A/N: I started writing this with the intention of it just being a small little thing for me to present in Creative Writing, but I kept on writing and writing and pretty soon I had twelve pages, and this thing had gotten way out of hand. It's very rough around the edges at the moment. I'm either going to cut it down or expand it and make it into a novella-like thing.

So here it is. The uncut rough draft Alpha Version.


The Lay of Compulsion

I.

Your life is a perpetual game of hide and seek, and you can never win. You have never been very good at hide and seek to begin with – you never seemed to grasp the foolishness of hiding in closets or under beds or behind doors ajar – so it's just kind of insulting when you're pitted up against the second-best seeker in the world. Of course, you're used to being insulted – especially by your own life – and you're the best, most resilient survivor you know. You give it your desperate, floundering all and pray that you die of exhaustion before you have to suffer the shame of losing again. Most times you can outsmart your opponent long enough to feel like an actual living being, and not a plastic token skirting a psychedelic game board. But things have a bad habit of catching up. And so, because you can never really hide from the omnipotent everything, situation always finds you when you've foolishly let your guard down.

II.

The battlefield is precisely arranged before you, but the odds are not in your favour. You are rail thin and insecure, and you barely reach his shoulder. You are crooked, bony knees and sharp elbows and lissom contours, a feline form you have yet to grow into. You are scorching wit, enough to make Shakespeare turn over in his grave. You are long legs that let you tower over your peers, but you are no puissant teenage Adonis. You are half his girth and not nearly as strapping. And you are outnumbered: you are a one man show, a solo act, a lone wolf among a pack of clueless and stupid sheep. You don't need to waste precious space within yourself for the concern of another; you are the strongest, most experienced survivor in this room. You are resilient like a rubber band; you snap back before your enemy has even had a chance to take his next breath. But he has a pack of snarling hyenas nipping at his heels, and by their coiled spines and rigid shoulders, they are itching to lay their hands on you a few times in righteous reprehension, the agents of prudence and God's will.

But you've been building up your arsenal and holding your fire for a long time now. The fuses were cut short somewhere along the line of the derogatory names and anatomically incorrect genitalia scrawled on your locker door in Sharpie; the weekly ritual of having to fish your backpack and all its contents from the murky, toxic, algae-infested pond; the little hallway pranks in between classes – all the times you've been pushed and locked into janitorial closets, or tripped in the halls, or tossed against the bathroom walls, or thrown down the stairs. Now, you will release your volley in one nuclear blow. You're fucking done, and by the time you've emptied the first clip, everyone will know it and no one will forget.

The odds are not in your favour, but with you, everything is so erratic and fractious that odds are as transient as dreams, or happiness. And who can blame you? Who would dare to question your unfailing reason? It's as sharp as the ridges of your ribs straining dangerously against the confines of fragile skin. Your justification is the sanguine, unearthly and beautiful as it converges into amorphous crimson patterns against the stark cafeteria tiles.

It's not like this neophyte wordsmith phoney is really going to complain, either. Before he can revel in the afterglow of novice slinging of boring textbook-grade invectives he's lying flat on the filthy floors of the cafeteria screeching like a banshee. Your bony knuckles and unkempt nails strike and tear the spongy, corpulent flesh of his bovine maw, strike, tear, strike, tear, ad infinitum, until your fists are raw and his face is battered, mashed, destroyed; an unrecognisable congelation of tears and blood and bruises. You hold the flame to the fuse and let the cannon fire free, riding out the kick on instinct, your fists falling anywhere, everywhere; you can't tell face from chest from hand from arm through the opaque veil of tears. The sound of flesh striking flesh is wet, carnal, almost sensual; you're manic, you're euphoric, you're radiating with an unimaginable kind of pleasure that you hadn't thought could exist. The throes of power chafe you raw, and it takes one of the football team members jump-tackling you to the ground to pull you off of your victim.

