September Salt

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What We Wish To See

Chapter Four: What We Wish To See

FREDDIE

“Black or yellow?” Tom asked.

“Definitely black,” I said, then, “Maybe yellow?”

“Freddie bear, what’ll it bee?” My friend chuckled immaturely at his joke.

“Buzz off,” I grinned, and he laughed all the more. I sighed good-naturedly, placing my hands in his lap as he unscrewed the black nail varnish. “You’re such an idiot.”

Tom didn’t disagree with me as he took my left hand by the thumb and began to carefully apply the polish. I’d never been a particularly feminine kind of guy, despite all the myths my father believed about my sexuality, and the stupid things he thought about my behavioural habits and clothing, but, boy did I love having my nails painted. Lou usually did it for me, and if not Tom always found time to assist me. Would have asked Sherry, but she was awful. Both of our nails were bitten, but somehow hers were so unbelievably so that it was pretty much impossible to paint them. She blamed her lack of nail-polishing prowess on that.

I watched Tom move onto my index finger. “Aren’t we having a bee-t of both?”

Tom raised the hand he’d been using to apply the polish to cover his lips and glanced up to me, mirth in his eyes. “Oh my God. That was such a good one.”

I bowed my head. “You’re welcome. Now bee careful of my sheets,” I said, using my free hand to hover under the polish stick were an inky black droplet threatened to fall. It was probably stupid to have organised the activity on my bed, but rather the sheets than the carpet.

Tom returned to the job at (very literal) hand, smiling softly. “We are having a bee-t of both,” he confirmed, “But not alternating fingers. Black left, right yellow.”

“I’ll bee ready for twister twenty-four seven.”

“God, this could go on,” he grinned. Then we were quiet, Tom painting with single-minded care, whilst I watched.

When he finished with my left hand’s first coat, he screwed the top back onto the pot and the reached for the yellow. He opened the cap but the movement stopped there.

“Is he going to be okay, Freddie?”

I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer Tom. I had no idea.

Cath and Lou had asked me what dad had said up on his study later Thursday night, when I’d dried off and was lying, quite numb, in bed. I’d replied with a lethargic mixture of shrugs and head-shaking and mumbled something about a school detention, which satisfied them, and we lay on my bed for a long time without speaking to each other until Cath declared she had to leave, but she’d be back on Friday night. I’d been desperate to express to Lou what dad said to me, but before long she was off to her driving lesson, and then it was just me.


When morning came, Lou and I woke up at around twelve to find that our parents had already left for the hospital. There was nothing out of place about picturing the two of them in a place so clinical either, but there were something very wrong about that fact in itself.

Tom came over at around two. He’d had most of the morning free, only an English Lit. lesson before lunch, but that was around the time I finally replied to the text he’d sent me on Wednesday afternoon, so he’d faked sick and come over, missing his last two lessons. And there we were.

He glanced up at me, checking my reaction.

“We don’t know, yet,” I told him eventually, relaxing the fingers of my right hand which had begun to curl into my palm without permission.

He continued to paint, meticulously applying so that it hardly touched my skin.

“Sherry’s sorry, you know,” Tom murmured. I shrugged. “She was going out of her mind worrying at lunch—“

“God, Tom,” I went to crack my knuckles but he swatted my hands apart and checked for damage before carrying on with his task. I sighed. “What do you expect me to say?”

“I don’t expect you to say anything in particular. Just talk to her.”

“I hadn’t talked to anyone besides texting you, earlier.”

“Yes, but it’s different. No one else shouted what she did to a class of people and then heard no word from you for two days.”

Again, I shrugged. It wasn’t that I could not forgive Sherry—and, in fact, I mostly already had. It was just that I didn’t want any company besides my sisters’, and Mia. Family. And Tom fitted into my family bracket pretty well. Barring the fact that we used date, and still got together every now and then, we were practically brothers.

Tom made me promise, though, so I did. What I didn’t do was understand why he was pushing so hard for it. Firstly, I would eventually talk to her anyway. She was one of my best friends, and, in my opinion, ‘ignoring people’ was spiteful and immature, and pointless. You also usually looked like a bloody idiot doing it. Especially if you were the only one who had decided to erase the selected person(s) from your life permanently (out of your group of friends, for example). Really. I was sure that the action hadn’t followed anyone out of Primary school, but you got the odd strays, didn’t you?

