Later that morning I toyed with the idea of telling my housemates about the dream, but they had other things on their minds. I was the only one in a house of four to have a steady boyfriend (if you can call it that) and I was also the only one who studied a science, Kerry and Sam (she preferred Samantha, hated Sam and was very vocal about it, but I don’t have to worry about that anymore, so Sam it is) were both drama majors while Yvette was majoring in Women’s Studies (which sounds more interesting than it is). The conversation around the breakfast table, rare as it was to see us all hemmed in to the same morning schedule, always surrounded the same topics. Kerry and Sam gossiped about the guys and Yvette crouched at the sidelines waiting for her opportunity to pounce on something that she could counter with what she characterised as feminism, but always seemed to me like sheer aggression. I’d almost feel guilty for regarding them as stereotypes if they weren’t trying so damned hard to adhere to that standard. If I remember correctly that morning Kerry had just gotten back from spending the night with the guy she’d been seeing at the time and was already contemplating dumping him, Sam was trying to talk her out of it and Yvette thought she should follow through, lest she end up becoming submissive. Funny, now that I think about it, the atmosphere in the kitchen the morning when I first noticed the next stage was almost exactly the same.
The breathing had been an easy thing to deal with, so had the dream, it only came every once in a while and the changes were always subtle, but this was hard to play down. I was eating a pancake when Sam walked over and sat on the edge of the table, crossing her legs. Sam lit up like a Christmas tree when the sun hit her, her hair was a brilliant shade of red (completely natural, aggravatingly) and went down to her waistline, her eyes were amazing too, a pale shade of green, she liked to pretend that she didn’t realise how pretty she was, it was very, very annoying.
“Don’t you have a test today?” She enquired, narrowing her gaze. I did have a mock exam to sit later that day, it was the beginning of November and the end-of-semester examinations were beginning to loom.
“I do, but I’m on top of it.” I replied.
“We should go out and celebrate afterwards, Suite 69 has some kind of thing on tonight.” It was an empty threat, nothing would ever get organised in time. The two dramatics would probably go out alone. Good thing, too, the nightlife in Edmonton was appalling, Suite 69 was a bearable haven amongst dozens of stylised country bars and square dancing clubs.
“Yeah, that sounds like fun, let me know.” I said, smiling. One thing you’ll come to learn about me is that what I thought and what I said almost never lined up, usually in the name of courtesy more than anything else.
Sam let out a friendly exhale and moved to sit down opposite me, as Kerry and Yvette came down the stairs. Kerry sat down on the other side of me and started assembling the waffles Sam had made for her. She had a tendency to play with her food that I found infinitely amusing to observe. It was then that I first noticed. Pain. A sharp ache that ran right the way through my arms and legs, it was strong enough then to make me wince out loud, but I had no idea how much worse it was going to get. I shuddered and let out a high wheeze. Kerry and Sam regarded me with concern.
“You alright?” Kerry asked, mouth still half filled with waffles.
“Fine, just a cramp, I think.” I replied. That was honestly the only logical answer I could offer at the time.
Kerry pursed her lips in thought before turning her attention back to her breakfast. Everything went very quiet after that, and the pain never really subsided. Later that day it got a lot worse. While I was in the exam hall it became so unbearable that I had to excuse myself. I just about managed the drive home before collapsing into bed. If I could equate it to anything, it felt like someone was scraping away at the insides of my arms and legs, like a burning that came in waves, whittling up and down again and again. My fingers twitched and convulsed as I writhed around under the covers, clenching my jaw and screwing up my eyes. Bad time for the phone to go off.
“How did it go.” Came the deep, refined voice on the other end. Dad, perfect.
“Fine…” I croaked.
“Did you have trouble with the wavelength calculations?” He asked. Damn, I thought. The wavelength stuff had all been in section C; I’d never have gotten that far.
“No, it was fine.” I managed, leg pain rising towards my hips as I spoke.
“Was there a question on optical fibres?”
“Did you remember how to factor in the refractive indices?”
“Well, how did you do it?”
“Sorry, dad, I have some kind of cramps, it’s pretty painful. I need to get some rest, can we talk about this tomorrow?” I groaned. He went quiet for too long after that.
“…Did it harm your performance in the test?”
