The Winner!

Silver, by Madison Fowler, aged 19

 

The alley was eerily silent again. No more screams or shouts; no more crunches of flesh and bone; no more sporadic bursts of gunfire. Just the steady hammer of rain washing away the heavy dust and dirt. The girl bent down and put two fingers against the pale arching neck of the body on the ground.

 

“Dead,” She said tonelessly. “Took two shots to the stomach. Not a nice death – slow, painful…” she shifted position, “…bloody. Why didn’t anyone notice she was gone?”

 

There was an awkward silence behind her.

 

Slowly she reached down and unhooked a glittering gold chain from where it had fallen, inside the dead girl’s open mouth. As she lifted it, the crucifix on the end swung free, and hung, trembling, reflecting the orange glow of the streetlight beyond. For a moment she watched the images flow into one another, lost in a warm metallic haze. Then she caught sight of her own face – cold, malevolent and distorted. With a grimace she tugged the chain sharply, heard the smooth snap as the clasp gave way, and shoved it roughly in her pocket. There was a murmuring behind her, and a gentle splash as someone stepped out of the safety of the group. She knew who it would be instinctively, and stood up quickly. There was no way she would kneel in front of her.

 

Standing opposite was a tall girl with arms folded and head tilted arrogantly. Like the rest of the gang, she was covered in mud and drenched in rain, but normally she had masses of cloudy auburn hair, and even the gloomy light couldn’t conceal the beauty of her delicate features or the rich pouting mouth. The girl’s glittering green eyes held her gaze insolently, and her lips curled in a sneer. This was one opponent who could not be deceived by such false appearances.

 

                “We had to worry about ourselves, Silver.” The girl called Silver frowned.

 

“If we looked after each other we wouldn’t need to, and this wouldn’t happen. I’ve told you that before, Redd.” Redd rolled her eyes dramatically.

 

                “We can’t be expected to go back for foolish slowcoaches who don’t have enough sense to dodge a bullet. Angel was always a complete airhead, with nothing up there but books and going to church.” She gestured carelessly to the body and her eyes narrowed dangerously.

 

“We could have won, you know. We could have taken the entire street, even the block! It was spineless to surrender like that.”

 

                Silver knew this comment was not just addressed to her. Redd was making sure that all the girls could hear, and as usual her eloquence and clever choice of phrase meant they would take it to heart. Silver wished she could think of something, anything, to dispel the doubt on their faces; a clever retort to damage Redd, or comforting words to reassure them that she, Silver, could still be relied on. She knew she had done the right thing – knew that if they hadn’t retreated, more lives would have been lost and nothing gained – but how to put all that in words eluded her. She possessed none of the easy confidence Redd had in such abundance, so she could only stand there returning her scornful glare and say:

 

“Shut up Redd, you’re not in charge.”

 

Redd smiled sarcastically and shrugged.

 

“No. You are,” she said, looking pointedly at the body, and turned away to disappear into the night. The rest of the group remained, shuffling their feet awkwardly and stealing looks at their leader from under rain soaked eyelashes. Silver felt she should say something.

 

“You shouldn’t listen to her you know. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” Over thirty pairs of eyes expressed their disbelief. She was aware of a precious moment slipping away, and grasped blindly for it.

 

                “We have to stick together, guys! What’s the point of being in a gang if we don’t look out for each other? We have to trust each other or we’ll end up…dead,” she finished lamely. It was no use. The moment had passed like so many others. She sighed, and fixed her features into the glare they suited best.

 

“What are you standing around for? Kitty, Tisha, get that dumpster open. You four …”

 

Silver paused for a moment looking down the empty corpse. Blood was mingling with the murky puddles, distorting the reflections and casting surreal shadows under their feet. She fought the urge to throw up.

 

“You know what to do.”

 

                The rain had stopped now, and only the gentle plink of water dribbling from the gutters filled the silence. It wasn’t the quiet before the storm that scared her- this was the quiet after the storm, intense and laden with painful memories. Silver let her feet take her on the familiar route, and thought about the previous few hours. For months there had been an unspoken stalemate between her gang and their rivals – known as the ‘Darrenbridge Dogs’ – a product of long negations and compromises that she, and her predecessors had struggled to maintain. Yet all it took was a chance meeting between two gang members and a few spiteful words to turn it into a fierce, bloody battle. And they still didn’t see where they went wrong!

 

                Silver clenched her fists in frustration and winced as the bruises reminded her of how hard she had fought. It was hard to know whether she was lucky or not that the majority of fighting was bare-fisted; many of the other kids had knives, but seldom guns, so it was easier to defend oneself. But it put many of the girls at a natural disadvantage. Her natural strength and agility – coupled with her intimidating appearance – meant that she was a match for even some of the guys, leaving her free to support her gang, but oh boy, didn’t they just need supporting. Absently she flickered through their faces in her head. They were all lonely, seeking the security of the gang where they could escape from home, make friends, fight rivals…so many reasons. Only a scant few had the natural talent for street fighting – the rest learnt the hard way. Their gang names gave little insight into their real identity: Kitty, Jen, Whisper, Tyger, Emerald…Redd. There had been a time where Silver knew them all by heart, but now new girls came and old ones…went…so fast she couldn’t put names to faces anymore.

