Authors: Suki Fleet
I was so far from calm right now. I shook my head, perplexed. I didn’t make people feel safe. How could I, when I barely felt safe myself?
“I should walk you home before my sister gets back,” I said.
Somehow I expected him to resist, or at least to try to restart the conversation I’d derailed, but he got up. Still a little unsteady, despite what he said about being okay.
“I can walk back on my own. You don’t need to see me home.”
I raised my eyebrow. “Don’t be an idiot,” I said.
He’d just had an asthma attack. There was no way I was letting him get home on his own.
was different in the dark, everything glittering and fake, every sound amplified, it seemed, by the shadows. All my senses were on hyperalert, and I was glad I was with Thomas. Walking back through this place on your own could be like walking around in a nightmare.
We meandered slowly through the estate and down the nicer residential streets beyond it. We didn’t talk much. I don’t think either of us knew what to say. I found myself listening carefully to Thomas’s breathing lest he exert himself too much. Although my panic had died down, I could still feel the sharp edge of it if I thought about Thomas not being able to breathe.
On the tidy pathway outside his house, Thomas stopped. “Do you want to come in? You could stay over?” he said. His tone was nonchalant, but I still got the impression he really wanted me to say yes.
Inside the house it looked as though the party was over. All the people gone, the lights low. I could see Thomas’s gran tidying away the glasses and the plates. He would be okay. His gran would look after him. Although I wanted to stay, I knew I couldn’t.
“I should get back.” I gestured over my shoulder in case he’d forgotten in the space of five seconds which way we’d just come from.
“Okay.” Thomas nodded, looking down.
His arm twitched at his side, and I thought he was going to reach out and touch me, but he didn’t.
“Text me when you get home, then, so I at least know you did, okay?”
I nodded and watched as he walked up the path and put his hand on the door.
“Happy birthday,” I mouthed as he went inside, realizing I hadn’t actually wished it to him.
was still pretty bad climbing up all the echoey stairs, I’d left the lights on in the flat so I could go straight inside, even though Corinne was still not home.
As soon as I was inside, exhaustion stole my strength. I wanted to just sink to the floor, curl up, and sleep. Had this been a good night or a bad one? I couldn’t work it out.
Leaning against the wall in the hallway, I texted Thomas.
Immediately my phone rang, Thomas’s number flashing up on the screen.
“I want to talk to you until my birthday is officially over,” he said when I answered, then added, “Is that okay?”
I glanced at the kitchen clock. We had half an hour. I was tired, but I liked the idea of falling asleep with Thomas’s voice in my ear.
“Wait a sec.”
I got into bed, the unfamiliar warmth from earlier still suffusing my limbs. I thought about Thomas doing the same, and the fire, when it flared inside me, didn’t seem quite so terrifying anymore. It burned slow and delicious, and I cupped my hand over my erection.
So what if I got turned on talking to my friend on the phone? He didn’t have to know. Ever.
“Yeah, so talk.” I smiled, the expression so foreign on my face. But I knew as soon as Thomas started speaking that he was smiling too, and that made me smile more.
I’d never felt arousal like this. It wasn’t even about sex—it was more to do with thinking about the way he looked at me and the way it made me feel. More to do with how he’d said I made him feel safe. More to do with how he’d known I wanted to hold his hand and acted like it was no big deal, like I wasn’t some sort of abomination. All at once I knew with visceral intensity what he meant that day on the playing field when he’d said he’d rather be wanted by someone he wanted back. I let myself admit I wanted that too.
I slept better that night than I’d ever slept in that damp little room.
up early on Sunday morning with a plan.
The sun was shining weakly through the thick white clouds that covered the sky. It wasn’t a brilliant, bright summer’s day, but it didn’t matter—as long as it wasn’t raining, it would be okay. Corinne was working at the supermarket, so she wouldn’t notice if I was gone all day, though I wasn’t quite sure why I didn’t want her to know. It just felt secret.
