The row of houses stood much the same as he stepped down from the train. They had browned, as if muddy showers from passing busses had caked in the sun, baking to a tobacco stain of the pub floor. Unintentional outcomes of the smoking ban, eh?
Sebastian wondered if she changed the locks, but his key fit and turned and he stepped inside. The afternoon light cut through the frosted window, lending a sparkle to some dust motes in the gloom. The flat still smelled like boiled onions. His parka hung by the door, no doubt full of two year’s dust.
‘Who’s that?’ Her voice sounded thin but angry, more brittle than before.
‘It’s me,’ he answered unthinkingly like a thousand times before, unprepared for how loud his words sounded in the stillness. Sebastian dropped his bag and crossed to the sitting room door.
She stared at him, remote in hand. ‘I thought it was Davy.’
‘So you’re out.’
‘I wrote you.’
‘I know.’ Her lower lip thrust out like a child’s pout. If this was the worst he could bear it. ‘I suppose you want to be staying here?’
He shrugged. ‘If I can. Until I get settled.’ He noticed the stripe of captions across the bottom of the screen. Was she losing her hearing?
‘I’ve had a hard time of it. No one in my family ever spent time inside.’ The emphasis cast aspersions on her absent partner. He would have brought up Uncle Frank, but he hadn’t actually been jailed, had he? Knifed on the way to the court house.
But all he said was, ‘I know, mum.’
Despite her grumbling, she heaved herself out of the chair and put the kettle on. Buttering some bread for them both, she caught him up on news for their street: who died, who worked, who moved away—why she kept the sound low and the captions on because that dirty pair on the corner would bring their yappy little mutt to do its business on her front and she wasn’t having that.
‘And Renee?’ He couldn’t bear the suspense any longer.
His mother snorted. ‘Working at Marks and Sparks that one. Taking classes at the business school too, I hear. Quite the little entrepreneur.’
For the first time since he got out, Sebastian smiled.
‘Have you got it out of your system now?’ his mother asked as she shook a few fingers of shortbread onto a plate.
‘This violence! You know I can’t stand violence.’ Her mouth drew up into a little bow of disapproval. He tried not to think of all the times she’d screamed for Tyson Fury to beat his opponent to a bloody pulp. But sure, violence was bad.
‘Yes, mum.’ He wasn’t sure it was true. Sebastian knew he had it in him, but for the two years he’d been away, nothing had provoked him. Some quiet midnights it all ran through his brain like a film, that Saturday in the club. That bloody bruiser Cunningham—scourge of the town, or at least the east side. Normally everyone just gave him a wide berth, especially when he’d had a pint or ten.
But that night Cunningham had fixed on Renee.
She had been looking good. Sebastian marveled at the way her hair bounced above the glittery eyes. He didn’t know how women got their eye brows to look like doll perfection but she was a living doll that night in a knock out of a dress. Not red but darker—burgundy maybe. Sebastian was just up at the bar to order when he heard Cunningham go off on all the things he was going to do to her, his lascivious tongue hanging out as he bragged.
Sebastian didn’t recall punching him. He did see the teeth later, in dreams. He remembered the blood. There was just so much of it. It wasn’t his fault, the court decided later, that Cunningham had stepped back into that bar stool, tangled his legs, fell and snapped his neck. Misadventure, sure—but he started it. Sebastian didn’t really notice his broken hand until it had already been bandaged up. He didn’t protest as they read the sentence.
Renee was safe. That was all that mattered. They ought to have given him a medal.
He couldn’t resist very long. Out the door and down into the centre where more shops had closed. The empty windows multiplied like shadows of a plague. The big block letters of M&S defied the darkness and he pushed through the double doors, eyes eager to find her.
She was folding jumpers for a display. It was like magic how the rumpled knits smoothed under her hands, lining up in a neat pile. ‘Hey, Renee.’
Her smile warmed him. All those nights he’d gone to bed with her smile before him, that photo cut from the paper—having one-sided conversations. Thoughts of her got him through the long two years. Anticipating this moment had given him life.
‘Hello.’ Her look was expectant. ‘Can I help you?’
She stared and then a spark of recognition. ‘Oh, from number 12. Not seen you in a while.’
‘No.’ He wanted to say so much, but the words jammed in his throat as if he had swallowed something living, struggling and choking him. Everything in his mouth sounded so stupid. You saved my life.
‘Renee! Lunch!’ A voice behind him sounded matronly—kind but firm.
‘That’s my break,’ Renee said apologetically. ‘Do you want me to get someone else for you? They’re real sticklers about being timely on our breaks.’
‘No. Just looking.’
‘See you round.’ She patted the stack of jumpers and then turned away. For a moment Sebastian thought to chase after her, to explain everything, but he let her just walk away.
As Sebastian stood on the empty street, the rain began to fall. It was funny, but he felt like a ghost. Was he even real?
Bio: A writer of bleakly noirish tales with a bit of grim humour, Graham Wynd can be found in Dundee but would prefer you didn’t come looking. An English professor by day, Wynd grinds out darkly noir prose between trips to the local pub. Publications include LOVE IS A GRIFT and EXTRICATE from Fox Spirit Books, SATAN’S SORORITY from Fahrenheit 13 Press, as well as tales in the 2016 Anthony Award-winning anthology Murder Under the Oaks and the Anthony Award-nominated Protectors 2: Heroes . Wynd’s stories have been translated into German, Italian, Polish and Slovene. See a full list of stories (including free reads) here. Find Wynd on Facebook and Twitter.