It was a dark night, moonless and starless, blanketed in the chill of winter and cloud. Smoke floated up, dissipating into the sky. Autumn watched his friend, glass and lighter held delicately between her fingers. A pale pink shirt draped over her knees, wrinkled from staying in the dryer for too long. Kaila has never been good at keeping up with reality.
“Why must you get high every night?”
Kaila rested her arm on her knees, the lighter flickering briefly in her eyes as she took another hit. “You ask me every night. When shall you ever stop?” her eyes trailed over him, but Autumn knew she wasn’t seeing him. Even in the darkness, he knew she was looking past him, or through him. Searching for someone else.
Kaila hummed. “Don’t be bland. The whole world is bland and dull. Who wants to live in such a place? You use your eyes and tell me what you see.”
Autumn hissed out an annoyed breath. She got philosophical when she took those damn drugs. He indulged her, if not for her to stop nagging him. “I see the dark sky and a daft girl unable to cope with life sitting next to me.”
Fine. “The city is cold behind us, lights that don’t quite reach, cars lining narrow streets and empty pavement before shoppes that host the poor or fucked, but no one in between. Good enough?” Autumn crossed his arms, kicking his feet up on the steel balcony railing.
She huffed and dragged herself into an upright position. “The people. They live, breath the same city air, walk the same dirty lanes and work the same dreary jobs. Shoppes that never close or never open, eyes that watch our every move, governments fighting for the same power as they did two hundred years ago. Autumn, don’t you see it? The corrupt don’t corrupt absolutely, they don’t need too. The people are already fucked up.”
“I’m not sure that’s the quote.”
Kaila waved his comment away. “You live in wasted seconds, time ticking away at your clock, stuck in the same country with nowhere to go. You’ve never gone skinny dipping in winter or fucked someone in broad day or gone driving for the hell of it.”
And what was wrong with that? He’d lived a regular life, spent his days being a good kid and trying in school, even excelling at music and dance. But there had never been a big wrongness to it. “So what?”
She blew a stream of smoke into his face as she leaned over. It tasted bitter on his tongue and burned his nose. He coughed, flicking Kaila. She laughed softly, but didn’t move back. “You and I, tomorrow, are going on a trip.”
Autumn wrinkled his nose. “I have work.”
“Kaila, don’t be an idiot. I’m not going anywhere.” Autumn stood up, the sliding door whistling as he opened it. She smiled demurely at him.
“Oh honey, just you wait.”
He shook his head and stepped in the cold of their shared flat. The lights didn’t work; neither of them had enough to pay the electricity bill. The bare bed sat in the left corner and Autumn crumpled on top, the thin pillow leaving a familiar ache in his neck as he drifted off to sleep.
As predicted, Autumn woke with a sore neck, the muscle complaining as his alarm blared at him from across the room. It was uncomfortable, but not out of the ordinary. The walls swung back and forth as he dragged himself out of bed, the dry heat butchering any clarity his mind attempted to sustain.
Kaila was up and about their two foot kitchen, or maybe she hadn’t gone to bed. Autumn never knew. He left the bedsheets rumpled, slamming his hand on the stupid sound.
“Your tea is sitting on the table,” Kaila called out, pulling her mess of blonde and brown hair up in a loose ponytail.
“Thank you,” he said, sitting heavily on the plastic lawn chair. The fabric on it was ripping, he’d have to go buy a new one soon.
“Car’s all brim full. When you gonna be ready?” Kaila took a hit from her juul, blowing smoke off to the side.
Autumn squinted at her. “Where you going? It’s the middle of the week.”
Kaila laughed. “We’re going tripping, remember?” And Autumn did remember, but he wasn’t going off on a whim when he had work and a life to keep straight.
“I told you I’m not going off to who knows the fuck where because you decided too when you were high last night. I’m a responsible adult, unlike yourself Kaila. Didn’t you promise me you were going to get a job?”
“I will, but today we go trippin’. Fuck work and fuck responsibilities. I told you last night. Anyways, I found someone was in town yesterday and he said you’d go. So we three are gonna go off nowhere.”
Autumn groaned. “I don’t care who you found, I’m not coming with you.”
“Yeah?” Kaila smirked, shoving her phone in her pocket. “Wait till you see who it is.”
A knock on the door sent a chill down Autumn’s spine. Who had she found? He went over and unlocked the broken deadbolt and nearly dropped his tea.
Nox, dark onyx eyes and cherry lipped grin, smirked at him from under the doorway. Autumn hadn’t seen Nox in almost seven months, the man a constant inconsistency in his life. He gapped as Nox pushed past him and into the flat.
“You ran into Nox?”
