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Living On Borrowed Time

By Samie Sands



Copyright 2017 Samie Sands

Published by Samie Sands at Smashwords




Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.





Table of Contents

Chapter One§

Chapter Two§

Chapter Three§

Chapter Four§

Chapter Five§

Chapter Six§

Chapter Seven§

Chapter Eight§

Chapter Nine§

Chapter Ten§

Chapter Eleven§

Chapter Twelve§

Chapter Thirteen§

Chapter Fourteen§

Chapter Fifteen§

Chapter Sixteen§

Chapter Seventeen§

Chapter Eighteen§

Chapter Nineteen§

Chapter Twenty§

Chapter Twenty One§

Chapter Twenty Two§

Chapter Twenty Three§

Chapter Twenty Four§

Chapter Twenty Five§

Chapter Twenty Six§

Epilogue§

About Samie Sands§



ONE


I shouldn’t be here.

No, not here, in the hot, sweaty kitchen of this rundown diner—although, to be honest, I highly doubt I should be here either.

No, I shouldn’t be alive.

I was supposed to die eighteen months ago. That was supposed to be it for me.

I was ill for a very long time, so getting that final diagnosis of six months to go was as reliving as it was devastating. To be honest, my emotions about it were completely mixed. I didn’t want to die necessarily—not that I think anyone does really—but I was so sick of the constant round of doctors, hospitals, tubes, pills, sickness...it was exhausting, and the thought of escaping that was something of a relief.

I just wanted an end to it.

Of course, not everyone felt the same. At least, not at first, but once my family and friends got used to the idea that I was dying, that I was going to be relieved of my suffering, they were intent on making my final months amazing, and boy did they succeed! I went travelling, I had parties, I did everything that was on my bucket list—except bungee jumping. I bottled that at the last second. It was fabulous, a real whirlwind of fun and excitement. Of course, there was the odd interruption with my health, but somehow we managed to work past that. Sure, we were all acutely aware of where it was heading but it didn’t taint the mood. Not really.

“Lara what are you doing just standing there? I pressed the bell about five minutes ago...these burgers aren’t going to take themselves to table twelve.” The grumpy head chef, Alfie yelled at me. He didn’t care about my internal struggle. He had no idea what it was like to know that you should be dead. All he cared about was getting this disgusting, fatty food out as quickly as possible so he could return home, to his sad middle-aged man ‘bachelor pad’ to smoke and drink his wages away.

I snatched the plates out of his hand and stalked moodily over to the table, where a couple were sat there smiling intently at each other. This could have been their first date, or they could have been married for years—that wasn’t what I noticed. It was the light that was shining in their eyes, as they gazed at one another. Happiness. An emotion I couldn’t even begin to understand anymore.

I shoved the food on the table in front of them, asking them if there was anything else they needed in the flat, monotone sound that had somehow become my voice. They didn’t even acknowledge my existence, they simply waved me away. I was nothing to them, just as I was nothing to everybody.

I’d been that way for a very long time now.

Once my deadline had passed, and the high started to wear off, I wondered what was happening, why I was still alive. Confused, I took myself to the doctors and after a whole range of invasive tests, they told me something unexpected, something miraculous—that I was actually starting to get better. Against all odds, I was somehow surviving.

I felt numb as he said those words. I know he expected me to celebrate, to be happy with the news that I would get to live longer, but I wasn’t. I’d gotten so used to the idea that I was going to die. I’d even adjusted to it, become comfortable with it, that to hear otherwise was utterly overwhelming. I had become so used to living in the moment, not worrying about the future because I was never going to have one, that with a long, black emptiness stretching out in front of me, I felt terrified.

What was I supposed to do? I had no future, no dreams, no plans. I had no idea where I was supposed to go next, how could I? How was I supposed to craft a new beginning out of zilch? It seemed like a ridiculously impossible task, that I couldn’t even begin to overcome.

Then again, I still had no prospects, no real education, no interests, no desires...nothing, and I no longer had any excuse for that. A year and a half had passed. There was so much that I could have done with that time, but I hadn’t.

I’d done absolutely nothing with it, I’d merely existed.

Every day it hit me how I would have been better off dead. I might as well have died, because since my positive diagnosis I was just living on autopilot, going through the motions aimlessly.

My friends and family couldn’t understand how I just seemed empty after I got the good news, and as I continued to improve, to get better, they got more and more frustrated by my increasingly negative attitude. One-by-one they became annoyed by me. I did something to piss all of them off and now, none of them bother with me anymore.

Not that I bother with them either. I feel like too much has passed; there’s too much negative water under the bridge to even think about repairing those fractured relationships.

When my mum eventually asked me to move out because I was putting too much pressure on everyone else in the family, I left quickly and got an apartment in the nearby city. I couldn’t stay in that little, suffocating town anymore, where everyone knew absolutely everything about me. I had no excuse to remain there anyway; it didn’t hold anything for me anymore, except for memories and bad feeling. I desired to be anonymous so I could wallow in my own misery in peace, without anyone trying to cheer me up. I didn’t want anyone else to feel responsible for my own happiness, when it was so clear that nothing could be done about it.

So I upped and left, without even glancing backwards.

I got everything that I ever wanted—a tiny, albeit grotty apartment that was just for me, a job in a diner where no one bothers to try and find out more about my life, and no one to speak to. Perfect.

Yet, of course, I still wasn’t happy.

“Got much planned over the weekend? You have tomorrow night off, don’t you?” Amy, the eighteen-year-old waitress, who was constantly chewing gum and nosing about in other people’s business, asked me in her typical over-the-top fashion.

