Aimée hung her head and sighed. Where had it all gone wrong? She’d tried to be a cosmopolitan woman, and when that didn’t work she took refuge in sex on the beach next to a blue lagoon. That was possibly unwise and in any case ultimately unfulfilling. Manhattan was hardly any better.
Damn all men, and damn one man in particular with his easy smile and warm, gentle hands. She couldn’t forget and she refused to cry.
Though a couple of painkillers helped a little, there was one more thing she could try that might cradle her broken body and ease her suffering. She raised a shaky hand.
I suppose you’d call me soft-hearted. I can’t bear to see any creature suffer. Though I normally keep pretty much to myself, preferring to observe from a distance, something about this one called out to me. He was wary of me at first, and cried but that was to be expected. Distress makes anyone skittish, so I held him tighter to make him feel more secure.
He looked like a Matthew, so that’s what I called him.
I had to quiet him down. It was for his own good and people were staring, judging me. The nice checkout girl understood why I had to rush through buying his things, but once I got him home he was even worse. He kicked and screamed like a wild thing. Those were the difficult days but I knew it would be worth persevering, for both of us.
I’m pleased to say he settled into his new home after a while. Now he sits where I put him and stares at the wall. I’m not sure of his actual birthday, so we’ll celebrate the anniversary of the day he came home with me.
He’s such an obedient, quiet little boy. She didn’t deserve him, but I’m going to give him everything a mother should.
I grew so tired of those comments by everyone from my mother to well meaning strangers at the supermarket, that I decided to go further. I practically lived in that tattoo shop, getting unique designs from the enigmatic artist. We’d agree on a design and he’d get to work. He never spoke, so I put on headphones and drifted away.
When it came to the last bare patch on my arm, he finally said something.
“I will do this one free. Since you are my best customer.”
“Sweet! I think I’d like—”
“No. I choose. I know what is best for you.”
I shrugged and let him decide, after all ink isn’t cheap and I had a lot of it.
He wrapped it without letting me see. “A surprise for you.”
At home I gasped when I saw it. A woman’s face, so perfect and beautiful in miniature, it was incredible. Everyone commented on it, and I didn’t mind.
Life got hard. I made a wrong turn here and there. Had to change, just to get by. One day I thought the face looked different, but it was just a trick of the light. That night I tossed and turned, a voice stuck in my head reminding me of stuff I’d done. So what, we all have to survive, right?
Gradually the face changed, until it scowled in permanent, terrifying disapproval.
I went back to Spilled Ink but it was gone. Every night the face taunted me with my sins, daring me to do better. When I didn’t listen, she woke the other tattoos up. Flowers turned decayed and nasty smelling. The tiger clawed my back and attacked my lucky rabbit, the stars burned my skin, and the skeleton rattled its bones until sleep was a distant memory. I’d had enough.
I stole enough money to visit another shop. The new artist wouldn’t shut up about the quality and artistry of my ink, especially the face that was somehow beautiful again. I had to pay double for what I wanted, but finally it was done.
I thought covering up would be the answer.
She shouted even louder from behind the crosshatched pattern that obliterated her face. “I can’t see! I can’t see!”
Now I hold a knife to my arm, crying. I want it off me.
She says I’m weak, that I’ll never do it, she’ll never let me forget I blinded her.
“Tattoos are permanent,” she reminds me.
So… how deep must I cut to be sure?
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They say schooldays are the best days of your life. I really hope they aren’t, because if you peak then, what do you have to look forward to? Real life isn’t like high school. Nobody cares that you were the team captain or homecoming queen.
All that stuff they fill your head with is next to useless. When did you last use calculus or algebra in real life? No, if I have kids I’ll make sure they learn practical skills. Oh and they’ll play sports of course, to foster a competitive spirit and the ability to keep swinging until the game is won.
I broke the record for home runs in my last baseball season. I kept the lucky bat I used, which actually is quite useful now. Turns out school was good for something after all. I take a loose, easy stance and hold the grip firmly but not too tight.
