Purple Stain - Prologue, Chapter One and Two
Copyright © 2022 by Nat Lewis
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is coincidental.
Editor - Dominic Wakeford
Welsh slang supervision - Gareth Howells
Cover art and graphics - Chiara Shkurtaj
To those who have supported me through this marvellous journey.
You, who have been free falling into empty space, deep down a cave of blackness.
You have cried and thought that there is no end – that this pain will spiral forever.
I’d made a thrash metal concert out of my life. The bass, screams and heavy percussion were the only things that could drown out the pained whines piercing through my head. At one with chaos, I raved in the rough circle of a metaphorical moshpit.
Everything changed on an especially hot day at the end of summer. The shift came fast and sharp, like an elbow to the guts. The crowd had cast me out onto a filthy street. Kneeling alone on the damp ground, I could still hear the music, but I was no longer part of the gig. Whatever illusion of enjoyment I’d created for myself, it was over.
This is how it all started.
I dashed all the way home from work, my throat parched and a heavy feeling in my stomach. My heart thumped a fast beat in my ears.
In the kitchen, I guzzled down a pint of orange squash before springing upstairs to my bedroom. Barely catching my breath, I rolled a cig on the desk with sweaty fingers and lit it with the feverish frenzy of a nicotine junkie.
The smoke filled my lungs, white swirls escaped my lips and swam lazily towards the discoloured ceiling. A stillness haunted the familiar shape of my computer, mixer, synth and the posters on my wall. The silence made my bleary thoughts sound louder, and the summer heat choked me like a hand squeezing around my neck.
I looked out the window through narrowed eyes; the sun was beating on a familiar maple tree that knocked on the glass with its gnarled limbs.
There was something about being alone in my empty house, soaked in sweat and fatigued, that unsettled me. An irrational feeling, sure, but the motherfucker became a stubborn tension in my shoulders that would not leave. If I closed my eyes, I could see it morphing into a snare of dark roots that wormed out of a hole deep inside my chest.
I pushed away the bad thoughts but felt them clawing at the edges all the same.
I put on the blackest Dimmu Borgir track I could think of; nothing better than Satanic metal to drown out my demons. Building notes, angry growls and thundering drums enraptured me as I slumped over the bed and took a long drag from my rollie.
I was deep in thought when my phone buzzed.
‘Hiya, it’s the girl from the pub. Katy.’
I blanked. How many girls were there at the pub yesterday? After a moment, I remembered. There were three of them: a hot blonde, a squat brunette with a cute face and a feline half-Filipino girl. They all took my number and I had no idea which one of them was Katy.
I replied, ‘Hello beautiful!’ and added a winking emoji.
The exchange that followed represented a standard half-assed flirting routine, something that was good enough to keep me distracted.
At one point the conversation got pretty hot. I was adjusting a hard-on in my pants and smirking when Katy texted, ‘Are you free this afternoon? You live close to uni, don’t you? I’m chillin nearby. Wanna meet up?’
I read the words and grinned. I didn’t expect my family to be home until later; a rare opportunity that could not be wasted. We arranged for her to come round to my house. I secretly hoped it’d be the hot blonde showing up at my door since she was the best-looking of the lot.
To my slight disappointment, it was the Filipino girl who whipped me into a hug. She pushed me against the wall by the front door and plunged her tongue into my mouth, hands climbing under my shirt, feeling my chest. I certainly didn’t object.
Moving from making out to racing upstairs, dry humping on my single bed and pulling off our clothes didn’t take long.
Before I knew it, I was driving into her and she was moaning under me. She was a little too skinny for my taste, but I liked the flawlessness of her skin and her long black hair, as well as the welcoming tightness of her body.
My heart, which was already beating fast, thundered. Maybe it was the heat, or perhaps it was the testosterone pumping through my blood and into my cock.
At some point, somehow, something inside of me cracked. The world closed in around me while the black, crawling tendrils of fear suffocated my whole being.
Seconds passed and, rather than concentrating on the physical pleasure at hand, my mind focused on the new-found awareness that my body could shut down at any moment without notice.
After all, why not? Anybody could just die. My stepfather and my gran did. My mother came very close too.
I went rigid like a cadaver, heaving and scared shitless. I heard myself crying and screaming, and couldn’t form the words to describe what was wrong.
Eventually I came to my senses, finding that I was sitting in a corner, hugging my legs and wetting my knees with tears.
‘Are you OK? Better now?’ Katy asked with a small voice. She sat next to me as she tried to offer some comfort, but there was something in her eyes that made me feel insignificant. It was as if she realised that I was a broken man and not the confident hunk she was being fucked by mere seconds ago. I was no longer something to be desired, but pitied.
As soon as I was back on my feet and my hands had gone from shaking uncontrollably to trembling slightly, she put on her clothes and scooted down the stairs, mumbling a hushed, ‘See you around.’
I was left alone with my conscience, shocked to find out I wasn’t in control of my life anymore. An invisible monster pulled my strings.
‘Haven’t seen you round the gym, butt. What the fuck’s happenin’, like?’
Rhys took a long puff from his vape and sat back on the park bench next to me. He lifted his chin and let out a thick cloud of cucumber-scented vapour which joined the stark whiteness of the sky above us. With the mist surrounding him, plus his ginger quiff, trimmed copper beard and long red coat, he made me think of the Welsh dragon.
I placed a smidge of tobacco on the rolling paper that I carefully balanced on my knee, spread it through and gently flattened it. I didn’t want to answer his question. Not truthfully at least. I wasn’t ready.
