Simon isn’t sure why they ever agree to anything Nathan says, but they do, and with surprising frequency. It’s as though his super-power is hypnosis, not immortality.
At least going clubbing to celebrate the end of community service is less insane—not to mention obscene—than his usual suggestions. Once they get there, though, it doesn’t feel particularly celebratory. It feels awkward, hesitant, and a little bit sad, like the last day of a beach holiday.
But with more alcohol.
A lot more alcohol.
Simon drinks approximately three times as much as he usually lets himself, especially around this lot; he isn’t sure if the others know it, but he’s sort of designated himself the ‘watcher of weirdness’. Someone’s got to keep an eye out for them. But tonight he lets it all go, because everything feels like it’s already gone. From the way the others are pounding them down and lapsing into uncharacteristic silences, he wonders—hopes—perhaps they’re feeling the same way.
When Kelly gets up to order the next round, Alisha squeezes next to him in the tight booth. Simon assumes it’s because things are probably awkward with Curtis now, what with Nikki having joined them a few minutes ago. And after an untimely run-in with a couple of pints, nobody wants to sit next to Nathan. Simon squeezes his knees tighter together and curls his shoulders so he’s less likely to accidentally touch her. Still, her hair tickles his cheek.
“Hi,” she says, even though they’ve been hanging out for the past 12 hours. The past three months, actually.
She smells so good, just like she always does. He closes his eyes and breathes in her presence, as much as he can amid the overarching stench of booze and sweat. It’s torture not to… he doesn’t even know what. It’s stupid to think about. There are reasons upon reasons why he’ll never be able to touch her.
So, for lack of any other ideas, he replies, “Hi,” and then goes back to looking at the drink positioned delicately on his kneecaps.
“You got any plans? I mean, for after all this. After community service.” She watches as he pushes the stirrer round and round the rim of his glass.
“Not yet. School in a few weeks, I guess. Do you?”
“Yeah, school. I might try to get a job this term. Not sure who’d have me, though.”
“Anyone would be lucky to have you,” he says quickly. Alisha is bursting with good qualities. He has never understood why she doesn’t seem to see them herself.
“Hey, Barry!” Nathan stumbles towards them and falls into Simon’s lap, utterly ruining the almost moment. Alisha throws her hands in the air to avoid touching anyone. Simon can feel Nathan’s beer-soaked trousers pressing against his own, spreading the liquid and the smell.
“Just because we don’t have community service anymore doesn’t mean you can’t still come by to give me part of your lunch. Your mother’s sandwiches are delicious.”
“They’re my sandwiches,” Simon says. “My mother hasn’t packed my lunch since I was twelve.”
The others, who started listening in when Nathan came onto the scene, are all shocked by this revelation.
“You mean you made all those tidy sandwiches?”
“You seriously picked out that fucking lunchbox for yourself?”
“You voluntarily eat bananas?”
Simon flattens out his hair, but smiles all the same. He may not always pick up on it, but he’s learned enough to sense that this is only friendly teasing.
Later, much later, when he’s getting ready to leave, he nearly trips over his feet while trying to put on his jacket. Alisha grabs the cotton of his sleeve to steady him.
“You’re pissed,” she says, wonderingly, amazed. “You never get pissed.”
“No, I’m not,” he lies, then stumbles again. “Well, maybe I am a little.”
“I’ll walk home with you. It’s on my way.”
“No it isn’t.”
She groans in disgust, and her old impatient snarl reappears for the first time in weeks. “Pretend it is, Simon. Seriously. You’re supposed to just fucking go with it.”
She confuses him, always has. However, whereas before she confused him in the way that all beautiful girls confuse him, recently she’s been confusing him on a whole other level. Why does she want to walk with him?
“Are you afraid of something?” he whispers on their way out, trying to make sense of it. “Has someone been following you? Should we call the police?”
She throws her head back and puts her hands over her eyes. “Never mind. I’ll call a fucking taxi. See ya later, yeah?”
He watches her run back towards the club entrance. She almost bumps into Kelly at the door, and together, they run whistling and screaming after a cab. Confident that she’ll be safe with Kelly, Simon pulls up the collar of his jacket and heads home, the sounds of them yelling “Oi!” fading into the distance.
He has no idea what he did wrong back there, but it was definitely something.
Simon didn’t have any friends before all this began, but it’s odd that the others don’t seem to be going back to their old groups now that their time has been served. Especially Alisha, who, during the early weeks, had continued to go out almost every night, arriving every morning at the community center grouchy and hung over. Once she and Curtis started seeing one another, Simon had noticed the hung-over-ness (if perhaps not the grouchiness) had stopped. She hasn’t mentioned Chloe or the rest of her clique in ages.
