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Together

I am frightened. I’ve never done anything like this before but right now, I need the money. The bed is hard beneath me, not comfortable at all and the restraints feel alien and tight. A man is standing over me, ugly and big. He smiles in what I guess is meant to be a reassuring way and reaches over to grasp my arm.

“This might hurt a little.” His voice is surprisingly soft and he sounds professional. I guess he has done this hundreds of times; he certainly seems confident as he tugs my sleeve up and quickly finds a vein. I look away as the needle slides home. No turning back now. I am officially a lab rat.

They have told me that there might be a moment before the morphine kicks in. The really disorientating stuff won’t begin for around 20 minutes though. The nurse puts the needle to one side and checks the monitors on my head and chest. Finally he takes a swab from the inside of my mouth before smiling at me again, explaining that he will be just outside the room. I don’t have to worry; if there are any problems at all they will come and get me; I will be fine. Then he just leaves the room and I’m left alone, lying on a bed tilted so that my feet are above my head, waiting for the drug to kick in so that they can mess with my head. I don’t even drink that much! But I need the money.

My head is swimming and I feel sick. I try to close my eyes, but the lights start to change and flicker through my closed eyelids. My feet are still higher than my head although I feel like I am moving now. Is that part of the process? Was the bed motorised? I try to remember if I saw anything like that on the way in but I can’t concentrate. My mind keeps going off on tangents that come from nowhere, go to nowhere and leave me spinning and confused in their wake. I stifle a groan, but I don’t think it would have been noticed anyway. Is that whale music they are playing or just really bad jazz? I have no idea of anything anymore and I want to cry. A smell wafts at me, but there is nothing to see, nowhere it could have come from and the bed is moving again as the lights change from blue to red. I don’t think I can take this at all.

***

The movement has stopped now and things seem more normal. The only noises I can hear are quiet and reassuring. I daren’t open my eyes at all but this doesn’t feel like the same room, and not just because it feels safer here. Somehow it sounds bigger and less clinical. I shift slightly and suddenly realise that I am not restrained anymore. I can move freely but my body hates me for it. I grunt softly as I realise just how sore I am feeling. A quiet conversation stops immediately and I hear footsteps coming towards me.

“Miss Harper? Kerry? Can you hear me?” I open my eyes, the light is painful and I have to blink several times before I can focus. The ugly man is the first thing I see; Nurse Bourne, I now notice from his name tag. A shudder goes through me and I try to roll away from him, to hide my face. Why do I feel ashamed? I’ve done nothing wrong, they need subjects for their study and I need to pay my rent.

Why am I ashamed? Because I am terrified. I never imagined it would be so awful; I am afraid and I feel stupid and naïve. I want to cry, want the privacy to cry but he won’t let me have it. He lays a giant paw on my arm and gently pulls me back to face him. His voice is soft and concerned as he asks me how I feel.

I look past him. Not at him; I don’t want to see him right now, I can’t take it. There are 2 rows of beds in the room, but only one that I can see is occupied. A man is in it, his face turned towards me in sleep. He looks rough and I feel a stab of empathy. Other than the staff, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else in the room.

“I thought this was a big study?” I croak at Nurse Bourne. He looks over at the man and then back at me.

“There were 140 participants altogether. You and that man over there were right at the end so most of the other participants would have left anyway by the time you made it into here. Unfortunately, you have both reacted very strongly to the experience and your recovery has taken longer than anticipated.” He held up a hand, smiling as I tried to interrupt. “Now there’s nothing to worry about. You were only asleep for a few hours and the doctors have been and had a good look at you. You are fine, you just had a harder time than we expected, that’s all. Your hormone levels and brain activity have returned to normal and there is no sign of any physical damage. Of course, if you are worried about anything, you can always visit your own doctor in a month or so to check; but there really doesn’t seem to be any cause for alarm.”

No cause for alarm?! Now there was a phrase guaranteed to cause alarm if ever I heard one. I lick my lips, trying to make them feel more like my lips.

