It's cold here, the air damp with the promise of rain. Thunder is rumbling in the distance and the stars are shrouded by thick clouds, the moonlight hidden behind a grey screen. Here, in the deserted playground on a humid September night, the silence is loud.
He counts each minute that slowly ticks by, he counts each hour as the night deepens and the invisible horizon pales, teetering on the edge of dawn. He counts each heartbeat that pulses loudly in his ears, he counts the windows of the houses peeking over the compound wall, he counts the duration of each hushed rumble of thunder. He counts the bruises he knows stick to his body under his shirt, he counts from one to ten over and over again as he tries to will himself to calm down. He counts how many times he has found himself in this same situation, doing nothing but counting.
His eyes sting with the burden of too many tears left unshed, and his lips quiver with the force of rage and pain and shame that seeps like venom into all the words he's left unsaid. It burns in his throat, clawing at his voice, but he can't say them, cannot say them no matter how hard he tries and tries and tries.
An absolute coward, that's what he is.
A hand comes over him, cold but somehow comforting; and that's when Paul realizes that he's been shaking.
"Hey buddy, you're okay?" The voice that asks is gentle, beautifully husky in a way his own voice isn't yet. Ayaan's voice.
Paul takes a deep breath and nods gingerly, resisting the urge to curl up in embarrassment because he's such a coward, such a stupid coward. Ayaan draws closer and squeezes his shoulder like he's trying to reassure him without words. It works in a small way, it always does.
But the stinging in his eyes don't leave even when Paul tries to blink the tears away. "They did it again," his voice is hoarse, barely a whisper, "they did it again, and I couldn't do a damned thing."
Ayaan doesn't say anything, doesn't move. He merely waits until Paul is ready to look him in the eyes.
"They don't get me, Ayaan," his voice breaks, choked with a sob as the weight on his shoulders becomes too much to bear and they cave inwards, into himself. He clutches himself tightly, both because he's cold and because he wants to make himself small enough to disappear. He's a spineless sinner, a disappointment, the black sheep of his household. He's the reason for their distress, of their anger, of their hurt. He brought it all upon himself, every agonizing moment; from the broken phone lying against the wall of his room to the fresh bruise blooming maroon and purple across his cheek, imprinted there by a slap so hard, it's still ringing in his ears.
He deserves it, he can't help but think. Loathing curls in his belly, dark and ugly, a slow poison that destroys him. He hates himself, he despises the horrid reflection that stares back at him through the mirror. There's nothing about him to love anyway.
He's not like Ayaan; Ayaan, who wears eyeliner to school on Saturdays because everything is more lenient on weekends; who shares posts tagged with #Pride on his Instagram Stories; who saves his pocket money so he can buy makeup for himself later; whose dreams are as colorful and bright as the small rainbow badge pinned to his backpack. Paul isn't like Ayaan, who laughs like moonlight rippling off ocean tides, who is proud and in the open, who brushes the hate and mean comments off his shoulders with the same effortless grace with which he tucks his overgrown curls behind his ear.
Ayaan is confident and beautiful and everything that Paul is not; he's precious and sparkles like a gem among the dull crowd around him. He loves in big, bold waves that threaten to wash over everyone, that threaten to drown everything in gold and glitter and joy. He loves himself with the same intensity, if not more. He's proud of himself, with not a strand of shame for who he is.
Ayaan is the opposite of what Paul is.
Paul is just a guy in the backbench, with low grades and even lower self-esteem, a boy who has never once felt what genuine, unconditional love really means. He's a boy with foolish longings and a heart that can't stop wanting; a boy with a disjointed family who would never understand him.
And a boy is exactly what he is. He's just a stupid boy of sixteen, too young and too troubled.
Paul wishes sometimes; on those rare days when his family is finally quiet, he wishes that things were different. He wishes that his heart wouldn't stutter in his chest when he looked at magazines with the pictures of handsome male models in them, he wishes his mother hadn't caught him watching that movie, at the exact moment those two boys were innocently kissing on the screen of his phone. He wishes that his parents didn't spit out the word “gay" like it was the plague, their faces pinched in disgust, the panic of their son having blasphemed so open in their eyes. He wishes that he'd not forgotten to lock the door, wishes that he had hidden the small bottle of nail polish he'd bought for Ayaan better so his dad wouldn't have thrown that against the wall too. The bright orange paint had exploded over his cream walls, it had dripped down slowly onto the shattered glass of the bottle and his phone, almost like the tears that had refused flow down his cheeks.
The nail polish had been Ayaan's birthday gift.
