Panther disappointed me. His shrieking was loud enough that he attracted help in five seconds – quick enough that I couldn’t finish what I’d started. Heads appeared in the doorway, uniforms swarmed the scene, and blood was smeared on the obscenely clean tiles. My fingers were ripped from his eye sockets with white jelly and strands of thin muscle attached. Realisation, an unpleasant wake-up call, whacked into me like a sledgehammer as muscled arms wrestled me to the ground and pinned me there. A belated part of my brain noted that I was naked and drenched, like Frankenstein’s monster left in the rain.
I waited for guilt, shock, or nausea to attack my system. My stomach for violence was miniscule, at best. But reality and what I perceived should be reality remained separate. My mind screamed, and interrogated the little good sense that I had left, but my body was disengaged. My breathing was regulated, my hands were steady, my heartbeat was soft, rather than laboured. Even my fingers, sodden with the evidence of my sin, aroused no physical reaction in me.
There was justice in my actions – Panther had attempted to take liberties, and I’d defended myself. Wasn’t that my right as a woman? As a human being?
Forty minutes later, after unending psychological assessments, practical surveys, and a decontamination shower, they adjusted the room’s furniture to make space for a new arrival: a hospital bed with leather cuffs attached. Without a word, I allowed myself to be tied down. I justified the easy acquiescence by noting that one of the guards, pitying me, or thankful that I wasn’t foaming at the mouth, neglected to tighten his assigned strap quite as much as the others. When I was safely restrained, the room was evacuated, which left only four pairs of eyes to peer down at me.
“Why is she still here?” Emma said. “She’s a threat to all of us. They can’t leave her in here.” There was a disjointed nature to her comment: the words were right, but her tone was apathetic, and her eyes were narrow, cold stones.
Grey, blue eyes flawless and unaffected, shrugged. “We can protect ourselves. She proved that already.”
“By gouging out a man’s eyes?”
“He went into that bathroom with the intent to sexually assault her. She stopped him before he could.” He met my eyes, and smiled. “He was double her bodyweight, with the clear advantage. You don’t pull your punches faced with an opponent like that.”
“She could have screamed.” Emma insisted. “What could he have done in the five seconds it took for us to realise something was wrong?”
“A lifetime’s worth of damage, sister. To her, and to her family.”
A gentle hand jostled me awake. It was the Filipino, a tray in her hands.
“We’re not allowed to loosen the straps, so I’m going to have to feed you.” She sounded nervous, which was an unfamiliar emotion from her. Despite our brief incarceration, I’d formed a (pre-emptive, it seemed) opinion of her: quiet and calm, with such an exercised iron fist over her emotions that one would have to pry them from her like toys from a disobedient child. Yet here she stood, broadcasting her apprehension. Had the drug affected her, finally?
As much as possible, I shuffled my body to the left, making room for her on the edge of the bed. She sank gracefully into the gap. From her new vantage point, I could see the contents of the tray – a sandwich, cut into four, with pink meat inside; blueberries; a peach yoghurt, already opened, with a plastic spoon inside; and a nutritious pile of salad, shining with dressing. I didn’t see a fork, so I assumed the spoon was a spork.
She fed me the sandwich first, in small, manageable bites. The ham lacked the usual kick I added to it, but the bread was thick. The blueberries, popped into my mouth like tiny tablets, were stronger than I was used to as well. A couple left me squinting my eyes, trying to ignore the overflow of sensation in my mouth. The yoghurt and salad were more difficult; she had to lean so close to my body that we were touching in order to feed me them without soiling my clothes. During the encounter, she started humming.
The tray, when empty, was placed gently on the floor, but she didn’t retreat from my bedside. She stayed perched, like a bird, and continued her song. It was the first thing that'd managed to creep under my skin, around the drug contaminating my veins, and into my heart. It made me feel, even if that was feeling was peace. Contentment.
