The leather squeaked under her weight as she squirmed in place, waiting for the answer to her question. She pressed the phone close to her ear and listened to the sound of his breathing. It was one of those rare moments where she wasn’t treated like a child. He was just as catatonic as she, his voice an octave lower and his tone no-nonsense.
She sat back on the couch, eyes scanning the expensive interior of wood and brick crowded by shelves of hard-cover binders. The large window behind the heavy desk showed a cloudy morning, sunrays barely hitting the tall buildings outside. Her free hand brushed along the wall next to her; her fingers traced over the decorative indents. Despite its warm brown, the wood was cold against her skin.
On the other end, he said her name but struggled to continue. Was this how people feel when they talked to her?
She turned to glance out the window behind her, parting the blinds to see her father conversing with other adults – coworkers, who dressed in immaculate business attires and whose face was the definition of distress. Ib figured she was the reason why they were talking outside his office.
She let go of the blinds and resumed her previous posture against the couch. On the phone, Garry sounded panicked at her lack of response, asking her if she was still there and listening. She was, just not in the way he would want her to. The way he used ‘aye’ that wasn’t at all like him and how he kept telling her that it wasn’t a good idea, she didn’t want to hear any of it. She could tell he was trying to wriggle out of the conversation. He did it all too blatantly when disconcerted. If her voice was going to give him the reassurance to hang up, she wouldn’t offer even a cough.
A rejection was looming on the horizon.
He went silent for a moment. When he started again, she quickly tuned out his words, her heartbeats quickening.
From his voice, she could imagine him running hands through his hair, yanking it even. “Garry,” she interrupted his incoherent rambling.
She remembered yesterday. Time had seemed to slow to a standstill as she held both of her parents’ gazes. They’d both smiled despite the grogginess in their expression. So patient. So gentle. She loved them.
She also loved him.
And the smile had spread so naturally across her lips as she’d woven a tale.
“I already told you,” she began after a deep breath to steel her resolve. “You were studying, and I fell asleep waiting for you.” It was a story in which she found Garry drooling on his table in the morning, and he fell off his chair when she tried to wake him. There was this scene in her head, so ideal, where they exchanged carefree chatters as he whipped up breakfast, until his guest so rudely interrupted them. A simple tale where she was happy, where he smiled kindly and patted her head, and everything was…normal.
“This is not something we can just lie about,” his tone was filled with objection. “Things don’t just work like that—”
“I’m not lying.”
If that night was going to sabotage what they had… If his embrace was going to be the reason why she could never feel his warmth again, and her tears why he wouldn’t see her. Then none of it had happened. The bed had been too big without him that night, but his scent kept her nightmares at bay. The morning had been scary when she couldn’t find him in the living room, but his drooling face when she found him in the study had made her smile.
Her hand slid under the collar of her thick wool jacket, her fingers shaking as they repeated their new habit of tracing the collarbone.
Like this fading mark on her skin, that night was going to disappear. Like the way they’d convinced people they were just a strange pair that bonded over macarons, this was just another story for them to perfect. Another truth they’d keep. Another tie that bound. And as long as they never mentioned it, no one would know; and neither of them would have to hurt.
“Don’t make me a liar.”
There was only silence on the other side.
“So can I?”
She could feel it. The rejection was ready at the tip of his tongue.
A sigh was vivid in her ear. “All right. You can come…tomorrow. Any time you like.”
“Thank you.” She strangely felt neither the joy nor anticipation that should’ve followed this pattern of conversation between them. “… See you tomorrow.”
Ib waited for him to hang up, listening for that beep that would cut the sound of his breathing short and end the call. But it never came. As the seconds ticked by it dawned on her he was doing just the same thing. It was Garry whom she had learnt the gesture from.
A soft chuckle echoed on the other end; he sounded almost wry.
“Okay, I’ll hang up now, Ib. …Bye.” And the line went dead.
She lowered the phone from her ear to stare at it, her mind blank. The discreetly parted blinds revealed her Pa with a stern expression, and it didn’t seem like he would be coming in anytime soon. Turning back in front, she started to dangle her legs as her mind replayed the phone call. Garry didn’t reject her. Somehow that was such a feat. Garry didn’t want her to come, but he didn’t reject her. Her black boots stilled.