 

                She jumped over a dank puddle stretching the length of the road and landed with a wet thump on the other side. Up ahead a figure detached itself from the shadows and stood watching her silently. She didn’t seem to notice. Instead she thought bitter thoughts that had been corroding her mind more often recently: I bet Redd knows all their names, and their life stories too…

 

  Slowly Silver got closer to the walking figure, and the gentle slap of the footsteps doubled as it began to work beside her. A pair of glasses glinted in the half-light, and there was a small rumbling cough.

 

                “I heard fighting awhile back.”

 

Silver nodded slowly in reply.

 

“With the Dogs right? Was anyone…?”

 

“Angel.”

 

Strange that one word should be enough. They walked in silence for a while, turning through a maze of roads and alleys, following a path they knew by heart. The boy kept glancing surreptitiously at Silver, and she restrained a smile. Matteo was always aware of whether she wanted conversation or not, but he hated walking for miles without saying a word, and the conflict between these two emotions was sometimes palpable. She decided to end his suffering.

 

                “How’s the shop going?”

 

Matteo’s face broke into a grin – charming, genuine and so utterly infectious she couldn’t help smiling too, despite the pain it caused.

 

“It’s great, Silver! Now I’ve passed my exams my dad says I can go work in my uncle’s office in city centre. I’ll start off small, like a file guy or something, and work my way up slowly…”

 

Silver felt herself relax as he chattered on. Ever since she had run into Matteo closing his father’s store late one night, they had walked home together everyday. His chatty nature suited her reticent personality, and his unending stream of jokes and stories helped her forget her nagging worries. Recently she had returned later and later, often nearer dawn than dusk, but he was always waiting patiently on the corner of Rightside and Greenway. Sometimes she wondered what his parents thought f him staying out so late, but the only time she had plucked up the courage to ask, he had merely replied: “They trust me.”

 

                She didn’t object, but could never work out why Matteo would want to keep her company, nor offer her so much information about himself. He never asked for a return on his confidence, nor seemed to resent her silences.  He seemed content to just walk with her, like some guardian angel…Silver slowly reached up and touched her face sadly. It wasn’t the first time she had wished that night hadn’t happened, but with Matteo the regret was always so much worse…

 

                Slowly, they ground to a halt on the edge of a road strewn with litter. There was an awkward pause.

 

“Well, see you tomorrow,” said Matteo finally.

 

“Yeah, as always,” she replied gruffly. He leaned forward for a second, as though he wanted to say something, but then turned around and walked away. Silver waited until he had turned the corner, and then retraced her steps away from the neat blocks of flats to a dark alley, where a dumpster had been flipped onto its side. Carefully, she lifted the lid and crept inside. For a moment before the lid clanged shut, the dawn light showed a pile of messy blankets, a cardboard box full of crumpled clothes and a broken picture frame.

 

                Silver walked slowly down the road, flipping an empty drink can from hand to hand. She was mulling over ideas in her head, and the repetitive hand motions helped her think. How should she deal with the new animosity between the two gangs? Even before, peace negotiations had been difficult, but now any messengers she might send would be at risk of injury. Or worse.

 

Maybe she could offer them some territory? No, the girls would never let her do that; they were sore enough about losing that one street – thanks to Redd. Silver wished she could ask for their opinion, but this would compromise her already fragile authority. She let out her breath in a great gust. How could she rule through equality if she held them by fear?  She turned into a dark lane absently. Maybe she could take a leaf out of Redd’s book, and pretend to offer equality while intending to rule by fear…

 

Suddenly a shot cracked through the silence. Silver, with reflexes honed by constant paranoia, dodged behind an overflowing dustbin. Her heart drummed a mad staccato warning in her chest. Were the Dogs attacking so soon? Then she heard an all-too familiar voice.

 

                “See what I mean girls? She’s scared of a little pop. Come out, coward.”

 

Silver stood up slowly, struggling to contain the anger bubbling up inside her at Redd’s hypocrisy. Standing opposite, surrounded by her gang, was Redd, calmly tossing a gun in the air. She gave her a look of such triumphant malice that Silver had to dig her nails into her palm in an effort to stop herself lunging forward.

 

“What are you all doing? There’s no meeting planned for tonight.” She said carefully.

 

                “We thought we’d have a little get-together,” Redd replied, grinning at the other girls as though this was highly amusing, “besides, we might ask you the same thing.”

 

“It’s not your place to ask me anything, Redd.” Silver growled menacingly. She noticed some of the girls exchange fearful glances, but Redd only grinned wider, showing a row of perfect white teeth.

“It is now. Consider yourself officially usurped. I’m in charge now and there’s going to be some major changes around here.” She stopped smiling, and lifted the gun to point directly at Silver.

 

“Now get out of here, Cyclops, before I give you a scar on the other side of your freakish face.”

