We come back here every year – to Freckles, just over the hill. It’s this great grey, craggy beach, where all these scattered rocks look like spots on a kid’s runny nose. Once every Winter, Denny climbs up to my window and drags me into the night. We trudge down to the shore with our buckets and raincoats and spades, and we build castles along the sand. We don’t talk. There’s no gossip over boys, or girls; no bitching about mums; no washed-out, doped-up celebrities here. We’re blind to all the cigarette-ends and shit, raising our platoons of castles across the shore.
It’s where we met, see, at Freckles. Back when we were small and invincible, just blurred faces from school; she crashed through my sandcastles and slammed me into the sand, dungaree-clad, laughing and blonde. My mum was asleep in a deckchair, wrapped in scarves, a trashy book on her face. Denny pulled me by the hand down the empty grey beach, to the boarded-up toilets on the prom.
I tugged my hand free when I could, scowling. ‘What?‘
She shushed me and leaned against the door, pushing her ear against the splintered green wood. ‘Just, listen!’
‘What for?’ I turned to leave with a huff. She grabbed my arm.
‘No – just, wait! There’s someone in there!’
‘A lady, she went in ages ago!’
I folded my arms. ‘So?’
‘So, she’s –’
A groan erupted from inside. Denny jumped back. Whimpers and sniffs trickled through the wind, faster than I could catch them. Footsteps clacked on tiles. I wrenched Denny round the corner, in time to see a wide-eyed, smiling woman blunder out. She limped away, one sleeve rolled up, ratty hair hanging slack – I thought she’d be blown away, she looked so small. She could’ve been my mum, from behind. Denny stared as she stumbled off, tensed forward as if she wanted to follow.
‘Y’shouldn’t’a been spyin’,’ I told her stiffly. She looked back to me with a grin, and my cheeks reddened. I ran back to the ashes of my castles and hurriedly rebuilt their towers, my eyes seeing in dead-space the girl’s floating smile. Mum was still asleep, her arms wound with bracelets and buried in the sand. Denny slouched back over with a lollipop-flag and seashell-windows, and after that, we were just friends, Denny and me. I guess we were just kids, and we had a secret we didn’t understand, and that was enough.
And now, year after year, while the pebbles grow mould and the sand sprouts needles and glass, we keep coming back to Freckles. No one builds sandcastles here, not anymore, but once a year, we do. We build, we drink, and Denny smokes her brother’s roll-ups. We race against the crashing waves, and when the sea starts to lick at our feet, and the sun spikes up through the clouds, Denny charges through the castles and stamps them to the ground. In a heartbeat, we’re kids again, infinite in the red-dawning day, and like a mantra in my head is the promise we made, with the world at our fingertips and eternity high in the sky: that no matter what, we’ll always have Freckles. We’ll always have our pictures in the clouds, and our castles in the sand. The days and months straggle away, one by one, and tattoos are stabbed on Denny’s flesh and mum’s bracelets are spun onto my wrists; and every year, when we tramp back home, along the windy shore and up the freckled-nose’s hill, we’ve got castles in our eyes and stars at our feet, and forever’s still just out of reach. The day breaks on Freckles over our crumbled scores of castles, towers stretching skyward from the dust.
* * *
This time last year, we were right back here on the rocks as the stars began to fall, staring up at a frosty, cloudless sky. She’d been acting off, lately, avoiding me I thought, and hanging around her brothers more than usual. She wouldn’t talk – not to me, at least – and at Freckles the silence was more deafening than ever. I didn’t even notice, at first, when she vanished from my side.
A small bloom of orange flames licked against the rocks below. I sat there, alone, watching the sea devour our skeleton-castles, and waited for Denny to return.
‘Just a – yeah…’
A girl stumbled out from the shadowy rocks. ‘I’m just, I’m – yeah… M’fine.’ she slurred, and staggered towards towering rock opposite me.
‘Den, what y’doin’?’
‘M’fine.’ She scrambled up to the top of the craggy rock, and sat facing me against the black horizon, smiling wide, and pale. Her eyes were sunk and black, hands twitching across her skin. I frowned.
‘Den – where’d you – what were you doin’?’
‘S’none y’business.’ Her voice was thick in the depths between the rocks. She swung her feet below her like a kid, arms draped over the rock, wrists brown and fingers purple under the moon. If there hadn’t been a chasm between us I might’ve thumped her.
‘Again? Are y’fucking kiddin’ me?’
She swayed on the rock, unspeaking.
‘Den, for fuck’s – Denny, please tell me y’not.’
