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A few days later I’m sitting cross legged on my bed, flicking through photos of the town on my camera, entire body tense. My phone lies next to me and after a few moments I sigh, placing the camera to the side and turning my phone on. The date, ominous and sharp, stares back at me for several seconds.
“Isaac?” My mom pokes her head past the door and I look up.
“Not in the mood.” I shove my phone in my pocket and I get up. “I need to go out.”
My mom tilts her head slightly and I rub my forehead in frustration.
“You know what day it is.”
I throw on my jacket and walk out the door, ignoring my dad sitting on the couch.
The street is as sunny and quiet as usual. I keep my eyes locked forward and one foot moving past the other, mind forcibly blank. I stop at an intersection and sit down at the edge of the pavement, turning the phone between my fingers.
No pain, no tears, just numbness. I wonder if it means I’m getting better, or worse.
Finally after several minutes of sitting at the crossing staring blankly at the road, I turn to my phone and press dial before I can stop myself.
“Isaac?” Marcus answers, a twinge of surprise in his voice.
“Are you free?” I ask, kicking at the gravel beneath my sneakers.
“Yeah, what do you need?”
I hesitate, turning the words around my tongue before finally speaking. “Can we hang out?” I bite my other hand briefly then drop it.
Marcus pauses and my breath tightens in my chest.
This is stupid. Shouldn’t have said a thing.
“Of course. Where?” Marcus answers after what feels like a lifetime.
I heave a sigh of relief. “There’s this diner.”
Twenty minutes I’m in a small, dimly lit diner, gaze shifting around as the bell above the door rings and Marcus walks in, shoving a pack of cigarettes into his pocket as he does so. I take a nervous sip of water as Marcus spots me and takes a seat.
“Order something.” I slide Marcus the menu and he stares at it for a moment before looking up.
“What’s so special about today?” Marcus asks curiously.
I bite my lip and play with my drink for a moment. “There’s this – something happened a year ago. And I. I lost someone really close to me.” My voice breaks a little and I take another long drink of water.
“Oh.” Marcus’ eyes flickers with understanding. He nods once, then calls the waitress over and orders a milkshake and toast.
For a moment we sit in silence, and for a split second my chest tightens, my mind frantically trying to find words.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I just thought you might understand.”
“Don’t apologise. I’m happy to be here.” Marcus pauses thoughtfully. “Do you wanna talk about it?”
“I lost my best friend.”
He leans forward, tilting his head slightly. “What happened?”
“It was – he got pushed off, into a river. The assholes who’ve been picking on him since like, seventh grade. He,” I take a long, shaking breath. “He drowned. I should’ve done something. I should’ve been there.”
For the first time, Marcus seems to be at a complete loss for words.
“Sorry,” I mumble, wiping my mouth and staring down at the table.
“It’s not your fault,” he says quietly. “I’m sure your friend would not want you to carry around what you are carrying forever.”
“You don’t know what he would’ve wanted. Nobody will ever know what he would’ve wanted.” I turn away, kicking my shoe into the floor. “He’s dead.” I take a sharp breath and Marcus falls quiet and still.
“It isn’t fair. It will never feel fair.” He doesn’t run away, he doesn’t leave me, he doesn’t get angry. He only leans forward and meets my gaze. “I understand.”
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I just have to tell someone.”
He takes a deep breath. “I know.”
“Should’ve been a better friend. Person. Should’ve stopped them before they went that far. Should’ve done better in court, gave that asshole a longer sentence, something, anything. Now I’m here, I’m growing up, he isn’t. I’ll never fucking let it go.”
Marcus watches me for some time, silent.
“I tried to tell the teachers. They didn’t take that shit seriously. I should’ve done more. I should’ve – I should’ve beat those assholes up until they never got near my friend again.”
I rub my eyes roughly and grip my glass of water with a shaking hand.
“You hate me. I was a terrible friend. I get it.”
“I don’t hate you, Isaac. I know you did what you could. There’s a lot of cruelty in this world. What happened was a fucking tragedy, I know. You might mourn forever, but it isn’t your fault, and I think you know that. You just don’t think you deserve to let it go.” He sighs and plays with the sleeve of his smoke scented leather jacket. “But you do.”
The waitress returns with Marcus’ milkshake and food and there’s a moment of heavy silence between us.
