Cleo has always been a romantic. The thing is, flirting with girls is confusing sometimes; I mean, a cute girl could say something flirty, but mean it to be friendly, and telling the difference is just about impossible. Sometimes we joke about just dating each other, and I have considered it. Out my window, the cows in the pasture stand round, eating grass. ‘Girls are so complicated,’ I shrug, adjusting the hair band at the end of my braid.
Fingers tapping on the steering wheel, Cleo shoots me a look. ‘Yesterday a guy hit on me at work and when I told him I’m gay, he insisted I just hadn’t met the right man yet, and then offered to ‘take me home and change my mind’. I should just start handing out cards that say, ‘sorry, I’m a raging lesbian.’ Her hair is sliding into her face, she tosses it over her shoulder with a quick flick of her head.
‘Ugh.’ We turn onto a paved road, a motorway of sorts. ‘Men can’t even pleasure the women who are counting on them, and they think they can turn a lesbian straight.’ Cleo is laughing, eating the last of her Maltesers and crumpling up the bag. ‘Some guys are extremely cute, though.’
The radio starts up again, there’s never any reception in the countryside. Cleo turns down the volume a tad. ‘Yeah, they’re cute, but I don’t want to fuck them.’ A heavier breeze drifts into the sunroof, waving Cleo’s hair around her face; she shuts the roof, combs the fingers of one hand through her waves whilst driving. She’s stunning. I don’t know why she has such trouble getting dates. She’s taller than me, but almost everybody is.
On the front dash, there is a small flower; it was gifted to Cleo by her foster mother, Evie. She’s a nice woman, Evie is. I do wish Cleo had been able to meet her earlier. With the radio playing, and the sun glaring down on the top of the car, we drive the rest of the journey and pull up in front of Cleo’s house. She’s lived here for nearly a year, and constantly says it’s the best thing that ever happened to her. I agree. I remember her moving in here eight months ago, after weeks of staying with my parents and I, weeks of the social worker coming over to talk to her, I remember her crying in my room in the early morning because they’d finally found somebody to take her in. Don’t get me wrong, Mum and Dad would have adopted her; they’ve told me so, if worse came to worst. After six years of knowing her, she’s like a sister to me already, anyway.
It’s noisy, as always; Gabriel’s stereo in the sitting room always has something new playing. Cleo hangs her cardigan on the hook inside the door; Evie sits in the kitchen and gives us both warm smiles as we approach. ‘Hey, Evie,’ I say, as she hugs me, ‘thanks for letting me come over.’ From the sitting room, Gabriel nods, acknowledging us, enjoying his music too much to come and say hello.
Cleo drops her handbag on a kitchen chair, and heads to the refrigerator; she’s always got a stash of soda in there. ‘Come on,’ she slides across the floor in her stocking feet, and runs down the hallway; her bedroom is at the end, we’ve often sat and watched films late into the night, complaining about boys and daydreaming about girls, or ranting about life, or just having a good time. Now, she pulls a film from the shelf on her nightstand, and I sprawl across her bed with my feet up against the wall and my head hanging over the side, watching her. ‘When it gets dark,’ she says, ‘we’ll go for a drive round the city.’ She grins, flopping onto the bed beside me, snuggling her head into my neck. It reminds me of Lottie, the way she used to cuddle up to me, the way she always smelled of apples and cinnamon, her hair falling into my face. But Cleo isn’t Lottie. Anyway that was so long ago I’m surprised I’m thinking about it now. I do hope I see her again sometime, though.
She’s chosen quite a long film; it’s beginning to get dark by the time it ends. Gabriel has shut his music off; from the end of the hallway, I can see he and Evie watching something on the television, her curled up into his side, hands touching. I’m only sixteen. I have years to meet somebody, years to fall in love. Even so, I’m not sure why I feel I’m missing out. The floor creaks a little as Cleo walks. She scoops her handbag from the kitchen chair, grabs her car keys from the counter, shoots me a wink whilst pulling on her jacket. ‘Let’s go!’ She’s always enthusiastic. So am I: eager, excited, I tug on my trainers and follow her outside.
In the centre of the city, there is a water fountain; Cleo parks there, we sit on the edge for a while. I’ve never liked the dark; even at home, I still sleep with a night light under my bed, but Cleo loves the darkness, and holds onto my arm, staying close. Even underneath the dim light of the streetlamps, I’m fearful, on edge, Mum says I’ll grow out of my fear of the dark, but I’m not sure that’s true. Besides, it’s strange walking outside at night. I’ve never done it before, really, except for the occasional starlit walk to the backyard at the farm. it’s different in a populated area, a public place, I’m not sure I much like it. It’s chilly outside, a breeze tousling my hair. There is a nightclub nearby, a light pulsating inside the windows, a heavy beat busting through the walls. Cleo stares wistfully in the direction of the building. ‘I can’t wait until I’m old enough to get inside. I bet all the cute girls in the city go there.’
Something bumps; down the street, a man yells. My grip on Cleo’s arm tightens. ‘I don’t like this. Let’s get back in your car, we can just drive for a bit and see if we notice anybody.’ I suppose the dark is a tiny bit less frightening when I’m not alone, but it’s still not somewhere I enjoy being. I feel safer in the car, tugging Cleo back towards it, she begins to drive again. ‘It’s only ten o’clock,’ I point out, jabbing a finger at the luminescent clock on her radio, ‘Should we try the community playground? I know loads of teenagers hang out there after dark.’
