Derek’s left arm jostled someone as he shuffled on to the train.
He flinched from the contact. “Sorry. I’m so sorry.”
He didn’t look up as he said it, in case the person he’d touched was looking at him. His chest was already tight as he heard the carriage doors slide shut, trapping him in here with people.
The train rumbled into motion, generating a cocoon of noise that rose between Derek and the people he was trapped in here with for at least as long as it took to get to the next station. It made him feel a little further from them. A little safer.
He lifted his eyes from his shoes and located a vacant double seat. He swayed toward it, not wanting to use seat backs for support in case he accidentally touched someone’s head. He slumped into the seat and shrank against the window. The backs of the seats in front were close enough to make him feel isolated. The isolation made him feel safer, even though he knew it was an illusion. He knew his fear of the other people in the carriage wasn’t rational either, so perhaps it balanced out.
The sense of isolation made him feel so safe that he found the courage to raise his head and look down the aisle.
What he saw smashed him across the face like a blow from a cane. Her face conjured the memory of the cane so vividly that he flinched and clutched his cheek.
He must be mistaken, he told himself. It was the fear getting the better of him again. He was safe here. Nothing to fear – at least, no more than usual.
Fear or not, he had to know if he’d seen who he thought he’d seen or if his imagination had found a new way to torment him.
He looked down the aisle again. The woman was still there, half a carriage away and staring at nothing. He shrank back to the window,
He was sure.
She was older and more wrinkled, and the wimple he remembered was gone, replaced with a smart blouse and jacket, but he’d never forget the sister of mercy who had raised so many bruises on his six-year-old, his ten-year old, his fourteen-year-old body, and left so many scars festering in his sixty-year-old mind.
His breath came in short gasps. His hands were shaking. He knew the signs of the terror rising with him. He fought against it, even though he knew the fight would end, as it always did, in a quivering, whimpering wreck of the Derek he’d have to spend the next months rebuilding for the umpteenth time.
But something was wrong.
This wasn’t the tear-squeezing, bladder-loosening terror that had broken him so many times.
This was a fire, burning within him, tempering terror as burning charcoal tempers iron into steel.
He raised his head, looking straight at the woman who had once been Sister Immaculata.
He stood and walked, back straight, feet steady, until he was looking down at her.
“I know who you are,” he said.
She looked up. Her jaw quivered, sending waves of fear across the wrinkled fat of her face. She cowered as Derek had cowered before her so many times.
“I wish I could believe in hell. Just for you,” he said. “But I don’t. Not anymore.”
The woman whimpered, dissolving from the monster who had yanked him out of sleep so many times into a shrivelled old woman who knew the feeling she’d used reduce Derek to a wreck of a man for the last fifteen years.
He turned his back on her and went back to his seat.
There was no more to say.
Partly inspired by reports of abuse at Smyllum Park Orphanage.