Hit So Hard
Caleb’s place turns out to be a room in an empty squat with no running water. The house is surprisingly okay despite that. He has a gas ring to cook on, and Caleb says he gets water from the petrol station. There’s a small genny out back that can provide light for a few hours, but with the price of petrol what it is, Caleb’s content to run off gas and use candles.
Not a way I’d choose to live, really, but whatever floats his boat. We drink Crackling from a two litre bottle, passing around the sour fizz, getting steadily drunker. There’s no wine in the world that compares with Crackling for sheer nastiness. I’m pretty sure that if there’s a hell, this is the drink they’re serving to the unfortunate dead. I manage to take a few sips from my enamel mug of piss-flavoured piss, then decide that life is not worth living if this is what I am reduced to drinking. I get myself water from one of the large blue cannisters in the corner, and drink that instead. It’s flat and plastic-tinged, but still better than cheap “wine”.
Caleb has chucked his hat on a neatly made-up camper bed, and we’re sitting on the floor. Rain is almost in Caleb’s lap, he’s sitting so close. It has never taken Rain long to get where he wants to be. The reality of my rejection is rubbed in my face. But it’s not rejection, despite everything. I knew it was always going to be like this.
I should sober up, get a life, get a better job, get a better obsession. “Coffee?” I ask Caleb.
He shows me where to find his little tin of Ricoffy and his powdered creamer. It’s almost as bad as drinking the Crackling, I think, but with the added benefit of sobriety. At least, I think that’s a benefit. I’m not sure it really is. Caleb has a little gas cylinder and I use that, boiling the water up in a battered old kettle. A more-drawn out process than I could ever believe possible.. I put out the mugs. There are only two. Caleb and Rain will have to share. I take my mug and sip at it before curling my lip in disgust. The coffee tastes bitter, sour. It tastes like all the things I can’t have.
When I look up again, Caleb has tipped Rain’s head back, and they’re kissing. I’m fascinated by their tongues. Like a ghost, I sit with my knees curled to my face and watch them, watch their fingers and mouths, while I slowly become more invisible, my gross coffee cooling between my palms. Their coffee sits abandoned on the floor.
Time passes—slow or fast, who knows. I drop my forehead to my knees. There are sounds outside, things crawling through the bushes and the grass. I can hear them like little flickers on the edges of my imaginations skin sliding on skin, voices speaking in sibilant whispers.
If I concentrate, I can even hear what they’re saying. “Caleb,” they whisper. “We found you.”
I shake my head, willing clarity back. The feeling fades a little, and the voices with it. There’s no point in staying here and letting myself fall deeper into a mire of self-pity. “I going to have to leave pretty soon,” I tell Rain. Opening shift tomorrow, and although Sundays are kinda slow and quiet, I still need to actually get to work on time and in a reasonable state. Well, as reasonable as can be expected. My manager’s a prick—like all managers—but we’ve had a few drinks after work before. Also I know enough dirt on him that hopefully he won’t just fire me. After all, I don’t actually do lines of coke in the back office. “So you need to break it up a little.”
“Oh.” Rain looks at Caleb, then smiles uncertainly back at me. “I think I’m just going to crash here.”
Irritation bites through my cotton wool shield. “I thought you were going to stay at my place?”
“Yeah. Sorry. I mean, at least it’s not Lily’s, right?” Like that makes it okay.
I glance at Caleb, who’s leaned back against the wall, his arms folded across his chest. A slow smile spreading like he’s the Cheshire cat and he’s just been given all the cream in Wonderland.
Irrational anger hits, but I’m too tired to even argue. Without saying anything, I grab my bag and walk to the front door. I’m digging through the mess and junk for the car keys when I hear Rain behind me in the passage. Just him, unless Caleb is a ghost.
“You’re pissed with me?”
Dammit. Yes. No. I don’t know. Pissed with him, with Caleb. With myself and all the stupid shit that’s happening around me. I shrug.
“Reenie.” He puts his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t be mad. I’ll be fine.”
