I do not hate parties.
It is not like I am particularly fond of them.
But I do not hate them.
Parties are usually crowded and loud places, with lots of drunk people. Which means there is always an excuse for me not to talk. Plus it is easy to get overlooked. And drunkards usually have even less ability to walk than I have.
So parties are generally places where I blend in.
In contrast to any other place.
I find a parking spot directly in front of the address I was headed to. That was not totally unexpected, since no one goes to a college party with a car. Not if you do not intend to stay the entire night, that is. I do not want so stay the entire night. But public transport is rarely an option for me. Even if a bus runs this late, the bus station is usually too far away from my destination for me to manage.
So my car it is.
I am late and it is icy cold. It makes me think that maybe the streets will be powdered with the first snow of the season when I go back to my car. The thought alone has me shiver with dread. Ice and slippery pavement is my absolute nightmare and as a result, winter usually means I get out much less than I would like to.
I am not ready for snow yet.
As I make my way down the winding path leading through old apple trees and toward a house with its windows shining bright in the dark, a group of people approaches me. For a Halloween party they are scarcely costumed and with barely more than a bit of makeup in their faces. There is a girl with a cape who giggles without pause and a guy with a clown-mask around his neck, attempting to sing a song I do not recognize. Most of them are only still upright because they have their plastic cups to hold on to and each other to lean on.
All I am leaning on are my crutches.
They do not take notice of me. I stop walking and patiently let them pass before resuming my trek as soon as the way is free again. The soles of my shoes scrape over the uneven surface of the path laid out with large, flat stones and the crutches click each time they connect with the ground. I place them a bit further ahead, one after the other, before I pull my feet in the space between them with some effort. I make sure I am balanced and my feet well-placed before shifting more weight from my arms to my protesting legs. From there the entire routine starts at the beginning. It is arduous and slow, and I should have probably taken the wheelchair. But from experience I know that asking people about wheelchair-accessibility rarely gives any useful information. And I am right this time again.
“Well… yeah, sure it’s accessible,” Connie has said as I asked her.
Connie is the girl who is throwing the party. She is also one of my fellow students. I like her, more than the average and that is the main reason I came here today. But she seems to be one of those people who think two steps to the porch still fall under ‘accessible’. Or maybe she just forgot about them. If you can get up and down with one big step, it probably does not register as stairs in your brain.
Either way, I am standing now in front of two steps. And I am damn lucky I did not take the wheelchair because how the hell am I supposed to get it up there? At least not the bulky model I own, not alone. Maybe if I crawled up…
But luckily I do not need to.
I untangle my hand from the cuff of the right crutch and take hold of both crutches with my left hand. My right goes to test the handrail. It seems strong enough to hold my weight and I shuffle closer, my breath forming small clouds in the air in front of my face. My legs are stiff like most of the time, hips and knees aching from the walk already, and the left is starting to act up. It trembles slightly as I shift weight, the knee jiggling softly against the other.
I wait until another group of people has tumbled down the steps, laughing, and vanished in the dark garden behind me for a smoke, before I step up with the right foot first, clutching the handrail in a strong grip. It requires some effort to make my boot clear the edge of the first step. Then I pull the left foot up as well, leaning into the handrail until I am standing, a bit unstable, on the first step. I set the tips of the crutches down, balance and move my right hand further up the handrail before I tackle the second step. Luckily it is also the last.
I catch my breath on the porch while clinging to the handrail, not feeling cold anymore, before I slip both my arms through the cuffs of the crutches again and make my way to the large, oaken front door. I am debating how best to enter when the group with the giggling girl overtakes me from behind and I get more or less swapped inside the house among them.
From the looks of it, it must be the house of Connie’s parents. The lights in the small entrance hall are dimmed but in a corner behind the door there are several coat racks and in the wide corridor pictures of family members of different ages are hanging from the walls, the glass reflecting as I walk past. I recognize Connie’s brown hair and freckles on a few of the photos, although she is quite young on them. Her brothers have the same freckles and the same wide grin.
The music and the clang of people shouting over it is deafening already from behind the half closed door at the end of the corridor. As I enter through it, the bass becomes something you could grab with your hands, pulsing in my chest with a slow rhythm. For a few seconds I blink into the flashing lights and quickly rotating colorful spots projected onto the walls, before I get somewhat used to it. The living room has been remodeled into a dance floor by pushing the sofas and chairs against the walls and the long dining table serves as a bar on the side. People are milling around, drinking and talking loudly to each other over the music. I try to find Connie among them but I fail. Probably she has a more elaborate costume, like the blood-splattered fairy that just veered past me.