“Yeah, summer’s over,” Kelly says, voicing what all of them are most likely thinking. “I’m freezing my fucking tits off up here. We should probably find a pub or something to meet at. Like normal people.”
“Or a coffee shop,” Simon offers.
“We aren’t fucking Friends,” Curtis says.
When she sees Simon’s eyes bug out and his face momentarily fall, Alisha says, “He means the TV show, Simon.”
“Right,” he mutters as they all laugh.
He blushes into his lap, and forcibly reminds himself to stop doubting all the time. They’re friends. All of them. Even with Nathan. What else could Curtis, or any of them, possibly do to prove it further?
Then he wonders what Alisha was doing looking at him in the first place to notice his confusion, and to read his train of thought so quickly. She’s not a telepath. Before he can ruminate more on that, Nathan interrupts his train of thought.
He has a knack for that.
“Fuck coffee. It’s booze we want. And who here has access to copious amounts of the stuff? Nobody, that’s who. Except me. That’s why you’re all going to keep coming to my house to get your fix.”
“Nathan,” Kelly says. “You haven’t got a house. You’re a homeless. You’re living in a community center.”
He shrugs. “My room here’s bigger than it was at my Mum’s.”
“It’s not a room. It’s a hallway.”
“I’ve got access to beer,” Alisha suddenly says.
Curtis glares daggers at her. “Alisha! You weren’t supposed to tell—”
“I got a job at a pub near the estate. We both did. Curtis and me. We could meet there.”
“Why didn’t you want to tell us?” Simon asks. Paranoia grips him; what if this secret they’d been keeping is the beginning of the end of the trust-filled camaraderie they’ve developed, what if she and Curtis are getting back together, what if…
Curtis points at Nathan. “We didn’t want him doing something stupid to get us sacked.”
That… is an airtight reason. Simon watches the oxygen he was holding in streak through his lips in a rush of grey relief. Kelly’s right; the days are getting colder.
A few minutes later, they head inside. Kelly is giving Nathan a slap (as usual), and Curtis is on the phone telling Nikki where to meet them (as usual). Simon finds himself walking beside Alisha on their way downstairs, which, he suddenly realizes, has been becoming something that is increasingly ‘as usual’. Simon tries to remember when it started, but can’t.
“Congratulations on the job,” he says shyly. “I told you anyone would want you.”
She beams at him. She’s even more beautiful when she smiles, which has always been rare, for one reason or another. “You’ll come by, won’t you? I have the afternoon shifts. On weekdays.”
He feels crazy saying anything other than yes, especially when a beautiful girl is asking him to spend time with her, especially when it’s Alisha, but… “I applied for a film editing apprenticeship.”
Her reaction is bizarre: she looks frightened. Depressed, almost. Then hopeful. Then traumatized. All in the space of about two seconds.
Unsure how to respond to all that, he adds quickly, “I don’t think I’ll get it. I don’t have any experience.”
“No, you’ll get it. And you’ll be brilliant. I know you will.”
“No, you don’t.”
Her mouth forms the shape of the Y of ‘yes’. Then her lips snap shut and she suddenly looks as though she’s about to burst into tears.
“I’m gonna go to the loo. Probably go home after that. Catch you later, yeah?”
Simon watches her run off, wiping her eyes on her sleeve as she goes.
Girls are mystifying.
It’s only three days a week, after school, but he loves it. More importantly, he’s good at it. The guys don’t talk to him much; they leave him alone in a dark room with all the equipment. He works faster than they expect, so they keep giving him projects, more and more, with a corresponding wage to go with it. Nathan teases him mercilessly about being a working stiff (but he doesn’t complain when Simon pays for his drinks).
Even with the job, Simon finds himself hanging out at the pub almost every day. And he can’t tell if it never conflicted in the first place or if Alisha’s had to move her work schedule around, but she’s almost always on when he finishes work and swings by.
Most days, he shares a booth with one or two of the others, quietly watching Alisha work out of the corner of his eye. Sometimes he perches alone at the bar, not even saying much—just watching the way she pours and smirks at various patrons. She’s sultry as she slides pints towards patrons (her tips are enormous), but she’s careful never to let anyone get too close, which, in this job and with her looks, has to be a challenge. He’s always quietly admired how she’s never let her power beat her or disable her. She never complains, but he knows she hates it, knows she’s miserable. It breaks his heart, but he doesn’t know what to do about it.
Oddly, he’s the only person she sometimes seems to get clumsy around. He figures it must be because he’s so harmless; out of everyone who’s touched her since she got this power—curse, really—he’s the only one who hasn’t ever actively tried to shag her. He’s only said strange things, according to the others. Regardless, he starts wearing even more clothing, if possible, just to ensure he never embarrasses himself around her that way again.
