Simon’s room was painted such a deep shade of purple that it sometimes made his head ache. A poster of Robert Smith hung above his bed, looking down at him dispassionately, licking lips as red as wounds. His bookshelf was filled with gothic classics from the nineteenth century, most of which he’d read at least two or three times. In the permanent half-dark of his room, their spines had a texture like dead skin.
After locking his door, Simon dumped his bag onto the bed and sat down at his desk, watching his laptop flicker to life. He entered the password and headed straight for his list of favourites, scrolling down until he found what he was looking for – an icon shaped like a purple gravestone. The name of the website, NecrOphelia, stood beside it. The font, red and dripping, was designed to look like blood.
The site was all black with white text, and the menu bar on the left-hand side was patterned with huge silver roses, swooning sadly beneath the sub-headings – Poetry, Journal, Contact, About Me. He had stumbled across the site by accident, and though he had no interest in poetry, had returned to it every day, waiting for dedgirl99 to upload something new. The About Me section had told him that her real name was Jennifer Tennant, and there was a black-and-white photo of her next to her bio – a photo so heavily doctored that she looked pale and ghostly, insubstantial. Her skin was white; her lips had been painted black, and her eyes were only half-visible beneath her long, ragged hair. A silver ring glittered in her left nostril, and her expression was shy, apologetic. Simon wished she had posted more photos of herself.
He returned to the homepage and saw that it still hadn’t been updated; the last post had been made more than two weeks ago. Simon had read every one of her posts, often more than once, drawn not only to her photo but to her gothic sensibilities. She wrote about graveyards and ancient castles, about vampires, about spiders who ate their young. But the last poem was different from the others. It had been titled ‘L’aldilà’, and Simon read it again curiously, muttering the words like an incantation.
The promise of your kiss
was just a game,
a hidden pesticide of meaning
lying dormant in our lungs.
I don’t know how
to live without you.
Simon had no idea what to make of this poem. It was short, much shorter than her other posts, and it contained none of the gothic imagery he had come to expect from her. He also thought it strange that it had been written in the middle of the night. The text below the title said 3:32am, with further edits at 3:39 and 4 o’clock. But he was most confused by the fact it was addressed to another person, someone with whom she had kissed, someone she couldn’t live without. The thought made Simon uneasy, but as he read the poem for the fourth time, it occurred to him that he knew her name. Surely it wouldn’t be too difficult to find her on social media, particularly as he knew what she looked like. He would search for her on Facebook, look for any indication she had a boyfriend, and maybe add her as a friend. Perhaps he would send her a message.
He logged into Facebook and typed her name into the search bar, but there were more results than he had anticipated. To narrow it down, he was forced to use all the information he had gleaned from her website: where she lived, the year she was born, the name of her old primary school. Then, just like that, there she was. Her profile picture was the same one she had used for NecrOphelia; Simon recognised it immediately. He clicked on the link. He realised he was holding his breath.
Jennifer’s cover photo was a screenshot from an old horror film. A woman in a white nightgown stood on a staircase, holding an antique candelabrum. Her mouth was open, almost as if she was gasping for breath, and her eyes were so wide he could see the whites and bloody roots. He was about to look at her photos when he noticed a series of messages on the homepage. He scrolled down and read the most recent one.
“I still can’t get over the fact u’ll never reply to me on this wall again. I’ll never forget u, or all the amazing times we shared together. RIP Jennifer.”
Simon read the message blankly, then stopped and read it again. His heart started beating faster. He read the next message, then the next.
“Wish you knew just how much we all love you. I hope you do now. Miss you.”
“I’m so grateful that I met you, even though we never knew each other well. I hope you’re in a better place now. You’ll be missed, forever and ever. xxxx”
For a moment, Simon didn’t know how to feel. He had never met Jennifer, had never spoken to her, and knew nothing about her that hadn’t been posted on NecrOphelia. He read more and more of the messages, trying to build a picture of her life, of her relationship to each person. The first of these condolences had been sent two weeks ago, the day after she had posted ‘L’aldilà,’ but he could find nothing about how or why she had died, or what the poem inferred about her death. Scrolling further and further down her profile, Simon started to feel sick. He found it difficult to swallow.
Instead, he decided to look at her pictures, to remember her as she had been when she was alive. He clicked on her profile pictures and scrolled through the gallery. The first was a picture of her and another girl, both wearing black dresses, both laughing, both holding gaudy-looking cocktails. In the next, she was alone at a music festival, her arm decorated with coloured wristbands. The third was a picture of her on holiday, sitting under a parasol, wearing a black and grey bikini. She was certainly beautiful – even more beautiful than he thought she would be – but this presented a number of problems in Simon’s mind. He looked at her cleavage, at the white skin above the bikini, and felt equally excited and unnerved. He imagined touching her there, but when he did, he couldn’t stop thinking about how cold she would feel beneath his fingers, how icy and unmoving. In each photo, Jennifer smiled out at him, unaware of his presence, and Simon was suddenly unsure as to who was haunting who. None of her photos or messages had been meant for him to see, and he began to feel like a ghost: silent, invisible. He wondered if he had done the wrong thing.
He returned to NecrOphelia and read her final poem again, looking for clues that might reveal how or why she had died. As he inspected the post, it occurred to him that he didn’t know the meaning of the title, pasting it quickly into Google. The first thing that came up was a poster for an Italian horror film showing a woman with a knife to her throat. Beneath that, a search result said, “English translation of L’aldilà│Italian-English dictionary.” He clicked on the link. There, in the centre of the screen, the meaning was written in bold letters: The afterlife; the beyond.
Simon closed his laptop and gazed around the room. Robert Smith looked down at him knowingly; his expression seemed less consoling than before, cruel, derisive. But everything in his room now reminded him of Jennifer; there was no safe place for him to look. So, unsure of what to do with himself, he turned to his notebook and started sketching her from memory. He began with her cupid’s bow, moving outwards, drawing her nose, her hooded eyes, the soft angles of her cheekbones. Next, he sketched her jawline, culminating in the tumbling locks of her hair. But when he reached her mouth, he started to lose control, moving his pen around in quick, jagged lines. Her ears and shoulders became crude and rudimentary, and her neck was too thin to support the drooping weight of her head. He felt he could only watch helplessly as the image became mythic in its proportions, turned monstrous, repellent. He dropped the pen and looked at the drawing with unease. He felt there was probably some reason for this lack of control, some gradual cause that he was not yet able to define.
Downstairs, he heard his parents sitting down at the dinner table.
He wondered if they knew he was home.