Thereafter

*Movellas Advent Calendar 2014!* *NaNoWriMo 2014* *First Draft* ©Molly Looby There are always a host of flowers on the side of the road, whether brand new or shrivelled from weeks of rest. Their appearance, though sad, was never odd. So when another wave of flowers showed up on the outskirts of my home town, I didn't pay much attention apart from a deep aching sadness within. It was only upon mentioning it in passing I realised something was wrong. I spoke to everyone but to no avail. Maybe I was going crazy but . . . I was the only one who could see the flowers.

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16. Sixteen

I awoke the next morning in a sleeping bag on a blow-up bed in Otter’s bedroom with a jump at 06:36, a scream dying in my throat. Otter was snoring from her bed, arm hanging over the side, Simba curled up on the other pillow. I sat up and put my hand to my throbbing forehead. The dream, just like the last time, had vanished as swiftly and as completely as Zed had last night. After losing Otter to the crowd once again, I’d gone to bed early, too exhausted after everything to consider small talk. There was no one I wanted to talk to anyhow.

I thought I could sleep off the weirdness of the party. No such luck. What’s more, it felt like I hadn’t slept at all.

I rolled over to try and get back to sleep but it was clear after two minutes of being unable to get comfortable that I was wide awake. I patted the carpet until I found my glasses and I squinted as I stared at the bright light on my phone. I’d given up researching the flowers that wouldn’t die but I hadn’t given up my search for Zed. Flowers were one thing but a person?

I knew Otter hadn’t seen him last night but like he said, that didn’t mean he wasn’t real. He was real. He had to be. There was no explaining myself out of it. He existed. Somewhere.

After an hour of searching, I threw my phone to the ground with a huff. It was no use. Without his surname there was just no way. There were too many people in the world. That didn’t mean I’d given up looking. I couldn’t give up. That would mean I believed he didn’t exist. Without this, what did I have left?

I crept into the bathroom and washed my face and brushed my teeth, giving myself a long, hard stare in the mirror. I was starting to look like someone who was disturbed. There were beginnings of bags under my eyes and I had a world-weary look about my face that I couldn’t seem to budge, no matter what expression I was pulling. My pearl grey eyes looked sad, like they sucked happiness out of everything they looked at. For the first time in my entire life, I thought my oval face looked too thin.

I brushed through my hair with my fingers, terrified to go at it with a brush in the state it was in. I must have rolled around a lot last night because I’d woken up with my hair twice as big as it had been when I’d gone to bed. The curls seemed to have expanded to their maximum springiness in the night somehow. I needed to wash them out and I suspected more knots that I could bear to deal with.

Before jumping in the shower, I checked Otter’s parents weren’t back yet and that the lock was sturdy. I couldn’t help but think as I stepped under the hot water, that if Zed could appear anywhere whenever he wanted, as it seemed to me, what was stopping him from appearing . . . say now? The thought made me sick and I was as quick as possible. In and out.

Otter moaned as I slipped back into her room fully dressed, hair washed and after a struggle, brushed. It took her a few seconds to take me in and then she sat bolt upright.

“Shit! What time is it?”

“It’s just gone eight, it’s fine.”

She let out a huge breath and flopped back down. “Bloody hell! I thought you were going to tell me it was gone twelve and my parents were turning up in the driveway.” She pulled herself up and leant on her elbows, her eyebrows coming together. “Why on earth are you awake and dressed?”

“Bad dream, couldn’t sleep. Also, I had massive hair.”

“It looked awesome last night though.” She touched her own hair and recoiled. “Okay, gross. I’m gonna need to shower before we clean anything up. Have you been downstairs yet? Is it a mess?”

“Why?” I narrowed my eyes. “What happened after I went to bed?”

“Nothing that I know of. There were just cups everywhere and a few spilt drinks.” She grinned wide. “I think it was a success.”

“Nobody passed out?”

“Nope.”

“You don’t have a hangover?”

She chuckled. “Does this look like the face of a hung-over person?”

“Then it was a success.”

When Otter went to shower I surveyed the destruction downstairs which I have to say was minimal. There were cups and paper plates everywhere as well as crisps and nuts all over the floor and of course the coffee table had a layer of alcoholic goo coating it. But it wasn’t that bad. Nothing was broken, no one was still here unconscious on the sofa. All in all, a crisis had been averted.

I found a big black bin bag in the cupboard and started chucking cups from the living room into it. Otter came down, hair still wet, and face free of makeup. Her skin didn’t look as even as usual and her eyes didn’t look as big but she was just as beautiful.

“I just remembered something. In the shower,” she said as she started collecting plastic cups and paper plates from their various random positions.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I know I wasn’t drunk. I remember the whole of last night. Start to finish. I know who was there and I know what they were wearing. I know I didn’t do anything stupid.” She stopped and turned to me. “So why do I remember you telling me that Zed was invisible?”

There was no point trying to hide it. I’d passed the point of no return last night when I’d told her. “Because I told you that Zed was invisible.”

“Was it a joke I didn’t get or something?” She put her hand to her forehead.

“No.” I shook my head. “I was deadly serious.”

“Okay . . .” She started picking up cups and plates again. “So, I don’t remember you being but . . . were you drunk?”

I put one hand on my hip. “I most certainly was not. I didn’t touch a drink last night.”

“Are you sure?” She raised one eyebrow at me.

“Positive.”

“Then . . .” She dropped the wad of cups she’d accumulated into the bag. The soft shush as they hit the bottom seemed too loud. “You meant it?” They might not look as big as usual, but those hazel-green eyes devoured mine with a look.

“Yes.” It came out quiet. “I meant it.”

“You saw Zed? But he was invisible?”

I sighed. “He’s not invisible to me. To me he’s there, as real as you’re there right now. But apparently to everyone else he’s invisible and also silent. He spoke while you were in the room and you didn’t hear him.”

“Maybe . . .” She stepped towards me. “Maybe that’s because he wasn’t there.”

My heart dropped. “But you said, you said last night that you believed me.”

“Abia.” She went for my hand but I snatched it away. “You’re trying to tell me you saw an invisible man. What do you want me to say?”

“Nothing. Nothing.” I continued hurling rubbish into the bag, hoping to channel all my frustration into the aftermath of last night.

“Abz.”

I didn’t look at her. “It’s fine, really. I was stupid to think you’d believe me.”

“I can’t believe you just like that. You wouldn’t believe me.”

I took a deep breath and turned to her again. “I know I wouldn’t but you’re a better friend than I could ever be. You’re the best person. The best.”

She started rolling her owl pendant around in her hand. “You know I want to believe you, don’t you?”

I just looked at her.

“I don’t like seeing you like this. It’s killing me. I want this to go away.”

“Me too,” I whispered. “You have no idea.”

She tried to take my hand again and this time I didn’t stop her. “I want to believe you. I just need more evidence.”

“He made me say things about vampires and zombies and a poem. Would I ever say anything like that otherwise?”

She laughed. “It’s not that easy, Abz.”

“I know.” Somewhere, from deep down, I found a smile.

She smiled back and squeezed my hand before returning to the cleaning. We chattered about the party as we tidied, me having to give very little for conversation to keep moving on. According to Otter, everyone had a fantastic time and Nathan even had a chance to speak to Melissa for real.

“They actually had a conversation?” I asked as we at last moved onto the kitchen which wasn’t as bad as I expected.

“Yes. They conversed.”

“And he still likes her?”

“Yep.”

“Well I suppose once Nathan’s set his mind to something he’s set his mind to something.”

She chuckled. “Yeah. They’re actually similar in some ways. They were getting on well.”

“Good.” I smirked. “I hope she falls in love with him and breaks Kyle’s heart.”

Otter’s mouth popped open. “Harsh, Abz.”

I felt hot seep into my cheeks. “Sorry.”

“Are you ever gonna tell me why you hate Ky so much?”

I shrugged. “He’s an idiot.”

She nodded. “Yeah, saw a bit of that last night. He was all over me.”

“What?”

“Yeah.” She bit her lip. “He’s a scumbag.”

“Let’s agree to never speak to him again. Deal?”

“Course.” She huffed and sat herself on the kitchen worktop. “It was a good night though wasn’t it?”

“As long as you enjoyed it that’s all that matters.”

“Didn’t you have fun?”

“I had Kyle trying to chat me up one minute and then Zed telling me he was invisible the next. That’s not your fault.”

She bit her lip. “I guess.”

“I’m having a pretty good time now.”

“Cleaning the kitchen?”

“Cleaning the kitchen with my best friend who wants to believe me even though I’m insane.” I grinned.

She laughed. “Your friend who’s not exactly helping right now.”

“That’s okay. We’re nearly done. You do the talking. I’ll do the cleaning.”

She didn’t say anything as I collected the cups and plates and wiped down the worktops.

“You didn’t say anything, Otter.” I flicked her with the tea towel.

She yelped, eyes bugging wide. “Christ!” She put her hand to her heart. “I’m sorry. I was thinking.”

“Yeah, yeah. You just didn’t wanna clean.”

She was pressing her lips together and wringing her hands so I jumped up to sit on the worktop on the other side of the kitchen and watched her for a moment.

“You, err . . . did you . . .” She looked around the room like something was going to make the sentence form itself. “Did you like Mandy?” She breathed all at once.

The corners of my mouth pulled up and something tugged at my heart. “We didn’t speak. Actually, she said she was pleased to meet me and I didn’t say anything. I was preoccupied with an invisible man.”

She nodded. “Yeah. Of course.”

“Otter?” I leant forwards a little. “What is it?”

