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18+

All of the City Lights

by Terian805


Warning: This work has been rated 18+.

Hey there! I've been away from this website for a while, but was really proud of this, and remembered how cool everyone on this website was, so thought you all might wanna read it. I'm hoping make this as good as it possibly can be, so feedback would be so appreciated if you've got a time to read, as this is a long story haha. It's not boring though, it'll probably make you feel very happy to read, as it made me happy to write it.

Content warning: Smoking, drinking and strong language.

It’s mid-August in Toulouse. Freya is seventeen years old, and living here in midst of her month-long art course. Four days ago, her best friend Emma flew out to join her in France. Now, it’s the night before Emma flies back to the East Midlands, in the UK. It’s a good time to go out for the evening, so they catch a bus to the Pont Neuf Bridge in the city centre.

It’s late in the evening, but the air is still hot as they walk down a busy pavement, right-angled to the bridge. They pass rows of yellow café-bar lights and surrounding rose-coloured buildings. The whole scene looks like one of those Gustav Klimt paintings, that they went to see at lunchtime.

Freya’s still talking about those paintings. Emma realises that she zoned out. She listens closer, and hears her friend say big words which she never used to say, like symbolism and secession. They cross to the opposite side of the road. Emma glances back at the people out on the bridge, and sees that many are their age; some are drinking alcohol whilst sitting precariously on the bridge-balustrade. It’s unnerving to watch, so Emma looks away. They sit down on café terrace, next to the road, and order two beers. Freya stops talking about the exhibition, twists, and looks at the River Garonne behind them.

‘I think this is my favourite café,’ Freya says, ‘because of that view.’

Emma looks at the side of Freya’s face. She sees a silver-earring, shaped like a bird, which she’s never seen Freya wear before now. Her friend turns back, and grins at her. She’s cut her ashy blonde hair shorter, so her face is easier to see than it used to be, and she looks really beautiful.

‘You know,’ Freya says, ‘I feel really clever these days.’

Emma laughs and says that that’s the point of studying.

‘Yeah, but I feel smarter about dealing with life. Not just about painting.’

‘I love that you love being here.’

‘And I love you. ‘Cos you’re super-smart as well.’

‘I reckon I should introduce myself like that at Uni.’

‘I think you should.’

As Freya says that, Emma glances beyond her, and suddenly notices how each person sitting on the edge of the bridge is surrounded by a glowing golden aura. It looks as if they’re wearing cloaks of tiny car headlights, seen through fog. She points this out. Freya turns and looks, smiles and nods sagely, before turning back.

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘most of them are probably students. I might know a few. But I’m not sure.’

‘Who drinks and sits that high above the water? For what reason?’

‘I don’t know. To live on the edge, I guess.’

‘Ha,’ Emma imagines herself falling off that bridge backwards. She feels a lurching sensation in her stomach. Two amber beers are set down in front of the girls. Emma tries to counteract that feeling by inducing the alcohol burn inside of her.

Freya starts talking about Emma’s plans to study physics at university. For reasons that she can’t justify to herself, Emma doesn’t like talking about university, so she evades the topic. She brings up the absence of their best school-friend Isaac instead.

‘I haven’t heard from him,’ Freya says. ‘Have you?’

Emma hasn’t either. Not since she came to Toulouse at least. Isaac’s currently touring the UK with his indie band. Freya says that the least he could have done would have been to visit for a couple of days, because he’s known the girls since they were twelve and he was thirteen.

Emma agrees with her, and is secretly hoping that Freya and Isaac don’t fall out, because that would crush her. The next time that she sees Isaac, she should remind him to apologise to Freya. He’s never been very good at apologies.

She hears a humming sound. It’s almost inaudible, but distinctly there. Glancing around the café terrace, Emma notices how every surrounding customer is glowing with a faint amber light, like a firefly. The humming sound gets louder. It gets so loud that it almost overpowers the hubbub of café chatter. Emma suddenly realises that the sound is coming from inside of her head. It gets louder, and louder, and becomes painful, a type of pain like that of hitting your head on the edge of a table.

