Beneath the winter Hartlepool sky, I coiled myself into a scratchy wool blanket Mum made for me thirty-nine years ago. The bottle of cider pressed cold against my fingers.
–Get out the road, my neighbor Horace shouted. Ya gonna get run over.
–Let ’em, I said. Got half a mind to die.
I babysat Horace’s dog once. An Alsatian named Bran. Horace told me he was going to see his kid in Halifax for the weekend.
–Don’t forget to feed Bran, he said. You usually forget to feed yourself.
–Sod off. I can take care of myself.
At the Lock Stock and Barrel shop I had picked up those fancy china plates, ya know, for when Queen Elizabeth comes round my flat, for two pounds. I stacked ’em in the only cabinet whose door was not flinging off the hinge. Makes the kitchen look homey.
I regretted selling a lot of my shit to buydrink. Not that I knew how to cook, but it’d be nice to have a mixer. Mix up some rum and fizzy. All I had were potatoes, half-opened cans of baked beans. Stale toast poking out the toaster. Mash and beans and toast.
I never had kids, but I loved ’em. They gave me their quids and I’d go to Kullar’s Corner, lug a trolley around with loads of cider and cigarettes and candy. Lollies, sometimes, as a treat to the kids. I loved their smiles when I returned with their sins.
When I got back to my flat, Hazel and Ellie’s friends gathered in my living room, and I didn’t remember collecting theirfivers.
–Right, you’ve got school to get to, I said, as if I was their mum.
–Don’t be a friggin’ cabbage, Ellie said.
–We’ve dropped out a long time ago, Hazel said. We’re staying here.
I rang up Horace in the kitchen, the blare of the telly louder than my voice. Within minutes Bran’s bark replaced the telly, and the kids scampered out, flushing like dead goldfish in the toilet.
–Turning into a dosshouse, all right, Horace said. Scallies.
My chequebook was out of cheques. I didn’t have any pounds. And I needed cider for tonight. It was seven degrees Celsius outside, and Mum’s blanket wasn’t warm enough.
–George, sweetie, just give me three pounds, I’ll pay you back.
–I can’t, Cheryl. I know you’re just going to buy drink. You’re already gassed.
–You’re a rather shite landlord, you know that? It keeps me warm.
–Yeah, well, if you hadn’t broken your window, even when I told you it wasn’t broken, I reckon you’d be a lot warmer.
–It was broken! How else could the bloody draft gotten in my living room?
–I’m not gonna argue anymore. Pay your rent by Sunday. Or we’ll have an issue.
I hurled my empty chequebook at George and stomped back to my flat, shacking up in the living room, sucking on the last drop of cider, my throat carving out dry holes. I tugged down my shrunken jeans to keep warm by the broken window.
Hazel and Ellie let themselves in around 15:06. I stayed in the corner by the telly, messing with the volume knob. I had found half a bottle a kid left behind the other day, and savored the sharp burns. They nodded at me and sunk on the couch, guzzling down their own stolen bevvies.
–The social worker makes me draw pictures whenever I’m mad, Hazel said, popping a Valium. So I drew myself stabbing some guy with blood coming out his chest. The old git just stared at me. I only did what she told me to do.
–Yeah? I had the whole neighborhood telling my parents to shut it. They’re having another row again, Ellie said, lighting a fag.
The smoke drifted above us, a comet striking through the cold air. Hazel asked Ellie to play a song.
–Dance with the Devil. Immortal Technique. It’s all I listen to.
–What’s it ’bout? I said, fogging through the film of alcohol.
Hazel looked at me with bright disgust, like I was stupid for not knowing the song. I didn’t know what thirteen-year-olds listened to. I just liked listening to the kids. I liked having friends.
–For your info-mation, it’s about a guy who’s forced to rape and kill a woman to be in a gang. Violent as hell. Fancied the lyrics.
The noise shot out of the tiny phone, crackling in raps and quick tongue. Dirty language.
Hours passed. Alcohol wore off. My flat was the place we all came to drink and I didn’t have any more. The girls came to the wrong waterhole.
–Hey, I have an idea, Hazel said, sitting up from a slouch. Let’s kill someone.
–Like from the song? Ellie asked. But who?
If the buzz hadn’t worn off, I wouldn’t have caught that slight glance, that tiny motion near me. I quickly stood up and tried to usher them out. No sneaky ideas.
–Cheryl, darling, would you like to be a part of our experiment? Hazel said, shoving me toward the broken window, the chill of the wind blowing off Mum’s blanket.
–I reckon not, no. Please leave.
–C’mon. After all you’ve done for us, you can’t do this?
–Please don’t. Stop. I’m scared.
Hazel kicked my shin, doubling bruises from the times I fell on smashed glass. Another hit to my intestines, a gash to my lashes. Six stones fissured into zero. She pinned me down, sat on my pelvis. Ellie’s heavyset build towered over me, clutching the telly. Her fingers shook beneath the volume knob.
–Ellie! Don’t be all piss and wind. Do it. Shove it, Hazel snarled. Go on. Fucking kill her. Bray her.
My reflection in the telly stared at me, eyes wild and young and old. Silently I pleaded with Ellie, the teenager, just barely out of childhood, to spare the blow. After all I’ve done for them. I only wanted friends.
Author’s Note: I had just read Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin before writing this piece. I was interested in the way McCann had set up his dialogue, and the characterization of Tillie in “The House that Horse Built.” Being an American, I had to try not to put in an overwhelming sense of British slang, so I researched the hell out of their vernacular. The story is based on a real event from 2014 in Hartlepool, between a 39-year-old woman and two teenagers. The woman bought alcohol and cigarettes for kids for their companionship. One day, the teen girls went too far. I was fascinated by the idea of an older woman trying to befriend kids by bribing them with illegal things. She only wanted friends.