I don’t understand what is going on. I am freaking out, what have I done to deserve this? It’s the weed, isn’t it? I knew I was being set up, I wasn’t going to take his advice, officer. I promise. Never before have so many questions stormed through the back of my head. A tornado of bad deeds rolling back through my childhood like that time I hit my little cousin in the back of the head with a scooter, or when we almost burnt down that forest with the deodorant can flamethrowers.
Jesus Chris, what if I Googled something illegal back when I was thirteen and now they’re finally coming for me. I’m sorry, all right? “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” an officer chirps up. He speaks through a steel wall that sits between myself and the driver cab. The back of the van is darker than I had imagined but four blades of natural light border a small sliding window. I saw them shut it when I clambered in, it conceals three police officers. Since we departed, two had been mumbling something about last night’s football, or this month’s big arrest.
“Don’t talk to the prisoner.”
“She’s not a prisoner, she’s just being detained. You’re just being detained.”
Detained; that’s not a word I’d ever put next to my name. Alexis Walker, detained in the back of a riot van. It’s getting claustrophobic in here, everything is dull and poisoning, lead-coloured walls morph into benches as they reach the floor. “Can I ask why I’m being detained? Don’t I have rights or something?”
“Oi, shut it.”
“We’ll be at the station soon, you’ll get your answers. Just sit tight, okay?” The metal door slides across and reveals a fresh face, “your friend is there, waiting for you. How’re you holding up back there?”
I’m not too bad, I let him know that, but I’m sweating pretty heavily and motion sickness is quickly catching up with me. The dimensionless room seems to spin out of control a little and knocks me out of control. My body thinks it’s poisoned and purges my stomach, this morning’s surprise breakfast makes a distinctive reappearance.
The driver pulls up and I’m pulled out of the van earlier than I could’ve hoped. I was expecting hours and hours of bends and twists but instead, I’m pushed in front of the police station. They could’ve walked me if they wanted, I would’ve preferred it. The station stands before my cuffed hands in the form of an old church where, against the wall, Gareth Zumthor smokes a hand rolled cigarette. The nice officer, he’s still present and waves at Gareth like the two of them had spoken a hundred times.
“Don’t worry about it. This is simply an interview, you’re not really in any trouble,” he holds the front door open but as I step into the marble floored, fancy wallpapered station, a stocky Spanish woman stomps me into a solitary room: a single table, a single chair, a single door which she locks on entry. Introducing herself, she tells me her title, not her name. I hardly hear it as she continues to stomp around the room, pulling out her cell phone.
“I’m recording this conversation, understand?”
In her eyes, I already did it. The phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has erased itself from her memory, replaced by ‘whatever’ll get me home first, I’ll take’. She heads right into the nitty gritty of my abduction, not taking even a moment to discuss the possibility of my rights or a lawyer or whatever it is I’m supposed to receive before this type of thing goes on.
She tells me I’m “under suspicion.”
She sighs, picking up her phone and grunting with each greasy stab of her thumb against the touch screen. “The murder of…” she takes a second as the screen loads, a bright red flushes her hog face, “of a Peter Simon, guitarist of The 19:19’s. They were playing a show this morning, just across town.”
“But, there were a hundred people in that crowd.”
“So, you admit you were there?”
“Yes, I saw it happen. I got blood on my face, it’s been a rough day.”
“We reviewed the CCTV footage of the bandstand.”
“Are you just picking people out randomly?” Annoyed isn’t the word and neither is incompetent. A man was killed in the open, in the morning, and this is the best they can do? Ridiculous might not be the word either.
“We’re taking everybody in that crowd in for questioning… How long were you at the concert?”
A ridiculous plan deserves answers better suited to a satirical newspaper. Irritated answers because I know that interviewing me will be no help. I was at the front of the crowd, I saw less than the band members, I mean, come on. I was in the CCTV footage, they would’ve seen me take the shot. Still, it’s not for another fifteen minutes that the final question is thrown.
“What is your connection to Gareth Zumthor?”
“Why?” my ears perk up, “did he mention something about me?”
“He might have…”
“Nice try,” I say, “I didn’t shoot the guitarist. The music was bad but wasn’t flat-out murder the guy bad.”
Nothing but a stern look.
“I met Gareth Zumthor no more than three days ago. I’ve moved into his apartment and we became friends, end of story. Can I leave now?”
