At school the next day, Sophia barely speaks. Dark, purple circles cup her eyes and she seems vacant like she’s sleepwalking through the day. Her fragile state makes her feel younger and even more petite. I know that tonight her mum will work another nightshift. Flashes of the likely event that will follow flicker behind my lids. I cannot let it happen again. As we sit facing one another at lunch, I strike up a conversation, attempting to pull her from the depths of her memories.
“So, I was thinking, we could start a study club.”
Sophia frowns but for the first time all day, she is present. “A study club?”
“Yeah, we could hang out after school and do our homework together. I can help you with Math and you can help me with…”
My brain searches for a subject Sophia has more expertise with. As I languish in the struggle, she chirps up, “Art?”
“Yes, Art!” I say, practically shouting, “And perhaps other things too, like helping me... socially.”
“If you haven’t noticed Lucas, I’m not that great at making friends either, you’re all I have.”
I let the sentence linger in the air. I’m all she has. “Trust me, you are,” I eventually respond.
Sophia leans her head to one side and lifts her eyebrows. “Study club?”
“Study club,” I parrot back, firmly.
She finally accepts the idea, and we plan to meet at her house tonight after dinner. We return to picking at our lunches before the bell rings out. I notice that Sophia has left almost all of her lunch. I make a mental note to bring snacks to our first study club meeting later.
“What shall we call it? Our study club,” I ask as we march down the halls to class.
Sophia clutches her books against her chest as if they are sacred. I can tell she is thinking hard as she bites her lip, the way she did the first time I ever laid eyes on her. “Is The Misfits too on the nose?”
We both burst out laughing. People stare at us contemplating what we think is so funny. My chuckle ends before Sophia’s, and I rejoice at the sound of her giggle. She has a robust, energetic laugh like a full and heady red wine. It is truly dazzling. I wish I could make her happy like this every day.
We part our ways outside of Home Economics and the sadness returns to Sophia’s face. For the first time, I stop imagining her asleep in bed and fantasize about her lying next to me, smiling and free. Before I can hesitate, I reach out and hug her. Her books press against me, digging into my ribs, but I don’t care. I hold her and drink in every second. At first, she feels rigid between my arms. Stiff. It doesn’t take her long to soften and sink into my embrace. When I let her go, I simply smile and walk away, knowing how much that hug would mean to her at that moment. Even though I don’t look back, I can feel Sophia stood behind me, starring.
After school, I continuously watch the clock as I funnel food into my mouth.
“Lucas, you are eating like you’re feral. Did you not have much at lunch?” my mum asks.
I wipe the spaghetti juices from my mouth and reply, cheeks still full of pasta, “It is just so delicious.”
My mum smiles at this and stops badgering me about my haste. I swallow the lump of food and announce my evening plans, “Sophia and I are going to start doing our homework together. I’m heading to hers tonight to help her with her Maths.”
My parents share glances with each other. I wonder what they are more surprised at. The fact that I am hanging out with someone outside of school or that I am meeting up with a girl. Alone.
“That’s great boyo. You’ll make a fantastic tutor,” my dad says with a smirk.
I practically lick my plate clean and excuse myself from the table. Upstairs, I grab my backpack containing all my stationery and the addition of sweets, including Sophia’s favourite. Dashing out of the house, my parents wish me good luck. It feels strange heading to Sophia’s house in the light of day after so long of sneaking about under the guise of nightfall. I knock on the door, excited. Then I see him and abruptly remember.
“Afternoon Lucas. Study club aye? Sophia’s told me all about it. Sounds like a great idea. She certainly needs the help,” Fred declares upon opening the front door.
The hatred that pulsates through my body is venomous. I thought I knew hate, but the feelings I had about things before last night pales in comparison to how I feel now. This hate is pure and intense. Focused. I attempt to shimmer its heat as I reply, “Is Sophia ready?”
Fred tells me to head on up. Janice hasn’t departed yet so greets me by the stairs. I wonder if she really is clueless about what goes on between her husband and daughter. Then I think about how easily I have deceived people over the years. You don’t expect the unexpected.
I stop at the top of the stairs at the sight of Sophia’s bedroom door, knowing the steps I was about to take mirrored that of Fred last night. It made me almost sick. I shake off the nerves and think of Sophia. She needs me right now, and the less time she is alone in this house, the better. I approach her door and gently push it open. Perched on the end of her bed, Sophia beams back at me. “Lucas! Welcome to my room. Mind the mess.”
I find it amusing that she thinks this is my first encounter. I play along and pretend everything is new to me. She gives me the grand tour as she calls it and we finish sitting on her wooden floor, by her bed. The same spot I spend each night watching over her.
“So, where should we start?” she asks, tucking a strand of loose hair behind her ear.
I pull out the bag of sweets and chuck her the sherbet one. She tucks in impatiently. Distracted by the sugar, I use the moment to bring up something I’ve wanted her to discuss for some time. “I was wondering, are you finally ready to show me your artwork yet?”
Sophia looks stunned, hurt. I worry I’ve ruined the mood. Everything was going so well. She takes a deep breath and heads to her desk to retrieve her sketchpad. She passes it to me but continues to hold one of its edges.
