In Nick’s beautiful home, on the edge of the lake, the sun sets over the mountains. The sky burns brilliant red. Crickets sound in the grass. Olivia and Emily sit out on the patio furniture which has been set up with a jug of alcohol free, strawberry daiquiri, a large bowl of salad, a smaller dish of seasoned potatoes and plates with cutlery. A single candle in a jar sits in the centre of the table sending the sweet smell of artificial peonies into the close area. Emily and Olivia sit beside each other, they’re tired from the early start and have spent most of the day in their rooms, showering, then lounging on the dock, waiting for Nick to finish working in his office. They play ‘slapsies’ while waiting for him to come out with the rest of tea. “Ouch!” Olivia winces as she fails to move her hand in time. “Ouch, ouch, ouch!” Three times in a row.
“Your reflexes are really poor. Are you sure that head injury didn’t give you lasting damage?” Emily pokes at her arm and ribs making her squirm away from her ticklish hands. “Come on, swap with me!”
“Fine.” They swap. Emily holds out her hands, palms together on their side. Olivia adopts the same position but this time, Olivia lashes out and slaps Emily’s hand. She jumps at the impact. “Ouch!”
“Ha, and you don’t even have a head injury to blame, so what’s your excuse?” She slaps her again. And again. And again. “Bitch!” Emily cries! She slaps her again. Emily’s hand is bright red…as is Olivia’s. She cracks her one more time as Nick comes out the door with a tray of skewers. He stares between them. “Do I even want to know?”
“You couldn’t take it.” Emily teases.
“I have to agree, our pain threshold is really something to be marvelled.” Olivia agrees. Nick shakes his head. “I’m being teamed up against now. Great.” He sets down the tray of, what looks like chicken, then peppers, then chunky mushrooms, then pineapple on a stick. “Yum!” They dish up. Olivia is sure to take a large portion of salad to boost her chances of healing faster, then takes a few potatoes and her share of chicken skewers. Everyone digs in, all that can be heard it the scraping of knives on plates and chewing. The occasional pouring of mocktails and the ice clanging against their glasses. “This is amazing.” Olivia gushes. “Cooking clearly runs in the family.” She looks up and sees Nick is eating the same thing as them. “But I didn’t think you ate meat?” He smirks.
“It’s not meat. It’s a brand called ‘This!’.” He watches her face and her eyes as they widen in shock. “Yeah. It stands for “This changes everything.””
“Well,” Olivia says as she takes another chomp, “This changes everything…I’m sold! I’ll try it.”
“Really? You’ll try it?” Olivia nods enthusiastically. “Really?” He is clearly very sceptical.
“Really, really. Why cause suffering when there’s another way, right?” She asks. His eyes fill with admiration. He smiles in a way she has never seen before. It’s almost as if he is grateful.
“Right.” He agrees. Emily clears her throat.
“Well I’m strictly omnivore. Though I’ll agree, this is really good Uncle Nick. Good job. Can I have another?” They look at the empty tray and then at Olivia’s empty plate, then to Nick’s. He has one left and doesn’t hesitate to pass it over to Emily, who takes it and chows down. “Thank you.” Olivia takes a sip of her mocktail. Nick watches her as she winces and puts a straw in her glass. “Thanks.”
“How are you feeling?” He enquires.
“A little tired and sore. My head doesn’t hurt any more. Though…that could easily be the painkillers. I don’t know. I’ll keep you posted.” He nods.
“It’s already looking better.”
“Liar.” She jokes. Olivia stands and starts cleaning up. The evening is settling down but whilst her body is exhausted, her mind is wide awake. Nick and Emily chat away, exploring the idea of building a tyre swing on the lowest hanging tree.
Olivia walks into the kitchen and puts some dirty pots in the sink. She runs the tap and as it fills she leans against the worktop and takes a breath. It’s cooler in here. The floor feels cold against her bare feet and her arms are chilled where they rest on the unit. She cracks her neck and inhales deeply. She holds it, feeling her lungs expand and push against the pressure, then she slowly releases it back out into the room. Content. That’s how she feels. She is content in her surroundings. She takes her phone out of her shorts pocket, set on giving her mother a call. She was supposed to text when they arrived but hadn’t. She realises, to her dismay, that there is no signal. “Great.” She mutters. She walks a little up the stairs, waiting for the bars to go up. They don’t. She goes to the top of the stairs and holds her phone higher, as if, lifting it up would connect it to the satellites in space. No such luck. Olivia continues, walking around the balcony, overlooking the centre of the house. She steps in funny ways from corner to corner, but again…no such luck. “Crap.” She tries to use the house WiFi, but the connection is still too poor to make a call online. “Liv!” Nick calls up to her. “Emily is asking for you.”
“Coming.” She walks back down and turns the tap off before heading back out onto the patio. Emily looks up at her wickedly. Olivia looks back at her, afraid. “What?” She asks. Emily stands in front of her. “I think we should teach him the game.” She instantly understands her meaning. “Oh, I don’t know. Do you think he’s ready?”
