by Michelle Ann King
The buzzer in Meg's flat has been busted for months, so the only way she knows someone's there is when they knock right on the door.
She's been waiting for this knock for half the night, but it still makes her jump. Adrenalin hits her like a well-aimed punch in the gut, robbing her of breath for a long and painful moment.
The door opens directly into her cramped little kitchen, where she's sitting at the plastic folding table, its discoloured surface empty except for an ashtray and a bottle. The first is full, the second less so.
'Who is it?'
The words come out as a cross between a whisper and a squeak. Meg clears her throat and prepares to try again, because there's no way anyone on the other side could have heard, but the answer comes anyway.
'It's me. Steffi. Open up.'
Meg's stomach clenches as adrenalin slugs her again. Steffi.
It's good news. The best. It's what she wanted, what she's been hoping for. Isn't it?
It could have been the police, or it could have been Critch, or one of his runners. The message would have been delivered in different words, but it would have amounted to the same thing: someone who wasn't really sorry saying, Sorry, your sister's dead.
But it's not. It's not the police, it's not anyone from the crew. It's Steffi. She's not dead. She's fine. They took her away, patched her up and sent her home. She's fine. She's alive. Isn't she?
'Meg? Come on. Let me in.'
Meg takes another hit from the bottle, but other than that she doesn't move.
It could have gone down like that. Of course it could. They have people on call for just this kind of thing. Doctors who can sneak patients into private clinics, field medics who can perform amputations in warehouses, nurses with kitbags full of ketamine. Even vets, in a pinch. Stitching a wound is stitching a wound.
They would have looked after her, because that's what they do. Same as they did for Meg herself, when she got out. They gave her the pub because they knew it had broken her, being inside. They knew her nerve had gone. But she'd been one of them once, so they looked after her. It's what they do.
'Meg. I know you're in there. Open the door.'
Meg puts the bottle down. She can imagine herself doing that. Getting up, undoing the bolts, unlocking the door and opening it. Letting her sister in.
She'll say, 'Fuck's sake, Steffi,' because that's how they say things when they don't have the words. This time she'll be saying, 'I love you,' and, 'I'm glad you're alive,' and, 'Please don't do that to me again.' And Steffi will know, and she'll shrug, because that's the standard response. That's how they do it. Fuck's sake.
Steffi will see the bottle and help herself, even though she'll probably still be flying on whatever they gave her for the pain while they fixed her up. Meg won't object, because if there's ever a time you deserve a drink it's when you've been fucking shot, but she'll take the bottle back before Steffi has a chance to finish it. It's the only one she's got left in the flat.
They'll both slump on the ratty sofa and put the news on, waiting to see if they've got a story about a shooting at a pub in South London. There might be a report from the scene, with the dark shape of the King Edward looming in the background while someone interviews witnesses, local residents, or just any fucker who happens to wander by and can string a sentence together. Or maybe they'll have a piece from the girl in the studio, with a say-nothing comment from the police and a couple of tweets. heard fireworks outside the ol eddie 2nite lol.
Or maybe not. Maybe nobody heard nothing, nobody saw nothing. No, Guv, no trouble round here. Maybe there'll be more important news to report; some rock star's got a new boyfriend, or a TV presenter's put on weight.
So they'll sit and listen to the waffle for a while, and when Meg's had enough she'll put the kettle on and pour what's left of the bottle into two giant mugs of tea. Proper tea, as dark and thick as treacle.
And then maybe they'll talk. Proper talk, the kind that's true, and means something. Not just all right, and yeah, and see you later.
Steffi will tell her all about it; how there were whisperings and rumours and warnings, which is why she started wearing the bullet-proof vest. She'll laugh and say she was upset it didn't have FBI or NYPD or SWAT painted on it, like they do in the films, but these came from Russia or Turkey or somewhere, and what can you do? She'll insist on peeling off her shirt and showing Meg the bruises and stitches and whatever other gruesome injuries she managed to collect.
Meg will pretend she's got to go and throw up so that she can cry a little in the bathroom, and when she comes back she'll thump Steffi somewhere that isn't already too brutalised and say, 'I was scared, Steffi. I was fucking terrified,' and Steffi will pretend not to notice her puffy eyes and say, quietly, 'Yeah. I know. So was I.'
They'll hug, just for a second, because sometimes that's easier. Meg will rest her head against her sister's and say, 'You're getting out now, right? After this, you're getting out. It's enough. It's done.'
There'll be a long silence when all Meg can hear is the sound of their breathing, but then Steffi will say, 'Yeah.'