He didn’t reject her.
He couldn’t reject her anymore.
Sliding down from the couch, the little girl went to put her father’s phone on his organized desk. The faintest smile was curving her lips.
Tomorrow was said to be a beautiful day, according to the weather forecast. Of course, it was but a probability.
His heavy footsteps travelled up the stairwell, echoing between marble walls and a tall, intricate ceiling. The air conditioning was faintly cold on his skin when he reached the top and entered through the doorway. It was quiet. The campus was already quiet because of the break, but this building was especially so. He could’ve been convinced he was alone.
Walking past the lit but empty rooms, Garry headed for the paneled double door at the end of the hallway. The President was always looking to increase the quality of other departments aside from arts and crafts. It had been emphasized to him how important it was to please the school’s guest. But with his head filled to the brim with the phone call from Ib, Garry couldn’t have cared any less when he knocked on the door. The past four hours were mere minutes as he kept beating himself up over the promise he’d made. A bad idea, he still thought of it, but at the same time they did need to talk. He’d expected weeks, if not months, before she could bear to mention his name again. And that was if her parents hadn’t already called the cops on his sorry ass by then.
Yet, not only had she proposed they act as if nothing had happened, she was even walking back into the place that should have scarred her for life.
Ib was always doing things he would never expect. It was what separated her from the rest. It was the reason why he’d fallen in love.
He remembered small hands. They had clung onto his shirt for dear life. And he had been too weak to break free.
His face darkened at the memory. It was also the cause of this whole mess in the first place.
And then there was this…
The door opened and he was introduced to the guest. A thin, bespectacled man with a head of mussed black hair sat cross-legged at the sofa. He looked to be thirty-something, quite young for the things that had been advertised about him. As the scientist stood up to shake his hand over the coffee table, Garry analyzed what careless articles of clothing were hanging from the man’s lanky figure. Tasteless and dull. Maybe he really was being summoned for a pre-conference makeover – although he wasn’t in the position to criticize others right now, after that scolding by Lucy.
A halfhearted grip. “Nicholas. Pleasure to meet you, la’.” He saw no such pleasure in the smile that was offered.
The President left them with a few private instructions whispered to Garry.
“Care for one?” Nicholas offered him a crumpled pack of cigarettes the moment the door closed.
“… Thank you, but I don’t smoke,” he replied despite the distant flare of want. It was the brand he liked to smoke, and his lungs would love a deep burn right now. But it was time he tried to quit again, since Ib would still be around—
Whoever said she was going to be around? But a wayward part of him rejoiced at the possibility. Ib herself had suggested they bury this skeleton. She hadn’t told her parents. She must want to be with him still, so why was he even hesitating? His lovely Ib was protecting him just as she had always been. If anything, he should be giggling with glee like a madman watching the tides turn to his advantage.
“Huh… I was under the impression that you did.” The offhanded comment pulled at Garry’s attention, and he met Nicholas’s gaze for the first time. The pair of square glasses obscured dark eyes that did not hide the bored indifference of a man who’d learnt all there was to know. Perhaps the man knew him from someone else. While thinking that Garry still didn’t see a plausible reason for Nicholas to want to see him. And looking at the idle attitude of this alleged genius, Garry wasn’t sure if the man had any purpose at all.
Nicholas withdrew the packet, and took out one cigarette for himself. “Then, do you mind if I do?” he asked, but was already taking out an acrylic lighter; the cancer stick between his teeth. His right hand made clumsy work of the device, creating several clicks with no success. “‘Shite… Forgot to refill this thing again.” The man grated, crushing the filter stub between his teeth.
Without much of a thought, Garry held out his silver lighter. “You can use mine.”
There was a pause as the older man stared at his hand. “Didn’t you say you don’t smoke?” Those dark eyes were lazy, but scrutinizing.
Garry smiled to hide his nervousness. “I quit last year, but still carry this around as a habit.”
The man made a throaty noise that left the mood rather ambiguous and bent forward, bringing his cig near the offered lighter. An expectant look was directed up at Garry, so he complied and lit it for the man.
