Neon Red – Chapter 55

(DISCLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. It’s important to remember this is all totally fabricated, embellished, and exaggerated for entertainment purposes.)


There stands a door that I was yet to consider

But the locks are all melting and the colors are convincing me

Words on the gate reading I’ll make this all go away

Just walk through me to the silence

Roland Faunte| Levers

A small weight landed at the center of my chest. My eyeballs rolled around behind my lids. There was only a fleshy red veil, backlit by the sun. Sharp grit beneath because all the moisture had receded into my skull. I couldn’t tear up if I wanted to. My was body devouring every drop of moisture there was to spare, leaving my tongue and nostrils equally as dry. These hills were bone-chilling. An alienating sort of cold, the effects of which were as mental as they were physical. Almost like I’d wandered out into the furthest reaches of our solar system, lost among the frozen and godless planets there. Like I’d been blown out of an airlock without a spacesuit, doomed to drift alone into the perpetual nothingness that awaited.

I lifted my head incrementally until I could see what had landed on my chest. A massive crow watched me in return; its black, saber-like beak glinting in the light, prepared to rip into my flesh. Two ebon eyes darkly revealing my fate. All I saw in that tiny reflection was a cadaver eaten away by the elements and left undiscovered for years. With a disgusted cry, I sat up and shoved the bird away, frantically wiping my arms and chest free of any undetectable residue. Only then did it dawn on me that even the local wildlife thought I was deceased.

What was happening, exactly? Where was I? What had I been doing? Did anyone know I was here? Instinctively, I reached for my phone, unsure of who I might’ve called, but was reminded with a brain-cleaving jolt of reality that I’d left it behind. Then I remembered I’d been away with Harry at a remote oasis in the mountains, which might prove to be a fatal trip if I didn’t find my way back to him. There was no way he’d run across me out here. I had wandered into the middle of nowhere, even taking a few turns off the main road. 

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck! It was getting dark too. My teeth wouldn’t stop chattering. The constant, uncontrollable tremors felt like a seizure. Clambering up onto my hands and knees, I steadied myself and prayed for strength to rise. I just needed to make it back to the main road, and maybe by morning I could hitch a ride out of here. I told Allah that if I had ever meant anything to him at all, he wouldn’t forsake me here. That he would give me the energy I needed to pull myself up by the bootstrings and get on with it.

Stepping out on faith, I planted one sole firmly to the ground, then hoisted myself up with a loud grunt. Almost there. I let the momentum swing me forward, stumbling my way back towards the road. Now I realized my grandad hadn’t manifested to steal my soul, but to encourage me to press on. It wasn’t my time yet, and I’d be damned if I let anyone or anything convince me of the contrary. As I staggered back towards what I took to be familiar territory, something about my body still wasn’t right. My equilibrium was shot to hell. I had no idea which way I was moving. I felt top heavy as fuck; head and shoulders insisting on outrunning my feet. Everything else in between, the arms and legs in particular, were totally unruly. I stumbled on a few more pitiful yards, finally making it back onto the main road before my legs gave and I teetered unbendingly, like a falling tree. My system was so depleted I couldn’t reach out to break my fall. My skull knocked against the earth, setting off a storm of shimmering white flashes.

Hours later, he was there, and it was the dead of night. I woke to the sound of a revving engine flying down the road, drowning out the tolling in my head. Tires screeched to a halt and then reversed. Gravel fired everywhere. Feet scurried. Knees plopped to the ground beside me. His hoarse, panicked voice cried my name. Spit flew onto my face. Ungentle hands lifted me into a sitting position and shook me violently.

“Where the fuck did you go?! It’s fucking night! Where the fuck where you?!” he hollered.

“I’m right here…I’m right here…” was my breathless mutter.

No, the fuck you weren’t! I came this way earlier and I couldn’t find you! Why did you do this, Zayn?! I couldn’t find you! I couldn’t find you!” he wept, unable to stop cursing me. “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you! I can’t even fucking look at you!”

