IRELAND WAS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE.
The cold air brushed over my face as I stepped out into the wetness of the street. My umbrella flapped from side to side when the wind grew harder and stronger but I tightened my grip around the handle and almost had to battle with the object to not fly away into the morning sky.
The streets were filled with bustling teenagers and adults, window-shopping and their cackles filled the air around me. A small smile played on my lips when I realized how much I missed the familiar town. Litter laid on the roads while uncaring teens threw their empty milkshake bottles and McDonald’s boxes over their shoulders without a second thought. School uniforms still on, they walked around the town area with their group of friends – enjoying every moment of their break from the torturous hell of school.
I wrapped my coat around when the rain began to pelt down from the sky and I watched as everyone tried to run and huddle under the shelter of the shops. Strange glances were being thrown my way for still walking but after so many months of being away, I relished in the fresh feeling the outside brought. Dark clouds lined the sky above me and it cast a murky shadow over everything, but it set a nice atmosphere, especially after being in the sun for nearly an entire year. Dim streetlamps flickered on and off – only adding to the eeriness of the shadowy alleys and paths.
My phone started to buzz in my pocket and I fished it out and smiled when the familiar name popped up on the screen.
“Étienne! Where the hell are you, man?”
“I’m nearly there,” I promised with a laugh, “Just enjoying the rain while I walk.”
Milo Harris had been my best friend since we were kids. With our parents being close, naturally, we spent a lot of time together too. He was more of the out-going type than I was, but somehow, we clicked. I tended to linger in his shadow, but I didn’t mind letting the attention shower down on him. He liked basking in it and I preferred staying a little more hidden.
Coincidentally, I managed to book my flight back to Ireland on his twenty-third birthday. Only a few people knew I was coming home today – the rest I wanted to surprise later on. I had dropped my luggage at my parents’ house and told them I would be back later after meeting everyone again.
“Hurry up, you can enjoy the rain another day. You know what it’s like here anyway,” he replied and I knew he was probably rolling his eyes on the other line.
“Okay, okay!” I smiled, “I’ll see you in two minutes. I’m just heading up by Debenham’s.”
The line clicked shut and I wiped away a few droplets of rain that had dripped down on the screen and shoved it back inside my pocket. Fastening my pace, I winced when a sudden gust of wind blew – nearly forcing me back on to the ground. I debated on whether even trying to hold an umbrella was useful – all it seemed to be doing was desperately flinging itself from left to right in an attempt to let loose.
“Shit,” I muttered under my breath and breathed a sigh of relief when the coffee-shop came into view. I folded the bent umbrella over and ran the last few steps up to the door, exhaling when a warm gust of air fanned my face as I stepped inside. Soft music played over the speakers and I smiled when I realized that this place hadn’t changed at all in the past year. Every table was still in the same position – bright colours donned the walls and the workers all had grins on their faces while they worked. It was a family-run shop and it was why a lot of people liked to come here – it offered a sense of comfort that other places didn’t.
I wiped my feet on the mat and shuffled my way further inside, scanning the place for one familiar face. There, at the very back sat Milo. He looked up when the door banged shut behind me and immediately jumped up from the table and made his way over to me with open arms. Interestingly, he changed a lot over the course of the year. I wasn’t someone who was naturally tall and Milo had definitely grown more so that he all-but towered over me. His blonde hair was cut and jelled back a little and a light beard lined the perimeters of his face. I blinked at the silver earring that suddenly flashed me under the bright lights but didn’t get another second to think before his arms engulfed me in a bear-tight hug.
“I’ve missed you, man!” he beamed and patted me on the back before pulling away to look over me, “How have you been? How was France? Did you have fun?”
“Missed you too,” I replied and gestured for him to walk with me over to our table. He had definitely bulked up over the past year and it was impossible to not notice the bulging of his muscles through his shirt. My lanky arms lay by my side in embarrassment and I tried to hide them behind my back.
“France was good – you know how it is. Kind of boring without you guys there though. You know I’m shit with making friends so it wasn’t that much fun.”
Milo nodded while his lips twitched in amusement, “Trust me, I know. I don’t think we need to go over the story of how we met again.”
I rolled my eyes, “Are you ever going to let that go?”
“Nope,” he countered and reached over to hand me a spare menú, “It’s not every day a kid shoves sand in your mouth.”
I didn’t hold back the quiet chortle that exhaled past my lips at the memory. Milo and I had met because of our parents and even as a child, Milo liked to be the centre of attention. Four-year-old me, frustrated, threw a bunch of sand in his mouth when he ran over my sandcastle that I had spent all-but ten minutes on. Dramatic, but our ‘hatred’ quickly subsided when we met in school and soon enough, we were inseparable.
“You shouldn’t have knocked over my castle then,” I retorted the same argument as I had before.
“We’ve been over this, Ét. It was literally a lump of sand.”
We both shared matching smiles at the playful banter and I realized how much I missed talking to my friends. Even though we kept in touch by video-calling and texting, it wasn’t the same as seeing them every day.
