A SHRED OF HOPE • by Avery Mathers

Stan tries to skip out of the way, but the speeding bicycle passes so close behind him that a pedal clips his ankle, hard. He stammers an apology, even though the bike-messenger is already powering off into the rain. Stan limps to the curb, excuses his way across the sidewalk and leans against a shop window, waiting for the pain to subside. That’ll be a bruise by morning.

“Metro?” The woman is standing too near him and all Stan can see is the top of her pink rain hat. “Metro!” she insists, tugging at the sleeve of his coat. She holds out one of the free newspapers from the bundle that she’s picked up somewhere.

Stan doesn’t want it. It’s a freebie, but she’ll expect something for the favor of handing it to him, and he’s barely got enough money for bus fare.

“You’ve lost your shoe,” she says.

Together, they gaze at Stan’s foot. In life, the sock was mottled grey with a daring purple toe-piece: wet on a city sidewalk, it’s pretty much black.

“Sorry,” says Stan.

The woman thrusts a newspaper into his hand anyway and wanders away to hook someone more promising.

Stan limps back to the curb and sees his shoe lying in the rainy-day crawl of traffic. A taxi horn blares at him as he steps into the street to retrieve it. Everyone stops to look: the taxi stops; a bus stops; even the rain stops. Shoe in hand, Stan flees to the sidewalk and dives into Starbucks.

Every table is occupied. Any aroma of coffee is overwhelmed by the wet-dog stench of sweaty wool.

There’s a chair at the window table occupied only by a jacket and holdall. In the opposite chair, a pretty girl of twenty or so is working on her laptop. Auburn curls bob in time to some rhythm on her headphones. Stan takes a deep breath.

“Is this…?”

She looks up and removes the headphones.

“Yes?”

“Is this…? I mean, this seat…”

“Knock yourself out.” She replaces the headphones and resumes typing. What is he supposed to do about her jacket and the bag? He looks around for another chair.

“Don’t you want it then?” The girl’s looking up again.

“I… the bag…”

With a flicker of stenciled eyebrows, she reaches across the table and tips her stuff onto the floor.

“If you’re sure.” Stan sits.

He ducks under the table, peels off his sock, and wrings it out on the floor. The girl’s face appears at a disconcerting angle, devoid of the headphones. He holds up the sock and pulls a smile. She disappears again.

The damp sock proves harder to get on than it was to get off. He gives up and sticks it in his pocket. The shoe is equally uncooperative; the wet lace defies his numb fingers. A teenager at the next table snatches it off his lap, unties the lace and returns the shoe. By the time Stan has stuttered his thanks and turned back to the table, there’s a coffee sitting in front of him, with milk and sugar on the side.

He casts his eyes about for his benefactor but no one is looking anywhere near him. The girl is still busy; she doesn’t look up. Stan thanks her anyway. She stays busy.

***

It’s dark outside but not raining. Stan squelches towards the bus stop. Perhaps he should have stayed in Starbucks and let things dry in the warmth of the chatter around him. A man steps into his path.

“Can I bum a smoke?”

The man is drunk. Three other men are smoking in the shelter. Why couldn’t he ask one of them?

“I don’t…” says Stan.

“I only asked. Keep your smokes then.”

“No. I mean, I don’t smoke.”

“You haven’t got any? Why not just say so then, asshole?”

The drunk is not unlike Uncle George: short, wiry and pugnacious. A sweep of nicotine-yellow hair flops about on his forehead and a strand of tobacco hangs from his bottom lip, a little to the left. Stan wants to pluck it off.

“Perhaps I could find you one.”

“How?”

Comme ça!” Stan thrusts out a hand and plucks away a cigarette that’s already tucked above the drunk’s left ear. In the same movement, he presents it with a flourish, lightly held between thumb and forefinger. Instead of taking the cigarette, the man recoils, grabbing at his ear as if Stan might have snatched that off too.

“What the fuck! What the fuck! Do that again. Hey, guys, come and see this! Go on, pal. Do it again.”

The smokers glance across but don’t take up the invitation.

A tight feeling grabs Stan’s chest. Is this what a heart attack feels like? No, that’s not it. This is how it felt when Maddy told him that he was a good man and should think better of himself – elation, pride, something like that. It was also the day Phil got out of prison and Maddy went back to him, despite everything, and that feeling disappeared.

“How’d ya do that?” says the drunk.

Stan pulls up his sleeve a little and flourishes the cigarette again, as a magician might do. Eager now, the man takes it from Stan’s fingers, sniffs it, then peers at it as though it might not be a cigarette after all.

“That’s a Camel!” says the drunk. “Comza!” He pokes a finger in his ear but drops the cigarette. Stan retrieves the cigarette from the sidewalk and holds it out again.

“What the fuck! What the fuck!” The man grabs the cigarette and brandishes it at the smokers. “Guys! Seriously, you need to see this.”

Best leave before they get interested. As Stan walks away, the drunk’s still trying: “Comza! Comza!”

Stan’s allows himself a tiny smile. That feeling in his chest is already slipping away, but he remembers it now. It’s still in there, somewhere.


Avery Mathers keeps bees and monitors moths in the Scottish Highlands, but mostly he writes. He has an MA and an MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Aberdeen. His flash fiction and short stories have been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Friday Flash Fiction, 101-Words, 50 Give or Take, Triclops, and others.


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