Hey, guys. Last installment. Hope you enjoyed the story so far, and for those of you who are unaware, there is a sequel titled Static in my account, set with a more romantic vibe than this. Just a heads up.
Do you know what's worth fighting for
when it's not worth dying for?
Does it take your breath away
and you feel yourself suffocating?
- Greenday, 21 Guns
The clock on my dresser wouldn't stop that horrid ticking noise. All weekend it had been ticking. Tick tick ticking into all hours of the night. Tick tick ticking throughout my skull, confined inside of me like a criminal in a prison. It gave me splitting headaches and put me in a foul mood. At first I had tried to remove the clock from the wall, but the cord led behind my dresser and I couldn't manage to move the slab of wood without toppling everything else onto the floor. I contemplated smashing it, but didn't have the energy to do such a thing. I just wanted the clock to shut up.
It only took me two weeks later until I realized why the ticking of the clock bothered me so. Each tick stabbed a little at my heart – not like knives, but like miniscule paper cuts, slowly eating me away. Each tick was another second that Alfred was mad at me. Another second that we hadn't resolved our little spat at graduation.
Were we still even friends?
I couldn't for the life of me find an answer to that question, instead choosing to scowl angrily at my clock and throw my pillow at it. This eternal ticking would be the death of me. Funny how just a few weeks ago the tables were turned, and I had been concerned with Alfred's mortality. Now I felt my guilt eating away at me.
I sighed and ran my hands through my messy hair, falling back on my bed so I could stare up at my ceiling. All the while my fingers danced hesitantly over the cell phone in my pocket. After graduation Alfred had left before I could even say anything. I was flocked by my parents and couldn't get away. Apparently Matthew had shown up at the graduation ceremony late, telling his parents via phone that Alfred was there. I think Alfred's parents missed their son's graduation, as well as Alfred's speech.
I paused when recalling his speech. That damn speech made me feel worse than I already did. It was so hopeful and encouraging, telling his peers that they could move past any horrible or hard times in their lives and start anew in college with a clean slate. He said to find the people who were your support beams and don't be afraid to lean onto them, for they would help you overcome any obstacle. Alfred had looked up and we had locked eyes a moment before he turned away.
Stupid stupid stupid. I ruined that.
Alfred still hadn't talked to me since. I stopped by his house a few times but his parents always told me that he wasn't there. His red truck was still parked in that unmoving spot, so I had no means to know if they were lying for him or not. I called him asking to talk to me, but he never returned my calls.
In the end I felt closed off and isolated in my own bedroom. I growled and pushed my palms into my eyes. I hated this. Why couldn't we just be best friends again? Something clicked in the back of my mind in slow realization.
Alfred and I were best friends.
With a shaky breath and a scowl, I closed my eyes.
Alfred and I were best friends, and that realization just made the paper cuts on my heart sting all the more.
"Arthur? You're still here? I thought you were going to go out today."
I continued to stare at the television and ignored my mother. She stood beside me with a curious fog lingering behind her eyes as I lazily flipped through the channels. I shrugged and stretched my legs out in front of me like a cat, shifting against the sofa to get more comfortable. I vaguely became aware of my mother as she strolled across the room and opened the curtains, forcing me to squint at the bright light of the sun.
"It's so gloomy," she stated, placing her hand on her hip and turning to look at me. "I don't want these closed again, understand? You're going to waste away if you spend your whole summer on the couch."
I didn't look at her and shrugged again, flipping from a channel with zebras to another with some sort of talk show. "I don't sit on the couch all day. I have a job," I muttered easily and clicked the remote again. Yes, I had a job. A boring, monotonous job at a local clothing store. Now that the summer had come and I was no longer in school, I worked nearly forty hours a week to pay for my future semesters at college. Originally it was planned that I go to a college up north to stay with a distant relative I had never known. But I decided against it, for I would have already had to leave once graduation ended.
There was no way I could bring myself to leave. At least, not without getting Alfred to understand and accept my apology.
Just thinking about this made me frown in distaste, muscles tightening uncomfortably under my skin. I would go to college next spring, by then having made enough money for the expensive tuition and then some.
"You've had the whole week off."
Another click of the remote. "Four days," I corrected.
With that my mother waltzed quickly in front of me, snatched the remote out of my hands, and turned the television off. I finally looked up at her, withholding a glare that I was about to shoot her in surprise, when she beat me to it with a very uncharacteristic scowl. At least I knew where I inherited that look from.
