Torrents of silky blond hair flew by as my young friend raced along the forest path. Her brown eyes were alight with the rush of adrenaline from being chased, and the mischief and joy of doing so. A healthy flush coloured her porcelain cheeks as the fresh, sea-salted air caressed her softly. The trees spat out fiery leaves as she zig-zagged her way down the winding road, some of them, tangling in her loose waves, and brushing along her skin like decaying old fingers. She didn’t give much mind to them though. She laughed impishly; a kittenish smile gracing her rose pink lips, showing off the natural dimples she must work so hard to conceal.
Her elder brother came in a close second, swooping in on his prey, and roaring out in laughter I supposed the family hadn’t heard in years. His auburn head of hair was thrown back in a contagious cackle that I couldn’t help but join in with, as he caught his younger sibling in his arms and lifted her into the air. Squeals and girlish cries of protest were made, yet this did absolutely nothing to stop the tickling she was getting.
I watched on in amusement, cigarette in one hand, Aika’s handbag in the other. Watching the two was like a retrospective from when I was much younger. That was when my big brother cared about me. He’s grown up and gone now... Mom always said friends may come and go, but family is forever. Oh how I wish that were true.
‘Cherry, come on!’ Aika called out as she realised I was lagging behind.
She turned around to grin at me, still running, her long, lustrous hair flying out in front of her face as the wind decided to grab it. My heart fluttered slightly. I took a last poof of my cigarette then stomped it out on the earthy floor.
‘Coming!’ I yelled, my slow jog breaking out into a full-blown sprint.
I chased the pair down the path until we reached our destination. The garden was overcome with weeds, and the pastel blue clapboard wood rotten and crumbling, yet nobody could say this place didn’t have its charms. Little heart shapes were carved into the balcony, and the front garden held traces of rose bushes long gone. The crickets and cicadas scraped tunes at us from all directions. In the nearby stagnant water, a bullfrog snapped up an unsuspecting house fly in its tongue and swallowed. My eyes fell to the twisted metal chairs situated on the boardwalk, that seemingly, spiders of all kinds had taken refuge in.
All around was a heavy silence that only the animals could break: after all, this was their home. Pierre stood stock still, almost like a soldier you would see featured on the news. His mouth was agape with wonder. Aika’s eyes roamed all over the dilapidated home, sparkling with what I knew was fascination for her father’s childhood home.
‘Wanna go inside?’ I asked quietly, being the one to interrupt the silence.
Aika turned on me. ‘No. Father said we are not to go inside,’ her brow furrowed slightly, ‘it could be dangerous. The house is…’ she paused to count on her fingers. ‘Almost two hundred years old, and not very well-built at that.’
Pierre backed her up with a stiff nod of his head.
I gave the crumbling building a side-long glance and reconsidered my offer. ‘Perhaps not…’
The eldest put his hands in his pockets and sighed. In his eyes were something I didn’t quite like. Like his sister’s eyes, they were brown, yet glistening, but not quite with happiness. He stood mute before dragging his feet back to where he came from. Aika goggled him confusedly before falling unnaturally silent herself.
‘I best get going. I’ve got to meet a friend in town,’ he said saturninely before shuffling his way through the half Summer, half Autumn scenery.
When he was out of earshot, I grabbed Aika by the arm and directed her towards the chairs on the balcony. Pushing her down before checking for spiders, I saw the worrisome glint in her eyes before mentally reminding myself to be more gentle with her. She was very fragile — both physically and mentally.
‘What’s his deal?’ I interrogated, my tone soft, yet demanding no nonsense.
Her eyes never met mine. ‘That’s just Pierre. He’s fine.’
My mouth curved into a smile. ‘Sure.’
‘H-he is fine… He’s just—just…’
‘I know. My own brother was the same,’ I said dejectedly, absentmindedly kicking the metal table between us both. ‘Pierre’s really cute though.’
Aika said nothing, staring into space almost although she wished it would swallow her up.
‘What’s he hiding?’ I asked, certainly not expecting an answer.