‘Got a filter?’ I asked.
Though he was in love with his vape, Rhys’s transition wasn’t complete and I knew he enjoyed a rollie from time to time.
‘You haven’t got one, have you?’ He sifted through his pockets, lifting his arse a little to reach the ones at the back. Not an easy thing to do when his trousers were skinnier than the oat-milk latte at his feet.
‘Nah,’ I said, ‘Only a roach, son.’
‘No worries, like.’ He struggled for a moment longer before extracting a squished plastic sleeve with a lone filter from his back pocket.
‘There ew are.’ He handed it to me like a shit prize at a fairground.
‘Nice one.’ I plucked the filter out and positioned it carefully on my Rizla, licked the skin and rolled it, completing my little creation.
‘You coming back?’ Rhys asked.
I held my cig between my lips and lit it. ‘Coming back where?’
‘To the gym, like.’
‘Ah.’ My friend was persistent. ‘I’m working out at home these days, mate.’
‘Whaat!’ His high-pitched exclamation pierced my ears. ‘Fuck’s sake. Whatcha doing working out at home for? The gym equipment’s loads betta, like!’
How could I explain to this untroubled hipster that I couldn’t handle crowded spaces anymore? How could I make him understand that every now and then I irrationally believed I was going to die? That unless the sky was above my head or a room was empty, I could not think straight? This was the guy who’d said, ‘Well, he was old, like – fair play,’ to his girlfriend when her grandfather passed away.
How could he ever understand?
‘I’m happy with my shape as it is. Just need to keep it up, like. Maintain the fucker, innit,’ I said.
Rhys spent the next ten minutes trying to convince me to go back to the gym while I inhaled the smoke from my cigarette, my eyes narrowing and my jaw clenching a little more by the minute.
I met Rhys on my way back from work; I was chilling by myself when he’d passed by. Though I was happy to catch up, I knew that prickly questions would arise and it wouldn’t be easy to shake him off. He was a mate, and a good one too, but for the love of fuck, I wasn’t up for sharing right now.
With each second that Rhys kept going on and on about chest presses, exasperation increasingly twisted my guts. Fuck the gym. Who cares? I have way more important things to worry about.
I looked at the time on my phone; quarter past three.
‘Gotta go, bruv,’ I mumbled as I threw the butt of my cigarette on the ground. I stepped on it to put it out of its misery.
‘Already? That’s cold, that is bro. I haven’t seen you in ages!’ Rhys whined.
‘Sorry, I’ve got to pick up my sister.’
‘Alright, sound.’ He smiled in defeat. ‘What you up to tonight? Ads and I are going to The Woodville. Fancy coming or wha?’
‘Can’t, sorry son. I’ve got stuff to do for the Old Girl. Sorry, man.’ I wasn’t exactly lying, but it was close enough.
He nodded to himself. ‘No worries, like, no worries. Catch you in a bit. Ow, keep in touch yeah?’
‘Will do, son.’ We fist-bumped and I made my way down Cathays Park, pulling at the strap on my rucksack to keep it steady on my shoulder as I strode by the pretty bushes and trees.
It was a twenty minute-walk to my little sister’s bestie’s house, which gave me plenty of time to reflect on the recent events in my life.
If splitting up with the ninth girl in six months was a major offence, then I was guilty. I couldn’t stop looking for hook-ups, since sex was a great way for me to forget about things I couldn’t otherwise kick out of my brain. It was a welcome distraction that my dick thanked me for.
Since my panic attacks started, meaningless sexual encounters had stopped being a fun pastime. By meeting a lot of girls, I was only adding to the list of people who knew how mental I was. I couldn’t stand to face another Katy who’d look at me as if I was a loony creep.
For the first time in my life, I found myself wishing for something more meaningful; a girl who cared for me, even though I was a bit broken.
All I did in the past few years was sleep around and party, which gave me little time to reflect on my inability to establish a deep bond with someone. It was clear to me that I didn’t know where to start.
My most recent attempt at having a proper girlfriend had failed miserably. Cynthia had left me a long message where she said that we were not meant to be, that there was a physical attraction but we didn’t click. She wasn’t wrong; I wasn’t into her personality all that much. I just thought she was hot.
Still, I felt pretty shit because everything I did felt insubstantial aside from my music. Putting tunes together was the only thing that had kept my head straight since that day with the Filipino girl. How many times have I been overwhelmed by that dark feeling in the last six months? I tried to recall but I’d pretty much lost count.
I had to hide in the bathroom and drown in my own despair at the pub once. Another time I collapsed on my way to work, and once in the kitchen at home. Both times I started shaking uncontrollably and cried as if someone had crushed my soul. One of the girls I was seeing briefly had to hold my hand as I wailed and screamed at the top of my lungs. That was embarrassing. We were watching a comedy, snuggling on her sofa, and still chaos managed to break loose inside me.
The worst time was when my friend Simon invited me to his club and I had too much to drink. While I was vomiting on the street, that dreadful feeling gripped me again. I shook like a scared little lamb, leaning on a pole between a bush and a stinky wheelie bin. I dropped on the ground then, quivering as I slouched over my sick.
The doctor had said it was a panic disorder, whatever the fuck that meant. The most disabling part of the problem was not knowing when the next episode would occur. He sent me to an anxiety specialist who prescribed some pills that did fuck-all.
