[Five] Code

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Part One

Shelves stretch from floor to vaulted ceiling, far into the distance in every direction. At first, I thought they held books or narrow boxes, but it’s nothing so solid. Shafts of light, perhaps, or points of holographic convergence. There’s meant to be a system. I’m meant to recognise it.

I push the light switch and nothing changes. Off, on, off again, but the sourceless glow persists. That means something.

The screen is in my hand. I don’t remember picking it up and I don’t know where it came from. I type the numbers, but they aren’t numbers. It doesn’t work like that here.

Footsteps come from everywhere and nowhere and you.

You. “I can’t find what I’m looking for. Can you help me?”

“Yes.” The lie floats golden from my mouth and bursts above my head. “But you need to tell me what it is.”

“That’s the thing.” Your eyes shift green blue grey brown. “I don’t remember. I’m not sure I ever knew.”

“Is it the code?”

“What code?”

“I don’t know.” I hurl the screen at the shelves and it shatters in slow motion, crystalline dust caught in a sunbeam.

You trail your fingertips through the hovering shards. “But you’re supposed to know, aren’t you? You’re supposed to tell me.”

I take a step towards you and you take a step back, leaning into the shelves, an endless library of weightless truth. I whisper against your lips, “I don’t think I’m supposed to tell anyone,” and a dark, clawing loss twists through my ribs when I kiss you.

You pull away and reach out to touch my face, breath ragged, your thumb pressing into my lip. “Very good.”

I bow my head in the presence of praise. There’s a patch on the floor where the grid shows through. I cover it with my foot and you look the other way.

Part Two

Sirens tumble through the streets six storeys below and I pour another shot of whiskey I promised you I wouldn’t drink. The streetlights don’t reach this high and the stars don’t sink this low. Silence burns my throat again like all my pointless words before and I would give what’s left of my pitiful soul for just one more minute with you.

Palms pushed against my eyes fire miniature explosions into a spectrum of galaxies. Regrets swell like dying stars, and I’m sorry. I didn’t know or I didn’t think or I forgot or I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to. And I will only ever drown in excuses and my own selfish mistakes.

They’ll come and get me for work tomorrow and I’ll clothe myself in a convincing impression of sobriety. They should test me. They used to, but they let it slide and no-one talks about it. They know I’d fail almost every time now and if they document that they can’t justify keeping me on, no matter how useful I am or how much money they’ve thrown at this already. So they keep it all quiet and nothing is wasted. Except me.

I swallow a handful of pills I promised you I’d quit taking and let the chemicals pull me into sleep, through the dark hollow at the back of my mind where other people’s secrets live. The window is open and lazy currents of air swell into curtains I don’t even bother to close anymore. One of my hands drops from the edge of the couch and I hear my knuckles hitting the wooden floor, but I don’t feel anything. I don’t feel anything.

Part Three

The shelves roll out from the centre of my chest and my back arches in sympathy. I gasp for a breath I don’t need and shove the light switch away. The screen floats above my hand and I close my fingers around it, crushing it to nothing.

You appear in front of me. No footsteps this time. “I can’t find what I’m looking for. Can you help me?”

“You’re looking for the code.”

“Am I?”

“Yes. You’re looking for it and I have it, but I can’t tell you what it is. It’s locked away. I have to keep it safe.”

You fall back, arms folded across your chest, and float at an angle that defies gravity. “Maybe I can find it myself if you show me where to look.”

I kneel beside you and trace the curve of your spine with a shaking hand. “I can’t do that.”

You grip my collar and we drift and spin, a hazy vortex of stretching shadow. “You’re lying to me again.”

“I’m not. They made it so I can’t tell you.” A tear floats from my eye.

You catch it on your tongue like a snowflake. “But it’s in you. It’s in your head.”

“I know, but so much is in my head and I can’t see any of it. It’s what I signed up for.”

You undo two buttons on my shirt and slide one side off my shoulder. Your breath touches the scars there like ice and electricity. “Does that still feel good?”

I try to reply, but the words come out as numbers.

“Tell me,” you breathe against my history of torn flesh.

“No.” The shelves shudder and collapse and bury you. A distant electronic chirp measures my heartbeat and my fists clench by my sides. Bright light burns my eyes open.

