Short Story Contest Winner: I BECOME ME - Louise Sopher
A cloud of cigarette smoke floats towards the cleaner air outside when the patient answers the door. The stench of tobacco hits my nose like an FFP3 has been ripped off in a trench - except I’m wearing a surgical mask. Through it seems to reach tendrils of dry air. They tickle before they scratch. I cough, and it sounds like a COPD patient. This job is going to kill me.
I gather my strength. Adjust, breathe, adjust. ‘Hi,’ I say to the scruffy patient, white specs of ash scattered in his dark hair. ‘My name is Jemma. Would it be alright to open the window?’
He shrugs, then walks through a wall of smoke. ‘They don’t open.’
I follow him through the narrow corridor, my crewmate behind me. The living room is grimy. Mouldy food reeks on the side table. There’s a tabby cat - thankfully clean - evil-eying us from the kitchen entrance. I peer at the windows, which are partially covered by dusty thin blinds. No latch. No handle. Locked shut.
The patient sits on his sofa with a huff. I position the response bag a metre away from him, and perch on top of it. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Ben, what’s happened?’
He gawps at me like he can’t be bothered to speak.
I give a polite smile - the same one I’ve learned to give for the last five years, only he can’t see it behind my mask. We don’t get much info.’
He leans forward. The cloud of smoke follows, reaching for me.
‘It’s my chest,’ Ben says, pressing his upper abdomen. ‘It’s been stabbing all morning.’
I talk to Ben for a few moments, gathering the history of his complaint. Next, I take his observations. There is nothing untoward, except slightly low oxygen saturations - but he smokes over twenty a day. He scores his pain an eight out of ten and tenses every time I press on the area. ‘Have you taken any pain relief?’
He shakes his head.
My crewmate and I share a glance.
‘I’m afraid I haven’t got CT-scan or ultrasound vision.’
Ben utters a short-lived chuckle. ‘I’m not kidding, miss, it fucking hurts.’ He holds up his hands. ‘Sorry for the language.’
‘It’s alright, we’ve heard worse,’ my crewmate and I say at once.
He has a legitimate complaint, and something we can’t fully assess outside hospital. I tell him we’ll give him some pain relief into his vein in the ambulance. I tell myself, fresh air, fresh air, fresh air.
Ben sits in the ambulance chair, his seatbelt fastened, paracetamol flowing nicely through his vein, a pungent odour circling his stained jeans and torn brown jumper. The bumpy journey begins.
‘So how long have you done this job?’ he asks.
‘Do you still enjoy it?’
I hesitate. ‘Mostly. It’s a bit relentless these days.’
‘Life, too,’ Ben says quietly. ‘Sometimes I wish I could get away from it all.’
Red flags. I try to summon my empathy, but it’s hour thirteen of what should have been a twelve hour shift, and though this gentleman warrants medical investigations, he did not need an emergency ambulance to travel to him out of hours with lights and sirens. I’m so tired. My mind is in a battle - stay awake, stay alert, be responsive, have empathy, document properly, speak well… Or, sleep, switch off, stop having to be social. Bed is calling, and sleeping when the 9-5s are locked in their offices is a good… Focus. Blink away the blurred vision. ‘How do you mean?’
Ben shrugs. ‘Don’t you? Don’t you want to run away sometimes, and not be found? To travel?’
‘I do like to travel,’ I say honestly. ‘But I don’t think I would forever. Is that what you mean?’ I scribble something about depression.
Ben’s eyes widen. ‘I think you know what I mean.’
I haven’t given him a mask yet, so I can see his grin, and his lack of teeth. He leans forward. He’s tachycardic, so the machine keeps beeping and flashing.
‘If you want to disappear, go to Paris, find the graffiti on the buildings - yellow lines on the orange circle. Kind of looks like a sun, and a sun ray, but one ray goes through the middle horizontally, and the other rays come out from beneath it. Follow wherever it takes you and you’ll get help from this group of people… It's not rubbish - I’ve already met my mentor.’ He straightens his back. ‘I’ll be OK.’
We’re pulling into hospital – I can feel the bumps from the potholes. ‘That’s good,’ I say, playing with the lid of my biro.
