The man in the suit is crying. I don’t know what he’s saying, as the TV is muted and the subtitles are frozen on the words “things like this that really,” but I can see his mouth moving and the tears streaming down his face. I met him once, in a different life. He’s the branch manager of the department store that, until an hour ago, occupied the ground floor of our town’s only shopping mall. Behind him, yellow-jacketed ambulance men shamble across piles of glass, through the gaping wound where the mall used to be.
Right now I’m sitting in the back room of The Ship, about two kilometres across town. It has five tables, four yellowing lamps (three working), two faded nudes and one other customer – a man with a stained burgundy jumper and the face of a serial killer. When I arrived he’d already stacked up three empty glasses, and now there are five spread across the table, a sixth half drunk in his hand. It’s a dingy, insalubrious place to spend a Saturday afternoon, but the options are limited for solo drinkers. And even if I were allowed in the front room, it’s all pensioner lunch specials, satin peonies and screaming toddlers. I’d rather take my chances with Charles Manson here.
The bartender walks through the door to the kitchen, bearing a glass of lukewarm wine on a tray. He sets it down in front of me with a brief nod of his head and walks over to the TV, which is now flashing zigzag lines across a sombre police press conference. He pulls the plug and the TV blinks off.
I pick up my phone from the table and wave my wrist across the screen. Various feeds flash up, which I skim through with half an eye. This has happened too many times for anyone to have anything original to say, least of all the media. With every atrocity they become hungrier, gnawing at the bones of suffering to sate the appetite of an audience that has become inured to other people’s pain.
The bartender plugs the TV back in, flooding the room with sickly blue light. Now there’s a political suit on the screen – the shifty type in obligatory pink shirt – urging us to be calm, not to retaliate. Nobody has claimed responsibility yet, not that that matters; whoever did this, innocent people will pay for it.
My phone lights up again, unprompted this time. I pick it up and see Kay’s name on the screen. That’s odd. Kay knows how I feel about talking on the phone.
I swipe my wrist across the screen and say, “Hello?”
Silence echoes from the earpiece. Over the next few seconds my whole body goes cold, my mind telescopes away from the words I now know, with absolute certainty, she is about to say.
“Ashley’s missing.” Her voice is so small it’s barely recognisable. “She said she was going to Kaitlin’s, but I just spoke to Kaitlin’s mum and she’s not there.”
I say, “Kay, don’t panic,” but I don’t sound like myself either. “There are lots places they could have gone.” Already I’m compiling a list: someone’s house, the park, the high street, or the mall. There aren’t that many places.
“Her mobile’s off–it’s just going to voicemail, and the locator’s been disabled. She knows she’s not allowed to do that.”
“I’m sure she’s just being a teenager.”
“She never turns her phone off.”
Now I don’t know what to say. My eyes are drawn to the TV screen, where a blonde woman is talking to the camera. She’s clutching a toddler to her chest in one arm, while gripping the hand of a fair-haired boy who sucks at a carton of juice. His face is streaked with snot and tears. “As a mother myself,” she says, “it’s things like this that really make you appreciate how lucky you are, you know?”
No, I don’t fucking know. The next second I’m on my feet, heading to the door. “Stay where you are,” I say into the phone.
“She might come home. I’ll look for her.” After a moment I add, “I’m sure she’s fine.”
Burgundy jumper man glances up at me as I head out through the door. He doesn’t look like a serial killer anymore – just a lonely, middle-aged man, washed up in a world he no longer understands.
* * *
Ashley was never meant to exist. Kay and I had a longstanding pact that neither of us would get pregnant. By the time she did, she had no choice but to go through with it. I still believe it was an accident; single parenthood carries a stigma almost as bad as non-parenthood. To this day, I have no idea who Ashley’s father is.
I wouldn’t even be here if not for Kay. I came on a two-year contract – a demotion dressed up as a transfer – that was suddenly made permanent when my replacement’s Scottish passport came through at the last minute. I was going to turn it down, take my chances back in the city, but Kay begged me to stay.
And then, all too quickly, it was too late. There are no new jobs out there for women like me. No jobs either for women who are selfish enough to have a child without a husband to take care of them. I get by on my salary, and they survive on Kay’s pitiful government allowance, though neither of these things can be taken for granted.
