Eight

The boy looks surprised when I stick my head over the fence and call him. He’s older than I thought, perhaps eighteen, with dark hair and the shadow of a beard.

‘Yeah?’

‘Can I burn some things on your fire?’

He shambles up the path towards me, wiping a hand across his forehead as if he’s hot. His fingernails are dirty and he has bits of leaf in his hair. He doesn’t smile.

I lift up the two shoeboxes so he can see them. Zoey’s dress is draped across my shoulder like a flag.

‘What’s in them?’

‘Paper mostly. Can I bring them round?’

He shrugs as if he doesn’t care either way, so I walk through our side gate and step over the low wall that separates the two houses, across his front garden and down the side of his house. He’s already there, holding the gate open for me. I hesitate.

‘I’m Tessa.’

‘Adam.’

We walk in silence down his garden path. I bet he thinks I’ve just been chucked by my boyfriend, that these are love letters. I bet he thinks, No wonder she got dumped, with that skeleton face and bald head.

The fire is disappointing when we get there, just a smouldering pile of leaves and twigs, with a few hopeful flames licking at the edges.

‘The leaves were damp,’ he says. ‘Paper’ll get it going again.’

I open one of the boxes and tip it upside down.

From the day I noticed the first bruise on my spine, to the day only two months ago when the hospital officially gave up on me, I kept a diary. Four years of pathetic optimism burns well – look at it flare! All the get-well cards I ever received curl at the edges, crisp right up and flake to nothing. Over four long years you forget people’s names.

There was a nurse who used to draw cartoons of the doctors and put them by the bed to make me laugh. I can’t remember her name either. Was it Louise? She was quite prolific. The fire spits, embers spark away into the trees.

‘I’m unburdening myself,’ I tell Adam.

But I don’t think he’s listening. He’s dragging a clump of bramble across the grass towards the fire.

It’s the next box I hate the most. Me and Dad used to trawl through it together, scattering photos over the hospital bed.

‘You will get well again,’ he’d tell me as he ran a finger over my eleven-year-old image, self-conscious in my school uniform, first day of secondary school. ‘Here’s one of you in Spain,’ he’d say. ‘Do you remember?’

I looked thin and brown and hopeful. I was in remission for the first time. A boy whistled at me on the beach. My dad took a picture, said I’d never want to forget my first whistle.

But I do.

I have a sudden desire to rush back home and get more stuff. My clothes, my books.

I say, ‘Next time you have a fire, can I come round again?’

Adam stands on one end of the bramble with his boot and folds the other end into the fire. He says, ‘Why do you want to get rid of everything?’

I squash Zoey’s dress into a tight ball; it feels small in my fist. I throw it at the fire and it seems to catch light before it even reaches the flames. Airborne and still, melting into plastic.

‘Dangerous dress,’ Adam says, and he looks right at me, as if he knows something.

All matter is comprised of particles. The more solid something is, the closer the particles are held together. People are solid, but inside is liquid. I think perhaps standing too close to a fire can alter the particles of your body, because I feel strangely dizzy and light. I’m not quite sure what’s wrong with me – maybe it’s not eating properly – but I seem to not be grounded inside my body. The garden turns suddenly bright.

Like the sparks from the fire, which drift down onto my hair and clothes, the law of gravity says that all falling bodies must fall to the ground.

It surprises me to find myself lying on the grass, to be looking up at Adam’s pale face haloed by clouds. I can’t work it out for a minute.

‘Don’t move,’ he says. ‘I think you fainted.’

I try and speak but my tongue feels slow and it’s so much easier to lie here.

‘Are you diabetic? Do you need sugar? I’ve got a can of Coke here if you want some.’

He sits down next to me, waits for me to lean up, then hands me the drink. My head buzzes as the sugar hits my brain. How light I feel, more ghostly than before, but so much better. We both look at the fire. The stuff from my boxes has all burned away; even the boxes themselves are just charred remains. The dress has turned to air. The ashes are still hot though, bright enough to attract a moth, a stupid moth dancing towards them. It crackles as its wings fizz and turn to dust. We both watch the space where it was.

I say, ‘You do a lot of gardening, don’t you?’

‘I like it.’

‘I watch you. Through my window, when you’re digging and stuff.’

He looks startled. ‘Do you? Why?’

‘I like watching you.’

He frowns, as if he’s trying to work that out, seems about to speak for a moment, but looks away instead, his eyes travelling the garden.

‘I’m planning a vegetable patch in that corner,’ he says. ‘Peas, cabbage, lettuce, runner beans. Everything really. It’s for my mum more than me.’

‘Why?’

He shrugs, looks up at the house as if mentioning her might bring her to the window. ‘She likes gardens.’

‘What about your dad?’

‘No. It’s just me and my mum.’

I notice a thin trickle of blood on the back of his hand. He sees me looking and wipes it away on his jeans.

‘I should probably get on,’ he says. ‘Will you be all right? You can keep the Coke if you want.’

He walks next to me as I make my way slowly up the path. I’m very happy that my photos and diary are burned, that Zoey’s dress has gone. It feels as if different things will happen.

I turn to Adam at the gate.

I say, ‘Thank you for helping.’

He says, ‘Any time.’

He has his hands in his pockets. He smiles, then looks away, down at his boots. But I know he sees me.

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