The Bench Was Cold

The bench was cold.

The grass rustled in the soft breeze as the lamplight flickered.

It was to escape the empty house that the girl had found herself here, but so far, she experienced another drought of loneliness. It washed over her like seaweeds upon the shore, left to dry and wither in the blazing sun.

The lamplight flickered again, and suddenly she was thirstier than she had ever been. With a heavy heart and a parched throat, she set in motion towards the nearest place which would be open to serve her needs.

The cafe was the largest one on campus, and the only place open at this time. Right before the holidays, everyone had departed to see their loved ones. Some had decided to leave early, others took a breather with their friends before going home. Some of the latter was present here and since, she didn’t have much of either, here she was and here she would remain.

“A double chocolate mocha,” said the middle aged man, “perhaps with a brownie to sweeten the deal?”

It was then when the laughter broke out from the other side of the place, drawing her attention. Her heart sank a little, and a soft sigh escaped her lungs. The man stared at those trembling lips, and wan face. The dark hair came down to hide those eyes, but not before he caught the longing in those deep brown eyes. He had often joked that her eyes resembled the chocolate she so readily consumed everyday.

“I’ll take a slice of the fudge,” she said, tearing her eyes away from the merry lot, examining the shelves upon shelves of desserts, “maybe two.”

“So it’s like that.” He commented as he began to prepare her drink himself. He often did that, rather than asking the other three present at the beck and call of the numerous customers that came to enjoy their fill of sweetness. He didn’t know she was aware of his secret pleasure in the younger customers that came in, the much younger ones.

“It’s like that.”

She pulled out her wallet and paid for the treats, fully aware that she’d be given extras as a silent reprimand. After all, it was one of those days. As she’d been paying, her peers joined her at the front of the shop.

“Vera!” Exclaimed the one closest, “We didn’t know you’d be here.” She may not have phrased it like a question, but she could hear the hesitant curiosity. It died in an instant, as the olive skinned beauty came to the realization herself.

Vera did not have a home to return to.

“Just enjoying Mr. Kareem’s delectable desserts.” This was said with a wry smile.

Some of them shuffled outwards, mumbling about seeing them outside. Truth was, Vera made them uncomfortable. In the sense, that she could make them feel like they were right at home, and no one likes to reveal so much to a stranger. Even a stranger, who used to be a friend.

It was mostly unintentional, but it was one of those days. She had to ask about Ali’s mother, and how was Daniyal doing after failing yet another psychology paper? He was always welcome to join her study session. Last, but not the least was Sunaira and Mustafa.

“I would have invited you out with us, but you didn’t seem too well,” began the former with an air of an impending apology, “but you can join us now?”

“Sunaira,” Vera reprimanded, “I’m a big girl, and I don’t have to tag along wherever you go. Besides, I needed some time to myself.”

She sent Mustafa a smile, and urged the two to go out and have fun. After a lot of halfhearted attempts to convince her to join them, Vera saw them out the door. As always she didn’t want to intrude, but this time, she truly would have. Sunaira had her own friends, and Mustafa was good to her but today she couldn’t handle all that love.

It wasn’t envy, or jealousy. Vera only felt an overwhelming sense of alienation. As if she stood in the dark, with people all around her unable to reach her. It was her fault too. She had changes, and her friends didn’t like it. She understood that they needed time to get used to the changes wrought upon her by life, but this was getting ridiculous.

Didn’t Sunaira miss their closeness? Didn’t Mustafa care about their tentative friendship? Daniyal wasn’t even bothered to insult her anymore, and Ali never jokingly flirted with her. True, she didn’t laugh as much, or joke around about the C all of them received.

“A wraith,” Mustafa had said to Daniyal, “She’s not as lively as she was before.”

“She does have the dark hair, pale face thing going for her,” was the critique, “the gloom and doom vibes are too intense for me. You can spot her in a crowd, there’s always a cloud overshadowing her. Get too close and it’ll rain down on you too” The two had laughed.

“I don’t know,” another voice joined in, “I’d go for her. I mean, tall, dark, and handsome. Doesn’t say much, listens all the time. Seems interesting.” She couldn’t recognize the voice and still didn’t know who it belonged to.

“She wasn’t like that before.” Yes, Daniyal would know.

“You should see her in poetry class,” the stranger spoke once more, “I’ve never seen someone hold the attention of a literary snob like Professor Edwin and his devout followers.” Laughter. “She exploits them. Plays with their emotions, making them feel what she wants them to feel. Vera has quite a few admirers in that class.”

You seem like her devout follower,” Mustafa mocked.

“Looks like the newbie is under her wicked spell already.” Laughter and teasing ensued, causing her to flee the scene. They’d been calling her a witch for ages.

Someone had caught on to her fun. She loved watching their expressions, their interpretations. The enormous power never went to her head, but allowed her to improve and express further. Even Professor Edwin awaited her work, praised her sometimes. It was the slight smile, and the subtle nod he gave her that pushed her to let the words flow across the page. In that huge auditorium, she had found her place. Forced herself into the hearts of those reluctant to acknowledge her as competition.

The result? They all needed her. The Professor to ponder over the meanings and relentlessly pushing her limits to fulfill his need to see his students flourish. The students for inspiration.

Out of the literature classes however, she was nothing to anyone. Not anymore.

Even Sunaira who had vowed to love her through all her flaws had remained distant through her hardship. If asked to choose between her soul sister and the entirety of her literature class, there would have been no competition. However, that was that, and this is now.

Without realizing it, her boot clad feet had carried her back to the bench. She was busy devouring her food and did not sense another approaching the bench. Staying alert all the time was tiresome, and the soft cake felt like the home she’d lost.

“That must be one hell of a cake,” said a familiar voice.

It was him, the stranger who had once deemed her tall, dark, and handsome.

Usually, she would be embarrassed.

Tonight, she just nodded.

“Aren’t you going to introduce yourself?” He tried, his eerily bright eyes flickering with some unknown emotion.

Lightning, she thought, tearing apart the sky to draw out the rain.

“I don’t think that would be necessary.” A pause.

“It’s starting to rain, you should be inside.”

Her mouth slightly turned up, “It won’t hurt me. It’s only drizzling.”

“What if you get caught in a storm?” He seemed focused on her hair. She felt better about growing it out.

“Wouldn’t be the first storm, and certainly not the last.” From her periphery, she saw him reach out. When she made no move to stop him, he took a few strands between his fingers.

“You were the one who found them. It’s why you wrote that poem.” She remained silent, so he took that as an affirmation, “Rivers of red.”

“I got even. I didn’t let them run away,” quiet, but not hesitant. Why was she telling him this? Why was he asking?

“It’s why you’re so calm, unnaturally still.” He smiled. “You’ve grieved, and now you’ve accepted it all. Acceptance suits you.”

“The deaths. The murders. All of it.”

He was closer than before, twisting the strands and letting them fall.

“I think they know, but they don’t care. They don’t see.” The familiarity was welcome. Once again, her audience was captive.

“Only I know. You and I, we’re the same. They think you’re grieving, lost, confused.” She tilted her head and asked, “What do you think?”

“I think,” he caught her hand and caressed her knuckles with his thumb, “that you’ve received closure, you’ve found yourself. The clarity to you is mist to them.”

She peered into his eyes and found reflected in his lightening a part of herself. A girl nobody had cared to acknowledge. The thunder and lightning intertwined in a chaotic dance as the drought gave way to the rain.

The lamplight flickered for the last time, dying out to give way to the darkness of assassins.

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