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Authors: Louise Gornall

Under Rose-Tainted Skies (20 page)

BOOK: Under Rose-Tainted Skies
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t gets to five and I'm watching a woman on television turn a pair of old net curtains into what she says will be a ‘traffic-stopping tunic'. I'm not convinced. I wonder if maybe she's high on fabric-glue fumes, because she's smiling a smile that outstretches space. But then, I suppose she exhibits this same level of delirium every week, even the times she's not in range of superglue. Maybe crafting just makes you happy. Maybe I'll feel like less of a failure if I can turn wax crayons and rose oil into a bunch of scented candles. Or make costume jewellery out of a bulk-buy of gemstones. A small business venture to give my life purpose. That's how my gran started. The story of her mixing yogurt and sand to make facial scrub during tough times is legendary.

Meh. My enthusiasm is in broken bits and I can't even muster the energy to stick that back together, let alone craft a pair of pretty earrings.

I jump when my phone rings, not from fright. It's excitement. It shoots through my stomach like a falling
star, only to burn out when I check the screen and discover it's not Luke. Not that there's a reason he would be calling. I guess it was just a thought because it's Friday night. Or what used to be ice-cream-and-mind-numbing-movie night.

‘Hey, Mom.'

‘Hey, sweetheart. How are you feeling?' She sounds rushed. I can hear her sifting through sheets of paper.

‘I'm good,' I lie, pulling the sleeve of my sweater over the new scratch on my arm. ‘Are you okay?'

‘Ugh. You remember me telling you about the new guy, Justin?'

Ah, Justin. The office rookie who can't decipher his ass from his elbow and smells like weed every time he comes back off his break.


‘He's only gone and mixed up a ton of inventory slips.'

I hiss a painful note through my front teeth, though I don't really know what this means. I'm just leeching off her tone.

‘Yeah. The guy has placed orders for almost a million dollars' worth of building material that we don't need. Ugh.' Her palm makes a slapping sound as it hits her forehead. ‘My boss is going to kill me if I don't fix this mess.'

‘Can you fix it?' I hesitate before I ask. It's hard to decide how serious she is when I can't see her face.

‘Norah Dean,' she tsks. ‘This is me you're talking to. I can fix anything.' True. Turns out this morning we didn't have any eggs to make the pancakes she promised, so she used banana instead. They were actually pretty good.

‘Right.' I smile. Not serious, just a little stressed.

‘Will you be okay fixing your own dinner?'

‘Absolutely. You want me to make you something?'

‘Don't worry about me.' She groans. ‘I've got a feeling this is going to take all night. You'll be all right alone?'

‘Puh-lease,' I scoff. ‘This is me you're talking to. One night is practically child's play these days.'

‘Smart-ass,' she teases. ‘I'll be by my phone the entire time. Call me if you need anything, anything at all, okay?'

‘Cross my heart.' I go through the motion, despite the fact she can't see it.

‘What's my extension number?' Mom asks, testing my memory because she hasn't been able to leave her usual laundry list of emergency contacts on the fridge.

‘Mom, I know the number. I didn't forget.'

‘Good. Then you should have no problem reciting it back to me right now.'

I reel off the number. ‘Now, how do I reach 911 again?'

‘Ha ha.'

Microwaveable macaroni cheese. It's what's for dinner. I pierce the film lid twelve times and blast it with radiation for twenty seconds longer than the instructions say I should. You can never be too careful when it comes to undercooked anything.

I sit down at the table and fork my way through the gloopy white sauce. Every bite makes my insides clench and then gurgle, but I power through, remind myself that I have to eat to stay alive.

Despite appearances, it's not the worst meal I've ever had. Mom gets me this brand of mac and cheese especially because they don't put ground pepper in it, which saves
me from the indignity of having to sift through mountains of melted cheese just to fish out the almost invisible black bits.

The clock claws its way to 6.00 p.m., and I'm forced to mute my Hub feed, because if I get one more notification about how much fun people are having with their Friday night, I'm going to break the shit out of my phone.

