mentions of drugs
The beauty of being shrouded in yesterdays is that you are blissfully ignorant of all that you will learn in the todays. Yesterday I had no idea that I was capable of murder, today there is no doubt. My eyelids closed delicately and released the singular drop that had been waiting for a slight movement to shimmy it down my cheek, tracking a path through tan foundation. It started 12 years’ worth of yesterday’s ago, that’s it. That’s all it took. And I can see your face contorting into a look almost like bewilderment but let me assure you that 12 years is really not that long of a time.
Back when we were wallflowers (12 years ago)
Buttercream yellow petals, rounded at the edges, were pressed flat on the paper, a life frozen in time at the point it was flattened, the point it was preserved. Colour had bled onto the page, the colour of egg yolks. ‘For my little wallflower.’ It had read in a blue fountain pen, the swirly font elegant and slightly smudged on the last ‘r.’
Inhaling, I held the paper and petals close to my chest trying to supress the smile that was threatening to splinter its way across my pale cheeks.
‘Carmen.’ His voice broke my reverie and I startled, disturbing the metallic padlock looped through my locker.
‘You made me jump.’ I swatted at him with the paper in a mock annoyance.
‘I see you got my note.’ His eyes fell to what was still gripped tightly between my thumb and index fingers.
‘Thank you.’ My voice became softer but still seemed to catch at the edges. His was like caramel when it’s just being melted and formed in a hot pan. He was sweet and I was sour. Apples and oranges. Squash and water.
Don’t go making the assumption that his was a romantic gesture or my thoughts were wishful thinking of something more because they weren’t. We had always been close, close like siblings. Nothing more, nothing less. The sort of kids that grew up playing basketball in the street because our parents lived opposite each other and were always having cheese and wine evenings. His dad had rummaged a basketball hoop out of their overflowing garage and propped it up on their driveway and we’d play until the sun went down and the streetlamps came on.
We went from drinking apple juice out of milk bottle caps like shots and skinning knees on gravel playing chase to toffee liqueur hastily poured into chipped shot glasses and thrust into trembling hands and staying out way past the streetlamps blinked their orange eyes. Long story short, we grew up together. We learned our way through life together, and then we learned how to kill together.
It had been self-defence. We had chosen to take the shorter route home; the wind was icy and biting and had begun to numb my limbs. I just wanted to get home and Noah obliged, walking me back through the familiar streets and cutting down alleys we could navigate with our eyes closed. It was dark, he’d come out of nowhere, the slurring man swinging an open bottle of vodka, spirits heavy on his breath. And something sharp in his other hand, sharp and pointed and glinting under the slice of the moons light that cut across the alley.
I’d been scared, it had been dark, the ground seemed to swing up to meet me.
Our feet had slapped the gravel over and over and over just getting as far away as we could from there. We’d gotten far enough away to not hear the sirens when they inevitably arrived at the scene or hear the shouts of a stumbling party goer trying to find their way home and tripping over a body, their heels catching in a jacket thread.
He took my hands in his, they were cold, so, so cold. And then he’d begged me to look at him, my eyes searching for his through my blurry tear induced haze. ‘I’m going to walk you home. Carmen? Carmen? Can you hear me? Are you listening?’ He shook my hands slightly to bring me back to the present. ‘Carmen I’m going to walk you home and you’re going to get into bed and wake up tomorrow and drink some tea and eat some scrambled eggs and forget about all of this. All of it, including what we have, okay? It was self-defence, I promise you it was, but we can’t be seen together the way we were because this could all come back to us if we’re not careful.’
My head started moving in a nod without me consciously telling it too. ‘Tea and eggs, got it.’ I mumbled, my veins trembling and yet seemingly on fire at the same time.
He didn’t let go of my hand the whole way home, not even when we got to my front door. ‘I love you Carmen.’ He pressed his lips to my knuckles and let them hover there for a few lengthened minutes. ‘But you know why we can’t see each other anymore, right? I don’t want it, I really don’t. I don’t even want to imagine my life without you in it.’ His voice choked, in that moment it didn’t sound like hot caramel, it was like he was talking while trying to swallow grapes.
For 12 short years I had changed and melded into something new, not a wallflower anymore but someone capable of much more. For 12 long years I had watched him on social media and obsessed over him in the way only a person truly grieving a gap someone left behind can. I watched his colourful photos reels of trips to Cuba in summer and ice skates in winter and artfully taken pictures of movies tickets in front of bags of popcorn all year round.
I knew he recognised me that first time I walked into ‘Charlie’s coffee, café and lounge’ and then he’d drawn a smiley face on the cup and that olive branch had been all I needed. He'd slid my takeaway coffee cup across the polished counter, steam slowly rising from the latte that I thought I’d let myself indulge in, I needed the extra calories after the shock of seeing Noah in a burgundy polo shirt frothing milk with a steamer. He’d shot me this look that lingered for moments too long. He registered no shock but maybe he knew this would happen eventually, that we’d bump into each other again someday. Our lives were so heavily entwined, and you can’t just slice those cords tying us together, they had become taut and frayed and yet they were still there when you looked past the layers of grime and dust. Someday we were bound to come together even if it were a chance meeting.
‘Noah.’ I whispered, barely audible. I’m surprised he heard it over the radio they had playing.
‘I go on break in 15 minutes.’ His voice cracked and broke in response to my unsaid question.