“What do you mean, a bad reaction?” my voice is croaky and hoarse. Nurse Bourne gently pushes me back against the bed. I hadn’t even realised I was trying to rise, but he is right. I’m not ready. I slump back into my pillow and look blearily up at him.

“Why my own doctor?” I ask as his words finally sink in. “Why not come here for help?”

“I’m sorry” His eyes cloud as he speaks and his head drops forward. “The funding for this project doesn’t extend to after care. Don’t you remember? You signed the disclaimer to say that you understood the risks and that there would be no comeback if anything did go wrong.” He can’t meet my eyes. For the first time since we met he looks uncomfortable. My heart would go out to him, except that his problem is really my problem, besides, he can walk away whenever he wants. It must be easy to get work as a nurse, right?

Across the room, the sleeping man begins to toss and turn. Nurse Bourne excuses himself and quickly moves over to his bed. He is speaking really quietly and gently. I can’t make out much of what he is saying, but I do catch a name. It seems his name is Lee. Well whoop-di-do for that little gem of information, I think bitterly as I let sleep reclaim me.

***

“Just by that blue car would be great, thanks.” I turn to the driver and smile warmly but it is a wasted effort. He is too busy looking at the road. I let the smile slip and close my eyes briefly, steeling myself for the effort of getting out of the car and into the flat. Why couldn’t we live on the ground floor? I don’t feel ill as such, just tired through to my bones and still disorientated. I smile again, at myself this time. There is no question after this that I would ever try proper drugs. Just the thought of it makes my stomach heave and the driver suddenly becomes less relaxed and more interested in getting me out of the car. They have paid for the taxi. It was the least they could do, in my opinion, giving that they are not going to take any further interest in my recovery. A wave of disoriented fear makes me start to shake. The driver is suddenly on the pavement beside me, holding out his hand ready to pull me out of the cab. From a distance it probably looks old fashioned, a courteous gesture but I understand that he just wants rid of me. He makes sure I am clear of the door and closes it behind me.

“This house?” The question takes me by surprise. I look at him stupidly for a moment before nodding. He guides me to the step and rings the bell. “Do you have a key, love?” His kindness surprises me; I can feel the tears piling up behind my eyes. I fumble through my pockets, looking for the key and praying that I will get indoors and up to my room before they start. He takes the key from me and opens the door.

“Get some rest” he advises before giving me the key back and returning to his car. He drives off and I’m left, feeling crazily lonely as he turns out of the street. My feet are like lead and I have to force myself to lift them and walk into the stairwell. All I have to do is climb the stairs and then I’ll be almost at my bed. I have never wanted anything more. The experiment was just meant to be about the effect that severe disorientation has on the body; I don’t know what they did exactly, but I don’t feel whole anymore. It is scary and exhausting. All I want to do is sleep until the world stops spinning.

I can hear Emily and Lola in the kitchen, talking and laughing. I really can’t deal with them right now, so I creep past the door. I’m almost at my room when my knees just give in and I sag heavily against the wall. The giggling in the other room stops.

“That you, Kerry?” Lola calls out.

“Yeah, it’s me.” I call back, trying to keep my voice level. “I’m knackered, just going to bed for a couple of hours.” If I was hoping that they would take the hint and leave me alone, I was being naive. I can hear them heading this way and making suggestive noises, speculating about where I have been for the past few nights. They obviously weren’t worried at all, which is a bit insulting. I sigh and wait for them. If I go into my room now they’ll only follow me and I’ll never get rid of them. It’s probably best to just let them get it out of their system here, in the hall, hopefully then I can slope off to my bed in relative peace. My head is starting to swim again. I can see disjointed images, swirling around in there like dreams that just won’t leave. As the kitchen door opens a sudden waft of burnt toast takes me by surprise.

“What’s wrong with the toaster?” I ask.

“Nothing… Dunno, haven’t used it for a while.” Lola looks at me oddly. “Strange thing to just come out with after going missing for days.”

“You won’t distract us that easily.” Laughs Emily, taking my arm and trying to lead me into the living room. I dig my heels in and don’t move.