"I haven't the faintest idea what has gotten into you, but I won't help condone being lazy in my house. Go out. Have some fun. Live a little."
I stared at her with an unamused expression before huffing silently and looking away. I could faintly hear my mother sigh as she moved out of my vision and placed the remote down on the coffee table.
"Why don't you go watch a movie. Or play some football with your friend Alfred," she suggested, raising her eyebrows curiously into her hairline when I tensed and scowled at her.
"We aren't friends anymore," I supplied thickly, unhappy with this statement. I never got a say in the matter anyway. This took a moment to sink in before my mother ran her fingers through her hair, looking awkward and wanting to pry, yet not having the indecency to do so.
She slapped her legs quickly before scurrying out of the room, coming back moments later with a folded piece of notebook paper. She tossed it down in my lap where I just stared at it blankly. Curiously, I unfolded it slowly for it to reveal grocery contents. Eggs, milk, butter…
I looked back up at her, not liking the gentle smile on her lips. "You want me to go shopping for you?" I asked unenthusiastically. She nodded.
"Might as well do something while you're doing nothing."
"That doesn't even make sense."
It frankly didn't matter if it made sense or not, I was still being shooed out the door with my mother's shopping list in hand and a pocket full of money. Despite my great urge to barge back into my house and flop back down in the sitting room, I swallowed the total lackluster feeling I had been experiencing since graduation and got into my car.
There honestly wasn't any reason for me to rush when pushing a wiry cart down the aisles and aisles of food products. The sooner I completed this chore, the sooner I would be back to brooding and doing absolutely nothing. And as tempting as that sounded, I wasn't too thrilled.
Nothing was only fun for three days.
I grumbled under my breath and mentally crossed cheese off of the list when I placed a cube into the cart. I shoved the list back into my pocket and turned around, wincing when the wheels got stuck and made an awful scraping sound against the floor. With the intent on going to find the cereal aisle, my parents willing enough to give their already too hyper son Peter sugar for breakfast, I didn't pay attention to the sound of another cart as I turned the corner.
A jolt of surprise shot up my spinal column when my cart collided with another, the handle pushing painfully under my ribcage. I recovered quickly with an apology falling from my mouth. "I'm sorry. I wasn't watching where I was going, which I should have been, but I was being careless and not looking where I–"
"Arthur, it's alright," the woman cut me off smoothly, placing her hand over mine. I gulped, looking up and finally taking notice of the lady I had just bumped into. I blinked stupidly when her soft features and bright blonde hair melted underneath the gaze of my eyes, sinking into my brain in recognition like water down the cracks into a rock.
There was a distinct wave of silence as I just stared at her, my mind temporarily shutting down at the sight of this one person smiling back at me. It had been so long since I had seen Alfred's mother – let alone conversed with her – so needless to say, this was an awkward situation. My staring made it twice as awkward, I soon realized, and quickly looked away, face heating up as she chuckled at me.
"It's been a while, Mrs. Jones," I greeted as best I could to make up for my blank expression I had been regarding her with. "What are you doing here?"
She pretended to mull this over before smirking teasingly at me. "Hmm… I was just sitting at home when my stomach started to growl and remembered that there was a place that sold some sort of food goods."
I smiled lopsidedly. "Funny," I muttered to myself and withheld the urge to roll my eyes. Mrs. Jones shifted her shopping cart and ran her eyes along the shelves of food.
"How have you been, by the way? Congratulations on graduating," she said, looking back at me with something drifting behind the blue of her eyes; something I couldn't quite register the meaning behind. I had seen that look countless times from Alfred's mother, but I never knew what or why it was there. To say the least, it was unsettling.
"Thank you. I've been well," I lied. "It's been a very interesting experience," I said, my voice tripping over the word 'interesting.'
"Are you going to school? I heard that you were a rather smart boy, so I wouldn't be surprised if you were accepted into a very impressive college," Alfred's mother commented, running her manicured finger over a bottle of barbeque sauce along the shelf. Who would she hear that from? Only Alfred came to mind, and it sent my head in a tizzy that he could still be talking about me to people (he always seemed to brag about my intelligence for some reason).
