One Winter Night
"You look like you could use a pick-me-up."
Pete Abarra blinked back his surprise. He looked down at the woman holding a cupcake with purple frosting and blue sprinkles toward him. Her amber eyes peered into his. She looked no older than he, clearly legal to drink but nowhere past twenty-five. She brushed a loose strand of her golden hair behind her ear and smiled.
"Uh, I'm fine." Although Pete wanted to dismiss her and move on, he found himself rooted. People muttered their annoyance at the two standing in the middle of the sidewalk while maneuvering around. As uncomfortable as it made Pete to have people turning their attention to him, the strange woman didn't show the slightest care.
"Are you sure? You walk like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. It's actually my job to bring a little happiness."
Pete glanced back. A bakery stood on the corner of the block. Bright colors of blue and white reflected through the glass windows. Pete returned his attention to the woman. "Haven't you ever heard of not taking things from strangers? How do I know you aren't some psycho who poisoned that cupcake?"
The woman took a step back and looked Pete over. She studied him for a long minute with pursed lips. "You don't look like someone I've dated before. Nah, I think you're good. I don't have a reason to poison you." A wry smile came to her lips. She took his hand and placed the cupcake in his palm.
"Elaine!" Get back in here!" Another woman with an apron stood with her hands on her hips.
"Enjoy it." Elaine gave him a wink before rushing back to the bakery.
Pete inspected the cupcake in his hand. He sighed. His mind wandered as he trailed the streets of the city to his destination. Lost in the avalanche of his thoughts, he took a bite of the cupcake.
He snapped back to reality instantly. A burst of sweet blueberry danced around his tongue, "Oh my god." The decadent dessert reminded him of his childhood, of happier times. Pete arrived at his destination. For a moment Pete stood outside the building, savoring the taste.
The moment the flavors settled to a dull aftertaste, Pete turned his gaze up to the condo before him. His heavy melancholy returned.
Pete walked into the white condo. He kicked off his shoes while tossing his messenger bag aside and placed them on the shoe rack to his right. The living room, decorated with green vases and gold-painted animal figurines, remained as empty and dark as his last visit. Slim rays of light managed to peek through the closed vertical blinds. Black-and-white photos, barely discernible in the shadows, lined the blue walls.
With a shake of his head, Pete made his way across the unused space. Light poured across the room as he slid the blinds open. "Ty, that door better be unlocked or I'm kicking it in!"
Silence. Pete went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He pulled out a plate with finely-cut chicken and mashed potatoes. Pete placed the plate in the microwave and set it for two minutes.
"I'll be up in a minute!" Pete pulled out a bowl of mixed salad. A smile came as he heard light shuffling upstairs. He placed two spoonfuls into a handheld bowl as the microwave beeped. Placing the salad bowl onto the plate, Pete grabbed a bottle of Italian dressing and made for the stairs. "Alright, here I come!"
Pete walked down the dimly-lit hallway to Ty's room. He knocked on the door once before opening it, which he honestly expected to be locked. Pete's eyes thinned to a glare.
Ty sat on his bed with his arms crossed atop his knees. His dirty blond hair swept along his shoulder as he turned to look at Pete. He glared. Here again?"
"Don't act like you aren't glad to see me." Pete's eyes darted around the room. He pursed his lips as he took a step inside. Nothing set on the floor. "You know you get lonely."
"Perhaps I would be if you didn't show up every day. I could use the alone time."
"Perhaps I wouldn't have to be here every day if you just acted like an adult." Pete's eyes studied the walls. Nothing out of place.
"I am an adult." Ty turned toward the window in a theatrical huff.
Pete chortled. He sat in the wooden chair next to the bed. "Here. I know you haven't eaten today." He placed the tray of food on the bed next to Ty. Pete glanced at his friend. Ty was all skin and bones with a sickly pale. Not a soul on the planet would know he and Pete were the same age.
"Okay." Ty took the tray.
Another alarm rose in Pete's mind. His eyes narrowed while he gripped the chair's armrest. "You accepted that way too easily. What are you up to?"
Ty fluttered his eyes at Pete with feigned innocence. "Why, I'm not up to anything. I'm just a sickly man stuck in bed."
"Uh huh." Pete glanced around the room again. Nothing out of place. Ty's desk was still an unorganized storage space for the mounds of computer parts, wires, robotics, and papers. His closet door stood open for the world to see the piles of unwashed clothes and discarded projects. Only books and Ty's favorite projects occupied the numerous bookshelves.
Instead of finding peace in the undisturbed surroundings, Pete's body tensed. His toes curled. His fingers rubbed against his thumb anxiously. He held each breath a second longer than needed.
A flash of a smile passed Ty's lips before Pete felt something grab his ankle. Pete screamed and fell out of the chair. Pete's eyes were shut tight as he tried to kick off whatever had his foot.
Ty burst into laughter.
Pete slowly opened his eyes. He stared at the emotionless green eyes staring back at him. A man lay on his stomach under Ty's bed. Pete placed a hand over his racing heart and exhaled. "You finally finished the android... It looks so real." He frowned at the expressionless man holding his foot captive.
Ty rolled over. He laughed so hard he fell into a coughing fit. He pounded his fist on the mattress. He was in tears. Whether it was in laughter or unable to control the coughs, Pete found himself not caring.
Pete pulled his leg. The robot kept a firm hold on him. Pete reached down. He unsuccessfully tired to pry the fingers off. "Can you get yourself under control and get this damn robot to let go of me?"
Ty wiped the tears from his eyes. "Man, I got you good."
"Whatever. The robot?"
"You screamed like a little girl." Ty pulled out a handheld device designed like any other television remote.
The robot released Pete's foot. Pete scooted away from the robot. He fixed the bunched rim of his sock before getting off the floor. Pete shook his head. "That wasn't cool."
Ty smiled. "Yes, it was. You're just in a huff because you got scared."
"Hell yeah I got scared! Something grabbed my foot from under your damn bed! I nearly had a heart attack! Anyone would!"
"Aww, were you afraid a monster got you?" Ty wiggled teasing fingers at Pete. "Little Pete is still afraid of monsters under the bed?"
Pete inhaled deeply. He raised a single eyebrow as he towered over Ty.
Ty's smiled faded. "It was just a joke?"
A mischievous grin came to Pete's lips. He pounced on Ty. The two fought, but Ty was considerably weaker. He was helpless as Pete rolled him in his sheet like a blunt. Pete pulled the sheet tight until Ty couldn't move even a centimeter. Pete held Ty down with his foot as he reached over to the desk and picked up duct tape.
Ty's eyes grew wide. "Pete! No!"
The pleas fell on deaf ears. Pete securely taped Ty immobile. When he finished, Pete tossed the roll behind him and mockingly dusted his hands. "Now, that is satisfying."
Ty wiggled helplessly around. "Come on, man! I'm sorry! I'll never do it again!"
Pete picked up his fallen chair. He plopped into it and rested one foot over his knee. "Right you are. This will be a well-deserved lesson." Pete pulled out his phone and accessed his social media.
It was a long hour before Ty resigned himself to his fate. They chatted while Pete scrolled through his Twitter and Instagram, but Pete's mind constantly wandered to the baker. Her alluring eyes and warm smile plagued his thoughts. He pictured the bits of frosting on her cheeks and how her golden hair looked like the rising sun.
Pete tried to shake the thoughts out of his head. What the hell am I thinking? Like the rising sun? God, I'm sickening myself.
"If you're going to daydream, could you untie me first," Ty said. "It's getting hard to breathe."
"Oh, sure," Pete absently said. He grabbed a pair of scissors from the drawer and cut the duct tape. He helped Ty out of the tightly-rolled sheets.
Ty coughed as his sheets fell off. He reached for the forgotten plate of food. "It's cold."
"I'll reheat it for you."
Ty shook his head. "I'm not hungry anymore." He stared at the wall in front of him. His eyelids held heavy with exhaustion. He blinked slowly as his mind started to wander.
Pete frowned. "You're exhausted. You've been spending too much time playing with your robots." Ty's only comeback was a dissonant shrug. Pete exhaled. "What time am I taking you to the hospital tomorrow?"
A look of defeat brushed Ty's eyes. "Um, the doc wants me to be situated in a room by six o'clock tomorrow night."
"Then I'll get here a little before four." Pete took the plate of food from Ty. "I'm still going to reheat this. You need a little bit of energy for tomorrow." He handed the bowl of salad and dressing to him, "At least try to eat this in the meantime."
Before Ty could retaliate, Pete left the room.
Placing the plate back into the microwave, Pete let out a sigh. With the soft roar of the microwave working, he leaned against the counter and took a steadying breath. Thinking about what would happen tomorrow night terrified him to no end. His arms shook in trepidation.
The microwave beeped. Pete sniffed back the tears pushing to surface. He hopped the hot plate from hand to hand until he placed it on the counter. With an oven cloth, he brought the plate back to the room.
Ty was already knocked out. Pete placed the plate atop a book on Ty's desk. He adjusted the sheet over Ty and tucked his friend in. "See ya tomorrow, buddy," he whispered, an assurance more to himself than to Ty.
Outside, Pete shivered from the winter's prick. He pulled out his thin sweater from his bag and quickly threw it on. Pete glanced up at the dusk sky. He wouldn't be surprised if the night decided to snow. The faster he got home, the better.
Pete raced through the streets. He rubbed his arms quickly. Lost in his thoughts, he didn't notice the woman before they both tumbled to the floor.
"Ow, ow, sorry! I'm sorry! I wasn't paying attention to where I was going..." Pete stared at the baker under him. Elaine.
Elaine brushed her bangs out of her eye and smiled softly. "It's all right." Her dark eyes peered into his. "I'm glad we ran into each other again. Even if you did take it literally."
Pete blushed. He suddenly realized he was still on top of her. Passing pedestrians chuckled at the two. Pete scrambled to his feet. His face burned bright red. "I'm sorry!" He held out a helping hand.
Elaine took his hand and climbed to her feet. She dusted herself off before returning her full attention to him. Her smile had nurturing warmth, like she was ready to lift anyone's spirit if they just asked. She held out a hand, "I'm Elaine."
Pete tried to calm his fluster. He took her hand but couldn't meet her eyes. "Pete."
"How was the cupcake? Did it make you feel a little better?"
Pete thought about the blueberry cupcake. He smiled. "Yeah, it did. Thank you."
An awkward silence took hold of the two. Elaine cocked her head to the side. Her smile widened. She grabbed his wrist and pulled. "Come on. I just got off work and I'm starving."
Elaine pulled Pete for nearly three blocks before arriving at a taco truck. She touched her shoulder to her cheek as she turned towards Pete. "Nothing quells hunger quite like a taco does."
"So, Pete, you're a student, aren't you?"
Shock widened Pete's eyes. "How'd you know?"
"You pass by the bakery almost every day from the direction of the college." Elaine pointed at his messenger bag. "And you always carry a bag. Not that hard to figure out."
Pete chuckled. "Quite the detective." He touched his lip in thought. "Or maybe I have a stalker?"
"A bit full of yourself, don't you think?"
"Then why did you run out of the bakery to give me that cupcake?"
Elaine blushed. Her gaze drifted. She held her left wrist behind her back and rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. "...'Cause you looked sad..." She looked back at him, "...like you had the weight of the world on your shoulders."
Pete's smile faded.
Elaine shrugged. "Anything you want to get off your shoulders? I'm a great listener."
"Nah," Pete inhaled. "They're my burdens. We're next." He stepped up to the truck, leaving Elaine with a questioning look.
After ordering their food, Elaine led Pete to a nearby park. They sat on a bench and bit into their tacos.
"Tell me, Pete, what are you studying?"
Pete leaned back, "Just some general courses."
Elaine took a sip out of a water bottle. "There's nothing you wanna be when you grow up?"
"Ha! I am grown up. I don't know. I don't know what I want to do with my life." Pete shrugged. He stared at the starry blanket in the sky. It always fascinated Pete how quickly the night came during the winter. "Sorry, that probably sounds really depressing."
"No. Sounds like what everyone goes through." The college years are all about discovering yourself."
