They implode quietly, Naomi and Emily. There are no raised voices, no words at all, just baleful stares across the chasm stretching between them while a sense of inevitability settles around them like dust. Later, when Naomi's alone, stretched out on her bed in her darkening room, there are no tears, just an endless chain of cigarettes and memories of Emily playing on a loop in her mind.
She lies there for an indeterminable length of time.
Naomi finds herself at Effy's. She's not sure why her legs lead her to the Stonem house, but once she's there she can't think of a better place to be.
Effy says nothing when Naomi stands in her doorway, forlorn; the only sign that she acknowledges the state Naomi's in is a slight quirk of an eyebrow, a silent question that doesn't really need to be answered.
Which is just as well. Naomi chokes out, "Emily..." before her throat closes up and Effy's upon her, wrapping her in an awkward, bony hug. It feels unpractised, like Effy's not used to being a shoulder to cry on, but it's comforting all the same and mostly enough to keep the tears at bay. (One or two might escape. Naomi's only human).
Effy takes her out; that's how they deal, after all. But the night is a bust; they find themselves at the same club as Emily and Katie and they end up leaving before they can even get fucked up. But Naomi doesn't want to go home, doesn't want to be alone after seeing the tears in Emily's eyes picked out by strobe lighting, so she goes back with Effy to her house.
There's a half-empty bottle of vodka lying around in Effy's room. Naomi takes a swig without asking.
Naomi's not sure what Effy says that's so funny; the words enter her head, hit her humour button, and promptly vanish again, leaving her laughing, choking, spilling vodka down herself.
What Effy does next surprises her: she moves forward in one fluid motion and half-licks, half-kisses the vodka from Naomi's chin, then leans back, a satisfied smirk on her face.
"What was that for?" Naomi asks, her laugh embarrassed now.
"I need a reason?"
"To lick my face? Yeah, you do."
A beat, then Effy says, "Didn't want to waste the booze."
"Because you're in such short supply." Drunk, the words become a tongue-twister, and then they're both laughing, Naomi so hard that she can't breathe. It's almost enough to forget the situation; almost enough, until Effy kisses her again.
"You're fucked up," Naomi says, once they pull apart and she's caught her breath. "In every sense."
"I am," Effy says, "but aren't we all?"
Something inside Naomi wants to say no, but she's no longer sure if that's true.
The next time they kiss, it's Naomi that initiates it.
The best thing about fucking Effy--Effy, who has always been so knowing, omniscient--is taking her by surprise and teaching her something new.
She's a fast learner.
Afterwards, when the sun is rising, Effy says, "Your life doesn't have to end with her."
It lasts about a week. Naomi and Effy exist solely in the half-light of dawn, when the dirty rainwater glow is just filtering through the curtains and the birds are beginning to sing. It feels unreal, lying the wrong way round on Effy's bed and leisurely fucking through a haze of booze and smoke, but that's how it should be--unreal. If it wasn't, Naomi would have to face it. Emily's presence lingers in the room like a ghost, but they never speak her name; such a thing would bring the pain back, sharply anchoring them in reality, and it's better not to feel.
Naomi has become an expert at not feeling.
She lies there in the afterglow of sex, inexplicable laughter bubbling up in her chest. It's the fucking spliff making everything seem funnier than it is, like the way Effy looks at her, knowing how impenetrable her gaze is and revelling in it. She thinks Effy's like a Rubik's cube; deceptively simple to figure out, if you know the right way to look at her, but it's too difficult for most people and they give up while she's still a mess. Naomi's not daft; she knows it's stupid to even try.
Still, she can't help herself asking, "Why are you even doing this?" She doesn't expect a straight answer.
Effy exhales a ring of smoke and smiles. "I like fucking people who aren't in love with me. Less complicated that way."
Effy shrugs, uncaps the nearly-empty bottle of vodka and takes a swig.
"But you don't even like girls."
"Some of us don't make that distinction."
"Fuck you," Naomi says. She finds it's an appropriate response to most things Effy says.
"What, again?" Effy raises an eyebrow. "Sure."
