Dizziness washed over me and the cabinets seemed to close in around my head and I wanted to throw up and I couldn’t seem to swallow and I couldn’t breathe and my heart was in my throat and racing to get away and my hands were clammy and my skin prickled and I trembled all over and I thought I would collapse and pass out.
“Jeez.” Zed rushed over to me and put his hands on my shoulders, looking me square in the face. “You’ve gotta learn to breathe, Amelia. It’s very important.”
“I thought,” I gulped. “You were . . . gonna . . . disappear again.”
“And that made you have a panic attack?”
All I could see was the clear green of his eyes. They were crinkled with concern.
“I didn’t mean to mess with you that much. I won’t do it again. Promise.”
I matched my breaths to his until the world regained its sharp edge and I could hear the music coming from the living room again. My legs turned to jelly and I crumpled to the floor, the cold tiles feeling good against my skin through my leggings. He sat down with me once again, opposite this time.
“So?” I had to clear my throat. “I’m not making you up?”
“Nah. You’re imagination’s not this good.”
“Just as I thought.” I nodded. “Out of curiosity, when you said I had to work it out?”
“I meant that I can’t tell you.”
“I’m not allowed.”
“There are rules?”
He chuckled. “More than you’ll ever believe.”
“This is stupid.” I blew out a puff of air. “I don’t even know what you’re referring to.”
“You know what you’re doing though don’t you? You’re a smart girl.”
I gave a little smirk. “Yeah. I know you’re working for somebody. I don’t know what you want with me but I’m guessing it’s not good.”
He shrugged. “Depends how you view the world I guess.”
“Why’re you telling me this?”
The corners of his mouth turned up. “Because I’m not supposed to.”
I bit the inside of my cheeks. “Will you get in trouble?”
He shook his head. “Shouldn’t think so. I haven’t actually said anything I’m not supposed to say.” He looked right into me. “Thanks to you I don’t have to.”
My voice came out soft and quiet. “But why are you?”
“A mix of a few things. Mostly curiosity I suppose.”
“What do you want with me?”
“Ah, your favourite question.”
He shook his head again. “We want you. Isn’t that enough?”
I swallowed and took a deep breath. “If that’s not sinister, I don’t know what is. Should I be worried?”
“Nah. It won’t help. Just pretend you don’t know.”
I chuckled but it didn’t feel right. “Yeah, like it’s that easy.” My mind started to whirl with all this new information and we sat in quiet for a few moments, though it wasn’t awkward. It was as if the other people in the house didn’t exist. It was just us, in the middle of the kitchen floor not saying a word.
Simba strutted in through the door frame and I lifted my arm for him to cuddle up to me like he usually did. He took one look at Zed and froze, staring him down.
“Oh.” Zed stood up.
“You don’t like cats?” I asked as I stood too.
“Oh no, I don’t mind them. They just have a tendency not to like me.”
I watched Simba watch Zed. I tried calling his name but he didn’t even glance at me. “I’ve never seen him like this before.”
Zed shrugged. “What can I say? He’s just like you. Can’t figure me out.” He smirked.
“So?” I tucked some hair behind my ear. “Are you gonna disappear into thin air leaving me wondering if I’ll ever see you again?”
“It sounds super dramatic when you put it like that.”
“You did vanish right in front of my nose. It’s pretty dramatic.”
He laughed. “I suppose. But yeah, soon. I’ll stay for a bit though. Wanna make sure you don’t lose it again.”
“Really, I’m fine.” I found blush creeping up my neck. “Just had a tough couple of weeks.”
He nodded. “Yeah. I know.”
I narrowed my eyes. “How do you know?”
“It’s probably easier if you just assume I know everything about you, Amelia.”
“How?” My heart picked up its pace again, recovered from the last sprint. “How can you possibly know all this? Is someone spying on me?”
He pushed his hands down in a calming motion. “It’s fine. I promise.”
“How can I trust you? I don’t even know you.”
“But you know me a little better each time. One of these times you’re gonna just start trusting me without even knowing it. But for now you should know that worrying is gonna get you nowhere so you should probably stop.”
I huffed. “Oh thanks. That helps so much.”
“I’m sorry, Amelia, but I’ve gotta let things run their course.”
“It’s extremely frustrating.” I crossed my arms.
“If it helps, all will be revealed soon.”
He bit his lip and looked as though he was hiding a laugh.
“Don’t tell me,” I growled. “You can’t say?”
The mere notion that there was an explanation was calming me. Though there was still the burning desire to know what was going on. The gnawing in my stomach wasn’t going to stop until I knew what on earth was happening.
“Can I do something?” The words squashed together as I spoke too fast.
