In thought, there was nothing strange about the scene, nor was it strange in sight, sound, smell or feel. But, despite nothing seeming out of the ordinary, something was off. Things seemed a little too normal, a little too ordinary. At least that would be as it seems to you. How would you know? If you just arrived here, this place looks normal, but after time the paint chips off to show the rust and rot and ruin beneath.
I continue watching my reflection in the glass. Behind it the phone, the details and instructions scratched off, and the key pad of digits, recently changed. The phone line hangs limply, swinging faintly as though remembering the times of use. I pull my hood over my head, as I feel eyes begin to glance twice over me, curiosity brushing too closely. Inconspicuous they told me to be. Inconspicuous! I am trying to hard to not be seen, that I am standing out.
They said the number would be in here. I know it. I believe them and I too feel something off, but I know that something to be true unlike another, who might mistake it for a queasy feeling, just some chemicals making you paranoid.
Why not go in? Why not enter the box? That would make it far too obvious for the others to spot me. Everyone in this town, knows the phone line has been dead for ages, since it happened.
Where is this number I need it! I do. I scan the glass, the phone the box itself, looking for what I want, but it doesn’t come out. Nothing leaps out at me. I can’t wait any longer, or else the others will notice.
I have to leave the box. I feel more eyes boring into my back, suspicious now. I turn, leaving the phone box behind. Scared to draw too much attention to myself. It is a dangerous game I am playing.
I still can’t believe the government let this happen. This is a town, of people. Babies, grandparents, parents, strangers, lovers. How is this ethical? I mean what about all of those humanitarian laws? Surely they couldn’t accept this? Yet here we all are. Trapped rats in an experiment.
They said that they wanted to experiment human behaviour on a small scale, there are 2,000 humans here. 2,000! Count that in singles, on your fingers, because we cannot group people, it takes away their individuality, their rights, it just makes them a number. Count 2,000 ones, there you go, that is not small. We are people. We didn’t sign up for this, who would?
The streets begin to narrow and I rush to find my door, hugging my jumper round me, hiding my figure, my hair and face. I pull out my key, picking up my pace more, yet not breaking into a run. I reach my door and slip in, locking it behind me.
“Who are you?” a voice echoes “What are you doing here?”
“You know who I am, alright?” the face peaks behind the door, the wrinkles and ancient eyes looking innocent, but I know otherwise.
“Find it?” She looks at me, studying me before making up her mind, “No, I should have guessed otherwise. Better luck tomorrow.” We erupt into a silence, one of which that can only happen through a complete and utter knowing of another being that leads to frequent silence, of having nothing to talk about.
She takes the pan of the stove, steady handed and sturdy, and brings it over to the table. Then she begins to pour the contents into the bowls to reveal a clear liquid: soup. I pretend to eat it, noticing the dramatically thinning figure of my friend and, go up for seconds as I call it, and empty the soup, back into the pan, before returning and sitting down and starting to pretend to eat again. I lift her bowl from her as soon as she finished and filled it back up with more liquid, telling her how delicious it was, and that she should eat more, as I had had my fill.
I continue filling her bowl, until the pan is emptied and then snap the polystyrene bowls in half and put them in the bin. Water is too valuable to wash up too often with, and we had used these bowls thrice already.
I lead her up the stairs, hearing the creak and remembering which ones do and don’t: the fifth step and second do not creak in the middle, use the side of the step for the rest, except the third, avoid that one. I tuck her blanket, leaving the wipes on the side of the table for her wash the next day. I give her the torch and let her read a chapter of her book, to send her to sleep quicker, but also out of pity, she has been getting increasingly worse in her illness.
I then go to my own room, and feign sleeping for an hour. It doesn’t take her long to get to sleep, the silence that follows, hints to that. I sit up, and dress myself in the loosest clothing I can find. I check my self in the mirror: the hints of being a woman hidden. When ‘natural’ human behaviour is involved, one cannot be female alone, for fear of their safety.
I do not care I need to find that number. That one number. I wrap my belt around my fingers, keeping the prong of the bar, out of my knuckles. I walk quietly, letting the keys, lie tightly in my sweating palms. I unlock and lock the door, and leave to the street, keeping the teeth of the keys, jutting out of my other fist and the key ring round my thumb. No harm in being to careful, and they are more subtle weapons than kitchen knives, and harder to be dropped or knocked out. They make me less of a target. I attach the door key to the bracelet I wear around my wrist, just for safe keeping, yet making sure it is in easy reach for a desperate grab.
I walk down the street, walking confidently, striding as much as possible. At each corner I check no one is following me, but no one is despite my paranoia telling me otherwise. I reach the phone box and the square is empty. I look intently at the box, but the only number is the ones to call for information… Wait… how many digits? 6? 345144… 345144… 345144…. remember it! 345144… Ok. Got it?
345144. I need to go back. I need to find it, before it changes again. Run… No don’t, do not run. It will draw attention to yourself. Do not panic. Stop. Almost there.
The world turns black, to a sharp pain to the back of my head.
I come to, in darkness and I jerk my head in alarm.
“What is the number?”
“Number?” I feel overwhelmed by confusion.
“Shit, you hit her on the head too hard.”
“We need the bloody number mate. We need it.”
“How do I know to trust you.” I ask, “Who are you? Why can’t I see you?”
“Just tell us the number, we know you found it.” anger seems to start broiling in the strangers voice, “We know, so just tell us the number.”
I hear whispering between the two strangers.
“Just tell us the bloody number.”
“How do I know I can trust you.” I feel a punch to my gut, driving the air out of me lungs and I feel my head start to swim.
“It’ll be your face next time. Tell us the number.” I sit in silence, trying to move the restraints tying me to the chair. “We cannot find it ourselves tell us the number.” I know the importance of it. I know what it unlocks and by the determination of these strangers to get it something worth keeping to myself for now. I sit in silence waiting for the next punch to be delivered.
The fist makes contact by my jaw, defined knuckle coming in at an angle, knocking my head sharply to the left. I spit a little blood out of the side of my mouth, I feel it splatter down my face in my mess attempt to get the saltiness of it out of my mouth. Already I feel it swelling on my cheek.
“Just tell us the number. We don’t want to have to do it again.” I keep silent biding my time. I manage to curl my index and middle finger to the bracelet where the magnet kept the key secure, and I slide it off, hoping no one saw me do it from behind. They kick me below my knee cap, where the flesh is flabby around the joint a sudden burst of pain that lingers like the other punches.
“What time is it? You see I really ought to be getting back.” I spit out. I fake cough, letting my movements slide the key along the ropes at my back.
“Stop coughing and tell us the number. We know you went to find it.”
Behind me I feel the ropes start to give, the strands of the rough and course strips entwined, slowly giving up from the strain. I see another leg coming for my shin, so I brace myself holding the key in my fist. I feel the the spark of pain swim up my nerves.
I start again, to cut the rope, while the people around made demands and threats. I close my eyes, trying to put more force on the key. I feel the impact of a punch to my stomach and drop the key with a sickening ring as it hit the floor. I gasped for air, trying to suck any in, after the wind was knocked out of me. I sense the strangers shift to see what dropped, and they see the fraying knots and the key I used to do it.
“Now, we were being reasonable, but you just forfeited that.” I hear a rustling from one of the figures and I turn to face the noise. The lights go slightly blurry and I feel the plastic closing in on my face. I try and gasp for more air but the bag sucks itself into my mouth instead. They pull it tighter around my neck and I start to get desperate, straining even more.
The bag is removed and I gasp even more desperately than when I was winded. I savour the air.
“Come on, you know we could kill you right now, you know how it is, so just tell us.”
“That’s the only reason I’m not telling-”
“Because you think that is the only reason you are alive? Trust me, there are other reasons you are still alive.” I feel the sneer linger upon my face, and I thrash trying to escape in futile attempt. “The number now, sweetheart.” I stay silent seeing the direction my fate would lead in. “We know they gave you the chance to go in safe passage with your friend for the number, we could offer you the same.” The voice paused, the silence filled with my breathing and a faint rustling of the bag. I twist away from the sound but my head is grabbed and put underneath the plastic again. I struggle again in frantic motions before the bag is lifted, in my ear the man finishes his sentence, “for a few favours, what do you say?”
I start to cry and shake my head but in my ears I hear the rustling.
“What do you say?”
I nod in response, fear creeping upon me.
“The number, then.”
I pause and wait, catching my breath back, trying to fit words into my shaking lips: “345144”, I stutter out.
We did escape, my friend and I. She died, eventually, to frail and delicate to stop the infections that destroyed her lungs.
I still remember it all. I still have the marks, mental and physical. I can still feel it, them and what they did, after all these years. I often think to myself, I should have stayed stubborn and not have told them and have had died there and then. But then I wouldn’t have my Rosie.