I spot a free sofa on the other side of the room and make my way toward it. First I keep near the walls but when my knees complain even more and every step becomes more difficult than the one before, I decide to cut through directly. There are not many people dancing in the moment, anyway. When I am almost there, however, a small row breaks out among a few guys sharing Vodka between each other and one of them stumbles backward, with the bottle clutched in his hand. It is too late for me to shout a warning before the guy rams into me and we both go to the floor in a clatter of crutches and a tangle of limbs.
A few girls scream and some of the guys are still sober enough to turn around to us, worried. The guy has ended up in my lap, yelping surprised as he went down. I recognize him as one of the older students, a year ahead of me in the program. He wiggles into a sitting position, looks into nothing for a few seconds and shakes his head like a wet dog. Then he thrusts the bottle of Vodka into the air: It is still intact. His friends cheer and laugh as he picks himself up and joins their ranks again. They pat his back and one grabs the bottle to lift it to his lips. This is when the guy remembers me and comes back.
“Are you alright?” he slurs and offers me a hand.
I take stock of my body and decide that yes, given that the pain has not grown much worse altogether, I must be alright. My left knee might have taken a hit, but it does not seem to be seriously injured. I nod and grab the offered hand but underestimate the drunken state of the guy. And he overestimates my ability to get up on my own. He stumbles and nearly falls on top of me again, only his hand on my shoulder keeping him upright. And I am still sitting on the floor.
“Hey! Hey, guys!” The guy calls, turning back to his friends. “Give this lad a lift. He’s had a bit too much to drink.”
I do not bother to correct him. His friends manage to boost me to my feet in no time, with great laughter and joking. Unfortunately, they are a bit too fast for me to get a hold of my crutches on the floor, and so I am without my usual support when they let go. I sway and quickly grab someone’s arm to avoid greeting the floor again.
“I’m not… I’m not interested…” It is the guy that caused my fall in the beginning. He grins at me, the slow and slightly uneasy smile of the drunk.
I direct my eyes to the floor, searching for my crutches.
“You um… you want something?” The guy does not wait for an answer but rummages around in one of his pockets, the movement nearly throwing me off balance. I grab his arm with both of my hands and stare at him, desperately trying to stay on my feet.
“First one’s on the house,” the guy hiccoughs and stuffs a joint into the pocket of my jacket. “There you go…” He pats my shoulder and tries to wrench his arm free. “Now…”
The voice is hoarse but sharp, carrying over the music with ease. I only see eyes darting away from mine and long blond hair before I notice my crutches that are offered to me. I grab them and want to thank the girl but she is gone when I have settled myself with both arms in the cuffs and my hands around the handles.
The guy with the weed is still standing in front of me and he seems much more sober all of a sudden. He stares from the crutches to my legs with wide eyes. “Hey, sorry man…” he mumbles.
I shrug and turn around, not willing to try and make him feel better about pushing the cripple to the ground. Luckily he does not attempt to follow me but disappears among the crowd. With last resources I finally reach the sofa and sink down into it. I prop up the crutches against the side of the armrest and arrange my legs, straightening them a bit to relieve the tension. For a while I am content to just sit and watch the dancers, letting the music wash over my body and relax in the swirl of lights and colors.
A white-faced medusa with turquoise eyes and green snakes in her hair has plopped down next to me. It is Connie, I realize with a second of delay. I grin at her.
“Cool that you came, man!” She nudges my side and beer swaps onto the sofa between us.
In fact, I almost did not go to the party. Today is not one of my best days and I was tempted to pass the rest of the day in bed, wrapped in my blanket. But the prospect of seeing Connie and maybe getting some distraction pulled me out of the door.
The snakes in Connie’s hair whip up and down as she leans forward. “Want some?”
She has got two plastic cups with beer in her hands, so I take one from her. I should not drink much if I still want to drive the car back but sitting on the sofa alone without even a drink in my hands is just screaming ‘poor cripple’.
Connie wiggles her head, making the snakes go wild, and laughs at me as she catches me staring at her costume. “Cool, huh?” she asks.
It is indeed, and she looks pretty in it. I do not trust my speech well enough today to get that across without difficulty, though, so I just nod and smile some.
