‘By Any Means’

My arms are burning, like my triceps are ripping through my skin.

“Faster,” I hear him shout from the side of the pool. “Come on!”

They slosh through the water. Hold them steady, I think. Visualise your fingers. You’re touching the wall.

“BREATHE.”

My mouth is assaulted, my throat nearly clogged by water, I grit my teeth, hold my head under, purse my lips and wheel my arms, the end is in sight, fingers reach out, my toes wriggle and I wrestle the last ounce of strength from my legs as I reach the wall.

I feast on the air as I break through the surface and rest my head against the side of the pool. He sighs, checking the stopwatch.

“Once more,” he says.

I raise my head and open my mouth but the only defence I can offer is to let my head rock from side to side. He slings the stopwatch against the wall.

I turn my back to him and pull off my hat and goggles. I close my eyes and bury my head under water, letting my forehead sooth. I exhale slowly then resurface.

“You’re down three quarters of a second. You need to work on your breathing technique.”

I nod as I edge over to the ladders and try to heave myself out of the pool. My shoulders droop as I clamber up, the arch of my foot tightens between steps. I stop halfway as his hand lodges on my shoulder. I look up at him, his smile mounted above that barreled chest and broad shoulders. Light obscures the rotting grey hairs emerging from the side of his head.

“You’re better than this,” he says.

I summon that smile he demands.

“I’m better than this,” I say.

“There’s my state champion.”

My smile grows wider than I’d intended.

He offers a hand I can’t decline, wrenching me out of the pool. Then he lingers – like he always does – at the side of the ladder so that I have to walk in front of him.

“Nationals are a month out,” he says as we walk.

I tread towards the locker room when I feel those calluses clamp around the base of my neck. His steps stalk mine, he presses down and my insides shrivel like the tips of my fingers. That familiar grip grinds along my shoulders, like someone strangling water from a towel. The door feels so far away now.

“You need to work harder if you’re gonna keep your place on my team,” he says as his fingers creep under the straps of my swimsuit, crawling backwards and forwards.

The locker room door edges open and his fingers recoil but his hands linger on my back.

Alex pops her head out like a soldier peaking over the trench.

“Howdy Alex, I’m just about ready for you,” he says. “Why don’t you dive in and cut loose those legs of yours?”

“Sure,” she replies, emerging from the door that’s been shielding her.

She looks at me and then to the ground as she approaches.

“S’up Karen,” she says, turning her head to the pool.

HELP.

“Hi,” I reply, as I watch her pass.

He ushers me over to the door with his hand on my waist as I hear a splash behind us.

“Alex has been doing some extra training with me,” he says. He leans in, his stubble scratches my cheek. I feel his warm breath tickle my ear. Chills swim down my spine and he whispers, “I think she might be able to compete in the 200m.”

“Oh…” I begin my approach towards the door, one step at a time.

“She’s shaved nearly a second off her time. You should think of doing the same.”

“I’ve got math test comin’ up and-” He latches his hand around my wrist, reeling me back to him.

“I’ve got a math test for you,” he hisses. “What’s 1:40 minus three quarters of a second?”

“Our target time,” I answer.

“Our target time. Mine, yours and more to the point: my friend at TMU’s target time,” I taste the stale milk on his breath and I lean my head to the side. “Now, Alex is in damn fine shape and you look like you could drop a few pounds never mind seconds. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I purse my lips and nod.

“Hit the showers,” he says as he releases my wrist before snatching the door handle and swiping it open.

I catch a look at myself in the mirror inside my locker door as I collect my things. I turn my head to both sides, sucking my cheeks and clamping them beneath my teeth. Then I release them.

I thrust the door back against the cabinet and make my way to the showers. I turn each shower on and let the steam smother the room. I feel tears plotting their escape. I sit and rest my head against my knees and I feel the water scorching my back. I will it to melt my skin and beg the steam to choke me. I watch as a strand of red hair is lured into the drain. The tears begin to flee.

***

The smell of bacon flirts with me as I arrive home. I head straight for the kitchen. Mom’s standing over the cooker, still wearing her work apron.

“Hey hon’. How was practice?” She asks.

Tell her.

“Exhausting,” I say.

This can’t go on.

“Coach still pushing you hard?”

The bacon hisses as I lean against the counter.

“Yeah.”

How do I say it?

“It’ll all be worth it in the end,” she says.

“Mom-“

The pan spits oil onto my jeans. I pat at the spot.

“Do you mind taking over? I need to get back to work,” she says.

Now’s not the right time.

“Another double?” I ask.

“’Fraid so.”

“Don’t push yourself too hard,” I say.

She wraps her arms around me, cocooning me.

“Oh hey, a letter arrived for you today. I left it over on the table.” She says.

I go and pick up the letter. Underneath it lies an open one. Urgent is printed across the top of it.

“What’s this urgent one?” I ask.

