“Ma?” I approached her bloody body. My brain pounded with dread while my traitorous body remained calm.
The concrete was rough on my knees as I collapsed by her side, the wind tugged at my hair, and artificial light inundated the whole scene like a grotesque floodlight. It felt like I should be scared, or holding my breath, while I turned her over, but all I could do was mentally measure her chances based on what had happened. Her pale face inspired no emotion in me. My brain had shut a valve. Loss and grief were hidden from me, like sweets from a child.
With steady fingers, I unbuttoned her coat and ripped her shirt in half. The fabric tore like tissue paper. I tilted her head backwards, fingers on her chin and forehead, and put my ear to her mouth, listening for breath. Ten seconds passed. Fifteen. Twenty. No heartbeat.
Instinct placed my phone in my hand. When I’d made the call, I stripped off my coat and shirt so I could use the latter to stem ma’s bleeding. I realised, with surprise, that my wound had soaked it, and was gushing blood even now. The paramedics will deal with it, I assured myself, before returning to ma.
A brief debate stayed my hand: put pressure on her wound or CPR? I came to the swift conclusion that there was no point doctoring her if her brain had been starved of oxygen for longer than two minutes. Was it two minutes?
I started compressions. At thirty, I administered the kiss of life, then repeated the process again. By the time an ambulance pulled onto the high street, I’d been at it ten minutes without success.
Paramedics ran over, enormous green bags in their hands. One of them took out a face mask, and I moved away to give them room to work. A long minute dragged by. They checked her pulse, her breathing, the bullet wound on her stomach. They spoke in quiet, urgent voices, low enough that I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Their tone wasn’t encouraging. It sounded like a fight over who was going to deliver the bad news.
The mask stayed clear. Her chest didn’t rise. Her eyes didn’t open. I could tell their surrender was coming. The taste of it, the bitter, merciless tang of death, hung in the air. The grim reaper had taken his victim, and he wouldn’t give her back.
That was the point at which my intense blood loss made itself known, and all awareness in my body abruptly shut off. The last thing I saw was a paramedic grimly shaking his head.
Disorientation bemused me as I opened my eyes. I was lying in a hospital bed, the blankets claustrophobically tucked tight to my chest, but my head insisted that I was swimming in mid-air, being tossed backwards and forwards by invisible waves. Nothing felt stable, or steady, even from a position of (what I knew to be) perfect stillness.
I forced myself to take stock of the yellow room I was in, hoping a dose of reality would ground me. Two windows were on my left, one of them open. The floor was scuffed, but clean. The overhead light was dimmed because of the sunshine outside. A closed door with a bathroom sign was in the far right-hand corner. Three other beds occupied the room. The one on my right had the curtains drawn, the one directly in front of me housed a sleeping, middle-aged, balding man with a drip in his arm and a sash of white bandages around his chest. In the final bed, nearest the room’s entrance, lay a young Polish man reading a magazine, his gunmetal grey eyes flicking across the page with startling quickness.
A nurse rolled a cart into the room, its silver drawers emitting steam and a somewhat enticing aroma. She went to the Polish man first, and he lowered his magazine to talk to her. The middle-aged man she had to shake awake, and he was too groggy to reply immediately to the question of what food he wanted. Five minutes passed as she interacted with him, encouraging him towards a decision, and when he’d finally been propped up, and his tray had been positioned as close to him as possible, she set his food down and moved on to me.
“Good morning. What would you like for breakfast? We have porridge, cereal, scrambled eggs and sausage, some grapes and bananas.”
Rather than answer, I struggled to free myself from the covers, satisfied that my head had settled itself now. Realising what I intended, she shot forward to help me, and soon I could move again without feeling like I was underwater.
“Where’s my mother?” I demanded, looking straight into her blue eyes so she wouldn’t be able to lie to me. It was a mistake, I understood that as soon as I saw the pity bloom in her expression, but I needed to know. There was a chance the paramedics had managed to bring her back after I’d passed out.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. The paramedics couldn’t do anything for your mum. She’d lost too much blood.”
