Chapter Excerpt - The Girl Who Left the Lights On

This is a very late chapter in my second book, and one of the only scenes where I've got any content from the play I wrote in the mid-nineties which was the starting-off point. Eleanor, home from college three months after the death of her sister, has misheard some crucial information and driven off on a rescue mission to save her brother's girlfriend, who is actually in no danger at all. Addled, overtired, and practically hallucinating, she crashes the car and makes her way to a clearing on a hill to try to find her bearings. 

Eleanor, Midnight Clear

December 24, 1988

Snow dewing in her hair, snow clumping on her gloves, her jeans. The cold hurts and she's shuddering from it. snowscape2She can't seem to stop. Save me, Eleanor, her body's saying. Get us out of here. She searches the pockets of her winter coat, finds a shrink-wrapped candy cane and sticks the end in her mouth, clamps down and chews, plastic and all.

     How did she end up here? Went and killed Emily's car, Jesus, she'll be so mad. Took a turn too fast and skidded off the road. Crunch. Whump. Goodbye, Maverick. Hello, tree. And then, when any sane person would have walked to the nearest house and explained, Eleanor decided to scale a half the frigging mountain. Because that would be the best way to figure out where she was. Of course. No sleep last night, nothing in her stomach but a handful of carrot sticks and a bucket of Southern Comfort. It's lucky she didn't attempt to flap her arms and fly up here.

     She's still not sure what bonkers adrenaline rush propelled her. But she'd loved it. Laughing, falling and hitting the ground palms-first, grabbing at branches and tree trunks, an abominable snow girl. Halfway up she'd started to sing, and when the ground levelled off she raised both hands and did a shambling little dance in victory. Everything was beautiful and slightly sinister, white stillness heavy on every twig. The sky blue-tinged around that glorious moon.

     Then she started to wake up. The heat of the climb abandoned her, her sweat went cold. She took a seat on something buried that could have been a tree stump. And this is where she's stayed, close to tears now. Because yes, she can see it all from here, the fields and the highway, the little houses and the lights. And she still has no idea where she is. Rosalyn's house should be the one she passed by the crossroads. But it's impossible. Those insane, eye-damaging Christmas lights. That ludicrous electric angel in the front yard. That was a house dressed up for a party, not a place where a young girl was alone and contemplating suicide.

Unless...did she mean it to be a beacon? Help, help. I'm having a spiritual crisis. Stop the car and get in here, Eleanor, where it's warm.

     Warmth. The sound of the word. Hot chocolate with steam rising. Flannel pjs and a fire. A book to fall asleep over. She can feel her eyes closing by increments.

     On my back – how did that happen? She's singing again, so badly. Good King Wenceslas. The cruel frost, the poor man gathering fuel. And something about the wind. I can go no longer, the boy says, and the king shelters him. Eleanor is sweeping her arms and legs along the ground, up and down, open, closed. Snow angel.

     Your sweat will freeze. You'll want to sleep, but you can't surrender to it, because in the morning there won't be a you anymore.

     She's in a black dress. They're all wearing black today. The kitchen's full of adults bent over their coffee cups, balancing sandwich triangles and date squares on napkins. Someone tries to stop her as she passes. Emily's guitar teacher, wants to say something consoling. Outside Gareth is brooding on sagging lawn furniture beside the hedges which are just starting to yellow. She'll never get used to seeing him in a suit.

     She pauses for a second in the doorway of the living room, and there's a sudden yank on her ponytail. But nobody's behind her. Or wait. Hold on. Between the back of the sofa and the wall. Emily! Em's pulling her down behind the sofa now, one hand on her mouth: this is a secret. But, Emily, we had a funeral. Everybody thinks.... Her sister is smiling. Warm and alive. Eleanor can feel the guitar calluses on Emily's fingers, the lines of her palm. She's hanging on to her sister and Emily's hugging her tight. Mom and Dad won't believe this, Eleanor says. They'll be so happy, can I please tell them?

    snow queen Stop. What's going on? She gets an eyeful of black sky crowded with stars and there's – she screams, but only in her head. What comes out is a broken squawk. There's a man with his hands on her. In a Santa suit and hat but no beard, dark reddish hair.

     'El? Are you okay? Can you talk?' Her brother's voice, his freckles. The outlines fall into place. It is Gareth. What's he doing out here, dressed like that? Eleanor wants to relax into the ground again, but something's propping up her shoulders and she can't fall. Gareth's arms. He's straining under her weight. A sudden dip – whoa! – her hair grazes the snow before he can juggle her back upright. Trying to hug her and keep her supported at the same time. And he's got mittens on. Must be why this is so difficult to coordinate.

