Awake – Short Story

“I’m awake.” She said the words quietly lest they be overheard. The words were hers, they belonged only to her. The concrete blurred through unshed tears that welled but stayed stubbornly put, pooling and collecting until the final swell tipped them over the threshold and they poured free, a single droplet and then more, and then more. She wiped at them and was almost broken from her reverie by how warm they were when the rest of her was so chilled. Yet the contact stung, the build-up of grime along her sensitive eyelid burning as it leaked past the barrier. The tears trickled along her face, settling in the line of her lips before rolling away gracefully down her chin, dripping softly off of her and on to the floor, or her or wherever they saw fit to land. She licked them from her broken skin, tasting the saltiness and savouring the feeling of life fleshing back to her dehydrated tongue and mouth and face. Sniffing she shifted her leg closer towards her body and the brittle flooring scraped along her calf and pulled at the skin, snagging through layers of filth and grease that had somehow accumulated over days or weeks of captivity, however long it had been.

A gargling rattle sounded from the opposite corner of her space and she flinched away from the sound as if it might chase her. Though rational thought was hard to grasp she reasoned that it was only the air conditioning coming to life just as it always did, though she was never warm enough to need it. The unit burbled noisily and she watched as the air steadied and carried ribbons of unclean plastic along the breeze. Mottled strips of brown tied there long ago and forgotten, perhaps as she had been for it seemed such a long time since she had seen anyone. The water in the corner was getting low, and what was left was polluted both from her and their environment that slowly reduced everything in it to matted, grey gunk, to something that had once been but no longer was. The food was pulpy and rotten and she was sick from eating eat it. Even the light above her flickered annoying, harsh fluorescence made less only by the build-up of careless insects from inside the tube. Their carcasses eroded slowly, gunging over time until they were one thick layer of tar that coated the plastic like marmite. She shifted until her back was to the outer wall and she was as far away from the fencing as she could be, in the direct centre of her prison so that no one could touch her unaware. The sound of electricity grew steady and she felt tired again, thinking as she slipped that it was funny how her cage had transformed her.

She drew in a sharp breath that dragged down her parched throat as if the very sound was embodied with claws and teeth that fought the swallow. Throwing herself upright she clutched at her head, her nails digging into her fleshy scalp in sweet torture that reminded the body of the difference between waking and sleeping. Pulling in a few more breaths she began to calm down, each successive gulp hurting less and less, getting shallower as if wading upwards from the deep end of a swimming pool. Her eyes were wide open and alert in a way that they would not have been if she awoken naturally and she looked around the room to convince herself of the difference.

This is real she thought.

“I am awake.”

Yet waking brought with it its own set of trepidations and she looked about the light bedroom warily though it was so different from the dirty cell. The white, clean walls were oddly bereft of pictures, though the fresh paint left no hint that they were missing any adornment. Instead they were solid in their colour as if awaiting a decision. She leaned forward towards her knees so that they were huddled more closely to her body and then stared through the window to the summer morning to which she had awoken. The sky was a clear, rich blue the likes of which were usually reserved for holidays to far off places and for moments she was comforted by memories of shorelines and the low level sounds of wildlife that accompanied it. She longed to hear it again and though her secluded home offered its own set of sweet sounds the birdsong was oddly muted through the glazing. Instead of moving to open the window she tried to picture them, to imagine their little feet clawing at the roof, or the trees, or the fence just out of sight. She used the imagined scenery to calm herself and as she did so she accepted her surroundings, her breathing slowly beginning to settle into a rhythm, her lungs filling and collapsing though it was still contrived, still unnatural.

She swung from the bed and approached the window, feeling that perhaps if she could really see the reality of her world then she would perhaps feel more settled, more concrete in the house. Though as she neared her destination the solidity she so desperately needed to see somehow eluded her and she felt herself pausing as her mind clutched at it and it continued to slip further and further out of her reach. Frowning she continued towards the window regardless, hoping that the morning beyond the glass would prompt the fleeing memory to return. Yet upon opening the window she was simultaneously disappointed and frightened for there was no sound out there, not breeze or chirruping wildlife awaited her but rather a muteness that hungered for something more. Once the window was released from its frame the lack of sound pulled at her like a vacuum, stealing her gasp as if it coveted the sound before rebounding back on itself to halt the motion. Released, she recoiled and backed away from the window, not closing it, not furthering the contact or disturbing the already tenuous equilibrium that had just settled between the two spaces and then left the room. Her feet caught on the thin strip of metal that separated the two rooms and it bit into her bare soles as she passed, causing her to spin awkwardly and catch herself on the door jam. The change in angle, though unfortunate for her aching instep, steadied her mind as it unhinged her body and she found herself more calmed than before. Feeling suddenly foolish she rubbed at the sore skin and looked upwards towards the window that had been so threatening only moments before. She shook her head to break the tension and expelled an exasperated breath though she was only annoyed at herself and as she stepped more calmly over the threshold she felt that there was perhaps something about the air conditioning unit the felt threatening.

