Today’s story, Erin Young’s “Palace Street, Westminster, London, SW1E 5BB,” took second prize in the 2019 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. The judges really enjoyed the story’s sense of place and quick, snappy dialogue. Enjoy this moving and quirky love story.
It was dark in London. The shadow of the sky made sense, as it was night, but normally the streets were lit up with a certain glow. Not tonight, however. Tonight it was dark, as if the city had fallen asleep.
Everyone except Caitlin, of course.
The toe of her boot hit an uneven bit of pavement and caused her to stumble, a light giggle leaving her mouth as she almost ate the sidewalk. Moving on, her head tilted up to look at the stars, a dreamy smile on her face as she made her way to Palace Street.
Caitlin never smiled—unless she was drunk.
Palace Street came faster than expected. A lopsided frown turning the corners of her mouth downwards, she spun on her heel and squinted to read the sign in the darkness. Yes, she had missed it, as the sign for the street was right there. A few slurred words escaped her mouth as she chastised the sign for tricking her, and then Caitlin was moving again in that asymmetrical gait.
Her flat was nice. Caitlin said it was nice, at least.
Extravagant was more like it. The price was hefty, paid weekly, and only allowed for those who were wealthy to live in the development.
Well, those who were wealthy, and those who were sitting on two piles of life insurance cash.
Caitlin sobered up for only a moment as she noticed the gleaming motorbike sitting in its designated place, as if it was taunting her by just existing. A step past it, and she was forgetting all about the bike and sweet, sweet intoxication was flowing through her veins again.
Her flat was on the ninth floor. The elevator was fast, her hiccups and giggles came faster, and the churning in her stomach was growing faster still. The doors to the elevator slid open with an announcing ding, the sound urging Caitlin’s feet to move as she stumbled out of the elevator, fumbling for her keys.
She found them, found the right key as well, but then the task of fitting the key in the lock loomed before her. Forcing herself to focus, she attempted to lean into the door to steady herself as she tried to push the key in, but then she missed and, as she stumbled, the door flew forward to meet her nose. Or it was the other way around—she couldn’t tell in this state.
There was a soft opening of the door down the hall, the one that led into the flat next to her own. Caitlin paid no heed to the soft movements of her neighbor as she failed once again to fit the key into the tiny hole.
“Out of it again, Mitchell?”
Caitlin turned at the sound of her surname, finding her neighbor’s tall frame in the dim light of the hallway. Apparently, the lights turned off at midnight, though some sober part of her had known that.
It was currently three in the morning.
“No,” she huffed, turning back to her door. Leave it to him to sober her up—first his motorbike, now his actual presence.
And she had been having a good night.
He chuckled. “Liar.” Making his way over to her, she let him take the key from her hand and slip it into the lock easily, giving it a turn to unlock her flat. “Leave it to you to get plastered on a Monday.”
A bitter laugh escaped her mouth. “Not like I work.”
It was true, though. Caitlin Mitchell had never worked to afford this flat—had never needed to. Not when she’d only been here a month and would be out in another at the latest.
Never staying in one place too long, she had spent time in almost every European country at some point in her twenty-six-year-long lifespan. Her favorite had been Italy, but like with all of the others, she had to leave eventually.
It wasn’t like there was anything keeping her there.
Besides, it was always the same. She found a place to live, stayed there for a span of months, met people she somewhat liked and ended up leaving them. Caitlin didn’t know what she was waiting for—it wasn’t like she’d ever find a true home in this cruel world.
Her home had been her father, and she had found her father’s body mutilated in the street after a disastrous wreck.
Her home had been her mother, and she had found her mother swinging by her neck from one of the rafters.
It was after Italy that Caitlin had decided she wasn’t going to bother getting close to anyone anymore. All she needed was herself, her inheritance that was slowly dwindling, and the bottles that kept her company on nights like these.
Stepping into her flat, Caitlin kicked off her boots and left them where they flew, the heels clacking against the wooden floors. Next came her jacket, the leather that had warmed her pale skin in the changing season discarded on the hook in the entryway—though it was hung wrong, and slid off the hook onto the floor, where she didn’t bother to move it.
She took a few steps into her flat, paused, turned around to close the door behind her, and found she wasn’t alone. Her mood dampened quickly. “Need something?”
He shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants—they were dark, but everything was dark without lights on—and took up a position leaning on one of the grey walls. “Just making sure you got in all right.”
“I’m in,” she said.
“Obviously,” he shot back, unmoving.
Caitlin’s stomach churned, and then she was rushing to the sink in the kitchen, the insides of her stomach falling into the basin as she retched violently.
“See, you never said you were all right,” he said, having followed her into the room.
