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Distant Solar Systems

"Darling, who else am I waiting for?"

~

'Cos I don’t mind waiting around

‘Cos darling who else am I waiting for?

And I don’t mind, drag me around

‘Cos honey I’m so used to sleeping on your floor

For Nicole

~

The melodic voice of Julien Baker drifted through The Factory, filling every crack and crevice with her harmonies. The last few deft notes dropped from her guitar strings, the audience erupting into applause. I glanced across at the girl with the jade green eyes, enthusiastically clapping as she looked on in awe. Every song more beautiful than the last, but I couldn’t help but find her most beautiful of all.

“Thank you for your applause and woos of affirmation,” Julien said softly, drawing my focus back to the stage. She was only slight of frame, and I doubted she would even come up to my shoulders. But what she lacked in stature, she more than made up for in the size of her soul and the power of her voice. “They make me feel encouraged.” A soft chuckle infected the crowd, growing louder before suddenly dropping off.

“I realise how lucky I am, to write songs about such a dark time in my life and now have them sung back to me with such love. I get to do this as a job, with woos and applause as my encouragement. I’m one lucky duck.” We gave her another raucous round of applause, my eyes again sneaking back to the pretty brunette. Her smile beaming as she looked up at Julien, her heroine closer now than she had ever been.

“I just have one more for you guys, thank you for being such a gracious audience. This is ‘Something’.” The petite blonde picked at the baby blue guitar hanging from her neck, soft voice building with her every word, every syllable. Julien swayed from side to side, black Vans tapping against the hard wooden stage.

I lost myself in the song, in the atmosphere. I let Julien take me away to another world. Somewhere my pain no longer existed. Where I could let my trials and tribulations free, never able to follow me again. Somewhere that, no matter what happened, I could be happy. The sadness in her voice settled me, calmed me down. More lyrics washed over me, more beautiful melodies and perfect notes in every soulful verse.

Every word hit me at full force. Julien’s powerful voice and heart melting lyrics flooded my brain and spread like a virus through my veins. The pretty brunette and I made eye contact for just a second, a second long enough for me to feel like I had known her for a thousand years. And I wanted to know her for a thousand more.

Julien played the ballad’s last few notes, letting them sink into the theatre walls. And like that, she was gone. The only trace that she had ever been there was the baby blue guitar on its stand and the roar of the audience, collectively thanking the woman we idolise. It didn’t feel like it should be over, but the brightening lights told me otherwise. The crowd slowly began to pour out of the small theatre, a few diehard hands remained with me around the stage including the pretty girl with the jade green eyes.

“Are you hoping to meet her too?” The voice was soft, and with a noticeable Australian twang. I looked across to find the brunette speaking to the young ashen haired girl next to me.

“Oh, that would be a dream!” Her young voice carried an even thicker Australian accent than the brunette, and she couldn’t have been much older than 15 or 16. They turned on me suddenly, as if I had a bright beacon on my head screaming ‘NOTICE ME! NOTICE ME!’ The brunette’s green eyes met mine, and my stomach did a nervous flip. I had never been as aware of my heartbeat until now. It pounded so hard and fast, I thought it might bust straight through my chest.

“Huh? Sorry, what?” I asked, pretending I hadn’t heard their entire conversation.

“Where are you from?” The brunette said ignoring my question, “I like your accent.”

“New Zealand.”

“And you came all the way to see Julien play?” The blonde said, forcing me to break eye contact with those pretty jade eyes which watched me so intently.

“Sure did!” I felt a smile break out on my face uncontrollably. I was the happiest I had been in longer than I could even remember. All thanks to Julien Baker.

“That’s so cool, I wish I could do that! Just travel around following her tour. I’m Stella, by the way.” She extended a hand and a bright smile as I shook it.

“Max.” It was our turn now to turn on the brunette who smiled shyly at us. I took the time to fully admire her under the bright stage lights. Her long brunette hair fought at the messy half-up ponytail she had restricted it to, a few wispy strands framed the pale skin of her face.

“Anastasia.” It was her turn to extend her hand and Stella and I took our turns shaking it. Her skin was soft and delicate against my hand, her touch electric. As she pulled her hand away to adjust the sleeves of her denim jacket, my fingers tingled where Anastasia’s had just been.

Security nervously shuffled around us as we continued to talk about music and life. The roadies and sound engineers started to pack away equipment as the clock ticked ever closer to midnight. We accepted their cues and made our way towards the exit, the dream of meeting our hero on hold until the next show, whenever that would be.

