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“Robbie’s hanging around again.” 

I looked up from the sink and my soap-sore hands to see Teja peering through the kitchen door. Behind her, in the café, customers kept up a low hum of chatter. The stream of ads that made up her signature followed out back, a bright tail of study guides and chocolates in gold foil packaging.

“What’s he doing?” I heard myself ask.

“Just loitering outside. I saw his signature.”

A knot pulled tight in my gut as I remembered the last time Robbie had collared me on the way home from work, trailing images of vinyl albums and football memorabilia and flashing the loose, unpredictable grin that made it impossible to tell whether he was drunk or not. I hated those moods—more so than the ones when he came home from work already pissed-off and growling anytime I breathed wrong, or the ones when he’d hold my hand a little too tight and say I just don’t think you care about us like I do no matter how much I cried and insisted I loved him. Affection could turn to aggression in the space of a heartbeat, and I’d sit at his side waiting for the snap with sweaty palms, throat closing up around a hammering pulse.

Even now, six months after I’d left him, thinking about those moods turned me to stone.

“Vin? You okay?”

I evicted the memory by force and met Teja’s eyes. “Are you sure it was him? Couldn’t have been, I dunno, some other twenty-six-year-old, West-Ham-supporting, IPA-drinking—”

She shook her head, long dark braids swaying, and grimaced. “Saw his face, too. Sorry.”

“Fuck’s sake,” I muttered. “Wish he’d give it up, is all. How many times have I gotta say I’m not getting back with him?”

“Who’d be straight, eh?” Teja patted my arm. “I’d better head back. Danny’ll have a shitfit if I leave him alone out there with the Yummy Mummies Lunch Brigade.” 

Her tone told me I’d done a decent impression of annoyed instead of terrified. Good. Robbie showing up always made me feel like I was still the spineless doormat who’d taken two years to get away from him. Being able to hide it gave me some small measure of control. 

I lingered over the dishes, grateful for the relative quiet of the kitchen. Like most commercial buildings, the café required you to have ads enabled to enter, but at least out back, there were only my own to deal with. Other people’s signatures pressing in on all sides, ads propagating by the dozen if I looked at them too long, meant public spaces made my teeth itch. 

My eyes were hot and my lenses felt gritty. When I blinked, a tear ran down the side of my nose. Unthinkingly, I reached up to wipe it away, smearing soap scum down my face.

The lunch rush kept up almost straight into the after-work rush, commuters from the offices and university buildings up the road dropping in for coffees on their way home. I managed a quick lunch around three: leftover stew and the end-piece of one of Danny’s homemade sourdough loaves. The crust was thick and so sharp where it cracked that it seemed to bite back as I chewed. By the time we locked up around six, the sky was darkening and a chill had settled into the autumn air like damp into an old house.

Teja shot me a concerned look as we left. “Want me to walk you into town?”

“It’s fine. I know you need to get home and study.” I glanced left and right. “Pretty sure he’s gone by now, anyway.”

“Okay,” Teja said. “Let me know you’re home safe, yeah?”

I nodded, pulled up my hood, and tapped my thumb and ring finger together to switch on my ad blocker. The street fell into blissful darkness. Teja’s chocolates, my own movie figurines, the fractal of tanned, smiling models and green smoothies that trailed a passing jogger—all of them gone.

We hadn’t spotted Robbie again since lunch, but I kept an eye out as I walked home.  The hoodie was new since I’d broken up with him. I’d thrown out the red pleather jacket I’d worn on our first date, partly because I couldn’t look at it without thinking about how sweet he’d seemed that night, but mostly because it was way too easy to spot from a distance. I’d dyed my hair a few shades darker, too, and kept it scraped back under my hood. Without my ads, he wouldn’t notice me. I hoped.

No sign of him for the first few minutes. Following my usual route home, it was surprisingly easy to slide into autopilot. I’d almost zoned out by the time I reached the town centre.

The sight of Robbie was like a bucket of cold water to the face.

He was ahead of me, heading for the high street. Even with my ad blocker on, he was unmistakable. Mop of curly hair, blue-and-maroon football shirt. Hideous colour combination, not that I’d have dared say it to Robbie’s face.

He hadn’t seen me. I dodged to the side of the street, out of the flow of foot-traffic, and turned left to cut up past a row of small shops. I could join the high street further up and be out of the town centre before he noticed me.

I hadn’t walked this way in a couple of weeks. As I strode toward the turning, six waist-high bollards rose out of the ground. The air between them crackled to life with electric-blue light. That was new.

