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The garages were full of the usual people, nowhere else to be. A bartender whistled at Tay as she hurried past, but she ignored his wave and kept her head down. Faces turned at her passage, remarking on her dishevelled look but Tay refused to meet their gaze. She wanted to be up in her flat, a blanket pulled over her head, and the world on the other side of a locked door.

She wasn’t in the right mind to talk to anyone. A steadily growing headache demanded attention along with a leg that seemed to hurt in every spot other than the bullet wound. She needed painkillers, she wanted something that would quiet the noise in her head and allow her to sleep for a day.

Jens’ garage was shut up, but she banged on the door, almost crying as a sense of abandonment flooded her. She wanted family, for someone to pick her up and to make everything better, for her problems to be someone else’s. She wanted what the voice was promising.

“They’ve gone, cleared out,” a man shouted from across the way. He set a paper plate in front of a customer and then stopped to take a good look at Tay. “Have you been in the cells?”

Tay mumbled something and then hurried off, turning left, away from the market and into the darker part of the underground. The place where the drug dealers gathered, enough custom for them to stand together, all the same supplier anyway.

Predatory eyes watched her from the dark and she faltered, too far in to turn back, too weak to run the gauntlet. Within moments she had made the deal, a vial of phreno dropped in her carrier bag, and she was limping away before she even realised what she had done.

Stairs up into the lobby. Peering around the door. A group of five lads waiting for the lift, one of them bouncing a football off the door, each hit rattling her skull. She considered catching the next one, didn’t want the hassle of talking to anyone, but it would mean waiting longer when all she wanted was to be behind her door. The lift arrived and Tay went for it, limping across the foyer, hand on the door before it closed and slipping into a gap.

“Tay!” one of Nori’s thugs called out as he came running towards the lift, his face flushed with anger, but the door closed before he could reach it.

“I think Terry wanted to speak to you,” one of the lads said.

Tay slumped against the wall, her leg aching, eyes heavy.

“You know the Deepers are in the square looking for you, right?”

Tay mumbled a curse word and turned her head to the wall.

“You all right, Tay?”

Tay didn’t look up. She didn’t want to speak to anyone. The lift came to a stop and the group of lads stepped off. A few of them said goodbye, but Tay ignored them. The lift shuddered and climbed again, leaving Tay on her own.

Dirty, sockless feet, stained with grime from the street. Gray t-shirt damp from the rain and the sweatpants, one leg bunch up around her knee. She looked terrible and she felt it. The outline of a shoe in her carrier bag brought a self-pitying sigh. She took the shoes out and slipped them on, too tired to do anything with the laces but let them dangle free.

The lift came to a stop, the door shuddered open, letting Tay escape into the corridor.

“Tay.”

“Fuck,” Tay clutched the bag to her chest and jumped in surprise.

“You trying to get arrested?” Nori said, from a spot by the window. A thousand lights coming on behind him as dusk spread across the sector. “You’re supposed to be gone already.”

“Where? Sorry, I just want to go to bed.” Tay staggered past him.

Nori swapped places with her and jammed the lift door open with a meaty hand.

“You should be out of here already, not off getting wasted.” Nori looked at her in disgust. “You look fucking terrible.”

“Fuck you, Nori,” Tay muttered, but when she saw the flash of anger, she knew she’d overstepped.

“One call and I could have the militia up here and you’d be gone.” Nori pointed out the window and Tay followed his finger down into the square where a pair of militia cars stood centre stage, a dozen soldiers forming a loose perimeter around them. “I get rid of you, and I get rid of them.”

“Why are they here?” Tay asked, not following the conversation.

“Looking for you. I’ve given you enough chances, Tay. If you're still here by nightfall, I’ll turf you out myself.”

“My uncle wouldn’t like that.” Tay felt crap for pulling that card, but she didn’t have much of an option. Her leg hurt, her entire body ached, and the phreno was calling to her. She felt like a wretch, a piece of trash just trying to get away, but all she had to do was get past her door and it would all be over. She could collapse and forget about everything.

Nori watched her as she inched along the wall, his breathing heavy, fists bunched at his side. She expected the blow at any moment. In her current state, there wasn’t anything she could have done to stop him. She reached her door and then rummaged through her bag for the key, finding it with the piece of string still attached.

“You got two hours, then I send the boys up.” Nori backed out of sight and the lift doors closed on him.

Tay got inside her flat. She heard her neighbour say something, but Tay slammed her door shut.

She was finally back in her room, alone. A piece of paper by her foot caught her attention, and she picked it up.

‘Militia wants you, so we don’t. Anything left will get tipped. Nori.’

“Bastard,” Tay said screwing it up and tossing it away.

Bile filled her mouth, and she dashed to the toilet. Each retch sent a jolt of pain through every part of her body. Tears mixed with the slim contents of her stomach. Light-headed, she struggled to her feet, white knuckles gripping the sides of the sink. A grim reflection in the dark mirror. She blinked, locking eyes with her ghost.

“So, what are you going to do?” Tay asked, baring her teeth at the stranger in the glass. “Who the fuck are you?”

Her skin flushed and beads of sweat popped up, as a wave of heat ran through her. Cold tap on full blast, splashing her face and arms until the fire subsided. She tore her shirt off and threw it into the shower tray before brushing her teeth.

Finished, she staggered to her bed, arms and face dripping wet. Getting down onto the mattress in one smooth motion was out, the left leg refusing to bend all the way, so she just toppled over, rolling to avoid crushing her wound. She lay for a bit, looking up at the ceiling. This was her entire life. Everything she owned was in this little room. Piles of cheap clothing, a few books that she’d stolen but never read and a CD player, headphones laying on top.

The carrier bag was just within reach, and she emptied the contents onto the floor next to her mat. Some loose notes and coins, a bag of pellets and the gun. She lifted it, holding it over her head, turning the barrel, tracing the coiled dragon with a finger. She laid it alongside her forearm, mirroring her tattoo, the snake and the dragon. A faint smile crossed her lips, and resting the gun on her chest, she picked up her phone, but the battery had given out at some point on the journey back, so she tossed it across the room.

Empty promises hissed loudly in her ears, strangers clamouring for attention, deceitful declarations of love and loyalty. Voices demanding that she open her eyes and let the light in.

Her hand groped the floor, the dying light breaking through her window, blinding her, burning her shadow into the wall. She had to find it, to silence them all. A tinkle as a finger brushed the glass and then it was in her hand, her salvation, her retreat.

She held it in one hand while struggling to put on the headphones, forgetting to hit play before snapping the lid off and pouring the contents down her throat. She savoured the chemical sting on her tongue and the burn as it went down. and then collapsed as the phreno absorbed her concentration.

The voices retreated, drowned out by the sensation of air drifting across her slowly drying skin. The signal turning to static.


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