“How’s the family?” I hummed while I flicked my eyes over the menú, “What’s everyone been up to?”
“Everyone’s good,” Milo mused after a moment, “Mom and dad have been busy with their sudden interest in farming – don’t even ask.”
I chuckled and shook my head. Milo’s parents were extremely welcoming and the kind that you would feel comfortable talking about anything, if needed. It was why I was probably at his house more than I was my own. They lived in the countryside, right next to their farm – for years which had been abandoned but now, they were apparently attempting to revive it.
“And Lo?” I asked when he didn’t go to speak again, “How’s she keeping? It’s been a while since I’ve talked to her. She won’t answer my calls or texts as much. I’ve just been hearing about her from my parents, to be honest.”
I didn’t miss the way Milo stiffened in his seat a little but it happened so quickly and in the blink of an eye, his usual friendly smile was back in place.
“She’s good. You know how she gets sometimes though – I wouldn’t worry about it. Probably some friend drama that’s got her down.”
“I heard she deferred her college for a year,” I frowned at Milo, “Do you know why? Last I saw her, she was looking forward to going back and graduating.”
Milo gave a half-hearted shrug, “Dunno, man. To be honest, I haven’t really been keeping in with her. She’s hard to reach these days. Does she know you’re back today though?”
I shook my head with a smile, “Nah. I was going to go over and surprise her after this. Do you want to come with? It’ll be nice for the three of us to be together after so long.”
Milo’s forehead scrunched up in thought before he shook his head, “Sorry but I gotta get home after this. Mom apparently wants to try and bake a cake for the first time in her life and dad and I are kind of scared she’ll burn the house down.”
“Oh, right! I forgot to say happy birthday,” I slapped my forehead lightly, “Your present’s at home. I should have brought it with me but at least now you have an excuse to come over.”
“Thanks Ét,” Milo smiled, “We can celebrate tomorrow, yeah? Bring some alcohol and get a little fucked up?”
I rolled my eyes once more, “You and your alcohol.”
“You need to loosen up a little bit,” Milo argued, “You’re not going to stay a pioneer for the rest of your life, are you?”
“You know I don’t like it,” I shrugged, “The taste is disgusting.”
“It gets better the more you drink,” he winked, “Until you can’t even tell that you’re drinking anything.”
“I’ll pass, thanks for the offer though,” I laughed, “I like the idea of staying conscious.”
The familiar red house stood in front of me.
It felt like more than a year since I had been here, yet everything looked the exact same. Bushes lined the pathway up to the door, neatly trimmed – even in this weather. A single car was pulled in the driveway and I breathed in relief that someone was home. The curtains were all pulled upstairs, strangely, but I didn’t dwell on that fact as I sauntered up to the front door, buzzing with excitement.
Much like Milo, Louella and I had met when we were kids. She was the loud and eccentric girl that always sat at the back of the class, secretly folding paper into origami’s when the teacher wasn’t looking. There was something about her that seemed to draw everyone in and she was constantly surrounded by people – almost vying for a moment of her attention. Don’t get me wrong – she wasn’t arrogant about it, in fact, I knew that she hated it most of the time. But either way, she was the kind of girl you knew you could go to about anything and not have any judgement passed. Eventually, the three of us were paired up for a Spanish project and ended up getting pretty close by the end of it. Like the three musketeers, we were always together.
I lifted a hand and knocked at their front door, stepping back and waiting when I heard a small bit of shuffling inside. Seconds later, the door pulled open and Mrs. Rey stood in front of me with a surprised expression. Her face brightened into a smile and she didn’t hesitate in pulling me into a warm, motherly hug.
“Étienne!” she beamed and pulled back to look at me with my cheeks squashed between her hands, “You’re back!”
She seemed to have aged a lot since I had left. Dark bags lined her puffy eyes and wrinkles covered her face as though it had been five years instead of one. Even still, she had the same warm and welcoming aura around her and already, it felt like home.
“I am,” I chuckled and shuffled inside when she gestured for me to follow her, “I thought it would be a nice surprise if I didn’t tell you guys.”
Mrs. Rey’s eyes softened, “Of course it is. Come in, sit down and tell me about France. How was it?”
“It was good,” I said as she led me towards the familiar kitchen, “I had a lot of fun but I missed you all more.”
Mrs. Rey flapped her hand in disbelief, “I doubt it. Did you travel much? I told you to send us pictures.”
“I have them here,” I assured with and lifted my phone in a wave, “I’ll send them all to you later, I promise.”
“Good,” she smiled, “It’s good to see you again. I know Louella has been missing you a lot.”
“Is she here?” I asked and looked around, “I was hoping to catch her.”
Mrs. Rey’s face dampened for a moment before she nodded and shuffled towards the door. I frowned at the strange action but didn’t linger too much on it.
“She should be upstairs. I’ll go check on her. I’m sure she’ll love to see you again.”