My second rousing was nowhere near as gentle. The hand was rough and scratchy, the glove covering it reacting with the skin on my shoulder. A holstered gun was near my face when I opened my eyes.
I was in a laboratory with six other people: two in lab coats, one in scrubs, two armed guards and the smug interviewer. The doctors were at my back, heads bent in conversation, while the nurse was cleaning the crook of my left arm with a cotton ball. She studiously ignored my stare. The guard who’d woken me returned to his post at the door.
The interviewer was the only one to acknowledge my wakefulness, as well as to directly address me. “Miss Burns, good morning.” He took a clipboard from the side and a pen from his pocket. “We’ll be recording these sessions,” he pointed with the end of the pen to a black camera in the corner of the room, “and I’ll be taking manual notes. If you feel uncomfortable at any stage, please inform me at once and we’ll modify our approach.”
With a certain croakiness to my tone, I asked what’d happen if I asked them to stop. He nervously tugged at his tie, eyes on his feet, as he informed me that they couldn’t stop the interrogation until they’d deemed me safe to return into the public sphere. I took that to mean I’d remain their prisoner under they were certain of my recovery, so I nodded like a good, little girl and encouraged them to get started.
The nurse, intimidated by my previous violence, seemed incapable of inserting the needle into my arm without grievous bodily harm, and each jab left my facial muscles contorted as I tried to grimace, pretending that her sloppy mistakes were painful. When she’d taken six vials of blood, a process which left me light-headed, the doctors descended. They checked the basics – blood pressure, temperature, reaction times, pupil dilation, pulse. When the bodily tests ran dry, they progressed onto verbal ones. I explained, in implicit, edited detail, the effects of the drug and how it’d felt in my system. I answered their queries with regards to Panther’s mutilation, taking care to sound regretful and horrified. Every word, every question, every expression on their faces, I met with the appropriate response. Nerves, concern, worry – not a stain of any appeared on my conscience.
Hours later, when I was tired and mentally exhausted, they repeated the whole process, this time with a lie detector. I passed without the slightest blip.
I’d parked my car in the centre’s car park at eight thirty on the twenty eighth of October. By the third of November, they’d released me with their stamp of approval, a signed non-disclosure agreement, and an assurance that I’d acted while under the effects of the drug, so I wouldn’t be prosecuted for Panther’s injury. One of the guards warned me that Panther, aka. Cole Wilde, had previous prison convictions and an ex-wife who’d testified in court to domestic abuse, so I’d best be careful. I thanked him profusely for his concern, and only dropped the stickily sweet smile when I turned the corner into the car park.
The air on my face, the gush of the wind, the rustle of fallen leaves had never before seemed so extravagant, but now I understood its appeal. Seven nights I’d been denied the light of the moon, and for six days I’d been deprived of the sun. My skin felt tight and cracked, like chipped plaster. My eyes watered from the sudden burst of natural light after so long bathed in its artificial counterpart. Every sound was welcome to my ears – the blare of a horn, a distant siren, all manner of voices, each one trapped in its own world. A crisp packet crackled underfoot as I strode to my car. A dumpster on the right, a fair distance from me, made me wrinkle my nose.
And the sensation of opening my squeaky car door, and sitting on the sun-warmed, driver’s seat! Of knowing that my ordeal was over, and I could return home with a larger pay out than I’d ever envisioned. Compensation, the interviewer had called it. Hush money was more likely, but I’d take it. I had no intention of confessing to my mother. She might understand, but she would never forget. For the rest of my life, there’d be an obstacle between us. And I relied on our relationship. I needed it. She could never know what I’d done to Cole, or what any of us had done in that room.
The drive home was uneventful: ninety minutes of motorway, and two hours of main roads and country lanes. The street where our two-bedroom flat was situated, when I reached it, was crammed full of cars, but the next one over was practically empty, so I parked up and used the back door instead of the front.
