Flora & Jim Sample

by B.P. Gregory

Chapter One

PURSUIT

It wasn't immediately clear what had happened. Otherwise, I like to think I might have reacted better.

But my exhilaration, squinting through the slits of crude snow goggles, zeroed in on those tantalizing figures racing ahead. The other father and his young son. Biggie and shorty, just like little Flora and me. They were paper cut-outs against the light, where a collapse had conspired to open up buildings and let them through.

The crisp air that whooshed the skyscraper canyon could be a dirty old liar; it bit your face so bad, made eyes water; but they looked so close! Like I could stretch just a little more and close mittened fists around them. Imagine rummaging in those bags!

If their desperate flight made any sound it was obliterated by the harsh chug of my own pipes. Adrenaline crackled in delirious conduit from the other father to me, along the icy tarmac.

—fear—

My heart swelled. Picked up lead feet eagerly. Fear was the path I'd tread to finally, finally catch them.

No.

—wait—

Torturous breathing spluttered. The kid had stopped!

Abandoning all sanity shorty was turning back toward me. His guardian pawed frantically at his arm.

Inexplicable, I know, but I slowed. They weren't playing the game that made it ok to chase. Silhouetted by afternoon glare the son especially was becoming harder to see the nearer I trudged. The light fractured into whirling colours.

My forsaken youth had been filthy with similar signs and wonders, at least to my callow eyes. To see one pop up here was like falling into some dizzy hallucination.

Picture books I'd obsessed over of the old sun burning through Madonna blue, hellfire crimson poured on the floor: the stained glass of cathedrals that no longer existed.

Bright-bleeding saints, who'd frown down on you shivering in your pew. Damning illumination with nowhere to cower and hide.

A frail replica made of candy wrappers around a candle stub had resisted the slithering darkness by my childhood bedside. Like it was ever going to win.

All this rushed back as, stern as any martyr with the light boiling past, the boy pointed.

—pointing at me??—

Irresistibly I quailed. Victim of the bad child that huddled in the brainstem, forever in guilt at being uncovered. The weird dissociate conviction lingered that this was indeed a game, not life or death. Played by innocents, all. And I'd somehow missed the rules.

The other father was becoming hysterical.

—behind—

His son was pointing behind me.

—had to be some kind of trick—

I looked anyhow. Even though the cumbersome goggles meant swinging all the way around. Shorty's imperious finger demanded it.

To turn at the boy's urging and see Flora meters back, when she ought to have been treading on my heels. In the heat of the chase flat out in the middle of the road, like a toddler having a tantrum …

I all but screamed at my baby girl, the most treasured thing in what passed for my life.

'Fuck's sake, Flora, GET UP!'

Infuriated, I ripped the goggles off; their weight had been bowing my scarecrow neck. The world flipped too quick from narrow safe letterbox to a cold sea of light. A deluge. We were way beyond self-control, here. The boy had tickled my paranoia, and I'd had a gutful of being scared. I wanted to smash fear's spine with my boot.

'FLORA! Fuck, look, they're getting away! Would you come on!'

Taking advantage, the other father bundled his child up to run. Feet drummed the pavement and they dissolved into the glare. Going, going. Gone.

'FUCK!'

My impotent frustration clanged off rotten vacant buildings, this rotten empty city. Too loud to be taken back. Foolishly like some hothead teen I stood clenching and unclenching my fists as the echo rang out.

Embarrassing. But we'd been so close!

—come on, jimbo. for chrissake, get a hold of yourself—

—don't scare your girl—

Silence crept slyly back in to drape the street. Only the lying wind lingered, whistling in blank windows to remind us how tiny we were. And Flora was not getting up.

Without the chase-fever to inflame me, sanity came as a chill slap to the head. Too late, my fuming squint picked the key detail across the distance. The sickening way Flora's small limbs were hammering the tarmac, the gnawing air, her brittle self, as though to drum all these from reality.

