My last novel, The Likeness, was published in 2016 but since then, apart from some commercial writing, much of my time has been spent collaborating on short stories with other writers. Many of these were written for The Word Count Podcast, a monthly show created by Richard Wood, a writer-friend in Boston, and have been posted on the website of my friend/collaborator, Eden Baylee (https://www.edenbaylee.com/blog/). Our first was written at the beginning of 2015 and we recorded it for the 45th episode of Richard’s show but, until now, I’ve not published them anywhere myself. In future blogs, I’ll write a bit about the processes of collaborating, the very few problems it creates and the significantly more ways it which it’s useful, inspiring, and a great way to learn more about one’s own writing. But now, for those of you who like the shorter forms of fiction, I’ve decided to release some of the stories in a series of these blogs.
Richard’s prompt for the story content was simply that it had to contain the three words ‘frozen, whisky, and time’. You can hear Eden and myself reading our joint contribution at: https://thewordcount.libsyn.com/webpage/2015/01
Its title is:
THE WRONG SHOES
The playground of the elementary school, which Jackie crossed on her way to the bus stop, or to anywhere for that matter, had turned into an ice rink. Normally a carpet of grass, it quickly froze after the temperature dropped to minus twenty following a night of freezing rain. The grounds had become a dangerous place for unsuspecting pedestrians.
It was the weekend, and she was at her local until closing time. She’d had one too many, as was her habit most Saturday nights. Leaving the bar, she had to walk across the schoolyard to get to her apartment building. She’d done the trip a thousand times, even when drunk, and made it home without any problems, but that night … she fell. The advantage of having had too much to drink was she fell limp and boneless, like a rag doll. There was no resistance, which meant no broken bones anyway. She was lucky in that sense. Instead, she had stumbled and dropped face down on the frozen ground.
When she came to, she heard voices and an instinct warned her to keep quiet. She smelled cigarette smoke and soon murmurs formed hushed words. The voices were male, with at least three of them from what she could tell as the conversation ping-ponged above her.
“Darren, how about we take her to your place? No one will see us there.”
“Are you crazy? I may live in the basement, but my mom would kill me! She hears everything.”
“Steve, you still have access to that empty warehouse on Merton Street?”
Jackie’s entire body heated up beneath her goose-down coat. Even her face, painfully pressed against the ice, turned fire-poker hot.
She was in big trouble.
They say fear or trauma sobers you up quite quickly. They’re wrong. Her mind was still cloudy, slow. Even as she’d downed that last whisky, a double, she knew she was already way over any sensible limits. It wasn’t just her words she was slurring, it was her thoughts, too. So she lay there, trying to clear her head, trying to understand the plans being made by the voices.
“How the hell are we going to get her to Merton Street?”
“Carry her. Drag her. She’s pissed.”
“Well, Saturday night, innit? Everybody’s pissed, staggering about. We’ll just look like all the rest.”
The one called Steve wasn’t convinced.
“It’s too far. She might come round. Start screaming. How about the school? Maybe we could find a door open round the back, a window.”
Silence. Then “Yeah, Okay,” and other muffled sounds of agreement.
As two of them grabbed her arms and hoisted her to her feet, she knew she had to do something. In the school, even if they were stupid enough to let her scream, no-one would hear. Somehow, she had to stay where there might be others around, people who might hear her, save her. She shook her head and forced out a laugh.
“Aw thanks, guys,” she said. “I was bloody freezing down there.”
It silenced them, gave her a tiny advantage. She stammered on, her mind racing.
“I need to be in my bed. Cuddled up. Warm. Don’t suppose you could help me home, could you? It’s not far.”
She saw them looking at one another, uncertain. But smiles were creeping into two of the three faces. She nodded her head vaguely in the direction of her apartment building.
“Other side of the school,” she said. “Just there. Ground floor.”
The one on her right said “Anybody there to look after you?”
The cold was helping to clear her head.
“No,” she said. “Just me.”
“Bingo,” he said, and they set off through the darkness of the slippery playground.
Steve hated this. He didn’t want to be here. He had only suggested using the school with the hope they wouldn’t be able to get in, that the cold would eventually deter them, and they’d leave the girl alone. He wanted no part in what his friends had in mind. It turned his stomach to even hear them chat her up, trying to make her feel at ease, no doubt.
“Good thing we came along,” Darren said, his arm around her waist. His six-foot-two frame towered over her. “We’ll take care of you, honey, don’t you worry.”
“Oh yeah,” snorted Kenny, supporting her on the other side. “We’re your knights in shining armour!” He turned to look behind him. “Hey, Steve, keep up, will ya? We’re all gonna get nice and warm real soon.”
Steve bowed his head so he didn’t have to meet Kenny’s eyes. “Yeah…I’m coming.”
It was then he noticed the girl’s shoes. Even while propped up by Darren and Kenny, she teetered along like a child wearing ice skates for the first time. No wonder she fell. She wore the wrong type of shoes for this weather—the heel much too high, the material too thin. There was no support at all. His younger sister had the exact same pair. She had also fallen, fractured her wrist. For the past week, she’d cried with the pain, night after night. Kept Steve awake, hearing those sobs from her room. Made her sound so … lonely. And now here was another lonely, silly woman, out getting pissed all on her own, nobody waiting for her at home. He speeded up, overtook the others and turned to face them.
“Listen guys, we can’t.”
“What?” said Kenny.
“Her,” said Steve. “We can’t.”
“Why not? Look at the state of her.”
“That’s what I mean,” said Steve. “She’s pissed. It’d be like shagging a side of beef.”
“Cheeky bugger,” Jackie said. “You gay or something?”
Her voice was loud, penetrating, and coarse. Kenny hoisted her higher against him. The sudden pressure must have brought on a wave of nausea because she gagged and threw up on the path. Darren and Kenny let go of her and stepped away. She staggered but managed to stay upright.
“See?” said Steve. “D’you want to go home stinking of that? What d’you think your mom would say then, Darren?”
“Hey, gay boy, listen up,” said Jackie, sounding as if there might be more where that just came from. “Nothing wrong with me. I bet you’re talking about that HIV test. Am I right?”
Steve just looked at her.
“Am I right?” she said again, louder, almost aggressive. But, as she spoke, he saw something else in her eyes. Not aggression: a stare, fear, a plea for help.
“You are, aren’t you,” she said. “Bloody Angela’s been tweeting it. Well, she’s lying. It was negative. Right? The test. Negative.”
“What’s she on about?” said Darren, staying well clear of her.
She turned to him.
“Chlamydia, that’s all it was. Bloody Chlamydia.”
“See what I mean, guys,” said Steve. “We can’t.”
Darren and Kenny looked at each other, then back at Jackie. Darren spat on the ground.
“Slag,” he said, and started walking back the way they’d come. Kenny reached out a hand, grabbed her breast, squeezed hard then turned away to follow his friend.
Jackie watched Kenny and Darren disappear into the darkness. She pulled her jacket more tightly around her chest, wincing as her fingers touched against her breast. She turned back and looked at Steve. The fear was still there and tears were beginning to form.
“Thanks,” she said, her fingers gently probing her bruised flesh. “I… I don’t know what to say.”
Steve shook his head and said, “Buy some decent shoes.”