“It really wasn’t your fault,” Marcus finally says again.
“It’s just fucking complicated. It’s all so complicated. And it’ll always be unfair.”
Marcus nods, his hand gripping mine for a split second before letting go. “I know.”
I dig into the toast I haven’t yet touched for several minutes, just to occupy the growing silence again.
“Thanks. For being here,” I finally mumble, swallowing the last of my food. “You can go if you want.”
“Are you kidding me?” Marcus chimes. “The day isn’t over, is it? There are more things we can accomplish today, much more than some diner food.”
I fall quiet, not arguing, as we pay for our meals and walk back out into the almost artificially bright sunshine.
“What do you wanna do then?” I ask.
Marcus stares at his watch for a moment, then nods to himself. “We could head to the movies. What better place to spend a big sunny day than in the dark watching attractive actors shooting at things on the big screen?” He smiles peevishly and I snort, not managing to hold back a smile back at him.
The two of us head down the road towards the nearest theatre.
Marcus gets us both tickets to a weird indie movie I have never heard of in my life, and we line up for food. The theatre is quiet and peaceful for a weekend, and I buy us a large bucket of popcorn to share.
The movie turns out to be even weirder than the poster and Marcus’ lackluster description of it. I spend half of it laughing, unable to help myself, with Marcus half-jokingly shoving me in the side to get me to quiet down.
“This is a serious film,” he hisses as quietly as possible.
“Sure.” I snort into my hand as a character on the screen falls backwards from a fence into a swirling pool of melted chocolate. I can almost feel Marcus roll his eyes at me in the dark.
Most of the film passes in an entirely confusing blur, but my heart is lighter as I exit the theatre, letting Marcus finish the rest of the popcorn.
“So, what do you think?” he asks as we step back into the fading sunlight.
I shrug. “Weird as fuck.” I glance briefly at Marcus, then smile. “Thank you.”
“What for?” Marcus asks as we make our way down the street.
“Keeping me company.”
“Well you did in fact call me to do just that, and what kinda person would be if I just said no, fuck you?” Marcus jokes with a laugh and I chuckle.
“You know what I mean.” It’s my turn to roll my eyes as we wander through the streets, past quiet storefronts and cafes.
Marcus takes a deep breath. “I know.”
We end up at the park as the sun is setting over the town, and we both sit down beneath the shade of the tree.
Without saying a word, Marcus reaches for my hand and I take his.
There’s a long moment that’s nothing but a light breeze and the streaks of orange and red and purple from the sunset.
“I sent one of them to the hospital.” My voice is coming from miles away. Marcus stiffens next to me, though our fingers are still intertwined. “And I don’t regret it.”
“Isaac,” Marcus begins softly.
“He watched his friend kill my best friend. He encouraged him. I don’t care what others say. He was cruel and didn’t have an ounce of conscience within him before that day. And his cruel jokes killed my friend.” My words fall heavy and deliberate into the tense space between us. “They were with him at the river that day. He – his name was Lucas – Lucas asked me to go find him, Marcus. He knew he was in danger. And I was too late.”
I tear my hand away from Marcus and I turn away, my vision blurring as I hug my legs. Marcus places a hand on my shoulder and I shake him off. “It was my fault. I could’ve have done something.”
“You couldn’t have known what would happen. What could you have done?” Marcus asks gently.
“How could they live with themselves?” I plead, furious and desperate. “Lucas was seventeen, Marcus. He was seventeen. He had his entire life in front of him. And they took that away from him.”
“I…Isaac. I don’t know.” Marcus’ voice is weak and feeble next to me.
“I couldn’t fucking live with myself if I didn’t do something more about it. So I took one of them behind the building after school and I beat the shit out of him. Left him to bleed, and in the moment I didn’t care if he lived or died and that’s what I still hate myself for.” My voice is sharp and the words are tumbling out of me faster than I can control. “And before I knew it, I was expelled.”
There’s a long silence between us. Marcus’ breath catches.
“If I weren’t expelled I would’ve kicked the shit out of the rest of them too,” I mutter. “And – and I don’t know how to deal with all of this – all of this anger in me, Marcus.”
Marcus rubs my knee comfortingly.
“You have every right to be angry, Isaac. You’re allowed to feel that.”
He takes my hand again.
I don’t move away.