A bookshop. Just any bookshop. It shouldn’t be. Margo is aware enough of that for it to hurt just sitting here on the rungs of this ladder that feels so familiar and yet isn’t. Everything feels the same way. Familiar and too strange. As if she’s seen this place on tv, and is busy having some kind of visceral, visual déjà vu. Wherever she knows this from, it meant a lot. Maybe everything.
It means nothing now.
Distanced and numb, she sits on the rungs, watching Kitty and the woman called Leek work on Rolf. Bit by bit he’s being healed. She tries to focus on him, but her mind jumps, distracted. Leek. Unusual woman. Full of power that wasn’t hers but is now. Power sat in her bones like marrow, an essential part. Margo could take it. It would be so easy. She stops the thought in its tracks. Touches her face. Frowns.
Tears again. Why tears? Why can’t she control them?
She wipes them away, angry with herself for no reason. There must be reason, but it flits, moth-like, around her mind. Refuses to sit still and be caught. Like everything in there.
‘It’s not like I was going to,’ she tells whatever part of herself felt that response to her idle thoughts necessary.
She wasn’t. She wouldn’t.
How can she know? She has no idea who she is, or what she could do. The single certainty she has at the moment is that her mind is profoundly wrecked. In so many pieces she can hardly bear to contemplate it. And amongst it. Over it. Under it. Everywhere she looks. The power. Oh my, the power. So frighteningly much. She has no idea how it got there.
She thinks it might be a punishment.
Perhaps she deserves to be punished.
How would she know?
Her mind skips tracks again. Loses focus. Zones out. She can hear electricity humming in the walls.
Sounds like music.
She looks at Rolf, trying to ignore the screw tightening her chest, the ugly thump of a heart in crisis. Ignores too, the shot of pure relief, sharp and astringent as lime juice on the tongue, when she sees how much better he looks. Far from death. Far enough that it could not reach out and pluck him.
Take that, Vespesian, she thinks. And wonders why.
‘Who’s Vespesian?’ she asks, but no one hears. They’re all focused on Rolf.
Not so long ago, on that other world, he lay within her arms like that. Now Moe has him. Moe, with the chocolate drop eyes. Moe and Rolf. Rolf and Moe. Say it a thousand times and it should become meaningless. Only it doesn’t. Those names don’t fit, but in her mind they are two pieces of a puzzle that slot together without seams.
She thinks it might be because of the light.
Between them, invisible perhaps to any other eyes, she’s not sure, are delicate strands of golden light. It’s not the light she placed in the bottle. That one is safe and sound. Locked deep in a vault. The man who called himself Witter took it, and the other bottle, to his shop, to his special vault. He’s not what he seemed. But who is?
A white noise thought, too loud to contain, that one wipes her clean.
She can’t think properly after that. Just sits there, in the humming music of the walls, and watches from a distance as Rolf slowly returns to normal. Reverse hurt. If only all pain, all damage, were as easy to repair. Rewind. Back space. Delete, delete. Re-write. But what goes on the blank page? There’s nothing more terrifying than a blank page. Is there? No. Not now. Didn’t used to be that way. Margo knows it. Just as she knows it’s changed.
Once upon a time, a blank page was more exciting to her than anything in the world. It represented endless possibility. Challenge. New beginnings. New adventures. How does a switch flip so completely? Excitement to terror. Endless possibility to the possibility of the end of anything to say. To write.
Memory is the problem.
Memory is the story, written on the blank page of each new day. The mind is a library for all those stories. She once thought they were safe there. Now she understands how foolish she was. Right now, when she cannot write new memory, for fear of the blank page, she would give anything to have written. Remembering is having written, and she cannot remember.
What do you do when all your stories are gone? All your words?
How do you begin to re-write?
‘There. That’s as good as we can make him.’
A sigh. A deep, slow breath, like a newborn’s.
Slurred. Blurry. But strong.
They all look at her. It’s unseating. She was looking at them, and it was like they couldn’t see her and so perhaps she wasn’t real. Now they’re all looking and she’s been stamped back onto the world too hard. She feels too real. Too real for a hollow shell filled with debris.
The tears want to come back. This time she stops them, but it doesn’t feel like a victory.
Rolf. Worried. He struggles in Moe’s arms, trying to get up. That’s when she knows she’s got it wrong. She was supposed to do something and didn’t. It makes her stomach hurt. It’s so hard to understand how to be when everything is gone. When everything is wrong.
Moe pulls Rolf’s chin gently, so he’s looking at him. ‘She had some damage. She doesn’t remember.’
‘Doesn’t…’ Rolf’s face crumples a little. ‘I…’
‘Don’t upset yourself. She’ll get better. It’s Margo, baby. Margo. You know she’ll beat it.’
Does he? Margo looks at Rolf. He looks at her. He does. Oh fuck but he does. How can she begin to explain that he’s wrong? Moe and Kitty help Rolf up from the floor. He’s weak and scary pale, but it’s clear he’s in no mood to be mollycoddled. He pushes them away and comes over to her on the ladder. Oh shit.
Margo blinks. She should be insulted, but she’s not. Instead she wants to say…
Rolf’s face breaks out into a smile so beautiful, she wants to frame it, steal it, hold it in her hands. Warm them with it. ‘There’s my Margo,’ he says.
She drops her head, shakes it. Goes to respond, needing to explain how mistaken he is. She’s not anyone’s, not even her own. He stops her with a hand on her ankle, squeezing. The pain is brief but sharp, making her gasp, pulling her eyes back to his face. What she sees makes everything inside go still. Calm waters.
Fury. And pain. So much of it. So much worse than broken bones, broken flesh.
He leans right in.
Talks low and vicious. And every word lodges inside. Sticks.
‘Don’t you dare say it. Don’t you tell me you’re not my fucking Margo. You will never not be my Margo. I want you to find her. I want her fucking back. I want you back, bitch, because I cannot, I fucking will not, be without you. So you go, you go out, you go and find yourself, and you bring yourself back to me.’
He reaches down. By the side of the ladder are red heels. They were on her feet when she got back. She took them off to climb the ladder. He puts them on her, one foot, then the other.
‘Armour,’ he says.
And she understands. For the first time since she trapped the light in the bottle, she understands something.
‘Armour,’ she says back, and this time she doesn’t fight the tears.
Weak as he is, he takes her hands and helps her off the ladder, escorts her to the door. The bell tinkles softly as he opens it. Margo looks out into the bustle of the street. So many people. Too many. And so much noise. Somewhere out there, in all that noise, her words are waiting, the glue to stick her pieces together again. She should go find them now. She freezes.
‘There are so many,’ she whispers. ‘So many pieces.’
Rolf leans in and rests his head on hers. ‘Start with one,’ he whispers back.
One. Just one. Margo nods. She can do that. She has armour. Not knowing why she has to, she turns her head and kisses him. Just once. Briefly. Then she steps out into the street. Which way? Left? Right? For a moment she’s frozen again, until she realises that it doesn’t matter. The page is blank.
She turns right. Begins to walk.
Margo’s not back.
But she’s going to find herself.
© Ren Warom 2013