Secondly, Sherry wouldn’t have done the same for Tom. She didn’t really think much of him, which I could never for the life of me understand considering the fact that Tom was as faultless as a human being could be. Not a bitter bone in his body, and yet she disliked him. He knew it too – of which his trying to help her win favour with me again only highlighted the faultless human being thing. She’d tried once before to break up our friendship, and completely detested it when we had been together, but she’d calmed a little bit after the break up. Honestly speaking, she’d had to. I had no intention of letting him go because of apparent shortcomings in his personality that only she could see. Besides, his had been the hand that pulled me from the quick-sand I’d been sinking in, way back when.

Eventually, when Tom finished with my own nails, he began painting his toes while I leaned back on my bed, hands carefully positioned on my stomach.

“Has Joey been back to school?”

“Uh,” he took a moment to tackle the tricky little toe before shaking his head with a look of satisfaction, focus still on his multi-coloured task. “No, I don’t think so. He definitely wasn’t yesterday, and though I left at lunch, I feel like I’d have known if he was there, you know? There’s a buzz about you guys.”

“Well, shit,” I said tiredly.

“It’s not bad things about you,” he offered softly, looking up.

“No, its ′Fuck, his dad has cancer′ things about me.” What must have been realisation crept onto his face and I nodded. “I’d rather the gay kind.”

It was bad enough that my father had cancer. It was worse that he hated me on top of that, and that, at this point in our lives and with the current situation he could not just forgive and forget. Live, laugh and love, or however the saying went.

Then, the cherry on the cauldron conjured cake; people in school knew. I would not be able to stand the eyes and the ears tuned into my movements, watching for a break or for me to hesitate. For my demeanour to crumble with my father’s illness. Sure, I was usually able to stand tall when stupid jokes about my sexuality were tossed my way, but how I was going to deal with this I didn’t know.

At around four, my parents returned home. Mia called me down. Upon seeing Tom, my father asked, while he was still stood a metre behind me, that I immediately escort my friend out—with the most obviously disrespectful emphasis on friend I thought I had ever heard.

Tom didn’t seem to care too much though. Waved a goodbye and offered me the kind of smile that revitalised and strengthened, so I tried to take in all it gave, but when dad spoke without sentiment or sorrow that he had advanced prostate cancer, and it could no longer be cured... not only did any remaining strength leave my body, but breath did too. I hadn’t even realised that Lou was behind me before her hands met each other around my waist and the weight of her head rested on my back. It was so still, then. And I noted how broken we all were, and what a lie ‘family’ was. My mother hung with her feet together, hands clutching each other up by her chest. She could not see me or Lou. She could not see whatever we were going through. She had eyes only for my father, who was glaring at the ground directly in front of him. And I saw that, no matter what the tone of his voice may have said, he was angry, and frustrated, and so lost. He was all of those things and more. What was so messed up was that he was allowed to feel that way, but he hated it. Hated the weakness that it was, and the futility in fighting. He hated that he had no power over the situation, despite being CEO of a company that he’d built from the ground up. And, thus, he hated himself, and he hated me, and he hated the very house that we lived in because it represented everything that he had worked for, and would no longer have anymore. Everything he that worked for that he had so suddenly lost.

Then I looked to Mia. A mouse in the doorway, looking to me. More a mother than mine ever was, her hands were wringing each other, and her eyes were straining to communicate. I could not quite see the battle inside her, but I could see she wanted to come and cradle Lou and I, who she’d practically raised alone. She would have on any other occasion, but maybe this was just too big for her—too heavy to handle. The certainty of death was sat, like a crow, on all our shoulders, and she was struggling to straighten hers as it was.

Lou’s touch on my back moved from forehead to cheek as she drew herself closer, and I used fingertips to hold her hands where they were. Life felt too short for silence, but silent and still we all were, each islands in our own right, though some easier to access than others.

I felt it was right to cry then, but it couldn’t flow, and I felt that was probably for the best, on the off chance my father looked up to see me. Not only would he see my disgusting nature, but he would detect the tears, which he saw only as weakness, and he would hate me more, just then.

JOEY

My car crashed through yet another citizen and into a lamppost, and the back bumper that had been dragging along the road was finally detached.

“Get the fuck out of there!” Ryan shouted at me, pointing at the smoking vehicle as if I couldn’t see.

