What little evening air that pushed its way through the open window was cool, carrying the city’s distant humming into his quiet apartment.
It’s okay, he heard his own voice whisper, his lips frozen under warm brushes of air, tingling from the swift contact that they now missed. Eyes of ruby remained half-veiled by secretive lashes, peering back at him with a flicker of something he couldn’t place, but beautiful nonetheless. So much that he was afraid to move, to even breathe lest he disturbed this moment; so very delicate.
The dainty hand on his chest, right where the raucous beating was, twisted into his shirt, holding such power over him, and he felt his heart twisting along with it, painful, but egging him on, pushing him to feel—more, much more than he should ever allow himself to again. His lungs burned for air, and with the same desperation his mouth thirsted for the taste of her.
Their noses still touched. Just one more time, he bargained. Just one more time; what could it hurt?
He wanted to feel the rose of her sun-caressed cheek. He wanted to comb the silk of her hair, and rub the slender of her nape, and crush her wee form to himself, never letting go. But alas, his hands weren’t his, uselessly heavy on the chair he sat in, shackled by uncertainty and fright. Fright because that look in her eyes gripped at his soul, fright because her warm breaths clouded his mind in a euphoric haze, fright because the weight on his thighs pleased him far too much; fright because he knew what he would do if he let himself.
Her soft call of his name, wispy syllables landing on his lips, a feather-light force that crumbled his willpower to fading dust.
He gasped, taking in an unexpected breath.
The air that filled him was of the sweetest tang.
Ib was in the backseat, watching unfamiliar streets scroll past her view through the window. The tree was still there, dangling away beneath the rearview mirror, its scent still permeating the confined space with a zeal that Ib was sure no one appreciated. Was it the same tree for the past four months or was it a new one? Either way, the ‘fresh’ smell had never let up in Gin’s car.
In the face of the still overpowering air freshener, Ib tried to limit her respiration to shallow puffs as she wondered when they were going to arrive. If this had been any other time, she would have hardly noticed the discomfort when what waited for her at the end of the ride was a whole day alone with Garry. However, today the car was headed elsewhere, to her chagrin, and the reason for that occurred yesterday.
In the silence of her room, the rejection had been as clear as the sky of the Tuesday afternoon. With his baseball cap pulled low, Ray had attempted to hide his expression from her, but his feeling was blatant. The boy she’d come to associate with nothing but smiles and positivity had worn a pout so big that an octopus would have been sent running for its money.
That was the prelude to an awkward series of exchanges between them, with Ib, wanting to strike the rejection from her mind, dismissing the topic while Ray kept insisting she asked him about it.
And so it came to pass, in the face of Ray’s own brand of tenacity, she yielded, with much reluctance. The question was asked, and the boy hinted in no certain words that she wasn’t spending as much time with him as she did with Garry. For such a straightforward person, Ray still held reservations when it came to matters concerning himself.
To say she was surprised would be an understatement. Ib had been stunned at the time, never expecting Ray to say no, which was rather presumptuous of herself now that she’d reflect on it. After all, they’d only been friends for so long, and Garry had cautioned her against bothering Ray.
Ib had realized she was asking for a lot from Ray and his driver, but she couldn’t afford to…
“A–nd, we’re here,” the dark-haired driver announced as he pulled into a cul-de-sac lined with tall pillars of trees, whose thick canopies fended off the scorching sun overhead, dousing the neighborhood in a cool green hue. She could see a couple of people taking a stroll along the sidewalk with their two dogs on the leash. The canines barked, and the women slowed their pace, waving at the car gliding by.
Out of the corner of her eyes, Ib could see Gin returning the gesture as they headed further inside, only stopping when they reached the dead end.
The engine turned off, Ib pushed her way out of the car while trying to make it not look like the desperate escape that it was. Actual fresh air generously greeted her as she took in the first deep breath since she had climbed into the car. She had thought about asking Gin to throw away the tree, but voted against it. Scents were like tastes, and everybody had their own.
Ray’s house, she observed as the driver lead her along the curve of the stone steps, held a rustic feel to it with a composition of red brick and unpolished wood. The design was made modern with dark glass windows that glazed the length of the second story, and compared to the neighborhood it looked new.
