Author: John Albertson

The dinner bell rings, and we line up in pairs. My pair today is Veronica. I don’t like her.

I take a plate from the VendingLady – brown MEET, maybe synthbeef, with powdery mash and what they call gravy but my mum would have called dishwater. Veronica takes hers and goes to sit at one of the steel tables. I follow – not like I have any choice. She’s my pair.

I pick at my food. The texture of the MEET is like old boots, the mash like a pile of dust. Veronica catches my eye and smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes.

“You know it’s my birthday today?”

I look at her. Today? But that means…

“Yep, sixteen today. So you won’t see me again, well not for what? Two years?”

“Three,” I say. I’m thirteen.

“Three…” she sighs and chews a mouthful of MEET. “So what’s that, four? If I’m lucky.”

I nod. Four babies. If she’s lucky.

“Four,” she says, her eyes far away. If I hadn’t looked away, I might have missed it. Her hand slides her knife off the table, tucks it into a fold in her dress.

I eat the rest of my MEET in silence.

#

The bedtime bell rings, and we line up in pairs. My pair tonight is Veronica. I’m afraid of her.

We go into the small bedroom one after the other – there isn’t enough room for us both to stand so I lie on my bed while Veronica gets into hers.

The medicine bell rings, and we sit up in our beds.

A nurse comes in, her face is flushed – she coos over Veronica and tucks her into her bed.

“A wonderful thing, dear, a wonderful thing!” She says, over and over as she checks Veronica.

The nurse holds out my pills. I take them – swallowing them as I have every night for three years. The nurse holds out the same pills to Veronica.

“Last time for you dear,” she says, smiling.

Veronica takes the pills, puts them into her mouth.

The lights-out bell rings, and we lie down in our beds. The lights go out.

I hear a rustle, and then Veronica is there – her mouth pressed against mine. I feel the two pills slip past my lips, followed briefly by her tongue. She sits up, holds my nose until I swallow.

“Don’t worry little bird,” she says. “No-one will blame you.”

I try to reply, but I slur the words. My arms are heavy, my head like a rock as I try to sit up. It’s no use. I pass out.

#

The wake-up bells rings and we stand up in pairs. Except we don’t. I stand, but my pair is still lying down. Her face is pale. There are splotches of red on the grey blanket covering her.

They come in, their faces drawn. The nurse is sobbing.

I feel the knife in my sleeve, where Veronica pressed it last night.

My pair today is Veronica. I love her.

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