A stand-alone short story I wrote a little while ago; I submitted it to some magazines, but it didn’t get accepted, so I thought I’d share it here.
* * * * *
They went down to the river, like they usually did when the others were fighting. The flat was too small for the four of them at the best of times, but tensions and quarrels would escalate faster than a spark in a powder keg. And it was mostly the other two; when they fought it was a whirlwind and these two knew they would only get hurt if they stepped into it. So they left.
“Who do you think’s right this time?” asked the one with the fierce eyebrows, abandoning shoes and socks and running into the water.
The one with the sad eyes shrugged. “Don’t make me pick. We’ll just end up rowing and then where will you go?”
“Upstream, I guess.” The one with the eyebrows picked up a rock and threw it in that direction. “Or maybe down. Where d’you think the river goes down to, anyway?”
“I dunno.” A sigh. “What does it matter?”
“It must go somewhere. Why does it go there?”
“It’s just nature, y’know. It’s not like it chooses.”
“How do you know? I think it might.” The one with heavy eyebrows climbed on top of a boulder on the shore and began hurling more stones.
The other one shrugged again, not in the mood for any sort of debate. “Maybe.”
A wind whipped up, carrying the smell of petrol and coal. The sad-eyed one glanced back at the ragged city skyline. The clouds above it were darkening.
There was no real day or night in these parts; clouds permanently covered the sky, veiling the city and the surrounding wilderness in a dull sulky grey light twenty-four hours of the day.
They had grown up in this environment, however, and unlike their parents’ generation could sense changes even in the grey. The smell of rain on the wind confirmed that this was the approach of a storm, not nightfall.
“Rain,” said the one with sad eyes.
“Gah,” the other’s eyebrows turned down even more. “Leavin’ us stranded out here ’n’ all. I’ve got a right mind to go back and punch the lot of them.”
“We have the trees.”
“Nah, we’d get our feet wet walkin’ back and us without heat ’n’ all. Let’s go into town.”
So they returned back across the field and into the maze of concrete and steel. It was a new town, built after the invasion and retreat of the Third Reich in the forties. Its narrow streets meandered and sometimes led to nowhere at all, buildings were veritable patchwork quilts of materials and the whole thing was, objectively, an eyesore.
But this was the only place they had ever known, so they were none the wiser.
“What if we moved out?” asked the one with the eyebrows suddenly.
“I mean, why shouldn’t we?” Eyebrows continued vehemently, as if the other had opposed it. “Just because we work together doesn’t mean we all have to live together, right?”
“No,” said the other slowly, “But it’d be hard to find another place, is all.”
“‘Is all’? Would you leave if you could find a place?”
The one with sad eyes stopped. “Um—”
“I—I dunno. It depends, like.”
“Depends on what, like?”
“Just—just situations, like, y’know.”
“Are you happy living in the flat or not?”
This stopped the one with the fierce eyebrows.
Several minutes of silence followed.
“I don’t know.”
Several more beats of silence.
“S’pose we offed that couple next door,” suggested the one with the eyebrows. “Then we could take their flat and we wouldn’t have to commute, like.”
The one with sad eyes looked over, aghast.
“I’m just sayin’.”
They passed under a brick archway jammed between two squat concrete office buildings. Thunder growled and they felt raindrops beginning to soak their hair. They scurried toward the warm glow of a coffee shop down the street.
The bell dinged softly as they entered.
“’Allo, yez lot, what’ve you got?” The woman behind the counter greeted them.
The one with the fierce eyebrows stepped forward, rummaging through a leather bag and a myriad of coat pockets before unearthing a pack of slightly crushed crisps and a ball of twine. The woman inspected them.
“That’ll get ye each a black tea, luvs.”
The sad-eyed one stuck a hand in a pocket and pulled out a candle stub.
The barista accepted it. “And some milk, then.”
She poured out tea into two cracked plastic cups and splashed milk with practiced carelessness into each.
They took their drinks and found a window corner.
“You were savin’ those candles,” remarked the one with fierce eyebrows.
“I like milk with me tea, y’know,” The sad-eyed one shrugged.
The one with fierce eyebrows and a hard face said nothing in return, but drank the tea and preferred it with milk as well.
They sat and watched the rain fall for a while. Suddenly Eyebrows leaned forward. “See that?” The barest mutter.
The other looked. A thin line of smoke was rising over a brick wall across the forsaken carpark.
“The peat women are back,” Eyebrows hissed, already downing the last of the tea. “Let’s go.”
“But it’s raining,” said the sad-eyed one, slightly confused.
“Who cares? If we go now, we might actually get something good.” The one with the eyebrows stood and strolled out the door, followed hesitantly by the sad-eyed one. Once they were on the sidewalk, however, they scampered silently behind the coffee shop and scaled the back wall. They slunk along until they came to a patch of chicken wire in the brick wall. The one with fierce eyebrows lifted it up and the sad-eyed one rolled underneath.
They were now on the same side of the wall as the smoke. The pair crouched behind hills of soil and refuse, listening to the creaking chatter of the peat women as they unloaded the results of their scavenging trip.
The one with fierce eyebrows was also the stealthier of the two, so that one slipped forward across the lot while the other followed slower, watching, ready to give the alarm.
Eyebrows reached the edge of the rubbish heaps, where the dumped material was fresh. Silent fingers reached and grasped, retreated safely. Reached again.
The sad-eyed one hissed a warning, but too late. A rolling pin came down hard on the slinking knuckles.
“What you doin’ now, eh?” A bent old peat woman shook the rolling pin.
“Aw now, gran, you don’t need all of this, do you?”
“Don’t give me none o’ that. Your kind been robbin’ old women blind since you was born. Didn’t your ma teach you no respect? Eh? You and your little friend there?”
“Don’t drag me into this,” muttered the sad-eyed one.
“No,” said the one with eyebrows dark as stormclouds, honestly. “Don’t you have any sympathy for the younger generation?”
“It’s a hard world, luv. Don’t got sympathy for no one but meself.” She held out a hand. “Now, give ’em here.”
The one with those dark eyebrows looked at her with flinty eyes in a face as cold as the underside of a stone.
The one whose eyes were as sad as the wind and soft as summer coughed.
The other glanced over. Flinty eyes wavered.
One of the other peat women let out a rising whistle. Every person in the lot startled.
A fog was creeping down the street.
“Okay, gran, take yer rubbish.” Eyebrows shoved it into her hand and leaped up. Sad Eyes followed. They bolted out of the lot and across the street.
“Stay safe, young ’uns!” the woman called.
They waved before disappearing into the row of houses across the street.
Crouching against the cold tiles of the front hall, the pair waited, breathless. The one with sad eyes sniffed.
“I don’t like this.”
“Then keep it down!” Eyebrows peered over the windowsill. The fog had already covered the street. Through its thick gritty haze, shapes loomed. One after another, until there was a whole parade moving down the road in a drifting, disinterested way. Their forms, human-like, slopped and shivered with each step, threatening to dissolve and return to the fog. Somewhere a bell tolled sonorously, warning the return of the plague fog, but besides that there wasn’t a single sound.
The sad-eyed one sniffed again. The scent of blood was unmistakable.
“We need to go. Now.”
“We can’t go outside with the fog—”
The boards creaked on the floor above them. They froze. Footsteps padded overhead.
Something rolled thunderously down the main staircase. It tumbled to the bottom and skidded across the tiles.
It was an unsettlingly long, shine-white bone.
They stared at each other, and then stared at the bone. Overhead the floor squeaked again.
“Okay,” whispered the one with fierce eyebrows. “Let’s get out of here.”
Sad Eyes pointed down the far end of the front hall, past the stairs. As quietly as they could, they scuttled to the back end of the house, a small cold kitchen. Through the window they could see that the plague fog had not come down this street.
Time was not their friend, however. Eyebrows quickly and carelessly picked the lock of the back door and they flung themselves into the street, slamming the door behind them.
Both of them knew the city in exquisite detail, and neither needed to state that their flat was only several blocks over. The row completely forgotten in the face of the plague fog, they raced toward the only assured safe spot.
The fog rolled on, unhurried.
Leaping up the stairs of their building, the sad-eyed one jammed the keys in the door with shaking fingers. The hard-faced one danced with impatience.
The door swung open. Eyebrows bounded up the stairs while the sad-eyed one locked, bolted and double-bolted the door. Noticing the other had stopped on the landing, Sad Eyes joined and looked up.
The sounds of a vicious row clattered down from their flat. Eyebrows sighed.
“Probably didn’t notice the plague fog,” remarked Sad Eyes.
“Probably didn’t notice we had left.” A biting, bitter note.
“Would you rather be back outside?”
“No.” The one with dark eyebrows sighed again and slid to the floor. “It’s a real drag, bein’ afraid to go into yer own flat.”
“I’m tired of not feeling home anywhere I go, like.”
“I’m tired of likin’ ’em sometimes and hatin’ ’em others.”
“So why don’t we leave?”
“Because there’s the fog right outside our door.”
“I meant after—”
“I know what you meant. Don’t you get it? If it’s not the fog, it’ll be something else. It’s a hard world and we’ve gotten by so far livin’ like this. We’ve survived because of each other. All four of us. We know we’re as safe as we’ll ever be here, and if we leave we might never find that again. So we stay.”
The hard-faced one looked up at the sad-eyed one in surprise. “You’ve been thinkin’ about it, then.”
The sad-eyed one shrugged, looking surprised as well by the outburst and more than a little embarrassed.
“Maybe you have something there. But—is it worth it, in the end?”
“I dunno. I feel the same way you do, I really do. It’s just—we still owe ’em some, y’know? We’ve been through so much like, I—I think we should give them another chance. They’re still our friends, like.”
A contemplative silence.
“Well, I s’pose one more chance wouldn’t be the end of the world,” said the one with the fierce eyebrows. “Just to see if it’s really worth it. But one more row like this and I’m walkin’ straight into the fog just to get some peace and quiet.”
The one with sad eyes grinned and the one with the eyebrows smirked back.
“So. Ah. You goin’ into the flat, then?”
“Er, y’know, I think stairs are really underappreciated today. You can see a lot of the world from stairs…”