I shouldn’t be here.
No, not here, in the hot, sweaty kitchen of this rundown diner—although, to be honest, I highly doubt I should be here either.
No, I shouldn’t be alive.
I was supposed to die eighteen months ago. That was supposed to be it for me.
I was ill for a very long time, so getting that final diagnosis of six months to go was as reliving as it was devastating. To be honest, my emotions about it were completely mixed. I didn’t want to die necessarily—not that I think anyone does really—but I was so sick of the constant round of doctors, hospitals, tubes, pills, sickness...it was exhausting, and the thought of escaping that was something of a relief.
I just wanted an end to it.
Of course, not everyone felt the same. At least, not at first, but once my family and friends got used to the idea that I was dying, that I was going to be relieved of my suffering, they were intent on making my final months amazing, and boy did they succeed! I went travelling, I had parties, I did everything that was on my bucket list—except bungee jumping. I bottled that at the last second. It was fabulous, a real whirlwind of fun and excitement. Of course, there was the odd interruption with my health, but somehow we managed to work past that. Sure, we were all acutely aware of where it was heading but it didn’t taint the mood. Not really.
“Lara what are you doing just standing there? I pressed the bell about five minutes ago...these burgers aren’t going to take themselves to table twelve.” The grumpy head chef, Alfie yelled at me. He didn’t care about my internal struggle. He had no idea what it was like to know that you should be dead. All he cared about was getting this disgusting, fatty food out as quickly as possible so he could return home, to his sad middle-aged man ‘bachelor pad’ to smoke and drink his wages away.
I snatched the plates out of his hand and stalked moodily over to the table, where a couple were sat there smiling intently at each other. This could have been their first date, or they could have been married for years—that wasn’t what I noticed. It was the light that was shining in their eyes, as they gazed at one another. Happiness. An emotion I couldn’t even begin to understand anymore.
I shoved the food on the table in front of them, asking them if there was anything else they needed in the flat, monotone sound that had somehow become my voice. They didn’t even acknowledge my existence, they simply waved me away. I was nothing to them, just as I was nothing to everybody.
I’d been that way for a very long time now.
Once my deadline had passed, and the high started to wear off, I wondered what was happening, why I was still alive. Confused, I took myself to the doctors and after a whole range of invasive tests, they told me something unexpected, something miraculous—that I was actually starting to get better. Against all odds, I was somehow surviving.
I felt numb as he said those words. I know he expected me to celebrate, to be happy with the news that I would get to live longer, but I wasn’t. I’d gotten so used to the idea that I was going to die. I’d even adjusted to it, become comfortable with it, that to hear otherwise was utterly overwhelming. I had become so used to living in the moment, not worrying about the future because I was never going to have one, that with a long, black emptiness stretching out in front of me, I felt terrified.
What was I supposed to do? I had no future, no dreams, no plans. I had no idea where I was supposed to go next, how could I? How was I supposed to craft a new beginning out of zilch? It seemed like a ridiculously impossible task, that I couldn’t even begin to overcome.
Then again, I still had no prospects, no real education, no interests, no desires...nothing, and I no longer had any excuse for that. A year and a half had passed. There was so much that I could have done with that time, but I hadn’t.
I’d done absolutely nothing with it, I’d merely existed.
Every day it hit me how I would have been better off dead. I might as well have died, because since my positive diagnosis I was just living on autopilot, going through the motions aimlessly.
My friends and family couldn’t understand how I just seemed empty after I got the good news, and as I continued to improve, to get better, they got more and more frustrated by my increasingly negative attitude. One-by-one they became annoyed by me. I did something to piss all of them off and now, none of them bother with me anymore.
Not that I bother with them either. I feel like too much has passed; there’s too much negative water under the bridge to even think about repairing those fractured relationships.
When my mum eventually asked me to move out because I was putting too much pressure on everyone else in the family, I left quickly and got an apartment in the nearby city. I couldn’t stay in that little, suffocating town anymore, where everyone knew absolutely everything about me. I had no excuse to remain there anyway; it didn’t hold anything for me anymore, except for memories and bad feeling. I desired to be anonymous so I could wallow in my own misery in peace, without anyone trying to cheer me up. I didn’t want anyone else to feel responsible for my own happiness, when it was so clear that nothing could be done about it.
