Dave gets out of the minivan and immediately sees the girl sitting on her doorstep, crying.
Until now he's been having a good day. He's worked a full shift, a zero-hour contract rarity, and now he just wants to slump in front of the TV with a beer.
This is the last thing he needs.
It's getting late, but a nightlight shines down on her like a spotlight, the whole estate a stage for her tragedy. Even with her long dark hair covering her face, shoulders shaking as she sobs, he knows the girl; his son used to go round hers to play. Kaitlin. How old is she now? Thirteen? Fourteen?
It is a long, damp thirty yards from the road to where she sits, and another ten to his own front door, which he can lock behind himself to shut away the world.
He doesn't want to walk past her, doesn't want anything to do with his feckless neighbours and their countless children and their drama-filled, Jeremy Kyle lives. His first thought is to walk away, go the long way round, and he feels a flush of shame at his callousness. He starts forward.
Twenty yards away from her and he's asking himself where her bloody mother is. Dealing with her kids isn't his job, after all, and it's not like she works. That's the thing with these people. They fill their lives with drama as a substitute for hard graft.
Ten yards away and he can hear her crying; the sound is maddening, the wail of a banshee-in-training. This is why he stopped his son playing with these kids. There's always some drama, some distraction.
Five yards away and he wishes that he'd gone round. She's gaining volume, keening like a grieving widow, the rain soaking her and dripping off her hanging braids. She's wearing shorts that sit too high for her age and a t-shirt that proudly declares her a PRINCESS, which seems naively optimistic given the circumstances.
He wonders what he's going to say to her.
He thinks of all the times he's seen her out late at night, sitting in the street with her friends, drinking and smoking and laughing. They say things to each other that would make Caligula blush. Kids these days have no innocence, they've lost it to on-demand video nasties and streaming porn. He's seen the way she dresses and flicks her hair and pouts her lips to any man or boy dumb enough to give her attention.
Attention. Give it to them and they'll only want more. Take it away again and who knows what they'll do to get it back, from anyone and everyone they can. One mistake and they'll take you to the cleaners. It wouldn't surprise him if the girl is faking it. Happens all the time; you invite some kid into your home out of the goodness of your heart and they see an opportunity to make themselves feel special. Negative attention, they call it. They make something up and before you know it you're smeared across the front page of the Daily Mail, journalists parked outside your home, your whole life raked up like autumn leaves while they look for the rot beneath.
He sees the headlines in his mind, feels the handcuffs biting into his wrists, hears the prisoners creeping up to shank him in the shower.
He feels sick.
When she is close enough to touch, she lifts her head and looks right at him. Her eyeliner and mascara, totems of adulthood, are streaked and smeared down her face by childish tears. The rhythm of his footsteps against the pavement breaks as he stumbles, suddenly clumsy.
The look on her face is one of absolute, desolate despair.
Her gaze is a knife through his ribs, stopping his heart and stopping time. He sees a child, lonely and lost, with no one to help her. The urge to wrap his arms around her and tell her that it's going to be okay is so strong it makes his bones ache.
He screws his eyes shut and corrects his misstep.
The ten yards to his door feel like a mile. His heart races as if he has fled from death itself, turning his back on Kaitlin to keep his life, his wife's life, his son's life orderly, perfect.
His hands shake and the key won't go in the lock. He dare not, cannot, look back, and stands there just stabbing uselessly with his key until eventually his wife opens the door and lets him in, smiling.
He follows his wife into the living room and sits down.
He's a good man. It's not worth it. It's best not to get involved with people like that. Just in case.
He looks in the mirror above the fireplace. A coward looks back.
Tom fingered the unwelcome envelope gingerly, holding it as far away as possible. He hoped that the postman had delivered it through the wrong letterbox. He often did that. Tom put it down to the postman being young. He was amazed how the youngsters got caught up in their own priorities and neglected what was going on in the real world. His granddaughter was testimony to that. However on this occasion, despite Tom's reservations, the young postman was not at fault. After nervous examination, it was clear the pink envelope bore his name and address.
