What’s the point? she asked herself desperately as she stumbled through the dark alleyways and unlit back streets that slinked around Greenash like an army of deceitful snakes, just waiting for their prey to get lost or trip or simply die at the climax of the journey. Her breath was catching painfully in her throat, great tugs of air grabbing at her abused larynx, and her lungs were refusing to do her bidding and draw in enough oxygen to keep her head from becoming a touch too light, but she wasn’t going to stop. She couldn’t. Not yet. Not until she was certain that she was not going to die in this cold, deserted, unfeeling place. Not until she was sure that she wouldn’t die like her mother had; painfully and too, too soon.
Finally she slowed, stopped, and listened. After a minute in which she stood, poised to run at the slightest pin drop, ready to flee if a shadow danced her way, she realised that there was no sound other than her own laboured breathing, furiously beating heart, and the distant hum of engines as early morning commuters started their days at work. Finally she felt that she was genuinely alone, her precious life safe. For the moment. Relaxing minutely, her body still aware that danger might not have passed and working on instinct rather than cogent thought, she leant heavily against the crumbling old graffiti stained brick wall at her back, wheezing and breathless and far too exhausted to care about the diseased germs crawling over every inch of the shiny dew-dropped black rubbish bags that were piled high next to her, and the ominously loud sound of what was probably rats eating their way through the plastic and into whatever was decomposing inside.
Standing straight, pulling her hands into fists in order to focus and concentrate, her ragged, bitten fingernails digging sharply into her palms, she made a conscious effort to try and control her breathing, but it was a difficult task, made harder still by the exhaust fumes that were beginning to silently seep into the alley from the nearby road. A fan or generator or some other industrial heating or cooling tool starting up in the building behind her made her jump, momentarily distracting her from calming herself down, jagging her body and breathing into flight mode once more. Now, however, with enough oxygen reaching her brain for it to work as it should, and the lactic acid making her leads awkwardly heavy, she did not run, realising that the sounds she was hearing were normal, everyday ones that she should be grateful to be able to hear rather than terrified since it meant she was alive,. This was a comfort to her, as the sound of the motors and the stink of the exhaust fumes had been. It meant that life – real life – was still going on as usual, mundane and wonderful, the world had not ended, and, miraculously, she was, in spite of everything, still a living human being. .
Exhaling a long stream of air out through lips that were chapped and chewed and rolled into a nervous pout, she answered her own silent question – what’s the point? - that had been asked so many times as she ran that should could no longer remember quite when it had started or even if there had been a beginning – she sometimes felt as though she had been asking it most of her life. But, despite the fear and the exhaustion she knew, of course she always had, what the point was, that the only reason she kept running, night after night, was that she didn’t want to die. If she simply stood still, there was a dark certainty within her that she would be killed, violently, painfully, with no dignity or grace, dream or not. And of that, she was terrified.
When her breath had stopped hitching in her chest like the memory of a toddler’s tantrum just fading, when her hands had stopped shaking sufficiently for her to tie the wet dressing gown belt that had been flapping uselessly along the ground for some time now, and that she had bizarrely been worrying about since she first realised that it was wrapping muddy streaks around her ankles, and after looking warily around her to make sure that she was still as alone as she hoped to be, Mary Bostall stepped out of the alley and placed a first guarded step on the wide pavement that ran along the river. The ground remained firm, reality was convincing, and her confidence came back to her, thawing her body as it rushed through her bloodstream. She was now almost completely sure that she was awake and that the world was real. She wandered across the street and sat for a moment on the wooden bench that faced the water, a small brick wall was between her and the river; she had sat on it many times, and even walked along it as a fearless child. The green paint on the bench was flaking, and she absent-mindedly picked at it, revealing cracked grey wood beneath. Staring out across the river, Mary could see the day preparing itself to start, a warming pink sunrise leaking across the morning sky.
At six o’clock in the morning, the town of Greenash was just starting to become busy. Joggers, hell-bent on getting their daily exercise out of the way as early as possible, trotted past her, music blaring from battered MP3 players, mouths set in a grimace, eyes focused on the ground at their feet. Bleary-eyed workers, ambition getting in the way of sleep, walked slowly, feet dragging, but their eyes still focused down. Mary wondered what would happen if the world suddenly ended. She wondered if anyone would notice since no one had apparently noticed so far that she was wearing a dressing gown and thick purple bed socks, disheveled and dirty and looking like a rather bemused and sleep-deprived lunatic. Or a tramp. Or both. She giggled slightly to herself at the thought and then glanced around quickly, scanning the area for anyone who might have seen her, her cheeks reddening at the thought. No one had. No one was bothered by her presence.
Mary watched the few people walking by her as she mentally instructed her body to do her bidding and stand. It was hard and took longer than it should have done, but she managed it with a groan that she didn’t mean to let out. She envied the apathetic glances – when there were any – and wished that she could be as indifferent to things that were going on around her. Mary yawned and brushed the green dust from her fingers, wiping her hands down her aching thighs which were still clad in the heavy pyjama bottoms she had worn to bed the previous night. She was intensely glad she hadn’t opted for a nightgown, or for sleeping naked as she sometimes did, as the breeze was a chill one when it came. She arched her back and bent her legs, feeling better for the stretch and yearning for her bed and a shower, despite the knowledge that the former was impossible because, even after the horrific night just gone, it was still a work day, and sick days were not something that Mary had ever been comfortable with, and the latter would probably be cold, considering the temperamental old – possibly condemned if she ever got it serviced - boiler that sat like a squat, square alien in her kitchen.
The slow, long walk back to her flat did nothing to quell the remnants of unease that Mary was feeling, as people were beginning to stare now that sleep had departed from them and they had had their first hit of caffeine. She realised that her legs and back were far stiffer than she had first thought as she started to climb the wet – always wet, even in summer, and always with a faint hint of public toilets and vinegary chips – concrete steps inside her building. Pushing through the thin, half-paned fire door at the top of the stairwell entrance and arriving on the chilly and dark third floor corridor, she realised that she didn’t have her front door key. She couldn’t remember leaving her flat the night before, memorable conscious thought only returning to her once she was outside. She supposed that what happened to her at night was a form of sleep-walking, but on the few previous occasions on which it had happened, she had always found her keys tucked into the waistband of her pyjamas, or in her dressing gown pocket and once, painfully, in her sock. This time she had obviously been in a hurry; she couldn’t even remember exactly what she was running from, let alone closing her front door and a heavy lump of dread settled itself in her stomach. Sure enough, as she turned the corner of the carpeted corridor, her dark night blue door was sitting slightly open, a thin chunk of blackness nestling between the bright white matching pillars of the door frame and the deep gloss of the thickly painted door. The deep and heavy dread grew deeper and heavier. It was simply not possible that no one had ransacked her home while she had been gone, especially as this was not the most desirable of areas to live in. The reason that her door stood out from the others on the third floor was that it was newer, replaced after the flat had been broken into not long before. The thought of another burglary made her feel nauseated. The first one had been bad enough, and she had still not fully recovered, still feeling unsafe at home, especially at night and locking her door like Fort Knox - when she was awake and capable of doing so, that was. She hated it; hated the fact that because of someone else’s cruelty – and she did see petty thieves and burglars as cruel – she now lived in a state of, if not fear, then certainly anxious nervousness.Mary slowly reached out her arm and pushed the door open completely with a sharp thrust, her fear making her push harder than she had intended, sending the interior door handle slamming viciously into the wall behind it, leaving a cracked round welt in the magnolia plaster.