Kaila blew out another plume of smoke and handed Nox a mug of steaming tea. The door slammed shut and Autumn didn’t spare a glance as the wall rattled. He was a glaring mess, hair mussed from sleep and bags under his eyes. The shirt he was wearing was two days old and probably stunk of sweat and smoke. The whole flat was covered in the wonderfully pungent a la’ pot.
He grumbled, “Thanks for the warning.”
Nox stretched, cracking his shoulders after necking the tea down. His dark eyes dragged over Autumn, gulping in everything. He bristled under Nox’s gaze, the hairs on his arms standing up. That gaze had taken him apart on many occasions, and pulled him back together few. Memories clashed over reality, but he fought them and focused on the present—
—which was enough to send him cartwheeling down another rabbit hole.
“What are you doing here, Nox?”
“Seeing you obviously,” he purred, and damn if that voice didn’t send a whole different shiver down his skin.
“Stop it,” he snapped. “I have a job and family and friends who all require me to stay here, where I am. Who else pays the bills? Kaila doesn’t even have a job.”
Nox appeared affronted. “Last I checked your mother hated your existence and your father was fucking around. And who are these friends who need you here? I wasn’t aware you had other friends.”
Autumn bit the inside of his lip, worrying at it. Then he shook his head. “Don’t. You think you’re being all profound ’n shit, but you’re just being an arsehole, so get out.”
Nox’s eyes were unreadable. Kaila took the of tea gently from his hands and set it on the laminate countertop. Autumn didn’t berate her; he was too focused on the man whose body was loose but eyes were tense.
Nox left. A cool breeze swept into the apartment after him, leaving a trail in his wake. The dramatic fool.
Autumn returned to the edge of the single bed, rubbing his temples. It didn’t matter that Nox was right, for the most part. Nox had been rude, arrogant, and damn stupid. He hadn’t the right to say those things.
There was the one huge, glaring hole in what he’d said though—Autumn had one other friend. But they were a precious secret, kept away from his tainted life. He lied to Kaila and Nox about them, saying he was working late or going to get groceries. Easier for all of them that they didn’t find out about each other.
“Okay. I’m going to pretend that didn’t happen. You’re going to start looking for a job and I’m going to work.”
Kaila watched him gather his work uniform and put his contacts in, all while sipping what had been Nox’s tea. She set the mug down with a thud, drawing his attention.
“What’s got you in a bitchy mood?”
Autumn ignored her, sliding his pathetically thin wallet in his jean pocket.
“Dude, what’s up your arse?”
“What’s—you know what, maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that you sit around all day, smoking and drinking, and never doing anything, while I go to work and earn money to pay for your stupid habits, or maybe it’s because you think responsibilities don’t matter, or how about going on a bloody road trip, leaving the flat alone, with no one to pay for the electricity or water.” Autumn heaved a breath and closed his eyes. He hated getting angry, but sometimes…
“Autumn, look at you. You need it. You’re quick to shout and irritation lies at your fingertips, sparking as much as Potter’s wand. You need to get out of here,” she drew closer as she spoke, voice edging on soft. But Kaila’s voice could never be soft, it held direction and power, even in the quiet. “You need to, Autumn. Please, Nox may have been rude and went about it in a bad way, but he still wants you there.”
She was right. He tripped as he leaned backward and caught himself on one of the peeling walls. Kaila trapped him there, holding his gaze with a sudden and fierce force. He sidestepped her and slid away.
“Things have been piling up, that’s all. It’s making me stressed and more irritable. Sorry.” Kaila caught his wrist as he moved away.
“Autumn, you keep telling me to talk, but you refuse to do the same. Tell me what’s up.”
“After work. I gotta go.” He wormed his way out of her grip and twirled the car keys on a stray finger as he walked out, leaving Kaila with a disappointed smile.
The stairwell’s old leaking pipe still dripped in the corner on the third floor as he jumped past, barreling down, yelling a half-hearted ‘sorry’ to Mr. Cantan as he nearly ran the old man over. His ten year old watch, which he’d received many birthdays ago from some aunt with actual money, never ran on time, but was thirteen and a third minutes off. He was going to be late, and Autumn despised being late. The very thought sent his heart beat skyward and his mind scattered like the flock of pigeons he rushed past outside and into his jam packed car.
Kaila hadn’t been kidding about having the car packed, half the flat’s contents were thrown haphazardly into his 2001 Ford Focus, the damn thing chugging along on its last legs as he shifted into third gear on the side streets of London.
He had arrived: Hoxten Street Monster Necessities. The squat building sat on the left side of the narrow street, cars filling up the parking spaces even at this early hour. The whole street was lined with tawny and tarnished red brick edifices hovering over like a crowd of people watching something gruesome. Autumn climbed out, ignoring the crunch of cardboard and random mishmashed items falling over each other in the backseat.