The flat smelt like old Chinese and stale sweat. After cracking a window, I checked the mail, flicked the kettle on, and changed the kitchen bin’s overflowing bag. When the water had finished boiling, I poured myself a chai tea, using a spice pack I’d bought at the services. It tasted like warm pumpkin pie.
For the briefest second, before a desire for cleanliness overpowered me, I allowed myself to linger in satisfaction, proud of what I’d achieved for this family in the past week. We’d go out for dinner tonight, somewhere expensive, to celebrate. Mum would resign tomorrow, and I’d take her shopping and buy her that winter coat she’d been eyeing.
I couldn’t wait to see joy in her eyes again.
Six o’clock came and went. The tea I’d made for mum went down the sink and another one, freshly steaming, took its place. Even that one was lukewarm though, by the time I heard the key in the door and the tired shuffle of my mother’s footsteps.
Her progress paused in the living room, and I imagined her taking in the sudden cleanliness. I’d hoovered, polished and tidied the whole flat in the five hours I’d excitedly waited for her.
“In the kitchen, ma.”
She appeared in the doorway, a small bouquet of cheap, practically dead, freesias clutched in her hand. While Mary-Jane’s betrayal, the loss of my father’s life’s work and the unforgiving hours of her current job had furrowed deep lines into her brow and around her eyes, her caramel skin still had the gleam of fresh night cream, and the caring sparkle that’d always been in her walnut eyes when we were growing up remained, albeit dimmed. Even her olive and mustard uniform, a size too small for her generous curves, couldn’t detract from the power of her white-toothed smile.
“I missed you, mija.” The hug she gave me squeezed the life from my bones, but I stayed in her embrace as long as I could justify, enjoying her warmth, and the mint-clean smell of her deodorant.
When we separated, I pulled a seat out for her, which she thankfully sank into, and prepared her another drink. When that was done, I found a plastic mixing jug, the closest thing we had to a vase, and arranged the flowers she’d brought home in it with some water. They brightened the plastic table and grey kitchen immensely, and perked up my mood even further.
“How was work?” I asked from the seat opposite her.
“Good, mija.” Her eyes went to the flowers. “The old gentleman who comes in for tea every Monday wanted to thank me for always leaving water out for his dog.” Sadness drew the smile from her lips. “He had to have her put to sleep last night.”
“Ma, I’m sorry.”
“She was such a good girl. So kind.” The sorrow in her eyes, and the longing behind it, inspired what came out of my mouth next.
“Tomorrow we’ll find somewhere that allows pets, go down to an animal shelter, and pick a dog. We can afford it, ma. We can afford anything.” She raised a questioning eyebrow, confusion splashed across her face. “I was paid for the trial. A lot more than I expected. We could buy a house outright, if we wanted to.”
For the briefest of seconds, disbelief wrestled with happiness on her face, but only briefly. A wide smile, bigger than any I’d seen from her in the last year, almost blinded me. And then she began to laugh. Loud, hearty laughs that would have put her on the floor if she hadn’t have grabbed the edge of the table. Inevitably, I joined in, and we cackled like two hyperactive children, making such a racket that our neighbour knocked on the wall and shouted at us to be quiet.
Ma wouldn’t let me take her to the most expensive restaurant in town, so I settled on one we’d both been aching to visit: Oriental Palace, a Chinese with a koi pond in its reception and a buffet-style approach to serving its food. We loaded our plates with as much as we could handle, and went back for seconds and thirds over the course of the night. We downed two bottles of their most luxurious wine, a favourite of ma’s, and were sat cross-legged, giggling on the floor come closing time, when we were respectfully kicked out. I even ordered a taxi to take us home, since neither of us was in a suitable shape to walk the three miles.
In the morning, I bought all the ingredients for a monster fry-up and made the greasiest breakfast I was capable of. When ma shambled into the room, a ratty dressing gown wrapped around her body and a bird’s nest on her head, I nudged her into a seat and set a plate of food in front of her. We ate in silence, treasuring the good quality meat. We’d lived for so long on supermarkets own brands, that I was almost overwhelmed by real flavour again. My stomach was certainly grateful.