I shake my head at her and she ruffles up my hair and leaves again, waving her cup at me like a salute. Trying not to let disappointment take over, I lean back into the cushions and watch the dancers again. Maybe Connie will come back later, when she has had enough of dancing.
Probably not, though.
I guess I should not have come to this party after all.
“You don’t dance.”
It is the same voice from before and my head snaps around. The girl is curled into the corner on the other side of the sofa. She has her feet pulled up and one elbow on the armrest, her chin resting in her palm. “You don't have a costume, either. What are you doing here?”
It occurs to me that I could ask her the same. The two of us must be the only people in here without a costume or even Halloween makeup. Her blond hair falls in dirty strands into her face, framing a pointy nose and sharp cheekbones. Her eyes are turned to the floor, the fingers of her free hand fiddling with the hem of her short, yellow dress. I have never seen her before and I think I would remember her if she had been in one of our lectures. She could be a friend of a friend but I guess she is not. Something tells me that no one around here even knows her name.
I offer her the cup with the beer. She stops playing with her dress and unfolds her legs slowly. When she scoots over to sit with less distance to me, the sofa barely dips in her direction. “Hmm… thanks,” she mumbles. I feel her watch me from the side but when I turn my head toward her she flinches and looks away.
Because the dance floor has gotten more crowded I place my hands on my knees and pull my feet closer to avoid people stumbling over them. For a few minutes I sit perfectly still, pretending I am watching the crowd when in fact I am watching the girl out of the corners of my eyes. A small hand settles lightly on mine which is still in my lap and I almost jump. In the changing light, the girl’s skin is stark white in contrast to mine and her hand feels soft on my rough knuckles. The muscles in my right thigh quiver and my foot slides forward a bit as spasms roll down the leg. I bite on my lip and do not dare to look up, my gaze fixed to a point past my knees. Shame and lust mix in the pit of my stomach.
The girl scoots closer to me, her thigh touching mine now, her skin almost burning hot. Her hand follows from my knee upward, moves slowly over the fabric of my jeans and I swallow as it tightens a bit close to my groin area, my cock inside my pants throbbing. I still do not turn to look at her. Her fingers vanish under my shirt and brush over my stomach and then up my chest, leaving me shuddering. She pinches one of my nipples and I let a moan slip, my eyelids fluttering shut and my cheeks burning.
It seems to encourage her because she shifts and swings one leg over me, straddling me. The tips of her hair touch my chest and a few strands softly swish over my face when she starts moving over me. My hands lift slowly, my fingers sliding over her dress and then settling on her hips, closing tentatively around the slight curves. Her body moves under my touch, her hips bucking up in my lap and the fabric of her dress glides over her silky skin.
Boldly I slip one hand behind her neck and pull her down to me with the intention to look into her eyes but she surges in quickly and captures my lips with hers. I gasp into her mouth, surprised, and my lips part almost without my volition. Her tongue is exploring between my teeth and her breath warm on my tongue. She smells of the cold air outside, mixed with smoke and something else that I cannot place.
We part and she leans into me with a hungry groan, her breath tickling the side of my face. “Let’s go upstairs,” she whispers and I can hear it despite the noise around us because her lips are almost touching my ear.
I nearly laugh at that and my hands curl to fists at her side. I cannot even have a one-night stand like a normal person, if I wanted to. Even if I somehow managed to get up the stairs, I am not sure she would still want me after watching me walk.
The girl freezes and her fingers tighten around the fabric of my shirt. “Your choice,” she murmurs and has stood up too quickly for me to call her back to explain or apologize. She turns on the spot and walks away, vanishing among the crowd like nothing. The place on my lap is empty and cold now. She took the beer with her and when I slump back against the sofa, noticing my pants are unusually tight, I realize that the joint in my jacket’s pocket is gone as well.
I cannot help but grin a bit at that, though, although I rather felt like crying just a second ago.
Who is that girl?
Trying to find her in the masses has no point to me, unless I want to end up on the floor again. Drunk people are not known to be very careful around those with even more fragile balance than them. Plus I am actually here for Connie... So I keep sitting where I am, watching the dancers in the flashing lights move to the bass. If possible, the music has gotten even louder, the sound waves are so immense I feel like they dictate the rhythm of my breathing and of everyone's heart beat in the room.
