Chapter 1: February 10th
I hated him.
I hated him. That was all I could think. My hand clenched into a fist around my mobile, which was still pressed to my ear. I could feel my arm shaking as the muscles constricted in rage. I was biting down so hard on my lower lip, I was almost on the verge of drawing blood with my teeth.
"Ellie?" Katie asked nervously from the other side of the bar. "Are you alright?"
It took several deep calming breaths before I felt like my voice was steady enough to speak.
'Come on Eleanor. In through the nose, out through the mouth…'
"I'm fine. Just a wrong number." I lied through gritted teeth, carefully moving my hand away from my ear. Katie gave me a disbelieving look as she eyed the fist that was still on the verge of crushing my phone into powder. I forced my smile back onto my face, finally managing to pry my fingers off my mobile and shove it a little brutally into my back pocket of my jeans. "My shift is almost done. Let me get us a drink and we can go find the others."
Before Katie could object I turned to face the liquor shelves and retrieved two tall glasses. I kept my back to her and the rest of the drinking students while I worked, hoping that no one else would notice my eyes starting to fill with tears.
Katie okay-ed me half heartedly, before getting caught up in conversation with a guy waiting next to her. Red-headed, curvy and exotically pretty, my best friend had been earning herself a lot of smouldering looks all evening, especially in the tight black and green dress. She had offered to do me up for our girls-night-out too, but I'd only let her curl my normally pin straight brown hair. I had already settled comfortably on a blue halter top, tight black jeans and a pair of heels. I had to admit, I'd felt good enough to walk with a kick in my step at the beginning of my shift at the student bar.
Now I just felt like being sick.
"I'll just be a minute." I said, blinking back the unshed tears, and sliding our drinks across the bar towards Katie and her guy friend.
I hastily bid my manager and fellow booze-dealers a goodnight, untying and slinging my apron over the back of a barstool. I must have failed to conceal the furious look on my face, because I barely had to shove my way through the crowd of semi-drunk students before I found Katie near the dance floor. She'd abandoned her admirer and had come over to find me. She looked unsure of what to say and I sighed heavily, trying to relax.
"Sorry Kit-Kat, I just heard something that upset me a bit." I said, using the nickname I'd been calling her since we were ten, although it was a slight understatement. I wasn't upset. I was murderous. I felt like I wanted to strangle someone to death, and then kick over a building for good measure.
The look on Katie's face said that she wasn't buying it.
"He's giving you problems again, isn't he?" She didn't bother to make it into a question.
I nodded reluctantly, taking a large gulp of my drink. I almost choked on the lump in my throat which I hadn't even noticed was there.
"Something like that."
"I thought you two were finally over this."
"So did I…" I mumbled, feeling something buzzing against my hip.
My stomach plummeted for the second time that night and I quickly downed the rest of my glass in one go. The alcohol burned the back of my throat and I forced another false smile at Katie. God knows after all the crap she helped me through recently; she deserved to have at least one night without me dragging her into another of my dramas.
"I'm going to sit outside for a bit. I need to cool off. Why don't I find you and the others on the dance floor in a few minutes?"
Katie looked doubtfully at me, almost as if she could see straight through me. Five years together at school and then three of college; she'd been my best friend for so many years she was more like a sister. She knew me well enough to know when I needed to be alone.
"You sure you'll be ok, hun? Its cold out tonight." She asked with a worried look.
"Yeah, I'll be fine. I've got a coat." I answered her without hesitating. She nodded, giving me a reassuring little smile and a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. Then she turned and moved back through the thick crowds to where excessively loud 5club music was blaring from the speakers. I waited until she was out of sight before letting the false smile slide off my face.
It was snowing again when I stepped outside, just past the bouncers who where chatting leisurely by the doors. It would have been a beautiful evening, with the late winter snow still falling, but I was far too focused on the dread rising in my stomach to think about it.
I pulled my mobile out of my coat pocket and looking at the screen.
~1 Missed Call
Caller ID: Mark~
I stabbed the redial button with my thumb and held it to my ear, trying not to shiver.
It rang once. Twice. Three times. Finally he picked up.
