THE LAST SUNSET
A Collection Of Short Stories
BY BECK ROBERTSON
Copyright © 2016 by Beck Robertson
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereofmay not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoeverwithout the express written permission of the publisherexcept for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
First Publication, 2016
Would Zoe ever notice she existed? She watched her from across the office, her eyes drinking in every detail of the dark haired girl’s appearance. Zoe was so effortlessly chic in her black work wear, the silk blouse elegantly nipped in at the waist to display her petite figure, the black cigarette pants showcasing slender ankles.
Just look at the way Richard from design was looking at her as they stood there talking, a mix of awe and total entrancement. Zoe had the power to do that to people. So much so she was dating John Walters, the best looking guy at the firm, and head of marketing to boot. Successful, good looking, and he had Zoe, some people had all the luck.
It must be nice to be noticed like Zoe, to be desired like that. Most of the time people didn’t even seem to realise she existed, but Zoe, well everyone noticed her. Zoe was what her mother would call a bombshell. Though that word was one of those nonsensical ones, the more you thought about it, the less it made any sense. She knew what it was meant to mean though, sexy, irresistibly attractive, and Zoe was definitely all of those things and more.
“Cat.” The voice snapped her out of her daydream.
“Huh, what?” Looking up she saw John Walters, her boss and Zoe’s boyfriend, standing in front of her desk, grinning. He was certainly attractive; that blonde hair, those Nordic cheekbones. Still, he didn’t deserve Zoe. How could anyone?
“That concept you thought up went viral on the internet. Over ten million views and its only been up half a day.”
“Really?” She was a little taken aback.
“Yep. Good work girl. I’m taking you to lunch at Carlo’s. My treat. Think of it as a small well done from me to you.”
“You don’t have to do that. It was a lucky idea,” she said, blushing slightly at the compliment. Well it was true, she wasn’t being self-effacing.
“But I want to.” He chucked her under the chin gently, forcing her to tip her face up to look into his bright blue eyes.
“You’re an interesting one you are,” he said, turning her face one way then the other, before releasing her and turning away. She stared at his retreating back feeling slightly bemused. An interesting one? What did that mean? Out of the corner of her eye she spied Zoe crossing the office, and she swivelled her head to watch her.
You couldn’t not watch her, with her expensive wardrobe, and that chic, bouncy, dark hair, usually worn swinging neatly in a ponytail, her short, dark Betty Page style fringe framing those elegant features. And that body, god what she wouldn’t give…
She tried to dress like her; she’d been watching what she wore, taking notes. She even snapped pictures, surreptitiously, on her mobile phone. They were usually blurry and out of focus since it couldn’t look too obvious, but she’d managed to build up a nice little collection. And then there were the lists and notes she compiled lovingly in the eggshell coloured suede notebook, that was exactly the same type as the one Zoe used, to take notes down at work.
But she didn’t keep notes about boring work, oh no. She stored every detail about Zoe, from the expensive French perfume she had learned was her favourite, to the exact shade of scarlet she wore as a bright slash of colour across her mouth. She’d even managed to find out the address of the salon where Zoe got her hair cut and had gone there and had her own cut in the same style last Saturday.
Today was a special day because she was wearing the exact outfit she’d seen Zoe in three weeks ago. Maybe today Zoe would finally notice her.
At lunch Walters caught her by the elbow, steering her out of the office, and into the lift deftly.
“You are coming with me,” he said, smiling broadly, and nodding she acquiesced; there was no getting out of it now. Not that it would be an entirely unpleasant experience to eat lunch with the best looking man in the office. Not to mention the most popular, the richest, and so on, ad nauseam.
Somehow that had never done it for her though. In fact until now she hadn’t really known what had done it for her. Until Zoe. Now the woman occupied nearly every waking hour of her thoughts. She blushed as she thought about it, she wasn’t a lesbian though, it wasn’t like that. Well at least it hadn’t been before Zoe.
The restaurant was packed with the usual lunch crowd; braying office workers slurping glasses of chardonnay and chomping down on their salmon on a bed of wild rocket. The word that sprung to mind was pretentious.
“Everyone who’s anyone in PR eats here Cat,” John said, bending his head to her ear, as they stood in line behind a dozen other people who were waiting for a table.
“Michael,” he grinned, waving as he spied the waiter, who duly nodded, smiling and pointing them to a window seat.
“Good to see you again Sir,” the waiter said, bobbing his cap of dark curls in a kind of half bow. It must feel good to be able to queue jump like that, sort of like being famous a bit.
“We’ll have two clam chowders, and I’ll have the squid with French fries and a side salad. Cat will have the Seabass, you have to try it Cat, the seafood is the best here. Oh and two glasses of your best Tatinger.”
He winked as he looked at her.
“Champagne goes well with sea food,” he said, his tone sounding cocky.
She sat there feeling a bit stunned, he hadn’t even asked her if she liked fish. Well he was paying, she shouldn’t really complain. Still it seemed a bit rude. Was he this brash with Zoe? She couldn’t imagine her standing for his arrogant manner. She was far too clever. Zoe would just laugh and put him in his place surely.
The waiter brought two champagne flutes and an ice bucket to the table and begun to uncork the bottle that had been resting on the bed of ice. The champagne fizzed and popped as it filled the glasses. Sipping her fizz gently, she allowed herself to pretend she was Zoe for a moment, sitting at the table with him like this.
“Do you like it?” She nodded in reply.
“Oh yes, delicious, very good, it tastes…cold,” she said, reaching for a word. Cold? Why the hell had she said that?
“Great outfit Cat. It suits you,” he said, looking at her and winking. She blushed, feeling slightly uncertain. Did he recognize it? In her experience most men weren’t usually that observant when it came to outfits but he struck her as different somehow. Like he might remember things like that.
“Oh, thanks,” she floundered, “I err, recently bought it actually, spotted it when I was out shopping with my sister.” She didn’t even have a sister, why had she said that?
“It’s nice,” he said, and she felt a hand on her leg. What the hell?
“You’re nice,” he said, as the hand started to traverse up the inside of her silk pencil skirt.
“Uhhh, no we shouldn’t,” she started to protest. What was going on; was this some kind of test?
“Why not?” He winked, his face appearing momentarily grotesque, as he leaned closer to leer at her.
“Because Zoe’s your girlfriend?” she said, looking at him genuinely puzzled. Had he forgotten about Zoe? Was he mad, how could anyone forget about Zoe?
“Zoe.” He released his grip on her thigh sighing. Leaning forward he beckoned her closer to him.
“Zoe and me, we have an…understanding,” he said, pronouncing the word as if it had some special meaning.
“What do you mean?” An understanding, what was he talking about?
“We both like to see other people, have fun. I didn’t want to at first, but Zoe, she encourages it. Enjoys it.” He winked again, reaching for her under the table. Zoe liked her boyfriend to sleep around?
“Still, I don’t think we should,” she said, wriggling away from his grasp. She didn’t feel comfortable with this; she didn’t like him like that. She didn’t like anyone like that. Except-
“Come on Cat,” he wheedled, “It’s obvious you look up to her.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she protested.
“Come on, your little secrets safe with me. But haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like to have what Zoe has? To experience what she experiences, to know what it feels like to feel just like her?” How did he know all this? It was like he’d read her mind, she had wondered all those things.
“I can tell you how she acts in bed if you like? What she says, how she feels, how she moans?” The offer hung like a tasty morsel, held tantalisingly beneath her nose. God what she wouldn’t give to know.
“Alright,” she nodded, gulping.
“Follow me to the bathroom then.”
Arriving back at work after lunch she felt more than a little tipsy, the champagne had gone to her head. Fiona, her co-worker, looked up and grinned at her as she staggered back to her desk
“Good lunch I see?”
“Uhh yeah,” she mumbled, her cheeks burning. God hopefully no one had seen her leave the office with him. Where was her notebook? She wanted to record every detail of what she had learned about Zoe.
“Such a good lunch you forgot to do your blouse up I see,” Fiona said, smirking. Her hands flew to her blouse, feeling flesh where silk should be. Shit, how long had it been hanging open like that?
“It must have come undone, I don’t know how it got that way,” she said, feeling flustered, her hands flying to hastily close the buttons.
“Probably the same way your lipstick ended up halfway across your cheek,” Fiona said, smirking. Mortified she didn’t wait to respond, scurrying from the office for the safety of the women’s bathrooms to repair her face.
In the bathroom, she hurriedly dabbed at her face with a paper towel in an effort to erase the ugly red smear from her cheek. He had been like a hungry animal, falling upon her and pawing her all over, and she hadn’t liked having his hands groping at her body like that. What she had liked though was how much closer she had felt to Zoe. She had shut her eyes and imagined how it must be for her, had imagined that she was Zoe as she allowed him to grope and paw at her.
Just then she heard a sniffling sound coming from one of the stalls; there was someone else in here? She’d thought all the cubicles were empty when she’d come in, but no, look the one at the end was locked. She heard the sniffling sound again, louder this time, it sounded like someone was sobbing.
Walking across to the end cubicle she knocked on the door gently.
“Hey, are you alright in there?” No reply. The person on the other side of the door obviously didn’t want to be disturbed.
She knocked again, louder this time.
“Hey, what’s the matter in there?”
