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Authors: Louise Gornall

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BOOK: Under Rose-Tainted Skies
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H
ome safe and sound, at last. It takes less effort to walk the fifty yards to my front door. It's the going out that rocks my world, not the coming home.

Mom heads off into the kitchen. I consider disappearing into my room and slipping into a vegetative state, but I have a science paper due in sixteen days, and I'm not one to leave things until the last second/minute/week. Well, anything could happen between now and then. What if the computer and laptop break simultaneously and it takes an eternity to get them fixed? What if I lose fingers in a horrific sandwich-slicing incident? Or a tornado tears through our house and sucks up everything we own? You just never know.

I slink off into the study, push the power button on the computer, and the old gal starts up with a cough and a splutter. Sadly, long-term sickness does not mean a free pass from education, and for the last four years, Mom and the Learn Long Distance website have been home-schooling me.

Like I don't love learning. I do. I absolutely love it. I almost wish I didn't. I never used to. It's all part of agoraphobia's dastardly plan to make me look like the most abnormal teen on the planet.

I work as fast as I can, mostly because this computer is practically steam-powered and the clunky buttons click every time I tap them. This does not bode well for a brain that obsesses over patterns and numbers. Superhuman hearing detects the slight variation of sound with every keystroke, and I become frustratingly fixated on the fact that no two clicks sound the same. Then suddenly it's as if I'm Mozart, losing hours trying to type out Shakespeare sonnets to a tune. Thankfully, this is one of those quirky behaviours that's not always present. It comes and goes like most of my compulsions, depending on how stressed/emotional/sleepy/hormonal I am.

The printer spits out my pages. I grab them, stack them, and bang them against the desktop so they're all nice and neatly aligned. I want to clip them together so they stay that way, but Mom's usually well-stocked stationery caddie is missing paper clips. There was this moment during a math quiz last week when my mind started to wander and I inadvertently twisted them all into a model of the Eiffel Tower. Art isn't a required subject, but Mom gave me an A anyway.

I glance around the study, uncertain where she's storing stationery supplies this week. Could be here, could be the trunk of her car, could be in her bra or at the bottom of her Louis Vuitton briefcase. I reach for the top drawer of the desk. Hesitate.

Mom is a mess monster. Her bedroom looks like a
battle broke out between a hurricane and a thrift store. There are cold cups of tea in there, playing host to entire micro-nations. My Spider-Man mug went in two months and ten days ago . . . I haven't seen it since. A shudder rips through me. When my mug finally does emerge, it will need to be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom.

But that's her space.

Our compromise.

She fights her natural urge to leave things lying around the rest of the house and we keep her bedroom door closed at all times.

‘Mom?' I wait a second, and when she doesn't answer, I head towards the kitchen, admiring the crisp white sheets and perfect type on my paper. Perfection is a feeling; you'll know it if you've ever questioned the competency of your penmanship before writing on the first page of a new notebook.

I can hear Mom talking before I get to the kitchen.

‘Can't you send Maggie or the intern, what's-his-face?' She's on the phone, sitting at the table with her back to me. Her words are heavy, weighted down with worry.

I'm instantly concerned. So much so that I spend only a second thinking about how vulnerable she's made herself to potential intruders; I'm halfway in the room and she still hasn't noticed me.

‘Things are a little tricky with Norah at the moment. I'm not sure I can leave her again,' Mom says. Her shoulders sink to the floor.

This is the third new job she's had this year. Last year there were two new jobs. It's tricky finding a boss who can be flexible with our situation. I'm dependent, and her job
requires travel. Her employers keep promising she can bypass the travel part, but she's so good at selling construction equipment, they end up changing their minds.

‘Leave it to me,' she says. I choose this moment to sit down beside her. She doesn't startle. Maybe she knew I was here the whole time. She hangs up, winces at me.

‘Sneaking up on me?' she says with a smile.

‘How did you know I was here?'

‘You're my child. I always know where you are.'

That catches my brain in a way it wouldn't for most, and I start wondering if there's any validity to this theory. She mistakes my silence for anxiety.

‘I should have applied for that nine-to-five gig at the bowling alley.' She rubs her face with both hands, pulls down her cheeks so I can see the pink, squidgy bit of her eyes, and blows a raspberry.

