I never liked blacking out. I don’t think anyone has ever enjoyed blacking out, but I hated it because it meant that I wasn’t in control. My body went on autopilot and I never knew where I’d be when I woke up. There was one time when I ended up stood there at work overfilling a customer’s takeaway coffee cup when I jolted awake again, spilling scalding coffee on my hand. I never told anyone about the black outs because I thought they would pass as I got older, but instead they got longer, more frequent and stronger. I was lucky that it hadn’t happened when I was with Alfie. I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t blacked out with him, but I thought that it had something to do with the fact that I was always so occupied with him that I didn’t think about anything else.
When I woke up after blacking out, I was sat on my bed staring out of the window. The sky was grey and the sun was nowhere to be seen, and I wasn’t going to the house and I was feeling sad again. I didn’t know why. Well, I kind of did know. It was because I was on my own again. But that didn’t normally make me feel sad. There was a weight pressing down on my chest that made it hard for me to breathe, and it felt like it started to press down on me harder and harder. I thought that if I had been laying down, I would have probably been crushed under the weight of my own sadness. I tried to think about Alfie in an attempt to make myself feel happier, but it just made me think about how much I missed his presence. It hurt my chest even more to think that someone else might be able to see his smile or hear his voice more than I could.
My head hurt. The pain made me feel sick. I was dizzy and tired, and it felt like someone was stabbing me through the back of my head with a red hot poker. I needed painkillers, but when I went to the drawer to find some, all I found were empty packets of paracetamol and ibuprofen and various other medications I’d been given to deal with pain. The full pot of pills that I’d been given two days before by Sophie sat on the side, unopened. I went into the kitchen and grabbed a glass, my hands shaking. I ran the tap until the water was cold, then filled the glass and drank it as quickly as I could before refilling and drinking again. The cold water helped a little, but I needed painkillers. Which meant going out to get them. I kept my pyjama top on, pulled on a hoodie and some jeans, and left the house with change jingling in my pocket against my phone.
The shop nearest to my flat was closed for the night; the lights were off and the windows dark, so I could see myself in the reflection. I looked ragged and my face was contorted with pain. I felt broken and crippled. Nothing in my body felt right. I couldn’t buy the painkillers from there, which meant I had to go all the way to the other shop. That made me frustrated. This, in turn, made my head hurt even more. I pressed my left hand against my eye. The pressure took my mind off of the pain for a little while as I walked across the street and towards the only other shop that would be open. As I walked, my right hand clenched into a fist, angry with the pain and with myself for letting my body get into such a condition.
I walked along to the beat of my heart, which pounded in the back of my eye with a hideous pulsing sensation. I gritted my teeth and kept walking, keeping my eyes stuck to the ground that passed under my feet. My mind wandered to Alfie and how I wanted to see him whenever I wanted. My heart ached when I thought about him. It was like my heart was a sinking ship, and every moment brought me an inch closer to hitting the floor. I missed his voice and his ability to keep me feeling like I was almost sane. I don’t know why we hadn’t seen one another. I’d been to the house at one point and it was empty. I filled it for a while with my stifled sobs as I realised that I couldn’t handle being in that house on my own, and then I left.
My train of thought was interrupted when I got to the shop. The lights were bright as I stepped inside so I pulled up my hood and kept my head down, navigating my way between the isles to find the painkillers. As I walked my trainers squeaked on the floor, a shrill squeak that echoed hideously in my head. I grit my teeth. I grabbed a pack of paracetamol and a pack of ibuprofen. My hands were still shaking. I stood there for a moment and just tried to breathe. My eyes closed and my head shook, and then the tears threatened to come again. I didn’t feel right. I wasn’t normal. It hurt. I needed to pay for the tablets and get home, so I could cry and sleep through everything. Then I got the temptation. My eyes opened, and found the bottles on the shelf. Without thinking I reached for a bottle of vodka and kept it in my hands as I walked to the counter, my head down, hoping I wasn’t asked my age. I didn’t look old enough to be buying drink. I reached the counter. I looked up, and a halfway mix of blue and green met my eyes. Alfie.
