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HALFWAY THROUGH

Summary

Scattered sighs evaporating into trails of smoke, Viktor knows that he must turn away. For not everyone would understand what he keeps. His body is the living proof of everyone's blindness, his own memory disintegrating under the poison that ravages his soul and his body, day by day by day.

What discerns love from obedience? Obedience from submission? Submission from enslavement? Enslavement from death?

Nobody would believe him. That much he knew.
 

 

Warning- This story handles mature themes that may be disturbing for people under eighteen. There is strong language used frequently. Reader discretion is advised.

Cigarettes and Wildfires

Who lets a fucking baby run around in the terrace?

Viktor stared at the woman chasing the boy. She didn't have a trace of worry on her gleaming face. Would it gleam that bright when the boy would fall off?

'Marcel!' She grabbed his arm and plucked her mobile phone out of his hand. 'You have one hour in the evening to use it--after dinner. Wait until then,' she scooped him into her arms and shoved the unholy device out of his sight.

She carried him to the edge of the terrace. Viktor had his gaze glued on her and the kid.

She was telling him something, pointing to the sky. Drawing lines in the air with a broad grin on her face. Marcel was looking up too, narrowing his eyes to brace them from the wind. She sat on the top of the wall and Viktor stopped prancing about.

Is she talking about the heavens to him?

The kid wasn't looking up any more. He was looking at the skyline behind the lady and beyond. What Viktor should have been looking at. He didn't seem concerned at all about what lay below him. That kid.

Within a few minutes, they were gone. Because something had gone into Marcel's eyes and he had begun crying. And Viktor was left alone with the tunes of Blackbird gushing into his ears. He knew her. That was the woman who had moved into the apartment adjacent to his--just about two days ago.

He had seen her twice before. Once, when she was bringing in the furniture. Second, when she came along with the baby and a girl. He had seen no husband--or boyfriend. Maybe, his work required him to stay offshore. Or maybe, there was actually no husband or boyfriend--or girlfriend--or wife.

The latter was more likely. Because, he had heard her say that it had been twelve weeks since she had arrived at Bundaberg. Twelve weeks of hunting apartments.

The door swung open and in she came, this time, with a pack of cigarettes in her hand. She sat on the top of the wall again and watched the setting sun, wisps of smoke dancing with her breaths.

She was an example as a mother.

I'm being judgmental.

His father was an avid smoker. And he used to smoke in front of him. At least, she respected the safety of her son's lungs. If not his life.

'Do you want one?'

He had probably been staring at her direction for too long; she looked visibly uncomfortable. Embarrassed, he took the cigarette and she lit it for him. They stood there in silence, gazing at the skyline blurred under the smog rising from the streets. There was a brick red undertone to the evening sky as the Sun dipped into high-risers.

It was a stunning sunset with all the crimson and ochre painting the sky but there was a frown on her face, as she let the smoke from her lips cloud her vision whenever she exhaled. He never noticed it. He was taken away by the unravelling in front of him. As the cirrus clouds embraced the last light of the day.

'How long has it been since you moved to this place?'

'About four months,' he replied. He found it odd. She never introduced himself to him. No hellos, no nothing. And her tone was nonchalant, almost rude.

'I'm Viktor Kairys,' he held out his hand, 'I live next door.'

'I know. I saw you,' she shook his hand, 'I'm Yvonne Roberts.'

He had a resting psycho face. She found it a bit unnerving, then. But, it didn't stay for long. He seemed alright otherwise. He had been staring at her continuously the other time, though.

At the end of her analysis, she didn't know what to make of him.

'It's a pretty sunset, isn't it?'

'Has there been any reports of a bushfire around here?'

He looked back at her, puzzled. He was expecting her to just agree and get on with it till he finished his cigarette. But, again, that's what normal people did.

'If there wasn't, it probably wouldn't be so red.' She signalled him to come closer, 'And the Sun is blurred-that is indicative of a bushfire in our vicinity.'

'I see,' he shrunk away from her. She said nothing after that. He caught her glancing at him. She looked like she was thinking hard about something. Maybe about the Marcel she left in her place.

But, her cigarette was far from over.

'You're right though,' she sighed, 'The sunset is pretty.'

'So, air pollution has a devious sort of silver lining after all?'

She grinned, 'I suppose so. But, it's certainly not worth it. All that redness is because of smoke altering the refractive index of the sky and the shorter wavelengths become imperceptible due to all that ... Rayleigh scattering.'

Hold it there. The last thing he wanted to hear on a Saturday evening was scientific terms. Any technical terms. However simple they were.

'I should shut up.' She took another puff.

He smirked. She was something. Something entertaining; he wasn't sure about that yet. With her groggy eyes and dead gaze, she looked intolerably cynical.

'You could lament over the rise in air pollution because of a hypothetically possible bushfire,' he finished his cigarette, 'Or you could talk about the beach that you can see if you turn around.'

'The buildings hide it away.'

'You can see traces of it. Or you can go there.'

'Yes. That's why I moved here.'

This conversation was descending into every topic he had never thought could be possible with a random neighbour who was stupid enough to sit with her toddler at the edge of the terrace. That was because, he had never intended to talk to her.

Or hear the word 'refractive index' from her mouth.

'I should get going.'

'Alright,' she replied and gave him a little nod. He took that as her permission and started to leave.

'Since you're the first person I have had a decent conversation with here and you are my neighbour, would you want to come over for lunch on Sunday?' She paused for a moment when he turned around to face her.

'With us.'

 

Yvonne knew she had fucked up, already. She knew she hadn't told him 'hello' or 'goodbye' or 'have a nice day.' She was in no rebellion with pleasantries, but, they always slipped past her when she needed to use them. And that sly expression he wore on his face the whole time she spent on the terrace--it was like she was amusing him. In a bad way.

For her, of course.

You're thinking too hard. Screw him. What if that is his resting face?

'I'll let you know by Thursday. I don't know when my new project will come up.'

'Alright,' she noticed he was holding onto his cigarette's butt. The embers had turned into ash so it was safe. 'Can I join you?'

 

'Sure,' he shrugged his shoulders and she opened the door for him. He smiled at her.

Entering the dark passage leading to the staircase, he remembered that he had a load of clips left to edit. Clips from his previous project. Micheal would be annoyed if he didn't submit them before morning. They had to go show their footage to the team leader tomorrow.

'Goodbye.'

'Bye,' he muttered, sinking in the thoughts inside him. He threw the butt into the dustbin beside the elevator. After her.

He didn't see her leave while he waited for the elevator, busy planning his schedule to maintain Micheal's expectations. If he managed to review the first three folders by dinner, he could get it done by two in the morning. Of course, dinner had to bought from outside today. He had no time to get it done at home.

 

'Hi, Faridah, did we get the elution buffer tablets yet?'

'Yeah. They came in an hour ago. I called in to tell you that the team at Lizard Island might need four more days to finish their footage.'

'That's alright,' Yvonne unlocked the door and breathed a sigh of relief when she heard the kids--they sounded like they were having a mild argument.

She had two children--Naomi and Marcel. None were her blood. Both were her own.

'Can I catch you later, Faridah? Give me an hour.'

'Sure.'

She silenced her phone and hid it behind the fruit basket so that neither would be tempted to sin.

'So, tell me more about your first day at school.'

Naomi was six. She had fair hair and a small body--smaller than most six year olds. She looked more like her mother with her pale skin. Marcel was busy breaking a puzzle apart and tossing its pieces around the room. Typical of him.

'It was alright. I found a girl who has a dog and a big house.'

'Is she nice?'

'Yes,' Naomi sat down and shooed Marcel away, 'That's it. It's all done. Go.' She waved her hand at his face. 'Go!'

'Be kinder to him, Naomi.'

'But, he doesn't go.'

Won't leave, Yvonne corrected her in her head. Sometimes, Yvonne understood how Naomi made those mistakes. Many a times, she would leave it. She knew that she would eventually learn, once she took the books she read seriously. And that would happen in about two years.

Marcel sat back, suckling his thumb and looked at his mother before scrambling out of the room. Their place had two rooms. The main door led to the dining table and kitchenette--the couch was Yvonne's bed. And the second room was for the children. The window was high and there was a grill placed there in case they ever managed to slide it open.

'How is she nice?'

'She talks. She's kind. She has a dog and she says I can come.'

Not so soon, 'Well, we'll see when you do a project together. It will be fun then. When you're better friends.'

'We're best friends, Ma!'

'Already?'

'Already! She is nice. Really, really, really nice.'

'School must be nice then.'

She nodded and began with her puzzle again, sprawled on the floors, feet high up in the air, dangling. It was better if she didn't disturb her now.

'Did you eat anything?'

Naomi did not answer. Yvonne understood what that meant and headed to the kitchenette. 'If you didn't want the fruits, you could have taken the other snacks.'

Marcel had climbed up a chair and was scanning the table with his open palms, beating the wood. Yvonne chuckled victoriously; glad she didn't choose to keep it on the table this time.

With the children, it was a different world altogether. Marcel was a pain in the neck most of the time--whenever her mobile phone was in his vicinity. He was noisy and demanding. He never let Naomi sit on his mother's lap. That was his property and he was adamant about keeping it that way.

Naomi was demanding too, in other ways. She wanted her mother to hear about her friends and would throw a tantrum if she didn't. Her chattiness frightened Yvonne about how Marcel would be once he'd get a hold on language. But, he was timid around other kids.

They were just four years apart but, their needs were so different. One was already done with kindergarten and the other one was going to take his books and puzzles for the first time. And so far, Marcel was terrified of playgrounds where all the children were bigger than him.

Or maybe, different from him.

Because, Marcel was different. Marcel didn't look like his mother or Naomi. He had a reddish tint to his wheatish skin and frizzy black hair. He was born Loatian and carried the genes from that part of the world. But here he was, with her. In Australia. In a white locality in Bundaberg.

Skin colour shouldn't matter in a logical sense. But, she was nervous. It was better than leaving him there.

There.

There where she found him. How would she tell him? Would she ever? But, he would know because, if he was different from them; he was different from her.

 

Purpose

'Did you send the data to the Telegraph?'

'Yeah. I have sent it to Victoria Williams from the Sydney Morning Herald too.'

'Good,' the professor reclined on his chair. 'I hope it won't be like last time.'

Micheal glanced at Viktor and shrugged his shoulders, 'Why wouldn't it be? The government hasn't changed. And our data isn't as damning as the previous time because of the cyclone that hit the Northern side of the reef this time.'

'Yeah, but, we did document spikes in coral death due to the spread of the White Band disease in a patch off Cape York. The temperatures were pretty high for about twenty two days before the cyclone lashed in,' Viktor explained. 

'How is your documentary getting through with distribution?'

'Melanie's lending a hand again this time. So, it will be fine. We'll get some invitations for a few screenings and probably land a chance at a festival. Just probably,' Micheal replied. He was worried. Once the rounds at the fairs and screening grounds would be over, the team would be dispersed. 

Viktor knew that Micheal didn't want any of this. He had grown utterly frustrated with working underwater for a lost cause. Professor Jones knew of it too. They had discussed about it the previous evening. 

