With Great Power by Hannah Simpson
Number One was really sweet. He had butterscotch hair, played cricket and was endlessly optimistic. He was beautiful to me, with his dimpled smile and gentle voice and his embarrassing taste in music. At the age of fifteen, I – perhaps foolishly – thought he was ‘the one’. You couldn’t wish for a better first boyfriend. He asked me to go to Pizza Hut with him and we held hands. This continued for several months of very innocent Sunday afternoon walks and tentative teenage kisses. On my sixteenth birthday, he cooked me dinner at his older brother’s empty flat and told me he loved me and ‘made me a woman’ on a towel on the living room floor. It was…nice. It didn’t hurt as much as all the magazines said it would and he was very gentle. Attentive. We fell asleep on the sofa wrapped in a blanket and each other, bathed in the glow of a late night sitcom repeat. It was basically every cliché in the book and that was perfectly fine by me. All my friends were jealous as I coyly gave them choice details in a hushed whisper over lukewarm chips in the school canteen.
Two weeks later, there was an urgent assembly about safety on the roads. A boy in the year above had been killed in a hit and run on his way home from cricket practice the day before. As soon as his latest school photo appeared on the PowerPoint behind the teacher’s head, I stopped listening. Obviously it was James, my James, I’m sure you’d guessed that. I should have guessed it really; he would dutifully ring me every night before we went to sleep, and I hadn’t had my Sunday night call. I’d just assumed he was tired. I hadn’t worried. I hadn’t imagined I had reason to worry. Fifteen-year-olds don’t. The ground dropped out from under me and I couldn’t drag my gaze away from those big blue eyes on the screen. I felt most of my row of the assembly hall turn to crane at me and see how I was taking the news. I didn’t cry. Not then. I couldn’t, under all that scrutiny. I spent the next year being nothing more than the girlfriend of the dead boy, ignoring the poorly-concealed whispers and the pitying glances. The Miss Havisham of Sanderson High School. Not exactly how I’d want to be remembered.
Number Two was very different. He was almost painfully skinny, emaciated in a way that only junkies, cancer patients and boys who write poetry can be. Every muscle and sinew of his frame seemed visible through his tissue paper skin. His bones were sharp, all angles and edges, and something about that appealed to eighteen-year-old me. I loved the way he curled over his guitar – sometimes he seemed to be sheltering it, at others he was restraining it – either way, his body constantly rocked and contorted in time with the drum’s beat coming from the back of the stage. He poured all the anger and hurt that the world suffered from out through the strings. He was mesmerizing.
Someone told me that his name was Jinx and I hung around the bar for much longer than was casual trying to start a conversation. This was the drill for the next four of his band’s gigs that I just happened to be at. It was at that point that he invited me back to his grotty student flat for a night cap. I learned that his real name was Theodore and that he didn’t ‘do’ the groupie thing. Probably because of the other thing that I learned; he was prone to crying straight after sex.
“This always happens,” he murmured as he wiped a post-coital tear from his cheek and lit a cigarette. I lay on the mattress on the floor that served as his bed (apparently it was how Bowie did it), feeling distinctly underwhelmed.
The next few times were better, although each tryst was immediately followed by tears which I found spoiled the mood. He’d hunch over his guitar at the end of the mattress, cigarette clamped between his teeth and serenade me with wordless chords. He said he was writing a song for me, and I knew I should have been more impressed than I was. This sort of rock and roll romance was wasted on me.
You might think that Theodore’s death would have been self-inflicted – he always struck me as the type who was simply too sensitive to be long for this world. But no. He met his untimely end at the hands of a clumsy technician and a falling lighting rig. It was a tragic accident and not half as glamorous as he would have liked. His band replaced him within a month. I couldn’t help but feel guilty.
Number Three was worse. I was twenty one, working as a receptionist for an insurance company and dreaming about a time when I might put my Psychology degree to a better use than just trying to convince myself that this whole death thing was nothing more than a delusion of grandeur. Daniel worked over in Accounts and, at the age of twenty five, had just finished penning his first novel. That was how we got chatting; he saw me immersed in whatever bestseller had been recommended in the newspaper that week, and asked if I’d like to proofread his manuscript. It was no great work of literary genius and I was no editorial whizz, but it was a solid enjoyable crime thriller with a couple of clever twists but more than a couple of plot holes. Above all, it gave me an excuse to speak to him. By the time the killer had been brought to justice, we were much closer than I could ever have dared to hope.
“I really didn’t expect it to end that way,” I told him, trying to focus on my thoughts as he kissed my neck. “Those last few lines as they led her from the courtroom. Very…bold.” His response merely involved kissing me a little more fervently, so I mentally adjourned the literary meeting. It was a fun evening and, refreshingly, no one cried. He left at around one a.m., kissing me tenderly as we stood in the doorway of my flat and promising that we’d have to meet up again soon.
I rose early the next morning, taking extra care over my make up and underwear choices, and floated all the way to my desk. I deliberately arrived before the time he normally clocked in so that I could catch him before he headed to his department, but eight forty seven came and went with no sign of Daniel. As did nine forty seven. No one else seemed concerned. Time ticked on and I struggled to concentrate on my work as a knot of concern tightened just between my collar bones. The words on the screen danced and blurred in front of my eyes, and my shaking hands dialed several wrong numbers throughout the course of the morning.
Daniel had been mugged on his way from my flat to his car, parked four streets away in an area that most people tended to avoid once the streetlights came on. He was held at knifepoint and when he tried to reason with the group of teenagers rather than handing over his wallet and mobile phone as they’d asked, they stabbed him three times in the chest and left him for dead. That was what the news report said. He was found by a couple on their way home from a party and rushed to hospital, but it was too late. As soon as the announcement was made in the office, I had to sprint to the ladies to vomit. I’d had a sneaking suspicion but I’d been desperately hoping that that suspicion would be wrong.
So now I don’t bother. It’s safer this way. Maybe it is all a fluke but I’m not willing to take that risk. It’s been nearly five years and I refuse to be responsible for any more fatalities, so I avoid any and all situations in which I might find myself tempted. I used to at least try to have a normal social life, going to bars with friends or making vaguely flirtatious conversation with the barista who made my morning coffee every day. It didn’t take long before I realized that these attempts were a waste of everybody’s time since I knew that I couldn’t do anything more than smile and toss my hair. A girly night out isn’t the same when all your mates have pulled and you’re too scared of killing someone to do anything but get a taxi home by yourself. Going on a date feels a bit unfair on the guy who I know won’t get any more than a peck on the cheek at the end of the night. I’ve never been one for sleeping around, but it might be nice to have that option. While all my friends are either embracing their single lifestyle or settling down, I’m sitting at home too terrified to even think about a member of the opposite sex. So I try not to think about it as much as is humanly possible.
I’d never confided in anyone. I knew no one would believe me. Sometimes I even had the occasional blissful moment where I’d wonder if it could possibly be true – never more than a moment before the weight of evidence returned to lie heavy on my shoulders. The idea of sharing it with any other person always felt like it would make it all the more real at the same time as making it sound all the more stupid. While the whole thing and all the memories lived solely in my head, I felt safer. All the same, it became a struggle to carry on with my life as though nothing were wrong. My friends kept telling me that I’d changed and there’s only so many invitations you can turn down before people stop bothering to ask. At every family party, I had to withstand the ever-increasing barrage of intrusive ‘when are you going to get yourself a man?’ After several glasses of champagne at my cousin’s wedding, my mother tearfully told me that it would be fine by her if I were a lesbian. Eventually, I cracked. I didn’t want to be forty and still locked away in my one-bed flat with my own worried thoughts. I couldn’t even become one of those spinsters with cats because I’m allergic. I started seeing a therapist, even though I’d always considered it to be self-indulgent waste of time reserved for Americans. I could feel myself nearing the end of my tether and I hoped a drastic measure might help.
It has, somewhat. It’s the reason I’m writing this. Dr. ‘Call Me Eileen’ Patrick thought that getting everything down on paper might help me make sense of it all. I think she also hoped it would show me how far-fetched the whole thing is. She’s never said it, but I can tell she doesn’t really believe me. She never says one way or another. It’s all about what I think, how I’m feeling and what I think I should do. It’s endlessly frustrating. I don’t know the first thing about her, which makes all our interactions feel very odd and false. It’s not a conversation when only one person contributes. I said that to her once, and still she just nodded and made a note in her little book. Her little book disconcerts me. Her face is always perfectly noncommittal as she makes note after note, never giving anything away. But I do think it might be helping, just a little.
I met him in the waiting room. At first he was very quiet, almost entirely ignoring me as we sat against opposite walls flicking through outdated magazines. That was perfectly fine by me. That was what I wanted. But unfortunately it didn’t take long before he was making eye contact and trying to hold it for much longer than was comfortable. Then he tried speaking to me and even though I’d never respond, he started confessing outlandish things that I definitely didn’t want to hear. He says he’s a sex addict like he’s proud of it. He says that he has no control over his urges when he’s around women. I try not to listen but my silence seems to spur him on. He says he sees me as a challenge. He likes a challenge. He seems to get off on telling me some of the hideous things he’s done to women he’s slept with, or the things he’d do to me if I’d let him. Even if I wouldn’t let him – that implication is very clear. For the patient of a therapist, he seems to have little inclination towards changing his behaviour. Particularly to start with, he made it increasingly difficult for me to even go to my weekly appointment. Just sitting in the same room as him makes my throat constrict and my cheeks flush with panic. It’s a feeling I had become unaccustomed to, despite it dominating my teens and early twenties. Walking around the city on my own, or passing a group of rowdy-looking men, or debating having that one extra drink at a friend’s birthday party. Even now, I’m constantly preoccupied by unmarked cabs and dark alleys despite the fact I, at least, have a means of punishing any unsuspecting attacker.
That particular thought has been overwhelming recently. I’m sure Eileen would be disappointed in me for even considering it…mostly because to her, it would indicate that I am nowhere near reaching a point of dismissing and moving on from this delusion she believes I’m labouring under. But I can’t shake the feeling that maybe this is what I’m supposed to do. Maybe there’s a way of utilising this thing, maybe there’s a reason I’m like this, and maybe he’s the first step. I’ve been losing sleep over whether I could go through with it. Whether putting myself in that position would be worth it. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a risk I think I’m willing to take. Who knows what he’s capable, how many girls I could be saving? I know what damage I can inflict, and I want to use it for good.