It was Friday, and that meant Mama would be working late. When the last bell rang and school let out, I had to be careful to remember to turn left instead of right outside the gate and go to Grandma’s house instead of home. I knew there’d be dinner waiting which always tasted okay even if it smelled funny, and then – if Grandma’s feet weren’t too bad – we’d go for a slow stroll to the corner of the block. She’d buy me a grainy, too-sweet hot chocolate from the stand there, counting out the coins slowly with her nubbled fingers, and she’d hold my hand as we walked home, rubbing her thumb against mine as we went.
But today, the streets were strange. Everything seemed bigger than before. There was smoke on the horizon, black like bad weather coming, and I wondered what was burning. Far away I heard the shrieking of a siren and, without thinking, I crossed myself like Mama used to, before, and then I threw a look around to make sure nobody’d seen me. But there was nobody there to see, and that was lucky. My heart took a while to calm down, though. Stupid, I thought as I hurried on. Mama would whip you, if she knew. I kept forgetting what was allowed, and what wasn’t. It changed all the time.
I saw someone coming towards me while I was still a long way from Grandma’s, and it looked so like her that I squinted, staring. I wanted to run, but I wasn’t sure – this lady was walking fast, in a strange up-and-down way, her head like a bird’s, never still. She had a patterned headscarf on, and large glasses just like Grandma’s, but I’d never seen Grandma move that fast in all my life, and I’d lived for nearly nine years, which was a long time.
‘Jacqueline!’ she called, and then I knew it was her. I ran, but I dropped my smile as I got close, and it smashed on the ground like a slippery plate.
‘Grandma?’ I asked, but she didn’t answer. Her hand shot out and grabbed my arm, and I felt every one of her fingers. They weren’t shaking now, but strong. ‘Ow!’ I said, but she said sssh! and so I stopped.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘We have to get inside.’
‘What’s happening?’ I asked, but she turned away and hurried on. I felt a bit like our old pet dog on his lead, and I got sad, but then I swallowed it away because that wasn’t allowed. We’d had to give him up, and then we had to forget all about him. Citizens will not claim ownership of that which is not State-sanctioned was the law, and Mama’d had to explain it to me. So, I just tried to keep up.
At the next corner, Grandma muttered something under her breath and dragged me into the shadows of a doorway. I felt her trembling.
‘What’s -‘ I started to say, but her hand, soft and rough all together, slapped down over my mouth.
‘Just keep quiet, treasure,’ she whispered. ‘Come in here, and don’t look.’ She pulled me towards her and I leaned in.
‘You smell funny, Grandma,’ I whispered, pulling away. I turned a bit, trying to see, but she slapped me, hard, and I got too big a fright to even cry.
‘I said don’t look, Jacqueline,’ she muttered, digging her fingers into my shoulder. ‘And stay quiet!’
Ages went by. I listened to Grandma’s stomach gurgling and felt her breaths getting tangled and her fingers, shaking again now, stroking my head, and then I heard her praying, in whispers, using the old words. It made me feel mixed-up to hear them, like how it used to feel to have my birthday on the same day as a test at school, and I looked up at her face. She was crying, big fat tears, and her mouth bit back the words of her prayer as she stared, away from me, down the street. I saw shapes moving in the lenses of her glasses, and they looked like people running, and other people chasing, and sticks falling, falling.
And then the world exploded into screaming. I grabbed Grandma and she grabbed me, and I scrunched my eyes tight up.
‘Remember thou art a reflection of thy Creator,’ Grandma whispered into my ear, her breath hot against my cheek. I felt a warm droplet running down my face, splashing onto my chest, and I wasn’t sure whether it was her tear or mine. ‘His glory is reflected in you as your destiny is reflected in Him.’ I held my breath and let the old words wash over me, thinking of Mama. I wondered where she was, and if she was okay. ‘Remember this as you gaze upon one another; honour this reflection as you would honour the Lord.’ She kissed me, and her breath sounded like it had been bitten in half, and she dug her fingers into my shoulders.
‘Run, Jacqueline,’ she said. Her voice was hoarse. ‘Run now, and don’t look back!’
I did as I was told, telling myself Grandma was right behind me, even though I knew she wasn’t, and I only stopped to cry when I passed the crumpled hot chocolate stand. It lay on its side, still smoking from the fire that had burned it up, and the man who had poured the chocolate every week for all my whole life was flat on the ground, and in his eyes the sky was mirrored, blue and clear and perfect.