After I'm done eating, I head down the hall. I'm checking the lock and the bolt on the door for the eighth time when I hear voices. My heart hammers in my ears. Luke.

Don't look. Don't look, don't look, don't look, don't look
, I think as I make my way over to the porch window. It's just a window; it shouldn't hold so much sentimentality for me, but it does, and when I peek through the curtains, tears sting my eyes.

Luke is standing in his driveway with a blonde girl, some chick with a nose ring, and this dude wearing a Death's Head band tee under a tuxedo jacket.

Another party. Another dance.

That's why my phone's been lighting up. The guys are all wearing tailored jackets. The girls are decked out like a couple of Christmas trees in dresses that twinkle under the dying sun. Smiles all around, excited chatter; I feel like I'm watching a coming-of-age sitcom. Luke climbs in the driver's side of his truck. Blonde girl climbs in beside him. His date? Maybe. The other guy and girl dash off and jump into their own car, one that has streaks of orange flames painted up the sides. I startle when Luke's car growls to life.

I will him to look up, to look over at my house. I beg, plead, pray, but without taking a single glance this way, he
reverses out on to the road and speeds off, closely followed by the second car.

I turn around; heavy eyes survey my empty house. Still. Silent. Alone. I'm transported to a cold place. A lonely back alley that's never seen a single ray of sun, that forever collects rain. I feel any colour that my skin was holding on to roll right off and pool around my ankles.

This is my fault.

I broke something beautiful.

I cut away the one thing that made me feel like I wasn't just waiting for death, and I did it because I let my mind run riot.

He was right. I wasn't angry because he kissed me. I didn't tell him to leave because he made a mistake. We came undone when I let my insecurities take control. Because I was obsessing over everything I wasn't, and everything I thought he wanted.

I should have listened to him. Trusted him.

Anxiety wraps itself around my lungs like frozen vines. It squeezes and squeezes until I can't breathe. I'm falling, fast, and there's only one way I can think of to stop it.

My legs feel like they belong to someone else as I climb the mountainous staircase. I'm sobbing by the time I reach the top. The world is turning so quickly. I just want it to stop. I want my heart to stop hammering. I want thoughts to leave me alone. I've been thinking for so long. My brain is blistered. It hurts to use my head right now.

My muscles are mush as I stumble into the bathroom, thump on the light, and snatch the side of the sink to steady myself.

My reflection makes me feel sick. I grip the basin so
tightly my knuckles pop. I wonder if I cut deep enough whether I'll be able to keep my mind from mixing me up indefinitely.

‘You sabotaged me. Why won't you just leave me alone?' I scream, then reach for the scissors. My wrist catches a carton of cotton buds, and they fall from the cabinet, rain down on the floor. It makes me think of summer with my gran, blowing dandelions in her garden and dancing in the floating seeds.

God, I miss that girl, the one who could twirl barefoot in the garden.

I sink to the floor, scissors in my hand. I haven't seen the last cut I made. I've felt it sting against my jeans, but the second that stopped, I pushed the incident to the back of my mind. It's easier to live with yourself if you do that.

When I run my fingers over the space, I find it. It's slightly raised, still healing. The thought of infection spares it, and I move to the older scar below. Scissors poised, my head on upside down, I pull my skin tight.

My eyes scrunch shut and more tears squeeze out. Luke's face, when I put my hand on top of his and he started grinning like a kid on his way to Candyland, is burnt into the backs of my eyelids. I can touch him. It won't kill me. If I could have stolen myself, slowed my head down for just a second, we'd be together right now, watching a movie.

I want to tell him I'm sorry. I want to tell him I'm insecure. I want to tell him that I am hard work, that my head is a mess, that my sickness was making even the smallest thought explode that night. I want to tell him his kiss scared me but I can't stop wanting a second one. I want to
ask him to teach me how to touch.

I want to show him my list.

I want to tell him I've been dreaming of doing things.

