On my planet, we don’t wear hats, she says. She has piled far too much onto her spoon but forces it into her mouth anyway. A stray rice krispie clings to her chin like a skin tag and her bare chest shines with dribbles of milk. It will pool in the waistband of her nappy and he must remember to change it straight after breakfast. Before she starts to smell off.
And what planet is that?
She answers with a confused mass of consonants. They are pulped together in her mouth like the cereal. She repeats the name over and over and each time it is slightly different. Slightly removed. Before he can ask her why they don’t wear hats on this planet of hers, she has moved on.
Benny has a tail, she says. The cat is curled up next to her on the bench seat. He has taken to doing that recently. Benny loves me.
Please don’t stroke him when you’re eating. It’s unhygienic.
What’s that mean?
It just is. See? She has pulled at the cat’s tail and loose fur sticks to her milky fingers. He is up quickly and before she has time to put the fingers to her mouth, he has reached across the table and rubbed them clean with a baby wipe.
No thanks, Daddy, she says and squirms away from him.
There is cat hair on the table. She has leant in it and one long stray hair stretches out from her elbow, like a whisker. He pinches it between his fingers and then swipes it on his trouser leg.
After the accident, he worried that she might stop talking. That her language development would stall. But she speaks constantly. She fills as much of the silence as the cat fills the space beside her on the seat.
She allows him to help her with the last few mouthfuls and she slurps from the spoon when he offers it to her.
Milk soup, she says. She grins. Her teeth are perfect.
He tells her that she will be spending the day with Auntie Claire. That Daddy must go to work today.
Poor Daddy, she says.
Later, when he is showered and they are both dressed, he wrestles her into her red coat. She pulls a face of mock horror when her arm disappears into her sleeve and then one of exaggerated relief when it reappears from her cuff.
Come on, she says tugging on his arm. Let’s stretch our legs. Lizzie’s words in her mouth. She keeps doing this, dragging one of her mum’s phrases out of the darkness and dropping it at his feet like one of Benny’s gifts.
Yesterday, there had been a headless mouse curled up on the kitchen floor like a misplaced apostrophe.
At the front door, he pats at his pockets. Phone. Wallet. Keys. He checks again, then stops. There is someone there. Through the dimpled glass panel, he sees a vague malformed shape. Its edges are out of focus. There are no longer batteries in the doorbell, so he waits for the rap of knuckles on glass. Instead, the letterbox whines as the flap is lifted and two envelopes, one brown and one white, flutter onto the doormat. Just the post. Through the glass, he now recognises the distinctive orange jacket. He hears the whisper of the postman’s sleeve as it scrapes against the letterbox flap and realises he has been holding his breath.
For the first few days, journalists had swarmed over his front lawn like locusts. They had jostled each other and trampled the flowerbeds. He had kept the curtains drawn and pulled the phone cord from the wall, so they shouted at him from the other side of the closed front door. His living room windows were still smeared with greasy handprints from where they had pressed against the glass. When it became clear that he would not speak to them they turned nasty. If you don’t give us your version, we’ll print our own, they’d said. They had thrust their business cards through his letterbox and he could see their fingers writhing like massed worms. Their fingernails were always clean and neatly clipped.
She starts to sing. Stretch stretch stretch, our legs legs legs. Yanking on his sleeve with each syllable, she pulls him towards the door.
Come on then, Squidlet.
Outside, the air is cold. Their breath forms clouds.
I’m a dragon, she says. Look, Daddy. You’re a dragon too.
He squeezes her hand as they wait to cross the road.
Left, right and left again, he says.
She gulps in an exaggerated breath and fills her cheeks. I’m the Big Bad Wolf, she huffs and puffs.
Not at the road, he tugs sharply on her hand. Pay attention to the road. Left, right and left again.
There is a light mist and the car headlights are muted and blurry, like watery eyes.
Is it safe to cross? he says. Is it safe?