I blinked. Then I blinked again. The news sank in with grim certainty. I hadn’t saved her by attacking the muggers. If anything, I’d startled them. The guy that’d shot the gun probably wouldn’t have done so if I hadn’t stabbed his friend. They’d gone from aggressive to reactive, and it was my fault. Her death was my fault.
“Do you have anyone you’d like me to call?” The nurse asked.
I shook my head. Then, after a couple of seconds, I said, “I’ll have the eggs and sausage.”
A nurse came by just before midday to check on my wound and change its dressing. I could only catch a sideways glimpse of the puckered stitches and raised flesh as she worked, but it was enough to assure me that I was lucky to be alive. When she’d finished fastening the bandage, she checked my vitals. My tolerance during it was remarkable, considering how long I’d spent in the lab undergoing the same thing, over and over again. She, however, did not finish, just to start all over again. She administered my medication, told me to call for assistance if I needed any, and bustled off to her next patient, opening the curtains around my bed with a flourish as she left.
I spent a week in the hospital, obeying their orders like a well-behaved dog. I ate their nutritious food, exercised whenever they deemed it appropriate, and communicated with the other patients so much that it made me faintly queasy.
On the twelfth of November, around two in the afternoon, I was discharged. The nurse even started stripping my bed and prepping my area for another patient while I collected my meagre belongings.
When I made it down to reception, I called for a taxi and waited on the curb outside for it to roll up. A smoker plopped down beside me, and offered a puff of his cigarette. I’d smoked during university, but only when stress got the better of me. I felt like now was an acceptable time to resurrect the old habit. It wasn’t like I couldn’t afford it.
“Thanks.” I told him, taking a drag before passing it back to him. I held the toxic, liberating inhale in my throat, revelling in the way it tickled me with smoky fingers. When I eventually exhaled, I curled my lip and let the smoke out in a thin stream.
My smoking buddy smiled, and impressed me with his own exhale. We sat together, passing the cigarette between us, until my taxi arrived.
I never got his name.
Home, when I reached it, was unbearably stifling. An avalanche of mail had been shoved through the letterbox, and I had trouble opening the front door enough to get inside. The air felt thick and sluggish. And despite the cleaning I’d done upon getting home from the trial, the place was dusty again.
Practicality told me to take a shower, have a nap, and then deal with everyday life, and I listened to it. I took a long shower, found my comfiest pyjamas and cosied up under my duvet.
When I woke up, it was six thirty. I dragged myself into the living room with my duvet around my shoulders, dropped onto the sofa and turned the news on. Within ten minutes, a picture of ma and I popped up on the screen, with the caption ‘brutal mugging leaves one dead and one critically injured.’ I listened to the reporter speak into her microphone with distant, sardonic amusement. She was stood on the high street, the cordoned-off space where my life had ended in the shot behind her. Her words didn’t register. What could she say, after all, that I didn’t already know? If they’d caught the muggers, their mug shots and names would have been included in the report.
With a sigh, I turned off the television, shrugged out of my protective cocoon, and set to work. I did the mouldy washing-up. I checked the answering machine and found seven increasingly agitated messages from ma’s ex-boss, and phoned him to explain the situation. I phoned the funeral home that’d agreed to take ma’s body and organised a visit for tomorrow morning. I stared at the mail for a long time. There were handwritten envelopes, and there were printed ones. I opened the printed ones first to give myself the easier job. Two of them were bills, while the other, a brown envelope reinforced with cardboard, was my mother’s death certificate. I’d asked them to post it, so I wouldn’t have to lie in my hospital bed staring at it.
The handwritten correspondence, eight letters in all, I stacked into a pile and left on the side.
At exactly one twenty three in the morning, it occurred to me that not all of the muggers had gotten away. I’d stabbed two of them – one in the stomach, one in the groin. There was only a slim chance either of them had gone to the hospital, but I’d take it, especially if it meant I could find the man who’d fired the gun.
