And Sad Songs
It was just another ordinary day. Just another ordinary day until... it wasn't.
The raindrops raced each other down the foggy window, like tears caressing the glass. Theo watched them hypnotically, letting all other thoughts empty from his head, quietening as they did so.
The bus was packed and noisy, smelling of sweat and sadness - as if everyone around Theo felt how he did. Trapped. Hopeless. Lifeless. The air reeked of muted melancholy... until she entered.
The woman was dressed in splashes of colour - as if someone had flicked different colours of paint across a canvas and somehow fluked creating a beloved piece of art. The bus lights were dim and flickering but still managed to make her blonde hair glow like a lighthouse.
"No, it can't be... can it?"
The whispers wafted to Theo but seemed distant. He knew who it was in an instant.
"Scarlett Sky?" Someone from behind him asked, their voice filled with excitement and awe and nervousness.
The woman flashed everyone a dazzling smile as she made her way down the narrow aisle. It was the kind of smile someone practiced. The kind of smile specifically designed to mask the river of sadness running beneath it. Nobody else noticed.
The bus was full. Theo moved his laptop case from the seat beside him. She barely glanced at him as she sat down in the empty space to his right.
"Scarlett," someone was saying, "I can't believe it's really you!"
"Hey honey," she replied in a voice that sounded like molten gold. A voice familiar to everyone here but none as much as Theo.
"Can I have your autograph?" "Can I get a picture with you please?" "When's your next album coming out?" "I saw you on your last tour!" "You're my biggest inspiration!" The words and praise bubbled up around them from teenagers and adults alike.
Scarlett replied to them all like an actress following a script. She responded just like the celebrity she was, Theo supposed. But she still didn't look like anything other than human - not to Theo. She just looked like a heartbroken girl who had grown into a somber woman.
Outside, darkness was claiming the cobalt coloured sky, making the street lights shine brighter. Inside, the excitement was fading as the enthusiastic fans reluctantly got off at the stops, bidding begrudging farewells to Scarlett Sky on their way out.
It was only when most of the seats were empty that Scarlett turned to Theo. She wore bright makeup now, pastel purple eyeshadow splashed across her eyelids, but the same shadows that had haunted her eyes so long ago still did. A look of quickly veiled surprise shot across her fine featured face for a moment as those dark eyes focused on him.
"Hey Scarlett," he said softly, forcing the words past his tongue, even as they sounded eerily familiar.
She blinked. He half expected her to think he was just another fan. He didn't expect her to recognise him. Not with the stubble he'd grown since they'd last seen each other or the smile he'd been missing for the past while. He looked different - he knew that... and Scarlett... well Scarlett was a rock star now after all.
She stared at him. The feigned bliss and delight from moments earlier had vanished now, replaced with something that almost felt like the old her.
He didn't know what exactly he expected her to say but he wasn't prepared for the words that tumbled from her perfectly painted lips. "Hey Theo. How have you been?"
Twenty Years Ago
Dusk had arrived but Theo and Scarlett barely noticed. They were happy in the way all children should be, laughing by the creek down the hill from Theo's house.
Scarlett's forehead crinkled in a rare frown of concern as she looked behind Theo. "What's that over there?" she asked, pointing.
Theo's brows lowered as he turned to see where she was looking. An instant later something cold and sticky hit him in the face. He turned back to wipe the mud from his cheek, facing Scarlett who was now pointing at him and laughing uncontrollably, brown mud staining her delicate hand.
Failing at feigning a glare, Theo leant over and scooped up some mud from the ground in front of him. Scarlett squealed and lunged behind the nearest tree. Theo leapt around it and threw the wet dirt in his hand. Scarlet ducked. Theo knelt to grab more mud. Scarlett clumped together a handful of her own. He threw it and missed as she jumped foreword and rubbed it into his already brown hair.
Theo made a sound of protest before pulling them both backwards, sending them tumbling into the almost overflowing creek behind them. Cool water greeted them, gently washing the muck from their skin like careful hands working a stain from cloth.
The two surfaced, Scarlett throwing her head back and laughing like the picture of pure happiness. They'd only met last year when Theo had just turned nine and Scarlett was counting the days until she did too, but ever since then he'd been in awe of how easily she found joy in the little things. It seemed magical somehow, like she was only half human and half something else... something born to bathe in spotlights and stardust.