     'I thought you were dead. We both did.' Is he crying? Jeez, poor kid. She reaches around and pats him with her thick, snowy gloves.

     'It's okay, Garf. Calm down.' Still got the stupid candy cane hanging out of her mouth. She tears it away. Not exactly awake yet. 'And who's "we"?'

     'Morris. He's here too. Maybe down by the car?' A frantic sniff, trying to recover. Too bad he's got his arms full of big sister and can't wipe his nose. 'I followed your tracks. You know, you tore up half the mountain getting here...'

     Gareth's attempting to pull her to a stand. She does her best to help. All the while he's talking, telling her they can go home now, that she'll be warm soon. Dad might be there by now too, he says. And does she have the keys? Because he locked himself out of the house when he went after her, actually it's a really embarrassing story, but that's how he ended up in the Santa suit and...

     She's being rescued. It's over. Her brother crooks her arm around his shoulders so she has a body to lean on – means she goes a bit lopsided because he's shorter than she is. He's marching them back the way she came. Out of the clearing, toward the tangled trees and the steep climb down.

     But there's something wrong. She doesn't want this.

     'Stop,' she tells him in a low mumble. He doesn't hear. She digs her boot heels into the snow and her arm goes sliding off him. 'Stop!'

     Gareth swivels back, reaches for her wrist again. She smacks his hand away, and...wait. Why did I do that? She's angry out of nowhere, helpless with it. And wide awake now. The outlines of the trees seem sharper. She can't slow her mind enough to give this rage a cause, find words.

     He's staring at her, cradling his right hand in his left. Those mittens.

     'El? What's going on?'

     'Your girlfriend.' Yes, that has to be it. He has no right to talk about going home. Not yet. 'Remember? "Have fun flying around with the pretty angels..." '

     'Aw, don't start that bullshit again. She's fine.' Gareth actually rolls his eyes. He thinks she's stupid, dismissible, because she cares about what happens to this person and he doesn't.

     'You seem pretty sure of yourself,' Eleanor says. 'I mean, I hope she's okay. I really do.'

     'She is. We just – '

     'Because when I got there, well.'

     'When you...what?'

     Why on earth did I say that? Idiot. And now she's got no choice, she has to continue.

     'When I got there,' Eleanor goes on, as if there could be no doubt. 'Not a sight I'm going to forget in a hurry.'

      She charges onward and sets the scene. Who knows? Maybe it won't hurt to scare her brother a bit. He'll think twice before he tells some desperate girl to go kill herself.

     So she reached Rosalyn's house, she tells him. All the lights were out and at first it didn't look like anyone was home. Then she saw her, there on the living room floor. In front of the Christmas tree. An empty bottle of pills clutched in her hand.

     Eleanor's actually fairly sickened by this image, didn't mean it to turn quite so lurid. (The Christmas tree?) But there's no reaction in his face. So her story gets worse, details and drama piling on. There's the phone call to the hospital, the ambulance lights, the still form strapped to a stretcher. All because her boyfriend wouldn't listen. Eleanor's got tears in her eyes, at the end of this performance. She means them.

     'Wow,' he says. 'You're a hero, Eleanor.'

     'Wow? Some poor girl nearly died – '

     'Didn't get a chance to tell you. I just came from Rosalyn's place.' He huddles into the Santa suit, pulling the sides of the coat tight. 'She says hi.'

     How could he let her go on like that? Digging her own grave. She'd like to punch him. Eleanor's blushing furiously, barely registers relief that there's no girl in danger after all. Gareth was right and she's a moron, overheard a scrap of nastiness on the phone and went roaring off through the Valley telling everybody the sky was falling. .

     'Well...suppose it was true.' She's sputtering, poked with a stick in her cage. 'Bet you wouldn't even care.'

     'Oh, fuck off! You don't know anything about me.'

     'Yeah?' Yelling at each other in the moonlight. 'What's to know, exactly? You play video games, you smoke dope and you let people die. Fascinating.'

     'I let people die.' He's pacing. She hasn't moved. The Santa outfit's a flat, dark shape against the snow. 'Like who? Who, exactly?'

     She's beginning to feel sick and scared. They won't come back. Not from what's about to happen.

     'Your girlfriend,' she mutters.

     'Stop pretending you care about Rosalyn. Now come on. Say what you fucking well mean.'

     His mittened hands are in fists. Tough guy, all talk. She stares past his head, can just make out the faint view snow manover the hill, the twisting river and white fields reflecting moonlight.