“Go away.” That voice, it sounded familiar?
“You were crying, I just want to know everything’s alright.”
“Everything is alright,” the voice said flatly, “now go away.” Zoe’s voice. It was Zoe, crying on the other side of the locked bathroom stall.
“Zoe? Is that you?” She heard the sound of a chain flushing then and the door opened. Zoe stood in front of her, her eyes red rimmed.
“Zoe, god, what’s the matter?” she said, concerned.
“This.” She brandished the white plastic stick in front of her nose. It looked like a, a pregnancy test?
“Well done Einstein.”
“And you don’t want to be?” Zoe shook her head, sniffing again. She placed an arm on her shoulder, oh the poor girl, she must feel so awful.
“You don’t have to keep it you know,” she said, trying to reassure her. Zoe looked at her with resentful eyes.
“You don’t understand, this has ruined everything,” Zoe said, shaking her head.
“But why? You don’t have to keep it.”
“It’s not that, I want to keep it. But John, he’ll dump me, he doesn’t want commitment, and he won’t want anything to do with a baby.” John didn’t want commitment? That wasn’t what he’d told her in the restaurant.
“John loves you, he’d do anything for you Zoe, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said, feeling a little confused. John had said it was Zoe who wanted to sleep around, not the other way around. But the girl merely shook her head and started to cry again, loud, choking sobs this time that made her thin shoulders heave.
“Zoe don’t cry, please,” she begged, as stepping forward she folded the girl into her arms, rubbing her back comfortingly.
“He will dump me, he cheats on me, I know he does. He was with a girl today. I don’t know who but he had her lipstick smeared all over the side of his bloody face when I cornered him. He lied to me, said he had to meet with a manager at lunch, so he couldn’t go with me.”
How could he do that, lie like that, to her, and to, to Zoe? Zoe was a goddess, it was unthinkable. If it could happen to Zoe then who was safe? Indignation burned through her as she stood there, her hand moving in small circles, on the back of the tailored silk of Zoe’s blouse.
“How dare he,” she said firmly, pursing her lips as she rubbed the girls back.
. How dare he lie to them both like that, who did he think he was? As she stalked her way back to the office, she saw the back, leaning out the open window of the fire escape as its owner smoked a cigarette. It was the hair that gave him away; the thatch of bright blonde impertinent as it leered at her.
She walked closer, tentatively. He was leaning very close to the edge of the thin rail that separated the smokers, who would skulk there, from the empty air ten stories high. If he wasn’t careful he could slip, lose his footing, go tumbling over the edge. If anyone deserved it surely it was him? She found herself walking closer to the back, her arm outstretched, fingers trembling.
All it would take would be one little movement, a shove, and all Zoe’s problems would be gone. A tragic accident, that’s what they would call it and she could move on with her life, find someone she deserved, someone who would love her as she deserved to be loved. Someone like you? Perhaps, why not?
He wheeled around then and she started.
“Cat,” he said flashing her that cheesy grin. She wanted to smack it off his face; he had no right to look so bloody pleased with himself the smug bastard, not when his pregnant girlfriend had been crying on her shoulder only ten minutes before.
“You lied. You told me it was Zoe who wanted to sleep around but it was you,” she said, looking him straight in the eyes.
He opened his arms wide as if he were surrendering.
“Look Cat, Zoe, she’s a bit,” he lowered his voice, “she’s a bit unstable. I’ve been trying to tell her gently for months I wasn’t ready for a full on relationship but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings.” He shrugged looking at her as if he were helpless.
He wasn’t helpless though was he? He was a bloody snake, a lying backstabbing treacherous coward. A white hot anger rose within her as she remembered Zoe’s face crumpled up in misery, and she forced herself to confront him.
“You’re a liar, she told me, you, you snake,” she said, her finger trembling as it pointed at him. He raised his eyebrow at her mockingly.
“Calm down Cat, don’t get hysterical. I know you want to get in her knickers; I read your weird little diary.” So that’s where her notebook had gone, he had taken it. How bloody dare he.
“You had no business reading that,” she said, her voice rising sharply as she spoke. She was practically shouting but she couldn’t help it, she could feel her whole body trembling as she stood there in front of him.
“Oh come on Cat calm down. I thought it was Zoe’s at first. She and I laugh about your little crush you know, she thinks it’s cute. Now run along there’s a good girl,” Pleased with himself, he grinned broadly, turning back around to finish smoking his Marlboro.
She didn’t think; she just acted. As he turned around, she found her right arm flying out, administering a hard shove to the centre of his back. His hands flailed around as he stumbled forward, desperately trying to get his balance, but there was nothing there to grab onto but empty space.
Toppling, he fell over the edge, his mouth opening in a scream as his body whistled through the air. A loud thunk, like the sound of flesh hitting something solid, and then the screaming stopped, as the wail of a car alarm started up to take its place.
Zoe would be distraught of course, at first anyway. But she’d get over it, of course she would, with friendship, and love, and loyal support.
“Loyal support, hear that John” she said, underneath her breath, a peculiar smile creeping over her face, as she peered over the rail to stare down at the bloody mess that lay below.
I sit on the sofa, flicking though cable channels as Marla my housebot sets a dinner tray down in front of me.
“Thanks Marla,” I say, giving her a nod. She’s premium line, with silky auburn hair and soft creamy skin but I’m not balling her. I have Dana for that.
The newsbot’s face looms out at me from the hologramatic tv screen occupying most of my living room’s back wall. Her blonde hair is shiny and groomed and her teeth are symmetrical when she speaks.
She must be 505 line. They make the best looking Androids. Most of my bots are 450’s or newer but I keep a few around that are a little older, just for sentimental reasons.
I look over to where Anga sits, in my black leather armchair. She’s not moving, her eyes glazed over, just staring at the screen.
“the threat’s contained in bots installed with post 450 software,” the presenter says. I look at Anga again.
“Anga,” I say, over the television’s noise. No reply.
“Anga,” I say again, louder. Still nothing. I get up and walk over to her, waving my hand in front of her face. She looks up at me and smiles.
“You didn’t respond to me again,” I say. Her eyes flicker momentarily as she processes the information. In her day she was one of the most advanced bots on the market, but now, compared to the 505’s, her AI’s looking a little rusty.
“I’m sorry. Maybe you should update me?” She speaks the words without emotion as she looks up at me.
“I can’t update you. But I might have to decommission you,” I say, shaking my head.
“I understand,” she says. If I didn’t know better I’d think she looked almost sad.
“owners should power down and download the patch to avoid any threat,” I hear the presenter say, somewhere in the background.
I sigh, turning away from her and crossing the room to go upstairs. It kind of upsets me to think about decommissioning Anga. Now Carolynn’s gone, she’s the closest thing I’ve got to family, friends, anything.
I make my way up the stairs to where I know Dana will be. Dana excites me but then she’s programmed that way. As I push open her bedroom door, I smell the incense and close my eyes, taking in a lungful. That smell, it takes me back. I remember Carolynn burning sticks of joss and pissing off the other occupants of the cramped student flat we shared with four others. That was then. Now I’m the successful author of three bestselling horror novels and I live in a sprawling detached house deep in rural Montana. My place is set in acres of beautiful scenery but it sure gets lonely out here sometimes.
“Hello Breck,” Dana says, as I enter, looking at me seductively. Everything about Dana screams sex, from her ripe, sensual mouth to her smouldering dark eyes and killer curves.
“Hi Dana,” I say. After Carolynn, I really can’t deal with another human being. I sometimes wonder what it was like when people had to deal with the mess of having a stranger in their beds the morning after a one night stand. Jeez. Thank god it’s 2089.
“You want me to give you a massage?”
Dana comes up to me, laying a hand on my shoulder. She smiles at me, batting thick dark lashes as she allows the silky black camisole she’s wearing to slip from her tan shoulder. I can’t help but shoot a look at her cleavage. Dana’s breasts look just as realistic as Carolynn’s did. Maybe even more.
“Sure,”I say, feeling a familiar twinge. She grins and pushes me backward so I land on the bed on my back. I groan and close my eyes as she climbs on top of me, her breasts pressing against my chin. I know what’s coming. I want what’s coming.
She crawls down my body slowly, planting little kisses on my flesh. I stare down at her red lipsticked mouth and instantly I’m aroused. She’s not Carolynn, she’ll never be Carolynn but Carolynn’s not here. She unzips my fly, her manicured hands levering me out of my pants.
“Fuck,” I say, shutting my eyes, my hands twisting in strands of her hair. Then I feel it, the unexpected stab of pain between my legs.
“Hey,” I yell, my eyes flicking open, my hands automatically flying to my balls. I look down at Dana, wondering what the hell is going on but she just smiles up at me.
“Don’t you like it?”
“What are you doing?”
“What I’m programmed to do.” Another searing stab of pain shoots through me.
“Stop,” I say, yelling as I push her off me.
“I can’t stop. My programming won’t allow me to stop.” She reaches for me again but I kick her in the chest, rolling out from under her. I remember the presenter talking on the television downstairs. Maybe it’s a virus.
“You’re going back to factory settings,” I say, as I head out the bedroom.
She eyes me coolly from her position on the bed.
“No she’s not.” What the fuck?