As the white smoke made a languid escape from the tip of the burning tobacco, he found himself giving it a longing look. Maybe if he asked for one— Garry mentally shook himself and shoved his lighter back inside his pocket. No. He was seeing Ib tomorrow, and he’d be damned if she shows the slightest interest in smoking like she did his piercing.
“You’re left-handed,” another random remark from Nicholas, who smiled when their eyes met. The man made a show of switching his lighter onto his left hand and click, a small flame flickered into life.
Garry narrowed his eyes, his annoyance seeping out. That lighter was anything but empty, and if he thought about it, people didn’t refill those cheap things in the first place. He was not in the mood for mind games. “Nicholas, I’m sorry, but what is this meeting about?”
Nicholas appeared unfazed as he took a long drag. “That smug bastard told me to check you out,” he paused to ash his cigarette, “you know, Leonard.”
Garry felt a nervous churn in the pit of his stomach at the mention of his benefactor’s name. The same apprehension that hadn’t quite wane from yesterday was back with everything it had, like dying fire being fed oil. Suddenly, this insignificant appointment he’d had this past week had turned into something of grave relation to him. He didn’t know how much Mr. Garland was onto, or what the man was planning, but he knew yesterday’s conversation was far from finished. The uncertainty only made the dread plaguing him worsen.
“You should’ve heard him mention me quite a few times.” Nicholas made a gesture with the hand that was holding the cig. “I was his advisor for grad school.”
“… I’m sorry. Mr. Garland never talked about that.” Garry answered honestly in his distress.
There was something like a pause as the older man stared back at him.
“Oh…” Nicholas leant forward with a serious look on his face. He looked riled up. “Then, you should’ve heard a lot about me from Scarlet. That kid’s probably already bored you with the constant bragging of her dad.”
He gave an apologetic smile. “She doesn’t talk much about her family—” His voice trailing off, Garry replayed the words in his mind. “Wait, what!?”
“Yes, I’m too young to be her father, yada yada yada, save it.” Nicholas scowled at nothing in particular, sitting back in his seat, and returned to the low tension state from before. It didn’t look like he was open for conversation so Garry kept his mouth shut. The silence stretched into some sort of a mix between awkward and comical as the man drew impatient breaths after breaths through his cigarette.
“I tell you, la’. An ungrateful bunch, the lot of them.”
A heavy feeling coiled around his chest as he lay on his bed, anxious about what was to come. With an arm draped over his forehead, he stared up at the ceiling above, trying to take an interest in the many shapes on its surface. The morning had come quicker than he would have liked it to, and he didn’t want to leave the bed. It was a form of escapism, he supposed. By staying idle, his legs tangled in the mess of a comforter, it felt as though he could freeze time at the moment he woke up. The curtains were drawn, keeping his room in minimal lighting, so he could ignore the rising sun. And if he didn’t walk out into the living room and turn the hourglass, the sand would remain stagnated, wouldn’t it?
“You said Mr. Garland asked you to check me out. Why?” he’d asked Nicholas.
“Hmm, does he ever tell you why he wants you to do something?”
“So what makes you think he tells me?”
He was worried. Mr. Garland sent Nicholas for a reason. He feared it had to do with Ib. That devil had set his gaze on innocent little Ib because of Garry, and he was in no position to stop it. All these problems, why couldn’t they take their damn turn for once?
Garry sucked in a breath and closed his eyes. The hand that wasn’t busy kneading his forehead traced the fabric of his bed sheet. Slowly, carefully. The tips of his fingers found what he was looking for. A blot of dry blood that did not show on the black linen. He lightly scratched at the hardened material without bothering to look at it, having fixated on it enough when he found it last night. As soon as the scratches on his ribs healed, this would be the only thing left of that night. The one evidence to his sin of indulging himself at his beloved girl’s expense. And so easily, it, too, would be gone with some detergent and half an hour in the washer.
