MY SKIN CRAWLED.
It felt like a million eyes were on me, watching my every move. I was being scrutinised, sizing me. Passerby’s narrowed their eyes on me, trying to recall if they knew me. It was as though they were trying to squeeze every bit of information out of me just judging by my appearance.
Feeling too exposed, I tugged my coat around me tightly and crossed my arms over my chest in a defensive action. At first, I had hated being the new person and starting over. I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to find new friends, have those deep conversations under the moonlight and spill all our dark secrets to each other once more. To me, it seemed pointless now. What was the point if they were going to either leave or hurt you in the end? Wasn’t it better to kept to yourself, and save yourself an ocean’s worth of heartache?
The early morning sun shone down, making it hard to see in front of me. I lifted a hand, trying to shade my face and walk at the same time. My entire body felt heavy, however, and finding the energy to get ready and work today felt like the most impossible task. Every muscle aches and protested, begging me to turn around and jump back into bed for the day. But I didn’t have that option anymore. I wasn’t a child anymore — I had bills to pay.
“You’re here bright and early.”
The familiar voice of Kai popped up beside me, and I didn’t even jump, having gotten used to his sudden appearances. He offered me a bright grin while walking into my line of vision. With curly hair and dark eyes that would melt even the coldest of hearts, I found the small irritation I felt slipping away. His eyes crinkled and his cheeks deepened into dimples as he swiped my bags from my hands and swung them over his shoulder to carry.
I shook my head, but barely hid my own grin, “You know what they say, Kai, the early bird catches the worm.”
I shot him a tired smile. He didn’t miss a beat, and the playfulness dropped from his face a little and he put his hand out in front of me just as we neared the building.
“You alright?” he asked, lowering his voice, “Did you get any sleep last night?”
His dark eyes flickered back and forth between mine, probing and searching, almost begging me not to lie. I knew I looked haggard, to the point where makeup could barely save me.
“Does three hours count?” I tried to laugh it off as a joke, but Kai’s frown only deepened more. He ran a frustrated hand through his hair and fixed me with a worried stare.
“Why didn’t you call in sick?”
“Because then I’d come in tomorrow and my shit would be in a mess,” I sighed, “You know we’re understaffed as it is. Emily would have my head if I called in.”
“Fuck her,” Kai cursed suddenly, surprising me at the intensity of it, “What’s more important — you, or this stupid store?”
“I’ll take it easy,” I placed a hand on his shoulder and smiled when he didn’t speak, “I promise.”
“You don’t even know what that means,” he muttered, “Watch, I’ll walk by later and see you hunched over when your back is already sore.”
“I took an hour-long bath last night so I feel a lot better now,” I lied.
The reality of last night was that I spent an hour in my bathroom, going back and forth between crying and trying to comfort myself. Trying to fight a loosing battle with my mind was exhausting. It made me wonder what was the point in trying so hard when I was destined to fail in the end? I couldn’t control my emotions — no one taught me how. At the slightest inconvenience, I cracked and obsessed to the point where I was the only detrimental thing to my own mental health.
Kai narrowed his gaze, trapping me under his intense stare.
“I thought we weren’t going to lie to each other anymore?” he finally murmured.
My heart squeezed inside of me and I couldn’t bare to see the look on his face anymore, so I averted my eyes and lifted my shoulders in a loose shrug. It felt as though I was disappointing him. He was the only person who showed an ounce of care for me, yet here I was, letting him down once more. Even though I knew he didn’t think that way, I placed an invisible pressure on my own shoulders to better myself for him rather than myself. I wanted to show him that I was okay so he wouldn’t have to excessively worry about me. He has his own family and problems, without taking on the burden of mine.
“Hey, don’t apologise,” he scolded, “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I don’t want you to worry about me all the time,” I swallowed, “It’s not fair.”
Kai fell silent for a moment, gathering his thoughts. A quiet exhale brushed past his lips and slowly, he raised a hand to place on my shoulder. Warmth surged through me when he squeezed gently, and his eyes were open and honest with me when he spoke.
“Louella, I’m your friend. We might not be friends for a long time, but it doesn’t change the fact that I care. None of that faking bullshit with us, remember? If you’re not okay, that’s okay,” he reassured, “I’m here either way.”
His words brought back a nostalgic sensation of comfort that only one person had been able to offer me before. It made me stall a little and my mind drew a sudden blank as I stared at Kai. I drew up the resemblances between the two. Words felt heavy in my mouth and even though I tried to part my lips and speak, I found it hard to find the right ones to say. His face flashed across my mind, and it took every fibre of my being to keep a straight face and to not crumple.
“And I appreciate you for that,” I whispered, choking up, “I really do.”
“Do you want to head inside?” he asked, sensing my slight discomfort, “It’s probably going to start raining soon.”
“Yeah,” I gnawed on my bottom lip in anxiousness, “Let’s go.”
“Louella! What in God’s name are you doing?”
Kai stood in front of me with his hands on his hips and stared at me. Hunched over on the ground, I smiled at him sheepishly and my cheeks burst into a hot red flame.
“Hi!” I squeaked, “Fancy seeing you here.”
Kai ran a hand down his face and heaved a sigh. He bent down until we were level with each other. He was so close to me, our breaths nearly mingling together. Light, golden flecks shone in his eyes and they crinkled when he frowned.
“You’re only hurting yourself more like that,” he pointed out and offered me his hand, “Come on, you’re bruising all your knees like that.”
“Well, someone needs to do this,” I exhaled, “It’s not going to fix itself.”
“I’ll do it,” he waved me off, “You focus on the higher parts.”
“Kai-” I started but he cut me off by lifting a hand and shushing me.
“It’s fine. Don’t worry, okay? I’ll do this and get my own done.”
Gently, he grasped the box out of my arms and laid it on the ground, before pushing me away.
“Go on,” he shoo’ed with narrowed eyes, “I don’t want to see you here.”
“You’re the best, you know that?”
I smiled and my shoulders relaxed in a sudden drop. It was actually a relief to get a small break, or at least some help. Today was one of those days where my body simply didn’t want to cooperate with anything and just standing felt like it was sucking every ounce of energy out of me.
“I know,” he smirked a little, “Just take your lunch now and when you come back, I’ll have all this done. Alright?”
“Okay, mom,” I rolled my eyes a little before offering him a genuine look of appreciation, “Thank you, Kai. What would I do without you?”
“I don’t know,” he signed dramatically, “Probably floating in the middle of the ocean somewhere.”
“Oh, shut up,” I whacked his shoulder, “I’m going so. Don’t work too hard.”
“We’re not all like you,” he joked, “I’ll take it easy. I’m not ruining my back before I’m thirty.”
“My back is fine,” I defended when he hinted at me, “It’ll be back to normal in a few days.”
Kai angled his head towards the ceiling and heaved am exaggerated sigh.
“What am I going to do with you?”
“Drown me, probably?” I laughed.
“I’m close to it, don’t tempt me,” he nudged, “Now, go on. Don’t waste your precious lunchtime here. Go eat.”
“I’m going, I’m going,” I laughed while raising my hands in the air in surrender. Turning around the corner, I slumped on my stance and the smile immediately dropped from my face. Out of view, I didn’t have to put on a façade anymore. I didn’t want anyone to see me cry, or break down. I didn’t want them to see my perfectly placed mask slip. I didn’t want anyone to know how my soul shattered every day — even now. . . Nor did I want them to know that I still sobbed my heart out at night, reliving and remembering.
Funny how a single smile could fool everyone, but still somehow never eased the pain.