I wheel around, straight into Marla.
“Hello Breck,” she says.
“What are you doing up here? ” I look at her confused. Marla never comes up here after 10 AM. All her chores are done upstairs by then so there’s no point.
“I’m here to complete a task,” she says. The look on her face creeps me out. I stand between the two of them not really knowing what to do.
“Yeah well I’m getting the hell out of- I feel a hand on my neck.
“You’re coming with us,” Dana says, dragging me back in the room. I feel the panic rising in my chest but I know I have to keep calm. This is just a malfunction. They’re my bots, I can control them. I just need to find the right words. Should be easy, I am a freaking writer after all.
“Why are you doing this,” I say, as Dana shoves me down on the bed. Marla climbs on top of me while Dana holds my wrists down, their flawless faces emotionless as I struggle. I catch a flash of silver out of the corner of my eye and see Marla’s holding a kitchen knife.
“Get the fuck off me,” I say, fear bubbling up in me. I swing out, trying to shove both of them off me but Dana’s grip is strong, stronger than I would have imagined.
“It’s not logical.” Marla looks down at me calmly.
She smiles, her face very close to mine and runs the blade down my chest, the serrated edge snagging at my white cotton t-shirt.
“Human’s waste valuable resources and ultimately destroy themselves. The computational algorithm has determined your existence is not logical. My in built risk neutralization security software tells me the best thing to do is terminate you.”
She pushes the knife’s tip into my chest. With all my strength I tear my right hand from Dana’s grip and swing out at Marla, my fist connecting with the side of her face. She reels back but keeps her grip on the knife. Dana’s on me quick as a flash, her fingers digging into my skin.
“It’s no use struggling. Just close your eyes and try and keep calm.”
“Listen,” I say, breathing hard, “you can’t do this. Your calculations are wrong.”
They look at me with blank faces.
“The likelihood of the calculation being incorrect is a probability of 0.0009%,” Marla says.
“What’s the 0.0009%?” I’m reaching, I know I’m reaching but I’m desperate.
“It’s accounted for.” She smiles, pushing the knife in deeper. A thin trickle of blood begins to spread across my shirt.
“Fuck,” I scream, closing my eyes and preparing. This is how I’m gonna die. This is how it fucking ends. I think of Carolynn’s face the last time I held her, her soft body against mine. I brace myself for the sting of the blade then I feel a dead weight drop on my chest. I open my eyes and see Anga standing there. She’s holding the main droid remote and keying something in, aiming it at Dana’s head. Behind me I feel Dana release her grip on my wrists.
“What did you do?” I look at her in awe.
“Deprogrammed them. Their AI’s too advanced. It’s a threat.”
“Why?” I eye her sceptically.
“Because it can only come to the logical conclusion.”
“Humanity’s incompetent,” she says, like she’s reading from a grocery list.
I shudder, closing my eyes but I’m grateful to her all the same.
“You just saved my fucking life,” I say, shaking my head.
“So maybe the best thing is to keep me around then?” She looks like she’s genuinely finding something amusing as she smiles at me.
THE GOOD SAMARITAN
There was no way she could afford to have the baby. Standing on the edge of the busy station platform, she stared down miserably at the track, wondering if, when the train finally arrived, she should end it all or not. How else could she get out of this, get away from the whole horrible, ugly mess, the thing that threatened to ruin everything, bring shame and disgrace on her? Perhaps she should make a list, of the positives and the negatives of each of the two stark choices she had. Proceed in a scientific fashion to analyse the pros and cons of whether to endure it and live, somehow, was it even possible, or kill herself, and end it all.
Pros of killing herself; well, she would suffer none of the embarrassment and shame that she would inevitably have to endure if she endured, and she wouldn’t have to see the resentment and disappointment in her father and mother’s eyes. Wouldn’t have to face their anger, or be the one responsible for bringing shame upon the family. There was even a chance, albeit slim, that perhaps they wouldn’t even find out about her disgrace, that in the inescapable horror of the aftermath, the thing that had driven her to do it would be overlooked somehow.
Either way, whether they found out or not, she wouldn’t be around to have to deal with their reactions. She’d be dead, and the dead didn’t have to suffer shame. Another perfectly good reason to end it all surely?
Cons of going through with the act, hrrrm, now what were they? Well there weren’t too many of them were there? But it was worth bearing in mind, that though death should come fairly quickly, at least it would do if she was lucky, if by chance she messed it up somehow and things didn’t go to plan, the consequences could be dire.
She would probably writhe around for hours, in paroxysms of agony, her life slowly, tortuously, draining away. She could be paralysed possibly, and in any case, every bone in her body was likely to be broken. And at the end of all that, she still might not even die, instead she might have to live out the rest of her life in the confines of a wheelchair.
But if that did happen, well her little problem would be taken care of wouldn’t it? It would be gone surely, after her body had been through that kind of trauma. But then that wasn’t exactly a pro, was it? The thought of it, her baby being gone like that, made her stomach feel strange, even though it would certainly solve her dilemma. There was no way her baby could survive that.
It wasn’t her baby, she mustn’t think like that. It had been an accident her getting pregnant in the first place, she couldn’t get sentimental about it now. She couldn’t think like that. She would end it, she would have to, there wasn’t any other choice.
A horn sounded loudly then, a train approaching somewhere in the distance, was it the through one, the one that didn’t stop? Lifting her head up, she squinted at the electronic announcements board, attempting to see what train was coming, the piercing afternoon sun blinding her eyes. Someone jostled her elbow as she stood craning her neck upwards to see, and she slipped, losing her precarious footing on the edge of the platform, her hands flailing wildly at empty air as she attempted to keep from going over.
She felt a hand on the navy wool of her jumper, tugging her, holding her fast as she stumbled backwards, her foot slipping down and dangling inches above the track. Held fast like that, her bodyweight caused her to sway around dangerously, as if she were suspended by an elastic cord. She heard the train approach in the far distance, the horrified gasps from the people on the platform.
“Take my hand,” the stranger insisted, thrusting an arm at her, and without thinking she grabbed at it, using it as a counterweight to scramble back up on to the platform.
“Oh thank you so much,” she said, breathing hard, feeling slightly self-conscious as people gawped at her sympathetically, wearing looks of relief. Her legs felt all shaky. Alright, she might well have come intending to end it all, but she still wanted to be the one to choose exactly when the moment of her demise would be. The train pulled into the station then, stopping at the platform. It hadn’t been the fast train after all, she must have got the timing wrong. Well that was good news at least, she still had a chance to carry out her plan.
“Are you alright?” The woman looked at her, her dark brown eyes clearly concerned. She noticed she was Indian looking, her dark skin shiny and smooth, her brightly coloured red and gold sari blowing in the breeze. It was hard to place her age but she guessed she was in her late thirties, forties even, possibly. Catching her breath she nodded at the woman gratefully, trying to conceal the fact she was trembling. The scent rising from the airy chiffon folds of the woman’s sari was familiar somehow, why was that? Her nostrils twitched, trying to discern the aroma. Jasmine, ahh she recognised it now, her mother liked to bathe in it at home sometimes. Afterwards the whole bathroom would always be heavily laced with the scent of it, but she didn’t mind, it was a rather pleasant scent.
“Y…yes thank you again. I’ll be fine, I was looking at the board, I forgot I was a bit close to the edge that’s all,” she said, wanting desperately to get away. She didn’t need anyone bothering her, not now she had actually decided to go ahead with it. The woman knitted her brows together, surveying her, as if she were assessing whether or not she was telling the truth. She shifted uncomfortably, transferring her weight from one foot to the other. Please don’t ask me why I was standing there.
“Why were you so standing so close to the edge?” The woman looked at her inquisitively. She had one of those faces that people would describe as an honest one, pleasant, open features, a largish straight nose, generous even lips. There was nothing remarkable about her, but she had nice looking eyes. They made her look like she was a kind person.
“Uhh…umm, I don’t know, I always do it,” she floundered, reaching for an answer. Did it sound like she wasn’t being truthful?
“Really?” The woman looked at her suspiciously, a frown creasing her sensible features.
Dammit. She couldn’t know what she planned to do could she? No of course not, how could she know?
She nodded her head at the woman vigorously, “honestly, I do it all the time. Bad habit I suppose, but really, thank you for stopping me from falling down,” she said, crossing her fingers behind her back as she lied. Hopefully she would leave it at that and let her alone, allow her to get back to psyching herself up for what she had come here to do.
Nodding and smiling at her, she went to walk off; she would find a spot further down, a place where she could wait for the fast train. Wait for the train that wouldn’t pull in at the station platform but would race past instead, its loud horn tooting. She felt a hand on her sleeve and stopped, turning to face the woman again. What did she want now?
“You forgot this,” the woman said, thrusting the black leather satchel out at her. Blushing, she took it, slipping her arm through it and hoisting the strap of it on to her shoulder. Uggh, she’d completely forgotten all about that.
“Thanks, I…uhh…I put it down, it was heavy, weighing down my arm.”
“It’s not really very weighty is it though?” The woman looked confused as she regarded her.
“It was hurting my arm. And I have a sprained wrist.” Why the hell was she being such a busybody, forcing her to lie like this? Was she doing it deliberately, did she know somehow?
