Chapter XIX: Aftermath
Size was simply a matter of perspective. Either she was super small, or the rest of the world was supersized. Regardless, she was outside, playing on the grey, grey asphalt of the playground, only now it wasn't a playground, it was a long, long street that stretched far into the distance both ways. The swings had turned into houses and the slides had turned into streetlights. As for the sandpit, well, it had become part of the street, gloopy grey and bubbling like a cauldron.
Babbling voices and laughter swirled through the air, physically manifesting as visible words and colours. She looked around and saw that her friends were here too, and then they were all running around and playing tag as if there was no tomorrow.
Up ahead, she saw a clump of something large and grey, looming towards them. She came to a halt, and so did her clone of a playmate as they bent over to inspect the thing which had now shrunk into the form of a weakly flapping bird. At first, it appeared to be a mechanical toy. That idea was swiftly dispelled as red liquid began to ooze from the side of its neck and a series of pitiful sounds issued from the poor bird's mouth.
They stood there, staring at the creature, not really knowing what to do whilst all around them, the sound of laughter and frolicking continued. If it wasn't for the shadow that fell over them, they would have stood there until the end of time.
She looked up and screamed. There, towering over her like a giant stood a monstrous being with glowing red eyes. It smiled a most sinister smile, and then a foot came crashing down onto the poor bird, and then there was nowhere to run as the second foot eclipsed her vision...
Josie woke up from her mental mind-fuck with a shock. Instead of sitting bolt upright, as per cliché, she closed her eyes and promptly fell back asleep, awakening half an hour later to the sound of her mind screaming, 'get up, damnit!' when her brain couldn't take the endlessly repeating nightmare any longer. Rolling over to the side, her fingers reached for the comforting squishiness of her favourite teddy bear, but they grasped at thin air. With a grumble, Josie pulled the duvet closer to her body.
Mmm, this bed smells real nice, Josie thought sleepily. It smells different, but nice.
Her mother must have changed the covers or something.
Hang on. Mom is away, visiting Aunt Grace...
Now alarm bells were going off in Josie's head. She opened her eyes, rubbed them, and opened them some more.
This isn't my bed.
And then the mother of all hangovers struck her brain like a sledgehammer, sending her a gift of a distressing headache along with a scattering of thoughts and images. One memory surfaced with a ripple: she vaguely remembered something about a party that she had crashed. And afterwards she somehow she found herself at Ross' doorstep but he wouldn't help her anymore that night, it was way too late, he said and then a pair of baby blue eyes blinked up at her in confusion. Seeing Kelly and Ross together, something in her broke, and her head was spinning, and she was...she was now here, wherever here was.
A warm stinging sensation was creeping up Josie's throat. Quickly moving herself into an upright position, Josie swallowed the disgusting bile back down, and waited for the dizziness to pass. Once her vision had settled to an adequate degree, she glanced back and forth, taking in her alien surroundings.
How had she ended up here?
She was in a small but neat and classically styled room. The walls were painted a light cornflower blue, completely impersonal and undecorated. Josie could have been in a hospital ward, had there been blinds instead of the gauzy white curtains. The sunlight that streamed through the muslin made her eyes water. Turning her head away, she looked to the other side of the room and saw an anonymous desk which took up a corner of the bedroom. It was cluttered with pens, sheets of paper, a laptop and a few textbooks that appeared somewhat familiar. Advanced Calculus. OK, not so familiar. Finally, her eyes locked onto an item of white clothing that had been thrown over the desk chair.
Wait...I know that jacket...
That thought alone was enough to dispel the headache like a lightning bolt slicing through the sky. And with that thought in mind, Josie immediately glanced down at her clothes. Finding herself in Zack's bed was weird enough...
After a bit of inspection, Josie came to the conclusion that all of her clothes were on her body and in the right order.
Glad I cleared that up.
