By Adam Dixon
“…and then he ran away!” Sean concluded with a dramatic sweep of his arm. He laughed in triumph and brushed the jet-black fringe from his eyes. His three friends sat before him, stretched out on the grass.
“What, just like that?” squeaked Nick. The shorter boy was sat forward, rapt attention on his pimpled face. Like Sean’s, his collar was undone, and his tie flapped loose in the breeze.
“Yeah, it was pretty pathetic,” Sean continued, accepting a cigarette with a gracious nod.
“Why did you do it, though?” Charli tossed her long blond hair over one shoulder as she settled against Nick. Sean inhaled, holding back a coughing fit with practiced willpower. He exhaled the stinging smoke from his nostrils, making sure that everyone was watching.
“The dickhead nearly made me drop my camera,” he said. The group crowed their understanding.
“Oh yeah, that’d do it!” Nick laughed. “You’re more attached to that thing than your own dick!” Charli pealed with laughter, and Sean winced.
“Well, maybe,” Sean forced a grin and rested his hand on the case hanging from his neck. It housed his beloved Nikon, which was old for a compact digital but was his pride and joy. He scanned the area as he passed the fag on, surveying the green space with disinterest. Wooden fences bordered two sides, and the metal fence of a school guarded the others. It was a pleasant place, and quiet in the evenings. A smattering of children played football nearby, watched over by a solitary adult.
As Sean’s gaze swept across the park and back to his friends his eyes met Jo’s. Her eyes were large and brown, and they glittered in the fading sunlight. The corners of her mouth twitched into a smile. Sean felt heat flare in his cheeks and he looked away. Jo would rarely speak up or join in with the boys’ story-telling, not unless it was to put one of them down. Sean held his swagger, listening to Nick spout some similar bullshit story. He could feel Jo staring at him and he pictured her full lips for an instant, and the beauty spot just above them which was almost invisible against her dark skin. His mouth went dry.
Fortunately, whatever Jo might have said was silenced when Sean’s phone rang. The heavy chords of Royal Blood cut into the air, muffled by trousers. Nick swore and demanded that Sean “turn that shit off”. Sean fished his phone from his pocket and let it ring for a few more seconds. As his thumb hesitated over the screen, the call cut off. It was his mum, and it was time for him to go home.
“Well, guys, I’d best be off,” Sean said, stuffing his phone away.
“Aw, bless him! Mummy’s boy!” Charli exclaimed in delight. Sean reddened.
“Yeah well, things’ll change when I’m eighteen!” he insisted. “I’ll be at lock-ins and everything!”
“Yeah, whatever you say, mate,” Nick chuckled, stroking Charli’s hair as she rested her head on his chest. He took a drag from the dying cigarette and blew three perfect smoke rings into the air. Sean felt a stab of envy; it wasn’t that he fancied Charli at all, it was how Nick was always at ease around girls, despite his spots and his high voice. Maybe it was his tan and his muscles; Sean was pale as a ghost and lanky as a scarecrow. He was caught somewhere between admiration and hate for the smug prick.
“Off you pop, then,” Nick said, waving dismissively. Charli smiled and said goodbye, and Jo simply waved. Sean stalked off down the street, head down, the sound of his friends’ merriment and the shouts of the kids playing football fading away. His footsteps sounded lonely and insignificant to his ears, and he muttered angrily to himself as he walked. After a few moments, he paused and looked up. He enjoyed the way the red sunlight was decorating the horizon, and the empty road split his frame of vision into three pleasing sections. Sean unzipped his case and raised his camera to his eye. The snap of the shutter was like a whisper of pure potential to his ears.
“Sean! Hang on a sec!” a voice called. Jo came hurrying from the park, shrugging her backpack onto her shoulders. Sean’s spirits lifted, but he also felt a burst of panic. He just stood there as Jo caught up with him.
“Hey,” he said, trying to sound casual. Jo stopped and smiled.
“Hey,” she said. Her voice was deep and scratchy; Sean quivered at the sound of it. He cleared his throat and stuffed his Nikon back into the case. He felt ridiculous as he towered a foot and a half above her.
“You off as well?” he asked.
“Well, yeah,” Jo replied, and her eyes sparkled. “Thought I’d keep you company. I’m going your way.” Sean nodded and kept walking. His footsteps seemed loud and brutish now, echoing obnoxiously around the street. Sean racked his brain for something to say. Where’s your mouth now, big man? he thought. After a few minutes, Jo spoke up.
“So, have you decided to go to uni, then?” she asked.
“Y’know, I’m not sure,” Sean replied, grateful for something to think about. “I guess so, as it’ll probably help me in the long run. The colleges round here don’t really appeal to me.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Jo said, rubbing her lips thoughtfully. “There’s not much for me, either, but I don’t really fancy uni. My parents are pushing for me to go, though.” She grimaced. “My dad nearly hit the roof when I said I wanted to be a carpenter! It’s like I told him I was pregnant or something!”
“It’s hardly a secret” Sean grinned. “You made them stuff, didn’t you?”
