A month ago, I entered a short fiction contest for the very first time. Today, I found out I did not make the shortlist. As it was my first attempt, I am not too discouraged. I entered the contest mostly to exercise my writing muscles and to be forced to complete a story since there was a deadline attached.
And so I thought I’d share my story here.
Without further ado…
Wall of TVs
Under the spotlight of street lamps, the wet pavement looks slick like well-oiled leather until the next pot hole comes and shatters the illusion. She avoids the craters her eyes are quick enough to spot, but the crowd surrounding her—a crowd that is both trying to rip apart and stay together—remains dense and makes and breaks rules on a whim. Crowd or no crowd, in this city, the streets are always an accident waiting to happen. Some pot holes are marked with bright orange paint; paint that will fade away as the days get shorter and as the holes get filled, but right now, the cracked and uneven pavement simply enhances her feeling that this is a country at war, when it isn’t.
Tonight, she feels like she’s been to war, a war that’s raging still, though she has no frame of reference, no past experience against which to bounce the sensations of the last few hours. To her, the city is still a mystery. It’s exciting, but often enough, it seems like it is waging a war against her, pushing her out, branding her as an outsider. She was born in the suburbs, grew up in a bungalow with a car port her mother had so wished would be turned into a proper garage. Aboveground pool and soccer games; videogames in the basement of the next door neighbour who also turned out to be her first sorta serious boyfriend; school with classmates she’s known all her life, except for the proverbial new kid thrown in the mix each September; then the city at eighteen to go to college.
And now: this, nine months later.
The chaos: in a pretty small radius. The annoyance: definitely. The feeling of being lost and all alone in a crowd: overwhelming everything else.
She continues to feel the warmth of his hand in her palm. In her mind, she replays the moment when his hand was torn away from hers and panic had set in. Not torn away, exactly: there was a sense that he was letting go. Perhaps he realised sooner than she did that hand-holding in a crowd was an exercise in futility. Or maybe at that point in the battle, he needed both hands to push people and throw things and raise his fists in the air. He had said a few times that tonight was an important battle in all-out war. Even now, she still doesn’t know if she truly admires him for it or if her infatuation kicked her logic to the curb.
School’s out; she’s moved out of the dorm. He lets her crash in his place but doesn’t give her the official nod in the form of a key. He’s met her family but she’s only seen his in the form of a picture on his dresser. She now wishes she had done more with her time over the last months beside studying and falling for him because it feels like he’s all she’s got.
She had tried to cut through the mob and run after him, to no avail. She had caught some glimpses of him getting further and further away. Then her phone had panged—though the pang, she did not hear with the thundering noise of shouts and batons knocking against riot shields—and vibrated with a two-word message: “meeting place”. Now she repeats the message in her head like a mantra as she tries to move in one of the directions taken by the ever slowly scattering horde.
The irony of the fact that she didn’t want to be there in the first place is not lost on her as she merges with a group she decides to follow; a smaller group that will perhaps be able to slither away. In truth, she had half-assed the whole thing. She didn’t disagree with what they protested, but she felt like an imposter going through the motions. She recalls the argument she had with her family about it over Sunday’s dinner. He had done most of the talking (talking, then arguing) along with her dad. Her dad had called him a punk, under his breath at first but then loudly, coined with a popular expletive. On the long bus-metro-bus way back from the suburbs to his place, he had carried on and on about the bourgeoisie, the need to kick the system in the teeth, her cushy upbringing. She had resisted the urge to throw his own upbringing back into his face. In the end, she had relented—the argument and the decision about the protest.
As the cluster of runners she picked reaches a wall of barricades, she realises she’s panting, out of breath. The runners seep through the barricades and keep pushing forward, and she follows along, more or less through her own volition. She’s a tiny thing that’s being shoved this way and that until her foot gets caught in a pothole—this one, marked with white paint, as though it’s less important than the others, yet she can see it’s pretty deep—and her ankle twists in pain. She yelps, but the kids are busy fleeing. For a few seconds that seem to stretch out like a small eternity, she thinks she might get trampled on. A more dramatic thought crosses her mind: she might die here. Time rolls on again, and she is pushed to the left, lightweight that she is, and against a smart car that was tipped over, probably because it was small enough to be lifted and toppled over. She presses her back against a wheel, not caring that it will leave a mark on her shirt; a shirt that’s already drenched in sweat and the water the policemen in scary mob control uniforms had hosed down at the mob. She pauses, dazed for a moment, and watches. Feet are still pummelling the pavement, people (kids) in all size and shape and form pass before her eyes. In the distance—the not-so-far-off distance—sirens sound and whistles blow. And there’s still that unnerving sound of batons beating down riot shields. Her breathing slows down, not to a normal rhythm; she doesn’t think that’s possible, but normal enough. She tries to move her ankle, and pain shoots through her leg, but she persists. She lifts her leg and moves her foot in a circular motion. It hurts a little, there’s no denying it, but the kids running in front of her and the humming in her ears tell her to push herself off the car and to keep moving as fast as she can, half-stumbling, half-running, away from the bedlam.
