Fiction: Alice & Jack
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
“I can’t tell from your accent,” he said as he lowered himself onto the step next to me. “Where did you say you’re from?”
I shrugged. "I didn't."
I was happy to leave it there, but I could tell he was waiting for me to elaborate. I sighed.
“Er," I pulled a cigarette out my back pocket and turned it between my fingers.
"I don’t know where I'm from, really. I’ve lived all over the place, don't remember where I started out.”
"Oh, right.” He paused for a moment, then pressed, gently, “But what about your parents? Where are they from?”
"England, I think," I said. "Why do you care?"
He blinked. "I don't know. I want to get to know you better, I suppose."
I studied his face. He looked serious.
"Okay," I said. "Well, my parents both died when I was like, two, and I don't really know anything about them apart from that."
"Shit," he mumbled. "Shit. Sorry, I didn't-"
I shook my head. "Don't be awkward, it's fine, it was ages ago."
He was fiddling with his hands in his lap, like he was shy. I didn't know many men that weren't arrogant, so this was oddly refreshing.
The wind had started to pick up. We were completely exposed on the flat prairie land, and the air was crisp and sharp against my cheeks. I shoved my hands into my pockets. He was shivering, too, but he was looking up at the sky. I followed his gaze.
"Wow," I said."Stars. I haven't seen those in forever."
He nodded slightly. "Yeah, me neither." Then he reached in his jacket and pulled out a lighter, holding it out. I realised I'd been holding an unlit cigarette for several minutes.
“Thanks,” I said, reaching across.
I lit the end and inhaled deeply, letting the smoke fill my lungs. I knew it was bad for me, but the distant prospect of cancer seemed like the least of my problems. I'd never really considered living long enough to get something like cancer, I always figured something - or someone - else would get me long before then.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, me and this guy I barely knew, and I realised I couldn't hear anything at all. I was so used to the sounds of the city. I couldn't decide if it was peaceful or eerie, sitting beside a lake in total silence with a stranger. Was he a stranger? I didn't even know his name, but I felt like he knew more about me than any friend I'd ever had. Perhaps that said more about my friends than this guy.
"So," he said after a few minutes had gone by. "Are you going to tell me what the fuck happened to you to land you in this mess?"
I laughed, instinctively, but it wasn't funny. "I don't know," I said, tossing the cigarette on the floor before it was finished. "Years of poor decisions and bad habits." I watched the ash that I'd let build up on the end of my cigarette sizzle and flicker for a few seconds before I tapped it off. A tiny flurry of grey dots fell to the floor. It was satisfying. "Like smoking."
“Like smoking?" he laughed. "I mean, not that smoking isn't a bad habit, but I suspect it's not your worst habit."
"Oh right," I said. "Thanks."
He watched me, completely expressionless for a few moments, and then said,"I've never thought I'd live long enough to get cancer."
I blinked. "Yeah, me neither."
“Well, we are absolutely screwed, aren't we?" he said, laughing again. "We were probably right." He reached across and took the cigarette packet out of my hand, lit the end and took a long drag.
“That doesn't seem to bother you," I observed. "Dying."
He shrugged. "I'm not scared of dying. It's more the idea of no longer being alive that bothers me, if that makes sense. I want to stick around to see how it all ends. But dying itself doesn't bother me. Do you know what I mean?"
"I don’t really want to go to prison,' he added. "I think I'd rather just, not be around."
"Cheerful," I said.
He shrugged again. He did a lot of shrugging. "I don't know. If this," he gestured into the air, "Is freedom, hiding in the middle of nowhere all the time, running away from everyone, I'm just not sure how much I want that for the rest of my days. I'm tired."
"Speak for yourself," I said. "I don’t want to go to prison or die. Have you not watched the Shawshank Redemption? Prison looks terrible."
“You’re not going to go to prison," he said. "I, sorry."
I left it at silence again. There was no point dragging that conversation out. A few more minutes went by, and I focused on breathing in and out, watching the little traces of white it left in the air in front of me.
“By the way," I said, eventually.
He jerked his head up like I'd broken a deep thought. "Yeah?"
"You said you want to get to know me better. My name’s actually Alice."
"Sorry, it's just that, my name's not Alicia. I’ve been telling people that for years, but, it's actually just, Alice. There, you know me now."
I wasn't sure what kind of reaction I'd expected, if any at all. "I just, thought you should know," I continued. "Because, well, you know."
After a few moments, he nodded. "Okay. Thanks." And then he looked away.
I heard a wailing sound somewhere in the distance. It was so sharp and piercing in the silence. There was nothing else to hear.
He took a final drag of his cigarette and chucked it down the steps, and we both watched it as it hit the floor with a flurry of sparks, and then went dark. He brushed the streaks of ash on his fingers onto the sides of his jeans and turned to face me.
“Well it was nice knowing you, Alice.” He held out his hand and took a deep breath. "I'm Jack."
She has one of those accents you can’t quite place. It sounds sort of English, but with a lot of foreign influence, like someone who lived abroad for a chunk of their childhood. I wonder if it's rude to ask her. I do it anyway, mostly to break the silence.
She answers reluctantly. I know she doesn't want to be here with me, but I'm still curious. “I don’t know, really. I’ve kind of lived all over the place," she says.