So I upped and left, without even glancing backwards.
I got everything that I ever wanted—a tiny, albeit grotty apartment that was just for me, a job in a diner where no one bothers to try and find out more about my life, and no one to speak to. Perfect.
Yet, of course, I still wasn’t happy.
“Got much planned over the weekend? You have tomorrow night off, don’t you?” Amy, the eighteen-year-old waitress, who was constantly chewing gum and nosing about in other people’s business, asked me in her typical over-the-top fashion.
She didn’t care about me of course, not at all. To her I was just another loser waitress, but she always tried to rile me up for some reason, and she quickly discovered that my non-social life was a sore point for me. I don’t know whether I was just a game to her, if she really wanted to piss me off, or if she just wanted to make herself feel better by commenting on my sad existence. Either way, it drove me crazy.
“I dunno...not really.” I kept my eyes fixated on the floor as I spoke, praying that she would take the hint and leave me alone.
“Why are you so boring? You never seem to do anything!” She laughed, genuinely thinking she was joking.
I looked up and smiled blandly at her, hoping that she would assume I took the joke in light humour, but the look she was giving me suggested that she might just be able to see the vulnerable weakling behind the cold exterior mask I gave myself.
The thought of anyone seeing any of the real me filled me with an intense fear that gripped tightly onto my heart, so I instinctively turned away from her, trying to discretely wipe the frustrated tears from my eyes before they fell onto my cheeks.
Idiot! I thought to myself. What the hell are you doing?
Hiding emotion was something I thought I’d become particularly good at, but with one look, Amy—a girl I barely knew—had managed to revert me back into a blubbering mess.
“I’m going out to that new club tomorrow night with a group of friends. Do you...would you maybe want to come?” She asked, with a kindness to her tone that I hadn’t ever noticed before.
Pity. It had to be.
Normally, I would have shot her down right away. Even the thought of going to a club filled me with fear—the drinking, the dancing, the socialising...it all felt a little too much for some like me. I’d never really done anything like that before, and it was intimidating as hell. Even at all the parties that had been held for me, I’d avoided alcohol due to the medication, I’d been too tired for dancing, and socialising hadn’t been too much of an issue because it was with people I’d known my whole life. Plus, my best friend Daphne had always been there to protect me if things got too much.
I instantly forced myself to shake the image of her from my mind, in the way I always did when she cropped up. Daphne was a no-go now, there was no point in even giving her a seconds thought. I didn’t want to upset myself over nothing.
“Sure.” I eventually replied, distractedly. I wasn’t really thinking about my answer, I just wanted the conversation done, and it was a shortcut way to achieve that.
“Oh...” Amy sounded incredibly shocked—understandably so. “Okay cool. We’re meeting up at about eight-ish so...” She looked at me strangely, as if she was wondering what the hell was going through my mind. “I’ll see you there I guess.”
As she wandered off, a sinking feeling set in. Why the hell had I agreed to that? I didn’t want to go out to a club! Keeping my existence simple and straightforward was the only way I managed to get through everyday life. Now, I’d just agreed to something that threatened to send me into an anxiety meltdown, just to shut her up.
I was an idiot!
No, I would have to phone Amy tomorrow with a plausible excuse. I needed to get out of going. Disrupting my routine with something so terrifying could only have negative results.
As I walked home from work in the early hours of the morning, activity burst loudly all around me. Having lived in such a small town my whole life, it never ceased to amaze me how busy the city always was—even at a time like this, when it really should all be peaceful. The noise was annoying, it infiltrated my brain, but in a weird way it also blocked everything else out. If I was concentrating on the constant humming, then I couldn’t think. When I started to think, it could quickly get dangerous. My brain would take me to the places that I actively tried to avoid, the ones that threatened to bring on the all-encompassing depression that I spent my time trying to fight against.
I climbed up the endless stairs of my apartment building, my legs feeling like I’d been working for forty hours, rather than nine. I still got tired and achy from time to time, but it was nothing compared to the way I’d been before. That was the one real positive of not dying—at least all the side effects from being sick had virtually gone. I wouldn’t have been able to cope if I still had the soul destroying chronic pain.
As I pushed the door open to my home, I let out a sigh—not so much one of relief. It was more an escape of air from a breath that I couldn’t quite seem to stop holding.