“I know, I know—I’m,” the car blew just as my character got out. Still alive, but damage was done, and the police sirens were still fucking screaming—shit, two sped ’round the corner-- “Fuck, shit—” Ryan was in hysterics as I eventually paused the game in frustration, unable to handle the multitude of bullets flying my way, and slouched back onto the sofa, turning to him. “Fuck you.”

“Goddamn, you suck. Why’d I get you this again?”

I sighed happily, turning back to face the TV and dropped the PS3 remote into my friend’s hand. I didn’t really give all that much of a shit about being rubbish at the wildly popular game, but spending time with Ryan when he was in a good mood could always lift my spirits too.

“Oh, yes,” he said, returning to the game. He was pressing buttons with speed and apparent abandon but was somehow managing to do better than I ever did when I tried the same technique. “Because it’s hilarious to watch you fail, and then I end up playing the shit anyway.”

“Dude, go for the bike—why the hell would you get in the limo?”

He nudged my knee with his own as he leaned forward, eyebrows furrowing. “You’re ruining my concentration, man.”

“What concentration do you need? You’re just trying to get out of the police radar.”

“That is exactly why you are crap at this.”

Touché.

Ryan had come over at half four, around the time when I was debating over beginning to read the book mum had given me, or continuing to mess about with my guitar.

I’d probably have been able to go in to school, but the extra day of rest was welcome, and I hadn’t done Wednesday’s IT or Philosophy homework. (And, fuck, I had a load of Spanish to catch up on, too.) So I stayed in bed. Read the Watchmen comic and then listened to my new CD on repeat for a while. Courtney called me at around break time, but I had been drifting between being awake and asleep; missed the call. She was going to be pissed. Even so, rather than call her back, when I felt energised enough to get up, I spent hours with my new instrument.

I’d learnt the guitar for a year back when I was about eleven. As a year seven student having just moved into our secondary school, everyone was offered two terms of musical lessons for free, and then had the choice to continue if we enjoyed it. I took up the guitar, and most definitely did. Our money situation was harder then than it is now, though, and I couldn’t keep up the lessons when the point came. Through the years I’d visit the music area now and again; spend a lunchtime running through what I’d learnt once upon a time, and recycling the five or six chords I knew. That had been all I’d thought I was ever going to get. I had given up asking my mum for a guitar when I was fourteen, but suddenly I had one of my own, and it was perfect. It was second-hand, and I found a couple of marks on its surface, but that didn’t take away at all from how I would now be able to play it whenever, wherever.

It was my own.

Just before Ryan arrived, I realised I hadn’t eaten all day and devoured a bowl of left over pasta. I was debating between returning to my guitar and reading the book by Aiden Chambers when Ryan’s knock called me to the door.

My phone began to ring again. It was Courtney.

“You gonna answer that?” Ryan asked. He was on a mission now that was resulting in a lot of blood—I couldn’t tell whose.

“Yeah... Mind if I go meet Courtney for a while and leave you here?”

He laughed, eyes never leaving my TV screen. “What do you think?”

So I answered Courtney’s call and arranged to meet her at the beach.

She was standing by a blue beach hut when I arrived. It felt a little wrong, heading towards her, because I’d always associated the beach with being alone.

I didn’t really like it in the summer. I hated the hordes of people, and the noise, and the endless naked children taking up the shower space, and the fight for a patch of sand that you couldn’t enjoy anyway because, left and right people were walking around you, and the sun beats on top of it all, relentless with its heat.

The beach was better in the winter.

Not only because, when I decided to surf, though I didn’t do it often due to expenses, the waves were a lot better, but because fewer people flocked. I could stand alone, stare into the water, and hear my thoughts rush in with the waves.

True enough, late September was usually still warm, and there were a couple of people here and there—an older man in an anorak and a dark blue beanie, unhurriedly moving a metal detector to and fro above the sand being the closest to us, but the day was as grey as the sand seemed just then, and the clouds in the sky looked lonely too. And the sea, the tide—well, that was as desirable to me as it always was.

“Hey,” I said, shoving my hands into my pockets. Courtney turned to face me, and then she stood staring at me for a moment, just as I did her. I didn’t know what she was thinking, but my thoughts drifted to the beginning; mid-June. School had ended for study leave in May, and I remembered how a lot of us would spend days and nights on the beach or at each other’s houses, indulging in legal and non-legal highs, neglecting revision in favour of brief gratifications. The two of us got caught up in it all, and I know there had been something I’d found so attractive in her, but recently I could only find fault. That was the awful thing.

