The End of Us
Dear World, how much more can I take? I ask you. I walk back to Joe’s room, with my head spinning. He is still lying there, doing nothing. I sit down next to him and open my crisps and my lemonade. I watch his face, as I eat. It seems weird to think he is in there somewhere. “Can you hear me?” I ask him. The machines beep and whirr in reply. I watch his chest rising and falling slowly, gently. “You’re gonna’ have one hell of a headache when you wake up,” I tell him. “I won’t envy you.” I finish the crisps and chuck the empty packet into the bin in the corner. I take a long sip of lemonade, and then wedge the can between my thighs, so that I can lean forward and hold his hand again. I press my forehead down onto it. “Oh why won’t you just fucking wake up? It’s been long enough. This is getting boring now, Joe.” I look back up, willing him to move, or try to speak, or to open his eyes. But he seems so totally shut down. He is like a window with the curtains closed. He is locked down, buried within.
“I’ll tell you something really interesting,” I say to him then. “I’ll tell you what I just found out. It’s a pretty good story actually. You won’t believe it Joe. This will make you sit up and listen! Listen to this. I went to see Marianne. Just now. She tried to slit her wrists probably around the same time you were flushing Leon’s stash. It was Leon that found her! I know. Crazy right? Totally fucking crazy. He practically kills you, runs from the house covered in your blood, and drives to her house. To her house. It’s so ironic it’s unbelievable.” I pick up my drink and take a few more sips. I have this insane image of a blood soaked Leon zooming in his car to Marianne’s house. He must have known her parents were out. He must have run up to her room. “Then he fucking saves her,” I tell Joe. “He uses his t-shirt to stop the bleeding, can you actually fucking believe that? He takes off his t-shirt, and wraps it around her wrists. Jesus Christ, she better hope you don’t have any nasty diseases, because your blood’s probably in hers right now!” I laugh a little, but the sound is awful and hollow in the empty room, so I stop quickly. His hand is lying on top of mine, and I am stroking each of his long fingers with my other hand. I wonder if I can drive him mad with soft tickling. If that will work? “So your brother who nearly killed you, is actually also a hero,” I murmur, feeling suddenly very sleepy. “Who would have thought it possible? Not me. Maybe Marianne sees something else in him. Maybe he sees more to her than we do. Who knows?” I shrug my shoulders.
My head feels heavy on my neck. I rest it in one hand, and keep my other hand entwined with Joe’s. “I think they all feel guilty as fuck,” I tell him. “Mick couldn’t even make eye contact with me yesterday. And your mum, your mum, well, I’ve never seen her like this. It’s weird. I’ve never seen her upset about anything before. Not upset upset, I mean. I’ve seen her angry upset plenty of times. She feels bad you know. She knows the drugs were Leon’s. She knows she was unfair on you. So now you’ve got to wake up see? Wake up so you can see them all worried about you, all feeling guilty, even Travis. They’re all ashamed. They all want you to wake up so badly, so that they can say they are sorry. So that everything can be okay. So you’ve just got to wake up yeah, so you can enjoy it! Imagine Joe, having them all at your feet! We’ll have fun with it won’t we?”
I yawn widely and fold my arms on the bed, taking his hand with me, holding it to my face. I close my eyes. “If people like you die,” I whisper to his hand. “Then I don’t want to be part of this world again. I’ll go back to my bed, won’t I?” I kiss his hand and fall asleep.
When I wake up, it is because I feel a cold hand on my shoulder. I shudder into consciousness and look up. Lorraine is standing there with Mick hovering behind her. I look at them, blank and sleepy, but part of me already starts to think of unkind words I can fling at Mick. “I’ll take over,” Lorraine says in hushed tones, her eyes moving from me to her son. “The doctor says still no change.”
“I can stay longer,” I say, stretching out my limbs.
“No love,” she shakes her head at me. She has not bothered piling up her hair, so she looks very odd. She has her brass blonde waves all sat around her shoulders, framing her face. It at once makes her look younger as well as older. “You look done in, and your mum wants you back. Did you visit your friend Marianne?”
“How was she?”
“She’s fine,” I say, scraping back the chair and standing up. “Did you know it was Leon that found her and brought her here?” I don’t know why I say this, it is not like I wish to help him, or make him look good, but I suppose I want her to know the whole story, the whole bizarre circle of it. I watch her forehead creasing in confusion. She sort of pulls her face back into her neck, as if she does not believe me, as if this version of what Leon is capable of, does not tally up with hers. She looks over her shoulder to frown at Mick, who stands hunched and silent near the door.
“He found her? Well how did he find her? What was he doing at her house?”
“They kind of hooked up recently,” I shrug, not sure how to put it politely. Lorraine nods now, understanding better.
“He saved her?”
“He stopped the bleeding and drove her here.”
“Right after he nearly killed his brother?”