It does not take long until I reach the point at which I cannot stand being a watcher at the sides of all this anymore. The overwhelming joy I can see flickering in the faces of the dancers is suddenly disgusting to me and I grab my crutches and push off the sofa a bit too quickly, lurching forward before I have the metal rods under me properly. I stumble and sway but I do no fall. I find my bearings and, slowly, I inch along the walls to leave this room and this party. Connie is not interested in me, anyway. Somehow I have known that already before but apparently I needed final prove.
It was nice of her to invite me, though.
I am already halfway through the door to the corridor when I look back. I do not even know why I turn around. But there she is, the girl from before, in the midst of the fiercest dancers, surrounded by stuttering limbs in the strobe light, and this time she looks me square into the face. She is older than I thought, I realize, maybe a few years older than me but that is not the reason that makes me stop short. It is the despair in her eyes that has me freeze mid-step, my hands curling tighter around the handles of my crutches. Her gaze is so intense, for a moment I can physically feel her pain, like a punch to the gut.
There is a guy behind her, grabbing her around the waist roughly and pressing himself against her, running his nose down along the side of her throat. As I look at him, I can feel the blood pulsing through my veins with sudden, pure hatred. He is the one hurting her, there is no doubt in that. My heart is pumping wildly in my chest and for a moment I am scared by the intensity of my own rage. I stumble forward blindly, ready to tear that guy off the girl, beat him to his senses and rescue her, when she turns to frame his face with her hands. And kisses him back.
It is like a bucket of cold water is dumped over my head, I gasp and stumble to a stop, leaning heavily on the crutches with my shoulders heaving. For a few seconds I can barely breathe and I cannot take my eyes off her either. The guy lifts her up, her legs wrap around his waist and both crash into the nearest wall. As he caresses her breasts with his hands and his lips through her dress, her gaze goes over his shoulders to me and rests there like I am the only fix point she knows.
I have no idea how long I stood there, holding her gaze, I only know that at one point the two are devoured by the crowd again and I realize that my legs are barely holding me up anymore. Luckily for me there is a chair nearby and I manage to drag myself to it with most of my weight on my arms, and let myself down on it. The muscles in my legs and my back are tight with spasms and screaming and I am heaving in air as if I just ran a marathon. There is no point in trying to leave now, I would barely make it to the front door I guess. But all of that seems not important anymore. Ignoring the pain in my own body, my eyes search for the girl in the crowd, worry and anger mixing in a tight swirl. After a few agonizing seconds I finally spot her, swaying to the music with her head resting against the broad chest of that guy and when she sees me her lips twitch into a tiny smile, making me even more confused than before.
I keep sitting there for a long time, my head cloudy and something squeezing around my heart. Around me people get more and more drunk and more and more wild. There is an incident during which the guy who accidentally pushed me over vomits over a girl in a bat costume. She stomps off in the direction of the bathrooms probably, not amused, while the guy is escorted outside by his friends. I hope they will bring him home. Connie walks past me a few times, waving her cup at me in greeting and I smile back at her. One time she does that, someone grabs her by the wrist and she turns around to the person. It is a girl I know from a lab course. She is nice, if a bit overconfident which I guess it is not the best of traits in our profession but she is not a bad person. They kiss, both smiling against each other’s lips and I quickly look somewhere else. Well, that explains a lot, if I ever needed explanation. To my own surprise I do not feel jealous, I guess the two are a good fit.
Before I can turn my eyes to the crowd again, the girl who has been vomited on flops down on the chair next to me. She still looks angry and fiddles with the top she is wearing now, an old batik shirt from Connie I notice. “This is a disaster,” the girl murmurs and sighs dramatically. I would not agree, she looks better in it than in the tight, black top she was wearing before. The bright blue color brings out the shine in her dark wavy hair.
The girl notices my presence and turns around to me, the corners of her lips moving up like someone turned a switch. “Hiii! I’m Joanna! I don’t think we’ve met yet…” Her smile grows as she looks me up and down with obvious interest sparkling in her eyes.
Oh geez. Not what I need right now.
“Are you one of the doctors-to-be?”
I nod and ignore her faked, awed gasp, trying to look past her at the dancers but Joanna scoots her chair closer, blocking part of my field of vision of the dance floor. She crosses her legs, the heel of her right shoe almost touching my shin now, and leans over to me. “How come a cutie like you sits here all on his own?” she croons.