The idea of meeting Ray’s parents for the first time intimidated her to no end, and she had to wonder how the boy could just waltz into her home and be so…at home. Ib tugged at the strap of her crossbody bag and straightened her clothes out of nervousness, suddenly conscious of the unmistakable tan she’d acquired over the last month. This summer, Garry had taken to going out whenever they got together, and the inevitable result of the outings were tan lines she wasn’t used to getting. She regretted wearing her sundress that showcased where the sleeves of her many T-shirts ended, but it had been too hot to consider anything else.
The front door opened before Gin could take out the keys, and behind it was Ray in a tank top and baggy shorts. “You’re here! Come on in,” the boy grinned his thousand-watts smile, gesturing her inside with his head as she took notice of the champagne flute in his hand, a dark liquid sloshing inside at the half-full level.
Ray was at it again. Though the sight was alarming, she knew the drink was only grape juice. Ray just liked to pretend he was drinking wine.
“You kids play nice; I’m gonna go pick up the missus, a’ight?” the driver said, rubbing Ray’s head before returning to the car.
The information didn’t escape her as she crossed the threshold, Ray closing the door behind her. “Your mother is out?” she asked, not entirely sure if she’d prefer that. One the one hand, she would be able to put off meeting someone new, but on the other hand, getting the greetings over with from the start would be better than having his mother walking in on them.
“Yeah, work. She’s usually home, though. Mom really wanted to meet you. Oh, you don’t have to take off your shoes.” He stopped her when she started to bend down. “Come, come. I’ll show you around.”
Ib had never been to a friend’s place before and was glad that Ray was taking the initiative as usual. The boy stowed the flute away after cleaning it, then pattered barefoot from place to place and room to room, narrating the entire story of the house to the best of his ability. The decoration inside the house was simple and random in nature, seemingly knick-knacks one would pick out from garage sales. It was very different from her home, or most houses she’d been to, rugged and cozy as opposed to spacious immaculateness. Some corners felt more cluttered than others, and when she commented on it, Ray sheepishly admitted his father was a bit of a hoarder.
They idled in his room, a little den on the second floor looking out into the backyard, Ray chatting away about something that no longer held her interest. She thought about how she could have been with Garry today, how disappointed he had sounded on the phone when she’d informed him of her new plan, and wondering…how much of that disappointment was real.
“…Yeah?” she tore her gaze from its fixation point somewhere outside the window.
Green eyes slowly watched her as his lips pursed. “Have you eaten? Do you want some snacks or drinks?”
She shook her head. “I’m okay.” Paused. “By the way, Pa said you can’t use his flute next time,” she added conversationally.
“What! Aw…” The exaggerated expression on his face put a smile on hers.
Their conversation soon died down after Ray finished pointing out where a treehouse was hidden between the branches of the large tree in the backyard. He had wanted to show her its interior, but having never climbed so high without the facilitation of stairs, Ib politely declined. The silence stretched as they sat on his bed, Ray dangling his leg and Ib drifting back into reverie.
Despite her wish to be with Garry, it wasn’t as though she minded Ray’s company. She appreciated his presence and admired the way he carried himself, full of confidence and self-efficacy. He never had trouble expressing his thoughts and always made her feel good about herself. He reminded her so much of Garry.
But he just wasn’t Garry, she realized now.
“Where’s your father?” she asked, noticing that Ray seemed uncomfortable with the silence.
“Ah, he’s at work,” the boy perked up, grabbing at the chance to talk. “He’ll be home early today for once.”
“What does he do?”
His chest puffed out with pride. “He’s a police officer. He’s so strong and cool. I want to be just like him when I’m older.”
And the silence returned.
Well, she tried. If even the talkative Ray was stumped for words, what chance did she have? Usually, he would be telling her about what he’d done over the week, with animated hand gestures and sound effects where appropriate. She had seen from his stories that the boy went out of his way to entertain himself outside of school, making the most of his long summer vacation. She was even a tiniest bit jealous of all the experiences he’d had. What went wrong today was that they had just met yesterday, and her friend had already exhausted his weekly story reservoir.
Next to her, Ray fell back on his bed with an exasperated sigh. “Hey, when mum comes back do you…do you wanna head to Garry’s?” His question turned her head to him.