‘Well, fuck,’ I grumbled to myself while listening to Chelsie Wolfe’s ‘Carrion Flowers’ on my headphones. The low, growling guitar and the siren call of the singer soothed my mind, hitting all the right buttons.
A row of familiar terraced houses came into view. The whole area looked gloomy due to the overcast sky and dull sunlight of January. I glimpsed at Amelia’s house. The dopey-looking gnome in the front garden was unmistakable. I pressed the doorbell and waited. After two minutes of standing in the biting wind, my phone rang. Amelia’s number displayed on the screen and I picked up.
Sophie said chirpily, ‘Hello Hayden!’
‘Hey Soph, I’m waiting outside.’
‘Can I stay a bit longer, pleeeease?’
‘Nah. Mum wants you home by four.’
She groaned and hung up.
A minute later Sophie stepped out of the house with a long face and her orange quilted coat zipped up to her chin. Amelia was next to her, holding her arm and jumping up and down like a cricket.
Dalia, Amelia’s mum, tried to separate the two girls. ‘Come on now, you pair! It’s time for Sophie to go home.’
‘But why?’ Amelia pulled at Sophie’s sleeve and I sighed; it was the same story every time.
‘Enough now, the pair of ew,’ Dalia said. ’You’re going to see each other on Monday.’
The girls gave up and hugged each other. Sophie trotted to my side with a dramatic pout, her dark brown ponytails bouncing with each step. She was an eight-year-old girl through and through.
‘How’s your mother?’ Dalia said, smiling cordially.
‘She’s good,’ I said. ‘Busy, like.’
‘Still making vases?’
‘Yep, still at it.’ I smiled back, hoping the conversation would be over soon.
The corners of Dalia’s eyes crinkled as her smile widened. ‘Tell her I said hello.’
I shoved my hands in my pockets. ‘Yeah, will do.’
Sophie and I headed home. I was knackered and longed for a hot shower, but Sophie was a ball of energy. She told me everything that had happened that day, starting from the unlikable girl in her class who bullied Amelia, to the secret BFF diary she and her friend were writing. Sophie recounted all this as if it was the most amazing thing in the world.
The small gate of our tiny front garden had been left ajar. I groaned at the sight of it. The shouts and thumping sounds of a rugby game on the telly came loud and clear, even through the barrier of the closed front door. Once inside, the cheering of a raging crowd and an excited commentator pierced my eardrums.
My brother stood by the table near the sliding door leading to the back garden. He stared at the screen, completely engrossed with the game and sipping an energy drink.
‘Oi, numpty! I told you to shut the gate properly,’ I said.
He turned to look at me coldly. ‘You’re home early, aren’t ew?’
‘I went to pick up Sophie, didn’t I?’ I studied him, noticing something was different. ‘Did you get a haircut?’
Iwan gulped down the last of his drink. ‘What do you think? I did what you told me. I asked the guy to shave the sides, like you have. Good boy me, see?’
I brushed off a bit of chopped hair that had stuck to his cheek. ‘Suits you, fair play son.’ He grinned and I smacked him upside the head. My brother looked surprised but the slap wasn’t hard enough to give him a reason to argue.
I gave my best stern face. ‘The gate. Remember what happened when you left it open last year?’
Iwan crunched the can between his hands and burped. ‘They nicked the milk, yeah, yeah…’
‘They cut off all the daffodils and broke Mum’s vase!’ Sophie butted in.
Iwan groaned. ‘Ugh, alright, I’m sorry!’
I left my younger siblings to their own devices and headed upstairs. Sophie’s tuneful voice was loud enough to echo all the way up the staircase. She was filling Iwan in with the news from the school too.
Iwan and I were very much alike, despite the fact we didn’t share the same dad. We were both tall with curly dark blonde hair and a square jaw. In addition, we had some personality traits in common; neither of us liked to argue and had a lot of patience when it came to Sophie, no matter how much she chattered.
I followed the sound of a Celtic bodhrán and bagpipes coming from my mum’s study. She sat by the window, surrounded by ceramics in various stages of completion. Her skinny white arms moved slightly, her hands shaping the clay as the wheel turned.
She lifted her gaze from the wheel and smiled. ‘Hiya love! Thank you for picking up Soph. It’s nice to see you at home early for a change.’
I smiled back, though I was pretty sure happiness didn’t reach my eyes. Spending so much time at home was not a wilful choice.
‘I got your medication for you,’ I said.
She looked appalled. ‘I said I didn’t need it!’
‘Mum, you’ve got to take it, please?’
She huffed. ‘That stuff makes my creativity slump!’
‘Maybe. But you know it helps you in other ways, doesn’t it?’
I went to the nearby sink where Mum usually washed her brushes. She always kept a bottle of elderflower cordial on the desk and a blue drinking glass next to it. I grabbed them both, made a drink and handed her a pill. ‘Here.’
Mum shot me an annoyed glance before popping her pill in her mouth and taking a big gulp of her drink.
I smiled and crumpled the pharmacy bag with her meds inside, pocketing the bundle. ‘I’ll be in my room if you need me, alright?’
I scuttled to my beloved den, closed the door behind me and threw my rucksack on the bed. My room was a perfect example of modest comfort, a decent size with a touch of cool. I’d painted the walls some months ago in a dark shade of blue with a few odd white stripes here and there. I’d also lined the shelves with LED fuchsia lights and armed the place with fancy, glowing speakers and robotic props. It was the dopest background for my electronic show. My music equipment was arranged tidily on the desk: compact mixer and speakers, DJ console, synths, microphones and headphones. My electronic drums, guitar and bass were crammed in a corner nearby. Much of the stuff was covered with a sheet, or in the case of my guitars, a sleeve to protect them from dust.
