Avoiding The Cracks
by MelWil

Harry tells us the news before we leave the grid. His voice is husky and raw and he won't look at me as he speaks. He gives us an outline:no details, no who, no when, no why. Just the bare skeleton of a shuffle that would save Zoe and allow the government to win reelection.

"Do you understand? Ruth?"

I nod and Harry turns away from us. His shoulders are slumped and his head is dropped and I know he is hurting. Zoe was like a daughter . . .

Malcolm puts a hand on my shoulder and squeezes it gently. I turn around to look at him, and he nods a little. "Shall we go and have a drink?"

I try to read the emotion in his voice, but it's as steady and calm as always. I turn and look at Sam, and there are tears welling in her eyes and suddenly I realise the same thing is happening to me. I dig through my bag for a tissue. "Let's go to my place." I'm completely surprised by the steadiness of my voice. "We can talk there." I bite my lower lip. "I've plenty to drink."

The others nod and we walk together through the halls of Thames House, our footsteps quickening as we approach the exit, like prisoners released from jail.

Did Zoe's footsteps quicken as she walked away?

What was she thinking? Was she happy to get away? Was she crying? Was she scared on what might come next?

Was she thinking about us?

We walk close together, touching each other, as if our content will stop us from falling apart. I tuck my arm through Malcolm's; Colin wraps his arm around Sam; she rests her head against him. Every now and then, my hand brushes against Sam's, and we pause and hold on for a second.

We reach my place as the sky turns dark and we hesitate as we enter the house as if our presence here confirms Zoe's absence; as if we are sending her away with our drinks and our tears. Sam is crying again, and I can't decide if she's upset because Zoe has left, or because Danny is left behind, and it's horrible that I could think like that. But Malcolm presses a glass into my hand and my thoughts are broken and I smile at him.

"To Zoe," he says softly, and I realise that he is hurting too, somewhere beneath that calm exterior.

"To Zoe," we repeat softly. We drink our drinks and sit in silence, comforted at least a little by the presence of each other. We understand that we need each other, the same way we need the numbing effect of the alcohol. We regret not reaching out for each other more often.

But we don't want to be seen as soft, as easy. We need to have firm exteriors: masks and shells. We need them to survive in our job, when we are being yelled at, or humiliated, or manipulated. We need them when computers refuse to cooperate and when someone makes a thoughtless remark that hits harder than it should.

So we finish my second best bottle of brandy. We wrap our arms around each other and share the tears that we won't talk about again. Tomorrow we will be hard again we will hide our feelings, we will be calm and collected. Tomorrow we will avoid looking at Zoe's desk, while making sure that Danny is okay.

We will search for our own flaws, for cracks that might send us spinning out of control. We will promise to be more careful, more suspicious, more separated from anything which could hurt us.

But that is tomorrow.

Tonight I sit with three friends, drinking and remembering and thinking about what we have lost. Tonight it is alright that I feel numb and lost; it is alright if I cry. Tonight it is alright that the people I sit with are some of the best friends I have.

Tonight I am allowed to be human.


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