The Way Back

book cover for short story

Headlights were approaching. Emily stayed where she was, in the middle of the road. Under her bare feet the dark tarred surface was still warm from the heat of the day. If she didn’t move, if she kept still, maybe the car would hit her.

A sharp piece of stone cut into her heel. She scraped her foot against the ground. It wouldn’t shift. The car slowed, its lights dazzled her as it drew near, forcing her to lift one hand to her eyes. She turned her head to the side. 

“Are you all right miss?”

The words were for her, but the man didn’t get out of the car. She knew that her dress must be covered in Simon’s blood.

Emily sank to her knees. She lay down, closed her eyes and let the tension seep from her body. She had learned to do this many years before, to detach herself from the present. Someone touched her shoulder.

“Are you all right Miss?”

It would be the man from the car. She kept her eyes closed and let the darkness take hold of her, disappearing within herself.

Occasional muffled words seeped through the protective mist that surrounded her. ‘Appears healthy, late teens, steady pulse, no visible injuries’. She knew those words were describing her, but not describing who she was.

“My name is Alice. Can you tell me your name?”

The voice came from close by. There was a name, one that was buried in her past. It hadn’t belonged to her for some years.

“Emily.”

Answer simply. That was the best way to let the mist protect her.

“How old are you Emily, do you have parents or relatives we could contact?”

“Seventeen.”

Emily closed her eyes and withdrew again.

When she opened her eyes, it was morning. She must have been gone for hours. Emily turned her head to one side, away from the glare of a fluorescent light. The room was curtained, a curtained room in another larger room. There was the sound of other distant voices. A sharp scrape of metal on metal made her wince. She was used to silence. 

“Can you tell me where you live Emily? You did say your name is Emily?”

Where did she live? How do you describe where you live? “With Simon. In a house.”

Another voice. A man this time. “It might be better to wait, to allow Emily to rest a little longer.”

“Is Simon dead?” Emily asked, turning to look at her interrogator and the man dressed in green scrubs. She’d seen people like that on television. She was in a hospital. 

Alice, the woman asking questions, was sat close to her bed, leaning forward, her fingers resting on the sheets. She had short black hair and was wearing a white shirt with black strips on both shoulders. She was a policewoman. She was pretty.

“Who is Simon? Is he your father?”

Emily didn’t answer, she frowned, wondering if that could be true.

“Can you tell us where Simon lives?”

“One hundred and twenty-seven steps.”

Alice’s thought for a moment. “Do you mean one hundred and twenty-steps from where you were found?”

Emily nodded. She wanted Alice to like her. “Is he dead?” she asked again.

“Will you excuse me a minute Emily. I just need to talk to someone.”

Emily heard Alice’s personal radio squeaking and stuttering the other side of the curtain. She knew they would find Simon. She was fairly certain that if he wasn’t dead when she left, he would be by now, although she didn’t know how long you could bleed and still survive. Alice came back to sit beside her again.

“We’re getting some people to see if they can find Simon. Is there anything you can tell me that might help us locate him?”

“He has a beard.”

He hadn’t always had a beard, but since he had been living in her part of the house he had grown one. A strange straggly, patchy thing. But at least it had partly obscured his pink fleshy lips.

“How long have you lived with Simon?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Is he a relative, boyfriend, just someone you know?”

Emily needed to get everything in the right order – in case Simon was alive. She knew she had done something very bad.

“I didn’t know him until I lived with him.”

“How long ago did you meet?”

“I was six I think, I had a birthday party the day before, but it wasn’t actually my birthday.”

Alice’s fingers touched her arm and Emily flinched, pulling it away.

“I’m sorry Emily.”

“I’m not supposed to be touched without Simon’s permission.”

“I won’t do it again if you don’t want me to.”

” I don’t mind you touching me.”

Alice paused for a moment before resuming her questioning. Emily had never answered so many questions, never had to think so hard.

“So, you have lived with Simon in his house since you were six?”

“No. Simon lived in the house. I lived in the basement. I had a small garden too.”

“Where did you go to school?”

Emily didn’t answer immediately.

“Simon taught me. He said we were home schooling.”

Alice’s radio beeped and squawked again.

“Hang on a moment,” Alice said. She smiled at Emily and told her she needed to talk to the team, but that she wouldn’t be long.

Emily returned Alice’s smile. It was several minutes before Alice came back into the room.

“I’m sorry about that.”

“Have they found Simon?”

Alice hesitated and bit her lip.

“They have found him, haven’t they? Is he dead.”

“You said you’ve lived with Simon since you were six?”

Emily nodded. Alice was sounding more serious than before. She didn’t lean forward when she took her seat again, didn’t extend a hand towards her.

“What was your relationship with Simon?”

“He took care of me.”

“Did you go out anywhere with him? Shopping maybe?”

“No. Simon did everything. He chose my clothes for me, cooked for me and he taught me too.”