She didn’t care about me of course, not at all. To her I was just another loser waitress, but she always tried to rile me up for some reason, and she quickly discovered that my non-social life was a sore point for me. I don’t know whether I was just a game to her, if she really wanted to piss me off, or if she just wanted to make herself feel better by commenting on my sad existence. Either way, it drove me crazy.

“I dunno...not really.” I kept my eyes fixated on the floor as I spoke, praying that she would take the hint and leave me alone.

“Why are you so boring? You never seem to do anything!” She laughed, genuinely thinking she was joking.

I looked up and smiled blandly at her, hoping that she would assume I took the joke in light humour, but the look she was giving me suggested that she might just be able to see the vulnerable weakling behind the cold exterior mask I gave myself.

The thought of anyone seeing any of the real me filled me with an intense fear that gripped tightly onto my heart, so I instinctively turned away from her, trying to discretely wipe the frustrated tears from my eyes before they fell onto my cheeks.

Idiot! I thought to myself. What the hell are you doing?

Hiding emotion was something I thought I’d become particularly good at, but with one look, Amy—a girl I barely knew—had managed to revert me back into a blubbering mess.

“I’m going out to that new club tomorrow night with a group of friends. Do you...would you maybe want to come?” She asked, with a kindness to her tone that I hadn’t ever noticed before.

Pity. It had to be.

Normally, I would have shot her down right away. Even the thought of going to a club filled me with fear—the drinking, the dancing, the socialising...it all felt a little too much for some like me. I’d never really done anything like that before, and it was intimidating as hell. Even at all the parties that had been held for me, I’d avoided alcohol due to the medication, I’d been too tired for dancing, and socialising hadn’t been too much of an issue because it was with people I’d known my whole life. Plus, my best friend Daphne had always been there to protect me if things got too much.

Daphne.

I instantly forced myself to shake the image of her from my mind, in the way I always did when she cropped up. Daphne was a no-go now, there was no point in even giving her a seconds thought. I didn’t want to upset myself over nothing.

“Sure.” I eventually replied, distractedly. I wasn’t really thinking about my answer, I just wanted the conversation done, and it was a shortcut way to achieve that.

“Oh...” Amy sounded incredibly shocked—understandably so. “Okay cool. We’re meeting up at about eight-ish so...” She looked at me strangely, as if she was wondering what the hell was going through my mind. “I’ll see you there I guess.”

As she wandered off, a sinking feeling set in. Why the hell had I agreed to that? I didn’t want to go out to a club! Keeping my existence simple and straightforward was the only way I managed to get through everyday life. Now, I’d just agreed to something that threatened to send me into an anxiety meltdown, just to shut her up.

I was an idiot!

No, I would have to phone Amy tomorrow with a plausible excuse. I needed to get out of going. Disrupting my routine with something so terrifying could only have negative results.


TWO

As I walked home from work in the early hours of the morning, activity burst loudly all around me. Having lived in such a small town my whole life, it never ceased to amaze me how busy the city always was—even at a time like this, when it really should all be peaceful. The noise was annoying, it infiltrated my brain, but in a weird way it also blocked everything else out. If I was concentrating on the constant humming, then I couldn’t think. When I started to think, it could quickly get dangerous. My brain would take me to the places that I actively tried to avoid, the ones that threatened to bring on the all-encompassing depression that I spent my time trying to fight against.

I climbed up the endless stairs of my apartment building, my legs feeling like I’d been working for forty hours, rather than nine. I still got tired and achy from time to time, but it was nothing compared to the way I’d been before. That was the one real positive of not dying—at least all the side effects from being sick had virtually gone. I wouldn’t have been able to cope if I still had the soul destroying chronic pain.

As I pushed the door open to my home, I let out a sigh—not so much one of relief. It was more an escape of air from a breath that I couldn’t quite seem to stop holding.

What a fucking mess.

Not just the apartment—although it certainly wasn’t as tidy as I’d like it—more my life. Even the thought of having to ring Amy tomorrow was overwhelming. I was on the edge of my capability as it was, and adding that one small task felt like too much.

It was ridiculous. I must have been the least able-to-function adult possible.

I lay down in my bed, just staring at the small crack in the ceiling, wondering if there was any chance that it could be getting bigger. If it was getting larger, did that mean the whole ceiling might come crashing down at any moment? If so, would that kill me, or would I just end up hurt?

I couldn’t recall the last time I properly slept. Most of the time I just lay there, staring at that same crack, worrying about it, thinking about it, concentrating on it so hard that I didn’t have to think about anything else. Every so often, a little memory would shake through—the trip to Spain, the final party, skinny dipping in the freezing cold ocean...just because—and I had to turn over onto my side, just to force them away. Reminiscing, remembering the past, it always brought a horrible black hole of sadness with it.

I didn’t want to think about the old me, I didn’t deserve to. When I was going to die, I was more alive than I’d been, and that cut me deep. Now that my whole future stretched out in front of me, I had no idea what to do with it, so I didn’t do anything. I was cold, numb, alone, and I didn’t even care enough to change.

What people couldn’t understand was that I knew how to die. I understood that. It was living I still couldn’t wrap my head around.

For a second, I wondered what would’ve happened if I’d had a normal life that wasn’t plagued by illness. Would I be at university, would I be an artist, would I be a banker? I just had no idea. By the time it had come to making that sort of decision, my future was already in jeopardy, and what I was left with now was a whole lot of nothingness.

I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, calling out for the sweet release of sleep—at least in my dreams I could be someone, something. I didn’t have to continually be this empty, pathetic shell of a person. But of course, my mind was whirring too rapidly to even consider switching off. Sleep had never come easy for me, and it got worse the more exhausted I became.

