How Much More?

You stumble out of the building a few steps before your face painfully connects with concrete.

Once upon a time, you used to walk down these same streets with your family. Between each crosswalk held teasing, playful remarks, and laughter. In summer, your sisters and you would lick at mammoth ice cream cones while following behind your parents. Colder weather would bring on the toasty hot chocolates, and you always managed to burn your tongue. Starting at a young age, you were only exposed to the attractive side of the city alone. You spent your time dodging panhandlers and beggers, and ignoring any place that had dimmed lights or music pouring from the front door.

It's a different story now. An unfortunate, more realistic story where you spend nearly every night wandering these streets, getting either wasted or higher than a kite on a windy April afternoon. You are a self-proclaimed hot mess, but somehow you're still managing to get by. Currently, you're staggering down the road, past the old arcade where you celebrated more than one birthday, and you have no idea what to do with yourself. The left side of your face is still bloody from your fall but you ignore the stinging pain.

This how you spend a normal evening. You haven't a clue how long you were in that club, teetering on the dance floor and tossing back glass after glass of alcohol. Forgetting what you're doing is just part of the routine. Wandering around as you are now, turning your brain off and letting your legs carry you forward, it's all a part of your daily schedule.

Dozens of faces pass you in a blur. None of them bother to show you a smidgen of emotion. They disregard your presence and make a point to keep far away from you. They practically leap out of your path. One glance at you, in your pathetic woozy state and with your wounded cheek, and they automatically move away.

The lights of the city blend with the darkness of night, and your legs continue to carry you down the familiar blocks. Sharp wind slaps your body with cold. You wish there was someone for you to call. Someone who would drop whatever they're doing to come and pick you up. Then they would take you somewhere safe. Your apartment isn't a safe place for you. If anything, it's the most dangerous place you can be. The damage that you can do to yourself when you're sitting alone in your room is nothing in comparison to the streets of downtown on a Saturday night. Still, you yearn for something to change, yet you know it won't.

Never mind hoping for a friend. It seems so unreachable you could laugh. You can't even recall the last time you needed to remember a face, let alone a name. There's no point. People are constantly running through your life, as if it's a line in a grocery store. You're the cashier, and a trickle of costumers show up from time to time. No two are the same, and they never stay for long. Sometimes they look like they'd rather be anywhere else in the world. They don't really bother to get to know you either. While you're eternally stuck there, all they do is gather their items and leave. Some stay around longer than others do, yet the outcome is always the same. Eventually they all leave.

Therefore making friends has been erased from your list of priorities. It's too difficult to keep them. And once they start to see your true colors, they disappear. Maybe it's because these 'true colors' of yours are too dull. You've stopped spending time pondering it, though.

Some time ago, back when your family still checked up on you, your older sister Rebecca called you out and declared you don't have faith in anyone. But it's not an issue of trusting people. You never lost your ability to trust. You've just run out of people that are willing to try to help. The store has run out of customers.

When hunger begins to poke at your stomach, you head into a nearby Seven-Eleven, which is a few blocks from your apartment. Comical as it is, you realize you're acting like a zombie right now. You're hungry so you are in search for food, and you're wobbling around all over the place. Before, you thought maybe you were sobering up a little, but at the zombie thought, you burst into giggles, making everyone in the building stare.

You buy a Slurpee, a red Gatorade, and about six bags of Chex Mix. It isn't the healthiest purchase, yet it's cheap and will get you through the next few days. Without a job, your income is obviously at zero. The only way you've been able to pay for everything up until now is with your college fund. Well, that's what it was originally supposed to be, anyway. A few years ago, you had goals and lifetime aspirations. The bar was set as high as it could go. Your family and friends expected you to be someone, and instead you ended up here, slowly picking away at your university savings and putting off getting a job.

When it comes down to it, you'll break down and apply to work somewhere mediocre like this very same Seven-Eleven, but not today. You're an extreme procrastinator and these days your life is filled with excuses piling on top of one another. You don't want to admit it to yourself, but it's the complete truth.

Soon you end up at your place. In all of its 70's era glory, it's a three-story high building containing six different apartments. The green paint has faded into a murky gray, the wooden structures are slowly decomposing, and the staircases leading to each level are treacherous. Each step cries with a chorus of squeaks and they're so narrow that one false move can lead to a huge tumble. You try to take extreme caution as you climb them.