“Where have you been, Kerry? You look awful.” Great, Lola has chosen now to get concerned. I decide to go for the truth; I just want to lie down and the smell is getting on my nerves. I feel frustrated by it for some reason, as though I was looking forward to that toast. I try to work out if I am hungry or not, but can’t concentrate as Lola repeats her question. I fish around in my coat pocket and hand her the cheque that they gave me as payment. She looks at it and then at me; her eyes wide, her mouth tight.

“They were advertising for people to do some medical trial. That should cover my rent, and the other stuff I owe you.” I try for a reassuring smile. “Told you I was good for it, didn’t I?” A sudden noise makes me flinch and Emily joins Lola in staring at me like I’m an idiot. They look like disappointed parents.

“I never doubted that you were good for it, Kerry, or I wouldn’t have given you the money in the first place. You’re just going through a rough patch; there was no need to do anything as stupid as this. Do you…” Lola breaks off to jump forwards, catching me just before I hit the ground. Both of them grab at me and haul me into my room where they dump me on the bed. I want to object, or possibly to help, but I can’t make my limbs or my mouth do what I want.

“Get some sleep” Emily orders roughly before adding “do you have any idea what they gave you?” I nod and try to speak, but all I can think of is the burnt toast. Some part of me is starving but it isn’t my stomach. As I fall back to sleep I hear myself decide on a pepperoni pizza. I really don’t like pepperoni.

***

My dreams are confused and exhausting. It feels like I am watching two 3-d movies, played over each other and I can’t always tell which is which. Most of the time I can’t even tell if I am awake or still dreaming; either way I don’t feel rested when I eventually stumble out of bed and into the bathroom. I lean heavily on the sink to catch my breath before looking at my reflection. My first reaction is to scream. I just about manage to hold the noise down, clamping my hand desperately over my mouth as though that will stop it. I stand as still as possible for ages, straining to work out if my flatmates heard. Slowly I calm down enough to realise that I have absolutely no idea why I reacted like that. The second movie is still playing in my head; I can hear noises and even feel things that have nothing to do with where I am right now. A man is talking constantly in the back of my mind although I can’t quite work out what he is saying. It sounds like he is gibbering in a corner somewhere at the moment. I force myself to ignore him and return to my reflection.

It wouldn’t be so bad if I could remember what it was that had scared me. I try, but there just doesn’t seem to have been anything at all. Of course, I don’t look good. Actually I look like I’ve just gone 10 rounds with Tyson after running a marathon, but I expected that. Cautiously I look myself square in the eye.

“That’s not me!” The man in my head is both incredulous and wrong. Of course it’s me. Who else would it be? He won’t listen though, just keeps gibbering. Eventually I hear him decide to check himself out. A face suddenly flashed behind my eyes. This time he is right, it isn’t me. But I feel like it should be. I try to tune the voice out, but I can’t. The noise he is making is threatening to force my own thoughts clean out of my skull. He is shouting at himself now, I can hear him: repeating his thoughts and yelling at the reflected face in my head.

I stand there, staring, for a long time. There are tears streaming down my face but I ignore them. I ignore everything. I feel like I am drowning, unable to keep the water out of my mouth and nose as I watch the boat sail away; riding safely over waves that are consuming me. Eventually I can’t avoid the truth anymore; I have gone crazy. What do they call it? Schizophrenic? Is that what this is? But I thought those voices were supposed to tell me to do things, not to treat me like an impostor! I drop my gaze in despair. I could do with some instruction right now, even if it was just from the imaginary man in my head. What will I do? I can’t tell anyone, how could I? The shame would be far too much to bear.

***

The vodka didn’t help; I don’t know why I thought it would. Now I’m stuck with a hangover so bad that light hurts and I can’t get my head up from the toilet seat. That awful man is still in here with me. I wonder if that is why my head feels so heavy right now and the thought makes me giggle. His world is swimming through my head, threatening to overwhelm me with sensations I shouldn’t even know about. All I can feel from him though is disgust and fear, but for some reason that only makes it funnier. I laugh harder until eventually I choke on sobs that I can’t keep down any longer. Sliding down to the floor, away from the toilet, I suddenly realise that I am not alone.

