I Am Hope
by Jackie Blewett and Richard Wright
There wasn’t much of the world left. You could see it all from the room at the top of the lift shaft that climbed the side of the cliff on rickety struts of dull green iron. The rock face receded at the top, and so a narrow enclosed walkway ran from the shaft to solid terra firma. From the room above the shaft, where rusted the gears and motors that had once hauled up the fragile carriage, the woman looked down on the walkway’s tented roof of corrugated iron as it vanished back into the sodden fog. It had been several weeks since she had been able to see the end of the walkway, and she could not say for certain whether it still led anywhere she wanted to go.
There was more to see on the other side of the lift shaft, bland though it was. In the distance on the left she could still make out the tip of a headland, and the crumble of ancient castle that perched there. The sea far below was a dull grey, that made it blur into the pervasive mists, but sometimes she could make out the white crests of occasional waves. The room’s windows were smeared on the outside with brown dirt. She was not brave enough to climb out and wipe them clean, so when she stared at the headland, wondering whether anybody was trapped there, she saw it in sepia, like an ancient photograph.
Soon she would be unable to see anything at all. The grey would gather close and claim her, as it had her family. The children went first, long before she had fled for the heights.
Clive went later, one afternoon before the fog had claimed the cliff top. They had picnicked there, nibbling ham from a tin and drinking bottled water, watching the wispy edge of the encroaching void. It was a slow advance, not one you could see with the naked eye. To the observer the fog looked solid and still, until one morning you woke and realised that something that had been there was now gone.
Like Clive. There one moment, staring out to see with mournful eyes. Gone the next. She had glanced away for second, and he had left her. Survival had owned only half of his heart. The children owned the rest, and it was inevitable that one day he would go after them.
It was a compulsion she resisted. Perhaps one day she would stand at the edge of that corrugated roof, take a deep breath, and throw herself into the warm bank of fog that was making its slow way up the cliff face – but not yet. For reasons she could not explain, she waited out each day. The water and food supplies they had brought with them, piled in a corner in the small room at the top of the shaft, would not last much longer.
Each night she shivered beneath a tarpaulin, listening to the shuffling of the lone seagull perched on the roof. It was the only living thing she had seen for weeks, and would be dead if she had not shared her rations with it. Sometimes it took flight towards the fog, over the waters, as though it had forgotten the danger. Her heart pounded each time it did, for she could not bear to be the only living thing left in the world. It had always arced back to the room before it vanished. Somehow, deep within its avian brain, it knew there was no coming back.
Perhaps she had an avian brain too, else she would follow Clive and the children. They were probably waiting for her, one way or another, but she could not yet abandon her little sliver of world. It was important that somebody remain, in case the lost came looking.
Hope appeared from nowhere one day, as she sat at the door above the ladder down to the walkway, dangling her feet and scooping tuna from a tin with her fingers. The fish smell was rich and pure, connecting her to the ocean that she could hear but no longer see. The water had been swallowed, along with the distant headland, six sleeps ago. Below there was only a fluffy bed of ominous cloud.
At first she did not know what the itch at the back of her brain was. She chewed and swallowed, staring at the perfect blank of the grey below her, allowing it into her mind so that she did not have to think sad thoughts. Her emptiness was shattered by her own voice, echoing around her head. Look, she shouted at herself. A thing! A difference! Turn your head and look!
It was a shape in the fog that had caught her eye, at the point where it swallowed the roof of the walkway. Not just a shape, but a man-shape. She wanted very much for it to be Clive, but as soon as she focussed she knew he was too tall. Whoever it was sat cross-legged, but his back was long and his shoulders slender. There was a suggestion of long hair, and she did not know why she was so certain that the ephemeral figure was male.
She did not know how many sleeps had passed since she had last seen another person. For a time after Clive disappeared she had counted them, but eventually the number had grown meaningless. Lots. Lots of sleeps had passed.
