The station’s coffee shop attracted him despite the fact that every single time Emil bought coffee there, it turned out to be disgusting. Even vending machine coffee was preferable to that – much to the shock of everyone, Emil included, because the boy’s taste in coffee seemed to favour gourmet, luxury blends above all else. The only reason he even considered that coffee shop was boredom. Matieu always showed up at the station much earlier than necessary to watch the weather forecast, so what was taking him so long? Emil huffed in annoyance. He had homework to copy and gossip to share, two activities that required more than one person.
By the time Matieu finally arrived, the station had already filled with students who either walked to school or stood around talking in groups, being a nuisance to anyone who needed to navigate through the station.
Emil wasted no time making his presence known, grinning from ear to ear, adding an almost musical pause between the syllables of his friend’s name.
“Hey,” Matieu’s brows furrowed in brief surprise, “you’re early.”
“You’re the one who’s late!”
Emil laughed until he remembered why he had been waiting in the first place. The grin faded to leave behind a starkly serious expression.
“You did biology, right?”
“I don’t do biology…?”
Matieu’s brows furrowed once more.
Oh, right. Colour drained from Emil’s cheeks. The previous day, he had suffered a short-lived panic when he struggled to remember where Matieu sat in the biology lab – with good reason, Emil realised then, because he had never seen Matieu in the biology lab. He looked away, touched his chin in a display of preoccupation, involuntarily focused on the television screen where the weather forecast went on uninterrupted. Matieu mentioned he took physics instead – though Emil could not be sure if he just imagined it, as all his mental processes had to focus on figuring out an excuse.
That excuse never came.
“Well,” he turned back to Matieu, “this is it. I’m done for. Get ready for my funeral.”
“Nah, can’t afford a suit. I’ll skip.”
Matieu’s laughter would have remained stifled and subdued had Emil not gasped in exaggerated indignation, which made the laughter evolve into a hearty, loud thing the two shared as they walked out of the station.
“If it was up to me,” Emil rested both hands on the nape of his neck, “having science first period would be illegal.”
“It’s cruel!” The boy’s tone turned defensive, though, like all his emotional displays, there was a note of comical hyperbole.
“You do biology!” In contrast, Matieu made no effort to exaggerate his amusement. “Try having physics with Heston first thing in the morning.”
“If I have to do one more Punnett square, I’ll jump out the window.”
Emil would have continued whining about biology, but the sight of the school gate suddenly reminded him of the other reason he had arrived at the station so early.
“Oh, right! Did you hear what one of the fourth years did yesterday?”
A rhetorical question, both knew, because none kept up with local happenings with as much devotion as Emil – least of all Matieu, whose face read cluelessness.
“This one guy got in a fight, like, a really bad one! Blood and all!”
“That’s not all! He had the school uniform on and it was right outside the station and a bunch of people saw it! I bet Heston will mention it during homeroom.”
“That bad? Who was the other person?”
“Mh, no idea! Not someone from school though. It was really bad, like, I caught the end of it and, yeah…”
His voice trailed off as the two reached the class’ entrance and, as usual, Matieu was swept up in small talk with the rest of their classmates, who hardly acknowledged Emil if only because they could not completely ignore him as usual.
“And this is a reminder,” Heston had finished calling attendance when he raised his hawk-like gaze to the class, “that you represent the school when wearing that uniform. Don’t do anything stupid.”
Emil wanted to turn around and whisper a triumphant told you to Matieu, but knew from experience that there was no escaping Heston’s omniscient eye; not for him especially, as Heston made it clear he would not be lenient with that boy who constantly came in late and used homeroom to rush through homework. Emil thanked the heavens Heston taught physics instead of biology, because Emil was certain the man had it in him to ruin his academic career and would have failed him without mercy.
In retrospect maybe the station’s coffee shop would have been a good idea. Emil had skipped his morning coffee in the haste and found his eyelids growing heavy halfway through second period – not his fault, Emil knew, because had the lesson been interesting he would not have found himself struggling to stay awake.
Emil jolted awake to the English teacher hovering over his desk with arms crossed over her chest and a faint chorus of chuckling in the background.
“If you don’t want to be here, the door’s right there.”
“Ah, I, uh, I’m sorry.”
The chorus only stopped when the teacher returned to the front and resumed teaching.