Claire opens the door before they ring the bell. She must have been watching through a gap in the blinds.
Thanks for this, he says.
Are you sure you’re ready? Her eyes are puffy. He has never seen her without makeup. She looks nothing like Lizzie.
It’s just for this week. I’ll have some proper childcare sorted soon.
No rush, she says. Reaching out, she touches him lightly on the forearm. He can barely feel it through his jacket.
Be a good girl for Auntie Claire, he says.
It is only a short walk from Claire’s to the coffee shop, but he is breathing heavily when he arrives. The cold has made his nose run and he pulls a tissue from his inside pocket and blows into it. For days after the accident, his snot had been black. It would pass, they had said. His body was expelling the dust. When he blew his nose, a thick sooty stain would spread across the tissue, as if his lungs were filled with charcoal.
The closed sign hangs in the door and through the glass he can see Glen, his assistant manager, scrubbing the steam arm of the espresso machine with a soft cloth. A girl he doesn’t recognise is wiping the tables.
Sorry, we don’t open for another fifteen minutes, she says when he comes through the door.
Glen looks up from the espresso machine.
Nick, he says. Great to have you back. He comes out from behind the counter and swallows him in a bear-hug. How you holding up?
He has been nothing but Daddy and Mr Chambers and I’m Sorry For Your Loss for so long that he has almost forgotten that he is Nick.
The place is looking good, he says.
Carrie, Glen says to the girl, this is the boss.
She looks horrified and starts to apologise, but Nick smiles and tells her not to worry. How could she be expected to know?
They are kept busy all morning. The girl and Glen work well together. They anticipate the peaks and troughs of customer footfall and the tables are always cleared and the dishwasher emptied before the next rush. Nick works the till. He keeps forgetting where the button for the syrup shots is and eventually stops trying to charge for them. It is cramped behind the counter with all three of them there. Every time he opens the cash register, his elbow nudges the jug that Glen is using to steam the milk. When they hold out their hands for their change, Nick notices that all the customers have clean and trimmed fingernails.
After lunchtime, everything slows to a trickle. A young lad with a neat beard sits at one of the window tables, nursing a regular Americano. He stares in turn at his laptop screen and then at his mobile phone and then at the laptop screen again. There are a handful of other customers scattered around the shop, but most of the tables are now empty.
No need for us all to be bored. Why don’t you two knock off early?
Are you sure you can manage? Glen says, but he is already untying his apron.
After they leave, the light changes. Through the window, he can see the darkening afternoon sky, pregnant with the threat of heavy rain. The wind has picked up.
Only a thin strip of pavement separates the glass front of the shop from the traffic. The curve of the road gives the illusion that cars are heading straight for the window before they turn sharply and run parallel with the shop. Before he opened the place, Nick had planned to put a couple of tables outside for the smokers, but the council said the path was too narrow. In poor light, you would be forgiven for thinking you could open the door and stroke the cars as they passed.
Far up the road, a car blinks into existence as its lights come on. It approaches too quickly; the driver must be unfamiliar with the sudden twists of this road. The headlights grow larger until the shop front fills with their angry glow and Nick winces. The young man at the table in the window becomes a silhouette. He becomes the absence of light. It is too bright and Nick turns his head and waits for the car to come crashing through the glass, but of course, it turns. The light ebbs. He sees that the handle has snapped from the coffee cup that is holding. The jagged edge has scraped the length of his ring finger. He watches as pinpricks of deep red blood appear in the white furrow. The blobs merge together and run, pooling against his wedding ring. He holds his hand under the cold tap and it grows numb.
And just like that, he is there again.
They pull up on the single yellow lines and Nick keeps the engine running. Sometimes a traffic warden lurks around the corner at picking-up times. Lizzie jumps out.
Don’t forget her coat. His last words.
She rolls her eyes.
