The Improbable Probability of Changing the World Tonight

River wants to die. Lane wants to give her the best last week of her life.

// Cover by Lily Anna
// I uploaded the prologue to this ages ago but only just started work on the story after the competition was announced

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3. Two Weeks

Combe Wood

 

The morning after River confesses her secret to Lane, she wakes up to find a sticky note attached to her bedroom window. There’s a time and a set of coordinates printed on it, and River smiles when she looks outside to find a single yellow tulip sellotaped to her windowsill. The early summer heat has curled the petals and tinted them brown. It’s the thought that counts.

           

River removes the items from her window and takes them to her desk, propping up the tulip in her pencil pot and pressing the sticky note to her laptop screen. She takes another look at the coordinates: 50.807765, -3.189588. Latitude and longitude.

           

She doesn’t know anything about directions, so she searches for Google Maps and types in the numbers. When the location loads, her screen is filled with a patchwork of green. The location is in the middle of the forest, and the walk could take half an hour if she keeps stopping to catch her breath.

           

Her phone rings, and it startles her so much that she bites her lip, causing it to bleed. She sucks on the wound as she stabs at the phone screen to accept the call.

 

“Did you get my note?” River can hear Lane’s smile through the phone. There’s no hint of sadness or anger in their voice. “I thought climbing up the side of your house to stick it on your window would be a nice touch.”

           

River laughs. She puts her phone on loudspeaker and rests it on the corner of her desk, reaching for the tulip so her fingers can brush across the petals. “I wouldn’t have expected anything less from you. But, if you made the effort to climb up the side of my house, you should’ve just come in.”

           

“After last time? I don’t think your mum has forgiven me for that.” Lane chuckles at the memory, one that they both refuse to talk about in detail. River cringes at the memory and tries to bury it deep into the darkness of her mind. “Anyway, I’m in a hurry. Wear comfy shoes. I’ll see you in a bit.”

           

The phone goes silent. Lane has ended the call.

 

River double checks the coordinates, then she turns over the note to read at the time printed on the back: 11:58am. She looks at the clock in the corner of her screen. It’s 11:37am. She has to get going.

 

 ***

 

The forest is on the other side of town, and the walk to it reminds River of when she first moved to Honiton, when her mother decided to pack up the entire family and dump them in the middle of nowhere with the promise of starting a new life.

           

The fact that Honiton was in the middle of nowhere hadn’t helped anything. It felt like a majority of their six-hour car drive was spent with them driving in circles, watching the same pattern of farmland-forest-hills-forest scroll past the windows like an old home movie.

 

There weren’t many other cars on the road when they got closer to the town; they’d passed a convoy of tractors in the other direction, but no one else. Nine-year-old River had become increasingly convinced that there was no Honiton and the whole thing was an elaborate prank, but then the car reached the top of another hill, and in the distance was the town.

           

It was small, even smaller than she’d expected. They’d seen the whole of it from the hilltop, tucked amidst the rolling farmland and clusters of oak trees, backed against another stretch of forest. There was a stone church steeple with a bell, a high street called High Street, a general shop, and, thank God, a café. Everything was decorated in late afternoon shadows when they arrived, and people on the pavements turned their heads to watch as the car drove past. And then that was it. That was the town. River could still see the church steeple from the front yard of their new house.

           

The house wasn’t any more exciting than the town. It was somehow impossibly quiet and insanely noisy at the same time. The tree branches scratched like zombie hands at the window, which was, okay, kind of cool if you thought about it like that, but painfully loud in the silent rooms. The house itself creaked and moaned without any wind or storms, like someone was creeping up the staircase in the middle of the night. Maybe all houses shifted and sighed like that, but only in the eerie stillness of small towns could you actually hear it.

           

After all this time, she still wonders if the old house misses them, leaning forwards and peering down the street with its window eyes, waiting for a Sallow to walk through the front door. Maybe it rattles it cabinets sullenly at the new tenants, or slams doors shut throughout the day, or…

 

And then apparently she had become stuck in a daydream, since she has stopped walking in the middle of the road and a driver is slamming their car horn at her. She smiles bashfully, tightens her grip on her oxygen tank, and quickens her pace.

           

It isn’t much further until she reaches the lane that leads to the forest.

 

A faint impression of a path winds through the grass and she follows it absently, slinging her oxygen tank onto one shoulder to stop the wheels from tangling with protruding tree roots. The sounds of the town fade and are replaced with the hollow rustle of grass and the stumbling of her feet.

