Asphyxiate

Anxiety is love's great killer.

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3. Chapter Two

 


It was through groggy, sleep-encrusted eyes that Anja viewed the breakfast table the next morning, her head fuzzy and her mouth unable to speak more than a grunt. Slumping down in the nearest chair, she rubbed her hands over her face, yawning fiercely.

"Somebody's tired," her step-dad remarked from behind the fridge door, his tufty morning hair the only thing visible.

"I...I, er, I had a lot of stuff to sort out," Anja stammered, the image of that lone flower head against the pavement burning against her brain. Lawrence... Jesus, she missed him already. And it was all her fault that he was gone.

Her appetite seemed to have dissipated completely.

"You want juice?" her dad called, the sound of his voice grating against Anja's head. She pressed her hands to her temples, forcing herself to concentrate.

"Coffee."

Closing her eyes, Anja listened to the gentle clinking of glasses and mugs in the cupboard, and the rumble of the kettle in the background. When she opened them again, a glass of red liquid sat before her.

"This doesn't look like coffee to me," she said, pointing into the glass. There was no way she would be able to function today without at least one shot of caffeine in her system. Some fruit juice could not put right the wrongs of the night before - but at least coffee might give her a boost in the right direction.

"That's because it's cranberry juice," her dad replied. Looking up at him, Anja flicked the hair from her eyes and sighed.

"But I need caffeine," she grumbled. Her father merely raised his eyebrows and signaled for her to drink.

 "Please?" Anja begged again, folding her hands as if she were begging.

"We're all out of coffee. Lawrence borrowed the rest, remember?" her step-dad said, moving to sit down in the chair next to her. "Speaking of Lawrence, when's he going to come round again? You seemed so happy with him last time he was over for dinner."

Anja bit her lip, pausing for a second. "I, um...it's..." She trailed off, rubbing at her eyes. "Yeah. What were we saying, sorry?" She gave a sheepish half-smile at her step-dad, silently pleading with him to drop the subject. She couldn't think of Lawrence - not now, not willingly.

Anja took a deep breath, picking at the table cloth distractedly. She tried for a smile, her face stretching so wide she felt rubbery and disjointed - but her step-dad seemed to buy it, smiling back at her encouragingly.

"Anyway!" said Anja, her voice unnaturally perky. "Did I tell you I scored really high in my Geograph-"

"...and then they asked me to give a speech at the ceremony, which, you know, is kind of for thick people, but still."

Anja's words were bulldozed over by the arrival of one more person that she did not need to see right now.

Ida.

Anja's step sister. Now, Ida was perfectly friendly. She was perfectly pleasant to talk to, if she didn't ramble on about herself for too long. Overall, Ida was a perfectly good sister.

But that was the problem: she was perfect.

"Oh, Ida, that's wonderful!" chirped Anja's mother, who bustled into the room after her step-daughter. She nodded her head at her husband on the way in, but Anja wasn't sure if her mum had intentionally ignored her or just hadn't seen her.

Anja almost rolled her eyes as her mum gushed over Ida, stepping forward to embrace her in the middle of the kitchen. Her dad stood up as well, clapping his hands and spilling something out about how proud he was of his little girl. Turning back to her juice, Anja tried to block out her family's conversation, staring intently at the wall opposite her and clamping her lips together. Apparently, she wouldn't be missed anyway.

There was no doubt that Ida was the best daughter anyone could hope for. She was a genius - a mathematical genius beyond comprehension. Due to the number of TV shows exploiting and exploring her intelligence, she was pretty much a household name by now, known throughout the country. It wouldn't be long before she was partying with celebrities, if the press' predictions were correct.

Now, this was fine. This was great, in fact, for the family reputation, for the family income. It was not, however, in any way good for Anja. She'd had a nice family life - a mum, a dad, a sister - and she'd never really noticed Ida's growing intelligence, or her growing fame. It had been easy for Anja to get on with things, do okay, live a little. It was only when she looked up at Ida standing on her first international award podium that she had felt the first cold drop of rain from above.

And when she looked up that day, she saw the black cloud that now hung over her roof for what it was: inescapable. Something that she'd allowed to creep up on her, and that now she'd never be able to run away from.

"You're never going to be like your sister, Anja," Lawrence had told her.

The memory sent a chill through her bones, and she shook herself. She could be just as good as Ida. She could; she could; she would. Her family, her friends, her country - they would all fawn over her just as much as they fawned over Ida. More.