From here on there is no sound in his memory. He glimpses a silver blur through his passenger-side window. Looks up. The brake lights do not come on. The car folds itself into the front of the building. For a moment, he does not move. He tries to make sense of this new shape where the Rainbow Centre used to be. Is this the moment? Is it in this brief space before he throws open his door and heads into the rubble that she slips from him?
The car lurches forward as his foot slips from the clutch. He leaves the key in the ignition; the door hangs open. The next day his throat is swollen closed, so he must be screaming something.
Some people have made it out. They grip each other tightly and collapse onto the grass verge. Their faces are thick with grime. The dust has turned their hair white. No Molly. No Lizzie. A hand grasps his elbow and pulls him back from the door. He twists. Mrs Gallivan? Mrs Gulliver? Her mouth opens and closes. Her face is chalk. He jerks his arm from her grip.
Inside the air is black fog. The air is dry heat. He falls to his knees and paws blindly at the ground. Shattered brick. Lumps of plaster that crumble in his fist. A cold twist of plastic chair. Something soft. He digs into the filth. Tears at the broken pieces until his fingernails split and then peel away. He brushes against something that yields. Feels the damp warmth of breath against his skin. He reaches behind her, supports her head, pulls her from the debris. Dust pours from her like sand through parted fingers. He struggles to his feet and staggers towards the light.
Outside the daylight is flashing blue. A woman in a uniform takes the bundle from his arms. He can see now that it is some other girl. Not his Molly. He turns to head back into the centre, but his legs are empty and he falls. Someone drapes a blanket over his shoulders and later the same person, or someone else, helps him to his feet and leads him to a stretcher. Somehow, he has lost a shoe.
At the hospital, they tell him that Molly has been brought in. They will keep her overnight for observation as she has some superficial injuries, but physically she should be fine. Physically.
She is sleeping when he limps down to the children’s ward. Her chest rises and falls. They have cleaned her face but her hair is snarled with dust. Her bottom lip is slightly split. His tears patter on her hospital gown like rain on tarpaulin.
They pull Lizzie out of the rubble where the wall with the coat hooks used to stand. They speak in muted voices when they tell him. Their lips are out of synch. Compression due to suffocation or obstruction is what they say but what he hears is ‘don’t forget her coat.’ When he identifies her, they let him hold her hand for a few moments before they pull the sheet back over her. The stone of her wedding band is lost. Her nail polish is chipped. His own fingertips are black. At home, he scrubs with wire wool until the water in the basin turns pink, but the dirt is worked deep into the whorls of his fingerprints.
The inquest returns a verdict of accidental death. The driver, Beckford, is in his seventies. Grandad. Widower. Clean license. Clean medical history. A seizure, most likely. He was going so fast that the walls of the centre might as well have been papier mache.
Are you alright?
Nick is still holding his hand under the flow of the cold tap, although the graze on his finger must have stopped bleeding some time ago. The basin is overflowing, cold water sloshes over the lip and soaks into his apron.
Are you alright? The young man with the neat beard repeats and when Nick does not answer, he comes around the side of the counter and gently turns off the tap. He plunges his hand into the basin and removes a pulpy cardboard blockage from the plughole. One of the sleeves from a takeaway cup. Water gargles as the sink begins to drain.
It is only when the man reaches under his armpits, and hoists him to his feet that Nick realises that he has sunk to the ground behind the counter.
The man helps him to one of the empty tables near the window. He scrapes out a chair and pours Nick into it and then he calls out to the remaining customers.
Sorry folks, closing time.
Nick sits and watches the headlights grow and fade as the man closes the door behind the last customer. He gathers in the half-finished drinks and wipes the tables with a damp cloth he finds next to the cash register. Finally, he pours a glass of water and places it on the table in front of Nick.
Do you want me to call somebody? he says.
He pulls out a chair for himself and sits opposite. Behind him, headlights swell and the lobes of his ears glow orange and red and Nick can see each thin blue vein running through them, but his view of the road is blocked.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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