Aerie has a voice made for singing. One can hear it lurking just under the surface of offhand comments, non sequiturs, in-depth debates, even in her whisper. Like real life actually bursts into spontaneous song-and-dance numbers, with her at the center of the choreography. But when she does open her mouth to sing along with the radio, the more politic of her friends will turn up the volume after a slight wince; Ever simply informs her that she sounds like a wolverine with a three-packs-a-day smoking habit gargling with acid. She still sounds extremely pleasant when she tells him to fuck off. Which is probably for the best, all things considered, since she does it a lot. She has not yet done so this morning, and Ever considers it a waste thus far. They're almost to the high school. Time for desperate measures.
"Prom," he says.
She looks at him sideways, instantly wary. "What about it?"
He flicks his long copper hair back. "Have you given any thought to--"
"I'm not going."
He thinks about feigning surprise, decides she'd probably punch him, and merely asks, "Why not?"
"You didn't go to your prom."
"Well, I was supposed to, but for some reason ended up missing it..." He glares at her, and she laughs.
"Whatever." She adjusts the strap of the messenger bag across her shoulder. "You know that show was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Way better than watching your peers' sloppy makeouts in the Hilton's glass elevators."
"Not to mention, you headbanging in a dress was pretty amusing."
She snorts and shakes her head, tucks short black hair behind her ears. "Yeah, that dress thing? Also once-in-a-lifetime."
"Oh, come on, Ducks. It can't have been that bad."
"Then you can wear the dress," she says sweetly. "It's only September. If you act now, maybe all the hairdressers won't be booked! With your cheekbones, I'm thinking a nice updo with curls, maybe a tiara..."
"Bitch." Aerie smiles innocently in reply. "I'm sure your father wants at least one school dance where his daughter doesn't show up in a tie." The smile slides off her face. Her father never got the memo that she outgrew her princess phase over a decade ago. "I think he has admirable taste," Ever continues blithely. "Like remember that time he wouldn't let you leave the house until you were wearing one of those shirts?" Her expression is decidedly a glare by this point. "How frilly was it, again? And oh, that pink really brought out your eyes."
She stops, crosses her arms. "You wouldn't."
"Oh, I would." He keeps walking.
She glowers for a bit, then stalks off after him. "Fuck off," she suggests. Ever grins.
"It's like my coffee," he explains to the sky.
"What, provoking death?" she mutters.
"Death wouldn't wear so much orange."
"But it goes so nicely with the bloodstains."
More high school students are passing them by now, heading towards the gate, the newness still not worn off their backpacks. Soccer moms in suburban utility vehicles and peach-fuzzed seniors driving early graduation presents make any asphalt within two miles of Portside Landing High a war zone-- not even counting the perennially late school bus mercenaries.
Aerie darts toward the brick wall encircling the campus, forsaking the actual pedestrian entrance for the closer driveway. "You," she tells Ever, turning to face him and pointing down the sidewalk. "Go to college."
"None of my classes meet on Fridays," he reminds her.
She sighs, starts down the driveway. "So much hate. So much."
"You enjoy your day, too!" he calls after her. She flips him off over her shoulder, but turns it into a wave.
He leans against the wall for a moment, savoring the crisp taste of the morning before shouldering off it again. She is doing... better, he thinks. He scuffs his sneakers through the first fallen leaves of the season and smiles.
Aerie cannot breathe.
The first calc test is next week, and so is that AP Chem lab that counts as a third of her grade. But it doesn't have anything to do with that. Maybe at one point it would have; but she's better about that now, there was the medication and the counselors and Psy-Ds and actual shrinks in their fake-living-room offices off of sterile halls (like no one would notice the mesh in the windows or the lack of heavy objects that aren't bolted down), they all said she didn't need it anymore, because she's better now. They said she could even handle the harder classes again this year, just a few, maybe to help her get back to graduating at least college when she should have, since her first try of junior year in high school fucked that graduation date. So the test and the lab, they are small problems, if they're problems at all, but they shouldn't be problems because she's smart and can do the math and really, that's what most of the Chem is as well, just math and setting things on fire. And even if they were problems, which they're not, they'd pass over her and leave her all right in their wake because she's better now.
She locks her bedroom door with trembling fingers, hardly able to grasp the smooth metal to twist it. To keep the darkness out, she thinks-- and can't figure out why she thinks it, which terrifies her. She is rational now, she is skilled at finding the thoughts and heading them off and seeing that they're not right to have and why not. Not like two years ago, not at all, because she is better now.
She holds her shaking hands out before her, regarding them like a stranger's, as though uncertain of what they're capable of doing next. Because she's not certain, not these times when her breath and pulse and even her mind rail against her, to the point where she's not even certain what her is anymore.
But she's lasted before, will last again until the feelings pass, because they always do. It's always easier in the morning, when the light burns away these shadows that try to claim her. They are not, she thinks, and tries to do so firmly; Shadows are where light is not, they don't, cannot think or try to get me because they have no form except the light they lack. Delusion of persecution, or maybe control, but whatever it is, it isn't logical or rational or right. But though she can still glimpse what's not, she can't remember what is.
He said she could trust him to help her remember, always has even before and after those sterile hallways, he knows the things to say and is always so patient about saying them. But can she trust-- no, that thought is so absurd it doesn't bear finishing, even now when nothing else is certain. Even when she doesn't know herself, she still knows him.
She feels her pockets for her phone. Not there. She scans her desk, her dresser, her night stand, brushing aside papers and books and the occasional shirt. Nowhere. She yanks her bag from the floor, dumps its contents onto her bed in quick jerks. Pencils bounce, syllabi flutter, notebooks and pens collide and slide and come to eventual rest on her bedspread. And then she remembers-- the kitchen counter, plugged in, charging. But she can't go out there again. She throws the bag down on top of its erstwhile contents, tears pricking her eyes in frustration. She can't go out there, because she's not even safe here.
She collapses into a chair, curls up and reaches around the side of the cushion until she feels the beads and the fine silver chain that joins them in sets of ten and one. She draws out the rosary and clings to it, her fingers tracing the cool ovals with each smooth repetition of words and structure. Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee. But her head is too loud and any semblance of comfort gets lost inside the dark, so she mouths the familiar lines, trying to force her breath not to catch.
"Get out of my head," she breathes, not even knowing why she says it. But it feels right, more right than the decade even in spite of the nagging checklist of delusions, so she says it again. "Get out of my fucking head."
It happens again the next night.
And the night after.
And the night after that.
Ever pulls his car to the curb in front of Aerie's house, tires raising a slight splash onto the sodden grass. A month into school for both of them, and the walks have become habit again, even though Ever has to double back. He doesn't mind it; his is a small campus, and he could do with the exercise if he's being brutally honest. Plus getting to hang out is nice, especially when so much "spare" time is taken up with classwork or jobs or the hundred other dumb things life chucks in the way. So it's not too bad-- not bad at all, except on a Monday like today, with persistent rain and a lingering chill. Thus, car.
Aerie is sitting on her front stoop, but doesn't make any move toward the car. He considers the horn, but remembers the very vocal and impossibly light sleepers she has as neighbors. Instead, he leans over the passenger seat and rolls down the window, loosing a small deluge from his car door. "Hey," he calls.
Still nothing. "Meh," he mutters. He rolls up the window, turns off the ignition, and pockets his keys as the car dings at him. He flips up the hood on his sweatshirt before dodging out into the rain and slamming the door behind him. Its echo is muffled by the wet morning. He splashes across her lawn, ignoring the quickly soaked hems of his jeans.
Her hand is on the banister; her face is tilted up to watch her fingers as they trace the rust-speckled wrought iron. Only when he's a dozen feet away does she look away even a little bit. "Aerie?" he says, reaching the foot of the steps. Such dark circles under her pale eyes. "You awake, Ducks?"
He's about to repeat himself when she finally responds. "I was going to call you." She rubs her thumb over a loop where the black paint forms a bubble. She speaks slowly, like she really is still asleep. "On Friday." She frowns, and even that is slow. "Actually, the last couple nights. For a while."
She makes no further comment after that, even though he waits. He sticks his hands in his pockets and asks, "So... why didn't you?"
"I keep," she says, then appears to change her mind halfway through. "Losing my phone."
Another pause. "Right. So, since it's raining and all," he says, "I figured you might like a ride this morning instead?"
"I don't know." She seems to make a conscious effort to wake herself up, shakes her head. "No. Maybe the rain will help me in the bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed department."
He sighs internally. "Okay. Don't you have an umbrella?"
She shakes her head again. "All already claimed this morning."
