"Watch where you're going!"
One thing was for sure: The adults hadn't gotten any friendlier. He picked his backpack up off the ground. As he did, the side compartment unbuttoned, and a bunch of Yipper comics slid out onto the vulgar, sticky, ash-coated pavement. Another thing was for sure: the cities hadn't become any cleaner.
He picked them up off the ground, ignoring his disgust. He hated the city. He once was convinced that the adults came here while they were in school in order to appreciate and celebrate the hours they had without their children. He hypothesized that the teachers were like Hades, unwillingly burdened to sustain the kids in schools the same way prison guards sustain inmates.
Once removing the piece of gum suddenly stuck to the back, he placed them back in the compartment and shut it, despite the thread that sewed the button on wearing thin. He should really buy a new bag. He had that bag – the bag given to him with those Yipper comics inside – for ten years.
Ten years. It couldn't have been. It must have been at least thirty. Thirty-five, maybe. Perhaps time passed much more slowly in space. Ten years was still a fairly long time. What baffled him was how little things had changed.
With effort from the heavy contents bundled in the bag hanging from his shoulder, he returned to his feet and blended in with the crowd. Finally the lights turned green. He adjusted his backpack again before proceeding with the rest of the people.
Above their heads, a flock of birds – sparrows, he guessed – flew past the skyscrapers and gathered together in a row across the power lines, looking down on the world below the same way he once did. But now he simply laughed and looked up at the birds, relating them to the boy he used to be. Through the eyes of the strange yet imaginative young boy he grew out of, those city birds were not birds, but machines with built-in cameras created by adults, programmed to spy on the city and somehow used for evil schemes against kids everywhere.
Nobody could say he wasn't the creative child.
After reaching the other side of the road and the crowd carrying on each of their separate ways, he stayed in his place at the corner of 2nd and Gerard. People pushed past him as he looked up at the numbers on the buildings. 308, 310, 312, 314... 316. If not the longest unit in the city, then most certainly the most renewed. This was an old city; most of the buildings were run down and needed repairs.
He took a deep breath of contaminated air before coughing under his breath. He raised his wrist where his brand-new platinum watch was strapped around. Almost seven o'clock. It was at seven-fifteen they would flip the OPEN sign around to CLOSED, just as they did every weekday.
Weary from travel, he reached behind him and felt for fur. Once finding it, he seized the hood of his jacket and pulled it over his hairless head. The bleakness of winter that cursed him with frail, drying skin was slowly overwhelmed by the joy of being so close. So close, and yet so distant. Perhaps this would be a useless attempt. Perhaps he was fooling himself. Was there no hope of ever really returning?
There's no harm in trying. And so he progressed onward, forgetting who he left behind. The streetlights flickered on, one by one, in a pattern, as darkness crept over the city. With winter on its way, the days were growing shorter. He yearned for that fate on his days of most despair and loneliness, which came quite commonly for the past ten years.
"Thank you, Fabien," a man called back as he pushed the glass door open. Seeing the strange man with the worn backpack, he gave a small nod in his direction and smiled. In return, he made a similar gesture before the man strode away, pulling on his hood from behind and taking a sip of his coffee.
He found himself in a sudden awkward situation. What would he say? Sure, hello would be the first thing to come to mind, but what next? How are you? What English-speaking person hasn't used that one on somebody before? And the response would be the same: Fine, and you? Fine, thank you. And that's that. On with their lives. He'd be shattered.
He pressed his hand against the cold glass of the door and pushed it open. Instantly he felt the rush of warm air against his face. The smell of pastries and coffee drifted into his nostrils and teased his desperate stomach.
The place was empty except for the blonde woman behind the counter. She unenthusiastically worked the cash register with a look of fatigue on her pale white face. She didn't bother to glance up at the man with a bag just as worn out as her. Instead she raised her hand and tucked a bang behind her ear.
"We're closing soon, sir," said a man, in his thirties or so, from behind the corner that read Washrooms with an arrow. There was a large brown stain on his employment vest. He appeared frustrated, as if the smallest piece of bad news would make his fists clench.