He laughs. ‘You don’t believe me, do you?’
I don’t know what to say. Most people in his situation hint at suicide when they talk about how they want to get away from it all, not at mysterious mentors and graffiti. Is this a hallucination? How do I hand this over?
My crewmate opens the back doors. Call the patient, I think, hoping he can see from my eyes how urgently I want to get off.
Ben removes his seatbelt, then stands. ‘Wait, can I have some paper?’
I hand him a blank Patient Report Form, and my biro. He draws the symbol over the drugs section, then hands me the paper. ‘Just in case you need it one day.’
My fingers grasp the steering wheel. I lean forward, begging the windscreen to clear completely so that I don’t have to stop. I’ll be home from that dreadful night shift in twenty minutes.
Every driver that hits the brakes seems to irritate me. Don’t they understand that I’ve been up all night, working? I’m not going to work at 0800 to sit in an office in the warmth, I’m going home, to bed, after dealing with ‘sore back’ and ‘cough’ for all hours of the night.
I pull into the fast lane on the motorway, and there is a loud splash of flood water. Rain is hammering my windscreen. The wipers are struggling. A blurred white figure darts across the road. I shriek, then slam on the brakes. My nearside tyre hits something solid. ‘What!’ There was nothing on the road. Heart’s in my throat. Thump. Thump, thump. Shoulders rise.
My car lurches up over a hump, then darts sideways. There is a loud crunch from the suspension as the car lands, followed by a rattle. I know not to make any sudden movements with the steering wheel. I ease off the brakes, knowing that what I need now is traction.
Lean back. It’s over. Breathe. I pull the car into the hard shoulder, then hit the hazards. The steering is okay. The rattling has gone. It’s fine, fine.
I peer at my mirrors - there’s nothing on the road. I’m so tired… Could I have fallen asleep, and dreamed?
I shuffle over to the passenger seat. Stay, or get out. You’re in the hard shoulder.
Vroom. Vroom. Vroom, vroom.
My car shakes each time another races past. Surely they would stop if there was something - someone - on the road? Or slow? Or at least, I don’t know, brake a little further ahead, wondering if they missed an accident or ran over someone… They’re in the same lane I was in, so unless he or she, or it, flew out of the lanes when I struck it, surely it would remain in situ?
I’m just so tired. My eyes flutter like the earlier patient’s neighbor's curtains.
Click. Handbrake is off. Click. Indicator on. Back in my lane, squinting through my mirrors, thinking, ignoring.
Home. Home, somehow, safe and parked in front of my flat but here, staring at passers-by, at the steam on other car windows, at my hands, at nothing and everything and I don’t know what, but all I want is bed - and yet getting into bed is like climbing a mountain in the winter.
It’s only a few hours later, mid-morning, when I wake to the peace and quiet of a weekday in my empty flat. Aimlessly I scroll through the news.
STORM ALICE CLAIMS ANOTHER VICTIM - MAN DIES IN HIT AND RUN
The headline grabs my eyes, but the sub-heading, naming the road I was on last night, causes acid reflux. I flick through an imaginary dictionary, highlighting terms that I type: Storm Alice, M92. Accident. Hit and run, driver, Tuesday.
I login to work groups. Has anyone posted about this job, about the crews that attended, about whether anyone needed support after attending to it?
The only articles I can find give little more detail than the headline. I start texting friends who are working today, who would have started their shifts early this morning. Did you go to it? I’m just wondering.
Alex responds. Yeah. It was horrible, non-workable. Can’t believe anyone would drive off from that.
Nausea grips. I fold over my abdomen, imagining, remembering - it’s all the same now. I was there. It was me. Shit. I killed someone. I imagine texting it back. My mind drifts to friends working twelve hours with gossipers, about gossipers working with strangers, about strangers with strangers, and judgmental people with other judgmental people. Oh. The accidental general broadcasts on the radios. The people overhearing in the quiet room when the crew room banter skyrockets, about me. The stand down - meeting with managers - ambush that could happen on my next shift.
I face the mirror. There’s a tear stuck to my chin, but I don’t remember it falling. There are shadows under my eyes - are they normally there? There’s an extra line on my forehead… relax - but it’s ingrained. I can’t work like this. I can’t act normal like this. I can’t… Live like this. In my hand is my phone, the news, the article, the details I should be using to call 101. But all I can see is a picture of me, and a headline that seems to keep changing - Advanced driver kills, Paramedic kills.
I swallow. Acid surges, burns. I remember that patient from June, his stench as memorable as his strange description of a group that help people disappear. Don’t you just want to run away sometimes, and not be found?
I’m in my bedroom, at my bookcase. Between two books is a slip of paper – Ben’s drawing. I imagine it in full-spread on a brick building. It is a guiding light in a moment of destruction. My path laid out, I buy a train ticket to Paris, then pack a small bag of clothes and a sleeping bag. Quickly.
I’m in my car, in the driver’s seat, engine on. I’m driving at fifty miles an hour, a tight grip on the wheel, scanning and re-scanning every inch of the road. I’m in the queue for the Eurostar now, passport in my hand. Stuck in a crowd, security either side. Every whisper, every glance, every giggle is about my life, my mistake, my hit-and-run.
The train pulls into the Gare du Nord station, and I step onto the platform. Light pours through the windows above and reflects in lines on the ground, mirroring the pattern of the triangular roof. I follow the fast-paced passengers until they channel through two open glass doors. The signs read, Bienvenue.
Outside the station is statue of a red bear on a stand ruined by graffiti. I spot the yellow lines, like rays of a sun, one striking through an orange circle, the other coming out from beneath it. Next to the image is an arrow. It points ahead, to Bd de Denain. This is a wide street overlooked by pretty old buildings. Patterned balcony railings line three floors. I wander along, sniffing the mix of damp and petrol and hearing pat-patter-pat as cars roll over cobbles.
I’ve been walking for forty minutes and at each turning there has been another sign. Now I'm faced by a grand structure in a square that is packed with tourists. The Notre Dam, illuminated by dim spot lights that border the square, towers over me. What remains of it after its recent fire is beautiful and pristine. I scan every inch of its scaffolding, every back of every worker, searching for another arrow or another scribble.
Nothing, after a forty minute walk, after a train journey, after everything, every sign, every arrow - ‘Was it all a game?’ That patient trick-
A soft touch to my right shoulder. I swing, quickly, and meet two drawn up hands and a gaping mouth. ‘Excusez-moi, pardon,’ a man says with an English accent.
I let out a curt laugh, then shrug. ‘It’s OK.’
He watches my quivering lips as if he can see my conscience, screaming as its mouth is held shut. ‘You’re seeking l'évasion,’ he says, this time in a well-practiced accent. He grins, then points behind me.
I turn, slowly, trying to keep him in my peripheral vision. ‘It’s a bakery.’ I turn back to him.
He’s nodding wildly.
‘Oh.’ I let out a brief laugh. ‘It shouldn’t be that easy.’
He steps in front, then beckons me to follow. ‘It shouldn’t be that hard.’
The refuge is within a boulangerie, facing the Notre Dam. How very French. How many of the missing have found themselves here, seeking solitude? If only their families knew.
Oh fuck. What am I doing, what am I doing. The vision strikes like stones pip-pipping on the windscreen. Mum, dad, I’m sorry, I-
A bell rings. The man who I presume is to be my mentor has pushed open the door to the boulangerie. I am greeted by the calming smell of freshly cooked bread and the warmth from ovens. A woman with an apron decorated in yellow bread parcels grins from behind the long counter. We move towards her silently. She is middle-aged, with lines across her forehead and a healthy colour to her hardworking hands. These hands deliver to my own a big, bronze key. ‘Ze newcomer.’
A firm hand on my shoulder - my mentor’s - guides me to the back door. It’s painted dark blue, unlabeled, and locked.
My hand is shaking as I push in the key. I turn it slowly, and the door eases away from its frame. The door handle is bronze but its colour has faded with age; I push it down.
The door swings open with a creak. Darkness greets me - it’s not pitch black, but it is dim enough that I need to squint. There is a tinge of dampness. A concrete staircase directs me to a basement, and the sound of clanging dishes. At each step, I am aware of the balding, nameless man behind me who I have hoped - but do not really know - is my mentor.