Except that right now, I don’t really care about him being fine, I care about me, about being thrown away like a used tissue. I love Rain, but I know he’ll never love me back the way I want him to, and that’s the part that hurts more than I can possibly say. I can cut my hair, I can dress in jeans and tee shirts and trainers, I can be Rain’s best friend. But I’ll never be the one he looks at. What’s worse is knowing that as blind as Rain is to everything, Caleb isn’t, and he saw the jealousy inside me, and he grinned at me because he’d won.
All the night’s scattered moments of feeling pushed-aside are roiling together inside me, making my face hot and sweaty. It’s rage, but it’s mixed with salt-angry tears and a yawning pit of hopelessness. I will not blink and I will not scream. And if I don’t get out of here soon, I’m going to do both. I grab Rain’s wrist and pull him with me as I lurch for the door.
“What the fuck, Reen?” he says.
“You are not staying here. God only knows what could happen to you here with the walking corpse, but I’m not leaving you here to find out.”
“Christ!” He pulls out of my grip, and I feel my nails scrape skin. “What is wrong with you? I mean, do you think you’re my mother? That I can’t cope if you’re not there watching over me like I’m a bloody child?”
Well, yes. “I know you can’t cope,” I spit, jealousy making me all acid and nasty.
He cradles his wrist against his chest, and there are fine red lines beading on the white skin. “Fuck you.”
“Great, Rain—do whatever you like, see if I care if the next time I see you it’s in a psych ward because this whole thing turns into a repeat of Hillbrow.”
And I’ve crossed the line. I know it, even as the words tumble out of my mouth, and Rain goes so white he’s practically grey. I expect him to start crying. Instead, he lunges forward and punches me. He’s not much of a fighter, but the blow catches me on my cheekbone, and it hurts. A part of me is snarling that at least he’ll have hurt himself worse—I don’t think Rain’s thrown a punch in his life.
“Irene.” He’s gone blank and still, his arms crossed close against his chest like he’s restraining himself. “Jesus, Irene, I’m sorry.”
It’s not the apology I wanted. I fumble with Caleb’s front door and lurch out into the night. Cool air strokes my skin, making me shiver. The car looks far away—a yellow pustule on the skin of the road—and I start walking toward it. Around me, small animals rustle in the undergrowth on the side of the driveway, stirring a sewer stink of sulphur and shit.
Rain follows me, his soles crunching on the gravel.
“Call me tomorrow.” I pull the door open with too much force, not wanting to turn back and look at him. The car door bounces on the abused hinges, and the drive home alone looms before me. I should probably also just crash, tell Caleb that I can’t drive. But I also don’t want to see them, spit-sticky. Don’t want to walk back in there and see Rain twining himself around Caleb like a stray cat begging for food. “Get your decrepit new boyfriend back there—”
‘He’s not my—” Rain begins but I just keep talking over him, louder and louder.
“Your boyfriend to take you home, and give me a call when you’re back.”
That stops him. “What, at work?” He knows I’m not allowed personal calls. It’s this big thing at my job, like getting a personal call is on par with spitting in the food or something. I don’t know, it’s stupid, but that’s what it’s like when you work for stupid people. And sure, I’ll get a warning if he does call me, but right now, I don’t care. I hate him, but I still need to be sure he’s okay. “Yeah.” At least I manage to get my seatbelt on, and remember to switch on the lights “I mean it,” I say over the grumbling chatter of the engine. “Call me, you prick.”
As I reverse, I glance to the front to see Rain outlined in the Beetle’s brights.
He raises one hand in farewell.
I grit my teeth and drive off. If I just aim between the lines, I’ll be fine. My cheek aches, and when I’ve left the house far behind me, I let myself cry.
I do manage to get back home in one piece, even if a few trucks try to take me out on the N12. I barely know the area Caleb lives in and I had to rely on a numb brain to keep track of all the landmarks. I trudge up the stairs, each step an exercise in endurance. There’s a note on my front door, held in place with sticky tape on the corners. “No,” I say. I cannot deal with more crap right now, but l rip it off anyway and read the message bitching about me using the visitors’ parking.
“Screw you,” I say to the note. Since there’s nowhere else for me to park the Beetle, I just crumple the note and shove it in my pocket. It’s not like I can hang on to the car forever anyway. At some point my dad is going to want it back. In fact I’m surprised he hasn’t already called and crapped on me from a dizzy height for using it. He must be saving up all his rage for a spectacular Kerry-sized meltdown.
My apartment feels even more cramped than usual, thanks to picture-Caleb glaring down at me from across the room. I flip him the bird. Stupid painting. I don’t even know what possessed me to paint it in the first place.
Once I’ve shucked my clothes, slapped steroid cream on everything, and crawled into bed, I press the ache of my face into the soft cotton pillow case. The faint ticking of my bedside alarm clock keeps me from sleeping. That, and the fact that all I can do is worry about Rain. I’ve never just left him like that, never. It goes against everything in our friendship: Rain fucks up; I rescue him. What I don’t do is leave him at some weirdo’s house, especially when I’m pretty sure that there’s something very wrong with said weirdo. People do not get hit by taxis and then wander about the next day like nothing bloody happened. And apparently I have finally flipped the lid, because now I’m convinced. That was him dead on the road. My stomach starts doing a rumba, and my eyes are burning up in my sockets
I’m wrapped in a fuzzy mess of emotions that aren’t mine. Despite all the things I could blame this on—the drinks, the long night, my stupid emotions—I’m finally certain that things are not what that they seem, and that Caleb is, in some incredible way, magical. Maybe he’s magicked me, the same way he charmed Rain. I close my eyes and take several deep breaths before I open them again.
“Go to sleep,” I say to the empty room. “And talking to yourself is a sure sign that you’re losing it, Irene.” I glance at my bedside clock even though I don’t need it to tell me that it is already morning. The sun is shining through my cheap curtains, and the sparrows are already screeching at each other. Five am. Wonderful. and I have to be on shift by nine. I groan.
The next thing I know the alarm is buzzing in my ear and I’m trying to put my groggy thoughts together. I shower and dress in a daze. I don’t trust myself to drive my dad’s car feeling the way I do so I call Memory for a lift, and just make it downstairs just in time to catch his banged-up Golf.
“You, girl, look like shit,” he informs me.
I manage a grunt in response. Memory is not stranger to a long night out, but somehow he’s been blessed with remarkable recuperative abilities. Maybe he’s some kind of Uber man with a secret identity who goes around saving people.
“You need to learn to pace yourself, ne,” he says, as my head spins. “Line your stomach with milk before you drink.”
I do not want to think about milk or stomach linings right now. Memory is obviously not a hero, more like some kind of arch villain who has discovered my secret weakness.
Work is a freaking mess. My hands have the wobbles, and I drop more glasses than I can count. Memory keeps bringing back my drinks orders wrong. Jeez, Irene, get a grip. I pause to bow my head, try centre myself. I need a god-damn cigarette.
“This was meant to be a margarita.” Memory slams a glass of what looks like curdled dead baby chick on the counter.
“Er.” I stare at it. “What the hell?” I made the damn thing, and I’ll be buggered if I can tell what it is. I think my cheek is starting to bruise, because Memory and the others keep giving me funny looks, although no one actually says anything. David the manager is staring at me, like he’s about to come and tell me to leave early, and then thinks better of it.
“I have no idea. Come on, Irene, get it together.” Memory’s long face goes even longer, and he scrunches up his brow. “If this is something to do with that idiot not-boyfriend of yours, don’t tell me, girl. You know my thoughts.”
I groan. “I’m not saying anything.”
“You need a new obsession,” he says. “Are you going to make this again?” He taps at the glass.
“Yeah.” I haul out the tequila. “I need a new life. Seriously.”
“You said it.” He taps a sweating can of coke on his tray with a wrapped straw. “Faster. Some of us have actual jobs to do.”
“Serving the maggots.”