Lola is sitting on the side of the bath, nursing a coffee and watching me. She tries to smile as I struggle to collect myself. How long has she been there? It doesn’t look comfortable enough on the side of the bath for her to have been there all night. She holds out the coffee and I suddenly realise that it is for me and that it is hot. I guess it must have been her that woke me up.

“How are you feeling?” The question is unnecessary, it must be. There is no way I can feel this bad without it being obvious to everyone outside of my head. When I don’t take the coffee she pushes it into my hand, examining my face as she does so. “Who’s Lee?” The question is so blunt and sudden that I freeze, hangover forgotten. In the back of my mind, I feel him sit up and begin to take notice, but I don’t think that he heard the question. He just noticed my reaction to it.

“Who?” I would love to be able to do nonchalance but I can’t, not even at the best of times. I aim instead for dense stupidity. To my shock Lola doesn’t look to have bought it. Funny that; I feel pretty stupid from here. He is sneering at me. I try to ignore him but he is watching me like the telly and it’s really distracting. What has he got to be so high and mighty about then? I turn my attention to him, trying to focus, to watch him like he is watching me. The second film starts to swim into focus but Lola won’t allow it. She grabs my chin and stares into my face.

“Don’t play dumb Kerry. Who is Lee? You’ve been crying all night, begging him to leave you alone like he was in the room.” Her grip turns to a caress, and I realise that she is worried about me. She hates the idea of what they might have done to me in that lab, and now all she can see is the mess it’s turned me into. I have no idea what to say until suddenly it hits me.

“What do you mean, Lee?” I ask sharply. I had no idea that he had a name. I had even less idea that I knew what it was. “How do you know his name?”

“What are you talking about, Kerry? You’ve been shouting about him for hours.” She pauses, examining my face again. “Look, I don’t know who he is, or what you two have going on, but he isn’t good for you – I do know that. I’ve never seen you so mixed up over a man; I would never normally say this to your face, but you need to get out of it. Now. He sounds like really bad news…” She keeps talking, rambling on and on about how whatever I have with the mysterious Lee is bad for me, trying to get me to react, to talk to her about it. I can’t, obviously. She’d have me committed. I try to reassure her, but what can I say? I can’t leave him. He has to leave me.

He has to leave me. I have no idea how he got into my head, but he has to get out and I have to get him out. I look at him again, trying to work out if he is as real as he feels or if he is just a symptom of my madness. Somehow, he seems too detailed – I don’t think I have that much imagination, even on my best days. Is it possible that he is real? How would I know? Does it matter if it is real to me? I guess it would make it easier to convince him to leave, but at the same time it is all too terrifying to contemplate.

***

He’s nervous. I can feel him watching the vodka in my hand and hoping really hard that I don’t drink it. He needs this job, but I need him out of my head. He said he can’t leave, has even tried to get me to leave him! The bloody nerve; as if I’d be squatting in his head if I could get out. I can live with some of it. I’ve actually gotten quite used to having his world, his life, laid over mine. It’s like one of those maps that they use to show how a town has developed through time; except there’s been a mix up and who ever made it has used the wrong town for the overlay. It was terrifying at first. I couldn’t pick out what was his and what was mine, but I’ve gotten quite good at it. I don’t get nearly as confused now unless I’m tired or drunk. Not that I drink very often; on top of everything else it is just too disorientating, not pleasant at all. But it will mess with him almost as much as it will me. All I have to do is drink the vodka and there is no way he’ll be able to hold down an interview. It would be so easy to dedicate myself and ruin his life just like he’s ruining mine. I don’t want to do that though, I just want him to know that he isn’t welcome.

