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Jess thought Abbie was clumsy on purpose. Rochelle and Maja got plenty of attention on looks alone and Jess received some for supposedly being the smart one, and Abbie got hers by making everyone around her laugh. She’d tell the dirtiest joke or turn too quickly in a bar and sling her handbag across a table and knock over some brooding guy’s drink or she’d trip over a slab of upraised pavement on the footpath and face-plant spectacularly. Being clumsy gave her a chance to shine because she always recovered so well, laughing at herself and smiling her half-embarrassed, half-devil-may-care smile; and, of course, she insisted on buying the guy in the bar another drink and ended up snogging him, and on the street strangers rushed to help her to her feet and they shook their heads and cursed the council for failing to maintain the footpath rather than let their eyes linger on her ridiculous heels. But Abbie wasn’t just putting it on. She was that clumsy or she wouldn’t have died the way she did.
Late one night, she poured herself a bubble bath and, when she was getting out, she slipped, tumbled over the side, and cracked her temple on the rim of the toilet bowl. Her dad found her in the morning, naked, wet, and cold. A halo of her blood stained the white tiles.
Jess and Abbie had been besties since they were thirteen, when Abbie and her dad moved to the same street in Brixton where Jess and her mum lived, and they slept in each other’s houses so frequently that they kept a toothbrush in the other’s bathroom, so, at the funeral, when lesser friends asked Jess how she was “holding up,” she said she was fine and warned them with a look not to ask again. Her mum was harder to discourage. She put an arm around Jess’s tensed shoulders and tearfully whispered, “I know it’s so tough, I know,” and it took all of her will not to reply that she didn’t know and if she wanted to help she could fuck off. Everyone could fuck off.
A day later, Jess boarded a plane for Singapore, a flight she booked months prior. She had a room waiting for her in her rich aunt’s house. The plan had been for her, Abbie, Rochelle, and Maja to travel the world for a year before beginning college, and Rochelle and Maja said they still wanted to do part of the trip, after taking time to grieve, but Jess was unwilling to wait. An inner voice told her—screamed at her—to go.
On the flight, she sat beside a pleasant-looking Asian businessman with greying hair. He was probably counting the hours until he arrived home to see his family, and she hated him. He was in Abbie’s seat.
Closing her eyes, she pictured Abbie in the funeral home. Abbie had had too many layers of concealer on and her eyes and mouth must have been sewn shut, and Jess had wanted to scrape away the garish mask and cut the stitches and it killed her that there was nothing she could do to make her look like herself again.
Jess couldn’t sleep but she wasn’t in the mood for some trivial movie either. She watched the flight-path screen instead. As it drifted across the crude map, the plane-cursor looked like a crucifix with broken arms.
Her aunt would be coming directly from the hotel she managed and had said she might be late, so when Jess walked through arrivals at Changi and Louisa wasn’t there, she went to their alternative meeting place in the departure hall: the Kinetic Rain installation, where hundreds upon hundreds of wire-suspended copper “raindrops” moved in choreographed waves, forming magical shapes, from a hot-air balloon to a dragon. Jess set her cumbersome backpack next to the railings. There were seats nearby but her legs were stiff so she remained standing, her back to the display.
Jess soon spotted Louisa sashaying toward her across the glossy floor. Louisa had been a model as a teenager and hadn’t forgotten how to walk like one. Jess hadn’t seen her in years but she was as striking as ever, with her resolute gaze and the elegant slopes of her cheeks. Louisa was six inches taller and leaned down for an awkward hug. She was rigid in her shoulders, and Jess wasn’t a natural hugger herself. Both were unlike Jess’s mum, Louisa’s elder sister, who was overfamiliar with everyone.
Louisa said, “You’re exhausted, aren’t you? I’m sorry for your loss, love, very sorry.”
Jess shrugged without meaning to. “Yeah, me too.”
“Let’s get you home.”
Night had fallen and, in the car, Louisa’s eyes were on the road, except for a glance here and there at Jess, scrutinizing her as casually as she could but not so casually that Jess was unaware of it.