Meg might cry a bit more then, and Steffi will snort and say, 'Fuck's sake, Meg.'
Then they'll sit down again, drink their tea and live happily ever after.
Yeah. Maybe that's what will happen.
The sound is more of a scratch than a knock now, the voice more of a whisper. 'Meg. Open the door, Meg.'
She can still do it. She can still get up, unlock it, throw it wide in invitation to whoever – whatever – is standing there.
It'll look like Steffi, of course, because that's how it works. It'll look like her and sound like her, and that's usually good enough. That gets them where they want to go.
It won't move like her, though. That's the difference, that's how you can tell. At first, before they've got used to it, they're jittery. Uncoordinated, like they can't quite remember how everything connects. Once they do get used to it (once they've fed, the word on the street says, and that makes sense, but Meg's never seen that part of it first hand so she doesn't know for sure) they're still different, but that's because they're better. Stronger. Faster. Quieter.
Fast as lightning, still as stone. When Steffi was younger that became a kind of game, like, what do they call it, Bloody Mary. A dare. Say it three times and one of them appears.
Meg hears something, a kind of choking sob. Did it come from outside, or did she make it? She's not sure.
Of course, when they usually appear is when something, or more usually someone, needs dealing with. Whatever that might mean in the circumstances: warning, threat, scare, reminder, enforcement, back-up, disposal. Sacrifice? Yeah, maybe that too. Word on the street says whatever god or devil makes this possible wants its dues. Its offerings. And people disappear all the time, right? The criminal classes are all nomads, everyone knows that. The junkies, the crazies, the tramps – who's going to miss any of them?
It's good business, long as it's managed right – too many dead people leaving fingerprints at crime scenes and the cops might have to look into it properly, much as they really don't want to. Nobody wants to look at it too closely, nobody really wants to know. Ask anyone, they'll tell you it's all just rumours, just stories, just people shooting their mouth off, being funny, pulling your leg. It's just a joke. An urban legend. You believe that shit, I've got a bridge you might want to buy. Ha ha.
It makes people feel better, saying all that. Meg knows, she's done it herself enough times. It's some old, old instinct – like kids hiding under the duvet and clinging to the idea that if you can't see the monster, it can't see you. If you don't believe, it can't be real.
But there's something real outside her door right now, isn't there? Something scratching at the wood and calling her by name and asking to be let in. It says it's her sister and yeah, maybe it is.
But maybe it isn't.
Because Meg was there tonight, she saw what happened, and there was no fucking bulletproof vest or miraculous near-miss or little flesh wound that could be fixed up by a moonlighting vet. It was a shotgun, for fuck's sake, a fucking shotgun, and when one of those opens up your chest you don't get up and go home afterwards.
And yeah, that's the other thing she doesn't want to think about. Home. Because word on the street, that source of all knowledge, says that's what happens. That's what they do. They go home.
'Family blood, man,' Critch said to her once. 'Does them the world of good.' He'd grinned. 'Like being breastfed. They can't get enough of it.'
Meg winces. She could have done without that particular memory. Fucking Critch.
She takes another swallow from the bottle, but the burn doesn't wipe it out. It doesn't wipe anything out. Even with her eyes clamped shut and streaming, she can still see it – still see Steffi shuffling in, an unrecognisable smile on her face and her arms held out. Come here, Meg.
And she'll do it, won't she? Because when her sister needs something, Meg's never been able to say no. So she'll go, she'll walk into those arms. She'll make it easy.
Will it be the last thing she ever does? Maybe. She's not sure. Word on the street is fuzzy about that. There's people that allegedly moved on in the middle of the night – nomads, right? – and others that allegedly got sick. Those ones hang around, looking like ghosts, looking like concentration camp victims. Cancer, the street says, and looks the other way. Cancer's a bitch, man. But isn't it good how often their sons, daughters, sisters, or uncles come to visit? Your family, that's what gets you through tough times. Blood's thicker than water. Tastes better, too.
Meg hears that sobbing sound again. Maybe she left the telly on and it's playing some horror film. Because that's where all the really bad stuff happens, isn't it? On the telly. Everyone knows that.
She'll get up in a minute and turn it off. And then she'll open the door, and see who's there. Any minute now, that's what she's going to do. Any minute now.
Michelle Ann King was born in East London and now lives in Essex. Her stories have appeared in over seventy different venues, including Interzone, Strange Horizons, and Black Static. Her first collection, Transient Tales, is available in ebook and paperback now. See www.transientcactus.co.uk for details.
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