A rather disjointed piece, again on the theme of departure.
Vaguely inspired by a song of the same title by Shuntaro Okino, and by a little scene in Jealous?, a fic by songbirdjen.
Mild M/M slash.
It's like comfort . . . Being a comfort is itself pretty comforting.
Having someone find a place on your shoulder and be able to rest.
Not seeing her face, but picturing it from her breath.
Like a baby sleeping. Feeling her breath so slightly on his arm.
Breathing in time. Comfort.
— David Levithan, Are We There Yet?
He lay beside me in bed, on Sunday night.
Between his fingers was a piece of white paper, which he carefully folded into a rectangle, then another square. It seemed to glow in the moonlight, the way his hair did, in a strange grey hue.
I watched in silence.
"Tomorrow," he said softly. "The plane leaves tomorrow at nine. I have to go at seven." His eyes never left the paper. His lips were almost still.
Almost. I could almost touch them.
I turned on my side to face the wall, clutching my hands against my cheek. Separate as we were, our silhouettes were one.
·– ·–·· ·–·· · –·
I remembered his grandmother's house, which he so often dragged me along to during Sundays. It was like a giant shoe from a nursery rhyme, filled to the brim with happy children. His cousins were aplenty, and they tittered a lot.
We used to link hands with each other so that our arms formed a long bridge, and the little girls would run under them as everyone sang:
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
The bridge would become a drawbridge, and come swinging down on at least one parcel of giggles and ribbons. The fair ladies were released, and forgotten, and the charming game resumed.
There was only once, one August day four years ago, when our arms captured no one. He gazed at me then, a sweet smile high upon his freckled face, and his hands warm around mine under the same summer sky. "The bridge has fallen, my lady," he announced, as grandly as a duke, "but bless our puddings, nobody is hurt."
I conveniently tugged at my oversized T-shirt and faked a curtsey. The little girls tittered again, and the song resumed.
·–· · –– · –– –··· · ·–· ––– ··– ·–· ··· –·– –·––
Suddenly I hated his voice. I hated the way the paper rustled in his hands. I hated the way the mattress sunk under his weight. I hated the way his shadow merged with mine in one ambiguous blur that would not stop rippling, however much I blinked, and blinked, and blinked —
"You'll come along to see me off, won't you?"
"No," I said savagely.
I felt the mattress sink further as he propped himself up. "What?" he asked.
I blinked, and a tear slipped past my eye. He did not see, but I thought he heard it fall, and he took my hand from behind, holding it tight in his own.
At that moment I wanted to cry — to pretend to cry, in the same way I held the thermometer to the lamp and clapped it back into my mouth just when he came into my room, for weeks and weeks before this night. All I fancied then was that he would stay by my side till I was well again, and I could have pretended forever.
Yet gone were those days, because I could not make myself cry anymore.
His arm across my chest tightened slightly. "That's not true," he whispered. "You'll come with me tomorrow."
"You're lying. I'll go there and find out that you're sitting at home laughing at me."
In his awkward embrace I stared at the wall, where our shadow lay like a patch of stars with their lights drawn out, dark and alone in a glittering, whispering crib. I clenched at the edge of my pillow, hard, till my fingers went white.
He was silent, saying nothing of this new game he made up for us to play, instead of all those little ones he made me remember, year after year after year.
I hated him.
·– –· –·· ––– ··– ·–· –··· ––– ·– – ·– – ··· · ·–
He always had too many games in mind. They liked to nudge against one another behind his tell-tale eyes, blazing electric blue.
On the lazy days when mosquitoes hummed and swanned, my backyard became our ship, and the sky of eternal summer our sea. He and I, as sky captains, would watch our sky fish roll past.
He called it 'nephology', a word from a big science book I had.
Here was a rabbit — a cottontail, no doubt, prancing about in the wind. And here was a boat — ahoy there, fellow sailors! Surely that isn't a crow's nest you have there?
"And wow — here's a ginormous dragon! Look at that smoke coming out of its mouth!"
"'Ginormous'?" I repeated.
"Really big," he explained sagely. "So big that it will eat the sailors."
"It won't," I protested.
"It will! Look! It's seen them now!" He jumped to his feet. "We've got to save them!"
