I used to be afraid of the dark.
I'm not anymore. I love it now. Nighttime, I think, is much more beautiful than daytime. Especially here, in Elm Valley Park, when the most significant amount of people you see is perhaps one, like tonight. I observe her. It's a girl out for a jog, hair tied back, sweat beading on her eyelashes and skin. She seems calm, or maybe just appears that way. I don't know.
I'm supposed to be reading. I've got an essay due in a few weeks, and most people won't even read the book until the day before. I don't understand that. Such a big part of me needs me to do things quickly. I'm not competitive, necessarily. Just very anxious about schoolwork.
I'm anxious about everything, mostly. I think that's why I like the night so much. It's so calming to be in a place empty of judgment, of people, of stress. The world is different at night. The world is dark and beautiful, and the sky and the stars have this fragile balance with the earth. I feel still. I feel grounded.
I push my hair back. I cut it today, and curls keep falling into my eyes. Another reason I look up instead of down. I put David Copperfield down next to me, close my eyes, and breathe. The air is cold and real, and a flurry of snow touches my lips. I don't remember picking it but there's a flower in my hand, and I wonder how flowers can still be alive in this weather. I wonder how I can still be alive in this weather. I'm not wearing much, just a casual sleeveless dress and leggings, and the snow must have soaked my flower crown and hair by now.
My feet are tapping. I didn't even realize, at first, but I've got a song stuck in my head. It's some pop song Sarah and Lilly were singing earlier when I was at their house. The chorus reverberates in my mind. Sarah and Lilly always did bond well over their music taste. One of the reasons they started dating, I guess. But there's a lot of reasons. Maybe that's why they felt like they needed each other so much.
I don't like this snow because it won't make up its mind. It stings my skin and wets my hair, but it won't collect. I can see the snowflakes disappear when they touch the ground, melting down before going away entirely.
Sarah used to tell me I thought about things too much, back when I said the things I was thinking. Mom said I overthought out loud. They weren't wrong. Having adjoining rooms made her the target for most of my out loud overthinking, and when she moved out to live with Lilly, I realized most people weren't as accustomed to it as she was. So I learned to keep my overthinking quiet.
Overthinking doesn't seem like the right word, however. It feels messed up and strange and sounds like there's something wrong with me, some unknown disease that makes my brain overthink. I guess that's true. Is anxiety a disease? I want to check, but my phone is at home, and I don't want to go home just yet.
My breath billows out in front of me in the form of a white cloud. Dammit, it's cold. I''m going home.
I hear footsteps behind me and turn. There's a boy behind me, behind the bench, holding a lighter in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He's dressed far more appropriately than I am, wearing boots and a jacket. Blue eyes and black hair peek out from underneath a beanie.
It's fast, and I see his fists ball up, and I duck instinctively, but he doesn't punch. He does, however, say a word I'm damn well tired of hearing.
I've heard this so many times since I started being like this. I can feel my body tense, so imperceptibly most people wouldn't notice. I reach into my pocket, hoping against hope, but no such luck. My phone isn't there. I have no way to get out of this. I shift my gaze around me, wondering which way to go. Should I run now?
Something comes over me. I don't understand why, but I try to soothe my nerves and rest my body. My nerves, my mind, rebels. I want to tell him he's wrong. I want to tell him he can't hurt me. I want to tell him I don't care.
But it'd be a lie, wouldn't it? 'Cause I do care, and it makes sense that I care, and I pretend to have such a thick skin, but this stuff gets to me. Maybe it didn't happen in the beginning, but after a lifetime of words like those and people like this, it starts to seem real.
Still, I don't want him to see what's going on in my head. So I steel myself and open my mouth. "Stop it. You," my breath catches. "You can't hurt me."
He stares at me, fists clenched, words hovering on his tongue before he swallows them and, to my shock, sits down next to me. And, then, all of a sudden, he's crying, and not just a little but real, deep, hyperventilating sobs. He seems like he wants to get up but all of a sudden I see what his low-pulled beanie and gloves were hiding.
Bruises in purple and blue streak across his face, and there's a nasty cut above his right eyebrow that's bleeding into his eye and I don't even understand how he can see. His eyes are purple, and his skin is swelled and bleeding. Some scars look at least months old, and a few that seem like they've been there for years. I notice now his clothes; sure, they're weather-appropriate, but they're too small, worn to the thread, and patched. His hands shake, and he reaches for another cigarette.
"Hey." I reach out for his arm, and he flinches. "Who did this to you?"
"Leave me the hell alone. I'm fine." He lights the cigarette and places it between his lips, taking a deep, shaking breath.
"I am." As if to prove my point, he attempts to stand up and walk away before his knees buckle out from underneath him and he cries out as he collapses onto the bench.
I reach out, slower this time, and wipe away a drop of blood on his jacket. He still flinches, but less so, and allows me to rub it off on the bench. "Do you need anything?"
"Dammit, no." He turns to me, all soft curves and tears and blood and shakes his head. "You can't call the fucking police or the ambulance; you're just going to make it all worse." He dissolves into a sob. "They're either gonna ruin everything or blame me and say I got in a fight and I can't do that."
"I didn't mean calling them. I think I've got some water, maybe some chocolate or leftover Halloween candy. And if you let me get some stuff -"
His eyes go wide. "God, no, you can't get things from your house. If you aren't calling nine-one-one, then your parents will if they see me like this, and I already explained we couldn't do that."
"Okay. So just the candy then?"
He nods and wipes away the tears and blood on his face, wincing as he touches his bruises and cuts. "Thank -"
I interrupt him. "Don't talk until you're done eating." I hand him my leftover kit kats and water bottle. He eats politely, quietly, painstakingly trying to resist tears so as not to get his candy wet. When he finishes, he sets the wrappers aside and looks at me. "You didn't need to do that.
"You didn't. Especially after what I said. It's just, you know, seeing you, being so damn proud and open - I wish I could do that. I wish I could pull it off like you, you know, the whole being yourself thing, but I fucking can't, and I hate it. I hate everyone, and I wish it were just me, you know, just me deciding what I want and I need, because no one seems to give two shits about me.
"I quite obviously give two shits about you, or otherwise I wouldn't have given you my candy. I do like sweets, you know.
He sniffs and gives me a small smile. "Well, thank you."
We sit for a while, watching the sky and the trees. He stops crying.
"What's your name? I'm sorry I forgot to ask, considering you gave me your candy and all."
Evan. He looks like an Evan if that makes any sense at all.
"Nice to meet you, Evan."
I reach out and graze one of the more profound cuts. "Who was it?"
Immediately, I know I shouldn't have said that. I have anxiety, and my dad has PTSD, and I can recognize signs of both very quickly. I can see his body freeze, his blood drain, his eyes glaze over. Evan pulls up his knees and uses his hands to block up his ears, even though I can't hear anything. His breathing becomes shallow and quick, and I put my arms around him and hold him, whispering sshhh into his ear, pushing down on his shoulders, trying to ground him, do everything I've seen my mom do when my dad has an episode. His cigarette lies, forgotten, the fire put out by the snow alongside Evan's lighter. He croaks out a single word, tears running down his face, mind stuck in some land far away from earth. "Stop."
I know he doesn't mean me, and even still it breaks my heart to seem his like this. He doesn't deserve this.
As if acting on a natural instinct, he feels for his back pocket, searching for a pack of cigarettes that aren't there, because I took them away. Chain-smoking until he dies from lung cancer isn't going to make him feel better. Still, I feel a tinge of guilt as his face crumbles. He's dependent on them for sanity. It's worrying that his coping strategy is one of the last healthy coping strategies possible.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Just breathe, Evan. In and out. Do you know where you are?"
"No, Evan. You're here, in the park with me, and it's safe here. There's no one here to hurt you. You're safe." I rub his shoulders. "You're safe." I repeat it until I almost believe it, or he does, and I'm not sure who I'm saying it to, but a few minutes pass and his breathing slows.
He pulls closer to me. "Where?"
"The park, Evan. Far, far away from there." I don't what There is, but I don't want to ask. I've done enough harm already.
"Not there." I nod.
"Yes, safe here."
His eyes shut and his crying stops. Evan looks okay now, calm.
It's a few minutes before I notice he's asleep. I don't know where he lives and I'm not sure he's safe there. I evaluate my options. I'm not sure if I could bring him home. If I explained the situation my parents would take him in, but I run the risk of having my parents call nine-one-one. Is that we he needs?
In the end, however, I don't think I have any more options. What else can I do? I check my phone to see the time and to my surprise, it's nearly one in the morning and I have six missed calls from my parents. "Dammit."
I ring my mom and wait for her to pick up. "Mom? Yeah, mom. I'm so sorry. Yes, I know I worried you. Anyway, can you come pick me up in the car? I sort of need it."