I shrug again under the glare of her outraged eyes. “I guess so.”
“Well you think you know your kids,” Lorraine says with a sigh as she drops her handbag to the floor. “But then you realise you don’t know them at all. Not one little bit. I had no idea he was capable of either of those things Lou Carling, did you?”
What a question! I think I have been watching Leon from afar since I was a little kid, and I have never been able to figure him out. When Joe and I were little we looked up to him and Travis, only because they were older and cooler, and we wanted to be like them, we wanted them to let us join in. Eventually we realised they were mostly just mean to us, and there was no point. Since then we had kept a certain polite distance from them. Until recently. Until they needed us. “I don’t know,” I tell her uselessly. “Has anyone found him yet?”
“Police are looking for him,” Mick speaks up then, his tone as gruff and snappy as ever. I only give him the briefest of looks.
“When can I come back?” I ask Lorraine.
“This evening?” She reaches out and ruffles my hair. It is an odd, clumsy gesture, as I am taller than her, and not a child, but she does it just like I am a little kid at knee height. Her eyes remain on Joe. I have an awful flashback of her slapping in him in his bedroom that morning, after catching us in his bed. She sort of jolts, and bites her lip, and I wonder if she is having the same thoughts as me. “Go on,” she says to me, taking my chair next to Joe. “Go on home and get some rest. We’ll call you if anything changes. Mick will give you a lift.”
I look at him in distaste. “It’s okay I can walk.”
“Don’t be fucking stupid,” he says, and holds the door open for me.
We ride back to the estate in Mick’s car. He drives like Leon, I notice. Impatiently and aggressively, swerving around corners that he should take slower, and taking a long time to brake at traffic lights and junctions. I feel close to shutting my eyes, so convinced I become that he will crash. I sit nervously on the passenger seat, arms crossed, wondering whether to talk or not. Mick smokes a cigarette as he drives, and swears loudly at people who annoy him, and people who drive too slowly.
“Have you looked for Leon?” I ask him tentatively; thinking at least one of us should try to be well mannered. His eyes swing towards me briefly as he sucks on his cigarette and steers the car one handed.
“Nah,” he says. “Wouldn’t know where to start. Travis has tried.”
“Oh. Is Travis at home now by any chance?”
“Dunno,” Mick shrugs.
“I can get out there,” I say to him. “Easier for me to cut through past the shops than you drive around.”
That is as far as the conversation goes, and once more I am left with the burning question, what does Lorraine see in him? What kind of conversations do they have, for God’s sake? What is it about him? I sit in silence until the car swings round the corner into their road. Right away I can see Travis, sat on the front door step, smoking. As Mick pulls up, Travis stubs out his smoke and flicks his hair out of his eyes. Tommy is crawling around in the front garden, pushing plastic trucks through the long grass. As Mick climbs out of the car, Tommy sees him, leaps up and runs to him. Mick drops his cigarette, stamps on it and holds out his arms for Tommy.
I look behind at Travis and catch his eye, as Mick makes a big show of swinging Tommy around in a circle. They go inside together, Mick planting one rough hand on Tommy’s small shoulder as he steers him through the door. He passes Travis, not saying a word to him, not even acknowledging him. He is staring at me, and gets to his feet, settling his hands in his pockets as he approaches. “How’s Joe?” he asks me, squinting in the sunlight, and shaking his hair out of his eyes again.
I stand in front of him on the path. I feel sleepy and disorientated; as if I have been curled up inside a dark cave somewhere. “The same,” I nod at him.
He nods at the ground. “And your friend? How’s she?”
“She’s fine. She’ll probably be allowed home later.”
He lifts his eyes to meet mine. “She really tried to top herself?”
“Looks like it yeah. You know who saved her?”
I watch the confusion and disbelief flood his face just as it did his mothers. He lifts his top lip and screws up his eyes. “You what?”
“That’s where he went when he left here, you know when you…” He nods at me, remembering. “He went there and found her. She says he stopped the bleeding and drove her to hospital. Saved her life.”
We stand in the sunlight, while the information bounces around Travis’s mind. I drop my shoulders and sit down on the step and he does the same. I watch the way his long legs stretch out before him, as he crosses them at the ankles, leans back on the doorframe, and keeps his hands in his pockets. I am reminded of Joe, every time I look at Travis, and it is hurting more than I knew was possible.
“Can’t fucking believe it,” he shakes his head and says.
Travis pulls his legs back in then, and leans forward, crossing his arms over his knees. He looks sideways at me. I can feel his bare elbow brushing my arm. “I flushed the whole lot you know,” he whispers to me.
“I know, you said. All of it?”
“Yeah. All of it. Before we went to the hospital. I went back in.”
“Why did you?”
“Same reason Joe did,” he shrugs at me. “Wanted rid. Wanted it over.”
