He turned the key in the lock and entered his home for the first time in a week.
A two bedroom flat shouldn’t feel empty when one person is in it.
It was a small two bedroom flat as well. It had never felt empty in all the time he’d lived there alone. It had started only started feeling empty once she’d spent a few nights with him.
In reality, the flat was far from empty. It was bursting with ‘stuff.’ Charlie loved his ‘stuff,’ he had spent a lot of time collecting it in this place. He began walking from room to room making a note of all the ‘things’ he had.
Charlie stood in the doorway of his bedroom. He couldn’t help picturing the night Chloe had laid on his bed waiting for him. He shook the memory away and concentrated on the task at hand. The bedroom was kept quite sparse. The walls we’re painted a neutral colour to help the artwork he’d hanged stand out. He had the movie posters of his favourite Japanese anime films. Of course there was a flatscreen TV on the wall at the foot of the bed. The bed itself was rather dull but expensive. Before a few months ago its purpose was to get a good nights sleep. If he bought a new bed tomorrow he might well consider a few new aspects that hadn’t previously been important. Either side of the bed he had Ikea tables with matching lava lamps and of course his Star Wars alarm clock.
He turned around and looked in on the second bedroom that he used as an office. It was bursting at the seams. He couldn’t be bothered to count how many computers littered the surfaces. Most of them were operational and a handful were in mid-repair or build. His main computer was surrounded by geeky nik-naks; superhero figurines and replica movie props. Things he hadn’t touched since he’d removed them from their postage parcels. Tools and computer parts were everywhere in between. It looked like chaos, but Charlie knew where everything was down to the last screw.
The open-plan living room and kitchen was his geek paradise. It held his entire comic book collection, all of his DVDs and Blu-rays, his home entertainment system and various games consoles. On top of that he had some very expensive furniture, his lego kitchen, more movie art on the walls and the best thing he owned; his Briel espresso machine.
All this ‘stuff’. Yet still it feels empty.
Charlie made himself a coffee while his computer booted up. It was time to return to the internet. His friends were probably worried.
* * *
State College INSTANT MESSENGER
DarkTroll248: Razor. Where the hell have you been? Haven’t heard anything from you for a week. Do you realise that a week is like an ice age on the web? I even tried calling you. On the phone, you know how I feel about phones.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Sorry Tim, didn’t mean to worry you.
DarkTroll248: Didn’t say I was worried did I? We haven’t been able to get any further in the game without you.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: I spent a week at my Mother’s.
SnowSn0w: Wow, what happened? Someone die?
VampireVern: Yeah. You always said your Mum’s place was like a tech black hole.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: I went by choice. Had to get a little distance from everything. Decided to disconnect completely.
VampireVern: Cold turkey?
SnowSn0w: I don’t believe you lasted a week.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: I could have lasted a lot longer. She chucked me out. Said she couldn’t stand to have me moping about the place. Apparently, I was messing with her ‘energies.’ No idea what that means. I had to come back today regardless.
DarkTroll248: So what happened? What on this earth forced you to unplug by choice. Did you go temporarily insane?
SnowSn0w: You couldn’t pay me enough to disconnect.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Not to sound too cliche, but it was because of a girl.
DarkTroll248: A girl?
SnowSn0w: A girl?
VampireVern: A REAL girl?
RAZ0R5H4RPE: I told you about her. We’ve been going out for a few months.
DarkTroll248: Honestly, I thought you were flat out lying.
VampireVern: Me too.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: No. She’s real. Very real.
VampireVern: Come on Razor. Spill it. What happened?
RAZ0R5H4RPE: We chatted online for a few months. You know how it goes. Sometimes the chatting turns into flirting.
SnowSn0w: That’s never happened to me.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Eventually she wanted to meet up in person.
VampireVern: That’s definitely never happened to me.
DarkTroll248: The closest I’ve got to hooking up with someone because of the web was via webcam.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Come on guys. I’m trying to tell the story here.
SnowSn0w: OK. Carry on.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: So we met up. The first date started slowly but it ended well and she wanted to see me again. We carried on chatting online, we spoke on the phone. It was great. We met up a few more times. I even took her to meet my Mother.
DarkTroll248: Fucking hell. That was a risk wasn’t it?
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Yeah. I guess that was a bit of a test. Oddly enough she didn’t mind that either.
SnowSn0w: I sense that there’s a BUT coming.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Yup. About three weeks ago we missed a day. It was really odd. You get used to talking with someone every day for a few months and it seems like a really big deal. She wasn’t online, she didn’t answer her phone. I was pretty worried.
The next day she got in touch and apologised. She never gave me a reason and seemed pretty evasive about it. I figured it was normal, you know. Over time things change. You can’t keep it fresh for all that long. I kept trying to convince myself that nothing was wrong.