Nodding, I stepped away and found one of the tucked away tables in corners that everyone searches for when they enter a café. It was 17 minutes before his shadow fell across my table. I’d thought about this moment a million times and I was always pictured myself jumping straight up but it was rather gingerly, nervously that I stood up to face him. No words were said while he folded me in his arms. 12 years’ worth of missing each other was all scooped into that one tight hug. When he drew away to see my face, his hands still on both of my arms, he smiled but it was filled with sadness.
‘You found me. Were you looking?’ He sounded hopeful. We’d both long since moved out of our parents houses and out of the town that held our secrets and our familiar streets where cheese and wine evenings were frequent.
‘Not when I walked in here but yeah, I’m always looking.’ I held up my phone to show him his own Instagram feed that I’d been scrolling through. ‘I missed you so much.’
‘Do I even need to say how much I missed you?’ He let out a short laugh and sat down on the chair opposite where I’d been. Lowering myself down so I was perched opposite him I ran my finger over the rim of my cup, tracing the steamy outline.
‘Where do we even start?’ I asked, the nerves flooding back.
‘How are you Carmen?’ He asked, his eyes catching the light, so it looked like they were sparkling. ‘Let’s start there.’
‘I’m good.’ I swallowed. ‘I work in management and it’s totally boring.’ He stifled a laugh; his face had a warmth to it now and the set of his shoulders was more relaxed. ‘And I have a dog, you would absolutely love her. My little Clove.’
‘You have a dog called Clove? That is absolutely a rabbit's name.’
‘It is not!’ I laughed and on instinct I reached for his hands across the table. They were warm and rough, grooves embedded in his palms. A wave of emotion seemed to hit me, I used to know every scar he had because I had been with him when he got them all. The one on his chin when he fell off his bike and the one on his elbow when he broke his mums wine glass.
He mistook the reason for my tears. ‘Hey, hey, it’s alright. We don’t need to think about that night. You don’t need to feel guilty.’
‘Oh, I don’t, not anymore.’ I responded, fumbling for a tissue to wipe my eyes, my nose.
‘Good, that’s good.’ He leant back in his chair stretching his arms above his head.
‘It was self-defence, nothing to be guilty for.’
‘Was it?’ He looked me directly in the eye.
‘Of course, it was, what do you mean?’
‘Carmen, honey you were in shock, and I knew I had to tell you we couldn’t see each other anymore. As awful as it sounds, I had to tell you what you needed to hear. But I really truly thought when you woke up the next day you’d know. You haven’t just forgotten, have you?’
‘Noah, what?’ I begged for answers, a cold blanket settling over me working its way into my muscles.
‘Carmen.’ He sounded pained.
‘Just tell me, rip the band aid off.’
‘It wasn’t self-defence honey.’ He gave me a moment to process what he’d said but it wasn’t processing.
‘But he was drunk and swinging a knife…’ I protested, confused. I had a sudden feeling of vertigo and pressed the pads of my fingers against my eyes.
‘I know, I know, except he wasn’t, was he?’ His eyes were pleading with me to please remember so he didn’t have to spell it out.
Letting all the memories in that I’d spent 12 years blocking out, I saw a man come down the alley with a bottle of vodka, was it opened as I’d thought it was? No, no it can’t have been because there was the red seal on it that I thought had looked rather fancy. What about the knife? He definitely had a knife and he had definitely been swaying.
‘He had a knife.’
‘Think further back.’ He urged.
We’d been on the way home from where…? From Cassandra’s place, Noah’s cousin. I loved Cass and in that moment my heart ached for missing her too. We’d been there because…
‘Oh god!’ I exclaimed. ‘We’d been on drugs that night.’
Reluctantly he nodded, ‘That poor ol’ man wasn’t drunk Carmen. Yes, he had a bottle of vodka but is that a crime? It wasn’t even open; he was probably on his way to a party. We were swaying, not him and he didn’t have a knife, I guess we both thought he did but we’d taken drugs, our testimony isn’t exactly accurate.’
‘So, all the swaying, all the slurring?’
‘Was most likely us and the bloke was trying to get out our way.’
‘This doesn’t make any sense. If he didn’t have a knife, then where did we get the knife from?’ I paused, praying for a moments silence amidst the hustle and bustle of kids and mothers trying to get hot chocolates with extra marshmallows before their little ones started screaming.
‘We were walking through the alley on Second street, remember? The one nicknamed knifers alley.’ It was true, it had been on our local news countless times and once it even made national news. Stabbings there were frequent, it was very plausible a knife or sharp shard was left behind, splintered, broken away in the fray caused by someone before us.
I thought it had been self-defence. It was not, we were the perpetrators. Yesterday I was healing, today I was slapped in the face with the realisation that I had been capable of murder.
I honestly don’t know what happened after or even how it happened, I guess that’s something else I tried to block out. Maybe the balding man at the table next to us had been a copper and was wearing a wire for some other assignment, maybe the woman who walked past with her camel-coloured trench coat and fur trim with her miniscule poodle had overheard and become hysterical. Maybe it was just time. I don’t know. But I do know that he refused to drag me down with him or maybe they don’t know about my involvement. See? There really is a lot I don’t know. It’s all very unclear and foggy when I try to unravel the strands that tie this together. There is one more thing I do know. That Noah had thick metal bracelets snapped closed on his wrists and was driven away in a car with a headband of blue lights.
This had all reopened like a wound that had been stitched closed and torn apart, all because of that smiley face on my cup, that olive branch he’d extended so I owed it to the place he left to tell them where he left them for, so I’d gone back a week later.
‘I know what happened to him, the man that used to work here and draw a smiley face on my cup.’ I paused between the words for emphasis.
The woman behind the counter didn’t stop drying up a plate while she responded.
‘We draw that smiley face on all our cups.’