It was a quiet afternoon. The sun was glimpsing behind the gray curtain of autumn clouds. Birches were green, yellow and orange and rowans were heavy with bright red berries. It should have been a moment of joy, of new beginnings and fresh starts. But for Katie it was something completely else.
For Katie the world seemed dark and distorted despite the rare moment of sunshine. The black wet asphalt grabbed her ankles making her every step a heavy one. The wind was stealing the breath from her lungs. An aspen shed a rain of yellow leaves on her. Once she would have danced with the twirling leaves, but this time they were weapons of her enemy, trying to slash her face with their sharp edges.
The more Katie tried to hurry up the slower she moved. Her back was wet with sweat and yet she felt cold. Her breath started to come in hasty sobs. There was a heavy hole in her stomach, hollow but still pulling her down towards the ground. Finally a tear squeezed out of her eye, eager to pull its friends along.
At that moment Katie stopped. Right there, in the middle of a walkway, she crumbled down. She simply couldn't go any further, not one step. There was a tiny building right next to her that was painted with dozens of graffiti. She leaned against it to keep herself from falling to the wet, cold ground. There she gave up the fight and let the tears stream out.
A few busy people on bikes rushed past her. Someone turned around to look at her miserable figure but moved on. The wind picked up a little, making Katie shiver. To her it seemed like a hurricane that was trying to pry her off the ground to whisk her into some unknown depths in that gray sky. Part of her wanted to let go and let the wind take her, but still her hands clawed tighter to the rough brick wall next to her.
Time passed. Maybe a minute, maybe half an hour. Katie’s damp clothes cooled down and the muscles in her upper back started to ache from cold. She wanted to move, to get away from this spot that reeked of pee, but she couldn’t get the message through to her limbs. She stared at the wads of long grass. There were brown leaves stuck in the grass. Some of them had slipped between the sharp strands of grass. She felt like she was trapped there with them, in a prison of benign looking but deceptively sharp blades of grass.
Suddenly the grass stopped glimmering in the sunlight. It took a moment before Katie realised that it was because a shadow had appeared. The wind couldn't reach her either. A human shaped barrier had appeared next to Katie. It had tight jeans and worn sneakers and it smelled of fried chicken. The smell of food made Katie nauseous. She knew it was probably too late to try to appear like she hadn't lost her mind but still from somewhere came the need to act somehow normal. So she straightened her back, wiped her face with the back of her hand, and tried to breath normally.
Katie hoped that the person would just go away, but the shadow lingered there. She didn't dare to turn her eyes towards the stranger. That would have meant that she acknowledged their presence and would need to communicate somehow. Communicating with anyone was the last thing she wanted right now.
The stranger spoke. It was a soft and melodic voice, a tenor rather than a bass but definitely a male voice.
“This is not the best place to cry”, it stated. Katie said nothing and kept her eyes fixated to the ground.
“I know that because I've cried here too. See that graffiti that is right where your hand was touching a moment ago?” The man leaned a little closer to Katie. She could feel the warmth of his breath on her cheek.
“Don't tell anyone but I made it” he whispered with a conspiratorial tone. “It’s the one that says 'Ele’. That's the name of the woman I loved more than the life itself. When she left me, I came here, sprayed my grief to that graffiti, and stood the rest of the night looking at her name and crying right there where you are. I got a nasty cold and spent the next week cursing my life with the added annoyance of a sore throat and clogged sinuses. So believe me when I say that you really should continue that inside.”
He spoke in a light and colourful manner. Katie felt a small spark of something flickering inside her. Calling it joy or happiness or laughter would be exaggerating, but it wasn't sorrow or blackness either. It twirled for a moment like a bright yellow leaf falling to the ground.
“Come on, let's go somewhere warmer. Your lips look a little blue already,” the stranger said after another silent moment. A big hand touched Katie’s shoulder firmly but briefly. It left a warm spot behind.
Still Katie didn’t move. She opened her mouth to say something, like that she’s alright and he shouldn’t worry, but words got lost somewhere between her good intentions and her tongue. The warm spot on her shoulder spread shivers up her neck and when they reached her eyes, tears flooded behind her eyelids again.