‘You love your job.'

‘But I hate leaving you here alone.'

‘I'll be fine,' I tell her. My fingers find a pimple on the side of my leg. I pick at it until it stings.

‘Maybe I could call in sick and they'll have to find someone else to go in my place.' She's not listening to me. She never does when this happens.

‘Mom.'

‘Huh?'

‘I'll be okay.' The times when we get to switch roles are very few and far between.

‘Norah . . .'

‘Mom. I just need groceries. The rest I can do myself. I'll be fine. Promise.' I'm oversimplifying. I dislike being alone, sure. At first, it's overwhelming, like trying to find
your way out of a forest without a map. It's easier to explain away noises, and the dark is always a shade less severe, when you know someone is sleeping down the hall, but I'm not afraid. I don't know. Things are always much more manageable from inside this house. Plus, I've done it before and nothing bad happened. My head puts a lot of stock in that, keeps track and uses it as a benchmark for next time. Dr Reeves explains it better, with a bunch more science and phrases like
eliminating the fear of the unknown
– which I'm pretty sure is the title of a
Star Trek
episode.

I
t's Sunday. Mom crashes down the stairs, dragging a suitcase behind her. It slams into a step, pops her on the butt.
She
slams into a step, collides with the wall. The whole descent has the elegance of an elephant performing
Swan Lake
on a pogo stick.

As a fangirl of anything sci-fi, Mom's almost always wearing a shirt adorned with an alien or a Captain Somebody of Something. Today is no exception. Some creepy green interstellar species is flashing a peace sign at me. Slung over Mom's arm is a garment bag that holds a designer suit for tomorrow's conference. She's only ever conservative at conferences. In real time, her hair is the colour of a fire engine and she has a peace lily tattooed on her wrist.

Crash. Bang
. Wallop. Down the stairs she comes. ‘Are you sure you don't need some help?' I cringe, watching the battle through my fingers.

‘I got it,' she says, touching down on even ground. I exhale, stop chewing holes in the side of my tongue. The
bitter taste of blood hits the back of my throat. In the twenty seconds it's taken her to get from top to bottom, I've watched her trip and break her neck eight times.

‘What've you got in there?' I flick my eyes towards the tattered suitcase. ‘Bricks?'

‘Ha-di-ha-ha.' She snorts. It's funny because her suitcase actually is full of brick samples and various other building materials she's showcasing at the conference. ‘I can't believe I'm doing this to you again,' she says, all joking a distant memory.

‘I'm fine. I swear.' I twirl, because nothing says I'm mentally stable quite like an impromptu pirouette. She's beating herself up. I can tell. The fight with her luggage may be over, but she's still wincing. ‘Mom, really, I'm fine. It's only for two days—'

‘Less, if I can get away sooner,' she interjects, dipping into her purse. She pulls out a compact, dabs her cheeks with pink powder. I smile to myself, recall the early mornings when I was still at school. We used to share the bathroom mirror. I brushed my hair while she painted her face bright colours.

Make-up days for Mom are almost non-existent now. She stopped wearing it when I got sick and there wasn't much call for her to leave the house. Guilt is a squeezing sensation in the pit of my stomach.

She needs these trips, these brief moments away. She needs to be with grown-ups every now and then. To feel social and not secluded. I'm secretly hoping that she'll go out, get drunk, and shamelessly flirt with some dark-haired, dark-eyed Latino who sweeps her off her feet. I've seen the staff photos on her work website. Apparently,
construction is where all the hot guys hang out.

‘Okay.' She snaps her compact shut. ‘Hotel, conference centre, cell, pager—'

‘Numbers are all pinned to the fridge.'

She nods; a smile lacking any humour sits on her lips. ‘I'll call—'

‘Before you go to bed and when you wake up. I know the drill, Mom. Go, have fun, stop worrying. PS: did you pack that silky blue shirt? The one that ties around your neck?'

‘It's not that kind of conference.'

‘I'm just saying, it's a cute shirt.'

‘Hush.' She kisses my forehead and heads out the door. ‘Oh . . .' She turns around, slapping the heel of her hand against her forehead. ‘I almost forgot, Helping Hands is delivering tonight at six. They didn't have a slot open tomorrow.'