“Just a nightmare,” he muses. “From start to finish. Leon got us into it, you know. He told Joe we found it in a car we were trying to rob. That’s bollocks. He’s been getting into dealing for a while now. He thought we would get rich quick.”
“You stupid idiots,” I say, staring down at the ground. Travis sighs and rakes one hand back through his hair.
“I know. Look at the fucking mess we’re all in.”
“You know you don’t have to spend your whole life following Leon, don’t you? You know that, don’t you?”
Travis nods at me, his top teeth pulling at his bottom lip. He leaves his hand in his hair, and props his head up over his knee. “We’ll probably never see him again.”
“That would probably be a good thing.”
“I’m sorry, you know.”
“Everything. Being a dick. Following Leon. Letting him involve you and Joe. I should have said no, at some point.” He sounds angry with himself, and I see him curl his other hand into a fist. “At some fucking point along the way I should have said no.”
“Leon is not easy to say no to,” I remind him. “Joe found that out.”
“I think Leon was high when he, you know.” His eyes, darker than Joe’s but more human than Leon’s, jerk back to my face. “Otherwise, I don’t think he would have…I mean, I don’t think he could do that, the way he did. You know.”
“He was like an animal.”
“He was like possessed or something. He wanted to kill Joe, I know he did. He really wasn’t going to stop.” I bite down on my tongue, fight to control myself, force the tears back. “If you hadn’t come up the stairs like that, I think Joe would be dead now. Maybe me too.”
Travis is silent. I feel him watching me, but when I look at him, his eyes drop down to the ground. I sit next to him and I have so many questions I could just burst with them. Questions I have held for years, about Leon and him, and what they do and where they go, and who they are. Questions about now, and what next, and what is he thinking and feeling? But I do not have the energy to ask any of them. It seems to be zapping all of my strength just to sit there next to him.
“What will you do?” I ask him. “If he doesn’t come back.”
“How will I cope on my own you mean?” he looks at me with a wry grin.
“You know what I mean.”
“I was thinking it was about time I moved out actually.”
“Yeah. Not exactly welcome here, am I?” His grin spreads a little further, touching his eyes slightly. “I was thinking, maybe if I moved out, got a proper job or whatever, then maybe me and mum would get on better, you know.”
“Yeah. Never wanted one before.”
“So why now? And why do you suddenly want to get on with your mum?”
“I don’t know. It would just be nice, wouldn’t it?” He shrugs his shoulders, drops his hand down from his hair, and lets it hang over his knees. “Maybe if me and Leon had moved out ages ago, given them all some more space, there wouldn’t be so much tension and shit in the house.”
“So why didn’t you then? Move out before I mean.”
“Don’t know,” Travis shrugs. “Leon always said why should we? We were here first, I mean, before Mick. Think he felt like Mick was always trying to push us out, so we shouldn’t make it easy for him. Stupid really.”
“Mick’s strange,” I sigh. “I think I understand you and Leon more than I do him, these days.”
“He just wants his kids to be safe.”
“Yeah. He feels like the rest of us are a bad influence on them. He’s probably right to be fair.”
“Joe is a good influence,” I hear myself say, almost fiercely. We look at each other and then look away almost instantly. It feels like Joe has become the unspeakable thing now, the elephant in the room, whatever the fuck that means. To speak his name brings him back, reminds us of the horrible limbo he exists in. I feel a cold shiver wring right through me, and all of my hairs stand on end. My stomach lurches and churns whenever I think of him. It is horrible to be apart from him, I realise, like anything could happen while I am not there.
Travis is nodding at me. “Joe,” he says. “Joe was always this good kid. But annoying because he was so good and quiet. Used to wind Leon up. I think he wanted him to be up to no good like us. But then it was like he was too good and quiet, because no one noticed him, they just put on him.”
“Well I hope you all feel pretty shit about it, that’s all,” I say, getting to my feet quickly, and rubbing my wet eyes dry again. Travis looks up at me in alarm.
“Where you going?”
“I do feel shit about it!” He gets to his feet and grabs my arm. “I feel shit about everything Lou, I want you to know that. I didn’t mean to be such a complete prick. I didn’t know how not to be one, if that makes sense.”
I stare down at the ground. I am thinking how close we all are to death, to the end of us, every single day. How a car could swing around the corner, mount the pavement and wipe you out, at any fucking time. How you could bite into an apple, and be alive, then choke on a chunk of it, and then be dead. How easily you could trip on the stairs, and plummet down onto your head, breaking your neck as you land. How these things happen every day, to millions of people. How human life is so extinguishable, so disposable, like snuffing out a candle flame, poof and you are gone, you are over. You are dust in the ground. Disease, I think. They could be creeping around your body like a silent killer at any fucking time of your life. Death is just not for old people like my Nan, whose life is as paper thin as their skin. Death is for young people too. People who have not even started to live yet. I stare at the ground as Travis holds onto my limp arm, and I think about Joe and Marianne. How different it could have been. How close Joe was to dying at any given second. How one more punch or kick to the head could have been the end of him. And Marianne, I see her soaking into her bed, the expensive quilted bedspread absorbing her lifeblood like a tampon. Soaking her up. Sucking her dry.
