“This is Beth,” I said. I didn’t want to have a conversation on the doorstep, so I pressed forwards. Danni turned aside to let us through, keeping one arm outstretched, holding the door open. I had to turn sideways to pass, dragging Beth behind me.
The door closed with a mechanical click of locks. With a few inches of steel between us and the outside world I could relax.
“Beth, this is Danni.”
“I thought…” Danni frowned. I waited a moment for her head to sort through the info-dump I’d given her over the last few days. “Oh! Well, nice to meet you.”
Danni clasped Beth’s hand in her own and gave it a firm shake. It didn’t look like Beth returned it so much as let it happen.
“You had me worried then,” Danni said to me, but her eyes flicked back to Beth. “Don’t want you bringing anybody back here.”
“Yeah, I get it.” I said. “But this-”
“It’s fine, girl. Mike had a peek at the cameras, said it was fine.” She gave me an elbow in the ribs. I jerked, smacking my shoulder into the other side of the narrow corridor. A disproportionate response, but one that seemed to go unnoticed. “Just give us a little warning next time, okay?
“Will do.” She was right, of course. I should have… phoned? I had a phone. She, presumably, had a phone. I need to start communicating properly. A skill I’d never needed before.
She followed as I led Beth to the corner I usually slept. Mike didn’t descend from his room to greet us, and I assumed the lack of Jack bouncing around the place meant he was out. I was happy with that. I doubted Beth wanted company.
I’d commandeered one of the small store rooms as my own space, but hadn’t put much thought into it beyond a mattress. With three people squished into the tiny room I felt compelled to shove a few of the large crates of whatever the hell Mike’s father stored here to one side to clear more floor space.
Beth fell onto the mattress without care. The journey had taken it out of her. It had taken the best part of an hour. I had to be careful not to push us to go faster. She got out of breath with anything more taxing than a slow walk.
“I’ll go get some blankets.” Danni said. Good idea. I was glad someone was thinking.
“Who is that?” Beth whispered, once she was out of earshot.
“Danni? She helped me out, when things were really bad trying to get Tom out-”
“Oh, yeah. Jack’s friend. I met this kid called Jack-”
“Uh,” The seemingly irrelevance of the question caught me off guard. It took me a second to switch from trying to organise the mess I’d found myself into an easily explainable narrative. “I’m not sure exactly. Maybe twelve?”
“Oh.” I waited for any other pressing enquiries, but she must have been satisfied enough.
I continued, “They got into some trouble,” I struggled to repress the shiver that ran down my spine at the memory of the quick but brutal fight at the incinerator. “It was kind of my fault.”
“Here,” Danni had returned, passing me a blanket that I immediately threw over Beth’s shoulders. No response, she was tired, overwhelmed. Maybe.
I watched in silence, not wanting to disturb her but eager to get her anything she needed.
“Alex,” Danni whispered after a minute. She jerked her head sideways to the doorway.
I followed her into the hall.
“I think so.” I pressed my eyes with the heel of my palms, it seemed to give a moment of pleasant relief from the sharp, stabbing headache I’d been trying my hardest to ignore, while it seemed so keen to be noticed. “Just tired.”
“You okay?” Before I could react she had her hand on my upper arm, just above the elbow.
A sharp shot of adrenaline got me awake, and my mind racing. I pushed back against my natural reaction to pull away, or worse, to strike forwards. Fight-or-flight. A million years of evolution.
With a slow, deliberate breath, I very carefully forced myself to do neither. Regardless, I couldn’t do much against the tension. All my muscles taut, opposing each other in an ineffectual battle to do nothing at all.
She let go, with a quiet sigh.
“Come find me if you need anything. I’ll, leave you two alone.”
I was left, standing in the doorway, looking at Beth in my bed. Silence. As safe as we were ever going to get. For the first time in weeks, I felt some of the tension wash out of me. I had some time to sit and let everything sink in, just to exist, me and Beth. Was she asleep? I couldn’t see if her eyes were open or closed in the gloom as I stood, bathed in the hall light.
“I missed my Birthday.” Awake.
I immediately felt like a total idiot, standing just looking at her. I entered, pushing the door closed behind me and plunging us into the safety of near total darkness. I couldn’t look stupid in the dark.
“I wasn’t sure when it was,” I said. She’d mentioned it was soon, before. I’d kicked myself for not asking the date. “I never got you a present.”
