Tor felt the tugging in his sleep and worried that it was a rat chewing on the tent again. He had no patience for animals (he had no patience for anyone, really), so he woke up and flung out his hand to knock the creature away…except there was nothing there. He was the only living thing beneath the crumbling overpass.
Then he noticed the red string around his left ring finger, glowing bright in the dim gloom of the cloudy day. It took him a moment to realize that not only was the red strand truly there, but it was also responsible for the steady tugging that had woken him.
“Damn it!” Tor groaned. “I don’t need this now – please, anything but this!”
As he grumbled and swore at whatever god was responsible for his misery, he tried to pull the red string off his finger, grabbing the glowing strand and tugging with all his might. But of course it didn’t come off – every child knew that once the red string appeared on your finger, it wouldn’t go away until you’d met the person on the other end. Soulmates were inevitably drawn together, fate bringing them to one another in the time when they needed each other most.
Except Tor didn’t need anyone. He was perfectly fine on his own. He had his tent underneath the overpass where no one bothered him, there was a soup kitchen where he volunteered in return for leftovers, and the recycling center still shelled out cash for glass bottles and aluminum cans so he had money for things like toothpaste and socks and the occasional trip to the laundromat. For someone living on the streets, Tor considered himself pretty successful.
“And the last thing I need is some stupid soulmate coming to ruin everything!” he hissed as he pulled at the string. “Great, just great!”
Tor felt the blood pounding behind his eyes and he knew that an episode was going to come if he didn’t calm himself right now. He dropped the string and focused on his breathing, pushing the memories of pain and sounds of battle out of his mind until he felt his equilibrium return. Ironically, the slow but insistent tugging of the red string helped him time his breaths, anchoring him to this moment instead of the nightmares of the past.
Then he heard them: footsteps echoing off the old cement walls, punctuated every now and then by a splash through a puddle. The tugging grew tighter, the string glowed brighter, and Tor had no doubt what was about to happen next.
“So they want to find me?” he muttered. “Alright then, let’s get this over with.”
He stood up and didn’t bother to brush off the dead leaves that stuck to his dirty parka before he walked out from the cover of the underpass. The breeze was cold for spring, but it only smelled faintly of car exhaust and garbage. Ever since the city opened the new interstate, this part of town was pretty much abandoned, which meant it was perfect for squatters and vagrants just like Tor. This was where he belonged. This is what someone like him deserved.
Tor waited, looking up at the overcast sky, until he caught sight of a figure round the corner of a building. He glanced down and saw that, yes, the glowing red string ran directly to them. Tor gritted his teeth as the person practically ran across the empty space between them, closing the distance in a matter of breathless seconds.
He was a young man, perhaps ten years younger than Tor himself and half a foot shorter than him. His slim face showed little sign of facial hair (unlike Tor’s own scruffy beard) and there something school-boyish about his neat coat and shined shoes; he even had an expensive leather satchel strapped across his chest, as if he was merely on his way to class and had taken a turn into the wrong part of town. The young man’s light brown hair was slightly disarranged by his run, but he paused to brush it back down before he approached Tor with a sheepish grin.
“Umm…ha, wow,” the young man said. “I mean…I didn’t expect to find you in a place like this, but…ummm…”
He looked up at Tor, as if hoping the other man would help him out of this awkward situation. Tor didn’t want to be helpful, so he stood still and silent as the unfortunate young man had to navigate his way through the interaction on his own. The other man took in a deep breath before holding out the hand from which the red string drooped.
“I’m sorry, let’s start this properly,” he said with a beaming smile. “My name is Josey Green and I’m very happy to meet you!”
Tor snorted; either this kid was naïve or stupid, neither of which he found ideal in a potential partner.
“I’m going to stop you right there,” Tor said, ignoring the outstretched hand. “I’m not looking for a soulmate, I’m not interested in a relationship, and I really don’t want to get to know you. I’ve got everything in my life just how I want it and there’s no space in it for someone like…you. The moment I shake your hand and this string goes away, you are going to turn around and return to where you came from and never bother me again. Do you understand?”
Josey’s liquid brown eyes widened and he lowered his hand. There was a horrible moment where Tor saw the flicker of emotions run through those eyes: confusion, disappointment, and then something like pain. It was as though he’d kicked a puppy and Tor hated himself for it. But it had to be done – this kid wouldn’t be good for him and Tor certainly wasn’t good for this kid.
“A…alright,” the younger man stammered, his voice thick. “If that’s how you want it to be…the last thing I want is someone who doesn’t want me.”
“It’s nothing personal, kid,” Tor felt compelled to add. “I mean, it’s about me, not you. You’ve got no business having anything to do with me.”
Josey’s brow furrowed and for a terrible moment Tor worried that he was going to see pity in his expression…but no, it was only concern. Tor could have laughed at that.
“Are…are you homeless?” the young man asked.
Tor rolled his eyes. “No, I just like sleeping outdoors.”
“Oh.” The other man was mildly embarrassed, but he continued, “I don’t mind, you know. Everybody gets down on their luck at least once in their life. It’s not to do with your value as a person, it’s just how life is sometimes.”