What a fucking mess.
Not just the apartment—although it certainly wasn’t as tidy as I’d like it—more my life. Even the thought of having to ring Amy tomorrow was overwhelming. I was on the edge of my capability as it was, and adding that one small task felt like too much.
It was ridiculous. I must have been the least able-to-function adult possible.
I lay down in my bed, just staring at the small crack in the ceiling, wondering if there was any chance that it could be getting bigger. If it was getting larger, did that mean the whole ceiling might come crashing down at any moment? If so, would that kill me, or would I just end up hurt?
I couldn’t recall the last time I properly slept. Most of the time I just lay there, staring at that same crack, worrying about it, thinking about it, concentrating on it so hard that I didn’t have to think about anything else. Every so often, a little memory would shake through—the trip to Spain, the final party, skinny dipping in the freezing cold ocean...just because—and I had to turn over onto my side, just to force them away. Reminiscing, remembering the past, it always brought a horrible black hole of sadness with it.
I didn’t want to think about the old me, I didn’t deserve to. When I was going to die, I was more alive than I’d been, and that cut me deep. Now that my whole future stretched out in front of me, I had no idea what to do with it, so I didn’t do anything. I was cold, numb, alone, and I didn’t even care enough to change.
What people couldn’t understand was that I knew how to die. I understood that. It was living I still couldn’t wrap my head around.
For a second, I wondered what would’ve happened if I’d had a normal life that wasn’t plagued by illness. Would I be at university, would I be an artist, would I be a banker? I just had no idea. By the time it had come to making that sort of decision, my future was already in jeopardy, and what I was left with now was a whole lot of nothingness.
I squeezed my eyes tightly shut, calling out for the sweet release of sleep—at least in my dreams I could be someone, something. I didn’t have to continually be this empty, pathetic shell of a person. But of course, my mind was whirring too rapidly to even consider switching off. Sleep had never come easy for me, and it got worse the more exhausted I became.
Everything about this existence was exhausting.
As the light started to shine through my curtains, and my eyes flickered open, I quickly realised that I must have fallen asleep at some point—probably on and off throughout the dark hours. My head pounded, my body ached, and nausea swam around in my stomach, making me want to throw up.
This was how I woke up every single day.
Since my positive diagnosis, I hadn’t woken up in a happy, carefree mood, even once. I always started the day feeling like utter crap. And the belly full of fear—that was always there too. That didn’t leave me either, it stuck with me throughout the entire day, clinging to me like a bad smell. I didn’t even know what exactly it was making me anxious, so to make it even worse there was no reassurance, nothing I could do to cure it. I just had to accept it I suppose, as a part of who I had become.
I padded across the floor, straight from my bedroom and into the kitchen. I switched the kettle on and poured myself some cereal, as if on autopilot. The same routine I had every single day. Then, as always, I crunched the cornflakes, feeling the spike as they slid down my throat. I didn’t even taste what I was eating, I never did. I just ate it out of habit, to keep myself going. Even when hunger growled fiercely behind my ribs I never craved anything, I never felt an incessant need for anything in particular.
I just ate to stay alive, to keep this empty little life going.
My phone bleeped shrilly, alerting me to a notification from Facebook, but I resolutely ignored it. I’ve had my social media account from before and even though I never paid it any attention, I still had it activated. Just in case.
Being totally honest, I did check it now and again when I was feeling particularly weak, and I wanted a glimpse of back home, but it always just ended up making me feel gut-wrenchingly awful to see all my family and my old friends moving on without me. It wasn’t exactly like I expected them to freeze-frame their lives because I made the unexpected choice to leave my home town, but it still hurt to see how unnecessary I was.
If I’d been dead, things like that couldn’t affect me. Things would be exactly the same for them, but it wouldn’t scar me internally, I wouldn’t have to witness it. They could move on, without my shadow looming in the background.
It bleeped again, the noise feeling louder than it really was in my fragile mind, so I picked up the phone to turn off the Wi-Fi. Being reminded of my pointless existence was not what I needed at that moment. But that was when I noticed, it wasn’t an update from someone from my past, but a friend request from someone from this life.