"Hey babes, I was just thinking about you," Mark greeted me cheerfully as if nothing was wrong, "I've been trying to call you all night. I really wanted to talk about when you're coming back to—"
"I picked up the first time you rang me." I interrupted him, unable to mask my anger any longer, "About two minutes ago. While you were rolling around in bed with that 'new friend' you were telling me about."
There was a very potent silence on the other end of the line. Obviously Mark hadn't realised that just as he and his new 'friend' had been getting down to business, he'd accidentally hit the redial button on his phone and called me. I'd got to hear the entire thing from start to finish.
"Still want to talk?" I asked, and it came out in a growl.
"Ells, that was nothing." He started after a pause, but I could hear the panic in his tone, "We were tickling each other, thats all. We were just joking around, it's not what you—"
"Do you normally moan the names of people you tickle?" I asked, cutting him off again, "Or are you that enthusiastic about everyone you take to your bedroom to tickle at two in the morning?"
"Ells, you're not listening to me! I would never do that to you!" He lied again, and it felt like an icicle being pushed through my gut, "You've been drinking. You're tired. It isn't what you think."
I should have just hung up there and then. But I just couldn't stop.
"I just got off work, Mark. I'm still sober, and I heard everything. 'Annabella' is a bit of a mouth full of a name to shout at orgasm, don't you think?"
It was only when I heard the faint snorts of laughter from behind her that I realised that the bouncers were eavesdropping on the conversation. I didn't care. I could feel myself boiling over with silent anger. It wasn't until I felt something warm roll down my cheek that realised I was crying.
"Ells it didn't happen like that!"
"I don't care how it happened, Mark." I said quietly and without emotion, "I have class in the morning and I'm tired. Just tell me the truth, or I'm hanging up right now."
I could almost hear his temper snapping through the phone. "Fine!" He spat angrily, "I did it! I slept with her! Happy now?!"
It was stupid and pathetic, but I covered my mouth to hide the sob that crawled up my throat. I clubbed it down with the blunt side of my anger, refusing to let him hear me crying.
"All this crap only happened because you went away to a college on the other side of the fucking country, and you were too selfish to ever come back and visit." He continued to vent furiously at me. I forced the lump in my throat down before responding: better to sound pissed off than weepy.
"So this is my fault now?!" I forced my voice to stay steady as another wave of tears rolled silently down my cheeks, taking my make up with it, "You swore you were willing to wait when I left! We agreed that we'd talk if things got difficult! You swore you'd never do this!"
I heard him scoff, and it made me want to hit something.
"I agreed to wait if you promised to come back! But you were too much of a coward to even call!" I could almost hear the sneer in his tone, "I've had enough of waiting."
I felt my insides constrict at that sentence. My boiling rage turned to ice in my blood, and I could all but feel my heart turning to stone in my chest. For several painfully long seconds I could barely breathe. When I finally did answer him, it was in a voice so cold, so quiet and furious, that it startled me. "I guess that's it then. We're done."
My whole body was shaking with fury. The line crackled and I could hear a woman's voice on the other end asking if my dear old ex was ok. My blood crystallised into shards of ice as I listened to him softly reassuring her that everything was fine.
Finally he spoke to me, one last time.
"You know you'll never find anyone who will love you more than I did, Ells. Ever."
I gave a chilly little smile, and only wished he could have seen it.
"That's good. I don't particularly want to be loved the way you 'loved' me again any time soon." I said coldly, pouring as much of my frozen anger, rage and hurt as I could get into the last words I'd ever say to him.
Anger tore through me, and the next thing I knew I was hurling my flimsy mobile phone like a cricket ball at the stone wall a few meters away. It shattered like a miniature firework, sending bits of circuiting and plastic flying into the snow. Later I would remember thinking that was probably a stupid thing to do. I'd need to buy myself and cheap replacement.
The bouncers gave a loud chorus of cheers and whoops of approval behind me. I had been friendly with most of the staff on the campus since I'd started working part time at the student bar. I knew they only meant it to cheer me up, but I wasn't it any mood to go back inside and pretend I was ok anymore.
I was tired, cold, angry, and just wanted to go home.
