I’ve wandered this dirt road for weeks – months – but I haven’t gotten anywhere. The seconds have blended into hours and the hours have blended into days. The same blaring heat beats down on me, burning my skin and bleaching my hair. The same sand coats my face and flakes in my hair and gathers under my nails and I can’t stand it. The same road stretches before me, growing and twisting and forking in on itself.
But I can’t walk it anymore.
The air is thick; the pungent stench of loneliness lingers around me, choking me as I walk this endless road, as I sleep.
I can’t escape it.
Others could smell it, before, which is why I left. I saw it in the way their fake smiles didn’t quite reach their tired eyes; I could see it in the way they inched away from me, as though my loneliness was contagious, as though my misery could hurdle from me to them. It couldn’t. Not that I didn’t wish it to, however.
I had to rid myself of the pain that I had burdened myself with. The pain I tried so very hard to keep sealed away in the reinforced steel safe inside me. But my misery burned through it like thermite, singing everything in its wake. I melted from the inside out – my own emotions were destroying me. So I ran away.
But it followed me and my insides slowly began to decay.
Unable to hold my weight for a second longer, my legs begin to tremble and my fight drains from my pores. Finally. It’s over. I sink to my knees and turn my face to the heavens.
I close my eyes.
And I weep.
With my eyes slowly fluttering open, I expel a shaky breath and focus on the skies above me. When I first looked, the sky was a deep blue, the shade of blue the crystal water turns just as your consciousness painfully drains from you as you slowly drown. But now bursts of burgundy and amber and navy and magenta erupt from the horizon, streaking the skyline like spilled ink. The sun is a mere splatter of gold paint in the dimming sky. The light is guttering. The darkness is thickening. The stale air is choking.
I am dying.
I am also kneeling on a cliff-side.
My muscles shudder and spasm in response to my sudden movements as I gradually bring myself into a standing position. I am balancing between the two planes of existence, feeling the shadows wrap around my ankles and tug. Hard. Tremors run up and down my body as I stare into the abyss that awaits me.
This is not cowardice, nor is it valiant – this is salvation. This is all I have. This is the only escape I get. And I am honouring it.
Taking the scissors from my pocket, I cut the strings binding me to the great injustice that is life and feel the heavy ties easing.
I throw myself from the cliff and plunge into the void of insanity.
s h a t t e r s.
I blow absentmindedly into my lukewarm cappuccino, watching the froth shudder under my breath with bored, glazed eyes. People rush by me in a rush to get absolutely nowhere, their shoulders hunched and their eyes lowered, almost in anticipation for the long work day to come.
My watch reads 8.19; where on earth is he? I told him we were meeting half an hour earlier than we were supposed to just so he’d be on time for once. Still he manages to be 19 minutes late.
I hear Harry’s voice before I see him. ‘S-sorry! Sorry! The tube came late.’
Sighing, I incline from the wall I was leaning against and roll my stiff shoulders.
‘At least you turned up,’ I tell my brother as he shoves through a cluster of people waiting by a cash machine. They groan in frustration but part reluctantly to let him through.
‘What time does your train leave?’ he asks, attempting to run a hand through his wildly dishevelled hair. He looks as though he’s just rolled out of bed, and knowing my little brother, he probably has.
I check my watch and hand him his cold hot chocolate. ‘2 o’clock,’ I tell him, watching his face fall. ‘Come on, then. Let’s go to Wetherspoon’s for breakfast.’
We meander lazily down the street, sipping our drinks in a comfortable silence. We barely make it to the corner before Harry throws his arms out in exasperation, causing his hot chocolate to splash over the sleeve of his hoodie.
‘I hate it when you’re not here.’
I’d anticipated this.
Before I can interject, Harry continues speaking. ‘I’m so lonely, and these A Levels are killing me. You moving away is by far the crappiest thing you have ever done – and you’ve superglued me to Nan’s toilet seat.’
‘Bath isn’t even that far away,’ I protest, elbowing him playfully. ‘And you’ve only got a year left of college before you go to uni as well. You’re overreacting.’
A small smile plays on the corner of his mouth. ‘One day, Tommy, you’re going to get your teeth knocked o…’ he trails off, his eyes sliding past my shoulder and latching onto something behind me. Harry’s eyes narrow in what appears to be confusion. And then they widen. His mouth pinches into something ugly as his eyes tear back to mine.
He utters one word: ‘Look.’
I obey, following his gaze. Unaware of what I’m looking for at first, my gaze clumsily sweeps across my surroundings as I slowly seek out the trigger of my brother’s mute distress. But then I spot her – the homeless lady sitting cross-legged behind me – and recognition hits me so hard in the chest that I am temporarily winded and my surroundings morph into one giant blur of white light.
It’s her – it’s…
‘Delilah?’ I murmur, my shock freezing my blood and numbing my limbs.
Her sagging skin is tinged with a sickly yellow undertone as she lolls her head from shoulder to shoulder, her chapped mouth gaping.
Harry is the first to break out of his shock and he rushes over to her, falling to his knees by her dirty feet. He’s shouting and panicking and shaking her and all I can do is stare. Her vacant eyes are rolling back in her head as he violently quakes her, her mouth is frothing, her tattered blanket is falling to her waist and her bare arms are suddenly in view. Pin pricks cover her pale skin like a sickening rash.
I don’t realise I’m moving until my arms are reaching out and I’m snatching my brother’s shoulders and I’m pulling him roughly away from her.
There’s a husky voice. ‘The road…it’s so lonely. I’m so lonely. The sand…’ Delilah trails off as her irises disappear behind her drooping eyelids. ‘It’s in my hair! The sand is everywhere!’ She rakes her filthy fingers through her hair so forcefully that long strands flutter down to the pavement.
Groaning audibly, Harry struggles against my vice-like grip as I keep him away from her. ‘She needs help! Get off me, Thomas. I mean it.’
‘What happened to her?’ I yell, straining to hold him by me. ‘Harry, what the hell happened?’
He sags against my side in defeat and his eyes squeeze shut. There’s a deafening silence, and then, ‘Remember that fire next door?’
I nod grimly. ‘Her son, Ethan, died. I remember; I came back for the funeral.’
Visibly shaken, Harry retreats away from Delilah’s trembling frame and stalks down the street. ‘Delilah went missing shortly after. This is the first time I’ve seen her in months,’ he says over his shoulder. ‘I need to call our mother.’
I feel my eyes widen. How did I not know about this? Our neighbour – my mother’s best friend – went missing and nobody told me. Hurt and betrayal stabs though my chest like an icicle blade and refrigerates my insides, twisting my emotions into something bitter.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ My voice is low, dangerous, betrayed.
Harry stops walking. He turns to face me. His eyes are flashing. It’s as though months and months of pent up emotions are being radiated from his heaving chest in waves of rage.
He utters two words. And they break my heart.
‘You didn’t call; you didn’t message for months on end! You weren’t here when we needed you. And when you were here – when you came to the funeral – you weren’t even here at all. Even now! You’re distant. You might as well have not come at all!’ he yells, each word louder than the last.
I stand before him, motionless, paralysed by the validity of his words. Loneliness is a strange thing; it can be a seed, planted into the hearts of individuals. Small, unimportant, easily dismissed. But this seed grows putrid fruits. Its vines wrap around hearts and squeeze until they have blackened.
It destroys people.
I grasp my brother’s shoulders and shake him once, twice, and pull him to me. He stands motionless for a stunned second before his arms slowly weave around my torso.
‘I’m here. I’m here,’ I tell him. ‘I’m sorry. I’m here.’
And he weeps.