What the heck was that about? What happened to “I’m not leaving until I know you’re safe.”? One minute he’s acting all determined and concerned, the next he’s out the door and gone.
I locked the apartment door and fumed my way through a shower. Boys. Incomprehensible.
Irritation helped soften the sting of the hot water on all the small and not-so-small abrasions left over from earlier. The attack was already starting to feel distant and far away, like something that had happened in a half-forgotten dream. But the evidence that something had happened was clear in the water running murky, then bright, then nearly clear as I rinsed away the mud. I flicked at the embedded bits of gravel, starting fresh blood flowing as I did my best to reach and clear the worst of the cuts and scrapes. Nothing too deep, thankfully; my modest store of bandaids and polysporin ought to be able to keep up.
Somewhere between clean and close enough, as the water temperature started shifting, I stepped out of the shower and moved on to trying to pat away enough moisture without further abrading the wounds. By the time I’d disinfected, smeared antibiotic cream over and covered the worst of it, the steam had cleared to chilly condensation, and I only stopped shivering long enough for enormous yawns to crack my jaw. I hobbled past the ruined mess of my clothes and headed for my bed. Which was also still a mess. Resentment boiled up, undoing the soporific good work of the last hour’s tedious focus. Stupid day. Stupid work. Stupid nightmare. Stupid boy. Stupid bed. Stupid blood and mud all over everything. Stupid promises that mean nothing. Stupid boy.
I crawled to the couch, yanked the throw off the back of it and reached for sleep with everything I had.
The noise hauled me back to consciousness slowly, resonating like the earth-piercing thud of gigantic spider steps. I dumped myself off the couch before opening my eyes, scrabbling to get away, my voice caught high in the back of my throat and my lips clamped to keep them out.
The nightmare was calling my name this time, in between the sharp impact of its footsteps. The beats sped up as it approached, my heartbeat racing ahead. Then a sharp crack and intense pain in my head. I curled up around the pain and held my breath, waiting for the end.
The final blow never came. When I pried my gritty eyes open, I was huddled half-below the coffee table in my shadowy apartment. Someone was banging on the door and calling my name. Henry?
“Go away,” It came out in a gasp, hoarse and far too low for him to hear. I took a couple breaths and coughed before trying again. The hammering stopped immediately.
“April? Are you ok? Can you open the door?”
Right, like that was going to happen.
“Go away,” I said again, shifting my weight gingerly as the accumulated pain of bruises and scrapes clamoured for my attention.
He was silent for a few moments. Long enough for me to lever my sore self back up onto the couch. Maybe he’d gone again? Typical. Waking me up for no reason…
“April, I can explain.”
“Just go away. I’m not talking to you. I’m definitely not letting you in. Leave.” I knew I sounded harsh. I didn’t care. Much.
I could hear him sigh through the door, then a sliding thump. I wasn’t curious. It was just thirst that made me pull the throw off the couch and drape it over my shoulders as I shuffled into the kitchen. And it was total coincidence that the apartment door was just a foot away from the edge of the counter. I could hear him breathing, weirdly loud and close, a bit ragged, like he’d just run up the stairs, or was shouting or something.
“I’m not leaving,” Henry said, breathing out halfway through the last word like he was short of breath. I snorted. Heard that one before. He must have heard me; he paused for a beat too long before continuing in a softer voice, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to run off like that. Just give me the chance to explain.”
“I’m not letting you in here.” I stepped closer to the door despite myself, holding my breath so he wouldn’t realize how close I was. I leaned my head next to the peephole, but all I could make out is the shabby hallway. He must have been sitting in front of the door, too low to see.
“April,” he said. “April. You have to let me explain.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” I replied automatically, hearing a thump at the door at the same time as it jumped under my hand. It felt a bit wrong, how close he was, close enough to touch, except for the door. I slid down the door, feeling the draft under it, the cool air blowing through from the hallway. From where I sat, I couldn’t see a clock, but it had to have been the middle of the night. The sky was dark through the windows, and I was just tired enough to find this argument weirdly soothing. Half-asleep, the emotions associated with the script were distant, more an impression of how I ought to respond than a reflection of what I wanted in that moment.
