Prologue: Night full of Stars
„Good evening, may I take your order?“
There was so much forged excitement in his voice that he wanted to throw up.
The girls at the table didn’t seem to notice. They snickered sheepishly and looked at each other as if they had forgotten to decide which of them should speak first. Rye held on with the insincere smile of a patient waiter while he heard the clock ticking in the background. Only two hours had passed by now. One more until he was finally free.
When the girls finally settled on an order, Rye had already almost missed it. Hastily, he wrote down the names of the oversweetened cocoa mixes they wanted, gave them a last smile and turned around on his heels. His heart was beating wildly. He threw another glance at the clock and wondered what he had expected. It was still an hour.
He took a little more time than necessary to give the order to the kitchen before he threw a glance at the office. His father spent this evening mainly with paperwork. Undoubtedly he sat over some sales calculations and spreadsheets with his glasses pushed back like the good businessman he always presented himself as.
There was a good chance he wouldn’t come out until they closed the store.
Without Rye even noticing, his fingers had slipped into his pocket and fumbled over the display of his phones.
He shouldn’t even have it with him in the first place. It should have been in his backpack in the breakroom if he had followed his father’s rules, but Rye wouldn’t have had a peaceful moment if he didn’t have it close to him. He couldn’t bear the thought of it ringing and him not being able to answer.
Again he looked at the office door. It was still closed.
Carefully he pulled out the phone just enough to look at the display. No missed messages. He didn’t know if he should be relieved or worried, but his first instinct was always to worry. It was hard to ignore the familiar sting in his chest.
No news was only good news as long as one didn’t realise how many reasons there were, someone couldn’t ask for help.
„On the phone again?“
His whole body jumped even though it wasn’t his father’s voice. Over the edge of the service hatch between kitchen and store Cassidy, another waiter, smiled at him as if they were sharing a secret Rye wasn’t informed about.
„You know, instead of waiting for an answer, you could also just make the first step.“, she said, cheerful and winked at him. Rye wasn’t completely sure what it meant.
„I’m still on the clock.“, he replied instead and pushed the phone as deep as he could into his pocket, „Also, no one would answer anyway.“
„You can’t know that if you don’t try.“
He didn’t answer. Instead, he stepped outside again, ready to face another table of customers, but Cassidy stopped him with one stretched out arm.
„The trash needs to be taken out. If you would be so kind?“
With one finger, she held up a half-empty black bag which Rye took after a short hesitation.
„Thank you.“, he finally said, „If my father asks for me...“
„You are in the restroom. Got it.”
This time he reciprocated the conspiratorial smile. Swiftly he stepped to the back into the storage and from there outside into the cool early-winter air of the backyard. Behind him, the heavy door slammed shut as if it could lock out the coffee shop and the customers and his father and his entire damn life with this. He allowed himself a short moment in which he simply stood there with his eyes closed and his shoulders relaxed and just breathed deeply. The evening was colder than just a few weeks ago. Softly snow was falling, but it would still take some time until it would cover the ground.
After another moment, Rye again pulled out his phone and let himself sink down with his back against the wall. He still hadn’t decided what he wanted to write when he opened the chat window. Indecisive, his fingers hovered over the display, typed something and deleted it again immediately.
Too much he wanted to say.
Too little he could actually put into words.
Eventually, he typed the first thing he could think of and sent it before the doubts could come back. It was everything he really wanted to know.
are you okay?
Another phone vibrated. Rye felt his heart shortly stumbling. He hadn’t noticed the slight smell of nicotine before since it was so close to the trash, but now it was all he could think of. Immediately he jumped up and stepped around the biggest container, big enough to hide a human. In between metal and wall sat a boy, inconspicuous enough to be overlooked by the entire world. He had his arms wrapped around his own body, his face hidden behind a scarf, but even that couldn’t cover all the fresh bruises. Between his fingers sat the still glowing cigarette.
He didn’t look up when Rye came closer, but he never did. Between his hair, Rye could see blood.
