FICTION: In Her Gift by John Brackenridge

The weight of the city. A narrow room, with a window at the end. A pile of books underneath a microwave. The carpet, scattered with spilt rice that stuck to her feet. One sink, a small fridge. The window was cracked. She’d covered it with a plastic bag that snapped and crackled with the wind.

She lay awake, listening to the babble of talk radio. The same people. She imagined she was the only person listening, and if she stopped holding her breath they’d talk to her. She turned the radio off when the news came on, listened to the city sounds. The hum of traffic. She watched the light on her ceiling, coming above the single curtain. She felt the fabric, rough textures against her skin.

In the evenings she would watch the other windows. She sat cross-legged in the darkness, as still as could be, absorbed in their lives. One by one the lights would go out, until it was only the flickering of late night television sets. She gave names to the people she watched.

She thought of school times, and saw her classmates. The darkness came, and she blocked her mind. She didn’t see those people anymore. She thought of her parents.

She could never tell her mother.

In the day, she would listen at the door. She sometimes heard the coughing of the man opposite. She knew he tried to look through the keyhole, so she hung a scarf from the door handle. When it was quiet, she would step downstairs and grab letters from the table by the door.

Outside. She would go to the park with her headphones on so nobody would think of talking to her. She would sit on a bench, only if the man who just stared wasn’t there.

Sometimes she’d sit on a bench next to the post box on the main street. She watched people passing, some heading to the station, others shopping for clothes. She saw the others, the ones nobody saw, and wondered if they saw her too. She kept her eyes down, just in case.

She went to the shop. She knew where everything was. She used to go to another shop until the owner’s son tried to talk to her one day when he was on the till. She kept her headphones on, and said thank-you at the end.

She went to the library and read books pressed into her lap so nobody could see the title. She read about depression.

One morning she heard the buzzer by her door sound. Each room had a button by the front door for visitors. Sometimes people in other rooms would press the button to release the lock on the front door. She heard the door open, then slam shut downstairs. There were three flights of stairs. She lay still, her fingers gripping the bottom of the curtain, a slip of light across her body.

A knock at the door, her mother calling her name. She felt stillness in the air. The man opposite came out. She could hear him coughing. Her mother asked him about her, but he didn’t reply. She heard him going off down the stairs. An envelope was pushed under the door. It would have money in it. Maybe a photo of the dog.

After a while she heard her mother going. The door slammed again. She lay where she was, thinking about her breathing. She waited for night to come so she could sit and watch the windows.

She walked to the underground station as early as she could. It was still dark. The street lights were orange, and buzzed very quietly. She liked the hiss of electricity. A man walked past on the other side of the road with a dog. She bought her ticket. She glanced at the man in uniform sitting in the booth. He smiled at her, so she looked down at the floor and put her headphones on. The train came in. It wasn’t full, but she stood by the doors. Nobody spoke or looked at each other. She wondered about them.

She came out into the light, and bought another ticket. The sun was coming up, so she stood outside by the statue. A man was sleeping under newspaper, his body cramped. She stared at him for a while. Other people came and went from the station. She could see the big clock that hung over the main concourse. She went to her train and sat by the window. A man in a suit sat next to her, so she pressed herself away from him. She listened to the babble of voices on the radio until the news came on.

The city turned into rows of houses, then gradually slipped behind. She watched the landscape change, saw the people at the stations getting on and off. She slept and dreamed about her father. When he came in the night. The announcement said they were arriving at the last stop, so she followed the other people down the platform and gave her ticket to the inspector. She said thank-you.

The sea air filled her lungs. Seagulls scuttered around, fighting over scraps from the bins at the station entrance. A row of taxis shuffled forward then emptied as the last of the passengers thinned out. She walked downhill, passed empty shop fronts and alleyways. Cars sat in rows waiting for traffic lights to change at the junction. More people moved around her, so she sat on a bench for a while. A man sat at the other end, so she moved off towards the sea. The pier was abandoned. She walked under it along the pebbles, the sea drifting away from her leaving scattered batches of seaweed. She watched tiny creatures moving around in rock pools. She took off her headphones, and listened to the sounds.

She sat and watched the beach as the rain fell. She could taste the salt. Other people had umbrellas. A sign pointed to attractions and the police station. She went there as the rain cleared. The sun came back between the clouds. The steps up were shiny with rain water. She stood at the bottom, and looked at the posters. Two policemen came out laughing. She stood still as they went by. They looked at her but didn’t see. She walked quickly away, in the opposite direction to them, then started to run

She felt into her bag as day moved into evening. There were pills and a bottle of vodka. She sat on the edge of the beach, watching people drifting away, the sea coming. The moon lit her walk across the stones and into the sea where she lay. She could taste the water crossing her lips, lapping around her face. She closed her eyes.

They found her and pulled her back up the beach. The couple who walked their dog every evening. She felt the bruise of the needle in her arm, felt the surge of liquid into her veins. A voice, telling someone that they had a young male, approximately 22, apparent overdose. She heard a voice in her ear, calling her name. Her old name. Her boy name. They were asking if she could hear them.

She nodded, ever so slightly.

John Brackenridge works as a police officer, but dreams of flight. He writes dark short stories, and has a novel, ‘Innocence’, being wrestled with by a publisher. He also writes comedy, and is currently developing a script for submission to the BBC. He showcases his writing at JohnBrackenridge.com

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