THURSDAY: Real or imagined

BY DENICE PENROSE

Copyright is held by the author.

JANINE HUNG up her keys and placed her handbag on the spotless kitchen counter, unmarred except for the milk bottle. “What is the milk doing out?” A sour sniff confirmed her suspicions. Pouring it down the sink, she sighed. “I’ll have to go get more milk. Just what I needed.” She couldn’t manage her day without her morning coffee. “I could have sworn I put the milk back in the fridge this morning. I don’t remember leaving it out,” she muttered closing the front door behind her.

Janine turned on a TV documentary, and completed her five-mile run on the treadmill. After her shower, she settled on her sofa in front of the TV with her chicken pasta salad, quickly engrossed in a TV drama. Annoyance over the milk incident dissipated into mind numbing TV.

Janine yawned and stretched. Pressing the button on the remote she stilled the TV. Frowning, she saw her car keys on the counter. Reflexively, she hung them on the key holder in the kitchen, scolding her forgetfulness. It wasn’t like her to leave things lying around out of their place. She plumped the cushions, washed the few dishes, and wiped down counters. She lay out her work clothes. Satisfied that all was ready for the morning, Janine snugged under the duvet.

The phone rang at three a.m. Fear bolted her awake. No good calls happened at this hour. Heart pounding she answered: “‘Hello? Hello? Who is this? Is anyone there?” The dial tone filled her ears. She flicked to the call log, finding only a blocked number. Annoyed, she settled back under the covers. “Bloody kids with nothing better to do,” she muttered, willing herself back to sleep. But sleep remained elusive.

Janine woke to sunlight streaming into her room. She lay for a few seconds, waiting for the alarm. The room seemed very light, and she fumbled for her phone. 9:30! She bolted out of bed. Why hadn’t her alarm gone off? She should have been at work an hour ago! Hastily she pulled on the clothes laying on the chair, pausing briefly to wonder why she’d chosen that particular suit – it was unflattering, a poor fit. She’d been intending to put it in a charity bag. But there was no time to choose something else. She brushed her long blonde hair, pulling it into a pony tail. Shoes on, she rushed for the door, grabbing for her keys.

The key holder was empty. Where were the car keys? Quickly she scanned the room. No sign of them. She rummaged fruitlessly in her bag. Surely she’d hung them up last night? Frantically she scanned the kitchen counters, bedroom surfaces, lounge tables. No keys. Now what was she going to do? There was no choice: It would have to be the Tube. But she hadn’t been on the Underground since Marnie died.

Standing compacted by other commuters, Janine managed to free her hands and text to say she’d be late. Ten minutes later, she stood staring at the Tube escalator. How could she go down there, stand on that platform? The crowd surged behind her pushing her forward. Knees trembling, she stood on the metal steps, the walls closing in around her, her heart pounding, her breath panting. “Breathe” she told herself, “calm down.” The crowd pushed her to the platform. Then she saw the spot where Marnie had jumped. The screaming in her head found an outlet, air displaced by vacuum, and blackness surrounded her.

“It was just a panic attack,” the nurse told her reassuringly. “You’ll be fine.”

“I think you should see someone. I’m going to refer you to the counselling service. In the meantime, I’ll give you a prescription,”’ the doctor said. “You can have it filled in the pharmacy.”

“Can we call someone to come and collect you?” asked the nurse.

“‘No, there’s no one.” She shook her head. “My parents are in France. Besides, I don’t want to bother them. I’ll get a taxi.”

Clutching her pills, she walked weakly out of A and E.

Janine staggered into her flat, hung the flat keys next to the car keys. She pulled her hand back as if burned. How had she missed the car keys this morning? This whole awful episode could have been avoided. But they hadn’t been there?  Could someone have been in her flat? But nothing was disturbed. What was going on? Exhausted, she staggered to her room, and fully clothed, buried herself under the duvet.

It took a few minutes for Janine to identify what had woken her. Slowly the moving lights came into focus. Janine screamed as she recognized the flickering face of Marnie, death-shroud pale, enlarged to fill the wall space. Hollowed black eyes glared at her, blue-black lips whispered words she couldn’t hear. Janine screamed, turned on the bedside light. The image was gone. She walked to the wall, fingers searching its cool surface for any traces. There was nothing. Had she been dreaming? But it felt so real.

Janine couldn’t sleep, Marnie’s face, memories of her manipulated Janine’s thoughts. How could Marnie have done it? Surely there had been another way out? If only Marnie had told her what she planned, then perhaps Janine could have stopped her, and wouldn’t be lying here now, haunted and guilty.

Marnie’s fiancé, John, had blamed Janine. “She was your sister,” he’d screamed at her. “Why didn’t you stop her?” His words echoed in her mind. He never came near her now, even though they lived in the same building. Before he’d been the big brother she’d always wanted. She’d lost a sister and a brother the day that Marnie jumped.

Bleary eyed, Janine turned off the alarm. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she tried to find the energy to stand up. She dreaded the questions at work. If she told them a panic attack had landed her in A and E, they’d think she was crazy. Maybe they weren’t too far wrong? She thought as she remembered the key fiasco. At least this morning the car keys were exactly where they should have been. How had she missed them?

