When Tony gets off the train from Cardiff there's a woman waiting for him, leaned against his mother's car, pulling on a cigarette.
She's hollow-eyed and hollow-boned, and his bags feel too heavy in his hands.
He stoops to hug her, to touch her, but his fists waver and he stops; sort of brushes his fingers over her shoulders instead. She just blinks and exhales; smoke curling out from chapped lips.
He lets her drive because his feet feel numb and hands won't quite uncurl.
He watches her from the corner of his eye as her hands guide smooth turns down streets he feels he must've once known.
He feels like this girl he must've once known, too.
His stomach lurches, and his kneecaps itch, so he turns on the radio and some pop tune threads through the silence of the car.
He doesn't remember the last time silence with his sister meant real, actual, God-help-him silence. It's nauseating in a thin, distant kind of way.
When they get home Anthea rushes to him and he's just as fast in getting away. His mother's softness isn't kindness, and it reminds him of a time when it was; it reminds him of before.
After dinner he walks to his room - Effy's old room - and talks himself into sleep.
The next days, and the days after those, blur in their quietude.
He picks at a guitar with no rhythm, reads Bukowski till he sleeps.
He takes Effy to visit Cook in jail.
He drops her off, sits outside and smokes a series of cigarettes while he waits. He tries not to think of what she must be thinking of as he presses the ash out of each butt against the bark of a tree he sits under.
He forgets sometimes - what he's doing, where and why - and the ash burns his fingers; and the charred flesh, the clumsy actions, are kind of like home.
It's all very unintentionally macabre.
The first time Effy visits Cook, she comes out of the building after with angry red bruises smeared across the white of her knuckles.
He can't figure out if it's because she was pounding the glass in trying to get to Cook to kill him, or simply just to get to him.
And the whole not knowing things about Effy? He's really, really not used to it.
But that's what he gets for going away for two years and coming back to a ghost of a grown up who used to be his blue-eyed, sullen-faced little sister.
Except she's not little anymore, and with all this empty silence between them, it's like she's not his sister anymore either.
It's a thought he tries not to dwell on, because all roads from that twisted mile-marker lead straight to fucked up hell.
So instead, he offers her a cigarette, drags a match across the bark of the tree, and has the eerie feeling that it’s a move he'd use to impress girls once upon a time.
She says nothing though, so he pockets his pack, drops the match to the grass and walks them to the car.
He wonders about Freddie, quite often. And he’s disgusted with himself and feels horrid, because a part of him sort of hates the kid.
A part of him wants to bring him back and kill him again for putting that look in Effy's eyes.
But he's been drinking - a lot - and thinking - too much - and the combination hasn't ever really led him to anything good.
Effy slides into the vacant seat next to him on the couch, drinking from her own glass, and together they watch the party as it whirls on in front of them.
He wants to ask Effy about him sometimes: Freddie.
But he hears her choking in the night once every few days - more often than that - and never wants to ask her at all.
He's afraid of what she won't say.
It's a really sticky August afternoon, and Effy's still sleeping - it's all she does lately, really - and he's been up since 6; bored, hungry, alone.
He makes sandwiches he doesn't eat, toes at magazines on the coffee table while he stares at the telly he doesn't watch.
He goes up to his room - Effy's room - and cracks the door. Effy's buried under the covers, with only some lank brown strands of hair and a few pale toes peeking out; the heat of it all is crushing.
He needs air.
He heads to a coffee shop, orders tea instead, thinks about his old life, his old friends.
He thinks about Sid, tucked away in New York; about Michelle, tucked away in university; about Chris, tucked away in the ground.
His stomach grows heavy, and it's really fucking hot.
He walks home, feeling slick and unsatisfied. He hates this goddamn town.
When he gets home Effy is sitting on the counter eating dry cereal in an old t-shirt of his. She's kicking her long ivory legs out over and over, heels beating a senseless rhythm on the cupboards.
He watches the line of her shin, feels sweat bead at the back of his neck.
He heads up and takes a shower, too hot to do any good; too hot to not punish.
Minutes later Effy barges into the bathroom, grabs her toothbrush and stares at him while she cleans her teeth.
His tongue feels dry and useless.
So he stares right back, water sticking to his lashes, soap dripping from his chin.
Later that night he's jimmying the fan in his room - Effy's room - to pour cool air over his fevered skin when he hears a soft noise bloom from down the hall.
He takes a few seconds to try and talk himself out of it, but he's already walking to her room before he really can.
She's crying in her sleep: a quiet, hidden sort of crying. Trying to keep everything in and to herself.
It makes his chest burn.
When he gets to her his hand wavers over her face, undecided. But when she lets out a whimper, he cups her chin in his palm.
"Eff. Effy. Wake up." He tells her.
Her eyes pop open, blue and wet. Her mouth pops open, pink and wet. She catches her lungs on her own breathing. She brings a hand to her mouth, and turns her face from his palm to speak into her pillow.
"He won't stay." She whispers and it takes him a few beats of silence to decipher her words. It takes him a few beats of silence to get over his shock at her words.
He doesn't need to ask whom she's speaking of.
He's quiet enough and she continues.
"I see him all the time. He hides in my mirror, in the corners. I see him in the grass. He's in the smoke. I can't, and he - " Effy stops talking, sort of shivers her way into her next sentence.
"I try to ask him to stay, Tony, I do. But every time I speak, he goes away. He leaves me." She says and even though she's stopped crying now, she sounds fragmented and rough.
He runs his thumb down her jaw. She shivers again.
When he slides down next to her, it's quiet. She presses her face to his neck and he releases a sloppy breath in return.
"Everyone does." Effy finally says again – finishes, really – speaking right to his throat, right to his bones.
He tightens his hands on her pointed elbows and he feels like there are words written all over her skin.
And he gets it.
She's talking to him - to Freddie - in all of her silences. She's saving her words for him; there are whole conversations in the bow of her lip.
Conversations with words dipped in something not meant for him.
She loved him – Freddie – he realizes, loves him still. He keeps her voice and he, and he -- she loves him best: Freddie.
Tony presses himself around her and wants to scream.
Because she's his, but not really. Because he used to be the keeper of her silences, the maestro of her thoughts. Because he loves her best.
And she loves a ghost.
The thought makes him feel mean and hot and stupid.
He apologizes in the squeezing of his eyelids.
It doesn't matter, he thinks, it doesn't matter.
He bites his tongue, keeps himself silent.
She can have his words.