Dying didn’t really feel like anything. It was a bit like they say, like falling asleep, drifting away… Away from my body and pain and anything that bound me to this physical plane… Floating, only the scattered musings of my consciousness tethering together something that was not me, but still… me.
Through the incorporeal I wandered, my identity strewn about like plastic bags across an endless car park, until one thought pulled everything sharply into place.
It was you.
As though the universe had heard me, I felt myself being dragged back into the material world. Well… alongside it, not into it. Never into it. It’s like watching from the other side of a veil – almost there but not quite, seeing but unseen.
The first thing I saw was marble, the kind they use to make tombstones, and at once I knew that I had been consecrated, tied once more to the earth. At least the turnout for my funeral was pretty good – nearly the whole coven was there. An Elder was speaking, calling me brave, a hero. But I
didn’t want to look at her, or any of them; I couldn’t listen to the lies.
I saw you, there, right at the front. You were bundled in your little coat, arms wrapped around yourself and shivering in the cold. And I remember your face – not crying, you never cry, but… haunted. That was when my heart broke – I had failed you.
Good mothers don’t leave their children. Good mothers aren’t reckless, thoughtless… selfish. I wasn’t a good mother. But I was lucky. With my consecration, I was given another chance. I couldn’t give you my words or my protection or my embrace, but I can give you my magic. I will
make you strong. I’ll make it up to you.
You wouldn’t know this, but I never left your side. Not once. From the moment I saw you shivering in your coat, I was there, watching over you. Spirits on the Other Side… we can wander, see the world if we want to, but I never did. I was there for you.
I watched you grow up – your first day of high school, your first kiss, your first magic lesson. I was a spectre who loved you always. I revelled the day you were first told of ancestral magic; I wanted you to know that I was still there, ever willing to lend you my help. I’m sorry I left you, but I’m not really gone – we’re still connected! I feel it every time you channel my magic, every time you use my power.
I remember in middle school when that boy kept taking your lunch. I could see you were angry, humiliated, but even then, you never cried. Remember when you confronted the boy? You walked right up to him behind the school building – you were always so strong. When you fought, and your skin seemed to burn so hot it began to scar his hands… that was me! My magic! I will always protect you.
I won’t lie to you – it’s lonely on the Other Side. The other ancestral spirits have shunned me, so I’m on my own. In death just as in life, I suppose. To be a spirit is only a half-existence; it’s an endless purgatory. The living do not spare it a second thought as they scatter petals and rosewater over our bodies to trap us forever behind the curtain, on the other side of the one-way mirror. They only want our power, our magic. It’s cruel. But it’s all okay because I have you. For you, I’d happily condemn myself.
Oh daughter… You’re not strong enough to do this on your own. You can’t do it. You shouldn’t have to.
I’m sorry. I should have been there for you… But I hope you can see, I still am! I’m doing all I can to make it up to you. Every time you channel me, when you call upon my power, I am holding you close in the only way I still can.
So even now, even as you need more power than I have in me to give, even as I feel the pain of being torn to nothing from within, I will stand behind you. Where all the other ancestral spirits have forsaken you, abandoned you, I will never. I will never leave you again.
But you are asking more of me than I can provide this time; it’s too much. The delicate tether that holds my spirit to this earth is breaking.
The last thing I see is blood, the kind that’s red, thick, stains everything it touches. The whole coven is here. The Elder is the last to die, choking on her garbled words. They didn’t matter.
I see you, there, right in the middle. You’re splattered red, shaking from exhaustion and on the edge of collapse. This is the first time you’ve cried, but they are tears of triumph. You’ve finally won, but your victory is also mine. We reached your goal; we got your revenge against the ones
who made me leave you. I helped you find your peace.
The last thing I see is you, my beloved daughter, before I fade into welcome oblivion.
I’m proud of you. I’m happy.
I am a good mother.
Her addiction to the flesh, probably not exempt from necrophilic significations, led her, after his passing, to keep his body in the confines of a Baroque coffin, which she conveniently situated in the middle of the living room.
Over the years, she joyfully witnessed, day in and day out, that his mortal remains maintained their integrity, in spite of the warmest summers on record, on account of climate change. She was happy to verify that his flesh had remained intact, until one cold, rainy day at around midnight, when something strange happened.
Someone knocked on the door, notwithstanding the fact that the stiff and she were the only ones left in Paris, after catastrophe had struck.
When she opened the door, incredibly so, he, of all people, proceeded to phase back in, appearing beautifully whole, underneath the threshold, grinning at her with that characteristic smile of his. This compelled her, of course, to take a quick glance back at the coffin in the living room in order to verify that she was not having visions. Indeed, the other’s inert body was still lying in his casket as it had been for all those years, ever since he had phased out, way back in the days. This was an incredible set of circumstances, she thought.
Needless to say, she was nevertheless happy to see him looking this good, all over again. His being alive and kicking, instead of simply existing in the form of dead meat, meant returning to bliss and veritable, concrete, good old-fashion sex.
On the other hand, the cadaver, lying there motionless, brought up otherwise, melancholic memories of the exotic delights and rarity of necrophilic, intimate relations, which, all of a sudden, made her realize that making love to his counterpart meant being unfaithful to the, so-called, defunct. I hope he doesn’t mind, she told herself. This ethical chimera evidently posed a dilemma that she would have to resolve right away.
While all these vertiginous thoughts were dizzily gyrating in her mind, the latest “version” proceeded to step inside the house, and moving her out of the way gently with his left hand, he went directly to check on his alterity, lying in the casket. After gazing at him for a brief moment and affectionately punching him in the chin--chucks! --he bent his head down and kissed his lips, which previously had been done rather badly by her in red lipstick.
Here, astonishingly so, the defuncts inert hand rose, and grabbing the other by the back of the neck, pushed him downward, forcing him to keep his lips locked onto his. Soon, she saw, to her amazement, and later, to her sheer horror, that it was not only the lips that were engaging passionately, but the whole of their faces, as well. Soon thereafter, their heads, and progressively their entire bodies slowly began to fuse until they became one. At that point, the resultant contaminated dissemination emerged walking toward her smiling and calmly asked what was for dinner… “Fish,” she managed to say and he proceeded to kiss her warmly on both cheeks.
The last man on Earth leaned on his shovel, then wiped the sweat from his face.
He was almost finished.
He had been digging for hours. He started around noon, when the sun was high overhead, when his shadow was nothing more than a puddle of darkness under his feet. Now his shadow had transformed into an alien figure with elongated limbs and an elliptical head, as if his soul had drained out through his shoes and smeared like ink across the desiccated landscape.
With a sigh, he tossed the shovel aside and picked up a whitewashed slat torn from a picket fence. He drove the sharp end into the ground in front of the newly-filled mound of earth, then used the flat side of the shovel to pound the board into the dirt. Then he stepped back to read what he had written on it.
Rest in Peace
1980 - 2042
Believer, he thought, mouthing the word at the bottom of the grave marker. If there was one word that best described Sarah, that was it. She believed that everything happened for a reason, that there had to be some grand plan to explain all the death and suffering that had befallen them. Humankind had been wiped out at an extraordinary rate by something nobody could explain, and yet her belief never wavered.
It wasn’t a belief in God, per se. It was just a belief in positive outcomes, a belief that – on a long enough timeline – everything would turn out for the best.
Unfortunately, her timeline ran out.
The man had found her in bed, eyes open, lips blue, hands cold. He knew she was gone. Still, he laid down next to her, wrapped his arm around her waist, nestled his head against her neck, and held her. He fell asleep like that, dreaming of the first time they met.
It wasn’t your typical romantic meet-cute. They weren’t high school sweethearts. He had been looting an abandoned grocery warehouse, gorging himself on canned peaches, his chin and chest sticky with sweet, sugary syrup. Sarah snuck up behind him and held a knife to his jugular, ready to cut his throat. He grabbed her wrist and flipped her over his shoulder, intending to strangle her. But there was something about the way she looked up at him, the utter fearlessness in her eyes, that made him stop.
Up until then, he wasn’t even sure why he had kept going, why he had bothered staying alive. But once he met Sarah, he knew the reason. He understood. He believed.
The memory faded as he drifted awake. He carried her body outside, grabbed a shovel from the barn, and began to dig.
Now, as he watched the sun setting between the trees, he realized what he had to do next.
He picked up the shovel.
It was getting late. It would be dark soon. He had to hurry.
He had one more grave to dig.
This is my first job interview. Turning up at the newsagents one afternoon and being offered a job as a papergirl, before I could even get out of my school uniform, hardly counts. I loved that job, until the majority of my customers converted to gravel driveways, and Mr Johnson complained that the imprint of my shoe was on the front page of his newspaper.
‘Eleanor, are you ready yet?’ Mum shouts, worried that I will be late.
‘Mum, I’m just finishing painting my toenails,’ I shout back.
‘Leave them, Eleanor, nobody is going to see them,’ Mum says, having polished the shoes that I am going to be wearing.
So, finally I make it out of my house. I just hope that my heels can keep up with me. I’ve not bothered with tights because I will only end up laddering them. I’ve made my mind up not to accept a drink at the interview, as I will only spill it. And probably somewhere that makes it look like I have had a completely different kind of accident.
I try to remember Mum’s advice to avoid drain covers in case my heels get stuck. I saw that happened to a young woman once. Although, she was more concerned about losing her designer shoes than walking home in bare feet.
Twice, I nearly walk into a lamp post. Once, I nearly walk into a person. Three times, I end up apologising. My head is all over the place thinking about possible answers to the questions I might be asked.
Arriving early, I sit on a bench outside the iconic building. It used to be a club for men only. Apparently, the stone faces on the building are those of the men who built it. Trying not to look at them, and to help me relax before the interview, I take off my heels and close my eyes for just a minute. By the time I have opened them again, my shoes have gone. Silly me for allowing it to happen. It’s too late to cancel the interview, though, I’ll just have to go through with it.
‘Can I help you, Miss?’ asks the lady behind the bar, not seeming surprised by my lack of footwear, as if people pass by her bar that way all the time.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I’m here for the job interview.’ She smiles her approval of me, before pointing towards the area where I should wait.
A man in a pinstripe suit collects me.
‘You must be Miss Adams,’ he says, making eye contact with me.
‘Yes, sir,’ I reply.
‘You are very polite, Miss,’ he says, before introducing himself as Mark, the proprietor of the establishment. He doesn’t make anything of me having absolutely nothing on my feet. It is as if all his young women are interviewed that way.
‘Come this way,’ he says, before reassuring me that the other man interviewing me will be a bouncer, so is meant to look scary. I smile at his joke, which pleases him.
I feel the nerves coming on as I enter the darkened room where the interview is to take place. I wonder if they are saving on lighting costs, until I see the pool table. It has its own light. There is an odd-looking stain on the carpet, which I avoid, and another one on the baize where the 8-ball is normally placed.
‘So, tell me about yourself, Miss Adams,’ Mark says,’ with a warm-up question that suggests he senses my nervousness. If he was taking my pulse right now, his watch would be working overtime.
‘Well, there’s not much to tell, really,’ I say. ‘I’ve just finished my A-levels, and I need money to fund my degree course.’
‘No, sell yourself,’ Mark prompts.
‘Okay,’ I say, ‘I possess the most important skill of all – common sense.’
‘That’s not a skill,’ the burly bouncer says.
‘It’s not as common as you might think,’ I say. Mark laughs.
‘Miss Adams, what would you do if a male customer asked you for something extra?’ Marks asks.
‘Give it to him,’ I reply.
‘I think that Miss Adams is going to need my protection,’ the burly bouncer warns.
‘Don’t worry, Miss Adams,’ Marks says. ‘We can’t always find the right words.’
‘I’ll be careful with words in the future,’ I say, not really understanding innuendo.
‘Miss Adams, do you paint your own toenails?’ Mark asks. It seems an odd question for a man to be asking, until I look down at my feet.
‘Yes,’ I smile, touching the little toe that I missed to paint this morning.
‘Don’t’ look so worried,’ Mark smiles. ‘It is time to talk protection.’
‘It will be my pleasure,’ the bouncer remarks.
‘Not that kind of protection,’ Mark corrects him. We need to find the young lady an apron to protect her dress, and then, wet wipes for her feet.’ Surely, he means wet wipes for my hands, I think.
‘Miss Adams, do you have any questions?’ Mark checks.
‘Just one,’ I say. ‘Why haven’t you asked me why I’m barefooted? Most people would think it unprofessional for their staff to be that way.’
‘Not another one,’ the burly bouncer says.
‘Miss Adams,’ Marks says, ‘it seems that you have failed to read the small print in our advert. It is actually a barefoot barmaid and waitress that I am looking for.’
‘I’ll still take the job,’ I say, excited to have one. Mark can’t shake my hand fast enough.
As I pass the barmaid, who it seems really wanted me to get the job, she returns my shoes to me and wishes me good luck, Two men holding pool cues say that they will see me later. Outside, I notice a small sign saying: ‘Barefoot Restaurant and Pool Bar’.
The next day, I thank the paper girl for ripping Dad’s newspaper, and losing the part of the advert that would have prevented me from ever attending the interview.
“I SAID: ANSWER ME.”
He was met with a stony silence as all five of them refused to make a sound, heads bowed toward the floor. This was unacceptable. HE was in charge. HE made the rules. HE deserved their respect. After all, it was HIM who saved them.
“You think ignoring me is the way to go?” He slammed his fist on the table. “Really?? I make this lovely dinner for us and you’re just going to sit there and pretend like I don’t exist?”
No sound, no movement, no acknowledgement that he’d even been speaking.
“Fine. If you want to ignore me, go ahead. I’m leaving. I’ve somewhere better to be.” He stormed toward the door, snatching up his coat on the way, then slammed it furiously behind him. The walls shook, and the tiny frame holding the number 36 fell off the wall next to the door.
Outside, snow was starting to fall again. It had been bitterly cold for the last two weeks and was getting colder. He dragged his coat on and fastened it against the wind. He was furious. After all he’d done for them, everything he’d sacrificed for them, and they showed no appreciation at all. Infuriated wasn’t the word.
He walked away from the building muttering to himself, oblivious to the stares from passers-by, unconcerned with the direction he was going. He just needed to think, to calm down, to figure out what he was going to do. He’d saved them, brought them into his home, gave them clothes, kept them safe, and now they refused to talk to him. Maybe they were bored of him?
His strides shortened and slowed as he felt a sense of realisation. It had just been him and them for so long, they were sure to want company other than his. He stopped so abruptly that a woman walking behind him had to swerve to avoid him.
“THEY NEED A NEW FRIEND!!” He exclaimed aloud.
The woman turned her head slightly, frowned, and softly replied: “Everyone needs friends, honey.” Then turned the corner and was gone. He stared after her, amazed. People usually avoided him; partly to do with his appearance, partly due to the smell. It just wouldn’t wash off. But the lady hadn’t seemed bothered, didn’t wrinkle her face when she passed him, didn’t take a wide berth around him. She actually spoke to him!
He smiled, a rare sight these days, then whispered “everyone needs friends, honey.” His smile widened and he turned the same corner and began following her.
The snow was getting heavier, and he couldn’t feel his fingers, but for an hour he followed her. She went inside a couple of shops, stopped to take a phone call, and bought coffee from a stand in the park. He decided to get a coffee to warm himself up. A legitimate reason for getting closer to her.
The man at the stand, whose name tag read “Dave”, looked him up and down, and did the same nose wiggle everyone else did when he got close. He could feel the anger rising but was aware that the woman was close and he didn’t want to scare her away. He decided to play it cool.
“Just a coffee. Please.” He slapped a note down on the counter and waited.
The lady was still by the stand, looking at her phone. He took in every detail: she was bundled up warm, in a thick black coat, with a red hat and gloves. A matching set. She looked organised, he liked that. Brown hair peeked out from under the hat, and when she looked at him, he could see her eyes were brown too.
Wait! She was looking at him. He started to panic, until Dave placed a cup in front of him. Ah… yes. He had an excuse to be here, no need to panic. He attempted a smile at Dave, took a deep breath and walked over to where she was standing, still playing with the sugar.
Now what? He hadn’t planned on talking to her. Or even being this close to her. Especially in such a public place. This was stupid of him; he was breaking one of his own rules.
“Sugar?” She smiled and slid the container over to him. Then adjusted her hat, picked up her coffee, and walked away.
He exhaled. He hadn’t realised he was holding his breath and felt a bit lightheaded. Dumping two packets of sugar into his coffee, he scanned the park for her. There she was, over by the gate. ‘I’ll have to be more careful’, he thought, ‘she’ll get suspicious if she keeps spotting me’. Sipping his coffee, he watched her walk out of the gate and turn left, before following again.
Another hour passed, he was now oblivious to the cold, and being much more careful not to get spotted. This woman could walk! She took another three phone calls but didn’t stop anywhere else. She seemed to be going somewhere now. He followed as she headed away from the more populated areas, down dingy looking streets, and into what he assumed was once an industrial estate, now derelict and unused.
Rather than wonder why she was in this abandoned place, he felt excited. They were the only two around, and she still hadn’t realised he was there. She stopped and looked at her phone. He got closer. That familiar feeling was creeping up his body: like soft pins and needles, every hair stood on end, and his heart rate quickened. Then the rush of adrenaline mixed with euphoria as he grabbed her and covered her mouth. She struggled, but he was strong. His hand slipped from her mouth, and she screamed “NOW!” before he grabbed her neck and pressed his palm over her face once more.
As her struggling grew weaker, he felt an unfamiliar feeling; like he was being yanked backwards. Then he was laying on his back, staring at the barrel of a gun. The woman came into view, rubbing her neck and breathing heavily.
“He fits the description perfectly, even down to the smell. Check him for ID. An address. Anything. We have to find her.” She turned to someone out of his eyeline. “Get him cuffed and down to the station ASAP.”
A man answered her, and he was dragged to his feet, hands held behind his back, and cuffs placed around his wrists. He wasn’t sure what was happening; one minute he’d got her, about to make a new friend, and the next surrounded by police and being searched.
“Driving licence.” The same man that had answered her said. “Expired, but says his name is Daniel Hansen. Address is in the neighbourhood where you called it in.”
Wait. What?? She KNEW he was following her the whole time? She led him here, to the police. He couldn’t help it, he screamed at her: “You BITCH!! You’re supposed to be my friend, you’re supposed to be their friend, you wait until I get my hands on you. They’re going to be so upset, you’ve ruined everything.” The man, dragging him backwards, shouted at someone to open the van before roughly shoving him inside and slamming the door.
The woman was giving orders, telling people to go to his address, telling them to go INSIDE his house, and he had no way of warning his friends. The vehicle started moving. Resigned to the fact it was all over, Daniel started repeatedly smashing his head against the side of the van.
Fifteen minutes later
Two vans screeched to a halt outside the apartment building, half a dozen armed officers exiting the vehicles before they’d even fully stopped. They raced up the stairs calling to each other.
“36. Should be second floor.”
Moving as a unit, the officers swarmed into the apartment, guns pointing the way. The smell was overwhelming. As four of the men went to clear the apartment, the other two approached the table.
“Jesus Christ… How long have they been here?”
“Those four? A while. This one, not as long.” The man bent down for a closer look at Daniels newest friend then recoiled as she gasped. “GET AN AMBULANCE HERE NOW!!! THIS ONE IS STILL ALIVE. NOW!!!”
The second man grabbed his radio and started talking, as the first reassured the girl that everything was going to be ok. He looked up as someone shouted from the other room.
“We’ve got an explosive device in the kitchen; bomb squad are on their…”
Pedestrians scattered as shards of glass and debris flew off of the building with the first explosion, then screamed and ran when the next arrived, flames engulfing the second-floor apartment in a matter of seconds.
Sighing, Nathan disconnected the CCTV feed and closed his laptop. That was a shame, Daniel had done really well. Five new friends before being caught. Ah well, there was always next time.
Josiah Trimble was a man full of hate. He hated cats for a start because they made his asthma worse, but he especially hated the ginger cat that belonged to his Aunt Emily. He hated the name she gave it, ‘Tinky Boo,’ and the way she fussed over it saying things like "Who's Mummy's Boofal?" God it was sickening. He hated the way it looked at him. He could feel its eyes penetrating his skull searching the deep recesses of his mind. It was staring at him now and he wondered if the cat could sense the feelings he had for it.