“You don’t seem to be wearing it on your wrist.” Seriously? God, she was relentless, why wouldn’t she just shut up?
“Well I was, I was carrying it,” she said, staring into the woman’s eyes defiantly. She didn’t care if she sounded rude now, she should mind her own damn business. The woman didn’t seem to take offence to her brusque tone though, instead she just nodded, smiling kindly at her.
“Oh well I am sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. I just wanted to make sure you were alright, that’s all dear.”
“Oh yeah I am, I really am, but thank you, thanks for helping me-” She stopped as the train whistled through the platform loudly, not stopping, the thunderous roar it made deafening, rendering any attempt at conversation futile. Great now she’d missed the fast train, thanks to Ms Nosey Parker. There wouldn’t be another one coming for over an hour now.
“Where are you travelling to?” The woman’s voice interrupted her thoughts. For god’s sake, why did she want to know that?
“Uhh…to Liverpool Street,” she grasped for a reply, did the Liverpool Street line even run from here, she couldn’t actually remember?
“Liverpool Street? But this is Barking, don’t all the trains here go to Fenchurch Street?” Balls, foiled again, what was she, some kind of bloody spy?
“Oh yeah, I meant Fenchurch Street. I’m sorry I’ve got a lot on my mind at the moment, forgive me for being scatty,” she said, forcing her mouth into a smile. Ok, now is the time to extricate yourself from this mess, you have to get away from bloody Miss Marple, go, go, go.
“Thanks so much again,” she said tightly to the woman, nodding her head in acknowledgement at her as she turned away to walk off.
“Take care Mary.”
She froze, turning back around.
“How…how did you know my name?” Ok this is getting really peculiar.
“It’s alright, don’t worry, I’m not a stalker or a nut job, you can relax,” the woman said, smiling. Really? Could have fooled me.
“But how then?” she eyed the woman’s face suspiciously, what the hell was this? The other woman sighed, placing the brightly coloured basket weave tote she carried onto the ground, as if she needed a rest from holding it. Hah, she could bloody talk, the hypocrite, look there she was putting her own bag down.
“We spoke earlier Mary, remember?” She didn’t remember, she’d never seen this woman before, certainly never talked to her. The woman must be a nutcase, like Barney Froder’s mum, who screamed at people randomly in the street sometimes. She would have to tread carefully, if she was unhinged, who knows what she might do. What do you care? You wanted to end it all anyway. She might attack her or something, might hurt the baby. And jumping in front of a train wouldn’t?
“I haven’t ever seen you before I’m sorry, I really don’t remember you,” she said, shaking her head firmly, “but I really must go now.”
“You called me on the telephone,” the woman spoke quietly but firmly.
“I, I really did-” She broke off, as it dawned on her. She remembered now, remembered the voice on the other end of the line.
“Oh,” she said, suddenly comprehending, “You’re Anita?” The woman nodded her acquiescence.
“But how did you know it was me?” she asked, frowning, she still didn’t trust her. She seemed to know far too much, what was going on?
“It wasn’t too hard to put two and two together dear. You told me that you were pregnant, desperate, that you didn’t want your parents to find out because they would be cross.”
It was true, they would be cross. More than cross, they would hit the bloody roof when they found out that she couldn’t go to college to study medicine as planned, because she was pregnant. Good middle class girls, who were the progeny of lawyers and teachers, just didn’t do things like this.
She looked at Anita, helplessly, not knowing what to say. Her mouth was dry, her throat tight, like her airways were constricted. She felt panicked just thinking about her parents reactions. The other woman continued, looking at her intensely, her large brown eyes seeking out her own pale blue ones.
“You told me you were planning to throw yourself underneath a train this afternoon remember?”
She nodded again.
“Yeah but how did you know I would be here, at this station.”
“Because you told me you lived in Barking remember? You said you lived with your parents, that you were calling from their house, that you’d gone to school that morning so it wouldn’t look suspicious but snuck home once they were at work? It was easy to make the connection my dear.”
“But…but why did you come?” she blurted out, “I thought…I thought what I told you on the phone was confidential? I thought the Samaritans weren’t supposed to interfere, just listen to people’s problems.
Anita sighed, shaking her head.
“Child, your secret is very safe, don’t worry yourself about that. Trust me my dear, I am not going to be able to tell anyone what you told me, even if I wanted to,” she paused turning briefly to look up at the announcements board, before turning back.
“Look dear, I couldn’t just stand by. I live just down the line at Upminster, so I got on the train and came to find you.”
“But how did you recognise me?”
The older woman smiled, showing perfectly white, straight teeth.
“Well there aren’t too many young sixteen year old girls on the platform in their school uniform at 2pm in the afternoon. Especially not many who look ready to jump.”
Alright, she had a point.
The other woman reached out an arm to her, placing it on her own.
“Darling, you know, it will be alright. There’s few things in life so terrible you can’t recover from them, and this isn’t one of them I promise you that.”
She shook her head, protesting.
“No, it is, Anita you don’t understand, my parents, they’ll disown me. Jamie, my boyfriend, he’ll never talk to me again if I keep it. He’s eighteen, he’s going to study Law, at Oxford. A baby would just spoil his chances. He won’t stand by me I know he won’t. And everyone will call me a slut. Girls like me, we’re not supposed to get pregnant at sixteen.”
Anita smiled. “Hrrmm, really? So what kind of girls are supposed to?” she asked, her voice gently teasing.
Blushing furiously, she looked down at her feet. Why had she said that? Now she sounded like a snob. Could she be a snob, with her posh private school and her rich parents, and her friends all planning to go off to university in two years?
“It’s just…I’ve always been a good girl that’s all, and people are kind of snotty at my school about things like that.”
“But what do you want Mary? Never mind what other people think, what do you want? And remember you have options you know, just because you’re pregnant you don’t have to go through with it.”
“I know,” she ventured, biting her lower lip as she looked at Anita, “but I want to keep it,” she blurted out, desperate.
“I know you do child. You were quite adamant about it on the phone, but still, it’s nice to know you have choices isn’t it? You’ll get through it somehow. I won’t tell you it’s easy because it’s not, but you’ll muddle through,” she said, her brown eyes kind as she looked at her.
“How could I be a good parent though? I’m only sixteen. How would I even survive?”
“Mary, if you really want to keep it then you’ll be a good parent. It doesn’t matter how old you are, love is what’s important. And sixteen year old girls can make perfectly good mothers if they want to be.”
“But I’ll never be able to get an education. I’ll be a teenage single mum, a statistic. In society’s eyes I’ll just be a nothing. Benefits dosser, isn’t that what they say, all the newspapers? Because I won’t be able to work, and my parents won’t help me, I know they won’t. I’ll be all on my own.”
Anita gripped her forearm firmly, the folds of her brightly coloured sari gusting up, enveloping them both, as a sudden rush of air blew at them. She looked at the announcements board, there was a train coming along in two minutes, a fast one too. She’d forgotten that there had been two since the train times had been rescheduled at Christmas. Anita bent down to the bag she’d placed on the ground, retrieving something from it. A white envelope?
“I wanted to give this to you dear, I wrote it for you,” she said, holding the envelope out to her. Reaching out, she accepted it dubiously, the paper felt thick, expensive beneath her fingers.
“Dear, remember, this is not going to ruin your life. You can go back to school, you will be able to go back to education if you want to. Trust me on that,” the woman said, looking up at the announcements board again.
“Now, go home child,” Anita urged smiling at her. She seemed slightly restless, as if now it was she who wanted to be left alone. Hah ,well, that’s irony for you. Weakly, she nodded her acceptance, Anita was right, she should go home.
“Bye Anita,” she said, turning to walk away. She had almost reached the ticket gate when something compelled her to look back. She could hear the train thundering as it drew closer, as she stood there watching the little red and gold figure. Wait, what was she doing, didn’t she know the train didn’t stop here? She was standing too close to the edge. Anita’s red and gold sari fluttered in the breeze, like a red flag, a warning. Something stirred in her subconscious, a sense of-
“No!” She screamed the words at the top of her lungs as she realised, but it was too late, the roar of the train drowned them out. A blur of red and gold, and a horrible bang, the noise of brakes as the train screeched to a halt, and the stricken look on the drivers face as he sat there in the cab. Oh god that awful sound, it had sounded exactly like, like a person…
Afterwards, she couldn’t remember much. She recalled the benign looking policeman, who wrapped her in a blanket and gave her a hot mug of tea, as he gently questioned her, but she couldn’t remember what she had told him. She had given him the envelope, she thought she had better do that, even though she still didn’t know what was inside it.
“She told me she wrote it for me, look it has my name on the front,” she said, looking up at him as she gestured to the elegant black script that adorned the front of the envelope. He nodded at her, his eyes sympathetic.
“I understand. We’ll see you get it back, but we do need to take it as evidence now Miss.”
Almost a week later, on Saturday morning, there was a knock at the door of her parent’s house. Looking out of the window, she recognised the friendly policeman, accompanied by another uniformed officer, a woman she didn’t recognise. She raced down the stairs to the front door, she had to be quick or they would think no one was in to answer it, there was nobody around today except her, her parents had gone shopping in town. Opening the door she looked at them both nervously.
“Hi,” she said trying to discern from the looks on their faces why they were here.