‘Wait.’ We’re slowing down, Cleo stares out the window, ‘there’s loads of neighbourhood lights here! I want to go sit out in the grass for a bit. C’mon. There’s other people over there, too.’ My mother always tells me it’s dangerous to walk after dark by myself. I suppose it’s just an instinctual thing to be afraid, even if there are other, older people here. Cleo takes my hand, turning on the torch light on her phone, holding it in front of us as we walk. There is a playground nearby, a group of people huddled together: laughing, telling stories. I wonder if they’d mind if we joined in. ‘Look,’ Cleo says, sudden, pointing down the sidewalk in front of us.
Underneath the streetlamp, somebody wanders back and forth: a boy, alone, and looking confused, squinting when we get closer. Cleo wiggles her eyebrows at me. ‘Hey, come on, let’s go see if he’s lost, he looks quite drunk, and it’s late.’
I’m not sure that’s a good idea. ‘That sounds unsafe.’ I pull my light jacket tightly around my shoulders. ‘Maybe we should just go back to your house, I don’t like the dark.’
Cleo’s already stopping, swinging her door open. ‘Come on. It’s very brightly lit up over here, and there’s a huge crowd of people nearby. Nothing will happen. I just want to make sure this guy doesn’t wander into traffic or something. Come on, he’s cute, don’t you think?’ I suppose she’s right, and follow, making sure to observe my surroundings closely. ‘Hey,’ she says, soft, calm, close enough to the boy to be heard, but far enough to remain out of reach, ‘are you lost? You look a bit lost.’
The boy has sat down on the sidewalk, and watches us carefully, tapping buttons on a mobile phone. ‘I can’t find my hotel.’ He shrugs, holding the phone up to one ear, mumbling into the speaker. ‘I just went for a walk and now I can’t find my way back, fuck, I don’t even live here.’ I thought this would be a bad idea, but I’m not worried much anymore, and walk closer, taking a seat next to the boy on the sidewalk. I suppose he’s at least eighteen, old enough to be served alcohol; eyes unfocused, he pores over my face. ‘Hey, you’re cute, stranger.’
A round of laughter comes from the playground down the road. Cleo has come to sit on the boy’s other side, smirking at me, that smug way she does sometimes. This is quite a peculiar way to meet somebody. ‘Thanks, stranger. You’re cute, too. Did you say you’re looking for your hotel?’
It’s getting colder, the boy has begun to shiver, and mumbles some more, although not to me. ‘But where the fuck am I? Oh, shit, it’s dark, and cold, I’ve got to ring Adam, I wish he weren’t so far away… oi, stranger!’ He seems to have just remembered I’m here, and inches the slightest bit closer. I should move away, but I’d rather not. My mother would say I need to make smarter decisions. ‘Can you help me find my hotel?’ He looks tired, more tired than I’ve seen anybody look in a long time, staring, head leaning back against the brick wall behind us. I can barely understand that accent, sounds midwestern, but what do I know?
Down the street, the crowd of people has begun to disperse. Cleo is typing on her phone, a streak of light on her dark face. ‘What’s the name of your hotel? I’ve got a car…’ Her eyes flicker up to mine, a quizzical look, I shrug one shoulder, she knows what I’m thinking, ‘or we could call you a taxi, but you should get home.’
He didn’t know she was there, judging by the quick turn. ‘I’m tired. I want to call my mom.’ As I fold my legs up to my chest, his head begins to slide sideways down the wall, and plops onto my shoulder. Cleo is wiggling her eyebrows at me, teasing; she’s ridiculous, sometimes. ‘What’s your name?’
In my handbag, there is a pen and a small notebook I usually use to write down my tasks for the day. I admit I’d never remember them otherwise. As I dig through the bag to look, Cleo stands, holding her phone to her ear. ‘I’m Addie,’ I tell the boy, using the sidewalk in front of me to scribble down my name, phone number and a short message: just in case. ‘What’s your name? My friend is calling you a taxi to take you back to your hotel; you stay there for the rest of the night, alright?’
This boy has the deepest green eyes, such an intense gaze my face feels as though it’s burning. ‘Yes, ma’am.’ He laughs a little. ‘I’m Finn, and you’re fucking cute, do you want to go on a date?’ Cleo is listening, excited, shooting pointed glances at me. I wish she’d calm the hell down.
My legs are beginning to fall asleep, and so I stand, and hold out the piece of paper. ‘Here. Text me when you get back to your room, okay. And get some sleep, mister, you look exhausted.’ Headlights approach from the end of the road, a taxi appears in front of the place where we stand. Finn takes the paper that I hold out, stuffs it into a pocket, and climbs into the front seat of the taxi. ‘Please don’t lose that paper.’ I don’t know why it’s so important to me. Cleo is clapping her hands: the rapid, overzealous kind of clapping that results from excitement. ‘Shut up,’ I say, grinning, following her back to the car. It’s late, I want to curl up underneath the down blanket in Cleo’s sitting room.
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