Light As Air: Olivia

Here’s another excerpt from the NaNoWriMo project. Meet our hero’s leather-clad, plot-important big sister.

I’ll come to reclaim it soon, the angel said. I should be less than a week, the angel said.

Absolute bollocks.

It’s been a week and a half since “the visitation,” as Adrian has taken to calling it in his head – and only in his head. After all, if he told people what happened, who would believe him? She hasn’t returned. He wonders if there’s some sort of celestial paperwork she has to fill out before she can manhandle him again.

The book arrived three days ago, and it’s been sitting, barely touched, in the draw underneath his desk. It’s hideous. Adrian’s never really concerned himself too much with aesthetics, but even he can tell. It’s large, somewhere around A4, and as thick as a damn housebrick. Also, someone, for some godforsaken reason, has dyed the leather of its covers lime green. It’s as if it has been designed especially to warn people off – to go, Pick this book up? Read it? God no, why would you ever do that?

Even so, Adrian almost thinks he can feel it watching him. It sits there in its little cave, singing to him. Calling him to open it and discover what lies in its pages.

That’s overly poetic nonsense, of course. He’s well aware of why he feels this way. It’s because the angel ordered him not to open it. He wonders if he could do it without her knowing. Maybe she’ll smite him if he does. Or she might think of something worse – something devious – like…

He’s honestly not sure, now he thinks about it. Would an angel be petty enough to give him genital warts or something? Perhaps this angel would.

He wonders why the key to saving the Scholars seems to lie in such an unwieldy, and, as his sister would say, fugly book. His hands twitch, his fingertips itching, tingling as though they’re already turning phantom pages. He’s never been a man of particularly impressive willpower, and the wait has become more of a trial with every passing day. He’s uncertain how much longer he can hold out.

Genital warts, he thinks desperately, wincing as he does so. Genital warts, or maybe even crabs…

The bell above the door rings. “Adrian?”

He opens his eyes and a woman is standing by the door, frowning at him – she just isn’t the one he expected. “Hi,” he says, caught between sighing in relief and grunting in frustration.

“Hello yourself,” his sister replies. She stands silhouetted in the light streaming through the door window, rocking on her heels a little. She’s never been able to keep still; you can read her body like a book, any kind of emotion expressed in the way she moves, in the way she holds herself. Both she and the angel take up space in a room, space that amounts to far more than their actual size, but the angel does it with a terrifying placid sort of stillness and surety; Olivia might as well be a hurricane in comparison. Sunlight touches hair as blonde as his, making it shine. The heavy leather jacket she seems to live in pads her frame, makes her seem broad. It’s deceptive. She’s ridiculously strong – he knows from personal experience that she could fairly easily pick him up, and she does a lot to stay in shape – but that strength’s expressed in wiry, lean muscle, not bulk. She approaches him cautiously. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” he lies. Never mind that his entire world view’s been turned upside-down, and that bloody angels exist, contrary to everything he’s been told. There are more things in heaven and earth, something whispers at the back of his mind, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. “Would it be really pretentious if I felt like randomly quoting Shakespeare, because it applies very well to my situation?”

“Yes,” Olivia says, without needing a moment’s thought beforehand. Adrian wonders if he should be offended. “Yes it would.”

“Thought so,” he sighs. Too long spent on a bloody Literature course. He’s always reckoned that Literature degrees do bad things to the mind. They fill you with pseudo-profundity, make you feel like everything in your life is foreshadowing for the action and the associated revelations. Then the actual action never comes along, so you end up having a mid-life crisis at the age of twenty-one and setting up a bookshop.

He doesn’t even like Shakespeare that much, for God’s sake.

“Why?” she asks. “What’s got you desperate enough to resort to Shakespeare?”

He shakes his head, a rueful half-smile creeping onto his face. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

She sits on the edge of the counter, looking down at him with her “listening” smile, the one she uses when she’s determined to be understanding. Unfortunately, it also means that she won’t stop until she’s wormed the entire fantastical, ridiculous story out of him – every last word of it. Then she’ll laugh at him.

“Trust me,” he says again. He glances at the clock. It’s just turned eleven-thirty. “Want a cuppa?”

She shrugs. “Why not?”

He scrabbles for the “closed for lunch” sign – really nothing more than a hastily scrawled-on piece of lined paper – and then heads over to blu-tack it onto the door. “Right.”

