To Feel Alive

Louise has never been lucky in life, losing her best friend and mother within a year, and now has a Dad who barely recognises her existence. All she has left is Cody, with whom her relationship is strictly friendly, and a small but successful business where she anonymously helps girls decide whether a boy is worth dating. But one day she receives an email from Maisie, the most popular girl at school who she tries to avoid at all costs, asking for her help. The choices that follow will make life as she knows it unrecognisable.

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7. Chapter Seven

 

“Oh, erm, okay, that’s fine,” Maisie said, eyes already welling up as her shoulders sagged forward. “I was invited to a party anyway and my director-daddy said I could come visit his latest set and I have a ton of homework so I’m really busy actually!” she said, looking up and widening her eyes in such an attempt to prevent herself from crying that it looked like she was about to kill me.

“I am sorry. I just don’t get this chance a lot…” And then I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket, taking it out to see Cody calling, who was obviously getting impatient waiting for me.

“That him?” she asked, gesturing towards the phone, and I nodded, trying to conceal a cheesy grin.

“I should go. I’ll see you on Monday, okay?” And without waiting for a legitimate reply, I barricaded through the front doors, searching the car park for Cody’s face as I picked up the phone.

“Hurry up slow coach,” came his silky voice through the speaker of my phone.

“Where are you?” I said, squinting as I looked carefully round at every car.

“I’m looking right at you.” And then I glanced down at the bottom of the entrance stairs where Cody stood casually, leaning against the banister. I sped down and into his arms as he made fun of me and my inability to see what was staring me right in the face. With our arms around each other, we went back to his car where he starting driving without telling me where exactly where we were going.

“Come on, just a teeny clue?” I begged, looking over at him as he remained concentrated on the road. He’d never been the best driver. He’d learnt at a difficult time for us all.

“We’ve been there a lot,” he said, choosing his words carefully.

“Oh, very helpful,” I said, slapping him on the arm.

“No, like…a lot. And it’s not the hospital,” he said boldly. The comment left me silenced before I figured it out.

“Are we going bowling?” A smile prickled at the corners of his lips. “We are, aren’t we?” I said, getting a little excited, but nervous at the same time. If we’d have been a couple, bowling would have been our place in the same way that We Are Golden by Mika was our song. Cheesy, we knew, but Lily had ultimately decided upon it, and anything that she suggested became final.

I pictured then this exact scenario almost two years ago. Cody had just got his permit, Lily had been given the all clear for a weekend off and we’d decided that we could all go to the ice cold beach together. We’d turned the radio on and this insanely optimistic song had blasted its way obnoxiously so into our lives, in such contrast to our situation at the time.

I’d been all prepared to switch it off, knowing just how cheerful this song was, and worried it would upset Lily when, all of a sudden, she began to burst out the chorus at the top of her pathetic lungs. “WE ARE NOT WHAT YOU THINK WE ARE, WE ARE GOLDEN! WE ARE GOLDEN!”

Me and Cody had looked to each other in shock as Lily had clambered through the two front seats onto my lap, winding down the passenger window and continuing to scream along the lyrics, beaming from ear to ear as she leant herself out on the car’s edge, the wind rushing into the car with such force it knocked me back in my seat. And me and Cody had just looked at each other, and laughed, and joined in with equal gusto.

The next time we’d heard that song, me and Cody had been in the car alone. We’d been about to go bowling after a particularly testing day with Lily, and we’d laughed simultaneously as we remembered how happy the song had made us just a fortnight earlier. And then we’d started to cry. Cody had pulled over, and I’d buried my head in his lap, and we’d sobbed along to a tune that had previously made us feel like we could accomplish absolutely anything. It had now reduced us to nothing.

We pulled into the bowling car park and walked the short stretch to the front automatic doors in a kind of tense silence. I hadn’t been there in over a year, but at one time, I’d come here several times a week with Cody.

