By Jessica Phillips
7:15 – The backyard is quiet, only Dandelion hanging by the bins smoking her first cigarette of the day. She tosses the stub to the ground and grinds it out with the heel of her tennis shoe, folds her arms across her chest and reclines against the wall. A pigeon hops down from the roof of the shed, landing by her feet to peck at some fallen crumbs. She lets it explore for a moment before kicking half-heartedly at the bird’s feet, and it flies away.
12:01 – It’s barely afternoon, and Dandelion’s already on her third cigarette. Finals are coming up, and she’s chain-smoking like there’s no tomorrow, the cig clutched between pursed lips while she twirls a biro in her hands and glares down at a maths textbook. They don’t usually smoke inside the house, and it’s almost a personal affront that they’re doing it in plain sight. Centre shot, legs splayed out on the sofa, puffing monochrome smoke through chapped lips.
Eris has missed her morning lectures again, and now lies with her head on Dandelion’s knee. Occasionally she makes to get up, presumably to retrieve her own revision materials, each time slumping back down again, beached. Eventually she manages, trots off to make nachos while Dandelion lights up another fag. While the cheese melts she gazes out of the kitchen window at the backyard, past Dandelion’s cigarette butt and the pigeon feather and the garden shed, door agape on its hinges.
Sparrow occupies the opposite armchair, watching Eris watch the world, leaning her head towards the open window. Once or twice, she coughs at the intrusion of unwelcome toxicity in her lungs.
Dandelion doesn’t put out her cigarette.
19:04 – The girls are downstairs this evening. Dandelion’s Tuesday nights always involve meeting friends at the pub, and Eris is applying make-up in the mirror ready for another all-nighter. Sparrow is the only one staying home, buried in a battered copy of Hamlet, a fuzzy pink jumper hanging from her slender frame. There’s an unopened bottle of cider on the table beside her, nudged towards her by Eris earlier in the evening.
Sparrow won’t crack the seal. She only drinks to be sociable.
10:48 – There’s movement in the bathroom. The door opens and shuts, and the shower curtain is nudged aside by a spindly arm. Sparrow, then. The water turns on with the usual clunk of pipes, and the arm withdraws while it heats up. Roughly three and a half minutes later, there’s a slip of fabric tossed to the ground and Sparrow steps forward, yanks the curtain back, and clambers into the tub, shoulder-length mahogany curls cascading freely about her back. A few seconds’ glimpse is all she allows—barely enough time to zoom, so you can spy the gooseflesh raised on her slender thighs, the mole at her right shoulder, those small breasts—before the curtain is adjusted to cover her. Her voice rings out across the bathroom, sharp, precise notes cutting the silence in two, an echo that builds and builds.
She always sings so sweetly.
14:13 – The kitchen is always busy after two. Sparrow and Dandelion are cooking, having just returned from their midday lectures, while Eris lounges on the sofa, almost out of shot, nibbling the end of her third granola bar. She’s dieting again this week. When Dandelion turns to offer her a plateful of lasagne, Eris shakes her head, looking mournfully down at her cereal bar before turning back to glare at the TV. It’s Sky News. Another sexual assault case with a messy ending. Typical legal system bullshit. Monsters are getting away with worse and worse every day. Nobody’s safe anymore.
Sparrow moves to the armchair, plate in hand, and starts eating. There’s what appears to be a friendly spat of bickering over the remote, followed by another Jeremy Kyle rerun. Three minutes later, Eris gets up and serves herself some lasagne from the pan, tipping the remains of her granola bar into the bin as she goes.
17:20 – Sparrow has invited her boyfriend round for tea. They’re at the kitchen table, textbooks spread between them, his left hand clutching her right across the desktop. Every so often he purposely rubs his thumb over her knuckles, indenting ivory prints to that pale flesh. He doesn’t have a name yet, although Greaseball would fit him well enough with all the gel he uses in his hair.
Sparrow is his antithesis; hers are jutting angles and hesitant gestures, his are confident and sure, a heavy open palm resting on her knee when he shifts the book in his lap to the table. His clothes cling to his muscular frame, a flimsy leather jacket over an untucked shirt and torn jeans; hers are soft where they hang from her slender shoulders, enveloping her.
She doesn’t notice when one hand distractedly goes to pick dirt out of a fingernail. Or when he flicks it onto the linoleum below.
22:34 – Sparrow is sleeping. Thankfully Greaseball didn’t accompany her up the stairs tonight; in fact, Sparrow all but bundled him out of the door after their kissing grew too heated for the communal kitchen. Now she’s wrapped in a summer duvet, covered except for her left leg, which dangles over the chasm of the mattress-edge. Her slender neck and graceful arms are deathly pale against the grey sheets, and her knee is turned outwards, skewed, like her namesake’s. Her favourite embroidered cushion, a twenty-first birthday gift from her grandmother, rests precariously by her foot. In slumber, her fingers flex around the pillow beneath her neck, grasping the cotton for a moment before relaxing, and the breath leaves her body in what looks like a contented sigh.
The cushion falls.
11:19 – It’s Eris’s day for laundry. Of course, the task is relegated to Dandelion, who for all her posturing, starts to fill the washer without so much as a grumble. Dandelion might have been your favourite, in another life, but she lacks Sparrow’s angles, and her otherwise sweet singing voice has been marred by bi-weekly cartons of Lambert & Butler. Still, it doesn’t hurt to watch her load the detergent, while Eris pretends to busy herself with emptying the bin so she can sneak a quick fag of her own outside. She’s taken to chewing tobacco, and the glistening pool of russet pulp is visible when she spits. You recoil.