Yes, I was allowed to leave after that outburst because interviewing me was “like pulling teeth”. Obviously I couldn’t have been in there too long because Gareth hadn’t even finished his cigarette by the time I joined him outside. “Mr. Zumthor, have you done something wrong?” I asked before a wave, “she might’ve had a bit of thing for you.”
“Did she?” he didn’t seem clueless, “I thought she might’ve.”
“Do you have a record or something? You’re starting to seem like one of those bad kids.”
Directing me ahead of him, Gareth put his arm around my shoulder. “I wouldn’t say that, I was no worse than any other kid.”
“Well my connection came up at the end, right out of the blue. I thought you might be a wanted convict.” Okay, the thought didn’t go that far. Worried? A little, he’s got the charisma of a criminal, the eyes of a gentleman thief.
“No, no. I wouldn’t be standing here, would I? I figured they would tell you all about me in there.”
“They quizzed me for a while, they wanted to know why I was here, why I left, and why I came back again… It was rather annoying to say the least.”
A man of the world, it was easy to assume he wasn’t from the UK, especially with that accent. “You didn’t grow up here?”
“I feel like I’ve mentioned this already.”
“I wouldn’t have forgotten.”
“I’m German, as you might have guessed. I grew up in Brunswick.”
A blank stare, “I grew up in Braunschweig. You know, why don’t we finish this chat over a cup of coffee, if you’d like?”
We took the train once again and headed back to my flat before he revealed any more information about himself. The first discovery we made wasn’t even Gareth related as we bumped into a new milkman plodding down the stairwell. With unprecedented shyness, the young gentleman introduced himself as David. “The other guy? Um, I think he quit.”
“Yeah, like, via email or something.”
“Sorry about that.”
The kid spoke in fragmented sentences, never looking us in the eye. I didn’t want him delivering my milk but he disappeared before complaints could be made. I grumbled along with Gareth, who brought in the delivery.
“Have you tried this yet?” He asks, placing the bottle down on my desk. “Let me know if you win, it’s technically still my flat,” he laughs.
“Yeah, I haven’t won yet though. Pudding did though.”
“Never mind, keep going with your story.” I throw myself down on the sofa and beg him to tell me more about the real Gareth Zumthor. The day seems to crawl up my body, bringing a unbelievable weight up to my eyelids. Instead, Gareth offers to take me to bed. “We’re not that close, are we?”
“Well, I’m too old for you anyway.”
“How old are you?
“How long have you been 27?”
“I- What? Sorry, I don’t understand.”
I’m funny, and I know it. “Well, 27 isn’t that old.”
“Thank you, I think.” He surveys me: all cuddled up on the couch to nothing as the day starts to take it’s toll on my body and I fall into a state of paralysis, “you don’t look too good, Lex.”
I snap out of it for a sudden, irritated second, “you’re not allowed to call me that.” I say it out of habit, I don’t mind when he does it. It’s soothing, it’s what my parents would call me when I was ill. I like it, I’m always ill now, it’s what I need.
“Are you all right? You look like you need dinner.”
“I’m still full from breakfast, thank you.”
“Impossible, it must be the disease talking.” He’s cheery but it’s not helping the hunger situation, “I promise you the best meal of your life.”
I couldn’t possibly pass that up. I look at him, sly and smirking. “The doctor suggested something, do you know anybody who… sells?”
“Are you trying to give me a record?” he laughs, rooting through my cupboards for food to cook, “is that what you and the officer spoke about? Turning me into a drug mule?”
“The doctor told me marijuana would help my appetite,” the puppy dog eyes are on full display as I try my hardest to not look like an addict, “I wouldn’t mind trying it.”
“I can’t promise anything but I’ve got an idea. Pass me your phone, take a bath, get comfortable and I’ll make something out of nothing.”
With hope for a delicious meal I could actually eat, I’ve settled into the bathtub and stretched myself out beneath the bubbles. Water surrounds every limb and extremity for a few moments before I rise to the surface. The very sound of food cooking, the smells wafting beneath the lockless bathroom door, churn my stomach. It’s inescapable, truly inescapable.
It’s just like this bloody rash, it’s going to be here forever. Even through the bubbles, beside the rubber duck, I can see the blistering redness of the bullseye staring back at me.I scrub and I scrub at the skin until I can take it no longer but the rash doesn’t fade with contact.
