Marion Arnott is a Scottish writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Peninsular Magazine, QWF, West Coast, Northwords, Books Ireland, Hidden Corners, Chapman Magazine, Scottish Child, Solander, Crimewave 4 & 6, Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 2002, Hayakawa Mystery Magazine (Japan), Roadworks magazine, Best British Mysteries (ed. Maxim Jabukowski) and finally The Alsiso Project (Elastic Press, 2004). She has been the recipient of the Philip Good Memorial Prize for Fiction 1998 and Crime Writers' Association Short Dagger 2001 for 'Prussian Snowdrops', and was shortlisted for the CWA Dagger in 2002 and 2003. Her excellent first collection, named after this tale, was published by Elastic Press in August 2003.
She's running alone. No feet thud a together song with hers. She looks sideways at empty space, but memory gets there fast and fills it up with him. She takes the memory eyes front - his face a pale blaze in the dark, cut out of moonlight and all lit up, his eyes a wide-open glitter, mouth wide-open hungry. "You run," she said once, "like you're swallowing the world."
"I'm spitting it out," he said.
So she's running eyes-front with his blazing face beside her and she's not alone. She's running and running and she's all lit up...
Anne-Marie is seven and on to Daddy Number Five. Her Granny says your mother never learns, but you're smarter, you know how to keep out of the way. And Anne-Marie is and she does and she tries, but quiet isn't enough and invisible isn't enough. Number Five comes looking.
'Cheeky wee bitch!' he roars. SMACK.
Her face burns, but she doesn't cry. They don't like that. She waits for worse or over for now, holding her breath. It's worse. SMACK. 'Cheeky wee bitch. Don't you give me dirty looks.'
He's breathing funny, growing bigger, filling the room. SMACK. Her ear bleeds from his sovereign ring. Her eyes stretch wide to hold in tears, and through a deep puddle she sees him lunge, hears him shout, 'What are you looking at?'
She stands amazed when he trips and crashes down at her feet.
Run, a voice says, and she does. Neat as a cat she's over his head and down the hall, out into the close, her bare feet slapping on gritty stone. She keeps her eyes stretched wide, Supergirl eyes which brought him crashing down. Supergirl shoots magic beams of blue X-ray and cleaves the darkness; she spreads her arms and runs faster. She has lift off and is up, up and away. Her pink nightie balloons and her ear drips blood on the little world below. Cold winds blow her from star to star, blow her to nowhere, a pink wisp, until she catches her foot on the point of a star and tumbles screaming down, down, down...
Anne-Marie huddles on the pavement. She doesn't know how she got there. A broken bottle is jammed in her foot like a dark glistening star.
'Sleepwalking,' her mother tells the police.
'I don't remember,' Anne-Marie says.
'You always spoil it when things are going well for me,' her mother cries.
Daddy Five says, 'You're out of control but I'll teach you.'
And he does. Anne-Marie has to stay in bed for three days after. She sleeps and dreams of flying.
Anne-Marie is fourteen. She is quiet and invisible and gives no trouble. Supergirl lives deep down inside and only comes out on special occasions. When Daddies come into Anne-Marie's room, Supergirl zaps them with her magical blue stare. Some of them get zapped right out of the room, but some of them shout, 'What are you looking at?' SMACK. These ones stay, but Anne-Marie doesn't. She shrinks and slips out through a crack in the window pane. She spreads her arms and she's up, up and away and only comes back when it's safe. Supergirl never tells what happened when Anne-Marie was out; she takes it deep inside and hides it there.
Anne- Marie sleepwalks through the day, full of dread, she doesn't know why, but she's quiet and invisible and careful where she puts her feet. She gets by. Except when the dread boils up. Then she asks out of class, feeling sick, she says, and trots along corridors, faster and faster, until she's running across the playground with a strong wind at her back, going nowhere, but very fast.
'Why?' they ask her.