"We've got to warn them!" I decided that I liked this game. "Tell them to steer clear of that monster!"
"Why, yes, you're right. We've got to . . . we — we need to send them a message!"
My co-captain darted into the house, while I tried to think with my eleven-year-old skipper brain. He emerged onto the bow with sheets of paper, which flapped about in the salty wind like his auburn hair did.
"We must fold these into planes," he said. "We'll put the message into them, and direct them to the sailors in distress."
"But that's too dangerous! We make the planes spell out the message, like those real planes do with smoke patterns!"
"No, it's white smoke! And we have to spell it out in code — a secret language that the dragon won't understand."
"But what? I don't know any secret code. I don't —"
"I know," I exclaimed excitedly. "Morse Code."
I darted into the house, and came back with magic markers. I taught him the language of the dots and dashes I had learnt from the same big science book.
He stared at me long and hard afterward. "You're a genius," he marvelled. The grin on his face was ginormous.
But when we looked up once more, the dragon had disappeared along with the boat. The sea was blue again.
"Damn," I swore. "It ate the sailors."
He lay down on his stomach, and began drawing dots and dashes on the sides of each paper plane we had folded. "We'll send them over to other sailors if the dragon comes again," he said. So I did the same. When he fell asleep amidst his fleet of signals, I spelled out the Morse Code alphabet all over his face.
The raindrops that came down in the evening after that were long and thin. The stars that came out after that were small and round.
"You really are a genius," he whispered to me during dinner, grinning and ignoring my mum's amused smiles. "This Morse thing is everywhere and nobody knows!"
He wore his paint like a Red Indian chieftain until he looked into the mirror just as we washed up for bedtime. Then he yelled at me, and we had a grand pillow fight in the captain's cabin.
I liked to play in all his games after that.
·–· · –– · –– –··· · ·–· – ···· ·– –
"It's not a game," he said quietly. "And I'm not lying to you. I really have to . . . to leave tomorrow."
"I'm not playing this game," I whispered fiercely, struggling wretched in his arms. "I'm not."
He held on fast.
"I really am going tomorrow. You know I have to."
I fell still, and lay stiffly on my side. Yet I felt the beginnings of a second tear, cajoled by my flushing cheeks, in my desperate reluctance I did not want him to see.
His arm relaxed its hold, and his hand slid to my wrist, circling it with thumb and finger, a shackle lenient enough to break. I dared not try to, in that slightest reminder of his presence, half-afraid that the piece of paper would then be all that was left behind me, on the very bed I was lying on. But the paper did not rustle again, and I only heard his voice.
"It's a good college, Allen. I . . . I'm really glad they accepted me. And Mum and Dad — they want me to study there, and I don't want to let them down . . ."
I smiled through my falling tear. "You don't want to let them down," I echoed in a whisper.
His hand left mine, and I felt him sit up, the weight on the mattress shifting haphazardly once more. "I can't help it if the school's half a world away," he said angrily, his words directed to the open window. "There's no decent college here at all, and there's nothing to look forward to in this remote little place unless we move somewhere else!"
"How bright of you," I murmured.
I fancied him turning to face me, his frame outlined by the moonlight, and stark against the sky. "What?"
"You managed to get into a 'decent' college. That's great." I was still smiling in the dark, but my voice was growing hollow. "You can make your own future there, but too bad I can't. So that's why I'm staying."
"I'll stay here, and you'll go to college," I went on, dazed. "You don't have to come back again, because there's nothing here, nothing at all. But that's okay. That's fine by me, since I'm not as clever as you are. Maybe one day I'll qualify, and then I can —"
I prised myself from the sheets, and sat up, cross-legged, to stare at the wall. "I guess I am," I agreed quietly, reaching out an arm towards it. The tip of my finger touched the patch where the shadow of his arm intersected with mine, and it felt cool and hard. "You must have remembered all those C's and D's on my report cards. There's no way I would have ever made it to —"
His arms took me hard by my shoulders this time and pulled me backwards, till my back was locked tight, and warm, and snug, against his own body. He curved his shoulders around my own, and cupped my elbows, and did not let go.
I closed my eyes.
"You're lying, Allen," he repeated fiercely, his cheek pressed against the side of my neck. "You're lying, because you know I never meant that there is nothing at all right here, in our town. You know what it is that will make me want to come back. You know what it is that keeps making me . . . making me almost regret accepting that invitation in the first place!"
"Do tell me," I whispered to him. But by then his shoulders were trembling, and he said no more.
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It was the same backyard, the one I never bothered to trim when the grass went on a berserk spurt every June. During one of them we lay like we used to, four years past, looking at the ageless blue sky and its curls of clouds. Nephology was a science; there was no more point in imagining otherwise.
A real airplane flew past, and a white tail stretched from behind it.
"A vapour trail," I murmured, unthinking.
He stared at it too. "Yes, a vapour trail," he agreed.
I folded my arms behind my head, and felt the soil cool against my knuckles. "Maybe it spells a message, too," I said, more to myself than to him. "Maybe it's a message the pilot wants everyone to see. Something like . . . 'World Peace'."
"Or 'Stop Air Pollution'," he suggested.
I smiled thinly into the sky.
Here under it, we could have gone on like this forever, exchanging everything about nothing, basking in an ennui bred of such long familiarity that neither of us could remember what made us first tilt our heads up towards the clouds.
"Or maybe," I wondered again, "the pilots are homesick. They're sending the messages to their family and friends, down here on the ground."
"And warning them about potential dragons."
I smiled again.
"Then they'll have to learn the Morse Code too," I pointed out.
He turned his head to me, and his eyes glittered blue. "They'll be lucky if they're taught by people who know that language," he said, curling his lips lightly upwards.
I looked away.
We said nothing more after that, and only stared at the clouds for hours on end — me concentrating at the far left corner, and never towards the right. There lurked a few wisps of cirrus, which resembled the vapour trails another plane would have left behind.
He, too, always left one.
Sometimes I thought I could see it, feeling how it lingered behind him, ever-present. When I needed to remember, I would walk in his wake, and sense it: a strange scent, of kindness, of laughter, of certainty — the sheer knowledge that he was there, nearby, forever ready to remind me of the memories of our past few summers I would have forgotten otherwise.
Sometimes I thought I imagined it. When it traipsed into wonder, my friendship with him became no more. His arms would find their way around me, and his lips would press soft upon mine. I would hear the truth that was whispered from them, and my eyes would open — only to realise that I had freshly awoken.
Yet right then, I was wide awake.
I chanced a glance in his direction. He was fast asleep, smiling as a wind strayed around us and made the grass tickle his ears. Half-hidden in his hand, I saw, was a folded paper plane.
I shifted over right to his side, and watched him quietly. His shirt ruffled in the same breeze, as did his deep red hair. I could have covered his eyes, frightened as I was, but only leaned a cheek against his arm, and there I stayed.
He did not stir again for long time.
I took the paper plane from his curled fingers, gently traced our initial — a dot, and a dash — on its side, and sent it towards the sky. It flew for a few moments, then disappeared somewhere between the shrubs and the fence.
I left it there.
When the fringes of the sky seeped into a watercolour violet, I stood up and prodded his hip with my toe. "Get up already," I told him. "It's going to rain."
It did rain in the evening, the same way it did four long years past, when the raindrops were aplenty and the stars after that flecked the entire sky. But his face was washed, and we spoke not a word during dinner.
·–· · –– · –– –··· · ·–· ···· ––– ·––
In his embrace I felt the familiar warmth of his body, and the strange inconsistence of his heartbeats, painfully tucked against my back. His breaths shuddered against my neck, soft and sad, and I imagined the tears that streamed down his face, complementing everything he would not say in one fitful rhythm of uncertainty.
"I don't have to tell you anything," he whispered into my skin, very softly.
I closed my eyes, and smiled through my own tears — eternal, I vainly wished, in this moment my presence was of such importance to him; eternal in this moment I was right next to him, even though I would not know — ever — where in his past I had been, or where in his future he wanted me to be.
"Why?" I asked instead, into the silhouetted space before me. Then, in the smallest voice I could ever manage: "Friends tell each other things, don't they?"
At those words he abruptly released his hold on me, and shifted back towards the edge of the bed. I opened my eyes, in time to see the shadow of his shoulders slumping. When I finally turned to face him, his eyes were glistening into mine in a muted blue I had never seen before.