Surprisingly, it can be quite good fun sometimes; watching his life unfold, seeing and feeling his reactions to everything. It’s reassuring too. I thought I was making a mess of my life, but at least I’m not as bad as him. He has tried to talk to me about today, to call a truce, but I’m not having it. Not after what he did to me on Thursday. I want the man out of my head and if he won’t just go then he needs to know that I can make life as bad for him as he is making it for me. A wave of sadness and shame hits me at the thought; I never used to be like this. I’ve always thought of myself as nice – a thoughtful, considerate person. The problem is, though, that just the same as I can see him, watch him and judge him; he can do the same to me. It’s awful, having no place to hide from someone, from anyone, never mind a complete stranger. But he can see everything. Every dirty habit, every nasty little thought; all the stuff that I have always kept hidden; that I have never shared with anyone. He can see it all and I can hear his opinion on me every time. It’s worse than that even; I can’t just hear his judgement, it isn’t like someone following me around, telling me their thoughts on what I’m doing – all of their thoughts, whether I want them or not. I can feel it. I can feel his disgust when I pick at my nails, his malicious amusement when I make a mistake. Everything I do merits instant, physical, brutal feedback from a man I’ve never so much as spoken to and it is awful.

I call up my wildest, weirdest dreams and drink the vodka as fast as I dare.

I don’t know why I always go for vodka when I want to get drunk quickly because I hate the stuff. I gasp and gag as it burns its way down my throat. The fact is, though, that it does the job better and faster than any other drink I’ve tried. So I suppress a shudder of distaste and take another swig, mentally tapping Lee on the shoulder as I do so. There is no real reason to draw his attention to what I am doing, I am just being malicious. The thought mingles with adrenaline and the beginnings of drunkenness to make me giggle.

“Well, what did you expect?” I sneer at him, ignoring the anger and frustration he’s throwing my way, “My flatmates think I’ve lost the plot because of you and now I can’t even leave my home because of the mess you’ve made. You need to understand: You are not welcome.” Frustration fills my soul as I hurl my thoughts at him, but it isn’t all mine. He’s still trying to get me to back down; trying to convince me that he can’t escape this any more than I can. I don’t believe him though. Lola swings between blaming Lee and blaming the consciousness study. I just blame him. How can two people end up entwined like this unless at least one of them wanted it? In the back of my mind I can hear him trying to reason with me; to explain that he never asked for this to happen and he hates it just as much as I do.

“Please!” I’ve never heard him beg before and the force of his entreaty causes me to turn around, to pay him proper attention. “Please,” he repeats, quieter this time “Please, I know I haven’t made this easy for you either. I have done some awful things to you, I know that and I’m sorry. If I could leave I would, but I’m stuck the same as you and I really need this job.” I can feel his remorse, he makes no attempt to suppress it so it washes through me with enough force that I waver; I almost stop. Then I feel the hope that follows it, mingled with dread but also with triumph and instead of convincing me to stop, it only strengthens my resolve.

“How dare you!” I throw back at him, full of self-righteous indignation. “I begged for you to stop toying with my mind, but you treat it like your own personal playground. You humiliated me and threw all my failures, all my guilt back in my face. Now you want me to play nice, because for once I might be able to hurt you? The time for sorry is long gone, Lee. If you meant it you’d have said it when you had nothing to gain but my respect.” I pause, looking over at my MP3 player “what kind of music do you hate?” The hope and triumph disappear as I stumble, laughing, over to it, with a vague sense of relief that at least the girls aren’t in to witness this. I know that I’ve sunk to a new low here, the vodka is starting to take hold and I just want to curl up and cry, but I need to do this. He did it to me fast enough and I am tired of listening to him whining about being friends now that the worm has turned. I wonder briefly if I should have tried tequila instead of vodka, then scroll through for the 1980’s novelty hits compilation my sister put together for me. I switch off the lights and begin to dance like a freak as “Agadoo” begins to boom out of the poor, abused speakers.

***

The aftermath of the interview has been horrendous. He lost the job, of course he did. Who is going to hire a man who goes into an interview so messed up he can barely stand? And he started shouting at me. Actually shouting, like I must have been that first night with Lola watching. I didn’t judge him like he had done me though; it was just too funny. I couldn’t help laughing and that only made him angrier. Which, of course, made me laugh harder.