Then Freya asks, ‘are you okay?’ and the sound stops. Emma realises that she’s got a weird expression upon her face and says she’s alright, ‘just a headache I think’.

Freya nods and doesn’t press her, exhibiting telepathy in knowing that she doesn’t want to talk about it. Freya’s always had that quality. It was one of the reasons why Emma had a crush on her, when the two were fourteen. But that’s not the case anymore, and Emma’s never told Freya that, because she’s usually laughed at for telling girls that she likes them.

‘Hey Em’, Freya says, ‘what was that cool fact you said about Toulouse?

‘I don’t know,’

‘The thing about planes.’

‘Oh. A dude called Clément made the first flying machine in Toulouse.’

‘See, that’s awesome. I should know these things.’

‘But he only claimed that he flew it. Nobody knows for sure if he did.’

‘I guess that doesn’t make a difference. My man Clément said that people could fly. Eventually, they could. It’s pretty wild right?’

It is wild. Emma says so. But she’s a little distracted again. She’s noticed a dark-haired girl, in a blue tank-top, examining the café signboard by the pavement. She’s wreathed in the same golden light emanating from the people on the bridge. Emma’s eyes are fixated upon that light. It takes her a moment to realise that their gazes have met.

She looks away quickly but sees, in her periphery, that the girl is approaching them. Possibilities pinwheel through her head like fireworks. Mostly, Emma’s expecting to be ranted at in French or told to stop staring at people like a weirdo.

The girl reaches their table and touches Freya’s shoulder. Freya spins, and the girl says in accented English, ‘Hello, my phone is out of charge, could I borrow yours?’ To Emma’s surprise, Freya makes a high-pitched noise and springs up to hug her. She turns and says ‘Hey Em, I’ve mentioned Andrea, right?’

Oh shit. Of course. Emma knows about Andrea. Andrea is Freya’s flatmate. They attend the same art college. Over the past week, Andrea’s been away from Toulouse to visit her family in Switzerland. Andrea also looks a lot like Olivia Wilde: an actress that Emma’s had a crush on for years.

All that Emma can say is ‘Hey, good to meet you,’ and is met with a ‘Yes, you too,’ that makes Emma feel slightly mocked. She probably deserves it for all that staring.

Andrea’s meeting a group of friends at the Place Capitole, Toulouse city centre. She invites Emma and Freya along, and Freya says that they’ll come.

They leave the café after finishing their beers, and Emma feels that lurching sensation again, like falling backwards off a bridge. She tries to speak and words get stuck in her throat. She doesn’t feel able to ask Andrea questions about herself. Luckily, Andrea puts questions to them instead. She asks how long they’ve known each other.

‘Well, we met when we were twelve,’ Freya says, as they approach the pedestrian crossing which leads to the Pont Neuf. ‘I was the weird arty one in school and Emma was the cool one.’

Freya’s mentioning of Emma’s name boosts her confidence, so she says ‘I only pretended to be’ as they walk onto the bridge. Glancing around, Emma sees that those auras of light once surrounding everybody have faded; she can see everybody’s features now. All of those daredevils are still sitting atop the bridge-balustrade and there are numerous middle-aged parents. Some are lifting up their young kids to see the view of the river.

‘To be honest, I don’t think there’s any such thing as being cool,’ Andrea says. She stops walking, leans on the bridge balustrade and points across the river, ‘but do you know what is cool? You can see the spire of the Romanesco church from here.’

Emma looks in that direction. She notices a tattoo of a plane and a cloud upon Andrea’s forearm. Her pale skin still trails that golden aura through the air. Emma spots the giant church spire shadowed against the bright and full silver moon. The entire city horizon looks like something out of a dream.

That all happened at nine o’clock at night. It’s midnight now. Emma watches the tiny red eye of a plane intersect the full moon. She’s standing on the balcony of Freya’s third floor apartment. Before her, the Toulouse cityscape stretches out in patterns of light. Freya herself is standing on the spiral stairs of the nearby fire-escape. It’s strange, because the fire-escape doesn’t stop at the apartment roof. It actually spirals all the way up into the night sky. Freya doesn’t seem to have noticed this, however.

‘Come on, this is like our only chance to get up on the roof’ Freya says.