She could become just as good as Ida, and more. She could become better, but only if she worked. All she had to do was work a bit harder - do that bit extra, and real the fruits of that effort. Eventually, she'd be recognised, just like her sister. Eventually, she'd be labelled 'genius', and get to go to all the parties Ida was invited to by various up-and-coming stars. 'Reap what you sow', as her step-dad would say.

"So, I'm going to need you to drive me there tomorrow." Ida finished, flattening her straight blonde hair and smiling at Anja's mum.

"Um, alright, sweetie - but, erm, what time? I, er -"

"Six-thirty," Ida said, her voice cutting across her step mother's. Ida smiled, her white teeth flashing.

"Oh, right, okay, um... I think I have doctor's appointment, but-"

"But you can cancel? Right? I mean, I don't want to be rude, but this is the only chance I've got to do this presentation. I mean, I'm sure you're not, like, really all that ill or anything, and...Could you re-schedule or something?" Ida babbled, knowing full well her step-mother would not say no. How could she? How could she possibly refuse?

"Well, I, erm, yes. Yes, I'm, ah, sure that I can, Ida," Anja's mum replied, nodding slightly uncertainly.

"Thank you!" Ida beamed, dashing out of the kitchen. Later today was the Oxford press interview, and she had to get ready - Anja had been hearing about nothing else for weeks.

"Oh, sorry, were you saying something, Anja?"  her step-dad asked, moving to unload the dishwasher. "Isn't it great about Ida?"

"Oh. Yeah. Sure, " replied Anja, her tone flat. She rolled her eyes, pursing her lips.

Yes, it was great that Ida was perfect. It was great that her sister had the perfect life that Anja could only dream of. But, Anja wondered, wasn't it time that it was her turn? Shouldn't she get a go at playing with a perfect life?

"You're not feeling ill, are you?" asked her step-dad, seeing her expression.

"Like you care," spat Anja, grabbing her glass and shoving her chair away, the legs scraping discordantly against the wooden floor. On her way past the sink, she slammed the glass down on the sideboard and stalked away.

~

Anja's step-dad had not followed her after she'd flounced out of the room and up to her bedroom. After a while she'd heard a door flung open, and the sound of Ida's voice issuing constant demands to their parents. 

Anja felt useless. She sat, spinning aimlessly on her desk chair. It was Saturday; there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. Kicking off the floor to propel herself round, she wheeled the chair over to the window.

Outside, the sky was the average grey that came as a package deal with British weather. There was a thin layer of smoky clouds puffing along the horizon, but it was still clear enough that Anja had a good view all the way down to the end of her street. Her eyes fell to the spot on the pavement where Lawrence had stood that previous night, honest as God.

She was an idiot. A damned idiot for letting him walk off. For making herself leave him, and for forcing him to let her. Anja groaned. He was right, she realised. She needed him - she needed him so, so much. Lawrence made her feel special - as special as Ida. More. 

And who knows what she'd done to him. Was he distraught? Was he angry?

Had she lost him?

Sighing, she rubbed her eyes, then dropped her hands and stood up. She needed to talk this through to somebody who understood where she was coming from.

Grabbing her phone from where it lay on her desk, she scrolled through her contacts. Should she call Lawrence? No. No, she needed to get her head sorted out first; she couldn't chance ruining everything all over again.

Her thumb landed on the name, 'Heath Hide'. Heath was one of her closest friends - he'd at least be able to listen. 

She dialled his number, the sleek glass surface of her phone call against her fingers. Heath picked up after the fifth ring.

"Anja?" 

"Heath." Anja said her friend's name, then stopped. 

Anja couldn't see Heath, but she could hear the smile in his voice. "Dude," he said. "Are you going to tell me why you called me or just waste my credit?"

Laughing nervously, Anja flicked her hair behind her ears. "Ha. Yeah. Um. I kind of broke up with Lawrence. And then he wanted to get back together, but I wouldn't, and I was sort of rude to him. And, um, I just kind of realised that he's right, and I don't want to break up with him - but what if he, like, hates me, or already found someone else, or-" Anja broke up, biting her lip to stop herself from crying. 

She missed Lawrence already, so, so much. 

"Hey," said Heath, his voice suddenly uneasy, sounding a little far away. "Hey, you're going to hate me for this. Or then again, you might thank me." He stopped, then, the line blurring into a montage of muffled white noise. 

"Why?" asked Anja anyway, her voice rising. "Why would I hate you, Heath? What are you doing? What have you done to make me hate you?" 

The line cleared, and it was a voice Anja knew even better than Heath's that she heard down the phone line. 

"It's me," said Lawrence. "Anja. It's me." He paused. "You're right. We really need to talk." 

 

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