“Well, who on earth?”
Standing motionless he was further taken aback when the envelope deposited a fragrant scent which seemed to fill the air quickly.
“Well I'll be, what on earth?”
Suddenly he was aware of his late wife's image staring questioningly back at him from the wall. Apprehensively, he looked up at Lily's portrait. Shocked with guilt, he quickly turned the envelope away.
A delicate scent now filled the room and if he was not mistaken, his surprise card had come from a feminine source! It would certainly not do for his Lilly to witness such a thing!
“Well, I had better see.”
Retreating far out of sight of Lily’s photograph, he made to investigate.
His breathing quickened as he tore the mysterious envelope to reveal a pink card, pinker than the envelope.
He blushed, peering furtively to the other side of the room.
“A Valentine’s card?”
He coughed nervously.
“Someone has obviously made a mistake.” However on further examination he soon realized there had been no mistake.
Indeed, whoever had sent it had made a point, writing in large capitals, of addressing him personally.
TOM, I WOULD LIKE TO SEE MORE OF YOU.
“Well, I never?”
Tom looked sheepishly at Lily's photograph.
“Don’t worry love. Must be someone's idea of a joke, eh?”
Shaking his head sadly, he quickly placed the card face down whilst muttering about practical jokers and what he would have done with them.
After spending some time apologizing to Lilly, whilst making it abundantly clear he was entirely free of blame, Tom began to get ready for his daily jaunt to the local supermarket. He was well aware that there was plenty of food in his cupboards, but the routine walk was sometimes the only contact that he made with the outside world.
He knew he did not have any excuses. Karen, his daughter, was always nagging him about getting out more. She and his granddaughter Jo were always inviting, sometimes begging him over, but he often declined. They had their jobs and own lives and he did not want to burden them. He knew that his daughter worried about him. She had even suggested, indeed badgered him, to sell up and come and live with her.
He was grateful and did not like her worrying, but he had far too many precious memories to do that.
Whilst strolling along the familiar pavements, Tom ignored the normally compelling sights of his surroundings, his mind occupied by the strange post that had arrived earlier.
“Why on earth would anyone send something like that to a silly old fool like me?”
He spoke the words softly to himself.
“They must know it would upset my Lily.” Looking skywards he shook his head at the passing clouds. He found it hard to comprehend why somebody should want to play such a ridiculous joke. Why on earth would anyone waste money on a stupid prank like that? Shrugging his shoulders he approached the busy doors of Best Buys.
“AND TODAY'S SPECIAL OFFERS FOR ALL YOU LUCKY SHOPPERS.”
The shrill voice bought him back to earth. Looking up at the noisy loudspeaker he shook his head.
“Lucky,” he thought dismally, was long ago when you came in the morning, chose what you wanted, (aided by helpful staff) and a whistling van boy delivered it in the afternoon.
Nowadays it was heavy shopping baskets with long queues.
He sighed, trying to remember the short cuts along the aisles.
Having put a few unnecessary articles into his basket whilst exchanging pleasantries with other shoppers, he wandered over to the cash desks. He spotted Mrs Mills (as usual) busily smiling (as usual) checking out her customer’s groceries(as usual), and decided to wait in her queue.
She was his favourite cashier.
Unlike some of the others, especially some of the youngsters, she was always pleasant and helpful.
“Morning Tom, nice day for the time of year.”
Her ruddy face radiated cheerfulness.
“Now what do we have here? Digestive biscuits, nuts and butter beans.”
He waited patiently as the checkout machine made its strange beeping noises.
“That will be two pounds and thirty-two pence please.” She beamed at Tom. “Oh by the way did you get your card?”
