The pills sit on the corner of the chest of drawers beside her bed.
They stand out amidst the clutter of a quietly chaotic life, catching her eye as she stumbles over tangles of discarded clothing and pulls on yesterday’s leggings. The little pink and white box, torn at one end, holds a radiance at odds with the dim room.
As she passes through the door on her way to the bathroom they call out, softly.
‘Here! We’re here! Don’t forget us. We can make it all better.’
‘I know,’ she says to the distorted face in the mirror. ‘I know.’
A wave of nausea hits. She closes her eyes and leans her head forwards onto the cool, smeared surface. An hour seems to pass.
Back in the bedroom she tugs open the curtain. Late morning sunshine stings her eyes, but the soft halo of light emanating from the box still dominates. Exhausted, she sits on the unmade bed and the pills sing a gentle lullaby.
There are thirteen remaining in the packet. Thirteen little capsules nestled in their foil cocoons, waiting to be pressed into service. She’s been relying on them less of late, turning them down gently in the hope of ending the relationship. But they’re clinging. They’re not happy. They want to be needed. As she rises to leave the room again they become petulant.
‘You’ll be back,’ they warn. ‘Don’t say we didn’t tell you. You know it’s for the best.’
She shuts the door firmly, and then re-opens it, just a little way. The pills sense her weakness and begin to sing again. Neon leaks through the gaps in the song. Her head throbs and there is a metallic taste in her mouth.
As the afternoon progresses in a welter of unfinished tasks and an unrequited craving for carbohydrates, the singing of the pills becomes louder and louder. There is a constant chorus filling her head, flooding the flat. It is insistent, tortuous, deafening at times. Her own thoughts give up and float away, blown out of her brain by this endless, pounding soundtrack. The pills have an eclectic taste in music but it is not subtle.
‘I want you to want me,’ they sing. ‘I need you to need me –’
‘Please,’ she says. ‘Just — stop.’
‘I’m BEGGIN’ you to BEG me –’
She tries to fight back with I Will Survive, rocking back and forth and pressing sweaty palms tight over her ears, but somehow Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head keeps breaking through. One of the pills is singing out of tune. She takes heart from this and pulls the bedroom door shut again. Retreating to the sofa she drinks the strong black coffee she finds there. It is cold but it seems to help.
Later she summons up the strength to go to the corner shop. There is an outraged howl from the bedroom as she steps outside into the cooling air. She hurries away without checking for her purse. When she returns twenty minutes later, empty handed and tearful, the air in the flat seems to purr in welcome.
‘We forgive you,’ croon the pills. ‘We’ll look after you.’
She steps towards the bedroom door and the pills break into a gentle but confident chorus of Coldplay’s Fix You. They are in tune and so is she. Maybe they are right – she’s not ready for this. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Not really.
As she reaches for the door handle the phone rings, its demanding clamour halting her, arm in mid-air. It is a friend whom she adores but never wants to bother. They have cheerful, inconsequential conversation about television programmes and good books. She does not have to say much; her friend talks of promotion, her boyfriend and the perils of house-hunting. Plans are made for a lunch ‘soon’. A theatre trip is mooted.
‘But how are you?’ — this as the call is drawing to a natural end. She hesitates. All around her is silence.
‘I’m good,’ she says.
And in that moment she is. She feels connected, in the world again. Ready to tidy up that bedroom and make an effort. To get everything sorted for a fresh start to the new week. ’Tidy house: tidy mind’ – isn’t that what they say?
The bedroom is at peace now. No glow. No sound. She bundles clothing into the laundry basket, kicks shoes under the bed and closes cupboard doors.
As she leans over to straighten the pillows there is a menacing foil rattle from the little packet. With a grand gesture she pulls open the top drawer and sweeps the pills on a mini-tidal wave of tissues, tampons and toiletries into its dark depths.
‘We’re here when you need us,’ they call. ‘Don’t be a stranger.’
She slides the drawer closed and holds her breath. It is a small triumph but it is the third of its kind in a week.
Later she sleeps.
She dreams. Sweats and shudders. The room lightens. She wakes. And listens.
The singing has started again.
Sarah Mackey lives in London and writes fiction to counteract years of writing for business. In 2017 Sarah came third in the Bath Short Story Award and won the Ilkley LitFest Competition. Her work features in Between the Lines and Writers’ Forum and is shortlisted for BSSA 2018. You can follow her tweets here.