One of your favorite things to do at home is to watch endless hours of movies and television. You love escaping into other places in the world, and other times, even if it only lasts for a little while. There are loads of characters whose lives you would kill to have. They experience so many new things that you can hardly imagine. Everything is warm and bright for them, and you crave it. You used to read books too, when you were younger. Now you don't have the patience for it. You need the instant satisfaction that'll knock you out from reality for two hours. In a week, you average five or six movies. Needless to say, you're on great terms with the employees at Blockbuster.

You plan to drift asleep while watching something completely mindless, as you love to do. After the stairs of perpetual doom, the moldy olive-green door is the final obstacle in your way. You reach into your jacket pocket for the key. Empty. The other pocket shows the same results. In a slight daze, you fumble with your bags and blindly search for the key.

More panic sets in as minutes tick by. You attempt to retrace your steps, even going so far as to trudge up and down the stairs again, but nothing catches your hazy eyes. There's nothing. Not under the doormat, or the wilted potted plant, nor the old foldable lawn chair leaning against the wall. Beneath the dim outside light, you scan the area for anything with a slight shine to it. You start doing ridiculous things like ringing your doorbell and twisting a bobby pin inside the lock, as if it would magically pop open that way. But again, nothing.

You keep on expecting somebody to come to your rescue, and make things right once more. Every time you twist the doorknob, you expect it to open. With each rap of your knuckles to the decaying wood, you hope that someone will come forward and let you in. But you live alone. The door isn't going to budge. You feel hopeless and scared. There's an alarm going off in your head saying that this isn't good, this isn't right. You need to get inside.

The temperature seems to drop a degree with each pulsing thud of your beating heart. Your body shakes with shivers as your breath puffs out like smoke. With winter creeping up, it's very possible that the first snow of the season could be tonight. You'd much rather spend the night inside then, thank you, but things aren't looking too bright. Plenty of bad stuff has happened to you before, but you've never had to sleep outside. Realizing that you'll probably have to makes you want to burst into tears. You're wearing a skirt, for goodness sake.

You put all of your willpower into finding a solution. There's hardly enough money in your budget to pay the bills, so a motel is out of the question. It's most likely too late anyway. The sun will be rising again in a few hours. Apparently, you've just fallen into a pit of quicksand and there's no way out.

You don't know what to do with yourself anymore, so you decide sleep is the only option you have. After unfolding the lawn chair and clearing it of dirt, you settle into it. There's an old crumpled wrapper in the cup holder that you don't remember putting there. Leaning back gives you the sensation that you're going to topple backwards. It's the least comfortable bed you've ever had to deal with. You hate yourself, because you're the one at fault. All you had to do was keep track of your key, and you failed. It's probably laying in the middle of a sidewalk somewhere, being stomped on by careless heels and boots, mocking you by being so insignificant, yet so important.

For what seems like hours, you stare up at the flickering light outside your door. It's not the only thing keeping you up. Your brain refuses to shut down. Your torso won't stop trembling against the cold, no matter how tightly you wrap your coat around you. Being out here like this forces you into deep thinking and that's the last thing you want to do. You'd rather not face yourself. It makes you anxious and queasy, and you begin to drift into the darker corners of your mind. There's a constant announcement of your mistakes ringing in your ears. You hate everything, you detest everything, you loathe yourself.

It even brings you back to your days in high school, when there was always a struggle to hold onto sanity and you had to fight frequently to be a person everyone liked. Not much has changed since then, but you've stopped fighting. You've long since given in to the enemy. You've given in to you. But you don't remember when you started to burn yourself. Maybe once or twice you accidentally touched your straightener to skin and recoiled from the immediate pain. Then later, after an exceptionally hard day, you redirected the destructive emotions into physical pain, and pressed the heated plate to your skin on purpose.

The feeling had been exhilarating, it is now as well, and the scars that linger are oh so worth it. Nobody could understand why, why would you do such a thing to yourself? In the end, they stopped questioning, stopped putting in the effort to make you quit, and turned the other cheek to your actions. It's carried on for a few years now. It's basically your form of cigarettes. It's another drug to you. You won't put an end to it. You can't. It's the other you, the dangerous, dark one, who controls it. You long for a straighener right now. Anything that can cause you that kind of pain, you want. Although you could never bring yourself to cut. For some reason, blades terrify you. The light above your head eventually goes out as morning comes, and your eyes force themselves shut.

