Be Real

Be Real

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.

Follow me on Twitter @ADixonFiction.

Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

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Before my Heart was Cold

The cellar was cold, musty and seemed more cramped with every visit. Not thirty seconds had passed since Carl had descended the creaking staircase, but it already seemed like an hour. A single fluorescent tube flickered above, throwing shadows across the room. The gentle plinking of Alisa’s piano drifted into Carl’s ears and he shivered; the melody was mournful, the minor chords chosen with care to amplify his pain. He tried to ignore it as he unscrewed the heavy cap and checked the oil level. It was low, so he lifted the jerry can and carefully poured in the pungent liquid; he had loved that smell, once upon a time.

“You’re back early,” Alisa stated, not turning her head. “Two weeks to the day I last saw you, minus three hours, seven minutes and twenty-eight seconds.” She was seated in front of Carl, facing the old, dusty piano.

“Yeah,” Carl said and as he put aside the empty can. He replaced the cap and rested his hand on the cool metal surrounding it as if to transfer some warmth into it.

“You always do that,” Alisa said, her voice lifeless. The vibrations tickled his fingers through the metal.

“Can’t help it, I guess,” Carl said. He stepped back to get a better look at her, adjusting his thick glasses on his beak of a nose. With sad eyes, he examined the metal plate which covered the back of Alisa’s head and went on to form her entire left arm. He still marvelled at the workmanship; it looked so real, with only a light rusting at the elbow giving its material away. He couldn’t even see the myriad of wires and tubes which lay beneath. It was exceptional, and unnerving.

“Do you like this song?” Alisa asked, still looking at the piano. Carl moved beside her as her fingers deftly swept across the yellowed keys. The song was heart-wrenching and tightened Carl’s chest.

“It’s beautiful, Allie,” he whispered. “But it’s so sad. I don’t think I can bear it for long.”

“Interesting,” Alisa said, slowing her playing but not stopping. “I feel nothing. I remember being moved by music before my heart was cold.”

“You were, Allie,” Carl said, a grimace twisting the corners of his mouth. He hated it when she said that. “You used to love how music made you feel, even when you couldn’t play very well.”

“I play better now,” Alisa stated.

“Yeah,” Carl admitted. “You’re a hell of a lot better…but there’s no joy in it anymore.”

“Joy.” Alisa stopped playing and turned around. Carl winced as her face came in to view, more than half of it covered by a plate of metal. Her eyes were still the same pale blue, but her freckles only covered her right cheek and the laughter had vanished from her once jovial face. Her button nose was gone, replaced by a shaped metal ridge; a dreadful substitute in Carl’s opinion. Her lips no longer smiled, but instead hung like a grey horizon above her chin. In the absence of the piano Carl could make out faint whirring and ticking sounds echoing from within Alisa’s body.

“Joy.” Alisa repeated, her grey tongue clicking against her teeth. “Curious. My name is derived from the Hebrew word for joy. I think my parent chose it on purpose.”

“I wouldn’t know, Allie,” Carl shrugged, feeling deeply uncomfortable.

“Joy…there was no joy after you changed me.” Alisa said, looking straight at Carl. She shifted her heavy feet, making a dull thud on the cellar floor. The chains which snaked around her ankles gave a dull rasp at the movement.

“You all regret it now.” Her voice was cold, just like the rest of her.

“Allie, stop it,” Carl pleaded, reaching for her shoulder. He shivered as his hand touched steel and a chill ran up his arm.

“My injuries were fatal, but you decided that I shouldn’t be allowed to die,” Alisa pressed on in her sterile tone. “It’s a strange to think of it, especially when most people wouldn’t force a cherished pet to stay alive when they are suffering. It was selfish.”

“Allie, don’t talk like that!” Carl snapped. He faced her with as much courage as he could, forcing himself to look into her dull eyes. “You were everything to us! To me! We couldn’t let you slip away like that! We…needed you here…I needed you.”

“Not like this,” Alisa replied, her eyes boring back into Carl’s. “Nobody wanted this, and that’s why I’m here, out of sight and out of mind. You’re the only one who still comes back.” Carl was silent and his jaw worked as he tried to think of something to say. Before he could, the thing that was once Alisa spoke again.

“You’re lonely, aren’t you, Carl?” Carl was startled and took another few moments to answer.

“Yeah…I am,” he confessed at last. “I hoped…I thought things would get better…but I ought to look after you. It’s the right thing to do!” He spoke with more confidence than he felt.

“Five years is a long time when something is hopeless,” Alisa said, turning back to the piano. The mournful music resumed once again. “Visiting me is illogical and it causes you pain. It won’t be long before even you stop coming down here to change my oil. When that day comes I will be allowed to die.”

“Allie, I’ll not abandon you!” Carl insisted, despite the horror he felt growing inside him. Alisa’s words frightened Carl because he had been considering doing just that for months. It was not a thought he entertained with his full attention, but circled the edge of his consciousness like a hawk waiting for the right moment to strike. Nothing escaped Alisa anymore, and the hawk had been circling lower.

“Perhaps,” Alisa said, her fingers moving over the aged keys. “It won’t matter to me either way.” Carl’s shoulders slumped and his heart grew heavy in his chest. He still loved Alisa, or the memory of her, at least. He could remember the warmth of her face when it was pressed against his, how her lips and her tongue had tasted, and how musical her voice used to be. He remembered how he used to stand and watch her play the piano, positioned in much the same way as he was at that very moment, studying her fingers as they danced and smiling at her eagerness. He had almost been driven mad with the thought of losing her, and had jumped at the chance to save her life. If only he had known…

Carl wandered back to the stairs leading up to the main building, gazing up at the open door and the bright sunlight which beckoned beyond. He watched Alisa play for a few minutes and then began to ascend. He paused at the threshold of the door, holding the handle in a shaking hand.

“Bye, Allie,” he said, his feeble voice cracking. “I…I love you,”

“Goodbye, Carl,” Alisa said. Cold. Precise. Inhuman. Carl closed the door with tears streaming down his cheeks. His heart thundered within his chest, even as it broke with shame. Sobs racked his body as he turned a key in the lock, and the piano stopped playing.

 

 

Follow me on Twitter @ADixonFiction.

Photo courtesy of pixabay.com