Seeing I could barely step outside without gasping for breath, I had a lot of spare time to invest into promoting myself and my music. I went by the name of 0-Drone and was known as a synthwave artist. I could say my efforts paid off as my first single released on Spotify, ‘Arctic Cat’, had done pretty well. The views on my YouTube videos were astonishingly high too; one of my fans once told me that the algorithm God had shone his divine light upon me. I subsequently put together a whole album, Wired Minstrel, and live-streamed weekly.
0-Drone was an homage to Daft Punk aesthetically, although my costume only went as far as being lined with wires and metallic components to look like an android and, rather than a helmet, I wore a cybernetic mask. I didn’t like to show my face on video and my fans loved the concept. It was a win-win situation. I’d earned myself a fair following and a steady stream of earnings by now, setting up a Patreon account, selling a little bit of merch and even paying an artist to create an animation for a music video. Best decision ever.
I was hopeful my mental health would get better, since I was giving my mind an outlet and reducing my stress levels, but no – I was still under the thumb of my condition.
I considered whether I should turn on the computer or jump in the shower first but, as soon as I took off my coat, the sweaty odour of my armpits wafted to my nose. Shower it was, then.
Under the hot jets of water, I came up with a tune and thought of a cool sound effect I was going to make use of. I rubbed a towel over my face and picked up my phone. I searched Rightmove, for the umpteenth time that week, for a one-bedroom flat. Every time I did, it felt like I was doing something behind my mum’s back. Even though I was a grown-ass twenty-four-year-old guy, I still lived with my family.
I’d set aside my independence to look after my siblings and Mum. My stepfather had been diagnosed with cancer five years ago and wasted away slowly for many agonising months, before finally leaving us. Mum had just recently achieved a semblance of stability and there was no way I was going to disturb her peace by telling her what was happening to me. If she found out I wasn’t well she’d blame herself, as she always did.
Things were looking brighter recently, so why was I breaking down? I sighed; best not to dwell on it.
After putting on my boxers, I scrolled down the page with the listings, assessing the available properties. A shared house wouldn’t cut it for me; I needed peace and quiet. On the other hand, one-bedroom flats were stupidly expensive, especially considering how run-down they looked.
I smacked my lips, feeling disgruntled. I went back to my room, still looking at my phone, and opened Cynthia’s last message. She was so prim, never using an abbreviation in her texts. I read her words for the second time: ‘We simply didn’t click.’
An electric guitar sound signalled that I received a new message, making me jerk in surprise. The text was from none other than Cynthia.
‘I’m sorry to bother you but I left something really important at your house. I thought I had it with me. It’s a pink paper bag. I need it back by tomorrow.’
I remembered seeing said bag somewhere, so I glanced around and yep, there it was under my computer desk.
‘Fuck,’ I said to the phone screen. I replied, ‘U coming round to pick it up? I don’t mind.’
I did fucking mind but I wanted to sound as unbothered as I could. She was the one who dumped me. There was no way I was going to deliver the bag she’d left behind. Cynthia would have to drag her big ass to my house and come get it herself.
‘Actually, I asked my cousin if he could get it for me. He doesn’t live far from you and he’s meeting me tomorrow. He said he’d be coming round your house to pick it up in a few. Is that OK?’
‘Bla bla bla. Who gives a shit?’ I grumbled as I typed my answer: ‘Ye sure.’
The phone chimed loudly again. ‘Listen, he just texted me. He’s on his way now.’
I shook my head in disbelief and typed, ‘Np.’
I lounged for a few minutes, hair still wet, checking out my social media while waiting for Cynthia’s cousin. Over the last two months my YouTube channel had really picked up steam, and I now had over fifty-thousand subscribers.
In the meantime, I received a few messages nagging me to get out of the house and get wasted at the pub.
My friend Lucas texted: ‘It’s Saturday and you’re in your gaff, clearly doing sod all. If you want me to fuck off, just say like. But if you have some problem goin on, speak up bruv.’
I stared at the words and gritted my teeth. I wondered if he was about to drop me like my other pals had done.
Six months ago, I had a ton of mates who insisted that I go out with them. After weeks of turning them down, only a few remained. I came up with an excuse every time: busy, tired, sick, meeting a girl. Anything was better than admitting that I couldn’t deal with it all.
There was a soft knock at my door. ‘Hello?’
Immersed in thinking about Lucas’s text and the buzz of my social media, I forgot to make myself presentable for the stranger standing behind the door. I opened up with only my boxers on and a damp towel around my shoulders. Big, striking blue eyes met mine. Oh, wow. I gawked and the dude in front of me mirrored my expression.
The guy combed his dark fringe with his fingers, lowered his gaze to the floor and mumbled, ‘Sorry to bother you. I came to pick up Cynthia’s bag.’
‘Ah, s-sure, yeah, no worries, like, no worries,’ I spluttered in reply.
I wobbled to my desk and reached for the pink paper bag. I’d been caught by surprise; perhaps that’s why my cheeks burned hot and my stomach tingled. A good number of friends from the gym had seen me shirtless and I was anything but shy, so I couldn’t quite make sense of my reaction. Damn, had I spent that much time apart from people? Maybe it was because this guy was a complete stranger who had just stepped into my personal space that I felt so flustered.