‘Why?’

‘Well, you’re getting a plane at ten. And two, the building attendant starts his night shift in twenty. So, unless you want to be shouted at by an angry French guy…’

‘Maybe I do. And you’re too drunk to climb up the fire-escape.’

‘Nooo, I’m fine.’

‘Where’s Andrea? Has she gone to bed?’

Freya snorts with laughter and says, ‘you’ve been stuck to me the whole time you’ve been here, but now just want to hang out with my fit Swiss housemate.’

‘Shut up.’

‘Love you. Going to miss you.’

‘Yeah. Visit me at Uni when you can.’

‘Only if you come up to the roof with me.’

Emma acquiesces and hops onto the fire-escape. She realises that she forgot to mention the thing about how it spirals all the way into the night sky, but can’t say that now because Freya’s definitely out of earshot.

Emma follows Freya up the stairs, watching her through grated-black metal. She rounds the corner and leans over the balustrade to look up. She sees her friend silhouetted against the moon, making her way up there.

***

It’s ten o’clock in the morning, and Emma’s sitting on a plane. It’s flying into the air, and there’s a high pitched and thunderous sound around her, as it lifts off the runway. She drowns it out by blasting the newest Sylvan Esso album in her headphones.

Lots of important-looking, smartly dressed people are on this plane. A middle-aged guy in a zebra-coloured shirt is sitting next to her. He closes his laptop as the plane climbs into the air, and looks at the ceiling with a distressed, ill-looking expression.

Cloud walker

It doesn’t make sense

But you’ve done it so many times

So, we accept

The plane levels out with a sharp bell-ringing-sound. The seatbelt sign switches off. She glances out of the window at the swirling cloud panorama below. It’s a sweeping polar landscape of cliffs, mountains, floating islands, lakes and houses.

But there’s one part of the landscape not made out of clouds. It draws her attention immediately. An odd rectangle shape; a solid black outline against the whiteness.

She realises that it’s the fire-escape from Freya’s apartment. It’s far below in the sky. The spiral staircase pierces the clouds from below. If she squints, it looks like a church spire buried in layers of snow.

With her mind racing, she looks away from it, feeling that something strange and important has just happened. Further events from the previous night hurtle through her mind like cars on the highway, without her intending them to.

***

It’s ten o’clock, the night before. Twelve hours from now, Emma gets on the plane. The three girls go to Freya’s favourite ice cream shop. They join the queue and slowly approach the pristine silver glow within. Freya prefers to eat ice-cream in a very specific way: always outdoors and always at night-time. Emma mentions that she still doesn’t understand why.

‘You’d understand if you were French like me,’ Freya says, and Emma hits her shoulder and Andrea laughs.

The queue moves closer to the bright interior. Emma scans the entryway sandwich board which shows the cost of everything in euros.

‘I think I’ll just get one of those cinnamon pastries. They look good.’

‘Be boring, if you want’ Freya says. Emma notices the two twentysomething guys in front of them, whom she sees more clearly now that they’re closer to the shop. They’re talking to each other in a language that’s neither French nor English. The guy on the left puts his hand up the back of the other’s sweater, so Emma looks away quickly. She focuses upon the dance music playing in the shop interior: synthesizers, drums, and female vocals on a tinny overhead speaker.

I had it, even back then

With me all the time,

Under my tongue, behind my eyes,

Emma says that she recognises the song, but Freya doesn’t.

‘It’s the newest Sylvan Esso record. I can’t believe you. I talk about it all the time.’

How, how did you know?

How, how did I know?

‘I actually do know it,’ Freya replies.

‘I know it as well,’ Andrea mentions. ‘I like the album. It makes me think about growing up.’

Emma looks at her and says ‘You’re cooler than Freya then.’

Freya protests as the other two continue to look at each other. Andrea’s dark hair falls over her right eye. Emma wants to push it away with her hand, but doesn’t. She feels a warmth inside, as if there’s hot water running through her veins, and words come out of her mouth without her meaning them to.

‘Do you know who Olivia Wilde is? You kind of look like her.’

‘That’s cute, how do I?’

‘I don’t know.’