“No, kicked in just after. I’m fine.”
“Don’t lie to me, Ashley.”
“I’m not! It’s fine.”
“Ashley, I can tell when you lie to me, now-”
I hung up, switched the phone off and threw it across the room, shrieking at the top of my lungs. I realised very quickly that the noise I’d made had been a lot louder than I’d have liked. One of them is bound to notice that. I remember thinking. I was right. Kerry came bursting into my room like her life had depended on it, drama student to the core, everything was an emergency.
“Did you make that noise!?” She interrogated.
“Christ Ash, I thought there was a bird in here or something.”
“I’m in a lot of pain…”
“Stay right there, I’ll get something.”
With that she went running off downstairs. I sat up in bed, still pulsating with agony. I knew whenever I turned my phone back on there’d be about 2,000 missed calls. No matter, I knew how to smooth it over with dad, wasn’t as if I couldn’t take the test again. Kerry eventually remerged with a pillbox in her hand. She took one out and handed it to me with a glass of ice water.
“Take this.” She offered.
“What…” I tried to say ‘is that’ but the effort of speaking was fairly pronounced.
“Valium.” Kerry replied. “Take it when I get a really nasty hang over. You’ll only need one.”
Being of sound mind I’d never have accepted that offer, but I was in agony, so I took it. Next thing I knew I was fast asleep. I had the flying dream again, but it was different. It felt more vivid, more real, the invisible ropes that had held me aloft in previous iterations had slackened and above all else my movements were freer, smoother, better.
When I eventually woke again it was around 9 in the evening. The pain was gone, what’s more – I felt amazing, like I had all the energy I would ever need. I leapt out of bed, but surprised even myself with my own enthusiasm, I launched myself about three feet in the air. I didn’t think I was going to land on my feet. With all this left over energy I knew I had to do something, so I hurriedly threw on something nightlife appropriate and rushed downstairs. Kerry and Sam were sat around the kitchen table drinking a bottle of white wine each when I appeared, beaming.
“Feeling better?” Kerry asked.
“Infinitely” I said.
“Suite 69?” Sam asked.
“Definitely.” I replied.
At this point Yvette walked in. Kerry and Sam followed her around the room with their eyes while she poured herself a glass of squash. Yvette rarely ever got invited out on nights like that one and the way the other two treated her was unacceptable. I should have said something, anything. But I just watched her leave again.
– – – – – – –
Suite 69 was on Whyte Ave, which was probably the best part of Edmonton for clubs. To get in you had to go up a narrow stairway, once at the top you found yourself surrounded by noise and motion on a dance-floor with a distinct red brick motif. That particular night some no-name DJ was doing a set. It was fairly busy. A lot of the clientele that night seemed to be Edmonton locals, who more than matched the students for enthusiasm. I was dancing around like a maniac before any alcohol had even reached my system, I felt lighter, more energetic, I even realised I could jump higher, although you have to find interesting excuses to test that theory on a night out. For the first hour or so everything was fine. Me and the other two danced, drank shots, laughed and helped me forget how turbulent the day had been beforehand. Later on Sam ran off to take a phone call so it was just me and Kerry, who was whirling around, letting the braid in her blue and blonde hair whip out in front of her eyes. She was wearing about 12 different necklaces, a dark red top with a leopard print pattern on it that left her midriff exposed and denim shorts, how she hadn’t chilled to death between the cab and the front door was a mystery, being that it was mid-November and easily below freezing. We decided to drift over to the seats and got a drink each, we sat and talked for a while. I took the time to examine all the various articles of outlandish jewellery Kerry was wearing, obtained through her monthly raids of town markets and such. I’d always admired the way Kerry dressed, she had a distinct way about her that some found intimidating, but she never let it hold her back, she always did what she wanted.
Our conversation was eventually interrupted by Sam’s return, what’s more she had tears in her eyes. Apparently she’d been on the phone to her sister and they’d had some kind of disagreement. Kerry offered to take her home, but I decided to stay, I had far too much enthusiasm left to call it quits at half midnight.
“But you don’t know anyone else here!” Kerry argued.
“I’ll make some new friends.” I said, winking.
