FIRST TIME HERE? START FROM THE BEGINNING!
Dan was usually a quiet kid, but when the three of us were together, he was like another person. At the time he first moved to Uptown with his mother, when we were six, he had a form of what my dad called “social anxiety disorder.” He was unable to handle any type of conversation with anybody, and apparently going to school was like hell to him. His mother had read about my father, Dr. Rick Lowell, on the internet, and moved to Uptown to try treating his problem. My father, who was both an internist and a child psychologist, gave him and his mother psychological counseling, and in just a few months he made great progress. Dad used to tell me that the greatest help, anyway, came from us, Andrew and Ange. At first from Ange, of course, who couldn’t just leave Dan alone.
The first time they met, it was a Tuesday afternoon in the waiting room of Dad’s office. Dan was waiting for his turn, and An was waiting there for our mother, who was running some errands and couldn’t bring her with. She hated being alone more than anything, so she sat next to him and talked a lot. Ange was just like that. Dan didn’t want her to, but wasn’t able to tell her clearly, so she just kept talking for twenty long minutes. Just before going in, he gave her a quick look and apparently she smiled and said, “Thank you for listening to me. My brother always tells me I’m annoying. Can I see you again? Next time tell me something about yourself!” Of course he couldn’t say a word, but she had already decided they had become friends. And Ange Lowell never gives up on a friend. So she started stalking poor Dan, going to Dad’s office every Tuesday afternoon. Her attitude probably wasn’t what Dan needed, so Dad thought it would be better to change their appointments date or time. He was putting so much effort into helping Dan open up to the world, and my sister’s attacks could have ruined everything. Surprisingly, when Dad was talking to him and his mother about the possibility of changing their appointment time to avoid An, Dan didn’t want to. Ange’s presence had somewhat become normal to him, to the point that he would feel lonely if she wasn’t there. Dad totally didn’t see that coming, but he agreed to make An part of Dan’s therapy. Around that time, he came to our house for the first time.
That’s when he was introduced to me.
I didn’t like him at all at the beginning. I didn’t understand what he was going through, I just knew that he was Dad’s patient, and I didn’t realize all that it implied. Probably I simply didn’t care about anything but myself and my absurd dream of becoming a vampire slayer. And since I had to make everything into a competition, I decided on my own that this boy didn’t want to talk to me because he felt superior. And I hated that, so I felt I had to teach him a lesson. Since I was going to be a great-something in the future, he had no right to look down on me. I was seven years old and already so megalomaniac.
I waited for us to be alone. It was a rainy day, and Dan was sitting on the windowsill in our living room, looking outside at the rain and waiting for Ange, busy helping our mother in the kitchen bake some cookies. I was at the table, silently planning my one-way fight. After I mentally rehearsed for the fortieth time what I wanted to tell him, I stood up and said, “You know, I don’t like you at all. I’m telling you because I’m honest. I’m honest and you’re so full of yourself. You think you’re better than me just because my sister and my dad like you. The guys at school understand that. That’s why you don’t have any friends, and you never will.” After I finished my monologue, something unexpected happened. Dan looked me straight in the eyes, with no hesitation, and I glared back at him, for the first time. Those eyes were blue and deep like the ocean, and I felt that just by looking at me, he was reading my heart. We stared at each other for an undefined time. The only noise we could hear was the rain falling outside. It was unusual of him; why was he looking at me like that? My hands had turned sweaty with agitation. Dan opened his mouth, trying to say something, and I found myself scared of what he could reply to me. Before he could say anything, my body moved on its own, and I ran away, leaving him alone. I rushed outside, all the way through the neighborhood, until I reached the playground at the end of the street. I was soaked in water, so I got on my knees and entered the playhouse, almost too small for me, trying to take shelter from the rain. I sat there, hiding my face between my knees, as cold shivers ran down my spine. “What have I done?” I asked myself. I knew I wanted to be a hero, and I was sure I was doing the right thing, so why did I feel so wrong? I watched the rain falling from the little window of the playhouse, remembering how focused he seemed looking at it. I wondered if he found it pretty, or if it made him sad. I figured I knew nothing about him. I had never even tried to get to know him. Looking back at those days, I’d say that maybe I was jealous of him. I always tried to get people’s attention, and he got it without doing anything. “What have I done? He’s my dad’s patient. He must have problems I don’t know about,” I thought. And yet I had acted like I was superior to him. I had stood up and looked at him from above. I believe it felt good for a moment. I wanted to prove to him that I was better than him. But who was I? I was just a stupid brat. Ange was right. Ange was always right, when it came to me. Suddenly I heard someone’s steps on the ground, running toward me. I lifted my head up, looking outside the little window of the playhouse, ready to face either a super angry Ange or my mother, but instead I saw Dan standing in front of me, panting and soaked in rain.
