(from Veronika von Volkova‘s Grime Angels series, because nothing goes with this book like her photography)
So I’m nearing the completion of No Exit. As could have been predicted, it is resisting all attempts to squeeze it into the thriller genre envelope. At the moment it feels like part Chuck Palahniuk, part Minette Walters, part Anais Nin, part Bolano, and part a whole lot of something so much darker. What I hope I am achieving, though, for all the darkness and character-driven literariness, and the inevitable stylistic quiddity of the thing, is the kind of pace that people who like their reads riveting will want. Anyway, I can’t help myself when it comes to letting snippets of teasers loose on the world. So here is the chapter, narrated by Alice, in which we meet Cassie, whose death is the turning point in Alice’s story. Trigger warnings for self-harm/suicidal thoughts.
I started hanging with Cassie the week my dad walked out and I fell in hate with the world.
We’d been in the same class for four years and never spoken, but that week we sniffed out each other’s pain like junkies cramping for a hit.
It was Saturday afternoon in early summer and I was in the Parks, over the bridge and off the path, two fields to the right where the banks are too overgrown for punters to stop and before the wide green spaces by the rollers where picnickers spread themselves out like strings of peppers in the sun. At the back of the field is a broken tree that provides total privacy whatever you want to do, and what I wanted to do was burn cigarettes into my arms till the cherries reached the bone.
I looked at the cigarette I had in one hand and I looked at the lighter I had in the other and at the clean white flesh streaming down like wax from both. I wondered which arm would burn better. Which arm would hurt more. On which arm I could knock the wound more often in the days to come to relive the pain.
I could smell the smoke already, and as I imagined it changing slowly into the scent of burning flesh, I heard a voice above and behind me and realised the smoke wasn’t in my head.
“The left,” said the voice.
I turned. Cassie was laid out on the fallen trunk, draped in black cotton that ran off her thin frame like water so she looked like she was part of the tree, some kind of dryad waking from the wood. She raised a hand to her mouth, turned her head and blew smoke at me through black painted lips.
“Eh?” I said.
“The left forearm,” she said. “If you’re right handed, it’s easier to knock the scab off your left forearm and open the wound just mooching with your hand in your pocket. That’s what you were wondering.”
I started to speak but Cassie just smiled and said, “Welcome to the charnel house.”
I smiled back and lit my cigarette and I didn’t want to burn myself anymore so I took long, deep draws, aiming the smoke back up at her, but it just blew back in my face and we both laughed.
She lit a second cigarette from the embers of the first, pulled on it once, and asked, “What do you find beautiful?”
For a moment I was filled with an overwhelming, physical desire to say, “You” but I bit down, thought, and said, “The absence of small talk.”
She laughed, a nicotine and catarrh kind of laugh. “I love decay,” she said. “It reminds you that everything’s temporary and that’s OK, that death is the most natural thing in the world. What could be more beautiful than having the freedom to stop breathing? Any time you want. No reproach, no wailing, no gnashing, no tearing of clothes. No get your homework in or pay your bills or be nice to the assholes who want you to suck dick or wash tables and bow and say thank you for the privilege. The freedom just to stop. Like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. Stop right where you are and not breathe anymore and slowly return to the soil and the air like everything else. Decay tells you death is OK, death is beautiful. And that makes the life you have in the meantime beautiful too.”
“Decay doesn’t pretend,” I said.
“Exactly,” said Cassie. “Decay doesn’t pretend. It just is what it is.” In a single, fluid movement she jumped up off the trunk and sat down beside me, and we sat like that for what seemed like hours. After a while, I could sense her tensing beside me, twitching nervously. Eventually she turned to me and said, “This is the deal if we’re going to be friends. You don’t ever try to save me. Not ever.”
We sat in silence for several more minutes, the only things alive around us the glow to fade pulse of our cigarette ends.
Cassie rolled up her long black sleeves and laid her arms out in front of me like an offering. Faint white scars carpeted her skin like a bed of pine needles.
I thought they looked beautiful.
“Not those,” she said, holding her wrists closer. Beneath the others, like unnatural creatures hiding in the darkness of the deep, two fainter lines on each wrist. Fainter but wider, longer. I couldn’t take my eyes away.
“I’m OK now,” she said, rolling her sleeves back down and holding my eyes with hers. “But one day I won’t be. And when that day comes, it’s my choice. It’s my choice when and it’s my choice how and that’s non-negotiable. Get that and we’ll be fine. Don’t get it and you can fuck off now.”
“I get it,” I said. And I did. I knew somehow, even then, at the darkest point, I’d never kill myself, but that was me. That was the way I lived, that was my right. And it was hers to go through with it. I would never tell her what to do, and she would never tell me what to do, and that was the basis for the best friendship I ever had. Short. So so short, just like I knew it would be as I sat there watching her smoke with the broadest grin on her face and the sunlight glinting on her hair and every care in the world dripping like the dead ash to the floor. Bit oh how she shone.
How she shone.