“Alex, where are you?” She was okay. Alright, maybe not okay, but alive. She was moving, speaking. Speaking to me. “Alex?”
I never thought I’d hear her say my name again. How long had it been, a month? Her voice, it sent a shiver down my spine.
I stumbled over a reply. Three things I wanted to say all crashed into each other inside my head and came out of my mouth a tangle of constantans.
“Alex, is that you?” Yes. Me. She sounded distant, quiet. Fragile. “I need your help.”
“Where?” I managed. Help, I could focus on that. Direction. It would take me a couple of hours to get to the hospital. I jumped to my feet and scanned my room for my vest. I’d need to set off now.
“I’m at your garage.” That stopped my search as quickly as it had started. “I thought you’d be here, where are you?”
She was at the garage… Okay. Closer. Faster. I managed a broken, but coherent reply, “On my way.”
Before she could respond I smudged my fingers into the screen until it got the idea I wanted to cut the call.
All this time waiting for that news, hoping for that news, begging the universe to give me the one thing I cared about back to me and… I was scared.
I didn’t know what to say to her. I hardly even knew how to speak at all. I’d forgotten how much of a mess I could be with people. Some people at least. Okay, Beth.
I don’t know how to talk to people. I’m no good at it. I can hit people. I can scare people. But that’s all a front. I can’t deal with them properly. Not on any sensible emotional level. I learned that early on. I never had have friends. I repel people.
I don’t have any practice.
I tripped up over my armour, untouched in the same heap I’d left it a few days ago. I pulled it over the t-shirt I’d borrowed from Danni. It was dark, but I knew every strap and every buckle well enough I could get it on with my eyes closed.
After I pulled the belt around my waist I punched the light switch and scrambled around for my shoes in the seconds it took for my eyes to adjust. I slipped the battered second hand trainers over my feet and grabbed the knife I’d pinched from Mike and shoved it at my waist.
I didn’t bother with batons. If I came against anyone I wasn’t going to bother with anything that slow. A blade would be faster.
I stood, ready.
Then I had to take my shoes off again to put my pants on.
I ran. The kind of sprinting that you don’t do unless you’re feeling particularly lucky. I jumped gaps. I took the loose paths through the buildings, those that were more direct but maybe a little old, unkept by the local street kids.
The soft, malleable trainers were better for traction than thick, sturdy boots – even if they were a sacrifice in combat. Even so, they skidded on the snow covered ice. I lost my footing a few times, breaking my fall ungracefully but picking myself up and running with the momentum.
I didn’t break my neck. Whether that was luck or skill was immaterial.
I couldn’t talk to her but I could help her. I could fight for her, if that was all I was good for.
I didn’t stop once. No confrontations. The Island never slept, especially not with the growing winter nights, but around three or four in the morning those out late began to tire, and those that began early hadn’t yet woken.
Few people seemed interested in trying to get in my way, even when I was on the street levels.
It was fifteen agonising minutes before I skidded to a stop outside the car entrance. Long disused, and the least well-trodden, I chose it in the hope of meeting no-one.
Lack of street-lighting, and the shadows cast by the flat’s flanking me gave little light to find my way. But the ever-present smog reflected enough ambient lighting to illuminate your path even on a moonless night. I picked a path through the trash, careful to be silent, walking now, not running.
The darkness of the underground garage felt a wistful comfort settle over me, even though the tension. I ran my fingers across the wall, feeling the gap of air each time I passed a shuttered door. The friction of the rough concrete made the nerves of my fingers buzz, their ends filled with pins and needles.
I stopped, and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
Or I just waited.
Why was this so difficult?
My borrowed t-shirt, even with Danni’s size over me was tighter than I was used to. It hugged me. The armour that normally made me feel so secure was pulling on my chest when I inhaled. Everything felt unnatural.
She needs my help. I have to go. Only a few more steps. She needs my help.
Just one corner.
With a deep breath, I peered around.
Two figures. One slumped against my door. The other was standing over her, a small flash of silver in hand.
The scene played out in my head. She was here, alone. Did someone follow her, obviously weak, struggling, an easy prey?
