It’s a cliché to say there are three kinds of people in the world, but when it comes to the bad things that happen, it also happens to be true. Keep in mind I’m talking about the seriously bad things, here—the kind where somebody’s dead and that’s somebody else’s fault and everyone who cares about either of them is left to pick up whatever pieces they can manage to find. You can trust me on this one: whenever something like that happens, there are just three basic ways of reacting.
Some people lose the plot. The cracks might be totally obvious or they might form under the surface, but the result’s the same either way: the best bits of your mind end up leaking out while your attention is busy somewhere else. I’m pretty sure Mum and Dad both think Selena’s one of those. They’re probably right.
Other people grab hold of that plot and refuse to let go. It bucks and strains against their grip, but they keep on holding tight, no matter what happens. They might end up red-faced and out of breath, maybe even knocked off their feet for a while, but once the worst has passed, they get right back up again. Dad’s like that. Julia is, too.
Then there’s the third group, the ones who drop it on purpose. I’m one of those, as it turns out. I waited until the summer after my final year at Kilda’s, but as soon as I moved out of Mum and Dad’s, I let go of that plot with both hands and flung it at the nearest brick wall, hard as I could. Those days tasted greasy like fish from the chipper along with too much warm cider, they looked hazy like yellow-gold streetlamps reflected in the Liffey through a veil of alcohol and God-knows-what-else, they smelled sour like that mix of urine and puke on Fleet Street half an hour after last call. They felt like waking up buried underneath of a pile of jackets on top of a bed I didn’t recognize and stumbling back outside to find a taxi on my own.
Around four months in, though, I decided to pick it back up again. Turned out losing it didn’t actually make me feel any different, or at least not enough different to make it worth the shine in Mum’s eyes, the clench of Dad’s jaw. They were both so relieved when I decided to stick with my original plan to go to UCD, and I’m sure it helped that structural engineering with architecture sounded impressive. Mum got to talk about it with her lawyer friends, use it to reassure Gran.
She talks now about how it was probably something I just needed to get out of my system, and in a way that’s true. It’s exactly what I was trying to do, anyway: take everything awful that had happened back at Kilda’s and purge it, like a virus. But here’s the thing: realising the purge isn’t actually going to work doesn’t make the virus automatically go away on its own. You just end up having to go back to your life with it still bouncing off your cellular walls, still swimming around inside your veins.
The first time the police needed me to help them ruin a bunch of people’s lives, it was Mum who talked me through it. Uncle Shay was Dad’s big brother, and I guess the lawyers would’ve frowned on Dad doing anything that could’ve come across as influencing a key witness, or something. I was nine then, though, and no matter how many times Mum tried to explain things, all that really got through was the fact that nobody from Dad’s side of the family wanted to talk to me, and even Dad would steer things sharply away from the subject whenever he was around. Mum did a great job sitting by my side and holding my hand, and I ended up on a first-name basis with the detective I dealt with most, but the whole thing still pretty much sucked, from beginning to end. All that’s left of that time now is an awkward afternoon with Aunt Jackie a couple times a year, which only makes it all the more obvious none of the others want anything to do with me.
The second time, though, Dad was in the clear: not his family, not his case. Which I guess meant he felt like he had some extra obligation to get up in my face about it, to make up for not having been able to do it the first time. Cue the daily check-ins and unannounced visits, not to mention the sudden interest in asking outright about how I’d been feeling. At one point he even suggested I might want to get myself a counsellor, which is both totally bullshit and totally hypocritical, since he’d never stoop to doing such a thing himself.
Turns out one of the big differences between nine and nine years on is how appealing you find the idea of your parents sitting by your side and holding your hand when you know it’s not going to change a thing anyway. I mean, of course a kid feels terrible when she finds out she’s basically radioactive, but at eighteen you can actually get on pretty well: you wake up alone, you ride the train alone, you sit alone in your lectures, you go back home alone, and then you do the same thing all over again the next day. You find your rhythm, and you just keep on hitting the same notes over and over again. There’s even a weird sort of comfort in it.
So that day when the text messages started coming, I blew them off. Two sharp beeps in a row meant either Mum or Dad—I was betting on Dad—and I figured I already pretty much knew what they’d say. It was spring, and the sky was heavy with grey clouds that said don’t put your umbrellas away just yet, and I was hurrying back to the station before the rain could start up again. So I put my phone on silent, tucked it into my jacket pocket, and kept on walking.
It was on Talbot Street that I spotted her, just the other side of the road from that space they’ve got carved out for cycle parking. Her gold-blonde hair was at a length I’d never seen it before—about halfway between shorn and those waves that used to go all the way down her back—but the curve of her cheekbones rooted me to the pavement mid-step, and I’ll know the slope of those shoulders for the rest of my life. She was standing in front of a Tesco Express with her dad, and at first she didn’t even see me—she seemed to be busy letting him talk while she stared at the empty air in front of her. Then all at once her eyes snapped into focus and met mine. Her face went salt-white.
It was your typical busy Saturday in Dublin’s city centre: streets teeming with cars, a pavement thick with that mix of tourists and locals. But for a long moment just then, the gears of the world still managed to grind to a halt, leaving nothing there but me and Selena.
When they started up again, she was the one who moved first, stepping away from her dad to bridge the gap between us. The colour flew back into her cheeks as she came to a stop right in front of me.
“Holly,” she said, breathing my name. That wisp of a smile: just an upturned corner, but real.
“Hi,” I said, like an idiot. My hand was still in my jacket pocket. I couldn’t move.
And then her arms were around me: her cheek a chill against my neck, twin fists clutched tight against my back, a perfumey shampoo smell I didn’t recognize at all. I managed to take my hand out of my pocket and wrap one arm around her, too, but I still felt stiff with panic.
With Julia it would have been less of a shock, at least. I mean, if nothing else, once I’d spotted her selling handmade soap at the Blackrock Market, it became pretty clear she was still in Dublin. She’d hunched up a little as she’d seen me, and I hadn’t stuck around for any awkward “so what have you been up to” conversations. After that, I’d been sure to do my shopping at the Spar, and she’d never come looking for me, either.
Selena, though, had basically vanished without a trace just after they’d taken Becca away. The Kilda’s rumour mill is as unforgiving as they come: one story’d had her locked away in an institution and in another she’d been whisked off to finish school in America. Either way I’d figured I’d never see her again.
She pulled back a little then. Over her shoulder her dad was eyeing us warily. “Where did you go?” I blurted.
“Switzerland.” She half-turned toward her dad, shot him an apologetic look. “With my mum and stepdad.”
My mind was turning cartwheels. “Switzerland,” I repeated.
“I’m sorry I didn’t write.” She drew her arms across her stomach, her hands still clenched. “It just seemed—” Her chest expanded with breath, then trembled as she let it back out again. For a moment, all I could think was fragile. “It just didn’t seem—like the right thing.”
I swallowed. A thousand questions rolled through my mind and vanished. “Is it nice?” I finally asked.
“Yeah.” I thought about the only things I knew about the country: snowcapped mountains, little brown-and-white houses that could only belong to dolls. I couldn’t picture her there at all.
“Sure,” Selena said with a one-shouldered shrug. “It’s beautiful—peaceful. My stepdad’s been teaching. Mum’s doing a lot of painting. I’ve learned some French. And it’s peaceful,” she said again. “How about you?”
That snapped me back to reality. I squared my shoulders. “I’m studying,” I said. “Architecture. At UCD.”
“Oh.” She blinked. “Really?”
Her eyes had a bewildered look to them that made me want to argue: a lot of the modules are actually really interesting, and I’m better at the maths part than you might think. “Yeah,” I said instead.