 

'What are you planning to do now?'

Professor Jones was a portly man in his fifties. Reputed. Earnest. Viktor wondered how the hopelessness in his field of coral reef conservation never got to him. Maybe, it was because he was stuck in his sterile labs and ocean simulator tanks. They must have been a facade for his eyes to look at, veiling the real numbers. That sprawling graveyard.

'Enjoy the festivals and get it to the right audience.'

'And after that?'

Viktor knew that the man was asking him that from the first time. He folded his arms and stared out into the emptiness with him. He had an answer.

'Micheal will be heading back to freelance editing until he lands a job at some publishing house. He wants to settle down since he had that kneecap replacement surgery.'

'I haven't had a kneecap replacement surgery yet, so,' Viktor inhaled, 'I'd continue with video-shooting. But, I'd stick around with weddings or parties this time. Till I get some invitation or motivation, I don't know.'

'Thank you for your service, Kairys.'

'It isn't over yet. We have the screenings and everything else.'

Jones patted his back and left, a skin-deep smile to soothe the man's thoughts. 

Viktor was by himself now. Physically and financially--the only ways that truly mattered. This was going to be his last visit to that university, those labs, that environment--that made him feel secured. During these moments, while they waited for Melanie's labours to bear fruit, thoughts would seep into the void. 

What if he had stuck to journalism? That area was suffering too. What if he hadn't chosen English as his major? He should have taken law, like his father had told him. But, then, would he actually survive?

Is it the time to ask questions?

He imagined rolling back into the water, with the boat rocking underneath him. Blue. Not silent. But, slower. Everything was slower. Of course, his work had a purpose. Everything he did; it had to mean something. 

Documenting all that. Investigating public records. Recording boardroom meetings and public lectures. Begging for interviews. Racing about to shoot this, to find that. It had to mean something.

Not for him. For everyone else and him.

If that made any sense.

It wasn't for him. Diving into the blue, he knew what he was asking to see. Infinite death. Millions of years of evolution battered into the grey dirt of the ocean bed. That was his work. To watch. To show. It was bad; the scale of destruction. The worse thing was that no one was looking hard enough. No one seemed to accept it, since, its scale was that massive. It expanded beyond what logic could fathom.

He could write about the numbness he experienced when he held the soft coral in his hand. And how it simply withered into the currents, clouds of its infected, starved tissues filling the dead water. There was dead coral, infected coral, bleached coral and fluorescing coral. The last one would get to the cover--because, people would look at that. It was bright. It was colourful.

It was the first stage of death. But, they wouldn't know that. Let them look at it. And at least think about it for a moment when they plan their holidays blinded by the lie of its unnatural beauty. 

Corals did have a voice. It's just that people heard it differently. They always do.

Time grabbed him and he stopped, his eyes boring into his own reflection. Jones was gone. When? He did not know. How long had he been standing there?

Flushed, he turned around and headed to the exit of the building. All of this trepidation eating away at him--his helplessness, it had to reap something. And it was up to Melanie to make him see it, now. He hated having his fate dictated by someone else.

At least, the money was alright. It was satisfying enough, because of the university's help and the funds they had collected online. Maybe, some people were concerned after all. 

                                                                                              ***

'How many guns of sodium bisulphate do we have?'

'You found them?'

Yvonne nodded. 'Faridah's still there. We need two more people to join in. There are a lot of thorns in a staghorn colony down there,' she pointed to her left. She slunk away from the rocking vessel and waited for Davis to get the injection guns ready and call in fellow divers. 

'What should we do with them?' Davis strapped his oxygen tank and tested his breathing gear. 

'Kill them. We have about twenty two in our lab already. And they're reproducing.'

'Arthur, monitor the boat,' and Davis leapt into the water, following Yvonne across the fields of coral. 'For Christ's sake, when is this going to get over?'

Within four minutes, he could see Faridah, peering at a colony of soft coral, working her way to locate the Crown of Thorns Starfish and their larvae. Davis could see one on the ocean floor, bringing out its spiny arms slowly as it cascaded on the hard brain coral.

Damn it.

For the last few weeks, they had hunted down about ninety of them. There were just too many to maintain an ecological balance. With this year's heat waves about to set in, the last thing the team wanted to deal with was a COTS outbreak, especially in the Southern region where the heat hadn't managed to bake the corals for the last four years. 

Universities had released vinegar-releasing robots to hunt them down before D-Day, but, it wasn't helping since they were so fertile and the ministry was doing almost nothing on slowing down agriculture runoff into the reefs.

Faridah pointed to a little cave where there were at least sixteen of them hiding. Davis was a bit daunted by their sheer number and so did Yvonne appear hesitant. It was almost disgusting. Cutting them up would backfire. They would grow back their arms and become separate individuals. 

It sort of felt like fighting demons off in some ancient mythology. Only, these weren't demons from an alien planet.

Each female releases about 60 million eggs.

'Fucking obliterate them.'

Faridah grabbed the gun and pierced into the starfish, driving the toxin into its body. Yvonne jumped in to help her dispose it and Davis carried on, with fellow divers joining them in. 

They were here to study the sudden death of sponges near Lady Elliot Island. Instead, they got into a side-quest, of sorts. 

It was frustrating. But, they couldn't do anything else. They were here to help the reef, after all, as scientists and divers.

 

'Next time,' Davis pointed his finger at Faridah, 'we are not doing this. We have another project to manage.'

'But, what do we do? It doesn't take very long anyway.'

'Davis, calm down. We did the reef a favour anyway,' Yvonne opened her notepad and reviewed her observations.

'By culling sixteen starfishes? Ha. There are twelve million out there.'

'Something's better than nothing.'

'Are you thinking of starting another project?' Davis rolled his eyes. 

'We should start studying the Pacific Triton before the breeding season sets in.'

Davis paused to consider. Well, in the southern strip, the problem was getting out of hand and there were several divers and independent scientists sending notices to government agencies about it. The timing was bad. The timing would always be bad--who would want to put the Great Barrier Reef at risk?

'Can we head to Lady Elliot now? Please?'

 

                                                                                    ***

Viktor's eyes burst open, heart pouding. 

There was a bang. From somewhere. His neck was hurting, so were his shoulders. He had fallen asleep on his chair, in the terrace.

In the terrace. 

He breathed a sigh of relief at his realisation. It must have been the door behind him. Someone must have come in. He looked down and found a bottle of beer lying on the floor. He must have dropped it while dozing off.

Shame on me.

'Hi.'

She was standing awkwardly, with a shawl wrapped around her. That woman. With the name he couldn't remember. Not because he didn't care to. 

'I'm Yvonne--'

'I know.' I didn't.

'I'm sorry, I forgot your name.'

It was funny, how she was honest about it while he had lied about it on her face, like a normal person. 

Like a normal person. 

'Viktor.'

'Viktor Kairys, yes,' she leaned against the wall. The sight was a bit offensive; his feet resting on top of it, right beside her arms. But, it wasn't anything major.

'You didn't grow up around here, did you?' Yvonne looked down at him. 

He shook his head, 'I was raised in Newcastle.'

'Newcastle where?'

'Newcastle in England.'

She nodded and looked away. At the shining city around them. Below, there was a park. It was a sorry excuse for one just equipped with some benches and a sand pit with slides. It had to be cut down because of new construction projects. But, it felt safe. 

'Isn't it obvious with the accent?'

She shrugged her shoulders, 'I guessed it sounds different, that was why I asked.'

'Do you want a smoke?'

'Sure,' she took a cigarette and placed it between her lips while he got out a lighter. She bent down towards him, so that he wouldn't have to get up. Thankfully, he had shifted his feet off the wall. 

'There you go,' he muttered under his breath and ignited it, the tip of her cigarette inches from his face. When he brought the flame towards it, he noticed something gleam on her hand. There was a gash on her knuckle. Actually, there were several--all scattered--some reaching down to the tattoo she had on the back of her palm. 

What did she do?

The tattoo made her ghastly hand look beautiful, especially, when she held it out like that, with the cigarette between her fingers. It was like an Arabic henna design, tapering into her forearm. There must have been more, but, the shawl had hidden them from sight. And it was dark. 

He didn't let his lighter linger for too long, just enough to bring embers. He heard her inhale and when he looked at her, she was looking at him. He froze for a moment, drawing the lighter away. It cast a golden glow on her face, especially, her cheek. 

And in the blink of an eye, she leaned away from him and returned to the wall. He lit his cigarette and watched the night progress, aware of those borrowed moments.

'I have something you might want to check out,' he pulled out a piece of paper from his jacket and handed it to her. She thrust it back to him, 'Did you get it from the watchman?'

He nodded, 'So you knew.'

'Yeah, he was giving the pamphlet to everyone.'

It was about a summer club for kids above the age of three. The usual kind. She thought about enrolling Naomi but, it was quite expensive. And Marcel would join preschool the next year and that would mean extra expenses. It would be better if she just took them on a holiday and to museums every week. 

That would do if Naomi didn't find out about the clubs. 

'Thanks for letting me know, though.'

He returned her smile, 'No problem.'

'They're Naomi and Marcel. Naomi is six and Marcel is two.'

He didn't know how to respond. So, he looked up at her, with his lips pursed into a thin line. 'So, Naomi must have started school this year.'

'Yes, she's in grade one.'

Both the children looked very different. And neither looked like her, completely. She had Marcel's black hair--but, his was frizzy. Hers was not. She had fair skin, but, it wasn't as pale as Naomi's. 

He looked at her for a moment, studying her. 'Why do you have so many scars on your hand?'

'I work for a gang.'

'Sure, you do. That's why you adopted two kids.'

She laughed, 'It isn't anything major. You get gashed when you handle the equipment, here and there, underwater.'

'Underwater?'

She looked skyward and took a pause, before looking down at him. 'I'm a marine biologist. So, when we work to make observations or set a tripod, whatever. It happens.'

'You're a marine biologist?' That explained why she cooked up all those terms last time. Sort of. They were related to the atmosphere, not the ocean, specifically. 

'Don't mind my reaction. It's just I just finished a film on the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef. But, we stuck to heat stress and diseases.'

'I see. You make documentaries?'

He nodded. 

'That's good. It's good to be around woke people.'

'Woke?' He took his last puff. That wasn't the right word. 

'Don't tell anyone I'm a marine biologist.'

'Why?' He jammed the cigarette into the wall to kill the embers.

'Just don't.'

'That's not an answer.'

She sighed, 'I just want to have some fun. So, don't.'

'Alright.' There was never going to be an opportunity where he would need to talk about her, anyway. She was just beyond his scope of comprehension. 

But, at least, she had greeted him with a 'Hi' this time, like a normal person.

______________

Author's Note-

I intend to release a new chapter every Sunday. However, Chapter 3 will only arrive on May 13. 

I'm sorry for the inconvenience. 

Busy Mornings

Music filled her ears, but, her mind was impervious--a million thoughts abuzz, spilling into the abyss and evaporating. Her feet thumped on the treadmill, like they were for the last twenty eight minutes.

