Monday’s electric, tense anticipation enveloped the city as it always did. Matieu looked up at the train station’s television. Good Morning Varemo! still had some ten-odd minutes of runtime before having to give way to the weather forecast and, as usual, the two hosts tried to squeeze in as much content as possible. A classmate had once referred to Good Morning Varemo! as a “news report for idiots”, Matieu recalled. He found the statement unfair. The programme covered only the most uncontroversial, apolitical stories, with a focus on popular culture and inconsequential events. That Monday, for the last ten minutes, they reported on a woman in the Longbridge prefecture who claimed to have found an original renaissance painting in her basement. The sensationalistic nature of their reports attracted almost as many people as it turned away. Yet, despite the programme’s constant criticism, it had been on the air for as long as Matieu could remember.
Good Morning Varemo! had almost finished when a familiar voice called him.
Emil waved hastily and closed the distance between them with steps so quick they resembled leaps.
Matieu remained focused on the television as he spoke. Visibly intrigued by the other’s attention, Emil too looked at the screen then, apparently deeming the subject uninteresting, turned back to Matieu.
“Did, uh, did you do math?”
Matieu knew Emil well enough to instantly recognise that tone: forcefully relaxed, casual, and, as with most of Emil’s emotional displays, the opposite of what he felt. Matieu also knew Emil well enough to guess what he would ask next.
“Because if you did and you’re okay with it – only if you’re okay with it, of course – I’m not sure about some of my answers so, you know…”
“I’ll let you copy after the weather, yeah?”
A relieved smile spread across Emil’s face and he gestured to sweep sweat off his forehead with cartoonish exaggeration.
“Oh man, you’re a lifesaver!”
The weather forecast began with a general overview of the whole country, then moved to Varemo’s south coast to begin the detailed city-by-city analysis – starting with the capital, as always.
“… despite the sunny weekend, Greylake is to expect rain and wind throughout the week, with temperatures between ten and fifteen degrees…”
“Alright got it! Come on, let’s do math!”
Emil’s words gained urgency; before Matieu fully registered the weatherman’s words, Emil beckoned him towards a pair of benches.
“I actually tried this time, okay?”
The two sat on opposite ends of a bench with notebooks and pens between them. “Of course you did.”
Emil huffed in a mockery of indignation.
“Look if you don’t believe me!” He shoved a notebook in Matieu’s face. “I did the first one but didn’t get it so, you know…”
“You gave up.” Matieu’s brows furrowed as he followed the calculations. “Wait, why did you use Pythagoras? This isn’t a right triangle.”
The blonde snatched away the notebook.
“Oh, shoot, it really isn’t,” he laughed, “can’t believe I missed that!”
Neither can I, thought Matieu through his own subtle smile.
Matieu could tell, from the increasing number of students walking by, that they ought to hurry. The clock in the television’s lower-left corner reinforced his worries.
“Come on, we’ll be late.”
Without warning, Matieu swiped his own notebook off the bench and slid it in his bag.
“Five more minutes? We’ll make it if we run!”
Emil’s gaze followed the other as he stood up then, asserting Matieu had no intention of continuing with the homework, picked up his own notebook too.
“Also, Matieu, you’ve got cat hair all over your back.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Matieu murmured while walking, “it’ll just come off by itself during the day.”
Whether it mattered or not was out of his control. Matieu had discovered, ever since adopting Marike, that few teachers cared if he had cat hair on the school uniform. Though those that did care, cared excessively.
That statement applied to most of the adults in Greylake, he reasoned. Coming from the central Vareman town of Castil – 2000 inhabitants with a generous estimate – Matieu found that the capital encouraged a form of general apathy towards life itself, interrupted only by an obsession with rules and regulations. His uncle had warned him about Greylakans: the lot of them are selfish, Matieu, and two-faced, so be careful.
The vending machine at the end of the corridor reflected what little light came through the window. An impenetrable curtain of clouds covered the sky by Tuesday, but there had been no signs of precipitation yet. Emil studied every item in the vending machine, with careful consideration, as if he had to make the purchase of a lifetime in the span of a ten-minute break.