She left a silence, or maybe I did. A crease formed between her eyebrows.
“So what brought you back to Dublin?” I asked, for something to say.
The crease deepened. “W-what?”
“I mean—why now?” I said, fumbling. “Why not—”
“How can you—” Selena drew away a little, looked helplessly at her dad. “I figured you’d have to know too. I mean, I was sure you would’ve—” She turned back toward me. “The trial. I got a summons.”
It actually took the better part of ten seconds for it to dawn on me what she could possibly mean by that. When the realisation came, though, it hit me like a splash of icy water to the face. There was going to be a trial. Becca’s trial.
Something ballooned up inside of me, pressing against my lungs, stealing my breath. I’d given a statement back when she’d been formally charged: a camera trained on me like we were rehearsing some freaky Hollywood police drama, Mum next to me with that anxious look of hers, Dad standing by the door with his hands shoved into his pockets like he was trying really hard not to punch somebody. After that, nobody had talked about it at all for a long time. Then, a couple of months ago, there had been an envelope: no return address, but it’d had Becca’s barely-legible scrawl across the front. I’d slipped it into the top drawer of my desk at Mum and Dad’s without opening it. It was still there.
I’d mostly succeeded in not thinking about what might happen next, but this had never even felt like a possibility. I mean, I didn’t have to be a lawyer to know that if Becca had entered a guilty plea, they’d have gone straight to the sentencing hearing and skipped the trial altogether. Which meant she was pleading what—not guilty? How? And why? My head started spinning, my eyes bouncing off everything they tried to hold onto: Selena’s face, something green peeking out through a crack in the pavement, a pair of passing girls, their arms linked, laughing.
This was the point where everything started happening at once. First Selena’s mum came out of the Tesco’s with her stepdad, took one look at me, and totally freaked. Her dad leaned in toward her and said something too low for me to hear, but she jerked away from him and rushed straight over to me and Selena. And then, from inside my jacket pocket, my phone buzzed.
Nobody ever rings me—even Mum and Dad know they’re meant to text—so I knew it had to be something crazy-important. Like maybe a summons, one that had gone to theirs because it was still my official address. I let it ring, but the vibrations had already jump-started my heart and sent it racing.
“Hello, Holly,” Selena’s mum said. Her voice was even, but she wedged a foot into the space between me and Selena, like a bodyguard. Her dad and stepdad were close behind.
“Hi,” I said, stumbling back a step.
“How have you been?” she asked. She wasn’t smiling.
“We were just talking,” Selena protested.
“Yes, well.” Her mum’s mouth turned up at the corners: tight, apologetic. “The lawyers would say that’s probably not a good idea.” She squeezed Selena’s arm as she said it, but her eyes were on me. Like Selena was a child or an animal that couldn’t be held responsible for its actions.
Selena was looking at me, too. And then, suddenly, she wasn’t: her eyes had detached from the whole world, as if her brain had gone to jelly behind them. Then her mum’s hand went to her waist and her dad’s to her shoulder, and they led her away without another word, her stepdad trailing one step behind.
“See you,” I said to their backs, and immediately wanted to kick myself. It probably wasn’t even true.
The rain held off until I was on the train. As soon as I’d found a seat, though, it started pouring out of the sky as if somebody had dumped it from a bucket, sloshing against the window and streaking the city into a blur. I kept my phone clasped between both hands against my lap—if I didn’t look at it, I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this yet—but my heart was zooming around inside my ribcage.
I closed my eyes then and tried to hold onto what she had looked like, this new Swiss Selena with hair that just grazed her shoulders. The image wouldn’t form in my mind, though. Instead I kept picturing her at fifteen, sprawled out against her bed in our room at Kilda’s, her hair spread in a thin layer across a pillow and her head cocked like she was about to say something thoughtful.
I’m sorry, I thought at that girl. I’m so, so sorry.
I stayed on the train past my normal stop and headed straight for Dalkey. They both came to the front door when they heard my key in the lock: Mum all frantic-eyed and Dad hanging back a few steps so he could act like he wasn’t secretly worried I was going to shatter into tiny ickle pieces. They started trying to sit me down to prepare me, but I lifted an eyebrow and gave them both a let-me-have-it-already stare before prying the summons loose from Mum’s hand. Then I went upstairs to read it in my room.
It was pretty much what I’d expected—You are hereby required to attend, blah blah blah. They were giving me two weeks’ notice: to get ready, or something. I’d had longer the first time. Or maybe it had just felt that way; the world had moved a lot more slowly back then.
I thought about lawyers in their fancy suits. I thought about the smooth brown wood of the witness box and the leather seats that smelled like stale pipe smoke. I thought about Becca’s letter in my desk drawer: about tossing it in the bin, about ripping it to shreds, about running down to the toilet and burning it in the sink. I didn’t think about reading it. I left it where it was.
After a while there was a knock at my door: faint, hardly more than a tap. And then, after a few more moments, Mum’s voice: “Holly?”
I stood, let the summons flutter down to my bed. I cracked the door, lifted my chin, met her eyes. “Yes?”
She was trying to smile. “You can stay for dinner if you’d like. We’re having chicken casserole.”
I hadn’t thought about food since the half-sandwich I’d had in town, but just then the realisation slammed into me that I was hungry enough to eat my way through whatever Mum set on the table and then some. I had a choice, though: going back to my flat and trying to turn whatever was mine in the refrigerator into dinner, or sitting across the table from Mum when she was looking at me like that. I hesitated.
“We—your dad and I would like that,” Mum added.
Hunger won the day, this time. “Okay.”
Relief swept across her face. She kept standing there.
“I’ll be right there,” I said.
“Of course,” she said, shuffling back a step.
I waited as long as I could before heading down, but Mum met me at the foot of the stairs anyway, a wooden spoon in her hand and an expression that was meant to look welcoming or something. “Excuse me,” I said as I squeezed past. Dad was giving me a little more room, but as I moved into the kitchen I could still feel his eyes on me.
Of the two of them, Dad’s actually always been way more paranoid: personally screening every babysitter with a totally embarrassing list of questions when I was a kid, demanding I carry a personal alarm on my key ring from the moment I started going off on my own, playing the detective card at Kilda’s when Chris was killed just so he could check up on me. He’s never exactly been one to hide whatever mental freakouts parents go through, in other words. This time, though, it was Dad who was going out of his way to seem reasonable. I figured it was because Mum’s greatest fear was that I was going to lose it again, while Dad was more afraid I’d never really got it back in the first place. And maybe that I was finding better and better ways of hiding that.
They had three places set, but it was at the breakfast bar instead of the table, there were no placemats, and the forks and knives were mismatched. Dad had his weekend stubble on, too, which almost succeeded in making all the casual feel accidental. I pulled myself up onto a stool and took a spoonful of casserole.
“So the case is going to trial?” Dad asked.
I searched his face for any hint that he’d been clued in long ago, but he was actually asking, which meant he’d been just as much in the dark as I had. That had to have him feeling angry and maybe a little guilty, but something was starting to simmer in my chest, and I couldn’t bring myself to care about that. “Guess so,” I said.
“When do they want you to testify?” Mum asked. Her hair was tidy and her collar straight, but her face was a little red, and she looked out of breath, like she’d been running.
“Two weeks. That Monday.”
Their eyes bounced off each other and went straight back to me. “I guess that means you’re going to be one of the first witnesses,” Mum said.
“Apparently.” I grabbed my fork and pushed the lump of casserole around on my plate.