A cheery female voice spoke up: “Welcome to Coit Street. Please disable your ad blocker to continue.”

The announcement was obnoxiously loud. An old man out walking his Westie turned to stare at me like I was the one who’d made the noise.

Up ahead on the main drag, Robbie slowed. A tremor ran through me and I cast around, wild-eyed, for an escape route.

There, to my right: a lane led along the backs of the shops, running parallel to Coit Street. When I was a teenager, my friends and I had hung around there drinking illicit vodka, but this early in the evening, it was likely deserted. I hurried for the mouth of the alley and ducked behind one of the dumpsters.

Footsteps neared the lane. Heavy enough to be Robbie’s. I held my breath. 

They paused briefly at the entrance, less than twenty yards from where I was hiding. My vision narrowed to tunnelling dark, my head filling up with black fuzz until I felt sure I would pass out.

The footsteps went on past the lane, toward Coit Street. A brief hitch in gait and the approving beep of the ad wall coming down to admit their owner, and they continued away from me. 

I exhaled, slow and ragged, and sagged back against the wall. It was a long time before I picked myself up and headed home.


I’d mostly managed to put Robbie from my mind by the time I clocked into work the following day. Teja had one of her migraines, so I let her take the kitchen for the afternoon. 

Working out front with the endless polychrome flicker of everyone else’s ads—plus my own, currently trying to sell me glass water bottles because I’d complimented a customer on the one she was carrying—was exhausting. My lenses itched and my eyes and shoulders ached, and I almost didn’t notice Robbie until he was at the counter.

He stood in front of the glass case of pastries, pretending to deliberate, but I could see him watching me from the corner of his eye. 

“Vin.” Danny nudged my arm. “Lavinia. You alright?”

I’d frozen. I shook myself, saw Robbie getting ready to inch closer, and blurted, “No. Sorry, I need to—”

I ran out of words and bolted into the kitchen. Teja glanced up from the sink, her eyes taking a moment to focus on me. Her signature was muted today. Ads for natural headache remedies danced around her, soft greens and blues intermingling with foil-wrapped chocolates. “Here again, is he?”

I nodded. “Came in the caff.”


From out front came the sound of Danny shouting for one of us to join him. Teja untied her apron before I could turn toward his voice.

“Only until Robbie’s gone,” she warned, holding up a finger. I nodded in gratitude and she left me in the kitchen with my signature, a swirl of cinema posters and eclectic teas and books about leaving toxic relationships.

If only doing it was as easy as reading about it. How many times had I told Robbie it was over, only to be cowed back into submission or wheedled into giving him another chance? I’d always known going back was a bad idea, and usually ended up with the bruises to prove it. But he had a malign gravity, a forcefield that made getting out feel as impossible as taking flight.

Robbie drew out his cup of coffee for almost an hour. By the time Teja ducked back into the kitchen, her face was pinched with pain. I darted guiltily toward the cupboard where we hung our coats, digging around in her handbag until I found her sumatriptan. “Shit, you should’ve said something.”

Teja shook her head. “It’s fine,” she said, and pressed her lips together. “Just wanted to make sure that fucker was out of here.”

He stayed gone that day. I didn’t spot him on my way home, though I took the lane again to be sure, jumping at shadows. 

It was only when I got home that I found the note on my doormat. 

Hand-scrawled on a Post-It. I’d blocked Robbie’s number and every social media account that popped up in his name, but apparently that wasn’t enough to get the message across.

You can’t run away from me.

I stilled. 

He’d said the same thing during our last fight, the one after which I’d walked out for good. Robbie wasn’t much for using his fists. More often it was shoves, or slaps that made my head ring—things he brushed off later as hardly even touched you and can’t have been that bad. The last time, he took a kitchen knife from the drawer and stuck it into the wall beside my head with deliberate viciousness. When he yanked it out, pale flakes of plaster scattered the tiles.

I screwed up the note in my hand and flung it at the bin. It missed. I crouched to retrieve it but found myself crumpling to the kitchen floor instead. I stayed there for a long time.

Later that night, I texted Teja and told her what had happened, and the next day, she showed up at work and pressed something in a silver plastic packet into my hand. I tore it open and stared at the translucent, fingertip-sized piece of silicone rubber. “It’s one of those thumbprint mask things,” I realised. “Fakes your biodata and gives you someone else’s ads. Are those even legal?”