A scarlet orb emerged from the skyscrapers, consuming the blue light of the infant morning with its fiery hues. Yvonne winced when the light hit her and slowed the treadmill down, preparing to leave.

No one came to the community gym in the morning. Most of them spent their mornings in the park or around the building, walking on the pavements, sprinting, whatever. Well, the fact that she had to share her company with herself was pleasing, since it made her feel a bit unbound.

Unbound from what awaited her downstairs, in the apartment at the end of the passage on the fifth floor. She leaped down the stairs, a beep droning into the silence. It was an alarm--to wake Naomi for school.

'Naomi.'

She opened the refrigerator and pulled out all the items she needed to prepare for her lunchbox. There was money for yogurt. The bread was in the toaster. The eggs were out to boil.

'Naomi,' she whispered into her ear, tapping her back. She didn't want to call her out too loudly, Marcel was tucked in beside her, snoring. The girl was not listening to her. Like everyday.

'Naomi,' she held her arms and lifted her up. The girl growled and threw her arms up in the air, fingers curled up like talons. Yvonne held her hands, expecting her outburst, 'Up you go, big girl.' She led her to the washroom, 'go get ready now.'

She knew she would have to knock at the door five minutes later to check if she was awake or spreadeagled on the toilet, returning to her dreams.

It was in these moments a fuzzy warmth filled her body and the gravity of her role would settle down on her, every single morning. When she saw two lunchboxes and three bottles and a tiny box for Marcel with a packet of Pistachio-flavoured cream biscuits--for Marcel again.

She had made the right choice, she would tell herself, till she'd curse herself in despair. But, that would come later. That day itself, maybe.

'Hush, hush, hush,' She cooed into his ears when she picked the toddler up, with Naomi's schoolbag and her slingbag slung across her shoulder. It was in no way comfortable, but, she had to keep her arms from shaking under the weight or he would start yapping.

Marcel whimpered but, once she let his face snuggle into the crook of her neck, his breaths grew softer. Like everyday.

'Alright, come,' she held Naomi's hand after confirming everything was turned off and the door was locked. Naomi ran to call for the elevator, her shoes clapping down the corridor. The noise pulled Yvonne out of her thoughts for a moment and she scowled, but, finally, decided to let it go. 

'Naomi!' the surprise in her tone stunned the little girl. Marcel stirred in response. Quickly, Yvonne stroked his back and rocked him gently till he fell silent again.

'Did you do your homework yesterday?'

Her tiny body crouched and she grabbed the end of her mother's scarf, fiddling with it. 'Hey.' She was avoiding the question, constantly glancing at the elevator doors with blood rushing to her cheeks.

'Why are you mum?'

Yvonne looked up and stopped when she found a man waiting with them for the elevator to arrive. It was Viktor--the man from the terrace.

Oh. Naomi didn't want him to know. 

'Good morning.'

He nodded, looking at her feet. 'Good morning.'

The last time she had seen him, he was disappearing into a cab outside the building, with a large trolley bag. It was when she was returning from her evening stroll with the children, two weeks ago. It had been four weeks living in Bundaberg already.

Things had changed a lot while he was in Adelaide.

Her hair was no longer black. It was short, dyed dark grey with indigo tips. He stared at it for a moment and looked down when he noticed her looking. But, she said nothing. Perhaps, she knew he meant no offense.

It really suited her.

A smile crept to his lips. Ideas filled his head--about what he could do with the tuft of keratin on the top of his skull. It was a nice thought to lighten up his morning, compared to what would become of it in a few hours.

Silvery blue or silver and blue would look intriguing--but, he'd never try green. Or orange.

She held the door of the elevator open, till he and Naomi were inside. 'Ground floor?'

'Yeah,' he nodded at Naomi. 'Thanks.'

He had intended to hold the door, since she was in such an uncomfortable position with a two year old and two bags in her arms. But, she was quick to catch her place. It was a bit embarrassing to not be 'the man' when needed.

'Your hair looks good.'

She smiled at him and was about to reply when she remembered she had a kid drooling on her shoulder. She rolled her eyes and slunk away from him, hoping he wouldn't see it. Marcel did that every morning, because, he'd keep nibbling her skin in his sleep.

Perhaps, it was her deodorant that was to blame.

'Don't,' Viktor mouthed when she looked up at him, 'reply.'

She was about to place Naomi's schoolbag down when she remembered the girl kept the thing on her bed while studying. It was going to be where it was, she decided with a frown etched on her drowsy features.

What was it again? Making the right decision?

Praying for him to stay asleep, she inched towards the man. One step at a time, suddenly, she was so close to him that he could smell her. It was a tad unnerving; he could almost imagine what her breaths sounded like. 'Thanks.' 

Marcel didn't wake up.

Viktor noticed that too, from the corner of his eye. He turned his head very slightly to catch a glimpse of her. She was looking ahead at the doors, dark eyes fixed on the changing numbers. They were almost there now.

She looked like a misfit--ready to strike a war with those colours in her hair and inscriptions adorning her skin. It was different. Almost refreshing, for a woman of her--position and age.

He paused when he heard her hair rustle against the walls of the elevator. Her breath was cool against his ear--relaxed, almost. He didn't know for sure if he was just as relaxed. 'Where are you going today?'

He clutched the keys in his hand, 'I'm visiting my mother... and relatives.'

'Is it a long drive from here?'

He nodded, 'Gold Coast.'

'Oh,' she turned away. She had stepped closer, since, now, their shoulders were grazing each other's. She flinched and stepped away, looking down at her feet with her lips drawn into a thin line. The doors opened at that instant. 

'Have a good day,' she wasn't looking at him.

'Same to you.'

Before he could catch up to hold the door for her, she had already wrapped her arm around Naomi's shoulders and disappeared.

He stood there for a moment, thinking nothing actually. He stared at the exit of the door for a moment or two--it was trepidation.

And his legs carried him forward, without his accord. A strange feeling settled in his heart as he walked to the doors. The heat that lashed on his face dimmed the sensation, as he turned towards the massive stretch of cars, with his keys in his hand.

His mother had called him four days ago, the day he was departing from Adelaide. It was a barbecue party, to celebrate the graduation of his niece Sophie--the daughter of that uncle who had moved to Tallai from Kingaroy last year.

He couldn't care less.

And yet here he was, turning on the engine of his car with the path to his residence on his GPS. Not because he wanted to. It was his mother's wish. An ardent one, she had declared yesterday.

For what reason? He wasn't sure. The last time Viktor could have seen that man was perhaps when he was four. Why?

Because, nobody came to their house. No. Nobody was allowed to come inside their house.

It was sacred property, his mother had said then, where her son lived and grew. She didn't want any relative defiling her efforts at nourishing and moulding him.

That was why the nest she made for him was high up, higher than everyone else's and he huddled under her wing, away from the glaring sun and the prickly winds and no one knew. No one could know how much she loved him and how much she protected him.

She had crafted a whole new world for him.

'He is a charming man and his daughter is lovely. The wife makes great food,' she had said that day. Maybe, it was because he was out of her nest, she had finally agreed to attend those parties. It was a surprise she was invited; he believed they hated her. And that she hated them. So all was good.

'I hate them?' She had laughed, 'Oh, the things I say when I'm angry. We are adults, Viktor. Hatred is too strong of a feeling to waste my energy on.'

His mind drifted into the conversations they had in the last four days as he sped down the lanes. He used to call his mother twice a week. It had been everyday four months ago.

'And my heart is too soft to hate anyone. You know me, don't you? How can I hate someone and keep on with it?'

He had hummed and nodded--but, she wouldn't see it through the phone. Well, it was true. She was soft-hearted. She believed people too easily and let them break her. Like his father and everyone else.

The world is here to eat you up.

The entire world is here to eat you up.

That was why she made him a whole new one. For him. With her. Where there was no pain. No fear.

'Is there a reason good enough to hate anyone for so long? We have been blessed with good lives. Some people live nightmares. Don't you think about it? All those people worse off than us. I do. And it makes me feel blessed.'

His fingers dug into his hair as he waited for the signal to turn green. Many a times, as his eyes wandered at the buildings, the parks and empty fields of sand or gravel, his mind drowned into the past. It was very uncomfortable, having to see it again in a whole new light. 

Because, he couldn't remember attending a family party ever. There were videos of him however, in such events when he was three or four--leaping and laughing and parcelled from the arms of one doting relative to another. It was strange. 

That was the only word he knew to be fitting as his thoughts sauntered into the conversations with his mother and her gushing about her cousin brother. 

'Why are you so shy?' His mother had asked in a mocking tone. 'Haven't you been to parties before?'

He had. He had returned from one when she called. 

'This is like any other party,' he begged to differ when he heard that. 'No buts, Viktor. You will enjoy it. You really will. Don't be so stubborn about it.'

He had no answer to defend himself with. She certainly wanted it. After all, why wouldn't she? It had been four months since she had seen him. 

'Won't you come? For your mother's sake?'

He softened instantly. The party would only last a day. He had an entire lifetime to spare for himself. 'I don't think I ever said 'no' explicitly.'

'I know it was in your head.' She stopped for a moment before she spoke again. 

'I am your mother. I know everything.' She laughed, 'You are coming. Take a break for once.'

_________

Author's Note-

This story explores narcissism, sexual abuse and gaslighting, among other topics in a light that is not commonly brought up. Or at least attempts to. From Chapter 4, matters would get a bit hardcore?

And to those who by any chance live or have been to Bundaberg, can I please have a chat with you?

Run Over

Why?

To hold a convulsing hand and to stare into dead eyes, it's a scary thing. To stare back and do nothing, it kills you.

Hospital walls bring nothing good. At least, it brought nothing good to Viktor. 

He sat on the chair, his eyes drifting into the walls, as if he was searching for something in their bleak expanse. The tears had dried up. His knuckles were no longer white and his hands were no longer clenched in fists. His face looked calm, almost. While everybody else pranced about, in the corridor, weeping, murmuring, glancing at him. 

'We failed to revive her. She has passed on.'

The tears were only for a minute or two, from him. He had refused to let anybody comfort him. Before anyone could, he ran to a wall and crumpled--as if he had grown spines from his body, warding everyone off. 

And then, they watched him collapse on one of the seats and he returned to normalcy.

At a distance, Viktor felt a gaze bore into his skin. He turned around to find his uncle. His mother's only brother. 

He hadn't seen the man in twenty six years. It was a surprise he had recognised him without his mother's help because, he was not the sort of boy who looked at family albums and wished for them to be there. He preferred them gone. 

The man's red hair had gained a golden tinge and his belly was bulging out--the evidence for everyone's disdain. His mother had probably been right to keep him away. He was a ruinous, foul-mouthed, good-for-nothing, abrasive alcoholic, she had said. A buffoon to keep away from. 

But, he had been the one to help her. To grab her hands and to quell her quaking. And scream the house down for help.

While Viktor on the other hand.... He had been there too.

Confusion swirled in his head for a millionth time. He could feel the man's gaze like a knife running down his face. Why? 

Everyone would learn of it. 