I knew exactly what I wanted most, just then. I wanted Mum to talk me through all the reasons why they might be going to trial, explain all the possible strategies in that Mum-knows-all voice that made everything a hundred times better even as it had me rolling my eyes. That's what I wanted, but no way was I actually going to ask for it. I took a bite of chicken.
“Do you want to sit down sometime and have a talk about what you can expect?” Dad offered. “Because your mammy and me, we could—”
“I know what to expect,” I said, a little more loudly than I’d meant to. I hadn’t actually been planning to bring any of that stuff up at all, but all the years of nobody talking about it were suddenly stiffening my shoulders to sharp angles, filling my lungs with something hot. I set my fork down on my plate with a clatter. “Remember, I’ve got some experience with this?”
For a long moment, no one breathed. “Sure,” Dad said then, tiptoeing around the grenade I’d just tossed into the middle of the table. “But every case is different.”
I grabbed the grenade, pulled the pin. “Somebody I knew died,” I said. “Somebody else I knew killed him. It doesn’t seem all that different to me.”
Mum’s eyes dropped to her plate, and Dad was taking a long time with chewing. And then a silence settled over the room, the kind that makes you want to scream as hard as you can into it just to put an end to all that nothing.
Finally, Mum tried again. “We just both thought you might want to—”
“Look, can we just—can we maybe not talk about this right now?” I said.
Mum slumped back against her chair like a balloon with the air sucked out of it, and Dad’s mouth went tight. “Sure,” he said.
That was when I knew I couldn’t stay sitting there, not one more minute. “Okay,” I said, grabbing my bag as I stood. “I’m going to go. Home,” I added, to underscore which isn’t here.
“All right, then,” Dad said, with a whiff of cheerfulness that felt so out of place it made me want to scratch something. “Will you take some supper with you?” He stood, reached for the drawer with all the little plastic containers.
I started backing into the hallway, toward the door. “I’ll be fine.”
“I said I’ll be fine!”
Mum was standing by my chair now. She lifted my jacket from the back of it and held it out to me.
I could feel myself start to crumple, but I kept my gaze even. I walked back over and took the jacket from her. “Thanks.”
As I was pulling the door shut, I heard it: Mum’s voice, with something in it that sounded almost like a sob. It twisted my heart, and suddenly I wanted to be a kid again: run back inside and bury my face in that warm lap and cry until there were no tears left.
I steadied myself and let the door fall shut, but not all the way. I’ve known since I was ten or eleven that if you let it fall against your foot to keep it from latching, you can slide it gently back open and hear most of what goes on in that kitchen. I waited thirty seconds, cracked it.
Dad was saying something. I caught “She’ll be able to—” and then “We can’t just—”
“I know what it’s like to be an eighteen-year-old girl,” Mum said, and this time it carried all the way to the front door. “She’s a child.”
Dad again. I caught “—force it on her.”
There was a long silence. After a few minutes, one of them flicked the radio on: something jazzy, with a lot of horns.
Then, just when I was about ready to give up and leave, Mum again. “I never told you this,” she said. Her voice was quieter now, but I could still hear. “I saw the other girls when they came in to give their depositions. After you left with Holly.”
A murmur from Dad that I couldn’t make out.
“I couldn’t just not look as they passed down the hall, Frank. We used to know those girls.”
Another murmur: softer, gentler.
“Remember what you used to say about Selena, how you were worried she might not be well? Well, it’s worse than you thought—or worse than it was back then, anyway. I’d be surprised if they got anything at all out of her, to be honest. Her parents looked like they were at their wits’ end.”
Something sharp stabbed into my stomach and got stuck there. I remembered Selena standing on Talbot Street with a parent on each arm, looking like she’d come unglued from the world and was left to hover in the empty bits left between one day and the next.
“And Julia’s always been a spitfire, but she’s got angry, Frank,” Mum added. “Angry and hard.”
The sharp thing twisted. I could already see it: Julia sitting across the courtroom with squared shoulders, staring at me with eyes that blazed with accusations. I sure as hell didn’t do everything I could think of to save Selena, only to have you blow the whole fucking thing up to the world.
I clutched my bag to my chest and pulled the door shut.
Dad left me alone for three days, which has got to be some kind of a record. It worked, though, because by the time he showed up at my door with a big grin and a takeaway pizza from Apache, all your mammy’s out with a couple of mates this evening and guess it’s up to my kid to make sure I don’t starve, I was feeling a whole lot calmer. I let him plant a tobacco-scented kiss on my cheek, and I didn’t try to stop him as he pushed past me into the kitchen.
I made space on the scratched-up wooden table: moving my flatmates’ books to one chair, stacking a couple of tea-stained mugs on the kitchen counter. “Go ahead and put it here,” I said.
“So how’s tricks?” he said, a shade too brightly. He tilted his head at the wall and set the pizza down. “It’s starting to look good in here. That a new poster?”
I grabbed two clean plates from the drying rack. The poster was full-size, with LIFE BEGINS AT THE END OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE written across it in brightly-coloured letters. I didn’t know which of the others had pinned it up. “It’s not mine,” I said pointedly.
“Brightens things up in here, though.”
“I guess.” I set the plates on the table and tossed a hand in the general direction of the window. “We still need some curtains.”
“Your mammy might have some old ones. Want me to ask her?”
I gave him a one-shouldered shrug and sat down. “Okay.”
My flat’s in Blackrock. I found it on DAFT and went to visit it on my own, making sure the papers got signed before Mum and Dad could protest. It’s close to UCD, walking distance from the station, and there’s not much else to say about it. My flatmates are two girls from up North, and they know each other from before, so I’m the odd one out. They’re hardly ever home, which suits me fine.
Dad sat down next to me as he lifted the lid on the pizza box. It smelled of cheese and grease and something spicy. “I just got the special, you can pick off the pepperoni. Go on, take a piece, I’m half-starved, myself.”
The pizza was steamy-warm against my hand. I nibbled at one corner, crust first.
Dad relaxed against the folding chair and gave me a knowing look. “You and me and a hot pizza. Just like the bad old days.”
He was trying to make me smile. There were plenty of bad memories from the time when Mum and Dad had been split up, but pizza at Dad’s wasn’t one of them. The corners of my mouth were feeling kind of frozen, though, like they didn’t quite know how to go in the right direction anymore. I took another bite.
“Yours is a whole lot nicer than my old gaff ever was, though, amn’t I right?” he continued. He planted an elbow on the table and wiped a glob of tomato sauce off the edge of his shirtsleeve. “Must be the woman’s touch.”
I shook my head. “We haven’t got a balcony.”
“Still,” he said with a quick shake of his head. He bit the end off of his pizza slice, let the hot cheese stretch into a string. “Your studies been going okay?” he said with his mouth full.
“Fine.” I could feel myself bristling: a spring in my chest coiling tight. “How else would they be going?”
Dad’s eyebrows inched up, just a little. He swallowed his bite of pizza. “Just asking.”
I tore my gaze away and stared at my plate. There had been three lectures that day—Creativity in Design, History and Theory, and maths—but I couldn’t have told you what we’d covered in any of them.
“You know, chickadee,” he said after a pause, “whatever you decide you want to do is fine.”
My head jerked back up. “Yeah, well, I already decided. I’m doing architecture, remember?”
“Sure,” he said with a little head-tilt. “And like I said, that’s fine by your mammy and me. Whatever makes you happy.”
I focused on picking a slice of pepperoni off my pizza, but kept watching Dad out of the corner of one eye. I knew why he’d really come—Becca’s trial was there, unannounced, in the spaces between every word of that conversation. He wasn’t saying a thing outright, though. It struck me then that he wasn’t going to, that I could stop bracing myself for that. He was trying—really, really hard—not to push me.