Your eyes burn like they have been rinsed in acid. Your knuckles are red and raw. A mask of hot tears and snot stiffens on your face as your furious, silent sobbing dissipates with your trademark can't-give-a-tinker's-damn post-triumph glow. The several hundred occupants of the room are, surprisingly, completely silent – not even the twittering girls gossip; they all watch you, their vapid sheep eyes alert and flickering with fear, as if you're a madman. No, you are a lone wolf among a crowd of stupid sheep, and your mask has finally fallen off to reveal your gnashing teeth. And you regret nothing, riding out your new high. You are untouchable. You are the fucking suzerain of a phlegmatic kingdom of vaunted self-righteousness and carefree iniquity. Someone comes to drag you to suffer verbal atonement, but you have had enough for one lifetime.

In a flash you are gone, out the gate, running down the road as fast as you can. You have left the few possessions you can safely call yours behind, but it's nothing you'll ever need to care about – there is only one thing you cherish, and that one thing isn't even yours. Your shoes are well-worn, ratty, and old, riddled with more holes than a vagabond's coat. The pavement is scorching and rough where skin pokes through these holes, but hell if you notice anything but the racing of your heart, the burn in your eyes, the power in your hands. You are emboldened, your run is frantic, your breath is ragged, your sides are on fire, your feet ache, your hair is a bloody, windblown mess. You cannot see where you are going through a fresh wave of enormous crocodile tears, and you are guided solely by your own instinct, nourished and refined after a decade and a half of being trapped within the net of this concrete graveyard.

You are gone, you never look back, and you never, ever return.

III.

But you ought not to expect to get any sort of reprieve. You've donned the wings of freedom, and the winds of triumph carry you far, far away from that place. But the wind is too loud, screaming your battle cry in your ears, for you to hear the sound of situation slowly counting backwards from twenty before he comes to look at you. Even if nobody else does, he loves you dearly. And, it's as they say: karma is as karma does, and you must atone for completely ruining that boy's chance of bagging a girlfriend.

So it is that you find yourself in the slightly less trashy suburban undercroft, where you can actually see the tops of buildings without wildly shooting your gaze into an empyrean oblivion. Here, the denizens are actually people, with lives – albeit dreadfully dull ones – and not potential rapists and muggers and murderers and dealers. It's like being in a whole new world – no, like a pocket of paradox space, a soporific anachronism; indeed, the transition from smoke-stained metal cages and trash-sodden streets and a thousand eighty-sixed faces to symmetrically stupefying token gardens and enervated bungalows is sudden, crude, and alarming. Like the artist got bored halfway through his work and simply cut out the white space, forcing together these two opposite jagged edges of the spectrum of human worthlessness.

The kids here are plastic slide and polychromatic jungle gym kids. They are raised on sugar and cream and taught that even with the windows open they'll be safe at night if they beg a divine architect to watch them sleep. They believe in the protection of shadowing ignorance and an ingeminated order that, so long as they don't upset it, will revel to them a future certain.

You should have no business in this place because you are not one of these cream and sugar cannon fodder disposables. You're one of the ones whom the omnipotent and invisible cannon wielders lob these disposables at. Your base camp is on the other side of the battlefield, where each apartment complex marks another free-for-all arena where the luckier and the less engaged eat those who still care for lunch – in between their reigns as gutterkings, that is. You're the leftover trash that piles up along the bed of the oil stained river when the Average Family receives their daily rations of mass-production and brutal Darwnism.

You have no right to taint this suburban (shithole) paradise with your dingy wardrobe, your bloodied shirt and bloodied fists and bloodied face and bloodied conscience; with your switchblade of reality leaving a trail of dead fairies and imaginary friends behind; with your chains dragging along behind you over the perfectly paved streets, carving your ruts for all to see and mock.

And yet, your adrenaline-soaked instinct carries you here. The cramps in your side and the burn in your muscles kicks in all in one sweep, and you are finally compromised when you come upon a large park nestled into the outer limits of suburbia. At least here nature has succeeded over mankind, and the green of the forest mattress of canopies is actually not artificial. Nature left the playground behind as a sign, a sign that someday everything will be destroyed.

You really shouldn't have expected any kind of reprieve. Karma is as karma does, and there he is.

IV.

He's alone, unsurprisingly. You've yet to see him unalone, excluding all the times he's with you. Which isn't very often. He spends most of his time gallivanting around overseas with his loyal flock of sheep, mothering his mother and ditching his batshit insane grandmother and slowly unravelling the mysteries of the temporal universe. He only makes this annual mandatory trip to Suburbia, Middle of Fucking Nowhere, Some Shitty Country That's Going To Blow Itself Up because the law demands it.