The boy with the bag nodded slowly and formed an 'O' with his lips. "All right then. Thanks anyway."
He couldn't possibly leave. Not now. Not when he was right there. But there was always tomorrow. No, he couldn't wait that long. Maybe just one glance. To offer a face to remember. How dare they push him away?
"Sir," the man said again, "can I help you at all?"
He hadn't even realized he was just standing there at the entrance, holding the door open for himself, but not leaving. His mind was arguing with his body. It certainly was not a first.
The blonde shut the cash register slot and grabbed her scarf from beside her. "I'll see you Saturday, Fabe." She wrapped the scarf around her neck while walking to the back door.
"All right. Good luck on that exam," the man replied.
Exams. He remembered the exams. All his childhood he deemed them to be tests on whether a young adult was fit to be a villain or not, and those who would fail it had to become preschool teachers and paediatricians and such.
As soon as the blonde was out the door, Fabien, the owner, looked back at the boy just standing there in the doorway. "Look, I tell you what," he said a few seconds too late, had the gauche ambience already settled in, "I'll get someone to help you out, sound good?"
The boy returned a grateful half smile. "Thank you so much."
And with a final look, Fabien swerved around the counter and to the kitchen. That look had suddenly become fairly common. He'd gotten sick of it, but used to it. It was the same look he got from almost each and every person he would ask a question ever since he set foot back home. True, the questions were unfamiliar and, dare he say, random. And it was understandable for any man to be suspicious of his interests. But he was a simple man with a deep need. No, no he wasn't a simple man. In his own defence, nobody knew that.
"All right, just don't forget to lock up." Fabien swung open the kitchen door. "Want me to call you a cab?" he called to, what a crazy person would think, his jacket on the coat rack.
"I'll be fine, Fabe. I can get home by myself."
Could it have been destiny? A coincidence? He believed in God; perhaps this was an act of generosity. He'd have to personally thank Him later. Right now it seemed almost impossible to draw steady breath.
"'Kay, pal, someone's going to stick around," Fabien explained like a detective to a suspect. "But we close in fifteen minutes, so try and speed it up, will you?"
"Of course." Courtesy. Something he'd developed throughout the years. Sure enough, it wasn't something he practiced with his elders as a child.
Fabien slipped on his leisure jacket and put on his hat. "Don't study too hard, you hear me girl?"
"I hear you. Get out of here, your wife's waiting."
"I'm gone." He pushed open the back door, inviting in snowflakes and their good friend winter. Over his shoulder, he nodded towards his final customer. "Have a good night."
He nodded in return. "You too. Merry Christmas."
The door slammed shut harder than intended due to a strong gust of wind. Interesting, even the wind was doing its part. A sign, perhaps? Fluke. No other explanation. As a kid, he never depended on fate. He always made things happen for himself; that way they'd happen. But as the years had gone by, fate was what seemed to be all he had left. He depended on it – begged it to grant him just this one favour.
And, finally, fate was being good to him.
- - -
"Okay, you're all set." A man with frail skin, large ears and eyes of the strongest, most intense color blue slid him a bundle of possessions across the table. "Ten thousand dollars in cash, one birth certificate, one passport, one social security card – Lord, you still need those things? – one driver's license, one credit card, one health card, blah blah blah… Let's see, one cell phone, one identification card, and your bag full of junk. Good to go."
"Am I checked in?"
"Yup, government computers, banks, all those things. You're in the system. Same name, same identity."
"And those who thought I was dead?"
"Were wrong. As far as everybody's concerned, you've been missing, you're back and you refuse to talk about what happened."
"I don't know. Shame, shock, memory loss; you're a good liar, you'll come up with something." The older man suddenly looked up, a spark of realization and remorse in his deep blue eyes. "Sorry, slip of the tongue."
"Don't worry about it."
- - -
With the taunting scent of baked goods still floating around his nose, he hoisted himself up onto the stool at the front counter. The design of the marble was pretty twisty; he began to trace the individual lines with his finger.