Loosening the taps on the shower she watched as the cool waves of water poured down and she let run between her fingers until it was warm enough to allow her to enter. Once damp, the shower curtain clung to her legs and in her current mood it felt lecherous and intimidating and she kicked it away every time it neared. The water pooling at her feet was unwelcome and she frowned at the speckled water that leached away from her body as if she were dirty. The colour reminded her of the time she had dyed her hair a rich brown colour that nobody had approved of, though it was mottled with flecks that were inconsistent with the memory. She withdrew from the sight of it, scuttling away from the spray to the cold end of the shower and watched as the dirt continued to vanish down the plug hole, a small trail leading to her huddled form against the tile.

A shrill beeping made her jump and she quickly pushed the shower curtain to one side as she sought out the sound of her mobile ringing somewhere in the near vicinity, finding it on the edge of the sink where she did not remember leaving it. Perplexed she answered it and for seconds was frightened by the responded static that fizzled in response “Alison?” a voice said at last though it was distant and softer than usual.

“Frank?” she asked the rattled line “Frank is that you?”

“Yes it’s me,” he replied “have I caught you at a bad time?”

She paused.

“Um…yes…I’m in the shower can I call you back?”

“Yes of course, it’s nothing important. Call me when you’re free.”

“Ok, bye,” she replied and whilst frowning she replaced the phone on the sink. She wondered if she should continue with her shower but the way her mind was overreacting to everything in the empty house she thought it would be best to leave it and turned off the water even knowing that her hair would be knotty from the left over shampoo and lack of conditioner. Still, even though she did not finish the shower, she checked the water with mixed emotions and watched the stream of clear water finish and roll down towards the plughole.

She dressed quickly and to the rear of the room, away from the bare window though there was no nearby neighbour to see her state of undress and then walked to the kitchen to call Frank. The phone lay out of place on the kitchen counter, plugged in though not yet in its permanent home, sitting in a tangle of untidy wires and she dialled his number quickly as if from memory though she couldn’t recall the number before she began to type it into the keypad. He answered on the second ring and she imagined that he had been sat beside the phone, waiting for her to call him though he had told her to call him back at any time. She wondered if he was one of those people who carried their phones around in their hand as if it were too important to sit in a pocket or a bag, as if they could not live without it.

“I’m glad you called me back,” he said as he answered and she frowned a little bit at the tone of his voice that seemed overly eager.

Silence lay between them and it felt awkward as if he were standing in front of her waiting for her to speak.

“Is everything ok?” she asked eventually though she had expected him to speak, to explain what it is that he wanted.

“Yes everything’s fine,” he replied and she could tell from the tone of his voice that he was smiling.

“What was it that you wanted?” she asked, eager to push the conversation forward so that she could be free of it.

“Yes of course,” he replied as if he too had forgotten “I wondered if you’d had a chance to think about that drink?” he asked.

She held back a grimace, certain that she had already told him no.

“I’m sorry Frank I just don’t think that it would be appropriate,” she replied and she felt his smile drop though the sigh he tried to stifle.

“Is there nothing I can do to change your mind?” he asked but she had already stopped listening looking instead to her property line and the fence that encircled it. It drew her and as if responding to her time at the window her gasp came back out of her and she touched her fingers to the cool glass.

“Alison, are you ok?” Frank asked from the end of the line.

“I’m going to have to call you back,” she replied and then, not waiting for his response, hung up the phone as she leaned closer the window, trying to get a better look at the chained fencing that bordered the property. She placed the phone on the counter, not really bothered to aim it at the waiting cradle as she ought to but instead walking towards the front door and out into the yard in strides that matched her curiosity. Her uncovered feet waded through the too long grass and it caught between her toes as she walked. Arriving at the fence she coiled her fingers into the wire and frowned at the magnetism that had drawn her to it. She thought it an odd choice for such a pretty house, industrial where residential was required and she vowed there and then to have it replaced.