She uses her small frame to her advantage, slips into a second pack of kids that just seeped through the barricades, and is carried forward in the momentum. Despite the pain, her feet get into a rhythm, and her mind starts racing again with the mantra, “meeting place.” She stops running when the riot noise dies down and she keeps limping on the main street. She only has a few blocks to go now.
“What if I lose you in the crowd?” she had asked.
“What do you think this is, a day at the beach?”
“No, but if we get separated, I have nowhere to go tonight.”
“All right, all right. Let’s meet at that electronic shop with all the TV monitors in the window,” he had said.
The group broke down a few blocks ago, moving into sideways as soon as they could see perpendicular streets cleared of barricades. In front of the wall of TVs of the electronic shop where she is standing now, she can only hear the faint rumour of the dying chaos downtown. There’s a bench not so far off. It doesn’t face the shop’s window exactly but it’s close enough for her to sit and watch the images on the TV monitors. Half of them project scenes from the protest back to her, while the other half is playing a baseball game—the Yankees Vs the Blue Jays. She stares and stares, thinking maybe she could spot him there, on the other side of the glass, in the wall of TVs that makes her feel like this is not quite real. This whole night she’s felt like she wasn’t exactly there, living it. But he is nowhere in sight, neither in the virtual world on the other side of the store window nor in the flesh.
It’s getting late.
She looks down at herself: her dirty legs under her shorts, the scuffed toes of her black Converses, and her swollen ankle. She takes her mobile out of her pocket and tries to call him. It rings and rings and rings, then goes to voicemail. She doesn’t leave a message; no point. She sends him a text, and she waits. Five minutes turn into ten turn into twenty. The leg attached to her good ankle shakes in nervousness. Her eyes dart back and forth, between the screen of her mobile phone and the wall of TVs. Half the screens have moved on from the protest. She catches a glimpse of an enthusiastic weatherwoman before the monitors switch to a map displaying several bright yellow suns. On half of the other screens, the Yankees are dominating the Jays in the fifth inning.
She remains seated on the bench, and the adrenaline subsides, slowly, giving way to great fatigue. Her backpack gets too heavy for her shoulders. She shakes it off and puts it down on the bench, next to her. It contains her tablet, clean tank top and underwear, a toothbrush, a wallet with a five dollar bill and a maxed-out Visa, her charger, and ear buds. Music.
She plugs the ear buds into her phone and scroll through the music selection. The battery is low. She’s afraid of losing the phone completely. She unplugs the ear buds, and waits.
He’s not here.
The last bus to the suburbs left a while ago.
Holding tight to her phone to keep her left hand from shaking, she fights back the tears, and she hates it; hates that there are tears to repress in the first place. With her right hand, she browses through her contact list and is tempted. She could call them. She’d probably wake them up. Her father would need some convincing, but he’d get behind the wheel in the end. There would be a lecture tonight, more to follow tomorrow, but in between, in the meantime, she would be sound asleep in her bed.
She steals one last glance at the TV screens, waits five minutes more, eyes glued to her phone, and then gets up. The weight on her bad ankle makes her wince, but it’s only a few more blocks to the East. She walks so slowly, wondering how she managed to run on this foot only half an hour ago. Up ahead, the bus stop is like a beacon of dimmed light. Two people are already standing next to it; a man with a cigarette and a woman with half a dozen bags. The bus rolls in just as she’s crossing the street with the green light on her side. She limps onboard like a wounded soldier and lets her body sink on the first available seat. The bus rolls on.
From his stop, she only has a block to go. She sees the building of beige bricks just up ahead. Five steps lead to the main entrance and the locked door to which she doesn’t have the key. She plops her backpack on the third step, slumps next to it, phone in hand. Still no message. So, head in her hands, she waits.