The faded dark blue facade of the store remained permanently dirty—no amount of borax or scrubbing could help the beaten appearance. Autumn scraped a nail alongside the windowsill and inspected the crummy dust and grime coating it as he entered.
The interior of the shoppe had been updated eight years ago, and because of this, it held a much fresher and more elegant quaintness. It wasn’t big, but they had steps leading down into a basement for the Ministry of Stories kids.
Autumn had been working here for almost seven years, and not once had he been late. There’s a first for most things, he supposed, cringing as he walked in exactly thirteen and a third minutes late.
A woman in her forties came through the office door, tutting at him. “Mr. Atteberry, you are late.” She gave him a hard stare, pinching her lips.
Autumn rubbed the back of his neck. “Sorry Ms. Bloodworth. Just a squabble at the flat held me up. Won’t happen again, I promise.”
“Better not, kid.” Autumn sighed in relief as the hard features melted and forced his tense shoulders to relax. “What’d you and the misses argue about?”
Autumn threw his satchel behind the front desk, taking his place as cashier for the freaky and weird. “She’s not…whatever. Kaila wants me to go on a roadtrip and abandon this place for, I don’t know, a week and go trucking around the country. Like going on holiday, but without the fancy hotels and good food. I told her no and we just had a small falling out. It’s nothing important.”
“Autumn, you’ve been working here for near eight years, and you’ve never even taken Boxing day or Halloween. Last year you came in on Christmas, despite us being closed and all. Take a day to yourself and go round. Hell, take a week.”
Tara shut him down with a single bat of her thick eyelashes. “Autumn Atterberry, for god’s sake, take your damn break before I shove it down your throat.” she bent over, slinging the satchel into his chest and stared him out the door.
With his mind buzzing, he stumbled back into the street. This wasn’t the right time. He had so many things to attend too—Rags, his mother, money, the flat. Add Nox to the bunch and Autumn had to pretend he wasn’t drowning.
Work had been something to distract him. He liked the odd customers they garnered, the old man who always bought their tiny canisters of ‘mortal terror’ and the young goth teen who gave him a death stare as he rung up her Banshee Balls and Bottle o’ Sorrow. The kids were adorable too, pointing out the weirdest of their merchandise, laughing at titles, and the youngest even cringed and hid behind their parents. He would give them a smile and wiggle his nose at them and the shyest would giggle behind the legs of whoever they were with. Truly the cutest.
Autumn leaned against his rusty car, mourning the smell of the store and the elegantly deceiving victorian age feel it gave off. Wiping the reddish stain off his jeans, he climbed back into the crowded car and set off back to the flat.
He made a short stop at the Brick Avenue Market, buying the cheapest it provided. Two straggling apples, a pair of brightly decorated boots, and a raincoat with seven pockets. Why it required that many, Autumn didn’t know.
After which, he followed the familiar path down behind the bustling market, towards the Rag Factory, of which had a mismatched name for what it was. The factory was an art gallery as well as a studio for performing artists.
Along the route, he changed direction down a sodden looking alleyway. Cobbled sidewalks turned into a treacherous uneven and broken concrete ‘street’. There was a door hidden in darkness, underneath a rope hung across the side of the building that held weathered clothing. Many pieces were torn or battered. A collection of past and present fashions, sewn together and ripped apart.
Autumn knocked once, waited exactly seven seconds, and twisted the brass handle. The door creaked, the hinges whining at him as he slid it shut. A perfect alarm for unexpected visitors. Not that there were many in a place such as this. Barren walls, barren floors, and barren pockets.
Rags appeared silent, blond hair matted and full of grease and grime. They halted at the doorway, bare feet quiet as a mouse on the cracked concrete floors. The bag landed by Rags’ feet, skidding to a messy stop. The content spilled out, dashing across the floor. Rags went for the boots with quick, nimble hands.
Their eyes smiled even if their lips didn’t.
Autumn moved closer, slow and steadily. He had earned Rags’ trust, but they were skittish around him, having grown up in only what Autumn could assume was a horrible home. If it could have been called a home at all.
“Hey, how are you?” Autumn signed. This was the one thing he had learned he could do with speed around Rags. Conversations had been slow and Rags had complained about Autumn’s lack of movement.
“Fine, and you?”
“Stressed. I can’t stay long. I have to help my other friend with the flat.”
“How many more lies you going to spout?”
Autumn stopped, hesitating. He kept Rags and the rest of his life apart, lying to each side. Autumn wasn’t sure how Kaila would react to Rags. She had this idea in her head that those who didn’t work didn’t deserve to get help. Which was ironic considering her current unemployment. He hadn’t meant to lie to her about it in the beginning, it just slipped his lips and here he was now, a year and a half into his lie. Autumn feared her response to the lie more than what she’d think of them.
