Not Worth It (October 20, 2017)
Dave gets out of the minivan and immediately sees the girl, sitting on her doorstep, crying.
Until now he’s been having a good day. He’s worked a full shift, a zero-hour contract rarity, and now he just wants to slump in front of the TV with a beer.
This is the last thing he needs.
It’s getting late but a nightlight shines down on her like a spotlight, the whole estate a stage for her tragedy. Even with her long dark hair covering her face, shoulders shaking as she sobs, he knows the girl; his son used to go round hers to play. Kaitlin. How old is she now? Thirteen? Fourteen?
It is a long, damp thirty yards from the road to where she sits, and another ten to his own front door, which he can lock behind himself to shut away the world.
He doesn’t want to walk past her, doesn’t want anything to do with his feckless neighbours and their countless children and their drama-filled, Jeremy Kyle lives. His first thought is to walk away, go the long way round, and he feels a flush of shame at his callousness. He starts forward.
Twenty yards away from her and he’s asking himself where her bloody mother is. Dealing with her kids isn’t his job, after all, and it’s not like she works. That’s the thing with these people. They fill their lives with drama as a substitute for hard graft.
Ten yards away and he can hear her crying; the sound is maddening, the wail of a banshee-in-training. This is why he stopped his son playing with these kids. There’s always some drama, some distraction.
Five yards away and he wishes that he’d gone round. She’s gaining volume, keening like a grieving widow, the rain soaking her and dripping off her hanging braids. She’s wearing shorts that sit too high for her age and a t-shirt that proudly declares her a PRINCESS, which seems naively optimistic given the circumstances.
He wonders what he’s going to say to her.
He thinks of all the times he’s seen her out, late at night, sitting in the street with her friends, drinking and smoking and laughing. They say things to each other that would make Caligula blush. Kids these days have no innocence, they’ve lost it to on-demand video nasties and streaming porn. He’s seen the way she dresses and flicks her hair and pouts her lips to any man or boy dumb enough to give her attention.
Attention. Give it to them and they’ll only want more. Take it away again and who knows what they’ll do to get it back, from anyone and everyone they can. One mistake and they’ll take you to the cleaners. It wouldn’t surprise him if the girl is faking it. Happens all the time; you invite some kid into your home out of the goodness of your heart and they see an opportunity to make themselves feel special. Negative attention, they call it. They make something up and before you know it you’re smeared across the front page of the Daily Mail, journalists parked outside your home, your whole life raked up like autumn leaves while they look for the rot beneath.
He sees the headlines in his mind, feels the handcuffs biting into his wrists, hears the prisoners creeping up to shank him in the shower.
He feels sick.
When she is close enough to touch, she lifts her head and looks right at him. Her eyeliner and mascara, totems of adulthood, are streaked and smeared down her face by childish tears. The rhythm of his footsteps against the pavement breaks as he stumbles, suddenly clumsy.
The look on her face is one of absolute, desolate despair.
Her gaze is a knife through his ribs, stopping his heart and stopping time. He sees a child, lonely and lost, with no one to help her. The urge to wrap his arms around her and tell her that it’s going to be okay is so strong it makes his bones ache.
He screws his eyes shut and corrects his misstep.
The ten yards to his door feel like a mile. His heart races as if he has fled from death itself, turning his back on Kaitlin to keep his life, his wife’s life, his son’s life orderly, perfect.
His hands shake and the key won’t go in the lock. He dare not, cannot, look back, and stands there just stabbing uselessly with his key until eventually his wife opens the door and lets him in, smiling.
He follows his wife into the living room and sits down.
He’s a good man. It’s not worth it. It’s best not to get involved with people like that. Just in case.
He looks in the mirror above the fireplace. A coward looks back.
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