Last step now, and yellow lights twinkle. I look up from my feet to see a room of candles and lamps with old halogen bulbs. Behind each light is a person. There are so many faces here - young ones with full heads of hair and overgrowing beards, old ones squinting at each other, and middle-aged ones gazing at the dripping water as it plip-plops on the damp floor. I turn to the man behind me. My eyes must be wide because he rushes a hand to my shoulder, then gives it a tight squeeze. ‘My name is Edward. I am your mentor.’
Around me, people stand. ‘Come, sit with us,’ a few whisper.
I shuffle into the circle, then kneel on the cold floor. One by one, they tell me their names. Their nationalities are mixed, so they speak in thick accents and broken English. An old man with a long grey beard takes my hand. ‘Ow did you find us?’
I close my eyes, then shake my head. Behind my eyes, my car strikes a body.
The man squeezes my hand. ‘It is OK.’ Then he turns to the staring group. ‘Let ‘er rest.’
Edward tells me to sleep in the corner of the basement. I try to close my eyes, but the sound of dripping water morphs into a ticking clock. Memories flash, as clear as a television screen. My heart races.
Edward bum-shuffles towards me, dragging his duvet. ‘The first nights are hard. Do we stay or go? Do we want this life? Can we go home?’
I find myself gazing into his brown eyes. They’re bloodshot, slightly, and I don’t know if that’s because his kindness comes from his own sadness and he has been rubbing away tears, or if he is just sleepless.
‘Come with me.’ He stands, then shuffles past sleepers to the cold stairs up to the bakery. We sit on the chairs by the door, either side of a laid table, the lights of the Notre Dam scaffolding shining like candles onto the plastic tablecloth. Our feet are bare, our toes tap the ground as if they don't know what to do with a freedom they’re not used to, and we stink. He’s looking into my eyes, and I can’t help it - I break eye contact. What if he can see what I’m hiding? What if he can see my fear?
‘Do you want to tell me what led you to us?’ Then, after watching my hesitancy, he adds: ‘It’s ok, I’ve been here three years. You won’t be alone with your story. You’re – you’re not alone.’
The corner of my bottom lip quivers. I imagine saying it. It sounds like it could be easy. I even manage to part my lips. But it’s like a hand is pushing. It’s like another me is yelling, don’t, and more than that, I think I’m trying - and I can’t.
Edward sighs. ‘Do you want to get your shoes, and join me for a walk?’
I nod. A tear slides down my cheek. I meet him at the exit, shoes on, staring out through the opening door into a mild late evening and a quiet street. We wander through the square, and he points out all the tourist traps and the beauty of the old buildings. I start to relax, to enjoy as that teenage sense of adventure kicks in. I follow him as we edge around the Notre Dam. I push my hands into my jean pockets. I am not afraid of the dark, but I am fearful of the people who wander through it. This quiet city, spacious at night, feels crowded. In every periphery is a potential camera, a potential person, a newspaper stand left out by a closed shop - is that my face on the front covers?
Edward edges closer - ‘Hey!’ I block his view of the stand. ‘Let’s go back. I want to go back now.’ I take a deep breath. ‘Can I go back?’ My voice squeaks. He must know what I’m avoiding. Maybe he saw the newspapers. Maybe he saw my face there. Maybe he’ll say something. Maybe he’s afraid.
But he just stares, and waits, and I don’t know what for. He has a kind smile, and those soppy eyes. The more he waits in silence, the more I’m thinking about talking. About saying it, that, finally. ‘I was driving my car,’ I start, then stop.
‘OK,’ he says. His smile turns into a grin.
‘I hit someone.’
His grin dissolves. Sadness takes over.
‘A man. At least, I didn’t see anyone on the ground that night, but in the news, it was my car, the same road, the same time.’
His eyes widen.
‘Oh, god, there hasn’t been anyone like me before, has there?’
‘It's OK,’ Edward says loudly. He smiles, but this time it looks forced.
I turn away. I picture legging it across the square.
