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I needed to curl in on myself for a moment, protect all my damaged, exposed edges. I had a few of those. Sometimes I felt like I was a broken vase held together with old ribbon and string. And one day I would fall apart, disintegrate completely.
The bathroom door was closed, the light on. Someone was humming within. I backed away into the empty kitchen. On the table was a crate of wine and beer. I took a bottle of beer, saw the back door was open, and fled into the cold darkness.
are you doing out here?”
I was in the garden, sitting in the wild overgrown grasses at the very end, pulling apart the grass seeds and squashing them to a pulp. The night smelled like summer—the air rich and full of a promise I wasn’t sure it could fulfill.
Thomas was a little breathless as he sat down. I’d begun to wonder about that.
“It’s quiet,” I said.
“You don’t much like parties, do you?”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Though I wasn’t sure what he was sorry for.
Inviting me, perhaps?
I thought gloomily.
It was too dark for Thomas to see my face. I was glad. The pretense that I didn’t feel anything, that nothing affected me, would be shot out of the water if he saw the swollen mess crying had made of my eyes. I hated crying. It made me feel weak and vulnerable, and obviously I was anything but. I sighed.
“You should go back in,” I said. “They’ll be sending out a search party.”
I tried to make it sound like a joke, but it wasn’t—it was pathetic, but I really wanted him to go back inside and leave me alone. I couldn’t deal with how I’d felt, how I’d acted in there. And I wasn’t selfish enough to want to ruin Thomas’s birthday by going back inside and saying or doing something even worse. I knew I had a tendency to self-destruct, and sitting out here was as close as I got to damage control.
“Don’t be silly,” he said.
He breathed heavily and lay down, his head near my lap, his eyes black circles looking up at the darkness of me. “So, I get one wish on my birthday, but I’m still not sure yet whether it’s going to come true.”
Thomas’s expression was so open and relaxed, I began to suspect he was a little bit drunk. There may have been more substance to the pink lemonade than I’d suspected.
“Maybe you should wish for something else, then,” I said. My voice was flat.
I wasn’t sure what he wanted from me. I wasn’t sure if I could give it to him. I was a road to nowhere.
Perhaps I was always going to feel confused when it came to boys I liked more than I wanted to. More than I should.
Laughter from the party shivered in the air around us.
After a minute Thomas sat up again. He looked around restlessly, as if he wanted to do something, say something, but he couldn’t quite get it out. His mood was contagious, and it was beginning to make me feel wound too tight.
“Sometimes I don’t get you,” he said finally. “I thought….” He trailed off. His eyes were pleading with mine, so earnestly I could almost
And yes, perhaps a part of me did know what he wanted. Perhaps that part of me wanted it too. But at the same time, I felt as though I’d been dumped in some unknown region without a map, without anything to guide me out at all. I turned my head away.
I stared at the house all lit up bright, lights dancing, voices drifting around on the whispering wind, and the sane part of my mind wished so hard that someone would call Thomas back inside right now.
“Please leave me alone.” I said it as kindly as I could. I wanted him to understand I didn’t mean for always, just for right now.
“Sasha… talk to me.”
It felt like he was pushing for something from me, something I didn’t understand, and more than that, I didn’t like being pushed. At all.
“Please?” he carried on. “I invited you because I want to spend my birthday with you. I don’t care about the party, really. We can stay out here. It doesn’t matter.”
Every word made me want to strike out. I didn’t want to strike out at
—I really, really didn’t—but he was the only person here.
And I hated that there was a certain satisfaction in knowing I could hurt someone—like punching a mirror, the pain was a release. And I knew exactly how to hurt Thomas. I wished I didn’t.
“I would have said yes if he’d asked to photograph me,” I said, Thomas would know I was talking about John Greene, of course. The words were bitter shards of glass drawn out from within me and thrown at him. Sharp as any blade. “I would have modeled for him.”
Thomas flinched. He took a shuddery breath and turned away from me to face the dark garden behind us. I heard him swallow, and although I waited, he didn’t speak. It was funny, but hurting him didn’t make me feel satisfied at all, not even painfully. I just felt worse. A thousand, thousand times worse. And now I had no idea what to do about it. No idea how I could undo it. My chest ached with an unfamiliar sadness when I saw his shoulders were trembling.
Unsteadily I got up. I couldn’t stand sitting there with him like that. I felt like the worst person. I wanted to walk away, but I couldn’t. I wanted to tell him I didn’t mean what I’d just said, but I couldn’t do that either.
