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by Hannah Clark

Rain was falling in soft grey sheets the day Chuck Harris returned home. Tyre tracks baked rigid in summer were gradually softening and folding in on themselves, a delayed mandala of earth. Time had not changed the familiar trodden down path but Chuck found himself running his hand cautiously over the chipped camphor trunks looking for change and seeking the initials they had carved as kids. J for Judie, C for Chuck, K for Ken. His index finger brushed the ‘K’ and he knelt, touching his lips to the deep scratch in the bark.

At the treeline he smoothed his hair neatly back beneath his hood, careful of the stitches behind his ear. Two men he did not recognise were smoking under the shelter of a corrugated iron porch. There was a string of pale fish dripping from the boundary fence, scales silvery white and thin. They eyed Chuck with open curiosity, hostility a distant possibility until one of them waved with the glowing end of his smoke.

“Military man, where have you been? The war finished months ago!”

Chuck nodded back to them but did not slow his step when they offered him a drink and a fish.

“Suit yourself. We’ll be here all night if you change your mind!”

Washing lines zigzagged the narrow pathways between houses, most empty except for a couple of rusting pegs but some still dangling sodden garments. His mother’s line was one of the latter. Tiny shirts and socks the length of his thumb fluttered against the pelting rain, their fabric saturated and limp. Chuck began yanking them off the line, stuffing them into a clumsy, leaking ball beneath his arm, desperate to hide them or protect them, he didn’t know which.

“Hey! What are you …”

When he looked up, Judie’s expression rippled, her thoughts flitting in and out of the shadows like the tiny red fish that had lived in their grandfather’s pond. She took the steps two at a time and as her arms locked around his neck, the bundle of wet laundry became moulded between them. Chuck held onto it until the first of his sister’s sobs exploded against his chest. Behind them, the smoking fishermen cheered.

He folded himself around her as she trembled and did not even try to hide the way his own hollow chest shivered with uneven breaths. Judie’s body had softened in places, her stomach still rounded from the pregnancy but it had hardened in others, the bones of her face sharp even through Chuck’s jacket. He wondered if his own changes were as obvious and rounded his shoulders, carefully flexing the bright scar tissue.

“I’m sorry.”

He was not sure why he was apologising. For his absence, for Ken, for her going through a pregnancy alone. He did not know what comfort two such small words could even bring but her head bobbed up and down beneath his chin all the same and her fingers came up to stroke the short hairs at the nape of his neck and welcome him home.

Hannah Clark lives in Manchester and is an MA student at Manchester Metropolitan University, studying Creative Writing. She is currently working on her first novel and is a freelance writer for The Skinny magazine. Her fictional work was longlisted in the ReflexFiction.com Flash Fiction Summer 2018 competition.