“Very good,” says the person in the mask. It doesn’t feel the same as when you said it. “Your compartmentalisation is excellent. We still need to work on your control, but we’ve made a lot of progress.”

I blink heavily and try to speak, but my voice congeals into a lump I can’t swallow past.

The person in the mask helps me to sit up and hands me a paper cup filled with water. “Here, this will make your throat feel better. Small sips. And don’t try to talk yet. Give yourself time.”

Part Four

They’re keeping me here tonight. Officially, I’m staying voluntarily for the benefit of the assignment, but really, they’re keeping me here. They let me out for a smoke, though. They probably shouldn’t have, but they did. How much is my body even worth to them if they look away while I destroy it? Is there an equation for that? A point up to which they’ll accept my self-destructive compulsions, but if I go beyond it, they’ll take away my cigarettes and my drink and my medication to guarantee a certain level of return on investment?

There’s a gap in the towering concrete wall where an equally unscalable fence allows me to look at the sea, to hear the waves crashing, to breathe the salt air and let it fight the tar for space in my lungs. Today, everything is grey, distinct only by degrees of motion and texture. Perhaps it’s grey all the time. I don’t come out here very often. Maybe I used to. I’m not sure.

There’s a glitch, an overlay in the part of my brain that still belongs to me, a jittering flash of us on a beach. Not this beach. It might have been years ago, but I can’t tell how much time has passed since anything anymore. The water and sand flicker and fade. Our laughter echoes. The sun goes out. I stop breathing. A machine screams.

I wake to the smell of smouldering skin when my cigarette melts through my clothes. There’s no pain. There should be, but there isn’t. Dusk is gathering and someone is watching me from a window somewhere. I can’t see them, but I can feel them. Being observed has a very specific emotional resonance, and I’m learning to isolate it more effectively between the layers of everything else. Someone here told me it’s important that I know how to do that.

Part Five

I open my hands like a book, and the shelves spread in a concertina between my palms.

I blink, and the light switch vanishes into a point of darkness.

I shake my head, and the screen dissolves with a crackle and hiss in front of me.

I can’t see you or hear you, but I can feel you. Somewhere. Not physically, but. But.

I close my hands, and they swallow the shelves. This is an action I can choose now.

And you. You. Around me. Inside me.

I gather silence and will it towards you. A void. An answer aching with absence. Finally, I give you nothing. I have nothing to give.

A voice that isn’t yours asks, “What’s the code?”

My own words spiral like a thorned vine from my chest and my tongue bleeds a response. “There is no code.”

And the light in my eyes and my clenched fists and the green line of my heartbeat and the person in the mask and the paper cup and every secret swallowed and every meaning lost.

Part Six

Dawn breaks and so do I. I don’t know if I slept or not. The last thing I remember was staring down an empty bottle like it was the barrel of a gun, which it may as well have been. My head hurts, but not enough. I’ve given up counting pills, but I haven’t given up taking them.

There’s a photograph of us lying next to me, fractured glass and our faces back when I remembered how to smile. I used to taunt you for printing them, framing them, putting them on display when this was still a home we shared. I told you we weren’t going to forget what we looked like and you told me that wasn’t the point. I get it now. I get it.

This is one of the pictures I gave them when they asked for material to construct my primary trigger stimulus. This picture and a hundred others, videos, stories. I gave them my memories of you, of us, and I wished, pleaded, for an exorcism. I knew the version they made of you wouldn’t be real, that I would eventually have to push it aside. That was the goal. Reject the stimulus.

But still, it would give me some time with something that looked like you, sounded like you, felt like you. Then I could learn to reduce you to nothing and leave you behind. This time it would be on my terms and, god help me, I thought it would heal me.

Now you’re no more than a digital construct, stored on a server deep underground, and there are only two moments left in my life that matter to anyone other than me.

Part Seven

The plane speeds down the runway, and it’s been three hours since (one) they looked inside my head to confirm the presence of secrets I can’t see. In nine hours, I will arrive at a destination defined only by coordinates. Some mirror-image version of them in a facility just like theirs will (two) open my mind and leave me empty.

