Milo Kelly was on the roof and Grace honestly couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.
“He’s probably just having a smoke.”
It was Cormac who’d spotted him through the single velux window and Jakub had leapt, unauthorised, from his desk.
“Milo doesn’t smoke, remember,” said Jakub, “since Linda died of lung cancer?”
Jakub was still in the honeymoon phase of the job, where connecting with co-workers was a key coping mechanism. In the dark, unventilated enclosure of the office, trauma bonding was the only relief valve available. When Grace started, she used to fuck Cormac in the ladies’ on their fifteen minute designated breaks. These days she could sit through endless murders and rapes without triggering the need for any human contact at all.
“He’s going to jump,” said Cormac, who had seen enough suicides to know.
Grace was first out the door, taking the stairs to the roof two at a time. Milo was hunkered on the ledge, ready to dive.
“Milo, don’t do it.”
He didn’t flinch, as if Grace hadn’t said a word.
“None of this is real,” he shouted, the wind carrying his proclamation across the rooftops as he lurched forward into the great unknown. His body hit the concrete with a gentle thud, like he’d just tripped and fallen onto a rug. Miniature people ran from all directions, their rookie howls and wails a sombre soundtrack to Milo’s closing scene. When Grace turned around, she faced a semi-circle of content moderators watching her through their phones.
The insomnia had started about six months before, a few weeks into the job. Back then, it was the ease of it all that shocked her, how quickly a body could give up on life. The beheadings were one thing, the guttural screams that could go on for minutes as each cell clung to the next. But a bullet to the brain, that shut it all down in no time. It was always the facial expressions that stuck with her, the features melted in terror, almost disbelief. It was the same fear she’d seen in her dad’s eyes as his heart squeezed the last few beats out of itself, that realisation that it was all over.
Grace didn’t bother fighting the sleepless nights any more; her mam’s two-up, two-down was too cramped to pace, too stifling to think. Better to get on with surviving a zombie apocalypse on the Xbox or stoned-binging crime dramas on Netflix. Day bled into night until one exploding head seemed as real or imaginary as the next.
At least the nights were hers, no hourly targets to hit or disgruntled co-workers to avoid. She cocooned herself in a duvet on the sofa, loaded pipe on the glass-topped table in front of her. The only intrusion was the muffled rattle of her mam’s breathing overhead, waxing and waning over time. Usually, if it got too much, she’d turn up the volume or put on headphones but tonight, she couldn’t shake it. The slow wheeze shuddered through her, louder than a horde of vengeful zombies. She slammed the controller on the table, a slow crack meandering across the glass like a wandering stream. Her first thought was that her dad would murder her, her second was that she would kill for that.
Outside, the cool street air soothed the fevered skin on Grace’s face. She sat on the doorstep, sucking on the pipe and looking up past the Victorian chimney pots, through the distant cranes. The stars were the one anchor in her life, her sole constant companion. And yet, they were already dead. She couldn’t conceive of how something so present could be so elusive.
“Mind if I join you?”
Grace hadn’t heard the adjacent front door open. She looked up from bare feet, skinny jeans on tanned ankles, to the first smile she’d seen all day. He was a little older than her, maybe twenty-five, with ice-blue eyes and blonde hair.
“No, no I don’t mind at all.”
He sat on his doorstep, so close she could almost feel the hair on his arms brush against hers.
“Grace. I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”
Tom put his fist to his heart, as if stabbing himself in the chest.
“I’m sorry. I don’t pay much attention to anything that goes on round here.”
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Grace smiled. “My dad used to love that film.”
“Your dad has great taste.”
Grace held the pipe upright.
“You read my mind.”
They sat in a perfect, stoned silence as the darkness dispersed around the chimney pots and over the cranes.
“Grace, what would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
The weight of fatigue hung heavy on Grace as she showered
and steadied herself for another day at work. Her mam was already up, spooning
instant coffee into a mug as the kettle clamoured to a climax.
“Do you want one?”
“It’s not real coffee.”
“What do you think it’s made from then?”
Grace rolled her eyes and ignored her mother but Naomi never took offence, never stopped trying.
“Terrible, that suicide at Facebook. Did you know him?”
“No,” said Grace, taking a cafetiere from the press. “There are literally thousands of people working there.”
“Poor lad. You never know what’s going on in people’s minds.”
“Some people just don’t want to face reality.”
Grace’s hand shook as she scooped the coffee, scattering it over the worktop.
“It said on the news that there’s a video of the whole thing,” said Naomi. “I can’t understand why anyone would film it.”
“Some people just can’t let go.”