“Couple of chairs, even a bedside table for my little sister.” Jo said, with a note of pride. “I worked afterschool for weeks to get those done. They were impressed, but they weren’t happy.”
“That sucks,” Sean replied, adding a grimace of his own. “Is it…is it because it’s not a girl’s job?” He raised his fingers to make quotation marks. Jo laughed.
“No shit, Sherlock!” she said, but her smile took the sting from her words. “They say it’s unlikely I’ll get an apprenticeship over a guy when there aren’t many to begin with. Won’t stop me trying, though.” Sean marvelled at Jo’s determination; if only he could be so sure of himself.
“I’m actually a bit freaked out by it all,” Sean said as he scratched the back of his neck. “Mum and dad are pressuring me to make a decision, and the school is pushing me, too. The school only cares about conversion numbers, so fuck them, but mum and dad mean well. But what if I don’t want to go? Will I need to get some boring job which I’m gonna hate? I know that’s reality for a lot of people but surely it can’t be all there is? I just wanna take pictures and forget about exams and sixth form, but there’s so much riding on what I do with my spare time! It’s all too much, y’know?” Sean stopped, suddenly embarrassed. He was breathing heavily, and his fists were clenched.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “It’s bothering me more than I’ve been letting on.”
Jo was staring at Sean with an odd expression.
“What?” Sean asked, folding his arms. Jo pursed her lips and traces of glitter sparkled as they passed under a lukewarm lamppost.
“It’s good when you’re like this,” Jo said at last. “No bullshit, not like back there,” she jerked a thumb over her shoulder, back towards the park.
“I dunno, I guess I feel like I can tell you this stuff,” Sean said with a shrug. “You’re not judgey like the others, you don’t expect me to be anything. You’re…” Sean waved his hands, searching for the right word. “You’re real.” Sean felt heat in his cheeks again and he moved on hurriedly.
“One good thing about uni is that I can get away and be myself. Plus, there’s not really anyone I’d miss from round here.” Jo’s head jerked up.
“No-one?” she asked. Sean balked at the obvious cue. He dry-swallowed several times, wishing that the street wasn’t so bloody long so that he could escape to his home.
“Well, I…” he said, rubbing his neck. “I’d miss…well, y’know, I’d…not miss exactly, but…oh, fuck it!” Sean halted and turned to face Jo. Their eyes met. Now or never, big man! he thought. He wished he was more like Nick.
“I’d really miss you, Jo,” he said, forcing the words out. “You’re not like everyone else. I can be real with you.” Heart thumping, he carefully took one of Jo’s hands. Her calloused fingertips brushed over Sean’s knuckles and he almost lost his nerve.
“I’d miss you too, Sean,” Jo replied, her voice a breathy whisper. She took his other hand and squeezed. God, she’s beautiful, Sean thought, as warring emotions tore through his body. He opened his mouth, but Jo placed a finger on his lips.
“Don’t,” she said. “Be real with me.” Jo pushed the camera case over Sean’s shoulder, then cupped his cheek. Sean felt his head being pulled gently down, and panic flared in his mind as Jo’s face filled his vision. Her dark eyes began to close as she turned her mouth towards his, her lips parting. Sean watched her come nearer, closing his eyes at the last possible second before their lips met.
It was delicate at first, and hesitant. Jo’s lips were soft and warm, and Sean could smell coconut butter on her skin. Jo’s fingers stroked his cheek, her fingertips tracing his jawline. Sean pressed closer and encircled Jo’s waist with his free arm. His heart hammered against his ribs and his body grew hot. He let go of Jo’s hand to pull her into a tight embrace, and she exhaled in pleasure, breaking them apart. Sean opened his eyes saw that Jo’s were also open, and they were shining in the fading light. Jo smiled shyly and ran a finger along the downy fuzz on Sean’s upper lip.
“Now that’s what I’m taking about!” she said in a husky tone. Sean giggled. Like a girl.
“Real enough for you?” he whispered, and he leaned his forehead against hers.
“Mhmm,” was Jo’s simple reply. Sean could feel her heart pounding as her breasts pushed against him.
“So, what, are we, like, together now?” Sean asked lamely. Jo chuckled and pulled away from him.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, boy!” she chided, fluttering her eyelashes. “You might not be good enough for me!”
“Oh, it’s like that, is it?” Sean replied, raising an eyebrow. He grinned back, but he felt dread settle in his stomach. Jo inspected her nails with exaggerated care.
“Yep. Maybe I don’t want someone who tries to act like tough guy. Starting on people in parks and all that. Besides, you might be buggering off to uni soon!” Sean’s expression must have betrayed him because Jo burst out laughing.
“Y’know, you’re pretty sensitive for a tough guy!” Before Sean could protest, Jo stood on her tiptoes and kissed him, slowly and softly. She breathed a deep sigh when they parted.
“Come on then, I’ll finish walking you home,” she said, chuckling. Sean shook his head with a smile and let himself be dragged along. They walked through the darkening street holding hands and chatting about anything which came to mind, their hearts fluttering like birds in their chests. For Sean, life had never seemed brighter or more beautiful than it did right then. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but in that moment, for the first time in months, he didn’t care.
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