I collapsed into him and he held onto me for dear life, knowing how bad off I was. He kept trying to speak, but all he managed was the occasional unintelligible swear word. It was too cold to think, too cold to cry. As I lay dazed against his chest, all I could moan was: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me…”

When his rage subsided, he exhaled into my hair and his mothering benevolence resumed. “It’s ok. You’re gonna be ok, baby. You’re gonna get better, Z…I promise. I’m here. I’m here. I’m here. No matter what, alright? You’re good. I’ll always come after you. No matter how many times you leave…no matter how far you run from me…”

Now he took the shirt off his back and pulled it over my head to cocoon me, not bothering with the sleeves because my body had begun to shudder nonstop. Hypothermia was setting in. Shirtless and fighting the late autumn chill, he helped me up and crept with me step-by-step to the car. We rode back to the compound in silence, heat blasting, fingers interlocked. I was too embarrassed to look at him, but he wouldn’t let go of my hand. Like he needed reminding that I was here. That I was alive.

It was spooky out. All the sunbathed glory of the landscape during the day was lost at night, resulting in a frightening void. Miles of unflinching shadow put the fear of God in me. Parking in the driveway, he shut the engine off and checked me for fever. Despite being overly warm now, my teeth were still chattering; no doubt the root cause for his concern. I refused to go to a hospital when he suggested it. Knowing it was futile to argue, he offered to carry me inside, but I declined. I was sick of being nursed, although realistically I was in no condition to resist.

The sight of the front stairs put a knot in my gut, and I’d used my last energy convincing him not to drive me to the ER. Regardless of my approval, probably because he knew I was too ashamed to accept the offer, he got out of the car and opened the door for me anyway. Right away his hand jutted inside for assistance, and I stared at it, severely embattled. Good God I needed to stop measuring my manhood according to how often I needed help. That was such a toxic misinterpretation of masculinity that it had quite literally led me to the brink of death. It was ok to be cared for, I told myself. It was ok to be loved.

At last, I wrapped my fingers around hand and stood. He pulled me over to him with a small, reassuring squeeze. “Just up the stairs, ok? Then I’ll put you down.” Unable to look him in the eye, I wrapped an arm around his neck, and he bent and lifted me into his arms, bridal style. It was weird, but comforting, nonetheless. His hair smelled like smoke, courtesy of me smoking inside this morning. His flesh was freezing cold, and I felt awful he was battling the elements half-naked to ensure my comfort. God damn, what a bad ass motherfucker he was. I was wearing two shirts and he wore none. One day I’d look back and appreciate the hell out of everything he was doing for me, even if I was a bit short-sighted for now.

Melting into the safety of his hold, I coughed, and he didn’t mock me about it for one second, not even when I hid my face in the crook of his neck. I could see us like this in 50 years. Still each other’s only friends. Living tucked away in the country, far removed from society’s scrutiny and the flare of the paparazzi’s unstoppable lens.

“Thank youh…” I uttered.

“It’s alright.”

As we stepped over the threshold, I couldn’t help but let out an exhausted snicker. This was all too strange to be real.

“What’s so funny?”

“I’m not a bride, mate. Put me down.”

“Oh trust me…you will be someday. I promise you that.”

“Yeah, whatev’s. And what makes youh think youh won’t be the bloody bride, huh?”

“Mate, please, I’m not wearing a freaking gown. That’s all you.”

He carried me on upstairs to the bedroom, and this time I happily allowed him to undress me. When I was safe under the covers in his hoodie and sweats and socks, he fluffed the pillows and pulled the blanket up to my chin, then disappeared for a while.

Wow. There was nothing like a trip into the howling wilderness to make you appreciate all you had back home. A loving heart who cared for you. Central heating. Food in the pantry. My family alive and well only two hours away. I teared up realizing how lucky I was. Even my problems in the band had all been brought into perspective. I didn’t have to destroy myself to prove a point to anyone. All I had to do was bide my time until I was free and move on to live the life I truly desired. That’s what a sensible man would do. Not self-destruct over a temporary dilemma, no matter how fucked up it was. Rejection was something I had never handled well, though. It still cut sinisterly deep to know that nothing I offered had been deemed good enough to present to the world at large. But it was time to take it all in stride. Man the fuck up.

