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  • Writer's pictureSteven Kay

The Glass Needle


You look thin!

Katia jolted up in bed, clutching her mottled blanket. Saucer-eyed, her gaze turned to the open bedroom door, a black monolith in the room’s mothy dusk. She clicked on the bedside lamp, washing the walls in weak light and thin shadow.

Nothing.

She exhaled, a puff of breath scattering in the cold air. Her parents never put the heating on until well into January; it wasn’t even December yet. She examined her arms, goosebumps protruding like plucked chicken skin. Was she so thin? Her thighs were a little skinny, her kneecaps poking out like beer bottle tops, but was she any thinner than other thirteen-year-old girls? Hard to say, since she’d stopped going to school.

The building groaned, the plop-plop-plop of a tap echoing through the apartment. Katia pushed herself up, pulling the blanket around her, exposing her ankles to the chill air. She shuffled toward the dark doorway, following the plumes of her breath that swirled in the lamplight and faded into black.

Her sister’s old room was next door, now empty. The door stood ajar, giving a narrow view inside; carpet dents where the bed had been, faded poster marks on the wall, an impact hole in the plaster. Looking through that slit always triggered fleeting images of Iza sitting there knitting, shutting the world out, though Katia couldn’t verify their validity; she was about seven when Iza abandoned her, leaving without a trace. That’d make this year the sixth anniversary, a date which would surely pass with as much fanfare as her initial departure.

The living area lights were off, a miasma of cigarette smoke glowing in the light of the TV. The volume was low enough that Mum and Dad’s snoring see-sawed between them like a strange song. They slouched in their chairs, ashtray spilling onto the table between them. They rarely made it back to the bedroom these days, but their predictable dormancy made it still the best time to go foraging.

Katia crossed to the kitchen, sucking the cold, tobacco-sweet air through her blanket. She opened the pantry, leaning in; only a few tins of food lined the bare shelves, the same old soil-crusted shovel resting against the wall. The leftovers littering the kitchen side would do tonight. Katia lifted a sharp-edged pie tin, its contents snuffled down to the crust, and crept out through the front door.

Their block was one of four high-rise towers overlooking the city. There were some okay people here, but bad ones, too; the stairwell smelled like wee, and you’d sometimes meet someone scary-looking on the way down, face hidden by their hood, hands stuffed in their jogging bottoms. The so-called Peace Garden was round the back of their block; some community funded project to make it nicer for the residents. Katia went there sometimes, to get out of the apartment and breathe clean air, even when it was so cold it made her chest tight. It was little more than a lumpy dirt mound with a wiry tree sticking out, but at least there was a view of the city. She perched on the border wall, tucking into the leftovers, her eyes up to the grey sky that hung like a sodden blanket. Whenever she thought of her sister leaving her behind, her heart drooped like an unwatered plant. So she tried not to.

Katia tiptoed back to bed after eating, hugging herself close. It almost felt colder inside, the glacial air keen to show it rejected the concept of shelter. She reached for the lamp, but stopped stiff. A figure lurked in the doorway, tall and slender, features indistinguishable.

“Hello?” said Katia, her voice breaking.

She swallowed, spotting the source: on the floor stood a knitted doll, its shadow cast into the hall. Exhaling, Katia stood and walked gingerly over to it. It was mere inches tall, faceless with pointy ears. One of Iza’s creations? She was sure Mum and Dad had thrown all her stuff out.

With her brow furrowed, Katia placed the thing by her bed and turned off the lamp.


 

“You look thin, Katia!”

Katia woke with a yelp. She blinked her wet eyes clear, squinting in the anaemic moonlight pushing through dusty blinds.

“I’m not thin…” she grumbled, switching on the lamp.


The doll was by the door again. It looked shorter this time, hunched over. Katia jumped up, padding across the carpet. Half the doll’s yarn was loose and trailed off behind it like it had dragged itself in here. Out in the hall, the yarn ran along the corridor like a river, disappearing into the dark of Iza’s bedroom.

Katia tiptoed along the hall to check the living room, her hands shaking under the threadbare blanket. Her parents were still asleep; Mum slumped to one side and Dad pitched back, statue-like, his thick fingers gripping the chair arms.