The smell of feet and polish hit me instantly, combined with the scent of fast food chicken, drifting over from the diner. We collected our shoes, were given our lane and, once we arrived there, just stood for a moment staring at the various multi-coloured balls. I’d had a favourite; a black one with hints of jade within it when it caught the light. It had been heavy, and slammed to the ground when I threw it, my anger resonating in the vibrations I felt beneath my feet at its release. I didn’t wish to see that ball again.

“We should get started,” Cody said, hands shaking slightly as he picked up a ball at random and took his first swing, knocking down a good nine which he followed by whacking his next ball into the remaining pin.

“You’ve still got it,” I said half-heartedly.

“I had enough practice, I guess,” he said. Gradually, we both warmed up to the place and to each other, and became competitive once more, but we could not truly be comfortable here.

The memories were laced into every board and table and meal and ball. We’d come to the bowling alley after seeing Lily, and we wouldn’t speak; we’d just throw the balls and release all the feelings we were desperate to shake off. We’d channelled our frustration into something rather than someone, and it had really helped at the time, but I no longer wished to be reminded of what an angry girl I’d been back then. I’d hated the world and the people in it and anyone who tried to help me; and sometimes, even Lily.

“This isn’t working how I wanted it to,” Cody said in the middle of his go, turning towards me. His whole body depicted the failure he felt within. “I’m sorry for bringing you here.”

“It’s okay,” I mumbled.

“No. It’s not. I thought I could face it; coming back, but it’s even worse. Some friends at college were organising a bowling night and I was all set to go when I suddenly found myself pretending to have a headache. I’d hid in my room and…I’m just fed up with the reminders, you know?” I nodded. “Should we just go back to my place?” I smiled and nodded once more.

“I’d like that.”

The Jackman residence was like my second home. Throughout my childhood, I’d frequently visited and played in their garden with Lily and Cody, amongst their vast amount of toys and outdoor equipment. We’d fought over swings and made obstacle courses with cones and plastic tunnels, and in the summer we’d had water fights with the hose and various buckets, subsequently drowning many of Aaron’s flower beds – their Dad. I’d been treated the same as their kids and got a good telling off for it.

We’d visited the gardening centre I now worked at and picked out new arrangements and helped Aaron replant them, and Tessa, their Mum, had rewarded us with ice cold lemonade Aaron had rolled his eyes at, saying we didn’t deserve it.

Next to John and Paulie, the Jackmans’ had parented me in a way my own never had the time for. It was there I’d learnt table manners, and sharing, and that you ate dinner with the four legs of your chair on the ground and thanked whoever had cooked it. It was ironic that just weeks after Mum had left me, the trouble had really began for Lily, and my time with Aaron, Tessa and Cody had intensified even more. 

But I hadn’t visited them since Cody had left in early September and we’d helped pack up his truck to take away with him. It was a time when most parents cried as they realised their child was finally independent from them, but Aaron and Tessa had shed more than enough tears for one lifetime.

The house, however, looked the same as we pulled up into the drive. As the engine shut off, Tessa and Aaron immediately opened the front door and ran to meet their son, Tessa wrapping herself around him in such a way only a mother does, and Aaron held out an awkward hand which Cody shook before they too embraced heartily.

Tessa’s hair was longer now, with the ends just tucking beneath her chin, and Aaron’s was shorter, and greyer. For all they’d been through, I was surprised they had any hair left. Tessa had chopped most of hers off in protest at the start of Lily’s journey towards the end, and had spent the time since growing it back.  I’d been truly sad to see it go in the first place; she’d had, like Lily, such rich and abundant chestnut curls that managed to look perfect without trying.

“Louise! You look well,” said Tessa, smiling warmly at me. I told her so did she, but hated that this was always how we greeted each other. It had become a force of habit to comment on how healthy somebody looked across our families, and one I’d been fiercely trying to kill in the time since it had started. “Do come inside; I made lasagne,” she said. It was a meal we all enjoyed, but it had definitely been Lily’s favourite.

