The house echoed straight back into Anni’s head.
It was funny. The house seemed deserted but every time she looked into a room her heart soared. I could really feel it. And I know kids love being alone, but I know the difference between the happiness of being alone and in your own head, and the happiness of momentarily being abandoned.
Something happened to this girl, and I was dying to know what it was.
I wasn’t yet in control of her peripheral vision, and her actual sight was shaky - probably due to the lack of blood - but I was dying to see more of this girl.
We walked down two flights of stairs. The first one was from her bedroom in the attic to the middle floor where she peaked into each bedroom. From her hazy vision I counted about three, a spare room and a bathroom or two.
Then, down carpeted stairs that I was nearly sure would splinter beneath us, was a sitting room or lounge of some sort, and a kitchen.
As soon as we got down around fifty steps she slumped in a chair at the table, head spinning and wrists tearing open.
She took a few minutes to get her heart back up working, and powered through enough to make some cereal that tasted like cardboard. She hit the button on the kettle and sat back down.
The thing with living people is that they think they have time. They think that a minute, or a year, or a century is a really long time. I don’t think I need to tell you that they’re wrong. So I nearly screamed at her from behind her eyes when she started staring out of the window at birds or plants or fuck knows what.
You have such a beautiful, fleeting life, and you’re spending it gazing at bloody paint drying. But what do I know?
“You should get up.” I said, but I didn’t even hear myself.
So we sat for a good thirty seconds of precious life and she thought about nothing in particular and waited for the kettle to boil. Then she made tea with a squirt of lemon juice and that was her morning.
Another fact about death:
You’ll regret everything you ever were, but no, it doesn’t matter who you were.
It’s actually irrelevant what your background is, or whether you were a religious freak or simple minded kid who lived in city slums. As long as you at least tried to be good (and they’re not too tough on the whole “nice” thing, just don’t stab your teachers and you’re basically home clear) you’re fine forever. Simple enough?
But still, you know that kid you were two years ago who cut sideways bangs with a kitchen scissors and bulk-bought leather jackets? That person may be long gone, but that phase was a mistake that will burden you in photos for your whole life, and probably after for a while.
When you're dead you’ll realise all those bad things you did to all those people, and all those hours you wasted with your head in the clouds were very precious, and you’ll probably never have anything like that ever again.
And sure, there’s a lot more you’ll regret when you get to the great-beyond.
Did I ever tell you I had a wife? Marabelle. It means “star of the sea”.
But that’s a story for another time.
I realised very quickly after our breakfast that I wasn’t getting anywhere fast with this girl, so I decided I was going to let her go into freefall for a little while.
That girl had enough going on, one little weight of me resting in her head would surely make no difference.
She got dressed, and once again didn’t even glance at a mirror while she changed. Not hinting for anything - just observing.
She put on these mom-jeans with a jumper that could hold at least three people and maybe a litter of kittens.
I kind of missed her bare arms when she pulled it on, honestly. Again, I’m platonically not hinting, or whatever, but I’ve seen so many people let their sleeves get longer and longer, and their lives further and further away.
She pulled on the slippers that your granddad probably wears, except with hearts on them, and pulled herself up at a desk. She took out this notebook, covered in doodles of suns and birds.
Now, when I saw this girl had hundreds of pressed flowers, I don’t mean a few dozen, I mean freaking hundreds.
And then she cried.
She was so odd.
She broke down sobbing within seconds of running her fingers over a little dry flower with a yellow middle and white petals. I didn’t get it. It was a plant. Was she insane?
I was fed up. My last hope seemed to be a shimer behind a window, or dust in the wind, or maybe just a bit mental. I mean, third time in a row, I was given to a kid in the process of dying. I know I saved her, but I just felt a bit… Lost?
This really was the end.
So she stopped crying, and she blinked her puffy eyes until her head stung. Then she drank some tea, which had obviously gone cold. She shut the stupid flower book and started breathing.
As you breathe in, imagine you are moving your breath to the top of your head.
As you breath out, imagine you are moving your breath to the base of your spine, your perineum, your sit bones.
Each time you breath in, move the breath to the top of the head.
Each time you breath out, move the breath to the base of the spine.
Breathe in this circuit for ten cycles.
“What?” her thoughts must have been hardwired into her, because when she repeated the orders to herself they slipped right out of her head and into breaths. “Anni, could you please open up?”
Imagine you are moving your breath to the top of the head.
I thought of the girl I met in her dreamland. The one with long hair, and clean, glowing skin. I remembered how she invited me onto the bridge. I remember how she so easily created an entire perfect world.
“Where is that girl, Anni?”
Move the breath to the base of the spine.
I heard this so many times. Good ol’ “breath moving”. Helps keep you thinking. Alive. Because once you’re thinking you’re alive, right?
Base of your spine, your perineum, your sit bones.
I’ve watched kids breath that was a million times. And can you guess if they’re dead or not?
“Anni, shut up with the breathing. It’s loud, and it doesn’t help.”
She heard it. Her breathing spiked.
Top of the head.
“What is wrong with you?”
“I mean, you were so good. And now look at you. Stupid breathing exercises a shirk shoved on you. What about the garden? What about the flowers?”
Perineum, she kept breathing, but she kept crying.