 

A red curtain seemed to descend over Silver’s eyes. Before Redd could react, she’d launched herself forwards savagely. Knocking the gun out of her slim wrist, Silver twisted round, smashing her elbow into Redd’s face with a crunch. As she dropped to the ground, nose pouring crimson blood, Silver slammed her into the pavement and trapped her arms in a vice-like grip. She was about to pin her legs, when she heard an ominous barrage of clicks. She looked up, and saw herself staring into the barrels of a dozen guns.

 

Slowly moving her gaze upwards, Silver looked into the pale, scared faces of her girls. At first she couldn’t speak – the dull ache of betrayal was holding her throat together like glue. Finally she choked out:

 

“What are you doing? Can’t you see what she is?”

 

They exchanged looks nervously, their obvious discomfort making Silver feel worse. Then one she vaguely remembered as Ruby spoke up.

 

                “Redd has good plans for us. She says we can get control over the district, even get rid of the other gangs. We’ll be the first all-girls gang to have that much power.”

 

Hands still shaking against the barrels of their guns, the others nodded agreement. Silver was incredulous at the absurdity of her speech. Her lips trembled to finds words for the futility of endless war, the stupidity of such an ambition. How could she explain to these determined faces, so brave in their naivety, that by supporting this they had already resigned themselves to death? She rose carefully, releasing Redd from her stranglehold. Then she let herself speak.

 

“Don’t you understand? This isn’t war, this is a stupid argument, just a stupid meaningless excuse to murder! What has there ever been for us to die for, except the deaths of others?!”

 

Indecision flickered over their faces, but the guns didn’t move off their target. She turned to Redd, who was getting slowly to her feet. The blood still streaming down her face gave her a wild, animalistic quality she had never seen before. Redd met her eyes, and in them Silver could see the same intelligence that gave made her struggle for peace. For a moment they held the gaze as equals, both able to see the world with a clarity unknown to so many others – both able to see that they could never win. The only difference was that Redd was still proud enough to try it.

 

                Silver sighed with such sadness that for a moment something akin to compassion flickered in Redd’s eyes. But then she looked away quickly and stood aside for Silver to pass. Silver looked once more into the faces of the family she had protected and sheltered for so long, then turned her back on them to walk…home.

               

                                A figure sat hunched on the bonnet of an abandoned car, looking down on the sprawling city below. If it concentrated, it could almost imagine that the city was a vast lake reflecting the starry sky above. Here was the only place near the city where the stars could be seen. It looked up as someone else arrived at the top on the hill.

 

“How did you find me, Matteo?” it said in surprise. Matteo shrugged.

 

“I told you that I come out here to think, so I thought that you’d probably do the same. My genius is as yet undiscovered.” He paused. “I missed you yesterday, Silver… what happened?”

 

Silver didn’t answer, instead continued to play with something in her hands. He walked over and eased himself on the bonnet next to her. Minutes ticked by as they sat in silence, gazing out over the chaotic mass of humanity at the bottom of the hill. Then suddenly Silver spoke up as if the long pause hadn’t existed.

 

“I never told you, Matteo, why I was living on the street.” Matteo opened his mouth in surprise but she touched his arm gently.

 

“I have been for almost three years now. My gang supported me because my sister used to be their leader, and I replaced her easily. Since then I tried to uphold the same beliefs my sister had – about democracy and peace – but I didn’t have the same talent. She was special. I only held onto the leadership because they were frightened of me. Until last night that is…”

 

Silver trailed off, the memories scoring a fresh wound in her heart. She opened her hand, revealing the delicate gold chain and crucifix still spotted with blood. There had been so much death, and so little left to show for it except superficial trinkets… But she forgot this as Matteo reached over and closed her hand, gently holding it in his.

 

“Why were they scared of you?”

 

                “Because of this,” she replied, her voice almost breaking. But there wasn’t any point hiding, not anymore. She had nothing left now. Silver reached up and, hesitating for only a second, removed the bandage that was wrapped diagonally across her face. Folding it carefully in her hands, she turned her face towards Matteo’s. The moonlight revealed a hideous jagged scar reaching from her hairline across her eye to her jaw. The flesh around it was red and swollen, and one eye was fused shut for eternity. The other looked back at him; its pale blue beauty making the loss of its companion so much more terrible. It shimmered with tears.

 

“My dad was really violent, always half drunk and angry. One day, me and my sister got home to find him beating up our mum. He’d done it before, but this time he wouldn’t stop; she was barely screaming, already half dead. We tried to help her, we tried, but he was too strong for us. He got a knife from the kitchen and…killed my mum and my sister, but I was too fast, so… so he could only do this instead. I ran away, but someone caught me and took me to hospital. I escaped as soon as I could and found new home.” Silver felt only relief as the story she’d kept secret for so long came pouring out of her.

 

                “I’m so sorry I never told you before, Matteo. I…I wanted you to think well of me and not see me like everyone else does. As a beast.”

 

Silver expected him to recoil as she finished her story – react like everyone else did, with a mixture of horror, disgust and pity. Instead he pulled her closer and dropped a tender kiss on her face, where the scar began.

 

                “It’s them who can’t see, sweetheart. You’re beautiful.”

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