~

When he returns from the kitchen with a couple of cups of tea, Olivia is in the back room; she’s sprawled on the sofa, her legs tucked underneath her and resting on the seat cushions. At least she’s taken off her Doc Martens – they sit, neatly placed next to the sofa, their scuffed, old red leather seeming to match the darkwood around the room and the glass coffee table. “Thanks,” she says, gratefully accepting the mug when he offers it. She’s taken off her jacket, too, he notices – it’s folded and placed on the arm, leaving her in a slightly faded London Calling T-shirt.

“How’s the job-hunting going?”

She winces. “It’s not. That’s kind of the problem. I’ve even been desperate enough to look for bloody waitressing work, but one of the places had a skirt as obligatory uniform.”

“For the male members of staff?”

She gives him a very eloquent look, and it’s enough to make him shut up. “That seemed like such total bollocks that I didn’t exactly try that hard for the job.”

“Surely there were other places…?”

“A few. Not that many vacancies, though. Most of them are taken up by students who are young, enthusiastic and so skint they’ll work for anything.”

He takes his usual chair, sighing a little. Oh God. He’s already old. He’s making noises when he sits down. One minute it’s sighing and the next it’s ooh, me knees. “You could always go back to the old place,” he suggests. “I’m certain they’d be glad to have you.”

“I’m not.” She keeps her eyes on her cup. There’s a slight shake of her head, but otherwise she seems eerily still. It bothers him, and, though he’s loath to admit it, scares him a little. He wonders if his life is settling into a pattern – odd women barging into his shop and scaring the shit out of him, simply in different ways. He hopes not.

“I’m sure you’d be glad, at least.”

She shrugs, still doesn’t look at him. “Maybe.” She finally seems to rejoin the land of the living, lifting her head and frowning at him. “What was the quote?”

He looks up. “Hm?”

“What was the quote? And does Mum have anything to do with this? I know she’s been a little… her lately, but – ”

He shakes his head. “No, no. We’re fine. We’re always fine.” He tries to put it in words that won’t end up with him getting institutionalised. “Basically, there’s… there’s this buyer.” When Olivia frowns a little but doesn’t say anything more, he continues, “She’s a little demanding. She said she’d return for a book in a week, and it’s been – well, it’s been three days longer than that.”

“Sounds like she’s messing you around.” Olivia frowns. “Just cancel the order. Tell her to cough up the money or sod off.”

“I wish it were that simple.” He takes a half-hearted sip of the tea before putting it back down. “I’ve already bought the book. And I have to wait for her, or…” His hands start shaking, and he trails off, trying once again to find the words.

Olivia’s spotted it. She’s watching his trembling fingers. Bugger. “You know,” she says, levelly, overly casually – and that’s when you should be afraid, when Olivia talks to you like she hasn’t a care in the world – “it sounds awfully as if she threatened you.”

“It’s not…” Adrian chokes on it in his fear, can’t possibly think of a way to explain it. “She didn’t. Exactly.”

“Then what did she do, Adrian?”

“She… Bollocks.”

“Adrian?”

He wishes she wouldn’t do that. Their mother does it too, when she’s angry with him. Olivia would murder him if he said that; any similarities to her mother, perceived or otherwise, cause her to bristle. Or worse – more likely – curl in on herself, try and hide the hurt but not quite succeed.

“Well, you know how it’s always seemed that angels are mythical? They don’t in any way exist?”

“Yes,” Olivia says slowly, frowning and obviously not following at all.

“That… isn’t strictly true.”

Olivia stares at him. She probably believes that he’s lost his mind. “What are you saying?”

“The buyer I talked about – she wasn’t really a she. I mean, quite frankly, she wasn’t even human, she said she was simply wearing a convenient face with which to speak to me, and that does rather seem to be the case…”

As he’s been talking, Olivia has slowly been going pale – well, paler, seeing as they’ve both inherited their mother’s distinctly Irish complexion. “You’re saying your buyer was an angel?”

Adrian swallows, his throat suddenly dry. “Yes.”

“An angel as in wings, halo, holy light?”

“Indeed.”

“And she told you this?”

“Eventually. After she’d done this thing.”

“A ‘thing’?” Olivia is sounding more worried by the second.

“It’s, it’s like she spoke to me, and I couldn’t help but obey. She had about a million voices at once.”

“That’s… You know how crazy that sounds, don’t you?”