You spend more than a few nights like this. After your trips downtown, you head "home" to a cozy worn-out lawn chair and an eternally locked door. You eat cheap gas station food as you normally would and wash off in various public bathrooms. You keep your hair tied up, because it drives you crazy when the greasy strands brush your face. Soon, you break down and buy a pillow in order to aid your achy neck. It's a sadder life than you were living before. Not to mention the fact that you're going through withdrawal from not being able to burn.

A crazy thought manages to weasel into your head at one point. You could potentially call your family for help, but you need to be incredibly desperate to do that, therefore you decide against it. It's so frustrating. Sometimes you want to grab a heavy object and just chuck it at the window. Then you would be inside and everything would be fine again. Of course, that would mean you paying for the damages, which is not in your budget. The pillow was pushing it. The time you spend homeless drags on and on, and feels completely empty and bleak.

On a particularly chilly morning, one that's worse than what you've dealt with so far, you're gently shaken by the shoulders. You nearly fall out of your lawn chair in shock. Then after your eyes adjust, you recognize the clean cut face of one of your neighbors. You crave a long, scorching hot shower.

"Hey," he clears his throat. "some of the residents of this building are wondering why you've been sleeping outside. I'm not going to force you to leave, but we're concerned. Do you know who lives here?" The man asks, although he has a young look to him. His eyes are bright and fervent. You would bet the entire eight-dollar fortune in your pocket that he's some over-privileged big shot. He's probably in med school, studying to be a brain surgeon. You hardly care that this guy is here, you're just highly annoyed that he woke you from your short slumber.

"I live here. My keys are gone, so I've been sleeping out here." You zip your jacket up higher and close your eyes once more. He's still there, you know it, but you're exhausted. If he's not a psycho criminal, he's nothing you need to worry about.

There's a hesitant pause. "Have you told the landlord?"

The idea has occurred to you, but the grumpy frump of a landlord doesn't take kindly to you at all. You reply, "Not yet."

"I accidentally threw mine away once, and he gave me a new one in a jiffy." He says. Instead of telling him that nobody has said the phrase, "In a jiffy" in at least fifty years, you look back up to see him adjusting his heavy knit hat.

"I'll do it soon." And that's all you have the energy to contribute to the conversation. Your eyelids droop against the biting cold. It almost hurts to blink.

He turns to leave, and you can't wait to be left alone again. As you watch his back ascend the second staircase, you note the ratty backpack slung across his shoulder. It's covered with pins, which you're pretty sure went out of style in the 90's, yet one in particular catches your eye. In the midst of cheesy puns is a large pin that states the phrase, 'Get Happy.' You roll your eyes at the blonde neighbor who's apparently the child of a businessy, cubicle-inhabiting person and a hippy.

'Get Happy?' You don't believe in happiness. People claim they feel it all the time. They tell you about it through facial expressions, with wide eyes and bold smiles. It was different when you were younger. That was a brainwashed form of joy. Your happy memories are sometimes too vivid, almost to the point that they're surreal. You have a hard time believing they ever happened. You have an even worse time trying to believe you were ever happy. It's become an emotion that you can't comprehend, so you don't consider it to be real anymore.

Your talk with the neighbor does push you into contacting the landlord and asking for a new key. He gripes about it for a few minutes, but gives one to you all the same. You don't think you've ever been so excited to see something as trivial as a key. You thank him numerous times and rush to your apartment, tripping up the stairs twice.

Inside, it's just as jumbled as you left it. The stuff in your fridge is probably rotten and nasty. The dirty dishes in the sink waft a thick stench into the air. You love every second of it. But you still feel layers of grime covering your skin, your nose hasn't stopped running in three days, and you're itching for a real sleep. After the longest, warmest shower of your life and a blazing cup of coffee, you begin to feel better. You mean to begin the process of cleaning up, but instead curl up under your covers and fall asleep the second you do so. It's a wonderful, dreamless, comfortable sleep that you honestly wish could've lasted longer.

