Viv was, somehow, not surprised to see Paul standing there. After everything that had just happened it wasn’t exciting.
She brushed at her jacket. The cuts in her hands had vanished alongside the hole in her head, and from the feel of it her feet had healed up as well. She summoned up just enough interest to emerge from the grey flood of apathy and ask, ‘What are you doing here?’
Paul looked shocked enough for both of them. He put his head in his hands, muttered something and pulled at his face. She went on wiping her jeans. She’d just bought the fucking things and already they were filthy. No blood though. That all seemed to be on her top and in her hair. It was good she was thinking clearly. Not letting it bother her. Yes.
Paul finally spoke. ‘I was following you, alright? I bunked off school and followed you. Because – because I thought this had to be some sick joke by you on Andy, or by Andy and you, and I had to prove it to her. And now…Jesus Christ, you were dead. You were super dead.’
Viv cricked her neck. It felt pretty stiff. ‘You save my shopping bags?’
Paul stared at her for a moment. ‘Uh – they should be back there, I passed some bags when I came down here – ’
‘Nice.’ She rolled her shoulders. ‘Mind grabbing them? Death takes a lot out of a girl.’
‘Are you serious?’ Paul’s arms flailed majestically. ‘Shouldn’t we be going to a hospital – or the police – or a fucking wizard – or something other than “La dee da, I just was shot in the head, might as well grab some shoes, tee hee.”’
She’d died already. It wasn’t anything new. Yes, she was just used to it now, that was all. Getting used to it. Part of the routine.
The visions were new though muttered a corner of her mind. She shushed it.
Paul was heaving deep dramatic breaths. She raised her eyebrows. ‘Are you going to get my bags or not?’
Paul began to turn a colour more commonly associated with aubergines than people.
‘Are you seriously not going to look into this at all, uh, Veronica?’
‘Vivien. And no.’ She brushed futilely at her jeans again. ‘Whoever those people –’ things, murmured her mind, ‘ – were, they think I’m dead. Again. More dead. Whatever.’
‘So in a world where people track you down and shoot you, in the head, and then are gone before I can round the corner, you assume that they’ll just think you’re dead?’ He shook his head. ‘Especially after the whole – hang on. Hang on.’ He frowned. ‘This means the whole memory thing is true.’
‘No shit.’ Viv strode past him. Ah, there were her bags. Plastic, thankfully. Thank fuck for cheapskate clothing stores. She should care about this, shouldn’t she? It was something that should be cared about, but she couldn’t – she couldn’t –
She’d died. It was nothing to get fussed over.
‘Why do I not remember you? And – and if you died again just now, and I didn’t forget – unless it was because I saw you die – oh come on, we have to look into this!’
‘We really don’t. I really don’t. You can knock yourself out. Me? I’m heading back to your house to have another fucking shower and wash these clothes.’ She poked the blood crust on the jacket, and began to walk away.
‘You can’t seriously not be interested –’
‘Oh fuck right off Paul.’ In an instant the apathy turned to rage, a whole broiling sea of it. ‘You know nothing about me. Andy wanting to work shit out, that I can understand. She’s a nosy bitch at the best of times, and my death must’ve been pretty stressful. But you? You’re a straight C slacker who wouldn’t get up from wanking off if your cunting house was burning down around your ears. I want to live my fucking life how I want to live it, dull as ditchwater, and I’m not going to run off and play Valkyrie Cain to your Skulduggery Pleasant no matter how much you beg. So go off to school, laugh with you asshole mates about the latest fucking Vine, and leave me be.’
Viv ran, stomach turning, turning. God, god, god, she hated losing her temper, she hated admitting to herself or anyone how much she cared about not caring; it felt wrong, like violating an oath, like looking at something that should remain behind you always. It bothered her, it bothered her so much that the whole of her life was meant to be planned out from the day she hit Montessori. She wanted to roll with the punches, to pick on the spur of the moment. She wanted to live each second as they came screaming towards her like an oncoming train.
And now she was sobbing, panting – Jesus fuck, she’d died, she’d really died, she’d died, she’d died again, and she couldn’t not think about it, couldn’t not think about that pale face haloed by blue, or the smell of her murderer – her first murderer – or ten thousand other tiny little things.
She did not want to play Harry Dresden with her own death. She’d died, she came back – whoop de motherfucking doo. That was all. That was all.
She continued down the street, barely able to see through her terror.
The house was quiet with no-one in it. Every time she’d been in Andy’s house before it’d been with at least one of the family home, Andy or Paul, or a parent while one of them was out. It seemed…smaller. Larger. A discarded crab carcass, gutted of its flesh. She shuddered as she piled her clothes into the washer.
Everything felt so wrong since she’d been back. Ern, and Andy, and Paul, and…and everything. It was like that moment waking from a dream when you still felt yourself in the dream world and wondered why you weren’t playing at that concert for the puffy teddy bear men. Nothing made sense.
She almost wanted to take Paul up on his offer. God, she just wanted to live, one boring useless day after another, but she couldn’t stand life like this, with murderers and cats and all the rest. Dying again. Having to deal with all that shit again. And again, and again, because it would happen again.
