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Still Avoiding Tomorrow

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01:22 - The Waves

Suddenly we’re falling through the twilight zone / watch the party playing out in slow motion / is it an apocalypse of nihilism on your lips? We sink or swim

Ollie slid down the wall and dropped his head between his knees. The truth was she was absolutely fucking right. Frankie should never have been the one to die.

They’d been moving troops and supplies back to base, travelling in convoy. Three armoured vehicles. Ollie and their XO were meant to be travelling up front. But that would have put all of their commanding officers in one vehicle – and that made no tactical sense. What if they’d had to regroup or faced an attack on the road? He reasoned that it made more sense for him to travel further back. Frankie volunteered to take his place. They were a few clicks short of their destination when a mortar strike took out the lead vehicle.

Alert.

Respond.

Ollie had acted on autopilot, ordering his troops out of the tank to find cover as he sprinted towards the head of the convoy. He’d expected to engage with enemy troops, instead he found his best friend stumbling towards him; the clothes burnt from his body, his skin on fire.

“Put it out. Put it out. Help me. I’m going to die.”

He should have been the one in that vehicle and Frankie, god bless him, Frankie, with his fifties quiff, cool-bad boy vibes and charming smile for everyone, Frankie should have come home to marry Laura.

Feeling numb, Ollie glanced up to watch the party play out around him. Everyone was oblivious to his pain and no one questioned another drunk sitting in a heap on the floor. A pair of trendy combat - boots that would have been worse than fucking useless in actual combat - stepped over him to reach the laptop sitting on the pair of speakers in the corner.

“Enough of this indie shit, mate, we need some floor fillers.” The guy complained. “It’s twenty past one, people are flagging.”

“Fine. You choose.”

Ollie listened to them argue bac and forth until they settled on a playlist and the opening notes of Praise You began to pulse into the room. It drew people like a magnet; they flooded in the from the kitchen and the hall way, and Ollie had to stand up to stop himself from being trampled on. By the time the beat dropped people were twirling and jumping, sashaying around the room with their best drunken moves. He nodded along, hips swaying in time to the music. He couldn’t deny that the song was tune. It still was. He wouldn’t let the song get taken from him like so many other things had. So what if it had been their go-to song to blast through the stereo in the army. So what if it had been playing when Frankie got hit?

Ollie threw himself into dancing, letting the music wash over him like waves. He closed his eyes and lost himself in the crowd, in the sweat, in the dark, in the smoke. It was still a good song, he tried to tell himself; throwing his arms above his head and releasing his inhibitions into the night. It was still a good song. We've come a long, long way together, through the hard times and the good.

“Mortar strike!”

Alert.

Respond.

“Put it out, put it out.”

When Ollie couldn’t lie to himself anymore, he fled the room from the room; seeking solace under the night sky.

=

Levi’s phone buzzed in his pocket. Feeling heavy limbed, he fished it from his jeans and squinted, trying to focus on the screen. It wasn’t a text or a real notification, just another news update that he didn’t want. No matter how many times he tried to turn the notifications off, whatever settings he changed, his phone still insisted on keeping him up to date with all of the horrors in the world. Sabre-rattling in the Middle East. Fucking hell. He dismissed the notification without reading it – noting with surprise that it was gone 1am, where had the night disappeared to? – and stuffed his phone back his jeans with annoyance. Why wasn’t it ever good news? Forget a handcart, the world was going to hell in a freight train. One day his phone was going to ping with a notification that North Korea had sent nuclear missiles heading their way and he wasn’t even going to be surprised. He topped up his cup with another slosh of vodka, sure there was still some coke in the bottom somewhere, and glanced around the kitchen for a conversation to latch onto. Ollie still hadn’t returned from the bathroom. Stuart was arguing with someone about the latest developments in the tory leadership race and Nick was propped up against the wall, practically nodding off into his beer. Really not in the mood to talk politics, Levi slipped around the kitchen table and out into the garden. The sky was a dark as it ever got that time of year; with the lights from London and the party behind him blotting out any hope of seeing the stars.