I want to tell him, more than anything, that I miss him.

I close in on my thigh with the blade, but then something happens that's never happened before. I meet with resistance, like there's an invisible barrier between skin and scissors. I can't make them touch, can't make myself do it. Wiping snot on the back of my hand, I stroke the sharp edge with my thumb. I'm not sure what I'm looking for, a force field, a puppet string being pulled. Something. But I find nothing. So it must be me stopping myself. I can't even begin to fathom what that means right now.

Weeping turns to tearless sobs as I curl up in a ball on the bathroom floor, waiting for my heart and head to slow down. I hug my knees so tight they're almost touching my chin. The scissors stay in my palm. I keep them close to my chest because I'm not sure I don't need them yet.

t stings when I open my eyes. The bathroom light is luminous, bleaching everything it touches bright white. My body jerks awake. I cash in on the burst of energy, clamber to my feet, and lurch towards the door. I survey the bathroom, wonder how I got here. My bearings have gone AWOL, rolling around the floor like spilt marbles. For the longest second I can't remember anything. It's only when I feel something in my palm and unfurl my fingers to reveal scissors that I remember I came up here to cut myself. But I didn't. Couldn't. I stopped myself. Something I've never been able to do before. Just to make sure, I reach between my legs, swipe my thigh with my fingers. They come away clean.

I drop the scissors in the trash can as I leave without a moment's thought. I'm too busy thinking about reaching out to Luke.

I trudge across the hall, float towards my bed, and flop down. I pull on my headphones, turn up the volume on
Greatest Love Ballads
album I downloaded last week, and open a new message tab on my phone.

Saying sorry is hard.

And the soulful song lyrics being crooned into my ears aren't inspiring at all.

Finding a balance between explanation and emotional blackmail is causing friction and creating a storm inside my head.

Exhaustion burns my eyes, and typing out a text is getting tough. I'm making more mistakes than sense. I blink, and it takes minutes instead of seconds to recover my sight. I really need to go downstairs, turn on all the lights before it gets too dark.

I don't make it.

After a second blink, I wake with a start. There's a brief moment of panic because I can't hear a thing. Then it registers that I still have my headphones on. I pull them off and sit up. My head feels like it stays behind on the pillow. Ugh. I should not have gotten drunk on love songs. Emotional hangovers are the worst.

Beyond midnight has crept into my bedroom and covered everything in a blanket of pitch-black. At some point during sleep, my cell escaped my clutches. I reach out, pat my duvet down in search of it. When my fingers hit the screen, the thing illuminates, blasts a laser beam of light into my eyes and scorches my corneas.

That'll definitely help your headache
, I chide myself silently.

Green and purple spots dance in my vision as I check the time. 2.00 a.m. Whoa. Exhaustion got me good.

I need orange juice and a cold compress for my head.
With the enthusiasm of a corpse, I abandon my phone, roll off my bed, and slump out of the door. I've lived in this house for seventeen years but still use the wall to guide me to the light switch.

I drag my fingers down the wall, run them over photographs of me, Mom and my grandma, all dressed up in our Sunday best especially for this shoot, which took place on a Wednesday the summer I turned thirteen.

The last summer I ever really

The last frame my fingers find is the gaudy gold one that displays my ‘Congratulations, You Graduated from Middle School' certificate. The light switch is just above it, right before Mom's room.

I'm about to slap it on when I notice the faintest glow of silver moonlight seeping out of a crack in Mom's door.

That's weird. The door is open. Why is the door open? Mom's door is never open. We have a pact. She's never broken the pact, not once since I got sick.

Okay, brain, calm down. We've been here before

This little talking-to works about as well as it does when other people try it on me: not at all. The cogs of my mind are already turning, throwing out thoughts that make my blood run cold.

It could be Mom. Maybe she's home and forgot to close her door; she has had a lot of her own brain fog to deal with. It's possible she slipped up this one time. But then, if she's home at this hour, she'd be in bed. And if she's in bed, why aren't her curtains closed?