I grace her with a quick glance and realize I have seen her before on a few occasions, probably on last year’s Christmas party. She is not in our program but she seems to enjoy hanging out with the guys in it. Joanna giggles and throws her hair back over her shoulder, a wave of perfume hitting me. It is not exactly unpleasant but it is also not what I crave for right now.
Joanna grabs my right hand without warning and laces our fingers together, and it is all I can do not to flinch away from her. “You’re a quiet one, huh?” she says. “I rather like that…” She smirks and leans even closer until I can smell the alcohol on her breath. Her free hand settles on my thigh, long fingernails digging into my skin and I can feel the traitor in my pants begin to stir.
“P-please… d-don’t.” I whisper, but it was probably not loud enough because Joanna starts nipping at my earlobe, lapping at the soft skin below it. I shudder, but not with comfort and bring out my other hand to stop her. I tell her to knock it off but my voice is barely louder this time.
Parts of it must have registered with Joanna, though. She giggles and stands up from her chair, pulling at my hand. “Come on then, at least dance with me!”
I shake my head firmly.
Joanna grins playfully like she is accepting the challenge, ignoring my scowl. “You’re breaking my heart,” she jests and places my hand on her chest, near her heart but also close to her breasts. She bats her eyes at me and moves my hand further down. “Don’t say you’re not enjoying this…”
I pull my hand out of her grasp. “S-stop it,” I snarl. “I d-don’t w-w-w-w…”
Joanna stares as I get stuck on the consonant, my eyes screwing close in concentration and my lips spasming around the letter until I press them together, successfully stopping the stammer. I feel my Adam’s apple move up and down as I swallow convulsively a few times before giving up on speaking entirely. I do not need to say anything anymore though, if the horror in Joanna’s face is anything to go by. Her gaze falls on my hands which are clasped in my lap, moves to my legs that are behaving for once, and then she spots the crutches leaning at the side of my chair.
“Oh…” she whispers. “Oh, I… I’m sorry.”
I sigh and shake my head.
“You’re… I didn’t know…” Joanna’s cheeks have flushed red by now. “I’m… I… I’m really sorry.” And then she is gone. I only see a glimpse of her when she hurriedly says goodbye to a few people before more or less bolting out of the door.
Well, that did not go so well I guess.
I have even less intention to stay now. My crutches are already in my hands when I realize that I have not seen the girl with the yellow dress in a while. I start frowning as I search the crowd and cannot spot her long hair anywhere among the people. She could have left but also the guy with whom she has been dancing is missing. I scan the crowd with increasing worry until I finally spot her, dancing with someone else in the back. I catch the first guy coming down the stairs shortly afterward, and I know where they have been.
I do not take my eyes off her anymore then. Even when I do not see her I stare at the point where she has been last, and every time she reappears, her eyes find mine as quickly as I find hers. She is dancing, kissing, with that one man, but then a second, and a third one. Their faces mean nothing to me because I only see her. Her naked feet tap a pattern into the floor that seems to be directed at me, a code I cannot decipher although it seems immensely important to understand the message.
It occurs to me that I should probably go, that it is insane to watch the girl I feel drawn to make out with other men, and then lead them upstairs to have sex. It is neither healthy nor logical but I guess I like torturing myself and there is a certain thrill to knowing that she knows that I am watching her. I have absolutely no idea what I am getting myself into and if I had known I would have probably grabbed my crutches and left the party as fast as possible. But I keep sitting and waiting, without knowing exactly what I am waiting for.
The girl disappears again a second time a while later, when the crowd has thinned already. And then a third time, but this time she does not reappear as quickly as before.
I find her sitting on the steps outside, with her back turned to me as I squeeze through the heavy front door. It takes me a while but I manage to sit down next to her, the crutches and my legs uncooperative. Heat warms my cheeks as I think about how ridiculous my legs look compared to hers, dangling down the two steps in an unnatural angle with the feet turned in considerably, the muscles in my left thigh twitching.
The cherry flares red as she inhales the smoke. She holds the cigarette in one hand, the other is stretched out in front of her. I do not know what she is doing but I do not dare to ask.
After a while she pulls her hand back and holds it in front of my face. “Snowflakes,” she says.
I watch the snowflake melt on her finger and turn my head up to the sky. Indeed, it is snowing. Tiny white spots tumble down through the darkness and some find their way to us through the overhanging branches of the half-naked trees in the garden. I wonder for a moment if she will tell me how not two snowflakes are alike or that there are basically six types of them but she says no such thing.