“Do you want anything?”
He briefly turned to Matieu, then popped in a ten var coin and chose a milk chocolate bar. The same as always.
“I’m good, thanks.”
Matieu’s gaze remained focused on the window. Hope it doesn’t rain too hard, the thought came without prompting.
“Oh, and by the way!” Emil waved a hand to attract Matieu’s attention. “So, there’s this new indie cinema opening,” his eyes widened in excitement, “and they’re doing two for the price of one the whole week! Want to go?”
“I’m working today.”
An inappreciable sigh accompanied Matieu’s words. The work itself was no cause for annoyance – really, he reasoned, as far as student part-time work was concerned he had won the lottery – but the idea of walking around under the rain without an umbrella bothered him, and quite a lot.
“Well, tomorrow then?”
“I work Wednesdays too.”
Emil’s brows lowered. His lips formed a pout.
“Thursday then! And I know you don’t work Thursdays!”
The stern face lasted less than a minute before morphing into a caricature of itself. If you already know my schedule why ask? Matieu had begun formulating the question into words, then the realisation of its pointlessness struck, and he merely forced a smile and nodded.
“Fine. Let’s go on Thursday.”
Rain started falling five minutes after the end of Matieu’s shift. A sickly, thin drizzle, so frail he did not immediately acknowledge it. Once he did, Matieu immediately opened the umbrella and quickening his steps. The weatherman had predicted rain and wind through the week, yet that Wednesday evening was the week’s first wind-less precipitation. Thankfully, he reasoned, because his cousin took the umbrella the two shared on Tuesday.
Matieu only ever saw weather forecasts on Mondays. The cousin he lived with did not have a television – logical, considering how little time she spent in the apartment – and catching the forecast on the station’s television meant taking an earlier train, which entailed waking up almost an hour sooner. It also entailed sitting (or standing, rather) through part of Good Morning Varemo! though Matieu did not share that disdain for the programme so common among his generation. His aunt used to watch it every morning with an almost religious devotion; he watched it with her and, more often than not, found it entertaining at the very least. Matieu had been warned about a supposed superiority Greylakans felt towards the rest of Varemo – sometimes referred to as the “provincials”, among less polite terms – but had never witnessed anything of the like. Even so, he remembered his uncle’s warning: Greylakans think themselves better than the rest, Matieu, so stand your ground and be careful.
Marike stood on her hind legs atop the kitchen table, front paws against the window, attempting to catch the raindrops forming on the glass.
“Good evening to you too.”
Matieu smiled through raised eyebrows. The cat ignored him and continued pawing at the glass. He had learned, by then, that with Marike there was always a fifty-fifty chance of being either ignored or greeted. Some days he even managed to hear her welcoming meows (or screeches, as his cousin had called it) from the building’s stairs.
As if suddenly made aware of her owner’s presence, Marike leapt off the table to begin the usual round of meows and affectionate head-rubbing.
“Mh? So you do love me?”
Matieu chuckled and passed a hand over the cat’s head. Marike meowed a reply, then switched to purring and, from experience, Matieu recognised it was her way of demanding food.
Thursday’s final bell rang and following it was the usual cacophony of scraping chairs against the floor, running steps (accompanied by no running indoors! warnings), and talking. Mr. Paolini, as he always did, merely raised his voice over the crowd and called out “no need to rush” – but he did so half-heartedly and without much interest because, Matieu assumed, he acknowledged that there was no stopping that end-of-day excitement. Besides, for all his talks of not rushing and whatnot, Paolini was often among the first to leave the classroom. Emil ran up to Matieu’s desk before the latter had even finished packing.
“Let’s go! I’m really excited!”
He slammed both open palms on Matieu’s desk with enough force to flinch once the recoil set in.
“You sure are.”
Outside, rain fell vertically and silently. Matieu’s cousin was not one to change her behaviour (truthfully speaking he did he not know her very well, but assumed her to be that kind of person), so he accepted that he had to either buy a new umbrella or deal with the weather. Worst of all, Matieu thought, that umbrella’s technically mine. Irritation was so evident on his features that Emil laughing reassured him.