Josiah hated many things, his name for a start. "Josiah Trimble." Just saying it made his stomach churn. He hated his parents, even though they were both dead, for giving him such an awful name and the way they had shortened it to 'Josie.' That made it sound like a girl’s name and all through his childhood he had been taunted about his girlish name.
He hated being short of money and having to ask his Aunt Emily for funds in order to keep his failing business going. He even hated her for having a fortune whilst he had to struggle to make ends meet but most of all he hated that cat.
“I don't think I should help you this time," he heard Aunt Emily say, "It's not the first time you've had problems is it dear?" He was devastated but he knew better than to argue.
She was a bitch. He wanted to stand up and shout at her ‘All I want is a few thousand you tight fisted, vicious, nasty old woman.’ He wanted to but he didn't. He didn't understand why she wouldn't help, after all he was her only living relative and he knew that when she died he would inherit everything. It wouldn't hurt her to part with a few thousand now, she wouldn't miss it. She had more than four million pounds in the bank.
"If I give you more money, I won't be helping you, I'll just be holding you up," she droned on, "you have to learn to stand on your own two feet." He smiled and nodded understandingly but he didn't understand. He would never understand why someone, with so much, would not help their own family. God how he hated her! How he wished she were dead. Even though she was in her late eighties she was very healthy. ‘She would probably live to be over a hundred just to spite me,’ he thought.
As he smiled at her he thought how easy it would be to kill her. It would be simple. Just hold a cushion over her face until she stopped breathing. He was sure it would be put down to natural causes and never considered the possibility of a post-mortem on someone her age. The more he thought about it the more he liked the idea.
What about an alibi? Nobody knew he was here. Everyone who worked for him thought he was in his private office over eighty miles away. He could never let them even think that he had to ask his Aunt for money. He could kill her, be on his way in ten minutes and an hour and a half later be back in his office. No one would ever know that he had even left.
He made up his mind. He stood up and walked to the settee. He waited until she had put her teacup down and then he picked up a cushion, moved over to her chair and pressed it against her face. There were a few stifled sounds and a bit of a struggle, then she was still. He took his cup to the kitchen where he washed and dried it then put it carefully away. He went to the parts of the house that he had been to that day, to wipe away any traces of his having been there. Finally, he went back into the lounge for a last look round.
The cat! Where was that bloody cat? He had thought about taking it and throwing it off a tall building or dropping it into the river with a brick tied around its neck, but everyone would expect the cat to be here with the old lady. 'It probably jumped out of the fanlight window as he suffocated Aunt Emily,’ he thought. ‘It would come back when he had gone.’
After closing the front door, he climbed into his car and drove off. It was hot, the air conditioning in his car had broken down and he was glad that he had the foresight to leave the car windows open. He drove carefully, letting the breeze that came through the windows circulate, and cool his sweating body. Merging into the traffic on the motorway he thought ‘Not long now’.
He moved out into the middle lane to overtake a slow-moving lorry then pulled into the fast lane to overtake some equally slow-moving cars. His, was a powerful Mercedes saloon and it surged forward at the slightest pressure on the accelerator and was soon moving at over eighty miles an hour.
Humming happily to himself he sped towards his office and his alibi confident he would soon have no money worries at all. A movement attracted his attention and glancing in the rear-view mirror, was shocked to see the cat standing on the back of his seat. He waved an arm to knock it away. The car swerved dangerously. He turned in his seat to see where the cat was and as he did so, increased the pressure on the accelerator pedal. The car leapt forward and the needle moved towards and then past, the hundred mile an hour mark.
The cat suddenly leapt onto the front passenger seat and unable to control his hatred Josiah Trimble made a grab for it. It was the wrong thing to do. The car swerved and the tyres screeched in protest. His hand clamped over the cats body but it squirmed free and spat and sprang towards his head. Sharp claws lashed the cheeks of his face drawing thin red lines as they were dragged downwards. He took both hands off the wheel in order to remove the cat from his face.
The powerful Mercedes swerved and hit the central reservation at over a hundred miles an hour then it bounced off and into the side of a huge articulated lorry. It careered back to the central reservation hit the kerb and somersaulted over the barrier into the path of a huge continental lorry.
As the car was catapulted into the air, Josiah Trimble held tightly onto the steering wheel, but it was too late. He saw the huge lorry bearing down on him and screamed out,
"I hate that bloody cat!" Then the lorry ploughed into his car crushing it into a mangled wreck killing him instantly.
The police and fireman began to sort through the debris of a thirty-vehicle pile-up that amazingly claimed only one life, when they noticed a ginger cat at the side of the road watching them. One of the firemen picked him up.
"What's your name then?" He walked towards the fire engine. "We'd better get you off the motorway," he added. Feeling the collar and the disc, the fireman looked for a name and smiled.
“Well, hello, Tinky Boo,” he said. The cat purred contentedly.
Once upon a time, an elephant found herself in a tight spot. Now, we all know how huge elephants can be, and this indeed, was the whole crux of this particular elephant’s problem. You see, the spot was small, and she, being as we have established, big, indeed, very big in fact, became too tightly wedged in her little spot that there were only two options open to her: She had to stop being an elephant with immediate effect. Or, she ought to shrink in size, which when you are an elephant, amounts to the same thing, because, as we have been saying from the very first, elephants, by virtue of being elephants, are rather on the big side of life’s hurly burly.
“Oh dear! Oh dear! Oh dear!” wheezed the elephant through her tightly-squeezed trunk. “I’m in quite a pickle!” squealed the elephant, whose name was Turquoise.
Turquoise tried as hard as she could to prise herself out of the spot. But her bulk of a body didn’t budge even an inch. Then she began to twist and turn every which way but that did not work either. The more intensely she squirmed, the deeper she got wedged in. She twisted and turned, huffed and puffed, muttered and grumbled, squealed and moaned but none of it worked, not in the slightest bit.
She tried pushing herself out. She held her breath and then let it out in a long, loud trumpet and once, that nearly worked. She almost got thrust out but then because of inertia or some other reason only the Einsteinists or one of their cousins can explain more definitely for us, she got thrust back in more tightly. Then, Turquoise slumped back for a breather. She was that tired and that frustrated.
But unfortunately, as so often happens in cases like this, she stayed slumped back for too long. The inertia or whatever Greek-sounding phenomenon it was kept her sucked down in the mud. It wasn’t mud at first, just a bit of a blackness of a hole but somehow, when a body falls into a black hole, it doesn’t stay body for very long but sort of melts or something. That’s a thing the Pasteurists and the Jennerists would know all about, we think.
As for Turquoise, after a while, the tight spot she was stuck in began to widen because of her immense weight, and even more unfortunately, tiredness began to give way to a sense of comfort. Lying back in a tight spot at a certain angle did after a while seem to be extravagantly comfortable, she realised, if one were careful not to struggle or wince or even breathe too desperately. In addition, it was a good position for dreaming about how things could have been and ought to be if only one weren’t so stuck in a hole.
After a good while of this laying back and dreaming while being stuck in a black hole, Turquoise found that she had sunk deeper into the black hole. Something to do with the weight of her body, of which there was much, on account of gravity, which as the Einsteinists would add, is that nice, helpful thing that holds us all together on our little planet.
Now, elephants, the National Geographic people would have us know, if they manage to live a life that is nicely satisfied by needs met like family and companionship and enough sugarcane and a reasonable amount of exercise, can live up to be a hundred and ten years old or some such span. So when Turquoise found that she was comfortably stuck in her tight spot and with no seeable way out, she sighed loud and long and then settled down for a bit of a nap, which seemed as good a thing to do as any, considering the circumstances.
“YAAAAAAWNNNNN!” Turquoise opened and closed her mouth, as she slipped into sleep.
What a shock it was for Turquoise when she finally opened her eyes – eighteen years later! When she looked around her, nothing looked quite the same. She vaguely recognised her surroundings but she seemed to have lost her home! Everywhere around her there was tall, unruly grass and the bushes had grown ever so high above her tight spot and there was very little light to see by.
“Oh dear! Oh dear! Oh dear!” quivered Turquoise. “Whatever shall I do now?” she asked anxiously and realised she had said the words but had heard no voice. She tried speaking again, and again, she heard the words in her head but not in her ears. “Goodness is this what a long sleep can do to an elephant?” she asked voicelessly, aghast.
It was darker in her black hole than she remembered. Or thought she remembered. She couldn’t tell. Suddenly, it seemed as if she had trouble remembering anything. Weren’t elephants supposed to have a long memory? Where had hers gone? She looked up. The hole had become covered with criss-crossing vines, leaves, twigs and branches. Through the mish-mesh of all manner of covering things that neglect of eighteen years had brought together in a tight embrace, she saw patches of sunlight. She reached her trunk up and tried to push away the covering things but they were taut across the hole and seemed to be held fast to the ground. Eighteen years of roots was not going to be easily pulled out of their holding place. And eighteen years of inactivity had weakened Turquoise’s muscles. Was she tired after all that huffing and puffing! Eighteen years ago, she had been stuck in the hole; now, she was trapped in it.
She calmed down by and by. She wondered what had become of her family. They had all been walking together when she had fallen into the hole. Hadn’t they seen her falling? Why hadn’t they helped? She strained to hear. No elephant sounds above her! “They moved on,” she suddenly realised. “They moved on,” she said to herself, without voice.
Turquoise became very, very sad. Her family had been everything to her. They were all she had known. But one day, she had fallen into a hole and they had carried on walking, going their way, without her.
Elephants may be very big creatures, but when it comes to their hearts, they have the softest of them all among the grand creatures of the animal world. Whether or not the National Geographic people have this noted down somewhere we cannot say, but everyone who has looked into the big, soft eyes of an elephant, and we surely have, haven’t we, knows this for a fact. The heart of an elephant may be big and grand but it is soft indeed, softer than pillow feathers.
So when Turquoise realised that her family had journeyed on without her, her soft heart simply withered. It dried up and drifted like a weightless feather, very slowly, down into the black hole and lay there on the still ground, as silent as the grave. Turquoise sobbed and then she wailed and when all the tears had been squeezed out and not a single one remained in her eyes, she wept without any.
It was an impossible situation.
Turquoise went back to sleep, and this time, she decided in her silent heart not to wake up. What else was there to do? She slowly shut her big, tear-drained eyes.
She dreamt of time in the beginning, when she had walked with her family, and they had cavorted with one another and squirted water at one another and she had felt safe and secure. Even in the gloomy days of trouble and the terrifying days of danger, she had felt safe.
And in her dreams, she saw them walking their own paths, with their own families now, and always, as every one of her dreams ended, it was their backs she saw as they walked farther away from her, their own little families close by their side.
And so, Turquoise went back to sleep.
It happened that many, many years later, the National Geographic people, who were always poking about in odd, dark places, stumbled upon a hole in the ground in a jungle in an odd, dark place, and found the very big bones of an elephant curled up like a baby in a deep, black hole.
Very carefully, they collected the bones and very carefully, they cleaned them and again very carefully, laid them in a museum in a safe, bright city.
Well, that’s how our story must end, we’re afraid. For now, that it. Who knows – perhaps there’s another ending for Turquoise that no one has yet told us about. Perhaps you might find it among her old bones in some happy place! So, hurry off, then, to that safe, bright city – you’ll find her resting in that museum under a sign that reads, ‘The Elephant in the Black Hole’.
“Where are you?” The voice was little more than a hiss, abrupt and violent, equal parts impatience, irritation, and fear.
“Looked outside lately?” Bill realized before he finished that this was not the intelligent way to go. He should have shut his phone off earlier, before sitting down with Joey at the bar and ordering that first beer, before thinking that the music throbbing through the restroom walls would be inaudible over the phone. He should certainly not have answered it. To punctuate his defeat, another patron opened the restroom door, letting in a blast of noise, both musical and not.
“Where the hell are you?” Tonya demanded again, the question now freighted with meanings and implications the first iteration had not contained. “Weather my ass.”
Before Bill could answer, she had guessed the next step in his betrayal.
“You and Joey are together, right?”
“Look, Tonya, I just stopped in for a quick beer. He doesn’t know anything.
But now, like I said, have you looked outside?”
Looking out the plate glass window of the bar as he drank that first beer, Bill had watched the day fade into premature darkness, the rain that had been falling all morning turning without pity or notice to sleet. Even so, he could hear the weakness, the absurdity of his own defense. When her only reply was a weary but still bitter “Asshole,” he was neither surprised nor offended. The sudden knowledge of the frailty of it all, their twenty-year friendship and one night of indiscretion, lodged in his mind like the grit that could never become a pearl. Silence sat awkwardly in the space between them. Bill felt more than heard Tonya take a deep breath, neither exasperated huff nor audible shrug of resignation.
“So why even keep it?” she asked. “What the fuck were you thinking?”
Her questions were silly, Bill realized, a reaction to her own impotence in the face of previous choices, an attempt to absolve herself, to assign responsibility and agency where none existed anymore. He retained enough sense at this hour to refrain from telling her she was being childish. Admittedly, he had called her first to let her know what he had found, but the entire venture had been her idea. She had enlisted his aid, knowing his loyalty to Joey. It was certainly not his fault that Tonya was a woman of simple and straightforward passions. Whatever her emotional complexity, the channels through which it was expressed tended to the direct. He understood that her flirtations over the years were her way, the only way she seemed to know, of expressing her affection for him. And she did like him. He was Joey’s oldest and dearest friend from the college days, someone who stood outside the circle of what Tonya referred to as Joey’s “forgetaboutit and howyadoin” buddies. For his part, Bill had been drawn to her immediately, not least because she was Joey’s wife, unavailable and unattainable. She became his ideal, the sexually alluring wife and mother always beyond his reach. Until the one time she wasn’t.
“Listen, Tonya,” he said, hoping like hell his voice, the only tool he had to deal with someone else’s rage and shame, did not reveal him as condescending and dissembling, “Joey and I came in separate cars. We didn’t even walk in together. I just happened to run into him. He doesn’t know anything, and he won’t.”
Bill thought he could perhaps hear the faintest trace of a sniffle on the other end of the line, but the slightest possibility of vulnerability suddenly shattered.
Why had he even bothered calling her in the first place? The box had been in the bottom of his closet, for how long now? Who was ever going to stumble across it? Certainly not Joey. And when she had insisted he bring it to her, why had he not simply refused, told her that he would throw it out and be done with it? Had she not just asked why he had not done that? And then there was the weather, an unseasonal storm that seemed to be telling him (or was he just imagining it?) that he should hold on to it, the only evidence that he had once touched that which he most desired, however unsatisfactory the fact may have been compared to the dream. He could not fathom why she had insisted he bring it to her right away. But in the damning light of her final judgment he suddenly saw and understood her guilt, resented it, the extravagance of it, the way it demeaned the depth of his care for her. It was a depth in which he could imagine his own shame submerged and forgotten, but only on condition that she acknowledge and accept their shared culpability. The truth of his situation finally struck him, stinging without mercy like the ice falling outside: this entire errand on her behalf was nothing less than her denial and rebuke.
Bill pressed the ‘end call’ button on his phone. He made his way back to the bar where Joey was talking to a waitress in a manner far too removed from nuance to call flirting. Walking out to a full beer newly opened and paid for, he looked out the window in support of his argument. Instead, all he saw was his own reflection on an empty black background.
She counted in her head, like reverse hide-and-seek, counting down her last few seconds of freedom.
She kicked her heel into the ground, kicking up dust, grit, and the tuft of dry, twisted dandelion leaves.
“Gillian?” there it was again.
She looked up. Squinted from beneath a fringe that had grown too long over the summer and hung in her eyes. Thin hair somewhere between brown and blonde, curly and straight, shoulder and jaw.
“Gillian!” boots crunched, and there was the thwack of a stick through dead brambles before Teddy rounded the bend and found her against the wall.
“Fuck, Gillian! Been calling you fucking ages,” Teddy was thirteen, and he swore for effect, thought it was grown up.
“What you doing?” he asked when she didn’t reply.
She squinted, looked right past him to where the tilt-a-whirl undulated against a bright blue sky.
“Couldn’t think with that racket,” she nodded in the direction of the fairground.
“What you got to think about?” his tongue and the inner edges of his lips were stained blue.
She looked back down at the dirt, shuffled the toes of her converse into the dust and rubbed a hand over the back of her neck like she’d seen cowboys do in the movies.
He started talking again.
“Rich got one of those massive bears…won one for that girl on the shooting range.”
“Wow…” her sarcasm was missed. A pause, a beat in the air, smothering and hot.
“What girl on the shooting range?” she asked finally.
“He won it on the shooting range,” Teddy pushed his hand into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a crumpled box of Lucky Strike cigarettes and a pink plastic lighter.
“What girl?” she tried again.
“Meg…something…our year, the blonde one?” he twisted the end of the cigarette.
“Want me to win you one?” he asked, lighting it and ramming the packet back into his pocket.
“Piss off,” she laughed, looked at the ground, watched a line of ants split in two around a bottle cap.
“Where’re they now…everyone?”
“On the Ferris wheel. Rich wants to spit off the top,” he exhaled smoke into the air between them and Gillian screwed up her face.
“Twat. And you’re a twat for smoking that’n’all,” she snatched the cigarette from between his thumb and forefinger and crushed it into the ground with the toe of her shoe, just like she always did. And he didn’t complain, just like he always didn’t.
“Let’s go find them,” he turned to go, ignoring the way she screwed up her nose and turned her face up to the sky, squinting against the sun.
“Think I’ll stay here for a bit.”
He turned back around and let both of his arms raise slightly and clap against his thighs at the same time. A trait she recognised from his mother.
“Why?” he asked.
She shrugged, let her head fall to look at him again, sunblind this time, only seeing a negative white blinding version of him against black grass. But she couldn’t tell him why, couldn’t tell him that she preferred to be alone, to slip unseen between everybody else, so she pushed herself away from the wall with her elbows, and followed him without another word.
“Her name’s Margaret. Her real name,” he carried on talking as they neared the fairground.
David Bowie was in the air and “Let’s Dance” came louder and quieter, and then louder again, blurring momentarily with the clunking nightmare music of the carousel and the bubbling whooping noise of the slot machines.
“Who’s real name?” she shouted.
“Meg. It’s short for Margaret. Rich told me.”
A bell sounded from somewhere, a gong, the hiss of hydraulics.
“Oh. That’s…oh,” she walked behind him a good two steps. The sun was on her back, her vest top sweaty and her arms were brown and lined halfway up from wearing the same T-shirt all summer long.
They cut the queue for the Ferris wheel. Rich – tall for his age, with sun-bleached blonde hair, and a toothpaste commercial smile was, despite the heat, wearing his trademark denim jacket sewn all over with patches and badges. Gillian picked out her favourites, the ones that always seemed to catch her eye whenever she found herself behind him in the school corridor - the bright blue and red lightning bolt, the acid yellow and red of KISS, and the others: The Beatles, Queen, Genesis…
An oversized brown bear was slumped against his right leg, a bright red bow around its neck, head flopped down, nose touching his belly like a sad, flaccid old drunk. Meg was next to him, blonde hair tied back from her face in a neat ponytail. She had her back to them, gesturing with her hands to the girls around her – all girls in Gillian’s year; Anna, Vanessa, Josephine…easy prey, Gillian thought as they approached, for Rich and his wolfish grin.
Teddy clapped Rich on the back, shook his shoulder and leaned into him, pushing his way into the group.
Gillian stopped on the outskirts and wished again that she was there alone like she’d had it planned like she did every year. She’d walk down the track from the farm, tell her granddad she wouldn’t be late.
She’d jump the fences – the quickest way to Horne Hill - scuffing her knees and the inside of her thighs on drystone walls and splintering stiles. She’d run as fast as she could up the hill, just to see if she could still make it to the top without stopping. And when she got to the gates she’d climb the half-rotten apple tree and drop down on the other side without paying.
She knew the fair, knew the stalls, the rides, the tricks to get another go-round for free, and which vendors sold the biggest sticks of candyfloss for the cheapest price. She’d got it all worked out.