Caitlin wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “I’m all right.”
“Tell that to the rubbish in the sink.”
In response, she roughly pushed the handle on the sink upwards, turning on the tap and flushing what had escaped her mouth down the pipes.
There was a beat of silence, then he pushed his hand through his dark waves and eyed her. “You sure you can stay on your own like that?”
Caitlin moved away from the sink, stumbling and almost falling as she did so, but managed to catch herself on the counter. “I don’t want your help.”
Caitlin Mitchell was perfectly fine on her own.
She didn’t need Elijah Fletcher.
She didn’t need anyone.
“Get out of my flat, Elijah,” she snapped, managing to get the words out even though her head was spinning and her words were attempting to slur.
Those dark eyes watched her intently, and for a moment she thought he was going to stay. But then his shoulders were raised in a shrug. “Ring me if you need anything.”
With that he was gone, taking with him the tiny part of her that wanted to call him back.
It was a week before Caitlin saw Elijah again.
The shadows of night were seeping into her flat, finding little to no obstructions as the darkness pulled across the floor. She didn’t have much furniture—much of anything, really. Usually, she just took what came with the flat and made do.
Caitlin only kept what she could carry on her back.
She was positioned at the counter-island, debating going out for the night or staying in and getting a good night’s rest. Caitlin snorted. What would she need that for?
Sliding off of the stool, she swiped the keys off of her counter and slipped on her boots. It was getting colder out, the leaves on the few trees in Westminster changing from shades of green to warmer colors. Caitlin always found it amusing—the leaves became warmer colors as the weather became colder.
Placing her hand on the door, she swung it open, only to be facing Elijah.
Caitlin raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”
A bright smile lit up his usually dark features. “Good to see you, Cait.”
No one ever called her ‘Cait.’
She went to snap at him, but then Elijah was pulling her into an embrace and whispering, “Go with it.”
Caitlin didn’t particularly want to go anywhere with him, but her arms slid across his back briefly before he pulled away and turned back to whoever was apparently watching. Soft words were spoken in the hallway, though only one exchange stood out to her as if it was a glaring red light.
“This is who you’ll be staying with?”
Before she could throw her opinion into the conversation, hands were shaken and then Elijah was stepping into her flat once more and closing the door behind him. There was a beat of silence—tense silence—and then Caitlin’s voice filled the space, echoing within the barely-furnished flat.
“You are not staying with me.”
Elijah let out a dark chuckle. “It’s not like you don’t have room.”
“Not for you,” she said.
He made his way over to the singular couch in the sitting area, throwing himself onto the cushions like he owned the place. He didn’t. She did. “It won’t be for long. A month, at the longest.”
“No,” she said, holding firm. She didn’t need this, she didn’t need someone to waltz in and mess up everything she had planned, since the very beginning.
Since she had been Anne Gibson, finding her mother in that damned house on the outskirts of Belfast. Since she had been a Katherine, a Katie, a Cailyn, living in France, Spain, and Italy.
Her parents had named her Anne. Not after some beloved aunt, or after something they loved. No, her parents had named her after Anne Boleyn.
After a beheaded wife.
Apparently, they believed she needed a second chance. Their act of reverence, of respect, got them nothing, however, as they were currently six feet underground.
“It’s a month. I’ll pay the rent.” Elijah’s words turned her attention back to him. He had changed his position, dark eyes watching her intently as he braced his forearms on his knees, fingers weaving together in the space between. “Deal?”
Caitlin debated it. Extra money for her, as she wouldn’t have to pay rent for a few weeks, as well as someone to clean up after her, nevermind someone to let her in when she comes home at three in the morning. The offer was growing on her, it seemed. “Don’t touch anything of mine.”
“Is that a yes?” She heard the surprise in his tone, that accent more prominent as his voice echoed off of the walls.
Her response was answer enough, a pale finger pointing to one of the doors that led off the main area of the flat. “Your room.”
Elijah nodded his head in thanks, and then he was rising off of the couch and leaving the flat, presumably to gather his things from his own. Her mind flew as he was gone—was he evicted? It didn’t seem like he had done anything wrong. Did a flatmate kick him out? She hadn’t seen anyone live with him.
None of her possibilities seemed to fit.
She planned to ask him when he returned, but then the door was opening again, and she was being assaulted by what seemed to be a bear. It had a gleaming black coat, with a white chest and light brown patches on its face and legs.
“You have a dog?” She hissed, eyes narrowing as the animal sat at her feet, its large tail sliding across the floor as it wagged back and forth.
A small smile graced Elijah’s features. “His name is Atlas.”
