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It’s a routine: Effy sits down at the mahogany table in a white, terry cloth robe, her black hair held back by an elastic band. Before her lays a feast: a liter of Coke, a box of chocolate Hostess Donettes, Goldfish, a slice of cheese cake, and a Ho-Ho. She starts with the Ho-Ho, carefully unwrapping it between her pianist fingers. The white plastic crackles, the only sound in the otherwise silent room. She slides the wrapper down, discarding it carelessly on the floor. She raises it to her lips, she smells the over-processed sweetness, which causes her to wrinkle her button nose, yet she doesn’t hesitate. She takes a mouse-sized bite, chewing carefully. The taste is sickly sugary, thick against her tongue. Inch by inch, she finishes off the dessert, swallowing carefully after every bite. The first one is always the hardest. But as she forces the last bite down her throat, it becomes too easy.
The Goldfish are next. The bag gives a satisfying tear, and she shoves her hand inside, getting a fist full of smiling fish. She shoves all that she can into her mouth, puffing her cheeks out like a chipmunk. The cheesy taste is a strong contrast to the Ho-Ho, and she gags, although this doesn’t stop her chewing. Her tongue swishes around her mouth like a broom, dislodging clumps of orange from behind her teeth. There’s a pasty feeling in her mouth. She doesn’t stop.
Pushing the Goldfish out of the way, she reaches for the donuts. She nearly gives herself a paper cut as she slides her finger between the cardboard flap of the box. The top pushes back, and she grabs three of the small rings, fitting one against either of her cheeks, and the third on her tongue. She chews all three of them at once, and swallows immediately. She follows this pattern of donuts five more times before her jaw begins to protest.
Cheese cake follows. A fork isn’t there, and she couldn’t care less about having one. She digs in with her hands. The consistency causes her to gag once more, stronger than the first time. Her eyes water horribly as the third gag comes, a lone tear slipping from her left eye. She can barely shove the crust down before she breaks out into a cold sweat.
Lastly, there’s the Coke. She unscrews the cap effortlessly. Despite the overflowing foam, she brings it to her mouth, and tips it back. She chugs like a frat boy. The bubbles rush to her nose and it burns. Around the mouthful of soda, she whimpers, her stomach beginning to protest.
Another minute passes, and bottle becomes empty. She tosses it onto the table, and can feel her stomach bloating. She refuses to burp, though, for fear of throwing up on the oriental rug. Cautiously, she rises to her feet, placing a hand against the back of her chair for support. She makes her way through the house, blinding feeling her way to the bathroom. Soon, the the floor becomes chilled beneath her bare feet, and she knows she’s stepped into the bathroom.
Her hands, searching the walls, finally come across the light switch, illuminating the tiny room in a golden glow. The light momentarily blinds her, and she flinches, but that doesn’t stop her on her way to the toilet. Her knees hit the pink and white tiles in front of the toilet hard, which she thinks will probably result in a bruise. One hand rests upon the seat, with the other curls inward on itself, with the exception of her pointer finger. She leans over the porcelain bowl, her finger snaking its way down her throat, and soon, she’s expelling everything that just entered her stomach, leaving her only with dry heaves and tears.
The bitter scent of vomit soon fills her nose, and she reaches up to push on the silver lever, and watches the mixture of unnatural colors swirl, then disappear. She rests her head against the seat, closes her eyes, and falls asleep.
Her left hand in his right is warm. There’s a chill biting at the rest of her flesh, but Effy doesn’t care. His skin is soft, and his forefinger rubs gently across her knuckles. She turns her head to look at him, drinking in his perfect features: his sandy, brown hair, illuminated by the full moon overhead; his tan, smooth skin; his caramel eyes, seemingly examining her in the same way.
His features deeply contrast with hers, as proven by their hands: his sun-kissed, olive complexion against her alabaster skin. It’s like a chocolate muffin with skimmed milk.
In he dark, he grins at her and, in the moonlight, his perfect teeth shine. Then his face becomes serious, sober, as he tells her, “I love you.”
She feels the same somber expression manipulating her features as she replies, “I love you too.”
His forefinger stops in its tracks against the back of her hand, moving to lay on the diamond stud, resting on her third finger from her thumb. Instinctively - guiltily, even - she looks away, staring up at the stars. “How are things?” he asks as he gently swivels the ring back and forth.
“Fine. Great,” she says, genuinely surprised at how easily the fib fell from her lips. He looks unconvinced. He gently raises a dark eyebrow at her in a challenging way.
