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Skyline Dancing for Hannah the Queen of Hearts sparkle on sweety

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The first Dance Jacob Fireman was only alive because he was obsessed with Sonja. Or had been. It was hard to tell, considering she was dead now. It had all started with her lips. The first time he got to paint her lips. And her eyes that were so dark brown they reminded him of chocolate. The first time she sat down in front of him on the chair and closed her eyes, surrendering her skin to his brush, it was then that he fell for her. Not in a romantic kind of way, but in a secret obsession. He took special care doing her makeup every time and somehow, the experience was always different, as if her features changed every time his brush touched her. He also watched her every show. Not the premiere, the job didn’t pay nearly well enough for that, but usually one of the last performances. The show that changed everything was the last Swan Lake of the season, with Sonja dancing Odette and Odil. Jacob made it to his seat just in time, having raced home like a madman to change into his fancy black shirt and his best trousers and shoes. He always took out what he could of his piercings before attending a show and they now softly tinkled in his pocket. He made his way through the people around him all dressed much better than him, and slid into his seat, cowering as low as possible. The soft red velvet engulfed him and once again he wondered if anyone would notice if one of the chairs went missing. But then the third gong sounded, the lines filled up with people, and the light faded. Jacob loved that moment. When the lights softly dimmed, so slowly you couldn’t notice at first, and you could only ever truly be sure when the crowd around you started applauding as the conductor entered the orchestra pit and bowed. And then the magic began. The overture began, and Jacob was lost in the music. He barely noticed the woman next to him shuffling as far away from him as she could in her seat, or the man next to her eyeing him suspiciously. All he was aware of were the strings and the drums and the horns and the harp. Even now, after having seen it many times, the music caught him. Jacob smiled, and those that looked, saw that it was a smile of relief. His mind drifted off, carried by the wings of string and brass. Until the swans quietly flew onto the stage for the first time. Rothbard’s dark shadow left the scene and twenty-four white figures moved in perfect synchrony. Jacobs attention snapped towards the ballerinas and he watched them as if in trance, only really waiting for that one cue in the music that would signal her arrival. The strings roared in harmonic symphony and eight more swans entered the stage. Jacob sat up, leaning forward, ignoring the judgmental huffs of the people around him as he supported his weight with his elbows on his knees and fixated his eyes on the point where the second row of four swans was gliding gracefully onto the stage. And then a fifth one. Odette. Jacob knew the choreography pretty well by now, but it didn’t seem like a rehearsed set of moves as Odette, Sonja, protected her swans from the princes crossbow. She floated over the stage, barely touching the ground as she twirled and moved and then disappeared, the prince racing behind her. Now that he watched her, it seemed strange to him that she had ever moved differently before, and when he thought back to her sitting down for makeup earlier that day, it seemed in his memory that she had done that with the same eerie impossible grace that she moved with now. The rest of the ballet passed like a dream for Jacob, he only ever really paid attention whenever the white swan entered the stage. She moved like silk, her body dancing like a ribbon in the wind, her face using his makeup to compliment her dance. Jacob had always loved how she could use makeup like that. He painted a character onto her face and as soon has she lifted herself onto her toes, she became that character. She became the swan princess. Jacob regretted a little that he wouldn’t be the one to do her makeup for the black swan, but it was the price to pay for watching her. While watching her dance, Jacob wondered how the prince couldn’t tell his end. She moved with such grace, such eerie elegance, there was no way something as earthbound and real as his hands could ever hold on to such a spirit. How could he not tell that he could never catch her, that he would fall into his abyss trying?

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It was when the curtains lifted to reveal the castle set that Jacob was drawn in once again and he leaned forwards, his elbows once more puncturing his knees. The huff of the lady beside him was overpowered by the music as the guests, the queen and the prince came onto the stage. The music began, and that idiot prince began to move with it, the thuds of his feet hitting the floor whenever he landed softly audible through the music. Jacob didn’t like Holden too much, but he made sure to stay on a friendly greeting in the hallway basis with him anyways. He didn’t need more people to dislike him. He had enough of those. Together with his family, his former highschool friends and his neighbour, he didn’t need anyone else. His thoughts died down when the music cued the entrance of Rothbard. The wizard floated onto the stage and wooed he queen and mocked the prince and the guests, jumping and cackling until the music changed. Odil stepped onto the stage. And Jacob froze over. Sonja’s makeup was done exactly the way he would have done it, her face white like china with the darkest of shadows around her eyes. Her lips were red as blood, tone in tone with the ornamental stones on her costume. And her hair was open. It was an unwritten law in classical ballet that the ballerina had to keep her hair in a tight bun, as to better show the movements of her body. And swan lake was maybe the most classical ballet there was. At least that’s how the director, Mr. Dylan saw it. Jacob could almost hear him rage and curse like a sailor behind the curtains. She must have done it quickly while still hidden behind the guests, Dylan would never have allowed her on stage like this. It would probably cost her her job to have defied him like that. And all because of him, months ago. He had murmured how beautiful she would look with open hair, while applying her makeup for the previous time she had danced the swan princess. It had been a sorely soft whisper and he hadn’t thought she had heard him. Yet here she was. And the music went on and the black swan melted into movement, floating over the stage. It was mesmerizing to watch her dance, to watch her hair drift around her like a sheet of black silk. She danced desire, sex, forbearance and forbiddance, every movement powerful grace. Holden was evidently confused with the change of plans, but it was barely noticed as Odil played with him like a tigress with a mouse. She twirled around his confused figure, flung herself into his arms and sent him looks of pure desire when he caught her. Her lips parted and showed teeth as white as pearls as she moved her head just so, making him lust after her. It was like a spell, watching her power unfold as she drew the prince further and further in until he was ready to give his soul for as kiss from her. And he did. Jacob was so entranced he barely noticed as she left the stage for a brief moment only to come back in a whirlwind of violins. Sonja moved to the middle of the stage and it seemed to Jacob like she looked at him, straight into his very soul with those black black eyes, as she rose to her tips and began her tribute to Pieruna Legnani, twirling around, her hair a storm around her head. It was the applause as she landed safely on her feet after the thirty second fouetté that tore him out of her spell and back into the seat. He wanted to applaud, wanted to scream his soul out and stand up, but he couldn’t move, and by the time he could, the applause had died down and the music continued. The lady beside him scoffed angrily, but Jacob didn’t really hear it. The rest of the ballet was a blur. The prince cried and raced for the lake, he fought Rothbard and lost. Jacob was barely present enough to admire Sonja’s two-facedness, the black power from before completely gone, once again replaced by innocence, fragility, snow and love. The prince got to watch his beloved Odette die in his hands and drowned himself in the lake, the music roaring with the last of its strength and beauty as the lovers died with it. The lights came back on and applause roared as the dancers one by one came back onto the stage. Jacob was the first to jump up as Sonja entered the stage, her hair once again in the tight neat bun she had worn for her second performance as Odette. He was sure she smiled in his direction and then especially bright as the director stepped onto the stage, handing her a beautiful bouquet of white and red roses, clearly livid to all those who knew him well enough. Jacob smiled and clapped until his cheeks and hands were numb. The lady sent one last angry huff his way as they both got up to leave with the rest of the masses, but Jacob once again paid her no attention. He got out of the building as quickly as he could, making his way to the backdoor unseen. He didn’t go inside, not wanting to get drawn into the cleanup work and got out his pack of cigarettes.

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He had told himself that this would be the last one as he had bought it, which meant that he now drew out the times between each stick as long as he could. His last one had been before he had entered the theatre this morning and now not only his body was craving for that hot air in his lungs, but his nerves were trembling. His mind did not yet even dare to attempt to process what had just happened and it took him three flicks on his lighter before he managed to keep the flame alive long enough to light the cigarette. As the smoke trailed in beautiful patterns from his mouth, he slowly calmed down and his mind got rolling again. He wondered what he was doing here, in the back of the theatre in the middle of the night. But then again, he knew. He was waiting for Sonja. It was a strange idea to wait for her, and it took him some time before he realized why. It would be the first time they would talk without necessity. They had only ever spoken when he was doing her makeup, and even then, only limited, her face needing to stay still and him fully concentrating. He grew a little nervous at that thought, the ash from the cigarette falling by itself as his hand trembled slightly. Yes, sure, he had known her for ages now, but this was different. He was pretty sure she had ended her career on a murmured suggestion on his part. And all those times they had talked before, he had been able to prepare. He had known when, and under what circumstances they’d talk. This here wasn’t planned. None of this was. This should have been a calm evening, with the beauty of her dance bringing a little light into the darkness, but eventually, not enough. She would have been his little flickering flame tonight, eventually dying down, and him going with her. Instead, she had been a burning pyre, a house in flames, glazing hot and bright and tall, the sun turning in shame at its beauty. This was too much! What was he to do now? The despair rising in his soul was whisked away when the door opened and a good dozen women came through, with their winter coats and open hair barely recognizable as the swans and ladies from before. They laughed and whispered and didn’t take notice of the lean man standing at the wall of the theatre. His heartbeat spiked and then dropped when none of them had dark hair and the door fell to a close again. But just before the lock snapped shut, the door opened again, and Sonja stepped through. Jacob stood, pushing himself off the wall as she turned in search for something. And when her eyes met him, the women he had barely spoken to on less than ten occasions smiled at him as if he were her brother. “Hey. Why are you waiting out here?” Jacob forgot the cigarette in his hand until she took it and drew a breath, turning the last of the stump to ashes. She still looked at him with those dark dark eyes and for a moment he felt as though the smoke was burning up his lungs, turning his breath into fire. It was idiotic. He shouldn’t even be breathing anymore. What the hell was he doing?! “I… Avoiding the chaos inside.” His voice was so much more stable than he felt. He was crumbling, breaking into nervous clusters, a pile of shivering leaves, a single gust of wind spreading him all over New York. Sonja grinned, not at all like she had just been fired from one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world. Maybe she hadn’t? “Did not want to have to help clean up?” Jacob smirked but that thought still lingered. Had he really caused the prima ballerina to be fired? “Didn’t want to hear Dylan shouting you out and firing you,” he corrected, throwing the stump of the cigarette in the ashtray by the door. Sonja started moving just as he did, making her way to the street. She didn’t answer and simply adapted her pace to his as he caught up to her. “Why did you do that?! Dylan must have torn you to shreds!” Her dark eyes found his and tied him to the cement, right there, driving stakes through his feet, keeping him locked in place for all eternity. “Did you like it?” The question caught him off guard and his mouth responded while his brain tried to catch up to the spinning world around him. “Yeah, sure… I mean, it was beautiful, you were beautiful. I have never seen anything like that. It was enchanting.” Sonja chuckled quietly and lead him into another street, heading south towards Battery Park. “I’ve always liked your dancing and I love Swan Lake, but I never even imagined it could ever be so… I don’t know. Ethereal.” Again she smiled and looked up, the dark night sky looking back at her, seeing a smile of relief.

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“That is good. So, what are your plans for the rest of the night?” Jacob flinched. The question had been asked casually, just another formality in the daily rite of politeness, but somehow, she knew. She looked at him while they walked, her open hair rippling softly under the unusually warm draft coming out of one of the streets. “I… I don’t know. I had plans, but they’re nothing now.” Jacob gulped at the realization. He had never been without plans before. Always had at least a plan for the next few hours. Now he was drifting, a ship without rudder. “That is good,” she said again. He couldn’t find what the hell was good about that. She stopped and after conquering his momentum he did as well, looking at her in confusion. Sonja looked up at the sky again and drew in a deep breath of air. Then she smiled and caught him once again with her eyes. “How’s your luck?” she asked. Jacob shrugged his shoulders and ignored his brain scrambling to figure out the rapidly changing course of the conversation. “It’s been better,” he admitted, hoping his voice wouldn’t betray the hell his last few weeks had been. “I can do something about that. Want to come to my place? That is, unless you have something waiting for you.” No, there wasn’t. Nothing was waiting for him. And the thought of spending more time with Sonja was too enticing to resist. “Sure, I’m free. You live far from here?” Again she smiled that strange smile that seemed to say a thousand things in a language he couldn’t hear. “It’s not a long walk, no.” They set into motion again, Jacob trailing slightly behind her, doing his best not to think about the fact that he was visiting the home of a woman he had barely spoken to over years and whose every show he had watched. Did she know how obsessed he was with her, with her dance? Did she know what her dancing had done for him? Probably not. Hopefully not. Did she know about the rituals? Also, unlikely. From where would she know? He pushed the thoughts out of his mind and set his focus on the sounds of the city around him and the strangely warm October air. It was never truly dark in New York, and it was never truly quiet. Their steps echoed of the pavement and the voices of the guests spilling out of the theatre were carried to them by a gust of wind too weak to carry all those words, dropping many along the way, delivering only a gentle murmur that hinted at a hive of life behind them. The streetlights were accompanied by lights from late night windows, advertisements, small 24 hour fast food shops hoping to raise appetite over disgust and the lights of far off skyscrapers shining through the night. It was a strange surreal feeling of being alone in a never sleeping hive, surrounded by the pulse of a never dormant beast. Jacob loved nights like this. Nothing was impossible in those nights. He could walk home with Sonja, he could have an adventure, he could go with Sonja, better his luck, do whatever and the stars would forgive him. Tonight was one of those nights where everything could happen and anything could have been forgiven. Which was why tonight would have been perfect. He would have been forgiven. “So, you alone in NYC? Any family?” Again, her tone was casual, but something lingered in the words. She knew. No, probably not. He was imagining it, his paranoia getting the better of him. “Nope, all alone. I had a friend, Robin, in Texas, he’s still living in our home town. I couldn’t. Made it to New York just in time to get my job.” “Nice,” she grinned, heading for a blue door encased by a brick building. “And you? Anyone close?” Sonja shrugged her shoulders and pulled out an actual ring of keys from her handbag, flipping them around until she found a small key that slid smoothly into the door. Jacob looked up at the building, whistling quietly through his teeth. “You live in Manhattan? I should have started dancing.” Sonja chuckled quietly and opened the door, pulling him through and locking behind him. They were inside a stairway, stairs leading up and down seemingly endless. She started climbing the stairs upwards and Jacob was soon too out of breath to ask any questions about the cellar. After about three flights of stairs, Sonja stopped before a door with fading green paint, pulling another key from her ring to unlock it. Jacob followed her through and found himself in a tiny one room apartment. A small kitchen was marked by a counter, above which a collection of dried herbs hung, so many that Jacob thought them to be a living plant growing upside down at first. The room was littered with books and little trinkets, a sewing kit here, a knocked

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over plant there. A huge cushion snuggled into a corner, a crumpled up blanked and a squashed pillow marking it as Sonja’s bed, although it seemed more like a kitten’s alcove than a proper bed. Just as he thought that, a grey kitten with mixed black and white markings stumbled onto his feet, mewing excitedly. Abandoning the examination of the apartment, Jacob smiled and bent down to pet the tiny ball of fur. The cat purred happily and fell against his hand, his big hands holding it easily. He gently petted the soft fur around its ears and neck, pretending to struggle as it fought his fingers. Sonja chuckled as she spotted him with the cat and dropped her bag on a bench next to the door, kicking off her shoes and shrugging off her mantle at the same time. “I see you have met Tammy. She’s from a friend, I need to get her back tomorrow.” The soft glow of happiness in Jacobs gut faded with disappointment. He chuckled to get rid of the feeling and wondered how quickly the little creature had endeared him. “You like cats?” Sonja asked, watching the shifting emotion on his face. “I like most animals.” “You have pets?” “I’ve always wanted one, but I feel like it’s unfair towards them.” Seeing as he didn’t know for how long he’d stay. Seeing how he had wanted to leave tonight. “I have a tiny apartment,” he added to complete the statement. Sonja nodded as if she hadn’t heard the pause and watched him play with the little ball of warmth and fur, trying to dig its tiny claws into his thick skin. Then she got up and started to move around the apartment, picking things from here and there, leaving him and Tammy to pick at each other. Jacob was only torn out of his play when he heard a water cooker clack, and Sonja moved over to it. His gaze followed her into the kitchen where she filled two mugs with hot water and put them onto a tray, setting it down on the floor as she sat down beside him. Tammy was too deep into her war with his thumb to notice and Sonja smiled softly at the tiny creature. Jacob liked her smile. He liked how she a had a million smiles, each one especially tailored to suit the occasion. He watched how the skin of her lips tightened softly, outlining the gentle curves of her lower lip. He liked how she pretended not to notice his staring, his creepy obsession with her. How she was nice to him. Just like that. For no reason. “It will take a while, what I want to give you. I still have to make it. I have never tried it before, never needed it, but it should help with your luck. But it will take until dawn. So if you want to go home until then?” Jacob looked up from tiny Tammies paws. Until dawn? That was a long time. But then again, not much longer than he’d walk the dead streets otherwise. He almost chuckled. Yeah, no chance he was going home tonight. Not with what had happened. “Nah, I’ll stay. That is, if you don’t mind?” Sonja smiled a big smile full of honest joy. Jacob loved it. “I will be honour to consider you my guest. Have some tea, I think you will like it.” Jacob eyes the steaming cup. It was big, more a mug with tiny hearts in all colours printed all over it. “I don’t really drink tea,” he admitted, hoping he wouldn’t offend her. He had run on coffee ever since he had come to New York. There was something about the city that made you need fuel, and his was coffee. But Sonja just got up and threw a cheerful “try it anyway” over her shoulder, as she went into a narrow hallway behind a bookshelf that reached to the ceiling and, by the sound of it, opened a closet and started rummaging around in it. Jacob left her to it, shifted Tammy to his left hand and took the mug. And truly, the tea smelled wonderful, not at all like the bitter stuff that he knew. It was warm and comforting and when he took a sip, the hot liquid scorched his lips in the best of ways. Jacob tried to eye for the kitchen, her cup, anything that would tell him what kind of tea he was drinking, but she probably had already put the package back in some cupboard. He’d have to ask her at some point. The tea warmed his gut and Jacob could feel the rest of the cold from outside leaving his bones and somehow he felt like he had only truly now come inside for the first time in years. Sonja came back and carried a pile of cotton thread under her arm. She went over to where a hook had been drilled into the ceiling. Sonja suspended what turned out to be a hanging swing from it and turned to him. She had a strange beauty to her like that, just within the comforts of her realm, where she knew every crook and little secret. She wasn’t

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worried about him, she just moved, doing whatever she would have done whether he was here or not. It was a comfort, not being in her way, still being able to be nothing, invisible. “For you. It is supremely comfy, so if you do want to crash for a few hours, feel free.” She smiled and went over to her desk which stood under one of the two gigantic windows overlooking the city. It seemed like they were so much higher than just the three flights of stairs, but Jacob knew better than to trust his memory on such trivial things. She pulled some things to her, amongst them a bright blue Bluetooth box, which she connected to her phone and put on soft music. The sound slowly explored the expands of the room while doing its best not to be intrusive or oppressing. Jacob took another sip from his cup and watched as Sonja turned on her swivel chair to him and started peeling her socks off. “Gods, today was hell. I mean, the dance and all was good, the best I have done so far, I think,” Jacob smiled as he remembered the image of the black swan with her silken black hair. Never in his life had he seen anything so beautiful. “but the practice was agony. Dylan is a sadist, one day I will prove it.” As if to prove her point, countless little plasters and patches adorned her feet and toes. Sonja winced as her sock pulled off one of the plasters and a trickle of blood started oozing from a barely healed cut. She swivelled around and placed a small first aid kit on the edge of the desk where she could easily reach it. She twisted her arm around her knee, knotting herself up to peel off the other plasters as well, pulling a face whenever one tugged at her raw skin. Jacob put down the cup and went over to her, sitting on the floor before her, Tammy hopping behind him, finding sudden intense interest in the low hanging tips of his hair. “Let me,” he murmured, already moving to take the current plaster from her hands. Sonja seemed all too happy to not have to watch her own blood and leaned back, watching him instead. “Thanks. I am sorry if this is awkward, but I cannot see blood, it makes me all dizzy and I faint much easier from the sight than good for a ballerina.” Jacob only offhandedly registered her comments, his full concentration on her wounded feet, trying to pull away the plasters as gently as he could. “No, it’s fine, I don’t mind. I had a close friend, he would always get into fights and never wanted our parents to know about it. So he always told me how to patch him up. I eventually took some first aid courses and learned it properly, it helped a lot. Do you have disinfectant?” Sonja pointed at the tiny bag. “Should be some in there. Tiny bottle, I do not use it too often.” Jacob nodded and reached for the bag blindly, putting it down by his feet. He found the bottle and put it down beside him. He pulled away the last of the plasters from an almost healed blister and the padded some of the disinfectant on each still healing wound. He then cut up a few plasters to the right sizes and rebandaged her feet. When he looked up, he found her watching his hands as the automatically repacked the bag, a pondering gaze on her face. He almost asked her what she was thinking, but then he shouted at himself. He barely knew her, it wasn’t his position to ask her shit like that. He went back to his cup, taking it to the hanging swing, taking Tammy as a small heater up with him. “Thank you. I am usually not too good at this. I think it well help a lot, at least they were properly cared for once. But now, luck.” She turned back to her table and started reaching for things here and there. At the beginning Jacob watched her, tried to figure out what the hell she was doing that would make her think she could influence his luck, but eventually he drifted off, mindlessly playing with Tammy until she tired out and fell asleep on his belly. He soon followed suit, not having slept too well last night, again. With the warm clump of Tammy on his belly his lids grew heavy and heavier until they fell like lead and he drifted off into peaceful oblivion. Maybe it was the tea, maybe it was just the atmosphere of Sonja’s place, but Jacob couldn’t recall ever having fallen asleep so easily.

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The second Dance Waking up, Jacob thought he must have still been dreaming. It was a gentle awakening, the haze of sleep slowly clearing as his eyes opened to the soft light of dawn. He could hear quiet murmuring of voices, but he couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. He paid them no attention for a while, just letting gravity pull his body into the swing and his mind drift over the emptiness in his skull. But eventually he did look up to see who was talking. Sonja was still at her desk, showing something to Tammy. The kitten seemed fascinated by what Sonja was showing her but turned to look at him as if she’d felt him awaken. Sonja too looked up and smiled when she noticed that he was awake. “Morning. Perfect timing, I’m done. We just have to go to the roof.” Jacob groaned softly as he forced his body up and out of the swing. She grabbed a bag that sat beside her desk and got up. Jacob got out of the swing let his gaze wander over her desk, getting caught on a thick book with a drawing that looked a lot like him on the open page, just below the heading “Initiating the Rite”. He wanted to ask, but Sonja was already at the door, so he put it out of his mind and followed her as she opened the door. He’d ask her about what the hell that rite was later, for now, the movement was more than welcome for his body, and he was still curious as to what Sonja wanted to do that could influence luck. Tammy stayed behind, not following them back out into the hallway and up some more flights of stairs. Alone, they ended up at the top of the stairs, Sonja pushing open the heavy door to the roof. She stepped through, cold air gripping her hair as she stood on the roof. Jacob moved to follow, when he spotted a small neat carving in the doorframe. It read: Smoke of Air and Fire and Earth, Cleanse and Bless this Home and Turf, drive away all harm and fear, only Good may enter here. He moved to ask Sonja about the carving, but when he turned to look, his breath was ripped away by more than just the wind. Somehow overnight, Sonja had dyed her hair from the black Odile had worn, to a golden blond. She was wearing a thin wisp of light blue and lavender that was by far too thin for the biting October air, especially here at the very top of a skyscraper, even if it was a small one. She sat huddled down, putting on a set of ballet shoes that were embroidered with a thousand small glittering stones. The silken bathrobe she had worn was lying by the side, her blue soundbox on top of it. “Jesus, Sonja, you’re going to freeze to death. Come back inside.” Sonja smiled, touched by his concern and stood, the wing gripping into her golden hair and her silken dress. “Stand where you wish, just not within the circle.” She ignored his concern and pointed at a circle engraved into the roof material. She pressed a button on the box and music started playing just as the sun began painting the sky. It was a more modern piece, guitars and drums underlining the rhythm of Sonja’s graceful steps back into the circle. The music kept playing and Sonja stood still as a statue in the light of the rising sun, the wind combing its fingers through her hair. And then, with the first drop, Sonja melted into movement. The first golden rays that signaled the end of dawn struck her, melted her and like liquid, she moved. The sun kissed her hair and the wind whispered in her dress as she stood on her toes, her shoes glittering like the sea in the light of the becoming day. Tiny dots of colourful light where thrown all over New York, catching Jacobs eyes every now and them, blinding him for split seconds. Her arms where like graceful snakes writing in the morning air and she twirled and turned, her body moving in a harmony that even the sun admired as it beheld the performance of pure grace and elegance on the roof of a skyscraper. Sonja danced with the clouds and the wind, moving and tilting and falling and moving again, her face frozen in a smile of concentrated awe, her lips parted as the wind stole her breath from her lips. The glitter of her shoes matched that of her eyes and it seemed like they were the two bejeweled ends of a figurine made of mist and wind and light. Jacob could only stare as she danced, her body thrusting itself towards the music, its smooth movements both a total opposition and a perfect match for the song. He could not take his eyes off her, watching in thankful awe. He felt as if he were an intruder, a spy watching a ceremony that was only for the rising sun and the fading moon to see. Sonja was one with the elements, the sunlight, the fading colours of the sky and the freezing October wind dancing with her, lifting her into the air, moving her limbs and twirling her hair and dress.

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The music lasted until the sun had given the horizon a last longing kiss and then moved on. As the last notes played out, Sonja slowed down and descended back onto her feet, resuming the position she had started in as the music ended and only the wind could be heard on the roof. She stood still for a few seconds, then her arms dropped, and she turned back to him. The ceremony had come to a close. The sudden change in her posture, from an elemental statue back to a human being made of flesh and bones, tore Jacob out of his trance and he quickly dove to get the silken robe and held it for her so that she could slip inside and protect herself from the biting cold. “Thank you,” she beamed up at him, a thin layer of sweat coating her skin, her chest rising and falling heavily. He quickly also gathered up the box and held the door so that she could slip back into the protection of the building. “That was amazing,” Jacob mumbled as they went back down the stairs to Sonja’s apartment. She unlocked the door and let them in. “Thank you, glad you liked it. Most of my rituals involve dance, it’s what I’m best at. But now,” she continued as she dropped onto a cushion and started to undo the ribbons of her shoes. “let’s see if it worked.” She picked up her right shoe and plucked out one of the bigger green stones and pulled a necklace out from under her dress. She pressed the stone into a smaller hole in the necklace and inspected it. A grin spread across her face and she jumped to her feet, handing him the necklace. “It worked beautifully. There, carry it with you and it will draw Fortuna’s favor. You don’t need to keep it as a necklace, just the coin is also fine, but the necklace makes it harder to loose. Now, do you want to stay for a coffee and some toast?” “Sure,” Jacob murmured absentmindedly as he inspected the small amulet that hung on the thin silver necklace. It seemed like a coin, but one of a kind he had never seen before. It was rather thick and around the stone, symbols had been engraved with a small fine tool. At the back of the coin was another engraving, this time in normal English writing. Lady Luck, Fortuna, dear, Make my bad luck disappear I’ve had enough – just for today Keep all bad luck out of my way He had never heard of that saying before and found it odd how Fortuna had been engraved in a different, much curlier font than the rest of the words. But another question found its way onto his tongue as he joined Sonja at the bar to her kitchen. “That book on your desk, what kind of rite is that? Like into a cult?” All this talk of changing luck and rituals reminded him a lot of what he knew about some cults. “I once had a classmate who got caught up in some sort of cult. She also had to do a ritual, but she never told us what it was.” Sonja chuckled as she put down their coffee mugs on the counter, placing milk and sugar next to them. “No, not that kind of rite. I need to complete a task, sort of like a test, to win my Goddess’s favor. If I am successful, I will be allowed to act in her name and learn from her.” Jacob raised a suspicious eyebrow, putting the coin into the pocket where he had kept his piercings for the ballet. He exchanged the one with the others and started putting them back in one at a time. “Goddess? You religious?” “Yeah, you could call it that,” Sonja told her coffee mug. “Not that I mind. I just wouldn’t have thought you were the type. I mean, parents are catholic, so I grew up with that stuff, it just never clicked for me. Didn’t make sense. Then again, most religions don’t. They’re more about faith than sense.” Sonja smiled, a little smile full of nostalgia and things lost to the passing of time. “Yes, faith.” Seeing that she didn’t want to discuss the topic any further, Jacob busied himself with the milk and the sugar.