My miserable gut shivered inside-out.

Already slipping and skittering back to where my daughter fluttered, like a bird cast down.

—fuck's sake, flora, get up!—

Have you ever, there in the moment, regretted something so hard you'd wipe the universe clean to undo it?

All I can say is, lucky such extravagant power rarely gets granted. Otherwise we'd be doomed anew every time a worm like me stepped in his consequences.

—not so fast, jimbo—

Wanting only to go faster. The sled jerked and skidded behind my measured lunges.

—steady, steady—

I just wanted to reach my baby girl.

It was the same issue that made pursuit of the other father so hellish: we couldn't afford to sweat. Perspiration would chill inside our snug clothes the moment we paused for a breather, and that would be it, goner, thanks for playing.

Flora's seizure was easing even as I reached her. Sick with remorse and all, I still couldn't help myself. On my knees by my ailing daughter still I glanced hopefully up, searching for a last glimpse of the other father.

Already it was like they'd never existed.

Other people often seemed ghostly concepts, hard to believe in, but these two I could never let go. They had come along at precisely the wrong time with their smiles and bulging backpacks. If it be with my last breath, I was going to hunt the other father down and take what was his. For Flora.

Nothing but stark light filled the street. Reluctantly, I turned my attention to making my baby safe. Tremors drained out like water. Her thin limbs settled slowly in their bulky padding. It had been exactly "nine-avocado" from when I noticed she was down. A slow nightmarish count, performed automatically.

—when the damn boy pointed her out, the boy!—

So I guess you could say Flora's latest bout of rattling stopped quickly. It never felt quick. Only like the most horrible helpless forever.

Mai had claimed fits might be a childhood phase. Mai, my wife, wise Mai had hoped they might get shorter, and eventually fade away as Flora grew up. Counting had been our prayer.

She had an epic accumulation of study on what could go wrong with babies. With a child on the way, one of us had to be obsessed. One of us had to know.

Flora's birth still haunted my thin dreams. Mai spouting a clenched-tooth litany of natal disaster, interrupted only by shrieking for her own life. She called out against rupture, infection, and shock. While I stood ineffectually by. Not even knowing the correct way to be terrified.

Now it was down to me, I was the only one. What could kill Flora? I liked to beat my chest and claim nothing, so long as I stood by her side. Everything. Let's say, a sniffle, or a rotten tooth. I'd been mourning from the moment she was born. Even with my limited experience I don't know how Mai was able to carry all this in her head and live.

I clumsily wrung mittened hands, and in a spasm of loathing hurled away the chunk of rubble Flora had slipped on. Probably struggling to keep up with her Daddy, who'd charged heedlessly on like some asshole who didn't deserve kids.

Weeping russet rebar jutted from the concrete hereabouts. It jabbed in all directions, like broken fingers. Without the thick unravelling crown of her mother's balaclava Flora's conk on the nonce might have been fatal.

Good solid plans run through stiffening fingers real quick in the cold. Only ever nine-avocado away from disaster. Look at me, shuffling around ruins chanting nonsense to a mythical fruit.

When I was a kid, the Family (not my little family, the one I chose and built; rather, the elderly collective who raised me) used to claim that survivors simply wanted life more.

'Dying's not so bad, Jimmy,' they'd tried to explain.

Because, hell, that's what a growing lad wants to hear from his so-called caregivers.

'You just lie yourself down, and decide that's as far as you go. Anyone can manage it. Besides, we'll all be getting there eventually.'

I wasn't a bright kid, but deep down even I knew that here was a conceit that couldn't ring true. Look at the sprawling city, the suburbs, the world beyond. We loved life harder than all those people?

Some Family members hadn't even liked life. They cursed it, and their own infirmities, with a passion. Filled every day with loathing. Uncle Isaiah, I'm looking at you, you sour old bastard.

