I rushed back into the town, back to my flat. As soon as I got in the door I stripped off, walked into the bathroom, and got in the shower. I set it to as hot as possible, needing to wash away the chill in my bones and the residue of the mist and the smell of the house. The hot water ran across my body, and I relaxed. My eyes closed, arms at my sides, head facing upwards, I welcomed the cleanse. I scrubbed at my body until it felt raw and scratched at my scalp as I rinsed and repeated and rinsed and repeated until I was positive that no part of my body would smell like Arianne. The scent of mint stung my nose, and I smiled to myself.
Stepping out of the shower, I wrapped a towel around my body and wiped at the clouded mirror. Through the water droplets a pale, skeletal woman stared back at me, her face solemn and hair dripping. I felt like I looked. Dead, empty, undesirable. I hadn’t thought about being desirable at all, puberty had made me grow and become a woman, but I hadn’t gained any interest in anything other than being on my own. Even getting better was optional and unnecessary, in my opinion. But meeting someone I connected with made me want to be desirable, and I didn’t understand why. It hadn’t been a priority for me before. It confused me. As I stood at the sink, staring into the mirror, I picked up the plastic cup and picked up my pill, swallowing it dry. I shook my head and watched the water droplets land in different places, before walking out. The mirror clouded over again.
I got dressed and dried my hair, pulled on some shoes and put on a hat, pulled on a dry coat and left the flat without another thought. It had all become routine, really. Wander around during the day on a Monday, get changed, go to my therapist, leave my therapist with another dose of medication, go home, get changed, go to work. Work was at a service station on the nearest large road. People came and went, and barely anyone went there more than once. No one to connect with, no commitments other than serving coffee. It was the perfect job for me.
The walk to my therapist’s was ten minutes of grey pavements and other people who didn’t make eye contact with strangers. I had no idea if anyone in the town had known what had happened to Arianne, I just knew that no one recognised me, which was good enough. I walked past plenty of different kinds of people. Happy people, sad people, happy couples, angry couples, small girls tugging along sad little puppies, but I never saw a ragged looking girl with a vacant expression and flat hair unless I glanced into the reflections in shop windows. It did upset me at first, but I got used to it. Nothing affected me much anymore, although whether it was a cause of experience or medication, I wasn’t quite sure. I kept my eyes down, making sure to step on every single crack in the pavement that was in my way. Break her back, break their backs. It’s not much difference to me. I supposed it was those sort of dark tendencies that made them continue my sessions. I turned right, and stood in front of the door wishing for an excuse to not go in. But I had to. Arianne was fighting it, so I had to.
The waiting room was blue, so it always made me feel cold. I pulled my sleeves over my hand and walked over to the front desk, signed my name and sat in my usual chair in the corner. Other people were sat there, too, with nervous faces and empty eyes, medicine fueled trembles and passively relaxed shoulders. I’d seen so many types of people come through the waiting room, and some people came back, whilst others came and went in weeks. I resented those people. They had a way out. I refused to realise that I did, too. Glancing at the clock, I noted that I had four minutes until my appointment, enough time to pick at the last of my nail varnish and wonder whether I was going to tell her about Alfie, and the house. I was halfway through having a mental debate with myself on the subject when she came out and smiled at me over her glasses.
Doctor Sophie Booker was a petite woman with strong shoulders, red hair and the glasses to match. She had many different personalities, which helped her to deal with the different people she encountered, and I supposed that was why she became a therapist. She was always so good at empathising with others, and reassuring me that it was okay to talk about Arianne. She never once encouraged me to speak as Arianne. She went along with me never wanting to be her again, and for that I was grateful. Doctor Booker was the one who noticed my anxiety, my fears, and understood that I needed help for longer than was initially thought. I’d been having sessions for ten years, and she hadn’t aged at all. She’d seen me grow and change and laugh and cry, and never once ridiculed or made me feel inadequate or small. In short, I loved her for what she had done for me, and anticipated what she could do for me in the future.