It took a moment for her to process his words, and another to stop herself from leaping at the obvious answer. His eyes held her perplexed as she struggled to come up with a response other than the resounding yes that was blaring in her heart.
“It’s all right, I’m…” He messed up his already tousled ash-blond locks and grunted out another sigh. “I’m sorry I forced you to come. I know you’re mad.”
She blinked at him. “I’m not.”
“You only say that.” Ray sprung to his feet and started walking about, no longer able to stand the idleness. “It’s okay, I shouldn’t have forced you. I… My parents wanted to meet you. And I thought that you already spend so much time with Garry…so…and it’s just one day. But, y’know, mostly because of my parents.” His voice grew smaller at the end as he averted his eyes.
“No, Ray, I’m not angry,” she tried to organize her explanation with difficulty, half her mind still circling the notion that she could see Garry. But she willed herself to focus, because she had to make sure he understood. There was no way she would be mad at him. He was one of the very few she could call friend, and she feared the loss of his friendship. “I’ve…constantly troubled you. I should be asking if you’re mad.”
He looked astonished, shaking his head. “What? No way. There’s been no trouble.” At her disbelieving stare he continued, hand to his hip. “Look, your mom has only phoned twice. I honestly expected more close calls and stuff. And maybe Gin has to drive you around, but that’s his job. The guy’s too free otherwise.”
The room once again descended into silence as they let the words that had been said sink in. But it wasn’t long before she spoke.
“I’m glad.” Ib let a small smile onto her expression, catching his gaze, seeing that he, too, smiled after a brief confused look.
“Well, I’m also glad you’re not mad.” He flopped back down next to her, shoulders slumped. “But I can tell you’re not too enthusiastic about today, either. So, just go see Garry, ‘kay?”
The return to the topic that started this whole conversation made the mood all awkward again. Before she could feel guilty about it, Ray sensed her hesitation and gave her a nudge with his elbow. “It might be a while before my mom comes back, though, so you’ll need to put up with me a little longer.” He laughed a soft laugh that brightened up the atmosphere.
It was then that Ib was reminded exactly why she liked Ray. “Okay.” She did not hide her smile.
“Come see the treehouse, Ib.” The mischievous glint in his eyes, emphasized by the confidence in his voice, told her declining was not an option.
Ib resigned, knowing she was in no position to anyway. Friends put up with each other’ antics.
She liked Ray very much.
She liked him, but…
He just wasn’t the one on the verge of being snatched away by Scarlet.
Ib was not surprised when the door opened and silver tresses fluttered into her view. She had expected this. She had expected it, but the disappointment was still abundantly there, more staggering than she anticipated. The thought that she could have prevented the lady from being here probably had something to do with it.
Scarlet looked surprised, then confused, before her mouth was released from the stern line that had made up a scowl. The older girl dropped down to Ib’s height, tilting her head in a chipper greeting which made Ib back away mentally. Scarlet’s unwarranted friendliness disconcerted her without needing Garry to warn her of how dubious it was.
“So this is why that boorish man was so frantic in kicking me out.” A scoff flung over her shoulder. “How have you been, Ib? Looks like someone has been in the sun quite a bit. I’ve been thinking of getting a little color on myself as well. The weather hasn’t been too dry for you, has it?” Scarlet inquired, chin in her palm, patient, but leaving no room for Ib to forego replying.
“I’m okay…” She twisted the strap of her bag, eyes darting from the lady to the corridor behind her, calling out for Garry in her mind. Scarlet was in her own clothes this time, at least, but the fragrant of lavender could not be ignored.
Ib pushed the line of thought away.
She just wanted to head inside and immerse herself in Garry’s calming scent, also lavender, but deep and musky unlike Scarlet’s cloying flowery one. But the lady was blocking her only doorway to him, and she couldn’t help but feel that Scarlet, with features perpetuated by a light smile, was deriving glee from standing in her path.
“Summer’s almost over, hm. We should hang out sometimes before school starts getting busy again, just us two.” Scarlet caught her gaze. “What do you think, Ib?”
She held back a groan of discomfort, unable to look away for fear of appearing rude. As much as she disliked Scarlet, she was taught better, and the lady had been nothing but amiable towards her. Anything less than cordial would be unacceptable.
