He enters slowly, shouldering the door open, propped up on his crutches and stops a few feet into the room, the door falling shut behind him.
“Where am I?”
I cross my legs, nervousness kicking in. Maybe this is not the best idea I have ever had. “Uh… I don’t know. What do you think?”
He takes a look around. There is indistinguishable white behind him, to his right and left, up and down. “What is this room? I have never been here… Am I dreaming?”
Something is different. I stare at him. “You don’t stutter,” I blurt out.
He blinks, then shrugs some. “Right… I… I never stutter in my dreams.”
I sit up surprised. “You don’t?”
He frowns, his face darkening. “It’s not a language-thing. I know what I want to say up here.” He jerks his head. “Always. Just… it won’t come out.”
“Huh…” I squeeze my hands in my lap. “I’m sorry.”
Noel stops looking around and shifts his weight, his hands squeezing and releasing the crutches’ handles. “This is a strange dream…” He looks like he is starting to doubt himself.
I shrug. “I guess all dreams are strange.”
Noel does not seem convinced.
I tap a finger on my knee. “What were you doing before you came here?”
He frowns, facing me. “I guess… I was in bed. Asleep. Yes I was. I mean, I still am, I think.”
Phew. So Rachel has not called, yet. “Good. Then… yes. Makes sense, doesn’t it?”
He nods slowly.
“Don’t you want to sit?” Another chair appears to my left, made of the same white wood, with long spindly legs and a high back.
He approaches slowly, his crutches clicking softly on the white floor. He moves them forward one by one before taking two steps, his knees almost touching and the soles of his shoes scraping over the floor. When he has reached the chair he stops, hooks one crutch behind the back of the chair and reaches for the seating with one hand before letting himself down carefully.
He stores his crutches down on the floor and adjusts his legs with his hands on his knees. “Who are you?”
“Uh…” What am I supposed to say? I doubt that people ask god who he is when they meet him in heaven or whatever you might call it. Not saying that I am god. But for Noel I might as well be. “I just arrived here… like you.”
“Ah…” he says, but he lets it go as I knew he would.
“How are you?” I ask, trying not to sound guilty. Or scared of the answer.
“Uh...” Noel leans forward with his palms on his knees. “I'm fine.”
There are a few seconds of silence.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” I ask.
Noel turns to me. “No.” A grin flickers over his face. “No, I… I’m used to keeping it short, I guess. People are not usually very patient listeners.”
“Huh, right.” I nod.
“Are you a friend of Rachel’s?”
I raise my eyebrows, surprised. “Me? No…”
I watch Noel’s profile, the shock of curly hair falling into his face, his delicate nose, high cheekbones. I have to agree with Rachel. He is cute.
“Do you like Rachel?”
Noel wraps his hands around the edge of the seat to the left and right of his thighs, squeezing. “Uh… yeah, I guess I do. She’s… strange…”
I say nothing, waiting for him to go on. Noel’s gaze goes somewhere to the floor in front of him.
“She’s… impulsive. A lot, actually. And blunt, very. That’s probably why… I don’t know… See…” He turns to me, frowning slightly. “I don’t know her. Like, at all. I took her into my home, two times when she was barely conscious, although she is a stranger, right? Crazy, isn’t it?”
His eyes are big and very blue. Even fixed at me they seem like he is watching something far away. “She’s so real… I guess that’s why I trust her. I don’t know anything about her but still I feel like we’ve known each other forever.”
I smile a little. “That sounds awesome.”
I scratch the back of my head. “So… imagine something would happen… to Rachel, I mean. You’ve rescued her already twice. How far would you go to safe her a third time?”
Noel’s hands tighten around the seat. “As far as I can.” Then he chuckles some. “Which might not be far, though.” He shakes his head, and when he looks up it is to face me, smiling grimly. “I would give everything for Rachel. Everything.”
“Even if…” I evade his steady gaze, turning to the white in front of us. “Even if it was her fault? Even if she did something bad? Something terrible?”
“I…” Noel sounds confused. “What do you mean?”
I shrug. “Uh… hypothetically, of course. Would you still be there for her?”
Noel narrows his eyes. “I… this makes no sense, why would Rachel-“
“Forget it. It was a stupid question.” I try grinning at him apologetically.
Noel huffs. “Yes, it was.”
I can feel him watch me from the side with suspicion.
“What is that?”
Noel points at something in my lap.
“Ah...” I pick up the small piece of paper and the pen. “I met a few kids on my way here. They sold this for charity. Uh… would you like to make a wish with me?”
He blinks. “Make a wish?”
I shrug. “That’s what they sold. We can write down a wish, each of us, and then tie it to the balloon and let it fly. How does that sound?”
“Uh… where’s the balloon?” Noel asks.
I show him my right hand which is holding a cord and as we look up we see a white balloon dancing at its end.
“Neat,” Noel says.
He shrugs. “Sure. So what do we wish? Peace, love, happiness?”
I grin. “If you want you can write that. I’ll write…” I first attach the cord to the piece of paper by threading it through the hole at one side and tying a knot, then I take the pen. “Hm…. I’ll write: peace among all nations and religions.”
“Go big or go home,” I say, grinning softly and offer him the pen when I have finished. “Your turn.”
“Uh…” Noel takes the pen carefully, the small object nearly vanishing in his large hand. It quivers above the piece of paper that he has fixed with his left hand on his knees. He writes something, hunched over. It takes quite a while, then he shows me what he has written.
I venture a guess. “Warmth?” His handwriting is awful.
“Not the rise in temperature, specifically. I mean… uh… it’s hard to explain…”
The balloon is bobbing in the air with the twitching of Noel’s hand.
“Okay… You know sometimes it seems like… we are all alone? Like… everyone is. Tiny dots… single stars in an endless, dark universe. And before anyone has really taken notice of us we will be gone. Like… forever. And this… how do we live with this?”
I blink. “I don’t know.”
“We don’t. Not when we insist on staying alone. We need each other, because no one has the strength to go on, alone. But together, when we share our warmth… we might.” He swallows. “We might be able to light the world, some.”
“That’s…” I stare at Noel. He looks away, blinking. “… very beautiful. Thanks, Noel.”
“Shall we do it together?” He asks eventually.
I startle, immersed in thoughts. “Do what?”
Noel smiles at me. “Let the balloon rise.” He offers me the piece of paper to which the balloon is attached and I hold on to one corner of it, while he holds the other. I can feel his unsteady hand tugging at the paper.
“On the count of three? One, two…”
We watch the balloon rise until it blends into the white surrounding us. It happens fast.
After some time in silence Noel moves next to me. “Uh…” He picks up his crutches from the ground. “I g-guess it’s t-time for me to go.”
I look up, alarmed. “Are you waking up?”
Noel nods, his Adam’s apple bobbing, and uses his crutches to get to his feet. I watch him sway and one of my hands hovers over his back but then he regains his balance.
“I-It was nice m… meeting you,” he says, frowning for a second at the recurred stutter and smiling shyly at me before averting his eyes again.
I reciprocate the smile and hurry past him to open the door for him. Before he manages to limp past me I open my mouth and the words escape before I can stop them. “I’m sorry, Noel. For everything I have put you through and will. I wish I could take the pain, the suffering for you… I wish it were not necessary.”
I fall silent, the guilt close to physical pain.
Noel looks at me, quietly, then he nods and moves slowly past me. The sound of his crutches changes when he places them on the other side of the threshold. He turns with some effort. “It’s o-okay. S-someone has to t-take it.”
With that he vanishes into the white.
--> Part V
--> Part V