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“So, what kind of test is it?” He added way too much milk and sugar, at least that’s what Robin had always said. He had started young with the coffee and had never moved on from how he had liked it back then. “I need to save a life.” Jacob froze, the spoon he had just been stirring with falling loudly against the side of the mug, his smile falling with it as his insides turned to ice. Fuck So she did know. “Yeah, I know.” Jacob looked up and he could see her raise her guard at the sudden coldness that she must have seen. When he spoke, his voice showed nothing of the friendly smalltalk tone it had held before. “Are you going to give me a lecture now.” Sonja smiled, nothing happy about her smile. “No, not at all. I do not know you nearly well enough for that not to be extremely awkward.” She took a sip from her mug. Jacob watched her movements full of mistrust. He had known enough people like her, people that tried to help him to better their karma, talking to him for hours about the beautiful things in the world, forgetting that he’d never get to see them, about the awesome people that were out there, forgetting he’d never meet them. He hated those speeches, hated those people and how they thought they could simply tell him to live and all would be good, all his problems would be solved. And for some reason, he didn’t want Sonja to be one of them. He didn’t want to hate her. When she didn’t continue on the topic, Jacob decided to let down his guard a little and took his mug back up. He was reluctant to write her off and leave and never come back. He had never spent such a nice evening as he had yesterday, had never spoken to anyone but Robin so casually. He didn’t want to turn his back on that because of some weird book that wanted to further Sonja’s religion by making her do good. Or what she perceived as good. And after all, he was still here, wasn’t he. Despite all his planning, despite his resolution, he was still here. And it had been worth every second of it. ‘Till now. Sonja refilled her mug and walked over to the window, looking down at the street below. “I have some stuff to get done today, so I will be busy tonight, but if you want, it would be cool if you came over tomorrow night and we could watch some movies together or something.” His heart jumped only to land on a bed of needles, poisoning it with mistrust. “Why?” “What why? Because I would like to spend time with you.” “Yeah, but why? Don’t get me wrong, I like you, a lot, and I’d love to come. But why all of a sudden? We didn’t really talk or anything, you don’t know me. How can you know I’m not some crazy psychopath that’s going to murder you in your sleep?” Sonja chuckled. “You are not. And because in three years working in that company, I have never met anyone more interesting than you. And I would like to get to know you. Now that I have all the time in the world, I would like to do that, because I think I will like you.” “What about me is interesting? What the hell did they tell you, ‘cause I’m pretty sure it’s all lies, nothing about me is interesting.” Sonja smiled. “That is exactly what is so fascinating. They never talked about you. Not the other people in makeup, not the ballerinas, not Dylan. And whenever I mentioned you, they knew nothing. That company was full of people who loved talking about themselves, but somehow, nobody knows you.” Jacob shrugged and tried not to look too pleased with himself. “They never bothered to ask, so I never bothered to tell.” He had never liked the amount of gossip in the ballet company and had made every effort to stay out of it. And that had been pretty easy so far. Nobody gave a shit about a guy with piercings doing makeup. He wasn’t pretty enough to incite rumors about his sexuality and not important enough to spark any gossip about his looks. And he had made sure to keep it that way. “But yeah, sure, I’d love to come tomorrow night. Is five okay for you?” Sonja smiled, another one of those bright beautiful smiles that made the sun envy her and nodded.

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“Five is perfect.” Jacob knocked the last of his coffee back and turned around to locate his jacket. It was his fancy woolen mantle from yesterday and the black fabric was pretty easy to spot in the storm of colour that was Sonja’s apartment. “’Kay. I’ll be off then. Don’t want to keep you from whatever you need to do.” “I do not want to kick you out, you are welcome to stay if you want. I just need to work a little, so you would need to entertain yourself for a few hours.” Jacob shook his head and put on his jacket. “Nah, it’s fine. I also have a little project waiting for completion at home, I need to be off.” “Okay, bye then. See you tomorrow night,” she smiled and walked from behind the counter to him. “See you tomorrow.” And before he could turn and walk out of the cozy alcove that had given him refuge for a few hours, she closed the space between them and hugged him. She snaked her arms around his neck and drew him close, rising to her tiptoes to rest her head on his shoulder. Jacob was too astonished by the sudden contact to react, and as quickly as it had begun, she had stepped away and closed the door. He stood in front of the closed door for good five minutes, his thoughts frozen in time, still on the other side of the wood. She had hugged him. Shure, as far as he’d noticed in the company that was common practice amongst girls, but not with guys, not with him. Eventually his feet managed to tear their roots from the doormat and he started trotting down the stairs, his mind still completely numbed by the strangeness of it all. He had gone to a performance, as usual, just wanting to see Sonja for the last time before he left. And she had turned it all upside down. She had danced like a pyre, had been fired to act on a few words he had muttered to himself a few months ago, he had waited for her and she had taken him to her apartment to make an amulet to better his luck. He had slept in her hanging swing and a book had given her the task to save his life. Now he was going to meet tomorrow night with the woman he had secretly been obsessed over for years. And that was just one night. What the fuck. His head swam with the mass of the thoughts, colours and the smell of the tea swirling in his mind like a lazy hurricane of mist. And images of Sonja. Her dancing. Odil. Odette. The ritual. Her glittering shoes. Her face in the sunlight. Her golden hair ablaze in the light of the morning. Her body one with the wind. Jacob absentmindedly played with the amulet in his pocket as he plugged his headphones back into his phone and started up the music he had stopped before getting into the theatre. He called an Uber and let his gaze wander over the waking chaos the was New York as he waited. He got into the back of the car as the front seat was already taken with a bald man in business suit hectically talking to the driver who couldn’t have cared less. Jacob fell into the seat and let himself sink into the music, barely registering the images his eyes were picking up, his brain much too busy sorting the day, constantly interrupted by images of Sonja. Heavens, that woman was beautiful. The way she moved, spoke, danced, smiled. It took the driver two taps on Jacobs knee to make him take notice of the fact that this was his stop, much to the disgruntlement of the businessman. Jacob quickly handed the driver a bill and hopped out of the car before the man could hand out his change. He fished out the keys to the front door from his pocket and made his way to the elevator. A soft ding announced the arrival of the elevator and the door opened, revealing a woman with a mass of curly hair sleeping curled up on the floor. “Geez, Ellen,” Jacob muttered and stepped over her, pressing the button to the third floor where both he and Ellen had their apartments. As the elevator groaned and heaved to close its doors, Jacob bent down and shook Ellen’s shoulder. No response. He sighed and draped one of her arms over his neck, holding her close with the other, lifting her up. Ellen wasn’t heavy, not anymore, ever since she was spending more money on gin than on food her weight had melted away like butter in the sun. Jacob knew it would only be a matter of time until Ellen would crash for the last time and wouldn’t wake up again, but they had had that discussion more times than he could count, and he was definitely not in the mood for it. Hadn’t been for months now. When he had moved here, he had cared and had worried about Ellen, his heart had bled every time he had found her like this in the entrance hall, the elevator, the staircase or in front of their door. But now he was just numb. Not only towards Ellen, but it had started with her. She had screamed at him in one of her drunken ranges and at some point, he had noticed that he wasn’t shocked by that anymore. Her insults didn’t hurt, he easily avoided the things she threw, and he wasn’t sad or depressed when she had left and knocked herself out on more booze.

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His numbing had begun here. He stood for a second and marveled that revelation, inspected and turned it in the dirty light of the dying lightbulb above. He had never really realized before how much of his current situation was entangled with this house. Sure, nothing of this had started here, but it had become the foundation of his life in here. The cold that crept into the rooms at night at solidified the dark thoughts in his mind and formed them into a solid foundation of bricks too heavy for him to ever lift again. Ellen groaned and tore him out of his revelation. With his one relatively free hand he patted her pockets for her key and then snaked his fingers into her front pocket, drawing out a single key with a red ribbon on it, tying the key to her bra. He pulled her over to her door and unlocked it. He was greeted by a waft of cheek alcohol and stale puke. Wrinkling his nose, he pulled her into that hellhole she called home. He managed to lay her gently onto the mattress, leaving her there as a blanket and cushion were nowhere to be found. He turned and made his way to leave, but at the door, out of some unknown impulse, he stopped. Ellen whimpered behind him and the rustling of sheets was followed by a thud on the floor. “Jesus fucking Christ.” Jacob turned around, embracing the strange impulse of humanity that kept him here. Ellen had fallen out of bed, taking the dirty sheet with her. It had revealed a brown stain on the mattress that seemed to be long dried blood. He sighed and walked over to the crumpled woman on the floor. “God dammit Ellen. What the fuck happened?” He picked her up, draping her arm over his shoulder, finding her to be surprisingly light. “Come on girl, let’s fix this,” he murmured and maneuvered her out of her apartment door, walking to his own door at the end of the hallway. As he carefully put her feet to the ground, he prayed that his keys were in his left pocket. Must have been his lucky day, he found them immediately, pulling the bundle out on his apartment key. He unlocked the door and kicked it open, lifting Ellen up again and carrying her to his couch. He bustled around a little, tucked her in under a blanket, making tea and setting it down on the couch table in a thermos flask next to a glass of water and an Aspirin. He wrote her a quick note in case she woke up while he was gone, then he grabbed all the cleaning utensils he could find, his own soundbox and his phone and made his way back to her apartment. With a sigh he set all the stuff down. The lazy cold part of him that had lived in this house for years now asked again what the hell he thought he was doing, but Jacob had become an expert at shutting his mind off. So he shoved his thoughts aside and began to move. Small at first, setting up the box and his music, then bigger, collecting trash and empty bottles of every kind, vacuuming and the mopping the floor, cleaning out the fridge and the cupboards. At some point he ended up in Ellen’s bedroom wanting to see whether he should wash any clothes, and he stopped. It seemed somewhat wrong going through her clothes, her underwear. But then again, he had seen so much more of her, so much more private things, washing her bras wouldn’t be the worst thing he had done. He shuddered at the thought and upped the volume of the music, chasing off his thoughts. Yeah, he had become good at that. Otherwise he’d probably ended up just like Ellen. Drowning everything in alcohol. He had tried that, but it hadn’t worked for him, had had quite the opposite effect actually. And had started him down this path whose end Sonja had obstructed last night. However the fuck that had happened. Lighting a cigarette, Jacob got all the clothes he could carry together and stuffed it in any containers he could find until he had Ellen’s whole closet in two baskets and a box. With his bounty, he made his way to the elevator, punching the button to the basement. The elevator moved one floor down and the stopped again, the door opening to let Eddie in. “Hey Jake. You washing?” he asked, inspecting the baskets of clothes, sheets and curtains. “Bras?” he added after he spotted one. “Ellen,” Jacob tried to explain. Eddie scoffed and grinned. “Fuck man, you’re twisted. You owe her something?” “What, because I’m trying to help her get back on her feet instead of just fucking her while she’s out?” Jacob tried to sound casual, but his spite for Eddie clearly sounded through. Eddie shrugged. “Yeah, sure. I mean, she’s probably fucked five guys just tonight, what’s one more, right?” To the luck of Eddie’s health and Jacob’s criminal record, the elevator arrived on the ground floor and Eddie got out. “Anyway, see you around Jake. Have fun with those panties.” Jacob rammed his head against the wall of the elevator, the pain overshadowing his boiling insides. Gripping the edges of the basket tighter he hit the close button with his foot and concentrated on the pain in the back of his head and on figuring out whether he was bleeding. Eddie was the

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embodiment of pure assholery, a dripping bag of slimy charm at first, ignorance, carelessness and just a bloody bastard once you fell for the façade. The music from his headphones and the repetitiveness of stuffing three washing machines calmed him down a bit and the soft humming on his back as he sat against one eventually soothed his thoughts back down to blissful emptiness. Must have been his lucky day that all three machines were empty when he came in. He listened to the music without really understanding the text and let his thoughts wander, eventually settling down in an orbit about last night and this morning. Now, with the mundanity of cleaning Ellen’s apartment and having to deal with Eddie, the hours spent with Sonja felt like a dream. Like the white swan, nothing tangible, nothing real. It seemed too strange, too good to be real, and Jacob smiled softly to himself just replaying the memories over and over again. He’d see tomorrow night how real it was. When he came back upstairs, he deposited the freshly washed clothes in Ellen’s now much cleaner apartment and went over to his own to get his drying rack. Ellen’s wasn’t going to be big enough, and he didn’t want to do two loads, too lazy to wait and not trusting Ellen to change the clothes. He let himself in and got the rack from the closet he had deemed his storage room. “Jacob?” Ellen’s voice as hoarse and weak, but somehow made its way through the doors to the living room. Jacob dropped the rack off at the door and walked into the kitchen that was one with the Livingroom. Ellen sat on the couch, buried beneath the heap of blanket, a steaming cup of the tea he had made in her hand, the Aspirin gone and the water with it. Jacob smiled at her groggy messy appearance and Ellen gave the most miserable of smiles back. “Hey.” Jacob kept his voice down, knowing the effects of a hangover too well himself. “Hey,” Ellen breathed, her body barely awake enough to sustain speech. “How are you doing?” Her eyebrows crumpled together as she tried to comprehend the sense of the words and then string an answer together that didn’t sound too implausible. “I’m good. I’ll be out of your hair in just a minute. The tea is great by the way. What kind is it?” Jacob chuckled at her clumsy attempts to change the subject and set down beside her on the couch, keeping enough distance that he didn’t sit and pull on her blanket. “It’s black tea. Gunpowder. And how are you really doing?” She looked at him, very poorly disguising her pondering on how much to tell him. He kept his eyes locked to her. He knew the signals of body language well enough, he knew what just glancing away would mean. Not that she would be able to tell, but she’d get the message even in her present state. Ellen sighed, and her body folded in on itself, her hand with the half full cup in it shaking. “Like a truck ran me over,” she mumbled hoarsely, staring at the cup as if it were the most interesting thing in the world. Jacob softly pried the cup out of her hand and held out his arm, allowing her to fall against him. This was all so eerily familiar, an exact reenactment of the procedure they had gone through so many times. A pang of fear struck his heart as he realized where this would be going, where this would end up. He shook the thought out of his head. No, not this time. He would be there, he could help her this time. “It’s okay, Ellen. I’m almost done cleaning up your place. I wanted to make pasta for dinner. Want to join me?” Ellen nodded into his chest and he softly rubbed her shoulder through the blanket. “How about, I make dinner and I’ll come and get you once I’m done? And you sleep a little more and finish the tea?” “’Kay. Thank you Jacob. I’m sorry.” Jacob disentangled himself from her and put the blanket back over her once she had stretched out on the couch again. “Don’t be. You’ll hate me again soon enough.” And without explaining himself, he left with the drying rack. He went back over to Ellen’s apartment, hung up the clothes and sheets to dry, got all the other full bottles he could find and took them with him as he left the house to get food and visit every shop that sold alcohol in a mile’s radius to show them Ellen’s picture and ask them not to sell to her. Some listened to his story and agreed not to let her on any hard stuff, while others just nodded and waved him off. Most of them knew her, some agreeing in concern about her, some disagreeing in concern about their shops. Jacob knew he couldn’t get all the vendors to participate in his plan, but he

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didn’t really mind. He was doing what he could. It would never be impossible for Ellen not to buy new tequila, but as long as he made it hard enough, he was giving her the sliver of a chance. After disposing of the last of the bottles he made his way to the nearest supermarket and bought the things he’d need for dinner. He hadn’t even bothered checking his or Ellen’s fridge. He knew Ellen had a mainly liquid diet for the last few months and he never cared too much what he ate. He never thought he’d be around long enough to care. When he got back, he went into Ellen’s newly cleaned kitchen, turning the music back on to drown out his thoughts while he chopped up onions, garlic and mushrooms. Which was probably why he didn’t hear Ellen come in and didn’t notice until she stood beside him, watching him fry the onions and the mushrooms. “Your music is very loud.” Jacob jumped and whipped around to see her grinning at him. “Jesus, Ellen. You can’t just go around giving people heart attacks!” She chuckled and let her gaze wander over her apartment. “Wow. You really worked your ass off. I owe you one.” Jacob added broth and cream to the mushrooms and onions, stirring until all was mixed together, then adding the noodles. “Yeah, put a pin on that. I’ll come back to you with that, after dinner though. I’m starving.” Ellen nodded and went over to the box, lowering the volume. “Sure. I’ll set the table.” Out of habit she went to the table to clear it off, but it was already clean and empty. Realizing her mistake, she veered around and went to get plates and cutlery, while Jacob added a dipper to the pot and put in in the middle of the table, together with a bottle of coke, coming back to get two glasses. Ellen eyed the coke and chuckled. They sat down and Jacob smiled nervously. He hadn’t been this domestic with Ellen in years. It felt strange to eat with her after having walked past her without caring for so long. “But really, your music is always so loud. Not that I mind,” Ellen quickly added defensively as he looked up to see whether she was angry about it. “I mean, I like it, it’s good music, but that can’t be good for your ears.” “Probably not. But it keeps my head clear mostly.” “So, my drinks are your music?” “If you want to call it that. Why the sudden interest?” Ellen shrugged and stuffed her mouth with noodles and mushrooms to put off having to answer. “I dunno. Could ask you the same. I thought we didn’t talk anymore, why the sudden kindness?” Jacob could feel the blood rising to his head. She was right about that though. He had ignored her for months now, ever since his last attempt to help her had gone so much worse that she knew. Why did he suddenly care for her again? “I don’t really know. I… you could say all of this is off the script. I met someone at the ballet recently and that was… somewhat of an eye opening experience. I found you in the elevator this morning and I wanted to just drop you off, but… I don’t really know.” He quickly tried to eat to not continue talking. To his luck, Ellen decided to drop the topic. “So, what did you want to talk about, you know, after dinner?” Jacob put down his fork and searched for the flyer in his pocket before shoving it over to her. Ellen inspected it until her eyes hit the headline at the bottom. Alcoholics Anonymous. “No,” she said firmly, her voice all of a sudden cold. “I’ve tried that shit and they’re a bunch of self-pitying crybabies that blame their mommies for their mistakes.” Jacob sat back, preparing for the battle about to come. “Then show them better. You said you owe me, that’s what I want from you. I want you to go for three weeks.” Ellen whipped the flyer off the table, almost taking her glass of coke with it. “Fuck no! Jake, I’m fucking done overthinking my life. I’ve done it a bloody million times, I know what the hell is wrong and I’m not planning to fix it.”

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“Yeah, ‘cause you’re to weak to try.” Ellen laughed an exasperated dry laugh. “That’s strong for you to say, fucking emo.” Jacob flinched inwardly, but he had expected this to come. Ellen always got personal real fast. And she knew him well enough to know where it hurt. “Tell you what. We both try. You go for three weeks, and I’ll try to change, same rule, for three weeks.” Ellen laughed again, nothing happy about it. “I’ll be dry before you quit fucking whining about your life. You’ll never manage. Don’t make promises you can’t fucking keep.” Jacob took a deep breath and locked his eyes on her. “Come on, tell me what you want me to do. I swear I will, three weeks, if you go. I’ll even send pictures. I’ll smile on them.” Ellen opened her mouth but then hesitated, seeing that he was actually serious. “And you’re not kidding?” “No. You go to the meetings twice a week for three weeks, and I do whatever you think I need. If I fail, you can stop, vice versa.” And evil grin spread on her thin lips and she leaned back, plotting his demise. “Okay. Three weeks, huh,” she pondered. “Three weeks,” Jacob agreed, dreading what she was coming up with that made her smile like that, trying to hide his discomfort behind his fork, finishing his plate. Ellen knew him pretty well, she knew everything he was uncomfortable with, everything he used as an excuse to stay at home. “Okay. You have to go to a place I tell you to each day. Don’t worry, it’ll be nice. You have to stay there for at least an hour and you have to enjoy it.” That wasn’t too bad. He could fake that well enough. “Plus, you have to talk to at least one person there and they have to be on the picture with you, so the guy at the hotdog cart doesn’t count, it has to be an actual conversation.” Fuck, here we go. Talking up new people was about the most terrifying thing he knew. He wasn’t really afraid of it, but the same symptoms showed when he had to order at Starbucks than when he had to run into a collapsing building to fight a five meter tarantula. “And you have to complete one challenge per day. I’ll give you the challenge with the place. Also need a pic of that.” Shit, that could also go really wrong. In so many ways. Jacob could already feel his heart racing pounding, trying to punch its way out of his ribcage to flee the horrifying prospect of being at the mercy of Ellen’s imagination. Ellen could see the panic in his face and laughed, getting up to walk to the cupboard where she had kept her collection of alcohol before he had dumped it. “Told ya you couldn’t do it.” Shit. If she opened the cupboard she would go ballistic and Jacob didn’t want to sit around while that happened. “Okay, I’ll do it,” he quickly wheezed out while his lungs did everything to rob him of the breath he needed to speak. Ellen froze and turned, surprise on her face. “I’ll do whatever you say, not be a ‘fucking emo hermit’,” he quoted her from the last time they had spoken, the last time he had tried to help. “and you have to be sober for three weeks.” He got up and cut her off before her words could follow up on the apologetic expression on her face, afraid any word from her might knock over his resolution. “It’s a deal. And don’t worry about that. I mean, you’re right. It’s okay.” He stumbled over his words and shut himself up before he said something he’d regret. He pinched his eyes closed and tried to sort his thoughts. Dammit, why was the music so quiet?! He couldn’t think properly like that. “Jake.” When he opened his eyes, Ellen stood in front of him, her hand outstretched. He pulled himself together and took it. She didn’t smile, her face was serious, and Jacob felt relief flood him when he realized that she would actually try this time. “Okay. Good. I’m going to go now, before I change my mind.” Ellen smiled. “Sure. Thanks for cooking. It was amazing, you’ll have to give me the recipe sometime.” Jacob nodded, then he took his phone and box and fled into the safe quiet of his apartment.

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Fucking hell, this was not a good idea. Ellen knew his pressure points and was ruthless enough to abuse them shamelessly, anything to give her an excuse to stop going to the meetings and refill her cupboard. She’d use everything she knew about him to make sure he’d fail his part of the bargain. He could feel a familiar panic rising in his chest and his hands moved to turn the music back up, up to thought overshadowing levels but instead, he put it on the kitchen counter and sat on the couch, far away from it. No, he’d manage. Whatever she threw at him, if that was what it took to get her sober, he could do it. Still, the panic lingered and robbed him of any rest he might have gotten that night. Knowing the feeling of impending doom too well to fool himself into thinking he could fall asleep somehow, he jumped to his feet and flew out of the door, grabbing his jacket and powerbank on the way out. His hands followed the motions of plugging his phone to the charger and his headphones to his phone without thought and by the time he had reached the elevator he was fidgeting with the amulet and music drowned him. The elevator was already there, and thankfully nobody called it on his way down. He almost ran out of the house, feeling like he had held his breath for all the time he had been in the building, sucking in deep gulps of night air as soon as he was on the street. Then he started walking. He hated new things, he hated having to face the unknown, knowing it would take him apart, knowing it would hit him, and powerless to do anything about it. And he hated his own panic, he hated how afraid he was of the world, he hated himself for all the time his fear had cost him. His thoughts circled into an ever-darkening abyss of self-loathing until a new thought disrupted the familiarity. He hadn’t been afraid last night. He had walked out of the theatre, had walked to the back door and had talked to Sonja. He had walked her home and had slept over at her place. He had watched her dance and had learned about her, without a single heartbeat of fear. That idea made the time feel even more unreal. He had never dared to speak to her in the company, had to do everything to force his hands to stop trembling when she chose him to apply her makeup before a show. But somehow, that night, he hadn’t been afraid, he hadn’t trembled. He had been calm and everything had been fine. Curious. The tangent robbed the panic of its energy, pushing it into the background and he slowed down, somewhere ten blocks from his apartment. His steps adopted a calmer rhythm and his breath slowed. There was something strange about her, something that gave him courage. Maybe he’d ask her tomorrow. If he’d have the guts to. Somehow, he had the feeling that he could be honest with her. That he wouldn’t be the worst thing she had met. The darkest stain of shit she had had to wipe off her. A familiar change in the sounds that softly seeped through his headphones snapped him out of his thoughts and he stopped, looked up. He was standing on the Williamsburg Bridge. His eyes were drawn along the railing to a certain spot that a million hands had wiped clean, wiping two footprints away. His feet walked on their own and dug roots into the cement when he stood in front of the pillar he had used to pull himself up. His inside recoiled at the sight of the red metal, but not all of them. A soft whispering voice in the back of his skull or his heart, he couldn’t quite tell, rejoiced at the quiet night, the lack of people on the bridge, reminded him to fall head first to knock him out and urged him to move faster before anyone saw. Jacob held on to the amulet in his pocket so tightly it hurt, digging the metal into his hand. He forced his eyes on the pavement, the pavement that could be any other street in New York, and concentrated on the music, mouthing the lyrics, whispering them, mumbling, singing, louder and louder until his own voice was louder than the water. His feet broke free from the concrete and he ran, never stopping, not slowing down, until his sneakers hit the ground of Manhattan. He didn’t look back, but walked on, now a goal in mind, the same goal as always when he crossed that bridge. He walked until he hit 9th avenue and then walked and walked until it became Columbus avenue. His legs moved without him, his brain blending out the pain in his feet over the music, focusing on the flashing lights to the rhythm of the music. Yeah, he was good at blending out his thoughts. Long enough until he found something to focus on, something that wouldn’t crash his world. He reached the New York City Ballet a few minutes before eight, his feet protesting heavily. The building was lit brightly, and a steady ebb and flow of people streamed out of the building. To his luck, the gift shop was still open, and the cashier was a guy he knew from sight. He sneaked in behind two elderly ladies and nodded to the cashier who greeted back, now only semi annoyed at the late customers. Jacob excused himself past the two ladies and went over to the cashier straight away. ‘George’ his nameplate read. Jacob could feel his heart racing and his brain scrambling to

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put together some sort of explanation of what he wanted without sounding too creepy. Everything screamed at him to bail, turn and walk to a shelf, just look around and walk out again, but then his eyes met George’s and it was too late. “Hey, George,” Jacob greeted shakily, the fake twitchy smile rising to his lips almost naturally. “Hey. Can I help you? You’re off tonight, aren’t you? Need anything?” “Yeah, I’m off. I wanted to ask whether you have the recordings of last night’s show.” Yeah, his voice was stable, it was okay. This was fine. His panic subsided, slowly slipping off his heart like a lazy cat. “The one where the Prima got herself kicked? Sure, Dylan wouldn’t let me sell any copies. You’re lucky, he wants to pick them up and throw them away tomorrow. Why’d you want it?” Boom, panic back. His heart raced in his throat and he tried to swallow it down as he counted some bills out of his wallet. “My mom was there, had me get a ticket for her. She wanted a copy, dunno why. I had an old recording of the premiere, but she wanted a new one, said the camera sucked.” George swallowed the lie and laughed while putting the bills in the register. “Yeah, your momma’s got style. I knew the guy who had direction back then, and he didn’t know his shit. Here ya go.” He slid a DVD case over the counter together with Jacob’s change. Jacob forced himself to eyecontact and took the DVD blindly. “Thanks. I’ll be off, got to get home. Nice evening, George.” George smiled and lifted his hand. “See ya.” With a last smile, Jacob fled the store, gripping the DVD tightly. He walked out, and kept walking until he was sure he wasn’t visible from any of the windows in the shop before he collapsed against a pillar, allowing himself a shaky breath, the wall in his back a beautifully calm contrast to his racing heart and spinning head. He had no idea how he would make it through three weeks of having to do this every day, but his mind wasn’t in the right frame to even consider that. “Son, are you alright?” The voice came from his left and Jacob jerked up, away from the pillar. His eyes looked at the elderly woman without really seeing her, only noticing the concern in his eyes. He smiled, another one of those tacked on plastic smiles and he nodded. “Yeah, just fine, thank you. Have a nice evening.” Then he fled, this time for good. He walked as fast as he could, keeping his eyes down, making sure nobody could stop him. He walked until the semi-darkness of Central Park embraced him. Nobody hung around in Central Park at night, only those who needed to be here were. No jogger would stop him, none of the dodgy figures would chat him up. Jacob found a bench under a lamp and fell onto it, out of breath and with hurting feet. With nobody around, he allowed himself to hug himself and double down, resting his forehead on his knees. Like this eventually the world slowed down and seconds ticked in their regular beat again. He concentrated, and the visuals of his apartment popped up around him. The box, playing the music in his head. His kitchen, cooking up a new pot of coffee. The pictures and posters on the wall. The couch which served as his bed. The door to his bedroom, locked as usual. The windows with their curtains drawn to protect him from the ugly streetlight outside. The smell of dust and coffee. He was at home, his door locked, he was at home, alone. His heart found its regular beat again and for the first time since he had shaken Ellen’s hand, he could feel his calm return. There were reasons he stayed at home. He hated how fucking fragile his calm was, how easily he was overrun by panic. Jacob got up, he had to get home. He felt like curling up in his closet. He got up and walked to the next subway station. He wanted to be home right now. As he trotted down the stairs to the subway a train pulled in and a handful of people got out. Jacob eyed for the trains number and only confirmed it to be his as the doors blared and closed. To his luck, a man jumped out through the door closest to him, forcing the door open again and Jacob slipped into the train, falling on an empty seat. When he stepped out of the elevator, Ellen’s door was open and she was out in the hallway, shouting at Eddie, who just stood there, ginning that smug disgusting grin of his. “…fucking bang into my apartment! I am not your personal fuckdoll, you can’t just call on me whenever you feel like it. And fuck off an make sure I don’t see you visage for a week or I’ll kick it into next year!” Her voice was shrill and pierced the air right into his core, but Eddie didn’t even seem to hear her.