I heard him swear under his breath. After picking up the bag, I turned to look at him. He stared at his right palm which was covered in purple ink. A large stain tarnished the grey and white pattern of his hoodie as it leaked out of his pocket.
‘Aw, feck!’ He extracted the culprit, a flowery purple gel pen, with two fingers. ‘Shit, sorry,’ he said. ‘Do you have a tissue or a bin or something?’
I had a plastic bag where I collected all my crap and grabbed it, holding it open for him. He let go of the ink-sticky pen in the carrier bag, the purple mess landing on a pile of old cigarette butts and ripped paper.
‘Oh no, don’t tell me…’ He carefully unzipped his hoodie and gasped. The hem of his T-shirt was covered and the purple ink looked black on the red background.
I gasped too, but for a very different reason.
The design was unmistakable: his T-shirt was one of my limited-edition 0-Drone shirts! I’d only had eleven of them printed and I sent out ten of them four months ago as a giveaway. I’d kept the last T-shirt for myself as a memento.
I was flabbergasted. He was crushed.
‘Bollocks! Ugh, I’m sorry but can I use your bathroom?’
‘No worries. It’s just over by there,’ I muttered, pointing at the door left of mine.
‘Cheers, and sorry. I’ll be out of your hair in no time. I just need to wash my hands.’
I heard the water running behind the bathroom door, as well as his tutting, cursing and groaning. This could not be a random occurrence, could it? Was the guy a crazy fan-stalker?
I’d never shown my face or shared my address on any social media, and my accent wasn’t that strong; if anything, I had a definite Hampshire twang. Nobody would make a random guess that I lived in Cardiff. How could he have known who I was? Maybe he hacked my personal info somehow. But then, would he have had a pen explode in his pocket just to have an excuse to show me his T-shirt and talk to me? Can you make a pen leak like that? Like, as a planned thing?
Then again, what were the odds of something like this happening? Unbelievably small. Did Cynthia have something to do with it? But how and why? My brain was going haywire.
Before I could reach a conclusion, he was out of the bathroom, looking depressed. His T-shirt was soaking wet and all scrunched up; clearly, he’d tried to wash off the stain but to no avail.
If he’s a crazy fan, he’ll try to keep the conversation going or maybe find an excuse to talk about my music.
The guy looked at me with big, sad eyes. ‘Uh, yeah, so… the bag?’
I gave it to him, baffled. He turned on his heels and started to leave, heading for the door.
An inexplicable panic seized me. ‘Hang on a sec!’
He glanced at me with a perplexed frown.
I knelt down again, this time to reach for a box stashed under my bed. There were many T-shirts there, all different colours and sizes, still wrapped in cellophane. The one I was looking for was red, like his. It was almost at the bottom, pretty wrinkled but all in one piece. I handed it to him and the guy stared at me, puzzled.
Before I could even think of what I was saying, I smiled and said, ‘Thanks for supporting my channel.’
I studied the T-shirt he held out to me, frowning.
‘Oh,’ the guy said. ‘Maybe it’s best if I bag it. You’ve got all that ink on you and if you get this one smudged too, that’s it. I don’t have another to give you.’
Was it me, or was this whole situation downright odd, to say the least?
Earlier, my cousin Cynthia had called me in a panic as I tried to enjoy my hot cheese and bean pasty in peace. She’d told me she left a pink paper bag at her ex’s house and begged me to go retrieve it. I refused at first but then Cynthia added that her brother Mark’s wedding rings were in the bag, and as we were going to his wedding tomorrow, we might need them. With a sigh, I left Greggs and got in my car.
Finding the house of the ex-boyfriend, a friendly little girl opened the door and sent me, a complete stranger, upstairs without any explanation, telling me her brother’s room was the one with the Depeche Mode sticker on the door. I knocked and this Adonis opened up with his bulging arms, sculpted abs and chest glistening from the water dripping from his blonde curls. Not to mention the noteworthy package I’d glimpsed in his boxers! I had to look away, and it was only embarrassment and shock that saved me from an inappropriate erection.
When he knelt by his desk, his ass was semi-visible through the fabric of his boxers. I thought I was going to have an aneurysm or, perhaps, my nose would bleed as if I was some perverted anime character. Instead, it turned out that my vessels weren’t the problem; my sister’s pen exploded. I used it to make a note yesterday and left it in my pocket, forgetting all about it until now.
I’d made a fool of myself in front of Apollo incarnate. I was humiliated, sad, soaking wet and ready to retreat in shame.
‘Thank you for supporting my channel,’ was what he’d said. What the hell…?
‘Wait, I’m confused,’ I said.
The handsome bastard smirked at me. ‘I’m 0-Drone, innit.’
My jaw dropped. ‘No way!’
He laughed. Heat rose up my cheeks and the more I was conscious of it, the closer I was to catching fire. ‘You’re joking?’
‘When I saw you had that T-shirt on, I freaked out a bit, like. I thought you were a crazy stalker or something.’
‘What? No! I swear I had no idea!’ I said, waving my hands.
‘I can tell from your reaction. This is mad, innit?’
I stared at the brand-new T-shirt in my hands. ‘It is. I mean… are you really 0-Drone? Like, for real?’
He grinned. ‘The very same. Keep it on the downlow though, yeah?’ He raised an eyebrow in amused challenge. ‘My secret identity is a profitable gimmick.’
I chuckled. ‘Yeah, I bet.’
