Suzie light as air. In love with the feel of that as she drifts through the city. There’s a dreamlike quality to roaming and scrambling when you’re not heading anywhere in particular. Every so often she’ll go scurrying round some corner, appreciating the cut off. Because there is no need to keep on carrying the burden of what is out of sight. Is there? Where you’ve arrived at now– it’s enough. In SunnySide children’s home they used to say she was like a cat. Some sad stray left out to wander as it pleased. The kind you saw at night sometimes, lop eared, scrawny. There it’d be, sneaking through shadow, at home in empty streets. But is that really the way Suzie sees herself?
Being pregnant and barely able to cope with the thought, the idea seeming heavier than the physical reality. Only three months gone, nothing showing yet, she notes with relief, as she smoothes her hand across her shirt front, checking for signs. She is still unable to visualize the day, the day when… It’ll happen yes, but it’s so far off. Which means she can relax. Suzie has a very impractical sense of time. What when will be like when it comes is not a worry she needs to be having right now. So she just slips from street to street, glad about the corners. You don’t have to look so you don’t look. Six months away! Between the nice and simple now and the hard to picture then, is a long long time. Seems like an eternity in fact.
Meeting up with Jan at the burger bar. You can’t see a thing, look at me, Suzie’s eyes go, challenging. Jan is obliging, she gives a hasty glance. No, no sign of anything. Not at all. Their eyes to and fro the questions and answers, nothing needing to be actually said. They’re cool with one another over this, are at one.
Suzie can’t deal with the thought. No. Yet, strangely, she has this trust. She has no notion where it might have come from but still she knows it’s there. So she can flit and scuttle about as much as she pleases. And she’ll still be all right. She’s like a kite afloat on a gusty wind but all the while attached by a piece of string to something solid that will never let her go. And in a way, though Suzie doesn’t exactly go into things she knows by some deep rooted instinct there’s no real need to fret.
“Hey girl, let’s have a big night,” Jan goes, as she sweeps. What a job, what a job this is. Such a shame she’s got no money. Because she wouldn’t be doing any such thing if she had any. Who would?
At this moment she is tackling a pile of crumbs and a couple of fatty fries she’d found stuck to a table leg. Then she scoops up a crumpled serviette with grease marks in one corner. Two wiggly lines– the impression of a pair of lips. Where they’d pressed, pressed hard against the paper, leaving this puckered uneven circle. Like a kiss mark, Jan muses in passing.
“Girl, You know what I’m meanin? A big night. You up for that? It’ll be great, yeah.”
Suzie just nods, she isn’t saying no. In fact she’s in agreement. Everybody needs to mellow out now and again. It’s a lifesaver. And how long is it since they did that? Feels like ages. All the same she wonders where Jan gets the stuff. It costs. Somebody must be paying. Rick, the old guy Jan sees here and there? The funny ole guy with the leather hat. Lines like whiskers each side of his wrinkly mouth, eyes with a metal glint. Or someone else. Stuff ain’t cheap. Jan’s skint, or very nearly is. It’s a worry, or would be if Suzie allowed herself to be pressed down by that. She won’t though – doesn’t even let her own troubles get to her. It’ll be a great night is the only way to look at this. Herself and Jan. Suzie thinks back to last time. What she can remember of it. She gets a strong sense of swirling, but not sick swirl. Bright, like fireworks. She’d looked up and seen stars and circles flooding out the sky. And there was a sound to go with them. Happy voices. A host of angels! Or her and Jan singing. Most likely it was only the pair of them. But still…
“Sure,” Suzie says at last and she gives Jan a grin as her mate goes scraping up remnants of bun from under the tables, cleaning out the corners; toppling trash into the pan with the see-through lid.
“We can take off in a bit,” Jan tells her. And she’s thinking, I’m glad it’s not me. Glad it’s you me ole mate and not me. I wouldn’t be able to cope. What a responsibility. Thought of a kid crying and being the one who has to deal with that. Being a mother. All that strength you’d need. Jan has a sudden mood swing to low just visualizing this. She glances sideways at her friend. Suzie is sharp and sleek as ever. But the time will come when she won’t be able to keep herself up there. It goes without saying she’s bound to sink.
