These Things I Have Done
They say you can't run from the past. That it always finds you, no matter where you are, and makes you pay for the things you've done.
I stood on the edge of the stone seawall, in a place that was so familiar it was like returning to a dream, watching the waves roll over the beach below. It was a mere six feet down to the sand, another few strides to the ocean that on the summer days of my memories was a pure blue-green. Today, the water was the colour of wet ashes, small tongues of white foam chasing themselves across the tops of the choppy swells.
Far out, the sea met the sky in an almost indistinguishable blurred line, deeper grey fading into the great dome of tin-colored heavens.
I stared at this spectacle that had been the topic of so many sonnets, the devourer of so many hopes, the object of so much desire.
I personally could not see the appeal.
I shuddered, pulling my coat more tightly around myself. It was a miserable day: sullen and freezing, the wind flinging salty spray onto me. My clothing was damp and my hair, which had grown ragged and long again, was hanging soggily in my eyes. I had been many places, done many things. I was hard-pressed to think of anything more utterly lachrymose.
"I will never understand what's so great about this," I said aloud as a raw gust of wind whipped past me.
The voice that spoke from behind me was tinged with amusement, high and laughing. "You always were hopeless."
"Tilly," I said, turning around slowly. I don't know what I was expecting—that she hadn't changed, perhaps. She used to say that I was unrealistic, and I supposed I still was now. It was my friend all right, the same pink Ogrin I'd run up and down the streets with as a little kid, the same one I'd pelted with snowballs and sat in back of in school every day for twelve years.
"Hullo," Tilly said, and managed a shaky smile.
"Your hair," I said, because she'd cut it off, those lovely black curls that used to reach the back of her knees.
"Oh, yes. Last year." She reached up to touch the shorn ends, glancing downwards. Self-consciously, I thought. "Do you like it?"
"It suits you," I said, though it did not. It accentuated her already too-narrow face, made her eyes look hollower and darker. She was wearing a dark cape over her dress, and she tugged the edge of this.
"You look good, too," she said. She searched me, up and down, her eyes trailing their way along my frame, grown strong and lean, to my hair, now almost longer than hers. "You need a haircut," she added.
"So my mother tells me every time she writes," I quipped, and she laughed, a hesitant sound, uncertain of where she stood in this time and place.
"Thank you, for telling me you were coming," she said awkwardly. "For meeting me." I shrugged and smiled at her.
"You're my best friend, of course I was going to see you," I said.
I looked at her, she looked at me. She looked down, fingered her hair again. We started walking along the edge of the seawall.
"Tell me what I've missed," I said. I let her take my arm, the gentlemanly thing to do for a friend. She felt fragile, leaning against me. I remembered her as sturdier, a chubby child with round cheeks.
"Lots," Tilly said airily.
There was a small group of children out on the beach below, doing whatever children do, when they're among friends. They were wearing winter coats and scarves and bare feet, shrieking and chasing each other into the edge of the ocean. Their laughter carried up to us on the wind, disembodied joy.
Tilly and I used to do much the same with our little group of friends. Tilly's sisters, my brother Caleb, Beatrice, Skipper Delaney. We often picked up others, the neighbourhood children we were intimately familiar with, those scabby cohorts we built forts and waged wars with.
Some things never change.
"Oh, you know, nothing you wouldn't guess, in such a small town." Tilly's shoulders hunched suddenly; she seemed to deflate, all her spirit leaving her. Her eyes fell to the ground. "Mrs Gamble has been asking after you again. She can't see a thing anymore. We bring her groceries—she still does all her own cooking. Skipper checks in and cleans for her on Sundays. You remember Skipper."
"Of course," I said, though it wasn't so much of a question—I was sorry for bringing Tilly down, and I wanted to cheer her. "Tell Mrs Gamble I send my love." I remembered the old Usul fondly—her fur totally white by the time I knew her, whatever colour it had once been—always willing to supply ammunition for our antics in the form of biscuits and lemonade. "Tell her if I stop by, I'll be expecting a chocolate chip cookie."
"I will," Tilly said, though we both knew it would never happen.
We reached the end of the seawall, where it turned off into the big grassy park that housed the old merry-go-round. I could see it, not too far away, silent and dark for the winter, all the painted Whinnies still and lifeless.
We started in that direction. The park was empty, the only sound the wind rustling the bare branches of the trees like so many whispered conversations. It smelled like a thunderstorm was coming, but we had an hour yet, at least.
"What about your sisters?" I finally broke the silence.
Tilly smiled. "Maude Ellen has a family now—little Copley is the youngest, just a baby. Joy is going to college in Summerton. She comes home on the weekends, to help Mam out..." She trailed off and I didn't press her. I'd heard this. "Anyway," she continued briskly, "Caddy is of course off making a mess of her life, no doubt. Last I heard she was working as a maid in Brightvale." Tilly sighed. "She grew up too pretty, and no brains. Mam always warned her—of course she never listened."
The name of Tilly's youngest sister conjured up a smiling, freckle-faced little Ogrin girl, with lemon-yellow fur that matched her sunny personality. I tried to imagine Caroline working as a maid. Poor Caddy.
"Bea lives in Wooden Creek now," Tilly offered. "The Harrises moved away a few years ago. Josh Credon works at the factory, since he lost his leg."