VampireVern: But there was?
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Well, she wasn’t that long out of a relationship when things started happening between us. She used to live with a guy before he chose to move to London for a job. They decided to break up. Well, it would seem that this guy’s job didn’t work out so well and he moved back and came calling on her to see if she wanted to get back together.
SnowSn0w: But she’s with you now, right?
RAZ0R5H4RPE: That’s what I thought. But apparently it’s not that simple. It took a week or so until she admitted that this other guy was on the scene. When she told me she did it in such a way that made me feel pretty insecure.
She said she still had feelings for him. She also said she was into what we had going on and that she was really confused.
DarkTroll248: So why did you unplug? Did she dump you?
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Nice and subtle, Tim. I did something pretty dumb. Least it seems that way now I’ve had time to think about it.
SnowSn0w: Go on.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: I gave her an ultimatum. She strung the whole thing out for a week. We talked every few days, she said she didn’t want to see me for a while. I got the feeling that she was seeing the other guy though. In the end I told her she had to make a decision. him or me. I told her I’d give her a week to decide and I wouldn’t try to get in touch with her. The easiest way for me to do that was go and stay at my Mother’s. No phone, no internet, no temptation to go back on my word.
VampireVern: That’s pretty hardcore.
SnowSn0w: Yeah, brave.
DarkTroll248: Come on. You must have been confident she’d pick you otherwise you wouldn’t have laid it out like that.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Nope. I have no idea what she’s going to say. I should hear from her today if she’s made a decision. The last week’s been a nightmare. Not just because I was living at home again. It was pretty disturbing to wake up in the middle of the night to find my Mother and her new boyfriend standing over me chanting. Add that to a bit of emotional turmoil and you start to get the picture.
VampireVern: That’s women for you. They chew you up and spit you out every time.
DarkTroll248: You’re better off without her, I reckon.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Please. Seriously, you lot are giving me advice on women? When was the last time any of you went on a date?
DarkTroll248: Hey, I’m married. Well, technically. We’ve been separated for a while now.
VampireVern: I’ve had girlfriends, thank you. None of them for very long, but that’s not the point.
SnowSn0w: No comment.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Anyway. Just thought I’d let you know what’s been going on. I’m signing off now. Got to wait for the verdict.
DarkTroll248: Good luck, dude.
VampireVern: Yeah, hope you’re holding up OK.
SnowSn0w: Call me if you need to talk.
RAZ0R5H4RPE: Cheers guys. Chat later.
* * *
Charlie leaned back in his chair. His coffee was cold but he couldn’t be bothered to get up and refill it.
It’s strange how much easier it is to tell people online compared to actually saying the words.
He’d had plenty of time in the last week to think things over. By disconnecting himself from the world he knew he had a new perspective. He’d thought about his online life in a new way. Without a computer or phone he’d created a distance from his normality. A distance that didn’t exist in the real world. If he had lots of close friends nearby they’d have come to find him and check on him, they’d have wanted to talk and comfort him. He could quite literally switch off his online friends and get away.
You can chat to someone online for months and never really get to know them, they can lie or keep things back. He’d held back on a lot of the details in the story he’d told his friends. Sometimes people disappear online. You can chat regularly and then one day they’re gone. Anything could have happened to them. They might have died for all you know. The real world influences the online world not the other way around.
So how can an online relationship possibly be transferred into the real world? He thought he’d found the answer with Chloe.
But it did transfer. It was real. It happened. Just because a relationship is started in an unreal environment it doesn’t mean that once it’s become a reality it isn’t subject to real life issues.
Charlie had spent the week at his Mother’s pondering how he’d lived his life and how he should live it beyond Chloe’s decision.
No matter what he said about his Mother she was the only person he had to turn to. He’d showed up on her doorstep and fell into her arms. For once, his Mother listened and didn’t give him any advice. She simply said he could stay as long as he needed and left him to his thoughts.
The week went by at a torturously slow pace. He refused to go outside and was tempted to get in touch with Chloe so often that he gave up counting. For the first time in years he was without technology. He kept himself busy by helping his Mother around the house and in her garden. He cooked meals and joined her in meditation and yoga. Not out of a desire to find spiritualism but as a means of occupying his mind.
His Mother refused to talk to him about Chloe. She kept saying that she would only talk to him when he was ready. Towards the middle of the week Charlie had started to become bored and lonely. He would write letters to Chloe. Some of them were sweet and romantic, others filthy and angry. After reading through them all he decided to burn them. He rediscovered his love of reading. He had been an early adopter of e-books. He’d forgotten how pleasing a real book was to hold; the smell of the paper and ink. He didn’t care what the books were about he simply turned the pages and took in the information. In his reading he caught up with the self-help column, but it all seemed rather trite and superficial.
