Short fiction

Issue #10

Between a Rock and a Stone Wall

Hi. My name is Rob, and I’m not who you think I am. I’m no ordinary guy.

‘Come on, let me see your license! You’ve seen mine!’ Hayley teases, black eyes shining. A string of hair has escaped from her long ponytail and I have to clench my fists so I’m not tempted to reach out and tuck the rebellious strand behind her ear. Her skin looks so soft and smooth, like she’s made out of coffee and cream. She smells like vanilla.

I avoid her eyes and try not to blush, but the heat crawls up the back of my neck and colours my face red. Nothing would make me show her my driving license. But she’s smiling that smile, the one that makes my insides knot and scrambles my brain. I’d have to change the subject.

‘Only because I wanted proof that you’d actually passed. How many times did you take your test, again? Three? I guess it’s true what they say about women drivers.’ That should do it: get her onto one of her indignant rants. I try to hide the alarm bells ringing through my head and plaster a half smile– the kind that girls go nuts for – across my face. It’s fine. She’ll never know.

‘I’m not that bad of a driver and you know it.’ She pushes sideways into me, nudging my shoulder with hers. ‘I’m so good; I could teach you how to drive!’ She laughs, and I join in nervously.

We lapse into silence and I watch our feet beat a lazy rhythm on the path we’re following. Her sandals look dainty next to my hulking, shabby trainers. She stops suddenly. ‘Where are we going?’

We’ve ended up in a park, walking around a grey lake that takes up more than its fair share of space. The surface is rippling where ducks are having their AGM in the middle, each one quacking louder than the next.

‘Dunno. Is there anywhere you want to go?’ I ask. The left path heads towards the rose garden, the right to the gazebo.

She says ‘Left.’

We circle the body of water. She turns her collar up against the slight breeze and I can see the fine hairs on her arm stand on end. She’s so slim that the wind blows right through her. I’m always teasing her about her ribs jangling like wind chimes.

 ‘Here.’ My hoodie is well worn; the colour has faded from black to a dull grey and the once-soft lining is now coarse and matted, but at least it’s warm. I throw it over her small frame and she gives me a grateful look, wrapping her long fingers around the fraying sleeves.

‘Aren’t you cold?’ she asks. We both know she doesn’t want to give it back, and we both know I wouldn’t accept it if she tried, but I like that she cares enough to ask. The anxiety in my chest is keeping me uncomfortably hot anyway, but she doesn’t need to know that.

‘Of course not, I’m hardcore,’ I say, puffing my chest out in an attempt to look macho. I think I’ve gotten away with it until she lets out a snort and starts giggling.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says, ‘have I wounded your pride?’ She loops her arm through mine and I forgive her instantly.

‘Not at all, there wasn’t much to begin with.’

I hold my breath. Have I said too much? She turns to me and pouts, she doesn’t say it but I can hear her patronising ‘aww, baby’ echoing in my head. Good, I can pass it off as a joke. ‘I can’t keep that up, who am I kidding? Look at this perfection!’

‘Men!’ She sighs dramatically as we take the left path, oblivious of the gathering thunderclouds looming behind our heads.

We walk through an archway of climbing roses, their scent encompassing us. The garden looks as if it has been painted. Each plant explodes with colour, clashing with the next as though they’re fighting for our attention. I’m reminded of the outrageous hats worn at Ascot, competing for the attention of the crowd with their extravagant blooms of ruffled fabric and gaudy decoration.

‘I love gardens,’ she says, ‘there’s something mysterious about them.’ I follow her lead as she winds her way through the floral maze towards a secluded alcove. She grins at me and I’m thinking that maybe – maybe – today she’ll let me kiss her.

I first saw her about two months ago when we began to frequent the same section of the library. I’d smile, she’d smile, I’d blush, she’d blush - and we’d go our separate ways. It’s been three weeks since I finally plucked up the courage to ask her out, staring at the cover of Well of Loneliness in her hands while I stammered through the whole thing.

But she said yes, and here we are.

She turns to face me, pulling me by the hands and walking backwards with a flirtatious twinkle in her eyes. My hands are cold and clammy, but she doesn’t seem to care. We come to a standstill beside a peeling white bench, hidden from view. She slides her arms around my waist and I pray that she doesn’t notice anything unusual. As long as her hands stay in the safe zone, I’m fine.