Slipping out of the bed was a mistake. Immediately, the room began to sway, or was it her? And where had the marching sound in her ears sprouted from? The throbbing in her head came in waves and there was nothing she could do about it. With a low groan, Josie allowed herself to get used to the feeling of having a hundred soldiers in her brain. After this, Josie vowed to never drink again.
As steadily as was possible within her parameters, Josie padded across the carpet and through the door, involuntarily tensing her muscles as her eyes roamed the landing, expecting Zack's security system to kick in. The armed ninjas were supposed to jump from the shadows any second now. When it became clear that nothing was moving towards her at a decapitating speed, Josie tiptoed down the stairs, clutching the banister tightly in case her brain suddenly decided to play some not-so-funny tricks on her balance.
At least she hadn't thrown up yet.
The bottom of the stairs opened onto a small and narrow corridor. Josie's only memory of this place was being collapsed on the floor with her face close to the carpet, so she took a few seconds to glance around, taking in the spidery cracks of the ceiling and the peeling wallpaper. She wrinkled her nose at the damp smell, and decided to move on.
It turned out that Zack's living room was through the first door on her left. Josie stepped into the room, which was definitely better kept than the corridor. Here, Josie saw a small display cabinet, a TV, a faux fireplace, and to her right, the living room opened onto a little dining room that seemed to be unused.
Josie shivered. This whole place had a feel of neglect.
Her attention was captured by a small noise to her left. She almost jumped in shock, for there, sprawled upon a weathered settee was the spawn of the devil himself. What was more shocking was that asleep, Zack had the face of an angel. No scowl lines marred his peaceful expression and he definitely appeared more youthful here, especially with his hair all messy and tousled like that.
His head was propped up with a cushion, and his body was lying under a mixture of blankets and coats that were serving as a makeshift quilt.
He gave up his bed for me, huh, Josie thought with a mild frown.
That thought sparked off a memory of her nightmare, and she realised that her dream had been a composite based upon something that had actually happened. It must've been years and years ago, back in elementary school, but it definitely occurred after she and Zack had ceased speaking to each other, after that other event.
Back to this memory: she remembered playing out in the street with Aaron whilst both of their moms had gone to get their hair cut or something like that. Anyway, Aaron had suddenly taken an interest in something she couldn't see from where she was, so she came over to take a look. Josie thought it was a ball at first, but then the ball shifted to reveal itself as an injured and dying bird. She remembered how both of them had just stood there and stared at the bird, whilst it weakly flapped its wings. The neck wound was too severe; it was obviously not going to survive for much longer. Both of them hadn't known what to do at all.
Now, the park was on the other side of the street so a lot of kids would come this way, and soon, quite a few of Aaron and Josie's friends were all there in a circle, staring at the bird in awe. One child was even poking it with a stick.
Then a shadow fell over them, and they all looked up to see a kid that they had all learned to hate: Zachariah Morgan, who pushed his way into the circle so that he was standing right in front of Josie and the bird. The faces of the other children instantly contorted into frowns and sneers, but Zack ignored them and bent down to study the bird. Already, he was displaying his own independence, spurred on from being shunned by his peers.
Josie demanded to know what he was doing here, but he didn't say anything, other than to shoot each child with a scornful look. He then picked up the bird, looked at the wound for a few more seconds, and then snapped its neck before he dropped it to the ground. He then turned around and the sea of children instantly parted to let him pass. He left without saying a single word.
Josie shook her head, returning back to the here and now. With a frown, it was only now that she realised that Zack had done the bird a favour by putting it out of its misery. But still, one good deed did not make him a saint.
Did she dare to rouse the prince of hell from his slumber? Josie watched his chest rise and fall for a minute or so, before she decided it would be better for the neighbourhood if he woke up naturally. After all, Zack on his natural sleep cycle was cranky enough, so who knew what kind of monster would emerge if she disturbed his REM sleep...
With a sigh, Josie ambled over to the wooden cabinet, which turned out to be a display for all of Zack's achievements. They were equally divided between academic and sporting, with sporting being ice-skating. God, he really does take this seriously, Josie thought, scrunching up her eyes to look at the years that he had been awarded these trophies. The most awe-inspiring thing was that most of these awards were all for gold, numero uno.