‘Six tonight. Got it.' I tap my temple.

‘Should I write it down on the fridge?'

‘Go.'

I stand at the door as she loads herself into the car. I test my toes against the step, inching my foot down, like the concrete is red-hot lava. I'm so focused on putting a whole foot flat, outside in the wilderness, that I almost miss Mom pull away. She honks the horn, I wave, and she's gone.

My fingers curl into the door frame so tightly it's a wonder they don't pierce the wood. But I can do it, one whole foot outside my front door, without my chest getting tight.

The step has been in shadow. The cold of the concrete
seeps through my sock and makes my foot feel wet. It's weirdly refreshing, like splashing your face with cool water. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, exhaling ecstasy when I hear a cough. My eyes pop open and he's there again. The new boy next door. Muscles still bulging under the weight of a new box, this time full of groceries. He flicks his head at me.

‘Hi.'

Like a rabbit reacting to the sound of a gunshot, I retract my foot, scurry back inside, and slam the door shut.

That was close
is my first thought. Followed by
What was close? Pleasant conversation?
Ugh. I press my back up against the door and wilt to the floor. I instantly dislike that a stranger has seen my crazy side, not once but twice within a week. I curl inwards, try hard to split the floor with my mind so I can seep through it.

Once I'm done reassembling my self-esteem, life goes the way it always does.

Technically, I don't have to study on weekends, but I do anyway. I'm learning to speak French for a trip I'll never take. I watch some TV, eat, sleep, build a pretty impressive yet rather unstable castle of saliva and peanut butter cookies.

I'm in the middle of licking and sticking a broken turret when my phone sings like a cuckoo. It's a notification from The Hub telling me six people are talking about
Dream Stalker
, this supposedly pee-your-pants horror movie that just came out.

It's forever my intention to avoid social media on weekends, but a morbid sense of curiosity, or a subconscious desire for S & M, always convinces me to open the
application when it calls. It's like a siren's song.

I click the button and am bombarded with selfies of Mercy, Cleo, Sarah and Jade getting ready for a night out at
le cinéma
. They're blowing kisses to the camera and then they're kissing each other, hugging, and voguing in a creative series of shots.

I scroll down, see more selfies of more former friends wearing make-up and looking much older since I last saw them in real life. Which was only four years ago but feels more like four centuries. Puberty: the ultimate makeover.

I push my hand against my chest. My heart suddenly feels ten times too heavy. I press down harder, trying to keep it from flopping out of its cavity and hitting the carpet with a ground-shaking splat.

I miss having friends. It seems babysitting your housebound BFF loses its appeal when your body turns banging and an active social life kicks in. They never really understood it, understood me when I got sick. We were only young, but I was surprised at how easy I was to forget.

I throw my phone on the table; it hits my cookie castle like a wrecking ball and totals the carefully constructed architecture.

It's only five, but I trudge through the kitchen and lock myself in the box bathroom.

The most underrated room in the house, the box bathroom is so small, I can't even spin a circle in there with my arms spread out to the sides. It feels like an afterthought, a room tacked on to the house once it had already been built. I like it. It's cosy. The walls are bright yellow, and the faucets are shaped like dolphins. Plus, I feel weighted, and right now climbing the stairs is about as appealing as
climbing Everest in my underwear.

I run a bath, dump my clothes in the hamper under the sink, and submerge myself. I keep my eyes open, staring through a milky mist at the ceiling above. The water is so warm it turns my pasty complexion red, but I feel cold to the bone. My body is covered in goosebumps. There's a sob stuck in the bridge of my nose. It stings, but I stay under the water so it can't escape without killing me.

The bath cools quickly, but I lie in it until my skin feels too tight for my skeleton. Then, with great reluctance, I climb out.

Depression can't come in
, I think, drawing a glass half-full in the condensation on the mirror. I'm already covering a multitude of colours on the mental health spectrum. Depression can't come in.

The lines of my drawing drip and blend together. I can see myself in the glass. ‘You're not missing much,' I tell my reflection, then I slap a preppy-pink blush back into my cheeks. ‘You're fine.'

I braid my hair over my shoulder, pull on the robe that's hung on the back of the door, and step out into the hall, whistling while I walk, because everybody knows whistling induces an unshakeable delirium. I should probably stop watching Disney movies.