You spend the better half of the next couple of days catching up on sleep and lounging around in pajamas. You even skip going into town for a little while. It reminds you of summer vacations away from school, when you would laze around as long as you could before you went to work with Rebecca at the community pool. You acted as lifeguards, but never had to save anybody, not once. You weren't much of a fan of swimming either way. The money was your goal, while Rebecca was on the lookout for boys. You have to admit that sometimes you were too. Those summers were full of junk food and late nights doing nothing. You used to sleep in for hours. There was nothing better than being unproductive. You've carried that trait with you until now.

After a week vacation from your life, you fall back into your routine. You keep your key stashed in your right coat pocket and check at least ten times a night that it's still there. Time passes quicker than you expect it to, and suddenly cold turns into freezing, and three inches of snow is normal. Icicles hang from rooftops and the stairs of perpetual doom become icy and more dangerous than ever before. You hold onto both sides of the railings and take around ten minutes to reach the top. Despite all of the effects of winter, it doesn't keep anybody from hitting the clubs and spending copious amounts of time downtown. You're included in this bunch. If anything, more people come to the clubs. The dancing and body heat is craved, and the alcohol doesn't hurt either. The holidays are also making an appearance somewhat soon, so everyone is out shopping. But again, it still isn't for a while, and there are thousands of other things you'd rather be thinking about. Thanksgiving… Christmas… they don't bring on the best of feelings.

It's a Wednesday night when you head to Blockbuster. You return three of the movies that you've already watched this week, and you're on the hunt for more. The store is almost totally empty, because most people are working during the week, and don't have time for movies like you do. You prefer it when you have the place to yourself, so you can search in one spot for as long as you want without being in someone's way. You travel from aisle to aisle, skipping past titles of films you've already seen. You end up in the same area as the one other costumer, and notice his fingers tapping rapidly on a DVD case, as if he's questioning the very existence of the movie.

"The first one is much better than any of the sequels." You have no idea why you tell him this. You don't know why you would do something like this when you never have before. You aren't the type of person to pipe up and talk to strangers. That's what older folks do as you browse the cracker aisle in Meijer, chattering to you for an eternity about Wheat Thins. This isn't you at all.

"The first one isn't here, though," says the stranger. When he lifts his head to look at you, you notice that he seems oddly familiar. That's something else completely out of the ordinary. His eyes widen as if he makes the connection right away, but you're left in confusion. That's when you see the same ruby red knit hat.

What you say next surprises you. Why you think this is a good idea is beyond you. You don't know why you did this, or what you think it's going to accomplish, and it even makes you a bit angry that your mouth spews out such words. You say, "I think I have it at my place, if you want to borrow it." The cashier isn't supposed to drag the costumer into their line, but you've gone and done it anyway.

He seems surprised as well, yet still agrees. You take your movies to the counter and are met with Norah, a middle-aged woman who's been working here as long as you've been coming. She nods at you as she scans the films. "Ava." Her eyes linger on your neighbor, as if she can't understand the fact that you're here with another person. You don't blame her.

"Norah." You nod back. Briskly, you head out and walk down the ice-paved sidewalks, towards home.

The neighbor's voice calls out behind you, "Wait up! Where are you going?"

"To the apartment building," You answer simply.

"You're walking there?"

You haven't had a car since your junior year of high school. You're beyond used to it now. People have always been shocked that you can get from point A to point B just by walking, but you don't have much of a choice in the matter. Plus, cars are expensive. "It's not that far from here. I'll meet you there."

He shakes his head, "I can give you a ride. It's way chilly out, it's no problem."

This is why you shouldn't have said anything to him. He's already doing what you expected him to. He's treating you like a charity case. He'll love acting like a hero for a bit, and then he'll realize how much it takes to keep up with someone like you and see that it's pointless. You would prefer to not deal with him in the first place. You're not going to change, and even though you're a mess, you're content with your mess. You bite back a large sigh as you comply and climb into his car. It doesn't have any dents or broken windows, so you deem it as nice. The heater blowing into your face makes your eyes water and your hair is dried out in no time.

When you get to the apartment, the very first thing you notice about this guy is how he handles the stairs. He jumps up them like they're made out of lava. While you're stuck at the bottom, doomed to a sluggish crawl, he's already at the very top.

Inside, you lead him to your television set. Sitting atop the wooden cabinet is your TV, which lived in the basement for years before you took it when you left home. It's one of those older models that weighs a ton and juts out in the back like it has a beer belly. There's a spaghetti pile of cords collecting behind it, since your DVD player is a decade younger and otherwise wouldn't be compatible with the dinosaur TV. You figure your old-fashioned neighbor watches all of his movies on VCR.

