She wandered through the faceless crowd. The grey apparitions parting in front of her like a monochrome Red Sea. She kept her eyes down, watching the patch of concrete just in front of her feet, tracing the cracks and chewing gum scars with her vision as they ground beneath her.
She could still feel the cut of the knife against her stomach. It tugged at her, pulling harder with every step that took her further away from home. She didn’t know where she was going, but she had to break the invisible chord that led back to her single bed flat, with its blinds permanently pulled shut and its heavy, stale air.
She stepped out onto a black river and a murky blur flew in front of her with a hoot of derision. She shuffled on regardless and climbed onto the paved bank on the opposite side. Still her stomach groaned and urged her to turn back. Her lip trembled. Not here. She wasn’t going to cry here, she just had to keep going, keep pushing her feet forward until it stopped. Until it all stopped.
The current of interchangeable strangers kept flowing past, completely unaware of what was happening, of what had happened. Out of nowhere, one of them crashed into her in a flurry of limbs and swept on past without even a grunt of accusation. The force of the shadow’s shoulder had twisted her round and she suddenly found herself facing back the way she had come. For the first time since she had heard the door click behind her, she looked up. Her eyes, misted with emotion, gazed across the road and back towards her flat.
Her first step across the threshold was a distant memory, clouded by the colossal effort of every metre she had traversed. But looking back across the pitiful distance she had managed, she felt like she could still reach out and touch the handle of her door. Above, heavy dark clouds pressed down on her like thick soot suffocating everywhere but the path back to her flat.
Her stomach gave another stab of accusation, and tried to coerce her to return. She pressed a hand to the curve of her belly, as if trying to staunch a gushing wound. Her foot twitched. It would be easier to walk back. She was so close, she would be in her bed again before she knew it, in the dark and alone. Her foot twitched again and she squeezed her eyes shut, a tear swelling up and trickling down her cheek.
She had to cut the chord, she had push and keep going. She had to push. With her eyes still firmly shut, she turned slowly round on the spot, her home gaping at her back.
The effort it took for that next step could have moved mountains. It could have stopped wars and cured disease, but she made it, despite a tremble surging through her body. With her vision back, once again, on the dirty concrete, she continued her journey. She didn’t know where she was going, but her feet seemed to have a route mapped out. Across another road, stumbling and stuttering between a line of cars, and left through an alleyway onto another street.
The dark brooding clouds above started to drop their tiny wet offspring, slowly at first but then with increasing vigour. Soon the pavement had become slick with water and her face was damp. The droplets mixed with her tears, encouraging more to run down her face. At least no one could see she was crying. Her hand was still nursing the scar on her stomach. Pressing and pawing at it through her jumper. She wished she could dig it out, remove the guilty line that burned her soft young skin.
Her feet had stopped. She hadn’t realised and had no idea how long she had been standing in the middle of the pavement with the anonymous crowd of pedestrians silently breaking around her. They were all hurrying in the rain. They all had places to be, but she knew she was where she was meant to be. She pulled her eyes up from the floor again and blinked into the swirling raindrops. She knew where she was. The scar on her stomach screamed at her, she wanted to run but the effort of the walk had sapped her muscles to hollow, empty shells.
She let out a splutter of emotion and coughed as her lungs tried to suck in all the world’s air at once. Her legs buckled and she collapsed to her knees, unaware of the dirty puddle that instantly started to impregnate her trousers. Before her towered the hospital. Still the masses of unknowable people walked round her as if she were no more than an empty crisp packet.
She started to claw at her jumper, scratching through the flimsy material against her scar. Her breathing was shallow and rapid and her eyes were running like rivers, the water breaking out of her as if from a burst damn. She tried to say something but her mouth could only encircle silent words.
Finally a passing shape resolved themselves into a person as they knelt down in front of her. His face, full of concern and reassurance, looked into her own hollow, empty eyes. She grabbed at the hand that he was proffering toward her shoulder and thrust it against her stomach. She looked at him, her eyes wide and pleading, yet distant and unfocused.
“Put him back in me,” she managed through spluttering convulsions, “put him back and everything will be OK.” She forced his hand tighter to her stomach. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. Just put him back, I want him back now.” Her voice finally gave way and her head drooped on her shoulders. One last quiet whisper escaped her lips, “Please give him back,” and then she let the stranger’s hand slide off her stomach and the world once again closed in around her.