And then the kitchen door swung open once more. His eyes immediately averted, and he questioned his eye muscles for it. All this way, all this trouble and desire, and then the moment comes and his eyes avert. Second thoughts? Not possible. Panic? Couldn't be.
"Sorry about the wait." He felt the rush of air as the door swung silently shut. "Can I help you?"
He'd heard the expression of butterflies in one's stomach, but truth be told, he never knew what it meant until this very moment. The voice wasn't the same. By feeling he knew it belonged to her, but to his ears it wasn't the same person. Thank heavens he didn't trust his ears alone. But by golly, hearing it so close to him was the most amazing feeling he'd thought he'd never have again.
Finally he gained control of his eyes by putting his heart at the edge of a cliff. Steadily he turned his gaze over to something he knew, after all this time, could never have prepared himself for.
- - -
"Hey, listen here," the old man's hand secured itself to his faithful friend's shoulder. "You can go through with this. I can understand, this is harder than anything you've had to do up here with us. You want my advice? Don't answer that, I'm gonna give it to you: Start over. Just start a new life. You're still young, you've got that chance. Don't burden yourself, you understand me? You've put yourself through enough torment already."
Taking in a lung full of air, he firmed his hands on the edge of the table and leaned forward so their faces were no more than a foot away from each other. "I'd expect you of all people to know me better. Ten years, I'd expect somebody as insightful and wise as you to understand me."
"I didn't mean anything by it, kid, I'm not trying to judge you or change your mind. I just don't want you to get into any trouble, that's all. You're a smart guy, but you've got a history of… jumping into things."
"I know." He nodded his head and looked down at the contents.
"What are you gonna do? It's not like you can get them to remember."
"I know that, Phin," he said with sincerity. "I just…" he breathed in, searching for the most accurate way to say it. "I just want to be there. With them. You know, just- just in case."
"In case what? In case they remember?"
"No, in case they need me. In case they need that sort of friend; you know, someone who knows them the way nobody else ever will." He rubbed the back of his neck roughly, feeling suddenly bothered with his own attempts. "I can't explain it."
The old man laughed. "I'm having fun watching you try to."
- - -
His stomach dropped to the floor along with his possible second thoughts. He could feel his heart rate speeding up dramatically fast. Was that even safe? But he tried his very best to not let it show. He forced a smile until it became a real one. "Yeah, can I get a hot chocolate please?"
She smiled in return, clearly amused at him somehow. "Sure." She went to the kettle with a glass mug. "No coffee tonight?"
"Nah. 'Never really liked coffee," he said honestly.
"You and me both."
He nodded despite her back being turned to him. Her hair was still long; it suited her. Especially with the waves cascading down the way they did in that ponytail.
"Are you from around here?" she asked.
He considered an answer. "Well, yes and no." His shoulders came to his ears and then dropped immediately. "It's kind of complicated."
She nodded acceptingly as she moved over to a large container and popped open the lid. He removed the backpack from his shoulders and put it down on the floor near his feet. Might as well get comfortable.
"Marshmallows?" she asked him.
"Of course," he chortled.
His heart absorbed lust when she smiled. Lord, that smile.
It wasn't until she turned her back to him that he realized he was sweating underneath his jacket. His reflection in the napkin holder next to him showed him how flushed his face was. He only partially blamed the heating. Breaking the almost silence – other than the quiet whistle of a boiling kettle – he rustled his jacket until it slipped off.
Carefully she held the kettle and tipped it until steaming water came pouring into the mug. Meanwhile he noticed the thick textbook sitting there on the counter with different coloured tags sticking out of the pages. Physics: Third Edition, it read on the cover.
"Part time?" he inquired.
She sent him a glance before responding. "One of three, actually."
"Wow." He crossed his arms and leaned in, keeping his cool. "You must be pretty busy."
"You've no idea," she claimed with a daft grin.