I clear my throat and prepare to say something, but my mouth is dry and my tongue is large. She chuckles and lifts her face to mine.

Her lips are warm and soft. I haven’t done this before, but I hope I’m doing ok. Her fingers grip my hair and my hands trace the curves of her hips. She’s so tiny compared to me; it’s a powerful feeling. I’m lost, and elated, and so glad to have found someone who seems to like me this way.

She smells like vanilla.

‘You smell like chocolate,’ she says.

Her palms are pressed against my back, slowly reaching lower and lower, down into my back pockets. This is too much. Too close. She’ll find out.

I interrupt, ‘Shall we get ice cream?’

‘The weather is awful,’ she says, eyebrow raised.

‘Never too awful for ice cream.’

She grins and balances on her tiptoes to peck me on the lips, withdrawing her hands and clasping them behind her back. Her warmth lingers in my now empty pockets, and I turn away in the direction of the ice cream van, feeling light on my feet with not a care in the world.

I order two cones; one vanilla, one chocolate. I reach for the wallet in my back pocket and find it empty. My stomach drops. Where is it? I search the others, but it’s missing. The man behind the counter is frowning and tapping his fingers impatiently, his bright apron the opposite of his stormy expression. I had it a second ago! I could remember checking it just before we got to the bench. There was nothing in there except some loose change, a loyalty card, and…

My driving license.

She’s bound to have found it by now.

The man yells after me as I run from the van, shaking his fist at me. My heart is pounding and the familiar weight of dread and self-loathing is settling heavy in my stomach.

The heavens open, leaving dark polka dots on the path. Soon I’m soaked from head to foot, trainers squelching with every step I take. I splash through puddles, freeing them from their invisible borders and sending the droplets flying. I want to fly, I want to get away. For a while, I don’t know if I’m running away from her or running towards her.

I find her sitting on the bench, eyes glued to the damning card. My wallet is on the floor at her feet. I stop and stare as the cold droplets fall from my hair and down the back of my neck.

I know what she’s looking at.

At first, she’ll be puzzled. She’ll see my embarrassing picture looking awkwardly into the camera; short hair, strong jaw, pointy nose, and sad eyes. Next to that – my name. She might even miss the ‘a’ on the end of Robert, skimming over it without thinking.

But there’s no way in hell she’ll miss the ‘F’ next to the caption; ‘Sex’.

My name is Rob. I’m no ordinary guy. I look, act, feel, think, like one, but according to my body I’m not a guy at all.

And now she knows it.

I know how this plays out. She won’t make the distinction; all she’ll think is that she’s kissed a girl. Does that make her gay? She won’t know what to do. I’m not who she thinks I am. What am I? I lied to her, I hid things from her, I can’t be trusted. That’ll be her excuse. No, no, it doesn’t make her uncomfortable – of course not, but I wasn’t honest with her. What else could I be hiding? No, it’s best for us to go our separate ways until I can learn how to resolve my trust issues.

Just another thing wrong with me.

It’s not her; it’s me. Again.

My feet drag as I make my way towards her. Neither of us speaks as I sit down on the bench. She doesn’t flinch; at least that’s something.

We sit there for a while, protected under the cover of an oak tree, watching rain shower the roses. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what she wants to hear from me. Should I just leave?

It’s only when blood slides down my finger that I realise I’ve bitten my nail to the quick. I’m just about to stuff my hand into my pocket when her cool fingers wrap around my wrist. I look at her and she keeps her gaze down, guiding my hand into the rain and letting the water wash away the blood, until there is nothing left but damp skin and tender flesh. She shuffles closer. Her thigh is touching mine. She leans her head on my shoulder and heaves a sigh. The band around my chest, the one constricting my breasts, grows tighter. I hold my breath, waiting for her to say something first.

‘You still smell like chocolate,’ she says. Her eyes flick up towards mine and she smiles weakly.. I get the feeling of walking up stairs but not paying attention and trying to step on a step that isn’t there – the jolt of something missing and throwing myself off balance. My head reels.

I look into her eyes and see the same confusion and uncertainty I see every day in the mirror.

But she’s still holding my hand.

It’s a start.

Amy Whitby Baker

© 2014