The anticipation of freedom tastes hollow and anchorless in the moment the wheels lift off the ground. My breath is cradled in the hands of science and magic, and our last night together slips through my fingers again.

We fought, as we did more and more often, over everything and nothing. I drank too much, smoked too much, swallowed pills by the handful and swept barren platitudes towards you across the land mines and razor wire tangles of your completely justified resentment.

You grabbed my shoulders, pressing into the place where a bullet had missed its target a year before. It’s the last time I remember anything feeling as much as it should have. You begged me to turn down the assignment, and I promised it would be the last one. The thing is, I was telling the truth that time and now you’re never going to know.

When you slammed the door, a photograph fell from the wall and the glass in the frame cracked. Sleep found me watching it from deep within a sedative haze under the gathering weight of relentless humidity.

I awoke drenched in sour sweat and shame the next morning when the police arrived. The tide had gone out beyond the pier at sunrise and they’d found your car nestled in the silt with your body still at the wheel.

Now I stare out the window at the clouds below and see them as heaven and rolling water. The recycled air in the cabin tastes stale and the jet engines roar and I am a broken clock.

[Five] Vine

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The vine began lithe and delicate, winding around the sapling we planted the week before you left. 

(Who sets life in motion before walking away?) 

It grew, it bloomed, and I should have cut it back, but there was poetry in how the flowers hid the choking. A weed is something that grows where it isn’t wanted, but I wanted it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was asking for it, but maybe I forgot to keep the garden.

(Did I lock the door? Did I turn off the stove?)

Thing is, I watered it a couple of times.

Anyway.

We were watching a documentary about prisons and you said it was too hard to think about the dehumanisation, how suddenly people stopped being people. You didn’t understand how anyone expected anything to get better with a system like that. I never assumed that was anyone’s expectation.

Another time, you asked if I ever thought about leaving and I said I wouldn’t leave you. You meant both of us leaving here, together, moving to somewhere else. 

(I always answered the questions you didn’t ask)

Every report card I ever got said something about how I could be capable of so much, if only I would make the effort. But. Wasted potential sits more comfortably than proven failure. Sometimes I remember things that happened twenty years ago and they feel like yesterday.

Then there was the time you told me you were drawn to uncertainty as a response to an oppressively regimented childhood and that we learn who we are partly through other people’s reactions to us. I didn’t say anything.

(Did my silence define you?)

I always waited until you were asleep before I peeled myself away from your skin. It wasn’t your fault I felt like I was suffocating.

That morning, I got up before the sun and lay curled, fetal, on the lawn again. You posted your key back through the door while I escaped to the deep hum of the earth turning.

(How cold we were, and how bankrupt in the currency of forgiveness)

[Five] Echo

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Death (1994)

He arrives empty-handed, but he carries his past in his eyes. His past, yours, theirs, everyone’s but mine. With a nod of recognition, I welcome him by name. “Been a while, Time.” 

He returns the gesture. “Busy days, Death. Busy days.” 

We face each other, a foot apart, watching, catching up silently at first. We used to need words for this, but not anymore. We’ve been around each other enough by now just to know, to see everything. Sometimes it feels like we’re the only ones who really see each other. Inevitable and invisible. They look at anything but us. We have those kinds of faces. The face of a clock, the face of the light they see at the end. Or what they imagine is the end. Whatever.

It’s unusual for us both to arrive at once, and we know what it means when we do. This is going to be a tough one. Part of me wants to be there early, to stand close by, arms outstretched, until. Another part of me knows there’s no point. He knows too.

“Just wait,” he says.

“I hate these ones.”

“Me too, sweetness, me too. But at least the music’s good.” He looks around, appraising, appreciating. “And the scenery’s not bad either.”

“I can’t think of them like that anymore. I used to be able to, but it got too fucked up. We keep coming back and they don’t.”

“You’re stunning again, though,” he says. “No matter what face you get, you’re always fucking stunning.”

“Makes it easier, I guess.”

“For you?”

“For them. They get to see what they need to see, when it happens. You’re not so bad yourself.”

“I know, right?”