When was it that you met him? Six years ago, seven? Sometime when the scratches adorning your back were still red and raw, and your slightly misaligned and discoloured eyes hid under a shock of unruly blond bangs, and you still swayed back and forth when you tried to carry your ill-fitting skin around. The number is elementary, though, because you only counted your acquaintanceship with him for its worth – that is, from that day exactly one year, seven months, and nine days ago, when you realised alas, you are undoubtedly in love with him.

You bet that not even he can unravel that particular mystery.

Starling suddenly from his reading, he perks up like a puppy when he hears you moving towards him. You aren't exactly being subtle about it. You're still somewhat pissed and in the throes of misery and whatnot, and you've never been very subtle with your feelings. You've never had to be. Before him, there was honestly not a single person who cared. Not a single person you had to hide your disgusting, horrible, worthless self from.

Then he came along – literally fell on you from the branches of an oak and shattered your glass bubble world.

It only takes him a second to recognize you – you sometimes like to flatter yourself with the prepubescent notion that that's because he has studied your face for nearly as long as you have longingly studied his. But you're not even going to bother with how ridiculous and stupid and dumb that is, and how every time you think it you hate yourself a little more.

His face lights up like a Christmas tree, all dimples and shining eyes and wide grins with crooked teeth. The jolt of nostalgia that smashes into you feels like someone slipped an ice cube down your pants; you cringe, faltering in your step. It's a harsh jolt of violent montage. It's the last thing you need, with the sun bearing into your back and the sweat pouring down your body in buckets and soaking you through. Yet you allow the rays to wash over you like a sun tanner at the beach. The taste of processed fruit flavoured popsicles bristles on your tongue; your fingers brush against the gritty walls of your five level, three foot tall sand castle as they swing beside you; your nose fills with the scent of freshly mowed grass and bleeding watermelons and the clear, fresh air of skies that were still blue and clouds that were still benevolent.

Does he remember it, too?

His countenance stops and shifts as you draw closer and no doubt become clearer to his crappy near-sighted vision – that's probably the one thing that's not flawless about him. You must look like a gladiator fresh out of the ring – though you'd probably be one of the losing ones who was unfortunate enough to not die. Elation slides into confusion; scintillating blue flushes with a veil of concern. He drops his book to the table – something about time dilation – and disentangles himself from the table.

You dutifully come to a stop before him, rigid and unsmiling. Your stomach is flipping like a gymnast on steroids and a strange tenseness has you petrified. It's not supposed to be like this – you're supposed to loosen up around him. He's supposed to be the one who won't tell if you accidentally decided to be yourself in a moment of careless stupidity. But now you're just a robot, and he's got the controls in his hands.

His fingers flit in the air about your head like hyperactive butterflies, unsure of where exactly they would be useful (nowhere, by his sides, in his pockets, because mother of God is he distracting when you are trying to just get the minimal amount of your shit together to form a coherent sentence). God, he's even worse than you when it comes to comforting, and that is saying something. It's what he gets for living in the vicinity of sheep. Vaguely he asks you what happened, in his uniquely dramatic and slightly rustic fashion; in that peculiar accent you could never place – Transatlantic he calls it , but to your common bred ears it'll always just be a bit British, faintly Southern (a gentleman, he's a gentleman, so he'll understand, of course he'll understand...).

God, do you want to just tell him everything. Open the bursting flood gates and spill, though destroying everything as a price. It is a game of sacrifice. Part of you wants to just sacrifice everything, so long as he knows.

Hush, he says. Hush. But you don't think so. You're riding the current of your own frenetic heartbeats and the vibrations crackling across your skin. It's a one-way train, and you're nearing the jagged lip of the waterfall. Only, it's not water that you swill, but a secret of the most horrific kind: the echo. The river babbles it to you, unstoppable, down your throat to pool in your stomach: a weary longing, a childish bitterness, a hateful shame. He brushes the matted hair from your forehead, awkwardly clutches your shoulder, tells you to hush, be calm, but for all his miracles, he can't hold back the tide.

And then you let it go. You pick up that last gun in your arsenal and you hold it to your temple, your whole body shaking as your finger caresses the trigger. Three vibrations in rapid succession. Three currents over your lips, over the lip of a waterfall. Three pebbles tossed stones skipped across a the face of a river. Three waves flickering over a sandy shore, like the tongue that lashes out like a whip over your chapped lips. You let it go, and you wish you could just vanish into some timeline where he doesn't exist, but for all his miracles, he can't make you understand anything.

Your words are a massive sledgehammer, smacking him across the top of the head. He drinks in your words in a stunned silence, disbelieving. He couldn't even interrupt your tirade if he wanted to, because you have cut the tongue from his mouth.

His eyes are wide; the blue flickers. Behind them you can see six, maybe seven years of acquaintanceship roll past as he remembers. No, as he corrects. As he goes back to every single memory of you and rethinks, reinterprets. Years and years of one of his most treasured friendships flash across his eyes, and yet the you who stands before him is not the same you who starred in his beloved memories. The you who stands before him is an impostor. Phantom pains blossom over your stomach, and the blade of rejection twists into your flesh.

The corners of his lips quirk up at you – a trembling, sugary smile, and that's all he can give you. It doesn't quite reach his eyes or encourage his dimples; instead it's fragile, and your sledgehammer confession, still hanging over his head at the prospect of an unprecedented second strike, threatens to shatter it. Maybe for good.

Oh.

Oh.

Well.

Uh.

He dithers. Scuffs his shoe. He is running you through with a sword, over and over and over and o.v.e.r. Running you through. Again and again. And again. And it hurts, man it fucking hurts, it hurts more than if he were actually attempting to eviscerate you with a blade. At least then you'd know it's a big hell no. At least then you'd know how to react.

But "oh uh well" means less than nothing.

He blinks. Runs a hand through his hair. Takes a step back. He's... sorry – well, not really "sorry," per se, because he doesn't know what to be sorry about. But, like, he doesn't know... a mutual affection for spacetime quandaries and yellow pears can't really be quantified as good old-fashioned "love", hah... Gosh. This is rather sudden and really unexpected, mate... you've put him in a bit of a quandary... he really doesn't know what to say – what do you say in these kinds of situations anyway without sounding like a total jackass? God, he probably sounds like a jackass anyway. There, he's sorry for sounding like a jackass. But really, he's never been in this situation before...

The sledgehammer reroutes itself until it's hanging over your bullet hole riddled skull. It shivers once in the swirling, sloshing, torpid air, then descends like Death's scythe cleaving a soul from its body.

You'd prepared yourself for rejection, truly. You thought you had steeled yourself to just be cool with it, to let it roll off of your skin like any old gusty squall of haha loser fuck you. But you'd brought an umbrella to a tsunami.

Never had you imagined that rejection could feel this much like the end of the world.

V.

Of course, it's not the end of the world, because that would be too convenient. God likes to mess around with you. He likes to make his mendicants suffer, just to remind them that they're the unwanted coffee stain on the front of his divine vestments.

It is the end of your world, however. You forget your popsicles in lieu of his imminent departure, and the vicious sun melts them, sloshing the chemical cocktail together on the driveway. The tide washes in and crushes your sandcastle because your moats, which you slaved away on for at least three hours, still aren't deep enough. Clouds blot out that peregrine sky and the air congeals with toxins, and you have been abandoned for the very last time on the roof of your apartment building, and far below you the sirens scream and wail and people shout as they collect the body of the only person who maybe, might have loved you, and your own too-large body is broken and you yourself are bleeding and bruised and you can't move and oh god oh god oh god please will you please please just kill me already please...

VI.

And so, situation deposits you back here. You are cowering in the dark – outside the late springtime sun scorches the earth, but inside your room it is dark. The heat is stifling, the air is stale: a sealed crypt. Your blinds are drawn as tightly as possible and the curtains hang loose and dusty and heavy, hiding you from the outside world – the walls of your mausoleum, where you will angst yourself into an early grave very teenage in nature.

Empty, cold, and alone. Abandoned. For you, it is always dark.