Bumping into Teddy hadn’t been part of that plan.
“You coming on, Gillian?” Teddy called.
She smiled, shook her head, and watched as the mention of her name made Meg and the others turn to look at her. Josephine had dyed a streak of her hair cerise pink, almost the same colour as her sunburned face.
“Think I’ll go and see what else there is,” she tilted her head in the general direction of everything else.
“Don’t be silly, we need one more anyway,” at thirteen Meg already had that way of speaking that made her the voice of authority, of reason.
“There’s six of you, two in each,” Gillian pushed her hands into the back pockets of her jeans. She wasn’t that stupid.
“Rich has his teddy bear,” Meg lowered her voice.
Gillian glanced at Rich who was laughing too loudly and wrestling with Teddy and another boy from the group ahead.
“Alright. Once. But I’m not stopping. Told my granddad I’d not be late.”
Meg regarded her for a moment, arms crossed, a paper cup in one hand. She drew in a breath and smiled, but before anything else could be said the Ferris wheel slowed to a halt, gears jarred and grated, the metal chain on each swinging seat clattered open and Gillian slunk closer to the edge of the queue, following the line of kids, two by two, filing into metal pods painted with chipped ceramic swirls of colour.
“Meg!” Rich had the bear by its neck under one arm, gesturing with the other to the seat next to him as he swung in, faded blue jeans stretched tight and tucked into loose brown boots.
Meg shook her head and smiled that sweet smile, her lips the colour of the candyfloss Gillian was missing out on.
“I’ll take the next one with Gillian.” was all she said, looking away, turning and ignoring the throw of Rich’s hands and the “What the fuck!?” as he shoved the bear into the seat next to him while the man running the wheel tightened the slack metal chain around him, fixing him in place. He shot Gillian a glare and mouthed something she couldn’t make out.
The wheel turned slowly, clunked, stopped again, and they stepped gingerly into the next seat, Meg moving side-ways, hands smoothing down the front of her yellow sundress as Gillian lumbered in behind her, clutched the guard rail, wobbled, and sat down harder than she had meant to.
“He’s not happy.” Gillian nodded to the back of Rich’s head in the seat in front.
“He’ll get over it.” Meg edged closer to let the Ferris wheel man clip them in, her thigh against Gillian’s.
“Think he was trying to impress you with that bear…” she said, more for something to say to break the silence than for anything else.
“Not interested I’m afraid,” Meg laughed.
“Are you not?”
Meg looked surprised, turned to look at Gillian, leaned back a bit to regard her with raised eyebrows.
“You thought I would be?” she asked slowly.
“Dunno. Most girls I know seem to like him.”
“He’s not my type,” she said simply, unblinking, and Gillian felt the creep of embarrassment deep in the pit of her stomach, and time seemed to stretch uneasily between them.
“What is your type, then?” she asked finally, though she wasn’t sure she even wanted to know.
Meg looked down at her hands in her lap, the smallest of smiles twitched at the corner of her mouth.
“Do you like him?” she asked, avoiding the question entirely.
Gillian laughed out loud, a sudden ‘Ha!’ of a laugh that she regretted immediately.
“No!” she paused, felt the jolt of the wheel turning and the drop of her stomach as it rose.
“I’d rather be with the sheep...” she hesitated again, “not in that way. I don’t mean…I mean, my granddad has a farm, I live with my Grandad…a sheep farm.”
Meg looked up from her hands.
“Oh.” she said.
“Why don’t you wear a bikini, like everyone else?” Ted asked, watching as Meg and Josephine came back out of the house wearing candy-striped bikinis and carrying plates of food.
It was the end of summer, the last day before they were scattered across the country, to university, to work, to sheep farming, and, somewhere along the path to adolescence, Ted had grown his hair, lost the last two letters of his name and swapped the Lucky Strikes for joints that made his speech slower than it already was.
“You’re not wearing a bikini,” Gillian said pointedly, stretched out on a deck chair, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face and the burn of orange-red through her eyelids.
“Fuck off. You know what I mean,” he flicked ash in her direction.
“Anyway, why should I?” she asked, shielding her face with her hand so that she could open one eye to look at him.
He shrugged, grunted, pulled a face, and swore at the wasps that buzzed around his hand and bumped against the neck of his beer bottle.
Summer stretched out behind them, a seemingly endless summer culminating in today; a somewhat melancholic gathering of friends, some old, some new, at Meg’s parent’s house, where people lay on the lawn by the pool, making the most of the bushfire summer friendships that had already begun to fade, and summer romances that had already turned wistful, whilst, from somewhere, Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ played in between the hollow tinny beat of a basketball on hot tarmac.
They were on the porch drinking pear cider out of plastic cups. Meg had baked a lemon cake and the smell of it was in the air, on her clothes, and in her hair, warm and tart and yellow.
She waved a hand over it, batting away lazy flies. She was wearing a sun hat, big and floppy, and it cast tiny sun flecks of trapezoid light all over her face, just down to the very tip of her nose, and she sat on the wooden decking, her back to the garden, her silhouette framed by the pinks of peonies and yellow roses, the reds of poppies and vivid blues and purples of delphiniums.
Josephine smoked a menthol cigarette, inhaling long slow drafts and exhaling ribbons of white smoke that faded into the clouds.
“Gillian doesn’t do bikinis,” she said, late to the conversation, voice strained before releasing the last draw of smoke as she shifted in her seat, leaned forwards so that the sheer fabric of her kimono rippled about her arm and reached for another slice of cake, and Gillian wondered just how Josephine knew what she did or didn’t do.
Meg cast her a sideways glance.
“Gillian can wear what she likes,” a moment of acerbic rarity from Meg which left the conversation immediately abandoned.
Meg’s moods had become a feature of the summer, her frown of deep thought already leaving a permanent line between her eyebrows. She seemed to flutter between groups of people and conversation as easily as she did between her role as the popular girl with the face full of sunshine, queen of quick-witted remarks, to an emotionally detached, vague sort of creature haunted by her own thoughts.
Gillian twisted in her deckchair, but Meg wouldn’t make eye contact. Instead, she studied the rough edge of her flip-flop, where the rubber was beginning to fray.
The afternoon light was hazy and dreamlike, the sun was low and hot and from somewhere the whisper of autumn seemed to hesitate around the edges.
Dishes, napkins, and glasses were collected and taken inside, yet still, nobody mentioned leaving. The day was too precious, there was too much to be said, too many goodbyes to say and too many promises to make.
Meg stood in the kitchen, hands on her hips looking at the piles of dirty dishes.
“I think I’ll leave it,” she said, more to herself than to anyone else. “I can do it tomorrow.”
“I can help?” Gillian offered, but Meg shook her head, she had made the decision.
“I want to enjoy the sunshine,” she stopped. Looked at Gillian. Really looked. “When will I see you again?” she asked, and The Three Degrees started up in Gillian’s head.
“Christmas, I suppose, if you’re coming back?”
Meg nodded slowly. She was going to Oxford to study English, and all of a sudden Oxford seemed a long way away. Christmas seemed a long way away. School would be forgotten, friendships would be left to die a slow, long, painless death and memories would no longer be remembered, but left forgotten, replaced by the people and moments that would suddenly seem like so much more.
“You’ll still be here?” Meg asked though Gillian had no idea why. She had no plans to leave, no wish to leave.
“I’ve got the farm. My grandad’s getting too old - ”
Meg cut her off, caught up with her own train of thought, “It’s funny, thinking of you shearing sheep.”
“Don’t think I’ll be doing much of that,” Gillian laughed, pushed her hands into the pockets of her shorts and made her way back to the open door. “You can visit me in the spring. Help me with the lambing?”
“I’d like that,” she said vaguely, beginning to follow Gillian out of the door.
“Actually,” she stopped half in and out of the kitchen.
“Actually, can—can I talk to you?”
Gillian flicked a glance her way. The pavement was almost too hot to stand barefoot in one place for too long.
She imagined at this bleary point in the afternoon Meg just wanted to talk more about lambing, university, or some obscure book she just read but couldn’t remember the name of.
They stood by the side entrance to the house between the door and the porch where the last few roses of summer were thick and sweet-smelling and turning brown at the edges.
“I want to talk to you. I wanted to talk to you about - ” she stopped, made to restart and stopped again. “I wanted to - ” she gave up. Almost laughed, and then, in a moment of madness, grasped Gillian’s wrist with one hand, the back of her neck with the other, flinched at the muffled squawk of surprise, ignored another protesting syllable, lost her balance so that she inadvertently had Gillian up against a hopefully not-too-hot wall, and kissed her.
But this sudden, attention-grabbing flourish quickly transformed into something deeper, slower, more sensual, something that got better and better, an ardent give-and-take that defied expectation. A thousand kisses condensed into one, a book of a thousand pages fluttering to conjure the beauty of a single word, a thousand sensations distilled into one moment: the sun-warmed wall at her back, Meg’s hands pulling her closer, and a sweetness like biting into an overripe fruit, and that thousand-page book was on fire, everything must be rewritten, reworked, retold because the fire, this fire, consumed it all.
Meg was the one who pulled back first. Blue eyes wide. She took another step back, flexed her fingers and folded her arms tightly across her chest.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered too quickly. “I’m sorry.” Her voice suddenly stronger.
Gillian opened her mouth to speak but found she had nothing to say, her lips felt too hot.
This feeling had been growing inside her for years, alongside their friendship, but she had never dared name it. Now, standing in front of Meg, it was too big to bear, an ever-growing ache inside her chest. If Meg smiled, she couldn’t help but smile too. It wasn’t her body she wanted, the way Rich and the other boys did. It was the way she tucked her hair behind her ear, the way she laughed, the way she was quiet until she wanted to say something, and then said it supremely well.
“Meg!” from somewhere back by the porch Josephine was calling for her, and Meg flushed, hesitated, didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands.
“We’d better - ”
Gillian nodded in agreement, all too aware that she had yet to say anything at all.
Time passed slowly, the day-long and slow, like a dream in the sunshine. Conversation passed easily between them, in fits and lulls, between silence and laughter. Ted and Gillian played cards, Josephine slouched against the chest of a boy Gillian couldn’t remember the name of, and Meg cut more slices of cake than were needed. She passed one to Gillian, wrapped up in a pink and green napkin, waited a moment too long whilst Gillian cupped her hand to take it, her palm warm against Meg’s fingers, a red flush beginning to creep from Meg’s chest all the way up her neck.
“Maybe at Christmas, when we are all back, we could meet at Gillian’s. At the farm?” Josephine asked as if she had overheard their earlier conversation.
Meg looked at Gillian, knew what she would see before she saw it, the strain of a smile, a noise of something noncommittal, and Gillian rearranged herself on her deckchair, tugged at the dying tuft of grass nearest her and couldn’t seem to think about anything other than the slowly rotting floorboards and missing tiles above the fireplace back home.
It was Rich who saved her from explanation. Rich who appeared from the basketball court, sweating, his hair down to his shoulders and pushed back from his face, his white T-shirt smudged with dust and grey dots from the rubber of the basketball.
“Hey,” he was talking to Meg but he ruffled Josephine’s hair so that she spilled tobacco into her lap. “Any more of that cider? We’re beat after the game,” he gestured with his thumb to the basketball court.
“In the fridge. In the kitchen,” she started picking at her flip-flop again.
“Yeah? Want to help me? I might get lost,” he slouched over the porch railing and flicked the edge of her sun hat.
“Twat,” Gillian said under her breath, almost without meaning to.
“What’s that, Gillian my friend?”
“Surely even you can make it to the kitchen and back without getting lost,” she looked at him, stared him out until he laughed.
“Dyke,” he hissed.
Ted squinted across at him, eyelids heavy, ready for whatever macho crap Rich was about to pull,“You better fucking watch it, mate.”
“Alright! Just stop it,” Meg got to her feet. “Rich?” she tilted her head in the direction of the kitchen and started to lead the way before he had even had a chance to respond.
They watched them go, Gillian, Ted, Josephine, and the boy Gillian couldn’t remember the name of.
“You’re not often right, but I’ll tell you one thing, you’re right about him,” Ted relaxed back down again and took a swig of his beer, forgetting it was empty. “He is a twat,” he scowled at the bottle.
“Get me a beer, G?” he asked, reaching out, letting the empty bottle swing between his thumb and forefinger.
She looked back at him, silent for a moment. His words were getting slower, more slurred, his eyes were half-closed and he smiled a wavering smile that made her want to slap him.
“Get one for yourself too, looks like you need it.”
Still, she said nothing, merely took the empty bottle and stood up, walking barefoot to the house. The kitchen was hotter than outside. The air was stale and heavy. Flies swarmed around the hulled-out bowl of a watermelon left on the table, and the fridge door was ajar.
She opened it, looked inside. Found nothing but the blinking fluorescent light and a bottle of coke, but as she turned to go back outside the flicker of something caught her eye, and there, through the back window on the far side of the room, on the other side of the glass, were Rich and Meg, thrust together, Meg’s back hard against the wall, her face flushed, her hair caught in his hand, and he was kissing her. Kissing her like it was exactly what it was. The last day of summer.
She stood there for what felt not an eternity, but rather more like a very long Joni Mitchell song. Her breath seemed to come too short and too long, she felt hot and light-headed and all of a sudden full of rage.
Breathless, she rushed to the bathroom, thought she might throw up, but instead, she slapped the wall with her hand so that her palm stung with a satisfactory flare. She screwed her eyes shut tight against tears, and, with both hands, she held onto the rim of the sink, tried to breathe properly before she looked at herself in the mirror above the taps. Her cheeks were red and blotchy, her eyes unfocused, wisps of hair stuck to her wet cheek. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, mascara smearing. In her recent life as an emotional wreck, she had gotten rather skilled at remaking herself with a trembling hand. In every trembling smudge of her fingers beneath an eye, the art of self-deception. In every fragmented gleam the art of almost.
She left without a word to anyone. Left her shoes, left Meg with Rich, Josephine with her cigarettes and Ted wanting another beer.
She went home on the bus. The sunlight was flat. The fields were no longer floodlit with sunshine. Rabbits didn’t bound but loped lazily, and the air inside the bus was suffocating, warm and smelled of sweet rotting fruit and too-hot plastic, and somewhere a bluebottle buzzed and butted the same windowpane over,
Gillian’s leg jittered. Her knee hit the table and her grandad’s pint jumped, slogging lager over his side plate.
“Gillian!” he tutted at her whilst she scrambled for a napkin, scattering cutlery. Desert spoon clattering oh so close to the edge of the table. She apologised, and across the table Gladys, her grandad’s new beau, leaned back, eyebrows raised, holding her orange and lemonade like she was afraid to put it down.
“Whatever’s the matter with you?” her grandad’s voice was low.
“Sorry…” she said again, caught herself, touched the very tips of her fingers to her lips briefly.
“I don’t really know,” she cleared her throat. She seemed to be unraveling right here in the Kings Head.
“Family gatherings…social occasions, aren’t really my…” she paused, looked down at the way her fingertips were pressed white against the edge of the table “…thing.”
“Not much is your thing, is it,” Gladys sighed, finally setting her drink down but keeping a loose hold on it just in case.
“What’s that supposed to mean?!”
“Gillian…” her grandad’s warning shot.
Ted was coming back from the bar. She recognised the unsteadiness in his gait out of the corner of her eye.
“Tell her to enjoy herself would you, it’s New Year’s Eve,” her granddad gestured with his pint to Ted as he grasped the back of Gillian’s chair to steady himself before sitting down.
“Gillian? Enjoy herself? Fuckin’ hell, Gillian hasn’t smiled since 1987,” he laughed, wrapped an arm about Gillian’s shoulders and squeezed, pulling her close so that the stubble of his chin scratched her temple and she could smell his sweat through the rancid stench of cigarettes and alcohol.
She pulled away, feigned a smile, glanced once again from her granddad to the table, then up, to the sound of the great oak door of the pub opening, the rabble of voices from outside growing louder suddenly, then quieter.
She watched a group of people move from the doorway to the bar, shedding coats and gloves, faces flushed from the cold. A man laughed and the woman next to him shook her head and turned, and for a moment, only the briefest of moments, Gillian couldn’t place her, then all at once something dropped, heavy, inside her, her chest squeezed tight and it was Meg shrugging her coat from her arms. Meg greeted friends at the bar with flurried kisses, scarf flailing and catching on her arm as she gestured and laughed, and grasped affectionately at the shoulder of a very tall man wearing an appalling shirt.
She felt hot and sick and cold all at once. Everything seemed loud and too quiet, bigger than anything she had ever seen and then tinier than she could bear.
She stood up.
“I just have to…” she began, but her voice was swallowed by everyone else’s and nobody seemed to notice as she stood for a moment, behind her chair, glancing between faces, waiting for somebody to look up.
She left her coat on the chair, and pushed her way between people to the back door, and out.
She stopped. Stood in the shadows, arms limp beside her, the murmur of the pub behind her, and looked up at the sky, endless black, starless, the whisper of the road and the soar of a plane overhead. She could breathe. Despite the cold airtight in her chest, and she was free, if only for a moment.
She started at the sound of her name, flinched, turned. Meg was in the doorway, half in and half out, blonde hair whipped into her face across her mouth.
“I thought it was you!” she stepped out into the cold, arms wrapped around herself, the neck of her pale grey jumper rolled up against her chin.
“Meg…” it was all she could say. She looked older, there were faint lines around her eyes and her mouth that had never been there before.
“I was worried you wouldn’t remember me,” she moved closer.
“Of course I remember,” she spoke through an exhale, her breath blooming white between them.
There was a moment's pause where neither of them seemed to know what to say.
“You’re wearing a dress!” it was an exclamation seemingly unexpected by both of them.
“I do that sometimes,” Gillian looked down at herself, suddenly self-conscious in her old black dress and cardigan. Somewhere at the back, beneath her left shoulderblade was a penny-sized hole she had meant to sew up.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a dress before,” she paused, the flicker of something passed behind her eyes and she cleared her throat again. “You look lovely,” she added.
Gillian paused. A beat in the air too long.
“Thank you…” she looked down at her feet. “Who’re you here with?”
“Oh. Just old friends. Friends from uni…”
“Who? Oh. No. I haven’t seen him in…years,” Meg rushed.
Gillian nodded, pushed her hands into the pockets of her dress, hunched up her shoulders and rocked back on her heels like she was seventeen again.
“Rich was never…he wasn’t…who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with,” she cleared her throat and even in the dark Gillian could see the creep of that telltale blush begin to creep up from her jaw. “He kissed me, you know. I don’t know if I ever told you that. I didn’t…invite him to. And we never…” she huffed out a breath. “I saw Ted, over by the fire. That’s why I thought it must be you when I saw you,” the subject change jarred in Gillian’s head.
“I heard you married him?”
The air smelled of bonfires and burnt wood, smoldering pine needles, and damp earth. Electric. Magic. Fraught with possibility and the faraway dream of someone else.
Gillian nodded slowly, “Ten years next year.”
Meg was quiet, just watching her so intently that Gillian had to look away.
“Are you married, or…?” she asked, looking down at the toes of her shoes again. Black high heels, scuffed, battered and tired with the soles all but worn away. The perfect metaphor for her life, as it happened.
“No! No, not yet, anyway, we’ve only been together for a couple of months.”
“The man with the...” she gestured to her chest. “Shirt?”
“What? Oh. No. Actually, I’m…she’s called Serena.”
“Oh!” a prickling feeling crept up from the base of her scalp and her chest felt tight. Meg folded her arms tighter and frowned down at the gravel.
“Gillian, I - ” she began.
The door bumped open, the glass shook in its frame, and the door handle squealed against the weight of Ted’s hand.
“Meg.” he was squinting at her, his mouth hanging open like an idiot. He didn’t give Meg a chance to reply, “We’re going home,” he could barely hold himself up.
“It’s not midnight yet!” Meg laughed.
“Don’t. It’s fine,” Gillian hushed.
“Home.” Ted was blinking too much; his face was red and sweaty and there were globby white triangles of spittle in the corners of his mouth.
“I’m coming. It’s fine. I’m coming,” she skirted around Meg, who reached out for her.
“You ok?” she squeezed her forearm.
