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The Reader & The Writer


By Sasha McCallum




Copyright 2017 Sasha McCallum

Smashwords Edition


Smashwords Licence Notes

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

About the Author

Other titles by Sasha McCallum

Connect with Sasha McCallum

Sample of There Will Be Blood


Chapter 1


The library was old. Although many new additions and renovations had been made over the years, there were still parts of it Heidi could go into and feel like she was a child again, getting lost amongst the shelves while her mother worried and searched for her.

When she was here, she considered herself to be officially at work, so it was acceptable for her to switch her phone and herself off from the outside world. If people complained that they couldn't get hold of her, it was her go-to excuse -I was working, I was trying to concentrate. The people who knew her quickly learned this fact, when it came to working on a project her self-discipline was exemplary. Of course, deep down she knew it had developed that way because she needed a good reason to cut out the insistent buzz of irritating interruptions. Getting something useful done had come about gradually as little more than a positive side-effect and she still spent much of her time simply reading and learning about things that would not end up contributing to her current body of work. She liked the relaxed attitude with which she could do this, the favourable circumstances that had allowed her to become the person she was; she was lucky, she knew.

She had been frequenting the library most afternoons from Wednesday through Sunday for over six months and enjoyed her routine. It was free, easy, but she could still wake up in the morning happy in the knowledge that she'd done something useful the day before, produced something.

This particular day, a Saturday, she'd been concentrating for an hour in relative solitude when a discombobulated body sat down at the table to her right. She continued working, not looking at the person, noting only, with relief, that, whoever it was, they weren't noisy or intrusive. In fact, they were being so silent that after 45 minutes Heidi began to wonder if the dark blob in her peripheral vision might be a hallucination. She found the possibility intriguing and continued her work.

Today she wasn't doing much writing. She had a few points she needed to research and was reading online about death in absentia, noting things down, occasionally veering off from the primary subject as she did when she found a topic especially new and interesting. Eventually her curiosity got the better of her, she glanced to her right then quickly returned her gaze to her computer but certainly not her attention.

It was a girl, maybe 20 years old, dark hair, pale skin and hauntingly beautiful. Why hauntingly? Heidi wondered to herself. Perhaps just the circumstances; ignoring her silent presence long enough to envision her as a possible hallucination. She needed to look at her again, to prove herself wrong; this was no ghost and this very real person was not hauntingly beautiful, nor probably even very interesting looking.

Feeling as if she were being glaringly conspicuous, Heidi looked again at the figure to her right. She was real, yes; Heidi's eyes remained on her longer this time. Her long, almost black hair was loose and falling partially over her face, her nose in a book, her concentration clearly unwavering. Her face, what little of it Heidi could see was, yes, quite stunning. Her features were soft, her cheekbones high, her nose perfectly shaped for her face. She was thin, perhaps too thin under her heavy coat and layers of winter clothes and the book she was reading was thick. Heidi could not see her eyes properly, or what book had this fascinating creature so enraptured. Heidi had never seen her before; her face was completely unknown to her, and she would probably never see her again.

She tried to immerse herself back in her work but the girl had invaded her mind, pervaded her senses and she was finding it difficult to concentrate. Eventually she gave up, packed her things into her bag and left without looking at the girl again.

The following Saturday the same enchanting girl was back though, reading the same enormous volume. Heidi sat looking away from her. Her resolve not to indulge in these strange flights of fancy she took to sometimes was normally well-trained; habitually she moved on from them and didn't look back. They were nothing more than fleeting fantasies, immature and not worth wasting her time or energy on. Once, when she was a still a child, she had allowed herself to be sucked in by feelings like those, but she was not a child anymore, she knew better.

She worked drearily on her article. It was an interesting subject, but she was at that early stage of writing when it had yet to entirely capture her attention, it hadn't become a part of her yet. At 4pm she got up to use the restroom and go outside for a brief sojourn into the world of nicotine, an old vice she wasn't even trying to kick. On her way back to her table, which was thankfully still unoccupied, she very nearly physically brushed the girl who had captured her interest the week before, but whose presence she had somehow forgotten about this week. The girl looked up from her book, a rare, momentary lapse of concentration on her part, Heidi guessed. She sat back down at an angle where the girl was in view this time, her curiosity overpowering.

For the next three weekends the girl was there every Saturday and Sunday giving Heidi a worrisome chance to become both accustomed to her presence and very interested to know who she was. She was so dangerously lovely that Heidi had begun to look forward to seeing her at the weekend. This was wrong, she knew. She shouldn't be allowing it, she should avoid the girl, at least by sitting in a different section of the library. On the other hand, her self-indulgent side told her, what harm could it do? It was a pleasure to see her, to be near her, and it wasn't as if she were interacting with the girl in any way, in fact they had barely acknowledged each other's presence. As if to prove her wrong the universe chose to intervene at that point, while she was sitting, only half concentrating on her screen.

"You have the most interesting way of looking both five and a hundred years old. You have to be one of the most expressive people I've ever seen."

Heidi stared, mouth open in surprise. The girl stood over her and looked at Heidi with curiosity and perhaps a hint of derision. Her irises were grey and dark, but still distinguishable from the black rings that circled them. Heidi was too surprised by her comment to respond before she swept away and disappeared out of the study section of the ancient library.

What the hell had just happened? Surely she had imagined that, the girl had spoken to her, and what a strange thing to say. Heidi nodded to herself, it made sense that even when the girl spoke directly it would end up being cryptic. Still, Heidi felt slightly warm, the girl had made contact, however questionable her meaning had been.

