Nightmares had always been a key horrific part of my life ever since Julia’s episode. Visions of bloodstained walls seeped in through the edges of my dreams, tainting them a dangerous crimson until I ended up wading through it, scared of drowning. It wasn’t always the same dream. Sometimes I was in the hospital, the white walls dripping vermillion. Others, I was at home, the scarlet water rising up and consuming me slowly. And, on scarce occasions, I was Arianne, walking into that bathroom and screaming. In my dreams, I couldn’t stop thinking about her, or being her, and it terrified me because in those ten years I’d had so much control over myself. But my dreams were something I could never get a hold on. Whenever I tried to keep a grip on what I dreamt about, it slipped through my fingers, as fine as sand. I never told anyone about the nightmares. More often than not, they happened when I was alone.
I awoke swimming in my sheets, with a scream dying in my throat. It took me a moment to open my eyes; I remained fixated on the fading memory of the dream, my heart pounding and my hands grasping at everything and nothing in particular. The red diluted in the dim light, from crimson to a pale pink. Still the panic remained. When I glanced across, the clock on my bedside table said 3:21 AM. Shaking, I shot up in bed and tried to rid myself of the blanket that had got itself tangled around my legs so I couldn’t move. I couldn’t get out. Panic rose in my chest. Sobs came to the surface, bubbling through my lips. In a second, Alfie was awake, shushing me, holding me, helping me detach myself from the blanket. I started to cry.
He tried to wrap his arms around me. I pushed him away. He didn’t try again.
I wrapped my arms around my legs and took deep, shuddering breaths. I felt the bed move, and when I looked up Alfie was leaving the room. I felt my heart ache. I’ve scared him off. This was too much for him. First the food, and now this. He’s going to leave me alone. He can’t leave me alone. I need him. Please come back. Please please please. And then I heard a glass knock on the kitchen counter, and the tap running, and the freezer opening. I kept watching the doorway until he reappeared; messy hair and sleepy eyes, carrying a glass of ice water in one hand and a bottle of pills in another. I wanted to jump up and wrap my arms around him and never let him go, but my hands were still shaking and I didn’t think my legs would support me if I got up.
The water was cold as I sipped it. It stung my teeth and cleared my head as Alfie rubbed circles on my back, calming me and encouraging me to take deeper breaths. At first, each breath racked my whole body. I shuddered with each inhale, and trembled as I exhaled. I sipped. I breathed. I don’t know if my breathing slowed before the red was gone completely from the edges of my brain, or if it was the other way around, but either way I was pleased when I started to think clearly again.
I sighed and turned towards Alfie, who looked alert for someone who’d been woken up in the early hours of the morning by a panicking girl.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered as tears stung at my eyes. He shook his head, smiled, and pulled me in for a hug without warning. I was safe in his arms. Nothing could hurt me, not even Arianne.
“You never need to apologise for anything, Olivia,” he muttered into my hair. His arms tightened around me, and my heart fluttered. “I promise you, you never need to apologise. I’d be happy to see you even if you woke me up with a knife at my throat or if you somehow put our bed in the middle of the ocean.”
I laughed, but focused on the way he said “our bed”. The idea of it being ours and not just mine was an idea that made my head spin – and in a good way. I wanted everything of mine to become his as well, just like I was plunging into the idea of becoming his. It made me smile. I was reeling.
“Although, Sophie did tell me to give you these if you had a nightmare,” he said as he pulled away from me and picked up the orange bottle of pills. I grimaced. “Oh come on, don’t look like that, Liv. They’re designed to help you sleep better.”
I took the pills from him and poured out two into my palm as instructed on the label, and swallowed them with a gulp of water.
“Come on, you need to get back to sleep,” Alfie tugged at my shirt sleeve so that I was laying down again. I felt him lay down beside me. His hand grazed mine. My skin prickled. In a spur of the moment decision, my head reeling, I grabbed his hand and felt his fingers lace between mine. We fit together perfectly.
I laid on my back and stared at the ceiling, holding his hand. The longer I stared, the more patterns appeared on the white paint that looked blue in the early morning light. They swirled and moved as I grew more and more tired. I listened to his breathing over the thumping of my heart that rang in my ears like a thick bassline to a song I didn’t know all of the words to. I waited until his breathing slowed before I fell asleep, hoping our hearts were beating at the same tempo.
Four hours later, the soft morning light drifted in through the gap in the curtains and landed on my face. Alfie had rolled over during the night, and was snoring. I smiled to myself, finding that he made my heart jump when he was doing nothing at all. I padded into the kitchen and flipped on the kettle, hoping that the noise didn’t wake him. I felt bad for the nightmare, and wanted him to be able to sleep in. The kettle boiled, I poured myself some coffee, and then I crept into the bathroom and went in the shower.