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“Oh, come on, doll. No need to be so rough, what’s wrong with being friendly? All I asked was to come inside and have a drink, sweety.” Oh Fuck. Jacob gathered what he could of his courage and walked up to Ellen. “Leave her be, Eddie. She doesn’t want to see you.” Eddie didn’t seem the least be surprised to hear his voice. When he turned around and Jacob saw his stupid grin and red eyes, Jacob figured he was too high to even register surprise. “Ey, Jacob. And that’s something you’d know all about, right? But chill, I just thought I might get something going, ya know? Easier than going to a bar and cheaper than a prostitute, am I right?” Ellen’s hand connected with Eddie’s jaw just a second later, the sound tearing through the tense silence. Jacob quickly steppen between them so that Ellen would have to move around him to hit Eddie again. Eddie looked to stunned to be furious, and Jacob quickly moved to grab his arm and spin him towards the elevator. “Please, Eddie, just leave. Maybe try again tomorrow.” Ellen gasped and whipped around to him but Jacob held up his hand, gesturing her to be quiet, and for once, she listened. Eddie nodded slowly, still befuddled and took a slow step towards the elevator. “Make yourself some dinner Eddie. You seemd hungry.” Eddie stopped and again, slowly, nodded. Then he moved again and made his way to the elevator, pressed the button, and stumbled in as the door opened immediately. Only when the door had closed and Jacob could hear the wheel starting to turn did he drop his hand and turn to Ellen. “Sorry, but he’ll have forgotten it by the morning and it was the best way to get rid off him.” “Jake, where the hell have you been?! Do you know what time it is? You scared me to death! Why the hell didn’t you answer your bloody phone, you fricking have one!” Her anger took him by surprise and he stopped dead, taking out his phone to see what the hell she meant. And indeed, he had 17 missed calls and 29 messages from Ellen. “Sorry, I had it on mute. I was listening to music, and anything else will interrupt the song every time I get a notification.” Ellen walked up to him and punched him square in the chest, before drawing him in for a hug. “You fucking idiot! Answer you bloody phone next time! I was scared shitless,” she mumbled into his jacket. Still confused, Jacob hugged her back. “I was just out for a walk. Nothing happened,” he reassured her. That wasn’t quite true, but as true as she could understand. “Yeah, I remember the last time we talked and you went for a walk. You got almost run over by a fucking bus!” Now that was a lie. Jacob was glad it still stuck and she hadn’t found out what had really happened. “Okay, bad comparison there. Today was nothing like last time. I was drunk back then, I wasn’t thinking straight. How the hell did you even know I was gone? I thought you’d gone to sleep.” She nodded and let him go, leading the way to his apartment. “Yeah, I almost was, but then I found your cable. You forgot it at my place and I wanted to give it back before I forgot. But when I knocked, your door was open and you were gone. I checked the cellar and the roof, but you weren’t anywhere. I checked my stash, and that was gone, so I was freaking out. I called you and wrote you a billion times, but it always went to mailbox and I was shitting myself. Next time you fucking answer your phone, dammit.” “Okay, sure, I’m sorry. Won’t happen again.” His door was still open, he hadn’t locked it when he had left. He stepped in and turned when he realized Ellen wasn’t coming inside with him. She inspected him, her gaze like fingers that felt every square inch of his body for injury. “And you’re sure you’re okay?” Jacob forced himself to smile, raising his cheeks so the skin around his eyes would wrinkle, making it look real. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just had a weird week and I had to clear my head. Took a lap around the block. I’m okay, really.” Ellen shot him a last skeptical gaze, then she nodded and turned back to her apartment. Jacob sighed and locked his door behind her. He didn’t bother brushing his teeth or showering, moving that to tomorrow. He fell straight onto his couch and just barely managed to curl up under his blanket before sleep saved him from his racing brain.

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Ice Cream and Central Park Jacob awoke five times during the night, sometime due to sounds outside, sometime because of dreams he couldn’t recall once his eyes had opened. By the time he awoke the sixth time he just kicked the blanket back and got up. He checked his phone. It was fucking four in the morning. He had been home at midnight. Today was going to be harsh. Maybe he’d catch another hour of sleep in the day, he had to, or he wouldn’t make it long tonight. And he wanted to spend as much time with Sonja as she would allow, he wanted her to know him. Also, he wanted to figure out what the hell she did that he could talk to her, just like that. It had been so easy, so bloody simple compared to the rest of last night. He wanted that. His mind was tired, still exhausted from yesterday, but his body wouldn’t let him get back to sleep, so he just got up and started moving. He plugged in his phone and box, putting on the music more softly to not wake Ellen. Ellen. Oh fuck. Their three-week contract began today. He had to go one place, enjoy it, talk to someone and complete one challenge. Fuck. He wanted nothing more than to stay at home the whole day, rest and prepare for tonight. He didn’t have the mental energy to do all that and he pondered whether it would be more effort to photoshop some pictures together or to actually go there. He didn’t really have to stay for an hour, he could just lie to her about that. Jacob shook his head. No. If he expected her be honest about the meetings, he’d have to hold himself to the same standard. His hands automatically followed the motions to make coffee and soon he was sitting in the armchair, staring at a poster of a model whose makeup he had done as a contract before working with the ballet company, not even properly seeing her. He tried to remember her name, racking his brains for it, but he couldn’t think of it. She had been smart, but shallow. Or maybe not and he just hadn’t paid her enough attention. He couldn’t remember. He sat in the armchair just staring and slowly sipping his coffee. He had no idea how long he just sat there, not moving, not really thinking, until his phone tore him out of it. Yeah, right. He had changed his settings so that Ellen’s messages got through. Could you stop with the fucking Music?! Asshole [4:06, Ellen] Sorry. My head is killing me, and that shit ain’t helping. Why the fuck are you awake anyway?! [4:06, Ellen] Sorry. Can’t sleep, needed something to fill the silence. I’ll take a walk, be gone in a sec. [4:07, You] Nah, it’s fine. Wanna come over? Now that I’m up, I could make us some coffee. Get a supremely early start on today’s quest? [4:07, Ellen] No, don’t worry. I’ll go to sleep again in a sec. I think I’ll catch another hour or so. You should to, sorry I woke you. Text me the challenge of the day then. [4:08, You] Okay, sure. Nighty night. [4:08, Ellen] Night. [4:08, You] Jacob got up and turned to box back off, plunging into silence. He curled back up under the blanket in hopeful optimism, deep down knowing he wouldn’t be able to sleep again. Sure, one cup wasn’t enough to wake him up anymore, but even without the coffee, he wouldn’t catch a wink of sleep. So he turned to staring at the ceiling, letting his mind wander back to Sonja and her dancing until a little smile twirled on his lips. He bent over to pull her necklace out of his pocket and fidgeted with it absentmindedly while thinking back to her dance on the roof. He could still picture her dancing there, floating over the roof, her feet not even touching the ground, the sun and the wind lifting her as she jumped and twirled. Never in his life had he seen anything so beautiful. Maybe that’s why he had forgotten his little ritual.

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With a jerk, Jacob was wide awake. He had forgotten. Holy shit, he had actually gone two nights without it now! He had been able to fall asleep without it! Must be new record. He smiled, at the same time feeling the familiar tug towards the bedroom, where his gun waited for him. Yeah, sure, what the hell. And if it was just to put it back down with a smile for the first time in what felt like years. Quietly he got up, took his box and his now fully charged phone with him, and felt into his pocket for his keys. Again, he pulled it out on the right key, and unlocked the bedroom door. He always kept it locked because Ellen had the spare key to the apartment door. Sure, she already knew he was weird and fucked up, but she thought it was just in the way everyone else was. He didn’t want to frighten her if she accidentally went snooping around. He stepped in and put the box and phone down, turning on the music again, this time to a softer level so he didn’t wake Ellen again. It was five by now, but he didn’t want to push it. She was going through withdrawal right now, she wouldn’t be in a good mood. He went back once more to get the DVD from last night and then closed the door behind him. He never locked it. Just in case. He added the DVD to a collection of older ones which he kept neatly in a row on the floor. The room was almost void of any furniture, instead, the wall was almost completely covered with posters and pictures of Sonja. In most she was dancing on stage or during practice, but some were portraits of her smiling into the camera. Jacob had always been ashamed of this room, until he had googled a little and had found out what other people did to those they were obsessed with. None of these pictures he had taken, they were all from the gift shop, the internet of the program catalogues that accompanied every performance. Before yesterday he hadn’t known where she lived, and he didn’t know anything about her other than what the official sources said. He knew himself that it was sick and twisted, but he was proud of the manners with which he exercised his obsession. He didn’t hurt her or intrude into her life anyway. He just enjoyed and appreciated the glimpses he got of it every now and then. The only thing that could truly be considered furniture was a small mirror that he had hot glued to the curtain that covered the window. On the windowsill lay a box with a padlock. Jacob quickly found the key and opened the box, taking out the beretta inside. He despised guns and even more so the easy manner in which he had gotten his, but he knew himself well enough, knew he was too much of a coward to slice open his neck or wrists. A gun was the quickest way. And it had been easier to get his hands on a gun that on enough sleeping pills. He picked the gun up and for the first time, he didn’t feel its weight, didn’t eye the trigger with worry, didn’t check the magazine. For the first time, it really didn’t matter. He held the gun to his throat, angling it upwards so the bullet would go straight through his spinal cord. So, what had made this day worth it? Oh, for the fun of it, what had made the last two days worth it? Why was he glad he had lived to see them? He smiled. Easy. Sonja. Seeing Sonja dance. Seeing her dance the white swan and the black swan. Seeing her open hair float like a cloud around the powerhouse that was Odil. Talking to her. Smoking behind the theatre he worked in but where nobody knew him. Going home with her. Sleeping in her hanging swing. Sleeping good. Tammy. Going up to the roof with her. Seeing her dance in the sunrise. Helping Ellen. Not having hurt Eddie. Walking over that bridge without puking. Lying to George without being caught. Knowing that Ellen cared and worried about him. He put the gun down. With a smile. He couldn’t remember the last time this had been so easy. With a ball of joy bouncing in his gut he put the beretta back and locked the box. He got up and took phone and box, but stopped before going out. He looked at a poster where Sonja, Aurora was posing for a photoshoot, smiling at the camera with joyful grace, seemingly as happy about his decision as he was. “Thanks,” he simply said and left the room, locking it behind him. It was exhilarating to sit back down on the couch, to still be here. Another first. Usually he sat here for a good hour, pondering whether he had made the right choice. Today, he was sure as the sunrise. It didn’t matter what Ellen would throw at him today, just for now, he was invincible, or at least he felt like it. It was five in the morning and he was alive, truly really alive. He leaned back and smiled, just smiling at the ceiling. Ellen wrote him at eight, three hours, one coffee, two cups of tea and three episodes of The Expanse later. That strange ball of happiness in his gut still hadn’t completely left and he was planning to use it to get out of the house as fast as possible, before his resolve could crumble. Morning. Managed to catch some more sleep? [8:01, Ellen]

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Jap. You? [8:01, You] Yeah, just woke up. Ready for today? I’ll go if you will. [8:01, Ellen] Right now, as ready as I’ll ever be. Hit me. I’d fight Godzilla rn. [8:02, You] ^^. Won’t be necessary. I am a merciful god. Starting easy: - Central Park - Eat ice cream [8:02, Ellen] Enjoy. [8:03, Ellen] Indeed merciful. Thank you, oh great one. [8:03, You] You callin me fat? ;D [8:03, Ellen] :) You gonna be okay for tonight? I’m spending the evening at a friend’s place, I don’t know when I’ll be back. [8:04, You] Yeah, sure. Have fun. [8:04, Ellen] HOLD UP! Since when do you have friends? Am I being replaced?! [8:05, Ellen] Don’t worry, you’ll always be my BFF, no need to burn the friendship bracelets, No, I’ve just met her recently actually. Cook something, okay? No takeout. Try this healthy thing for once, please. [8:05, You] Her? Am I smelling a romance? [8:06, Ellen] Fuck off. You know exactly no. We’ve had this. [8:06, You] Sorry, geez. No jokes for you then. See ya tonight or tomorrow then? [8:06, Ellen] Sorry. This whole thing just has me on edge and “romance” is exactly how I’ll fuck it up. [8:06, You] Yeah, see you. I’ll write once I’m home, just come over if you’re still up. [8:07, You] Don’t worry, you’re going to rock this. See ya tonight then. [8:07, Ellen] Jacob put the phone down and let his head fall against the couch. Fuck no. The last thing he needed right now was the drama that came with a romance. He’d just have to hope Ellen was wrong about that. He sighed and scrolled back up. Ice cream in Central Park, huh? That was easy enough. And he’d forget about the people part until he got there. Picking up on the last surge of energy he got up and filled his jacket with all the things he’d need. Newly charged powerbank, headphones, phone, wallet, money and keys. He flicked all lights and utensils off and then locked the door behind him. He raced down the stairs, not even bothering with the elevator on the off chance he might meet Eddie in there and only slowed down once he was a good block from the house, making sure he wouldn’t turn back. He just had to remember that he was doing this for Ellen. He was helping her get her shit back together. As long as he didn’t budge, she wouldn’t, she was too proud and too stubborn for that. He turned to fidgeting with the amulet as he jogged down the stairs to the subway station. The train that would bring him closest to Central Park had just driven in and a steady flow of people heading to work kept the doors open for him. He didn’t have to work at the company until the next show was on, so he was exempt from that frantic panic for now.

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He’d have to find some other job to keep him above water until then, but for now, he was fine. The doors closed just as he had claimed the last free seat and the train rocked into motion. The air was still ice as he stepped into Central Park, the sun too weak to warm the chilling winds. Joggers with and without dogs passed him left right and centre and he saved himself to the very edge of the paved road. He already knew where he’d spend his hour. Still, now surrounded by a mass of red, yellow, pale green and brown, he slowed down his pace and looked around. For once, he didn’t feel like he was surrounded by death as he walked on the fallen leaves. The trees weren’t dying, they were going to sleep, shedding their summer gowns to lay themselves to rest in the bitter cold of the night. And as the golden sun peaked through the remaining leaves lazily, there was a burning beauty to all of this. Jacob got out his phone and turned, trying to find the best angle to capture this beauty he saw. The phone couldn’t quite capture it, it couldn’t picture the air, the smell of the grass and the soft chattering of the people around him, but it did well enough. He sent the picture to Ellen. Then he turned off the music and took off the headphones. Soft silence surrounded him. People chatted on benches here and there, and some jogger’s music would be loud enough for him to pick up faint traces of it as they hopped past, but mostly, Central Park was quiet. It was late October, there were no picnics, no families with kids, only the hard-core joggers and fewer dogs than usual. Autumn had neither snow nor warmth, it was the season of depression and contemplation. Central Park lost some of its usual popularity then. Jacob walked until he had found the place he was looking for. He never really paid attention to where he was walking when he was here, which lead to an absence of a mental map to the place. He liked it that way. Like this, when, after an hour of wandering, he did find the giant rock again, it felt like he had discovered treasure island. He climbed to the highest part of the gigantic rock, the surfaced smoothed by millions of hands and feet clambering up its sides. He found a nice hollowing and sat down. Maybe it was too early, maybe it was too cold, but he had the rock almost to himself. He breathed in the icy air, felt it sting in his lungs and focused on the cold from below and the warmth from above. It was a nice contrast and Jacob looked around, watching the busy ant trails of people around him. They all had to be somewhere, go somewhere. A few were enjoying the autumn sun like he was, appreciating the morning, but most were busy, probably on their way to work. Now, where to get ice cream in late October? He could forget Central Park, all that he would find in here were hot dog stands. But he knew a milk bar only a few blocks from here which sold soft ice. He’d go there and see whether they still sold in the winter. Almost winter. Jacob slowly got up, relishing the feeling of his muscles moving, his limbs tensing and stretching, pushing his weight away from the ground and up towards the sky. He looked around from his heightened position and understood what European kings had liked so much about castles on hills before he climbed down. He plugged his headphones back into his phone and turned the music back up as he made his way out of the park and through the growing stream of people that flooded the streets of midtown Manhattan. He found the milk bar soon enough and spotted the soft ice machine alive and well. Awesome. Over years of dealing with his panic towards people, Jacob had become an expert in avoiding them. He knew the psychology behind shop layouts and where signs were printed, he knew how to walk through a store to avoid raising the attention of clerks. He had the money prepared before he even entered the shop and knew which flavour he wanted before he got in line behind the woman with the blond pinned up hair ordering a coffee. When the girl behind the counter asked him what he wanted, he pulled out his well-rehearsed smile and ordered without a single quiver in his voice betraying his racing heart. He almost fooled himself, thinking that this wasn’t too bad, until he stepped out of the shop and his heart was racing and relief flooded his conscience. Yeah, no, this wasn’t fine. He never wanted to do that again. Or, to be more realistic, at least for another hour. He walked back to Central Park which had filled a little and found an empty bench, turning the camera of the phone to take a photo of him with the ice cream. He twisted his lips into a smile and dropped it as soon as the picture was taken. He sent the picture to Ellen and got a thumbs up as a response. When he looked up, there was a kid staring at him, clutching a leash to a golden retriever that was way more interested in the dead leaves than anything else. Jacob felt his heartbeat spike. He knew that this was his chance, at least the most convenient one that would come by. So he smiled. “Hey. Can I help you?” The kid eyed him suspiciously.

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“You’re not supposed to photograph your food. Mom says that’s stupid.” If it hadn’t been for the nervousness choking him, Jacob would have chuckled. Jesus fucking Christ, this was a bloody kid! No reason the be as terrified as he was! “Your mom is right. Where is she anyway?” The boy seemed a little young to wander around Central Park, let alone New York alone, even if they were in Manhattan. “She’s with a friend in the café over there,” the boy said and pointed in some random direction. Jacob knew of no café there, but as long as the kid was sure, what did he care. “So, if you think it’s stupid, why’d you do it?” “I have a friend who wanted proof that I’d found ice cream. She didn’t believe I could find any this time of the year,” Jacob lied. He was good at lying, bending the truth just enough so that nobody would think twice, nobody would care, and nobody would worry. “Oh, okay. But that’s shitty ice cream you got there.” Jacob looked at the almost empty cone in his hand. He agreed, he hated soft ice. “Yeah, you’re right, but it’s the only one I found. Unless you know any better place, that is?” The kid grinned. “I actually do. I know a place where they give you really big scoops for two dollars.” Jacob grinned. He could tell where this was going. And that was both panic inducing, as this conversation would have to continue and good, because he’d get his last picture. “Tell you what: You show me where that place is and you get two scoops in return for your help.” The kid smiled as if it hadn’t thought that plan up all along and nodded. “Sure sir, follow me. Just don’t tell mom about it, she doesn’t want me to talk to strangers.” Jacob got up and threw the last of the soft ice away. The retriever happily trotted next to the kid, sniffing and snapping at leaves every now and then. “And you shouldn’t. There’s some sick people out there. Wouldn’t want you to get hurt.” The kid looked up at him defiantly. “I can take care of myself, sir, I’m eleven already. And I’ve got Reina with me, so I’m double safe.” Jacob nodded and pretended to smile. “Sure, if you say so. What’s your name by the way?” “I’m Alex. Alex Anderson. And you?” “I’m Jacob Fireman, nice to meet you.” The kids eyes lit up and a bright smile spread over his face. “You’re a fireman? That’s so awesome!” “Sorry to disappoint. It’s just my name. Thought Fireman would be so much cooler than what I actually do.” The smile fell and Jacob felt the familiar panic that came with having disappointed someone yet again. Reason #15 why he didn’t talk to people. He disappointed a lot. “What do you do?” “I do the makeup for the dancers and ballerinas in the New York City Ballet.” The kid made a face. “Yuck, that’s gay. Ballet is stupid girls stuff.” Jacob sighed inwardly and resigned. He knew this reaction well enough, and he knew there was nothing to be done about it. “Yeah, I guess you could say that. I don’t work there right now though. I’m trying to find a new job until the next round of performances start. But what do you want to work as, Alex?” There, the smile was back. Kids loved talking about themselves, their dreams, especially to strangers when nobody listening, when they didn’t have to be sensible or realistic. Jacob knew how to make people talk, and talk Alex did. On and on about Firefighters and all the things he knew about them and how he was already training to be one. How he would drop out of school as soon as he could to

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become one, and how many people and cats he would save. Jacob “wow”ed and “really”ed when it was expected and nodded and grinned and laughed when appropriate. By the time they had arrived at a café that indeed still sold ice cream, he knew more about firefighters than he ever thought he would. Alex tied up Reina outside the shop and they got in. “Here, get yourself your scoops. Anything you can recommend?” Jacob asked and handed Alex a five dollar note. He already knew what he would take, but what the hell, today was weird, maybe he’d even listen. “The nut ones are really good, and the chocolate is awesome.” Jacob nodded and pretended to think while Alex ordered. He didn’t like chocolate, definitely not the ice cream and not most of the crap they sold around Christmas. He ordered hazelnut and paid for his scoop before following Alex out to Reina. His gut twisted into a thousand knots. He had about three seconds to ask before he’d be too late, and the question would become awkward. To hell with it. “Hey, want to take a picture with me for my friend? Proof I actually found some proper ice cream. If you’re on it, she’ll believe me that you found it.” The kid shrugged, not hearing his racing heart, as if it was nothing. “No problem.” Jacob quickly took a million pictures, hoping one would be sharp and then grinned at the kid, his teeth grinding together. “Thanks, you saved me. Want me to walk you back to the park?” Alex shook his head, untying Reina. “No thanks, I’ll find it. It was nice meeting you Mr. Fireman and thanks for the ice cream.” Jacob smiled and waved, the kid turned and left, and Jacob steadied himself against the wall of the café. His heart was beating in his throat and his breath was much shallower than he could sustain. The sight of the ice cream turned his stomach and he felt nauseous, so he threw it into the next bin. There was an Abercrombie & Fitch nearby, so he tried to walk as steadly and inconspicuously as he could muster until he found the changing rooms. To his luck, one was free, and he grabbed a random shirt and barged in, pulling the wannabe door closed behind him and sliding in the lock. He slid onto the bench and buried his nails through his jeans into the flesh of his legs. Why did this always hit him so much afterwards? It was always the same, either beforehand if he had more than two seconds to think about and plan the upcoming conversation, or afterwards if it caught him by surprise. It was always this, the panic, the shallow breath, the racing heart. He hated it. But hey, he was done. Ellen had to go to the meeting tonight. For today, he had won. To focus his mind on something else, he pulled out his phones, and scrolled through the 19 pictures he had taken. He deleted all but one and sent it to Ellen. There, fucking done. You have to go tonight. [13:48, You] How was the ice cream? XD [13:51, Ellen] Soft ice was shit, the other one was good, what I ate of it. I think I might become sick, cold or something. [13:52, You] Hey, you okay? You sound weird [13:52, Ellen] No, I’m having a mild panic attack in a changing room in fucking Abercrombie and fitch. But yeah, I think I’m okay otherwise. You have to go to the meeting tonight, you promised. [13:54, You] Want me to come get you? Don’t worry, I’m going, I’m not going to let you go so easily, not after you cleaned out my whole cupboard! [13:54, Ellen] No, don’t worry, I’m fine. Good to know. [13:55, You]

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At that moment, his phone started playing the theme of the Kraken by Hans Zimmer and his display alerted him that Ellen was calling him. For a second he just stared at the picture of her that was smiling at him, taken on one of her better days. Then he tapped the “accept” field and lifted the phone to his ear. “I hereby delete the phrase “I’m fine” from your vocab, as well as any similes for that shit. You okay, Jacob?” Jacob smiled and leaned back against the wall of the cabin. “You don’t have to worry, it was just the usual. Just a kid, nothing to get hyped up about. It’s already getting better,” he tried to reassure her, keeping his voice down. Not the whole Abercrombie & Fitch had to know what was wrong with him. “Can I still pick you up? I didn’t have lunch yet, we could go together.” She felt bad for his situation, now that was new. Usually she just laughed about how worked up he got over something as simple as talking to strangers. “I don’t think I’ll be able to eat anything. I feel sick.” “Uh-uh, no arguing. You’re in the fitch south of Central Park right? I’ll come and get you. Be there in an hour or so. Pick a nice shirt, will ya.” And with that, she hung up before he could argue. He started at the now black screen, wondering whether he should feel angry of thankful. He eventually decided on thankful as angry wasn’t going to help his situation and got up to leave the cabin. He took the random shirt back to the rack and followed Ellen’s suggestion, browsing through the collection, just to pass the time. Maybe trying to eat something wasn’t an all bad idea, he hadn’t eaten anything all day, which might be a factor in the nausea in his gut right now. He focused on breathing instead of the clothes and before he knew it, Ellen called him again. “I’m there, hop out now so I don’t get towed.” Jacob was glad to set his body into motion again and exited the store, finding Ellen’s red Honda without trouble. “I see you,” he just answered and then hung up, knocking at her passenger window a few seconds later. She let him in and with a groan he dropped into the seat. He pulled the door closed reflexively and then just sat there for a second, eyes closed, before he flung them open and his body back into action, putting on the seatbelt and shooting her a smile. “I didn’t mean to worry you, it was nothing I can’t handle. You didn’t have to come.” Ellen shrugged and threaded them back into New York traffic. “Even if, I don’t mind. It was a good reason to get out of the house. Chinese?” “Sure, whatever. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat anything, though.” She shot him a concerned glance before concentrating back on the traffic. “You said it was getting better.” “Yeah, it is. I don’t feel like I’m going to hurl anymore, just like food is the most disgusting thing invented,” he murmured, his voice harsh with dry sarcasm. He sighed and let his head fall heavily against the seat. “Sorry, I’m being an ass. Chinese is good. Might try some spring rolls.” Ellen smiled and took a left turn. “Good. If you want, I can drive you to your friends place later on. When did you say you’d meet?” “Five. She lives in Manhattan though, so traffic will be hell. I think I’ll just got with the subway, you need to get to your meeting, don’t want you to be late.” Ellen smiled nervously and nodded. “Sure. But now, just so you don’t think I’m getting the easy end of this deal. Today, I sorted in all the clothes you washed, thanks for that by the way, I had an omelette for breakfast, then I went walking on the treadmill in that place I have this subscription for, just because they don’t allow any drinks there and I was going mad. I was there until you wrote, and now I’m here. Didn’t drink a drop and feel like a pack of wolves is mauling me. I have no fucking clue how I’m driving straight, I feel like I should’ve crashed at least a dozen times with you alone.” Jacob grinned. “Yeah, how do you even still have your license?” Ellen nodded and stared at the car ahead.