“Well, I’m officially frightened. Is this where you off me and steal my house?” They laugh.
“Maybe.” Olivia cocks her head in a way that makes him truly believe, that they may in fact off him and steal his house. Emily sits in front of him and holds out her hands as they did before. “Okay, do the same thing as me.”
“Okay.” He sets his hands out.
“Great. Now the aim of the game is to move your hands out of the way in time.”
“In time for what?” She tries to catch him off guard and strikes out to hit him but he is far too quick and snaps his hands up to his chest. Emily drops her mouth wide open in shock. He smiles cheekily. “My turn.” She scowls at him, realising he has played before. Emily sets her hands back down. He doesn’t hesitate and reaches out, whacking her hand with brute force. “Fuck!” She exclaims.
“Ah. Language.” He slaps her again. She pulls her hand away and examines the damage. Her hand is bright pink and there are signs of burst vessels from the assault.
“Evil git.” Olivia laughs uncontrollably. “Alright, alright!” Emily stands up and beckons for Olivia to sit. Nick stands and backs away. “No. I’m not going to…hit, Olivia.”
“Why not?” Emily asks. “Afraid she won’t like you anymore?” There is a double meaning behind the “like” part of her sentence and everyone hears it. There is an awkward silence and Nick looks away uncomfortably. Olivia can’t help but feel bad for him. The last thing he wants is his nieces friend crushing on him. She’s probably embarrassed him and decides to make him feel more comfortable. “It’s fine,” she says, “don’t be afraid of hurting me. I’m tougher than I look.” She sits down where Emily once was, facing Nick’s empty seat. He eventually sits down across from her and puts his hands at the ready. “You go first.” Olivia orders. “Or you’ll just let me hit you.” He smirks sideways, in a way that lets Olivia know that’s exactly what he was going to do. “Alright, you asked for it.” He slaps her. Barely. Olivia, knowing he wasn’t going to hit her hard, hadn’t even attempted to move. “Come on. I know you can do better than that.” She teases. “Enough of the foreplay, whack her!” Emily yells. Nick drops his hands and stares at Emily. “You’re sure those are alcohol free?” She enquires, pointing at the empty mocktail jug on the table. “Certain.” He says.
“I’ll shut up.” She steps back. They get back to it. Olivia, ready for it this time, moves her hands out of the way, as he swings for her full force and misses. He pulls at his jaw in annoyance. Olivia is proud that she had beat him, fairly. “My turn.” She sneers. He looks a little frightened but puts his hands into place. She swings and strikes his hand; he blushes and laughs. There is a silence, then he puts his game face on. “Right. You’re on.” He leans forward and sets his hands at the ready. She strikes and he throws his hands away, like an action hero jumping from a building. Olivia bites her lip in annoyance and ignores the fact that she tastes blood. “We’re going again. Come on.” She is determined to win, but a concerned look from Emily and Nick, leads her to think that that isn’t going to happen. Emily picks up a napkin and hands it to her just as she feels the blood trickle down her chin. “Urgh.” Olivia grunts. “I hate this.” She dabs at it.
“You’ve got to give your body time to heal.” Emily soothes. “I shouldn’t have suggested such a rough game.”
“It’s not that rough! I used to play this game in primary school! No, what I should have done, is kicked the bitch when she was down.” The pair look at Olivia, confused. Olivia feels herself busted. She had told them that she’d managed to get away, but not exactly how. She had left out the part where she’d kicked out to defend herself, not because it would have changed anything but because then she’d have to reveal the thoughts, she had about returning the favour to Caroline. The way they’re looking at her now, isn’t with fear, it’s only with pure confusion and concern. She trusts them to not judge her. These people are good people and we’ve all made mistakes. She takes a deep breath. “When…when I was on the floor,” she takes another breath, “she was over me and I kicked her hard enough to get her off me, and I wanted to lunge for her…really, I was so full of rage that I could have…I could have – urgh. I could have probably done some damage myself. I was just so full of anger; I’ve never felt anything like it. For a second, I saw red and if I hadn’t stopped myself…I’m scared to think what I might have been capable of.” Nick reaches out a hand, thinks about it and pulls back.
Instead he says, “But you didn’t. You took the high road.”
“Only because her child was right there, in the car, watching.” Olivia argues. Nick stands up and Emily leans in to hug Olivia. She holds her tight. Emily talks over her shoulder. “That’s even better. You didn’t stop yourself for her or for you. You did it for that little boy. That’s really cool and you know it.” She pulls away. Olivia smiles gently, bloody tissue in hand. Her lip throbs. “I am not going to be a buzz kill any more! Sorry!” She chuckles and shrugs off the feelings. The group pick up the last of their things and go back inside to get ready for bed. The day has been long and the heat makes for very sleepy people. Olivia heads back into the kitchen feeling like a weight has been lifted off her shoulders. It’s funny how the things that eat us up, the things that we think are the biggest of issues, are actually minutely small. It’s a blessing to know that there is always at least one human in the world that can listen to your problems and reassure you that you’re not a bad person.