We stop talking and let it all sink in, the recognition, the meaning, the understanding and the cold necessity. I don’t know what it would look like to anyone else, if they were looking, which they aren’t. They don’t see us in the corner, his back against the sweating wall, me leaning into him, arms around each other, barely inches between our unblinking eyes.

He tilts his head into the space over my shoulder. “Don’t look now,” he says, “but that’s her.”

And I feel it. The shiver sweeps across the back of my neck, under the collar of my jacket, settling into leather-wrapped vertebrae. I always feel it there. No matter what, that’s where it lands. I wait a moment, then look round and there she is. What’s left of my heart trails itself inside out. “She’s so young.”

“Not as young as she looks.”

“But still. I hate it when I get these ones on my own, but I hate it even more when you’re here too.”

“You need to toughen up, gorgeous. You’re getting sentimental again.” He pushes a lock of hair back from my face, tucks it behind my ear and lets his fingertips rest against my cheek. “Remember what happened last time you did that?”

“I know, it’s just… you’re right. But sometimes it starts getting to me. It shouldn’t, but it does.”

His hand slides from my face to my collar, down my chest to my waist. “You,” he whispers against my lips, “need to embrace your true nature.”

I whisper back, “You and your fucking clichés,” then I let myself fall into him because it’s good. It’s always good. It’s always what I need. The music pulses through the floor, through the walls, through us. Music does that. It gets into everything.

We stop for a breath and he half-smiles. He only ever half-smiles. He says, “Better now?”

“I want to dance.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. I need to get through this.”

“What’s dancing got to do with it?”

“Just that maybe I’ll never do it again. Dance, I mean. I don’t know.”

“So dark.”

“What did you expect?”

“Exactly that. Always that, from you. It’s the sweetest part of these bittersweet reunions.”

I turn and pull him with me. Arms draped across each other’s shoulders, singing the wrong words to a song we don’t know anymore, we collapse from one step to the next until we get to the dance floor. With the noise, the heat, the sheer volume and intensity of life around us, I can almost forget who we are, why we’re here.

Almost.

We feel her move towards the door, and we know. Quietly, respectfully, we follow. No-one notices her leaving. No-one notices us either. I think maybe she’s had that in common with us for a long time and something inside of me reaches for her.

We walk a few paces behind, out the door, down the street, around the corner to a small city park. It’s just a square of lazily turfed wasteland with a swing-set and when it gets too dark for play, in-between souls find themselves drawn to the cold mirage of nostalgia-by-proxy.

Waiting in the shadows, we bear witness as she takes the pills, the whole bottle, one by one, washed down with something from a silver hip-flask that shudders her eyes closed with each bitter swallow. Then she sits on a swing and kicks into motion, leaning back, laughing her last.

I bury my head in his shoulder. “Couldn’t we… not? Just this once?”

He strokes my hair. “You know it doesn’t work that way, lovely. It’s not up to us.”

“It’s a fucking waste.”

“Oh, sweetheart. No anger. Not now.”

We feel the shift when it happens, so we approach, hand in hand, and she sees us for the first time. She stops and staggers with shaking steps from the swing to the ground, resting against a bench where parents sit by daylight to watch their children being children. “Are you here for me?” Her voice slurs and she sounds so young. Too young.

He sits at her left and I sit at her right, each of her hands in one of ours, holding space. She looks from one of us to the other, dizzying waves flickering across her face. The last thing she says is, “But you’re both so beautiful.”

And we wait.

And it happens.

Fast forward.

“I DON’T GIVE A SHIT. I DON’T CARE ANYMORE.”

“You should. You’re going to screw everything up again. You can’t do this.”

“I can do whatever the fuck I want!” I stand in the middle of the road, eyes closed, arms out-stretched. Of course no-one sees me, not like this, not now, not yet. Not until I decide they’re going to.

“You know this isn’t how it works.”

“It’s how it works today. You want death? You’ve got death.”

“But you don’t get to decide!”

“I DO NOW,” and this is it. This is the moment everything changes, and I don’t even care anymore. One driver sees me, then another, and another. But it’s too late. Too late for them, I mean, not for me. It’s perfect for me. The violent crush of metal into metal is sweet music, sweeter than the music in the club, but not as sweet as her last laugh.

Hope. She was called Hope. Not that it matters.

