‘Dylan! Mate, it’s so good to see you! Half expected you to turn up in a military uniform and salute!’ Rory Anderson, one of Dylan’s old school friends, embraced his friend in a manly hug as they were reunited. Before Dylan had been sent away Rory had been one of his best friends, along with the on-holiday Charlie – the three boys had been thick as thieves, and Dylan couldn’t wait to get back to school with them!
‘So good to be back, mate! You should see my salute, it’s brilliant,’ Dylan joked. ‘And what’s with this hat?!’ He reached out and pulled Rory’s beanie hat down over his eyes.
‘It’s new!’ Rory indignantly pulled it back up again, carefully rearranging his hair underneath it. ‘Just because it’s not a beret!’
‘Don’t you wear berets in the army?’
‘Oh, shut up!’ Dylan grinned at Rory, and the two started laughing.
‘Seriously though, how was it? Fort Starch?’
‘Oh, you know. Not too bad. Ridiculously strict, but then most of the teachers were retired from the army. Loads of phys ed, which was pretty cool! Beat sitting inside a dingy classroom, anyway. We, er, we had our own pool, and a running track…’
‘Dylan! Hi! I’ve come out!’
‘….Yeah, and it was okay. Most of the older kids were heading straight for the army once they’d graduated so they were quite serious, but I met some nice guys. Can’t wait to get back to normal school, though!’
Dylan tried to force a smile onto his face, doing his best to ignore the chirping in his ear. This wasn’t happening. It wasn’t here. It couldn’t be…
‘Well, it’s great having you back again! Once Charlie’s back from holiday it’ll be just like it used to be!’ Rory beamed, before ushering Dylan over to the foosball table. ‘Let’s see if Fort Starch has improved your foosing!’
‘Oho it so has! You’re going to be in tears once I…’ Dylan’s mock taunting trailed off as two people he recognised strolled into Arcadia. He recognised those girls…
‘Rory! Is that Melody Tanner?’ Dylan hissed as Rory rooted through his wallet for some change. He glanced over his shoulder, and his face lit up.
‘Yep! Hey, didn’t you used to have a bit of a crush on her?’ Rory teased, laughing as Dylan’s face coloured up.
‘No! I was just wondering, that’s all!’
‘Well then, go say hi!’
Determined not to be the first to back down, Dylan marched over to where Melody was stood giggling with her friend, Louise. As he approached her he almost lost his nerve, her big blue eyes and flowing ginger hair making him tongue tied. Oh gnomes, he really did have a crush on her. Why couldn’t it have gone away whilst he’d been at Fort Starch?!
‘Well well, look who it is Lou! Dylan Rivers, back from brat camp!’ Melody grinned at Dylan, looking him up and down. ‘What are you doing back around here, sergant?’
‘I, er, I’m back now. I’ll be starting back at Bridgeport High in September. Just came over to say hi! Are you still there?’ Dylan stammered.
‘Sure am! You’ll have to be careful not to salute at everyone,’ Melody laughed, a little unkindly. ‘Come on Louise, I want to play Freezer Bunny. I think that’s upstairs.’ With that, she marched past Dylan with her head held high. He wasn’t entirely sure how to react.
Louise hung back a little, smiling softly at Dylan.
‘It’s great to have you back, Dylan. Maybe we’ll have a class together,’ she said shyly before running off after Melody. Dylan turned back to Rory, who was stood at the foosball table smirking.
‘Melody was pleased to see you, I see!’ he chuckled.
‘Oh, shut up! It’s not like we were ever really good friends or anything!’ Dylan kicked the leg of the foosball table moodily, his pride a little injured.
‘Ah, don’t worry about it. She’s not worth it, Dylan!’
‘I know, I know. She’s pretty fit though!’
‘Too right, mate!’ The two boys fell into immature giggles, punching each other on the arm.
‘Anyway, I’m going to get some gum. Do you want to get this set up? Just be a minute.’ Dylan left Rory to sort out the foosball table and walked over to the two gumball machines stood in the corner. Counting out his change, he slotted the right amount into the machine and turned the handle. As he crouched down to pick up his gum, he felt that odd presence watching him again.
‘Dylan, why you no talk?’
Dylan sighed and rolled his eyes, popping his gumball into his mouth before putting his change back into his wallet.
‘Why, Dylan? Why?’
‘Leave me alone,’ Dylan muttered, trying not to look like he was talking to thin air.
‘Why, Dylan! Why you ignore Puzzle!’
‘Because you don’t exist! You can’t exist! You’re just my imagination going crazy! Nothing else! Leave me alone!’
Puzzle’s face fell into sadness, before turning into anger. ‘Puzzle real.’
‘Yes. Puzzle real. Puzzle show Dylan.’ Puzzle’s expression grew stony, his eyes like steel.
‘Oh, whatever…’ Dylan turned his back on Puzzle, waving over to where Rory was waiting for him. A sudden clunk of metal behind him made him jump, and he turned to see millions of multicoloured gumballs scattering out of the broken machine and onto the floor. Bewildered, he looked around for Puzzle. He was standing on the other side of the room with a sly smile on his face. Staring at Puzzle in disbelief, Dylan hardly noticed the security guard walking over to him.
‘What’ve I done?!’
The security guard poked Dylan roughly in the chest. ‘Don’t take me for a fool, lad! That machine’s been kicked and clearly broken, and you’re the only one stood in it’s vicinity!’
‘But it wasn’t me!’
‘Who was it then, your imaginary friend?’ The guard sneered at the speechless Dylan. ‘Get out, lad!’
‘…Right! Fine! I’m going!’ Dylan waved at Rory and told him not to leave with him before stalking moodily out of Arcadia, making his way over to the underground station.
‘Dylan! Wait!’ Dylan turned hoping to see Melody running after him, but was instead faced with a slightly breathless Louise. ‘Oh. Hi, Lou.’
‘What happened? Why did they kick you out?!’
‘Ugh, one of the gumball machines broke and they blamed me, with no proof at all! So out of order!’
‘That’s so unfair, Dylan! You should complain! I’ll help you, if you want, say I saw it just break or something?’
‘No it’s fine. I can’t be bothered anyway. This place is rubbish,’ Dylan lied crossly. ‘I’m just going to go home.’
‘Okay. Well it was really good seeing you again Dylan!’ Louise nodded enthusiastically. ‘I’ll see you at school, yeah?’
‘Yeah whatever. Oh, Lou? Would you… Would you say bye to Melody for me, please?’
‘Um… sure!’ Louise tried to keep the bright expression on her face as she turned to go back into the arcade. Dylan went to go into the underground and was stopped in his tracks as he came face to face with Puzzle.
‘See. Puzzle real.’
‘No. Puzzle not real.’
‘Puzzle real! Puzzle Dylan’s friend!’ Puzzle protested, sparkling tears forming in the corners of his eyes.
‘Whatever you are, you are not my friend! You just got me thrown out of Arcadia!’
‘Puzzle heard Dylan say he no like Arcadia.’
‘Oh, shut up!’
* * *
‘Happy birthday, Tristan!’
‘Oh Katya, you shouldn’t have!’ Tristan squeezed his girlfriend’s hand as he smiled down at the cake the waiter had just brought out, handmade by Katya herself, completely touched. Katya smiled and produced some matches from her bag, lighting the candles.
Singing a solo chorus of Happy Birthday, Katya whooped and cheered as Tristan blew out his candles. ‘I feel older already!’
‘Well, you don’t look it! Here, pop your jacket on and I’ll cut the cake,’ Katya grinned, handing Tristan his suit jacket as she took a knife from the waiting waiter and carefully sliced two pieces of cake. Tristan watched as she popped them onto two smaller plates, before taking them from her and putting them on the table. He turned back to her and took her hand.
‘Katya… These past few months have been incredible. Absolutely incredible. And now all this… This has been the best birthday ever. I just… Well, I want to say… Katya, I… I love you…’
‘I love you too, Tristan!’
Note – I’m fully aware that Tristan isn’t wearing the same formal outfit in the two final pictures. When he aged up his formal outfit changed, and I popped him back into the wrong one. Sorry!