I sat on the hard ground, flicking pebbles with my fingers, and imagined the scenario having gone differently. I asked myself what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten out of the car; if I’d lunged straight at him; if I hadn’t attacked when I had; if I’d noticed the kids in the car earlier and used that to my advantage. Would it have made things better, or worse? Would they have escaped with all their belongings, leaving me in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a car to my name?
A car, I reminded myself, that the police would be looking for by now. I glanced at it – at its muddy trim, its metallic gleam, its compactness, and I suddenly couldn’t bear to look at it. I’d worked my butt off to buy that car second-hand, and I’d scraped and saved after for the money to keep it taxed, insured and running.
That effort seemed pointless now – what had it given me? A way to get from one place to another? Autonomy in deciding my own destination? Fortis had done that for me, and had done it better. I wasn’t scared of failure, or of loss, or of being at another’s mercy. I felt strong, capable, and invincible. Like I was a child again, but in a body made of armour.
“You’re holding me back,” I told the car. “You have to go.”
Five minutes later, I’d checked the glovebox, foot wells, the backseat and the boot for anything I wanted to keep. The search turned up a plastic carrier bag, a torch, my keys, and a box of tissues, a waterproof, a map book, and the first aid kit I’d taken from the Hearne’s. I offered up a silent thank you to them, since I would be needing it. I might not be able to feel pain, but I still had a bloody, broken nose, a knife wound, and two deep lacerations on my forearms. I was lucky I wasn’t dead from blood loss, or unconscious at the side of the road.
I packed everything into the carrier bag, and perched on the driver’s seat with the map book on my lap, positioned towards the interior light. I glanced vainly around, hoping that a road sign would jump out at me, but there was nothing in either direction. In the end, I packed the book in with the rest of my new belongings and resolved to walk by the seat of my pants until I came across a sign.
My journey, at least forty minutes of it, was uneventful. I followed the windy road, staying close to the mountains on my left and away from the steep drop. There were no streetlights, so I walked initially in the pitch black, but my eyes quickly grew accustomed. I heard an owl hooting, an engine in the distance, and the steady gust of the breeze. There were insects clicking, buzzing and flapping around my face that I couldn’t see or hear, but I paid them no heed. What harm would a bee sting do, in the big scheme of things? I wasn’t allergic, and I wouldn’t feel it. Hell, chances were I wouldn’t even notice.
Eventually, the path meandered into a quaint, well-lit village. I stopped outside the closed public house and sat on the wall outside its beer garden, using the floodlight over their back door to illuminate my map. The name of the village didn’t sound English, so I searched the pages which mapped out Scotland and Wales, and ultimately located myself. I was in mid-Wales, about three hours from the border. If I kept trudging down the route I was taking, I’d reach the sea in about seventeen miles.
I couldn’t walk during the day though – I was covered in dried blood, and I looked like a walking corpse. That’d been established when I’d caught a glimpse of myself in the pub’s windows. My hair was matted and sticking out in all directions, my face was so drained of colour that my skin glowed, the area around and under my nose was swollen and purple, my lips were blue, and my clothes were dirty, crumpled and torn, and if I took my jacket off, no one would dare approach me.
I needed to deal with my health and my appearance. That was my priority. Everything else had to come second. And I couldn’t buy a room, or new clothes; not without any money. I might be able to beg or barter food, but my pride remained intact, and I wasn’t fond of the idea of prostrating myself to someone for their scraps. I’d rather steal what I wanted.
With a plan in mind, I set off. I crossed the road first to walk down the street directly opposite the pub. There were fifty or so houses and bungalows in the estate, most of them aged and faithful to traditional architecture – white stone, beams, slate. Some roofs were even thatched. At the end of the estate was a church and a graveyard, and I could see houses past that, but the gates were locked and I was in no condition to scale a fence, so I left well enough alone and turned back.
Past the pub was a steady incline, manifesting in a windy, narrow, vertical road. Cottages were arranged on either side, as if they’d been dotted there, and I took careful stock of the cars in each drive, and any discriminating factors that jumped out at me.
One of the buildings, more promising than the others, stayed with me as I struggled up the hill. There was a primary school, more houses, a shop, a post office, a fish and chip shop, and a park with a play area and football pitches at the very top. Confident with my surroundings, I returned to the house that’d caught my attention and let myself into the front garden. The living room lamp was on, and its light highlighted to anyone outside that the cottage’s occupant was disabled. A wheelchair could be seen through the window, along with medication and an oxygen tank, stashed in a corner.
I put my hand on the handle of my knife, but a stab of guilt halted me. Was I really going to attack a disabled person? Had I sunk so low? Physically, yes. I couldn’t take on anyone stronger, and even if I could, it was an unnecessary danger.
You don’t have to hurt her, a voice I’d thought long gone, piped up. Be quiet, and she may not notice anyone’s in the house. And even if she does discover you, there are alternatives to killing.
Nothing as permanent or as trustworthy, I shot back at it. And I couldn’t afford to take risks, not in the state I was in. Sooner or later, I was going to pass out, and I couldn't be vulnerable or exposed when that happened. This place might seem like the back water, but they had television and internet. I would be recognised, and I’d wake up in a cell, or chained to a hospital bed, or worse, restrained on a tray in a lab.