And that would be the end of him. Everyone would find out. He would tell everybody. He would tell everyone what he found in the kitchen... 

Oh, that knife. That day. In the kitchen, he struggled to remember. 

... There had been some banter about some political party and everything under the Sun he couldn't be interested in. He had a bottle of beer in one hand and his other inside his pocket, like a teenager. He remembered feeling like a child once again, when times had been better. 

He headed to the kitchen, elated with the familiar feeling surging inside him. He wanted to tell his mother he was thankful for the last thing he thought he would be grateful for. 

But, when he saw her, in that kitchen, with her back towards him, the sizzling of frying pancakes filling the air between what he had sealed within his lips and her obliviousness--he wasn't sure anymore. 

                                                                                            ***

Viktor headed home soon afterward. Her brother would visit the church and get all the formalities done by the next evening. It felt a bit disappointing, having sweet Sophie's graduation party tainted with an unprecedented death. 

Was it too unwelcome though?

His heart began to pound. Those thoughts washed over him again. Those thousand thoughts, those million words. 

Goddammit. 

Why did I?

'No,' he stopped his car and broke down into a fit of tears, cheeks aflame with gushing blood, 'Control yourself.'

He could see the tiny door leading to the elevators. It had been an entire day since he had been away. He stepped out of his car, feeling very exposed. He rubbed his cheeks one more time, hoping his eyes weren't red, hoping he'd have to see no one. 

There was nobody, except the watchman at the reception, but, he wasn't looking at the groggy man. Viktor breathed a sigh of relief when the doors slid close and the ascent began. Up to the fifth floor. 

 

.... It had been a while before he told her anything. It was just that when he saw his mother, he wasn't sure if he should tell her anything. She seemed busy and judging by how she was moving her hands, she looked easily irritable. 

He hadn't hugged her like the other sons and daughters. How could he have forgotten to? What would she think?

Her anger was justified, if she was. He deserved a dose of it. Hence, he spoke, 'It's a nice day, isn't it, Mum?'

'Do you need something, Viktor?'

He was right. 'I don't need anything.'

'Right,' she turned around to face him. He froze instantly, a familiar anguish gripping his nerves. He couldn't believe it. It was pathetic. 

He towered over her. He was more muscular than her. She had to look up to face him. She was aware of that too. And she was his mother. She was his only parent. Why was he afraid?

It was his past he found when he looked at her. When he was smaller, weaker and in need of her and when he had used her. He was a selfish man. 

'You don't even call me 'Mum' now. You say that only when you need something from me.'

Not here, had been his first thought. There were a dozen people besides them, outside the kitchen. The barbecue was being prepared in the balcony. 

'Did you get me any gift?' 

'No,' he looked down at his feet. 

'Really, Viktor? You did not?' Her tone was even. But, it was her eyes--they daunted him. She turned around and picked up a knife from the countertop. 

'So, I was right about you.'

 

The doors slid open and he stepped outside. His body felt like a burdensome aggregate of half-dead limbs and a head eaten away by a malignant tumour of thoughts. Thoughts that led to nowhere. 

Why did she not know? Perhaps, she knew. Thus, she told him that. He couldn't understand anything. She was his mother. Yes, of course. She knew. She was his mother. But, why had she been so bitter?

Had she not been bitter--would she have been alive now?

The words hung down on him, slipping down his throat, gripping his fatigued heart. His knees buckled as he headed to his flat. What would become of him? He didn't have her. 

His hand flew to his chest. 

What was he to do? His breaths grew louder, colour flushed to his cheeks. Was she watching? Was anyone watching? He wanted to tell them. He thought about her. A lot. He wanted her to know. He wanted them to know.

He thought about her often. Often enough. 

Nobody was to see this. He looked around, pushing himself towards the door, the sense of direction deserting him. He couldn't understand--anything. Nothing. There was her. There was her--behind him? In front of him? Where? 

No, she wasn't here. That's what made the difference. 

'Oh God.' His heart seared into his chest. He felt the thumping organ melt away his bones and his muscles, sinking into the fathomless void in his chest. 'Oh God.' He buckled and fell over, unable to contain the dizziness. 

There were golden lights hovering above him, a familiar tune and metal sliding on the floor. He rasped, 'Help!' He could feel death creep onto him. His hands, his cheeks, all of it was burning. 

'Oh my God,' a woman stepped out of her flat, 'Ali, there's a man on the floor! Shaking!' 

When the man came out to see, everyone had opened their doors, eyes flitting at who will help him. Nobody knew him. Did he belong here?

He looked a bit familiar, but, his face was hidden under his arms. He was gasping--was it a heart attack? He had his hand on his chest. But, he wasn't actually touching it. 

'Hey.'

A woman fell on her knees and held his arms, attempting to unlock them. 'Viktor, are you conscious?' 

There was a scowl on his face and his eyes were squeezed shut, beads of sweat framing his jaw. The quivering had slowed down and his breaths seemed calmer.

'Do you know him?' asked the lady behind Ali.

'Yeah, he lives there,' she pointed to the door next to her flat. The woman sighed and stepped away. 

'Maybe you should call the ambulance.' 

'One minute,' Yvonne lifted his arms off his face and helped him lie down on his back. The scowl on his face vanished. 

'It's gone,' his hand fell off his chest. She pulled out a pen from the pocket of her jacket and opened his eyes. It was a torch and a pen. The lady stared in awe as she checked both eyes. 

'Follow this,' Yvonne ran a finger from left to right. He did as he was told. 'Were you hurt anywhere?' She took his arms and pressed it, searching for a reaction. 

'Take me home.'

'You fucking fell down.'

'It was a panic attack.' He shook his head and shuddered when he found all his neighbours looking down at him. 

'Oh, that's relieving, isn't it?' 

Shut up.

Naomi was standing at the door, peeping at the scene. It was unnerving--finding that man spreadeagled on the floor, still. She gasped when he turned to his side and sat up. Suddenly, his eyes flew up and his arms quivered. Yvonne scooped her arms around him, steadying him, 'There, there. Do you want to lie down?'

'Not on the floor of the corridor.'

'Right,' she wrapped his arm around her shoulders, 'On your feet, then.'

His cheeks were still ruddy and his gait was wobbly. More than dizziness, it was embarrassment that was gnawing at him. But, it wasn't a small issue--a panic attack. However, he seemed to take it lightly. 

Perhaps, he has them often.

That would put him at a risk of developing a heart disease, she concluded. 

When they reached his door, he peeled his arm away from her shoulders and entered the code to unlock his door. She looked away but remained behind him. 'Do you have dinner ready at home?'

'I'll manage.'

'Manage how exactly?'

He looked at her, surprised the woman was still there. How was it her business? He wanted to send her away, but, she had helped him and he should have been grateful. 'Thanks, but, I am alright.'

'That doesn't ans--'

'I'm fine.'

He bit his tongue and glanced at her. She did not look angry, but, he could feel it rising off her skin. 

'Sorry, but, really, I'm not in the mood.'

'I'll check on you in half an hour.'

'Forty five?' 

                                                                                     ***

He was sprawled on the couch by the table. He had just managed to get up and prepare a stew for himself. It was all he could manage with his quivering hands. He couldn't feel the knife in his hand, even when he wrapped his fingers around the blade and pressed down.

His end was nigh. He knew that much. He could feel it wash over him. Like the prickling sensation running down his back. Of course, she was watching him. He could feel it. He had better say the right things, feel the right things and never let those stray thoughts seep into his mind. 

Trriing!

He nearly jumped out of his skin. Nobody ringed the bell. Not even Micheal--they never came to his place. He had forgotten what it sounded like... had he ever heard it?

It was terrible.

'You doing good now?' 

'It's not been forty five minutes.'

'Can I come in?' 

He opened the door wider and returned to his stew. She closed the door and found a seat for herself, while he was busy stirring his dinner at the other end of the room, where the door to the bedroom was located. 

'Thank you.'

'I'm alright if you're curious. And knock the door next time.' If there is going to be one.

'Okay.'

Silence consumed them after that. She, with her hand under her chin, stared at the curtains and the book rack beside it. He didn't know anymore, why she was still there, with him. But, she made no mention about leaving, at least not anytime soon. So, he waited. While he worked. 

'Do you want some?'

'No.' She moved her hands off the table when he sat down with a bowl of steaming stew. She glanced at the clock in the room; the two must be fast asleep by now. 

'What led to the panic attack? Or do you have a panic disorder?'

'I--' He didn't know what to say. With her sternness, he decided the only safe option was to answer her, somewhat. 'I don't have a panic disorder.'

'Then, what led to it?'

'My mother passed away yesterday.'

'You went to meet her yesterday!' Horror was etched on her face. But, she quickly looked down at his hands. It was a while before she said anything. 'I offer my condolences.'

He nodded in reply.

'Was it a natural death?' 

'No.'

He did not confound himself. She understood that and placed her hands on her knees and stared at the wall. 'Alright.'

Just then, she remembered that invitation--that both of them had forgotten about. That dinner in the weekend they were supposed to share together weeks ago. It was stupid of her and rude of him. He had told her he would inform her by that Thursday, whenever that was. She knew that it would be better to not remind him of that now. 

She looked at him. His eyes were darting from the kitchen, to her, to his stew. He was aware of the pause too. She smiled and scanned her mind for a topic to talk about. But, did she have to? Couldn't she just leave?

He wasn't looking at the kitchen. He was looking at her reflection on the kettle. The woman was strange--she was stretching her time way too much. But, did he mind?

'My father died in an accident about fourteen years ago,' she was looking at his hands. 

He swallowed a spoonful of his stew and waited for her to continue her story. 

'My Mum and I were waiting for him to come sit with us after he would be done parking the car. They had taken me to this restaurant two days after I came back from college for my break. He collided with some motorist and the car exploded--couldn't pay the bill that day.'

'Couldn't pay--what?' It was anti-climatic. He had expected something sadder. 

'Yeah, we thought he was just taking too long and took down the order and the food arrived. It's rude to not pay, you know but the car exploded and the wallet burned, so.'

'How terrible, indeed,' he was a bit horrified by how casual she was about it. He looked at her to make sure it wasn't a joke. But, her expression was neutral. She could sense his discomfort and slapped his hand, 'It's just how I remember it. I make it impersonal since it's been so long now.'

'Did you manage to pay for his funeral?' He shook his head, ashamed at himself for playing along with it. 

'Mum had a job, so it wasn't that difficult. I managed to get one in a few weeks,' she pulled out a spoon out from the rack on the table and studied it. 

'My mother didn't have a job.'

The smile on Yvonne's face vanished and she kept the spoon down, patiently awaiting him to say more. She leaned forward, her hands clenched together on the top of the table. He noticed it and looked down at his empty bowl. 'She was a stay-at-home mom.'

'That must have been boring.'

He laughed, 'It was,' and took a deep breath, 'or... so she told me.'

'We were close,' he nodded, 'She loved me very much.'

Her hand was inching closer to his, however, her fingers were tentative. But, she finally pulled them back and never brought it out to him. He was grateful for that. He didn't like to be touched. But, wasn't she trying to comfort him?

