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I am alive when I sleep

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All you need to do is turn your hand over to see the burn, the skin crinkled like paper. A reminder of letting go and pulling back. You look at it more than you should, though no one tells you any differently.

--

Maybe it's cliche, to spend the day with scissors in your hand, but it's what worked out, after college. The salon where you work doesn't actually expect you to chat with the customers, not for the wages you earn, and that tends to go well for all parties involved. The women who come in interpret your looks as mysterious and focused and leave an extra tip occasionally.

You let the new girl experiment on you, so for weeks at a time your hair is fried blonde, dark red. Occasionally, you trim it yourself, uneven ends, staring at yourself in the big mirror while strands fall to the floor. If your co-workers think you're weird, they don't say so.

--

If you could see yourself while you sleep, you'd see fluttering eyelashes, a barely open mouth. More expressions than you make while awake, flashes across your bare face. If you could see yourself while you sleep, you probably wouldn't.

--

The guy you're dating--shagging occasionally, really--is somewhat politically minded, and you suppose you are as well, by association. At least, you go out each election and vote, and your candidate hasn't won yet, so you suppose that makes you one of those suppressed minorities they're always whining about on television. Whatever.

(Tony sends you emails around election time, from the States, rambling on about true anarchy and the power of adversity. You smile, delete them. He understands.)

In any case, he approaches you, Henry does, one evening rather excitedly (you do go for the excitable ones, or perhaps they go for you) waving a sheet of reinforced paper in the air. "The LibDem dinner, Effy, I've been invited, and a plus one!" If you hadn't seen him grin like this a thousand times before, you'd be doubting its plausibility.

You exhale, blowing smoke in his face. "You're speaking gibberish, Henry." He isn't phased. "Calm down, and say it again."

"I want you to come with me. You look glorious fancied up. Heels, Effy. And I'll wear a tux." You can't help smiling at him. (Lifting the corners of your mouth, really.) He's quite fucking excited about this whole thing. As if the candidate's his best mate or secret lover. Though, you doubt Henry's capable of anything that covert. He's smart, sure, but not that type. Up front and giddy, that's your Henry.

You watch as he does what he might consider a subtle little dance before setting the invitation down on the counter, leaning it against a bottle of wine the two of you emptied the night before. Definitely not that type.

"Heels, right." Another inhale and you've considered it enough to give it a go. Why not, yeah. Should be interesting, loads of government in one room while you're in another... being you.

--

There's nothing that prompts it, the dream, but sometimes these things just happen, just... meant to be. It's the kind of rubbish your mother would say. There's reasons you don't speak to Anthea. Reasons you don't speak to much of anyone.

It's been years since you've seen any of them, aside from Cook that once at a bar (he nodded at you, a bit cool, even for him), and passing Katie on the street months back, and even you'll admit that was awful, but that night you dream of college. You don't know where they've gone off to--uni, or the military. Christ, they could be dead for all you're aware. Maybe someone'd have the decency to give you a ring in that case. Maybe not.

In the dream, you're wearing a giant t-shirt that's not near giant enough. You can feel everyone breathing on you, their eyes on you as well, and it's supposed to feel good, but doesn't. You remember college, walking down the hallway every day and never looking up but simply knowing that they followed--eyes, or in body. And in a strange place deep inside of you, it made you feel. Something. But now, in the dream, you feel violated. Naked.

You don't think you've ever felt naked before.

--

Henry reads you the paper each morning (you don't know the last time you've stayed at your own flat, or even seen it, honestly--it's probably rank with mold and unwashed floors) with mounting excitement. You generally ignore him, focusing instead on the black coffee between your warming fingers. He wouldn't know the difference, besides, if you nodded along to his ramblings. He's far too absorbed and imagines you are as well. Which works for you.

You ask him--mid-sentence--if he'd fancy a trip. You stir the coffee with a finger. Right index. Scalding.

"But--the dinner!"

"Stupid." You waggle your eyebrows. "Acid." It's been too long--living clean, aside from cigarettes and alcohol--and the dreams haven't stopped. You need to get them out of your head. Perhaps by force.

Henry declines. Has "things to do."

--

It's not a good idea at all, but you sit in the back alley to drop. Kicks in quick, it always does. The street turns to water and you drown, slowly. You don't know how, but you cross bridges into the park and in the morning you're face up on a bench, wincing into the sun.

It hurts to walk back, barefoot, but you've lost your shoes at some point and just grit your teeth.

Henry waves hello.

--

You're wearing trousers this time. Christ.

Freddie's there, just hovering. He offers you a spliff, which your dream-self declines. Cook's hand is there to receive it, however, and after a puff--you're suddenly in a thick cloud of grey--Cook grasps Fred's jaw and pulls him close in a rough kiss.

