I vividly remember the first time someone asked me about Hannah. I remember how my chest collapsed and I thought how quite like death this must feel.
“What do you mean?” I frown at the assigned text in front of me. The words blur and I can’t read anything. I hope that if I concentrate really hard, maybe I can transport myself back in time in order to avoid this conversation.
“Exactly what I asked,” Alec says, “What’s going on with you and Hannah?”
The four of us, Alec, Ayesha, Noah and I sit around the table in the library. Alec and Ayesha in front and Noah, beside me. I feel trapped.
“Nothing,” I stare at the number 81 printed on the left-hand corner of the bleached page until that blurs too.
“But the other morning…”
I close my eyes. I thought they would say something, but it had been days and no one had brought it up. But of course, he noticed.
Saturday morning. My phone buzzed furiously, the battery on 9 percent because I had forgotten to plug it in the night before. It was Alec calling. He was here for our breakfast run. Every third Saturday of the month, the two of us cycled through the park to the Quad: a little Italian-inspired village right in the centre of the city. We would stroll through the cobblestoned streets as the old Italian ladies draped their laundry over the balconies above. We would inevitably end up in the bookstore or the record shop before admiring our purchases over a latte and croissant. Alec and I would wander around hand in hand, pretending we were absolutely besotted with one another, although that wasn’t too far from the truth.
“Are you still asleep?” he questioned through the phone, “I’ve been standing outside for ten minutes.”
“I’m coming,” I pressed my fingertips to my forehead, leaving four slightly pink marks, “Just give me a minute.”
He sighed, almost blowing me away. I peered down. For an instant, I wondered if I had dreamt it all; one of those dreams you’re so sure is real, until you wake up, confused and disappointed. This wasn’t one of those times.
Hannah lay next to me; her body pressed against mine. I was sitting up, but I could feel her skin, soft, warm and smelling faintly of rain. Her hazel lashes twitched as she dreamt. There was a faint dark shadow under her eyes where her unwashed mascara had darkened her skin. The sudden urge to run my fingertips along her jaw overcame me so suddenly, I felt sick. I dug my fingernails into my palm so I wouldn’t do anything silly.
The knock on my door made me jump. I hit Hannah in the face with my elbow and she moaned at the awakening.
“I’m sorry,” now my palm was against her cheek, “I’m sorry.”
With her eyes barely open, almost out of habit, she tilted her head, placing her lips right in the centre of my open hand. She opened her eyes, gazing up at me. My body felt like a body, incapable of sustaining any means of life anymore.
“Are you decent?” Alec burst into my room, “I mean, it’s not like I care any-”
He saw the other body in my bed and started apologizing profusely, although I know he didn’t mean it, and when Hannah sat up, he went silent. I had never known Alec to turn mute.
I climbed out of bed, willing myself not to open the window and jump put, probably breaking a limb in the process.
“Hannah,” he said her name as if it were a foreign sound, “hi.”
“Hello,” she replied coolly, “What time is it?”
Alec stared at me, “9:13.”
“Shit,” she jumped up, “I have a shoot in an hour,” she started gathering her things, “I’ll get my clothes from you later, okay?”
“Cool,” she smiled at me as if wanting to say or do something more. Her eyes flitted to Alex and she decided against it.
With the click of the closed door, a silence exploded in the room. It was so thick I could feel it; filled with shock, surprise, confusion and unuttered words. Finally, I spoke because I thought my body would implode if I didn’t.
“We were watching a movie,” I said, “and we fell asleep.”
It was the truth, but it seemed so silly now.
He nodded, “Okay.”
I knew he also wanted to say more, to ask more, but he didn’t. Hannah, Alec, me; we all knew the other was holding back, but no one said anything. We were all too afraid to say something that would make this all too real. Once we said it, the words shaped into actuality that was out in the world. We were scared everything would change.
Except, Alec isn’t scared now. Now, they’re all staring at me, expecting an explanation I don’t have. It’s like that recurring nightmare: you’re standing in front of a crowd of people and you know they expect you to say something, but you are hopelessly unprepared. The weight of their phantom disappointment wakes you in a cold sweat. I couldn’t wake up now.
“It’s okay, you know,” Noah says the words so softly, I wonder if anyone else hears them.
My stomach turns so viciously, I think I might be sick.
“We love you Olive,” Ayesha says, “It doesn’t matter to us.”
It never occurred to me that Ayesha was capable of emotion. I knew she liked us moderately because she tolerated us to a degree, but she had never said she loved anyone. Not in front of us at least.
“We’re your family,” Alec says, “A screwed up one, but a family. You don’t have to hide anything.”
I can’t breathe. I stand up so suddenly, I knock the chair back. It clatters to the floor and the entire inhabitancy of the library turn to stare, the librarian scornfully so.
“I need to go,” I gasp for air no longer there. I pull my bag from the floor and run out. No one follows me.