I just want it to fucking disappear. I want it gone because maybe then I can pretend I’m well again. Mind over matter, that’s how I’ll overcome this nightmare.
“Surprise~” the door flings open, smacking against the bathroom wall and bouncing back into the faces of the intruders. Estelle and Gareth wander in, arms linked, with a present for me.
I sink lower into the shallow bathtub, “please get out.”
The present is in Estelle’s grasp, a mason jar of forest green nuggets. An avalanche of decadent herbs, furred Brussels sprouts… I’ve never seen an entire jar of it before, “I’ve been told you were in need of certain services.”
“I didn’t think the two of you knew each other.”
“We don’t,” she says.
“I’ve smelt it through the walls before, it was a lucky guess.”
“Well, thank you.”
“I’ll be leaving now,” Gareth tells me, “nice duck.”
She smirks, a half-moon spreading across her face like the design on her cardigan. The smile cracks the foundation around her nose, winkling the thumb-painted eyeshadow. “I think he was staring,” she’s oblivious to the fact that I am - in fact - completely naked in here.
“This is not a normal thing to do, Pudding.”
“We’re friends.” The jar is popped open and the smell… It refuses to wait, filling the room with a smell not unlike sweat but sweet. Tantalising, intoxicating, relaxing all on its own. “What’s a couple of bubbly boobs between friends?” Her eyes, they dip below the bubbles.
I’m scooping them up, pulling my only cover further up my body to stave off prying, bloodshot eyes. “This is so weird.”
Her smile becomes supernova bright and her makeup crumbles, falling to her crossed legs. “Is it weird?” Between her fingers, a concoction is formed. Hand-shredded green is laid on a bed of cigarette paper and rolled into that familiar, slender shape. “Have you ever smoked before?”
“I treat myself to the occasional cigarette.”
“Yeah but have you ever smoked pot before?” I shake my head, there’s no point in lying. Of course I haven’t smoked pot before, I wasn’t a rough kid. Back home, only the chavs smoked weed. I’m not exactly the type to break the law, I’m sure we’ve made that very clear.
Estelle inches towards me with that goofy smile, the cigarette dangles from between her lips. “Breath out,” I do as she tells me, her hypnotic stare isn’t one you can refuse. “Hold it like that.” She lights up, the cherry red of the burning narcotic shifts through different tones of red as she inhales, deeper and deeper. Inevitably, my body overrides Estelle’s orders and as my lungs expand, she releases her smoky breath directly into my mouth.
It burns, I feel like I’m drowning. My eyes roll back, my head slips into the water and as I float, I dream. The sudden shock and lack of oxygen knocks me into a dream, is this what it’s like to be high? I shake it off quickly enough, discovering Estelle has joined me in the realm of cognitive dissonance.
She’s in the bath.
She is in the bath with me.
My personal space bubble has been pushed, popped and blown away by Estelle Swales, the Pudding Girl.
I think I’m all right with it, to be honest. Plus, she’s still fully clothed, slipping deeper into the water. Now chin-level with socked feet beside my face, Estelle hands me the cigarette without a modicum of finesse, “I’m glad I bumped into you, y’know?”
It’s one of those moments: a head full of light-heartedness in a heavy-hearted discussion. You want to say ‘I’m glad you fell down the stairs onto me too’ when you have to say, “yeah, me too.”
“I’ve never really had a friendship like this before, it’s nice to know we’re friends.”
“You’ve never shared a bath with somebody before?” Toke, toke, toke. The chemicals in my lungs start to spread out and shortly thereafter my legs become airy, my mind starts to fuzz. The water is 8 foot deep but I’m still touching the ground. Roll up, roll up, come see the Human Periscope. I’m tired and light but heavy and I’m hearing everything I think in the voice of a man and… he’s Welsh. He doesn’t even have a nice accent.
I look for Pudding in the vast, smoky expanse of our smoky domain but she’s asleep in the tub. Now lip-deep but mostly safe from drowning. The cigarette is gone, I finished it up in my daze and the ash has joined me for a swim.
I’m out of the bath at the call of dinner, symptoms gone, hungry as all hell. Gareth stands in front of the large pot that I swear I don’t own, he looks proud. Stream rises behind him, an angelic cloud of fun scents I couldn’t describe if you paid me. “It’s a stew, I hope you don’t mind.”
There’s already a bowl waiting for me, sat on the arm of the sofa. Never has green looked this good, “what did you even make this out of?”