'She was my main parent growing up. My father was absent--he worked in another country.'

She nodded, not knowing what to say. All she could think of were inappropriate jokes. She hated how the atmosphere was tensing up. With all the strength she could muster, she kept quiet. 

'She died of a stroke.'

'Oh,' she knew they meant terrible news. She knew what strokes were. But, was it a heat stroke? A haemorrhagic stroke? Did it matter?

No.

Saying that, he stood up and placed his bowl in the sink. The trickling of the tap ensued and he began to work--cleaning his utensils. She stood up and walked to the book rack. 

'You visit the Bundaberg Library?' 

It took him a moment to grasp at what she was saying; his thoughts had been swimming in memories. 'Sometimes.'

'How often is sometimes?'

'Once a week.'

'What day of the week?'

He looked at her. She was engrossed in studying the titles of the books stacked there. 'Fridays. Sometimes, Wednesdays too.'

'Can I join you on Fridays?'

He blinked and studied her. Silver haired and over-enthusiastic, he never thought she would be an avid reader--but, she was a scientist. Despite all that information, he couldn't understand why he was so pleased with it, especially, at a time like this. 'I leave at 2, after lunch.'

'Good,' she walked to him. 'I'll apply for membership tomorrow. And I'll join you from this Friday.'

She held her hand out to him with a warm smile on her face. He wiped his hands dry--stunned; she had pulled her hands away a moment ago. He shook her hand, 'Why--'

'I'll see you later.'

'You're the worst at sharing your sympathy.'

She laughed, 'I'm sorry. I'd rather have you speak to me willingly than coerce you to do it by hugging you or...' she shrugged her shoulders, 'cooing at you,' she walked to the door, with him following right behind her. 

'You have to tell me everything some day, when you find me worthy of it.'

He stepped away from her and unlocked the door. 'You're creepy.'

She smiled, 'Good night. Don't ward off the bad thoughts. Let them come in, they'll pass someday,' he could barely make out what she said next, 'it's the only way out.'

He watched her leave to her place. She tiptoed all the way and entered the code quickly. When she stepped in, she looked behind in his direction and gave him a little smile before disappearing.

Her kindness, he assumed to make things seem simpler, was just a motherly instinct. But, she hadn't been explicitly kind to him in the way others would assume. She didn't touch, hug or coo at him.

He closed his door and resigned for the day.

Let those thoughts in?

Friend

Yvonne pulled out her ruler to prepare a rough sketch of the graph on sponge populations before the fallout at Lady Elliot. Her day had gotten off to a rough start. The Pacific Tritons her team had ordered for had not yet been located and their ongoing project was coming to a bleak conclusion. 

At least, they had managed to collect enough funding for their next project using the Pacific Triton.

'I think there's a dead zone near Lady Elliot--should be seasonal,' Faridah glanced at her previous sketches. 

'We all knew there was a dead zone when we saw it,' Davis scoffed, 'tell me why it happened.'

Faridah sulked, 'You know why. We can't change it, that's for sure.'

'Yeah, the graph's matching up with the times Bundaberg released pesticides and agricultural runoff into the ocean and all the subsequent red algae invasions,' Yvonne muttered and crumpled her paper. 

'So, now what?' Faridah collected her seagull samples. The lab was currently undertaking at least a dozen projects--separate investigations on ocean health. The food chain and marine ecology was Faridah's specialty. 

'Release it. I'm sure the other labs have come up with the same conclusion. It's not too risky. We won't lose sponsors,' Yvonne took a new sheet of paper. 

'Do that and let's move on to our next projects,' Davis returned to his microscope and placed his slide of zooplankton under the lens. 

Yvonne completed her graph and began to deduce the slope and scribbling down equations to prove its with the concentration of pesticides from Bundaberg. Another team had come with the same conclusion the previous year, but, nothing was done--as her team had witnessed the proof that season.

Did his film get to these depressing details? 

She stopped writing when she realised what she had just asked herself. She felt embarrassed. It was a stupid idea--thinking about anything related to him. But, she thought of so many people during her day anyway. Her mother, Marcel and Naomi. Sometimes, Faridah and Davis too. And that would remind her--she didn't have friends outside work.

Oh, yes, except him. 

And he called her a creep the other day. Well, she was a bit like one. She wouldn't deny that. She had a neutral expression on her face hundred percent of the time. But, he looked weird too. Especially with his smile--it looked like a mocking smirk.

He was such a pain the arse with his straightforwardness and his--excessive introversion. She could see how much he judged her.

Birds of a feather flock together.

She smiled to herself, hoping no one saw it. She decided to buy him something to distract him from his loss. But, what if he already had learnt to control it and the gift would remind him of her? And wouldn't it be too much?

She would definitely not buy him flowers. They die so quickly. That would be more of a satire than a gesture of friendliness at that point.

Or worse, she could knock at his door for another heartfelt conversation. 

Her mind wandered as she continued with differentiating those formulas. She looked up several times, whenever she nearly chuckled at the audacity of the events in her head. But, it was delightful. And it felt extremely strange.

 

'Meryl, how is he doing?' Yvonne stiffened when she found Marcel. 

Meryl was the baby sitter for all the children of her team during working hours. Davis and Yvonne paid for her personally and paid the rent for the room. Davis had two three year old girls under her care while Yvonne sent both of her kids. 

The lady shrugged her shoulders, 'he had a meltdown when Cassie dropped water on the floor but otherwise he was fine. Now, he's busy with some blocks in the corner there.'

'You're really doing a great job, you know,' Yvonne sat down beside Meryl on her couch. The woman rolled her eyes at her, 'You'd make my job easier if you take him to the doctor.'

Yvonne looked at Marcel play at the corner. Meryl had put on ear plugs for him so that he wouldn't be distracted by the tantrums of the other children. And he was cooperating by facing the wall and making a fort of his own--with all those blocks scattered around him. 

'Could it be PTSD?'

Yvonne laughed, 'I don't think Childhood Amnesia would allow that.'

'You with those fancy terms,' Meryl shook her head, 'then, what is it? Two years old and he hasn't spoken a word. Just knows how to throw a fit.'

'Hey there,' she slapped her shoulder, 'that's my boy there.'

'And I take care of him too, when you're Yvonne Roberts--the big showoff.' 

Yvonne's days were strenuous. Now that Naomi had to go to school, she would have to leave the lab during lunch break to pick her up and drop her off to the lab where Meryl would help her in her studies and naps. Of course, things couldn't go on that way for too long because Meryl wouldn't be able to teach her beyond primary school. She'd probably have to hire a teacher to help her out in her studies after that. 

Frankly, what hurt her more was that she couldn't be the one to do it. In the half hour the girl studied or read on Sundays, Yvonne could barely get anything done because both of them would be so tired.

And then, there was Marcel, plowing down a path of his own.

'I'll take him to the doctor.'

                                                                                             ***

It had been quite long since he updated his blog. The traffic on the site was still healthy, despite everything. Probably, it was because the film had been received well. Relief washed over him. 

The sun was setting outside and today, the room was empty. He had sold a bit of his furniture the previous day--hoping to unclog himself. It didn't help. But, it wasn't completely futile. 

Her death had chipped off a part of him, leaving a spiny dent that even he couldn't touch. And that gave roots to his fear. A fear his mind was imagine her to fill that dent. He didn't like how there was space under the dining table so he got rid of it. He didn't like the couch much either--it choked him when he tried to lay on it. He got rid of it.

He bought a new cupboard that closed perfectly, leaving no spaces between its doors and closed off the space between its base and the floor with the rug that had been at the feet of the couch. Yes, he tore it with his bare hands when his scissors weren't fast enough. The sound of destruction quelled his madness. He tore it and stuffed into the empty space--so that his mind wouldn't do it for him. 

He got rid of the bed because there was nothing he could use to fill the space under its slats and locked the bedroom door. He hated how silent it got at night--and how it was barely used. He wanted to cut away everything. 

But, what would his mind create?

He stopped typing. 

Her voice. Those dark eyes peering from nothing. A hand reaching out to cup his face--from behind him. Her fingers tracing his jaw, her lips on his forehead or his cheek, her hand on his. And a gaze from above him. Her everything from everywhere. 

His mind would bring her alive and distort her. Distort her till she mangled him with the fact that all that was left of her was decaying memories--in his dented mind. 

Yes, that was what he was terrified of. 

These days, he sat on his futon and pillows with his back against the wall and would let the sound of the tapping keyboard devour his stray thoughts. The windows were always open these days--to let the blaring traffic fill the air. However, he kept the curtains tied up because their fluttering sounded like the wind. And in the wind was her.

Whether or not it made any sense to him. 

He typed out about how he was willing to re-enter the field of freelance photography and videography again now that his project was complete. Then, he stood up and headed to the kitchen to make for himself a cup of tea. Like every evening. 

He dipped the teabag into the boiling water and took the cup would him to his work corner. And he began scribbling notes for the photographs he wanted to post on his blog.

The room got so silent once in a while, when the traffic would dissipate and the wind stopped. And he'd find himself staring at walls, his mind elsewhere, soaking in everything. He'd hear the sweeper outside or the opening and closing of the doors of the elevator--especially after ten in the night.

It was half past seven. The sun was gone. Now, his neighbour would arrive with her chatty daughter. It felt invasive to his sense of propriety--that he knew when they came. And how they were.

And they did arrive.

'Is he okay? Why the doctor?' the girl's voice resounded through the corridor. 'Softer, love,' there was the ring from the pass key being registered and the door opening. Then, they were gone. It wasn't much information he had salvaged--but, it felt like a lot given that they didn't know.

With them gone, he decided he should take the trash out. 

The room was stuffy and someone had left the lights on. Everyone had tossed their bags onto the floor, making it impossible for him to make his way to the chute. So, like every one else, he tossed his bag into the heap.

When he opened the door, the corridor was not as silent as he had thought it would be. In the blanketing quietness, there were spasms of noise, gurgling out from the distant end of the hallway. 

Wails, a high-pitched jargon bellowing from the spaces between the thick door and the wall. It was indistinct but--very loud. For his ears at least that had become so attuned to silence. He tried to find the source, but, he didn't care enough to actually do something about it. So, he simply went back to where the windows were open and the spaces were empty--his hollowed out cocoon. 

When he closed the door behind him, he collapsed, eyes shut. The emptiness of his place gnawed at him. He wished he had somebody. Somebody who could listen to him--or just be there. Somebody real and alive. Not like her.

It hurt when he would realise he had been speaking to thin air--especially, when he was aware of it the whole time. Sometimes, his mind was too exhausted to construct the illusion of someone's presence. He never imagined a face--just a human presence listening or replying.

He should have been kinder to Yvonne when she had come to help him. 

The next moment, he was outside again, in front of her door. It wasn't that big of a deal to be standing in front of her door; she lived right next to him. 

'Hi.'

'Hi,' she stepped out and closed the door behind her. She was staring at his face with the expression of what one would find on an otter finding aliens in front of her dam. He realised--it wasn't in her best interest to throw a smile for the sake of courtesy. 