This time, Josie's sigh was for her own incompetence. She had nothing to show for the last ten years of her life, no awards, no achievements, not even any community service. She had been too self-centred and focused upon her own world to branch out and really make a name for herself. It was no wonder that both her mom and Principal Withers kept on pushing her to do extracurricular activities, even to get a job...which she had done...at the farm. She didn't want to think about that right now. Back to mom and Principal Withers. She was sure that neither of them had had a perfect older brother like Milo where everything came naturally to him. He cast a shadow everywhere he walked, and the fact that everyone had perceived him to be so grown up was the reason why Josie refused to be more mature.
Seeing all of Zack's awards had really put a downer on Josie's mood. She went back to the settee, and contemplated throwing a bowl of water onto his face, when her eye locked onto a sheaf of stapled papers on the coffee table.
The official-looking title was what caught her interest: National Skating Championships: Registration Form. Josie kneeled down beside the table and picked up the sheaf. Her brow crinkled as she flipped through the pages, trying to focus on what the words were saying. And then she came to the part where Zack was supposed to fill in details about which competitions he was entering. Josie flipped to the section about partnered skating, and saw that he had filled in all of his details, but for hers, he had only written her name in capital letters.
Her frown deepened.
Zack said he'd sent this off ages ago...so what is this form doing here?
"Shut up brain," Josie muttered.
She jumped at a noise that came from behind her, but it turned out to be a snore from Zack as he turned over in his sleep. That was a close call. Josie found that she had gripped the form hard enough to crinkle the paper. Relaxing a little bit, Josie smoothed out the paper, and was about to put it back when her gaze returned to the trophy cabinet. She stared at it for a minute or so.
This is the time for the clichéd epiphany of how I'm going to prove to the rest of the world that I'm not useless, that I really can achieve something, that...
Josie scratched her ear.
Oh, what the hell, she thought and picked up the pen.
It was the effect of Josie's dehydration dizziness that finally woke Zack up. Sitting up with a yawn, the bleary eyed boy rubbed his eyes and pulled on his t-shirt before fumbling around for his glasses. Once he had pushed them onto the bridge of his nose, his vision focused upon a short redhead that was currently trying to stand up.
"So you're awake," he said.
Josie heard the sound of Zack's voice before registering that it actually belonged to him. Once that connection was established, she leapt backwards a few feet, knocking into one of the dinner table chairs. She hadn't thought about what was going to happen after Zack woke up.
"Um...yes," Josie replied slowly.
Zack looked her up and down with an odd expression. Odd, because it wasn't scathing.
He should wear his neutral face more often, Josie thought, and then mentally kicked herself for thinking that thought.
"Why are you pulling such a constipated face?" Zack cocked his head to side, trying to fathom the mystery that was before him. He was looking very dishevelled, far from his usual, neat self.
Josie felt her cheeks flush. She was rapidly going through her list of comebacks when the headache returned, doubling in intensity. No doubt this was stress. It was always stress. Zack in any situation generated stress.
Exchanging the imminent scowl for a non-scowl, Josie went for the victim-of-drought look and rasped, "Zack...please can I have some water?"
"Come with me." At once, his manner changed from semi-sleepy-semi-dreamy to something that was definitely wide awake.
He led Josie into the cramped but clean kitchen and removed two glasses from a cupboard before filling them both with tap water.
"Thanks," Josie murmured, accepting the one he offered her. She immediately gulped the contents down, and angled her head towards the sink, seeking permission to refill. Zack nodded. His eyes widened as he watched Josie successively down three more glasses of water.
Placing the glass into the sink, Josie looked around for something to do, and failed. Zack still had half of his glass full. Before the silence became too awkward, Zack spoke.
"I paid for the bottle, and also phoned your house to inform the inhabitants that you were safe."
Josie's mouth dropped open. Oh god, other events from last night were now choosing to unveil themselves to her memory, much to her mortification. "When did you do that?"