Curiosity got the better of me, and without really thinking about it, I accepted, taking a few moments to read her status updates and see her most recent photos. I couldn’t help but wonder how someone managed to look so damn glamorous all the time, even when she’d clearly had a few to drink. I may not have had much time for the girl, but looking at her life online, it was clear to see that she really knew how to have a good time. In every photo, every update, she was happy, enjoying herself, living life to the full.
As if she had no idea what true misery looked like.
Tears unwittingly filled my eyes, and started to fall, wetting my cheeks as they dropped. I wrapped my arms tightly around my body, as if I was trying to hold myself together, as the emotion overcame me. I felt pathetic, useless, terrified, and sad all at once—a horrific combination. With the jealousy added in, for the first time in a very long time I felt something new. The desire to change.
I couldn’t carry on being this person forever; it would end up destroying me completely.
I wasn’t sure how long I cried for, but by the time the tears dried up, something inside of me had shifted. I suddenly felt angry, really, really mad. Throughout everything I’d been through, anger had never really even been a consideration of mine. Not even right in the beginning, when I first got all of the bad news. I just sort of...took it in my stride.
Now, it was all of me.
I was raging because I didn’t know what to do, I was angry because I didn’t want to be like this anymore, I was mad because none of it was fair. This misery wasn’t something that I’d chosen; it was just external circumstances that had happened to me, out of my control. And that wasn’t fair.
I pummelled my fists down onto the kitchen counter, just feeling everything for the very first time. Negative thoughts swirled violently through my mind: it isn’t fair, it’s not my fault, why me?
But then it hit me, like a smack in the face, shocking me into submission. Sure, everything that had happened hadn’t been fair, but I wasn’t totally blameless. I couldn’t control external factors, but I could have reacted better. I could have chosen to live a positive life—the only person who was at fault for that was me.
It isn’t fair couldn’t get me anywhere. The only person that had the power to change that was me.
I remembered everyone’s shocked, saddened faces when I said I was going. Much as I’d wound everyone up, they didn’t want me to leave to town completely, they couldn’t understand why I absolutely had to go. Of course they couldn’t get it. I had no idea how rare it was to go through what I’d been through, so I don’t know if there was actually anyone that would understand my experience.
And even if there was someone out there who had gone through exactly the same as me, they probably would have grasped onto life with both hands, having almost lost it.
No one would have turned their back on happiness, like I’d done.
My mum’s face flickered through my mind—an image I hadn’t thought about in a while. We still had weekly phone calls, which mainly consisted of me convincing her that I was all fine, that life was wonderful, that sort of nonsense, but I tried not to remember her too much in between that. I kept her firmly in the back of my mind, with all the things I couldn’t deal with.
Logically, I complete understood why she’d been forced to ask me to leave, but that didn’t mean it didn’t upset me.
Despite all of that, she was the only one that still tried to communicate with me. Everyone else gave up after a while when I didn’t answer their calls, texts, emails, instant messages, and never returned them either. She was the only one to stick around, and I’d done nothing but resent her for it.
I loved her, but I spent a lot of time pushing her away too.
On instinct, I grabbed my phone and dialled her number, just wanting to hear her voice. The phone rang and rang, but clearly she wasn’t home because she didn’t answer. For some reason, that hurt me more than anything else, even though I totally understood. I’d been out of the loop for such a long time, and I couldn’t just expect people to telepathically know that I suddenly needed them. It was never like I normally went out of my way to phone home, so why would my mum know that I was doing so now.
I knew all of that, but my feelings would never be rational.
‘Are you still coming tonight? <3 xxx’ A surprise message pinged up in my Facebook inbox from Amy.
The noise that normally did nothing more than irritate me, now filled me with a little warmth. She seemed to genuinely want to hang out with me, no matter how grouchy I always was with her. She seemed unsure of me yesterday, but to go out of her way to check that I was still going out, it made me feel special. Sure, this girl may have been three years younger than me, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t try to enjoy myself with her—just for once.
Even if it was completely out of character for me.
Maybe that was a good thing—being me certainly hadn’t worked for me so far.
‘Yes. Looking forward to it x.’ I replied on instinct, before my sensibilities could kick in and I changed my mind. I couldn’t back out now, not after agreeing twice. That would just be weird. I’d just forced myself into it, and I actually didn’t feel quite as bad about that as I assumed I would.
‘Ok, great!! Meet you by the chippy at 8? Xoxoxo’ came the very quick reply, making me think that she was waiting for it.