“Oh it’s nothing hon’. I just forgot to make an electricity payment, that’s all.”

“Mom you still remember to send birthday cards to Dad’s family and we haven’t seen them since the divorce.”

“Must be all this cooking I’m doing for you between shifts that’s making me forgetful then!”

“Are you sure you don’t need me to get a job?” I ask.

“Positive dear. The only jobs I need you to do is open that letter and watch this bacon whilst I go to work.”

I dunno if she’s getting worse at changing the subject or I’ve gotten better at noticing. I pick up the letter and wander back over to the cooker; she kisses me on the way past and says goodbye. I take a knife from the drawer and slide it along the top.

It’s from TMU. I got in, it’s a scholarship offer! Place dependent with a full one being offered if I win at nationals. Tears breach through my defence again and my throat clogs. I look at the bacon, now shrivelled and smoking. I strip it from the pan, the stench burns my nostrils, and drop the rashers in the bin. I toss the hissing pan into the sink and head for my room.

I plug my iPod into the Iron Man dock and play my Disney Hits playlist. Tom Brady grants me a smile as I turn on my computer. I open a homework tab and a Facebook tab. Murmurs of discontent arise from my stomach. I convince myself that by allocating ten minutes to Facebook, I’ll commit to fifty to work.

Half an hour later and the homework tab’s been replaced by her twitter feed. I’m still swiping through photos of Alex. Moana has done little to dampen the howls of derision from my stomach. Happy family photos, Christmas and that perfect holiday bikini picture. I pour over photos from swim meets; zooming in on those toned legs of hers that glisten in the pool. There I stand on the podium, supported by two tree trunks. I hammer the mouse to close each tab then toss it away and hold in the standby button. I slap the light off and throw myself onto my bed, staring at the ceiling.

***

I get the message at lunch time. He wants to see me in his office after school. I spend the rest of the afternoon wondering how to get out of it, each solution riddled with errors.

I arrive late to the pool. I nudge the entrance door open and he spots me. He’s waiting for me outside his office. He walks towards me and I freeze. I can’t leave, but I don’t want to enter. He opens the door fully and I nearly stumble into him.

“Come in, come in!”

“Sorry I’m late,” I say.

“I didn’t even realise,” he says fanning his hand. “Come on, let’s go talk in my office.”

I follow him down the corridor, under the eyes of previous swim teams, their pictures lining the walls. He holds the door open and his breath licks my hair as I pass into the office, polluted by cologne.

“Please, take a seat,” he says.

“I’d really just like to get started with training. Maybe I’ll stay a little later tonight,” I say.

“Well, I’m glad you’re coming round to that idea,” he says, pulling the chair out from under the table. “Sit.”

I buckle and kick the desk as I sit, an open milk carton threatens to fall. I’m taunted by his medal from nationals and a picture of us at the state championships on his desk.

“I gather you got the letter from my friend Mr Herrera at TMU,” he says, sitting down.

“Yeah. He offered me a scholarship, a full one if I win at nationals.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Too bad?”

“I think I’m going to go with Alex for the 200m at nationals.”

“You can’t!” I say.

My throat dries.

“She swam sub 1:41 last night.”

“I’ve done it before.”

“But you’re slowing down.”

My eyes burn.

“I’m going…“ I croak.

I get to my feet and bury my eyes behind my arm. Sniffing. I approach the door.

“There is one way…” He says.

I turn around as he snakes around the table towards me.

“How?”

He unzips his jacket.

I pull at the door, he lurches forward and presses his forearm against it. He’s leering down at me, dried milk hugs the hairs above his lip. The inside of his leg extends and his crotch climbs up my thigh.

“I don’t know if there are enough shifts in the day for your mom to cover tuition fees,” he says, stroking my shoulder. “You could still enter nationals. You might even win.”

The hairs on the back of his hand rub against me as he drags it down my arm.

“All we need is a little cooperation,” he says as his fingers wrap around mine. “Teamwork.”

I grip his hand tighter. My temples are pounding. I let go of the door handle. I lure his face towards mine. Then I feel my right leg crunch between his legs. He wails as he slithers down, prone on the floor. I make my escape.

I’m back in the main building of the school. Tears stream down my face as I sprint down the corridor. I spot the girls toilets and burst through the door. I nearly fall on the sleek tiled surface as I slide to a halt. Alex stands in front of me.

“Karen? Are you alright?” She asks.

I stagger back towards the door but she latches onto me.

“I lost my place on the team, and-” I stutter as I shrink to the floor, laying back against the door.

“What happened?” She asks, crouching.

“You happened.”

Her eyebrows jolt as she answers, “Me?”

“You,” I say, trying to cup my hand steady over my mouth as I wheeze. “You and your sub 1:41.”

She lets out a confused laugh and says, “I can’t swim sub 1:41.”