Peering into the empty fridge, she decided to skip breakfast. She’d have to buy groceries on her way home. But when she opened her bag to pay for a sandwich, her purse was missing. She rummaged through her bag, emptied the contents onto a table. There was no purse. Red faced, she’d put the sandwich back, and scurried back to her desk. She emptied her bag again, scowling at the absent purse. When had she had it last? Of course, she’d paid the taxi. But then she’d put it straight back into her bag. Or had she? Had someone stolen it on her way to work? Was it safe at home? Her stomach growled, and she rummaged in her desk, finding a stale breakfast bar. She ate it in desperation, grimacing at its powdery taste.

Should she cancel her bank cards? Should she wait until she checked at home? She’d have to go home and look. But following yesterday’s panic attack, she couldn’t face telling her boss she’d lost her purse, he’d think she was losing it. Instead, she feigned a migraine, and headed home, trying to ignore her boss’s scowls.

She opened the front door, and began hunting for her purse, finding the offending item neatly propped on the kitchen counter. How did it get there? Why hadn’t she seen it when she left the house that morning? At least it wasn’t stolen. She still had to buy groceries, she remembered with a sigh.

In the supermarket, she thought she caught a glimpse of John in the aisles, but the man quickly turned. She followed after him, wondering if it was really him. Would he talk to her? She turned down the empty aisle, searched the supermarket, but there was no sign of the man. Great, now she was seeing things too!

Unpacking the shopping, she thought about John. Would he ever stop blaming her? Would she ever stop feeling guilty? Startled, she pulled a can of cat food from the bag, recognizing Tibby’s favourite brand. But Tibby had been hit by a car a week after Marnie died. A tear rolled down her cheek. She’d loved that cat. She’d never been able to figure out how he’d escaped in the first place. He’d always stayed inside, and she’d been so careful to ensure the windows and balcony door were latched so he couldn’t get out. He had to have slipped out when she left the flat, but surely she would have seen? She’d become so scatty since Marnie. Was this a form of grief? Hands shaking, she swallowed another pill. Why weren’t they helping?

“I feel like I’m losing my mind,” Janine said to the counsellor.

“Why do you say that?”

“I keep forgetting things, or losing them, only to find them again.” Janine described recent events.

“How long has this been going on?”

“‘It started just after my sister’s funeral.” Tears flowed as Janine spilled out the whole story.

“It’s not uncommon for people who are grieving to experience episodes of forgetfulness. It can be a coping mechanism. However, this appears to be causing more distress?”“I can’t concentrate any more. I dread going to work. I’m weepy all the time.”

“I think it would be wise for you to take some time off. I’ll write you a sick note for two weeks, and see you weekly. I also think we need to try a different medication.”

Janine stretched and yawned, looked at the bedside clock. The pills had helped her sleep through the night, but left her feeling drowsy. On the plus side, she could lie in as long as she wanted. She turned over, and went back to sleep, waking only at lunchtime. She padded to the kitchen in her pyjamas and made coffee, before flopping on the couch. Remnants of last night’s take-away congealed on the table. She knew she should dispose of it, but she was too comfortable. A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt. Flicking on the TV, she scrolled through channels, finding something to watch among the daytime detritus.

Her stomach rumbled, and she ferreted around in the kitchen cupboards finding a bag of crisps she couldn’t remember buying: she’d disavowed junk food months ago in preparation for Marnie’s wedding, and then decided not to go back to her old habits. Settling back in front of the TV, she munched her way through the packet, surprised when it lay empty in her lap. “I’ll have to run that off tomorrow,” she spoke aloud. “Well, if I’ve already blown the diet, I might as well make the most of it.” L She reached for her phone, and dialled for pizza delivery. Wine didn’t mix with her pills, but she couldn’t resist a glass of red.

Banging on her door woke Janine. Dusky sunlight streamed into the room. Her neck was stiff, her back sore, and the empty bottle and packets shocked her. Surely she hadn’t consumed so much? Stumbling to the door, she fumbled with the latch. There was no one there. Then she heard the laughter. It was unmistakable. That was Marnie’s distinctive snorting laugh! Janine ran out into the hallway, seeing only Mr Granger. “Did you hear that? she asked.

“Hear what?”

“The laughter.”

“What laughter? I didn’t hear a thing. Hey what are you on? This is a respectable building!”

Janine ran round the corner, hearing the laughter again, but the corridors were empty. She ran all the way to the entrance, but there was no one in sight. The laughter stopped. She leaned against the wall, knees trembling. “Great, now I’m hearing things too!”  But it had been so good to hear Marnie’s laugh again. “Marnie, I miss you,” she whispered. Slowly, she retraced her steps to the flat. ‘I’m glad no one’s around,” she muttered, realizing she was still in her pyjamas, hair dishevelled.

