The wind was blowing in fierce, but short bursts, dancing crisp, golden brown and yellow leaves across the crowded station platform. It pecked at Brooke’s cheeks in sharp, short kisses and though she had her thickest coat on, her skin prickled uncomfortably under its lining. She burrowed her chin further into the folds of her purple knitted scarf, until her nose was completely covered. It smelt of her dinner last night, hints of tomato and basil lingering in the wool. She didn’t care though, it was warm and it made her think of what life used to be like, when she was in The Home. She’d made the scarf there in one the classes. Carer Olivia said it was the one finest she’d ever seen. Brooke’s heart tugged and she swallowed hard, pushing the lump downwards that was forming in her throat. She missed the classes. She missed her friends. She missed not having to lie about everything. She even missed that horrible, old bat, Carer Marie.
The train emerged in the distance and Brooke stumbled a little, as more commuters pushed ahead of her and to the front. She glanced at the man next to her. He was shorter than her and much fatter, the buttons of his brown coat popping outwards from his protruding belly. She couldn’t help but stare at it. When she’d first left The Home she had been taken aback but how much wider everyone was and she’d wondered how they’d managed it.
It wasn’t until her first food shop that she realised how free she was. No one was monitoring her food intake. No more stat allowances. No more saving up for precious add ons. The food was just there. Ready for the taking. Well, she had to pay for it of course, but she had more than enough money now that she’d Expired. She needed to be careful though, she knew she couldn’t spend senselessly. It would draw too much attention.
She’d heard of ‘supermarkets’ before, but she didn’t exactly know what the protocol was. It was nothing like she expected though. People wondering around pushing squeaking metal baskets things on wheels, queuing up at small, strange treadmill-like machines, endlessly long catergorised aisles to explore. It was all very peculiar.
She’d wandered the aisles that day trying to look casual, but it was like a wonderland and it had taken all her strength not to leap into a full on sprint, run her hands down the aisles, bring the chocolate, crisps and biscuits down to the floor and roll in them like a blanket of fresh autumn leaves.
She had tried to remember what the booklet said, as she gazed around at the bags of frozen vegetables. She’d never seen frozen vegetables. In fact, she’d never seen frozen anything. Her Triple S advisor had given her the booklet. A sort of ‘how to live in the outside world’ guide. There was a chapter on shopping and she’d studied it before she’d left the flat that day. It wasn’t until she was there in the supermarket that she’d wished she brought it with her. She couldn’t have though. It would have been like writing ‘Expired Donee’ across her forehead. So she’d just wandered down the aisles for a while, watching the shoppers push their metal baskets thingy-ma-jigs. It didn’t look too hard. They just sort of stopped for a while, stared at the shelves and picked something up. She had noticed that some of them lingered for longer, staring at the labels and that some of them – if they had one – talked about the item with their companion. Some of them had children with them too, holding and dragging them along by the hand, whilst they stared at the shelves. She even saw one child adding their own items into the metal basket thing, quickly shoving them in when they thought nobody was watching.
Brooke mimicked their movements like a shadow, not really paying attention to what she was putting in her basket. She noticed that all of them did the same two motions – either, placing the item back onto the shelf (not necessarily in the correct placed, she noted), or dropping it into the mouth of the metal wheelie contraption. She looked down at the things she had collected after ten minutes of people watching. She hadn’t even heard of half of the stuff. What was Diet Cola?
She fished into her pocket, pulling out the sample list she’d ripped out from the booklet and unfurled the wrinkled paper. Her stomach unclenched a little, as she recognised the names. All she had to do was find each one. She could do this. She could do this!
She had followed the list to the letter and had practically leapt for joy when she realised it was acceptable to ask the people in the matching uniforms if they could direct her to certain items. They reminded her of Carers, but friendly, less scary ones.
She started to enjoy herself after that. Even smiling at other shoppers as she passed them by. None of them smiled back. In fact no one looked particularly happy to be there, which struck Brooke as strange. How could anyone not be happy surrounded by so much food?
“Right, that’s it!”One woman had snapped angrily, pulling at the child’s small hand. “Kick the trolley one more time and you can forget Caris’ party!”
Trolley? Trolley. Brooke realised. That was what the large basket was called. She’d seen the diagram in the booklet earlier that day and it wasn’t until that moment she’d connected the two.
She had looked at the drawing again when she got back home, thinking she had been so silly not to have realised what it was earlier. But when she opened the page and looked at it, she still couldn’t see the resemblance. Well, that was lying, she could sort of see it, you know, if she squinted. Sort of.
Brooke wasn’t sure why she found the woman and child so fascinating, but she had watched them argue with keen eyes. It didn’t last long and ended with the child glowering sourly at woman, pink lips pouted and eyebrows crossed. Well, Brooke had thought it had ended, but as the woman had straightened back up and turned around, she saw the gleam in the child’s eyes and watched horrified, as she thrust a foot at the wheel.
“You would have never seen anyone act like that in The Home,” Brooke had thought. Everyone was far too scared of the Carers. Especially Carer Marie. Like everyone who lived in The Home, Brooke had tried it on at first and after spending a few days in solitary confinement or S.C as they called it, she realised it really wasn’t worth it. That wasn’t the worst punishment of course. They were too numerous to name them all, but the one that stuck in Brooke’s mind was ‘branding.’ She’d never experienced it herself, but she’d seen others come back, crying, limping. They always started on your foot and worked their way upwards. Not that many people had more than one. When you got ‘branded’ you hardly ever acted out again.
The end of poker varied. Most carers used small circled ends, but Carer Marie always used a special one in the shape of an eye. Brooke wasn’t sure if it was rumour or not, but she had been told by one of the girls that the eye symbolised Carer Marie’s own steely blue ones. It meant that she was watching you. It meant that she literally had her eye on you. And it stayed there, burnt into the skin forever.
Brooke was shaking, but she didn’t look away from the woman and child. She couldn’t have if she wanted to. She was transfixed, horrified. She had wanted to tug at the child’s arm herself, yell at her, shake some sense into her, but she didn’t. Instead, she waited like she was the child. And there was strange moment, as the woman’s turned her head, a moment where everything else stopped and played in slow motion. As the woman’s eyes met the child’s, Brooke ducked her head.
She wasn’t sure how long she had stood like that, eyes squeezed tightly shut, clenched fists and her head bowed, but by the time she’d opened them again, the mother and child had disappeared and an elderly couple stood in their place. They were staring at her, with hushed mutters. Brooke had smiled weakly at them, but they had hastily turned their heads away from her and back to the nectarines.
Brooke stumbled again, as she was pushed forwards by the crowds and towards the opening doors of the carriage. She steadied herself and quickly stepped onto the train. She didn’t bother to look for a seat. There never was one spare.
The journey took an hour or so, but Brooke didn’t mind. The back and fourth motion of the train had almost becoming soothing to her. Besides, she liked the train. No one ever spoke on the train. No one ever made eye contact on the train either. Headphones were popped into ears, newspapers guarded strange faces and eyes remained down, glued to the screen of a phone.