The next day Heidi felt disappointment that she did not appear. This was the kind of sensation her conservative side had been trying to guard against with the original resolve to avoid the girl. It was conceivable she would not be back now and indeed she didn't appear at all the weekend after that, leaving Heidi with an inexplicable sense of loss.

Two weekends later, she resurfaced and this time she had something that made Heidi's skin crawl. She sat a table away and, once again, oblivious to her surroundings opened her book. Heidi had a fairly clear view of her right-side profile and could see the outline of a fading bruise high up on her cheekbone, only just visible under a layer of foundation. Someone else may not have noticed it but Heidi was well-trained to see things like this, having had to cover up her own bruises in the past. She felt an entirely new sense of protectiveness about this strange girl, which overrode any previous caution. But there was nothing she could do, nothing she could say without seeming creepy. So she simply went about her quiet day content in the knowledge that at least here and now, she could oversee the girl's relative safety.

For two hours they sat, a mere ten feet from each other, with no one else near them. Heidi tapped at her computer and the girl read, barely making a sound. Eventually Heidi stole one of her casual glances at the girls face and was astonished to see tears streaking her pale cheeks. She made no sound and her expression was unreadable to Heidi who could not see her hooded eyes properly from this angle. Before she could stop herself she spoke, unchecked.

"You're crying," she said, as if the girl didn't know. "What book is that?" She willed herself to shut up. However deeply involved in the book she had been, the girl now looked up, realizing she'd been spoken to.

"I'm not here to chat," she said to Heidi mechanically, wiping at her face.

Heidi nodded and kept her mouth shut this time. She did not look at the girl again, but wondered to herself what kind of book does that to what kind of person. Was the girl overly sensitive? Overly passionate? Possibly unstable? A half hour after this inconsequential exchange she heard the girl get up, gather her things and leave, and once again Heidi got the feeling she was gone for good.

The next day was Sunday and Heidi sat alone for three hours working on her latest article. She was not happy with it, she had written and rewritten it several times already. For some reason it just wasn't coming together in any kind of flowing coherency.

"Hi." Heidi looked up to find the girl standing over her once again, a tentative expression on her lovely face.

"Hello," Heidi returned, her heart beginning to hammer in her chest. What was it about this girl that did this to her?

"Listen, I..." the girl looked lost for a moment then continued, "I might have seemed rude yesterday when you spoke to me. I hope I didn't hurt your feelings."

Heidi watched as the girl sat down directly across from her at the same table and this new, close up, direct view of her beautiful face almost took Heidi's breath away.

"It's okay. It's a library, I shouldn't have been trying to talk," she said.

"I've seen you here quite a lot, you're the expressive one," the girl told her. "I get used to being in people's company in silence and it throws me if they cross the quiet boundary. I was also embarrassed that you noticed the tears, but that doesn't excuse my rudeness."

She stared at Heidi with her huge, dark eyes and Heidi nodded, quite unable to speak. It was so nice to hear the girl talk, she didn't want her to stop. But she opened her book on the table in front of her, seemingly done for the day. She visibly exited the world, but she had chosen to do it at the same table. Heidi couldn't suppress her pleasure at this simple gesture and got on with her work equally quietly. The sense of the girl's presence so close was overwhelming and her writing for the day reflected a certain lack of concentration.

At some point a couple of hours later she zoned out of her work completely and though she wasn't aware she'd been doing it or for how long, she realized she was staring at the girl opposite her when she lifted her eyes from her book and met Heidi's. She felt herself blush slightly and with a frown hurriedly looked back to her computer screen which had gone to sleep. Heidi dropped her jaw in shock; how long had she been staring? She was furious with herself and looked back up to the girl who was smirking, obviously amused by Heidi's discomfort.

"You smoke, don't you?" the girl asked. "Want to come out with me?"

Heidi was surprised but shrugged in agreement and gathered her things. They stood side by side against the car park fence and puffed into the cool air in silence for a while.

"You're having trouble concentrating today," the girl said. "I wonder why today, I've never seen you zone like that before. Don't worry, I know you weren't staring at me, your eyes were all glazed over; you weren't even focused. Where do you go when you do that?"

Heidi was both relieved she hadn't been caught obsessing and surprised the girl was so astute.

"I don't think I really go anywhere. It's a mystery," she said, truly puzzled, and the girl nodded slowly as if she understood only too well what Heidi meant.

"I've been there too. Kind of a strange place, hard to remember." The girl studied her from her right side and Heidi tried hard not to take notice. "What are you constantly tapping away at day after day? Are you writing a book?"

"No," Heidi chuckled self-consciously. "I'm a stringer."

"A what?"

"Kind of a freelance journalist, I guess. Right now I'm working on a political corruption piece, the elections are coming up. What's with the books you're always buried in so deeply?"

"They're not political, that's for sure."

"I noticed. Dante's Inferno? Pretty heavy going."

"You've been paying attention."

"I only saw the title today. Are you studying Literature or something?"

"In a way," she looked off into the distance. "Reading that stuff gives me a sense of what we're capable of as humans, but it also puts firmly into perspective and makes me appreciate where we're at now in our evolution, both psychologically and culturally. I sometimes find myself being miserable about modern society when I shouldn't be." She said this in a low, slow drawl which served to impress Heidi even more than it might have.

"Wow. You're some kind of introverted intellectual."

"What's your name?" the girl asked.

"Heidi."

"I'm Alicia."

Heidi tried to burn the name into her head. She was one of those people who had difficulty remembering names but she doubted she'd forget this one. She made a mental note to write it down, just in case.

"May I ask you a personal question?" she asked, hoping to get answers about the girls bruise.

"I'd rather you didn't," Alicia replied smoothly.

"Oh..." Heidi nodded. "Fair enough."