'I don't know,' she says. How can she tell them she's afraid of this man's green shirt or that one's hair, that she's sick to her stomach when she looks at them? They'd think she was mad and lock her up.
'I don't know,' she says and cries a lot.
She meets Ricki at the truants' centre. They are all runners there, but Ricki's the best, no kidding, right out of the window when the teacher's writing on the blackboard. No kidding, Anne-Marie sees him. Once he jumps out of the taxi bringing him to school and he's gone for three weeks, all the way to London. She dreams of him running, long legs gobbling up the miles and circling the world; she runs beside him and they jump daisies, rivers, fences, walls.
She never speaks to Ricki. She is afraid of everyone, but Ricki most of all. He has a Stanley knife and he likes to cut. Everyone's afraid of Ricki because he is never afraid. Feared and not afraid. Cool.
Anne-Marie is back at school, cured of running. It doesn't matter. She writes her own sick notes now. And anyway, she is invisible: no one ever notices whether she's there or not. She goes to the mall and watches all the people. It's like being at the cinema and she wonders where the people learned to act. She walks about and wonders and never remembers where she's been. The day ends and it never happened.
Anne-Marie is sixteen when memory begins. She sees Ricki at the shopping centre. He and his friends spread out and skip-walk through the crowds, pushing and shoving and jabbing with their elbows. They are loud and twitchy, except for Ricki flowing cool as moonlight. They gather round a barrow stall, pick up scarves and shining ribbons, drop them on the floor, laugh "sorry" like a challenge. They dart around like speeded up film too fast to follow. Security comes and they scatter. Except Ricki. He nods Anne-Marie over and pays the woman for a hair-tie shiny with sequins. He gives it to Anne-Marie and they stroll outside. She tries to give it back, but he pulls more from his pocket. They glitter in the sunshine, all for her. No one has ever given her anything before. Then he shows her a roll of notes he lifted from the barrow and they laugh out loud together. She has seen girls laughing with boys and wondered how they managed it, but it's easy. He tells her to come to the mall again next day.
That night she lies awake, eyes open in the dark, and replays the day scene by scene; she relives every detail of glitter and notes and cool flowing moonlight.
Meet me tomorrow...tomorrow...tomorrow.
Anne-Marie likes having a reason for her days. She likes being liked. Ricki says she's a cut above the others, like him. His mates' girls are slags, jumps, anybody's for the asking, and they chatter on like budgies and laugh too loudly. He likes Anne-Marie's quiet, the way she listens, the way she doesn't have a foul mouth or a face covered in warpaint.
Anne-Marie likes being a cut above, and she likes the memories Ricki makes for her. He is always in charge of the gang. They steam shops or rip off cars or phone boxes when he says so. He learned to be a leader from his Dad, a sergeant in the army. Ricki teaches Anne-Marie the rules:
never take any crap from anybody
always go one better to even the score
leave the drink and drugs to losers
stand by your own no matter what
The rules work. No one ever crosses Ricki, not even Spaz who laughs at Ricki when he goes to the gym, but stops when he comes out. Nothing bad can happen when Ricki's there and Anne-Marie's dread goes away. She and Ricki watch the others getting drunk and stoned and laugh at the sight of them spewing, quarrelling, falling down, pissing themselves. They know they are a cut above all that.
Anne-Marie gathers up memories: the way the others make room for her at the table in the café, the way she has a special place beside Ricki, the way the other girls are jealous. Their painted eyes ask: what's she got? Once Spaz guesses out loud what she's got and Ricki cuts his face right there at the table, not deep, just a warning. Nobody looks at Spaz except Ricki and Anne-Marie. Ricki smiles, daring Spaz. and Anne-Marie can't take her eyes off the thin red line of blood bubbling across Spaz's cheek. She knows she'll remember it always.
The best memory is of the first time they run. Car windows shatter and then there are sirens and blue flashing lights. They pound pavement, get away, and she's not afraid, she's out of herself, whooping and yelling and running, running, running.