We stepped from the venue onto the cold dark streets and were immediately met by a wintery blast of icy wind. It easily pierced the thin layers of clothing I wore, stinging my skin. The girls shielded themselves with thick jackets and winter clothing I hadn’t thought necessary to wear. I never expected the Sydney weather to betray me like this. Though, truthfully, I didn’t know this city nearly as well as I pretended to. In fact, I barely even knew the way back to my hotel.

“My mum's waiting, I should probably go," Stella said fighting against the windy blasts. “But it was so lovely to meet you both.” Before we could even say goodbye, she ran off into the distance towards a parked car illuminated just enough to see a figure inside reading.

“You know how to get back?” Anastasia said softly.

“I have no idea. Where are you heading?”

“Central, on the bus.”

“Oh, I can totally get home from there. Can I tag along? I’d rather not get lost in what seems to be the sketchiest neighbourhood in Sydney.” I said it with a chuckle, but couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Every building was covered in thick graffiti, the alleys alongside shadowy and unnerving. Anastasia half nodded and headed off, leading the way.

“I’ve always wanted to go to New Zealand,” she said, her eyes trained on her feet as I quickly caught up to her. “You're the first New Zealander I’ve ever met.” She half smiled without looking up; it was still enough to melt my heart a little.

“Well, how’s the experience going for you?” I fought with my nerves to stay charming, it was a battle I was bound to lose sooner rather than later.

“So far, pretty good.” Anastasia said finally looking up at me, smiling bright. She gave me a little nudge and pointed ahead. “This is our stop. So now we just wait.”

Stars sparkled through the cloudy sky high above us while we waited, small talk spilling from our lips. The wintery breeze subsided for a moment but the temperature continued to drop. The road was completely empty, all four lanes waiting for a purpose. It felt, if just for a second and no more, that we were the only two people left on earth. A rumble in the distance betrayed my thoughts, pulling me back to the real world. A bus appeared over the rise of the road, slowing in its approach.

“That’s not our bus.” Anastasia dismissed it immediately with a shrug, turning away from the road. The bus kicked back into gear, speeding away from the small stop. “Wait… Actually…” She checked her phone and the panic in her wide eyes was more than a little noticeable.

“It was our bus, wasn’t it?” I didn’t want to say the words, we both already knew the answer. She just looked at me with a million apologies written across her forehead and regret in those beautiful jade green eyes.

“Sorry…”

“We’ll get the next one!” A laugh escaped my lips and grew uncontrollably louder. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I said regaining my composure, “It’s honestly not the worst thing that could happen. We’ll just wait for the next one.”

~

The next bus didn’t turn up for over twenty minutes, the clock flirting with 12:30 when we finally heard the familiar rumble again. Our faith in the Sydney bus service had been severely tested, but when the bus finally came over the rise we nearly jumped for joy, or we would have if we weren’t so cold. As soon as it stopped, we jumped on and let the warmth of the heaters awaken our frozen bodies.

“I told you it wasn’t the worst thing that could happen,” I joked, nudging Anastasia with a smile. She reluctantly smiled back. “Hey, at the very least I’ve got a funny story to tell when I get home.”

“What? About the stupid girl who got you frozen half to death?” She snapped, sounding defeated. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms quickly, tapping her feet rhythmically.

“No,” I said, pausing until she looked up at me. “About the adventure I had with the most beautiful girl at the concert.” Anastasia’s pale skin turned a rosy shade of red almost immediately, but a shy smile still teased at her lips.

“What do you do? Back in New Zealand,” she said, looking away, pulling at loose threads in her dark navy jeans. She didn’t look up again, focusing her eyes anywhere I wasn’t. I leant back and looked around the rest of the bus, noticing all the vacant seats. It was unnerving if not unsurprising.

“Uhh, I sell homeware. Appliances and stuff, towels, you know," I eventually relented, rocking forward in my seat. My elbows hit my knees and my head hit my hands. I exhaled slowly into them, my breath warm on my face.

“You sound so passionate about it,” she jested giggling and playfully pushing my shoulder. “Fuck that! Do something you love. What do you love?”

“Uh… writing,” I said after a long pause.

“Well then go write a book or some shit! Do what you love!”

“What I love doesn’t pay the bills,” I said pulling my head from my hands and looking at her concerned face. “What I love doesn’t get me to Sydney to see Julien Baker play live.” It was a sad reality, but one I had grown accustomed to. I would love to chase my dreams but dreams are not reality and reality bites hard. “What do you do?”

“Music,” she said brightly, the smile of someone who loves what they do obvious and uncontrollable. “I’m studying music. I’m going to be the next Julien Baker, you know?”

“I don’t doubt it for a second!” And I truly didn’t. She had me believing instantly.