Everything about this existence was exhausting.


***


As the light started to shine through my curtains, and my eyes flickered open, I quickly realised that I must have fallen asleep at some point—probably on and off throughout the dark hours. My head pounded, my body ached, and nausea swam around in my stomach, making me want to throw up.

This was how I woke up every single day.

Since my positive diagnosis, I hadn’t woken up in a happy, carefree mood, even once. I always started the day feeling like utter crap. And the belly full of fear—that was always there too. That didn’t leave me either, it stuck with me throughout the entire day, clinging to me like a bad smell. I didn’t even know what exactly it was making me anxious, so to make it even worse there was no reassurance, nothing I could do to cure it. I just had to accept it I suppose, as a part of who I had become.

I padded across the floor, straight from my bedroom and into the kitchen. I switched the kettle on and poured myself some cereal, as if on autopilot. The same routine I had every single day. Then, as always, I crunched the cornflakes, feeling the spike as they slid down my throat. I didn’t even taste what I was eating, I never did. I just ate it out of habit, to keep myself going. Even when hunger growled fiercely behind my ribs I never craved anything, I never felt an incessant need for anything in particular.

I just ate to stay alive, to keep this empty little life going.

My phone bleeped shrilly, alerting me to a notification from Facebook, but I resolutely ignored it. I’ve had my social media account from before and even though I never paid it any attention, I still had it activated. Just in case.

Being totally honest, I did check it now and again when I was feeling particularly weak, and I wanted a glimpse of back home, but it always just ended up making me feel gut-wrenchingly awful to see all my family and my old friends moving on without me. It wasn’t exactly like I expected them to freeze-frame their lives because I made the unexpected choice to leave my home town, but it still hurt to see how unnecessary I was.

If I’d been dead, things like that couldn’t affect me. Things would be exactly the same for them, but it wouldn’t scar me internally, I wouldn’t have to witness it. They could move on, without my shadow looming in the background.

It bleeped again, the noise feeling louder than it really was in my fragile mind, so I picked up the phone to turn off the Wi-Fi. Being reminded of my pointless existence was not what I needed at that moment. But that was when I noticed, it wasn’t an update from someone from my past, but a friend request from someone from this life.

Amy Acton.

Curiosity got the better of me, and without really thinking about it, I accepted, taking a few moments to read her status updates and see her most recent photos. I couldn’t help but wonder how someone managed to look so damn glamorous all the time, even when she’d clearly had a few to drink. I may not have had much time for the girl, but looking at her life online, it was clear to see that she really knew how to have a good time. In every photo, every update, she was happy, enjoying herself, living life to the full.

As if she had no idea what true misery looked like.

Tears unwittingly filled my eyes, and started to fall, wetting my cheeks as they dropped. I wrapped my arms tightly around my body, as if I was trying to hold myself together, as the emotion overcame me. I felt pathetic, useless, terrified, and sad all at once—a horrific combination. With the jealousy added in, for the first time in a very long time I felt something new. The desire to change.

I couldn’t carry on being this person forever; it would end up destroying me completely.

I wasn’t sure how long I cried for, but by the time the tears dried up, something inside of me had shifted. I suddenly felt angry, really, really mad. Throughout everything I’d been through, anger had never really even been a consideration of mine. Not even right in the beginning, when I first got all of the bad news. I just sort of...took it in my stride.

Now, it was all of me.

I was raging because I didn’t know what to do, I was angry because I didn’t want to be like this anymore, I was mad because none of it was fair. This misery wasn’t something that I’d chosen; it was just external circumstances that had happened to me, out of my control. And that wasn’t fair.

I pummelled my fists down onto the kitchen counter, just feeling everything for the very first time. Negative thoughts swirled violently through my mind: it isn’t fair, it’s not my fault, why me?

But then it hit me, like a smack in the face, shocking me into submission. Sure, everything that had happened hadn’t been fair, but I wasn’t totally blameless. I couldn’t control external factors, but I could have reacted better. I could have chosen to live a positive life—the only person who was at fault for that was me.

It isn’t fair couldn’t get me anywhere. The only person that had the power to change that was me.

I remembered everyone’s shocked, saddened faces when I said I was going. Much as I’d wound everyone up, they didn’t want me to leave to town completely, they couldn’t understand why I absolutely had to go. Of course they couldn’t get it. I had no idea how rare it was to go through what I’d been through, so I don’t know if there was actually anyone that would understand my experience.

And even if there was someone out there who had gone through exactly the same as me, they probably would have grasped onto life with both hands, having almost lost it.

No one would have turned their back on happiness, like I’d done.

My mum’s face flickered through my mind—an image I hadn’t thought about in a while. We still had weekly phone calls, which mainly consisted of me convincing her that I was all fine, that life was wonderful, that sort of nonsense, but I tried not to remember her too much in between that. I kept her firmly in the back of my mind, with all the things I couldn’t deal with.

Logically, I complete understood why she’d been forced to ask me to leave, but that didn’t mean it didn’t upset me.

Despite all of that, she was the only one that still tried to communicate with me. Everyone else gave up after a while when I didn’t answer their calls, texts, emails, instant messages, and never returned them either. She was the only one to stick around, and I’d done nothing but resent her for it.

I loved her, but I spent a lot of time pushing her away too.

On instinct, I grabbed my phone and dialled her number, just wanting to hear her voice. The phone rang and rang, but clearly she wasn’t home because she didn’t answer. For some reason, that hurt me more than anything else, even though I totally understood. I’d been out of the loop for such a long time, and I couldn’t just expect people to telepathically know that I suddenly needed them. It was never like I normally went out of my way to phone home, so why would my mum know that I was doing so now.