The corner by her left foot was loose and abused where some animal had burrowed beneath it, treating the overgrown yard like a shortcut, it’s fur snagging on the unfiled ends of the chicken wire. Then, as if embodying the very animal that had used her house as shelter, her ears pricked up in awareness and she looked about to pinpoint the source of her wariness. Though her eyes found no purchase still she felt unsettled and although she was not normally prone to fits of paranoia she allowed it to blossom inside her and she fled towards the house on nimble feet that did not feel the earth beneath them put merely synchronised with her mind as she flew passed the front door and bolted it behind her.

As if perfectly timed no sooner had she slid the lock into place then the vicious pounding began and she wondered if the door would hold. She turned from it and as if it could protect her she huddled into the alcove beneath the stairs and waited for the sound to end, the relentless banging that seemed to growl as it became more urgent and in response she whimpered.

She opened her eyes but the pounding continued and she looked up weakly to the air conditioning unit. One of the ribbons had tangled between the slats and clucked noisily above her head, she stared at it and frowned, knowing that she would never be able to reach it and make it stop. Her mouth felt dry from her dream, sticky as it did if she slept in the afternoon and she crawled towards the water in the left corner of the room. The liquid was dirty but cool on her lips as she drank. She stopped well before she was had quenched her thirst, not knowing how much longer the sparse fluid was going to last her. She curled into the wall by the water and looked through the wire to the room beyond, too dark really to make out anything other than the fuzzy shapes of stored furniture, climate controlled to protect it, perfect for wood but not for people. She had grown tired of waiting for someone to come and check on their forgotten goods.

Normally frightened of approaching the fencing she watched it curiously now, wondering what else she had to lose, what else she had to fear from the darkness and she crawled ever closer towards it until her hands coiled through the wire experimentally to see if anything bit them off. The metal felt more pliable then she remembered and she rocked on it to find it bowing to her slight weight there in the weak corner where it met the wall.

She traced it to the corner and rocked again, feeling it sag and bend with her.

Angrily she yanked at the wire and it came with her, encouraging her to pull and heave at it with what little she had left to give. She sobbed, wasting the tears and the water she couldn’t spare and before long she was warm with exertion, warmer than she had been in days or weeks, or however long it had been. Soon she had a gap that was barely big enough for animal and she knew then that she would not have been able to fit through if she had found the weakness when she still had the strength. She lay flat to her stomach so that she might slither out into the darkness like a snake. The edges snagged on her hair and she cried out as it caught her but she forced herself to carry on and except the damage, too afraid to stop now that she had started. As she moved the metal scraped along her back, pulling at her tattered clothing as if trying to grab her. Like nails it pulled against the skin of her thighs, onwards and downwards until at last she was free.

Away from the space she curled her legs towards her and for a minute stayed there so that she could look into the brighter light of her prison. It seemed much bigger than it had now that she was no longer trapped in it but she knew that she could not stop there and she crawled further, her legs scraping against the concrete as she heaved herself along. She felt her knees grazing along the porous surface as she passed, felt the speckle with blood begin along her shins and she thought of the pattern as a trail of breadcrumbs, a bloody path that would lead her back to her cage if she were lost. As she distanced herself from the cages the automatic lights came on overhead, illuminating each stage of her journey slowly and shutting down behind her. She feared that the lights were screaming out her location to anyone who would bother to look for her and panicked she searched the walls for cameras. The CCTV was quick to find and bore down at her unashamedly. She felt ashamed to be viewed as she was and frightened for having not looked for them before, she did not implore the silent watcher for help but rather she viewed them as an accomplice to imprisonment and as she crawled further along they moved to watch her journey.

Before the path ran out the final light settled upon her only life line, a phone. A phone that seemed impossibly high on the wall and, as her tired frame couldn’t hope to stand and retrieve the handset, she snatched at the wire and pulled at it repeatedly until the receiver came loose. She felt triumphant as the dial tone reached her ears and she dialled the only number she knew with weakened digits though she hadn’t know it before she dialled it. She hit the last figure with finality and it didn’t ring for long as it was answered on the second ring. The only greeting sound she heard was the fluctuating and excited sound of breathing and she too felt the sensation ripple. She paused and licked her lips in anticipatory fear and her voice, when it sounded, was light and croaking. She had thought to ask for help but she wasn’t sure that it was help that she needed instead she spoke words of triumph and accomplishment and she said them as the last light died out in idleness.

“I’m awake.”

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