John's brow furrowed as he stirred from his sleep, squinting uncomfortably as he lifts his head.
"Listen," Paul said with a hint of anxiety, "we need to talk about Shirli."
He didn't let up when a dark expresson spread across John's face, insisting "you NEED to stop whatever this is. Do you know how upset she is up there?"
This seemed to rouse his interest; he swung his legs off the couch, sitting upright and rubbing his face roughly.
"Look," he said, eyeing Paul strongly, "I know something needs to happen, but I don't wanna go into it. Not when I don't know how she feels."
Paul shifted his feet worriedly, wondering what the situation could possibly be to tear the both of them up like this.
"Were you together once?"
The question remained unanswered.
"Did you hurt her? She hurt you?"
John snorted huffily with some sort of morbid amusement.
"Both, mate, both."
"You know I can't help you if I don't understand," Paul stated, and John glanced up at him with apologetic eyes.
"I know, I'm sorry. I don't think I should say anything without knowing what she wants to make happen first..."
Upstairs, Emmi trod gingerly across the hall towards the room that Shirli was occupying, taking a deep breath for the stubbornness and deflection she knew was coming. Still, she had to try. Her knocks came sharp on the door, unashamed. This time, she didn't call after her like an over-concerned mother, but waited for a reply. To her surprise, Shirli pulled the door open slowly after the first set of knocks. Her eyes were no longer red and worrying, but she didn't exactly look happy. She exhaled strongly when she saw Emmi.
"I... I thought it might have been John."
Emmi smiled thinly.
"Sorry to disappoint."
The pair shared an earnest grin for the first time, and while nervousness rippled through Shirli, Emmi hoped that this would be the start of a proper friendship. Shirli had been so closed off so far.
"I think Paul's having a word with John downstairs," Emmi informed, and Shirli nodded with a hint of worry.
"Look, I'm not being nosy here... I just wanna be a friend, you know?"
Shirli met Emmi's eyes with some sort of surprise, but at the same time, she seemed thankful. Her voice trembled as she spoke next, sounding uncharacteristically vulnerable.
"Can we go outside?"
"Of course," Emmi replied, knowing it would be bloody freezing, but if that was what it would take to make the connection, then fine. The pair of them traipsed downstairs; Emmi had to catch Shirli's wrist and practically pull her towards the front door just to get her to walk past John, who was staring strangely at her from the couch. On the way out, Paul shot the pair of you a look that seemed to say 'try not to worry'. Emmi turned and shut the door behind them as Shirli walked on, making her way around the corner and taking a seat on some large concrete steps that lead up to the doorway of what looked like a small hotel. Emmi carefully took a seat next to her, watching with a frown as Shirli pulled a packet of cigarettes out of the pocket of her baggy trousers.
"Ciggie?" she offered, holding out the pack to Emmi.
"You keep them," she replied, shaking her head, and Shirli retracted the packet, lighting her cigarette with a little struggle, due to the night breeze. There were a few moments of silence, during which Shirli blew smoke into the cold air, clouds of it hanging densely before thinning into wisps.
"I'm sorry I'm a total recluse."
The apology came as a shock to Emmi, who glanced across at Shirli quickly. Shirli didn't look back.
"It's fine, some people are just like that."
"I wasn't always," Shirli replied, "it's just when you get hurt... You don't like to share things anymore, in case people wreck everything you have."
It was quite a heavy sentiment to say the least.
"Shirli, please tell me what happened between you and John. I think I'll go crazy if you don't. We all will."
There was a predictable silence again, and then Shirli actually began to tell the truth.
"I was with someone else," she began, still not daring to look at Emmi, "he was single. He told you we were at college, didn't he?"
Emmi nodded, remembering the mysterious introduction.
"He joined my class last year. Rubbish at everything, like."
She actually giggled, obviously remniscing about something that must have happened in class. Thinking about John's mischievous nature, Emmi could imagine the type of hijinks he might have got up to.
"But we talked all the time. At first I thought he didn't like me - he used to call me a boy and push me around."
She said it with a small smile, obviously not offended.
"But I was wrong... We started seeing each other after class, goin' to the pub, the cinema... I was spendin' more time with him than with my boyfriend!"
"Did your boyfriend find out?" Emmi pushed, when the conversation stopped. Shirli winced a little.
"You could say that. You could say he went round John's house and nearly pulled him apart with his bare hands."
Shock came across Emmi as she pictured the violence in her mind; John and Shirli's unknown partner, throwing each other all over Mimi's pristene house.
"It started after that," Shirli continued, her voice getting quieter, "they would fight over me. Physically, whenever they saw each other-"
The memories seemed to cloud Shirli's eyes as they grew tearful.
"And they would bully me, equally... It was so immature, like a f***ing... tug of f***ing war between them, with me in the middle!"
Now her voice was getting high and sharp, and to be honest, Emmi was getting worried; Shirli looked pretty hysterical.
"And I couldn't stand it! So I told them both to f*** off, and leave me alone."
She took a huge pull on her cigarette and took it back the wrong way, due to her ragged breath, coughing as the smoke came billowing out of her nose. As she turned to look at Emmi, Emmi was taken aback at the amount of tears now shining on Shirli's face; it was a little scary.
"Come here," Emmi soothed, scooting across the cold, scraping surface of the steps to embrace Shirli. Shirli accepted her, throwing the cigarette into the street and falling into the hug. The pair held each other for a while, tears constantly streaking down Shirli's cheeks and onto the concrete.
"I don't know what to do, Emmi," she moaned, hurt rife in her voice, "I still want him! But he might hurt me again!"