Ashley was born for a better world than this, and it is inconceivable that she could die in a shopping mall in this provincial shithole, barely a week before her sixteenth birthday.
* * *
I’m two glasses of wine down, well over the permitted amount of none whatsoever, but I chance the car anyway, throwing myself into the driver’s seat and pressing my wrist against the ignition port. Within seconds, an angry red warning flashes up on the car’s internal monitor. I’m not driving anywhere.
I get out and slam the door. The autolock clicks on as I stride off down the narrow pavement. The town is small enough to cover by foot, but I’m losing precious time, and I can’t shake the feeling of being punched in the gut that I’ve had ever since I heard Kay’s voice on the phone.
Where would an almost sixteen-year-old go that she felt the need to lie to her mother about? If she’d gone off somewhere with a boy then she would have called as soon as she heard about the explosion. In my day, it would have been the pub, but the legal age is 25 now, and nowhere will let you in without the Watch. Kay always resisted getting Ashley chipped before her sixteenth birthday. Next week, it’ll become compulsory.
If she had been chipped, we’d know exactly where she was, but I can’t think about that right now. Losing her never seemed like an issue; the only ones without the Watch are children and non-citizens, neither of whom can last for more than a couple of hours without getting picked up.
* * *
I don’t remember deciding to come to the mall, but I find myself standing in the middle of a slack-jawed crowd. Are they all looking for relatives or did they just come to gawp? It’s not like anyone can get close to the bombsite. It’s sealed behind a wide cordon and crawling with emergency services who appear unimpressed at having an audience but too preoccupied to move us on.
There is no way I’m getting inside. Creative pretexts are a thing of the past, and there are far too many dogs in flak jackets to just duck under the ribbon and hope for the best. I should at least ask someone if they’ve seen her. Perhaps there’s a number I can call? I briefly consider texting Kay to see if she’s heard anything, but I can’t bear the false hope it will give her for those seconds between hearing the beep and seeing my name on the screen.
“Are you missing someone, love?” asks a woman near to me.
I nod. To my horror, my eyes start filling with tears.
“Have you tried the hospital?” someone else pitches in. “They’re asking for people to go and identify…” He stops, realising there’s no good way of finishing that sentence. “You can give blood too.”
I nod again and turn away before he realises I’m crying and tries to be sympathetic, in which case I’d be forced to punch him.
“I hope you find them,” the woman calls after my back, as I stride off down the pavement. “I’ll pray for you.”
* * *
The Royal has become a scene from a disaster movie. The main approach is closed to cars, but there is a constant stream of ambulances, a cacophony of sirens. I keep expecting to be stopped, all the way in to the main reception, but nobody even notices me.
The so-called walking wounded are staggering about in the foyer or collapsed on plastic chairs, blank-eyed and bleeding into hastily applied bandages. The rest are stretched out on beds and trolleys, screened behind flimsy curtains that are a gesture towards privacy, nothing more. There is a man dying right in front of me.
Without speaking to anyone, I turn and walk back outside, almost colliding with two men pushing a trolley. A small hand protrudes from under a white sheet. It’s too small to be Ashley’s, but I realise there’s no way I can go back inside if there’s any possibility she’s there.
It is cowardice this time, pure and simple, and I don’t know how I’m going to face Kay. I take my phone out of my bag and dial Ashley’s number. I’m not expecting an answer, but I almost start crying again when it cuts straight to the automated voice telling me that she is unavailable at the moment and I should leave her a message.
The bus station is half a kilometre from the Royal. From there I can catch a bus straight home, no changes. The better part of me knows that the bus goes directly to Kay’s house too. Perhaps the better part of me would have won, only the moment I walk into the bus station I see a girl sitting on a bench on the forecourt. She has blonde hair scraped-back like Ashley’s, and she’s sitting with her knees tucked up, the way that Ashley sits.
She looks up. It is Ashley. The wave of relief that washes over me is met by a look of abject terror, like a rabbit in a snare, poised to run, but trapped by the suffocating wire around her neck. I had no idea I could induce that look in anyone, let alone this girl I love.
“Ashley, what the hell?” I can hear the hurt in my voice.
“What are you doing here?” She glances left and right, as though expecting someone – Kay, presumably – to appear from behind me.
“Looking for you, idiot. You mum’s going out of her mind.”