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“I know, right?! That alone is a borderline miracle. I don’t fucking know how I’m driving, how this car is still going, how I haven’t had a drink yet, any of this!” “And yet, you’re doing it somehow. Really proud of you. I mean, I have to deal with this two or three times a day, not twenty-four seven.” “Yeah, you can shove your pride up your ass, ain’t gonna help me once this really kicks in,” Ellen muttered while pulling up to the red light ahead. She sighed and let her head fall onto her hands for a moment before looking back at the traffic. “Sorry Jake. I didn’t mean that.” Jacob smiled and tried to brush the sting of the words away. “Don’t worry. I think we’ll be saying that a lot over the next three weeks. Let’s just agree not to take incoming insults too serious. You’ll be going through hell, and if any of that reflects on your tasks, so might I.” “Yep, that’s good. I hate saying sorry so often.” Jacob smiled, and he knew Ellen could see it out of the corner of her eye. “Thanks for picking me up by the way. I appreciate it. Wouldn’t have needed it, nevertheless appreciate it.” Ellen grinned, then turned up the music. She looked over to him, checking if he minded, but Jacob had closed his eyes and was doing his best to relax his body, convincing it that the danger had passed and he was back to safety once more. They ate in relative silence, Jacob watching Ellen dig into a plate of noodles and duck in slowly lessening disgust, managing to coax his stomach into accepting three out of the five spring rolls. Ellen hungrily eyed the other two and Jacob pushed them over to her and got up to pay. “I thank you for your gratitude my dear friend. It shall reflect in tomorrow’s challenge.” Jacob grinned and got back into the car, Ellen falling into the drivers seat beside him. “Well, if I had known you were so easy to bribe…” He let the thought trail of. Ellen grinned maliciously and started the motor, pulling out of the parking lot after he had entered Sonja’s address into google maps on her phone. “Oh, don’t you celebrate too early. Only the challenge. You still have to talk to one person and get them to take a pic with you.” Jacob groaned and dramatically let his head fall onto the dashboard. “Don’t even remind me.” “Giving up?” “Hell no. You prepare for three weeks of self-pity and self-help, I can pull this through, don’t get your hopes up.” Ellen chuckled. “That, I want to see.” Traffic in Manhattan was the usual hell, but somehow, they ended up in front of Sonja’s apartment alive and in one piece. The sky was already darkening, trying to hide the decline of sunlight as a thickening of the ever-present cloud blanket that covered the sky. Jacob mustered the sidewalk they had pulled up against and couldn’t quite bring himself to leave the warmth of Ellen’s car. It had something surreal to meet Sonja after haggling with the mundanity of everyday life again. “You nervous?” He glanced over at Ellen who was looking at him with worry. For a second the thought to just stay here and spend the evening with her flashed through his mind, but he shook it off quickly. There were too many questions he had to ask Sonja to not go. “I’m fi…” Ellen’s deathglare dried up the words in his throat and he swallowed them before they caught fire. “Okay, yeah, nervous as fuck.” Ellen looked past him and pointed out of his window. “That her?” Jacob looked in the direction she pointed, and indeed, Sonja was just coming out of the building, pulling the door closed behind her. She was wearing a long sweeping mantle which was open in front to reveal a short black dress and black leggings, together with red boots. She spotted Jacob and smiled, lifting her hand in greeting.

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“Jap, that’s her. I’m off. See you later.” He climbed out of the car before he could witness Ellen’s judgement. He waved her goodbye through the windshield, then he turned to Sonja. “Hey. Sorry I’m late, traffic up here is hell.” Sonja smiled and looked after Ellen who was blinking to turn right and vanish out of view. “Yeah it is. And you’re just in time. I wanted to cook but I’m missing some stuff. Would you mind joining me? It is only just around the corner.” Jacob shrugged, and they started walking. Around the corner was a generous way to put five blocks and by the time they had reached a grocery store, Jacob began to feel every step he had taken throughout the day. “I’ll wait here for you, okay?” He pulled out his pack and lit a cigarette, drawing in the smoke. He held it his lungs until Sonja had smiled and nodded and disappeared behind the shelves. It was a relief to be smoking the first time today and the familiar ritual calmed the rest of his nerves. The usual taste started settling in the back of his throat and he drew another breath. Sure, he knew he was killing himself a little more with every breath he took, but he couldn’t have cared less. He was off script, far away from any sort of plan, and his concept of self-care had gone with it. He had tried quitting before, having brought it down to a cigarette every day or two, but he abandoned those efforts over the benefits the nicotine had. It calmed him, brought him back down to the ground he was standing on and cleared his head almost like music did. And he had the feeling he’d need that a lot over the next three weeks. Today alone had been harrowing enough, he didn’t even want to think about tomorrow, let alone the upcoming week, when Ellen would grow more and more desperate to make him abandon his side of the bet. He would also have to spend more time with her soon, make sure she kept up her part because no amount of pride could hold against the craving to stop the pain that would soon grow from her very bones. “Hey, are you okay? You look worried,” Sonja’s voice tore him out of his thoughts. He drew the last breath from the cigarette and snuffed it out on the ground. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m worrying about a friend, she’s dealing with some hard stuff right now and I’m not sure if I can help her through it.” His worry mirrored on her face and in her voice as they started walking back. “Okay. Want to tell me about it? Maybe I can help.” Jacob fidgeted with the amulet in his pocket as they walked over a green traffic light. He didn’t want to spread word of Ellen’s misery, nor did he really want to tell her about the reasons he could hold her to their challenge, but then again, Sonja didn’t know Ellen or anyone in her social circle, and whatever she might do to help, it couldn’t do worse than not work. “I don’t know if you could, but I’ll take whatever I can get. Her name’s Ellen, she’s my neighbour. She’s… She’s been drinking too much. We have a deal, and she’s trying to stop, but there’s no way she’ll stick to it. I can stay home with her, the ballet won’t need me anytime soon, but I do need to find some side job, and I don’t want to leave her alone.” He shut himself up before he could continue, he didn’t want to spill any of Ellen’s personal details. But Sonja didn’t notice his sudden silence. She looked up at the sky and he could see her thoughts racing like the clouds above. “Alcoholic, I see. What kind is she?” “I don’t really know, it changes a lot. One moment she’ll be all cuddly, then she’ll decide to make a thanksgiving turkey in the middle of the night and next think I know chairs a flying to my head when I tell her no. But that’s just when she’s really out of it. Usually she’ll either try to get me to do the craziest shit with her or I’ll find her passed out somewhere around the house.” Sonja nodded, sunk deep into thoughts and Jacob followed her down that path as they walked on in silence. He fell in step behind her, his gaze caught by the lulling swing of her hips. The heeled boots accentuated the movement and the soft sway of the mantle drew it out in elegant black curves. When they finally did reach her apartment building he tore his eyes away and set it on the million little chips on the staircase. He cursed his brain as his view tripped over the graceful gesture of her fingers as her hand hovered over the railing while walking, feeling the little clippings and dents in the wood. His hand moved to do the same and the contact with the wood she had only brushed seconds before sent a thrill through his arm. He tore his hand away and his gaze down towards the floor. This kind of shit had been okay when he would see her once per week for fifteen minutes maximum, when she had been a far off object that his mind would wander to whenever he couldn’t see past the suffocating grey sky above. It was inacceptable now that she was here, this close to

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him. She was a person, no longer the little tin dancer he would wind up to metal music. She was flesh and blood and a heartbeat and as such he would treat her. He raised his gaze to her head. Her eyes that scanned her keys to find the ones to her apartment. Jacob jogged up the last couple of stairs and took the shopping bags from her hand so that she could find the key easier. Her eyes fluttered up to his and she sent him a smile the colour of gratitude. Her lips were red, almost the same as the Black Swan’s red. There wasn’t much he could do as his mind yelled at him his promise he had given himself mere heartbeats ago, his eyes meanwhile bolted to that deep deep red on her beautiful lips. She bit on her lower lip as she concentrated to fit the key into the door in the dark, her brilliant teeth of pearl softly sinking into the delicate tissue of her lips. The thought what it would feel like to touch those lips flashed across his mind and Jacob did his best to hide his face and the most likely visible redness as he pulled off his shoes and darted for the kitchen to drop off the bags. “Thanks for that,” Sonja smiled. She was peeling herself out from her mantle, revealing the rest of the shoulderfree black dress that clung to her shape. She sighed and Jacob was mezmerized by the movement of her skin over her slender collar bones. She bent over to untie her boots, the hight of the heels stretching her bodies in a fashion similar to what her en pointe shoes would do, curving her back in the fall of the white swan. He watched her shoulder blades play with the light, his hand clad around the plastic handle of the bags, his body frozen on the spot, unable to move for the next millennium. When he blinked the next time he amassed the whole power of his will to keep his eyes closed and he slowly, mechanically got his hand to release the bag, one finger after another. He tore his eyes open again when he heard movement. Sonja was too coming towards the kitchen. Right, she wanted to cook. Soft worry creased her brow and she searched for its cause in his face. “Are you alright? I’m sorry, the walk is quite long.” Jacob chuckled and moved every muscle consciously as he strolled out of the kitchen and let himself drop on the couch. “Na, don’t worry. I walk a lot around New York, a few blocks are nothing. I just was up all day, so it wasn’t my first walk, and the sudden change from cold to warm always irritates my eyes,” he lied with a comforting smile. Her worry melted away and she started packing away her groceries. “Ah okay. Would you want to drink something? I’ve got some whine and some whiskey from some guy who forgot it here at some point.” “No, thanks. I try not to drink if I can avoid it,” he explained, hoping she wouldn’t take offense on the refused hospitality. “Oh, I did not know that,” she said, less worried and more like a child that had just discovered an enticing new secret. “Would you want anything else there? I have got some coke here, water and tea.” “Coke would be nice later, but I think I’ll have another tea first. I’m usually a coffee person but the tea you’ve got is amazing.” As soon as she had received a definitive word, Sonja melted into movement, her arms working on their own accord as her head snapped around to him every now and then with a continuos smile to continue the conversation. “A tea to warm up first seems like a good idea, I think I will join you on that one. Would you mind if I opened the wine later on though? I will not drink a lot, I am too much of a lightweight for that, but I quite enjoy the taste.” “Sure, I don’t mind. Your house, your rules.” Sonja giggled and took out a wine glass from one of the cupboards after turning on the water cooker. She uncorked a bottle and poured the blood red liquid into the bowels of the glass. Jacob wasn’t sure whether it was the tiredness creeping up on him or just the way the light caught the wine, but he was mezmerised by the way the liquid fell into the glass, the splashing of colour and the way her light skin contrasted with the dark red, her nail polish almost the same colour as the wine inside. She put down the glass down beside her and turned her attention to the now cooking water. Once again Jacob forced his eyes closed and looked down at his own hands, trying to remember where that scar was he had once had. He tried to convince his mind that finding the thin silve line was of utmost importance, too important to look up again, too important to notice how the light caught in her golden hair, too important to see how her dark eyes captured all light around them like dark deep wells. He eventually found it next to the base of his thumb, where it had always been.

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He looked back up as Sonja put down two mugs and her wine glass on the couch table, as well as a second glass and a coke bottle next to the table. “So, anything you wanted to watch?” Jacob shrugged to hide his fretting mind. He hadn’t wasted a thought on this! “No, didn’t really think about it, sorry,” he apologized. Sonja smiled and sprung up from the couch, heading over to the low table where the TV stood. “No need to worry. Do you know Limitless?” He shook his head no and she turned back to the TV, feeding the player below it a disk. “Awesome, then I get to show it to you.” She hopped back onto the couch, curling up beside him, tucking her legs under herself and reaching for the remote on the table. Jacob reached for his cup and tried to immerse himself in the show, something that was very hard to do with Sonja beside him. He tried his hardest to concentrate on Brian Finch’s narration, but he was constantly aware of her beside him, her breathing, the way her lips softly parted when Finch was in danger or the way they molded into the mug whenever she took a sip from her tea. After the first episode was over he jumped up. “I’ll be back in a second, I’ll be on the roof. You don’t have to wait for me, I’m sure I’ll get it.” He slipped into his shoes and didn’t even bother putting his jacket on before he slipped out of the apartment. It was bliss to finally release some of his nervous tension by jogging up the flights of stairs to the roof and the wind up there tore his breath away. It took him a few tries to light a cigarette and by the time he inhaled his first breath, the door opened again and Sonja followed him through the door. She leaned against the railing beside him and they both looked into the fading light of the day. “Sorry, I completely forgot you smoke. Thanks for going up here though.” Jacob was glad for the good meter distance she had put between them, the space helping him to clear his head. “Sure, no problem, really. I try to quit, but it’s not the right time. My life’s running havok right now, not the best environment to put down something that calms me.” Sonja chuckled und tilted her head towards the sky, the strain on her throat changing the pitch of her voice. “Yes, indeed.” Jacob was thankful she didn’t ask any further questions. She already knew way too much for the short time he knew her. The harsh buzzing of his phone interrupted the silence and Jacob supressed a sigh. It was probably Ellen, even though he hoped it wouldn’t be. He unlocked the screen and winced when he saw the first line of the message and who had sent it. “Yeah, no,” he murmured quietly and put the phone away without opening the message. Sonja looked at him full of curiosity. “A friend back from Texas,” Jacob explained, even though she hadn’t really asked. “He writes me once a monthand I don’t have the faintest idea why. He hated me.” He heard the bitter tone in his voice and decided not to elaborate any further, taking another breath of smoke into his lungs. Hopefully, she wouldn’t ask, he really didn’t feel like talking about Robin. “Why would someone hate you?” Sonja asked carefully. Okay, so they would be talking about Robin. “I just made his life a lot harder. He was my friend out of pity up until I left, was nice to me and all, but he was glad not to have to pretend to like me anymore for my sake. Haven’t spoken to him in years by now.” Sonja nodded and continued to watch the dimming light of the sky. Jacob took another pull from his cigarette, letting the breathing light of the simmer burn away the pictures of Robin in his mind. He no longer needed his help, not for a long time now. He wasn’t going to turn back, he wouldn’t make himself that voulnerable again. He had always believed that Robin had his back, only to find that it was actually bare when he needed it the most. He could watch his own back now, he was used to turning around with every breath he took. Jacob looked over at Sonja who had closed her eyes against the cold. He saw one of her arteries pulsing with her heartbeat and watched her chest rise, her collarbones grow defined and undefined with every breath. Wasn’t that exactly what he was doing here? Letting down his guard? He was showing her the mark where the lime leaf had left him voulnerable? He could feel the hope rising, growing within him, nutured by every second in which she just stood there, letting him be with her just like that. It was foolish, of course it was, human interaction was a business, he’d have to pay for his pleasure sooner or later, and later would just mean a higher price. He wondered what it would be this time, now that he had so little left. There was little self confidence she could shatter, no relationships to destroy,

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no more fears to exploit. There had been two days ago, and now that he was drifting through time, untethered from himself, even that was gone. In a way, he was curios what she would take, what else he had to loose. And deep down, in depths of his heart he had long forgotten were there, a little hope whispered that she might just take nothing. That he might already be enough, that she was content just like this, him beside her and her face kissed by the fading light of day. Jacob pretended not to hear his heart and took the last breath from the cigarette. “Sonja, why am I here?” The question slipped out with the last of the smoke and dusk turned its heels, curious about the soft colours the words were dressed in, cold steel blues that showed little of the voulnerable flesh beneath. Jacob looked up and his steady gaze met her curious eyes. He noticed how light her eyes were now, almost brown in the fading light. His heart didn’t beat and he looked on steadily, his lungs working mechanically to keep him standing. “I mean, you don’t even know me. We spoke what, five words before this? Why the hell am I here?” Stunned, Sonja kept staring at him, her eyes growing darker with the day. Then she pinned a quivering unsure smile to her lips and she turned toward him, a relaxed open stance. Normal human interaction. Nothing of the realness that had been there a heartbeat ago. Just a reassuring warm smile. “So that we can have dinner together. I would like to cook for you, and you wanted to tell me about your friend so I could see whether I can help you two.” She said it like it was obvious. Like she was explaining the most obvious thing in the world. Of course it’s growing dark dummy. Day is over. It’s night now. Duh. Jacob nodded, deciding not to follow up on the strange feeling in his chest. “Want to go back down? You finished smoking and it is getting a little chilly, is it not?” Jacob nodded again, his head bobbing on the hinge of his spine with a mechanical spring. He followed her inside, leaving the stump of his cigarette in the ashtray by the door. The walls locked the wind out and they decended back into the safe little cavern of manmade walls. They left the sky and even in the colourful cave of Sonja’s home, Jacob felt as if he couldn’t quite breathe as deeply and see as clearly as he had been able to up above. They sat back down on the couch and started at the black screensaver of the TV, following the logo of the company that had made it bump against the border of the screen. They sat in silence and neither of them moved to turn the show back on. “Honest, I don’t know either, Jacob. I mean, I like you, it’s really nice having someone around that isn’t obsessed with dancing, or weight, or ass or boobs. It’s nice. And I think, I kind of hope you can help me with my ritual. I had a little epiphany about it the last time you were here, I guess I just hoped it would happen again like that.” Her eyes shot over to him, just a lightning flash glance, just trying to see if he was hurt or offended. “I am really happy you are here though, this is much nicer than I would have thought it to be,” she tried to continue, but Jacob understood what she meant. It was nice to just sit around together and watch TV like this, but her mind was elsewhere. Well, at least he wasn’t alone. He poured himself a glass of coke and leaned back, turning to her. “Okay, so how about I help you with your little cult thingy, and you see what you can do to help me with Ellen.” The worry about whether she had offeneded him lifted like a cloud from her brow and she smiled, this time a real smile. Jacob marvelled at how easily her expressions could change like that. Whenever he had worry like that engraved into his face, it stayed there for hours, if not days. He wondered if her heart changed just as quickly, if her mind had forgotten the undertone of her words and was now bustling ahead, working on ways to hold up her end of the deal. Probably. It was just his brain that was so sick, that could get stuck on one thought for a week, that wouldn’t move past a mistake for a month, that wouldn’t let go of a phrase of hastily said words for years. It was just his brain that screamed at him in silence and tore him down whenever he was alone, that ate him alive for slipups his tongue had undergone ages ago. Jacob mimicked her smile, pulled his cheeks up just the right way so that the skin around his eyes would crinkle and the smile would look real. Sonja jumped up and disappeared in the little hallway, rifling through one of the shelfs. Jacob let the smile fall immediately, catching it in his hands before it could shatter on the floor and draw her back with the noise. He took up the glass and prepared to drink when she came back around the corner, giving him a few seconds to judge her mood and adapt to it. She came back, he drank and was relieved to find that she was no longer smiling. The carbon dioxide sizzled in his stomach. He was good at faking smiles, but he didn’t like it. It hurt his face muscles too much, moving them consciously putting too much tension on them.

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But Sonja wasn’t smiling, she was flipping through a book that would have been more accurately described as a tome. Never in his life had Jacob seen such a thick book. There were bookmarks, notes, dried leaves and feathers of all colours sticking out at all sides and the pages looked like they would crumble to dust at a touch too rough. But the look obviously deceived as Sonja was flipping through them a handful at a time, her fingers sliding over the rough pages, drawing sharp sounds from them. Jacob listened and watched until she slowed down and eventually stopped, her eyes skitting over the page. Jacob took his glass back up, ready to put it to his lips. “There, here is the part I do not understand. It says that I need to save a soul if the ritual is to take effect. ‘To rescue a soul from its hell and breathe into it a new hue of life.’ I have done the first part, I know it is you, you are my soul, but…” her voice trailed away as she looked up, a mixture of confusion and pity in her eyes. “I do not know. You are not what I expected. You are not lost, you are not hurt, you are not dying. You are fine.” Jacob let out a dry laugh. Right, he was fine. He wasn’t sick and wrong and twisted. He was fine. Joke of the week. Sonja looked up, her eyes locking him in place. Well shit. He raised the glas and hid behind it as he explained as little as he could. “I don’t think you know me well enough to judge that,” he phrased it carefully. Sonja nodded slowly, understanding so much more than he’d have liked. “Okay. Good that I am getting to know you then.” Jacob smiled, a gesture full of uncertainty. He wasn’t sure there was anything good about that. The only person that knew him and still talked to him was an alcoholic. Not sure where the connection was there. Sonja seemed to notice his reluctance and moved to turn the show back on. “So, your friend. You said you did not know how to help her,” she started and Jacob couldn’t quite tell whether he was relieved about the change of topics or uncomfortable at the prospect of talking about Ellen. He decided to ignore it and focus. “Yeah, kind of. I found her knocked out in our elevator when I came back home yesterday. I… I don’t know, it’s been like this for as long as I know her. I used to worry a lot more, help her, get mad when it made no difference. I guess I just stopped caring after some time.” He’d stopped caring about pretty much everything at that time. “Yesterday I guess I had this epiphany. Yesterday was fucking weird, so I thought, sure why not. I took her to my place and cleaned up her apartment while she slept it out. We had dinner together and I asked her to some AA meetings. They’re held nearby, I thought she should give it at least another shot. So now we have this kind of bet going. She gives me a challenge per day, and she has to go to the AA meetings as often as they’re held. As soon as one of us fails, the other is free to stop.” He sighed and combed his hand through his hair, trying to make more of the air than he could, trying to get it to form words. “It’s a cute idea, there’s just no way she’ll last. It’ll be a miracle if she makes the week.” Sonja nodded and stared down at her book. Jacob took up his glass again and watched her while he took tiny sips as not to deplete his supply of cover. “I am sure there’s something I can do, I just have to do some research to figure out exactly what. Have you thought about bringing her to a doctor?” Jacob sighed. Yeah, that discussion. He’d had it with Ellen a good billion times, always with the same result. “Every time I bring that up, she says she doesn’t need a shrink or any chemicals messing with her mind and that she hates me.” She generally said that a lot. The last two days had been a nice exception to that. Sonja nodded thoughtfully and for a second or so, his worries about Ellen or anything else were dispersed by the way her teeth of pearl sunk into the velvet of her lip, the way her eyes looked up and her golden hair caught the light. It was unearthly how a human being could become a composition, a masterwork of art for a breath, a second, before she looked over at the quieted show and the aesthetic was gone. If he hadn’t seen her chest rise and sink with the soft tide of her breath, he would have thought it to be unnatural even. But he remembered her dancing and was as sure as the earth turned that only mother nature itself could create such perfection.

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He inspected the curvature of her lips. What was so different about the way her upper lip rested on her lower, what so unique about the way her mouth curved that made it so different? What about her lips had caused this level of focus in him? He got his answer when she turned and her lips bloomed into a smile. Jacob tore his eyes away and did his best not to flush bright red. “Want to continue watching?” he pressed out and fixed his gaze on the TV. Sonja chuckled quietly and set the episode back to the beginning and turned the volume back on. She ignored how much effort he put into not looking at her and relaxed into the couch, taking her wine glass back up. She pulled her knees to her chest and curled up like a cat, following the dialogue with ease where Jacob couldn’t catch a word. His mind was racing and his muscles twitched with the impulse to bolt. There was nobody to stop him, but he knew very well that his brain would never let it go if he upset Sonja. So he stayed where he was, hid behind his coke and tried to focus, on the show, on relaxing his muscles, anything really, anything that would stop him from noticing the small part in her lips through which the wine trickled into her mouth, or the soft lipstick stain that was left on the glass. He was rescued when her wineglass was empty and Sonja got up to refill it. Jacob sighed soundlessly and his chest relaxed. He let his head sink into the cushion behind him and closed his eyes against the light of the TV. He didn’t hear Sonja step up behind him, didn’t hear her lips move or her hands gesture. He did not notice as he fell asleep.

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The witch moved quickly. She blew out what candles were there and stopped the show. The blinds were closed and even the one clock that leaned into the shelf was stopped. Nothing would tell him that time had passed when he awoke. She allowed herself a moment to muster his face. She looked at his face, at his closed eyes. Maybe she saw the deep markings of exhaustion. She hadn’t planned for this, but his reluctance to open up had forced her hand. She needed to know what she needed to fix. Otherwise all of this would have been for nothing. The witch took a deep breath. Then she kissed him. Note from a Witche’s Guidebook: To see a Soul: Bedew thy lips with the blood of a black bird. Let it dry. Grant the vessel a kiss. Do make sure it is unaware of thy intentions. Listen and watch. Do not probe. After a heartbeat or two of her lips lingering on his, the witch moved back and sorted her thoughts. She was glad she wouldn’t have to deal with any of this for long. She formulated a plan as she restarted the clock. She knew the things she’d need to prepare as she pressed the button to continue the show. She smiled as she touched the top of the sad mans spine and he opened his eyes, unaware of the minutes that had passed. She went to refill her wine glass.

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Williamsburg Bridge Jacob couldn’t help but notice the relief that flooded him as he stepped out of Sonja’s house. He liked her, he was pretty sure about that, but something about tonight had been wrong. It had been okay up on the roof, with only the stars bearing witness to his open heart, but as soon as the walls locked them in, as soon as there was no escape, no air to breathe, he had cramped up until her pulse was all he could see. He wondered how he’d explain to Ellen why he was home already as he hailed a taxi. He dropped his hand when he couldn’t think of anything and started walking. His hands moved on their own, the gestures so deeply etched into his flesh the scars did their own work. He only noticed what he’d done when the music started and became louder. He turned up the volume as far as he dared and then one tic further. Anything to drown right now. He kept away from bigger streets, only crossing them when he changed blocks. He didn’t care that this would take longer, it was only another way to avoid Ellens questions. The longer he walked, the more it would look like he’d spent a normal evening. He thought back to how Sonja had waved him goodbye as he trotted down the stairs and his inside curled up. God, he had done everything wrong tonight. Why couldn’t he make small talk like any other person? Why the fuck was he so freaking afraid? He hugged himself as he waited, hoping to keep the thoughts from tearing him to shreds like that. He didn’t look up as he crossed the street, not really. He’d stopped doing that years ago. Sure, he followed the motions, raised his head and turned it a little to look at the street, but he didn’t register the movement of the lights ahead. He just walked, subjugating himself to his subconsciece, walking when he felt like it, giving in to adrenaline fuelled impulses to jog as they came. He noticed faintly the odd rhythm of light on his face and heard the engines roar around him, but the music overpowered everything. He walked to its beat and his heart adapted. But tonight his thoughts were not as tired as his body. They hummed around and swam as the music drowed them, scratching his mind above and tore it apart. Why was Sonja so interested in helping him? Why did she think she could help him? What with even? And why the fuck did she even talk to him? And why did he feel like he was falling with every step he took away from her house? Eventually it came down to the same thought as it always did. What would this cost him? People didn’t hang around each other for the fun of it. Every look, every word, every kind gesture cost them something, time at least, and they wanted something back. He wondered what Sonja wanted. And what it would cost him to give. Just as that thought had crossed the stage of his mind, that same voice as before whispered in the depths of his heart. Maybe she didn’t want anything. Bullshit. Jacob scoffed at his own naivety and weaved through the slow river of people as he walked along a larger street. Why the hell were his thoughts so loud anyway? Why couldn’t he get a clear head? He hadn’t been able to think a single string of thoughts in there and it hadn’t gotten better since. What the fuck had she done to his head? Jacob sighed. There was no point trying to shift the blame. Not that he had the right to anyway. He knew very well that it was his own brain just cooking in his skull, he was long past trying to rationalize that away. He changed the angle of his route so he’d hit the river sooner. Whenever music didn’t work, he needed the sky to think, to calm down and find back down to earth. The towering buildings loomig over his head left little sky for him, so he made his way to the river where he’d be able to breathe again. He hit the river a few blocks above his bridge and walked the East River Promenade. Joggers passed him every now and then as well as the occasional dog owner, but mostly he was alone. There were no trees to catch his thoughts as they leaked out of his eyes and he thought he could hear the whispering of the river through the headphones, even when he knew that wasn’t possible. He slowed his step and slowed his thoughts and slowly, he calmed down. The tension that had haunted him ever since he had left Ellens car left his shoulders, and his back muscles untwined, smoothening out against his spine. He lit a cigarette, and the motion was smooth, his muscles working neatly together, not like the cramped panic before. As the first breath of smoke covered the sky, Jacob felt like he was a little human again. Sonja was behind him, he was alone again. Only the sky and the darkness and the occasional jogger.

