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by Judy Darley

Neto’s family are clearing the river today. He just posted a photo of himself and his dad in waders and sunshine-yellow gloves. A caption reads: “Wearing repurposed plastic to salvage discarded plastic. Win win.”

Pen was meant to be there, but her family have been under house arrest ever since her sister Mika came home from school with a sniffle and the WHO recommended they “self-isolate”.

Maman’s checking the basement fridge freezer, while Mum sorts kitchen cupboards. They’re both being resolutely cheery, even as Mum unearths a dinted tin of chicken supreme. “Who knew we still had this? It’s from before Mika was born!”

Since the duck mumps epidemic of 2023, no one’s dared eat fowl. Pen definitely isn’t volunteering to sample the can’s contents, however long her family are stuck in quarantine.

She thumbprints into her phone again, admiring an image of Neto holding up a jar of river water spiralled with rainbow jetsam fragments. His luscious mouth gapes in postured dismay, the soft lower lip hanging downwards.

“Plastic is in our food chain, which means it’s in us,” the caption reads. The post has received four hundred (un)likes.

A bunch of kids stand in the background, togged up in moss-green waterproofs. They’re cheering and waving fists in the air. Not one of those idiots is in this for anything more than jokes and jostle. It seems like her whole class is there, even creepy Joely with her heat-straightened hair, whose parents buy her brand-new jeans and dresses instead of upcycling, swapping or sharing like everyone else.

Pen should be with them. She’d promised she would be when Neto asked her especially, head tilted and leaning in till she felt his exhalation hot on her collarbone.

His eyes glowed when she’d said wild ducks couldn’t keep her away.

She’s messaged him three times since Maman and Mum declared she couldn’t go.

He hasn’t responded once.

When the first wave of the coronavirus hit five years ago, Neto lived in a place whose name he told Pen translated as The Meadows. He said that in his language, corona means crown, and that his older sisters used to wind yellow poppies and sunflowers through his hair as a coronet — for luck, for charm.

Pen had wound her fingers through his soft dark hair, picturing the beautiful nine-year-old he must have been. Then he pressed his mouth to hers and she forgot about everything but the heat of his breath breaking over her. She’d felt lucky, felt charmed.

Beside Pen, Mika looks up from a cartoon of dancing flamingos. She coughs a spray of phlegm into a tissue before wedging the fingers of her right hand firmly back in her mouth.

Pen snaps a jpeg of the animation and sends it to Neto with the message: “Remember when there were more real birds than plastic ones? Me neither. Next mission: save our feathered friends …”

Her heart pumps as though it’s winning against the specks swimming in her blood.

Judy Darley is a British writer who can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. Her work appears in magazines and anthologies in the UK, New Zealand, India, the US and Canada, including The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Unthology and SmokeLong Quarterly. Judy’s second short story collection, Sky Light Rain, is out now from Valley Press. Judy has shared her stories on BBC radio, as well as in cafés, caves, an artist’s studio and a disused church. Find Judy at skylightrain.com and @JudyDarley.