She sniffed and her knuckles were going white as she squeezed the counter. She shut her eyes and breathed slow for a few seconds.

“Do you want a cuddle?”

She nodded. “Yes.” The small force of that word made the tears burst forth and I held her close, though I didn’t know what was going on, because she’d done the same for me and because I loved her more than my sister and I didn’t care how bad a person that made me.

She cried into my t-shirt and made it damp but I didn’t care. I was just there for her. I would always be there for her. As long as I was still breathing I would be there.

When her breaths finished jumping around, she pulled back and gave a little smile. “I’m sorry, Abz. I dunno where that came from.”

“It’s alright.” I took her hand. “It’s hard being seventeen.”

She laughed. “I’m confused, Abz.”

“Do you wanna talk about it?”

She nodded. “Not in here though. Mum and Dad might get home.”

So after making hot chocolate and finding a packet of marshmallows in the cupboard, we sat ourselves cross-legged on her bed facing each other. It took less than three minutes before Simba was curled up in Otter’s lap.

“Stupid thing,” she said, stroking his fur. “Won’t leave me alone.”

“That’s because he knows you’re upset.”

“He knows more than anyone.” She shook her head. “Stupid isn’t it?”

“I’m getting to the point where stupid doesn’t exist anymore.”

She took a deep breath and looked to the ceiling before meeting my face again. “It started this summer when I was away in Portugal. It was weird actually because I didn’t like that there was no one really to talk to. This was the first holiday without at least Asa to talk to and I realised I would’ve had more fun staying at home.”

“You would’ve had to come with us to Kyle’s party which was not fun.”

You say it wasn’t fun. Nathan insists that it was.”

I rolled my eyes. “He was on Melissa perving duty. Of course he thought it was fun.”

“So we were in this resort with a load of other families with kids and I felt like I was the only one not a kid and then not an adult either. I was getting pretty sick of it by day three and then I was walking back to our room to get my book and I saw this girl sitting on a bench outside the building.” She ran her hand through her hair, something I hadn’t seen her do since it was cut short almost a year ago.

I took her hand and clasped it tight, urging her forwards.

“It was Mandy. She said hi to me as I walked past and I'd read the book she had in her hand so we started talking about it. As it turns out, she lives in Dalbridge which is mental. Talk about small worlds and everything. I told her I lived like fifteen minutes away from there and we talked and talked and talked the entire rest of the time we were there.” She stopped and I could see tears in her eyes.

I gave her hand a pulse. “This is where it gets complicated, huh?”

“Yeah.” She took a moment to take charge of the tears. “We said we were gonna go to the entertainment on my last night and my parents were boring and went home straight after dinner and because they knew I was with Mandy they let me stay out later.

“So me and Mandy had fun talking and dancing like we had all the other nights and we sat down on a bench under a tree for a rest and everything just got really quiet and really intense and I was looking at her and . . .” She shook her head. “I haven’t said this aloud before.”

“It’s okay.” I gave her a smile I could feel in my cheeks and my heart. “You can say anything to me.”

“You promise?”

“Of course I do. Otter, I told you I can see and hear someone who you can’t see and hear. It can’t be worse than that.”

She chuckled. “No. It’s not worse than that.”

“It’s not bad at all you know.”

“It’s not?” Her lip wobbled and she bit it to keep the tears back.

“Of course it’s not. Don’t be silly.”

She flung her arms around me and squeezed all the air out. “You were wrong, Abz,” she whispered into my hair. “You’re the best person.”

I giggled and I felt light and good and alive. “Come on.” I pulled her off me. “I wanna hear the end.”

Now she was beaming a true smile and I felt like I could achieve anything. I just wished someone could do the same for me and my problems. I guess I just had to forget about the flowers and Zed and the fact that he knew everything about me. No amount of hugging was going to make that go away.

I lost myself in Otter’s story as she started up again, wanting to be in any story that wasn’t my own.

“So you were looking at her and . . .” I encouraged.

“I . . .” She looked away for a moment. “I realised she was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. Like, ever.”

I nodded. “From what I remember, she was pretty.”

“I felt like, as I was looking at her, that maybe she was thinking the same thing as me. And then I totally realised that I wanted her to be thinking the same thing so I out and told her she was beautiful.” The shuddery breath she took was accompanied by a smile. “And then she kissed me.”

I hadn’t expected it but I squealed, a sound I had seldom made in my life.

“And I kissed her back and . . . that was it.”

“That’s an excellent story.” I couldn’t wipe the stupid smirk off my face.

“You think?” Her eyes were wide, like she was longing to believe me but didn’t.

“Yes. So have you met up since?”

“Yeah. A lot. I wanted you to meet her last night but I totally chickened out after you guys said hi.”

“Well, I’d love to say hi again.”

“You would?”

“Of course I would, Otter. You’re my best friend forever, remember?”

Her arms were around me again. “What on Earth would I do without you, Angel?”

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