Burnt: Fading Opportunity

Eden Mustafa was getting the bus to work today. She was getting the bus to work because earlier in the day, her car had been repossessed. Her car had been repossessed because her ex-boyfriend had stopped paying for the car insurance, and her ex-boyfriend had stopped making the payments because Eden had stopped answering his calls.

The bailiffs’ knocks woke her up. She sat up, yesterday’s clothes falling off the quilt onto the floor, and looked out of the window. Two men in black uniforms stood on her doorstep, and behind them, a tow truck was backing into her driveway. She didn’t bother to go down. She didn’t have anything to say and she didn’t have the energy to listen either.  She lit a cigarette and watched them pick the car up and drag it away. Some light entertainment before she fell asleep again.

So now she was at the bus stop at 12:45am, waiting for the night bus to drop her off at the station. Two years ago, she would have walked it. Two years ago, she could have even cycled. Two years ago, Kian would have dropped her off and picked her up again when her shift was over. Two years ago seemed like a lifetime ago now.

Across the road from the bus stop, a group of young women was sitting on a wall, eating kebabs. Skimpy outfits, Bedraggled hair, sweat-smeared makeup- Eden wondered where they were coming from. How had they ended up out here? How old were they? They didn’t seem to mind the cold, or the rest of their surroundings for that matter. They chewed and yelled and laughed and spilled things in one fluid movement. Like reflections of each other. Or shadows. One following another, over and over. Like a dance. An effortless, rythmic, life-

Eden almost missed the bus. It came hurtling down the street while she was staring at the girls and she only just put her hand out in time. The bus screeched to a halt. The driver sneered as she got on. Eden fumbled in her pocket pulled out a black wallet and tapped it against the reader.

Nothing happened.

She tapped it again.

Nothing happened.

The driver harrumphed. Eden looked down at the wallet. She flipped it open and saw her face staring back at her. It was her police badge, not her oyster card. The driver, who had been about to launch into a rant, saw the badge and calmed. He nodded her through. Eden shoved her badge into the bottom of her bag and took a seat upstairs.

 

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Earth

We were on the balcony. He was leaning on the flower box, distracted by the heat. His elbow slipped in, speckled his shirtsleeve with dirt. He brushed it off with his hands, and then the dirt was on his palms. He brushed his hands together and then the dirt was on his shoes. The whole thing was farcical and he had a silly grin on his face.

‘Smells like home.’ He said and his smile swept all the way up to the corners of his eyes.

He pushed his hands under my nose and I took a deep breath in.

It smelt like dirt.

When I smiled back, it barely reached my ears.

‘You should wash your hands,’ I said, turning away before he could see me wilt, ‘I don’t want any of that muck on my dress.’

Bracelet

He bought me a bracelet.

I looked at it. Lying in the box, glittering. Fancy, like. Expensive.

I looked at it and then I looked at him. He was looking at the bracelet, but his face was all red and he kept blinking like there was something in his eye.

I knew I had to say something but I didn’t know what to say. My hands were shaking and I thought that if I opened my mouth I might let out a sob, so I just started nodding.

So then, he started nodding.

And we both stood there nodding like that explained everything that was threatening to spill out of us and fill the room and drown us.

Nodding like two people who had just agreed on a very good deal. My heart in exchange for his.

Nodding and blinking and shaking and twinkling. Never saying any words.

They Came in Pairs II

The Uniforms asked for a table to work at, so we made our way, in a slow procession, to the kitchen. I wondered if the bare walls and minimal furniture would seem suspicious to them, given my ‘unique position’. It would have seemed suspicious to me.


According to whispers, a lot of people sold up before they disappeared, or joined the resistance or whatever else the whispers called it. They would write long, winding letters, ceremoniously pay off debts, delete profiles, close accounts, return all their library books. According to whispers, it was all so romantic, so noble. Only the brave would have the willpower to kiss their children one last time. To give their lovers long, lingering looks that could turn ‘bereft’ into ‘proud’.

But I know those whispers are not true. People would just walk out of the door and not come back. Leave a lot of things behind and not come back. Leave everything behind; their family, their friends, their jobs, their soon to be spouses and not come back.


In the kitchen, The One I Did Not Know set himself up at the table, pulling out tools for my submission from his many pockets as I sat opposite, waiting to be probed. The One I Did Know stood behind him at the counter. This did not seem like protocol. Granted every spot check I’d had in the past was in the company of others, but we would be expected to stand while the Uniforms examined us.  I didn’t believe he was doing it to be vigilant. I could tell from the way he would not meet my eyes that he was nervous. Or was it shame? He must have met a lot of old friends along his travels. How many had he sent in for ‘rehabilitation’? It had to be shame he was feeling. To stand in a spot you’d stood in so many times before, laughed and joked before, but now as a bagman could only fill you with shame. But was it the shame of his past or shis present?

The One I Did Not Know produced a cotton swab from his pocket.

Open up.

Aren’t you supposed to ask me if I consent to you taking a DNA sample?

Well, really. I thought we were past all that.

Past the law?

The One I Did Not Know smiled a tight smile. The One I Did Know shook his head quickly.

When you invited us in, I took that as a willingness to be compliant. Don’t ruin it now.

I didn’t say I wasn’t going to do it, I’m just saying, why not do it properly?

You a stickler for rules?

As he asked he leaned in, his head cocked to the side.

When they involve me.

I like that. 

He took hold of my chin and tilted it towards him.

I bet you run a very tight ship around here.

Behind him, The One I Knew braced, and I knew it was because The One I Did Not Know was not talking about my home.


For the longest time, I had no idea what was happening. I’d been there that night, I’d seen him, I’d spoken to him, but none of it made sense. I went over it and over it in my head.

He said he was going on a work trip. Last minute. Had to leave right away.

I knew something was off, given the way he was packing.  He was usually so careful. Even when he was stressed, he had this level-headed control about him- It was one of the things I loved about him. But that night, he rushed from room to room, tucking things under his arm, such random things too. He picked up the first bag he saw, an old laundry bag we had from when the washing machine broke down and we had to ferry our dirty clothes up and down the high street. It was covered in dust and one of the arms was torn. He didn’t even notice, just shoved his things inside.

And there was nothing I could do. He said he had to go, and I trusted him. I had no reason not to trust him. So I just stood aside and watched him.

When are you going to be back?

I don’t know. Could be a couple of days, could be more. 

He turned to me then. Looked me right in the eyes.

I’ll call you. 

Call me. Call me? We never called each other. We’d never left each other’s side long enough to warrant a call. Even when he was at work we were constantly in contact. One time, he forgot his keys and I was asleep so I didn’t hear him knocking. Instead of calling me, he climbed next door’s fence and broke a window.

It was all so wrong but I just didn’t think- I had no reason to think he wouldn’t come back.

I had no idea everything he’d told me about himself up until that point was a lie.


I didn’t like the way The One I Did Not Know gripped my jaw. I didn’t like the way he lingered with the cotton swab. I didn’t like how far into my mouth he reached with it. I didn’t like the way he stared into my eyes as he did it. I didn’t like the way The One I Did Know was shifting about from one leg to the other like he was standing on hot coals. Like he had something he wanted to say or do, but couldn’t. And I did not like the fact that I was alone with these men and they had all the power.

I could feel all the hairs on my body rise. This was not the time or the place, but when you feel threatened your body reacts involuntarily. They call it fight or flight. And my body fought in a way that made me a threat, that earned me the tags that broadcast to the world that I was not like everyone else. If this was a test then I was about to fail it.

I tried my best to stay calm. Tried to remember all the letters of the greek alphabet, to tap out the national anthem in morse code with my feet. I clenched my fists, digging my nails into my palms and tried to focus on-

Oh, of course.

Now it made sense.

The Neighbour. Why I was so focussed on the Neighbour.

The Neighbour was-

Holy shit, who was he?

 


I called him every day that week. No answer.

After that, I called his mum. She had no idea where he was.

After that, I called his workplace. No one knew what I was talking about. Worse still they didn’t know who I was talking about.

After that everything merged into one long, terrible blur. I know that I called him a lot. I know that I cried a lot. I know that his sisters came round. I know that his mother asked for the engagement ring back. I know that, all the while, The Neighbour would come out into his garden and smoke a cigarette at the same time I would go outside to smoke a cigarette. Every day, without fail, we would stand facing each other, without saying a word.

By the time I started looking through his stuff, I wasn’t upset anymore. I was angry. I know that when I’m angry, I give off pulses. People like me, it’s how we can sense each other, warn each other before we snap.

So while all of that was happening, while I tore through folders, and spent hours trying to guess passwords, and searched name after name, The Neighbour knew what I was. He was spying on me. He had ratted me out.


Almost done here. Just need to make sure you don’t have any illegal devices in the house. Do you have anything to declare?

No.

Well then, this should be nice and quick.

