Refugee

I sip the hot drink and feel the skin on my tongue tingle from the burn. It’s heavenly; so rich and strong, the consistency of syrup or melted chocolate. I clasp my hands around the mug and shiver as the warmth rushes up my arms. Raising the mug to my burnt lips, I take another sip.

I close my eyes, and allow myself to think about the others. How cruel this world is, that luck decides who lives and who dies. If one of a million things had happened differently, Randy would be sat in this refugee camp drinking too hot, too strong hot chocolate and I would be the one buried beneath our high school.

If I look back now, I can trace back the cause and effect.

My sister was two years older than me and amazing at everything. My parents adored her and I grew up in her shadow, doing exactly the same things that she had done two years previously; but I could never do anything to her standard.

When she moved up to high school, she joined the school gymnastics club. Soon she was being entered into county, and then regional, and then national competitions and winning everything she tried. She was amazing. When she came home with all her medals and trophies my parents would turn to me and tell me that “if I worked hard that could be me”.

When I moved up to high school, I didn’t join the gymnastics club. I joined the basketball club.

I was the only girl on an entirely male team. At first, I was terrible. I knew nothing about the rules and the boys teased me mercilessly, but every time I felt like giving up I thought what my parents would say. They would compare me to my sister and wonder why I had turned out so badly. So I put my head down and worked like hell. I improved slowly, but a time came when I was officially a member of the team, and we would go and play games against the other schools, and gradually we began to win them.

I wasn’t at school on that day because of a game. It was huge; if we won, we would be entered into the South West tournament, further than we’d ever got. We’d been training for months. I more was terrified than I’d ever been in my life, but somehow, when I stepped into the court, everything fell away. The match was infinitesimally close but we won, and were in the coach on the way home when our coach driver turned up the radio and we heard the news report.

I am alive because I didn’t want to be my older sister. Is that fair? I decided to rebel and my reward is that I get to survive, while my sister, who never did anything wrong, is dead.

Or maybe it’s not my fault at all. Maybe it’s not my fault but pure luck. Maybe an earthquake on the seabed a thousand miles away caused a small disturbance out at sea that became a giant wave that came and swept away our city. Maybe the world is just randomly evil and cares not for who it destroys.

Or maybe we did something wrong. Maybe our city was evil and didn’t deserve to exist, and some God somewhere decided to sweep it off the face of the earth, like a spring cleaner carelessly ripping through the delicate cobwebs of spiders.

Or maybe this was going to happen anyway. Maybe nothing we could have done would have changed the changed the pattern of events. Maybe, in the future, people will look back on this day and say that this was when everything changed, the pivot point on which everything rests. Maybe this was necessary. Maybe all this death and destruction has some ultimate purpose. Maybe there’s some lesson to be found from this mess.

If there is, I can’t see it from here.

 

 

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Blood-Red Leaves

The forest was blood-red. The leaves in the trees had turned burgundy and they covered the ground like a red carpet. It was unnaturally silent: no birds sang from the treetops, no animals rustled in the undergrowth. Only the fingers of the black trees twitched, and the blood-red leaves clinging to the dark branches swayed eerily.

I walked slowly through the forest, trying to keep as quiet as possible. Not that it’ll make any difference, I reminded myself. She already knows I’m here. I shivered and wrapped my arms across my chest.

There was no path to follow. The trees closed in overhead, their fingers and blood-red leaves blocking out the sunlight. I carried on walking, knowing that if she wanted to talk to me, she’d choose somewhere where she could easily trap me. Sure enough, after a couple more minutes, I stumbled across a small clearing.

Brown grass, covered in the dying red leaves, grew wild. Although the trees were leaning in, their branches stretching over the clearing, none grew inside the grassy expanse. It was empty apart from a gnarled tree stump in the centre. I walked over and sat down. The minutes stretched by like years and I was beginning to think that she would keep me here until I was old and grey when a voice echoed through the woods.

It seemed to come from everywhere at once. It hissed through the leaves like wind, rumbled through the ground like thunder. The voice was as old as forever and as youthful as a child. Her voice was wise and cruel and clever and bitter and my heart pounded at the sound of it. It was her.

“You dare enter my dominion?” She thundered furiously. “Before I kill you, tell me why you dared to set foot in my forest.”

My hands were trembling like a miniature earthquake, so I sat on them. “Please, good lady, I come to beg your help.” I said, wishing my voice wouldn’t quaver like a child’s’.

This time her voice came from behind me. It was quieter and but several hundred degrees colder. “If I agree, what will you offer me in exchange for this?”

I didn’t turn around. Speaking to the trees, I answered, “My lady, I do not have much, but I can offer you my money. I have over two thousand denra at home and I would be very happy for-”

“What need do I have for human money?” she cried mockingly. “Your useless lumps of metal are worthless!” Her spiteful laughter made the trees shake. The groans of the tree branches filled the air. I sat dead still on the tree stump, shivering. I have nothing to bargain with. She will surely kill me!

The trees grew still again and the unnatural silence stretched onwards. I strained to hear her, wondering if she was creeping up on me so she could kill me. I wanted to turn around, but I was frozen with fear. Suddenly, she hissed in my ear, making me jump. “I crave something far deeper than wealth.” She paused tantalizingly, enjoying my fear. “I will help you, but only if you give me yourself in return.”

“Myself?” I asked, terror restricting my throat. She was right behind me! I wanted to turn around but I couldn’t move.

“Yes…” She hissed. Her hand landed on my shoulder, imprisoning me. Her nails dug deep into my skin. “Give me your soul, and I will give you what you want.”

I hesitated. I needed help so desperately, I was willing to do anything… but my soul? Was it worth it? Doubt filled me and I was about to refuse when a shrewd little voice spoke up. If you don’t give her what she wants, you won’t leave here alive. If you are to die, at least get her help in the process.  I tried to speak but my mouth was bone dry so I nodded instead.

“Good.” She breathed. I could almost see her cruel smile. Her cold fingers stroked my cheek, her nails scratching my skin. “Now run home, little human, and you’ll find the help you needed has already arrived.”

I didn’t hesitate. Everything inside of me wanted to get away from her as quickly as I could. I jumped up and speed towards the edge of the clearing. But before I plunged into the forest I stopped. I don’t know what it was, but something in me made me turn and look back. Maybe I just wanted to see her. Maybe I wanted to show her I wasn’t afraid. Whatever it was, it made me turn and look at the clearing.

But the clearing was empty. The gnarled tree stump sat in the centre, alone. I frowned, looking closer, not believing that she could disappear that fast. Then I saw the darkness under the blood-red trees and froze. The shape was tall, taller than me, and barely recognisable as a person. The shadow shifted slightly and I caught a glimpse of scaled skin, talons for hands. Evil seemed to seep from it the darkness like a foul smell. The temperature dropped and I shivered in the sudden dark.

Fear clenched a fist around my throat. My feet seemed to have turned to stone.

Then the darkness hissed, in a voice that was absolutely devoid of humanity, “I will collect my payment at the next full moon.”

I turned and fled.

His Restless Nature

 

He is restless

Constantly in motion

Like smoke billowing through the air

Never still: twisting, contorting

Fleeing one second, attacking the next

As changeable as the wind

Creating flawless works of art with a flick of his fingers:

Goddesses, and elves, and water-nymphs

Their long-lashed eyes gazing down from the heavens…

But only for a heartbeat, a snapshot:

Before they become boring, and torn to shreds

By his own restless nature

Moving on, moving away

Fleeing from himself

Leaving behind scraps of beauty:

A glimpse, perhaps,

Of what he could do, of what he could become

If only his head

Was not stuck in the clouds.

Unease

There once was a young girl, who lived a perfectly ordinary, simple and nondescript life. She woke alone, she ate alone, she worked alone, and she went to sleep in a vast, empty bed. She thought that she was perfectly happy and content.

But one day, as she sat spinning wool, she realised that she felt uneasy. A feeling, a tiny thought, had crept inside her. It was small, vague, like a mist over her mind. She carried on spinning, trying to dismiss the niggling doubt, and for a while she was able to ignore it.

That night, as she lay in bed, the feeling returned with more strength. It slipped inside her and took root. It was unease: a strange feeling that something was wrong, but not knowing what. Nothing is worse than an unnameable fear. She stared up at the ceiling, wishing she could fall asleep and escape. But even when she did slip away, her dreams were full of darkness.

As the days went by, the feeling didn’t leave her. It grew and intensified and became an obsession. A sentence kept coming into her head, pounding endlessly through her brain until it became a constant rhythm drumming in the background:  Something is wrong! Something is wrong!

It was strongest when she was idle, so she busied herself around her small two-roomed house. She washed and cleaned and tided and dusted until her house was cleaner than it had ever been; but the foreboding remained. It wasn’t a small thought in the back of her mind: it was in her body, her stomach, her bones. It was everywhere and everything and in every corner of her mind.

In one of her calmer moments, she sensed something above the terrible unease. It’s as though there’s a storm on the horizon: something is coming. Something is about to snap.

Her life stopped. She barely slept. She didn’t eat. She spun wool like a mad woman, driving the wheel so fast it blurred out of sight. She paced up and down, up and down her small house. Every night she tossed and turned dozed fitfully, sobbing in her sleep. Her skin appeared to shrink, sharply defining her bones. Her young face looked gaunt and haunted in the mirror. The terrible unease filled her and consumed her and drove her to the edge of despair.

One night, when the moon was especially bright, she lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling. She was desperately unhappy; she couldn’t escape the awful feelings any more. They had possessed her.

Weak and exhausted, she tossed and turned through the night. In her broken state, it was easy for a fever to sneak past her fallen defences and force itself into her body. She tossed and turned and sweated and moaned until there was nothing left…

…Nothing at all.

She sat up. For the first time in weeks, she didn’t feel uneasy. She felt nothing. She was absolutely numb, and as empty as a burst balloon. She stood up and walked through her immaculate house in a daze. Her eyes were unfocused, staring straight ahead at nothing.

All the time she’d spent cleaning and tidying, all the years she’d lived in her small house: but now she felt nothing for it. She no longer cared. She unlocked the door and walked out, leaving the door wide open and the key still in the lock.

Barefoot, and wearing only a thin nighty, she walked. The moon was round and incredibly bright, like a silver penny suspended among the stars. The world felt unreal, like a painting: totally still and silent, painted in only two colours: silver moonlight and black shadow. Nothing moved and she began to feel that none of this was real: that if she reached out to touch a tree, it was dissolve into smoke in her hands. The thought made her shiver and she increased her pace slightly.