I wish I hadn’t done it. I really, really do. I know that it was a nasty thing to do and I just hadn’t thought it through properly. But then, I was trying to hurt him so I probably wouldn’t have stopped anyway. Or maybe I would. Who knows? I don’t know anything anymore and now he hates me, totally, passionately hates me. I guess he really can’t get out of my head or he would have run screaming by now. I would never have heard from him again and we would both be free. That’s why I’m sorry, I guess. Instead of a truce, instead of working together I’ve made an enemy of the one person who can just walk into my mind and trample it. I guess I could do the same for him. I know all of his deepest fears and his highest hopes. I know every little grubby secret. Not that he has anything really bad, nothing worse than anyone else, but we all have things we’re ashamed of, things we don’t want anyone else to know about. I know I do. I could do what he has done. I could tailor-make a hell just for him. The vindictive prick would deserve it too after the games he has played inside my head, but I don’t have the energy. I thought I was being so clever, trying to force him out, but I just don’t have the stomach for this at all. I just want to curl up and die. I really, really want this to end.

My hands are shaking as I empty the pills out of their individual blisters and into a tidy pile on my bedside table. You can’t buy enough in one go to do the job properly anymore so I had to go to a few different shops with him crowing and egging me on the whole way. They do it so that people won’t just overdose on a whim. They want you to be sure, to have to think about what you are doing and he loved that. He is still shouting in my head, even now. It has a different edge to the triumph he followed me round the shops with, he seems desperate but I’m not listening now. He has won and we both know it, I don’t need to hear his judgement on this so I’ve turned my headphones up loud enough that I can’t really hear myself think. I would have preferred the stereo but I don’t want the girls to hear and come in to turn it down. I can’t live like this and he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I want this. I am going to do it properly.

He is screaming in my mind now, trying to force me to look at him, but I keep my attention on my pile of pills and the vodka I’m going to wash them down with. I smile bitterly. I hope he likes that little touch; I’m sure he will enjoy the memory once I’m gone.

“Leave me alone!” I throw the thought at him. “At least let me do this in peace! God, not even you can hate me that much.” The tears start to fall – one final humiliation. No chance of me being found looking pale and ephemeral. I’m going to be found in a pool of my own snot and tears; lovely, but not really my main concern.

As I pick up the first of the pills I realise that there sees to be a commotion outside in the hall. Good, if they are distracted by whatever that is, they will be more likely to leave me alone. As I lift the vodka to my lips, Lee bursts through my door; out of breath and in the flesh, to slap the glass out of my hand and grab my chin to dig the pills out of my mouth.

I am vaguely aware of screaming, even over the sound of my headphones and I glance over his shoulder to see Lola in the doorway. She looks absolutely horrified. So much so that it makes me want to laugh, not from any sense of humour, not this time. I feel broken and hysterical. Why the hell won’t he just let me go? He staggers back slightly and behind him Lola’s expression changes so that I’m sure I must have shouted aloud. I shriek as he grabs me again and forces himself into my mind. He hasn’t actually done that before, has never invaded me like that. He always just stayed on the edges, taunting and manipulating me. Combined with his physical closeness, the effect almost pushes me over the edge completely.

Lola grabs at him, trying to get him away from me, to get to me herself; but he is stronger than she is and apparently frightened. I stop fighting and slump in his arms, letting him continue his assault unimpeded. It takes a couple of seconds before I realise that he is looking for something.

“What do you want?” I mumble. He follows the train of my thought immediately, as though it might give him some sort of clue.

“Is that it?” he demands roughly, ending his assault as quickly as it begun. “You haven’t taken anything else? You don’t need an ambulance?”

“What? No. Nothing, why? You gonna make me take them?” I know he knows it’s false bravado, but his relief shocks me and his hold on me changes subtly into an embrace, as though I was a child.

“Yes, that’s right. I came here to stop you taking the pills just so I could force them down you myself.” He pauses and I can feel that he’s as confused and scared as I am. “I couldn’t let you do it, could never have lived with myself.”

“You knew! How could you have known about something like this and still let it get this far!” Lola is hitting him and yelling. I realise that my headphones have fallen off, that I have no idea what we have said aloud and what has been silent in front of her. This must look horrible; I doubt she will ever forgive it. The thought is so sad, so hopeless that I slump even further and start to cry. He twists with me still in his arms and tries to step out of her range.