I feel the tears subside.

“Karen, what the hell happened?”

“He told me you were doing extra trainin’,” I say, rubbing my eyes. “He said you were takin’ my spot in the 200m. Then he…”

“He what?”

I glance up at her, “He came onto me.”

“He what?!”

I inhale as she sits down beside me. She presses her back against the door. I exhale. I lean my head against her shoulder and inhale again. She cradles her arm around my shoulder. I exhale once more.

“I dunno know what to do. My scholarship…” I say.

“We need to tell someone,” she says.

I lift my head off her shoulder and ask, “Will they believe me?”

“Hey,” she says, brushing my hair out of my eyes, “I believe you.”

 

 

 

 

I had initially considered this piece to be contemporary fiction as it deals with themes that are current societal and cultural issues. However, as it developed I found it belonged to the young adult genre. I felt it would be more effective to tackle the themes with first person narration.

The piece deals with sexual harassment. After some research into sexual harassment involved in Olympic Teams and sports teams in general I read an article about the economics of consent by Brit Marling which helped tie my ideas together. Economic security is something which grants women a modicum of power in a patriarchal society. Men are often the gatekeepers of a woman’s potential for economic security, they often abuse this power and apply pressure on women from their position of power.

The coach attempts to use Karen’s need for a scholarship to reduce or eradicate the cost of her going to university. She’s coming from a home with a single mother working in a diner. If she stands up to him and reports him, does she lose the scholarship? Is she now a troublemaker, a persona non-grata like so many are when they report harassment in the workplace? That’s a dilemma I wanted to expose – something which countless victims of sexual harassment have faced.

Secondary to this, is how the coach pits two girls against one another. He objectifies Alex, and paints her as the obstacle to Karen getting her scholarship. Those seeds are sewn onto Karen, dividing them. It was then important to show support the victim, uniting the divided parties. If Alex confessed to Karen, considering how she was controlled, would Karen have believed her? Showing belief in the victim, especially in a world where social media allows people to destroy victims, is incredibly important.

‘Finch’

Light shredded the darkness as Charlie opened her eyes. The room smelled like her cats litter tray had been left out in the sun. Her head throbbed, her wrists and ankles burned under her uniform. Above Charlie, a spider dangled from a solitary thread. She tried to sit but jolted back to the carpet, which barely concealed the concrete underneath. Charlie thrashed her feet, shaving her skin. Blood tickled her ankle before her sock dampened. She hauled both arms against her restraints but the cuffs stripped her flesh like a knife thinning bark.

The spider had slipped further from a sagging ceiling tile. She wrenched her neck to the left as its legs fidgeted furiously. Charlie heard voices behind the metal door. She fought frantically with her restraints. Two men armed with guns entered. She twisted her body, the smaller one remained by the door. She ground her limbs against the restraints as the bearded one approached.

“Please, sit still.” He said.

Charlie fastened her lips as she battled.

“Please. I cannot undo these restraints if you do not sit still.”

She rested her arms and legs but she kept her neck craned. Sweat stung her wrists and stained her white vest, exposed by her unbuttoned uniform.

“Why?” She asked.

“To show you how we treat our guests.”

“I didn’t ask to be your guest.”

“And I didn’t ask for you to occupy my country.”

He placed his pistol in its holster. Charlie let her head rest.

“Boy, go and collect our guest’s food.”

The smaller one left the room, leaving the door ajar.

“What’s on the menu?” Charlie asked.

“It’s a surprise.” He smiled.

He unlocked the restraints around her ankles.

“Why don’t you just kill me?”

“If you stole a hundred dollars would you just rip it up?”

“I wouldn’t steal a hundred dollars.”

“No, you people would conquer the fucking bank.”

He unlocked the remaining cuffs and stretched his arm out. Charlie recoiled, caressing her wrists with her hands. She unwound slowly, then leapt to her feet. She sprang towards him reaching for his pistol. He ducked her assault. She charged towards him again, thrusting a fist at his face, but he snatched her wrist. He kicked the back of her leg and pushed her towards the wall, slamming the side of her face next to a post-box window slot. She noticed two finger nails lodged into tears in the wallpaper.

He held her there, breathing on her neck.

“You had to try. I understand.” He said.

He forced her twisted arm further up her back.

“You’ll stop trying in time. You’ll appreciate how good you have it.”

Charlie let a whimper escape.

“Sir.” The other returned.

“What took you so long Tariq? Set it down over there.”

He loosened his grip and Charlie slumped with her back to the wall. Tears breaking out.

“My name is Finch.” He said.

“The reason you’re here…” He broke off as a jet ripped through the sky above the building. She followed his eyes to the roof. The spider hovered above him. There was a pop, then an explosion wrestled with the room. The spider fell from the ceiling, bouncing on Finch’s face before landing on the floor. He drew his pistol and fired five shots at it, taking chunks out of the floor.