There was a chain circling its neck, a few tags hanging from one of the loops. Caitlin had never been one for animals—she didn’t dislike them, but she would never own one. And now, one would be living in her flat.
Stifling her growl, Caitlin moved away from the dog and made her way towards her own room, calling over her shoulder, “It stays with you.”
She wouldn’t be going out now, that was for sure.
A month passed.
A month passed, and Elijah didn’t seem to be leaving anytime soon.
It made Caitlin restless. She had to leave, there was nothing for her here, she wasn’t—
Movement on the balcony caught her attention. She rolled her eyes, but slid open the doors and made her way over to him. The two of them didn’t talk much, mainly stayed out of each other’s way, but Caitlin couldn’t deny that after being on her own for so long—
She didn’t hate the presence of someone else.
Sure enough, Elijah was standing on the balcony with his gaze fixed on the city below, a cigarette held between his lips.
“Those are going to kill you one day,” she said by way of greeting, leaning on the railing next to him.
“If my bike doesn’t kill me first.” His eyes slid to her as he repeated the rest of the line she usually spat at him, before his gaze returned to the twinkling lights below.
Caitlin couldn’t stop her huffed laugh. “You’re catching on.”
“It has been a month.”
It went quiet after that. Then—
“I can be out by tomorrow, Cait.”
She hated being called ‘Cait,’ but something about the way he said it had her forgetting to remind him of that point. Actually, she had forgotten for a whole month.
Caitlin tucked a strand of golden hair behind her ear. “It’s fine,” she said.
His eyebrow raised as he blew smoke out of his mouth, though his eyes never found her.
“It doesn’t matter, anyway. The flat is yours,” she said, continuing. The words hurt as they left her mouth, but it had to be said.
She was leaving, whether he was staying in the flat or not.
No one had ever asked her that before. Caitlin was at a loss for words for a second, watching as he flicked embers off of his cigarette. Eventually, she settled on a bland answer. “I just don’t like London.”
He chuckled. “Liar. I’ve seen the way your eyes light up when you’re out here watching the city.”
Caitlin had never noticed. “It doesn’t matter.”
“I asked, didn’t I?” His dark eyes found her again, yet this time, they didn’t leave.
She fired another question at him. “Where’s your home, Elijah?”
He took a moment to answer. “Atlas, the bike, the bustling of a city. That’s my home.”
“New York?” She questioned, naming the first city that came to mind in the country across the Atlantic.
Elijah took another drag of smoke into his lungs. “New York, London, Paris. It doesn’t matter.”
Caitlin was astounded. “You don’t just have. . . a place? Somewhere to call home?”
“Do you?” His tone was questioning, though a part of her believed he already knew the answer, so she didn’t bother answering.
She didn’t even know how to.
He pushed on. “So, where’s next? Across the sea? Poland? Switzerland?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said.
“It does if you’re buying a flight to Belfast.”
She whirled on him. “Did you go through my things?”
He shrugged. “Your computer was on the counter, open.”
“You had no right.”
“You didn’t buy two.”
Caitlin went still at that tone. Was he—hurt? “It’s been a month.”
“Thirty days, two hours, and eleven minutes, actually,” he said.
She made a face. “You counted?”
“It’s not hard.”
Not even knowing how to respond, Caitlin turned her attention to the dark night that surrounded them. “I wasn’t going to take you with me.”
“Obviously,” he said, a bit of bitterness seeping into the word.
It set her on edge. “Why would I? It’s not like we’re close. It’s not like we’re family.”
“No, we just live together.”
His answers were becoming irritating. Irritating because he was right, irritating because she never knew what to say, irritating because she was debating apologizing for something she had done for years.
Caitlin had never known what from. Maybe it was that street where her dad had been on his motorbike one moment, and scattered across the road the next. Maybe it was that house where her mother had been smiling one moment, and gone the next. Maybe it was the fact that she didn’t belong, never knew where she fit, where she was wanted.
Maybe it was because she was alone.
“I could sell the bike. Get a car. I’ve heard Rome is nice,” he said, seemingly talking to himself, though she knew better.
“I’ve been to Italy.”
She hadn’t been to Vienna. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
Elijah threw his cigarette on the balcony, grinding it out with the toe of his boot. He was angry, Caitlin could tell. When Elijah got angry or upset, he went quiet. Normally, he went out as well, but he was never one to leave a conversation unfinished.
Without another word, Elijah was brushing past her, leaving Caitlin stunned on the balcony as he exited the flat. A moment later, she heard the roar of the engine on his bike. Rushing to the railing, she peered over just in time to see him pulling out of the development and into the road, and within a moment, he and the sound of his motorbike were gone.