Alice had taken out a notebook and was writing in it. She didn’t look up when she asked her next question.

“Can you tell me what happened before we found you?”

Emily looked down. Her hands were holding the sheet tight and her knuckles had turned white. When she spoke, it was so quietly that Alice leaned closer to hear her.

“He fell down the stairs.”

“That was today?”

“No. It was forty-three days ago.”

Emily explained how Simon had been bringing her lunch and somehow stumbled and fell on the stairs leading to the basement.

“He broke his leg,” she said. “I had to go upstairs to get painkillers for him. I was scared.”

“About going upstairs or about his leg?”

“I never go upstairs.”

“But you did this time?”

“He said we couldn’t call a doctor as he wouldn’t understand. Simon told me how to make a splint. He took painkillers and drank some whiskey and I made his leg straight.”

“And that was forty-three days ago?”

“Yes. I had to go upstairs a lot after that.”

“But you didn’t go outside?”

Emily shook her head.

“And Simon got better?”

“Yes. But I did all the cooking and Simon ordered food to be delivered. A man came with it.”

“Did he see you?”

 “I kept behind the door, made him leave it on the mat. He told me to sign my name with my finger. I’d never done that before.”

Alice kept writing things in her little book. When Emily glanced at her Alice was biting her lower lip so hard that there were small white patches where her teeth made dents.

“I watched television while I was upstairs.”

“Didn’t you have a television in the basement?”

“Simon recorded things for me on a tape cassette and I watched those. I liked being upstairs. There were so many things to watch on television.”

“Where did you sleep while Simon was recovering?”

“I slept in his bed. I liked the way the sun shone through the windows in the morning.”

“But you didn’t go outside? You didn’t try to escape?”

“Escape?”

Alice looked up and the two of them studied each other in silence.

“I meant that you didn’t try to get away from Simon?”

“No.”

Alice’s radio beeped. She glanced down at it and made a small grunt of exasperation.

“It’s my boss. I’m sorry, I have to talk to him.”

When Alice left it was quiet. The noises from earlier had faded away, other than an occasional distant cough. She could hear Alice speaking but very little of it made any sense to Emily as she could only make out the odd word from whoever Alice was talking to. When Alice returned she paused at the foot of Emily’s bed.

“They’ve found Simon. He’s alive.”

“Is he going to be okay?”

“They can’t say. I don’t think we’ll know more until they get him here.”

“They’re bringing him to me?”

“Not to you, just to this hospital.”

“I didn’t mean to kill him, not even to hurt him.”

“I’m sorry Emily, but I’ve been told to caution you.”

Another policeman came into the room, he was thin and young and wouldn’t look directly at Emily. Alice then said a whole lot of stuff about writing down whatever Emily said, but she had been doing that already.

“Do you want a solicitor?”

Emily didn’t know what a solicitor was or why she would want one, so she said no. Her room was too crowded already.

“Now, can you tell me exactly what happened yesterday?”

“Simon was better, well, almost better. He used my broom as a crutch and was going to go upstairs again. He said we would be able to go back to how things were, to normal he said.”

“And you didn’t want to?”

“I liked being upstairs. I could look out the windows at people walking past and they couldn’t see me.”

“And that’s when Simon fell again?”

Emily dropped her head. Her fingers had pulled the bedsheets up under her chin and her voice was slightly muffled.

“I brought lunch down to him, tuna sandwiches. I put it on the table and when I turned around he was on the first step of the stairs. I asked him if I could come up too, but he said no, we had to go back to how things were. I grabbed the broom.”

“The one he was using as a crutch?”

“Yes. He pulled it away from me. I begged him to let me come up, but he said people would think I was a freak and it was better for me if I stayed downstairs.”

“So, he went upstairs and left you?”

“I didn’t want to stay down there alone. He was on the ninth step when I grabbed the broom again. I pulled it and got it away from him, but he grabbed the handrail and kept going.”

Alice was concentrating on writing and didn’t look at Emily. If she had, Alice would have seen a tear running down Emily’s cheek.

“I hit him, but he just shouted at me. I didn’t do it on purpose, but the broom got hooked around his ankle. He said he’d made a mistake bringing me home in the first place. He said I should have been my sister. I pulled on the broom. It was his good leg. He fell down the stairs. There was blood coming out of his head. I didn’t know what to do so I started walking.”

Alice stopped writing and looked at Emily.

“Emily, do you remember the name you had before you met Simon?”

Emily knew that person had disappeared many years ago but there was still a faint memory of another life. She whispered her reply hesitantly.

“John,” she said. “John Wells.”

Alice pushed a button on her radio and spoke quietly to whoever was there.

“Sergeant Alice Walker. I can confirm the patient’s identity as John Wells. If you inform his parents, I’ll meet them here?”

Published by Bruce Aiken

A maths and physics student who ran away to art college and has worked as a freelance creative ever since.

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