“Believe me, I do, but it’s the truth. I didn’t believe her either at first, and then she said that the book…” How can he even begin to explain? “If I didn’t acquire the book for her, every Scholar on the register would die.”

Olivia stares at him, looking appalled. “She threatened every Scholar?”

“No,” he protested, with a vehement shake of her head. “She seemed to be trying to stop the killings, and she seemed to think that the book would be instrumental in that process.”

Silence descends. Olivia gulps a mouthful of tea and seems to debate with herself about saying whatever she’s going to next. “I dearly want to believe you, because you’re my little brother and I know you too well to think that you’ve truly gone round the bend, but this – this bothers me. Are you sure you were awake?”

“Certain.”

“And no offence, but had you, uh, taken anything?”

He glares at her. “You know perfectly well I don’t indulge in that sort of crap…”

“Fine. OK. Then what happened?

“Exactly what I told you. An angel visited me, and she said I had to get the book for her. I didn’t exactly have much choice.”

The silence returns with a vengeance. Olivia, saying nothing, instead gives him a Look, her eyes saying clearly, Are you kidding me?

“That’s the truth. Take it or leave it.”

She scowls down at her mug, but after a moment, it’s replaced by a smile. “I’m going to leave it, if you don’t mind.”

He shrugs, staring into the kitchen so that he won’t have to look at her. It’s a little crushing, he has to admit. It isn’t as if he was expecting to be believed – well no, perhaps part of him was. Olivia has always been so resolutely on his side that he expected her support in this as well.

“You’re sulking.”

He tries to bat the accusation away, shaking his head and still not looking at her.

“I recognise this, Adrian. You are sulking, and you’re making a really bad job at pretending otherwise. I’m sorry, it just sounds a little… You don’t want to be shouting this stuff around.”

“I wasn’t about to. If I recall, I didn’t even want to tell you. I’m certainly regretting it now.”

“No, I didn’t mean…” She sighs. “Some people already think you have a target painted on your chest.” She waves a hand at his watch, and he grits his teeth. (He knows that, goddammit. He’s found out the hard way.) “I just… think you don’t need any more undue attention. If you know what I mean.”

“I’m not sure I do.”

He drains his mug and heads through to the kitchen, putting his back to her before she can try and protest. He starts washing it up, placing it to dry with a distinct clang. The sound makes him wince. God, he’s behaving like his mother – all passive-aggressive silences and slamming things around. He knows that alone will drive Olivia nuts, but right now he isn’t kind enough to stop. He knows she’s right; he knows how it sounds. Even so…

“Little brother.” It’s a sigh more than anything – her tone is wrapped in reconciliation; she’s about to try and apologise, to try and make it up to him. From the sound of her voice, she’s leaning in the doorway.

He isn’t entirely sure she should have to, really. He’s being incredibly unreasonable. Still, he draws it out somewhat longer, drying his hands and pointedly keeping his back to her.

“Adrian, I’m sorry.”

His hands seem to need an awful lot of drying. “I know.”

“Look, just – just sleep on it. It’ll make sense in the morning.”

“I’ve had four days, Olivia. Three nights of sleep. Funnily enough, it still isn’t making any more sense. I don’t know why it happened, but an angel’s started ordering me around, and truth be told, I’m rather frightened.”

She approaches him slowly, as if he’s an animal she’s afraid to spook. Somewhere in his rant, he must have turned around. “OK. Look, I can’t say it makes any sense…”

“I don’t expect you to believe me. I know it sounds…” He steps forwards, squares his shoulders, tries. “I know it sounds insane. I’m sorry.”

“It doesn’t.” Olivia straightens, takes a step, and then hesitates. “Well actually yes, it does, but maybe you just need some more time.” He shrugs, and she says, “Y’know, I’m thinking of getting a piercing.”

He raises a worried eyebrow. “Where?” he asks, after a moment. Perhaps he should be wary of the answer.

She gives him a shrug of her own. “My eyebrow. Or my ear. It’d make a change, being allowed to wear them at work.”

“You wouldn’t be in a lot of places anyway.”

He hears her exhale a quiet breath as she walks past him, placing her mug on the counter and opening the back door. There’s a scuffing noise, the scrape of shoe-soles on the ground. When Adrian finally looks, he finds out that she’s sitting on the doorstep, her arms folded round her chest as if she’s hugging herself. Autumn’s beginning to creep up on them; there’s the slightest bite in the air, the bare beginnings of a chill that will eventually turn to a proper, steam-breath winter frost. Still, the leather, the plaid and the probable two more layers she’s wearing seem sturdy enough; she isn’t shivering. “Thanks, by the way. I’d been dying for a cup of tea.”

