An Early History of Hang Gliding by Leslie Maxwell
“The day after her mother died, Evie did not go to school. Tenth grade had just begun, and Evie had spent the last three weeks trying to decide who she would be this year, and now, here, just as suddenly, tenth grade seemed far away from her mind…”
Mirror Look At Me by Laura Tansley
“His side of the bed was cold to the touch. Her door was ajar, the bed boldly made to prove a point: she had not slept, not here at least…”
Meeting Uncle Charlie by Sarah Abbott
“My uncle Charlie drove up in his red sedan, the car in good shape but an older model, and parked to the left of our driveway…”
Three Broken Hearts by Anthony J. Mohr
“It was a Saturday in March 1963. My father and I were having lunch at the Rendezvous Room in the Beverly Hilton Hotel…”
Quotidienne by Nandini Dhar
“Mother is busy wiping off the cumin-dust from the old photographs, book-spines…”
Fog in Michigan by Michael Lauchlan
“The big tire beside the highway, the blue bridge, billboards, and all marks of a flat land vanish…”
The Lave by Michael Lauchlan
“On our wedding night, the noise jars us—thieves boosting our mower….”
Widow Gardening by Grace Mattern
“She digs in the garden, pulls weeds by their roots and leaves them to wilt…”
His side of the bed was cold to the touch. Her door was ajar, the bed boldly made to prove a point: she had not slept, not here at least. The baby was awake and agitated, murmuring at the shapes the sun made on the ceiling, feet dancing. Picking her up I felt the effort in her eyes, the need in her hands fumbling across my chest, a heavy demand that rounded my shoulders, weighing on every inch of me until I had to sit down right there on the rug for fear of falling over, my eyes shut willing this day to not turn inside out. But in the kitchen his wallet was open on the table, bill fold bare, the plastic pocket empty of photos, smelling of his soap, his hair, his hands; like the remnants of a fire. Her key was on the counter between two cups, discarded from a chain, thrown without care like salt over the shoulder, superstitiously casual, nearly in the sink.
The baby fed then slept. The dog made sure to shit as soon as we stepped outside. They knew to be quiet today, that we were in flux and I needed to come up with a plan or the three of us would sit like this on the sofa forever. There were options, people that could be phoned. The police, although no crime has been committed here. They were not lost, just gone. There was always her father but I couldn’t stand hearing him try to hide his laughter. There were the neighbours, Jean and Geoff on the left, to hold the baby should I decide to go out and murder the pair of them, but I wouldn’t know the first to place look. And I’d need a lie, something to tell Jean that would roll off my tongue without tripping me up and convincing enough that she’d lap it up. Something like, the dog’s gone mad and I need to phone the vet. But that hardly seemed fair, to sully his placid temperament. He’s a good boy. Such a good dog. Not like the rest of us. Although if I lay still for long enough, on the kitchen floor where he might notice, I wouldn’t trust him not to try to chew the life back into me.
I don’t know when my daughter became a jackal, a red-haired coyote. When her dad left, maybe. When Paul moved in. Or before. Like a birthmark perhaps it was always there, a fault line waiting to split. There was a moment though, when she was older, just turned thirteen and she’d been out, her sweat smelling of cheap cider. She’d crept in my room, bashful, and I lifted up the duvet, invited her into my bed, held her till she was fed up of being loved, read to her till the spins went and she was fed up of being taught. And it was fine. She was still. But in the morning she was pacing at the window, scowling because she knew she was grounded, eyes smudged black. She made her choice then. And Paul was mine. I did that by myself, for myself. She’d warned me for being selfish by disappearing every now and then, into her bedroom, or after school, and into herself. But I wanted him. And I thought we’d learn it together, how to fit, how to each move one seat round the dinner table so no one was sitting where they usually sat, or in a chair that should be occupied by someone else, and we could start from scratch. But she had a point to prove, chose a fork in the path and I couldn’t call her back. She became so quiet I was never really sure where she was. I would glimpse her hair whipping out of sight like a fox’s tail as she moved through doors and down the hall. I would find little piles of her clothes in odd places, stacked up like cairns. Once I found her standing by her wide open bedroom window, in front of the net curtain, completely naked.