Kerry smiled as she led Sam away and down the stairs. Honestly I wasn’t sure if it had been the best idea to elect to stay, but I wasn’t alone for long. A few minutes sat by myself near the bar was all it took, but I was surprised at who it was who turned up.
“Ashley, right?” Sounded the voice, I hadn’t even noticed him walk over.
“Yeah, that’s me.” I said before turning, only then did I see who he was “Ben! How’ve you been?”
“Glad you remember me!” He shouted over the music. “I’m fine, how are you?”
We ended up talking for quite a while, having never really been afforded the opportunity to before, it turned out that Ben was actually doing the same degree as me, only a year below. He was a lot more passionate about it than me, I tried my hardest to remain interested but when all you’ve ever grown up around is talk of centrifugal force, molecular structure and relativity it’s hard to retain any real verve during those discussions. Let me be clear about something, I had no intention of taking him home, going home with him – or anything of that nature, the reason I stayed with him was purely a matter of confidence. See I didn’t find him particularly interesting but he hung on to my every word, whether it was purely out of attraction or my reputation for aptitude at physics (something I found hard to play down in front of people who knew all the nomenclature) is still unclear, at the time I definitely assumed he was into me and it was gratifying to have someone around who actually cared what I had to say. Or at least acted as though they did. One of my last memories of true unbridled happiness is leaning at the bar with him waiting for our tequila to arrive, I slid my hands across the polished surface and turned to look at him, jumping on an opportunity to speak as the music reached a hiatus.
“You know, I’ve been prattling on about myself for something like an hour now, is there anything you want to tell me about? You can’t be this interested in physics, nobody is, not even Carl Sagan.”
“It’s not so much the physics that’s keeping me listening.”
“Oh?”I mused, fully braced for some horrific pickup line that I’d have to laugh off.
“It’s you, something about the way you talk, you have a wisdom about you, like you’re not hemmed in by society’s expectations of our generation. It’s really compelling.”
I think I’ll always count that as one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me, certainly the most honest, genuine compliment I ever received. The way Ben said it made it so personal; there was no sense of standing on ceremony, it wasn’t for its own sake, if you see what I mean, he’d really listened to me and made a real observation about my character. That’s part of the reason why it’s going to be difficult to justify what I did next. I think, whatever Ben had intended to happen with me that night, consciously or otherwise, our encounters were cursed. Not long after we’d drank our shots I followed him over to the dance floor to find his other friends, that was the only time throughout the course of that night that I’d held his hand and Nathan picked that exact instant to make his dramatic entrance. I found out much later that he’d called Sam in a panic after failing to get hold of me (my phone was still exactly where I’d left it after talking to dad). All she’d said was that I was in Suite 69, not who I was with, not any other details but apparently that was enough to boil some water between his ears because he steamrolled into that club like it was at the root of everything he’d ever hated. Luckily we were stood in such a way that I was able to he clock him before he located me and before Ben knew anything was wrong. I didn’t actually see his reaction when he did see us but I knew the drill all too well, Nathan’s reaction to me standing anywhere near another male was as reflexive as that of a dog when it sees an intruder. The reason I didn’t see his reaction is because the moment I became aware of his presence I immediately grabbed Ben by the nape of his neck and kissed him. I make no excuses for that, it was petty and inflammatory, an appropriate term as my motivations felt very chemical, I was on a high and Nathan was the embodied antithesis, I felt like I had to neutralize him. Now that I look back it was more like I’d just dropped about a pound of potassium in hydrochloric acid, but then it wouldn’t have been acting on impulse if I’d considered the consequences.
Up to this point it may have seemed like my actions were largely based on the notion that Ben was interested in me and that is indeed the case. What makes everything that happened with him that night so significant in hindsight is the way he reacted when I kissed him. Admittedly he didn’t back off or push me away, but he didn’t kiss me back, his lips stayed closed and never even pursed. I don’t know if you’ve ever kissed someone who didn’t do it back but it’s a hellishly awkward position to be in, of course I wasn’t in it for long, before I knew what was happening Nathan ripped me away from him. Part of the reason I felt like I could get away with that little performance was that I’d always considered Nathan to be all bark and no bite, he’d never hit anyone and certainly never been in a fight but he came at Ben with everything he had, staggered him with one punch and brought him to the floor with the second before he was overwhelmed by the bouncers. I can’t imagine that night having gone any differently but in that moment I felt terrible for Ben, but then if he’d actually fallen for me it would have been so much worse, the fact that he didn’t kiss me back makes me certain that he hadn’t, that and the fact that after that night I never saw him again. The chaos that ensued after Nathan punched Ben gave me ample time to slip out of the club without him seeing, the first thing I did when I got to the bottom of the stairway was kick my heels off, then I ran barefoot out into the night.
