Messed Up Things

First, she was an ordinary kid who dreamed of extraordinary things.
Then she became the stuff of urban legends and impossible fantasies.
Now, she's a monster. She's a long way past saving, and she knows it.
She's just holding onto the hope that the others won't go the same way.

(All credit to the amazing NamesFromGraves for my gorgeous cover!)

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14. Sick Jokes

 

Valerie awoke to the beautiful sight of a soft, clear, cobalt-blue sky outside her open window, the beautiful feeling of warm sunlight splashing onto her face, and the not-so-beautiful sound of something dripping from the ceiling above her head. Rubbing her eyes to dispel the sticky clods of sleep that were clinging to her vision, she sat up, kicked the duvet away from her legs and yelled, “DAD! The pipe’s leaking again!"

She heard a dull thud, ​an indignant shout of "Shit!", and, finally, the sound of someone coming down the corridor towards her bedroom, leaving a trail of stumbling footsteps behind them. Then her dad appeared in her bedroom doorway, one eye stuck shut, the other squinting against the sunlight. Fumbling in his pocket for a moment, he pulled out his glasses and put them on. Then he yawned and said, “The hell d’you want me to do about it, Val?”

Valerie sighed theatrically. “I dunno, Dad. Maybe move the bed, or something, so I’m not directly below it.” A droplet of freezing water detached itself from the dark patch on the ceiling and dropped onto her forehead. She raised a hand to wipe it away. Then she smiled and said, “Also, morning.”

“Morning, Val,” said her dad. “You sleep well?”

“Hell no.”

“Oh,” he said. “Why not?”

She scowled. “Because it’s bloody raining in my room, dad. I can't live like this."

He smiled. “I’ll buy you an umbrella.”

“Thanks, Dad.” Valerie returned the smile as sweetly as she could and added, “It can be, like, an early birthday present.”

Her dad’s eyebrows shot up, feigning surprise. “Oh. That’s coming up, isn’t it?”

“Yep. Sweet sixteen, and all that crap.”

“Damn it.” He frowned. “Looks like we’re gonna be poor again for a while.”

“No offense, Dad,” she said with a grin, “but we’re kinda always poor, right?”

“That’s true.”

Valerie grinned again, and her dad backed out of the room, pulling the door shut behind him. As soon as the door clicked shut, her smile dropped. She pushed herself into a sitting position on the edge of her bed and grabbed her phone from her bedside table, unlocking it with one hand and brushing another cold drop of water from her cheek with the other. She tapped the Messages app and selected a contact, and as her best friend’s profile picture flashed up on the screen, a shudder of regret throbbed through her thoughts.

She texted, U coming in 2day, or…?

The reply was almost instantaneous. No, still ill :(

​Valerie's fingers hovered, reluctant, over the keypad, pricked numb by the needles of static that danced over the screen. ​Raegan hadn't been at school for over a week, and Valerie had texted her every morning and every night asking for updates, but so far, her best friend had been every bit as stubborn as Valerie had expected, walking her through a never-ending parade of symptoms- headaches, fevers, sore throats- each one seeming to crop up just as the last one was fading away. Of course, Valerie knew full well that Raegan was lying, but she also knew that it probably wasn't a good idea to challenge her over it, so, as usual, she'd just responded with her trademark barrage of jokes about bad luck and "just wanting to avoid school" and left it alone. This morning was no different. She forced her fingers to type out a simple reply: ​Get well soon. Miss u! ​Then she added a smiley face, because she knew- better than anyone- that nothing was more effective at reassuring people than a nice, big smile. She sent the message and flung her phone into her bag, forcing herself to her feet, feeling electric bolts of frustration and annoyance and anger ringing through her mind. She missed Raegan. She missed her, she realised, more than she had ever missed anything or anyone in her life.

She picked up her school uniform from where it lay on the carpet, putting on that same old black blazer and white shirt and green tie and grey skirt, making sure that her blazer was still just a little too big to be flattering and her skirt was still just a little too short to be smart. Then she retrieved her school shoes from where she had kicked them off underneath the desk, noticing that the sole was peeling off the right one, then threw them under her bed and put on her black Doc Martens instead. They’d been a fourteenth birthday present from her dad, and although the toes had been rubbed grey over the years and the left lace was missing the little metal thing that wrapped around the end, allowing the threads to unravel and fray, she loved them more than anything else she owned.