There was some salad and some bread in the fridge—I had no idea why Corinne put the bread in the fridge, but she did—so I could make some haphazard sandwiches for a picnic. I would have to borrow some more of Corinne’s money, of course, for the train fare. I did feel guilty about that. But I had every intention of paying her back one day.
At half eight I decided it wasn’t too early and called Thomas as I sat on the sofa in my pants, my right leg jigging up and down as if it had a mind of its own.
“You awake?” I asked when he answered.
“Almost,” he murmured, groggily. “Half a sec.”
I could hear him shifting around.
“You’ve not got anything on today?” I was nervous and worried Thomas was going to say yes, he had plenty of other more worthwhile stuff he had to do, even though we’d talked a lot yesterday and he’d not mentioned any plans.
I stared through to the kitchen, at the sandwiches I had made. They were a mess. I was so bad at making food—it wasn’t hard and unyielding like glass; it was soft and too fragile. There wasn’t enough of anything to try again, though. I tried to quash all the negative thoughts threatening to swarm inside me if I gave them the slightest opening.
“Well, if you’ve got any better plans than spending the day with the phone glued to your ear talking to me again, I’m in. Though I kinda like talking to you quite a bit, so if that could be part of it, that would be good.”
My face flushed. I kinda liked talking to Thomas quite a bit too, and yesterday we’d spoken on the phone for hours. Far longer than I think either of us intended. Every word of our conversation seemed to be imprinted on my brain.
“Yeah, it’s better than that. I’ll pick you up in half an hour.”
After I put the phone down, I showered and dressed. The frog boy in the mirror was gone, temporarily replaced, for today at least, by someone I had never noticed before, someone who didn’t perhaps carry such darkness around with him all the time. At least I hoped he didn’t.
miss it? The sea, I mean—not living near it anymore?”
It had taken us nearly an hour on the train to get to Southend, but it wasn’t that far really, perhaps only twenty miles.
A shifting gray landscape of sea stretched out in front of us. It really shouldn’t have been as beautiful as it was. But there was something breathtaking about all those waves, all that depth, the endless movement.
I sensed the real reason Thomas had asked was because he wanted to hear about my past, but I shook my head, took the coward’s way out again, and said, “Brighton’s a dump.”
It was easier to say that than to explain anything. I hated Brighton for about a thousand reasons, and none of them had anything to do with the town itself. The tawdry seaside beauty of the place, all blue-gray weather and windswept glamour, had been one of the things I’d actually liked.
The day lacked sunshine, but we walked along the pier eating ice cream anyway. Thomas had bought a caramel cone that smelled divine, and every time he flicked out his tongue to eat it, I felt like I’d been Tasered in the balls. He caught me staring, and I looked quickly away.
Echoey fairground music drowned any attempts at conversation, but when we reached the end of the pier, the wind seemed to sweep the music away to give us a little pocket of quiet. We stopped and surveyed the view for a minute, leaning against the railing. The seagulls eyed us wryly. White-headed waves rolled over endlessly below us, the water dark beneath them.
It was a pretty long way down. I closed my eyes, gripping the crumbling iron railing a little tighter.
“Deep enough to jump in?” Thomas asked. I knew he wouldn’t, but the thought made me queasy.
I gave him a tight smile and turned away unsteadily. A bench was free a few meters away. As casually as I could, I walked over to it and sat down. Heights only affected me if I started thinking about them. That was obvious, I supposed. But before I’d stared down, I hadn’t actually thought about the way we were suspended so high above the water on this fragile, and to be honest
, structure of wire and wood.
With a puzzled look on his face, Thomas sat down next to me. He brushed his hair out of his eyes, though the wind seemed determined to sabotage any of his efforts to look at me unblinded. I could see the chain around his neck, and I knew the necklace I had made him was tucked beneath his clothes, against his skin, level with his heart. Little birds were doing figure eights inside my stomach, their wing tips brushing the walls of my chest.
