Here in the dark you could be any age. Four months old and wriggling; ignorant of the difference between night and day. Three and a half in a power cut and scared of the dark. Eight with a stomach bug, whimpering in the too-big t-shirt that I put you in while I washed your pajamas. Tonight, you are bigger than all of those earlier selves; swimming on a dark ocean. Your duvet is a fat, tired animal that crawls back over you—duller, heavier—each time you kick it away. Your legs twitch with too many hormones, too much sugar, too much blue light before bed. I stroke your hair and mutter a rosary of promises to never again allow you these things. You writhe like you’re withdrawing from heroin. I google “withdrawal heroin”. I google “withdrawal Coca-Cola”. I google “effects of caffeine in teens”. I google “teen deaths from common colds”. I remember reading somewhere that a blue light can ward off sleep even if you’re not looking at it. So I turn off my phone and sit in the dark and listen to the breaking wave of each breath. Your bed is too narrow, and my body cramps around yours in a question mark. I remember lying next to you like this when you were a baby, scratching out each angry minute until I heard his key in the door.
He was always downstairs, miles out and drifting further still. Your novice immune system brought a host of plagues to my house long after he had faded to a dot on the horizon. This one wipes its nose on the soft furnishings; pesters and jostles you, pushes its way out of your mouth on the backs of insults that shatter in the air between us. Fragments glint at me now through the dark: it’s my fault he’s gone; you wish I had left instead; you wish he had taken you with him. I swallowed the swarm of retorts that whirred under my tongue. Instead, I dug my fingernails into the flesh of my palms, where they carved out sarcastic purple smiles. Later, I came up to find you prone and keening. You let me lie down next to you then; asked me to stroke your hair.
The grey-white of dawn seeps in past the edges of the curtains now. A hush of raindrops against the window mixes with the ebbing snarl coming from your lungs. I unfurl and ooze out of the room. You shrink with each step backwards: eight, then three, then nine months old. I float downstairs and stand—very still—in the living room. The wet morning sharpens into focus. I think how easy it would be to put my shoes on and slip out of the back door.
Claire Carroll writes short fiction about climate change, social collapse and dysfunctional relationships. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, where she is writing a collection of stories set in the British Isles of the near future.