Now there was a person, and she was terrified. Every beat of her heart was a paralysing death, pinning her in place and killing her over and over. She did not want that shape to be a person, not really. There was contentment to be had in drifting towards extinction. If that was a person there, sitting perfectly still and crosslegged past the boundary between the world and whatever was eating it, then she had to wake up and do things. Something surged in her, a tickling electricity that both weakened her limbs and made it impossible to sit still. Her mind lit up with dreams and possibilities.
After so much stillness it was too much. She burst into snuffling tears, pulled her legs up, and scuttled to the far side of the motors in the centre of the room. She sat there for a while, rocking and crying with her knees drawn to her chest, hidden by rusting metal teeth. By the time she had allowed herself the possibility that she might not be mad, and there might be another person in the world, he no longer was.
That night her seagull left. Scrabbling at the roof, disturbing her dead slumber, it found purchase and took off. Coming wide awake, she leaped to her feet and stumbled to the window, pressing her face to the filthy glass as she scanned the monotony. Although it was dark, her gull’s movement against the bleakness drew her eyes as it soared away from her. She could not see the line of the fog wall, but the bird moved with such sure intent that she assumed it lost even while she tracked it.
At what must surely have been the last possible moment it banked, down and to the left, then back towards her. She allowed herself to breathe, but only until she realised it was coming no closer. For an aching moment, it held in the air, wings working furiously, and then it was drawn back. The fog had grown impatient. She beat a weak hand on the glass as it flew backwards and vanished.
Sliding down the wall, flattened by grief, she sobbed and rocked and waited for the dawn.
The man in the fog returned to her the following afternoon, and she did not allow herself to hesitate. Snatching up her last bag of salt and vinegar crisps, she scurried down the ladder and onto the corrugated iron. In her haste she slipped on the slick, uneven surface, and for a moment believed that she would tumble out into the void whether she wanted to or not. With a mighty effort, she stiffened and regained her balance.
Her visitor was kneeling, his hands in his lap, his head tilted in overt curiosity. As she stumbled towards him, she realised he was naked. Fog somehow clung to his skin, clothing him in nothing at all. He was bald and young, and even behind the edge of the fog she saw that his flesh was alabaster and his eyes alive with things she had forgotten how to feel.
Swallowed by the rush, she almost stepped into the fog. Only a tiny twitch of his lips brought her out of herself in time. There was a solid edge to the murk that the pea soupers of her childhood had never shown, and her nose was almost pressed to it. Drawing in a shuddering breath, she stepped back.
“Hello,” he said.
When she tried to reply she found her throat weak from silence, and was only able to croak a vague greeting. While she swallowed, trying to moisten her mouth, she held up her bag of crisps like a sacrificial offering. He shook his head, wisps of vapour floating out from him in the shape of his head, like ripples in a pond.
“You’re alone here,” he told her. She nodded. “But you stay?”
She nodded again, and made her mouth work through force of will. “Who are you?”
“I am Hope.” His voice was mellow and sweet, filled with all the people she loved.
“I… is that your name?”
“It is what I am.”
A fierce anger turned her lips to a snarl that she wished she could wipe away. “I don’t have hope anymore.”
“Really? So why do you stay?”
He snorted, and fog blew from his nose like cigarette smoke. She missed craved cigarettes more than she had ever imagined she could. “No. It would be easy to go. It would end things. You choose not to, every day, because you hope.”
“I miss them so much.”
“You want them back. You hope.”
She let her head hang, embarrassed to have the futility of it put to words. “Yes.”
“I sensed you. The last hope in this world. I had to see for myself.”
“Is Hope your name?”
“It is what I am.”
“Hope.” The word filled her mouth, and when she swallowed it blossomed in her heart. “If you’re here…” He nodded, and Clive’s scent fell over her, the faded morning aroma of after-shave and sweat. She could feel the weight of a child on her back, arms around her neck as a he rode the pony with shrill cries of terror and delight. Music filled her head, the violins and cellos she had listened to while pregnant, so that the person growing inside her might be soothed.
