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Incandescence

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That lump at the back of your throat, that reluctance to look at yourself in the mirror, that voice whispering scathingly at the back of your mind; it’s all the result of one thing.

           Guilt.

           I experience all three of the aforementioned feelings now as I look at Daniel, who’s furrowing his eyebrows, trying to decode my most recent sentence. It was a level-headed decision to open my mouth, I’m sure of it, yet . . . there’s still a part of me that wishes to turn back time and take it back.

           “Okay,” he says, with more than a hint of shock. “That’s. . .”

           A female nurse strides past pushing a gurney, and I suddenly remember where we are. “Isn’t there someone here you wanna see?” I remind him.

           He nods, seemingly at a loss, and leads the way down the corridor. All the while I’m following quietly behind, twirling with a loose thread on my school skirt, mulling over the consequences of my recent actions. I just betrayed my best friend – gave out his secret to a stranger, someone I’m not even sure I trust. Maybe Mason’s not all sweetness and light; hell, maybe he’s became one sinister asshole, but that doesn’t change things. I told him I wouldn’t tell anyone – I promised him.

           What was it Dad used to always say about promises? Oh, I remember: once you make one, it’s bound to be broken one way or another. If Lena has Mum promise to pick her up from a friend’s house at five, Alfie is fated to break down or get caught in the middle of a traffic jam. If I promise Miss Hudson I’ll hand in a typed critical essay by the end of the week, the printer in the library is guaranteed to run out of ink before the due date. It’s like an unspoken, cosmic rule of the universe.

          Promises, promises, flushing down the drain.

           “You don’t need to come in.” Glancing up, I realise we’re now standing outside another ward – one that’s hauntingly familiar. Ward eighty-seven: it’s where they send you when there’s nowhere left to go. When it’s the end of the line. When you’re knocking on Death’s door. “I’ll only be a minute.”

           Daniel opens the door and I catch a glimpse of the gleaming white room. There are only a handful of beds, each separated by a thick blue curtain. Once washing his hands with antibacterial soap, he heads over to the patient beside the window – man or woman, I can’t be sure from here.

           “Looking for someone, sugar?” a coarse voice murmurs at my ear. When I turn, my eyes fall upon a disfigured ashen face, framed by shaggy, unwashed black hair. The man must be forty at the youngest, and he’s leering at me as though I’m his next snack. I suddenly wish I’d taken the time to get changed out my uniform; nothing screams ‘innocent and vulnerable’ more than the ASA getup.

           Shuddering, I push open the door to ward eighty-seven, wash my hands and hurry over to the bed I saw Daniel approach. Anything is better than staying out there.

           The patient he’s visiting is a man – old and withered, with a dozen or so stray strands of greying hair atop his head and gaunt, pulled-back skin with a yellowish tone to it. He looks up at me when I push the curtain aside through a pair of foggy brown eyes, and the slightest of smiles tugs at his mouth.

           “This your friend, son?” he asks Daniel – who is seated in one of the flimsy little chairs beside the bed – in a rough, cracked voice that is filled with pain. Daniel pulls a small paper bag out of his backpack and glances up at me, then over to the dying man, nodding in a slight motion. I guess I can’t blame him for not caring to correct his relative.

           “Good,” the man murmurs, and it is clear from the way his gaze has drifted off into the distance that his thoughts have taken him somewhere else; a happier place, I hope. “You can’t get by without friends, son. Thomas will tell you that.”

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