"Nice place you got here. It's not much different than mine, but I like the carpet in here better," says your guest, taking a seat on your couch. It seems as though he's just as bad at small talk as you are. But you notice that he looks to be very relaxed, leaning back into your aging sofa. "The walls have a better paint job too. I'm getting jealous. But I think a fish tank would really pull this room together, don't you? Yeah, with the colorful rocks and everything."

You don't know how to answer him and his rambling about living room décor, so you ignore him for the time being. It makes you feel a tad bit on edge. You fee like if you say anything, it'll be the wrong thing and he'll storm out here faster than he leaped up the stairs. He just rattles on and you dig through the cabinet of DVDs, trying to find the specific title he needs. A lot of them are dusty from lack of use, and you hardly remember watching some, but chances are you had them back in high school and your memory doesn't stretch that far. Finally, you find it.

"Thanks. I've been hearing about this series for a long time, but never found the time to watch it. I'll make sure it's in great condition when I'm done…" He pauses, his eyes fixed down, and you see that you have a few burn marks showing from under your sleeve. You don't make any moves to hide them. You aren't ashamed. He doesn't say anything about it, just thanks you again and leaves.

The presence of the blonde makes you feel incredibly uneasy. It's been a long time since anyone has been so casual and kind with you, and treated you like any normal person. You wonder how long he's going to stick around, if he does, that is. You don't hate him, but you aren't sure how much you like him either. You don't get attached to things anymore, let alone people. Chances are you'll upset him in one way or another, and that'll be the end of that.

But he pops up more than you thought he ever would. Not too long after you lend him the movie, you find a DVD case sitting on your doorstep with a note taped to the front. You notice that it's not the same case of the film you gave him, but it is your disc inside. The paper attached reads, "I went ahead and watched the sequel as soon as I got done with this one. You were right, the first is better. -Tristan." So you learned his name. A name, nevertheless. Suddenly a giant whirlwind of new things were happening to you.

It dawns on you that the case might be a test. Clearly, it belongs to him, and he's waiting to see if you'll confront him to return it. You're not sure how you feel about this. The case sits on top of your TV for days that melt into weeks, and you forget about it. You forget about him. You guess he's moved on, as you anticipated. There's no activity from him for a small stretch of time, until one day, there's something else in front of your door that you almost trip over. Again, there's a note, and you really feel the desire to roll your eyes at Tristan's outdated ways. This time it's a book, a large one. The sight causes you to frown instantly. The note states that this book is what the movie you shared with him is based from.

This time around, you actually reply back. You place a new sticky note on top of his and write, "Sorry, I don't read books. -Ava." Then, you head up to his apartment section, and leave it on his welcome mat. His place is directly above yours, meaning he has to go up two horrid staircases to get home. It's funny that even though you've never spoken to any of the other tenants except Tristan, you know who lives where. Living outside for a while helped too. You saw everybody at least a few times a day.

You and Tristan trade notes and objects back and forth for some time, and you become accustomed to his blocky handwriting and stupid little sayings. Sometimes they even show up in his writing. You're torn with being annoyed with them, or grateful for the interactions. You begin to tell him little things about yourself. No, you aren't in college. You're turning twenty-two soon, you prefer Gatorade to any other drink. Whether or not he cares about any of it is beyond you. On the other hand, he doesn't hold back when telling you facts about himself. You've found out that he is studying at the big shot college in order to get a big shot job, as you already guessed before. With a few simple notes, you feel like you know his entire life story.

And even though you are starting to get used to Tristan, you don't stop your routine. Knowing him has only added another event on your schedule. You usually leave him a reply before heading out into town, and get one in return when you wake up late the next day. The two of you have an unspoken agreement to go at these set times. There's one weekend when you don't get any word back, and you worry once more that this is the end of your friendship. If that is what it is, anyway. But the following Monday there's a large chocolate bar sitting in front of your door and all seems right again. Tristan explains that he went to go visit his family for his aunt's birthday, and the chocolate is a souvenir. He grew up eating that brand and bought as many as he could carry.