I stood up and followed her into her office, which had orange walls that made it feel so much warmer than the waiting room. I rolled my sleeves up, and sat back in the armchair that she always gestured to. In a second, there was a green tea in my hand, and the new pot of medication placed in my lap. She was always so organised. I grinned at her then, a proper grin that hurt my cheeks but I did it anyway. I glanced around and took in all of the familiar details: the vibrant orange flowers blooming on the coffee table, pamphlets, the patterned rug, her family photo that sat facing me, the various posters about bands or movies, and the piles and piles of notebooks that sat on the table that was beside her chair, in which she sat. She was poised, perfect, ready to take notes in a red notebook with my name printed neatly on the cover. There were tens of books exactly the same, with my name, sat in her room somewhere. She went through roughly two a year, although it was much more when Arianne was around. I was sure that some of the books had her name on them, somewhere in the archives.
“So, Olivia,” Doctor Booker’s voice was soft and gentle. She was always so tentative. “How has your week been?”
“It’s been okay, I guess. Work was the same as normal, people came and went, I took my medication, I made sure to smile sometimes,” I explained routinely as she scribbled. I had grown accommodated to explaining things and telling her about my week without being coaxed. “Most of it was okay.”
I took a deep breath. I knew that I had decided to tell her about the house when I was sat in the waiting room, but for some reason telling her was much easier in theory than in practice. I was unsure about how she would react, and I would hate to disappoint her.
“Olivia?” Booker looked concerned. “Is there something you need to tell me?”
“I don’t know. I... I don’t know,” I just kept sitting there and shaking my head, refusing to look at her. I could tell that she knew.
“Is it to do with her?”
“Yes. No. Yes,” I was stammering. My head wasn’t making any sense. Everything was jumbled. Arianne stirred inside me, and I closed my eyes. “My head hurts.”
I clutched at the cup of green tea, feeling the heat radiating through my trembling palms. Without thinking, I brought the cup up to sip at it, the scalding water burning my lips. It felt good. I breathed deeply. My head was spinning, round and round and round, making me feel dizzy and broken again. I pressed Arianne further down, her voice becoming a shrill and muffled cry in my ears.
“I went to her house,” I whispered.
“I went back to her house,” my voice was weak, but I didn’t know if it was with fear or sadness. “I went back to her house this morning. I went back. And there was someone there.”
“Okay. Slow down,” Booker was scribbling faster and faster in her book, as though she couldn’t control her pen just as much as I couldn’t control my tongue. “Someone was there? Who?”
“I...,” I faded, eyes drooping for a moment. Then I pictured him. Stood there, in her kitchen, smiling and laughing. My hand on his shoulder, his body warmer under my hand than the mug I was holding. Being in that house with him. Him. “It was Alfie.”
Doctor Booker looked at me in shock. I don’t know what she was more shocked at; the fact that I’d gone back without telling her or that I’d encountered someone from Arianne’s past and not burst out with it as soon as I saw her. Her hand went limp, the pen dropping momentarily until she caught it.
“Alfie? As in, Arianne’s friend?”
I nodded, my mind full to the brim with thoughts of him.
“Did he recognise you?”
My head shook without me needing to make it.
“Not a lot,” I sighed. Why did I sigh? Was I disappointed? “We talked. We didn’t talk about anything in particular. Each time she was mentioned, the conversation halted. He’s really hurting. I want to help him.”
I paused to watch her write, but she was just looking at me in what felt like awe. Her face was soft and kind.
“I want to help him like you’ve helped me,” I said. I hadn’t realised it, but it was true. I wanted to do what Sophie had done for me, because she had made me okay. I was a better person after I’d met her, and I was sure that I could bond with Alfie and help him finally finish grieving. “I don’t know if he has anyone to talk to. He told me that I was the first person who understood how he felt.”
“Okay... And he thinks your name is Olivia?” she queried.
“I told him my name is Olivia, and when he asked me how I know Ari- her, I told him we went to Brownies together,” I replied. She nodded, jotting something down, then she turned the page. “It was nice. We had coffee. I looked at Julia’s books and I even managed to look at some old photos. It was nice.”
