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Paula crouched, petrified, at the top of her stairs. She strained her ears, trying to sift through the ceaseless New York traffic. Someone was downstairs, navigating the disjointed clutter of her cramped apartment.

Paula closed her shadowy green eyes, picturing the room below. It was a bright hybrid of a living space and kitchen. A gentle bristling sound hinted that someone had just brushed past her tasselled lamp. The intruder would be opposite the grubby kitchenette, probably inspecting her ancient Television.

She looked around her mezzanine bedroom, but it offered no suggestions. Digging her faded mint nails into her leg, Paula remembered her phone was downstairs. She had hurled it at the sofa after a relentless string of messages. With any luck it would have burrowed out of view between the saggy yellow cushions.

She had knocked over a stack of bright ‘Borders Kill’ fliers that she could now see fanned across the stairs. A cigarette glowed stubbornly out of her bedside ashtray like a bullet wound. She prayed the cloud of smoke had not swirled downstairs.

She scratched the bandages around her wrist. She could try and signal to someone across the street to call the police. Yet by the time she had caught someone’s attention the intruder would no doubt have come upstairs. Besides, Paula had experienced enough degrading encounters with the police to know they did not exist to help people like her.

She scanned her room hopelessly for a place to hide. The belly of her futon sagged onto the floor, denying any refuge underneath the stained black canvass. The remaining floor space would not have fit two bodies lying side by side.

As Paula toyed with her fraying bandages, the irony of fearing for her life was not lost on her. Why should she be scared? She had fantasised about an easy way out for years. The endless nights of liquor and powder. The even longer long days of self-loathing that followed. She could hear the disturbed stack of leaflets slithering to the floor. Was this the moment she had been perversely praying for?

With a rush of brazenness Paula crossed the room, not putting any weight on her stockinged feet. She lifted the cigarette from the ashtray and hung it from the corner of her scarlet lips. With a deep drag it reignited. She slid onto her bed, propping herself up with her bare arm. She tilted her head back, rings of dyed emerald hair falling down her exposed neckline, to face the open door.

Over the crest of her steep staircase emerged the most ludicrous combover she had ever seen. Jet black wires intersected across a clammy, egg-shaped crown. It looked like a tangle of electrical cords.

The man’s indented forehead puckered inwards, leading down to dense eyebrows. These framed a pair of fierce, swollen eyes which burned out of his pallid face. An ugly goatee perched on the foot of his chin, a triangle strip pointing upwards at a thin, curled mouth. Thick tufts of hair were interrupted by protruding ears, only to continue in beefy sideburns.

His appearance was so pitifully strange that Paula had not noticed the knife clutched in his hand.

He stepped through the threshold, extending his arm as if offering the weapon. Paula’s mind had jammed. The hand holding the knife was shaking, the sharp blade a silver blur. His bulbous eyes frantically took in the brightly coloured room.

For an impossibly long moment, the man did not move. The small space between them fizzled with the dark possibility of his next move.

His face contorted, as if he was about to scream.

The intruder emitted a guttural moan which seemed to emanate from his soul. Tears cascaded over harsh features. His body convulsed with sobs. The knife fell to the ground as he tottered, bent double. Paula jumped off the bed as he collapsed onto it. Head in hands, he continued his relentless weeping.

Paula shrunk away from the sobbing man, the scene unfurling itself implausibly in front of her. The stranger’s jerking moans continued unabated. Paula edged slowly across the room. She stubbed her cigarette and sat on her duvet, carefully shimmying towards the foot of the bed. Up close, he looked remarkably ordinary. Cargo trousers stretched over a rounded stomach, whilst his aged black fleece was worn and stained.

Paula placed her hand onto the intruder’s heaving back. She stroked his wide shoulders as if he was a lifelong friend.

There, there. It’s ok. Everything will be alright”

After a minute of whispered platitudes, the man’s shudders subsided. His breath came in cutting bursts as he spluttered to contain himself.

I’m. I’m so sorry.”

All menace had deflated out of him, like a discarded balloon.

That’s ok. What are you sorry for?”

I’m just. I’m sorry. I’m such a fucking mess.”

Fresh tears trapped his voice in a strained falsetto.

Honestly, it’s fine. You haven’t done anything, I guess. Not really.”

His head remained glued to his hands.

What’s your name?”

Paula struggled to interpret the sodden response.


Duncan. It’s Duncan.”

Sorry, Duncan. I’m Paula.”

Duncan lifted his head and, for the first time, looked directly at Paula. A reservoir of desperation lay beneath his electric blue eyes.

This isn’t me, Paula. I promise. I’m so sorry. I’ve never done anything like this before. When I came up and I saw you all lay out on your bed…”

Duncan drew deep gulps of air. Paula dropped her hand from his shoulder, propping herself up to mask any awkwardness.

That’s ok. Honestly. I was scared, obviously. But now I know, you’re not going to hurt me?” Paula winced as her intonation twisted this into a question. Duncan looked sharply at her.

Course I’m not. I only brought that.” He jerked his head in the direction of the knife. “In case I broke into some heavy’s apartment. Knowing my luck, I’m surprised I didn’t.”

Paula smiled.

Not to sound like a graceless host, but what the fuck are you doing snooping around my apartment?”

Duncan glared at the ruby carpet.

I had no choice. Look at me, do I look like a cat-burglar?”

She remained silent, wanting Duncan to continue.

I had to do something. You’ve got to believe me. My daughter…” After a long, shuddering breath he tried again. “Karma ain’t a bitch, she’s a cruel lie, I’m telling you. A nicer girl you couldn’t meet. I know every dad says that about his little girl.”

Paula scoffed loudly.

But honestly, my darling is an angel. She can’t be, how old are you?”


Paula always shaved off a few years to strangers.

She’s barely five years younger than you. When that bill came from the hospital... I thought you couldn’t put a price on a human life, especially not one as precious as hers. But bastards set it damn-near impossibly high.”

Paula felt numb. She had gone on endless drunken rants to like minded friends condemning the private healthcare system. But she had never had to question the material reality of her insurance. Her family’s package covered all her hospital visits, self-inflicted or otherwise.

She’s the only thing keeping me going. And I can’t fucking afford to keep her going. The doctor says if she doesn’t get treatment now that’s it, it’ll be locked in.”

The dam broke once more as anguish burst through Duncan’s eyes. Droplets formed and fell from his chin. “It’ll’ take decades to save what she needs. By then…” Duncan tailed off, his mind scrambled in horror at that prospect. “This is the first apartment I ever hit. No offence, it was a piece of cake. You know your door’s unlocked right?”

Paula shook her head. She had barely remembered to get dressed recently.

Well Duncan, I like to keep an open-door policy around here. How else would I get to meet lovely new friends?” He was unmoved by her attempt at ironic detachment.

No, I don’t know you. But I am truly sorry for all this. I don’t know who I was kidding. What happened to your wrist, by the way?”

Dread slicked over Paula like ice. She had been braced for that question to arrive, had even practiced her answer in the mirror. But she had not performed it to anyone yet.

I had an accident. Climbing. Overestimated my finger strength and scraped across a jagged rock, slashed up my forearms. My thigh took some damage too.” She felt truly vulnerable for the first time since Duncan had dropped the knife.

Oh yeah, an accident. Right. Listen, I know I ain’t exactly covered myself in glory tonight but no need to insult my intelligence. I just poured my heart out to you.”

Indignation and denial froze in Paula’s throat. She couldn’t find the energy to keep up the lie. She kept her eyes on her bandages.

It all just got too much.”

Is it all? You’re too young to have had ‘it all’. It’d be criminal to cut short all those years.”

Paula burned with guilt as she thought of his daughter.

Yeah I know, I’m real selfish and stupid”

That’s not what I’m saying. Why’d you make that noise earlier?”

What noise?”

That noise, when I mentioned being a dad.”

Paula laughed. “What the fuck is this, are Deliveroo doing a therapy service now? Shall I go downstairs and lie on my couch?”

Duncan raised his hands.

Alright, alright. I’ll leave it. God knows I’ve outstayed my welcome.”

The silence leaned painfully upon Paula.

I haven’t spoken to my family in years. They don’t know where I am. They don’t know why I was in the hospital. Not this time or the time before that. They do not even know my name.”

She said all this in a dull monotone. Duncan managed to keep a passive, patient expression.

What happened? Did they hurt you?”

Paula shook her head. “It’s not their fault. They just can’t understand. A nuclear family from Wisconsin. My life is alien to them.”

Haven’t they tried to contact you?”

Yeah. I keep changing phones and addresses, but they always find them. The hospital must have tracked them down and passed over my details.”

Paula knew how implausible this sounded. Her family was notified every time she was admitted to hospital, but she was mortified at the idea of telling Duncan about her dad’s insurance.

My phone has been bugging out nonstop. You didn’t pinch it from downstairs, did you? I think it was on the sofa.”

Duncan ignored this.

I dunno. It sounds like they care about me.”

Paula was resolute. Her justifications for estrangement had solidified over the years, projection morphing into reality.

You don’t understand. Honestly. It’s healthier keeping separate. I know I’m a… I know I don’t fit in. They’re better off without me.”

Paula looked up at Duncan’s hardened face. Decades of hardship stared back.

Listen, I know you’re not about to take life advice from some weepy wannabe thief. But family isn’t just something you can turn on and off. At the end of the day, what else do we have? Hell,” he gestured around the bright bedroom, “look what it’s made me do.”

The bed groaned as Duncan rose to his feet.

All I’m saying is, if there’s people reaching out to you, don’t push them away.”

He slowly crossed to the staircase.

Don’t get up. I’ll see myself out.”

Paula was speechless. The encounter had flickered past like a quick-forgotten dream. “Duncan, I really hope your daughter is okay. I truly mean that.”

His eyes crinkled.

You had no reason to be as nice as you’ve been to me tonight. So long as your family isn't evil, I know they will love you for who you are. Paula.”

With a sad, understanding smile he descended, leaving an empty patch of air. Paula barely heard her front door slam shut. Tears blotched her room, which remained untouched but for the abandoned knife.


I am a young, Mancunian writer with an interest in short stories, radical history, and all types of fiction. My passion for reading and writing was nurtured by studying History at the University of Cambridge, and by drafting speeches, articles and briefings in his day job as a researcher for a Member of Parliament. My opinion articles have been published by the independent news organisation Novara Media, and I am currently writing a novel alongside a collection of short stories.


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