Crouching, shouting, falling.
“But who would want to watch someone dying over and over?”
Her mam hadn’t seen it. She’d been in the house but she hadn’t argued with him, stood in front of him as he clutched his chest and fell to the rug. She hadn’t had to replay it every day for almost a year.
The video of Milo’s leap refused to die. As soon as Grace had eliminated it from her moderation queue, it popped up again and again until it was looping in her head like a waking dream. On bathroom breaks, she flushed Milo down the toilet; in the canteen, she saw him fall past the windows as she ate.
“It’s gonna blow,” said Cormac as he stirred a soup of writhing maggots. “Ed’s been pacing up and down his office all morning. Somebody’s gonna have to take the fall.”
There’d been a brief talk that morning on coping with grief and the usual vague promises of counselling, and then back to business as usual. That was before the video became the most shared of the day. It was as if somebody knew exactly which pages and groups would make it go viral.
Tom was already on the doorstep, once again barefoot and smiling.
“Wanna share a joint?”
Grace studied Tom as he skinned up, his eyes creased with concentration, a slight furrow to his brow. Sun-dappled light glinted across high cheekbones, the dimple in his cheek creased and softened, but the smile remained, constant as the stars. When he finished, he held up a large conical joint.
“This is called a Camberwell Carrot.”
Grace laughed. “Will it tend to make me very high?”
A blanket of stars covered the sky, not just Orion and the Big Dipper, but millions of tiny sparkles shimmering in unison.
“Withnail or Bueller?” asked Grace.
“Withnail pisses all over Bueller.”
“I knew you’d say that.”
Grace focused on the brightest star, Sirius, its colours dancing like a halo around the light.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
Grace longed for a photo, knowing those blue eyes would fade in time. She put her hand on Tom’s, weaving her fingers between his and held on tight as the blackbirds woke and the sun scattered the stars.
“Did you think about what I asked?” said Tom.
“At first, I thought I’d send the suicide video to every Facebook exec and let them see what it’s really like to wade through their shite every day.”
“But then I realised what you meant.”
She could hear her mam’s footsteps on the stairs behind her.
“If I wasn’t afraid, I’d make sure it didn’t happen again.”
Grace ached to fall into the deep fog of sleep but it remained one step ahead of her. Concealer no longer hid the dark circles under her eyes that dug hollows into the sickly pallor of her face. She made her way to work through pure force of habit, drifting in and out of consciousness along the way. When she got there, Ed was waiting.
“Grace, my office.”
His room was ethereal compared to Grace’s workspace, sunlight pouring through the blinds onto every surface.
“I’m sure you know why you’re here,” said Ed, the slatted light on his face giving him the look of a futuristic warrior, poised for battle.
“I have no idea.”
“Don’t fuck with me, Grace. You can’t imagine the shit I’m getting over your video.”
The horizontal lines rolled across Ed’s face as he flailed around his desk, eyes bulging in and out of the light.
“My video?” said Grace. “What do you mean?”
“The one you took of your friend, Milo, jumping to his death from the roof?”
Crouching, shouting, falling, hitting the rug.
“No. I tried to stop him.”
Ed was on his feet now, arms waving like giant wings, face melting in terror.
“Grace, I’ve seen five videos that show you filming him up close and zero footage of you trying to help him.”
None of this is real.
“...undone all the good work we do here… not a good look for the company… terminate your contract…”
Grace floated across the office and was almost out the door when she stopped.
“It wasn’t me who made him do it.”
The woman could barely hide her irritation, a towel wrapped around wet skin, hair dripping onto the floor.
“I’m sorry, you must have the wrong address.”
Grace tried to look past her, into the kitchen.
“No, this is the house.”
“Well, he’s not here, ok?”
She tightened the towel around her and put her hand on the door to close it.
“Are you sure?” said Grace. “I mean, could he be staying with one of your housemates?”
“I know who I live with.”A flicker of recognition softened her expression. “Are you from next door?”
“Uh, yeah, I’m Grace. Naomi’s my mam.”
“I know Naomi, lovely woman. Well, if I hear of a Tom, I’ll let you know.”
Grace could hear the sobs from the hall. Her mam was sitting at the kitchen table, head bent, shoulders heaving.
Naomi turned around, clutching a photo.
“I’m sorry love, it’s just the day that’s in it.”
“I know.” Grace put her arms around her mother and let the tears flow.
“I miss him so much.”
It was that photo, the one from their first holiday: him barefoot in drainpipe jeans, the sun shimmering across his face and his blue eyes narrowed against the light. And the smile, that glittering smile.