Because she's not in bed. She's not in her room.

I glare at the door handle, see Mom closing it before she trotted off down the stairs and left for work.

I remember.

I remember getting twitchy because she just headed off to work without washing the brass smell off her hands.

My knees knock together. But if Mom closed the door, and I didn't open it . . . Then, right on cue to confirm my suspicions, there's a bump, and a single note from Mom's silver jewellery box rings out. It only does that when it's open and the crystal ballerina begins her pirouette. I feel a sharp jolt as my entire world comes to a screeching halt. My whole body starts to convulse.

There's someone in my house.

I dry-heave.

Call Mom. I reach down to my waistband, but my cell isn't there because I left it on the bed. I look over at the way I just walked; the corridor stretches beneath my feet.


I don't know what to do. My eyes roll into the back of my head, make me blind for a second.

Mental slap.

There is one thing I absolutely cannot do, and that's pass out.

My body aches as my muscles go into spasm. I roll my jaw, try my best to shake my shoulders loose. I have to breathe. Get some oxygen in my blood and try my best to stop my heart from tripping over itself to choke out beats. I can hear it in my ears. It might sound hypnotic if I weren't so scared.

I have to move, get away from this door before whoever's in Mom's room comes out and finds me. Going back to my room would be a mistake. If whoever is in there is robbing us, they're going in my room next. I know
they haven't been there already because everything is untouched. A robber would have taken my phone, the TV, my iPod, but it was all still there. Shit, my gran bought me headphones that are worth more than a small car.

Bathroom is out too; there's nowhere to hide in there. And I stopped being able to fit inside our linen closet when I was six.

Logic says I should go downstairs. Impossible. I've got weights strapped to my knees. But I have to find a way or risk meeting the intruder face-to-face. And then what? What if they're armed? What if they kidnap me? What if they kill me? Is my survival instinct really that broken?

I'm wasting too much time on what-ifs.

I have to move before I shut down. The only parts of my body that are still working sufficiently are my arms. I crouch down, lower my butt on to the carpet, and push myself towards the top of the stairs. It's just like rowing, except there's more friction. A lot more friction. The resistance-fuelled scrape of my skin against the worn green carpet that lines our landing stings worse than when you catch your arm on a boiling kettle. It's like having your legs exfoliated with an electric sander.

My toes test the floor in front of me, silently tapping out my path like a white cane. When the solid surface disappears, I know I've reached the first step. I push myself down; my body hits the second step with a sharp jar. I mentally promise my spine to be more careful with the next one.

I keep going, hit the halfway point at the same time I hear Mom's door squeak. It's dark out here, not as dark as it was before my eyes adjusted, but still pretty well
drenched in night. I pray it's enough to keep my presence concealed and scoot towards the banister, where there is slightly more shadow.

The intruder leaves my mom's room backside first. It's probably better if I don't see him, but that prepared-for-everything part of me has to know which room he goes into next, has to know what he looks like in case the police ask. I have to know for me too. When this is all over, I'm going to need to be able to put a face to the person that broke into my home and ruined my safe circle for ever.

I blink away tears and wipe them off my cheeks. The intruder turns, and I startle, fight hard to hold a squeal back behind my teeth. The jackass is wearing a skeleton mask. Vomit rises up in my throat. I lift a trembling hand, slap it silently over my mouth, and swallow my gorge back down, along with a tidal wave of sobs. When he moves along the hall, his jacket makes a scrunching sound. I notice his jeans, or rather the skulls stitched on below the side pocket . . .

My mind races back to the moment I first saw them.

Oh, shit.

I've got to get out of this house. This is the Helping Hands guy. The one that stood in my kitchen a couple of months ago, ogling my nearly naked frame. I remember his dark eyes climbing up my body like a cockroach.

Bullshit he had a key. Bullshit he was following company procedure. There's no way my mom would let anyone have a free pass to our house. I should have known that, should have been able to see through his lies. I don't let my mind question whether or not he'd planned to rob
us that day, because if he had that would mean I interrupted him. God, he must be pretty angry at me for that.