It still happens, though, and whenever she almost brushes against him or unthinkingly goes to pat his arm, Simon flinches away in panic. Each time, she watches him recoil, look stricken, and calls herself an idiot.
They’re in the middle of one of these odd dances when Simon’s phone buzzes violently against his thigh.
“It’s Nathan,” he sighs, and answers.
“Barry!” Nathan bellows. “Barry thank god it’s you!”
Simon pulls the phone away from his ear again, wincing in pain. The name that isn’t even his echoes through his brain. He tries to figure out when he gave up on Nathan ever remembering his real name and started answering to ‘Barry’.
“Who else would it be?”
“I thought maybe the police had your phone. Because you’re dead now. Are you dead? Please tell me you aren’t dead.”
“Why would I be dead?” he asks, having already written this off as his daily dose of Nathan insanity. But he notices the way Alisha stands up straight and stares at him intently.
“What’s he want?” Alisha whispers.
Simon covers the microphone with his hand. “He thinks I’m dead.”
She looks stricken, which is silly—too silly for someone as sensible as Alisha—since he’s sitting right here, obviously not dead.
“I was out on the roof trying to suck myself off again, and I saw you down by the water, hanging out with my brother,” Nathan babbles. “You looked different. You’d gotten rid of the pedo hair. I yelled down to ask who your barber was. My brother told me to piss off. You just waved.”
“Is this a joke?”
“No, this happened. I swear… I swear on my cat.”
“You haven’t got a cat.”
“On the cat I always wanted, then. He was a beautiful ginger tabby. And I loved him. His name was Patrick.”
Simon closes his eyes, pinches his temple, and summons the boundless reserves of patience they all seem able to muster for Nathan. “I’m not dead. I’m here, at the pub, with Alisha. She’s looking right at me. She couldn’t do that if I were dead.”
“Well, good. If you were dead, who’d make me ham and cheese sandwiches every day?”
“Are you coming by the pub?”
“No, there’s a party for some orphans at the community center tonight. I’m going to see if I can score any leftover cake and helium balloons.”
Simon shakes his head. “See you tomorrow, then.”
“Why’d he think you were dead?” Alisha asks as soon as he’s hung up.
“He says he saw me by the river, talking to his brother.” They both know what that means.
“Wouldn’t you have told him not to tell you about seeing him… you…?”
“What?” Simon doesn’t understand why she’s taking this so seriously. It’s Nathan.
“Forget it,” she says. “Just forget it.
But she’s visibly upset, so he doesn’t.
Simon hasn’t involuntarily turned invisible in months, but the convulsions start after Chloe shoves him off his stool, like he’s not even there.
“Simon?” Kelly whispers while Alisha tries to play it cool. She turns around, feeling subtly around for him. “Where are you? Let’s go outside, yeah?” Then, turning to Alisha, she adds, “We’re going out for a smoke.”
“We who?” the meanest girl snorts. “You and your other chav friends?” She never even noticed Simon, not even when he was visible.
Alisha winces; she knows what’s coming.
“Talk to me like that again, slag,” Kelly yells, puffing herself up, “and I will bash your head in.”
“Kelly, Kelly,” Alisha whimpers. “Don’t. I’ll get sacked. I’ll come over to your flat when I’m done with my shift? You two have fun, yeah?”
Kelly nods, probably reading the sincerity in Alisha’s mind. Simon doesn’t need to, as it’s written on her face.
“Oh, and also,” Kelly adds to the meanest girl, “Chloe here shagged your boyfriend and your brother last night.”
Having dropped that bomb, she turns and stalks out. Simon, grinning to himself, follows. He shakes the invisibility off as soon as they get outside. Kelly lights up.
“That was dangerous,” Simon says.
“Bitch deserved it.”
“I don’t think Alisha wants to be friends with them anymore.”
“No, she hasn’t in ages. And she was telling me all this shit about them in her head just now. But I’m worried about her.”
“I think she’s going mental.”
The vein at Simon’s temple throbs with worry. “What makes you think that?”
“Well, she’s in love with you, yeah?” Kelly says as an opener, and from the tone of her voice he can hear it’s not actually a question.
“No, she isn’t.” Some things are too cruel to tease. Simon doesn’t know why Kelly is doing this to him; of all of them, she’s the one who’s always been kindest to him, from the start.
“Why would I be teasing?” she asks, responding to his unspoken thoughts. “You two have been together for weeks. We were all taking bets on when you would finally own up to it.”