I dressed in dark clothes, and took out my eyebrow piercing. It was too memorable, and I couldn’t risk standing out, not with what I was about to do.
No one spoke to me on the way. I walked over the train station platform, and through the centre of town. The high street was deserted – probably because people were too scared to be out and about at night. I passed our old restaurant, now boarded-up, and the all-girls’ grammar school. Briefly, I considered scaling their fence and entering the hospital through the back entrance, which was accessible from the school’s playing field, but I rejected the idea. Why hide? If the two muggers were in the hospital, I would hurt them. Maybe even kill them. And the police would know instantly that I was the one responsible. Who else would have motive? Prison, remarkably, was not something I was scared of. Not anymore.
I took a seat in the waiting room, an open space which linked the shop, café and reception in one stretch of ugly forest green carpet and plain, white walls. The seats, however, were wide and padded, and were more comfortable than I expected. The room was virtually empty – a receptionist, grudgingly stuck with night duty, typed on her computer, an old man nursed a coffee by the vending machine and an anxious man, with two children asleep on the chairs behind him, paced the floor, and stared every so often at the maternity ward doors, which were also connected to the waiting room.
I chose a seat nearest the windows, schooled my expression into one of anticipation and concern, and started browsing magazines. On occasion, in case anyone was looking, I added a tremble to my hands, or I sniffled.
When the receptionist, almost fifty minutes later, locked up her booth and disappeared into the ladies’ room, I followed her. She’d chosen the middle booth, which was the only one occupied. While I waited for her to finish, I fluffed my hair and examined the layout of the room through the mirror. The last thing I wanted was for her to be suspicious, and what was more suspicious than doing nothing in a public bathroom?
When the toilet flushed, and she let herself out, I was there. The side of my hand collided with her throat, hard, and she bent over gagging, clutching her neck. Aware that too much noise would draw unnecessary attention, especially with fretful daddy hovering right outside, I grabbed a fistful of her loose, summery waves in my hand, dragged her over to the hairdryer, and bashed her head, forcefully, against it. It took three tries, but she finally lolled, and her body went limp. I waited a minute, to see if the noise had attracted attention, but no one poked their head in to ask after our welfare.
Covering my hands with toilet paper, I unpinned the badge from her blouse, attached it to my own shirt, and pilfered her id card from her pocket. After that, it was simply a case of storing her in a corner cubicle, locking the door with us both inside and undergoing a brief mountaineering venture onto the toilet, a quick hoist over the partitioning wall and a drop into the next cubicle. That’d give me five minutes at the very least, if she didn’t wake up and start screaming for help.
The old man was gone by the time I emerged from the toilets, but the expectant father with the two kids remained. I glanced at the clock above his head, which read three am, and sighed dramatically, as if I was a tired teenager, resentful of the incredibly earlier morning start. In reality, a change of shift at three am was ridiculous, but I needed to be unremarkable, not authentic.
The door to the reception booth clicked when I waved the card against it, and I let myself in. A chain link screen separated the receptionist from the waiting room, which made it easier for me to sit down and impersonate a member of staff. The distance meant nobody could get close enough to see the name on the badge.
The computer had timed out, and when I waggled the mouse to get rid of the screensaver, a locked screen popped up, asking for a username and password. I ground to a halt, staring at the computer in disbelief. Anger wanted me to storm back into that bathroom and beat it out of her, but I resisted the impulse. The damage I’d done to her was already enough for an assault charge.
My predicament called for original thinking. I didn’t bother with a password on my phone because I could never remember it. What if the receptionist suffered from a bad memory too? The best way to combat forgetfulness was to write something down.