Just like him. 

So, they stared at different places for a while before he got himself to say something, 'I was hoping you would be free for a little drink--or whatever,' he inhaled, regretting his instincts, 'it's a great evening outside.'

She laughed--in her head. Was he being serious?

'Actually,' she was getting frustrated by how his gaze was constantly shifting, but, never really directed towards her. It reminded her of Marcel--during his worse times. Was this man anxious?

But, what if--what if he was a bit weak now? After all, with the events from three days ago--he did look a bit shaken with that unkempt hair and peeking stubble. Also, there was a gash on his cheek--it was hidden under the stubble. She wondered if he needed a break from all the bereaving. 

The thought lightened her heart. Maybe, he never meant the word 'creep' after all. Or he had a bad taste in people.

'I was going to have dinner now. Would you like to join us?'

He opened his mouth to decline the invitation, his hands clenched tightly together. Then, he stopped himself and nodded, 'That would be nice if it isn't a bur--'

'Shut up and make yourself welcome,' she pushed the door open and went back in.

The presence of furniture shocked him. There was a dining  table at his right side and a couch by the window. Shelves with pictures and old jars with marbles and flowers--that must have been for Naomi, he guessed. The room looked so different even because of the yellow light in the living area near the table. 

The atmosphere of the area was dulling his senses.

'Naomi, Marcel--we have a friend joining us today.' 

Marcel wasn't looking at his direction. And Naomi seemed surprised. Both were already seated at the table with plates in front of them and spoons in their hands. He felt strange--had he interrupted them?

'Hello Naomi. Hello Marcel.'

'Hi,' Naomi chirped and looked at Marcel. But, he was busy tapping the spoon on the table. She turned to the man, 'You live here?'

'Yes, I live in the flat right next to yours.'

'Were you supposed to come before?' Her eyes widened, 'You are that friend!'

He looked down at his feet for a moment, 'Well, I got  a bit too busy to tell you I wouldn't make it for that dinner from before.'

Yvonne saw things differently. It wasn't a cute child living up to amuse elders to her--she had seen the streak of disappointment on her face when Marcel did nothing. Hence, she took the role of talking. It stung. That her daughter could see it more clearly than her. Probably, he had noticed it too.

'I need to um,' he turned to her with his hands held open in front of him, 'I need to wash my hands.'

'Yeah,' she led him to the washroom. 'I have to clean it on Saturday so, it's really'--she made way for him--'bad.'

'I wouldn't judge you for that,' he muttered.

'I thought I'd just tell you.'

He looked at her for a moment, wondering why she was still there. She understood it and quickly closed the door, feeling incredibly uncomfortable. She returned to the kitchenette.

'You never said your friend's coming,' Naomi helped Yvonne in peeling the wrapper off. 'Yeah,' Yvonne nodded, 'I'm sorry.' She really did not like how she used the word 'friend.' It was unnerving.

Why on earth did she decide to take her sympathy seriously? Dinner that night was really just some food off the menu of a cafeteria and a few sandwiches. 

Probably, he didn't agree for the food. 

She turned on the stove and took out a few breads and slices of cheese and vegetables, hoping it would satisfy his appetite. 

Still, how could I let him in?

Blood rushed to his cheeks when he saw his reflection on the mirror. He immediately looked down at the water spilling on his hands and got on with washing them. Drenched in regret, his nails bore into his skin when he rubbed his hands with soap--oblivious to the pain. What had he done? 

Was he so weak that he had to carry his troubles to another house--to a fucking stranger? 

He had to dance along to his own cacophony now with the strings of regret pulling his limbs like a puppeteer. He wiped his hands and stepped out, dreading the site of the dinner table with the three unfamiliar faces. 

He saw her and gulped.

How on earth did she invite him? She looked as clueless as him. Did she read him and just relent to it? Both of them, as adults, he came to realise, made very calculated decisions.

'I--' she cleared her throat, 'Dinner's usually better than this. We just wanted to sleep early today. So, that's why--' The groan of the chair interrupted her and Viktor stopped, looking a bit misplaced.

The groan sounded like his soul--screeching. She stopped for a moment and waited till he took his seat, beside Marcel and her, 'I made you a couple of sandwiches and there are side dishes and some pasta. So, suit yourself.'

'My ketchup!' Naomi plunged her arm forward, pointing to the fridge. Yvonne noticed Viktor shudder at her sudden outburst and felt more uncertain. 

'Yeah, sure.'

The girl hopped out of her chair and skipped all the way to the fridge and suited herself with a generous serving onto her fries. Viktor watched--his lips curving into a frown. The diabetic syrup would make the chips all sloppy.

It was at that moment, he had a glimpse of her world. Under that pendant light hanging above them, a child oblivious to her crime, a boy oblivious to the world around him, a misplaced man and a confused woman--in a house with two baskets stuffed with toys, a separate bedroom for just the kids, with a couch in the living room that had a blanket and pillows on top of it  and round tables so they wouldn't get hurt. 

Everything was for the two of them.

The only part of the house for her was the couch and the shelves of books on the wall beside it. It looked like she had sacrificed--but, maybe, that was all what she needed for herself when she had them.

'Would anybody like to have mango juice?' 

The reactions were varied. Yvonne was shocked. Naomi was delighted. Marcel was... 

Never mind him.

The girl clasped her hands and stretched her legs--she was a cartoon--'Me!'

'You'll catch a cold,' Yvonne slapped her hands, 'and you have school tomorrow.'

'It's been out for like half an hour.' Because, he was busy clearing the fridge that time and had given up on it midway to go to his blog. 

'Alright, then.'

And they continued their dinner with one bottle for Naomi, one for Yvonne and another for him. When he went to place one beside Marcel, the boy winced and glanced at his mother. It was the first human expression he had seen in that child that day.

'Marcel,' Yvonne phrased her words very carefully, 'doesn't like mango juice.' The truth was something else altogether.

'Alright,' he sat down, feeling like he had stumbled upon a secret. The boy had almost seemed normal the first few times he had seen him--looking around, sleeping, quiet. Dead quiet.

No sticking the tongue out,  tantrum-throwing, yelping, anything suitable for a picky two year old. But, he still never looked at him.

'Dealing with a picky tot?'

She gulped down her first bite, 'Yeah.'

Viktor bent down towards him, 'You're missing out on a lot if you don't like mango juice.'

Yvonne stiffened. Marcel hated having outsiders pay extra attention to him. Thankfully, he didn't burst to tears but, just stopped chewing. Maybe, he didn't perceive Viktor's action to be intrusive enough.

'You like mango juice?' Yvonne tried to draw his attention away from Marcel.

'It helps in the summer,' he never realised her intentions.

At that moment, she noticed something. Viktor's hands were trembling. And they were a bit fidgety with his food. She wore a neutral expression the whole time she watched from the corner of her eye--and wondered if she was the only one putting on a play.

---------------------

Author's Note- A new chapter will be uploaded every Sunday, however, next Sunday (June 3, 2018), I'll probably not upload one since I have an important exam. I'm not sure if I'll upload it before June 3 or on June 10. 

Sorry for the inconvenience. 

Thanks for reading the story.

Skirts

The plants on her window sill were quite pretty. Viktor really liked the creeper swallowing the grill. There were geraniums and hanging succulents. He imagined waking up to it and it dawned on him that sleeping on a couch didn't seem like such a bad idea.

Yvonne was busy picking a book out for him from her collection, because, he had mentioned of his interest in bioluminiscent animals--or the 'disco balls of the sea.'

She found the phrase childish--'That's why they think marine biology is all about swimming with dolphins and singing to whales, whatever.'

What she didn't tell him was that she would use that to explain Ctenophora to her kids--she had a hard time explaining the things she did to them.

Dinner was over and the kids were heading to bed. Naomi was busy packing her bag for the next day.

'Where has it gone?'

He inched closer to the wall, snuggling in the cosy corner on her couch. He resisted the urge to curl up and doze away. It had been two days since he had slept properly after all. And human interaction was having a toll on his tendencies.

She was standing at the opposite edge of the couch, keeping her balance by holding onto the shelf. But, what he noticed more clearly was the hem of her skirt grazing the back of her knee. And her calves and her feet.

Her legs were different from his--and curious things. Things he had seen before, touched before, kissed before but, of course, they weren't hers. And perhaps, that was what made all the difference--then.

He really hoped she hadn't noticed.

'Here,' she handed the book to him and sat down.

'Thanks. You really didn't ha--'

'After all that, Viktor,' he smiled; she didn't know, 'you should give it a look.'

The truth was that he had seen more than her calves and her bare feet. Sometimes, her skirt gave away her knees and the lowest part of her thighs--and the shadows that darkened their musculature. The entire scene felt voyeuristic though he had no desire to touch them. He liked uncovering something new.

'Ma.'

Naomi stood at the door, rubbing her eyes with a frown. When Yvonne stood up and she slunk into her room, expecting her mother to follow her to the bed. And she did.

'Good night, love,' Yvonne kissed her hair and Naomi turned to the wall--where the fluorescent stars were peppered all over. 'Good night, ma.'

Yvonne was distracted by a tall shadow growing from behind her. 

It was Viktor, standing at the entrance of their room. He pointed his finger to the main door, whispering, 'I should leave.'

She nodded and stroked Naomi's head, 'I'll close the door now. Go to sleep.'

'Thanks for accepting the invitation.' He looked up at Yvonne, squeezing his feet into the shoes. In his head--he couldn't hear her that well because there were a gazillion thoughts zapping between him and her.

'Yeah, it was great.'

'Don't lie.'

He heard that well. He stood up and looked at her. She was serious though she had a smile on her face. She was not threatening him--that he could make out.

'I had a good time.'

He hadn't thought about his mother or his empty home. Her foolishness, Naomi's antics and Marcel's resignation had made that possible. It had been a good time.

'Thank you.'

She gave him a little curtsy, 'Well, good night.'

He nodded and slipped into the corridor and the door creaked shut behind him. Only when he saw his door, he realised he should have given a proper reply. That way, he could delay his return a little more.

Now, it was terror. He could feel her presence behind the door. She was trickling out from the spaces of the door, past the hinges--like smoke--in wisps--camouflaging with the air--around him. Bathing him. Touching him. Reaching him.

He couldn't go in there.

His hand lay on the handle--an organ detached from his thoughts and his fears. It was probably an embodiment of her, working against the will of his fears and subservient to her desires. She would definitely want him in her presence, her darling son, her scheming son.

The keys jingled and the handle twisted and the dry air hit him. The concrete walls were cool. The room was pitch black--save for the patch of moonlight seeping through the curtains.

The dancing curtains.

He couldn't stay there.

You're fucking stupid. It's your fucking house.

One foot shifted into the room, the next step towards the door. Why was he so afraid of a dead person encroaching on his property? IT WAS HIS PROPERTY. And how is that sensible?

You have disowned her.

'I haven't!' He looked at the walls--searching. He didn't know what he'd find. Her disappointment. The look of pain in her eyes that she had left him in her last breaths.