She walked and walked, at first through streets and past dark houses, and then out into the wilderness, over hills and forests and grasslands. She walked without pausing, without resting, a steady trot onwards to nowhere.

Faintly, through her numbness, a thought arose… something is wrong with Time. It’s stopped. She wondered how long she’d been walking for. Followed by another; or perhaps Time is flying past so quickly that it only appears to be staying still.

She continued walking through the unchanging world. The silence was beginning to get to her. There was no breeze to move the trees, no people awake to talk, and no dogs to howl or bark. It was days, or perhaps years, until feeling came back to her. A tiny crack opened in the fog of numbness, and through it came a faint feeling that her journey was almost at an end. Relief, satisfaction, and a weary ache. Some time after this, she came across a little house. Instantly, she knew that this was what she had been searching for.

She had walked past hundreds of houses on her never-ending journey, but in each the windows were dark and shadows seemed to spill from the doorways, like black breath being exhaled from cavernous mouths. She had hurried on past them, uncaring. But this house was different.

The door had been flung open and warm, golden light spilled through. All the windows were lit up, light spilling from every pore of the house. The small crack in her fog of indifference widened, lengthened, was joined by multitudes more; and then, in one great mighty rush, the numbness and emptiness that had been constricting her fell away, and a rush of gladness filled her. The force of the emotion was so great that she stopped in her tracks.

Free! She thought with joy. She embraced her emotions, remembering the unique touch of each of them. Taking another step, she winced. Mentally examining her body, she was shocked. I must’ve walked a long way, she realised with surprise, because I’m aching all over. My bones, my hips, my back. She tried to touch her toes but stopped before she’d even reached halfway, gasping with pain. What’s happened to me?

She turned her attention to the house, placing her fists on her hips and scrutinising it. And the more she gazed at the house, the more she recognised it. It was just so familiar – she knew that, if she went inside, she would know exactly were every little thing belonged. That’s the window to the bedroom, she thought. And she was right.

She headed for the house again, but found herself hobbling. I hurt all over, she grumbled. But despite her aches and pains, she hurried towards the house as quickly as she could. I know this house. Why?

She walked through the open door and was not surprised to find herself in a living room. She turned to close the door and saw that the sky was no longer as black as coal: like ink that washes out of a garment, the darkness had begun to fade away. Colour had returned to the world. And soon the sun will rise, she thought, and her heart lifted in happiness.

She closed the door. The key was in the keyhole so she locked it and slipped it into the pocket of her nighty. Turning around, she peered around at the little living room. A fire flickered warmly in the hearth, and an old rocking chair stood close to the fire. A door led off to what she knew was the bedroom. The lady chuckled. I love that old chair. She hobbled over to it and slowly sat down.

Half-finished knitting sat nearby, as though it was only a minute ago that that it had been laid down by its owner. It just seemed so natural to reach out and pick it up. It uncoiled to become a long pink and yellow scarf.

Without thinking, she slipped the thick needles between her knobbly fingers and began to knit. Soon, the clackity-clack of needles filled the warm room. The lady smiled, feeling a strange but pleasant sense of dejá-vu. Soon she was rocking back and forth, humming a little song to herself that she didn’t know she knew. Absentmindedly, she thought, yellow and pink; they’re her favourite colours.

She slammed her feet down and stopped rocking so suddenly she nearly tipped herself off the chair. The thought stopped her in her tracks. At first, she was confused. How do I know that? How do I know that this scarf is the favourite colours of someone I’ve never met? Then she began to worry. What on earth am I doing? I’ve walked into someone else’s house, and now I’m just sitting here doing their knitting! She looked down at the long mess of wool. I don’t even know how to knit! On the verge of hysteria, she tossed it to the side and stood up, panic thrashing in her heart.

She caught sight of movement behind her and turned, startled and afraid. A mirror hung on the wall and, for a moment, the lady stared at it in disbelief. Her feet walked forwards without her consent. Shock stopped her thoughts.

She was old. And not even middle-aged old; she was ancient. Her skin was dark from years of hard work in the sun and so heavily wrinkled she resembled an apricot stone. Her eyes looked like they’d shrunk backwards into her head and her lips were small and puckered. She looked like a happy woman, though – not bitter and mean. Her eyes twinkled mischievously and her lips curved up in the corners. Hours ago, I was a young girl. I don’t understand!

She had opened her mouth and was examining her teeth when the loud creak of the bedroom opening made her freeze in fear. There’s no time to hide! She thought in a panic. An old man shuffled through the doorway. She stood, frozen in position, ready to run or fight or apologise… but then she looked at him: really looked at him. His hair was thin and as grey as a rainy day, framing his heavily lined face. His eyes were wise, old, and so warm. When he saw her, his eyes lit up with love and he smiled. She knew him.

Without realising it, she smiled in return. An unexpected thought hit her: I love this man and he loves me.

Suddenly, she understood everything. The scarf. Her sudden aches and pains. Her reflection. I know this house because it’s my house; I know this man because he’s my man. That scarf is for my youngest granddaughter, and she’ll be six in a fortnight. I know all this because this is my life. I’ve walked through time into my own future.