Back at her sister’s room, bones chattering, Katia pushed the door open with a gentle creak. The room’s contours were just visible in the half light. Katia knelt, feeling for the yarn. She followed it, crawling until she reached the back corner, where a scuff of carpet curled from the skirting. She gripped it, pulling it up to reveal a square of loose board underneath. Her breath steadied, the excitement of the discovery allaying any fear of being caught. She removed the board and reached in, pulling out a small satchel and a thick diary with Iza written on the cover.

Wrapped up in bed, Katia feverishly examined her haul by lamplight. The satchel was a little knitting kit, with coloured yarns and a set of glass needles. Katia closed it up and shoved it under her pillow. She lifted the diary, nestling its spine between her legs and leafing through the pages.

Iza had written often, much of it about daily life, about her worries, about her job at the factory. Katia had forgotten she worked there, but faintly remembered now; the dawn alarm clocks that drove Dad up the wall, the way she’d linger in Katia’s doorway for a few minutes before leaving for work.


Mum’s gone cuckoo again. I think Dad’s ready to snap, too.


Done with this place. Need to get out.


Footsteps!

Katia shoved the diary inside her blanket and sat up straight.

Mum rounded the door, arms folded, her weathered scowl carved from shadow. She waited.

“I… couldn’t sleep,” said Katia.

“Where did you find this?” Mum held out the half-doll in its tangle of yarn.

“It was on the floor.”

She gritted her teeth, exhaling through pursed lips. “I really can’t deal with your lying.”

“But—”

“No. I don’t want to hear another sound.”

She left, closing the door.

Katia returned to the diary, eyes locked on the page. She paused, a word catching her eye.


…thin, so thin. Can see her bones through her top. No matter how many morsels of food I sneak home from the factory, it’s never enough.


Katia ran a finger over the letters, feeling for the indentation of the pen that wrote them. She peered across at the doorway, her eyes searching the darkness. She sighed.


Girl from work told me about a shelter. It’s not free, though. Will start stashing my wages somewhere M&D can’t find them, pack a bag ready. When the time’s right, I’ll grab Katia and we’ll get the hell out. 


So Iza had planned on taking Katia with her. The entry didn’t say where, and the need to read on filled Katia with a suppressing urgency. The next night, in the slither of time between her parents’ dozing and their inevitable emergence, she slipped quietly out of bed again.

All clear in the hall.

She lifted her sister’s satchel over her head, checking her reflection in the dark bedroom window. The mirror girl stood up straight, her mouth forming into a crooked smile.

Crossed legged and lucent in the lamp’s bloom, Katia read, the words on the page sucking her in like a bed of marshmallow. She wanted to fall into it and never come back, leave her parents wondering where she’d gone.


Sat on a knitting needle and actually bled! OUCH! These things are stronger than they look!


Katia stifled a giggle, her hand clapped over her mouth.


Things pretty volatile here. I see the red mist behind Dad’s eyes.

Think Mum’s as scared of him as we are.


Can’t wait to leave. Dad found my stash in the pantry.

Thinks I stole it from him. Fuck!


Leaving the money in K’s lamp behind. Will get it later.


The last entry made Katia double-take. She turned to her lamp, dumbfounded, imagined Iza standing right there, deciding on whether it was a good hiding place. She lifted it carefully, her mouth agape as a wad of notes flopped out—a few hundred, at least.

“What are you doing?”

Mum’s voice made Katia nearly throw the lamp into the air.

“Mum…” she murmured.

“Where did you get those things? That money?”

“I don’t know…” said Katia, her voice juddering as she floundered for an explanation.

Mum’s lip trembled, her eyes weary with hate. She strode across the room, snatching the diary and cash away, pulling the satchel off her. “It’s just take, take, take with you, isn’t it? Just like your sister.”

Katia blubbed and wept. “Mum, I—”

“What? Spit it out!”

“I think Iza’s trying to send me messages—”

The sound came before the pain; a dull slap, the woman’s hand recoiling from her daughter’s cheek.

“Don’t you say that name in this house,” she said.

Katia clawed at her mother’s dress, longing hopelessly to be believed—that she had nothing to do with the doll, that something strange was going on.

But Mum moved away.

“I’d better not see you out of this room again,” she said, taking the things with her and slamming the door.


 

Katia woke with her face pressed into the carpet, cheeks stiff with dried tears, raw with humiliation. It was still dark out.

She got up, knelt on the bed, found her reflection. Her eyes were shot, her cheeks puffed out. To think that Iza wasn’t much older when she left, while she herself was still just a useless baby.

