Molly came to visit her every day after school and climbed onto her bed to hug her. She made an attempt at normality, watching the telly together in the evenings. Molly watched, laughing at jokes Alex couldn’t hear. Alex saw only her hospital room in 1982, heard only the beeping of machines.
“Turn it off, Molls. I’ve got a headache.”
Molly moved towards the telly and, in those few seconds, the picture flickered back to a different scene, whatever it was that Molly had been watching.
“Molly.” A nurse opened the door. “It’s time to go; leave your mum to rest.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Molly said and knelt on the bed to kiss her goodbye. The mattress dipped and the bedsprings sighed. “Evan said he’d be able to come too. Love you, Mum.”
“Love you too,” Alex whispered, and resisted the urge to not let go.
The door shut behind them; she closed her eyes and sighed.
This evening could, without a great stretch of the imagination, be called a date. It’s early morning; the bar has closed and they've been turfed out onto the street. They are both drunk, very drunk, and Gene is making his way towards the Quattro.
“Gene!” Alex chases after him, stumbling only a little. “Gene, you are not driving!”
He pulls the driver’s door open. “You’re not, Bollyknickers.”
“Of course not!” She waves her arms a little too enthusiastically and staggers sideways. “We’ll get a taxa, taxeye...cab.”
“And leave the Quattro for some toerag to nick?” The door slams.
The car doesn’t start, though, and she hurries round to the passenger side, yanking the door open and falling into her seat.
“Give me those keys, Gene.”
He holds them up, the back of his hand pressed against the ceiling. They jangle. She tries not to laugh. She makes a swipe, but they’re out of her reach from over in her seat and she nearly overbalances.
“Give them to me!”
She clambers over the gearbox and into his lap, reaching for the keys. Her fingers close around them, but he’s not letting go. Her other hand pulls his shirt up, untucks it and moves across his stomach, warm beneath her chilled fingers.
She pouts. “The Gene Genie’s not ticklish then?”
“Nope,” he says. She prods him and he takes a breath, pauses. “You’ll have to come up with something a damn sight better than that to –”
It’s definitely the alcohol that decides kissing him would be a good distraction technique. It must be.
His fingers relinquish their hold on the keys. She pulls back, grinning widely, and tucks them down the front of her top.
“Christ, Bolly,” Gene says. “Is that a challenge?”
“If you feel up to it.” She pulls a mock sad face. “Personally I’m not sure –”
He cuts her off as she had done to him. His hands, so much warmer than hers, busy themselves undoing her shirt – they can still pretend this is about the keys if they need to – and life seems to spark between them.
Gene’s hands ghost across her skin and she gasps at a sudden stab of pain. She looks down. She is wounded, bleeding, red spilling across his hands.
“Can you feel that? Is it real? This is real to me, Alex,” he says. “I bloody wish it wasn’t.”
She can’t answer. She rests her head on his chest, reassuringly solid, and listens to his breath, his heartbeat, as her own fade.
“Bolly. Bolly. Wake up, Bolly!”
“Bolls,” Gene said. Alex flailed awake. It was dark. For a moment she wondered if she was back in 1982, but quickly realised that his voice was coming from her mobile, turned off and lying uselessly on the bedside cabinet. She picked it up and squinted at the screen as her pupils contracted painfully in response to the light.
“Bolls, you have to wake up. Come on, Drake, that is an order! I can’t keep sneaking in here; they’re going to find me.”
She was tired. It would be so much easier to stop fighting. She had Molly back now.
“Alex.” Gene reached out to her on the screen and she caught her breath at the sting of sensation, so much sharper than anything else around her.
The world around her fractured, and daylight dawned in the blink of an eye. She’d always preferred day to night.
“No,” she said, and shook her head as if that could reverse it. “No, that’s not true, that’s not fair. I’m home!”
She was home.
“Did you make a wish?” Molly asked. “I did.”
Alex stared at her, around the familiar living room, down at the cake with still smoking candles on the table in front of them.
“I don’t know...I don’t –”
“It’s my birthday, Mum! You have to wish on the cake.”
“It’s not. That was a while ago, and I missed it. I’m sorry, Molls, I missed your birthday. I only wish I hadn’t.”
The world had cracked and the splinters no longer fit together.
The television blared into life and Alex looked round, knowing what she’d see: Gene, unshaven, unwashed, as scruffy as she’d ever seen. “Bolly, help me out here. I need you. You’re bloody stubborn; you’re not going to let this beat you.”
“Oh, Molls, I am so sorry. I have to go. I need to leave.”
“Why would you leave me?” Molly asked, and Alex forced herself to remember that she wasn’t her little girl, not really.
“You’re not real. You’re just a reflection.”
“Aren’t I good enough?” Not Molly. Not Molly. The girl wasn’t Molly, so Alex’s heart wasn’t breaking.
“I’m too far, here. I have to be closer and that world is...realer, because it’s not pretending to be something else. I need a constant, some way home. Molly, I’m coming home, I promise.”
She reached, clutched at Gene’s coat and held on, a lifeline pulling her back. Back to 1982. Two steps backwards, one step forward.