Winter arrived like a hard, reliable acquaintance, suddenly replacing crunchy leaves with skeletal trees and bright, blue Autumnal skies with heavy, white sheets. That was during the fleeting day at least, most of the time the sky was black with night, morning and evening interchangeable and indistinct from each other.
Updates from home had been coming thick and fast since Scarlett and Sasha had reconnected. The latest news was that Scarlett's mum had been hospitalised, whether she had done it to herself or whether someone had done it to her was still unknown. Scarlett tried to let the news bounce off her. There was nothing she could do to help her mum at this point, she could barely help herself.
Winter had made life a lot harder for Scarlett. She struggled to get out of bed on the days she didn't have to work, preferring to hide under the covers reading a book she had read a million times before, listening to the same old songs through her headphones.
On days where she had to work she would try to slip in and out of the house unnoticed. There were times when she would be dragged to the pub or a communal dinner around the kitchen table, but she had been faking a winter flu for the last few weeks which allowed her to cry off most calls to action. Her and Jim were getting along fine whenever they were forced to encounter each other. It was almost like they had never meant anything to each other at all, and she was able to ignore him for the most part. It was easier that way.
If Scarlett had to attribute her downturn in mood to anything, she'd guess it could be linked to a certain upcoming annual event. Not Christmas, she had never really cared about Christmas. No, soon it would be Jack's 7th birthday.
She had been with Jack for every single one of his birthdays so far and had always tried to make it a celebratory occasion, unlike her own birthday which passed by mostly unnoticed. For his 6th birthday, her and Billy had spent days spray painting cardboard boxes in his garden so he could come to Jack's birthday party dressed as a robot. Jack loved robots. She wondered what he loved now, back then it was always changing - a few weeks later his favourite thing was dinosaurs.
She hoped his grandparents would make his birthday special for him and take the time to learn all about the things he loved. Sasha's mum had tried and failed to make contact with them so Scarlett could go and see him or perhaps at least send him a present. The social workers had said they didn't feel it was "appropriate".
Scarlett was also struggling more and more to sleep. The only way she felt like she could sleep now was by consuming a heady combination of weed, Xanax and vodka. It gave her a thumping headache in the mornings but at least she wasn't lying awake at night, her breathing restricted by the heavy weight pushing down on her chest. She figured it was a small price to pay.
The night before Jack's birthday, she pulled on a jumper and hung out of her bedroom window to smoke her bedtime joint and look up at the black sky. There were barely any stars. She closed her eyes to stop the tears and tried to comfort herself in the knowledge that Jack was existing somewhere under the very same sky. She hoped he wasn't missing her as much as she missed him. Despite taking her usual bedtime medicine, she still found it hard to sleep and woke the next morning feeling groggy and troubled.
She was due to go into work. She figured it would be a good way to take her mind off things. As she pulled on her jeans she remembered how she would sit on the edge of Jack's bed, patiently waiting for him to wake up so that her smiling face would be the first thing he would see. As she left the house, she remembered how she would swing him by his arms so that he always wanted to hold her hand.
As she got nearer to work, she found herself crossing the road and walking right past it. She knew she didn't have it in her to pretend she wasn't heartbroken today. She turned down an alley way that she knew would lead her to a supermarket. Instead of working, she would have a drink. A drink to honour her baby brother.
She grabbed a bottle of vodka and made her way to the till but to her horror she was ID'd by the fussy shopworker who didn't believe her to be 18. It did happen occasionally but for it to happen today was most inconvenient. Scarlett scoffed, turning away from the till, but rather than heading out of the door, she skulked back to the alcohol aisle. After a few shifty glances, she had secured another bottle of vodka and with a twist of her wrist, the cap along with the security tag was removed and lay abandoned on the shelf. She didn't have time to mess around today and besides, why would she need a lid. She planned on drinking it pretty quickly.
She walked to the nearest park, noticing with a dull recognition the dark, grey clouds forming over the tops of the evergreens that lined the abandoned bowling green. It was going to rain. She took a deep swig of the vodka as she settled on a bench and it burned all the way down but the burning felt good. She hoped the vodka would take away the sharpness that was digging in her chest. The hard, unforgiving pain that had taken residence behind her ribcage. She focused on drinking the vodka, watching the clear liquid diminish inside the glass bottle, cheaply printed with big, red letters. Soon her head was foggy but the pain was still sharp. Tears stung her eyes and the lump in her throat felt jagged and sore. It started to rain.
She sat there for a while, letting the rain drench her, the pitter patter of droplets tapping her troubled head, before she decided she should find some shelter so that she could roll herself a joint. She knew of a bandstand nearby so wrenched herself to her feet. She tripped, some of her vodka falling out the top of the bottle despite it being nearly half empty, before regaining herself and stumbling deeper into the park.