“I brought my umbrella, don’t worry!”
“Great,” Matieu glanced outside for a last time and stood up, “because I’m pretty sure Christa stole mine. Again.”
“Where’s this cinema, anyway?”
The two walked almost shoulder-to-shoulder under Emil’s umbrella. Both knew what a hassle school uniforms were to dry, how unpleasant moist jackets felt.
“Oh, somewhere near Theranze,” Emil paused for a few seconds mid-sentence, “like, kinda close to the station I think.”
“Wait, you think?”
“Don’t worry!” He laughed. “Plus you work in Theranze anyway, so you know the area.” A passing car interrupted the exchange. Emil quickened his pace and, as he carried the umbrella, Matieu had no choice but to match his pace.
“I really don’t.”
Despite working three days a week in the district, Matieu had never wandered off further than he had to – the same applied to the rest of Greylake.
Also referred to as the “new city centre”, the Theranze district occupied the less favourable half of Greylake’s heart. Vibrant and densely populated, busy sidewalks bristled with life as commuters made their way between the station, shops, restaurants, and whatever other “trendy” place sprung up overnight. Theranze’s culture revolved around innovation and entertainment; a place professionals and adolescents likewise flocked to. In comparison, the Central district – the “old city centre” – with its traditional and refined style, appeared as an exercise in aesthetically pleasing dullness. Matieu and Emil arrived at the train station within fifteen minutes.
“So, which direction are we going in?”
Matieu kept his eyes on Emil, instinctively worried he may be swept away in the sea of people (or wander off out of distraction).
“I’ve got a map right here!”
Without any kind of warning, Emil slid his backpack off and begun rummaging through it a handful of steps in front of the electronic ticket gate – he did not so much as budge when someone inevitably bumped into him.
The woman’s glare sufficed to convince Matieu to act.
“Please excuse us!”
He hastily grabbed Emil’s arm and pulled him towards the station’s edge. And he lived here his whole life, Matieu thought with annoyance, I haven’t even been here a whole year and I-
Emil’s exclamation derailed Matieu’s internal monologue. The blonde waved a sheet of paper triumphantly, then forcefully handed it to Matieu. As he had said, there was a map to the cinema behind the promotional poster, though it presented a colourful, highly stylised rendition of the Theranze district, effectively trading readability for uniqueness.
Matieu studied it attentively to at least identify which one of the landmarks, symbolised by stars, represented the train station.
“I think this is the station,” Emil pointed to a star, “because then this would be the subway stop, right?” He traced his finger over another star.
“Oh yeah, that makes sense.”
Matieu started visualising his own mental map of the district.
“It’s pretty close, actually. Like ten minutes I guess?”
Emil took the map from Matieu’s hands as he spoke.
“If you knew it already…” The sentence died off naturally. “Never mind.”
Matieu had understood, in time, that Emil was not as clueless as he pretended to be. Or dense, rather. From his own observations he figured that Emil’s love of attention (which he made no effort whatsoever to hide) drove him to take on such a dense persona, but there was no way to know for sure and, the more Matieu mulled over it, the less he even wanted to be sure. Taking the same route he took to work, Matieu led the way across the overpass from the Theranze train station to the subway station of the same name.
The rain had ceased falling and left in its wake a shiny, fresh city – a very welcome change from the station’s claustrophobic air. Some twenty people stood outside the subway stop in a circle. Matieu initially paid them no mind, until the sight of large cardboard signs inevitably caught his attention.
“Are they protesting? What are they protesting about?”
Emil’s voice had more excitement than Matieu found normal.
He appeared as disinterested as possible and turned in the opposite direction, expecting Emil to follow.
“Let’s join in!”
Of all the things Emil could have suggested, he went for the one Matieu dreaded the most, yet subconsciously expected.
“Let’s not.” The coldness in his voice had no visible effect on Emil. “Come on, we’re here to see a movie.”