‘C u then!’
I stared at the messages for a few moments, before a horrifying though hit me. After seeing all the wonderful pictures of Amy looking fabulous on her typical night’s out, I was going to have to wear something decent tonight, just to fit in. I couldn’t wear my usual skinny-jeans-and-hoodie combo to a club—especially not if she was going to be in a bodycon dress, stilettos and amazing looking makeup.
Oh God, I couldn’t even remember the last time I wore makeup!
No, I was going to have to make much more of an effort to fit in with Amy and her crew. I certainly didn’t want to stand out for being scruffy. I needed to at least attempt blending in.
I stomped over to my minimalistic wardrobe and pulled everything out in disgust. Didn’t I have a red dress at some point? What the hell happened to that? I mustn’t have brought it with me when I moved to the city. I wasn’t exactly thinking straight when I left, so that made sense. It was probably hanging around in my mum’s house somewhere, gathering dust.
A pit of dread started in my stomach, and burst through my veins like an icy spell. I didn’t usually go outside on my days off from work; I tried to negotiate it so I don’t have to, but it looked like today would have to be different. I definitely wasn’t planning on going clothes shopping, and I didn’t particularly want to either, but what other option did I have? I couldn’t wear any of the crappy outfits I owned. Not a chance!
A million-and-one excuses swarmed around in my brain, telling me desperately that I needed to get out of the night out. That way, I could curl up on the sofa, blankly staring at the TV screen, trying to stop my brain from thinking, like I usually did.
But if I did that, then things would never change. And I was really starting to believe that change was the only way forward for me.
I should at least give it a go.
I knew from past experiences that if I didn’t go out now, after I’d finally said yes, then Amy wouldn’t ask me again. We weren’t close enough for her to persist. And there certainly wasn’t anyone else about to invite me anywhere.
Basically, it was now or never.
I felt like I was at a crossroads—did I carry on down the bleak path I’d been going, or did I try and make things a little better for myself? Sure, the way things were was comfortable and familiar, but it certainly wasn’t great. After the swirl and range of emotions that had been around me today, I wasn’t sure that even if I did chose to keep things as they were, that I would still feel the numbness that allowed me to carry on.
That may have gone forever.
I sighed deeply, allowing my trembling hands to pull on some clothes, my body preparing itself to go to the dreaded outside. I could physically see myself shaking as I glanced quickly at my reflection in the mirror, before grabbing my keys and forcing myself out into the harsh, cold air. I sucked in a deep, painful breath then fixed my eyes firmly on the ground, where they would stay for the whole walk.
You have to do this, Lara. I told myself. Too much has happened; you cannot carry on as you are. But even as I thought these things, they felt alien, disconnected from me. Somehow completely unreal.
I was acutely aware of the nameless bodies racing past me, and each one was filling me with that horrifying, panicky feeling that I detested. I hated being outside without a solid purpose, without knowing exactly where I was going. I didn’t shop enough to know where to look, and I was finding that really hard. I wasn’t at all comfortable with being out of my routine.
But I had to be. I had no choice. If I kept remembering that, then I would surely find a way to get through it.
I concentrated on my breathing to keep me focused. In...out...in...out... keeping my mind solely on that allowed me to ignore the rest of the world, and that was what I needed.
I spotted the first familiar-named high street store, and stepped inside. The bright, intense white lights immediately sent my worry-levels into overdrive. I tried to hide myself in amongst the racks of clothes while I calmed down a little, while I caught my breath once more, but it was too difficult. All the vivid coloured fabrics blurred into one, and it made my headache return with a vengeance.
“Can I help you?” A syrupy tone blasted into my ear drums. I turned around to see an extremely tanned, tall girl wearing bright red lipstick and a stark black pencil skirt. Unlike my scruffy, unkempt appearance, she was pristine and beautiful, without a hair out of place.
To say I found her daunting would be a massive understatement. She was like a powerhouse of intimidation! “I...I...uh...” I shook my head rapidly, trying anything to make her go away. She looked at me a little like I was mental, but I didn’t care.
My feet took on a life of their own, and before I knew it, I’d walked back out into the—now comforting—fresh air. I raced along the street quickly, desperate to get away from that shop and that girl. That was all just too much.