“She’s fine,” Ted rattled the door on its hinges.
“I’m fine,” Gillian whispered, momentarily covering Meg’s hand with her own. “It was nice to see you.”
“You made me look like a right idiot,” he hissed, thick and slow between belches.
She’d driven home, paid the babysitter, and now they stood, opposite one another in the sitting room, the light dim, the curtains drawn with a crack in the middle where the great white full moon shone through.
Even in his drunken state, he was surprised she had replied. He shook his head, as though she should realise herself how stupid she was being, and laughed that slow sick laugh that made her feel as though she was falling.
“What were you doing out there with that bitch anyway, huh? Telling her how shit your husband is? You think she’s interested in you? Well, she’s not. No one is,” he was distracted mid-flow by the mugs on the coffee table.
“Who’ve you been having over?” The sudden change in conversational direction threw her.
“Who. Have. You. Been having over?” he leaned forwards, his breath hot and vile on her face and he gestured with a finger that pointed everywhere but at the mugs.
“The babysitter. I made h - ”
“Yeah right.” He cut her off. “Who’re you shagging now? Not that anyone would have you. You couldn’t get anyone if you tried.”
“Yeah?” she stopped, suddenly knew exactly what to say. “Well, maybe I will start fucking around. Just like you,” she was giddy and made brave by the cider and the thrill of seeing Meg. “Maybe I’ll - ”
It was so quick a hit that for a moment, as she lost her balance and made a grab for the dresser, she didn’t know she had been hit at all, but he was looking at her, holding his hand, breathing heavily, waiting for her to react.
Her nose felt hot, then her lip. She opened her mouth to speak and her skull creaked, her jaw grated, and there was the bloody, hot, metallic taste of blood on the back of her tongue that made her gag.
“Get in the shower,” he said,
And she did. She showered. She let the water beat against the blooming bruise of her nose and mouth, then sat, waiting, on the edge of the bed.
It didn’t take him long. It never did. She could be glad about that, she supposed. He flexed and peacocked, some sort of narcissistic routine to get himself in the mood, and she wondered, whilst he did so, was there any reason for her being here at all?
She’d faked every orgasm with him from the very first time. Convincing herself it must be her, there must be something wrong with her. Sometimes she even lied to herself about it. There must have been once, or twice, maybe? The odd occasions where she had been drunk, perhaps?
And then, of course, she would have to time it right, otherwise, he’d start up again, tell her he could tell she wanted more.
Then he left to go back to the pub with only a grunt goodbye, and whilst the midnight fireworks started up somewhere close by she was left, sitting up against the headboard with her knees pulled into her chest, left in this house, this broken home. And all she heard when she pushed the heels of her hands into her ears and screwed her eyes shut was the beat of her heart. Quickening, quickening. The throbbing muffled thump of it, the blood in her ears, the pulse in her eyes. There was nothing. She had nothing. She had shed blood in every room of this house and now she was dying.
It would be easier to die, she thought. It would be easier to die than to leave.
But then she thought of her son. She thought of the way his hands curled and reached out for her whilst he was feeding, how his milky blue eyes searched for hers.
She was trapped, by her own child, in a life she had no wish to live.
“Help me,” she whispered to the house and screwed her eyes closed tight. “Please,” she whispered, to the beat of her heart. “Please…”
The house had been full of ghosts since Ted had died. Cards from the past dropped through her letterbox daily, people she had all but forgotten sent bouquets of sweet-smelling flowers, and the neighbours bought over a casserole that she’d given to the dog.
Everyone was sorry. Sorry that Ryan had lost his father, at only six years old. Sorry that she had lost her husband, sorry that he had died. Now she had a mantelpiece full of cards from people whose surnames she didn’t know, people who had no idea about her life, or her, or how it had been, and that actually, the fact that he had been knocked down and killed by a Land Rover whilst staggering home from the pub had been one of the best things that had ever happened to her.
And now, she was standing in the kitchen, looking out of the window, the glass fogged up with steam from the kettle boiling on the Aga. She stared at her own reflection, sullied and blurry, hair all over the bloody place, curling about her jaw, slipping out from the French knot that she had attempted at the nape of her neck. Her hair, an unremarkable colour at the best of times, but in this steam bleached reflection it was even limper, even more of a non-color - an insipid pale brown with more than a fleck of grey, and her eyes, staring back at her, like the eyes of another more recognisable ghost, almost too pale to see, almost the same colour as the sky.
It was the end of February. She wouldn’t change this light for the world. Early spring light that breathed a thrilling sense of possibility through the house, this silent house, as sullen and creaking as she was, but beautiful, with its own charm.
Evening, the cool air, everything dull, and tinged with grey, blue and gold, the time of day when everything seemed to slow down to the beat of a heart.
Slowly, slowly, she arranged mugs on a tray, and from behind her the door opened, and she was roused from somewhere between deep thought and daydream, by Ryan, who stopped short of the edge of the doormat too quickly, remembering his muddy boots, and teetered for a moment between doormat and floor.
“Auntie Emily dropped her glass and now she needs a brush and dustpan,” his words were breathless and rushed and fraught with urgency and his cheeks were pink from running from the barn where the wake was being held to the house.
“It sounds like Auntie Emily might need to slow down on the old wine front,” she said more to herself than to Ryan.
“What?” he asked, pausing mid-turn.
It has been said that the past is another country; in Gillian’s case, it is more than that. It is an enemy combatant. Any object, or indeed person, such as Ted’s sister Emily, that could possibly function as a passport into this hostile territory runs the risk of emotional high treason and as such would be verbally hanged.
“Nothing,” she smiled, looking at him. He had her pale blue eyes and her pale brown hair. “I’ll bring it out,” she said gently and watched as he ran back outside, letting the door bang on its hinges and bounce back open.
She took her time walking from house to barn, the brush and dustpan loose in her hand, bumping gently against her thigh.
There was the quiet call of sheep from the fields, the distant squeak and bang of the front gate, the latch blown clean off in an air rifle incident, and the gentle panting of the dog as he paced hurried laps around his run.
Meg, in her white button-up shirt and charcoal linen trousers, stood talking to Gillian’s Aunt Jean, just outside the barn door, wine glass in hand. She smiled as Gillian passed, “You’ve done a beautiful job,” she said, interrupting Jean, who in turn, shifted, smiled, and reached out to squeeze Gillian’s forearm, and gushed, “You’re coping just marvelously,” as Gillian nodded, hummed a murmur of thanks, and gestured with the brush and dustpan.
“I’d better just…”
In the barn, it appeared to be summertime. A picnic was spread across makeshift tables with yellow and white chequered clothes, jugs and bowls of flowers were here, there and everywhere, filled with the scarlet tulips, yellow goldenrod as bright as the sun, and the blue of forget-me-nots as blue as the sky, turning what appeared to be a wake to everyone else, into a celebration of a life saved instead.
She crouched unnoticed by the leg of a table, swept up the glittering shards of glass into the bowl of the dustpan, and made her way back out, to where Meg still stood by the door. Meg, with a frown of concentration as she nodded and listened to whatever it was that Jean was saying. But then, as she caught sight of Gillian she smiled again, unable to help herself. Meg was beautiful in that moment, with the sky behind her the colour of a bruise, her hair almost white blonde in the milky blue light of the first whisper of spring, with the ivy that covered the west side of the barn curling out to touch her shoulder.
Meg was always beautiful, whereas she was standing in a fine mist of rain in her old boots, losing hair grips in the mud. But that one smile was all it took to remind her of why she was still here. Meg. When she thought about it, it had always been Meg.
Back at the house, she sat on the drystone wall with a bottle of beer she had begun sipping an hour ago and forgotten about. Now, she sat looking out at the hills disappearing into a lavender mist where the land met the sky. Meg was behind her. She’d known that she would follow when she left the barn, and if she had had this moment over again if she had somebody to retell this moment to, she would have said that she had smelled her before she saw her. Perhaps that was what had made her turn; a murmur of her perfume in the air, a hint of orange and jasmine and the memory of summertime. Perhaps it was the vibration of her presence, or perhaps, worst of all, it was just meant to be.
“Mind if I join you?” she asked, waiting. Gillian shook her head, raised her bottle of beer.
“Of course not.”
“Your grandad not here?” she asked as she sat down next to her, carefully and elegantly as always, adjusting herself on the wall.
“He’s dead. He died.”
Meg widened her eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
“You’re alright…he’d have been 100 now anyway,” Gillian held the beer bottle by its neck and watched the sunlight turn the dead moss and brick a brilliant emerald green through the glass.
“Oh. I suppose he would have…sorry,” an easy silence stretched between them. “I tried to find you.” She said eventually.
“Did you?” Gillian looked back up at her.
“On the Internet…on Facebook.”
“I’m not on Facebook,” the familiar rise of panic began to bleed out inside her, a feeling she had come all too accustomed to. She drew in a slow breath, letting the feeling begin to fade before continuing; “Too risky when Ted was alive…”
“Oh yes, of course,” Meg nodded frowning down at the half-drunk glass of red wine she held, resting on her thighs. “Was it really that bad?”
Gillian looked at her then looked away, down at her hands in her lap.
“Yep,” She looked up and squinted out across the fields, could feel Meg waiting for whatever more there was. “I wanted to die,” She watched a V of ducks flying in the far distance. “I wanted to die, and for it to be over. But more than that. More than…I wanted the pain of dying. I wanted the peace of death. I was angry at him, I was angry with myself. I was tired of living,” she braved looking at Meg. “Sometimes, when he was asleep I’d get up, I’d go into the kitchen, I’d get a knife out of the drawer and I’d run the point from here, to here,” she ran her finger from her wrist to her elbow, “I thought how easy it would be to kill myself, and I’d hold it, point against my stomach, handle against the countertop, and I’d wish for the courage to step forwards. There was nothing of me left to take. He’d taken it all. And what’s worse was I had let him. I was already dead before I realised dying wasn’t an option.”
Silence hung between them.
“Have I shocked you?” she asked, her voice quieter this time.
Meg shook her head ever so slightly. “No,” she said, paused, tapped her index finger twice against the bowl of her wine glass. “Why did you marry him?”
Gillian smiled. Almost laughed.
“Because he asked!” she straightened her back, looked up from her hands across the fields, otherworldly in a lemon-yellow fog. “Didn’t reckon I’d get a better offer. Thought marrying my best friend was better than being alone for the rest of my life.”
“I wish I’d known.”
Gillian shrugged. “Nothing you could have done short of running him over yourself.”
“No, but I could’ve…” she let the sentence tail off.
“Could’ve…?” Gillian prompted.
Meg inhaled slowly, steadying herself.
“Vita and I broke up,” she said, all in one breath.
Gillian raised an eyebrow.
“I thought her name was Serena?”
“Yes. No. I mean, Serena and I never lasted more than a couple of months. Vita…we were together for three years. We had a house,” she paused. “In London.”
Meg just looked at her. Her cheeks and nose were pink from the cold and her mouth trembled ever so slightly in that way that it does before you say something you’ve kept hidden for over three decades.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about you,” there it was, shuttling between them, over and over, and Gillian didn’t seem able to hear anything except the crackling foggy beat of her heart in her ears.
“Sod’s bloody Law I end up buggering something up without even being there,” she said quickly, quietly, tensing.
There was a warmth in the air, unnatural for spring.
“I couldn’t stop wondering about you. Where you were, what you were doing…you know I’ve always liked you…” she stopped abruptly, felt the words form in her mouth, cleared her throat and tried again, “…more than liked you.”
Gillian shot her a sideways glance. Swallowed the last mouthful of warm beer from the bottle and half-coughed, half-laughed.
“That’ll be the wine talking.”
Meg smiled down at her glass.
She didn’t look up, but she knew Gillian was watching her. Those pale blue eyes wary and afraid.
“You hitting on me at my husband’s wake?” Gillian laughed, shifted, tucked her hair behind her ear and then untucked it again.
“Sorry…I shouldn’t have said anything…”
“No! It’s…fine, it’s - ”
“I’ve made you uncomfortable.”
Gillian looked out across the fields, squinting against the low sunshine, the clouds sugar almond pink shot through with gold.
“Think I knew...deep down,” she spoke more to the sky than to Meg.
“But I’d convinced myself it was all in my head.”
She watched the clouds move above them.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…my timing is…appalling…” Meg sighed and Gillian smiled, tilted her face up towards the sun and sighed.
“What?” Meg asked.
Gillian shook her head.
“What is it?!”
“Nothing!” she puffed out a breath, gestured with a hand-cast haphazardly about her head. Gave up, let out a breath and looked at Meg sitting there next to her on the wall. She could feel herself cracking, like ice in spring.
“I’ve been in love with you since I was thirteen,” she said finally.
Meg pursed her lips and gave the tiniest nod of her head.
“I know,” she said eventually when the wind had stopped blowing the grass flat. She waited, gently tilting the bowl of her wine glass so that the last drop of wine slipped this way, then that, in the bottom. “What do we do now?” she asked.
Gillian narrowed her eyes, took in the world before her, the whisper of the wind, the birds, the incredible distance between her and the sky, then she turned back to Meg. Meg with the sun setting behind her, and for the first time in years she was able to say what she felt, and really mean it.
“We take it slowly,” she said.
"A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories."
— Opening sentence of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
That's what it was, he thought, except it's only thirty stories. Other grey buildings towered on either side. Gerald Thorne sat again on the twentieth floor in front of the computer, but this time was different. The students would sign in soon, and he was afraid. They would find him, trying to look casual in his apartment. But formal too. It wouldn't do to be too casual. He wasn't their friend, he reminded himself. He was their professor. Should he get out his pipe? No, too obvious.
His teaching assistant was the first to pop in to the virtual meeting. Thorne saw his mouth move as he leaned in to the camera to reach his keyboard. "I'm here, Professor," said the lad. He was a good young man, surely. But Thorne had never had any desire to see his bedroom. Something about that Hokusai print on the wall worried him.
Perhaps his button-down shirt worried them. He'd taken the t-shirt off, then put it on again, then put this shirt over it. And his hair. He'd certainly never cared about his hair entering the lecture hall. It was early spring, so his jacket was appropriate. Was it virtually appropriate?
He looked at himself on the screen, his box half the size now that his TA was here. I look old, he thought. Of course I look old, he also thought. Everyone looks old on this thing. There was a quarter of an hour to go. He turned off his camera.
Thorpe swivelled his chair and looked out the window. He missed his wife. She'd always had a plant on the sill, clinging desperately to life. But he'd kept the place tidy. His books on Victorian literature were lined up, spines resting just slightly inside the edge of the shelf. The coffee cup was in the center of the coaster.
She would have scoffed at such order. Her books were read dozens at a time, scattered, and stacked around the place. He invariably had to move some to eat his breakfast, which he'd always made for himself. Then they would leave, every morning, always in a rush. She couldn't find her keys, or he had to go back for a file. He'd get home first, and start cooking dinner. Pasta usually. She liked pasta.
And now it was quiet. So quiet. The voices from his books no longer spoke to him for very long. He still smoked his pipe on the balcony, even though there was no one to stop him smoking in the apartment.
"Do you have your slides, Professor? I can load them up," said the young man. Thorne peered at the screen. Jason, it said under his face. Right, his name is Jason. Slides. Yes, he had slides. He'd had them converted to digital last year, when his department chair had told him he should.
The file was easy to find. His virtual desktop was neat, and he knew where everything was. He uploaded the slide set into the chat box and watched Jason's face as he saw it and began setting it up, his brow furrowed.
Thorne was not normally a fearful man, but he did not like looking stupid. This world in which the younger ones lived; it was their world. He had very little interest in it beyond convenience. He liked that he could order his groceries, and find used books, and they came to his door. He had tried some social media for awhile, but what people posted seemed frenetic and useless.
He watched as other little boxes opened. Bright faces, with bored expressions. Pre-bored, he thought. I haven't even started talking yet. They had their own lives, he knew. Long ago, he cared about that, the lives they had. He still had a dream of enhancing their lives. He was just less interested in the lives he was trying to enhance.
Thorne straightened his shirt, pushed his hands ineffectually through his thinning hair, and turned on the camera. Then he took a sip of coffee, as if he just happened to have appeared during a break. His first slide showed on the screen: "Death in the Victorian Novel".
Now he had to pay attention, make sure his microphone was on. "Can you hear me, everyone?" he asked, scanning the twenty or so boxed faces. At least ten more hadn't bothered to turn on their cameras. A few heads nodded, and Jason gave him the thumbs up. He began his lecture.
By the time he got to post-mortem photography, several other students had turned off their cameras. He could see a couple of faces that looked really interested. "This was not," he said, "as popular as some would have you believe. It was rarely done. But it points to Victorian feelings about death and loss."
As he continued to speak, he glanced at his own video box. He had frozen. "Can you still hear me?" he asked. Jason nodded vigorously. As he continued the lecture, his glance kept drifting to his own frozen self. Even after he paused so Jason could lead the question and answer, his video remained inanimate. I have died, he thought. Or if I did die, right now, it would look no different.
No one had noticed, apparently. Jason was attempting to elicit questions, answers, anything. Signs of life, thought Thorne. And their professor is frozen like Ozti, the Chalcolithic mummy. No one would know if he left. But where would he go? He was supposed to stay home. It hadn't occurred to him to do anything else.
The next class was two days later. He was nervous again, but this was becoming more usual. His slide appeared, but it was Kathy this time who loaded it, according to the little name. "Aesthetics in the Victorian Novel." There were fewer students, only twenty or so.
Slides and slides of pre-Raphaelite paintings, images of Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris. "Did you know," he asked them, "that Dante Gabriel Rossetti disinterred his wife to get back the book of poetry he'd buried with her?" They did not know. Nor did they look particularly surprised.
Next class, the following week. "Politics in the Victorian Novel." He had done some searching and had discovered a fact they might enjoy. "And you may already know," he said, "that Sybil, and other characters from Disraeli's book, appear in the first steampunk novel, The Difference Engine." The dozen students in the room nodded, unimpressed. It occurred to him that this modern work was now thirty years old.
"Fantasy in the Victorian Novel." Five students, two on camera. No teaching assistant arrived, so Thorne uploaded his own slides and began the lecture. Not a problem, he thought, like making my own breakfast. "The Time Machine," he said, "has been made into movies and comic books over and over". Both of the faces were looking down. Must be looking at their cell phones, he thought. Did they even watch movies or read comic books?
Two days later. He opened the virtual program ten minutes ahead of time and found his own slides. No one had entered yet as he loaded them onto the screen. "Solitude in the Victorian Novel." Still no one came in. He waited.
At a quarter past the hour, he got up from his chair. He left the volume up, so he could hear if anyone came in. When he became dizzy, his first thought was to pick up the phone. But he decided not to. As he lay down on the floor, he realised he couldn't do anything else. He gazed at the lamp hanging from the ceiling. It looked like a compass from here. He fancied it must be turning, because he knew he wasn't, so he tracked the directions as his breathing slowed. South-south-west, south, south-east, east. . .
The second time was completely different.
“‘Low dosage’ Adam said. ‘Fun’ he said,” Elisha stumbled along the melting hallway. She dropped to her hands and knees and crawled across the floor like a civilian whose city was under siege.
“There they are again!” An ominous cadence came as one big crescendo, cascading behind her in a deranged orchestra.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she whispered. Her blonde locks dangled over her face. Her toes, knees and fingertips dug into the floor, pulling her body forward. She intermittently glanced behind her.
“My bedroom door! Only inches away, my parents won’t know a thing—they can’t hear my thoughts, they can’t hear me!”
She wrapped a reluctant palm around the doorknob and twisted with deliberate mechanical quietude. Slowly, slowly . . .
Elisha pulled the door open just enough for her slender frame to slip through and quickly closed it behind her. She leaned against the door, her head tilted back, chin up and eyes closed. She gasped heavily with heart pumping, exhaled, and wiped the tears from beneath her closed, sticky eyes.
She heard an unfamiliar voice reading poetry in a British accent like some History Channel narrator. She opened her eyes, breaking the sticky web over her eyelids.
“Why is my room covered in pink, cloudy hues, and why is my cat sitting on my bed, reading Shakespeare?”
“Damn it Butters, you can’t read! Oh, God, what’s going on? Why is my bed a cloud?”