"Did you always know you wanted to be a baker?"
Elaine shook her head. She took another bite of her taco before throwing her legs onto the bench and tucking them under her. "I had really strict parents. I spent so much of my childhood studying and trying to get perfect grades during my entire school career for their approval. But my life changed after I met my first boyfriend."
Pete grinned. "Let me guess, he was a rebel without a cause and his bad boy ways charmed you."
Elaine playfully slapped his arm. "Ew! No!" She giggled. Her laugh was angelic. "If anything I was the mess. No, Brian was ambitious. He had this passion for filmmaking."
Pete watched her take a moment to reminisce. There was a look in her eye that seemed familiar to him somehow."
"He formed his own little crew; actors and writers and editors and all sorts of people with great skills. His passion was the sexiest thing about him." She exhaled. "And that was when I realized I didn't have any dreams. My entire life had been built on my parents' expectations to get into a great college, and for what? To say I got into Harvard even though I had no idea what I wanted?"
"There was a void..."
Elaine nodded. She stared at her half-eaten taco. "I wanted a dream too."
"How did you choose a baker?"
"It took a couple years. I joined so many clubs during my junior year. I tried soccer and baseball, basketball and track. I tried out for band and choir. I even took woodshop and auto shop. Nothing spoke to me until one day in my senior year; we had a baking lesson in my culinary arts class. We spent two weeks baking cupcakes and breads and cakes. It was fun and I loved when people enjoyed what I made. So I decided then, that was my dream. I wanted to make people happy with baking."
Pete smiled. "From experiencing one of your baked goods, I believe you nailed it."
Elaine tossed her bangs out of her eyes and stared at the night sky. "It was all trial and error. While figuring out what I wanted, I had to figure out who I was. It was hard work. It still is. I still have so much to learn. And one day, I want to learn in France."
"Wow. How inspiring. You should give a TED talk."
Elaine laughed and snorted. She quickly covered her mouth and blushed. Both doubled over.
As the laughing died, they sat silently on the cold bench. Couples hand-in-hand passed by. Pete looked away. His heart was beating hard.
"So what happened to your boyfriend?" A cold wind descended on the two. Pete shivered. Why am I asking about the boyfriend?
"You're cold. We should get somewhere warm." Elaine stuffed the rest of the taco in her mouth. "Come on."
Pete scratched his cheek. He flinched realizing how frozen his skin had grown. "My place is nearby... I can get a better jacket and we can go hang somewhere... if you want to."
Elaine nodded, "Sounds lovely."
They walked down the street in silence. Pete's heart felt like it was slamming against his ribcage. If it wasn't so cold he would be sweating from the nerves twisting in his stomach. What am I doing? I basically invited her over! Oh god, does she think I'm a player? Does she want me to make a move? Is she just being polite and really thinking I'm a creep? Why is my heart beating so hard?
"Although it looks like snow tonight, it really is a lovely night for a stroll," Elaine said.
Pete's stomach sank. Is she trying to avoid coming to my place? "Yeah... it's beautiful."
Elaine leaned closer to him. "It's even lovelier with the company." She cast a look at him. Whether it was meant to be seductive or not, Pete didn't know, but he was certainly enchanted.
Pete and Elaine came up to the five-story building. Pete glanced at Elaine for assurance. He felt strange. He wasn't trying to make any moves on her, but he felt like he was luring her to a night of passion.
The two stood on opposite ends of the elevator. A glance was shared. Pete felt his heart thump as he looked into her amber eyes. Fire sizzled in those eyes and he wanted to be consumed by them.
Pete led Elaine down the blue-carpeted hall. She nervously brushed her hair behind her ear. Pete opened the door to his apartment. "You're welcomed to come in if you want, or wait out here if you're more comfortable. I am a stranger, after all."
"Such a gentleman." Elaine stepped inside. "I'll take a chance, but fair warning, I studied kung fu for a while so don't be daring." She winked.
"I'll just be a moment." He tossed his bag onto a nearby chair and headed into the bedroom.
Elaine glanced around the apartment. It was a small place, but Pete had a taste for interior design. Polished hardwood floors glistened under grey rugs. End tables with granite surfaces held plastic plants. She sat on the blue velvet sofa and looked at the pictures displayed on some of the tables and the walls.
"This is a nice place you have." A packed folder lying on the table caught her eye. A couple sheets had poked out. Elaine peeked at the collected sketches of characters and colored landscapes. She heard the bedroom closet close. Elaine quickly closed the folder.
Elaine listened while Pete shuffled around his room. She picked up a framed photo of two boys with huge smiles on their faces. Elaine instantly knew by the dimples that the dark-haired boy on the left was Pete.
Pete walked out of his room. He pulled on a black winter coat and stopped to look at Elaine. She glanced up from the picture of him and Ty when they were younger. "Wha'cha got there?"
"You tell me."
Elaine's smile made his heart skip a beat. "Uh, that's my best friend, Ty. We've been friends out entire lives."
"You two look so happy." She paused. That look as if he had the weight of the world returned to his eyes. "Tell me about him."
"Ty's a really good guy. Super smart too. Ty has been into building robots most of his life," Pete thought of Ty's newest android grabbing his leg earlier, "Which is probably a bad thing considering he's a prankster. Even earlier today he used this project he's been working on for forever just to scare me."
"He sounds like a cool guy."
"Yeah..." Pete shoved his hands into his pockets. "Life just hasn't been fair to him..."
When Pete didn't go any further, Elaine rose from the couch. She grabbed his hand and led him toward the front door. She paused when something leaning against the wall came into view. She faced Pete with a mischievous grin. "Is that a skateboard?"
Pete grinned, "Double kick board. I've had it for years. You skate?"
"No." She picked up the board, "But you're gonna teach me."
Elaine and Pete returned to the park. In a fairly open space, Elaine placed the board down. She took Pete's hand and placed one foot on the board. The skateboard bucked under Elaine's weight. She tightened her grip on around Pete's hand.
"Careful." Pete helped find her balance. He showed her how to stand on the board and while holding her hand. "You have no problem learning new things, do you?"
