That summer, I could feel the Earth turn. Ellie and I sat by the lake skipping stones, sending ripples and patterns across the still water, spreading like the spiral of galaxies. This was our entire universe. Some days we talked of everything, some days, nothing. One historic day, I threw a sixteen. School was out, and my hands were full of hot, smooth pebbles. Sometimes we waded in, sometimes we didn't. We would roll up our trouser bottoms and hold them in place with hair clips. There was only us; our own private world. Did I really spend the summer by the lake? Did I imagine it? There was no fretting about where to go, no pressure to keep moving. We were fifteen years old, and the world was moving for us…
Now there is only stasis. Now there is only darkness. Ellie sits in a white room with a white mouse in a glass box. Neither can get out; she won't even try. Ellie is dying and the Earth has stopped turning. I'm here at the hospice, supposedly to visit Ellie but more often these days my eyes drift… always, out of the corner of my eye is her mouse. What must life in a box be like? Isn't it boring? There's a whole world out there, outside of the box. Why doesn't he try to escape?
"You know," says Ellie, and her voice is as pale and transparent as her skin. "You don't have to keep me company every day. I know it must be boring as hell. You ought to go out with the others."
It hurts my heart to look at her; she looks like a ghost, like she's already gone. She's so pale; even her freckles- those abominable, awful freckles, which she hated! – have vanished. But when she speaks, it hurts even more. She's a living, breathing person- how can I speak about her like this? I swallow my doubts. Gulp down resolve. But like a pill too large, I choke on my own words.
"I can see them anytime," I tell her firmly, though my conviction isn't so solid. "I want to visit you. You're my best friend, Ellie."
She smiles; I smile. But the smile is a lie. She doesn't move; I don't move. We're both turning to stone waiting. I long to break off the rock shackles with a hammer, stride out the door and never come back. But I stay rigid. Guilt will turn me into a stone gargoyle.
The days are beginning to blend into one. And like a dream, I struggle to understand what is real and what is not. Ghosting through the school corridors, my ears submerged, a name breaks through the breakwaters; "Lissa!" Occasionally, like an untuned radio, there are snatches of sound, pockets of reality. "Can I talk to you?"
"Yes sir?" The headmaster bounds up like a dog, his bald head reflecting the flickering, florescent lights, watery eyes mirroring concern. I cannot tell whether it's genuine. Living on a border with death, I have lost all perception of the living. All I can think about is that mouse.
"You're Ellie's friend, aren't you Lissa? How's she doing? You still visit her, right?" His tone of voice indicates he wouldn't be surprised if I didn't. Certainly, the others gave up long ago. A year past, they asked me every day. Now they pretend I do not exist. I have become her extension; a living representation of mortality. They do not want to think of the dying girl… only life. Handbags and shoes and laughter. They keep their sight averted, as if it is me, not Ellie, who is dying- not that we ever, ever use that word…
"Lissa? Lissa? Are you listening to me?"
My eyes flicker open. Ellie's room is bright and airy. I wonder how I got here? Ellie's peering at me intently, but my eyes slide, my mind drifts…
"Ellie, I think your mouse is sick."
"Rupert's just tired," she says, defensive.
"All he does is sleep."
"And he used to run around and do stuff."
"Well, he's getting old."
I didn't think Rupert was particularly old. But then again, Ellie wasn't either. It was the doctors who told me she was dying; she could never mention it herself. She works on the assumption that one day she'll get better, that life will go on. We both make plans, both knowing they'll never come to fruition.
"I've always wanted to go to South America," she says.
"Yeah, Rio de Janeiro."
"We'll go," I suddenly blurt. "When you get better, we'll go to the carnival in Rio de Janeiro."
For one silent second of truth, our eyes meet. We both look away; we know it's never going to happen.
"You know what, there's one place I'd much rather visit than Brazil." She looks up, biting on her lip. "Our lake."