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Alone, he stepped onto the Williamsburg Bridge. The wind found him alone and grinned the grin of someone who has spotted an opportunity. It tore into his hair and whipped it into his eyes. It dug its fingers into his jacket, refusing to let go. It did it’s best to drive him forward, towards the railing, that one spot. Jacob tried his best to not mind it, he walked on, course correcting after every blast. He ignored the wailing, ignored the whinig. Ignored the thoughts it brought up. Remember the last time we met? Not here, back in San Antonio. Remember how you cried back then? Wasn’t my fault, all yours. Remember how they looked when the pain struck them? You did that. And then alone, just like now. Because nobody sticks around someone so horrible, so toxic, so bloody demanding as you. “Shut up,” Jacob murmured, but neither his brain nor the wind really cared. The carousel went on and on until he was too dizzy to walk and fell against the railing, sliding down to the concrete, feeling like he’d have to scream to let out all those voices in his skull. He was burning up alive, spinning to fast to see. The ground seesawed beneath him and Jacob felt like he’d fall off the world any second now. Rescue came from a soft small hand on his shoulder. For just a heartbeat, Jacob allowed himself to stay down. To lean curled up against the railing of Williamsburge Bridge with a hand on his shoulder keeping him from falling out of this world. Then the voice dug its was through to him and he turned and looked. “Jacob?” Ellen. The gratitude came first, a wave of it crashing into him, pressing him to the coral floor, slicing him up. Then came the question. “What are you doing here?” God how weak his voice was. He cleared his throat and got up, somehow standing as the world slowed down around her. “Everything okay? How’re you doing?” Better. He spoke as if it wasn’t him falling apart. As if it wasn’t he who couldn’t keep his head and his heart. Ellen scoffed and scanned him for any outward signs that anything was wrong. Like usual, there were none. Madness didn’t leave any scars. “How I’m doing? You’re the one in the gutter, J. The fuck happened?!” She took his hand and started walking, pulling him along. Jacob was just fucking glad he didn’t have to cross the bridge, walk past that spot, alone. That he couldn’t stop. He was also glad for her hand that held his. It was strong and trembled only slightly from withdrawl. She was the strong one tonight. And for a moment, Jacob allowed himself to entertain that idea. Having her take care for him. Not being alone in his apartment tonight. Not asking himself that question again, generally leaving the bedroom locked. It was a nice thought. He waved as it passed. “Nothing. I’m okay.” He didn’t get much further. Ellen whirled around and before he could even blinked, the ghost of her hand burned on his cheek. Her eyes glared holes into his soul and Jacob smiled as he remembered. It hurt to smile. Didn’t make him stop though. He looked up as they walked. There was nothing above them, only the sky, and somewhere behind those drapes of grey beasts prowling across the sky, there were stars. Only the sky to witness his heart. Only the sky and Ellen. “Nothing happened though. We talked and somehow, it was super weird. I was glad when I got out of there. Isn’t that weird? I like her, she did amazing things for me, but ever second was agony.” Ellen shrugged and her steps slowed down until she fell into a calmer rhythm beside him. “Maybe it just wasn’t your night. Happens. Try meeting her on neutral ground next time so you can both leave whenever you want to.” Jacob nodded. Not his night. That made sense. Tonight hadn’t been his night. He wondered who’s it had been. Who the lucky guy was for whom every single thing had gone right tonight. He hoped it had been a meaningful night. He hoped that guy had asked for a promotion, asked a girl to marry him or bought a lottery ticket. When would his night be? Would he be alive long enough to experience it? Did everyone have their night in their lives? Or did some people never survive to that date? A kid with cancer, was their night rescheduled at the diagnose? It took a soft nudge from Ellen’s elbow and a squeeze from her hand to bring him out of his skull. She looked at him with concern. He noticed the dark shadows beneath her eyes. She didn’t sleep well. Of course she didn’t. Her body was revolting her minds decision to keep it alive. He wondered where she took the compassion from to care for him as well as for her. He was astonished at the size of her heart. He knew so many people that didn’t have one, and hers was so big. “Are you okay though?” Her voice was so quiet now. The words fell from her lips and hit his shoes. He looked down at their crooked little bodies and their soft fur of worry, their big eyes looking up at him, just like hers. You couldn’t lie to a big heart, not when it had enveloped you.

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He shrugged, suddenly small again, all his walls falling apart, him falling with them. “I don’t know really. I don’t know what do with this. I like her, I mean, at least I think so. I don’t want to fuck this up. But I also don’t want to be stuck in a room with her again. I was just so glad when I was outside and my head just wouldn’t quiet down. My brain goes haywire around her, just not in the good way.” Ellen nodded. She just nodded and listened. Didn’t interrupt as he told her about the evening. She didn’t scoff when he mentioned the ritual, or laugh when he couldn’t even remember the title of the show. She just listened. Jacob wanted to hug her right there, but he restrained himself. He knew very well how Ellen hated that sort of touch. Any touch really. God, how beautifully fucked up they were together. Two piles of shards merged through their hands. Ellen didn’t let him go until they had reached his apartment door. He turned the key in the lock and as the door swung open, she let go to turn him around to her. Again those eyes. “Want me to stay for an hour or so? I could use it for sure.” It was creepy how well Ellen knew his patterns. How well she knew he’d never ask her to stay if there wasn’t anything in it for her. “If you’ve got nothing else to do, sure.” Ellen smiled and slipped past him into his apartment. Jacob closed the door quietly behind them and shrugged out of his jacket. It was nice being back home, back in his own little epicentre of darkness. He turned on the light and blinked into the bulb just barely visible past the lampshade. “Coffee?” Ellen asked, already making her way to the kitchen. They both knew each others apartments as well as their own and were long past the point where they expected hospitality from each other. “Please,” Jacob murmured. He could almost hear his mother gasping in horror. Coffee?! At night?! What about sleep?! Yeah, what about it? He was exhausted in every sense of the word, every fibre of his body and mind aching and groaning. Yet he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep, at least not for now. He sank into the couch and let the fabric envelop him like waves crashing down on his chest, suffocating him. He closed his eyes and focused on the sound of the boiling water and the gentle giggly whisper of it hitting the coffee pot. The scraping of the spoon at the bottom of the metal box that held the coffee powder. He even heard the powder slowly sinking into the boiling water. He only opened his eyes again when he felt the couch shift under Ellen’s weight. She had brought the coffee pot and two mugs with her, placed them on the table and was now melting into the couch in the same pose he sat in. They sat together on the couch, breathing the coffee filled air, listening to their own thoughts. When the silence became too oppressing, Jacob got up and turned on soft music. He poured himself a cup and sat back down on the couch. Ellen mimicked his movements and they both stared over their mugs at the poster on the opposite wall, depicting the prima ballerina of the original swan lake premiere in New York. They didn’t speak for an hour and then some. When they did, it was Ellen who broke the silence like the thin layer of ice on a puddle. “Maybe you shouldn’t see her for a few days, you know? Figure out what it is that’s between you that freaks you out so much.” Silence settled again and strolled through the room, looking at the pictures, the two figures on the couch, out of the window, for good ten minutes before Jacob managed to find his voice. His words were softly spoken, carefully placed by a tired mind. “The fact alone that I am relieved by that idea probably means it has some merit.” He set down his cup and burrowed his face in his still warm hands. Last time his heart had been this confused, he’d left the city, cut his ties to his family and had never spoken to them again. New York was a little too big a city for that to be a viable solution this time around though. And Ellen too good of a friend. “The park was nice though. I should go more often.” Ellen smiled, a happy smile salted with the pain in her body. It took Jacob several minutes to gather up the words for the next question, plucking them from their hiding places, too scared to come out on their own. “How are you doing?” Ellen sighed into her cup and sat there, her body folded in on itself, her ribs piercing her belly, her head too heavy to be lifted ever again. For an eternity, her strength was just barely enough to expand her lungs enough to draw in air. She put aside a spark of engery with every breath, until she was able to speak a sentence, send it out onto the darkness on weak bare legs, dancing on knives, like Andersen’s mermaid just learning to walk. “I’m fine.”

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Then she cried. Ellen didn’t sob, she didn’t cry loudly at all. She screamed when she was angry, in despair, happy. Every emotion, every little move of her heart expressed itself in her voice. But she cried without a sound. She just sat there, hunched over, her face crunched together like a thrown away letter, tears rolling over her cheeks and lips and chin into her cup. Jacob moved before his body could even remind him that he was supposed to feel discomfort right now. He took her cup and put it on the table. Then she fell against his chest, curled up under his arms, her body shivering with silent sobs. Jacob removed one arm to pluck a blanket over her, then he held her tightly. “Everything just hurts. I just want a little, really, just so it won’t hurt anymore.” The words were hacked apart by a lack of air and diluted with tears until he could barely make them out as they tumbled over her lips. He softly rubbed her back. “It’s going to be okay, Ellie. I’m going to help you. It’ll be fine. It’s okay, you can’t do this alone, I’ll help you. You just need to last tonight, just until the shops open. Then I’ll get something that will make you feel better, okay? I’ve got some weak stuff so you can sleep. Take some more, and I’ll be back before you wake up. I’ll make us nice breakfast, I’ll make pancakes with apples and hot chocolate, just for you, okay? We’ll have breakfast, and you can take some medication so it will be easier. And then you can give me the most horrible challenge you can think of and I’ll do it, whatever you want, if it helps you continue, okay?” Jacob just rambled on, his voice soft and raw and barely moving as the words covered her like a second blanket. He just kept talking, giving her something to concentrate on besides her pain, making her feel the soft vibrations in his chest. When her breathing had calmed down and her fingers around his shirt had relaxed he softly pried her fingers open and shifted so he could get up. He got out a little pill and placed it in Ellens hand. “Here, you’ll feel drowsy pretty quickly and sleep for about eight to nine hours. Maybe longer, we’ll see.” Ellen gulped it down with the last of her coffee and Jacob chuckled at the little jugstaposition. Then he wrapped her up in the blanket and led her back to her own apartment and her own bed. He helped her undress and tucked her in, even fluffing out her pillow, for which he was rewarded with a exhausted chuckle that made his heart glow. Ellen turned so she was looking at him as he crouched next to her bed. “Thanks for saving me today. I owe you one,” he murmured gently and earned a smile as soft as clouds. Ellen was beautiful when she smiled. In her own, raw, unrefined way. I wonder how surprise would look in her eyes if I’d kiss her right now. Jacob didn’t realized he’d had that thought until his own door closed behind him. When he did though, he froze. What?! Ellen was his friend! She was a friend, nothing more. Sure, they’d joked about it often, even tried for a few days, but they had concluded that experiment with the decision to leave it at friendship. They were better like that, he knew that. Why the fuck then was he thinking shit like that?! He had found the way he loved, and Ellen was not it. Feeling the panic rising in his chest Jacob quickly pushed it on his tiredness and the length of the day he’d had. Yes, that must have been it. Today had been long and gruelling and it had left him confused. He just had to get a good nights sleep and he’d be fine again. He made his way to his bedroom unlocked it and sat down in front of the box. He took out the gun and went through his little routine, checking it, cleaning its spotless surface. Then he held it below his chin. So, what had made this day worth it? Why had it been the right decision not to pull the trigger yesterday? The answer came to him immediately. The park. Ellen’s sleepy smile. His own lips curled into an effortless smile as he lowered the gun. He weighed it in his hand. It seemed way too heavy to lift, his arms struggling to even put it back into the case. It was too heavy for tonight. For Ellen’s smile.

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A night in Phil Hadberger Park His father’s gun was cold. The two were very alike in that sense. Jacob held it in his fist, his hand feeling so much bigger, so much older, curled around the grip like that. He was outside, kneeling on the cold floor of Phil Hardberger Park, staring down at the gun in his hands. This was the best solution. He’d repeated that sentence for weeks now. Not anymore. Now it just stood clear and firm in his mind. His heart slowed as the cold metal touched his chin. He swallowed and could feel the movement of his tongue against the gun. This was so easy. All problems solved. His mother wouldn’t have to be ashamed in front of her friends anymore. His father would stop tearing himself apart to figure out which of his mistakes had earned him this, him, as a punishment. And Robin, Robin wouldn’t have to guilt trip himself into being his friend, brother, whatever they were, anymore. He’d be free. They’d all be free. Just that pull, a little twitch in a single muscle and he’d be gone. No more asking why, no more puzzles, no more fucking questions that everyone apparently knew the answer to and nobody bothered to tell him. No more angst, no more being a liability. His parents could stop spending money to keep him alive, and he’d be free, free of this sick body, of this sick brain. He tried to banish his thoughts. He’d thought about this for months now, he’d made the decision. He wasn’t here on a whim. He’d decided weeks ago, he’d just waited for the right day, the most horrible day he could find. He’d gone looking for it, and it had taken forever to find. For weeks, every day had passed, carrying something beautiful, much too beautiful in its hands as it passed him. A kiss here, a kind word there. And then today had come around. It had passed, not looking at him, leaving him by the roadside and had gone its way. The decision was made, he’d gone over it a million times, rationally, crying, angry, happily, logically, thoughtfully. Sometimes in joke with Robin or father, just to see hints of relief flash over their eyes before their faces painted themselves in shock and fear. Finally. The word was painted all over their voices as they talked into him, trying to cut down his resolve with blades of lies. Jacob had appreciated the effort. But he knew the truth. He’d seen it. His finger twitched, pressing harder into the metal and his heartbeat spiked, throwing itself against his chest, again and again, as if trying to flee the gun. Jacob started singing. Softly he hummed the melody of the first song that came to mind and mouthed the text. Thank god he’d only need to do this once, and quickly. He could feel his fear, rampaging in his body, somewhere far distant. He could feel the gun trembling on his chin, and if he hadn’t been sitting, his legs would have given away under him. He decided, loudly, as loud as he could think to himself, to pull the trigger at the end of the refrain, quietly ordering his finger to pull the line before. That was how you popped a limb back into its joint. You said you’d do it a three and then did it at one and a half. He wasn’t sure if he could do that with his own brain, but he stopped thinking about it. Wave after wave of impulse washed over him, willing and willing him again and again to pull and pull and fucking pull, but his survival instinct froze his finger. He pinched his eyes together, his second hand shot to meet his first and before any instinct could do shit, his second finger pushed the first one down. Click. Nothing. A wave slammed into him, disassembling him, leaving him in shards and shreds on the forest floor, the gun now a million tons heavy. It was like Mjolnir, his hand pinned down beneath it, unable to move. All strength had left his body and Jacob was glad he hadn’t drunk or eaten anything all day, or he’d have vomited it all up right now. The moon passed over him, inspecting him through the leafless naked trees, making sure again and again the gun hadn’t gone off after all, checking again and again whether his chest was actually moving. It shone brightly, hoping to blind the boy, so he’d cover his head, avert his eyes, blink, anything to show he was alive. The stars shone extra brightly, crying tears of light onto him, crying with all the beauty that they could muster, now that fate had given them a second chance at keeping the feeble body below alive. But it was dawn that kissed him awake. She walked up to him in robes of soft pink, baby blue and gentle orange. She hugged the life back into his body and he began to shiver under

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her touch. And then she left. She stood, turned and rose to the sky, making way for another day, his heart beating, still bloody beating, a – gain, a – gain, a – gain, dragging, heaving him through the seconds one gruelling step at a time. Only now did he feel his tears. The cold. Jacob sat alone in a forest, shivering, frozen to the bones, sobbing, his whole body blazing brightly in pain and cold, the gun that should have ended all of this lurking behin him like a metal beast with a heart of powder. The pain grew and grew, the snow grew colder and colder, freezing his tears on his cheeks, his bones in his flesh to solid ice and every breath in his lungs stealing another huff of warmth. The cold now did what the gun hadn’t managed. Jacob wanted to scream, scream out the pain, for help, anything but freeze to ice quietly, but his muscles wouldn’t move. He was alone.

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First Snow Jacob shot out of sleep, sitting up on the couch. His chest heaved to supply his panic with enough oxygen. His throat contricted until he felt like he had a stone stuck in and his whole body stuck to itself with sweat. He scrambled to a stand, his legs trapped by the blanket winding around his legs, swallowing them whole. He kicked the fabric off him and jumped away from the couch, pressing his back against a corner, cowering down in a shivering panicking heap of human limbs. Fucking hell! His stomach clenched up in tight knots and Jacob got to the kitchen just in time before the remains of last nights dinner escaped his lips. Good that he knew his body so well. And his nightmares. He hung over the sink, breathing through his mouth until he dared to move again and drink something, washing down the bitter taste of stomach acid. He groaned and let his head fall onto his folded arms, looking down past the work surface to the floor. His legs shivered under his weight, adrenalin still coursing through them, begging his body to run, run from his own brain. Jacob stared at the floor, too afraid of what he might see should he close his eyes. He breathed and tried to calm down his racing heart. Fuck. He thought he’d left those memories behind. Those dreams behind. Why though? He hadn’t dreamt like this for a year or so, why the fuck was that shit back?! He dug his hands into his hair, following the texture of his skull down to his neck, despair thrashing itself through his body, shredding his organs and denting his bones and skin. His lungs stopped vibrating after half an hour and he took his first steady breath when the light of dawn touched his windows. His heart slowed down and his mind took a first step, slowly stumbling towards something that resembled normal function again. The memory slowly settled back down, back to the abyss he’d forgotten it in. It was okay now, he was awake. It had been a fucking weird ass day yesterday, he’d worry about any nightmares if the came back as a continuos phenomen. No need to loose his shit over one night of lost sleep. He had other problems to worry about anyways. He had decided last night that he’d stay with Ellen. It had been foolish, dangerous and careless to leave her alone yesterday, he would do justice to his status as friend and care for her with everything he could do. Sure as hell wouldn’t be easy, but that wasn’t an excuse. His legs groaned and ached as he got up. He avoided looking at the battlefield that was the couch and surrounding area. He washed out the sink and then quickly showered and got dressed, getting ready to go. He’d get aspirins and enough food to make a breakfast for a king. Ellen would tear him to shreds before vouluntarily seeing a doctor, so he couldn’t actually get her something to address the withdrawl, but he could help with the symptoms and do his best to support her. Before leaving, Jacob quickly checked on Ellen and smiled to see her still asleep. He made sure her phone was on silent, then he texted her as he jogged down the stairs. Morning Lovely. I’m off to buy breakfast, I’ll be back before you know it ;* [9:02, You] He glanced at the message Robin had sent him but he just shut down his phone and jumped the last stairs. There were too many emotions, too much chaos connected to him, he knew himself well enough that he didn’t want to deal with that whilst keeping Ellen sober. Maybe after that. How often he’d thought that. Maybe later. God, how he wanted to know, every second he didn’t open those fucking messages he burned up again and again. But he had endured for the last three or so years, he’d go on. Because he was terrified and that fear was so much stronger than any curiosity or whimsy could ever get. He knew Robin’s anger, he knew his sharp tongue and the knowledge that he was now at the receiving end of that anger was enough to keep his whimsical longing well in check. Jacob shook off those thoughts and focused on keeping his hands still as he pushed into the pharmacy. He walked up to the man behind the counter faster than his panic could even form and smiled, starting the conversation.

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“Good Morning, how can I help you?” It was a fresh sentence, this early in the morning still full of meaning and good intention. “Good Morning. I need some aspirin, I ran out.” The man nodded and disappeared in the back, coming back with a professionally white box. Jacob gathered up his heart and busied his hands with his wallet as he continued speaking the sentence he had prepared last night. “Also, if you’ve got the time, I’d need some help.” The man smiled, a bright honest smile of pleasant surprise. “Of course, anything I can do to help. What do you need?” Okay, here we go, stay calm. “I have a friend going through alcohol withdrawal. She doesn’t want to see a doctor, so I wanted to ask whether there is anything over-the-counter you could give me to help her.” The mans smile fell to make place for an expression of professional concern and he nodded. “I understand. I’m sorry to say nothing we have here could help directly, but I think you’re already on a good path. Take normal medication if she has trouble sleeping and aspirin for any headaches. Otherwise just stay with her and make sure she has lots of water to drink, wash it out. Make her comfortable, there’s little you can do wrong there. Do encourage her to see a doctor if things get too bad though, sudden withdrawl can be lethal in severe cases.” Jacob nodded and held his wallet in a way that the man could see it. “Thanks anyway. Just the aspirin then.” He smiled again as the man took his money, and again as he said goodbye. Then he fled the street and made it back to the lobby of the apartment building just in time for the nausea and the panic to hit. He sunk down onto the staircase and was glad he hadn’t eaten anything, otherwise he’d have a hard time keeping it down now. His stomach muscles clenched painfully hard and he doubled over, trying his best to breathe through his clenched teeth. He was getting better, after about twenty minutes he’d recovered enough to walk again and by the time he’d reached the supermarket his breath and heartbeat had reached steady levels again. Thank god supermarket chashiers required no actual contact. Sometimes he wondered whether it would have take less effort to overcome his panic than to develop all these evasion mechanism, but now that they were in place and perfected with years of practice, is made little sense to try to work with his fear. Why face it when he had become a master at running? He gently steered his thoughts back to Ellen as he walked through the aisle with fruits and vegetables, picking a litte of this and that. He knew Ellen’s tastes almost as well as his own and by the time he’d reached the end of the line at the cashier, he was loaded with enough food to feed himself for a week. He paid with a smile and the man behind the register smiled back with surprise. The first rays of sunlight kissed his face as he walked back to the apartment, and by the time he let himself into Ellens apartment, he had almost forgotten his nightmare. They seemed like a distant horror, something long left behind under a childhood bed. He closed the door to Ellen’s bedroom as not to wake her and tore open the courtains, the golden light of morning tumbling in and melting on the floor. A laugh tickled his throat and Jacob released it into the cold morning. He couldn’t remember the last time a morning had felt like this. Like it was a sheet of fresh paper, untouched and unmarked, endless possibilities nothing impossible. Jacob went to work with a smile that he simply couldn’t get off his face. He cut up the fruit and prepared whatever didn’t need to be eaten hot. Then he started boiling water for coffee and set the aspirin somewhere where he’d easily reach it if necessary. When the water was boiling, he made the first pot of the day and sank into one of the armchairs that were flooded with sunlight. About a million people had told Ellen how bad this positioning was, but as he sat there, the sun flooding golden light even through his closed eyelids, he completely understood why she never listened. The sun warmed his skin, shining through his muscles, kissing his very bones, driving the rest of any tension the morning might have held out of his body. He dozed off, his mind blissfully slow, too lazy to board any certain train of thought. By the time Ellen groggily stood in the door, Jacob had lost all sense of time. At the sight of her miserable face however, he jumped up, the sudden action punished immediately as his circulatory system took a few seconds to adapt to the abrupt change. “The fuck you doin’ here?” she groaned and fell right back into the second armchair which by now lay in shadow again.

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“I’m making breakfast,” Jacob simply explained, and got up to get the coffee ready. He pushed a steaming hot mug into her tired fingers before he whirled around to set the table. “I hate people with energy in the morning,” Ellen growled into her cup and Jacob got the hint and at least stopped humming. He was a morning person, always had been. Sure, a star filled night had something beautiful, but he couldn’t count the number of times a sunrise has saved his life. There was always something tragic about dusk, when the sun had turned its gaze from the world. The day had ended, the time had been lost and there was nothing to be salvaged from the wreckage it left behind. Sunrise was so much more hopeful. Illimitable possibilities and the promise that this day might just be the one to change everything. “Pancakes?” He’d started making them anyways, but Ellen took the que and relocated to the table where the rest of breakfast was already set up. Jacob joined her with a plate of pancakes and steaming scrambled eggs, filling the last free spaces on the table. He started eating, shoveling a random assortment of food onto his plate. Ellen stared at him with a mixture of misery and hate, then she joined him after her mug was empty. They ate in silence until the last of the pancakes was gone and most of the rest was close to following suit. “So, what’s the plan for today? Please say it starts with ‘bar’,” Ellen wanted to know after they’d both gotten a second filling of coffee and had abandoned the table in favour of the armchairs. “No, not really. Plan is to say in here pretty much. I’ll go get us food if you want anything. Stay here until the withdrawl is over with. Then keep it that way if possible.” Ellen flung her head into the polster behind her and groaned. “I hate you.” “I’m sorry.” They sat in silence after that. Both sipped on their coffee and Jacob noticed it slowly having an effect on Ellen, her eyes opening more easily and her body rebuilding some of its strength. She got her phone out and started answering the messages she had gotten during the remainder of last night. Jacob watched her, watched the refracting sunlight reflect on her face, and for the first time in forever, he allowed himself to think about Robin. Properly. Not just in a passing thought, but actually realize how similar Ellen’s eyes were to his. The well known pang of searing pain came and went, and Jacob didn’t look away. He let himself wonder if Robin would actually talk to him if he answered the texts, or if he’d gone too far. The idea that he could rekindle that friendship, just like that, without having to consider Robin’s side of things, was more enticing that he’d expected and his hands twitched to his phone. Ellen looked up and stopped him from giving in to that temptation. “What the fuck you looking at?” she asked harshly and Jacob tried his best not to take her cruel tone to heart. “Your eyes,” he answered and offered a little smile along with his words. Ellen scoffed. “Well fuck you.” Jacob sighed and got up. “Where are you going?” He turned, his hand already at his jacket. “A walk, my place, I don’t know. Out of your vocal range” he asked calmly. He knew he wasn’t being helpful or nice, but he was long done with letting people let their frustration out on him. He’d had that pain and he wasn’t going to go back. He cut off Ellens protests when the door closed and let his feet carry him, down the stairs, outside and away from the house. He lit a cigarette and breathed, evading the rising number of people, hoping to calm down and go back with a more reasonable attitude. He couldn’t expect Ellen to give two shits about him right now, not when everything inside her was fighting to knock him out cold and get to the next liquor store. He had to collect himself and draw up his barriers, make sure none what she’d say would get to him. Next worse thing was, ever since last night, since he’d told Sonja, he couldn’t get Robin out of his head, and now, with nothing to distract him, his mind wouldn’t let it go. He balled his hands into fists and held on to the fabric of his jacket inside his pockets to resist the temptation of getting out his phone again. He told himself that he didn’t even want to read the messages, but the lie was feeble and seethrough. It didn’t even make it past creation and Jacob laughed at it. He knew pretty well that he wasn’t talking to Robin out of fear. Everything else was just an excuse.