You couldn’t trust anyone, not even your own family, once we realised that they were manipulating humans using mind control. It was quite by accident that I found out brain freeze could block the telepathic waves. I’ve learned to love the pain of frozen margaritas, which is good news.
The bad news is, I’m too drunk to walk and this bar just ran out of tequila.
Ethan looked around furtively, making sure he was alone. There was no sign of Dalia but his girlfriend could sneak up on him like some kind of ninja when she wanted, and he was in no mood for another fight.
“I’ll wash up,” he called out.
Her muffled reply came from the bedroom. “Thanks babe.”
There was really nowhere to hide in their rented flat. They’d agreed it was fine for a start, even though it was more like one and a half bedrooms than two. But three years later their future was still on hold until they could save enough for a deposit on a place of their own. How did people manage without a big salary or generous parents?
He never got used to the disappointment but he couldn’t give up hope either. With a sigh he tore the scratch card into tiny pieces and dropped them into the bin, before scraping the leftovers from his plate on top. Maybe next time.
Monday came much too soon. Even worse, he had another packed lunch instead of something tasty from the sandwich truck like everyone else. Bills were increasing and his next review was months away. There was no chance of Dalia getting a pay rise either. None of this made his sad ham sandwich and own brand crisps look any more appetising. He sighed.
“Lunch al desko again?”
Ethan looked up at the familiar face of his colleague. “Yeah. Sacrifices must be made for the greater good and all that.”
“I get it.” Anna looked around, then stood closer. “I’m popping out. D’you want your usual?”
“Don’t know, things are tight.” Ethan couldn’t look Anna in the eye, couldn’t explain he wanted – no, needed this and there seemed no other way to do it. “Only have five.”
Anna murmured, “No worries, I’m short this month as well. Wanna split?”
Ethan risked a glance and found Anna was smiling. She knew where he was coming from. He extended his hand and they shook solemnly.
“Fifty fifty. It’s a deal.”
At two o’clock Anna rushed up to his desk, pulling on her coat.
“I gotta go, Jason just threw up all over the childminder.” She grimaced and dropped the card on his keyboard. “Not what I need. Hope you have better luck.”
“Thanks, hope he’s okay,” he called after her. He slipped the card into his wallet and got back to work. There was no way he’d risk his manager catching him slacking. He needed that promotion.
That evening Ethan slumped on the sofa after sliding a frozen shepherd’s pie into the oven. He rolled his tense shoulders but it didn’t help. Exercise would help, but his gym membership was long gone and he loathed running, no matter how evangelical his friends were about it. He sat up then, remembering the scratch card. He’d be over the inevitable disappointment before Dalia got home. The timing was perfect.
He was still sitting when he heard her key in the door.
“Hey. You’re a bit late, everything okay?”
Dalia shrugged. “Road works, bus was late, blah blah I’m over it.” She dropped her bag on the table like always and kicked off her shoes. “Is that dinner I smell?”
“Might be a bit overdone, but anyway.”
“As long as it’s edible, I don’t mind.”
Ethan brought the plates over, but could only play with his food while Dalia cleared her plate. “Can I get you a drink?”
“Drinking on a Monday, was it that bad?” She raised one eyebrow, and Ethan tried to smile back.
“No, no, things were pretty routine, mostly. I’ll open a bottle of wine—”
“What’s got into you tonight? Something happen at work?” Dalia sat up straight, brow creased in worry.
Ethan fumbled with the corkscrew as his stomach lurched. He needed to calm down.
“Ethan, stop. I don’t want wine, talk to me.”
He put down the corkscrew and bottle and came out of the kitchen to resume his seat opposite. “Sorry.”
“Ethan?” Dalia’s eyes were wide. “Tell me.”
“I know you don’t approve, but hear me out. I wanted – it’s impossible isn’t it, trying to save up—”
“Please, just listen. We’re doing everything we can, yeah, packed lunches and buses and me cycling to work in the summer so I only play once a week, and then today this happened.” He pulled the scratch card out of his pocket and pushed it across the table with a shaky hand.