They finished their cigarettes and headed back to their places inside without further conversation, but Heidi found Alicia's silence pleasant enough and when she left for the day she was gifted with quite a lovely smile goodbye from her.

Six days later, a Saturday, the girl was there when she arrived. Heidi was surprised, she was early today; it was only ten in the morning. She settled at a table not far away, she had a lot she wanted to get through today and she was relieved when the girl didn't notice her entrance. With luck her work would not suffer. She was beginning to enjoy the article, she'd got inside it and it inside her; this was where things started to pay off.

She was right, the day went smoothly and she was taking pleasure in what she was writing. It had been quiet, uneventful but later that afternoon a local man she recognized, a drunk, wandered over to Alicia and sat down. She checked her clock, it was almost 3pm. Heidi watched as the man told Alicia hello and how are you and then offered her a drink. The girl appeared unaffected and maintaining concentration on her book told the man outright to 'bugger off' and he shuffled away. Heidi could not suppress a giggle at the comic relief and when Alicia met her eyes over the top of her book she found an equal amusement in them.

"You've got an admirer. Score," Heidi said.

"Mm, so hot. I slipped my number into his hand as he groped me under the table. Later we'll make babies under the park bench he lives on."

"Cute couple."

"How come none of the weirdo's ever bother you?" the girl asked her.

"I'm just not as irresistible as you."

"Yeah, right," Alicia scoffed and Heidi looked at her curiously. She felt an electrical current run from her chest to her groin and quickly returned her attention to her computer.

"Come to Faze with me," she heard the girl say.

"What?"

"I've been here since eight this morning and you've been here most of that time too. Aren't you hungry?"

"I ...just. I..." Heidi locked in on dumb mode, she was way too surprised and still a little turned on. But she couldn't go with the girl, it was out of the question. "Thank you for asking, but no."

"Okay." The girl looked thoroughly pissed off at the outright rejection and she rose and collected her things. "I'll see you," she said shortly as she left.

Now that was interesting, Heidi thought, the girl has a temper. Perhaps she should have gone with her, she mused, but she had her reasons for declining the offer. Heidi was extremely particular about what she ate and how she ate and it was too early in their interaction for her to feel comfortable putting her OCD on shameless display. Normally it didn't impinge on her life much but today was a stark reminder that she was not 100% open for new friendships; it had been a wake-up call, a healthy slap in the face. She cursed her problem for the first time in a while. The poor girl, she'd been insulted, she thought she just hadn't wanted to eat with her and that idea made Heidi want to curl up into a ball and disappear.

Early the next afternoon she noticed Alicia sitting several tables away. Heidi wondered whether she should approach her or not. This kind of loose contact with someone she felt more and more bewitched by was way outside of her comfort zone. She could deal with it one of two ways; she could try to get to know the girl better, open herself up, or she could stay away from her. But somewhere inside she'd already realized it wasn't a choice she was free to make. A mess of questions buzzed in her head and even now that a dialogue had begun between them the mystery was intensifying. She wanted to know more about this girl, she didn't want to ignore her.

At four o'clock she went to Alicia's table and sat down looking at her.

"Alicia," she said. Alicia ignored her wilfully and Heidi found the situation almost comical after a while. Bemused she tried again with the sulky reader. "You're angry." Silence. "Why is it that you think I didn't want to eat with you?"

"I neither know nor care," the girl finally replied without looking up. "Leave me be, please."

Heidi shook her head and did as she was told, returning to her own table. She was trying to shrug off the girls moody treatment when Alicia picked up her book and came to sit next to Heidi, looking as if she was about to tear into her. She sat close, her eyes blazing and Heidi stared back, waiting, with a frown.

"Why do you always sit near me?" Alicia asked, her voice maintaining more control than her expression suggested.

"You sit near me too," Heidi said, searching for a way to make up for any sense of rejection she had given the girl. But Alicia looked pensive at her reply, then her face changed completely, her anger lifted and was replaced by calm as if a switch had been flicked. Heidi was very confused.

"I feel safe near you. I feel like you're the same as me."

"The same? But we are nothing alike."

"You're young and pretty, you probably get hit on by gross guys a lot too. In what way are we dissimilar and why does it offend you to think we might not be?"

"Oh. Nothing. I thought you meant..."

"What?" Alicia looked at her with that inscrutable expression she adopted sometimes. "What did you think I meant?"

Heidi looked at her screen and kept her mouth shut. She couldn't remember what she'd meant, the girl was interfering with her brain waves.

"Alright. Your turn then, why do you always sit near me?"

"Despite your serious attitude problem, I kind of like you," Heidi said honestly and the girl narrowed her eyes in suspicion.

"How much do you like me? Maybe I'm not so safe with you after all."

"Don't be dumb," Heidi said and felt herself blush at the implication.

"Aw, you're cute when you're embarrassed."

"This is getting too weird. I'll find somewhere else to work from now on." Flustered, she got up to move but Alicia put a pale hand out and grasped her arm unexpectedly. It was the first time the girl had ever physically touched her and even though it was fairly gentle and through several layers of fabric, Heidi flinched. And not slightly but very visibly.

"Whoa," Alicia said, taken aback by Heidi's response and she withdrew her hand quickly. "What was that?"

"Shit. Shit," Heidi said clumsily. Mortified by the situation she was suddenly faced with, she reacted impulsively with anger. "I guess I don't like strangers touching me in libraries, non-threatening or not," she shot at Alicia, whose expression had completely blanked over. She needed to get out now; she finished shoving her belongings into her bag and walked away.

