“Hey!” Charles called, drawing the word out, as a greeting from a person I hadn’t seen in a while. He extended his arm with a firm handshake. “How are you?”
“You know, I’m alright,” I answered vaguely. Charles smelled like smoke mixed with the fresh bread and chestnuts sold on the streets. “How ‘bout you?”
“Doing well,” he said, smiling. I wanted to smile when he did; he still had that effect on me.
“That’s good. Wanna go get a drink?”
We walked away down the street. To anyone else, it would’ve looked like a meeting of two old friends, which, in part, it was. But Charles and I knew it was something different: it was a signal. A flash of light lit up the ground near our feet for a moment, and we knew the signal had been received.
We weren’t going to go get a drink, either. We walked awkwardly, not touching each other, towards one of the many abandoned shops in this part of the city. It was snowing. My boots made deep tracks. I noticed that Charles wasn’t wearing any shoes; his feet were just covered in bits of old cloth. I pulled at the buttons on my coat. I kicked little drifts of snow out ahead of me. I rubbed my hands together. I knew I was just doing something to fill the time, to keep me occupied. I’d been doing that since I was a kid.
I saw Charles pull his coat tighter around him. I wondered why he didn’t just button it, but then I saw some of the buttons on his coat were gone. “Are you really doing alright?” I asked, just to say something. As soon as I said it, I saw a change in him.
“Yeah, fine.” He didn’t sound angry, but I’ve always been able to tell when he was lying, though today I didn’t know why he would.
We didn’t speak again until we got to the shop, our shop, though we didn’t really own it. The display windows in the front were broken, and glass littered the floor. There was graffiti on the walls, inside and outside, and a rotted old wood sign above the equally rotted door that said, Melbourne Music. There used to be instruments lining the walls, evident by the metal hooks that remained. A grand piano was the central point in the room. My eyes were drawn to it immediately, with its broken strings, missing keys, and one bent leg. There was red spattered on the ivory, making me think some kind of brawl had happened here. This wasn’t the best part of town.
“Looks different than I remember,” Charles said. In the warm glow of the setting sun, I saw him try to smile. It was the same smile I remembered, sort of tilted, crooked, cute. But it no longer looked carefree like it used to. It seemed tired and overwhelmed.
“Did you ask Ches to come?” I said.
“Yeah, but he said he couldn’t. D’you know he has a kid now?”
“Oh.” I was surprised by this, and maybe a little saddened. I knew I should be happy for him. I didn’t know why I wasn’t. “Good for him.”
“Yeah.” More lies.
We stood there silently until we heard a thump outside. By now, it was too dark to see.
“Who’s in there?” a deep voice demanded.
I heard a metallic flick from beside me. I was too afraid to look.
“Put your hands up!” The door was thrown open on its rusty hinges, and a figure entered.
I lit a match as the door opened, illuminating the features of Henry Anwall, not a police officer. “Jesus Christ!” I said, and stumbled backwards into the piano, playing discordant notes. “What’s wrong with you?” I laughed, catching my breath.
I turned around to look at Charles behind me. He was tucking something into his pocket. His knife. His hands were shaking, and he didn’t say a word.
“Hey, guys! Ready for tonight?” Henry said, always laughing and cocky. I had no idea where Henry lived or what he did with his time. I don’t think anybody did. When we didn’t answer, he continued, “Anybody got anything?”
He was really directing that question at me, and of course I knew what he meant. I got an oydeynil out of my pocket and lit it for him with the last of the match. “Share,” I warned, and he nodded, waving his hands at me and puffing light green smoke. The store filled up with the smell, but I was used to it. I kind of liked it. I lit another match so we could see. It was practically dark now, and even darker in the store.
Meanwhile, Charles didn’t talk. I used to call him Charlie. What happened to us?
“So, you guys wanna go now?” Henry asked as he blew smoke out his mouth. He was leaned up against the wall.
I was sitting on the piano bench, which was relatively unharmed. I began to stand up. “Sure.”
Charles was farther back in the shadows, enough so that even with my small light, I couldn’t see him at all. “Wait. I don’t think I should do this this year.”
“Aw, come on, we’ve done it every year since we were kids. Besides, you hate the guy,” Henry said.
“Yeah, well, smashing the former mayor’s window isn’t exactly legal.”
“Since when do you care? You raised a knife at me a few minutes ago because you thought I was the police!” Henry protested.
“I do now.”
“I dunno,” I said uneasily. Henry may be overconfident and reckless, but he was right about one thing: since when was Charles afraid to get in a little trouble? Something was going on.
“Really? Now you’re backing out? What happened to you guys? I swear, it’s like you’re in love with Charlie or something, the way you always side with him. It’s always been this way, ever since we were kids. I’ll just go by myself.” He laughed bitterly.