“We didn’t have much?”
He looks embarrassed. “Slip of the tongue,” he says, “sorry.”
With bulging eyes, inflated by my own disturbed perception, he waits for my first taste. Lips envelop spoon as the combination soup slips over the silver rim, a multi-hued waterfall, an intense, floral flavour. My taste buds are not only swimming, they’re square dancing with joy. There’s a thickness, a hint of rosemary. It slips down my throat and I burst out, “literally nothing has tasted this good before.”
“I don’t think that’s the stew.”
It’s the first thing I’ve wolfed down in a long time; chunks first, splodge later. Decadent meat slices separate between my teeth as my brain fails to distinguish the original animal’s form. “How do you make something out of nothing?”
“Well,” he sits himself down in front of me, his legs pretzel up as he finds a comfortable position on the carpet. Those big eyes of his lock onto mine as he fetches the soup spoon from his mouth, I didn’t know I had those either. “First, you spend a year in the army and make friends with the cook.”
We slurp in silence.
“You were in the army?”
“It’s a long story.” He sips, “it’s not actually that bad, is it?”
“How long were you in the army?”
He looks at me, strangely. Those big eyes, they squint shut and shrink. All of the joy seems to vanish in the space of a blink. Is he angry? “I don’t like talking about it. I left after a year, deserted, fled the country.”
Unbelievable. “What’s the punishment for that?” I wonder aloud, no longer thinking from the point-of-view of Gareth Zumthor: army deserter and mystery man. “You’re full of surprises, you know?”
“I don’t remember, I was only warned once,” he leans back as he speaks, drinking down the rest of his soup from the rim of the bowl. A speck of green finds a home in the centre of his Cupid’s bow, begging to be removed. With all the time in the world, I start to consider it. He’s not even aware of its existence never mind my desire and instead, he continues to speak.
The reason he went AWOL, that slips hidden between passing phrases as I only hear so much. They might be looking for him, who knows? He’s not heard a peep for a long time.
“That’s nice,” I’m dazed, “is that why you’re leaving Brog?”
“Were you important in the army, Gareth? Is that why they’re looking for you?” I’m still dreaming, asking questions he won’t answer. Head in palms, elbows on knees. Doting schoolgirl mode, I’m ready to spring forth upon him at a moments notice. In my head, I think I’m sending all the right signals but my perception is off, distorted. His expression only grows darker with each passing smile.
We stop taking, time to move on. “When are you leaving?”
“Shouldn’t be long now, I don’t think. I’m packed, I just need the train ticket.”
“I don’t want you to leave.”
“I didn’t think I had made such an impression,” the smirk is back, somewhat. The energy returns to his face in a wave of electricity, his eyes almost flicker as they return to their original brightness. A power-outage brought on by repressed memories. It’s an amazing sight, beautiful even.
He stands, “did you enjoy the soup?”
It’s all gone but I don’t speak. I’m waiting for his next move, ready to attack. This is it, this is the moment. Everything builds up, I lose feeling in my fingers from clenching my fists. My anxiety battles the chemically enhanced confidence but eventually, the chemicals come out on top. I’m psyched, I’m ready, and I’ve missed my chance.
The bowl has been collected, he’s already working on the washing up. The confidence though, it’s still there, bubbling up between my half-asleep exterior. It’s my turn to stand, I take my first wobbling step and then another until carpet becomes kitchen tile. Humming a tune, elbow deep in a sink full of soap, Gareth Zumthor turns to face me and we kiss.
No words are spoken, they couldn’t be. Our bodies synced: our breathing, our hands, our everything became one in a flurry, a fusion of lips and heartbeats. We were content to stay together, even as we stepped from room to room and wall to wall, it felt like the universe circled around us. Flames could burst from behind the brickwork, bulldozers could tear the building to the earth and still, nothing could make me let him go.
In the heat of it all, control swayed between beings as we fought for bare flesh and belt buckles. The rest of the world fades to black, we are all that is left. There is no illness, no desertion, no bullseye, no departure from my life. Gareth Zumthor is mine, I am his. Euphoria approaches, the sparks flow through me leaving hair standing on edge.
Morning dawns on me, fading in with the sound of bathroom fumbling. The toilet flushes, the pipes vibrate, these new sounds have never been more homely. The bed still feels full, even without him here. The duvet is crumpled and mostly on my side, cuddling me like he would. The bed sheet no longer exists, it’s somewhere else and the bare mattress is itchy.
