My continued efforts at continuity and real feelings. Results mixed. I think? No-one’s told me.
Even before we’d started this was the most awkward thing I think I’d ever done, and it only got worse. Now that we’d both sort of agreed, there was at least five seconds when neither of us did anything. Then we both went in for it at the same time, stopped, laughed nervously when we sort of blocked one another, and then tried again with much the same result.
The third time, she hung back and let me shuffle up to her. There really was no backing down now. Spreading my arms, I gently wrapped them around her shoulders and pulled her in. All things aside – that she had no legs, was a living-machine, etcetera and so on – Tillie really was actually quite small, at least compared to me. Slender. She practically disappeared into me as her own arms came in around my ribs, clinging to the trunk of my body.
That wasn’t the thing that got me most though, and it wasn’t what I noticed. I had expected her to be cold and still to the touch, like embracing a fridge or a filing cabinet. But she wasn’t. I mean, she wasn’t exactly warm, but she certainly wasn’t cold – which was nice – but most of all, she wasn’t still. There was a trembling in her, like a small vibration that was just on the edge of being noticeable. With her so close I could feel it humming right through my chest.
It was unusual. But not unpleasant. There was the tiniest amount of give in her but nothing like a human, and her arms around me – which squeezed tighter – were thin and hard. She pressed her head sideways-on against me and nestled in as close as she could, which made me melt a little and I in turn held her a little firmer than I could before. I sort of wanted to just keep her close. I didn’t know why. She felt so small all of a sudden.
“Thank you,” I heard her say, quietly, voice muffled. I tried to look down but couldn’t, so stopped bothering and just let my chin rest on top of her head.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“No-one has ever…I’ve never…this is the first hug I’ve had…no-one’s ever wanted…no-one’s ever wanted to touch me…”
I had never heard Tillie have such difficulty getting anything out before. She kept faltering and stopping, words coming in spits and spurts and even then so quiet I had to strain to hear them. Her arms were actually starting to dig into me a little she was holding on so tight but I just winced and bore through it. It wasn’t so bad.
Without really thinking I lifted my chin and moved one hand up to rest on her head and gave her a light little pat on the back with the other. From what she’d told me about sensors and such she would probably be able to feel it, but I was going more by guesswork and instinct than anything else, really.
“Hey, it’s okay, don’t worry about that right now. Was it worth waiting for?” I asked and felt her nod.
“Yes. I don’t want to let go. Please don’t let go.”
“That’s alright, I won’t let go,” I didn’t really want to anyway. Something about it wouldn’t let me. I wanted to keep her right there, and I didn’t want to go anywhere else. The rain seemed louder all of a sudden, and I couldn’t shake the sudden feeling that we were both just sheltering one another from a world outside that wasn’t very nice to be in at that moment. I felt safe. I hoped she did, too. I sort of wanted to make her feel safe. Protected. Looked after. This wasn’t entirely unusual, but never had I felt it so strongly before. Weird. She was still wriggling herself into me when she paused all of a sudden.
“This isn’t…needy, is it? I’ve heard that’s bad. I don’t want to be that,” she said, unfurling herself a bit and pulling back away from me. I looked down at her, and her up at me. She really was a bit smaller than me, I realized, though that might just have been sitting down. Times like this, even with the lights, how she felt was difficult to read.
“You’re not, no,” I said. She didn’t seem convinced and the hug broke, her curling away and her hands coming back to rest again in her lap. I was afraid I’d maybe put my foot in it and words failed me as any and all responses that I had available looked likely to make things worse. Silence came back. Tillie punctured it.
“Sorry. I just never had one before, I got excited. People are nice and polite but there’s always something missing and no-one ever wants to get close to me. As in near me. I never used to notice but now, here, I just see it every day. I feel selfish, but all the time I just see flesh-and-blood people holding hands and laughing and being so close to each other. I’m the only one like me here, and no-one ever gets close. Except for you. Why? Why did you ask if I wanted a hug?”
There was an unspoken edge in her voice that I got waves of subtext off of. Could have been my imagination, but the ‘why’ carried with it unspoken connotations of ‘you didn’t just feel sorry for me, did you?’. Or maybe I really was just imagining things. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
I decided to just try and be cheesy, because you couldn’t really counter that, and if you did you had to at least come down to the same level. No-one would win, and in doing so no-one would lose, either. So ran my logic. Shifting in the chair I reached over on the spur-of-the-moment and took hold of her hands. Unlike the rest of her, these were padded – presumably to help her manipulate things, I guess? – and so were actually a little soft. If she minded me doing this, she didn’t say anything about it. I looked her right in the lenses, even though I never knew which ones were best. I picked the biggest one right in the middle, because.