“No problem.” He comes to lean against the open door, listening to the comfortable silence that only comes of years in each other’s company. He’s tried for years to find that deep, reassuring kind of silence – one where you don’t have to speak or make awkward attempts to fill it – for years, and though he’s found a few pleasant ones that almost match up, none are as good as the sort Olivia bestows. There are days when he needs this. A lot of the time, she doesn’t even have to say anything. However she does it, the fact that she seeks him out to be a supportive presence and talk about inconsequential shit for an hour or two? It makes his life better. Even when she’s saying he’s nuts.

There are still birds singing. His is a nice little garden, small as it is, with a simple lawn, the Nerd Bench and a few flowers. It’s homely.

“Think I’ll wait for a while on this one,” Olivia says after a while. “You’re the most sceptical person I know – I mean, you figured out the whole tooth fairy thing before I did, and I’ve got five years on you, so…” She rubs a hand across her mouth, frowning at nothing. If she smoked, it seems as if this would be the moment she’d take a drag. “I don’t think you’re nuts. That’s not what I mean. You’re always, you’re so good with words, and then I’m just – I’m me.”

“You is a lovely thing to be,” he tells her. It’s genuine, something he’s always believed – ever since he was a kid suffused with the joy of certainty, the knowledge that his big sis could do no wrong, and even now.

There’s a shaky laugh contained in her reply. “You ought to take a look at your grammar.”

It’s infectious; he finds himself laughing too before he’s really aware of it. “You’re probably right, yeah. But I was making a point. Can we take the bench? That way I can look at you sympathetically and make the right noises.”

“Shut up,” she scoffs, turning to mock-glare at him. He just grins.

They take the bench. The “Nerd Bench,” as Olivia took to calling it – the name never quite wore off – has intricate flower designs in wrought iron on the back of it, and on one of the arms, in small, curving letters, is carved, Not all those who wander are lost. Yes, a man who quotes Tolkien on his garden furniture can most definitely be called a nerd, but honestly, it was as much Paul’s idea as Adrian’s. Also, they are in a damn bookshop. There are far worse places for this sort of thing.

“Speaking of which, aren’t you meant to be the one with the fancy English degree?”

He turns the abrupt tensing of his shoulders into a shrug. “Half an English degree, and I’m not even sure that counts,” he corrects her. “And it was Literature, not Language. Besides, it’s not like you’re dumb.”

“Mum’d say otherwise.” Olivia says it with a smile, though, and Adrian’s glad this isn’t going to turn into one of Those Conversations. Olivia is rarely one to be downbeat, though she is an excellent ranter when she has the opportunity to be.

“No she wouldn’t. She knows you’re smart. If anything, that’s part of the problem.”

She looks around the garden, tapping her foot to a beat only she can hear. She’s probably got a song stuck in her head again; she seems to fall victim to it more than most. “I think it’d look nice if you got some begonias in here. Or if you had a proper little-old-pensioner flowerbed.”

“Truthfully, doubt I could find the time.”

“Y’know, some bloke down at the pub was trying to tell me Lou Reed was punk.” Her lips form a moue, as if the very thought bothers her. “It’s not as if he’s bad – c’mon, Transformer happened, that album almost made me believe in God again – but punk?”

He thinks it over. “I don’t know, actually. You could say he laid the blueprints for it.”

“Point.” She’s never made explicit what she actually means by that – whether it’s one point for a good answer, or you have a point, or I concede the point. Still, he understands it well enough for them to settle back into their familiar silence.

Then she breaks it with, “But Bowie, though.” She grimaces disbelievingly.

He shakes his head, playing at being vehement and appalled. “Definitely glam-rock. I don’t know what the guy was thinking.”

She pauses, regarding him as seriously as if he just gave her the secret of the universe, then nods her approval. “That’s what I said.”

The birds sing, and Adrian thinks, Actually, perhaps some begonias would brighten up the place a bit. The flowers are always a relief after the small, dark back room. The cold metalwork of the Nerd Bench grows steadily more uncomfortable, but in truth, there’s nowhere Adrian would rather be.

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