I ate as fast as I could, not because I felt hungry but because I ought to feel hungry. I didn’t. I just felt ill. But the faster I ate, the sooner I could stop eating. Logic. I had less time to throw it up if I minimised the duration and maximised consumption.
The last mouthful was a long time coming. As soon as the spoon hit empty plate I put my head in my hands, leaning my elbows into the table, and closed my eyes.
I opened them immediately. I’d rather see the knackered old table Mike assured me was a valuable airloom, than the inside of my own eyelids. A blank canvas for my memories to play on. Honestly, it didn’t really matter what I looked at.
I tried to relax, but I just couldn’t shake the residual tension I had. It felt like I was always under-threat, and not in a keep-an-eye out way. It was an unspecific, undefinable ill-feeling that had me on edge constantly.
Danni waltzed into Mike’s compact but well equipped kitchen. She bee-lined towards the fridge and pulled out a can of beer.
“You look like shit,” she said as the ringpull snapped open. “You want one?”
I shook my head. She downed a few mouthfuls, oblivious to my refusal.
“You should change that dressing.” She fell into the seat in front of me.
Danni shrugged to herself, but didn’t keep pressing me. Instead she sat opposite and slowly sipped from her can, eyes roving the wall above my right shoulder.
My thoughts fell back on their torturous spiral, at the centre of which was Beth.
I couldn’t get her out of my head. I’d played back every conversation I remembered in an attempt at forcing myself not to forget anything. It had kind of backfired. I couldn’t recall every little detail. I remembered the style of clothes she used to wear, but I couldn’t pick out exactly what she was wearing even the last time I’d seen her outside of the hospital.
And that had been hiding away in a corner of my mind. A sensible place, when you’re running from people, when shit goes wrong and you need to think fast. Once I’d poked that little morsel of memory though, now I was relatively safe, now I was sitting with nothing to do but remember it… I couldn’t stop.
It played through my head on endless repeat. I’d run through every possible course of action I could think of, and how each one could have saved her.
Curious, how you can feel so numb to the world and so furiously angry at the same time. Two contrary co-existing, yet completely overwhelming feelings.
Oblivion, it seemed, beat all other emotions. Anger couldn’t compete against a void. I was left without the will to get up, much less follow Mike’s crazy plan to claw out a chunk of territory in this cesspool of degeneracy.
“You look ill.” The real world flooded back into my consciousness. I concentrated on focusing my eyes to find Danni staring at me, head tilted quizzically. Movement caught my eye, she held out her half-consumed can. “Go get some sleep or something. Here, this helps. Trust me.”
I could hear liquid lapping the sides at her movement. Without the energy to argue, took it from her. It was cold to the touch, wet. My fingers smudged the mist of condensation. The primitive sensation of cold against my fingertips pushed my mind the fraction it took to see she was right. I’d been up for hours doing nothing. I needed to lie down. I just needed some sleep.
The improvised bed served better than any of my previous sleeping arrangements. The lack of a mattress didn’t bother me, I’d never gotten used to sleeping on something that soft.
I did everything you’re supposed to. Everything you always do. It was pitch black. I closed my eyes. I lay there.
Well, there wasn’t much else you had to do to sleep. That was the frustrating thing. You didn’t decide to fall unconscious, you merely present yourself the environment that was expected and waited for it to happen.
When it doesn’t, when you lie there for an hour? That can be annoying. When you lie there for three hours? Four? Four hours of just me and my stupid thoughts that ran around in circles.
Beth. Beth getting pushed. The crack as her skull… broke. Okay, after that things start to get a little smudged and misty. But I do remember her in the hospital bed.
It was like she was already dead. Even now. She was dead to me. I couldn’t see her. I couldn’t hear her voice. I couldn’t even go to the places we’d spent time together. She was in a different world to me.
I blinked. A pointless action in complete darkness, but something brought me out of my memories. Something was making my teeth itch. Noise.
Ah, it stopped as abruptly as it had started, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
No, only a short pause. There it was again, buzzing, just on the limit of my hearing. A phone on vibrate? Beth’s phone. Only her father knew she’d given me that. I glanced at the window, but the cardboard I’d stapled over kept out the yellow haze of the city night. It wasn’t even close to getting light. Why was he ringing me at this time of night?
Something must have happened to Beth.
I leaped out of bed, my feet tripping in the tangle of blankets. I bashed my knee on the hard floor, but it barely registered. I scrambled over to the pants I’d been wearing and tore at the pockets.
It took far too long. The vibrations had stopped again by the time I found the opening and yanked the sleek black slab of electronics out.
I took a deep breath. I had time. There was no reason I had to rush. With a swipe I unlocked the device and was just about to go into the contacts to call her father back.
Two calls, one immediately after the other. That wasn’t unusual was it? It gives someone time to route around in their pants for their phone. It’s late. You wouldn’t expect anyone to pick up the first. They pick up on the second.
Everyone gives two rings.
Three? That might mean something bad. You wouldn’t ring three times for an idle conversation. That would be rude. Three or more calls is a ‘please pick up someone’s died’ type of calling. You wouldn’t leave it at just two rings if something had happened.
Please be right.
I didn’t want it to ring again. I didn’t even want to call back, because I knew that my theory was completely stupid and, when it came down to it, I just didn’t want to hear any news. I’d prefer to worry than to know and it be bad.
I didn’t want my last memory of Beth to be that memory. I didn’t want the last words I ever heard Beth say to be in that a stupid car on the way back from a stupid medical examination that I hadn’t even thought twice about since.
Words I couldn’t even remember.
It scared me more than a knife to my throat.
So I sat there, phone cupped in my hand, until it burst into life again. The screen lighting up, it’s blue light illuminating the dark room with an eerie glow, it’s buzz numbing my fingers.
The third call. News.
I moved to press answer, heart in the pit of my chest, and noticed the screen didn’t have the smiling picture of Beth’s dad.
Number: 992 421 255
That didn’t make sense. This was Beth’s old phone, everyone knew her new number. The only person who knew it was still in use was her dad. Was he calling from a different phone?
Unless… I hardly dared think it, but it was enough to make me press the ‘answer’ button.