There's one time when you wake up in the middle of the night, sweat making your clothes stick to your body, queasiness stirring in your stomach. You feel warmer than the sun and everything aches. The clock signals three in the morning, and you're kneeling next to your toilet. Now you're waiting for the next wave of vomit to appear. You don't know what caused you to become so sick. Your stomach has never been tied with such tight knots. Throwing up has never been your strong point. It leaves you feeling drained of energy and your legs shake if you even attempt to stand.

Your mother didn't do everything right when it came to raising you, she wasn't perfect by any means, but she knew how to baby people when they felt ill. She was notorious for wrapping the ideal amount of blanket around you so you weren't too chilly or too warm. Her homemade chicken noodle soup soothed throats and settled troubled stomachs. She had a remedy for everything. Doctors gave out prescriptions, but your mom gave something more. Sickness was her forte, and with three girls, she had a lot of practice with her skills. You had of course fallen ill a few times since leaving home, but never to this extreme. You can't remember what she did to make the puking stop. You can't remember her comforting touch, her cold hands gently caressing your forehead.

You don't know it, but tears are clouding up your eyes and trailing down your cheeks at a rapid pace. You feel absolutely horrid. There's nothing you can do. You're stuck outside again, sleeping in the lawn chair. There's nobody to come to your aid. You're afraid you'll be stuck in this stuffy bathroom forever, sickness more powerful than the drunken kind taking over your entire being.

It makes you crave the heat. Burn. That's what can help you right now. If you burn, the throwing up, the pain coursing through your body, it'll disappear. You plug in your straightener and wait impatiently for it to heat up. You push the searing plates down on your bare skin, letting the sensations sink in, soaking up all of the pain before lifting it. Your skin screams in protest. Your reaction is to stop, stop, it hurts, but everything else in your mind it telling you yes. This is the only way.

Your high level of nausea comes crashing down soon, and even after burning, you still feel the sting of being alone. The illness hasn't gone away just yet. That's when you remember Tristan. You haven't seen him face to face since you lent him your movie. You think about asking him for some help, but you're terrified. How long will this checkout last? How much longer until it's done?

Going against all of the objections in your head, your legs take you out of your place and shakily up the second staircase to Tristan's. The severe cold of the outside contrasts with the current temperature of your body and the entire trip up you feel like you're knees are about to give out. Your knocks on the door are feeble at best, but you are greeted with the blonde male within minutes. His hair is in disarray and his eyes are misty with sleep, but once he takes in your form he snaps to attention and brings you inside. You don't take in the surroundings, you don't speak a word to him, and he doesn't to you. He leads you to his couch and urges you to lie down. Things are blurry. You see the cup of water set down on the coffee table in front of you. You feel the icy washcloth connect with your forehead, and the blankets that are lightly set onto your withering form.

Afterward, the memories are still fuzzy, but you know that Tristan took tare of you in such a tough spot, and you're grateful. Fact is, he must have seen your fresh burn scars, because whenever he's around you now, his eyes linger on your arms, your wrists, your legs. You're surprised he hasn't commented on it yet. Now you meet with him in the flesh, abandoning the notes.

He comes around to your place often. He kind of reminds you of a babysitter, or a mother. He occasionally brings you warm, homemade meals, and he refuses to leave until you've tried a few bites. Claims from him are that they're all to help you regain your strength after being so sick, but as time ticks by, the excuse wears out. He sometimes brings movies too. If you want to watch it with him, you have to ask him to stay. The films he chooses force you to think more than you'd like but you never turn him away. You haven't told him where you go off to at night. If he does know, which he most likely does, then he doesn't comment on it. There are rare nights where he asks if you want to watch something with him, or even go out somewhere. You turn him down. But he never asks you to stop what you're doing.

You can't believe how close you're getting to Tristan. Moreover, you can't believe it's lasted this long. You confide with him things you've never told a living soul. Although, you never tell him the entire story, and you refuse to dig deeper than you have to. He's always around, he's a constant in your life, and you begin to love it. The only time he leaves is for Christmas, but he comes back quickly, even go so far as to bring you a gift. You feel lighter emotions when you're near him. It's not happiness. You know that, because it never will be happiness, ever, but it's something similar.

Gradually, you start to see so much in him that you hadn't seen earlier. The slight curl in his blonde locks, the light dusting of pink always adorning his cheeks, the dry chap to his lips. He looks to human to you, while everyone else are gray blobs. He starts to make you feel real again too, and that's scarier than falling into this trap of trust and emotion.