“Fucking spiders!” He said, firing once more at the wall. Charlie retreated into the opposite side of the room near the bowl and Tariq.

“That!” He said, gesturing to the sky “is the reason you’re here.”

“There are two guards outside. It’s up to you whether we do this the easy way or the hard way. Come on, boy.” He said, marching out of the room.

Tariq handed Charlie a wooden dish of cold soup, its contents were cloudy. She placed her finger in and swirled around. He pulled a piece of bread from his pocket and gave her it.

“Thank you.” She said as a tear crept down her face.

He nodded.

“Wait. Wait!” She hissed.

She pointed to her sock which was smothered in blood. He left the room.

Charlie peeled a couple of strips from the bread at first before inhaling the rest of it. She carried her bowl over to the window and emptied the contents between three rusty rods which punctuated the view. A rustic red smeared down the inside wall.

She looked at the burning brown which strangled the road out of the compound, suffocating the land until it was interrupted by huts in the distance. In the courtyard below a truck growled as it prepared to leave. There were a couple of smaller buildings to each side of her window. She noticed Finch and Tariq arguing at an iron gate which blocked the exit. Surrounding the compound was a barbed wire fence; littered with tiny shoes.

Charlie approached a mattress which was decorated by vain-like yellow stains. She flipped the mattress and discovered a ripe red stain which peeled from the carpet. She resisted her body’s retching and wiped the tears which drowned her eyes. She approached the mattress and flipped it back over and then retreated to the opposite side of the room.

The spider crept towards freedom, climbing towards the slot in the wall. She looked at the bullet holes in the floor and noticed the chunks of concrete that had been chipped out of the floor. Charlie collected the pieces and sharpened them against the bars in the slot. She blew the dust away from the slot as the spider reached the summit.

“I’ll be right behind you buddy.” She said.

Charlie slipped into sleep soon after hiding the shards under the mattress.

Charlie awoke to shouting outsider her door. Water snuck through the sagging tile. She got to her feet and went to the slot in the wall. She looked beyond the spider which had remained and constructed a web, patrolling between the bars. The truck had returned. The door opened and Tariq entered the room, without a weapon. He closed the door and pulled a cloth from inside the front of his trousers. He emptied some of his flask onto the cloth.

“Thank you.” She said, sitting down and easing her shoe off.

Tariq knelt and she peeled the sock down from her ankle which left strands of fabric sewn into the scab of her wound. He caressed her ankles with the cloth, allowing her to clean her wrists.

“I’ve got to get out of here before he kills me. Will you help me?”

He shook his head.

“You don’t know what he’ll do to me.”

“Don’t be afraid of him. I have a plan. Just get him to come here. Tell him I’ve got information on an operation.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.

“I just need to get his gun.”

He nodded and left the room.

She checked outside to make sure the truck was still there. The spider had snared its first victim and was busy weaving web around a fly. The door swung open, nearly springing back on Tariq as he followed.

“I hear you have some information for me?”

“Yes, but first I want guarantees; that you’re not going to kill me.”

“I’m the only person here who wants you alive. Tariq here would rather see you killed after what your people did to his family and to his village.” He said, gesturing at Tariq.

Tariq shook his head after Finch turned his back.

“What have you got to tell me?”

“I’m not telling you anything.”

“Do not waste my t-“

Charlie tossed the mattress at Finch. He swatted it to the ground but Charlie was on him with the two stones. She crushed one against the side of his head embedded in her hand and drove the other into his eye, forcing him to the ground, driving the stone deeper. There was banging on the door as he screamed. Tariq pushed against the door. Charlie grabbed Finch’s pistol. She checked the safety. He continued to yell. She pulled the trigger. He was silent.

“Open it!” She shouted.

Tariq released the door, falling back as one guard stumbled through with the other behind him. She fired two bullets at each, one in the chest and one in the head.

Charlie hung the pistol at her waist and picked up one of their rifles. She lifted Tariq up and gave him the rifle.

“Thank you.” He said.

“Let’s go.” She said, leaving the room.

“I can’t let you do that.” He replied.

Charlie awoke facedown. She was back in her restraints. She spotted her uniform in a bundle to the side, she was in her underwear and vest. The door groaned as it opened. Footsteps crept towards her. Tariq lifted her head to his by her hair.

“It’s just us now.” He said.

The spider watched on having devoured its prey.

‘The Hermit’

You approach the enclosed beach from the main road. You notice sand shimmering on the path under the stingy lights which line each side, craning their decaying necks to observe. To the left you see the cliff which wraps itself around a constricted coast, cramping the stretch of sand. You look at the town perched upon the edge guarding against the cruise ships which often sail below.

You reach the patch of grass at the back of the beach trapped between sand and stone. You squat down and squint your eyes. Doing this extends the jetty at the tip of the beach across the horizon to Kilika Straight, the passage of water which ships sneak down to the freedom of the ocean. It felt like your only means of escape until now.