I was struck by his looks at first. Now, I was also star-struck. My brain had taken over my dick, at least partially, and as I glimpsed at the room and the instrumental setup, I realised how familiar it looked; I’d seen it many times in 0-Drone’s streams.
‘Amazing,’ I said incredulously. ‘Thank you for the T-shirt, dude. I love your stuff!’
‘Nice one, cheers! You’re the first fan I’ve met in person. It’s awesome!’ He offered his palm. ‘I’m Hayden. Is it safe to shake your hand?’
I gave him the chance to squeeze a work of abstract art. ‘Andy. I washed off the ink as best I could, but I can’t make any promises.’ He laughed and shook my hand anyway.
‘So, this is where you make music?’
‘Yeah. Wanna look?’
I tried to divert my gaze from his mostly naked body and looked right at his face. Every part of him was a sight for sore eyes. ‘I don’t want to disturb you.’
He snorted, ‘You’re not disturbing me! Or are you in a rush to give the bag back to Cynthia?’
Though I’d wanted to kick my self-centred cousin just fifteen minutes ago, right now she was suddenly my favourite person. ‘No, I’ll give it to her tomorrow morning.’
‘Sound. Let me pop on some clothes.’
Before I could say another word, he put on a pair of grey jogs and a black Drab Majesty T-shirt with the Venus de Milo statue drifting through a virtual room. I liked Hayden more by the minute.
He looked at me expectantly. ‘Coffee?’
Was I about to have a sit down with a drop-dead gorgeous guy who also happened to be one of my favourite synthwave artists? How could I ever refuse?
‘Tea, please. One sugar, if that’s alright.’
Tea and coffee. That summed up our differences.
‘I love Pretty Hate Machine,’ I said excitedly, ‘It’s got it all! The groove, the sad bits, the darkness, the twisted stuff. It’s perfect!’
Hayden chuckled. ‘What’s your favourite song on the album?’
I tapped my chin. ‘“Sanctified”. Possibly.’
A remix of the intro from Stranger Things played in the background. We agreed that only the first series was worth watching but that the soundtrack was awesome. This particular remix was Hayden’s and it was exquisitely produced. It was more ominous compared to the original but sounded incredibly smooth, like ASMR.
‘Call me obvious, but for me it’s “Head Like a Hole”,’ he said with a wry smile.
‘Why obvious? It’s a really good song.’
He shrugged. ‘It’s the most well-known off the album, I guess.’
‘That doesn’t matter.’
He smiled. ‘I guess not. So, do you play any instruments, like?’
‘I play the piano and I sing a little bit. I guess it’s useful to know which notes to press on my synth.’ I chuckled at my bad joke.
His eyes widened. ‘You make tunes as well?’
‘I do, in my spare time. Nothing professional though, I just do it for fun.’
‘Do you have anything with you that I could listen to? I’m curious.’
I scratched my head. ‘I’m not confident enough to share my stuff online. To be honest, anything I put together is for my own enjoyment. But you can come round my house, if you want. It would be nice to hear your feedback. Maybe you can give me some tips on how to better use my equipment.’ I realised how unsubtly I was trying to make friends with him a moment too late. ‘I mean… like… whenever, you know. If you want to.’ My face burned like a bowl of chilli.
Hayden smiled again. A single dimple formed in his right cheek. ‘Too right, I’d be up for that.’
Hot damn. This was a dangerous situation.
Everything about Hayden screamed, ‘I like pussy’. His room décor said as much: there was a brunette on a poster showing a good portion of her boobs as she seductively lifted her top, plus skimpy figurines of Yuffie and Tifa from Final Fantasy VII lined the shelves, not to mention the anime girl on his computer background was a step away from being fully hentai.
Little did he know that I squirmed in my seat whenever he laughed or gazed at me with those intense brown eyes. I liked how he brushed his hair aside with his fingers, inevitably ending with a fringe of blonde curls falling back on his forehead.
He’d look at me intently while I talked, as if he didn’t want to miss a single word. Most people I knew, including me at times, would check on their texts or social media while conversing. Instead, Hayden placed his phone face down on the desk. He picked it up only once after receiving a message, and even apologised for interrupting our chat. He must have set his phone on silent then, because it didn’t make a sound after that; he dedicated his undivided attention to me.
Whenever he smiled, I felt like something in me was slowly melting. God, why is he so perfect?
Someone knocked on the door. The little girl from downstairs, who I’d presumed was Hayden’s younger sister, peeked inside with a toothy grin. ‘Hayden, it’s takeaway night! Mum’s asking what you want for dinner. I said either pizza or curry. What did you want?’
Hayden looked at me. ‘Do you like pizza?’
I shook my head, saying, ‘Oh! I don’t want to intrude!’
‘Why? You’re not intruding at all and I’m not going to have you watching while everyone else’s eating.’ He said this like it was the most natural thing in the world, as if we were old friends. ‘It’s cool man, you’re my guest,’ he added.
His sister beamed. ‘I’m up for pizza!’
Hayden looked at me with a Prince Charming smile. ‘What do you want to eat?’
‘Uh… a small margherita’s OK…’
He frowned. ‘Sure? You can order something a bit jazzier if you want.’
Dirty mind, shush! ‘Oh, no thanks. Margherita is good.’
Hayden turned to his sister. ‘Right. One margherita and a meat feast for me please, Soph.’
‘Okaaaay!’ She closed the door behind her.
At that moment I noticed the sun had gone down and that Hayden and I were sitting in the dark. His eyes reflected the bluish light coming from the computer screen and his gaze focused on me. His lips curved and my heart drummed a fast beat in my chest. I willed myself to calm down, knowing that getting worked up wasn’t going to lead to anything good.