One night, they go dancing. Or, that's the plan, but they get so fucked up so quickly that movement is almost beyond them, and they end up wrapped around each other on the dancefloor, barely swaying, while drunken shapes bump into them from all angles. Naomi grips on tight to Effy, burying her face into Effy's shoulder so hard that she sees stars, watches the colours explode on her eyelids--stripes of white and swathes of orange and the occasional wash of blue. Effy feels wrong under Naomi's touch, too tall, too thin, but it's not that Effy's wrong, it's that she's not Emily. It's what she both loves and loathes about Effy: she's elusive, a series of negatives, her whole being defined by the quality of not-Emily.
When Effy kisses her, she tastes sweet and sharp, like a summer fruit that Naomi can't place. The kisses overwhelm her; heat spreads through her body like a forest fire. She thinks she could grow to like not-Emily.
They stay there, wrapped up in each other, until the club closes, and then they stumble back to Naomi's house; it's closer, and they're both too skint for a taxi.
They don't fuck, for a change. They're both too out of it, and too hot; even out of the close heat of the club, the air is too still, and Naomi's sure that if she touched Effy, she'd burn. So they lie on Naomi's bed--Effy on the side which is Emily's no longer--and stare up at the ceiling in a daze. Naomi thinks she can feel the world revolving beneath her--slow here on the surface, deceptive, like they're not hurtling through space.
It makes her feel dizzy, sick. Or maybe that's the drugs. She'd get up and vomit, clear her system like she needs to, but she doesn't want to break the moment by moving. (It's not even a moment worth preserving.)
If she concentrates hard on Effy's presence beside her, she can start to unravel her and make her unreal, like staring at a word for so long that it loses all meaning, becomes unfamiliar and strange. Except she can't stare at Effy, because Effy stares back, through her, this x-ray vision Effy's great secret and gift. So Naomi focuses on the ceiling instead, the yellow almost grey in the lack of light, and feels Effy instead. They're not even touching, but in the inch or two that separates them, Naomi can feel the heat of Effy, and when she accidentally closes her eyes for a moment she sees Effy there, the after-image of Effy's eyes branded on her retinas.
She opens her eyes and moves, the moment ripe for shattering now. Effy's staring at her, like she's been waiting for Naomi to surface and now that she has, Effy has ideas.
"I'm not in the mood," Naomi says, the words scratching unpleasantly at her throat.
Effy ignores her and sits up, crosses her legs, giving herself a better vantage point from which to scrutinise Naomi. Like building a castle on a hill, except Naomi's hardly going to attack.
"Why were you so afraid of being gay?" Effy asks, and the question is so unexpected that Naomi laughs. "Or bi. Liking girls. Why did it scare you?"
"Fuck knows." It seems like years ago now, so distant and far away it's as if the time never existed, relegated to ancient history that can only ever be studied, never experienced. "It wasn't about being gay, it was... realising that I didn't know myself as well as I thought. Wouldn't that freak you out?"
Effy smiles, that wild expression in her eyes. "I don't know myself at all. That's what makes life interesting."
"And that's why no one else really knows you either."
Something in Effy's expression deadens and she lies back down. "Nobody ever really knows anyone, Naomi. Stupid to think you can get inside another person's head."
Waking to find Effy in her bed is strange; it feels like Effy's intruding, but it's Naomi's fault for inviting her in the first place. Everything about the picture is wrong, from the long shape of Effy's legs stretching too far under the sheets, to the different timbre of her breathing. She doesn't belong here. In the cocoon of Effy's room they're safe; there, in that strange limbo, they can exist without consequence. It's a place where things don't actually happen and can be forgotten once you leave. Naomi's room is different; it's solid, it belongs in the world. Effy shouldn't be there.
She doesn't stay for breakfast. She slips out as soon as she wakes, without a word, and Naomi thinks that maybe Effy understands.
"That wasn't Emily," Naomi's mum says when Naomi ventures downstairs, and although her tone is conversational, it still feels like an accusation.
"Fuck off, Mum, she's just a friend."
"All right, I was only asking." Her mum smiles sadly, like her heart is breaking. "So what did happen with Emily?"
It's more than Naomi can stand. She registers something hot pricking her eyes before she realises they're tears. She leaves the kitchen without eating.
That night, she finds herself at Effy's again. As soon as she flops onto the bed and Effy wordlessly hands her a spliff she feels more relaxed, even before she's taken a drag. They pass it between them and each time she inhales, Naomi feels the tension of the day begin to unspool in her chest until she's so high she feels like she's adrift, cut loose with nothing to anchor her.