There's a gasping noise, but you can't tell where it comes from, if its good or bad.

Katie taps you on the shoulder, smiles. Slips a rock into your hand and disappears.

They're snogging, and you can feel it in your hand, the hard shape of the rock. They're--not Cook and Freddie--sliding hands in secret places that boys knew about you before you did yourself. Emily gasps and Naomi turns to look at you, all blue eyes and wet mouth.

Your hand is burning.

--

You live near Victoria Park, in Bethnal Green. Bit of a far cry from Bristol, but then, you wanted it that way. You don't keep a car. Henry does, more for show than anything else. The two of you walk most places, take the Underground anywhere else.

It's a short ride to the LibDem dinner, which is fortunate since the tube is crowded and you're not used to wearing heels anymore, especially ones this tall. You spend the duration of the trip holding loosely to the center bar with one hand against Henry's chest. He's not doing a thing to hide his beaming smile.

The two of you are on the list, and you have to try not to smile, because shit, when was the last time you were on a list for something? Probably one of Thomas's shenanigans, you think, and any hint of a smile fades from your mouth. You should have brought pills.

Can't quite believe you didn't, in fact.

--

While Henry runs around, shaking hands, he reads something in your face and leaves you in a cool corner, where you lean, arms crossed and eyes closed, swaying slightly. The music is classy; some piano/jazz mash-up, and a few people are dancing, using the rhythm as excuses to slip hands against bodies and mouths against necks. You think Henry knows better than to ask you.

You step out for a smoke, suck in the tainted air. It helps.

--

Sometime during the keynote speech, you notice her. Naomi Campbell is sitting at a table towards the front of the room, staring rapturously up at the man pounding on the lectern. You notice her hair, because you notice these things now, see how she's allowed the shade of blonde to dull a bit; perhaps mixed in some more natural hues. It's shorter too, the longest bits are in front, falling in her face when she leans forward and smiles.

You're staring. Christ.

You take a long swallow of wine, almost choke.

--

Four years ago you would have known the precise moment when she noticed you. Maybe you're off your game. It turns your stomach to think that you've changed.

You don't jump at her hand on your shoulder. At least you have that dignity.

"Effy Stonem. Never took you for the political sort," Naomi says, by way of introduction. "So, who's the lucky bloke?" She's wearing trousers--fitted--and a blouse. Somehow, she's managed to look completely... gay while wearing clothing you're certain you've passed in stores and not given a second glance.

A nod in Henry's direction seems sufficient, but you put down your fork, sensing that you won't be returning to your dinner anytime soon.

"Right then," Naomi says, smirking. "Excuse yourself and come talk with me. I've got to fold brochures."

--

She doesn't ask what you've been up to these past years, where you've been, or how you managed to show up at this function. You don't mind, either, when she hands you a stack of the glossy papers and shows you how to fold them, talking the whole time. "Not exactly surprising, is it," she says, "the thought of me at political internship for uni. My mum would have laughed if she weren't so fucking thrilled."

It's oddly comforting, the rote activity of folding and stacking and listening and nodding.

"Still, I can't help thinking I'm meant to bugger off somewhere exotic and work with the people, instead of through a damned frustrating bureaucratic system, you know?" And you must make some noise of accent in response, because she smiles, completely genuine, and grabs your hand.

Her fingers are long, no rings or jewelry. She's holding you gently, and your throat starts to close up.

You don't understand the way this is feeling, her hand on yours. She shouldn't be touching you. She shouldn't even be looking at you. (The shouldn'ts never stopped you before.) She brushes along the scars. "And, how did this happen, Effy?" Her voice is kind, she's almost smiling.

You aren't drunk. It takes more than a glass to do it; always has. Doesn't explain why the room is spinning.

--

Naomi spends long moments laughing at portions of group conversation you can't be arsed to pay attention to. You aren't sure you speak this language anymore, but your eyes meet and you exchange words. Better words, deeper ones.

She tugs you off in corners, and you learn about her and Emily, not lasting even a week out of college, about longing, about the darkness, and you tell her about the burning inside of you (and outside, too).

You aren't sure she understands until she answers with her hands at your hips and her lips against yours.

--

She turns to you, surrounded by ocean, tinged blue. "I've never dreamed of you, Effy, do you think that's strange?" The sunlight through the surface makes halos around her.

"No," you answer, and breathe in the water, filling your lungs.

She presses her long fingers into you, and its good in a way you haven't felt in a long time. Maybe ever. "You'll dream of me now," you add, whispering against her neck, your lips beginning to hum.

--

You wake up feeling for once.

You smile, drop Henry's key on the counter, and walk. It's easy.