The expressway was lined by tropical trees and purple-flowered shrubs, and they were so well-pruned and -proportioned that Jess wondered if they were fake. And she was too warm but to take her hoodie off she’d have to remove her seatbelt and, if she did that without forewarning, it might seem like she was about to throw herself out the door. Of course, telling Louisa, “I’m unbuckling my seatbelt and I swear I won’t bash my head on the asphalt,” wouldn’t have been reassuring either, and she recognized that her reflex assessment of the most convenient way to harm herself said something grim about her.
Louisa spared her any mundane questions about the flight and, without trying to fill every silence, she told her a few oddities about Singapore, like how, in case of an invasion, many of the roads were designed to be convertible into runways for fighter jets. Jess asked if this would make much of a difference and Louisa said that a bigger country could conquer Singapore in a day. Its defensive preparations were for peace of mind, a deluded peace of mind.
Already, Jess felt more comfortable around Louisa than with anyone back home. At nineteen, Louisa had gotten pregnant and she had been a single mother until her son died from leukaemia when he was four. Then she’d left London, married Daan, a Dutch investment banker, and came to Singapore to build a new life. But you wouldn’t guess from looking at her that she’d experienced such a loss. She projected an air of aloof confidence, like she was used to things going her way and assumed they always would.
Her house was the last in a row of big houses with high walls and wrought-iron gates. When they pulled into her portico-sheltered parking space, the headlights illuminated a wall populated by half a dozen bulbous-eyed geckos, who squirmed under the glare before scurrying out of sight.
They went inside and Louisa flicked on the hallway lights, revealing four doors, all ajar and leading to dark rooms, and a mahogany staircase. As they put their shoes in the rack by the front door, Jess asked where Daan was and Louisa said he was away on business for a few weeks. “You’re stuck with my exciting self for company.”
Louisa presented her with oven-ready meal options but Jess just wanted to shower and sleep.
Jess dreamed she was on the plane and, without turning toward her, she sensed that Abbie was sitting bolt upright in the businessman’s seat. She leaned into the aisle to tell the other passengers it was wrong for her friend to be there and her words came out garbled and the passengers’ blurry faces laughed at her through chattering teeth, so she grabbed the arm of an impossibly tall stewardess and strenuously enunciated, “Dead!” and the stewardess wrenched her arm away and said Abbie couldn’t be dead. She was looking at Jess right now. “She’s smiling at you!”
With both hands Jess seized the bedside lamp around its rotund body, wobbling the shade, then she located the button below the bulb and pushed it. Her terror receded in the light and she reached for her phone on the nightstand: it was 5 a.m. For the next two hours, she laid there, not resting her eyes for longer than a blink, until daylight yellowed the white curtains. Then she got up, yanked a tank top and denim shorts from the jumble of clothes in her backpack, and got dressed.
Padding along the landing, she could hear Louisa on the phone in her room: “I’ll tell her, Shar. . . . Well, maybe her battery was dead. . . . She knows you do. . . . I know she is, but she’s strong.”
Jess winced at that unearned word. She felt like a gust of wind would put cracks in her bones. A second gust would shatter them.
Downstairs in the kitchen, pots and pans were piled in the sink and dirty dishes and glasses were all over the counter, and the lids of the two bins were propped open by rubbish and they were enclosed by empty wine bottles. Ants were marching through the gap under the back door, along the perimeter of the floor, up the right-angle edge between two cupboards, and onto the counter, where they feasted on the morsels of meat and rice and the sauces smeared across the dishes.
She opened the dishwasher and almost dropped the glass she was about to put in when she realized that a pale figure was watching her from the doorway. But it was only Louisa, in a silver waist-hugging dressing gown. She had crow’s-feet cornering her eyes that Jess hadn’t noticed before, and she apologized for the fright and for the mess. “Daan’s the tidy one and there’s been some slippage in his absence.”
For breakfast, Louisa made Belgian waffles, covered in syrup, powdered sugar, and blueberries, and they ate sitting at one end of the long table in the dining room.
As Jess swallowed her last bite, Louisa said, “Your mum was on to me.”