He found Blaine sitting on a patio table, smoking a joint and keeping up a constant stream of conversation to someone sat beside him who was mindlessly scrolling through their phone and looking they weren’t listening to a word Blaine was saying.

“Billy Jeans,” Blaine greeted him with a smile and held out the joint. Levi shrugged – why the hell not – and took a drag. He choked a little on the smoke, much to Blaine’s amusement; and tried to remember when the last time he’d been high. It had been a good few years since he’d let himself cut loose like this. It felt nice. He needed an escape, from the stress of worrying about the future, from the perpetual bad news. He sat one of the patio chairs and handed the joint back to Blaine. They passed it back and forth until it burnt down to nothing, and Levi tipped his head back waiting to feel the effects, letting it carry him off into an almost meditative state.

The music kicked up a gear inside, changing from deep rocky tunes to loud electronic beats. A group of people who had been stargazing on the lawn pulled each other to their feet and hurried inside, already dancing and singing along as they went. Levi found his foot tapping along and his brain picked up on the subtler instruments and backing melodies of the song that he’d never noticed before. Blaine was still nattering away, so Levi forced himself to focus on what he was saying, quickly realising that he was expounding on his daily litany of drugs. Clearly the crack about cocaine hadn’t been a joke. Levi was engrossed as Blaine listed the pills he took to bring him up and the one he used to slow himself down; the careful routine of substances time almost to the minute. Levi had to remind himself that this guy was a doctor. People’s lives were in his hands on a daily basis and from the sounds of it, he wasn’t ever not high.

“Don’t you worry about making a mistake?” the words were out of Levi’s mouth before he could think on the wisdom of saying them.

“Dude, I take drugs so I don’t make mistakes.” Blaine laughed at him. “You try getting through a fourteen hour shift and still being alert at the end of it.

“You drink coffee?”

“Yeah. ‘course.” Levi found himself laughing; what an idiotic question.

“You’re useless without it, right?” Blaine smirked. “Did you know that caffeine is a poison? Plants developed it as a way to protect themselves from being eaten. Then humans come and along and began to chow down on it every morning. But because it’s socially acceptable, no one sees the problem with our entire workforce dependent upon a toxin that was developed to kill would-be consumers.”

Levi didn’t know what to say. It was true, what made caffeine and alcohol more socially acceptable than other mind altering substances?  

“You ever made a mistake because you were too hopped up on caffeine?” Blaine asked.

“No.”

“You ever made one because you hadn’t had your coffee yet? You work in marketing right? Ever send the wrong email, post the wrong update, order the wrong quantity of something?”

Levi blanched. He’d issued the wrong invoice to a customer last week because he was half asleep, waiting for this coffee to brew. How did Blaine know?

“It’s the same for me. I just rely on stronger toxins. So thank you for the insinuation that I don’t know how to do my fucking job. I’d like to see you cope with the things I deal with on a daily basis. I’d like to see you pull yourself out of bed looking down the barrel of a double-shift when you’re the only doctor on call – even though you’re still a junior doctor, you’re going to be the most senior person in that hospital and your call will the final decision. It could be the balance between someone living and dying and it will all. Be. On. You.” Blaine stared at him. Levi wanted to look away but there was a vulnerability behind his eyes that Levi couldn’t ignore. A fleeting expression of fear and regret crossed his face before he thrust an arm out behind him to lean back on and plastered a stoic, determined look on his face once more.