"No… Um, no, I'm not." My voice sounded more uncertain than I wished it to, and Mrs. Jones picked up on it, her eyes flickering carefully up to mine. I smiled and it felt awfully forced. "I decided it would be best to work for a year or two to get enough money to pay my own way. I don't wish to bother my parents or get caught up in loans and such."
This was partially true, for I didn't want to bother anyone with money problems. We weren't terribly wealthy people, though we weren't poor either. But deep inside I knew the reason why I was working like a dog here instead of in a far off college abroad or anywhere else. I was too anxious to leave this place without cleaning up the mess with Alfred. I didn't want to leave Alfred. I didn't want to separate from Alfred.
"That's so nice of you, Arthur," she said, looking pleased with my response. I paused. What a curious retort… "You were always a caring boy, weren't you?" Even if that were true, was that the expression one was supposed to have when saying that to someone? She didn't look too certain that her own words were the truth. It was almost as if the words tasted odd in her mouth.
"How's Alfred doing?" I blurted without any control or thought. I wanted to cover my mouth at the twitch that rocked Mrs. Jones's body for a split second, her finger halting its motion against the barbeque bottle.
Mrs. Jones seemed to think about this before she smiled back at me and placed her fingers against the handle of her shopping cart, fingers curling quickly around the metal.
"Oh, he didn't tell you?" she asked, though that look was back in her eyes. It made me furrow my brow slightly. Didn't she know we haven't been talking? Somehow I thought she would've known this, as much as she pried into Alfred's life.
"Tell me what?"
She pushed her cart beside mine and patted at my arm, so close that the smell of her perfume consumed me. Up this close I could see the thing hovering behind her eyes even better, and it made something tug in my chest at how upset she looked despite the pleasant smile gracing her lipstick coated lips.
"Alfred is moving."
It was the middle of the night when I heard the nagging of a muffled noise by my ears. It wasn't loud, but it was enough for me to be forced from my slumber. I sat up and winced, rubbing at the sleep in my eyes as the sound persisted in my bedroom. What was it now?
It only took me a moment to gain my bearings and understand that this was that blasted ringtone Alfred had set to my phone under his contact information. I couldn't remember the song or artist, for a lot of the garbage Alfred listened to was absolute drivel, but I knew it enough to know that it was Alfred.
He was calling my cell phone this very instant.
I immediately floundered and fell from my bed, growling in irritation at the pain radiating in my jaw as I hit the carpet face-first. But the sting didn't last long, for I scrambled to my feet and lunged at my dresser, ready to answer the phone. If Alfred was calling me it had to be one of two reasons.
He wanted to make up.
Or something was horribly wrong.
It didn't matter either way, because the song had withered and died before I could answer. I stared at my phone with wild eyes, breathing heavily for the sudden exertion of force, befuddled at the silent device in my hands.
Alfred had hung up.
I had almost forgotten about Alfred as June turned into late July. The months just seemed to be falling off the calendar as I continued my routine of going to work, coming home, and sleeping. It was boring, yes, but it was necessary if I was going to attend a school abroad back in England next year. I smiled pleasantly and handed a woman her bags of clothing from over the counter, wishing her a wonderful afternoon.
"Next customer, please!" I said, waving up the next person in line.
Of course I was concerned with Alfred's random call over a month ago, and certainly his mother's declaration of Alfred leaving was weighing heavy on my heart, but life went on. It was easier just to go with the flow rather than fight it. It sucked, but Alfred and I were no longer on the good terms we used to be. As I folded the gentleman's clothes in front of me and rung his clothing up on the register blandly, I contemplated if Alfred was still mad at me for accusing something so heinous of him. Surely it had to be more than that.
"Alfred really didn't tell you? Oh my, I'm so sorry, Arthur, honey. Yes, my boy was accepted into Brown. Can you believe it? He will be leaving before August."
I felt a small grimace forming on my face as I gave the man his change. August was so very close… and Alfred would be so very far away…
I knew it was going to happen sooner or later, but I preferred it to happen later rather than sooner.
With a sigh, I placed that plastic smile back onto my face and waved at the man. "Have a good day, sir. I can help the next customer over he–"
The words shriveled and died off on my tongue as I stared wide-eyed over the countertop at the very person who was on my mind. Alfred watched me carefully from his spot in line, eyes uneasy, yet still trying to maintain his control over the situation, as he regarded me as best he could as a stranger. I shut my mouth and regained my composure, looking at him expressionlessly as he approached. Well. At least I could tell that he didn't hate me.
