AN: A monologue type thing inspired by my chemistry lessons, which practically make me cry with boredom unless I have something to write stories on and with.

Reviews are loved and adored, particularly any constructive criticism you happen to have.

WARNING: The very vague homosexual content doesn't really merit a warning, but it's here anyway (yes, the main character is male). Apart from that - warnings for an odd perspective and a depressing life - otherwise, it's clean.

Next Steps

You were eighteen.

It feels like now you should be saying, you were only eighteen: then, you knew were an adult, mature and independent, but now, ten years on, you can see that you were only a child, stumbling unguided through life for the first time, just looking for a stable place to stand.

You wonder if, in ten more years, you'll say the same thing about being twenty-eight.

You realise, now, how happy you were, in your parents' house with warmth and light and sustenance and shelter all laid on, and they even gave you an allowance, being paid to have everything made easy. And yet you still felt ill-used, because you had to unload the dishwasher every morning and take out the rubbish bags on Monday nights.

And you had your parents, too; your mother, who never failed to ask you about your day, who would always sympathise when you told her about the teacher that just wouldn't listen, or the classmate who misinterpreted what you'd said; your father, he liked to read, you would talk to him about books, what he thought Oscar Wilde really meant when he said such and such in The Portrait of Dorian Gray - although your father didn't like Wilde. Said he was so flippant, although now you wonder if he meant he was too gay.

You had your best friend, Elle, who your parents thought you might one day marry, and who they liked even though whenever your mother teased her about a wedding, she always joked that if marriage was on the line, she'd be wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and you'd be the one in a dress.

You were eighteen, and in one more week you'd be leaving home and going to university. To Oxford, in fact. Your parents were so proud.

So were you, you supposed, although it made little difference if you relished the thought or if you dreaded it (so you did neither), because university was just the next step, and while there was a sense of satisfaction in that, you would have felt the same way about any next step that was certain and defined.

Maybe you had dreams, once, but they were eaten away by all the next steps.

You had one week left. You knew you had to tell your parents some time; now was as good as any other. There could only be one more week of awkwardness, only one week of avoidance, and Elle had promised that she could drive you up to Oxford if it all went wrong.

You asked them if you could talk to them. You were half afraid they might jump the problem, start asking frantic questions. Had you knocked a girl up? Were you going to drop out of uni? Was it drugs? Oh, God, it was drugs, wasn't it?

But no, you should have known them better than that. Your mother smiled, and turned off the TV, and your father put down his newspaper as he looked at you expectantly.

You didn't think it went so badly. There was no shouting, no recriminations. There was just a long, empty silence before your mother asked you how long you'd known. Your father didn't say anything. Not then, not later, not in the whole conversation. Not even when your mother told you, timidly, that of course this didn't change anything, that you were still their son.

He didn't say anything as you left the room, and as you lay in your bedroom that night, awake in the dark, he didn't say anything as, through the floorboards, you heard your mother crying.

You went to Oxford one week later, and you were glad you'd only had one week of sitting, awkwardly speechless, with your father, or talking, avoiding the issue, with your mother. You didn't need Elle to drive you, but you almost wished you did, because the car was thick with silence as you sat in the back seat next to your bags, and then your father switched the radio, and the car was full of static.

They didn't stay long. They helped you unpack your boxes and then stood, shifting nervously from foot to foot as you all waited for someone to speak. It was your mother who finally suggested that they leave you to settle in.

You were all relieved.

They didn't visit much. You couldn't really blame them; it was an hour's drive from the house to Oxford, and they both had things to do. But they didn't call much, either.

At first you used to call home. But when your father picked up, he'd hand you over to your mother with nothing more than a greeting, and your mother would talk too quickly, and wouldn't ask you questions anymore.

So your calls slipped from weekly to monthly, and from monthly they slipped to just telling your parents what date to come pick you up.

The holidays weren't like they once were, either. You didn't talk to your father about books anymore, and indeed, he barely seemed to read, now. He used the books as a shield, hiding behind them and holding them between him and you. It was easier for your mother: she relaxed again, listened to you enthuse about the professors, the reading list. Asked you what Elle was doing.

But as soon as you mentioned any other friends, as soon as you talked about your classmates, she'd stop looking you in the eye, she'd shift slightly in her seat, and so in the end, you just stopped talking.

You don't blame them. It wasn't their fault. It was you that pushed them away when you told them, distanced yourself by being a different person from who they thought you were. You were the one who left their mode of life, you abandoned their values and took up your own.

All children do that. All children should. But most of them do it more gradually, growing away rather than jerking. And they often leave pieces of themselves behind, find themselves looking back. Tying bits of their personalities back to their nests.