The town had become your home for the last two years, but it was only at this beach where you felt any connection to it. You’d shoot this beach in a movie but the thought of it becoming a tourist attraction triggers a frown. You first met Lisa here, at a karaoke beach party. You used to hate karaoke but that night you sang for hours. She still has that effect on you. She’s helped open your eyes to a plethora of interests. You hope this won’t be the last time you can be here together but she might not give you any choice.

You watch the sun as it slips closer to the sea seeping red, yellow and orange like a nasty wound in the sky. Clouds gather above, papering over the scars. You sit on the sand, just far enough away from the tide as it climbs its way up the shore and clutches at your ankles. The tide jostles, unable to prevent its secrets spilling over the sand.

You notice a hermit crab shuffling its way across the beach, carrying its home like a worn out brown backpack. The crab approaches a marketplace of shells. It scuttles around, pausing at each of them before settling on one with a patterned blend of gold and orange stripes. If your boss were here he would swipe it and hang it in the bar; a supposed compliment to his arty aesthetic. The hermit struggles to free itself from its suffocating shelter. The sea claims the sun and you wrap your arms around your knees feeling the warmth wander from your body.

You shouldn’t have asked her to meet you here, but you couldn’t let her think that something was up. You should have told her earlier but you weren’t even sure until now. Are you sure now? You had to see her here, even if it was the last time.

Hands gently smother the light from your eyes.

“Guess who?” She said.

“Sounds like Obama.” You said.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.” She said.

You let a laugh sneak out, despite your attempts to contain it.

“Where’ve you been hiding? I hadn’t heard from you in a couple of days and nobody at the bar had seen you.” She asked.

“Sorry. I wasn’t feeling too great. Forgot to call in.”

“Jessie! Call them when you get home, you don’t want to lose your job.”

“Yeah. I will.”

You never lied to her before this, now you can’t seem to stop yourself.

Darkness trickles across the sky. The wind creeps down the back of your t-shirt. She sits down next to you and clings to your arm. Goosebumps crawl up your skin. You are cold. You notice the hermit crab has freed itself from its dingy dungeon and has moved into its new crib, testing out the new surroundings.

“I was thinking; maybe in a couple of weeks we could go for a weekend away in the city like we talked about?” Lisa asked you.

She rests her head on your shoulder. You say nothing.

“Work’s winding down. It shouldn’t be so hard to get time off and it’d be a nice change of scenery, think of all the karaoke bars we could visit.”

That is what you want but you can’t, not after what you’ve done.

“Yeah. Great.” You can’t stop yourself.

“Great. I’ll have a look at hotels when I get home.”

You need to tell her.

“Lisa, I need to tell you something and I’m afraid of what will happen when I do.”

Her grip on your arm loosens.

“W-what is it?”

Her head abandons your shoulder.

“I got offered an internship at a film studio and I’ve decided to take it.”

“I thought you stopped pursuing that dream?”

“I did, or I thought I did. I dunno, I was angry, I’d just moved here and then I met you and I just kind of put the plans on hold.”

She discards your arm.

“You said you were ready to settle into a real job. Was that all just a lie?”

“No I-“

“Were the last two years just a stopgap? Am I just a stopgap?!”

“No! You weren’t. You’re not. I can’t imagine my life without you, Lisa.”

“Liar! Otherwise you’d never have gone for the internship, never mind taken it.”

“You could come with me.”

She rises and you follow.

“I can’t just leave and go with you.”

“Why not? What’s keeping you here?”

“My family is here, my job is here and I like living here.”

The wind whips her blonde, curly hair as you look down at her pleading eyes.

“They’ll always be here, your family and this town. What’s stopping you from moving and working the same job in a different city and building your own life?”

“I’m happy here! You want me to move for your ambitions but you don’t give mine a second thought. How is that fair?”

“I want you in my life but this is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for, that I’ve always wanted. I can’t help but want you both.”

“You can’t have everything.” You hear her voice crack and she turns her back to you.

The tide bursts onto the beach, pushing at you and Lisa but you both remain. You notice the hermit crab has abandoned its new home in favour of wriggling its way back into the apartment it dared to abandon.

“You gave up on that dream when you settled down here; when we got together. You let me believe you were happy and that I was safe. You said we had a future together, now you’re going to throw it away over an internship.”

“You have to choose. The person you can’t imagine being without or the job that you’ve always wanted.”

“Can’t we work something out?” You ask.

She speaks through tears.

“What’s to work out, Jessie? I won’t stand in the way of you if you want to pursue your dreams.”

Is this really your dream? Maybe you are being selfish. She’s right, you have hurt her and lied to her. You hated the thought of that. You think about all the plans for the future she’s suggested, how happy she was, are you ready to give them up? For an internship? Not even a guarantee. What if things went wrong? Maybe you won’t like the city. You might not meet another girl like her.