I must have dozed for a moment; when Henry spoke next, I jerked and hit my head on the door in exactly the same spot I’d bonked it on the coffee table earlier.
“I had to leave,” Henry said. I rubbed my head, disoriented and wondering if I’d missed anything while I dozed. His voice was so quiet, like he had forgotten I was there. “I know the timing sucked, but I had to. It’s what I’m here for. To help people. Someone was in danger; I had to go.”
I shivered. Danger like a nightmare attack? I eyed the dark sky outside, worried, checking for the lightening of dawn. The nightmares tended to cluster around the edges of things. The shore where water and earth collide. Mist and fog, rain and snow, anywhere one thing turns into another. Dusk and dawn. I should pull the curtains before falling asleep again.
“I’m sorry,” Henry whispered through the door, and I freeze. “I’m sorry. Sorry.”
He wasn’t talking to me.
I don’t know what I expected when I opened the door, but that wasn’t it. He was very pale, under the spatters. His head was propped against the wall, legs outstretched in torn jeans, arms limp at his sides. He didn’t look up at me. I stood there for a moment, wavering, then pulled the door closed behind me and sat down against it. Beside him. He kept muttering “Sorry,” like an old toy running down on its batteries. I might have checked for a power-source, except the liquid oozing out of him was clearly organic. Definitely not a robot.
“What are you sorry for?” I whispered. I don’t know why. To avoid disturbing him? To preserve this weird dreamlike space where nothing is the way it should be? To keep pretending that nothing’s wrong, not me still being alive, not me sitting here in this chilly hallway beside this boy who I had no intention of letting in, not his presence here, not the tears in his already tattered clothes or the blood soaking into the carpet beneath him or the way his gaze had turned inward, the way his eyes were wide with horror and heavy-lidded in despair at the same time.
“Too slow,” his eyes drooped, as if he was fighting sleep, then widened again, the muscles in his face and neck tensing. “I was too slow. Too far away. Maybe if I’d gotten there sooner…”
Henry blinked, swallowed, and then blinked several times in succession. The emotion faded from his face as he seemed to notice me beside him for the first time.
“April.” He said. I shivered, and his brows drew together. “What are you doing here?” Then, after another moment, “What am I doing here?”
I stood up and opened the apartment door behind me, wincing.
“Careful,” Henry said. I just looked at him, sitting there as limp as seaweed washed up in the tide. He stared back in concern, apparently unaware of his own condition.
“You coming in or what?” I flicked the light switch, and he blinked in the sudden glare.
“I can explain,” he said again, standing up. It was pretty impressive. The only signs of how hard it was for him were the lines around his mouth as he clenched his jaw and the whiteness of his lips. He didn’t even rest a hand on the wall.
I just nodded, stepping back as he moved into the apartment and turned to look at me. The sight of him in my space was upsetting - I fought down the desire to order him out again - but… Something about the rigid way he held himself, swallowing back pain and exhaustion… I relented.
“Sit down. I’m getting a drink.” I turned toward the fridge, watching in the polished surface of the toaster as he slumped, wobbling a bit, and sank down on the couch. By the time I’d filled two glasses with water and made my way over to the couch, he was fast asleep.
I sat down on the floor and stared at him.
A stranger, bleeding all over my couch. A boy, staying the night (ok, it wasn’t like that, but still.) A hero? A madman? (Not a robot…) An alien?
He looked only slightly less perfect, all beat-up and ragged. Boy hero after a battle with the big boss. It was like something out of a movie. Even the smears and scrapes on his cheek looked artistic, the way they traced the sculpted planes of his face, and the muscle tone beneath his ripped shirt was positively Hollywood. I immediately felt guilty for admiring this poor unconscious battered guy while he slept. But it’s not like I’d wanted him here. I’d pretty much done everything I could to send him away.
I should probably have gone and pulled out my depleted first aid supplies, or at least found something to stop the bleeding. Or like, found another blanket for him. But somewhere between watching and thinking and doing, sleep took over.