​As she was doing her makeup in the bathroom mirror, tracing out the thick line of her usual eyeliner with the little black stub of pencil she'd bought over a year ago, she looked up into that mirror and wondered, just for a second, why she even bothered to break the rules anymore. After all, her little acts of rebellion- the short skirts, the conspicuous makeup, the swearing and the bad manners and the lack of effort in everything she did- had never made much of a difference to anything or anyone. But she supposed that, in a weird way, she was proud of them. She was proud of those colourful little acts of defiance, those little snatches of rainbow courage she'd used to re-paint her black-and-grey life over the years. They made things more interesting. And anyway, she'd committed herself to the "rebel life" a long time ago, and she was going to see her ill-advised choices through to the end. She was going to follow that rough, trodden-down, dangerous path until it ran out, reached a dead end with nowhere else to go but up. The end of her school life, after all, wasn't all that far away.

She looked at herself in the mirror and decided that she looked pretty good. Not amazing, but not awful either. Just… normal.

She smiled, and her reflection smiled back, every bit as warm and bright and cheerful as it always was.

*        *        *        *        *

As Valerie bounced into the kitchen and flung open the fridge to pick out her breakfast, that grin was still frozen on her face. But as she reached into the fridge and grabbed what she wanted, placing it on the countertop to close the door, her dad looked up from his own breakfast and frowned.

“Valerie, you can’t have pizza for breakfast.”

Valerie picked up a slice and took a bite. “Why not?” she mumbled.

“Because…” He sighed. “You know what? There is literally no reason why not. Go nuts.”

“Thanks, Dad! You’re the best.” She set the takeaway box on the table and sat down in front of it. The pizza, of course, was left over from the previous night's "dinner party"; whenever David came over, as he did most nights, the best he could hope for was a takeaway and a movie, which, in all fairness, he seemed fine with. The truth was, Valerie was fine with it too. Her dad always acted like being hard up was something to be ashamed of, apologising to her again and again whenever she had to beg money off her friends for lunch or miss a school trip, but she didn’t care, and she had made that clear to him so many times with hugs and smiles and whatever else she could conjure up from her perpetually happy head. In fact, the only thing about her underprivileged life that she did care about was the fact that some people- not all, mind- obviously took it as some kind of red flag, signalling drugs, crime and underage everything. After years of sneers and smirks and looks, ​she'd become proficient at spotting those little sparks of disapproval- she heard them in the spaces between peoples' kind words, saw them in the hollow eyes above their smiles. The truth was, she had never done drugs or stolen anything or, in fact, been caught doing anything undesirable whatsoever. She had tried a cigarette once, though- she’d been thirteen and curious, and she’d hated it. In fact, she’d been so un-hardcore back then that she had actually told her dad about it that same evening. He’d just laughed, pulled her into a hug, and told her that her mother would have been proud of her.

Valerie had never met her mother, and so, cold as it sounded, she didn't miss her. She didn't miss her real father, either. All she knew about either of them was that they had died together in some kind of accident, and that was all she had ever wanted- or needed, for that matter- to know. As far as she was concerned, her parents were sitting at the table with her right now. Her dad, with his scruffy dark hair and glasses and lazy kindness, was just that- her dad, and the only one she needed. David had been dating her dad for as long as she could remember, and he- along with his weird jokes and ridiculous shirts and cool job at a TV studio that she was always begging him to take her to- was like a second parent to her. She had a family, and a great one at that, so she was about as happy as she could hope to be. Under the circumstances, that was.

“You know,” said David, “I could go for some pizza myself.”

Her dad frowned. “David, you’re a responsible adult. Stop being immature and go make some toast or something.”

David scowled. “Toast is boring,” he said. “I want pizza.”

Valerie cleared her throat. “Also, dude, pizza is basically just toast with cheese and shit on it. So…”

“She’s got a point,” David said. Grinning, Valerie held the box out for him, and he took a slice. “Thank you, Valerie."

Her dad sighed. “Bloody hell. I’m looking after two children.”

“Yeah,” said Valerie, “but I am a child. I have an excuse.”

Through a mouthful of pizza, David said, “Not for much longer, though. How long is it till your birthday?”

“Three days. You’d better be getting me something cool.”

David grinned. “I am.”

Valerie pulled her phone out of her bag and unlocked it to look at the time. “Ah, shit,” she said, getting from the table with her bag in one hand, “I gotta go. I’m gonna be late.” She walked towards the front door of the apartment, locking her phone, watching those four white numbers snap back to black, and stuffed the thing back into her bag.

“Have a nice day, Val,” said her dad.

She smiled, looking over her shoulder with one hand resting on the doorhandle, and said, “I will!” Then she ducked outside and closed the door behind her.