I knew all of that, but my feelings would never be rational.

Are you still coming tonight? <3 xxx A surprise message pinged up in my Facebook inbox from Amy.

The noise that normally did nothing more than irritate me, now filled me with a little warmth. She seemed to genuinely want to hang out with me, no matter how grouchy I always was with her. She seemed unsure of me yesterday, but to go out of her way to check that I was still going out, it made me feel special. Sure, this girl may have been three years younger than me, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t try to enjoy myself with her—just for once.

Even if it was completely out of character for me.

Maybe that was a good thing—being me certainly hadn’t worked for me so far.

Yes. Looking forward to it x.’ I replied on instinct, before my sensibilities could kick in and I changed my mind. I couldn’t back out now, not after agreeing twice. That would just be weird. I’d just forced myself into it, and I actually didn’t feel quite as bad about that as I assumed I would.

Ok, great!! Meet you by the chippy at 8? Xoxoxo’ came the very quick reply, making me think that she was waiting for it.

C u then!’

I stared at the messages for a few moments, before a horrifying though hit me. After seeing all the wonderful pictures of Amy looking fabulous on her typical night’s out, I was going to have to wear something decent tonight, just to fit in. I couldn’t wear my usual skinny-jeans-and-hoodie combo to a club—especially not if she was going to be in a bodycon dress, stilettos and amazing looking makeup.

Oh God, I couldn’t even remember the last time I wore makeup!

No, I was going to have to make much more of an effort to fit in with Amy and her crew. I certainly didn’t want to stand out for being scruffy. I needed to at least attempt blending in.

I stomped over to my minimalistic wardrobe and pulled everything out in disgust. Didn’t I have a red dress at some point? What the hell happened to that? I mustn’t have brought it with me when I moved to the city. I wasn’t exactly thinking straight when I left, so that made sense. It was probably hanging around in my mum’s house somewhere, gathering dust.

A pit of dread started in my stomach, and burst through my veins like an icy spell. I didn’t usually go outside on my days off from work; I tried to negotiate it so I don’t have to, but it looked like today would have to be different. I definitely wasn’t planning on going clothes shopping, and I didn’t particularly want to either, but what other option did I have? I couldn’t wear any of the crappy outfits I owned. Not a chance!

A million-and-one excuses swarmed around in my brain, telling me desperately that I needed to get out of the night out. That way, I could curl up on the sofa, blankly staring at the TV screen, trying to stop my brain from thinking, like I usually did.

But if I did that, then things would never change. And I was really starting to believe that change was the only way forward for me.

I should at least give it a go.

I knew from past experiences that if I didn’t go out now, after I’d finally said yes, then Amy wouldn’t ask me again. We weren’t close enough for her to persist. And there certainly wasn’t anyone else about to invite me anywhere.

Basically, it was now or never.

I felt like I was at a crossroads—did I carry on down the bleak path I’d been going, or did I try and make things a little better for myself? Sure, the way things were was comfortable and familiar, but it certainly wasn’t great. After the swirl and range of emotions that had been around me today, I wasn’t sure that even if I did chose to keep things as they were, that I would still feel the numbness that allowed me to carry on.

That may have gone forever.


THREE

I sighed deeply, allowing my trembling hands to pull on some clothes, my body preparing itself to go to the dreaded outside. I could physically see myself shaking as I glanced quickly at my reflection in the mirror, before grabbing my keys and forcing myself out into the harsh, cold air. I sucked in a deep, painful breath then fixed my eyes firmly on the ground, where they would stay for the whole walk.

You have to do this, Lara. I told myself. Too much has happened; you cannot carry on as you are. But even as I thought these things, they felt alien, disconnected from me. Somehow completely unreal.

I was acutely aware of the nameless bodies racing past me, and each one was filling me with that horrifying, panicky feeling that I detested. I hated being outside without a solid purpose, without knowing exactly where I was going. I didn’t shop enough to know where to look, and I was finding that really hard. I wasn’t at all comfortable with being out of my routine.

But I had to be. I had no choice. If I kept remembering that, then I would surely find a way to get through it.

I concentrated on my breathing to keep me focused. In...out...in...out... keeping my mind solely on that allowed me to ignore the rest of the world, and that was what I needed.

I spotted the first familiar-named high street store, and stepped inside. The bright, intense white lights immediately sent my worry-levels into overdrive. I tried to hide myself in amongst the racks of clothes while I calmed down a little, while I caught my breath once more, but it was too difficult. All the vivid coloured fabrics blurred into one, and it made my headache return with a vengeance.

“Can I help you?” A syrupy tone blasted into my ear drums. I turned around to see an extremely tanned, tall girl wearing bright red lipstick and a stark black pencil skirt. Unlike my scruffy, unkempt appearance, she was pristine and beautiful, without a hair out of place.

To say I found her daunting would be a massive understatement. She was like a powerhouse of intimidation! “I...I...uh...” I shook my head rapidly, trying anything to make her go away. She looked at me a little like I was mental, but I didn’t care.

My feet took on a life of their own, and before I knew it, I’d walked back out into the—now comforting—fresh air. I raced along the street quickly, desperate to get away from that shop and that girl. That was all just too much.

I found myself wandering into a shop I knew well—the grocery store I got all my essentials from. I grabbed an ice cold can of fizzy pop, feeling the familiar, reassuring tin between my fingers. I instantly felt calmer, knowing where I was and what I was doing. This was my comfort zone, I was okay here. This, I could do.