Tom blurted the word as although it was illegal to use such a phase. He felt his throat tightening. So she was the one, who on earth would have thought it? The card was not a joke after all. Embarrassment had been a stranger to him for a long time but now he felt his face redden. What was he to do? What in blazes would Lil think? He gulped, looking sadly at Mrs Mills.
This lady must be very lonely, he thought, to send a card like that? For a few moments he stood totally bewildered. He had done nothing to suggest attracting attention from any ladies and felt quite bemused.
However, chivalry and politeness were important stepping stones in his life. Despite these ridiculous circumstances he did not intend to deviate from them now. If this lady needed company, he would oblige. He would explain to Lil later.
He felt like an awkward lad.
“I wonder, nothing fancy mind, if you would like a bit of supper later?”
His face was now crimson.
“That's if you have nothing on.”
“Well Tom that would be nice.”
It was her turn to blush.
“I would love to.”
Looking embarrassingly at the queue forming behind Tom, she asked, “But did you get your Best Buy card? You know? The one we talked about? If you did, I need to scan it?”
Some time later, Tom heard a voice.
“Granddad, are you there?”
The unexpected call brought Tom back to reality.
He had spent most of the afternoon in silent thought. What a fool he was How could he have got things so wrong? He would never have asked another lady out, but he had genuinely (albeit stupidly) misunderstood the situation.
Jo bounced into the room without waiting for an answer.
Tom watched her sullenly, as she filled the room with her youthful presence. He loved his granddaughter’s visits, but this was bad timing.
Sensing that Tom was in one of his grumpy moods, Jo smiled, determined that he was not going to stay that way, not in her presence anyway.
She felt sorry for him. She knew how much he missed her Nan, and that he would rather die then admit it. She knew also that he was very lonely.
However, Jo would never broach the subject. He was entitled to his own space and she knew that self-pity was not on his agenda.
Sensing that he was getting grumpier, she quickly explained the reason for her intrusion. “I got off college early and mum wants to know if you would like to come round for tea.”
Suddenly, her inquisitive eyes spotted something lying face down on the table. She knew exactly what it was! She could spot a Valentine card miles away. Shaking her head, puzzled, she quickly seized it.
“Granddad, you’ve got a Valentines card, haven’t you?”
Her eyes twinkled mischievously.
“I didn't know you had a girlfriend.”
“l have not got a girlfriend!”
Tom eyed the card irritably.
“This ridiculous card is probably someone's idea of a joke. And I must say not a very good joke.”
He frowned at the young teenager.
“And don’t you laugh, it’s got me into an embarrassing situation!”
Jo could not contain her mirth as Tom related his story about Mrs Mills and the Best Buy card.
“Well, it’s your favourite, isn’t it, steak and kidney pie?” She giggled uncontrollably.
“That's if you’re not going out with her!”
Tom felt like kicking himself. How stupid could a person be? First, he goes and asks a near stranger to supper and then he tells his tormenting offspring all the details. Jo had teased him unmercifully, continuously collapsing into fits of giggles.
Between her annoying laughs she had demanded to know if he would be asking the waitress out at the Café when she requested his credit card?
After Jo had, thankfully, left, he reluctantly set about preparing for his coming ordeal. He had briefly thought about apologizing and cancelling the date but, as Jo had pointed out (in between laughs) you don't stand a lady up.
The days came and went, eventually turning into a full year.
Tom Taylor and Irene Mills discovered that they had quite a lot in common.
Many a steak and kidney pudding had been devoured in her small kitchen; many an evening spent together at the cinema or bingo hall.
After one such evening they both realized the bond between them had grown.
Tom and Irene, much to the pleasure of both their families, had become a couple.
It took much time and much soul searching but eventually Tom plucked up the courage and related the whole story to Lily.
He grudgingly explained his past loneliness and now, in meeting Irene, how happy he had become.
He wept as he asked for her understanding and her consent.
Reassuring her that no one could ever replace their memories he got down on one knee and begged her to let him marry his new love.
Irene Mills looked radiant.
