The Night Watch
Our breath formed puffs of ice that hung in the air for milliseconds. The hockey match was turning violent, like they often did whenever a team was losing badly. We stood on the sidelines, Adrian and I. My cousin was out on the pitch, so I was there to support him, but Adrian was there for the blood.
He'd never been normal. Not ever.
The Astroturf turned to sleet under the player's feet, and once or twice someone slipped. Adrian tensed each time, waiting, but it never happened. When the match ended with no real injuries, he turned to leave and I let him, knowing I'd run into him at the bus stop in a few minutes anyway. I greeted Hadley – my cousin – off the pitch with a hug. He smelled familiar: of sweat and damp cotton and cold nights. He brandished his hockey stick. "We were absolutely robbed," he growled.
Knowing how he could be when he lost a match, I agreed straight away. "Yeah."
"I'm going home," he told me. The floodlights were turning off one by one, the filaments inside pinging as they went cold and solid again. Long shadows were cast on the pale Astroturf, and the rest of Hadley's team filed off the pitch, dejected.
Like I knew I would, I caught up with Adrian at the bus stop. Under the sodium-orange streetlights, the pure washed-out fluorescence of the bus shelter, he looked paler and stranger than ever.
I picked up a strand of his teal green hair (he'd meant to dye it black, but he was naturally blond – a bad mix). "You look like you're wearing seaweed."
"Put it down," he said, like he always did, and I let go of the lock of hair.
Adrian was looking off into the distance, unreadable like usual, and I took the moment to wonder if he really was made out of stone. He spoke to me – the one and only person who bothered to hang around him – as if I was a tiring, insolent child. On good days I was lucky if he touched me once. And his eyes… they were grey, but a cold grey, an empty grey that held no emotion. His eyes were as blank as a statue carved from marble. He wasn't close to his family. He'd lived in a children's home since he was twelve, and he would do until he turned eighteen.
Weirdly, he seemed to be thinking about that too. "You're lucky to have Hadley."
I snorted, but didn't say anything. With Adrian, there were no touchy subjects. Only ones that could make me uncomfortable because they should have been touchy for him.
"Unlucky that you're related, though," Adrian continued, still facing away from me, presenting me with the back of his head. Though I thought I knew what he meant, I wasn't going to ask.
"He played a good match," I said, as evasively as I could.
The bus drew up, empty, the glare of its fluorescent yellow bars hurting my eyes. We boarded, and the air was humid, close, foul-smelling. Public transport, eh?
He scoffed. "Don't skirt, please." Adrian indicated I should take the window seat and then perched himself on the aisle seat. Not touching.
"Around the issue," he muttered, and for the first time I noticed he was flicking his Zippo open and shut, open and shut. Compulsive. "Hadley is going to be next."
I'd known him three years; I knew what "next" meant. It was no secret that Adrian burned his way through people just as he burned his way through Marlboro Reds, but nobody knew as well as I did that both habits were empty to him. No fulfilment in either. Smoking and fucking were things he did without knowing why he did them.
He'd discovered quite soon that girls were more hassle than they were worth. I'd been sitting in the canteen, trying to put my maths book on a patch of melamine devoid of dried-on noodles or leftover jam, when he flumped down on the chair beside me and put his mobile phone on my open book.
"What do you want?" I asked, nudging it away with my ruler and drawing a margin. Adrian picked the phone up, opened a text, and put it back down where it had been. Grudgingly tearing my eyes from my homework, I read the text.
y rnt u tlking 2 me? have i dun smthing rong?
"What about it?" I asked. I had much more important things to do, like the homework due in yesterday.
Adrian's face was sour, and his white blonde hair kept falling in his face. He flicked it away and fixed me with a cool stare. "First of all, she can't even spell. Secondly, ever since Saturday she hasn't left me alone. She keeps wanting to meet up."
"Sleep with a girl and you will have this problem," I told him as sternly as I could muster.
And ever since then, he'd stuck to boys. Whichever ones he could get – and he could get all of them. The closet cases, the flaming queens, the older men, the ones who were really straight but just didn't like not pleasing people. One at a time, Adrian was going to fuck the world. Coldly. Methodically.
But not Hadley. This, I was determined to prevent.
I put my head against the dirty window of the bus. "He's my cousin," I pleaded softly. I don't know why I said it like that, because if there was one thing Adrian hated, it was weakness.
He showed his disdain by ending the conversation there. We didn't speak again until he pressed the bell on the high street and got up, shaking his slightly-baggy jeans out, rearranging his pockets. I got up as well, a sinking feeling in my stomach. I knew all too well what was going on. This wasn't his stop – that was at least twenty minutes away – but for the past three nights after school, we'd been sitting in McDonalds until dark. After that we'd walk to a nearby residential street, the same one every night, and sit there for a good hour and a half.
Inside the "restaurant", the grimy white tiles hummed with the electricity of the lights, and a couple of youths in cheap sports clothes were being rowdy in a corner. Adrian looked tired and washed out, and I knew I'd look the same. Uncomfortable under the gaze of the other youths, I shrank into my sweatshirt.
As usual, he ordered chips and an apple pie (a disgustingly sweet dessert served so hot that the pastry bubbled). But unusually, he didn't lead me to a table. Instead, he went straight out of McDonalds again and I had no choice but to follow.
It suddenly dawned on me: we were later than usual tonight, because we'd stayed to watch the hockey match. If we sat down to eat in here, we'd miss the timeframe and everything would have to start all over again. So we had to go straight there.
Adrian struck up a stoic conversation about music with me on the way, and I gladly grabbed the opportunity to try and explain the beauty of it to him. Adrian liked science, maths, things like that, and I'd been trying for three years to show him some music or art or literature that could stir something up inside him. I often wanted to give up, but every time I was close, he gave me a new reason to keep going.
He shushed me when we turned onto Bock Hampton Place, a fancy crescent of houses with a secluded common garden and gas-lantern style street lamps. We sat on the cold pavement in a very shadowed area, hidden by the leaves turned black in the dark, resting our backs against the wrought iron fencing of the garden. Adrian placed us so we were hidden from – but directly facing – number 45. The house was like all the other houses in the crescent: tall and thin and gothic, with black, white and terracotta tiles in a geometric pattern on the garden path. But the curtains were always drawn, day or night, and that was why Adrian had picked this house.
I've already said that smoking and sex were his empty habits. But this, this intent watching of number 45, this was part of something different. We'd been watching this particular house for three nights. On the seventh night, Adrian would leave me behind at school and I wouldn't see him until the next day. He'd probably have a new pen or a different pair of shoes, but never anything expensive. Weeks would pass, and then he'd pick another house and it would start all over again.
I didn't know what he did on the seventh days, but whatever it was made him somehow better for a while. Fulfilled. The fucking would stop, sometimes even the smoking too. Until next time, of course. In all the time I'd known him, the longest he'd ever gone without a new house was a month.
"Adrian-" I started.