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It was Ellen who saved him from that specific train of thought once again. His phone vibrated and he picked up without thinking. “Can you come back?” She didn’t bother with a greeting, she rarely did. Her voice was raw and had nothing of the harshness that had driven him away. “I’ve got Netflix set up, there’s a new season for Stranger Things. I swear I’ll shut up.” Jacob smiled quietly. “Okay, sure. I’m passing a Starbucks right now, I’ll get a brownie, anything you want?” “Nothing, I’m good.” “You hundred percent sure?” “Blueberry muffin?” “Okay, see you in ten.” He was almost fully around the block anyways so he completed his lap and dropped into the starbucks to get a brownie and a blueberry muffin. He looked down, concentrating on the floor, the pricetags and the sounds around him. The cashier smiled and his heart raced, then it was over and he was out. He quickened his pace and jogged up the stairs. Now he could excuse his breathlessness with the exercise. He wrapped himself around Ellens door and collapsed against it as it closed. A puffy eyed worried Ellen crept out of her bedroom where the TV was flickering. “Jacob?” Again that soft soft voice. It took some of the nausea. He needed a pocketversion of her. Something to plug his headphones into, to listen to her voice whenerver he had to do this, something to warm his heart. “They still don’t do self service at Starbucks,” he explained shakily, the words walking on high stilts, stumbling out into the room, into her arms. He did his best to push his back up agains thte door, somehow stay standing, but he eventually was forced to surrender to his trembling knees. He sank down against the door and started on the routine that would hopefully calm him down by the time Ellen had reached him. He took deep breaths, his lungs fluttering like the wings of a frightened bird, and dug his nails so deep into his hand that the pain overshadowed the nausea in his gut. When he felt like he had enough control over himself to not hurl, he pushed himself off the door and peeled the jacket off. He slipped out of his shoes and walked up to Ellen who backed onto the bed to give him room. She had taken the remains of their breakfast on a tablet onto the bed, and Jacob added the muffin to it. He took the other side of Ellen’s bed and gave her reassuring smile, only now really noticing the worry in her eyes. She had cried. That realization cut deep into his heart but his smile didn’t falter. He lifted his arm and she fell into his embrace, burying her face in his chest. “I thought you wouldn’t come back,” she whispered and Jacob pulled her a little closer. “I’ll always come back. I mean, I live here.” Ellen laughed, a little pathetic laugh suffocated with tears and his heart felt a little lighter. “I just wanted to get a clear head, I wouldn’t have stayed away long. It’s just…” his voice faltered and he tried to find the right words. “I can barely imagine how you feel, and I want to help you. Whatever you do over the next two days is pretty much justified that you’re feeling like crap. And it doesn’t help if I actually take your shit seriously, that’s of no use to either of us. I’m sorry if I scared you, Lovely.” He could feel Ellen smile into his chest at the nickname and he picked up the remote, starting the first episode of the new season. Ellen eventually sat back up but made sure to stay within the embrace of his arm, changing her position so she could fully lean against him. She took tiny little bites from her muffin, making it last much longer than Jacob’s own brownie. Her hands played absentmindedly with his phone which she had pulled out of his pocket to make herself more comfortable. She didn’t turn it on until he made a quick trip to the kitchen to make them a pot of hot chocolate and the white glow painted her face when he came back. “You’ve got a message from someone called Robin,” she announced as he carefully put down the mugs on the tablet. “I know.” He snatched the phone from her hands and turned the show back on, hoping to advert her attention. No such chance with Ellen.

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“And you’re not answering because?” He had no answer to that. Other than that he was terrified of the pain that micht come with the hate and anger in those messages, and he wasn’t going to tell her that. He stared down at the notification and couldn’t bring himself to laugh and lie. Ellen noticed the sudden shift in his mood and her playfulness dropped. “I should answer,” he murmured, the words creeping past his conscious mind and dropping onto the black display, urging him to follow them. “Who is that guy?” Ellen’s voice was soft, like clouds, it crept up to him and hugged him, careful not to break his trance. “A friend. Back from San Antonio.” It seemed strange how insuffiecient that word was. Robin had been so much more than just a friend. “I thought you knew nobody from there anymore?” “Yeah, I thought the same.” Ellen sat up slightly and turned his phone back on, reading the first words of the message that were displayed on the notification. “You should write back. Tonight. That’s your challenge for today. Place is a roof and the challenge is to write him back.” Jacob nodded and got back up from the bed. He got caught by her questioning gaze and explained. “I’m going to smoke one, I’ll be right back.” Ellen nodded and buried herself back under the blankets, pretending to turn her attention back to the show as she watched him put his shoes and jacket back on and then leave her apartment. Jacob took the elevator to the highest floor and then followed the service ladder to the roof. That one was easy. He took out his pack and lighter as he stemmed his weight against the door, pushing it open against the cold wind that swept across the rooftops. When the door fully opened, he froze, almost dropping his lighter as his hand twitched in surprise. In one corner of the roof sat Sonja, her hair of a darker blond now, like aged honey on autuum leaves. She wore a red jacket over a white tutu. Her hands were busy tying the bands of white en pointe shoes while her eyes found him. They were of a soft light brown and seemed to see right into his soul. “What are you doing here?” The cigarettes were completely forgotten. She got up and smiled, her skin almost the same colour as the sky above. Clouds had drawn over the sun, heavy white beasts that now lay on the blue surface like a nest of snakes. “Hello Jacob. I came to dance with the first snow.” Jacob looked up at the clouds, the around at the rest of the city. No snow in sight. Sure it was late October, snow wasn’t unlikely, but it hadn’t been cold enough recently. “Didn’t you want to smoke?” She pointed at the pack in his hands and only then did he remember his original intentions. “Oh, yeah.” He pulled out a cigarette and lit it. He was getting used to this feeling around her. His body moving while his mind baffled at the paradox this situation was. He took his first breath and watched as she set up her little box and selected the music on her phone. “Do you mind if I watch?” Wherever the fuck that question had come from, certainly not his head. His brain was still stuck at how she’d gotten here. Sonja smiled. “Sure, I’d be happy.” She tapped on her phone, shed her jacket and stepped into the centre of the roof, her arms in what he recognized as the fourth position by the few times he’d attended the practice sessions. She stood and breathed in the cold air, not one muscle moving, not even shivering in the cold. Then the music started and Jacob’s brain forgot its wordly concerns, too caught up in what he was seeing. At first, there was silence. New York was never silent, but for a second, in the heartbeat between the music’s intro and its true beginning, the whole city seemed to take a breath, bracing itself for the storm. The storm that never came. The music did not roar, it did not shatter the silence into a million pieces. It tiptoed onto the wind, quietly slipping into the world, and Sonja moved with it. Her head bowed to the world and like a clockwork, her body ticked through the quietest, tiniest of movements.

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Jacob did not notice as the music grew louder, he did not notice how her movements grew with the darkening sky. Only when she moved from her spot, lifted her body to en pointe and floated over the roof, did he become aware of how the music surrounded him like it usually only did with his headphones. Her movements were now large and daring, fuelled by a childlike joy and energy, she whirled and turned, her hair spinning around her like a golden halo. And the sky came down and kissed it. And then again. It kissed her nose, her outstretched ringfinger, the sole of her shoe as it rose towards the clouds. It was snowing. Her dress and skin blended further and further into the sky, her eyes growing darker and darker as the sunlight had trouble seeping through the clouds, and she danced like a snowstorm. Her breath was the only thing that kept reminding him she was human, rising in thick clouds towards the sky, her chest heaving, sending her warmth and her life towards the clouds, revieving a shower of tiny clouds in return. A snowflake landed and melted on his nose and Jacob couldn’t resist the tickling of a laugh in his throat. He had to let it out and it blended with the music and the sky and the snow. Sonja beamed and her dance surged to a new life, another burst of energy as the flurry thickened. When the music ended and Sonja was slowly frozen to a stop by the freezing temperatures, it felt like both an eternity and nothing but two seconds had passed. His hand gave him the better approximation of time, a sharp pain shooting through it as the cigarette had completely burned up. He dropped it and the sudden movement shook him out of his trance. He hurried over to hold up her jacket, wondering how the hell she hadn’t gotten sick by now. She smiled at him, again, a smile full of gratitude. “Thank you.” Jacob looked up at the smile and took in the surreal sight of the white snowflakes floating down to his face against the backdrop of the grey clouds. “How did you know?” Her smile turned into a grin and a mischevious glint lit her eyes. “Witchcraft,” she whispered and Jacob just accepted that she wouldn’t tell him. “Well, I need to be off now. I’d love to stay, but a friend wants to meet later and I need to change.” Once again his body nodded and picked up her bag to carry it down to street for her, while his mind scrambled to make the gear shift from what he had just seen back to the ordinary. Before she left through the front door, she picked up a broom she seemed to have bought today, the price tag still dangling from the hilt. “Got it today, my old one broke down completely last night.” Jacob nodded, smiling as if any of this made even the remotest sense to him. “Bye then! I will see you around.” Again, nodding, smiling, and she was gone, leaving his brain to go what the fuck just happened and his body to get back into the elevator and to Ellen’s apartment. Ellen had gotten rid of the remains of the food and was now back in bed, the cover tucked around her like a tight wrap, making her look like a slightly miserable burrito. She was scrunching her eyebrows at the screen where the credits for the last episode were playing and her face lit up as she saw him shed his jacket and shoes to climb back onto the bed next to her. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Is our roof haunted?” Jacob plucked at his phone absentmindedly and tried to shift his attention back to the screen. “Yeah, dunno. It’s snowing.” Diversion successful. A smile so big Jacob thought it would wrap all around her head split her face and Ellen jumped up, the blanket still wrapped around her. She shuffled to the window as quickly as she could and ripped open the curtain. At the sight of the falling frozen stars her smile grew even bigger and Jacob feared she might burst with joyious energy. “Oh my god, finally! I thought it wouldn’t snow at all this year. Look at this, this is amazing!” She tried to point out the window but miscalculated the distance, hitting her full hand onto the glass. She ignored it completely and hopped back into bed, the smile stuck to her face like glued there. She completely ignored the show and stared happily out of the window. Jacob couldn’t help but smile as well and some of his confusion settled. He knew this reaction all too well, it happened every time it snowed, whether it was the first snow of the year or the sixtieth, whether they were a million tiny flakes powering the ground or a bloody blizzard. When it came to snow, nothing could dampen Ellen’s joy. She followed the white little falling ghosts with her eyes and all concern for him was forgotten, something for which he was very glad.

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He too didn’t really concentrate on the episode, the meeting with Sonja still haunting his thoughts, the notification on his screen not adding to any peace of mind. “How’s your head?” he tried to distract himself. Ellen tore herself from the dance of the snowflakes for a few seconds and looked at him in confusion. Then her brain caught up to her ears and she happily stared back out the window while she answered. “Oh, yeah, I took one of the aspirins you got. Thank you for getting those. Saved my life. It’s fine now though. I generally still feel like shit, but it’s not that bad.” She fell silent and her smile dimmed a little. “Thanks for being here. I wouldn’t do this without you, so I’m fucking glad you’re so annoying about this,” she added quietly, the words falling onto the blanket as soft as the snow outside. Jacob fell back into the cushion and thought about what to say. He couldn’t think of anything convincing enough to fool the silence that had come with the snow, so he just stuck with the truth. What the hell, if anyone deserved it it was her. “You’re my best friend. I’ve let you down way too much, being here is the fucking least I can do to even try to get the change to make up for that.” Ellen shifted her weight so that she was leaning against him, pulling his arm around her. Her face was serious now, her eyes still following the snow outside, but not really seeing it. “Jacob, it’s not your responsibility if I choose to drink my brains out. I’m an adult, my life is not your responsibility.” Jacob sighed. Yeah, he knew that. That’s how he’d excused himself every time he had walked past her without even looking at her, let alone talk to her, ask her if she need help. “That doesn’t mean I get to ignore you though. It was always tiny things I could have done, and I didn’t. You were so nice to me when I go here, you helped me, and I just let you down. No way twist that so that it’s okay, tried that long enough.” Ellen sat up and turned so that she was looking at him, her face so bloody close again. He could smell her, almost feel her breath on his skin. Hello panic, my old friend. “So you’re just here because you want to feel better about yourself.” Her voice wasn’t accusing, just a question. He plucked a fatty strand of her hair away from her eyes and tucked it behind her ear. “No.” Her eyes fluttered down to his lips, just for a second, betraying her thoughts. The panic became more pronounced, climbing onto his ribcage and holding on with long sharp black claws. It wasn’t nerviosity, it was fear, the knowledge that letting this happen was a mistake he couldn’t fix. He could feel her breath on his skin, she was so fucking close, so way too close, but there was nowhere for him to retreat. All that flashed through his mind in splitsecond, and somehow, she caught it. Hesitated and then smiled, a soft soft soft soft smile that took his fear as she pulled back, just so far that he could breathe again, that his heart could beat again. “Okay,” she said, quietly, a fact, and curled back up by his side. His heart raced, but it slowly regained its bearings as nothing happened. The show played on, the snow kept falling, and Ellen watched both, shaking out the blanket so it would cover his legs, propping up a pillow on his upper leg to lie on. She fidgeted absentmindedly with his phone, playing with the volume buttons. “You wanted to write Robin.” She twisted around and handed him the phone. He stared at it, deciding between the unease that would come with turning it on and the calm that Ellen and the rest of the afternoon offered. “I will, tonight. I’m sure he’s working, I don’t want to fuck with his day.” Ellen grinned but didn’t dispute the excuse. “How nice of you.” “I know.”

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Robin Jacob made sure Ellen was fast asleep before he left that night. He turned off all lights and closed the curtains so that no direct light would hit her, but she could see the snow when she woke up. Then he slid into his shoes and took his jacket over to his own apartment. It was cold here and he quickly changed and got ready for bed hurrying to burry himself under his own covers. He closed his eyes, pretending for the outside viewer to fall asleep, but his mind was wide awake. He’d promised, not only Ellen, but himself. His eyes flew open and he took the phone out. He hadn’t even bothered putting it on the couch table. He read the notification again. One new Message from Robin (29.10 21:47) Hey Jacob. It’s me again. I just wanted to check… Then the notification refused to reveal more. Jacob took his heart firmly into one hand and unlocked the screen with his free one. He kept his fingers in motion, not allowing them to stop, opening the messaging app and then right away Robin’s chat. He had to scroll a little, past the work related thinngs and the few other friends that had abandoned him, as Robin was pretty much at the botton, just above Mom and Dad. Just after he’d left San Antonio he had wrestled with himself whether to change their contact names to their actual names, as to make it less personal, less painfull to look at them, but a few weeks in a new city had moved the problem, quite literally, down the list until he’d forgotten about it. Jacob held his breath so that his hearbeat wouldn’t fly away with it and read, just the newest message, covering everything else with his thumb. Yesterday Hey Jacob. It’s me again. I just wanted to check how you were doing. I know you won’t answer, which is honestly super frustrating as I’m worrying myself into an early grave here, but that’s ducking fine. Ducking auto-correct. Knows its own name but not the basis of human communication. As usual, I just wanted to let you know I’m still here if you want to talk. I guess it’s awkward now, with what, 4 years? Jesus. Still haven’t opened the letter. I’m only doing that when you write back. Still your friend, Robin. [21:47, Robin] Jacob turned the phone off. Not just the screen, he held the power button until the option menu came up and then kept pressing until the phone shut down. Then he curled around it, a knot of limbs around a black screen in the complete darkness under the blankets. Only then, hidded in this cocoon did he allow his thoughts to go. Robin wanted to talk. He hadn’t opened the letter. He hadn’t added the word “fucking” to his auto-correct yet. He was still worried about him. He hadn’t forgotten. Moved on, hell yeah, Jacob was sure of that, but he hadn’t forgotten him. Hadn’t abandonded him. Didn’t hate him. A smile blossomed out of a seed of golden warmth in his chest and he curled up a little tighter. His heart was racing, but just not fast enough. He turned the phone back on, urging and cursing it to start up faster. He almost got himself locked out but got the pin for the sim card right on the third try. His code had the same problem, his fingers didn’t seem to hit the right numbers. He started the app and scrolled to the very beginning of the chat, as far as it would let him. 01.01 Hey Jacob. HAPPY NEW YEAR! I hope your fireworks are good. I’m celebrating with James again, but by the way he’s looking at that chick, that’ll be over soon. But I honestly don’t care right now, I’m too drunk to care. How are you doing? All limbs attached, head still on? Where are you rn?

[00:05, Robin]

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Wupsie, sorry. Hit the send button there. Wanna meet up some time? Dunno where you are, but I’m rich rn, so I can come to you if you can’t. Call me about that, okay? [00:07, Robin] 14.02 Hey there. It’s me again. No shit. The only person in this chat. Duh. [20:33, Robin] Sorry. I was supposed to have a date tonight, but I was ditched. Yaaaay. Fled the place of course, I’m not gonna have valentines dinner alone. No need to be salty to you though. Might scare ya off! Haha! Get the joke?! Sorry, I’ve got it. I’m a ducking Lightweight…[20:36, Robin] So, how are you doing? Still wherever the duck you were last time? Wanna meet up? How’s your lovelife looking? I hope a lot more successful than mine. I hope you found someone good for you. It ducking eats me that that wasn’t me, but I’m not mad. It’s all okay. Still would like to meet you again though. I miss my best friend. [20:41, Robin] 23.05 Hey. Happy Birthday to me. You making cake? Good. Just call me when to hop over, I’ll get it and bring whiskey. Your dad gave me some. I swear, that man is only nice to me because he thinks you’ll write me before you write him. I mean, I’m flattered, but no. I’m keeping the whiskey though. ‘Till sylvester, share it when you call. If not, I’ll have something to drink away the pain. Haha. Call, okay? [23:11, Robin] 03.07 Hey, I heard about the attack today. They said it hit the Bronx. Do you live there? The guy at the travel station told me you’d gotten on a bus to the Bronx back then. Three ducking years ago. THREE YEARS! I should have probably stopped writing by now, this is getting weird. But hey, it threapeutical and I can keep that little hope that you’re not dead, shot, driven over by a bus, drowned, whatever wakes me up at night. I’ve been having the nightmares again since the attack. It’s a ducking pain. Tell me you’re okay. Please. [01:23, Robin] Yesterday Hey Jacob. It’s me again. I just wanted to check how you were doing. I know you won’t answer, which is honestly super frustrating as I’m worrying myself into an early grave here, but that’s ducking fine. Ducking auto-correct. Knows it’s own name but not the basis of human communication. As usual, I just wanted to let you know I’m still here if you want to talk. I guess it’s awkward now, with what, 4 years? Jesus. Still haven’t opened the letter. I’m only doing that when you write back. [21:47, Robin] Despite the bone deep cut in his chest, Jacob had to smile. His mind was empty and it took him forever to draw a thought out of the chaos inside him. When he finally managed to disentangle a thread from the storm in his gut, it was

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one he knew pretty well. Remorse. Why hadn’t he done this sooner? Why hadn’t he written back? Why had he ever left Texas? Jacob sighed and sat up, the blanket falling from his body into his lap. The cold rushed in to hug him with its cold dead arms. He knew damn well why he’d left. He looked back down on his phone, and started typing, slowly, carefully, as if any quick movement might stir the panic that should be tearing him down right now. Hey Robin. Got time? [01:13, You] I want to tell you so much, but I don’t think messaging will do. I’m fucking sorry I never answered. [01:13, You] His hand hovered over the keyboard, but he didn’t know what else to write. So he braced himself for the anger and hate to be flung at him. This was his pandora’s box, he’d opened it, now he had to deal with it. He put the phone on the couch beside him, and let his head fall against the backrest. He took in the darkness above and resigned to a horrible night of sleep. Sure, he wasn’t panicking, but he knew he’d be uneasy until Robin wrote back, one way or the other. He closed his eyes. His phone buzzed. His eyes flew open. The sound was dampened, but it kept going, on and on. Jacob was terrified to look and he had to move each muscle on its own, shifting his head so his eyes could catch Robin’s picture hovering over the accept button. The world somehow stopped turning, time had frozen and he was stuck in it. It seemed impossible to move. And then the call stopped. The picture dimmed out and absolute silence crept over his tongue, slithering down his throat, sitting there as a stone. Mindless scrambling and breathless movement. Then a quiet click. “Jacob?” Jacob had to smile. Robin’s voice hadn’t changed. It was a nice rock to hold on as the flood tore him away. “Hey.” The words slipped from his tongue, finding a way around his empty mind and his panicking screaming heart. Keep going. Come on. Another word, just one more and you’ll be fine. “Sorry, I didn’t think you’d aswer that fast. Thought you were asleep.” He could hear Robins nervous breathing on the other end of the line, but it could also have been his own. “I couldn’t sleep. Had a tough day. What are you doing about it?” Jacob wanted to hug him. There were a million reasons Robin held the piece of his heart that he had, one of them was how calm and casual he stayed when the world came crashing down. He was a rock in a storm and nothing could faze him. Jacob tried to be just as calm, but his heart raced out of his open mouth and he was left breathless. “Nothing,” he croacked. His heart beat in his troat and behind his eye and he pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping to kill the throbbing. No success. Keep talking. He swallowed and tried again. “I don’t know. I’m helping a friend, she’s having a rough time. I spent the day at her place.” “A friend, huh?” Jacob heard the unspoken words but he decided to ignore them for now. Keep going. “Yeah, Ellen. She…” For a second he halted, not sure whether to just blurt out her problems like that, but fuck it, anything to keep going. “She has problems with alcohol. Had it since I got here. It’s gotten worse and… I don’t know. She’s my friend and I let her down. I’m helping her get off it, trying to make up for that now.” “On a roll then?” The bitter tone cut deep and Jacob rubbed his chest, hoping to catch the blood before it stained the couch. He pinched his eyes closed against the pain and tried his best to breathe. Just keep talking. One more word, one more step. Just one more. “I guess. She saw the message, said I have to write back.” “Yeah, she’s fucking damn right! What the hell were you fucking thinking?! Do you even have the faintest fucking shimmer of how worried I was, let alone you own bloody parents?! You had no right to do that to them, or to me for that matter!” The anger hurt, washing over him like fire, scorching his skin to his very bones, crumbling him to dust. Jacob didn’t even try to hold back tears. He had the fortunate skill of crying quietly, and in the dark there was nobody around to see him. “I know. I’d say I’m sorry, but that won’t do it, not ever. I… fuck. Whatever I’d say, try to explain, it’s an excuse and you deserve better than meager excuses.” He breathed and his throat was shaky, his body unsure whether it really wanted

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air for another breath. “I want to make it up, more than anything right now, but I know fucking well that’s not possible.” He fell silent and when Robin spoke again, Jacob could hear a soft smile in his voice. “You haven’t changed much, have you?” Jacob let out a laugh, dry and bitter with the panic and tension that escaped with it. “What?” “I guess not.” “Did you find what you left for?” Jacob paused and thought about that question, trying to think of an honest answer, trying to pick apart his life for it. “I don’t know. I guess, yeah. I really just wanted to be out of my parent’s hair, so I guess that happened.” In the silence that followed, Jacob ould hear that Robin understood the thousand words that were left unsaid. “Yeah, you could say that. Can I tell them about this? It’s been a long time, but they still worry.” “Sure, I don’t care.” Now that was a lie. “I always thought they’d be glad to not have to bother anymore.” “I know right? Thought so the same. I mean, your dad is a pretty convincing person. I always thought he hated you.” Jacob laughed again, this time a laugh so painful it drove tears to his eyes. “Oh hell yes, he is,” he agreed bitterly. A small soft silence followed. “I’m glad to hear you laughing again.” Robin’s voice was small and gentle. The words set themselves up before him all dressed in matter of factly suits, looking at him with kind old eyes. They were the eyes of a benevolent parent, eyes you couldn’t lie to. So Jacob didn’t even try to. “I’m not. I’m crying.” “Oh.” Another silence. “Why?” Because I didn’t do this sooner. Because Ellen is in pain and there is nothing I can do about it. Because I’m obsessed with a girl and now that she talks to me it’s the worst thing ever. Because I can’t go buy a fucking coffee without a panic attack. Because the gun had the safety on. Because Dad chose the church over me. Because it’s dark. Because it’s still snowing and that’s beautiful. And because this fucking hurts. “I don’t know. I’ve become a fucking wreck.” Three seconds of silence, a silence that gathered up all it’s courage, braced itself for fire and storm and the burst down the door. “Can I decided that for myself?” Jacobs heart and lips formed the same words. “Yes. I mean, sure, yeah. I’ve wanted to come down to the region soon anyways, if you let me crash at your place, I’ll come over,” he lied. “You still drink your whiskey?” Robin chuckled and to his panicing mind it was the most soothing sound in the whole world. “Yeah, same old. But you don’t need to bring anything. Just you, okay? You have to give me day’s notice though.” Now it was Jacob’s turn to laugh, honestly this time, an honest laugh. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you as soon as I know a time.” He smiled and felt the adrenaline slowly seep out of his heart and pool on the floor. Actual tiredness began to creep up on him and he supressed a yawn. Robin seemd to hear it despite his best efforts. “It’s getting pretty late now. I don’t want to cut you off, but how about we talk tomorrow? I’ve got more time then, and a fresher mind.” Again Jacob wanted to kiss him in thankfulness. “I think that’s a good idea.” He released the tension in his body and sank back to the couch, pulling the blanket over him. He didn’t take the phone from his ear, listening to Robin’s breathing, he didn’t even think about hanging up. He listened to the sound of fabric and the soft aching of bedsprings as Robin followed his example. “So, that went well.” Jacob chuckled, nervousness fluttering out of his chest with the released breath.

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“Yeah. I just hope coming back will go as well.” Solem silence. “I hope so too. But don’t think just because you calling just made my week I won’t punch you in the face when you turn up here.” Jacob grinned. “I’ll gladly take that.” He deserved so much more. Jacob lay there and listened to Robins breathing. They both fell asleep without either having hung up.

