Division

“When they ask, your gun jammed.”

Michael’s words are so softly spoken that my ears struggle to hear; and even when the words do register, I think I’ve misunderstood him. “What?” I hiss, confused.

His eyes flicker from the guard and back to mine. “They’ll want to know why you didn’t make the kill,” he says silently. “You have to be ready with an explanation.”

I’m aghast, and lean in towards Michael. “But – I can’t lie to Division!” I tell him, my voice a terrified whisper. “They’ll know!”

He shakes his head slightly, a tiny movement. His expression is sober, his gaze staring off into the distance, fixed on a point I can’t recognise. “And if they discover you couldn’t kill the target, what then?”

I swallow, the full weight of what I’ve done slamming home. I couldn’t pull the trigger. My target was at my mercy, knelt before me, begging for his life… and I couldn’t do it. Michael’s right, of course – if Division finds out, they’ll have no use for me. According to the government, I don’t exist – so they’ll be no problem in getting rid of me.

Heavy footsteps break me from my horrified thoughts. They crash down the corridor and the cell door flies open. The burly man standing there completely fills the doorway, scowling down at me from the ceiling.

“Bring the girl,” he grunts. The guard who’s been watching us grabs me. His hand is a vice around my arm, yanking me off my feet and out of the cell.

My last thought is to look back for Michael, for an answer, for some kind of reassurance. His dark eyes bore into mine, as serious as I’ve ever seen him. His chin dips in a nod just as the cell door slams shut, and I am left alone with the guard – and a decision to make.

Do I lie or do I confess? Exactly how far can I trust Division?

Major

“Why is this so important?” I bark, frustrated at Sadie’s erratic behaviour.That girl has been acting weird all week, and now she demands to be taken to the Major for no reason. “Is there something wrong, Private? Some complaint that can’t go through your commanding officer?”

“Nothing’s wrong with me, I’m fine!” She hollers back, but her skin is flushed and she wears the look of a cornered animal. “Just let me go, for god’s sake. I need to see the Major.”

Even as she speaks I’m shaking my head, rejecting her crazy offer before it gets too far. “No way in hell. Not unless you tell me what’s going on.” I plant my staff firmly between my feet, standing in her path. “Private, something is clearly amiss. You’ve been acting odd ever since Ravenglass. You know I can’t have you in the field if you’re a liability.”

Staring down at her feet, she scuffs her shoes. I can tell she’s upset – her bottom lip overhanging, her eyes narrowed. Whatever the problem is, it’s clearly a big one. This is far from normal behaviour. “I’m not a liability,” she spits, her inner soldier recoiling at the insult. “Just let me see Major!”

“Why?” I demand, taking a step closer. I can see every fibre inside Sadie stretch, the muscles in her neck shivering with tension. And then something inside her snaps. Her head jerks up, chin outthrust, eyes burning and it’s impossible to look away.

“Because I love her!” she shouts in my face. I’m frozen in shock, expecting any answer other than this. Sadie reads the disturbed expression in my face and her jaw hardens.

“I know that there’s no future in this. I know about her husband, family, whatever. I know all that.” She swallows, her words rushing together. It seems to me like she’s never said this aloud before.

“I’ll never bother her with my problems. It’s a crush, that’s all it’s ever been – all it’ll ever be.” Sadie looks me in the eye, and I’m scared by how young she looks. Despite everything she’s been through, this – attachment – makes her seem like a child. “Let me see her. I know she’s injured, but I’ve heard enough rumours to be scared for her life. Let me go and put my mind at rest.”

I stare at my soldier. I never knew. Slowly, I take paper and pencil, scrawling her a note. While I write she’s as tense as a bowstring, seemingly terrified of receiving an insanity order. When I hand the note to Sadie, her eyes skim the words and then flash up to mine. The ocean of relief and expectation in her face is enough to sink me. I never knew, I never guessed.

My girl turns to leave, clutching the note like it’s solid gold, and I automatically bark at her. “Private!” Normally I would follow with a reprimand – something along the lines of, ‘I dismiss you, not the other way round’, and then a suitable punishment – but I my throat closes around the words.

“Sadie.” I’ve never addressed her with her first name before, and she turns back with startled eyes. “Stay as long as you need. I’ll make sure they don’t miss you.” Her watery smile speaks of a thousand thank-yous, and she nods gratefully before disappearing.