“No, we’re not.” And then, “You have?”
She pauses and he knows she’s trying to process this. There aren’t any secrets left, so he doesn’t bother to stop the stream of his confused and panicked thoughts.
“Wow,” she finally says. “You really don’t know. Sorry. You’ve been spending so much time together; I figured you two had sorted that out already.”
Simon blushes. “We’re just friends. The way you and I are friends.”
“You don’t think about me the way you think about her. Not that I’m complaining.” She pulls a face, and then softens. “But I think you’re dead sweet together. Or you will be once you sort it out.”
“What do you think is wrong with her?” he asks, desperate to change the conversation. This is a bombshell that’s almost too big to deal with right now. Not even he can twist this into a denial. The only way would be if Kelly’s lying to him, and he knows she wouldn’t. Especially not when she’s as worried as she clearly is.
“She keeps thinking about you in the past tense, like you’re dead. She’s always on in her head about the great sex you used to have, which has to be mental since her power… And even if you two could shag...” She pauses, and Simon doesn’t need telepathy to know what she’s thinking but is too charitable to say. “Anyway, you’re standing here right now, so you can’t be dead. Therefore,” she finishes with a deadpan flourish, “she’s going mental.”
“Nathan thought I was dead last week. He said he talked to my ghost. I thought he was on drugs.”
“Nathan doesn’t need drugs to say stupid shit.”
“It can’t be a coincidence. Both of them thinking I’m dead.”
Kelly shrugs. “Look, mate. I don’t know what it’s about. I’m just telling you what I’m hearing.”
Later, on his way home, Simon struggles with both things: this pattern of people thinking he’s dead, and the world-shattering knowledge that perhaps Alisha isn’t as out of his league as he’s always thought.
Tomorrow, he thinks. Tomorrow he’ll work up the courage ask her out. Again. This time, for something better than garlic dough balls.
It feels like the beginning of a new world. He buys his mother and sister a box of chocolate on the way home. They’re surprised by the gesture, but not completely.
“How lovely!” his mother says, and wraps him up in a big hug. He used to shy away from things like that, but not anymore, and even as she holds him, he can tell she’s glad at the way he lets her.
“You’ve grown up so much, Simon. We’re so proud of you. I would never have thought three months with some other young offenders would do this for you, but we’ve seen the difference.”
“You seem happy,” his sister says, with two chocolates already in her mouth, staining her teeth as she speaks.
“You know what? I think I am.”
“It’s Thursday,” he blurts out. Not that he isn’t always happy to see Curtis, but…
“Alisha had to help her dad with something, so I took her shift.” He looks down at the flower Simon’s carrying. “What’s that for?”
Simon blushes. “My aunt. She’s… in hospital. I’m going there later. For visiting hours.” He knows he’s a terrible liar, and, given what Kelly said about the others all talking about it, Curtis probably sees through it.
“Right,” Curtis says with a wink. Yeah, right through it. “Want a pint?”
“Sure.” The courage he’s spent the last 24 hours building completely deflates. Simon’s almost relieved.
“So, what’s going on? Other than your sick aunt?”
Simon tries to think of something, but it’s hard, since for the past 24 hours his mind has been full of nothing but coming here and seeing Alisha. “I’m thinking of getting my own place,” he blurts out, and then realizes it’s true. After what his mother had said, he’s realizing that yes, he has grown up, and maybe it’s time to take a few more steps.
Curtis nods. “Sounds about right. I know of a place you’d like.”
“It’s a basement apartment near here. It’s cool. And I know you can afford it. No reason why that should be different now.”
Simon has no idea what he’s talking about or how he could know his budget. “How do you—”
Curtis leans his head close to Simon’s and whispers, “Kelly started seeing this prick named Andrew.”
“What are you talking about? No, she didn’t.” Then Curtis gets a conspiratorial glint in his eye and Simon suddenly understands where this story is going. “Ohhhh.”
“Yeah. They were seeing each other for awhile, maybe three weeks. He got jealous of you spending so much time with her—”
“Me? And Kelly? But we’re just—”
“Exactly. Psycho. He came in here and started roughing you up. Kelly threatened to cut his balls off. I told him to shut the fuck up. That just made him madder, and he started screaming in your ear. But it turned out in addition to being a paranoid prick, he had some kind of supersonic power. Your brain exploded all over that table there. So then, you know… I did my thing.”
Simon looks at the spot and tries to imagine his brains all over where a couple is currently eating chips. He feels a bit sick, and also grateful that Curtis generally keeps these erased memories to himself.
Curtis shrugs. “It’s no problem.”
“Kelly has really bad luck,” Simon says, trying to change the subject. “First her old boyfriend, then the monkey, and now—”
“Tell me about it.”