He raised his eyebrows. “It depends what it is.”
“I wanna take you to my friend Otter. I want you to talk to her.”
“Because you’ve been freaking us out. Please?”
He took a step away from me. “I don’t think that’s the best idea.”
I stormed towards him and grabbed his hand. “Don’t you disappear on me.”
His eyes widened and he chuckled. “I wouldn’t dare.”
“You have to see her, please. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation at all.”
“It’ll be the shortest conversation you’ve ever heard.”
I glared straight into his eyes. “Why?”
“I can’t talk to her.”
“No, it’s really not. Me and her can never talk. I can never talk to anyone actually. None of your friends.”
“Don’t worry, there aren’t many of those.”
He grabbed my wrist. “You aren’t listening. I can’t talk to them.”
My confidence shot down into the floor at once. “Why?”
He grimaced. “I don’t want to tell you.”
I just looked at him.
“You won’t like it.”
I wet my lips. “Just tell me.”
“Let’s say I have a touch of flower syndrome.”
My mouth felt too dry as I realised what was coming. “What do you mean?”
“Only you can see me, Amelia. You’re talking to thin air right now.”
“No.” I dropped his hand and backed to the other side of the kitchen. “Simba saw you. I saw it. He was glaring right at you! You’re here. You’re real.”
Zed came towards me. “Simba sensed me. He didn’t see me. And of course I’m here and I’m real. You know that.”
“No.” I felt the all too familiar burn of tears and I sniffed them back. “No! This can’t be happening!”
He shushed me and took my hand again, squeezing it this time. “It’s fine. I told you it was fine.”
“You just told me you’re invisible. How can anything be fine ever again?” My breaths were laboured, like there was something blocking my throat.
“You’re just going to have to prematurely trust me on that one.”
I shook my head. “I don’t believe you.” I yanked on his hand and pulled him out of the kitchen.
“I can’t believe after all this time you still need evidence.”
“People aren’t invisible!” I shouted over the music.
“In about ten seconds you’re going to look crazy if you keep talking to me.”
“You think I care about crazy anymore?”
We left the dining room and entered the hall. I pushed past the bodies all much closer together than I remember them being when I left. There seemed to be hundreds of people here now, taking up any available patch of floor. The living room was hot and jackets and cardigans of all colours had been flung on any spare surface. I had to ram past people and tread on their toes to get by. Even so, no one looked at me for more than a second as I squeezed past them. I looked back to Zed who didn’t seem to be having any problem manoeuvring his way through the crowd. He had this stupid grin on his face as he absorbed my peers around him.
I couldn’t hear my own heart anymore, the music was so loud. The bass was pulsing through the building so hard I could feel it in my lungs. It was a wonder the neighbours hadn’t complained. Maybe they had, no one would hear them. Everyone was shouting at one another to be heard, including straight down my ear canal as I passed. I pushed my spare hand against my ear as I tugged Zed along with me.
We managed to get to the centre of the living room and I stopped to scan the heads but could see no pink one. The presents had been moved from the coffee table to leave space for the six or seven people doing rounds of shots. It was lucky Otter’s coffee table was made of glass and easy to clean. One thing was for certain, I wasn’t going to help tidy up that mess tomorrow.
I examined the room once more for Nathan and saw him leaning up against the wall next to where Melissa, Ellie, and Courtney were talking. He still had the remains of his first drink and was nodding along to whatever was being said. He would never forgive me for interrupting his time with Melissa so I turned tail and went back out into the hall.
It was a little cooler out here and people were talking and not screaming at one another. Rebecca Murphy was still cackling away as she chatted to her friends. Caitlin Morris and Josh Hughes were sitting together on the bottom step, heads bend low in what looked like an intense, deep conversation but was anything but.
Zed caught my eye and raised his eyebrows as he saw them. “Crazy party.”
“Did you see Otter in there? I’m guessing you know what she looks like?”
“I do indeed and nope, I did not see her in there.”
“Let’s check the dining room again.”
Rebecca stopped snorting to give me a look.
“People are noticing,” Zed sung.
“I don’t care.”
There were more people in the dining room than I remembered but Otter wasn’t one of them. I stuck my head round the kitchen door and there she was, pouring a drink, in the middle of some story surrounded by Vicky, Will, Megan, Beth, Connor, and some girl I’d never seen before. We must’ve passed them somehow on our way to the living room. They were all sort of in a semi-circle and I stuck myself on the end next to Connor. Otter didn’t break stride as she caught sight of me and didn’t give any reaction to Zed’s presence, not a great sign.
They all hooted with laugher simultaneously, making me jump. It must have been a joke. I saw my opportunity while the crowd was otherwise engaged.