Somehow, it seems even further away than South America. As the weeks blur, I sometimes wonder if I had dreamt it. As Ellie ebbs away, so does our place… the constellations of ripples fade… did we reach it through the looking glass?
Some days we talk about everything. Most days we talk about nothing. Death is nothingness. It leaves room for nothing else. It's cruel, it's greedy- we can think about nothing except it, till we realise we're dead even before our heart stops.
The chair shrieks as I sit down, like nails on a blackboard. The chair makes the sound I feel but do not dare utter. It would be betrayal.
"So how is everyone?" It's not a good day for her. She does not sit up.
"I saw Amy crying in the bathroom today…"
"Amy Beardsley? Did you ask her what was wrong?"
"Mr Baker announced his retirement today." Desperately, grasping at straws.
"Really? Wow. I thought he'd never go."
"And- well, Jeanette invited me to her birthday party," I tell her, "Alice in Wonderland theme."
"That sounds awesome. Who are you going as?"
"I- I'm not sure I'm going."
Betrayal. Betrayal. Betrayal. Even this conversation is mutinous. How cruel it is to talk of parties and fun to someone who will never go to one again. It feels like I'm mocking her.
"Lissa… you should go," she whispers.
"I don't want to."
"Look, forget it okay?" I look away in anger; but the anger is mostly for myself.
Silence between us was never uncomfortable before. Now it feels like it's crushing me. Some days I can't even find words to say to her. We stare out of the window into the manicured, synthetic garden, as though we are prison mates. The bars aren't there but we can feel them. Every day could be Ellie's last, but we continue to waste them, throw them away like pennies on sugar and slot machines. Every day our lake floats further and further away. Who is this ghost of a girl? What am I doing here?
School. Ellie. Sleep. School. Ellie. Sleep. The shriek of the chair. The sick mouse. The devastating silence. The mouse. The mouse. I hate that goddamn mouse.
It's good day today. She's sitting up at the side of the bed, cradling the mouse in her hands, cooing at it.
"You're so sleepy these days, aren't you Rupert?"
"I think he ought to see the vet," I say.
"He just needs some rest."
What a stupid animal! He's out; he could escape! But no, he's going to lie in her hands and die. What an idiotic creature would die, without even trying to live?
"Ellie!" I exclaim. "Let's go! We could go to the lake. We could skip stones, and go wading, and-"
She puts up her hand. "I can't."
"I'm sick. And I'm not allowed out without permission."
"But we could get permission! And I'd help you, and-"
She cuts across my protest; "No, Lissa."
There's a resignation in her face I've never seen before; she's given it all up. And she's going to go out without a fight. The cage door might be open, but she's going to keep living in her white plastic castle…
"Fine!" I shout, not noticing my voice is rising. "Fine! You stay here with your stupid mouse. I have a life to live."
The chair screams as I shove it back. The door bangs behind me.
Outside, the streets are full of silence. I hate it. I run to break the silence; if I run fast enough, will I break the speed of sound? There's only one place to go, only one place that can offer me the truth. Did I do the right thing?
I don't notice Jeannette, sitting and reading a magazine on the sidewalk till she jumps up and flings herself into my gravity. "Lissa, where are you going?" she calls. I keep running, ducking under branches, under boughs. The forest tries to force me back, but I cut through. I hear Jeannette gasping behind me. And as I fight through the bushes, the sky clears, the trees open.
Dull, grey pebbles. Congealed clouds. And the lake; flat and dark. Something is cut; the spell is broken. Grabbing the stitch in her side, Jeanette staggers up. After catching her breath she looks around, dismissive.
"So what's so special about this place?" she asks. There's nothing. Nothing. There was once something special here, but it's gone. What we had is gone. And the hand on the clock judders, the breaks squeal- and my world stops altogether.
"Lissa? Are you alright?"
"Nothing…there's nothing." I turn away. "It's just a lake."
Our universe has become a page in a textbook. The water is still. Underneath, sunken like Atlantis, Ellie is the Lady of the Lake.