“Wait, Henry, I never said that-” But really, what was I protesting against? Henry stalked out the door, alone. He quickly disappeared into the darkness.
My match went out again, and I didn’t bother getting another. Henry had taken the oydeynil with him. And if there was no light, no one would know we were here. I might’ve laughed when Henry played that trick on us, but it scared me.
“Is something going on?” I asked into the darkness.
I heard a sigh. “So you know last year, when I said money was tight?”
I nodded then remembered he couldn’t see me. “Yeah.”
“I lost my job. My landlord kicked me out when I couldn’t pay rent.”
“You could’ve asked me for help.”
“I didn’t want to bother you.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Where’ve you been living?” I asked tentatively.
“Everywhere. Places like this or benches when it’s nice enough. I’m a busker now. I can make enough every day to get a little food, and this guy I know gives me a beer if I clean the bar.” A pause. “Sometimes I drink from the gutters.”
We sat in silence for a while. I really didn’t know what to say. I lit an oydeynil. “Want any?” I asked.
He came over to sit on the bench beside me, and I handed it to him. He was slouching. Charles never used to slouch.
“I wonder if Henry’s really gonna go through with it without us,” he said.
“I dunno. Remember the time he got drunk and said he was fireproof?”
“How could I forget? He put his hand in a bonfire.” He laughed softly. His laugh was the most familiar, most calming sound in the world to me.
“I wonder if he still has the scar.” I was smiling.
“There was the time Ches started taking his clothes off in the bar and we had to take him home.”
“Yeah.” That was a less than fond memory for me, for a lot of reasons.
“Weren’t you, like, talking to a girl or something and he puked down her shirt?”
“Yep.” That was one reason. The girl had screamed and tried to punch him, then ran to the bathroom. I had been drunk. That was the only reason I’d talked to her.
More quiet. We passed the oydeynil back and forth. Oydeynil was something I’d been doing since I was around 12 years old, probably. It didn’t exactly get you high, and you couldn’t really get addicted to it. It was somewhere in between. I knew it wasn’t good for me, but oydeynil gives me a sense of calm that I can’t accomplish on my own. My head is always buzzing, nonstop, with all kinds of noises, voices, accusations, just thoughts that I can’t turn off. Oydeynil takes it away, if only temporarily.
“Remember when we kissed?” Charles said, so quietly I almost couldn’t hear him.
I was shocked. We hadn’t ever brought that up. That time in our youth seemed, for a while, to just stay in our past. When we had grown apart, it disappeared. I thought he’d moved on, and I guess I thought I had too. My heart thumped in my chest.
“Yeah,” I said breathlessly after a moment. “Can I call you Charlie?”
It was quiet, then he said thoughtfully, “Yeah. I don’t know why you ever stopped.”
“Do you think Henry knows?”
“About how we used to be?”
“No. Henry thinks too fast to know what’s going on right around him,” he replied. “Do you remember how we used to call each other names when the others weren’t around?”
“Yeah.” I paused here. “Do you think Henry and Ches would understand if we told them?”
“Why would we? You know the punishment for that. I don’t know what they think.”
“Did you catch what Henry said, just before he left?” he asked, and it seemed like then, in the darkness, we were the only two people in the world.
How could I forget? It was something that no one else would catch but me and Charlie.
“Are you still?”
I kissed him, and he kissed me back. Almost awkwardly, but I remembered when we used to do that often, whenever we thought it would be safe.
I remembered a scene from when we were teenagers.
“Ansel?” Charlie’s voice, from across his great-uncle’s empty music shop.
“Did they leave?”
“Uh-huh.” I was sitting on a piano bench, possibly the same one I was sitting on now.
“Well, I gotta go. Bye, hon. Love ya,” he said as he picked up his coat from beside me, and leaned over to kiss me. It had all the buttons on it, and he was wearing shoes. There weren’t circles under his eyes and stress lines on his forehead. There wasn’t unshaven stubble growing on his chin.
But now, I didn’t care about how much he’d changed, how much everything had changed. I used to think about times like that, and it would make me unbearably sad. It would feel like a stab in the chest to know I could never have that again. I always hate when people say, “Don’t be sad it’s over, be glad it happened.” What’s the point of that? I missed him, and I wasn’t going to sit there happily, knowing I might not ever see him again, and knowing if somehow I did, and things went back to the way they used to be, that there was always a risk. Always a risk. Someone would find out eventually.
Now I had it all again, and I wasn’t ready for it to be taken away.
I heard the smash of glass, far away in the dark night. I felt his arms wrap around me in the embrace I never thought I would feel again, his arms protecting me, keeping me safe from anyone who would try to hurt us. I hugged him back, and let the oydeynil fall to the ground. I rested my head on his shoulder. I wanted to stay like this forever.
I heard a sound. A gasp. Henry had opened the door. “What the-”