“I’ve only got the toilets left now. Just a quick job,” Jan says, doing her best to fling off a sudden pressing heaviness and keep things buoyant. For both their sakes. “I won’t be hanging about, I can tell you. Just the bins and the loos and then I’m done. A quick brush or two, plenty of bleach. You don’t even notice. It’s not so bad. Fifteen minutes at the outside and we can be off. I got some awesome stuff. Don’t ask me.”
Suzie represses a churn of sick feeling. It’s not to do with what she finds so hard to consciously think about. It is only the idea of cleaning loos. Jan used to be a smart girl; seemed like a winner, as though she was moving on to someplace better. Just went to show that you never knew where you might end up. Except Suzie is sure, she’s almost sure, this won’t happen to her. She couldn’t ever be working in a burger bar, or any place like it. That constant frying smell. And as for eating the stuff itself. Not her. Never in a million years. Moist pap of the buns and the sweetish taste of burger meat. Not her thing at all. She doesn’t know how people can stand it. Yet here people are, lots of them. Sitting on each side of her, all grazing away together. Suzie went on a farm holiday once with her adoptive parents and she remembers watching a herd of cattle in a field tugging endlessly at tufts of grass. Round and round their mouths went as they chewed. Ironic, isn’t it, she thinks, because cows are mainly what everyone here is eating. There’s a funny side to this which makes her giggle.
Jan saunters off with her long handled dustpan. She waves as she goes through the toilet door. Waves as though leaving on some fab plane. Going on a jaunt, say, heading out to somewhere she’s never been before. Somewhere exotic, a place both funky and desirable. Somewhere hot maybe, with palm trees and a beach. A glamorous destination.
Suzie wonders if Jan’s casual wave is an act or if she’s really unaware of just how bad her life’s become. The lank haired man in the leather cap with a smile that isn’t really a smile. More a bitter smirk. Would Jan do it with him? Would she do it for stuff? Does Jan know what she’s doing; know why she does anything? Do either of them, come to think of it? For one second Suzie is acutely aware of being pregnant, picturing motherhood as a life sentence. Yet, it doesn’t really frighten her. Not deep down.
She used to see herself and Jan as two of a kind. Feckless is the word Jan’s mum was fond of using to describe the pair of them. Feckless seemed to be Jan’s mum’s favourite word. She always said it with a fizzy sounding laugh. Yet her eyes were dark with anger; with accusation. As though Jan had let her down. Why is it that Jan does all the iffy things she does? It’s as though she’s trying her best to live out her mum’s worst nightmare. To be the reverse of what her mother wants. Be a rebel. Suzie doesn’t know why she dwells on such things and wonders if she’s partly talking about herself. She’s never known her own mum, not her real one. Her birth mother gave her up. For ten years Suzie was in the children’s home then she was adopted. But she definitely isn’t going down an identical route. She’ll do quite the opposite. The thing about Jan though is she’s up in the air. There’s a disconnected feel. That minute when her mate gives a carefree wave as she skips breezily through the doorway to the loos Suzie sees herself unexpectedly as down to earth by comparison. And funnily enough it doesn’t faze her in the least. She even takes comfort from the thought of being anchored. Suzie hasn’t quite looked at things that way before.
Well tonight, they’ve got tonight. They’re gonna have a wild time. Going to have a laugh. Just this once won’t hurt. Will it? A wave of nausea suddenly passes through Suzie. She feels a tainted liquid rising up her throat, something like the taste of liquorice. A flavour that she’s never liked. She looks down at the table. Next to her is a wedge of half bitten bun on a paper napkin with a chunk of greying burger. Cold, congealed. Gotta get out, get out of the heat and the harsh white light, gotta get away from sights like that. Suzie goes outside.
It’s dark, which feels welcoming. Streetlamps with a soft yellow glow. She wanders down one street and then another breathing lightly, fighting off her queasy feeling. And she tries to distract herself by browsing in shop windows. After a while Suzie glances at her watch. Almost time to go back for Jan. Then she looks about her. Everything seems unfamiliar. She’s wandered round a corner abstractedly and for a moment isn’t quite sure where she is. A street she doesn’t recognize. It’s even darker here– too dark if anything. She darts this way and that, unnerved, thinking how easy it is to get lost. A couple of wrong turnings and you’re nowhere that you know. There’s a strike of panic in her. Then she sees the street where she’d expected to be is just a little way ahead. Miraculous. Suzie breathes more easily, laughs at her own lack of faith. It might take a little time but of course you can get to where you need to be. Life’s not a horror story. Nothing like as bad as that. Not for her anyway. Jan’s someone you might have to worry about.