“Scratch cards? Bloody scratch cards?” She flushed and raised her voice. “You know how I feel about gambling and what it did to my family. How could you?”
“Dalia please look at it.”
She snatched it up and glanced at it. Then her mouth fell open. “Is this some kind of joke?”
Ethan came to stand behind her. He pointed at the numbers. “It’s real.”
“Four M? What’s that mean?”
He whispered in her ear. “It means we won the jackpot. Me and Anna, we share four million pounds.”
Ethan wanted to scream his good news but he managed to control his voice. “I work with her, she bought the ticket. It’s a ten pound game for the big prize so we went halves.” He smiled down at Dalia but she didn’t respond. Probably in shock – he’d felt the same when he scratched off the last panel, then stared in disbelief for forty minutes.
“Say something sweetheart. We won!”
“I – it’s unbelievable. Are you – I don’t want – are you sure, Ethan. Don’t get my hopes up—”
“I’m sure, as sure as I’ve ever been. This is it, everything we ever wanted, we can have. A house, a car, anything.”
Dalia squealed and when she stood up Ethan scooped her into his arms, laughing and kissing away her tears. “We won!”
He was elated, caught up by possibility and dreams of their future as they punched the air and danced round the living room before collapsing on the sofa.
“So am I forgiven for the scratch card?” Laughter bubbled from his chest. He felt light as air and crazy but in a good way.
“Does she know?”
“No, I wanted to tell you first of course.”
“Okay. And are you in a proper syndicate?” Dalia’s tone shifted to something more serious.
“Nothing formal, we agreed to split it. Why?”
“Well it’s your card isn’t it? So you’re the winner. You don’t have to say how much you won.”
“But I agreed. She paid half, so we split it equally.” He spoke slowly, his joy leaking away under Dalia’s stare.
“No legal agreement. She’ll never know.”
Ethan shook his head. “We agreed.”
Dalia scoffed. “Agreed? This is our future we’re talking about. Who is she to you anyway?”
Ethan stood and started to pace. He had to make Dalia understand and he couldn’t see the problem. “She’s a colleague, that’s all. Since I’m eating packed lunches I don’t get to the shops, so she buys my tickets.”
“How long?” Dalia snapped, her eyes cold.
“How long what?” Things were spinning out of control and he couldn’t keep up.
“How long have you been lying to me, buying tickets you know I don’t approve of with money we don’t have with some woman—”
“Can you hear yourself? Isn’t two million enough?”
“Not when you’re giving the other two to another woman. It’s the principle.”
Ethan backed away from Dalia where she sat rigid on the sofa.
“Principle. Right.” He picked up the winning card and placed it in his pocket. “No legal agreement, you say. Well we’ve got no legal agreement, have we? Three years watching every penny, eating cheap food, drinking cheap beer, all because I believed in a better future with you.”
Fear bloomed on Dalia’s face. “Ethan, I—”
“You know what, I’m glad we had this chat. I’m glad I figured you out.” Anger burned steady in his chest and he watched Dalia’s growing agitation with detachment. This person was a stranger.
“Just give her like half a million, anybody would be happy with that. Ethan, please.” She started towards him but he held up his hand. He looked past her tears and shocked expression, and he didn’t like what lay beneath.
“Anybody but you. I wonder what would be enough for you. I gave her my word and it’s the right thing to do for God’s sake. It’ll change her life too and she deserves that.” He slipped on his jacket and shoes.
“She shared her little win with me you know. That time I said I got a bonus from work, well it was a scratch win and I put it all in our savings account, like we agreed. Because I’m honest all the time, not just when it suits me.”
“Ethan don’t go, please I’m sorry I didn’t mean it.” Tears streamed down her face and she reached towards him but he moved past her. “Okay we’ll split it,” she wailed.
He paused at the door with his keys in hand.
“I used to think you were my better half. Show people some zeroes and you find out what they’re really made of.”