Andrea presses her for a proper answer as they enter the shop. She evades giving one to be funny. She also knows that elaborating would get her so hot inside that she’d faint, or die on the spot or something.

***

Half an hour later, they’re walking down a busy, rose-coloured alleyway. Emma takes a final bite of her pastry and drops it in a trash can. Andrea and Freya have finished their ice creams, and are further ahead. She jogs in their direction and, without expecting it, emerges onto a huge city plaza. They’re in the Place Capitole. Freya beckons to her, and Andrea strides out ahead, towards a group of eight, their age, sitting on and around a bench.

The plaza is ringed in pink and yellow light adorned restaurants, and streetlights. It’s crowded with groups of people their age, some twirling to rap on stereo speakers, others circling around on skateboards. Further away there’s a town hall building, which enigmatically overlooks the plaza. Nearby, parents watch their young kids jump over pavement fountains, that intermittently spray water as if there are whales living underneath the paving stones.

Andrea calls her over and she catches up, feeling slightly stupid for staring dumbly at everything. Freya grabs her hand, and Andrea introduces them to a bunch of people, none of whom really speak any English. An absurdly pretty girl passes Emma a blunt. She takes a drag to feel braver and her French gets oddly better.

Time suddenly fragments as Emma talks to anyone and everyone. Moving in-between benches across the plaza, she meets so many faces, whilst learning and immediately forgetting everybody’s names. Everything suddenly comes into focus, when she finds herself talking to Andrea. They’re alone on a bench, perhaps ten feet from the main group.

Andrea asks her whether the Gustav Klimt exhibition was any good. They start talking about art. Emma uses this as an excuse to trail her fingers along Andrea’s arm.

‘Your tattoos are pretty.’

‘My best friend in Switzerland does them for me. The cloud is my favourite.’

‘I’ve always wanted one.’

‘Freya and you should get matching ones.’

‘I would. But she hates tattoos.’

‘Are you sad to go back to England?’

Emma says that she is a bit. Andrea nods, and suddenly puts her head on Emma’s shoulder. That gets her warm inside again.

‘I was sad when I went back to Switzerland.’

‘But you were coming back here. You had things to look forward to.’

‘So do you.’

Emma doesn’t know what to reply to that. Andrea says, ‘Hm’, and then says ‘Do you want to kiss right now?’ Emma’s head just about blows off, and she replies best she can, ‘Yeah alright.’

Andrea grins, and says ‘yeah alright’ in a mock, low-pitched English accent before moving in and kissing Emma’s lips and chin.

Emma reciprocates, closing her eyes and putting a hand on Andrea’s cheek, which is warm, like the air around them. She can smell her lavender perfume. Her mouth tastes of mint chocolate ice cream. All of Emma’s senses feel heightened. She feels so powerful, like a superhero. Everything is much more tangible, and more real than it was before.

***

It’s eight o’clock, the following evening. Emma’s back in the UK. Luckily enough, Isaac’s band is playing a show in town, so she goes to see it. It happens at an artsy café-bar, fifteen minutes’ walk from Emma’s house. It’s in a narrow alleyway off the central city square. It’s easy to miss if you don’t look for the miniscule chalkboard sign saying Blue Light Café, with an arrow pointing at a narrow doorway. Emma ducks into it, climbs the staircase, passing walls drenched with graffiti, and decaying posters of bands that played here in the mid-nineties. She emerges into the bar. It isn’t particularly busy. She orders a pint, waits for it to be poured, and thinks about Isaac, wondering how his tour has gone so far. Evening-time yesterday, she was ready to slate him for not visiting Freya but now she’s just excited to see him again.

Cradling her pint she climbs to the third floor, where the band has already started playing. Tactically pushing her way through the shadowy crowd, she glimpses Isaac in a black t-shirt playing drums. His band used to play fast indie rock music, but now their songs are slower and sadder, a change which, as Isaac’s told her, is due to the lead singer’s fixation on ambient music. Isaac looks so zen, and focused behind the kit. It makes her happy to look at him.

There’s subdued applause as they play their last song. Isaac stands, rubs his face, and tousles his brown hair with a towel. His eyes meet hers, and she approaches him as he hops off the stage.