“There was something.” He spoke quietly, almost to himself. “On the train home from a helluva long shift. I’d been covering the maternity ward. Short staffed as always. The resident doctor was doing an emergency c-section so I was in charge. The woman was screaming, screaming, in pain. Something was wrong, very wrong.” He swallowed a dry lump in his throat and wet his lips, gathering his thoughts before he continued. Levi wasn’t sure he wanted to be listening anymore. He wasn’t sure it was a question he’d ever wanted answering. But he couldn’t pull himself away. “The baby was breech. It was a difficult labour. Everything was upside down and backwards. I panicked. I froze. The baby wasn’t crying, why wasn’t the baby crying? The mother just kept screaming and screaming and the nurses didn’t know what to do either. They kept asking me. Everyone was looking to me. Why wasn’t the baby crying? I held it in my hands, this tiny creature, turning blue, not crying.” Blaine stared at his hands. Levi was almost certain that Blaine had forgotten he was there. “Not breathing. The mother’s screams echoed around the room but the baby was silent. I think I shouted for it to cry. To just fucking cry, god-damn-it! Then, finally, the most beautiful sound in the world. It began to wail. I’ve never felt relief like it. Even a hit doesn’t come close, though I’ll chase it – I keep chasing the high that comes from knowing they’re going to live; they’re going to be okay. Bloody hell.” He dragged a hand through his hair and shook his head. “A shift like that, it takes something stronger than the regular stuff, you know?”

Levi really didn’t, but he nodded anyway, scared to say anything that might break the trance Blaine was in. He seemed determined to talk and Levi was determined to listen. He’d always been good at listening.

“I had a three day weekend to look forward to and I needed to blow off steam in style. Not wanting to waste a moment away from the hospital I took a hit on the train home. Ketamine. Something special my cousin cooked up for me. Real strong stuff. It was just the ticket. I sat back waiting for it to hit when my pager goes off. Ah, hell. I panic. I’ve got this really ugly ringtone, proper 90’s shit, so no one else will have the same tone? Because it proper scares me when I hear it go off. Trigger warning, you know. I thought – shit – they’re calling me back. But before I could fumble for my pager, this guy opposite takes out his phone to answer it and I realise, with such a heady rush of relief, that it wasn’t mine after all. God. It was bliss. Better than an orgasm. I can tell you. Why that business guy had the same shitty ringtone I’ll never know. Because the guy goes and collapses moments later. He just goes down. Crumples in his nice suit and he’s lying there, gasping for air, dying in front of me. Of course, I know, I’m a doctor, I need to go and help. But I can’t move.” Blaine shivered and dropped his head forwards, leaning over the edge of the table with his hands gripping the edge, knuckles white. “I couldn’t move. Whatever he’d put in that ket had fucking anaesthetised me.  I could see and hear everything in that train carriage as passengers crowded around him to ineptly help. They fumbled with his collar, someone tried to take his pulse, but no one started doing CPR, or phoning for help. And I was powerless to move. It was a nightmare. A literal waking nightmare. I screamed at them to get the defibrillator from he driver’s cabin. I yelled for them to start chest compressions. But no one heard me. I sat back and watched from inside my own mind as the guy died on the floor in front of me. So, yeah, okay. I killed someone. Because I was high. I’m meant to be a doctor. I’m meant to fucking save people and I let him die. You happy?” Blaine pushed himself off the table and squared up to Levi for a moment, towering over him with a feral look in his eyes, before he hurried back to the house and pushed his way roughly inside.

“Shit.” Levi was left sitting stunned. He didn’t even know where to begin to process what he’d heard. He drained his vodka and crushed the cup in his hand. His motions felt exaggerated; heightened and slowed-down at the same time. He stood, and found himself fascinated with the beauty of the garden; the dark silhouettes of the trees swaying in the breeze, the waxing gibbous moon, more than three quarters full, shining brightly with every crater, every dark patch standing out in sharp contrast. God his loved the sensory aspect of being high. But wait, he forced himself to focus, the drunken, marijuana tinged hazed tugged at the edges of his mind unhelpfully. Blaine. Levi knew he would forget most of what he’d heard by the morning - he was already forgetting now – he needed to go and find Blaine and reassure him, or at least warn Nick that Blaine needed someone to talk to. But by the time he’d even wandered over to Nick to broach the subject, it was already slipping from his mind.