We sat there in silence, the words hanging in the air. We watched each other as the world whizzed by outside the windows. I realised, without ever taking my eyes off of her, I had no idea where we were or where we were heading. The streets outside grew more and more unfamiliar and an echo of doubt crept back onto Anastasia’s face. Her forehead creased slightly and her eyes began to dart back and forth.

“Where are we?” She whispered to me, as if I’d know. I shrugged apologetically, watching as her brow furrowed more and she began to urgently tap at her cellphone. “Fuck…” She glanced out the window, down at her phone, and then at me. Before she could say a word, the bus abruptly stopped rocking us in our seats.

“Last stop! Everybody off!” The bus driver’s cruel voice barked loudly, though we were sitting just a few rows from him. I climbed from my seat and quickly stepped off the bus, Anastasia not far behind me. Her feet were barely on the pavement when the bus doors slammed shut and it disappeared beyond the horizon. We were stranded, further from Central than we started and the temperature felt like it had dropped harshly.

A frosty blast of wind shook us to our cores, and I longed to be anywhere but where we were. I looked up and down the empty street, lifeless buildings lined either side of the untouched road. Not a car could be seen or an engine heard in the distance. Complete silence stung our ears. We had, for all that I could tell, been dropped in a ghost town by the last bus of the night.

“Where are we?” I said softly, trying not to let any panic creep into my voice.

“Dulwich Hill.” Two words slipped from her lips, followed by more silence than I had ever heard in my life. Not only were we lost, we were lost in a ghost town with no light on the horizon.

“You have any money?” I finally relented.

“Ten dollars. Emergency money.” She pulled a crumpled note from her purse, not enough to get us anywhere. I had had enough of being cold, my wallet bulging in my pocket and digging into my thigh.

“Call a taxi. Lets just get out of here, I’ll pay.”

~

The taxi was a sanctuary of warmth. A safe, happy, beacon of hope on this wild night. After being huddled up together in the cold, sitting across the taxi’s backseat from each other felt like we were oceans apart.

“I feel so far away from you now,” I said, cocking my head to one side as I admired Anastasia under the ever passing streetlights.

“I know, and now you’re on my bad side!” She said while turning her head, hiding her supposed imperfections.

“You don’t have a bad side, don’t be silly.” I couldn’t help but find every single inch of her gorgeous. She was a shining light in a dark night. The cherry on the cake after a beautiful evening of music.

“Yeah! Look! My eyebrow!” She pointed to the brow above her left eye, slightly crooked and unsymmetrical to the other. “I used to tell everyone it’s like that because I was in a car crash and had to have plastic surgery. I didn’t. But…” She looked off into the distance and her lips pursed tightly together. “Kids still used to bully me about it.”

“Kids are assholes,” I said, leaning closer to her and caressing my thumb along her brow. Her skin, soft and delicate, flinched at my touch before relaxing. Her eyes locked on mine and I had to fight every urge to lean across and kiss her in that moment. “You’re beautiful.” The words barely fell off my tongue. Quiet whispers to a girl I barely knew but wanted to know forever.

The taxi pulled to a halt outside Central station, interrupting us before things could go any further. My hand fell from her face and began wrestling with my wallet which resisted all attempts to leave my pocket. I finally freed it, sitting forward to hand the driver a fifty, he thanked me with a thick accent I couldn’t recognise. I took the handful of change from him and gave him a cheery thanks, returning to the cold night once more.

Sydney towered above and all around us. The sky rises like intimidating chrome towers watching us closely. Observing our every move. The city felt more alive than anywhere else we had been. Cars flew by either side of the road with places to be and people to see, beds beckoning them home. Music poured out of clubs, and drunken partygoers staggered down footpaths.

Cleaners mopped at tile floors as Anastasia led me down the escalators into Central station. The cool, empty, underground station was unnerving at the best of times. At 1:30 in the morning, with hardly another soul in sight, my skin crawled uncontrollably. Anastasia bounced down to the train schedules, a spring in her step that she was finally going home. Then the bouncing stopped, and her shoulders sunk. Her head dropped and she turned back to me.

“It’s gone…” Her voice emotionless and shallow. Empty.

“What do you mean it’s gone?”

“The last train. It’s gone…” Her voice cracked and her lip trembled. Tears began to well up in the corners of her eyes, threatening to break free and meet the soft skin of her cheeks.

“Hey, hey… Come here,” I said, pulling Anastasia into my chest and wrapping my arms around her tightly. I rubbed my hands up and down her back, the denim of her jacket coarse against my cold fingertips. “I’ll get you home, I promise. I’m not going to just abandon you. We’ll get you home somehow.”