“He kept staring at you,” Thomas said in an anguished whisper, his back still to me. “I hate the way he kept staring.”
“I wanted him to, and
I fucking hated it too
Thomas turned around. He brought his hand up and wiped across his eyes, but I watched another tear escape and slip down his cheek. I don’t think I’d ever hated
more than at that moment.
“So why? Why would you have said yes to him?”
“Because I’m a coward.”
Because I want to hurt. Because a thousand reasons I can’t articulate.
Because I can’t say no.
Perhaps that was the truth at last. Though I doubted anyone would believe it. I spent my whole life pushing everyone away so I wouldn’t have to face up to the fact that
wasn’t in my vocabulary. It had been taken from me somehow.
Except… I would say no to Thomas.
And I would say no because… I didn’t feel like a coward when I was with him. I didn’t feel so afraid. As if he’d given the word back to me. Given me permission to use it.
And yet right now he was looking at me as though he agreed I was a coward, and I just couldn’t stand to see it.
I turned and ran.
My name echoed after me, but I didn’t stop.
was pounding by the time I made it back to the estate. Broken glass glittered beneath the streetlight outside the tower block, the shards sharp and clear, but I stepped over them. I didn’t want them. I didn’t want anything, just to be curled in the dip in my bed, safe and still. It was only when I reached the thirty-second floor and saw no light glowing under the bottom of the door that I realized Corinne was out. It was someone’s leaving party from her shift at work. I’d forgotten. Hitting the light switch, I slumped down in the corridor outside the flat and waited for the timer to run out. Paint flaked off the walls beneath my fingertips, and the concrete floor was so cold, it felt wet. I heard an echo of a door opening or closing somewhere deep in the bowels of the building and held my breath, imagining footsteps on the stairs, a nameless force making its way up here to claim me, all smoke and darkness, John Greene’s hunger in its eyes.
I did this to myself all the time—created nightmarish beings probably only fearsome enough to scare a child. But stupidly they terrified me.
I couldn’t sit out here any longer.
Digging my keys out of my pocket, I steeled myself to the smell and the damp darkness of our flat and opened the door.
I didn’t switch on the flickering hall light. Instead I pretended my eyes were closed and walked straight to my bedroom, kicked off my shoes, and fell into bed.
Shivering, I sank into my dip and pulled the duvet up over my head. I breathed in the scent of my sweat on the sheets and welcomed the numbness that shrouded my heart.
I let my lungs fill, slow slow slow. I thought of nothing. Not Thomas. Not how much I wanted to take it all back. Nothing.
I was very nearly asleep when there was a quick knock at the door.
I blinked in the grainy darkness, and my heart rate picked up speed.
No one, no one at all,
knocked on our door.
The silence stretched out, and into it I imagined every stupid horror movie plot I’d ever seen, the world narrowing down to the blood-filled thump of my heart.
Another knock. Jesus, I was going to have a heart attack.
“Sasha?” The voice was breathless.
Thomas? Crap. Holy Christ, it was just Thomas!
Swallowing hard, I jumped out of bed and darted down the corridor to open the door.
Thomas blinked at me. He looked pretty awful, his skin pasty instead of pleasantly flushed, and there was an inhaler in his hand.
“Think… I might need… to sit down,” he wheezed.
“You have asthma,” I stated.
I led him inside, hit the light, and shivered as it flickered sickly around us. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic at Thomas seeing the inside of our dump of a flat, but I also didn’t much fancy him passing out in the hallway outside it either.
“Sit down,” I instructed, pulling his sleeve and directing him toward the sad excuse for a sofa in the living room.
All wide-eyed and spacey, he looked like he needed a little instruction.
Shakily he brought the hand holding his inhaler up to his mouth and took another hit. When he tried to breathe in, it sounded like air hissing from a tire through a very small hole.
“Should I call someone?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t seem to be quite with me.
It perhaps wasn’t a compliment, but Corinne said one of my greatest talents was my ability to appear emotionless, whether I was feeling elation, fear, or utter panic. Right now Thomas was starting to push my all-out panic buttons, and I couldn’t have been more thankful it didn’t show.
“Thomas. Look at me,” I said, kneeling on the rough carpet in front of him, placing my hands on his knees and pressing firmly as I ran them up and down his thighs. “Look. At. Me.”