I sigh. I’ve only known aloof, mysterious girls like this my whole life and my God, they can be frustrating. It’s not a difficult question. “Okay,” I press. “What about originally? Where are your parents from?”
She gives a half-hearted shrug. “England, I think.”
She looks away. "Well, the truth is, I don't know where I'm from. My parents both died when I was like, two."
Ah. There it is. It's all very matter of fact, but I'm quickly overwhelmed by the urge to put my entire foot into my mouth.
“Shit,” I mumble. “Shit. Sorry.”
She laughs. It's the first time I've really seen her face change expression since we met.
"Don't be awkward. It's fine. It was a long time ago."
She shoves her hands deep into the pockets of her jacket and hunches up. It is cold, but this is also a typically defensive stance that I've noticed in people like her. I take the hint not to push the conversation any further, and we sit in silence for a few minutes.
My stomach whines, and I realise how long it's been since either of us ate anything. I have no idea where we are, and it must be the middle of the night.
“Wow,” she says, suddenly. She's looking up at the sky. “Look, stars. I haven’t seen those in a while.”
It catches me off guard that she chooses to speaks of her own accord so much that I'm stumped for how to respond. I nod and pull out a pack of cigarettes - my own defensive stance - and offer her one.
"Ta," she says.
I watch her light it up, expertly. In so few spoken words, I feel like I understand her already. She's cold, probably a lonely child who grew up angry, hurt at being abandoned. The smoking suggests she doesn’t really care about herself. The fact she's out here with me, in the middle of nowhere, in this situation, suggests she doesn’t really care about anything. It's all uncomfortably familiar, except, it seems like she’s perfectly content sitting in total silence, whereas I seem to catch conversational diarrhoea in the presence of other human beings.
"So," I say, clearing my throat slightly. My voice sounds so jarring out here. “Are you going to tell me what the fuck happened to you to land you in this mess?"
I swear to take the edge off. It sounds light-hearted in my head, but it just feels awkward coming out of my mouth. She laughs, but not in the happy sort of way that I'd hoped for.
"I don't know," she says, eventually. She examines the cigarette between her fingers, and then tosses it onto the floor. "Years of bad habits. Like smoking."
I wince, watching the ashes go dark against the soil. That was my last pack. I agree that it's a bad habit, but, for some reason, say that it's probably not her worst habit. I wince at my social skills and imagine banging my head against a rock in a Dobby-style self punishment. Why would I say that?
She raises her eyebrows and says something, but I realise I'm too busy examining her face to hear what she’s saying. She looks even prettier than usual when she’s annoyed.
I don’t know what to say, so naturally, I speak before formulating a decent response. “Well, I'll be lucky if I manage to get lung cancer.”
She blinks. "What?"
More internal head banging. “Well, we’re kind of, you know, absolutely screwed, are we not?"
After a few seconds, her face relaxes and she shrugs. "You're a bundle of joy."
A few seconds later, she adds, “That doesn’t seem to bother you. Dying."
I think about it for a moment. "I guess I'm not scared of dying. It's ore the idea of no longer being alive, if that makes sense. I want to stick around to see how it all ends. But dying itself doesn't bother me."
It's true. I'm not scared of dying itself, however it happens. Once it's over, it's over. I'm scared of not being alive any more, though. The prospect of not existing is too weird to comprehend. If the whole of existence was an average-length book, my time within it would barely be a word on a page. And now I'm in an internal rabbit hole and I haven't spoken for too long.
“I mean, I don’t really want to go to prison,” I say, quickly to fill the silence. “But then again, it’s a guaranteed night in a bed. Guaranteed food. Guaranteed warmth. I wouldn't mind that right now.”
I try to sound convincing, but I don't think I believe it. She doesn’t look like she believes me either.
"Seriously?" she scoffs. "You don't mean that."
Maybe I don't. Maybe I do. I don't think I really know what the lack of freedom would feel like, because I haven’t really felt free my entire life, despite having been completely alone since I was in my early teens. I've had no attachments, which has made me technically free to go anywhere, but having no passport has been a bit of a problem. People like me don’t get passports, and then we end up getting into more trouble just trying to get around.
I think she's still protesting, but I’m not listening. I’ve gone too deep down an internal rabbit hole of thought.
“Have you not seen the Shawshank Redemption?", she says, as I snap back into the conversation. "Prison looks terrible.”
“You’re not going to go to prison,” I say a little too quickly. “I didn’t mean that.”
I haven't seen the Shawshank Redemption. I don't even know what that is. I try and think about what I actually know about prison, which, as it turns out, is very little. Maybe it is shit. I'm sure I’ll probably get to find out, soon enough.
“By the way,” she says, after a few minutes have passed.
I look up. "Yeah?"
"My name’s actually Alice."
And then she starts to tell me about how her name isn’t Alicia. I wonder whether or not to tell her that I thought of her as Alice anyway, or that it’s not a significant enough difference to be worth bringing up, or that she probably should have chosen a better fake name. I decide against all three.
Then, after a few moments, I tell her that it's okay. I toss my own cigarette onto the floor and watch it burn out, and then I brush my ashy hands onto my jeans. I hold out my hand, awkwardly.
“Well, it was nice knowing you, Alice,” I say. And then, for the first time in my whole life, I tell someone my own, genuine, uninteresting identity. "I'm Jack."