‘Just – m’fine,’ she waved off vaguely, smiling through the last of the night.
My fists clenched, and in my head, I was pummelling her brothers, her stupid fucking bastard brothers and those gorillas she called boyfriends, and I was stabbing mangled nails into my thighs. Shit.
‘Denny, I – Jesus, please…’
I didn’t know what to say. What was I supposed to say?
‘Just, don’t, yeah?’ Her voice was tiny in my ears, lost in the crashing waves. My eyes itched, throat tightened.
‘Den, how long?’
‘Promise me, you’ll stop.’
‘Oh – give it a rest, love,’ she breathed, ‘Just, please.’
‘Please. Den, for me.’
‘Oh, f’God’s sakes, you’re so… grey, love.’
‘Well – just, you don’t live. I know what I’m doin’, yeah? Just…’
‘No – Den, y’don’t,‘ My mother’s tone scratched my throat.
‘Shut up,’ she bit out sharply, ‘Y’don’t know –‘
‘Go on then, let’s ‘ave some,’ I snapped, ‘If it’s nothin’, let’s ‘ave it.’
She scoffed, but rummaged through her pockets all the same, and tossed a small plastic bag through the thin air. It landed an arm’s reach away, half-empty of sugary powder. Denny’s moans rattled in the wind. Teeth ground together and fingers numb, I picked up the flimsy packet, and I stared down at my muddy trainers and green baggy coat, one of mum’s silver bracelets peeking out of the sleeve, glinting in the slowly falling moon. When I looked up, Denny was lying limp on the rock, still as the sky, and silent.
* * *
From that day, I was drowning in everything Denny. Inside my head floated her yellow smile and cracked cheeks. She’d stare at me each night, unblinking, from the moonlit crags, her bloated body hanging from the stars, ratty black hair whipping at her stone neck and blood streaming from her gangling arms. Metal and mould would fill my nose, and I’d wake heaving.
We raced through the world, entangled and twined with our eyes squeezed shut. Mum, school, and friends, they all tangled and drowned in the splintering sky, their roars and their rage swallowed by the wind. I was dancing, flying, laughing. I was on a life-long march to my own funeral – just, no one’d tell me I was dead. So Denny and me, we wrote a big ‘fuck you’ in the sand, and we ran through Freckles and swam in the December sea. We watched the world from vacant trains and we climbed to the top of the Old Pier, drinking wine on the roof until sunrise.
We swept through the days in an endless haze of sweat and greys and beer, and it all kind of blurred together, life – and the sky, and the sea, and the beach. We grasped at our tiny, eternal forever, but the castles were dust in the wind. And Denny breezed along at my side, shattering stars with her dull, dead hands. Sitting at the edge of the Old Pier’s roof, she stared into the hollows of sky and ocean alike, and just smiled her lopsided smile and raked fingers through her hair, damp with the cold night’s sweat. I waved away tendrils of rusty smoke, watching the stars mutate and swirl, and the silence consumed us. We’re still kids, I told myself, and we’re still dancing up to our wished-upon stars. We’ll never be stopped, I hissed in the wind, with Denny at my side and the sky at our feet. This is our forever.
* * *
‘Bet I can make that,’ she says now, a year on, pointing her half-empty wine bottle at the huge rock opposite. My mouth twitches into a smile.
‘Shut up, can you.’ My legs droop down beneath the high rugged stone, muddy trainers swinging back and forth, back and forth, back and forth above the sand and rocks. She drinks. I drink. We stare out at the thundering waves, and the crimson velvet cloth of the sky. A drunken giggle erupts from her lips, and she belches and gasps, looking like a kid that’s about to be told off.
There’s the pitter-patter of distant feet on grit, but no one’s walking below. A bird croaks and coughs in the clouds, and it sounds like a strangled toad. I glance across at her, stifling laughter. She pinches her lips together with pale, black-stained fingers, but the snorts and sniggers trickle out, and then I’m rocking forward on the ledge, hands clapped over my mouth. We don’t know why we’re laughing. We don’t care.
My name bounces off the crags and rocks, and my eyes probe along the purple-lit beach. No one there. Silence devours the wind and the waves, and I shake out my ears and cough. My head thrums. I tilt back and find pictures staring down at us in the scattered stars. Denny’s lying back with a dreamy smile, mumbling into the wind.
‘Alice – that you?’ Mum’s voice calls, and for a second I see her in the sand, but she flickers into the shadows. I haven’t seen my mum for days. I sleep under the stars, now. Waiting. Den sits up, still muttering to herself, and she holds out a hand and lets the wine bottle fall from her grasp. Her shirtsleeves are rolled unevenly up, and bloody scratches stick to her skin. The glass smashes in my ears before I see the blurry green ants sprawl away in the sand.
The floor churns, a red pool of wine, the rocks shifting in and out of focus. Den’s still rattling on, her voice buzzing like a bee in my head. ‘Leave… leave us alone!’ I yell to the beach. My ears are pounding, swimming with blood. I’m itching all over.
‘Alice, come down!’
Denny’s mindless drones grow louder. ‘Flying… f’rever… gotta have… gotta…’ she rambles, and the ghost below me yells.
‘Go away!‘ I scream down, shaking on the rock-face. The sky’s spotting green and blue, my skin tightening, fingers dead and I’m blind. But Denny’s here. I look up to where the faint stars hang. We still have forever. I can still hear Denny’s voice, cracking in the wind.
‘I miss it.’
‘Miss what?’ My throat’s rough. I grimace at her pulpy arms and pale, jutting collarbones. ‘Bein’ able to feel y’damn fingers?’
‘Just – before. Bein’… Just, when we were kids, I miss it.’
I grunt. ‘Well, y’seemed – y’hated it enough, when you were livin’ it.’
She nods. The voice below has melted into wind.
‘What happened to forever, Al?’
Waves shatter against the freckled rocks. She shakes her head, hair blazing round her face, and her skin’s parched and drawn. She blurs, and I don’t know whether it’s the drink or the height or something else entirely, but just for a second, she flickers into the fast-fading night.
‘We’re only kids, Den. We’ve still got forever,’ I tell her, laying a hand on hers. She’s cold as the rock, and hard.
‘We don’t, Alice.’ Her voice shivers. ‘We just, we can’t.’
‘What’re you goin’ on about?’
‘You don’t get it, Al, you just… don’t.’
‘Oh – an’ you do?’
She stares blindly out at the sea, and I look down to the splintered rocks. The world swims and I clutch at the ledge. Den’s shattered bottle is nowhere in sight. Her once-bronze skin is porcelain against the pink sky.
‘Just, you can’t have forever, Al, y’can’t,’ she slurs, ‘You’re too… just, too…’
I let out a sour breath and flump against the rock. ‘Yeah yeah, whatever. I’m too soft, right?’ I huff, and my breath hangs in front of me in the sharp morning air. ‘I’m not ruined. Y’repeating yourself, Den.’
Her lips are smiling. ‘What else d’you expect from the dead?’
‘Don’t… say that; why would you say that?’
She stands with a grunt at my side, and I stumble onto my feet after her.
‘The hell you wearing, Alice?’ She pulls a face. I look down, swiping a hand through dirty blonde hair. A black dress hangs from my chest and hips, plain and dusty in the scattered shards of sun.
‘What day’s it?’ I ask, squinting around at the rocks speckling the sand. Something bites at the back of my mind.
‘You’re gonna be late,’ Den hisses. I look across and she flickers and fades, and I’m blinking hard at an empty sky. The sun’s rising over Freckles. The stars have fled.
‘Late for what?’ I look down and the black rocks stir. ‘Where’s… where’s mum? I thought I heard…’
‘What’s that, in your hand?’
I unfold a letter with bloodless fingers.
‘“Dear Denny,”’ I scan the fuzzy words. ‘I don’t – Den –’
‘Just, read it, Al.’ She’s back at my side and staring unblinkingly ahead, a wax doll. Melting.
‘“Dear Denny – s’been… a year since th’day… the day…” Denny, I don’t – I don’t want…’ Tears blur the writing, my writing, and I rip the paper in two.
‘What is it, Denny?’
‘Y’gonna be late.’
A sob escapes, and the paper falls into the snarling winds.
‘Late for what, Den, why am I wearing this?’
‘Fly, Alice,’ she whispers, lips inches from my ear, and the wind dies.
‘What is it, Den?’ I croak.
We still have forever. I’m alone on the rock.
In my fingers, there’s a small packet of sugar-fine crystals.
‘Where are you?’
Y’gonna be late.
I need you, Denny. My eyes see grey.
The plastic slips like dust from my hands, and Denny’s voice is a hiss in the silent sky.
Fly, Alice, fly.
The rock crumbles at my toes. I just –
The ocean snaps back into view, waves smashing against Freckles and spitting at the sky.
The wind roars in the red sky.
We can still have forever.
I stumble and fall back on the rock, numb.
My fingers itch.