After sprinkling on a few miniature marshmallows, she set the hot chocolate in front of him. He nodded to her, his mouth suddenly watering, and he beamed with gratitude. "Thank you," and then, "I'm sorry to keep you here; I would have come earlier, but things came up. If you like I can…"
She stopped him by raising her hand. "Don't even worry about it. Take your time. I'm going home to an empty apartment anyway." Grabbing the textbook, she pulled up a stool on the other side of the counter and sat down. "I could use the company."
He smiled and nodded. Gosh, was that all he knew what to do? Smile, nod, ask personal questions and babble for no reason. Next he was going to spill his hot chocolate all over his lap and walk out after tripping on a chair.
Feeling the redness filling his face – the room was pretty humid – he stared down at his hot chocolate. The marshmallows melted into it like they longed to be a part of it. Honestly, he didn't ever think he would end up relating himself to a marshmallow.
"I'm Nigel," he finally said.
She looked up at him. It was the first time she'd looked at him directly. The butterflies in his stomach multiplied, and he suddenly wondered if a name was in store in the first place. Perhaps he rushed it. He made a mental note to hit himself when she wasn't looking.
"Abby," she answered to his favour, yet surprise. Even more when she held out her hand. "Nice to meet you."
He shared her enthusiasm and took her hand. The butterflies began flapping frantically around like crazy at the touch of his skin with hers. At that first contact, he felt alive, his foreign ghost vanishing forever. "You too," he said with a broken British voice.
Her hand slipped out of his; he found himself wishing for just a few more seconds, so that he could remember the feeling. Instead he watched her go back to reading.
"University?" he asked, pretending to have just noticed the textbook.
A nod. "Yeah," she replied with a small chuckle. "Lots of fun."
The theory of the university exams being test for wannabe villains was officially crossed out. Nigel carefully raised the mug to his lips and took a sip. His tongue burned. Still hot.
"What's your major?" Give her some space, idiot.
She flipped a page to the diagram of a heat engine. "Life Science."
"Wow, that's got to be tough." He gently placed the mug back onto the table and crossed his arms. "Are you in your second year?"
He nodded even though her eyes were no longer to him. Despite her laid-back, relaxed personality, she was one of the most hard-working people he'd ever met. She'd always know when the time was to step it up and get down to business. And she was the smartest person he knew. Nothing came to him as a surprise; he knew she'd be the one to go places.
Immediately he realized he needed to finish up the hot chocolate. He didn't want to seem like a burden. After a second sip – it had finally cooled down a little – he held the mug close to his face so that it at least appeared as if he was making an effort to finish and leave quickly. "So do you like it? School, I mean."
She laughed. "Name one person in the right mind who enjoys school."
Although embarrassed, he laughed with her. "That's true. Dumb question."
"It's tough, but it's worth it." She looked up from her book and at his puzzled eyes. "School, I mean."
"Of course." Either the heat was getting to him or he was simply humiliating himself, knowing he was doing it. There's one dim-witted way to get somebody's attention. Hey, you're that nosy kid with the dumb questions. Smooth.
"Any plans for the Christmas break?" His mouth seemed to have a mind of its own.
Smiling, seemingly somewhat amused at him – at least that's what he thought, she pulled off a tab from one of the other pages and stuck it onto the page she was currently on. "Yeah, I'll be with my family down in America."
"Oh, that's nice. Is that where you're from?"
"Any friends you'll be spending some time with as well?"
She glanced up. "I suppose," she answered, a hint of peculiarity in her voice. Her eyebrows furrowed and one corner of her mouth tightened, she looked at him. Not suspicious, but dubious.
Damn, now he's done it. Too far, Nigel. Back up, back up. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bombard you like that." He was drinking his hot chocolate more quickly now. He took a break to say, "I don't exactly have people skills."
"That's all right," she replied genuinely.
The mug in his hands, he swirled it around until the nearly melted marshmallows began to pirouette around each other. The way they moved together… Great, he was a marshmallow again. "It's been a long time since I've really been around people." He lowered the hot chocolate.
She folded her arms on the table and leaned in. "What do you mean?"