“Let me guess: she’s mad I haven’t informed her yet that I’ve arrived miraculously intact.”
“It’s understandable that she worries. She said you’re her world. She means it.”
“I hate that phrase. No one is ever anyone else’s entire world and they shouldn’t be.”
“You’re right but it can feel otherwise, especially when the person you love most is going through something and there isn’t much you can do about it.”
Jess said she was fine and promised to check in with her mum.
Before leaving for work, Louisa had given Jess a stack of brochures. Jess put them aside without looking at them. Although she’d long wanted to see Singapore, she imagined being targeted by a thief and having to surrender her phone and her money at knifepoint, and being unable to find her way back to the house. She knew this was irrational. Singapore had miniscule rates of crime, and she’d memorized Louisa’s number, and someone would help her if she needed it. But more than being mugged or getting lost, she feared that, outside the house, there’d be too much noise and she’d have some sort of breakdown and strangers would gather around her, stepping too close and muttering among themselves about how weak she was.
So today she would stay in, but she still needed to keep busy so, in the kitchen, she washed the pots and pans and, spurning the dishwasher, every unclean dish and glass too, and she emptied the bins and, staying in the shade, she dumped the bags and the bottles in the wheelie bins around the side of the house. She wiped the windows above the sink with disposable cloths, and the counters, and inside the cupboards, and she crushed ants with wads of damp kitchen paper, killing hundreds and feeling guilty about each one.
Looking around the transformed kitchen, the knots of anxiety in her chest and stomach unclenched, a bit.
She made herself write her mother an email: Mum, I’m safe and sound. Louisa’s been ace. Don’t worry about me. Need space but chat soon. Love you. xxx J. She deleted “Love you,” chided herself for being weird, reinserted it, and pressed send.
When Louisa arrived home, carrying a plastic bag crammed with boxes of takeout, Jess intercepted her in the hallway and warned her that she’d “gone to work” on the kitchen. “I wasn’t trying to interfere. It helped me to stay awake.”
Louisa was amused—“Let’s be seeing your interfering then”—and, after Jess showed her and she expressed her appreciation, Jess said, “Would you mind me tackling the rest of the house too?”
On Wednesday she cleaned the laundry room. She mopped the floor, and pulled the washing machine and dryer from the wall and cleaned behind and around them, and she sundered a pane of dust from the dryer’s filter and scraped out a slick line of filth creased within the ring of grey rubber sheathing the opening of the washing machine. This small windowless room was designed to be a maid’s quarters but Louisa said she never considered taking one in—a choice that marked her as an eccentric here—because she wouldn’t be able to relax with a stranger cleaning up after her. “Luckily, I now have a trusted family member serving as my personal pre-fairy-godmother-intervention Cinderella.”
On Thursday Jess vacuumed the living room and wiped the TV cabinet and the coffee table, and found an earring and a teaspoon down the side of the couch, and dusted off the bookcase. The top shelves were packed with crime novels but the bottom shelves were empty. And on the mantelpiece there was a framed photo of Louisa’s son. Ben was sitting cross-legged on a red rug and, despite how he was smiling with all his teeth, Jess detected a sadness in his eyes. Then she realized she was projecting that onto him. He didn’t possess any foreknowledge that he was going to get sick. She could see no dust on the photo, so she left it alone.
On Friday, after double-checking with Louisa and getting told, “I doubt you’ll find anything that will shock you,” Jess cleaned her bedroom and, indeed, when she stepped into the walk-in closet and looked through the chest of drawers and found no clothes that were likely to be Daan’s, she wasn’t even mildly surprised.
That evening Louisa took Jess to a bar on the top floor of a cylindrical skyscraper. It was walled by glass and she was treated to a panoramic view of the island city-state. Under a dark sky, countless lights shimmered up from the streets and flashed across from the sleek skyscrapers in every direction. Louisa ordered them green cocktails, which, in the candlelight, appeared to have a radioactive glow.
Jess asked when Daan would be back, and Louisa said, “Is that your question?”
“I suppose I’m asking is Daan coming back?”