But you're used to being alone. So used to it, as a matter of fact, that you've learned to anticipate the sudden anxiety attacks, when the scratched, nicked, hole ridden white walls close in around you, and the air flees for the other side of the room, and your chest collapses like a popped balloon. You've learned what to do by now: stop, hands over your eyes, thumbs buried in your ears, curl in on yourself like a god damn maggot and wait for your lungs to start behaving like normal lungs again, wait for the waves upon waves of feverish chills to subside, wait for the theatre of your mind to go blank again so you don't have to watch him kiss your (bruised) temples, stumble towards that edge, spread his arms, jump, over and over and over and o.v.e.r...

You wait for the day that your lungs will never work properly again.

But this time, like every other time, it subsides. Your breaths slow to normal again – if you could call your faint, weak panting "normal". You're hardly alive; you subsist off of an amount so meagre that a child younger than ten would probably die. What else can you do when you're alone?

But when you push your palms into your eyes and watch the colourful spots dance across the black, what stands out is the same blue that watched you turn tail and run like a coward, like a preteen girl who has never seen worse suffering than a confiscated mobile phone. Your ears echo with the sound of your name called out in concern. The blotches morph into a sylph-like form trying to follow you across the polished green, but failing because like hell if you will ever be able to face him again.

It's not love; it's not even lust; it's certainly not desire. And that might just be what scares you the most – that you know nothing about its identity, just that it is the sweetest, most glamorous, most painful, most sadistic Thing you have ever had the favourable misfortune of feeling. It has a mind of its own, and you haven't the slightest idea how to control it – there is no way to control it. No matter how many times you spear your heart and let it bleed dry or roast it over an open fire of angst and frustration or inject it with the toxin of despair, this, this compulsion, this passion, if it could be so crudely addressed, refuses to be purged from your failing heart and remains with its roots entangled in your heartstrings to sap at the little life they have left.

Riding the backs of your heartbeats and your own wretched, cacophonous mental bedlam, the whispers of obsession slip in your ears and bury themselves in the deepest, shattered fragments of your mind, the ones that echo ceaselessly when you close your eyes and slip away. They whispered their orders down the caverns of your throat, down into your lungs, where they poisoned the very air you breathe with his scent. And then the miasma reached your heart, and the spores found entrance in the gashes already permanently lashed into your heart, where Mother left, where Father died, where he stopped caring and left you too. With every beat that followed, you pumped not blood, but the singing, screaming sounds of compulsion.

So it's not love. It can't be love. It's just obsession. You actually hate him. You hate everything that he stands for: all the things you want but can never have, all the things you never wanted but cannot avoid; all the times you have simply wanted to be touched or held or even looked at, even if in a passing, roundabout glance; all the irrational curiosities and desires that spring from the shadows when the light of reason is snuffed out to sabotage your cloud kingdom of egotism and self-reverence. You hate him for every demonic antagonist that chains you to the ruts you have dug for yourself and whips you soundly when you try to pull yourself free. You have to hate him, because he exists as a reminded that sins do exist and, contrary to whatever he says, there is a high possibility that you will have to atone – one way or another – when you die.

No, no, that's not right. That's not right. You love him. You do. Ten times over, a hundred, a thousand; again, you can chant it to your paint splattered ceiling to the rhythm of the intoxicating whirring of the fan and the hum of your ancient laptop until you are blue in the face, but what will it matter when his mind is made up? What will it do but elongate the number of days you have to suffer his nonchalance ricocheting around your head? It's not as if suddenly everything will just make sense, or that life will become meaningful – as if in loving him you can find some grand reality about the way the world works. Some interconnectivity of symbiotic relationships, perhaps, in which the whole world functions as a giant machine of cooperation. Life's course, merry and predictable enough to be mapped out between the twenty-something pages of princess stories and their jaunty, jovial palettes and pictures.

He broke your eyes, and with none of this "tenderly like a gentle whisper, oh he was so sweet about it and honestly I completely understand and really I don't feel bad at all" crap you secretly coveted. More like the pathetic "I'm completely lost and were it not for some silly infatuation with the ability of some upper power I've never really seen to keep feeding me misery I'd probably crawl into my closet and kill myself" situation you're used to.

You know, the more realistic kind.

He built castles over your head and dug crystal grottoes beneath your feet, but the porous bedrock was undermined by the flow of time and your kingdoms plunged to a final crystal slumber. He gave you wings and taught you how to fly, but he used Scotch tape to hold 'em together and your own Fate shredded them with her scissors fast enough to make Icarus feel confident in his wax seals.