Dressed in salmon pink, she waited patiently for her new man.
Some thoughts were perhaps best forgotten but today was the start of a new life--a life with a man she was very fond of.
She had never told anyone, but she had always had a soft spot for Tom.
Now she was to be his bride.
Smiling to herself, she thought how strange it was that things had worked out in this wonderful way. She would never know what had possessed her to send that anonymous card. It had done the trick though.
Surprising what loneliness could make one do.
On the two most impressive rocks they could find, Joe and Chris sat among the mediocre pebbles that dotted the shoreline. It was there that they spent every sunny Saturday afternoon for what could only be described as a long time.
Neither could remember when they discovered this secluded crevasse, when they first fished it, nor when they decided to make its pilgrimage a weekly routine. This did not matter to the boys; memories were only the ghosts of experiences, and experiences only facilitated feelings. There was no beginning or end, only now, and the feelings that allowed now to be both mutually and independently special.
With lines and legs both fragmented by the water, the two kids ruminated and pontificated about everything within the reaches of their comprehension. At the moment, the conversation focused on a baseball game that occurred at school the day before:
“I never thought Luke had it in ‘im—clear over the fence,” said Joe.
“Ms. Walters nearly shit herself,” Chris replied, chuckling.
“Everybody nearly shit themselves. Nobody could believe it.”
“So funny that it was the last pitch, too. Just perfect.”
And the conversation stopped, but stopping was natural, not uncomfortable. Sometimes it ceased for many minutes as the minds of the adolescents rested and then reeled again, searching for pertinent information. Kids don’t have small talk; no conversation is forced, every word has a purpose, thus breaks are required.
So they sat in silence for a time, as they continued to cast out, reel in, and repeat. Chris snagged his line and shouted expletives as he tried to get it free. Joe found that amusing, and Chris, hearing Joe’s laughter at his cursing, couldn’t help but chuckle himself. The line finally came free but not with the lure in tow, as a rock or log had claimed it and was now property of the stream.
Chris tied another lure to his line.
“Man, Sarah looked hot yesterday, hey?” Joe said.
“She’s got tits now. I can’t believe it.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
“What I’d do with those!”
Chris laughed. “You wouldn’t know what to do!”
“Ask your mom if I know!”
Chris kicked water at Joe—who was laughing so hard he nearly fell off the rock—and shook his head to feign contempt. This was futile, however, as his dimply smirk was impossible to conceal. It was a good one; he had to respect the witticism.
Joe composed himself after a few minutes of residual giggling, and again a healthy silence fell upon them.
“How’s your bro been lately?” Chris asked with a disparate tone.
“Alright, I guess.”
“Coughing a bit more.”
“Doctors still coming around?”
“Yeah. More than ever it seems.”
“He’s tough, though. Tougher than anybody. He’ll kick its ass.” In saying this, a smile appeared on Chris’s face as genuine as a Cartesian thought.
“Yeah,” Joe replied. He felt a heaviness—on his line—and began to reel at a terrific speed. This redirected Chris’s attention, as he stopped his own reeling and stared with anticipation at the point where Joe’s line and the surface intersected. A few seconds later, Joe stopped as well, as the line was no longer resisting. “Shit. False Alarm. Either one bit and came off or it got into the rocks like yours did.” He reeled in fully and saw that the worm he began the day with was still intact and wriggling. Needing no replacement, he cast out again. “You think worms feel pain?” he asked unabashedly.
Chris thought for a second. “Probably. They’re living, right?”
“Yeah, but plants are living and they don’t feel pain.”
“How do you know they don’t?”
“’Cause they don’t have brains. Duh.”
“Do worms have brains, though?”
“Well, yeah, they’re liv—oh.”
Chris gave a condescending laugh.
“Plants don’t tell you when you rip off their leaves,” Joe said, trying to redeem himself.
“Yeah, but worms do. They wriggle awfully when you stick them with a hook. You seen it yourself. And maybe the plants want to but can’t for some reason.”