If I had to come up with a theory, if only to fly in the face of my elders, I reckoned ongoing life was by accident. A series of modest, critical strokes of fortune that others missed out on. And that was why snow filled their mouths, while Flora and I struggled on. Not entirely sure who was luckier.

I yanked the sled alongside, and began making room for my girl. It wasn't a proper sled; just some sturdy toddler bath I scrounged, but by some quirk its scratched pink plastic held firm in the outside cold instead of shattering into brittle splinters. Bound to go eventually, though. Everything broke, and there was no replacement.

—the last of our kind, every one—

Being for luxuries, the sled often skittered along empty. We weren't silly. Survival items were kept protected under clothes, where they'd have to be stripped from our corpses to be taken.

Body heat bound up by cloth made a frail bubble. Rapidly dwindling as I knelt in the street. Ice stabbed up through my kneecaps, every gust of breeze a cheese grater. As soon as you step outside you're on the clock.

Picture a glimmer at your core. A spark, tiny and frail. Outside exposure rummages for that spark with blunt merciless fingers. Digging deep, freezing tissue black as it goes. And if it ends up touching that spark, well, you'll go out.

Ok. Sled ready.

Even mummified in all her layers it was nothing, no effort, to lift Flora in. Like with a touch more carelessness it would be possible to fling her right into the sky.

She wasn't growing, and I shuddered, stuffing both mittens over my mouth to contain a vast helplessness that'd do neither of us any good. This aghast trembling, these tears freezing into scratchy wool one hundred percent did not matter. Work needed doing. I was not having the alternative for my daughter.

Being haggard created too many seams, and my face had sprung a leak. I couldn't remember crying so much in my youth. I'd been surrounded by too many quick to tell me what a man was; handing down the guff imposed on them like it was a sacred trust. Now, so long as Flora didn't catch me at it, I could bleed off the pressure as often as I wanted. Healthier, and to hell with Aunt Abena and the rest. I'd be my own man.

I tucked my girl in tight, wanting all fingers and toes accounted for. Little bird into her nest. And then reluctantly turned into whatever tracks we'd made.

Wasn't much. The occasional boot print for the sled to bump over. Retreating when situations went awry was one of our rules. Never make new plans on the march. It's too cold to think straight.

Buckets of such rules, we had. Flora could sing the lot of them upside down and inside out, my good girl. Blissfully oblivious to the whole cloth I cut from.

Reversals aside, we needed to recover and keep pushing forward. This vast metropolis, once stuffed to the gills, could scarce support one man and a sparrow of a girl.

'What about us?' I wanted to howl at those who built it, those teeming masses now blameless in their graves. 'What were you going to leave for our future?'

Electric lights still sparkled in the memory of the Family's oldest surviving member. Aunt Amelia was probably more accurately Great-Great-Grandma Amelia, but all the ladies of the Family had been Aunts to me, all the gentlemen and not-gentlemen Uncles.

As a lad I'd seen piped water for myself, running from a tap instead of bubbling ice in a pot. The tank snugged in steaming faecal pits to keep it from bursting. These were modest past wonders I tried to keep alive for Flora in stories.

Heading back to our last camp cast a shadow on our heart for another, more urgent reason. There was always the chance Mai might catch up if we didn't step along right quick. I didn't have the fortitude left in me for that. Not today.

When the scuffling footprints we followed degraded into a drunken waltz, I knew we were close. Don't leave a trail to your door was another of our rules that sounded good, and may or may not help.

Outward bound this morning I'd made a game of it. A little dance to make Flora giggle. Her laugh was a cracked wheeze and she peeked through mittens as though she didn't mean to, which made me cherish it all the more.

My anxiety eased at the sight of tumbled bluestone. Yes, this was it. Some of the heavy blocks appeared to have mysteriously erupted and slithered downhill, but I knew it was frost that did that. Squeezed them from the soil like pips. The cellar door still gaped welcomingly. Best guess, this had been a gentrified pub.