Zack ran a hand through his hair, which resulted in it being messed up even more.
"I called your house last night, and I left to pay for the vodka pretty much as soon as the shop opened. After that, I came back here and went back to sleep. Oh, by the way, the owner decided not to press charges," Zack added as an afterthought.
"Heavens," Josie muttered. She lifted her head and met his eyes. "Thanks, Zack. I really mean it. I'll pay you back first thing on Monday."
Even though Zack pretended he hadn't heard, Josie noticed the slight twitching of his lip, and that was enough.
Reverting back to her usual self, she said brightly, "Can I use your bathroom? Do you have any spare toothbrushes? Washcloths?"
"Yes, yes and yes," Zack replied using his bored voice. He already had his back to her, too engrossed in the fridge to even tell Josie where the bathroom was.
"...One way tickets to Timbuktu?"
He decided to ignore that last question.
As she was freshening up, Josie caught a reflection of herself in the mirror. Shocked by the circles beneath her eyes and the pasty whiteness of her skin, Josie suddenly re-accessed the mind-shattering emotions and memories that she had suppressed with the alcohol from last night. The pain and the anger and the hate and the despair were way too much for her to handle, and so came breakdown number two. Her arms were stiff, and her hands were balled up into fists, as if she was trying to push herself away from the sink and from the reality of it all. For a few minutes, she simply sobbed her heart out into the sink and emptied her body of all tears.
Her eyeliner was beyond smudginess, and no amount of brushing would untangle the rat's nest of her own hair, but after the breakdown, Josie did the best she could before going back downstairs to the sound and smell of bacon sizzling in the pan. At this moment in time, breakfast wasn't really the most appealing idea on her agenda, especially when Josie's stomach shrivelled up in response to the thought of eating something.
Josie trudged into the kitchen and watched Zack at work. She maintained her dull and empty expression when he turned around and saw her. Zack divided the bacon up and scooped some onto two plates before adding some fried tomatoes too. Picking them both up, he went into the living-room-dining-room combo and Josie followed. After Zack set both plates down, he turned to face Josie.
"You need to eat something."
"Why?" she asked hollowly.
"Don't be stupid."
"I can't help it."
Zack didn't really like Josie's normal attitude, but he disliked this defeatist one more.
"Then try harder...idiot."
He pulled a chair out forcefully and indicated for Josie to sit. She complied, zombie-like. Zack went to get some cutlery, toast and orange juice, and every time he came back with something new, he found her still staring off into space. God, it was pathetic.
Once he had everything, Zack came and sat back down. He began to eat, ignoring the Josie-shell, but after five minutes he couldn't take it any longer.
"Josie, just eat something!"
"You can't force me," she said, not taking her eyes off from whatever she was looking at.
"Yes I can," Zack said, only he didn't say that. What he did say was, "No, I can't. And you know what? No one can force you apart from yourself."
Now Josie looked up. Her eyes narrowed.
"Then why did you make me do all of those horrible things?"
Zack knew she was referring to the slave-diary days. He chose not to answer, only to focus on the fact that he had finally elicited some sort of Josie-like response from her. Being 'nice' - well as nice as his personality would allow - hadn't worked. Maybe if he got her angry enough then she would forget about whatever crap was currently on her mind.
"Because I could." He smirked and stared back at her.
Josie's shoulders tensed, and, overcome with rage, she pushed the chair back and stormed off with her plate. Knowing how neat and finicky he was, Zack would probably get really pissed off if she ate in his bedroom, which is why she went and ate in his bedroom.
The only reason she wasn't halfway home was because she couldn't stand to face Milo after promising to be back before midnight. The value of a promise was very important to both her and Milo. Of course, she was only making things worse by delaying them instead of facing the problem head on, but that was the way Josie's mind worked, and if a delay meant hiding out in Zack's house for a bit longer, then that's what she was going to do.
Eventually, Zack came upstairs to take the plate down to wash up.