“Hey!” There was sharp mutter and a click of a tongue, and Scarlet was yanked away from her. Garry stood behind Scarlet, hand gripping her by the elbow, displeasure thick in his expression. His messy locks clung to his face, tipped with droplets of water rolling down his cheeks and neck, wetting the collar of a shirt that looked carelessly thrown on.
Garry closed the door behind him, locking and bolting it because his mind had briefly entertained the thought that Scarlet might try to sneak back in again. Perhaps it was unfair, as the girl only came back to retrieve her forgotten violin case, but Garry was too ruffled to care. He needed to reconsider whether handing Scarlet a key was as convenient as he had originally surmised.
“You gotta start giving me better heads up, Ib…” he mumbled under his breath as he shook out some of the water in his hair, a sigh escaping his lips.
He gazed down the corridor, into the dark living room that clung onto what little light the sun had left to offer, suddenly not too excited he’d gotten rid of Scarlet. The hasty shower hadn’t done much to wash away the…prior context…in his mind, and his blood was still abuzz with hormones.
He shouldn’t keep her waiting. Ib would seek him out if he took too long, anyway.
Deep breath. Garry buttoned up the few top buttons he’d neglected when stumbling out of the bathroom. He squared his shoulder and tried not to drag his feet on his way in. He was tired. Oh, but tired was good. Tired was very good, because it meant things were less likely to happen. His needs had been sated and he was exhausted. Physically, he couldn’t be more prepped to be with his little princess. Even if his imagination were to stray and he start having ideas, if his body wasn’t able…
“So sweetie, what’d you do today with your friend?” he asked as soon as he located her on the couch, her small figure shadowed by darkness. “Why didn’t you turn on the light?” he added as an afterthought, hitting the switch next to the threshold.
Garry didn’t even have to force himself to smile, as he actually needed to stop himself from grinning like an idiot at the mere sight of her. Though her visit had been sprung up on him, all that this boiled down to was that he could be with her. Everything else be damned.
“Ray showed me his treehouse.” Ib was hugging her bag to her chest, seemingly distracted as she scanned her surrounding with what seemed like apprehension in her eyes. But there was no reason for that…was there? So he dismissed it as him overthinking and went over to pick up the towel he’d dropped on the floor.
“Oh? I haven’t seen many of those around. How was it?” He was absentminded as he dried his hair, seating himself into the armchair across from her. The usual routine of nudging her to talk. Garry had honed his small talk skills to an art spending time with Ib.
“Climbing it was hard.”
He paused. For all the instances he’d been by her side, the notion of Ib engaging in climbing made as little sense to him as a foreign language. “You climbed?” He couldn’t help the chuckle in his voice. “You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?” His eyes flickered over her, finding no visible damage, to his relief. She was hardly dressed for the activity.
Ib shook her head, gaze drifting to her open palm for one quick moment before returning to him.
Garry narrowed his eyes. She was especially withdrawn today, he could sense, going as far as lying in order not to talk about it. And such a bad liar, too. “Let me see that.” He got to his feet and it only took two steps to tower over the girl, holding his hand out for hers.
“No, it’s okay.” She was stubborn.
He let the towel drape over his shoulder and went to fetch the first aid kit, taking out some cotton balls as he returned. “I promise it won’t hurt too much?” He got to his knees and offered his hand again.
“…It’s not that… I…” Her eyes darted away, then back to him, her lips pressed together like every other time that she struggled to speak her mind, before she showed him her palm.
So she was troubled by something today and wanted to consult with him. A part of him wished the blond brat had offended her and she’d stay away from the kid for good, but he supposed that would be too convenient a development for him.
Garry gently took her wrist and pulled it closer to better observe the wound. It was a light scrape, skin deep, but big enough that people wouldn’t just walk it off. “Really, Ib…” He disinfected it, flailing a bit when he felt her wince at the touch of antiseptic.
“Hmm?” He looked up from smoothing out the gauze, knowing she wouldn’t continue without assurance that she had his full attention.
“Why do you keep seeing Scarlet?”