“I’ve never shown this to anyone, so this is a pretty big deal, okay?”
The sentiment is touching. I already know what illustrations lay etched onto the page, but the fact she is willingly entrusting me to look is huge.
“Okay,” I simply reply, and feel her let go, allowing me to take it. When I open the book, I scowl with confusion. This is not the same sketchpad that I perused weeks ago. There, glaring back at me is myself. I flick through the book and see page after page of my face drawn in incredible detail. On some, Sophia has replicated moments we’ve shared. My favourite is a drawing of us laid on the grass, side by side, pointing to the sky.
“They are amazing,” I mutter quietly, almost lost for words.
“Before I came here, my drawings were… pretty morbid. Then I met you. You’re my muse,” she nudges me playfully as she speaks. I can’t believe all this time I thought I was the one with the secrets. I never once stopped to consider Sophia as the dark horse.
“I don’t know what to say, nobody has ever done anything like this for me. I didn’t think I was interesting enough.”
“I find you extremely interesting.”
As I bring my gaze from the book to Sophia’s eyes, I see them shine. How beautiful she is. “Thank you,” I say, heat rising in my cheeks.
There is an awkward silence that feels heavy with expectation and I shy away. Sensing my discomfort, Sophia’s tone changes and she becomes playful once more, “Don’t go getting all big-headed on me now. Any more than you already are!”
“Big-headed? How so?” I ask, amused. We are back to laughing now. We roll about on the floor in tandem as Sophia rehashes her first opinion of me. Apparently, the reason people don’t warm to me is that I carry myself with a sense of superiority.
“Really? And I thought I did a good job of hiding it,” I joke.
Sophia asks me in a more serious tone now, why I volunteered to help her on her first day at school. This is dangerous territory. If I share too much, I could freak her out. If I don’t share enough, I may never get this moment again.
“You reminded me of me. I’ve never fit in. Quite frankly, I think I’ve never wanted to. When I saw you sat nervously at your desk, I felt an instant connection. You were an outsider too. Selfishly, I knew that you wouldn’t be for long.”
“What do you mean?”
“A girl like you. You can be anyone you want to be. You’d have been snapped up fast by anyone in the school once you’d found your feet. I knew after a day, you’d never even consider being my friend.”
Sophia places her hand on mine as she speaks, “Then you don’t know me as well as you think you do.”
I sit up straighter and clear my throat.
“Have you ever had a girlfriend?” Sophia suddenly queries.
“No. Never,” I say, shaking my head.
“You ever had a boyfriend?”
The response surprises me. Sophia is stunning. How on earth has she remained single her whole life?
Sophia hesitates, “I struggle to…trust people.”
Knowing what I do about her father, this makes complete sense. I instantly feel guilty. She thinks she can trust me, the version of me she sees. How could I have ever let this go this far?
“Lucas, can I try something?”
The light outside has dimmed, and her room is caught between light and darkness.
“Yes, of course,” is my response, perplexed by what she wants to do.
Sophia edges forward along the floor, her face so close I can feel her breath against my skin and see the splashes of russet and tan along her irises. Gently, she wipes away the curling hair that dangles in front of my eyes. My body feels so alive, almost electric. The pull I feel towards her is overwhelming, but I remain still and longing, panting.
Sophia’s lips touch mine at last. At first, the kiss is soft and mild. Neither of us moving. Then, I find myself inching myself ever closer and holding my hand against the back of her head, intertwining my fingers with her soft hair. She pushes open my mouth and finds my tongue. I can taste the sweetness of sherbet as we move against one another. The feeling is better than anything I’ve felt before. When we ultimately part, we are breathless. I keep her close to me, foreheads touching, and I immediately want to kiss her again. To never stop kissing her.
“That was my first kiss,” I whisper.
“Mine too,” Sophia replies, still inches away from my mouth.
Fred’s face comes to my mind’s eye and spoils the moment. Now more than ever, I long to keep her safe from him. By now, Janice has left for work, and I hear the buzz of the TV downstairs where Fred watches sitcoms. Reluctantly, I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, ensuring I close Sophia’s bedroom door on my way out.
The note is already written in my pocket. When thinking about what I could do to stop Fred’s antics, I thought of what would stop me. What we have in common is anonymity. It is the foundation of our acts. Without it, everything crumbles. Inscribed on the letter reads, ‘I know what you do to Sophia.’ Short and to the point. I place it on Fred and Janice’s bed, knowing he will find it before she comes back from work. To ensure Sophia doesn’t suspect anything is amiss, I go to the toilet. By the time I make it back onto the landing, Fred is stood in my way.
“It is getting late, I think it is time for you to wrap things up,” he announces with eyes unblinking and bold.
I rush into Sophia’s room to gather my things before he finds the note while I am there. After saying my goodbyes, I feel the need to kiss Sophia once more. Fred hovers nearby, making this impossible. All I can do is squeeze her hand as I walk towards the front door. It closes behind me with Fred's forceful hand. Heading back home, I am filled with so many conflicting emotions. The effervescent joy of my first kiss, and the fear that Fred won’t go to his bedroom before going to Sophia’s.