She is offering the cigarette to me and I realize that it is in fact the joint she stole from me. First I shake my head but she insists and after a while I take the small thing out from between her fingers. It grows even smaller in my large, uncoordinated hands. She laughs when I cough after the first drag and I grin at her, forcing myself to relax through the urge to inhale, inhale, inhale... until the scratch in my lungs vanishes. Then I take a second, deeper drag and give the joint back to her.
She takes it from my quivering hand with a smile. “Does it help?” she asks.
It takes me a few seconds to understand what she is referring to and I shrug. I have actually never really tried but I have heard of the various effects of THC.
We do not talk while the snow falls around us. None of the snowflakes survive long on the ground. The girl catches a few more on her hands, showing them to me before they become small, glistening droplets on her warm skin. Some get lost in her bright blond hair, where they become invisible almost instantly. Those that land on my dark curls seem to survive longer and when I shake my head they fall onto the ground silently.
The joint passes back and forth between us and after some time I can feel its effect in my chest, lessening some of the pressure there. The girl is wearing a white jacket with fur on the hem of the hood and around her arms and waist. Her legs are still bare though, as are her feet, and her high heels are placed on the first step on the other side. When I notice the goosebumps that have sprung up on her fair skin I spread my jacket over the length of her legs, hoping it will keep her from getting seriously sick. I do not feel the cold, somehow. It is like I am my own oven.
Then the joint is gone and she leans her head against my shoulder. Her breath is warm and steady, seeping through my shirt, and I know she has fallen asleep. I have no idea how long we sat there when the last party guest staggers past us down the stairs and she wakes up with a gasp so quiet only I can hear it.
Her sleepy eyes fix on me and grow, alarmed. Her breathing doubles in speed and she scrambles away from me, my jacket falling from her legs. I cannot get up that fast and I am slightly surprised by her reaction, holding my hands up as if to show that I am no threat.
“You…” She stares at me as if she is trying to figure out who I am or why I am there. She cannot have forgotten me, can she? Her fingers curl into fists at her side. “You…”
I try to tell her that everything is alright but my speech does not cooperate, there are only silent words coming out of my mouth. She has taken a few steps to the side and grabbed the handrail, her head turned down.
“Where… where am I?”
The address is stuck on my tongue so I just let my hands fall down next to me, my fingers closing around the icy cold crutches to my right.
She stumbles and sits down on the ground again, with some distance to me this time. Her hands fiddle with the zipper of her jacket, drive into her pockets and out again, searching for something. She sniffles and bites on her lips. “I want to go,” she says. “I want to... I want to go home.”
This time I find my words. “W-where?”
She hugs her knees to her chest and rocks back and forth. Her fingers are scratching at the skin on her arms and I want to stop her before she can do any harm when she hisses: “Stop asking me that.” Furious, she whirls around to me. “Stop asking!”
She has yelled the last part at me but somehow it has not made me flinch, as loud voices usually do. Her whole demeanor should be threatening to me, her eyes are slits and her hands balled to fists and lifted in front of her chest as if she would attack me any second but somehow I do not feel scared at all. We stare at each other and after a while her hands return to her sides, fingers opening slowly, and she grows small again, her eyes filling with tears.
“I’m sorry… Shit, I’m sorry…”
I take her hands that are clawing at each other, capture them wholly in my large, quivering ones.
“I t-t-take you h-home,” I say. Maybe the weed has indeed had some effect, at least on my speech.
She scrutinizes me, deeply mistrustful and tries to pull her hands out of mine.
“Y-you c-can sleep a-at m… my place.”
Her frown takes on a hint of fear again.
“Y-you c-can always run a-away from m-me, c-can’t you?” I say and gesture with my chin to my legs and the crutches next to them.
Something like hope begins to flicker in her eyes and her fingers curl around one of my hands, tighter. I manage to free the other and pick the crutches up.
“You g-got to let g-go now…” I murmur but she does not seem to hear me. I tilt my head and look into her face, her eyes roaming around in a world I have no access to. “Please, I c-can’t…” Her hold intensifies as I beg her to let go of my hand.