“You, what…you’re drenched! What if you catch a co—”
“Wait,” he said, with a shaking voice. “You and An, you are really alike.” Dan sat on his knees and looked at me from the window of the playhouse. I didn’t know what to think. It was the first time I heard his voice so clearly, and couldn’t escape his deep stare. “You two came to me with such force that I can’t ignore you.” His eyes were trembling, I knew he was about to cry. “I don’t know what to do.” Tears ran down his face. “I don’t know what to feel,” he said, and leaned his head against the wall.
I went out the playhouse and knelt close to him. “It’s all my fault, I was so stupid. Please, don’t cry,” I tried to hold back the tears; the person I had hurt was someone so kind to follow me there and cry for me. “I’m the stupidest of the stupids. But will you be my friend?” I extended my hand to him. Dan slowly raised his head and took my hand. His skin was soft and warm, and touching it made me feel immediately better. I knew it wasn’t pity; what I felt for Dan was respect. I swore to myself that I would treasure that bond between us forever. We went back home together and found Ange waiting for us at the front door. She ran to us with a sweet smile, and hugged us both in the rain. She didn’t care to get wet, or to dirt her favorite dress, or that I had ruined her afternoon tea. That’s just how precious we were to her.
“Where have you been? Don’t leave me like that ever again.” She hugged us stronger.
“Yes, I’m sorry. An, I’m so sorry,” I said.
“We’re sorry,” said Dan. Ange looked at him, then moved her gaze on me, and smiled again, like she already knew everything.
Starting that day we were always together.
I woke up remembering the first time we met and that day An waited for us to go back home in the rain. It was probably all the rain’s fault; I kept overlapping in my head that day I held his hand for the first time and his touch of the night before. A similar scenario, a similar perspective, but so different at the same time. We were so close, and after fourteen years from that day, he was almost a stranger to me. When we arrived to his place, the day before, I fell asleep as soon as I sat on the couch, without even looking around the house. I remember him saying something, but I wasn’t listening. Waking up, the first thing I noticed was that I smelled like a dog. I pushed away the blanket Dan put on me that night and that I didn’t remember at all, and I looked at my watchpad. It was twelve o’clock. In addition, I had thirty-five missed calls and messages from my parents. I took a deep breath and called them back.
“Drew, where are you? Are you alright? What happened?” cried my mother.
“Mum, I’m sorry I’ve made you worry. I decided to stay at a friend’s house for a while. I need some time for myself.” I felt genuinely bad lying to them, but I had no intention to go back. At last they seemed to understand, and I even managed to avoid telling them who this friend was, and that I was in Downtown. After I hung up, I took some time to look around the place, since Dan wasn’t home and he hadn’t left any messages. I planned to leave soon, but I was curious. The apartment was very small, yet well divided into three rooms. The entrance lead to the living room-kitchen, in which there was a table, the couch I had slept on and a TV. On the right, there was his bedroom, with just a double bed and a closet. The bathroom, also pretty small but with a bathtub, could be reached only through his bedroom. On the other side of the house there was another narrow room, in which he stored various paintings and boxes. I always liked how, to draw, he used traditional instruments, even when everybody else would choose a computer with 3D digital models instead. When he was younger he used to draw and paint landscapes, people and animals, but the works he kept there were abstract. Dark colors were flowing together and exploding on the canvas, and simply looking at them would make me anxious. I found it dark and sort of creepy, so I closed the door and decided not to open it again.
He said he hadn’t been home for a while, and I could really see that. The furniture was dusty and the smell was typical of a place that had been shut for a long time. I went back to my backpack to get some clean clothes and finally have a shower. I grabbed a sweatshirt and jeans, then changed my mind about the shower and filled the bathtub instead. In the bath, I was finally able to relax and think. First, I had to find a place to stay, a room in a pension maybe. Then I could start with my investigation. I got out of the tub forty minutes later, and found Dan in the kitchen. He wasn’t as pale as the night before, but he still seemed tired.
“Hungry?” he asked.
“Starving,” I replied. He gave me a big portion of roast beef and a cup of coffee and I sat at the table with him. “Thank you for all this. I’ll be going when we’ve finished eating.”
“Okay. Where are you going?”