Teja shrugged. “Got it from someone my sister knows. She had a stalker, back when she lived in London.”

“Do they really work?”

“Haven’t tried it myself. Better than nothing, though, right?”

I thought again of Robbie and the knife in the kitchen wall, and tucked the packet into my bag.


A week passed. Long enough for me to stop looking over my shoulder as I walked home, and long enough that Teja didn’t insist on my messaging her as soon as I got in. Maybe Robbie had only been trying to scare me. He was that kind of arsehole.

Tuesday evening, I finished late, thanks to some local wellness group who’d hired the café for a talk I mostly managed to tune out. The air in the café eddied with ads for herbal supplements and crystal jewellery, and the speaker’s voice was so earnestly soporific that, by the time they left, I felt half-asleep. 

As I was stacking the last couple of chairs on top of the tables, Danny called, “You look knackered, Vin. Go home, I’ll lock up.”

I gave the place a last look round, hung up my apron, and pulled on my hoodie, shoving my hands into my pockets at the chill of the air outside. I pulled in a deep breath. My signature swirled around me like a kite’s tail in the breeze, and I watched it for a moment, mesmerised by the glowing primary colours of the ads in the gathering twilight.

Then I remembered myself, and panic shot through me. I jammed my thumb and ring finger together and cast an anxious glance along the street.

It was mostly quiet by now, the shops closed and the office commuters headed home. Pulling up my hood to hide my face, I turned toward the high street.

Five minutes into the walk home I saw him. 

Mop-top hair, stupid football shirt, and a lazy, dangerous swagger to his walk that either meant he’d been drinking, or he’d already made his mind up to pick a fight. My stomach gave a vertiginous swoop, the unpleasant cousin of the excitement I’d felt when we first started dating. Robbie must’ve been waiting for me.

He paused to idle near a bus stop I knew wasn’t his, craft beer ads circling him. His signature was bright yellow and orange with the colours of the cans, with the familiar West Ham blue and maroon sprinkled throughout. I’d have known him anywhere by that.

I veered sharply to cross the road—cutting it fine enough that a passing cyclist braked and made the wanker sign at me—and picked up my pace. Eyes on the ground. If I could get past Robbie without him noticing me, maybe he’d give up and go home.

I had to force myself not to turn and stare as I passed the bus stop. My fingernails dug into the palms of my hands hard enough to sting. Shoulders hunched, I kept walking.


Robbie’s voice. Not as loud as he sometimes got—kind of half-arsed, like he wasn’t sure it was me. 

“Lavinia? That you?”

I set my jaw. Walked faster, half-tripping over paving-stones, dodging around a woman with a pushchair a little too fast to be polite. Busier here, nearer the high street. Thursdays were late night shopping days. I might lose myself in the crowd long enough to reach the safety of the lane.

I dodged behind a trio of middle-aged men strolling along on their way to the pub; skirted a harried-looking dad wrangling two toddlers and a couple dithering in front of a shop window. Almost at the lane now.

I made it round the corner and breathed out, dizzy with relief. 

And froze as I saw the metal gate that had been installed across the entrance.

It was maybe nine feet high, and the bars so new and shiny that my fingers slid off them like they’d been oiled. Even if I could climb over, the blinking red light of an alarm on the other side threatened to scream out my presence if I tried.

Absurdly, my first thought was, What a load of stupid fuss to protect a few bins.

My second was, What the fuck am I going to do now?

There was another alley, a little way down from this one. Burying myself as deeply as I could inside my hoodie, I glanced from side to side and stepped back out into the street. Robbie was still visible on the other side of the road but he didn’t seem to have seen me emerge from the lane.

I put on a spurt of speed and ducked into the next one down.

That, too, was closed off by a looming gate. The shadows of the bars cut mercilessly across the concrete floor.

Before, the ad-free darkness of the lanes had been a sanctuary. Now, I felt like a rat in a trap. Panic stippled the edges of my vision with black.

I forced myself to take one deep breath and then another. Tried to imagine what Teja would say if she was here. Think logically. Don’t let that prick get in your head.

Teja. I could call her. She’d come and meet me if I needed her, I was sure, and Robbie wouldn’t be stupid enough to try anything with a witness around.

I was halfway to bringing up her number with a tap on my palm when I remembered the call-and-text app I’d downloaded only worked if you had your ads on. The free ones were all the same, and I wouldn’t get paid until the end of this week, so I couldn’t afford to buy one.

