The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean

Chapter 1

I’m not going back.

Not now, not ever. My right ankle is the size of a fist and I can feel bone shards scraping together, six-year-old shards, as I limp away from the farm cottage towards the distant road.

The destination is there, I can see it, but it’s not getting any closer. I walk and hobble and it’s still a whole world of pain away from where I am right now. My eyes scan the road, left, then right, for him. Very little traffic. Lorries transporting cabbages and sugar beet; cars ferrying fruit pickers. One bus a day.

I have my five-pound note, his five-pound note: my ticket out of this flatland hell. The creased green paper’s rolled and tucked into my hair, still black after these nine British years, though only God knows how.

Every step is a mile. Etched aches and new pains melt into red-hot misery beneath my right knee: boiling fat and razor-sharp icicles all at once.

The track is pale October brown, the mud churned and dried and churned by the tractor. His tractor.

I move as fast as I can, my teeth biting down onto my tongue. I’m balancing different pains. Managing as best I can.

He’s not coming. I can spot his Land Rover from a mile away.

I stop to breathe. The clouds are moving over me, urging me out of this forgotten place, helping me at my back, pushing me along towards that road, towards that one bus per day with my five-pound note hidden in my hair.

Is that?

No.

Please, no. It can’t be.

I stand completely still, my ankle bones throbbing stronger than my own heart, and he is there on the horizon. Is that his truck? Maybe it’s just the same model. Some plough salesman or school teacher. I look right, towards the town past the bridge, and left, towards the village. Places I’ve never been. My eyes lock onto the Land Rover. His Land Rover. Keep driving, for the love of God be someone else and keep on driving.

But he slows and then my shoulders fall.

He turns onto this track, his track, the track to his farm, to his land.

I look right at the nothingness, the endless fields he’s sculpted, and the spires in the distance, and then left to the wind turbines and the nothingness there, and then back. That’s when I weep. Tearless, noiseless weeping. I fall. I fold forwards with a crack, a sharp stone beneath my right knee, a blessed distraction from my ankle.

He drives to me and I just kneel.

With a clean, clear-thinking head maybe I’d have managed to escape? Not with this leg. Not with him always coming back. Always checking on me. Always watching.

It’s Kim-Ly in my head now and I will not let him in. My sister, my little sister, it is you that gives me the strength to breathe right now on this long straight churned mud track in this unseen flatland. I’m here for you. Existing so that you can carry on. I know what’s to come. The fresh horrors. And I will endure them for you and you alone.

He stands over me.

Once again I exist only in his shadow.

Consumed by it.

I won’t look at him, not today. I think of you, Kim-Ly, with Mother’s eyes and Father’s lips and your own nose. I will not look up at him.

I’ve made it past the locked halfway gate.

But no further.

It’s still his land all around. Smothering me.

He bends and reaches out and gently picks me up off the dirt and he lifts me higher to his shoulder and carries me on towards the cottage.

I am as limp as death.

My tears fall to the mud, to the footprints I created an hour ago, the men’s size eleven sandal prints; one straight, the other at right-angles – that one a pathetic scrape more than a print, each step a victory and an escape and a complete failure.

He walks without speaking, his strong shoulder bulging into my waist, hard and plateaued. He holds me with no force. His power is absolute. He needs no violence at this moment because he controls everything the eye can see. I can feel his forearm at the back of my knees and he’s holding it there as gently as a concert violinist might hold a bow.

My ankle is burnt. The nerves and bones and tendons and muscles are as one damaged sludge; sharp flints and old meat. Fire. I feel nothing else. The pain is something I live with every day of my life, but not like this. This is wretched. My mouth is open. A silent cry. A hopeless and unending scream.

He stops and opens the door that I scrub for him each morning and we go inside his cottage. I have failed and what will he do to me this time?

He turns and walks past the mirror and past the key box bolted high on the wall and heads into the one proper downstairs room. In Vietnam my family had six downstairs rooms. He takes me past the locked TV door and past the camera and he places me down on the plastic-wrapped sofa like I’m a sleeping toddler extracted from some long car journey.