|Annik stumbled, pulled her hoodie tighter and sank into a crouch in the shop’s doorway. In another life she would have stopped to look over the shoe display. In that life she still could not afford them. In this life she needed food, a shower and rest. The first two she couldn’t do, the last she might. She curled up.
The city was empty. Coffee shops, like the one she used to work in, weren’t passing end-of-the-day sandwiches to the people like her. She remembered her boss’s shrug. Her landlord made the same gesture: job or no job rent was due. He’d suggested another way to pay.The street wobbled as she felt the familiar light headedness and sharp pain in a stomach that no longer had the energy to grumble. She stank of stale dirt and sweat. Would it have been so bad to let the landlord take her?
She sagged into herself as the light began to fade. The nights were bone-achingly cold. No one knew when cafes would reopen. Bars would be last. All she knew was serving. Her last employer didn’t give a reference and wouldn’t now the business was shut. She no longer had an address. There was no one to notice her. She didn’t even have the energy to curse herself for not becoming the landlord’s whore.
Annik rubbed her eyes. A man was approaching. She slid into the shadows. He looked in doorways as he got closer. Her joints were too stiff. She pushed herself against the shutters. He was a foot taller than her and she couldn’t tell if his bulk was due to layers of clothes or muscle.
He’d seen her. His hands were blue and large and he wore a face mask. She’d easily be manhandled. She pulled her feet under her and leant forward. She wouldn’t get far, but that was better than just giving in. In a fight, she had no chance. He stopped, still two metres away.
‘Hey.’ His voice was calm, authoritative.
Annik’s mind screamed ‘Run!’ but her muscles refused to comply. She was trapped.
‘What do you want?’ her voice was pathetic. Inwardly she cursed. He was about to overpower her. Whatever he wanted to do, she hoped would be over quickly.
She blinked as realised he wore gloves and jeans under a fleece. Not a uniform.
His voice was calm. ‘I’m Matthew.’
Annik realised he hadn’t moved.
She saw a badge on his lapel, too far away to read.
‘The Echo Project’s night shelter is open. They’ll help.’ He pointed. ‘Left at the end and keep going.’
She took a couple of steps. He watched but didn’t move. A man who didn’t grab her, who didn’t proposition her, who didn’t threaten her. Could that be possible? She turned the corner. He hadn’t moved. Another step. She saw a sign that said Echo Project. Annik hugged herself, not daring to look back at where she’d come from.
|Emma Lee’s publications include “The Significance of a Dress” (Arachne, 2020) and “Ghosts in the Desert” (IDP, 2015). She co-edited “Over Land, Over Sea,” (Five Leaves, 2015), is Poetry Reviews Editor for The Blue Nib, reviews for magazines and blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com.|