Returning to her apartment, she swore when she saw the closed door. She pushed against it, hoping it hadn’t locked, but it wouldn’t budge. Swearing fluently, she went in search of the building supervisor and a spare key. “Are you all right Janine?” Mrs Gray asked, taking in the pyjamas, dishevelled hair. She wrinkled her nose as she caught a whiff of body odour. This was not the Janine she knew.

“Sorry to bother you, but I managed to lock myself out. Could you let me into my flat please?”

“Of course, I’ll grab my keys.”

Mrs Gray waddled along the corridors with Janine. “I haven’t seen you for a while dear, but you’re looking a little peaky. Are you sure you’re not coming down with something?”

“I’m okay, I’ve been really busy at work,” Janine lied. How did you tell someone you thought you were losing your mind?

Safely ensconced in her flat again, Janine cleared up the mess in the lounge. “Tomorrow, I have to get my act together.”

In spite of the pills, she woke in the night to Marnie’s laughter. “You could have saved me. Why didn’t you help me?”

Janine screamed, turned on the light, and the voice disappeared. “It was just a bad dream,” she told herself. But it had seemed so real. Too afraid to go back to sleep, she read until dawn, finally falling into a deep sleep.

The doorbell woke her, but again no one was there. “Must be kids mucking around,” she muttered. Being signed off work had sounded like bliss, but the reality of the empty flat quickly closed in on Janine. She turned to TV to fill the silence, but couldn’t remember what she’d watched. The pills left her feeling calmer, but her mind was foggy, and items kept disappearing and reappearing in strange places. The doorbell rang but no one was there. She answered her phone to dead air, and when she blocked the numbers, a new one would appear. Marnie’s voice haunted her, and with the combination of pills and fatigue, days drifted into each other, TV plots merged, and the fog swallowed her. Lying on the bathroom floor sobbing, Janine finally understood why Marnie found suicide appealing.

“Janine, you missed your appointment. Are you all right?” For once there was someone on the line.

“What day is it? I lost track of time.”

“I think you should come in and see me now. I’ll clear my schedule.”

“It’s only for a short while, so that we can monitor your condition,”’ the nurse said, tucking Janine into starched sheets. “You have a good sleep and we’ll have you feeling better in no time.” To Janine’s surprise, the nurse was right, and she did start feeling better. She slept through the night without bad dreams, voices or ringing doorbells. She ate properly, walked in the grounds. The new medication kept her calm, but the overwhelming fatigue was gone. She found her few possessions where she’d left them. Within a few weeks, she felt like her old self again.

Walking in the gardens, she enjoyed the sunshine. It was nice to come and go without worrying about keys. Keys! That was how this had all started. A thought floated to the surface of her consciousness. John had never returned Janine’s spare key. She would change the locks when she got home, rather than ask for it back. Hold on, her mind interrupted, if he had the key, he could get into her flat. Could he have been behind her torments? No, of course not, she shook her head, trying to dislodge the idea. She wasn’t about to replace depression with paranoia. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean he isn’t out to get you.”

“Oh come on,” she said aloud, then laughed as she realized this was the one place where it was totally acceptable, even expected, to talk to yourself.

Once the thought had lodged itself in her mind, she found she could not dislodge it. She’d have to prove to herself that she was wrong. If he’d been in her flat, there would be evidence.

“I think I need to visit my flat again, confront my fears.”

“That’s a very good idea. I would suggest though that you don’t leave us just yet — perhaps you could go home for an afternoon, and we’ll see how that goes.”

Her was dusty and felt neglected. Janine set to work cleaning. She searched for any evidence that John had been behind what had happened to her, finding nothing. It was all in her mind. Somehow, that wasn’t a reassuring thought.

Feeling tired, she lay down on her bed, looking up at the ceiling. Cobwebs had formed on the light fitting. She stood on the bed to brush them away, and noticed a black mark on the ceiling. She touched it, felt it move. Something was stuck in the ceiling. Using her fingernail, she pulled it out, startled to see a tiny lens. Another tug, and a length of cable unravelled and fell from the ceiling. The hole grew larger, and tiny speakers followed. How could he? She was livid. She had her evidence. What was she going to do with it? But what if it wasn’t him?

She passed Mrs. Gray in the foyer. “Lovely to see you looking so much better.” Mrs. Gray said.

“Oh, I feel like a different person.”

“It’s a pity that young man didn’t get help like you did. Perhaps then he wouldn’t have jumped from his balcony. So sad especially after his fiancé’s suicide. I suppose he couldn’t live without her.

“I’m sure that was it,” Janine agreed.

“Of course, she was your sister too. So tragic.”

In the spring sunshine, Janine recognized a long-remembered emotion. She was happy. She was back at work, in a new job that she liked. Her psychiatrist thought the pills and therapy were working, and had cut her loose. Only Janine knew what had really “cured” her. She was looking forward to enjoying her life again.

Janine woke in the middle of the night, cold sweat covering her face. She rubbed her eyes and stared at the image flickering on her wall, her skin chilling. “Not again,” she screamed.

Even with her hands covering her ears, John’s voice was clear: “Why did you do it?”

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