 

The bright, start-of-summer sun is hot enough now that her shirt is dampening with sweat, even though there’s a hint of an October chill in the breeze. Past the edge of the forest, though, it is actually quite pleasant, and she fights the urge to collapse in the shade and watch wisps of cloud roll across the sky to keep plodding onward and find Lane. Head down, she trudges through the leaf litter and hopes that she won’t wander lost for all eternity.

 

There’s something appealing about the summer forest, something intangible, almost spooky. When River looks up, the trees stretch overhead, arching like the skeleton of cathedral walls against the blue flesh of the sky. The leaves are all different shades of green that she hasn’t been able to name since a childhood art class, but some of them curl at the edges, fluttering whenever the wind blows.

 

Distracted, she catches the toe of her shoe on a protruding and falls face first to the ground, her chin bumping up into her skull, so her teeth crash painfully together. One of them pierces her lip, reopening the wound.

 

“Fuck,” River says to the empty woods, prodding her lip with a ragged fingernail. She stumbles to her feet and adjusts how her oxygen tank sits on her shoulder, slightly muddy from the fall. “Drinking my own blood.”

 

“Kinky,” the empty woods say back, and River jumps backwards, windmills her arms frantically, and barely saves herself from falling into an intensely spikey and unfriendly bush. She makes an embarrassing tea-kettle-like noise, still flailing.

 

“Holy shit!” the person standing behind her on the path says, sounding alarmed and amused. “I didn’t mean to freak you out that bad.”

 

River wheezes, trying and failing to catch her breath. Her faulty lungs make it difficult as her heart is still going eleven billion miles a minute. She rests her hands on her knees and bends forward, inhaling deeply. “What the fuck – what is your – where did you even come from?”

 

Lane stands in the path. Thorns, twigs, and other random forest paraphernalia stick out of their unruly hair, but if they’ve noticed, they don’t seem to care.

 

“So, uh… you okay, Riv?” they ask, rocking back on their heels. “Still breathing?”

 

River brushes hopelessly at a giant muddy stain on her jeans that appeared from nowhere. At least her pulse is slowly normalising. Her heart probably isn’t going to explode, but it had been a close thing. She cast an accusing look in Lane’s direction.

 

Lane doesn’t seem to notice, picking at a nail and staring at it intently. They were bare, with only the thumbs painted deep purple to match their hair. “Aren’t you wondering why I summoned you here?”

 

River is still rubbing the stain, but she looks back up at her friend. And now that she isn’t dying of premature heart failure, it’s dawning on her that she hadn’t even considered what the purpose of this meeting could be. “Of course I’m wondering, idiot.”

 

Lane grins, flicking their lip ring with their tongue. They are even paler than River – almost luminous. A fake tattoo made from markers and hairspray curls beneath the holes in their shirt and down the inside of their arm, and River remembers the page in her sketchpad where she drew the original design a few months ago. Her mind goes back to the days when she was dedicating hours to the piece, painstakingly dotting the paper to mark stars, joining them together with the stems and leaves until it became a constellation made from flowers.

 

“After yesterdays events, I have made a plan,” Lane announces. “But we’ll talk about that later. We should walk for a while, Riv. I know all the best shortcuts and shit. We could go see some ruins, yeah?” Lane’s eyes are life coffee grinds, and it matches with their wild, caffeinated laugh. It’s the kind of laugh that people get addicted to, willing to do anything to hear it again. River is one of those people.

“Sure, I guess,” she says, hoisting her oxygen tank on one shoulder. “Why the ruins?”

 

Lane runs a hand through their hair, sending a few leaves to the ground. “I’d like to have a dramatic background for my upcoming monologue. Also, they look pretty cool and they’re more exciting than just standing by some trees.”

 

River and Lane walk together, stumbling over tree roots, feet sinking into patches of mud from where it rained a few nights before. They walk in a comfortable silence, but River’s shortness of breath isn’t just from her broken lungs: it’s the uncertainty of what’s coming next. Her conversation with Lane from the night before comes back in flashes, and her heartbeat moves to her throat when she thinks about how Lane hasn’t said anything since.

 

Her thoughts are disrupted by Lane dragging her through a patch of leaves, which looks innocent and beautiful and serene on the surface, jagged-edged red maples and round yellow birches, but turned out to have cold water and mud and probably fucking leeches lurking beneath. Lane totally ignores River’s yelling and attempts to escape to higher ground, just plowing straight through until River’s shoes are gross and soaked clear through to her skin.

           

“What the fuck, let me go!” River moans, trying to yank her wrist free of Lane’s surprisingly stubborn grip. “Fuck, I can walk by myself. Let go. Oh my god, this is disgusting.”

           

“Pfft,” Lane scoffs. “I saw you just now. You walked right into a thorn bush. You clearly need a keeper.”