Making her way back inside, Caitlin ran her hands furiously through her hair. She didn’t like this feeling—the churning within her chest that could only be classified as guilt. The feeling was foreign, as well as the part of her that wanted to throw on her jacket and rush after him, telling him to come home, that she was sorry.
Caitlin went rigid in the center of her flat.
From the couch, Atlas let out a sound of contentment.
Telling him to come home, that she was sorry.
A tremor of fear shook her body. Without thinking, Caitlin began to throw her things into a black suitcase. Everything she owned could fit in this one bag, save for the furniture and apartment, of course. But everything of importance—Caitlin fitted the family photo into place on top of the various clothes, trinkets and few objects she owned.
Shrugging on her leather jacket, Caitlin halted in the entryway of her flat. Slowly, she turned to gaze back at the place she had lived in for just a day too long.
There were a few empty dishes out on the counter from dinner—Elijah was a surprisingly good cook. One of his shirts was discarded on the couch as well, lying just to the left of Atlas, who was watching her with an intensity that had Caitlin forgetting he was only a dog for a moment. Caitlin shook her head, the sensation that she was missing something rushing over her.
Moving to the printer where she had left the ticket to Belfast, Caitlin pulled the sheet of paper off of the tray. Another followed, falling through the air before landing soundlessly on the floor at her feet. She bent down and picked it up.
The two sheets were identical, save for a code in the top corner, a few separate numbers, and a name.
Elijah W. Fletcher.
He had bought a ticket to Belfast.
A hand flying to her mouth, Caitlin threw his ticket back onto the floor, and fled.
The Thames River was to her right as the cab barrelled down the road towards the Heathrow Airport. It was late now—there was no light left within the sky other than the pinpricks of stars.
Caitlin’s mind was elsewhere. The Thames was beautiful to look at, but she couldn’t help feeling as though she was missing something. There was a sudden compulsion to look at the seat to her left, but it was empty.
A pit opened within her stomach.
She was going home. She was going to Belfast, where she would live for a while. A year, maybe. Two, even, if she loved it enough.
But Belfast was a different memory, held by a different girl that went by a different name. Caitlin Mitchell had never been to Belfast.
How could something be home if she had never been, had never been herself?
Shaking her head furiously, the thought left her mind.
Caitlin had never known a home. She just left whenever she didn’t get that feeling, whenever she didn’t feel upset about leaving something—or someone—behind.
London was never home. It was temporary, a place to blow off some steam, to get the city out of her system.
She had no idea something else—someone else—would come to obtain a spot within her bloodstream.
Caitlin let out a sound of frustration, of anger, of guilt. Within that sound, she let out every possible emotion she hadn’t let herself feel over the years since she had lost her home, her parents.
A terrible, careless, unattached human being. It was a sentence Caitlin had prided herself on for years, but now—
It brought a sour taste to her mouth.
She had no idea what she wanted. She wanted to go to Belfast, she wanted to find someone who cared for her, wanted to find someone who wouldn’t leave, wanted to keep running until there was nowhere new to go, wanted—
Caitlin wanted a home.
Hadn’t she found one already?
“Turn the car around.”
The development loomed in front of her like one of the Alps. It was more impending now, for some reason, as if it knew what she had done.
The gleaming, black motorbike had never been a better sight.
Caitlin jammed her finger into the button for the ninth floor. The elevator couldn’t move faster, it was going so slow compared to the beating of her heart, the expanding of her lungs as she tried to get air into her body.
The doors slid open with a ding, and then she was stumbling out of the elevator, her suitcase suddenly now heavier than it had been in years. She had always packed light, only ever had what she could carry on her back, but now it was so heavy with material things she frankly didn’t care as much about.
Her hands trembled as she tried to fit the key into the lock—she couldn’t see it that well, either, as the lights had gone dim at midnight and it was currently three in the morning.
As if something within the Universe had granted her a reprieve, the door to the flat swung open.
“Thought you had taken off to Belfast.”
Elijah Fletcher hadn’t slept, the scent of cigarettes and cologne wafting to her as he was still in the clothes in which she had last seen him. His dark eyes were tired, but he watched her like a hawk as she shifted from her right foot to her left and shoved a hand into the pocket of her jacket. She used the other to tuck a strand of golden hair behind her ear, her eyes only meeting his own after she realized she couldn’t avoid his gaze forever.
This. This is what she had waited for.
A sense of belonging, someone who wanted to be with her, who wanted to follow her wherever she went.
Caitlin’s eyes stung. She never cried. She hadn’t cried in years. But this—
This was home.
Her silver-lined eyes met his own, the corners of her mouth curving up the slightest amount as she spoke, as she realized she didn’t want to run anymore.
“I think I’d like to see Vienna.”