Better Ways to Go

“You know those things’ll kill you, right?”

The girl asked the question with complete sincerity, but the boy still responded with a healthy eye roll as he clutched at imaginary pearls around his neck.

“Fuck! I did NOT know that! Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

He threw the cigarette to the ground and glared at it. Then, to punctuate his faux-outrage, he stomped on it several times, scattering its remains around the pavement. The girl stood at the entrance to the alley. They waited in silence for a moment, before she offered him a crooked smile.

“I read somewhere that for every one of those you smoke, you lose a day off your life.”

He snorted with derision as he lit a new cigarette, “Yeah, but they’re days off the end of your life, when things are going to suck anyway.”

She had seen him before, this boy. He came here alone at the end of the day, sitting between the dumpster and the stack of pallets from the warehouse. She had secretly watched him as he hunched over his notebook, scribbling furiously and smoking his cigarettes in the thin light. Sometimes, he would stay well after dark, his nose practically touching the paper as he leaned forward, trying to get all of his thoughts down. Other nights, he’d roll a word around in his mouth first, muttering it to himself and placing the emphasis on different syllables.

Now, he leaned back against the brick wall of the alley with the easy arrogance of youth. His hair was a thick oily mop of black, the kind that only came from a bottle carefully applied every couple of weeks. His jeans were carefully torn in just the right places, and the jacket was a faded leather that still creaked like new and smelled like a new car. He was so focused on posing that he missed the flicker of disapproval that crossed her face.

“B-but, they give you cancer…” she stammered.

He shook his head and gave her a bitter smile. “There’s worse ways to go,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

She wanted to argue with him. Tell him that he was wrong about that. But she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had even bothered to talk with her. She didn’t want to ruin this with her opinions. Instead, she ducked her head down and stole a glance at his eyes. They were a deep brown, like the wrapper of a candy bar. He caught her looking at him and the edges of his mouth turned up slightly.

The girl tucked her hair behind her ear and tried to think of something clever to say. She liked this boy, in spite of herself, even with his casual attitude towards death. He didn’t wear a lot of colors, though. That bothered her. The world was a drab place, and sometimes she would find herself smiling when women bustled by in bright pinks and blues and greens. Like little flowers all over the city. He was a study in sharp blacks, standing out against the washed out colors of the buildings around them.

She liked that he was quiet, even though she ached for a conversation. She smoothed her thin white dress and took a few cautious steps towards him. He looked at her now, and frowned. Excitement welled in the pit of her stomach. He looked like he had something to say.

The boy gestured to her feet with his cigarette. “What happened to your shoes?”

The girl looked down, embarrassed. Her bare feet stood out against the cold cement. She tugged on the end of her dress, hoping that it would somehow cover her feet. She felt an intense desire to smile and laugh and change the subject.

“You can’t walk around here barefoot,” he said with a sympathetic cluck of his tongue. It was an odd gesture that reminded her of her mother. Before she could argue, he was digging through the backpack at his feet.

“I’ve got just the thing,” he said, tossing a pair of worn sneakers onto the ground in front of her. She picked one up carefully, tracing her fingers over the obscenities that had been carefully scrawled on it in black marker. Her eyes flicked over to his black boots, polished and shining in the fading afternoon light.

She placed the shoe back on the ground and shook her head. “They won’t fit,” she whispered. “They’re too big.”

He frowned, and tossed the remains of the cigarette to the ground. The tip flared briefly as it hit the pavement with a few sparks, and then slowly faded away. His eyes narrowed as they moved over her face, and he scratched at the fuzz on his chin that still hadn’t made its way to his cheeks.

“I’ve seen you before,” he said.

She took a step back. “No, I don’t think so,” she said quickly.

He stepped forward, staring at her face, “You look so familiar. How do I know you?”

She trembled a little, and stepped back against the wall. “I don’t know. I bet I look like a lot of people.”

“Do you go to school around here?” he asked, squinting at her. “I’m sure I’ve seen you before.”

“No,” she whispered. “You don’t know me.”

He nodded, staring at her feet. With a shout of joy, he dug in his backpack, before triumphantly pulling out a battered notebook. The girl gasped when she recognized it. Hours spent scribbling and jotting down thoughts disappeared in the blink of an eye as he began tearing the pages out. Crumpling the paper into balls, he stuffed it into the ends of the shoes, and leaned back on his heels to look up at her.

The light passed through her, just for an instant, as the sun jumped out from behind a cloud. His eyes widened and he fell backwards. He pushed himself back away from her, his mouth a perfect O of shock. His feet kicked the shoes as he backed away, and one skidded out of the alley and on to the sidewalk.

“What the fuck are you?” he asked.

Panicked, she looked over her shoulder at the lonely shoe just outside the alley. People ignored it as they passed, focusing on the world at eye level. Someone kicked it accidentally, sending it skittering down the sidewalk. The girl shuffled over to its twin, which lay on its side near the wall, laces and tongue sprawled along the cold concrete, little bits of paper sticking out of it.

With a sad smile, she held it in her hands and sank to the ground. The boy sat on the ground a few feet away, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. The girl wanted to cry. Looking at the white shoe in her hands, turning it over and over, she wanted nothing more than to feel the warmth of tears on her face.

“I don’t know,” she said, the words tumbling out of her mouth before she could stop them. “One day, I woke up in this alley. I don’t know how I got here, and nobody will talk to me or even look at me. It’s so gray and empty. And I can’t leave. I’m so cold all the time. And there’s this fog everywhere. And then you came along with your cigarettes and your boots. And you saw me. And you talked to me. Now you’re going to leave and I’ll be all alone, and I don’t know what to do, and I’m so scared.”

The girl looked up, and saw that he was edging his way past her towards the sidewalk. She dropped the shoe and stood up quickly. He was at the alley entrance, staring at her with those dark brown eyes. He ducked his head and stepped back out into the crowd staring at the ground ahead of him. A small spark of anger flared in her chest as he faded into the mist that hung over the edges of the alley.

She glared at the shoe on the ground next to her. A little piece of paper stuck out of the top, mocking her. Why couldn’t she have just put the shoes on? He’d never have known, and he’d still be here with her. Maybe he’d even have come back and visited her. Kneeling down she ran a finger over the tight laces, the stitching that was starting to come loose.

The girl whipped around at the sound of something hitting the pavement next to her. The boy stood just inside the entrance to the alley. The other shoe lay next to her, where he had tossed it. She reached out for it, barely hoping that it was real.

“You can’t go around with just one shoe,” he said. “Wouldn’t look right.”

She blinked at him before smiling hopefully. “You came back.”

He lingered at the alley entrance and lit a cigarette. “I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said with a shrug.

The girl allowed herself a brief smile as he cautiously walked through the alley towards her, stopping a few feet away. She sat down against the brick wall next to the dumpster and he settled in next to her. She leaned her head against his shoulder, and felt the briefest shiver pass through his body.

He exhaled a cloud of smoke and she watched it fade into the darkening sky above them.

“Those things’ll kill you, you know,” she said.

He took another drag off his cigarette. “There’s worse ways to go,” he said.

©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

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