I forced a small smile at them, asked them to tell Katie I'd decided to head home after all, and started walking back across the courtyard. I managed to keep myself from breaking down into angry tears again for most of the walk across campus towards the bus stop. It was early in the morning, cold, dark, and the high street was virtually deserted when I finally reached it, still lost in bitter thoughts.
I'd suspected for a long time that my turbulent long-distance-relationship with Mark — the beau of my final years at senior school — would end up like this. He'd been sweet and supportive at first when I'd been accepted to go to university in London, but it had quickly become obvious that he hadn't wanted me to go. I'd been putting off coming back to see him for months just to avoid him trying to talk me into dropping out early.
"What are you going to do with an English Literature degree anyway?" He'd said.
I sighed and wished that I hadn't been so stupid as to throw my phone against a wall. I desperately wanted to call home and talk to my folks.
I wanted to talk things out with my mum; get long-winded anecdotal advice from my dad; get a sarky but well meant jibe about 'scummy cheating boyfriends' from my little brother. But even if I did have my phone, chances were that my family would have all been asleep anyway. That's the way things worked when you had family who were constantly travelling around the world.
Mid thought, my foot suddenly slipped on the frozen pavement and my ankle twisted painfully in the wrong direction. I half cursed, half sobbed, and angrily yanked the once beautiful shoes from my feet. The heels had been worn down past the point of repair and they were caked in a thick layer of ice and mud.
Furious and tired, I dumped them into a nearby rubbish bin, ignoring the freezing pain of my bare feet on the icy pavement.
The bus stop finally came into view at the end of the road, but as I made my way towards it I ended up glancing at my reflection in a darkened shop window. It was only for a second, but I mentally winced at what I saw.
My make up had almost been washed off by my waterworks. What hadn't come off completely had run down my puffy red cheeks in a series of horrible long black streaks. The snow that had landed on my curled brown hair had melted, making is go lank and tangled, and my normally bright green eyes were watery, sore and bloodshot to hell. I looked like something that had died at the bottom of a well.
I sighed heavily, no energy left to cry or get angry, or anything. I just stared at myself in the glass, thinking about how things had been getting harder and harder to deal the closer I got to graduation. I'd put it all down to stress — over working myself with my studies, my work at the bar, my extra curricular activities, and trying to keep Mark happy.
I'd never looked or felt so run down in all my life.
I was just so tired. All I really wanted now was to go home, crawl into bed and not wake up for a very, very long time. Or maybe just disappear altogether.
The thought rang through my head as I stared at my sorry reflection in the window. It rang in my mind as if someone had actually asked me the question aloud. Melodramatic and stupid as it was, I already knew my answer.
"Yeah," I mumbled almost silently, my voice going weirdly muffled and slurred, "That would be nice."
That was the last thing I remember.
I was dreaming. I knew that before anything else.
My hands brushed the tops of the tall yellow flowers that bloomed under a navy coloured night sky. The moon drifted through the sky like a floating lantern, and the air was warm and comforting rather than cold and harsh, and it was quiet. For once in so long, it was peaceful and safe for me to walk through my own dreamscape.
The grass tickling the soles of my bare feet as I walked. I could smell the scent of the flowers as they swayed sleepily in the gentle breeze. The skies were so clear I could even count the thousands of stars as they danced behind the thin wisps of cloud.
I guess I'd finally reached my limit. Maybe I was so tired that I didn't even have the energy to care about what was going on outside my dream world. I could have happily kept walking on forever in the peaceful state, oblivious to the world outside.
I probably would have if something out of place hadn't caught my eye.
I stopped and stared off through the warm evening air across the yellow heads bobbing in the breeze. I couldn't see their face, but I was sure it was a person. They were knelt down among the flowers, a curtain of long brown hair shielding them from my eyes. I couldn't see what they where doing, or even who they were, but I found myself walking towards them.
A sudden hesitation in their movement and a twitch of their head said that they had apparently sensed me there. I opened my mouth to speak, not a sound came out. Then the ground vanished from under my feet.
My clothes flew up around my body as I dropped through a flurry of yellow petals into inky blackness.
I didn't even have the chance to scream before I was awake again.