“Let me explain,” he pleads making me giggle – just how does he expects to do that, I have no idea. We never did think up a plausible excuse, but he isn’t looking for one. His soul feels as heavy as my own as he casts around for a place to start. I haven’t felt right since that damned experiment and that’s where he eventually begins. He was in the recovery room with me, he says, and suddenly an image of a broken man across the ward flashes into my mind. Is that really it? I thought it was just co-incidence but is that where it all began?

“I think they broke us.” He confirms, “Nurse Bourne said something had gone wrong and I think this was it. They won’t have anything to do with us though – I tried to go back after the interview, when you were drunk, but they just laughed at me. Who is going to believe this? We don’t have any comeback and we’d be lab rats forever if anyone did take us on.”

Lola snorts. She doesn’t believe him. Of course she doesn’t, not at first. But then he finally manages to force his arms to let me go. He is shaking with the effort, as if he is a baby and I’m some sort of belligerent comfort blanket. He moves well away from me, right over to the other side of the room. Then he gets her to choose a book, to pick a page and a place for me to start. As I read in silence he speaks the words aloud. Lola, looking over my shoulder, stays perfectly still for a moment before rifling through to another page. We repeat the process 5 or 6 times before she finally stops.

“It’s awful.” Lee tells her and I shoot him a grateful look. I am too ashamed, too tired to get involved right now. I know she’s my friend, but somehow that makes it worse. I sit in silence and watch her face scroll through various emotions as Lee explains what we’ve been through in the past month. Is that really all it’s been? I find that hard to believe, but then I seem to have lost all track of time since this nightmare began.

Eventually he reaches today, I can feel his shame as he tells her how he laughed and encouraged me to buy the pills. Lola looks like she might go for him, but restricts herself to wriggling down into her chair, crossing her arms against the onslaught of his words and glaring at him in horrified defiance. She almost looks as though he is attacking her. She hasn’t looked at me once.

“I couldn’t do it” he confesses finally “I thought it would be an easy way out, that I would get my head back and then just go back to my old life, but really? I don’t think that is even possible anymore. Could you live with yourself if you drove another person to suicide and then just watched them do it? I couldn’t.” He chokes on the words and I realise with a shock that he’s crying. “Been doing a lot of that this month.” He confirms with an embarrassed smile. Suddenly he pushes away from the wall and comes to kneel in front of me.

“I am so, so sorry.” His voice is rough with tears but his hand is gentle as he pushes my hair away from my eyes. The only emotions I can feel from him are sorrow mingled with the confusion of being physically close to me. “I hated you, but then you know that; and I need you out of my head, but I could never have lived with myself. Not if you’d gone like that.” He floundered, out of words at last. It was my turn; I had to say something, anything, but I still had to try twice before I could make my mouth form any words at all.

“What happens now?” I croaked at him eventually. He shrugs; his mind as blank and exhausted as my own.

“You need to find a way to live together, obviously.” Lola’s brisk, matter-of-fact voice makes us jump apart guiltily, like lovers caught in a clandestine clinch. “It isn’t going to be easy and you definitely don’t need to be telling anyone else about this.” Her demeanour cracks – she isn’t at all happy about this – but she swallows hard and continues. “If you want me to I’ll act as a third party for you both to let off steam. I’m not unbiased, I’m afraid Lee; but I’ll try to be fair at least and beggars can’t be choosers… No-one would know how to deal with this, but you two have made a real mess so far!”

She sounded irritated, even through her shock. Lee and I share a moment of frustrated anger that she could judge us like that over something that she has no real understanding of. It feels different from anything that has happened between us so far. It is still far more intense than anything I have experienced with anyone else; of course it is. But it also feels really good; like for the first time in my life I have someone who knows me completely and who might still be on my side. My throat is raw from crying and our souls ache, but for the first time since this all began, I feel like there is at least some chance that it might be ok.

We look at each other and smile as we share a flicker of hope.

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