They walk side-by-side with the slow pace of people who have nowhere else to be, despite the bitter cold. The wind leads them on as they follow the footpath, which eventually winds its way to a playground.
‘I didn’t know this was here. Eight years and I still feel like a tourist,’ he says, crossing his arms against the cold.
‘It’s easy to follow the same routine,’ she smiles as she makes her way to the swings. ‘But if it makes you feel any better, most of this was added after you started teaching here.’
She swings slowly at first, tentatively, but soon speeds up in earnest. She stretches her legs on her way up, folds them on the way down and pushes off against the ground when she can. It’s a bit awkward; she doesn’t quite fit in the swing, but it’s clear she’s enjoying herself.
He leans against a tree in silence. A few minutes pass.
She stops abruptly, looking sheepish; only then does he approach. Each step is a soft, squeaky thump on the playground floor, a sound quite incongruous with his formal shoes.
‘Sorry about that,’ she says, ‘I got a bit carried away. But hey, we’ve killed another ten minutes!’
‘No need to apologise, I was the one twiddling my thumbs in the staff room.’
He’s still twiddling his thumbs now, out in the cold, they’re just inside his pockets. She feels an unease she’s not sure how to deal with.
‘Let’s go back and get coffee. It’s chillier than I thought, and I have lab reports to mark.’
‘I’ve had enough coffee for today,’ he smiles, ‘but yes, we can go back.’
Her response dies in her throat.
He doesn’t like you. You show him your true self assuming you’ll become closer, but the more you swing, the more you laugh, the more you lose him. It’s time you said goodbye – but you can’t, can you?
The walk back takes even longer, as if drawing it out would keep him by her side. Gravel crunches underfoot, the wind picks up again, clouds ever-threatening with rain.
Then I’ll do it for you.
With the campus gates looming, he starts patting his pockets, trying to find his ID card.
She slows down – I slow her down – and goes back around the corner, where she can’t be seen. She’s checking her phone, or looking something up, something unimportant.
I walk up to him. I’ve rarely been so close to him, and never without her – relegated to a corner of her being, I watch in frustration as she progressively destroys any chance of him smiling at her, at us, at me. I’ve only emerged when she’s on her own, but today – now – I’m out. Let’s get this over with.
He finds his card. He’s about to unlock the gate when he sees me, shadows and thoughts, looking identical to her but not similar in the slightest. My face is a mask, a mockery of her features yet also those features exactly, my reality superimposed on hers.
‘Don’t worry, I won’t bother you again. It’s clear you’re not interested in her – in me – so let’s drop all pretense and move on.’ My words are a cloud of ash, they envelop him for a moment before dissipating.
He is silent, his mouth slightly open.
‘Goodbye,’ I whisper, and it tears me apart to say it – bits of skin and hair come off, forming another dust cloud which rushes to meet him.
He breathes it in, still silent.
I leave, hoping to catch up with her soon, to recede into her depths in silence. She’s just around the corner. I keep walking, my heart thumping in my chest, thump thump thump… No, I’m silent. There is no heart to beat, and my steps are as quiet as a shadow, but his – his aren’t.
I turn back and look into his eyes. He can’t vapourise his feelings as I do, and struggles to use his vocal chords.
‘You’re only half-right,’ he says at last. ‘I’m not interested in her. You, that shadow behind her eyes… you’re another matter.’
I shrink as my disbelief diffuses, permeating the air.
‘It’s easy to think I was mistaken, that I saw something I wanted to see, rather than something that was there. But that’s not the case, is it?’
A smile graces his lips. He reaches out to me, across dimensions.
I try to raise inexistent hands but feel myself tugged backwards, towards her. My anchor, my host, my self.
I struggle, but I can’t defy her pull.
My particles tremble, vibrate, oscillate, ever more desperate, every second an exponential increase in frustration, in speed—
‘—You’re not her,’ his voice cuts in, his conviction steadying me, slowing me down.
His smile grounds me.
He breathes in deeply, and I escape into him.
It’s been a while since I wrote something that wasn’t part of a game. No prompt or anything this time, just something a bit different.