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Oh, come on!" Flick protested. "You're living in cloud cuckoo land if you think you're going to get that much for it."
She shook her head as an estimated asking price of £445,000 appeared on the television screen. The sum delighted the young couple who'd renovated the formerly dilapidated bungalow. But not Flick. As a regular viewer of daytime television shows, she had become an armchair expert in anything property related.
Flick removed a cigarette from a packet lying on the coffee table and lit it with a disposable lighter. She flinched ever so slightly at the sound of the flame and the cigarette crackling to life. Then she took a long, deep drag until the smoke and heat blazed the back of her throat. The astronomical price of cigarettes meant she had promised to limit herself to a handful a day. However, it was only midmorning and this was her fourth.
The TV screen suddenly split into two, catching her off-guard, and an image appeared of someone outside her front door. Even with the head tilted downward, facial recognition software recognised him as Theo, one of her brothers. She took another long drag and chose to ignore him. Twice he pressed the bell before shouting through the letter box.
"I know you're in. I can smell the smoke coming from under the door."
Flick rolled her eyes. She didn't want to be troubled by Theo or any other member of her family today. Or any day, in fact. But there was no point in pretending she wasn't there. She was always there. She rolled the tip of her cigarette against the side of the ashtray to preserve the rest until later and picked up a can of air freshener to spray it around the room. She unlocked three bolts and two latches before typing a code into a pad. As the door opened, the youngest of her four brothers eyed her up and down.
"You look like shit," he scoffed.
"You've grown a beard," she replied. "You look like Grandad."
"It's the same one I had the last time you saw me."
"That's how long it's been since you've got off your lazy arse and bothered to come and see us."
"If this is a tough-love routine, then don't waste your breath . . ."
"No, this is a friendly dose of reality."
Daylight was creeping in through a gap between the closed curtains. It highlighted a fine, smoky mist. Theo drew them wide open and dragged his fingers across a coffee table. They left three clear lines between a layer of dust and the woodgrain. Even without the gesture, Flick knew he was judging her on the unwashed dishes, piles of dirty clothes spread across the kitchen floor, two bulging bin bags, a box of empty wine bottles, and a full ashtray. She couldn't criticise Theo for his negative assessment.
Like many of her failings, she blamed the mess on someone else. Him. Only afterwards, when she had seen for the first time inside his flat courtesy of photographs uploaded online, did she question how she'd have coped with such fastidious tidiness. She figured the obsession with an organised home was likely born from the chaos of the rest of his life. A part of her recognised she'd had a lucky escape from who he really was. The other, smaller part still retained belief that she might have been the one to change him.
"I tried calling you at the restaurant because you never answer your mobile or respond to voice mails," Theo continued. Flick didn't reply. She had an inkling of what was coming next. "So imagine my surprise when they told me you'd employed a manager to do your job because you'd taken time off for personal reasons. A year ago."
Flick shrugged. "I'm on indefinite leave. So what?"
"What personal reasons?"
"The clue is in the word personal. People take work sabbaticals all the time."
"But you've taken a sabbatical from your whole life. You're still pining over him, aren't you?"
"Who?" she replied, but they were both aware of who he meant.
"You know this can't continue, Felicity. Just because it didn't work out doesn't mean it won't work out with somebody else."
"He was my Match," Flick replied.
"You could've been one of those couples whose results were tampered with. That happened to thousands, didn't it?"
"We Matched after that happened," she said again, her tone firmer. Theo had no recourse.
Flick recalled with clarity the day an email informed her of her successful Match Your DNA pairing. Years earlier, scientists had discovered a gene that all humans possessed and was shared with just one other person. They could be of any sex, religion, age, or location, but they were the one your DNA was genetically programmed to be with. Your soul mate. In the space of a few short years, it had become the most popular means by which couples came together, with 1.7 billion people registering their DNA through a simple mouth swab.