Earlier that morning he’d sat down with his mother. “I’m ready to talk,” he said. His mother sat patiently waiting for him to continue. “I have to go home today. Chloe should be getting in touch.”
“That’s fine. Do you feel ready to hear what she has to say?”
“I think so.”
“There you go again, Charlie. Always thinking.” She seemed annoyed with him. “Your situation has nothing at all to do with thinking. Don’t you get it? Haven’t you learnt anything this week? I asked you how you feel not what you think.”
“I feel like shit.”
“Good. Excellent. That’s how you should feel. You have to be prepared to feel even worse. When you go back to hear what Chloe has to say do you know what you want to hear? Do you want her back or do you want her to leave? You made this situation for yourself, Charlie. You threw the dice. Are you ready to lose?”
“I don’t have much choice do I.”
His mother reached over and took his hands. “No, sweetheart. You have no say in the matter at all. You made your move. You decided to take the risk and it wasn’t a calculated risk either was it? You didn’t sit there weighing up the consequences before you laid down the ultimatum, did you?”
“Don’t you see how wonderful that is, Charlie? You acted on your feelings. You did the brave thing by putting it all out there when you knew there was a chance it could all get thrown back at you.
“I’ve seen you grow up, my boy. Even as a child I watched you sit and think hard about the smallest things. You’ve always been a thinker, just like your Father. You haven’t done a thing in your life that wasn’t the result of serious thought.
“If there’s one thing I’ve always wanted to tell you it’s this: The best things in life aren’t planned and thought out. They just happen, you fall into them. You let your feelings take over and they take you to the good stuff. Life should be like walking through a long dark tunnel, to keep going forward you have to feel your way along it. Sure you’ll fall over at times and you’ll get lost too, but you’ll always travel further than if you sit still and think about it.”
Charlie felt an ache in his chest. He closed his eyes, determined not to cry. “That advice might have been more useful a few days ago, Mother.”
She patted his hand, let go and hugged him. “This sort of thing can’t be learned through the telling, Charlie-boy. It’s got to be lived. You’ve lived through it this week.” She sat back down and tilted her head up to look at him. “Are you ready to hear what Chloe has to say to you?”
“Yeah, I’m ready for the worst. I already know she won’t choose me. Not because I’ve thought about it. I feel it here.” He placed a hand on his chest. “If she wanted to be with me, the other guy wouldn’t have confused her. If she wanted to be with me, she’d be with me now.” His Mother nodded knowingly and a tear crept out of her eye and fell down her cheek. She reached over and held Charlie’s chin, lifting it up.
“Would you take any of it back if you could? The good stuff? The bad stuff?” She asked.
“No. I wouldn’t. The bad stuff will pass. The good stuff will always be there.”
“That’s right, Charlie. You’ve got it.” She stood up. Charlie followed suit. They hugged and parted. “Now it’s well past time you buggered off home. You’ve got to figure out what to do with yourself now. Remember a little bit more of this.” She put her hand to her chest. “And less of this.” She pointed to her head. “You won’t go far wrong. You’ve done the hard bit, now you have to do the ‘human’ part of it all.”
“Human’s are very stupid animals, Charlie. We get hurt, heal then go right back again for more pain. We’re an idiotic race, and that’s why we’re wonderful.”
* * *
Charlie got up from the computer and took another slow tour of his flat. The self-help article had given him one good idea.
It’s about time I changed a few things.
He went to the kitchen cupboard and took out a roll of bin bags. Starting in his office he began collecting rubbish. He cleared it all away to sift through later. He decided to sell the collectables he didn’t want any more, or give them away.
Moving into the bedroom, sorting as he went, he knelt beside the bed to reach under it. Her scent was still on the pillow from the last time she’d slept there. Charlie allowed himself a smile at the memory. He left the bin bag on the floor and immediately stripped the bed clothes, putting them in the washing machine.
He’d already began to re-arrange the furniture in his mind. He’d even started making a mental list of things he needed to get rid of. Strangely, he couldn’t think of a single thing he wanted to buy to make the new arrangement better.
It took him a good few hours to remove the first layer of ‘stuff’ from the flat, making numerous trips down to the communal bins outside the building. He managed to smile at his neighbours if he passed them and even stopped to chat politely with the elderly woman that lived above him. He helped her upstairs with her shopping before going back to his flat to carry on with the task.
Charlie was about to turn off his computer so he could move it when he heard that familiar ‘BING.’ He stopped, took a breath and sat down to read.
* * *
From: ‘Chloe’ <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: ‘Charlie Sharpe’ <email@example.com>
Charlie. I’m so, so sorry…
Many thanks for reading. If you have any feedback or thoughts, feel free to comment below.