I choose one vehicle from the three that currently contains people inching towards their final breath. It’s a random choice, or as random as any choice ever is. I should know better than to throw around words like random so casually. Sitting cross-legged on the ground beside the shattered window of the mess of a car, I rest a hand gently against the quietly stopping heart of a man whose last thought is of the father he wishes he’d killed when he had the opportunity.

Again, I am nothing, no-one, as I pick my way through the carnage to where he—my calm companion with his empty hands—waits at the side of the road.

“I can’t be here for this, not again,” he says, and we stand forehead to forehead as the sirens get closer.

“I love you,” I tell him, and I mean it.

“You’ll forget.”

“Not everything.”

“But enough. And you’ll stay.”

For another second, a minute, an hour—he plays those to perfection every time—we hold each other. There are no goodbyes here, not for us. There’s always another again.

We give each other our freedom and he turns away. I say nothing as I watch him go, as I feel him become a stranger.

Until.

Time (2014)

For all his earlier protest, he lives further into his purpose every day, fingers made for pulling triggers and the kind of face people should remember, but no-one ever does. He knows how to be invisible when it suits him. Being seen is a hell of a thing to give up, but he has his reasons. Don’t we all?

I followed him to work one night, and he was so elegant, so efficient about it. There was no reluctance, not anymore. There was nothing at all. He just did it, like breathing. Something in the tension of his forearms, in the veins on the backs of his hands, made me stop in my tracks and everything slowed down. Maybe no-one else noticed, but he did. I know he did. I felt it.

Honestly, this is not how I thought he was going to turn out. I mean, I knew what he was getting into when he stayed. So did he. But this full-circle business? This, I did not expect. At least he still has that face. It would be a tragedy if anything happened to that.

So he does what he does, and sometimes I find him, but he never acknowledges it first. Or at least he hasn’t before and I don’t feel like tonight’s going to be any different. It’s just how we’ve been, wandering wide circles around each other, trailing fingertips softly along boundaries. Respectful. Occasional. Things get shaky when we don’t keep enough distance, but it is what it is. What we are.

And now, here. “Oh, sweetness, you’ve become quite the professional.”

He doesn’t turn towards me yet, but we can see each other in the mirrored wall behind the bar. “And you’re still showing up in places you’re not meant to be. You get too close. You’re too close now.”

“So move.” I stare at him in the mirror and our reflections cut through the grease of strangers’ fingerprints, all those smudged identities, dispensing pints of comfort and shots of courage, knowing when to look away.

He stares back, full force, and someone at the table behind us clutches their chest for an irregular heartbeat until the pain subsides. “I was here first.”

“But you’re the one it bothers. I’m fine with it.”

Outside, both sets of traffic lights turn green at the same time and the only two vehicles at the junction collide in a place they weren’t supposed to occupy simultaneously. People panic. We don’t. He turns to face me now. No words needed. And my god, he is a sculpture.

I give in to what he wants though, because of course I do. Getting up to leave, I pause, just for a moment, just for long enough to touch him. A few feet away, a glass falls from the bar.

He almost leans into my hand, almost, but he blinks the impulse away like an echo. “Why now?”

“Because I had a dream about you, gorgeous. Something about the ocean and your arms. I don’t remember what, but you were beautiful, and it made me need you. You are, I mean. And I do. Still.”

He looks me up and down, an icy sliver slicing the space between us. “It’s pointless, though.”

“What is?”

“This. You finding me. Us being here, being anywhere, together. You can’t stay and as soon as you leave, I forget again.”

“But as soon as I come back, you remember.”

There’s a tender stillness, a blessed inertia, as we watch each other. Again, he tries to make himself remember something he’ll inevitably forget. Again, I try to believe that this time, he’ll manage it. We both know we’re lying to ourselves, but we let it happen. If I try hard enough, I can make this last. I can stretch it out almost enough to get us through the unavoidable loss that always follows. He knows what I’m doing, and he stops me from doing it. Again.

“I’m sorry, Time.” He bows his head away from me so I don’t even get to see how my name looks in his eyes.

My fingers hang in the air where they rested against his face a fraction of a second ago. Maybe we both deserve recognition. It’s a cold gift, but it’s a gift all the same. “Me too, Death.”