"A habit I picked up after spending so long trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life." She let go of Pete's hand and swayed while trying to keep her balance. "Not everything worked out, but it was always fun trying."
Elaine let the board slowly take her down the slightly sloped path. Pete stayed close by, ready to catch her at the slightest mishap. "You're fearless. I like that."
"Not fearless." The board booked. Pete caught her before she fell. "I fear it every time."
"Doesn't seem like it."
"What about you? What's something you've always wanted to do but never did?"
Pete blinked. "I dunno." He glanced up at the night sky. "I guess I've always wanted to skydive... or get a tattoo."
Elaine laughed. The board slipped out from under her. She crashed and rolled onto the grass.
"Elaine!" Pete rushed to her side.
Elaine burst out laughing. She spread out on the grass and patted at a space next to her.
Pete sat next to her. "You're really something."
"I'm just like everyone else."
"That's not true." Pete crossed his legs. "You've got your life all figured out. You know who you are."
Elaine sat up, "No, I don't. What makes you think that?"
"I just mean, you already know what you want to do with your life and you're pursuing it. I'm twenty-five and I'm still in school without any idea of what I want and my best friend is..." Pete bit his lips. He sniffed and exhaled. "I said too much."
"Maybe you haven't said enough." Elaine took his head. "You say a lot when you don't say anything."
Pete rubbed the back of his neck, "It's complicated."
"I see." Elaine looked up at the stars. Even in the dimly-lit park, it was easy to see hundreds of stars sparkling in the black sky. "I understand complicated. Life is complicated, especially losing people you love."
Pete raised an eyebrow. "You've lost someone?"
Elaine nodded. She smiled but it was forced, "Brian."
Pete frowned. "You two didn't just break up?"
"We were engaged."
The words stabbed Pete's heart and twisted. "What happened?"
A tear rolled down Elaine's cheek. "Car accident. Two years ago a car T-boned his. He didn't survive."
Pete cast his gaze down. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"I will always love Brian and sometimes I'm afraid to fall in love like that again despite how much I want to. I push people away when it gets scary." Elaine looked at him. "I understand complicated."
Pete gently squeezed her hand. "I've lost someone I loved before too. About four years ago, the girl I loved succumbed to cancer. I watched her whither away for a year and I could do nothing." Pete sighed. "Now I'm doing it all over again with Ty."
"Oh..." Elaine looked into his eyes. "That must be hard."
"He's always been there for me. He's the one who pushed me to go back to school after losing Julia. He's always kept me going."
"What... What does...?"
"Heart failure," Pete answered.
"But... but he's so young!"
Pete shrugged. "Cancer doesn't care about age." He felt tears forming. He blinked them away and sniffed loudly. "Docs found a malignant tumor blocking the flow to one of his valves about a year ago."
Elaine could think of nothing to comfort him. What could be said or done? All she could do was continue to hold his hand.
"He's supposed to go into surgery tomorrow... but the docs say his chances are very low."
"They can't remove it?"
Pete shook his head. "If it was a benign tumor, there would be a chance, but this is aggressive."
"I'm so sorry."
Pete jumped to his feet and wiped the coming tears. "This is too depressing, isn't it?" He chuckled.
Elaine shook her head. "I think it shows how caring you really are."
Pete shoved his hands into his coat pockets. "I guess."
"It sounds like he pushes you to take chances."
"Take chances on what?"
Pete glanced over his shoulder, "He tries."
"What is life if you don't take chances?" Elaine brushed her hair behind her ear. "If you don't take a chance, you just become an object in the world, controlled by circumstance."
A cold wind blew. Pete watched Elaine shift her weight to a more comfortable position. "Perhaps that's my curse."
"I don't believe that. You always have a choice. So what would you take a chance on?"
What would I take a chance on? Pete stared at the ground for a long minute. He glanced at her. Pete balled a fist. He walked up to her and knelt on one knee to meet at eye-level. "This." He leaned in for a kiss.
His heart leaped. Her lips filled him with a warm fluttering in his stomach. He always read about electricity flowing through the body when the kiss was soul-deep. He didn't feel that. He didn't know what the feeling was, but it was certainly magical.
Elaine pulled back.
Pete opened his eyes and looked at hers. His heart still beat hard, only now with anxious dread. "Was that okay? Did I overstep? Oh god, I'm such an ass.
Elaine smiled, "It was bold."
Pete gave a half-grin. "Took a chance."
She hopped to her feet and took his hand. "Let's go somewhere. We are clearly attracted to each other," She touched her bottom lip with her finger, "so let's follow through."
"Well, we already had dinner and a movie isn't for talking. Any ideas?"
Elaine nibbled on her index finger. When she smiled, Pete imagined her a mischievous goddess. Elaine flicked her eyebrows up and down. "Let's get a drink."
"I dunno, I'm a lightweight," Pete squinted his eyes and sucked his teeth. "What if you take advantage of me?"
Elaine bit her bottom. She cocked her head to the side and raised her eyes, "It's not taking advantage if I'm giving you one."
Pete's breath caught. Elaine winked at him. She picked up the skateboard and hopped on. She spread her arms out while trying to keep her balance. She managed to ride past two trees before falling again. Pete chuckled to himself and chased after her.
After returning to Pete's apartment to drop off the skateboard, Pete and Elaine strolled through the city. They arrived at a small corner bar. Inside, the lights had been set low and a piano centered a stage in the back. On the stage a woman sang Alanis Morissette's 'You Oughta Know' terribly. But the patron cheered and raised their glasses.
"Oh my god," Elaine giggled. "It's karaoke night."
"Hell no, no way are we doing karaoke night." Pete shivered at the thought.
"Oh, yes, we are. Take a chance." Elaine stuck her tongue out at him. She twirled on her heel and ran over to the DJ.
Pete drifted to the bar, "One rum and coke, please."
The bartender nodded. He set down the glass he was cleaning and poured two counts of Bacardi rum into a glass. Elaine skipped to his side as the bartender slid the drink over to Pete.
"One Gin and Tonic for me," Elaine said.
Pete raised an eyebrow. "Gin and Tonic?"
"I'm a very sophisticated individual." Elaine winked.
"Is there nothing you're afraid of?"
"Of course there is. Sharks. Terrified of sharks. And bugs. They're just tiny monsters plotting human destruction." Elaine turned her nose up in disgust, just when the Gin and Tonic arrived. The bartender hesitated placing the drink down when he saw the disgust on her face. Pete burst into laughter while Elaine tried to reassure the bartender the drink was fine.
Pete took in her flustered expression. Her golden hair fell over one eye. Her cheeks were red from the cold and her amber eyes looked at him with a sodt tenderness. "Seriously though, don't you get terrified putting yourself in so many unfamiliar situations?"
"Yes, but I fear letting my life pass me more. I fear not trying something because I was too afraid to fail or what other people may think. I've already lived like that." Elaine took a sip of her drink. She folded her hands around the glass as she stared at her reflection through the mirror behind the bar. "I've lived my life in shadows. I once figured that was my place. It was depressing. But now," Elaine smiled. "I feel the sun on my face and it warms instead of freeze. I see light all around me.
"So no, I don't fear putting myself out there. I fear living in my dark again."
Pete stared at his rum and coke. "I can't imagine you being a dark person. Your very essence radiates so much light."
"I show what I want people to see."
Pete looked at her both with pity and awe. "To have been in something so suffocating... I can relate. I'm sorry."
"We all have our pasts, Pete. No one has a picture perfect life. Everyone greets the darkness at some point in their lives. Nothing can be done about that. Some don't have it until much later in life. I had mine early as did you. What we can do us decide how to weave our futures." Elaine took another sip. "Either choose to suffocate and whither, or fight and embrace your suffering."
The DJ spoke into his microphone, "Give a round of applause to Patricia, everyone. Up next... Elaine Crescent singing a duet with Pete Abarra!"
Pete's eyes grew wide. "I don't sing." He looked around at the packed joint. His heart sunk with rising anziety. The patrons drunkenly clapped and cheered.
Elaine pulled on his arm but Pete stayed firmly planted in his seat. He vigorously shook his head like a scared child afraid to jump into the vast ocean for the first time. Elaine raised an eyebrow, "Take a chance, Pete." She let go of his arm and climbed onto the stage.
Pete watched Elaine grab the microphone. She met his gaze and smiled. "My partner is a little gun-shy, so let's give him a little encouragement!"
The crowd somehow cheered louder than he thought possible. Pete's face flushed. He wanted to jump over the bar and hide behind the counter.
Elaine nodded to the DJ. The DJ pressed a button and P!nk's 'Just Give Me A Reason' started to play. Elaine took a deep breath and began.
Right from the start
You were a thief
You stole my heart
And I, you're willing victim
Pete sat in his chair astounded. Elaine had a beautiful voice... but she was a terrible singer. She didn't hit a single note although she was somewhere in right octave. Pete chuckled. The way Elaine shrugged showed that she knew she wasn't a great singer, but she was having fun. Pete couldn't say no to that.
The audience, drunk enough not to care for Elaine's off-key belting, cheered louder as Pete walked up onto the stage. Elaine handed Pete, who was blushing beet-red, the second microphone. She grinned and flicked her eyebrows up as her verse came to an end.
I'm sorry I don't understand
Where all of this is coming from
I thought that we were fine
Elaine staggered as Pete's deep voice smooth;y hit every note. The crowd's cheer ceased for a second. They stared in a drunk wonder as Pete continued on. As Pete and Elaine came to the second chorus, their audience cheered harder and raised their glasses high in the air.
Pete drew in closer to Elaine. With their locked eyes, with how his confidence slowly rose among the rowdy cheers, and with his soothing voice, Elaine almost swooned. She had to inhale deeply to catch herself and break from his spell. She wasn't going to let him get her weak in the knees.
When the song finished, Pete and Elaine just stared at each other for a hot minute. The crowd whistled and clapped and drunkenly yelled their praise, but neither Pete not Elaine heard any of it. Elaine inhaled deeply before breaking their eye contact and facing their audience.
"What a show from these two! Let's give them one more round of applause!" The DJ clapped.
Elaine followed Pete back to the counter. The bartender slid two drinks to Pete and Elaine. "Good performance. Been a minute since we had someone who could actually sing. This one's on the house."
Pete put a hand over his face to hide the beet-red embarrassment, "I can't believe I just did that."
"I'm glad you did. Who knew you were so talented," Elaine teased. "You acted all shy when in reality I'm the one who should have been embarrassed."
"Please, everyone is just drunk. Anything would sound good to them." Pete took a swig of his rum and coke. A couple passed by. They patted Pete's back and praised his singing. Pete politely thanked them then buried his face into his hands.
"Well, they obviously didn't think so. And the bartender isn't drunk so there goes that theory," Elaine said.
Why don't you try to sing professionally? You're really good. I'm sure you could make it big."
"No, no, no, no, no, no. This was embarrassing as is. I couldn't stand the attention of more." Pete shivered at the thought and downed his drink. His throat burned. He felt a little fuzzy too.
"Fine. Let's play a game then."
Pete raised an eyebrow. "What kind of game?" His shoulders felt a little looser now.
"We're going to play a questions game. I'm going to rapidly ask you questions. You have to answer with the first thought that comes to mind. Sounds easy?"
Let me get another round first." Pete held a hand for the bartender's attention.
Once the third round came, Elaine leaned onto the counter and stared fiercely at Pete. "Alright. Let's begin."
"Okay..." Pete took a sip. "Go."
"How old are you?"
"Where were you born?"
"No. Been too scared to get one."
"Playing video games with my dad on Saturdays."
"The world is ending. To prevent it, you have to make a choice. Would you save a family member or five strangers?"
Pete blinked back his confusion, "Uh, someone dear to me, of course."
"If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?"
"Create video games."
Elaine leaned back in her chair victoriously. "Well, there you go. I think we just found your passion."
"Oh... wow... just like that?"
"Just like that. You've always known what you wanted."
Pete chuckled. "You managed to do what the Personal Development classes couldn't."
Elaine straightned proudly. "I'm an expert. I've been a lost soul for some time so I know how to get that push."