He brought her pain. It was to be returned to him when she couldn't keep it in her shattered heart. The heart he shattered. The soul he crumbled. 

He couldn't stay there.

He grabbed his jacket and his wallet and stormed out, with no plan to return. 

 

It felt like a stupid idea the moment he sat down. With the crowds swelling in the flashy place--an upbeat club--he grew more repulsed to his decision. 'One pint, ginger beer. Please.'

Maybe, his mind was settling into it after all--the cacophony of mindless jubilation. Whether it was a stupid idea or not, he couldn't go back in there just then--with a hyperactive mind ready to plow him down. 

Would one pint do the trick? 

Around him, he could feel people coming and sitting beside him, standing beside him, chatting and whiling away while they received their drinks and left and stayed. The drone of the crowd thrummed into his ears as he studied the many glasses stacked on the shelves and the many drinks. He could have ordered for something other than ginger beer.

'Hello.'

He turned around to find a woman smiling at him. He took his pint and returned her smile, mildly confused, 'Hello.'

'I'm Thalia.'

'I'm Viktor.'

'What brings you here?'

He shrugged his shoulders, 'I just wanted to cool off.'

'The week's quite hectic, yeah. I just moved in. So, there's a culture shock, really.'

'Where are you from?' 

'Bolivia.'

'Bolivia,' he nodded to himself. 'I've been to Bolivia, once.'

'For your instagram stories on Salar de Uyuni?' She sipped on her bottle. It was root beer.  

'No, for work. I had a project there,' he smirked, 'However, I did visit Salar de Uyuni and made an entry about it on my blog.'

'You have a blog?' 

He realised she was inching towards him. He didn't mind really. She smelled nice and had pretty hazel eyes--glimmering in the lights flashing on them. 

'It's related to my work, yes,' he glanced at the necklace she was wearing. It had a gold flower as a pendant. If he explained why he went there, he didn't know if he'd offend her. It was one project he rarely talked about, because of the number of people of his kind that had been killed there. And the number of people like her who worshipped the reason they were massacred.

'What is your work about?'

'Film-making and sometimes, I delve into photography,' he cocked his head, 'Photography is more of a hobby, actually.'

'Interesting.'

He looked away from her, hoping she wouldn't probe him about what he did. He didn't particularly enjoy explaining what he did, especially to people who willingly insulted the same causes he fought for. Yvonne--was alright to talk to. She was a marine biologist. It was alright to talk to her about mass coral bleaching. She'd never buy coral jewellery or encourage any activity that would harm marine life, probably. But, if he found her bragging about the diamonds she bought from Congo or Russia, he'd not talk to her so openly about what he did.

Would she be able to afford it?

He blushed for a moment. That was a stupid line of thought. 

'What do you do?'

'I'm a manager for a furniture store.'

He nodded and wondered if he should continue the conversation. He didn't know what to begin with. But, if he turned away, he was sure he wouldn't find anyone and then, once again, he'd return to his world. 

He certainly didn't want that.

'How long has it been since you moved here?'

'Five weeks or so,' Thalia replied, surprised he'd asked her a question. She could see it on his face--the pensive thoughts and the hesitation. She would have left him if his reclusive state would have continued for another minute. 

Yes, she was counting the seconds. 

'Have you found something you like here? Something to cool you off?'

Thalia sighed, 'The freedom I have here. I don't have to live in a house full of cousins, uncles, aunts and... everyone.'

'Parents?' Viktor looked at her. 

'Parents and an older brother too,' she laughed. 

'You have a large family,' he didn't want the conversation to continue in that direction. He didn't know what to talk about. It was a dilemma. He couldn't walk out on her or continue talking about families. She would ask him about his.

'What do you do in the weekends, usually?'

He breathed a sigh of relief, 'Nothing much, my work doesn't have an organised schedule so, if I'm free, I sleep or hang out, usual stuff.'

'Do you know any particular place I could try?'

He had barely stayed in Bundaberg to actually explore the leisurely spots it had to offer, except the pubs and the libraries. He had been to many of those. 'You could try Hinkler or the botanical gardens with your mates.'

It went on as the night passed with them. Between them, there were a few matters that they could converse about, but they managed to interest each other anyway. It was never personal. Thalia and Viktor were worlds apart in everything that mattered. Viktor felt she was a bit immature. Thalia believed he was egotistical. However, it went on.

Rents, movies, music festivals, competition at the workplace, the best memories and wishes; they stepped into every matter they could use to unravel themselves out to each other and not the closed up parts from their pasts--that didn't matter. They went on to let the passing seconds brush past them so that their loneliness wouldn't find them in the crowds of immersed congregations. 

So, they never parted. Not while they had something to grab onto to fill the vacuum. 

Eventually, while they talked, he glanced at different parts of her. To aggregate them into an attractive image. She had small hands--that were reaching out to him often. She had a knowing gaze clutching his--he knew her intentions. She was friendly and approachable, conversations with her weren't strenuous. 

It was loud so they whispered into each other's ears, their breaths falling on the skin and its curves. Air doused with each other's scents, their intentions soaked into each other's thoughts and their hands reached out to each other--not in fleeting touches, but in prolonged caresses. His hand caressing her thighs, her on his thighs, so close that her breasts touched his arm.

The first touches were exciting, circulating ripples of a sinking heat down his flesh. Then, they grew dimmer as they came again and again. He decided to take it to the next level because she, certainly, wouldn't initiate it. 

'Could we go somewhere quiet?'

Her eyes were on his lips and her coy smile was his answer. She wouldn't say a word.

She bolted the door of the stall and turned around to face him, her fingers flicking the lock. Their bodies were pressed against each other. She could feel his hardness against her--where it was warm. She rocked her body against his and brought his face close to hers, 'So, we're here.'

'And why wouldn't we be?' He kissed her lips and his hands ran down the sides of her torso.

Ecstasy sparked in Viktor's blood as events took its course. There were gasps and biting--nibbling on the ear, frenzied kisses on the neck, hands searching for every part of his body through his clothes. It was refreshing to have someone this close. To have someone take interest in his body. To have someone please him. To have someone to please.

He lurched when she held his groin through his pants and a laugh escaped her, 'You're so hard.'

Of course he was. With her whispering against his ear, biting it and those teasing hands--of course, yes he was hard. He wanted the pleasure to swell in his body and consume him. He sunk his teeth into her shoulder when she stroked him, slave to a maddening satisfaction. 

He couldn't have the receiving end all to himself. He pushed her skirt up and ran his hand up her thigh. She groaned when he found her wet spot and looked at him before devouring his mouth.

That warm wetness--his gut dropped instantly. Memories of that acrid scent overcame him and his thoughts shattered into a vortex of shards, drifting away from the sensations. Drifting away into the cackling of swirling streams and words and gestures. And eyes.

It felt like his mind had drawn the sheet of arousal off him, leaving him naked in front of a million eyes to be judged. 

To be shamed and frightened.

His hands quivered under her touch. Now, she was someone else. Someone--else.

He feared that the door of the bathroom stall was too weak. She held his shoulders and made him sit down while she sat on his lap, her arms around him. Her tongue traced the length of his neck with her fluttering lips dancing on the wet skin.

Yes, he wanted her. He wanted it. It was the right thing. 

And it wasn't the right thing too.

He couldn't understand.

And he didn't want her to know. So, he made sure he inhaled loudly when she kissed him, cradled her hips in his hands and let her rock against him. He kept track on what aroused her the most and let her dig her nails into him when her walls enveloped him.

His body was working to her whims and he derived some pleasure out of it. But, his mind was dormant--somewhere in the abyss of fear and emptiness. He couldn't understand why.

He felt sorry when she smiled at him and when she arched her back, dancing to the tunes of her indulgence. He held her hips and glanced at her and the walls and the floor or the air. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on how it felt as she moved against him with him inside her. It was a powerful sensation with her body pulsing against his, deep inside. But the power never enamoured him.

She was moaning and curling up against him, her body in an undulating, feverish ritual--that he couldn't be a part of. He moved the strands of hair off her face and watched her face morph in the grasp of bursting satisfaction. 

All he could do was watch.

                                                                                        ***

It was half past midnight by the time he unlocked the door of his apartment. His mind was in a daze, too tired to be paranoid. At least, that hookup helped him out even if it didn't satisfy him. They bid each other goodbye after a couple of shots and he headed home without glancing back.

Nobody can know.

Perhaps, he was thinking too hard about being caught and getting busted. It should have been that. While she was fucking him, he imagined security and the door breaking after all. Why couldn't he just stop for a moment and not waste those chances? 

When he finally came, she was exhausted. It was a quiet end--with him clenching his teeth and sinking his face into her chest, nestled in the scent of her body.

There was someone else with them.

She massaged his temples and waited for the sensations to die down. Once his breaths slowed down, she kissed his forehead and gathered her hair and tied it back up.

Thanks to the orgasm, staying conscious on his way back had been a colossal task. And the winds weren't helping. But, they offered him solace--something to think about other than that fallout during those stolen moments in a shoddy bathroom stall. 

It had been about three weeks since his last sexual endeavour. And he had never been in the mood to masturbate.

He locked his door and collapsed on the shoe-rack--his head pressing down on his forearm. He sucked his breath, eyes hurting with fatigue. His body clogged with multitudes of memories, perfume and those scattered bruises, all veiled and some unseen. 

How was he going to lay down the mattress and the sheets and everything... everything... else... that... what am ah...

---

Author's Note- This chapter was difficult to write since it's my first time writing a story with adult themes. And the next chapter is going to be harder.

But, the effort is worth it as long there is fluency between what I think and what I flesh out in my words.

 

 

The Lakeside View

When he was twelve, Viktor had gone for a picnic with his extended family. One of a kind, he would go on to remember, since he barely saw his cousins after that. It had been a peaceful affair--nestled in the embrace of oncoming spring.

The lake was cool, the waters thrumming under the breath of the winds. He was not the sort to leap in and get into the madness. But, the joy of it was enticing, when he watched all the children, young and old run past him, screaming and laughing and hooting.

The lake belonged to them.

Viktor set his book down and stood up, infected by their enthusiasm. But, he knew how much it bothered his mother if he fell sick.

'Viktor, come on! We have to beat the girls!'

'I'm coming!'

His mother was standing at the edge of the lake, alone and absorbed. Absorbed in her thoughts, he guessed. He walked up to her, making a way through the wild grasses with his stick, slashing the narrow stalks.

She must have heard him. 'Viktor? Something wrong?'

'No,' he adjusted his hat. The sunscreen felt icky on his skin. She had applied a generous chunk of the thick cream on his chest, his back, his limbs and his face--everywhere--before heading outside--she said it was to prevent cancer.

'Can I go play with them?'

'Yes, you can. But, don't get the chills.'

He turned around, delighted it had been so easy. So, he took to his feet and sprinted to where his cousins were.

'Wait Viktor!'

His heart dropped. He turned around towards his mother, dreading her next words. It would be unfair if she said 'no.' 

'Won't the sunscreen wash away then?'

'I don't know.'

'Then, I'd have to reapply it. Everywhere. No worries. Go on and play.'

