Alistair Wilkinson Author
Alistair WilkinsonAuthor

Phoebe: a Stella Short

The year-long night had ended a month before, and the couple missed the dark. Even when the sun went down the now fully charged solar-powered streetlights blazed, picking them out and creating pools of dark shadow that could hide anything. Every parked car hid an imagination of terrors.

             Phoebe still thought of them as parked cars.

             They’d read to each other that evening. The sun, so long gone and now the late-nights already waning, let them read till well into the evening, but not till late at night They read to themselves and read to each other. Mo had a particularly good voice for reading, whether it was to her or to the children.

             They kept only very thin curtains at the window of the front bedroom of the ground floor flat. The bright white streetlights passed through without a pause. They could carry on reading if they wanted.

               ‘Mo?’ Phoebe whispered. ‘Are you awake?’

             ‘No,’ her husband grunted. He had buried his face into the pillow and his voice was muffled by pillow and a constricted jaw.

              She prodded at him, staring at the shadow of her finger as it jabbed into his shoulder, long and thin and black against the white sheets, striking at him like a black stake into a pale vampire. They’d taken the sheets from a department store - was it John Lewis? - not long after the crash. Summer linen. She’d changed the bedding as soon as the sun came out. She’d read about these sheets in Cosmo. You’ll never want to get out of bed, the review had said. Even if you haven’t had a shower for over a year, Phoebe added. She looked over at the stacks of wet wipes in the corner.

Feeling suddenly too hot, even in the linen sheets, she sat up blew her self-cut fringe up from her forehead and hugged her skinny legs, her bony knees. She wore only a t-shirt to bed, one of Mo’s.

               ‘Mo?’

               ‘What?’

               ‘Are you awake?’

             He sighed as he rolled over, the linen rustling expensively as he moved, his arms, dark and hairy, arcing from beneath the sheets. He paused, not expecting to find her upright, then wrapped an arm around her knees, hugged her close.

               Phoebe let him hold her, let her head fall onto his arm, let his scent fill her.

             ‘Do you remember when we went to that wedding, back in 2018?’ she asked. ‘They didn’t let kids come. It was just us.’

               ‘Max and Jade?’

             Phoebe nodded into his arm. ‘Remember when you won the dance off? They had a dancing game set up, a proper arcade platform to jump about on, and you won. All the other men looked at you like you were an alien.’

               ‘I had the moves,’ Mo mumbled.

               ‘Like, you were just there, dancing, that pink shirt glowing. You’d taken your tie off. You weren’t wearing glasses yet.’ She let go of her knees and hugged at his arm. ‘You were beautiful.’

               ‘Still am, Fee.’

               ‘No, you’re not, not like then.’

           Mo pulled away from Phoebe, his arm sliding between her hands and face, and struggled into a sitting position. ‘We’re both beautiful, Fee,’ he said as he pulled her close, wrapping his arms all around her, holding her still.

            A noise at the window. Something shuffling on the path outside, the streetlights casting its crooked silhouette onto the thin curtains. It paused, turned to the glass.

               Mo and Phoebe watched it. ‘Shhh,’ Mo breathed.

             It raised one hand, paused, as if it thought it knew them, as if it would wave if it could recognise them.

               They stared, their faces grey in the curtain-filtered streetlight. A noise from the room behind, further from the street. One of the kids turning over in bed. A slap against the wall. Their son, disturbed by a nightmare, perhaps. He would reach up to his poster of Stella Reeve and tap at it, just to touch it. Mo and Phoebe held their breath. Did it react to the noise? Did its lips curl in hunger? They would never hear its breathy rattle through the doble glazing but both imagined it, held each other a little stiller.

                A dog barked, the thing’s hand dropped as it turned and stumbled away.

               The couple relaxed, laid back down, still holding each other.

               Soon, Mo’s breathing, deep and regular, pulled the tension from his arms and Phoebe let herself roll away from him.

            She stared at the ceiling, at the shadows around the room, at the mirror on the wardrobe, its silvery surface a misty lake of ghostly reflections.

               Mo next to her, warm and solid and real, his body touching hers beneath these once-expensive linen sheets.

               She wouldn’t sleep, she knew. She could lie there all night and she wouldn’t sleep.

               The linen sheets failed to hold her, and she slipped out of bed and padded along the corridor, pausing to listen at the silent kids’ bedroom, and then on, through to the kitchen.

               Bottled water filled one wall, blue labels barely picked out by faint light from the kitchen window. Phoebe grabbed one, sat at the table and placed the bottle in front of her next to a packet of cigarettes.

               Eventually, they’d have to think about how to get clean water.

               Eventually, they’d have to accept that all of the cigarettes in the world would be too stale to smoke.

               Eventually, they’d have to think more about food.

             She grabbed the pack, pulled out a cigarette, lit it, all in one smooth, practised motion. She tucked one foot under her bottom, the other she pulled up to rest her heel on the edge of the seat, leaving her perched like some smoking lifeguard at the end of the world. She let her chin drop to her knee, let the cigarette hang at her side, the smoke pouring up her arm, only its edges picked out as pale grey in the dark of the night.

             She sat there all night, perched on the chair, her bare legs colder and colder, smoking one cigarette after another, sipping preciously at the bottled water, barely more than wetting her lips, carefully replacing the lid after each sip.

           The sun would chase the fading black of the kitchen window. Every night was short now, as long as it was always supposed to be. The darkness retreating every morning rather than lingering, holding them in comforting hopelessness.

             Phoebe dashed out the last of her cigarettes into the overflowing ashtray, powdered ash puffing up into the first beams of sunlight. She padded back along the corridor, past the kids’ bedroom, and slipped into bed.

               Her cold body made Mo flinch, but he didn’t wake.

               She curled, foetal, beneath the sheets and prayed to any god for help.

 

 

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