Alfred's eyes always gave himself away, and the way he watched me was with the eyes of someone desperately trying to distance themself from me, but unable to convincingly hide their true feelings with their charade.
Alfred placed his clothing carefully on the counter and watched soundlessly as I began sliding each barcode under the machine. There were a lot of shirts and a few pairs of jeans. I narrowed my eyes somewhat at this, but folded them and put them into bags.
"How are you?" I asked conversationally.
My question broke Alfred from his trance as he snapped his head up in alarm. "G-good." He cleared his throat quickly as his voice cracked, the sound making me withhold the smile threatening to come onto my face. Just being near me was making him nervous. "Good," he stated again, this time with a solid voice and puffed out chest. "You?"
I shrugged. "Not horrible." At least it wasn't a lie. Silence rained down upon us aside from the beeping of the machine every time it scanned the clothing. I kept my eyes down at my progress, wondering how to address Alfred's college situation. I wanted to hear it from him if he was leaving.
Willing to take a chance, I opened my mouth and glanced up at him, eyes meeting his surprisingly to find Alfred staring at me intently, making Alfred jump in surprise and look away, fidgeting. My hand faltered and I scanned the same item twice. I cursed under my breath and removed my mistake from the register. Why was Alfred looking at me so attentively, as if he were taking a mental photograph with every detail?
I peered back at Alfred behind the fringe of my messy bangs to see his ears painted red as he distractedly pouted and toyed with the bottom of his sweatshirt. I felt a pounding under my skin at the realization that Alfred had been doing what I had thought he was doing.
"I'm going to school…" he brought up awkwardly, still refusing to look at me. I took this as my cue to make it easier on him and continue like I hadn't caught him staring at me like a watering hole in a desert.
"Yes, I heard."
Alfred looked at me quizzically. "From who?" he demanded, a little put off that he wasn't feeding me some alarming news.
"Your mother. She told me a while back that you were accepted into Brown. Congratulations. I'm proud of you," I said, looking up and smiling at him despite the sludge inside of me that was most certainly not happy for him. Alfred looked at me like a confused child that had been rewarded instead of scolded for breaking a vase. Was that not the reaction he wanted to pull from me.
Looking a little put out by this, Alfred stuffed his hands in his pockets and rocked on the balls of his feet. "Thanks." He didn't sound grateful in the slightest.
I took a breath and took a leap. "That's pretty far from here."
Alfred kept his chin tucked into the hood of his sweatshirt. "… Yeah." I started to fold his pants. Alfred untucked his head cautiously, much like a curious turtle did from its shell. "Where are you going?"
"Nowhere. I'm not attending school for at least another year. Hopefully by then the tuition prices in London haven't skyrocketed again," I grumbled. They were robbing us blind!
Alfred looked shocked. "London!" he exclaimed, quickly covering his mouth when a few patrons in the line looked at him in confusion. I raised an eyebrow at him.
"Yes. Is that an issue?"
Alfred shook his head, but his face most clearly stated that it was an issue. "That's a little far, isn't it?" he asked, frowning despite himself. I caught the condescending attitude he carried and returned his frown with one of my own.
"It isn't that far."
"Duh. It's across the flippin' ocean."
I rolled my eyes and stuffed his shirt into another bag. "Well done. You know your geography."
Alfred crinkled his nose in that displeased way he always had when he noticed the people at our old school staring at the two of us whenever we were around each other. "What made you wanna go to London anyway? Do you have a problem with America or something? I thought your family lived here."
"For your information, just my mother and father reside here. I have nothing else tying me down to this country," I snapped, tossing another shirt into a bag. Alfred continued to brood at me which made anger lick at my insides. What a fucking hypocrite. "And what about you?"
"What about me?"
"Brown isn't exactly a walk in the park away from here. It's on the other bloody side of the country! You're being completely unrealistic with jumping on my case when I haven't even decided where I'm going yet!" I hissed at him, fists tight.
Alfred scowled. "But you're thinking about it–"
"I'm not the one who's actually leaving!" I yelled, slamming my hands down against the counter and glaring daggers right back at Alfred who kept on toying with his sweatshirt. I could already tell that I was making a scene in front of the whole store, but that was the least of my worries. All the anger at being ignored and then treated like some Benedict Arnold for even remotely skirting around the idea of studying abroad had mounted and was making it hard not to scream. Alfred continued pulling anxiously at his sweatshirt. "I'm not the one who can easily pick up and throw their best friend away like they meant nothing! Like you never needed me and hate my guts for one mistake!" Oh, piss. Now my voice was cracking.