The sting in his chest grew. „Again?”
Wordless Arsen stared at the display of his phone where Rye’s message must have shown up. His mouth was pressed into a thin line.
Rye didn’t think he could ever get used to this view and still, he had to endure it.
Slowly he crouched down before him and held out a hand. Arsen’s eyes twitched to the side as if worried even a short eye contact could bring him physical harm.
„Come.“, Rye said as softly as he could, „It’s warmer inside.“
Arsen didn’t say anything, didn’t look at him, but he put out his cigarette and took Rye’s hand.
Too little he could offer.
Arsen knew darkness. He had experienced it since the day he was born. To navigate it without losing his mind was the first thing he had to learn. The second thing had been pain. He knew how to deal with a bloody temple, or with a broken nose, or the overwhelming feeling of not being able to get up after a punch.
It felt like a second skin by now, which he could just pull over whenever the darkness caught up to him.
But then came Rye.
And suddenly, Arsen hadn’t understood the darkness as well anymore as he had always thought.
With experienced hands Rye cleaned the wound at his head, his fingers so careful not to touch his skin unless necessary to the point where they might as well have been a fly. Arsen didn’t look at him, but he was all too aware of the look Rye gave him. He knew the deep furrow, which appeared on his forehead whenever he dabbed away some blood or applied some sanitiser; the mixture of anger and worry, which was in his eyes. He had seen it so often.
They were hiding in a secluded part of the storage room like they always did. The door was far enough away for them to hide between some boxes and shelves once they heard so much as a sound, though rarely anyone ever came back here around this time. Rye had picked this place cautiously like he always did everything cautiously when it came to Arsen.
As if he couldn’t see the darkness that was sticking to him.
“Who was it?” Rye suddenly asked and Arsen felt his entire body flinching.
He took a deep breath. This was a safe place. There was no reason to be afraid.
“No one.” he answered and pulled at the strings of his pats. It was freshly ripped from a fall a few hours before. The asphalt had taken the material as well as the first layer of skin, but Arsen mostly mourned for the lost needlework. It would not be worth it to sew it again.
Rye glanced at him from the corner of his eyes and Arsen turned away even further. He hated the gazes of people. They were still filled with disgust and fear.
“If he was it again...” Rye began and Arsen felt his heart falter.
“It wasn’t him!” he quickly replied, surprised by how loud his own voice could sound. He felt Ryes questioning eyes on him and a heavy burden in his throat. “It wasn’t him.” he repeated a bit quieter, “Just a few boys.”
“From our class?”
This time he didn’t say anything.
It didn’t matter whom he met. Everyone in the town knew who he was and which family he belonged to. Sartori. It was a name people only whispered behind raised hands to spread another rumour about their shady business. Crimes that never got solved; murders that needed to be covered up; money that was laundered in blood. Even Arsen couldn’t tell how much of it was actually true. And he didn’t want to. The business of his family was dirty. He wanted nothing to do with it.
And yet he still stayed a Sartori.
The people did right by hating him. Everyone should.
And yet, Rye sat in front of him; the only light in his all-embracing darkness, with hands so soft that they closed his wounds instead of ripping them open and eyes so filled with pity instead of infinite hatred. Arsen didn’t understand him, didn’t understand how someone with that much mercy could exist in his life without getting destroyed himself.
Maybe the day would come when even this light would die out and Arsen would have to walk through the darkness on his own once more.
Rye’s fingers brushed over one of the band-aid on his forehead and Arsen’s body fought between the urge to flinch away or lean in closer to the touch. “You know you don’t have to protect them, right?”
“I don’t protect them.” Arsen replied quietly, “But you.”
Somewhat revolted, Rye blinked at him. “I am not that weak that I am scared of such guys.”
“Maybe you should, though.” Arsen pulled his scarf up higher to hide his face in it. He didn’t want to be seen. Not even by Rye’s friendly eyes.
