By Krishan Coupland
Katie wakes to find a strange man climbing through her bedroom window. The glow from distant light shows a Che Guevara T-shirt, dreadlocked hair and torn jeans. It has been four years since last this happened and he still wears the same kind of clothes.
“Simon?” she says, hating the sleepy croak of her voice.
The intruder tenses momentarily, then seems to relax. There is the click and rasp of a lighter and a tiny point of orange flares up against the dark. It trails across the room and someone heavy sits down at the foot of her bed.
“It’s me,” he says eventually.
Katie is pleased that she hasn’t forgotten him; even more pleased that he hasn’t forgotten her. She remembers the day four years ago when her parents burnt all the photographs of Simon on a bonfire that smelled like poison. Her father had taken her aside and told her very finally and definitely that her brother no longer existed.
“How’ve you been?” says Simon, exhaling smoke. Gradually Katie’s night vision is improving and she can make out the uneven profile of his face, his old man hands fussing around the cigarette.
“Fine,” she says, and then when he doesn’t reply she goes on: “How about you?”
“I’m doing alright,” says Simon, and then, for the first time sounding a little uncertain, he continues: “How are…Mum and Dad?”
When Katie doesn’t reply he nods slowly, satisfied in his own strange kind of way.
For a few minutes there is nothing but the stilted movement of Simon finishing his smoke, and Katie drawing the covers up to her shoulders against the cold air from the window. Her brother sits hunched over, Katie notices, and he has a sort-of beard now. His glasses are gone and he looks much more serious and adult without them.
“Get dressed,” he says at last, and stands up. “We’re going out.” He moves toward the window again.
“Now?” The luminous clock by her bedside shows a quarter to eleven. She has school in the morning. Simon shrugs.
“Now or never.”
And then he’s gone.
Even with jeans and a jacket on over her pajamas it is still painfully cold. Simon stands just outside, waiting with his hands in his pockets.
“Come on,” he says, and together they walk across perfectly mown lawns that are sodden with dew and rain. His car—a muddied Ford Escort—is waiting not far up the gravel drive. It has a pair of furry dice hanging from the rear-view mirror.
“Where are we going?” asks Katie, as Simon unlocks the doors and slides inside. He doesn’t reply.
Inside the car it smells strongly of tobacco and something else sickly-sweet that Katie cannot name. It’s not unpleasant and it suits Simon as a person so she doesn’t mind.
They drive through streets that are orange or yellow depending on the type of street lamp. The slight nighttime dampness makes it all shine. The road and the houses and the streets slip politely past them.
After a minute Simon paws the packet of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket, and Katie thinks he is about to light up again. He doesn’t, but he offers one to her. She thinks of the picture in her school science book showing the blackened, shriveled clot of a cancerous lung. She shakes her head.
Simon gives her a sidelong look.
“Try one,” he says, “You might like it.”
“It’s bad for you.”
Simon nods in agreement, then shrugs.
“So what? Eating’s bad for you if you want to look at things that way.”
Katie can tell he won’t back down over this so she takes a cigarette and—feeling foolish—sticks it into her mouth. Simon forages out a lighter and hands it to her. It takes a moment for her to work out how to use it, then heat washes against her face, against her eyes. The car glows.
The first puff is sickening; not so much because of the smoke, but because of the strong, woody cloy of it. It catches in her throat and she gags, dry. Swallows, coughs out a sour little cloud of grey. Simon laughs, but not in an unpleasant way.
She shakes her head. She can feel the pulse throbbing warmly in her neck, the blood rising in her cheeks. Absurdly, she feels a little embarrassed.
“You'll get used to it,” says Simon, and they drive on.
When it’s so late at night that it’s almost the next day they stop at a McDonald’s. Inside it is hot and white and plastic. Simon orders Coke and fries and they sit and eat in an empty restaurant.
“You doing all right at school?” asks Simon.
He seems to think deeply for a minute.
“They make you pray, don’t they?” he says.
“Yeah. In assembly. Everyone does.”
Under his glare Katie feels almost like she is being tested. Somehow this is more than just light, casual conversation, and she wants to come off as well as she can. Vaguely she is aware that Simon’s respect is different completely from that of her parents.
“You got many friends?”
Katie thinks hard about it, mentally tallying who could be counted as a friend and who could not.
“A few,” she tells him in the end. She doesn’t want to lie to Simon.
“I guess.” She shrugs. It’s not something she’s ever thought about before.
Simon smiles at her. His teeth are nicotine stained, but not disgusting.
“Finish your burger,” he says.
After that, when the sky is just beginning to dilute down to blue again they drive out to the common. They sit together on the bonnet of the car and watch the shadows of bats flinging themselves from tree to tree. It is the first time Katie has seen bats, and she realizes that she didn’t actually believe in them before.
She tries to smoke again, and this time it’s a little easier, but still not very pleasant. Simon produces a can of beer from somewhere and Katie shares it with him even though she doesn’t like the taste.
She feels real for the first time in her life. Real, and a little light headed. In her is a sort of confidence that comes from being in a place you’ve never been before.
“Back then, before you left. What did you do? What made Mum and Dad hate you?”
As soon as she’s said it she wishes she hadn’t, but the words are out there now. She hopes that Simon won’t be mad, because that would destroy this whole night. It’s a long time before he says anything, but when he does speak his voice is calm and level.
“You remember Rebekka? She and I were…sort of engaged. She came round sometimes. We ate Chinese food.”
Katie remembers Chinese food—the taste of water and grease and salt, orange sauce and raw fish. She remembers a woman too, tall and blonde haired, but that memory is hazy and not all there.
“Yeah,” says Katie quietly.
“Well. Yeah. She was pregnant.” Simon inspects the back of his hand very closely, shuts his eyes.
“So you have a kid?” says Katie.
“No.” He makes a sound that’s somewhere between a laugh and a sneer.
Simon crunches up the almost-empty beer can in one hand. He squeezes too hard, so that sharp metal edges leave little cuts down his palm. He throws it, and it’s lost in the lifting dark.
“Nothing happened,” he says, “Now stop talking about it.”
They drive back home along streets that aren’t their own anymore.
Creeping back down the drive, across the lawns, is all like a dream. Simon helps her through the open window and then stands looking up at her from the other side.
“That was fun,” says Katie. Simon smiles again. He’s anxious to be gone now that morning is approaching.
“You don’t tell mum and dad that I was here,” he says urgently. “If you tell them then I’ll never come back.”
“And you don’t smoke ever again, alright? Or drink?”
And then he’s gone, and Katie is an only child again. She takes off her smoke-smelling coat and mud-stained shoes and lies down on her bed even though she isn't tired
The luminous clock by her bedside shows a quarter to four. She will not shut her eyes.
Krishan Coupland is a student living in Southampton. Currently he is studying for a career in medicine—or something else. He hasn't really
decided yet. He has written for most of his life with varying degrees of
Photo "Mystery," courtesy of Daniel Clarke, Wigan, U.K.
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