“No, I’ve thrown him out. We’re getting a divorce.”
Louisa’s reply sounded more defiant, and thus more defensive, than she’d probably intended it to, but then she sighed and said she’d put off sharing her “big news” because her sister was the person she least wanted to know. “Sharon said I’d regret marrying him and damn her if she wasn’t right.”
“She might be more sympathetic than you think.”
“Oh, she’ll be very sympathetic and she’ll never say ‘I told you he was a rake,’ however much she’ll be thinking it. That isn’t a dig at her. When she warned me, I should’ve listened. I can be too proud.”
Jess said she’d always admired her, “my Amazon aunt, the glamorous former model,” and Louisa snorted. Whatever Jess had heard, she was a model for like five minutes and, mostly, she’d appeared in department store catalogs, selling jumpers and woolly leggings.
Catching the eye of a roaming waiter, she pointed at their drinks and, after he brought them two more, she asked Jess what her plans were. Jess stalled with a sip of her limy cocktail, then admitted she was struggling to think further than a day at a time. She supposed she’d stick to her original itinerary and leave for Malaysia in a week, then travel through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and China, hopefully rendezvousing with Rochelle and Maja along the way.
Louisa suggested that she extend her visit until her friends committed to where and when they’d be joining her rather than venturing into the unknown depleted and alone. “You’d be doing me a favor, love. Can you imagine how clean my house will get?”
Jess said she’d think it over. The only reason she didn’t say yes on the spot was that she didn’t want it to be obvious how desperate she was to stay.
Night after night, Abbie would die in her dreams.
She’d be murdered, beaten to death by faceless people, or devoured by monsters with rows of sharp teeth. And she’d die from hideous diseases, with boils and blisters on her skin and blood seeping from her eyes, and she’d waste away in Jess’s arms. And she’d kill herself, cutting her own throat, or hang herself, twitching and gasping while Jess broke fingernails trying to untie the knotted noose.
But the worst dreams were the ones where Abbie didn’t die and she was joking around and Jess was happy, too, just to be with her. And Jess would wake up and feel OK, then remember that Abbie was gone and it was heartbreaking. Better to wake in a state of terror.
Jess took to sleeping with the light on. On a good night, she’d get four hours, never continuous. The fragments of sleep came between bouts of staring wide-eyed at the swollen shadows on the ceiling.
Louisa offered Jess sleeping pills and she declined. “That would be cheating.”
“I take them. Am I a cheater?”
“It isn’t cheating for anyone else. It’s just I’ve read that the sleep you get from pills is the type where you don’t dream as much and my nightmares are letting me work some feelings out.”
Jess didn’t know if she was working anything out or not, but she didn’t want to admit to being scared that if she dulled her mind with sleeping pills, Abbie would stop appearing to her. Night terrors were better than nothing.
Growing short of things to do around the house, Jess went into the city center more. It was always busy, but it wasn’t as loud as London and she’d never been in a city that was so clean. The people were exceptionally well groomed, too. When she saw a gang of young punks outside a McDonald’s, their gelled spikes and mohawks were perfectly in place, their ripped jeans ironed, their boots neatly laced. Her fear of getting mugged seemed truly absurd to her now. There were security cameras everywhere and it was easier to imagine the clean punks helping an old lady cross the road than to imagine them demanding someone’s wallet.
Being so close to the equator, Singapore didn’t really have seasons and the sun rose and set quickly and at around the same times every day. She got used to the frequency of thunder and lightning, and, on rainy days, there wasn’t much point in carrying an umbrella. If she was caught in a shower and her clothes got soaked, the sun would cook them dry within an hour.
On some days she hardly ate; on others, people raised their eyebrows at the messy speed with which she chowed down on the minced-meat noodles or soy sauce chicken rice she bought from stalls. But if she went to the same one enough that the hawker smiled at her and asked if she wanted her “usual,” then she found somewhere new. The friendlier people were, the more she shrank from them.