Across the bar, the glass hits the floor.

[Five] Spark

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And in the end, it all came back to energy. Newtons, lumens, decibels, volts… mostly volts. I started to see units of measurement everywhere, numbers to define how something could be experienced, seen, heard, felt, pressed, burned, used, destroyed. It started when I read that 2,450 volts of electricity would be passed through my brother’s body and energy began to mean something different to me.

These 2,450 volts would cook his brain and his skin, make his eyes bulge and melt, and his bowels release. They would cause him to jolt so violently against the leather straps that his bones would break. They would stop his heart. They might comfort the families of his victims, watching from behind glass in a room that was at once too close and too far away. And they might bring nightmares fuelled by cognitive dissonance to the people who unlocked the door, led him down the corridor, tightened the straps, pulled the lever. I had no idea what they would do to me.

I left a long time ago, and I never expected to be back. There was nothing here for me then and in just a few hours there will be nothing here for me again. I only came because he asked me to. He wanted someone on the other side of the window in that room who had no personal attachment to the boys whose deaths had finally brought him to meet his own.

Any real connection I had to him was severed years before when I bought a one-way ticket and didn’t look back, but he had no-one else. I wanted to say no to him. I wanted to carry on with my life as though my brother hadn’t murdered children in a country where I no longer lived. I wanted to maintain my distance with my new name from a brief marriage and oceans between us. But still, I said yes, and I went.

We communicated by letter at first. He told me he had come to understand that what he did was wrong, but he couldn’t help it. He knew each of the boys he had killed was someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s friend, someone, but his need outweighed that. He said he had always felt those urges, that they started when he was younger than his boys, and he knew it was only a matter of time before he progressed from doing what he did to animals to doing what he did to people.

He asked if I had been scared of him when we were children, if I had seen it coming. If I had known what he was. It took me a week to reply to that letter because I didn’t know what to say other than yes. The truth is, I had always known. When I heard he had been arrested, I spent a year in therapy I couldn’t afford, telling a well-meaning stranger that I should have said something, should have done something, to stop this. The other truth is I know there is nothing I could have done. I couldn’t have changed something so entrenched in the core of his being. I couldn’t have turned him into someone else.

Where we grew up, hunting was a part of life. It was a running joke that he was a terrible shot, but he wasn’t that terrible. He never missed entirely. He only ever missed enough that he had to finish the job with a knife. The loudest alarm bell was not rung by the killing of animals he hunted to eat, but by the killing of animals he hunted simply because he could. Sometimes he started to cut them up before they were dead, although I think I was the only one who knew that. I found him elbow-deep in the still-twitching body of a stray dog in the back field one day after school and all he said was, “Don’t tell anyone.” So I didn’t. And a year later, I left.

I had seen pictures of him on television and in newspapers, but during my first visit to the prison, I was surprised that he was no longer the fifteen-year-old boy he had been when I last saw him in person. His eyes were the same though—dark, cold, empty apart from the occasional flare of something like anchorless resentment—and I felt a stab of ice in my heart when he looked at me.

He said he didn’t think I would come, but he was glad I did, that he understood why I hadn’t stayed before, why I hadn’t come home when both our parents were killed in the house fire he escaped from unscathed at the age of eighteen. Of course, there had been no definite proof of arson, but I knew and he knew that I knew.

When the day came, he was given the opportunity to speak his final words before they brought down the hood to cover his face. He said only, “I want to thank my sister for being here today and for leaving before. Her presence was the only thing that held me back and when she left, I was finally free to do what I needed to do.” Then he smiled with a gentle, honest acceptance.

2,450 volts.

The thundering beat of my heart as I walked towards my rental car. The slam of the door shutting. The spark of the ignition as I turned the key. The roar of the engine as I drove away. The gathering speed as I headed towards the airport. The glow from the streetlights. The heat of my tears. And in the end, it all came back to energy.

[Five] Smoke

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Six months ago

You whispered through tears, “I love you.”

One month ago

I stood next to my car with you, experiencing the dawning realisation that this was going nowhere. I leaned on the door and shuffled my feet as you said you couldn’t have made it this far without me, but it was too painful to be with me now. I pulled you back to when life was bad and you needed too much. A cut-throat reminder that I was enough for only some things.