I let my shoulders relax, just a little, and set the rest of the pizza slice on my plate. “I’m really not going to go all mental again, you know.”
His eyebrows arched. Then he gave me a nod, a solemn one. “I do know that, actually.”
The tension in my shoulders came back. “Mum doesn’t.”
“Sometimes she does.” He pushed out a sigh. “Usually.”
“She acts it’s like it’s the worst thing she can imagine me doing, going off and getting drunk or, OMG, high.” It came out all prickly and offended, but Dad winced, and then we were both thinking it: that wasn’t the worst thing he could imagine me doing.
Our eyes locked, and the look in Dad’s was so sad it made his whole face droop. He set his slice of pizza down and slowly slid a hand across the table toward me.
I leaned back. Then, after a moment, he did, too, letting his hand drop to his lap. I gave my plate a hard shove, sending it scooting along the table toward the pizza box.
Becca’s letter had come with a Dublin postmark, and I still had no idea what that meant: whether they’d let her out on bail and she was living with her parents somewhere in the city, or whether she’d actually sent it from prison. A lump started in my throat, and I half-turned in my chair to look out the window: tips of the branches from the tree out front, a patchy blue-grey sky turning to orange.
We were all of us in Dublin now, Becca and Selena and Julia and me. Back in the same city, but living separate lives this time. No better than strangers.
I turned back to Dad. “Do you ever wish—”
His expression didn’t shift, but the lines around his eyes tightened a little. He knew where this was going.
“—do you ever wish you still saw your family?” I finished. “Like, I know you have to talk to Aunt Jackie sometimes to arrange my visits, but even then you don’t really talk. And you don’t see the others at all.”
There was a short silence, the length of an exhaled breath. Then, quietly, he said: “I see your auntie Carmel sometimes. Your granny Mackey, too.”
My mouth fell open a crack. “You do?”
He wasn’t looking at me. “Sometimes. Not a lot.” I saw him swallow. “Just a few times since your granddad’s funeral.”
Granddad was the one I had hardly any memories of—during my one real visit he’d mostly been a voice shouting from the bedroom while the world had whirled around him. That day had been packed too full for me to really notice him anyway: with my cousin Donna’s smile, with the dinner that had never got eaten, with the conversation with Uncle Shay that had sent everything unravelling. But still, one day I’d been part of a family with a granddad and the next day I hadn’t been. And then, a few years later, Mum had casually but ever-so-gently mentioned he’d died.
I thought about asking Dad when he’d started seeing them again, why he’d never brought me along. Then it hit me: those things weren’t what I really needed to know from him.
“How?” I asked. My voice had a little quiver in it.
He looked over at me then. “How what?”
I straightened my shoulders. “How do you go from—from what we did to them—to just talking to them? To just being part of their family again, as if we had never gone and—” I swallowed the last part back, but Dad heard it anyway: if we had never gone and ruined everything.
There was a white-hot spark of anger in his eyes: not aimed at me, but still there. Mostly it made him look younger, like the guy Granny Mackey had called Francis. And then it curled up and floated away, and he was back to Dad again.
He left a silence so long I didn’t think he was going to answer. When he finally did, his words came out stiff and chopped. “I wish I could tell you it’s easy,” he said. “It’s not. But we’ve all of us decided it’s important to try. Even if—even if sometimes that doesn’t feel very good.”
I took that in and let it float around in my head along with my thoughts of Selena and her half-grown-back hair, of Julia surrounded by brightly-coloured soaps at the market. Of the letter from Becca shoved into a desk drawer.
“Do you think you’ll ever talk to Uncle Shay again?” I asked finally.
Dad shook his head. “I can’t see as how he’d want to talk to me again, chickadee.”
“Is he still angry at you?”
He let out a sharp laugh. “I’d imagine so.”
I chewed on the insides of my cheeks. “Are you still angry at him?”
“So you think you’ll never talk to him again. Not ever.” There was a little catch in my voice, and hearing it was like nudging the edge of a tear-tap with the ball of my hand. I grabbed a strand of hair, started sucking on the end of it.
Dad’s sad look was back. “It’s awful hard to imagine, sweetie. But never is a long time.”
And then my eyes were swimming. I closed them, put my head down on the table. The wood was cool against my cheek.
The scrape of a chair dragging along the floor. And then Dad’s hand was cupped around my head, his fingers woven through my hair. It felt warm and just the right strength, and I let him hold it there for a few moments before pulling away.
That Monday—a week before my testimony—I was actually totally fine. I went to lectures, I texted first with Mum and then with Dad, I even did some assigned reading. Once Tuesday rolled around, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about the others, working myself into a lather about everything that might be going wrong. I imagined Julia hauling boxes of soaps through the rain to the market, wet and miserable, I imagined Selena’s mum and dad fighting with her going catatonic between them. And every time I tried to imagine Becca, my brain just shut down. So I turned the kitchen tap on hot as it would go and did all the dirty dishes in the flat at once. My flatmates had some people over in the living room, but I ignored them, plunged my hands into the water, and tried to imagine nothing at all.
And then, a voice from behind me: a guy’s. “Ah, hi?” he started, and I half-turned to face him. He had his hands stuffed in the pockets of a tan jacket. “Courtney said I could grab a Coke?”
I pointed a soapy finger at the fridge. “Her stuff’s on the top shelf.”
I took a scrubber to a frying pan I’d been soaking, heard the fridge door open. The guy kept standing there after the door had fallen shut again, though, and I gave him another look over my shoulder. “Do you need something else?” I asked.
“No. I mean—” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Can I just stand here and finish this?” His voice had a Cork lilt: like a young Cillian Murphy, just more ordinary-looking.
My forehead tightened. “Uh, sure?”
“It’s just—we’re supposed to be going out? But right now they’re all talking about rugby in there, and I’ve no idea what I’m supposed to say, and I can’t just sit there.” He was tall, thinner than guys tend to want to be, with sandy hair that had grown a little too long on top. He raked a hand through it. “So if I can kill maybe fifteen minutes—”
“No, it’s fine.” I shook my head.
“Thanks.” Something loosened in his jaw: relief. Then he smiled. “I mean, I could always lock myself in the jacks, but somehow it seems like that would raise more questions than it would prevent.”
“It might make your friends start dropping laxatives into your Coke when you’re not looking.”
His smile widened to a grin: friendly, lots of teeth. He had a dimple in one cheek.
There was a shriek of laughter from the other room, and I turned back around and gave the pan another hard scrub. I could feel the guy standing there: not an intruder, just a presence, as if all the cupboards and furniture had moved a few inches closer to the walls to make a space for him.
Then he moved into my field of vision, leaned back against the counter. “I’m Conor, by the way.”
“Holly.” I rinsed the pot, set it in the rack to dry.
“I’m a friend of Courtney’s.” He rolled his eyes. “I guess I said that already.”
The silence came back, stretched out long enough to feel tense. I thought about how long it had been since I’d had an actual conversation with anyone other than Mum or Dad. It felt like I’d forgotten how.
Conor took a sip of his Coke. “I think she said you’re at UCD, too?”
I flicked my eyes over to him. “Yeah.”
“What are you studying?”
“Structural engineering with architecture.”
“Wow.” Thin eyebrows inched up: he was impressed, maybe a little disbelieving.
My jaw tightened at the corners. “It’s a really good programme, actually.”
“Yeah?” He slid his free hand back into his jacket pocket, took it back out again. “What made you decide to go into that?”