"Ready to take another chance?" Elaine downed the rest of her gin and tonic.
"I'm afraid to say yes." Pete smirked.
"Finish that. You're going to need the courage."
Pete's smile faded. He really was scared now. He looked at his drink and exhaled before bringing the glass to his lips.
Elaine paid for the drinks while Pete struggled to finish the drink. He was feeling the effects now. His face had flushed and his focus was hazy. To call him a lightweight would be kind. One or two drinks got him drunk in no time, but he downed three within an hour and the alcohol was hitting him hard.
The two walked through the streets laughing and loudly talking. Actually, it was just Pete who was talking loudly. Or was he yelling? He didn't know and he didn't care. He was just happy to feel so light. He hadn't felt light in years.
Elaine had to ensure Pete didn't walk into the street while he started talking about what sort of video games he should make. She couldn't help but smile as his passion blossomed. And it was certainly attractive.
"We're here," Elaine said. She halted Pete before he continued walking on.
Pete glanced up at the sign. He squinted his eyes in a vain attempt to focus. "tu-tu? Were you a ballerina? Are you going to dance for me?"
Elaine laughed. "Not Tu-tu. Tattoo. You're getting your first tattoo."
"Okay." Pete pressed his lips together and attempted to smile. His eyes were unfocused. "Let's become ballerinas."
"Come on, you goof." Elaine pulled him into the shop.
Pete sat on one of the black leather chairs while Elaine talked to the tattoo artist. He pulled off his jacket and threw it over the back of his chair. He rubbed his eye while studying the burly man. Pete licked his dry lips. He shifted in the chair and stared at the hundreds of illustrations plattered on the walls.
Elaine and the tattoo artist approached. The tattoo artist sat in the chair next to Pete. "Ready, little man?"
Pete glanced at Elaine. "I'm having second thoughts. I think. They're a little muddled right now."
Elaine sat in front of him. "If you don't want to do this, we can go. It's up to you."
The tattoo artist rolled his eyes and leaned back in his chair. He watched the two stare at each other in silence. The cheesy attraction was a little sickening.
"I'll do it... take a chance, right? You only live once." Pete took a deep breath and straightened his back. "Let's do it," he told the artist.
"Take off your shirt." He grabbed a paper from the drawer of the table. "Sign this."
Pete slovenly signed around the dotted line. As the tattoo artist prepped his tools, Pete struggled to take off his shirt. "Where is this tattoo going?"
"On your chest," Elaine helped Pete pull off the shirt. She paused for a moment. Her eyes rolled down his body. He wasn't toned, but she could see muscle. Elaine took the shirt and used it as an excuse to look away.
Oh. Okay." He settled back. He thought he saw Elaine's shoulders slump. Then again, the world was still spinning a little.
The whir of the pen made Pete tense. His wide eyes watched the pen come closer with the tattoo artist's massive hand resting on his chest. Pete wondered if the tattoo artist could feel his racing heart.
The needle pricked his skin and made him jump. "Sorry, sorry." Pete grabbed Elaine's hand. He took a deep breath and nodded. "Go ahead."
The needle returned. Pete squeezed his eyes shut. The needle felt like a cat scratching at his skin and a heater on full blast. Pete repeatedly balled a fist with his free hand and opened it.
"Just focus on your breathing. It will be over in no time." Elaine caressed his hand.
As time passed, Pete grew more accustomed to the needle. Ten minutes later, as promised, the whir of the needle ceased. He felt a cool cloth run over the sensitive spot. The tattoo artist slid his chair back. "All done, buddy."
Pete opened his eyes. "Really? That was it?"
The tattoo artist just flicked his eyebrows up while he cleaned his tools. Pete got out of the chair and approached the full-length mirror. He gently ran his fingers along the bold and italicized word along his chest.
"Now, every time you look at yourself in the mirror, you have a little reminder that you are remarkable, no matter what." Elaine put her head on his shoulder.
Pete smiled. "One night. I've only known you for one night and somehow you get me."
"Maybe I just see you."
Pete's phone rang.
Elaine gave Pete's arm a gentle squeeze. "Answer that. I'll pay the artist."
Elaine walked over to the tattoo artist. Pete wondered if her heart felt as if it was fluttering like his was. He swiped the screen to answer his phone. "Hello?"
Pete watched Elaine with a content smile. If this was a dream, he didn't want to wake up. Whether he was just infatuated with her lifestyle or excited to find someone who saw past his defenses, he didn't care. There was more than just attraction between the two of them. There was an unexplained connection. Perhaps he could even fall in love with her one day.
He realized he wasn't even listening to whoever was on the phone. "I'm sorry. Can you say that again?"
A long minute passed as Pete processed the caller's words. The phone slipped out of his hand. The clatter of the phone hitting the ground startled Elaine and the tattoo artist. She studied the shock on Pete's face.
"Pete?" Elaine slowly approached. She reached for the phone without taking her eyes off him. "What happened? What's wrong?"
"I have to go." Pete rushed over to the chair and grabbed his things.
"Wait, hold on a minute. What's going on?"
Pete met her gaze. She looked so scared. Tears rolled down Pete's cheeks. "... Ty's... dead..."
"What? Your friend?"
"I really have to go." Pete stormed out of the tattoo shop.
Elaine rushed out of the shop. "Pete! Where are you going?"
"I have to go see him. I have to see it with my own eyes." Pete paced back and forth. "I- I just have to-"
"You should take a minute, Pete." Elaine placed a hand on his shoulder. She wiped a tear away.
Pete couldn't breathe. "I just saw him."
Elaine gave a gentle squeeze. "I'll come with you."
"No. I have to go alone."
"You shouldn't be by yourself right now. Besides, you're still drunk." She watched Pete's eyes dart side-to-side, looking for his focus. "Let's go together."
Pete shoved Elaine's hand off. "I'm sober now." He walked off without looking back.
It was a long walk to the town's hospital. He let his feet guide him through the night. Pete felt distant. A numbing silence filled him. The lively noise of the nightlife sounded miniscule, almost as if they were a low buzz within his numbness. He never noticed bumpong into strangers and continued on without apology.