     'Go on, Eleanor.' He looks exhausted. 'I can just about hear you thinking this stuff. I hate being in the same room with you.'

     'You slept through it.' Soft as her breath escaping in clouds in front of her. 'She was dying, and you slept through it. Two doors down the hall. Didn't you feel anything?'

     He shakes his head, a tiny movement like a shudder. 'Nothing. Not even a bad dream. I was talking to her in the morning like she could hear me.'

     'And you left her on her own, Gareth, you fucking left. Went off on some date so she was all alone to – '

     'I didn't know!' Pacing again. 'El, how could I? How could I expect that?'

     She doesn't have an answer for him. Gareth has taken off one of his mittens so he can fumble at the hair near the back of his neck and pull it. She realises she's still shivering violently. But at the same time, she can barely feel the cold. Through the other side into numbness.

     'We should go.' Her brother sounds so young. 'It's freezing. And Dad's gonna be...'

     'You're the one who wanted to talk.'

     'Well, we did. I get it now. You hate my guts. The end.' He takes a few steps to the edge of the clearing.
Something's clamping down on her ribcage. It's painful to breathe.


     He's waiting for her to follow and that's exactly what she should do. Find their way down the slippery hill together. And then, after she's caught her brother's arm a few times to save him from falling, she can tell him she didn't know what she was saying back there. That she was exhausted, crazy from grief. Still drunk if he'll believe that. And will he please forgive her?

     'We have to go,' he says. Gently, like Dad would.

     If she could take one step toward him, if she could only do that. But it's as if the silence and the cold is pinning them in place. Gareth has swept the stupid hat off his head, stands crushing it into a ball as he faces her.

     'Eleanor? What do you want?' Almost inaudible.

     She tells him she has no idea what he's talking about.

     'What do you want me to do? I can't go on seeing you every day and knowing you blame me.'

     The moon's strong enough to give them shadows. She can see his eyes, can just about count every freckle. A slow wind starts to shake snow from the tree branches. She feels hollow, removed. Like one of those Athenian tragedy queens gazing up from the amphitheatre, hugely calm even as they're cradling someone's murdered head. She loves this kid. She hates him passionately. She can see the board three moves in advance.

     'Alright,' she says. 'Tell me it's your fault.'

     'What?' Panic on his face. 'No, I can't. I'm sorry, I just...'

     'You've never said it to yourself?'

     'Absolutely.' He's almost laughing. 'Every day. But....'

     'Only words, Gareth.'

     'But...out loud? In front of you?' He glances around the empty moonscape clearing. 'Just seems like it would make it real.'

     She smiles. 'No, don't be scared. You say it and then I'll say it.'

     He likes the idea of this bargain. She can tell. It seems like fairness. Eleanor can see her brother tensing. He's still clutching his poor ridiculous hat.

     'Come on, Garf. Wouldn't it be a relief? You say it and then I can finally say it, and who knows? Maybe life goes back to normal.'

     Gareth shifts his weight from one foot to the other. 'You think...if we said it together?'

     'You want to start chanting out here? Really?'

     'No, you're right.' He seems to be searching for a pocket to stuff the hat, fixes it back onto his head. 'First me and then you.'

     'I'm listening.'

     Gareth closes his eyes. He looks as if he might be praying, or preparing to jump into deep, icy water.

     'It was...' His voice dies away. He pulls himself taller and tries again. 'It was my fault. The death of my sister Emily. Was my fault.'

     For a moment Eleanor's not sure if he's going to be sick. Her brother tips his head back and stares at the sky, hands clasping each other behind his neck.

     'I shouldn't have gone to Rosalyn's that night.' Clearer now. 'Should never have lied to Mom and Dad. Then when I came home....' He's got his fingers in his hair again. 'I should have pushed that door open and called an ambulance. And it wasn't just one night either. All summer, anybody could see she was in trouble, but whenever she got mad, I just shut my mouth and backed off. I should have told someone. Got help.'

     'But you didn't.'

     'No, I didn't. And because of that, she's dead. It's my fault, and I'm sorry.'

     'I hope you are.'

     He raises his eyes to hers. 'Okay. Now you.'

     'Now me, what?'

     'You know.'

     Notch the arrow and fix it to the target. Let it go.

     'But it wasn't my fault,' she tells him. 'It was yours. I agree with everything you said. It was very well put.'

     Eleanor concentrates on the snow pooled between the trees. She is trying not to look at her brother. His raw, shocked face. He's chewing on the side of his thumb, wrenches his hand away when he realises what he's doing and jams it back into his mitten.

     'Get home however you want,' he says.

...excerpt ends.