I grabbed her and pulled her away shouting, “What are you doing? The whole world can see you.”
“Just drying my hair,” she said, as if floating about and flashing the ice cream van and all the kids in the cul-de-sac was sensible. She became like fiction to me.
I lost her once when she was younger. She was three, maybe four years old. In the park in town. I was frantic, dropped all my bags and started pelting it, past the playground, up and down the steps of the big white theatre, up to the car park of the council buildings, down to the swimming pool and the leisure complex, round and round the bandstand in case she was running from me just out of sight each time. I saw her finally, knee deep in the duck pond, her face half covered by the weeping branches of a willow, a frustrating length like a too-long fringe that needed trimming, the tops of her bright white legs half in the shade, her baby teeth on display like little trophies as she stood there smirking. The only trouble she’d ever been interested in was the kind she’d made herself. I pulled her up to me from the path by her arms, blanket weed twisted around her ankles, sickly-sweet smelling stagnant water dripping from her lacy white socks all over me and down my legs and I thought she peed but I couldn’t tell.
There is a twisted, untethered cruelty in the heart of children. I should know. My mother, she crumbled into powder like a moth between two fingers after me. And we were all children once after all; we’ve felt their spite fall across us slowly like the start of rain. Or we’ve been the ones to strike fear in the chest pit of the unsuspecting, fast like a shove. Back before we cared about consequences. So I should have known. Should have guessed.
We have the same eyes, Tara and I, dark-wood-brown, like two little treasure chests. The same hair, burnt robin-red-breast. When I look in the mirror I see her.
Mum used to say I looked like Lindsay Lohan. I don’t look like that. But Mum looks like me and she wishes she looked like Lindsay Lohan. Or something. Growing her hair long, whitening up her teeth with special toothpaste. Didn’t work. She looks how she looks.
I reckon I look like Saoirse Ronan.
Like round the eyes and that.
This is how I live now.
My skin is soft today, sort of tight and glossy. My chin is a bit red. He hadn’t shaved for a couple of days and it was rough, like the nicest kind of scratch. Concealer will hide it. And maybe some moisturizer.
I’d like my eyes to look big today, wide enough to take it all in. YouTube channels say use a primer over the lid, an angled brush for the lower eye line, a flat brush for blending, make sure to tap off the excess.
I could do this.
I could go out and get all this stuff and do it properly; there was forty quid in his jeans and he left it all, but I don’t want to go out yet.
It’s still light.
So I just use my fingers to smudge the eyeshadow, wipe away what falls onto my face. Haven’t got my curlers so my eyelashes clump. Fuck’s sake. On one side they’re all flat, won’t fan. And there’s hair wrapped round the wand. A long hair turned black from the kohl. Maybe one of hers. She’s always stealing my stuff. It comes away wiry like a dog hair, leaving dark streaks on my fingers. Gross.
I wonder what she’s doing. What she’s been doing. She would have noticed in the morning I guess. That we weren’t there. And the cogs would start clicking round. Click click click. And maybe she’d put the pieces in the right place to make a picture.
Two – my keys and his wallet left behind – and two – wherever we are we’re – together.
I’ve practiced the why-I-did-what-I-did speech a couple of times in my head when I’m in bed, but then I start falling asleep so it goes off in weird directions, all the reasons, and I can’t remember what it is I want to say and in what order.
It goes something like, it’s none of your business, and, you need to ask him I don’t know, then, I don’t want to live here anymore anyway. But there’s also because I could. I want that in there somewhere too.
It felt good. Really good.
His face where my hair meets my neck.
Picking me up with one arm around my waist and moving me around.
I thought when he did that he must love it, being able to lift me like that. Couldn’t move her without a push just now, she’s still a bit big, and you’d get a slap in the face from her great big swinging tits.
Like spaniel’s ears, I heard him say to her once.
She laughed and said that’s breastfeeding for you.
He chased her round the kitchen then and all of us laughed, all four. Even the baby.
I should get dressed. The tumble dryer’s stopped, my clothes’ll be ready. I don’t want to be in a towel if him and his pal get back early. He said they finish at six and it’s half-five now so I should dry my hair. I look so young when my hair’s wet, all scraped back off my face and I want to be serious. I want to get served. But they don’t have a hair dryer. So I’ll just have to sit here and brush it, squeeze it through the towel till it’s done.
I didn’t always like him like him, Paul, not at first. Him and mum got together fast and I didn’t really pay attention, didn’t care.
Wasn’t that long after Jason left.
Call him dad, she’d say.
She didn’t tell me it was happening till it happened. And then he was there all the time. Eating toast over the sink in the morning, singing stupid little songs in the bathroom with the door shut like he thought no one could hear.
Or maybe he didn’t know he was singing them.
Stuff from the radio. Whatever.
Then the room got smaller whenever he came in it and I didn’t want to be around them anymore. I didn’t want to talk to them. I wanted everyone to shut up and stay still like a time-stop so I could grab fistfuls of him.
He didn’t know and I liked that.
I could make up little things, get him to do stuff that he wouldn’t even notice but I could take to bed with me. I’d listen to hear when he was coming then walk round corners, bump into him accidentally, and he wouldn’t even know what he was doing to me.
That felt the best. That was the best feeling. All mine for me.
That’s kinda spoilt now. So as soon as it gets dark I’ll leave. Go find Amy and be with her. She’s as much mine, more than he’ll ever be.
The baby needs nappies. That’s why. But she doesn’t, not really. Not right now. We’ve got enough to last till November. But she’ll need them then, when the nights get long. So that’s why we go into town.
I don’t know what we’ll do if we see her. I can’t chase her if she runs. Not with the dog and the buggy. And my bladder. Christ I piss myself watching Aldi adverts these days. So if we see her we’ll just have to stand stock still. I suppose I could shout her over, scream stop her if she tries to skip on a bus, but folks round here would just stare. God forbid they ever got involved. Standing here on the high street I can see three cafes and in all of them everyone is drinking tea, eating lunch, thumbs hovering over their phones, saying nothing of substance. Then they all rotate round telling everyone else the pissy thing so-and-so just said at lunch. It’s like theatre. Some dumb kind of play where everyone’s saying words that don’t mean anything because no one’s saying anything they mean.
“Are you ok?”
It’s the woman from Relate. She must have tracked me down. She must have felt a disturbance in the relationship force.
“Oh hi, hi, erm…”
“Lydia, it’s Lydia.”
“Oh yes, sorry, hello Lydia. I’m fine, thank you.”
“You look a little pale, are you feeling ok?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“Are you sure?”
Can’t ignore her spidey-senses tingling. Or maybe her Pretty Pollys are riding up her pussy.
“Well I’m having a bit of a day of it.” That is to say, fuck off Lydia.
“Do you want to come into the office, sit down for a bit? You really do look ill.”
If I had any energy I’d. If I could finish a sentence I’d.
Paul and I had gone prophylactically. Ha ha. Too late. We were already pregnant. But he thought it was a good idea before we got married, to talk through how we were coping with the kids. His son, seventeen, was acting up. Tara was walking her own tightrope, deciding which way she was going to fall. So we went a few times. Relate’s got offices in the council buildings in town, so we’d walk there once a week, on Wednesday nights, and talk to Lydia. I don’t know if we figured anything out, but we never fought, and I thought maybe Relate was the reason. But we never really fought, Paul and I. We were always fine.
“Sorry I’m a bit of a mess,” she says and it’s taken me till now to realize she’s sweating. There’s a big dark triangle on her back pointing down into her butt crack. Her black leggings have a sheen like a horse’s hair after a run. “I like to jog at lunchtime, but when I saw you I thought, oh look at Hannah, she needs a cuppa.”
She walks me and the buggy down the corridor lined with posters for helplines for this kind of abuse, then we go into her office and she points at the foamy chair on the right, my chair, because Paul always sits on the left, sleeps on the left. Because of your bigger left ball, I’d say. All the better to teabag you with, he’d say. I don’t know where he gets his ideas. Got. Got his ideas. There’s something past tense about him now.
“Here you go then.” Lydia’s gone to the trouble of pushing the red tap on her water filter. Some kind of fruit tea bleeds red into the misty water. But the heat feels good through the cup. My hands feel less numb. She sits down opposite me, stretches her arms up, then out.
“Thanks,” I say.
“So,” she says, bending this way and that, warming down.
The door’s open behind me and it makes me squirm, strains my eyes, my neck, because I can’t look at her and check over my shoulder at the same time. I know the dog is outside on the leash keeping watch, but still.
“Can we shut that?” I ask.
“It gets a bit stuffy in here if we do.”
There’s a window over her shoulder that’s shut and I think, she’s the kind of person that crosses the road twenty meters before the lights because that’s when she needs to be on the other side, not ten seconds later. She’s busy. Not like the rest of us who need guidance.
“So. What’s going on today then Hannah?” she asks.
The room’s freezing. I don’t know how she can stand it. Unless it’s my circulation shutting down. I have to wiggle my toes to feel them.
“Oh I’m just all of a dither,” I say, smiling. There she is. My mother. Shining through. Never causing a fuss. Coming out of me before I can stop her.
“Is Paul at work?”
“Yes.” I think he must be. Even today I think he would have gone in. He’s fastidious. And fierce for the money.
“How is he? How’s the baby?”
“Oh the baby? The baby’s great, she’s just wonderful. Look at her, always peaceful. Very placid. Slept right through from three months. She’s a dream. Yes, the baby’s great.”
She loved that. No mention of the fiancé at all. Her eyebrows pricked up like exclamation points and I can see her fingers twitching to make notes. I finish the tea. Put the polystyrene cup on the floor where it’ll stay for the next thousand years, unable to biodegrade its way out of this, just like me.
She’s great with names. I wonder if she has a mnemonic device for us. Hannah Montana, Southern Belle of Tara. Plus Paul who picks his steps.
“GCSE results coming out soon, I suppose?” she says.
“Oh yes, we’re excited to get those,” I whisper.
“What, sorry?” Lydia leans in a little.
“I wonder how many she’ll pass,” I say, barely audible.
“I can’t really hear you,” she says and then leans in close enough for me to grab her and hold her and let her muscle heat and sweat smell radiate all around me.
There’s a hidden spot at Amy’s house, behind the shed, next to a wall and away from the street, where she smokes Embassys. She likes the taste and the price. They’re not expensive but they aren’t cheap either, not like the girls that smoke Mayfair or Richmond.
In the summer she lights her dad’s little metal barbeque with firelighters she gets from the garage to help hide the smell. Her mum always asks, “What are you burning?” And Amy says, “Bills,” because her mum’s afraid of identity fraud.
I smoked for a while, but then I stopped because I thought about my skin and my teeth and my hair. Amy’s got dark hair and dark skin so the smoke suits her.
Both of us lean back in our lawn chairs.
“You can’t stay here tonight,” she says, “My mum’s pissed off about something.”
“We can’t stay at mine either.”
“I guess we’re staying out then.”
We learnt the trick from TV. Say you’re sleeping over at each other’s then just stay up all night. Everyone stopped phoning to check years ago. So I guess they trust us. Or they know now there’s nothing they can do to stop us.
“God, I hope we don’t bump into them, I look like shit.”
We’re walking up town because there’s a chance we might bump into them and she knows she doesn’t look like shit. She looks good. Like me, but the opposite.
“Stop for a sec, hey,” she says and bends down to use the wing mirror of a parked motorbike to check her eyebrows.
She thinks they’re too bushy, because her granddad was from Belarus, and everyone from over there is too hairy, she says, so she learnt to pluck them with her nails. She doesn’t need tweezers or thread.
“Oh my god they’re like slugs,” she says, “I really hope we don’t see anyone. I meant to get them waxed on Wednesday but…”
“We went out instead.”
“We went out. It’d be so embarrassing if we saw them.”
She’s got a crush on one of them. This one called Jerrod. He’s got long hair that she likes. It’s all lanky and dirty because he wants to turn it into dreads. He lent her a hoodie once and she wore it for a week like a letterman jacket. She’d take it off in class and sit there smelling it. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it stank of sweat and grease and hair gel and burnt plastic, sharp and bitter, not the nice earthy kind.
“Let’s go across here then,” I say, because I know they don’t hang out over that way.
She says, “Nah, it’s quicker down here,” because she wants to find them, to see if she can get a loan of that jumper again. Maybe for longer this time.
“Fine.” I don’t care really. I don’t care about them. But I don’t mind them either.
