Work ran late, so I didn’t go to the reunion. To tell you the truth, I’d been planning to avoid it since I received the memo on the group chat. I’d only joined the chat because I’d been coerced by the school bully who’d since become a Counsellor for a private company. The irony was not lost on me.
All the same, I might have been forced to download an app I barely knew how to use, but I would not go to that reunion, regardless of how many reminders popped up on my calendar. Rather than sitting through hours of porcelain smiles as they reminisced five years of swimming in a cesspool of unsatisfactory grades and unsanitary toilets, I ensured I was the last to clock out of the office, claiming I had paperwork to finish on several insurance cases, the last to lock the doors, the last the drive my sad excuse for a Mini out of the car park.
I drove home in a stupor, the radio clear as white noise. I couldn’t think about what I’d done, the opportunity I’d missed.
A second chance.
My sister reconciled with our Father last year. The month before, my brother got engaged to Stewart, despite their huge fight. They were due to be married in October. I hadn’t been invited. Because, unlike the rest of my family, I did not get second chances. Not with Mum, not with Dad, not with Alisha.
My keys stuck in the front door. I pushed and shoved and eventually, the door gave, the bronze knocker bouncing against the green paint. The lay-out of the house was beyond strange, with the first room you enter being the kitchen, which itself was pitch-black. I took a step in the dark, instantly catching my hip on the breakfast bar. Wincing, I fumbled for the light switch. Sighed. Three months of owning my first home, and every night, I walked into the same corner of the same granite countertop. I groaned. I’d have more than a bruise in the morning.
The lights flickered, buttering the kitchen in a sickly hue. They were eco-bulbs recommended by a colleague. All the same, my house was perhaps the only building in the world which appeared as if it had consumption.
In a daze, I stumbled to the kettle. It was too red, too new. The colour of Alisha’s lipstick on her sweet sixteenth, where we drank for the first time. We’d spent the next morning hugging the toilet in her bathroom, vomiting interchangeably. I’d held her hair back, she’d sang to me Van Morrison’s, Brown Eyed Girl. Her voice was husky and hopelessly out of tune. I could have listened to her until sunset plastered the sky.
I slapped my hand on the counter, making the teacup rattle. If only I’d gone to the reunion. Even if I knew my second chance wouldn’t be waiting there for me. But I couldn’t stop wondering. Wondering if Alisha had broken her promise and headed to the Town Hall, only to find herself alone.
When we were sixteen, on the cusp of graduating, we’d made a pact never to attend a single high school reunion. She’d just been offered an engineering apprenticeship in Glasgow, while I was dead set on University.
If I’m honest with you, we made this pact after Alisha tried to cycle off a bridge into the river. We’d made this pact in the park, beneath a willow tree, my arm in a cast from the boys in my class who’d broken it for hanging out with a girl from India.
“I fought back,” I’d protested when Alisha visited me in hospital. She’d laughed in my face, her eyes lined with silver.
“With what? Your face? You’re supposed to throw punches too you know. It doesn’t work if you just stand there”. I huffed, about to defend myself, when she shook her head and wiped a tear from her cheek.
“But I’m glad you didn’t. I’m glad you didn’t fight them”. I frowned.
“What do you mean? You should have heard what they were saying about you. I was trying to defend you”.
“You don’t need to defend me. Let them think what they want. Their words might as well be gibberish to me. You’re not violent, Marcus. You’re the boy who played football with me when no one else would,” she said. I grinned.
“Yeah, only because all the other boys were afraid you’d beat them into the ground”.
“I beat you too, you know”.
“Utterly and undefinably. And you’ve never let me forget it”.
“How could I? We had such a good time. Or I did, kicking your ass”. I folded my arms, but I was smiling. We’d laughed ourselves silly, until the day she cycled to the town bridge and tried to launch herself through the rotten wooden railings. If I hadn’t been out walking the neighbour’s dog… I didn’t want to think about what could have happened. Alisha couldn’t swim; in fact, she hated water. It took her over five years to tell me why.
It was the day after results day. We’d arranged to meet up in town, at a local café. I kept trying to buy her coffee, and I opened the door for her and took her coat, only to be met with her shaking head.
“Have you been watching The Princess Bride again?” she asked
when I pulled her chair out to coax her into sitting.
“No. Why’d do you ask?” I’d watched it that very morning.
“Just stop worrying about me. I can make my own way in the world.”
“As you wish”. And that set her off laughing again. Her laugh was the tinkling of a thousand lanterns. All laughter turned to ash within the next hour. The hour she spent telling me of her childhood in Bangladesh.
“I loved the sense of community. I knew the baker, the Cook, the bookshop owners by name. It was so beautiful there, the streets swarming with so many spices I was overwhelmed each day”. She’d been born to a carpet merchant. Her Mother was a statuette. They picked out a husband by the time she was four.
“Even the neighbours were concerned,” she told me. I yearned to wipe the tears from her cheeks.