“Don’t tell her where I am, OK?” She tugs the sleeves of her hoodie down over her knuckles.
“What?” This is not like her. “Are you in trouble?”
She shrugs but doesn’t answer. “Is mum OK?”
“Well, right now she thinks you’re dead, so no, she’s not OK.”
Her face crumples as the words take effect, and she wraps her arms round her middle. As always, she has underdressed for the weather, and the shivering makes her look younger and more vulnerable than she is.
“Ashley, what’s going on?”
She glances towards my wrist. “Are we being recorded?”
“No.” Then, “I don’t think so.” Intermittent random audio-surveillance is one of the conditions of the Watch, but they are supposed to give you 24 hours’ notice, unless you are suspected of a crime.
Ashley nods. “I’m leaving,” she says, quietly. “I’m getting out of here.”
So she is running away after all. “Is there a man involved?”
“No.” She pulls a face. “Well, there’s the guy who sorted me with a passport, but I won’t be seeing him again.”
“It’s all planned. I know what I’m doing.”
She really believes she does too. After a moment I say, “Scotland?”
She shakes her head.
“Not the States?” Then, when she doesn’t reply, “Seriously, Ashley, they’re shooting people at the border now. You can’t even…”
“I’d rather not say,” she interrupts. “But of course not the States.”
I reach into my bag, get out my phone.
“What are you doing?”
“Calling your mother. Like I should have done right away.”
I start skimming through the directory.
“OK,” she says quickly. “I’ll tell you, but you can’t tell anyone else.”
I put the phone down on the bench between us and look at her. She doesn’t speak straight away, and again I am stung by the realisation that all I am to her is an impediment.
“OK,” she says, dropping her voice to a murmur. “I’m stowing away to France and then overland into Spain.”
After a moment, I shake my head. “It won’t work. Spain has closed its borders and the entire French coastline is riddled with soldiers.” I look at her face again and smile. “But you know that. You’re not going to Spain.” I reach out for my phone.
“Please.” She puts her hand on my arm. “I can’t stay here. I can’t get that thing put in my wrist. I thought you would understand.”
“I do understand,” I say. And I do. I dream of leaving every day. There are pockets of sanity left across the globe – South Asia, Scandinavia – places where it’s still possible to live the kind of life you would choose for yourself. Not for me, of course. This fingernail-sized sliver of metal would alert every authority from Dover to Newcastle if I ever tried to leave. But Ashley, I’m not sure. I would have thought it impossible, but if she’s managed to get herself a passport then she’s already done the impossible.
“What will you do for money?” I ask, eventually. Without the Watch, she has no access to a bank account.
She smiles. “Don’t fret the details. It’s covered.”
I shake my head. “I wish you’d tell me.”
“I can’t. If I tell you, you’ll tell her, and then she’ll try to find me. She’ll get both of us killed.”
“I can’t keep this from her, Ashley. She’ll never forgive me.”
“She’ll never even know she needs to.”
A bus turns into the forecourt, and she untucks her legs, stands up. “You’ll just have to forgive yourself.”
I want to grab hold of her, to delay her long enough to reconsider this terrible thing she’s asking of me. Not asking, demanding.
She smiles at me. “Just try not to drink yourself to death.” Then, without another word, she turns and skips up the steps onto the bus.
I watch as it pulls out, my phone still lying on the bench beside me. I think she isn’t going to look back, but as the bus swings round, she glances over her shoulder. She has pulled down her hood so I can’t see her face, but it both heartens and frightens me, this last minute waver; she has not yet killed every vestige of feeling. She’ll need to, if she’s going to have any chance at all.
My bus comes and goes. My phone rings three times unanswered. Only when I can no longer sit on the forecourt bench without drawing unwanted attention, I get up and walk down to the road.
Traffic creeps along the A40, orange headlights glowing in the sheen of rain that covers the tarmac. It can’t be long now until curfew. A black plume of smoke still hangs over the city. And the cars keep crawling past, on their way to nowhere.
E. A. Fowler currently lives in Edinburgh, where she enjoys reading and writing speculative fiction. She has been variously a bookseller, TEFL teacher, publishing assistant, PhD student, neuropsychology researcher and information analyst. Her work has appeared recently in Lucent Dreaming magazine.
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