I narrowed my eyes and snatched his hand away from the sleeve of his hoodie. "And stop tugging at your sweatshirt, you imbecile! Why the hell are you wearing that anyway? It's boiling outside!"
And then suddenly it wasn't so boiling anymore, but as cold as an Alaskan winter. I stopped all my shrieking and stared at Alfred like a stone, something sinking down inside of me as I gawked at him. Alfred noticed, and started to persistently tug his arm away from me. It took a few small tugs before my shock thawed enough to let him go.
I frowned slowly, blinking. "Why are you wearing a sweatshirt?"
It was a question asked on a still breath of air, but it made Alfred freeze like ice. He held his arm protectively, much like that day beside his pool. My gut churned uncomfortably as Alfred refused to meet my gaze. "Alfred?" He wouldn't look at me. I gulped and frowned down at his bags of clothing, noticing every shirt he was purchasing contained long sleeves. There wasn't a t-shirt in the bunch, not even considering the warm weather streak we'd been having. "Alfred, why are you wearing a sweatshirt?" I asked silently, hoping that it wasn't for the reason I was thinking.
And yet Alfred furrowed his brow stubbornly and refused to look at me.
My skin felt like someone was pricking me with needles, and I opened my mouth to say something, anything, when another voice broke through the air.
It was my manager.
"I'm sorry, sir. Is there a problem here?" asked a man in a white button-up and black slacks as he approached, looking from me to Alfred. Alfred relaxed and gazed back at my manager, much like he was used to tricking the school and his family that he was perfectly fine. Alfred was a great actor. "Is this associate bothering you?" I flinched in annoyance at how displeased he sounded.
Alfred pondered this before shaking his head, smiling. "No. I just started arguing with him for no reason. Misplaced anger and all that stuff. Locked my keys in the car!" he laughed. At this, my manager loosened up and smiled, nodding. Alfred waved him away dismissively, throwing down some bills at me. "I'm sorry for the commotion and delay. Here, keep the change. On me."
Alfred hurriedly gathered his bags and grinned back at us, leaving. I leaned over the counter and reached after him, not ready to leave the conversation at that. "Alfred–"
Before I could say anything, Alfred swiveled on his feet and met my gaze head-on. "I'm fine, Arthur," he reassured with a smile as strong as a house of cards. And then he left as quickly as he came, nothing but the pile of money in front of me and the waft of his cologne to prove that he had ever been here in the first place.
The days went by in painful blurs, stabbing into my side like an incessant cramp in the abdomen of a dehydrated runner. I still felt anxious and somewhat guilty for my last meeting with Alfred, and I couldn't help but let my thoughts venture into the darker, more implicative corners of my mind about Alfred's wardrobe choices. I honestly wanted to call his brother, because at least Matthew was willing to talk to me, but the idea died before it had even taken shape. I was over the panic and dread in a matter of hours after Alfred had left the store and my manager chewing me out.
I wouldn't do the same thing twice.
If Alfred said that he was fine, I would believe him… as hard as that may be. The evidence pointed to otherwise, but my fear for hurting Alfred the same way once more outweighed my desire to press for answers and confront him about something this serious.
These thoughts only ate at me for a few days, because they were soon pushed aside for an even heftier thought: Alfred was to be moving within the week.
I scowled against my pillow and stared at the darkness in my bedroom for what felt like an eternity. Not one good night sleep this summer. It was, how Alfred used to say, "bogus."
A familiar noise permeated the silence in my bedroom, and my eyes darted in the direction of the now glowing cell phone on my dresser, an absurdly static laced song being pushed out its speakers. I sat up comfortably in my bed, wondering why Alfred would be calling me again in the middle of the night. I remembered back to when this had occurred during the school year, right up until the nights before his breakdown which caused him to crawl into my bedroom after prom.
The logical explanation would have been that Alfred was having another panic attack as he was prone to do with his previous bout of self-harm.
I chose the easier option of him simply butt dialing me by accident.
I sat in my bed and waited till the song rung out to full capacity before it stopped, the call ending. There were five more seconds of silence before the song picked up again. Alfred was calling a second time?
My throat became tight and I willed myself to stay still. It had to be an accident. Alfred didn't seem like he wanted to talk to me all summer.