The road we go down is full of all these old houses. Big things with tudor-black beams. Maybe they’re that old, from back beyond. They’re dark looking from the street like they’ve not had a light turned on in them in a while, big and empty even though there are cars on the drive and the gravel’s been raked tidy. The sun’s still warming us up out here, rising from the pavement like an oven only just turned off. But it looks like it’s never touched the walls of these places, never reached through the lead windows of the living rooms along here. They look cold inside, like someone filled a cave with furniture.
A car that drives by us slows down to stare, wanting to recognize us, but we don’t know anyone with a car.
“Fuck you,” Amy says when it goes past, using her teeth and lips to pronounce the words nice and big so they know exactly what she’s saying without her needing to shout. “I fucking hate these people, driving around in their shitty cars, going about their shitty little lives. Your life’s dead busy, is it Mrs. Volvo? So you need your car ‘cause you’ve got to get to Tesco and pick up your points-free Panasonic DVD player. Got time to take a long look at us though.”
There’s not that many now; we could count the cars that we see past seven o’clock and never get beyond both hands. But that’s what makes the ones we do see more annoying. Four wheels and five doors and they think they have more than us.
The next one that forces us off the road we’re walking down we flash, because fuck ‘em.
There’s a wall Amy likes just before the high street that if she sits on in the right spot she can smoke and be covered by a tree so no one can see. She likes smoking, but she knows she’d be in trouble if she got caught. So she does just enough.
“Do you want one?” she says.
“No,” I say. She asks because she’s got manners, not because she thinks I ought to. She always asks.
“What’s up with your mum then?”
“You said we couldn’t stay at yours because she’s pissed.” I didn’t say that, I’m pretty sure. I’m sure I just said she couldn’t stay. I didn’t say why. I wouldn’t. “What did you do then?”
“Yeah. It’s the baby.”
“What about her?”
“Well if we were there we’d have to look after her so she can have a night off and I just can’t be bothered.”
“I wouldn’t mind though. So fucking cute.”
“Yeah. Look at this.” And I take my phone out of my pocket to show her a photo, the baby’s big eyes right up close, fluttering out of the screen.
“I meant Paul, you weirdo.”
“He’s fit as fuck and you know it,” she says, stubbing out the cigarette, satisfied that she sees me clearer than anybody else.
The bar I go to is not the same as it was. It used to be a hotel, but it got bought up by a chain. The lighting is harsher, but the view is better. They did work on the terrace and you can actually see each other’s faces. Back when Paul and I first started seeing each other, everything was darker and smokier. Couples would mess with each other in corners. And we would all know what they were up to, but what you can’t see can’t hurt you was the owner’s motto. It’s a bar that’s had a bumpy ride, like all its residents. And it can’t hide what’s sunk into its carpets and seeped into its walls all these years.
Tonight it’s busy because the beer is so cheap, there’s wine on tap that’s even cheaper and the bouncer on the door gives everyone a false sense of security and delusions of grandeur. When I walk up there’s a group in front of me that shakes his hand on their way in, as if he has any power, as if he can decide who stays and who goes, who has a good night or not. He can’t do anything for me tonight, so I don’t even say thanks when he holds the door open for me.
For ten years I’ve been coming here and the same thing happens each time. If you walk into this place alone, people will stop playing with their phones, stop discussing which celebrity they’d like to bone, and stare. Who do you think you are? Who do we think you are, more like. Do you think you belong here? So I don’t scan the room, I don’t lock eyes, I walk straight to the bar. He’ll see me first, if he’s here. That’s the way I want it.
There’s no one in their twenties here. Just teenagers and the middle-aged. Everyone leaves, fed up with the place by the time they hit eighteen, so they try to escape, take a decade long Rumspringa. But they always come back. Every last one of them. Because they’re not different. We’re all the same. We all want to not make decisions. It’s so much better when the answers are all laid out in lace that we can trace. Around here we have patterns of generations to follow, and that’s easier than DIY.
I’m not worried about the baby. It’s the first time I’ve been out in ages. So I think about her. But I don’t miss her. Not right now. I don’t know if that’s okay or not. But she’ll be fine with Jean. She was happy to help.
“Oh you look nice,” she said when I called round.