You watch as the tide destroys the shell market and claims the hermit crab, dragging it back into the depths. The shells scatter across the sand and you notice the shattered remains of the now discarded shell, a faint reminder of the pattern remains. You consider collecting it for your boss.

“It’s you, Lisa. I want you. I love you.”

She faces you again.

“You need to be sure. You can’t flip flop on this.”

“I am sure. I’m happy now, here with you. The thought of losing that happiness terrifies me. I was too busy thinking what might be to stop and realise what is.”

“I love you too.” She said.

Freckles of light heal the sky as they melt through the disintegrating blanket of cloud. Your feet stick in the sand, submerged as the tide tickles your achilles and you shiver. You embrace her and she kisses you.

 

‘The Journey’

Olivia noticed a few undesirables further up the bus and placed her bag on the seat next to her.

“First step to avoiding people,” she thought.

The stale cocktail of body odour and fuel stung her nostrils as she pressed back against her seat and scrolled through her Facebook feed.

“The only thing more uneventful than this bus journey,” she thought, looking out the window now at the sun’s dying light playing hide and seek in between buildings that were getting smaller the further the bus went.

The driver’s eyes snared hers through the mirror but she was freed by the ringing of her mobile phone.

“Hey Mum, how are you?”

“Hi love, I’m good thanks. Are you on your way?”

“Yeah I’m on the bus just now, we’ve just stopped at Upperton to let a few people off.”

“Sorry I’m so late. I’ll be home soon, it’s my stop next,” Olivia said.

Her eyes were lured back to the driver’s mirror, his own gaze now distracted.

“Oh good! You know how I worry.”

“It’s okay, the rough one’s just got off the bus,” she said, looking around behind her.

Olivia noticed she was alone now.

“How was your day mum? Tell me about your day. Did you do much? How was work?”

“It wasn’t bad. I did have a minor disagreement with that bastard at work. I’ll save that for when you get home.”

“How was-“

“There’s the dinner ready love, I need to go, see you soon.”

“Mum!”

Olivia continued to hold the phone to her ear. Her eyes coaxed back to the mirror and the leer of the driver.

He smiled.

The bus bounced with the grace of a rhino at a jenga convention. The road crackled below as though they were driving over an ocean bubble wrap. She switched her attentions to the window, greeted by a foreign darkness that smothered seas of what she could only guess were crops.

“D-driver?”

“Driver, is… this the right way?”

“I think so.” He replied.

“I-I don’t recognise it.” She said.

“Well, I’m the one in charge. You’ll have to trust me.”

Olivia abandoned her bag and ran for the back of the bus, crunching her wrists down upon the step, her progress halted by the bus’ breaks, screaming as she pressed to lever herself to her feet. The driver caught hold of her foot and dragged her to the floor once more, she kicked for his chest, she kicked for his balls, she kicked for his face, she kicked for her life.

He roared as his nose spurted blood, Olivia clambered to her feet again and kicked open the emergency door, dropping out of the bus and fleeing into the fields, running at awkward angles until she dropped to her knees.

The crops hissed as the wind harassed them. She bit down on her trembling lip, her forearms numb, fluid dripped from her fingers. Blood or sweat? She couldn’t tell. She heard the driver curse then cover it with laughter but he was far away now and the bus engine had started again. She dare not leave the crops. She was alone.

Olivia slumped over and let her eyes close, joining the darkness around her.

‘Between Love and Hate’

I swig my Jack and coke and a fleeting darkness is chased away. The leaves that decorate the hotel hiss behind me and I remember that familiar game of hide and seek the sun plays during summer here. Today the sun basks in a rare victory, baking any clouds that dare to impose. I look out at the sea which lethargically licks the beach, even the breeze carries a warmth that itches.

“There you are, I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”

Shit.

“Listen man, I had to bring up Lisbon-” he’s already got me by the neck.

“That was a hell of a speech Lee!” He says letting me go, no need for the nudge though.

“I thought you hated it, Stuart.”

“Nah, you nailed it. I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”

“When have I ever?”

“Seriously man, you kept me on the straight and narrow. We wouldn’t have made it this far without you,” Stuart points to his ring.

“You made it yourselves.”

“Have you spoken to Alice yet?”

“No,” I say, gulping my drink and loosening my tie.

“You can’t hide from her forever.”

“Yeah, this place isn’t big enough.”

“Take that up with the missus!” Stuart says.

“Oh look, I’m empty. Better get another drink.”

“Talk to her man, I know she’s eager to see you after what happened.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll get round to it.”

I skip up the steps to the door.

“And thanks for not mentioning Luxembourg!” Stuart shouted.