Subconsciously, you wane the amount time you spend downtown. You spend occasional nights in, mostly watching movies or TV. Something itches inside you to get out, leave and do something, but you find yourself resisting. That's only sometimes, though. You don't tell Tristan about this either. The darker side of you hates this and it longs for you to burn, and while you do, you haven't pressed as hard as you usually would in weeks.

You're changing. It dawns on you that you're shifting into a new pattern, where Tristan is the center instead of drugs, alcohol, and burning. When his goodbye hugs turn into embraces, you don't push away. They linger and you are soon familiar with the structure of his chest. You also learn his scent- a mixture of musky and sweet. Whenever your skin happens to collide with his, there's a hint of a flustered expression that crosses over his face. You begin to understand the magnitude of your relationship with him. You notice when your heart skips or speeds up the tiniest bit when he's near. The way he says "nifty" as if it's a common term, and the smile he wears when you open your door to invite him inside, they all make you feel those airy emotions.

"I'm telling you, Tristan, I'd really rather not go here. I'm already full. And I have a dentist appointment soon. Do you know what ice cream does to your teeth? Let's go home." You tug on his sleeve and try to lead him away from the building to your right. People on the sidewalks stream by as they always have, pushing themselves to move from one destination to the next in the least amount of time possible.

Tristan smiles at you. "Why would we do that? You love ice cream, I know it. They even have flavors in here that aren't available in regular stores." He lightly places his hand on the small of your back and nudges you forward.

You don't want to comply yet you do. The glowing orange lights and the shiny counters are exactly the same as you recall them being. The buttery sweet smell of freshly make waffle cones floats through the air. The dusty record player in the corner of the shoppe spits out the same old tune as it always has. This is the same place you used to get frozen treats with your family. You haven't set foot in here in years. It wrenches your heart and at the same time, warms it.

"It's nifty, isn't it? I think this place has been around longer than I have," your companion states, staring down into the buckets of ice cream fondly. You want to cry and erupt with laughter all at once. You feel dizzy. You feel empty.

"Yeah. Nifty…"

After ordering, you head back out to the streets to enjoy the evening fade into the sunset. You follow behind your neighbor, licking at your ice cream cone, and so much is running through your mind you feel like you might explode. It isn't until you both arrive at the apartment building when you start bawling. Tristan is taken aback, and asks you repeatedly what's wrong. He trails behind you as you burst into your apartment. You practically run for the bathroom and slam the door behind you. He comes in before you can lock it and catches you by the arm.

"Ava?" His eyes search yours. There's so much there, radiating in the pools of brown. There's so much he knows, and so much he doesn't.

"Either hand me the straightener or get out of my way." You're determined. You're clouded by dejection and overwhelmed with everything.

He doesn't stop you from yanking the device from the self and plugging it in. His brows furrow as he asks once more, "What's wrong?" You're not going to answer him, not while you're burning. "You can tell me. You can trust me."

You feel your lip quiver and the tears continue to fall. You simply nod in response, and he unplugs the straightener. What's going to happen next, you aren't sure. Maybe he'll shout at you and tell you that you're an unhealthy human being. Maybe he'll go out and buy you another ice cream cone. You aren't expecting him to inch closer, though. He takes your trembling hands and holds them in his. He leans down and your lips touch. You're injected with a new set of overpowering feelings. You almost want your straightener again, because a lot is going on, yet Tristan keeps you grounded there, pressing identical kisses on your lips. They grow longer and more intimate, much like his hugs.

That event all but stops your burning habit, yet you still aren't quitting your tendency to go downtown. You think that if you throw out all of the elements in your life you've been so used to, then the world will come crashing down on your shoulders. You need to keep something there that can numb the vividness of what you're beginning to see. The outlines of buildings have never been so clear. Road signs have never been so crisp. So you continue with the drugs and the drinking. You persuade yourself that it's important that you do this.

For the first time ever, Tristan asks you a favor. He asks, almost pleads, for you not to go out tonight. He won't tell you the reason. It gets you upset, though you don't understand why. He mentions something about a surprise, but you ignore him. You knew this day would come, where he would start to change your ways. He'll take your straighener away permanently or send you off to rehab to stop the drug abuse. You're mad and you're saddened by this. You rush out into the streets of town as quickly as you can, flying down the stairs as fast as Tristan usually does.