“Maybe it’s a happy wriggle, maybe they like it, maybe it’s backwards for them,” Joe retorted.
“Pfft, yeah right.”
“You don’t know!”
“I know you’re wrong. That’s just stupid.”
“Whatever,” Joe said. “You’re just as stupid for saying that plants want to say ‘Ow!’”
“You just watch. I’ll get ‘em to talk, and then I’ll have a plant army. You’ll be sorry then.”
Joe and Chris both snickered and then succumbed to the comforting silence.
Like the two lures in the water below, the boys shined in their world above. In that place in time, in that moment in time, they were the most important people. How could they not be? Everything had stopped to allow them to fish. Nothing existed beyond those trees at the crest of the hill, and only once they had finished fishing and made their way back through those trees would God permit the rest of life to resume.
“Hey Joe, whadaya think about gays and stuff—like guys who like other guys?”
“You mean fags? I hate fags.”
“Nah, I’m just kidding. It don’t matter to me what people like, or do, or whatever. I don’t understand why people care about that stuff.”
“It’s weird though, isn’t it? Doing what they do.”
“Of course it’s weird, but everything’s kinda weird if you think about it. Who’s to say what’s weirder than anything else?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“I take that back; your plant idea is weirder than anything else.”
“Oh shut up.”
Joe was beaming with a self-congratulatory smile.
A train whistled in the distance.
“I think I might like guys.”
Joe did not react.
“Let’s just fish.”
And they sat in silence.
Joe caught the only fish of the day. He landed it on the shore, pulled the hook out of its mouth and released it. Neither made a sound as the situation unfolded. The pinnacle of all Saturday afternoons struck with desolation. An anticlimax in every sense of the word.
After an hour had passed without acknowledging his friend, Joe stood up, reeled in his line, took apart his rod, collected his tacklebox and can of worms and began walking towards the road. A few moments later, Chris followed.
Joe walked about ten yards in front of Chris and made no attempt to slow down. Likewise, Chris made no attempt to speed up. They stayed this way until Chris turned into the walkway of his house, as Joe continued down the street towards his own. Joe did not look back.
The following Saturday after lunch, Chris gathered his fishing gear and sat by the door as the time approached when Joe would come by. No matter what had happened between the two, Saturday would arrive and wipe the slate clean. Always had. There was nothing that could separate them permanently. Worse maladies had stricken their friendship in the past, but nothing that a week was unable to cure.
Of course, this time was different, but an untainted mind is an ignorant mind.
Chris waited. An hour passed; two hours passed; three hours passed. He never left the stool. He faced the wall, but turned his head towards the door after every perceivable sound, and back towards the wall following each revelation.
He was stoic. He didn’t want Joe to see wet eyes when he arrived; Joe would call him a pussy. He thought for a minute and changed his mind. He wanted Joe to call him a pussy. He wanted Joe to berate him, to make fun of him, to laugh at him, to laugh with him, to help him, to care about him. He wanted Joe, no matter the circumstance. He wanted his friend—rather, his best friend; nothing more and nothing less.
Day became night. Chris’s mom came home and found him sitting by the door with his fishing gear; he was unchanged and unmoved. He turned to look at her, and as the moonlight consumed his face, she saw it.
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry.”
Chris began crying. She crouched down and embraced him tightly.
All was quiet, save for the pain in the boy. Pain always makes noise, though it is not often audible.
“Why didn’t he come, Mom?” Chris, upon her damp shoulder, finally asked.
“He …” She thought carefully. "He just doesn’t understand.”
The surface disappeared from view.
Brian EnnisBrian Ennis is a writer, teacher, gamer, and geek from Peterborough, England. He writes on dark culture for Dirge Magazine and reviews for the British Fantasy Society, is a founder member of the Critical Twits podcast/gaming channel, and can be found on Twitter: @TheBrianEnnis