“No,” she interrupts.
“And you haven’t-”
“No,” she repeats, although there is an uncertain edge to her voice.
He sighs. “Effy...”
“Declan,” she says, trying to mimic his tone, but she realizes that while his is filled with pain, hers is slightly mocking. Immediately, he draws his hand from her and rests it upon his abdomen. Effy feels exposed and vulnerable.
“I love you,” she says again, but there is no answer.
Charlie stands in the doorway of the room. The walls are a soft, baby blue, as is the ceiling. Painting on the high parts of the wall and the ceiling are fluffy white clouds, and towards the lower half of the wall are green hills. In the corner is a white crib, with a bird mobile hanging above it. Beside the bed is a mahogany wardrobe and a matching changing table. Across the room is a rocking chair and a toy box. For the past five months, the room hasn’t been touched. Both of them don’t want to touch it - but what’s more, both of them can’t touch it.
He sits, his backside on the hardwood floors of the hallway and his legs stretched out onto the light grey rug of the room. This is as far as he dares to go. But it’s more than one can say for Effy, who won’t even open the door. He looks everywhere: at the walls, at the furniture, at the floor. And suddenly, the tears come. At first it’s just a few drops, but soon they come pouring from his green eyes, and he places his long hands over his face. The sobs rack his body, and he’s shaking. He can barely breathe, and he starts to hyperventilate, yet the tears don’t stop. Then comes the feeling - the feeling he gets almost every day - that he’s losing control and can’t hang on much longer.
He reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out its contents: a bag of brown powder, a lighter, a spoon, and a syringe. No matter where he goes - which usually isn’t anywhere - he keeps these things in his pocket. There’s barely any powder left, but it’s just enough for a fix. He places it on the spoon, and holds his lighter beneath it. As it turns to liquid, he puts the lighter back in his pocket, takes the syringe, and pulls the cap off with his teeth. The needle of the syringe touches the liquid, and he pulls the plunger back, filling the barrel with a light fluid.
Replacing the spoon back in his pocket, he uses his now-free hand to remove his belt. With one hand, he wraps it a few times around the arm holding the needle, then locks it into place by putting the peg into the hole. He switches the syringe to the other hand, and waits for a moment, slowly losing feeling in his fingertips as the belt cuts off his circulation. After a few more moments, he holds the needle down by the crease of his elbow, poking around for a vein. When he finally locates it, he forces the needle into his skin and pushes down the plunger.
He hears the lock of the front door downstairs turn, and immediately his sobs cut off. He jumps to his feet, furiously wiping at his face with the hem of his polo, and stepping into the hallway, shutting the door behind him. He shoves his paraphernalia into his pocket, then unwinds his belt from his arm, deciding to just hold it in his hands. He hears the door below shut, but remains frozen in the hallway.
“Charlie?” calls out a soft, angelic voice. The voice gets him moving, and he heads towards the stairs. When he reaches the landing, he looks down at Effy in the entrance. Her raven mane is in two braids, tucked behind her ears. She moves to the bottom of the stairs, placing her hand upon the banister, and then stares up at him, her big, blue doe eyes questioning. Silence fills the room, but there’s something about the silence that makes it seem as if a million things are passing between them in a single moment.
He then demands, “Where were you?”
She replies, “London.”
“What were you doing there?” He starts winding and unwinding the belt around his hands.
“Shopping,” she says, then steps back from the steps and heads down the small hallway to the kitchen. He quickly made his way down the stairs and follows her. She’s standing at the kitchen sink, hands curled around the edge of the counter. Her shoulders are hunched and her head is bent down. She’d bouncing from foot to foot.
“You don’t have any bags,” Charlie announces, tossing the belt onto the kitchen table, and Effy nearly jumps out of her skin. She turns around, eyebrows raised, leaning back against the sink, looking forcibly calm. She takes in his appearance: hunched over, red hair sticking to his forehead by sweat, and hands shaking.
“You said you went shopping. But you have no bags.”
She shrugs noncommittally, shifting her gaze towards the floor. “I didn’t find anything I liked.” She steps from the sink and heads back towards the hallway, trying to squeeze between him and the threshold. But before she can, his hand snatches her upper arm. She looks at her arm, as if there’s a snake wrapped around it, then up at Charlie. “What are you doing?”
“Where were you, Effy?” he asks again.
She furrows her brow. “I told you, dear, I was shopping.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I’m not,” she says, taking a few steps forward, testing his grip.
