One of the things she had asked Keanan to buy was a bathing suit – just a basic, one-piece suit. Like some of her stranger requests, he hadn’t questioned it, and it had been delivered with the next meal.
She hadn’t been articulate in words her notebook what her problem was, but she was just about able to parse it in the snakepit that was her brain.
Her problem wasn’t that she was crazy. Well, of course, that was her problem, but that wasn’t the…problem. There was a lot about crazy that she hated, but there was a lot that she was getting used to – and there were worse things than someone looking over her metaphorical shoulder, even if it was just another part of herself.
Her problem was that she was loud.
Her problem was having a conversation with only one obvious participant.
If she was able to keep her voices inside, then maybe she had a chance.
She stripped out of clothes she hadn’t changed in three days, changed into the black swimsuit, and ran a lukewarm bath.
After ten minutes of sitting on the end of the bed, she retrieved the last bottle of vodka that she had – Kenan could replace it within an hour if she failed, but this was supposed to be the last. Needed to be the last. She’d already bled away so much time feeling sorry for herself, sleeping away days in depression comas, and crying over love lost.
She placed the bottle on the tiled floor beside the generous bath, stepped into the lukewarm water, and knelt.
‘I need silence.’
She placed her face beneath the water and screamed.
It made no sense, but it seemed like…if she got all of her sound out, if she emptied herself of noise, of words she wanted to say, then maybe it would be easier to keep her inside voice inside.
She lifted her head out of the water, drew another breath, then submerged and screamed again.
The bathing suit was unnecessary, strictly speaking, but if she hadn’t worn it, she would have been spending so much time naked with all of her scars in view, and that was a pile of issues she didn’t have the energy to deal with.
Breathe. Submerge. Scream.
She placed her hand on her stomach and felt the rough patches of scars that peppered her entire upper body.
Breathe. Submerge. Scream.
One drunk bastard of a driver. Two seconds of bad timing from her mother’s driving. A hundred tiny decisions and every future she’d ever wanted had been taken away.
Breathe. Submerge. Scream.
Metal. Glass. Twisted pieces of the car. She’d been so broken up and still that the first responders had thought she was dead during their initial sweep.
Breathe. Submerge. Scream.
The memories were hazy – it was still almost amazing that she could remember anything. She’d imagined someone hugging her. Arms warmer than her mother’s had ever been. A storybook comfort. Her mind constructing what she’d needed.
She’d imagined a hand on her face, lifting her chin enough so that she could make eye contact with the firefighter covering her mother’s body with a blanket. She remembered she’d blinked that he’d shouted, and then everything going black – so much pain, too much pain as they’d tried to untwist her body from the car.
Breathe. Submerge. Scream.
She’d lived. But it had taken everything away from her. All she’d ever wanted was to be able to have a child, to give it the love that her parents had never given her. It had been a shining goal, and since…she’d been flapping loose. Aiming for an unknown future with no more goal than reaching tomorrow.
She let herself stay submerged for a few seconds longer this time.
She dreamed about drowning a lot. Of sinking down through a darkness that she couldn’t fight against. Of being at the bottom of something so deep it may as well have been the bottom of the universe.
Sometimes, it ended in darkness.
Sometimes, someone else was there, someone who carried her out of the darkness. A formless someone who was nothing more than a flash of dark blue. The impression of a man in a suit. Safety.
She wondered if the memory was of James. Of five seconds strung together when he hadn’t hated her. And somewhere, deeper than her heart, she knew it wasn’t him. The barely visible guardian in her dreams wasn’t her father. Unlike James, the man in the dream felt safe.
Maybe she was a secret mermaid, and it was a memory of her mermaid dad from a past life. And this shitty life was some sort of punishment reincarnation.
If I die-
She could take in a lungful of water. She could- Maybe she could-
Someone once said that you dreamt while dying.
And there would be so many worse ways to go than to slip away, dreaming that someone gave even half a shit about her.
She lifted her head, and hating herself, drew in a breath.
She stared into the water for a long time, unable to really think. Unable to-
‘I need a reason.’
Inside voice. Come on. That’s what this is all about. Inside voice.
‘I need a reason. Any reason. I can spite James, but would he even care? What’s in it for me? Why am I-’
‘Why? Why bother with anything?’
She leaned back against the back of the bath, lukewarm water splashing all about as she did so, then reached for the vodka.
‘One reason. Please.’
No part of her could answer.
She took a long pull from the bottle.
She was living to live. Surviving to survive. There was no family waiting for her at the end of the tunnel – she couldn’t grow a child inside of herself and finding a single partner with a child meant- Dating. Talking to people. And that was stupid and never going to happen. People were hard.