Emil thought the quality of his school life would increase exponentially if only he had a different seat. He lucked out in sitting by the window, but said luck was countered by the misfortune of sitting in the third row – misfortune which itself was again countered by luck, because after years of sitting in the first row due to his surname, he had been assigned to a class where two students had surnames beginning with A. The best seat was the back row by the window. Emil reasoned, as drowsiness once more gnawed at his consciousness, that if he legally changed his surname the school would have to change his seat. The lecture in the background became fainter. He could change his surname to something that would land him behind the golden seat’s current owner, so most of the first column would end up having to move forwards. Emil felt Matieu’s hand poking his back in attempt to keep him from dozing off. Maybe we should both change our surnames, he thought whilst slipping into a state between sleep and awakedness.
“Man, what an… absolute slog.”
Standing by the vending machine at the end of the corridor, Emil allowed for a yawn and stretch to interrupt his sentence. Matieu’s lips formed into a pout.
“Tell me about it, I was the one keeping you awake-”
“I’ll get some coffee after school.”
Emil paid Matieu no mind and instead focused what energy he had into picking something from the vending machine. Milk chocolate bar, as usual.
“Biology went well, by the way!” He perked up without prompting. “Teacher actually forgot to even ask for the homework. I’m safe for now!”
Matieu was quieter than usual. Emil added tonal shifts and emphasis on random syllables (more than he already did) to try and sound particularly interesting, to try and coax Matieu into participating in the conversation. It did not work. Matieu limited himself to nods and monosyllabic agreements. Maybe he’s tired too? The idea that Matieu Descoteaux, always punctual, ahead on homework, master of time management, who also found the time to work part-time three times a week, could experience something like tiredness awed Emil. Aside from amazing, it was also comforting – if Matieu’s unnatural silence was not due to a sleepless night, the only other possible explanation was that Matieu had begun to find Emil boring and possibly even hated him.
“Oh and by the way!” Emil interrupted himself, took a bite out of the chocolate, then resumed talking. “Where do you want to go after school?”
Matieu finally made substantial conversation.
“Sorry, I’m going somewhere with Sofia today.”
The chocolate acquired a sudden sourness. Between Matieu’s words and the casual, indifferent tone he used as he gazed out the window, Emil could not decide which was worse. What he could decide, however, was that the best course of action involved putting on an obnoxiously enthusiastic grin (the fact Matieu saw through it did not cross Emil’s mind) and tone to match it.
“Oh! Is it like a date? Where are you two going? Is she in our class?”
Matieu laughed a laugh Emil interpreted as mocking and hostile.
“Nah, we’re just friends.”
The laughter died down only to be replaced by a bemused head tilt.
“You know Sofia. Sofia Alti, glasses, long hair… She sits in front of you!”
Of course I know her, Emil thought as his face grew tired of smiling. Emil knew everyone and some more, and of all people – of all people – Matieu could have befriended it just had to be one of those Emil knew the most due to… Unfortunate circumstances. Rather, he was not so much bothered by the fact Matieu and Sofia were friends because, as far as Emil cared, they could be friends in school all they wanted – it was after school that he found it unfair. Matieu worked three times a week which only left Mondays, Thursdays and sometimes weekends as days to hang out together. If Matieu was going to start using his Thursdays for Sofia, it could only mean that he really had grown bored of Emil and very probably hated him.
Emil was so lost in thought he did not hear what else Matieu said. Only the bell’s ringing to signify recess’ end returned him to reality.
“Guess we should head back.”
Emil forced another smile. He had no intention of finishing the chocolate bar and made a mental note to chuck it in a bin as soon as Matieu was not looking.
Of all things, it was the train station café’s disgusting coffee that offered Emil some solace in his time of despair. The comfort of a warm beverage – despite the brew’s vile taste – allowed him to meditate on his feelings. He was angry at Matieu. After everything they had gone through together, everything he had told him, all the plans they had made… He still found it in him to throw Emil aside. Another sip. Maybe the fault was not within Matieu, the revelation appeared at the bottom of the paper cup. Maybe it was just… Something natural that happened over time. Emil’s eyes widened. Maybe Matieu moved on to Sofia because he was bored of visiting the same places with Emil – which meant, then, that all Emil had to do to win Matieu over again was find new hang out spots. He started imagining what the perfect place would be – Matieu liked obscure, quiet places best, preferably with good food – and alongside that, planning where he would go look for such locale.