And naturally today she's wearing the one sweater-coat-thing she owns that doesn't have a hood. "Of course," he says, and this time his sigh is audible as he shucks off his hoodie.
"You're going to get sick," she protests as he tosses it at her.
"Actually," he says, "common misconception. It's only the people with really awesome immune systems who catch colds. Or at least show the most symptoms. So I'm just a carrier."
She snorts, then burrows into the sweatshirt. It's a bit roomy on Ever, so she's practically swimming in it. He pulls the hood over her face and she rolls her eyes as she pushes it back so she can see, but gives him a crooked half-smile.
"Now let's get a move on. The rain really fucks with my hair." She laughs at that, and a bit of his worry dissipates as she stands up and descends the steep handful of steps. If she can still laugh, it can't be that bad.
They splash their way along the familiar path. "Just how much sleep have you been getting, anyway?" he asks.
"Not very much," she admits.
"How much is 'not very'? Five hours?" Hands into pockets again. Stupid cold rain.
"Oh, I would be so lucky."
"Four?" She says nothing, so he keeps going. "Three? Two?" Silence. "Bad," he says sternly.
"I know, I know, I know," she says, running the phrases together like they're all one word. "Working on it."
It's a touchy subject, but he brings it up anyway. "A couple months ago, at your last... check-in," he says, tactfully, "in case you couldn't sleep again, didn't they give you something you could take--"
"No pills," she says flatly.
He stops, tugging his hands from his pockets and throwing them up in frustration. "Aerie, we're not talking electroshock, it's goddamn Tylenol PM."
"No, it's really not. You don't know what it, you've never--" she says, abruptly crossing her arms. The gesture's almost lost in the excess sweatshirt fabric. "No. Pills."
He glares at her, actually pissed. She glares right back. They're under a tree that's only lost a few of its leaves so far, so they're shielded from the worst of the rain. Sporadic drops plunk through as they hold their silence, one splashing her bag, another his right hand. He's the one who breaks it at last, as a particularly large raindrop lands on his nose. He looks away, tries to calm down, pushes sodden hair back from his face. Old arguments never go down well. She's just tired, he thinks. And the rain is hardly a place for a staring contest.
Ever sighs gustily-- his lungs are getting quite the workout today-- letting her know that later, there will be a Serious Conversation On This Topic. But in the meantime, he drops it. He starts walking again, and a few steps later, she follows.
"So," he asks, once her eyes are no longer tossing napalm at the back of his head, "are you ready for this weekend?"
Aerie tilts her head at him, blinks. "This weekend?"
He looks at her incredulously. Sleep deprivation can account for so much, but this is ridiculous. "It's the first Saturday of the month: terrible movies and takeout. I'm thinking sushi this time," he says. "You can't have forgotten over three weeks.'
"Oh." She looks at her shoes as she asks, "You still want to?"
The genuine doubt in her voice makes him blink. "What." It's beyond sense, so definitely beyond being a question.
"Well. I mean. I'm still at Port, and everything."
"You're dumb," he observes. "We did it last month. And besides, we went over this last year."
"Last year you weren't in college. So you should be doing.. college-y things, instead."
"Collegiate?" he corrects, but she ignores him as she finds her stride.
"Like joining a frat. Or drinking absurd amounts of alcohol with ping pong balls or goldfish. Or proving God doesn't exist."
"Did that one years ago," he says.
She adds thoughtfully, "Maybe all three at once."
"We can do that on Saturday, too," he points out. She looks at him quizzically and is about to protest, but he interrupts, "Yes, even the frat. We'll make our own. All we need is, what, a couple of Greek letters? Maybe some togas? No big deal."
They settle into their usual banter, worry reduced to the barest tickle at the back of Ever's mind. Just stressed and tired, he thinks. This weekend will be good for her.
The morning doesn't make it better any longer. They don't bother fading with the darkness anymore, or they've grown strong off the jagged pieces they've been rending from her soul, so they don't need to disappear when the sun first washes the horizon. How much is left? How much more can they take from her? There can't be too much remaining, not after so long. They've been at her for so long, and she never even noticed, kept thinking she was paranoid or delusional, but she's not wrong.
They are coming for her. She knows they are.