We ate the food together round the table and then when we were all finished and Cody had finished telling them all about college and I’d been inundated with questions about school and my options for the future - I was unsure but knew I’d figure it out eventually -  they let us go upstairs. Any other parents would have squirmed at the prospect of their teenage boy with a girl who wasn’t under age going into a private room together, but Aaron and Tessa knew as well as we did that all we’d do at best was tickle the air out of each other.

We walked solemnly past Lily’s closed door, which still had the ‘If I haven’t asked for you, don’t come in’ sign pinned to the door, though the bold black lettering had faded due to the fact it faced a window.

We then went up the smaller flight of stairs which led to the loft, and Cody’s bedroom. It was always incredibly hot in there; unbearably so in the summer to the point where Cody installed fans at every corner, but there was something about being up there that I just loved.

The fully wooden surroundings and the smell it gave off, the slightly dulled appearance caused by the fact there were no windows apart from one high up in the middle of the sloping ceilings, the squashy bean bags in the corner and stashes of food next to them, the bed with its homemade duvet cover, the doodles and song lyrics scrawled all over the walls, and the extremely feminine fairy lights draped around his bed; I’d put them there from Lily’s room one time I stayed over as I’d said it comforted me, and he’d never taken them down. It was sweet really.

It felt like, when you were up there, you were shut off from the rest of the world. Cody always recalled how he and Lily had fought over who got this room when they’d moved in, and as he’d been older, he’d won the fight, but he often regretted that move due to the slight sense of claustrophobia you developed if you stayed up there too long.

I, however, was extremely pleased with his choice. Lily would not have done this room justice. I knew Cody had been offered to move down to Lily’s room just out of consideration by his parents, but they all knew he’d never dare to, for that would involve moving all her things out, which nobody wanted to have to be a part of.

We watched the original ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ on his portable DVD player, lying next to each other on his bed. It was one of our favourites and when it had first come out in the cinema, me, Cody and Lily had made our very own eye patches and swords and had entertained ourselves for hours in our makeshift ships – cardboard boxes with pillow cases for flags; how very creative of us.

In the middle of the movie, I said I’d go fetch us some drinks as I was getting thirsty, plus the room became quite stuffy after a while. However, just before I was about to descend the stairs, I paused, looking across at Lily’s door, and then my eyes glanced at the handle, with a thin layer of dust clouding it. I looked around to check nobody was near though I could hear the buzzing of the television downstairs and Tessa and Aaron talking over it, and so, slowly, I walked over and twisted the golden knob, pushing open the door which let out a slight creak.

If the handle was dusty, the room was another matter, with the thick smell masking every other aroma. Posters covered the walls from floor to ceiling and slotted amongst them were photos of me and her, and some of our other friends at the time including a Cheer team one and then some of us as kids with Cody, all cut into a variety of shapes like flowers and hearts.

On her desk lay some books she’d never returned to school and her laptop, still plugged into the wall though the switch was off. A jumper which, in the months before her departure, had grown shockingly too big for her was slung over the chair and her bed was roughly made with the corners poking out. On the table to the side lay her copy of Twilight she’d many times thumbed and I thought back to when we’d both had an obsession with the romance between Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. I picked it up and allowed it to fall open at the page she’d bookmarked, around half way through. That’s how she’d left everything; unfinished.

She’d highlighted various quotes throughout in different coloured pens and included a code in the front. I knew it off my heart, for she did this with every book; even texts we’d studied at school. Pink were lines she should slip into her own language, blue were quotes or words she thought would be useful in essays, green were her view on defining moments for a character and occasionally there was a splash of orange for what Lily had described as ‘literary genius’.

I’d tried many times to do this with my own novels but either became too engrossed to remember, used the wrong colours for the code I’d assigned or was reading a library book. It had always been Lily’s thing anyway.

Highlighted in pink, and with a thick arrow drawn in the margin in case the fluorescent shade did not already attract you, was the memorable line, “I'd never given much thought to how I would die — though I'd had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” A line she would slip into her own language. A line she’d succeeded in slipping into her own language. A line she’d spoken to me, and only me, in the very last conversation we’d ever have.

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