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Jane’s Carousel The next morning crept up on him slowly, softly, like a white cloth of clouds slowly cutting off his breath. The light of dawn looked strange, strangely pale and cold and Jacob smiled when he remembered the snow and Ellens smile. And then he remembered the rest. A grin so big it hurt tore apart his face and Jacob curled up, suffocating, crushing his blanket, just to stay whole. He wanted to jump around, scream and dance and sing and all he could do was curl up and shiver in the cold. He didn’t move when he heard a key in his lock and barely managed to tone down his grin from serial killer to good morning, as Ellen tapped into his apartment. Confused she lifted her eyebrows and let herself fall onto the couch table. “You okay?” Jacob nodded and didn’t know what the hell to do about that stupid grin plastered on his face. “You sure?” Again he nodded, but he manage to pull his lips apart to let some words through. “I wrote back. Last night. Robin called. He wants me to come over.” Now he’d infected her with that stupid smile and she grinned full of excitement, a strange contrast to the grogginess of her overall appearance. “Ey, I’m so glad for you! What did he say?” Jacob’s smile dimmed down until it was as soft as last nights memory. “He’ll punch me for not writing back.” Ellen laughed and the loud clear sound finally tore him out of his stasis and he sat, huddling beneath the blankets. “I like this guy. I’d probably do the same.” A thought crept into his mind, and Jacob’s tongue was quicker than his brain. “Want to come with me? I think he’d love you.” Ellen’s smile fell, but not completely. It got hung up on a hook of kindness. “No he wouldn’t. I think you two’ve got a more solid thing going that I ever even caught a glimps of in my life.” Jacob’s heart stopped. Froze. Then raced away. Fuck. She knew, how the fuck could she know, he never told her, he’d kept it a secret!? And why the hell was she still smiling? He tried to speak, tried to laugh and lie, but his breath got stuck in his throat, the words piling up behind his teeth. “You know?” he croaked, that question alone leaving him breathless. Ellen’s smile grew soft and kind, it embraced him and soothingly stroked his back. “I figured,” she answered quietly. “When?” He didn’t dare to look at her, keeping his eyes fixed on her hands, how calm and relaxed they were. “When you never slept with me no matter how drunkenly desperate I tried. And when you smiled like it was Christmas when Robin called you.” Jacob nodded and forced himself to look up at her. Still smiling. Still with those kind, well meaning, so not disgusted eyes. The next question slipped out of his eyes and he was terrified because he didn’t really want the honest answer. “Is that allright with you?” Her smile grew wider and her fingers started playing with his blanket. “Sure. Jacob, you’re my friend because you’re kind and somehow have a heart of bloody gold, I don’t care who or what you’re into. Of course it’s allright. Why wouldn’t it be?” The gentle honesty of her voice slammed into him like a mountain had risen and tackled him. He rubbed his eyes to evade the threat of tears and tired to mimick her smile, even though he could feel that it was nothing but a paper mache copy of hers. “Dunno. I just…” His words failed him and he dropped his head into his hands, trying to recover. He felt the couch shift under him when Ellen changed position and then the blanket moved as she cuddle up beside him. He had no idea how she even knew, but the warmth calmed him and reassured his heart. “My dad is a priest, catholic. I always though I played my part pretty well after I figured it out, but he found out eventually. Was like doomsday then back home. Mom

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and dad just crying, screaming to the ceiling what they’d done wrong to deserve me, or, like they phrased it, this curse upon their son. That’s why I left, mostly. They hated having me around, but felt too obligated to the Lords laws to kick me out, so I did it myself.” He didn’t want to continue, afraid what else he’d blurt out, and thankfully, Ellen’s armes wrapped around him and allowed him to shut up and just appreciate her closeness for a few heartbeats. Then she let go and stood up. “So, how about breakfast, and then you get to your challenge and I get to my meeting?” Jacob nodded and got up, ready to face the cold of the day. He got dressed and showered, then went over to her apartment where the smell of barely burnt eggs caught him. He smiled. Where he loved to cook and considered himself pretty good at it, Ellen had different reasons than plain melancholy for eating mostly takeout. She saved the eggs just in time and added them to the two plates with bacon. There were already two mugs on the table and Jacob sat opposite to her favourite one. The plates clattered onto the table and Jacob smiled. “Ah, the all American breakfast.” Ellen grinned and started to eat. The eggs smelled worse than they tasted and Jacob ate as much as he could to avoid having to get food later during the day. He usually ate very little, so he could farely easily calculate when he’d be hungry again. A useful skill when one wanted to avoid hot dog vendors. “Ey, slow down, you’ll choke,” Ellen laughed and Jacob followed her advice for the last two bites. “I just wan’t to be out of your hair before you think of the crap to put me through today.” She chuckled and burnt her lips on the coffee. “Don’t worry, that’s already settled. I thought I’d go easy on you, as a thank you for yesterday.” Jacob smiled. “Okay. I’m sure it will be appreciated. Just call me if you need anything, okay? I’m not too happy with leaving you alone. Just because you’re better now…” He didn’t continue the thought, watching her reaction carefully. “Don’t worry. I’ll be here all day. I’ll go to the meeting and then maybe hang with one of the girls from there until I’m tired, then I’m going straight home. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about me, I’ll be fine.” Jacob nodded and finished his breakfast, wanting to get out of the building. He wanted to find some spot with some more peace and quiet so he could read the message Robin had sent him this morning. It was so tempting to just check up on it now, but he knew he’d need more room for his heart to beat. “You’re in a hurry,” Ellen commented as he ditched his plate and mug in the dishwasher and tried to put his shoes and jacket on at the same time. “Yeah, Robin said he’d call again today. I want to make sure I’m done with whatever you’ve come up with before.” Ellen chuckled and didn’t even bother to answer, resigning to her breakfast. The joyful energy of anticipation carried him about ten blocks further before he ran out of breath and had to regulate his speed a little. He didn’t really pay attention where he went, not bothering with keeping up with his turns and change of directions, though he did more consciously cross streets. He looked left and right or followed a person already waiting, not just blindly walking into the traffic. He ended up in some park he didn’t know, overlooking a river, though he wasn’t sure which one. He had lost all sense of time, not even able to recount which music he’d been listening to on his mad dash through the city. A little out of breath, he got out his phone. He tried not to look at the few words displayed while looking up Ellen’s message which had reached him about twenty minutes ago. Eeeey, another day. So, place is Main Street Park. Take a ride on the carousel there. Don foget ma pics ;D [11:39, Ellen] Don’t worry, I know how much you love those ;* [11:40, You] Geez, what did that wizard use on you?! Just tell me you're not skipping there, okay? [11:40, Ellen] Not yet. Didn’t read the message from this morning yet

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though. [11:41, You] Oh God. Get off my chat Lovebird. [11:41, Ellen] Jacob grinned and tried to keep that face as he switched to Robin’s chat. A twitch in his hand caused the chat to scroll up and he hurried to scoll back down to the end. Hey, morning. I’m free today, gonna be home all day so just call whenever it suits you. [08:21, Robin] Sure will. I’ve got some stuff to do, I’ll call you in two hours? [11:43, You] Jacob smiled as he typed and was about to put his phone back in his pocket when it buzzed in his hand. His heart jumped a little when he saw whom the new message was from. Robin seemed to have been waiting for his answer. Somehow, that made his heart beat a little faster, but not in the way he was used to from his panic attacks. Awesome, looking forward to it. [11:43, Robin] That damn fucking smile, it simply wouldn’t go! Jacob opened Google Maps, happy to find that he was already looking at the right river, he was just a little too far up. He started walking and hummed to the tune of the song playing at the moment. The sun was hidden behind a huge grey cloud, standing out like a glowing white heart, animating the beast that prowled over the sky. The snow in the park around Jane’s Carousel was already trampled down by the mornings joggers but none of the culprits were to be seen around. It was fairly empty and the ticket lady seemed prepared for a boring day. When he saw the lack of people, Jacob could already feel the soft knot of anxiety in his gut tightening. If there was nobody around, he’d have to go in there alone, and there was no way he’d attract that amount of attention to himself. His fingers sifted through his pockets, looking for anything to hold on to to stop the tremor that was starting to establish itself in his hands. He got hold of both Sonja’s amulet and his cigarette package. Wrapping the chain around his hand he lit a cigarette and took a deep breath, the heat from inside calming him a little. He absentmindedly fiddled with the stone, drawing circles around it while he kept moving as not to attract any looks. He walked a round around the park, trying to think of some way to get this done. No way he was letting Ellen off the hook, not now when support was the most important thing she needed. He slipped his headphones off, listening to the sounds of mid day New York as he started is second round. When he was halfway around the park this time, the distinct sound of a group crept over the grass and he looked up. A man and a woman were leading a mass of children towards the glass house that cased the carousel. They were all wearing small backpacks and holding each others hands in pairs. Jacob grinned and took a last pull from cigarette before he ground it out with his shoe and started moving over to the group. The last kids in line looked up to him, curious of who was joining them, but their interest quickly turned back to their teachers, one of whom was explaining that they’d have to behave and enjoy the experience, as they’d have to write and draw about it later. The kids nodded and started whispering excitedly as the teachers headed forth to buy the tickets. Jacob hung back, letting the group get onto the carousel in peace. When the way was clear, he approached the lady and made sure to lock up his heart and take out his wallet as he offered her a smile. “One ticket please,” he declared needlessly and took out two dollars. He’d made sure to check the prices while waiting in line already, so when the ticket lady demanded “Just you? Two dollars please,” with the annoyance of an employee who hadn’t expected to deal with this much traffic, he already had them prepared. He took his little paper snippet with the Jane’s Carousel logo on it with another smile, but the lady didn’t even bother looking up so he turned away and found an empty horse. It was a black one that looked a little more peaceful than the others and seemed content with him putting his weight on it. He held on to the pole and the reigns of the horse and looked outside. He listened to the soft music playing throughout the glass case and took in the view of the river from where he sat. The world took a peaceful sigh, the children laughing and giggling with excitement, one small girl with big brown eyes and short brown hair looking around with quiet amazement. The ticket lady waited for a few minutes, hoping to get the last few horses full, but it was a pretty obviously pointless endeavour, nobody outside was moving towards the case. She announced something that her boredom made inaudible and the carousel started moving. Music started playing louder and the gears below the

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coloured hood ground into movement. Inertia held the horses back, but with heaving and aching the mechanics fought their physics and the carousel turned faster and the horses began moving. Jacob looked down onto his horse, absentmindedly stroking the strong muscles carved into the wood. His gaze wandered over the spinning scenery around him and the bright white light, the snow, the excited chattering from the kids around him and the music made the moment heartachingly beautiful. He got out his phone and propped it up between the ears of the horse to start recording a video. He held on to the phone so it wouldn’t fall, then he turned his gaze back upon the scenery around him. The girl with the big brown eyes watched him curiously and he tried a smile, which came to him easier than his punding heart would have let on. She smiled back shyly and petted her rearing chestnut horse. Jacob felt her smile melting onto his own face and turned away. It stuck there like candle wax and even after the ride ended and he’d sent the video to Ellen the smile sunk into his skin and to his heart. He offered the ticket lady part of it, but she didn’t want it, so he kept it to himself and left the carousel, walking back out into the park. Somewhat at a loss of what to do next he just kept walking, following the shore of the river until civilisation stopped him and forced him onto the streets. Clouds chased each other over the sky above him and he wondered whether Robin was anxiously waiting for him or whether he could give himself another hour or so. He stopped, leaning against some railing and for a few seconds just allowed himself to enjoy the beat of his heart aligning with the music from his heaphones. People passed him in a steady ebb and flow and he was torn with it, joining the river that swept him along the streets of New York. He ended up in front of some store that sold brand clothing. He mustered the poses the mannequins had been contorted into and wondered if the clothes dispayed would also suit someone walking normally. He sunk into thought, his mind wandering on some pointless tangent, when a soft tap on his shoulder tore him out of it and he slid the headphones down onto his neck. He turned and found Sonja grinning at him brightly. “Hey, Jacob. What a surprise!” He nodded and brought out a weak “yeah”, but was otherwise stunned by her bright smile, her bright purple hair and her warm light hazel eyes. “I wanted to call you tonight, see how you’re doing. Are you busy? We could go for a coffee. I know a really nice place in midtown, you’ll love it.” And without really waiting for an answer, she’d swept him up, hooking her arm under his elbow and was steered him north. They walked forever it seemed, and Sonja kept talking. She told him about this new ballet company that would take her, about some new herbs she’d gotten, how she thought about adopting a cat and how she’d refurnished her apartment. She explained in detail her decision to colour her hair purple and told him all about the history of the shoe brand that was making her new set of ballet shoes. Jacob listened and nodded in the according places, laughing when applicable. She spoke faster than he could think, laughing so loud and shrill he thought he heard his ears ring. This girl seemed to change personalities with her hair colour, her temper with the time of day. He could feel his own discomfort, watched himself writhe and crawl away from her shrill loud colours. He remembered what Ellen had said, about what he really had with her, and he understood that question now for the first time. Sonja was a beautiful fire, a fireworks display of the most breathtaking colours and shapes, a dance with the flames. She burned brighter than a star and now that he’d gotten too close, she was burning him up, roasting his soul alive until there was nothing left, using his mind as fuel for her light and warmth. He had to get away from her somehow. He liked her, he liked watching her, liked observing her torch the world, but he had to stop meeting her like this. He couldn’t get under a roof with her for fear of choking on the smoke, he couldn’t touch her or he’d burn up like a book in a brazier. He tried several times to interrupt her, but the ever louder soundscape of the city smashed his words to pieces before they could even attempt to break her flow. The streets were growing broader and the buildings ever higher as they approached central manhattan and the times square. It was closing in on noon and the masses of people moving across designated the beginning of the weekend. Jacob had completely lost track of time ever since he didn’t have to get up to work anymore and the week had blurred all together into one. He moved closer to Sonja, his senses on high alert, trying to see every person at once and pick up the conversations of everyone moving in his direction. He prayed they’d pass the square quickly, but to his frustration, Sonja stopped pretty much in the middle of it a vortex of people swirling around them. Clouds started darkening the sky, and with the absence of light, her eyes appeared as black as they had been the first night they had spoken. She looked up at him, her lips parted, the full impact of her beauty turned towards him, bringing his resolve to its knees.

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“Do you trust me?” She did not raise her voice, yet he could hear it so clearly over the massive assault of noise that was Times Square. He hesitated. No, no he didn’t. Ellen’s concern had made him suspicious and his own conflicting feelings ever time they met hadn’t helped to soothe his mind. No, he did not trust her, he feared her and the claws of his soul scrambled to get away from her. But none of that really reached his conscience. The hard shake of his head and the definitve “No!” was buried somewhere in the bottom part of his skull where his brain met his spinal cord. So, with her eyes burning through his brain, with her lips and her dark lashes and her hair made of purple petals drawing him in, stealing his breath, he nodded. He swallowed to undo his bodies reaction, to contradict himself and to start backing away from her and said “Yes”. Sonja smiled. And the small part in him that fought with tooth and nail to turn around, just break contact with those dark dark eyes roared. He was a fly drowing in honey. She took a step back, off the manhole he was standing on, and her eyes scattered a quick glance over the square. She held something enclosed in her fist, he hadn’t even noticed her taking something out of a pocket. Now, she held her fist to her lips and softly blew on whatever was inside, like a gambler trying to influence his dice. She shook out her wrist and then held up her hand, high abover her head, her mouth forming words he couldn’t hear. She was standing a few steps away from him, but nobody ever came between them, the distance between them clear and empty and he could see the concrete that formed the world. And then a bright white light burst from her hand. Jacob pinched his eyes closed and stumbled a step backwards only to be pushed onto the manhole immediately by some businessman passing by. The light was that of a dying star, it was dazzlingly bright. He dared a peek to see where the beam originated from, but her whole arm was engulfed in blinding white light so that it’s shape was impossible to make out. He blinked until the huge blue spots in his vision had dimmed a little and he could make out her face. She was still chanting soundlessly and staring right into the light that made her eyes appear bright yellow. Something in her posture changed and the light started to rise, float slowly up towards the clouds like a lazy balloon that had grown too old and weak to fly up. Sonja continued the stare into the light and the light rose and rose until it’s shine touched all of Times Square. Nobody but them seemed to see the light or even acknowledge the presence of two people randomly standing still in the epicentre of Times Square. And then Sonja let her fist burst open, spreading her fingers like a firework. The ball of light burst. Jacob’s body twitched, wanting to duck as the small star above him exploded, but his mind was too transfixed to relay a reflex. The light burst, and a billion autuum leaves made of pure starlight began falling from the sky onto Times Square and it’s trampled down snow. And now they noticed. As countless leaves fell from the clouds, swaying, dancing and falling with an angel’s grace towards the people below, they noticed. Everyone looked up, stared at the blinding lights, at birch, oak, maple and ash tumbling towards them, and then, Times Square shifted. Now, they were all staring at them. At him. Because Sonja had vanished. His face and his hand that was for some reason stretched towards the sky were projected onto every screen of Times Square and like a single body, the people began to move. Hundreds of them. Sound arose and within a heartbeat, a million voices were crashing down on him. And Jacob crumbled like ash under them. His heart came first. It stopped and was then frozen in time. And then it moved with the first of the people, racing, stumbling, faliling in his chest. It followed no rhythm, no beat, because no music could sound through the roaring waterfall of voices drowning him. It beat against his chest, his ribs, his lungs, his spine and his throat, anything, trying to flee or at least tear itself to shreds so those hungry hungry eyes wouldn’t do it, so that they’d finally stop looking. Then his lungs followed, iron bands bolted around his chest so that he couldn’t take another breath. He wanted to scream, roar, do anthing that might get those people away from him, get their eyes off him. His body was begging for air that his lungs refused to give. Jacob ran. His panicked mind turned towards the closest street and he ran. He pushed through the people that still stared at him, still muttered and still moved towards him. He payed no mind to how he might hurt the woman he’d pushed over or the man whose knee he’d kicked by accident, the only thought was to run, to finally get the fuck out of here, get somewhere where he was alone, dark and where he could fucking breathe. The leaves of light continued to fall, burning themselves into his eyes. The shattered into a thousand tiny sparks whenever they burst on someones head and every shower of sparks seemed like another fire in the inferno engulfing him.

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Another Shot It was dark when Jacob found himself in some back alley. He was still out of breath and his legs where shaking. He fell against one of the walls for support and drew his arms around him leaning over to accommodate his hurting stomach, breathing through his teeth so he wouldn’t hurl. There was nobody around and the only evidence of human life in the area was the occasional passing of a car. He had no idea where he was, what the fuck had happened and what time it was. Focusing on the concrete underneath his feet he slowly steadied his breath and his heartbeat, doing everything he could not to think about what the hell had happened. His thoughts flinched away from the image of Sonja like she was glowing coals and he recoiled around his shaken soul like a wounded animal. He knew how pathetic he must look, lying in shambles because a few people looked at him, but he’d stopped giving a shit about people thought a long time ago. Be strong, they said. Come one, man up. Fucking pussy. Just such a whini little bitch, and here I was thinking you had balls. Yeah, he knew them all. But he knew from experience he’d break down at some point and he knew that breakdown was much easier to handle or even avoid when he gave in to the emotions of the moment. He let the fear wash over him, let it shake him to the bones and let it steal his breath. He allowed the adrenaline to scratch tears out of his eyes and he allowed his throat to release the compressed air in his lungs with a groan. He allowed himself to feel and break down, knowing that if he didn’t, if he pulled himself together, bundled up the fear and tossed it into the back of his mind with all the others, he’d never handle when it inevitably escaped. He’d had that once, followed all their advice and manned up and the only reason he’d made it out of that live was because he hadn’t known that guns had a safety. No, he knew better and only pushed himself off the wall when the thoughts of panic, of running and hiding had gone and the first “okay, what now” had passed his mind. He took a breath and stepped out of the alley. The streetlights were on and bathed him in yellow light as he pulled out his phone. Five missed calls, two from Robin and three from Ellen. And five missed hours since he’d last checked. Probably three since Sonja met him. He shook any thought of that out of his head and plugged in his headphones. He called Ellen first, he wanted to have time when he’d call Robin. He let it ring while he opened google maps to figure out where the fuck he was. At least he still had half his battery, so he’d probably get home with music. Google maps centred in on his position just as the line clicked and Ellen’s voice split his skull. “Where the fuck have you been?! I’ve tried to call you like ten times by now! The fuck happened?!” Jacob let the computer calculate the best route home. “I’m sorry. I… I don’t know, I got lost or some shit. I really don’t know. I’m on my way home right now though.” He tried to sound calm, tried not to let through how shaken he was. He was alone now, Sonja and all those people were gone, but the feeling of a thousand eyes on him still lingered, their looks like fingers on his naked skin, touching him everywhere, choking him. “Eta is 2 hours if I walk. I’ll see if there’s a bus or a line on the way,” he managed to squeeze out. But Ellen didn’t notice, too preoccupied with her anger to listen, which he was more than thankful for. Or most of him anyway. “Yeah you better. You still owe me a pic, or I can finally stop this shit! Fucking see you!” And she hung up. Jacob sighed and took out his phone again, this time tapping Robin’s name. It rang a few times before he picked up. “Jacob?” He tried to steady his breath. “Yeah, it’s me. Sorry I didn’t call earlier. I… there was some really weird shit going on and I got caught in the middle of it. I’m headed home right now. Really fucking sorry.” Robin’s voice was soothing and soft compared to Ellen’s angry pressed words. “Don’t worry about it. I’m just glad you called. How are you doing?” “Good, good. Yeah, I’m doing just fine.” His voice broke at fine and it took his several breaths and his fingernails digging into his hand to steady it again. Robin chuckled softly.

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“Want to tell me what happened?” God, his voice was so soft. “Honestly, I don’t fucking know. I was just kind of wandering through the city when a friend caught me. She said she wanted to take me to some café in uptown and we ended up on Times Square. There she did some kind of shit with a light and then fucking everyone was staring at me. I freaked and got out of there and now I’m somewhere in freaking Queens. I’ve got myself, I’m fine, but jesus that was fucking scary.” He surpressed a shudder and took a left as the voice from his phone instructed him to. “That sounds about as insane as New York has to offer.” Jacob nodded and then remembered that Robin couldn’t see that. “Yeah. Robin, is it okay if I come to your place tomorrow? I want to see you and I need a break from this city and its people.” His heart couldn’t quite keep up with his tongue and stumbled after it, racing to keep up with his words. Robin sounded pleasantly surprised when he answered and Jacob’s heart stumbled again. “Of course, yes. That would be awesome! I’ll text you the address. I’m sorry, I won’t be able to pick you up, my car broke down a few days ago. But tell when you’ll get here and I’ll have some food ready.” The excitement in his voice warmed Jacob to the core and again that stupid smile was plastered on his face, chasing away the rest of his fluttering racing heart. “Yeah, I’ll tell you as soon as I know. Thanks.” “Don’t worry. But, while we’re at it, can I tell your parents? I’m sure they’d be happy to see you. I haven’t gotten around to telling them that you called.” The smile fell as easily as shed skin when the image of his father turning in disgust came to his mind. It broke into pieces on the metal bench of a bus station he stood at. “No. I mean, I don’t know. I… I don’t know.” “You don’t have to meet them alone. We can go to the center, get a table at the rainforest café, then we can ditch them whenever you want to go.” “Yeah, I guess I should, shouldn’t I?” he muttered in resignation. “I’d just hoped I wouldn’t have to face their shit again. But I owe them at least a lunch,” he sighed and stepped into the bus as it arrived. He fidgeted with the amulet that was still in his pocket and dropped it as soon as he realized what he was doing. There were no free seats on the bus so he propped himself up against a handle and held on as the bus set itself in motion. “Well, they’re not particularly busy, so you can just decide when you’re here. Would be a nice surprise.” Jacob chuckled coldly. “I’m sure. Say, is it okay if I hang up and call back as soon as I have an eta?” His heart screamed at him, clawed and clambered to get to his lips, reverse what he had just said, but the words had marched over his tongue under his brains direction and Robin was already answering. “Yeah sure, no problem. I guess we’ll have plenty to talk once you get here. Talk to you soon then.” And a soft clicking in his ear informed him that the conversation was over. He let himself sack against the metal bar and closed his eyes as exhaustion washed over him. Talking to people had always drained him and the worsening of his social anxiety had only magnified that effect. And today with the combination of Ellen, whatever the fuck Sonja had done and Robin, he could feel his heart numbing. Every muscle in his face was growing tired and his heart was too exhausted to feel even annoyance as he was thrown against a glass pane. He just pushed himself off, not even granting those behind the glass he’d stumbled against an apologetic smile. The muscles around his eyes refused to move so he just kept his head hanging, giving himself just the few moments in the bus to relax and recover before he’d have to break to Ellen that he was ditching her for the weekend. He put on music and let the songs wash over his brain like a new coat of paint, allowing him to put off figuring out what the fuck had happened back in times square for another hour or so. He relaxed enough for the bus to shake him through while holding on to the bar and got off when the buildings started to look familiar. He felt the shock of his feet hitting the pavement strangely strong, felt the vibrations pass through his spine and tried to tread softer as he walked on home. His thoughts flew forward, to his room and he made a mental list of all the things he’d need. The travel bag

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in the closet, five sets of clothes, a book for the ride, if he still had any of those, and his documents. He’d also take his little stash of savings with him, just for the sake of it and because then there would be nothing of value left in the apartment, should something happen while he was gone. Maybe the gun would be gone, when he came back. His heart cramped up at the thought and it quivered, no comprehension for the relief that accompanied the thought. The little routine was part of his life, it was one of the few stable things he’d had until he met Ellen. Sure, it was grotesque and if anyone knew Jacob was pretty sure he’d not be running around New York City unchecked anymore, but to him, it was cleansing. When he went to bed, he knew that this day had been worth it, something, even just a tiny moment of serenity, happiness or beauty, had made this day worth all the shit that had preluded it. He’d learned to find beauty in the smallest things like that. Like that splitsecond in which the bus just drove, no force impacting his body, and he just relaxed, all his muscles floating for a heartbeat until the next red light came. Or the surprised smile in Robins voice when his mouth had made the decision to fly to texas before his brain could even react. Or the moment of awe when all of Times Square had stopped and stared up at leaves of light falling down on them. He’d learned to separate horrible moments in his day from the soft beats of genuine beauty that often preluded them and had learned only to remember those. But he wouldn’t be taking it with him tonight. He’d leave it behind in New York. He tried to ignore the knot in his gut and steer his thoughts away form the reassurance that every household had knives, but even digging his nails into his hands didn’t help. He couldn’t control his own head, let alone his heart, so he surrendered to the relief the image of sharp steel brought and let his mind go over his anatomy to find the best spots to put the blade. He’d have to go back into the park for that, he wasn’t going to let Robin find his corpse. The idea alone was revolting and a small glimmer of hope took root in his soul. Maybe, he’d be able to stop when he left the city. Maybe, tomorrow that would be over. Maybe, just maybe, making through the night wouldn’t be a debate anymore, he’d just go to bed and pay the passage of time no mind. His beating heart would be just another part of him, no longer a neuseance, and breathing wouldn’t be accompanied by guilt. He scoffed and pushed the thoughts away, but it was harder than usual somehow and they left marks, tiny roots that had found their way into the folds of his brain. He groaned and let his head drop back, staring up at the cloud covered night sky. Now he’d done it, given himself hope again. After all he’d learned, here he was, chasing hopeful dreams. He knew how sharp the shards of shattered hope were, he knew how much those wounds bled. And still he was stupid enough to let it come up. Another funny thing about hope. The smallest seed and you were lost. Hope was a weed, it only took the smallest seed and a splitsecond of attention and it bloomed and grew and took root and was impossible to get rid off without feeling the thorns. Stupid, stupid, stupid! Jacob could already feel the first tears of panic at the pain soon to come in his soul. He quickly searched his pockets and took out a cigarette. Nothing like fire to seal a wound. He breathed in and the soft spark at the other end roared in all its useless power. He reached the apartment building too early and stood outside, watching the bloodstream of the city as he breathed and smoked. When the stick had burned down, he flicked it into the gutter and turned to enter the house. He didn’t look up in the elevator or in the hallway. The next time he saw looked up, he wanted to see the sky and breathe a sigh of relief. The thought was forgotten when the first turn of his key already opened his door. All thoughts of the sky, relief or getting out of here were gone and he slowly pushed the door open. “Ellen?” he asked hopefully into the room. Maybe it was nothing, maybe it was just her. And really, Ellen walked slowly out of the hallway that lead to the bedroom. That would have concerned him, but she stumbled and fell and concern overrode everything. He slipped out of his jacket and scarf while he dove for her and carefully plucked his headphones out as he knelt beside her. Ellen groaned and rolled over, her arm taking the toll on her overestimation and hitting the ground harder than intended. Her face crumpled up like paper and she let out a low whine as she curled up around her hurt hand. Jacob only had to take on taste of the air and his fears were concerned. He’d left her alone for too long. “Ellen, you need to get up, I can’t pick you up,” he said softly, as not to trigger any headaches she might have. “And you need to get your fucking life together, shithead!” she said to her hand. She rolled over and looked at him, drawing the line with her eyes from the words piled up by her side to him.

