THE FACTS AS I KNOW THEM • by Sarah Hilary

These are the facts as I know them. There’s not much to go on. Six days ago — Joe says seven — something happened. We don’t know what, but it happened at ground level. We’re three floors down from ground level so we’re safe, for now. Trapped, but safe.

There’re five of us. Day one we argued a lot, some wanted to go up and find out what’d happened, others were for staying down here. There’s food in the storeroom, drinks, lavatories; we can survive. Joe said we should find out what’d happened. Lisa said no way, we’d caught a break being down here. It went on like that for a while.

On the fourth day they voted and put me in charge. So now I’m the leader except I think maybe they set me up. I’m not sure I’m in charge of anything. I think Joe’s the leader and I think he thinks it too. I’ve seen him looking at me the way you look at a dog in a car on a hot day, pitying the poor mutt. I’ve seen him smiling. Like tonight, I’m facing the bar, Lisa’s making cocktails, my back’s to Joe but I see his reflection in the shaker. By the time she’s poured the drinks, Joe’s put his poker-face back on but I know what I saw, at least I think I do. I’ve not been sleeping.

I’d better stick to the facts.

The facts as I know them are these. We’re in the basement of the Scala in King’s Cross. There are five of us. Well, four plus me. Something happened seven days ago — I say six — and we can’t get out because the staircase collapsed and there’s no way up.

Lisa says she heard an explosion. I didn’t hear it, but I’ve been having trouble with my ears since the diving holiday, and the others all say they heard something. Now there’s nothing. We keep listening for fire engines, sirens, the police, but there’s nothing. It’s like the whole of London has stopped moving, stopped breathing. Died.

They put me in charge. I get to say whether we wait here to be rescued — Joe says by whom, there’s no one out there — or whether we try and rig up some way of getting past the hole in the stairs to the upper level. We could do it, if we broke up enough chairs and tables.

There’s food down here — mainly nuts and olives, bottled cherries — plenty of it, and there’s drink. The Scala’s a nightclub; we could party every day for a month and the booze wouldn’t dry up. We partied the first night, although I noticed Joe staying sober, sipping at a dry martini, watching us like lab rats. Maybe that’s what we are, part of an experiment. I can believe that.

Tonight, he cornered me at the bar. I was drinking a can of soda. Joe came and stood next to me and said, “You know this place used to be an ape-house.”

I shook my head.

“Yes,” he said. “They kept them down here in cages. You can still smell them sometimes.”

I didn’t believe him and said so.

He picked up a corkscrew from the counter. I watched as he moved close to the wall behind the bar. He scored the metal tip across the paintwork until it flaked away. Underneath, the wall was a muddy green. I saw the bright tip of a leaf painted there.

“Murals,” he said. “They wanted the place to look like a rainforest. Helped the apes feel at home.”

I jumped when he gibbered, making a face like a monkey. He scratched at himself as he moved away. I finished the soda, and felt sick all night.

I think Joe had me voted leader because he knew this way I’ll be no trouble. I think he’s biding his time, maybe the others too. Last night Lisa was whispering in the Ladies to Yvonne. They were touching up their lipstick and they’d left the door open. When they saw me outside, they went quiet but I heard them giggling as they left. I know Joe’s screwing Lisa. Yvonne too, maybe. Maybe all four of them are screwing. I only know so much.

I know this. We’re trapped. Soon it will be a fortnight. I’m getting sick of soda and cocktails, the bottled cherries give me cramps. Doug’s talking about going up, says he can make a ladder out of bar stools. Joe says it’s my decision. He doesn’t stop smiling, not for a second. I can’t sleep. I’m afraid of what’ll happen if I close my eyes.

There’s too much neon in the bar, it turns everyone’s skin bright blue, like an X-ray. I swear I can see the bones inside Joe’s hands. He’s not that big but he looks strong, wiry. I was drunk at breakfast today and I told him I’d had enough, he could be in charge from now on.

He said, “Oh no, that’s your job.” He never drinks before 7 pm. Each morning he scores at the wall with the corkscrew, uncovering more of the mural; I can see a whole tree now. I imagine what the room will look like when it’s all rainforest and my armpits sweat.

The facts. There are four of them, and one of me. I’ve not slept in nine days. If I stood on Doug’s shoulders, he says, I could reach to put the first bar stool on the safe stair, start the ladder. I think what if I go first and they pull the ladder away? I’d break both ankles if I jumped back down, and they could smash empty bottles, turn the floor into a death-trap.