Her terrible reaction left her feeling cold inside for the next week and her flat was starting to look chaffed from all the cleaning she was doing. She would make it right, she determined. Even if Alicia never wanted to speak to her again, she had to try. She was letting herself get flustered too easily by the girl, who appeared to be somewhat unstable herself and possibly enjoyed throwing other people off balance. This annoyed the hell out of Heidi and while on the one hand she wanted to overcome it, on the other she found it quite an alluring quality.

When she got out of her car on Saturday morning she saw the object of her discontent immediately. Alicia was smoking a cigarette against the fence and three roughly dressed girls were in front of her. She looked harassed and angry but Heidi recognized these girls, they weren't the types to react well to a smart-arse like Alicia. She approached them cautiously. When she saw Heidi, Alicia rolled her eyes.

"Christ, when it rains it pours," she muttered under her breath. Heidi couldn't blame her; and for a moment there last weekend she'd actually thought Alicia was the one with the attitude problem. Heidi was desperate to regain control of the circumstances and this was the perfect opportunity.

"What's happening?" she said to the girls surrounding Alicia.

"We're just trying to be friendly. You know this one?" they sneered.

"I do. She's okay, you should leave her. Seriously, don't you have better things to do?"

"She's all yours," they mumbled and they ambled slowly away. "Teach her some fucking manners."

"Whatever. Say hi to your Dad for me!" Heidi called after them.

"Why would they listen to you?" Alicia asked, looking surprised and confused. Heidi stared at her.

"You're really not from around here, are you?"

"You know I'm not."

Heidi smiled, she looked ravishing today, in a long dress underneath her heavy, winter coat. Heidi lit a cigarette and leaned next to her against the fence.

"I'm really sorry about what happened last weekend," she said with sincerity. "I didn't mean to be insulting. It's nothing personal, I just find physical contact a little disconcerting sometimes, especially when it's unexpected." She felt the girl regarding her closely. Studying her.

"Someone hurt you," Alicia stated with certainty and Heidi cringed.

"Happens to all of us at some point," she said in a pathetic attempt to remove focus from herself.

"I don't know about that," Alicia said doubtfully.

"Are you coming in today?" Heidi asked and the girl nodded and picked up her bag.

"I thought you didn't want to sit near me anymore?"

"I thought you didn't feel safe with me anymore?"

"Ha," she snorted, "after what you just did, how could I not? Chasing the big, bad girls away. What was up with that anyway?"

"Those girls... You should be more careful who you mouth off to. People don't know you yet, it's easier when you've lived here all your life."

"And I suppose in your what, 22 long years you've managed to attain so much respect."

"24. You're being sarcastic but you might be surprised."

"I guess I was surprised. You're hardly tough looking."

"I know people and I have a brain -that can go a long way."

They made their way into their usual study section of the library and sat quietly at a table overlooking the east gardens. Alicia pulled out her enormous volume of Dante's Purgatorio and Heidi began her third rewrite of 'Unlikely Political Alliance in the Port Region'.

"Who hurt you?" Alicia whispered to her after only a few minutes. She pulled her chair closer and stared at Heidi intently. "I can't stop thinking about it, I can't concentrate. I suppose it's not something you like talking about but..." Heidi considered carefully what to do. Alicia had had a bruise of her own a couple of weeks ago and Heidi had tried to bring it up then, perhaps now would be a good time. Alicia may be in need of someone who could identify with what she was going through and Heidi could use the opportunity to gather information about Alicia's problems. She hated to think that way, to see it as an opportunity to manipulate things to her own advantage but she was a human being after all; sentient and suitably screwed up in the head as such. On the other hand, did she really want to share her experience with this strange study buddy? Maybe she did, maybe she needed to talk just as much as Alicia did.

"We can't talk about it now. Not here," she said.

"We can go upstairs." There was a cafe in the upper most level in the library. "Please?"

Heidi could not say no this time. The look in Alicia's eyes was very persuasive.

"Okay," she nodded reluctantly. "Grab your stuff."

They took the elevator up to the top level and sat down at a table in the almost empty cafe without ordering anything.

"I'll talk about it, but only in return for something from you," Heidi said, eyebrows raised in question at Alicia.

"Sounds ominous. What could you possibly want? It's not dirty, is it?"

Heidi ignored the comment and ran a finger down her cheekbone while Alicia watched.

"The bruise you had the other week. What happened?"

"You saw that, huh. Guess it figures." Alicia looked down at her hands.

"Boyfriend?"

"Fuck, no," Alicia snorted. "I'm not that stupid." Heidi waited for her to go on, almost lost in the dark, liquid grey of her irises as they tried to avoid her own. "I live with my father. He has cancer, I need to be there for him; he'll die soon."

"He hits you?"

"Only once, he's been drinking a lot lately, he's lost the plot. I can see you're concerned but it really isn't something to worry about. I know how to handle it and he won't be around much longer. It sounds insensitive but it's true."

"May I?" Heidi pointed to Alicia's phone sitting on the table in front of them and Alicia shrugged.

"I'm putting my number in here. I believe you when you say you can handle it but I'm sure you know how unpredictable alcoholics can be. I suppose you have other support but please call me if you ever need somewhere to escape to. I live in the centre of town and I want to help."

Alicia took her phone back and looked from the screen to Heidi curiously. "Okay. Your turn. Who hurt you?"

"I had a stalker a few years back. Really messed up in the head, he used to show up everywhere. It got worse and worse and he ended up attacking me twice outside my flat. Viciously too, I was in hospital for two weeks after the second time."

"Shit. Did he... Were you raped?"

"He never managed to get that far, the details are unimportant." Heidi felt Alicia's eyes on her but she wasn't willing to elaborate.