I arched an eyebrow at him. “Because I’m a girl, you mean?”
“No!” His shoulders lifted almost to his ears, and his cheeks went pink. “I didn’t—that’s not what I meant at all.”
I shrugged. “Okay.”
“I was just wondering.” He held up a hand. “I swear.”
I slid the cupboard door open and started stacking plates into the empty spot on the bottom shelf. I remembered sitting curled up on my bed at Mum and Dad’s one weekend, browsing the UCD website, my laptop propped up against a pillow. I’d read my way through the undergraduate programmes and admissions pages, but it was the quote at the top of the home page I’d kept coming back to: It is not the beauty of a building you should look at; it’s the construction of the foundation that will stand the test of time.
I turned around, pointed my chin at him. “I want to learn how to build things. Things that are strong enough to stay standing for generations.”
I waited for him to laugh or make some dickish comment, but he didn’t. Instead he tilted his head. “So, like, in a ‘make your mark on the world’ sort of way?”
I frowned. “Not like ‘oh, yay me, I made something so important it has to last forever.’ More like—”
I slid another plate onto the stack. It was something I imagined all the time back then: some future totally grown-up version of me standing outside of something she’d built, like an office building, or a community centre. It felt good to think about how I’d be able to stand in front of it when it was brand new and then go back again twenty years later, how it would still look the same. I might be different, the whole world might even be different, but the building, at least, would still be the same as when I’d first dreamed it up.
“It’s more about—wanting to build something you know will last?” I said finally. “Something people can—okay, let’s say a bunch of people move all their things inside a building I was in charge of. If I’ve done my job right, then they’ll know for sure that building will always be there to keep their things safe. And then there’s, like, the way the whole neighbourhood can change around it, but everything else that gets built after that will still have to keep my one building in mind.”
“So it’s the certainty of it?” Conor took another sip of his Coke. “Or—the durability, maybe?”
A one-shouldered shrug. “Yeah, I guess.” I met his eyes again.
“That’s awesome.” He gave me a little nod, scratched the back of his neck. “I like that sort of thing too—being able to be that sure about things.”
I tucked the dishtowel around one of the drawer handles. I knew how this was supposed to go next, knew it was my turn to ask him about his studies now. But I actually kind of wanted to ask, too. “What are you studying?”
“Art history.” He was smiling again.
My eyebrows inched up. I’d have taken him for a nerd: computer science, maybe physics.
“It was pretty much a no-brainer,” he was saying. “I was always drawing and painting, all through school, but to make a go of that as an actual job you’ve got to be crazy-good, which is a whole lot better than I am. So, art history.” He shifted against the counter, set his Coke down. “I figure I’ll work in a museum, something like that. Most of those jobs aren’t going to make you, like, rich, but that’s fine by me. I don’t need that much.”
“But it’s a compromise,” I said. Selena had been going to do art. She’d been so driven then, back before everything had gone wrong. She would have never settled for second best.
Conor’s forehead creased. “What do you mean?” From the other room, there was a loud groan from one of the girls, a cackle from a guy.
“Your first choice was to be a real artist,” I continued. “Art history is your compromise.”
“I guess.” He shrugged. “Maybe.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. It doesn’t really feel like that.”
I tilted my head at him. Overhead, the fluorescent lights were flickering.
“Like, I actually feel like I’m learning way more about art now than I would be by doing it. Maybe because now they’re teaching us how to look at art, really look at it?”
Selena again, in the art room at Kilda’s, standing in front of a painting she’d been trying to finish: an old woman at a window, all blues and greys. She’d spent so much time trying to get the light right. She never had, either—in that last year before she’d left, she’d pretty much stopped painting altogether. My stomach seized up.
Conor was still talking. “Okay, I don’t know if this even makes any sense, but like—our one lecturer, he went with us to the National Gallery last week? And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen most of those paintings, but it was like seeing them for the first time all over again.”
“That’s pretty cool,” I said.
“It was. And it’s still, like, art, you know? It’s not just all theories and stuff, these are people who actually care about art. I mean, it’s different from what I was expecting, but that’s okay. It might even be better.”
In my own lectures, they had us all packed into these huge halls, facing forward, notebooks open. I couldn’t imagine any of my lecturers taking us to a museum. I couldn’t even imagine exchanging more than two words with them. I frowned.
“Sorry.” Conor shielded his eyes with a cupped hand. “I’m awful. I never know when to shut up.”
“No, it’s fine,” I said, turning toward him. This was nothing like it had always been with the Colm’s guys: them bullshitting to hide just how little they actually had to offer, me never sure why I even cared in the first place. This was just two people, having a normal conversation. It struck me this was what it was like talking to guys who’d already got a start on their growing up. “It’s nice,” I added.
His hand dropped like a curtain, and behind it he was back to smiling. His eyes were a deep blue-green, crinkled up at the corners. Just then one of the guys started chanting his name from the other room in a low roar.
Conor tossed a look at the door. “I should probably go back in there,” he said.
I nodded. “Okay.”
“This was definitely better than hiding in the jacks.”
I felt the corners of my mouth tightening: a rickety smile.
“Hey, ah.” He pressed his hands together, shoved them back into his pockets. “Can I maybe ring you sometime?”
I felt myself flinch. A memory tugged at the corner of my mind, then unfolded: that video of Selena with Chris, palms pressed together, gazing into each other’s eyes. It was all she’d had of him, little moments like that. She’d never got to have a simple conversation in a kitchen with him, much less a real date. And then my back was pressed up against the cooker, my arms pinned to my chest.
Conor’s eyes widened. “Or—I mean—not—” His face flushed again: first pink, then a deep red. “Of course I didn’t mean—”
“It’s fine,” I said, but my voice was spooled tight. I was working to breathe.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—I mean, we were just talking.”
“It’s okay, really.”
Conor was backing away, toward the living room. “I’m just going to—” He gestured over his shoulder with a thumb. “I’m really sorry.”
I stood there for a long time, listening through the kitchen door until they’d decided it was finally time to go, until their laughter had faded down the hall and the front door had clicked shut. Then I went into the living room and sat down on the sofa. Their smells still hung in the air—oily popcorn, Courtney’s body spray, just a faint whiff of spilt beer—and I kept on sitting there, breathing them in, as the light faded outside the window, as all the shapes in the room turned to shadow.
Mostly I was just feeling like a gigantic tool for overreacting. I mean, every time I remembered the look on Conor’s face as he’d backed away, a fresh wave of heat reared up and slapped me in the face. But there was something else there too, something that wasn’t quite covered up by all the layers of embarrassment. It wasn’t like I especially wanted to go out with him or anything—I wasn’t even thinking about that just then. But here was a perfectly nice, perfectly ordinary guy who’d talked to me, and he hadn’t been the one to back away first. In fact, he’d wanted to do it again. It left me feeling raw and warm at the same time, as if our conversation had melted away a thick layer of ice from the surface of my skin. Ice that had been there an awfully long time.
I picked up my phone, clicked over to Julia’s name, scrolled through our texting history. It didn’t take a master detective to puzzle out our story; it was all there in black and white. Within a year—that horrible year—we’d gone from in-jokey to terse to nothing at all.
The message box at the bottom of the screen stared up at me. I thought about how the number might not even be hers anymore. There was no way to know.
I typed ‘hi’, erased it before I could press send.
By Saturday morning my worries had escalated to full-blown panic. First I wore a groove in the curve of space around my bed, then another in the hall between my bedroom and the living room. I tried spreading the readings for my History and Theory lecture out on the couch after my flatmates left for the day, but it was no use: my eyes clouded over every time I tried to look at the pages. My brain was already too clogged with thoughts of seeing the others again to take anything else in.