His smile grew - and oh how I loved that smile - , but faded almost instantly when he saw me properly. I could see in my head what he was seeing. The girl he’d known for a few weeks with sunken, teary eyes, wearing a big hoodie and clutching two packs of painkillers and a bottle of vodka in her hands. I realised in that moment that I was basically holding onto a concoction that could literally cause death. I didn’t know what to do or say or think, so I just tried to smile at him. He looked worried.
“Hi,” I mumbled shamefully.
“Hi,” he replied. His eyes scanned me for a moment, flickering from my hands to my face to my hands again. “Are you okay?”
“Um, that’s a bit of a loaded question, I think,” I sighed, trying to fight off the tears. I didn’t know how to answer. I put the bottle and tablets on the counter. He nodded and grimaced. I could tell that he was trying to think of something to say. I didn’t expect him to say anything.
He left the things on the counter and just stood there, staring at me. His mouth opened and closed again, as though he was trying to say something. I wanted him to say something. I would have stood there and spoken about the weather with him if it meant that I could hear his voice, even if it was for a second or two. I wanted him to say something, anything, just to make me feel better. Anything he’d do would have made me feel better. Then, he moved. It was sudden, and it confused me, but he moved. He walked around the counter and up to me. He stood there for a moment and just stared again, looking me up and down as though it pained him to see me in that way. Then he embraced me. And then everything came spilling out. Alfie’s arms felt like home. I shuddered and then suddenly I was crying, tears running down my face and onto my clothes and his shirt as I buried my head into his chest, feeling his arms around me, his hand rubbing my back gently, and his heart beating. I tried to breathe in his scent, but my nose was blocked and I just couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t even know if I was crying from happiness or sadness. I was so glad to be with him again, even if I was beyond the point of stopping crying.
Alfie pulled away for a moment, and I instantly felt colder and empty. His touch seemed to heat my skin and make me feel so wonderful. He walked back round to the counter and beckoned for me to follow him, so I did. When I got round behind it, amongst the piles of products and the racks of packs of cigarettes, Alfie was sat on a chair and smiling at me. He shifted over so there was space to sit beside him and patted the chair, so I moved over to him slowly and sat down. It was cramped, but as soon as his arm moved around my waist, I was comfortable. His hand held onto my side and I could feel his thumb rubbing in circles. He was gentle and kind. I relaxed and leant my head on his shoulder and sighed.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Alfie’s voice was gentle and tentative. “I understand if you don’t want to, but I can’t go without asking you.”
“I don’t know, I don’t want to overload or say something I’d regret,” I was feeling honest but I didn’t want to be too honest.
“Well, this is a safe place. If you want to talk about notebooks or Arianne or anything, I promise you that I’m not going to judge you.”
I looked up at him for a moment, unsure. Our faces were closer than they’d ever been before; I could feel his breath on my face. He smelled like mint and sea salt, a mixture I never thought would work but it worked so well. I decided to talk to him. I wouldn’t tell him about Arianne, but I would tell him about feeling empty and sad and feeling empty and sad without him around.
“Everything has been a bit much recently. I’ve been having therapy sessions - well, I’ve had therapy sessions for almost ten years, to no avail - but it doesn’t feel like it’s working anymore. It wasn’t really working... Until... Until I met you. I don’t know if it was being with someone who actually wanted to be with me, having a friend for the first time in years or a combination of a lot of things, but I really started to get better,” I took a shuddery breath. Alfie’s eyes were locked on mine; that soft, soft mixture of blue and green melting into the sea. I loved him in that moment, as I poured out my heart to him, as much as in any other. “And then I stopped getting better. I started drinking last week and I’ve been through 4 bottles of vodka to myself, and I’ve been getting headaches. I know people would say that the headaches are from the alcohol, but I know it’s not. I know my body, and I know this isn’t because I’ve had something to drink. Nothing is helping the pain. That’s why I came here, because the other fucking shop was shut and I needed painkillers to try and get rid of the pain in my skull, and I’m so glad I came here because it meant I got to see you again. I suppose I missed you. I don’t know, I’m stupid. I missed you. You helped me. I saw you almost every day and it stopped for a week and then I started to miss you and nothing would help me and then I stopped taking my pills because I hated thinking clearly and then I missed you more and then I started drinking but it just made me miss you more and I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
His eyes glinted, and I didn’t know if it was because of what I’d said or because of the fluorescent light above us but I loved it. It made my heart flutter to think that I might have made him smile, and he was smiling a lot. His smile just kept growing. I loved that smile as much as I’d ever loved anything in the world. It made my heart beat so hard it could have powered a thousand cities. Then, slowly, that smile got closer to me. His face had turned towards mine and our noses were touching and then our mouths got closer and then my eyes closed and then there just wasn’t a gap between us. At all. We kissed slowly and gently, letting the sparks flow through us like liquid gold. He tasted like mint, I probably tasted like stale alcohol. And it was just perfect.