"Why the fuck didn't the cops get him the first time?" Alicia was angry.

"They did. But there's a limit to what the police can do and he came back. After the second time some of the locals heard about it, bad guys -gang members who lived nearby and who don't stand for that kind of violence. It's strange how protective these guys can be of a familiar face. They were really pissed and he got the shit kicked out of him and was driven out of the area. He'll never come back now, he's in permanent danger here."

"Bad ass," Alicia nodded appreciatively.

"It was a more effective solution than the police. In this country..." Heidi shook her head in disappointment. "Anyway, it's why I feel safe in this town, no matter how much of a shit-hole it seems to be sometimes. People looked after me here when I needed them, and they didn't ask for anything in return. So, I'm here for you if you ever need me, okay?"

"Thank you." Alicia appeared seriously grateful. "I get why physical contact freaks you out, but are you alright?"

"Oh yeah, all that went down over three years ago, I'm fine, really." She gave Alicia a reassuring smile. "I didn't have you pegged for an empath."

"I'm not. Guess you pierced my defences, not many people can do that. I can't believe how right I was to feel safe with you."

"The irony. While we're here we might as well have a coffee, yes?" After what she'd just told her, Heidi felt considerably more comfortable in her new affiliation with the girl.

"Yeah. I'll get it. What do you like?"

"Triple shot caramel latte," she went to hand Alicia a ten dollar bill but she waved it away and Heidi made a mental note she owed Alicia a coffee.

She felt the girl watching her as she went through her routine of stirring and removing the foam from the top of her mug.

"I'm a little OCD," she said casually by way of explanation. "It's why I didn't want to go to Faze with you. I find it embarrassing."

"Interesting. It's not that bad," Alicia nodded. "They say I have borderline personality disorder."

"Why does that not surprise me?" Heidi chuckled. "Look at us, bonding over mental illnesses."

"Mm, how very 21st century."

"They throw the BPD label around a lot these days. Are you being treated?"

"Yes. Behavioural therapy, low doses of antipsychotics. I'm a lot better than I used to be. I'm careful to get a certain amount of exercise every day but aside from that I'm happy as long as I've got a book in front of me."

"Pretty unusual for someone your age, to be so into books."

"Dad's fault. He's an academic, a professor in Sociology. He reads constantly ...well, he used to anyway. He instilled a love of books in me literally from birth. The way they smell, the feel of paper, the sound of a turning page, the view into another person's mind. It comforts me."

"How's it coming with the Divine Comedy?"

"Ha! Dante -the Quentin Tarantino of the middle ages. It's all so pointless and gratuitous. I kind of love it."

"Do you find yourself feeling guilty of any of the sins as you read it?"

"Every single one," Alicia said and frowned at her. "Don't tell me you've read it too?"

"Me? No way. Like a lot of Catholics I've read about it. I suppose very few people would be willing or even able to read it cover to cover like you are unless they were using it as a subject for formal research."

"The version I'm working on is fully annotated but I still find myself needing to look up a lot of the references. Without Google I'd be lost. You're a Catholic?"

"Only by birth, I'm not a believer. So, you feel guilty of every sin?" Heidi laughed.

"Of course. Reading Inferno makes you take a long, very critical look at your own moral history and make-up. Like I said, I read this stuff partially to refresh my appreciation for where we're at here and now. After a few hours in Hell it's a relief to return to this plane."

"What sick, twisted soul do you think came up with the concept of Hell in the first place?"

"An interesting question and not one I've looked into. What concerns me more is that the idea has persisted for so long, that we as a species perpetuate and recreate it in detail over and over again. I can't claim immunity to fascination with the subject and the images associated with it, but it demonstrates our innate morbidity as humans. It's easier and more interesting to think about literally, but it shouldn't be meant that way. True Hell can only be experienced through a person's own guilty conscience. If it's meant literally then it's divine vengeance which removes the possibility of it all being superhuman."

"You weren't raised in the Church, were you?" Alicia shook her head. "If you had been you'd know quite well how incapable we are of removing human characteristics completely from our supposedly omnipotent creator. Perhaps it shouldn't be viewed that way, but divine retribution is a very real concept for most Christians. Odd how that happened," Heidi pondered. "If this God isn't human then why do we refer to him as occupying a specific gender? You probably shouldn't get too wrapped up in literature like Dante without looking into the simple, day to day hypocrisy of religion as well. But I see your point, it can be an appealing topic."

Alicia was looking at her very strangely.

"Trust me, I do understand the hypocrisy of religion. For me, Dante is about the flawed nature of humanity because of what the allegorical representations in the content of his writing say about his core beliefs and how they reflect the culture around him. Eternal damnation, the sins, the nine circles, the 24 vestibules; if a person genuinely wanted to avoid all those things during life they'd quickly find themselves unable to do or say anything at all. To overcome the paralysis of indecision one would have to be both a saint and extraordinarily stupid."

"Are you sure about that? Perhaps you're just a very wicked person."

"What person is not wicked? That's what I'm saying. In this world we live in 'wicked' and 'person' go hand in hand. Maybe you're right; if I wanted to go live in a Buddhist monastery I might be able to adhere to all these 'rules' but those people are barely part of our vocabulary -to people like us, people like that aren't normal. I mean, I'm sorry, but this is the world I live in and this is who I have to be to survive in it."

"I feel you. I do," Heidi said, surprised by how passionately Alicia spoke. "Strangely enough, Buddhism is the only mainstream religion that resolutely denies the concept of divine retribution."

"Smartass... So they follow the rules for more pure reasons than fear."

"True," Heidi nodded with a whimsical smile. "What exactly is it that you're studying?"