She sat on the couch in the darkened house in the blue light from the clouded sky for what felt like half an hour just doing nothing. She didn’t get it. She couldn’t get it. Why was life like this? Life was meant to be dull dreary days of maths and class followed by coming home and fucking about reading or mucking around on the web. Occasionally going out and getting so drunk you couldn’t see and the road tilted like a pinball machine beneath your feet. Eventually a dull job in a cubicle hammering the hours away until the tumours caught up with you. That was all she’d ever wanted. A life of fuck all.
A small horrible part of her felt that this should’ve happened to Andy. She would’ve been excited. She would have loved it. And Viv could have been her faithful sidekick – the normal one. A little bit of spice on top of life, but nothing she had to get too involved in.
Andy would have loved it.
She sighed, finally getting up and staggering upstairs to the shower. The blood clotted and matted her hair and she couldn’t – she couldn’t feel right with it there. Couldn’t pretend to herself that the morning hadn’t happened.
She fumbled across the mess in the bathroom for a comb. There was a clatter as a variety of objects fell to the floor – Viv let loose a torrent of swearwords and dived after them. Tweezers, toothbrush, cream of some kind – what was this?
Small orange plastic bottle. Label scraped off. It had come open, and a handful of small round pills had spilled out, each engraved with GG126.
‘What.’ She reached down and picked one up. It wasn’t a delusion. It wasn’t a dream. Andy had – Andy had –
No. Andy was meant to be stable. Meant to, meant to –
She needed to talk to Andy. Frantically checked the time. Almost late enough – if she walked here to get a bus there she could meet her outside of school and find out what these were, what is happening, no no no no –
She stood in front of the school gates a moment in quiet contemplation. She could see its squat redbrick buildings, smell the antiseptic of the linoleum floors. It was almost enough to make her nostalgic for the place, despite the idiocy of the other girls and the unutterably dull teaching, funnelling moron after moron down the tube of life like the last drops of toothpaste.
She lit up, and leaned back against the wall with the inhale. Sure enough, a muffled buzz echoed from the halls and slowly but surely a chattering stream of pupils began to emerge, the lower years in knee length skirts and jumpers, backpacks decorated with tacky key rings hanging from their shoulders, the higher years recognisable by the similarity of their dress to that of streetwalkers, and wearing enough slap to bandage a sucking chest wound. A couple spared glances for her – some she recognised, though of course none recognised her. She blew smoke at them simply for the sake of it.
The urgency buzzed at her that she didn’t recognise any of them, that she needed to find Andy, needed to understand. She tried to slam it back into its cell. She needed to make this normal, needed to calm down, needed to be calm and collected and concise and not freak out over –
Eventually a slumped but familiar figure in neat waistcoat, blazer and trousers approached.
What was less expected was the crowd around her.
The most vacuous of airheads, the most giggly and incurably thick of her fellow classmates were gathered around Andy and were laughing like the hyenas they were.
It took a couple of seconds for her to piece the facts together and arrive at the correct solution. Then her cigarette was slipping from her fingers and she was running forward, heart thumping in her ears.
As she drew closer, words coalesced from the noise.
‘Look at the ugly –’
‘Such a slut –’
‘Suicide girl – ’
‘Crazy worthless tramp –’
‘Too dumb to know she’s not wanted –’
Viv’s eyes focused. All she saw was the back of the nearest girl’s head – Anna, or Georgina or Katherine, she couldn’t tell which. With no input from her, her hands reached out and grabbed her stupid, curly, shoulder length hair and yanked, a hard pull that sent her shrieking to the ground. She was trembling, her whole body shivering, but there was only a steadily growing ball of flame in her guts. She stepped into the silent circle beside Andy.
‘What are you doing.’ Her voice held the winter anger of the hard frosts of December, the low wolfish hunger of the cold.
‘Oh look, did you make a friend in the loony bin? Are you two loony buddies? Because –’
Viv didn’t know how to throw a punch, but she did know how to kick. The vacuous blonde tart folded over her foot, staggered away and began retching.
Viv’s voice was almost inaudible, even to her. ‘Leave now.’
The girls stumbled, then broke and ran. They said something, something about cops, about assault charges, but Viv’s hands were still shaking. She pressed them to her face, felt the sweat, took a moment to compose herself, then turned to Andy.
Andy was looking at her, eyes wide enough to show the whites. Viv reached out a hand to say something but Andy stepped backwards.
‘You have no right to speak for me.’ Andy’s voice was quiet. ‘You have no right.’
‘You haven’t had to walk to school for months so fast your feet hurt because otherwise you start thinking too much. You haven’t had to adjust your whole body language because of fucking neck twitches. You don’t have to be careful when you stand up or sit down in case you become dizzy, or have to worry about falling asleep on the bus or in class because you can’t stay awake for more than five hours. You haven’t felt like every curt remark – hell, like every remark that wasn’t polite – was some kind of personal insult, another tally on your sins. You haven’t had your skin feel so taut with pain that all you could think of was peeling it back to the bone to let it out –’
‘Andy –’ God, this hurt more than dying, this hurt more than thinking about dying, this hurt, hurt, make it stop, make it stop –
‘And then the one person –’ her voice caught, and she pressed on, eyes red and shining, ‘– the one person in all the world who maybe could make it better, the one person you hope made things – effulgent. You haven’t had to stand there as their words and actions feel exactly the same as everyone else’s. You have no right!’
Viv’s hand reached out to push her away, to grab her, Andy raised her hand – to brush her away, to pull her in? – and they connected and –
THERE IS LIGHT.