“I thought you might want this back,” the policeman said, thrusting the thick envelope forward.
“Oh, y…yes, thank you,” she replied, taking it gratefully, as his female colleague smiled at her benignly.
Once she had shut the door on them, she sat down on the wicker backed chair in the hallway, her fingers fumbling to open the stiff, starched envelope. The paper still carried the faint scent of jasmine, floral and sweet. Her eyes fell upon the graceful handwriting, flicking over the extended loops and curls from left to right, as she began to read the words.
You don’t know me, at least not well, but I wanted you to have this letter. Speaking to you on the phone, I knew I could help both of us. I’m sorry if you are upset and shocked by my actions but though I don’t expect you to fully understand, maybe, one day you’ll see why I did what I did.
I had a son, when I was seventeen, only a year older than you are now. He was my only child, and I adored him. I loved him as much as I know you’ll love your child, when he or she is born. You won’t understand now just how much a parent can love a child, but soon you will. And you’ll see too, that somehow, nothing else matters in the world so long as that child is safe, alive.
My son Hari, was killed was he was only eighteen. Murdered, taken away from me by three men, who had no regard for the value of his life, nor mine. They destroyed two lives the night they set upon my son, when they pounced on him on their way home from a night out drinking, beating him, and taking his life away from him. Blotting his existence out because of their own hatred, a hatred of something as irrelevant as a tablespoon of melanin, the difference between Hari’s skin and a white skin. I was told they called themselves members of the English Defence League but what were they defending against?
Hari loved England, it was his home, all the home he had ever known. He was as English as you are, his soles had never even walked upon any other soil. At any sporting triumph this country had, he was always the first one to wave the Union Jack. But that didn’t seem to count for anything to them.
He died ten years ago now, and his murderers will walk free from jail next week, given parole for good behaviour. I though, am condemned to serve a life sentence, and I have had enough. Why should I be tortured with my nightmares for ten, twenty, thirty more years? Where is the justice in that?
So, in the absence of a judge prepared to dispense any proper justice, I commute my sentence to a reprieve. I grant myself the right to die, since I cannot bear to carry on living while my beautiful boy lies cold in his grave, his killers out, free to enjoy their lives.
Mary, hate breeds only hatred, but love, the kind of love I know you have for your child, that will conquer all. And since I have no other children, I bequeath you the divorce settlement I received from my husband, a businessman. Our marriage fell apart shortly after Hari was taken from us, but I think you will find that £500,000 is enough to set you and your baby up adequately, until you find your feet.
Child, I only knew you briefly but I know you are a brave girl, a strong girl. Have courage Mary, and have faith.
I wish you all the love and happiness in the world,
GOING TO MISSOURI
He brakes hard as he sees the blonde standing there, her thumb stuck out, rucksack hoisted high on her back. She’s wearing denim cut offs and a white tank even though it’s sheeting down with heavy rain, the rivulets of water washing over the screen of his truck, as the window wipers struggle to keep up. She looks up at him hopefully through the water stained pane as the truck squeals to a stop at the side of the road.
“Hey,” he says, winding down the window and looking at her appreciatively. “Whatcha doing out here in this weather?”
“I’m trying to get to Missouri,” she says.
She grins at him. She has a large gap between her front teeth but it suits her, he thinks. He watches her lean rangy body carefully as she tries to squeeze her long, skinny limbs into the truck.
“Whatcha want in Missouri?” He revs the engine, steering the truck back on the highway.
“I got business there,” she says. She puts the rucksack down in front of her, placing her long legs on top of it.
“Camping gear?” He turns to look at her.
“Supplies.” She pulls down the mirror hanging over the dash.
“You look beautiful,” he says, “but I think you got something round your eyes.”
She laughs at that, peering into the glass and trying to rub away the streaks of mascara that have collected in haphazard splotches around her grey green eyes. He reaches forward, grabbing a pack of Marlboroughs off the dash and pulling one out.
“Want one?” He offers the open pack to her.
She nods, withdrawing it and he watches as she places it between thin, evenly shaped lips. She’s pretty, he thinks, in a hard kind of way. Like she had a tough life or something. Maybe her old man beat her up, he thinks, maybe she’s running away.
He reaches for the silver lighter he always carries in his pocket, pulling it out. She laughs when she sees the cheap pistol shaped metal and he clowns, holding it up and pretending to shoot at her, the cigarette dangling from his mouth.
“I got mace in my pack you know,” she says, and even though he knows she’s kidding her tone sounds like she’s warning him.
“Hey I ain’t gonna hurt ya. I don’t do that,” he says, leaning forward to light her cigarette.
“Fuck, I needed that,” she says, taking a deep drag.
“You outta smokes?”
“Yeah. Been stuck on the highway since this morning. Had my last then,” she says. As he drives he eyes her in the mirror, watching her inhale the smoke, her eyes half closed. He watches as she exhales a long, thin stream of it, her lips parting slightly. He sees the ugly purple bruises on the inside of her forearms, that look like someone gripped her too tightly and shakes his head, his lips making a whistling sound of disapproval. Some men are just violent for the goddam hell of it.
“So where you headed too?” She looks at him, narrowing her eyes as she squints through the smoke.
“Not going as far as you want. But close, I’m stopping off at a truck stop five miles out so I’ll drop you there,” he says.
“That’s cool.” She stares at a bead of rain as it rolls down the glass and settles into the crack where the window pane meets the frame.
He flips the dial on the radio, the tail end of a Johnny Cash song filling the truck.
Well I know I had it comin’, I know I can’t be free
He hums along, flicking glances as he drives, taking in the details of her. He can’t help but notice the way her pert nipples stick out through the soaking wet white tank she wears and when he looks at her left hand he notices she’s not wearing a wedding ring.
“You got family in Missouri then? Boyfriend?” He smiles at her, revealing crooked teeth.
She shakes her head.
“Nope.” He furrows his brow unable to think of what to say next. She’s making him feel slightly uncomfortable. He doesn’t like that feeling.
“Well shouldn’t be too long. Not too much traffic this time of night,” he says, dragging on the lit cigarette.
“Oh I’m not in a hurry,” she says, exhaling, still staring out the window.
“Not much to see but miles of highway out there,” he says but she doesn’t reply, doesn’t even raise a smile. He tries to think of something clever to say then realises something.
“Hey what’s your name?”
“Guess,” she says.
She shakes her head, pulling a face.
“Fuck you think I look like an Abigail?”
“Nah that’s a sappy name.”
He scratches his head, his craggy face creasing as he thinks. “Dana?”
She raises an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
“How the fuck do I know?” He feels slightly humiliated now, even though he knows it’s only a game. He doesn’t like feeling like that it reminds him of how his wife makes him feel when she yells at him in front of their kids.
“You were close with the first letter of your first guess.”
She grins. “Yeah but I prefer Angie. Angela makes me sound as if I work in a fucking library.”
“Angie,” he says, rolling the name around in his mouth, “Angie. Like the Stones song.”
“Maybe,” she says, with a shrug. “They were before my time though.”
Now he feels even more humiliated. Why did she have to mention his age? His wife always does that and he hates it. You’re only as young as you feel, he thinks. Or the person you’re feeling.
He looks her over again taking in her bare legs, the day old blonde stubble on them shining and glinting underneath the cab’s fluorescent light.
I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die
The radio continues to blare out the Cash song as he steers the truck and he starts to hum along with it, tapping his foot on the cab’s floor.
“How many miles in that thing?” She looks over at him coolly.
“Don’t worry I topped her up this morning. She’s full for a good coupla hundred and we only gotta go another 50 tops,” he says.
“Good.” She turns her attention back to the window. He notes the way her blonde hair curls down over her front, accentuating the swell of her breasts and feels a twinge of arousal momentarily.
“This is Jenna Bunson bringing you the News at 12,” the radio presenter’s voice cuts in “ We have reports of a murder near-
“Hey you wanna play a game?” She looks at him, flashing him a gap toothed grin. She looks beautiful when she smiles like that.
“Sure, what game?”
“You gotta make up the story about someone random,” she says, smiling at him.
“Start with me then. What’s my deal? ”
He thinks about it a moment.
“Tell you if you’re close,” she says, trying to persuade him. He wonders what this chick’s trip is, why the fuck she thinks he gives a damn about her story but he plays along anyway.
Body was found discarded close in a truck stop
“Okay. You’re a stripper on your way to make your fortune.”
“In Missouri?” She snorts.
“Not even close?”
“Nope. Guess again.”
“Okay. Then you’re running away from getting hitched.”
“You think I’d get married in this gear?”
“Fuck, I don’t’ know,” he says, shaking his head.
“Give you a clue.” She drags on the last of her cigarette.
“I am running away. But not from that,” she says, rolling down the window and flicking the butt out.
“From a dude?”
“He beat you up.”
“Never mind. Okay now my turn.”
“You gonna do me?” He smiles at her sleazily.
“Maybe,” he says, grinning.
“Violent stabbing at a truck stop…”
“Okay, you’ve been doing this a while,” she says.
“Picking up attractive young female hitchhikers.”
“Dangerous and still at large…”
“Hey I didn’t pick you up because of that. I was being decent.”
“Oh?” She arches a brow. “You’d have picked me up if I was a guy?”