Over her shoulder, the bedroom door squeaked on its hinges, yawning open in a wide arc. She turned to face it, her stomach flipping over. The knitted doll was back, fully formed, ears stuck up like two fingers.

If something had happened to her out there, she had to know.

“I’m coming, Iza,” she said, scooping the doll up as she left.


The usual ambience of TV static hissed gently in the living room. Her parents slept, surrounded by bottles and cans, untroubled amongst their mullock and swill. The confiscated items were stacked on the table between the two armchairs. Katia edged forward, steps soft as wool. To her left and right, chests rose and fell in a wheeze, grown-up faces scrunched in slumber.

A held breath. Katia slid the diary toward her, tucking it under her arm. She lifted the satchel by the strap and hung it from her shoulder. With her heart thudding in her ears, she gathered up the cash, stuffing it in the satchel between balls of yarn.

A hand snatched her wrist, gripping it tightly. Katia squealed, pulling free.

She ran. Out the door. Down the stairs. Into the moonlight, where the sorry sight of the Peace Garden awaited. Her foot caught a step in the dark. She fell, scraping her knee, slamming onto the frosted path. The diary bounced on its spine, falling open before her, urging her to read on.


Will have to come back for Katia. Soon as I can. Need to make sure it’s safe first. I know she’ll be okay. She’s stronger than she looks, my little glass needle. God, Katia, I wish you knew what you mean to me. That you’re the reason I keep going.


Katia’s tearful gaze moved past the book, to the lumpy mound of soil, the wiry tree that made up the Peace Garden.

Soon as I can.

The pantry. The shovel covered in soil.

“You never left…” said Katia, in a half whisper.

“She did it to herself.”

Katia sat up, turned to face her father. All stubble and jowls, he swayed like an oak, a thick hand bracing the door frame, sickly breath damping the air.

“She was standing right where you are,” he said, eyes unfocused. “Told her to hand the money over… She stepped back and fell, cracked her head like a watermelon.”

Katia glared at him, kept quiet, her teeth sinking into her lip.

“Freak accident,” he said. “Reached out for her—I guess I pushed her. I don’t know. I barely remember it… Just lost it, probably.” He squinted, his eyes on the tree. “Your sister had a way of bringing out the worst in people. Well, nothing I say ever comes out right, does it? I can’t win, can I?”

The man knelt down at her feet with a groan. Katia fumbled for the satchel behind her, a hand reaching under the flap.

“Are we really so bad, Katia?” he said, looking her in the eye.

“It was her money,” said Katia.

He laughed, shaking his head. “More lies. It’s all you girls ever do.” The laughter faded. “Now, come on. Inside.”

“You couldn’t just let her go.”

“Not with my money, no.”

“It was her money.”

“And how do you know?” he yelled, his drunk mouth lurching closer.

“It’s all in there!” she cried, pointing to the diary.

He turned and reached for the book, grunting at the incalculable effort involved. Behind her, Katia’s fingers found one of the needles.

Dad opened the diary, squinting at it cross-eyed. “The bitch could write!”

Katia swung the glass needle, her fist slapping against his neck with a meaty thwack. He dropped the diary, his brow furrowed in puzzlement. Katia let out a gasp, knowing she’d missed. She must have. She withdrew her hand. The translucent shaft stuck out of him like a snowman’s pipe, a black trickle of blood bubbling over his collarbone. He peered at it idiotically, his mouth flapping.

Katia was up. She gathered the things and ran; out the main gate, down the hill, across the foot bridge leading to the city. It wasn’t until she slammed into someone that she stopped for air, muttering her apologies, words coming out of her like pieces of a spilled jigsaw, too damaged to put together.

They sat, Katia and the nice woman. They sat, and they waited. And before the sun came up, the apartment complex looked quite pretty up there on the hill, washed in flashes of blue and red light. They watched the police swarm like bugs, and the apartment lights pop into life one after next, as the pumpkin fibres of dawn coloured the sky.


 


Steven Kay is a writer who lives for stories that wander new worlds, establish deep atmosphere, and explore the human condition. His writing spans both literary and speculative fiction, embodying his love for great prose whilst sometimes exploring the hypothetical and surreal themes that help us to make sense of the world and ourselves.


When he’s not sat at his laptop in a dark room, he can be found working as a web developer, performing with his band or jumping out of planes with his skydiving team. Why not find him on Facebook, Instagram, or Bluesky and say hi? And for more of his stories, you can visit his website at www.stevenkaybooks.com.

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