“I will rent a room in a pension. After that I’ll stay here in Downtown for a while.”
“I don’t think Downtown is a good place to take a break.”
“It’s enough for me. I think I might find what I need here.”
“That would be?”
“I’m sorry but this is none of your business.”
He hushed, and it seemed like he was thinking of something. Then he nonchalantly clicked his tongue and said, “You’re right.” I kept eating in silence for a while; Dan wasn’t almost touching his food.
“How is your health?” I asked.
“You’re skinny. Even now you’re barely eating.” I wondered what was wrong with him. Looking at him, the first thing that came to my mind was “drugs”.
“I’m not sick, but thank you for asking,” he said, and then he stared at me one more time. “It’s for your girlfriend, right? I’m sorry, I looked into it,” he added. I totally didn’t see that coming.
“When?” I asked, confused and annoyed.
“Then why did you even ask me?” At that point I completely stopped caring about his health, and I was extremely angry instead.
“You want to stay here because you plan to find out something about her death, right?” he said, and I didn’t answer. “You probably think she was killed. I have to admit that this is actually possible,” he continued and I kept watching him, trying to understand what he was thinking, what was that he wanted from me. “I mean you might really be in the right place,” he concluded.
“Then let me remind you that I’ve lived here for years, and I know that it can’t just be so simple. What are you gonna do? Ask questions around randomly? I read the police suspects she was drugged. Let me just tell you that if you ask the wrong people here, they will kill you. I’m serious.”
“And you must know a lot about it.”
“I do.” As soon as he said that, an awkward silence fell upon us. “Drew, I’ve done things I am not proud of in these seven years. And yes, I know about drugs. And not just that. This place changes people, Drew. I don’t want you to end up like me. I’m telling you… I want to help you.” His words sounded honest. I was puzzled.
“Why? Why would you want to help me after so much time? We met just yesterday after seven years, Dan.”
“I never forgot you and An. Never. I was there for her last night, and I’m here for you now.”
“But you left. You left without even a call, for seven years. Now you go blabbering about this place and how terrible it is, but it was enough for you to leave me, school, and everything that you wanted to do. Or maybe it was just me and An thinking that. Maybe you never cared about all this. I tried to call you. I even came searching for you, you were the one I needed the most when An died.” Saying An’s name out loud like that almost made me cry. I wished I could tell him those things so many times. I couldn’t forgive him. He remained silent for a while, and I couldn’t look straight at him.
“Drew,” he said, calm, “I didn’t want you to know. My mother was gambling. It wasn’t for her job that we moved here. A man she was sleeping with tricked her into it, and she lost everything we had. Soon after An died, I found out your parents were paying for my school fees. After the tragedy, they apparently forgot to do it and a note came to my house. I just couldn’t stay there, living like a parasite of your family, not after what you had been through. I decided to come here for a public school and work to repay my mother’s debts. I was just fourteen; I didn’t know anything about how the world works. I was dragged into a few things, and soon I was too ashamed to even talk to you again.” That confession shocked me; I never realized all that was happening. Still, I was sure that if he had just talked to me about it, things could have been different. However, that didn’t happen. He decided to go through it on his own already seven years before.
“You’ve changed,” I told him.
“Yes. I’m not asking you to forgive me or trust me completely. I understand, you have your reasons. Just, don’t go wandering around on your own. Stay here for a while. I know people who might help you.”
“I don’t want to trust you. As it stands, you didn’t trust me, and hid everything from me. All that you told me seems so far away from what we were before. I don’t know you anymore,” I said. He had a serious look on his face and still seemed worried. He could really show his emotions on his face, way more compared to when we were kids, even though it was still impossible to understand what he was really thinking. Shallie thought Dan and An never left me for real. She was too optimistic about it, but just like my sister, she was right most of the time. If I can’t trust him, I thought, I can trust Shallie. “But I think you’re right. I know nothing of how things work here. I’m staying,” I said in the end. Our eyes met for a couple of seconds.
“Good,” he said.
“Now, please, eat that meat or I think you’ll die before being of any help,” I said. He looked at the food in the plate and finally took a bite. “Where did you get the information about Shallie?” I asked.
“That would be our first stop.” He opened on his watchpad the hologram of an article and a business card, enlarging the second.
“William Walker. He’s a journalist,” I said.
“He wrote an article on her death for a minor online newspaper. It’s the only article in the entire web that mentioned her case. We’re gonna have a talk with him.”
“Yes, it sounds good.”
Shallie, just wait for me, I thought.