Cafe Orange. Written in cursive and on a mug-shaped sign. A bell rang as Emil pushed the door open and had the woman behind the counter not excitedly shouted out a welcome, he would have thought the place to be closed. Hidden in the far corner of the cafe, a university student (or so Emil assumed) sat surrounded by books. He studied angrily – Emil learned then that it was possible to study angrily. His lips curled into a smile as the cafe’s atmosphere sunk in; it was quiet enough to study in but without the oppressive silence of libraries, exactly what Matieu liked, and the pastries on display behind the glass counter were a more than welcome bonus too.
“I’ll take a muffin please! Oh, and a latte too!”
“Sure thing. Eat here or take away?”
The more he looked at the place, the more Emil envisioned himself next Monday, offering to take Matieu to a place you’ll love, only to be met with the face Matieu always made when Emil said that: a face that was, simultaneously, concerned, disinterested, and intrigued. Over the months they had known each other, Emil learned that he and Matieu did not share the same tastes in music nor cinema – but they both liked food and that was a good start. Emil picked up his order and made his way to a table.
He took a sudden step back when he noticed a circular shape on the cushioned seat, its stomach rising and falling.
“Mh?” The woman behind the counter turned her attention to Emil. “Ah, that’s Pippi! Don’t mind her, she’s really friendly! But I can move her if you want!”
“It’s okay I like cats!” He turned back at cat with a warm smile. “I was just… A bit surprised.”
The university student shot a glare in Emil’s direction, then resumed reading with the same intensity as before. It dawned on Emil then – as he finally took a bite out of his muffin – that the cat was exactly what he needed to sell Matieu the place. While Emil had never been one for pets (he had plans for future pets, albeit unconventional ones), he knew Matieu had a cat and had also owned various more through his life. Pippi eventually woke from her nap, stretched with a wide yawn accompanying her motions, leapt on the table and, without prompting, approached Emil with a mew.
“Watch out, she’ll try to steal your muffin.”
The woman behind the counter smiled as she watched Emil stroking the cat’s head.
“Is she yours?”
“I guess so! She was a stray who kept sneaking in last winter – probably because it was so cold – so after feeding her and putting her back out enough times the owner told me to just let her stay. She tries to steal food sometimes though... I guess she still has that stray cat sharpness, eh?”
Having said that, she grinned a wholesome grin anyone would have found contagious.
Dusk crept along the sky and signified it was time to return home. Winter had ended suddenly and spring had begun a week prior, before anyone could prepare; the trees in the park Emil walked through seemed suspended in a limbo between seasons. He was satisfied with the day’s effort. He was very satisfied with the day’s effort, knowing that the café’s quiet atmosphere and menu were exactly what Matieu liked – the cat was the cherry on top. He walked back to the train station until the unexpected crossed his path with a pug on a leash.
The man turned to Emil as the boy sprinted towards him with earphones draped around his neck.
“Ah, nice to see you…”
Emil did not notice his teacher’s awkwardness because he was too busy kneeling to pet the pug.
“I didn’t know you had a dog! What’s his name?”
Paolini corrected himself with a cough. Alex remained still as Emil petted him, apathetic as a statue, not showing any interest in the cat smell on Emil’s hands.
Had the one walking through that park been any other teacher, Emil would have turned around and jogged away without looking back once. Likely, the other teacher would have done the same. Not Paolini. Fresh out of Italy (Emil forgot the city, but he knew it was one of the big ones) and only teaching Italian since September, he had not yet had a chance to see why Emil Bretagne was nobody’s favourite student. Not only did Emil appreciate that about him, Paolini had also replaced the previous year’s insufferable teacher.
“He’s really cute!”
Emil stood up and grinned at Paolini who, for his own part, smiled a much more muted smile in response.
“Do you have any pets, Bretagne?”
“Nah, my mum doesn’t have time for animals.” His eyes glistened. “But I’ll buy crabs when I move out!”
“Yeah! You know…” Emil gesticulated, searching for a better way to ease what he perceived as lack of understanding. “Granchio!”
“I know what crabs are! But why? They’re… Not a common pet.”
Paolini was not the first – nor last – to point out how bizarre Emil’s fasciation with crabs was. Each confused glance only fuelled Emil’s resolve; the attention he received delighted him and he knew it would only increase as soon as he acquired said crabs.
“They’re really cool! And low maintenance! And cheap!”