Theo laughed too. It was always easy to laugh around Scarlett. Everything was easy around Scarlett.
How have you been? It was a question he heard on the daily... a question he knew not to answer honestly. A question he wouldn't know how to answer honestly if he wanted to.
"I've been good," he lied, following what felt like a script of his own. "What about you?" It felt like a dance, these phrases they were expected to exchange with one another. It felt like a dance at a masquerade ball and all he longed to do was rip of their masks and break into freestyle.
"I've been good too," she said. It was practically a whisper. She didn't bother plastering that fake happiness onto her features like she had with her fans... instead she seemed to be letting vulnerability seep through the cracks in her makeup.
Silence engulfed them once again, the rain outside seeming to grow louder as if to make up for their absent conversation.
"How have you really been Theo?" she said in a quiet voice.
He stared at her, wishing the rain was enough to wash out the dye in her hair and the makeup hiding her face. "About the same as you I'd imagine."
She smiled, the sight slow and sad. "I read your books you know," she murmured, glancing down at the ink staining his hands. He didn't tell her about the writers block that had plagued him for months now or about the agents hassling him to write more. He didn't need to tell her. She seemed to read it in his eyes. She always did.
"I listened to your songs," he replied quietly. "They all.. they all seemed happy."
She let out a humourless laugh. "Yes well... you always were more honest than me Theo." Him and his books that harboured the depths and darknesses of the world that most people liked to ignore.
And just like that the bus pulled to a stop. Scarlett glanced to the blackness waiting outside. "Well, this is me," she said but made no move to leave.
Fifteen Years Ago
The bruises on Scarlett's arm were shaped like fingerprints.
"Scarlett," Theo said in a soft voice, looking pointedly at the plum and cobalt coloured marks on her skin.
She noticed his stare and pulled her sleeves down over her wrists, subconsciously, changing the subject like she always did when he tried to talk to her about the damage he knew her father caused.
"Let's go for a swim," she said instead, carefully avoiding the mud as she slid gracefully into the almost too-shallow river.
Theo followed her into the murky water and watched as she submerged herself in it, surfacing without caring that the water had washed off the mask of makeup that covered her face, black smudging her eyes from where the thick eyeliner and heavy mascara had only partly faded.
Noticing his stare she curled her lips upwards in a smile - the kind that was forced and attempted to hide a kind of torment not so easily concealed. Theo smiled back, thinking he might be completely in love with her - but not enough for it to mean anything.
She seemed to catch the look in his eyes. Something made her lean forward, hands moving to lightly touch his face, lips locking with his. He could almost taste the melancholy on her skin, almost breathe in the feelings of confinement he saw on her face everyday.
They didn't talk about the kiss as they followed their usual tradition of walking down to the corner store. Theo wordlessly passed her a handful of silver coins and she came back from the counter holding two lollypops.
They sat at the picnic table outside the small park. Scarlett reached into his school bag and pulled out the tatty library book marked with a scrap of paper.
"What's the latest book about Theo?"
He took it from her hands. "You never finished the last one I recommended," he pointed out.
"Yes I did," she argued. "I just didn't read the ending because you told me it was sad."
"You haven't finished if you don't make it past the sad ending," he said indignantly.
She shrugged, looking out at the dusty town they were both wishing to escape. "Maybe that's the point."
He rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "What's the latest song-recommendation Scarlett?"
She smiled. "You wouldn't like any of my current favourites. They're all too happy."
Theo frowned. He could never understand why she listened to happy songs when she was so clearly the opposite.
She lay her head on his shoulder, seeming to hear his thoughts even without him voicing them. "Maybe one day I'll feel how they do," she whispered. That was the closest she came to admitting that she wasn't okay.
The bus door opened and the driver glanced at her in the rear-view mirror.
"He's not waiting for you?" Theo asked. He didn't need to say who he was. He'd seen on social media the man she'd been with for years now. The man with a light missing from his eyes. The man now missing from the bus stop.
She shook her head dismissively. "I walk home alone," was all she said.
Theo stood. "Not tonight," he murmured. "Tonight I'll walk you home Scarlett." She smiled, almost as if she knew he'd say that. He followed her out of the bus and into the waiting night.
The golden shine from the street lights danced across her face, making the similarities between this current Scarlett and the younger her stark enough that Theo tore his eyes away from her sad blue eyes.