Alfie pulled away and my eyes stayed closed. I smiled. I still had tears drying on my face, and I smiled a smile that hurt my cheeks. My eyes opened and I saw his face inches from mine, beaming. His hand came up and wiped the tears from my cheeks. If he’d said anything, I didn’t hear him. My heart was pounding in my ears and all I could hear was my stomach exploding and all I could see was him smiling right in front of me. I didn’t care about anything anymore. I just leant forward and kissed him again, feeling everything that was him coursing through my veins, feeling his hands on my waist and letting my hands reach up around his neck to hold him closer. Every care I had disappeared as we kissed. It was gentle and slow and everything that I’d imagined when I’d thought about kissing him.
We stopped kissing after a while. My lips were tingling, an amazing feeling and a reminder of what had just happened. I leant my head against his shoulder again and kept my eyes shut, just savouring the moment as we sat there in perfect silence. His hand was on my arm, with his thumb just rubbing gentle circles. It was reassuring. His other hand was on my leg, just above my knee. Just having his hands on me made me feel at peace. I ran my hand along his left arm and then entwined my fingers with his, noticing how our hands fit together perfectly. Mine were a lot smaller than his, but we fit together just the same.
“I’m not going to buy that vodka,” I murmured, staring up at the bottle that still sat on the counter. “I don’t think I need it.”
I felt his laugh rise from his stomach and all the way up. It was wonderful. I didn’t need the drink. All I needed to make me feel happy and alive was him. There were less side effects when I spent time with him than if I were to down a whole bottle of vodka; I wasn’t likely to throw up or think less clearly or drunk dial my old social worker in an attempt to make an advance on her. I’d had a crush on her when I was younger, for an unknown reason.
“I don’t even have your phone number,” he laughed. I pulled out my phone, giggling, and gave it to him. Alfie typed in his number and handed it back to me. I pressed call. His phone vibrated in his jeans pocket.
“There you go,” I chuckled. “Just don’t go calling me in the middle of the night.”
“That’s a shame, I’m a big fan of midnight calls to the girls I kiss.”
We were both laughing again then. He wrapped both arms around me and held me tighter.
“I’m sorry about everything,” my voice cracked slightly. I was scared I was going to start crying again. “I didn’t mean to dump everything on you. It’s not your job to deal with my problems, Alfie. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to be sorry. I want to help you, that’s why I said you can tell me anything. I didn’t know you go to therapy. I didn’t know you’re on medication... Why did you stop taking it?” Alfie sounded concerned. When I didn’t answer, he didn’t pry. I knew that if I got into telling him about my pills, I’d have to tell him why I was on them, and explain why I had the anxiety that required the prescription medication. We sat there in silence again for a moment before he spoke again. “I missed you too.”
Those four words echoed in my head over and over and over again. It was like a huge weight had been lifted from my chest and I could breathe easily again. I couldn’t smile a big enough smile to convey how happy the fact that he’d missed me made me feel. It made me feel wanted, and that was all I wanted from him. Well, that, and for him to kiss me again. And again. And again. I just wanted that feeling coursing through my body for the rest of time. He missed me and I missed him and then he had kissed me and everything was suddenly right in the world.