She approached the cloud taking tentative steps. Her fingers walked the bed’s surface like scouts on a reconnaissance mission. It was soft and smooth like white silk.
She took a seat next to Butters, whose eloquent voice sent streaming wavelengths into the air, along with small clef notes that waltzed in their climb. Her mind followed them dreamily, wandering up the spiraling matrix of wordplay and musical notation, watching as their images disappeared into the ceiling.
Her eyes then fell upon a full-body mirror propped lazily against the wall. Her image bulged and was randomly contorted like that in a circus mirror. Next, she noticed that her sexy, scantily clad Lady Gaga poster began to morph Picasso-like, and grin maniacally.
Noticing a paddle next to her on the cloud, she thought, Okay . . . I’m rowing along on a cloud . . . great.
She bemoaned, “Is Juliet tender yet Butters? Is she weeping for her long-lost Romeo? Is she lovelorn, caught in an unmistakable reality, which is too much to bear?” Paddling along, she peered into the oblivion ahead.
“Adam, I’m gonna fucking kill you.”
Suddenly, a swift current of air came bursting across her body. She reeled back, looking up as three small figures arched overhead, then faded into the crimson horizon.
“My bunnies have sprouted wings! Didn’t know you guys could fly!” She squinted critically as their shapes were swallowed in the distance.
“That's it, maybe I’ll just follow after them, row along on my little cloud here and escape this damn place!”
“Hey guys, come back! Get me outta here!”
“Oh, but where is here? This is my room, my sanctum, I'm safe here, right?”
She paused, set the paddle down, bit her nails and glanced back at the morphing Lady Gaga poster. It gave neo-cubism a run for its money. Lady Gaga’s breasts were perched above her left shoulder, her head propped against her hip.
“Gross” Elisha said.
She heard Butters murmur in the background.
“Butters, you’re ridiculous.”
“Hey, why are my drapes radiating into infinity with every color of the visible light spectrum?” Her mood began to lighten as she became fixed on the drapes in a sea-like trance. Their colors were therapeutic somehow.
“Pretty cool, actually, ha! Wow, it’s like I’m trapped in one of my parents’ 1970’s Haight-Ashbury parties. Does this mean I’m gonna start dancing in bell bottoms beneath a disco light? Will I be sharing the world’s most enormous joint with the likes of Willie Nelson? Oh, hell with it. This cloud’s not so bad. Let the dawn swallow me whole, carry me off into some far-away land of mystic kaleidoscopes, vivid color schemes and fuzzy, friendly habitats. Carry me off into a vibrant landscape textured by the hands of ingenious craftsmen! Yes, take me to that place of muse and melody, rhythm and prose, of sweet sustenance and serenade!”
“Close your eyes, Alice,” an eerie, omniscient voice whispered.
“Hey, who’s there? Who’s Alice?”
A long, heavy silence drug itself across the room like the body bag of a mafia victim. The streaming array of bright colors melted into deep reds, dirty browns and heavy black. Elisha’s stomach balled like a fist. She looked down at her body.
“Why am I so small, so young? Why do I feel helpless? My hands and feet are so tiny. My hair so long, clean and soft, like when my little sister and I used to play dress up and host tea parties. Why can’t I see my face?”
“Shit! Am I too loud? Can my parents hear me?”
Just then, another cascade of wicked laughter echoed from the distance.
“Who’s there?” Elisha looked around and saw nothing but the gradual darkening of the colors.
“Shit. I’m gonna close my eyes and not think of anything at all. Everything’s gonna be okay. Like grandpa taught me, if I just shut it all out, it goes away. That was when he and sis were still here to keep me safe, make me happy . . . before the tragedy . . . before the fire.”
“You’re not here, you’re not here. There is no one here. There's no one here,” she whispered, curling her body up like a ball.
Sudden laughter rose up, climbing in octaves of hideousness. She closed her eyes and saw horrific fades of eternal darkness! Endless caverns of emptiness and desolation!
When she opened her eyes—a thin, dark-haired figure with luminous eyes stood in the doorway of her room. The muscles in her neck and along her spine tightened.
“Adam! You did this! You bastard!”
She leapt towards him, knocking him on his back, and wrapped her fingers around his neck. “I’m gonna kill you!”
A loud, authoritative voice pierced into her world like a bolt of lightning through the skies. “Wake up Elisha. Everything is okay, you are safe.”
The thin, spectacled man extended his hand. Two genuine, comforting eyes shone down at her.
Elisha lay on the bed with her fingers clasped together in a choking motion. She sat up slowly, blinking rapidly. Her head bobbed as if the muscles in her neck were weak.
Dr. Mosser sat back, crossed his legs and scribbled some notes on his clipboard. Calmness came to her by degrees. She trembled as if detaching from a subconscious gravity, feeling it slip away like rain on a windshield.
“We’re making progress.” Dr. Mosser said. “Elisha, take a deep breath and relax.”
She did so, trembling calmly.
“You had a good relationship with your sister and grandfather?” he asked.
“Do you miss them?” he said, leaning forward, raising his brow.
“Yes, of course I do,” Elisha said. She adjusted in her seat, as if the question made her uncomfortable.
“Would it be safe to say that your drug and alcohol problem started shortly after the . . . accident?”
“I see. Now, if you don’t mind, could you please tell me more about Adam?”
Elisha sat quietly on the bed. Dr. Mosser waited patiently as she sifted through scattered mental categories.
“I haven’t spoken to him in months—that son-of-a-bitch. He ditched me for some ditzy valley-girl named Alice. All he cares about is gettin’ high anyway,” Elisha said, elbows on her thighs, one fist against her cheek.
Elisha closed the glass door, descended the scratchy marble steps and left the dull gray building with its official-looking sign, Dr. Gene Mosser, Hypnotherapy behind.
Her cell phone vibrated in the pocket of her jeans. “What’s up? How’d therapy go?” a voice asked.
“Great. I got them completely convinced that Adam is the bad influence and, once he’s outta my life, everything will be okay.”
“Yeah, parents are suckers!”
“Got ‘em eatin’ outta my hands, ha, ha. Who knew all those drama lessons would come in handy?”
“Right! Where's your Oscar award?”
“At this rate, I’ll be completely ‘rehabbed’ before graduation, ha ha” Elisha said, strutting along.
“Adam’s the scapegoat, huh? You see him much?”
“From time to time. He’s still partying hard as usual.”
“Well, so much for hypnotherapy, huh? Your parents will try anything. What’s next, shock therapy?”
“Yeah, really. Well, that’s parents for you, whatever the doc says goes. My parents didn’t like Adam anyway, figured it’d be an easy out.” Elisha said.
“Yeah, nice one.”
“So, David, you think you can hook me up with a twenty-sack this weekend?”
“Of course. But please, call me ‘Adam.’”
They both laughed.
A loud scream woke up Mother and Father that morning. They leapt out of bed, stumbling over the quilt that dragged on the floor after them. They pushed open one of the children’s bedroom doors and it slammed against the wall. The children were pressed up against the window, laughing in glee but their parents were not yet satisfied that they were okay.
“What’s happened?” Father croaked, still groggy from sleep and rude awakenings. The two boys pushed between them, rubbing their faces.
“Snow, Dad!” Lucy shouted from the window. Amelia pressed her face further against the window as she gasped. Arthur and Charlie rushed to the window then, followed by their parents.
“Your first snow day, Amelia.” Mother smiled, craning her neck to see. “You’d better all get dressed then. We’ll make our way to the woods where you’ve all had your first snow days.”
The children rushed to get ready, piling on two layers of clothes. In their excitement, they fumbled over buttons and zips, bumping into furniture. Father started to warm the car and pack sleds and blankets and some food.
Mother helped them zip into their winter coats which was not without arguments. But finally they were all piled in the car, buzzing with excitement. The drive felt long to the children who were aching to sled down a hill and have snowball fights. Secretly, Amelia began to feel nervous; she had never even seen snow before unless it was in pictures. She was a bit worried about it being too cold. But when they stopped at the wood, the worry started to melt away. The snow that hung on the trees was mesmerising even to Amelia. The light reflected against the snow making everything seem brighter.
Mother began to unpack the car, handing the smaller bags to Charlie and Lucy. She entrusted Arthur with the picnic while Father took some of the sleds from her.
They made their way to the clearing. The cold was beginning to cling to them now but the further they walked, the warmer they became. Finally, Father spotted the hill and they set up camp next to it. He took Amelia’s hand and picked up a blue sled.
“You get a turn first. I can come down with you for your first go if you like.”
Amelia nodded, smiling up at him gratefully. They climbed up the side of the hill, in between the trees. Father held her hand firmly and pulled her up when she fell into the deep powdery snow.
At the top, Father placed the blue sled securely into the snow and helped Amelia get in. Once she was seated, he pushed off and sat behind her. Amelia felt a strange feeling in her stomach as they went down at great speed. The rest of her family came into view quickly, then the sled rocked and tipped sideways at the bottom. The cold snow went down her coat and she squealed, then giggled as she looked back at the snowy hill. Charlie, Lucy and Arthur were already racing up it with their own sleds. Arthur fell a few times so only the other two fought to go down first. Lucy eventually won but was closely followed by Charlie, who crashed into her at the bottom. Lucy began to grumble but was interrupted by Arthur yelling at them.
“Get out of the way!”
The two of them scrambled out of the way laughing and shouting. Arthur sat there as he stopped with a bump. Then freezing cold snow hit him in the side of the head. He gasped, deciding whether to be angry or laugh. Charlie appeared from behind a wide tree, holding another snowball and aiming at Lucy this time. Although Lucy saw this coming and pelted his chest with a snowball. Mother was getting up to join in, running to hide behind a tree trunk. Amelia wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do. This wasn’t quite hide and seek. But Father told her to hide behind the bush nearest them, crouching down beside her. He began to shovel the snow, pressing it hard around the edges to make a ball.
“This is what you’ve got to do. Make lots of snowballs and we can both throw them at the others, okay?”
Amelia nodded; a bit panicked at the pace they needed to be going at.
“A bush won’t protect you!” Charlie shouted, throwing a snowball in their direction. Mother threw one at her son, hitting the tree trunk he ducked behind. Arthur threw one and Lucy shrieked, throwing one back at his head. Father threw three snowballs at Mother, hitting her with two of them. He laughed heartily as she flashed him a dark glare. Amelia tried to throw her misshaped snowballs but couldn’t hit anyone. She began to get frustrated until she hit Charlie who was looking at something in the distance. She pointed and laughed as he went red in the face.
“Mum, I’m too hot now. Can we have something to eat?” Lucy sighed, slumping her shoulders. The rest of the children whined in unison. Mother began to smile.
“Yes, take off your gloves and have a sandwich.”
The children began to eat ravenously, and even Mother and Father hungrily ate their sandwiches.
That evening, they sat in front of the fire, hot chocolate in hand. At the dinner table, all they could talk about was their snowball fight, dramatising the sound of the impact. When their parents put them to bed that night, the children fell asleep almost immediately. Warm and tired from their exciting snow day. A first snow day Amelia would never forget.
Years and years later, Amelia would bring her children to this spot for their first snow days as her siblings did with their own children. Their parents had been happy knowing that their grandchildren would be shown the special family place and they knew it would be passed down through the family for generations to come. So even after their parents had died, the four siblings came together on snow days in the same clearing to give their children the experience that they once had: wonderful, and memorable, first snow days.
Another night void of promises settles in the city that screams desolation. If one dares to look from above, the city seems to always be sleeping in, void of youth and laughter, absorbing the quiet trembling of walking canes. In this city, with its post-war architecture of decay and corrosion, its expensive clothes thrown randomly on the shelves of stores that shout rent rip-off, fathers carry on with their heroic family missions which have always seemed to deny the dearest part of their personality.
Gabriel lounges in the old executive chair of a generous size apartment situated on the fourth floor of a building overlooking the city river. On white days, one can spot him by the window puffing on a cigarette. Sometimes he ponders on his apparent aversion of sipping on an afternoon cup of tea. He wears high socks with sandals, hats with fixed-in-place flashlights, blazers with camper backpacks. The Vikings drama series, is on again, and Tozzi, the family cat, has quickly reclaimed the lap of the man who feeds her. The TV screen hurls the harsh winter lived by the Viking Lothbrok family straight in the hearts of Gabriel and Tozzi.
For Gabriel, mathematician by profession but artist in spirit, a triangle brings more to the table than a mere shape to play geometry with. Viking Ragnar confirms the distorted history veiled behind the façade of nature claimed by a seemingly simple triangle. The social, political, and cultural negotiations behind this impressive shape are reasons enough for Gabriel to refuse shaking hands with balance. And reason enough for Gabriel to keep puffing on his cigarette with the utmost finesse, in an artistic showcase that is rare for any personality carrying a self-inflicted addiction. Gabriel is settled on getting a new heart. He has heard from the TV commercials that the modest hospital of his small town boasts the latest medical advancement: heart transplants for those who dream big, for those with pockets bigger than their dreams.
He kissed Tozzi goodbye and headed to the hospital one white morning, assured that a new heart would be the start of a new life, one possibly filled with loose-leaf teas. Sniffing Gabriel’s big pockets from the other end of the hospital’s hallway, the doctors talked him into a pair of brand new, out of the box lungs as well. With enticing words, the patient was made to feel as if life would afford him another chance to feel childhood running through the veins again, much like in the TV images advertised for the procedure, in which blonde boys run joyously in open fields of daffodils. This presumption gave Gabriel hope for renewal. And he embraced it fully. The professor in charge of his transplant boasted the necessary experience to carry the surgery successfully.
In the operating room, a room full of masculine pride and intellect, the human drama commenced. The professor, surrounded by his three assistants, began the medical procedure. The general atmosphere reeked of human indifference, monetary greed and vacation plans. Gabriel’s soul lifted above his body and dared to look beneath at the whole affair. He saw himself surrounded by the seemingly hasty medical staff. He was floating above his own surgical bed, above the progressive medical equipment the hospital had boasted itself with, above the professor’s head, and above the heads of the three assistants. Gabriel felt so big and so small, a feeling bigger than himself, bigger than life, bigger than space. He was floating in the room, becoming part of the ecstatic dance of the atoms and molecules.
Gabriel became a witness to his own transplantation taking place live, this time no TV screen in between. Recollections of the Lothbroks family came to mind, coloring its terrible Viking adventures. He clearly saw the triangle on his open chest, connecting heart and lungs. He chuckled at the whole scene, remembering the last episode of The Vikings, that last night he spent home with Tozzi. Suddenly, panic took over the professor and his three assistants. The vitals monitor signaled the urgency of taking matters into available hands: an almost flatlined waveform approached with the hurling of a locomotive breath. The professor reached for the defibrillator, shouting mechanistically, “let’s save this man’s life!” Chaos busted the only door open and the three assistants squirmed the ground like worms at the impending sound of a pesticide can sprayed over them in full force. The dooming flatlined waveform has reached the station. And was there to stay.
“The man is dead,” declared the professor with a profound gravity, yet untouched by the slightest emotion of pain. The vitals monitor has said so. It must be real then. “There’s nothing I can do for him now,” continued the professor, taking off his gloves on the way to the door. He was washing his hands, heading for the salvation door, leaving behind the three miserable individuals to pick up the scraps of human decency which he has always refused to be bothered with in his profession. And so, he left, just a bit disappointed in himself, but only for a short minute of two. His daughters and wife were already packing their duffle bags for daddy’s promised trip to an all-inclusive resort in the Bahamas. The professor thought he would reach the blue shores, sip on a cool margarita, soak in the ocean’s salts brought close to his nostrils by the grace of wind, and put on those few extra pounds which come as courtesy of enticing daily buffets. Gabriel, the man, would soon vanish from the professor’s thoughts. Pppooofff!
“But I didn’t die,” whispered Gabriel to a room filled with people who didn’t have ears to listen. “…I didn’t die” “…didn’t die” “…die.” The resilient echo kept fighting its fight. The three miserable assistants now conducted their fragmented dialogue in an atmosphere of confusion. “What if we try to resuscitate?” “No use, call the guards to remove his body from the bed?” “His open eyes terrorize me.” “I can’t bear the looks” “Stop the lament, the morgue is his place of rest now, with the dead ones.” “It’s normal, do you hear me?” Their cries and noises were ringing in Gabriel’s ears with the rapacity of a jungle cat crowning the culmination of its hunting game.
All this time, from above, Gabriel tried desperately to offer the men a glimpse of evidence that his existence was real. He descended a bit to reach a more equal plane, one that could make some sort of communication possible between him and the three men, and hollered his “Can you hear me fellow humans? I am here” in their ears, moving from the left ear to the right one of each man. One of the assistants, the one who wore his dark hair in a ponytail—now covered by a pathetic hospital grade shower cap—the one who hated deodorants, the one who always chanted his Hare Krishna mantra in the solitude of his room, the one abandoned by a sculptural girlfriend who much too often scoffed at the boy’s spiritual beliefs, the one who unintentionally bragged a pair of dark, masculine eyes which evoked a suave gentleness of femininity, heard Gabriel’s penetrating voice. “Yes, I can hear you,” whispered he, a bit timorous at the thought of being detected by his colleagues and taken for a complete wacko, word he heard before in social circles. “Then what are you doing with my body?” insisted Gabriel, with hand gestures that didn’t match the sublime terror reflected in his eyes. “We’re taking you to the morgue, in a black plastic bag, blacker than death itself,” admitted the boy. “At the morgue?” Gabriel’s eyes widened with amazement. He just couldn’t believe how decisions were made down below now that he belonged to a different realm of reality. He witnessed firsthand the atoms and molecules dancing their ecstatic dance around him.
“Don’t take me to the morgue, folks, I am alive,” begged Gabriel, yet his composure betrayed a total loss of hope in the power of human comprehension. “I know you are,” the boy firmly implanted his words in Gabriel’s ear, “but my power ends here. The vitals monitor insists that you are dead and the professor left for Bahamas.” And just like that, the resilient echo kept fighting its fight. “Gabriel, you are but bones” “…you are but bones” “…are but bones” “…but bones” “…bones.”
A seagull shrieks outside Ksenia’s window then whirls away to skim over the breakers. It’s the same damn bird that always wakes her at 4 am, an hour before she rises. She yawns and gives it the finger, thinking Why do I even bother going to bed? I, Ksenia Orekhov, am going to shoot that bird.
Sliding into a silk dressing gown she heads for the shower. It’s Friday and her day off, but she hates to lie in bed. It’s a waste of time. Unlike Von, Ksenia works for a living as a part-time IT security specialist, since she refuses to benefit from what her mother Vonya calls ‘tributes for love’. This gets translated by the Revenue Office as ‘living off immoral earnings.’ Their sea-front penthouse flat is conveniently close to Brighton Rail Station. Each working morning Ksenia wakes at five to get the six-o-nine train into Victoria, running for the connection that gets her to the office in Twickenham for 8 am. She was lucky to find a new company that didn’t examine passports and work visas too closely.
She sighs as she towels herself, looking into the mirror at her rake-thin body. ‘So stylish to be so thin, my dear,’ Von always says. She quite likes her hair which is blonde with a little help and has a natural tendency to frizz in the morning. Von says it’s because Leo’s probably her father. Ksenia drops the wet towel as though it’s contaminated by the thought, and takes a clean one, thinking, Oh God I hope not. I wonder if there’s a way of getting someone’s genes out of your body. It makes me sick to think I’ve got his sleazy DNA coiling all through me like letters in a stick of Brighton rock. She dries her hair efficiently, trying to blast the idea out of her head. Anyway, Von said ‘probably’. Twenty-four years ago, she must have had a lot more men to choose from than a kitten-kicker like Leo. With a last blast her hair’s smooth again. Staring into the mirror as she applies her make-up, she examines her narrow face, her expressive dark-blue eyes sombre and thoughtful. I don’t look anything like him. I wish Most were my father.
Von’s men have come and gone but Most is a constant in Ksenia’s life. He’s a bit of an antique, but luckily his bank balance is as healthy as a gym bunny. It’s a powerful attraction for Von, addict shopper in Brighton’s Lanes. He has the friable, cultivated elegance of a courtly Spanish grandee, and he’s very fond of Ksenia. Grabbing jeans, shirt, and pants from the floor she slides into her clothes and ankle boots and heads for the galley kitchen.
