MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Visitors joked that it was the kind of place people came to die. A town at the end of the world, at the end of the century: the absolute end of the line.
The population aging, sick and tired: the remains of the old brickworks hollowed by the wind. A little south, a well-known suicide spot, white cliffs that drew the despairing up and then over into the cool, gray sea. Train tracks that stopped abruptly, roads that led to no place but here … These were the obvious signs, I suppose: the root of the joke. But it wasn’t just that.
It was the rain-battered shop fronts with peeling signs; pavilions caked in bird shit and graffiti. The gray beaches, equal parts sand and shards of glass, crumpled beer cans and plastic bags. The arcades on the promenade, Caesar’s Palace, Golden Ticket, Lucky Strike, carpets damp with beer and bleach, copper coins rattling on tin; men smoking in the slot machines’ lurid glow, hypnotized by the roll and ring. The pale fields of burned grass, barbed wire, and brick. The shipping yards, great metal tombs arranged by mechanical beasts; the willful, leering stench of the fish market. The corrugated bomb shelters, the stone mermaid, face worn away by the wind.
This is where I spent my youth, and found myself fixed, like a figure painted in oils; decay still rolling on, the shore dragged away by the sea. One day it will all be gone, and the world will be better for it.
There is little to tell of the years before I turned fifteen, my childhood quiet and dull, days and years blurring without consequences. My mom stayed home, taught me to read, watched me grow; my dad ran a small shop which, as far as I could tell, sold everything. I would hide in the cool, dark storerooms, plucking neon pens and glittering pencil sharpeners from scratched plastic trays and damp cardboard boxes. Board games, tested by me, playing my shadow. Books read, carefully, spines unbroken, pages held lightly as ancient runes. It sounds lonely, I imagine, but it was a comfort.
When I was eight, Mom said we’d been blessed with a special Christmas gift, and rubbed her swollen belly. I went to the encyclopedia. Imagined her insides stretching, fists clutching tendons, amniotic sac bursting, tiny fingers crawling out. It’s one of the only Christmases I remember now, as an adult.
It was a girl. A writhing, red-faced, screaming girl with a mass of black hair and cold, gray eyes. She was possessed, her whole life, with a look that suggested she knew more than she let on, little keeper of secrets. She was seven when Dad’s car slipped under the wheels of a truck as he drove us to the beach. He died instantly, she lingering for four days, though she barely looked like herself. Barely looked like a person at all, really, her skin mottled blue, wet stitches carved into her skull.
I, for my part, climbed out of the car, a smudge of blood on my arm (not mine), plucked a damp fragment of bone from my hair (nor this). Brushed away the frost of glass that clung to my skin. Walked away, feeling like I’d woken from a long, dull dream.
And that, I suppose, was the end. Or the beginning, depending on how you look at it.
Their lives ended, and Mom’s life stopped. Even decades later, when I returned to clean the house after her death, everything remained as it was that day. Wallpaper graying, carpets scorched with wear. The same books on the shelves, same VHS tapes unboxed under the old TV, still emitting a low, static hum. Same tie hanging in a loose knot on the bedroom door, same crumpled papers in the bin, the same last words abandoned mid-sentence on a yellowing page.
“Perhaps we might consider an alternative approach,” my dad’s last recorded thought in smudged, black ink. Everything was placed there with memories attached, my dad’s fingerprints and sister’s laugh still covering everything, like a skin that wouldn’t shed.
I, however, felt nothing. Leaving the hospital, nothing; throwing a clod of damp soil into the pit, soft thump on varnished pine, nothing. Mom weeping on the sofa, clawing at my hair, pressing damp, hot palms to my face, clinging to my life: still, nothing.
Weeks later, I woke on the sofa to find her staring at me as one might take in a half-expected ghost, lip bitten to the jelly beneath. “I thought she was … I thought you were gone, too,” she said, her eyes wet with tears, pointing at a face on the screen that looked like mine, but for the details. Hair dull blond, hers shining, mine textured, split, like old rope; eyes close as one might find to black, but for a chink of amber in her left iris; lips round, always a little too full for lipstick, which gave me the distinct look of a circus clown. Mine were chipped and ridged white with medicinal balm, a compulsive picking I couldn’t shake, hers blush pink, smooth and smiling to reveal white, un-chipped teeth. I thought, watching her face flicker on the screen, that she was a better version of me—the one I longed to be. The artist’s ideal, brush softly smoothing my faults, delicate touch between the lines.
“Renewed concerns for the missing teenager Emily Frost, who disappeared exactly one month ago today. Her whereabouts remain unknown, and her family has issued a new appeal for any information relating to her disappearance.”
I watched the stock footage, the familiar cliffs, the too-familiar edge. Nobody bothered to count the suicides these days. Emily had last been seen walking there, at the highest point.
“Mom, I’m here. That isn’t me. She’s just a jumper,” I said, reaching for the remote. “They always are.”
“We just want you to come home,” her dad said, staring down the lens. “We miss you, Emily. Please, please come home.”
I changed the channel and went back to sleep.
* * *
If there can be said to be an upside to miraculously surviving a car wreck, apart from the immediately obvious, it’s that nobody expects you to go to school.
“Not until you’re ready,” Mom said. The therapist nodded sagely behind her, a cornflake stuck to his mustache, a fat fingerprint smudge on his glasses. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. Just take your time.”
And so I did. I took my time: skipped school right through to my final exams, declaring myself “home-schooled.” I sat in a silent hall, surrounded by people I knew, my former classmates whispering as I walked in and right out again: “I thought she was dead,” one said, pointing at me with a bloody, bitten nail.
I had already planned my future or, at least, had drawn a basic sketch. I would leave—though where to, I wasn’t sure. I’d get a job. A waitress in a quiet café, where interesting visitors would tell me thrilling lies. A bookshop clerk, offering new worlds to bored children; an assistant in a gallery, maybe. I could learn to sing, or play guitar. I could write a book, life ticking quietly along around me. It wouldn’t be glamorous, sure, but it would be enough. Anywhere, really, would be better than here, this town in which the grays of the old houses, sky, and sea seeped into your heart and turned it irreparably black.
But on the day of my results, I came home to find Mom at the kitchen table, papers clenched in white-knuckled fists. “It’s what they would’ve wanted,” she said, handing me the entry forms for Elm Hollow Academy—a private girls’ college on the outskirts of town. “It’s a privilege,” she said: one afforded to me by the unspeakably large settlement offered by the haulage company under whose articulated truck our car had been crushed.
School, to me, was all taped-up windows, boxy buildings cracking at the edges, gray even in sunlight; freezing portacabins, graffitied bathroom mirrors, and the loamy stink of teenage sweat. “I don’t want to,” I said, and left.
She didn’t argue. But the papers sat on the kitchen table for weeks, and each time I passed I found myself drawn to the glossy pictures on the cover of the brochure: looming, redbrick buildings set against a too-blue sky, sunlight needling through pearly clouds behind a Gothic arch. There was a decadent, honey-sweet richness to it—one that I knew wasn’t for me, but seemed, in the flickering kitchen light, the stifling damp in the air, to be another world entirely.
And so—reluctantly, at least as far as my mom was concerned—I agreed to give it a try. Our dilapidated Volvo purred behind me at the gates, and I turned to wave her away, though she—thinking herself unobserved—was staring down at the steering wheel, grin a steely rictus beneath strings of dirty hair. I winced, and turned away, catching the eye of a passing girl watching, embarrassed for us both.
Copyright © 2019 by Katie Lowe