I knew that everything wasn’t really right, but for that moment it all felt perfect. But then my head started to hurt again. It started as a small ache in the corner of my eye and began to blossom into a white hot pain. I hissed and my hand shot up to my eyes to cover them from the light. Alfie didn’t seem to know what to do. All I could do was lean down and put my head between my legs and groan in pain.
“The painkillers...,” I groaned.
I felt Alfie get up and move around, and then he wasn’t beside me anymore. I heard his footsteps as he walked around the shop, it sounded like he was rushing. A door opened and closed again, and then he was next to me, pushing a pack of painkillers in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. The bottle was cold. I swallowed three paracetamols and gulped down the water, my eyes still closed. Then I pressed the bottle of water against my head in an attempt to cool my rising temperature. I was shaking. I wanted to throw up. Alfie pulled me back into him and I leant against his chest and shook. My head was spinning, even with my eyes closed I could feel it going round and around like a fairground ride.
I remembered Arianne going to the fairground with Julia and Richard by her side. It was six months into the fostering and Arianne had never been to a fair. So they took her, hand in hand, to get candy floss and ride on little rollercoasters on a pier next to the sea. It was a long drive to get there, but it was truly worth it just so they could see her smile and laugh like nothing had ever happened before they met her. It was heartwarming in a way. They sat on a bench as they licked at ice creams and watched the sun set slowly into the ocean, casting pinks and oranges across the sky like spilled paint. In the blackness of my eyelids I could see Arianne laughing with them, with her. Julia sat with her hand on Richard’s leg, her head on his shoulder, being as happy as she could be when she was with Arianne. I felt Ari stir in my stomach; her head was hurting too. But the painkillers weren’t going to help her. They were going to numb me and take her away for a little while, just like my pills were supposed to.
“I think I should get you home, Olivia,” Alfie’s voice broke my train of thought, and I was glad. He started to get up, and pulled me up with him. “You’re not well. And my shift is over now anyway, I need to shut the shop.”
I nodded, feeling too queasy to speak. The room spun around me, making me feel nauseous. I shook my head and closed my eyes for a moment, willing for the motion to stop. Alfie’s footsteps moved around the shop, clicking off light switches and locking up cabinets and fridges full of bottles of drink. I opened my eyes and started to walk slowly towards the door, steadying myself with my right hand on the counter, my left hand out to the side, walking on a tightrope. I was dizzy and my head hurt but I was with Alfie. He caught up with me and put his arm around my waist, helping me to the door. We pushed it open together.
The sky outside was velvet. At a first glance, there were only a few stars, but as I stood and waited for Alfie to lock up the shop I stared at the sky and watched more and more appear before my eyes. They started to flicker, choking through the fabric of sky. I leant against the shop window with my neck craned upwards, scouting the cosmos for a reason to stay there just a little while longer. Why I was looking up there was beyond me, because I had the most extraordinary person stood right there to my left, watching me watch the sky. I looked at him and he smiled at me, that perfect smile that made my heart flutter and my cheeks flush. His hand came up slowly and brushed some hair behind my ear in a single, swift movement that left me with goosebumps rising slowly up my arms.
“Alfie,” I whispered, his name passing through my lips as easy and natural as breathing. Everything in that moment felt perfect, despite the dull pain in the back of my skull and the brisk wind that blew through my clothes. I pulled my hoodie tighter around me. I didn’t know what to say. More to the point, I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say. I can’t believe you’re here. You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met. I love you. I love you. I love you. I shivered and smiled at him again before looking back up at the sky. “The stars are pretty tonight, aren’t they?”
“What stars?” he didn’t even look up at the sky. He kept on watching me. I smiled shyly, suddenly grateful for the horrible moments that had brought me to him. His green-blue eyes were soft and deeper than the ocean, pulling me in and dragging me under with the currents, and I wasn’t afraid of drowning as long as it was with him.
But then the pain came again, a tsunami of needles being stabbed through the back of my head, pushing me down to the ground with a thud. All I could see was the velvet sky, all I could hear was Alfie’s voice calling me, and all I could do was lay there. And then there was nothing.