Time for a cup of coffee and the first ciggie of the day—food’s not her goal. Von’s Sobranies in their open silver tray tempt her, but she needs the swifter jolt from her Egyptian brand. She leans on the breakfast bar, dismissing Von’s lover boy Leo from her mind and drawing in peace of mind from the shifting shades of the seascape framed by the floor-to-ceiling windows. Joyfully inhaling the morning’s signature scent of coffee and camel-dung cigarettes, she relaxes her shoulders and thinks of her last meeting with Most. That job paid for Von’s last destructive raid on her credit card. Maybe he won’t forget her. Her Blackberry whines and she flicks it to scroll the text message:
Meet me Vanuzzis 10 am LGW
Bring suitcase two days. Most
Ksenia smiles as she sends ‘OK’, making a mental note to take her Russian and UK passports. In another ten minutes she’s packed a bag; she’s used to it. It’s a job. Scribbling a note to Vonya, (‘Away three days with Most. Taken credit cards. Behave.’), she runs down the four flights and out the door.
Gatwick North heaves with frantic movement like a City pub at closing time. Ksenia looks through a throng of shuffling, sweaty travellers to the haven of the bar and sees Most relaxing in an armchair reading the Washington Post, a faint smile on his face. He knows the truths behind the newsprint. Glancing up he sees Ksenia looking his way and rises, folding his newspaper. His face lights up as he walks towards her with his arms held out.
‘It’s been too long, devushka dorogaya.’
The smells of sandalwood and cigarettes on his elegant overcoat are reassuringly familiar to Ksenia. She snuffs up remembered comfort in his arms, savouring his ‘dear girl’ endearment. Good to know she can count on his remembering past successes.
He pats her back and releases her, beckoning to someone over her shoulder. ‘My business in Washington went well. Now we’re going to Biggin Hill; I’ve a charter waiting. Leonard here will drive us.’
‘Are we going to Petersburg again?’
He nods. It’s typical of Most to take a charter flight. She can’t imagine him in the company of ordinary travellers. They’d sense him as a herd of sheep sense a predator in their midst.
Tall as a plane tree and clad in a suit of sombre grey, Leonard uses his height and powerful shoulders to cut a path through the throng like a scythe. A Mercedes is waiting; the short drive brings them to one of Biggin Hill’s charter plane hangars where a neat, needle-nosed Lear jet sits on the tarmac. Silent Leonard the chauffeur becomes Leonard the pilot as they complete the departure process and board.
‘We’re flying into Pskov; it’s less busy, and from there Leonard will drive us to the hotel. We can pick up the M20.’ Most tucks a cashmere blanket around Ksenia’s shoulders as she settles into the cream leather seat. ‘Try to sleep.’
Two hours later they land on the charter runway at Pskov and pass through the Arrivals hangar at speed. A Volga V12 Coupe is waiting for Leonard the driver.
Ksenia runs her hand over the gleaming bonnet of the classic car, admiring the retro styling.
‘You keep the old ways, then?’
Patting the car, Most exchanges a glance with Leonard. ‘It has its uses; this one was bought in Moscow. The glass is bullet-proof.’ He ushers Ksenia gently into the back seat and sits next to his driver, taking a file of papers from the glovebox. As the car speeds through the dusky afternoon Ksenia takes her i-POD from the pocket of her leather jacket and pops in her Buds, closing her eyes again. The only way to travel in this country is with rapper Oxxymiron’s voice guiding her back to her roots.
Entering Primorskaya on the city’s outskirts, the brutalist ranks of stone tower blocks in Ulitsa Nalichnaya come into view: her mother’s birthplace. No wonder she took the quickest route out of here, Ksenia thinks. I would too. They pass Moskovskiy railway station and the graffiti-covered garages between Ligovsky Prospekt and Ulitsa Vosstaniya in the city centre, old and perilous playgrounds for her friends. The main streets of Petersburg have arched entrances that lead to through to a timeless warren of enclosed squares called dvor, one of the most characteristic features of the city. Ksenia finds them fascinating, and very useful too. They’re an ancient stone maze in which pursuers can be lost with ease; she knows them like the back of her hand.
‘No 14 again?’ Ksenia asks, and Most nods. She smiles, as she likes the gracious Italianate hotel on the Moyka Embankment, part of the Venetian canal landscape created by Peter the Great. Most’s favourite poet Puschkin has a historical connection with the house and its opulent fin de siècle décor makes Most feel at home. It’s there he’ll wait as she stalks the target he sets. She never misses.
“You called me fat.”
Mike shook his head and sighed. Never in their six years of being together or six months of engagement had he ever said anything close to that statement.
“No, I didn’t. I never said that.” Mike said.
“But you didn’t defend me! When Zach said I didn’t need any more cookies and then LOOKED AT ME you didn’t tell him to shut the fuck up. You said nothing.” Amy crossed her arms and looked out the car window.
True, she had gained a little bit of weight since they’d been together, but nothing that would constitute as fat. Mike had even gained weight too. He was still the larger of the pair, and no one considered him fat. They both looked good in their striped Christmas sweaters tonight.
The drive home from Avonworth to Greensburg was long enough as it was, but now it was going to last twice as long if not three times as long. The weather was good, just a few of the first snowflakes of winter, little dreams waiting to pile up into nightmares, which helped the drive. Mike thought he could take a short cut to make the drive even shorter, but now he was doubting whether or not he remembered the directions right.
Zach’s ugly sweater party was a good time while it lasted. Somehow, through the trials of young adulthood, Mike and his friends found less and less time to chill together. Just a couple of years ago they were spending time in cramped dorm rooms in college, but now they rarely had time for drinks. For one Saturday night in December though, they could all hang for a few hours together.
But that ended as soon as Zach’s couple drinks caught up with him and he started to insult the guests. Mike felt awkward as the host shot out at everyone, one by one until his sights landed on his fiancé. Amy had asked for the cookie tray so she could have exactly one cookie. It was to be her first cookie of the evening. And then Zach said she didn’t need any more unless she wanted to put an X in front of her shirt size.
Now Mike was driving his fiancé home.
“Where even are we now?” Amy was scrolling around his phone, messing with the maps.
“My boss said if we skip 376 after Pittsburgh and then head east through some suburbs, we can shave a half-hour,” Mike said.
“And you trust your boss more than Google right now?” Amy asked.
“I just want to get home,” Mike said.
“Me too. I’m gonna type in the address and you’re gonna follow it to a T.” Amy tapped the screen.
They rode in the car for a few miles listening to nothing but the weird voice coming from the phone telling them where to go. Neither Mike nor Amy noticed when the screen blipped, and their destination changed from home to a new location just a few miles down the road, before displaying Palace Road in Greensburg as the destination once again.
They were still silent as Mike drove into the home development. There was no need to look at the phone until it dinged and said they’d arrived at their destination when they were in front of a cookie-cutter two-story house. The black mailbox had 147 in red letters on the side.
Mike put the car in park. “Why are we here?”
“I don’t know,” Amy said. Her eyes were wide and she kept looking around at the identical houses all around them. “I put in our address. We should have gone to Greensburg. Look, the phone says we’re even in Greensburg!”
Mike looked at his phone. It did say they were on Palace Road, Greensburg. However, they most certainly were not. They didn’t live in this brooding gray house with the cement walkway to the front door.
“What’s wrong with your phone?” Amy opened her car door and stepped outside.
“Nothing. It got us to Zach’s apartment. I don’t know why it couldn’t get us home. Maybe if you would’ve trusted me on the shortcut, we’d be home by now,” Mike said. He was undoing his seatbelt.
“Maybe I was too fat to trust you.” Amy then slammed the car door shut.
She was going up the walk to House 147, and Mike had to run a few steps to catch her. The ice melt crunched under their feet like gnashing teeth.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to ask whoever lives here where on God’s green earth we are, and how the hell we get back to Greensburg.”
Mike followed his fiancé up the walkway. Dead roses were in the flowerpots by the front door.
“I don’t think we should be knocking on random doors. We can just backtrack.”
“NO. I want to get home tonight. We’re asking for directions. I can’t trust you or your phone right now.” Amy said.
She then knocked on the door three times.
Mike waited three heartbeats.
The doorknob turned.
“Hello?” A middle-aged man in a black sweat suit answered the door. He opened the door only far enough to poke his head through, only far enough to strain the little lock chain. He wiped his forehead and smiled.
“Hi. I’m Amy. This is my fiancé Mike. We’re lost. Can you please tell us how to get back to 376?” Amy asked.
The man nodded and undid the chain. He opened the door wide enough that they could walk through. He then motioned for them to come in. His hands and clothes were dirty as if he’d been gardening on this dreary evening.
“Absolutely. Please come in. I can help you,” the man smiled.
Amy walked inside the house. Mike made eye contact with the homeowner’s hard, blue eyes before following his fiancé inside. When the door closed behind them, they had no idea that the reason Mike’s phone didn’t take them to Greensburg was because of a little setup in the basement of this house designed to lure them to the same fate as the couples buried in the backyard.
The dirt hadn’t even settled on the last couple yet.
“Please, do as I ask and get a taxi home… I’ll pay.”
Satisfied that Edith was securely tucked into her bed Margaret finally looked up. Edith’s concern for her was touching. Margaret knew it was ill-advised to become emotionally attached to the residents, but Edith was a sweet old lady if a little cranky.
“Have you won the lottery then, Edith?”
“Fat chance stuck in here.”
“It’s not that bad is it?”
“You get to go home every night.”
“Well this is your home now, Edith, and…”
“Yes, yes, I know; you’re trying to change the subject. Please, if you won’t take a taxi catch the bus home.”
“What’s this all about, Edith? Why don’t you want me to get a lift with Rachel?”
Edith’s eyes narrowed as her gaze flicked about the room. “I’ve seen her again – the lady in white.”
“Not this again, Edith, we’ve talked about this,” said Margaret taking a step back, distancing herself not only from the old lady but also her dementia inspired delusions.
“I’ve seen her standing behind you and Rachel.”
“Can you see her now?”
“Well there you go. Now try to sleep. I must get going or Rachel will leave without me.”
“Good! It might save your life.”
“That’s quite enough of that, Edith thank you.”
“It’s not my fault - I didn’t ask for this gift.”
“It’s just your imagination, Edith or perhaps your medication. I’ll mention it to Doctor Richards.”
“Was it my imagination when I warned you that Dorothy was about to die or that other old biddy…”
“Yes, Phyllis – scatty old crone she was.”
“Dorothy was very old and Phyllis, bless her, had been ill for ages.”
“But I told you they were about to pass on.”
“Yes, you did, but as I said, there were good reasons and the timing of their deaths was just a coincidence. Now you really have got to stop this nonsense, you’re upsetting the other residents.”
“Inmates you mean,” interrupted Edith with a sly smile.
“No, residents. You don’t want Mr. Reynolds, moving you to another home, do you?”
“At least I’d be away from Rachel. Nasty piece of work that one. Still, if the lady in white is right, she won’t be around much longer.”
“Edith! That’s a horrible thing to say.”
Edith snorted her derision but had the good grace to avert her eyes from Margaret’s angry gaze.
“You ready, Margaret?” Rachel asked as she came bustling into the room. She didn’t bother acknowledging Edith.
“Excellent. I don’t want to be late for Pilates. You sure you don’t want to come?”
“No thanks. It’s been a long day.”
“Suit yourself.” Rachel turned and headed for the door.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Edith when hopefully your disposition will be a little brighter,” said Margaret.
“I wouldn’t hold your breath,” sneered Rachel.
Edith’s mumbled response never reached Rachel’s ears.
Edith waited until both women were just outside her room before deliberately knocking her bedtime drink all over her clean sheets. She then began to wail pitifully. Within seconds Margaret was back at her side. An indifferent Rachel loitered by the door.
“What’s the matter, Edith?” asked Margaret.
“I spilled my drink,” sobbed Edith pointing at the wet patch.
“How on Earth did you do that, I’ve only been gone thirty seconds?”
“Let the night shift deal with it, Margaret. She probably did it on purpose and I’ve got to go,” called Rachel, impatiently checking her watch.
“I can’t leave her like this, Rachel; it’s not fair. Besides, they’re busy doing the meds; you know they can’t be disturbed while they’re doing that. I’ve no choice.”
“Sure you have. Our shift’s over – let her be someone else’s problem now.”
“Well I can. Sorry, Margaret I’ve got to go. It’s just a job,” and with that Rachel flounced down the hallway.
“Are you cross with me, Margaret?”
“No, Edith, I’m just disappointed. I really needed that lift home. Now I’ve got to catch two buses and face a daunting walk.”
“I’m sorry about that, but I don’t regret it.”
“Rachel was right; you did spill your drink on purpose!”
“I had to do something to protect you. Now I know you’re going to be alright because the lady in white just left with Rachel.”
“Don’t start on about that again, I’m not in the mood. I thought we were friends, Edith?”
“We are, that’s why I did it.”
“Well you’ve a funny way of showing it.”
After changing the bed Margaret said good night to Edith and left.
Margaret was one of life’s lovely people and Edith hadn’t enjoyed upsetting her, but if it saved her life, then it was worth the few days of distant behaviour she was likely to receive. She’d come around eventually. Satisfied that she had done the right thing, Edith drifted off into a deep sleep.
“Morning, Edith, it’s time to get up,” said a cheery voice.
Edith could hear somebody busying themselves in her room. She opened her eyes to see an unfamiliar face smiling down at her. Whoever it was they were far too jovial for that time of morning. “There she is. Time to get up, Edith; there’s a nice cup of tea waiting over there for you whilst I make your bed.”
“Who are you?” asked Edith brusquely.
“My name’s Maria, I’m from the Agency and I’m going to be looking after you today.”
“Where’s Margaret?” A cold dread washed over Edith. Had she been wrong? Had the lady in white been after Margaret all along? The colour drained from her face.
“I know I’m a stranger, Edith, but there’s no need to look so worried. I don’t bite.”
“Where’s Margaret?” Edith repeated.
It looked to be a real struggle for Maria to wipe the smile from her face. “I’m afraid Margaret won’t be in for a while. She’s not feeling too well,” she explained as she helped Edith into the chair.
“What’s up with her?”
Maria stopped what she was doing and turned to face Edith. “One of the other ladies who works here… well there was an accident… she was…”
“…killed,” finished Edith matter-of-factly.
“Yes. Rachel, I think they said her name was. I didn’t know her I’m afraid. Anyway, her death has hit some of her colleagues hard, and some, including Margaret, have called in sick. It’s sure to be upsetting for you residents too. Now drink your tea then we’ll get you dressed and downstairs for your breakfast.”
The home was unusually subdued that morning as the terrible news sunk in. The Agency carers who had been drafted in did their best to keep the residents’ spirits up, but nobody had the heart for interaction of any sort and eventually the staff took the hint and left the residents to their own devices, most of whom, soon nodded off.
The next few days dragged, Edith choosing to spend long periods alone in her room, Rachel’s death hitting her harder than she’d expected, draining her. She was just dozing off in her armchair one day when she became aware someone was watching her. She looked up and smiled in recognition.
“Margaret! How are you?” The dark smudges beneath her eyes were clue enough.
“I’m okay,” replied Margaret quietly. She sat on the edge of Edith’s bed and stared at the old lady.
“I’m so glad you’re alright, Margaret.”
“I don’t know how you knew something bad was going to happen, all I know is that I’ve lost a good friend, but I could have lost so much more, but didn’t, thanks to you. I will always be grateful, Edith, but please, I don’t want to hear any more premonitions. The police say an idiot tried to jump a red light and it could have happened to anybody, but you knew different, didn’t you?”
“All I know is that when the lady in white appears it means somebody is about to pass on. She tends to shadow the unfortunate soul for a while beforehand. I’d seen her around Rachel and was worried that if you went with her, she’d claim you too. Only by separating you could I be certain.”
“And now she’s gone?” asked Margaret hopefully.
“She disappeared that night… but came back yesterday.”
“Oh dear, not again. Who is she…? No… I don’t want to know.”
“I’m truly sorry about Rachel.”
“Let’s talk of this no more. I’m coming back to work Thursday, and I want you to promise me that when I do there will be no more talk of ladies in white. Deal?”
“Deal,” replied Edith.
Margaret leant forward and kissed Edith tenderly on the forehead and then left. Edith watched her leave and then slowly turned her gaze to the far corner of the bedroom.
“Is it time?”
The lady in white smiled and slowly nodded.
“I’m ready,” said Edith closing her eyes. She wondered what she would see when she opened them again.
One in three men has a criminal record by the time they’re forty years old. Mark Ashworth wasn’t one of them, and as he approached his birthday, he wondered if he’d been missing something. He’d broken the law, of course. Driven without a seat belt, smoked a little weed, bought a hooky watch. But none of that counted.
One Sunday morning he lay in bed watching the rectangle of light on the duvet. His wife snuffled alongside him, and his twin sons were already moving in the next room. The strip of light stretched and thickened, like the day ahead. Mowing the grass, and a barbeque with the in-laws. And then back to work, forty-five hours of delivering parcels and getting hooted at.
The ceiling needed painting.
He hated painting.
Three options as he saw it. Stealing a car gave the tantalising possibility of a police pursuit, but was offset by the likelihood of getting caught. It also required expertise he didn’t have. He could rob a shop, a chemist or a newsagents. He wouldn’t even need a weapon, just say he had one. Even thinking about it made his pulse speed. The selection of the premises, the recce, the anticipation for days beforehand. And the moment itself: the spine-tingling shouted demand and the hotfoot escape. Its brevity was both a positive, and a negative – all that endeavour for so little cream.
Which left burgling a house. Not only did it not require special equipment or skills, but the adrenalin rush would be protracted.
His wife’s raggedy voice interrupted. ‘I’d kill for a cup of tea.’
In the kitchen Mark filled the kettle. Would night-time or daytime be better? Would he need an alibi? What about dogs? What would he steal? The kettle overflowed.
On Thursday after his shift, Mark put on his running gear and booked off with his supervisor. His boss expected it, he ran home twice a week. Halfway there, he ducked under a broken fence panel and took the cut-through behind a new estate. His usual route. As he passed the gaps between identikit houses he saw mothers with young children arriving home from nursery. The local school turned out half an hour later. He knew who walked, and who car shared. He knew who was friendly with who, who was very friendly. He knew all sorts.
At the last house, he checked behind him and stopped. The drive was empty, the woman already having left in the car to collect her two children. He felt sick. It was now or never.
He climbed over the gate and hid behind the shed. Damp logs riddled with mushrooms were piled up.
No one shouted, no dog barked.
Even so, he couldn’t move. What if they were hard up? What if one or both of them worked for a charity, or ran the local cub scouts? They were excuses. Either he was going to do it, or he wasn’t. Time was ticking. Twenty-five minutes and she’d be back.
He snuck out from the shed and walked across the grass to the conservatory at the back of the house. On Tuesday he’d checked for an alarm box and a camera. He felt hot and cold all over, like his first time with a girl.
Time slowed, each unfolding second separate, and crisp as snow.
Inside the conservatory were armchairs and a wicker divan. Magazines lay strewn on a table. A window was slightly ajar.
Mark pulled on gloves. He slid a hand under the frame, unclipped the latch, and opened the window wide. Burgling was easy.
He climbed in, feeling giddy. For a few minutes he could do what he liked. He went to the sideboard and opened a drawer. Placemats and paper napkins. No one kept anything of value in a conservatory. Cash, valuables, jewels would be upstairs, or in the cornflakes packet. He laughed at himself.
The sound shocked him. He was there, burgling. He wondered if he’d technically committed a crime if he hadn’t actually taken anything.
He opened the glass door to the hall and stepped–.
Mark came to with the worst headache he could remember. His vision was blurred and he could only see out of one eye. He couldn’t move his arms – or his legs. He was tied to a wooden chair.
A man stepped forward and punched Mark in the ear.
He felt excruciating pain. His ear rang and his head throbbed. The man feinted another strike, and Mark twisted his head away. Even that hurt. He’d never considered the woman’s husband might be at home.