Josh, when I knew him, was a huge clumsy bully of a Scorchio with hair almost as white as his scales, who used to chase me and Caleb. It was strange to think of him working in the factory, his chasing days long gone.
"Eleanor is a Meriwether, now. She has little Thomas." A pause, and then, "Caleb says to tell you hello." She said it very quietly.
For a long moment I couldn't find words. They were lodged somewhere below my oesophagus, refusing to come to my tongue, and I felt Tilly stiffen against me. Finally I managed, "Tell him to stay safe."
"I'll give him your love," Tilly said softly. I knew what she was thinking: boys, they're all the same. Just won't say what they mean.
The little fish-and-chips shop I remembered so well was open, despite the weather, a little beacon of light and warmth in the bleak day.
"Mr Perry!" I greeted the grizzled old Lutari who had owned the shack for as long as I'd been alive. I leaned my elbows on the warm counter, taking one of Tilly's paws with me. Mr Perry raised his bushy white eyebrows, leaning over the counter to better see me. When I was little, I'd told my father that with his long white beard and round stomach, Mr Perry must have been Father Giving.
"Well, well, well," Mr Perry grunted in his rolling burr. "If it ain't ever little Declan Callahan, back from the dead! Well, boy, what do you have to say for yourself, eh?"
"Sir," I began.
"Oh, don't go making excuses, boy." Mr Perry winked at me. "You're just as you were as a scrawny mite. Little stick of a Kyrii, always shivering and never without a black eye, were you? Never seen such a pathetic kid in my life. Mathilda, my dear girl, where've you been!"
I forced a laugh, suffocating in a great overwhelming bleakness, as Tilly chatted away to Mr Perry's back whilst he prepared the fish and chips.
Mr Perry's were always the best, fresh and crispy and hot enough to burn your tongue.
We collected them and I paid, but Mr Perry waved the neopoints away.
"No, no, boy, you're only young once. Take 'em and enjoy 'em."
We found a bench under a weeping willow, a spot I wouldn't have looked at twice the last time I was here, being too busy running off to play gormball or skip stones across the ocean. How times change.
"It's been a long time since I've had fish and chips," Tilly admitted to me, smiling as I juggled the hot paper.
"Too long," I agreed. Actually, it had only been a little while, but to my mind, the only fish and chips that counted were Mr Perry's. I'd spent years trying every shop I laid eyes on, searching for one that tasted half as good.
I raised a chip. "To old times."
"To old friends," Tilly said.
"To old friends," I amended.
Tilly looked down at her lap, and then back up at me. "Where have you been, Declan?"
I looked at Tilly, and she stared back at me, her eyes wide, their depths flecked all shades of brown and gold. People who say brown eyes are uninteresting, or all the same, have never properly looked at a pair before.
"Here and there," I said. "Everywhere."
"Caleb misses you. And your mother, she asks about you."
"I write Ma all the time." I waved a paw.
"Won't you at least see her?" Tilly asked, pleadingly. I shifted about on the bench uncomfortably.
"Probably better if I don't," I muttered at last. "She'll only worry more when I leave again."
I don't know if Tilly knew the real reason, if she'd guessed it in her quick way, or if our friendship made her blind. She had always believed in me so unerringly.
She didn't press me, though she sighed a little sound like a piece of her soul was escaping. We ate fish and chips for a while in companionable silence. I'd always liked that about Tilly: it was easy not to talk around her.
A family came strolling past, out for a walk in the park, mother, father, baby, two little Acara boys running ahead, laughing and yelling. The mother, a pretty red Acara pushing the baby in a pram, was smiling indulgently at them.
"That was you," Tilly said, giving me the last chip.
I took it. "They have a baby."
"That's me," Tilly said with a sly look. I laughed.
The fish and chips were gone, the storm imminent. The day was drawing to an angry close.
"It's getting late," I said. "Caleb will be worried."
"It's not that late." Tilly looked at me anxiously, as if she knew what was coming next. "Will you at least write, Declan?"
"Of course," I said. We both knew I was lying and we both pretended not to. Some things are simply easier to go on believing. Hope springs eternal, they say.
I wondered if Tilly ever thought that life was unfair, sending me roaming all over the world without a word and sticking her forever in the little town we'd grown up in, waiting for letters from a best friend that never came.
We all make choices.
She walked me to the edge of the dock. I'd bought passage on a sailing ship. I was always meaning to get my own boat. One of those things I never quite got around to.
"If I do, you know what I'll call her," I joked as we said goodbye. "I'll sail over here every week."
"Don't," Tilly said, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief she'd produced from some pocket.
"I'm sorry," I said. There was an awkward moment in which we both fumbled for words. I always thought girls were supposed to be more eloquent, but Tilly looked as lost as I was. Finally I said, "I'll see you soon."
She smiled sadly. "Take care of yourself, Declan."
I never saw her again. Now, when I think of her, I remember how she looked, so ordinary, standing there with her handkerchief pressed to her cheek, watching me go, waving and smiling even with the dark shadow of resignation in her eyes. In my darkest moments, when I might believe that I have become what everyone says I have, I remember Tilly, and know that our friendship was a truth that cannot be denied.
I have all of eternity alone with my thoughts; why, is a story by now every Neopian knows. My one regret is the small, solemn Kyrii who will grow up scrawny and lost, with a perpetual black eye. I would tell my son: let them not steal your hope. Go on believing forever.