“As many as I need to. I’m sorry.”
“If you were sorry, you’d let me be a part of your life.”
“You are a part of my life. You’re one of my few friends.” Autumn wrung his hands, and found himself grabbing at his wrist to ground himself. He had to shove his hands in his pockets to stop the bad habit.
“But I’m not, am I? You hide me away as if I’m a stain on your clothes. I don’t want to be thrown away, Autumn.”
And Autumn stared at the wall, picking apart the crumbling mortar between the bricks of the wall. Specks of it flashed through the lone beam. He didn’t think he’d done that, didn’t think how Rags would see his actions. It wasn’t how it was after all. Autumn had his reasons, valid, good, reliable reasons.
“No,” he said slowly. “No. I care for you, I have out of my own pockets, which mind you, aren’t very full. I have taken time out of my day…”
Autumn stopped. Moved his lips. Adjusted his jaw. And walked out.
The air was cooler, despite that not much time had passed. The sky to the east held brewing purple and black clouds, roiling about his head. What was getting into him?
Arguing with Kaila, then Rags…maybe he did need that holiday. Doubt lingered; he should fix things first, but Autumn found he simply wanted to leave it behind him, in the wake of a 2001 Ford Focus.
When he found himself sitting back in the worn nylon seats, the storm had rolled dangerously close. His wanderings had taken him long, though the path short. He had a decision and had managed to squish the remainder of the worry deep down.
The phone rang, and Autumn waited for Kaila to pick up. She wasn’t consistent on many things, but phone calls were one of the few exceptions. The ringing stopped and Autumn frowned as harsh breathing came over the phone.
“Sorry,” she said between breaths. “Went for a run.”
Autumn watched people move past, putting her on speaker. “Kaila, you don’t run.”
“I figure smoking all that weed isn’t the best for me so I might as well do something that is.”
“It doesn’t counteract it.”
“Aren’t you happy?”
“Yes, but,” he said. “Look, Tara told me I should take the time off for whatever you had planned.” The phone cut off and Autumn glanced back at the damn thing, wondering why the service had gone out. He’d paid last month’s bill fully. A knock on the passenger window revealed an out a breath Kaila, who slid into the seat as Autumn jimmied the door open for her.
“How’d you know I was here?” She grinned in her usual snarky way. He sighed and started the car. “Did you really go for a run?”
“You doubt me?”
“Is the day long?”
“That’s not an answer, honey.”
“Stop calling me that.”
Kaila rolled down her window, the only functioning one in the car, and took out a blunt and a lighter. She took a hit and grinned at the passing cars and slow traffic lights. Autumn waited, drumming on the steering wheel with his fingers, for her to start another philosophical debate. Or something like that.
The ride back home remained quiet, Kaila drifting off, thinking about whether the Flat Earthers were clinically insane and whether she could prove it in a court of law. Autumn fiddled with the jiggly stick shift, the thing was on its last legs. He waited for the day the gearbox would finally give him the middle finger.
The apartment was marginally cleaner, Kaila must have done the stash of dishes, which was strange in itself, but coupled with the running thing, Autumn watched her closely as he changed out of his work outfit and into more casual clothing.
She moved with the same, smooth, yet quick, strides, but Autumn couldn’t shake the intuitive desperation he got from being around her. He worried as his bottom lip unconsciously.
“Autumn?” He jerked towards her voice. She was scrutinizing him, and he pulled his arms across his stomach, worming under her intense gaze. It softened, breaking into one of her ghoulish grins. “You’d be a weird place to put a period.”
“I’d… okay. Sure Kaila. Listen, I wanted to tell you that,” he trailed off as her eyes sharpened on him again, hesitating before he finished his sentence, “that I’d like to go on that adventure if you were still up for it.”
A whoosh of wind blew back his hair and before he knew it Kaila had her old, odd colored ratty backpack from seventh year full of strange knick knacks and a collection of trinkets she’d deemed worthy enough to bring. It tugged his lips up.
“You sure?” Autumn tilted his head. “You don’t need anything else?” he gestured to the bare room. A single mug sat dirty on the counter by the ceramic sink. A towel fell from the cheap rack he’d nailed into the wall last year.
“No,” she said, resolute.
And Autumn took and deep breath, trying to relax. His shoulders dropped, but he was still floating between worries, the tension worked deep in his muscles. Maybe there a little exhilaration, somewhere, a loosening of his knees.
And as the streaks of wind blew through his hair on M1, Autumn ignored the dirty dishes left undone and the messy relations he’d abandoned without a word. Kaila’s loud, withering music dashed away all those meandering thoughts.
“Where are we going?” Autumn shouted, pulling his head back into the car.
Kaila grinned and punched the gas.