No child. No family. No job.
She couldn’t even concentrate on her school work long enough to maintain grades that were more than nominally above failure. She had a big brain. A smart brain. One that understood things. And no ability to apply it. She could debug code, and programming languages came as easily as breathing. But without the ability to- Concentrate. Focus. None of it mattered.
You couldn’t be Tony Stark when you sometimes cried trying to put your shoes on.
She took another long drink.
There was value in living just to be alive.
But the fight was tiring.
She had a couple of weeks to learn to be silent. To learn how to present as normal enough so that she could hide her crazy through to the end of her A-levels.
Alcohol made her quiet, but it made her sloppy.
It had worked. It couldn’t be the answer any longer.
For there to be an answer, there had to a question, and an answer and a question and a-
‘Give me a reason to try.’
She tapped the bottle against the tub, glass on metal, and waited for an epiphany.
You don’t want to get locked away. You know that would be worse than anything you could manage to do on your own.
‘Not if I die.’
You don’t want that.
‘Then tell me what I want.’
I can’t tell you what you don’t know. I’m not magic, I’m just you.
‘Then we’re fucked.’
Time passed, and the rest of the bottle disappeared.
At some point, she became aware that she’d pissed in the lukewarm tub.
She rested her head on the edge of the tub, the neck of the empty bottle clutched in her hand.
Eyes opened and eyes closed, and time passed between.
Absolutely nothing mattered.
She kicked at the plug, lest she drown, and the water started to drain.
She fell asleep.
She woke up, and it was cold.
She fell asleep again.
‘Sit up a little, dear heart.’
The fluffiness of a towel was placed around her shoulders, a makeshift blanket against the cold.
‘I know you told me to go away, and never to come back.’
Another blanket on her legs – her bathing suit was still damp, but it was something.
‘But you were at the boy’s statue today. I couldn’t save him, he wasn’t my charge. You were. And I failed you. If you ask, you’ll have sanctuary, and the world will never hurt you again.’
She woke up.
There was a coat folded under her head, keeping it off the hard edge of the tub. She was cold and smelly, but the towels over her were keeping the worst of the chill out.
And Captain Hook sat in a chair beside her.
‘If you want me gone, dear heart, I will go, but don’t ask me to go.’
She tried to sit up, but every muscle she had protested.
‘I’ve turned up the heat a little, but you were cold for a long time before I got here.’ Hook brushed some of his wig curls back from his back. ‘I’m sorry you’re in so much pain, little one.’
‘I wish you were real.’
He was her imaginary friend, just as she remembered in scraps of daydream. A pirate with the bearing of a king. A regent on the edge of dust. A relic, beloved by one little girl.
‘I am, though-’
‘Please- Please don’t. I’ve got- I already- It’s already too hard without my hallucinations insisting on their own reality.’
‘My brain is conjuring what I need.’ She made a vague motion beside her head. ‘Just like her- Me- Her-me. Her-my. Hermione. Please just be that. Please don’t make me fight.’
‘As you wish.’
She snuggled her head into the coat. ‘I’m drunk, and it’s the arse of the clock. Am I giving myself a lesson on backsliding, or- Or just punishing myself for-’ She looked down at herself. ‘Ah. That. Probably. I know I’m a mess. I know I’m useless. I know I can’t do this. I thought for a hot second I could try, but- He’s going to win. He’s going to win, and it’s going to hurt a lot less if I try.’
Hook put his hand against her cheek, and she started to cry, wishing that he was real. It was just like the imagined hug in the car accident, her brain giving her what she needed. Hallucinations giving her the comfort real life never did.
A silk handkerchief wiped away tears. ‘Could I please convince you to get up?’ he asked gently. ‘It can’t be comfortable there, and I’m worried about you being so damp for so long.’
She looked down at her legs. ‘I don’t think I can stand, Captain.’
Hook knelt beside the tub, removed his coat from under her head, placed it on the vanity behind him, then stepped into the tub, towering over her like a god for a moment, a pirate king wreathed in diffused fluorescent light.
He bent and with his good hand, helped her stand, offering his hook to her for extra balance, without turning its point on her.
She cried in pain as she tried to stand with cold and sleepy legs, legs that had been cramped for hours under damp towels, but he held her and slowly brought her upright.
‘No,’ she whispered. ‘I’m-’ She was doing this herself. He was a figment. She couldn’t rely on-
Once she was upright, he helped her take a couple of steps forward, towards the shower end of the tub, then bent his arm, and she followed the movement, sitting on a plastic chair that was occupying the space her supine body had mere moments before.
