Six months ago, my boyfriend was quite a catch. Ask anyone. But that was before the stubbly face, the cruddy clothes, the living rough in the woods. Before the headaches forced him to constantly rub his forehead like he’s trying to remove indelible ink. And way before now where he’s covered in blood, slumped under HOT DRINKS & CAKES on the supermarket café floor.
He’s holding her hand. It’s still attached to her body, despite the way her arm has been hacked apart. The artery inside is exposed like a kid’s toy, as if someone just wanted to see the inner workings, replace the batteries. It’s pulsing even after she’s dead; little electric shocks of blood splattering the tiles as if someone is squeezing a carton of apple juice a little too tight. Her hair is plastered to her head from where she’s tried to wipe it away. Funny how years of ingrained habits never leave a person. Even as she was dying, she couldn’t bear her fringe in her eyes.
He has a strange look on his face. Like he can’t quite process everything that’s just happened, everything he has done. Finally, he asks, “Are you okay?”
I nod, but I really want to shake my head. Blood is seeping from his nose, which reminds me of something Mum’s new husband Stevie once said, how his family’s jam factory was bombed in the war. How the houses down the road were smeared in jelly, dead bodies covered in marmalade, everything buried in strawberry jam. “Sure Jack,” I say. “I feel great.” But I really want to cry. “You?”
His skin’s so pale, so sick, like he’s undergone some kind of bleaching process from those chemicals you see on the telly that you apply to your teeth. He sighs, letting her hand fall to the floor. “I don’t want to drag you into this,” he says.
I shiver. The endless rain has filled us up and we’re defrosting into guilty puddles on the crusty polyester. Ridiculous thoughts whirl round my brain. Why are there carpet tiles on the floor? The grim residue of thousands of crumbs and spilt drinks has been weaved into the thread. What were her last thoughts? Was it the obvious, for Jack to just disappear, to get off her, to stop doing what he was doing? Or something more banal, like the fringe in her eyes or a useless errand she forgot to run? If we peel back her clothes, I’m certain she’s wearing matching underwear. We both have that in common. We wore our best bra and knickers for our Special Day, only,
I’m not wearing mine anymore and hers are drenched with blood.
“You don’t think I’m already involved?” I say. He’s not making any bloody sense. This isn’t my Jack. But then I’m not exactly sure who my Jack is. For that matter, neither is he.
“Come on, Em” he says. “I’m not like you.”
I plough my hand through the half a carrot cake that’s wilting under the warm lights. “No,” I say, churning my fingers under the icing, moulding shapes, “I’m normal. You’re anything but.” My joke is half hearted because it’s only half understood. I can list fifteen, twenty ways that Jack isn’t normal. The way he can remember every single thing he learns. The way he seemingly hasn’t had a past. There’s no evidence that Jack exists. At all. And we’ve spent days, weeks, months trying to work out who he is, where he came from, how. But he’s always kept something back, like I’m not enough of a grown-up to hear. I swear I’m in love with a hallucination.
“You know I’m different, Em,” he says. “We’ve been through this. I’m,” he tries to find a good word, “unusual.”
I run my fingers under the tap, squelch the globules of icing down the drain and glance outside. It’s a midsummer’s afternoon but it’s so dark, I can’t see a bloody thing. It’s the middle of the day and I’m just so bloody tired. “These past months,” my voice cracks, “they’ve all been unusual.” I try to find a good analogy. “It’s like I’m watching a movie half way through.”
He’s nodding. “Nothing makes sense.”
You don’t say.
She was just here. Attending the last major event of her life, maybe her biggest one of all. And now she’s half gone. Her soul disintegrated – not to heaven and all that crap, just vanished – but her insides are still moving as everything else has come to rest, like a snow globe after it’s been shaken and put down. The tears on her cheeks, faded. Dry.
But I can still hear her screams.
We’re trying not to look at her – neither of us wants to relive it – but it’s a car crash. I can’t not look. She’s my second dead body. Quite different to the first. She’s just dead. The other one was dead, dead. And I can’t keep myself from asking all the wrong sorts of questions. Does she weigh less now than she did alive? How long does a body take to decompose? And then I think of Grace. Best friend Grace. But she left me behind in a better town, a different life. She lives in an underground box too.
“God, this is awful,” Jack is King of the understatement, “for everyone.” He wipes his face with the back of his hand, spreading her blood across his forehead, which makes me gag and I run back to the sink.
“Everyone’s a mess,” I say – talk about Queen of the bloody obvious – “Even Mum’s been affected.” She pops into my head now, but how she was just after the first girl went missing. She’s playing Shiny New Families, ramped up on pills, trying to salvage Christmas. I can’t even think about how much trouble I’m in. Just being here with Jack puts me in direct violation of everything we’ve agreed.
Everything is an abomination. Trickier than I ever imagined. My plans to leave town with Jack seem way more confusing, more difficult than they have been in my head. Everything smells disgusting. Maybe it’s her? Or maybe it’s everyone else. Sweat, someone’s insides, a stewed coffee pot that must have been on for hours. And the noise is something else. Not like those slow-mo surreal montages you see in the movies but panicky, messy and LOUD. Her blood is mixing with the rainwater now, like we’re all popsicles, dripping raspberry cordial round our fusty feet on the grimy viscose tiles. The sirens won’t stop wailing and the people’s cries are matching them nee for nah. Because we are all participants in her death. We all killed her.
Even me. Especially me.
Nothing will ever be the same again.
The police are heading towards us and I know what they’re going to ask. They’ll want me to repeat everything. Again. And I won’t have anything else to tell them because we all know how it began. How her death – today – is the result of eight different situations that started with the four of them. Becky, Cath, Kitty and Rebecca. The day I met Jack. The just-before-Christmas day of the corybantic bird, the small boy and the huge, ginormous, humdinger of an argument in the playground of the local park.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish