Sam Payne

My brother calls to say his train is delayed because of a bridge strike. I must already be tipsy because I imagine all these different bridges, rickety, wooden footbridges, stone built ancient arcs and mammoth metal structures, all stood around on a picket line waving their placards demanding better pay and conditions. I start to tell him this because it’s funny but when the line falls silent I realise I’ve lost him.

He eventually arrives three hours late and grumpy, ‘Christ, Evie, this place is in the middle of nowhere, even the Uber got lost.’

He looks even thinner than he did last year and I’m shocked to see he has grown a beard. It’s so thick, ragged and unruly it’s like he’s spent time living on the streets. I don’t say anything but I can’t help but wonder if this is an attempt to hide his face, the same face that belongs to our father.

I cook him a meal of rare steak and sautéed potatoes and watch him eat.

‘Are you not having anything?’

I pour myself a glass of red and tell him I’ve already eaten but it’s a lie.

I ask about his travel plans and he lists places impossibly far away, Australia, New Zealand, Borneo. I fill my glass with more wine and he watches me closely before looking around. The cottage is a few years short of ruin. The little heat emitted from the small wood burner seeps through the gaps in the crumbling walls and the windows leak when it rains making the whole place permanently cold and damp. But it’s quiet here and no one knows who I am.

‘You used to hate being alone, do you remember?’

For a moment, we just look at each other. I know we’re both thinking about all those years ago, when our mother was in rehab and our father left us alone in the house at night. I used to wake screaming from night terrors and he would rush in and lie down next to me, swearing to me there was no need to be afraid, promising me he’d take care of me.

‘Well, at least here I don’t have people asking me about him and if we knew.’

‘And you wonder why I’m leaving?’ He says, slicing into the bloody heart of the steak.

‘You think you can run from the past?’

He shrugs and nods at the wine bottle, ‘It’s better than trying to drown it.’

I don’t tell him drinking stops me dreaming about the women, keeps me from hearing them begging or crying or worse, instead I lift the glass to my lips but it slips from my hand and crashes against the stone tiles. The crimson liquid bleeds into the gaps and we both stare at it, neither of us moving, neither of us knowing what to do next.

This story won the Runner-Up Prize in the BRIDGES Themed Flash Competition.

About the author: Sam Payne is a writer living in Devon. She holds a BA in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing. In 2020 she was awarded first place in Flash 500, runner up in the Retreat West music themed quarterly competition and third place in the 15th Bath Flash Fiction Awards. Sam tweets at @skpaynewriting