Hook stepped out of the tub, turned on the shower, and pulled the curtain closed. She spluttered as the warm water hit her in the face, but immediately felt gratitude for the heat to her joints and muscles.
‘There are clothes waiting for you, take the time you need.’
She tilted her head into the water, closed her eyes and tried to breathe around the warm spray.
After some time, she stood, and pushed the chair back, then stripped out of the bathing suit. After she dropped to the tub, she looked for the body wash that had been in the apartment, some sweet strawberry thing that smelled entirely too much like her mother.
She washed herself, threw up, washed again, and as the water ran cold, turned off the shower.
On the vanity, there were her pyjamas and some clean underwear. She dressed and thanked herself for the foresight of setting out clothes. If she hadn’t, she would have-
There were noises in the apartment.
She looked at the vanity again. Getting dressed had been the first priority, noticing that Hook’s pirate coat was still there hadn’t even-
She lifted the coat. She could feel it. Each sensation corresponded with what she expected. It felt real. Metal buttons were cool under her fingers. Worn velvet felt old. Satin felt smooth.
Hallucinations were difficult.
The voice in her head was one thing. That was a voice. A voice that did nothing but help.
The visual ones were less frequent, but so much less helpful.
But they’d never been this intense.
‘I’m giving myself what I need.’
She slipped the pirate coat on, then opened the door to the bathroom and walked into the apartment, where the figment of her old imaginary friend stood, half a bag of trash in his hand.
Stef stared at him for a long moment, then made her way to the bed and crawled under the blanket.
There were more noises – bags from takeout meals being tidied up, empty bottles clinking as they were thrown in with other rubbish, items being tidied on the desk.
She kept her eyes closed, and continued to run her fingers along the cuffs of the coat, waiting for velvet to turn to terrycloth, waiting for the illusion to drop and for it to just become the dressing gown that she knew in her heart that it was.
‘May I sit?’
Hook’s voice. Her impulse, as soon as she’d heard it – or been sober enough to realise that she’d been hearing it – was to think that it sounded exactly like it had done when she was a child, but- But you couldn’t really remember what an imaginary friend sounded like. But whatever he had sounded like in her imagination, that’s what her hallucination sounded like now.
She lifted her head to answer, and her stomach twisted.
With an effort, she threw back the blanket and managed to get her head beyond the edge of the bed before vomiting. Watery sick fell to the carpet, and she collapsed back onto the bed, feeling so weak and so tired.
A cloth was pushed into her hand. ‘Come on, dear heart, sit up, please.’
There was the coldness of a metal hook on her shoulder, and one strong hand helped her sit up against pillows that had been piled against the headboard.
She wiped at her mouth, then balled the handkerchief into her fist and looked up at her pirate. ‘I wonder why you,’ she said. ‘I haven’t thought about you in years. Not- Not you-you. I can think about the book without thinking about you. I wish I could- I wish I could do the same thing with Peter. It’s always him. And he left.’ Tears dripped onto her cheeks. ‘And now you’re- And now I’m imagining you. You belong in my childhood- You shouldn’t be seeing me like this.’ She wiped her eyes. ‘You’re a nursery creature, Captain. You’re not supposed to see teenage shit. Depression shit.’ She sniffed and wiped snot onto the sleeve of her pyjamas. ‘This is too real for you.’
He stared at her, his eyes so full of sorrow she wanted to apologise and send him away. Even if he was a figment, she hated to cause him pain. ‘Once Lost,’ he said, ‘always Lost. Our remit does not end with childhood.’
‘It’s easy to help a child,’ she said. She wiped her mouth again and wished she could get rid of the taste of regurgitated vodka. ‘You give them a ball or a doll or-’ For some reason, she saw the flash of navy blue that meant safety. ‘You give them some stupid toy, and it makes them happy. You get to-’ She burped and slapped a hand over her mouth in case more vomit came. ‘It’s not so easy when you hit double digits.’
She dipped sideways as Hook sat on the bed. He put his hook to the side of her head and pulled her gently so that she was leaning against his arm, and he took her hand in his.
Hook was a gentle and old presence, like a storybook grandfather. The calm, venerable figure that knew all the secrets of the universe, but was approachable enough to be vulnerable around.
‘You were never such a simple charge, dear heart,’ he said. ‘My job was never so easy as soothing you with a simple sparkly plaything. I know this situation will be more difficult than any adventure you designed, but I still want to help if I can.’
‘I need silence.’
‘Silence?’ Hook asked. ‘If you want me to be quiet-’
‘Not you,’ she said. She slapped the side of her head. ‘I don’t have a chance if I can’t be quiet. I need to be able to keep me inside myself. And I need to be able to do it without- Without being a drunk. And I have no idea how to do it.’