“And I loved my Father, even my Mother”, she continued. “I didn’t want to let them down. But then Mum walked with me to the river. I told her that I didn’t love the man they’d chosen. I told her I wanted to become an Engineer. She laughed in my face. And then, when I didn’t relent, she took me to the river, grabbed my hair, and shoved me under the water. Pulled me out only when I felt the water entering my lungs.”
She ran from her parents aged ten, with enough money to pay for a forged passport which she used to escape to England, where she was stopped at customs. Stopped for an entirely different reason, not her age nor her disgruntled appearance. She was placed in a care, where she remained for a year sleeping in a bed filled with mites and fleas from the Group Home’s dog.
“And then Thomas found me”. Her adoptive Father, Thomas Flynn, was a man who should have only existed in a Detective Novel. He had his own PI business in town, where he received many affluent clients. He was broad-shouldered, with peppermint hair. He was beyond kind, overly patient. Every Christmas, he volunteered at a Food Bank. More than that, he protected Alisha when her parents came searching.
“Despite everything, I found I still loved them. I felt sorry for my Mother, despite what she did to me. Even my Dad apologised and asked for me to come home. I might have done if I hadn’t met you”. Her words branded me, and I looked up, reaching across the table to grab her hand. But she pulled away. I never told her how I felt. I doubt she would have felt the same way.
Now, I mulled about the kitchen, placing the teacup in the dishwasher even though I hated using it. Thinking of Alisha, of her ebony hair and onyx eyes. Smarter than a whip, stronger than a tide. No, I realised, she would never have gone to the reunion. Not without calling me.
Even if we hadn’t spoken for over a year. I’d been meaning to call her, but the paperwork ate my mind, and my unspoken words tore at my heart. I wanted to tell her. God, you have no idea how much I wanted to tell her. But the right words eluded me. No, I realised. With Alisha, all the words in the world, in every language, couldn’t have fully expressed how I felt. Besides, I knew her childhood had robbed her of a love of marriage. I couldn’t think to force my feelings upon her.
After microwaving Macaroni Cheese for One, I took out my ready meal into the back garden, sitting on the veranda with a portable radiator curling around my feet. The garden was a constellation of lilies, with a small pond sporting two dead fish in the corner. I’d been meaning to remove them for over a week but hadn’t gotten around to it. Alisha would have reminded me.
I was so engrossed in twirling my fork around that yellow sludge of pasta and cheese that I didn’t hear her footsteps on the veranda.
“It’s cold tonight. You should be wearing more than that shirt.” I looked up and Alisha was standing before me, dressed in her high school hoodie. It was red, like the kettle, like her lipstick. Beneath, she was wearing grey sweats. Her hair was tied in a bun. She was so beautiful it made my lungs scream. She grinned at my meal.
“You still haven’t learned to cook then,” she said. I shrugged.
“I made this. In the microwave. That was progress. Last week, I was raiding the neighbour’s bins”.
“Is it strange that I actually believe that?”
“No”. We shared a small laugh. Alisha, staring at the wind chimes hung on edge of the roof, glided to the steps. Lowering herself onto the wooden panels, she stared out onto the garden.
“You’re a mess,” she remarked. I lowered my head.
“I missed that”.
“You went to the reunion,” I realised. “But I thought we had a pact”. Alisha rolled her eyes.
“Marcus, that was over twenty years ago. You remember what I said? When we made that pact”. I nodded.
“That we should never resort to the past to define our future. You were always so much wiser than me,” I muttered. She shook her head.
“I thought I was smart. Not wise.”
“You are smart and wise,” I said.
“You always were my favourite ego-booster”. I laughed and, after a minute, she joined in. She looked oddly haggard; her eyes were shrouded in dark circles. As I stared at her, I saw that her arm hung at an odd angle.
“Alisha, are you alright? What happened at the reunion?” I asked. She turned to me, her smile lopsided. Lost, yet found.
“I never went to the reunion, Marcus. I’ve been dead for ten years Marcus. You were listed as my next of kin, alongside Thomas. When you were told I died in a car accident on the way to see you, you retreated. Hid inside your house for two years. You stopped making friends. You’re still a virgin, still waiting for me”.
My heart plummeted. I shook my head, blinking.
Alisha was here, with me. She wasn’t dead. She wasn’t gone.
She was still here.
But I could see blood on her temple. She was pale and naked, just as I remembered when the examiner showed me her body on that slab.
“Do you remember what I said?” asked the shadow named Alisha. I shook my head, tears stinging.
“Don’t go. Stay with me”. She glanced at me, pityingly.
“You know I’d love nothing more. But I need to go. I need to move on. And so you do, Marcus. Do you remember what I said?” I shook my head again.
“You see,” she laughed. “This is why you were no good at history”. I wiped my eyes. The tears kept coming.
“I remember,” I whispered. “The past is ash, but the future is fire. You told me to move on. But I can’t”. Alisha turned away. Stood. Launching from the chair, I reached out and—
My fingers fell through dust and air and I was alone on the veranda, my upturned plate of macaroni cheese splattered on the ground.