He’d expected a child’s concern, naïve wondering or perhaps baseless worries. This topic, however, took him by surprise, and he clambered to cover up the shock. Not that she hadn’t already felt the way his hands had frozen around her wrist. “Why, because we’re friends, dear.” He did his best to smile at inquisitive eyes. Ask him the same question half a year ago and he wouldn’t have hesitated with this description of their relationship. Now it sounded like mockery.
“I don’t like Scarlet.” If he had been shocked before, now Garry was speechless, and he didn’t bother hiding it. There was nothing new about her dislike for Scarlet, no. What got him was the fact that she, Ib of all people, had confessed to such a sentiment.
“Please don’t see her anymore,” she said with an inscrutable look, head lowered as though ashamed of her own words. Such self-incriminating expressions had no place on her features! He shook himself awake and raised a hand to her cheek, brushing back some fine strands that had fallen loose.
“Don’t look like that, Ib. I’m glad you’re letting me know how you feel.” He saw the spark of expectancy in her eyes and decided he had to shoot it down before it became a full-blown hope. “But I’m sorry; I can’t just stop seeing her… We’re friends.”
Friend. Such a handy word. Every time he used it, the word lost a little more of its meaning for him. Scarlet and he were friends, but outside of bed they just wanted to claw each other’s eyes out. Ib and he were friends…that was turning out stellar, too. But it was true he couldn’t let Scarlet go. The girl knew what he was going through. They both were despicable and cowardly. They were both vying for something they couldn’t have. And they both can offer what the other wanted. It was healthy as malaria, but it was a tie he didn’t want cut.
“I’ll try to keep her away from you from now on.” Garry closed the plastic kit and left it on the coffee table as he stood up to get back to his seat. He didn’t want to put so much thought in Ib’s current expression, wiping a hand over his face.
“But you don’t like Scarlet either. You always fight.”
He froze again, eyes locked with hers. She knew. Of course she knew; he hadn’t exactly tried to hide it. Neither had he counted on her to peruse the contradiction.
“No, no, I…” He shook his head slowly, finger pinching the bridge of his nose, an onset of migraine looming. Scarlet angered him and her hypocritical lectures made bile rise in his throat. But after he cooled down…they had still been friends, before all of this. Rather than dislike, it was simply…rue. “We’re in disagreement, hon.” He settled further into the armchair for some form of anchor and stability, face rested against his knuckles. “But if we just stopped seeing each other because of some rough patches then we wouldn’t be friends now, would we?” Such a pretty way of putting it.
“I don’t understand.” She frowned.
Good. “You don’t have to. Adults are complicated like that.” Draw the line. Alienate her. Make sure she didn’t cross over.
There was a moment of silence where she didn’t meet his eyes, and he thought the discussion was over. He thought he would let her ruminate over it a little more before steering her away from this depressing topic. Boy was he wrong.
“I get it.” The words were icy needles that sewed cold fear into his heart, and he stared at her calm with eyes wide. “It’s those things…” Her expression faltered, and he knew exactly what things she was referring to—and knew he would suffer her scorn whether he denied or confirmed it.
He didn’t dare look at her any longer, pinning his gaze to the coffee table in front of him.
The cinches on her leather bag rustled as she set it down beside her. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Ib getting to her feet, the action startling him, and his heart sped up when she made the first step towards him.
It took three steps for her to come into view. Four, for her to stand right before him, demanding his full attention. He drew a shallow breath and lifted his eyes to meet hers.
“Do you have to?”
He’d confirmed it. He thought the least he could do was treat her like an equal in this conversation.
“Yes, I need to.” In order to stay by your side.
Ib’s expression became wry, and he tried not to read into it. She understood, but wouldn’t fully do so until much later, and by then he would have already left her side.
Garry glanced to the digital clock on the TV and was shocked to find the hourglass still with a generous puddle of sand dripping from the upper bulb. Scarlet must have fiddled with it when she’d come back, but by god, it hadn’t even been fifteen minutes since he’d gotten rid of the witch? It felt as though this talk had gone on for hours. If he suggested she head home for today, he would surely be met with objection.
“Then…those things…” He felt the cushion beneath him shift, felt her presence leaning forward and as his attention scrambled to focus back on her, a warm breath caressed his lips. Then a tender, ephemeral touch.
He felt her murmur, “Do them with me instead.”
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