Even now, many buildings kept their secrets. Aunt Amelia claimed we'd the last round of "haves" to thank for that. Back when there'd been such an archaic concept as wealth.

Everything ended, and the haves hadn't been able to resist their nature. In a last gesture of meanness they locked everything tight.

Society devolved rapidly, after, Amelia recounted with relish. More like how things had always been underneath. And nobody had to pretend anymore.

Luckily for Flora and me tonight, carousing had been an artefact of the early days. Generations drank themselves dry and succumbed, having lost their sense to come in out of the cold. Nobody had seen the value in securing an empty cellar.

I carefully lifted my daughter down, sled and all. Murmuring, 'Easy, honey,' in case she felt the change as a frightening jolt. No idea what penetrated the twilight following a seizure, but a loving voice couldn't hurt. And if in no other way useful, it eased my own twisting powerlessness, an ache rivalling my weary arms and legs.

Next step was to get the air heated up a bit. Down here we were mercifully out of the wind which felt warmer. The comfort was deceptive; well below par to sustain life. Sit your creaky ass down to rest in a corner of the dark, draughty space, oh only for a second, and that would be where your statue rested forever.

Of course, the two of us couldn't heat the whole cellar to liveable. Cramped as it was, that would be extravagance beyond my dreams.

I got to work stringing layered tarps over twisted coat hangers to make us a cosy pocket. Two sheets for a crude airlock, and I made sure the cute duck-print sheet was inner for Flora to see when she woke.

Fire was a challenge. Modernity left little that was safe to burn, especially around high density housing. In Amelia's tales folk smashed and kindled their glue-filled furnishings anyhow, not seeing a lot of choice between slow extinction or quick.

For years the sky had glowered brown, closer than it should be. Great pillars of smog climbing against the clouds. When snow stuttered down it came clogged and grey. The last great tribute to the vanished epochs of industry.

That's when Aunt Amelia would laugh, because obviously the end result was that the glaciers came in so much faster. No disaster too great for humanity to find a way to fuck themselves harder.

My stories didn't always come from others. I'd been living a life of my own. Once, I found a stick. Made of actual wood.

Just lying behind some rubble like it had sprung up out of the ground, which as I understand it once upon a time had been the most natural thing in the world. Plants did that. I've seen diagrams. But this stick was out of its time, worlds away from any explanation.

I picked it up, expecting the hallucination to vanish. How smooth and light it seemed! How natural it felt in my hand. An organic shape, which had come about by reaching longingly for a sun that had been different, in ways I couldn't quite grasp.

Warmer, Aunt Amelia insisted. Comforting like a good fire. Golden pure kindness flooding your skin, and you didn't need to hide your eyes in fear of frying your retina. Inevitably she cried, making it not quite believable.

Now I finally got it. That stick was heartbreaking to hold. Relic of a whole branch of life snapped off the cooling planet. There were no trees anymore. No crops. No grass, so far as anyone had seen.

I carried it reverently for as long as I could. Which amounted to two whole days before I had to burn it.

Flora and I burned oil, mostly. In a shallow tinfoil dish with a strip of rotten cloth for a wick. Flora called the stuff "mush" because of the way it solidified at ambient temperature (cold) into a sort of lumpy puke-coloured wax. One lamp might not seem much, but if your space was modest it did the job.

Occasions where we had anything to cook were celebrated by firing up dried patties of our carefully saved poo to make the fire, mixed with upholstery or whatever was on offer. Much warmer. And once desiccated and crumbly it didn't reek too bad.

Not that we were reckless. Fearful of disease, we wore ancient non-biodegradable bags over our hands for handling the fresh product. Cloth face-caps later to avoid breathing the smoke.

With the sheltering tarps giving the occasional flap and rattle it was just the little lamp today, quicker to get going. With two fingers I scooped some gluey mush onto the wick and got the party started.