There are two bars in the hotel, one chaperoning the dance floor, or hell as I like to call it, and the other for the professional drinkers. I prefer the latter, she won’t be there. I consider taking my suit jacket off but I can feel my shirt sticking to my back, which affords me a shiver that I savour. I squeeze past faces in the clotting corridors recycling a smile. They want to talk about how good they’re doing but I just want to know who the hell decided curdled custard was the right choice of wallpaper and why the ceilings sagged by what I hope is design.

I stop at the doorway. Her back’s turned but I know it’s her. Sweat trickles from my armpits. She’s sitting with someone. It isn’t her short blonde hair that gives it away. Nor is it the single freckle on her dainty shoulders. When you’ve seen a person stripped bare, when you’ve lain with them, you could spot them blind. The sun beams through the window, that prick she’s sitting with catches my eye. I can feel my cheeks sizzling, I’m already looking forward to drinking in hell as I turn for the other bar.

“Jack and coke please,” I say.

The sunlight floods into battle with the disco lights through the chandelier which conducts from above the dancefloor. I lean on the counter, my arms outstretched further than my suit allows, watching the reflection of the dancefloor as those faces and their spouses jolt, bounce and sway teasing me in harmony. I drink, swinging the contents around the glass and drink again, until only the ice is left. I rest it on my tongue, willing it to caress my throat as it drains.

Then she enters. Parading him around.

“Another please,” I say.

They slip into the pack, swinging and sliding. My Adam’s apple retreats as I swallow but my chest fights back against the music, resisting their rotations, denying their demonstration. Beads flee my forehead, racing down my temples as I escape the room.

I slam the door off the wall. I run the tap and grip the sink. I look up at the mirror and cup my hands together, cleansing my face. I look into the mirror again, beads slipping down my face as I exhale.

“Pull yourself together,” I say.

The door swings open and in bounces Mark. Great.

“Eeeyyyy! Lee mate! How are you?” He says, marching over to the urinals.

“I’m good mate.”

“You don’t look it!”

“It’s the heat…” I say.

“Heat? Maybe you’ve had a few too many, eh?” He said, trying to control his aim and maintain eye contact with me.

Only you.

“I’m only joking mate. Listen, that was a hell of a speech! Can’t believe you didn’t mention Luxembourg though. You’re a good guy.”

Mark zipped up and approached slower this time.

“Listen mate, I was sorry to hear about you and Alice.”

So I keep hearing.

“I thought you two were great! Sucks she’s here with someone else, seems like a decent sort though,” Mark said.

He put his arm around me, avoiding the sinks.

“Seriously! We need to go out for a few drinks soon, been too long.” Mark pulled the door against his foot at first, before leaving.

I look up, gritting my teeth I punch the mirror, recoiling, my teeth cling together, I stretch and clench my fist. Small red cracks creep across my hand. I watch as the blood seeps from my hand, smearing the white tiles below. Why am I even angry? He was being perfectly pleasant. I shake my head at the mirror and leave.

They stutter and stop on the dancefloor as I march towards them.

“Alice. Can we talk outside please?”

“S-sure Lee.”

The heat lashes only my knuckles now. I leave my drink the steps, returning to the front of the hotel. The sea tickles the shore and a solitary cloud flirts with the sun. Threatening to smother it, but releasing it soon after.

“What happened to your hand Lee?!”

I’ve been moulding a face for months but I don’t use it.

“I… hit the mirror in the gents,” I say, looking at my hands.

“Jesus Lee! Maybe it was a bad idea me coming here…”

The temporary darkness cushions the sun, the air licks my hair.

“No. This is on me. I’ve been so angry and I thought I was angry at you, for a while I was…”

“I understand that,” She says, she’s been looking at me this whole time.

“I’m just… I’m angry that you’ve moved on before me. You’ve moved on faster, you’re doing well and there’s a part of me that’s happy about that, honestly! It’s just, I haven’t and I’m sorry, seeing you now reminds me of that. I wish I was a better person. Everyone thinks I’m a better person Alice…”

“Grow the fuck up, Lee. You are a better person than that. Why don’t you go soak up the attention you deserve after that speech?”

Her words drag my eyes to hers.

“Be the person who delivered that speech. Enjoy what’s good in your life, enjoy being you! You’ve so much to give, Lee. Don’t waste it. I’m heading inside. I want to see the real Lee Clarke in there.”

I picked up my drink from the steps, swirling the contents. The blood from my knuckles trickles onto the glass but the only burning is in my eyes now. The sun soothes my skin and I place the glass down, determined, not to follow Alice’s lead, but to walk my own path.

‘Alone, Together’

Bingo! A match!

Aaron examined his match’s profile. Absorbing Becky’s likes and dislikes, any kind of mistake could prove costly.

“So… this is awkward. I’ve never done this before.” Aaron wrote, making the first move.

“Me either.” Becky replied.

“Maybe we should ask three questions to test this match?”

“Okay that sounds good.” She replied.