He snorts. “The maggots pay for my studies—that whole future plans thing I have.”
“Gah.” I shove the completed drink at him. “Go.” Thing is, he’s right. Memory knows what he wants out of life, and if he has to work a crappy job to get it, he will. His mother works as cleaner, and she made damn sure he never messed about and wasted his time. I mean, I don’t even know if his dad is even around. Look at me—rich daddy, wasted life.
Except knowing that doesn’t make me stop worrying about Rain.
“Irene.” My manager glares at me from the office door. “There’s a call for you. Make it snappy.”
My heart unclenches, I’ve been in a state all day. I can’t believe the little bastard waited for the late rush to phone me. I think of a million ways to kak Rain out, but in reality, I’m just glad he’s actually bothered to call.
“Thanks.” I take the phone from David, wait until he backs out the office and then lift it to my ear. “You are so dead,” I say.
I can’t breathe. Please. Please don’t be phoning me to tell me that they found Rain’s body in a ditch somewhere. I close my eyes. If Caleb’s hurt him, I’ll track that son of a bitch down to the very ends of the earth and feed him his own liver. My hand clenches on the phone line, my fingers twisting in the cord.
“Irene, Rain’s run away, he’s missing.” She doesn’t sound scared, more like she’s angry, waiting for me to confess that I whisked him off into the night and stole him away from her. Jesus, Lily. He’s not twelve.
“I—I don’t know anything. We went out last night, but I dropped him off at home.” It’s easy to lie to Lily, but under that calm bit of misdirection, my heart is pumping cold blood, and I’m feeling dizzy and scared.
The line crackles, but Lily doesn’t speak.
“He stole from me. He’s run away.” Her voice is petulant—she’s a child, focusing only on how things affect her.
I still remember when my dad found Rain in a Hillbrow flat, dragged him out of there, barely coherent. Neither of them have ever told me what happened to him, and I have never been able to make myself ask. Whatever it was, it broke him, it made him ugly on the inside.
But I also remember how happy Lily was because now Rain had a real problem, and she could play at being the concerned mother. I grit my teeth and make myself speak to her. “Call the police?” I offer, although inside I’m thinking god, call the hospitals, the morgues. Why hasn’t he phoned, why isn’t he home—surely Caleb could have given him a lift back already?
My knees are shaking and I collapse bonelessly into the manager’s chair. Caleb’s face flashes in my head, his long fingers on Rain’s arm, his cynical smile. The coldness of him, the deadness in his eyes, the way his fingers drew a net of gold around my best friend. I’m an idiot. I knew better than to leave Rain with that bastard. I was being a jealous little prick and I left him there because of it. If anything has happened to him, it will be my fault.
“Can you get off the bloody phone, we have customers out here—” David peers in. “Irene?” He steps into the little office. “Irene, are you okay?”
I think I nod, but my face feels numb. Even the dull ache of my cheek has faded away. He’s dead, he’s been raped and tortured and…god knows what else. I don’t want to think about it. A hand on my shoulder makes me startle.
“I think you should go home,” Dave says. “You look like you’re about to vomit.” Probably doesn’t want me upsetting the customers. Or worse, throwing up on them.
“Uh.” My brain swims groggily. The Beetle, I didn’t drive it in today. “I need to catch a lift with Memory.”
“Call your dad, have him come pick you up.”
Okay, I must really look terrible, because not only am I being sent home, I’m allowed to dial out on the office phone. My fingers hit the right buttons, but I’m barely aware of talking to my dad, asking him to come fetch me. I think I’ve crashed. Rain is probably fine, he could be sleeping it off, tangled in the indigo blankets on that little camper bed.
Yes. That’s it. He’s fine. Like all things in my life, if I just tell myself something often enough, it will be true. He’s fine. I think I’m mumbling it aloud, because Dave raises one eyebrow and backs out the office. “You sit tight,” he says. “I’ll give you a shout when your lift gets here.”
I wait for my dad, my hands pressed between my knees, and do my best to will the itch back down.