"Officially? Nothing," Alicia admitted. "I'm more of an autodidact."

"What are you 20? 21? Do you work?"

"22. I work at Green Haven as a caregiver."

"Not exactly achieving your full potential, given the brain you have."

"To an extent we have to sell our time, don't we? It doesn't mean we have to sell our complete focus and energy. Personally, I'd rather keep something of myself to myself. And I know you know what I'm talking about. Look at the way you work -freelance." Alicia regarded her, nodding. "Yeah, you totally get it. You're doing the same thing I am, just in a completely different way."

"I'm losing you."

"I keep my brain focused on personal, private pursuits and interests while following menial orders at certain times for money. You obviously focus your brain on producing something for the external world to feed on, but you do it in your own time and completely without others' influence."

"That isn't entirely true. When I write I always have it in the back of my mind exactly how far I can push a point or idea based on what I know about how people will receive it."

"It's still you. You're not being instructed on what to write from some asshole boss."

"Mm, you have an interesting way of looking at things. And you're right."

"Of course I'm right." She stared defiantly at Heidi. "People think that I'm stupid because I'm pretty or because I'm not doing something more important with myself." She shook her head. "And then they wonder why I avoid them."

"You don't avoid me." Heidi felt a bit ashamed of how badly she herself had underestimated Alicia's intelligence.

"I've said it before; you and I, we're the same. Whether you see it or not."

"I find it amusing that you don't like people judging you by your appearance yet you seem quite secure about judging me by mine. We barely know each other but you insist we're the same."

"A little early in our rapport to call me prejudice and a hypocrite in the same sentence, isn't it?"

"Only making a point," Heidi chuckled.

"Maybe I'm psychic..." Alicia looked smug.

"Ah, now that would be scary."

"Ha! Why? What fucked up shit's going on in your head?"

"Oh man," Heidi rolled her eyes, smiling. "You really are impossible. Sharp as a knife, but impossible. Maybe you should start freelancing as well. Use some of that wit and insight to affect the world in your own way."

"See, I know that's what we're here for -to affect the world in some way, but I can't bring myself to want to."

"Why not?"

"Part of me thinks the world is shit and doesn't deserve my attention. Part of me thinks that I'm shit and anything I could bring to the world would just make it worse. And a part of me I don't acknowledge often, might just be waiting for the perfect moment to have the greatest, most worthwhile impact."

"Jesus, Alicia. You are one intense fucking person, you know?"

"Yeah, sorry, I can't really help it."

"Don't be sorry, it's awesome. If you ever do decide to do something with your brain you'll probably make a big impression with that attitude. The world's crawling with autopilot-engaged ants, you're a breath of fresh air. Even if you stay in the background, it's extremely good to know there are people like you around."

"Ditto, I think," Alicia frowned at her. "I wasn't expecting to come up here and have someone actually understand me talking about Dante. Especially not you. I suppose you're right, I'm just as guilty of prejudice as everyone else. You are a bit of an enigma."

"The first thing you ever said to me was that my expressions made me look both five and a hundred years old. It was a very strange thing to say, I thought."

"That's right, I remember. You do look like that. You're like watching a TV, but in a foreign language; I still can't seem to quite figure you out."

"We're even then because I really can't figure you out either. Do you think it's even possible for a person to know someone other than themselves?"

"I think it's unlikely most of us ever know ourselves let alone someone else."

"What a terrible waste of time everything seems to be," Heidi pondered.

"Mm."

That night she thought about the girl. Alicia. She had never met anyone quite like her. Heidi was besotted and powerless to stop it. No, that wasn't true, she could stop it, but the part of her that didn't want to was strong and too deprived. It had been neglected for too long and even though her sensible side foresaw rejection and pain, she wanted to see more of the girl, to hear her voice more. Her voice was almost as striking as her face was. She wouldn't act on her attraction, but she wouldn't try to discourage it either. She felt like a rock and the girl waves crashing over her. She smiled at the romanticism of the notion and tried to shut her brain off; she was embarrassing herself.


Chapter 2


She didn't see Alicia for two weekends after that and she was a bit worried. What if she never saw her again? She tried to comfort herself that at least she'd had the incentive to give the girl her phone number when she had the chance so if something bad happened she hoped Alicia would feel comfortable enough to contact her.

The Friday night before the third weekend she left the library and made her way to her car, her research from the day fresh inside her head. A dark figure was slouched against the wall not far from where her car was parked and she immediately recognized it as Alicia, though with her hood pulled up and in the quickly fading twilight she was difficult to discern. Heidi hesitated at first, Alicia wasn't the type who liked intrusions to her privacy. Eventually she made her way over to the girl and stood in front of her, observing. Alicia stared back unwaveringly, her beautiful face was streaked with tears; the second time Heidi had witnessed such a thing, but she knew instinctively this time was different.

"It's going to rain, you probably shouldn't hang out here for too long," Heidi began, struggling to formulate an approach she thought the girl might respond to. "It's past eight, the library's closed. Do you want to get something to eat? I won't ask you to talk."

Heidi was shocked to see the girls face crumple into tears again. She felt quite useless, unable to move towards her for fear of reprisal and unwilling to leave. She stood awkwardly, waiting.

"Why are you always so nice to me? I've done nothing to deserve it."

"I haven't always been nice. And you've done nothing not to deserve it."

"I've been waiting for you actually," Alicia said, wiping her eyes and fully surprising Heidi with her sudden openness. "I don't know why, I just ...maybe I need your company. It's stupid, why should I need your company? I hardly know you."

Heidi went and sat on the fence next to her, nudged her with her elbow.

"What are you doing now?"

"Coming with you?"

