08 – Coping Mechanisms

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She was dead.

Every inch hurt.

Hair hurt. Eyebrows hurt. Air on skin hurt.

Her mouth was dry. Sahara. Desert. Arid as Antarctica.

Stef opened her eyes and wished she was dead. Dead would be better than feeling like this. But she had to be dead to feel this bad.

Water. She needed water.

I’ve got to get up.

Okay. Start by getting out from under the sheets.

She blinked and wished she could blind herself.

With a similar effort to lifting a continent from the seafloor, she started to move the sheets aside. Half of the sheets had dried vomit on them, and it was suddenly becoming clear she was probably lucky she hadn’t aspirated resurrected alcohol during the night. Or day. Or week. Or however long she’d been asleep.

With all of the sheets peeled back, she hung her legs over the side of the bed. It felt like she had six legs. Four legs. No legs.

Stand. She had to stand. She had to make it to the kitchen. Water. Water was the goal. Was the only thing that would start to make things even a single per cent better.

She wiggled forward, and as she stood, her foot squished into slippery carpet and she fell forward, her head smacking onto the carpet, her back scraping against the bedside table as she rolled backward.

The bedside lamp fell off the table, missing her head by inches.

I hate everything about this.

She stayed on the floor, unable to move or think. Thinking hurt.

How does thinking hurt? How does-

Look.

The command was strange, but she closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and actually tried to see what she was looking at – when your brain was a pile of lazy snakes, there was a very huge difference between looking and seeing. Looking was easy. Seeing meant focus.

And all of her focus seemed to have been expelled from her body with the puddles of watery sick she’d left everywhere.

Maybe trying to drink enough alcohol to kill herself had been a bad idea.

Look.

She blinked a few times and tried to see what she was seeing. Carpet. Trash. Abandoned takeout containers. The remains of a chip butty. A can of Coke.

There.

She wiggled forward, and reached out for the unopened can, seized it, and pulled it back quickly, just in case someone came to steal it. She held the warm can to her chest, curling around it like a mother hen over its unhatched eggs.

Precious. My precious.

After five solid minutes, she managed to sit up and lean against the bedside table. She cracked the can, took a sip, choked, spat, then downed half the can. It wasn’t water, but it drowned out the ugly, horrible, manky feeling of dryness.

After the can was empty, she reached up to where she knew her phone would be. After groping blind and above her head, she couldn’t feel anything except the embroidered cover of the notebook she’d failed to help herself with.

‘Oh come on,’ she whispered.

If her phone wasn’t on the bedside table, then- She looked around, and finally saw the slim outline of her phone on the coffee table.

She could probably find some way of swinging something at the coffee table, knocking the phone off, and getting it back to her…and all of that would take more thought, brain and effort than just standing and getting it like a normal-ass person.

It took two minutes to convince herself that she had the number of legs that she was used to, and with an effort, she stood and stumbled to the couch. She picked up her phone, pressed the power button…and it gave no response.

‘Of fucking course.’

The closest charger was in the kitchen, but-

Her new laptop was on the table, powered and waiting for her brain to have ten seconds of clarity to set it up properly – hell, she hadn’t even named it yet.

She dug into her old laptop bag that was on the shelf below the coffee table, fished out a bright pink USB cable, and plugged in her phone. ‘It’s alive,’ she mumbled, feeling like Frankenstein when-

‘Prometheus,’ she said, Alain’s voice still in her recent memory. She touched the laptop’s lid. ‘But I’m going to call you Frankie for short.’ She kissed her hand, then laid the kiss on the manufacturer’s badge. ‘Nice to meet you.’

After a few more seconds, her phone had enough juice to power on. With fingers that someone felt fuzzy and ill-rendered, she texted a breakfast order to Keanan, then left her phone to suck blessed electricity from her laptop.

But is it breakfast?

She tapped her phone’s power button again and wasn’t surprised to see that it was almost four in the afternoon. At least it was still the day after she’d passed out drunk, and she hadn’t slept for a thousand years like a princess after a bad prick.

She snuggled her head into the overstuffed back of the couch and waited. Some hydration had been achieved. Food was on its way. That was enough work for now. And-

There was a knock on the door.

She sat up with a snort, and the drool in the corner of her mouth told her she’d been asleep again.

It was easier to get to her feet this time, and she made her way to the apartment’s door. Keanan stood there, his smile a little more forced than usual, three weighty bags hung over his left arm.

‘Sorry it took so long, miss. Here you go.’

He handed her the bags, gave her a respectful nod, then left without further comment.

She closed the door and lugged the bags to the coffee table.

‘What in the fuck-’ she mumbled as she started to inspect the contents.

Check the order.

She lifted the leftmost bag and dug out her phone. Dreading what she’d find, she braced herself and opened her recent texts.

‘Oh,’ she said quietly. She looked from the text to the food and back again – Keanan had fulfilled the order to the letter, however strange it had been.

She unwrapped the first chip butty, the golden beer-battered chips smothered in the best curry sauce she’d ever seen. The smell was overwhelming, turning her stomach while telling her it was the exact thing she needed. Being this hungover, any food was probably going to be bad, but any bite of the butty she managed to keep down was going to fortify her tiny, broken body.

The first three bites went down well, then she felt her system start to rebel, so she put it down, and focused on not throwing up.

It took half an hour to eat the sandwich.

Okay. Okay. What happened last night?

Memories swirled like an ugly kaleidoscope. Not a lot of things were certain. There had been vodka, a lot of vodka, a bath and- Somehow she’d made it back to her bed, which was probably better than drowning.

She opened the next butty, pulled a chip out from the side and started to walk around the apartment. There was rubbish everywhere – there were a couple of half-filled bags, like she’d drunkenly tried to clean up the apartment.