"No," his voice whispered.
In the silence that followed his reply I gazed at him, even as he avoided my eyes and turned to face the pillow. The shafts of moonlight from the window caught his forlorn frame, like a searchlight upon an ashamed convict.
Was I, I wondered quietly across to him, what he was to me? Neighbours — two doors away, always. Classmates — divided by talent, starkly. Friends — once upon a time, only. What more was there between us? What more could there be?
I lay down on my side of the bed, and faced the wall once more. The mattress shifted again, and he lay down too, behind me. He did not touch me again.
"Promise me you won't wake me up in the morning," I said quietly.
His reply never came.
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I remembered that girl. I had always been curiously entranced by her glossy curls, and her shyest of smiles. From that day onwards, there was something else I would remember her by.
"How could you have said no?"
His face was always indifferent. Even on this day every week, in our last year of high school, when we would have one class together. Sometimes I quietly hoped that he, too, could be grateful.
"Why should I say yes?"
"Because she's a really nice girl."
"I thought so." He walked a little more quickly along the hallway. "If she decides to confess to you next time, remember to say how much you'd love to marry her."
That catch in his voice, I quietly hoped, was envy.
He said nothing more.
He disappeared into a classroom, and I traipsed in his wake. The hand that next took mine steered me into the corner, snicking the door slowly shut, and then pressing soft against my chest. When his lips at last found mine I kissed him back, tenderly, naturally, the way he dappled my face with the tips of his fingers, brushing me warm, reciprocating, all dazed and dreaming.
He pulled away just then, and rested his forehead against my cheek, the fringes of his breath soft and warm upon my neck. His lips, the ghost of them still on mine, tasted like what I remembered of him — moment after fragile moment of all the twelve years that we passed together.
In the sunlight that fell though the open windows his hair glistened, like threads of garnet spun through gold. I raised a hand and wove my fingers through them, for this first time and the last, remembering the way they slipped against my skin, wanting it to become one of the last memories I would have of him.
In the fearfully empty space of chairs and tables and of the fans turning on the ceiling high, high above, we stood against their woven webs of light and shadow, all alone.
"I'm tired, Allen," he whispered to me, very quietly.
I let slip my fingers to touch his face, but he only took my hand and pressed it against my chest. His head was low as he stepped back, estranged, guiding my hand back by my side, and I never saw his eyes. Then he turned to open the door, and went away in a flutter of silver wings towards the sky. He did not return.
·–·· ––– ––– –·– · –·· ·– – –·–– ––– ··–
We sat, amidst his sheets of qualifications and result slips, at the small wooden table in the patio of my house. The white beams above split us into light and shadow, over and over.
He sifted through colourful pamphlets of the different universities that had accepted him, not speaking a word. I picked up the certificate with his results for the state examinations. A string of A's, a B, and two Distinctions.
I raised my head towards the spring sky, full of clouds and sun and fleeting petals through the wind. That, I realised, was where his future lay.
He turned to look at me, and saw what I was holding. "What do you think?" he asked, a faintly worried smile gracing his face. "Is that enough to get me into a psychiatry course?"
The prominent red crest of the school I knew he wanted to get into stared back at me, from the glossy brochure he held in his hands.
". . . In England."
His fingers tightened on the brochure, and he gave a dry laugh. "My parents want me to study there. But it doesn't depend on them, really — it depends on the admission panels, on the number of scholarships they're giving, on everyone else's grades, on . . . on whether . . ."
He bowed his head, wistfully, and said no further. But his hand reached forward slightly, questing, until his fingertips touched my wrist, and stayed there.
I had never before wondered what made the two of us into what we were today, even though we turned out so different. He was bright, and so full of ambitions that I could not relate. Because all I knew was that I had always been living in the present. All I knew was that I could never picture myself in the future.
Yet all I knew was that whatever my future was, he would always be in it.
". . . But I can stay," I heard his whisper. He closed his eyes, and gave a small smile. The tips of his fingers stroked the jutted knob of bone at my wrist. "I can wait for another year, and when you pass the exams we'll go to university together. One that's nearby — here, in this country . . ."