Turns out, I can. It is not pretty but she does not seem to mind that I cling to her almost as much as she does to me. I carry the crutches in one hand, the other hand joined closely with hers and slowly, very slowly we shuffle down the path leading out of the garden and onto the street. I almost lose my balance once but I stab both crutches into the ground, clench my jaw together and somehow convince my knees not to give out under me. And then I take the next step, and the next, soles scraping over the ground and my breath forming thick clouds in front of my mouth, instantly melting snowflakes.
When we have reached the car, I unlock and wrench open the door for her and she slips inside. I take a few seconds of rest, leaning against the hood and breathing, then use the crutches properly to move around the car. I get in at the driver’s side and store the crutches in the back.
The entire time we drive, no one talks. She sits with her fingers pressed into her bony knees, her chest moving with quick breaths but the rest of her body completely still otherwise. When we have reached the huge, gray housing block where I rent a small apartment somewhere on the fifth floor, I park in my designated spot in the underground garage and she follows me to the elevators close by.
She does not look at me during the ride up. I watch her reflection in the dirty mirror, watch her bite her lips raw, her arms wrapped around her body, as she presses herself into the corner of the elevator that is the farthest away from me. But when the doors open with a tired rattle she still follows me and she is still there when I place the keys on the counter in my small kitchen.
“B-bed is through h-here,” I say. I do not have a sofa but I guess I will sleep on the floor.
She begins to tremble before she has reached the bed. It could be a delayed effect of the cold but I guess it is not. I have suspected for long that she has taken more than that joint at the party, or before it. When and what I do not know. Or maybe the shivers that wrack her body are a symptom of not having taken anything or not the stuff her body is craving for, I am not sure about that. I should look it up for my internship in a few weeks, with how few I know.
She manages it to the bed, but then she collapses onto the mattress, her body curling in on pain. I ask her to remove her shoes and when she does not react save for giving a small whine that makes my heart ache, I kneel down at her side and pull them off for her. She continues shivering even after I have succeeded in wrapping the blanket around her and managed to stuff a pillow under her head and I realize her dress is drenched with sweat. For a few seconds I hesitate but when her teeth start clattering louder I fumble with the zipper in her neck, trying my hardest to be gentle as I unclothe her.
In the bright light of the naked light bulb over my bed I see what I could not have seen in the flashing lights of the party or the dimness in front of Connie's parents' house and the air turns colder as I stare, transfixed, for a few seconds at the white skin, marred with scars and bruises of different sizes and colors. They seem everywhere, scattered over her torso and along her arms and legs, some old and others new, wherever a person can reach at and then a few more where she cannot have been the cause herself. The ghost of my rage from earlier comes back, hundredfold. My whole body trembles and my hands hovering above her body are shaking more than usual.
I hope that whoever is responsible for this suffers for every little scratch on her skin.
And then she starts screaming.
I do not act upon a medical consideration, it is pure instinct that makes me shed my clothes and the braces, and slip under the blanket next to her. I wrap my arms around her writhing form, pull her convulsing body close to mine to spend warmth and comfort and, who knows, the reassurance of safety. She shudders against my embrace, her back trembling against my chest and her fingers clawing at my arms but I hold her together, as careful as I can, to keep her from falling apart.
At first I can barely suppress my own panic but then I notice that whatever it is I am doing, it seems to be working. Her screams get quieter and turn to frantic breathing, then, after minutes of shivering against me the race of her heartbeat against my collarbone slows down and bit by bit her muscles give way. She emits a small gasp, less pained than the one before and does not try to fight me anymore. Within some time that seems to take forever she falls pliant and soft in my arms, not moving.
She has fallen asleep again.
My muscles ache, the position unfamiliar to my legs and I loosen my hold on her, pushing up on my elbows to turn around to my side of the bed. Her neck and her shoulder are exposed, the unblemished white skin shining alluringly in the moonlight that falls in through the window and my hand stretches out to touch before I pull it back. It would not be right.
I watch her for most of the rest of the short night that is left, watch her breath lift her chest up and let it sink down, watch her eyes roll beneath her eyelids as she dreams. She is even more beautiful when she sleeps, her features at rest and her hands in peace, her bright hair fanned out around her head like a halo.
There is a silvery glimmer of light at the horizon as my eyelids start to droop and I feel sleep pull me under, relentlessly. I do not fight it. I make sure the blanket we share is still pulled up over her naked shoulders and then I close my eyes with the confident hope that when I wake up tomorrow, I will see hers when I open them again.