Every year I enter the NYC Midnight short story competition. For this one, the flash fiction one to be 1000 words or less, I got the genre ‘Drama’, the location ‘A sweatshop’ and the thing ‘An automotive battery’. This is what I came up with.
We gathered under the blanket, as was our nightly ritual now. Under the blanket in the store room, the far store room, not the near one, the one that smelt of oil and salt, the one they only checked on the 28th day of every month. We knew what the months were now, what the days were, what the time was, at least for those minutes we could grab from the scheduled toilet break.
Before we knew only light and dark and I don’t know whether it was harder or easier to have every day like the last with no idea that time was passing. Before, I didn’t know how long I had been here. Since, I know we’ve been here, in the oily, salty far store room, briefly every day, for precisely three months. Before, thinking how long those three months were and using them to measure out before time, like the hands used to measure the cloth, I have estimated we’ve been here four years and I don’t know whether it is harder or easier to know that a third of my life has been spent where hands are used to measure cloth, distance not time. Not my hands, my hands are still growing, but under the blanket, those hands, my sister’s hands. Fully grown but still so small, but fully grown to be of a use, for a purpose, to measure out, chosen from a row to be the right tool for the job like I was chosen from a row to do mine, running and fetching, swift and accurate, from the near store room, from the far store room, so swift sometimes I got to stay precious seconds more and smell the salt and the oil and look and look and touch and touch beyond the requested item, round dark corners, under low shelves.
Five minutes of the world, clip on one side, clip on the other side, make sure the volume is low, so low, so we almost can’t hear and sometimes we know there is a world outside from the words that come out and sometimes, wonderful times, music comes out and I realise I don’t care about the words about the world outside because I know I won’t get to see it but the music outside makes my body sway and makes me want to throw off the blanket and laugh and dance but instead we sit and huddle and I tap out the rhythms on her hands in complex beats as she taps out a steady one on mine and I can feel her smiling and she can feel me smiling and as soon as the blanket comes off we must stop the face from showing but the smiling stays on inside.
Footsteps. Louder footsteps.
No no no no no no no.
It is the 15th day, it is not the 28th day, there should be no footsteps and what can we do that will stop the sound but not make a sound? Our hands untwine and we cannot say a word, she slowly feels for the volume knob but knows the shush ends with a click and will that be the click they hear so do we keep it on or can she shush enough just to end the sound without the click so I reach for the clip and a gentle soundless slap stops me and the footsteps keep coming and my hand goes to my mouth to stop me crying because I don’t care what they do to me I just care that they don’t take my five minutes of music and my five minutes of hands on hands.
No more footsteps.
Is that good or bad?
The light is off, there is no reason they should know we are in here, no reason why they should look in here, no reason, no reason, and if I say it again and again, in my head, inside my head only, always, all my thoughts have to be inside my head, then the footsteps have stopped because they were never there, we never heard them.
The door opens, a flick of the light switch but we know the light won’t go on because we have practiced, run, in, her down, reaching under the shelf, me on her back, light bulb taken out, her attaching cables to battery, click, click, cables to radio, click, click, me getting the blanket, we’re under, one minute gone. Five minutes outside then in reverse, blanket, unclip, hide the evidence, run back, one minute. Counting all the time the seconds of music, 300 seconds of another life, her constant rhythm she gives to my hand contrasting the ever-changing beats I give to hers.
Flick flick, flick flick.
Feet shuffle, muttered breath, the door closes, the footsteps recede but we know that this is the end, our movements swift through practice but we know that this is the end and the movements feel like treacle, like the oil of the far store room is coating our skin, the salt is seizing up our joints. We can’t rely on the 28th day, we can’t say for sure anymore so we can’t run, one minute setting up, five minutes of music, sun shining brightly under the dark blanket, cool air on our faces under the heavy cloth, running in a meadow, swimming in the stream as we crouch so close together, one minute running back and my face can’t hide, no smile to conceal, but wet, wet to wipe and I blame it on the dust and I blame it on the fumes and I blame it on the season and they don’t know what the season is but I do, we do, we know it’s the end of summer, the best summer we ever had.