‘Who the fuck are you?’ The man jabbed a finger on Mark’s forehead, then stepped back. He was bald, squat, and built like a boxer.
‘Mark – Mark Ashworth.’ Speaking hurt. ‘You don’t know me.’ He sounded whiney, like someone else.
Keeping his eye open was an effort. He could smell urine. He looked down and realised he’d pissed himself.
The man sniggered and left the room. He returned with a car battery and jump leads, then disappeared again. Making several journeys, the man brought a hammer and a pair of pliers, a bucket of water, a baseball bat. He arranged them on the tiled floor.
Mark felt sick. He wished he’d never been so stupid, so middle-aged. He should have bought a PlayStation.
The man walked forward. Swaying his head to avoid another blow, Mark saw white stars. The man rapped his head as if he were knocking at a door. ‘Who the fuck?’
‘I drive a van, deliver parcels. I live in Kellitch.’ He swallowed, desperate for a sip of water. ‘This is the first time I’ve done anything like this – I won’t do it again.’
‘I won’t do it again,’ said the man in a high-pitched voice. He sat down on the wicker divan, and see-sawed his head from side to side. Tattoos of swallows on his neck.
‘Tell me something of interest and I’ll let you go.’
‘Like a funny story?’
The man opened a can of beer and took a swig. He leant back and put an arm along the back of his chair as if he was welcoming a friend. His forearm fatty and pink as a leg of pork.
‘Is that what you think this is, a joke?’
Mark shook his head. He couldn’t think. He promised himself when he got out of this, he would buy his wife flowers and take the boys to the seaside. They’d all go, make a day of it. But first he had to get out of it.
‘What about a discount code for the company where I work? They make steel products: bars, angle iron, box sections, tubes.’
The man hurled his half-empty can at Mark, catching him under the eye. The can skittered away, spilling beer across the tiles.
His captor left the room, and clumped upstairs. Mark’s eye stung, but he tried to concentrate. He had no money, no access to any money. He had no special skills, couldn’t predict the future.
The man thudded back down the stairs and re-entered the room. He sat on the wicker divan and placed a handgun alongside him.
‘To help you focus.’
Mark looked away, and looked back. He wasn’t mistaken.
He hurt all over, and kept hoping it was all a dream and he’d wake up in a sweat. He couldn’t do any magic tricks, or sing, or tap-dance. The kids beat him at memory games at Christmas. His wife ran the household, booked their holidays, organised repairs. He delivered parcels, sometimes to the wrong address. When – if – he got out of this, he’d learn to play the piano, and take the kids camping. He’d watch less television, volunteer at a charity. Climb Ben Nevis. His life had to be worth something.
The man aimed the gun at Mark.
An idea came to him.
‘How are you defining “of interest”?’
‘Don’t get fucking smart.’
Mark knew one thing about this man – but telling him could backfire.
‘You got something?’
The balance of power had shifted, but Mark still felt uneasy. He was risking his life. No longer could he feel his bruised eye or cut face. The prickly sensation he’d felt as he approached the house returned. He wasn’t going to climb a mountain or learn to play the piano. If he got out of this, he was going to burgle again. The buzz like nothing he’d experienced. Before, he’d been scrabbling on the ground, but now he was flying around the moon.
The man picked up the gun, and pointed it at Mark.
‘Your wife’s having an affair with the young builder next door.’
The word was quiet, clipped.
‘I heard you.’
The man walked over to the window and gently headbutted the glass. He wheeled round, put the gun under his chin and fired.
A few minutes later, Mark heard the sweet song of police sirens. As they strengthened, he hummed along.
“Stop, Chloe! Don’t run!” I yell as my three-year-old daughter darts out into the parking lot. “Come back!”
My arms are carrying two huge, heavy bags of groceries and I almost drop them to chase after my golden-haired toddler.
Suddenly a male voice calls out, “I got her! Stay where you are.”
I heave a sigh of relief as I watch the man chase after Chloe and pick her up. She turns to him and a look of fearful confusion comes into her eyes as she sees the stranger’s face. She’s about to burst into tears.
“It’s okay Chloe,” I say to her. “He’s bringing you to Mama.”
Carrying Chloe in his arms, he starts walking toward me. Tall, with thick, light-brown hair, he looks vaguely familiar. I cannot place where I’ve met him before, when right then he says, “Autumn Fleming from Pleasant Valley High School, is that you?”
“You have a good memory,” I say, smiling with surprise. Now it’s all coming back—and quickly!
“Please forgive me for being so bold, but I’d never forget a pretty lady who was a top student and the star of our senior drama production.”
“You’re Gavin Matthews, right?” I ask, incredulous. I’m twenty-seven now and haven’t seen him since our high school graduation.
“Yes,” he replies, handing my daughter to me. “You haven’t changed at all—still beautiful.”
Chloe grabs my neck and hugs me tight. I feel a warm blush spread across my cheeks. “Thank you, I uh...”
“Where’s your car?” he asks. “Let me help you load up. It’s cold out here.”
I point to the forest-green sedan, about five cars away. “These two bags aren’t all, though,” I tell him. “There are two more bags and one big box outside the door of this building right behind us.”
As soon as I say that an awkward feeling comes over me. I’ve never been one to put on airs, but it doesn’t feel great to meet Gavin for the first time in nine years outside a food bank! Chloe and I get by okay, but every bit helps…especially since my divorce almost three years ago.
“Get Chloe and yourself in the car,” he says, “I’ll load everything.”
“I appreciate it,” I tell him, noticing his blue eyes. Then I walk over to our car, buckle Chloe into her car-seat, and get into the driver’s seat.
A few minutes later, after loading everything into my trunk, Gavin opens the back door and says, “Mind if I sit for a moment?”
“Not at all.”
“Got any place you’re going?” he asks.
“I’m off work today. No specific plan,” I reply.
“Are there any frozen or refrigerated items you need to run home?”
I think for a moment, then answer, “Not this time. Why do you ask?”
“Can I invite you for a cup of coffee and lunch at our restaurant? It’s just across the street: Papa’s Favorite Pancake House.”
“Your restaurant?” I ask, smiling.
“Yes,” Gavin answers. “My parents have owned it for many years. I’m the manager now, and I love it.”
I sit and think about his invite. It’s very appealing. I also remember how nice he’d always been to me, and everyone, when we were classmates in our junior and senior year—quite different from many of the good-looking guys who were self-centered and superficial.
“Sorry, I hope my invite didn’t make you feel uncomfortable,” he says. He looks away briefly as though embarrassed, then turns to face me once again. “I didn’t see a wedding ring on your finger and figured it would be fine, but—”
“It is fine,” I answer. “Coffee and pancakes sound heavenly right now.” And so does lunch with a very attractive man!
I turn the engine on and he rides along with us. He guides me to an empty space in their restaurant’s parking lot.
Just a few moments later, he opens the door to their cozy, family-friendly restaurant. There’s a fire blazing and a warm hearth. Delicious aromas fill the air.
A hostess approaches us, smiles and says, “Gavin, sir, do you need a table for three, with a highchair?”
“Yes, we do,” Gavin answers. “This is Autumn Fleming, by the way, a friend of mine from high school. And her daughter, Chloe.”
“Nice to meet you, Autumn and Chloe. Welcome!” she says. “I’m Lauren.”
The pot of freshly brewed coffee Lauren brings us a few minutes later is perfectly delicious on this cold, January afternoon. Chloe is quickly devouring the blueberry muffin and cup of milk he ordered for her.
“I’m so glad we bumped into each other today,” he says. I sense his sincerity. “What do you do now?”
“I’m an admissions counsellor at Oakland Community College. Been there for four years and really enjoy this line of work.”
“Sounds very rewarding,” he says.
My smartphone beeps; it’s an incoming email. I quickly glance at my screen and see that it’s from my employer.
“Excuse me for a moment, please; an email from my boss,” I tell him.
“Of course.” He pours syrup on his pancakes that have just been served.
As I read the email, not once but twice, slowly digesting its contents, I’m overcome with excitement and joy. My eyes mist.
“Good news, I trust?” Gavin asks.
“Yes!” I answer. “I’m getting a generous pay raise starting February 1st.”
“Congratulations!” he says. “I’m glad I’m here to celebrate with you.” He reaches across the table and places his hand on mine. It feels warm.
For a few moments I quietly bask in the serendipitous, sweet joys this day has brought: a pay raise, eating mouth-watering strawberry pancakes with hot coffee, but most of all to be sitting in a restaurant with a wonderful, kind man.
He gazes into my eyes and says, “Cheers to old friends…and new beginnings!”
“To happy new beginnings!” I reply, anticipating the future bright with possibilities.
No matter how long he stared at the fuel gauge, he knew that it would not budge. Out here in the middle of the countryside, in the middle of a forest, in the middle of the track that doubled as a foot path and road, he was stranded in his brand-new Vauxhall, faced with a long walk.
He'd even forgotten to bring his mobile phone, so there was no way of communicating to anybody unless he walked to the nearest phone-box, or somebody was to pass by, which seemed unlikely, as for the past two hours he'd been driving, he hadn't seen a soul, not even a sheep or cow. He thought it ironic that he'd run out of petrol down a country lane. He knew it was an old trick that many people used. Suddenly ‘running out of petrol’ down a lover's lane was something his friends used to do.
Paul Barton was stuck here alone, with a diamond ring in his pocket for his girlfriend of four years. He was nervous. He had been driving from his mothers to her parents where she lived and would have popped the question upon meeting her. The fact he'd forgotten the mobile, and forgotten to refuel, he blamed on his fear of asking her. He didn't know why he was afraid. Perhaps it was her response.
Maybe she would reject him, and leave him, but that was worst-case scenario. He didn't think she would do that, at least not without a good reason. At 25, unlike others his age, he was ready to settle down, and he thought, and he hoped, he'd found the right person to do that with.
It was 1:30pm and the sun blazed in the sky. Through the archway of trees along the path, sunlight filtered through and dappled the ground, and his car. He knew he would have to get out and walk. There was nothing he could do here. He got out and locked it. There was nowhere to walk back to. He would have to continue onwards.
The path wound through the forest, deeper and deeper. Birds chirped somewhere in the trees and the leaves rustled slightly. He'd never felt so alone, so lost. He quite liked the solitude, and thought he may come back to it once he'd gotten home, but thoughts of it turning dark, and sounds from within the forest made him quicken his pace. He knew the path had to lead somewhere. When he usually returned from his mother's, it was along a traditional motorway route, but such was his haste for his response, he thought that this way would be a shortcut. Perhaps it was, but it didn't matter if there was no petrol in the tank.
He walked for at least two miles before something made him slow down and stop. It was footsteps. They seemed different, and he looked around into the forest and soon saw what it was that was heading right towards him. It was a horse. A huge black stallion that wound through the trees to his right. It soon walked onto the path and stopped before him. Paul could see that it was scrutinizing him. It reminded him of a horse that a medieval knight would ride. Its coat was sleek and shiny, its eyes black and piercing. It walked around him, still watching him, before it turned and walked back into the forest, out of Paul's vision.
He was still picturing a knight sat astride it when he thought: ‘Hold on, why is there a horse on its own out here with no rider?, and with no gear for it to be ridden?’. He looked around. Perhaps somebody was looking for it. There was no-one. He continued onwards and didn't think much more of it until he finally reached a small village where the path merged into a proper road.
He knew there was no point in ringing anybody. He needed a can of petrol, but he doubted that this place had a petrol station, so knew he would have to ask someone if they maybe had a spare can in their garage he could buy. He wandered around until he saw a man outside his bungalow, dressed in blue overalls, examining the engine of a land rover. Tools and engine parts were scattered all around him. Paul slowly approached.
"Excuse me," he said. The man stopped what he was doing and looked up. He nodded his acknowledgement. He must have been in his late forties. He wore thick glasses and his hair was greasy and matted, his face smudged with black. He wiped his hands on an oily rag.
"Sorry to bother you, but I don't suppose you have a spare can of petrol I could buy?"
"Sure," he said, nodding. He threw the rag onto the floor and walked towards a garage beside his house. He returned moments later with a full can and set it down, then held out his hand. "Call it a tenner," he said. Paul fumbled around for his wallet and eventually he handed him the money.
"You don't happen to know anyone who's lost a horse do you?" he asked. "There's one wandering around in the forest?".
Paul was irate, pouring the petrol in his car, and then slamming the door behind him. How could his time be wasted like that? He was nervous enough as it was with his impending proposal. The man had told him of Cherry and Jake, horse and owner, over four hundred years ago. For some reason, in the middle of the same forest, they became separated, and none ever found the other. Now, apparently, Cherry's ghost wanders the forest, still looking, but if she see's you, and you're not her owner, you do not survive long afterwards. Paul angrily started the engine.
In the morning, a man walking his dog found the car in the same place, its engine running, and behind the wheel, Paul staring at him with a blood-drained face and dead, lifeless eyes.
Her knitted face, whiskery with stray wool at the edges, is tea-stained with discontent. It emerges from a puff of chalk dust like the baddies in the VHS films I watch on rainy Sunday afternoons.
She smells like the inside of my Granny’s cupboard that time the old water tank burst – stale, dank and mildly septic. I fancy her square brown shoes house mangled toeless feet, like Roald Dahl’s Witches. It’s my favourite book; I hardly need to read the words now; I know it so well. It sits warmly on the shelf, moulded into the shape of my hands. It neighbours my other favourites: Polly Pockets, Connect Four, and a jam jar of my best felt tips.
The drawer of my beside cabinet holds other treasures: a stone with a tree pattern cast through the middle like lightening; a lazy spiral fossil I found on a beach; haystacks of paper dolls; and – underneath all that - my hidden notebook. The secret pages are filled with hideous portraits of my teacher. I colour her skin and hair the same hue as the fag-stained wallpaper at my Great-Uncle’s prefab. I stab in a grotty biro to scribble over her mouldy auld face and Thaterchite skirts.
And here we are again, on a calendar-boxed Wednesday: little bodies on little chairs, with splayed metal legs, like a beastie cowering under a shoe. We are small. And contained until lunch time, jingling about inside like buttons shoogled in a biscuit tin.
Patent feet tap-tap-tap like dominoes and frilly ankles dream of sparkly Skip-its and weathered footballs. Our scabby knees wear fierce sheddy medallions. The playground calls to us through the classroom window, in a sing-song voice of puddles and tarmac.
I join the dots between the freckles on my left arm. Jenny sucks on her ponytail, the end as wet as a paintbrush. Mo repeatedly flips his eyelids inside out, like a hi-fi ejecting a tape. Craig pretends to stick a compass into his thumb and grimaces at us with a pantomime of gore and blood loss. My chest jerks up and down, my shoulders join in, and, like air escaping out a balloon - out pops the squeakiest of giggles.
With the whisp of the giggle-trill still on my lips, I immediately feel the spotlight land on me, and me alone; icy and deep, and it expands to be larger than the classroom itself.
‘Lisa, come up to the board now.’ You have sunk my battleship.
I look ahead and a complicated question squats on the board. Which she knows I don’t understand. We haven’t been taught this yet. I realise she’s going to make An Example of me.
I’m like a remote-control car, forcing myself across the classroom, pushing on primary-coloured buttons. Everything around me is now in between-channels static, at once both close and out of reach. My insides liquidised; I suddenly wish I could ask to go to the toilets. I could lock myself inside and wait out the day amongst the haunted windows and rattling Victorian pipework, painted in flaking pink. Everyone shrinks back from me, leaves withering on a jaggy bramble bush: my fate is contagious.
The teacher points her finger, gnarled like a monkey nut husk, at the black board. If her wizened potato-face knew how to, it would be smirking. But I know she doesn’t have the imagination.
After a second and a lifetime, I reach the apologetic black board; it was made for greater things. It smells like sighs. I pick up the largest, least-used piece of white chalk, thinking it won’t yet have been poisoned by her claws. I fumble, and it drops to the ground soundlessly. I bend to retrieve it, feeling its smoothness in my palm, like my tree-stone.
The chalk tries to whisper me possible solutions. But I can’t do anything. There are numbers and letters on the board; all heaped into a pile. I don’t know what to do with this tenement alphabet with numerical sheets hung out to dry.
She makes me stand there until I cry.
And I am red-eyed with chalky fingertips and angry crescents on my palms where I’ve sunk my nails into the flesh. Like birds flying off into the distance. Once more contained within my seat, I feel other childish eyes upon me.
After the bell releases me, I run home quickly and alone, escaping from my classmates and their unblinking eyes and our smallness. I don’t tell my mum. Instead, I take out my notebook and I scribble and rage and rip through pages with heat and sickness and shame. That night, I fall asleep with it clutched in both my hands, like a shield.
The next day, at that same no man’s land time between morning break and lunch, the teacher vomits out another impossible question across the black board.
This time, there is no hair sucking, no eyelid gymnastics, no mime acts. We sit inside the silence, eyes downwards and obedient. The classroom is set up as a torturous game of Guess Who. The teacher enjoys the wait, pacing back and forth with her hands behind her back, like the captain of a slave ship (which our school history books don’t tell us about).
And we wait. I try to hold my book in my head so it occupies the space; my drawings laced with sharp-angled graffiti, the words like dry black-eyed beans left soaking in me, overnight. They expand. My secret makes me Big.
But this time I am not selected, and I exhale a guilty relief that goes from my clenched fists down to my curled-up toes, and oozes out under the classroom door.
This time, eyes are off me. The teacher’s hook pierces her catch, and Clara shuffles up to the board. Clara who has Mrs Green come in on Mondays and Tuesdays for her reading and writing. Clara who still needs help buttoning up her jacket and lacing her shoes. Clara who just had the patch removed from her right eye last week. Clara who blinks both eyes, surprised, and moves the chalk from one hand to the other, as if she’s forgotten which hand she writes so inexpertly with.
The teacher waits until Clara cries.
It doesn’t take long this time, maybe six breaths. So clearly, the teacher hasn’t squeezed out enough from the event. Her soiled raisin eyes dart from side to side like a crow, looking for carrion.
‘Come on, now, don’t cry, Clara’, she says, raising her chin.
She looks out at her eight-year-old charges who have almost forgotten my shame from yesterday – ‘Crying doesn’t help anyone. Does it, Lisa?’.
A reflection on the enigma of consciousness, or something.
Death is nothing like I had imagined; nothing in the least like my expectations. Altogether, a bit of a surprise: a revelation, you might say. So, if anyone tells you they know what’s coming, don’t you believe a word of it!
My consciousness, which -- I now realize -- had for some time been ebbing away, almost imperceptibly, now simply evaporated. One minute, there I was; and the next? There I wasn’t! As simple as that. I wasn’t afraid of death, you understand; I just didn’t want to be there when it happened. (That’s one nice thing about being dead: you don’t get sued for plagiarism.)
So, what is it like? I know you’re dying to know. (Sorry, but that’s what passes for a joke here in the hereafter.) Well, truth to tell, it’s a bit ordinary: like being stuck in traffic on a rainy Monday morning in February when you’re late for work: intensely frustrating and boring at the same time. Know the feeling?
Search as I might, I could see no bright light at the end of the tunnel; no choirs of angels plucking on lyres serenading me as I approached the pearly gates. No pearly gates, in fact. Whoever really believed there would be? I mean, come on! Life after death? It’s pretty much like life before birth. Remember that, do you? No, I thought not. But oblivion’s not so bad, really, once you get used to it. I like to think of it as the other ‘Big O’. It’s the only possible way to get through eternity; trust me.
Back when I was still alive, my main concern was what the food was going to be like. I know that sounds petty, but as I aged food had become more and more interesting, and it was hard to break the habit of looking forward to the next meal. Well, there wasn’t much else, was there? In my younger days, I’d worried more about the sex: would there be any? Would I get my share? Would I enjoy it? Would I still be able to...? Well, you know. But as I got older, that concern -- so compelling in my youth -- had simply wilted. Funny, that.
There was no one to ask, of course; and anyway, once your consciousness is gone, that’s pretty much it as far as meaningful communication is concerned. Game over. If I’d had a memory, I might have remembered that wonderful song by Phil Ochs: ‘When I’m Gone.’ If you don’t know it, do yourself a favor, while you still can.