“Seems so stupid, now.” I couldn’t see the walls in the darkness, but I knew the layout well enough to find my way to her in the dark. “He kept buying me all this crap, because he could never make it home.”
What could I say? I couldn’t relate to what she was going through in any measurable way. I had no family, no father, and no mother I’d ever like to see again.
In the darkness I reached out towards the bed. My fingertips struck blanket about where you’d expect to meet someone lying down
“I never asked for any of it, just for him to be home.” I could feel her breathing, the expanding and contracting of her ribs. I pulled back, hesitant that she might feel my touch – but wanting her to know I was here. If only I wasn’t so fucking awkward. Danni would have given her a hug by now. I couldn’t even put my hand on her side without this primal fear she’d notice. “He promised he’d be there, this time.”
“He was,” I said. He’d spent every day at that hospital. I had no doubt of that.
“Yeah,” her voice sharp. “He was, just I wasn’t. And now I’ll never see him again.”
There was movement. Vague shapes shifting in the gloom. She pushed herself to a sitting position, her hands were pulling me towards her.
Hug time. She wanted a hug. I could do that. The immense relief of being able to do something that might, even in the slightest, offer some kind of solace to her overrode my building panic.
Physical contact, not my strong point. There was something wrong with me. Hugs, the universal symbol of comfort, seemed to exist just to make me feel all the more broken. I was pretty sure you weren’t supposed to feel so nauseous. Your stomach shouldn’t be doing little backflips. This was supposed to be nice.
I could put up with it for Beth though. I couldn’t run away.
I could hear her breathing, right next to my ear. Loud, like the whole world had a breath. It tickled, disturbing a stray hair against my neck. I stared at the wall. In the dark, with a lack of light to distract my eyes, my vision filled with the flashes and flickers of colour. Inconsistencies, noise, on my retina that the brain focused into far too much due to a lack of stimulus. You never really see black.
“I’m so glad I have you, Alex.” A whisper, louder than any shout so close to my ear.
I closed my eyes and forced myself to regulate my breathing. Slow. Nothing to fight here. Don’t need so much oxygen.
Finally, she pulled back from the embrace, but she was still close enough to sense. I could hear the faint slip of clothing against skin with every movement, the soft whistle of her nose as she inhaled.
Something touched my face. Beth. Her hand, my cheek. I hoped she didn’t notice me tense. Tense wasn’t good. Tense wouldn’t help. I was tense anyway.
Her thumb brushed against the cruel scar beneath my eye. I couldn’t help but wince at the memory, the reminder of broken glass slicing into my skin, of a vision overlaid with an eye filled with red.
“Sorry.” She jerked her hand back, “Does it still hurt?”
“No!” It didn’t. She noticed. Crap. “No, not like that. It’s just…”
“You shouldn’t worry about it,” she said, almost too quiet to hear, “It’s not really that noticeable.”
“Huh?” My mind drew a blank. Too much Beth to properly process the speech that was slightly askew from my train of thought.
“I think it suits you, really,” I sensed her move a second before her hand was back. This time I was successful in subduing my overwrought instincts screaming at me to pull away. “It’s pretty cool, and, you know… I still think you’re pretty.”
“Oh…” She was thinking I was worried about my face, that I was more concerned about destroying my stunning natural beauty. I guess it had crossed my mind, on the rare occasion I’d looked in a mirror. But it was flesh. I had my eye, it was in no way debilitating. The real scar was the memory, the I-don’t-care-if-you-kill-me desperation that I felt the moment I taunted someone to murder me as a valid alternative to being brutally tortured.
But… I could deal with being called pretty.
“Oh?” She repeated back at me. What else could I say? She needed a response. ‘Oh’ wasn’t good enough. But I couldn’t agree with her. Why did Beth suddenly feel the need to console me with stuff like this? I mean, I wasn’t the kind of girl that cared about that stuff. She knew that.
She was the kind of girl that cared about that. She could pull off bit of charm wrapped in a pile of blankets after a long stint of coma.
“Alex…” Still so close, her face felt like it was a hair’s breadth from touching my own. The air was filled with the dry, sweet smell of her sweat. I wasn’t sure where she was going with this. She wanted something from me, I was sure of it. I’d give it to her. Whatever she wanted, I just needed her to be happy.
Except I didn’t have a fucking clue what to do.
“I…” Okay. Out of depth. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Then don’t say anything.”
I felt the soft bump of her cheek on mine. She fell forwards. Her lips hit my own. Dry. Slightly parted.
Beth, and me.
The tip of her nose was cold.