“Is that why you had us all go to Brighton last weekend? So she wouldn’t meet him?”
Curtis nods grimly. Simon tries to imagine what other changes he’s arranged, what other secret nightmares he’s averting all over the place. It must be such a burden, he thinks. But like Alisha, he almost never complains.
“So what’s all that got to do with an apartment?”
“The last day before shit went down, you were moving into a new place. We were supposed to have a housewarming party for you. And I figure, just because Kelly isn’t with that wanker doesn’t mean you wouldn’t still like the same place.”
“But how’d I find out about it? I mean, in that timeline.”
“I think Alisha told you? Don’t know how she knew, though. There was something weird going on with you two. You were gonna make some announcement at the party. Something must have happened that going out of town last weekend also wiped out. Sorry.”
“Uh.” Simon isn’t sure what to say. It’s clear Curtis knows and is as comfortable with the idea of Simon and Alisha’s not-quite romance as Kelly is.
“I’m sure it’ll sort itself out in some other way.” Curtis leans in again, more serious this time. “Just be good to her, yeah?”
“Forever,” he promises fervently.
However, he’ll never stop being careful. He’s watched enough science fiction to know that one little slip-up could mean the end of the whole life he’s finally built for himself. If anyone asks, he’s the cousin of the building’s owner; he googled the name before coming.
The receptionist welcomes him politely, though with a bit of suspicion, since he knows he’s probably too young-looking to have his own place, without any visible flat mates. But with the cash from his job, he knows he can do this.
When he names the specific property, the receptionist goes into the back room to fetch the agent assigned to the apartment. A large, slightly seedy, but jovial man comes out, and after a second, his face lights up. “Nice to see you again. Simon, right?”
Simon’s never seen this man before in his life. “Yes?”
“Yes, you’re here about the basement flat, right? I remember you told me when you rented it a few months back that you’d probably want a second key. Took you long enough to come get it, though. That what you’re here for, isn’t it?”
Simon has no idea what’s going on, but at least they’re not laughing him off the premises. “That’s right…”
The man opens one of the grey filing cabinets against the wall and sifts through some folders. “Bellamy, Simon. Yes, you’re all paid up through the end of this month.”
“Yes, when you rented the flat, you ninny.” The man flashes the contract in front of Simon’s eyes, and yes, there is the address Curtis gave him, as well as his own signature in multiple places, copies of his documents and even a passport photo of him with a hairstyle he has never had. The face looking back at him is the face he makes at himself in the mirror sometimes when he’s trying to build up confidence.
“May I look at that again?” he asks, and then quickly follows, “Just to remember the terms.”
His eyes mostly glaze over the pages, not retaining anything about the liabilities and rules. In a corner, there’s a bit of a scribble, a crossed-out error in his handwriting that through the hash lines Simon can read: ‘You’re ready now.’
There’s only one explanation, and yes, it should be impossible, but stopping to think, it isn’t much stranger than what happens to him on a weekly basis these days.
However, if it’s true, given the odd incidents lately with the others, the story here is not one he feels ready to accept. He knows what this means. Nathan seeing his ghost, what Kelly told him the other night, the mysterious masked man who seemed to know everything about them and who stopped appearing right around the time Alisha started being nice to him…
He asks the agent for a new key, pays a couple months’ worth of rent, and gets out of there with barely enough time before he vomits all over his freshly shined shoes in the parking lot. He wipes them on a piece of newspaper someone littered nearby and bends over, retching again.
The apartment that apparently has been his for some time is the closest bathroom he can get to, so he staggers over there, and down the industrial elevator. When he turns the key in the lock, he doesn’t feel the tingling of fate or the rush or destiny or anything like that. He just feels the bile coming up again.
When he gets downstairs and opens the grate, the lights are already on. It is a cool apartment, just like Curtis said, with fluorescents making it look like a covert spy headquarters, and polaroids of everyone he loves lining the walls. He’s never been here, but it feels like the home of a fantasy version of himself. He might even almost feel like he belongs.
Alisha is there, too. Of course she is. And having her there to greet him into this nightmare and give it a silver lining feels right, like what he needs to make his peace with it. Fitting with how he’s feeling, she’s curled up on the bed and crying softly into the sheets.
She sits up when she sees him. “Simon? What are you doing here? Did you follow me?”
He sits down next to her and shakes his head no. This wasn’t how he’d intended to ask her out, but it seems to be what he’d intended. He pulls out a photocopy of one page of the rental contract and circles the crossed out bit with his finger.
Carefully, she puts her head on his shoulder.
“I think you’ve been ready for ages.”