Shit. If I turned my ads on here, they’d light up like a firework in a night sky.

I ran through my mental map of the town centre. There were a couple of other lanes that met the high street, but I’d bet they were all fenced off like this one. There was no way to get home without heading through the centre of town—at least, not unless you had a car, which I didn’t. 

The thumbprint mask.

If it worked, I could use it to disguise my signature and get up Coit Street without Robbie recognising me. With unsteady hands, I fished for the silver packet in the bottom of my handbag and fitted the silicone cap over my thumb. It took me three tries, but at last I smoothed it into place and peered out of the alley.

No sign of Robbie. I drew myself up, forced down the paranoid thought that he might be hiding behind a bus shelter or in a doorway, and stepped out.

Tunnel vision all the way to Coit Street. I tapped my fingers together to switch on my ads before I reached the barrier, but the barriers buzzed to brief life anyway, the voice singsonging, ‘Please disable your ad blocker to continue.’

“Yeah, yeah,” I grumbled as I waited for the barrier to vanish. “Already did it, thanks a bunch.”

Ads for scented candles unfolded before me—the sickly, artificial ‘white linen’ scent I loathed—followed by images of beach resorts I’d never be able to afford in a million years and yoga gear showing off tanned, perfect abs. Definitely not my ads. It was working. My stomach flipped as I waited to be allowed through, leg jiggling impatiently.

The barrier vanished. I huffed with relief and broke into a trot down Coit Street.

Signatures unfolded all around me. Every pedestrian in the street was enfolded by their own glowing consumer comet-tail. My eyes snagged on the candy colours of a teen girl’s anime merch, and then the gold sequins of a middle-aged woman’s eveningwear, and I averted my gaze quickly before the ads could register my gaze and start to follow me, too. Eyes ahead. Keep walking.

I concentrated on the steady beat of my footsteps as I passed the shop windows where sales staff pulled down shutters and brought in sandwich boards. A lone charity hologram, out to catch the late shoppers, made a beeline for me, mouth open around the first line of his pitch, and I swerved to avoid him. He stilled, and I thought he’d registered my disinterest.

Red light flooded over him. 

His lips moved, but in place of the usual soft-voiced charity spiel, a harsh recorded voice blared. “YOU ARE USING AN UNAUTHORISED BIODATA-MASKING DEVICE. PLEASE REMOVE IT AND DISABLE YOUR AD BLOCKER.”

Adrenaline lanced through me and stole the breath from my lungs. Passing shoppers turned to stare at me.

“Shit,” I muttered, fumbling with the thumbprint mask as it stuck to my clammy skin. “Shit, shitshitshit, just shut up, please.” 

My eyes darted around the crowd, looking for curly hair and football shirts. The red light kept flashing, a bright, bloody heartbeat. “YOU ARE USING AN UNAUTHORISED BIODATA-MASKING DEVICE. PLEASE REMOVE—

At last, my fingers got a grip on the thumbprint mask. I peeled it away, and the red light abruptly faded. The charity hologram returned to his usual palette of muted greens, and he segued seamlessly into a speech about endangered birds. The rich yoga-lady ads disappeared. Here were my movie figurines, and the expensive brand of coffee I sometime bought when I could afford it.

I needed to get moving. I forced myself into motion, breaking into an awkward trot.

Another streamer of light surrounded me. 

Orange and yellow. Blue and maroon. 

Interspersed with the craft beers and records and football merch were images of hunting knives.

Robbie’s breath was close to my ear, the warmth of it clinging to my skin. His hand found its way under the back of my hoodie, and against my skin, the sharp cold of a knife-blade.

“Thought you could keep avoiding me, Vin?”

I opened my mouth to reply, found I had no clue what I would say, and ended up gaping silently.

“Let’s keep it civilised, hm?” he said. “Talk like grownups?” I’d hear him say that before. It never presaged anything good. “Start walking.”

I did as he said. It was the only thing I could do.Around me, craft beer and superheroes, football shirts and coffee. Gleaming blades and copies of How to Leave Your Toxic Lover. We walked in perfect step, our signatures intertwining like mating snakes.

JL George (she/they) was born in Cardiff and raised in Torfaen. Her fiction has won a New Welsh Writing Award, the International Rubery Book Award, and been shortlisted for the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition. In previous lives, she wrote a PhD on the classic weird tale and played in a glam rock band. She lives in Cardiff with her partner and a collection of long-suffering houseplants, and enjoys baking, live music, and the company of cats.