In moments such as those Matieu wondered whether his assessment of Emil had been wrong and maybe he really was that dense. One of the protesters looked in the boys’ direction, whispered with another protester, then walked towards the adolescents with a salesperson’s smile.
“Hello boys! It’s so great to see young people interested in current affairs!”
The emphasis she placed on random syllables instantly made Matieu dislike her. She spoke with a tone reserved for children.
“We’re out here sending a message to the opposition party.” She gestured to her shirt. Messy letters, illegible from any distance, spelled out SAVE OUR RAILS, SAY NO TO PRIVATISATION.
“We’re not interested, sorry.”
Matieu interrupted Emil before he had a chance to say anything and, without giving the woman time to process the words, started walking towards the sidewalk.
“Come on, I wasn’t going to actually join them!”
Emil chuckled as soon as they were out of the woman’s earshot.
“Knowing me what? Mh?”
His laughter grew more honest, contagious.
“No, come on, tell me!”
Matieu instinctively looked away from the blonde’s face to avoid bursting into laughter, but it was too late, and Emil saw straight through his struggle. The two of them made enough noise to attract a handful of inquisitive gazes.
The cinema embodied everything Greylake’s growing alternative subculture professed. Small and unassuming, squeezed among much taller buildings, it used colour to draw attention – successfully so, with bright red and yellow stars decorating the façade. Rainwater had pooled over the neon name sign and drops fell at regular intervals. The inside (aside from being much more spacious than Matieu imagined) was refined – elegant, almost – lacking that kitschy, amateur charm the exterior possessed. Emil’s eyes sparkled in the yellowish light.
“What are we seeing?”
Matieu studied the posters adorning the place, all for movies he had never heard of.
“They’re showing The Crabman non-stop until tomorrow, I think you’d like it!”
Matieu had barely sufficient time to look back at Emil before the latter had already reached the ticket booth with a sprint. I think you’d like it hardly meant anything – Matieu had realised long ago – but he had also learned to appreciate Emil’s company better than the films he had sat through. Besides, after so many outright terrible movies maybe, just maybe, Matieu’s expectations had fallen enough to let him enjoy anything.
The Crabman’s opening scene alone crushed what little expectations he might have subconsciously harboured. With obnoxious dialogue and special effects that stretched the meaning of special, Matieu found himself glancing in Emil’s direction at regular intervals, for no other reason than to ensure that at least he enjoyed it. Emil’s lucid gaze confirmed that, as with most B-movies, that one too had instantly captivated him. Matieu slouched in his seat and chewed popcorn. Maybe it gets better, he thought hopelessly.
At the movie’s emotional climax, the human-crab abomination – the titular Crabman – came to be accepted by his lover and family. Matieu turned to Emil only to find him asleep. Without thinking about it, he prodded the boy with his elbow. Emil woke with a start, seemingly realised the situation, gave Matieu a sheepish smile, then swiftly returned to watching. How long did he sleep? He wondered. Regardless, Emil had woken up just in time to witness the Crabman scream out his catchphrase, “I am the Crabman!”, then launch himself towards a horde of the movie’s antagonists: cheap-looking crustacean extraterrestrials.
“That was awesome!”
Coming out of the room, Emil’s steps had a skip to them.
“You fell asleep!”
“I still enjoyed it.” He stretched his arms upwards and yawned loudly. “You liked it too, right?”
“It’s such a stupid movie...”
“Exactly!” Emil flashed a grin. “That’s what makes it fun!”
Matieu’s lips formed a sardonic smile. He did not agree with Emil’s sentiment and Emil must have known, because he would not have laughed otherwise.
“Besides,” Emil glanced at Matieu as they walked back to the station, “I think it had some meaning behind it. Like, I think they were trying to do a, uh, what’s it called? Like, you know, when you honour something?”
“A tribute? An homage?”
“Yeah! An homage! Anyway I think it’s an homage to this American movie from the 50s called The Fly, where a guy gets fused with a fly…” Emil interrupted himself. “Oh I actually have it at home, we should watch it this weekend!”
“Give me a while,” Matieu jokingly felt his forehead, “I’ll need at least a week to recover from The Crabman.” He turned to Emil who seemed, unusual for him, contemplative.