I found myself wandering into a shop I knew well—the grocery store I got all my essentials from. I grabbed an ice cold can of fizzy pop, feeling the familiar, reassuring tin between my fingers. I instantly felt calmer, knowing where I was and what I was doing. This was my comfort zone, I was okay here. This, I could do.
After I’d paid the cashier—who I minimally interacted with at least twice a week—I sipped the liquid, taking stock for a moment. I needed to go somewhere that I could get something nice, without having to deal with pushy shop assistants. I just couldn’t cope with that—this day was difficult enough for me, and I really didn’t want to give up. Not over that. I felt like this was my one and only shot, and I didn’t want my own stupid insecurities to wreck that for me.
I swiftly spotted a friendly-looking charity shop, which didn’t instantly fill me with horror, so I chose to go into there, hoping desperately I would find exactly what I was looking for right away to save me any more trauma. Once inside I tugged my way through the clothes, inhaling the musky scent as I did. I kept glancing around, praying that no one would come over to talk to me, and for once, my luck must have been in, because I was left well alone.
I grabbed and examined a black jumpsuit, wondering if it would cover me up enough to be considered decent, before realising that it was much too large for my skinny frame. I hit me that it was going to be challenging for me to find something that actually suited me, that made me look anywhere nearly as good as Amy and her very fashionable friends. I didn’t have any curves or boobs to hold anything up, which was going to be a problem. I used to dress well, before, but then my friends used to rush around to help me because I was sick. I was still skinny—maybe a little less so than now—but I had a reason for it. No one was going to judge my outfit then, whereas now...
I pulled out my phone and searched ‘good outfit for skinny girl’ online, whilst my heart pounded furiously. I felt like such an idiot. At this age, I should have known a bit more about fashion, about what suited me, but I just had no idea. I hadn’t thought about it, I’d never needed to.
It was just another thing that was so much easier when I was dying.
All the best tips seemed to suggest a knee-length flare skirt, with kitten heels, a vest top and a jacket. That was an idea I would’ve never considered on my own, but the girl’s in the accompanying photographs looked good, and it wasn’t a dress so that was perfect. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for a dress. I didn’t think being too exposed would fill me with any confidence. I needed to fit in, but be comfortable too. That was important.
I thought back over my wardrobe at home, trying to remember what I’d seen when I looked through it before. I knew for certain that I had a black vest top and matching cropped jacket, so that saved me getting those. I hadn’t worn them for ages, but I was pretty sure they would still fit.
So that just left the skirt and the heels.
Heels...could I do heels?
I grabbed the three skirts that were in my size, and ambled awkwardly over to the counter, deciding to tackle that part of the outfit first.
“Do you have a changing room?” I shyly asked the awkward-looking man that was standing behind the till.
“I...uh...no.” He announced, confused, glancing around the room in surprise.
My heart sank as a heat consumed my body. How embarrassing! Was that an odd question? Was it common knowledge that there was nowhere to try stuff on in a charity shop?
The guy must’ve seen my humiliated expression because he continued, speaking far too quickly. “We have a stock room; I think there’s a mirror in there...” He trailed off, blushing furiously.
“That would be great.” It was nice not to be the only one that was struggling to hold a conversation. It made me feel a little more at home—relieved, in fact. I followed behind him, unable to think of anything to say to make either of us feel any better, but that was okay because he stayed silent too. It was painful, but I could cope with it because it wasn’t purely my fault.
“Here.” He indicated too wildly with his arms, to a dusty storage room, absolutely filled with crap. There was stuff everywhere, covering every surface. Not exactly the sleek, luxurious changing rooms I would have gotten at the high fashion store, but this would have to do.
I tiptoed inside, avoiding everything in my way, and finally spotted a cracked full-length mirror in the corner of the room. Sighing deeply, I span around to check that the door had been shut behind me, before tugging on the clothes.
The first skirt was bubble-style and managed to make me look like I was trying to be a teenager, and also pregnant at the same time. I whipped it off quickly, wanting to spend as little time in it as possible. It just made me feel sad. The second one was a deep red, swing skirt. I didn’t know why I picked it up really; I wasn’t sure that it would suit me. It was just one of the only ones out there in my size.
Just as I was pulling it over my buttocks, the door swung open, making me jump. A small squeal emanated from my throat as I practically tumbled to the ground in fright.