Her husband opened his arms and without hesitating, she went into them. Cocooned in his warm embrace, she realised that not only was this her life, but this was the life she’d always wanted.

She thought back to her old house and her old life. She’d spent it alone, doing the same thing day after monotonous day. She’d seen no-one, spoke to no-one, loved no-one. Totally alone.

And then the uneasiness made me change. Made me leave. And I walked through time until found a time I was happy. And here I’m determined to stay. I’d rather be ancient and happy than youthful and alone.

She closed her eyes and breathed in the familiar smell of her husband. A smile curved her lips.

This is my life. I’m home.

The Ancient Heart

She was bent over, shuffling slowly

Around her dusty and gloomy house

Scowling deeply, each step causing her pain

Her back bent like a question mark

Broken by life, and time, and terrible sights

That had seared themselves into her memories

As effectively as a branding iron.

Her face was a map of wrinkles

Sunk deep, like scars, into dark,

Weather-beaten skin

She possessed mighty wisdom;

Deep, deep knowledge that seemed to come

Directly from the gods of old

As though they whispered

Their dangerous secrets into her ears.

Her eyes had watched time unfold

When she was young,

They were a shocking cornflower-blue

That made the boys stop and stare… But now,

They are obscured by a film of milky fog,

And the blue is watery and weak

Like the cold, misty winter sky. Although,

Despite everything,

Her old eyes still shine when she speaks

Of her children, and her children’s children

Her skin is sandpaper, her back broken by life

But her heart remains undamaged by

The passing of time.

She is the source of many things

Her huge family stretch from her,

Like the thousands of branches

That stem from the gnarled trunk of a tree:

The ancient heart of everything.

Play-Fighting

The clash of metal on metal rings through the courtyard. Pigeons soar, startled, from the heavily laden apple trees. Maysie, our tortoiseshell cat, looks up sleepily from her perch on the garden wall, then turns her head away. If Ma was in earshot, she would probably start shrieking at me and my brother to quieten down. But I know that she is the other side of the house; far enough away that we can work in peace.

My brother, Adrian, distracts me from my thoughts. “Hey, Miriam, are you here to fight or aren’t you?” I look over at him. Neither of us are wearing any more armour that a breastplate. He prefers to fight with a shield: I don’t. His face is flushed from fighting, but he’s smiling. “Sorry!” I say, before raising my sword and preparing myself. My brother pushes his brown hair from his eyes, his expression one of utmost concentration.

As always, he attacks first. He sprints the three steps towards me and aims a forceful blow at my chest. I neatly step to the left and block his attack, then swiftly cut my own blade down towards his shoulder. He blocks, and we are thrown back into our rapid dance with swords. Even though he is two years older, he and I are very evenly matched at fighting. Apart from him, nobody knows I can fight. A girl with a sword is a shameful sight. So it is our secret.

I know his style, and my mind is flitting through possible attacks, blocks and counterattacks faster than I can deliver them. He is a blur, his expression fierce and serious. We are so close to one another, weaving in and out of the way, and yet we never touch. Only our blades clash together, sending ringing noises echoing off the walls of the courtyard.

After a while – ten minutes, maybe more – the familiar burn of exertion starts to wind it’s way around my sword arm. For a while, I ignore it. But finally I admit that I’m worn out. Almost like my confession was the key to a floodgate, my body seems to begin screaming at me, clamouring to tell my brain about all my various pains. But I’m not going to stop. Not now!

I know that Adrian is getting tired too, because his blocks are slower and are barely stopping my sword before it touches him. His face isn’t flushed any more; it’s bright, tomato red. I’m not in a much better state. I feel like I’m burning up inside and I am uncomfortably aware that the hair on my forehead is slick with sweat.

I can feel him weakening: his attacks are getting feebler and feebler. I grin, taking advantage and showering him with blows. Ignoring my exhaustion, I feint an attack towards his right thigh, then at the last second pull out and swing at his chest. He wasn’t expecting that and my blow catches him full-on in the chest. He staggers back from the blow, his bright red face so surprised that I burst out laughing.

I can’t help it; he looked so funny with his eyes wide, his mouth a round ‘O’ of shock. Laughter spills out of me like water from a tap and I lower my sword. Suddenly Adrian comes shooting into my vision, sword held high, and I only just manage to block him. Caught off guard by his sudden attack, he soon has me pinned against the courtyard wall with his blade at my neck.

We’re both panting. He’s gone – if this is possible – even more tomato-coloured. He backs off, lowering his sword, still gasping for air. I slide down the wall until I’m sitting, with my back against it. He falls down, a marionette with severed strings. My heart is pounding and my hand so cramped I can’t prise my fingers away from the sword handle. After a couple of minutes catching our breath back, he says,

“If you hadn’t begun laughing, you would’ve won that.”

I laugh again, the memory of his face flashing through my mind. “You just looked so funny,” I say with a smile. He returns my smile ruefully, running a hand through his chestnut hair. Now he’s won, our score is… let me see… 7 : 8. But in his favour. Drat! Now I’ve got to beat him tomorrow. We sit in companionable silence for a while before he stands up, offering me his hand so that I can too. I groan as I stand, rubbing my sore muscles. “You shouldn’t have let me sit down, I’ve gone all stiff!”

He grins. “Come on, let’s go and get this stuff off before Ma comes looking for us.” Walking out of the courtyard, I whistle to Maysie, who is still soaking up the sunshine on the wall. With her slinking at our heels we troop through the orchard towards the house.

With my sword bouncing at my hip, and the calming, childhood sounds of the wind in apple trees, the purring of Maysie and the cooing of pigeons, I feel perfectly at ease. My limbs still burn slightly, but it’s a good burn now, a healthy I’ve-just-done-exercise burn. I relax. Linking my arm through Adrian’s, we make our way through the heavily laden apple trees, laughing in the summer sunshine.

The Least Favourite Daughter

The tip of the pen hovered nervously over the dotted line.

For months I had been planning this. Tonight was the night I’d finally be free of my family. A new life, with the man I loved, miles away from anyone who could try to boss me around. For months I’ve managed to put up with Mother’s sneering, scathing lectures and all my sisters’ little comments, a happy fire burning in my chest, a secret belonging to me, and only to me. An escape. Freedom.

So why was I hesitating?

The pen wobbled. Just sign it, Jane!  A voice in my head cried. To be free, all you need to do is write your name. It’s not that hard!

But Mother’s face swam into my mind. Her forceful words reverberated through my head. “I will not have my youngest daughter wasting her life on some… some good-for-nothing tramp! You, unlike him, have a future… education… wealth!”

Am I doing the right thing? Is this all a huge mistake?!

Somehow, the slow burning hatred I felt for my mother has faded. Why can’t I hate her? All the rules, the restrictions, the ‘little-girl-on-the-leash’… If I could remember that deep, furious hate, I would be able to do this!

But I can’t. I can’t do this.

A sly voice spoke up in my mind.

So, what are you going to do? Go back home, with four other sisters, all so much older and prettier and smarter than you? With a mother who will always find fault with you, with your appearance, with your personality, always trying to get you to change? Go back home, to the house where praise means being told that; ‘You did that almost as well as Rebecca did. Perhaps if you keep trying, you might be as good as her… eventually…’ You were always her least favourite daughter. She won’t even notice you’re gone. Sign it. Sign that bit of paper, and you’ll be free of her at last.

The pen stopped wobbling. I took a deep breath. With a perfectly steady hand, I signed my name, ending it with a flourish. I handed the register to the man sitting next to me, sitting so close, touching. He carefully wrote his name next to mine.

And next to me… forever. I smiled at him, feeling my old life slip away. Gone is ‘Ms Jane Felicity Hollan-Rushton’.

He turned, his grey eyes shining with love. “Are you ready, Mrs Jane Peterson?”

I grinned. New name, new life. No more rules. No more restrictions. Let it rip.

“I’m ready!”

Written for Ermilia’s Picture It & Write

Tunnels

Which tunnel?

They both look exactly the same

Two dark eyes, glaring at me

The walls press in on me

A whisper in the darkness,

I’m coming for you.

I don’t have much time

The air is burning my throat

Which tunnel?!

One leads out of this labyrinth

The walls are closing in on me

A thousand tonnes of rock above my head

Are squashing the air from my lungs

There’s no time left

I’m suffocating in the dark

The two dark eyes glare at me

I stagger forwards, and

Before I change my mind,

Stumble down the right tunnel.

Irony

 

If I could still breathe, I would laugh with irony.

All my life, I had one obsession: I wanted to live forever. I wanted to live on, and on, and on. I wanted to never feel the aching of old age, never to be ill, never to die.

I spent my days obsessing, worrying, freaking out over the tiniest things. I called the doctor when I had a cold: I carried around a first aid kit with me everywhere. I wasted my days away, worrying about death, when I should’ve been more concerned about living.

It was an absolute obsession and it consumed my life. As a result, I never truly lived. I never watched the sun set, or felt the silkiness of a bird’s feathers, or lay down in the woods and listened to the wind in the trees. I never did anything last minute or spontaneous. I never did anything that could be the slightest bit dangerous: I never had proper, good old-fashioned fun.

So I wasted away my entire life worrying about my death.

And, of course, I died. There was no way of stopping it. After all my efforts, I couldn’t prevent my death from coming. I couldn’t hold it up for one single second. Along with everyone else, I died.

But I’m still here.

I don’t know what’s supposed to happen, but I know it’s not this.

The house I lived in is now my prison. Perhaps it’s because I wasted my life indoors that, after my death, I am eternally confined to my house. I sit here, unchanged, as my house falls to pieces around me. I watch as the cobwebs stretch out to cover every surface, as the water drips through the ceiling from a hole in the roof I never mended, as the windows grow darker and darker as the layers of grime build up.

At first, I thought; “Someone will come. Someone will come to check on me,”

But as the years drifted by, unchanging, I realised the truth.

Why would anyone come a visit me when I had never visited them? The truth was, I had no friends in life. I had no need for friends, so consumed was I by my foolish quest. And I would spend my death lonely as a result.

The years yawn by and here I remain.

If I could go back – try again – I would. I would do things differently. I would travel to another country and lose myself in their culture. I would learn a forgotten language just because I could. I would go for long runs and not stop until I was exhausted. I would live as though I would die tomorrow. Because, I think, I’ve learnt my lesson now. Life is a gift. And I threw mine away unopened.

I wasted my life obsessing about my death.