She thinks of them as a "they", just as a way of comprehension, even though she doesn't have any proof of it. She can't see them, she can only feel them, and even that is just a bone-deep sense of malaise, a sick twinge at the back of her throat when it starts. And then the terror and the doubt and reliving every moment of physical agony and emotional hurt and failure and abuse and she tries to cling to that, still, because it's something. She relishes it despite the pain, because if she feels anything, at least she's still feeling. She has her emotions, her thoughts, her memories vivid and fresh-cut. The tears don't come until later, when even the pain is leached away. Then it's not so much crying as something else drawn from her as reflex. There is no sadness or despair, hardly even self; just a base knowledge that something is meant to be where only this ragged hole remains, and the tears seep out and slowly pool in the hollow of her collarbone and she stops being awake-- it's not really sleeping, not when they're in her dreams as well-- in fits and starts for maybe an hour.
She thinks she can hold against it-- she has to, doesn't she? But immediately comes the thought, Why? Why does she have to? Why should she keep trying when she can't even keep her bearing without assistance? And then, what good is it to have a reference for reality if it's impossible to get to? They made it that way, she knows they arrange the oversights and misplacing and bad timing. He's so bright, they can't hurt her when he's around. It burns them, and their eyes retreat, hissing. She used to be bright, too; but that was before they started wearing her down. The doctor nestled in one half of a pair of easy chairs that look like they were borrowed from a wood-paneled rumpus room, she'd look at her solemnly over her Oxford frames and tell her about God's meaning in all the seemingly random violence and how it's not what happens to us that defines us, but how we respond to it, that's where our choices lie, and Aerie would nod and agree, because she does agree. Or she used to. Before she saw that God has nothing to do with it, and it is a different hand, the hands and the eyes, they shape it all.
Aerie numbly slumps against her door and simply watches as nothing painfully, inexorably happens.
Ever checks his watch and curses under his breath. Aerie is touchy about being late, even at the best of times. He was supposed to be there ten minutes ago, but the unexpected line at the sushi place means that their takeout still isn't ready yet. He rifles through the pockets on his sweatshirt, then his jeans, until he finds his phone.
He dials her, counts the rings by habit. Six rings. He hates listening to voicemail greetings-- always so weird, compared to the person's actual speaking voice-- and is just about to hang up when he hears a rush of air, and finally, "Hello?" Maybe it's a bad connection; her voice sounds weird. Then again, he can hardly hear it at all over the white noise in the background. A guy behind the counter hoists a paper bag and calls his last name, mangling it slightly.
"Hey, Ducks. I see you found your phone?" he says, switching the phone to his other hand as he grabs the takeout bag and smiles his thanks.
Long pause. Has to be the connection. "Yeah."
"I got a little hung up in the city. I should be back pretty soon. But I found an extra-terrible movie for the stack. Something about zombie alligators. Looks absurdly bad. And sushi, of course. Which will be the opposite of bad."
Another pause. He pulls the phone from his ear, checks it as he opens the door. Stupid phone; he needs a new one. "Oh," she says. "Oh, okay. Yeah." There's something in her voice he can't quite place his finger on, so he puts it from his mind from now.
"Are you driving?" he asks. Keys, unlock, sushi in back seat.
"Yeah," she says, distractedly. "Actually. I wasn't. I didn't mean to pick up..." Another pause. "But I'm glad you called."
"I'm not that late," he starts to say, then realizes she'd kept talking.
"...a chance to say it," she says. "Because. I mean, you tried. And it's really not you, and I want to make sure you know that."
His hand frozen on the car door, he finally places what it is he hears in her voice; it's not something, it's nothing. No emotion, no inflection. No music. He feels the blood drain out of his face. "Aerie. Don't you dare," he says. "Don't you fucking dare." A mother herding her spawn into the restaurant shoots a glare at him. Like it matters.
"Please don't." She doesn't even sound like she's crying. If she were, he'd be less worried. Anything to show she's not already gone. "It's hard enough as it is."
And despite the hint of distanced pleading in her voice, he's pissed off. The same way he would be any other time she tried to duck out of some debate with some flimsy pseudo-logic. The anger wakes him up, and he slams the door open. "Well, maybe if it's hard, that's a sign it's a really incredibly bad plan?" Where are his damn keys? Oh. Already in his hand. Now in the ignition.
"You said difficulties made something worth having."
"I was talking about life, stupid." He doesn't check as he shoves the car in reverse. The other drivers are supposed to be paying attention. Someone honks but fails to hit him, so he ignores them; he floors it. "Where are you?"