A heaviness hangs over me, the smell of smoke still sticks to my hair which, in turn, sticks to my face. I reach across to the bedside table where my palm hunts for my phone, it’s not there. Even high, the doctor’s orders stand. I’ve felt worse, it’s nothing I can’t handle now. I shrug it off, a physical insult to physical damage. Not today, Lyme disease. I roll back into the warm centre of my bed and revel in the remaining body heat, inhale the scent from his pillow, smooth it out for his return.
Beneath the pillow, I detect a mass.
A pen, dry erase. Designed by the same brand as our whiteboard.
I leave immediately, unclothed from the night before, and push myself into the living room where the whiteboard sits beside the kitchen counter. “I had to go, I hope you understand,” beside it, an arrow points to the counter below. “Try again on me. See you in London, maybe,” signed Gareth.
Last night, as we paraded across the room, the whiteboard was our first obstacle. It fell from the wall as we departed, the ink stuck to our backs, the address erased. I lay where it landed, head against counter, stormy-eyed. Disaster has struck and the heaviness has increased tenfold knowing I will never see him again. I became too attached, too quickly, I should’ve known he would leave. I mean, for fuck’s sake, I’m renting his flat. Disappointed thoughts become disturbed, is that why he responded the way he did? A farewell?
The feeling couldn’t have been entirely mutual, I shouldn’t have said anything. Gareth Zumthor’s life awaits in London, he has to keep running. My actions simply shortened the time we had together. I fall onto my back, looking up at the whiteboard, at his name. “I guess we’re both in the wrong, aren’t we?”
The heaviness smooths out, splits and evolves becoming 60% disappointment, 30% yearning and 10% downright anger. I just… I thought maybe we could be together, maybe he’d move into this room with me, maybe we’d go to London together at some point, I don’t know. I just need somebody right now. I’m lonely.
After a while, I find my feet again. It takes a few minutes of laying down to find that energy again, the emptiness has hidden itself away for the moment but I’ve admitted the problem. Sometimes, that’s all the body needs. I’m lonely, I lost my friends when I moved to Brog, my family too. Everybody I’ve ever known is miles away and forgetting me with every passing day. Eventually, I’ll be nothing but a passing topic over pre-drinks or holiday plans.
On the sofa, I spot the solution. My mobile phone, maybe Mum will want to speak. After donning some clothes, I dial her number and wait for that loving voice, that accent they don’t have down here. It rings and it rings for a minute or so but nobody comes to answer the call. It’s early, she’s probably asleep.
There’s nobody else I want to hear speak. I scroll down the list of friendly faces and takeout restaurants: Nick, Stephen, Oscar, Imogen. They’re all people I saw weeks ago but I’m not ready to chat yet, I mean, what have I done worth mentioning since contracting Lyme disease? I wander over to the whiteboard again, half-tempted to wipe away the message and that name, forever. Try to move on, away from the mysterious Gareth Zumthor but my eyes are drawn down the curved body of the arrow to the tip which points downwards. At it’s point, there’s the bottle cap from the milk delivered earlier. Upturned, the fixed-width code faces me.
Okay, I’ll play your games. Maybe you’re a good luck charm, maybe this is your farewell. I sit at my laptop, switch the old girl on and head for Bess. The website appears in front of me, just like the last time. I type the code: ‘13264371’. The screen goes black, then green, then the terminal opens to reveal whether or not I’ve won. Centred text starts to appear, reading my code back to me as though somebody on the other end is typing it up. Then, another word appears: ‘Welcome to Bottletop, Alexis Walker.’
I don’t understand, does this mean that I have won? Did I hit the jackpot or am I now a member of some weird collector’s circle? The flashing cursor drops down another paragraph, typing up a series of characters I don’t quite understand. A name has appeared; ‘Natal, Jennifer’.
Alongside her name, a slew of details like her full postal address, phone number, Mother’s maiden name, occupation and the address for that too. I sit and stare at the collection of characters, there’s no comprehending it. Is she the CEO? Maybe I pick up the money from her place of work, who even knows? One person does, hell, it’s how we met.
The bathroom door swings open on cue and a being wrapped in pale skin stands half-asleep in the doorway. Fluffy black hair, hands behind head, the creature speaks. “Allo, I fell asleep in your bath, got any clothes?”
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