Now I’m going to spend my death obsessing about my life.

If my lungs weren’t clogged up with dust, I would laugh with the irony.

Image was taken and edited by me

Dark Lands and Evil Plans

Bloody feet, aching muscles, frozen bones, burning throat, pounding heart. Running through the night, the darkness, the wild woods; barefoot. Running away – away! – a vision of red, a flash of colour in the dark. Gasping, choking, trying desperately to breath. Running through the midnight hours.

A wild thought, racing through my head: Have I escaped? I am safe now?

Then, wearily but with utmost calm; I can’t run another step.

Bending down, panting, black spots swimming through my vision.

In my arms, the warm ball of fur meows, stretching. I bury my face in his soft fur. I hear Chief’s solemn voice: Protect him. His stomach rises and falls slowly, lazily, and I try to calm my breathing to the same pace as his.

I can’t. I can’t stop gasping. I feel like I’m drowning, breathing in water when I’m dying for oxygen. The blackness consumes my sight and for a second I sway.

What’s wrong with me?!

I lean against a tree trunk, my arms still curled around my warm ball of fur. I feel faint, light-headed, dizzy. I need to sit down. I need to rest. I need sleep. I close my eyes, my breath wracking through me, trying to relax.

Voices, calling. Shouting. Men’s voices, angry, hunting. They don’t even try to be quiet. My eyes fly open in shock. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t…

Tucking pussy in the crook of one arm, I push away from the tree, grab for another. My feet are raw, bloody, and each step is painful. Got to keep going. I stumble from tree to tree, grabbing hold of them like a drowning man clings to a raft. My only lifeline. The voices are everywhere, deafening loud, gruff and angry. I’m surrounded. Hopelessly surrounded.

I can’t keep going. I can’t escape.

I stop, grab hold of the rough bark. Somehow, knowing that I’m doomed gives me strength. I pull myself up, straighten my back, push back my shoulders. I let go of the tree and stand unaided, gently holding my beautiful cat in my arms. Protect him, Chief says again. I nod in the darkness. Sadly, I tell him: I tried.

Out of the darkness come ghosts, pale figures in the dark, that solidify to become men. They look feral, half wild, but I stand bravely, rooted to the forest floor. I’m aching. My feet are screaming in pain. My breathing is quick and shallow and black dots still swim in and out of sight. But at least I tried.

Image: Brooke Shaden

The Last Train

The sun has sunk below the horizon and the clear, cloudless sky is a thousand shades of blue and yellow and purple. Like a bruise. I lean against the veranda railing and stare out at the endless sea, feeling the moist breeze gently touching my hair.

It rained last night. And all day yesterday. Rained like it would never end. And now, the world has become a sea. Stretching in every direction away from this place: the only visible building, standing tall and wide, surrounded by infinite amounts of water. Even the train tracks are submerged. I look down, check my watch, and wait.

And there it is. The last train of the day, leaving this building, flying on the surface of the sea. Its sound is reassuring: the ‘clack, clack … clack, clack’ of its heartbeat and the wash of water under its belly. The train is looking forward, headlights shining on the water ahead like glowing eyes. It leaves behind a stretching wake in the shape of a ‘v’, gentle waves rolling outwards.

I watch the train until its song fades away and it becomes a smudge of grey on the horizon. Sighing, I sit down on the veranda and rest my head against the wooden bars.

One day, I promise myself, I will get on that train and leave this place. And I will never look back.

Every evening, I come out here. Every evening, I watch that train leave. And every evening I make the same promise. One day I’ll be free. But I know, in my heart of hearts, that I will never be able to leave here. And with each departing train my heart grows heavier. Closing my eyes, I sit still for a while, trying to empty my mind… trying to forget.

I stand and go inside, turning my back on the sea, the bruised sky and the train tracks. I turn my back on my own broken promises and try to get on with my life.

Thief

All the lights were out. The house was cloaked in darkness, darkness that pooled in the corners of every room, that hung from the ceiling like black fingers. The only sound was the breathing of the house, a gentle rhythmic creaking. I breathed in deeply, filling my lungs with the stale air of my room, and climbed out of bed.

I already wore my travelling clothes and my small bag was by the foot of my bed. I grabbed the bag, surprised by how light it was. Every earthly thing I own, and it’s nothing. Easing open my bedroom door slowly, I slipped through and out into the dark hallway.

The stairs curved down and around, their depths seeming to travel all the way down to hell. The shadows leered at me and the magnificent paintings of milady’s ancestors glared at me as though they knew what I was about to do. I shook myself. Calm down. This is your only chance. If not tonight, then never.

Throwing back my shoulders and straightening my spine, I tiptoed into milady’s room. It was hot in here, so hot that beads of sweat began to slide down my back, and it stank of mothballs and old age. The lady herself lay in her massive, four-poster bed, her wrinkled skin scowling even in sleep. I ignored her ugliness and went over to the jewellery box that sat on her chest of drawers.

I lay down my bag, and gazed at the box. It was beautiful, made out of very light wood, and carved with patterns of ivy. I tried to open it, but it wouldn’t budge. In the silvery moonlight I saw a tiny keyhole, dark in the light wood of the box.