As she turned a corner, her rolling eyes struggled to scan the horizon and she noticed a hooded figure walking along the pathway parallel to hers. Squinting at him, she recognised his gait as well as his scruffy shell suit - it was her old street companion, Pip. She stopped for a second to think, her cognitive abilities heavily impaired by the amount of spirit she had drank, before launching herself forward.
"Pip!" she called, her staggered half walk half run covering the distance between them quickly.
He stopped and turned expectedly, confused for a moment before he recognised her, "If it ain't gee-tar girl," he said.
"Whatever dude," she stopped in front of him, her speech slurred, "Can you get me some of the stuff you gave me last time I saw you?"
Pip frowned, "Oh yeah, I remember now! Them lads came and dragged you off! Gave us a right hiding!"
"I don't care about that," Scarlett shook her head, frowning. She didn't have time for this, she needed a release and she had completely forgotten how pure that feeling had felt until she saw Pip blundering awkwardly through the park, "I have money." She plunged her hand into her jacket pocket and produced the cash she had planned to use on vodka, she saw him raise his eyebrow as he looked at the contents of her outstretched hand, "I can get more," she added.
Pip looked her up and down for a second before giving a curt nod, indicating that she follow him. A few moments later, under cover of a nearby bush, the deal was done and Pip disappeared off into the dismal grey of the park.
The rain was picking up now and it reminded her of the last time, with the rain beating down on the puddles under the bridge where she huddled with Pip and Inky. She remembered she was barely able to hold her own head up or look after herself at all, but inside she had felt euphoric and light as air.
Although she was drunk and reckless, she knew it was more sensible to do it in the safety of her room and so she bowed her head, one hand clutching the rock of brown powder in her pocket, the other holding onto her vodka as she headed back home, being careful to avoid Matilda's where she was still meant to be working.
Pip had given her some instruction which she recited to herself as she hurried home. She would need a lighter, a pen casing and some tin foil. The first two she could find in her room but the last would need to be extracted from the kitchen. No problem.
As she rounded the corner to her house she headed straight for the back patio door which led to the kitchen. The rain was coming down hard now and she was completely soaked through. Scarlett released her grip on the rock in her pocket for a second to open the door, clutching the mostly empty vodka bottle between her forearm and chest. As she pulled open the door, she nearly fell over the threshold, steadying herself on the kitchen table as she deposited her vodka and then turned to heave the door closed behind her.
"Jesus, you're soaked."
Scarlett spun around and wiped at her face to get rid of the thick strands of hair that were clinging to her with rainwater. Her eyes took a second to focus on Jim who was looking worriedly between her and the bottle of vodka she had dumped onto the kitchen table.
"Are you okay?" he asked, moving towards her.
"I'm-fine-stop-right-there," she garbled, holding her hands out in front of her to stop him in his tracks.
This was the last thing she needed. She looked beyond Jim to the cupboard behind him where she knew she would find the tin foil. Just one more obstacle between her and completely numb bliss.
"Okay, okay, sorry," Jim said, stopping in his tracks, "This is pretty early to be downing spirits though, even for me."
Scarlett shrugged, her actions over animated by the alcohol she had drank, "I'm celebrating a birthday." she stumbled backwards, grabbing onto a chair to steady herself. Jim reached out for her but she curled away from his outstretched hand.
"Scarlett," he said, his voice thick with emotion, his eyes sharp and concerned, "What's going on with you? Everyone is worried..."
Scarlett couldn't concentrate on what he was saying but she knew she'd have to get rid of him somehow if she wanted to get her hands on that tin foil.
"What? No-You kidding?...I'm so fine," she tried to be nonchalant and smile casually, her grip tight on the chair to stop her falling again, "I'm just gonna, like, cook? Or something? So you can go."
Jim snorted with laughter, "You're kidding if you think I'm going to let you cook like this. Sit down, I'll make you some food. How about some Nutella toast, eh?"
He turned back to the kitchen and Scarlett's heart sank. She'd somehow made it even worse, God knows when she would be able to get rid of him now. A sharp pang in her chest nearly made her scream out.
"Just fuck off," she blurted, desperate to make him go away and stop being nice to her.
He turned slowly, confused, "What? Why?"
"Because I don't like you. I don't want to be your friend. I don't want you to make me food. Just please go away."
Jim took a painful breath, his shoulders slumping, the corners of his mouth turning downwards. Scarlett realised that she had somehow actually hurt his feelings. Who knew he had feelings, she thought to herself cruelly, trying to maintain her conviction. If he wouldn't take the hint, she had to make it obvious. That was his bad, not hers.
"Okay," he said, nodding slightly before padding out of the room.
The second he was out of the door Scarlett had leapt across the room and pulled the cupboard apart looking for the foil which she placed in the inside of her jacket before running sloppily up the stairs towards her bedroom.
Finally. A reprieve from the relentless pain that had been building in her heart was only a puff of smoke away.