‘Yo you,’ she says, ‘smashed it out of the park. At least three sexy girls asked me if I knew the drummer of the band.’

‘Okay,’ he says, smiling, and slings an arm around her neck. ‘Let’s get a drink.’

They find a table on the balcony, which overlooks the bright night-time cityscape of their hometown. Now that they’re outside, Isaac’s wearing a grey sweater. He stares dazedly at the view. Then he looks at Emma in front of him, smiles sheepishly, and says,

‘I’m happy you made it back in time.’

‘Me too. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world’

‘Yeah,’ is all he says as he looks down at his beer. He’s never been good at hiding when he wants to say something. In past, she’s joked with Freya about how you can always see the cogs turning in Isaac’s head.

‘I don’t know why I didn’t come to France with you,’ he blurts out. ‘I had some time in-between practices. But I just didn’t.’

‘And you’re sorry about it.’

‘Yeah I am. The band’s been pissing me off. I’ve been trying to make it work. Sorry.’

‘Well, it’s okay,’ Emma says, ‘because we both still love you a lot.’

‘Yeah. I’m proud of Freya. I’ll phone her tomorrow morning, before we get on the M1.’

Emma asks him why the band is pissing him off.

‘People being inconsiderate,’ he says. ‘People not giving a shit if anyone needs time alone, or time off.’

Emma doesn’t say anything. She looks at his hands clasping his beer, and sees that he’s wearing a rope bracelet around his right wrist. Touching it and lightly hooking a finger through it, she says ‘I like this.’

‘Freya gave it me for my seventeenth.’

‘You should tell her on the phone that you’re wearing it on tour.’

He nods, and asks how Freya is doing. Emma feels a warmth swelling in her chest. Out of nowhere, she suddenly feels the urge to explain to him how brave and wonderful he she thinks he is. She wants talk about the remarkable things that the three of them have done, and are going to do with their lives. But she doesn’t know the right words to say.


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Fri Jun 16, 2023 2:13 pm
IcyFlame wrote a review...



Hey there Terian, welcome back! It's so cool to see you posting on here again <3

Now onto the review! Let me start by saying that there were definitely aspects that worked really well and kept me hooked from start to finish. I enjoyed reading this, and I honestly don't think there's too much work that needs to be done to improve.

First off, let's talk about the characters. I think you've crafted a cast that is both interesting and captivating. They felt genuine and relatable, with their own quirks and flaws. It made for an enjoyable reading experience :) It felt a lot like reading a David Nichols story in terms of the character's self awareness and levels of introspection.

The pacing was also well executed - the story flowed smoothly, keeping me engaged throughout. After a while though, I found the jumps in time back and forth to be a bit much and they started to confuse me. I think they'd work well if this were longer, perhaps a novel or novella, but because the short story is just that, sometimes there were sections where I barely felt situated in the time setting before we jumped forwards or backwards.

I also felt like the section with Isaac seemed a bit out of place. I think maybe I didn't feel like the conversation between her and Freya set up well enough for meeting him at the end, so perhaps you could explore that earlier part in a bit more detail. Not having seen Isaac at this point it was hard to feel how important he was in their dynamic.

Overall though, I really liked reading this. The characters and the pacing were undeniably strong, keeping me entertained from beginning to end. I also enjoyed your descriptive language and I could definitely picture all the settings in my head!
Happy Friday!

Icy

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Terian805 says...


Thanks so much for your kind and insightful words! Interestingly enough I submitted this for a creative writing class, and my professor said the time jumps could be reordered so it's good to hear that affirmed. Have a good day!



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Wed May 31, 2023 12:34 am
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vampricone6783 wrote a review...



This story was just so beautiful. It felt as though Emma was being awakened by the beauty of the world around her. I wonder if Andrea and Emma will ever be more or if that was only a fleeting moment of happiness for Emma to cherish. I guess it’s up to the readers to imagine where their relationship will go. This story made me think of summer nights.

I wish you a wonderful day/night.




Terian805 says...


Thanks for the lovely comments and likewise :)




To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard.
— Allen Ginsberg