Hook squeezed her hand. ‘I hope you aren’t hoping that I’ll cut your tongue out with my cutlass.’
‘I’ll take that as option B, maybe,’ she said.
She closed her eyes, breathed in the scent of salt and the sea, and tried to focus on not throwing up. ‘I’m crazy, Captain.’ Even to a figment, it was hard to say that out loud. Even talking to herself, it was hard. It was hard, but it wasn’t hard. It was a fact. It was her life. It was everything and nothing and-
‘I want to just- I can take being- I don’t want to get rid of the crazy. She tells me what to do, and I need that. I need her. I don’t need me. I’m the stupid- I need to shut up the stupid, and the stupid is me and- And you can hear it. Now. I can’t shut up. And no one is even talking to me right now and-’
Maybe cutting her tongue out would be the best option.
She sniffled, and Hook held her as she cried.
‘I just want a chance. And I don’t know how to get one.’
The tears stopped, then sleep came.
When she woke up, there were pillows under her head, and the blankets had been pulled up to her shoulders, tucking her in like a child in a crib. On the bed beside her was the notebook she’d started – or failed to start – her craziness management strategy.
The first page, where she had simply written the words “I’m crazy” had been neatly cut out, and on the new first page, there was a simple pen drawing of a nautilus shell, and underneath, the simple diagram of the Fibonacci spiral.
‘If I am not here,’ Hook said, as he sat on the side of the bed, and touched the notebook, his fingers tracing the shape of the nautilus, ‘I had to give you something that you could give yourself.’
She sat up, righted herself against the remaining pillows that were still against the headboard, and settled the blankets around her lap before she picked up the notebook.
The pen drawings were meticulous, but still obviously done by a human hand. Careful, but definitely something she could have managed if she had concentrated. A shell and a diagram. A riddle she hadn’t given herself the answer to.
She looked at him. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I give you the silence of the sea. Of all the seven seas, dear heart, there’s waters deep enough to hold any and all the words you want to cast away.’ He made a loose fist with his hand, then unrolled it, and a shell sat there, shining like it was lit from inside with magic.
‘The shell is the sea, that’s for your heart.’ The shell lifted up out of his hand and spun around slowly, the light expanding out to become the diagram of the spiral. ‘And this is for your mind.’ He snapped his fingers, and the light shattered, then fell onto her hands as sparks of starlight. ‘You’ve always needed both, and if you were to give yourself an answer, you need one answer, with both elements twisted together.’
She watched the sparks of starlight slowly fade. ‘How?’
‘Make it your mantra. Draw the shape of the shell, or repeat the numbers. There are innumerable ways to think of it without making it obvious.’ He held his hand palm up and began to tap the back of his hook on his hand. One tap. One tap. Two taps. Three taps. Five taps.
‘It’s your silence,’ Hook said. ‘And no one ever need know but you.’
She looked at the notebook again. ‘Will it work?’
‘Unless you believe that I am here, it is all I can give you.’ He put his hand to her cheek. ‘It is a chance, and that’s what you asked for.’
One. One. Two. Three. Five. Eight. A beautiful sequence. The golden ratio. An endless parade of numbers that she could bury herself into, to keep the words at bay.
She touched the images in the book, then closed it. ‘Thank you.’
For a moment, she stared at her hands and the embroidered cover of the notebook, afraid to look up, afraid he would be gone, afraid that he would still be there. Either would be good. Either would be bad.
She steeled herself and looked up.
Hook’s grey eyes were staring at her.
‘I wouldn’t disappear without a goodbye, dear heart.’
‘I don’t want to watch you disappear,’ she said as she dropped her head and looked at her hands again. ‘I- I can’t-’
Hook picked up the notebook and placed it on the bedside table. ‘Lay down,’ Hook said as he reached for the edge of the blanket and started to pull it up and over her as she pushed away the mass of pillows that had been keeping her upright.
With one hand and one hook, her beloved Captain tucked her into bed. The comfort needed by a lost child. Once lost, always lost, he had said. True.
A lost child, but one with a chance, maybe.
‘One last piece of magic,’ her Captain said.
Hook waved his hand towards the ceiling. The paint shifted, melted, and broke open – the ceiling cracked and became a starry sky. The carpet became a rushing, crashing sea, and the smell of salt filled the air.
There was the coldness of metal on her cheek as he pressed the back of her hook to her, one last point of contact. ‘I will always come if you call. But right now, sleep.’
With the sounds of the sea filling her mind and ears, she drifted into dreams.
Previous: 06 – Stef in Kensington Gardens, Again