Flick's email confirmation had arrived months after a malicious security breach in which thousands of couples had been falsely Matched. His previous Match had turned out to be faked, but it was too late for Flick to meet him. He had been murdered.
She had only just started coming to terms with his death when she learned who he really was, and it had left her hollow.
Theo flitted around the lounge, tidying up papers, throwing away empty crisp packets and sweet wrappers, and collecting castaway clothes. "I'm trying to help you, sis," he continued. "It's not just me who's worried about you, it's Mum and Dad and the rest of the family. You didn't even come to Gran and Grandad's sixtieth anniversary party."
Flick spat out a laugh. "Yes, that's just what I need, isn't it? To be surrounded by people reminding me that no one is ever going to love me enough to be by my side sixty years from now."
Theo muttered something under his breath and began throwing clothes into the washing machine. "Hey," Flick protested, "leave them. They need to be colour separated."
"Right, because separating colours is a priority for you in this pigsty, isn't it?"
"I said leave them," she snapped, but Theo ignored her and opened up the machine's drawer, pulling out an empty washing cartridge.
"Where do you keep the spares?"
"Theo, I'm telling you, leave my stuff alone."
When he began rifling through her kitchen cupboards, Flick stopped holding back. She marched over to him, grabbing his arm. Despite being slighter and smaller than her brother, she twisted it behind his back and frogmarched him towards the door.
"For fuck's sake!" Theo yelled. "I want to help you."
"I didn't ask for it, and I don't want it," she barked, and opened the door, only releasing her grip once he was across the threshold.
"I'm telling you this as your brother and as your friend," he continued, shaking the ache from his limb. "Match or no Match, he's not worth throwing it all away for."
Flick wiped her brimming eyes with the cuffs of her jumper. And with the saddest smile she had ever mustered, she closed the door on him.
She threw herself back onto the sofa, aware that everything Theo had said was correct, with the exception of her finding love again. That much she assumed to be impossible; her opportunity had been torn from her. She would have done anything to return to the days when she'd wake up each morning wondering if the email would arrive announcing that her Match had been found. Because back then, there was hope. Now there was none.
Flick tapped away the burned strands of tobacco and relit her cigarette, then turned over the TV station to a rolling news channel. "An exhibition by an anonymous artist is already causing controversy ahead of its premiere tonight," the newsreader began. "The installation has been inspired by the murder of twenty-nine women by a serial killer in London three years ago which led to one of the biggest manhunts the country has ever seen."
"Pause TV," she shouted, her heartbeat amplified. She needed a moment to steel herself. There had been no avoiding the story of the killer who had plagued the capital, murdering random women before their campaign of terror came to a sudden halt.
"Play TV," she said, and the news channel cut from the studio to an art gallery containing painted portraits of every corpse, some gruesomely bloodied. The detail turned her stomach.
"The artist, who has not been named, claims the portraits are a tribute to the victims and that they are not exploiting the murders. However, victims' relatives disagree and have hit out at the exhibition, claiming it is in 'poor taste' and calling for it to be banned."
"TV off," Flick said, and the room fell silent. She made her way to the Juliet balcony and opened the double doors. It had been days since she had last set foot outside and the rush of air against her skin almost took her breath away.
All she wanted was to forget about that whole dreadful period of her life. But it was easier said than done. Only last night, it had been victim number thirteen who'd revisited her: Kelly, a young waitress with a nose piercing who she'd employed at the restaurant a month before her death.
It was only weeks later that Flick Kennedy learned that the man responsible for the killings was Christopher Bailey, the man who her DNA dictated was the love of her life.
Charlie made his way through the pub's beer garden, one hand clutching his pint glass and the other carrying bags of kale crisps and nuts. He eased his way through the expanding crowd, careful not to spill his drink until he reached the wooden table with benches and a Reserved sign in the centre of it.
England's World Cup qualifying football match against archrivals Germany meant the outdoor space was much busier than usual for a regular weeknight. A loss for England would result in failure to qualify for next year's tournament, so the game was make-or-break. His surroundings were familiar. Since reaching the legal drinking age, Charlie and his friends had chosen the Wig & Pen as their haunt for all important fixtures, and the custom was to continue tonight.