By ten thirty, we were both dressed and riding high on coffee and painkillers. Ma, volunteering to drive, took us to her place of work first, where she handed in her resignation more politely than they deserved. Her boss, in a move that surprised me, offered to give a decent reference as long as she finished out her shifts for the month while he found a replacement for her. We shot off before he could change his mind.
The boutiques in our quaint town were size-ist and intimidating. After our third attempt at browsing in one, where nothing stocked went above a size eight, we gave up and moved on to the commercialised franchises. The first thing I purchased was ma’s winter coat, as well as a scarf-hat-gloves set to match. Then it turned into a free-for-all. We constructed new wardrobes for ourselves, and then splurged on vegetables and fruit at the farmer’s market.
After loading our purchases into the car, we began our search for a new home, peering into estate agent windows with unrestrained excitement. The decision process took a little over an hour, since there were twelve estate agents scattered up and down the high street. Two properties, both detached three-bedroom houses with gardens, caught our eye, and we arranged viewings for the following afternoon. It was a perfect day. Certainly the best ma and I had had in awhile.
Until it wasn’t.
The streetlights flooded the high street with light, the shops were closing and the sky was pitch black. The stars seemed to be raining down on us, celebrating our good fortune. We were singing a favourite song of mine from when I was little, and walking arm-in-arm towards the car park when two men stepped out in front of us. I was confident of our chances, until I felt the prick of a blade on the back of my neck.
“Give us your bags.” The one on the left, a skinny figure with a balaclava over his face, demanded. Ma was quick to oblige, begging him not to hurt us, promising that violence wasn’t necessary, that we wouldn’t say a word to the police.
I, on the other hand, was wondering if I could take the knife from my unseen captor before the others realised. It’d take a head butt, a shove backwards, a punch to the nose or throat, and the knife would either fall from his hand or I’d take it. The element of surprise would be on my side. Then I could deal with the two in front of us. Neither had a gun, as far as I could see, but black was such a hard colour to see weapons through, especially at night. Was it worth the risk?
Head butt. A yelp of surprise and pain. I spun, ducked, jabbed. I noted that there were two more I hadn't seen, one of which charged at me with a yell. I swiped my current victim’s feet out from under him, took his weapon and turned abruptly, sinking the knife into the advancing mugger. His stomach went concave, his breath left him in a whoosh, and he curled in on himself as if I’d kicked him. As he stumbled away, the knife caught the light, smeared with copious amounts of his blood already.
A gunshot ruined my concentration, and the third man took advantage. He tackled me to the floor, taking particular care to whack my head on the pavement, and dizziness momentarily had me flying, weightless and unanchored. Awareness returned a second before disaster, as he brought his knife down. I rolled forward, into his stomach, and grabbed a fistful of his crotch in my hand. The knife buried itself in my lower back, near a kidney, if biology had taught me anything, but I didn’t let it stop me. The wound would bleed out if I didn’t get medical help soon, but I couldn’t phone an ambulance while these muggers were still standing.
That problem, at least, largely resolved itself with the patter of running footsteps and colourful cuss words. The other two, it seemed, had decided we weren’t worth the effort. Prey was no fun when it fought back.
The man on top of me, trapped in a precarious position with his knife in my back and my hand on his family jewels, froze. He was wondering if he could get up and leave, pretend this hadn’t happened, escape with his posse. I helped him along by yanking the knife from my back and burying it, with relish, in his groin. A gurgle like a choking baby’s dribbled from his throat. He collapsed onto his knees, hands fluttering around his injury like a nervous mother’s around her child.
I left him shaking, a low whimper emitting from his mouth, and turned back to ma…only to find her lying face-first on the floor, a bloodstain marring the pale cream of her new coat.