“Why are you doing this? Being so nice to me?” She said as she pulled away from our hug, brushing wisps of hair from her face.

“Because I would hope you’d do the same for me in my situation. That you'd care.” I couldn’t help but let a smile escape my lips. “Come on, let's go sort something out.” I said, turning towards the exit without waiting for a response.

The soft patter of Anastasia’s Chuck Taylors on the steps followed me closely back to the street. I looked back at her worried eyes and furrowed brow and decided the only smart decision at this time of the morning could be food. McDonald's chicken nuggets, to be exact. It was late night thinking food and I couldn’t think of a better way to relax us both.

“Are you hungry?” I asked, opening the map on my phone.

“I mean, I guess so. I don’t have any money though.” She conceded, stuffing her hands into her pockets.

“Lets go eat then.” I looked left and right, checking my phone one last time before setting off. We were finally in a part of the city I actually knew, and knew well. I had gotten lost in the city multiple times on my first visit. This time around, it all came to me naturally. My sense of direction finally caught up with my tired brain and I easily led us through the city.

I found myself talking more than I had in a long time as we walked the city. The chrome towers above guided us like beacons in the night. Music pumped out from city bars and clubs, a mixture of pop and punk, rock and dance. It bled into my skin, infectious and awakening. I didn’t feel tired anymore, just excited and alive.

“How do you deal with all this so easily?” Anastasia said, interrupting a story about a long passed heartbreak. She cocked her head to one side, biting at her lip.

“It’s an adventure, man,” I said, shrugging while we passed a drunken couple making out passionately in the street. “If you let it consume you, it’s overwhelming. You’ve just got to remember you’re the hero of your story. You decide how it all plays out.” I let out a forced laugh, the memories of past mistakes creeping into my mind. Times I should have said something but didn’t. “There are times you want to curl into a ball, you have to fight them to get what you want!”

“And what do you want?” She replied abruptly, raising her eyebrows at me.

“Right now? McDonald's,” I said, trying my best to avoid her question as the familiar golden M rose up before us. Another warm sanctuary from the cool winter's night beckoned us. The moment we stepped inside, our nostrils were invaded by the beautiful scent of fresh cooked fries, ready to be salted. A crowd of hammered partygoers filled the restaurant, their nights ending with drunken cravings before retiring to wherever they called home.

Anastasia disappeared to find us a table while I fought through the crowd to find the counter. I returned to the pretty brunette five minutes later, hands full of chicken nuggets and bottled water.

“You didn’t need to buy me food,” She tried to protest as I dumped it down between us.

“Well I wasn’t going to eat alone!” I retorted. She conceded, digging in to the toasty warm nuggets. For the first time since the concert, Anastasia gave me a bright smile for what seemed like no reason at all. Just happiness. Her smile was infectious. “You’re really pretty, you know that?” The words were out before I knew what I was saying, my own smile taking over my lips.

She bit her lip, saying nothing just shaking her head. We ate and talked, talked and ate. Anastasia must have said thank you a half dozen times over those nuggets and nothing stayed off limits. Not heartbreaks, heartaches, mistakes, nothing. It was all on the table, every single thing on our mind. It was a refreshing break from the harsh restrictions of society.

“So what’s the plan?” I asked when the last nugget was gone.

“Night bus, I think. It goes right past my house.” She said looking down at her phone.

~

I threw our trash into the bin as we walked back out onto the street for probably the final time together. The clock flirted dangerously with 2 o’clock. I could have stayed out for hours more, though. As late as Anastasia needed me. Thankfully, the bus stop wasn’t far away. The sky attempted to clear from the cloudy sadness that covered the city. A few brave stars sparkled through, their light almost entirely lost in the glare of the city. But they were there, alive. Just like we were, still alive and kicking hard.

Part of me wished I didn’t know the route to the bus stop so well or even at all. So we could dawdle and linger around the city, the night never having to end. Eventually, however, it did have to end. Everything ends. We walked down the sidewalk, towards old buildings and endless roadworks. Cars raced by, unconscious to any hazards in the roads. Everyone was just trying to get home. Everyone except me. A taxi raced towards the traffic lights we waited at, and I barely managed to stop Anastasia from stepping out in front of it as our light turned green. The taxi burst through his own red light without a care, oblivious to us and the rest of the world.

“Why do you care so much? Oh my god,” She breathed a sigh of relief and checked both ways before reattempting to cross.

“I just do. Okay?” I said, following close behind.