I was sick of it. I have died a million times, and she thinks it’s okay to just live like this? This half-life?
I could let her die. Do time in Hell. Maybe get out, and go save someone worth saving. Not just a loon with a flower kink and bad dreams.
Maybe I’m harsh. But do remember, I’ve been to Hell and back, and I didn’t do it for Anni fucking Bay.
“Maybe your dreams aren’t you,” I said, “Maybe you were born to die, and that’s what you should do.”
I don’t know if I meant it.
I don’t know if she did either.
But she stopped breathing, and snatched the crusty blood covered scissors from yesterday.
“Shit, Anni, I’m joking! Fucking shit. Don’t kill yourself, please. Crap, you need to live. You… You...”
What is wrong with me? I can’t remember a single sappy quote when I need it?
Garden. Garden. Garden, was all she said.
“Anni, stop. When I said this was free-roaming mode, I didn’t think you’d do this. You deserve life, and I’m sorry I was so harsh, really. It’s just been one of those days, I-”
She was already down the first crumby flight of stairs, and coming down the second. She had cleaned off her face and rid of all tears. Her breath was still just as shaky, but her hands firmly gripped the blades. I think she cut herself a little, and I felt her jump and nearly trip on the bottom step.
She stepped off the last stair as if it were her final fall to her death. She wasn’t thinking of anything but Garden, garden, garden, when the door slammed open.
A man with a thick Indian accent, broad shoulders and the tips of his hair gone gray looked at us. He didn’t waver or anything - he just stood.
“Annika, what are you doing down?”
“I’m…” she looked down at the scissors and her sliced thumb, “Gardening.”
Her dad laughed. The kind of laugh you learn to do when you need a pay rise and your boss cracks terrible jokes, “What will we do with you and your silly little flowers? Go, clean that thumb up.”
Anni smiled. The kind of smile you learn to do when your dad doesn’t really care that you’re barely more than a tombstone, but he laughs sometimes, and you need to respond somehow. She stuck her thumb in her mouth and nodded.
He scruffed her hair when he walked into the lounge, and we saw him wipe his hand on his jeans. Anni wasn’t a very functional human, and you’d be surprised how little parents care from this side. My heart hurt for her. Not ached, but it did sting.
She walked into the back garden.
Garden, garden, garden.
I thought she was going to drive the blade right through her stomach right there and then, but when she got down on her knees, she held the blade up to her eyes.
She rubbed what she could of the scissors and took the head of a rose in one hand.
She watched the petals carefully, and I watched her.
She had hands like a pianist, with short oval fingernails. Her skin was brittle, but a colour like honeycomb taffy. I could see for a split second how she might look, based on who would own the hands. Maybe she had long flowing hair and wore high boots when she was happy. Maybe she had a crooked nose but had eyelashes so long she winced whenever she blinked and was wearing sunglasses. Maybe she could paint and write music.
But I dropped out of the fantasy land. She had a habit of getting me in that way.
She snipped the stalk of a few pale pink roses and other white and yellow flowers with round petals and black dashed through them.
I don’t know the name of flower types.
But she held them like they were her own children, in both hands and watched them when she ran up the stairs.
She pushed past her dad, who scowled. When he did he had large jowls, like an old man who worked in the navy and never got married and regretted everything (I was one of those once. Not good, but the drinking was.)
“Sorry, Dad.” she sort of murmured, but I don’t think she meant to. Her mind was away, just repeating, Flowers, flowers, flowers.
She got to the bathroom on the middle floor, and locked the door behind her.
Now, what’s one thing you’d expect in a bathroom?
And, yes, there was one. But she shut her eyes until she had the chance to grab a sheet off the floor and cover it.
She sighed contently when she looked up and her face wasn’t waiting for her.
“I… What?” I didn’t understand. Never looking into your own eyes? What could that even mean?
Then with her not looking, she wove the flowers through her hair that she pulled out of a bun. It was long, and dyed blonde like straw, and nearly fell down to her waist.
She put each flower in carefully, humming to herself as she did.
I was mystified.
So the girl I originally had thought was mad had a bad father, a mirror thing, and cried whenever she saw dead flowers.
I didn’t get it.
And I always get it.
People are creatures of habit. We need things to mean other things. Patterns.
But this girl had patterns like no other. Something I’ve never seen before, and I’ve seen the Devil himself.
“Can you explain?” I asked her.
She smiled. I felt her puffy cheeks hurt, and her chapped lips crack when she did, but I was only further intrigued.
Then I heard her thoughts say, Who is the mystery man inside my head?
Crap. “...You can’t hear me, can you?”
Who insists I’m better off left undead.
I didn’t speak. I was terrified I was discovered, and she’d want me out, the only way being a violent exit off a freeway bridge.
Sir, do you think I should open my eyes?
She didn’t continue, so I answered, quietly and carefully, “Yes, I do. You should see yourself at least.”
But then where would be the surprise?
For I believe in wondrous things.
Gardens and dragons. Pixies and kings.
And if I see myself, this would would be set in stone.
I whispered, “So you can’t look in mirrors incase there’s another world somewhere that… Finds you, or something?”
She nodded ever so slightly.
But thank you for not leaving me all alone.