She acted like I hadn’t spoken, laughing and grabbing the new girl’s hand like she needed support standing up her joke was that funny.
Zed bent close to my ear. “I think she’s a little busy. Won’t you annoy her with this? There are quite a few people here. You want to do it in front of them?”
“Shut up,” I muttered. “Otter?” I poked her this time and she spun round, eyes wide.
“Abz!” She grinned far too big.
“Otter, I need to talk to you.”
“Okay. What is it?”
I looked around me. Zed was right. I didn’t need these people remembering this in the morning. I wasn’t going to risk it. The talk at school would be too brutal. “Not here. I need to speak to you in private.”
“No!” She pushed my shoulder and giggled. “It’s fine. These guys won’t listen.”
I rolled my eyes. “Please, Otter, this is important.”
“Okay, okay. I need to talk to Abia, you guys go have fun. I’ll catch up in a minute.”
They all filed out one by one except the new girl who was still holding Otter’s hand. Otter didn’t seem to notice this. The stranger was taller than Otter but smaller than me with ivory skin and scarlet red hair. She had lips to match her hair and her smile indicated she wasn’t as inebriated as my best friend. She was wearing a cream vest top and short black shorts.
“Otter?” I shot my eyes to the stranger and back. “In private.”
“Mandy won’t say anything. She doesn’t even know you. This is who I was telling you about. This is Abia.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Mandy’s voice was very pleasant and melodic.
I nodded in response and turned to Otter. “Please, Otter, please. I need you alone. Please. This is really important. It’s to do with Zed.”
“Eugh!” She stuck out her tongue. “That creep. Alright.” She smiled at Mandy. “Be there in a second.”
Zed laughed and I ignored him.
I waited until Mandy was out of sight and out of ear shot but before I could say anything Otter had whisked me up into her arms. “Hey!”
“Yes, yes.” I pulled her off me. “How many people are in this room?”
She put her hands on her hips. “I’m not really drunk, Abz. There’s just you and me here, as you instructed.”
“Told ya,” Zed said.
“Did you not just hear that?” Hysteria was creeping into my voice.
I wanted something to hold on to so I didn’t fall down. This couldn’t be happening. There was no way Zed was invisible. There was no way I’d made him up. This just didn’t make any sense at all.
“Abz?” She grabbed my hand and hers was clammy. “What’s up? Hear what?”
“I . . .” I shook my head. “I don’t wanna tell you.”
“You can tell me anything, you know that.”
“But this is crazy.”
“Haven’t we been to crazy and back? Come on. I can deal with this.”
“We’re going back to crazy I’m afraid.”
“Then I’ll enjoy the visit.” She smiled. “Go for it.”
Zed crossed his arms. “She’s a good friend you know. You won’t find many as good as this one. Trust me, I know.”
“Otter.” I took a deep breath. “Zed is here right now.”
“What?” Her face screwed up. “There’s just you and me here, Abz.”
“No. He’s standing right next to me. He’s spoken since you’ve been in the room. As it turns out . . . he’s invisible.”
She blinked a few times and stared at me. She was a saint for even trying to process this. “I can’t see him,” was all she could say.
“That’s what I was afraid of. I’m not just seeing flowers. I’m seeing people.”
“Person,” Zed corrected. “It’s just me.”
“A person then, fine.”
Otter’s face dropped. “Are you talking to him right now?”
I nodded, too scared to say anything she didn’t want to hear.
“What’s he saying?”
“Nothing now. Wait.” I grabbed her other hand, heart leaping to escape my mouth. “You believe me?”
“I . . . I dunno.”
Zed chuckled. “If she believes you it’ll be a first.”
“He doesn’t think you’re gonna believe me.”
“Maybe if he says something that you would never say.” She was looking all about the room as though she could catch his eye.
He was staring straight at her, not having to worry about getting caught. “I could have a lot of fun with this.” He rubbed his chin in an over exaggerated thinking gesture. “I know. Tell her that you saw a vampire the other night feeding on a zombie or was it the other way round? Either way, they were both super hot and you couldn’t help but write it all down in a poem.”
I shot him a look. “What? Where did that come from?”
“I know you, Amelia, I told you that. I know those are the sorts of things you would never say.”
“I don’t wanna say that.”
“You have to. She asked. And she’s an awesome friend. You owe her this.”
Otter’s eyebrows were pulled together, her eyes wide, her mouth almost grimacing.
“I’m sorry,” I said to her before spouting off Zed’s ridiculous miniature story.
Otter gave a nervous titter. “I guess I have to believe you, right?”
Zed nudged my arm. “If I could buy her off you, I would.” And then he was gone.