“You go first, since you’re the lady.”

“Such a gentleman! Okay, what’s your favourite food?”

“Mac’ and cheese.”

“Favourite TV show?”

“Friends.”

“Good so far. Favourite movie?”

“Harry Potter.”

“Which one?”

Aaron smirked as he wrote: “That’s more than three questions!”

“Oh come on, Harry Potter is not an answer!”

“I suppose I’ll let you off the hook. It’s the second one. Chamber of Secrets.”

“No way? That’s the worst one.” Becky wrote.

“It’s Dobby’s debut, though.”

“Snakes and secrets, though. Two good answers out of three is above average.”

“I’ll settle for a rare adventure above average, usually I’m average all over.” Aaron replied.

“Oh I doubt that.”

“How would you like to find out over drinks?”

“I dunno, you’ve sold it really well…”

“C’mon I won’t take no for an answer.”

“Sure… Sure. Why not.” Becky wrote.

“Let’s meet at Delling Station at 8.”

Aaron clicked his phone onto standby.

“The newbies are always the most desperate.” Aaron thought.

“Give them a half-wrong answer out of three and they don’t realise you’re reciting the likes from their own profile.”

He looked in the mirror, yawning and running his fingers through his hair. She straightened every strand. He cupped his hands over his face, testing his breath. She brushed her teeth relentlessly. He grabbed yesterday’s t-shirt from the floor, he always travelled light. She took three outfits from her closet. He pulled on jeans with yesterday’s creases. She unwrapped the newest of her outfits, assessing from every angle as she dressed.

 

Before leaving his room Aaron took a screenshot of the map around Delling station, then checked the train times from the centre for later.

“I’m checking out. Room fourteen.” He said.

“No problem sir, would you like to fill out this survey for a chance to win ten percent off your next stay here?” The receptionist asked.

“No thanks, I won’t be staying here again.” He answered.

 

Glass littered the pavements Becky walked along as the station struggled against darkness, only a few flickering lights resisted.

Aaron crept up.

“You look great.” He said.

“Oh! Thanks.” She said.

“But aren’t you cold?” He asked.

“Maybe a little…”

Her eyes were fixated on the flower.

“For you.” He said.

“Thank you!” She said.

“C’mon the pub’s beyond the industrial estate. I know a shortcut.”

“Oh. Okay.” She said, lingering slightly.

“So you never asked me three questions, why don’t you ask me them on our way?” She asked.

“Do you like your flower?” He asked.

“Yeah… sure it’s nice.”

“Don’t worry, that’s not one of your questions.”

The hustle of civilisation seemed to slip further way, smothered by the quiet.

“I saw the episode of Friends where everyone finds out, I think it might actually be my favourite. What’s your favourite episode?” She asked.

“That one as well. It’s great.” He answered.

Becky’s pace slowed.

“What’s part’s your favourite?”

Aaron started down an alleyway and Becky stopped.

“Come on, the shortcut finishes up behind that bit where the fence is pulled up.”

“What’s your favourite part Aaron?”

“My name’s not Aaron.”

“What?”

“Come here.”

Aaron grabbed her wrist and thrust her against a fence.

“Nobody is going to hear you.”

“Let go of me! Help!”

She wriggled to a moment of freedom before arms locked around her waist and he thrust her into a garbage bin, knocking both to the ground.

Her screams accompanied by tears.

He was on top of her now.

“LEAVE ME ALONE!”

“Your outfit says the opposite.”

He pinned her arms as she writhed and wrangled.

“Don’t act like you don’t want it.”

She sobbed, looking at the flower stricken amongst the garbage in which they lay.

“Stop crying. You asked for this.”

He ripped her top. She kicked hard. He wrestled her again, she broke free of his grasp.

She grabbed a bottle and smashed it across the side of his face.

He rolled off her allowing her to her feet. He grabbed her heel but she dare not lose her balance again and kicked off his grip. Freed from his clutches she pointed the bottle at him.

“Get away from me!”

He hesitated.

“Don’t you dare get up!”

The tears relented.

“I’m calling the police!”

“Call them. You think they’ll believe you? Dressed like that, the desperate teenager met a stranger on a dating app. You don’t even know my name, you don’t know where I’m from and my profile ain’t real.”

Becky opened her mouth but could only scream, waving the broken bottle in his direction.

“Hello?! Is everything alright?!” Voices from the end of the alleyway grabbed Becky’s attention.

Aaron fled.

 

Aaron boarded a train, destination London. He sat across from an older woman who also sat alone. He held her gaze for a moment, looking her up and down before the pulsating heat on his cheek diverted his attention.

“Suppose I better book the next hostel.” He thought.

His phone vibrated.

Bingo! A match!

He checked over the profile. Tina’s likes and dislikes.

“So, this is awkward. I’ve never done this before.” Aaron wrote.