Valerie walked along the landing and grabbed the banister, beginning to descend the endless spiral of stairs that led down to the ground floor. The carpet beneath her feet was frayed and stained, and the lights above her head flickered and buzzed with overuse, filling the narrow stairway with light and dark, light and dark, light and dark. She passed apartment fourteen, then thirteen, then twelve, then eleven. Apartment ten was empty, and the front door hung lazily from its hinges, having been kicked down during a recent drug raid in a burst of light and dust. Nine was vacant. So was eight, though Valerie often heard muffled yells spilling through the dark crack beneath that locked door. She liked to think that it was haunted. Seven, on the other hand, was always full of voices and light. She could hear a man and a woman yelling at each other. She didn’t know who they were, but on occasion, she would catch a snatch of speech that sounded like the name “Jane.” Or maybe “Jean.” Whoever the tenants of apartment seven were, they weren’t happy. Six, five, four. Three’s door was standing open, the ground inside littered with empty bottles that caught the light from the bare window and spat it out over the floor, covering the room in emerald-green shadows. She figured that it was probably a haunt of some gang who liked to go there to drink and… well, do whatever else it was that teenagers weren’t supposed to do. Two, one. She reached the ground floor, walked through a cloud of dust painted gold by the sunrise, and stepped out into the light.

*        *        *        *        *

The morning had gone just about as well as any morning without her best friend, and now, the time was twelve-fifty-two. Evelyn and Mara were sitting at their usual picnic table- Mara was drawing, Evelyn was writing- but sitting on a bench like a regular person was way too mainstream for Valerie, so she was sitting on the tabletop instead, feet swinging idly over the frosted grass, thinking about how bloody quiet ​it was all of a sudden. Everything was normal, and at the same time, everything was so blatantly ​un-normal that it disturbed her. After a long stretch of alien silence, Valerie turned to Mara and asked, “What’re you drawing?”

“Something for my art homework.” Mara didn’t look up. Her hair formed a black puddle across the white page and she was acting even weirder than normal, but Valerie had started a conversation now, and she was determined to see it through to its bitter end.

“Ooh, you mean the self-portrait thingy? Lemme see.”

“It’s really bad,” Mara said, her white face flushing red.

“Bet it’s not," Valerie teased.

Suddenly, the lead of Mara’s pencil snapped off and flicked itself across the table. Mara's eyes followed the thing for a couple of seconds, then flicked back across to look at her page. Her expression was bizarrely furious. Valerie was about to laugh, but then Mara dug her fingernails into the page and tore it out, balling it up in her hand and flinging it under the table. Then, still refusing to make eye contact, she said, "Well, it is now. You happy?"

For once, Valerie didn't know what to say, but it didn't matter, because Evelyn was speaking instead. “Hey,” she said in that gentle voice of hers, “what’s wrong?”

Mara sighed deeply, fingers raking through her long hair, eyes unwaveringly bright. “Nothing,” she said. Valerie could have laughed.

Then, suddenly, Evelyn slammed her book shut and fixed her best friend in a dark, resolute stare. She looked angrier than Valerie had ever seen her. “Mara, that’s it,” she said. “I’ve had enough of your bullshit. For fuck’s sake, tell me what’s wrong.

“Nothing’s wrong. I just didn’t like my drawing," Mara said quietly, still staring at the ground.

“You know full well that this isn’t just about the damn drawing, Mara!” Suddenly, Evelyn laughed, burying her face in her hands and mumbling through her fingers, “You’re killing me, Mara! I swear to shit, you’re killing me. I’m sick of being worried about you!”

Mara looked up, and the glittering tear-tracks on her cheeks shone diamond-bright in the sunlight. Valerie was shocked. Then, slowly, Mara got to her feet. “Then stop,” she said, her voice shockingly calm. “Stop worrying about me.”

“Don’t you get it?” Evelyn said, standing up to meet Mara's gaze. “I can’t! Mara, I want to help you, for fuck’s sake. Just tell me what I can do to help you, and I’ll-”

“Stop asking me if I’m okay.”

Evelyn frowned. “What?”

“Stop asking people if they’re okay, Evelyn,” Mara said. “Because at our age, nobody’s okay. Nobody. I’m not special. Shit- I bet if you were honest with yourself, you’d realise that you’re not nearly as happy as you think you are. But I guess it’s different for you, isn’t it? Because you’re pretty, and smart, and nice, and that helps hide it a bit, doesn’t it?”