'You're a surprise,' Ricki says. His pale face lights up the way it does when she does something right.
'It's like flying,' she says. 'Up, up, and away!'
He understands. The others run because they're scared, but it's different for Ricki and Anne-Marie.
At night she dreams of flying with Ricki, looking down on all the little people below.
Ricki is a surprise too. He always sees her home safe, which gives her little dreads because she knows what Spaz and the others are like. But Ricki only sits on the stairs and talks from the shadows about his Dad. His Dad didn't stand by his own the way he said he would. He left Mum for a slag, left Ricki to learn to be a leader by himself. The time Ricki ran away to London, he was looking for Dad and the slag. He was going to cut the pair of them, but couldn't find them. But some day he'll find them. Some day.
Anne- Marie reads his signs. There's more to tell, she knows there is, but his face is hard as thin ice, so she says nothing and leans against him. He likes that. The surprise happens when he kisses her. His mouth is soft and asking and he tastes of cool night air. His mouth tells her she's not a slag, she's special, a cut above. He makes her strong.
Another good memory is when Ricki stands by his own. The teacher chews her out for no homework. She doesn't squirm and cry and let Ricki down. She zaps the man with blue stare.
'Dumb insolence!' he shouts, and puts her out in the corridor. She doesn't stay there. She walks very fast out of school, faster and faster, going somewhere this time.
'Who's he calling dumb?' Ricki says.
That night they smash windows at the school, one after another. Smash. Smash. Smash. Breaking glass sounds like ice cracking. Anne-Marie is out of herself, beside herself, forgets herself. She jumps on glass and grinds it to powder. She tramples powder and makes a glittering path to slide on. The alarm is ringing, the others are running, but she can't stop.
'Anne-Marie!' Ricki shouts, and they run and run and they're all lit up.
'You got away quick enough,' he tells the others.
Ricki and Anne-Marie laugh, but Anne-Marie reads his signs. Ricki only stayed behind for her and now he has to go one better. She smiles him on. They sit in the shelter in the park for a long time and his cheek and mouth are clean as night. She sucks him in.
'We'll burn it down,' he says at last and smiles at Anne-Marie.
They burn it down. It's easy. The janitor hasn't put the alarm back on and they don't have to hit and run. They take their time and do it right, pile books and papers Guy Fawkes high and laugh when flame spurts. They scramble outside and watch red and orange fire roaring tall inside.
'It wants out!' Anne-Marie screams. 'It wants out!'
She jumps at the moon and Ricki never takes his eyes off her. Then sirens shriek and they're on the run again, hands linked, through the park and into the town. She looks back and sees orange glow smeared across the dark sky; she looks sideways and sees the pale blaze of Ricki's face.
'Now everyone knows we've been there,' she pants.
Ricki laughs all the way home. They sit on the stairs with their backs to the wall. Ricki studies his trainers, all scuffed and studded with twinkling glass. She reads his signs. He's going to tell her what he didn't tell before. Everything is coming out now. He coughs. 'My Dad,' he says. 'My Dad knew I'd been there that time I went to London. I found his house and the freak in the woman's wig he was living with, a really pretty boy till he got all cut up. The stubble was coming through his make-up but the blood covered it up.'
He looks at Anne- Marie, his eyes asking if it matters. Dread fills her up when she sees him so unsure, because it means he can be broken down and that mustn't happen because where would she be then? She reaches for him. She knows what he needs, somehow she knows. She holds him to her and it's easy. She stares wide-eyed and powerful over his shoulder and shows him things she didn't know she knew, and it's easy. She moves to the sound of his moans and whispers to him, breathing in night and smoke from his hair.
All that summer, everything is for her. He fights more often and cuts deeper. He fights other boys; he fights men straying drunk on his patch. He never loses. Anne-Marie likes it best when he lets her choose. She always picks grown men.
'That one with the greasy hair.'