After I’d paid the cashier—who I minimally interacted with at least twice a week—I sipped the liquid, taking stock for a moment. I needed to go somewhere that I could get something nice, without having to deal with pushy shop assistants. I just couldn’t cope with that—this day was difficult enough for me, and I really didn’t want to give up. Not over that. I felt like this was my one and only shot, and I didn’t want my own stupid insecurities to wreck that for me.

I swiftly spotted a friendly-looking charity shop, which didn’t instantly fill me with horror, so I chose to go into there, hoping desperately I would find exactly what I was looking for right away to save me any more trauma. Once inside I tugged my way through the clothes, inhaling the musky scent as I did. I kept glancing around, praying that no one would come over to talk to me, and for once, my luck must have been in, because I was left well alone.

I grabbed and examined a black jumpsuit, wondering if it would cover me up enough to be considered decent, before realising that it was much too large for my skinny frame. I hit me that it was going to be challenging for me to find something that actually suited me, that made me look anywhere nearly as good as Amy and her very fashionable friends. I didn’t have any curves or boobs to hold anything up, which was going to be a problem. I used to dress well, before, but then my friends used to rush around to help me because I was sick. I was still skinny—maybe a little less so than now—but I had a reason for it. No one was going to judge my outfit then, whereas now...

I pulled out my phone and searched ‘good outfit for skinny girl’ online, whilst my heart pounded furiously. I felt like such an idiot. At this age, I should have known a bit more about fashion, about what suited me, but I just had no idea. I hadn’t thought about it, I’d never needed to.

It was just another thing that was so much easier when I was dying.

All the best tips seemed to suggest a knee-length flare skirt, with kitten heels, a vest top and a jacket. That was an idea I would’ve never considered on my own, but the girl’s in the accompanying photographs looked good, and it wasn’t a dress so that was perfect. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for a dress. I didn’t think being too exposed would fill me with any confidence. I needed to fit in, but be comfortable too. That was important.

I thought back over my wardrobe at home, trying to remember what I’d seen when I looked through it before. I knew for certain that I had a black vest top and matching cropped jacket, so that saved me getting those. I hadn’t worn them for ages, but I was pretty sure they would still fit.

So that just left the skirt and the heels.

Heels...could I do heels?

I grabbed the three skirts that were in my size, and ambled awkwardly over to the counter, deciding to tackle that part of the outfit first.

“Do you have a changing room?” I shyly asked the awkward-looking man that was standing behind the till.

“I...uh...no.” He announced, confused, glancing around the room in surprise.

My heart sank as a heat consumed my body. How embarrassing! Was that an odd question? Was it common knowledge that there was nowhere to try stuff on in a charity shop?

The guy must’ve seen my humiliated expression because he continued, speaking far too quickly. “We have a stock room; I think there’s a mirror in there...” He trailed off, blushing furiously.

“That would be great.” It was nice not to be the only one that was struggling to hold a conversation. It made me feel a little more at home—relieved, in fact. I followed behind him, unable to think of anything to say to make either of us feel any better, but that was okay because he stayed silent too. It was painful, but I could cope with it because it wasn’t purely my fault.

“Here.” He indicated too wildly with his arms, to a dusty storage room, absolutely filled with crap. There was stuff everywhere, covering every surface. Not exactly the sleek, luxurious changing rooms I would have gotten at the high fashion store, but this would have to do.

I tiptoed inside, avoiding everything in my way, and finally spotted a cracked full-length mirror in the corner of the room. Sighing deeply, I span around to check that the door had been shut behind me, before tugging on the clothes.

The first skirt was bubble-style and managed to make me look like I was trying to be a teenager, and also pregnant at the same time. I whipped it off quickly, wanting to spend as little time in it as possible. It just made me feel sad. The second one was a deep red, swing skirt. I didn’t know why I picked it up really; I wasn’t sure that it would suit me. It was just one of the only ones out there in my size.

Just as I was pulling it over my buttocks, the door swung open, making me jump. A small squeal emanated from my throat as I practically tumbled to the ground in fright.

“Ooh, I am sorry dear.” An elderly, homely-looking woman chuckled at her mistake. “Mark just told me that there was someone in here. My memory is dreadful...ooh that does look lovely on you!” She exclaimed, finally taking the time to notice me. “Are you going to get it? I think it makes you look really smart.”

“Umm...” I replied, knowing that my cheeks were flaming red. “Yeah...” I blurted out, just trying to cover up my shame. I didn’t know what else to say, so I just stood there, slack-jawed until she left, and as soon as she did I changed back quicker than I’d ever moved before. I fully intended to just run out, to escape this all-out humiliating situation, but she grabbed me before I got the chance.

“I’ll give you a discount.” She winked at me. “Because I embarrassed you.”


***


At home, I finally got to have a look at myself in the full outfit. I couldn’t buy any heels—there was no way I was going in any other shops after all of that—but it didn’t really matter because actually I owned a pair of boots that went quite well.

I sighed deeply at the sight of myself, instantly zoning in on my long, dark hair which swung limply just past my shoulders, looking as scruffy as always. What the hell was I going to do with it when I went out later? It looked a bit lank when it was straightened, and curls never seemed to stay in. Maybe I would have to put it up into some sort of style?

Urgh, this was turning out to be more work than it was worth!

I scanned down to my face. My deep blue eyes were surrounded by black shadows and filled with a melancholy that I wasn’t sure I could disguise no matter what I did. My skin was pale, freckled and filled with patches of redness. The only good thing about my face was the dimples that showed up when I smiled—but I hadn’t seen them for a very long time.

It was going to take a lot of makeup to sort this mess out.

All of this had made me ugly. I was a plain Jane before I got sick, but now I was just an ugly person. It seemed to emanate from every pore, as if my face was screaming for an escape, just like my mind.

“Lara Rogers, you really are rubbish.” I whispered to myself. This thought should have made me feel sad, angry, upset, anything...but I was still just filled with numbness.

That numbness that I couldn’t escape from.


FOUR


My heart was racing as I stared at myself in the mirror yet again, my palms were sweating, my breaths were laboured. I couldn’t do this, I just couldn’t. But at the same time I had to.

I was wearing the outfit I’d chosen previously, and I’d tied up my hair up into a simple chignon that I found a tutorial for online. I’d applied a little makeup—just enough to make me look human, without going over the top. All-in-all, I didn’t look too bad. I didn’t look great, but it was the best I could do. It was the most attractive I’d been in years at any rate—even if that wasn’t saying much!

It would have to be enough.

Tick, tick, tick.

Each second felt torturous, but under all of that, I could feel something else too...a little anticipation, adrenaline. Although deep down I was aware that this night was probably going to be awful, I was proud of myself for forcing myself out, for not sitting in, for not following the dead-end, boring routine that I’d been in for over a year. I was finally doing something different, something proactive, and for someone like me, that was something to be happy about.

I clicked on Facebook once more, hoping that Amy would’ve sent me another message to confirm the night’s details—just so I could be absolutely certain that the plan was still in place—but of course she hadn’t. Why would she have? Normally people didn’t need reassuring every few hours.

It was sixteen minutes to eight, and I could no longer wait inside—I was driving myself absolutely crazy! I decided to set off early, do the five minute walk slowly, allowing myself to get some air, to calm down, to appear normal. That way when Amy met me, I wouldn’t look like the insane mess that I really was. Anything to tone that down could only be a good thing!

The wind rushed painfully past my ears and I became acutely aware of how cold it was. I hugged my coat tighter around me, wanting to block the elements out. My cheeks felt pink with the iciness in the air, my eyes started to sting, and my throat began to ache as I raced along. Why did people ever want to socialise in this weather? Autumn should be a time for cuddling up indoors with a mind-numbing DVD playing. The way I normally spent my evenings.

Why was I doing this again?

As I reached the chip shop much quicker than I intended to, I was forced to stand awkwardly outside, people watching, praying the minutes away.

Tick, tick, tick.

Oh God, it felt like forever. Why wasn’t she here yet? I felt like people were looking at me strangely, and I was becoming increasingly self-conscious.

Tick, tick, tick.

Every second was even longer out here, than it had been at home. I tapped my foot in anticipation and annoyance, wanting the wait to be over more than anything in the world. Why didn’t I just remain indoors a little while longer? Why had I been so damn impatient?

Then, the deadline passed.

8.02pm, and still no one was there.

Go home, I told myself. But my feet remained frozen on the spot, waiting intently. This is ridiculous!

I decided that I must’ve misread the messages, or missed a last minute cancellation. I tried to distract my disappointment by reminding myself that I didn’t want to go out anyway. I imagined all of the people I would’ve been forced to talk to, to interact with. I thought about behaving like a normal human being for an unbearable extended period of time. I considered how much happier I would be at home.

This was a good thing. I experimented, and it failed, but that didn’t matter because at least I’d tried...

“Hi Lara!” Amy’s happy-sounding voice burst through my negative thought pattern, and I span around, giving her a weak smile. After all that, she was here. And now I was going to have to face the night with those horrible thoughts floating around in my brain.

“Hey.” I shoved my hands into my pockets awkwardly, not sure what I was supposed to do with them. Suddenly they felt like odd, unnecessary body parts and I was intensely aware of them.

I didn’t used to be this socially uncomfortable. I used to find it really easy to be around people, even those I didn’t know very well, but now that I didn’t know who I was exactly, I wasn’t sure how to behave. It was weird—I didn’t know how much of it had been brought on by myself, and how much of it was just me. I felt like I’d been out of the loop of ‘normal’ for such a long time, that I no longer had any idea how to just be.

“Shall we go?” Amy laughed, tugging on my sleeve, completely oblivious to my internal insanity.

“Aren’t you freezing?” I felt compelled to ask, looking at her fully exposed, very tanned limbs. I was shivering and I was relatively layered up. Amy was wearing a tiny dress and heels. That was literally it. How could she even move? I couldn’t understand it.

She just laughed my comment off, without a care in the world. “I’ll be drunk in a moment, then I won’t feel it.” She announced, as if this was common sense.

She pulled me towards a dingy-looking pub, reassuring me that it was much nicer inside than it looked. I was barely breathing, hardly coping, barely surviving anymore. I suddenly desperately didn’t want to do this, I wanted to go home, to go back to being the me that I’d become. I kept asking myself what I was doing, why I was there.

This is going to be a huge mistake, I thought, but it was far too late to turn back now.

As soon as we stepped through the doors, a hot blast of air hit my cheeks, instantly warming me up. As I thawed, I started to hear my heart pounding furiously against my rib cage. If I could hear it, did that mean everyone else could too? It felt like the entire pub should’ve been vibrating with the sheer velocity of it.

Shut up! I warned myself. Get it together.

Amy waved to a table containing three girls and two guys—all who appeared to be as young and fashionable as her. This was going to be so awkward; I was going to stand out like a sore thumb, which was the last thing I needed. Blending into the background, I could do well. Listening to the conversation, but not being included, was something I could handle. But this...

I looked down at my oddly put-together charity shop outfit, and thought about how little makeup I was wearing on my pale features, I remembered how happy I was, putting together my ridiculous hair style. All of that now made me feel like a complete and utter idiot. It was all pointless! Compared to this lot, I looked a total state.

“Sal, Kimberly, Benji, James and Kia.” Amy indicated to her friends in turn, and their names floated in and out of my brain in a heartbeat. How the hell was I going to get through this when I’d already forgotten what to call them? “This is Lara, from work.”

The disinterested wave that they all gave, suggested that Amy hadn’t actually told them anything about me, which I found weirdly reassuring. It meant they’d have no expectations of me, no preconceived notions. I wasn’t already ‘the boring girl’ or ‘the dying girl’. I could just be ‘Lara’ and I actually quite liked that. It felt a little like the fresh start I needed.

Now all I needed to do was not mess it up!

“What does everyone want to drink?” One of the guys—I had no idea which one—asked, looking around the table as he stood up.

Everyone replied almost at once:

A white wine.”

Sambuca and lemonade.”

Jack Daniels and coke.”

Wine too!”

I smiled to myself, wondering how the hell this guy was going to remember all of those drinks. I barely caught the names of them all, and I was listening quite intently.

Suddenly I noticed that he was staring expectantly at me. “I...” I started to stutter, my face going bright red. I almost started to shake with nerves. What did he want? Should I say something?

“Do you want a drink?” He finally asked, clarifying his intentions, while making the moment even more embarrassing.

“Erm...” I didn’t think he meant me too. He only met me one second ago! I wouldn’t even know what to order. “Er a coke...please, thank you.” I tried to smile, but my mouth felt a little stiff with anxiety.

“Coke!” Amy exclaimed in disbelief. “No, get her a wine. She needs to loosen up a bit.” She grinned wildly at me, as if she was actually doing me a favour.

“Erm, I...” I tried to protest, but it was too late. He was already gone.

Oh God. I hadn’t exactly planned for my first time drinking alcohol, to be with strangers. But I couldn’t exactly not drink the wine now. That would be weird and would draw unnecessary attention to myself. I would just have to drink this one. Then I could think of an excuse for next time. One wouldn’t affect me, I would be fine.

I would have to be.

The guy placed the drink down in front of me and I watched everyone else take a quick sip from their glasses, so I imitated the action, intending to take it really slowly and...

Oh my God. What the hell was this? It was horrible, all bitter tasting. How the hell did people drink this stuff? It tasted like poison! I thought wine was supposed to be a posh-person drink. Why would you put yourself through this torture if you didn’t absolutely have to? How was I going to finish this entire glass?

I felt my face screw up in disgust, and I had to literally force my features to rearrange before anyone saw me.

“...and then, he started to...”

“...why did you say...”

“...she didn’t even think about him...”

The conversation flowed easily around the table, but I was stuck in the mental combat with my glass of wine, only picking out snippets of it. I needed to get this drunk, get it gone. Everyone else had almost finished theirs and I was still struggling to work up the courage to take a second sip. This was awful, how could I blend into the background when I still had this mountain to overcome?

Here goes nothing...

I lifted the glass, tentatively pressing it up against my lips. I looked at the others in turn, barely listening to their words, just concentrating on how much attention they were paying to me—which thankfully was none. I tried not to breathe in, I didn’t want to smell it. I prepared myself, tipped it back slowly, feeling the bubbles touch my tongue.

Urgh. This is foul.

And yet...

Somehow as the warm liquid made its way down my throat, and my head became fuzzier, the taste suddenly didn’t bother me quite as much. In fact, maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe I was wrong before. I would have to try it again, just in case.


***


Three hours and endless wine later, it was safe to safe that I was wasted! But I really enjoyed the fuzzy warm feeling deep inside of me. It was making me happier, more sociable, more interesting. On top of that, it was making this whole night a lot easier to deal with. The other people in Amy’s group had actually started to warm to me, despite the odds being stacked against me. It felt like we might actually all be becoming friends—they’d added me on Facebook at any rate. Luckily, by the time that conversation came up, I was too tipsy to be embarrassed about my bare-minimal profile page to care.

“...why would he cheat on me with her?” Kai whined into her drink, as we all made sympathetic noises. She was definitely a weepy drunk, and it seemed that her she’d a bad breakup not that long ago, which certainly didn’t help things.

“Men are all bastards!” Amy screeched loudly, causing the rest of the girls to burst into giggles.

We were in some unbearably noisy nightclub and I was actually having a good time. This was the sort of place I’d always been sure that I would hate, but it seemed that I was wrong. At one point, I was even dancing! Me, on the dance floor—a place I never thought I’d find myself.

Sal and Benji were furiously snogging in the corner of the room, completely ignoring the rest of the group—a common occurrence, apparently—and James left with some random girl an hour or so ago, so it was just us four girls, laughing, joking and bitching about boys. The way people of our age group were supposed to. This was just a normal night out to them, but to me, this was the best thing that had happened to me in forever!

“Except Nick!” Amy teased in a singsong voice, causing Kimberly to laugh and smack her softly.

“Me and Nick aren’t a thing!” She replied happily. From her reaction, I could tell that there was a long-growing story there, somewhere. I would have to ask her about it at some point. I liked Kimberly a lot. She was a little older than the others too—she just didn’t look it, like I did—and there was just something loveable about her. I couldn’t help but really want her to like me. She was just the sort of person I’d have sought out to befriend before.

Not that I was thinking about before. Not now. I was having a good time, and I didn’t want any negativity or worry to ruin that.