Ayaan smooths a thumb over his knuckles. "Don't worry, baby, it's okay. Hm, it's alright. Don't think about it," he soothes, and the softness in his voice makes Paul want to cry. He hates it, the feeling of the tears welling up too close to the edge and turning his vision blurry. He hates the way his traitorous heart skips at the endearment. He hates the way he feels so small and pathetic.
Paul wishes sometimes; in these rare, fleeting moments of comfort, he wishes for another parallel to his life. He wishes that he was like Ayaan, even a little bit, blessed with the same calm personality and overflowing kindness. He wishes he was older; not a scrawny, helpless boy of sixteen. If he was older, then perhaps, he'd be more capable of accepting himself, maybe he'd be less of a coward with his tail folded between his legs.
He longs for the day he's eighteen.
Eighteen is two years away, flickering golden and so full of promises. Eighteen feels like a dream, so real, so close that he could almost grasp it. Eighteen is that boat that will lead him to freedom after a life of silent suffocation, the carrier of those hopes he's too afraid to tell anyone else. Eighteen is right there, waiting for him; waiting for him in the same way the ground is waiting for the pattering footsteps of rain.
Once he's eighteen, he'll be away from his family in an instant; he'll never look back. He'll wear eyeliner and go clubbing, he'll finally let go of his fear and throw his cares to the wind. He'll watch movies with boys kissing and kiss boys himself, out in the open for the entire world to see. When he's eighteen, he'll do everything he's always been wanting to do and no one will be allowed to judge him; then, maybe, he'll learn to hate himself a little less.
Just two more years to go, and Paul's counting every second.
He tells Ayaan his plans in a whisper, mapping out everything in vivid detail; his voice so full of yearning. Ayaan listens with a smile, his thumb continuing to draw gentle circles on Paul's hand as the dreams spill out from his cracked lips and out into the damp air.
"Where would you go?" he asks.
Paul shakes his head and his eyes flick up to the cloudy sky.
"Anywhere. It doesn't matter as long as it's not here."
Ayaan looks at the ground, at the grains of sand beneath his worn shoes. He speaks again after a short pause; his voice careful, tone mild: "Would you like if I came with you?"
Paul turns to look at him, his expression blank. Sometimes, he wonders how he looks to Ayaan, who himself is so nice, so lovable and ambitious, the smell of earth and comfort. He wonders about what they are, best friends but not quite; swimming in a twilight zone they both don't want to name.
He wonders if it'll burn out like the cigarettes he sneaks from his father's pocket sometimes, this strange relationship he has with Ayaan; just a momentary reprieve that seems to be over even before you've gotten used to the feeling, to the drag. Maybe it's as fragile as the smoke that fills his lungs on those secret nights on the terrace, the taste on his tongue so bitter but the high in his veins so sweet.
He wonders if this thing between them will last.
Maybe it won't.
Maybe it will.
A small grin breaks out over his face then, the ugly purple bruise folding into a deep dimple on his cheek and his tired, bloodshot eyes softening for just a few seconds. "I'd love it if you came with me. We could roam Rome together."
Ayaan laughs, interlacing their fingers. His hand is bigger than Paul's, his fingers thinner and skin softer, but they slot perfectly together.
"Two more years, baby. Just two more years, right? I'll wait for you."
The words make Paul smile, but his chest still aches, and even though he knows he shouldn't, he can't help but dislike himself even more for being such a helpless fool, dependant and undeserving, clinging to fleeting words of tenderness he's not sure will stay. But he doesn't say anything about it, because he doesn't want to see the sadness in Ayaan's eyes, not today.
Instead, he lets the silence hang for a few beats more. The thunder has gotten louder, closer to where they are. The humidity makes Ayaan's thick, wavy hair stick to his forehead, and Paul grits his teeth when feels the familiar stutter in his chest.
"You're turning seventeen tomorrow."
Ayaan just smiles sweetly in response, staring into the distance ahead, feet kicking at the sand.
Paul can't wipe the disappointed frown off his face when he remembers the orange streaming down his wall. "I don't have a gift for you..."
He's embarrassed and a little sad, but he can't do anything.
Ayaan just looks at him with fond eyes, pushing the hair out of Paul's eyes and cradling his face in his hands softly, so softly that it makes Paul ache again. He gently leans in, until their lips are touching just barely, so tender in his movements. He pulls away just after Paul counts five heartbeats in his mind, his eyes and mouth curved into a smile.
"It's okay. That's your gift to me, hm?"
The raindrops begin to fall, one by one, and slowly, suddenly, so do Paul's tears.
(Shame, that's what he feels. He hates it.)