He shoves her away, and she stumbles, catching herself by throwing her hands on the floor. She straightens up, the glares at him. “Don’t you dare touch me.”
“Or what?” he all but yells. “What are you going to do?” His hand raises in the hair, crooked at the elbow. In response, Effy staggers backwards, steadying herself against the stairs. For once, the terror on her face is enough to stop him. He tenses for a moment, but can’t bring himself to sweep his arm down. They both stand there for a moment, confused about what is happening.
Not sure of what else to do, he takes a challenging step forward, like a bull. The intensity of Charlie’s glare proves to be too much, and she slips down the hallway and up the stairs. After a moment, Charlie winces when he hears a door slam.
He stands there in the silence and wonders for the billionth time these past five months where exactly they went wrong.
Everything always starts off well. Charlie and Effy had been happy, once. The wedding they had - a right-out-of-school affair - was simple, yet Effy loved it. Their honeymoon had been to Charlie’s parents’ house in Westmarden. That, too, was simple, and Effy loved it still. She said she was glad she chose a marriage instead of a university. They had spent days in bed, listening to the radio and talking about life and what they wanted from it. Effy baked - she hadn’t baked in months- and Charlie painted. She baked pies and he painted her.
When they decided it was time to return home, they had to postpone their departure until the afternoon because Effy couldn’t stop vomiting. Charlie believed it was just a case of the stomach flu, but Effy had a good idea about what it actually was. On the ride home, she was extremely animated (this was the last time Charlie had seen her like that) and she demanded he take her to the store.
She hadn't told him what she bought, but Charlie learnt soon enough. A couple of days after their return to their home in Bristol, Effy came bounding down the stairs, waving a small, white stick that bore a pink cross on the end.
Charlie was no woman, but he understood its meaning. He was estatic. Effy had never been more excited. Though she was only a few weeks in, names were already spewing from her mouth.
Olivia, Rose, Allison, Hilly.
But what if it's a boy?
James, Christian, Adrian, Peter.
Charlie painted the room, something that could work for either gender. Effy cried tears of joy when she saw the completed project. Together they chose the furniture. Charlie wanted something modern, but Effy wanted something classic and timeless. They agreed on mahogany.
The two of them were lying in bed, talking about the baby. Effy had an appointment the next day for an ultrasound, to determine the sex. She was saying how she hoped it was a girl when she suddenly grabbed her stomach and groaned.
"What's wrong?" Charlie asked, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"My baby," she whispers, her voice breaking at the end by a scream. Charlie felt panicky, and didn't know what to do. He sat up, and tried to help a writhing Effy do the same, but the volume of her screams increased with the motion.
“What’s happening?” he tried to ask, but he couldn’t seem to find his voice. Not that Effy would have heard him anyway, not with the way her cries were rising.
“Charlie,” she sobbed. “Help!”
“I don’t know how!” He got onto his knees, leaning over his hysterical wife. “What do you need?”
“The baby! The baby!”
After nearly an hour and a half of this, Effy sat in the bed in a pool of blood and Charlie dialed for an ambulance. Whenever he tried to go near her, she’d wail for him not to touch her.
Charlie had never been more scared in his life.
They lie up in bed, where they always end up by the end of the day; Charlie on the right, closest to their dresser (to grab something as a threatening tool) and Effy on the right, closest to the door (to run if Charlie actually grabbed something). They’re lying similarly: on their backs, legs straight, arms by their sides, palms up.
They both stare up at the ceiling. Charlie counts the boards while Effy focuses on the moth bumping around the light. They’re together, but they’re in two separate places. There’s still love between them, but they hate each other. In the space between them, their pinkie fingers touch. And although they don’t move their hands to clasp each other’s, they don’t move them away either. Such is the life of Effy and Charlie.
Finally, Charlie speaks. “What are we doing?”
“Lying here,” Effy responds blithely.
“No,” he says. “Not right this moment, but every moment. What are we doing?”
Effy ponders this. She turns her head to look at him, the man she once loved. She knows she should say something, she just doesn’t know what. When she doesn’t answer, Charlie glances at her to make sure she didn’t fall asleep. She’s staring at him with her big, blue eyes and Charlie gets a strange feeling in his chest. It’s tight, and smothering, but he tries his best to ignore it.
“Will this ever change?” he asks, meaning himself. Meaning her. Meaning them.
Effy turns her head back to the ceiling, only to notice that the moth is now sitting on the light instead of working uselessly around it. “No. No, probably not.”