Raine. It glides off of your tongue like its namesake off of the waxy membranes of baby leaves. Raine, rain. What does it matter? This particular ring of hell you call your domain hasn't seen either in ages. Can't have either. Instead the sun will blaze and slowly burn everything with an intense fury. It'll leech the terracotta from the bricks of your building and the jovial green of what little and sparse vegetation as managed to survive the unrelenting inferno of time, and from your body the energy you use to thrash yourself about these tiresome patterns you call your mockery of life. And you will blaze and slowly burn through yourself with an intense passion which you don't/can't understand or control.

It's okay, because in some converging reality, a paradox you is understood. That was his thing – alternate universes and parallel worlds. That was the day you met him, and you remember that conversation like it was yesterday. You were strung along clueless as the boy who just fell into your lap and fractured his ankle babbled on and on about gravity and alternate realities and paradoxes through the tears brimming along his eyelids as his ankle throbbed and swelled.

He himself is an anachronism, and this is not his world. It's okay, because somewhere along his beloved quantum timeline, a paradox you, one in a million, knows what it feels like to be loved unconditionally in return.

VII.

There are three things you hold to be immutable truths, and it is this Bill of Undeniable Self Realizations upon which you have based your whole lack of existence:

You cannot, and will not, amount to anything. Maybe you'll be able to deal some drugs to fellow vagabonds, or mooch off of your brother, or prove a satisfying target for some homicidal street rapist, but beyond all that, no self-appreciating person is ever going to accept you anywhere. Not with your Class A track record and stunning absence of people skills and your blatant lack of an ability to give one shit, let alone two. You breeze through the humdrum noncomplexities of public school in a haze of delirium and not-giving-a-shit and you've got latent genius down to a science, but with nothing to your name except a few ugly scars on your back and nobody around you, you can pretty much consider yourself over. You can be as above average as you want without ever getting anywhere, for simply "above average" is worth fuck all next to the scores of "amazing and talented and successful" who pepper the world's more affluent corners. Not that it really matters to you. You'll stick to the Underworld as long as you're alive to suffer her lascivious whims, before she uses you and bleeds you dry until you're just an empty shell – well, even more of an empty shell. An empty, dead shell. The Underworld's not picky with her consorts, an equal opportunity employer of human mercy killing.

There is not a single person on the entire god damn planet who gives, has given, or will ever give a shit about your existence, so stop pretending that there is somebody out there who does.

Christopher Raine will never love you in return.

VIII.

By no means are you the sort to dwell on your emotional imbalances. If you tried to capture and examine every single one flitting about in your head, you'd be dead of old age before you got halfway through the pile. Your old shrink said as much, that every time you fixed one of your problems, your other problems got bored and had to write whole new ones to fill the lightened, rainbow coloured voids. A shitstorm of problems. Conservation of mental instabilities. Your immutable law.

Or so you like to convince yourself. And so you lead yourself to believe that keeping yourself occupied will serve as a viable alternative to human interaction. Then you realise that that's bullshit and start freaking out about everything all over again.

But you have a few moments to spare before that happens. You fish around under your bed for your notebooks – okay, so maybe you were wrong before. You do cherish something other than Christopher Raine, and it is yours and yours alone. Your soul is bound to these notebooks, almost literally. The shrink said it would help you manage your problems to write about how you felt each night before bed. You chucked that stupid bitch's cup of coffee right in her pretty Botoxed face. But you kept the journals anyway. And then a night one year, seven months, and nine days ago found you flirting with the idea of writing, then harshly denying it... then exploding in a flurry of skewed graphite lines and saturating the pages to the brim with

But you can't write that kind of thing, since it exists in a place in your mind where words alone do not suffice. A lexical gap, if you will, that cannot be rectified through purple prose or eloquent rhymes. The faces that stare back at you from the pages cannot comprehend the crushing pressure over your sternum and the blinding light in your mind from whence they were born; they can merely look on in awe and wonder, dream, like their God.