I withdrew my hand, breaking the momentary comfort of his gentle touch. He raised his fingers and opened his mouth to speak, but I only stood up from my chair and left the patio, avoiding his eyes that would not stop staring at me, much as they despaired.
In a daze I went up the stairs, and stumbled straight into the first room on the landing. I locked the door behind me and leaned against it, gazing, through a growing film before my eyes, at the hazy spread of my parents' bed. A sanctuary, for two different people, brought together at one precious moment in life.
Lying by the end of the bed was a white sundress — I remembered my mother wore it the day before, when she and Dad went somewhere special for their anniversary. I scooped it into my arms, and held it up before myself, in front of the mirror on the wardrobe door. The skirt flowed loose to my knees, satin glinting in the half-light the way my brown hair did — and all I saw then was a crowd of little girls, in dresses of their own, singing and dancing to the familiar rhythm of a childhood game.
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down . . .
His hands, warmly clutching mine, held up between us as the girls laughed and played around us. He touched his smile against my knuckle, and whispered four words into a question.
I heard my own voice wrench my hand away from his. I am a boy, it cried wretchedly. I am a boy. Yet behind all that, far away, there came a second voice, echoing in the recesses of my mind in soft sadness.
. . . I will.
My legs collapsed from under me, and I fell onto the floor, weeping hard into the dress. All the truth that was the similarities between the two of us, the differences between the two of us — I could hide them no longer, and only let them loose as stinging tears.
We were neighbours, we were friends, and that was all. Our futures would never run parallel, for we had always lived two houses apart, and there would always be two houses between us.
"Allen." Three knocks on the other side of the door, then three more. "Are you in there, Allen? Open the door, Allen, I know you're in there. Open the door, Allen, please . . ." His voice started to break.
Even then, in the same house, there would always be a door between us, no matter how much we wept.
". . . I'm sorry, Allen . . . I'm really sorry . . ."
·–· · –– · –– –··· · ·–· – ···· ·– –
". . . Allen."
The numbers on the clock on the drawers beside my bed winked twelve, glowing bright red in the darkness that shrouded the two of us.
". . . Allen? Are you awake?"
He spoke with a soft voice, like the sound of down feathers drifting upon a stream, as if he was afraid to break the stillness of the night. I curled my hand against the sheets before my chest, and said nothing.
For a long while neither of us moved. Then his arm reached forward once more, across my waist, and he held my hand in his, silently.
I closed my eyes.
His thumb, warm and soft, gently traced the back of my hand in small, short strokes, absently soothing me towards slumber. But the pattern of his touches changed: the tip of his thumb tapped my hand, and brushed against my knuckle, over and over. A brief touch, and a longer stroke.
A dot, and a dash.
I stirred inwardly.
He paused for a short while, then went on: a tap, a stroke, two taps, twice over. Pause. A tap. Another pause. A stroke, and a tap.
Allen, his fingers spelled.
My eyes fluttered open, only to see the very faint shadow of us on the wall — it was nearly melting into the darkness, but not quite. His hand still held mine, and whispered my name with his thumb, again and again, almost like a broken record. Yet the more he traced my name, the more I felt his body tremble behind me, and it was after a long time did he halt the sequence.
His breaths caressed the back of my neck, shuddering slightly. Then he tapped me twice more, and stayed still.
I . . .
I waited for him to continue, but his message never came again. From behind me I heard him choke back a sob, and he slipped both his arms around me, as gently as he ever could.
". . . I'm sorry," he whispered at last. His lips pressed softly into my hair, and he buried his face into the nook of my shoulder, quivering brokenly. I shut my eyes, and instead bathed in this last warm presence of his, this assuring scent of his, deep into the night, before he vanished into the morning.
·· ·–– ·· ·–·· ·–·· –·–· ––– –– · –··· ·– –·–· –·–
He stood at the top rung of a silver ladder that hung freely in mid-air. He was painting clouds onto the blue sky with a brush in one hand, and a little tin of white paint in the other.
"Here you are!" he exclaimed happily, when he turned around and saw me. There was a black fedora on his head, and he wore a black blazer with a red school crest. "Let's paint the sky together!"
"Are we playing a game?" I asked him, tugging at the ragamuffin's clothes I was wearing.
"We are. We've always been playing. Come on!"