All at once she has a sense of that and the feeling she’s already had tonight crystallizes into sudden sharp awareness. The two of them are very different. Suzie has the intuition that she is moving forward steadily towards some unknown goal. She will carry on enjoying life’s blind corners and won’t be defeated. If she’s lost it will be only in the short term. As she steps lightly along an ambulance passes her at lightning speed. Gives her a chill, the sight of it. An ambulance is there to help people but it also reminds you that people can be in danger. They can even die.
Now she’s on the main road again, surprisingly close to the burger bar. An apology for being late forms itself on her lips then fades. The ambulance is parked outside. Suzie’s chill feeling increases. Because, what’s happening and why is it here? She stops moving. A small crowd has assembled outside the burger bar entrance, come out of nowhere, as crowds will, everybody knowing something’s up, or even knowing what. Suzie stumbles forward. She’s so late now. But there must have been an accident and Jan will take that into account. It will be a reason, somehow, for the lateness. She goes in through the doorway though something inside her says she shouldn’t. Nearly everyone has left, the place is practically deserted. Two policemen enter behind her. Suzie guesses if she’d been a couple of minutes later there would have been no way she could have managed to get back in here. No sign of Jan, but she sees a girl who works behind the counter standing over by the window, talking on her phone.
“So what’s going on?” Suzie asks but the girl looks past her with frightened eyes, looks inwards towards the door of the toilets. The door is opening.
This is when Suzie’s skin goes from chill to icy cold. She wants to ask the police what’s happening, badly wants to, but now no words will come to her. Amazingly, the sick feeling has retreated so she doesn’t have that to cope with on top of the fear. Because fear is what she’s full of now. It wraps itself tight round her and she finds herself running towards the toilet door, running as one hampered by a shroud of fear would run. Clumsily, awkwardly, very nearly falling. As she gets there two ambulance attendants come out carrying a stretcher between them. Jan is lying stiff beneath covers. Her face protrudes, mask-white. Before the door closes behind them Suzie catches sight of the mirror in the ladies’ toilets. Written large there, in lipstick, like in a naff crime movie, is a single word: Weightless. She sees the word clearly for just one moment, sees it bold before the door swings to. That wax-red slippery tail of letters trailing away at the end as though the lipstick was too heavy to go on being held.
And then the police are with her and they’re talking to her, questioning. “Is she a friend of Jan, the girl who, the girl who…?” Jan’s overdosed, taken a line of coke too many. They’re rushing her to A&E straight away but all of them know it’ll be too late. Seen this too many times. Such a tragedy. The girl who has gone too far for saving. The police are telling the last few stragglers to leave.
But Suzie has seen the word, the waxy word on the mirror and she’ll never be able to wipe it out. She knows it will haul itself around with her forever, becoming one of those memories that go as deep as life itself. A haunting. From the doorway she watches the rear of the ambulance as it pulls away; hears the wail of its siren. And sick rises up worse than before. She runs outside, breathing in deeply to try and overcome it. Close by her cars are pulling over to give the ambulance a clear way through. Suzie watches it moving on its no-hope journey into darkness, out of sight.
In SunnySide they used to be taken for a walk in the park every Sunday. The kids liked to gather stones. The rounder and heavier the better. They smoothed the stones with their fingers then threw them into the pond one after the other. It was a fun thing to do. None of them knew why. But it was satisfying. Each stone splashed as it went in making a plopping sound and going under quickly because of the delicious weight. There were ripples that got wider and wider. Everyone had a turn. You had to wait for the ripples of someone else’s stone to spread as far as they were able and then peter out before having your go. And when your moment came you threw your stone as hard as you could. So it would make the biggest splash; so it would sink fast and the ripples would be wide and clear cut and would go on spreading further and further outwards across the water for the longest time.
Jay Merill is published by or has work forthcoming in 3: AM Magazine, A-Minor, CHEAP POP Lit, Crack the Spine, Entropy, Epiphany, Ginosko, Gravel, Hobart, Jellyfish Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Literary Orphans, Lunch Ticket, matchbook, Per Contra, Prairie Schooner, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, Trafika Europe, Upstreet Literary Journal, and Wigleaf. She is a 2017 Write Well Award nominee, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Jay lives in London and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. She is the author of two short story collections published by Salt, God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies, which were nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize.