M presents another of the five entries that were shortlisted from among nearly 100 titles in our short story contest held in conjunction with the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair in March. Look for the remaining two honoured submissions in the coming weeks.
The night is heavy, filled with the sounds of dark transgressions. She hears them, and in the darkness, she waits for the day to come.
Finger by slender finger, the day peels back the darkness. She watches the light come into her room; she lifts up her hand and moves it slowly through the air, allowing the dim sunshine to illuminate her palm and her dirty, brittle nails. She smiles.
"Are you awake?" she whispers.
"I'm here," comes a voice, dry from sleep.
She moves closer to the wall that divides them and rests her head.
"I'm hungry. Do you think they'll be here soon?" she asks.
He coughs. And then he coughs again. She hears him clear his throat and spit.
"Should be soon." His reply is curt. She thinks he doesn't want to speak today.
"Are you OK?" She can hear the pleading in her voice and knows he can too, but she does not mind. All they have is each other. She hears him sigh, and then the sound of him moving closer. She often wonders what he looks like, but has been too shy to ask. She runs her fingers through her hair, now hacked short and full of lice, and feels a moment of shame. Once, she had been beautiful.
"Are we going to try today?" she says, her voice low. She hears movement on the other side of the wall and a high-pitched scraping sound. Then she hears him return to the wall.
"Yes, we're ready."
A few weeks ago, when it rained for a week and their rooms flooded and she held no hope at all, he had explained the complicated locking mechanism that closed their doors. As she sat in the cold damp, he told her how, when they came with food, he was going to wedge one of the rollers so that the locking mechanism would not close completely. He explained how he had made the wedge by binding together material he had variously scraped, chewed and clawed from the walls of his room.
She had been so cold that day. But warmth spread through her chest as he explained how he would put pressure on the roller and both his door and her door would spring open. It would be easy, he said. She had closed her eyes and felt a thin veil of faith envelope her.
Once she was out of the building, he had told her how she was to go hard right and run. He said the place was surrounded by dense bushland and once she reached the trees it would be difficult for them to find her. His plan would work; she had faith in that. They would escape together and he would show her the way. It would be easy.
He has fallen silent and she wants to hear his voice. It is a deep, rich, comforting voice. A voice that is too beautiful to be surrounded by darkness.
"Talk to me," she says.
"Anything. Talk to me. Tell me more about your family. Tell me about your favourite memory; a day, before them." She is surprised to hear him laugh.
"You just don't quit, do you kid? OK, let me think for a minute." He pauses and she knows he is recalling lost moments. When he starts speaking his voice is low and soft and buoyed with a smile.
"One of my most treasured days is from only a few years ago, right before they took power. Back then it was still safe, we were still free to come and go as we please. I remember my wife suggested we take the girls for breakfast and then for a walk through the park. It was such an ordinary day. I miss that, the ordinariness of life." His voice fades and then stops.
"I know what you mean," she says. "I just want to wake up in my bed, to see my parents. I want to eat toast and sit in the garden drinking tea."
"Yes," he agrees. "Those ordinary moments; it kills me just thinking about it."
"So," she prompts. "Why was this your favourite day?" She hears him shifting positions on the other side of the wall.
"It was one of those perfect spring days. The weather was warm with a light, cool breeze. I can still see the daffodils in full bloom, waving in the wind. On this particular day it seemed like there was an entire football field's worth of those bright yellow daffodils in the park.
"The girls, of course, went mad. They ran in and out of the flowerbeds, chasing each other and tripping over themselves. We let them run and found a place in the sun. My wife sat next to me and held my hand and we watched our beautiful, sparkling children and that damn gorgeous sea of yellow.' His voice grows thick with emotion. She waits for him to continue.
'The day was beautiful in its ordinariness. It was perfect. At one point my wife turned to me and said "this is it. This is all I will ever want for the rest of my life; just you and our girls". I never said anything in reply to her, all I did was nod. But I felt it just as keenly as she did.' He falls silent. 'You still there?'
'Yes,' she says. 'I'm here.'
She starts to speak but stops herself. She can hear the faint, ominous sound of footsteps coming towards their rooms. She turns quickly and eases herself into her bed, laying still, her eyes taking in the semi-darkness of the morning-lit room.
Through the wall, she can hear the softest of noises and her heart starts to beat quicker. He is getting ready. Timing was everything, he had said, so as not to arouse suspicion.
The footsteps grow louder and, even though anxiety is threatening to burst through her skin, she forces herself to stay in bed. It was protocol.
Her door swings open first, as it always did.
'Eyes to the wall,' a voice barks. She turns her head to face the wall and closes her eyes. She barely hears the plate being dropped to the ground but it is soon followed by a loud, liquid splat. She can smell the earthy, milky smell of porridge and her mouth starts to water.
She is upon the food the instant she hears her door close. She almost forgets about him as she scoops handfuls of the cold oat porridge into her mouth. But then, through the wall, she hears the same, barking voice she heard moments ago and she pauses. She closes her eyes and wills his plan to work.
Finally, his door closes and the footsteps disappear down the hall. She pulls herself like an animal, on all fours, the half metre to the wall.
'Did it work?'
'I'm not sure yet. Finish your breakfast. We just need to wait a while to be sure they are gone.'
She returns to her breakfast, although now she is more subdued, the worst of her hunger sated. She looks around her room. She thinks that this may be the last time she sits here, eating off the floor. It makes the cold porridge more enjoyable.
Her room is five big steps by three big steps (and a bit). She measured it many months ago when she was first put inside. The room is always in varying shades of darkness. At night, it is pitch black and she is often woken by terrible, terrifying sounds. During the day it gets gradually lighter, but it is never light. She is surrounded by shadows.
She was rounded up with all the rest of her kind who were stupid enough to stay behind once they had taken over. Her father, ever the optimist, never believed that they would be capable of the atrocities that were committed. "We'll be right," he had said to the family when they first debated leaving. "This is our home, we can't leave." She had often recalled her father's words bitterly.
They had put her in this room and for many days she had been alone. Then, inexplicably, he had been put in the room next to her. He had saved her life, she knew that. He had listened; had talked to her and made her realise she was not yet crazy. Then, he had given her faith that she would get out of here.
Every minute on the outside will be one to treasure, she promises herself. Every day will be one to remember.
'Are you ready?' comes his voice. She looks around at the bare room. There is nothing to take.
'I'm ready,' she says.
She places both of her hands on the cool hardness of her door and listens. There is a click, and then a long slow noise, like the release of compressed air.
'Now,' he says.
She pushes gently on her door and it swings open. She is free!
She looks down the darkened hall. It is empty. She quickly steps over to the door next to hers and tries the handle. It is locked. She taps anxiously on his door.
'Are you there? Open the door.'
She sees the door handle moving up and down and hears the weight of his body straining against the door.
'What's wrong? Come out,' she pleads, frantic now.
'I'm trying, it's locked,' he hisses back. 'It didn't work.'
She feels herself tumbling through a deep abyss. She falls against the wall, slides to the floor. She is breaking into a million pieces, and then a million more.
'Are you there?' he says, urgently. She is unable to answer. 'I can hear you breathing. I know you're there. Please, kid, you need to get out of here now.'
'I need you,' she says, her body folded over on top of itself and latched in place.
'You don't need me, you know where to go, what to do. We've been over this before.' He speaks slowly and patiently.
She starts to breathe, inhaling a ragged lungful of air. Somehow, from somewhere, she pulls herself to her feet. She places one hand against the outside of his door. She senses that inside, he is doing the same. She hears him breathing, hears her own breath mirroring his exhalations. She inhales, he exhales. For a moment they are one.
'Go,' he says softly. 'If you find my wife, tell her that she was right. I never needed anything but her and my girls.'
'I will.' She reaches up and wipes the tears from her face.
She turns and runs towards the door at the end of the corridor. Her legs feel weak. The door is painted blue and with every unstable step, it grows closer. She pushes the blue door open and suddenly, she is outside in the bright, warm sunshine. A loud, piercing siren sounds in the distance and she forces her flailing legs to race towards the bushland several hundred metres away. Her heart will explode. Her lungs will burst. But she makes it, and slips in between the trees.
After some time, she knows they won't find her. She pauses to rest and looks around. It is a perfect spring day. The weather is warm, with a light, cool breeze. And in the shade grow yellow flowers, waving in the wind.
About the author
Stephanie Mylchreest, 29, is an Australian living in Dubai. A lawyer, she has been here for three years and works for the Government. Her true passion, however, is writing and she looks forward each year to the M short story competition. She says: "The competition is a wonderful platform for aspiring writers to showcase their talents, and I would encourage anyone with an interest in writing to participate. It can be difficult to become a published author, and by entering high-quality competitions such as the M magazine's short story competition, you can build up your writing CV." Mylchreest is working on her second novel.