He took a seat and the first sip of his lager, then glanced at his watch. There were fifteen minutes left before kickoff. His eyes switched to the giant wall projection. Celebrity football pundits were offering their predictions but it was hard to hear them against the chatter of the pub crowd.
"Are these seats taken?" a voice asked sharply. The clearly irritated man was standing with a group of friends. Charlie's face reddened at their attention.
"Yes, sorry," he muttered apologetically. The man looked as if he was ready to argue but changed his mind, turned his back on Charlie, and mumbled something incomprehensible.
Charlie conceded he too would've been irritated had he been on his feet while somebody else hogged seven empty seats. That he had paid to reserve them weeks ago did little to prevent him from feeling awkward.
Tonight meant more to Charlie than anyone in the pub could know. It had been two and a half years since the seven friends had last been in one place together. He thought back to Terry Stelfox's wedding and how it had marked the beginning of the end of friendships formed at infants' school. Charlie had naively assumed that when attending different universities hadn't come between them, nothing would. But he hadn't considered Match Your DNA. One by one, his friends found the women-and for one, the man-who they were biologically designed for. However, Charlie was the exception. His Match had yet to make themselves known. And he had never envisaged feeling so alone by his midtwenties.
He glanced towards the wall projection again. It was now four minutes until kickoff. He had been chewing his fingernails and had bitten too deeply, causing an intermittent throb. So he removed from his pocket an antianxiety transdermal patch, no larger than a pea. He attached the adhesive side to his forearm.
Charlie took his mind off waiting for the chemicals to absorb and make their way towards his brain by inserting an earbud and listening to the recorded messages on his phone.
The first was from Travis. "Sorry, mate, not going to be able to make it. The twins were being little buggers today and Lisa's frazzled so she's gone to bed. See you soon, yeah?"
The next was from Stelfox. "Is that tonight? Shit, sorry, Charlie, I've got dinner with the in-laws." The excuses from the others followed a similar path.
Charlie remained in his seat as a cheer rang out around the garden when the England squad appeared onscreen and a chorus of "God Save the King" rang out across the pub. The teams assumed their positions and the referee's whistle signalled the start of play. But after only a few minutes, Charlie knew he wouldn't enjoy the game on his own. He downed his pint, left the snacks behind, and made his way to the exit.
"Those seats free now, Billy no-mates?" sneered the man who'd confronted him earlier. A humiliated Charlie wanted to retaliate, but the empty seats didn't lie. The stranger had summed him up with brutal accuracy.
Outside in the street, Charlie used an app to choose the delivery of a random dish from his favourite Chinese takeaway. Then he removed his bike lock and cycled the fifteen-minute journey home. The drone that had delivered the meal-for-one to his doorstep was already returning to the restaurant by the time he arrived.
Inside, he removed the lids from the foil cartons and placed the food on a table without plating it up first. Then he loosened his belt by a couple of notches. His weight gain had been slow and steady since they'd all stopped playing Sunday morning league football. He missed the camaraderie, of heading out into town the night before, waking up with a hangover from hell early the next morning, before playing a match and then sharing a Sunday roast at a pub afterwards. It made him feel as if he belonged.
As Charlie tucked into his meal, he recalled a conversation in which he'd learned of a shift in their relationships. Stelfox had let slip that some of the group came together with their wives and girlfriends for dinner parties and for kids' play dates. Charlie hadn't been invited because they assumed "family stuff isn't your cup of tea." He nodded his agreement but quietly; "family stuff" was everything he craved.
Tonight, those feelings of rejection were returning in earnest. He wondered what might have happened had he taken the lead and removed himself from their group and simply stopped contacting them. When would they have noticed they hadn't seen him around for a while? Would it have taken days, weeks, or months? Or would he have simply faded into their backgrounds until they'd forgotten about him completely?