“You looked at pictures?” it seemed as though she didn’t believe me. “Olivia, this is a really big step. A really big step. Do you know what this means?”
“What does it mean?”
“It means you’re getting better.”
Those five words resonated around the room, bouncing through my silent mind like a firework. It bounced against the walls before exploding right before my eyes, the fact burying itself in my mind like an emblem. I’m getting better. Better. Better than what? It doesn’t matter what, at least I’m getting better. Better better better better better.
“Yes, Olivia. You’re improving,” Booker nodded and smiled at me, her red hair swaying, reflecting the light. “A year ago, you refused to go anywhere near that house. You wouldn’t even go in the woods. And now look at you. You went without my suggestion, without telling me, and all on your own. You encountered someone that knew Arianne and didn’t back out. You’re getting better and stronger. I’ve known it for a while now. I just didn’t want to mention it until I was sure.”
I felt pride blossom in the centre of my chest. I’d done that all on my own. I’d confronted some memories and not blacked out or take more medication. I was getting better, and I was proud of it. Another idea popped into my head.
“I’m going back there tomorrow.”
Saying it out loud made it feel real. I was going to go back tomorrow, and probably the next day, and the next, and the next. I wanted to go back because Sophie had said that it made me better, and I’d decided that I wanted to get better so I can make Alfie get better. I’d known him for ages, but he’d only known Olivia for a few hours. So I needed to get to know him again so that he’d trust me enough to help him. I was going to help him if it killed me.
“I think that’s an excellent idea,” Booker smiled. She held a finger up, indicating to me to wait for a moment, and she got up out of her chair and walked over to a cupboard on the right of the room. She rummaged through it for a moment, before withdrawing a pale green notebook, the same colour as the cardigan that I’d absent mindedly put on after showering. I didn’t have a favourite colour, but if I did, it would have probably been the colour of the book that I took from her hand. It felt right as I held it. I instantly loved it. “I want you to write in this for me. Write as much or as little as you want, but make sure that you do. It’ll help you more than I could ever help. You can do whatever you want with it. It’s yours.”
“Thank you,” I beamed. My heart swelled with gratitude. She had saved me so many times from so many different things, and in that moment I just wanted to be like her. “Seriously. Thank you. You have helped me so much, I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you.”
“Just keep coming to see me on a Monday,” Doctor Booker said. She looked pleased, which made me happy. “And don’t forget to write in that book. Now, I think you should tell me about this Alfie. He’s going to play a big part in your recovery, and I’m keen to know about him.”
“He’s... I don’t know where to start. He was always there when we were younger. He was there through everything,” I ran my hands through my hair, the same way that he had that morning. “He’s changed so much since Arianne saw him last. When he was younger, he was small and skinny and pale, but know he’s actually grown. And I know that’s what people do, especially in puberty, but it’s just strange to go from knowing him as this tiny little boy to seeing him as, well, a man. He’s gotten taller and filled out and his skin is slightly darker and his hair is nice and his eyes are just the same. The same half blue and half green that could never be called hazel. We touched a few times, like, our arms brushed, and I felt warmer and happier than I have done in years. I miss having that type of contact with people. I usually just get the brush of someone’s fingertips when I hand a drink to them, not enough to make me feel wanted. I miss him.”
Sophie Booker nodded, smiling as though she knew something that I didn’t. That annoyed me sometimes, but I let it slide, knowing that she would tell me within a matter of minutes anyway. And she did.
“It sounds like you like him,” she stated matter-of-factly. “This is the first person you’ve had a connection with in years, Olivia. Just remember, he doesn’t know who you once were.”
I nodded, understanding what she meant. Although I wasn’t entirely sure what my feelings towards Alfie actually were, I knew she was right.
We spoke for an hour before I had to leave. I had work, and then nothing to do, but I needed to leave anyway. It always kind of hurt when I left the office, as though I was leaving yet another part of my consciousness there with her whilst I took the pills away. We shook hands, Sophie smiled, I signed out of the reception, and then walked back down the grey pavement, with my notebook gripped in my hands. A stranger smiled at me that afternoon, and I smiled back.