Next to him, he heard Rye sighing heavily. “And if we talk to the teachers?”
Arsen didn’t answer. It was a discussion they had had too often already.
“I know you think it wouldn’t change anything.”
“Because it won’t.”
“But it should!”
Arsen bit his lip. If he were someone else, Rye might have been correct. But there was no help for him. Not when he was a Sartori.
“There has to be a way out.” Rye murmured and it sounded almost as if he was talking to himself, “There has to be... something...”
“There isn’t.” Arsen gave back. There was nothing. Just the darkness.
Rye’s hand touched his. Gentle as the beat of a butterfly’s wings. “Arsen. Let me help you.”
“If we go to the police...”
“It won’t change anything.”
“You don’t even try!”
Arsen’s body jerked back. Automatically he pulled his hand away from Rye and brought it up to protect his head from a punch that would never come. His family killed and stole and broke everyone who dared to stand in their way. He jumped at a raised voice that had given him nothing but kindness up until now.
“I’m sorry!” he screamed immediately. It was over. Rye would hate him. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m...”
“Stop apologizing.” Rye grabbed him by the hands and gently pulled them down from his face. “You did nothing wrong.”
“Arsen, I swear by God, if you say sorry one more time...”
He didn’t finish the sentence. Probably because there was nothing he could threaten him with.
Arsen bit his sore lip and took a deep breath. Rye wasn’t his father and not the other boys from school either. He wasn’t a danger. Just Rye.
He took another deep breath before he opened his mouth again. “You don’t believe in God anymore.”
For a moment, Rye stayed quiet and Arsen could feel his eyes so full of disbelief burning on his skin. Then the sound of his laughter appeared. The same laugh which had led Arsen out of his darkness so many times before. A laugh that could turn a thousand nightmares into gentle dreams. Arsen could have drowned in it.
“You’re right.” Rye eventually said, “I don’t. But you know what I believe?”
Arsen waited quietly. Rye’s fingers were still on his wrist.
“I believe the world isn’t as bad as it seems sometimes. And that we can change it when we try. That’s why I’m asking you - and that is the only thing I will ever ask of you - come to me if you need help, okay?”
Arsen felt the knot in his throat. He nodded even though he knew he was lying. Rye could see all of his wounds, all his bruises and the blood and the broken parts of his body, but if he tried to hold out a hand to him to drag him out of the darkness, he would simply be brought down with him.
The world wasn’t bad. It was just bad to him.
Rye’s eyes flinched up to the clock, then back to him and up to the clock again as if Arsen wouldn’t notice how much time he spent with him. If his absence would be noticed, his father would get mad. If they would find him here... Arsen didn’t want to think of what might happen then.
“Go.” he said quietly, “I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?” But the only one who didn’t sound sure was Rye.
Arsen nodded even though he wanted to hold onto him and never let go. He needed this light. The darkness had become unbearable since he knew how it was outside of the shadows.
And yet, he still couldn’t let this light die out, even if that meant it wouldn’t shine for him.
“I will check out the back area later. Then I’ll look after you again, but you can stay the entire night if you want to. Do you still know where we hide the key? And the password for the security system?”
He nodded. Rye had made sure he couldn’t forget either of them.
“Okay. Just lock the door tomorrow. See you later.”
He put his hand on Arsen’s head as a goodbye while walking past him. Just a fleeting touch and yet Arsen still longed for it to stay forever.
“Take care of yourself.”
“No one else will.”
Arsen headed out before midnight arrived. Rye had locked down the back part of the store just like he said it and left him a blanket for the night, but Arsen knew he wasn’t truly welcome here. If Rye’s parents knew he was here, they would have done everything possible to ban him from their store for good.
He didn’t want to take up space that wasn’t meant for him.
Hours after the last customer had left the store, he put the blanket back into the break room, where Rye had taken it from, opened the back door and locked it again. His body had recovered a bit. It still hurt, but at least the world didn’t get blurry in front of his eyes anymore when he moved a little too fast, and his head felt clearer. For a while, it would still carry him.
The night had grown colder.
Arsen could feel the wind bite his skin even when he buried his hands deeper into his pockets. He almost wished he could turn around and seek the warmth of the coffee shop, but that wasn’t his home.
He didn’t have one.
So he stepped forward into the cold night.
There wasn’t a goal he could walk towards. Technically, he did have a home he had to return to before the sun would rise, but it was just the place his parents lived and raised him at. Nothing more than an empty flat with no warmth. When he was younger, he wasn’t able to see the difference. It was a place full of shadows and hidden knives; a place, where the light got snuffed out. He had thought this was what it had to be. But then he had met Rye, and his idea of a home hat started to smell like coffee.
Harder, he clenched his hands into fists as if he could chase away his thoughts like this. Desperate hope could be more dangerous than a knife because it cut deeper.
He walked down the river that led through the city when his phone vibrated with a message. The display’s clock showed it was five minutes past midnight by now. He didn’t have to check who wrote to him, because there was only one person, who knew his number.
Rye wrote: Happy Birthday!! You thought I had forgotten, didn’t you? hehe. I even got you a present, but if you want it you have to come to school tomorrow ;) Sleep well. Text me when you are in bed. See you tomorrow~
Arsen felt the corners of his mouth twitch higher. There was a warmth spreading in his chest, which even coffee couldn’t have produced. Hastily, he hid his face behind his scarf before the world could see his happiness and take it from him.
Thoughtful, he looked up at the sky. Between all the falling snow, he could see the light of the stars shine. Darkness, that got broken through. Shadows, that got chased away even though they should have swallowed everything. He thought of Rye and how he looked at the sky. Not like it was an unreachable place, but like he could just put up his hand and grab each and every star if he wanted to.
As if his fate was up to him.
Arsen wasn’t sure where he took that optimism from, but he envied him for it. He would have loved to reach out, even if the attempt stayed unsuccessful. Just so he wouldn’t stand still any longer.
He only felt the hit after it had already made an impact on his back. The pain came in a hot explosion, which spread over his spine first, and then moved up to the tip of his hair. Hard, he hit the fence that separated the street from the river. His knees had just given out underneath him.
His ears were ringing loud, but not loud enough to drown out the laughter behind him. When he looked over his shoulder groaning, he saw the faces of some of his classmates, distorted into ugly grimaces full of scorn. In front of the little group stood Bradley Ross his baseball bat still leaning on his shoulder. His smile was the widest.
“Gotcha,” he said with an almost playful ring to his voice. The sweat of another evening full of training was still on his forehead. It was an all too familiar view. His bare arms despite the cold weather when he once again stayed up too long to turn his energy into sport and the hatred in his eyes when he met Arsen on his way home. Arsen wondered if they could have been friends in another life. They both seemed to run away from home.
With a flick of his shoulder, Bradley let the bat sink down again and twirled it in his hand ready for another hit. Arsen swallowed, preparing himself for what would come next. The pain was familiar.
The smile fell from Bradley’s lips. It was the sign that he was done playing, and the real fight would start.
“Go get him.”
The boys stormed at him. Arsen lifted his arms, in a desperate attempt to protect his head while punches and kicks came down on his body. He felt cold air and hot blood and all the hatred the world could muster. And how much it hated him. How much anger it could point towards him. The world wasn’t bad, it was just bad to him. Darkness came over him until he couldn’t see even the brightest stars on the firmament anymore.
They left him when they got tired from all their hatred. Someone spat on the ground before him, and Arsen was convinced that he hadn’t aimed for the ground. He stayed still because he was tired of fighting and his joints hurt every time he moved.
Not even Rye could have patched him up now.
Slowly, he turned to lay on his back. From the sky, snow fell, thick enough to almost hide all the stars. Arsen reached out his hand, but he knew the attempt would stay unsuccessful.
The light couldn’t reach him.