In the afternoon, she often caught a movie, bringing her hoodie and a light blanket in a bag because the air-conditioning in the cinemas was freezing. Preferring for there to be no one between her and the screen, she’d sit in the front row and drape the blanket over her bare legs and put her hoodie on, donning the hood, and she’d sink in her seat to minimize how observable she was to anyone behind her. She usually went to horror movies and liked them to have lots of jump scares that made her stomach and her heart spasm in tandem. She’d chew on the drawstrings of her hoodie and if Abbie could have seen her, she’d have said, “What a fucking weirdo,” but like it was a positive.
After she’d been in Singapore for six weeks, Jess got an email from Rochelle saying that she and Maja were flying to Vietnam in ten days. Despite the jokey tone—“Move your ass and join us, biatch”—and the absence of any mention of Abbie, Jess suspected they were pissed at her for isolating herself and acting as if her grief ran deeper than theirs. It did, but they were cut up from losing Abbie too and Jess had been self-absorbed.
Louisa offered to sponsor her for a work visa if she wasn’t ready to leave. Then she could stay beyond ninety days. A hotel job would be a step up from her unpaid housemaid internship and she could save some money, and Louisa told her not to look so worried. Whatever Jess decided, it would be all right.
That night, she dared to sleep with the light off and had a nightmare about running through the empty streets of Singapore. Everywhere she went, she sensed Abbie had been there moments before but, no matter how fast she ran, she was too late.
Opening her eyes, Jess couldn’t move her arms or legs and felt like an invisible presence was pinning her down. She knew that wasn’t what was happening—there are no ghosts: when you’re gone, you’re gone—and this was sleep paralysis. The door to the bathroom was open and she saw a flash of movement in the mirror above the sink, and kept trying to lift her arms and to scream herself into full consciousness but all that came out was a muffled moaning.
Maybe she fell back into a deeper sleep before waking properly or maybe she regained her self-possession within seconds. Either way, she went from lying defenseless in her bed to throwing the duvet back and, in her panic to turn on a light, she whacked the lamp over and it crashed to the floor. She lurched to the bathroom and slapped the light switch, filling the room with a blinding brightness.
At the sink, she splashed water on her face and squinted as her eyes adjusted to the light. She avoided looking in the mirror for fear that some ghost she didn’t believe in might appear over the shoulder of her reflection.
Louisa had said that, if she ever couldn’t sleep after a nightmare, she was welcome to share her bed, so she went and knocked on her door and was startled by how quickly Louisa called out, “Yes?”
Creaking the door open, Jess saw that she was sitting up in her silky nightdress and it took a moment to register that the black band across her forehead was a sleep mask, pushed up. Louisa beckoned with a lazy motion of her arm, then shifted over and pulled back her duvet.
Jess got in. She didn’t realize she was shaking until Louisa held her and Jess let herself be held and her shaking subsided. “Want to talk about it, love?”
Jess shook her head against Louisa’s shoulder, then rolled away. Louisa put her arm around Jess’s waist, and Jess squeezed her aunt’s hand. Louisa soon fell asleep, snoring into the space between Jess’s shoulder blades.
She felt comforted, enclosed by the warmth of another person’s body and hearing the rhythm of her breathing. Then it became claustrophobic. Louisa’s arm was too heavy. Her warmth was too much to bear.
One movement at a time, Jess lifted Louisa’s arm up and off, pulled away from her, and got out of bed.
She tiptoed downstairs and, in the living room, turned on a light and curled up on the couch, her head on the armrest, and she stared at the photo of Ben on the mantelpiece. In all likelihood, it was Louisa he was smiling up at.
There were footsteps on the stairs, and Jess sat up as Louisa entered the room. She’d put on her dressing gown and there were kinks in her hair. Jess said, “I’ve ruined your sleep.”
“Don’t be daft. Now, bourbon, yes?”
Louisa fetched a bottle and two glasses, poured them each a double, and joined Jess on the couch.
Jess glanced over at the photo. “Ben was beautiful.”
She’d never spoken his name aloud to Louisa but Louisa wasn’t taken aback. She smiled faintly and nodded. “No photo could capture how much.”
“How did you survive it?”