Hayden put on a different track. It was a new piece he was working on; an exciting and somewhat sensual tune with low notes and slow, clean drums. Amazing.
‘You’re the first to listen to this. What you reckon?’
‘It’s awesome.’ I closed my eyes, submerging myself in the sound. ‘Only… no, never mind.’
He smirked. ‘Nah, now you have to say it…’
‘I just thought that if you added an element to the drums, it might improve this vaporwave-feel you have, something subtle.’
‘Like a stronger snare?’
‘More like a hi-hat.’
‘Show me.’ He opened the song in the sequencer, uncovered his mixer and turned it on.
I blinked in surprise. ‘Wait. Are you sure?’
‘You made me curious now. I want to understand what you mean.’
For the next twenty minutes we worked on the tune. He allowed me to tweak his track without hesitation. His trust in me made me feel weird; I was both flattered and embarrassed. I added a muted hi-hat sound as I’d suggested and that gave Hayden an idea. He implemented a cool sound effect that made the bass tremble and fizzle out. The piece took on a completely new dimension. It was way more vibrant and entrancing now. Hayden and I sat next to each other in silence for a while as we listened to the result. We exchanged a grin as the tune played. No words were needed; it was great and we both knew it.
The food arrived soon after – pizzas with a side of hot wings, chips and four Cokes that came with the meal deal. I joined Hayden and his younger siblings downstairs and I got introduced to them properly. Sophie had dark, wavy hair and sharp features that made her look quite different from her brothers. Iwan looked much like Hayden, with curly blonde hair and a strong jaw. He must have been fifteen or so, but he was taller and sturdier than twenty-three-year-old me, and mumbled the few words he spoke. Just like Hayden, Sophie and Iwan treated me as if I’d been there a thousand times.
‘You’ve got a younger sister as well, have you?’ Hayden asked, a pizza slice dangling from his hand. He opened his mouth, carefully capturing the melted cheese with his tongue.
I bit my lower lip and looked down, studying the small writing on my Coke can. ‘Yeah, how’d you guess?’
‘That pen in your pocket was pretty girly and tiny. I thought maybe it was your sister’s or something.’
‘You’re very observant,’ I said.
‘Have you got a brother too?’
I laughed. ‘An older one. Seriously? How the heck did you guess?’
‘It looks like we have a lot in common, so…’ he said with a chuckle.
We’d just finished eating when I glanced at my phone distractedly – it was half past eight! I’d gotten there before five! ‘I better go. I promised a friend I’d go out with him for a pint. I really enjoyed myself, though.’
‘OK dude, no worries.’ Hayden gripped my hand, slammed me against his chest and patted my back in a way that I could only describe as utterly manly.
I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time because Hayden had such a potent, straight-guy vibe about him and there I was, getting all flustered at being in close contact with his body.
I offered to pay for my pizza and my Coke but Hayden was adamant I didn’t have to.
‘Well, next time dinner’s on me then,’ I said. Oh God, was that too forward?
Hayden only grinned and said, ‘Sounds good, yeah.’
We exchanged contact details and added each other on every possible social media channel. I peeked at his Facebook page and he at mine. Hayden Morris, twenty-four years old. He laughed because he expected me to be born the same day and year as him. Instead, I was a year younger, born in December and not August like him.
Summer and winter; it suited us. We existed on the same wavelength, thought alike and had lots of stuff in common, but there was enough different too.
I left his house and was met by the freezing night air. My cheeks instantly cooled and my breath puffed and coiled against the dark background of the sky. Thank God my car was parked nearby.
My heart fluttered at the sound of his voice. I turned around.
Hayden grinned at me, handing over Cynthia’s pink paper bag. ‘You don’t want to leave this behind! She’ll kick right off!’
I took it from him. How could I have forgotten the very thing I went there for in the first place? The answer was in front of me, smiling and shivering from the cold. He hopped a little, trying to keep warm, and pushed both hands in his pockets.
‘I’ve never got on with someone instantly like this, you know?’ Hayden said. ‘Honestly, bruv. You’re proper sound, like.’
I smiled, feeling a bittersweet twinge in my chest. ‘Same to you.’
‘Catch you in a bit, yeah?’ He half-hugged me again and rushed back inside.
‘See you,’ I murmured.
As I watched him go, I asked myself how come a person with his brains, looks and charisma was spending his Saturday night at home with his family and not out and about, drinking himself to oblivion and getting laid. Nothing wrong with a quiet night in, of course, but when I told Hayden that I was going to meet a friend for a pint, he looked a bit sad. Should have I invited him?
With these thoughts, I walked back to my car.
Cynthia was the maid of honour and she’d been very close to messing things up for her brother. She and I met near St. Peter’s Church in Roath for the morning ceremony on Sunday.
I wore a long black coat over my freshly laundered suit and gazed at the greyish-white sky, hoping that it wouldn’t drizzle while I stood out in the open. All the family was there, except for my older brother who couldn’t make it since he was in America and buried in work.
Cynthia stood by a twiggy tree near the YMCA building and puffed on her vape. Despite the temperature being below zero, she flaunted long, naked legs under the short skirt of a green dress.
‘Here, dummy.’ I gave her the bag.
She squeezed her eyes shut and smiled. ‘Ahh, nice one! Cheers, you’re a star!’
I shook my head. ‘Seriously. You know how awkward I am with strangers, and still you had me go there.’