Being harsh now would save my butt later.
The bungalow had two entrances: a back door into the kitchen, and the front door. I tried both on the off chance they’d be unlocked (some people were that trusting), but I wasn’t that lucky. Next, I checked under heavier objects and in clandestine hiding places, hoping to find a spare key for visiting family or friends. When nothing made itself known after a few minutes, I walked the circumference of the house again, checking for open windows.
The one for the bathroom was propped open to let out a bad stink, and I wrinkled my nose as I pulled it open as far it would go and wrestled my upper half into the narrow gap. My shoulder blades were too wide to fit, and no amount of manoeuvring changed that. With a disgusted scowl, I freed myself and fell back on my last resort: I knocked on the front door. When there was no immediate reply, I knelt down to the letter box and propped it open:
“We’ve received an alert from your handheld alarm, Miss. Can you please open the door?” A high-visibility jacket or flashing lights would have been ideal to the illusion, but I wasn’t a magician - I couldn’t conjure something out of nothing. My worries proved unfounded when a figure appeared in the hallway, resting most of its weight on a walking stick. I waited patiently for them to open the door, and before I could drop the act, the little, old lady who appeared in the doorway regarded me with a raised eyebrow and scoffed.
“Like hell you’re an emergency responder. You look like a dead dog.”
The comparison brought the husky momentarily into my mind, and I swallowed a mouthful of bile. “I need help, ma’am. Please. A shower, some food, a warm bed, and then I’ll be out of your hair, I promise. I don’t have anyone else to ask.”
She eyed me, head-to-toe. “Are you a runaway?”
She nodded. “You don’t look young enough. A criminal?”
I paused for a miniscule second before saying “no, I’m not,” but she noticed my hiccup.
“What did you do?”
With an abandon which almost scared me, words tumbled out of my mouth. “I killed someone. Someone who killed my mother. She was the only thing I had in the world and they took her away from me.”
Her eyebrow hiked up further, disappearing under one of her blue curlers. “Did he deserve it?”
“He did, yes. The people I hurt by consequence? No. And I do regret that.”
Silence stretched between us like chewing gum. Her eyes were blue, the clearest shade I’d ever seen, and the wrinkles surrounding them only emphasised the knowledge she’d obviously acquired in her advanced years. I could see pity battling it out with common sense in them now, and I was relieved to see that pity won, as she held the door open for me.
“One night. I’ll feed you, clothe you, and let you sleep in my guest room, but I want you gone before my carer arrives tomorrow afternoon.”
“Thank you. You have no idea what this means to me.”
“Trust me,” she said, “I do.”
She sent me to shower while she waddled into the kitchen. Initially, I followed her into the scarce, but clean, room, but she kept her back to me as she removed ingredients from the fridge and clicked on one of her hobs to warm-up. When she didn’t acknowledge me within the space of another minute, I left her to it, since she didn’t seem to want my company, and the offer of getting clean far outweighed being polite to my host.
Finding the bathroom was easy: the door was open. Inside was a jungle gym of white safety bars, each strategically placed to support her, and to catch her if her energy flagged during the shower. I held one of them while I shucked off my socks and shoes, since my balance wasn’t at its best, and then sat down on the closed toilet seat to strip off my jacket and my shirt. The jacket I could wipe down and it’d be as good as new, but the shirt was a goner. It was misshapen and stained, so much so that the discolouration would never come out. It needed burning. My jeans were in a similar state – grass marks, tears, blood stains. With everything off, I chucked the clothing into a ratty pile, removed the bandages on my arms and the mangy padding over my bullet wound, and climbed into the shower.
The water, as it sluiced down, felt like warm rain. It was gentle and soothing. My eyes closed, tension in my shoulders eased, and my stomach finally unknotted itself. Everything in me took a deep, long breath and existed for a second solely in the moment. The muck and grime and blood that washed off me turned the floor so dark a brown it was almost black, but that eased up swiftly, and the brown gradually lost its pigment, until the water was transparent once more.
There was a sponge and body wash on the window sill, and I made use of both. I scrubbed every nook and cranny, giving no thought to decency or appropriate guest etiquette. I stained the sponge, and I used all the bottle of scented body soap. Then I tackled my hair with shampoo and conditioner, and by the time I was through, I could run my fingers through the long strands without encountering any tangles.
I switched everything off, folded my hair into a turban, and smothered myself in the largest towel I could find. When I walked into the kitchen in my makeshift clothing, the old lady was nowhere to be found, but a bowl of steaming soup, along with a generous chunk of bread, had been left on the table, and I inhaled the entire meal in two minutes flat. The soup’s warmth suffused my belly, heating me from the inside out, and the influx of carbohydrates, I knew, would fill me with a reserve of energy, waiting to be tapped and used. I left everything in the sink, and went to find the bed I’d been promised.