It was the way he said it. It was the way he smiled. I’d been in situations like this before, situations where something was going on that I was somehow not a part of but also the main event for. The One I Did Not know stood up and stretched.

Care to show me around?

It’s not a big place, I’m sure the two of you can figure it out.

But it’d be quicker if you came with me. Make sure I can get into everything.

I looked at The One I Did Know. He swallowed but didn’t say anything, wouldn’t look at me. I’d seen him like this once before. When he’d stood on the steps of my parent’s house and told me that his mum had died, and he didn’t have any shoes on. I knew I was going to have to go with the other one. And I knew if he tried anything, I would have to defend myself. I unclenched my fist.

Fine.

Lovely.

 

I drew back my chair slowly.

I really don’t suggest we split up.

The One I Did Know spat it out as though he were yelling after someone who was about to go over a cliff. It wasn’t clear which one of us he was warning, though. His partner turned around, a little irritated.

Why not?

Well, she- Have you checked her clearance level?

Are you worried I won’t be able to take her? I’ve had worse.

We have to check it. It’s protocol. I can’t risk her- can’t risk you getting into danger.

His eyes darted between us. He was stalling.

Make it quick.

The One I Did Not Know stood over me while we waited, looking me up and down. The One I Did Know fumbled with his scanner. His partner grew impatient.

What’s taking so long?

It’s not working.

What do you mean?

The Scanner. Hold on. Maybe if I change the batteries.

His hands were shaking. It should have made me feel better that he was trying to help, but it didn’t. Seeing how nervous he was, how angry his partner was getting, was only making me feel worse. I didn’t want to give anything away, but behind my eyes, my head was swimming and I could feel myself slipping out of control.

I’ll do it. 

The One I Did Not Know pulled his scanner out of his pocket and started fiddling with the buttons. He was distracted and if I was going to act, now would be a good time. I glanced at the One I Did Know. Beads of sweat sat on his brows. He couldn’t save me. But I knew he wouldn’t stand in my way either. I parted my lips, about to pour poison in his partner’s ears, when the doorbell rang.

It scared me.

I’ll get it.

It came out in a whisper as I rushed out of the room.

I flung open the door, ready to run into the street.

But I wouldn’t get that far.

It was The Neighbour.

And he held a finger to his lips.

They Came in Pairs

When I opened the door there was two of them. One of them I had never seen before, but the other I knew. Or had known once. He didn’t acknowledge me, his lips were downturned and his jaw was tense, as though he was scared that if he so much as smiled everyone would know what had passed between us. Know what I was, and what kind of man he really was beneath his uniform.

I wasn’t the only one getting a visit. I could see, over the wall, two men in the blue uniform were scoring a neighbour’s garden, while he stood in the doorway clenching and unclenching his fist. I kept looking over at him, as the two at my door rattled through their introduction. My eyes would move from The One I Did Not Know, to the chin of The One I Did Know, to the Neighbour’s fist. Clenching and unclenching. Everyone clenching and unclenching.

Are you following?

It was The One I Did Not Know who talked the most. His badge was bigger and shinier and reflected in his high, greasy forehead.

You want to see my tag.

Wrist first, then tag. If you’d be so kind. 

He smiled and I noticed his mouth was full of long thin teeth.

I stretched my left arm out and pulled up the sleeve of my jumper. The One I Did Not Know pulled out his handbook to work out what the symbols that snaked up my arm meant. So they were new to the job. There was nothing worse than dealing with a uniform wearing a baton that he hadn’t had a chance to use yet.

The One I Did Know cracked momentarily. I could almost see the cogs turning as his eyes drifted from my wrist to my hand. I wasn’t wearing my engagement ring anymore. And if I wasn’t wearing that then-

Like I said, it was momentary. His eyes went from my wrist to my hands to my eyes and then to the wall behind me so quickly, I don’t think he even realised he’d done it. I only noticed because moments like this always pass by slower for me. You have to be slow and careful. One mistake and-

Well. It seems we’re going to have to come inside.

I blinked slowly as he closed his handbook.

We believe you may be at risk of radicalization, given your…unique position. May we?

I don’t really have a choice, do I?

Of course, you do. We could either do this the easy way or-

He smiled again and I could see that his thin teeth stretched on infinitely.

The longer way.

He didn’t elaborate. He didn’t need to. We all know what the long way is. I glanced at the neighbour one last time. He was staring right back me. I stepped aside as he began to mouth something to me. But The One I Know closed the door before I could catch the rest of it.