I might do it anyway. It’s so quiet up there. Empty. No whispering, no secret smiles.

No mural.

Joe’s watching me. He knows I want to run but he’s happy to wait. It’s my decision. I’m the leader.


Sarah Hilary’s stories have been published in The Beat, Neon, SHINE, Bewildering Stories, Velvet Mafia, Every Day Fiction, MYTHOLOG, HeavyGlow, Twisted Tongue, Static Movement, Kaleidotrope and the Boston Literary Magazine. Her short story, On the line, was published in the Daunt Books 2006 anthology. She won the Litopia “Winter Kills” Contest in 2007. Sarah lives in the Cotswolds with her husband and young daughter.


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Every Day Fiction

  • Oonah V Joslin

    Great story Sarah.

    And whose birthday is it? Happy Birthday!

    • Thanks Oonah! And thanks Sarah for a wonderful story!
      • My pleasure, Jordan. It was lovely to be your birthday fic. :)
  • I absolutely loved this story until the end. I felt let down.

    And I was wondering about the plumbing. Whatever happened Up Top couldn’t have been all that bad if the toilets were still working. I’d’ve wondered about that if I were her; I’d’ve added plumbing to the list of facts as I knew them.

    Loved this story!

    • Thanks, Bonnie. I'm sorry you felt let down at the end. Good point about the plumbing. In a longer fic, I'd have had the chance to develop this further perhaps, but I'd reach my max for words in a flash and wanted to end these within the parameters of a traditional paranoia fic. Sometimes it's hard to get that balance right.
      • Flash is hard, I know! And really, I thought your story was great. I love unreliable narrators and incipient paranoia -- I thought you did them excellently!
  • Rumjhum

    This story stayed with me. Kept me wondering what happened afterwards. I liked the undertone of menace in it. Great work. Thanks. 🙂

    • Thanks, Rumjhum, that's exactly where I wanted it to leave you - wondering. :)
  • John Allen

    Nice work, as always, Sarah.

  • Whew! What tension! Creepy. I want to know what happens next…

    • Thanks, Madeline, I really appreciate the feedback.
  • simon hancock

    Definitely the best story since I subscribed to this site. I’ll be looking for your other stories, Sarah.

  • I love the writing and the voice of the main character. I did feel a bit let down at the end — it seemed to fizzle rather than actually end. I’d have liked to get a clearer view of the change.

    • Sorry you didn't like it better, Sylvia, I took a gamble I know. I've been accused of liking ambiguity a bit too much. Some readers like it but others not. Sorry it didn't work for you.
  • Like some others I would have liked another paragraph. But I really enjoyed the story.

  • mark dalligan

    Great work. A riveting read.

    Cheers

    Mark

  • I liked this a lot, though it did seem like a portion of a longer story. Very good.

    • Thanks, Stuart. In fact, I myself have no idea what came next!
  • gay degani

    Really good.

  • M.

    I’m all for ambiguous endings, so whilst I can see why some people might be frustrated by the close of the piece, I like how the reader’s frustration is a small echo of the character’s. Now we’re both in that same place, not quite in mind, and waiting to see what happens next. An excellent piece!

    • Thank you, M, for those kind words which are very much appreciated.
  • Miarr

    This story is many things, but a pile of old unfinished pants it is not. I agree with M; the ambiguity is realistic and necessary here. Reaching whatever sort of resolution would have been detracted from the characters’ situation and its (brilliant) tension, which, while satisfying, would have betrayed the point of the story. Kudos for knowing when (and how) to stop.

    That said, I’d love to see it expanded into a larger piece, because I am weak in the heart and crave resolution. My foibles notwithstanding, it was utterly captivating and extremely well-executed. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Miarr. One of the things I love about flash fiction is the way in which it invites the reader to collude in the story-telling, to bring their bottle to the party, if you like. No story is complete without the reader's own interpretation, and this one certainly seems to have met its match in the readers here!
  • A sizzling flash. You have built up great tension supported by psychological depth leaving this reader gasping.
    Well done.
    Bill

    • Aw, Bill, what fantastic feedback. Thank you! :)
  • avis Hickman-Gibb

    Excellent! Paranoia central! I could see her twitching, so I could!

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