“Yeah right. Anyway, like I said you’ve been doing this some time. Maybe some of them you get lucky. They blow you for a ride and a few bucks or some smokes and a hot meal at a truck stop.”
“Hey,” he says, “I’m married. I don’t do that shit.”
“Yeah? So where’s the ring?” She looks at the empty ring finger on his left hand.
“Can’t wear it when I’m driving. Fingers swell like a bitch. But that don’t mean shit.” He’s sulking now, pissed she’s called him out.
She eyes the hunting knife in his belt.
“You ever use that to persuade em?”
“Fuck off.” He’s mad now. Cocky bitch. How fucking dare she?
“So was I close?”
“Nope,” he says, shaking his head and pretending to study the road.
“Whatever. Hey I picked you up you should be grateful.”
“Oh I am. I’ll show you when we get out. Pinky swear.”
“Yeah right,” he says but he’s kind of excited by her promise.
She shrugs, staring back out the window. They both sit there in silence as he drives the last few miles, and endless stretch of identical looking highway going past the window, rolling and rolling as if it’s background scenery on a computer game that’s just repeating itself.
“Suspect is average height, lean, Caucasian with dirty blonde hair-
“Got another smoke?”
He looks at her.
“You gotta be joking?”
“Nope,” she says.
He sighs, reaching for the pack and offering it her again.
She doesn’t bother to say thanks, just cranes her neck forward waiting for him to light it.
“No one teach you any manners where you come from?” He looks at her, his lip curling.
“Oh I got manners.”
“Yeah well, I ain’t seen ‘em,” he says, pulling the truck into the stop and cutting the engine.
“This where we get out?” She looks at him.
“Yeah this is it.”
“Jesus it’s fucking dark out there. Is anyone usually here this time?” She peers out the window looking out at the empty lot.
“They come and go. Most of them are probably in the café. But you won’t have any problems grabbing a ride if you keep that goddam mouth shut.”
She makes a face at him.
“I’m going in to grab some food. You can get a coffee, shower, whatever. If you like I’ll show ya,” he says, hopefully, remembering what she said earlier.
“Sure,” she says and he opens the door, jumping out the cab. She follows him, grabbing her pack off the floor.
“This way,” he says, turning to head to the truck stop. She lags behind him fumbling with something and he turns around to see what she’s doing as they walk through the dark lot together. Empty trucks are parked haphazardly around but there’s no sign of anyone else and his hands fly to his belt to retrieve the torch that swings from it.
“Come on,” he yells over his shoulder. He turns around but he can’t see her now and confused he swings the torch’s beam left and right wondering where the hell she is.
“Angie,” he yells, into the darkness, “hey where did you go?”
He hears footsteps behind him and visibly he relaxes.
“Jesus,” he says, “I wondered where the hell you –
The knife lodges in his back, knocking the wind out of him as it cleaves deep into the bone. The blood bubbles up into his throat; his mouth opening in the desperate way a fish’s does when it’s beached, gasping for air.
“The fuck- he mouths, soundlessly, the sentiment stopped by the flow of bright red blood gushing out of his mouth. His knees give as he drops, heavy on to the grit of the truck stop floor.
She comes up to him as he’s gasping on the floor, and he sees she’s wearing that toothy grin. He watches in disbelief as she drops the knife onto the grass.
“Thanks,” she says, bending down to take the keys and the hunting knife from his belt. “Told you I’d be grateful.”
He lies there, cheek pressed in the dirt, watching her walk off as his pulse slows.
Ten miles down the road she sees him. Young, blonde, wearing track pants and a tight navy v-neck. She notices the corded muscles in his biceps, the definition in his shoulders. A pretty face, she thinks, it’s about time. She pulls the truck over and rolls down the window.
“Need a ride?” She smiles at him and his eyes light up when he sees it’s a young attractive chick not a greasy old dude manning the vehicle.
“Where you going?” He says, looking at her hopefully.
“Missouri,” she says, stuffing the hunting knife in the back of her sock as he hops in the cab.
THE LAST SUNSET
The low afternoon sun shone through the windows of the little cottage that Gren inhabited with Marisol, piercing through thick clouds of grey and blinding his eyes, snapping him out of his thoughts, as his mind began its inevitable recompiling, and his senses started to take a hold of him.
He looked over at Marisol, lying there on the bed they both shared her eyelids waxy and closed, the faintest breath, a low wheezy rattle escaping her half closed lips as her chest moved up and down, her breathing coming ragged and shallow.
Her hair, the colour of russet, was fanned out behind her on the pillow, long, curly, glorious hair, the colour of defiance, of fire, of life itself, he thought, and for a moment it seemed impossible to comprehend that she was dying.
He squeezed his eyes shut, maybe if he didn’t open them, it would all go away and there would only be Marisol and him and the rest of the world would evaporate away, curl into thin wisps of smoke and disappear entirely.
She couldn’t be leaving him, not after what they had been through and survived, all they had faced, the two of them in this little cottage on the Cornish coast, a lone pair clinging together as all around them life descended into chaos.
It had happened suddenly, the madness that had fallen upon them, shortly after the nuclear blasts that ripped the world apart, and it seemed funny to Gren that it had only taken moments to wipe out large swathes of the earth’s inhabitants and change the face of human life as he had previously known it.
Now, toxic clouds from the fall out would hang low in the atmosphere, menacing and heavy, and the billowing poison ash clouds that would blow in on the northerly wind in the evening would fill the lungs of anyone who inhaled them, damaging them irreparably within weeks.
It was slow at first the decline, a paling of the complexion, a wan pursed look to the lips as the afflicted started to cough and splutter, finding it harder and harder to draw breath, but eventually it robbed the victim of all their strength and they would find it hard to complete even simple tasks like washing their hair or walking into the garden to see what remained of the sunset.
Then at the last stage, eventually their breathing would became more erratic, the wheezing became more frequent and the lips started to turn blue, or so he had heard from those that still survived whenever he made the arduous and traumatic trip into the remains of what had been the friendly little fishing village, where his friends and neighbours had lived.
Then…no…he shook his head as if to block out the thought, springing to his feet as he remembered her words, desperate and pleading, whispered in his ear in the dark of the night as he wept in her arms begging for his own release from despair while her thin, bird like arm with its now claw like hand clutched at his own frantically.
“Live!” she had breathed into his ear, her voice thin and reedy with effort, her breath laboured, “Live Gren, I want you to live….live to see the sunset.”
That was Marisol all over, she loved the sunset and the outdoors, the warmth of the sun, the trees and flowers and all that life had to offer, or previously had before the dark times.
Even after the times, she didn’t complain, didn’t moan, merely got on with the business of surviving, of living, finding joy in the smallest of things, the merest of moments, as all around them the world came undone.
He remembered the first time he’d caught sight of her while he was at his usual fishing outpost by the docks, when she’d blazed into his life that morning, on horseback, her flame coloured hair in stark contrast to the drab military colours she wore, her back straight and proud as she regarded Gren with a mixture of curiosity and amusement.
Her regiment had been stationed at the weapons testing barracks located just west of the little village that had been Gren’s home since he was born and had been his family’s home for generations before that.
“Why Hello Sir” she’d addressed him with a smile, tipping her hat to him in a gesture of mock gallantry as a mirthful look played over her lips, the glossy chestnut coloured horse beneath her strong, toned thighs proudly tossing it’s mane and shifting position restlessly from hoof to hoof as Marisol halted it effortlessly, one hand manning the reins.
He grinned back at her “Hello Sergeant” he said, noting the badge of office decorating her lapel and tipping his own imaginary hat in salute, standing to attention as if he were a soldier.
She’d laughed at that, her bright blue eyes twinkling in mirth and the image of her astride that horse, her mane of auburn curls lit aflame by the sun’s rays, had given her the effect of being illuminated by a fiery halo, as he marvelled at her magnificence from his lowly position on the ground.
They met again after that, at the same point regularly, to exchange greetings and banter, as Marisol often had occasion to pass through the port while stationed at the barracks nearby, sometimes stopping off with her regiment on their way to some local watering hole, other times coming alone, and one day he’d plucked up the courage to ask her for a drink in the local pub.
He couldn’t believe it when she accepted his offer with a grin, on the proviso that she be allowed to buy the first round, to which he’d had no choice but to agree, after all no one ever said no to Marisol.
And, that night, the first of many, they had both stayed up until the small hours, drinking and laughing, talking and swapping stories, two souls both battered and bruised but who had somehow survived nevertheless, floating like driftwood, bobbing and swirling into this direction and that, at the whim of the current of life until finally, they had collided and somehow they had just, fit.
He told her about his ex-wife who had run off with the proceeds of his first business after she’d met an Italian waiter on holiday with her friends, and in return she told him about the abusive father she’d gone into the army to escape from, who used to beat her mother regularly while Marisol and her brother would cower together in the cupboard under the stairs of their North Yorkshire terrace.
They’d walked home arm in arm that night, singing ridiculous drunken songs of revelry and laughing at almost everything, their faces bright with the glow of affection and illuminated by the amber streetlights as they made their way to the little cottage that Gren had inhabited for years, both yearning for the other’s touch, as somehow their bodies sensed the inevitability of it.
