The final day! Another year of the Superotica Advent Calendar is drawing to a close and I want to extend a huge, huge thank you to all the writers who’ve contributed these amazing stories. Their talent and their generosity completely floors me and I think it’s safe to say that this year’s calendar has been the best so far. I hope you’ve enjoyed stories from your own favourite writers and discovered new names to look out for over the coming year.
As to the final story, it’s my privilege to claim the first and last spots, so here’s the second part of my story Fallen, which kicked off the calendar on December 1. If you missed it at the beginning of the month, you can read it here.
And finally, if you’ve enjoyed the other stories on the advent calendar over the past 24 days, please show your appreciation by visiting Crisis, The Albert Kennedy Trust or Coalition for the Homeless to find out about their work or make a small donation.
Fallen but not damned
He comes back to the shelter every year for the three days over Christmas. It’s been ten years now since his first visit. Ten years since the help and advice he’d received here had changed the course of his life. He doesn’t forget, which is why he returns. He has a debt to repay and he does so gladly, taking the opportunity to tell his story, and show others that homeless isn’t helpless.
This year the shelter seems particularly busy, but that’s hardly a surprise. There are more people shuffling through the doors than he can ever remember seeing. Men and women. Young and old and middle-aged. But all looking older than their years. All staring through him with the same empty eyes, hollowed out by the despair that becomes your carapace when you live rough.
But they aren’t all the same. Each one is an individual inside, with his or her own story of how they came to their current situation. Which is why Joe talks to them and listens to them. That’s most important of all. Someone hearing what they have to say.
Tonight, though, there aren’t enough helpers, so he doesn’t have time to chat. He had intended to work until nightfall, but at dusk the shelter’s still busy with new arrivals pouring in. What’s the point of going home to an empty flat when he can do more here? Yes, his back aches and his feet are sore but no matter.
“It’s Joe, isn’t it?”
He glances up from the soup-spattered table he’s wiping down.
There’s a girl standing in front of him he’s never seen here before.
“Yes,” he says.
“Gabe sent me to help you.”
He smiles. She looks familiar but he can’t place her. Something about her pale skin and dark eyes. Her lithe movements as she clears dirty bowls and fills clean ones.
“We haven’t met before, have we?” he says.
“You’d remember, I think,” she says, charming, insouciant. “I’m Asha.”
But the feeling persists and he finds himself drawn to her as they work together through the night.
He watches her.
She moves quietly through the dining room but the men and women respond to her with smiles. Reaching out to touch her arm. Wanting to make eye contact with her—an interaction most of them have learned to avoid. She looks at them for what they are—real people—and she listens as they tell her their stories. One or two the men even flirt with her, which she deflects with such easy charm they don’t even feel let down.
Joe forgets what he’s doing on more than one occasion. He remembers how good it felt to be seen at last on the day he arrived at the shelter.
“Oi, soup.” The man standing in front of him has been holding an empty bowl for far too long, so Joe quickly fills it. He remembers how much hunger intensifies when food is within reach.
“Sorry, sorry,” he says, with a shake of his head.
“I would,” says the man, laughing as he follows Joe’s gaze to where Asha has taken a moment to sit down next to an old woman.
Desire hits Joe hard, a kick in the groin. He gives the man his bread roll without speaking, then turns to the next in line.
Eventually, they’ve done all they can. The queue waiting for food has dissipated, the kitchen has been cleared and cleaned.
Joe feels awkward but he doesn’t want to let her disappear into the night without trying.
“Where d’you need to get to?” he says. “I’ve got my car here. I could run you to the station or…”
That “or…” hangs in the air between them like a signpost to other things.
She smiles at him.
“I’m good. I’m staying here. But thanks.”
Joe’s puzzled. None of the staff sleep here.
“You’re working another shift?”
She shakes her head and shrugs. Then she looks away.
“I don’t have anywhere to go.”
“Plenty of people are.” There’s no shame in that says the sharp edge to her voice.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…” What hadn’t he meant?
He pulls on his coat and gets ready to leave. She watches him, her expression inscrutable.
“Listen, Asha,” he says. “There are no beds left here. You’ll end up sleeping on a chair or the floor. I’ve got a sofa. A sofa bed, really. You know, it pulls out to become a bed…”
He feels foolish. She’d be mad to come back with him. She doesn’t know him.
She has a beautiful voice. Like one he’s heard before, once, but he can’t place it.
They don’t talk in the car. Joe reaches out to turn on the radio but she puts a hand on his to stop him. Silence is precious. There’s communication between them even if there are no words.
When he parks the car outside his flat, she lays her hand over his on the handbrake.
“Tell me where we’ve met before,” says Joe.
“It’ll come to you.”
“So we have met?”
“In another lifetime. Sort of.”
The sofa bed is never folded out. Drinks are never poured. Lights not even switched on. The door closes behind them with a snap that ignites the connection between them.
He knows her mouth. It tastes of snow.
In the soft light from the street lamps outside, her skin gleams with a lustre he hadn’t noticed in the harsh light of the shelter.
Her body fits the shape of his in a way that feels like coming home.
Her breath and flesh is cool against his own, a balm.
Memories stir in his hippocampus. Unfamiliar creaking and clicking sounds. The rush of air against his skin. Memories tumbling through the black vacuum of the universe, just out of reach.
His hard cock demands his attention and the scant recollections dissolve against the curve of his skull. Here and now, with this woman, that’s his imperative. His hands slide over her skin as hers glide over his.
He pushes her back against the wall and, gasping, enters her. She wraps her legs and arms around him, impaled. They move together instinctively. They’ve done this before.
He comes with her name on his lips.
She slumps forward against him, spent, and he runs his hands up her back. Two raised ridges of scar tissue. Small scratchy protuberances of bone or cartilage.
“They were taken.”
“How can you bear it?”
“I fell for you.”
“You gave up being an angel for me?”
“I’ll always be an angel. Just a fallen one now.”
He leads her to the bedroom, hot tears pricking his eyes.
“I have something of yours.”
He takes the treasured white feather from the top drawer of his dresser and hands it to her.
She smiles and runs her finger along the quill.
“Fallen, but not damned.”