But there was no space on the ladder for two, for it hung precariously by itself. He leapt off it, floating down gracefully onto the ground that was the same hue of blue as the sky, and skipped towards me. "You can do the painting," he said, smiling like the child he was.
I looked at his paintbrush, and at the tin of paint he was swinging from his hand. "But what do I paint?"
"Puffs of smoke!" He pointed high into the sky, where there was a magnificent cloud in the shape of a dragon. "See, I've just painted a ginormous dragon. It has to breathe out fire and smoke, so you shall help me paint the smoke. I put my signature at the dragon's tail; you can put your name in one of the smoke puffs, too!"
He thrust the tin of paint into my hand, and took the fedora off his head. From inside it he fished out a paintbrush with a clear body of glass and fine white bristles at the end, and handed it to me.
So I gathered my tattered coattails, and went up the silver ladder. When the tip of my brush touched the canvas of the blue sky, the paint became white cotton candy, and beads of sugar glistened all along its strands.
I painted. I wanted to paint the best smoke puffs ever. I wanted him to see what I could paint. I wanted him to be proud of me, the way I was proud of him. We would make the best cloud painting of all. Our fire-breathing dragon would reign the entire sky.
But too soon my tin ran out of paint, and I could no longer continue. I turned to look down at him, wondering if he had more.
He was with a little girl in a white sunhat, and a white sundress with a satin skirt. I caught a glimpse of her face and her shiny curls of hair, and she was very pretty indeed. I did not know who she was. No, I knew — she was the girl who had, once upon a time, told him that she liked him.
"My lady," he was saying to her, as he smiled happily. "The sky is complete. Let us play under our sky."
"It's beautiful," the little girl said, with a pretty voice.
"And so are you," he replied. "Will you marry me, my fair lady?"
The girl held her skirt, and dipped a pretty curtsey.
They linked hands, and sang a song together — he, a bright student in his black blazer and fedora, and she, a pretty little girl with a pretty voice.
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.
The silver ladder under my feet trembled, and swung out from under me. I closed my eyes as I fell, down and down towards the ground, with my empty tin of paint and the glass paintbrush he had given to me.
My fair lady . . .
––– –· · –·· ·– –·––
I felt someone catch me as I fell, and cradle me into safety. When I opened my eyes I realised that he was holding me in his arms, and the sky behind him was the deepest shade of blue. I gazed up into his glinting blue eyes, hot tears streaming down my face as I clutched tightly at him.
What are we, Aidan? I whispered to him. What are we?
He did not answer, and only mouthed me a reply — silent words that I could not catch, however I tried. I felt his kiss soft on my forehead, and then remembered no more.
·–– ·– ·· – ··–· ––– ·–· –– ·
I opened my eyes again.
The entire room was bathed in golden light — streams of it flooded through the window and onto the bed, and the walls, and the floor.
And all over the bed and floor were white paper planes, lit up by the morning.
I sat up quickly, scattering a few planes onto the floor, where they lay rustling. He was no longer there, but replacing his self on the other side of the bed were even more paper planes like the rest — messages folded from plain notebook paper I knew he sometimes carried along with him.
He was gone.
He was gone, before I could tell him the answer to my own question in the dream.
I fought back more tears, even as my eyes were exhausted from all that happened the night before. But I felt something crinkle in my left palm, and I uncurled my fingers.
Closed in my hand was a pair of white paper cranes, delicately joined to each other at the tips of one wing. And I saw, on the side of each crane, faint markings in pencil — a dot, and a dash.
I ran to the open window. High towards the zenith, in the vast morning sky of peach and blue, was a tiny plane with a thin vapour trail behind it. Inside the plane, I fancied, was him, looking through one of the many windows, looking down towards the earth, looking for me on the ground.
Clutching the pair of cranes tight in one hand and the edge of the window sill in the other, I watched the plane continue its journey to a faraway place — a place, perhaps, on the other side of the world. I smiled after it, feeling the tears that strayed down my face after all, till it disappeared, at long last, past a shimmering school of sky fish and into a bank of cirrus clouds — away, into the fragile morning that marked the end of our last summer together.
It ends at a faintly hopeful note, because there will always be a summer next year.
Reviews will be much appreciated.