"Long time, no see, Elsa Craven."

I should have reacted; by all rights, I ought to have jumped three feet in the air, my heart should have started pounding a crazy calypso, the blood should have drained from my face. But, save a sudden cold crawling of my skin and a queasiness in the pit of my stomach, I felt a bleak, empty nothing. Like I somehow expected him to be there.

"Not long enough, Mick," my voice came out gravelly, stifled, and I turned, almost against my will. It was not quite twilight, and he was visible, lounging on the park bench, looking up at me like it had been yesterday instead of years ago. So long ago, so it seemed another life. One which had passed, and died.

"Too long, Els. Way too long." As I completed my pirouette to face him, his mouth cracked and one corner slid up hesitantly, almost cautiously.

Seven years had taken their toll on Mick Oliver; aged him, drained him, scratched out a third of his life so far with barbed talons. His nondescript sandy-blond hair was shorter than I remembered, but long enough to stick out every which way in tufts of matted brownish wheat. The pale hazel eyes, never still, always shifting, blinking, rolling, searching the nooks and crannies around him, shadowed by demons from his past, overcast with brooding eyebrows. His face was gaunt, his body emaciated; but then, maybe it had always been like that. A colourless stubble was spread over his hollow cheeks and jaw, lips pale around his awry grin; yet he was the same. Seven years had aged him; but they hadn't changed him.

Oblivious to my intent scrutiny, Mick fished around in his pocket, finally coming up with a cigarette that had obviously seen other use. Flipping out a lighter, he held up the flickering flame to the butt; his fingers were trembling and stained, the cigarette stub twitching until he was finally able to catch the flame to the end.

He exhaled away from me, but as it had often done before, the biting smoke swerved, dissipated, curling around my nostrils like a bitter laugh. I brushed at it, but it was like intangible spidersilk; eluded my hand, seeped deeper into my lungs. "You're back to tobacco, I see," I commented, flatly, watching as his eyes ceased their aimless roving and centred on the cigarette.

"Yeah. Gotta admit, it doesn't do sh-t for me now." He tapped his ashes against the edge of the bench, drawing my attention downward. The cuffs of his loose beige pants were worn and frayed, his shoes scuffed, completely split around the heel so that they flapped against his feet when he walked. And where had those feet taken him? Did he remember? Did it matter? They had brought him back. Back to me.

A few people were still passing briskly through the park, the trenchcoat-and-briefcase type mainly, only then on their way home from work. The sun had sunk halfway behind the trees, a select few rays still peeking out to scrape across his face, tearing through the inky blackness of the branches. Crickets chirped, dogs barked, yet there was such an oppressive stillness in the air, like a hot, heavy blanket laid over your face, rasping in your ears, your breath hitting the thick shroud but not escaping. Nothing escaped.

His head snapped up abruptly, mouth working, eyes holding a desperate beseeching I found hard to accept. "Come here. Talk to me Els, please. It's been so long since I-just, please, I need you to c'mere." He dropped the cigarette, embers smoldering on the pavement until he ground them out savagely beneath his heel, ducking his head into the shadows.

"I need you." What had it cost him to say that? He who never needed, he who was never dependant. Or so he had told himself; it had taken years, but gradually he had sunken into the part, had begun to back up his words with actions, with callous indifference. He hadn't needed anything. But he had wanted everything.

"I screwed up my life big time, Els. Maybe I was screwed from the start. But there was always you holding me back, y'know? I mean, we always crossed the line, jumped the fence; but you kept me from going the next step further." Mick looked up, away, into the blurred line of the horizon. "I was a 'disruptive' kid in the penitentiary, they decided. I did something the first month, can't remember what, but they'd just keep saying to me 'you'll regret that later'. And so it just kept going, I'd get shifted to worse and worse places, because I earned a rep. What's that saying? Takes one act to earn a reputation and a lifetime to live it down? Somethin' like that."

Darkness had fallen fast; I couldn't make out his face anymore. But I could see it; in my mind's eye, I could see it. Haggard and stark, pallid, the eyes constantly straying, looking for something or avoiding something, I couldn't tell you which. The eyes of a haunted man. Man? Was he even twenty-two yet? Where had the fourteen-year-old gone? He had leaked slowly away, leaving in his place a hollow shell, filled with nothing but memories. Distorted memories.

"I was so happy to get out, even if it meant back on the streets. Nah, I wasn't happy. I don't remember feeling much of anything, except maybe hungry. Mad, maybe. I couldn't even remember what it was that got me thrown in. Still can't, as a matter of fact. Doesn't matter. I got into so much crap then, I don't even want to tell you about it. It's like . . . if I say it, it means it really happened. If I just keep thinkin' like, hey, I think I started sniffing glue and that, I can never be sure. I'm still pretty messed up. Even I don't believe everything I remember anymore."

Raking a hand through his hair so that it stood on end, he swallowed and craned his neck, peering around the forsaken park. "This place still looks the same." He laughed shortly, a bleak, caustic laugh. "But hell, for all I know, this wasn't even built when I lived here." The embittered facade fell away, leaving only a lifeless skeleton to deal with the world. "Elsa?" His eyes drifted right by my face, lip twisting. "Don't cry, Elsa. Don't."

I don't know if I was. But his words reminded me of a time when I was eleven; Mick would have been twelve, maybe just turned thirteen. We had been exploring a junk pile and I had stepped on a nail-encrusted board; the nail hadn't gone into my foot, but grated a good-sized hunk of flesh off the side. My mother had cleaned it, bandaged it, and sent me back outside with a pat on the backside. Still sniffling with injury, for no one had seemed to realize the true pain of my wound, I had rejoined Mick, sitting carelessly on the grass. Watching thoughtfully as the last few tears dripped down my cheeks, the only warning he gave me was a brief devilish grin before leaning over and sliding his tongue up my cheek to catch a single salty teardrop. He had held it on his tongue a minute before speaking. "I've never been to the ocean," he'd said as if that explained everything.

I wondered if he had been to the ocean yet; wondered, if I was indeed crying, why he didn't lick the tears away.

"Seven years since I last saw you. Seven years. God. You still talk to God, Els? You used to, I remember. I tried once, but I didn't know if He was listening, so I stopped. Are you listening to me? Are you still there?"

Shadows stirred as he leaned forward, panic squeezing his voice. "Say something, Els. Talk to me. I need to hear something. Anything. I've been listening to myself for so long . . . God, please, say something . . ."

I tried to clear my throat, but it hurt; there was a lump there, a cry I refused to release, the pain and frustration condensed into a barrier, an impediment. I pressed my lips together tightly, but still they quivered. I reached to wipe my forehead; it felt hot. To brush my hair away; it tickled. But instead my hand flailed, groping blindly in the void in front of me until it caught his hand. I laced my fingers through his cold ones, twining our thumbs, feeling his pulse throbbing the same staccato as mine. What was there to say to this talking shadow? It was but an apparition, a shade of a boy from the past, a boy I had once known.

No, it was flesh and blood. It was joy and sorrow, agony and healing, a tide of emotions and memories locked in a broken, tormented body. It was Mick. And there was but one thing to say.

"I love you-" the croak came from me, strangely pitched, thin with fresh pain so intermingled with an ache, a longing, that I couldn't separate the two. "Mick. Mick Oliver."

Mick pressed the palm of my hand to his mouth, and I felt something wet fleck onto my hand. It must have been raining. He inhaled raggedly, and suddenly his grip was taut, unyielding, fingernails digging into my skin.

"Later, when I'm alone and thinkin' about everything again, I'm gonna remember you said that." His grip went limp, my hand was released. "And it's gonna kill me."