He fingered the handle with one hand while smoothing his thumb over the surface with the other. In the reflective glass he saw his eyes becoming glossy, the glow of dim lights shining in them.
"I've been living alone for the past ten years. I don't exactly have a lot of friends or family." What had started coming out as a conversation initiator transitioned into a confession. "Gosh, now that think about it… it's been one heck of a lonely life." He felt his audacity tumble away, the knot in his stomach untying, his nerves dissolve into nothing. "I guess it's true when they say…people don't realize how important it is to be…surrounded by the people you love most…" he exhaled, "until you miss them."
The glossiness in his eyes must've been contagious, for her eyes started to reflect the ceiling lights as well. He underestimated integrity; it did powerful things when it came from the heart.
He broke the silence with a small chuckle. "Sorry. I sound sappy."
"No," she turned her gaze downward, a strand of her hair falling in front of her face, and then looked back up at him, her lips forming the most wonderful smile. "Not at all."
He could swear he saw himself in her eyes. Oh, how he wished that to be true in the metaphoric manner. But this: this was enough. Just seeing her see him, he felt like he could float in air.
They shared a quiet laugh before ending the stillness that had come over them.
"All done," he pointed out, showing her the empty mug.
She nodded and took it. "You liked?"
"I loved," he chortled.
With one more nod she went to the sink and rinsed it. As she did, Nigel looked over his shoulder, out the window. Christmas lights flickered on, from other shop windows, to lamp poles, even to a passing car.
He reached into his back pocket, at the same time, looking for the price of hot chocolate on the drink selection. A dollar twenty-five; Not too bad, considering his disbelief that bubblegum could possibly go from five cents each to almost one dollar.
After turning off the tap, she turned back around just as he was pulling out a five. "That's all right," she declared. "It's on the house."
"Nonsense, I kept you here after your closing time."
She shook her head. "I insist. Put it away."
"Are you sure?" Receiving nothing but a cock of the head and a sincere smile, he slipped his wallet back into his pocket. "You won't get in trouble?"
"Not if he doesn't find out," she asserted.
He chuckled. Still the stealth one.
Abby removed a red trench coat from the coat rack at the back and slipped her arms through the sleeves, as he did the same with his own. He rolled his eyes at himself when it took longer to get the bag on his one shoulder than it did for her to wrap a scarf around her neck and slip on a beret.
"Thank you so much for everything," he said to her. "It was nice talking to you."
She grabbed a set of keys as well as her book. "You too."
No. Not the end. It couldn't be the end. But what was there left to say? He'd wasted all of his questions in about two minutes time – good for you, Nigel – and they were both ready to go home. Not that he had a home yet. Ten thousand dollars wasn't nearly enough. He needed a job, and good one at that.
He'd set out and take his friends advice: start over. Find a job, get some money, buy a home, make some friends, all that jazz. That's what he'd do. Start a new life, just life Phin said. After three more visits, of course.
Sad but not completely disappointed, he pressed his hand to the door and lingered there. Just for a moment, in desperate contemplation on a way to save it from ending. Nothing came in time. A second visit one day might do it. It'd be risky, but worth a shot.
And then it was saved for him. "Are you walking?"
He drew his hand off of the glass and turned around. His plans to flag down a cab vanished. "Yes, I am."
She finished locking the cash register and turning off the lights. "Which way?"
"Down Woodwind Avenue," he recalled from his 4-1-1 research. Thank you, Google Map.
Textbook in one arm and purse hanging from her shoulder, she approached him to the door. "Mind walking with me? My dad doesn't like me walking alone."
"He prefers you walking with a stranger who drank your hot chocolate?"
She shrugged, smiling. "'Beats walking with a guy who likes coffee."
He laughed and pushed the door open, allowing her to go first. She brushed past him, meeting the cold air along with him, but he didn't feel cold. There was warmth for him. Even with his jacket zipper part way down and his hood off, he felt so warm. Something he missed for ten years straight and could never seem to find again. Tomorrow, he would wake up with a smile on his face and fullness back in his spirit, and he would say, "thank you."
After all, fate was on his side.