The lady was in the guest room, dressing the bare duvet and mattress with fresh linens. The pillowcases she’d already put on. I took a seat on the opposite side of the room where she’d left my meagre belongings, and used the ten minutes it took her to make the bed to clean each of my wounds thoroughly with antiseptic wipes and cream, and to re-bandage/dress them with the utmost care. The last thing I wanted was for them to get infected while I was on the road and on the run, or for the stitches to break before I was ready.
“I would have appreciated help.” The old lady said, staring down at me when she was finished, her hand locked onto her walking stick.
I stared right back. “If I exerted myself with my injuries, chances are I’d collapse and you’d feel honour-bound to call an ambulance, and I can’t allow that to happen.”
“You think it’s any easier for me? I have bronchitis. I can barely walk from one room in my house to another without choking, but I know the value of helping others, so I take the risk.” When I didn’t reply, didn’t even acknowledge what she’d said, her lips turned down. “You left my bathroom in a state, and you’re going to clean it up before you sleep in the bed I just made up for you. And if you didn’t wash up your plate and bowl, you’re going to do that too. When you’re finished, I’ll bring you painkillers and water, and you can sleep, but not before.”
I gaped at her, not believing what I was hearing. “I am at death’s door. You can’t expect me to put myself at further risk because I left a little mess in your home.”
“We’re all at death’s door. And I damn well expect you to show enough courtesy to clean up after yourself. If you can stand there and sass me, you can get my cleaning supplies out from under the sink, get on your hands and knees and scrub my bathroom floor.” I realised she wasn't going to back down, and every bone in my body, every joint, every patch of skin, every hair, every muscle, and every strand of my DNA, was yearning for rest. Craving it. I had no choice, not if I wanted to drop out of the world in relative safety for a few hours.
Refusing to make eye contact, I packed the first aid kit back into my bag, dragged myself up from the floor and set to work attacking the mess I’d left in the bathroom. The whole agonising process took twenty five minutes. My towel kept unknotting, slipping to the floor. The fifth time it happened, I left it there, and carried on with my business. My aching hands scrubbed the faucets, the hose, the tiles, the floor, the safety bars, and the toilet seat. The whole room sparkled when I was finished. Dealing with the bowl, spoon and plate was laughably easy after that, but my hands were trembling by the time I was finished and I was losing seconds again, the little hand on the clock over her sink taunting me.
She was waiting in the bedroom by the time I dragged myself into its confines. A nightgown had been lain on the pillow, and a pile of neatly folded clothes sat on the rocking chair in the corner, a duffel bag in front of them on the floor. I looked around for my plastic bag, but I couldn’t see it. Noticing my interest, she pointed her stick at the duffel.
“I packed all your belongings in there, including your dirty clothes, along with a few bits I had lying around. Those clothes -” now she pointed at the chair, “should fit you, and they should be warm enough for the winter weather. If you’re not awake an hour before the carer’s due to come, I’ll knock on the door. I want you gone within half an hour of that wake-up call.”
I could have given her sass, but I was too tired. I yawned instead.
“Understood?” She stressed, raising an eyebrow at me from the room’s open doorway. I blinked at her, confused as to when she’d shuffled that far out of reach. Hadn’t she been next to the bed?
“Understood.” I told her.
I dreamt that I was flying without wings. Birds squawked at me in outrage, and passengers in planes giggled and pointed at me, as if I’d turned up to school in my underwear. Ma was in the clouds, her big eyes filled with disappointment and scorn.
“You are not my daughter,” she said.
Then I fell, spiralling straight towards the ground like a missile. When I hit, I burrowed into the earth. I felt my skull crack, my eyes burst on impact, my spine shatter. Everything condensed, or broke, or collapsed in on itself. My whole body was wrong, and I could feel every strand, every nerve, and every pulse of blood as it failed to do its job. I could feel my brain pulsing and throbbing, and I was conscious when my body died, overexerted and too broken to continue.
I remained a spectator for the whole thing, watching as my heart gave up the ghost, as my chest stopped rising and falling, and as my brain smacked its lips like a demanding child, looking for oxygen, only to be deprived of its drug.
When my consciousness moved off the mortal coil, it descended into fire, and I laughed and danced in the flames.
I knew someone was in the room with me before I opened my eyes. Their presence was easy to distinguish – it disrupted the energy in the room. Provided a block of blank space which practically screamed at my senses. I feigned sleep for a second longer, and then opened my eyes and stared directly at the invader. It was the old lady, her white hair in a long braid, and her eyes shining luminously.
“You were screaming,” she said, when I didn’t ask her what she was doing in the room. I kept looking at her, and she sighed and fidgeted in the rocking chair where she’d perched. “When I was a girl, my pa suffered nightmares from his time as a prisoner of war. He’d wake up screaming. Some nights we couldn’t wake him for trying. And others, he’d wake in the middle of the night with a deadness in his eyes that terrified my mother and me.” She tilted her head. “You have the same look. You’re numb on the outside, but in your dreams, you’re haunted by what you’ve seen, and by what you’ve done.”
“I regret nothing.” I hissed at her, pulling the covers up to my throat. “What I’ve done was perfectly justified.”
“Perhaps. But it wasn’t right. And the repercussions of that scare you.”