“Like a fish,” I say. Maddie giggles. She likes to hear how my boyfriends kiss. Except I don’t always tell the truth. This one kisses like he’s drowning and I’m his oxygen tank. Maddie wouldn’t understand. She was stopped before her hormones galloped in. She doesn’t know about hearts hurdling at the chime of a message, or the strange, secret tides that toy with your insides, or promises tumbling out of walls and railings and every flesh-pressed surface. I wish I could bring her with me, switch her on. I make fish faces at her, pucker my lips into smacking, fleshy hoops. Downstairs the front door clatters and I kick Maddie off my bed and tell her to get lost. Mum’s back.
“Homework!” she bellows. I have to sit in the kitchen now while Mum watches me through the back of her head. The school rang her because they hadn’t seen me. It’s funny how they noticed the gone me more than the there me. Mum rustles behind my shoulder, “What have you got tonight?” Since the day we gave up, Mum’s face has started slipping down her head like candle wax. She says she’s forgiven the driver. I can’t look at her.
“Stupid equations,” I sigh. This we can share. Maddie could untangle numbers, me and Mum can’t. When I’ve finished Mum will let me out, though, so I concentrate.
I didn’t go to the hospital. They called it a ceremony. They said it would help me.
There’s a house on our street where an old woman died alone. Nobody can find her relatives so the house is in limbo, waiting for renewal or demolition. Round the back, under a heavy, fog-bellied dusk, I splintered the rotting window frame with a chisel from the tool-box and lowered myself in. That’s where I went instead of the hospital, hiding inside the yawn of a vacant carcass. That’s where I met Dan, who’d already found the front door unlocked. And where now, post-equations, Dan drains all my starved oxygen from me and fills me up with something fresh and sweet. His hands feel like safety and freedom, gift-wrapped.
“You smell of mountains,” he breathes, against my ear.
“Get real,” I say. I know for a fact he’s never been outside Surrey. But I think fleetingly of those mountain disaster survivors we heard about during Biology yesterday, grasping for air through their dim, frost-bitten delirium. You can only endure without fresh oxygen for so long.
Somewhere a machine stops humming. Maddie floats towards the paneless window like a magic bubble. A shimmer of fluorescence and mischief and what might have been. “Not this time,” I say, into Dan’s wide-open face. I breathe in this new certainty, this cosmos winking beyond my bedroom. I think I will tell Maddie the truth about how Dan kisses me. And then I’ll leave her be.
Outside I can hear the evening traffic rearranging the population, the way it likes to every day.