The song died down.
Five more seconds.
It started up again.
This time I couldn't help it. This was no coincidence, surely. Alfred was calling of his own volition. Apparently, for some reason, he wanted to talk to me at three in the morning. I hopped out of bed and tried to casually answer my phone, my breath stilling in my mouth as I waited for a voice on the other end.
Hesitantly, I heard some breathing. I tested the waters. "Alfred?" I asked in confusion. There was some rustling on the other end of the phone and the sound of cars driving by. "Hello? Alfred, are you there?"
I heard what sounded suspiciously like a hiccup before Alfred's voice smoothed against my ears, sounding uneasy and strained. "I'm sorry."
I clutched my phone with both hands and took a long, steadying breath. "Alfred–"
"I am, Arthur," he moaned quietly, and I could almost envision him burying his face in his hand as he had on his bed when his secret unfolded all those months ago. There were no tears in the ghost of his voice, though. He didn't sound quite like he had back in high school with the sadness and frustration that always coated his voice, like a scab that wouldn't go away. He sounded pained and nervous this time. I wonder if he was as nervous as I seemed to be, though I had absolutely no reason to be nervous.
"I'm sorry for not telling you. I can't believe out of everyone, my mom told you," he laughed bitterly. I surmised he was talking about leaving.
"No, it's quite alright, Alfred. It isn't a big deal–"
"But it is!" he argued, sniffing once, dryly. "It is a big deal… and I don't think-" I heard more rustling and some creaking, more car engines driving by as someone honked. I felt my brow furrowing. Was he outside? Alfred grumbled in irritation to himself before speaking again. "Can you… I mean, c-can I see you, Arthur?"
I don't know what caused me to hesitate, but it was long enough to make Alfred's breath hitch on the other end of the phone. I recovered quickly. "Where?" I asked, already starting to pull on a pair of pants. This summer night was tepid, but slightly chillier than they were prone to being this year.
I heard more creaking and the clanking of chains. "The park by your house."
I was out the door before he'd even said goodbye when hanging up the phone. There was always a park four blocks from my house that Alfred insisted upon going to when he was in his more anxious of moods. He claimed that being on the playground and in the sand calmed him down and brought him back to the days when he was young; the days when he claimed to have no responsibilities, and people didn't look at him like some blank doll, ready to be painted and pushed to do whatever his parents, teachers, and friends desired of him.
I never really cared for parks much, but as I approached this park and saw Alfred staring at his sneakers, hands holding onto the chains of the swing as he kicked lightly at the sand beneath his feet, I developed a fondness for them. I wondered how Alfred always had a way to make me open up to things I really didn't care for at all before.
He looked so much older, even though I knew it had only been a little over a month since school had let out. I suppose the proper phrase would have been 'worn down.' And I felt my heart heave for him. Someone as cheerful and pleasant as Alfred should never have had to look like a beaten down middle-age man who had lived a life full of hardships.
It was at that moment that I truly understood that I honest to God wanted to be the one to save Alfred.
It was about time that his hero mentality rubbed off on me, wasn't it? I would have smiled and shook my head, but now wasn't the time to be doing that.
I casually approached Alfred enough for him to hear the swooshing of the sand under my shoes. He looked up and his eyes looked as round and bright as the moon, reflections of the stars and streetlamps reflected in those eyes. I wondered how Alfred could look like a weary old man and yet still look like a child needing to be comforted all at once.
"May I sit too?" I asked, gesturing to the swing beside Alfred.
He looked away quietly and nodded, going back to his task of rocking his swing without removing his feet from the ground. I sat beside him and just watched the cars passing down the road, silently debating the reasons Alfred had asked me here, and what I wanted to say.
I'm sorry for accusing you of trying to kill yourself again?
I'm sorry I didn't understand you?
I wish we could've been closer friends?
We were really too different, but it was an interesting experience even though it was bound to never work out?
I'll miss you.
I blinked and stopped rocking my own swing. Not a question? No. That last one wasn't a question, but a statement.
"I thought about it," Alfred muttered quietly, but I still caught it. I glanced at him from the corner of my eye as he watched his feet intently. He lifted his head up, almost surprised he was saying this. "I thought about it, you know."
No. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Alfred looked at me and bit his lip as I watched him blankly. "You weren't wrong, Arthur," he admitted, the muscles in his neck flexing as his face crinkled up with some form of guilt and self-loathing. "Back at school – the day of graduation – you weren't wrong. You weren't wrong to freak out at me like that, because I did think about it."
My heart picked up in my chest, my fingers holding tightly onto the cool metal of the swing.
Alfred smiled lopsided at me. "My phone wasn't dead, and I didn't tell my parents where I was gonna be – just in case. I just really… I don't know. I started to feel like before, with school winding down and college coming and the taunting got worse and I was studying to keep my grades high and then! And then I was valedictorian!" he barked, nearly throwing his head back in his bitter laughing. "You know what that meant?" I didn't move. It wasn't like he was waiting for my answer. "That meant I was gonna stand in front of the whole school who knew me so well like they had conjured up some diary about me. I had to stand in front of people who have said they were my friends but still joked every chance they got about nooses and shotguns and switchblades. It gets old after a while, Arthur! Reaaally old!"
I watched as Alfred ran a hand roughly through his hair and watched me with a grin, eyes glimmering with the stinging of angry tears at the brim of his eyelashes. "And you know what? I was going to be the school's joke."
I frowned and shook my head stubbornly. "You weren't a joke, Alfred–"
"But I was!" He was almost hysterical, unable to look at me now as his eyes grew red and his face contorted with the effort not to cry again in front of me. "They thought I was going to be their big class joke. I realized then that I'm not good at being the butt of a joke, Arthur. Not with something that personal."
I reached out instinctively and patted his shoulder. He was wearing one of the new long sleeved shirts he had bought, and I could still smell the store on it. Alfred stopped long enough to sniff and glance down at where my hand was. He was silent a long while before he tried speaking again, his voice hoarse. "But then your face popped into my head all of the sudden, and it started to scream at me. 'You're selfish' this, and 'Do we mean nothing to you' that… And I don't know why, but I didn't feel like doing it anymore."
Alfred looked at me with wide eyes, leaning in enough to make me flinch as he searched my face for an answer. "Why was it that when I thought of school or my brother or even my own parents I didn't care, but when you pop up I feel ashamed and stupid?"
I had no idea, honestly.
"I have no idea." Exactly.
Alfred didn't move back at the honest answer I had given him, even though he was most likely hoping for an actual reason. I really didn't know why Alfred backed out when he thought about me. But something told me it may have had something to do with this static-shock feeling hovering between us and putting the hairs on my arms on end. It was cool outside, but next to Alfred, I always seemed to feel warm.
Finally, after a long time of just breathing onto each other's faces and unabashed staring, Alfred pulled away and rested his weight completely on his swing again. He had the gall to look bashful this time, and started biting at his lip again. "I'm sorry."
I didn't know if he was saying sorry for getting in my space bubble and lingering there, or if he was sorry for getting in a big fight with me because he had panicked at the reality of what he almost had done at the ending of school. Maybe a little of both.
"You never had to be in the first place," I announced with a scoff, making Alfred peer at me curiously. I set my lips in a line and wagged my finger at him in a scolding fashion. "There was nothing to be forgiven in the first place."
Alfred blinked his round, moist eyes at me, surprised. I felt heat rising up from my chest to my neck slowly, silently contemplating if I appeared too much like his father than his friend just now. But then Alfred snorted this ghastly, animalistic sound as he rubbed his sleeve under his wet nose and started to snicker at me.
"What the fuck, dude? Aren't you gonna ground me?" he asked, his voice high and whiny with laughs and worry. I think he didn't know whether to joke or to fret.
I breathed heavily through my nose and rolled my eyes, it being my turn to look away and watch the cars. "Everyone is entitled to mistakes." It got Alfred to cease his laughter. The words tasted familiar on my tongue as they rolled off and reached Alfred. "You're still Alfred, you know. And as long as you're Alfred and I'm Arthur, I don't think you'll have to worry about any of that depressing nonsense anymore."
I could see rather than feel the silence engulfing us, and I hoped to any divine being up there that Alfred wouldn't cry like he did the last time these words were spoken. I could only take so much of one person crying in a lifetime. But as I looked over at Alfred, he had half his face obscured in his elbow, his arm rubbing back and forth against his face in a motion to look like he was wiping away any snot or tears. I knew better than that, though, and knew he was just being an embarrassed little boy hiding his red ears and cheeks to the best of his ability.