It's everything you weren't able to say as you cried your tear ducts dry on that scorching day years and years and years ago – long enough ago that the scars on your back have faded – as you watched the only person who loved you tear himself apart in his despair, his confusion, the same empty loss you reckon you're lost in now. It's a three word phrase you couldn't say through the blood trickling from your mouth as you bore his every blow, because you knew, you knew, what pain could not: he loved you, always. Father always loved you.

It's a four letter word you couldn't breathe before he jumped.

And it's every single reason you couldn't explain to Christopher Raine before you removed yourself from his life for presumably forever, the sappy sentiments you'll never say and the adulations you shouldn't have to say because he doesn't need them to be the one thousand three hundred thirty four reasons you have for staying alive.

But what might once have been a sketch of his face quickly turns sour; it spoils, and all it takes is a few undesired strokes driven by the unwanted guest lodged in your heart to turn it into something too hideous to ever match with his perfection. You're not drawing from your mind; you're taking a photograph here. A photograph of what is left of your heart, cut and sliced and haphazardly stitched back together and diseased and dying, finally.

The computer lets out a chipper ping, all clicks and whirs and bright wallpapers of things that probably once mattered to you. You roll over on your side and watch the messenger pop up on your screen. You watch as obnoxious magenta text pops up in the window. It's him. He's worried about you. He's concerned, and he's sorry – though he still doesn't know what for – and he's still your best mate; nothing can change that. He doesn't want you to take it personally; he likes you, for sure, but he can't like you in the same way. Are you there? Please answer him. Tell him you're okay. If you want to call him to talk about it-

Your throat constricts, and your chest feels heavy, as if a fat man decided to perch upon you. You grip the plastic yellow casing of your twist up mechanical pencil hard enough to bruise, almost enough to snap it in half, but it's not like you even notice or particularly care, for that matter – you're clutching that damn utensil like the lip of the rock face as you dangle over the edge of a chasm deeper and blacker than your own self-loathing.

You've been in this situation before, when, emboldened by the immunity and immortality of inanimate text as you sought his respite from across the ocean, you tried to subtly edge your way into this subject matter through some sly syntax subterfuge, and as a consequence, he'd been too clueless and naïve to understand what you really meant. Of course you're my best mate. Of course you're the most important person in my life.

You'd think that you would be used to feeling like a stampede of frenetic elephants had used you as a welcome mat. Only this time, it's not just the lingering possibility of rejection you bear. This time, you are Atlas and it is the whole world, and there is a permanence to it. You are standing atop the world, but you are a step from falling, and he is the gravity pulling you to a bone-shattering death.

IX.

Eventually you manage to pry your fingers loose from the cylindrical casing and, with a wild shove, knock the thing to your bedroom floor along with the sketchbook and some dumb books on some universe shit that doesn't even matter in your world of indulgent misery and utter self-deprecation. You fall back into the welcome embrace of the mattress and your pillow, blotched with charcoal and paint and all your rightly due teenage frustrations. You curl yourself into sheets stained with ambitions that are meaningless in this world, because everything belongs to Death, and you could count all the fucks he gives about ambition one one hand. With both hands tied behind your back. As a cripple with all your fingers sliced off in retribution for stealing a second of the world's time.

Your fingers climb the ladders to your shoulders, the ladders pushing through the fabric of your now baggy t-shirt – slightly damp, warm as you sweat out your sentence in this torrid inanimate prison, as you desperately sweat out this unending fever sabotaging your control. Your fingers climb the ladders that are the dusty heralds to your neglect, and your temperature climbs, and your will to live plunges, and you are pulling yourself up the mountain, hand over hand, with such agonizing slowness, searching for the peak. But there is no peak to this fever. You'll just continue to burn and burn until you've paid for the sin of indulging yourself an existence in a senseless, empty world clearly not meant for you.

Your fingers shake as you wrap them in a death grip around your frail, narrow shoulders, the only thing holding you together. The convulsions spread to your shoulders, your torso, your legs, your whole body. You cry out in dismay – but no, it is not dismay, and the noise that escapes your lips can hardly be called "human". You stole it from some tortured demon – perhaps the very same denizen who now watches you as you tear yourself apart. Another cry. The indolent air is heady with a lust to smother and kill.

The cries become something more verdant, and you realise that possibly, maybe, just this once, it's okay for you to cry.