She had two bottles of sunscreen in her purse. One for adults like her and the other for him. She never wore hers since she had spent so much time massaging it over him--in comforting presses over his chest and his legs. To him, it had been irritating, since everyone had already begun with their games by the time she was done. And she'd always tell him to not peep through the window. They were hidden away from the rest of them, inside the car. 'They'd not like to see us. It's private,' she had said.

Like it was their little game.

                                                                                               ***

Yvonne stood in front of the door for three whole minutes--till a stranger appeared in the corridor--before knocking at his door. 

It was almost two.

She guessed he had left early. But, did he not remember she was going to join him? Or did he think she would just arrive at the library after two? The latter seemed likely, given that he wasn't opening the door.

She jumped when she heard the key turn. Probably, he was having lunch.  

'Hi.'

His hair was dishevelled and his eyes were swollen and red. It looked like he had overslept. She smoothed her hair and waited for him to respond and let her in--or at least tell her something.

'What time is it?'

She looked at her wristwatch, 'Five minutes to two.'

He was not feeling alright. She could see it. Also, it didn't seem he had freshened up since he had his hand cupped constantly over his mouth when he spoke to her. She wondered what had happened the previous night... it wasn't too strange that he had stayed up partying--but, he was a man with a schedule--or with some kind of plan. 

At least, she had believed it to be so.

'Are you alright?'

'Come in and... give me ten.'

'Okay.'

The first thing she noticed seemed odd was how everything seemed to echo in his place. Everything. It was haunting.

The place was a casket of a home. She held back her reaction when she found the furniture gone and stood in the hallway--hoping he'd not notice.

She watched him walk about from the hallway to the kitchenette to the bathroom to the kitchenette. There was disarray in his many movements, of fidgety fingers and unsure feet and swaying arms here and there. She wanted to help--ask him how--what. 

But she knew her silence would be the best for now. He could manage everything, if given time. Ten minutes it was.

He must have found her discomfort in her forced silence. He looked back to glance at her and she returned it--with a stony confidence. Yes, she knew. She knew there was a fallout. 

Inside, she was burbling with questions and regret. She didn't want to scare him with that. But, she didn't want to put an act and try to make him believe that she was refusing to see it since she wasn't. Of course, he needed some privacy. But, it was astounding--what his grief had driven him to do. All those cushions and paper underneath the cupboard--what was going on?

It didn't seem like grief to a certain extent.

Was it madness?

The glance was longer than both of them expected it to be. She stiffened when he closed the door of his cupboard and headed to the washroom after he set water to boil for his tea. It was dead silent for that though she could hear echoes of rustling from inside the washroom. She moved towards the window, looking out of it. 

He didn't appear before five minutes had passed--his hair wet and messy, eyes still red. Now for a different reason. 

She didn't say anything. She just stood by the window. It was awkward as he rushed out and turned the stove off and poured the water into his cup with his teabag. 

'Are you alright, Viktor?'

He appeared busy preparing his cup of tea, dipping the teabag with his back towards her, 'Yes.'

'Lies.'

He turned around to face her, a tad shocked. She was looking at the window, leaning against the wall. She had her lips pursed. 'Believe what you want.'

'I hope the library distracts you for a while.'

He sighed and looked away from her, 'I hope it does too.'

He walked to the mirror and set his hair and checked his clothes. He could head off after finishing his cup of tea. There was no time to toast a slice of bread or whatever. And it would make her realise that he hadn't eaten anything. But, hadn't she already?

 

'Do you wish to stop by and grab a snack somewhere before we reach the library? One cup of tea--'

They were in the elevator, heading down to the the ground floor. She decided they should walk to the library, to enjoy the pleasant afternoon. He couldn't understand her. It was cloudy today. 

'I'm fine.'

'There's no harm in stopping by. I wouldn't mind an extra snack.'

'I told you once.'

'Alright,' she never looked directly at him, it was through the reflection on the metal door--with that same stony gaze, 'don't faint.'

He couldn't believe it. Why had he let her in? What did he want? Had he wanted her to see? No, his mind wasn't fully awake. One bad decision and there she was, coming up with a million theories and instantly taking the protective role he did not want. 

'Where are your kids?'

'I left them at my mom's place.'

She wasn't being protective. More than anything, Yvonne was acting dismissive. She knew something was up--after all, what happened in the funeral? What happened when she was alive? She did not care as long as he was warding her off. And what would she do even if he didn't? 

 

'You carry on,' he pointed to the line at the librarian's desk, 'I need to return my books.'

Yvonne nodded and headed to get a membership. It wasn't too difficult, her line was short. Hence, before he could return his books, she was walking down the aisles, searching and glancing.

'Would you like to re-issue them?'

'No.'

He hadn't read two of the three books he had borrowed for the week. And the other one was just half complete. He sighed and shook his head. He couldn't stand seeing them anymore, those books. Whenever he had sat down to read, his mind would detach itself from what was in front of him. It had been a pathetic ordeal to withstand.

He had to do something. At this rate, he would grow so distracted that it would affect his projects. His projects.

Yvonne skimmed through the titles on the rack. She was looking for a particular textbook on herpetology. Faridah had brought it to the lab the previous Tuesday. That book was written by Attenborough and it was released in 2008; of course, it was better than her Stebbins version. That one was released in 1966. A lot of the amphibians on that one were extinct now.

She peeped to look at the reading area.

Viktor was sitting there by himself, still as a statue, with his earbuds in his ears. It was a strange thing to do for a man who borrowed three books from the library every week, in her opinion. And his posture was unsettling. So straight and stiff.

She supposed it looked unsettling because of what she had seen.

Aren't there better things to do?

She shook her head at herself and resolved to not look out for him again. She had her own purpose of being here, after leaving her kids at her mother's place.

Attenborough, Attenborough... 

Viktor turned his laptop on and signed into his email account. There was a message for him--an invitation to be the photographer for a Ms Browne's wedding. He coughed in surprise and pulled out his earbuds. 

Ms Fiona Browne--a batchmate in his college. She shared a couple of classes with him in Newcastle. 

It was a surprise they still shared the same city. 

It was a surprise that she had found him. They hadn't seen each other for four years since the reunion of that year. They had barely conversed beyond formal pleasantries. She was an editor for a magazine then--in Manchester.

He looked around--was Yvonne here?

He didn't see her. And why should he look for her anyway? She was here for her work. And after what she had seen--he didn't know how to confront her. But, he just looked like he was recovering from a hangover, didn't he? 

And the furniture?

He sighed. It would be better if he didn't tell her at all. 

He opened the invitation letter and read it, to kill time. It was a good thing Fiona decided to pay him--she wouldn't abuse scanty memories. 

He didn't want to pick a book yet. He didn't know what he could read about. Until the documentary's release, he was busy studying about corals and visiting aquariums and whatnot; it had consumed him. And now, it had left him to fend for himself in his emptiness. His empty mind.

A wedding would a day's affair. Not a subject that would leave him pondering. 

Catalaphyllia jardinei--Euphyllidae. Elegance... That one was his favourite. He loved how they wriggled under the currents, dancing ethereally. But his time for them had passed.

How he wished he had another project in his hand--other than scurrying off for these measly appointments. 

At least they got him the bucks he needed to get along. 

He complained too often to let time do any good to him. He sighed once more and began a draft to frame a reply to her offer. While he typed his 'heartfelt wishes' and his gratitude, Yvonne sat down in front of him with a couple of hefty books in her hands. 

He thought about asking what they were about despite reading their titles of their covers. But, he decided to do otherwise.

She could see it--his hesitation.

'When do you leave?'

It took him a moment to realise what she was saying. He looked at his watch, 'At five, maybe.'

'I'm leaving at half past four... have to go to my mother's place.'

He nodded in reply and sent his reply to Browne, 'I'll go get some books now.'

'Alright.'

It was to run away from her. He slipped into the aisles and saw a myriad of letters scrambled into words of sorts--none he could make out for sure. He was moving quickly, carelessly, making his way past readers and glancers. Obstacles of the human kind.

He had no idea on what to read about that week. He had forgotten to make his list yesterday. To be honest, his body wrenched in explicable frustration at the idea of figuring out what to do. He wanted to stop the resistance and get over it. But, he didn't know how.

I'm such a child.

He picked up a book on colonialism and put it back. No history. He didn't want his mind loaded with unnecessary information. No anything, actually. 

Finally, after several aisles and several books, he settled down with a novel and began to read. Time passed as he turned the pages, with stiff legs crouched in a lonely aisle. It was a story set in the Second World War, a blind girl left to fend for herself, nestled in the world she fashioned with her handicap, far superior than what he could fathom, even though he had been endowed with sight. The language added weight to her creations and fleshed out ghastly and curious wonders of war and childhood, entwined in an unlikely bond...

'You don't need to worry about me judging you,' he jumped when he heard the familiar voice, 'I don't have the time to waste on that.'

He just stared at Yvonne as she sat down beside him, tucking her skirt. She was so close that he found her black strands among the forest of silver and violet. He closed his book and looked at the floor, avoiding her gaze. He didn't know what to tell her.

'I know that you have been avoiding--'

'Look.' 

He stopped midway. Not knowing what to say. He inhaled, searching for words, 'I was not in a great mood today...'

'You need a break, Viktor? You look worn out as fuck.'

She looked worn out too, in his opinion. He closed his eyes and sighed, he wanted to tell her the truth now. To kill her curiosity and drive her away for good. But, was it worth it? It would take far too much energy and he didn't know if he had enough left in the first place?

'I just need work to get over it.'

She shuddered and looked down at his hands. She thought about holding them as a gesture of compassion, but they weren't that close and he had been awkward with her the whole day thanks to the events that transpired that afternoon. 

'I'm bored and in trouble.'

He was talking. She looked up at him. He was still looking at the rack ahead of him, occasionally glancing at his hands and his feet, never at her. This was promising. 

'I don't want to be bored and in trouble.'

'Have you got a project?'

He looked at her, but he couldn't hold her gaze, 'Yes, to shoot a wedding.' 

She grinned, 'You enjoy them?'

'They're alright. Just less meaningful.'

'Yeah,' she laughed, 'compared to documentary films about... world problems.'

'But less depressing too, you know.'

'Oh you don't know what can happen in a wedding,' She shifted to a more comfortable position. It was almost half past four, he thought he should mention it. But of course, she knew it too, didn't she?

He took the comfort in believing that she did so that he wouldn't have a reason to remind her. 'Are you, as a marine biologist, telling me that--'

'Excuse me.'

They never realised they were sprawled on the floor, blocking the aisle. A girl half their age looked down at them with a weird expression on her face, 'Make way, please.'

Viktor was used to it. Yvonne was not. Her cheeks grew hot when she quickly got onto her feet while Viktor folded his legs to make way, never taking the effort to get up.The girl disappeared and they were left to themselves. 

Yvonne looked at her wristwatch and feigned surprise. She knew it was time to leave five minutes ago, 'I should get going.'

He smiled and held his hand out towards her. She held it and pulled him up. 'Bye.'

'Bye.'