I turned back around to face my mistress and saw a chain around her neck. Creeping over to her huge bed, I leaned closer. In the folds of her nightgown, around her thin, wrinkly neck, the most exquisitely small key lay. I reached over until my fingers hovered millimetres from her neck. She’s asleep. It’s okay. Sweat slid down my forehead.

Reaching down, I gently touched the metal of the key, made warm by its closeness to her grey skin. I held it tightly and slowly lifted it off her neck. She didn’t stir. I sighed with relief, then carefully, painstakingly, brought the chain over her head and lifted it free. She continued to scowl in my direction.

Turning my back on her, I slid the key into place and the jewellery box sprung open. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, precious stones, broaches, rings, necklaces, all shimmering and glinting in the moonlight. My eyes widened and I tentatively reached out a hand to touch them. It was more wealth than I’d ever seen in my life. Than I ever would see in my life. My tiny wage as a scullery maid would never earn a hundredth of the cost of the smallest diamond.

But these jewels were not what I was looking for. I dug downwards, deeper into the clinking sparkling wealth, until I found coins. I grabbed a handful, pulled them out, and examined them in the moonlight. They were gold pieces, round and shining, each one worth more than a lifetimes work. It’s ironic that my mistress is, in a way, giving me my future. These are going to buy me a house, a garden, a life I could never have had. Thanks to her stupid, blabbing mouth… I’m free.

I didn’t linger in that sweaty hot room; I made my escape while I could. Slipping the coins into my pocket, I relocked the box. I turned back to her ugliness but panicked about how to put the key around her neck again. Instead of attempting it, I slipped the key around my own neck. I smiled at her. How the tables have turned, milady. Grabbing my travelling bag, I walked triumphantly out of her mothball room, knowing that I’d never have to return.

Down the spiral staircase, through the grand, proud, empty rooms, and out through the servant’s entrance. Making my way through the kitchen gardens to the stables. The smell of hay and manure comforted me as I saddled up Smokey. When I was done, I climbed up on his tall back.

“You ready, Smokey?” He whinnied softly, turning his great head to look at me with his wise eyes. “Then let’s go!” I whispered, and together we set off into the dark night and the great unknown.

I’m Not Calling You A Ghost…

I lie in bed and listen to the wind whistling outside. In here, I am warm – safe. The streetlights outside shine softly through the curtains, bathing the dormitory in a cosy glow. All the other girls are fast asleep, their relaxed breathing familiar and comforting.

Why am I feeling so nervous? Everything is normal. But I still feel… on edge. Like something big is about to happen. Why can’t I just join the other girls and slip into a deep and dreamless sleep? Somewhere where these feelings of trepidation can’t follow me.

I curl up in my duvet, pulling it over my head so I’m in a warm, dark cocoon. I close my eyes and will myself to fall asleep. But I can’t. The sensation of unease is growing, taking control. My palms are damp: a sure sign that I’m nervous. But why? I’m safe. I’m home. I’m fine.

Inside my dark cocoon, coldness suddenly sweeps over me, like a wind. Goosebumps prickle my arms and I shiver. Realisation sinks in. Not again. Not now. I push the duvet away from me and sit down on the side of my bed.

“Leave me alone,” I speak quietly into the darkness of the room. I don’t need to raise my voice; I know he can hear me.

“I did what I could for you. Please stop haunting me.” I ask in a low voice.

The coldness draws closer and my entire body begins to shiver uncontrollably. He’s right behind me, but I don’t turn around, don’t look in his direction. I keep staring sightlessly ahead at the rows and rows of sleeping girls.

His reply is slow and laboured, and sounds like leaves on a windy day. His frozen breath sweeps over my back and my teeth chatter like castanets.

“You had a chance to save me… and you let it slip through your fingers. You let me fall.”

Anger spikes in me, so much that I forget the cold and say with venom, “That’s unfair! I wasn’t the only one, and yet I don’t see you haunting any of the others!” My voice is too loud, echoing off the walls, and I stop abruptly. A couple of the girls whimper and fidget in their sleep. Taking a deep gulp of the freezing air, I try to calm myself down. He is silent too, waiting for me to continue.

This time, my voice is quiet and perfectly calm.

“I’m sorry for what I did. I truly am. But when I realised, I did what I could to rectify my mistake. Can’t you see that? Even when I knew that it was hopeless, I stayed behind to try and save you.” He is as silent as the grave.

“But that’s all in the past now. When you died, I left it all behind me. This is my home now.” I gesture to the girls, their faces childish and innocent in their sleep. “I live here. I belong here with my sisters. They need me, they look up to me, and I love them. I did what I could to save you. Please, stop haunting me.”

For the first time, I turn to look at him. I suck my breath in involuntarily as I drink in his familiar face. He looks exactly the same. Even after all these years. He’s standing on the other side of my bed, his arms limply by his sides. He still wears the jaggedy old jeans I remember so well. It breaks my heart to see him standing there, and I long to stand up and throw my arms around him.

But he’s dead, and his appearance is skin-deep. He’s deathly pale. Not just his skin, but his clothes and eyes and hair too, as though he’s a painting left out in the rain. Any colour that he had has been washed away. He still has his adorable dimples but his eyes are cold, frozen, unfeeling.

He opens his colourless lips and says, with a certain finality, “If you love those girls half as much as you loved me, then they are the luckiest children in the world.” He pauses and says in his voice like rustling leaves, so quietly I hardly hear it;

“I forgive you.”

