The room was empty. She'd clung desperately onto the hope that it wouldn't be, but part of her knew she was fooling herself. Of course Jason had gone, he and his brother were wanted for countless crimes; they had to leave Holby, the country too, most probably. A bitter tear slipped unchecked down her cheek. She was alone, and she felt sorry for herself.

She had seen what Jason was like, the sort of people he colluded with; she couldn't claim ignorance about what she was letting herself in for. But she'd thought she'd loved him, and had wanted with all her heart to believe every promise that he was 'going straight', and that whatever he dragged her into was a one off and would never happen again.

She knew what people would say about her if they knew the extent to which she'd allowed herself to be dragged into his questionable affairs. They'd say she was stupid. If they knew how she'd entertained his friends; they'd say she was a slut. If they knew how Anna had been hurt; they'd say she didn't deserve such a friend. If they knew of the lies she'd told, the shady dealings she'd turned a blind eye too, the dubious aid she'd given to his lackey, and her part in helping Lewis to escape from prison guard; they'd never speak to her again. And who could blame them.

Outside the warehouse the rain pounded down, and even where she stood in the middle of the abandoned structure, she could feel the chill in the air. She hugged her arms around her chest, her body trembling, her vision becoming increasingly blurred until the bare walls merged and faded. She blinked; sniffing heavily, a ragged breath escaping her lips.

She heard a voice, soft but insistent, coming from nowhere in particular but filling the room. She clapped her hands over her ears to shut it out, but it only got louder. Footsteps now, slow and deliberate, came close. She knew those footsteps, the terror they brought, every Wednesday and Friday, was ingrained in her soul, and not even recent revelations could wipe them away.

"Miss Hill. Perhaps you would like to share your joke with the class…?"

"No Miss Henbury" she mumbled, barely daring to look and the spidery, miserable woman circling her like a vulture waiting for death.

"I'm sorry Chloe, you'll have to speak up. I'm sure you can manage that" she sneered. "After all, you are a repeat offender where talking in class goes, aren't you?"

"I'm sorry Miss Henbury".

"You're sorry? Oh well, never mind that you have interrupted my French class again! You see, the other students are here to learn. They wish to gain their GSCE's, they wish to progress into a career and earn a living. Perhaps you do not. Perhaps the Chloe Hill philosophy is to become a fashion model, marry a footballer, and live in ignorance. A waste of one young mind is a terrible thing, but to hinder the chances of the other twenty-six members of this class is pure selfishness Chloe. What is it?"

"Pure selfishness".

The words hung in the air long after the voice faded. Pure selfishness. Ten years had passed since those terrible days in Janet Henbury's class and yet that feeling of inadequacy still haunted her, and those words still made her question herself. Was she selfish?

"You could have phoned or something Chlo…"

"I was going to Laura, I've just been busy". Laura's piercing blue eyes stared back with contempt.

"Too busy even to talk to our mother?! You have no idea how much it meant to her to hear your voice, do you? She'd always make excuses for you not calling, she'd tell all and sundry about how her beloved Chloe was such a fantastic nurse and that's why you never come home to visit anymore. But inside it crippled her".

"I would have come home for Christmas. I would have come home sooner if I'd known…"

"Well, I'm so sorry that Mum couldn't have had her heart attack at a more convenient time for you!"

"That's not fair!"

"No? I'll tell you what's not fair… It's not fair that you swan around thinking the world will stop for Chloe Hill. You're selfish Chloe. You always have been and you always will be".

Those words had stung, more so than she'd ever thought words could. Laura had retracted the sentiment later, after the funeral when things were quiet and the grieving not quite so fresh, but it plagued her still. Her own sister had thought that of her and they'd barely spoken since. Her friends were her family now…

"You bitch! How could you Chloe?!"

"I'm sorry Tina…"

"Sorry that you slept with my boyfriend, or sorry you got found out?!" Tina held her head defiantly, trying with all her might to remain dignified.

"All of it. Honestly, I didn't mean for any of this to happen. It was a mistake, I'm sorry".

"Save it for someone who cares. You're a selfish little cow Chloe".

She sunk to her knees, sitting on the heels of her feet, a saltwater cascade of hurt running down her pale face. Selfish. She'd been called selfish ever since she could remember. The way that some children are called 'fat', 'stupid', or 'ugly'. She'd been called selfish for so long she couldn't remember where it had started. That's what people expected of her.

They expected her to let them down, they expected her to run away, and they expected her to think only ever of herself. However, when she did just that, they all eventually forgave her. Her sister forgave her, Tina did, Anna did, and in a perverted way, each loyal friend who granted forgiveness made it harder for her to change the way her life was heading.

But it didn't have to be like that, she realised in a startling moment of clarity.

Years of being told who she was, and what she was like, exploded around her in a cacophony of sounds and disparate images. She was more than who they thought she was, and the mistakes she'd made were just that; mistakes. She was more than the sum of her faults.

She wiped the tears from her eyes and looked at the empty room once more, but this time she didn't see the bare walls as a symbol of her getting it wrong again, she saw them as a blank canvass. Jason was gone, just like the rat she'd been told he was, he'd vanished into the sewers and out of sight. It was Anna who was still there; still prepared to lie to the police for the sake of their friendship, and it was Anna to whom her loyalty lay.

She turned back to the open door, striding resolutely onwards to her new future. Not as the selfish girl she'd learnt to be, but as Chloe Hill, the woman she was.

The End

Back to Shorter Stories