“Can I tell you something?” I asked.
“You can tell me anything,” she said.
“I know. I do. I often do! You’re nice like that. But no, this is something about you, and something I maybe should have told you before.”
She stiffened a little at that, sitting up a touch straighter and lights shifting colour so subtlety I probably completely missed the meaning. Shades of red starting to look almost brown to my deficient eyes. That couldn’t be right.
“You can tell me,” she said. I cleared my throat, trying to make it so I wasn’t just coughing in her face. Did those lenses have wipers? How did she cope in the rain? I made a note to ask her. Later. Much later.
“Tillie,” I began “I have known you for less than a year at this point, but you are already one of my most favourite peoples. I had expected living with some stranger in second year to just be me being in my room or out of the house and maybe saying good morning to them. I did not expect to make friends so easily, because I don’t, it is not something I do. Or can do, really. Not that I try. Uh, anyway – I did not expect someone like you, who makes my life better just by being around. I like you a lot. Uh, yeah.”
As mentioned, I was never very good with words. I knew what I wanted to say, just not verbally. It was all mucky and vague, and translating that into English was difficult. Other people could manage it, I could not. That was just life, really. It was like being able to see purple. Most people could, I could not. Life, again.
I hoped against hope she had at least picked up on a sliver of what I was trying to get across. Her lights gave me nothing, just a subdued throb of a colour I couldn’t name. The focus of her lenses was tight on my face. A gulf of time yawned beneath me, or at least it very much felt like one did.
“I can’t cry,” she said, quite bluntly. This took me aback, and closed the yawning gulf up sharply.
“There’s lots you can’t do. And lots you can that I can’t.”
“I want to cry,” she said. This was not an ideal result, really.
“Oh…that bad, eh?” I asked.
“No, it’s – I mean, what you said was garbled and confused and a bit weird, but you meant it, and it was sweet, and no-one’s ever said anything like that to me. Like the hug. This is new. Why though?”
“Well, like I say, I like you. I don’t know how much I can break that down for you.”
She looked down at her hands in mine and fidgeted but didn’t pull them away. The end of her tail-thing was flicking a little. Was that a nervous habit? Again, I really didn’t understand what Tillie was in the slightest, other than a nice person to be around. Really, beyond that, I wasn’t sure how much it mattered.
“I know I’m not like a…flesh-and-blood girl but that doesn’t, um…” she tailed off. She clearly had no idea where she was going with that. Neither did I, really, although I had an inkling. Rallying herself, she managed to pick it up again:
“I don’t have some of the, um…stuff…that you probably like with girls and you’ll probably find a flesh-and-blood girl who has the stuff you probably like – and that’s fine! – but, um, we can still…hug…right?”
Things had gotten exceedingly awkward again, at least I thought so. Never had the word ‘stuff’ carried with it so much potent imagery. I tried not to think about any of it.
“Steady on there, you might be getting a little bit ahead of yourself,” I said, trying to laugh it off and doing a halfway decent job. Or so I thought. Her lights turned a particularly bashful shade of orange – not a colour I expected to be bashful, but this is what I had learnt it meant, albeit with yet more subtle nuances – and she kept her eyes on her hands, clenching them a little. She had a firm grip.
“Sorry…” She mumbled. An impressive trick for someone without lips.
“No, Tillie – look at me – it’s okay. Let’s just relax, eh? We’re friends, right?” She did look at me, and she nodded too.
“Good. That’s what matters. We’re friends, we’re great. Let’s work with that for now and if any, uh, girls with ‘stuff I like’ show up we’ll deal with that. Although I doubt it’ll be an issue. You and me against the world, eh?” I asked.
This was something she and I said a lot, usually when one or other of our anecdotes concluded with something she or I agreed with but apparently no-one else did. It was nice having a kindred spirit.
“You and me against the world,” she repeated.
Splaying her fingers out she tried to match the tips of each to mine, but her hands were just a tiny bit too small for it and only just got past the second joint. We held them palm-to-palm between us, not entirely sure why we were doing it. Then she extended her fingers a little. Which was creepy, but not too much.
“That’s cheating,” I said flatly. She giggled, lights blinking.
“Can we hug again?” She asked.
“Oh, if you insist…” I sighed, giving a world weary shrug.
And so we did. And it was pleasant. Very pleasant, in fact.