Skittles, Skittles. Charlotte buys Skittles at four in the morning and musters a smile for the guy behind the counter at the 24/7 store.
He shows no sign of recognising her as he hands back the eftpos card that she keeps expecting to decline. She thinks there is a sadness in the way one corner of his mouth twitches as he punches numbers into the cash register. Like he’s too tired to even put much effort into being properly sullen. He doesn’t recognise her but tonight is the fourth night in a row they’ve met under these circumstances. Charlotte buys Skittles and cigarettes and walks home with the wind tumbling in the streets and powerlines buzzing overhead, the city’s vermillion tinge against the night sky. She thinks about people she has known, places she has seen, and she knows something is slipping, somewhere.
Something drifting away. In her room she sits at the window and smokes cigarettes and plays music quietly. She listens to sad old Prince songs and turns up the heat in her room and leaves the window wide open because she likes the sharp contrast of winter air and cloying warmth, the cold like a knife. The fluorescent lights on the roof of her room hum quietly. She doesn’t look in the mirror. Lately she’s been spending hours painting her nails, tracing them with intricate multicoloured designs. In one corner of her room sits a pile of this trimester’s textbooks, pristine, unopened. Anthropology, History, History again. Charlotte looks from the books to her MacBook. She puts the cigarette out and flicks the butt out the window. She feels awake, free.
4:30 AM, say the green digits of her alarm clock.
Charlotte sits at her laptop and opens Wikipedia. Lately she has been binging on genocides, massacres, war crimes, atrocities, devouring them, horrible facts that seem to throb and pulse on the screen.
She reads that Hitler may have had syphilis.
She reads about the Cambodian regime led by Pol Pot, which executed more than two million people.
She reads about cults, religious splinter groups, dubious paranormal events. She reads about bizarre and obscure artists who worked all their lives without ever achieving recognition or acclaim, even after death.
She reads about murder-suicides, mysterious disappearances, unusual deaths.
Eventually sleep comes through the sickly glow of the laptop’s screen and keys. She curls up in the gigantic old chair that had been her father’s and wakes at eleven the next morning with a stiff neck, golden sunlight smeared across the wall behind her desk.
“What’s wrong with you. You alright? Like, you’re all distant and shit.” Sara stubs out her cigarette and sits back in her chair and gazes quizzically at Charlotte from behind knockoff Gucci glasses. They sit at a table on the pavement outside Copyright, the café down the road from the university. The sun is bright but gives no warmth and to Charlotte the whole scene is hyperreal, glossy, the sky an impossible shade of blue. From where Charlotte sits she can see the fine hairs on Sara’s face and some not-so-fine ones speckling her upper lip.
“I dunno.” Charlotte picks at her eggs benedict. “I’m pretty tired I s’pose.”
“Tired. You look like you’re on antidepressants, babe.”
“Nah. Nah, I just, I dunno.”
“Cheer up. I’m worried about you. You need to like, get laid, or something.”
“Haaa. Whatever.” Charlotte looks away. Some men are at work across the road. All wear sunglasses and brightly coloured orange vests. With shovels and jackhammers they’ve torn a long gash in the street’s sleeping back. They gather in a circle and confer in loud voices. Now one lowers himself into the hole, crouches inside, removes the succulent innards, handfuls of brightly coloured plastic cables.
“Charlotte. Are you gonna eat that?” Sara leans forward. “I heard the eggs here are like amaze.”
“Nah. I’ve got a class now anyway.” Charlotte doesn’t move.
“Yeah. You haven’t been to hissed two-two four in ages. We’ve got an essay due, like, next week?”
“I know,” says Charlotte. Sara prides herself on telling it like it is, it’s something she says often; because of this she talks as if everything she says is a controversial but undeniable fact, everything a possible source of debate, as if she’s forever waiting for somebody to deny the obvious.
Charlotte pushes her eggs forward.
“You can have them,” she says. She hates it when people abbreviate class names.
Midnight. Charlotte has some weed that Sara gave her, free, or maybe just Sara’s still feeling guilty about that thing that’d happened with Trent last year. So anyway, a free fifty bag of weed, and at first Charlotte had said no but then she’d accepted, thinking that it might help her sleep. She rolls a joint and pauses with it stuck in her mouth, lighter in hand, thinking. Weren’t antidepressants meant to make people happier? Make them look happier? She shrugs, lights the joint, blows smoke.
After she finishes she sits before the laptop. Scans the usuals. She feels a start, thinking suddenly that she doesn’t know any of the people on her Facebook feed. She can feel the weed taking effect.
Sara Cloughton had a great time at lunch with her girl Charlotte Bingham today!
Charlotte stares at her own name. It looks strange tonight, simultaneously familiar and alien. She rolls another joint, her face lit blue-and-white by the screen. She thinks about killing herself. She can’t decide. She hates knives, razors. Too cold, too clinical. She doesn’t think she’d have the guts to jump off a building and anyways she’s heard about people surviving, even from ten, fifteen stories up. She holds her hands in the air, palms up, and gazes at her wrists, thin and pale in the light from the computer. The veins are faintly visible. She imagines the bright tracks of a razor, thin and beautiful. The way the cuts would look before blood burst free.