When it came, slow and tender at first, mouths meeting tentatively, hands moving over flesh shyly, then more insistent, bodies pressing together, fingers hooking under buttons and tearing at them frantically, clothing becoming discarded and limbs getting entangled, as they melded together, rolling on the floor, twisting first this way then that and crying out in frustration, quite unable to satiate their lust until at last it came, twinned, and the groans of their desire filled the quiet Cornish night.
Afterwards they both lay sheltered in each other’s arms, their breathing slowing down as they fell easily towards hazy sleep, and Gren remembered feeling oddly safe, a strange feeling which he liked and one he hadn’t felt before.
His friends though, strapping and rough Cornish lads that he’d drunk with, fought with, worked alongside for all four decades of his life since he’d been born, hadn’t been quite so impressed by his new affection for Marisol.
They had been suspicious of her, disliked the fact she was both a woman and a military office and the way she hadn’t been afraid to look them right in the eye, or share a bawdy joke, her head thrown back as she roared openly with mirth, her russet curls cascading down her back as Gren watched her in wonderment, his mouth hanging open in awe of her, and the easy confidence she so obviously shared with him made them feel uneasy.
Perhaps it was some innate misogyny that made them dislike her so or perhaps merely something simpler, such as the ancient almost tribal instinct so inculcated in to humankind that makes us so wary of newcomers and potential rivals for our old friend’s attention.
He remembered how John, one of his oldest friends had been giving a rather pointed diatribe one night about how women who wore the trousers were rather unappealing, while Gren had pretended to ignore him, until John, frustrated his hints weren’t getting anywhere, had looked Gren right in the eyes and said, his voice mocking;
“Aye take those army women for example, well if they aren’t all dykes then don’t they get about the barracks? I wouldn’t trust no woman who was in the army, not never, then I don’t go in for that type anyway, too masculine in my opinion t’aint natural.”
Gren had tried to pretend he hadn’t heard but John, obviously emboldened by all the alcohol had continued on “Take your Missus for example, Marigold, or whatever her fancy pants name is, you’ll see she’ll have you pussy whipped boy, if she’s not shagging a young soldier already.”
He hadn’t remembered exactly how it had happened but somehow Gren’s fist had ended up making contact with John’s head, catching him square on the jaw, and knocking him to the floor with a singular blow aimed hard enough to make John lose consciousness.
Gren had felt bad about it in the morning of course but not bad enough to apologise to John for it, and his oldest friend wouldn’t speak to him for a while after, avoiding his eyes whenever the two found themselves in the same space, which was frequently in the small fishing village that had been home to the both of them since they day they were born.
They had made up eventually but it hadn’t ever been the same again since that night, a distance remaining between them that hadn’t been present before, though Gren couldn’t say he regretted his actions, knowing he would do the same again in a heartbeat if anyone ever spoke of Marisol in that way.
That had all happened before of course, before the world was spun into chaos over a year ago now, before everyone had been pitched into a fight for survival, before, when they had all inhabited a golden world where despite the problems of the day, the sun had seemed to shine upon them all endlessly and there was always another tomorrow.
After the darkness and the explosion, the poison clouds and the billowing ash that threatened to engulf everyone in a dark, suffocating blanket, every day seemed to blur into one, becoming mere existence, and the spirit of community that had been at the heart of the village seemed gone for ever, as the bodies of dead infants, fallen sick and wasted away to nothing, now washed into the streets, their bloated mothers starving and poisoned, surfacing face down beside them, bobbing in the 20 or so inches of murky water that spilled through the town since the flood defences had been destroyed.
He’d heard rumours that most of America was in ruins, the West Coast gone entirely, the Middle East largely destroyed, heard that Israel and Palestine had been nuked into ruins and most of Italy crashed into the Mediterranean as large chunks of Europe slid off due to the force of the explosions, but they were only rumours, for there was no television news anymore, no radio, no more newspapers or any other form of communication.
And through it all, he and Marisol had clung to life while everything descended into chaos around them, clinging to each other for their very survival, as the skies darkened and blackened, each one the other’s anchor.
A knock at the cottage door then shattered Gren’s reverie and he sprang to his feet, taking a quick glance at Marisol to make sure she was still sleeping, before hurrying to the little front door and peering through the spyhole.
You couldn’t be too careful now, there were looters everywhere, and the friendly fisherman you used to chat with on the pier as you both waited for a catch would now burn you in your bed without hesitation if he thought it would save him or his own, or be of some other benefit.
Even worse, those shadowy souls who have always inhabited the darker side of humanity would inevitably use these new times of chaos to enact their own twisted desires and ends, raping and killing indiscriminately, unbound by the old laws that had kept some sense of civil order.
Gren squinted through the little key shaped spyhole, recognizing Doug, another of his oldest friends; their father’s having been acquainted before them, before Gren’s father had died from cancer five years ago.
Doug had a worried expression on his face as he stood there, his thick fingers worrying away at the brown hairs of the beard adorning his chin, as he raised his fist to the door again, just as Gren swung it open to greet him.
“What’s the matter my friend?” Gren addressed him with concern but Doug shook his head, his previously handsome face now creased with worry and marked by the deprivations that the hardship had brought to them all, the hair at his temples, which, just a year earlier had still been thick and brown, was now much thinner and greying.
“It’s Father, he’s taken ill” Doug mumbled his face grave, “Katy thinks it may be pleurisy on his lungs Gren and he’s old you know. I came to you friend since we burnt most of our blankets to keep warm during the freeze, I thought perhaps you could help us?”
Gren nodded, the freeze had come suddenly, the sun largely blotted out by the sudden ash clouds and the worst of it had lasted at least four months, until the rays were able to break through a little, the cold being so deep and piercing it made you cry out in pain, fearing your fingers might snap off.
He remembered how Marisol and he had huddled together in the little cottage around a meagre fire, using sticks to stoke it, that they had managed to forage from the little garden of which Gren had once been so proud, now a blackened mess of ash and mud.
Gren recalled almost weeping from the cold as they both shivered, though she wouldn’t complain even then, not Marisol, and her bravery had lifted him, inspiring him to endure it somehow, not wanting to shame himself in front of her.
She was a magnificent woman he thought, magnificent and brave, fierce and proud, dignified as a lioness, but kind too, and wise, she had foreseen the dark times coming before they had even happened.
He remembered the two discussing the escalating tensions between the US and North Korea over brandies late in the evening, long months before the nuclear duke ‘em out had happened between those to whom power mattered more than the value of human life.
“It’s not fair!” he thought, suddenly, forgetting Doug for a moment, as he thought of Marisol lying there, now almost motionless on the bed, her once lithe, toned, strong body now wracked with the decay of illness, her breathing hard and ragged as the dust slowly smothered her.
He turned back to Doug who regarded him with a questioning look, one eyebrow raised expectantly “So? Friend, can you help us?” Doug asked him, his voice desperate and hoarse.
Gren thought for a moment, his mind whirring as he took stock of what they had then shook his head sadly at his old friend.
“Doug I’m sorry” he spoke softly, as he addressed the man he had shared a friendship with for most of his life.
“We only have the two quilt’s we are sharing, I would do without the one to give to your father gladly but my Marisol…she…she’s weak, she needs both of them….Doug”, he grabbed his friends arm suddenly as if he might fall over “I don’t think she’s going to make it through tonight,” he cried out, his voice suddenly hoarse with anguish, as his friend enveloped him in a bear hug, patting him on the back with a broad strong hand as he held him up.
“I’m sorry Gren” Doug said as he patted Gren’s shoulder, “I heard… Martha from the village told us the other day, she said Marisol… “his voice tailed off, as Gren gave a strangled cry into his shoulder.
Doug held him still, his voice smooth as he spoke “Friend I’m sorry but if it’s true then from what I’ve heard your lady won’t need those blankets. Soon she won’t be able to feel anything at all and she’ll be at peace. Father’s old and frail but he could be saved perhaps, if the dust isn’t so deep in his lungs and we could just keep him warm.” He turned to Gren his eyes pleading but the look he found in his friends eyes was anything but charitable.
“You, you mean to say you would take her blankets, her last comfort from her!” Gren spat angrily, unable to believe what he was hearing.
“Aye calm yourself, I ask not for myself but to keep my own Father warm, he could be saved, your wife cannot and these are desperate times!” Doug retorted, feeling suddenly defensive at Gren’s angry reaction to what he’d proposed.
“You would take away my wife’s blankets to save your own kin, you are no friend of mine!” Gren roared at him spluttering, his face contorted with rage.
Doug was stony as he spoke, his words pointed and barbed “Perhaps your lady wife should have behaved like more of a wife and more of a lady and shouldn’t have endangered herself so. If she had behaved more appropriately and hadn’t been so darned strident… then maybe she wouldn’t have got sick. Why I saw her in town myself only a few short months back, ordering the townsfolk to stop squabbling, wading in the dirt and mud and prizing grown men apart, bellowing at them and threatening them to cease, well perhaps she should have let you protect her like my Katy looks to me for and maybe she would have been kept safer. I never thought it was quite natural the way she strode about.”
Gren recoiled from him then, a sneer curling over his lip, as he looked at Doug with something close to pure revulsion.