Why did Leon go there, over anywhere else? What did he hope to find there? Did he think she would help him or hide him, or soothe his guilt? Did he hope he would find an answer there? To what he is and what he has done? And what must he have looked like when he ran in and discovered her? Was she unconscious by then, or could she speak to him, tell him why she did it, why now? Did he speak to her as he wrapped his t-shirt around her wrists? Did he tell her it would all be okay? If he had not gone there, if he had never been involved with her, then she would be dead. Right now. She would dead and stiff and over.
I am crying as I try to pull my arm out of Travis’s grip. He places his other hand on my shoulder. “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
I shake my head, because I am unable to tell him how fragile and thin life really is, how we walk through life never realising that we are balancing on a tightrope, with life and death on different sides. One wrong move, and that is it. One piece of bad luck, or bad judgement, and it’s all over. I picture Joe, my best friend; lying in that hospital bed, more object than person, because he is not there. Where is he? Wherever he is, I want to be there too.
“He’ll be okay,” I can hear Travis telling me. “I know he will. He’ll wake up. He’ll wake up soon.”
I nod, because that is all I can allow myself to believe. He will wake up. He will wake up and be just fine. It will all be over. We will keep our heads down for the rest of the summer, and then we will go back to school. School. Christ, I nearly laugh remembering how much I had loathed and scorned the place just days ago, and yet now the word itself tastes delicious in my mouth. School. Where we will be safe, and people will tell us what to do and how to do it, and when we walk home, it’s all over and you forget all you have learnt until tomorrow, because it is home time and you just switch off. I can’t believe I am looking forward to going back to school, but I really am. Kids go to school. We will still be kids.
I keep nodding, as the warm tears flow down and over my cheeks. I taste them between my lips, drawing them in. Travis keeps his hands on me, one on my shoulder and one on my arm. I can feel his sadness, rolling from him in waves as he stares into my eyes. “You really love Joe,” he tells me then.
“I mean, really. I mean really love. I mean, you two are going to end up together, aren’t you?”
“What?” I snort with laughter, wrench my arm away and put my hands on my hips. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Travis straightens up. “I just think you will,” he says quietly.
“Don’t be fucking stupid. We’re just friends. How many fucking times a day to I have to tell you people, we’re just friends?” My voice has climbed loudly, and Travis glances uncomfortably into the hallway. I glare at him.
“All right, all right,” he says. “I’m sorry, I just think you will. Everyone thinks you will.”
“Who the fuck is everyone?”
“Everyone, they all do, they all think it. Me and Leon joke about it all the time.”
“Oh do you now?”
“Yes, but it pissed me off,” Travis shoves his hands back into his pockets and looks at me sulkily. “Leon was always saying it. Making a joke of it. But it pissed me off. It pissed me off that Joe could have you, but he didn’t even notice.”
“Have me?” I practically bellow at him. I am half laughing, half crying, just staring at him in amazement, shaking my head and standing my ground. It feels like familiar territory at least, battling with one of them, defending myself, thinking up good comebacks. “What the fuck are you talking about Travis? What a load of shit! I’m going home. Me and Joe are not like that. It’s not like that.”
“Keep telling yourself that then,” he replies. I shake my head at him.
“All right let me tell you something then,” Travis says this suddenly, urgently, stepping closer and peering into my face. “In case he dies.”
My jaw hits the floor. I nearly strike him. “Don’t you fucking say that!” My voice comes out as a scratchy, croaky hiss..
“Let me tell you what he said,” Travis insists. I turn away in disgust and start to walk back down the path. He follows me, talking into my ear. “After mum and Mick found you two in his bed, after that party? When it was all kicking off here. When he was standing up for himself for once. He told me to back off! He told me never to kiss you again. He warned me to leave you alone! He said he was going to kiss you, he said he was the only one who was going to kiss you.” Travis pulls desperately at my arm, trying to stop me. “Do you hear me?”
“I’m going home,” I tell him, pulling free. I keep walking. I don’t look back. I walk on. I think, I don’t understand anything anymore. I really don’t. I walk home with my arms folded across my chest. The day is warm but I feel chilled to the bone. I am thinking of my bed and my duvet, and just hiding for a while. When I get home, I have the place to myself. I gather Gremlin up in my arms, and carry him upstairs with me. He wriggles and slops his oversized tongue across my face. We curl up in bed together. I close my eyes and hope that sleep is not too far away, because otherwise I am going to lie here and think about everything that Travis just told me. I am going to think about it until I go mad.