‘Mr O'Connor, the Doctor's given you the all-clear. You're free to go,' she said in her usual, brisk tone.
Under her scrubs and face mask, Aman hardly recognised the blonde-haired woman who had nursed him back to health. She wasn't like the rest, especially in the way that her voice fluttered when she said,
'Hey, Aman. In the nicest way possible, I hope I never see you again.'
His cheeks had never flushed like that before.
He pondered what kind of person willingly bears the strain of healing, even those who care too little to heal themselves, only for it to be brushed aside and passed off as all in a day's work
Once Aman had clambered out of bed, he took in the rows of mummified figures, their exasperated grunts masking the silent screams inside them. The older ones lay flat on their backs with closed eyes and outstretched palms in blissful anticipation. The young gasped and writhed - trying desperately to claim as much life as they could before death and cruelty snatched it from them.
He pulled on the bile-ridden clothes in a heap on the chair next to his bed before giving his bag one final rummage in search of his phone charger and wallet. He checked his pockets too; no money either. There was only one place for it.
Mothers in smocks eyed him with disapproval as he stumbled into a bollard, his eyes still adjusting to the blanket of hazy daylight.
Even the skinheads dressed in overalls tutted as he walked past. The only person to have acknowledged him was a dishevelled beggar.
'Got any change?' he asked, following up with a sympathetic nod as though realising their shared plight.
Aman crossed the road. He still had a car. A house. A family. This was only a blip.
'Alright, Aman?' said a gaunt faced man sitting at the other end of the pub.
Aman stared at the scraggly-haired figure with bullet holes for eyes and hesitated.
'Oh, Bone, it's you. You've changed so much.'
Bone sniggered as though secretly smug about his new appearance.
'What you been up to, mate? Haven't seen you in ages,' Bone continued once they had sat down.
Amen shifted in his seat and inhaled.
'I haven't been well.'
Bone's eyes flickered at the door distractedly. It was only when he caught Aman’s gaze, that he replied.
'I thought as much. You look terrible. As it happens, I've been going through it too.'
Bone leaned in closer, lowering his voice.
'It's my wife. She keeps giving me jip.'
A hefty, bald man, who turned out to be their friend Minty, interrupted as he approached the table.
'Is he talking about that wife of his, again?'
Minty squeezed next to Bone, taking up the majority of the seat so that Bone was pressed against the wall.
'Aman. What have you been playing at?' Minty continued. 'Rose's been looking for you all over. If you want to jack it in, just tell her.'
Aman drummed his fingers on the table.
'It's not like that, alright. I'd rather not talk about it.'
Minty's countenance changed then, his eyes narrowing into a dead-eyed stare.
'Well, you have to, seeing as your Missus thinks you're dead.'
'Stay out of it, Minty,' Aman said again. 'She knows what I'm like.'
But Minty had taken more interest in his phone, which he held under the table before saying.
'Anyway, sod this. I've got to pick something up round your end, you coming?'
'Want some?' Minty said, waving a pre-rolled joint as he drove along. Aman snatched it from him and threw it out of the window.
'Oi, I would've smoked that. Anyway, you're one to talk, aren't you?' Minty said, elbowing Aman a little too hard before cranking up this stereo.
Aman looked at his feet to stifle his nausea, but the mountain of crisp packets and cigarette butts just made it worse. All that filled the remainder of their journey was the cacophonous thump of Minty's music.
Aman was pleased to see an empty driveway as they pulled up to Rose's cottage. He'd missed the place he'd called home for almost three years, with its immaculately kept shrubbery and thatched roof. Things were swept up and neatly tucked away.
He envisioned himself peeling off his foul-smelling clothes and soaking all the stress away. When Rose arrived from work, Aman would treat her to the customary dog-house spaghetti bolognese while performing his usual script.
'I wasn't well back then, love. I thought I was doing you a favour,' he would say, 'But being surrounded by people wheezing and spluttering as though they're at death's door is enough to set anyone straight.'
With her peach-coloured voice, Rose would spout her usual spiel about what a strain it had been, not just for her but her daughter, Mia. This was his last chance.
Then he would bundle up the tiny, flame-haired woman in his arms, and they would fall asleep to the soundtrack of Unsolved Mysteries, just like always.
Still high on the fantasy of domestic bliss, he barely noticed how he jabbed the key in an attempt to unlock the door - surely he had at least remembered the right key?
He tried the gate, but regardless of how much he pushed and pulled, it wouldn't open.
'Shit, not again.'
He caught the owlish eyes of his neighbour, gawking out the window as he strained to lift a large plant pot, his arms trembling under the weight of it.
The wave of nausea had returned with a vengeance, bringing a bout of cold sweat along with it. Aman trembled as he rooted in his pockets once more.
As he wretched in the right-hand corner of the porch, the sound of a rumbling engine drew near.
A woman driving a black Porsche Macan pulled into the driveway. As she switched off the engine, the door of the car swung open.
'Saw you on the security camera.'
Aman tried his best to croak a response, but standing next to the pool of vomit, the fragile fragments of his consciousness were laid bare for everyone to see.
'You're not doing so well, are you?' Rose continued, her voice thick with a false sense of pity.
Aman skulked to the other side of the porch and encroached the space between her and the door as she unlocked it.
'Come on, Rose, don't be like that. You know I'm sorry,' his quivering rasp almost inaudible.
Tears rolled down her face as she slowly unlocked the door.
'Come in, sort yourself out. But by tomorrow, you're out.'
Aman breathed a sigh of relief and opened his mouth to speak.
'Don't, Aman. Just don't,' she said as they made their way inside.
The house was tidier than he had remembered: absent of the rouge socks and underwear sprawled across the floor or stray pieces of paper lying limp on the dresser were gone.
He hauled himself into the shower and anticipated the warm flow of trickling water, but his lack of energy meant the steam stole his breath. He felt feeble and alone as he wallowed amid the stifling air.
Three cardboard boxes were lined up neatly at the foot of Rose's bed; two were sealed, with the remaining box packed to the brim with clothes. Noticing that the hot red of his Liverpool t-shirt, a quiet embarrassment washed over Aman as he tore the box open and grabbed the first garments he saw before kicking the box under the bed.
The fitful sounds of slammed cupboards and sporadic chopping came from the kitchen, so Aman sloped downstairs and sunk into the sofa.
'There's food here if you want it,' Rose called..
'Well, I've made it now.'
Aman watched the spindly woman as she placed a plate of sandwiches on his lap, not petite and perky as he had remembered.
Mia unlocked the front door and let herself in.
'Afternoon, love, how was school?' Rose said, the clarity of her voice undercut with a choking heaviness.
Mia threw down her bag on the carpet and wandered into the living room, her mop of brown hair and thick-rimmed glasses covering most of her face.
'Oh. What's he doing here?'
Aman stared blankly into the television.
'He's not very well, darling, so he's come to stay with us for a night or so until he figures things out.’
'That's what he said last time, Mum.'
Aman sat up and turned to face her.
'I mean it this time, Mia. I promise.'
'And I intend to run a marathon one day, but it doesn't mean I'll do it.'
'Look, your Mum says it's okay, and it'll only be for a few days.'
'Mum, I just don't get how you can't see it.'
Rose's face hardened.
'You're just a kid. We're not expecting you to understand it. It's my house, and what I say goes.'
'What? Even if your decision involves your daughter being forced to live with a diagnosed alcoholic while she has to study for her GCSEs?'
Mia’s voice cracked under the weight of her words as she left the room.
Aman resumed to his idol screen watching as he heard the back and forth of hissed voices in the kitchen.
Mia then thrust the door open, picked up her bag and thundered up the stairs shouting.
'If you're going to kill yourself, why don't you just hurry up and do it instead of making us watch.’
One night swiftly merged into two nights then three. Soon a week had passed and still, Aman was yet to leave.
Mia stayed for two nights, existing through one-word murmurs, sloping around in long-sleeved jumpers and spending most of that time locked away in her room, with only blaring rock music for company. But, during the days in which Aman preoccupied himself with odd jobs, like scrubbing the grout on the kitchen tiles, he would gather fag ends of phone calls and listened out for the sound of Mia’s tears muffled by pillows.
Aman attempted to broach the subject on the third day by wrapping his flailing arms around her.
Outraged, Mia wriggled away and said,
'I'm not a child, okay. I know you're not going to change,' before slamming the door.
And so, pulling a bulging suitcase along behind her, Mia left that night, swearing that she would never come back so long as he was still living there.
She claimed to be going to her friend Eli's house. Still, the only Eli that Rose could recall was a sickly looking boy, known for turning up to school in unwashed clothes and the occasional black eye, despite his mother cruising around town in a Mercedes with a toy boy in the front, that was never seen on the driveway.
Rose was also one for keeping herself busy. Each day after work, she would come armed with meat and spices to concoct an elaborate meal which they would eat to the tune of ticking clocks, chewing mouths and steel scraping against china.
On the seventh day, Aman showered, dressed early so that Rose would wake to the aroma of sweet, buttery pancakes and bacon - her favourite.
But as he clattered around and rummaged through draws, Aman realised that he didn't know where anything was. Soon enough, the batter curdled, and when he ladled the mixture onto the pan, it bubbled and spat, which was followed by floods of cascading smoke and the wailing alarm.
He wafted the air with a tea-towel and removed the batteries of the fire alarm before throwing the misshapen pancakes away and carefully spooning out a moderate amount of batter to make a new one.
'What's all this?' Rose asked, rubbing her eyes as she wandered into the kitchen.
'Bacon pancakes, your favourite.'
In the spotlights of the kitchen, Aman could see the extent of Rose's exhaustion in the colour of her eyes which looked pink and sunken, devoid of any emotion.
'But it smells like burning, and you woke me up.'
'I know, I know. Why don't you go back to bed, and I'll bring them up.'
Once Rose had gone back up the stairs, Aman set about rustling up an edible breakfast, even managing to salvage the less charred pieces of bacon.
'Look at that, thanks, hun,’ Rose said, leaning over and kissing him for the first time since his arrival as he placed the plate on her lap.
Aman watched her as she rolled up the pancake and started eating.
'You don't fancy helping me with this then?' Rose asked, pointing to the plate.
'Nope. I'm not a breakfast man. You eat it.'
'Alright, well, suit yourself.’
Once Rose had finished, she threw her arms around him, pushing him onto the bed.
'I really miss Mia. I want her back.'
Aman said nothing. His eyes closed as if savouring the glimpse of chaotic bliss they once revelled in.
Remembering herself, Rose pulled away and sat up straight, with glazed eyes that were deep in thought.
'How's the house-hunting going? Didn't Minty say that he's got a room?'
'No, not really. I don't think he wants me there,'
Rose raised her eyebrows.
'So, you haven't asked yet. That's what you mean.'
Aman scrambled to find words to form a reply in an attempt to sound surprised.
'You said I could stay here. This is my home, our home.'
'Yeah, but it's not if my daughter doesn't feel comfortable.'
'Rose, you know what kids are like. She'll get over it. I promise,' Aman interrupted.
'Oh, like how you promised all of the other times.'
Rose's phone vibrated. It was Mia.
'Morning, love. How are you?'
Amid the silence, Aman could make out the startled ramblings of a teenage boy, prompting her knowing, ‘I told you so' look.
'I think they've just broken something,' she mouthed, waving an arm dismissively.
Roses brow furrowed.
'Woah, slow down, kiddo. Is this Eli?'
But as the garbling continued, Rose's bemusement was replaced with an expression of profound horror.
'She's what?' She said, forcing a false sense of calm as she paced around the room.
Aman tried taking her hand in his, but she snatched it away as she tried to commandeer the conversation by asking questions like:
'What do you mean she hasn't woken up?’
‘Have you called the hospital?’ Is anyone else there? Can I speak to an adult?, before the resounding flood of no's grew unbearable.
Still, she tore downstairs in her pyjamas and was about to leave as she hung up the phone.
Aman rushed to the door and stared at Rose, her pupils bulging in a wild panic.
'What is it? What is it?'
'It's Mia,' Rose wheezed, 'she was at a party last night but.'
Rose's voice trailed off. Everything shook as she let out an agonising scream which reverberated around the house.
'Rose. please talk to me,' Aman pleaded over and over again before pulling her to him. She writhed and resisted before succumbing to his sturdy grip, sobbing into his shoulder.
'Mia,' she gulped, unable to speak more than one or two words at a time,' Eli said they can't wake her up.'
'That fucking boy. I knew he wasn't good for her. I'm gonna kill him, I'll kill him,' he said as he pushed Rose aside and stood up in one violent motion.
'Is she dead, Rose. Is she dead?'
'No. She's still breathing. They just can't make any sense of her.'
Rose took a moment to compose herself, her voice calm and measured as though she had flicked a switch.
'She's at Queen Alexandra. Let's go.'
Aman failed to rid himself of the monstrous sense of foreboding as he stumbled through the hospital. As they emerged from the endless maze of corridors, the gormless expressions of patients slumped over chairs had morphed into the tear-stained faces of every person he had ever wronged. He envisioned the faces jeering and snarling as he lay limp on a hospital bed, with skin a jaundiced yellow and his distinct lack of hair giving him an alien-like quality.
Aman blinked hard as he tried to claw back his dwindling sense of reality as he saw Mia sprawled across the bed. Her porcelain face barely recognisable, surrounded by snaking wires.
His chest throbbed as he cast his mind back to when he would tease that bug-eyed
troublemaker for when her cheeks would flush crimson as they danced in the snow.
He locked eyes with the unkempt looking boy sitting on a chair in the left corner of the room. With clenched fists, Aman encroached the space around him, noticing his bruise covered face and drooping eyes.
'What did you do to her?' he asked, his voice no louder than a whisper.
'It's not my fault,' he said, cowering from the looming figure standing over him.
Rose's voice sturred from across the room,
'Aman, give it up already. You know what you need to do.'
Aman turned away from the boy, taking one of Mia's quivering hands and gently kissing it before closing the door.
As he left the hospital, he slipped a pound to a beggar clutching a plastic pot before realising it was the one from before.
'Things can get better.'
As Aman approached the pub, his phone buzzed as he saw Bone and Minty in the window.
'Fancy a swifty?' Bone asked once Aman had answered.
Aman ended the call and glowered at their reddened faces, bloated from a lifetime of abuse.
'No. You're not getting to me this time,' Aman said aloud as he walked on.
Congrats, you've uncovered my (not so) secret stories. I'm Alice, a partially sighted writer passionate about depicting worlds that reach beyond what my eyes fail to see.