Precious though they were, the phantoms overwhelmed her and she dropped to her knees with a clang. The shudder of the metal beneath her banished the crush of memories.
“A little gift,” Hope told her. “You have waited a long time, and it makes me glad that you hold me so close. Tomorrow I must return, and make hopes manifest.”
“Manifest? Real? You’ll make hopes real?”
“That’s right,” he said. “I will.”
That night, when at last she fell asleep, she dreamed of faces that had been locked deep in her subconscious. They had been dangerous faces, of love and longing, sealed away in sanity’s last effort to remain intact. Let free, each was a sparkle in her soul. She woke warmer than she could remember ever being, with a soft smile on her face.
A glance through dirty glass showed that the fog was pressed close now, but her new vitality stole its power to drain her. If it could think, as she had often believed it must, then she hoped it knew that she had won.
For the first time in months she worried about her appearance. She had not washed since she lost access to the sea far below. Dampening a rag on the condensation that had formed on the metal roof, she wiped her face as best she could without a mirror. Her skin tingled when she was done. There was nothing she could do for her once soft and tawney hair, so she tied it back so that it could not fall forward. It was her face that they would fix on, and she wanted their eyes to light up when they recognised her.
She ate double her usual rations for breakfast, and would have taken more if her stomach had not complained at the unaccustomed burden.
Bidding farewell to her little room at the top of the lift shaft, she climbed back down to the corrugated iron roof. Reigning in her eagerness, she walked with exaggerated care to the fog wall, mindful of her near disaster the previous day. It would be beyond ludicrous to slide off after so long clinging to life, especially with the end in sight.
Hope was waiting for her, and he was frowning. “You have done a thing to your face,” he pointed out.
Blushing, she raised a hand to her cheek as though she could hide her vanity. “I wanted to feel a bit human. A bit more myself.”
His frown deepened. “Why?”
There was something of scorn in his voice, and her heart began to pound. “So that they recognise me. It’s been… it’s been a while.”
With a soft sigh, he closed his eyes and shook his head. It was a sad shake, that she wanted to unsee but could not. “I understand.”
“No,” she said, as though she could halt the shift in her expectations with a word.
“I am Hope incarnate. I have the power to change the world. These are true things, but you have misunderstood.”
It was impossible to stare him in the face, to impose her will on his, because the fog billowed between them. “You gave me a taste. A child’s weight. A lover’s scent. Laughter.”
“A gift, for holding me close for so long.”
“They’re what I hope for. There’s nothing else.”
The fog cleared for a moment, and he could see the dancing shapes behind his hollow eyes. Pain and madness. Death and void. “I am Hope,” he told her one last time, “but not yours.”
Her mouth opened, and she had a moment of clear understanding. Madmen and tyrants had hopes too. Hate could dream with just as much fervour as love.
The fog billowed out from him, blowing past and through her, and she was gone.
Unless you and I are actually related then Jackie Blewett has probably known me for longer than you. I was nine, I think, when I first met her. I misplaced her entirely for several years, but have since rediscovered her. She is mostly untarnished by her time spent down the back of the metaphorical couch (during which she did things, probably, but if a thing happens and I am not there to see it did it really occur?), and remains entirely wonderful. While Facebook is often a necessary evil, it gave me back an entire Jackie, for which I am grateful. You will have to trust me when I tell you that it is not possible to have too many Jackies.
So endeth the fourth tale of the 52. I hope you liked it. If you did enjoy the story, then please pass it around. There are sharing buttons to play with below, or just tell the people who might like the story how to find it. Also, I don’t yet have enough images with which to do this for a full year. If you have cool pictures that you would like to send along as inspiration for a story, please let me know. Details are here.
All of the stories in this project are free, and will stay here indefinitely. If you want to support my writing in general, or the publishers that I’ve worked with down the years, then buy a book one of the times you swing by. My new novel The Flesh Market is a good place to start with my longer fiction. If short stories are your thing, and you enjoyed ‘I Am Hope’, then you might also like my story ‘The Sandfather’ in Dark Faith: Invocations.