She disappeared around the corner and I heard her heavy footsteps on the stairs. I sat in my seat – feeling a little awkward with nothing to do. My leg bounced up and down in nervousness at the thought of finally seeing her after an entire year. I wondered if she missed me as much as I had missed her. Going so long without being able to see her smile in person was probably one of the hardest parts about being away. She always made me feel happy whenever I was near her. And so, it worried me that she had become so distant. I hated not hearing from her and not being able to know if she was okay. Any news I got was mainly from my parents – but all they would ever tell me was that she was “okay.”
At the sound of a door opening and feet padding against the floor, I straightened myself up and waited with a baited breath for her to come through the door. It was irritating – the way time seemed to slow down while I waited. I wanted nothing more than for it to speed up so I could wrap my arms around her for the first time in a year. However, the smile that had been playing on my lips dimmed when she staggered in.
Louella had changed but I didn’t think it was in a good way. On her were loose and baggy pyjama clothes – hanging off her frame as though she bought a size ten times too large. Her face looked drawn, like she hadn’t slept or smiled in forever. The usual mischievousness in her eyes was wiped and replaced with a blankness and darkness that I had never seen before. What surprised me even more was that she barely managed to lift her lips into a smile when our eyes locked.
“Hey Lo,” I whispered, unsure of what else to say. This hadn’t been the reaction I was expecting at all and I wondered if I was in some alternate universe of some kind.
“Étienne,” she spoke softly, her words barely loud enough to be heard, “You’re back.”
“Yeah,” I said and swallowed down the lump in my throat, “I am.”
Louella made her way further into the kitchen and took the seat across from me. Her hair wasn’t brushed and from where I was standing, I could see tangles everywhere. Her appearance worried me – and not because she looked bad; she still looked beautiful, but because it seemed as though she had an entire shift in personality.
“How was France?” she murmured while picking at the corners of her nails, “I hope you had a good time.”
“France was good,” I shrugged, “I missed you a lot though.”
Opposite to the reaction I had been hoping, Louella pursed her lips into a thin smile that was barely there, but made no comment. Before, I knew she would have thrown a pillow at my face and call me “cheesy” but now, there was nothing. Perhaps she was tired, but it was three in the afternoon and she was still dressed as though she had just woken up.
“Um, I brought you back a few things?” I coughed when a silence pursued, “I’m not sure if you’ll like them but I hope you do.”
Reaching over into my bag, I pulled out the few wrapped items I bought for her and placed them on the table. Louella’s eyes were glued on mine, but I couldn’t seem to read anything from them. Her face was passive and void of any emotion. When I gestured for her to take a look, she leaned over the table and began to gently tear off the golden-red wrapping paper to reveal a few sets of jewellery. One was a thin necklace that had a bucket-shaped pendent with a yellow heart ingrained in the middle while the other was a silver bracelet that spelled out her name.
“They’re pretty,” she murmured and flashed a small, rare smile, “Thank you, Étienne. They’re so beautiful. You didn’t have to get me anything though. The photos you sent were more than enough.”
“I wanted to,” I shrugged, “I thought these looked the nicest out of everything in the shop. To be honest, I had to ask one of the assistants to help me. You know how useless I am with these kinds of things.”
Louella exhaled a breathy laugh and nodded, “I remember.”
She fell silent once more and I hated how it seemed like it was taking all of her energy to keep the conversation going. I shuffled from foot to foot – uncertain on whether to keep talking or let her be.
“How have you been, though?” I decided to ask, “We haven’t spoken in a while.”
“I’m good,” she lifted her shoulders in a light shrug, “Just life being life, you know?”
She ran a hand over her face and angled herself so that she was facing away from me, rather than towards me.
“I heard you deferred your college placement for a year,” I winced at the question, “You were looking forward to graduating so much last year. What happened?”
“Yeah,” she hummed, not giving anything away, “I guess I just needed the year off as a break. You know how stressed I was getting with all the studies and exams.”
“I guess that’s fair,” I mumbled, but there was something that tugged on my gut that told me that wasn’t the entirety of the reason.
“So, you know Milo’s birthday is today right?” I said, “We’re celebrating tomorrow and he wanted to know if you were free.”
Louella bit down on her lip, gnawing at the raw skin for a few seconds before she slowly nodded her head.
“Sure. I almost forgot about his birthday if you hadn’t reminded me.”
“Did you guys fall out or something while I was gone?” I worried, “You two don’t seem as close anymore.”
“We just have different lives now,” she offered me a half-smile, “You know Milo – always chasing the latest thrill.”
I rolled my eyes at the memories and nodded in agreement, “Yeah, that’s Milo all right. So, I’ll see you tomorrow? I’m not sure what time but I can text you later on and let you know. I’m sure mom and dad will love to see you again too.”
“Sure,” she echoed once more, “Can’t wait.”
There was an emptiness in her words and even though she was saying she was excited; her tone was flat. I didn’t stay for much longer after that, realizing she looked exhausted and probably needed to rest. Although I didn’t want to leave her alone, I knew sticking by her would most likely irritate her more. I was going to see her tomorrow, and I prayed that it was because she had a late night or felt sick but my gut told me that there was something else going on.
I just hoped that she would be okay.