“But why? Why did you choose to be nice to me?” She stopped abruptly on the other side of the crossing, her jade green eyes locked onto me like a tracker missile. Her forehead creased and her lips tightened. “With all the supermodel girls at that concert, why did you choose me when you could have had anyone you wanted?” She didn’t move. Her words sharp as a knife.

“Because, wow… okay,” I stumbled over my words as every thought I had tried to leave my mouth at once. There was a logjam of emotions trying to escape. “Well… Because you cared about the music. The way you looked up at Julien, like you were looking at your future. Like the music wasn’t just a song you liked but it was the reason you got up in the morning or what helped you sleep at night. It mattered! Because I took one look at you and you were the most beautiful girl in that room and I wanted you. And then I met you, and I found out about your sweet soul and the sincerity in your heart. I found out about how much sass you are filled with and how genuine you are. I found out who you were and I didn’t just want you, I needed you. Because opportunity knocks so few times when it does knock you have to be ready to say yes!”

We stood in silence with our eyes locked on each other. We didn’t move and it barely felt like either of us were breathing. We were just there, silently looking into each others eyes. People passed either side, cars flashed by, but the night seemed to stand completely still in that moment.

“Okay,” she finally said, turning and continuing down the path towards the bus stop.

“Okay,” I repeated, following.

We turned the next corner, passing the old Sydney town hall and it became a lot more real that we were about to say goodbye. That the adventure was going to end. My heart was flooded with a million emotions at once and I couldn't decipher a single one of them. A crowd gathered near the bottom of the hill, all obviously drunk. But all waiting for the same bus. Anastasia’s bus.

~

We reached the bottom of the hill and waited for the bus away from the drunken crowd. My cell battery flirted with death as the clock ticked over 2:18. Two minutes until arrival and I wasn't ready. I looked down into Anastasia’s jade green eyes while she watched for the bus and I felt like I could see the future. It was a future I was scared to say goodbye to.

“Dude, you’re like… looking into my soul,” she said, turning to face me, a smirk threatening to turn into a bright smile from the corner of her lips.

“It’s a soul worth looking into.” She smiled but looked away, her body nudging mine. It only made me want her more. The partygoers drunkenly laughed and caused a raucous but all I could see was her. Those beautiful eyes and that heart melting smile, her messy hair, infectious laugh and sweet sincerity. All I could see was her.

“I want to see you again before you leave,” she said, surprising me with her sudden confidence. A decision agreed on by our eyes, without a word more said.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

I pulled off my cap and brushed my hair back out of my face, it was wild and wanted to be freed. Not yet though, I thought to myself, pulling my cap back on backwards. Anastasia watched me intently as I tried to maintain the last ounce of my charm.

“You have cute little hands,” she said, playfully mocking them.

“They’re bigger than yours!” I shot back, playing offended.

“Prove it!” She pushed her hand out in front of her and I met it with mine. The touch of her skin on mine was electric, her soft skin cool and sensitive.

“See,” I said, my fingertips poking out above hers. “Mine are bigger!” She pouted and began to pull her hand away. I pulled it into mine though, lacing my fingers around hers for just a second. It was as if the bus driver had chosen the most inconvenient time to arrive, pulling into the stop as I was about to pull Anastasia into me.

“Bus is here…” she said, pulling her hand apart from mine slowly. Unwillingly. The crowd swarmed onto the bus one by one until we were the only two left on the sidewalk. I pulled her in to the tightest hug I could manage. She squeezed me back, her arms linked around my waist like a tiny bear. I could barely bring myself to break the hug when she pulled away. I wanted the night to last forever but this, this was an ending.

“Better go,” Anastasia said softly.

“Better go…” I repeated. She pulled me in for another quick hug, her head resting against my chest and what I could have sworn was a tear rolled down her cheek.

“Better go,” she repeated a final time, turning away from me and towards the bus. Anastasia stepped forward, a foot in the bus door. I reacted the only way I knew how; I reached out and pulled her back towards me. I held her tightly to my body with one hand, hearing cheers and hollers from the drunks on the bus. I brushed thin wispy strands of hair from her face with the other and leant in. Her lips met mine halfway, softly and sweetly. They met again and again as if they were waves meeting a sandy beach, until she finally pulled away.

“Thanks for saving me…”

“What kind of hero would I be if I didn’t save the girl?”

She bit her lip and smiled. If she hadn’t stepped back towards the bus, I would have kissed her again without hesitation. Instead, I settled for an unspoken farewell. The word ‘bye’ mouthed breathlessly, all the air in my lungs punched away by the pain of saying goodbye. She walked down the bus as it started to pull away, our eyes still locked. She waved. I waved back. Then she was gone, like a ghost in the night. Only the sweet taste of her on my lips reminded me she was even real.

~

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