As she goes I wonder why I said that. I seem to be softening in my old age, like rotting fruit. Soon I’ll be a good-for-nothing old sap . But it was something about the way she spoke – the awful, awful loneliness of it. She’d locked herself into a cell with those feelings, and no-one knew better than herself that she was doomed. I hope that she receives some relief from seeing the Major, even if she can be no more than a Private to her.

Reaper

The last words of a dying man. They’re supposed to be profound, aren’t they? Something that will sum up the life they’ve lived, be the conclusion that they’ve reached, the fatal punchline to their joke.

In my experience, there is nothing profound about them. They are always confessions; of love, of murder, of sin, of hope. Questions. A last minute redemption plea. In my job, I’ve heard them all.

You can always see the moment that they realise that they are about to die. Then the terror takes hold, the frantic fear that the secrets they’ve tucked into the creases in their cardboard faces, the urgent words that they never voiced out loud – all these things that are so important will die with them, and no-one will ever know.

That’s where I come in. I will come and stand by your shoulder, watch your time-torn face. Then bring in the king. Enter death as a beautiful woman. Enter death as a scar-flecked monster. The edge of a blade, a bullet to the heart, a needle in the dark. And kneel beside you, performing death’s wake. I am the reaper come to untie your soul.

I am the last person to hear you. I carry the confessions of generations. And your questions, as sweet as they may be, mostly go unanswered.

Except for sometimes, when I just can’t help myself. When you seem so lost and so scared and so hopelessly young that I want to cry, ‘No, this is a mistake – send her back, she is just a child’. It’s times like this when I will embrace you and tell you the story of your life. I will share with you the way that the last confession of your parents was one of love. They died with the words on their lips, just as you do now.

And I will move on, to my next body, to their last words. But the confessions take their toll, and the memories of humans fills my head. It is always the young ones are the ones that hurt me the most.

A Weekend in Rome

Cigarette smoke curling through air
Narrow streets and towering buildings
Row upon row of wooden shutters
Uneven stone cobbles glued with confetti

Ancient brickwork slathered with modern graffiti
Pure white marble slick with rain
Nuns on the metro, wimples trailing on the floor

Beggars and locals, tourists and pickpockets
Female polizi on the prowl and counterfeit handbag sellers on the run
Homeless filling the pavements outside train stations

Motorbikes, red and gleaming, beaded with rain
Painfully slow walkers and recklessly fast drivers
The agitated swearing of car horns
Fried food and cigarettes mixed with the fluid babble of Italian

Rome is a city of ancient architecture and pagan gods
In the modern city that is the center of Christianity

What Happened to Us?

Are you mad at me?
Or are you just tired?
Is there a lot on your mind or are you royally pissed?

What happened to us?
Where did that love go?
Did I miss your grand declaration of utter indifference towards me?

Should I leave now?
I can tell when I’m not wanted
Perhaps I’ve overstayed my welcome – or perhaps you are just a bitch.

Tonight Let’s

Tonight, let’s stay indoors and watch old movies
Let’s curl up together and spill burnt popcorn down the sofa
It doesn’t matter what we watch
I just need the time alone with you

I’ve been feeling so lost lately
Tonight, let’s do something pointless
I need you to remind me who I am
Please bring me back to life

A Sledging Poem – By Dad

Noses are red, fingers are blue
Sledging is fun (until you fall off)
*
Lucy is a teenager
And all the boys have fled
For now she is a fearsome lass
Especially on a sled
*
If you hear her coming down the hill
Just get out of the way fast
She’ll flatten you against the hedge
Unless you let her past
*
When sledgings over, peace returns
And Lucy trudges home
Keen for warmth and food and company
At the end of a long days roam

To Overcome

He is my everything
Almighty, the sun burning my cheeks
The nighttime stars and compass I follow in blindness
His touch a gift bestowed, and I know I’m not worthy
I’m plain and simple and ordinary but
This devotion is all I can offer you
 
He is my morphine
I gasp for more of him, withdrawal tearing my lungs from my chest
I’m bleeding from wounds I never knew existed
Until he returns, kisses making me high
Everything is razor sharp and glorious
But he’ll leave, he always leaves me
Alone in this darkness
 
I am nothing
Somewhere in all of this I’ve lost myself
My own story written in second person
With him as my sun, all that’s left for me to do
Is weakly reflect whatever he throws my way
This is all a lie
 
This cage is myself
I built my own handcuffs
All these years of living in his shadow when I am my own star
Throw away misery, drown this slave’s heart
Put on a party dress to parade into the light
 
I am my own
I am no mirror, designed only to reflect you
This story is not about you
And neither am I.

