When Ella kisses me my lips burn soft and insistent. The cavern of her mouth tastes like mulled wine, and warms me to my bones. With every gasp and gulp I am swallowing down little pieces of her. She’s bright inside the hollow of my chest. I cocoon her.
Soon she will burst from me, a majestic butterfly. I will split apart and she will fly away.
“I would never leave you Tess,” she whispers. We lie side by side in her tiny garden. The city lights outshine the stars. Factories breathe grey air and disease into the clouds but we still look up and try to see the stories written in the sky.
Ella breaks her promise and splits me in two. I read about her fancy engagement in the morning paper. He will give her a country manor and a sky full of stars.
My mama cannot even afford a patch of garden grass. We struggle to get by. All eight of us in a single room of a dank apartment.
Mama throws me out when Papa crams another babe into her. One half of me gets sent to the workhouse. The other half goes missing. Nobody sees or cares. By day I turn in the machine. A tiny cog in the clockwork of wealth and industry. My eyes go blank and dead like the other girls around me.
We are all halves of ourselves. At night we lie awake, staring up at the ceiling, listening. Our other halves are outside. In the Dark, they sing to us. Their siren songs weave in and out of this world and another. A hundred voices in a cacophony of sound, one for every broken girl shivering in her bunk.
I can hear myself above the rest. I know by the way her song makes my tears rise up in my eyes as if she is my moon and I am her tide. She calls the ragged edges of my shadow to the window and I look down at her. The voices number a hundred yes, but I see only myself staring back up, arms stretched out, begging to be whole again.
“Get back to bed or you won’t have one to go to!” The workhouse matron strikes the back of my legs with her cane.
I swallow back a yelp of pain and stumble back to my bunk. Everyone is asleep. Did I imagine the singing? Am I the only one split apart so completely? I contemplate the fact that my love for Ella was not acceptable, that Ella put her fingers to my lips if I dared even whisper of telling it. Who could possibly be more broken than me?
Then I see Laurie. She sits up in bed and smiles at me. I open my mouth to ask but she puts a finger to her lips.
She sits with me at breakfast. The porridge is thin and grey but we slurp it down as though it’s fit for princesses. “Let’s jump tonight,” she says between mouthfuls.
I think of my other half, her arms outstretched and choose to fall in love with myself and be whole again.
Now we stand at the opened window. Below I see my other half, hear her plaintive song. One last time I look behind me at the life I am leaving. A handful of girls sit up in bed and turn to the window.
Fear thunders through me. They will call for help. I brace myself for the matrons pounding footsteps. But the girls only smile encouragement and peace. I realise they plan to follow us soon. That this time I am no different from the rest.
I take Laurie by the hand and squeeze. Our signal. Together we step into the air. The ground rushes up. I wait for pain and death. Wait to wake up whole on the other side.
I land on the cobblestones and feel nothing. Laurie’s hand is still in mine. Together we struggle to our feet and look around. We are surrounded by a hundred girls, all with trembling lips and tear-brimmed eyes. They stare back at us and I scan their faces searching for my other half.
I do not see her. They turn away and reach their arms out, staring upward. I look up too. There in the window I see my other half smiling down at me. A host of other girls crowd around her.
Then they turn their backs on us.
Just ghosts in the street, singing in the dark.