You... didn't. Oh, they helped you in that. They weren't encouraging you to stay with them, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't have. You could have spoken up, told your father to put the damned book down, told him to talk to you like he once did. You could have made your mother listen, even if she didn't want to, made them accept you, instead of just letting you walk around each other.

You did well at Oxford. You got your English degree with no trouble at all. You already knew what the next step was, and you took it without a second thought - a job as a journalist and a studio apartment to call your own.

Maybe you shouldn't have been so quick. Did you really want that path? You didn't mind it, no, but was it what you desired to spend your life doing? Was neutrality, normality, really good enough?

Maybe you should have tried to be an author. Been penniless for three more years while you wrote a book and tried to find a publisher to take it. You could have moved back in with your parents again, and maybe, just maybe you'd have learned to re-forge all those broken bonds, and let them learn to know you once again.

Or you could have been a teacher, worked in a job that forced you to make connections, every day, forced you to talk, rather than letting yourself stand on the outside, looking in, while you summed up a social situation in a few smooth lines and barely noticed that you weren't in the article.

But journalism was easy, safe, practical. You'd always been good at observation, never been good with empathy; it was logical, effortless, and ultimately empty, as you and your fellow writers went about your work, the soft sounds of your voices, your laughter, all lost in the hum of the computers and the rustle of papers that took away any need for the conversation to be meaningful, for the jokes to be masterful.

Elle got married. You went, of course; alone, even though the invitation specified a date. You could have asked someone - a co-worker, perhaps that editor who always smiled at you. But you didn't see the need, it was your friend getting married; you'd know everyone there.

Or maybe you wouldn't, because Elle always had more friends than you knew about, and as you sat in the church you couldn't see so many of your old schoolmates there, and those you did see you wouldn't trust to remember your last name.

Elle was wearing a white dress. She danced with you at the reception, and told you she'd never been more happy. You were glad for her, you told her so, but somehow it all felt hollow.

You drank champagne and ate wedding cake, and laughed at the best man's toast, but you couldn't help feeling as if there was a thin glass wall surrounding you, making you watch your surroundings from one step back.

And when you think, you watch yourself narrating in third person.

You tried to try, a little. Someone smiled at you, and you smiled back, feeling your lips stretch as the muscles in your cheeks tightened. You talked. You even laughed. You saw each other again three days later.

But when he left the next month, it didn't matter to either of you, and you started to wonder why.

Maybe, if you'd continued to wonder, something would have changed. Maybe you'd have sought therapy, strove for something, anything. But the next step was that big article for the paper, and logic made you realise that you weren't unhappy. Not really.

Maybe, if you'd continued to wonder, you wouldn't have been so shocked by that midnight phone call.

There had been a car crash. Elle and her husband had been driving home from some late party when they'd been hit by a drunk driver. The nurse on the phone promised you that they'd both be fine - but the husband was unconscious and in surgery, and Elle, eight months pregnant, had gone into premature labour and was asking for you.

She should have called someone else. Her parents - but they lived too far. Her brother, her sister, anyone but you.

Still, you got three speeding tickets on the way to the hospital, but you didn't really care about the fines or the points on your license. Saving up the money had just been a next step, and the points would go away eventually.

And you held Elle's hand, and when she started crying, you promised her that everything would be alright. You told her that her husband would be fine, and that soon she'd be going home with her baby, and everything would work out for the best.

You'd never hoped. You'd never trusted. You'd just taken your life by every next step, never knowing where the road would go. And then, someone else needed you to believe for them, needed you to have faith with them.

And you had to, because the thought of Elle hurting made you feel emptier than ever.

You stayed with her in the delivery room, because she asked you to, and you looked on as the nurses gave her the baby - tiny, pink, wrinkled, and what they all called a beautiful little girl.

Elle let you hold her while a hovering doctor finally got around to stitching up one of the lacerations she'd gotten in the crash. Weakly, she whispered to you that they would be calling the baby Jennifer, and that she and her husband had decided that you would be the godfather.

You didn't know what to say. This hadn't figured in your careful thoughts about life. This hadn't been on the agenda.

The baby began to cry, and you rocked her gently before handing her back to her mother, while the paediatricians hovered, muttering about how healthy her lungs were for a prem baby.

You told Elle you were honoured.

Things don't change all at once. But when Elle's husband woke up, he smiled at you and thanked you for taking such good care of his family, and you found yourself smiling back without analysing it. When that editor who always looked at you asked you out for coffee, you asked him out to dinner. And when your boss offered you a promotion if you'd work a bit more overtime, you considered it for a while before telling him no.

And maybe you'll quit, and retrain as a teacher. Maybe you'll take some time off to draft that book you've always thought about. Or maybe you'll just buy a journal, and bunk off work while you sit in a cafe drinking coffee and writing bad poetry.

Because it isn't the next step.