“I don’t like heights,” I muttered, feeling like an idiot.
Thomas nodded in understanding. I felt his hand brush against my leg as he held on to the bench. “Want to walk the beach, then?”
We walked so close together down the pier that my hand touched against his every other step. My skin felt electrified, as if we were building up an electric charge between us. It scared and excited me, but I still had no clue where the boundaries of our friendship lay. Close friends seemed to be the best label I could come up with, but I wasn’t sure it really fit. I’d had so few friends, it was hard to know.
We wandered slowly up the length of beach. After what had happened on Friday, I took care to notice if Thomas appeared breathless or pale, even if it was only a little. I didn’t want to make him aware that I was keeping an eye on him, though, so after a few hundred meters, I suggested we skim stones into the sea. We stood in the shadow of the pier. I liked the symmetry of the structure down here, and I stood in the middle of the struts trying to skim my stones right down the center.
Thomas watched, concentrating on my hands.
“Show me how,” he said after a moment.
He looked down with an embarrassed shrug.
With more patience than I knew I possessed, I showed him how the action was all in the wrist, how you had to move it fluidly and relaxed. He tried, but his stone still sank. Trying not to smile at his perturbed expression, I stood behind him, just intending to guide his hand, but I found myself completely caught up in Thomas’s proximity, his warmth, his scent. My heart hammered. I was sure he could feel it. We threw the stone. It was a real failure on my part. It skimmed only once.
“Show me again,” he said leaning backward so our bodies were flush. I wasn’t sure whether or not he was doing it on purpose. But I didn’t like to think how disappointed I’d be if he wasn’t.
We were much the same height, and it felt like we were fit together perfectly with his broad back and rounded arse pressed against my too-skinny chest and groin. I took a step backward—because I had to, because I liked him too much. My body was responding far too readily. It confused me because I didn’t know if it was just Thomas who had this effect on me, or if it could be anyone I became close to. It had been so long since I had been anywhere near anyone, my body seemed to crave even the tiniest contact.
I took a really deep breath and showed him the action again, my hand on his. This time was more successful. Thomas turned and grinned at me, his mouth so close to mine I could feel his breath on my cheek, so much warmer and sweeter than the cold winter air. I wondered if I kissed him if he’d taste of caramel ice cream or something other, something that was only applicable to him. Though of course I was never going to kiss him to find out.
Stepping away, I scoured the ground for a few decent flat stones for him. They had to be smooth and weighty but not too big. I pushed a few into his pocket, my fingers grazing his thigh. I needed to get ahold of myself. Thomas was smiling. He turned away, and I watched his elation at getting the stone to skip the waves just once before it sank into the black water. He knew he could do it now.
As he practiced again and again and again, I began to understand why he would want to be good at something like this. After his asthma attack, it made sense why he never did sports with the other kids and why my out-of-order comments about his weight perhaps hurt more than they would have if he had been able to be more active. He really enjoyed doing physical stuff—he just couldn’t.
while Thomas stopped and turned. I got the sense he felt guilty for getting carried away with the skimming. Though he needn’t have worried—I was quite happy sitting on the stones and watching him.
“Hey, we could go and collect sea glass, if you want?”
I shook my head and squashed my first reaction.
I loved sea glass. I never had the patience to tumble pieces so smoothly, and the sea had been tumbling glass and stones forever. My favorite piece, the piece Thomas now wore in his necklace, had once been borne from the sea. From Brighton beach, what felt like a million years ago. I remember the day I’d found it. I’d been walking in the rain, and there it was, bright among the wet stones, a perfectly sculpted raindrop. It had felt so right to use it in Thomas’s necklace. It still did.
But I didn’t want to collect glass today. I was desperately trying to be someone different today. Someone without obsessions and worries and doubts, and the glass collecting would bring the reality of my existence crashing back. I knew I couldn’t escape it, though—the reality of life was like the endless churning of the sea. It was impossible to stop.