Once we had light, the blue plastic walls took on a friendly glow. 'Our pond,' I often called it to Flora, and waved the duck sheet like they were swimming.

We laid out our pond the same way each time. The lamp balanced in a corner where we were unlikely to kick it even in restless sleep. Assuming we didn't go up in flames, it'd be an unforgivable waste of mush.

I waited until it was warmer—never truly warm, but warm enough—and then gently examined my sleeping daughter. She was unlikely to remain under much longer. My own fingers, nose and ears were crinkling into painful life at the shift in temperature.

As I'd suspected, my poor girl had wet herself during her fit. I didn't fancy the intense neon shade of that urine, either. She needed to be drinking more water. Thankfully the removable cloth pads sewn into her pants had soaked up the worst of it.

I took them out, and wiped the rest of the bright wee from her bony shanks before it could burn. Not so different to changing her as a baby; although now if the rash became too angry she'd be unable to walk, and we'd lose the other father's trail completely.

I was quite pleased with inventing the pads in Flora's pants, it was satisfying to see them work. Years of necessity had made me quite the sewing dilettante, Frankenstitching "servicables" from scavenged rags and sleeping bags. Clothing was vital. I dreaded the day the seams might let go.

Tucked into the sled was our disintegrating defensive gear, originally motorcycle armour, which I used for exploring new neighbourhoods. I'd taken it from a stricken man, long ago. I was less cautious in those days. Less desperate, too, although it hadn't felt like it.

I came upon the unlucky fellow lying in the middle of an intersection with a broken back. Looked for all the world as though he'd been thrown there in a motorcycle accident. Never mind that there was no traffic, no vehicles. Both vanished artefacts of old Aunt Amelia's childhood.

I scratched my scalp through my balaclava and stared at the puzzle of the time travelling motorcyclist. First from a distance. Then up close.

As I circled and chewed my lip I was nothing but an impertinent disruption to a man's sacred final hours. He wouldn't talk to me. I wouldn't either, were I in his position. His visor was half up and he stared at the clouds with glazed eyes, trying to go away, in the only manner left him. Wearing silence that would carry him off.

It only occurred sometime later that he must have been all armoured up to confront some animal. Superstitious chills. Thank heaven nosy impetuous men never ran afoul of it.

Took me a while, but I yelped in triumph when I finally deducted he'd plummeted from a building. Helmet flinched a bit at the noise. Pleased with my sleuthing and curious enough to make the effort, I laboured up fourteen flights and found the broken window.

At this height the wind roared, sucking from outside, wouldn't mind a taste of me for afters. Keeping a determined hold on the frame I peered down, confirming trajectories. But for the life of me I couldn't work out what anyone would have been up here for.

The building only offered empty offices, the most numerous and useless breed of real estate. Cold steel and crazed glass. Carpet tiles pulled up. Not even any paper. There had to have been a reason.

Disgruntled, I returned to the street and crouched over the motorcyclist, all splayed out.

There was enough wherewithal in those bloodshot eyes to follow me. My noise had upset him. He was breathing in anxious huffs that fogged the visor, making him blink rapidly. His nose was grey. Lips violet. No telling how long he'd lain there trying to die.

I was about to upset him more. The injury paralysed movement, but not feeling. As I unzipped the man's jacket and began manipulating stiff limbs to take it off he screamed. High. Unrelenting. In incandescent agony.

I almost took my hands off him, but remembered my family and stuck my chin out. The family I chose, the one with the small "f". We needed these things more than him.

Still, I was glad nobody could see. It was shameful that a human being couldn't be left to die in peace. There was only indignity heaped on pain, right to the bitter end.

It's one thing to grit your teeth, see, and say, 'I'm doing this for others. It's the right thing.' But your heart calculates all the ways you benefit, and it knows a vile act. It twists from it. Never forgets.