Well, I hope you enjoyed that little moment, that you took it home and wrapped yourself in it, feeling a swell of pride for having broken the unbreakable.

Twenty-nine days ago

I found your cigarettes in the bottom of my bag. The pack was crushed. I smoked them, one by one, all afternoon until I could breathe again, the skylight open above my head. I quit smoking a year ago, but that pack, that day, was not failure or relapse. It was catharsis. I was disgusted, as much by how I still wanted you to want me as by the now unacquired taste of burning tobacco.

Lying on my bed in a haze of smoke, I remembered your smile, your eyes, all those clichés. How amazing for someone who forgets most faces in an instant. But there I was, my own eyes red-rimmed and dark-circled, skin pale, hair wild and lips bitten, picturing your particular arrangement of features with painful accuracy. I pulled my sleeves down over shaking hands with chewed fingernails and tried to hate you.

One year and two months ago

The day we met. At work. I overheard you explode into a rant about how films and TV shows now were nothing more than remakes, reboots, reimaginings, sequels and prequels, how the whole entertainment industry had given up trying to climb out of its conceptual rut.

I knew right then that we had to be friends, so I spun around in my chair, uncharacteristically interrupting your conversation with a bewildered colleague, and said, “No-one’s brave enough to do anything that hasn’t already been mass-approved a thousand times over. Nothing’s new anymore and I hate it.”

You raised your hands in a gesture of praise and appreciation, then pointed at me and said, “See? You get it.”

One year and one month ago

You stopped at my desk, handed me a cup of coffee, and said, “I’m going shopping at lunchtime. You should come with me.” It wasn’t an invitation as much as a statement of fact. So I went. Because of course I did.

I wriggled into a dress I never would have chosen for myself, but that you decided would look amazing on me, and while I scrutinised my appearance in one of ten available mirrors, you looked me up and down and said, “You look stunning. Seriously. Stunning. You should wear things like that all the time. You should definitely buy it.” So I did.

You pulled off the sweater you’d been trying on and I saw the scars. I never asked. You never told me.

Nine months ago

We went out to a club, and I wore the dress. Maybe it did look stunning like you said, but everyone was staring at you. Everyone was always staring at you. We shared a taxi home and arrived at your house first. You kissed me on your way out of the car and walked away without even so much as a glance over your shoulder, leaving me in shock with your lipstick smudged on my mouth.

Eight months ago

You quit your job. You showed up at my door at one o’clock in the morning and said in a rare expression of vulnerability, “I’m scared you’ll forget me if you don’t see me every day. I don’t want you to forget me.”

I invited you in and made tea and toast while you curled up on the couch and told me about a recurring nightmare where a strong wind blew down the trees in your front garden and the roots tore the house apart as they ripped through the ground. You said you thought it might have had something to do with feeling like the house shouldn’t be yours, that you only got it in the divorce because your ex-husband had enough money not to care and just wanted it all to be over so he could get away from you.

You spoke of a gnawing sense of nostalgia for a time and a place that you were scared you would never experience, and how you were sure there was a word for that, but you couldn’t remember what it was.

You told me about your ex-husband and your father and how history always repeats itself and people always let it because they don’t know how not to. Then you told me how much you admired my strength and wished you could be like me instead of living in a perpetual state of emergency. You turned your face away from mine when you said, “I can’t look in the mirror anymore.”

I didn’t know what to say because I might have been steady ground, but you were an earthquake and I was quickly becoming addicted to the sensation of breaking glass and cracking walls.

You lit a cigarette and asked if you could stay. I said yes. Because how could I not? And how could I not want you to?

That was the true beginning of the tempest, the vortex, turbulent and wild. Ships shattering, thrown against rocks in the darkness of a storm and lifeboats swallowed whole. A collapsing tower, a wheel with spokes on fire, a red sky at night. A warning. A warning I completely ignored. I closed my eyes and let go. I let myself fall.

This morning

I got a voicemail from you. It said simply, “I gave up smoking. I thought you should know.” I deleted it. I hope you can finally breathe.