She swallowed, her face turning pasty. ‘When we moved over here, he’s been even more gloomy than usual. Dad doesn’t pay him any mind. Buddy rarely talks to him. He’s always out.’ She swallowed again and continued, her voice thick with tears, ‘…Pierre is always in front of the mirror. He just sits there… all alone. He hates himself. I can tell. When I talk to him about it, he just dismisses it, and tells me I’m being a typical stupid girl.
‘But I know it. The way he cries in his bedroom. It’s so loud — and so frightening — so terrible, that it makes my blood run cold. I asked him about it again last night but he tells me I’m hearing things. I’m not though! He’s upset about something and I know it!’
When she finished, she finally broke down as two tears trickled down her pallid cheeks. I didn’t know what to say, so I kept my clumsy mouth shut. Instead, I reached across the table and placed my hand over hers. Her saddened eyes met mine for perhaps the first time, then cast themselves firmly down on the space behind my head. She looked although she were to begin talking again, so I squeezed her hand to tell her to stop; everything is fine.
‘I know you’re sad, my friend,’ I said huskily, at the same time, choosing my words wisely, ‘and I know I’ve never had to deal with something like that… but I’m always here for you. If you need me.’
Aika coughed nervously. Then she put her other hand in mine and squeezed back. A sweet smile played on her lips. ‘Thank you.’
I smiled back, perhaps in encouragement.
Above us, two birds sang a duet. We sat a while and listened, finally in peace. A lone ray of sunshine cast over us, the woods suddenly not seeming so unforgiving, and the ruin of a home behind us not quite so lonely.
‘You said you have a brother?’
‘Yeah, yeah. Actually I have two. One of ‘em’s a real ankle biter. Billy. He’s the eldest. Perhaps the same age as your Buddy. And then there’s little Sam. He’s just a tyke. I love him so much!’ I replied, smiling fondly at the memories of my younger brother.
‘Y’know how you don’t have a mom, well I’m the opposite. My father ran away when Billy was born. He’s the biggest fuckin’ loser I’ve ever known.’ I shook my head dismally.
My friend made a humming noise and patted my hand sympathetically. I snorted slightly in amusement.
‘Wanna smoke?’ I asked.
Aika wrinkled her nose and shook her head. ‘No thank you!’
‘Um, thanks,’ she said, gingerly accepting the bubble gum, trying hard not to touch my nicotine-stained fingers.
I slipped a fresh cigarette from my packet and snickered at the card featuring a pinup girl inside. Aika glanced over my shoulder and frowned. Groping for the lighter inside my pocket, I accidentally brought out my switchblade instead, causing Aika to gasp. She made no comment though; rather, watching in contempt as I lit up and exhaled.
‘I live on a farm,’ I admitted, gesturing to the supposedly white converse I sported.
The girl opposite me immediately brightened up. ‘With animals?’
‘Sows, mares, cattle, chicken, sheep. We’ve got the most livestock in the whole of Jubilee!’ I said, not quite so modestly.
‘I would love to see them some day,’ Aika said after checking her pocket French-to-English dictionary for what a mare was. ‘I love animals.’
‘Oh yeah? Do you have a pet?’
‘No,’ she confided, ‘But I’d love a puppy or a kitten for my own… You?’
‘Used to have a dog, but she died. She was an old, smelly thing. No wonder dad ran away,’ I added with a half-hearted laugh. I soon regretted it.
We were left to dissolve into a deep, calm silence, in which, I managed to finish my smoke. I lit another one then shoved the box under Aika’s nose.
‘Sure ya don’t want one? They’re good. I mean, they take getting used to, but—’
‘I said no! You’re disgusting!’
My jaw dropped. ‘What? I’m what?!’
Aika shrank away from me and put her fingers in her mouth, like a small child in the dunce cap.
I towered over her, my cold eyes hot with rage. My fist was raised before I realised who I was dealing with. A girl two years younger than myself. A little girl in a world full of impossibly big and powerful idols. My heart went out to her, even though my boyish instincts were telling me to punch her and be done with it. I may be tough in front of the boys, but in front of Aika, I’m a stumbling, clumsy fool...
‘Hey, look. I’m sorry. Don’t be scared. I’m not gonna hurt you.’
‘You looked like you were,’ she said bluntly. ‘You looked like my mother when she wants to hurt me.’
I chewed on my hangnail. ‘I’m real sorry.’