Selena’s parents had built a force-field around her, and of course Becca was completely off-limits. I knew where Julia had to be on a Saturday afternoon, though. And suddenly, with the kind of certainty I hadn’t felt about anything for a long time, I knew something else, too. I knew how important it was to try, even if sometimes that didn’t feel very good.
It was a ten-minute walk through grey drizzle to the Blackrock Market, but I kept my bag clutched to my chest and my eyes focused on the pavement. Julia was in the same stall where when I’d seen her back in the autumn: surrounded by the very same handmade soaps, like she’d never even left.
I took a longer look this time, coming to a stop across the aisle from her, not rushing away. She had on the black peacoat she’d started wearing during our last year at Kilda’s, but she’d gained maybe half a stone and it fit her differently now: tighter, more curves. Her ponytail was gone, too, her dark hair cut into a kind of raggedy, windblown pixie.
Her eyes swept past me, barely landing on mine, but I could still tell she’d seen me by the clench of her jaw. That was when the image tumbled into my mind: Julia and Chris leaning against a pile of leaves in our glade, his trousers and her kilt pushed down just enough, his hairy arm against her bare back. I fought a swell of revulsion, felt it skitter across my skin. The rumour had been all over Kilda’s from the day the cops came. I didn’t believe everything that got passed around those halls, not by a long shot, but that one I did.
We had nothing left to lose, neither of us had. I walked over. “Hi.”
Julia still wasn’t looking at me, but the sliver of a nod she gave was definitely pointed in my direction. There was another woman with her—older, brown hair gathered into a ponytail—and she was packing some of their things up into blue rubber tubs. Julia wiped her hands on her jeans and turned toward her. “You mind if I head off?”
“Nah, we’re done here,” the other woman said. “I’ll get this.”
And then Julia’s eyes were on me: greenish-brown and very level. “I’m going to go for a walk and a cigarette.” One eyebrow arched. “You could come too, if you wanted.”
I wasn’t sure whether it was an olive branch or a challenge. I searched her face, but she wasn’t giving anything away. “Okay,” I said.
Julia lit a cigarette as soon as we were out on the street, cupping a hand around her lighter to safeguard it from the wind. It was hard to figure out what to do with my hands, so I slid them into my pockets. I remembered Selena’s parents guiding her away, one on either side. “The lawyers would probably say we shouldn’t be talking to each other.”
“Fuck the lawyers,” Julia said. She tossed her head back: a leftover gesture from the time when it would have sent her hair tumbling across her shoulders. “I’m so sick of fucking lawyers.”
I thought about how I would have responded to that back at Kilda’s: by slagging her about secretly fancying Patrick J. Adams from the telly, maybe, or possibly just with a hey, that’s my mum you’re talking about. Instead I said nothing.
We headed for the main road first, then kept walking until we got to Blackrock Park: past the tennis court, up to the path that overlooked the sea. The drizzle had let up a bit, but the wind was still strong, and Julia had her chin tucked inside her collar. Every few moments the waves would make that rush-rushing sound against the sand. For a long time, neither of us said a word.
It dawned on me that I was going to have to speak first. “So,” I tried. “What have you been up to?”
“You know what I’ve been up to.” A flick of Julia’s eyebrows. “I’ve been selling soap.”
“I know, but—I just meant—” A knot in my stomach, winding tighter. “—is it, like, a full-time job, or—”
“I’m selling soap on Saturdays at the Blackrock Market, Holly. Nothing any less mind-blowingly pointless than that.” She left another long silence packed tight with stubborn, but when she spoke again, her voice was calmer. “I’m taking a year out. Living with my parents.”
She didn’t have to say why: the reasons were hovering all around us, bleeding into the air we were breathing. I nodded.
“I did meet a nice guy.” She shot me a pointed look, checking my reaction. “Last summer.”
I gave her another nod.
“It didn’t work out. But while it lasted, it was—good. Really good.”
I thought about Selena and Chris. I thought about Courtney’s friend Conor, about those eyes that had crinkled at the edges when he smiled. “Good,” I said.
Julia cocked her head at me. “How about you?”
“I’m at UCD. Studying architecture.”
She gave a little start, let a line form between her eyebrows. “Huh.”
My defences flipped up: shoulders hunching forward, a flat stare. Julia shrugged and took a drag on her cigarette.
She let the pause stretch into another silence, but eventually she filled it. “I’m applying to DCU right now,” she said carefully. “For journalism. I’ll be starting in September, if I get in.”
Julia had always been a writer. “Just like you said,” I said.
I nudged my bag’s strap up my shoulder. “You said you were going to be a journalist, and you’re actually going through with it.”
“You thought I was joking about that?” Something skidded across her face: a sharp edge of annoyance. “Gee, thanks.”
“No, it’s just—” I clenched a hand around the bottom of my bag. She was still holding tight to the plot, Julia was, standing on her own two feet again. “I guess I just meant you’re the only one of us who’s actually sticking to the plan.”
Julia flinched, and for a long time I could see the gears turning behind her eyes. Then she took another drag on her cigarette, breathed out a smoky sigh. “Lenie’s still not okay, is she?” she said finally.
My mouth went tight. “I don’t think so.”
She turned her back on the wind and the sea. Then she gave me a slow nod, one that thawed her eyes a little. “At first I thought she was,” she said. “Or I mean, if not okay, then at least better—I guess maybe I just thought she had to be, you know? But my mum talked to hers the other day, and now I’m not as sure.”
“I saw her in town last week,” I said.
“Yeah?” Her gaze flicked over to meet mine.
“Just for a few minutes. She was with her parents.”
“You mean her mum and stepdad.”
I shook my head. “No, I mean her mum and dad. He was there too, though, her stepdad was.”
Julia’s eyebrows flew up. She pinned her chin to her chest and shot me a you’ve got to be kidding look. “All three of them? Together?”
“Yeah. They were—” Her mum’s hand at her waist and her dad’s at her shoulder, leading her away. “I think they’re really worried about her.”
Julia’s face went all pinched, and my own body echoed what she had to be feeling: a clutching in my chest like fingers digging into a bruise, that undertow of unease in the space beneath it. Down the slope toward the pond, a pair of swans were crouched at the edge of the water, huddled against the wind.
“I’m worried about her too,” she said then. “I still worry about her all the fucking time.” She tapped her cigarette, let a clump of ash fall to the ground. “I really wish—” Her forehead tightened into folds, like she might actually be about to cry, but then she straightened, pushed her shoulders back. “In the end it doesn’t really matter, though, does it? I mean, she’s someone else’s responsibility now.”
The clutching in my chest ratcheted up a notch. “Like Becca,” I said.
A dry laugh from Julia. “Yeah. Like Becca.”
She pivoted away from me, took a hard drag on her cigarette. My shoulders went stiff, sending a ribbon of tension straight down my spine. The ground was shifting around us, a hole opening up in it that I could end up falling into if I didn’t tread extra-carefully. I trapped my bag between my arm and one side.
“Okay, I have to ask you this,” Julia said, turning to face me head-on. “Is that what you thought you were doing, with the card? Taking responsibility?”
All the muscles in my face went tight. I braced for a huge wave of guilt to rear up, knock me flat, send me into a sobbing, wibbling wreck: I didn’t mean—I couldn’t have known it was Becs—I’m sorry I’m so sorry. It never came, though.
And then I opened my mouth, and the words were right there. “Somebody died, Jules.”