“It’s old. The only thing I’ve got that’s clean.”
“Well, you scrub up good, girl.”
“Are you sure it’s not too late notice?”
Her response was to take the baby straight from my arms, kiss her fingers, and close the door in my face.
She’ll sleep through the night because she knows I need her to. She’s a good baby like that. Where did she get that from I wonder? Must be Paul. He’s always known people needs and can’t help but give in to them. I think he knew that about me. What I needed.
When we first met he used to sing, “Bulldozers and dirt, bulldozers and dirt, what’s your momma got hidden up her shirt.” He’d chase me around the little living room we had after Tara and me had moved out, and before we all moved in again. He was teasing me, but I think he knew that I’d been feeling like a nurturer, tending in this for too long. That I wanted to be something else for someone.
It was in this bar that he bought me a cider, swearing he knew me from somewhere. That somewhere was probably Safeway, but I kept it secret, that I served the tills down there, until he’d got a chance to know something else about me first. All he learnt that night was how much I could drink. More than him as it goes. And that I was ready to escape it. I was ready to end it. I was ready for that kiss and fumble. That I could burst right open if he did what I told him to.
It’s a different cider with ice they serve tonight. And I don’t drink as quick. There’s no heat in my hands to warm up the glass and make it sweat from the inside out. And once I’m at the bar, crammed in shoulder to back to shoulder, there’s no noticing me like he did. I wonder where he is tonight. What he’s thinking about me. What he thinks he’s doing. Because he’s not here. And neither’s she. So I wore flat shoes, my two big rings and a Tena Lady for no reason.
“To smoke some weed.”
They always go to the same place, and it means climbing some walls, but it’s starting to rain and they might make a fire.
“You got any money?”
“You wanna two’s an eighth with me?”
We met them in the park, down by the big fir trees. They were throwing stones at a can, trying to knock it into the pond. But then the community coppers came by, starting their nightly beat and they decided to go somewhere else.
The girl’s college closed a while ago, I guess. And they try to keep people out by putting chains around the gates, but they never lock it tight enough so we’ve always been able to squeeze through the gap. The boys have to climb the wall. Well, they don’t have to but they want to.
There’s no CCTV. They can’t afford cameras. And it’s away from the road up this long drive and there are no houses nearby ‘cause of the playing field at the back, so unless we’re really loud we won’t get caught.
I don’t know anyone who actually came here. Just poshos I guess. Blazers and banking money and boarding. It’s weird inside. They’ve got whiteboards and ink wells. Saint-based sports houses painted in gilded gold on wooden prize boards and PCs. It just doesn’t make any sense, like they were trying to keep something going that had been dying for a long, long time.
Most things paper got picked up the first time we broke in, to light a little fire in a metal bin. Tonight they find a stash of wooden rulers in a drawer and they smash shelves off a wall with flying kicks. Once the fire’s lit and everyone’s settled down, Amy goes off with her guy while I roll a spliff.
“You want me to do that for you?” one of them still round the fire asks.
“Are you sure, ‘cause I got this way with roaches.”
I guess he’s after roller’s rights, or to just pocket whatever weed’s leftover while I’m not looking. It’s dark enough in here for all sorts. I’m almost done so I just ignore him, wrap it up with a little twist like a bow on top, lean down to the fire to light it so he can see how smooth it is, and walk away to find Amy.
I close the door of each classroom I come across to keep whatever’s restless in them closeted. I like the energy the place still has, like in the morning a bell could ring and everyone might be back here. But every window along the corridor I walk down is defeated. Profligate plants creep like pervy peeping Toms at a party whose host they don’t quite know all the way down to the ground yet.
Amy’s in the old canteen next to a curtain that’s doing nothing except getting wet because the glass has been smashed through ages ago. It’s a big open space, the only furniture being a round table right in the middle of the floor so they’re easy to spot. Her mouth is all the way open, his hand is halfway down her jeans, but I don’t care and I know she won’t mind; she wants this joint more than she wants this guy’s fumbling foreplay. She needs to take him somewhere to teach him a thing or two first. We’ve discussed it.
“Hey,” I say and she breaks away.
“Hey,” she says.
We meet in the middle of the room and I pass her the joint across the table like it’s a jug of gravy or a salt cellar to season her dinner, some kind of sustenance.
