The Truth About Keeping Secrets(5)

I could just leave, I realized, road stretching ahead of me like an invitation. Pedal and pedal until my legs screamed, until I forgot how to pedal. But where would I go? California? Dad had always wanted to take me so I could see the giant redwoods. (‘You wouldn’t believe how small they make you feel, Syd!’ I hadn’t understood why that was something that excited him.) But we’d never got the chance to go. We’d wanted to go to Yosemite the following spring, maybe. Obviously that wasn’t on the cards any more. But I could’ve gone now. Lived in the forest. Hollowed out a redwood, sat still for days and weeks and months, waited for nature to reclaim my body. Maybe I’d have felt something with branches curling through my guts.

Two hours of aimless wandering had passed, and the cold had become entirely unbearable. I turned towards home – but I had to pass the cemetery anyway.

Twelve graves across, four rows down.

Even if I hadn’t counted, the grave wasn’t hard to find; his was the freshest, the dirt powdered with a thin layer of ice crystals. This place felt more like home than home did. It definitely hadn’t the day before, with the mourners and the whispers and the gawking, but now, with just him and me, I felt the urge to scoop out a me-shaped hole, plant myself like a seed.

But I would have had to move the roses first.

Three of them in the bunch – white, like the sort Dad kept in his office. These were new. The flowers we’d left yesterday were clustered round the headstone, stiff with frost, but these were untouched. They must have been put there that morning. Had Mom come? She couldn’t have – I would have heard her leave.

This unexpected thing tripped my brain, made me aware of the other unexpected things that I must have filed away as dreams. That text.

You really think someone killed him?

I pulled the message up on my phone to confirm it was real. Read it again. How could someone have known what I’d said at the funeral unless they were there? But then it occurred to me: freaking Olivia. She must have told somebody at the dance. Right. Couldn’t keep her damn mouth shut. And now, I was sure, the information was already doing the rounds amongst the student body, a pack of ravenous sadists gossiping that good old Whitaker was at it again, and someone thought it’d be funny to mess with me. Ha, ha. Great work, everyone.

But this rumour wasn’t untrue. I had said it. Implied it, anyway. And the scraps of lucidity I had left were telling me I was probably full of shit – but the rest of me was saying that maybe I wasn’t.

The other unexpected thing was June. Weird, glowy, sad-smiling June.

Banal June. Shallow June.

I didn’t care about June. Actually, no: I was sort of pissed off at June. Why did she think she had the right?

I grew angry at the unexpected things. The unfairness of it all. I wasn’t even grieving correctly, still unable to feel anything after he’d settled in for the Big Sleep, and all these unforeseen spines jutting from the angst weren’t even supposed to be there. Only grief. That’s all there should have been, locked round me like an iron maiden. Straightforward. Instead, the universe had opted for horse dismemberment, the horses Angst and Murder and Weird Girls all tearing me limb from limb – and I wished they’d just get it over with.

Frostbite was becoming a genuine possibility, so I left, and navigated along brick-paved side streets to the cul-de-sac. The act of stepping through the front door felt like willingly condemning myself to hell. Satan, I’m home.

Mom was awake, shuffling papers at the kitchen table; the scratching made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. She grinned when she saw me, wide and careless. ‘Were you out?’

I thought the fact that I’d entered from outside implied I had been out, but I nodded anyway.

Mom looked down at the papers, then looked back to me, startled, like she’d been reminded of her own consciousness. ‘Are you hungry? I can make you a sandwich, or …’ She stopped, chewed her thumb, presumably because Dad had enjoyed a sandwich or two in his time. I wasn’t entirely sure. But I couldn’t stand the thought of staying in this situation.

‘I’m OK.’ I took the stairs to my room two at a time, aware of a new sensation: a terrible, dizzy lurching in my stomach. I savoured it for a moment – feeling! It was back! – but after five seconds of nausea, numbness didn’t sound half bad.

I lay in bed face down, but that didn’t help anything, so I rolled on to my side and hugged my knees to my chest, but that didn’t help either, so I rushed to the bathroom and knelt, let the bile escape my body like a cooperative parasite. Made my nose run and my eyes water. And I was there for a while, gagging and gagging, until my heart began to skip beats.

The terror of it all was almost funny. Truly. The pain was ludicrous, completely unreasonable, completely alien; I found it impossible to believe that this sort of feeling could even exist, that the boundaries of human suffering extended this far. As I collapsed back into bed, I realized that, if good and bad feelings lived together on a scale, I’d never experience the good equivalent of the badness I was feeling. Ecstasy lives somewhere in the clouds but misery tunnels, deep, deep, to the centre of the Earth and out the other side.

Cockroach flesh. Itchy insides, fingernail-peeling. Pins and needles but everywhere, inside, outside, upside down.

I took to self-inflicting; smaller bouts of sharp pain distracted me momentarily from the dull, all-encompassing one, so I pinched my arms, bit my tongue, punched my thighs, screamed into my pillow.

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