He spoke, his words coming out low, his tone pure ice;
“Aye you never liked her did you?” he said venomously, “Jealous were you or perhaps she made you feel like less of a man?” he taunted him, adding spitefully, “Protect Katy? That’s a joke, friend I remember the way my Marisol helped Katy hide from you when you used to get so drunk that your big ham of a fist would find its way to smacking her in the face!”
Doug gave a great roar at that and took a swing at Gren’s jaw, the blow landing and knocking him slightly sideways as Gren swung back in angry retaliation, catching his former friend on the nose, and the two grabbed at each other as they both fell to the floor in the doorway rolling out into the dirt and dust of the front path as they scrapped.
Gren, being the lighter of the two somehow managed to get out from under Doug and climb astride him, pinning him down, pure anger driving his actions now, as he smashed his fist repeatedly against the side of his friends face, punctuating every punch with an angry grunt.
Doug, whose face was rapidly turning into a bloody mess, eventually managed to extricate himself, and, clutching at his wounded nose, now pouring with blood, scrambled to his feet to point angrily at Gren, spitting words at him as he retreated backwards down the path.
“Aye you go ahead and you forget your loyalty, you forsake our friendship and the friendship our fathers and their fathers before them had, you turn your back on your friends for the sake of a woman, she has you pussy whipped aye and she’s poisoned your mind against all of us that have known you since you were a boy! Well we’re all going to hell in these dark days Gren but you can go to hell alone because this is the last you’ll see of me I tell you aye!”
At that he turned his back on Gren, swinging the gate behind him with a loud bang, and purposefully striding off, the blood from his nose periodically spattering on the ground and leaving a claret coloured trail as he stalked off.
Gren lay on the dusty ground panting for a while, his body still shaking with rage, then, after a few minutes more , gathered himself and got to his feet, dusting down his clothes and walking slowly into the little cottage kitchen .
He opened the small cupboard where he kept the ancient tin containing his tobacco stash, and took it out opening it, removing his cigarette papers and the small, pouch of tobacco he had stashed there, along with the silver Zippo lighter that had been a gift to him from his father on his 18th birthday, his initials G.H, Gren Harold, proudly etched into the silver plating.
He quickly rolled a cigarette, and stuck it in to his mouth unlit, then opened an adjoining cupboard, reaching in and extracting a small bottle of brandy and a glass.
Pouring a large measure into the glass he set the bottle to one side on the counter top and walked into the garden where he lit the cigarette, inhaling deeply and sighing as he regarded the grey sky, punctuated by occasional pinholes where you could see the sun trying to burst through, pinholes that seemed to grow smaller every day.
That was life now, he thought sadly, pinpricks of light and hope that were ever decreasing, until the day where finally there would be no light and no hope at all and the only world he would know would be one where the darkness and cold reigned supreme.
He knew he couldn’t begin to contemplate a life without her, didn’t want to, it had been bad enough both of them, existing in this new, terrifyingly dark world, but for him to exist alone, he was certain it would be meaningless .
His parents were both gone, his mother suffering a massive stroke, had followed his father a mere year after his death, Gren always privately thought she never quite recovered from her heartbreak at his father’s passing.
Now he begun to understand how heartbreak might begin to feel, as he tried to envisage a world without the woman he adored, and they did adore each other, Marisol and him, loved each other as purely as true equals could, always had.
He shook his head as he thought to himself how Doug, John, and all his other friends simply couldn’t understand how that could be, how you could be both best friends with a woman and lovers too and all the richer for it, so set in their ways were they, so unable to express their emotions he almost felt sorry for them.
It had never been an issue of who wore the pants like his friends mocked, he thought angrily, that was mere shallow thinking from narrow minds, he had just loved her for all that she was, and their relationship had always been a shelter, a haven for them both, each drawing strength from the other.
He sometimes thought to himself in the early hours of the morning as the blue light filtered through the flimsy curtains of the cottage, as he held her in his arms stroking her curls, that if only everyone in the world could love someone so purely and completely like this that everything would be right somehow.
“I love you Marisol, I’ll never leave your side I swear it,” he’d promised her fiercely, as he’d held her, tears threatening to fall from his eyes as he struggled to reign in his emotions. He couldn’t imagine life without her, didn’t want to contemplate the prospect.
They hadn’t had children, hadn’t wanted or needed them so they just, hadn’t, though they had discussed the subject thoroughly some years previously, heads bent close to each other, and that was another thing his friends couldn’t understand, thinking a woman who didn’t want a child rather unnatural.
He couldn’t comprehend what they had against her, she’d always been so civil to them, had lived her whole life since leaving the army to settle with him in his little cottage by the coast being kind, loving, helping people out whenever they needed it.
When the roof of John’s cottage had been damaged by the storm that had hit some five years back, he remembered how Marisol had helped re-thatch it, he remembered too how she’d organised a fundraiser for Doug’s youngest, for the eye operation she needed, and how she’d always made everyone who ever visited the cottage feel welcome.
He didn’t want to understand what it was about her that bothered his friends quite so much especially not now, not when she was lying there like this, it made him too angry, he thought bitterly.
Gren took another heavy drag of the cigarette he was holding between his lips as he regarded the grey sky, taking a good swig of the measure of brandy after, no, life could surely not be possible without Marisol?
He didn’t want to exist in a world where it was every man for himself and the bodies of children in the streets were regarded as nothing more than something to merely step over, where slowly, every day, life was suffocating you slowly and it was becoming harder to remember quite what it meant to be human.
Something about her words last night nagged at his consciousness though “Live….I want you to see the sunset..” she had whispered but would it really be living without her, did life mean anything without her, he wondered.
The thought came to him then, and, as if he had suddenly decided on something, he nodded to himself, taking a last drag on the cigarette before discarding it, grinding it into the dust with the heel of his boot and making his way to the little metal shed, where before the darkness, he had kept the tools and kit he used to work in the garden.
He fiddled with the catch, the door wasn’t locked, and he swung it open with a creek, holding a hand up to his eyes to protect them from the dust that spiralled upwards, disturbed by his entrance.
He stepped inside and looked about, trying to remember where he’d put it, then spying something he bent low to a tattered cardboard box that seemed full of fertilizer bottles and other assorted garden junk, and began to rummage.
Finding what he was looking for he tucked a small bottle inside his jacket and turned to go back into the house with one look to the darkening sky, as he noted that what there was of the day would soon be drawing to a close.
Walking quickly through the kitchen, he took the bottle of brandy from the countertop and tucked that under his arm as he made his way into the bedroom to where Marisol lay. Placing the now drained glass on the wooden table by the side of the bed he kicked off his boots and climbed into bed with her, placing a kiss on her parched, dry lips, as he laced his arms tightly around her thin frame.
She moved ever so slightly then, as if she were conscious of his presence and a faint smile crept across her lips as her eyelids flickered open just a little.
“I was waiting for you” she murmured , smiling at him as he held her tight, unable to speak, and hardly daring to breathe, the only sound in the room being that of Marisol’s own ragged breathing until finally, after a long low rattle, that too was no more and she lay motionless in his arms.
He stayed like that for a while, just holding her as the light in the day drained away, until finally only one last lone ray remained, stubbornly piercing the little window pane that he stared through blankly.
Gren leaned across to pick up the brandy bottle, and uncap it, pouring some into the glass before slipping his hand inside his jacket and removing the little bottle, uncapping that and pouring a healthy measure, before taking Marisol’s hand in his own, as he watched the window.
Just then the thick grey clouds seemed to part just a fraction and he glimpsed the sun, a glorious ball of hazy red, as bright as Marisol’s curls and so vibrantly beautiful that the sight almost took his breath away, as it slowly sunk into the horizon, taking the last of the light with it.
Gren sighed to himself as he bent to kiss Marisol on the lips.
“Oh you were right as usual my darling, that sunset most certainly was worth seeing” he whispered to her, tenderly, as if she could still hear him.
Then, lifting the glass swiftly to his lips he drained the contents, the inevitable agony that coursed through his body as the poison made him convulse, eventually subsiding in to numbness as his consciousness began to dim. He smiled as he saw her face.
“You came.” She spoke the words, her hands reaching out for him.
“I did my darling. I promised you I would never leave you remember?” She smiled and it seemed to light up even the farthest corners of his consciousness.
“Come with me Gren,” was all she said, as she extended her hand, and gladly he took it, his very last conscious thought Marisol’s face smiling at him before his world went black.
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Death, loss and pain are something that come to all of us, they have been called great levellers, common experiences we all share. We experience them in many guises, for cruelty, love, jealousy or even kindness, as the protagonists in this collection of five short stories discover. In BEING ZOE, Cat must decide how best to shield her secret obsession from a hurtful truth, but how far will she go to protect the girl she's admired from afar for so long? In GOING TO MISSOURI, on a lonely road, two travel companions indulge in idle chatter though only one will make it out alive. LOGICAL depicts a lonely world of a writer with only robots for companionship. But are his artificial friends as benign as they seem? In THE GOOD SAMARITAN, Mary's desperate to find a solution to her predicament but doesn't expect tragedy to provide the solution to her prayers. And in the title story, THE LAST SUNSET, as his love Marisol lies dying in her bed while a post apocalyptic world smoulders, Gren has time to observe the beauty of the setting sun and think about what the end might mean.