Josie pointed to his desk and turned her nose up at him. She was in his house, yet she still had the nerve to act haughty? Zack snorted, and with a shake of his head, he took the plate and utensils out. When Zack didn't come back, Josie grew bored after ten minutes and headed back down to find him drinking hot chocolate whilst browsing through a newspaper.
"Go make your own," Zack said dismissively, before Josie could ask where hers was.
Josie was about to snap back but thought better of it. After all, Zack could kick her out whenever he wanted so in this respect, she was once again at his mercy. Spinning on her heel, Josie stalked off towards the kitchen. She returned a few minutes later with a steaming mug of hot chocolate and hovered a few feet away, wondering if she should sit down or not.
Zack rolled his eyes and shifted himself along the settee so that Josie could plop down. Keeping the newspaper open more for show than anything else, he scanned the rest of the page but nothing further interested him. He folded up the newspaper and tossed it to the ground.
So this is the socially acceptable stage wherein I am supposed to initiate conversation.
He stared at the fireplace, speaking as if he was rehearsing a line from a play. "How...are...you...?"
"I'm OK. My head doesn't hurt anymore." Josie took a sip from her mug and decided that she would avoid the awkwardness by looking at her drink.
"Yes, it is." After a few more excruciating seconds of this exchange, Josie piped up with a question that Zack hadn't been expecting. "Where are your parents?"
"They're on a world tour," he replied with a careless shrug, although the way his eyes narrowed as he resumed his staring of the fireplace spoke more than anything else. It was a wonder that he hadn't set any of the faux logs on fire with his gaze.
As if taking that as a cue to carry on speaking, Zack added, "They rented this house for me whilst they were gone."
"So where's your real house?"
"In the form of assets and currency to finance the world tour."
"Oh." Josie frowned, not really understanding what that meant. "Will you get your real house back?"
"I don't know."
Zack looked somewhat morose, and Josie didn't know how to make him feel better. After all, the only interaction she'd had with him of late had been mindless bickering. Anyhow, she was still very mad at him for the whole slave thing, but then again since last night, he'd almost turned into a completely different person so now she didn't know what to think or whether she should stay angry at him.
She decided to change topics, and tentatively asked him what kind of plans the Student Committee had for the Winter Ball, but this was something that he was keeping on a need-to-know basis only.
"Although, you can definitely expect to find your gateway to Narnia there," Zack said with a smirk.
"What? It's going to be Narnia themed?" The sparkle in Josie's eyes dimmed and her face fell. "I'm not going."
The 'why not?' question didn't need to be asked.
"He didn't kiss Lois," Zack said quietly, looking at her with a curious expression.
"After you zoned out last night, I utilised my resources and this morning, I managed to acquire four eyewitnesses. Once they had finished swearing at me, they all confirmed what I just said. Gonville's inebriated state probably led to him joining in the game, but when it came to his turn, he couldn't go through with it and chickened out."
Zack stared at her coolly, awaiting her response.
For a few seconds, Josie couldn't speak. She felt as if someone had just struck her chest with a sledgehammer. This changed everything...or did it? Setting her drink down, Josie stood up with resolution, determined not to subject Zack to anymore emotional drama.
"I should probably go now."
Zack nodded, back to his normal reserved self. He also stood up. Despite everything, Zack had been brought up with manners and so he went with Josie to the front door, mainly to make sure that she wouldn't destroy anything on her way out.
"I'd like to say this whole experience was fun, but it really wasn't."
"My feelings exactly," Josie said and stuck her tongue out at him to let him know that she hadn't really meant it. "Seriously Zack, I appreciate everything that you've done."
After Josie had left, Zack allowed a smile to escape, a genuine smile that really met his eyes. When a passing dog began to stare at him, the smile disappeared and Zack returned back to his house. It was only much later, after Josie had endured Milo's yelling, and after he had finished reclaiming possession of his room when Zack noticed that the Josie's part of the ice-skating form had been filled out and signed by her.
Hope you enjoyed this, despite not much happening here. Happy New Year!