“Crabs are kind of cool, don’t you think?” He touched his chin in a display of thoughtfulness, “I wonder if I could keep a pet crab…”
What interrupted their conversation was a roaring, sudden downpour. Those on the sidewalks instinctively ran for shelter under shop façades. Matieu and Emil ducked into a covered bus stop, though mere seconds in the rain had been enough to drench them.
“Oh.” Emil stared at the street.
“I forgot my umbrella.”
“In the cinema?”
Matieu looked at Emil, whose gaze remained locked straight ahead.
“Nope, on the train.”
“Are you serious!?”
Silence answered him.
“Well,” Matieu’s gaze too wandered to the rainy scene, “guess we’ll have to run.” He took off his uniform’s jacket – rather pointless, as it had already suffered the weather – and held it close. Emil imitated his motions. A part of him wondered whether he should have reminded Emil to take the umbrella, or better yet, carried it himself, but ultimately realised the pointlessness of such speculations and allowed them to fade away.
The protesters from earlier had disappeared. In their place, only a handful of leaflets remained, plastered to the ground and dissolving under the water. Matieu recalled another of his uncle’s warnings: Greylakans love to protest and go on strike Matieu, so be careful. The man never specified what exactly to be careful about, but as with most of his advice, Matieu accepted that the vagueness granted it memorability.
A man stood in Theranze’s subway station, strumming an acoustic guitar the sound of which lost itself amid the station’s commotion.
“Oh, I think I know that song! Was he here earlier too?”
“That guy’s always here.”
He glanced at the busker, then the open guitar case in front of him, as the two walked by.
“I’ll give him something!”
Before Matieu took a first step on the stairs leading to the overpass, Emil slithered away among the stream of people.
“I dunno the name of the song,” he returned in a matter of seconds, “but it’s by The Beatles…”
Emil’s voice trailed off. The two reached the overpass, with its glass wall overlooking the city. Dusk had comfortably settled in. Lights from streetlights, crossing lights, and cars reflected on the wet asphalt, granting Greylake a surreal glow. A sea of colourful umbrellas extended as far as the eye could see. Raindrops that slammed against the overpass’ elongated window stuck to it, with the heavier ones sliding down sluggishly.
Matieu stopped walking once Emil did. The blonde turned to face the city, placed both hands on the handrail, leaned forward slightly. His expre[i][/i]ssion grew solemn. The voices from those around them became distant and their words senseless. Matieu’s eyes moved from Emil and towards the city. He knew what the moment meant, he knew what Emil would ask.
“Hey, Matieu… We’re still running away next month, right?”
Matieu remained quiet. The glowing world below continued functioning as it always did, because it did not care for some high school students – that indifference, Matieu had learned, hurt Emil the most. He did not pretend to understand the other’s profoundest thoughts, but that thought, which had driven Emil to form such a convoluted idea of life, was one he understood and, sometimes, feared.
The answer was mechanical and mindless. When Emil first laid out the idea of running away months prior – leaving this life behind, as he explained it – Matieu assumed it to be nothing but another of the boy’s cries for attention. When Emil first invited him to partake, the plan ceased being a childish fantasy to become exactly that, a plan. And those months ago, running away appealed to Matieu too. What else did he have to look forward to, after all? Orphaned, shuffled among relatives all his life, simultaneously nobody’s and everybody’s child, ultimately sent off to a city he hated with a cousin who wanted nothing to do with him… When Emil had said run away with me in spring, Matieu saw in the proposal a freedom he never imagined experienceable.
Emil’s lips curled in a smile almost as unenthusiastic as his gaze. A lot had changed since October. Matieu had, in less than half a year, come to feel accepted by that city his uncle had so sternly warned him about. Running away became less appealing with each passing day. Matieu had no way of knowing Emil’s exact reasoning, but he understood enough to appreciate how much the boy valued his presence, how distressed he would feel were Matieu to express his uncertainty.
The two remained quiet for a while longer. The rain outside continued falling, washing away the glowing city.