Inside, later on in the evening, Olivia is washing up the last of the pots used to cook tea. Emily is washing up for bed and they are sharing a bathroom, that sits between two bedrooms. The girls have their own space. There is a family bathroom and another en suite belonging to Nick and is connected to his room. The house really is deceptively large. There’s an office upstairs, though she hasn’t been in, so can’t say for sure that it’s as large as the other rooms, but space is one thing this home isn’t short on. Poppy sits in her bed, watching Olivia clean. Her ears prick up as someone enters the kitchen from the stairs. It’s Nick. “Hey.” Olivia turns and looks up at him. “I’d smile by way of hello, but…don’t want to, you know?”
“Burst your lip open?” He finishes.
“Yep.” She chuckles awkwardly. He comes over to the sink and picks up a pot towel. As he begins drying the pots, Olivia tuts. “No, you cooked, I clean. That’s how we do it at home, I don’t expect you to clean up after me.” Nick chortles and carries on as he was. Drying the pots and putting them away as Olivia cleans them. There’s not much left to do, anyway. She finishes up the last few knives and forks and Nick puts them away. “There. See how quick that was. Teamwork.” He holds up a hand for a high five and Olivia claps back. They stand a little uneasily for a minute, then Emily exits the bathroom and calls down from her room, over the banister. “It’s free.” Then she disappears back into her room. Olivia points up the stairs.
“I’m going to go get ready for bed.” She walks away, leaving Nick behind.
Olivia scrubs up the best she can. She is already showered from the day. Her long hair twisted up into a bun. She pulls it down, to allow it a better chance at drying overnight and notes how lovely is looks when she lets the natural curls fall over her shoulders. She examines the bruises and cuts on her face and is very careful when wiping around her eyes. She still looks like she has been beaten up, which is fair…because she was. Olivia taps Vaseline onto her lips, going over the driest parts in a bid to stop them cracking and making her look even worse. Her teeth are brushed, her skin is moisturised and after she fills her bottle from the sink, she is ready for bed. Her flannel green shorts and matching top feel amazing and comforting on her skin. Her legs ache and her chest feels tight. The lashes on her lids feel like they are weighing her eyes down and if she closed them now, she may be able to fall asleep standing up.
She heads back into her room and pulls back the duvet covers; there is a gentle tap on the door. She opens it and Nick stands before her. He averts his eyes away from her and whispers, “There’s a draft coming from my office, I need to set the alarm, would you mind closing it for me while I head downstairs to lock up?”
“Erm…yeah. Sure.” Olivia finds this an odd request but complies. She heads down the corridor as Nick heads down the staircase. The office door is open a jar and Olivia enters. She audibly gasps. “Holy…” She clasps her hand over her mouth. The room is massive. Truly. Absolutely ginormous. It’s a library. Around her on all angles are shelves stacked with books. She can smell their musty pages in the air and a dim lamp in the corner sends shadows across the room. There are gold swirls embellished on the ceiling and deep maroon curtains hang over a single large, French window in front of a desk. On the desk, sits a computer, some papers, a landline phone and besides it, a typewriter. On the windowsill behind that, is a globe. The curtains billow around and send a few papers to the floor. Olivia kneels and picks them up, shuffling them together and setting them back in their place. She leans over and closes the window. After that, she cannot help herself, but look around. There are so many books in here. So many tales of people who have lived and people who could have lived. Of humans and animals and beings that have never and could never exist beyond the pages. She runs her hand over the spines, feeling their textures. Some are rough, some are old, and a few glossy books feel smooth beneath her skin. She walks to the lamp and has her finger over the switch and ready to turn off the light, however, something catches her eye. A book is out of place. Its spine is pulled to the edge of the shelf. She looks around, all the other books are right in their places, pushed right in and flushed. The wider books sit on the upper shelves, the smaller ones on the lower shelves. Everything is flush. This one book just stands out. A needle in a haystack. Olivia mulls on the idea. Could this be the book? The book Nick wasn’t supposed to tell her about. Now it made sense, that’s why he sent her in here. She reaches up and pulls the book off the shelf. There is no picture on the cover, just the gold italic writing, telling her the title and author: At the top of the hill – By N. Alex Dickison
The book is bound in red and it’s rough to the touch. Olivia holds the book close to her chest. She can’t wait to read it. She clicks off the lamp and leaves the room, closing the door behind her. As she heads back to her room and is about to close the door, Nick passes by and only glances up once to say: “Did you manage alright with the window.”
“Yes.” Olivia politely replies. “It was easy enough.” She smiles gently. Nick nods, nonchalant and heads into his room, disappearing for the rest of the night. Olivia, exhausted, sets the book on her bedside table and climbs under the fresh linen. She snuggles into her bed, giving one last glance to the book beside her. Tomorrow. She promises herself. Tomorrow, she will read that thing cover to cover. Right after she finds a way to call her dear Mother. The crickets outside chirp and the swish of the lake play enchanting lullabies until Olivia loses all sense of consciousness and the world disappears into deep, dreamless slumber.