Late Night Wanderer – Erin Campbell

I couldn’t remember the last time I had spoken to someone else. Someone real. The days draw out in the cold metropolis, unforgiving and unkind to me. The constant murmur of traffic and people does nothing to pierce the thick and heavy silence that hangs around me each day, pressing down and suffocating.

I wrapped my coat tighter around my body and hiked my bag higher over my shoulders, aware of the bitter wind, weaving its way around my bones. Rays of burnt orange and gold offered little warmth as the sun sank behind the tallest buildings in the city, their silver spires reaching up to touch the sky. The endless avenue of mirrored glass bounced the light off every surface, illuminating the busy street below. I pocketed the little change I had acquired today. A few pennies amounting to the little charity of a nation. A group of women herded giggling children into the backs of their cars, heading home from after-school football practice or theatre rehearsals, maybe even parents’ evenings. Siblings battled for the right to claim the front passenger seat; the bigger of them usually overpowering the younger and smaller ones. Their laughter carried over to me, reminding me of arguments with my own brother. But that was a long time ago.

Realising the time, I pushed on down the street; it was getting later and it was a long walk back. I glanced back at the cars motoring on down the street, filled with the little-league team, and suddenly saw myself sitting in the back seat of my mum’s old car. The vehicle had seen better days; a tired-looking people carrier, the blue paint quite worn and the inside littered with toys and crumbs from biscuits and other snacks. My brother and I lounged in the back of the car, hysterically cackling at each other’s painted faces. I stared into the eyes of a fierce dragon with fire escaping from its mouth whilst my brother gazed at my own superhero mask, the insignia inked across my forehead proudly. We battled in the backseat of the car as mum drove us home; my super speed dodged the burning inferno of the dragon’s breath, and as I went to fly over his head, his wicked green tail whipped around and struck me down…

My thoughts were interrupted by the screech of a nearby car horn. Oblivious to the oncoming traffic, a group of well-dressed diners meandered across the road, en-route to the Michelin-starred restaurant on the street. The buildings here were smaller than the corporate skyscrapers from further up the road, but far more attractive. Old sandstone townhouses with gleaming statues on the facades dominated this section of the avenue, their cold eyes looking disdainfully on the street, following the movements of those out for a meal. As I walked past the entrances of restaurants, mouth-watering aromas of slow-roasted meat and warming spices overwhelmed my senses. I noticed then just how hungry I was: I couldn’t remember when I last ate, but knew that it may as well have been oxygen. As if on cue, my stomach gurgled, complaining of today’s lack of food.

The wind picked up, growing colder by the minute. The sun was completely gone by now and darkness enveloped the entire city, interrupted only by the headlights of thinning traffic or the orange glow from the overhead street lights. I noticed how quiet it was. The street was fairly empty, littered with groups of smokers leaning against the wall of the bar. Wisps of nicotine swirled through the night air, a ghostly fog rising eerily from the ground. I increased my pace further, realising how dark and late it was. I didn’t want to be out at this time, I had to get back as soon as possible, before I got into any trouble; my shoulder still ached from last week’s incident in the park.

My thoughts were interrupted by the clamour of men brawling outside a bar on the edge of the block, which had a reputation for the odd disturbance. Two men; both intoxicated, raised heavy arms to meet the each other’s faces, slurring incoherent abuse. They threatened to stumble from the pavement as another clenched fist swung through the night air. I hugged the wall on the far side of the road and kept my hood up; not that they would have noticed me anyway. A shadow blending into the night, I watched as one of the men landed a lucky punch; bursting the other’s nose. Blood streamed from his nostrils as he clutched at his face. I tried not to look as the crimson fluid painted its host’s face before spilling out onto the street…

…The pool of blood at my feet grew and grew, each drop from the endless cuts and bruises that littered my face, arms and neck. The gash on my left shoulder from where my seatbelt had sliced through my shirt leaked blood onto my lap. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the contorted shape of my brother, his limbs at unnatural angles with glass shards protruding from his tiny frame each drawing more blood than the next. My mum, now a statue behind the wheel, sat unmoving with her head hanging forwards. I remember trying to reach for her, but the searing pain stabbed through my body; ten thousand volts of electricity through every muscle and nerve. I slumped back against the remains of the crumpled metal cage and eventually drifted out of consciousness to the sound of wailing sirens approaching, yet growing fainter in my head every second…

I jolted awake from the memory, shuddering in the cold, the only sound the rustle of discarded newspapers being swept up through the wind, last week’s news now confetti raining down on the street. I reached the entrance to the old hospital building, the old steps climbing up in front of me to the main entrance. The uniform, rectangular windows were boarded up and many tiles from the tired roof littered the porch having slid form their places. Heaving my rucksack from my aching back, I knelt in the back of the porch and pulled out my thin sleeping mat and cover. The thick walls of the hospital offered shelter from the wind and cold whilst the porch ceiling prevented the rain from bombarding me during the night and leaving me soaked and cold. It was a long time since I had properly slept through the night: the constant threat of the streets kept me weary and awake.

I remember sitting huddled on the front steps of the hospital, nurses and patients bustling in and out of the building. Both nights, I hadn’t slept at all. The bandage round my forehead had grown grey since being dressed here three days previously. My face had greyed too; I hadn’t eaten since the doctor had told me what had happened. I had emptied my stomach after being told I was alone.

I never spoke to the lady who smiled too much and told me everything would be okay. I never told her my name, didn’t give her my family’s number. There was no one. I had no one.

I remember sitting on my own in the front pew of the hospital’s chapel. The two coffins stretched out before me, adorned with the cheap flowers from the gift shop. The service was brief, and afterwards, I was led out of the building by the same lady who had enquired about my family and who had given me empty words of hope, behind the pretence of her fake smile…

No one in my family had really left the hospital that day; not even me. The inexplicable pull of the place often unnerved me, how this place of personal tragedy had also become my small sanctuary. I would never leave the city. Morning could not be far away and tomorrow I would rise again and find something to eat with what little change I had left from last month’s cheque. However for now, nestling into the far corner of the porch and closing my eyes, I let the heaviness of sleep pull me under, drifting off to dreams of superheroes and dragons, and the distinct laugh of two young and unsuspecting brothers.