Robert met Nicole at the corner. It had been a long time; there was much to catch up on. They walked together down the crowded streets. Once again they’d be together, for a while at least.
“It’s so nice to hang out with you again,” Nicole said, looking up at Robert. He had been away hunting The Spirit for so long it was hard to believe that it was the same Robert from two years ago.
She could tell he was different just by the way he looked. He had grown several inches since she last saw him, surpassing her in height. He stood up straight and held his head high, his black wavy hair bouncing with every step. He had grown much stronger, his shoulders more squared and his arms firm with muscle. He had cold calculated blue eyes, tiny scars and burns riddling his skin. He dressed in all black, a long black trench coat covering his holster of tools.
“Yeah,” he said, staring down at his feet. “It’s nice to be back.” The world around him felt fake compared to what he had seen before. To be back at Earth C-137 seemed wrong. A world without total destruction made him feel like somebody was trying to trick him in a simulation.
As they walked in silence, every so often Robert would flinch at a passing car or barking dog. Nicole noticed straight away but kept it to herself. She couldn’t imagine the things that Robert had seen, so bringing it up so suddenly would ruin any chance she had to talk to him.
“So how have things been here?” Robert asked, desperately trying to break the silence. “What have you been up to?”
Nicole shrugged. “Not much, to be honest. Just more school stuff.” She didn’t want to go into too many details of her life, fearing Robert would feel left out with everything normal thing that she got to do.
Robert nodded. “So you’re, ah, in college already?”
Nicole brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Yeah,” she said nervously. “They let me skip ahead a bit. It’s nothing that special, really. It’s not even as fun as high school was.”
Nicole swore at herself as the words left her mouth. Robert nodded along, but she knew he probably hated her. It’s not even that fun as high school? Nicole wished she could take one of Robert’s si-fi guns and jump to a different planet. He couldn’t even go to college and she was complaining about it not being fun?
The sun was setting behind the skyscrapers, beams of light illuminating the streets. Cars and bikes flew down the street, eager to beat each other to the next stop. Tourists and residents were on either side of them while they walked, either window shopping, talking or walking in silence.
“It’s gonna get dark soon,” Robert said, looking up at the sky. “We should find a shelter soon.”
Nicole looked up at Robert, unsure if he was joking or he was being serious. The look on Robert’s face told her it was the latter. “That’s not, uh, necessary,” she told him, trying not to embarrass him too much.
“No?” he asked, looking down at Nicole. She looked back up at him, her green eyes glistening in the pastel orange light of the sunset. Her dirty blonde hair blew in the light breeze.
“No,” she said, shaking her head and smiling. “It probably won’t get too cold out tonight. It’ll just be sweatshirt weather.”
“Oh,” Robert said, his face turning red. He had forgotten how climate worked on Earth, mistaking it for the climate of a sister planet. “That’s good.”
They walked in another bout of silence letting the sounds of the city fill their ears.
Soon they came across a park that was empty with the exception of three or four people. The grass was trimmed and green, the trees shaking in the wind. Benches were scattered along the jogging path, spread out by a good distance. At the bottom of was a little pond, reeds and tall grass creating a fence dividing the land from the water.
“Let’s hang out here,” Nicole offered, nodding at the park. She had spent many summer days in the park, resting under the shade of a tree while doing homework or reading a book. She spend hours at a time in the park, the meaning of time become nothing more than an idea.
Robert tensed up. “I don’t know,” he said skeptically. “It might not be safe for us to be out in the open like-!” Before he could finish his sentence, Nicole grabbed his hand and dragged him to a bench. She was determined to get a normal conversation out of him before he left again.
“You still worry too much,” she said. Robert stumbled as Nicole dragged him along, regaining his balance after a second.
“I think I worry just the right amount,” Robert huffed, fixing the collar of his coat. “I don’t know who could be out here hunting for me.”
“I thought you’re supposed to be safe because you’re with a mortal or something,” Nicole said, the tension floating out of the air. “Isn’t that like your guy’s golden rule or something?”
Nicole finally let go of Robert’s hand and sat down on the bench, crossing one leg over the other. Robert looked down at Nicole who was waiting for him to join her. He swept the park once to make sure nobody was following him and skeptically sat down.
“See?” Nicole said. “It’s not so bad.”
Robert crossed his arms. “Just because you’re here with me doesn’t mean that they won’t attack,” he mumbled angrily, his eyes darting around trying to find someone. “They just won’t hurt you. Who knows what they would do to me.”
Robert shook his head at the thought. His heart beat faster as he imagined what would happen if they found him. Even though everyone was for themselves, if they had the opportunity to take out competition, Robert knew full well they would take every chance they had.