Nothing happened? It wasn’t that simple. Maybe she could pretend he’d never embraced her, but Garry couldn’t. He regretted hurting her…but he didn’t regret touching her. He’d tasted the forbidden fruit, and it was far sweeter, far more intoxicating than he could ever prepare himself for. Though this guilt had yet to disappear, he was already wanting more of her. The moment she’d called his name in the phone and given him hope, it’d marked the ebbing of his conscience, giving way for a deep dark desire to bare its fangs. But this disgusting, lusting beast wasn’t what she wanted, was it?
Ib wanted to glue back their broken friendship, no matter how sloppy a work it would be; even if the jagged pieces would never fit the same way again. She had no idea how cruel she was being with that naivety. To the both of them. Those jutting sharp edges were going to cut. He would hurt her with his love, and she would in return hurt him with hers.
He’d rather she screamed at him, hit him. She could’ve plucked his rose bare, rip its stem to shreds and left him to rot in that accursed gallery and it would’ve still been kinder.
But hey, he hadn’t exactly been kind to her either.
His nails scraped with more force on the fabric beneath his palm. Trying to leave her, holding their friendship hostage, scaring her, hurting her, scarring her. He’d indulged himself, so wasn’t it time he humored her childish ideals? The selfish piece of trash that he was, for the one girl he loved, he should be able to at least do that much. At least. He could at least try.
Garry opened his eyes and glanced to the large window. The sunlight was glowing behind the heavy drapery. He swiftly wondered how much time he had wasted lying here, before getting up. While stifling a sigh, he pushed the comforter and blanket to one corner and ripped the linen from his bed. He made a note to himself to clean the mattress and brought the balled up sheet to the laundry room.
After stuffing the bed sheet into the washer and set the machine going, he exited into the bathroom and stood himself in front of the mirror. He ran a hand over the stubble on his jaw, the other opening the medicine cabinet to get his razor.
When he was done cleaning himself up, Garry left the bathroom with a bandage on his left cheek. A quick look at the clock told him that it was well past eleven o’clock, and he found it rather surprising Ib hadn’t come ringing his doorbell already. She had sounded so determined and willful on the phone that he was convinced she would come as early as her parents would let her. But he guessed nothing was predictable anymore.
He figured he could do some vacuuming, which he’d neglected to do since last week.
By twelve, he had finished with the apartment and seated himself on the couch after a change of clothes. Staring at the black TV screen in front of him, he counted the seconds it took for the hourglass to finish its cycle. Two hundred and ninety-eight. Five minutes, with a margin of error. He flipped the ornament and had it start all over. Once, twice, thrice… By the sixth time, Garry got bored and tipped the thing over. It was close to twelve forty and she still hadn’t come. A long-forgotten memory of being stood up during his puberty years surfaced in his mind.
Maybe telling her she could come anytime wasn’t the wisest thing. But he’d felt like he had no right to dictate when she could go to a traumatic place. He wanted to give her any bits of choice she didn’t get to have that night.
He reminded himself that this was different from the times they used to hang out, and he doubted she was looking forward to it. There would be no going back from here. This was going to be that turning point, that change he’d craved and feared.
Getting up from the couch, he cracked his joints and went to fix himself a quick lunch.
At two, he was yawning from a full stomach, but couldn’t quite fall asleep on his bed. Maybe Ib had changed her mind and wasn’t going to come. Although, he didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed if that was the case.
He woke with a start around a quarter after three and sprang up straight, worried that he might have missed her. But without a way to make sure, he continued to wait.
At four, he decided to redress his bed. He was halfway done with it when the doorbell rung its shrill tone.
The dramatically slow build-up to the moment he’d mustered the courage to open the door revealed a delivery from his aunt. What kind of cliché anticlimax was this? He grudgingly signed the form, watched the woman disappear around the corner before crouching down to pick up the box.
“Garry.” The hesitant call of his name made his head snap up to the left. And there she stood, red eyes calm and small face half-hidden behind a muffler she was tugging at. Ib kept her distance and didn’t get any closer.
Hiding a wry look, he stood up holding the big box that was more bulky than heavy. Well, wasn’t this just perfect? Both of his hands were occupied, so it could actually look natural to not hold out his hand for her. Not that she would take it anyway.
He gave her a small smile that he hoped would make her more comfortable, and gestured inside with his chin.