I watch him disappear towards my bedroom, and then I carry on sliding down the stairs until I hit the bottom step. I can't take it twice. I don't have time. I wonder if he figured out what was wrong with me. He'd only have to ask his boss.

I'm suddenly afraid he'll catch on to my escape attempt if he finds my room empty. My heart tries to choke me.

I slide onto the floor on my hands and knees and crawl towards the door. My teeth slam down on my tongue when something bites into my palms. There's a popping sound. Several popping sounds. I freeze. Try to swallow back more tears and a mouthful of hot saliva.

At first I can't figure out what it is. Something is slicing into me and my best guess would be I'm crawling through a field full of sharp paper. But when I lift my hand, I see it, glistening in whatever moonlight has managed to sneak in through the porch windows. Broken glass. My head snaps around to survey Gran's Georgian glass cabinet. He must not have been able to pick the rusty antique lock because he's totalled the front of it, and I'm bleeding all over the debris.

No time to dwell. The door is only a few feet away and my eyes are rolling again. I hold my breath, think of my bed, my soft warm sheets, my favourite book, Mom and me talking about television, Luke's smile and the way his skin feels against mine.

The pain doesn't stop, but the popping sound does. Somehow, I've made it.

My hands are soaked ruby red. They shake like the tail
of a rattlesnake as I reach for the latch. It clicks, and I pull back the bolt. The door is unbroken; he must have found another way in. I pull it open a fraction, let the moonlight pour in. A rush of fresh air engulfs me, and it never felt so good.

But now I have to make it across the driveway. It might as well be an army assault course. I pause, squeeze my teeth together so tight my jaw feels like it's going to snap. The sweat surfacing on my palms exacerbates the sting and sets my cuts on fire.

I can't do it. Fuck. I can't do it

This is my new hell. This is definitely what being damned feels like. I think
a thousand more times. It's a mistake to run a hand through my hair, but I do it anyway, splashing blood into my blonde.

I hear the faint bump of a jackass stumbling into something upstairs. God. I hope he caught his shin on a sharp corner. I hope he smacked it down to the bone on my gothic dressing table and that it hurts so bad his stomach starts turning. But then I guess if he's hurt himself, he's probably going to be even more pissed off.

I really gotta go. He could discover me at any second.

I crack the door further so the gap is wide enough for me to fit through.

I don't have a heading, but I'm looking at Luke's house. His car is in the driveway. I was hoping there'd be a light on, but the place is bathed in blackness. The Trips' house is dark too. Triangle Crescent is sound asleep. I wonder if any of our neighbours will wake to discover missing valuables and lakes of shattered glass.

Luke's house is the closest option. And he brings me ice
cream without black bits because he knows I don't like them. He gets me orange juice when my legs aren't working. He brings the stars to my bedroom so I can lie beneath them. He talks about my future, even when I'm not sure I have one. He makes me feel safe.

I need to feel safe again.

My legs are still as stable as jelly, so I have no choice but to move forward on my hands. Placing my palms one at a time on the ground, I give a brief thought to all the sneakers, boots, sandals, and shoes that have trodden their crap on this porch over the years. It makes me whimper. All that bacteria I'm dipping my open wounds in.

My shoulders emerge from the door and everything grows to twice its original size.

Come on, Norah. You can't stay here

I pant out a breath, scrunch my eyes shut and then open them in the hope it will clear my vision. It doesn't.

I lift my palm, move it forwards slowly, and do the same again. And again. I tune out the squelching sounds until my sliced-up knees have joined my hands on the infection-imminent porch.

The night is cool. It feels big, infinite, impossible to think the sun can overcome it. Every muscle tightens, as if my insides were being strangled by elastic bands. Snivelling, I make my way down the steps, wishing they'd stop moving and make this easier.

BOOK: Under Rose-Tainted Skies
7.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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