Pete stood outside the hospital entrance. He stared at the automatci door as people walked in and out. His hand shook and his feet were rooted in place. He didn't want to go in. It had to be a lie. He didn't want to see Ty in the morgue. Could he even call him Ty anymore? Ty was gone. There would only be an abandoned body.
With a breath, Pete stepped inside. He checked in with the receptionist to get a visitor's pass. She gave him directions toward the morgue's waiting area, even though he knew exactly where it was.
Four, Pete thought, this isn't my first rodeo. This is number four.
Pete followed the yellow arrows on the white-tiled floor. He hated the smeall of hospitals. They always smelled of bleach, antiseptics, and death. He was tired of death.
The stench of death only grew stronger as Pete reached the waiting area. A couple of people sat in tears with their family trying to comfort them. No one else noticed the stench of death like he did. He supposed it was because he had been around it so much. It was a sense to those of the dark.
Pete glanced at the door leading inside the morgue. His breath caught in his throat. His feet moved on their own accord. He slipped inside.
Pete's chest constricted as he walked down the hall. He tried to take a breath with little success. He stopped before the morgue's lab. Ty would just be behind these doors if it was true. Pete hung his head.
The lab's door opened. A young man with dark hair flowing over one eye froze at the sight of Pete. "You're not supposed to be back here. You lost or something?"
Pete glanced up. "Ty Forenski."
The young man tensed. "Mr. Abarra..." He checked the hall to see if anyone was coming. He motioned for Pete to follow him inside.
Pete was struck with a wave of cold air. He shivered as he followed the young mortician inward. They walked the squeaky-clean tiled floors to the refrigerated storage units. Something about the clean whit chamber unsettled Pete. It felt as if the place was trying to give death a light atmosphere.
The young mortician moved to one of the metal tables just past the storage units. He stood over one of the black body bags and nodded to Pete. "We haven't done the autopsy yet, but based on his medical records, it was likely heart failure."
"Can I see him?"
The young mortician thinned his lips. With a reluctant sigh, he unzipped the bag.
Ty looked just like how Pete left him. One would think he could be the next poster model for a mattress company's ad for promoting peaceful resting. Pete reached for his hand and flinched at the touch. Ty was still warm to the touch although the skin felt a bit waxy.
"Is he really dead?"
The young mortician picked up a clipboard hanging on the table's side. "In the middle of his pain, he dialed 9-1-1 but fell silent during the call. The responders arrived but when there was no answer at the door, they had to break it down. He was already dead."
Pete stared at Ty's young face. "He was supposed to be prepped for surgery tomorrow."
"I'm sorry for your loss."
Tears rolled down Pete's cheeks. Droplets plopped onto his hand.
"I really shouldn't be doing this... but I'll give you a minute alone." The young mortician paused just long enough to give an apologetic nod. He entered a nearby office with a large window.
Pete closed his eyes. "You weren't supposed to go, you fool. You were the only one I had left." He tried to sniff back the growing pain that built more tears. "How could you leave me alone?"
Pete leaned on the table for support and burst into sobs. He wasn't sure how long he stood there crying. All he knew was he suddenly felt a kind hand on his shoulder that led him out of the morgue.
The young mortician said a few words to him, but Pete didn't hear a word. He regained what little control he could over his sobs and stared at the young mortician with wet eyes. All he caught was the word "tomorrow" before the young mortician returned to the room of death.
Pete looked over his shoulder. Elaine sat in a chair with two coffees in hand. There was pity in her eyes and it only twisted his heart more. He turned his head away from her. "What are you doing here?"
"I thought you shouldn't be alone."
"I need to get used to it. Might as well start now."
Elaine rose from the chair. "You're not alone. There are people who care for you."
"No one who matters." Pete avoided looking in her eyes. She had shown him a new view on life but now she just represented that which he had always known. That world was not for him.
"They could if you let them. If you let me." Elaine tried to plant herself in front of him to meet his eyes, but he kept making it difficult.
"Why do you even care? You don't know me."
"Not fully, but we were getting to know each other. I think there is something there, something we could build. I'm taking a chance." She held up one of the coffees to him.
Pete knocked the coffee out of her hand. "Damn your chances! What's the point if it all just gets ripped away!" His bottom lip quivered.
"The world can't be sunshine and roses all the time, Pete!" Elaine huffed. "That's just not how the world works. You make the most out of this fucked up world and enjoy the moments worth enduring all of the pain."
Peete scoffed a laugh. "Must be so easy for you. So sure about what you want to do in life. So positive for the world around us. Well, that's not how it is for me! I'd like to see your philosophy hold when you endure the countless deaths I have. I bet your mother and father are off living some blissful retirement in the Bahamas. Well, not mine. Mine never lived to see forty. Oh, you didn't know that? You didn't know I was an orphan at sixteen? That I moved from foster to foster for two years until I aged out of the system and had to survive on my own? Well, now you do. Now you know about the three deaths that constantly weigh on my shoulders. Oh wait, make that four. I just lost the only one still there for me. So please, give me another pep talk about how everything is going to be all right. Tell me how I'm not cursed with killing the people I care for just because they know me."
A lone tear fell from Elaine's eye. "I've known more pain than you know, Pete. I've had my fair share of deaths too. That includes my parents. Perhaps that's what I saw in you. Maybe some part of me knew we were kindred souls. I will not stand silently while you throw a tantrum like a child." Elaine threw her coffee on the ground. "I hope you find the solace you need. When you do, you know where to find me."
Pete watched Elaine stomp down the hall. He balled his fists and stormed the opposite hall. He pushed the hospital's door with all his fury on his way, nearly hitting an injured couple. But he didn't care. There was nothing to care about anymore.
People stopped and moved out of his way as he marched down the streets. The anger in his eyes burned and dared anyone to get in his way. He had never been a violent person, but right now all he wanted to do was punch everything. He wanted to punch a tree; he wanted to punch the stupid grins off that happy couple on the bench, and to kick the skatboards from under the passing punks.
He approached Ty's house. In his rage, the keys fumbled within his fingers only pouring more fuel to his rising dark.