How Alfred got all tangled up in comforting words made me want nothing more than to just keep throwing them out there.
I stopped and just watched the sleeves of his shirt a while, still thinking back to the moment in my department store. "Right?" I nudged him, my words not as lighthearted. They got Alfred to look at me. "No more depressing nonsense?" I edged. Alfred, being the bright fellow that he was, noticed what I was getting at and swatted me away.
"They're for winter," he said, trying to smile. "The East Coast gets cold and I thought…"
Oh, bother. This was a different kind of depressing nonsense afoot.
I had completely forgotten that Alfred was leaving in a few days, and this fact became that much more unbearable than it had been thirty seconds ago. Was it just because we were on good speaking terms now, or was it because I understood that Alfred wanted to go just as much as I wanted him to.
"I don't want to go," Alfred said, voicing my thoughts solemnly.
I sighed and ran my own hands over my face, wishing that he didn't sound so distraught about it. It was making me feel unhappy.
"It's what you worked for," I supplied.
"What my dad made me work for," Alfred corrected sourly.
"Your father didn't make you do anything."
Alfred remained silent. The silence was worse than any argument he could have conjured. I felt my own throat becoming tight, some pressure welling in the back of my eyes as I scowled and glared at the ground. Willpower was something I cherished. I would not be the sappy little bloke who sobbed like a baby.
It still didn't make the fact that I was losing my best friend any easier.
As I was focusing to my full capacity to not let out a sniffle or a groan, Alfred began to make some noise to my side. I chanced a peek, enough so that I could see, but not enough to draw Alfred's attention to my blotchy red eyes, and saw Alfred rolling his sleeves up curiously, eyes focused on the bandages that had always been around his wrists since the incident, wounds healed or not.
I sat up straighter on my swing and waited to see what Alfred would do, arms bare to the world around him, so prone to judging.
"People are gonna ask, aren't they?" he asked lowly, wishing my answer would counter his. But we both knew that would be a lie.
"We are all entitled to mistakes."
Alfred grimaced painfully. "I'm always scared that they're gonna look. They're gonna look and ask things I don't wanna answer."
I didn't say anything, but got up from my swing.
"I can't deal with those eyes again…" Alfred was in the middle of curling his fingers harshly into his palms when he stilled, my hands placing themselves gently on his bandaged wrists. Alfred slowly looked up at me kneeling in front of him in the sandbox, moonlight and lamplight splaying across my hair and his face and all the metal in the playground to seem like a sanctuary away from darkness. Alfred couldn't be in darkness if I was there to shoo it away.
"You don't have to. I know about this," I said, holding up his wrist in my hands, as if to prove a point. "Are my eyes any different?"
"That's different," Alfred said, sounding suffocated when my fingernail tugged at the hem of his bandage.
"Why?" I asked, frankly.
"Because…" he started, fascinated with the way I started to pull his bandaging from his arms, like a snake shedding its skin. One by one the little scars down his arms started to be reflected in the light of the moon, my fingers testing the boundaries and running softly over his tanned skin that I had only seen closed off in the prison of self-conscious bandaging. "Because they've always been different from the start."
I was relieved to hear that and unhappy at the same time. I wasn't aware that I had started to look at Alfred with these eyes of mine from the moment I intervened outside the school steps. It made me wonder how observant Alfred had been throughout this friendship. And yet as I looked up at him to see what his expression could be at finally showing another soul his lifelong regret, I was surprised to see the lingering reprieve washing over him.
He tucked his chin into his neck and looked self-conscious for a completely different reason than someone worried about their visage to their friend. He wasn't worried for my reaction to these scars. He wasn't worried that I was judging him like he was laid out bare as a naked child. For the first time, I noticed how observant Alfred really was.
He looked more embarrassed that I was touching his most sensitive spot rather than any judgments I could be making about him.
My breath stuttered as I squeezed back at his hands, my eyes downcast at his wrists. There was a new worry consuming the fear of leaving for a new school, or making new friends, or leaving each other for God knew how long. There was something between us that was prickly and warm that caused this new fear to flow into our bodies simultaneously.
Something that was bigger than either of us.
And I knew that as I kneeled quietly in front of Alfred alone in this park, hands together, fingers dangerously close to entwining, that the bandages on the sand were the least of the hurdles Alfred and I were going to tackle.
This frighteningly magnificent feeling consuming us left me just as terrified as it did breathless.