People watching kept me entertained while I sipped fragrant apple and elderflower tea. I always preferred observing real life to endless scrolling or playing pointless games on my phone. Most likely I’d finish before Karen turned up and bought me something sweet to make up for her perennial lateness. Carrot cake would make a delicious apology.
The loud slam of a car door startled me as the coffee shop doors opened wide. Outside a dark haired woman strode along the footpath, her frown obvious as she approached the window where I sat.
Her companion caught up in a few long strides and grabbed her wrist. She spun around and shook her hand free. She waved her hands, stabbed a finger at his chest in accusation. He shook his head, fists clenched at his sides. One or two passers-by glanced at them but they paid no attention, fully absorbed in their moment of crisis.
He opened his palms in a placatory gesture while she slumped, eyes downcast. I took another sip of tea. Only a pane of glass separated me from the drama unfolding almost within touching distance. In movies, that would be the pivotal moment. He’d beg forgiveness, she’d realise what she was losing, and they would fall into each other’s arms.
She walked away. But when he called out, she hesitated and stopped. This was it; I held my breath, ready to cheer for the triumph of love and a happy ending.
She turned around and went back to him. The wind tugged at his hair as she cupped his face between her hands. He relaxed into her kiss and reached for her at the exact moment she let go. She gave him a small, sad smile before walking away, out of sight.
The man stood rooted to the spot, touching his lips as if to hold on to her final message. He returned to his car and sat for a while before driving away.
I wondered about them even after Karen rushed in, describing her own little drama of lost keys and a broken heel that could easily be repaired. My carrot cake was too sweet, a consolation prize that left a bitter aftertaste.
Love is no fairytale. Sometimes it ends with a kiss.
God, I hate revision. Going over and over the same stuff is so boring, like spinning your wheels. I need to pass this exam though, if I’m going to get out of here. I don’t want to mess up now, when I’m so close. If I can get through this advanced astrophysics I’ll be set.
Wonder how my parents will adjust when I’m gone? I can’t afford to let that derail me though. They’ll probably be glad to have some time together without me bugging them for yet another college course, and another. I think Dad is quietly proud though he never says so. Overheard him praising me to his friend on the visilink. That just increases the pressure, but I can do this. There’s much worse to come if I’m admitted to Academy.
Diamonds are formed under pressure, Mum says. That’s all very well, but what about the carbon lumps that crumbled, the ones that didn’t make it? They ended up as dust, and nobody cares about dust. It’s unremarkable, unless it gets through the envirofilters. Then it’s important all right, something that gets in the way and spoils the balance of the atmosphere. It’s something to be disposed of.
I want to be a diamond. I want to shine bright. But first I have to ace this test, and I can’t ask Ansel for help again. He thinks he’s so great at cosmology, and he is. That’s my weakness, but space physics and high-energy astrophysics are my playgrounds, plus dad’s tutored me in some biotech. Ansel doesn’t know that. Nobody really knows what’s out there, or what skills we’ll need. It’s best to diversify. Ansel never asks for my help. He underestimates me.
If I get in to Space Academy I’ll have to leave my home. If I graduate I’ll have to leave the planet that’s my home. I don’t know how to feel about that, but staying here, relying on envirofilters and a dying planet, is not an option. When they ask I’ll tell them yes. I’m ready to move beyond the red clouds.
Must be time to give up, the lights are on which means it’s dark outside. Mum said that before the Dustbowl era, residences had windows you could look through and open. What madness. How could you possibly maintain atmospheric homeostasis and structural integrity? What was there to see?
It should be okay to log in to the feed from Voyager 27 now. One day I might be orbiting one of the planets it has passed so far. One day, humans might have a new home.
They say we’re made of stars, that many of the compounds needed for life arrived here on meteors. Stars seem so distant and brilliant, and our lives here on this little blue planet are miniscule and messy by comparison.
Maybe we got the bits that space didn’t want, and like a good homemaker Earth made the best of a thin selection of ingredients. And now we’re going shopping for more. Who knows what we’ll find out there.