Alex, seemingly realising his owner would stand around for a while, sat down with an expression that was shockingly even more bored and uninterested than the previous.
Despite not being of the attentive kind, even Emil could see that Paolini did not excel at small-talk.
But Emil did not realise the man’s awkwardness went beyond that: Paolini was not even decent at small-talk.
“Oh, right, I heard from the other teachers you did an, um, exchange program? Last year. With a school in Portugal. How was it?”
Had Emil known their conversation would drift to that, he would not have approached the teacher.
“It was fun!” He drew the corners of his mouth up in the shape of a smile. “I spent like… A semester in Portugal.”
“Portuguese is pretty similar to Italian. Don’t you think?”
Paolini seemed relieved to finally find something he could talk about.
“It really is! I know Italian anyway because I go skiing with my mum in the Alps every winter.”
“That sounds fun. Where in the Alps?”
Just as Emil was thankful that Heston did not teach biology, he was thankful the conversation drifted away from that semester exchange. The exchange itself was not even what Emil dreaded talking about; he enjoyed it, overall, despite only understanding the language in its most basic form. Conversations about that exchange inevitably brought up the question of how Emil was chosen when he met none of the criteria. His grades were lacklustre and his conduct spotty – Emil only managed to be picked for (or steal, as his classmates said) that trip because his mother pulled some strings. Nothing more. Before then, everyone thought Sofia Alti would be chosen. Even Sofia herself thought so, and when that did not happen, she confronted Emil and called him the worst person she knew, alongside other things Emil did not make out due to her crying.
“Well, I think I should go back… Alex is tired!”
Paolini added that second part as an afterthought. Emil agreed, the poor thing was sitting so still it must have certainly been exhausted.
“I should head home too! I’ll see you tomorrow!”
Emil squatted to pet Alex one last time.
The pug glanced at him. Then, to Emil’s shock, licked his hand.
“That means he likes you.” Paolini looked down, smiled. “Goodbye!”
The two began going their separate ways. Emil placed the earphones back in his ears, turned the music on again, began thinking about how surprising it was to learn Paolini had a dog and how surprised Matieu would be when Emil told him tomorrow – then, without warning, Emil spun 180 degrees and pulled the earphones out.
He shouted more loudly than necessary. When the man turned around with the same suddenness, Emil slightly lowered the volume of his shouting.
“If I legally change my surname, do I get to switch seats?”
The expression that formed on Paolini’s face was reminiscent of the confusion passersby displayed at the two individuals shouting from across the park.
“That won’t work, you’ll have to figure out something else!”
“Ah, sucks… Thank you though!”
It was not a thought exclusive to the next morning, nor something prompted by the previous day’s events, but Emil always did think the world had a balance of sorts: some things happened to counter other things. But he never anticipated that arriving so early the previous day would make him so late then.
No students loitered around the station by the time Emil’s train arrived. He sprang from the train to the platform (going against the metallic voice’s instructions and not minding the gap) and did not even wait for both feet to touch the ground before he began sprinting. The weather forecast had ended long ago. What replaced it was a programme Emil did not want to pay attention to, could not pay attention to... But the word Eurovision passed by his ears and had he been any less focused on reaching the school before first period, he would have stopped to listen.
Emil’s chronic tardiness was such a familiar sight that Matieu did not comment on it during recess. Nor did Emil ask what he missed during homeroom.
“Man, I wish,” Emil leaned closer to the vending machine at the end of the corridor, “school was like university. I’d only pick afternoon classes.”
Despite his indecisive expression, Emil still picked the usual milk chocolate bar.
“I think morning is better. You get it out of the way-”
“We can’t all be responsible like you!”
Matieu burst out laughing before Emil for once, thought it did not take much for the other to join him.
“Oh, and by the way!” Emil spoke with his mouth full. “I found this awesome place! I’ll take you there on Monday!”
As Emil anticipated, Matieu made that face. But what Matieu said next was something wholly unexpected.
“Let’s go today. My shift was cancelled-”
The enthusiasm in every fibre of Emil’s being came pouring out into the rhetorical question – and loudly enough for every other student in the corridor to hear him.
He made an attempt to control his volume but it remained that: an attempt.