Sometimes when Naomi's high, she starts philosophising. For no reason at all, it suddenly becomes important to explain things to Effy, to explain the world, to show that Effy's not the only one who knows things. She wants to explain about free will, and how it doesn't really exist, but the words have a long way to travel from her brain to her mouth, and the ones that don't get lost are swallowed by Effy's kisses instead.
She thinks Effy was born to this, born with a natural talent to make people feel good even when they hate themselves. (It would be a cruel joke, had anyone intended it, because it seems the only person Effy can't extend the talent to is herself, no matter how hard she tries.) Naomi allows herself to get lost in Effy, in the moment, and then she does her best to give back.
She thinks maybe Effy is the sort of person who can never be satisfied, who can never feel enough. Or maybe it's that she feels too much.
"So you believe in fate, then?" Effy asks. Either Naomi had said more than she realised, or Effy intuited what she was thinking. Neither would surprise her.
"It's not like that. Just because we don't have any control, it doesn't mean anything's guiding us." She spreads her hands out in front of her, gesturing uselessly in the air. "It's all just an inevitable chain of events, one thing impacting the next. Like knocking down dominoes, you know?"
Effy tilts her head to one side. "But what if I were to flick the dominoes in a different direction?"
"Ah, well, that's the thing: you are one of the dominoes. You just don't realise it."
"Sounds like an excuse not to give a fuck."
Naomi feels a weight settle on her, a sadness she can't quite shake. "It's something you have to ignore to pretend that anything matters."
For a moment Effy studies her, then her lips quirk up in a smile. "No more spliff for you."
It lasts about a week, then just as suddenly as it began, it's over.
They're fucking at the foot of Effy's bed, only slightly tipsy and a little bit high, which counts as sober for them. The movement of Effy's tongue is deliberate and slow, no matter how hard Naomi's fingers twine in her hair, and there's something that Effy does, some imperceptible motion that Naomi wouldn't be able to describe later, that calls to mind Emily. The image of Emily springs into Naomi's mind just as she's about to come, and it's the weirdest orgasm of her life, so much cognitive dissonance going on she loses all sight of where she is.
Effy senses it. Of course she does.
"Why are we even doing this?" Naomi asks, not for the first time. She's not sure it will ever make sense.
"Not everything has to be meaningful, Naomi. Some things just... are."
Naomi looks at her, at the expression she can never penetrate, and the answer is so simple it's a wonder it took her this long to figure out. "Emily and I, though. That means something."
Effy says nothing, nods.
"I think I'll go back to her," Naomi says. "If she'll take me, I mean."
Effy sounds tired when she says, "She will."
"How do you--"
The walk home is soundtracked by early morning birdsong. The streets of Bristol are grey in the pale dawn light but it smells like summer, the musty scent of recent rain mingling with the occasional waft of honeysuckle. Underfoot, it's damp; there's a hole in the sole of one of Naomi's flimsy pumps, mysteriously acquired the night before, and she feels the cold pavement on her heel with each step. She ought to look where she's going, make sure she doesn't step on anything sharp, but instead she focuses on the sky, watching as the grey slowly succumbs to blue.
The sun's cleared the horizon by the time Naomi gets home, and the last thing she wants to do is sleep. Her mind's too active, the high from the spliff having worn off on the journey back to her house, and she keeps turning over questions in her mind, most of them starting with, "What if?" She sits on the front step and smokes her last cigarette, watching the spirals of smoke dissipate into the air, and once the cigarette's gone she just sits, waiting for the street to slowly wake up. With the first signs of stirring she gets up herself, and after a shower and change of clothes she feels a bit more human, a bit more like her old self.
She starts walking, the route second nature to her. The streets seem almost unfamiliar in the sunlight, too bright, and Naomi wonders how she became so unused to daylight in so short a time, how she was led so far astray.
Sooner than she expected, Naomi turns onto Dibstall Road, and when she's faced with the front door she finds herself hesitating. Part of her wants to cut and run, to find Effy again or just start afresh by herself, but there's a reason why she can't get Emily out of her head and there's no point pretending otherwise. She presses the doorbell.
When she opens the door, Emily smiles.