Something Better

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Chapter 16

It was only when I tried to contact Aksel that I realised I didn't know how to do so. We'd shared secrets, opinions, dreams and aspirations, but we hadn't exchanged email addresses or added each other on Facebook. The only way I had of contacting him was via his number in Edinburgh, which was probably defunct by now.

How could you know so much, yet so little about someone at the same time?

Over the next few nights, I spent time on my computer, searching on Facebook, clicking through lists of suggested friends, hoping to come across Aksel Toivonen. I wasn't even sure if that was the correct way to spell his name – I could only hope that Finnish was a language that spelt its words phonetically. But he had either not registered under his full name, or was not on Facebook, or I had gotten the spelling completely wrong, because my search turned up nothing save the vague, dissatisfying feeling of acting like a cyber-stalker.

Maybe it was meant to be just a fling.

And then it happened.

Just as I was on the verge of throwing my hands up and leaving it up to fate, a pop-up appeared on my computer screen. Contact request, the headline read. My eyes shifted down a line to check the name of the requester. Aksel Toivonen.

My jaw fell open.

I hadn't found him, but he had found me.

I scrambled for the mouse, flipping it over in my haste. It took me two tries to accept the request. The moment I clicked the 'accept' button, my computer speakers trilled.

He was calling.

Panicking, I leapt up from my chair and started rummaging around for my mascara, eyeliner – anything. A glance in the mirror told me I looked pale. Boring. Hastily uncapping my mascara, I swiped at my eyelashes with the wand so that I wouldn't look so bland. After that, I hovered over my vanity, running a quick hand through my hair, pinching my cheeks to give them more colour.

Then, deathly afraid he was going to hang up if I took too long fussing over myself, I dove for my computer and jabbed at the 'accept call' button.

Aksel's face came up on the screen – so familiar, yet so unfamiliar – and right then my lungs seized up.

For a long while, we both just sat staring at each other – or as close to staring at each other as one could get when separated by a computer screen, two countries and a distance of two thousand kilometres.

"Hi," he said, at length.

"Hi," I whispered.

"I got your username," he offered, "from Kjell."

"Oh." Of course. The easiest, most straight-forward method, and it hadn't occurred to me.

"Do you..." He hesitated, "do you still talk to him?"

Had he called just to talk about Kjell? "Yeah. We Skype sometimes." I had fallen out of contact with David, but Tatiana and I were still close. I'd received a postcard of Finland from her just two days ago, and the existence of mobile messengers like WhatsApp meant we could still send each other frequent messages.

Silence. Aksel seemed to be struggling to find something to say, and I was so busy eating up the image of him with my eyes, I was no help. "You're really close to Kjell," he said finally.

I shrugged. "We're friends."

"Just friends?"

I leaned towards the camera and rolled my eyes to show what I thought of that question. "Come on," I huffed in exasperation. "I was sleeping with you the whole time in Edinburgh. Do you really think–?"

He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. "I know. I just... He's too friendly towards you."

I gaped at him. "What are you talking about? That's the way he is with everyone. Besides, he has something going on with Tatiana."

"Had." The correction reminded the both of us of our own situation. I had to look away for a moment.

"But Sweden is right next to Finland," I murmured. "How hard would it be to just drive across the border?"

Aksel smiled wryly. "Finland and Sweden are both big countries. Just because it's right next door doesn't mean it isn't still too far away."

"Is that a metaphor for something?"

"No, it's geography. You should know, you share borders with eight other countries."

"Nine," I muttered in a knee-jerk reaction. This conversation felt surreal. Here we were, speaking for the first time in weeks, and we were talking about geography. We hadn't even exchanged the customary 'how are you doing's.

He was momentarily distracted. "Which one did I forget?"

I shrugged."Luxembourg?" It was a small country, easily overlooked.

"Oh."

This time, he was the one looking away from the camera, making no move to offer a new line of conversation.

"I guess flings are just flings," I mused aloud, still thinking about Kjell and Tatiana. Kjell had seemed so love-struck when he'd first met her. Did that mean nothing at all? "Every fling has to end when it's time to go home."

"Some don't," Aksel said lowly.

Caught off guard, I blinked.

"Why..." My voice cracked and I had to clear my throat before trying again, "Why did you call?"

He stared into the eye of his webcam, "I miss you." He scowled, closed his eyes and turned away. "I miss you so goddamned much."

I lifted my hand towards the screen, for a minute forgetting that I wasn't talking to him – not really. All he was right now was an image on my computer monitor.

"I miss you too," I whispered. I wasn't sure if the microphone could pick up my voice, but even if it hadn't, the small smile that flickered at his mouth told me he'd read my lips.

There was another moment of silence, before he said, "So... How... How have you been?"

I shrugged. "As good as can be, I suppose. Wasting time before the new semester begins." I smiled wryly at him. I didn't tell him that I still lay awake at night, wishing I were back in Edinburgh, squished up against him in one of our single beds. "How are you?"

It was a casual question, one used as a greeting all over the world, but I found that I really wanted to know. I wanted to know how he was doing, how he was feeling, how his day had been. I wanted to know everything.

"The same," he said, staring intently at his monitor. "It feels good to be home, yet..."

"Yeah," I agreed, even though it hadn't been a question. But I had known exactly what he meant. "Are you... at your summer house with your friends?" I remembered what he'd told me about his summer activities, in what felt like a lifetime ago.

"Yeah," he said. His lips flattened in a self-deprecating smile. "But I'm not much of good company this year, I'm afraid."

"Not having fun in your mixed saunas?" I asked.

He let out a short laugh. "I told you," he said, "it's just a sauna. Nothing goes on in there. Really."

I felt a pout coming on, so I looked away. His friends didn't know how lucky they were. What I would give to be at this summer house with him...

"When did you leave... Edinburgh?" Even saying the name of the city set off a pang in the region of my heart.

"Four days after you."

"Oh."

We were both quiet then, thinking about those last few monents together.

"Emilie..."

"Aksel," I replied, my voice catching on his name.

He sighed. "Why do you live there?"

"Why do you live there?" I returned, feeling an ache spring up in my nose.

The look of helpless frustration that he leveled at me through the screen spoke more than words could.

I cupped my nose and mouth with both hands, blinking hard to stop the tears. Why did we have to be from such different places? How easy it would be to let yourself love someone who lived right down the street.

"From the beginning," he said, his voice so low that I strained to hear it. "From the beginning... I knew."

I bolted out of my chair, stumbling across to room for a tissue. I couldn't sit there and look at him any longer without bursting into tears. From this angle, I knew he couldn't see me. The webcam atop my monitor was pointing straight at the blank wall to the right of my vanity. But he kept on talking.

"I knew you were dangerous. You had the power to screw up all the plans I had for the future." He laughed, the sound more self-deprecating than humorous. "I tried to stay away. It didn't work. When we started sleeping together... We had a deadline. Once we left Edinburgh, it'd be over. Back to reality."

So that was why he had seemed so unfriendly at the beginning. It hadn't been because he had hated me. It had been because he had been far too interested.

I went back in front of the computer. He started a little when he saw me, as if he hadn't really expected me to have been listening.

"As it turns out, I was right," he said, looking at me through the screen. "You fucked up all my plans."

I didn't say anything. He had fucked up all of mine as well.

We stared at each other for a minute, then I asked slowly, "Do you wish none of it... us... had ever happened?"

"I can't wish that," he murmured, but his expression was pained.

"So," I began softly, my vocal cords clenching around the decisive words I had to ask, "where do we go from here?"

There was a long silence in which he seemed to be considering what to say.

"A girl asked me out for coffee today," he said, changing the topic quite abruptly.

"Oh." I didn't understand what he was saying at first, then it hit me. "Oh, wait, is coffee a euphemism or something?"

He cracked a reluctant smile at that, looking at his screen like I was an exotic animal he didn't quite understand. "Sometimes I forget..."

"So it is?" My tongue felt clammy in my mouth.

He had once told me that people over there were more casual about sex. Had he slept with this nameless girl already?

"It's kind of like a low-pressure date," he shrugged, unaware of the inner turmoil rushing through my head right then. "It's what people do over here, if you're interested in someone."

"Oh." I didn't know what to say. Was I supposed to encourage him to forget about me, to pursue this more geographically practical chance at romance?

Had he called just to say goodbye?

"I told her it was impossible... because there's this other girl... that I can't forget."

I blinked at him stupidly. The rest of my body stayed frozen to my seat.

"Even though she lives so far away, in Germany." He looked straight at the camera lens as he said this. It felt like he was looking right at me. "In Hamburg, actually."

My voice came out sounding paper-thin. "Are you saying..."

He leaned in closer towards his screen, as if that small action could close the distance between us. "When she asked me out... I realised I could never be interested in anyone else when I still feel this way about you." His Adam's apple bobbed before he said hoarsely, "Ich bin in dich verliebt."

I stared at him, joy battling dismay as my heart – and eyes – filled up. Those were the words that lit a fierce spark of joy in my heart, but this wasn't the way I'd wanted to hear them.

I wanted to kiss him, touch him – to feel the warmth of his skin against mine.

"I'm in love with you too," I whispered. Then I bit my lip, "Sorry, I don't know how to say it in Finnish."

He smiled.

I reached for him, only to encounter flat, hard glass. I pressed my fingers against the plastic frame of my monitor, hating that we were so far apart. "I wish you were here."

"Me too," he murmured. He glanced down for a moment, sighing, before he looked back at me. "I'll fly down to Hamburg during semester breaks."

"A round trip between Hamburg and Oulu costs three hundred and forty-five euros during the holidays," I recited.

That stopped him short. Then a smile spread slowly across his face, "You checked, too?"

"I've always wanted to visit Finland," I said, striving for casualness but failing miserably.

"I've never been to Hamburg," he countered.

We sat there, connected through our screens, smiling uncertainly but hopefully at each other.

"So," he said softly, "are we going to try?"

"I want to," I whispered back. "Do you?"

His eyes were serious as he answered. "I do."

"Your friends and family are there, mine are here... No matter what, it's not going to be easy." I still remembered that last conversation we'd had. Even if this worked out for now... What were we going to do in the future? The obstacles between us had not magically vanished since the day we'd said goodbye at the airport.

"Is this the German pessimism I've heard so much about?" he joked, before he grew serious. "No, it won't be easy... But we'll figure it out one step at a time."

"Yeah." I looked down briefly. "Maybe one day... after graduation..."

"We could go back to Edinburgh," he finished.

I stared at him. How had he known what I had been about to say? He had done this a lot in Edinburgh too, I realised. Read my mind before I'd even been aware of it.

That gave me hope.

"Did you know," I said, "the success rate for long-distance relationships is about sixty percent?"

He cast me an exasperated look, one that I had been the recipient of many times back in Edinburgh. "You have statistics for everything."

A giggle escaped me, before I felt my smile slowly fade. "I hope we're part of the sixty percent," I whispered, lifting my arm to stroke the image of his face on my screen.

I saw, on the other side, his arm lifting too. He must have placed his hand on his screen like I had, and I absently mused that, if we had been on either side of a connected piece of glass, we could be touching the same spot.

"We will be." His voice was steady; firm – confident. I felt emotion trill through me. Here was a boy, living two thousand kilometres away, who, despite all he had done to avoid me, to keep his heart locked up at first, was now willing to restructure his future so that I had a place in it. A boy from a different culture, a different country. A boy who, despite all our differences, I had fallen irrevocably for. A boy who had looked past who I seemed to be, straight into the core of who I was. A boy who had stuck up for me, even when I had been against myself. A boy who thought I was enough, just the way I was.

And I believed him.

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