           

“You dragged me into a mud puddle.”

           

“Oh, fuck,” Lane says, looking behind them at the patch of muddy leaves. “So I did. Oops.” They look totally unrepentant, because they are a sadistic prick. They start giggling, this ridiculously high-pitched laugh that River doesn’t find cute at all. “Guess I’ll have to start paying better attention to where I’m walking, with you here. Since you’re such a delicate princess and all, I mean.”

           

River tries to glare at them, but then Lane distracts her by complimenting the curl of her hair, taking the strands of copper and peering at it, and then River is busy fighting a blush and babbling about how her house might be haunted. Her voice fades away when she realises that she has no idea where the fuck they are going, actually. They’d left the path at some point and were just threading their way through the trees. The temperature in the forest must drop a lot throughout the day, or maybe the weather is changing, because the midday-warm air has become downright chilly.

           

“So, uh,” River says after she rips herself free of another bush – after some reflection, she thinks the new holes in her sweatshirt are sort of aesthetically pleasing, at least. “You actually know where we’re going, right? We’re not lost and wandering in circles?”

           

“I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Lane intones menacingly, and then does a Darth Vader wheeze. “By which I mean, fuck yeah, I know where I’m going. We’re almost there.”

 

***

 

 

 

Half an hour or so later, they wander towards a dilapidated stone house, and River halts mid-sentence. There had been dilapidated houses in her old town, sure, and ruined factories with broken windows, but this is different. This is another scale entirely.

           

The house is barely identifiable, trees growing throughout, the front wall a crumbling pile of rubble, the chimney barely standing. There are branches and cobwebs stretched across the door, and the room inside is shadowed. Ruins, real ruins, how fucking cool. How has she never been this deep into the woods before?

 

Lane doesn’t seem to think that the ruins are that cool, but they stand back and watch with a grin as their friend looks around, soaking in the broken glass and crumbling bricks as if they are essential to her existence. She always thought that woods were supposed to be quiet, but there are a thousand tiny noises filing the spaces in their conversation: distant birds, something crackling through the undergrowth, the wind in the trees. The woods are thicker here, and the mouldering leaves blanket the forest floor in deep drifts. But then the next thing she hears is Lane’s voice.

 

“Everyone has a secret attraction to ruins. The feeling stems from the fragility of human nature as it reminds us of the rapidity of our existence. Ruins are supposed to inspire contemplation as they give you the sense that much more is going on than meets the eye.”

 

River raises an eyebrow, sinking down onto a tree stump blanketed with ivy. She drops her oxygen tank to the ground beside her. “Is that why we came here? You want to contemplate?”

 

Lane nods slowly. Their eyes become vacant for a second, but they quickly throw themselves to the ground, hands folded behind head, legs crossed at the ankles, as if they don’t have a care in the world. But they do. “When you told me you wanted to die, I couldn’t tell if you were being serious. Everyone jokes so much about mental health and suicide that I thought you’d just laugh it off and we would just forget about it. But you’re not joking, and I don’t want to forget. So, I want to offer you a trade.”

 

River’s heartrate doubles. Her head starts to spin. The sweat forming on her hands isn’t just from the summer air. “What kind of trade?” she asks, and she starts to become even more aware of her shortness of breath. Has her tank stopped working?

 

“A life trade.”

 

River feels as if she’s actually stopped breathing for a moment.

 

“No, no, not like that – I’m not trying to kill you.” Lane sits up. Their eyes are fixed on the ground, but a manic grin appears on their face. “I just want to give you two weeks that would probably be quite mediocre out of my average life, in exchange for making the final two weeks of your life the best that they could possibly be. I’m not saying that’ll I’m trying to make them so good that you’ll want to change your mind, but I just want you to be happy. Starting from tomorrow.”

 

Two weeks. As of tomorrow, it’ll be one week and six days. Then less and less and less until it’s just tomorrow, then today. She has nothing to lose, and there’s so much she could gain.

           

She starts breathing again. Her head stops spinning. Her heartrate slows. The sweat on her skin is now just from the heat. “Where are we meeting?”

 

“You’ll see.” With that, Lane pushes themselves off the ground, runs a hand through their spiky pixie cut, then disappears into the trees. River watches them go until the purple dye fades into the green leaves.

 

***

 

When River gets home that afternoon, she finds a sticky note stuck to her bedroom window, and another yellow flower resting on her windowsill, a crumpled rose this time. There’s a time written on one side of the note – 10.27am – and coordinates on the other, similar enough to the last set for her to know that they’re local: 50.7966051, -3.1890637. She types the numbers into Google Maps, and the train station appears on her screen.

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