“Mara, you-"

"No! No, Evelyn, just... just stop, ​okay? Just..." Mara choked on her own words, tears spilling from her eyes. She clapped a hand to her mouth and closed her eyes, and Valerie felt something cold clutching at her heart. What the hell was going on?

​"Mara..." Evelyn sighed. "All I wanted to say was that you were right." She took a deep, ragged breath. “I’m miserable, Mara. Maybe just as miserable as you. But whenever I get sad, I don’t use my looks, or my brain, or my… niceness to comfort myself. I just tell myself that one day, I’ll be happy again. I even know when that day'll come, you know. D'you want me to tell you?"

Mara blinked, squeezing out two more sparkling tears. “Well, you obviously want to, so-"

“It’s the day I know you're happy.” Mara said nothing, her eyes finding the floor, and Evelyn continued. “I will never, ever be happy while I know you’re not. And I’m not being selfish here…” Evelyn sighed. “But I don’t think you can be happy without me. So please, for God’s sake, just… just consider talking to me about it. Please.”

Mara looked up, and in that moment, something shifted in her dark, bright eyes, like a light turning on inside her head. Then she took a deep breath that made her whole body shudder and whispered, “Okay.”

Evelyn grinned. “Finally!”

“Not yet, though. I’m not… ready." Mara's face broke into a watery smile. "I promise I will, though.”

“Good enough.” Evelyn held out her arms, and after a moment, Mara stepped to the side to avoid the bench and hugged her. Then Evelyn removed her right arm from Mara’s shoulder and held it out. “Come join the hug, Val. Come be miserable with us," she said with a grin.

Valerie grinned back and joined the hug. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought I was doing a really bloody good job of hiding my miserableness. What tipped you off?”

“The jokes,” Mara mumbled into Evelyn's shoulder. “They’ve clearly been carefully engineered to hide the deep, dark pain that’s burning inside of you.”

“Ah, I see,” said Valerie, nodding thoughtfully. “So what you’re saying is, the reason I laugh at everything…” They stepped away from one another, and Valerie folded her arms and cocked her head to one side. “Is because my whole life is one big joke, right?”

Mara laughed. “Pretty much.”

“That solves that, then.” Valerie forced herself to smile. “So, in conclusion, we’re a mess, and we’re all hiding deep dark secrets, and that's okay, because we can bear the pain together, or something equally profound and inspiring. Correct?”

“Pretty much,” Mara said, shrugging lightly. It was like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders; her smile, for once, looked real, and not like something she'd painted onto her face as an afterthought.

“Except Evelyn." Valerie turned to look at Evelyn. "You couldn't keep a secret if your life depended on it, dude."

“You’d be surprised, actually,” Evelyn said, raising an eyebrow.

Valerie mirrored her expression. “Bet I wouldn’t. C'mon. Give me an example.”

“Like…” Evelyn frowned. “The other day, I got a load of History homework, but there was a new season of this one show on Netflix that I wanted to watch. So I just sat in front of the TV and Googled all the answers instead of doing it properly."

“Wow. That is…” Valerie nodded to herself. “Hardcore. I’m impressed.”

Evelyn smiled. “Thank you," she said. Then she looked at her watch, visibly wincing when she saw what it said.  "Oh, dammit. I’ve got to go now. I have Biology.”

Valerie grinned. “Better not be late, Hardcore Girl.”

Evelyn returned Valerie's smile over her shoulder as she walked away, grabbing the handle of the heavy door and disappearing into the darkness on the other side. Valerie turned to Mara with a joke waiting on her lips, but she stopped herself when she saw her friend’s expression. Mara was staring at her with one eyebrow raised, a thoughtful look eclipsing her mismatched eyes.

What’s she thinking about?

She couldn’t…

No.

No, you’re just being paranoid.

Valerie looked back at her friend, injecting a quizzical look into her own eyes. Mara immediately flicked her gaze towards the ground, and it was then that the voice in Valerie’s mind began to repeat her own words back to her, bouncing them through her head, sending a pang of fear throbbing through her body.

“We're all hiding deep, dark secrets."

As she sketched a careful smile onto her face and watched as Mara failed to return it, Valerie wondered if her friend had secrets, and, if she did, how her own might compare.

Then Mara looked up, and for an impossibly brief moment, Valerie allowed their eyes to meet. While one of Mara's eyes remained light and empty, the other was dark and deep, burning- Valerie fancied- with a hundred barely concealed enigmas, thoughts that blackened her gaze and darkened her expression, and as Valerie looked into those eyes, feeling the cold despondence of that stare chasing all the warmth from her own, somehow, she doubted that there would be much of a contest between the two of them.

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