by Jason Jackson
I was watching from the chair by the window as the sky darkened: two boys were down there in the park, a girl too. None of them looked more than sixteen. She was slight— skinny, even—and she flitted about while the boys watched from the bench. They were passing a bottle back and forth between them.
The park was the main reason I’d rented the flat. All that space for my two lads. Not a garden, not like at their mum’s, but it was something. Football. Sledging down the hill in winters. That tree Harry would like to sit in. They’d been young back then, but it would never have worked. Not long-term. Ten years living with me and they would’ve been down there now, drinking, flirting, fighting and worse.
Better they’d gone with their mum.
The street-lamp near the bench cast the girl in a cone of light as she stood in front of the boys, rocking from foot to foot, hands on hips. Usually there were more of them. The boys would sprawl on the bench and the girls would make occasional forays, one of them sitting on a boy’s knee, another throwing something or saying something, and suddenly a boy would be up and chasing them. It was a game, timeless. Sometimes I had to close the curtains. Switch on the television. The loss of it all was too much.
But now there was something different about the girl. What had started as unsteadiness was even less controlled. It was like watching a clown walking a low-line tightrope, first balancing with manic concentration, then running helter-skelter. She was trying to dance as she circled the bench, throwing her arms in the air then crouching low. She was laughing too, her long hair whipping around. The boys were sitting close together, watching her, taking quick swigs from the bottle.
And then she fell. She was right in front of them as one leg got caught up with the other. I winced when she went headlong. Nine times out of ten, a drunk will fall on their face, and that’s exactly what the girl did.
The boys stood quickly. The taller of the two put his foot on the girl’s arm and pushed so that she rolled onto her back at the edge of the circle of light. The shorter one crouched behind her, where her arms were flailing. He grabbed her wrists and pinned them to the ground. The girl’s phone had slipped out of her back pocket and it lay there, gaudy and pink, still in reach if she’d had the use of her arms. The taller boy was crouched at her feet, grabbing her ankles as she kicked out, and when he pulled off her shoes it was quick, decisive. He threw them some distance behind him and began to yank at her jeans.
I don’t remember standing up out of the chair, but I know I switched on the lamp just as the girl really began to struggle. The window became a mirror, my face right there. I was looking at myself, and the more I looked, the more difficult it was to move. Those moments stretched, silent, like the seconds when you wake from a dream, heart beating like hooves, a breath held too long.
And then I was out the door, into the stairwell, down the stairs and into the clammy warmth of the night. I’d imagined running down those stairs with my boys, laughing as Harry jumped the last eight steps. Jack would count the thirty-seven seconds it took to reach the park gates. I’d imagined a winter photograph of the two of them holding snowballs, feigning to throw them at me as I clicked the shutter.
All of this I thought about as I ran.
I expected to hear the girl’s shouts but there was nothing. The warm air was heavy with that smell you get in summer of rotting rubbish and cut grass. My breath was coming in gasps as I turned the corner of the block. The park came into view and for a moment I thought they’d gone, but then I ran off the path and there they were, fifteen yards away, the three of them. I shouted something—I can’t remember what—and I saw the girl still had a leg free. She was kicking the taller boy, and he was shielding his face with one arm while holding her other ankle. I saw her jeans lying in the grass a little way from her shoes, and I shouted again. This time it wasn’t a word, just a noise, a warning: animal, guttural, urgent. The taller boy reached out his arm and grabbed the girl’s flailing leg. He pinned it to the ground and turned to look at me. I was running, and I kept running right into him. We fell away from the girl together and rolled over in the grass.
I was on top of him. As he wrestled his arms between mine I could smell his sweat, the cider he’d been drinking. I turned to look at the girl, who was struggling to her feet. The other boy was trying to hold her, but she was quick now, and she beat him away, started to run. I turned back to the boy beneath me and I shouted into his face. He was strong, and I knew he was going to break my grip. I heard him laugh, felt a flash of pain to the back of my head, and then there was nothing.
The doctors let the police speak to me, but I couldn’t tell them much and they couldn’t tell me much either. A man walking his dog had found me and phoned an ambulance. No one knew anything about a girl, or about the two boys. I tried to tell them, and they said they’d go down there, ask around, but the one with the notebook was already putting it away, so I turned my back and closed my eyes.
I was in hospital for two weeks. Fractured skull. Broken ribs. Internal bleeding. There was a chart at the bottom of the bed, and the nurses were quiet around me. I slept almost the whole time. There were no dreams.
On my first evening back in the flat I stood at the window, watching the rain until I couldn’t watch it anymore, and then I went outside. There was no one in the park, no one on the bench, so I sat down. The wooden slats were full of carved declarations of love and hate. I looked towards the block of flats, where most of the windows were full of curtained light, but my own was just a dark square. I imagined a figure behind the glass, looking down, and I concentrated on making sure my hand didn’t shake as I traced my finger over the letters of the silent names cut deep into the wood.
Jason Jackson’s prize-winning fiction appears regularly in print and online. Recent publications include The Nottingham Review, New Flash Fiction Review and Craft Literary. Jason’s story “Mess of Love” was recently awarded 3rd place in the 2020 Retreat West Short Story Competition and his story “In my dream I see my son” is featured in Best Microfictions 2020. Jason is also a photographer, and his prose/photography hybrid work The Unit is published by A3 Press. Follow Jason on Twitter @jj_fiction