“Oh, he went to pick up the ball we left behind.”
“That’s nice of him,” Tangent uttered. His tone was appreciative to the point where the girl had no idea if it was mockery or sincerity (not that the ambiguity of Tangent’s expression was a new development).
The two stood watching the boy as he walked to the basketball court. Everyone else was long gone. He picked up the basketball. But instead of returning, he began throwing the ball up against the backboard, alone.
“Oh, now he’s shooting some hoops,” Tangent commented, with the same ambiguous appreciation. The thought struck him that this was an awfully private moment that he shouldn’t interfere in, or even be watching. But it was only a passing thought. He was never known for his sensitivity.
Sheepishly, he asked, “should we, uh, approach him?”
“No,” the girl whispered. Unlike Tangent, she did properly grasp the privacy of the moment.
So the two stood there side by side, leaning on the fence, resting their heads upon both hands, observing. Tangent figured that the girl found watching this boy (her boyfriend) to be more romantic than he did.
The air was silent. Neither uttered a sound. Only the faint bounce of a basketball could be heard in the distance for some time.
“You know,” Tangent said, looking straight ahead, “that guy is one of the few people I genuinely respect. Take good care of him.”
The words disappeared into the night as gently as they arrived. For one fleeting moment, the girl witnessed Tangent truly being sincere, without a trace of sarcasm, condescension, contempt, irony or any form of double meaning.
“Thanks,” she smiled. It was all she could muster.
Then, Tangent turned to the girl. “Well, a ‘thanks’ isn’t exactly an appropriate response. I wasn’t complimenting you specifically. An ‘I will’ would have worked better.”
And Tangent was back to his normal self.
I could see some sort of station, or office, or checkpoint (or some combination of the three); I wasn’t quite sure, but a single man in uniform sat behind a desk next to a large contraption connected to a barrier that guarded the tunnel’s exit. Ahead of me was darkness, and looking back, behind me was the same; I could no longer see the entrance. The moment seemed like something from a dream. The man’s uniform, a worn-out blue colour, blended in with the murky stone bricks lining the tunnel, all of which was poorly lit by a single lamp placed on the man’s desk. I felt like the entire tunnel could fade into nothingness at a moment’s notice.
“Greetings, good sir! How may I help you?”
The voice chimed through the tunnel, clearly and distinctly. It came from the man in uniform, who I just noticed was looking right at me. His voice sounded friendly enough, but there was something about him that seemed off.
“Oh, uh…I wanted to go through to the other side,” I answered after a moment.
The man smiled, but the poor lighting distorted his expression. “Oh, excellent!” he gleamed. The light accentuated the angles of his face. He rose from his seat in a single motion. “That’s right up my line of duty, you know.”
He began pulling and twisting all sorts of levers and dials in a series of jagged movements. He called out as he worked. “I suppose you could call me a crossing guard. Please wait a moment while I get everything set up.”
My eyes wandered from the man and the large contraption he was operating, when I noticed the door. It was innocent enough; painted blue, with a simple frame, placed behind the man’s seat — no, hiding behind the man’s seat. Simple curiosity demanded I know what was behind it.
I looked away from the door as soon as I heard the Crossing Guard’s voice once more. “I bet you are wondering why so much work has to go into the simple task of letting someone go through this tunnel. Or perhaps you are wondering about something else,” — I swear I saw him glance at the door — “but either way, simplicity can be deceiving, ha ha.” His chuckle was just as disjointed as the rest of his speech.
A high-pitched whistle blew from the contraption, and the barrier began to open. As the noise died down, he continued.
“This place is more complicated than you think. But you’ll find that out for yourself, in time,” he eerily uttered as he sat down, once again in a single motion. Then, he suddenly shifted to a more joyful demeanour. “Well, everything is finished up on my end, I just need one more thing from you: walking out of the tunnel! Ha ha ha. But yes, you can go through now. See you later.”
I smiled weakly and walked past. I had the feeling the Crossing Guard was still staring at me, as if his gaze drilled into my back. I didn’t dare look back to confirm it, though.
Everything fell apart so quickly.
While making some effort to work, Tangent’s name was called. He thought nothing of it and walked to the front. There he was subjected to his own ignorance; an assessment task he completed the previous day, now marked, revealed he had done…poorly. Called upon to gaze upon his mistakes, Tangent attempted to maintain rationality and justify his answers, but no amount of careful word choice would suffice — he was wrong. And considering the events that followed, he was wrong to contest his failure, too. Having done so, enough time passed and class ended, while he had not yet packed up.
Tangent’s routine was unforgiving. Having wasted mere minutes made him too late for the next part of his routine; a girl he hoped to walk some of the way home with had already left the classroom. He packed his belongings and sprinted outside. There in the distance, he could see her walking away. Before Tangent could act, she reached the turn-off, where the two would have parted ways anyway. Definitely too late.
Sadness solidifies to anger.
That night, Tangent relived the day’s events in his dream. This time however, he wasn’t as far away. The dream’s landscape was near-impossible to make out due to thick fog being scattered all around, but one thing was clearly visible: the girl. Tangent saw her walking ahead in the distance. She was singing some sort of beautiful melody to herself when she looked back at him.
Tangent started jogging to catch up. And repeating her melody, he sang. “I’m really trying to keep you in sight…”
She smiled, and sang in response. “I know you’re trying to keep me in sight…” but she did not slow down, instead continuing at a brisk walking pace.
Did she want me to catch up or not? Tangent thought.
Suddenly, he grew weary. He was trying to continue singing and keep up, but he was struggling. The distance between the two began to grow. “And all I want is to keep you in sight…”
“And all you need is to keep me in sight…”
She was far away now. Suddenly, the fog cleared; the dream’s landscape was revealed to be a train station, but more importantly, the two were standing on different platforms. A large gap stood between them.
Tangent couldn’t figure out why, but he had grown so very tired. He collapsed to his knees in exhaustion. But how could it be fatigue? With the seemingly-increasing gap between them, he was about to give the girl up. Save for him spontaneously yelling out and declaring his feelings, they were completely separated.
But as Tangent looked at her one more time, he could see her smile, seemingly waiting, expecting him to act.
Declare myself, huh? he thought. Perhaps that was what he had to do.