The stranger placed both of his hands on her arms and turned her gently towards him. Katie instinctively lifted her eyes and her gaze was met by a pair of brown eyes above high cheekbones and a sharp nose, and under an untidy mane of dark, curly hair. The young man looked at her with a serious expression. Katie wondered shortly why she didn’t mind the stranger’s hands on her.
“Is it okay if I take you to my place? I live right over there. I have a roommate who should be at home. I'll make you something warm to drink. Okay?”
Katie felt herself nodding. The young man smiled a little, took his hands away from her arms, and extended one of them back towards her.
“Tony”, he said.
Katie wiped her hand quickly to her pants, hoping that there wasn't very much snot and tears in it, and grabbed the hand feebly. “Katie.”
Tony smiled again that small, reassuring smile. He took a couple of steps down the road, all the time looking at Katie like he was saying “come on now”. Katie felt surreal when she stepped after him. Her head seemed to be far away from her feet, but at least she wasn't getting stuck in the asphalt anymore.
They walked in silence to a large apartment building close by. They walked up two flights of stairs in a hallway that smelled like plastic mats. Every squeak of their shoes or a tap of their hands on a railing echoed all through the building. Finally Tony stopped in front of an anonymous looking door, dug out some jingling keys from the pocket of his tight jeans, and opened the door.
When he disappeared inside, Katie was suddenly filled with dread. What am I doing here? she wondered. She was going voluntarily into some complete stranger's home. Would it be safe? She could hear her mother's voice in the back of her mind scolding her.
Tony's head appeared from the crack of the door. “Are you coming?” he asked. Katie looked at his kind face and started to stutter. “I-- I'm n-n-not sure.” Tony looked at her for a moment and then nodded. “Wait right there. I'll be right back”, he said and disappeared back inside. Katie stood in the hallway changing the weight from one foot to the other. An uneasy feeling squeezed her chest.
Finally Tony came back with two foldable chairs and a blanket. “I grabbed these from the balcony. They're not the most comfortable seats ever but at least you don't need to sit on the floor,” he explained while he set up the chairs next to the hallway wall close to the door. He seemed almost proud when he offered one of the seats to Katie. She sat carefully down, and Tony wrapped the blanket over her shoulders.
“Now wait a short moment longer. Is hot chocolate okay? We don't drink coffee and the tea we have needs to be brewed slowly so hot chocolate comes faster.”
Katie couldn't help but smile a little at this stranger's eagerness to help. That little yellow leaf fluttered inside her again. Tony scurried back inside and Katie leaned her head against the cool concrete wall. She still felt hollow and the tears had clogged into a sticky ball in her throat, but she also felt somehow more safe. The whole world wasn’t falling on her anymore.
Tony came back with two big mugs filled to the brim with sweet-smelling light brown liquid. He offered one to Katie, sat to the other chair and cradled his own mug carefully between his hands. Katie blew into her mug as she watched him take a careful sip. They sat there quietly until their drinks had cooled down to drinkable level. Katie took a gulp. It slid down her throat with some difficulty, spreading warmth as it went. It melted down the sticky ball of tears and suddenly her eyes were aching with the need to cry again. Tony noticed that.
“Would you like to talk about it? I’m in no hurry.”
Katie took another gulp of the hot chocolate and thought for a moment. What could she say? How could she explain what she was feeling to a total stranger?
“The weirdest thing is that there’s no one thing I could talk about. I didn’t lose a boyfriend, no one I know has died, my life should in general be just about perfect. I’m studying to my dream job, I’m getting good grades, I have friends and several hobbies that I love. But for some reason sometimes the world goes dark and I just can’t breathe.”
Tony furrowed his brow ever so slightly. Katie bit her lip. She felt guilty. This kind stranger had done all this to make her feel better, and now he found out that she didn’t actually have any reason to feel bad in the first place.
“Sorry, I guess this isn’t what you expected to hear,” Katie muttered and lowered her eyes towards her drink.
From the corner of her eye she saw Tony shaking his head ever so slightly.
“No, don’t say you’re sorry. It must be hard when you don’t see the reason. I mean, when it’s a girlfriend who dumped you you know that the sadness will pass and there’s more fish in the sea and all that. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to feel all that pain but not know how to make it stop.”
Katie just nodded. The little yellow leaf inside her was joined by a few more, all tumbling and twirling down to fill that hollow part one tiny leaf at a time.