“Well, duh.” She folded her arms, knotting herself into a ball of anger. “Now tell me something I don’t know.”
“An ordinary boy, somebody you—” I bit back the end of that, but Julia’s chin was already sliding forward, her eyes narrowing. “Somebody we knew,” I said instead. “He had a life, and he’s never going to get any older than sixteen. Because of us. Because of Becs.”
She sniffed. She started walking again.
I trotted along a quick step behind her, my feet moving fast to keep up. “And yeah, it sucks that it was her. But what she did—it was awful.”
Julia looked startled: her chin jerking up, her eyes widening. I’d startled myself a little, but it was true. This was what I believed, probably what I’d believed all along. I was Dad’s daughter, after all.
“It was, Jules,” I went on. “I mean, you and I know what she’s like, we know what she really meant, but she still decided she was going to kill a guy and then planned it out and then waited for him and then just went and did it. And it’s—it’s normal that she’s going to face the consequences for that. It’s how the world works.”
Julia sucked in her cheeks, and she was quiet for a long time, but the ground had shifted again, and now the silence didn’t feel quite as angry. Then her shoulders lowered. “You know, she sent me a letter,” she said, walking more slowly now. “A couple of months ago.”
My heart jumped. I thought about my own letter, inside my desk drawer at Mum and Dad’s. Of course she’d sent us each one. All for one and one for all.
“It was all full of—like there was nothing at all in it about what things are like for her now, you know?”
I twisted my hands together. “You mean—you mean like things are so bad for her that—”
“No, it’s not that.” Julia was shaking her head. “At least I don’t think so. I mean, like, she didn’t acknowledge that anything might have happened for me in the last couple of years, either. Instead it was all about what she remembers: about Kilda’s, about the four of us. It’s like—like she thinks nothing after that could possibly be important enough to talk about.”
My heart leaped into my throat. I took in a shuddery breath, clamped down on it, made myself keep walking. The drizzle had stopped, but the sky was still thick with grey.
“And the biggest thing—” Julia sent her eyes rolling skyward. “Like—I was so sure they would never let this case go to trial in the first place, right?”
“I wondered about that too.” My voice was hoarse, almost a whisper.
“Yeah, well, apparently Becca’s parents think they can get her a shorter sentence—or maybe even get her off—if they can make her look sweet and innocent in front of an actual jury.”
I nodded. That made sense. It was the only thing that did.
“And maybe they’re right, who knows? I mean, she says she doesn’t mind either way, Becca doesn’t, and God knows her parents have plenty of money to throw at expensive lawyers.”
A memory: Becca at the Valentine’s dance in our third year, her arms tossed out to her sides and laughing like she didn’t have a care in the whole world. It was hard to imagine trapping that spirit in a witness box, let alone a prison cell. I shivered.
“Yeah. I know.” Julia’s eyes flicked over to me, then down to the ground. “But you know, that’s not even the worst part.”
I swallowed. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the worst part.
“Becca says she thinks a trial is the best option anyway. Because it’s the only chance she’ll get to prove to the three of us that things are going to be okay.”
My eyebrows knitted up. “What?”
“Like, this is her big chance to get all of us into the same room one last time. To show us she’s strong enough to take any punishment that’s coming, I guess—I don’t even know. She wrote about it like it was the most normal thing in the world to her, but it didn’t make any sense because it was insane. It feels kind of like she just—” Julia bit her lip. “—like she just wants to make sure she gets to see us all again.”
Something was hollowing me out, scraping me raw. Like someone had taken a melon-baller to my insides.
Julia’s adrenalin was firing, stretching the muscles in her neck into cords. “Isn’t that the most fucked-up thing you’ve ever heard?” she spat. “It’s like—my God, Becs, thanks for the fucking reunion.”
Now that Julia had said it, I couldn’t picture it going any other way. Just two days now, and we’d be together in that courtroom—me paralysed, Selena gone, Julia spitting fury—and through it all Becca was going to be coming at us with that same old eager, blinding hope blazing, all hi hi hi, you’re here you’re finally here! I wrapped my arms around myself, pressing my bag to my stomach with my elbows, my fingernails digging into the fabric of my jacket. I wanted to throw my head back and cry, but I knew if I started, I might never stop.
“You know what I think about sometimes?” Julia said then.
I looked at her. I shook my head.
“That thing we used to do. With the lights, and the sweet-wrappers.”
I chewed on the inside of my cheeks. I hadn’t let myself think about that in a long time.
“Sometimes I’m not sure it was ever even real, you know? Like, it could have all been some huge delusion or something.” Julia tilted her head in a way that made her look old—not just older, but actually old, like Mum or Dad. “Because that’s just the sort of thing that can happen when you’re young and impressionable and a little ridiculous.”
I swallowed. I knew someday I’d get to the point of wondering that too, and the thought made my heart ache like it had got trapped between my ribs. By the start of our fourth year the edges of what we’d built had already started eroding, and then the cops had come in and razed the wreckage that was left. That didn’t change the fact that it had once stood as tall and real as anything, of course, but now there was nothing solid left to prove it.
I stopped walking. “I think—”
Julia stopped too. A look, full of confusion and questions.
I was holding my breath. “I think I might hate what I’m studying,” I blurted.
Julia let out a laugh. It was as if someone had stuck a valve into the air and let out all the tension in a gigantic whoosh, and around us the whole world sagged with relief.
“Like, I thought it was going to be architecture, you know, actually learning how to make things? But it’s not like that at all, it’s like, engineering, which is mostly maths, as it turns out, and I was never—what?”
Julia was still laughing, but it wasn’t her scornful laugh at all; it was that rare, delighted, bubbly giggle of hers that had always sparked the rest of us into laughing right along with her. “You thought you were going to be Tom Hanks!” she chortled.
I blinked. “Tom Hanks?”
“Like, from that one old DVD of his that was always floating around the Kilda’s common room in our fourth year—was it Sleepless in Seattle?” She was grinning. “You thought you were going to have some totally glamorous life on some totally awesome houseboat that you’d design yourself—”
“Oh, shut up.” I folded my arms around my bag again, but a smile was tugging at the corners of my mouth. I let them drop back down to my sides.
“And you’d always wear black, and you’d have such stylish glasses—”
“Believe me, I already know how ridiculous I sound.” I was smiling for real now, but I could still feel a spot of heat rising in my cheeks. “I feel like a total idiot.”
“Hol, you couldn’t be an idiot if you tried.”
My eyes flicked over, met hers.
“Although.” Her face was deadly serious. “If you really feel the need to live out on a lake somewhere, there are easier ways to accomplish that than going to college for architecture.”
I rolled my eyes, swung my bag in her direction.
She leaned away, dodging it. “Wasn’t it Orla who used to talk about her parents’ cottage out in Galway, somewhere like that? Get yourself a good enough job doing something else, and you can afford to buy yourself a lakeside property. Much less fuss.”
“It’d be an improvement over the awful shared flat I’ve got now,” I admitted.
“There you go.” Julia took one last puff on her stub of a cigarette, pinched the end to extinguish it. “If you do it, I’ll come visit.”
My heart did a backflip. I covered it with a raised eyebrow. “No thanks,” I said. “Not if it would mean running into that geebag Orla.”
“Yeah, well. That’d be the downside.”
Just then a ray of sun peeked out from behind a cloud, sending the tiny droplets on the slope shimmering, fanning out the wings on one of the swans. And then Julia’s hand was on my arm: a light, hesitant touch, but there all the same. When our eyes met, neither of us looked away.
I linked my arm through hers, and her smile got me the closest I’d felt to okay in two years.