"But it's too difficult. I can't try anymore. I don't have anything left."
She doesn't say where, but he doesn't mind; he has more than a good idea already. The Platt bridge over the Schuylkill is where she always ends up; just something about a bridge that kept catching on fire she finds darkly amusing. And if she's talking, she's not... doing something stupid. Irrevocably stupid. "You just need to recharge," he says. "Go back to your place, I'll meet you there."
"No. I've tried it long enough." Usually it's half an hour away, but that's for the losers who obey speed limits. "Barely making it by isn't the same as living." The needle on the speedometer edges past eighty; he's passing pretty much everyone, weaving in and out of the lanes.
"So instead of changing anything--"
"I am. For once, I actually am. You should be proud."
"Not that kind of change!" He slams his palm against the steering wheel. "You're twisting logic here, and you damn well know it!"
She sighs, and it's almost lost in the currents of air past her windows. Then the wind diminishes, stops completely. Over the phone he hears a brief chime, then silence.
Which terrifies him, because that means she's already there.
"Aerima, just listen to me," he says.
"What are you going to say you haven't said before?" she asks, and then interrupts him when he tries. "Or even if it's the same, because it's worked before-- so I'll be convinced and fine for maybe another few days, and then you talk me off a ledge again?"
"It doesn't have to be like that! There's help, you know there is--"
"If you were, if you cared at all-- you would not do this."
"No." He hears her car door slam. "I do, and that's why I'm not doing this to you anymore."
"Because you are getting back in that car and going home," he growls. A dozen minutes away-- no, half that, at his current rate-- and every last car on 291 is at a complete stop. He'd already passed the last exit that would reach the bridge even remotely in time.
"I know you'll hate me--"
"Oh, you have no idea--"
"--but I have to, Ever, I do."
"You really don't, Aerie, just listen--"
"Goodbye, Evander," Aerie says, and his phone goes silent.
He doesn't bother trying to call her back.
Maybe the traffic will actually work out for good-- there has to be someone who'll see her, someone who's already called for help. Or maybe someone actually there can reach her, even when he couldn't, just so she doesn't end up...
He punches the three digits into his phone. Another call can't hurt.
"Philadelphia County 911. What is your emergency?"
He tells them, and answers their other questions, and hangs up, and tries to keep himself from thinking. Which is completely futile, he knows, but he tries anyway. Because it's not like he can do anything else.
Or anything at all. He grips the steering wheel so hard, his knuckles press white against his skin.
So instead he tries to remember the flaws in Descarte's Discourse on the Method. How to make napalm with frozen orange juice. What to do if your brakes fail while going down a mountain. The stages of cell division. How to survive the zombie apocalypse. The set list that night when he was supposed to be at prom (but ended up having more fun than he could possibly have had awkwardly slow-dancing to the latest dumb pop ballad), all the lyrics that they shouted along with at the top of their lungs in that terrible dive club.
And somehow he makes it through the eternity that it takes the traffic to start moving again on 291. He doesn't even cut anybody off in the forty minutes before he makes it to the last turn-off before the bridge itself. He takes it, going down a side road that cuts back and forth and leads to waterfront properties. No one's using the road, despite the way that cop cars are blocking the other exits down to the river proper.
The edge of the Schuylkill is lit in alternating flashes of red and blue, its dark water throwing off odd reflections in the last dregs of twilight. There are spotlights, or searchlights, or whatever-- big, harsh halogens set up on thick, all-terrain tripods. But they're not pointed up at the bridge, at some figure barely clinging to a slanted steel girder, precariously close to the place where concrete meets open air. They're directed down into the water or at its edge, to illumine the work of the orange-coated emergency response crews and police divers and volunteer search teams and their evenly distributed little white or yellow boats.
He knows if he stays long enough, he'll see a slight commotion; one neoprene-sheathed seal-like head popping up from the water, towing something along with it to be carefully handed up into the care of those reaching from the boat. Maybe a brief press of fingers to the sodden figure's throat, or the heel of the palm to the breastbone. Or will they even bother with the token gestures at all, instead just heading to shore where the ambulance's double doors will be closed with someone strapped to the gurney, but the driver won't bother to turn the lights on, because there's obviously no point at all?
So at the next switchback, he turns his car around. This time, he doesn't even have to work at not thinking.