‘It was an emergency!’ Cynthia whined, her red lips pouting. ‘It would have been way more awkward for me, trust me.’
I was curious enough to venture the question, ‘Did he break up with you?’
She puffed on a popcorn-scented vape. ‘Nah, I dumped him.’
‘How come? He seems like a good guy.’
Cynthia squinted at the fat clouds above with a dreamy expression. ‘Oh, he was good, alright? So good. Hayden’s got a huge dick.’ Her hands mimed an invisible eight-inch penis.
My cheeks heated at the memory of what I’d observed the day before, though I pretended I knew nothing of it and made a face. ‘TMI.’
She clicked her tongue. ‘At first I was really into him. He’s hot and nice but, how can I say this, he wasn’t putting in the effort. He was like… going out with me just because, you know? I don’t want to fall for the guy and have to beg him to like me back. I can do better than that.’
‘Yeah, I guess you’re right,’ I said.
Cynthia blew another white cloud of vape out. ‘I heard he’s a total man-whore anyway. I told him he had to get tested, otherwise it was going to be a no-go. All he wanted to do was shag. You remember Hanna, my college friend? She’s slept with him, and Charlotte too. Maybe he was going to dump me in any case, ‘cause you know… he’s emotionally unavailable. It’s better that I ended things first.’
She inhaled the vapour deeply. ‘You know what? You’d get along with him better than me. He’s into making music on the computer with the electric piano and stuff, like you. He likes all that eighties wave stuff, what’s it called…?’
‘Yeah, that’s the one.’
To say that Hayden liked synthwave was quite the understatement. His musical interests were broad, like mine. We even listened to ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and commented on the beauty of the piece. We both loved that movie too.
‘Not that I’d want my cousin to hang around someone like him,’ Cynthia added after a long pause.
I frowned. ‘You said he’s nice.’
‘Yeah, but he’s also a bit weird, like. He’s got stuff going on with his family and he’s not quite with it or something. I can’t really say. Who knows, maybe it’s only with his dates that he’s cold like a bloody freezer. You’d be alright being around him, since he wouldn’t want to fuck you.’
I glanced at Cynthia, trying not to show how much what she just said hurt me. ‘Will it be OK to show that much skin during a wedding? Not that I care, though some priests are picky like that.’
Cynthia scrunched her nose. She considered the weather with a bemused expression, as if something odd hid behind the clouds. ‘What about you, babes?’
I straightened my tie. ‘What about me?’
‘Have you met anybody interesting since breaking up with that two-timing cockhead? What was his name again?’
I groaned inwardly. ‘Craig.’
‘Yeah. How’s it going in the hooking-up department?’
I sighed. ‘I’m done with mindless sex. I pulled a couple of times at the club after Craig, and it was awful. My heart can’t take it, you know? I hate one-night stands, casual stuff and all that. I can’t bear that awkward feeling after doing the dirty deed. It makes me feel like crap.’
Her scarlet lips curved. ‘You need to relax, hun. Don’t take everything so seriously. Sometimes, mindless fun is a right laugh.’
I shook my head. ‘Not for me.’
Uncle Jonah sauntered by, his bushy brows furrowed, and with a voice harsh like smoke he said, ‘You two, get into church or the ceremony will start without you.’
The wedding began not long after our conversation. I sat next to my great-aunt Dorothy who gave me a lipstick-stained grin. Rather than looking at the bride and groom, my eyes were drawn to the mangled portrayal of Jesus on the cross.
I always wondered about the Catholic Church’s need to depict death and pain so realistically. This particular crucifix was dark brown in colour, hanging in the centre of a pale-yellow vault and above an enormous triplicate of stained-glass windows. Jesus’s head drooped in misery. I couldn’t blame him; if I were stuck hovering by the ceiling and had to listen to the priest’s litany every single day, hour after hour, I’d be miserable too.
I imagined Christ suddenly coming to life and shouting, ‘Everyone, there’s a sodomite in my house! What are you going to do about it?’ Or, perhaps, he’d wink at me knowingly. I wasn’t sure which scenario was worse.
I came out to my very Catholic parents when I was sixteen. They reacted stiffly, neither accepting nor openly condemning my sexual orientation. My father was OK with it as long as he didn’t have to hear about it extensively, but my mother was nosey. Funnily enough, it wasn’t gay sex she disapproved of, as such, but rather my ‘loose morals’. She thought that gays didn’t care about settling down.
So there I was, agnostic and completely out of place. Nevertheless, I was still a beloved member of the Nash family. I didn’t get any dirty looks like Cynthia who stood proud by the altar with her heavy makeup, short skirt and high heels. The priest must have been too shy to say a word, or perhaps he was titillated.
My phone buzzed. I really wanted to see what the notification was, but the last thing I needed was the evil eye from under Dorothy’s rococo hat. So I waited.
Once we were all out in the cold after the ceremony and headed for lunch, I looked at the message. It was from Hayden.
‘Check it out! We make a good team innit.’ There was a link to a song on Spotify and a smiling face with sunglasses.
I opened the link and my heart skipped a beat. He had published the tune we worked on together the day before. The cover was a dark grey background with a purple splotch. The title he’d chosen, written in a cool eighties font, made me gasp: ‘Purple Stain’.
I realised I was grinning like a buffoon and tried to compose my features. But then Cynthia’s words rang in my ears: He wouldn’t want to fuck you.
I grumbled to myself, ‘Like I didn’t already know that.’