Julia and I kept walking until suppertime. Then she headed home and I kept going on my own: up the coast almost to Booterstown, back down the other way, through the townland. Then, after it had got dark and there was no wandering left to do, I hopped a train and went home—home to Dalkey. I mean, sure, I’ve got my own flat now, but Mum and Dad’s was still the first key that fell into my palm whenever I grabbed my key ring, and I still knew how to let myself in.
I found them sitting together on the wicker sofa in the conservatory, watching what looked like an old film on the telly. When I stepped into the room, they both pulled themselves up all straight-backed, their expressions sparking alert.
“I’m going to sleep here tonight,” I announced. I lifted my chin. “I’m assuming that’s all right?”
Mum managed an of course and Dad a sure, sweetie. Neither of them took their eyes off me.
“Thanks.” I started for the stairs, turned back to face them. “What would you say if I said I thought I might want to do something different?”
Two pairs of eyes scanning me. Scanning and scanning. “Something different?” Mum said. “You mean different from—”
“Like, instead of architecture, I mean.”
Mum’s eyebrows pulled together, baffled, but from Dad there was a visible rush of relief that almost threw him back against the sofa cushion. They turned toward each other. “I guess…we’d have to discuss that,” Dad said.
A long look sliding between them, under their lashes, full of meaning. One corner of Dad’s mouth twitched.
He looked back at me. “But we could probably work something out.”
“All right, then,” I said with a nod. “Good night.”
Inside my room I gave my door a little shove, let it fall shut. The telly was still on downstairs, and now Mum and Dad’s voices were layered over the top of it: low enough I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but still soft and constant and comforting.
I sat down on the corner of my bed, stayed there for a long time, gathering all my courage into one tight little ball. Then I moved over to the desk.
My heart was going like an express train, crazy-fast. I opened the drawer, took the envelope out: my name, Mum and Dad’s address, in the thin little loops of Becca’s handwriting. I slid a finger under the flap.
I think about you a lot, here. Remember the first time we talked, just after McKenna’s opening speech in our first year? You were with your dad, and you said you liked my bracelet, the one Mum gave me for my birthday. I was such a little kid then, all huddled up scared and talking to the floor instead of to you. I think sometimes about all the bits like that I’ve probably already forgotten, just because no matter how hard you try, your mind can’t manage to keep hold of everything. If I could, though, I’d hold tight to every single minute the four of us ever got to spend together. I’m so much better for having known you three, just SO MUCH I can’t even properly express it.
Anyway, I’m writing to tell you my parents think it would be the best thing for my case to go to trial. The lawyers are saying it will help if a jury can meet me, and they really want to try, so I said okay. Even if it doesn’t work, though, it’s fine—I don’t mind whatever’s going to happen, really I don’t. I know you’ll have trouble believing that, though, so if nothing else, I’m glad a trial will mean getting the chance to prove that to you, you and the others.
The lawyers say you’re probably going to be called as a witness for the prosecution. I know how much you’ll hate that, so I wanted to be sure to tell you that whatever you say (and whatever you’ve already said) is just fine with me. I was always part of the sacrifice, see. For a while I thought I could maybe cheat, make it all Chris’s, but it was always just as much mine. And none of that’s your fault, Hol. It’s just how it’s meant to be.
The curious part of all this is that I still see him. It’s like Lenie said: he’s actually there, all the time, just in the corner of my eye. It’s okay now, though. He’s still angry—ghosts just are—but I’m not scared of him anymore.
They’re saying probably April, for the trial. If that’s true, it means it’s just a few months until I get to see you all again. I’ll be counting the days.
Love love love,
Your friend forever,
A tear formed on the page, first one and then another: spreading flat, staining the paper blue with ink. Out of habit I tried to stop, tried to pull the armour tight around me that I’d been wearing for the past two years, but then I thought better of it. I shook the armour off, let my throat go raw, let my face streak wet.
With the tears came the memories: tumbling like acrobats into my mind, presenting themselves to me one by one. The four of us as first-years, eating ice lollies at the park playground, swing chains twisting together. That first afternoon in the cypress glade: the smell of cut grass and the promise of a place all our own. All the nights of whispering across to each other’s beds long after lights-out, giddy and giggling with lack of sleep. I knew my mind wouldn’t hold onto it all, though—Becca was right about that—so I cupped each memory between both hands for a moment, like a little prayer, then let them go. Only one stayed behind, for safekeeping. For Monday.
It was January of our Transition Year, during the period after Chris died when Selena was busy losing it and Julia was just as busy being a first-class bitch. I used to get itchy sometimes back then, like I was having some kind of allergic reaction on the underside of my skin from all the loneliness. That day I itched all over.
I was alone, coming back to our room from something—maybe a meeting for the project I’d got assigned to do that year with a couple of the day girls, I don’t really remember. What I do remember is sliding the door open to find Becca sitting on the corner of her bed in a pool of light from the window, watching a pair of pens tumbling over each other in the air. She scrambled to her feet as soon as she saw me, and I jumped back all shocked, like Sister Ignatius catching somebody looking at porn on the art room computer. The pens clattered to the floor.
There was a long silence, crammed full to the brim with awkward. I kept on standing there, hovering in the doorway, not sure what to do next.
“I know all that’s meant to be over,” Becca said finally.
Neither of us said what. Neither of us said why.
“I know Selena doesn’t want us to—and that’s fine,” she added with a little too much emphasis. Becca had shot up three inches over the summer, and her mouth was full of bright white teeth without the braces, but just then she looked like nothing more than a little girl doing her best to put on a brave face. “But I still—I feel like sometimes it’s still important to check.”
“Like a test.” Becca shifted her weight from one foot to the other, back and forth. “To make sure it still works.”
I clutched my arms to my chest, but an empty space was already opening up inside of me like a black hole. I remembered the very last time I’d done it: a Crunchie wrapper, in the field behind the Court. Julia had given it an angry swipe, and Selena had plucked it out of the air with a matter-of-fact we don’t do that anymore before going back to her daydreaming.
“It was our special little miracle gift,” Becca explained. “Like—like a sign from the universe that this was good, that we were good. But that just means as long as it’s still there, we can be sure nothing can come from the four of us that could ever be anything but right.”
The air in the room thickened, instantly, with the weight of everything that had come before: all the wonderful, all the horrible. Becca flicked her eyes up toward the ceiling, toward the quote she’d written out herself in careful calligraphy: Why should we entertain a feare? Love cares not how the world is turn’d.
She saw that my eyes had followed hers, gave me a nod. “Just like that,” she said, with another quick head-tilt toward the quote. “As long as the gift still works, we’ve got nothing to worry about, not really. Whatever happens, no matter how bad, I know we can take it.”
Wordlessly, I walked over to her bed, sat down. Then she did, too, next to me. She was watching me: steady brown eyes, unflinching.
I let one of the pens twitch until it snagged Becca’s gaze. And then we were both doing it: lifting it into the air, letting it hover briefly before coming to a rest on Becca’s knee.
It sat there for a moment—proof!—and Becca’s answering smile was the sun and the moon and the stars all at once. Then she let it somersault over to my lap, settle against a fold in my kilt. I picked it up, grasped it between a thumb and two fingers. Becca wrapped her hand around mine and kept on smiling.
I shed the memory along with my tearstained jacket, folded them both carefully over the back of my desk chair, where I could find them later. Then I slid the letter into its envelope, set it face-up on the surface of my desk.
She was somewhere right there in Dublin, Becca was. Somewhere close. And if she could take what was coming, then so could I.
See you Monday, Becs, I thought at her. See you soon.