He said with this with a startling amount of conviction and Tor wondered if Josey Green had ever been down on his luck before. But he stopped himself before he got too interested – Josey Green looked as though he’d never had a bad day in his life and Tor preferred to keep thinking that.
“He’s just a sunny little trust-fund kid like all the others with shiny shoes and expensive bags,” he told himself. “He’s probably never had to worry about anything and I’ll eat my parka before I start worrying about HIM. It’s not my job to save the world anymore. I need to get him out of here and get on with my life as it is!”
“I don’t care what you think about me,” he said gruffly. “I’m perfectly happy and I want no part of this soulmate-string-business. Just let me shake your hand and you can go back to school or wherever you’re supposed to be.”
Contrary to what he hoped, Josey Green actually grinned at this.
“Are you afraid of being a cradle-robber?” he said. “Don’t worry, it’s genetics – I’m cursed to look like I’m fifteen forever. Trust me, I’ve graduated college and all that. I even have a mortgage!”
“Great, still not interested,” Tor growled; he wished Josey would stop smiling like that. “Give me your hand.”
Josey sighed and held out his hand again; Tor shook it roughly with his own and did his best to ignore the delightful thrill that ran up his arm and over his body as he made contact with the other man’s skin. His pulse quickened and he dropped Josey’s hand like it was a burning coal, hoping that he wasn’t about to have an episode. Fortunately, the moment stayed in the present and he was relieved to see the red string was gone between them. Tor hoped he’d never see another string again.
“Well then,” Josey said slowly, and Tor prayed he wasn’t about to cry, “I guess I won’t be seeing you. Good luck with…everything.”
He gave Tor a sad smile and turned to head back the way he came. Tor did his best not to let the lurching in his heart get the better of him. He knew he was a monster, but Josey Green didn’t deserve to be treated like this. The least Tor could do was make sure he got back to the main streets safely.
“Wait,” Tor called out before he could stop himself, and the hopeful gleam in Josey’s eyes was enough to make him hate himself again. “Let me walk you out of the neighborhood – there are some real rough types that live around here.”
The hope in Josey’s brown gaze dimmed, but he nodded.
“I’d appreciate it,” he said in a small voice. “I honestly don’t remember how I got here…I followed the string when I felt the tugging and didn’t pay attention to where I was going.”
Tor actually laughed at this. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me, Josey Green.”
He motioned for the other man to follow him down a street with cracked pavement. Josey fell into step beside him and they journeyed through the buildings in silence, Tor doing his best to a) guide Josey away from any of the other denizens of the neighborhood and b) confuse the man enough that he wouldn’t bother trying to find Tor again. Every now and then Josey would stop to study his surroundings, and twice he pulled out his phone to take a picture of weeds growing amongst a dilapidated structure.
“Reference photo,” Josey said by way of explanation when Tor demanded what the hell he was doing. “I like how the plants are taking over the buildings around here – there’s something really beautiful about it! I'd like to draw it one day.”
Beautiful isn’t what Tor would’ve called it, but he supposed there was something nice about the way that nature was reclaiming the hideous structures around them. It gave Tor a sense of balance that he could remember later when he had the nightmares. So he let Josey takes his photos without additional comment, before they continued on their way.
Eventually the sounds of cars and bustling people grew louder and they emerged from an alleyway onto 15th Street, where Tor was confident Josey Green could find his way back to where he belonged.
“Right then, I’m off,” he said, waving at the other man. “Best wishes and all that.”
“Wait, please!” Josey said, and he quickly rummaged in his satchel. “I want you to have this!”
Tor scowled. “I don’t need your charity…”
“It’s not money!” Josey insisted and he held out a small slip of paper. “Please, it’s my business card – I want you to have it, just in case!”
“In case of what? I change my mind?” Tor scoffed.
Josey shrugged. “Or if you ever need help with anything. I dunno, I don’t think it would hurt if you had one more person out there willing to give you a hand. I promise, I won’t ask too many questions or make you do anything you don’t want…just keep my card in case you need it?”
Tor sighed, but the pleading look in those wide brown eyes made him reach out and take the business card. “Joseph Green” it read, “Illustrator, Bright Horizons Publishing House”, with a phone number and email address decorated by beautiful vines. It looked as though it had been hand-drawn.
“Fine,” he said, and he did his best to ignore Josey’s relieved grin as he tucked the card into his pocket.
“Thank you,” Josey said, and he turned to go.
Tor’s chest lurched one more time and he didn’t realize he’d shouted, “My name is Tor!” until after Josey had glanced over his shoulder. Josey raised a hand and called “Goodbye Tor!”, and Tor could’ve sworn the clouds parted for a moment. Then Josey Green disappeared into the city crowds and the sunlight went with him. Tor snorted.
“Glad that’s over,” he grumbled as he retreated into the alley. “Dodged a bullet back there, ha ha...”
Tor laughed weakly as he took out the little business card and considered ripping it up. Instead, his fingers traced the curling vines before he tucked it away into his parka’s innermost pocket. Then he trudged back to his overpass, doing his best to forget the beating of his heart.