It’s only then, as he says those three fateful words, that I realise just how much I needed his forgiveness. The guilt that hung around me, lingered in my mind, weighed me down… has gone. I’m free. I open my mouth, to thank him – to talk to him properly – when I realise he’s fading away.

He becomes paler and paler until he is water vapour, a vague shadow, and then… nothing. The frozen air slips away as he does, and once again I am alone with the rows and rows of sleeping girls. The warm, stuffy air of the dormitory meets me and I smile at the familiar smell. Wood polish, fresh linen, and the talcum powder-y smell of children.

I climb back into bed, and listen to the soft breathing of the other girls. My sisters. I fall asleep happier than I’ve felt in a long time. I feel light as air.

I’m free from my ghost.

An Artist’s Apprentice

“Annah!”

I start at the sound of my name, tearing myself away from the daydream I was absorbed in to find my teacher staring at me with a reproachful look on his face.

“Annah, I’ve told you a thousand times to concentrate on the task in hand. Please continue with your work without feeling the need to drift off.”

His voice, with its strong Italian accent, sounds so disappointed that my cheeks flush with shame. I have very few shortcomings, but my worst is that I am a very inattentive pupil. But my teacher is like the father I always wanted and scolding from him cuts deeper than any other. I can’t meet his eyes so quickly busy myself in my work.

The lady posing today is incredibly beautiful, I suppose. But I don’t like her smile. She’s reminds me of a bully, smiling in a mysterious way that you are certain will bode ill for you. Her face is like a mask. I pick up my brush and contemplate what colour would be best to use for her dark hair.

I paint truthfully, painstakingly, coping the minutest details: the tiny ringlets in her hair, the pools of shadow on her chin, the exact colour of her eyes. I ignore my dislike for her, trying not to let it show in the painting. She’s obviously posed before. She moves very, very little, and never changes the expression on her face. If I respected her more, perhaps I would admire this.

But I don’t. She’s snobby and rude. This morning, when she first walked into the studio, the questions she asked my teacher were so impertinent I wanted to stride up to her and smash my canvas over her beautiful head.

“Who is this?” She had asked in contempt. My teacher guided her to the seat where she would pose.

“That is Annah, my apprentice and only pupil.” He said calmly, ignoring her rudeness. He instructed her on how to sit, asking her to first try one position, then another, until he was happy. Then he began setting up his easel, and I began setting up mine.

“Hang on, good sir… your apprentice girl… she won’t be here too?” Her expression of horror didn’t make her look beautiful at all. Her eyes looked like they would pop out of her skull.

“Yes, Annah will be painting too. This is good practice for her. Now please, return to the pose.”

She had forced her face back into that stupid smile and pretended that nothing was the matter.

Now, hours and hours later, it still feels like I’ve barely even begun the painting. I know that my teacher sometimes works on one painting for years, and now I understand why. It’s incredibly difficult to paint quickly and accurately. I pause, put my brush down, and massage my aching hand. Ignoring the snobby woman I walk over to my master and peer over his shoulder. His painting is astounding. Even unfinished, it’s an exact perfect representation of the lady, perfectly capturing her mysterious smile.

“Teacher, that’s amazing!” I exclaim. He smiles, his first proper smile of the day, and lays down his brush too.

“Thank you, Annah.” He says warmly. He glances outside at the dark sky, and then addresses the sitting lady.

“I’m sorry, Miss Giocondo, but I am going to have to ask you to leave now and return tomorrow to continue posing.”

Her smile is just as stupid as ever. It has no warmth, but her voice is simpering and sugar-sweet. I swear she even bats her eyelids at my teacher.

“Oh, I do not mind. I would love to return! Sitting for such a great artist as you, Mr di Vinci, is a great honour.”

One Swing Too Far

The little boy swung backwards and forwards on the swing, urging it higher and higher. The trees flashed past, then the leaf strewn ground, then a patch of clear grey-blue sky. Backwards, forwards. Fast enough to make his head spin. So fast he couldn’t tell which way was up anymore.

He kicked out with his legs, using them to pull, to push, to pull himself further into the sky. If he went far enough, he could forget everything. If he swung high enough, he would be free. He could slip off the swing, up into the grey-blue sky, and fly like a bird. Up, up, all the way up. In the grey-blue sky, surrounded by nothing but empty air, he might finally find peace.

He pushed himself higher, swinging in a great arch. His wide, happy blue eyes reflected the sky. Higher and higher, back and forth. His head was up in the clouds, his soul lost in the vast emptiness of the heavens.

At the highest point of his arch, he slid off the swing. His small body flew up, just like he imagined it would. For a brief moment, the happiest of his life, he was truly free. He was suspended in the heavens, arms and legs spread-eagled; like someone had paused him mid-way through a star jump. His young face wore an expression of pure joy.

But everyone has to come down to earth sooner or later.

Gravity dug its harsh claws into his body and dragged him back down to earth. He tumbled over himself, falling through the air like a puppet with its strings severed. The look of joy turned to fear and then horror as the rock hard ground rose up to meet him.

He bounced once and then his body lay still. One of his arms was bent back at an unnatural angle. He lay on his back, his blue eyes were wide open… and his soul still floating in the vast emptiness of the heavens.

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