“Probably bad stuff,” Nicole nodded, staring at her feet. “You just gotta kill The Spirit before they find it.”
“Don’t say it out loud!” Robert panicked, quickly covering his mouth as soon as the words left. His sudden scream attracted the glance of one or two people. He clenched his first in front of his mouth after his mistake. “I’m sorry,” he said slowly, taking deep breaths. “Just… Don’t say it out loud.”
Nicole stared at Robert, her eyes wide with surprise and confusion. Robert was never panicked and cautious back before he started hunting. He was always the one to recommend going places and doing things they weren't’ supposed to do.
“Robert,” Nicole said, “are you okay?”
Robert straightened up and cleared his throat. “Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, trying to brush off his incident. “It’s just, ah, you know, if someone heard you talking about it they would know I’m hunting it and that would be very bad and-”
Nicole interrupted his nervous rambling. “Robert,” she said, staring at him with soft eyes. “You can be honest with me.”
He looked down at her, the setting sun glowing up her face. All the tension in his body disappeared and his head fell into his hands. “It’s not okay,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve been doing this for almost two years and I’m not anymore closer to finding it than I was before. I’ve been to so many different worlds and I’ve seen things no human should have to see. I… I won’t be able to do this much longer…”
Nicole draped her arm around Robert’s shoulders, dragging him closer. “It’s alright, man,” Nicole reassured him.
“No, it’s not,” he said, shaking his head. “I can’t quit. I’ve done this for too long just to quit. And even if I could I have too many people hunting for me. They wouldn’t leave me alone.”
Nicole felt Robert tremble with fear. She had never seen him so scared in her life. “Honestly man,” she sighed, rubbing his shoulders, “I don’t know what to yell you. Granted it’s mostly because you don’t tell me anything, but I honestly don’t know what to tell you.”
Robert sat up, wiping his eyes. “There’s nothing to tell,” he sniffed. “If I tell you anything more than what I already have it’ll put you in danger. I’ve probably already told you too much.”
Nicole sighed. The street lamps in the park popped to life, a quiet ringing echoing from each bulb. Already the bugs of the part were swarming the warmest light. “Probably not, considering nobody has tried to kidnap and question me yet.”
“Don’t joke about that,” Robert said tiredly, all his energy gone. “You probably just jinxed yourself.”
Nicole knocked on the wooden bench they were sitting on. “There, I’m safe now,” she said, trying to coax a smile out of Robert. She could tell she failed miserably by the way his sunken eyes stared at her.
Robert rose from the bench, the back of his coat picking up in the wind. “I think it’s time I go,” he said, unable to look Nicole in the eyes.
“What?” Nicole asked, rising from the bench. “Come on, Robert. It’s been two years since we’ve seen each other. You can’t just up and leave again.”
She looked up at him with pleading eyes, but Robert ignored her. “It was a mistake,” he said, turning away. He reached into his belt and pulled out his portal gun; a black box with a nozzle at the end, a digital screen reading the current dimension in bold red letters.
“You cannot just keep running away,” Nicole yelled at him, her fists clenched in anger. Her body shook with fear from the thought of losing Robert again.
Robert turned to look at her, the horrors he had seen in the last two years burned into his eyes. “I’ve been doing nothing but running away for the last two years,” he said, swearing to himself to keep eye contact. “It’s been working so far.” He turned around and shot at the ground, a black circle of light replacing the ground. His plan was to jump in right away to end the pain, but he hesitated.
Nicole stared at him, arms crossed. “So you’re just going to leave again?” she asked. “What are you gonna do, come back once you’ve killed The Spirit? Pop back in another two years without explanation again?”
Robert didn't’ turn around but hung his head low. He tried to keep his breathing low so Nicole wouldn’t hear him.
Nicole looked up to the sky and shook her head. “Whatever. I don’t care anymore. You’ve obviously changed so I guess it’s my turn, too. I’ll see you around, yeah?”
Nicole felt like she had stabbed herself in the chest. She would have never said anything like that to Robert before. But after so much time had passed she had forgotten how she used to treat Robert. He wasn’t the same guy from before.
Knowing he wouldn’t be able to handle it anymore he jumped into the portal without a word, his body dissolving into the black light. Once his entire body was gone, the portal dissolved into the air, little black flecks sparkling in the sky.
Nicole stood there, her arms still crossed and sick to her stomach. She shook her head, regretting the decision to meet him again. Her hair blew in the wind, the shaking of the leaves filling the empty silence. She turned around and started to walk home, swearing to herself she would never visit the park again.