Read part I here.
Darcy and her 9 return two hours later with a pair of Primark sunglasses and a neck pillow. Not the plush fabric kind, though – the awful, blow-up variety that has seams that scratch at your skin and rustle in your ears every time you move. Can’t imagine sleeping on it.
‘What’s this about?’
‘For the drive home, my love.’ She slips the arms of the glasses over my ears, letting her thumb linger on my cheek. ‘Keep out all the bright lights.’
I feel like a twat. Middle of November and I’m being tentatively guided to my own car, oversized women’s sunglasses on my face. I keep my head down as we wander the halls towards the exit, not quite ready for the onslaught of numbers that no doubt waits beyond the ward. We sign out at reception and I stumble over my words when Biz asks my name, her 0 dazzling me even through the dark lenses.
I refuse to use the pillow until I’m safely behind the closed doors of my home, though just five minutes into the drive I can feel my neck stiffening. 0’s and the occasional 1 scurry around like worker ants, carrying their wares back to their nest. Never any 9’s. I rest my sore arm on top of my belly and close my eyes, blocking out the numbers as they glide past the window.
‘Poor thing. Does your head hurt?’
But even behind closed lids there’s no escape; burnt-in memories of white lights skid across my mind’s eye, ouroboric entities that seem meaningless but must mean something.
Darcy’s a shit driver. She’s trying her hardest for the journey to run smoothly, a consistent five miles under the speed limit wherever we go. But she’ll never fully understand the concept of stopping distances. She practically slams on the brakes at a red, sending empty bottles skidding out from under my seat. My eyes snap open as I’m ploughed roughly into the headrest, stars momentarily obscuring the numbers.
‘Oh, dear. See, this is why I got you the pillow,’ she coos. 9 flashes playfully at me.
Darcy’s curled at the end of the sofa, black coffee in one hand and her phone in the other. Her 9 winks at me, a persistent reminder. Tearing my gaze away, I peer at the old desktop I’ve been hoarding for far too long, the brightness turned as far down as possible so I don’t strain my sore eyes. I stretch my fingers, splaying them across the keyboard, before typing the words slowly and deliberately.
Seeing numbers after concussion.
The search engine jumps to life: the signs, the symptoms, the medication, or lack of. ‘Confusion and memory loss are perfectly normal side effects’, just like Nance said. Graphs and statistics, numbers but no numbers.
Nothing on hallucinations.
I try a few more. Hallucinating and concussion. Concussed and seeing things. Bright lights that look like numbers? I scour forums and Facebook pages, blog posts and news articles. Nothing. Nothing. I feel like necking a bottle of red and taking the numbers to bed with me, drowning them in the sweet silence of inebriated slumber.
The 9 continues to glow at me from the corner of my eye, taunting me. I think back to all the 0’s skirting past the car, so many I lost count. Yet here’s Darcy, silently shadowed by an illuminated 9. I watch the shreds of white light it casts along her parting, turning her dark hair silver, until my eyes water. When she spots me, she snaps her head round to the wall behind her. Obviously seeing nothing, she immediately lifts her hand to her scalp, leaving her phone in her lap.
‘What? What is it?’
‘Nothing,’ I say, massaging my brow with my knuckles. ‘Just tuned out for a moment.’
She frowns at me before turning her attention back to her phone. Her thumb scrolls to an internal pulse, her gaze stony. Every now and then her 9 brightens, making my head spin. I squeeze my eyes shut and cling to the edge of the desk, frantically grasping for stability so I don’t land on my head again.
‘Are you drunk?’ She’s staring at me, one brow raised. She knows how much I hate that.
‘I’m not fucking drunk, Dee.’
‘Don’t swear at me! You can’t blame me for worrying. Next time you get a call saying your partner’s got blackout drunk, cracked their head open, and had their stomach pumped, come and let me know how it feels. Because it doesn’t feel good, Will.’ She slams her mug down onto the coffee table, steaming liquid splashing over the lip. 9 flickers angrily at me like an oxygenated flame.
‘I know. Things are weird, though, Darcy. It’s been weird since I woke up.’ I’ll tell her.
‘Well, what do you expect? Your brain was smashed against an iron radiator and starved of oxygen for nearly four minutes.’ She folds her arms across her chest and pouts. ‘Can’t imagine the amount of vodka you drank helped, either,’ she mumbles.
‘Would you stop trying to make me feel worse? I got my karma, didn’t I? Maybe you could try helping me out of this hole, rather than pushing me back in.’
‘What do you think I’ve been trying to do for the last nine months?’ She’s up, the blanket she was under now wilting beneath us, her phone clattering across the hardwood floor. Her hazel eyes flash almost as venomously as her number.
I can’t tell her. I think back to all the times she’s cried at my feet, begging me to get help. Or hidden the drinks and car keys, sobbing when she realised I’d found a bottle of Jack in the outside bin while she was at work. But there’s no sadness anymore. No tears. Just anger. It emanates from her 9, an ominous glow that sets my skin tingling. Anger.
‘How do you know it was the radiator?’
‘The radiator. How do you know it was the radiator I hit my head on? They never said it was the radiator. They found me by the front door.’
Whiskey in hand, I slump back into the armchair, defeated. My mind is racing with numbers and theories. The amber liquid in my glass glints sporadically as it catches the daylight that’s melting away behind me. I’m reminded of Darcy’s 9, grinning at me, teasing me, like it knows there’s nothing I can do. I swirl it away absent-mindedly, momentarily enjoying the gentle clink of ice on glass, before knocking it back. Dragging my hand across my lips, I lean for a refill. Darcy hates it when I get stuff in my beard.
I pour a hearty helping of bourbon over the last of my ice – making a mental note to take a drive to the Spar down the road when I’m feeling better – and tip it down my throat. The warmth spreads up to my nostrils, landing heavily in my chest, and I feel that familiar pang of longing. Longing for a moment of quiet, for the thoughts to stop so that everything can get back to how it used to be. Before doctors and midwives, birthing pools and baby names, Lamaze breathing and numbers, numbers everywhere. I slam back another glass to scare them away. The ice is melting, watering it down, so I resort to clinging to the neck of the bottle instead. What’s the point in pouring it from one vessel to another just for it to all end up in your stomach, anyway?
The clock is pissing me off. A huge, brown thing that Darcy insisted on bringing when she moved in. Churning out tocs and tics, the rhythm itching at my ears. The smallest arm flicks past the nine.
9… I take another hit and the ache in the back of my head begins to dwindle, though the pressure behind my eyes persists. I finger the dressing, imagining tugging it free and delving inside, ripping out whatever was put in there that’s changed me. Push the fuse that was tripped when I smacked it.
Another. Darcy will be pissed.
Another, just to spite her.
That fucking clock. I watch it and will it to fall off the hook, but my eyes can’t stay pinned to one spot. The clockface slides away, melting down the wall as if my attempts at telekinesis have paid off. But it snaps back up again when I re-centre myself.
Another. I welcome the white noise that’s humming in my eardrums, drowning out the fucking tic tic tic. another. darcy will be home soon. another. at least when i’m alone there are no numbers. numbers numbers numbers. another. 0’s and 0’s and 0’s. another another another. what did i do wrong another my eyes hurt another let them close another darkness one more one more won’t hurt one more scream smash gone
I wake up on the sofa, all traces of whiskey and daylight vanished. Her blanket is draped across my torso, a glass of water just visible through the darkness. The clock tics past three. My head. Oh, God, my head. I ease myself up onto my elbow and stretch for the water, holding back a gasp of relief as it hits my throat.
Something catches my eye.
An ominous 9 glowing through the darkness like moonlight.