He screamed the whole time and by the end there wasn't much voice left in that convulsing throat. His ruddy beard jutted like something electrified. Tears rolled freely down the sides of his head and froze his long hair to the ground.

I wept, too. It wouldn't be the same good man returning to my wife and child tonight.

I left the motorcyclist naked. A sallow broken starfish with only a rasp of a voice, staring up at the sky. Guess the only mercy was he wasn't shivering. He couldn't have much longer to wait.

Our clothing would hold another day. I wrapped my Flora up to hug some heat into her. My baby. Let me be the monster, if only she gets to live. I'll do anything to keep her safe.

'Daddy?'

Flora began stirring, groggy. Doubtless her noggin ached like nobody's business. I gently rolled the oversize balaclava off to expose her pinched features. Showing your face was what you did to connect with people, to reassure them: I'm human, you're human. All humans in this together.

It was pretty common for skin that regularly braved the outside to not have much feeling or expression. Members of the Family had suffered from rigor facia, shambling about with clay masks over the tender meaty core that had to be presumed still in there.

Flora had it worse than anyone I'd ever seen. Unwrapped, her blank dolly face stared up at me. I'd become accustomed to reading even the slightest twitch.

'Right here, baby.'

I raised my own balaclava.

'I gotcha. You had an oopsie.'

'Sorry. Daddy, I'm sorry.'

She was near tears; that twisted the knife.

'I didn't have the traffic cone smell.'

Mai reckoned some people smell oranges before a seizure but we'd only seen pictures, a type of fruit. How the hell was Flora supposed to know what an orange was? Eventually we got the concept tangentially across by colour, hence "traffic cone smell". I didn't mind the traffic cone.

Other times right before she went stiff Flora's eyes would widen, staring into eternity, and she'd whisper the sky was coming down to bite her. Save me Daddy. Which creeped me out so bad I didn't want to be near her. It was easier to be brave when Mai was still around.

I hugged my daughter harder, if that was possible, pressed her blank face into my shoulder.

'Never mind, sweetie.'

I so very much wanted to groan, 'Daddy's sorry he was so mean,' but my tongue was a slab of rock. She relied on me to be perfect.

'Sleepy,' Flora mumbled against my coat. Being a child she was happy to cuddle with me forever. Wrapped in the body heat of two where she would safely, warmly starve.

For me, it was like cradling a bundle of frail twigs. Flora was too small to make much difference to my comfort. At night my feet never truly defrosted and I was leery of accidentally crushing her.

I missed Mai's generous arms more than anything. It was the only time I can remember being truly and completely toasty, and to think I'd once had that for free, on tap, every night. Just seemed outrageous now. I guess everybody longs for that one embrace whole enough to keep the world out.

'Sh, that's ok baby. No sads. You tuck your head down and have a nap. Daddy's popping out for a bit.'

'Nooo …'

Clutching my sleeve, already slipping under. Life was a constant state of anxiety knowing that anyone around you could evaporate, no notice, gone. And these episodes left her exhausted, sparse muscles a greenish bruised mess.

'I don't want you to go, Daddy, please. I'll be good.'

I kissed my daughter's forehead.

'You're always my good girl. I'll only be gone a mo.'

Like promises meant any more than the breath they travelled on. Flora held fast anyhow, carrying it down with her into sleep.

Back outside the wind was beginning to hiss. Light already waning, and the sky a low cottony blanket. Sullen, not too angry. You had to read the clouds, they had tips concerning your very immediate future. I took the risk and went kicking through the city's lengthening shadows for snow.

Wind brings snow in at night as an afterthought, when it squeals across the frozen sky to push weaker buildings over. Huddled in our pond we've listened fearfully to the roar, the heavens crashing down. The floor shakes. Maybe some bricks drop from your own ceiling and you know nowhere's safe.

Well. I do. I whisper to Flora, 'It's a long way off, baby. Go back to sleep.' And if I can stare raw-eyed into the night until dawn, my will will ward it off happening to us.