I could see her blonde hair and the way it fell bone straight. I knew that it endured at least half an hour of heating between the hot surfaces of the necessary tool to get that way. I didn’t want to reach a hand towards it like I’d been able to do so easily before, nor did I feel it was my place to move the strand she left in the way of her left eye, even though I sometimes felt that was the purpose for it being there. I could see her blue eyes, determined in their path to mine, speckled in construction. I knew they rarely cried, and that they watched a heck of a lot of MTV. I’d heard that they looked really cute next to mine—but I didn’t want to have to look into them and feel responsible for the feelings in there, or feel obliged to understand.

“I’m sorry for the things I said, and the way I acted yesterday.” She pulled her jacket around her, and I could see that the action was to ward off the cold. I could see the way she sucked in her cheeks a little, and her lips twisted, and that she was angry, still, wasn’t sorry, maybe. Was too self-assured to understand where she’d really gone wrong, and why I had been upset.

I knew that I didn’t want this relationship anymore.

It was so stupid, though. On one hand, what was wrong with it? With us? I was the one a little at fault. Courtney wanted me to commit more to it. I didn’t pay her as much attention as any other boyfriend might. That was something I could not deny. She was pretty—pretty hot, too. I knew. God, and we didn’t have to last forever. Didn’t even have to last past the next year; we were young. So what was up with my resistance? My inability to go further than a fucking kiss with her? We’d been together just over three months now, and my virginity was still intact. Courtney didn’t do over three months with a guy without sex. That must have made me special in some way, right?

Yet, I didn’t see that. In my mind, there was something that didn’t quite fit right.

Even so, why was it so difficult to lose? I saw no value in virginity, and any other guy would have thrown it out of the window. Here, a platter had been offered on which I could place it neatly, replace the lid and it would be gone forever, but there I was. And there she stood. And there was nothing I wanted that she could give, and nothing she wanted that I was willing to provide.

“Maybe we should talk,” I would have said, had my throat not closed up.

“I’m sorry that had to happen on your birthday too. I did get you a present. Want it now?”

Had I owned a brave bone in my body, I’d have taken the hand she was reaching into her handbag and stilled it. I’d have said something like, “No, Courtney. I don’t have feelings for you anymore. I can’t do this. I don’t want to,” and that would have been that—we would have been over.

But I didn’t.

She brought her hand out unhindered by my own and accompanied by a black box.

“I honestly don’t want this,” wasn’t spoken aloud either, so I ended up opening the box and seeing a stainless steel watch. She grinned with perfect teeth on show as I blinked down at it.

“Do you like it?”

I nodded, and the one word I did not want to say forced its way through. “Yeah.” I looked up at her and forced a smile. “Thank you. This is really nice.” But I can’t accept it. I’ve got to go.

Courtney helped me put it on, unaware of the battle within that I was unbelievably losing.

Courtney being my first proper relationship, I had never been broken up with, but that meant I had never known how to break up with a person either. I didn’t know the right words, or the right moment, or the right tone to take with it.

I stared at my silver watch, gleaming new and burning with an awkward awareness that it wasn’t supposed to be there on my wrist, and neither was I supposed to be there at the beach—or anywhere else—with Courtney. It was half-past six. “Well fuck,” I murmured. “I should probably go back home... Ryan’s alone.”

Without indication that she’d registered what I said, Courtney stepped forward and leaned up. Her hands circled my neck as her body moulded to mine, and her lips greedily searched for a breach in security. I permitted the intrusion after a moment’s hesitation, and settled my hands on her hips as her movement became sultry rather than soft, more to restrain than pull closer. She didn’t get the hint as usual and only pressed closer, moving her lips to bite my neck. A shudder travelled through me and I felt so wholly uncomfortable that I had to pull away.

I felt pathetic. And she said something I couldn’t hear as she left.

When alone once again, I walked closer to the waves until, every so often, they would reach the toes of my shoes, and then crouched down. I could see the horizon line. I knew that it was impossible to jump into the sea as I was and swim endlessly, but I didn’t want things to remain as they were.

Change. I wanted change. But I couldn’t see that in the near future.

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