Another attempt Emil made was when he tried to remember what he wanted to tell Matieu about. The passing mention of Eurovision had stuck to the back of his mind like bubble-gum and refused to budge – it remained as such while Emil talked about Paolini’s dog and how cute it was. Forgetting about Eurovision like that was a shame, because like his yearly ski trip on the Alps, watching the song contest with his mother was also a yearly tradition. But he hoped to include his one friend in the tradition too that year.
Only a short walk (during which, as with the train ride, Emil did not shut up once) from the station, Emil introduced Cafe Orange with a triumphant gesture.
“You’ll like it!”
Matieu playfully rolled his eyes, a smile never leaving his lips.
“You’ve already said that twenty times...”
Emil had a hunch Matieu wanted to add something, but went quiet when Emil pushed the door open and let the bell chime.
The barista looked up from the bar she was cleaning to greet the two. Emil greeted her with a smile and turned to Matieu, who looked around (also glancing at the university student, who Emil did not think had moved at all since yesterday). Emil resisted the urge to ask Matieu what he thought. He wanted to buy food first, at least.
It was as Emil was paying and Matieu was picking a table that he said exactly what Emil hoped he would.
“There’s a cat...?”
Emil interrupted the barista before she could so much as process the question.
“It’s a great place, right?”
That question was more akin to a statement than any of the other statements Emil had made about how much Matieu would enjoy the place. Sitting on the cushioned bench next to a sleeping Pippi, Matieu made a faint mhm noise as he gently stroked the cat’s head. As she did the previous day, Pippi woke up, mewed, climbed on Matieu’s lap and peeked her head above the table, green eyes looking at the food with a bit too much interest.
“My grandma said orange cats are usually male.”
Matieu scratched Pippi under the chin as he spoke. Emil heard her purring from across the table.
“Dunno. Calico ones are usually female too... I think it has to do with genetics.” His muted smile turned to a challenging, mischievous grin. “It’s biology Emil! Your field!”
“I don’t know anything about genetics! I picked biology because it’s easy!”
“You just need to try harder!”
“I believe in you!”
The two laughed loud enough for the university student in the corner to turn to them with a harsh glare. Emil did not realise until then how much he missed making Matieu laugh like that, and how much he missed participating in his laughing.
“Do you want to get started on Monday’s homework?”
“I knew you’d ask.”
Another one of Emil’s comically exaggerated sighs and he began pulling books out of his backpack, Matieu did the same.
“I’ll do Italian and you do math and then we copy off each other, yeah?”
“Why do you get to pick-”
Emil leaned forward with enough of a jolt to startle Pippi, who leapt off Matieu’s lap in search of a calmer place to nap. In Emil’s hand he clutched his music player.
“I remembered something I wanted to tell you!”
He was serious. As serious as Emil could appear, at least.
“We have to watch Eurovision when it airs!”
“We can buy popcorn and watch it at my place!”
“Varemo’s contestant this year is that lady-”
It was Matieu’s turn to interrupt. The preoccupation on his features would have alarmed Emil had he not been so distracted by his excited rambling.
“We’re running away, did you forget already?”
“No.” Emil’s voice was quiet. His tone hesitant. “Of course I didn’t. But we can push it back a bit, right?”
Emil tried desperately to read Matieu’s expression but all he could understand was disappointment. Anger, maybe.
“We’ve already pushed it back though...”
Teal eyes did not cross Emil’s gaze. Emil would have wanted to speak, to explain why watching Eurovision with Matieu was so important to him, but felt his throat closing up. “Fine. We’ll push it back.”
Matieu opened the math textbook and though he added nothing else, Emil understood he did not want to discuss the topic further.
At times like those, the few months of age Matieu had over Emil felt like decades upon decades of wisdom. It was Emil’s idea to run away – put this life behind me as he put it – and in the months since he had made it known to Matieu he had seen Matieu’s reaction to the plan go from disinterest to fascination to participation to excitement to reluctance. They had planned to leave before Christmas break because Emil could not bare the thought of sharing his and his mother’s yearly trip with his mother’s girlfriend – a good person, but Emil took her presence as a sign his mother did not need him anymore. His classmates and teachers hated him too, so what was he supposed to do before that uncertain future that loomed over him like an impending storm? He understood Matieu’s feelings to be similar, but the seeds of doubt that had been sowed in the past months were ready to bloom. It would only take one sentence from Matieu to reassure Emil: be it that they were going ahead with the plan or that they were staying. It would take one sentence, but Matieu remained quiet.
Emil had no idea what either of them were doing.