Like the wet patch beside the bed, it seemed like she’d thrown up a few times – luckily it was the watery, wet kind of sick that would be easy for the cleaning staff to deal with. She’d need to get the room thoroughly cleaned, there was no way she could live in it like this.

She stepped over the threshold of the bathroom and felt shame spike. The empty bottle was on the floor, there were wet towels in the bath, there was a chair in the bath, her bathing suit was clogging the drain, which had left a few inches of stagnant water stewing since she’d managed to escape.

She touched the edge of the bath, hoping the sensation would spark a memory, give her any kind of detail about what had happened.

And that was strange – she knew she’d drunk, that it had been bad, and that she dragged her arse back to bed. That was obvious and that self-evident from what she knew and what she could infer. But somehow, there seemed to be more. Something told her that there was more. And it seemed important to know what that “more” was.

She bent, picked up the bottle, and gently placed it into the bathroom bin.

It had been a mistake to bring the bottle in. It had been- She’d always been good at just taking a sip, a shot, a small liquid shot of silence. Emptying the bottle wasn’t usually part of the equation. But she’d done it. While lying in a bath where it would have been so easy to slip under the water, and made James’ life much easier than he deserved.

It had been a mistake, but somehow, it hadn’t been fatal.

She took a step forward, put her hands on the back of the plastic chair, and wobbled it forward so that one of its legs snagged on the bathing suit and she dragged it away from the plug so that the stagnant water could drain.

What was I doing?

She left the bathroom, grabbed an armful of supplies: food, drink and tech; and made her way back to the bed. She rounded the bed, pushed all of the blankets off the bed and onto the wet patch on the floor, then found a small lap blanket in the wardrobe and set up a nest.

It was so childish. So many of the things she did were childish, but-

She paused with a curry-covered chip halfway to her mouth.

She didn’t think. She didn’t breathe. If she breathed, she would forget.

‘Captain?’

Hook. Captain Hook. She’d dreamed – hallucinated – wished – somethinged him there. The memories were fuzzy, as they always were when she tried to remember something about a hallucination, or a train of thought from when she was at the bottom of a really bad brain spiral, but-

But Hook had been there.

After visiting Peter, it only made sense that her favourite pirate would have been on her mind, even if she hadn’t thought of him in years, even though she’d wished him into the cornfield and never allowed herself to play with her imaginary friend again.

Hook had been so important to a tiny, lonely girl. Not family, not a replacement for all the love that her parents couldn’t bring themselves to give, but a concoction of her mind that told her that she wasn’t worthless, that it was okay to be weird, and that ripping apart teddies to make the monsters of Dr Moreau was interesting, and not disturbing.

But after Peter had run away, and the voice had come, and she’d known she was crazy…it had been a self-defence mechanism to put away as much fantasy as she could. Distinguishing what was real from what was invented in her brain was hard enough for a newly-crazy child without mixing her imagination into it.

It had hurt, and she had cried, but she had begged Hook to leave – externalising to herself, justifying to herself that he was a doll that needed to go back into the toy chest. That she was too scared to play with him anymore, because if she forgot herself, if grown-ups figured out she was crazy then-

Then something a lot like what was happening right now would have happened, and as much as she couldn’t deal with things now, Stef Mimosa, age twelve, would have had even less of a chance of finding any coping mechanism that would work.

And now, during the night where she was faced with trying to be the most adult in her life, her childhood had come back in a big way. She hadn’t thought about Hook in a long time. The fact that her brain had decided that Hook was what she needed meant something.

She was tapping her knee.

It wasn’t a regular tapping. It was- One. One. Two. Three. Five. Fibonacci.

‘I give you the silence of the sea.’

A clear memory. One tiny part of the hallucination that had been allowed to break through the hangover fuzziness. Words that sounded real, even though they’d surely come from inside her own mind.

‘I give you the silence of the sea.’

She stopped tapping her knee and looked to the bedside table. Her notebook sat there, closed and awaiting its secrets revealed.

He’d written something in it.

Except, no, that wasn’t how it worked. Whatever actions her hallucinations took, if there was any real-world correlation was something she’d done, just without realising it.

But if it was an action she’d given Hook-

She opened the notebook. The page where she’d written “I’m crazy” over and over and over was gone, replaced with two badly-drawn pictures – not the elegant illustrations that half-formed memories were telling her that they should be.

A shitty shell, barely more than the lazy spiral that children drew whilst trying to illustrate a spiral, and below that, the basic wiki image that was the introduction to the Fibonacci sequence.

‘Heart,’ she said, trying to force herself to remember what her imaginary friend had said, ‘and mind.’

Her stupid twisted brain had always needed both. Her stupid twisted heart had never been satisfied with simplicity. She’d never been okay with the answer of “stars” when she’d asked what was in the night sky, instead resorting to stealing books from James’ library to find out about nebulae and cosmic dust.

She’d never wanted poetry without meaning, platitude without context, or stories without history.

She’d always wanted more, even when it was hard.

What she’d wanted most the during the night had been help, had been some of the strength needed in order to pull herself through, to- To fortify for what wasn’t going to be an easy life. And there’d been no one there to help. No family, no friends, no relevant life experiences.

And as it had before, her mind her put together the one thing she had needed. When it knew that she couldn’t make it by herself, it had pulled from a storybook, and given her the only safety and refuge she’d ever known.

A pirate with blue eyes and a hook for a hand had smiled, and given her a chance.

Had saved her, when she couldn’t save herself.

She closed the notebook and held it to her heart. ‘Thank you, Captain.’

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See you next time, Recruit.

07 - The Last Loud Day
09 - Sea, Salt and Silence

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