I checked her handbag, which was on a peg underneath her coat near the door, and found a black hole. She had beauty products inside, so many that they clinked; a can of dry shampoo; a meticulously clean hairbrush; deodorant and a small perfume bottle, half-empty; a salad box with couscous inside, as well as a low-fat yoghurt and a container of cucumber; a state-of-the-art phone in a bug-eyed yellow case; a purple purse, and a small address book. The address book seemed the most promising, but I couldn’t find anything inside it. The purse turned up scraps of paper, but none of them had the information I was looking for. Her phone was my last resort. There was no lock code, which only proved my assumption that she was as forgetful as me, and in her inbox I found a message from someone named Simon, who’d told her to come and see him after she’d locked herself out of her account.
I sent a message to Simon, from her phone, to tell him that I couldn’t remember my username or password, imitating her style of writing as best I could. Within two minutes, I had a reply. Someone must have a crush, I thought, to answer so quickly at this time of morning.
He’d sent several open-mouthed emoticons, along with ‘what’ in capital letters. I sent back a sad face, to which he replied with a very helpful comment: ‘can’t you use the post-it I gave you?’ I finished the conversation with a short, concise ‘thanks’, and set about searching for the elusive post-it. I eventually found it, shoved under the keyboard.
Access was granted when I put the details in, and I almost fist-pumped. Almost. A system was already active on the screen, and a search bar beckoned me, the cursor blinking in the white box. Since I didn’t know the muggers' names, I searched mine.
My file was full of gibberish I couldn’t understand, as well as technical information from the ward I’d been housed on, and the ICU unit I’d been in before the ward, when my injuries were unstable. My mother’s name was listed, but no one else.
I searched for stab wound victims who’d referred themselves for treatment, and two names popped up. One had admitted himself last night with a wound to the left shoulder, but the other had been admitted the same day as ma and I, with damage to the stomach. Saeed Oliver. His file included all his personal information, which I printed. I didn’t have time to sit and peruse at leisure – one of the father’s children had woken up, and was yowling because she needed the toilet.
I tidied the work space as best I could, left the badge and card on the desk, and let myself out of the booth with my stack of papers. Not a single noise was made from anyone in the room, nor did a single eye watch me leave.
I strode across the courtyard in front of the hospital’s main entrance, hands in my pockets, as a cool breeze tickled the hairs at the nape of my neck. I felt triumphant. Revenge was within reach – Saeed wouldn’t be in a state to fight me, not with his pain receptors still fully firing. My ecstasy was so consuming, that I didn’t notice the man coming at me until I was tackled to the floor.
Responding to the attack, however, was laughably easy. I elbowed him in the gut, grabbed a fistful of hair and punched him square in the nose. My bloodlust was perfectly satisfied with that, but he came at me again, an animalistic desperation in his eyes. Eyes I recognised.
Hoping to keep him down for the count longer than two seconds, I socked him in the gut, ducked his clumsy attempt at a punch and scrunched a fistful of his shirt in my fingers, yanking him right up into my face.
“What’s your problem, man? We shared a cigarette.” His eyes narrowed, and he stopped struggling. In fact, he deflated, as if someone had punctured him and let all the air out.
“You gave me something.” He mumbled.
Since he seemed to have calmed down, I released him, folded my arms and crooked an eyebrow. “You think I infected you.”
Suddenly, his features tightened with ferocity. He didn’t move, didn’t come at me, but I was prudently aware of the danger nonetheless. This was a guy on the edge, a guy who’d woken up in a strange, new world and wasn’t sure how to navigate it. One of his hands lifted the side of his shirt. A blood-drenched bandage covered the left side of his chest, over the ribs. It was only as he dropped the shirt that I realised he was shaking. The whole of his body was trembling.
“I can’t feel it.” He said. “I do this thing where I burn the tips of my fingers with my lighter, but I couldn’t feel the flame when I did it. I tried burning my palm, my wrist, my lip -” he pointed dramatically to a black sore in the centre of his bottom lip, “but I didn’t feel anything.”
“And your natural instinct was to do more damage to yourself?”
“I wanted to feel again. Please, take back whatever you gave me.” His hands locked onto my forearms, and he shook me. “Take it back!”