Rare to see flakes falling. The weather's generally too dry or too cold here, I forget which. But little drifts collect in corners so it must be snowing somewhere.

I hit the jackpot down an alley, hiding from the sun. We never drink snow, given the choice. Often it glitters with funny colours in the light, unwholesome crystals I can't explain. I worry that having floated in the sky it's more contaminated. All fears and no answers, me. We prefer to strain frost from chunks of topsoil for drinking.

Kneeling, I squeezed handfuls of snow to help it melt and scrubbed the absorbent pads. Absently one ear was aware I had to hurry—the wind was really starting to croon. Whipping around sharp corners it sounded like voices sometimes, like the city was still alive, which was a joke.

Night was on its way. And while the distant sun offered little comfort, it would be suicide to venture out without. I was caught between imperatives to hurry, but a job rushed is a job half-done.

Tucking the cleaned pads away for re-use, I retrieved a small bottle kept safe in an inner pocket. Thick brown glass, like old medicine. Didn't want this one breaking. From it I carefully sprinkled a few drops of my own cloudy urine over the discards of the crude laundry.

Couldn't have some animal getting it in their snoot that there was an unguarded child about. Assuming my thin piss'd suffice to scare them off. I tried to feel big and scary when making it, at least, practiced some self-conscious war cries.

The real world hadn't turned out much like I imagined when I was a kid, safe in my library and obsessed with hunting animals. Used to dream how everyone'd be so proud of me when I finally dragged one home, clap me on the back, etcetera. Because of course I'd be better than the Family's scouts who'd been doing this all their lives. I was me.

The tension, I thought, was the lateness of the day. My sour memories and eagerness to return to Flora. Even sheltered in the alley, the wind came past my face so fast now it gave a horrible drowning sensation.

Wasn't until I tried to about-face and go back to my girl, and found myself unable to twitch a muscle, that I realised who stood in the mouth of the alley behind me. Staring with her unkind eyes.

Have you ever been so afraid you felt welded in place? My body was on lockdown, hoping not to be noticed. Dark down here. The shadow of the buildings dropped over the alley. She might have come sniffing around like a beast. Drawn by two urines mingled, the scent of the family she missed.

And to think once upon a time my most fervent wish was for my wife to never leave me. I would crave her so hard blood sprang from my gums. When I kissed her it stained her lips crimson like some woman in a magazine, only a hundred times more beautiful; I told her so every morning the moment I opened my eyes. She'd groan and mock-swat me as I covered her face in red kisses, and we made our own heaven.

—don't move—

What did she want now? Bloodier kisses, no doubt.

—jim!—

My ears strained over the crackling wind, breathless for any hint that could tip the moment one way or another. Could she see me? I remained still, and the sun crept down the sky. A tiny bleeding point, searing without heat. Lighting up the clouds.

Through a traitorous dusty pane a finger of gold stabbed into the alley where I stood motionless, staring at the wall.

—here he is, here!—

It singled me out in slivers, isolated slices of Jim floating in the dimness. My shirt had ridden down too far and I could feel blisters forming on the back of my neck at that touch. The risk of sweat.

—jim! some …—

She wasn't going to let me leave. Scrabbling panic. Tears and snot froze the lower part of my balaclava, dragging it down, blocking what air I could pull in. When peeled from my face later it would take beard and skin as a souvenir.

This was where I stood, frozen. The other father always ahead, unable to be caught. My wife behind, and I could not escape. I imagined Flora whimpering and calling for me as the lamp went out. She'd die waiting in that cellar.

'Mai, go away,' I gagged. 'Stop following me.'

—flora—

It was for her that I found the strength to swing around, my eyes screwed shut and balls the size of raisins.

I barked, 'You can't have her!'

Sun on my face. A cackle from the wind. No assault, though, nothing jumped me.

Fearfully I cracked one eye open. Sprang them both.

Nobody was there.