She Googles, how to tie a noose. There are a million hits. No, one and a half million. Some pages even provide a three-step diagram. She rubs her eyes and starts to laugh, feeling that her head has grown, that her scalp is tingling, her ears sprouting the size and colour of cabbages.
Five in the afternoon on a Thursday or maybe a Tuesday. Charlotte stands in the supermarket, in the third aisle, next to the tinned tomatoes. A green basket with black handles hangs from her left hand. Today she is wearing her prettiest and most brightly coloured skirt, pale blue. She stands with her feet neatly together and considers the stacked rows of cans. She has been in the supermarket for nearly half an hour but the sole item in her basket is a red capsicum, chosen for its smooth curves and bright, flawless skin. She’d taken it carefully from the stacked rows of its kind, feeling as if she was somehow separating it from its family, its friends, feeling that maybe she should buy another, to lessen the pain of separation. Now she stands with her basket and her capsicum and she contemplates the tinned tomatoes. She hasn’t eaten for a day and a half and there is a hard twisted knot in her stomach but she feels clean and pure. A few metres away there’s a boy with brown hair and a pale face and Charlotte watches him. He has dark quiet eyes and his nose is slightly too big and it’s crooked but his lips are beautiful, the colour of the inside of a strawberry. He wears a huge old pair of headphones and a black duffle coat with wooden toggles and in his own green basket there is a single blue-and-white packet of Budget spaghetti. Charlotte watches as he runs his gaze across the cans of tomatoes, looking for the cheapest. A dinner alone, maybe. Eaten before the glowing screen of a laptop. Can of chopped tomatoes, packet of spaghetti. A total cost of less than two dollars. Charlotte wants to push his hair out of his eyes and run her fingertips over the soft bumps of fading acne at the corners of his mouth. He meets her gaze briefly and then looks away.
The security guard is just getting on-shift when Charlotte comes into the building and punches the elevator call button, shopping bags dangling from her hands. She has milk, the lonely capsicum, a six-pack of Coca Cola and a packet of instant noodles. She tries to remember the guard’s name. Ron. No. Barry. That’s it. The sleeves of his cheap polyester windbreaker are pushed up to his elbows and the hairs are on his arms are thick and white. He nods at her and she smiles at him the way she always does but tonight he stares back at her as if he’s scared of something or confused maybe. The lift dings and she steps into it, confused, looking at her feet as the doors close.
Charlotte sits at her computer. She doesn’t want to go to sleep. She doesn’t know what she wants. She tries to imagine what Sara is doing right now. Sleeping, probably. Charlotte has no friends. This thought comes suddenly, an ominous shape, a ship appearing through the rain. Charlotte has no real friends and she is a different person with everyone she speaks to, effortlessly shifting the colours of her personality to better suit her surroundings. She stands up quickly. Grey morning light runs its fingers across the curtains. The pillows of her bed swim up towards her. What it means. What it means when you begin to draw meaning and warmth from everyday encounters, from people behind counters and at the steeringwheels of buses. When you face a professional smile and feel a jolt.
She falls asleep in her clothes, lying on the bed, above the covers.
Charlotte wakes at two in the afternoon. It is the fourteenth day since she stopped doing things for reasons she does not understand. She sits up on the bed and rubs her eyes. Her phone rings. She looks at the screen. Blocked number. She doesn’t answer.
Later on she sits at the laptop. In her inbox, two emails from two tutors. She ignores them both.
a scruffy vagrant, a
i wish he said hello
Charlotte rolls her eyes at the screen. Bullshit. Trite nonsense. In high school she used to sneak down to the back field and smoke cigarettes with a girl named Martina. Martina called herself Marty for reasons nobody understood, not at the time. People’d made fun of her and said it was a guy’s name. Charlotte didn’t even really know Marty, she was just someone to smoke with, an extra set of eyes to watch for teachers, a spare lighter. One rainy lunchtime in the middle of bleak July, Marty had thrown her cigarette butt on the ground and turned to Charlotte. Charlotte was sixteen, Marty a year older. Marty rolled up the sleeve of her school-uniform jersey.
Look at this, she said to Charlotte.
Charlotte looked. Around Marty’s wrist a bright blue-yellow bracelet of bruising. A matching ring on the other wrist. Charlotte looked from the bruises to Marty’s face and saw nothing in her eyes.
Who did that to you, Charlotte said quietly.
Oh, well. My dad. He gets, you know.
Don’t tell anyone, yeah?
Two weeks later Marty was dead, pills, and her father was in court, multiple charges. Charlotte didn’t go to the funeral. The father hired a million-dollar lawyer, escaped conviction on all charges but one. At her seat in front of the computer Charlotte picks at her fingernails. The polish is chipped again.