Flash Fiction by Paul Robert Mullen
tw: sensitive content, vulgar language
Provincial Town Taxi Rank
They came out of the shadows of a side street, through the swathes of abandoned chip wrappers, dog shit and used condoms. The glow from their phones glittered in the dusk. You could see their mean, affected scowls under tightly pulled hoods. The dark shadows of adolescence threatening to break through curled top lips. The leader, a boy of probably eighteen, was tall and wiry with slouched shoulders and twisted pout. His left eyebrow was part shaved, and his right hand looked like it was clutching something deep in his pocket. The other three, swaggering in step, dipping first their right shoulders and dragging through with their left, were equally as feral, and of similar age. The one at the back, chubbier than the rest with fingerless gloves, wore a scarf that covered all but his eyes. He seemed to grunt with every step, as though preparing for war.
“What do we do?” Alice whispered, gripping my hand like the bars on a rollercoaster.
“Nothing. Just relax,” I said through clenched teeth.
There was still music from distant late bars falling idol onto empty streets, the last of the evening’s revellers either long gone or locked in for the complete duration. There were still no taxis at the rank, and hadn’t been for nearly twenty minutes. Late December had turned bitter cold, a light blanket of ice starting to freeze on the windscreens of parked cars. The remains of a half-eaten donner kebab was slowly crystallising in the gutter, strips of pitta looking like aged oak.
“Spare us a cig there,” the leader growled.
“Ignore them,” I mouthed. Alice’s eyes seemed to dilate, change.
“You listening to me, lad, or what?”
He strode into our personal space and Alice sunk into my side.
“We don’t smoke.”
They laughed. The fat lad pulled out a lighter, passed it to the leader.
“You hear that, boys? They don’t smoke.”
More laughter. The leader’s right hand never moved from his pocket as his left reached behind his ear, pulled out a cigarette before tipping it into his mouth.
“You know how this works?” he snarled, flashing the lighter in front of my face. He did it half a dozen times, and I had no choice but to back up.
“What is this?” I said, Alice tugging at my arm.
They laughed again. A well-oiled machine knows what to do when the situation demands it. An icy mist was descending on the rank and no sign of headlights in the distance. Fear was confusing the words forming in my brain, and the dull ache of premature sobriety started pumping through my temples.
“What is this!” one of the smaller boys mimicked in some sort of pre-pubescent screech, prompting more exaggerated laughter. The leader was close enough for me to smell the stale booze and cannabis on his breath, and it was clear that his right eye was bloodshot.
“We’re waiting for our lift,” Alice said suddenly, calmly. She seemed to straighten up and released her attachment to my arm. The leader changed focus, staring down at Alice with a numb, threatening glare.
“Oh, sweetie,” he mocked, “there is no lift. Not tonight.”
The tops of the buildings, mainly Tudor in construction, started to lean in, pressing on the streets below. The laddered sparkle from Christmas lights shimmered in successive strobic moments; golds and silvers and blacks rattling in the space between the road and the horizon. The illusion of voices swept through the alleyways, a distant choir amongst ruins.
“That’s enough,” I steadied, facing the leader head-on.
I’m a reader, myself. So is Alice. We spend nights on the sofa creasing the spines of a thousand books, curled up in one another’s arms whilst lost in different worlds. It’s a cliché to say that, at times, silence feels like a hurricane; we’ve both read it a million times and cringed. But my brain. Something murmured, then roared, then crashed into the back of my eyes like a tidal wave, splashing the night with violent shades of dark I wasn’t used to seeing.
“The fuck you think you talking to?” he spat.
“You talking to ‘im?” one of the others snarled, slapping the leader on the right shoulder. The fat boy stepped closer too, filling in the space on the leader’s left flank, and for a split second they looked like compositions in the sketch pad of someone’s nightmare.
“They’re talking to me,” the leader carried on, pointing at his sternum.
“They’re talking to you,” fat boy confirmed.
The leader faked a lunge; instinct saw me press him firmly in the chest, pushing him off balance. He seemed to crawl out of his slouch and stood up, full height, casually slipping out a blade from his right pocket.
“Boys,” he whispered, and it gave me the chills. “I think this prick wants to dance.”
The fat kid leant awkwardly to the side, plucking something from within his shoe, his eyes wild with anticipation. Alice gasped and it sparked something in the smallest boy, who grabbed at the leader from behind, ushering him to stop,
“Come ‘ed, Jay lad, let’s get off.”
The leader swiped his arm away and turned back to face us. The knife was six inches long with a serrated edge. The fat kid had a flick knife, smaller but just as intimidating, flaming in the dull moonlight.
“Don’t be so fucking stupid,” I said. “There’s cameras round here. We don’t want trouble.”
“It’s not about what you want,” the leader snarled, jabbing the blade at my chest. Alice started pulling me back, but the gang kept advancing.
“Stop!” she screamed. The echo rebounded in the distance.
“Get your fucking money and phones out and put them on there.” The leader nodded towards the street bin, and the fat kid started to circle us.
“Listen, there’s no need . . .”
“Fucking do it!” he shrieked, his voice quivering.
I reached into my pocket, calmly pulling out my wallet and brand new iPhone X. Little fucking bastard. Alice had bought it as my Christmas gift, knowing business relied on it. I placed it on the bin and stepped back again.
“And your bitch, too,” the fat kid smirked, his shark-like, crooked teeth thumping on my retinas like rows of twisted gravestones.
“Don’t call her that,” I barked, pointing at the fat kid. The leader jabbed at me, drawing blood.
“You fucker!” I cried, clutching at my hand. The leader stepped back.
“Let’s go,” the small boy ached, backing up.
“Get the cash, let’s go,” the other one agreed, but the fat kid smelt blood. He started lunging at us, side stepping, breathing heavily through his mouth and garbling something indecipherable. Alice threw her purse and phone onto the floor, and the fat kid snatched them up. The leader calmly took my wallet and phone off the top of the bin. The two smaller kids started to run, and the fat kid was sliding out of shot towards the alley. Alice couldn’t hold it in; she burst into tears, her face hidden in her hands. The leader backed up slowly, never taking his eyes off mine. Before he turned to run he flipped me his middle finger.
“Better get that checked, pal,” he mocked. “Might get AIDS.”
Paul Robert Mullen is a poet, musician and sociable loner from Liverpool, U.K. He has three published poetry collections: curse this blue raincoat (2017), testimony (2018), and 35 (2018). He has been widely published in magazine, journals and anthologies worldwide. Paul also enjoys paperbacks with broken spines, and all things minimalist. He is a regular contributor for Marias at Sampaguitas.