Sometime later, Haz returned carrying the bed tray with a bowl of tomato soup, hot tea for my sore throat, a bottle of water, and a bit of juice. He set it carefully over my lap once I sat up against the pillows. He didn’t trust me to eat, so he insisted that he feed me the first few bites. After three, I promised that I could handle it, making a show of taking a big bite on my own. He finally relented. This was trust. He was beginning to trust my word again and it was unbelievably satisfying. Now he left the room, not wanting to pressure me with his presence.

Later I pushed the tray aside and laid down to sleep. To my surprise, he grabbed his guitar and joined me. Sitting cross-legged on the foot of the bed, he strummed a gorgeous, stripped-down rendition of “Where You Lead” by Carole King, arranged especially for me. The Gilmore Girls theme song. It was endearingly creepy, like a lullaby. I couldn’t form words to tell him how sweet it was. Not now. Instead, I drifted to sleep against the chill of my pillow, praying to God that I didn’t have a concussion.


I awoke a few hours later to a darkened room. The tv was out. The only light stole through a sliver in the curtains facing the front of the house. Haz was awake and staring out of that sliver in the balcony window, standing with his back to me. Why wasn’t he asleep? It was 3am. He was dressed as warmly as I was, opting for a jumper and sweats since the temperatures had dropped even lower than earlier and the heating in the room wasn’t so great. His stress levels were evident in his posture. In the way he hung his head, unsure of what to do with himself. I knew I’d caused this, and therefore was the only person who could alleviate it. Even if I knew I wasn’t back to normal yet, it was high time to pretend I was in order to spare him. When he came and sat on the opposite edge of the bed, I got up and went to him.

“Hey you…” he sighed, gazing up at me through the darkness. “You sleepwalking?”

I straddled his lap uninvited, tightly wrapping my legs across his waist. He crushed me and rubbed his hands up and down the length of my back, kneading my stress away as if it were his own.

“I’m sorry, baby,” I muttered against his ear. “I’m sorry for leavin’ youh. I didn’t mean to scare youh. I love everythin’ you’ve done forh me. I’m soh lucky…I’m soh lucky…” He squeezed the back of my neck, absently fisting my hoodie with his other hand. I could tell something was wrong.

“Youh okay, babe?” I took his face between my hands, searching his eyes, but he plopped his forehead on my shoulder.

“Haz? What’s up?”

“I dunno…”

“Not true.”

“Uh…it’s…it’s Rob.”

“Oh yeah? He okay?” At that, he shook his head, but offered nothing further. “Babe…talk to me. What happened?”

“I dunno, Z. It’s bad, I think. Everything’s getting worse. They, uh…they found another…”

“Ah fuck…”

“Yeah…” he said tearily. “It’s back…”

“…Babe…I’m soh sorry. I had noh ideah…” I scratched his scalp, staring wide-eyed out over his head. He continued to mumble into my hoodie.

“They called it an ‘aggressive recurrence‘….whatever the hell that means. They’re not sure about surgery anymore. Not even sure it would do any good anyway.”

“I don’t even know what to say. Fuck, maan…I can’t even imagine—”

“I know…same. He doesn’t deserve this. He’s the last person on the fucking planet who deserves this shit.”


“I just can’t believe it’s happening all over again. After everything he’s already been through. Even us as a family…”

“Youh guys have been through a lot. He’s soh strong, though, babe. Soh are youh. Youh hear me? How long’ve youh known about this?”

“Since last week.”

“What?! And youh never bothered sayin’ anythin’?? Haz, babe…youh spent all this time worried sick about me and had this heavy shit on your mind the whole time?! Babe, what the fuck??”

“It’s ok, you didn’t know. I’m not holding anything against you, mate. If I’m being straight with you, I didn’t tell you for a reason.” Now he looked me in the eyes. “I, uh, didn’t want you to know because I knew you’d worry, like you are right now. I just wanted you to get better. I couldn’t stand the thought of him being sick and you as well. Not you of all people. You’re my rock, Z. I need you to be ok, alright? I was having so many nightmares, mate. Just expecting the worst for you both. And, uh…I won’t be ok if anything happens to you too, Z. I won’t…”

“Fuck, Haz—” I croaked, clutching a fistful of his tangled hair.