“Well, this will sound morbid, but a large part of me didn’t.”
Louisa talked about how she had forced herself to become someone new, and learned to keep as busy as possible, and yet she still thought about him every hour of every day. “I wish I could tell you it’s gotten less painful over time. It hasn’t. But I’ve gotten better at living with it. That’s all you can do with the kind of loss that rips a hole in the universe for you.”
Jess said she couldn’t imagine experiencing something so horrific, that losing a friend, no matter how close, couldn’t compare, and Louisa said she was right: no one could understand what it was like and that was true of Jess’s loss as well. “No one will ever get what you’ve been going through, not completely, but I wish you would tell me about Abbie anyway.”
Jess sighed and said, “She was different, you know, when it was just us than when we were in a group, less concerned with being bubbly and fun, and she was sadder, more reflective. And, for me, and I don’t care if this sounds dumb, however it might sound, but it felt like clocks moved slower when she was in the room, and my pulse, my heart, you could say my heart, it raced faster. I was more alive with her than I was with anyone else, you know?”
Seeing the entreaty in Louisa’s expression to keep going, Jess did.
Their friendship was always intense. In their early teens, they had plotted to set their parents up, even though Jess’s mum thought Abbie’s dad was uptight and he thought she was a bit mad. But the purpose of the doomed mission hadn’t been to cure any loneliness their parents might have had; they just wanted to live in the same house, as if they weren’t already inseparable enough.
As they’d gotten older, things had become more complicated, at least for Jess. Abbie started it: their stupid party trick of making out in front of everyone, which they’d perform on request. Jess could feel Abbie’s excitement when they kissed, and how it wasn’t directed toward her. Afterward, Abbie would look around at the boys who’d been watching and there was usually one in particular she was determined to turn on. It was different for Jess. Each kiss electrified her and it had nothing to do with who was watching.
She didn’t have any hope that her feelings might be reciprocated, but she also couldn’t continue to keep them a secret. When Jess told her, Abbie had been great about it. She’d said that Jess was the person she loved most in the world, only she couldn’t love her in that way, even though she wished she could, and she vowed, and made Jess vow, not to let this come between them.
The rejection didn’t sting any less for being delivered with kindness. Jess had needed some space to get over it and that’s why, the following night, when she was supposed to be going out with Abbie and their friends, she’d cancelled at the last minute. She hadn’t been trying to make Abbie feel bad; she just didn’t think she could stomach it if she saw her flirting with someone, or even conscientiously not flirting to protect her best friend’s wounded feelings.
But Jess’s absence must have been a downer for Abbie because she’d gone home early when normally she’d have stayed out until the clubs closed, and instead she’d poured herself a bath to feel better, and was probably worried she might lose Jess’s friendship and was distracted and she fell and hit her head.
“Everything scares me now. I see sharp edges and darkness wherever I look, and I know lots of people have been through worse but, losing her, I don’t see a way to feel anything resembling whole again. I was so clumsy with her, you know, and I swear I didn’t mean to be.”
Jess was embarrassed by her tears, and Louisa told her it wasn’t her fault, everyone is clumsy with everyone, and she’d find the strength she needed, she just would, she had to believe that, and the love she found in Abbie was out there in the world too, in unexpected places, and she had to be brave, she already was, and she could honor Abbie’s memory by being kind to herself, like Abbie would have wanted, and by striving to turn away from the darkness, by seeking out light in whatever form it might take, by turning her face toward light.
Ronan Ryan’s debut novel, The Fractured Life of Jimmy Dice, was named by the Irish Independent Review as one of their Books of the Year and was a finalist for The Lascaux Prize in Fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Irish Times, Banshee, The New Guard, and The Honest Ulsterman, and was a finalist for the Machigonne Fiction Contest and a two-time finalist for the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. He has also won bursary awards in literature from the Arts Council of Ireland and Dublin City Council, and the CCI/The Well Review Award. He was a Writer in Residence at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris and the Kerouac House in Orlando, and will hold an upcoming residency at the Heinrich Böll Cottage on Achill Island.
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