The moment he stepped inside the apartment all of Pete's anger washed away. Ty's apartment felt so empty. The hallway felt significantly darker. The shadows crept along the walls and floor, threatening to eat Pete whole aas he dragged his feet through.
Pete opened the door to Ty's bedroom. He stared at the empty bed. The sheets had been thrown onto the ground. A permanent shallow dent had formed from Ty's weight.
No longer could he contain the pain. Pete's knees buckled. He bawled the rest of the night.
. . .
"That's it for today. Tomorrow we delve further into loops and arrays."
Pete stuffed his laptop into his messenger bag. He threw the bag over his shoulder and started to walk out of the classroom.
"Hey, Pete!" One of his female classmates rushed up to him.
"Oh hey, Mya." Pete clutcheded the strap of his bag.
Mya brushed her dark hair behind her ear. "Some of the others and I are going to get together to study. Would you like to join us?" She idly rolled her foot and avoided looking straight into his eyes.
"Sorry. I have some things to do today. Maybe another time." Pete politely smiled. He turned on his heel and left.
Three months had passed since Ty's death. Though Pete still felt a void within, time had come to ease a little of his suffering. The first month was devastating. Pete found himself trapped in the darkness of his grief, jumping from anger to crippling depression. Some days he broke whatever was in range while other days he couldn't find the strength to get out of bed.
The second month, he found his anger had subsided. He didn't know why. All Pete knew was he was tired of being so angry. With his anger gone, he was just lost in his depression. He laid in bed for days. Days passed since his last shower and school wasn't even an afterthought. Food became a small comfort until he grew sick of TV dinners and ice cream.
One day, a knock on the door stirred him from his despair. He opened the door to find a basket of cupcakes on his doorstep. There was no question to whom had left it. The set of blueberry cupcakes said it all. Pete placed the basket on the counter and sat before it. He stared at it for an hour, not really hungry nor really wanting it, before finally picking one up.
The sweet burst of blueberry filled him. For just a second, everything felt right in the world again. Pete chuckled to himself. The chuckles developed into a full-on laugh. Pete covered his eyes with his hand and doubled over. Tears of both pain and elation streamed down his cheeks.
He looked up at his ceiling. "Damn it, Elaine." His fingers traced the tattoo on his chest.
Pete stepped into his bathroom. He removed his shirt to look at his tattoo.
After taking the time to clean himself up, Pete sat himself down at the computer. He spent the night submitting applications for a game development program. The next day, Pete quit his part-time job and applied for full-time work in the entertainment field. In two weeks, he got a job as a receptionist for a voice-over company.
The next week he was accepted into a game development program. After finishing work, Pete ran to take a night class three times a week. His other two classes were accessible online. The work was hard but day by day his void felt a little more bearable.
Fnally feeling strong enough, Pete made his hardest step next: clearing out Ty's house. The living room was easiest to clean. Ty had barely spent time in there anyway. Just furniture to be moved out. It was the bedroom that sent him into a hysterical fit. Pete had trouble putting all of Ty's papers and gadgets away. Every time he picked something up he was struck with a memory. He spent hours packing, going through albums, and sobbing.
It took three days to clean out Ty's place. He kept Ty's computer and the recent android, but the rest he put into storage. He wasn't quite ready to sell anything yet.
Pete ran a hand through his short hair. Three months passed quickly. He looked up at the bakery sign, 'Sweet Miracles' and smiled. It was a fitting name.
The shop's bell dingled at the opening door. "Welcome!"
Elaine stared at Pete. Her welcoming demeanor instantly vanished. She glared at Pete and crossed her arms. "Did you want something?"
The two customers in the shop and Elaine's coworker glanced from Pete to Elaine. They waited anxiously for someone to say something and break the tense atmosphere.
"Hi." Pete scratched the side of his nose nervously. "Been a while."
"Unless you're buying something, I'm really too busy for idle chats." Elaine started to turn.
Elaine looked back.
"I took out my anger on you and that wasn't fair. You were just trying to be comforting."
"Give the kid a prize."
"So, here' the thing. I don't know what to make of that night. It's all a blur of emotions. But I do know that you were the one good thing that night. I don't know what was going on between us but there was a connection. One I've never felt before. So if you can forgive a fool, I'd like to see where this could go."
Elaine brushhed a strand behind her ear. She took a long minute to assess him. "There's something different about you."
Pete shrugged. "That night changed me. You changed me."
"Sounds like you're holding onto an idea of me that I may not be able to live up to."
"It was just one night, Pete. I was attracted to you but we don't know each other well enough to do love proclamations in the middle of my job. Some people might consider it creepy."
"You think I have my life figured out but I'm a mess just like everyone else. I have my demons and I can be a real bitch. There are hard nights with me and psychological damages I can't mend. I'm not perfect like you've imagined me to do."
Pete stepped a little closer. "I do have a lot to learn. Here's the thing, I want to. I want to know your drives and passions. I want to know your pain. I want to know your quirks that are both cute and annoying. I want to know who you are, not just who you show people, because I think that's the girl who would be perfect. So I'm not asking for your hand in marriage or even for a date. I'm asking if you want to ride around on skateboards and embarrass ourselves as we try new things whether we succeed or fail. I'm asking if you want to hang out with friends and have fun. Elaine Crescent, do you want to take a chance by hanging out and see if that something I think is there really is?"
The shop was quiet. Elaine's coworkers watched with wide, unblinking eyes. The customers slowly bit into their cupcakes without taking their eyes off Pete and Elaine. One of them was even recording them.
Elaine clasped her hands together behind her back. She cocked her head to the side and stared into Pete's eyes. She then flicked her eyes up and shrugged. "I may be a fool, but that doesn't sound half-bad."
Their onlookers tried to stifle their excited squeals. Pete beamed. He felt his heart fill and his entire being felt lighter.
"Can I bring my boyfriend?"
Pete's rising heart took a dive. His smile faded.
Elaine took Pete's hand. "I'm just messing with you. Consider it payback."
Renewed. Pete laughed. "Alright. That's fair."
Elaine looked over her shoulder, "Sorry ladies, I'm cutting out early for the day." She looked at Pete and squeezed his hand. "I've got to take a chance."