Mist pours like white breath over the broken rocks, turning the runner’s blood pink before it hits the water.
Closer, the retrieving figures come, calm and slow.
The runner closes their eyes and sees those three words carved into the strung-up skin of the last.
None get away.
Torn fingers tremble as they pull tape and ribbon and a cable tie and washed-up scraps of rope and nylon from the carrier bag, anything and everything they’ve scavenged and collected and hid and kept hidden to fasten the raft. Lumps of driftwood, fractured table tops and legs of chairs, a signpost, or maybe a lamppost, a clue that people used to wander unsupervised at night, back when everyone had the right to see in the dark.
The approaching figures don’t shout. The only sound is the runner’s fast breath and the loud drag of small weak rocks pulled from the beach by incessant black waves.
The runner glimpses the familiar black lump of hope on the horizon and their eyes linger. The vessel. Watching, waiting, unmoving, unwavering, anchored and changing direction only when the tide changes, to save or to collect or to return. A persistent taunt of a world outside their world.
The gift from the sea brazenly swings at their hip, hitched to a belt loop with an odd shoelace. For 1,297 sunrises the bottle has been preserved from sight in a toilet crevice and a mattress hole and under the loose floorboard beneath their bunk. But now, it’s almost free.
The figures. They slice a leisurely path around broken rocks and place careful feet on clumps of greasy seaweed.
None get away.
The runner pushes the raft towards open sea, towards the vessel, towards hope, ignoring the ache of raw and pummelled knees against cracked and flinted rock. Deeper, their torso shudders until nothing below their shoulder can be seen and they clamber onto the raft, testing to see if it holds their weight. It veers to one side, then the other, and the runner clasps the front, fingernails digging into the rounded wood of an old chair leg as they pray to that god The Selected always preach about that they don’t go under.
The raft bobs, teases, rights itself.
Tender muscles burn into existence as the runner holds their torso on the raft, bare toes walking along the seabed until broken rocks turn to smooth rocks and then to nothing. They bring their legs up, feet splatting against the surface of the sea, awkwardly finding alternate movement until the rhythm propels them forward.
Then the current takes the raft, boosting them from the land as though invisible, sympathising, loving hands have risen from the waves to guide them.
A backwards glance at the figures, meandering towards the blooded rocks where the runner last touched land.
The temptation can be withstood no longer. The runner reaches back a hand, fumbling fingers undoing the knot of the shoelace at their belt-loop. They bring the bottle to their face, careful not to let the sea waves change their mind and steal back the frosted gift. The runner holds the bottle, clasping it tighter than they held that decaying bag of a sticky, black, sweet tasting substance they’d found in a plastic cupboard of an ivy-engulfed metal shell of something no longer used. They prise the cork from the bottle with their teeth and stash it safely in the top pocket of their uniform, an unbreakable habit of a slight lifetime.
With the vessel as the backdrop, they ease the spiralled parchment from the bottle and open it, smearing salt and blood on its preserved surface.
And they read.
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© 2018 Rebecca Delphine
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.