Switching stations does the trick.
11:20 – There. Much better. Sparrow has just finished showering, a little late today. She towel dries her hair in the bedroom, sings while she drags jeans out of the wardrobe and shimmies into them. It’s a new song today, something about sunshine and rainbows.
The curtains are opened before she puts on a vest. The real sun paints her stomach gold.
17:15 – Sparrow’s boyfriend is here again. He got here fifteen minutes ago and they’re already in the bedroom; she’s standing by the window, gazing out at the street below while he reclines on her bed, propped up on her V-pillow. There are a few minutes of hush—the headlights of passing cars are just about visible past the front garden, illuminated by the hazy orange glow of street-lamps. The light reflects the sharp points of her face for just a moment before she draws the curtains with a flick of her wrist, and pads across the few steps it takes for her to reach the bed. He beckons to her with open arms, and she goes to him, lets him slide those huge forearms around her waist. He envelopes her—he’s so big he could snap her right in two if he’s not careful.
He’s too harsh when he undresses her. Those fingers pulling at the hem of her shirt should be delicate, like yours would be, and you certainly wouldn’t yank the buttons like that. When she pulls back from their kiss to breathe, the hand on the back of her neck draws her near again too soon, leaving her to pant against his collarbone. She doesn’t stop him, though, just exhales against his neck, cheeks puffing outward with the strain. There’s something mesmerising about the way she moves, her body rippling as she rears backwards, folds of ivory skin appearing at her waistline, eyes glinting from the meagre light coming in through the curtains. She looks realer, somehow. As though the darkness fashions a new layer of her that she keeps hidden during the day. Or as if it strips all those other layers away, leaving the raw core of her at the centre of the room, panting and sweating and gleaming.
15:16 – Greaseball has broken up with her.
It’s all over the house by late afternoon. Dandelion’s arms are around Sparrow’s shoulders, and Eris’s head is on her lap, stroking her knee with the kind of reverence she deserves. Their muffled conversation takes place in Sparrow’s bedroom, where the girls are tangled together on the bed, fresh linen collecting the tangy salt of tears.
They’re making her smile. Dandelion tells a joke; Eris pulls something funny up on her mobile and holds it up for Sparrow’s inspection, causing her to grin weakly, lip quivering and eyes watery.
You can forget their sins for a while. As long as she keeps smiling.
21:45 – Sparrow goes to bed early tonight. She buries herself in her novel for a bit, using the bedside lamp for a light, and by the time ten o’ clock rolls round she cocoons the covers tighter around her and squeezes her eyes shut, as if it can keep the darkness out.
22:56 – She shifts in her sleep, mutters something incomprehensible. One arm goes out to clutch the covers at the empty side of the bed, fingers squeezing around nothing.
23:59 – The others have gone to bed, now, too. Dandelion switches the lights off as she goes. Eris leaves the back door unlocked. One day she’ll get herself hurt if she’s not careful.
00:52 – The attic stairs are always dark, even in the middle of the day. The girls never saw fit to install lighting up here, so you’re guided only by the flickering screens behind you in your regal loft room, and the meagre sliver of moonlight from a downstairs window. Just enough to light the path to her room.
01:11 – The bedroom is silent now, cloaked in darkness. Up close Sparrow’s legs don’t look so pale, and there’s a blemish imprinted on her right cheek from the pillow. Once again she has tossed off the covers so her leg sticks out, and her big toes twitch in the slight breeze emanating from the open window. She has hairy toes.
She sucks in a sharp breath, and you freeze. When her limbs relax and those sharp angles soften at the edges, you find it in yourself to slink past the doorway and into the shadows. Baby steps. When you lie down beside her the mattress dips with your added weight, and-
01:12 – Sparrow stirs.
The silence is tense, now. She mumbles something—her voice is an octave deeper in person. It isn’t so much a word as a grumble, and a second later she’s rolled over in a jerky motion.
You’re face to face.
01:13 – A pause.
01:14 – Nothing moves in the room. Your arm is prematurely extended with the intention of offering comfort; seeing her own limb outstretched in its fruitless search for another presence wounds something inside you. Sparrow seems to sense your intentions are good, settles back into the pillow with a sigh.
For a brief second you wish she’d open her eyes, just to see you. Not much to look at, perhaps, but Sparrow wouldn’t recoil. She’d take you in slowly, and the cloudless azure of those eyes wouldn’t see a slender, sickly pale man with shaky limbs and a frantic smile. No. She’d see you for who you really are: her protector. Her soulmate.
You inch closer to her face, so you can feel her breath, which still holds the acidic tang of interrupted sleep. A puff of breath against your lips; an imitation of a kiss.
Gently, gently, you brush a hand over her chestnut hair. Pluck an errant curl from where it dangles before her eye, tuck it back where it belongs, ignoring the fraying ends of the ringlet clutched between trembling fingers.
Her nose twitches at your ministrations; your gaze traces the acne scars along the bridge and toward her cheekbones. You raise a finger, wishing you could stroke them away.
She almost nuzzles into you. Almost. She draws away at the last second, flops over onto her other side, legs entangling with the bedsheets. Your arm is raised again, to halt her, but you drop it hurriedly to the mattress and revel in the reverberation of your conjoined movements, a symphonic sequence of vibrations. You’re in sync. She moves away and you move toward and it’s almost perfect, like this.
She’s fully asleep again, now. You hum a breath against the nape of her neck, almost a tune. If only you could conjure one like she can.
Another soft exhale falls from her lips. A song, all contained in that one sound.
You retreat. To bed with you, before her voice breaks out and raises an octave too high.