I'm caught between the kitchen and the hall when a noise stops me dead in my tracks.

‘Hello. Anyone home?'

My heart splutters to a standstill, and I slam my back up against the doorjamb.

The pot-bellied gremlin known as panic claws its way up my throat and clogs my airways. The cold air of the
kitchen licks at the damp stretches of skin that my robe is too short to cover, but it doesn't cool me. Fire burns through my blood as the fear takes hold.

I can't see him because we own a fridge the size of Saturn and it's blocking my line of sight, but I can hear his heavy feet padding against the laminate.

Fuck. I can't feel my legs.

‘I'm looking for Norah.'

He's here to rob me.

‘Norah Dean?'

I'm going to die.

My heart pounds against my ribcage; my knees curl in. I need help, I need help. I need stability because the floor is moving and I'm going to collapse, and then my robe will flop open, and then I'll lose my towel, and then . . . oh God . . .

‘Yo.' A shadow moves to my left. ‘Are you Norah?'

Can't. Talk. Need. Oxygen.

‘I'm from Helping Hands. I've got a delivery for a Miss Norah Dean. That you?'

Helping Hands. I know them.

The tension in my neck recedes just enough so I can lift my head and look at the boy in my kitchen. A scrawny twig of a thing with a shaved head and ripped jeans. Just above the rips, about an inch below his side pocket, there are three skull patches, stitched on in no particular pattern, which bugs me way more than it should. He's chewing gum like a cow chewing grass and looking at me with a poised brow.

‘Nice place you got here,' he says. ‘Big.'

It's not six o'clock. If it were, I would have been ready
for him.

‘Hey. You okay?' He extends an arm in my direction, and I avoid it as if it were a bullet. I have this thing about being touched. Unless it's Mom or Dr Reeves, I can't handle it.

‘What are you doing in my house?' Teeth clenched, I glare at his outstretched hand. He drops it back by his side.

‘I'm. Here. From. Helping. Hands,' he says slowly. ‘I have a delivery for Norah Dean.'

‘Yeah, I got that. What I want to know is why you're
inside
my house.'

‘Knock-and-no-answer procedure. I'm just following the rules.' A grin stretches across his lips.

‘What rule says it's okay for you to break in to someone's house?'

‘I didn't break in. I had a key.' He pulls a clipboard out from under his arm.

‘What?' He's lying.

‘A key. You know, one of those little metal things that open locks?' He plucks a pen from behind his ear and holds it out to me. ‘I need you to sign.'

‘How do you have a key?'

‘You gotta hand one over when you sign up for the service. Like I said, knock-and-no-answer procedure. If you knock and the client doesn't answer, you go inside to make sure they haven't kicked the bucket or fallen off a ladder and knocked themselves unconscious. Died. It's all in the terms and conditions.' This guy has a real way with words. Mom's never mentioned this key thing to me before. Understandably, I guess. Still, looks like I'm going to be deadbolting the door from here on.

Helping Hands Guy is getting impatient. He shakes his pen at me for a fourth time. I can't touch it. It's chewed and marked with fingerprints. The thing needs its own
Caution: Contaminated
sticker. Not that I can sign his paperwork yet anyway. I glance at the clock above the oven. It's just past 5.45. When people change plans, times, locations, it turns my brain into the aftermath of an egg that's been dropped ten thousand feet. He's early. I'm not ready. Not prepared. The need to defend myself is overwhelming.

‘I would have been ready for you at six,' I tell him.

‘I'll make a mental note of that.' He retracts the pen, uses it to scratch his scalp before tapping it on the paper. ‘Sign, please.' I swear I see little luminous green blobs of bacteria peppering the sheet.

‘I think I have a pen,' I reply, hugging my torso as I scour the kitchen for a stray Bic. There's a Sharpie stuck to the notepad on the fridge. It will have to do.

‘You don't look very sick,' the guy says as I scrawl my name in thick black letters. It doesn't fit neatly on the little dotted line. My nails find a scab on my wrist and start picking as his eyes saunter down my scantily clad frame, lingering on my legs.

‘How grossly inappropriate of you to notice,' I reply, fighting hard to keep my voice even.

BOOK: Under Rose-Tainted Skies
12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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