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© Vivienne Kearns

I awake in his house. Ice melts and crackles on the inside pane as it slides down to a sill full of stagnant water. Fully clothed, I lift myself off the floor and walk stiffly to the bedroom window, hugging my arms for warmth. The sky holds snow.

I turn to watch my two sons sleeping on the bed at the other side of the room, not wanting to wake them, but we have to leave soon.  A sharp sound comes from outside and I see dogs nuzzling at the metal dustbins for food. I shake the boys awake. Ardan, the eldest, dresses hastily, but Liam turns slowly and I have to drag him from beneath the covers. When they are ready I open the bedroom door. The house is silent so we venture out and creep down the worn carpeted stairway and into the grey winter’s light.

Liam whimpers and I worry that the boys still wear summer clothes despite the cold. On the street, an old woman watches from her door, but catching my eye, she hurries inside. It irritates me. It irritates me that our car is old, that the tyres are worn,  the paint corroded. The overnight rain has covered the windscreen with small grey mudsplattered stains of earth, but it is all we have to get away. Everything around looks so dismal still. Even the houses in this small oval street are dark, dashed a uniform grey pebble, merging one into the other, making everything the same, like a fog descending.

We approach the car and Liam marks his name in the dirty side window. I tell him to hurry. He looks at me wearily but climbs in. In the driver’s seat, I check the rear-view mirror to see the boys are fastened safely behind. Ardan’s eyes meet mine, his face dimpling mischievously, but Liam’s face is clouded with a sadness I do not expect and he looks away as I turn the ignition key.

We are still far from home and though we travel for miles following a map bought to show the way, I know that we are lost. A little street with cafés passes by on our left, reminding me that we have not eaten.

‘I’m hungry,’ Ardan squirms and holds his stomach in protest, ‘can’t we stop here? Please…’

I smile back at him.

‘You can’t be hungry stupid,’ Liam says, sitting rigid, sullen.

Ardan thumps him when he thinks I am not watching.

‘Stop that, stop that,’ and I pull the car over. ‘We’ll stop and have something small. We don’t have much money left anyway.’

Liam looks at me in disbelief and hits the car seat with his small fist. I park on an angled street where the streetlamps have been vandalised. Ardan gloats and gets out of the car, while Liam folds his arms across his chest, and refuses to budge, and I kneel down to look into large brown eyes that look back at mine in defiance.

‘Why can’t we just stay, like everybody else?’ he asks me and I know he doesn’t understand.

‘We have to go. We have to get away,’ I say and pause, ‘you’re old enough to know that now. We’ve got to get back.’ I try soft pleading tones to make him understand, but when he opens his mouth, the words do not fully form, and his expression becomes vacant. Ardan walks on ahead, humming a tune that bears no melody. Liam silently gets out of the car and follows. I am angry with him for blocking it out. Images come back and threaten to overtake me, constricting my throat, and tensing my body so that I follow slowly behind.

We stop at a busy café and decide to sit. It is still light and people are eating outside despite the cold, sipping wine without passing us a second glance. I do not want anyone to find us out, in case word gets back that we have come this way. As we wait, I think I see his face in the crowd for an instant, but then it is gone. When the food arrives Liam doesn’t touch it, while Ardan gobbles most of his pizza. I barely manage a mouthful.

Liam watches me and quietly whispers that we should be on our way. I leave money on the cloth, not waiting for the bill. Ardan has skipped on ahead and Liam walks solemnly just in front. It is growing dark and I can’t see the boys’ faces anymore. Even when Liam looks back I cannot see his face.

Ardan shouts my name as we approach the street of angled cars. The car is not there, and my heart sinks looking at the empty space. We are still so far from home. Then he shouts again. He has found the car in the next street, where the streetlights do not work. He has remembered where it is. But I am sure that this is not the place.

The car in the distance looks old and ruined. Leaves, still falling in early winter, have almost covered it. The leaves look like rust eating into the car’s body but as Ardan approaches, a small wind blows them away. When he touches the side mirror, a streetlight instantly flickers on above his head. The car’s position seems to shift and the rotting paint is exposed. Liam’s hand reaches for mine. I notice that the grey earth marks have disappeared from the windscreen, and wonder who is playing this trick on us. I look quickly behind and push Liam into the car, Ardan does not need to be asked. I search for the key in my purse, but it is already in the ignition of the walnut panel in front of me. I cannot remember leaving it there. I switch on the engine and check that the boys are safely inside. The engine splutters, but starts, and as we pull away from the curb, the road disappears behind us and then we are travelling down a winding country lane that is familiar.

‘We’re nearly home.’ I try to sound as bright as I can, and while Ardan laughs, something gnaws at my brain. I try to blot out images jolting in front of me. This is not the first time we have tried to escape. We have travelled this road for a long time.

The inside of the car fills suddenly with darkness. Silence explodes as Liam screams from behind and I swerve to avoid oncoming traffic. Lights flood the cabin again, and when I look across Stuart is sitting there in the passenger seat, his eyes cold, staring, threatening. His hands grab mine, and my body freezes.

The images come crashing back. I see his hands on their throats, Ardan struggling against him, Liam in shocked silent acceptance. I see Stuart’s fist hitting the last blow to my head, and how when I touched my hair, it was sticky, and then black. I remember how he has followed us, a coward, afraid, he has followed us, and we still have to get away, I have to get back home, but each time it is too late.

Rage overwhelms me, and I ignore his taunts, his hands fighting for control over mine, his cold empty eyes staring at me, and as I run a red light, the cars pass through us. And I understand.

Stuart’s image fades, the strength of his hands disappear, and Ardan starts to cry. Liam smiles as his name grows faint on the dirty window, and I realise that we are already safe. The edges of the world fade around us as we move out of its sphere finally and for the last time.

© Vivienne Harper