Normally in that cold and with the frost on the ground, running barefoot down the street would have been unbearable but I was sprinting so fast my feet were hardly meeting it. I don’t think I’d ever run so fast in my entire life, I just had to get away from everything. It felt like the concrete was entombing me, the buildings dropping and rising like a cage, I knew exactly where I needed to go to escape it. Eventually after zigzagging down a few streets peppered with drunken peers, bathed in sickly yellow light and queasily pulsing with dull club-land echoes, I flagged down a taxi. I clumsily recited my address and thrust the exact amount into the driver’s hand, insuring that upon arrival I’d be able to crawl back out immediately. As the swirling of the street lights gave way to the comfortable embrace of natural darkness, I began to relax, resting my head against the car door.
“Rough night then?” The driver asked.
“Yes, it was, that’s all you need to know and all you’re going to ask.” I growled.
I’m not a great believer in the idea of regret. There’s little to gain from ruminating over things that have already happened and even less to gain from wishing you’d acted differently, but if I was to say I regretted anything that happened during those last three months two things spring to mind, and one of them was the impudence I showed towards that taxi driver. The remainder of that trip was bristled with a venomous silence, not an atmosphere anyone should cultivate, least of all me. I wasn’t even upset, just determined to get where I was going.
Yvette was in the kitchen when I burst in, once again fixing a glass of squash, she seemed to live off the stuff. I’d had time to compose myself and I hadn’t been crying so apart from the missing shoes there can’t have been anything to indicate that my night had gone south, but the look she gave me just cut right through. She knew something wasn’t normal. For all my complaints about her pseudo-psychologist nonsense Yvette’s heart was definitely in the right place, as evidenced by the warm smile she offered me. I slid over and gave her a quick hug before scuttling up to my room and tearing my outfit off, fuelled by the recollection that Nathan must have been on my tail. Just as I finished putting my boots and coat on there was a bang at the door, too hard and heavy to be any of the girls. To say I acted on instinct in that moment would be a severe understatement. The thoughts of escaping Nathan, finding somewhere peaceful to be alone, to be happy, none of them actually factored into my reasoning when I jumped out of the window, I just did it.
The landing wasn’t anywhere near as painful as it should have been, even the descent itself felt slow and measured, as if I could have spotted my landing with ease, had the notion of doing so occurred to me at the time. In hindsight the reasons are obvious, but we’ll get to that. After straightening back up I pawed a Maglite out of my coat pocket and highlighted a path through the trees into the park. Despite the cold, biting air the woods held me in a firm, loving embrace, guarding me from a world I didn’t belong to, a world I loathed, a world that would never understand why I kept on crawling, running, flying from its grip.
When Nathan finally caught up with me I was sat near the edge of one of the smaller lakes, I suppose credit where credit is due, it was impressive that he’d managed to find me, more than a mile into the wilderness, but then he’d been on a few walks with me there before. Initially he just looked at me, I couldn’t really see his face so I couldn’t tell whether he was angry, confused or upset. After enough time had elapsed to just about fall on the right side of uncomfortable he finally opened his mouth.
“Ashley.” He said. Just go. “It’s alright Ashley.”No, it isn’t, stop pretending to understand. “I’m sorry.”
At this point he started very slowly walking towards me, like a handler approaching an angry dog, all the time whispering hollow placations in some vapid effort to calm me down. Walk away. I told myself. Walk away, don’t even look back. I didn’t, though; I just stood there, set in concrete. He doesn’t know, he’ll never know. It was almost like a scream thrashing around the inside of my head by this point but still I didn’t move as his arms stretched out to my sides, blocking my escape. Don’t do this, don’t do it Ashley. Remember earlier when I said there were two things that I regretted doing during these last 3 months? Well…
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