Raw Red Devil

“Charlie Bradbury is dead. She died a year ago – you killed her. My name is Carrie Heinlein. Oh, and guess what. Now I’m going to kill you, too.” Her eyes narrowed, and she carefully knelt before her prey. Dean’s posture was slumped, defeated, broken; his horror at her transformation so beautifully clear in the lines of his face. He’d given up, and the woman felt a perverse rush of joy, of righteousness. This is my revenge.
The hunter’s mouth flapped open, as though he was trying to speak, and anger seized her. With a snarl, she dug her dagger into the soft skin of his throat, and a slick of blood ran down his collar. “No, I buried myself,” she spat in his face. “When Dick Roman went down, his company belly-up, I figured that for once everything would turn out fine. I got my life back. Now you’re here, come to destroy my world all over again. Do you enjoy taking everything I have? Do you enjoy watching me be torn me to shreds?”
Dean opened his mouth to answer, and her hand closed around his windpipe, flawlessly painted nails gouging into his flesh. “Don’t answer that,” she hissed. “I don’t care.” She straightened up, throwing her dagger to the side with a clatter. She slowly pulled her gun from the waistband of her jeans, the delicious fear flaring in Dean’s eyes making her heart glow.
“Are you proud of me, Dean?” she asked softly. A lifetime ago he’d confessed to her that she was like a sister to him, and that made this whole thing so much sweeter. “Haven’t I come a long, long way from that cute IT girl who liked to play dress-up?” One corner of her mouth curved up into a sneer. “Remember, it was you who set me down this path. It was you who abandoned me to the darkness.”
“No, I never –” Dean croaked desperately, and her nostrils flared. She slapped him full across the face, her long nails raking lines across his cheek. “Don’t say a word,” she breathed, eyes wild.
“You abandoned me. I was drowning in the darkness until I realised the secret – don’t resist. Don’t push out the dark, breathe it in. Take it deep inside your heart and let it fester, let it rot, until you are reborn.” She spread out her hands. “I am the perfect version of Charlie Bradbury.”
Pressing the barrel against his forehead, one beautifully manicured finger held the trigger. A smile pulled her lips apart, a smile that had no trace of humanity. “Brother,” she scoffed, disgust rising like vomit in her voice. “As if.” Dean’s eyes widened, mouth falling open and urgent words forming on his lips –
Charlie Bradbury pulled the trigger… and Dean’s last words remained unspoken.

Watchful Moon

“Mama, I can’t sleep.”

I sit on the edge of the bed. Sophie’s feverish little hand sneaks into mine, all sticky with sweat. Her forehead gleams and her eyes are too bright, too shiny, and I can’t let her see how exhausted and scared I am.

With a weary smile I stand, drawing her curtains to let the moonlight flood into the room. Her walls are painted painting with silver and it feels like we’re underwater. Outside, it’s a clear night. The stars look like pinpricks in black cloth, letting light through tiny holes – perhaps the light comes from heaven.

“Can you see the moon?” I ask Sophie. She notes mutely, hands folded on her stomach.

“He’s there to watch over you,” I tell her softly, watching her face as she watches the moon. “He’s a kind old man that shines at night to show you that nothing is too dark for you to handle.”

Sophie’s chapped lips curve into a tiny smile, and my heart aches. I continue my story, choosing each word with care. “But sometimes we can’t see the moon. On some nights it’s too cloudy and everything looks dark.”

The last couple of months have been the darkest of my life, and I’m sure Sophie’s known that too. She knows that she’s not getting any better; she’s just not asking questions. I brush back hair that has stuck to her clammy forehead, and her eyes flick to me. “But remember, Sophie: even though everything is scary and you can’t see where you’re going, the dark is never too much for you to handle.”

She blinks, and I pray that I’ve got through to her. “Do you understand, Sophie?” Her chin dips with a nod.

“The moon is behind the clouds,” she says, unprompted. “When it’s dark, he’s not gone, just hiding.” I smile, so relieved – and the feeling of my heart tearing in two. My eyes prickle with tears.

“That’s right,” I say thickly, bending to kiss her skin. She’s like fire under my lips, her skin burning up. “You’re such a good girl. I love you very much.”

“I love you too, Mama,” she whispers, and I have to go. Fleeing from the room that has become her hospital, I fly down the corridors. I make sure I’m well out of earshot before I start weeping, great gasping sobs that want to tear me apart. Once I’ve begun I don’t think I can stop. And all the way through, the only thought in my head is ‘oh, god, please – I can’t lose her too’.