It was only when she slowly took off her fur coat that his gaze landed on the hand marks on her upper arm. The swirls of brown and blue were all too familiar, enough that it brought tears to his eyes.
"Scarlett," he murmured - a question and an apology all in one.
He expected her to change the subject like she always had in the past. Instead she looked at him and said, her voice soft enough he barely heard her, "Sometimes the kind of monsters you know are better than the ones you don't."
He stared at her, not knowing what to say. He didn't have a chance to reply. Before he could, Scarlett reached into her expensive bag and pulled out a copy of his latest published novel. A piece of ribbon marked her place - almost at the end. "Care to tell me how this one ends?" she asked, offering him a small smile.
He shook his head with a smile of his own. "It's a sad ending. You won't like it."
"I thought it might be," she replied. "I guess I'll have to wait for the next one then."
He didn't bother telling her it might be a long wait. Instead, he reached into his own bag and pulled out a signed copy of her first album. he raised an eyebrow at her. "I miss the songs like this." The sad songs. The real songs. The songs he could only assume had been written about him.
Ten Years Ago
The vodka burnt Theo's mouth and made him wince. Scarlett had no reaction to the liquor she poured down her throat - if anything she greeted it as you would a comforting friend. It was the cheapest alcohol they could find and all they could afford.
The creek near Theo's house was empty now - dried up by the drought - but they sat beside it anyway, Scarlett cradling her guitar and Theo balancing a notebook on one knee.
"What's a good synonym for beautiful?" Scarlett asked absent-mindedly, typing some lyrics into her phone.
Theo cut her a sideways glance, a million words coming to mind the second he saw the wind playing in her dark hair. Instead of answering he murmured, "You're going to be a great singer one day Scarlett." Usually the mere mention of her becoming a singer managed to light a fire in her eyes that took away the pain she had more and more trouble hiding each time. This time she almost flinched as he said it.
She turned to him slowly - so slowly. "I'm leaving town Theo."
His heart stopped. "What?"
"I can't make it as a singer if I stay here," she whispered. The words had been a long time coming but they tore at his heartstrings just the same.
I'll come with you, he almost said, but the words got caught in his throat. She'd already made it clear that once she left here, that was it. That was the kind of sad endings she avoided reading. Theo reminded her of this town and everything she'd endured there and she couldn't stand the constant reminder. He understood, he'd just hoped this day wouldn't come so soon.
He stared at her, the only words that mattered making their way to the surface. For years, the two of them had traded secrets and kisses and dreams but not the truth. Never the kind of truth that mattered. Never this.
"I love you Scarlett," he whispered, but in his heart he'd always known that would never be enough.
She stood, knuckles turning white from where she clutched the guitar to her. She opened her mouth, as if she might say the words back or... or say something that might make up for what she did next.
She walked away.
There was no goodbye. No final words. No ending.
You haven't finished if you don't make it past the sad ending.
Maybe that's the point.
What had he expected? Scarlett had never been able to face the disheartening truths, never been willing to acknowledge the torment under her skin.
The notebook slipped from his hands. He stared after her. She didn't turn around. He didn't know if he'd ever see her again.
When Theo saw the tall house towering over the perfectly pruned gardens, he knew they'd arrived at Scarlett's house. Her slowing footsteps confirmed it. She turned to him, letting silence join them.
"If you ever need me," he murmured, "just give me a call."
Her eyes seemed to turn a darker shade of blue at that. "I don't need your pity Theo," she said, but there was no malice in her tone, just gentleness.
He opened his mouth, unsure what to say, but she spoke before he could come up with anything. "Just for the record Theo, we were always my favourite story. The tale of you and me."
All he could do was offer her a smile - the ones so similar to her own - the sad kind. "Maybe I'll write it one day."
He knew how she'd react before she did. A shake of her head and the words, "Please don't. I don't think I could read the ending."
He brushed a stray piece of hair away from her face and nodded, knowing no words would be enough to change her mind. He swallowed the goodbye balancing on his lips and watched as she made her way up the stone steps to her front porch.
This time she turned, causing his breath to catch. Maybe this time would be different...
A light went on in the house. Scarlett walked inside.
There was no goodbye. No final words. No ending.
He didn't know if he'd ever see her again.
About the author
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
Original narrative & well developed characters