Heidi smiled and motioned towards her car and she drove them to a Pizzeria. In her mind, if Alicia was willing to make herself vulnerable enough to cry like that in front of Heidi then Heidi didn't have a problem with her bearing witness to the full force of her odd eating habits. The weird truth of it was that, despite her paranoia, people rarely took much notice of her routines unless she described them beforehand.

The restaurant was warm and Heidi noted with pleasure that the girls tears had cleared.

"You're not a vegetarian are you?" she asked, as they ordered.

"No. I mean, I get why people do it and I've thought about it. I see the supermarket adverts on TV showing those abnormally round shaped chickens. Chickens like that probably lived in tiny boxes without being able to move, force fed. Half of me wants to cry for the life they lived and half of me wants to just take a huge bite out of them. It's fucked up but I'm not going to torture myself any more than necessary over it. If I buy a chicken I make sure it's free range, but I read an article saying that you can't trust those labels, they're not legally enforced."

She was talkative -that was good, Heidi thought to herself and chuckled at her rhetoric.

"I can't see you staying healthy for very long without meat. You look anaemic enough as it is."

"Thank you for this," Alicia looked at her with her big, charcoal eyes. "You didn't have plans for tonight?"

Heidi shook her head.

"Not really. Are you feeling a bit better now?"

"My Dad's back in hospital. I should be there, but he's not even conscious."

"Sounds serious."

"Yes. His cancer spread to his intestines and kidneys back in August. Stage IV, we knew it wouldn't be long after that."

"Sorry. Cancer took my Mum too."

"No shit," Alicia looked at her with surprise. "When? Was it hard?"

"I was 17, it was a nightmare."

"It hasn't always been easy with my Dad but we have a bond. He's all I've really got."

Heidi nodded, she wanted to know more but didn't want to press Alicia to talk about things that were difficult for her. After hearing about her borderline personality diagnosis she'd refreshed her knowledge with some reading and although it may be oversimplifying things Heidi figured at least part of her problem lay in her unstable relationship with her father. She supposed Alicia knew this to a certain degree as well, she wasn't the type to ignore the obvious.

"I met someone at the hospital today before I left," Alicia said, studying Heidi with curiosity and Heidi looked back questioningly. "A guy came up to me while I was having a smoke outside. At first I thought he was just going to hit on me or something but he was actually alright."

"Romance in the air?"

"No. Nothing like that. He said he'd seen me at the library and he knew you."

"Oh? Who was this strange man?"

"He said his name was Geo, he said you and he used to live in the same building."

"Geo G., yeah, I know him. Wearing red, right? He's an affiliate," Heidi said, a little concerned now.

"He wasn't bothering me or anything" Alicia assured her hastily. "He left me alone pretty quickly, as if he could sense I didn't want to be bothered. He said he just wanted to meet me because of you, he referred to you in high regard. Aside from the fact that I liked talking to you the other week, it's the reason I ended up seeking you out tonight. You've got some strange acquaintances, Heidi."

"I suppose I do. Like I said, it's easier when you've lived here all your life."

"Mm," Alicia looked uncertain about the matter but she did not question Heidi any more on it.

"Have you heard about the new place on Pine Street?" Heidi asked, keen to change the subject. "They opened a rage room."

"A rage room? What is it, a club or something?"

"Hardly," Heidi scoffed. "You pay to go into a room full of breakable stuff and smash it all up. It's supposed to make you feel better. Relieve anxiety, stress, rid you of any anger you might be letting build up."

"How bizarre," Alicia chewed thoughtfully. "Have you been?"

"No, the psychology behind it sounds debatable. It'd be interesting to see how you feel when you come out though. Some people claim that it does the opposite of calm you down. That it pumps you up and makes you feel more violent. I thought maybe I'd do a piece on it. It's on the back-burner anyway."

"Do you have problems with anger?"

"Haven't we all?"

"I guess so. It's messed up thinking about all the pent up aggression stored inside every single person around us, scary. By the way, you put your full name in my phone and I found one of your articles online."

"Oh yeah. Which one?"

"The suicide one. No wonder you get respect, you're making people aware of a problem that isn't being taken seriously enough. The statistics were quite shocking even for me. Were they all 100% accurate?"

"Without doubt."

"But you also write like you care," Alicia nodded to herself. "That particular case you talked about? The 15 year old girl, Hannah ...adding her poem, making the reader feel like they knew her and cared about her so that even people who hadn't known someone who killed themselves could identify with the story. It's a powerful style."

"You remind me of her actually. She was really in my head when I first saw you at the library, maybe that's why."

"The 15 year old?"

"I never met her but you're what I imagine she would have turned out to be if she'd lived. She was so darkly intelligent, so..." Heidi realized she was idealizing and stopped herself with a nervous laugh. "I get too involved in my stories sometimes."

"It's probably why they turn out so good. How you can get to people the way you do."

"Hannah got to me. I learned far more about her than I needed to. It became truly difficult for me to accept that this girl was actually dead, that she'd ended it the way she did. She had so much potential. And to think that there are people doing the same thing every day, I just tried to put my emotion over it in words."

"You succeeded. I'm no expert but I think a lot of journalists wouldn't be willing to take the risks you do. With that kind of emotion people could feel manipulated, it could swing one way or the other. But you write like an old person, not a 24 year old."

"Thanks, I think." Heidi studied the girl as she ate. She was an interesting one that was for sure. Heidi was taking to Alicia in a more profound way than she thought possible and was outright worried about her welfare given her present circumstances. She wanted to offer support which she seemed sadly lacking in, although Heidi couldn't be sure about that; she was nothing if not mysterious. At this point she was only glad that she'd got her distracted from her worries.

