He’d been watching the little girl across the street for a couple of days. He’d turn the TV down low, until it buzzed white noise; the people mostly mute but still his company, and flick the curtain. Not enough so anyone would see but just enough to make sure she wasn’t being left behind.
Her big brothers were gangly and red-faced; they looked like they swallowed petrol for breakfast, pedalling around all over the street on their bikes. She was gentler. She moved like a ballet dancer, her limbs exactly where they should be at all times. She didn’t want any attention from her brothers, perfectly happy to amuse herself, chattering away to an invisible audience.
His lawn was overgrown and browning, he needed to mow and tend to it, because sometimes she sat in front of it holding court. He wanted to offer her a squash, or a biscuit, but she would probably run away from him. He knew the others in the neighbourhood kept their children back from his house, in case of bothering him. She didn’t bother him in the slightest. But the scars would bother her, probably. The scars bothered everyone, so he kept to himself.
Retired. Former. He wasn’t sure which one he preferred. Sometimes he dreamt about the fires and he’d wake up sweating. Once he had woken himself in his boots, laces tied, on the stairs. He had to remember he didn’t do that any more. He didn’t miss the smell of burning at all. He wondered what stories were told about him, if anyone remembered him at all. He’d gotten some kind of something, gold, that sat in a drawer. He didn’t want it. What he wanted was to go back and tell those people they needed to get out faster; he wanted to pull more hands that reached out to him. He hadn’t even realised his body was burning until Tommy had tugged him down on the pavement and whispered all right now, so close in his ear, bear arms across his chest until he was put into the back of an ambulance.
Grace. That was who she looked like. The little girl in the street singing to herself.
Grace. Number 21 rescued. Her blonde hair shorn after surgery. She had come to visit him in his room in the hospital. Comparing skin grafts. Sharing notes on the doctors. They emailed sometimes. She'd been moved to a special unit, sent pictures of how far she had healed. He sent nothing back.
The little girl was scuffing her shoes on the pavement and frowning.
Tomorrow, he would try a biscuit.
EMMA WINTER studied American Literature and Creative Writing at both the University of East Anglia and San Francisco State University. She's had short stories published in Banshee and been shortlisted for AdHoc Fiction and the TSS Spring Fiction Competition 2017. She's working more short stories, flash fiction and a full length novel. You can follow her on Twitter @MsEmmaWinter