Why had I stopped? I could have been here sooner. The figure turned to the sound of my foot skidding on the ground as I launched myself at them. My own knife was in my fist, knuckles white around its grip. I had no memory of drawing it from my hip.
They were slow, barely raising their weapon. No knife. Gun. Easier in this enclosed space. I slapped their hand to the side as I charged. They didn’t even manage to get a shot off before I had my knife to their throat. A moment and their life would be spilling out of them.
Just one second. One little cut.
We collided, my momentum pushed the both of us backwards. My face was filled with a tangle of hair. I saw flash of face in the tumbling light as we fell. I heard her squeak. A panicked squeak, not something a murderer was likely to make.
There was a thud as her head hit the floor. We came to rest with my knees pinning each of her arms to the floor, most of my weight crushing her bicep, willing her to let go of the gun. My knife still pressed into the jugular so hard I could feel it twitch with her pulse.
She didn’t resist. As she blinked stupidly at the ceiling, stunned from hitting the floor I actually looked at her face.
Girl from school. Emma.
I jerked the blade away and jumped back, kicking the gun from her limp fingers in case she didn’t realise who I was.
My heart skipped a beat as she clutched at her neck. For a moment I thought I’d cut, but no. I’d seen someone bleed out. I’d inflicted that kind of injury. There was no torrent of blood. No arterial spray. She was fine, physically.
I shoved the knife back in my belt.
“Emma?” Was that even right? School had been so long ago…
She didn’t reply, but her shoulders shook.
“Sorry.” I didn’t know what else to say. Then my eyes fell on Beth. “Is she okay Emma?”
A nod, but she didn’t look at me. I fell to my knees in front of Beth. Her eyes closed. I didn’t like seeing her eyes closed.
“Beth?” I reached out to touch her, hardly daring. My fingers brushed her cheek. Soft. Warm.
She mumbled something. Her heard lolled onto one shoulder. Her eyelids twitched. She was asleep? Normal sleep?
I fumbled for the keys to the garage. I had blankets. It was safer inside. The stupid door took an age to open. Before I could over think, I slid one arm under her knees and one behind her back and lifted her through. She weighed nothing to me.
I inhaled a lung full of air. The texture different to the sharp metallic scent of snow blown or trodden in to the communal area, it had more dust and old unwashed clothes.
I laid her down gently on the blankets I called a bed, digging for the cleanest t-shirt and rolling it up for a pillow. She moaned a little, turning on to her side.
I reached out to brush a stray lock of hair from her face but hesitated. I had a strange fear that she was dangerous to touch, as if charged with electricity that would strike the moment my fingers brushed her cheek. I pulled my hand back.
My eyes traced the contours of her neck. I could see the slow strong pulse of her jugular. She had loose pyjamas under her coat.
“Hey,” she said, barely a whisper. Her eyes flickered open and met my own.
She smiled a fleeting, gentle smile. For a moment her face transformed. She didn’t look so tired, so ill. I couldn’t help but return it. Months of tension washed out of me that moment of relief. I couldn’t have believed she was okay until I saw that smile.
Before I even knew what I was doing I had her in my arms. Whether she’d pulled me in or I’d just forgotten my fears, we fell into a hug.
It felt good.
It felt more than good. Holding her to my chest made me fell a thousand times lighter, like I would drift up towards the ceiling. A stupid giggle bubbled up from inside me that took genuine effort to resist.
I felt like laughing.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed.
The feeling was shattered when Beth shook, and not with laughter. She made strangled sobs, muffled by my shoulder. Even the sound itself was painful, like the noise of someone choking. It hit me harder. It made my own eyes wet, my throat constrict.
“They killed him, Alex.” She clung to me like she was drowning and I was the only thing keeping her afloat. “They shot him.”
Her father. I couldn’t say anything to console her of that. It was a loss I didn’t understand, couldn’t. I had no father. I had no mother who cared for me.
I couldn’t console her, I couldn’t make it better. I couldn’t fight death, just cause it.
So I held her. I held her until she was no longer holding me. I held her until she stopped shaking with anguish and tears. Half kneeling, half lying, Beth clutched in my arms – I feared moving might wake her.
After begging so long for her to wake up, now I wanted nothing more than for her to sleep. For her sake.