The hot water washed over me and in an instant my mind felt clearer. I rinsed the blood from the nightmare from my hair and scrubbed at my skin to get the idea of Arianne out from where she had embedded herself deep in my pores. Thoughts rushed through my mind at lightning speed and I only caught glimpses at them before they were gone forever: Alfie asleep in my bed, Sophie sat in her office, a red notebook, Alfie using the shower, me using the shower… After a while my cheeks blushed red and I became embarrassed, even though no one could read my thoughts and those thoughts wouldn’t leave my head. Would they?
I dried myself off before I realised that I hadn’t bought any clothes into the bathroom with me, and had dripped water over my pyjamas. Fuck, I thought. I really hope he isn’t awake yet.
Shaking, I pulled the towel around me tighter and scurried into the bedroom. He was still asleep, curled up beneath the duvet with just his hair poking out. I began to open drawers and pull out clothes, startled every time he shifted in his sleep. As I finished, I shut one of the drawers too hard, and I heard him start to stretch as he woke up. I was too late. I felt the blush rise up my neck before he even opened his eyes. By the time he did, my face was crimson.
“Oh, Jesus, I-“
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Alfie pulled the duvet over his head in an instant. I could hear him laughing from beneath it.
“Um,” I stalled, feeling awkward and embarrassed. I shook my head. Get a grip, Olivia. “Sorry, um, the bathroom will be free in a minute if you want to use the shower? I’ll just, uh, get dressed…”
“Yeah, sure,” his muffled reply was laced with nervous giggles. At least, I thought they were nervous.
I darted back into the bathroom and returned minutes later, my hair dripping over my t-shirt. I was still blushing. I made him a coffee and sat on the bed.
“I’m sorry…,” I mumbled into my mug.
“Liv, you don’t need to apologise.” His finger traced circles on my back, making me shiver. It calmed me. “Honestly. I didn’t see anything, just a towel hanging in thin air. And then my duvet. If it makes you feel any better, I’ll do something embarrassing for you one day.”
“Like, accidentally not wear a belt so my pants fall down in public,” he laughed, and I pulled my mug in front of my face to hide the redness that was spreading again. Jesus, Olivia, what are you doing? I thought, frustrated with myself. “Or do a stupid dance in the middle of a busy high street or supermarket. Or give you a piggy back and run through a library yelling ‘I LOVE BOOKS’ at the top of my voice. Not that books are embarrassing, but I’m just thinking of awkward situations…”
I watched him as he finished his coffee and pulled himself out of bed, headed towards the bathroom. He was only wearing a pair of pyjama bottoms. I didn’t know how I hadn’t realised during the night, but I had been sleeping beside a half-naked boy and wasn’t shaking or panicking. It was a new feeling for me. My eyes took in his torso; he wasn’t muscular, but he was strong. His arms looked as though they were made to hold someone, to protect a person. I felt odd. I loved looking at his messy hair, his sleepy halfway eyes, the way he held himself even when he’d only just woken up in the morning. He held himself with purpose, like he had a reason to get out of bed each morning. I missed feeling that way.
When he returned, my hair was dry and I’d moisturised my face. I was refreshed, and ready for a new day. I surveyed Alfie in his faded jeans and loose-fitting shirt and smiled. He returned it and picked up the hair dryer, blasting it over his hair so that when it had dried, it looked like feathers falling across his face.
“So,” I called over the noise of the dryer. “What are we going to do today?”
“You’ve got an appointment with Dr Booker in an hour, I’ve got to pop into work whilst you’re there, then we’re going to go to the shop and get some actual food so that your cupboards aren’t bare,” he grinned. “Well, they are bare! Coffee doesn’t count as food! Anyway, after that we’re going to look at things that we can do in the next few weeks, like go to the cinema and visit the city. Sound good?”
I nodded, excited to go and see Sophie. My bag was packed, complete with my notebook, pills, a bottle of water and my phone, which had a newly added number with a picture of the boy of halfways beside it. In the picture, Alfie was grinning, the corner of his eyes crinkled and the green-blue of his irises shone. I made a mental note to get the picture printed off to keep somewhere. I liked seeing him smile, because it meant that he was happy. And in that moment I valued happiness very highly.
We walked to Sophie’s office with several inches between us, and I wished to be closer to him. I swung my bag at my side and hummed to myself, feeling the sudden urge to skip. I was somewhat elated because of the boy at my side. If he could make me feel that way just by being beside me, I had no idea what he could make me feel by being closer, and always there.
I left him at the door of Sophie’s office. The gold plate with her name and the building number on it watched us as I kissed him on the cheek before I rushed inside.