Know what I miss the most? The complexity of it all. Curious, really, considering how much that got up my nose while I was still alive. Oh, how I had longed for things to be simpler! Be careful what you wish for, I guess. Complexity and meaning: that’s the heart of the matter. Now, don’t get me wrong; I never figured out the meaning of life any more than the next person, and once you’re dead it certainly doesn’t get any clearer, believe me. But I can assure you that compared with death, life is full of meaning; simply bursting with the stuff... whatever it is. I miss that.
Death is just so damn stupid, you know? Same old same old, from now to eternity. You think life seems pointless sometimes? Just wait till you try a bit of death! ‘Thank goodness for oblivion’ is what I say. Where would we be without it?
All my life, I’d known exactly how I was going to die... or so I’d thought. I’d be driving down this two-lane road somewhere -- dark trees on both sides, slightly menacing -- and there, coming towards me in the other lane, I’d see this white painter’s truck with a ladder strapped to the roof.
Was there perhaps a bump in the road? Or maybe the driver swerved to avoid something. I would never know exactly how it happened, but at that precise moment, one of the bungee cords holding the ladder to the roof rack -- having been stretched a little too far a little too often -- decided to give up the ghost and take me with it. Couldn’t it have held on for another five seconds? Two would have been enough. But no.
I’d seen it so often in my imagination: the ladder flying towards the windshield, targeting my frontal lobe like a heat-seeking missile. There’d be this split second when I realized there was no way out, and then...? No longer driving down the road; embarked instead on an eternity of oblivion.
I was so sure of my imagined destiny that what actually happened came as a huge surprise; a double surprise, in fact, if you’re keeping count. You see, I was driving down this two-lane road -- dark trees on both sides, slightly menacing -- when suddenly, out of nowhere, this kid runs out in front of the car, chasing a soccer ball. It’s a healthy sport, by and large, soccer; not too many injuries unless you get into the professionals, or get hit by a car.
To this day, I don’t know how I avoided him. Reflexes I didn’t know I had took over and brought the car to a swerving screeching stop. So far, so good. But guess what? Right behind me there was this white painter’s truck with a ladder strapped to the roof. The bungee cords didn’t stand a chance.
Talk about being blindsided! Have you ever been hit on the back of your head by a flying ladder? No? Me neither. I don’t know how it missed me, but it did. Made a right mess of the dashboard though, as it ploughed through into the engine compartment leaving me unscathed... physically, at least. I never drove again.
I actually died on a Saturday, some years later. It had been an altogether bad day, right from the start. All my life I’d hated Saturdays -- nasty, schizophrenic days -- and now I know why: one of them was lying in wait for me. I awoke to find myself out of sorts and coffee, had a row with my wife -- only to remember, belatedly, that she had been dead for three years -- and then dropped my dentures down the garbage disposal. After that, death came as a bit of a relief.
And mine was an easy death, as deaths go. A lot easier than the one I’d imagined. Just this piercing pain from out of nowhere skewering my left temple, and then...?
“Stroke,” said a cute paramedic, bending over me.
‘As in caress?’ I wondered, hopefully, as I lay on the stretcher. ‘This might not be so bad after all.’ But no.
My heart gave one final, half-hearted little squeeze that pushed my reluctant corpuscles a few measly and unnecessary centimeters further down my clogged arteries; I sucked in one last breath and slowly began to turn blue.
Dead on arrival, apparently. I was in no fit state to argue.
I remember thinking: ‘That’s it? There must be more to death than this!’ But no, not really.
“What about your footprints in the sands of time?” you ask. (That’s your plagiarism, not mine.) Well, my genetic legacy, such as it was -- that alphabet soup which, for a while, had spelled ‘me’ -- was destined to fade like the Cheshire Cat, diluted generation after generation until it was no longer recognizable, even by those who might have cared.
And my atoms, what of them? I had high hopes for some: a couple of carbons in particular that had served me well. I watched with interest as each one penetrated the future in pursuit of its own destiny, its unique trajectory across eternity; but neither of them amounted to much.
In spite of that, I’d like to think that they were altered in some way -- ennobled, perhaps? -- by the time we’d spent together; that the singular experience of being a part of me had somehow rubbed off on them. But it hadn’t, of course.
A workshop isn’t like an office. It’s more like a mad scientist’s lab. The machines hum and whirr and crash as the madman goes about his work, slinking from process to process, from machine to machine, and from madness to madness.
The madman makes it all look so easy; he really does.
The madman stands about five feet tall with a rapidly receding hairline. He wears a pair of grubby jeans that carry nearly twice their original weight in sawdust, oil, and other unidentifiable substances. Over a filthy t-shirt, he sports brown overalls that he could have sworn used to be white.
His hands are dark and stained, the edges of his fingernails are black, and his calluses are so thick that you could probably build another man from all the skin. He wears eye-protectors that have at least seen the turn of three centuries.
This man is what we in the business call a ‘Maker’. You may also refer to him as a ‘Tinkerer’. He’s one of those old men who insist on building a small chair for every child and table or cabinet for every adult—a useful man to have around. Utterly insane, but still useful.
It’s hard to see what he’s working on as he rests his backside on his trusty stool and hunches over his project. It makes odd noises; little metallic pings and the harsh crunch of tiny gears forced to work with their neighbours. His workbench was littered with bits and bobs that most people couldn’t identify if they had the world’s most complete book of bits and bobs.
His hands moved slowly, using delicate tools to manipulate fragile parts. Tiny springs were inserted into narrow tubes, and minute chains were threaded through a complex system of pulleys. Screws so small that they required a specialist screwdriver held it all together.
He reached forward and tilted the lamp toward his burden. He removed his eye-protectors and replaced them with an ornate pair of spectacles. He lifted the piece to his eye, careful not to block the light. He stayed like this for a long time, searching for something that would only be apparent to him.
What he held was a box, small and rather plain, and made from wood that held a deep brown colour. He had sanded and varnished and polished until the wood shined like a rare piece of jewellery. There was no golden inlay, and no painted characters. It was a box, masterfully made and finished, but it would easily be overlooked when placed next to gaudy, colourful examples. There was a beauty in its simplicity; the joints were snug, and everything fit together with an accuracy more befitting a highly engineered jet-engine. It had been built for strength and durability; it was something that had been designed to survive.
The maker nodded slowly. He was pleased with his work. He didn’t know how long it had taken. He started when it happened and how long was that ago? He didn’t remember. No, he did remember. He knew exactly how many days, how many hours and how many minutes it had been since he got the phone call. He just liked to think that he didn’t remember. He wanted to pretend that the time that had passed was nothing and only a few hours at most. It wasn’t, but that’s what he liked to believe.
He cleaned his workbench, vacuuming up the dust and using a cloth to clean the rough wooden surface before sitting the little box in the centre. He then washed his hands, removed his overalls, and inspected it one last time. It was as perfect as could be accomplished by a humble maker such as himself.
He picked it up carefully, treating the absurdly strong little box like a piece of fragile crystal. He stepped out of the workshop into the harsh sunlight, taking a moment to scowl at his garden. It had once been his pride, but now the weeds encroached, and the flowers wilted. He had let it die to focus on little boxes. He didn’t know if this was the right decision, but it’s the one he made.
He made his way into the house, through the kitchen, into the hallway, and up the stairs before stopping at the door. It was shut, like always. He knocked, like always. There was no reply, like always. He let himself in.
The room was dominated by the bed and the frail figure that occupied it. He understood the medical machinery that stood beside the bed, but he didn’t like to look at it or touch it.
Dozens of similar wooden boxes covered every surface and were piled high in every corner.
placed a kiss on her forehead. Her face was serene, and the silence of the room was only disturbed by the low humming of the machinery and the regular blip… blip… blip…
He cleared a space on the bedside table and slowly opened the box.
A delicate melody drowned out the synthetic sounds. He liked to think that he had outdone himself with this one. He convinced himself that she loved it.
He thought he saw a smile twitch at the corners of her mouth, and whether this was real or a figment of his sleep-deprived imagination, he didn’t care.
He sat on the edge of the bed and took her hand in his. As the music-box slowly wound down, he continued the tune in a quiet, rough voice.
You know, I think she probably did smile.
It starts with a tree. An oak or cottonwood, large and ancient with branches reaching forever upward and a rutted trunk with hollows to sit in. This time, by chance, it was a cottonwood.
Mist descended, warming the icy world. A false warmth, shrouding light, muffling noise. Only gloomy dark shadows marked where houses and trees stood in the ashen haze.
She didn’t like it, the girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers, this frozen world. Three and a half feet of snow made the grey sky shimmer purple-blue like an otherworldly bruise. At first, she didn’t think anything of it. It was often misty in the mornings. But the mist stayed.
This lingering mist, she read, had happened before, every decade or so and would happen again. The papers advised to drive slower, wear extra layers and turn cell-phone lights on. The mist, as mist tends to do, would dissipate. Eventually.
A never-ending chill began living in her spine. The chill turned into fear, starting in the back of her brain and spreading downward over the eyes and out every limb until her fingertips tingled.
The girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers went for a walk when the sun pierced the mist making everything milky white. Snow turned to slush at her feet as she walked toward the end of her block where gravel gave way to a huge expanse of prairie. The trees in the wetland cast wispy black shadows but one tree, at the end of the block cast a solid unwavering silhouette.
The cottonwood loomed out of the mist; branches heavy with ice. The fear spread from her spine to her toes, swallowed her heart and made her eyes feel numb. She was allergic to cottonwood and knew only this to be true, there was no cottonwood tree at the end of her block.
But there it stood growing out of a deep ditch, casting its shadow across the grass and pavement, ice dripping slowly in the warming mist. Roots buried deep in prairie grass and concrete.
Not here. Not now. This wasn’t real, she told herself so many times she believed it to be true. But there it sat, the cottonwood, reaching toward her in the mist.
The boy never told her his name. It was private, he said. A secret, he said, like all names should be. They were the same age, so it seemed, when they met, for the first time, at the base of the cottonwood tree.
Her mother let her play in the wetlands when she was young, fearing only ticks and rabid raccoons and not strange wonderful terrible boys who knew a passage through the base of the cottonwood tree. At age six, the girl met the strange wonderful terrible boy. She didn’t yet know about cottonwoods and oak trees.
Every summer morning the girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers crawled on her hands and knees through the tunnel, dirt clinging permanently to her skin. On the other side of the tunnel, a dense forest sprawled. The forest bloomed with radiant mammoth flowers. Vines as thick as ropes hung from emerald treetops and waterfalls spilled over crimson jagged canyons.
The strange wonderful terrible boy told tales of a white city of crumbling stone where an ice rink sat in the center. He told tales of a beach always bathed in the glow of sunset where the ocean was always the perfect temperature. The girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers wanted to visit but the strange wonderful terrible boy said not yet, because the city of crumbling stone was crumbling and policemen patrolled the beach in hot air balloons looking for trespassers. Maybe later. Maybe some other time. Maybe tomorrow.
But tomorrow never came.
One day, he was gone. The tunnel, a cramped four-foot crawl ending in a shallow pit of rainwater by a drain. Fear began to fester at the base of her spine and so the girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers waited.
School resumed in autumn and with each passing year, she forgot about the strange wonderful terrible boy and the cottonwood and the forest beyond. Those memories turned to dreams. They couldn’t have happened, she learned, trees do not lead to forests, or crumbling cities or jagged canyons, she was taught.
They are simply trees.
At nineteen the summer before college, the girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers went with friends to an arboretum. They lazily explored the looping trails before settling under a cottonwood by a stream for lunch even though she complained of allergies. Moments later, a rustle in the trees and there he sat, the strange wonderful terrible boy, in the branches of the cottonwood. They were still the same age, so it seemed, but she would know him anywhere.
His hair the color of ink, fell around his ears in uncombed peaks. His face, sharp, dark, thin lipped and eyes starless and honey colored.
“Oh my god! Who are you?” One of her friends trilled.
“An old friend.” he grinned and jumped down.
“Will you excuse us for a second?” The girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers stood calmly and followed the strange wonderful terrible boy down a path.
“He’s cute.” She heard her other friend say.
Except her heart hammered in her ears. This wasn’t right. He wasn’t right. He didn’t exist. He couldn’t exist. An imaginary friend, she convinced herself as years passed. A chill formed at the base of her spine. Because if he was real…
“Hi.” He smiled, voice full of chocolate and hickory. Exactly how she remembered. She bit her lip to keep from screaming. He ran a calloused hand through his wild earth hair.
You left me, she wanted to say. I waited for you. I looked for you. You left me.
“You.” Speaking to him again was wonderful and ghastly and glorious and tragic.
“Yes. Me.” His teasing laugh was horrible and charming sending the chill radiating through her bones.
“Who are you?” The bitterness in her voice could have leveled a mountain.
“It’s safe to go to the city of crumbling stone now. You wanna come? The beach should be safe now too, at least for a bit.” He talked as if they had seen each other yesterday. As if 13 transformative years had not passed. As if they were still children, waiting for each other every summer morning by the base of the cottonwood.
“You’re not real. You don’t exist.”
“Jeeze-calm down! Why are you so upset?”
“I hate you!” the girl with the ponytail and worn sneakers screamed and clenched her fists and stomped her foot like she was six again. “I hate you! I hate you! I HATE YOU!”
She ran back to her friends, sobbing, and he did not follow. Her friends couldn’t get straight answers about the strange wonderful terrible boy through the incoherent babbling about summer days, tunnels under trees, and waterfalls over crimson canyons.
And now years 13 years later, staring through the mist at the cottonwood looming over the end of the block, the fear spread from her spine to her fingertips, swallowed her heart and made her eyes feel numb.
Everyone thought she was a strong, grounded woman. Her whole future lay ahead of her with opportunities abound. But she knew her future, and it only involved waiting.
Waiting while the mist evaporated, snow melted, and flowers sprung out of the ground. Waiting to be summoned through the tunnel to the dense forest and jagged canyons, waiting while her body aged like all bodies do. Waiting with the never-ending chill living in her spine.
Have you seen this man? It’s near certain he’s seen you. It’s said he visits everyone eventually. Maybe only a few times, maybe so often he thinks of you as an old friend, though he knows you don’t view him as such. Rest assured, in the end you will see this man and he will see you straight back in return.
You probably wouldn’t have noticed him at first. He only comes on bitter winter nights, when the sky is jet black and the air is chilled, so it can be difficult to see his shrouded figure hidden in the shadows of your room. He comes to wherever you rest your head. A house, a flat, a hotel. As a long as it’s dark and as long as your sleeping, he will find you. As you laid there, you may have caught a glimpse of his tall silhouette watching you from a far, but by then it would have been too late to panic and search for a light. Your eyelids would have been too heavy to keep open and your muscles too hard to move. Despite your better judgement, you fell asleep.
The dream was likely simple, just the fantasy of a normal day in a normal city. You could almost call it mundane, but even slumber you could tell something was wrong. The sense of dread hung heavy in the air, weighing you down like iron chains around your shoulders. There was definitely something in your head that shouldn’t be there, something that had followed you from the waking world and stalked you in your defenseless dream state. You knew he was there. Still, you could see him. He blended in with the crowd of fabricated people who existed only in your mind. They were featureless and non-distinct. If they had faces, you’d be hard pressed to describe them now. From time to time you would spot him, the one who was different from all rest, but you could never get a clear look. By the time you turned around, he would always be gone.
It was impossible to tell how long this little game went on for. Time never works right in dreams. It could have been mere minutes in the waking world, but you could have sworn it had been hours. For a brief second you wondered if it had been days. Would anyone know or care if it had been? Was anybody out there worried about you? Eventually you resolved to search for him yourself, pushing your way through the maze of identical streets. Why was he doing this to you? Was he toying with you? You were sure that this had happened before, that it had all happened before, but when you tried to focus on the memory the streets warped and strained your eyes. The light hurt your head until it forced you to stop trying. You didn’t try to think about before again.
At last, you found him. He lurked there in the corner of your eye and for once you spun around fast enough. He didn’t try to run from you. He stood staring at you across the street in the clear light, daylight. In that place, it was always daylight. You couldn’t see his eyes under the hood of his black cloak, but you could see his mouth. His thin, pale lips perked up into a smile revealing perfect, sparkling white teeth. You looked around to see if anyone else had noticed this stranger pinning you down with his hidden glare, but the crowds that had slowed your movement mere moments prior had all but disappeared. There was nobody there. Nobody had ever been there. It had always been just him and you.
He started to walk towards you; a slow, creeping approach. He was in no hurry. For him it had always been as much about the hunt as the kill. It had been a cat and mouse game in which the prey sought out the predator. And now he had you, a little mouse who had run gleefully into its claws. It would be rude to ruin the cat’s fun by rushing things. You didn’t try to run. There wouldn’t be any point. He had always been able to find you. Besides, even if there was somewhere within your mind you could tug yourself away and beg for morning to arrive, you found that it was awfully hard for you to move. Even thinking about moving took much more energy than you could afford to expend. So, you let him reach you. You always let him reach you in the end.
He reached out a boney, wrinkled hand towards you and you found yourself extending your own arm with little hesitation. The touch of his palm closing around your wrist was ice cold, yet his skin was soft and gentle. Still, it was hard to ignore his yellow, dagger like nails pressing into your skin, digging and digging until they drew blood. Digging further still to root themselves into your veins. Through the dull aching, you didn’t notice at first the itching sensation creeping up your arm. It didn’t register until you caught the ink coloured substance seeping from the creature’s talons and painting paths beneath your skin. Your veins turned to fire dark infection flowed freely up your arm and through your neck, reaching across your face and making its way without care or thought into your head, filling your brain with brilliant white light.
As the dazzling light behind your eyes blinded you, you remembered every time before. So many times before. This city where the people never existed and will exist, this sleeping place where the day never ended. You remembered that though this was your dream, it was his domain, and though neither of you were really physically there, that didn’t mean what’s happening to you wasn’t real. It doesn’t mean you’re safe. You remembered all the times you learned the truth. There were creatures in the world that never got the chance to become legends, for there was never anybody able to jot their experiences down. Creatures who feasted upon the psychic energy of humans, and there was nothing richer than the taste of a nightmare.
And just like that it was over. Your skin was clear, your room was empty, your window was wide open. Had it always been open? Perhaps you got up to close it, perhaps you let the crisp night air lull you back to sleep. Either way, you were alone. The man was gone from your life and your mind with your dreams remaining uninvaded for the rest of the night.
Does any of this sound at all familiar? Does any part of you recognise the man I have described? I thought not. Perhaps I’m asking the wrong questions. Let me put it another way for you. Have you ever woken up in the night, unable to remember your dream?
The blowing wind and shifting sand reflected the devilish face of the desert.
It must be mid-day, Arina wondered when the sand dunes moved and changed their shape. Dragging her mother in the cloth sac was becoming difficult for Arina.
The sun was burning and feasting on the existence of the moisture if any left. As Arina pursued her dry lips, she couldn’t remember how long she had been walking and from which direction. She had lost any hope to find the oasis.
I couldn’t even go back, she grumbled. The rustling wind had cleared all the traces of the path she came from. Dejected, she dropped in the sand praying for a sign that it is going to be alright, at least for her mother.
Her mother knew the way, Arina thought as she sought a glance but her mother didn’t care, not anymore.
As Arina shifted in the sand she screamed. A thorn had punctured her thigh. The trickle of blood came out as she removed it and then many tears followed. Though hurt, somehow she felt relieved. These thorns grow near the water, she exhaled. There must be an oasis nearby. A prickly thorn had reenergized her.
It was then that she saw a little bird challenging the mighty desert. Destination is near, she told herself while dragging her mother in the direction of the bird. It was not much after that she saw the trees waving and encouraging her. Overjoyed, she dragged as fast as she could.
Oasis was everything that her mother had told her. ‘Heaven on the earth’ were her mother’s exact words. She left her mother under the shadow of a tree and ran towards water. The water was delicious and its feeling couldn’t be explained in earthly words. She drank aplenty and soaked herself in it. This is the place her mother had approved of, she mumbled. It had sun, shade and plenty of water, a place to live forever, she smiled as she started digging. Finally, her mother can rest.
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