'That one with the chunky gold rings.'
'That one with the big ugly fists.'
And Ricki flows at them, smiling seriously, blade in hand, and the men come crashing down, clutching at ripped faces. All that summer, Ricki lays them at her feet like flowers. Sometimes, before they start running, she steps neat as a cat on a head. Ricki likes her style.
One night, Spaz gets drunk. He's mean when he's drunk and gets broody about the time Ricki cut him. He laughs because Ricki's in the gym again. 'Only fags go in for all that body-building,' he says. 'They shave their chests to be like women. They rub baby oil on each other. Haw! Haw! It wouldn't surprise me about Ricki, considering his Dad...'
Anne-Marie's blue stare ought to cut him like a knife, but he won't shut up.
'...big tough sergeant kicked out of the army for sniffing after privates. Haw! Haw! Haw!...'
Then Spaz is on the ground. Ricki circles, kicking and kicking. Spaz spews and gurgles, choking. The boys pull Ricki off and Spaz staggers off into the darkness. A big mistake. Anne-Marie knows it's a mistake. Ricki's all lit up and electric tense. They should have let him settle with Spaz because he'll burn up if he doesn't get it out. His eyes pass over her, unseeing. She panics, but then she knows what he needs. Somehow she knows.
'The fags hang out at that club in the precinct,' she says, and Ricki listens and sees her again. ' You're worth ten of one of them. Come on. Cut one for me.'
They all laugh and Ricki smiles right into her eyes.
They wait in an alley while the crowd thins. Anne-Marie stands close to Ricki, not touching, not speaking, only letting him feel her near. His face is like thin ice, hard and pure. Everything is going to be fine.
'That one,' she says and points. 'Look at it, for God's sake.'
That one is walking alone, twitching and snapping his fingers, out of it. His clothes are too tight. His eyelids glitter with something he's stuck on. Someone makes a puking noise and everyone laughs except Ricki. He glides like a shadow into the street. He stands right in front of the man, smiling seriously. The man sways and grins, looking him over.
'Hello, darling. Lonesome?'
Ricki's arm sweeps up and slashes. Blood spurts and the man falls to his knees. It's time to run, but Ricki doesn't. He stoops and slashes again and again. The man curls up screaming and Ricki slashes and kicks, slashes and kicks, and the body jumps with every thud and scatters petals of blood all around. Anne-Marie runs forward.
'Ricki! Come away! Come away!'
He shakes his head. His teeth are clenched and his arm swings up and down, over and over. The screaming makes the others nervous and they scatter into the alleys and streets around them. But Anne-Marie stands her ground, stands by her own, and watches. Ricki's arm rises and falls, rises and falls. She knows he needs this. Everything is coming out now.
She watches, and suddenly she's watching from a long way off, looking down on the little world below. She sees Ricki and Supergirl letting it all out. Anne-Marie is shivering up among the stars, but Supergirl looks fine, her smile wide enough to swallow the world and bold enough to spit it back out. She steps neat as a cat on a head and grins when bone crunches. Ricki steps delicately too, and grinds, and he and Supergirl laugh when the screaming stops. Sirens split the air and Ricki shouts, 'Run!'
Supergirl reaches for his hand, but he slithers in wet blood and falls hard on the pavement. CRACK! From a long way off, Anne-Marie hears the sound of bone breaking. She hears and fears and then licketty split she's tumbling down and down to be with Ricki. He's covered in blood and glistening darkly. She can't think how that happened; she can't think how she came here. She tries to help Ricki up, but he can't stand. They clutch at one another, slipping and sliding on sticky dark wetness, and fall over. The sirens come nearer. Nearer. Ricki pushes her and shouts, 'Anne-Marie! Run for it! Run!'
So she runs, but she's running alone. No feet thud a together song with hers. She's running, leaving his pale face behind her. She's running and running, nowhere, very fast.
(C) Marion Arnott 2003
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.