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“What?” She grinned, but it wasn’t a happy grin, not even drunk happy. It was a grotesque mask, her face pulling the muscles with no dedication behind it. “Yeah, what. I mean, what the fuck, Jackie?!” His worry grew. She wasn’t making any sense at all and she knew that he hated that nickname. She only used it when she was completely out of it, at that meant a lot when it came to Ellen. She was resistant, he didn’t want to see the number of bottles she’d downed to get into this state. “Come on Ellen, you need to get to bed. You need to sleep.” He tried to get under her arms to gently push her into a sitting position, but she made no move to tense her body, making his efforts futile. “Nonono. First, you’re gonna explain to me, why the fuck you’ve got a fucking stalkers shrine to the chick in the red boots in your bedroom. And what the fucking hell the bloody gun is doing there.” His heart fell. He heard the thump as it hit the wooden floor and beat there, spilling blood all over the place. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He allowed himself a peak at the bedroom door, and indeed, it stood ajar. He could see the box from here. The gun carelessly tossed in front of it. “Yeeah, you do. Ya know exactly what I’m on about. You’re peaking at your little toy right there, don’t think I can’t see it.” Jacob tried to get her to sit up again, this time she complied and allowed him to help her stand up. “I’ll explain it to you when you’ve slept and are sober again.” At that she tore her arm loose from him and almost fell over again, crashing against a wall instead. “Nono, I’ll have forgotten all this when I wake up, and you’ll lie and never tell me about it. Tell me now, or I’ll puke right here on your floor! Tell me!” Jacob groaned and took a step or so back to reach the little everything chamber to get out a bucket. There wasn’t one in there. Fuck. “Come one!” “It’s nothing, Ellen really. I just like to keep it safe, so I keep it in the bedroom, so it’s near me.” “You never sleep in the bedroom! You always sleep on the couch, and when I sleep on the couch you either don’t sleep at all or you crash in the armchair or on the floor. Don’t fucking lie to me! What the fuck do you have a gun in there for?” Jacob could feel his nerves slowly tearing. He’d have to hurry or he would be saying things he neither meant nor could take back. “It’s none of your business Ellen. Would you please just let me take care of you?” “Fuck no! I’m not gonna let someone touch me that has a gun! What the fuck do you have that gun for?!” Her voice was growing louder, probing deeper and deeper into his skull. “And why the fuck won’t you tell me?! I’m your friend! No, don’t fucking touch me, don’t you dare touch me before you tell me why you have a fucking murderweapon in your bedroom that you never use. Why the fuck do you have a gun?!” she shrieked and Jacob felt himself snap. “Because it keeps me fucking sane, okay?! Because with all the shit you and everyone else in this god forsaken city are pulling, I need fucking something to ground me, since my only friend is too drunk out of her fucking mind to tell a sink from bed!” he shouted. He had never shouted at Ellen before. He had never snapped with her before. She’d never seen his anger. And now that she did, she was afraid. With big eyes she took another unsure step backwards, almost stumbling over her own heels. He reached out to catch her, more instinct than actual thought moving him, and she withdrew even further. “What the fuck do you use the gun for, J?” she whispered, a small terrified whisper that should have snapped him out of it, that should have brought him back, but instead in only enraged him further, her fear fueling his anger like oil. “Do you want to know? Really, do you want to know that badly? Wait, let me show you, let me give you a first class show.” He shoved past her, her fucking stupid fear, her fucking big googly fearful eyes following him. The metal molded itself into his skin like it did on the worst of days and the weapon was light as he picked it up. Ellen recoiled like a wounded animal and somewhere in the back of the mind he remembered how terrified she was of guns ever since the man she had left behind had used one on her. But that part of his mind wasn’t in control, anger was. For the first time in his life, Jacob let fury steer him, anger at how ungreatful and fucking difficult she was controled his muscles. He lifted the gun to his chin like he always did and noted with grim satisfaction her terrified shriek.

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“See, I lift it to my head, right here, right like fucking this! And then I sit there and look around and wonder why the fuck I didn’t do this sooner, why the fuck I am still here!” Ellen whimpered, tears streaming over her cheeks and she pressed herself along the wall, too drunk and too afraid to stand on her own, backing away as he pushed in on her. Her eyes shot from the metal to his flaming eyes to the metal again and he could tell that she was barely breathing. “And I try to think of something, anything that made this day fucking worth it. And I sift through the shit that is my life right now and I look and I look and I make due with the smallest fucking scrap of light so that I can put this fucking thing down!” Her lips were quivering, her mouth forming words, begging him to stop, begging him to move away and to put that gun down. But he couldn’t hear, his eyes too blinded by fire to pluck the words from her trembling lips. “And there are days, like fucking today, where I just sit there, for fucking hours, until my legs are numb and I can’t feel my fingers anymore, and I cry because I think it’s fucking over and I try to think, think fucking hard, just long enough for something to come along. And you know, today I thought that thing might just be you, just you being nice, being my fucking friend, you having made it through another day, saying you hate me, moaning and whining about your own fucking problems! But fucking no! You’re drunk out of your god damn mind!” As his assault turned towards her, her eyes widened even more and her whimpering reached his deaf ears. “But you know what?! At least I won’t have to do you fucking stupid shit anymore!” “Jacob!” Her words were so tiny, her voice so frail and small he almost trampled over it, crushing the frail bones beneath his feet. “WHAT?!” She shrank back, but she did answer, the words falling over her quivering lips. “Take the gun down.” “Fuck no!” “Please.” “I’m not doing shit.” Click.

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Flight When he came to his senses, Jacob could still hear her scream. Her sobs and tears as she scrambled to get out of the apartment. He didn’t recall much after that, his mind refused to move past the horror on her face. The fucking safety. Once again, the fucking safety had saved him. Instead of tearing the flesh off his face like he wanted to, he got moving, throwing random things into the first backpack he found, only really thinking about his wallet and his documents. What the hell had he done?! He had terrified her, and that was only what the safety hadn’t stopped. If that little tiny switch hadn’t been there, he’d be dead now. Ellen staring at his dead brainless body. Thinking it was her fault. He wanted to punch himself out cold. Instead he sipped the bag close and flew out of the apartment, only just enough in the right mind to pick up the things he’d dropped coming in before throwing the door behind him into the lock. He didn’t bother locking it. He hesitated in front of Ellens door, feeling the urge to knock, say sorry, and explain everything, come up with a lie that was convincing enough. He stood there, his hand already raised, but his racing heart took the better of him. He turned and walked away. Out of the door, out of the building. He walked until a taxi stopped for him and let him in. Anything to keep the movement going, anything to delay the impact of what the fuck he had done catching up to him. He was so much better at running than actually dealing with this, so that’s what he did. He directed the driver towards the JFK airport and put on music so loud the driver shot him concerned glances through the back mirror. Only when he got back out into the cold did he realize it hadn’t been for the music but for the tears on his face. He wiped them off harshly, taking a few layers of skin with him and marched into the airport, to the first bathroom he could find. He locked himself into a stall and let the backpack down onto the closed toilet seat. Then he punched the wall. Not the thin one separating the stalls from each other, the tiled one in the back. He punched it as hard as he could and bit down his cry as the pain shot through his arm. He shook out his hand and pressed it to his chest until the throbbing had subsided. Then he punched it again. And again. And again. Until his tears had stopped and the bottomless pit in his chest had moved to somewhere else and it didn’t feel like he was about to fall any second now. His thoughts were nowhere clear yet, but at least he had thoughts now. He could think again, even if it wasn’t very effectively. He could put one foot in front of the other and could consciously put on his backpack. He could breathe again. Whether he should was a whole other question, but right now even the idea of finding a ticket seemed like a monumental task that he could only convince himself to tackle with outmost difficulty, so figuring out how to handle the gravity of what he had done was something he couldn’t even approach. With a deep breath he unlocked the bathroom stall and moved to pretend to wash his hands with the actual intent of cooling the bruises. When he looked up he stopped dead in his tracks. Sonja stood right in front of him, only centimetres from where the door must have been. She was smiling a dazzinlgy beautiful smile and her dark eyes locked him in place, like black amber hardened around him. He couldn’t move, couldn’t take the step back he wanted to take, all alarms in his brain going off. Somewhere inside of him, something small and weak and young broke down and cried, whailed and thrashed around in all its useless power, screetching at him to get away. “Jacob! How good to see you again. And here of all places, how strange.” Her voice was warm and sweet like cotton candy that swallowed you whole and dug into your lungs. “What are you doing here?” he asked coldly. He wasn’t going to let his guard down, not again. Whatever the fuck she had done last time, there were enough people around for her to do it again. She pretended not to hear the open hostility in his voice and her smile grew even brighter. Even now, when he wanted nothing more than to get out of here, when his mind was scattered, something in his hand felt broken and his soul was torn to shreds, he couldn’t help but notice how beautiful her smile was. “I was going to ask you the same thing, how funny. What an earth are you doing at the airport?” With every word she spoke he recoiled further and further, keeping his guard up for the strike he knew was going to come. “I’m leaving the city,” he answered, hoping the words didn’t sound as sharp as he’d meant them. “And why would that be? We were having such a tremendous time together.”

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“To get away from it for a while. From you, Ellen, everything. I need a break.” Before he could react, think or even breathe, she had shoved aside her smile and had grabbed him by the throat, pushing him against the wall. Her fingers constricted around his neck like a snake, her grip so much stronger that she looked to be. All smile, all friendliness had fallen from her face and only terrible determination was left, staring him right in the eye. “You will not leave me, Jacob Fireman. Not before I have what I need. I see your soul is whole again, your heart beats. You have a bargain to uphold.” Her voice was cold and hard, and he shuddered. He had never seen her like this and it scared him. He tried to struggle, tried to swallow, breathe, get out of her grasp, but her nails only dug deeper into his skin. “Resistance if futile, Fireman. But I will not drag you all the way to Texas.” She pulled back a litte, still not letting him go, and looked up at the ceiling, a smile of terrible beauty blooming on her face. “Sunrise,” she simply said, and kept looking up at the ceiling. The question how she knew that from inside here prowled in the back of his mind, but he payed it no attention, the necessity to breathe and get the fuck away from her much stronger, tearing his lungs through his throat. When, after a few minutes, she looked back down at him, what little breath he had was caught in his throat. Her eyes were burning bright yellow like that of the sun. The burned themselves through his irises, through his skull and into his brain and he couldn’t look away. He couldn’t blink, couldn’t turn, couldn’t move. Sonja smiled, her lips curling upwards into a terrifyingly beautiful cruel smile. “There now. Just a few more seconds and then we can get going.” Her stare continued, her yellow eyes not wavering, not blinking, simply burning into him, burning his resolve, burning through his nerves. Then she moved closer, her outstretched elbow buckling, allowing her face so close that her nose brushed his. And then she kissed him. Her eyes wide open, staring into his, her lips melted onto his and her fingernails removed themselves from his flesh. Frozen in terror he stood there and when she pulled back, letting him go entirely, he did not move. “Robin, huh? Well, don’t worry darling, I’ll let you run to him as soon as I have what I need. But now, follow me.” And when she moved, so did he. His mind still scrambling to figure out what she had meant with that, his body followed. His heart raced and when they passed the mirror, he could see the bloody dents where her fingernails had broken his skin and the forming bruise where her hand had lain. He wanted to stop and wash off the blood, he wanted to run and get the fuck out of here, call Ellen, Robin, anyone, but he couldn’t. He followed her. His mind screaming, thrashing, crying, stuck in his body. They walked out of the men’s bathroom and Sonja pulled out sunglasses to ward her eyes against the bright morning sun that shone through the windows. They weaved through the steadily growing mass of people towards the ticket counter. There she stepped behind him and gently pushed him forward. “Get two tickets to San Antonio, please,” she instructed and he stepped forward towards the lady that pretended to smile as she saw him approaching. “Good morning, sir, what can I do for you?” She professionally ignored his rugged appearance and her smile never faltered. “Two tickets to San Antonio please,” Jacob heard himself answering and in the midst of his panic and terror he admired how calm his voice was. He couldn’t remember forming those words or telling his tongue to move, yet here they were, standing on the counter and staring up at the lady in anticipation. She just nodded, tore her eyes of his piercings and the bloody marks on his neck and started typing on her computer. “There is a flight going in an hour, would that be okay?” Jacob nodded and smiled. His hands took out his wallet and his fingers peeled his credit card out of it without his brain having any input. “That would be 542 dollars please,” the lady cooed and Jacob just stuck his card into the reader and entered the pin. He waited anxiously as the tickets were printed out and handed over and his body remained calm and smiled as he took the paper. Sonja too smiled at the ticket lady and stood on her toes, resting her chin on his shoulder. Jacob recoiled at the touch, shrinking back, putting as much distance as he could between him and her, but his body didn’t move. “Take us through customs and to the plane unnoticed. You are good at that, are you not? Being invisible? Come on.” His head nodded and his legs took him away to the safety checks while his mind sat there helplessly, trying to control

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his racing heart and shallow breath and keep him going until he got out of this. An all too familiar thought came by and threw the accompanied dread in his face. What if he didn’t get out of this? What if this would stay? Usually this particular train of thought came by when he hadn’t been able to leave the apartment for three days in a row or when he’d lingered at the Wilhelmsburg bridge a little too long. This time around, it was much more terrifying and the dread stuck deeper and much stronger. Sure, she’d said she’d let him go when she had what she wanted from him, but what if he couldn’t provide? What if he didn’t have what she wanted, what if she was left empty handed by the time they were in San Antonio? Would she let him go? Or would she keep him, controlling him like she did now? Somewhere in the back of his mind a few grey cells were busy wondering what the fuck she had done to him and whether the parameters of his world view were still applicable, but that was a back hum to the rest of his mind panicing over the sudden cut between him and his body. His fingers undid the piercings he could take off on their own, although Jacob would have loved the excuse for someone to stop him, touch him, anything to break the influence of that fire in her eyes. He was glad it was hidden behind the sunglasses, glad the coals no longer burned themselves into the back of his skull and that he could only barely see the flames licking up behind the darkened glass. He shuddered as he passed the metal detector and the man in uniform put it off as general nerviosity. He wanted to grab him, do anything that he might be stopped, even arrested, whatever it would take to get him out of this. But his legs carried him over to the tray and he simply slipped his backpack back over his shoulders. Sonja followed him, chatting him up on topics so normal they seemed the strangest thing in the world as his body moved without his input and he lead them to the gate. The flight was already boarding, so they didn’t have to wait. Jacob handed the flight attendant the tickets and they were waved through. His hand holding the tickets was trembling, the only sign of his screaming mind. It was quite useful not to have control over his body. Like this he couldn’t panic. It was a strange feeling, his body calm as if asleep while his mind tore itself to shreds and hid in a corner, trembling in fear. He found their seats and Sonja pushed him through so she got the one next to the corridor. She pushed her own bag into the compartment above him, then she looked down at him and smile another one of those kind gentle terrifying smiles. “Take off your bag and get comfortable. We’ll be here a while.” God, her voice was so soft. So kind and warm. It smothered him, burning right through him to his core. His body moved to take off the pack it and shove it under the seat ahead and he took off his jacket and scarf, plucking his phone from the pockets before the fabric crumpled on his lap. Sonja smiled again and came closer, leaning over him. His body couldn’t react, but she must have seen the fear in his eyes. She only smiled at it and made a gesture with her hand. “Tip your head forward. I need to get to your neck.” His mucles moved and for a brief moment, he felt goosebumps on his neck rise to meet her touch, then everything went dark.

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The last Dance Waking up was sudden and it took Jacob a look at the midday sun to realize he had slept and not just blinked. He saw a steel blue sky above him and the eye of the world was staring right at him, judging his every breath. “Sit up,” a gentle voice commanded him and his arms shifted to make the move possible. It was then that the reality of what was happening flooded back to him. His body moved while his mind still looked up at the sky. It moved without him, leaving him in the snow. Sonja appeared in his field of vision, her sunglasses gone, and yellow fire scorched his eyeballs. Another one of those beautifully terrible smiles. “We are almost there. I need you to take part of a ritual for me. After that I will let you go, and you will never have to see me again if you wish that.” There was nothing he wished for more. Never to see those flaming eyes, that beautiful smile again. “I just need a dance from you, it’s easy. Stand.” Jacobs legs pushed him and shook a little under his weight. He wondered for a moment when he’d last eaten. He forgot that sometimes. His train of thought was derailed when he realized where he was. In the snow. No longer in the plane, not even remotely close to the airport. They were in the backyard of an empty dead house, high fences surrounding them. In the snow. Jacob knew that house. A pang of fear knocked the breath out of his lungs and the stare of the empty black windows held his. His parents had moved. Left the house. They were gone. And his childhood home abandoned. Why are we here? He wanted to speak, wanted to ask a million questions, but his jaw wouldn’t budge. “Follow me.” Her voice was as soft as the snow they treaded. The back door was unlocked and Sonja stepped through. His hand caught the doorframe in a movement so engrained into his muscles he didn’t even waste a thought to it, not that that would have made any difference. She lead him into the living room, onto the spot where the round blue carpet had been, the centre of the ground floor. As he stepped onto it, he could almost feel the soft blue threads tickling his bare feet and his feet twitched with the desire to bury themselves into a carpet that was no longer there. Sonja too looked at the cirle the light had drawn around the carpet and then scanned the room. “Sit there. You just need to sit there and watch.” So he sat there, below the windowsill just outside the circle and watched. Watched as she pulled out a dress of black silk. Watched as she undressed. Watched her naked skin kissed by the light. Watched the black silk embrace her. Watched her body bend and curve as she slipped her feet into pitch black ballet shoes. Watched the silken ribbons twist like snakes around her ankle and her lower leg. Watched her take out a familiar silver box out of the bag. And watched her come towards him with the maxeup kit she’d taken from the ballet. “Do my makeup please.” She was so close so close so close. His heart tore itself to pieces. No longer in nervouseness, now in terror. She set down the box and sat down in front of him and he just undid the closing mechanisms and looked at her face, his clean sheet of paper. “Who are you?” he asked the usual question and his voice sent a chill down his spine. It was cold and lifeless, nothing but air trudging past his throat. A soft whimsical smile tripped over Sonja’s lips as she heard the familiar line. “Coal. I am coal destined to burn.” He felt himself nod and his hands began to move. All he could do was sit back and watch as his hands chose the colours and his fingers moved to smudge black, grey, red and orange all over her face until her yellow flaming eyes were surrounded by pitch black with flaming edges. Her lips too were black and now looked as dangerous as they truly were, poison dried on the soft skin, darkening beyond anything that was human. When he put down his brush she smiled at him one last time with those lethal lips and the backed away. She took out two white round stones with one black dot on each out of her bag and pressed them into his hands. “They will be your eyes, they will see. Just watch Jacob. As soon as I have what I need, you can go.” Then she got out her little box and music started. It was a kind of song he’d never heard before. He wasn’t sure whether the sounds wrapping her in her black dress came from human throats or the strings of violins. They brought warmth and light with them and Sonja’s skin glowed

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golden in the light of the music. And then, after fifteen heartbeats, she melted. Her legs bowed, her knees melting to become wax. And at the sixteenth beat, they straightened and she floated, just above the ground and she started to move. Like candlewax the music shaped her, formed her limbs and spun her around. The light grew stronger and stronger, and somewhere in the most primal depths of his mind, Jacob marvelled at the flames that were beginning to spring up around the room. Sonja moved, flowed like silk in the wind and the fire grew, her yellow eyes a spark in the coal. And then, when the song hit its crescendo and a note that made the walls tremble sent a shiver through Sonja’s waxen lips, the coal burst into flame. Fire engulfed the circle and golden and red licked at the coal inside it. Jacob barely felt the heat, he payed no attention to the fire around him or that the black dots on the round stones glowed yellow like her eyes. All he could see were the flames as they engulfed the living breathing coal in their midst, kissing its skin, transforming it from a black lump of nothingness into a phoenix rising. Her movement was power and grace and fire and she simply kept moving as the fire kissed her and caressed her skin.

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A world on fire A breath. Smoke. Jacob could suddenly feel the smoke burning in his lungs and he coughed and tried to suck in air at the same time. The music was deteriorating as the roaring of the flames engulfed it. The fire had grown rapidly, much faster than any normal fire should and the wooden beams that held the first floor and the roof were groaning in the heat. Out of some instinct he didn’t know he’d had he pressed his nose into the crook of his elbow and ran for it. Fire bit his feet, his hand and his side, but he just pressed on. The hallway was still clear and he scrambled for the exit, screaming as he burned his hand on the metal doorhandle of the back door. He jumped outside, into the snow, quickly pressing the burned flesh into the snow. He crawled away from the door, tripping over his backpack and falling face first onto the ground, crawling away further and further until he hit the fence. Only then with the cool wall in his back and his hands pressed into the snow did he look up. The house was engulfed in flames, fire licking into the sky, a pillar of thick black smoke reaching for the steel blue sky. The fire seemed like a mirage, not quite real as it roared against the snow and the winter sky. An illusion of terrible beauty that had come to eat his life away. “Sonja!” He had no idea where the scream came from, but once it shattered the frozen air, he got to his legs. He automatically took up the backpack, barely noticing the pain in his hands as the rough material tore open the bare flesh. He ran towards the house only to be knocked back by the heatwave that rolled over the lawn and melted the snow into slippery puddles. The fire was roaring and thrashing around in the house and he had gotten out just in time as now glas was bursting and wood was shattering into a million splinters. He crawled away from the fire again and got back onto his feet. “Sonja!” he screamed again, taking as much air into the word as his choking lungs could take. But there was no response. No screaming, no crying, nothing. Just the roaring of the fire dampened by the snow. She had probably passed out from the smoke. The thought came to him cold and serious and Jacob gasped as the image of her lying there, engulfed in fire. What the fuck had she done?! Why had she stayed in there?! He could feel his heart starting to race and his feet moved with it. The house loomed up like a black giant behind him, watching him with flaming eyes as he grew and grew towards the sky. There was nothing he could do here, he couldn’t help her, he couldn’t save the house that nobody lived in and he couldn’t answer any of these questions that were threatening to shatter his mind. He moved, just walking, sometimes jogging, the walking again when his body begged for air his lungs couldn’t provide. He walked the familiar streets, slipping on snow walked down to ice every now and then, he even fell twice, but he just kept going. Movement had always been good at keeping his mind at bay. He moved, but he couldn’t stop coughing, each step interrupted by a fit, his lungs hoping to escape this wretched murderous body they’d been held in. With every painful mouthful of red liquid he lost, with every time his throat was torn open again, more numbness overcame his heart. By the time he’d figured out how to pull his scarf over his nose so that the air wouldn’t be as cold, as irritating anymore, he felt nothing but the concrete under his feet, and even that was more knowledge than sensation. He stumbled forward, his feet not quite feeling the ground. His heart numb to the way his tears were freezing on his face. He didn’t know it, didn’t realize it, but his feet had a goal as they hit the concrete. He wasn’t surprised when he wound up in the street that Robin had sent him and his hand moved on its own to press the button for the doorbell. He could hear the sound ringing throughout the house. He wasn’t afraid, wasn’t nervous. He just felt sick and numb. He knew that feeling, knew the knot in his gut, knew the sensation of being constantly on the verge of vomiting out his life and soul. He knew it from the night he’d stolen his fathers gun. And from the morning he’d decided to go to the Williamsburg Bridge. And he knew he couldn’t handle it on his own. Robin opened the door. Jacob smiled at the shocked look in his eyes. A small, weak, excusing smile. “Sorry. I didn’t call. It’s just me, I didn’t get the whiskey.”

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And for a heartbeat, the world was whole.

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An Epiloge Light fell through the window, tumbling through the glass and landing on the floor in a chaotic mix of yellow and red. It danced on the wooden planks and kissed Jacob’s eyelids, setting his iris’ ablaze when they flew open. Jacob shot up, his hands clenching the blanket while his breath raced away. His mind was thrust back, back into his house, his house in flames, Sonja burning alive in it. Only when the whailing of her dying body came closer and then passed could he recognize it as just a siren, the light as the flashing lights from a fire truck. “Fucking hell,” he groaned, curling up against the headboard, the sweat on his body cooling down, as if his skin was desperate to remind him that he wasn’t in the house, wasn’t burning alive like Sonja had. Jacob tried to wake himself up, rubbing his face and setting his feet down on the cold wooden floor. The cold curled around him like a dead cat, brushing him and moving on, leaving him alone in the dark. He tried to get his bearings for a minute or so until the flashing notification light on his phone caught his attention. He stared at it for what felt like the half life of the universe, watched the tiny green LED turn on and off again in a never ending mission to make him notice. With every blink he wanted to move, reach out and grab it, but the weight of the night was too heavy on his shoulders and gravity kept his hands in his lap. Not even a knock on the door could snap him out of the spell this second had him under, ticking again and again, with every blink of the light. But he did lift his head, somehow the mechanics of his spine able to work without his mind having to wrestle itself free of this leaden gravity. The door opened a little, just enough to allow Robin to poke his head through. The hall was dark as well, just as dark as his room. They were both enveloped in darkness, their eyes grabbing for anything they could reach of each other in the night, only the yellow streetlights outside and the ticking light of Jacob’s phone granting them light. “Hey,” Robin broke the silence. This one word in his soft raw voice was enough to break the spell, lift the weight of his entire world of Jacob’s shoulders. Jacob smiled a smile so small the streetlight falling through the window could barely touch it. “Hey.” His own voice wasn’t nearly as pleasant as Robins, it was raw and cracked with smoke and time and whatever this particular darkness was. Robin didn’t seem to mind though, he stepped through the door fully and moved quietly across the room, his feet sinking into the carpet with a soft whispering that assured that he was still here. He sat down onto the bed beside Jacob and looked him up and down, taking in his disheveled ponytail, his body cloaked in a sheet of sweat and goosebumps and his tired tired eyes. “I thought I’d check on you,” he explained his presence even though Jacob couldn’t have given less of a shit why he was here. He was just so fucking glad he wasn’t alone in the darkness. Robin reached for something at the foot of the bed and suddenly Jacob felt warmth in the form of a blanket wrap around him. The shivering finally stopped and Jacob felt something inside him melt into a puddle of relief. The puddle grew and grew until the warmth had melted his very bone and he could no longer hold himself upright, dropping against Robin’s shoulder. But Robin didn’t seem to mind, rather he moved his arm so the Jacob fell into his embrace, his heart dropping into a chasm with no bottom until Robin caught him a second later. “How are you doing? Caught some sleep?” God, how could someone pour so much kindness into so few words without spilling it? And how could he sound so genuine doing it? Jacob felt no fear, no distant doom lurking up ahead, not a single sign that Robin would leave, leave him alone. He forced himself to nod. “I think I had a nightmare. The firetruck woke me up.” Robin sighed and stared at the street through the window. “Yeah, sorry about that. It’s one of the bigger streets around. If you want you can move to my room, it’s not next to the street.” Jacob shot up. “No! No, really, this is absolutely fine. It’s already incredibly kind of you to let me stay after all the shit I’ve pulled, I definitely don’t want to steal your bed as well.” Jacob tried to sound as firm as he could and Robin nodded, smiling. It was a small smile walking on small stilts, not quite sure where to go. It was a smile weighed down with sorrows long not quite healed and a quiet acceptance of the pain that would come with the bleeding wound left behind. It was a smile that froze the moment, freezing the second, the blinking green light. No longer constrained by the boundaries of time, Jacob’s heart raced away and he swallowed the dusty ground it left behind. He wanted to cry scream hide run flee panic as he rose his hand and let gravity pull it down to the shoulder that had kept him up all his life. His fingers hit fabric, soft soft soft fabric covering warm warm soft flesh, a soft just a little higher than the shoulder, just a little higher

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than acceptable. Robin froze under him, his touch freezing ever cell in his body to ice, not a movement to stop the moment. Only his eyes crept up, crept higher, only the blue of his eyes creeping towards his own. And when they met and blinked the spell was completed, Jacob’s fate sealed and two hearts beat as one for just one moment in the dim light of a yellow street lantern.

Skyline dancing  
Skyline dancing