"How did you get into it?" the girl asked her. "You're pretty young to be so well-thought of."

"I had a social construct essay accepted for publication as winner of a competition my second year at university. I suppose it made an impression, people were suddenly interested in what I had to say. I think at some level the reason why people like my stuff is because I'm willing to say things others aren't since I'm not motivated by money or employment opportunities." Heidi could see Alicia wanted to ask her why not but was withholding the question; she was unusual alright. "I take advantage of the people around me too, get to know them properly. I know I'm lucky to have fallen into such a favourable position."

"You're a natural. Have you considered what might happen if one of your stories went down badly with the public?"

"Every time I turn a piece in I think it. I figure it's only a matter of time. On the one hand I might be able to bounce back and find a confident voice again, on the other I could just use the opportunity to do something different."

"What would you do?"

"I'll cross that bridge when I get to it." Heidi's curiosity overwhelmed her. "Is it just you taking care of things when your father dies?" she asked.

"Pretty much." Alicia didn't appear bothered by the question. "There's Dads solicitor and we have some distant relatives in the States but they won't come over. The only people at the funeral will be former colleagues of his, a few friends, and maybe some of the people who helped care for him, pity parties. And some of our old neighbours."

"Where did you move here from?"

"Westcliffe. We lived in a pretty isolated place, we moved here a year ago when his treatment meant he needed to be closer to a good hospital. It took me a while to figure out you guys have an excellent library."

"Where's your mother?" Heidi cursed silently. "Sorry, I'm asking too many questions."

"It's okay. Mum was killed in a car accident when I was five."

"Oh fuck, that must have been awful." Damn, and here I was thinking her father was the biggest problem.

"Yeah. Ever since then it's been just me and Dad. I know what you're probably thinking after what I told you about the bruise but it really isn't that bad. He was always good with me until recently. He's on a lot of different meds now, he can't work and he's in pain so he drinks. He's pretty much losing his mind. He's not a bad person, he's just changed so much since the stage IV diagnosis."

"My mother was dependent on morphine by the end. Should your Dad be drinking with all the medications?"

"No, but it doesn't matter, he's a dead man walking anyway. Well, not walking anymore."

"What are you up to tonight? Are you going back to the hospital?"

"No. I've been there sitting by his bedside for three days, I can't handle it any more. They have my number if something happens. When something happens."

"Damn. It's a horrible feeling, I know. You can come to my place for a while if you want. We can have a drink, watch TV. You'll probably be bored but at least you won't be alone."

"Yeah?" Alicia appeared to consider it carefully. "I think I'd like to. You are the first person I've met in a long time whose company I prefer over being by myself."

"It's a rough time, you shouldn't be alone anyway."

The paid for dinner and drove to Heidi's flat.

"Nice place," Alicia said, looking around. "How do you afford a place like this? Surely you don't make this much money with your writing..." Heidi shrugged evasively and led them into the lounge, switching everything on. Alicia plonked her bag down and shrugged her coat off.

"My wi-fi details are there if you want to use your tablet." She watched as Alicia stared at the view from her windows, at the lights on the hills opposite; it was a clear night and the moon reflected off the snow on the mountains beyond.

"You live here alone?" Alicia asked.

"Uh-huh."

"Why do you work at the library? This place is awesome."

"It has to do with compartmentalization. For a while I did work from home but I found it hard to switch off from work mode at my designated time because for all intents and purposes I was still in my work place. So I moved to the library, it makes it easier to relax when I'm here, do normal stuff."

"And what normal stuff do you do?"

"The same things everyone does at home, I guess."

"I can sure see a little more evidence of your OCD here. The place is immaculate. You're a cleaner as well, aren't you?"

"Cleaning, organization, makes me feel a little better. But don't be scared of making a mess or anything. I actually kind of like messes, they make me feel normal and I look forward to cleaning them up once I'm alone again. I'm weird but I'm not a complete stiff." Heidi knew people sometimes got worried being around her.

"You want me to make a mess?"

"If you feel the need." Heidi smiled. "I'm just saying I'm not obsessed with coasters or spillages. My OCD is more about sticking to certain numbers and patterns. You can do anything you want. Drink?"

"What have you got?"

"Red wine, white wine, beer, vodka and uh ...yeah, tequila."

"Fuck me, you keep a well-stocked bar. I'll just have a beer, thanks." She wandered around the living room studying book covers, photos and statuettes.

"Okay. Make yourself at home, I'll be right back."

Alicia was messing around on her tablet when Heidi got back. She handed her a beer and settled down to watch the news. Alicia seemed quite content and Heidi was comfortable in her quiet company.

"Will you tell me what it was like to lose your mother?" she asked Heidi without warning. "I barely remember my own mother... I just mean, is there some weird sensation I should be aware of before Dad dies?"

Heidi contemplated the query.

"It's hard to say. I was a lot younger and my relationship with my mother was probably quite different from your relationship with your Dad."

"What was your relationship like?"

"I loved her of course, but we didn't get along great most of the time. Love can endure in the absence of like."

"Meaning?"

"Bluntly put... I felt like I hated her most of the time after the age of thirteen."

"Why? What happened when you were thirteen?"

If Alicia wanted to talk about this stuff Heidi didn't really have any problem with it.

"I stopped believing in God. I began to learn about philosophy and science and I came to the childish conclusion that she had lied to me all my life. She raised us Catholic, she made me believe in God, that there was something greater than we were and all would be okay in Heaven and I was so, so fucking angry when I realized that none of it was true. It hit me hard, I felt betrayed. I was an overly sensitive kid, neither of my older sisters had such a problem with it."


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