Here I was dragging him all over hell and be damned, whining about my rejected songs and starving myself like a loon, and his father was literally dying. Why the fuck wouldn’t he say anything, though? He just let me go on and on causing a commotion and driving him insane. Oh God, I felt even shitter now than when I was lying out there on the side of the road being lusted after by crows. How could I do this to him? I could I be such a child sometimes. I wasn’t there for him when he needed me the most, meanwhile he continually broke his neck to be there for me, always. A sinking feeling came over me, and the world felt too real. Too merciless. Too illogical. I squeezed him until he grunted. He kept rubbing my back slowly and hypnotically, likely seeking his own comfort in the action. I needed to make this right. Tomorrow, I told myself. Tomorrow.


I sat on the balcony in the little iron chair the next morning, puffing away on a bent cigarette I’d salvaged from the pack he crushed. It was early yet, but I’d gotten up to watch the sunrise while he slept. He’d left his laptop open from the night before, and I was drawn to it. I wanted to get a sense of what he was thinking. Things he was unwilling to discuss with me outright. I guessed his pin number with ease, since it was usually my birth year backwards. 1993, so that meant 3991. Once inside, all I saw were 30 tabs opened in Safari, all to do with anorexia nervosa or cancer. Survivability rates of both. Effects of not eating on the heart, mind, and immune system. The detriments of dehydration. Chemotherapy, radiation, experimental surgeries and alternative treatments. Black market medicines. He was being pulled in two different directions. There was even a notes app open where he seemed to be journaling my meals. Putting little sad faces for the ones I’d skipped. Holy fucking shit. He’d been freaking out all this time??

I sat now and stared into space, unmoved by the beauty of dawn in this wondrous place. Not the cloudless sky. Not the sunlight spilling across the lawn like an overturned can of paint. Not the bird song of the early hours filtering through the air like a heavenly sigh. When I wasn’t stressing about Haz stressing, I couldn’t get Robin off my mind. He was by far one of the nicest, most easy-going blokes I’d ever met. Always warm, always welcoming. And although my dad had a great sense of humor too, I admired Robin because he was totally approachable and didn’t take himself too seriously. No matter the time of day or night, he was always up for a bit of banter. No matter the circumstances at hand, he was a reliable mate and a listening ear.

My dad’s moods always needed to be assessed before he could be approached; at least where I was concerned. He was just sort of intimidating in that way that. I still failed to wrap my head around it, sometimes. How he could be my best friend in the world while I was growing up, yet somehow became so aloof and resentful of the way I’d turned out after I let home for the band. Perhaps I was projecting a bit when it came to reading my dad’s thoughts and attributing motives to his unfathomable behavior, but I hated that it was required because he no longer spoke with me unguardedly.

Des was a different story himself. Altogether more cool and laid back than them both. Where Robin was the comical sort, Des was chill. Where my dad was often intimidating and sometimes took on a no-nonsense demeanor, Des was more the cool-teacher type. Always eager to impart tidbits of knowledge while trying his best to keep up with the youth. Learning the latest slang and using it at all the wrong times to our amusement. I could see plainly that Haz was a mixture of both his fathers, bolstered by loads of sugary sweetness from his mom. I probably contained the same sort of ratio from my parents as well. I no doubt had a heart made in the image of my mother’s, and had also met my fair share of people who claimed I was unapproachable until they got to know me and I warmed to them. Such is life, I suppose.

The thought of Rob suffering for so long, fighting his way to remission only to be snatched back out of it brought tears to my eyes. I let them fall because no one was around to see, wiping them away only when they dropped from my jaw. The cigarette burned and burned until I remembered I’d been smoking. Now I hit it and sent up a little prayer for Rob, despite knowing in the back of my mind it was futile. Just like the one’s I’d sent up when I was laying flat on my back on that icy road, with no answer from The Man upstairs.

Haz woke and immediately called out in search of me when he found me missing. Before letting him know where I was, I watched and observed his concern growing. He called again and I remained silent, fascinated by the expression on his face. When he realized I wasn’t in the bathroom, he shot to his feet in a panic.

“Hey, babe,” I smiled, cracking the balcony so he’d hear me. The relief that washed over his face left a stabbing pang in my chest. Now he made his way onto the balcony to join me, sitting atop the table.

“Sleep well?” I asked.

“As good as can be expected,” he drawled. His morning voice was my favorite. Thick, slow, and gruff. Unnervingly manly and unnervingly sexy. He took the cigarette from between my fingers, hitting it and smoothing his disheveled hair. “The shoot’s gonna be mad this week.” He mentioned.

“What, ‘Steal My Girl’? Yeah. Shit just gets crazier and crazier every time, don’t it? There’s gonna be way too much goin’ on at once.”

“Gabe is a nutjob”

“Mental, broh. Ben too, yeah?”

“With them together we don’t stand a chance.” He exhaled a thin trail of smoke into the sky, seeming twice his age. A veteran smoker. “I, uh, heard there’s gonna be sumos—y’know the wrestlers—and lions too.”

“And Danny…Danny Devito, is it? Daft broh. Not gonna lie…I’m kinda buzzin’ about it. We literally grew up watchin’ him. Remember Matilda? She was badass.”

“Of course I remember Matilda,” He grinned down at me, then briefly hummed the intro of ‘Little Bitty Pretty One’. “Wonder if we’ll make it out alive?”

“Likely not,” I laughed. “The single’s still smashin’ it though. Might as well add more to the mayhem. Get the fans buzzin’ again.”

“There’s a method to the madness after all, it seems.”

“There always is with Ben,” I grinned.

He took my fingers into his and played with them a while, generating a sensation of peace so gut-wrenching I almost panicked. For a second I had forgotten where I was. Now all I could acknowledge was the mind-bending totality of his existence and nothing else. I bent and kissed his hand repeatedly until he chuckled, before pulling one of his socks off and kissing the top of his foot, just as inexplicably. He laughed and pulled away, only to tentatively offer it up once more.

“That feels so good…”

“I can make youh feel even better…all over,” I murmured, gazing up at him with an unemotional directness.


In response to that, I gave him a look that only he knew, and with that we were drawn again into silence. Both quietly anticipating the night when I would live up to the things I had vowed.

“Soh I’ve been thinkin’…” I began sometime later, squeezing his calf. I couldn’t get the Robin situation out of my mind, but still didn’t know how to express how sorry I was. “I’ve been bein’ a little bitch—”

“What else is new?”

Touche,” I snorted.

“I’m kidding. It’s ok for you to be sick, Z. You don’t have to beat yourself up about it. You and me, mate, we’re good. No apologies necessary.”

“I appreciate ‘dat…”

“Well, uh…love means never having to say you’re sorry or whatever. And I love you, so…”

“Yeah, youh too.”

“I want you to stop beatin’ yourself up…or it won’t end well for any of uz.”

“M’learnin’ not too…” I lied. “But, hey, uh…youh have to promise not to do the same.” I gazed into his eyes and all I could see was him hanging off that balcony in Rio. “You’ve been quite hard on yourself latelyh too.”

“Deal,” he agreed.


“You know it could always be like this…” he said out of nowhere. I refrained from laughing at the unintentional Brokeback Mountain reference.

“How soh?”

“We could quit, y’know.”

“The band?”


“Look at youh, Hazza…talkin’ bout leavin’ the biggest boyband in the world. M’startin’ to rub off on youh, ain’t I?”

“In all the worst ways…” he quipped.

“A year agoh youh wouldn’t even have dreamt of it.”

“Wouldn’t even have considered it.”

“Yeah,” I chucked. “Alright, then. Y’serious?”

“I don’t even know…I just feel like…like I’d do anything for you. It makes me reckless. I’d rob a bank if you asked me to.”

“Forh real? Y’know I could use the cash.”

“In a fucking heartbeat, mate.”

I smiled to myself a little. “Y’know I’d never ask youh to do anythin’ like that, right?”

“Well, yeah I know, but it doesn’t matter. I’d still do it.”

“Soh you’d really leave it all behind for me?”

“Don’t doubt me.”

“I’d never doubt youh, Haz. That’s one thing I’m beginnin’ to learn in all this.”

“What would that look like anyway?”

“What? If we left?” He nodded. “Scenes…”

“Think people would suspect anything about us?”

Possibly….or they’d probably make up some shit that happened behind the scenes. Probably blame Simon, or the label. Whoever. It’s probably unlikely they’d suspect we’d run off together.”

“Where would we go?”

“Any place outside the UK and US, that’s forh sure. All our people are there.”

“M’thinking…Jamaica…? We could hide there for a while.”

“Up there in them smoky mountains…with all them recluses. I’d be right at home.”

“Yeah,” he laughed.

“Maybe we’re not soh cut out for Rasta life, though?”

“Maybe so.”

“What would happen to the other bois?”

Crash and burn.” We laughed. 

Later he mentioned, “Can’t believe we have to leave tomorrow…”

“About that…”


“I was thinkin’ what if we stayed a few more days?” He looked put off. “Noh, babe, it’d be different, I swear. I’m eatin’ now, yeah? I’m already feelin’ better. Youh believe me? I just wanna get the full experience this time, y’know? Before we head back to work. If that’s okay with youh…”

“Um…” he twisted his mouth to the side in indecision, looking as though he was concerned with hurting my feelings.

“Youh sick of me or sumthin?” I watched him like an expectant puppy.

“Don’t do that, mate. You know I can’t take that look.”

“Youh don’t wanna stay with me?” I poked his leg. “Huh, Harreh? Huh babe? Huh?”

“I’m gonna be honest, mate…it’s been kind of a rough one—”

“Ah fuck, broh, I know, I know,” I propped my elbows on the table and buried my face in my hands. “I majorly fucked up the vibe, didn’t I? I didn’t even think it was possible. Youh had everythin’ mapped out soh perfectly, and I just came through and pissed on it.” We laughed again.

“Sort of…but then again, not really. It was all a part of the process it seems. But I’m glad you’re feeling better, for what it’s worth.” He pet my hair as I kept my face buried.

“I’m soh sorry, babe. Shit, it’s really over, innit? That blows. I can’t believe I wasted such an amazin’ trip…”

“You didn’t technically waste it,” he reasoned in my defense. “You just needed to work through a few things, and you did. It’s alright, Z. Shit happens, y’know? Neither of us could control it. And I’m not trying to hold that against you or anything, but…”

“Youh already have plans.” I finished his sentence, looking up at him, knowing him better than he knew himself. Plus, he needed to be there for his family during the little time we had off before album promo began. It was selfish of me to demand more for myself.

It was a rarity to spend this much time alone with him. He was constantly on the move, always splitting his time between a thousand different friends and a thousand different towns. I was lucky if I got more than one night with him, despite us desperately trying to wake up together as often as possible. The fact that he had cleared his entire schedule and put me first for a full week was insane. My schedule was pretty fucked too once I added Pez into the mix, and there was no time in the foreseeable future where she or my friends or my family would allow me to have another week untouched. This was it, and I’d blown it.

“Yeah well…I get it. Youh gotta goh…and I guess I do too.” I stood, stretching.

“It was great while it lasted though,” he shrugged, handing me the half-finished smoke. I took it and butted it, then tucked it behind my ear. I started to walk away, and sensing I was upset, he grabbed my wrist before I could go.

“You pissed at me?”

“Noh, sweetheart,” I hugged him, resting between his legs where they dangled from the table. “This whole thing was unreal. I’m still sort of processin’ how meaningful it all was. Youh really looked out for me. Even with all that’s happenin’ with the fam, youh were here.”

“Of course…anytime.”

“You’re a G, mate. And I wanna make it up to youh. But I guess I’ll just have to wait. That’s my punishment for takin’ the past couple of days forh granted.” I pulled away and looked him in the eye, swimming in his trippy irises. “I’m gonna make it up to youh soon, okay? Soon. Youh believe me?” He nodded, dimples emerging as his face slowly broke into a grin.

(Thanks for reading!❤️)

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