“So, why don’t you tell us a bit more about you?” Amy turned to face me, and my heart jumped into my throat. I might’ve been drunk, but I wasn’t ready to discuss anything about my life. How could I get out of this? There had to be a way. “I’ve been working with you for ages and you’re always seriously quiet.”

“I...er...what do you want to know?” I stuttered, trying to buy myself some time.

“Well I’ve never seen you with a guy, or heard you talk about one, or even seen you text one, so I guess you’ve been single for all that time. But, you lived somewhere else before, right? What was your last boyfriend like? Ooh, was he horrid? Is that why you had to escape?” Amy got excited, as if she realised that she’d suddenly hit the nail on the head, as if she’d figured me all out.

“Um...I haven’t really...”

They all turned to face me, as the penny dropped one-by-one. I shrunk inside myself, almost physically recoiling. It was only the booze swilling around in my stomach—making me someone that I wasn’t—that stopped me from turning and running out the club right away.

No, no, no. I did not want this tonight!

“You’ve never...?” Kai asked.

“Erm...no, not really...I...” A cold shame washed over me under their scrutinising gaze.

“Never had a boyfriend?” Amy continued, her eyes widening at the thought.

“Well, I...” Redness didn’t just fill my cheeks, it consumed my whole body. I was so embarrassed, so stupid. Explaining this was almost worse than telling the story about my near-death.

“But you’ve...” She made a funny, nodding gesture.

Oh God, this can’t be happening. She can’t mean...

My mind freaked out at all of the horrors that were about to be unleashed. My insides twisted themselves up in knots, as the gazes upon me became too intense to handle.

I need an escape!

“Um...sort of, I...”

“Lara, are you a virgin?” Kimberly finally asked, breaking the awkwardness slightly with her straightforward nature. Her bluntness was welcome, yet utterly unbearable, all at the same time.

“Well I have...”

“Lara?” Her voice turned stern. She was willing me to just answer the question and get it over with. She was right, I decided, so I complied semi-willingly.

I hesitantly nodded.

The girls all squealed in unison, while I wanted the ground to swallow me up whole.

“Why?” Amy shrieked, seemingly loving this. I was the most exciting that I’d ever been to her. “Maybe we just need to get you laid. Maybe that’s why you’re so uptight.”

“I...um...it’s not...I don’t...”

Kimberly’s expression finally turned sombre. It was as if she suddenly noticed that there was really something to this, that my discomfort was way more than normal. To my relief, she rapidly changed the subject, distracting the others in the process. “I love this song! Let’s go dance.”

Luckily, because everyone was so drunk, the switch didn’t seem too weird, and we all followed behind, giggling like idiots.


FIVE


“Oh God.” I groaned as I sat up in my bed.

I felt like I was going to die. For real this time. My head was throbbing painfully, my mouth felt like sawdust; my stomach was rolling around in a disgusting manner. Death would’ve been preferable to feeling this way. Urgh God, why the hell did people ever do this to themselves? Was this even normal for a hangover? And what time did I even get to sleep last night? I could barely even remember getting home—which went someway to explaining why I was still in most of the clothes I’d been wearing the night before.

My phone pinged loudly, and the sound was unbearably intrusive. I grabbed it, trying to see past how glaringly bright the screen was. My hypersensitivity to light was killer, but for some reason, I needed to see who was trying to contact me.

A Facebook message from Kimberly flicked up in front of me. ‘Hey Lara, fun night last night—I’m dying now though! We should hang out again sometime; it was really lovely to meet you. Kim xx’

There was also one from Amy, which she must have sent as soon as she got home. ‘Ahaha! I can’t believe I kissed that guy—he was hot though! Thanks for coming out, you were way more fun than I expected. You were pretty badass actually. Did you get home okay? Ammmmeeeessss xxxxx’

And then there was a selection of awful-looking photographs that Kai had tagged me in. Much as they made me feel even more nauseated than before, I couldn’t help but laugh. I looked so dreadful when I was drunk, there was no avoiding that, especially not when the evidence was sitting right in front of me, for the whole world to see... But, aside from the hangover regret, I actually had a really good time. I felt glad that I’d bust out of my routine, I was happy that I tried something new. If not, I wouldn’t have met any of those awesome new people, nor had such an amazing time. Of course this sickly feeling wasn’t pleasant, but it was actually worth it. I felt like this huge step would lead to some great things for me.

Just as I was poised to reply to everyone’s messages, the nausea became overwhelming. I started to feel hot, sweaty, anxious, so I rushed off to the bathroom to spend the next few hours vomiting on and off, in between sleep.


***


As I rolled into work, a few hours later, I still felt like death. Amy was already there, looking about as worse-for-wear as myself, which was relieving—at least I wasn’t suffering an abnormal hangover. There was a point where I’d been genuinely worried about that. I was actually quite used to seeing Amy in this state, but I’d never been alongside her, and it felt kinda nice. It bonded us in a strange, but awesome way.

The first thing she did when she saw me was burst out laughing—an action I immediately mimicked. This was weird, having a smile, a giggle, an inside joke. It shifted something inside of me. I felt...sort of happy. Happier than I had done in a very long time at least. It was like a small piece of the weight that I’d been carrying around on my shoulders for an extraordinarily long time, had lifted—a sensation I never expected to feel.

The shift at the diner went much quicker with someone to gossip alongside, and by the end of the night, the crappy, sickly feeling was still there, but so was a small portion of elation. I sort of felt like, maybe—just maybe—life wasn’t so bad after all.

It was amazing how one night had seemingly changed everything for me. How a boozy night out with some girls had opened up my future into something completely different.


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