On the way back to the fire one of the boys jumps out from behind a row of lockers to scare us and Amy screams, “Pedo!” We all lose it, laughing till it feels like I’m upside down. I swap the pedo-ghost the rest of the spliff for his can of Carlsberg because he laughed so hard he cried and I want him to feel like that all night.
There must have been varnish on the wood they found for the fire because the flames burn blue and I’m glad there’s a breeze blowing in through the bare windows. The pedo-ghost is nuzzled near my neck and saying something stupid about my skin that’s supposed to be sexy. I can smell his chemical breath like lighter fluid and fluorescent paint. He’s all het up with the heat of this place, needs a person to help him let off steam. And I think about Paul.
Someone says, “Fifty pee? Are you kidding me on? I don’t count what you owe me.”
I say to Amy, “I don’t count what you owe me.”
“Not since we were three and you borrowed a My Little Pony. We’re better than most to each other,” she says.
“I feel fine,” I say, because I’m drunk and stoned.
“Pull up a chair,” she says, “The water’s warm.”
I go back home before ten to catch the offy, to buy more beers and twenty B&H. I’ll leave the baby for the night, so I can be by myself, just me and the dog who’s so happy it’s the two of us in for the night he can’t contain himself. He runs to the door and back again and dances about like a much younger version of himself while I smoke three fags in a row standing on the front steps till my tongue gets fat and my throat gets tight and I have to stop and he finally gets calm. Then we get comfy. And open a couple of cans.
I’ve been trying to channel being sixteen. I wish I could remember what it felt like, but I can’t. I don’t know why I did anything I did, except that I must have needed to. It must have been building up from somewhere.
I remember I had this pair of Levi’s that hugged my butt so tight because I wore them once in the bath. Someone told me they were shrink to fit. I turned the water blue and caught a cold.
We’d go to this guy’s house after school to smoke because his parents were always out. The place was a real shit hole, stuff piled up everywhere, and we used marker pens to draw on his bedroom walls and we broke furniture by accident sometimes and each time he’d say, “Don’t worry about it, they don’t care.” We found out later he didn’t have any family. They’d either died or gone away. For a while we loved that house because it was just ours. But really we were his social services. We cooked him dinner in exchange for a free run.
If someone wasn’t getting served, sometimes we’d sit in the King’s Arms carpark and send people in for cider, maybe smoke some marijuana. But then the boys got mad because we’d get chatted up and invited in. We were good for business I guess, back then.
Mum and Dad had their own shit to deal with around then. Dad had done a flit when I was fifteen and we didn’t see him; he was off getting himself together, whatever that meant. But then for a while we saw him every Friday at the Foresters’. He’d come by the house to gather us up then he’d take us to the pub and we’d all take a drink. His was a Fosters, like Crocodile Dundee. Mine was a Pernod and black back then because it was sweet. And that’s what we did, me and my brothers, all of us bonding. Dad’d never pay for a drink, he’d say, “Look who I’ve got with me,” and his pals always dipped into their pockets and we loved it.
Mum and Dad finally got divorced the next year and I remember one night at the Foresters’ while Dad was in the bogs, his mate Martin saying, “Divorce means they’re friends. Definitely. It’ll be fine in a few months.”
“It’s so final.”
“It won’t feel like that for forever.”
“Flippin’ hope not.”
“I used to fancy your mum at school. Did I ever tell you? We went out for a fortnight when we were fourteen, and we frenched in a field, then she ditched me ‘cause she said I was a crap kisser.”
“That’s so funny.”
“It’s a small world. And we’ve all been lurking round this place for a long old while.”
I fucked him, Martin, because he made me feel better. It was a few months later, in the back of his Ford Escort. He got beat up for it by mates of dad after my brothers found out. And mum broke down afterwards. Couldn’t stand the fear of what she thought I was becoming. But I wanted something for myself. I wanted my family back together and it felt like they might be for a moment, when he kissed me in the back of his Ford Escort, hands spread wide against upholstery, elbows and knees bent sharp, moving my knickers to one side with his mouth.
I think I knew even then that if I did it with him I’d be destined for this. Should have kept my drawers on. I’ve been here where they fell ever since. But this has always been a place for suffering, any kind of illness; everyone has been recovering from something here for centuries. It’s just there’s no water cure now.
So it’s resignation I feel when I phone her, finally.
“I think she’s gone for good.”
“Oh dear,” she says, because it’s all she can say without reminding me, without remembering, what a ridiculous fucked up thing this all is.
It’s four AM and it’s fucking cold even with the fire, so Amy says let’s go and get warm somewhere. We roll a joint for the journey and let Jerrod join us because he lends us both a jumper.
He must be freezing, but he drank a fifth of vodka and reckons he can’t feel anything.
“What’s a fifth?” I say.
He says, “Am I coming or going? I can barely decide. I just drank a fifth of vodka, dare me to drive?”
“I wish you had a car, we could kip in that,” Amy says, cutting through whatever crap it is he’s spouting.
There’s nothing now. Not even the street lights are really awake. They’re barely orange or bust. We can’t see round corners, but we know there are no cars coming. No one is coming. We pick gardens to piss in that look soft, pull flowers up by their roots to plant in mud where the land looks bare or where we need to make a grave to bury handfuls of gravel that got in our cuts where we fell over as kids and we’re still cross about it. None of us are wearing shoes anymore. We don’t need them now.
My eyes feel tiny but there’s no way to check and that’s better. I don’t trust them to see anymore anyway.
“How do I look, Amy?” I ask.
“I need some light.”
Jerrod walks over to us and sparks his lighter.
“How does she look?”
“She looks good. She looks fucking stoned man.”
“I feel like a fucking stone. Flat like one for skimming.”
We lie down for a while, in a playground we’re too spun out to make the most of, but it’s so cold, even when we huddle. So we go to Amy’s shed instead. If we wake up early enough no one will notice. We’ll be right back where we started, burning imaginary bills.
It’s not much warmer in there, but there’s a blanket and a sheet that was covering the mower. We all have to sleep on our sides to fit, but it feels good ‘cause everyone’s close. There’s a sawdust smell, like a hutch, old paint to peel and there’s no sounds, just our hush as we whisper.
“This has been the longest day,” Amy says, because it’s not over till we sleep, and we’re not sure we can. “The day just keeps going. It’s been going all summer long. Staying the same, over and over again.”
“Something stopped,” I say.
“You’re so stoned,” Jerrod says. He’s been rubbing Amy, in the middle of us, to warm her up, only his strokes have got slow now.
“I can’t tell if this is a ghost story or a fairy tale,” she says.
We get quiet eventually, and Amy and I hold each other because we have each other as much as we hug for heat. Jerrod is up to something behind her, messing with her here and there, and she’s too tired to react, but she smiles at me and we keep our faces close together till he gets still, looking at each other for as long as we can so we know everything’s really real and we haven’t just made it all up.
The shed is so small, we take up every inch of space and steam the windows from the inside out. We’re full of stuff that can’t escape.
It starts to drift again, the reasons why. I know I want to say that I wanted something. I wanted a start. A spark. A switch. To set it off. Or was it a finish? I did it to make things move again. So whether that meant putting a stop to something. Or getting it shaking.
He’d been gone a few days, staying with his son. He pulled up in his car when I was walking back from the shops.
I’d missed him. I told him that. And so he didn’t take me home. Because he felt it, how it was building in me. We went to his pal’s instead.
I undressed him, I told him to be quiet, I told him I wanted it. And I thought why not with him. He’s not going to post about how big my tits are or what kind of blowjob I give. At least there was that. At the bottom of it all. And maybe he thought that too.
Afterwards, when I asked what he loved about her, he said her heart. I loved her heart. I still love her heart. Her beat. That sets her tits shaking. What’s she got hidden up that shirt. He was always singing.
What is my beat? What did he feel in my chest? It doesn’t feel the same to me, to my hands.
I wonder if Mum’s in that big empty bed. Lying on that soft mattress that’s shot to shit so you sink right in. Folded up in there.
I’ve felt that heart of hers in my ears, lying on her chest. She always felt soft. I’m not like that, I can feel how hard I am, how my hips dig into this wooden floor. Ankles clatter. Blades are meant to jut, sharp enough to slice through the static.
It felt good. Because I could.