You walk down the same sidewalks all over again, carrying yourself to the loudest, darkest club you can spot. The beat pulses, blocking out your other senses. You can feel it throb in deep in your chest. It hurts slightly, yet you pine for more. Loads of people constantly say that music is their way of escaping. That strumming a guitar for an hour or two or belting out lyrics to a random song brings them peace. You never really understood that until the first time you went to a club. The dance floor can be full of strangers, yet you're at home when you're out there, matching each pounding rhythm with your body. You don't know the song that's playing, or when it fades into a new one. You let the sense of sound take over.

You fall back into your old behaviors in this club. First, you spend time at the bar, slurping down glass after glass of beer, letting the amber liquid slide down your throat. When you run out cash, you sit in the stool, waiting quietly. You strike lucky, and someone offers to buy you another drink. You gulp it down greedily and thank them in a voice that doesn't sound like your own. Going back on the dance floor is an option, but it'll be so much better if you're hyped up on drugs. Scoping the area for a drug holder isn't hard. You get your fix, doing it in the bathroom, because it's classier that way. You haven't had a high like this in a long time.

Suddenly, the dancing is even more out of this world. As is the music. The mutli-colored lights flash across your eyes and blend together in swirls. Fuchsia, then lime green, transforming into red and cobalt. It's beautiful in your frenzied mind. You lose count in how many people you dance with, though they're all strangers, who will never gain a name or face. That's how you prefer to leave it. These costumers are your favorite kind, you decide. They aren't much of a hassle. They help to fuel your high, drunken, darker self with the attention it needs.

People are laughing, giggling, shouting over the impossibly loud music. Sometimes it may be directed at you yet you don't answer. There isn't enough of you there to decipher their words. You simply nod your head with the bass, letting your hair flail wildly. You haven't felt so alive in so long. You haven't felt so empty, either. It's an unknown time, an unknown day. Keeping track of where you are, or something as simple as your name is a challenge. In the hidden caverns of your mind, where sanity still resides, you note that something is off. Compared to the countless nights you've spent in places in this, something is different. But the larger more dominant part of you disregards it.

You go back and forth between dancing, drinking, and replenishing your high. You've run out of money, yet your empty glasses somehow always end up refilled. You don't complain about that. The time is beyond your ability to comprehend, but it must be getting extremely late, because somebody holds you up by the shoulders and attempts to lead you from the club. It's sad to see the rainbow of lights leave your line of sight. Once you're outside, you miss the warmth of the bodies and the vibration of the music.

A dark figure guides you forward. You stumble and wobble on your unsteady feet. You feel hands glide up and down your sides, and suddenly a dull sense of danger fights through your haze. You try to push the hands away, and put some distance between yourself and the dark mass. But your brain is so fuzzy. You hardly know which way is up, and trying to make your limbs do what you want them to is difficult.

The golden colors of the streetlights are nothing but orbs in an otherwise bleak, gray world. You struggle to grip onto reality, but you've never been able to before, so how can you start now? This is something much more hopeless than sleeping outside, under the broken light, or vomiting in your overheated bathroom without anyone near to aid you. Every part of you is stricken with fear in this moment. You keep telling yourself to move away from this treacherous figure, run, fight, do it.

Whoever it is, they speak to you, their words piercing. Yet when it reaches your ears, it's vague. You can't connect the sentences. It makes you even more afraid.

Somewhere in your mess of a head, Tristan shows up. A lump arises in your throat. You want him, you need him. You need to get back to him, and never leave again. There are so many more quirks to find out, more movies to watch, and touches to share. You gather all of the courage and strength you can muster, and fight back.

The figure wasn't expecting you to move so suddenly, that's obvious in the way it trips over its own feet. You sway where you're standing. Where to go next, what to do, it's not clicking. You need to go quickly. You need to leave this spot as fast as possible. There's an unbelievably shrill shrieking sound, one that you recognize in the back of your mind, and suddenly everything is bright white. Crystal clear white lights charge for you, blocking the yellow-orange streetlamps and green stoplights. You hear, rather than feel the impact of these lights. Is there pain? How long does it last? Where is your heartbeat going? How much more until the costumers leave, and the store is closed for good?