‘We can go back.’ He says it quietly. His usually high-rise shoulders are now drooped. There is sweat twinkling on his bald head. He moves away, and I amble behind.
The bakery looms in front. I picture the faces of the people in the basement, lined up by the window, suddenly pale with thicker eyebrows. Now one of them has a peruke and a gavel in his hand, and I hear his word echo in the square - ‘Guilty.’
My legs buckle. I cry out.
Edward looks down. ‘Are you… OK?’
‘Yeah,’ I whisper.
He lowers his hand to mine. I take it.
He tugs fiercely, and I’m up, my body facing the bakery.
The door is open, and Edward has one hand on my shoulder. He’s gently pushing me ahead, further on than the front desk. ‘Go downstairs,’ he whispers in my ear.
I can’t look at his face. I don’t want to know what he’s thinking. I plant my knees in the corner of the basement, then face the damp wall. I picture a dozen different realities - one of me owning up to my mistake, one of today and the ensuing arrest, one of me never driving home that night, another of me getting out that car to actually look at the road. Somewhere out there is a version of me that made a worse decision, and one that did better.
A tap on my shoulder.
I take a deep breath.
The tap turns into a palm, then a solid grip. It’s Edward. ‘It’s OK,’ he says quickly. ‘It’s OK, it’s just me.’
I look left and right, then focus my attention on him.
‘It wasn’t you.’
After a moment, I find I am blinking repeatedly. ‘What?’
‘It wasn’t you. The driver - it was someone else.’
I let out a chuckle. ‘No, no, you’re wrong. It had to be.’
‘It wasn’t,’ Edward says, firming his grip. ‘I spoke to Pat and Jeremy. They checked the news. They looked up the accident. It might have been the same road, a similar time, and the same car model, but it wasn’t your car. It wasn’t you.’
‘How do you know? How can you know for sure?’
‘Because,’ Edward says. ‘Because they caught the driver. There’s damage to their car. They admitted it. There’s even dash cam footage of it. Honestly Jemma, I think you freaked out about this, and it’s taken over.’
My knees are aching. I can’t move. My eyes are weeping. I can’t blink. My bottom lip is twitching. I can’t stop it. I can hear my fast respiratory and heart rates and feel the pounding pulse in the side of my neck. ‘It wasn’t… It wasn’t me?’
Edward smiles kindly. ‘No.’
I’m still breathing rapidly. ‘But I hit something.’
‘I don’t know what you hit, Jem, but it wasn’t a person. Maybe debris, or a fox, or something. But it wasn’t that bad.’
‘It wasn’t that bad.’ My voice trembles. I flash back to months ago, to the patient, through to work, to the tiredness of that night, the confusion of the journey home - What did I hear? What did I see? Were people not saying things about me?
‘I think it’s time for you to turn on your phone,’ Edward says, peering at the wedge in my jean pocket.
I slap my hand to the pocket. I pull out the phone and fumble with it. It’s on now, loading, loading.
Messages flash through. Dozens. Hundreds. Missed calls. Tears freefall.
Edward takes my hands, then squeezes. ‘Something about your life caused your state of mind.’
‘Like-like what?’ Work? Friends? Family? Me? My home?
‘The thing is,’ Edward says.
‘Ow!’ I pull my hands away from his, but he grips tighter.
‘We must protect our secret. You may find we are not so welcoming now. Run, or stay put, knowing something in your life made you need l'évasion.’
Sweat trickles down my forehead. I stutter. My respirations are rapid. I nod. Tears fall. Memories flash. Embarrassment, self-hatred, will I ever laugh about this? Flashbacks. Fears. Paranoia. Worry. Doubt. Sweating, heart rate rising.
Louise Sopher is a Paramedic based in London. Throughout her time working frontline, colleagues have asked if she would write something based on her experiences. Her answer was, until recently, always no. She craved fantasy and science-fiction, the kind of escape that a work-based piece could never provide. Then COVID happened, and a separate series of fears begun about what could go wrong at work and what she could learn from the people she meets. There is something equally enjoyable about delving into real-life emotions amongst the safety of fiction. Louise is unpublished in fiction but runs a popular CPD site for medics and patients, article999.co.uk.